UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Cindy and I kept waking up angry. This didn’t start until nine months deep, after she moved in and our initial animal burning was smothered
Some restless sense of vulnerability about exposing myself in that helpless state normally kept me from sinking all the way down—I couldn’t sleep on airplanes or in libraries, either—and on the rare nights I went home with a woman and the liquor made my thoughts too soggy to create an excuse for leaving, I’d huddle defensively near the edge of the mattress, trying to avoid her sticky presence as I flicked in and out of sleep.
But I never had that problem with Cindy. I just slept.
Was this all my fault? Would everything have changed if I had told the smallest of lies? The night before the first incident, as we climbed blearily into bed after splitting a bottle of wine, she asked me, very casually, if I ever dreamt about her.
“Not that I can remember,” I told her honestly. “But that doesn’t mean I haven’t.”
She threw the covers back and crawled underneath. “Asshole. You probably dream about Paris Hilton.”
“Pamela Anderson, actually. Big fan of her oeuvre.” I turned off the lights and slid in next to her. “Why? Ever dream of me?” She slapped at the pillow, bunching it in the middle, then smoothed out the creases and lay her head down. “Few times a week.” She turned towards the wall. “Last night we were wandering through the halls of my old high school, trying to find a classroom. We had to take a test or something. But we couldn’t find it and ended up making out underneath the gym bleachers.”
I shifted towards her, slipping my hand underneath her nightshirt. “PE always was my favorite subject.”
She pushed me back. “Not only does the asshole I dream about not dream about me, he expects cheap wine and half-assed lines are enough to get him laid?”
My hand kept digging. “Got to start somewhere. Give me something to dream about tonight.” She gasped and stopped resisting as I stroked the skin underneath her panties, my fingers diving into her heat while she squirmed.
The next morning I woke up sweating, dream flitting out of my head in a Technicolor whirl. I had an empty, agitated feeling as I squinted against the gray light oozing in from behind the blinds. Cindy rustled next to me, elbowing my ribs. I pushed her back towards her own side.
“Hey.” She turned towards me, face heavy with sleep. “Why’d you do that?”
“You nudged me.”
“I nudged you?” She sat up and tore at a strand of blonde hair caught in her eyelashes. “Well, God, sorry for nudging you. You didn’t have to nudge me back so hard. I was dreaming.”
I swung my legs over the side of the mattress and ran my hands down my face, trying to wipe away the cottony ache in my head. “About what?”
She flopped back down on the bed and threw the blankets over herself. “I can’t remember. You woke me up.”
The rest of the day had a bizarre, tense quality to it, as though we were pulling each conversation in opposite directions, and we spoke as little as possible. We had fought before, the same type of arguments that keep every relationship breathing: commitment, money, a dislike of each other’s friends. That day, though, we couldn’t place what troubled us. Something new. Something deeper. An oily film layered everything, a film neither of us bothered to scrape away before it made our touches slippery and words heavy. I didn’t give her the usual call during my lunch break at the Book Nook. We didn’t tell each other goodnight as I turned off the lamp before bed.
She was already in the kitchen making coffee when I awoke the next morning. “What was that about?” she asked, handing me a mug.
“Yesterday?” I took a sip. “Nerves? Hormones? Rotten bottle of merlot?”
She smiled. “You’re the one who bought it, smart guy.” She unwrapped her fingers from the mug and reached across the counter to grab my hands. “Guess it’s about time we had a bad day. I was beginning to think we were too good to be true.”
The second time came a few weeks after the first. “That’s two hours of my life I want back,” I told her after a poorly-conceived romantic comedy as we worked our way through the cineplex parking garage. “I think I lost ten IQ points.”
“Uh oh. You didn’t have many to spare.” She slugged my shoulder. “And I liked it. You’re just not in touch with your feminine side.”
“Maybe not.” I wrapped my arms around her. “But in about a half hour, I’ll be in touch with yours.” She broke free and raced ahead, her laughter pinging off the parked cars.
Her shouts woke me up the next morning as they drowned out the buzz of the alarm. “Why’d you set it so fucking early?” She grabbed the pillow from underneath my head and threw it on the floor.
