By Cameron L. Mitchell
She didn’t know he was such a troubled sleeper until after they moved in together. He’d had a problem with sleepwalking for as long as he could remember, he said. Even on the best of nights, he tossed and turned. She slept like a rock, on the other hand, drifting off almost as soon as her head hit the pillow. They had other differences, of course, like any other couple, but they felt hopeful, like they could overcome anything. Before long, she couldn’t imagine her life without him, though she worried about the sleepwalking issue when he brought it up. He made light of it, but there was an edge to his voice she didn’t trust.
At first, the incidents seemed minor, occurring only occasionally. She’d wake alone in the early morning, figuring he was in the bathroom. Instead, she found him asleep on the couch, and he looked surprised when she finally woke him – and unable to recall how he got there. Another night, the blaring sound of the television woke her, hours before dawn. She walked into the living room to find him kneeling before the screen like a child mesmerized by his favorite cartoon. But his eyes were closed and his face was blank; she found it unsettling, the way he was clearly asleep, sitting up like that, his face set aglow by the light of the screen. She switched the TV off but didn’t try waking him, having heard it was dangerous to disturb someone in the midst of a sleepwalking episode. Carefully, she nudged him down to the floor, taking a pillow from the couch for his head. The next morning, he’d returned to his place beside her in bed. When she told him about the night before, he laughed, saying it was ok to wake him. She would remember next time.
And there would be a next time.
There were also long periods when everything seemed fine. He wasn’t much for spooning since he rarely stayed in the same position for long; yet, when their bodies intertwined as one, it was a treat – even if he later pushed her away, hard enough to wake her. Sorry, he would say the next morning with that guilty look upon his face that made her think of him as a child caught doing something wrong. It was that look of unyielding innocence that made her love him. She loved so many things about him. The way he quickly averted his gaze and blushed when she caught him staring at her from across the room. The way he made her feel like more than the sum of her parts, never less. The way he leaned on her, the way he needed her. The way she saw herself reflected in his wide, blue eyes, dotted with specks of green and brown – she could get lost inside his ocean of delicate colors.
But were there things she missed? In bed one night, while gazing up at the ceiling, he said a funny thing. Do you ever wish you could be someone else?
What do you mean?
I see people on the street, on the trains, and I imagine their lives, he continued. Their past, the way I can’t see it on their faces, whether it’s good or bad. They aren’t dragging it around like this big, heavy piece of luggage, you know?
She thought about it for a moment. Maybe falling in love is like being another person.
Being able to love someone, to make room for them when you weren’t sure you could, she tried to explain.
He turned to her, smiling. How’d I get so lucky? He kissed her on the forehead. Soon, they fell asleep – she fell asleep, anyway. He struggled the way he always struggled. She now wonders why she didn’t ask more questions to see if she could pry loose those secrets he held so close. Things might have turned out differently if she’d tried harder.
The sleepwalking episodes came to feel like games of hide-and-seek. He’d quietly disappear from bed, and then she’d search the apartment until she found him. They laughed about it. But as the incidents occurred more frequently, they also got stranger. Despite sleeping so peacefully herself, she woke one night with a gasp, turning to find him gone. It’s like her body sensed his absence and responded before her mind was able to catch up. She found him in the bathroom, scrubbing the floor with his toothbrush. He pulled away from her touch, mumbling in protest. She gripped his face with both hands, urging him to stop. No, he insisted. Not until it’s done. With more determination than she’d ever seen in him while awake, he continued scrubbing, getting down between each tile to clean the dirt away. She eventually gave up, returning to bed without him. The next morning, there he was by her side, smiling. She told him about the scrubbing, and he laughed at the absurdity of it all. They laughed together until it almost felt ok.
Another time, she couldn’t find him anywhere. Again, she woke with a start, keenly aware that the weight of his body beside her was gone. Throughout their apartment she walked, calling his name. He wasn’t standing in the dark living room corner like last time, nor was he sitting on the cold bathroom floor, scrubbing away. When she pulled the shower curtain back, he wasn’t there either. Back to the bedroom, she checked the closet, she checked under the bed – nothing, nowhere. Roaming back and forth through the apartment, she started panicking.
