I Can't Sleep

I Can't Sleep

April 13, 2021

 

 

The air is there, and I keep breathing it. Joan is sitting next to me on the bed and we watch the clock on the wall. We watch the second hand as it spins round and round.

“Can we stop it please? I just want to go to sleep,” I say.

“You know the doctor said I have to stay up until five.”

“The doctor doesn’t need to know.”

“Doctors always know, Bill.”

“Is it that important anyway? What does your insomnia have to do with me?”

“What does you cumming have to do with me?” Joan snorts with laughter.

She always screws up her face when she laughs. Her nose sticks straight up in the air and her forehead wrinkles, like a baby elephants’ skin. It makes me feel sick and happy at the same time.

I move further back on the bed and draw my feet up. The clock hangs on the wall opposite us. I lean forward and touch her thigh and she moves away from me.

“How will staying awake all night help fix anything anyway?” I ask, reaching over to the dark wooden cabinet on the side of the bed and picking up a half-empty bottle of beer.

“The doctor said it will help them figure out what makes me stay awake and how well I sleep if I’ve exhausted myself.”

I take a deep drink of beer. It’s been on the cabinet since the night before and it is warm and flat. “That’s like stopping a man eating for a whole day to see if he’s hungry the next,” I murmur around the neck of the beer.

“Well, I assume he would be,” she shrugs.

“It doesn’t mean it’s healthy.”

“And you’re so healthy?” She sighs, rolling her eyes at me.

Joan leans back on the bed for a second before rolling her feet onto the floor. She is still wearing her clothes from work. A white shirt and a black dress. The shirt is half unbuttoned. She walks softly to the wardrobe on the balls of her feet and opens it. She takes off her work clothes slowly and drops them on the floor. I watch her kick them away, into a pile by the door, and pull on her nightclothes. She walks back over to the bed and sits back down.

Her body has changed since she’s struggled with sleeping. She’s thinner. Her ribs stick out and her stomach curves inwards. Her hips are shaped like an hourglass. I like it. I don’t want her to go back.

Joan lies down on the bed and stretches out her legs in the air. Her nightgown falls down just past her knobbly and round knees. They come out and seem to shine for me. She’s always had beautiful knees. Darker than the rest of her body. Almost pitch black. And the middle a dark red, like she’s constantly just gotten up from kneeling. I reach over and brush my thick and ugly thumb across one of her knees. She trembles and laughs when I do. I tremble too.

“That tickles, Bill,” she giggles.

“Sorry.”

“I like it,” she says, and lifts her head up and looks at me through her raised knees. I smile thinly back and move between them. I lie on top of her and she moves under me. She smiles and kisses me. Again, and again. Each time she does it, it makes my heart thump in a painful kind of happiness. Then she pushes me off and my heart just thumps. I try to kiss her, but she turns her head away.

“I’m not in the mood,” she says, blinking slowly.

“What else are we going to do? It’s only one.”

“Exactly and when you finish it will only be ten past one.”

She laughs again at that and sits back up.

“You’re not very nice when you’re tired.”

“I’m sorry baby.”

“Yeah.”

When she crawls over to put her head in my lap, I stand up and walk out of the room. Leaving her looking confused. I chuckle to myself as I walk. I picture her frowning behind me, worrying that she’s upset me. It makes me happy picturing that.

I walk into the kitchen and take a carton of almond milk out of the fridge. It is half almond milk and half vodka. Joan had been drinking until she passed out whenever she couldn’t sleep so I’d been hiding some of my stuff in places she wouldn’t touch. I lift the carton up and take a deep drink. It tastes stale and creamy and as it flows into my stomach it makes me wince, but I take four and five more drinks until I feel the feeling of it land with a soft touch in my head.

Then I walk to the sink and have two glasses of water. I’m always thirsty when I drink. Always dehydrated. I drink the water fast and my head spins when I finish it. I pant like a dog and drops of water fall from my lips onto the kitchen floor.

I stand still for a while. Noticing how tired I am. I just want to sleep. But I promised her I’d stay awake. She hates it when she can’t sleep, and I won’t wake up. I hate staying awake when she can’t sleep, and I hate having to talk to her in the night.

I rinse the glass in the sink and put it on the side to dry and walked back to the bedroom.

*

Bill comes back into the bedroom and flops down on the bed. He’s still wearing his clothes from work and they stink. His shirt stinks more than anything. The smell of it rises in the air and loops around the room before finding my wrinkled nose. He looks up at me and breathes and I smell the vodka on his breath. He must think I’m an idiot. He probably thinks I don’t know where he’s hidden it.

He’s got his legs hanging half off the bed. His feet touch the floor. He looks at me for five minutes before he goes to sleep. He snores. The sound makes me want to throttle him. Makes me want to wrap my thin fingers around his ugly neck until he can’t make that insufferable sound anymore. Instead, I go to the kitchen and pour myself a coffee. I hate coffee but it gives me something to do. I drink it as soon as I pour it and it burns my throat and my tongue. It tastes bitter. I look out the window and see a few airplanes flashing. I can’t see any stars, but the airplanes shine red and I watch them shine.

