A Talent for Sleep
By Emily Schultz
Part One: Justin
After Justin’s father left and his mother began drinking, Justin would walk through the rooms and touch things his father had touched, what she hadn’t thrown out or broken, would feel these solid objects between his fingers: the door frame, the lamp switch, the gold glass ashtray, the plaid couch. But other times, he was convinced he was hovering—viewing the room and everything in it from a fair distance off the floor. It was a gradual thing, the hovering, occurring with greater and greater incidence between the years of twelve and fifteen and a half. It even seemed to change the way he slept, as if he was lying down in a haze for seven hours but not sleeping at all.
Each night, Justin lay, floating above the mattress, beneath the thin gray soldier’s blanket from Fullworth’s. He listened to ambulance sirens until morning when he would touch down again, and his mother would say, “Eat something,” and hand him an oversized box of Kellogg’s Cornflakes (no milk), their one conversation of the day. He would tip back his head and pile handfuls of the cereal into his mouth, wash it down with a glass of water, remember to chew. He would use the five dollars she handed him for lunch to buy milk, and maybe eggs, if he remembered. Other days on his break he would straggle behind the other boys on their way to the falafel place—no words, just two blocks of dirty snow and dog shit—where Justin would buy four meat pies and stack them on top of one another and chew them up two together, because swimmers need energy, protein, lots of it.
When he did this, it amused the other guys. For at least a minute or two, they taunted him, saw and noticed him. But mostly, he revealed himself to no one and nobody revealed themselves to him. The only place he felt in his body was at the pool. It was a kind of floating too, but one he could control.
Behind Justin twenty-five meters of tranquil water stretched, and far off in the change room a single shower whispered. His face to the windows, he waited for Amber Green. In his mind, he referred to her by her first and last name; it made him feel he was better acquainted with her than he was. He imagined her naked under that stream, although he knew she wasn’t—she’d be wearing her suit—and he kept his eyes fixed on the stranger outside the rec center so that when Amber entered the pool area he would appear as though he didn’t care at all.
Through the glass, the woman looked like a dull smudge on the snow. Justin stepped closer and watched as the thickness of the parka swooped and bent. The coat was so big she had no shape. She could have been just a blob out there—a cartoon ghost. Flying around her feet was a small black-and-white dog. All alone in the field the two outlines jostled and fought as the woman chucked a toy of some sort into the distance, and the animal sprinted off into the night, leapt, caught air—the flyer fitting into its mouth almost by telepathy—and returned, galloping then tug-of-warring. The toy was black, and the dog was black, and the night was black. The woman’s gloves were black and her hands disappeared.
Justin tugged at the flipper boards, lining them up, as if he worked there. He wasn’t old enough to lifeguard yet. Samir and Whitney were on guard tonight, but they had it bad for one another and were never really paying attention. Earlier, Whitney teased Justin about the number of laps he had planned, and Samir began teasing her in turn, asking if Justin was her new boyfriend. This had made Justin smile in spite of himself, and duck his head. The two disappeared into the office, to make up, Justin assumed, and though he could still feel their presence, it was dim as the dusk outside. It was only 6:30 p.m., but already Justin could feel time slipping away from him.
He was relieved when he heard the shower in the girls’ room, and he knew, deep in his guts, in every pore of his chlorine-saturated body, that it was her: Amber. He hadn’t seen her trudge through the field, which he had been watching specifically for that purpose, but then, he hadn’t known which direction she would come from. Outside, the Frisbee flew from the woman’s gloved hand again. It hung suspended like a flying saucer. The fur-trimmed hood fell back from her head, sac-like on her shoulders, before she yanked it up again over her hair as protection against the temperature.
The padding of feet on wet tiles. Justin didn’t look until he heard the plunge of Amber’s body through the water. The small explosion made his insides tight. He glanced over one shoulder, just as she surfaced, purple straps against her skin. He felt a relief as the puckered surface broke to make way for her. It was Amber. He watched her breaststroke, a whip-kick propelling her taut, perfect body to the opposite end of the pool. When she reached the end, she stopped and stood and faced him, waist-high in water. “Goin’ to ignore me all night?” she called.
