Nathan Alling Long


Nathan Alling Long lives in Philadelphia and teaches creative writing and literature at Stockton University. His work appears in over a hundred publications, include Tin House, Glimmer Train, Story Quarterly, and Crab Orchard Review. He is currently seeking publication for his story collection, Everything Merges with the Night (which “Asleep” is a part of), as well as a collection of flash fiction, The Origin of Doubt.



Growing up, I loved watching people sleep: my sister, my brother, my parents—even our dog. Asleep, their faces lay blank, still, without a twitch of direction or emotion, as if revealing some hidden self. They resembled trees, or stones, something neither good nor bad, but purely themselves.

Seeing them as they slept made me feel a calm lightness inside—the way I felt when my sister Ellie wrapped her hands in old socks, making two puppets, Oscar and Brown, who talked to each other in high, barky voices:

“Hey Oscar, would you fly to the moon with me?”

“The moon? Sure. But what’s there?”

“Cheese. Lots of lovely cheese. And not the stinky kind, either.”

“How do you know?”

“There’s no atmosphere there, so it can’t stink.”

I don’t know why I laughed so hard at those puppets, but they always transformed me. We fell into a different world, Oscar, Brown, Ellie, and me.

Other times, Ellie made me feel small, too young. “Mom, I don’t think Alex changed his clothes since three days ago.” Or, “You don’t know where babies come from? Come on, you’re almost seven!”

Awake, anyone could make me feel that way. Mom, who complained of being too tired to make our school lunch or help me tie my shoe, Brandon who’d slap me on nights he babysat, if I didn’t go to bed fast enough. And Dad, who always loomed, ready to strike.

My dad was not a bad father. He could make me smile just like Ellie—or Mom, or Brandon. But that was the thing: anyone in my family could move me, one way or the other. That’s why I didn’t trust them. At least not awake.

I figured when someone made you smile, they were usually hiding some part of themselves, temporarily, to give you what you wanted. I’d seen Mom do it all the time. And when people are angry, they let some bad part of themselves take over, an exaggeration of themselves. Dad could be like that. “Don’t hate him!” Mom would say about him, after he would yell at me. “That’s not who he really is.” I believed her, but wondered, How can I know when anyone is ever acting as they really are?

I’m not sure how old I was when I started to watch people as they slept; I must have been around seven or eight. I remember once when Mom and Dad were fighting, I slipped into the living room and saw our dog, Omar, asleep on the rug. I sat on the sofa and watched his body lift and sink with his breath, his feet twitching as if touched by electrical pulse, his face relaxed and content. Except for his feet, there wasn’t much difference in how Omar looked from when he was awake. Still, I couldn’t help feel that I was witnessing something private, getting closer to him than I ever had, closer than when we wrestled in the back yard or took walks in the woods behind our house and sat by the stream, watching crayfish dart from beneath the gray stones in the water.

I began hanging out in the living room, watching Omar rest whenever I could, though I wondered if somehow what I did was wrong. Once, when my grandmother was visiting, I was staring at Omar when she came in and sat on the comfy chair in the corner. She was silent and, as usual, let me do whatever I wanted. So I stared at Omar, and grandmother stared at me. After a few minutes, she said, “The way you look over the dog, Alex, I can tell you’ll make a good father one day.” She never remembered Omar’s name.

I smiled, but I wondered if she was right. If I was a father, I would want to stay up all night watching my child sleep, so I could always picture it calm, without worry.

Grandma telling me that made me feel better. I looked up, to give a silent thanks to her, but she was already dozing in her chair. So then I stared at her: a tranquility slowly spread across her face like warm, fresh water. I saw then that her tolerance, which she offered all of us endlessly—even her son, my dad—took a great deal of effort. Only now did she seem to be completely free of worry, a person who seemed as happy to live a long time, or not at all.

For a while, I simply waited for a chance to watch someone sleep. Often, it would be while we were riding in the car during a long trip. Brandon was the oldest, then Ellie, then me—each of us separated by three years. Since I was the youngest, I had to sit in the middle of the back seat, which of course brought on many fights—until Dad, who always drove, threatened to kick us out of the car. Once we were silenced, there was nothing to do but stare out the window or take a nap.

I would glance up at Brandon as soon as he nodded off, his hair falling over his eyes, the tough, deep-voiced certainty of his personality now drained from his face. Just looking at him made me forget whatever he’d done to make me mad. His skin seemed so soft then and his eyelashes curled in a way that made him almost look like a girl. He was so sweet looking that I wanted to touch that face.