And then a small sound came from the kitchen, a rustling that might have been a mouse beneath the sink. She raced in and pulled the cabinet doors open. There he was, crammed inside. She yelled for him to wake up and started tugging at him when he wouldn’t. She gripped his shoulders, yanking until she finally pulled him out. He hit the floor with a heavy thud, waking immediately. Again? he asked, startled.
Again, she answered.
Huddled together on the floor, they soon broke into laughter, marveling over the fact that he’d somehow managed to fit himself inside such a small, cramped space. She carefully checked him over, running her hands across his chest, his back, his arms – it didn’t seem like he’d gotten anything hazardous on him from all the cleaning products and insect sprays. She found a few scratches on his back, but nothing else. Still, he went off to shower, just in case. She went back to bed. She didn’t fall asleep again until he returned to his place beside her, his hair damp, his skin warm. Even then, it took her much longer than usual. She was beginning to understand what it felt like to be a troubled sleeper.
Not as troubled as him, of course. With the sleepwalking episodes escalating, so were the nightmares that often accompanied them, though he claimed he couldn’t remember the dreams at all. He said he’d never been able to remember his dreams, which struck her as odd. She recalled her dreams in such vivid detail she sometimes wasn’t sure if something had really happened or if it had just been a dream. This was made worse by the fact that her dreams were so dull. If they were more outlandish, it’d be easier to distinguish them from reality. But most of her dreams involved everyday events, like maneuvering through passengers while riding the train to work – or just being at work in general, warming her lunch up in the staff break room. His dreams were different. Dark and terrifying, they left him sweaty and shaking, but he could never recount anything beyond the vaguest of details. Someone after me, he might say. Or something from his childhood, a period of time he never spoke of, though she gathered clues here and there – something about a father who hit, something about a mother who hid. She had her theories, but he never offered any confirmations or denials.
The two of them laughed together less and less. More sleepwalking, more nightmares, all occurring more frequently. With each incident, it became clearer that something was happening. Something big, she felt sure. He seemed lost and only half-present most of the time, desperate to find something – solace, perhaps, or maybe just a good night of sleep.
You know me better than anyone, he said in bed one night, staring up at the ceiling like he could see something she couldn’t. But what does that mean? Does anyone ever really know someone else? Can they see through all the bullshit, deep inside another person’s heart?
He sounded angry. His questions were big, and she didn’t have answers. She didn’t think anyone would.
I wish you could know some things, he continued. Things about me.
What things? she said, her voice cracking.
Nothing, he moaned, covering his face with both hands. It’s no use.
He was so frantic and upset. She tried soothing him, but she feared this not knowing that he spoke of – she feared he was right. There might be things they couldn’t overcome no matter how well they worked together.
As he got worse, so did her dreams. They became nightmares, haunting her long after they ended, ruining her once peaceful slumber. He appeared regularly, always at a distance. In one dream, she was lost in some dark, cavernous place, dusty and devoid of life, the air thick and stifling. All was deadly quiet. When he appeared, she called out to him, but he turned away, fleeing. She followed, stumbling over rocky, uneven trails that looped around, leading nowhere – leading back to where she started, again and again. Until she rounded one corner and almost crashed into him. He stood before her, staring at her with dark eyes she didn’t recognize. He held his arm out, insisting she take a look – all across his forearm, there were cuts that opened up like little mouths crying out in pain. He clenched his fist, pushing his arm closer, like he blamed her for the wounds. But he would never do that in real life, when he assured her she was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
In the dream he shook with anger, opening his mouth and screaming in silence – sweat dripped across his brow, the veins at his temples throbbed with each beat of his racing heart. She woke so startled it took a few moments to catch her breath. This time he was there beside her, twitching around in his sleep. She pushed back a thick strand of hair that was stuck to his sweaty forehead. She checked his arms for new cuts but found none. Only faded scars from the self-inflicted wounds from another time, long before they met. He’d admitted that he cut himself during a particularly rough period right after college. He said it was something he’d never do again, explaining it was never about wanting to end his life. It was just a release – or did he say relief?