Justin shrugged. He could still taste her from the previous evening. Chlorine and strawberry. Her hair had smelled like bleach from the pool, and the botanicals of the shampoo she used. He knew they only had a few minutes before Samir and Whitney would reappear, and he shouldn’t waste them, but Amber was late and he wanted to play it cool. Besides, he didn’t want her to know he had never been with a girl before. He turned away, heard her hoist herself out and walk around the edge behind him.
“What are you looking at?”
“That lady,” he said. “She comes every night with her dog. I can’t believe her. She stands out there in the dark like that.”
“Where?” Amber stepped closer to the windows to see out. Justin knew that from the field, the pool was lit up, a wall of glass, like a television screen for the outside: blue-gold and shimmering. He could feel Amber’s breath on his shoulder. She was that close. Together they watched the woman—the beige snow-covered blanket of her coat—jog back and forth, the joyous little dog in pursuit. “What do you care if she does?” Amber asked.
“Did you get in trouble? For being late last night?” He turned his face just slightly and they were only inches apart from one another. Amber’s eyes were black as stones. He wanted to grab hold of her chin and pull her flush with him.
She shook her head. It wasn’t just her looks, but that she was here, at the pool, almost as often now as he was. At first, she’d only come Tuesday and Thursday, but now the sport had a grip on her. For a girl, her strength was insane.
He could feel himself hardening, and worried she would be able to see through the cling of his suit. Stupidly he’d worn the Speedo. Maybe she wouldn’t look. He half-wanted her to and half didn’t. He faced the window again and thought of the worst thing he could to make it go away. “A couple summers ago, that fence had paper all over it, cards and paintings. Like—like a memorial,” Justin stuttered, gazing out at the chain link. “A girl who went to this school was killed.”
“I think I heard that.”
He didn’t look at Amber Green again, just kept talking. “This girl, she was seven or eight or something. She lived on West Lodge and her foster parents did it. Just killed her, then phoned an ambulance . . . Strangulation. They claimed she choked on her food.”
Amber’s breath seemed to stop. He could see her reflection in the glass. Their reflections made eye contact, yet he was still close enough to the windows to see out into the night too, where the woman and the dog were zipping back and forth, sliding in the snow. “The girl’s mom had checked herself into rehab,” Justin told Amber, signed her little kid into foster care with a neighbor couple, friends of hers. Friends of hers had killed her girl while she was drying out. “Drying out,” he repeated. She’d tried to do the responsible thing. That was what got to him.
“Every time I came here for practice,” he said, still not looking at Amber, “I’d hear this flapping. The papers, late at night. They were like hands clapping for a dead girl, a little kid. Fucking creepy. I dreamed about it sometimes.” He told himself to shut up, yet found he kept talking as if something had broken open. “Eventually it fell off in the rain, but like, gradually, in pieces. Then they took them down.”
Amber put her hand on his shoulder, in that spot right between the blades. It was warm, and wet from the pool. It reminded him how long he’d been out, almost long enough to dry. The touch of it hovered there—was she really touching him? was that really a hand on his skin?—and he counted the seconds before she took it away, two, three, four, five.
“Sorry, just that woman. She don’t even know. Look at her, like she’s so happy out there.”
Samir and Whitney seemed to have emerged from the office. Justin heard the squeak of the lifeguard stand being climbed. With Amber there, obviously they knew one of them should be on watch. More swimmers would probably drift in over the evening. When it was just Justin, he noticed they messed about, trusting he knew better than to drown himself.
“Did you know her?” Amber said.
“Sure,” Justin lied, though he wasn’t sure why. Was he acting tough, he wondered, trying to impress her with all the weird stuff he knew?
“I’m sorry,” Amber said quietly. Then, “I’m going back in.” There was an easy splash, and he imagined her hair under water, pulled back and knotted at her neck, the way her shoulders turned slick.
