I walk through the front door of my apartment building and into my new neighbors.
Sorry, I mumble, quickly darting around the young woman I had bumped into. She has pretty blond hair.
Oh, excuse me, the woman says to my retreating back. Greg, sweetie, I think that's the last of it, she continues, talking to the men on the stairs.
A quick glance on my way to the elevator shows two men lugging an awkward looking, though probably fashionable, table upstairs.
Good, one of the men grunts.
I guess that's Greg. The elevator doors close, shutting off the woman's next words and shooting me up to the sixth floor.
I don't think much of the run-in until I'm on my balcony, breathing in the dank air of urban nightlife in the summer. I had invited Hank over for dinner, mostly because I didn't want to cook and I knew he would offer. Knowing him, there are going to be candles on the table and everything.
I'm collapsed on the railing, head on my arms, when my drooping eyes catch sight of movement on the terrace directly below my own. The blond lady from before comes out, trailing words behind her.
…just a moment to myself Greg, she says, just put the TV on and Maddy can watch that for a minute.
The jingle of some cartoon or another gets sealed inside her apartment. The lady sighs and fumbles with something in her pocket. I watch her dig out a cigarette and light it, smoke puffing up with a more contented sigh. She settles against the guardrail, looking out at her new backyard. It's not your sprawling green lawn with a white picket fence, but at least the garbage truck came this morning so the cans aren't overflowing onto the concrete.
I drift off in companionable silence. By the time Hank rouses me, Smoker has gone back inside to her family.
* * * * *
I was diagnosed when I was fourteen.
Lora Hughes has narcolepsy, the sleep tests told the doctors.
Your daughter has narcolepsy, the doctor said to my mom.
It's a sleep disorder, the doctor said. Narcoleptics have trouble staying awake for long periods of time. They'll have sudden "sleep attacks" that can happen anytime, anywhere, and last from a few minutes to half an hour. She may also experience cataplexy, which is loss of muscle tone that causes overall weakness. This is usually brought on by intense emotions—anger, fear, or excitement. Hallucinations are also a possibility.
How did this happen? Mom asked. We're completely normal, she said. There's no history of disease or whatever in the family. We're perfectly fine. Oh God, she said, is it because of a tumor? Does she have cancer?
It's not a disease and certainly not a cancer, the doctor said.
He stared at me.
We think it might be a lack of chemicals—possibly hypocretin—in the brain, but. We don't know, he said.
I knew. It started with a small house with no hiding places, no gaps big enough to fit both mom's drinking and dad's anger. It started with "lower your voice" and "she can't hear us." It started as an escape into Dreamland.
Mom asked how much it would cost to make my narcolepsy go away. The doctor's signature on a prescription got me a couple containers' worth of pills that were blue and intimidating.
Mom got an email a week later from Dad that said his daughter wasn't going to be a goddamn pill addict. Jesus Christ, Diane, what the fuck are you doing to Lora, his email said.
The doctor said that Lora should talk about it, Mom typed back. Why don't you talk to your own fucking daughter? her email said.
Dad didn't have time to talk. He sent me to Ms. Linde, a psychiatrist who had a soft voice and an even softer chair that I curled up in on Tuesdays from four to five. I wasn't interested in what she asked: How are you feeling? Are you angry at your parents? How are your friends? Are you sad? Sometimes I wondered if Ms. Linde ever shouted at people. I couldn't imagine any mean words muscling their way past her smile. I wondered if she had practiced speaking softly, just like I had practiced pretending to sleep, so now she couldn't shout.
I stopped taking my pills; they didn't help anyways. Dad never said anything. He just kept sending me to Ms. Linde.
Mealtimes, bus rides, class, shopping; no place was safe. Sometimes I would get sleepy before everything faded away, sometimes I didn't remember closing my eyes. Sometimes I did it on purpose, sometimes I didn't. My deceit became my disorder, but as long as I could sleep through my Algebra Two midterm, I didn't care. I had a doctor's note for ignoring everything.
