This weekend, we have a portrait of an insomniac from Christopher Ross. This is an excerpt from Ross’s novel-in-progress. What happens when sleeping together becomes an issue of sleeping and together? —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
It feels like an invasion of sour blood. Jack hugs his pillow, helpless as the restlessness spills down his spine. He gets out of bed before his legs can fill up with it. As long as he keeps moving they won’t fill up with it. A sick joke, he thinks, this nausea that feeds on stillness.
He bends over beside the bed to stretch, palms flat on the floor, so the burning can drive away other discomforts. He counts to 60, moves on to other stretches: thighs, lower back, groin, the hamstrings again. He’s probably the most limber fat guy in New York.
Charlotte hasn’t stirred. Jack watches her breathe and wonders what he’ll tell his friends and family when she breaks up with him tomorrow. Loneliness, poverty, homelessness—these don’t seem to bother him as much as having to announce that he doesn’t have what it takes to keep his marriage going. That’s what this “talk” she wants to have will be about, the demise of their marriage. Will Charlotte move out or politely show him the door? Jack can find plenty to feel resentful about either way. Bending over again, he farts and looks across the bed to see if she’s noticed. She faces away from him still, her nose whistling like a distant puppy in distress. This, too, will keep him awake.
He’s sticky with sweat now. In the winter, hot water flows through a painted lead pipe in the corner of their bedroom and there’s no way to control the temperature. If they cracked the windows the street below would contrive some other nonsense to keep them awake. Charlotte’s adjusted to the heat, naturally. Jack hoped she’d start sleeping naked, but she never did. He doesn’t suppose he can blame her—sharing a bed with so much insomnia, a despair that almost nightly ripens into arousal.
Jack gets back in bed belly down and clenches his leg muscles until he’s out of breath. He rocks his legs back and forth, in and out, willing his veins to shed their hateful sparkle. When they first got together this sort of thing would keep Charlotte up, but eventually they found solutions: a memory foam mattress that allows her to forget about Jack’s movements; separate comforters so his comings and goings won’t disturb her; a dim nightlight, so he doesn’t stub his toes and shout on the way to the bathroom. Sometimes he wakes her on purpose, thrashes a pillow as he rolls out of bed for the sixth time, curses, groans, so she’ll know he’s there, still awake, still a resentful witness to her easy slumbers.
“What does it feel like,” she once asked him, “your legs?”
He never knows how to answer that question. A million bugs crawling through his veins? Menthos and Diet Coke instead of bone marrow? “It feels like being my own damaged bodysuit,” he once told her, “like a claustrophobic bodysuit. But I can only ever wriggle out of the top half.” On a good night.
Swiveling his legs isn’t enough now. Jack folds his arms under his pillow and starts to shake his head back and forth, a few pops and snaps in his neck settling into an occasional crackle. He’s rubbed a permanent bald spot under his chin from this. He used to stop after counting to a hundred, as if this number marked the upper range of what was decent, but now he just keeps going, keeps counting, soon oblivious to the number of times he’s flipped the two-digit odometer in his head, until the headaches take over from the restlessness. Things creak rhythmically inside his skull, as if he’s sloshing loose pieces around, and he worries, in a vague way that has nothing to do with any intention of stopping, that he will one day turn his brain to applesauce. Or worse: What if he triggers some awful condition—an embolism, maybe, or a stroke—and has to explain at the hospital that he’s a chronic head-swiveler.
When he was fourteen he stayed over at a friend’s house after a concert, and his friend, hearing Jack swiveling, sat up in the darkness and shouted “cut it out!” Jack told him it was the only way he could get to asleep, but his friend was indignant and threatened to hit him with a baseball bat if he didn’t stop. So Jack lay curled up in a fetal ball, imagining himself as a frayed string of blue Christmas lights plugged into a bad socket, sizzling, blinking on randomly. Only later did he realize his friend thought he was jerking off. He resolved to break the swiveling habit before he got to college, but it had become a crutch, an addiction. The first month of freshman year the wipe board on his dorm room’s door was covered with references to chronic masturbation, which his roommate had taken the liberty of describing to most of the people on their quad. Someone called him “Champ” and it stuck, even when people didn’t know the joke, even after he’d begun staying the night across campus with his first girlfriend and it became clear what was really going on.
Marianne, a sophomore psychology major, convinced Jack his insomnia was an expression of latent guilt, his legs’ constant movement a manifestation of his unconscious desire to run away from that guilt. Though Jack knew they’d find nothing exceptional in his past, he submitted to her endless questions, lay back and broke himself open for her, her voice, her eyes; he leaned forward like a sunflower into her light and heat. Until he felt dirty and exposed and raw and, without feeling particularly guilty about it, called her over spring break and broke up with her.
Jack could feel guilty now, he supposes. He tries to feel guilty about reading Charlotte’s diary, but what emerges is a craving for more information, more time to read more diaries. He knows he’d read them, if he could, everything she’s written since they moved to New York, maybe since Austin. So what if he didn’t find anything incriminating—at least they’d finally be on an even playing field. Charlotte would maybe begin to see how agonizing it is to bring your entire self to the table and be met with secrecy and equivocation. As he rolls onto his right side and rocks his entire body, one palm flat on the mattress, the other cupped under his ear as if he’s applying pressure to a wound, Jack wonders if there’s anything in those diaries that would shed light on this “conversation” they’re supposed to have tomorrow night. Probably, but it doesn’t matter now. As things start wanting to leak out of his stomach, he turns over and rocks on his left side.