Maybe Amber would kiss him again, later. In the rack of life jackets, which he had moved closer to, he could smell the bleach and a kind of baked-in must, years of it. Their orange was sun-faded from being stacked against the windows. He leaned over them, lounging, peering out the windows, but it was the erection, which had gone then returned, that he wanted to lose and he felt protected there, half-hidden.
Justin rested his chin on one of the life jackets, then remembered the spitty kids who must wear them while doing lifesaving lessons. He bet the jackets were old enough to have outfitted a decade’s worth of kids. He thought of the dead girl again, felt vaguely sick, and the woman kept bumping around with her dog in the night in the slippery quick-falling snow. Why didn’t they just get cold and go home? The memory of the erection went away fast.
He turned and launched himself into the deep end. When his body entered the water, it was like he and the rest of the universe were one, or something like that. That was what he told Amber yesterday. He hadn’t even known where it had come from. The words just emerged. That was when she kissed him, outside the doors on Lansdowne, the cold creeping under his hat and into his dampened ears, burning, until he couldn’t hear anything but heartbeat, and a rush, like the rush of water.
Justin did laps and concentrated on his breathing. Amber was doing hers too, and it seemed they passed in opposite directions. Justin swam until his body ached, and he couldn’t think anymore. He waited until his muscles felt like individual strands of string pulled high-wire tight. Just last July there was another girl, his age, fifteen, who broke a world record for a 50-meter breaststroke. Her time was 30.23 seconds. What was her name? Amanda Something. His mother had left it out for him to see, the newspaper lying open. It was folded to the article, as if she actually cared, and maybe she did. This girl, this record-breaker, had trained in some rinky-dink pool too, a 25-meter, someplace near Windsor, Ontario. Justin thought that was across the border from Detroit but he wasn’t sure. Her parents were Russian immigrants and her community didn’t have no money, and still, she set a record. Justin told himself this on the final couple laps, to see if he could go further, faster.
>When he hauled himself out of the pool, Amber was gone. She didn’t work hard enough, he thought in those exact words, but it came in his coach’s voice. Disappointment slunk low through his guts. The light bounced around and even his eyes seemed to ache. Whitney’s lithe body had perched itself up in the lifeguard chair and Samir was pacing around the edge of the pool almost like he was contemplating a few laps before they would close up, but at the same time wearing his guard jacket as if he’d already decided against it.
They slapped hands. They had this same exchange every time Samir was on shift. It was their thing.
“I think you overdid it, personally,” Whitney said, and winked.
Justin just raised a finger or two in acknowledgement and made his way past her. He got that warm feeling that crept from the bottoms of his feet to the top of his head when any girl spoke to him, which wasn’t that often. He strained to hear the hair dryer in the girls’ room and couldn’t decide if he really was hearing it, or if his ears were ringing. Being in the water dulled his senses at the same time it made him more alive. He knew when he left there nothing would bother him. He’d go home and go straight to bed, and it wouldn’t matter if his mom had fallen asleep with a beer bottle in her hand or not. Tonight he would not hover—he would sleep as though rocks had been piled on top of him. Nights he swam were easy nights.
Justin dressed as quickly as he could. He exited the change room to an empty hall. The community center was also a school, Pre-Kindergarten to Eighth Grade. Only a couple years before, he had been the age of the kids whose artwork was pinned up, their names written large on intramural sports sign-up sheets—but it felt faraway, juvenile. These halls smelled like the blue Mr. Clean: winter-fresh.
As he passed the girls’ room, Justin gave the door a faint tap. Whitney and Samir were still in the pool, so the change room was either empty or Amber was there alone. The only other swimmers had been two twelfth-grade guys Justin recognized from his own school but didn’t know. He poked his head in, and was surprised to see running shoes and gym clothes lying around. Trusting, like no one would take them, their things. No Amber.
