Xenia and I had been cheating on each other with the same woman for about three months, and our shared mistress, whose name is Sara Raymond, had no idea what was going on. She didn’t know that Xenia and I had been married for over 11 years and had three small children. She didn’t know how stressful our lives were, juggling the needs of these children and the demands of our jobs as physicians and the daily crises that arose out of each of these spheres. She didn’t know that we reached out to her each night from a place of desperation, craving something we couldn’t provide each other.
Sara Raymond narrated a 35 minute, 22 second YouTube video entitled “Guided Meditation and Relaxation for Deep Sleep and Confidence.” Her voice was silky and affectionate. She spoke just above a whisper. She used words like “safe” and “comfort” without irony. Her demeanor and her script were polar opposites of the noise and chaos that permeated our household. “Somewhere deep inside us all, we know there is someone trying to grow to the surface: our true self, our higher self,” she said. “This meditation is designed to help you drift off to sleep, knowing you are going to have a great day, confident to handle all that comes your way with a positive intention.”
As with practically everything in our lives, our discovery of the Sara Raymond YouTube video began with our children. Our 3-year-old son had recently moved into his 6-year-old sister’s room, and their bedtime suddenly became a battleground. A friend whose 5- and 8-year-old boys shared a room recommended a guided meditation video she used to coax her sons to sleep. The video, “Kids Bedtime Guided Meditation to Help You Fall Asleep, Read by a Kid,” was narrated by a 10-year-old named Cos Raymond. He spoke slowly and over-enunciated his words. His sentences were models of sibilance. I had no idea what he looked like, but I pictured the little boys from the horror movies of my youth, with pasty skin and chapped lips and a bowl cut. A creepy kid with an unsettling voice whose guided meditation, nonetheless, worked magically for our children.
Because I played the Cos Raymond video so often, YouTube started suggesting other guided meditation videos, including “Guided Meditation and Relaxation for Deep Sleep and Confidence,” which was posted by the same user that posted the children’s video. I listened to the video first by myself, on a night when Xenia was working an overnight shift at the hospital. As soon as I heard Sara Raymond introduce herself, I knew she was Cos’s mother. Beyond their last name, they shared an identical diction. She was an adult, female version of the voice that was soothing our children to sleep each night, and now she was available to do the same for us, too. I couldn’t wait to share the news with Xenia the following morning.
“Ear porn” is the term I used to describe Sara Raymond’s narration, proud of myself for coining such a clever phrase just a week into our new nightly ritual of falling asleep to her YouTube video. Initially, Xenia found the term funny, but she soon tired of the joke, and she bristled at my suggestion that we try making love one night to the video. “That’s weird,” she said. And she was probably right. But it also felt weird listening to the video alone on nights that Xenia worked an overnight shift or came home late after one of her book clubs. And on the nights when she wanted to go to bed earlier than usual, I felt like an intruder walking into our dark bedroom twenty minutes later and seeing Xenia lying under the covers, eyes closed, slowly inhaling and exhaling, in perfect sync with Sara Raymond’s instructions. I stared at the peaceful smile spread across her face and felt jealous of both Xenia’s degree of calm and this mysterious woman’s ability to make her happier than I could these days.
Before I left for San Francisco, Xenia asked me to load up the Sara Raymond video on her phone’s YouTube app. “I’m worried I won’t be able to find it, since we always play it off your phone,” she said. As I scrolled through her YouTube app to locate the video, she said, “I’m going to try to go to bed super early tonight, because tomorrow will be hard having the kids all day by myself.” I told her she’d be fine and that the kids would probably behave better with one of us not around. They’ll take pity on you, I said. “I’m confident we’ll have a great day,” Xenia said, mimicking Sara Raymond. She smiled and left the room. I thought about her lying in our bed alone for the next two nights, listening to the video without me, not missing me at all. I decided I wouldn’t listen to the video in my San Francisco hotel room.
The trip would be short, about 36 hours in total. I’d been invited to give a Saturday morning lecture, but I needed to be back on Sunday for our 6-year-old’s birthday. I went straight from work to the airport on Friday night, caught the last flight to San Francisco, and arrived at my hotel just after midnight local time. I’d slept a bit on the plane and wasn’t as tired as I should have been. I stared at my phone. This is stupid, I thought, as I punched in my passcode.
I loaded up the guided meditation video and settled into the most comfortable position I could find in the hotel’s California King-sized bed. I was alone in a dark hotel room with Sara Raymond’s voice in my ears. I spread my arms and legs out as far as I could, soaking in the pleasure of all that bed space to myself, savoring the upcoming sleep that I was due, a sleep that would be deep and unperturbed by an infant’s cry or a little girl’s request for water or a boy’s sudden realization that he’s lost one of his stuffed animals. I felt warm and peaceful, but I also felt loved and nurtured, as if Sara Raymond not only knew me but knew how to help me, comfort me, support me.
