His girlfriend had been a sleepwalker when he met her. She’d warned him after they’d been on a few dates, when he asked her back to his place for the first time. At that point, they’d made out and groped a little bit in his car when he dropped her off at the apartment she shared with her sister, but nothing more, and he felt as though he would actually die if he didn’t sleep with her soon.
I’ve always done it. Not every night, but most.
She told him about the first time she remembered waking up in another room. She was five years old, and found herself standing on the kitchen counter, clutching the open cabinet door and staring at dishes. She screamed. Her parents came running. Her baby sister wailed in her crib.
When it happened again, twice that same week, her parents installed a latch high on the front door, a gate at the kitchen doorway, and locked up the knives in case she could climb the gate. They’d never had to babyproof before—she’d always been such a docile little thing and the baby wasn’t even crawling yet.
And that was why, she told him as they kissed in his car, if he wanted to spend the night with her, it would have to be at her place, where it was safe.
Sure, cool , he panted, painfully erect.
Nothing happened that first night. They fumbled toward her bedroom in the dark, had fast, desperate sex on her unmade bed, then slept soundly until morning, when they did it again, more slowly, in the light this time.
As they continued to go out over the next few months, the sleepwalking didn’t come up again. Sure, he’d woken up a few times to find her sitting up in bed or even standing in the adjoining bathroom. He’d ask some preliminary questions to determine if she was really asleep, charmed by the loopy conversations that would ensue.
You’re just in your own world right now, aren’t you?
These pants need hemming. They’re so long. I don’t know why I bought them, it’s like they’re for a different person.
What would you do if I walked over and shook you awake? Would you freak out?
Is that the dog whining? Jesus, would someone let the dog out?
There was no dog. And then, on rare occasions, if he paid close enough attention, he was rewarded with an unfiltered glimpse into her soul. On those nights, he would hover nearby as she stood before the bathroom mirror with her eyes closed, listening as she revealed her darkest fears, her ambitions too lofty to voice in daylight. He watched her cry, desperate to hold her, but knowing better than to reach out.
She’d long ago installed a locking mechanism on the stove, so he didn’t need to worry about her starting any fires. And she always found her way back under the covers and into his arms. But still, he got into the habit of locking the bedroom door after she was asleep and unlocking it again before she woke up in the morning. He saw no reason to mention any of it to her.
Maybe I’m cured, she said.
Maybe . The man smiled. How many people got a secret view into their partner’s unconscious? He’d be bragging to all his friends if he weren’t so afraid of her finding out.
After a year, he asked her to move into his place. He was tired of paying rent on an apartment he was never at, tired of packing an overnight bag, tired of never being able to just watch a movie on the couch together without her sister—who was nice and all, but kept unpredictable hours—tumbling through the front door laden with bags and full of chatter about her day.
She was nervous. She’d never lived with anyone but family. She’d commuted to a college near home so she wouldn’t have to burden strangers in the dorms with her nighttime roaming. But things had been going so well. She was in love with him. Plus, she hadn’t had any sleepwalking episodes in ages, and she couldn’t help speculating it was because she felt so safe, finally, so loved. Even her sister agreed it seemed like a reasonable idea. In fact, her sister had a friend who could move in immediately because it turned out the walls of the guest house she’d been renting were crawling with black mold.
Don’t worry , he said, kissing her neck. I’ll lock up the knives…just in case.
Maybe it was the change of home environment, or maybe the anxiety of taking their relationship to the next level, but the sleepwalking ramped up as soon as she moved in. Not just the frequency, but the very character of her sleep-state had transformed, well, overnight. Now, instead of just floating about the room babbling non-sequiturs, she seemed hell-bent on action.
The first night, with all her stuff still in boxes, he was woken up by a strange draft in the room, his mild confusion giving way to a dry-mouthed panic as he realized she wasn’t in bed, and the apartment door was wide open to the night air. To his dismay, she’d apparently had no trouble unlocking the bedroom door, and the front door was no hindrance either, even with a deadbolt and chain.
