Your husband is asleep, as he has been every night of your long marriage, you awake, a peri-menopausal insomniac, roaming the house for answers that aren’t forthcoming: how to sleep, where to sleep, why you don’t sleep, when you will sleep.
Unanswered, these questions lead to bigger contemplations of life, death, the after-life, the non-afterlife. These prove as mysterious as the questions about sleep.
On the small tattered couch in your home office, you mull, and turn to your phone, so often an encouraging distraction. You click on the camera icon and press for selfie mode, appalled by your two am face, drawn, haggard, and lined. But also, the lighting is bad, you a yellowing, older woman on a green couch. Never a good look.
In the bookshelf, a hat you bought in Provence during the trip with your eighty-year-old mother three years before. It’s too big—later your French guide Mathieu informed you it was a man’s hat—but you have a big German head, so it fits perfectly. Now you put it on, arrange yourself, and then you find your microphone, one you use for making educational videos for your students.
First you put on a scarf—the better for hiding your neck. You take the mic out of the stand, posing like a random beach journalist out to interview summer visitors to France. You put on your reading glasses. You arrange the hat and smile. Press. Press again. You smile, you grimace, you mock scream. You stretch your lips like Gumby. You stand, you sit.
Press, press, press.
None of the photos are good. In each, you have three chins and wrinkles from lips to ear, both sides, your face an accordion of aging. Your hair is slightly graying, flat, smashed by sleep, your eyes dark wells of fatigue. None of the photos is remotely post-able. Nothing to share with those just like you, all awake. Some of you scared. Maybe lonely. All of you pressing into nothing.
At first, it was a one off: Mary quietly sneaked into her baby’s room and took photos of him in his crib. What an angel, Little D (her husband wanted to name him for his dead uncle, who sadly happened to be named Damian, a name only suited for devil’s spawn since the 70s. So, thus, Little D. Or just D). Hair like flax, cheeks rosy and plump. All she wanted to do was capture the magic of his nocturnal slumber and post for her mother, who had managed to create a Facebook account and who lived in British Columbia and no longer flew.
Her husband Ted out of town on business, she clicked on the computer in the bedroom and started posting. Don’t mean to show off, Mary wrote. But isn’t he amazing!
OMG the replies began. What a cutie!
You are so blessed (this from a Christian non-friend friend).
And various emojis: smiley face, heart, smiley face with heart eyes, a little baby with a big head, and so on. She clicked out of Facebook and back on to find several more likes.
“What have you been doing?” Ted asked the next day when he called to check in from Cincinnati. Somehow, Mary was surprised to realize the city was an hour from Kentucky. She’d never been to Ohio or much of the South. She was pretty sure Florida didn’t count as part of the former Confederacy.
“Not much.” She didn’t tell him about the photos. Or the kerfuffle in the preschool parking lot when she dropped off their older child, Daisy, three. Too bad she didn’t get a photo of the woman whose parking place she took, sliding in as the driver chatted with another parent. Mary was sure she’d never seen a face so red.
“My sister said you posted photos of Damian.”
Ted chuckled, a sound Mary hadn’t heard much lately. His job, the children, maybe even her. All of it, the weight oppressive, maybe like the feeling she carried in her breasts, all that milk, a constant pressure, a heaviness.
“He’s apparently the cutest baby in the world,” he said. “She said maybe even more than Sam.”
Sam was the god king of cousins. “High praise indeed.”
“I’ll be home Sunday,” Ted said as they hung up.
She didn’t have much time.
That night after both children were asleep, she took some photos, posting them, again to rave reviews. Daisy was especially charming because Mary had put her to bed in her rose colored pajamas, the ones with the lace collar. Her daughter’s hair was thick, long, and curly, her skin smooth, her eyelashes long.
A huge hit.
But after a few clicks out, clicks in, the likes stopped. Daisy was out. Mary clicked out and in one last time. Not a single new red like alert.