* * * * *
It started as a game when I was about three. I didn't want to pick up my toys, or I wanted a few more minutes to myself during naptime. The footsteps were my warning to drop to the floor, to smooth my smile and close my eyes. I would fall asleep. When I woke up, my toys would be put away or I would be left alone to my daydreams of princesses and fairies. It was so much fun, fooling the adults. Sometimes I pretended to be asleep just for the thrill of tricking people. Ha! I would think to myself. Got you!
But then Mom and Dad started to fall out of love. They fell into different lives and grew restless in the one they had made together. I didn't understand, and I didn't want to. It was easier to hide in Dreamland. I would close my eyes and pretend myself away. I slept through hissed discussions and shouting matches. I got better at falling asleep faster so I didn't have to hear the opening arguments. I started dozing off at school during quizzes, on the bus when Jessie called me brace-face. After a while, I didn't even have to try.
My parents settled into different apartments. Fell into different loves.
Then they realized their child should have stopped napping nine years ago.
* * * * *
Having a routine helps me be a somewhat normal twenty-eight year old, or at least wards off attacks that would have me curled up on the sidewalk using some cement for a pillow. I made it out of community college in two years with a degree in something that doesn't help me process medical claims at Centrum Insurance. Initially my boss tried to put me on the phones, but one too many callers got upset when they received heavy breathing instead of a reason why their money wasn't in their FSA account. Luckily my boss's daughter has ADD, so she understands what it's like to live with a condition you can't necessarily control.
Now I'm back to a regular schedule, hiding in my cubicle and taking naps every couple of hours. It's become almost like clockwork, like those screens in an airport or train station that tell you the departures and arrivals. At 2:15pm, Lora is going to depart from the world of casual bitchiness on a round-trip shuttle to dreamland. She'll be back on the commuter rail at 3:00pm.
My friends used to tell me to go back to college and get a degree in something I'm really passionate about. When we go out, I make excuses to leave early, saying that I didn't get a nap in today, or I don't want to embarrass them by falling asleep in the bread bowl.
It's like when you take a drive somewhere, and you're in the passenger seat. You're going somewhere, but you're also not moving at all. You're sitting down and not doing anything, just watching the world blur together outside your window. My life gets like that, blurry and moving fast while I just sit on the couch and let my eyes fall closed.
* * * * *
When summer nights are hot like this one, I pretend it's the heat and not Hank's oppressive weight three inches away that scares me out of bed. Hank sighed when he came to bed tonight; it's our six month anniversary, and he was probably expecting some amazing sex with multiple orgasms. I was "asleep," my back turned to the undoubtedly forlorn picture he cut with brand new boxers and drooping shoulders. He should have taken earlier protest that I was too tired to go out and celebrate tonight as a hint. He knows that my condition kills my sex drive anyways. Falling asleep in the middle of sex is a major downer. Literally.
I breathed every five seconds until he had showered, changed, and fallen asleep beside my prone body. Maybe it said something that he didn't even try to wrap an arm around me. He knows I'm emotionally as well as sexually stunted. The last time I had a shouting match with my mom, I ended up slumped over on the couch, cataplexy playing hell with my muscles. Hank is understanding of my condition and probably loves me all the more for it. I like Hank because he is another thing I can hide behind, something that helps me maintain my routine and hold on to normalcy. Hank is sweet, 6'2," and brunette. He makes me pancakes when I ask. We met through one of my few acquaintances, and I almost turned him down when he asked me out. But the jacket he lent me that night was big, and it was warm. It smelled nice. Lived in. Hank told me over Americanos the next morning that I reminded him of his sister: quiet, but not afraid speak my mind. It's a very polite way of saying I'm blunt and acerbic. He laughed when I told him that.
I think I'm a project for Hank. Sometimes it feels like he's trying to infect me with his own malady of humor and sunshine, attempting to sweeten me up with kisses and the thick, chocolately no-bake cookies he makes to tempt me out of naps. Maybe I'm just trying to make myself feel better. If we're using each other, then I'm not such a dick. But God those cookies make me do crazy things, like care about his day and buy nice panties. Good dogs deserve treats every once in a while.
