“Piano” by Allen Forrest, oil on canvas
My roommate and I are insomniacs. We are not aware of this shared affliction on move-in day. Within the cement confines of our undecorated dorm room, we survey one another coolly. I am small, wiry, frequently mistaken for athletic; she is wide and puffy, with hair the unflattering shade between yellow and gray, except for a single strand dyed moss green. It dangles, looking vaguely vegetative, beside her left cheek.
She extends a hand. “Grace,” she says. It comes out like an order. Bow before me. Say Grace.
“Lola,” I say. It comes out as it has my whole life: two mocking, singsong syllables that recollect ukuleles and piña coladas and my aging parents on the night they accidentally conceived me at the Alana Moana Hotel.
I expect Grace’s handshake to hurt. Instead, it’s floppy and indifferent. We are two transfer students arbitrarily stashed in a residence hall with defective windows and penis graffiti carved into the desks, the handshake seems to say. Let’s not make more of this than it is.
I begin layering up for my second trip to the car. My first college sat in the humid North Carolina subtropics to which my parents relocated about ten minutes after my father’s retirement. But I welcome the return to the sub-zero temperatures of my childhood. I relish the burning numbness in my cheeks. When you are an insomniac, you are always numb.
At the doorway, I zip up my coat and turn back to Grace. “By the way, which bed—?”
She is already wrestling faded blue sheets onto the nearer mattress.
They give me the adviser dedicated specifically to “undeclared transfers.” It actually says that on a plaque on her desk—“Adviser of Undeclared Transfers”—and I think how clinical it sounds, like a hopeless diagnosis.
“Lo-la,” she pronounces, flipping the word off her tongue. She’s only a few years older than me and laughs at everything and lapses inexplicably into an English accent when explaining graduation requirements. Because I have signed up for genetics and human physiology, she mistakenly assumes I’m pre-med, but I just like the smallness of science. People are more comprehensible when broken down into curly chromosomes and fiery little neurons.
At night, I lie in bed. This is what you do when you’re an insomniac. Just lie there and stare at the ceiling. I have always been a finicky sleeper. As a child, I would stay up late and wake early to the sounds of my parents starting their day. This eavesdropping on their adult morning routine, the scuff of slippers, the running of water, always sent me spiraling into panic. These were not noises I should hear. This was not a world I should know.
Imagine my surprise when I got to college and encountered just the reverse: the elite nocturnal world awaiting those bold enough to seek it. In college, sleeping is weakness. To sleep is to miss out. And so I stayed up, night after night, wandering, witnessing, until a crisp white eviction notice from the Dean’s office arrived in my campus mailbox, with a second copy sent home. My parents were baffled. Of their four daughters, I had traditionally caused them the least distress. They blamed the environment. I would do better somewhere smaller, some place I could get the attention I needed. I would find my niche. They had faith in me.
The ceiling in my new dorm shows a single pair of smudged footprints directly above my lofted bed. I close my eyes and enter the misty corridors of pre-sleep. Most people aren’t aware of what happens in these halls. They’re in them so briefly. They just barely have the chance to get their bearings before sliding off to true slumber.
But I’m an expert.
Like a tour guide, I could lead you down these shadowed passages, pointing out the day’s residue curled in every corner. Here are my sisters, three heads sprouting from the same bulging body. Here are my parents waving too many arms. They mark my path of descent like scarecrows on the side of the road, not real, and not yet dreams.
I’m still aware of what goes on around me in this state. I can still hear the radiator, still smell the pot smoke seeping through the walls from the room next door. I’m certain I would hear Grace fumbling with her key in the lock, but she never returns.
When you are an insomniac, you awake in strange places. Sleep sneaks up on you suddenly, like a thief, and you have no way to ward it off. Professors take offense. They’re not interested in feeble excuses. The next time I mistake Dr. Chair of the Biology Department’s lecture for a lullaby, he suggests I leave and never come back. My Spanish professor takes a kinder approach, shaking me awake at the end of class and urging me to “cuidate, niña.” Take care of yourself.
Is this what I’m doing when I accept the little orange Adderall from the redheaded kid at the library? Taking care of myself?
His name is Seth. “Like Cain and Abel’s little bro,” he explains. “The one nobody remembers.” He introduces me to his friends, a mismatched group of burn-outs and hyper-academics in search of the next high. Over this band of misfits, he reigns as king, dispensing little capsules into sweaty palms at his apartment each weekend.
“Insomnia,” he says, waving his hand dismissively. “I’ve had that.”
If he can be believed, Seth has suffered a little bit of everything over his twenty-one years: depression and migraines, shingles and swine flu. “Nothing a little medication can’t fix,” he laughs, shaking a couple of bottles like maracas. His apartment is crowded and overheated. People sprawl languidly over leather furniture, almost invisible in the dim lighting.
“My mom tells me to drink chamomile tea when I can’t sleep,” I say. “She and Dad don’t really believe in medication.”