Outside, Justin turned and walked in the direction of the field, even though normally he headed in the other direction. The woman and her dog had disappeared, leaving a wreck of tracks and loops in the fresh snow—proof of having been there. He’d dreamed once about the little girl in the field. He didn’t know why he was so hung up on it. He couldn’t even remember her name now. Of course, she’d died in an apartment building, but for some reason the field was where his mind placed her. She had been standing right about there, wearing white in the snow. Standing, not levitating. She wasn’t pretty like ghosts in movies. Just a pudgy, grubby little kid who happened to be wearing white. She had said something to him, but he hadn’t been able to hear. There had been wind. Dream wind.
Then he’d heard, “Mom!” but it was his own voice calling out for her to wake him from the nightmare. Except his mom had already gone to work. He was alone, and he’d floated to the shower where he washed a long time, embarrassed about calling out for her anyway.
Justin hopped the two-foot barrier that separated a miniature hockey rink from the concrete. Hit a slick, threw his arms out, and tried not to fall. Regained his balance. Then he glimpsed her, just exiting the baseball diamond.
The shape didn’t turn.
He put his gloved hands on either side of his mouth, drew in a painful breath, and belted, “Amber!”
The shape paused where the fence corner gapped for pedestrians.
Justin jogged over the rutted field, hoping with each footfall he wouldn’t hit ice and go down. His breath rattled through him, and each bound hurt, but in an exhilarating, well-earned way. When he reached her, he was going so hard he practically collided with her. He grabbed hold of her elbows so they spun.
“Why’d you take off like that?”
Amber wore a knit mauve hat, and the tight bun she fashioned when swimming made an alien protrusion at the back of her neck beneath the fabric. “You were ignoring me. I was distracting you.”
“Which is it?” It was nine at night but the Lansdowne bus had let out a load of people—the ones like Justin’s mom, who worked odd shifts and were always tired. They were filing past, trudging, lugging groceries as if it were only suppertime now. A woman in a sari, a parka, and a pair of bloated white space boots eyeballed them nervously as she passed.
“Boo!” Justin said to the woman.
The woman looked away quick and scuttled off through the snow.
Justin’s neck burned like frostbite. He hadn’t toweled off enough and in his head he could hear a voice saying, “Wet in this cold? You’ll catch your death …” But it wasn’t his mother’s voice, because if it were hers it would be slurring, or swearing. Or both.
“You were being . . . weird. Intense,” Amber insisted. He could see her breath rising up.
“I guess I’m a little possessive about my time at the pool.”
The sound that emerged from Amber’s body didn’t match her. To Justin’s ear, it was halfway between a guffaw and a grunt. Then she asked him to repeat it, because she was wondering if there was an apology in there somewhere?
He pushed her up against the chain link with his kiss, the urgency of it, and their twin puffy coats collided. The pressure of their bodies was not weightless like it would be underwater. They were here, real.
“You can’t just kiss me all the time,” she said, monitoring the people going past them.
“I don’t know. Shouldn’t it be something special, that only happens once in a while?”
“What, like every hundred years? Like a comet?” Justin asked, and Amber smiled. He found his hands grabbing her by her jeaned butt, lifting her up off the ground. Her solidness suspended, he felt the fantastic heft of her in his grip. She squealed and wriggled and punched him in the shoulder. He set her down again.
“What’s with that?” she asked. Annoyed? Pleased? Justin couldn’t tell.
“If I don’t know how to be, it’s just—” he said over her head. It was easier to trust her if he didn’t look at her. “You know. With a girl. I never . . .”
Amber laughed, a sound like relief.
Gazing through the diamonds of the fence, Justin watched as the pool lights blinked out and the glass panels darkened. The long-poled nets, the lifejackets, and the guard station disappeared. They kissed again, until their teeth chattered, until their hands went numb inside their gloves. When Amber broke the kiss, Justin held onto her, his breath streaming, visible, over her shoulder. Chlorine, she smelled like. Chlorine and ice, a faint hint of hyacinth. He kept one arm wrapped around her, under hers and around her back, his left hand hooked through the chain link as an anchor. He didn’t want to let go just yet, didn’t want to float away.
