THE OTHER SIDE
by Ann Stoney
When you wake up in the night, don’t flush or wash your hands. Go straight back to bed. This helps. You’ve been awake on and off. Dreams take the shape of lightning. Exaggerated versions of yourself, they crash unexpectedly, then fade away—a tide that rips, then spits you on the shore of waking.
You think of tomorrow. You’ll divide the day into three parts: (1) a business activity, something practical, (2) a bit of exercise, (3) something creative, whatever that is.
But when tomorrow comes, you fill the day with useless things and once again are left with the night to figure it all out.
So you do. You consider taking the yoga class in the morning, but it starts too early, you’ll never make it. Not now, when you’ve been up half the night.
Let’s face it, they’re all over—the mice. This keeps you awake, too.
Your mind is adrift between sleeping and waking. Is this what death is like? Or is it more like anesthesia? You worried a lot as a child about dying—Am I gonna die, Daddy, am I gonna die? Wondering in your child brain how it would feel not to exist, knowing on some level that this was a contradiction, but you wondered anyway.
Your family moved around a lot. That was hard, always the new kid on the block. Pretty much the same as not existing. Maybe that’s why you wondered about it.
You were eight years old when you’d get up in the middle of the night to guard the house. You believed this was necessary for your very survival. Because your parents were about to be kidnapped, you were sure of it, and you needed to be awake when it happened. You’d listen for any noise, tapping or knocking, stand in the hallway military-style, pacing back and forth, back and forth.
Why is it when you can’t sleep, your childhood haunts you? A distinct memory of bullying—you were twelve, kids picking hard red berries from trees, throwing them at you. You ran into the house and up the stairs, followed by a kid, the only concerned one. You turned around, snarled like a dog until he ran away.
You think about smoking pot. Your retired husband sells it part-time, doesn’t have the same problem with it that you do. He’s sleeping peacefully next to you, twisting and bending every now and again, uttering guttural sounds.
The pot is everywhere—grains on table edges, roach butts in film canisters, inside the leather pouch in his backpack. You don’t think he realizes, really, how dire it is. You could pad downstairs in slippers and robe, light up on the deck.
But that’s an issue. If you smoke tonight, you’ll want more tomorrow. Inhale it with your coffee, then all day long. In fact, that’s why you can’t sleep in the first place. It’s been two days since you quit. If you give in now, the pot will keep you awake before putting you out. Tricky. So you lie awake in a fog with your mind racing.
Your husband laughs at you when you make those silly faces. At you, not with you. Part of your past. Like your mother, he says. Don’t be your mother. Your mother, may she rest in peace, loved to amuse, entertain, scrunch up her face, howl and speak in funny voices, snort until you were screaming with laughter, gasping, Stop! Stop!
You’ve carried that with you so far, the funny faces, the silliness, but your husband says it makes you unattractive. It’s not who you really are, he says.
So you don’t do it around him. You stop the primal impulse to be silly. Other men used to laugh their asses off, proclaiming you a comic genius, but not your husband. You’re more sophisticated than that, he says, made for better things. But you love letting off steam, being wild and crazy and decadent. It’s in your nature to be so.
So, this is something that has to be resolved, one of the things you think about when the dark pierces you awake.
Exploding Head Syndrome. It has a name. You looked it up on the Internet. Another reason why you can’t sleep; just as you’re about to, it grips you in the terror of paralysis. It comes on slowly at first, a far-off wave, rendering you powerless, until it takes over and you’re drowning in noise like wind whooshing through your brain. A siren, a high-pitched ring.
A rare condition, a misfiring of the neurons, the brief article said—brief, because no one knows much about it. A condition difficult to track. Like a cougar. You never know when it will attack. What’s the point of going to a sleep clinic when it might not attack that night?
The Exploding Head Syndrome waits until you try to quit smoking pot. But at least you recognize it now, and that helps a little. You relax with the noise and hope for the best. Release yourself to the gods.
The first time it happened you were sixteen, certain you heard a woman in a voice of steel say, “And a man stood before you.” You spent years in therapy trying to figure out what that meant. Where did the voice come from? Who was the woman? Were you molested at some point in your childhood? your therapist asks hopefully.
When I was fifteen, you reply. A family friend, but it was consensual and we never had intercourse, although we did everything else. Does that count?