He wrestled himself into a pair of shorts and took off running down the street. Luckily, he spotted her within a minute. Unluckily, she was halfway up the fire escape of a neighboring building. His first instinct was to run up the ladder and throw her over his shoulder as if he were saving her from an actual fire. But what if she woke up? Wasn’t that supposed to be dangerous, to wake a sleepwalker? He couldn’t remember what exactly the danger was. When he’d first started spending the night at her place, she’d told him to just wait it out if he ever caught her roaming. She always made it back to bed, she said. But she’d never told him what would happen on the off chance she didn’t.
Paralyzed by indecision, he just stood there watching her climb. Maybe if it’d been winter, the cold would’ve shocked her awake. But it was early June. The air was mild, like a soothing breath against her bare skin in nothing but a tank top and underwear.
Then, when she got within spitting distance of the roof, he was gripped by a new panic. Would she jump? The building was only three stories, but that was high enough—maybe not to kill her on impact, but she’d certainly be banged up. He got himself into an ineffectual catching stance, not quite awake enough to think clearly.
Thankfully, rather than climbing over the ledge onto the roof, she took a seat on the top level of the fire escape. He decided to take a chance and get closer. He climbed up to her level and sat a few feet away, keeping a bit of distance so as not to startle her if she woke up suddenly.
Are you…asleep? he whispered.
Her eyes were closed. She didn’t answer.
Say something. Please.
Without a word, she stood up and began climbing down again. He followed, keeping a few paces between them at all times, watching in astonishment at her sense of geography as she lowered herself to the sidewalk, returned to the apartment, and tucked herself back into bed. He considered whether he ought to tell her in the morning. Instead he lifted the blanket and very carefully wiped the dirt off the soles of her feet with a warm washcloth. Then he lay down beside her and stared out the window at the low white moon.
By October, he felt his grip on normalcy was growing more strained by the day. While she was obliviously well-rested, he was a sleepless wreck, always on alert to prevent nighttime disasters. But for every night she shortened his lifespan with another death-defying 3:00 am outing or successful hunt for car keys, matches, and even, one hair-raising midnight, the pistol he’d thought was secure in a wall safe at the back of the closet, there was an altogether different sort of night. On these nights, he would be roused from his one-eye-open pseudo-sleep by what he’d privately taken to calling “the fuckwave” for the way it overtook him like the sea.
The sex was good when they were both awake, always had been. But in the middle of the night, she became something that felt more than human, did things that confounded him even as his body quaked in ecstasy. As soon as he felt her looming over him, her hair brushing against his face and panties flicked off in the dark, he felt compelled to reassure himself that he was awake, that this was happening in real life. He would pull on his leg hairs, dig a fingernail into his cheek. Then, as she took decisive control over his body, he watched her—her eyes closed, always, her body stretching and shifting in ways he couldn’t understand—until he lost the ability to tell the difference between conscious and un. When he came, every part of him seemed to uncoil and sing at once, and she—where was she? One moment she was solid, hot and slick in his hands, and the next moment she was vapor, spreading through the room, between his toes and the follicles of his hair.
While he caught his breath, blinking wildly in the dark, she would rematerialize beside him, softly snoring as though none of it had happened. He was drowned and he was baptized. The fuckwave.
If he told her about any of it, he’d have to tell her about all of it. She’d never trust him again. She’d move out immediately. So he kept his mouth shut, taking his precautions in secret. Since normal locks couldn’t hold her anymore, he maxed out his credit card on a remote control locking system that could only be activated by his thumbprint, staying up after she was asleep every night to set it and waking up early to deactivate the whole operation. He was unsettled at first by the feeling that he was keeping her caged, but ultimately he felt okay about it. What she didn’t know couldn’t hurt her. She still woke him up at night, clawing at the windows and rattling the bedroom door, but at least no one was in mortal danger.
Still, his work began to suffer. He was forgetting simple things. One day, he forgot the password he’d been using to log into the company database for six years. He could call the IT department to reset it, but he kept putting it off, thinking he’d surely remember it soon enough. He was spacing out in meetings, making stupid mistakes. His boss had a talk with him, asked him if everything was okay. He said everything was fine, why would she ask? Didn’t he seem fine? He resented the look of concern in her eyes, the way she perched on his desk. When she left his office, he stood up and shut the door behind her.