The same was true with my sister’s face when she slept. Her eyelids and freckled skin turned smooth, like they were made of clay. Often, her mouth opened and her two front teeth showed, a bit like a gopher. If she were awake, it would have made her look a little stupid I guess, but in sleep it seemed to make her open to the world, as if nothing could bother her.

I couldn’t stare long at either of them, not in the car. Otherwise, the other would look over at me and ask what I was doing. They would say something like, “You perverted,” and shake their head. And I would stiffen and stare straight ahead, afraid they were right.

To find people sleeping was difficult. I learned to sense when someone disappeared from the common spaces of the house. They took with them a certain sight and sound. To me, that absence was like an instrument suddenly disappearing from a band. While everyone else kept busy, listening blindly to the soundtrack of our life, I went off to explore the sudden silence. What I didn’t think about was how I formed more silence when I left. I was making the silence louder.

Once when Dad was shouting for me, I hid in the laundry hamper at the top of the stairs. After a few minutes, Dad gave up, slamming the front door and starting up the mower. Before I could get out of the hamper, I heard someone climbing the steps. I knew it was Mom. She often slips away to nap, and often she and Dad try to stay in different parts of the house. She walked down the hall and closed a door behind her. I waited a long time, smelling dirty socks and the sweat of my family, then snuck into my parent’s room.

I stood just inside the door, with it almost shut, so no one could see me, and I stared at her sleeping.

Often a sleeping face is not a pretty face, at least not by normal standards. The mouth is open wide, asymmetrically, and there’s often drool involved. Their hair is disheveled. But they are also deeply relaxed. The body sinks into its most comfortable place, like it’s wearing its favorite clothes, like it’s going on a brief vacation somewhere warm and safe. Even if people have a hard time breathing in their sleep, like my dad—his snores half wake him with every breath—they struggle peacefully, the way a mountain climber might steadily climb a tall mountain, though he’s wearing a heavy pack and the air is getting thin. Their bodies seem to simply know what to do. They seem to enjoy the work of breathing, of taking each difficult step.

What I loved about my mother’s sleeping face was how it did not try to be anything at all. I was staring at it, feeling just as calm and still as she looked, when Mom woke and looked at me full on. “What’s wrong?” she said. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I said, panicked. “You’re just having a dream.”

“Oh,” she said. “Really?” And then she fell back asleep.

I stood there stiller than ever, but also shaking. I waited, watching the second hand crawl around the face of her bedside clock five painful minutes. Then I slipped out the door and closed it behind me.

Later that day, Mom said nothing; she didn’t act distant toward me. In fact, she hugged me as I came up to slip a dirty plate into the kitchen sink, where she was washing the dishes. She had never before hugged me when her hands were wet or she was busy with a task. It was as though I had entered her dreams and some part of her recognized me as being a part of her quiet, private world.

I decided later that I could have asked her anything at that moment she awoke—Did she really love me? Did she love each of us the same? Did she want to leave us all?—and she would have told the simple truth. After that, whenever I watched her sleep, I imagined her opening her eyes again, and being able to ask her one question before she awoke fully, before she had time to think.

One afternoon, I noticed Brandon disappear while we kids were in the living room watching tv before dinner. He often had to be called to dinner several times, and I had begun to suspect that was when he took a nap. I slipped off the couch, told Ellie I was going to the bathroom, and crept upstairs.

The door to the bathroom was only a few feet from Brandon’s room, and I stood in the hallway between the two doors, listening. I heard a short flickering sound from behind his door, then silence. I was wearing socks and slid down the hallway soundlessly. I turned my head a few inches from his door and listened hard. There was a sound, something faint and muffled, which sounded like a body rustling under covers.

I knelt down, with my hands over my knees so they wouldn’t creak, and looked through the key hole. Brandon’s bed was in the far corner, and I could see almost all of it. He was lying in bed, half under the covers. He was turned away from me, his head on the pillow, a magazine beside him. At first I thought he was reading, then I thought maybe he had fallen asleep, but his body was moving, more than the rustle of sleep. Whatever he was doing, he seemed completely lost in it.

My knees were bent awkwardly, my left eye was squeezed shut, and I leaned my right eye as close to the door as possible. I stared hard. I felt as though my eye were entering the room, as if, had he looked, Brandon would have seen my pupil coming through the hole.

I was concentrating so hard that I must not have heard Dad walking up the stairs. When he suddenly called, “Alex!” I jumped back.

Dad grabbed my arm and shook me. “What do you think you’re doing?”

I could think of nothing to say. I let myself be shaken and didn’t try to pull away. I had watched everyone in the family so many times, believing that what I was doing was not a bad thing, but I knew that this moment, this staring, was not right.