“Fuck you!” I tore off her sheets as a wet fury flooded my brain. She sprang onto all fours and I did the same. We crawled around cagily on the bare mattress, glaring at each other with predatory intensity. But neither of us made a move and after a few minutes the tension trickled out and we put the bed back together, the snapping of the sheets amplified throughout the room as we pulled them taut.
It began happening once a month. We’d go to bed in wonderful moods, tired or drunk or sex-spent, sleeping the deep milky slumber reserved for babies or the comatose. Then the night would slither around us, silent and constrictive, and we’d wake up with an impotent frustration, pissed at things we couldn’t explain. Neither of us remembered our dreams on those nights. We’d wake feeling a restless, blunted anger that we’d try to sharpen on each other.
“I want you to watch me sleep,” she said, cleaning up the ribbony nailmarks she had etched into my chest one morning as we struggled for mattress space.
I went through a pot of coffee that night, watching her intently, hoping for any kind of clue. She fanned her limbs out over the mattress, sighed a lot, and made some unpleasant chewing noises. Nothing that could be interpreted as combative. She couldn’t remember her dream when she woke up.
The next night she returned the favor. I mumbled a little and farted a few times, but nothing to hint at the source of morning madness. No dream, either. Just a cool blue humming in my brain as I awoke.
“You’re just too wound up,” Dr. Lisa Love told us. “Both of you.” We couldn’t afford a real therapist, so we took our chances with 92.2 KRAD FM’s “Midnight Sex RAD-vice.” I listened on the radio in the next room as Cindy explained our problem to Dr. Love while thousands of listeners out in the darkness laughed or shook their heads or turned to their lovers and smiled, confident they’d never have our problem.
“You’re probably just subconsciously expressing pent-up stress. Take time to appreciate each other.” Sultry bass beats throbbed in the background, matching the tone and rhythm of Dr. Love’s voice. “And sex. Sex, sex, sex. All the time. There’s no problem you can’t screw away.”
We took her advice and began to compensate during the days, doing the little things reserved only for the lovefogged or the desperate. I made dinner, rubbed her feet, filled her car’s tank up with gas. She came to pick me up on the nights I’d cling precariously to the brick wall outside The Cactus at closing time, never complaining when I insisted on hitting up the Heff-T-Burger drive-thru on the way home. We had sex five, maybe six times on some days, limbs draped over each other like corpses as we passed out from exhaustion.
Nothing worked. We kept waking up angry. Her pinky made a sound like popcorn as I bent it backwards one morning, and the next week she kicked me in the balls so hard I had to miss work.
“I think we sleepfight,” she said after ripping out a handful of my hair. It looked alive and rodential, a pulsing brown mass in her hand as she clenched her fist.
I rubbed the raw spot on my scalp. “Really? You think?”
We sat at opposite ends of the bed, giving each other space. “Maybe in our sleep we say all the things we can’t say awake.”
“Then let’s get it all out now. Leave nothing to fight about in our sleep.”
She looked at me sadly, nodding as she inhaled a wheezy breath through her nostrils. Then, in a vomitous rush allowing us no time to think, we spoke.
“You don’t give me enough positive support,” she said. “You’re too self-absorbed.”
“I liked your hair better long,” I told her. “You look like a little boy.”
And so on and so forth; we had a big tearful argument and settled it with the most exaggerated set of promises we could loop together. We had a spectacular round of sex, spent the rest of the day no more than a whisper apart, and fell asleep that night cradled in each other’s arms, lost in a rose-tinted stupor.
I burst awake with my fist bleeding from the two holes I had punched in the wall. Cindy screamed and clawed at my throat. I grabbed her arms and stared straight into the gray fissures that cracked her iceblue eyes, which looked back at me with a mixture of passion and terror that made my insides go slack. We panted as the delirium seeped out, our sharp breaths puncturing the cold air. The weak morning light cast her features in an eerie, indistinct glow.
“Oh,” she said. “It wasn’t...” She trailed off, moving her gaze behind me. I felt impossibly tired and released her arms. She let them slap limply against her sides as a desperate silence thickened between us. Then she pulled her nightshirt over her face and began sobbing.
I knew she was gone before I woke up. The bed felt uneven. She had taken a few pairs of clothes and didn’t leave a note. I trudged through the day, letting the phone ring at work as I deliberately shelved books in the wrong sections: Morrison’s Beloved under horror, Vidal’s Lincoln under erotica. I tried to convince myself that it had to happen. Sometimes we had no say in these types of things. Fate, I reasoned. For the best.