The hat gets boring. The mic is funny for about a week. You pose yourself in front of a cactus, the bookshelf (interviewing Hemingway and Marquez—How do you two macho fellows feel about sharing space?). You wander the rest of the house looking for plants and objects to talk to and photograph. Too bad the dog sleeps with your husband, or you could interview Remy, a Pyrenean shepherd—How do you feel about being taken from your country of origin and raised in the United States? What about those new immigration laws? Do you feel a sense of otherness? Or has the culture at large embraced you?
You drink milk. You drink wine. You open the patio door and drink in the early morning air, watch the stars flicker through the clouds. You pull the neck of your nightgown up to your chin, shivering a little, the flannel soft under your fingertips.
Finally, your feet cold, you walk back into the office, passing the open bathroom’s mirror as you do. You turn, staring, noting how your image in a flannel nightgown at 48 is the same as it was when you were 12. The lighting muted, you could be walking down the hall of your parents’ home, headed to the toilet, mostly asleep.
With one yank, you take off the nightgown, staring at your reflection, the similarity between your barely pubescent body and this one has disappeared. You have breasts, though they’ve sagged, hips, though they have started the long climb down your hip and thigh bones. Surprisingly, your waist is still a waist, and there is a true slice of light between your legs. Finally. Something that time has improved.
You pick up your phone and walk into the lit office. You put a hand on your hip, breasts in the shot. You make a winking expression and press. Press again.
When Ted returned home from his business trip and before he launched into the next one, she started taking his photo, easy because he went to bed at ten, rain or shine. Once long-haired, fresh-cheeked, he was now professionally styled, fans of perfect gray at his temples. The good news was that he has always slept like the long dead, smooth, deep, long breaths, in and out, as if his lungs were on a train schedule. As if he never dreamed at all, his heartbeat steady at 57 beats a minute, a pulse she could see in his neck, on his wrist. Up at night, she’d used the light on her phone to count the beats. Once, twice, three times, always the same smooth beat.
Plus Ted had grown from boyish to handsome, from smooth to serious. Where Mary had grown ripe and lush due to two pregnancies, her husband had hardened. Mary rounder, fuller, Ted had only gained five pounds since his college days, and that weight was likely in muscle.
Sometimes his beauty made Mary want to weep. Her husband was becoming more than he had been, more in his skin and body, his job, his life; she was melting like a sad candle, everything dripping off her, all the good bits: skin, sense of humor, hope, talent.
So his photo. Asleep, peaceful, not drooling. Long eyelashes like Little D. Like Daisy. His solid profile. Press. Press. Press.
The better news was that Ted wasn’t on Facebook, so she could post whatever shots she wanted. Not just his face and hair, but a little well-tended shoulder. A strong hand, wedding ring dim in the darkness.
Like Ted’s sister, some of their friends were on Facebook, but Mary managed to hide the photos from them all, clicking their names carefully to exclude them from viewing. Once they were disappeared, she could write:
My guy! Still has it.
And Sweet dreams!
So many likes, even at 2 am.
But even Ted’s charm wore off, so she took to Daisy and even the cat (Marcel a favorite with his dark, irritated eyes). Marcel was feted with likes, but even his cute feline fuzziness faded, the hive mind wanting something else, more, other. Better.
Pacing, Mary looked around her house, searching for the thing that would be the next thing. House plants? She had a hard time remembering to water them, the dracaena wilted, the succulents puckered. Books? Ceramic bowls? Nothing seemed interesting. Not their furniture or artwork.
One night after taking a shot of every human subject in the house—including herself—she found herself holding the front doorknob, looking up into the yellow porch light.
Maybe out there, she thought, there is something worth seeing.
Facebook blocks your account. You don’t know how it happens or how to fix it, other than to “report a problem.” No handy customer service person gets back to you, so you check out Instagram. But somehow, they are unhappy with you as well, a connection between the two companies you didn’t understand. There’s always Snapchat, the place where photos appear and then disappear, like magic. But that’s not the point, is it? And Twitter makes your head spin, enough that you never go on.
Why, Facebook? Why?
Bottom line, it must have been the breast shot, the one you posted the night before.
Perhaps ill-advised. Now there is nowhere to present your case, not that you know what your case is. What the hell are you doing anyway?
