Sleepby Kevin Spaide
When I closed my eyes in the dark, I saw terrible things. I saw the future.
Mari was asleep but I had the feeling she was awake. She was one of those people who remain alert even in the midst of dreams.
I sat up and drank some water, hoping she would wake up so I could tell her I couldn’t sleep.
But she didn’t wake up. I lay back down and groaned. I rubbed my heels together and itched my face. I got out of bed and went for a walk around the living room. There was nothing out there but darkness and the future. I tripped over my own shoes and hit my forehead against the bedroom door.
Mari said, “You are killing me.”
“Are you awake?”
“Do you think I would say something like that in my sleep?”
I got into bed beside her and laid my hand on her stomach and pushed my nose into her hair.
“Your face is wet,” she said.
“Ah, it’s just water,” I laughed. “I washed my face a minute ago. I thought it might help somehow.”
I reached under her shirt and put my hand on her breast.
“Is that all you ever think about?”
“I’ve been thinking about everything,” I said.
“Well you’ll never get to sleep that way.”
“I’ve been thinking about the planet spinning around in space at a thousand miles per hour.”
“That won’t help you either.”
“When I can’t sleep,” I confided, “I think about eternity.”
Instantly she was snoring again. I took my hand out of her shirt and leaned away from her. She was asleep and awake at the same time. I had never known anyone else with the same power. I knew if I spoke to her she would answer me just as if she were conscious. Then she would go on snoring.
She said, “Pretend you’re already dead, pretend you’re a ghost.”
“Oh great! Pretend I’m a ghost. From the mother of my own child!”
I returned to my side of the bed, and I thought: Eternity is forever, an endless nothing: I am going to be dead forever in an endless nothing.
I got up again and went out to the kitchen and made a cheese sandwich in the light of the refrigerator. Then I sat in my chair and ate the sandwich in the dark.
There is no getting around it, I thought. What kind of world was this? Cemeteries everywhere, spinning around at a thousand miles per hour.
I put some clothes on and went out the door and walked down the hill to the 24-hour supermarket. It looked ridiculous and terrifying – all that cheap light and corny plastic blazing away in the night!
Walking through the big open doorway was like entering an afterlife. Shining foil packets of potato chips, cans of tomato sauce, toothpaste tubes and a thousand other items rose up and greeted me with an eternal friendliness.
Wandering the aisles I found one of my old teachers from high school. It had been so long since the last time I’d seen her we were almost the same age now. She was talking to herself. I tried not to follow her but wherever I went she was half an aisle in front of me. There was nothing I could do.
Finally she said, “I can’t believe you stayed in this crummy town.”
“Oh, I’ve gone places,” I said.
“But you came back.”
“Yes, I came back.”
“And now you’re trapped here with the rest of us.”
I’d never thought of myself as trapped in my town, but I saw no point in arguing.
“Maybe I should have stayed away,” I said.
We were standing in the produce aisle. All those vegetables gleaming in the middle of the night, lying there in piles and rows, looking haunted – it was enough to make you wonder.
She came over and put her forehead on my shoulder and let out a long moan.
“I tried to tell you,” she said. “I tried to warn you. But you wouldn’t listen. And now look at you.”
“I’m all right,” I said. “I just can’t sleep.”
“You think you’re all right?” She moaned again. “Sometimes I spend half the night drifting around this place. This is where I come to reckon with my past, my failures – of which you are clearly one.”
“It’s the future that scares me,” I said.
“Same thing, same thing. Past, future, whatever.” Then she said, “I tell myself there is only The Now.”
She said it like that, in capital letters. “The Now is all there is. This is The Now.”
“You live in The Now,” I said.
“Yes, that’s what I tell myself. And if I do, then you do. We’re trapped in it. We’re trapped in The Now.”
We strolled up and down the aisles together, discussing The Now, until we found the beer cooler. Then we cracked open a couple of cans and sat down on the floor.
“We’d better have something to eat with these,” she said sadly, as if having to stand up again so soon was a desolation. She went away and came back a moment later with a box of crackers and a jar of caviar.
“It’s the first thing I happened on,” she explained in her sad voice. Then she took a plastic spoon out of her pocket and looked at it for a moment before sitting back down.
We drank beer and ate caviar on crackers while the goods on the shelves hovered just out of sight like angels or demigods.
“You never listened to me,” she said.
“I listened. I always listened.”
“Never,” she repeated. “You sat there with your ears open, your head stuffed full of brains, but God knows where my good intentions went.”
“You helped a lot,” I said. “Those were hard years for me. Almost impossible.”