From outside the house was dark, but when Justin entered it he could make out the glow of a cigarette through the kitchen doorway in the den: the red tip bobbing. He threw down his bag and she fumbled with the lamp, switching it on. Her feet were tucked up beside her.
“Why are you so late?” There was an alcohol drawl to his mom’s voice.
Justin knew he was in for the Three Mothers. She often took turns being the Accusatory Mother, followed by the Self-Pitying Mother, followed by the Saintly Mother.
He shrugged. “I’m not.”
“You don’t just sleep here, you know.”
Justin bent to unzip the bag and untangle his wet things. “Sometimes . . .” He banged open the dryer and threw them inside, punched it on. “Sometimes you do too.”
She looked gray in the cast of the table lamp, yellow-gray, sad and sick. Sometimes she struck him as being transparent, made of nothing but smoke. She moved quickly into a combined role of Mothers Number Two and Three. “You should be nicer to your mother. I made food.”
Justin crossed the room and opened the fridge. “I am nice,” he defended himself almost under his breath, “and . . . and I didn’t know you would make food.” A plain bowl of hamburger pieces mixed with rice sat in the fridge. Grabbing a fork, he began to eat it cold.
“Sit with me,” his mother said, an edge of reprimand in her voice.
“I would,” Justin said cautiously, “but I want to go to sleep.”
She stood up, jerkily. There were no bottles on or near the couch, but an intact peeled-off label had been stuck to the coffee table’s surface. “Are you high?” she demanded. “I know you are!”
Still a room away from her, Justin shook his head. He set the already half-empty bowl down on the kitchen table. He could feel himself drifting upwards, looking at the white bowl from the ceiling, the lopsided mound the meat and starch made inside it, but he put his hand on the back of the hard chair, surprised it still reached. He said quickly, quietly, “I met a girl . . .”
When he glanced at his mother, they were at the same level again. She had stubbed out her cigarette and her expression had softened. She pulled the ashy strands of her hair back from her face with her hands. She refastened the clip on top of her head. She said his name twice as if she couldn’t believe who she was talking to. She sounded affectionate and wistful. He wasn’t sure he knew which mother this was.
“Tell me about her,” she said finally.
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
She let out an exaggerated puff of air from the side of her mouth.
“Tomorrow,” Justin said, “okay?”
“Okay.” She smiled weakly. He could see she was still buzzed, but that it was softening and soon she would be asleep.
Justin walked through the house slowly, careful not to touch anything else. The door frame, the lamp switch, the gold glass ashtray, the plaid couch. These were her things, full of her and Dad’s history, not his. He went into his room and lay down on the bed, sinking into the thin wool blanket. For now, he wanted the memory of the fence kiss to himself. It was his, his and Amber’s, and he wanted to stretch out with it and stay there for a few more hours.
Part Two: Marianne
Marianne always put on many layers before she left her apartment. She was looking for a place where time might suspend itself, where the city would continue to throb—lights and sounds and people—but not come near her, a little patch of peace. She’d always liked the field because of the light from the pool, the way it glinted and shone out, illuminating the playground, making it feel safe. But she sometimes forgot it was open, that there were people in there—half-naked in spite of it being January.
It was when she turned, toy in hand poised for another toss, that she saw a shape pressed against the glass. She reared back, nearly tripping over the dog, which yipped and skittered across the ice. The boy was so close to the window she could make out his features. It appeared he was watching her. But no, it would be too dark out for him to see, wouldn’t it? What was he doing? He was just a boy, half her age, leaning against the life jackets.
Marianne turned and called to the dog. Its name was the embarrassing too-cute-for-words type. Heartbreak. It had worked when he was a puppy. But the wobbly puppy was now a dog, and a grown woman was standing in a field at night, calling, “Come, Heartbreak. Here, Heartbreak”—it made her self-conscious, and she regretted the choice. Now she mostly called him, “boy.”