You have no idea.
But you are awake, the house creaking as you move through it. Moonlight floods the expanse of windows in the living room, the light on your arms, the individual hairs on your forearms glowing.
You’ve taken off your nightgown—rather, you never put it on in the first place—so you are barefooted and bare everything as you wander.
What to do? What to do?
And then you know.
Truthfully, you don’t really know. You’ve never done anything like this before in your life, lucky, finding people in the time honored way of seeing them across a crowded room or bumping into them at the supermarket. Though you participated in dating disaster conversations with your friends, you never had a story of your own. You had friends who dated various creeps, male and female—the guy who pulled out his own hair and ate it; the woman who plopped down a bottle of vodka on the rug and said, “Drink’; the man who disappeared into a hardware store for a quick purchase and never returned, escaping through the back door.
Back in your day, in your time, in your season, you were friendly and attractive, open to spontaneous travels and late-night movies. You stayed married to the same man, though that decision has been questionable at times. Yet here you are, wandering, naked, trying to find an audience for the terror that judders in your bones, desperate to end the night that seems to go on forever.
What you are thinking now might do the trick.
You’ve seen the phone app on shows and in films, characters desperate for dates. Swipe, swipe, swipe. Pick. It’s that easy, not that you are going to really meet anyone. You just want a profile. You just want to show something, you, the thing you are, all in one photograph.
You imagine the people who would see you, stopping, their index fingers hovering over the screen, looking into your digital eye, imagining their own futures, their hopes and dreams and fantasies.
So you go back to your office, finding the perfect background (a map of Paris, the colored arrondissements a halo around you) and press. You angle your shoulder for more boney impact—clavicle caves, throat curves—and press. You raise your phone, look up, and then again, this time cleavage, a bit too much breast.
It wasn’t as difficult as Mary first imagined. Despite the waves of crime that swept up into the hills of their neighborhood, a lot of people left their doors unlocked at night. Clearly, her neighbors were not as paranoid as she, a constant worry about her children like a nursery rhyme: Lock your doors, slam your windows closed. If you don’t, your family’s hosed.
She started with her next door neighbor to the left, Linda, a woman who vacuumed her decks and complained about Mary’s cat’s shitting proclivities, placement of garbage bins, the fence, any noise emanating from the house.
The first thing she said to Mary when she and Ted moved in was, “Can we use your recycle bin if you don’t fill it” and then, “Make sure you know the property lines.”
Mary was clearly over the property line right now, in Linda’s house, on the cool tiles of the foyer. She’d never been invited in, not after she said, “I think we’ll use our bins. Why don’t you order up another one?”
Her heart beating in her throat, her gaze on the ceiling, searching for cameras and burglar alarm sensors, Mary crept forward, a hand on her phone, ready for her shot.
She passed the kitchen and headed down a hallway. Linda lived alone, at least on this floor. In the two bottom floors, she had a rotating cast of tenants, two illegal units, kitchens carved out of rooms. Mary only knew this from the whirring fans and the omnipresent morning smell of bacon wafting from vents.
“Could you keep your cat from howling,” Linda said in her voice mail message. “My tenant is training for the Olympics.”
What Olympics? Mary wanted to ask. What sport? What event? When?
A couple of Olympics came and went, but Linda left the same message twice more. Clearly, the tenant had not been successful either getting to the Games—or had, a multiple team member, but with no rewards. After all, he or she was still living on a bottom floor of a house, cooking up bacon on an illegal stove.
Her heart beating in her throat, her ears, Mary moved closer to a slightly open door at the end of the hallway, a greenish nightlight emanating. She stopped, listened, waited. For a second, she almost lost her mind, dropped her phone, and screamed, her head tilted back, mouth wide. Something soft and warm wrapped around her ankles, and she felt her long-ago dinner rise up.
But then, reason. A cat. Linda’s cat, the black and white one that watched her from a deck railing with yellow eyes.
The cat curled around her, purred, and then moved off down the hallway.
