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Pure As the Driven Slush (Personal Journal)
November 13th, Two Thousand One: Magic at 4 AM

I'm convinced there is magic in the world at 4 in the morning that isn't there at any other time of that day. Mind you, when I used to have to wake up then routinely and head out to work the markets, it'd take me a decent lot of muttering, grumbling and caffeine to concede that point, but it's still magic.

4 AM is when the stars are still barely out, but the edges of sky are blushing softly like a girl at 13, or a stranger you've managed to embarrass. It isn't as quiet as say, 2:30 AM: cars are beginning to rattle and hum on the streets, morning news turned on by the rare few who are beginning their day then. A phantom alarm clock whines softly somewhere, feebly contesting the lazy hand pounding it on the head to silence it again and again.

If you've found a bar that's still open at 4 AM, you've no doubt struck up a friendship with the bartender at that point, and the tables have been turned: it is he or she now telling YOU life stories, not the other way round. 4 AM is when children on Christmas give up staring at the ceiling impatiently and compose mastermind plans to wake their families from sleep and get to the good stuff already, darnit. 4 AM seems to be the magic and arbitrary time insomniacs like me give up the good fight, boil the water for coffee, and pick up that book we've been reading, or find that despite our frustration at being unable to sleep, we've been blessed with a little bonus time when one can't do much else to write at our leisure, and do so with the resigned, sleepy serenity that's set in at this point.

4 AM is the time you insert into the statement: "Holy shit! I can't believe it's _____!" You might say that when you're with a friend -- new, old or otherwise, or a date or lover, and you discover that you really have been talking all night, in that seedy all-night diner (the best one in Chicago is at the corner of Clark and Devon, on the north side, for instance), and you really have smoked an entire pack of cigarettes and eaten a whole belgian waffle, sickly-sweet preserves and all. Or, perhaps, when you realize you left the diner/party/dinner/theatre/drum circle/beach/concert hours earlier, and have spent THAT many hours in bed with the person you unexpectedly wound up in bed with. It's at 4 AM on night/mornings like those that you count how much longer you've got left until the day begins, and negotiate ways to get the most sex or affection or talking in, with as little sleep as is humanly possible. You might, at 4 AM, turn your head to whomever lies besides you and whisper tentatively, "Hey, are you asleep?" Usually, they aren't. These are the days you arrive at work not torrentially late, but inexplicably early and grinning like a cat: the early days signal a night spent in bliss, not just the late arrivals. Perhaps the early days even more so.

As a child, 4 AM would be the time I got alone with my mother: when we'd walk, in the dark, to the hospital where she worked, chatting along the way somewhat incoherently; tiptoeing over the sidewalks knowing most of the world was asleep. It's also when I would wake in my early teens so I could manage to be out of the house before my stepfather woke up and ruined my peace. It's the time in my later teens I'd find myself on subway cars, coming down from one hallucinogen or another, or waking up in this bed or that, extracting myself from the sheets or the arms of Tom, Dick or Harriet, who I remembered vaguely from the night before, and often quite pleasantly. 4 AM is a time for mischief: it's when I woke at 17 to find Gina had painted my pubic hair cobalt blue as I slept in a charming attempt to mark me her territory. Between high school and college, it's when Joe and I would decide to call it a night after playing a few open mikes or folk clubs, after driving out of the city and into some rural nowhere, splitting a fifth of bourbon as we played and sang until we were hoarse. It's when my best friend Nicole and I would cuddle up together, exhausted after two days of hiking the beaches, pupils as black and open as inkwells, feet calloused; our indian-print sundresses muddy, our hair matted, George Harrison, The Jazz Butcher or Elvis Costello singing us gentle lullabies from the boom box we carried. It is when, worried for our general well-being, other students at my college softly rattled on the door to the apartment Jim and I had locked ourselves into for nearly two days solid until our limbs ached and our mouths and genitals were sore and swollen from overuse. 4 AM is a time for the sort of knowing giggle, under a cupped hand, one makes to discover not only is the person behind that door still quite alive, they just haven't finished yet.

4 AM doesn't appear to be too specific about its magic: it can be joyous or tragic. 4 AM is when, after 48 hours spent hungrily exploring one another's psyches and physiques in the early 90's , Michael and I went to the Oak Street beach to watch the sun come up, and I strode into the water and stood, skirts drenched, watching the sunrise paint the horizon in wide stripes of gold, slowly, my hands making ripples in the cold water. It is an hour which B. and I often readied to part reluctantly, holding and stroking one another in passion and playfulness, stretching the time remaining as best we could, tinged with a bit of regret at times, knowing both of us should perhaps have been in someone else's arms just then. And it is the time when, a few years back, I watched him sleeping in my bed in my subterranean apartment and had a sudden pang of knowing that I wanted him near me, always. But 4 AM is also very near to when I woke up with a start and a cry in 1986, panic in my lungs and sweat on my neck, only to discover later that it was at that moment my lover ended his life. I was born right at noon, but if given the choice, I think I'd opt to let my life expire at 4 AM: when everything is magic and joy and sorrow intertwine so beautifully; when regret and rejoicing couple, merge and mingle.

Now, 4 AM is when I give up on the sleep I can't seem to complete, be it because of toothache, restlessness, or a small dog breathing down my neck. And it is when I rise, stand outside on the porch in bare feet -- knowing it really isn't wise to stand outside in the damp cold with bare feet in threadbare pajamas -- and look up at the sky, with a cup of steaming coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and remember all of this; I look forward to more. It is when I peek into the bedroom a few times, just to watch B. sleep as he does, mouth slightly open like a baby bird waiting to be fed, his cropped black hair sticking up strangely this way or that.

4 AM is when I write most freely, and feel the words flow as they always have, knowing they are, in many respects: my eldest friends, my longtime stability, my security, what grounds me here. It never fails that just as I have reached that point, as I have become mesmerized by the sum of the moments in my life, by the feeling of day almost breaking, by the magic of a time that is neither evening nor morning, but perhaps both -- that the sky starts to lighten, 4 AM has come and gone, but has generously left me with this. With this magic.


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