“Here, boy! Ready, boy?” She threw the disc, and when he returned and would not let it go—requesting a tug of war she didn’t care to give—she took an orange rubber ball from her pocket and threw it instead. It disappeared, making a hole in the snow. Either the dog would find it or he wouldn’t, and if he didn’t, she would come back again during a melt and reclaim it. This had happened several times already. Brightly colored rubber toys were lost, then recovered.
Marianne glanced over her shoulder at the recreation center. The boy had stepped away from the glass. His back was to her. Her shoulders relaxed, let down with relief. The closest official off-leash park was a thirty-minute walk and she couldn’t endure the cold much longer than that, limiting any playtime. Sometimes the joy of the athleticism took over, and the dog would tear around, leaping and lifting up, and Marianne too would forget the appropriate amount of reserve for a thirtysomething. Since she had begun to run the dog each night, she slept better.
There was another small park where she took the dog sometimes, which she had nicknamed the Pet Sematary—scarier than this one. It had a community garden cordoned off with a fence, little scrub plants enveloped in burlap, and pieces of plastic that flapped in the wind, startling Marianne, and sometimes Heartbreak who, spooked, would lurch in the other direction. In spite of what seemed to be a cheery community initiative, more crack heads wandered through that park, or hunkered down there, weather permitting, than ever did in the school yard/rec center. The Pet Sematary was at the end of the Milky Way, a narrow alley where a woman’s body had been found three years ago now. Not a whole body, just a part.
Marianne’s hood fell back as she flung the toy as hard and far from her as she could.
Marianne had woken and looked out the window at the chaos of cruisers. She’d known immediately that it was a murder because of the number of police cars. What she hadn’t known was that it was only half a woman, a torso. A leg had already been found farther north at the dump. A cameraman relished telling her. She could still remember his grin as he said, “Homicide.” She had been shuttling out to buy bread and coffee, a means of monitoring the commotion peripherally.
They couldn’t identify the body. If they could identify the body—Marianne realized her knowledge was based on movies and TV series—they would find its killer from among the acquaintances and make their arrest. In the next couple days, police officers made an effort to find leads by asking the neighbors to open their homes without warrant, let them come in and ask questions. News sites explained that it was within one’s rights to refuse, but most people complied.
“I think we should do this,” Marianne had said to Robert.
“Of course,” he’d said. “I think everybody will, don’t you?”
“I’d like to think so.”
A male officer and a female officer came to Marianne and Robert’s apartment around three o’clock on Sunday. They asked what type of garbage bags the household used. The woman cop did most of the talking. What size and color please. If they had any large kitchen knives. Did they have a saw? What other tools did they own? Could we see them please? May we look in your bathtub? What are these bags in this closet? What’s behind this panel? Do you mind opening your fridge?
The police came back the next night and spent two hours questioning the next-door neighbor. It began with two cruisers. Then there were six. Marianne went into the bathroom and tried to listen through the wall where the insulation was thinnest, because sometimes she could hear whole conversations, distinct television dialogue there, the video games that the neighbor played. “Do you think . . . ?” Marianne and Robert said to each other, shuddering.
The neighbor’s name was Wallace Dent; sometimes his mail wound up in their box. An art student who dressed in black, Wallace never said hello, or else said it grudgingly. There was an old bed sheet with fake blood on it hanging in the shared basement where the fuse boxes were, leftover from the time he and his friends had tried to make a movie. Kid stuff, they thought. His girlfriend had moved out recently, although they hadn’t actually seen her go. Wallace and Marianne had only had one conversation when he had lost his cat. Did men who chopped up their girlfriends own cats? When the cruisers went away again, without Wallace Dent, Marianne and her boyfriend assumed they had put Wallace through the ringer for refusing to let them in the first time—for exercising his rights. Marianne could often smell the skunk scent of pot creeping through the drywall; it was possible he had just been paranoid, and hadn’t wanted them to see his drug paraphernalia or his art. They’d mistaken his youthful paranoia for guilt.