I took the red eye home the following night. A child’s screams interrupted my reading at the departure gate. The plane I’d be flying home on had just landed, and I looked up from my book at the stream of deplaning passengers to locate the source of the yelling. I missed my children, but I was glad I wasn’t the one who’d have to handle this outburst. The screams belonged to a boy, somewhere between two and three years old, being carried out of the plane by his father. A sister, no more than a year older, marched sullenly just behind them, her hands tugging on her dad’s hips. Right after them came the mother, toting an infant in a baby sling and dragging an enormous duffle bag behind her back with both hands. The parents were about the same age as Xenia and me, sported the same kinds of unstylish clothes we would wear on an airplane, and had the same looks of exhaustion on their faces as on ours at all times of day, regardless of air travel.
Then something unexpected occurred. The father put the screaming boy down in a giant swivel chair, and the older sister found a seat in an identical chair next to him. The father spun both kids around and around until the mother gently touched his shoulder, a signal to stop. The kids were now laughing and smiling. The mother threw each child a bag of snacks. The parents turned away from their older kids and began to unzip the duffle bag and unload its contents, a series of seats and wheels and poles that would somehow become a stroller for all three children. They first put together the infant seat so the mother could remove the baby from her sling. Working swiftly and wordlessly, the mother and father snapped and twisted into place each part of the Hummer-sized stroller, occasionally looking up at each other to nod approval for some part of the project done right. They completed their assembly in under two minutes. The mother fastened the infant seat on top, the father buckled in the once crying and now content boy into the stroller’s front seat, and the older sister proudly stood on the stroller’s rear platform, cooing at her infant sibling. The once massive duffle bag was rolled up into a tight wedge that fit perfectly under the stroller.
The family of five headed away from our gate, but I continued to watch them. The father pushed the gigantic stroller, while the mother carried their few bags. He removed his left hand from the stroller to rub his lower back, and she hustled to catch up to him. She put her right hand directly over his left hand and rubbed the exact same spot. Just for a moment. Then she removed her hand, as he did his, and they turned down a hallway, out of my view.
“It was beautiful,” I said to Xenia the following night as I described the scene in the airport. “It was like they were following someone else’s choreography, the way they settled down their kids, the way they worked with each other putting together the stroller. It was almost like dancing. And they never had to speak to each other. The whole time it was like they had this advanced method of communicating with each other through their bodies.”
“It sounds nice,” Xenia said, spitting out her toothpaste. We were in our bathroom, getting ready for bed.
“Maybe one of them, or even both, were deaf,” I said. “Makes sense, you know, like that’s why the husband stayed so calm with the boy screaming in his ear, that’s why they put together that stroller without uttering a single ‘motherfucker.’” Xenia stopped brushing her teeth and shot me an incredulous look in the mirror. “I’m joking,” I said. “It was inspiring how well they worked together.”
“We can do that,” Xenia said. “We have done that. It’s just hard these days, but we can do that.”
She left the bathroom and got into bed. I stood in the bathroom’s entryway and thought about whether I should continue the discussion. We were both tired. “All I need,” I said, “is that little backrub she gave him when they were walking to baggage claim. It made me sad, a bit, watching her do that, the way she ran up to him to rub his back. It was so loving. I couldn’t picture you doing that for me.”
“Not after a six-hour flight,” Xenia said.
I turned off the lights, got into bed on my side, and stretched my head out to kiss Xenia goodnight.
“You’re not going to put on Sara Raymond?” she asked.
“Sorry,” I said. “Almost forgot.”
I got out of bed and loaded up the guided meditation video on my phone. When I got back under the covers, Xenia was on my side. “Let me spoon you a bit,” she said. I let her nestle up to my backside. She held me for a few moments, the boring parts of the meditation video in which Sara Raymond gives instructions on how to use the video, how to get the room ready, how to make sure you’re in a safe place to fall asleep. Xenia’s hand moved down my back. She rubbed my lumbar region for a second or two. “There you go,” she said. She rolled back to her side of the bed. The actual meditation was about to begin.
“For some of us the missing link is just the confidence to believe in ourselves enough to take action, the confidence to live our life in alignment with what is truly important to us,” Sara Raymond said. I reached across the bed and took Xenia’s hand. She squeezed back. “The last moments before sleep are so important to us. They have a tremendous impact on how we start our next day.” Xenia interlocked her fingers with mine. “When we wake up our thoughts pick up where they left off.” We fell asleep holding hands.