I’m having trouble sleeping. The nights here on my ragged couch are growing long with tossing and turning, repositioning and too much thinking. I leave the television on in the background to keep me company. Sometimes, I think it might be the incessant and insistent voices of the actors, the late night talk show hosts, and the idiot infomercial audiences that are keeping me awake. Still, I leave it on.
The nights are colder when I’m awake. I’m always struggling with my blanket to keep my body covered. I think I have more blankets somewhere, and about once a week or so I sit up determined to get another one, but I never do. Instead, the cold drains me, and I just roll over. I turn away from the flickering movements of the world on display, and find comfort having a wall close to my face. But I can’t turn away from the sound, and my distorted interpretations haunt me awake.
Every night I forget the day that preceded it. I know the days are passing; things change. But when I try to focus on the changes, they fly away from me. They’re like shadows cast by headlights of fast passing cars. Then, I lose confidence. I start believing this night is the only night; that it never ends. It’s always waiting for me. I’m always conscious here in this cold and dark.
There is someone else now. He’s on another couch, green like mine. I think I’ve seen him here before. He looks comfortable, like he’s familiar. He has a blanket. He knows where they’re kept. I want to talk to him sometimes, but I don’t. I’m sure he’s all right. He’s asleep, or appears to be. I don’t like disturbances when I’m trying to sleep, especially if I’m faking.
I think I slept for a bit, but my friend didn’t leave me. He’s still here. I didn’t expect that. I thought maybe I’d dreamed him, but he’s awake now and there’s something reassuring about that. I feel detached from my body, and though I urge it to speak, it won’t. He notices my effort, and smiles. I think with recognition. Maybe I did say something? Hello or something? It’s probably just a coincidence. I like him. He could be my best friend.
I’ve started calling him Mike, although we’ve never spoken. He’s here all the time now, so it seemed a good idea to have a name for him. He’s Mike because he reminds me of an old friend. Someone I went to school with, high school or college, a dream or something, I don’t remember. And I don’t mean they share a similar physical appearance—my old friend and this new one—but instead, they share a way of looking at me knowingly, as though we understand each other.
Tonight is definitely different because there is another; Mike and I and another. He sleeps on the floor and he qualifies as a friend because he too has a blanket, just one blanket. Why none of us ever gets up to get another I will probably never understand, at least not until I get some solid sleep. Dave really likes the floor. Maybe I should try the floor?
The two of them—Mike and Dave—talk to each other. They have discussions when I’m close to sleep. Dave looks at me with the same knowing look, the look that Mike has for me. I wonder what they know about me. I wonder what they’re on to about me, but it seems like a good thing, so I don’t bother to ask. Sometimes, I even wish one of them would clue me in, but I like the happy silence between us, so I keep it.
It’s becoming crowded. Brian moved in a few nights ago and is fighting for longest sleeper with Dave. His sleep is different from Dave’s though, because Dave appears peaceful and serene while Brian’s face is contorted by mad-anxiety.
I’m convinced that Brian is a piano player. His hands and fingers are always flexing and twitching, playing out a grand silent symphony. He’s nervous, so his fingers move. I imagine him working all day to perfect his art, anxious before every performance. His dreams are the five minutes before he goes on stage. I’m sure he always plays beautifully. I wish he wasn’t so worried about it. Brian really needs two blankets. He’s taller than the rest of us, and seeing him curled up into a ball makes me uncomfortable.
Brian knows something. They told him something about me. I should have expected them to talk to each other. I’m not worried though, because we understand each other.
Dave and Mike are talking again. Their voices are strange, fast and urgent whispers. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard them before. The idea that their voices are not their own scares me, but I’m not sure what to do about it. It’s crazy to me. I have to get some sleep.
It’s early morning, and I’m wide awake. The guys are awake too. They’re talking about something they saw on the news. Humanitarian groups, donations, cleaning up the city or something like that. I believe it’s all one story, but it doesn’t make sense to me.
It’s another early morning, but not a pattern yet. Everyone looks like they’re getting ready to go somewhere. Maybe I’m finally getting enough sleep to understand some things. There are lots of strangers bustling around. They chat with the guys, and I get the impression that they’re our neighbors.
The guys give me those knowing looks as two women approach me. They try to coax me up from my couch, but I hesitate. Brian speaks to me. He says, “Go with ‘em. They’re going to get you cleaned up.”
For what? I almost asked aloud. But then I was sure it had something to do with my girlfriend. She was coming to visit. “Come on,” one of the women began. “Yeah, you don’t want your girl to see you like this,” the other finished nicely enough. Brian nodded, and I went with the women.
I was ushered to the shower, a woman under each arm as they showed me the way awkwardly. They seemed eager to almost carry me, so I stared at my feet and let them. They spoke to each other as we went, but I wasn’t listening until one mentioned how nice I would look for my girl. I wondered how long it had been since my last shower. I must have showered before work, but still I couldn’t remember.
The women seemed to know my girlfriend fairly well, so I was glad to have them help me.
In the bathroom, they gave me clean towels, soap, some instructions, and then let me be. I was alone for a while. I followed their instructions, and washed and scrubbed. The soap was sweet, almost too sweet to use.
My clothes were gone by the time I was done in the shower, but there were new clothes sitting on the counter beside the sink. I knew they were for me. The clothes were nothing special, but they were fresh and clean. I put them on quickly and they fit well enough, though loosely. I didn’t want to complain. My girlfriend might already be waiting for me.
I left the bathroom, and got turned around and confused. My neighbors saw me stumbling and pointed and told me where to go. I guess my girlfriend was outside.
There were glass doors that slid open for me, and I stepped out onto the sidewalk. There she was. Gorgeous and smiling she made eye contact with me just before she hailed a cab. She got in and I followed quickly. I didn’t have any idea where we were going but I was so happy to see her that I didn’t care.
We didn’t talk on the ride. Things were awkward between us. I guess it had been awhile since we’d seen each other. It was okay because I didn’t really like small talk. She didn’t seem to mind either. She just sat there holding her purse and only glanced in my direction when she thought I wasn’t looking. I caught her every time though.
Arriving at the mall, we got out of the cab. She paid quickly, not giving me a chance to object. Not wanting to embarrass her kindness, I only smiled in gratitude. For the first time since I knew she was coming, I wondered where she would be staying for the night. My place was a mess.
I rushed ahead of her to open the door and she nodded thanks as she passed through. She was agitated when I caught up with her inside. She looked around fitfully, and then walked off hurriedly away from the entrance. I wish I could have set her at ease.
I followed her into a shop and told her she was beautiful. She held her purse tightly to her chest, and replied uncomfortably, “Thank you.” I’d made her self-conscious and I cursed myself for it.
We walked briskly around the mall, turning in and out of stores. I made note of a candy shop, thinking I should pick her up something sweet if I had the chance. She stopped at a clothing store and rifled quickly through the hangars. She found a nice looking blouse, and I nodded my approval, but she didn’t seem to notice.
At the checkout aisle we met with a uniformed teen with a poor complexion who was apparently a cashier. She gave my girlfriend a strange look and me an even stranger one. My girlfriend responded with an indignant shake of her head. As the purchase was wrapped up and placed in a bag.
My girlfriend moved quickly back toward the entrance to the mall. We passed the candy shop again and I ducked inside. Selecting a tin of fine chocolates, I got in line to pay for them, but I could see through the glass that she was already outside hailing a taxi. There was no time, so I left the chocolates and pushed my way out of the store.
But, she was gone.
Standing there confused, I didn’t know what to do next. She was a very busy woman, my girlfriend. I probably should give her a chance to unwind and rest after her trip.
Looking at my shoes I noticed my pants were on inside out. The seams were exposed. I thought about how embarrassed she must have been, and suddenly understood her abrupt departure. I had to find a restroom to fix myself up.
I found a bathroom on the outside of the building. It was nothing but a hole in the wall, and it reeked. Rivulets of unknown fluids ran through the cracks in the asphalt floor. There was a man pissing in a corner where blackened pipes were exposed. He finished, zipped up, and left without washing his hands. I could hardly blame him. The sink was separated from the wall, and there was a pool of chew-filled spittle and copper-colored water stagnating in the basin.
Taking off my shoes, I stood on top of them as I unbuttoned my pants. I worked quickly, but when I tried to button myself back up I realized that there was a problem. My pants were still on inside out. It must have been the zipper. It was sewn in wrong.
I bent down and checked the cuffs. They were frayed and faded and when I flipped them up I realized seams were exposed on both sides. Everything I was wearing suddenly seemed used and old. There must have been a mix up, a mistake.
My girlfriend must have been devastated by my appearance, but I was determined to make everything better. I went back to the candy store to purchase the chocolates, but a clerk met me just inside the door.
“Henry, you can’t do this anymore. You can’t be hassling people in here all the time. It’s not good for business.” I stared at him perplexed and answered with silence. “Do you understand?” I was so confused. I didn’t know what to say.
He slowly offered me a small plastic container of broken rock candies. “The candies you almost bought… consider them a gift. Uh, it’s our secret though, okay?” he smiled wanly.
I took the candies, though I was worried the man might have stolen them. Clearly, the man was out of his mind. I worried about him, not sure if I should leave him there like that, but after a few minutes he became agitated. He told me to get out. I guess some people can’t be helped.
So, I left. I decided to grab a cab home. I don’t know how long I stood there trying to flag one down, but eventually one did pull up beside me. The driver rolled down the passenger side window, “Where to, pal?” He looked at me suspiciously, and I looked back at him the same way. “Look, I got a conscience, but not a lotta patience. It’s gonna rain, old man. Come on, get in.” I didn’t move. He continued, “I’m sayin’ I’ll drop you as close as I can…” I just stared back at him, “Do you even know where you’re goin’?”
I stepped back from the cab, but didn’t break eye contact, suddenly scared this guy was going to rob me or worse. I pretended to search my pockets, “Lost my wallet… I guess I’ll just walk. I’m not far.”
“Suit yerself.” He rolled up the window, muttering something about doing people favors, and sped away.
Walking for a bit, I found a bench and sat a while. It was getting dark, and the air was cooling. The bench was pretty comfortable and I’d had a long day. No one would mind if I just took a nap. No one could possibly care. I’d find my way again. I just needed some sleep.