I have a balcony on my apartment because it's in a shitty part of Somerton that not many people want to live in. It's the kind of area with close-quarter buildings that are held together by pigeon crap, an occasional girl on the corner who will grab your crotch instead of shaking your hand, and an unspoken curfew that starts at nine but goes later if you've got a guy or mace. I could certainly afford better, but I don't get many requests to host Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners, so that's a huge plus. My balcony also gives me a view of the trains. They rumble up from the depths to bridges built specifically for them, clacking along the outskirts on a track that's almost level with my sixth floor apartment. The city built these raised roads about ten years ago in the early 2000s, trying to make room for the heavy car traffic that clogs the streets below. It's supposed to be "new age," but the trains are the same as the T's in the subways, and the rails are decorated by the same graffiti artists flaunting their bubble letter skills.
I lean on the metal guardrail and wonder how many people jump from the rusted tracks. It's definitely possible, and if the nets that hang from underneath the structure give any indication, a common enough occurrence to warrant some taxpayer money. I look over the bar to see if the city had caught anything. The nets are empty, the newspaper this morning told me another body had been found where the track turns at the corner of Mayberry and Saint Thomas. Hank had been sad, had asked me how people could do that, to themselves, to their children, to their families.
I had shrugged, flicked to the comics. Not everyone is happy, Hank, I had said.
His sister had been depressed, he told me.
He was standing in the kitchen in his Batman boxers. Jesus. Dating six months and he was already airing out the dirty laundry.
His sister, when she was thirteen, wouldn't eat. Then they found scars on her wrists. Hank had looked so sad that I felt obligated to get up and give him a hug. He pulled me into him, mumbling that he would make sure I was always happy. I had fallen asleep with his hand running through my hair. By the time I woke up, the window for my response was closed and locked. He wouldn't have liked what I had to say, anyways.
People are gonna find a way to die one way or another, I think now, imagining someone swan diving off the rails, gracefully arching through the tiny holes. Why make it harder on them?
Like smoking. That'll off you in the long run, I think, my eyes traveling from the nets to the chainsmoker who lives below me. It's been a couple of months since I first ran into Smoker. I see her mostly out here during her nightly cigarette, and other times on the train to and from work. We have that awkward relationship where you share the same commuting schedule and you both replenish the Easy Mac supply on Wednesday nights. Sometimes she brings her daughter, a toddler who responds to "Maddie." It should worry me that a four year old and I have the same dietary preferences, but I think I save face by skipping on the animal crackers.
We don't talk, usually because I duck into another aisle or sit farther down the train in order to avoid conversation. There was one time though when I fell asleep on the commute home. I had missed a nap that afternoon due to the start-of-the-year paperwork rush. I was jerked awake by something pressing against my side. It had taken me a moment to reestablish myself and to realize that I knew the woman who was apologizing for bumping me. Smoker smiled as she resettled into the seat next to mine. Like we were the neighbors who made each other casseroles and actually said "hi" to each other. I nodded slightly, eyes already drooping in self-defense. The sound of a bag being unzipped and paper uncrumpled caught my curiosity enough for me to brave a millimeter of sight and a sidelong look to see what Smoker was reading. It was a sticky-note. Smoker got one every morning. They also came with a smile.
This smile was different. It looked like it hurt.
I read from between my lashes:
My fault. Love you always.
Sticky-notes, emails. They're a good way to talk to someone without actually doing it. Other intersections of our tracks have shown me that we have nothing but the morning train ride in common. She goes out with friends in pretty cocktail dresses. She has a husband who leaves little notes in her bag that she finds on her morning commute and a kid who watches Spongebob really loudly every weekday morning. I wouldn't trust myself to take care of a goldfish, let alone something that can talk back.
From my balcony, I can see Smoker draw another cigarette. That makes one more than last night. I've never talked to her before, but I bet she doesn't smoke with the hope of dying from lung disease. Cigarettes are probably just mother's little helper, her own power naps. Reality escapes are addicting, but the added bonus of mine is that it doesn't cost me six bucks a pack. There have been some embarrassing times with coffee and an awkward time or two at the grocery store, yeah. Nothing worth giving up my release, though.
