Around the time my wife wanted a baby, I stopped sleeping. Then I had trouble with erections, not finishing what I started, or what she started. Kelly was fierce with the urge and took it all to mean I didn’t want a baby, and moved to the guest room.
I went to my doctor, who had ruffled wings of gray over his ears, making him look slightly mad. He laughed at me. “Ambien and Viagra,” he said. “Problem solved.”
“Isn’t that Ambien the stuff that makes you drive or do other things while sleeping?”
“You watch too many commercials. Such things are rare.”
“And what if I get a four hour erection and go sleep driving and crash? Wouldn’t the air bag snap it off?”
He laughed some more, slapped my back. “You kill me. Fine, just start with the sleeping pill and see if that doesn’t fix everything.”
I liked the generic name better: Zolpidem. It made me think of Zoltar and Tom Hanks. I wish…to sleep. I wish for…a baby. Did I? Could I be a father?
Waiting at the pharmacy, I stole looks at the woman next to me. She seemed familiar. She had a keychain from Pop’s Diner, bright orange with Pop’s big head and directions. I recognized it because I had one. She saw me looking at hers. I took mine out and set it on my knee. She was pretty, but had the same dazed look I saw in the mirror, circles under her eyes. I peeked at her prescription. I thought I saw the Z, but she folded her hand. It was a lovely hand, a trembling white bird.
I took the pill that night. The last thing I heard was Kelly tapping in the next room. I was gone in two minutes, and slept for ten hours. I felt better than I had in years. This was a miracle drug.
Kelly was already out selling her houses. I shot some hoops in the driveway, did what work I had on my laptop, sent it in. I jogged a few miles. I was startled when I passed the woman from the pharmacy, and our eyes met.
I kept track of my odometer, just in case, and one morning found I’d added ten miles during the night. I knew Kelly never drove my car because of the stick shift. And on the seat I found a napkin from Pop’s Diner, with a handwritten, “Thank you.”
I drove to Pop’s. Pop was the ninety-year-old owner with his giant bobbling head of wisdom. He sat in a special padded throne at all hours, talking to his customers. I asked him if he remembered me being there during the night. He winked and backhanded the air. “So in love, you let my food go to waste.”
They’d been robbed a few times over the years, so I knew they had security cameras all over. I asked Pop’s son, Gus. He was so excited his slick hair actually moved. We watched the recording and there I was, in a booth near the window with the woman from the pharmacy. We were fully dressed. We apparently ordered omelets, but made no motion to eat. We held hands, just looking at each other until I put a bill on the table. Then in twenty minutes we rose in unison but went our separate ways. There was no kiss. I held the napkin.
Gus twitched and rubbed his hands together. “It’s like you’re undercover.”
“Yes,” I said.
I went for my run and passed the woman from the pharmacy again. We were on the same schedule. I caught her eye, but there was no sign she recognized me.
I thought I should hide my keys, but what was the chance of it happening again? But the next morning, another ten miles and another napkin, this one with a heart drawn in red ink.
Clearly this was dangerous. I could be killed, either in my car or by this woman’s husband or boyfriend if she had one. Kelly could be hurt. Would she believe it? Yet again I popped the pill. I couldn’t help it. I had to have it.
Kelly was still home when I woke up. She said she was sick. She acted strangely, and then pulled out another Pop’s napkin with a note on it: “I’ve always loved you.” She slammed it on the kitchen table.
“I followed you last night,” she said, tears in her eyes. She acted all mad, and then she started laughing.
“I was asleep!” I said. “I can explain. It’s the pill.”
She put on the mad face, crumpled the napkin, and then laughed again. “I believe you. Know why? Because you drove so well. Stayed the speed limit. Stopped for the full three seconds at the stop signs. Used your blinkers. You’d never do that awake.”
“Do you know that woman? Tell me the truth.”
“I don’t know her. Sometimes I pass her jogging. I saw her at the pharmacy. I think she got the same pills. That’s all, I swear.” I reached for her hand, but she wasn’t giving in too easily.
“You held her hand, in the diner.”
“You went in?”
“I sat in the booth across from you. I looked right at you, but you didn’t recognize me. You looked hypnotized. You said to the waitress, ‘The usual.’ But neither one of you ate. You stared at each other, holding hands. I cried, Ray, so you’re not totally off the hook. Even if you were on drugs, you have it in you somewhere to do this, to hold a stranger’s hand, to go to her.”
“Why didn’t you just wake me up, and take me home?”
“Wouldn’t that have caused some terrible trauma? I mean, you’re not supposed to wake a sleep-walker, right? What would happen if you woke a sleep-driver, and a sleep-lover?”
“Look, I only love you.”
