Sometimes I sleep twice. I try to trick my wife into thinking we have a normal life and let her fall asleep with me with her. In my last hour before work again, I reach across my wife’s body to the nightstand to reset the alarm clock, and in doing so pin her hair into the pillow. She squeaks and rustles and puts up with the pain. It isn’t long before I finish clicking alarm clock buttons. I lie back down and pull the covers up past our shoulders.
I fall into a gentle fog. My wife starts to breathe slow and deep. My thoughts drift into a dream, just for a short nap. She rubs her foot against my leg, a subconscious act of assurance that I am still there. She scrunches in closer and holds my arm tight to her waist. It will be just 25 minutes before the witch cackle whine goes off and this gentle, normal together moment is over.
The witch cackle sounds. I sit up quick, wary of the temptation to stay, even for a few minutes more. A plump pillow takes over in my place. She picks her head up for a second then pulls the covers tight to keep the warmth from getting away. I slide on some pants and find a clean tee shirt and some black socks. I feel around for my shoes and a jacket, stuff my gun into my belt-line and kiss my wife goodnight. I grab my lunch and some water from the kitchen and make sure all the lights are off. This is my routine. These are midnights.
My wife tries coaxing me to stay. If it is just to pout, she doesn’t know how tempting and convincing her pleas to me are: “Don’t you feel a little sick tonight?” she says, and then says straight out, “I don’t want you to go.” This is her routine and her midnights. I pet the dog in the dark. I glance once more through the bedroom door left open just a crack. I whisper goodnight. I lock the front door and leave.
Then, after my shift work, it’s the drives — each night — to unwind on the way home. Those were my moments, 30 minutes or more, to change from being a cop to back into me, stepping into and out of roles, to sort out the night’s shift in my head, in the ticking of minutes it took to change clothes, leave the locker room and make my drive back, at points, diligently talking myself through my nights, on tape.
I always had been placid and quiet. And now here I am, torquing the tension beneath a stone-face smirk, an eye lash fall from unloading. That’s all it would take, my starting-gun, my mark to overwhelm anything out in the world that stood to oppose me. That had become a way for me to keep the insidious things I faced from plowing me down and overtaking me.
Everyone says the first year as a cop you’d do for free, and for the most part, they’re exactly right. What they won’t tell you, by the end of a career, any one of them is off and ducking for cover, grateful in hiding out as some evidence custodian in a windowless room or shuffling parking ticket paperwork in an office up front, just to regain a semblance of balance from years and a career in the maw on the road.
How long did it take me, on every fill-up on gas, before I became devout? It wasn’t in God — but in buying lottery tickets. Maybe sometime near the start of year-two, when I had become obtusely hopeful for an escape from all this. Admittedly it came to that — flimsy a voodoo — leaving my decider in life to a few dollars for the lottery at each fill-up, buying hope for normalcy, week to week, at long odds.
Meanwhile, my self-conversations, the drive home tapes, had gauged my dissent. What at first sparked with excitement, came to lull soberly. I talked candidly back to myself, up until I had nothing left to say at all. Moments stayed clouded, even ones I just went through. And at some point, I cringed to click that button, the red-marked record. Finally, I stopped. I no longer recorded myself at all anymore. And that left just gas stations and lottery quick picks and quiet rides home, with less and less of myself left to cling to.
The rest of those shifts came and went, unrecorded. Time came and ticked on by. I found my way out, eventually, and not soon enough. I stepped away from that job I longed to always have. I circled back to writing and keeping the keel even for my young family. And out of the blue, I rouse from that dream of Dad with me that I cried waking up to. The case we were on, Dad and I, in the dream it was mine. And in the dream I realized, whatever it was we were doing, I just wanted it over.
That was a son following the path his father never meant him taking. A son was chasing his worth, comparing to his father continually. And a son now wanted that over. And then he awoke. He found he’d become a good son. He’d become a good husband and good father. What he wrestled for years about, replayed in a dream at 5:24 in the morning. He wouldn’t need to relive his father‘s life. Not to keep proving himself strong, not by comparison and not to the ones important to him.
This dream I woke from comes to mind, now, on my way to having coffee and hot cocoa with my daughter. We pass by cops on a car stop, which prompts her asking ponderous questions. The dream, finally, leaves me clear answers. The job is hard, in ways I can only try in describing. And maybe strangely, yes, sometimes I miss it. I ask her in return, when we get home, to read what took so long to write, what I wrote here, just now.
She does. She reads and knows I think often of Dad, her grandfather she’s never met, and that my biggest want in my life was to be just like him. She knows too what odd, long hours in the worst of other people’s lives I lived through to try emulating him. She reads on still, about mistakes, on following too close in copying someone else’s steps. She sees, I hope, I’m trying harder to tell her what Dad tried hard in telling me: Find YOUR way. Even if it’s apart from me. Even if that feels off course, as you’re taking yourself far from where I’ve gone.
Jason James, a native of East Lyme, Connecticut, is an award-winning essayist and journalist, focussing on experiential nonfiction. He previously served as a police officer and as a DEA Special Agent.