* * * * *
Dear, please. We've been over this. You're going to wake Maddy up, Smoker says. I'm walking up the stairs Thursday night and apparently into the middle of their fight.
Maddy, Maddy, Maddy, her husband says back. It's always about Maddy. I'm your husband goddamn it! When is it my turn?
I know these voices and what they mean. It means I should get off the stairs before he comes steaming out with a suitcase in one hand and his coat in the other.
Please, Greg, Smoker says, I know it's been hard juggling work and taking care of Madeline. But—
You've been saying that for the past few months, her husband says. I thought this new job of yours meant that we would have more time together. Maddy could go to preschool, we could have some days off—time for the two of us. But you know what? It doesn't matter; I found someone else. Someone who makes time for me, who wants to make time for me.
I realize I'm still on the stairs, stuck in a dreamlike state. I hurry up to my floor and make it inside just as a door's slam confirms what I already knew.
What's wrong? Hank asks as I burst into our apartment.
He's probably alarmed by my unusual display of energy. Most days I practically ooze through the door and drag myself to the couch. I forgot I had invited him over again. I really need to learn how to cook for myself.
Nothing, Hank, I tell him, throwing my coat on the rack and dropping my bag somewhere by the door.
He's quiet. I look up.
He's staring at me.
I wish you would talk to me, Hank says.
About what? I say.
About anything, everything, Hank says. How work is going, what you had for lunch today, what you think about the price of tea in China. Things that bother you. I know things bother you, Lora, Hank says. We should talk. I have things to say too.
I don't say anything. I'm not good at talking.
I go out onto my balcony and slowly run a hand through my hair. The last bit of sun leaks over the rooftops and burns my eyes.
Smoker joins me. She goes through two packs. Spongebob starts laughing even louder.
* * * * *
It's awkward the next time I see Smoker, like we have a special bond now. She struggles into the lobby just as I do, somehow juggling four grocery bags filled with what looks like Reese's Puffs, Gushers, and other assortments of goodies that only kids under twelve and college students eat. Her little girl, Maddy, has one hand on her mom's coat and the other's clutching a raggedy bunny.
The girl complains that she and Mister Bunny are tired and want a piggyback ride.
We're almost home, Smoker snaps back, then sighs.
Her hair is limp and it looks like she missed a coloring appointment. The usually glossy blond locks look like they've wilted. Maybe it's because of the extra smoke. I breathe it in, a smog cloaking her body even when there isn't a cig in sight.
Hold on a little longer, she says. Just a little more, she says.
I stay silent, quickening my steps so I'm not walking in tandem with them. I fruitlessly wish that they don't take the elevator too—I wore my stupid heels today and my feet are killing me—but the constant stream of whining assures me that I'll have company for the trip up. My iPhone is a good distraction, enough that my body doesn't feel the need to slip into a mini stress-induced coma. That would make the ride even more awkward. The kid would probably freak.
I finally get around to replying to Hank's text about seeing a movie tonight.
Im really tired. I just need a break.
My pocket vibrates barely two seconds later.
Break or break break??
The elevator dings to let us know we've reached the fourth floor, but of course little
Maddy is having none of the mechanical cajoling.
I'm not moving. I'm tired! she says.
Her butt slams down on the carpet, and it's like there's super glue there instead of mystery stains. No amount of demanding, pleading, or bribing is moving this kid. After a minute, Smoker looks like she's ready to go all avant-garde-artist and start painting the walls with her groceries.
I surprise myself by moving forward and somehow transferring the bags from Smoker's arms to my own.
I got these, I hear myself say. You live just down the hall, right? I ask.
Yes, Smoker says. Um, thank you.
She scoops her kid up and leads me to 22B. She quickly unlocks the door and shoos her daughter inside before divesting me of the groceries.
Really, thank you, she repeats with more emotion than carrying bags ten feet should probably elicit. Madeline is usually really good, Smoker says, but she had a long day at preschool and didn't settle down for nap time. And it's been a trying day for me as well…
It's fine, I say, literally waving the explanation away.