Mary kept walking and then put a hand on the door, pushing gently. Linda didn’t skimp on door hinges or doors, everything smooth and greased and easy, a slight whisk as Mary moved into the bedroom.
Linda was on her back, eyes closed, mouth open, a slight guttural snag as she breathed in and out. Mary clicked her phone, hit the camera, and turned it to video. She pressed the red button and leaned down, getting Linda in profile, waiting, waiting, waiting for it and then, yes, the big snore, caught on camera.
Then as if Linda knew she were being filmed for posterity, she made bigger noises, loud and long, snaggled and snarled. Mary kept steady, taking it all in, forgetting, almost, that she was an intruder, a woman who had entered uninvited. Linda thrashed a little, her arms moving, her breathing slowing, quickening, her eyelids fluttering against the dark.
Don’t wake up, Mary thought, swallowing and backing away, pressing off the phone, heading down the hall, and then onto the foyer tile, and then outside onto the front step, air and wind around her as she closed the door behind her with a tiny click.
The Twindle application directions state the experience of using the app is like dating in real life but better. And it’s free. Most importantly, you get six photo spots.
Smile. Have fun. Also, be happy.
Add an animal to one photo, the site says, to avoid the left swipe from prospective dates. You’ll look kinder. More human. As for the guys you see, swipe left to show you aren’t interested. Swipe right to say, hell yes! If someone you’ve swiped right on swipes right on you, bingo! You’ve got a Twindle match.
Left again. Left is always wrong, and for a moment, you want to click away from the app
and the whole idea. But you don’t. Instead, you read that tigers in selfies are seen as coldhearted. As if you, the prospective date, have gone rogue hunter colonialist capitalist.
Wikipedia states Twindle is a location-based social search mobile app that facilitates communication between mutually interested users, allowing matched users to chat.
And, chat your ass, right?
Twitter followers state that Twindle is an app to hook up. One follower states it is an app to smash up and get down.
In the wee hours before dawn, as owls hoot outside the open window, you create your profile (500 words of lies) and load your six photos. Two from Paris as halo photo shoots, two with Remy that you took the day before while on your daily walk, and two more: lots of neck, more shoulder, a glance of awesome cleavage literally leveraged by a bra you saw for sale on Facebook: pushes up and smooths. Your hair, up; your lips, glossed.
No one takes down your photos. No one blocks you.
The next early mornings that you awaken, you go up to the office and begin swiping. In your age range, men typically want much younger women, girls really, in their late twenties, fertile and juicy, despite the fact the old coots have incipient wattles and receding hairlines. They are like your husband, cold stone asleep in the bedroom every single night, night after night after night. Not once has he awakened during your nightly ritual. In the mornings over coffee, he actually asks, “How did you sleep?” and means it, no irony or sarcasm, just a broad smile.
He’s a 1950s TV set. He’s Mad Men before the alcohol and infidelity. He’s small twittering birds and sunshine. He’s Cinderella with a penis, the appendage nicely tucked away and unobtrusive.
None of the men on Twindle mention their age-related bodily faux pas, but not even good photos can hide a high forehead dotted with age spots and ears that have continued to grow long after everything else has stopped.
Swipe left, left, left.
And then, finally, right. Good-looking, bright dark eyes. And then another, fair and handsome, hair, though thinning. Another right. You get caught up in the possibilities, the way that these men will understand you in a way your husband does not. These men will see you as you have begun to see yourself during the late nights awake and alone. These men notice your face, your eyes, your body. These men have said yes to you.
Your first date builds slowly. Actually, date isn’t even the right word to use for these modern times. What has happened is that you’ve matched and contacted each other. There has been back and forth of introductions and banalities. Neither of you mention marriages or relationship status, though you suspect he is married due to casual blank spots in his profile. A mention of children but not of former or current partners.
Later, you both suggest potential meeting spots, though you aren’t sure how you can meet anyone anywhere. Your free time is between 10 pm and 5 am, and so far, you’ve seen no vampires on the app.
Can you meet for late drinks? you write.
Sure, he writes. This one is named Jeff. What about that Squid Lounge place downtown?
Great, you write. Perfect.