Just then, his hand reached out in the dark and grabbed her arm, gripping it hard enough to frighten her. The next day she’d discover a ring of bruises. She tried pulling away, she tried to wake him, but he held tight. For a moment, she wondered if she was still lost in her nightmare. With one more heave, she managed to escape his grasp, stumbling back. He remained in place, eyes closed, arm out, his hand waiting to clutch her again. She watched his fingers slowly open and close around nothing.
Eventually she turned away, deciding it’d be better to sleep on the couch. The next morning, that’s where he found her. I think I owe you an apology, he said, bending down before her.
I don’t know. He looked confused. He averted his gaze, catching sight of her arm. What happened? Where’d you get those bruises?
I don’t know, she answered. Did he know he was the one responsible for leaving her marked? Was he apologizing for that? Or was he apologizing for something else, like the way he’d behaved in her dream, blaming her for all his pain?
That was ridiculous, she told herself. He probably felt guilty for driving her out of bed in the middle of the night. Her dreams and nightmares weren’t some shared experience. They belonged only to her.
Always waking to find him gone left her exhausted. One night, she chased after him in yet another dream, though the setting was different this time. He was on the other side of a green meadow surrounded by trees. Between them, the tall grass gently swayed in the breeze. Birds chirped in the distance, and a pleasant, sweet scent filled the air. The greenery surrounding them was almost too green; it gave off a faint luminescent glow, subtle but mesmerizing. The colors of this particular dreamscape had a depth unlike anything she could find in the real world. Lush and alive, this place was so unlike the dusty landscape of her previous dreams that she thought it symbolized a breakthrough. It felt like the answer to a question neither one of them knew how to ask. He casually waved at her, just like he would in real life, happy to have spotted her. Before turning around, he waved again, beckoning her forward.
She followed but couldn’t quite catch up. No matter how quickly she moved, a steady, even distance stretched between them. Out of the meadow and into the woods, he led her up a hill towards a dark hole in the ground – a cave, its opening obstructed by large rocks. He didn’t turn back but walked on, determined to discover whatever waited inside that deep black void. He tried pushing one of the rocks out of the way, but it wouldn’t budge. He shoved his arm and leg inside, trying to enter, but he couldn’t quite make his body fit. Hanging there, half of him was no longer visible. She wanted to scream for him to stop but found herself paralyzed, unable to move or utter a single word. Darkness filled the sky as heavy drops of rain started to fall, pelting her face and arms. The sudden downpour washed away the vibrant colors. She lost sight of him as the world turned black.
She snapped awake, convinced she still had work to do. She had to stop him. It came as no surprise when she looked over and saw he was missing yet again. She pushed the sheet away and jumped out of bed, ready to turn the apartment upside down to find him. But she tripped over something before making it out of the bedroom. Turning around, she found him lying in the floor at the bottom of the bed, half his body burrowed beneath it. She backed up to the wall near the door, slowly dropping down until she was sitting on the floor. Unable to stop herself, she started laughing. The wild, maniacal sound was loud enough to wake the dead, but he remained in place, sound asleep. Her laughter quickly gave way to a bout of uncontrollable sobbing. The hot, wet tears falling down her face released the immense pressure that had been building inside her head. She calmed down, pulling herself off the floor to sit on the bed. She stared down at his leg still sticking out and felt a sudden urge to kick him, hard. That small flicker of rage disappeared before it could grow into something dangerous. I love you, she whispered, no matter what you decide.
The next morning, she woke to his smiling face, hovering over her. I had the best dream last night.
She rubbed the sleep from her eyes. What was it about?
His gaze shifted up towards the ceiling. I don’t know, but it was good, he said in a light, airy voice. Like I finally figured things out.