I got shithoused at The Cactus that night, more out of boredom than for any therapeutic effect, and ended up going home with a big-boned redhead who told me she could fuck the sad out of my eyes. I rolled off her feeling reborn, as though I just broke through to sunshine after digging my way out of an avalanche.
I sneaked out when she was in the bathroom and jogged the ten blocks to my apartment, exhilarated and spent, smiling as I climbed fully-clothed into bed.
Except I couldn’t sleep. The mattress felt lumpy and a tiny itch dug through my body, evading my attempts to scratch it. My thoughts skipped through my head like flat stones over glassy water, and I oscillated between shivers and sweat. Every hushed noise was a sonic boom, every play of light an atomic blast. It happened again the next night. And the night after. I gave up attempts at sleep, deciding instead to lie on the couch and watch TV with the sound off, the hallucinatory stream of colors and images the closest I could come to dreaming.
The fourth night I did this I heard the front door shut and looked up to find Cindy leaned against the doorway, dufflebag over her shoulder. Her hands shook and her face was saggy and pale as she stared at the TV. “You too?”
I nodded. “Guess we don’t have much of a choice.”
She dropped her bag and lay down next to me.
“Either die from insomnia or die from each other.”
She buried her head in my chest. “I just want to die in my sleep.”
When we woke on the couch the next morning, I had her in a headlock.
Cindy tackled things with a renewed sense of vigor. “We have to make this work,” she said as she showed me her recently-created chart that tracked the frequency and severity of our fights. She had completed one year of law school before dropping out, so everything was about reason, order, cause and effect. “There has to be some logic behind this, something we’re not doing right.”
First she insisted that we didn’t exercise enough. But after a few weeks of working out, our morning bruises became bigger and harder to hide so we stopped going to the gym, wasting our $300 membership.
Then she changed our diet: no spicy food, red meat, or beer. That lasted a week, and then we woke up the morning after she made eggplant loaf with my hand in her mouth, trying to yank out her tongue.
We slept in every room in the house, head-to-toe, perpendicular, with pillow walls between us or with our limbs duct taped. The harder we tried to prevent it, the harder we fought.
One night we wore mouthguards to bed along with oversized sweatsuits that we stuffed with t-shirts for extra padding. Our sleep-selves were cleverer than that, though, and we woke to find our sweatsuits ripped and the t-shirt viscera spilled over the bed.
“I miss dreaming,” she said one night. “More even than I’m afraid of the fighting, I miss my dreams.”
Across from me the open closet door spewed forth mounds of clothes that, in the mushy half-light of the room, looked like bodies slumped over one another.
We woke ourselves up screaming, the words right there but slipping away into the crevice of our subconscious as soon as we ripped ourselves from the dreams that lay blank and jumbled in our minds, like the flipped-over pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. No matter what we did, no matter how good the days were, we couldn’t keep the last few minutes before bedtime from hollowing us out, those quiet funereal moments avoiding each other’s eyes in the mirror as we washed our faces and brushed our teeth, filing mutely into the bedroom and giving each other a quick peck before burying ourselves in the sheets, the grim heaviness of night dangling over our heads. Cindy cried sometimes, curled in on herself at the edge of the mattress to try to hide it from me.
The Book Nook fired me after I missed four shifts in a row when she bit a chunk from my arm. I didn’t care. I lay in bed during the days, dozing and starting awake, stomach dropping whenever I heard her stomp through the front door. I barely ate and stopped dressing, wearing the same crotch-torn boxers as I plodded back and forth between the bedroom and bathroom.
The police stopped by one weekend to question me about Cindy’s black eye after her coworker reported it. I debated turning myself in—I did hit her, and the stark confines of a jail cell seemed like a welcome place to find sleep—but Cindy convinced them that an errant tennis ball had caused the damage and they left despite the unconvinced looks on their faces.
“What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t sleep without you here.” She looked in the bathroom mirror, tracing the outline of the purple mound swollen beneath her eyebrow. “And it’s not like you meant to, right?”
I braced myself against the doorframe. Brown stains seeped out of the grout between the tiles, leaving Rorschach blots across the floor. I saw a bat. A flower. Two skeletons dancing.
