I’ve always suffered from night terrors. I never recall the events so I can only describe it by pasting together descriptions from various people who have shared a bed or room with me. This is not a lot to be honest. The embarrassment it creates in me and the fear it distills in others is always matched equally in the hilarity it provides for everyone upon recollection of the events years later. My few memories of it seem to start from the moment I wake up. Generally this involves staring at the face of someone who is both scared and very tired with their hair tussled and perhaps clutching a broom or pillow while locked in a defensive pose. It always ends with what I call the “Okay Conversation”. This is a conversation that rarely changes and is conducted in a confused manner with a horse voice due to forgotten screaming while I try to get my bearings.
– Are you okay?
– What’s going on?
– You had a bad dream.
– My throat hurts. My hands are sore. I don’t feel so good.
– But are you okay?
– Are you okay?
– You should go back to sleep.
– So should you.
– I can’t remember anything.
– Okay, that’s a good thing.
Sometimes vague uncomfortable memories will hang over me like a bad smell the following day. Sometimes I won’t remember anything at all. It can happen anytime, traveling and stress tend to bring it on. It can also vary in intensity. I may run around a room screaming looking for the light switch or I may shift violently in my sleep before bolting upright in bed and point wide eyed and horrified at an unseen person in the room. Maybe I’ll calmly walk from my bed to the kitchen and stare out the window in silence. Either way it freaks other people out. It is not a very common occurrence I must admit but certain factors will bring it on. Stress, a combative atmosphere, confrontation and especially travel. In summary, a strange bed with a mind full of worries.
The whole scene took place outside a small pub on a long stretch of highway deep within New Zealand. Our battered and worn deep blue tour bus dropped us along with other backpackers at the adjoining hostel. The tradition was that every bus load of backpackers that got dumped off for the night take part in a costume dress party at the bar. The catch was that all costumes somehow incorporate the use of black plastic trash bags. Every night the bar was over crowded with young drunk plastic covered idiots dancing on liquor soaked polyester carpet, letting off steam unhampered by neither fire extinguishers nor fire exits. A law changing inferno in the making. A group of Asian American girls in particular had upset her by walking past her? looking at her? not looking at her? getting served first at the bar? I never found out. It didn’t take much. Deborah viewed the world in two ways, winners and losers. I suspected that they got one over on her. She hated losing almost as much as she hated to see others win.
I had seen this gaggle of fun killers along our trip occasionally sharing the same bus from time to time. I referred to them as The Coat Hangers as it appeared that their only function seemed to be modeling the latest fashions on their bony frames. Four spoke no English and were from China, while two of them spoke with loud grating west coast American accents. All six of them were related. In all my years of traveling I discovered that there are two types of Americans in this world. Americans who go around telling everyone that they are American and those that sew Canadian flags onto their backpacks. I’ve always found the former perversely entertaining and the latter easier to get on with. These girls let everyone on the tour bus know that they were not only American (even the four chinese ones) but Californian.
Deborah was wearing black plastic trash bags around her hips and her chest was stuffed with two pillows. Her tiny bulbous head looking comically small as she peered out over her black balloon-like frame which she thought was passing herself off as a Sumo Wrestler. I was dressed as a woman. I had a black trash bag scarf but I had found a full length floral dress and zebra print lady gloves in a nearby dumpster. Along with some of Deborah’s lipstick I had borrowed I was cutting quite the figure. Deborah being hyper-competitive as usual was in it to win it, and I just wanted to win to piss her off. This was my thing, I enjoyed pretending to compete. It made her crazy in that repressed bottle-things-up conservative way she had. This would explain my dumpster diving for a dress and lady gloves. Not something I would normally do.
We continued to argue, her dressed as a man and I dressed as a woman until the Asian girls came outside. They were wearing their regular lack of clothes. These girls were not covering up any square inch of their bony arses with black plastic trash bags for some stupid prize. I was hushed quiet, looks were exchanged between both waring factions from a distance and silence reigned supreme. I hadn’t a clue what the hell was going on, neither did I care. I looked up, straight up and gazed at the stars in bloom. No matter how long I had lived in the southern hemisphere the stars always looked as alien to me as the very first day I arrived.
The next morning we climbed on board our tour bus and headed further south on our predetermined adventure. It was a far cry from the constant anxiety of being lost and scared in Cambodia or scared and lost in Vietnam. The previous night was conveniently forgotten the way Irish people do and our fellow passengers aligned again into the three usual groups on the bus. Canadians, Germans, Japanese, South Africans, English, Welsh, Scots, Irish and the Dutch in one group, people from Alaska, France and Vancouver in the other and our gaggle of Californian fashion coat hangers. One of those groups was a lot of fun.