“Heretics!” Seth cries. “Heathens! Nonbelievers! Why—it’s pure sacrilege, is what it is.”
He folds two large pink capsules into my hand with a wink.
“Take with a full glass of water. It’ll be the best night’s sleep you ever had.”
Back in my room, I wedge the pills carefully into the bottom compartment of my jewelry box. My nonconformist parents made as effective an excuse as any, but the truth is I have become such a master of sleeplessness that caving now would feel like defeat. Insomnia incapacitates some people, but it surrounds me like armor. I am invincible in the state of semi-consciousness that dictates my days. Thick and unassailable. A brick wall.
I must sleep, because the next thing I know, I awake twisted like a contortionist in a nest of hot sheets, blinking in the glare of fluorescent light. The radiator burbles and clangs, and beneath that, a different sound—like pincers snapping shut. Directly opposite, Grace sits up in bed in leopard print pajamas, one leg extended in an awkward yoga pose as she cuts her toenails with a silver clipper. The shavings drop one by one into the blankets.
“That’s disgusting,” I say.
“This your bed?” she asks.
I rub my eyes and glance at the clock. Almost 4. Grace runs a thumb over her newly shortened toenails and, apparently satisfied, begins to examine her fingers.
It occurs to me that this is the first time we’ve been in the same room together in almost a week.
“Where do you go at night?” I ask.
Grace clips a fingernail and blows the green strand of hair out of her eyes. “My work.”
I imagine her planted on a scummy street corner in those leopard pajamas. Or maybe peddling stolen prescriptions for Seth. What other kind of work could possibly occupy you into the small hours of morning?
The better part of a month passes before I find out. By that time, I have become a regular at Seth’s apartment. Still boycotting the sedatives, I discover a paradise awaiting me in other regions of the medicine cabinet. A parade of Dextros marches through my system—Dextromethorphan, Dextroamphetamine. I am encouraged to maintain the use of these scientific names.
“No sizzurp or purple drank here,” says Seth importantly. “We’re professionals.”
And with time, it does become possible to think of the wealthy, well-dressed crowd in the living room as the staff at a hospital, and yes—to think of Seth, with his smooth voice and bottomless containers of pills, as their charismatic leader. I wonder what it would feel like to run my fingers through that curly hair. I begin staying later, lingering in doorways. One night, charged up on stimulants, I lose my head completely and drag him down for a kiss. He laughs and returns it, and I am floating, rapturous, radiating from my toes to the ends of my hair. Then he kindly but firmly pushes me away.
“Don’t sweat it,” his friend Mallory reassures me afterward. “That’s just the way Seth is. Doesn’t like to mix business with pleasure.”
So I do the only thing that makes sense: I buy more pills. I deplete my savings account, extinguishing all my earnings from two lousy summers waiting tables. I call home for more money, armed with the excuse of a stolen textbook, but my parents don’t even ask for a rationale. They wire it to me freely, their only stipulation that I am not, under any circumstances, to think of paying them back.
One night I awake in a place I can’t identify. High ceilings. Red carpets. A window overlooking shadowy, snow-laden trees. Only after spotting an ugly abstract statue in the corner do I realize I’m in the arts building, and what has woken me is the faint thread of music.
The song, a low, slow piano melody, draws me to a door propped open with a folding chair. I press my eye to the gap. Music stands and crates clutter the wooden floorboards. Against one wall, a row of tall cages houses various instruments, locked away for the night. Grace hunches over the piano in the corner. I can spy the seaweed strand of hair swinging back and forth, her round shoulders heaving fiercely, as though she is trying to expel something from her chest and onto the keys.
I can’t say whether she is technically good, whether her lurching and heaving over the piano is the sign of a master’s passion or an amateur’s poor technique. I only know that the music settles somewhere near my sternum, inflating me with a buoyancy altogether different from the giddiness of a high.
After that, it becomes a habit: On my way back from Seth’s apartment in the evening, I cut through the arts building and listen to Grace play. Her performance is so visceral, it’s almost like listening in on someone being violently ill, but I can’t force myself to leave.
When I finally get up the courage to venture into the room, Grace doesn’t acknowledge me. Her eyes are closed. There is no sheet music. I pace across the floor, feeling jittery, peering at the horns in their cages. When the song finishes, I turn around. Grace stares at me without surprise. It’s difficult to alarm an insomniac. Lack of sleep makes you curiously uncurious about everything.
“You sound good,” I say. “Is that what you do here? You’re a music major? I didn’t even know we had a program.”
She continues to stare. I know how I must appear: eyes bloodshot, lips cracked, hair that hasn’t seen a comb in days. Seth is a smart guy—you won’t find a mirror in his apartment. The glass pieces have been pried away from the medicine cabinet, baring plastic doors the sterile white of hospitals, the white of professionalism, the white of white lies—those small daily courtesies you grant yourself to continue placing one foot in front of the other.
“Sorry to bug you,” I add. “I was just passing through on my way back.”