I want to get out of here before any more opportunities for conversation arise. At this point she might do something crazy like invite me in for dinner, or start talking to me about her problems, or tell me her name, and I'm going to know more about her than I ever wanted. I don't want to know about her broken family. I don't want to know about how her daughter medicates with cartoons. I don't want to know where the rasp in her voice came from.
Mommy I want the Spongebob shapes! I hear Maddy demand as I walk back to the elevator.
Nickelodeon streams through my floor and mixes with Channel Six News half an hour later. I'm on the balcony watching the seven o'clock train rattle through. The scent of ashes lets me know that I haven't escaped her for good today. A quick glance down confirms that Smoker is also watching the train, its taillights slowly disappearing into the urban maze. Or maybe she's looking at the nets, wondering like me how good the city is at giving second chances.
Or maybe she's not looking at anything and just wants to smoke her goddamn cigarette. I feel nosy, like I'm once more intruding into her personal life just by watching her take solace in a stick of tar.
Hank goes unanswered. My phone doesn't vibrate again.
We brood together in silence.
* * * * *
I'm not thinking about the nets when I walk up the stairs and hear Maddy screaming bloody murder from 22B. I'm not thinking how my Dad left a voicemail saying his second wife has successfully delivered their third baby, how my friends haven't called in two weeks. I'm not thinking about anything, really, when I push open the door to Smoker's apartment and a dark foyer greets me. The black is punctuated by a dim light from the end of the hallway. The bathroom light I assume, if her apartment is set up like mine.
I wonder for a moment if I'd fallen asleep on my way up, and I'm having a hallucination, a dream that clings to my mind even as I wake. It's happened before, and I really hope it's happening again because the empty hallway and the high-pitched wail of "Momma!" coming from the bathroom is straight out of a classic horror movie. Fear makes my hands go numb as I finally get to the end of the hall and look through the doorway. The tub is full of red, a sharp contrast to the white body that's halfway submerged in the liquid. My brain tells me it's water mixed with blood, and the razors that float harmlessly on the surface confirm the suspicion. Smoker looks even worse now, with her hair wet and the wrinkles around her mouth like the lines of a subway map, intersecting here and there, tailing off from her lips to dead ends. The body moves. I jerk back, but then realize it's just Maddy, tugging on her mom's shoulder.
I think: I guess Spongebob isn't on tonight.
I can feel my mind going fuzzy, and my trembling legs slowly lower me to the ground. I can hear the whistle, feel the tug that means I'm almost in Dreamland and away from all this fear, this pain. Come on, a part of me begs. Someone will find her. Someone else can call 9-1-1. You're a narcoleptic, emotional situations send you straight into la-la land. The doctor said so; you have fucking science to back you up.
But then I see little hands turning pink as Maddy screams, Wake up Mommy! Wake up! I'm still woozy, but somehow I stumble over to the kid, sweep her into my arms, push her to my chest. She struggles in my hold, still yelling for her mom.
Shhh, shhh, I say to her. Your mom's just asleep okay? I'm gonna call the doctors and they'll wake her up. She'll be okay. Okay? Shhh, please, it's okay.
I can't tell her anything but lies. I can't explain to a four year old that there are big enough holes in every net for people to slip through. I guess the cigarettes weren't enough. I guess I should have stuck around for dinner, for the story about the broken family.
I keep hugging the kid to my chest as I get out into the living room, snagging my phone from my back pocket and dialing the police one handed. Maddy continues to wail into my shoulder, so I have to shout the address to the operator. We sit on the couch, me making random clucks and soothing noises I learned from late night soaps, and the girl slowly losing the strength to fight my hold. I think I'm making the noises for my benefit as much as hers; I can't fall asleep now.
A shock blanket falls across my shoulders a while later, and someone tries to take Maddy from me. I tighten my hold until an EMT calmly explains that the girl's father has been notified and is on his way to pick Maddy up. They ask me questions I don't remember answering. I know I didn't have an attack, though, because I shook people's hands and gave the police my statement before turning to walk up the stairs, assuring everyone I was fine.
Hank and I were supposed to have a Talk tonight. He wants to discuss our relationship and where I think it's going. He wants to Make Things Work, but he feels like he's the only one Trying. I can't believe he's stuck around this long. Hank doesn't deserve to be treated like my pet, always trying to make me happy and then pleased as fuck if I so much as toss a chew toy for him. But I don't know if I can let him go. Without Hank, it's just. Me.