Days later, he woke up in a puddle of drool on his desk. His phone was off the hook, a screaming dial tone. What time was it? What day? He didn’t have a window in his office. The client he’d been talking to when he fell asleep called the main office to complain. It was the last straw.
Layoffs , he told his girlfriend.
She led him to the kitchen table, gave him a shoulder massage.That’s corporate America for you, she said. No such thing as loyalty.
She, on the contrary, had just been promoted to head librarian of her branch. She was making enough to support them, living cheaply as they did in a one-bedroom apartment several miles from the cool part of town. He could relax, take stock, find the next step in his career with no pressure. She’d made enchiladas. They’d be ready in twenty minutes.
He slept until 1:00 or 2:00 most days, heated up leftovers, ate in his boxers on the couch. He’d exhausted his Netflix options. He’d read every book and magazine in the house. He left the radio on all day just to cut the silence. His girlfriend had suggested they get a dog to give him a reason to get out of the house, but he nixed that idea. He’d have a new job any day now, and then who would take care of it?
But instead of job-hunting, he’d taken to spending the solitary hours of the afternoon snooping. He didn’t know what he was looking for as he pored over his girlfriend’s photos and boxes of keepsakes. As he took each article of her clothing out of the closet, examining the fibers of every dress and top. As he tried every combination of her birthday, high school mascot and favorite TV show in attempts to guess her email password. He told himself he was just trying to understand her better.
The thing was, everything had changed when they’d moved in together, and it had changed again since he lost his job. After all the effort he’d put into controlling her sleep environment, her body’s drive to roam seemed to have gone literally dormant. She was sleeping more peacefully than ever, but he was still staring at the ceiling all night, perpetually on the brink of a panic attack, still keeping everything locked up just in case and setting his alarm to deactivate it before she woke up. It wasn’t until after she left for work that he was able to relax and fall asleep.
Not only that, but the fuckwave hadn’t made an appearance in weeks. What had he done to break its spell? He wanted nothing, not a new job or a new car or a million dollars, so much as some kind of balance, a sweet spot where he could spend his nights feeling like the most caring, attentive listener on earth, then be fucked into oblivion by the woman of his dreams.
One day, after she’d left for the library, he opened up her laptop and found—miracle of miracles—that she’d left her inbox open. After a split second’s hesitation, he clicked on an email from her sister:
Any time you want to move back, just say the word. I mean, give me like thirty days notice so Donna has time to find another place. But, really, just do it if things are that grim, life’s too short.
He swallowed, but there was no saliva in his mouth. He rubbed his eyes. He’d barely slept. He read on.
In a thread going back weeks, his girlfriend detailed all her disappointments with him, with their life. How he wasn’t taking care of himself. How she found their apartment depressing and poorly lit, but they couldn’t afford to move until he got a job, which he didn’t seem to be in any hurry to do. How sex had grown rote and infrequent at that.
He shut the laptop, got up and paced up and down the living room. He showered for the first time in three days. He meant to clean the apartment, open the blinds, scrub the windows so some sun could get in. But he was so tired. So, so tired. He took a moment to rest on the couch, still in his towel.
Next thing he knew, the sun was setting. He blinked, heard a scratching noise. It was her key in the front door. He’d told her he would have dinner ready when she got home.
That night, he watched her get ready for bed. She applied coconut-scented moisturizer in a circular motion up and down her limbs. He watched her face in the mirror as she brushed her teeth and took out her contact lenses, their gazes never meeting. Let me in, let me in, let me in, he thought. When she came to bed, he tried to touch her. She said she was tired.
All night, he worried. He tried to retrace his steps, figure out where he’d gone wrong, but the days and nights all seemed a blur. What could he do to convince her to stay? Then the sheets rustled. She sat up, hair tumbling down her back. Gently, he rose up onto his elbows and held his breath as he watched her rise from the bed. It was happening again, and he didn’t want to miss a thing.
I think I left the kitchen light on , she said. She rattled the doorknob. She rattled it harder. Is this door locked?