Linda became a fan favorite, 95 likes the first night, and then she went a bit viral with 17 shares. One of Mary’s friends made a .gif file, a repeating couple seconds of Linda’s biggest, loudest sucking inhale.
She should be in a band! one friend wrote.
The anti-snoring aids should use her as a before scenario!
This is kind of mean, someone else—a friend of a friend—somehow managed to post before Mary figured out how to only let friends comment.
How would you feel is this were you? A friend slipped in, a reply to someone else’s comment. Mary unfriended her.
But other than those two comments, Linda was the snoring sensation, a popular topic for about three days and then social media moved on and on, dogs, riots, and presidents taking over the news feeds again.
Mary went to Linda’s house one more time, but Linda was on her side, a hand under her cheek, sleeping soundly. Waiting for a few minutes, even clearing her throat a little in hopes Linda would startle and flip on her back like a fish, Mary stood by the bed, ready to press the read record button. But nothing. Not even drool.
Letting herself out of Linda’s house, she walked onto the street and then up, toward the moon that hung low, the horizontal perspective allowing Mary to see the surface, the pock marks and dark patches of Earth’s only permanent natural satellite. There, in front of her, the remnants of the moon’s birth struggle as it slapped away from earth to be on its own, bruises and bumps from the collisions of the body it left behind.
So beautiful, even with the wresting.
She thought of D, asleep in his crib, an anti-moon, struggle-less, at least for now.
Mary stopped, listened, waited for something. But there was nothing but the faraway freeway hum and the murmur of electricity in the various power lines. A breeze flitted around her ankles—she was in her nightgown, a dark blue one, making her invisible. All the houses on her block were dark, the only porch lights flickering yellow. But two houses up from Linda, nothing was on. Set back from the street, the house was small and squat, empty yet somehow inviting, luring her in.
As she made her way down the dark driveway, Mary thought about this house and its occupants, unsure who lived there. She rarely drove past her house this way, only in garbage truck road blockage or tree trimmer road block signs. Was it the old man with the ancient Datsun wagon? The guy who seemed to be a surveyor, shovels, twine, stakes, and pruners in the back of his car as it ached up the hill?
Or was it the odd married couple, the man who had to be taken away in an ambulance because of a stroke, his wife stunned and mute as she gathered her things and drove off toward the hospital? Had he survived the stroke? No one had let Mary and Ted know, nothing on the neighborhood email chain.
Standing on the dark front porch, Mary turned to glance at the moon again. It was rising, the details disappearing, its face growing smaller. The night pressed close, Mary shivering, hugging herself, her cell phone pressed against her ribs.
She staggered a bit, reaching out to a bench, sitting down with a thump, her back against cold damp slats. Something smacked on the pavers, a metallic crack, a flash and then back to darkness. Blinking, she looked upward, seeing stars, the actual ones in the sky, stars she could see now that the moon was moving up and away from the horizon.
Last week, she’d read about a strange storm on Neptune, a planet no one can see from Earth and the only planet discovered by mathematical prediction. She hadn’t know any of this until reading the article about the storm on Neptune, one raging at this very moment. A tempest with record setting winds of one thousand miles an hour. But even that force was not enough to upset the cool sphere as it orbited the sun. Roiling but steady, seething but round. Neptune was like the earth’s ocean, violent but whole.
Wouldn’t the storm eventually stop? Or was that how planets died? Ripped up from the middle, finally imploding after years of disruption?
“Dear?” a voice said. “Are you okay?”
“I’m Neptune,” she said to no one, and then to the woman whose husband had the stroke, the one who followed behind, quietly gripping her sadness to her body.
“The planet?” the woman said. “That’s interesting. I’ve always felt like Mercury myself.”
Really? The innermost planet. Hot and fiery. The first letter in the acronym; the first M in my very educated mother just served up nine pizzas. Shivering on the bench, Mary wondered if maybe she wasn’t Neptune but, instead, the bright dead moon.
“How about some tea?” The woman held out her hands, taking Mary’s, pulling her to standing. “Come on in. Let’s get you out of this orbit.”