I touch my stomach sitting there and I feel the ribs on my side. I’ve lost weight. My stomach curves inwards and my hips stick out. It makes me laugh. I’ve seen Bill staring at me whenever I get changed. His eyes bulging out his head like some grotesque squeezy toy. He hadn’t looked at me like that in years, not until I started losing weight. My stomach rumbles so heavily it feels like it vibrates my bones and I get up and grab a baguette from a cupboard and start eating it. I haven’t been able to eat in the day for a long time. It makes it even harder to sleep if I’m all bloated when I lie down.

I eat half of it until I’m not hungry anymore and then I put the rest away. I wrap it up, so it won’t get stale. Fat Bill loves bread. Fat Bill eats it all the time. When I have to work the night shift at the petrol station I come back sometimes in the morning, and he’ll be asleep at the kitchen table. A loaf of bread in front of him sliced up in pieces.

I watch him as he gets changed sometimes. Not often. His belly is round and firm and hard, sticking out over his waistline. Like a pregnant woman’s belly. He rubs it and blushes whenever he catches me looking. I hate his stomach. I hate him sometimes. I blush at myself when I think that and hit the side of my head. Knocking the thought back where it belongs.

“I love him. I love him,” I say quietly as I listen to the sound of his snores pouring through the open doors of the house.

I breathe deeply and take a bottle of sleeping pills from the shelf above the skink and take three with a glass of water. They never work, but they make my head swim nicely. They make everything swim. My head, the walls, the floors, the air. They do everything. I take a bottle of whiskey from the cupboard under the oven. I drink from it deeply. The burn’s not even there anymore.

Sitting back at the kitchen table, the thought of the dream that stopped me from sleeping in the first-place bounces around my swimming mind. I had it a few months before and I haven’t been able to stop thinking of it since. In the dream, I was walking in a forest. A dark forest with trees with no leaves. Their branches sharp and bare. In the dream, I was walking through the trees and the edges of the branches were sticking in my arms and legs. They went in deep and I felt the edges on my bones. Scraping their surfaces. When I got past the trees, I came out onto a clearing. Bill was lying naked in the middle of the clearing. His stomach even more bloated than normal. His belly button so strained I thought it’d burst. He was lying on a patch of grass surrounded by yellow flowers. He looked at me and laughed and laughed. His stomach grew a mouth and laughed as well. The grass all grew mouths and they all laughed. A thin little girl slithered from between his legs and she cried like a newborn. I rushed over and touched her face. She held her arms up without looking at me. I picked her up and cradled her while everything grew mouths and laughed at me.

I’ve only been able to sleep for maybe three hours a night since then. Three hours. I never dream and when I wake up I don’t feel like I’ve even been asleep. Sometimes I wake up thinking I’ve been awake. It’s nothing.

Bill sleeps like the sun rises. He goes to sleep at midnight almost every night and wakes up at eight. He’s consistent. This is the first night I’ve managed to keep him awake past twelve.

I walk back to the bedroom and nudge him with my arm. He doesn’t stop snoring. I nudge him again and he moves away from me and smacks his lips together. He must have gotten naked at some point and pulled the blanket over himself, but the blanket has fallen off him and his ass is sticking out into the air. It has dark patches on it from his pants and there are suspicious cuts and bruises on his legs.

I touch him softy on his cut and bruised legs and he doesn’t move. I slap him softly and he doesn’t move. I poke one of the bruises and he groans and rolls over. He opens his eyes.

*

God damn, I think, I was sleeping well. The thought of my peaceful sleep lingers on my eyes for a second before I rub it away. I’d been dreaming about something nice. I remember a mountain. Tall and fat. Its top disappearing into clouds. I remember standing at the bottom and feeling happy because someone told me I didn’t have to climb it and see what was at the top. They patted my cheek and touched my hair and said, “it’s okay. I won’t be angry, and I won’t be disappointed. I promise. You can stay here with me.”

I look up at her. She smiles down at me bitterly, her eyes wide and unfocused. Her mouth is open, and she is breathing heavily through it. I can see some of the yellow that creeps over the film of her teeth.

“I was having a nice dream,” I say.

“I can’t sleep.”

“You’re not supposed to the doctors told you to stay awake.”

“You said you’d stay awake with me.”

“I’m sorry.”

I sit up and feel my stomach pushing out. Bloated and round. I look down at it. It makes me feel me feel sick sometimes. Most of the time I don’t care about it. Tonight, I don’t care about it. It makes me feel like a medieval king. Stuffed from a royal feast. Stuffed and pampered.

“I was having a nice dream,” I say again, as I feel the memory of it slip away.

“What was it about?” Joan asks.

Joan’s hair hangs limp and over her wide eyes and makes her look beautiful. I wonder if she’s had any more of those sleeping pills. They always make her look especially beautiful. I don’t want to tell her about my dream.

“I can’t remember,” I shrug and stretch.