Wallace didn’t say hello to Marianne much after that, though he never had before either. Marianne looked away whenever she passed him on the porch.
There was a painting she’d studied in an undergrad class that Marianne kept envisioning—slides and slides hanging, shifting, almost shape-shifting into one another, in a dark room. Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime. One of the Romantics—was it Prud’hon, or maybe Géricault? Two winged women seemed to glide, red-robed, hair flowing, carrying torches overhead against the darkness as a man, barefoot, ran looking backwards. Below them, the body: naked, yellow-gray, on a pile of rubble. Every time Marianne read the word “torso” it was this mottled color—celadon, almost like algae—that surfaced in her mind.
The victim’s husband was arrested. He lived one block farther west than the door-to-door search area. It took three weeks for the arrest to be made: the amount of time for the body to be ID’d; the amount of time for coworkers to realize the woman who had stopped coming to work might, in fact, be missing. During those weeks, Marianne slept restlessly. She felt fevered. Every time she stepped outside the door, she looked at the alley. She thought about the torso. Had he transported it by car, or had he carried it there in his arms the way you would carry a baby or a paper bag of groceries? “Stop thinking about the torso,” she told herself, using the word again and seeing its color.
The only people to give comment on the news were the homeless men who hung around the Parkdale liquor store. On television, they didn’t look homeless, just bearded. They spoke surprisingly well. Eyes that normally looked bleary with alcohol were, in that context, bright with tears. Marianne wondered what it said about her community that they were the only ones who had been willing to speak out for a dead woman. She wanted someone to leave flowers or crosses for the anonymous woman, but no one did, including Marianne. It was only the woman’s chest. Maybe people didn’t make memorials for half a person. Maybe that wasn’t done.
Later, that spring, a bar opened up on the block and Marianne watched teenagers smoking weed at the mouth of the alley, going back there to urinate, or sometimes make out or break up. Men in their twenties with ironic caps and draped checked neck scarves peed on the place the body had lain. Young women who were skinnier than Marianne could ever remember being, who wore jeans so snug they looked like leotards, argued about fidelity with their boyfriends (or on gay dance nights, their girlfriends), repeating the same lines again and again as if they were from an audition script: “I saw you looking at her, I saw you talking to her, I saw you.”
Later too, when Robert got her the dog, Marianne found herself outside at odd hours, trying to housebreak Heartbreak. Drunk kids would run up and grab Heartbreak around his neck. In the middle of the afternoon, an old man in the parkette by the mental health center said, “Nice dog!” then tried to clasp Marianne and kiss her, asking if she’d be his wife, while the puppy veered in the opposite direction on his tether. A city worker’s truck pulled up alongside Marianne at 6 a.m. one day. The man inside rolled down the pickup window and had a full, very jovial, conversation about the dog’s size and breed while Marianne stood anxiously, shifting from foot to foot, waiting for the dog to do his business or the truck to drive off—preferably both.
She felt watched all the time. She stopped trusting people. She stopped having sex with Robert. She stopped sleeping. Whenever she climbed into bed, she felt like she was climbing into a boxing ring. She couldn’t shut off the thoughts that went through her. She would either lie very still, awake, watching the digital clock change the lines of its numbers, or else would sleep briefly only to wake in the middle of the night. She stood in the shower crying, though when Robert came to retrieve her and clasp her wet against him, stroking her hair, she couldn’t say why.
She walked out at 5 a.m. without the puppy and went four blocks, under the railroad overpass, to the 24-hour store for sleeping pills. She developed a monosyllabic relationship with the clerk, who was a good-looking young Chinese man in a white T-shirt. He always looked at her with pity and Marianne wondered what she looked like.
One night, she stopped and sat on the steps of the post office. She took the cap off the bottled water and broke the foil on the pill pack. She stared at the torn-up street. A small orange digger sat still under the streetlight, the machinery ready to resume whenever someone came along and commanded it to. Construction was still taking place. Life in the city continued. Dark figures bobbed out of the mouths of side streets and along the sidewalks: some were already dressed, properly, and clutching portable coffee mugs; others were disheveled, half stumbling, people like her, people who needed a fix, people who couldn’t sleep.
