Joni’s great dread is to wake while attacking someone. Every night she fights sleep, knotted and pale, the blue moonlight creeping through her blinds and slicing stripes across her bed. She’s always been a sleepwalker, and fears it isn’t beyond possibility to wake in the middle of the street while a car is careening toward her, blinding headlights and the shadowy silhouette of some broad shouldered man or coiffured woman. Or that she’ll step out the window of her second floor apartment, toes first, and hit the ground, crumpling like an accordion. Or she’ll tear a limb from her cat, Joe, or put her head in the oven, or slice through the flesh of her inner arm like soft cheese.
So she rarely sleeps. She dozes when she can’t help it.
On Wednesday she lies in bed listening to the commotion outside, nothing unusual. Stragglers leaving the bar across the street, which closes at midnight, two on weekends. A man, drunk and ornery— I told you I would unfriend her and I did! A woman replying— As if you’re not still texting. As fucking if! And Joni thinks how people turn into children when they drink. Or maybe some never grow out of childhood. Intentional stunting, like a Bonsai tree. Only so much uglier, she says to Joe, who is stretched across the pillow next to her. Bonsais require delicate care and attention. Perhaps it is a similar effort to stunt your worldview, to dwarf your relationships and vocabulary and therefore, just maybe, your age. She wonders if this man plays video games in the afternoon, screaming at the TV, and if the woman is desperate to please her friends. Maybe they’ve each cheated, been forgiven and cheated again, a cycle of misery they feel is outside of themselves somehow. He probably wears his sunglasses on the back of his head. Joni gets up and peeks through her blinds, and sure enough. She grabs her camera from her nightstand and takes a shot, his hand in the air as he walks away from the woman. Her arms folded across her chest as she follows in wobbly heels. Clack, clack, clack.
The camera whirs mechanically and the photo glides out of the bottom, a glossy black square that she sets on the sill.
One of the bar employees steps outside, a young man, dragging a garbage can to the sidewalk. He lights a cigarette and sits on the curb. Joni snaps a picture of him as well, a speck of hot ash glowing, long arms draped loosely over his knees, his face pinched in the yellow street light. This is his nightly ritual.
You’re going to grow old so quickly, she whispers. You’re already old, you just don’t realize it.
Joe jumps up on the bedside table and arches his back, rubbing his head against Joni’s arm until she absently pets him. The man across the street takes out his phone and runs his finger across the glowing screen and Joni lets the blinds snap shut.
She goes to her tiny kitchen and heats water for chamomile tea. It doesn’t help, but she’s grown to enjoy its sweet, grassy scent, the scald on her tongue and down her throat. Her hands shake as she sets the pot on the stove and turns the dial. Lack of sleep will do strange things to your body. Odd pains, hot skin, a deep fuzzy sadness that blooms in the dark.
When’s the last time I left this apartment? she asks Joe, though he’s nowhere to be seen. I took that meeting last month… She trails off, an easy habit to slip into when most of your conversations are with a cat. He requires no follow up, no carefully chosen words.
She takes her tea and two Polaroids and sits on the couch, which is across from her bed and under the adjacent window. On the coffee table is a stack of books and she opens the top one, flipping through until she reaches a blank page. By now her pictures have processed— they are grainy and washed with yellow. The man walking away from the woman is mid-step, the street light reflecting off his expansive forehead, his hand up, fingers splayed. The woman behind him is saying something with her mouth pulled downward and open.
Joni runs a glue stick along the back of each and pastes them into the book. Underneath the man, she writes Embryo and under the woman Abandonment. Under the man sitting on the curb, she writes Bones #11.
She reaches for a different book on the table, the most worn, and flips to where the pages naturally fall open, to the one she loves most. A Lovely Woman. Maybe forty, which was Joni’s own age when she took the photo, nearly five years ago. The woman isn’t rushing, which is what made Joni take notice. Her legs— in light, soft looking overalls— appear to be standing still, though Joni remembers she never stood completely still. She wandered. In the photo her face is slightly blurred, because she had turned her head toward a squirrel that was skittering across the street, but you can still make out her features. Just. A wide mouth. Sharp cheekbones. Small eyes with pale lashes that most women would blacken with mascara. Not this woman. She carried a large bag, and spent a good deal of time rummaging around in it for a cigarette. All the while stepping slowly, halting, turning, looking. She’s not going anywhere, Joni had said to Joe, who was only a kitten.
Joni wants to walk with this woman, and has many times in her mind as she tries not to sleep. They wouldn’t plan to go anywhere, but who knows where they’d end up?
I feel like tea, the woman would say, and they would go to a coffee shop and sit at the window. This sun is gorgeous! And she would light a cigarette, then lift an eyebrow when the manager tells her no smoking. She would turn in her chair to face him. Used to be we could smoke in places like this. And they would leave, feeling bold and ridiculous. Joni would bring her here, and Joe would weave around her ankles and purr, and she would be delighted. Of course she would.
Joni runs the palm of her hand across the photo and shuts the book. She finishes her tea, which has gone bitter because she forgot to take out the bag. Then she finds Joe sitting near the aloe plant on the table, peeking at her from between the fat, rubbery leaves.
You like to feel wild, don’t you, jungle cat. She takes him to bed, but he is wide awake and stiffens as she carries him, then tears off across her mattress as soon as she sets him down. Her eyes feel gritty and she curls on her side.
Don’t let me sleep, she says, but Joe is in the corner licking his paws. He becomes blurry as her eyes drift out of focus, until he is only a smudge against a hazy space.
Don’t let me sleep, Joe.
But it feels so good to let her eyes close, if just for a moment. To drift on the voices outside her window, to walk once more with the woman in the photo.
Angie Ellis lives on Vancouver Island in Canada, where she is working on her first novel. An excerpt from that novel was recently featured as Story of the Week in Narrative Magazine. You can find her short stories in Passages North, Agnes and True, and (b)OINK. http://www.angieelliswriter.com.