The year is 2016.
Every night, my attempts to fall asleep are hampered by the chronic sensation of insects crawling on my skin. When I inspect my bedding, there is nothing there.
When sleep does arrive, it’s interrupted by periodic slips into sleep paralysis. Disturbing apparitions assault my mind. I remember one was a girl that reminded me of Samara from The Ring. She crawled along the floor, breathing an agonized, choking breath, before moving up next to my ear to let out a violent hiss.
I remember fearing that I would never experience another night of deep, refreshing sleep for the rest of my life. Like I would have to drag myself through my waking hours with heavy eyes and muscular fatigue that made my body feel three times heavier than it was.
This was in college, the University of Denver to be precise.
Fast forward to post-graduation, and I’m in a new city. San Diego. Still trying to make school work. Still feeling insects on my skin in every bed I sleep.
Somehow, I’m still mustering the energy to practice dance every night at the 24 Hour Fitness. The studio room is spacious. People are practicing yoga or other exercise routines, occasionally other dancers show up to train as well.
I’m minding my own business in the corner. I’m training breakdancing. A Vietnamese girl with a snapback hat and a yoga mat walks up to me, compliments my dance, and then heads off.
I don’t think too much of it, figured she was just being friendly.
I keep returning to the gym to train. It helps keep my mind off the fact that there still won’t be any refreshing rest that night. Exhausting myself makes it easier to fall asleep, however.
The same girl that complimented me is there. She goes every day to practice yoga. Saying hello becomes a regularity.
One night, I show up a bit later than usual. As I’m walking into the gym, she’s walking out. We stop to talk to one another. Just some small talk, nothing serious.
She ends up deciding to head back into the gym with me to hang out, do more yoga while I dance. This is the beginning of a friendship.
After training, we start heading to the steam room together. It’s one of the bigger 24 Hour Fitnesses in San Diego. A large pool, sauna, steam room, and hot tub are available for the members.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had been in a steam room. High school, maybe.
We sit largely in silence. She’s shy, I’m even shier. Her English is really good, but retains a touch of an accent. Maybe she’s nervous to speak too much. But I come to find out, words aren’t always necessary for building a friendship.
I find it perfectly enjoyable just sitting there, looking at the vague, blurred shapes of strangers through the steam. Occasionally, I stare at the soft glow emanating from the light fixture on the wall. I try to relax my breathing, to really let the steam work on me.
At first, it was difficult. I almost couldn’t breathe. Several times I had to step outside of the room in order to get some air. I wasn’t sure if it was helping or not. But I kept going back in with her, until my lungs could handle it.
Once that hurdle was overcome, it began to be quite enjoyable.
After relaxing in the steam room for a bit, we step outside to hang out in the hot tub. We make nicknames for some of the other regulars. I remember Steam Room Guy and Steam Room Man were two of them.
One of them was always laying on one of the poolside chairs with a towel over his face. He’d just lay there and sleep. Nothing wrong with that I suppose. It was a 24-hour gym, after all.
The other guy would smile and wave at us every night. He’d go into the steam room for a bit, come out for a bit, then go back in, and repeat that process.
In those early days, it was a bit of a struggle for me to figure out what to talk about. We came from wildly different backgrounds, had wildly different upbringings, and had a language barrier to boot. Somehow, though, we still managed to have conversations.
One day, we are in the steam room, sitting quietly, as usual. She grabs my arm and begins to caress it. I’m a little taken aback, but I don’t say anything. I’m a sucker for caressing. Better than sex, if you ask me.
I figure it’s just her natural, friendly impulse. She works in a salon at a mall in San Diego, so massaging her clients' hands and feet is a regular activity.
But it was a bit mysterious. Almost like she could sense how wound up I was inside. If I could describe what it was like to sit in that steam room while her fingers stroked my arm, I would say it was like a gentle dissipation of tight, pain-energy. A slow evaporation of whatever bullshit was causing me to feel insects on my skin at night.
She’d then massage my hands, which were sore from practicing footwork in the studio.
It was immediate medicine. Better than anything I’d experienced in the previous four years of my life, spent stressing over exams and worrying about my future.
Fast-forward a bit. We’re in my car in the parking lot of the gym at night. Standard setting for these sorts of things, but a kiss happens.
And some touchy-feely stuff.
It’s a cliche for a reason, folks.
We never called ourselves boyfriend and girlfriend in those early days. We just rolled into it and kept going.
Little dates here and there led up to it. I remember gorging on a bunch of donuts with her at one of the cafes near the gym, eating at some of the local Korean and Japanese restaurants in the same area, and, of course, continuing our studio/steam room/hot tub hangout sessions.
I’d like to say that this was enough for me to get over whatever it was that was eating away at me, but it wasn’t. My mental landscape kept getting worse, even as our relationship flowered.