There are other people like him, older people, mostly, who get up and walk around all night, or ride stationary bikes until the anger in their legs subsides. People whose spouses have escaped to the guest room. It’s heartbreaking, all these people sleeping, or not sleeping, by themselves. But when he looks at Charlotte, heavy and rigid and buried, who at night ascends toward consciousness just long enough to wish she were beyond the reach of his thrashing, he suspects this will be their future: Whether or not they divorce, he and this immovable lump will someday sleep apart.
Jack gets up too fast and almost blacks out. The medication screws with his blood pressure. Taking it is a formality, anyway, handicapped as it is by gin and dehydration. It makes him dizzy, yet he takes it. It’s expensive, yet he takes it. He’s developed a tolerance, and so he takes more. And when he makes the nightly trip to pee out the sixteen ounces of water required to wash the pills down, he feels so sick to his stomach standing over the toilet that he almost falls into the wall. Charlotte sleeps through all of this.
Jack refills his water glass, takes some valerian, and walks around the apartment, clench, release, step, stretch. Charlotte’s nose is still whistling in the bedroom. Maybe she’s dreaming of a curtain call, maybe of some sexy European violinist who puts mousse in his hair. Or maybe it’s pink and yellow Care Bears that populate the dreams of the innocent.
At three-thirty Jack lies down again, a Steely Dan song stuck in his head.
Being awake half the night gives his mind extra hours to cultivate the illusion of self-knowledge. He mistakes hallucinations for transcendence until whatever cartoony insomniac chemicals his cerebral cortex has been defending itself against finally break down the barricades and take over all the radio and TV stations in his head, which they use to broadcast meaningless insults and earworms. So Jack’s brain begins to delegate some of its duties to Jack’s heart, the self-important irregularities of which he tries to avoid noticing by launching into more rocking and swiveling, until his body is no more than a bag of acid. This nightly exercise burns enough calories to create a raging hunger for junk food in the morning but never enough, it seems, to stimulate weight loss.
Jack presses his forehead to the headboard of their bed until he can feel the nails in the joints begin to give.
“What?!” Charlotte says, lifting her head off her pillow. She’s still facing the other way.
“Nothing,” Jack says, “go back to sleep.”
“Still awake?” she says.
Jack murmurs something into his pillow, waiting for her to fall asleep again, but she props herself up on her elbows.
“What?” She’s still facing the other way.
“I said, I can’t live like this anymore.”
Charlotte lies down again. “I know, Honey. I’m sorry,” she says, already drifting off.
Jack fantasizes about penetrating her in her sleep. He fantasizes about working a damp tissue up her nose to capture whatever crumbs are making that fucking whistling noise.
He stares at the alarm clock. There’s nothing left to take. He could try swallowing a month’s worth of the pills, but since they’re designed primarily to treat Parkinson’s disease, this would lead probably to the worst sort of unintended consequences: a permanent paralysis of the rectum, say, or the inability to sneeze. No one really has any idea what would happen if Jack overdosed, because, as far as he can gather from online research, no one’s ever managed to. Which kind of makes sense: If you can’t drink a glass of water unassisted, you can’t work the top off a medicine bottle.
There’s the ten-inch chef’s knife in the kitchen Jack’s mind often reaches for on such nights, but he’s too squeamish to cut himself open. He’d faint before he could finish, and though he knows it’s always been his blood’s secret goal to escape from his body and get far, far away, he’s sure it’d find some way to stick around and mock him for not manning up and following through.
Mental inventories turn up nothing in the apartment Jack could use to cut his legs off. If he stormed into the ER demanding amputation, they’d let him do his pacing and twitching in the psych ward. It’s all in his head, after all, all in his head.
No, he’d have to jump. Not here, though, not from six stories, it should be someplace where the wind shears will offer some resistance to his legs’ absurd bicycling postures, will carry his breath away cleanly. But what to smack down into? Water, maybe. He could fill his pocket with rocks, he supposes dully, his legs slowly falling quiet. He can feel the pills pushing back now, feeding one by one the millions of gasping cells that wait down there like hungry baby birds.
As Jack falls off to sleep, a rubble-gray light rises in the windows.
When Charlotte gets up at seven to take a shower, he spreads out across the whole bed. The sheets feel cool and silky against his bare legs. An hour later, as he’s still luxuriating in his body’s stillness, his head hot and empty, Charlotte comes in and sits next to him. Jack rolls over and hopes she’ll go away. He doesn’t want to be nuzzled or apologized to or otherwise molested. After a few moments, she gets up and leaves.
At ten-thirty the phone rings. The machine records a hang-up, and the phone rings again. This happens three times before Jack throws back the covers and hobbles into the living room cursing, his hips and calves aching.
“Hi,” Charlotte says hesitantly.
“Hi,” Jack answers. The sky outside a layerless gray. Jack feels a sudden surge of hope. Maybe Charlotte has reconsidered. Maybe they don’t need to have this talk after all. Jack can hear talking in the background, and the tuning of instruments.
“I noticed you put a lunch date on the calendar,” Charlotte says.
“Oh,” Jack says, trying to hide his disappointment. He walks over to the calendar on the fridge.
“So I guess this is your wake-up call.”
“Oh. Okay. Thanks.”
“Okay, then. See you later.”
Jack hangs up the phone and yawns and stretches. There’s another sticky feathery spot on the window, he notices, from where another bird has flown into it. He watches the pigeons on the roof of the building across the street and wonders if the bird died, or if it managed to fly away. He returns to the kitchen, adds “window dot” to the grocery list, and wanders into the bathroom. Everything hurts.
—photo Flickr/Nathan O’Nion