In school you mentioned the Exploding Head Syndrome—you didn’t know what it was called then—to Mr. Lenz, your study hall teacher, who sometimes made short films starring a student or two. He showed one of them in class once, about a beautiful girl whose name you’ve long forgotten, sitting on a blanket in the park, peeling and eating an orange so sensuously that you longed to be that girl. So you flirted with him enough to land a date, the kind a girl has when she’s about to make out with her teacher and lie to her mother about it. You tell her you’re sleeping over with a friend, which is true, but you leave out the part about how Mr. Lenz picks you up at the Wythe Shopping Center in front of the A&P and takes you to his apartment where you neck on the futon couch until you’re afraid to go any further and then he brings you back to your friend’s house where you try to fall asleep but can’t.
You wonder what it is about this experience that keeps you awake. It’s only one of many, why this one? The men were usually older, that’s what you liked. The family friend at fifteen, then the high school teacher—years and years of broken relationships, exhausting you into middle age until you finally met “the one.”
So now it’s all settled; he’s sleeping beside you. You no longer need to run to the arms of strangers. He’s only eight years older, an improvement, blessed with a rent-stabilized apartment in New York City and a house upstate with a view of the lake and a yard full of wildflowers. He really loves you and you really love him, so it’s all settled. You no longer need to run at all.
Yet your mind races as if it’s got legs, ready to run a marathon.
You bolt straight up in bed; he’s taking too much of it. You measure, just to be sure, not with a real tape measure, it’s too dark for that, but with the one in your mind. You lean over, feel the amount of space between him and the edge, and it’s huge! At least six inches, if not eight. You’re dying for a king size bed, but you know he’ll never agree. It was a major battle to convince him to buy the queen.
He’s always inching in closer, forcing you to move further away until you’re practically falling off and this is why, you suddenly think, you cannot sleep. This is the sum total of all the reasons right here. You need space. You cannot have anyone touching any part of your body while you sleep. You don’t know why this is true, but it is. You wonder why this never occurred to you before.
Is this normal? Is it normal for someone to not want human contact, even from her husband, while she sleeps? You’re not sure whether it’s normal or not and this makes you nervous so you think about it some more, about maybe bringing it up with your therapist except that you’re no longer in therapy because you decided you were okay. You’re settled and okay. Still, it’s an interesting question. Maybe you should call her about it—this problem you have—or is it a problem? Your mind races back and forth as to whether it’s a problem or not. Can you help it if you sleep better alone? Aren’t a lot of people like that? Isn’t this why older couples often retire to separate bedrooms? Does this mean you don’t love your husband? Does this mean you’re not fit to be in a relationship, that you’re better off by yourself?
But you were alone for years, you gently remind yourself, gently because you’re now in a state of panic over the bed situation having put your whole marriage on the line in thirty seconds flat. You remind yourself of all the years alone, hopping from one man to another, miserable and lonely. You remind yourself over and over.
Once you were a stripper. You took off your clothes and men rejoiced. They also hurled insults and dumped beer on you. Like slitting the throats of kittens. Who was that person? You stare at the ceiling, so black you need a flashlight to get to the john. You can’t believe someone once paid you five hundred dollars to … don’t think about it. That you did it for so long, your husband says when you finally break down and tell him. More like an eight yearlong moment, you say every time he mentions it—to support the acting career. Just a fact, nothing more. Please don’t tell any of our friends, he says.
So you don’t. No one knows about it. Except of course, the friends you knew back when, the ones you hardly ever see. Misfit friends. Let’s face it, his friends are more interesting anyway—writers, artists, a whole group of them. You’re not used to groups. But somehow, you’ve managed to fit into this one. They like you. You can’t believe it. You’re amazed.
You’re relieved you told him early on. What would you do if you had to go through all that now? You’d be beside yourself. He went on and on about it for two years in couples counseling until you were ready to pull your hair out. Waking you up at four in the morning, obsessing until dawn. Asking questions like, why? What made you do it? For which you had no answer.
But you endured. You calmed him down, stroked his brow, told him over and over how much you loved him until he finally shut up.