He offered no further explanation, and she didn’t feel the need to ask for more. A few peaceful weeks drifted by without a single sleepwalking incident. They traded places – he slept easily, she didn’t. The dark circles left his eyes and reappeared beneath hers. Each night, she found it harder to sleep. She couldn’t relax, she couldn’t let her guard down for a second. She wouldn’t allow herself to be lulled into a false sense of hope that their troubles were over. She felt it coming, their day of reckoning; it lingered around every corner, poisoning the air she breathed with an unmistakable sense of doom. She imagined toxic fumes rising from the depths of that cave in her dream. That dark place was still calling out to him, even if he seemed happier than he’d ever been. She knew better, so she kept watch over him, waiting.
And then it happened. He disappeared.
She knew it as soon as she woke to the emptiness beside her. When she’d fallen asleep, he’d been there, his presence a palpable thing – all she had to do was reach out and touch him. She could rest her hand across his chest, feeling the way it moved up and down. With the weight of his body against the mattress, she knew he was there without having to touch him. It was an undeniable fact. But his sudden absence was just as absolute. This time, she knew he was gone. She could feel it deep down, on a cellular level – she was alone in the apartment they shared.
Still, she searched for him, just to be sure, flipping every light on along the way. First she looked under the bed and in the closet, then she started her walk through the apartment. He wasn’t in any of the corners he’d been in before. She didn’t find him sitting on the bathroom floor, nor did she find him hiding in the tub. Nothing in the kitchen either, not even in the cramped space of the cupboard. In the hallway closet, again, nothing. She dragged out the small step ladder to check the storage space above the closet – it was large enough to fit a body, but she didn’t find him there either. She’d done all this before, searching for him, except this time, there was no tremor in her heart, no secret rush that came with the anticipation of finding him at last. This time, she knew she wouldn’t find him. The search was largely perfunctory, yet she repeated it, checking every possible space, over and over again. It was like doing load after load of laundry and expecting something other than clean clothes at the end of each cycle. Actually, it was worse than that since her efforts yielded nothing at all.
She collapsed across the couch, wondering what to do. Nothing came to mind. Her mind, in fact, was totally blank. After a few moments, she looked over at the hallway leading to the front door. She leapt up, rushing over. It was locked – even the chain lock had been latched into place. She’d been in the habit of using it ever since his sleepwalking started getting worse. She opened the door and peeked out, but the eerie silence of the hallway felt like a warning; at this late hour, the air was different. She didn’t belong to the world out there, yet she took a few hesitant steps forward anyway. The floor felt icy cold against her feet. Where are you? she whispered, calling out his name. She knew he wouldn’t answer, just as she knew he hadn’t left this way. With a shudder, she backed up and shut the door, locking it. Glancing over at the kitchen, a new thought struck her, one that had never occurred to her before: the fire escape.
She ran to the kitchen, stopping at the window. It was covered by a retractable gate that couldn’t be opened without first removing the padlock. She pulled open the drawer where they kept an assortment of odds and ends, looking for the key. Frantically, she yanked the drawer out, spilling its contents across the floor – the sound of everything falling and clanging together was harsh and loud, destroying the uneasy silence. The noise made her want to run through the apartment, shattering each light fixture with a hammer and screaming until someone answered. Instead, she searched through the mess, finally finding the key. She unlocked the padlock, removed it, and opened the gate. As expected, the window was still locked. Even if it hadn’t been, the fact that she found the key proved that he hadn’t left by way of the fire escape. Though improbable, he could have climbed out the window, reaching through the gate to put the padlock back in place, but then he wouldn’t have also been able to lock the window from the outside. And as far as she knew, there was only one key to the padlock, which she held in her hand.
She went through the apartment checking all the windows, just to be sure. The one in the bathroom was too small to fit through. One of the windows in the living room had bars over the outside, and it was locked anyway; the other one held the air conditioner. In their bedroom was the last window – the last possible means of escape. She found it unlocked, but the screen was still in place. She pushed the window open, seeing if she could slide the screen up. It wouldn’t budge. They lived on the fifth floor of a walkup, so he couldn’t have leapt from the window and survived. Besides, she would have heard him if he had gone out the bedroom window.
Now she knew for sure. Somehow, he’d found a way out that couldn’t be explained.