Dad yelled at me to never spy on others. I nodded, silent. He didn’t hit me, only bruised my arm where his thumb had pressed down, but I felt I had deserved it this time. Once he left, I slipped into the bathroom, telling myself in the mirror that I would never look secretively upon anyone, ever again.

I stared at my reflection, wanting to believe my words, but a part of me knew it was a lie. I felt awful, but I could not give up looking any more than I could give up food or air.

I decided then to only look at others during the night, when everyone was in bed and not likely to be doing anything else, like reading magazines. If I got caught, I would say that I must have been sleep walking. I tried several times to stay awake, after my parents had showered and gone to bed, and the house was silent, but I always fell asleep and awoke in the morning disappointed.

Then, summer came. We lived in an old house that didn’t have air conditioning, and I found on very hot nights, I sometimes woke covered in sweat. One of these night, I woke sweaty with the full moon glowing on my face. It was nearly two in the morning. I slipped out of bed and opened my door.

My parents’ door was unlatched, in case any of us ever had an emergency, and I slipped into their room. My mother slept closer to the door, but was turned away from me, toward the window and my father. I came around to the foot of their bed and gazed up at her face, the moon light softly highlighting her forehead.

I looked at her, then my father, but something felt wrong. Their faces were not like I had seen them when they slept alone. At first I thought it was the moon, but that wasn’t it. Although my mother’s head was close to his, it seemed pulled back, as though they had been nearly touching, when a hair or a thought caused her to draw away. And the muscles in my father’s face were tight and tense. Even in sleep, the two of them reacted to one another.

I would have to come back, when my father was out of town on a trip, or my mother was away with her sister for the weekend, to look upon their solitary faces. I slipped out of their room and went back to sleep.

The next morning, I had a hard time waking up and at breakfast, I didn’t want to look at Mom or Dad. All day, as I biked around the neighborhood, the image of their faces from the night before filled my brain. What if they no longer became their quiet selves in sleep? What if that part of them had disappeared completely?

The next night when the moon and the heat woke me, I was tired, but I got up again. This time, I crept down the hall, past Brandon’s door, to Ellie’s room, which was at the opposite end of the hall from mine.

On the way, I passed the clothes hamper where I had hid that one afternoon. A pair of socks stuck out of the lid and looked like Oscar and Brown, the two sock puppets, their heads sleeping over the edge of the hamper. Ellie’s door was closed, but I had opened it many times during the day and knew it opened silently. I turned the knob slowly, standing stiff in the doorway.

A streetlight shone into the room. In its light, I saw Ellie lying naked, a sheet tangled at the foot of her bed. Her body was relaxed, her arms and legs bent across the bed. When we were little kids, we used to bath together, but that was many years ago. The last few years she had kept to herself, and though she would play hand puppets with me, she would no longer wrestle or give me piggy back rides.

I told myself that this was just like back when we were little kids, but while my body had not really changed, hers had. There was a mound of hair at the bottom of her belly now, where her legs met. I knew she would not want me to see this. I knew I could not stay there, but I hesitated, to feel what I was feeling, and to take in whatever it was I was seeing.

I looked at Ellie’s body, but I couldn’t look at her face. I did not know if her mouth were closed or open, her two teeth exposed. I felt horrible things inside, like a hundred colored ropes and threads, all knotted together, some beautiful, some dangerous as live wires. I couldn’t sort them out, except for one. It made me angry as I found it and pulled it loose from all the rest. What I wanted, what I had woken up for, was to look upon something safe and certain. What I saw now was that this was no longer possible. Sleep revealed too much.

Somehow, I was able to shut her door silently. I turned and started to run down the hall toward my room. As I passed the hamper, the speed of my body made the two socks lift up slightly. Oscar and Brown seemed for a split second to come to life, without anyone’s hand inside. They appeared to be doubling over, laughing, like they were watching a play, relieved to finally be in the audience.

I could not get to my room fast enough. I held my breath and drew the curtains shut, but still the moonlight came in. I promised never to stare at the sleeping again. I wanted to lie down and quickly go to sleep, but I could not even sit on my bed. I stood there, outlined by moonlight, suddenly afraid of what the morning would bring, and of the night.

A while ago, I started writing a collection of stories about sleep, partially for the challenge of creating interesting plots around a state of inaction. ‘Asleep’ was one of the stories I kept. Like with many of my stories, it deals with what happens when personal habits or mythologies conflict with the external world. As a child, I never stared at people when they slept, but I did feel uncertain about what people in my family were really thinking. For me, the story starts with a bright energy in the language, like the ‘calm lightness’ the character feels when he observes the sleeping. I didn't know exactly that it would turn so serious, but the consequences kept increasing as he seemed to get more obsessed.