Jenny was the exception; Jenny was from California, tall, blond, late thirties, heavy chested with thick limbs and eyes that were blue as the tour bus. Tough as a hostel mattress and an officer in the LAPD. She worked overtime all year so she could take a whole month off and go travelling. This year she was seeing New Zealand. To use one of her own phrases, Jenny was awesome. I used any excuse to slip away from Deborah and talk with Jenny. Jenny was funny, real funny, hands on your knees and bend over gasping for air funny. She was interesting, easy to talk to and absolutely no work to be with. I thought about things constantly to talk to Jenny about when she wasn’t around and when she was around I would just listen to her in silence. I could never put my finger on it other than that she was far more than the sum of her parts, she was simply, well, awesome.
The bus rolled in to a new town on our trip further south. We all handed in our passports at the desk of our new hostel and were given rooms. Deborah and I made our way to ours. Another couple were already getting settled. They weren’t from our bus but we said hello and prepared our bunk beds as had become custom. I always shoved a torch under my pillow due to my hysterical and barely concealed fear of the dark. Deborah done the same but for different reasons. There was a clanging of expensive handbags against suitcases on roller wheels. High heals click clacked down the the cheap carpeted hallway until our door was blasted open and the coat hangers spilled in. The alpha hanger stood in the doorway looking horrified and reviewed the room much like I’m sure the very first GI to liberate Auschwitz did. The depravity. I was somewhat insulted as I was part of the room at this point. The other couple had climbed into the same bunk and fallen asleep giving the room that extra little bit of refugee flavor. More of the coat hangers pushed in. Their eyes slowly wandered around the room as they screwed their tiny pretty faces up even further. They settled on me, then moved to Deborah. Deborah was on the top bunk so I didn’t see the exchange of looks girls can give to each other like cats in an alleyway sometimes. The coat hangers walked to the far end of the room were an intense group meeting took place. I watched with extreme interest. It was like a nature program were two ants rub each others antennas together and exchange information, but in this case there was about six of them. Panic was growing. The alpha hanger calmed everyone else down by snapping at them in English.
– I’ll say it, I’ll say it. OK, OK, I’ll tell him. Wait here.
I was no more that 12 feet away from all this. The alpha hanger stormed towards me. She was attractive in that way woman are supposed to be in magazines and television. Skinny, pointy tits, tiny arse, clothes that hang straight down and are a little bit sparkly, porcelain skin, glossy wet looking lips and shiny hair. Beauty by numbers, far less than the sum of her parts. She leaned down and put her face close up to mine. She smelled like some type of fruit. Melon? Kiwi? Mango mint? Powdery something? She spoke like I was a child or like she was. It was hard to tell. In that valley girl Californian speak she began demanding.
– Um, excuse me, but um, like, when you use the bathroom could you, um, like, make sure that you like put the toilet seat DOWN when you’re like, um, done!
The coat hanger actually said that. She said those things. To my face. I was furious, who wouldn’t be? A tightness gripped my chest, I felt light headed and my hands began shaking. A fury and rage consumed my insides. Can rudeness like that really exist? Obviously. I inhaled and opened my mouth.
That’s what I said. Okay. Just like that. Oh – kay.
She spun hard making her long jacket spin out like a peacock’s tail and strutted back to her bunk and chirped triumphantly to her entourage.
– I told him, I told. I just walked up to him and said it. I said it to his face. I just walked up there and like, I just, like, said it right to his, like, face.
She even translated it for the four with no English. I could tell it was about me because when she spoke she looked disgusted. They all looked back at me smiling like they had stolen both my kidneys in my sleep. Fuck them I thought. They laid down the law and I agreed to it out of politeness. I was not the loser here, I was the winner. Morally at least.
Deborah’s head appeared from the bunk above. She glared at me in disbelieve. I had let them win which meant that she lost by association. Deborah was losing, the day would not be good.
Later in the day a group of us decided to hike out to a lake. It was cold and breezy but we felt that a brisk walk would do us good. It wasn’t any old regular lake, no. It was a volcano that had not erupted in so long that it filled with rain water over hundreds of years. Impotence never looked so beautiful. Any day it would erupt violently and evaporate the beautiful scenery and destroy everything. Until then it was was simply stunning and worth the trek. Jenny was on the hike. As soon as Deborah was competing in general conversation with another back packer I left her side and walked as quickly as I could without taking flight to get side by side with Jenny.
It was hard to catch her as she strode over the rocks and gravel. When I caught up I walked beside her long enough for her to notice me. We talked about how beautiful the lake was and how uncomfortable the hostel seemed. I asked her about her life in LA and being a cop. Unlike my fantasy of her shooting drug dealers in speed boats with machine guns or walking away from explosions in slow motion lighting a cigar in a pair of sunglasses or cradling a smoking shotgun amongst the numerous bloodied corpses of expired terrorists I got the impression she gave out parking tickets outside boutiques. That’s still cool if you’re like Jenny, everything Jenny done was awesome.
I decided to tell her about the incident that morning with the coat hangers. Jenny listened intently and then stopped suddenly in her tracks. She pointed her finger at me and narrowed her beautiful blue eyes.
– You know what you should have said?