“You think I had it easy?”
“You were always so energetic, so positive.”
She laughed. “You make me sound like a battery.”
“You were inspiring!”
“An act,” she said. “A sham.”
She took my hand and said, “You can’t blame me for the way things turned out.”
“Why didn’t you just tell me the goddamn truth?” I said angrily.
“Honey,” she said, “they don’t pay me enough to kill babies.”
She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, and when we had finished our beers we got up and started walking again.
“Man, I have to pee,” she said.
“This place is more confusing than a fairytale woods.”
“Jesus, I’m going to wet my pants over here if I don’t find a toilet.”
“Ah, there’s probably a bathroom somewhere behind that door over there, the one that says ‘employees only’ on it.”
Desperate to locate a toilet, she pushed through the door, one of those mysterious swinging doors at the back of all supermarkets, and I followed her into a wondrous new realm. It was an auditorium-sized room crammed with boxes. Boxes of everything, waiting to be born. I found it hard to believe that such a place existed. A treasure trove! And just inside the doorway we found a dark cubbyhole with a single seatless toilet in it.
“That’s about the tiniest bathroom I’ve seen in all my life,” she said, smiling sadly into the little white bowl, “but it’ll have to do.”
I said, “I’ll wait here.”
“Well I wasn’t about to invite you in.”
“No,” I said. “No.”
“You just stand right there and keep a lookout for monsters.”
She squatted over the toilet bowl – forgetting, in her hurry, to close the door – and I listened to her pee into the water. How many times, I wondered, had I heard Mari make exactly the same sound?
My old teacher groaned in relief and said, “No one ever tells you how short life is, do they Dave.”
“I don’t know. You hear old people grumble and snicker now and again.”
“When you’re 19 the future is huge and endless. Five minutes later you’re middle-aged and wondering who’s trying to murder you. At 55 you’re thinking you might have 20 good years left if you’re lucky. You probably won’t be, though. And then what?”
I said, “I lie in bed at night wondering how old I’ll be in twenty years. I mean, it’s not just a matter of doing the math. You’ve really got to puzzle it out.”
“There’s no toilet paper.”
“We are in a supermarket,” I said, and I hurried out and found a roll for her.
When she was finished, she buttoned up her pants and took my hand and led me back through those swinging doors. It was as if I had become her student again and she had set herself to guiding me. We struck out along a wide aisle, heading deeper into the supermarket, but the items on the shelves here were dusty and unidentifiable. The labels were peeling off the cans and the colors fading from the boxes. The lights buzzed and flickered. The floor was strewn with hunks of machinery, lengths of frayed rope. A streak of blood went up the middle of the aisle as if a body had been dragged that way, and a mechanical whirring noise came from behind the shelves to our right.
Where am I? I wondered, and I thought of Mari at home in our bed.
What am I doing here?
It was the middle of the night. I was wandering around the 24-hour supermarket with an old high school teacher. Why was this happening? Why had I left Mari’s side?
My teacher halted and said, “I think we’ve gone far enough in this direction, Dave.”
“Are you scared? Because you look a little scared.”
“I’m always scared,” she said, clutching my arm. Then – but softly, talking only to herself – she whispered, “I live in The Now.”
We turned and hurried back to the beer cooler. I needed courage to find my way back out of there, so I chugged a can of some awful swill I’d never even heard of, then I gave my old teacher a kiss on the forehead, right between the eyebrows – she was crying now, begging me not to abandon her there – and I fled. As swiftly as I could, I navigated my way back to the entrance. I wanted to get home as soon as possible.
I caught my breath in the parking lot. There was no one else about. Just me. It was a cold, starry night – and here I was, a sleepless mortal caught at the bottom of it.
I trudged back up the hill.
Mari groaned when I entered the bedroom.
“I walked down to the 24-hour supermarket,” I whispered. “One of my old teachers from high school was there. She seemed so disappointed with life.”
“I think you’re turning into a crazy person, Dave. That’s what’s happening to us.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I really don’t know.”
“I do know! Crazy men are the ones who get out of bed and walk down to the 24-hour supermarket at this time of night. Crazy men and their old high school teachers. That’s who. Now take your clothes off and get into bed.”
“You too. I think I might be able to fall asleep if we’re both naked.”
“Whatever it takes!”
I took my clothes off and got into bed beside Mari. She was awake and asleep at the same time. Soon I, too, fell asleep, and I dreamed. I dreamed I was lying in bed beside Mari, beside her warm, healthy body. We were both warm and healthy and naked, and we were dreaming, and we would dream until the morning.