Still she says nothing. She lowers her eyes to the piano and places her fingers carefully on the keys. A few stray notes jingle lightly through the air, struggling to take form. Abruptly, she looks up.
“If you’re going to stay, then sit down. All that goddamn pacing is making me nervous.”
Insomnia is a lonely business, a nocturnal transaction between you and the glowing numbers on your alarm clock. Like a relentless metronome, you keep count of minutes and hours; the rest of the world sleeps, their breaths creating a perfect harmony in which you have no part. Sleeplessness makes you special in the worst way possible. It reignites old anxieties and kindles strange new compulsions. You become, like the superstitious baseball player, convinced by the power of certain socks, certain ear plugs. Mere happenstance elevates into the refined workings of fate: If the distant clamor of a car alarm precedes a good night’s sleep, you will pray for that same obnoxious siren to sound the next night, and you will fixate upon and micromanage each detail of your pre-bedtime routine until just the thought of all the preparation exhausts you and you finally resign yourself to your lonely, baggy-eyed existence. In your darkest moments, you might even think you asked for this to happen.
Does Grace know all this? Can she possibly guess, then, what it means for me to have a place in her nighttime routine? She plays, and I sit in one of the fold-up chairs, reading a book or just looking around at all the instruments. We’re not best friends, and I couldn’t answer the most basic questions about her. But listening to her music, watching her roll and toss like a wave over the keys, I think that I’m beginning to know her.
I start to cut back on the pills, both because of the cost and the odd embarrassment I feel showing up stoned to Grace’s midnight recitals, but I still find myself in Seth’s apartment several nights a week. It’s the habit of his company that I can’t kick. For a while, I entertain the delusion that I can remain part of this elite group while boycotting the products that bring them together. For a while, it seems to be okay. Then the offers start to slide in. Half off. Free samples. It’s perfectly all right if I’d like to cut back—hell, Seth’s always been a big fan of moderation, it’s his middle name!—but wouldn’t I be interested in sampling this new product? He got access to it only recently, he got access to it just for me, he knows this is just what I want…
“Don’t tell me what I want,” I snap. Only it comes out far louder than I’d intended, loud enough to override the Bluetooth speakers softly cooing jazz and turn every head in our direction.
“Easy, Lola,” Seth laughs, throwing up his hands in mock surrender. “No pressure. You’ll do whatever you want, of course. I’m just here to help, all right?”
I nod, shaken by my own outburst, and permit him to wrap me in a brotherly hug. Then he strides off, whistling, and I return to my place on the sofa beside Mallory, trying to show interest in the muted sports recap on the TV. It’s no use. Something inside me has broken. Some room has been sealed off, and I will never walk into it again. I grab my backpack and head for the door, stepping over several pairs of legs stretched out across the coffee table. A few faces look up at me. They wear the bleary, slightly irritated expressions of people woken from sleep.
I cannot pretend that this confrontation cured me, that my story folds into a neat little victory. There remain sleepless nights. There remain eight weeks of atrocious academic performance for which to make up. The Adviser of Undeclared Transfers shakes her head in disappointment. “Lo-la, Lo-la.” The singsong syllables are embedded in a wistful sigh. “What are we going to do with you?”
Miraculously, the administration determines not to throw me out, provided I can get my act together for the second half of the semester and pass my finals. Now I spend my evenings in the library, thumbing through books and articles, silently mouthing Spanish vocabulary. When I go back to the dorm, usually around one or two, I do sleep. Not particularly well, not nearly long enough, but when you’re an insomniac, you take what you can get.
One night, Grace comes back to the room while I’m still awake, reading in bed. She looks terrible, deflated and unwashed, gray rings carved under her eyes. On the square of rug beneath my bed, she pauses. “I have a concert tomorrow afternoon, with the student orchestra. They gave me a solo. A big one.”
“Congratulations.” It seems like the proper response, but she continues to scowl at me, arms crossed, as if waiting for more. “That’s really great, Grace,” I try again. “Do you want—I mean—should I come?”
“I guess, if you feel like it.”
She doesn’t sound particularly happy, but I must have said the right thing, because she lumbers off to her desk without further reply. I watch her open her laptop. The bluish glow saps the color from her skin and darkens the circles beneath her eyes. Has she always looked so sick? I think maybe she has, only I never bothered to care. When you are an insomniac, it’s as if you’re looking at the world through the wrong end of a telescope. Other people’s suffering is so small.
I climb down from my bed. The pink pills are bigger than I remember. They skid a little across the wood when I toss them onto Grace’s desk.
“Take these with a full glass of water,” I say. “It’ll be the best night’s sleep you ever had.”
Tessa Yang is a recent graduate of St. Lawrence University, where she majored in English. “Moonlight Sonata” was inspired by several sleepless nights in a dorm room with a very noisy radiator; the story eventually became part of her senior year honors project. Starting in August, Tessa will be attending the MFA program in fiction writing at Indiana University.
Read an interview with Tessa here.
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