Jeff is not put off by the 10:30 meeting time, precise to keep with your husband’s sleep schedule.
Better yet, Jeff is attractive, his hand firm as you greet, his smile wide.
The Squid Lounge serves drinks, so you both order one—you a glass of white wine, he a beer, something local and on tap, amber and bubbling.
“Cheers,” Jeff says, raising his glass. As he does, you note his wedding ring. Of course, you know he’s married, secrets divulged by text and phone call. You’ve worn your wedding ring, too, not that you even know how to take it off, the metal likely embedded in your skin.
Once you read a story about an extremely, morbidly obese man who decided one day he couldn’t get up off his chair. So he sat, pissing and shitting, his enabling girlfriend bringing him take out pizzas, boxes of donuts, bags of hamburgers. Day after day, and then year after year of eating, defecating, sleeping, eating and then on and on and on.
Finally, his skin melded to the sodden, filthy fabric of the chair, and after they carted him and the chair to the hospital—first having to cut away the living room wall—he died during the careful separation, man and chair one until the very end.
Neither survived the operation.
“So,” you say.
“My thought exactly.”
“You look good in person,” you say. It’s true, Jeff something sunny, his skin, hair, eyes all warms shades of yellow to sand. His face kind, his hands and fingers sturdy but fine. He smells like soap, a fragrance she catches as he sits and unzips his jacket.
“You look good in person,” he says. “But you looked really good in your selfies, too.”
He sips his beer and adds, “The best of both worlds.”
Later, you wonder what world you are in. You’ve left a silent, sleepless world, to one where you actually nodded off, sleeping until four-thirty, the time you would usually go back to bed. This is a world of comfort and sleep and sex, a place you’ve almost forgotten.
You can’t blame a lack of hormones for the great divide, the chasm between worlds. With or without them, you arrived in the other world and grabbed what you could.
Much later, when you leave the motel, Jeff’s arms, the bed, and in minutes, after you get in your car and start the engine, you feel the change, know you aren’t in one world or the other, not literal or cyber. You aren’t on one side or the other.
Taking in breath, you rise. You are a bridge, unmoored, hanging over a river deep down, far below, floating well above water and land, each loose wood plank and each knotted rope acts of faith.
A wind comes, pushes you wide and up, and then you sink down. And then up again.
You dare to believe, even as you know there is no answer to any of this. Something inside you tries to send a message to your brain. This feeling throbs, points you in the right direction. But which or what, you don’t know.
Jessica Barksdale’s fourteenth novel, The Burning Hour, was published by Urban Farmhouse Press in April 2016. Her novels include Her Daughter’s Eyes, The Matter of Grace, and When You Believe. A Pushcart Prize, Million Writers Award, and Best-of-the-Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in the Waccamaw Journal, Salt Hill Journal, Little Patuxent Review, Carve Magazine, Palaver, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches novel writing online for UCLA Extension. She holds an MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University and an MFA from the Rainier Writers Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.
Five Questions with Jessica Barksdale:
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
JB: Sometimes I think about all the people who are up instead of asleep, and I wonder what they are doing in the dead of night. My friends and I have complained about sleeplessness, and I decided to create two women who are awake for different reasons. Now, with technology, people are connected to others even when the world is supposedly asleep. So I put my characters through the sleepless wringer. I also was playing with POV, which is a challenge. I try some really failed things with POV, but the second person you gave an “every woman” quality to my one character, and then the third made Mary more specific.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
JB: Every book I read (or listen to) influences me. I am mourning today Ursula K. Le Guin, who I was lucky to meet. She signed her children’s book Cat Wings for my sons–and my older son, who is also a writer, and I were talking about her imagination and how we aspire to a tiny part of it.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
JB: I love to write in front of my computer. I have two screens. My husband is a data scientist, and he hooked me up to this tech madness. But I love it. I do love to write with my son and with my good friend Darien Gee. We can sit together and get it done.
TD: Favorite word?
JB: Buoyant. Damn fine word.
TD: Do you have a favorite reading ritual
JB: I read everywhere. Whenever possible. No ritual needed.