When I was little, I used to listen to my parents sleeping at night. They didn't snore, but they were deep and slow breathers. I used to have terrible headaches and found it difficult to fall asleep over the painful pounding in my own ears, but if I could listen to my parents' regular inhale and exhale rhythms, match mine to that, I could usually get myself to sleep. The trick was to focus on it completely and be sure that I was inhaling with them, exhaling with them. Sometimes my tiny heart would be pounding so, to get more oxygen in faster, but if I could focus, I could sleep.
When I had my first regular boyfriend, his breathing was different from my parents, faster. After years of learning to slow myself down, it felt like hyperventilating. But I managed to retrain myself, to make myself fall asleep by breathing with him, focusing. When we finally broke up, sleeping alone felt untethered, like I would never find my own breath.
Over years, sleeping in different rooms with other people, listening to the various ways that people sleep and breathe. Trying to keep up or slow down. Trying to connect myself to the thread of their breath and let that carry me to sleep. Sometimes lying in a dark room alone and imagining the room itself breathing, not sleeping, waiting for the next morning.
I was married for years and I remember at one point when I had internalized his breathing patterns, I thought: This is the last one I'll learn. I will never again shift the rhythm of my breath to match someone else's; this is the pattern I'll follow now. Which turned out not to be true: I have slept in more rooms, tents, hotels, with more people, each with their fingerprint breath, whorls of air, and I've followed the individual patterns each time. Sometimes I can feel myself falling asleep even before they've settled into their own dream rhythms. Sometimes I don't sleep, unable to follow their jagged breath. Sometimes I wear earplugs and try counting myself to sleep instead, make my own metronome. Sometimes I remember my parents' breathing at the end of the hall, the pounding headaches, the childhood fear of being the only one awake and the comfort of sliding under someone else's pattern, warm and steady.