She went to see a therapist and said, “I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
In the small bright yellow room, the woman in the armchair cocked her head and said, “What do you mean?”
Marianne looked at the lemon-colored baseboard—which was sitting loose on the carpet, propped against the wall as if someone intended to nail it back into place—and didn’t answer.
She quit her job and went on antidepressants. She went to sleep early and got up late. She slept as if she were making up for lost time. Ten hours every night. She slept as if she were in training for something, as if she were competing for an award for best sleeper. The fog dwindled as the dog grew bigger, surer of his surroundings. In a few months time, long walks replaced the pills.
The fenced enclosure, however dark, was safer than the street. In spite of being in the middle of the city, if she tipped her head back it was dark enough to see stars overhead, just a couple. Marianne threw the disc and the dog rose up, caught it, then dropped it, tugged at its paw with its teeth, trying to dislodge ice from toes. There had been a memorial here, along the fence, for a little girl. Marianne hadn’t followed the news on that one. She just didn’t have it in her. In the summer, families from the Baha’i Apartment Towers nearby came and sat in the dry grass, picnicking. She couldn’t bring the dog at 4 or 5 p.m. because there were many people, children, bicycles. There were no trees or benches—not much more than a field with a baseball diamond, a couple of naked basketball hoops, one brightly colored climber surrounded by a moat of pebbles—yet it served so many. In a smaller town, it was the kind of place no one would have used or thought twice about. A blank space.
Marianne glanced warily again over her shoulder, but in the community center, which curved out like a solarium, there was only a teenage girl crouched over the pool in a purple one-piece. The boy was gone—or in the pool, too low for Marianne to see. The diver seemed like she was on a stage, posed for Marianne to witness. The girl’s body was poised, rigid, her arms extended, muscles flexed and ready to dive. The look on her face was one of such intense absorption that Marianne felt a sudden, almost ecstatic burst of envy. She was so young, oblivious—her taut arms like arrows pointed toward the hugeness of the future.
Marianne shivered. She folded the disc and shoved it in the pocket of her giant parka, along with the ball, snapped the leash onto Heartbreak’s collar, and began to jog home. Running with the dog was good for her health, her emotions; dogs needed exercise every day so that’s what you did, she told herself, regardless of the weather, regardless of what was out there, or how you felt. The snow wet her hair and cheeks, the wind knocked at her with brutal precision. She felt like something small, forging against the tide. The animal matched her pace, as if it too was anxious now for home, for warmth, the way their bodies would buzz when they came back into themselves in the heat of the old apartment.
On a photographer’s website Marianne had seen a picture once, of strangers—according to the artist statement—glimpsed through a gap in a curtained window. They were making spaghetti in their kitchen. The couple gathered around the strainer and the sink. The woman’s hair was down, dark, hiding part of her face. She had a tentative look, a waiting look. Only the man’s shoulders showed clearly, his hand mid-gesture, reaching, a blur. The camera had caught the moment the steam rose in clouds from the silver bowl. Was it possible they were really unknown to the photographer? Or was the whole thing arranged?
Robert would be at home, not making spaghetti, but nonetheless in the kitchen. When Marianne returned, she would unwind herself from winter, peel off the layers of clothing, unhook the dog from its harness, leave her boots on the mat, and go to him, sneaking her numb hands under his shirt against his warm chest.
Emily Schultz is the co-founder of Joyland Magazine, host of the podcast Truth & Fiction, and creator of the blog Spending the Stephen King Money. Schultz’s newest novel is The Blondes (St. Martin’s Press). NPR included it as a Great Read and Kirkus selected it as a Best Fiction Book of 2015. Her writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review, The Fanzine, The Butter, and Prairie Schooner. She lives in Brooklyn.
“A Talent for Sleep” was originally printed in July, 2011 by The New Quarterly.