She stared at me in the mirror, finger hovering a few delicate inches from her eye. “Right?”
We were watching life through a clouded lens. Cindy stopped looking for reasons; she’d used up all her vacation time at the office and was eating into her sick days. We were too banged up to go out in public.
I had her in a full nelson when the idea came to me. So obvious, of course we missed it. She was still struggling, working out the residual aggression, so I kept her in the hold. “I know a way to make it stop.”
She dug her nails into my hands. “How?”
I let her go, and she whirled around.
The smile was there: genuine and genuinely missed. But then she tightened back up. “Yeah, cause husbands and wives never fight.”
“I’m serious. We can’t be apart. We can’t stay like this. Our sleep-selves are trying to tell us something. They’re not happy with the way things are.”
Her neck was ringed with the red imprint of my arm and she rubbed it absently. “But then why would our...‘sleep-selves’ fight? Wouldn’t they hug or kiss or fuck? Isn’t that a better way to show affection?”
I grabbed her wrist and squeezed. “Because they need to get the message across. You only hurt the one you love, right?”
She looked at me, then dropped her head and scanned the rumpled sheets, looking for a message encrypted into their folds and mounds. “I do love you.”
“I love you too. So marry me.”
She tilted her head, just a bit. Then smiled again.
The justice of the peace was a fat lady working in a flower shop. One of the other customers had to act as a witness. We took our free rose bouquet and walked out onto a sunny street so filled with possibility that the day bulged fatter than the Mylar Snoopy balloon attached to the flowers.
We lunched at the museum and then took a rented paddleboat out onto the pond to harass the geese. We even napped in the park, just a bit, and though I never drifted all the way down we woke back up still nestled in each other’s arms. A good sign.
Dinner was a supreme pizza from Uncle Bistolo’s and two bottles of Merlot. Dessert was a forty-five minute fuck session on the dining room table. I had cleared everything with one swoop of my arm, movie-style, tipping our leftovers, wine glasses, and trash onto the floor. “This is never coming out,” she laughed afterwards as she tried to wipe up the globs of marinara ground into the carpet.
Then it was time for bed.
We agreed: no pillow walls between us and no self-medicating with Ambien or Nyquil. We’d sleep the old way, together, embracing, like husbands and wives should.
That night, for the first time in months, I dreamt.
I was in a dusty pawn shop and a guy with a nasty combover and a face like a skeleton was trying to sell me an L-shaped piece of metal. As long as it’s not a gun, I said, and he said no, it’s notagun, it’s the best notagun we have. Great stopping power, he said.
I wanted to ask him what exactly it had the power to stop. Could it stop time? Could it stop fear? But the walls were loaded with junk and I was afraid they’d collapse so I gave him some money and left. I tripped on the doorframe and landed in my bed and Cindy looked peaceful next to me and I could tell she was dreaming too, could even see it, with purple dolphins riding white waves that crashed like avalanches. But there was a lump, a huge lump under the mattress and I reached down and slid out the notagun.
The shallow ridges cut into the barrel looked like primitive tribal markings as they glinted in the light. The trigger felt cold and real as I started to squeeze. A faint tug at the back of my brain and I paused and then Cindy’s shriek shattered the foggy sheen: I was awake. The knife flashing from underneath her pillow looked like a moonbeam in her hand; I jolted back as the gun barked and something warm snapped in my side. She gave a wet gasp as I fell back into a pocket of blankets next to her feet. The pistol slipped from my hand and dropped to the floor. Clattered a second. Then silence.
I shivered. The wet blankets swallowing me only made it colder. A fetid smell lingered in front of my nose no matter how far I dug my head under the sheets.
At the head of the bed Cindy’s breath was raspy, grinding through her chest. Her body shook with every draw, as though charging itself back to life, and she emitted a surprised whimper with each.
Her unsteady rhythm kept me from drifting off. Clouds, golden lights, a cool breeze: none of that. Just a shit smell and a buzzsaw snore and a chill gripping my lungs. Fighting through the heaviness, I nudged her head with my foot.
Her intake of breath was clean. She kicked me in the side, a gushy explosion in my ribs that clouded my vision with pain splotches. I felt her raise her head. Her voice sounded soft and distant: miles, fathoms, years. “Dream about me?”
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