– You should have looked her straight in the face and said…hey, the next time YOU use the toilet, leave the toilet seat UP.
My sulking mind ignited into action and I promised myself that upon returning to the hostel it would be the first thing I would say to the coat hangers. I walked a little further with Jenny until Deborah called out to me. Deborah wanted to cut the hike short and hit the town so she could judge the place and pick out it’s faults. That’s exactly what we did until it got dark.
Upon returning to the Hostel hours later I felt almost giddy with the prospect of hitting back at the coat hangers with my witticism, albeit a late one. We entered our room to find in my absolute horror that the girls were fast asleep. The soulless mannequins lay motionless in their beds. Around them lay perfectly placed make up bags, towels, folded clothes while shy tiny shoes were arranged neatly below their bunks.
Disappointed I vowed to encounter them first thing in the morning with my long over due comeback. I climbed into my bunk and closed my eyes. I could hear everyone breathing in the darkness while bunk springs squeaked under shifting bad sleepers. I thought about the hike, the asian girls, Jenny and the volcano lake before slowly drifting into a deep sleep. I was in a strange bed with a mind full of worries.
Deborah awoke around 4 o’ clock to the sound of high pitched screaming. She scrambled to find her torch and pointed it into the darkness. There in the middle of the room wearing only underpants was I. Illuminated by a single torch light she could make out my face twisted in horror and my outstretched hands that I was screaming at. I screamed in terror at my left hand, then turned to my right hand and screamed at that one. This process repeated while occasionally screaming at both hands. Another torch light appeared on me heightening the spectacle, then another, and another. Deborah hopped down off her top bunk, put her arms around me, calmed me down and shuffled me into my bunk were upon I immediately passed out and went back to sleep. I had just had a night terror. Everyone in the room was terrified but slowly went back to bed. The last thing Deborah remembered was the sound of the coat hanger’s panicked whispers to each other. It would be safe to presume from everyone else’s reaction that no one else in the room except Deborah had ever dealt with night terrors before.
I woke up early the following morning with a booming headache. A strange high pitched sound rang in my head. My hands hurt as did my teeth. My throat was raw and I presumed immediately that I was coming down with a cold I had picked up from the previous day’s hike. I sat up in the bed and let out a horse husky cough. Jesus, what the hell is wrong with me? I looked up and saw that the coat hangers were standing beside packed bags and were delicately putting on their coats as so not to disturb anybody. Where did all this consideration come from I wondered? Taking so much care as to leave without disturbing anybody. Then it hit me. This may be the last time I get to tell them my witty, cutting, comeback regarding the toilet seat situation from yesterday. I can’t let them get away with this. I put on my tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt as quick as I could. I stood up, this action seemed to scare them a little bit. I slowly walked over to the alpha coat hanger, and pointed my finger at her. I was trying to get the wording right in my head and stood there for about two seconds in silence. Ah yes, I got it now. They froze, now I would get my revenge via a carefully worded come back. As I spoke I realized that my voice was now about three octaves lower than it normally was and had the timbre of gravel in a blender.
– Hey you, yeah you. The next time YOU use the toilet, when you’re finished, leave the seat UP. Okay?
The tough elitist exterior that had been shown by the girls for the last two days as they floated around being better than everyone else was now replaced with absolute fear and panic. They grabbed their bags and without out saying anything ran from the room. I found out later that they had complained at the desk and insisted on another room as they waited for the tour bus. There was none so they camped out in the foyer until it was time to leave. I showered early, packed my bags then lay on my bunk delighted that a simple comeback even a day late can have such consequences. The others in the room finally woke and gave me odd looks as they passed me on the way to the shower. Still having no recollection of my night terror I daydreamed about Jenny on my bunk and waited for Deborah to wake up.
Deborah filled me in over coffee at a nearby cafe as we waited for the tour bus. The whole hostel must have heard me. It explained the way people reacted that morning. The tour bus turned up after returning from the gas station and people from the hostel threw their bags into the hold and slowly climbed on board. Jenny walked by and caught my eye through the window. I nodded and smiled. She returned a rather subdued nod back, I didn’t like that. We picked up our bags and made for the bus. We were the last to get on. As I climbed on board I watched Deborah pass by the coat hangers at the front. Fear had been replaced by disgust. They threw their usual dirty looks at Deborah but when I passed they looked away. We both walked to the seats at the back of the bus as every glared at me. I was the one who woke everybody up in the hostel last night. Word had got around. When I passed Jenny she was asleep in her seat. The seats at the back of the bus were always empty due to the vibrations of the engine making it so uncomfortable. The walk there seemed to last forever. Deborah and I collapsed into the seats and sat in silence. A few people looked back at us but they were mostly looking at me. The bus started and we continued on our journey south. Deborah turned to me and whispered in my ear.
“Everybody hates me.”
“No” I said, “They hate me more than they hate you.”
Deborah’s face went flush with anger. She turned and stared out the window. I had won. She didn’t speak a word to me for the rest of the day.