December 23, 2016
I stumbled across Justin’s online dating profile while waiting for water to boil. I had just gotten home from running errands — A.T.M., mailbox, grocery store — and was cooking dinner before sitting down to work.
It was just after 4 a.m.
“Message me if you want to talk about anything and everything until the wee hours of the night,” his profile said.
The phrase “wee hours,” as it turns out, means different things to different people. For him, a software engineer with an eye for design who can wail on an electric guitar, the wee hours are 2 a.m., maybe 3. For me, it’s a little more complicated.
I have a circadian rhythm disorder called delayed sleep phase syndrome. It’s not insomnia; I’ve never had trouble sleeping. It’s that my circadian clock tells me it’s time for bed when the sun is rising and time to wake up as it’s setting. As these things go, I’m an extreme case — a vampire, basically — offset from society’s clock by approximately eight hours.
My father is similarly chrono-challenged, as was his mother. As a child, I struggled to live in the diurnal world. Some children feel they were born into the wrong body. Me? I felt as if I were born into the wrong time.
Now, as a freelance writer making my own schedule, I have reveled in the freedom to live by my own clock, going to bed around 8 or 9 a.m. and waking around 4 or 5 p.m., though some “nights” I stay up late, going to sleep by noon and getting up at 8.
I’ve always lived in cities — New York, Philadelphia, London, Boston — yet my world is sparsely populated. There are no lines when I grocery shop, only an obstacle course of restocking boxes. No traffic when I drive. No phone calls, emails or social media stir as I work.
Alone with my books and my thoughts, I write about physics.
Being nocturnal isn’t a requirement for physics writing, but it helps. The dark of night is perfect for contemplating the universe. With everything silent and still, it’s easier to notice the cracks in reality’s facade.
Of course, my chronologic freedom comes with a few technical difficulties, such as an inability to take calls from editors, listen to music without headphones or remember what day of the week it is, since my days are always changing in the middle.
Then there’s dating. First dates usually go O.K. because they’re in the evening, but complications quickly arise. It’s hard to explain to a date that you don’t want to drink at dinner because you’ve just woken up and have a full workday ahead. You tire of saying you can’t go to brunch or to the beach because you’ll be sound asleep. When they ask why you don’t just go to bed earlier, as if perhaps you’d never thought of that, you have to explain that your inverted schedule isn’t a preference.
On my first date with Justin, we went to an art museum at 7 p.m., where we spoke easily about our families and passions, software and string theory. I learned that he had a 9-to-5 job (not my 9 to 5 — the other one) and enjoyed cycling and being “out in the sunshine.”
I didn’t mention that I was midway through a regimen of prescription vitamin D, administered in blitzkrieg doses. “Sunshine” was not in my vocabulary.
For our second date, it was my turn to make plans. “I know you’re on a normal human schedule,” I texted him. “But the Perseid meteor shower peaks tomorrow night. Want to find a dark spot and watch?”
“Despite being a normal human,” he replied, “I’m totally down for that.”
At midnight, we found a cozy spot by the Charles River and gazed upward, watching for the stray dust of an ancient comet. Despite the city lights, we saw three meteors blaze above the Boston skyline.
We talked about starlight, how it had begun its journey thousands of years ago and we were looking back in time. I thought how in a sense that’s always true: My now is not the same as his and never will be. There’s always a delay, each of us living in the immediate past of the other, regardless of how tightly he wrapped his arms around my waist. We are all trapped in our own time zones. The best we can do is try to meet in an imaginary middle.
So that’s what we did. He booked us a trip to go night skiing. I made it to the beach in time to feel the sun on my skin. He rigged up a high-powered bike light and took me for a long ride in the summer dark. I ate Thai food for breakfast; he ate pancakes for dinner.
Eventually, however, the constant compromise made for two grumpy, bleary-eyed shells of human beings. We were in love but exhausted and ready to give up, resigned to nursing our heartache from the opposite side of a circadian rhythm. He went back to his hometown in Maine to clear his head. I returned to the night to live in mine.
One afternoon (i.e., just after midnight), I got an email from him suggesting we try a new approach.
“There is no world we both occupy at the same time,” he wrote. “It’s an illusion. We don’t actually need to find that.” Instead of fighting our difference, he said, let’s just love each other from across the clock.
So we decided to move in together. We found an attic apartment with tons of skylights, where sunlight would flood the living room during his day and moonlight would stream through the ceiling during mine. We were still unpacking boxes when there was a total lunar eclipse, and we pulled a lounge chair into the kitchen and watched as the earth’s shadow slid across a terra cotta moon.
As a token of our new living arrangement, I gave Justin an illustrated edition of “The Day Boy and the Night Girl,” a fairy tale by George MacDonald from 1882. Snuggling on the couch, we took turns reading chapters aloud to each other.
In the story, a witch raises two children in captivity, allowing the boy to see only day and the girl only night. But one day, the boy stays out longer than he’s supposed to, and when it gets dark, he becomes terrified. The girl finds him shaking in the garden and tries to comfort him, explaining “how gentle and sweet the darkness is, how kind and friendly, how soft and velvety!”
Since she’s wide awake, she promises to watch over him while he sleeps. When the sun rises, he awakens to find that now she’s scared, a stranger to the sun, and so he carries her in his arms while she sleeps until dark.
Justin and I figured we would do the same. When a repairman insisted on coming at noon, Justin stayed home so I wouldn’t lose a night’s sleep. When he didn’t have time to buy wrapping paper for birthday gifts, I had them ready with ribbons by morning.
I always made sure to wake up before he got home from work so we could cook and eat together — his dinner, my breakfast. Then he’d go to bed, and I’d write for hours beneath the moon. Eventually, I would crawl quietly into his arms and we’d dream happily alongside each other — for a few minutes, anyway, before he had to get up.
On weekends, he played guitar, saw friends, soaked in the sunshine, all while I was still dreaming. By the time I dragged myself to the coffee maker, he’d cycled 35 miles and eaten two meals. With the sun setting, he greeted me with a happy “Good morning!” He told me about his day; I told him about my yesterday.
And so it went, the earth spinning for each of us in turn. We made the most of the hours when our lives overlapped, then let each other thrive in our own times, like animals in our wilds.
In August, the earth made its annual pass through the dust and debris of that ancient comet. Late that night, Justin drove me to a secluded beach on the north shore of Massachusetts where a handful of stargazers stared skyward. He put down a blanket as frogs croaked in the distance. Then he fumbled in his camera bag, pulling out a small black box. I couldn’t see what was inside, just a glint, like the flicker of a star. Then he asked, “Will you marry me?”
We lay back on the blanket, grinning, as meteors streaked the sky. By then it was nearly 2 a.m., too late to call anyone, to squeal our news to family and friends. Instead we just lay there in our shared place and time, surrounded by sand and ocean and a few hundred billion stars.