But I can't have our Talk right now.
Tomorrow. Americanos on me is what I text him. Then I leave my phone on the coffee table and go to sleep.
* * * * *
It's different now, being on the balcony. All I smell is the constant wet, gritty stench that accompanies all alleyways. There's an older woman who strings her laundry between her window and the fire exit stairs. She pins up faded nightgowns and blouses from the 70s every Thursday night. There are a couple of boys who sometimes play street hockey, but they don't stay out late. There is a couple on the eighth floor of the opposite building who are either exhibitionists or they forget to close the curtains. A lot.
I switch my routine to the early morning instead of evening. I hear the cleaning truck rumbling and beeping by as it sweeps filth into the gutters. I sit down, my legs between the bars of the railing. I swing my feet. A pinkie toe points to a woman on the fourth floor who is just settling into her plastic chair. She has a paperback and a steaming cup of something brown. A diluted strain of dark roast tantalizes my nose.
What are you reading? I say.
On the Proper Use of a Turtleneck
People love Fall for the pumpkin spice lattes,
for the apple picking adventures where
each fruit you pull off the tree is full of juicy
innocence and a crisp hint of
a cool breeze that demands you wear your
softest denim and cutest knit hat. People love
Fall because it's a Hallmark holiday,
but you don't have to buy anyone a card.
You just have to moan about all the out-of-state leaf peepers
and add cinnamon to anything you cook in the oven.
People love Fall for the sweaters and boots, because hipster
is taking a swim in the mainstream and big glasses go great
with those wellies.
I like Fall, but I remember Winter. I remember the dark who peels back
the yellow light of afternoon, a gild over nature's decay.
I wear my sweaters like chainmail: casually,
no need to pull out the Under Armor just yet,
but a comforting weight on my bones to give me that extra layer
between my skin and the world. Because Fall is a time of dying, and I see
it in the chapped cheeks, the numb hands, and the cough
that catches throats and takes its victims
in with runny noses and fevered foreheads.
My sweaters protect me from the cold
truth that winter is
uncomfortable on a park bench.
The leaves fall into piles of decay, molding into refuse like
piles of culture clash and destitution and domestic violence
that we rake together to take care of later but really
just sit on the lawn until the first snow starts to fall and we
reluctantly haul the debris off into the deep woods.
We don't have to look at the ugly bit of leftover Autumn.
We don't store the acorns that fall,
or gather the leaves for decoration.
We're the coffee snob
—who wants two Splendas not one
and a side order of forgetting—
sucking down artificial flavors that mask the coffee's bitter bite.
I drink deep and lick my lips.
My sweater itches,
a kind of wool that rubs the wrong way and makes my
shoulders blush as the fibers beard burn their pale skin.
This latte tastes like shame,
and it scalds something fierce.
The Introvert in B Minor
Curled into a corner
at Sally McChuggin's party, I realize—
as Top 40 encourages us to get our swag on—
that I'm an instrumental soundtrack to some
indie rom-com that barely made it into theaters.
I'm not even one of those scores with the
instant hit, the catchy song that the radio plays
three times an hour either before or
after the initial premier.
Sometimes, when there's an important moment,
like during the meet-cute
when someone important dies,
I'll crescendo my way into the kitchen, center stage.
maybe it's the title sequence and I'll
groove into the mosh pit on a chord progression,
smile and talk to a person or two,
they're all allegro
I'm all adagio,
I can go back to my wall and keep
myself happy with an ambiance of
low violins. Maybe an oboe mixed in.
You'll hear me if you stay for the credits.
If you don't mind seeing
the popcorn encrusted and gum infested sitting area.
Stay after the lights come on,
after the dialogue is done,
and the dénouement has tripped
up and down its run.
Stay to hear me—the piano—
Tinker a serenade that you
remember from some part of the movie,
that background jingle, the last track on the CD.
Try watching the movie without me. It's surprisingly empty
for a scene that didn't feature
an orchestra, anyways.