“When you’re awake, anyway.”
At that point I grabbed her hand and wouldn’t let her pull away. “I’m stopping that pill. There must be some other way to sleep.”
“Sledgehammer. You better keep one eye open. But seriously…” she yanked her hand away. “I don’t think you can stop taking it just like that. Don’t you have to go off gradually? Look, I’ll just hide your keys. That will be safer. I’ll stay up and keep an eye on you.”
She went off to work after all, and I took my run. I saw the woman coming towards me, and I had a split second to decide whether the world should just go on as is, or if I should knock it slightly from its axis, put a wrinkle where you could live two separate lives at once, have your cake and eat it too, have one love of your life and another even better love in some other dimension of silent body language, tender touches and eye contact.
In that split second I chose to block her path, startle her, hear her gasp. She kept her legs pumping, dangerously close to kneeing my crotch. I started to say, “Wait, do you know me at all…” but she had turned and hit a pace I would never reach, the learned retreat from a potential rapist. It had the effect of truly breaking my heart. I had to sit on the ground and pout. I was not a secret lover, a desire, a repressed dream to her. I was just manipulated brain chemicals, not even strong enough for memory.
I went to Pop’s and flagged Gus down. We watched the tape from last night and sure enough, there was my wife watching us with tears on her cheeks. After we left she stayed there a while, writing on a napkin. Come to think of it, that was her writing, “I’ve always loved you.”
“Who’s the dame?” said Gus.
Kelly told the story to me and the cops, sitting at our kitchen table at three a.m. We were all nursing our wounds: the cop’s cheek where I’d punched him; Kelly’s sprained ankle from my pushing her down the stairs; my wrists burning from handcuffs.
She told how I got up and got dressed and looked for my keys in my drawer. But they weren’t there, because she’d hidden them. Then she told how I went crazy, dumping the drawers and throwing stuff around and breathing hard like a junkie looking for his fix. She was scared. I didn’t speak to her, though. It was like she didn’t exist in that sleep world. I was in some desperate world trying to get to my true love. She tried blocking the stairs but I threw her down. I walked over her and out the front door. It took her a while to stand and get her phone.
The cops said I must have been a much safer sleep-driver than sleep-hitchhiker. I was wandering in the middle of the highway, waving my thumb and then both my arms. One shoe was untied. I begged them to get me to Pop’s. I was expected. I couldn’t let her down. But they brought me home, woke me up with hot coffee at the kitchen table. Now it was like a little family get together, two big cops and steaming coffee and some donuts my wife whipped out, there at our tiny table.
She explained about the sleeping pill, and the one cop said he took that shit once and his wife found him eating raw hamburger from the fridge. That was crazy shit. They weren’t going to charge me with anything, given the circumstances, and they finished their coffee and left.
I had to carry Kelly up the very stairs I’d thrown her down. We were wide awake now. She sat by the window and ignored me until the sun came up. Then she said, “You better choose. Me or her.”
“That’s just silly,” I said. “She doesn’t exist. Not really.”
When she tried to jump up to leave, her ankle gave out. It was the size of a grapefruit.
In the ER they took an X-ray, which showed no break, and gave her an ice-pack to go and some strong pain medicine.
“I choose you,” I kept saying, over and over, running my lips up and down her arms and over her neck. She was trying to be mad, but people were watching us and smiling and soon she had to smile a little herself.
I made love to Kelly in our bed. She was half asleep, on her pain pill. She smiled, and drifting off she said, “You’re not pretending I’m her, that’s why it’s working?”
I stared at my own pill bottle. I stuffed it deep into a drawer.
Since I was awake all night, I drove to the diner. I knew Kelly would not wake up.
I sat in the car and looked at the woman through the window. She moved only to lift water to her lips. I felt bad I wasn’t there for her. I tried to remember our hands touching, but it was like it never happened. I waited for her to come out. I watched her get into her car and I followed her home. She drove well. I wondered how people could drive while sleeping. Anything is possible.
Her garage door opened and took her in. It was a nice big house. I waited until I saw her silhouette in an upstairs window.
I had lunch at Pop’s for a few days and watched replays of the woman in her booth, but soon she stopped coming.
I stayed up nights, watching Kelly sleep. It was good with her. Even with no sleep, I was not tired.
Sometimes in the mornings I sat down the street from the woman’s house. She was running a different route, the opposite direction. I saw the husband come out and go to work. I watched them kiss.
Soon I noticed her belly. The husband would rub it when he left.
One night I said to Kelly, “I’m definitely ready.”
“You know. To start our family.”
She jumped all over me, kissed me up and down. She cried. We started seriously working on it that night, and when we were through, I slept.
Art: The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781.