A large part of it had to do with my reluctance to let go of certain ideas about who I was and what I was supposed to be doing with myself. Ideas that have finally been dispensed with, and not a moment too soon.
I am proud to say, however, that I’m the type of person who doesn’t offload my mental burden onto my partners. I prefer to conceal what I’m really feeling and shoulder my problems alone.
If “how to take your rage out” has a spectrum with potential shooter on one end, then I’m on the opposite side of that. I’m the type of guy who would commit suicide in such a way as to make it seem like it was an accident, that way no one would be too upset about it.
Luckily, I don’t have those thoughts anymore.
My first living situation in San Diego didn’t work out. Another story, for another time.
My second living situation was better, but it wasn’t working out either. Not because of the people I was rooming with. It had to do with my own problems.
I remember feeling intensely frustrated at the fact that I was paying an egregious rent bill despite not getting any quality sleep. I asked myself what the point was.
I had since dropped out of grad school. Couldn’t afford it. Bills were still sucking up most of my rideshare earnings. I remember feeling so tired in my car, yet I had to drive anyways. So I was getting angry, sad, pissed, frustrated all at once.
I didn’t know what to do.
So I moved into the back of the truck my dad gave me before he died. I didn’t want to pay rent anymore. I wanted to be alone, in my own little cave. I wanted to live in the parking lot of the gym I trained at and had met my girlfriend at.
She spends some nights with me in the back of the truck, which has a camper shell on it.
While she’s having fun, I’m fantasizing more and more about how wonderful a quick and easy death would be. I’m tired of thinking about the future, the past, the present.
To quote my guy Alan Watts, I’m thinking about how wonderful it would be to “Go to sleep and never wake up.”
I just want the feeling of tiredness behind my eyes to go away, even if only for a second. Death stops seeming like something terrible and starts coming off as a massive relief.
It’s possible to get so tired of life that you just want to find out what it’s like to not have to be awake anymore.
One night, I finally open up to her about these thoughts. She gets angry and sad, and not without good reason. She cries, I cry. Two lonely people, crying in the back of a truck.
I pull myself together and tell myself, no more expressing those kinds of thoughts, at least not to her, not in that kind of way. It’s unfair.
She’s pretty Buddhist. And not in a lame, Western-intellectualized sort of way. But exactly in the kind of way that you’re supposed to be. Grateful for what’s in your life that’s good, accepting of the circumstances you can’t change, and always living in the present moment.
From her perspective, living in the back of a truck is a pretty neat experiment. All things considered, it was pretty comfortable, and it was right next to the place where we spent a lot of our free time.
We continue our training/steam room/hot tub sessions. Slowly but surely, I begin to regain some motivation to stay alive.
I start sneaking into her room, which is in a house her aunt owns. Her husband’s parents live there.
We have to stay quiet out of respect. I feel like a little kid again.
We watch a lot of movies together. I introduce her to the Star Wars franchise and Game of Thrones. She falls in love with Game of Thrones, and only mildly enjoys Star Wars. She never understood why Star Wars fans take Star Wars so seriously. I think Star Wars fans should take one out of my girlfriend’s playbook and lighten up about the whole thing, but I digress.
It’s still winter. Winter nights in San Diego are cold enough to warrant a jacket and to make instant noodles the best damn thing since sliced bread. Of course, it’s nothing compared to winter in my home state of Colorado, but by this time, I’ve acclimated, and shiver just as much as I did back home.
Our routine dish becomes instant noodles with added broccoli and some fish cake things from a supermarket called Zion, also near the gym.
And so a common night looked like this: dance -> steam room -> sleep in the truck or in my girlfriend’s room -> watch a movie/show together with some hot tea and instant noodles -> make love -> re:re:re:repeat.
I could have died on any one of those nights and my life would have been complete.
The year is now 2019. We’ve been together for three years. I’ve been to Vietnam to meet her family and am going back next January.
We’ve been in our own apartment for the past two years. We’ve gotten significantly better at cooking.
And best of all? No more insects on my skin at night. My sleep quality continues to improve. I’ve started dreaming again (mostly nightmares, but hey, one gets used to it) which indicates that I’m entering back into those deeper sleep cycles that are necessary for rejuvenation.
Feelings of fatigue and muscular heaviness are giving way to sensations of lightness. I’m more carefree. I could care less about what people think of me. I’m just here to dance till my body gives out. Simple as that.
I think about those early moments a lot, back in the steam room. They were nothing short of total magic, total surreality. It was like she walked out of a dream to wrap her warmth around me. I shudder at the thought of never having experienced this.
There’s an image baked into my mind. I’ll never forget it. I think it will always be the image I associate with small acts of kindness that can have tremendous consequences.
It’s the image of a Vietnamese girl in a snapback hat with her yoga mat, walking gracefully toward me to offer a simple, friendly compliment to a stranger about his dance.