Was it really that big a deal? Stripping? He certainly has no qualms about telling people he sells pot, which has always been a sore point, a contradiction in your marriage. You’re muddling through the bottom drawer of the file cabinet in the office. You’re not sure how you got there, on the floor in your nightie searching for sheet music from a previous life, when you performed your original songs in cabaret. Before you transformed yourself into an English teacher. Recorded a demo that never made it. Your boyfriend at the time—the sax player who would later break your heart—helped you arrange them. You find the demo first, under a pile of tax returns.
You imagine life with the sax player. You’d probably be stumbling across condoms in the wastebasket right now, flipping through his little black book. Spending your days with the names of women fluttering in your heart.
Some of them—your songs about stripping—are buried deeper than others. Dust clings to your fingers as you hunt.
You find the songs, draw a bath and sing them, softly so as not to wake him. He’ll never know. You like taking baths, building a castle within his walls. The claw foot tub a smoke away from the window, the scented candle from two Christmases ago, sea salts with fancy names. A piece of a throne you’ve pulled together, complete with lavender scrub and loofah mitt.
You sink into the tub, sing about how you once made love on a pier and it didn’t matter. Then you sing about a stripper who steps outside to take a break, lights up a joint, then huddles alone in the alleyway. The customers think they’ve got her by the tail, but in the end she gets all their money and takes a taxi home, where she tosses and turns all night wondering if she’ll be okay.
You sing to yourself and lay down your weapons. Give up the notion that your life is nothing more than a boxing ring with the men in one corner and everything else in the other. As the construction worker you once dated said, that’s all over now. He would have given up the others to spend the rest of his life with you, which would have been okay, except that he had a habit of tearing up your nightgowns and throwing things. Let’s not forget the night you were forced to flee to your girlfriend’s place on Christopher Street.
No, these songs are private now, best sung alone. There is no turning away from the person sleeping in the other room. Not that you’d want to. You love him. Then you cry, which is what you always do when you sing your songs in the tub.
You slip back into the bedroom and grab some clothes. How about a walk to the lake? Why not? It’s not as dark as it was. You peer out the window to make sure. Dawn is slowly revealing itself, the sun beginning its journey towards the maple trees. You dress quietly, tie your sneakers and head downstairs.
You’re lucky to have the lake so close, nestled at the foot of the winding trail your husband chiseled from the woods with hacksaw and scythe. An amateur landscaper, he enjoys carving footpaths, lining them with ferns and wildflowers, transplanted from the wildlife preserve nearby. Ditto for the annual Christmas tree, rescued from one of many in the forest.
You cross the road and reach the dock, pulled onto the marshland long ago, so rickety you fear you might fall right through, though your husband has tried many times to steady it with extra boards and nails. He fixes things in a ramshackle way, as if using a Band-Aid will stop a rushing tide of blood. But he’s so proud of his efforts, you find it endearing—the driftwood he turns into yard sculptures, the broken birdfeeder from a yard sale he manages to glue back together.
The dock is a little better. You grant your husband a mental tip of the hat. You don’t usually sit here, preferring the lounge chairs further up, but the early light beckons you closer to the water, as if its ripples have something to say. You pull up your knees and cast your eyes across the lake; a row of pine trees shimmers through the mist.
You wish you had a proper dock, but you and your husband don’t have official lake rights. You enjoy the water on a neighbor’s land, originally owned by the grandmother, her ashes scattered under the apple tree. The warring grandkids can’t decide what to do with the property, so no one comes up and nothing gets done. Thank God you’re allowed to use it and keep the canoe there, too. The house itself is uninhabitable, a faded elegance complete with white plastic swans and crumbling stone steps. It wallows behind you, its paint a spackled teal blue, collapsing inch by inch into smithereens.
Sometimes you take guests down to see it. Cocktails in hand, giggling like school children, you peer through cracked windows at frayed wallpaper, wicker chairs fanning the premises as if they owned it, grimy shelves dotted with porcelain figurines. Like a scene from New Orleans. Once your husband offered to buy the piano. Hell, he tells our guests, we’d buy the whole property, house and all, if only they’d sell. They nod in agreement. We’d have lake rights and could build a dock, a little gazebo. They look longingly through the windows again. Of course, you know that this will never happen, the family will never sell.
Your husband can’t stand things going to waste. He’s always discovering new treasures on the street and dragging them into your lives, which annoys you at first, but then you get used to it, sometimes even enjoy them when you’re not worrying about the clutter. What’s wrong with these people? he asks, as you sip cocktails on the crumbling porch.
But you understand what’s wrong with them. You stretch out your legs, watch the ducks making their way across the lake, innocent and smooth, mother in front, babies soldiering behind. The family can’t bear the idea of change, that their memories of those delicious summers visiting their grandmother will be shattered if they sell a single item. So they keep the abandoned place intact, even as it falls apart.
You keep your eyes on the ducks. Like all creatures on this land—the squirrels, birds, chipmunks, the occasional fox—they are fascinating to watch. You envy the simplicity of their lives, the purity of it, their only worries finding food and not being eaten. But you also know this is an illusion, that nature is unforgivable and cruel; their lives are as complex as yours, if not more so. No living creature can escape that.
The ducks are swimming effortlessly to the other side, where the sun is just beginning to rise. It’s more isolated there, further away from the road, no houses, at least not yet. But some of the land has been cleared, a hint of things to come. You and your husband take advantage of the privacy while you can. On sunny days, you pack up the picnic basket with beer and snacks, sometimes a joint if you’re smoking, and canoe to your favorite spot—a makeshift beach amidst the pine trees and rocky, uneven ground. You spread out the blanket, hoping the ants won’t invade, and inhale the sun. Your husband always wants to swim, no matter how cold the water, and begs you to join him, but you rarely do. You can’t swim like the ducks, and he has an annoying habit of shouting pointers at you whenever you try.
Instead, you prop yourself up and watch him through your straw hat—strong arms plowing through the water to what he affectionately calls the finish line, a tree trunk stranded in the middle of the lake. You can barely see it from where you’re sitting, here on the dock. If it ever disappeared, he’d have nothing to guide him, no marker in sight. He needs that log as much as he needs you, as much as you need him.
Now that’s something. You zip up your sweatshirt. The sun, now full in the sky, has disappeared behind a cloud. You need him, but why? Why so much? He’s strong, lean and attractive. Maybe that’s it. The best sex you ever had. Women go crazy for him. They tease and flirt. Once a couple was visiting and the wife, feigning shock at some silly sexist remark he made, threw an ear of corn at him, and he laughed it off with a twinkle in his eye. He hardly ever gets angry. You can yell and scream, which you’ve often done, and he can take it. He won’t leave. He will never leave because he loves you. You can’t understand why—you, a former stripper and pothead driving him crazy with your ups and downs, but he does. For some reason, he does.
You know just how important this is.
Yet how engulfed you are in his world, his circle of friends—this beautiful house with its deck and birdfeeder and bench in the yard, as though you’re already deep in the middle of the lake. You could swim there now if you wanted to, even though you’re a lousy swimmer. Take off your clothes, sink to the bottom. No one would know, at least not for a while. You contemplate wading through shallow mud, wild reeds tickling your face until you reach the deepest part, the crystal clean part, the depths of which your feet cannot touch, where you would swim the best you could until you could no more. You contemplate this like you did as a child when you wondered how it would feel to not exist—to disappear.
You don’t, of course. You cling to the rickety dock, fingers clenching the slats, wondering if he’s awake by now. He’s probably making coffee and breakfast and suddenly you’re ravenous, ready for fried eggs, sausage and grits. You love the fact that he cooks for you. He may be controlling, but at least he cooks. He cooks and cleans and has no qualms about doing the laundry. He’ll do anything for you if you ask.
Soon you’ll return to the house, tell him where you were. You’ll say you couldn’t sleep and went down to the lake to meditate—the truth, sort of. You’ll sit with him on the deck and leisurely eat the breakfast he lovingly made. You’ll kiss him, thank him for making it. You’ll both watch the birds, talk about what the day might bring.
But for now, you linger a little bit longer, staring across the lake to the other side, where nothing exists except the sweet smell of pine, and the rocky ground beneath it.
Ann Stoney is a writer based in NYC. She is the most recent winner of the Tampa Review’s Danahy Fiction Prize. Her writing has appeared in PIF Magazine, Duende, and Monkeybicycle, among others. She has been recognized in several contests, most recently as a finalist in the Cutthroat Journal’s 2021 Rick De Marinis Short Story Contest. When she is not writing, she’s busy reviewing stories for the Bellevue Literary Review.