“Was I in it?” She asks.

“I don’t think so.”

Even though the dream is sliding away, I can’t stop thinking about the person who’d told me it was okay that I didn’t climb it. They had smelled of sawdust and burning wood.

I reach for Joan and she comes with only a little bit of resistance when I pull her. I move my head and bury my face in her neck. It’s damp from sweat and I sniff her. She smells of whiskey and sweat. She smells like her. She doesn’t smell particularly good. I feel myself wishing, deep down in the cavity of my chest, that she smelled like sawdust and burning wood. I move my head away from her neck and kiss her. She pulls away laughing.

“You fall asleep and then you want me to do something for you.” She taps my cheek and shakes her head before walking over to the other side of the bed and sits cross-legged on her pillow.

*

“Will you stay awake now?” I ask him and he sighs in return. I can see a flicker of something in his eyes. His eyes look sad.

“Sure,” Bill nods. “What time is it?”

“About half two.”

“I’m hungry.” Bill rubs his stomach as he says it.

“I bet you are.”

“Why do you have to say it like that,” he frowns.

“Say it like what?” I look at my toes instead of at him and wiggle them around. There’s a pause before he speaks.

“Let me just make a sandwich or something.”

I watch as Bill pulls himself out of bed. His penis looks small and shrivelled between his legs. Like an out-of-date grape. It's darker than the rest of his skin. Almost tan. His pubic hair is thick and has ugly grey strands running through it. The grape swings fractionally from side to side as he walks. I can still feel the sweat on my neck from where he sniffed me. He makes his way to the kitchen. I listen to the fridge opening and the top of the tub of butter popping off. I hear him closing the butter and then the sound of the fridge closing gently. So gently and quietly does he shut it that it’s almost a surprise with how loud the other sounds were. He walks back in and sits on the edge of the bed. He rests the plate on his stomach as he eats. Crumbs stick to the corners of his mouth and he chews slowly and silently. He breaths heavily as he eats.

I feel a sad ache in my chest as I watch him eat and I think, he’s going to die someday. I feel sad about that for a moment longer before I think, I’m going to die someday. And I feel even sadder about that.

I look out of the bedroom window. It faces the street outside, and I can see a broken streetlamp. There’s a circle of darkness around the base of it where the light of the other streetlamps doesn’t reach. I can’t see any stars or planes now and the sky just looks black and empty.

*

Joan’s looking out the window and I take the empty plate off my stomach and place it on the side. I want a drink, but I don’t want to get up again. It’s a conundrum that’s very easy for me to solve. I wipe some crumbs off my body and mouth and stay where I am. I watch as the crumbs fall onto the carpet and disappear. I want to sleep. My eyes ache. I know soon she’ll want to talk again. She always wants to talk. I never want to talk.

“I haven’t seen any stars for ages. Have you?” Joan asks and my heart slides into my ankles with a sigh of despair.

“Stars?” I reply. “Of course, I have. They're everywhere.”

“I can’t see any now and I couldn’t earlier.”

“Then you probably could last night.”

“I don’t remember.”

“That doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”

Joan stays quiet for a few minutes and I lay back down on the bed, wondering if I can manage to drop back to sleep before she talks again.

*

The broken streetlamp flickers a little bit, the light flashing on and off before I can blink, and then I hear Bill start to snore again. I turn around. He’s lying on his back over the covers, his legs hanging over the end of the bed again. I move back again to sit on my pillow. His head is just below my legs. It’s fallen to the side at an angle that’s making the cords in his neck strain and stretch, and I can feel his warm breath on my bare legs.

After a few minutes of that I move myself up slightly to get away from him, but his snores are still warm on my legs even at the head of the bed. They float up and attack me with their moist warmness. As his snores and his breathing get more and more guttural and I feel more and more trapped and restless, I start to think he’s choking on them. I picture what it would sound like if his breathing just stopped.

Even as I think about that, Bill coughs and rolls over slightly so his mouth is smothered by the duvet. His chokes suddenly become drastically quieter and my legs feel cold. I can still hear him breathing but it’s as if it’s coming from far away and not connected to me at all.

The silence doesn’t bring the relief I thought it would. Instead, I feel far more alone without his snores and breath. I nudge him to try and roll him back over, but he dreamily slaps my leg away and grumbles rolling more onto his face. I can see the fat on his neck pillowing out underneath him.

A wild fear hums around my head like a homing bee. The wild fear that I would never sleep again and that he would never wake up.

“Bill,” I say, almost crying. “Bill… I… I can’t sleep.”

But Bill just carries on snoring into the duvet and I can almost see the thin smile of contentment on the sides of his fat cheeks. I don’t say anything else. After a little while I notice the hairs on my legs moving left and right from my own breath.

 

 

________

William Hayward was born in Birmingham, England. He has been writing for several years, mainly in short fiction. He's previously been published in The Emerald City ReviewThe White Wall Review and Underwood Press.
Photo cred: Med Badr Chemmaoui on Unsplash


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