She spent the rest of the night in a fugue-like state. By morning, she saw that the mess in the kitchen had been cleaned up, though she didn’t remember doing it. She called the police – eventually, she filed a missing person’s report, but no one seemed to take her seriously, especially when she insisted that he disappeared by unnatural means. They told her people up and left all the time, that she must have been mistaken about the chain lock being in place when she woke that night. Despite everything that had happened, she didn’t feel sad, exactly – she felt drained. It would take a while to muster the energy for sad.
In a follow-up, the police asked if he was suicidal. No, she answered in a quiet, dispassionate voice, remembering the scars along his arms, how they opened up and screamed at her in a dream from what felt like so long ago. As far as she knew, he wasn’t suicidal, but, over the sleepless nights since his disappearance, she started doubting herself more and more. Could the chain lock have been unlatched that night? She held the image of it locked in place like a snapshot in her mind, but with the lack of sleep and growing anxiety, the picture became distorted. Dreams seeped into reality, days were hardly discernable from night. When she managed a few hours of sleep here and there, the one thing she couldn’t bear was the fact that he had gone missing from her dreams as well, which quickly became as empty as her reality. After disappearing, he never made a single appearance in any of them. She waited for him there on the other side, hoping he would give her a sign.
During the day, she carried on, though she couldn’t manage to leave the apartment. They’d stopped calling from work. Friends had stopped calling too. There was no one left – no one but the delivery boys who brought her what she needed to survive. One can order anything, she discovered. She ordered cases of wine, guzzling entire bottles down at night as she stumbled though the apartment, talking to him. Talking to no one. She took pills to fall asleep at night and drank entire pots of coffee to wake up each morning, laughing at her new routine. She didn’t have to leave the apartment at all, though she knew things couldn’t go on like this forever. The only thing that kept her going was the need to find him. There was a hunger in her belly, urging her on – like a deep, bottomless hole, it swallowed everything else. She couldn’t resist, even if she wanted to.
She studied lucid dreaming online but couldn’t make it work. She thought of sleepwalking and how that might lead her to him, but it wasn’t something you could just force yourself to do. She thought of him all the time, longing for the way things once were, when she slept so easily and they laughed about the things they couldn’t control. She spread out across the living room floor, letting her mind wander. She pictured herself walking down a long, dark tunnel, musty and damp, going on for miles and miles, twisting this way and that; long after losing track of time – walking so far that time ceased to matter – she imagined that tunnel opening up at last, revealing a light so bright it was blinding, though its warmth was strong enough to set her free.
Alone in their apartment, she imagined all sorts of things.
Out of boredom, she took the step ladder and climbed into the storage space above the hallway closet, finding that it really was big enough to fit a body. Her body. She crammed herself inside, pulling the doors shut to welcome the darkness. She waited in silence and isolation, hoping to slip away to that secret place where she could find him. In minutes or hours, she fell asleep, floating along in the darkness that held her. Sometime later, she woke with a mind so clear it seemed like a miracle. She had her answer at last, so she kicked the doors open, letting in the faint light. She crawled out of that space, ready to find him. She’d go looking for that tunnel, and that tunnel would lead her to where she needed to be. Never had she been more certain of anything.
A night had passed in that dark space, so she had to wait for the day to fade again to get started. Once evening arrived, she lined up the bottles of pills he’d collected. There were natural remedies, prescribed medication, and over-the-counter sleeping aides. He’d tried everything. And so would she.
It would take the deepest, longest sleep to find him. She needed help getting there, so she took a handful of the pills and washed them down with a glass of wine. She had to go further this time. She had to go further than she’d ever gone before, because he was worth it. Being together again was worth it.
As she started nodding off, a shadow of movement flickered across the room. Its shape looked familiar. Though it disappeared in an instant, she smiled anyway, feeling perfectly content. She knew he was nearby, waiting for her to follow.
Cameron L. Mitchell is a queer writer who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. His work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Queer South Anthology, Literary Orphans, Gravel Literary Magazine, and a few other places. He lives in New York and works in archives at Columbia University. Find him on Twitter: @CameronLMitchel
THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND