This is a short story by one of my favourite authors, Haruki Murakami. I hunted it down to share it with my students, and in doing so had to spend a good deal of time editing down the previous transciber's mistakes. I'm posting it here to share it in its more true (to the translation) form.
"Sleep" is found in the collection "The Elephant Vanishes". If you're looking for some more stunning shorts, check out Allende's "The Stories of Eva Luna" and Borges' "Labyrinths". For other posts on literature, click here.
by Haruki Murakami
translated by Jay Rubin
This is my seventeenth straight day without sleep.
I’m not talking about insomnia. I know what insomnia is. I had something like it in college―something like it because I’m not sure that what I had then was exactly the same as what people refer to as insomnia. I suppose a doctor could have told me. But I didn’t see a doctor. I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Not that I had any reason to think so. Call it woman’s intuition―I just felt they couldn’t help me. So I didn’t see a doctor, and I didn’t say anything to my parents or friends, because I knew that that was exactly what they would tell me to do.
Back then, my “something like insomnia” went on for a month. I never really got to sleep that entire time. I’d go to bed at night and say to myself, “All right now, time for some sleep.” That was all it took to wake me up. It was instantaneous - like a conditioned reflex. The harder I worked at sleeping, the wider awake I became. I tried alcohol, I tried sleeping pills, but they had absolutely no effect.
Finally, as the sky began to grow light in the morning, I’d feel that I might be drifting off. But this wasn’t sleep. My fingertips were just barely brushing against the outermost edge of sleep. And all the while my mind was wide-awake. I would feel a hint of drowsiness, but my mind was there, in its own room, on the other side of a transparent wall, watching me. My physical self was drifting through the feeble morning light, and all the while I could feel my mind staring, breathing, close beside it. I was both a body on the verge of sleep and a mind determined to stay awake.
This incomplete drowsiness would continue on and off all day. My head was always foggy. I couldn’t get an accurate fix on the things around me―their distance or mass or tenure. The drowsiness would overtake me at regular, wavelike intervals: on the subway, in the classroom, at the dinner table. My mind would slip away from my body. The world would sway soundlessly. I would drop things. My pencil or my purse or my fork would clatter to the floor. All I wanted was to throw myself down and sleep. But I couldn’t. The wakefulness was always there beside me. I could feel its chilling shadow. It was the shadow of myself. Weird, I would think as the drowsiness overtook me, I’m in my own shadow. I would walk and eat and talk to people inside my drowsiness. And the strangest thing was that no one noticed. I lost fifteen pounds that month, and no one noticed. No one in my family, not one of my friends or classmates realized that I was going through life asleep.
It was literally true: I was going through life asleep. My body had no more feeling than a drowned corpse. My very existence, my life in the world, seemed like a hallucination. A strong wind would make me think my body was about to be blown to the end of the earth, to some land I had never seen or heard of, where my mind and body would separate forever. “Hold tight,” I would tell myself, but there was nothing for me to hold on to.
And then, when night came, the intense wakefulness would return. I was powerless to resist it. I was locked in its core by an enormous force. All I could do was stay awake until morning, eyes wide open in the dark. I couldn’t even think. As I lay there, listening to the clock tick off the seconds, I did nothing but stare at the darkness as it slowly deepened and slowly diminished.
And then one day it ended, without warning, without any external cause. I started to lose consciousness at the breakfast table. I stood up without saying anything. I may have knocked something off the table. I think someone spoke to me. But I can’t be sure. I staggered to my room, crawled into bed in my clothes, and fell fast asleep. I stayed that way for twenty-seven hours. My mother became alarmed and tried to shake me out of it. She actually slapped my cheek. But I went on sleeping for twenty-seven hours without a break. And when I finally did awaken, I was my old self again. Probably.
I have no idea why I became an insomniac then nor why the condition suddenly cured itself. It was like a thick, black cloud brought from somewhere by the wind, a cloud crammed full of ominous things I have no knowledge of. No one knows where such a thing comes from or where it goes. I can only be sure that it did descend on me for a time, and then departed.
In any case, what I have now is nothing like that insomnia, nothing at all. I just can’t sleep. Not for one second. Aside from that simple fact, I’m perfectly normal. I don’t feel sleepy, and my mind is as clear as ever. Clearer, if anything. Physically, too, I’m normal: my appetite is fine; I’m not fatigued. In terms of everyday reality, there’s nothing wrong with me. I just can’t sleep.
Neither my husband nor my son has noticed that I’m not sleeping. And I haven’t mentioned it to them. I don’t want to be told to see a doctor. I know it wouldn’t do any good. I just know. Like before. This is myself.
So they don’t suspect a thing. On the surface, our life flows on unchanged. Peaceful. Routine. After I see my husband and son off in the morning. I take my car, and go shopping. My husband is a dentist. His office is a ten-minute drive from our condo. He and a dental-school friend own it as partners. That way they can afford to hire a technician and a receptionist. One partner can take the other’s overflow. Both of them are good, so for an office that has been in operation for only five years, and that opened without any special connections, the place is doing very well. Almost too well. “I didn’t want to work so hard,” says my husband. “But I can’t complain.”
And I always say, “Really, you can’t.” It’s true. We had to get an enormous bank loan to open the place. A dental office requires a huge investment in equipment. And the competition is fierce. Patients don’t start pouring in the minute you open your doors. Lots of dental clinics have failed for lack of patients.
Back then, we were young and poor and we had a brand-new baby. No one could guarantee that we would survive in such a tough world. But we have survived, one way or another. Five years. No. We really can’t complain. We’ve still got almost two-thirds of our debt left to pay, though.
“I know why you’ve got so many patients,” I always say to him. “It’s because you’re such a good-looking guy.
This is our little joke. He’s not good-looking at all. Actually, he’s kind of strange-looking. Even now I sometimes wonder why I married such a strange-looking man. I had other boyfriends who were far more handsome.
What makes his face so strange? I can’t really say. It’s not a handsome face, but it’s not ugly, either. Nor is it the kind that people would say has “character.” Honestly, “strange” is about all that fits. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that it has no distinguishing features. Still, there must be some element that makes his face have no distinguishing features, and if I could grasp whatever that is, I might be able to understand the strangeness of the whole. I once tried to draw his picture, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t remember what he looked like. I sat there holding the pencil over the paper and couldn’t make a mark. I was flabbergasted. How can you live with a man so long and not be able to bring his face to mind? I knew how to recognize him, of course. I would even get mental images of him now and then. But when it came to drawing his picture, I realized that I didn’t remember anything about his face. What could I do? It was like running into an invisible wall. The one thing I could remember was that his face looked strange.
The memory of that often makes me nervous.
Still, he’s one of those men everybody likes. That’s a big plus in his business, obviously, but I think he would have been a success at just about anything. People feel secure talking to him. I had never met anyone like that before. All my women friends like him. And I’m fond of him, of course. I think I even love him. But, strictly speaking, I don’t actually like him.
Anyhow, he smiles in this natural, innocent way, just like a child. Not many grownup men can do that. And I guess you’d expect a dentist to have nice teeth, which he does.
“It’s not my fault I’m so good-looking,” he always answers when we enjoy our little joke. We’re the only ones who understand what it means. It’s a recognition of reality―the fact that we have managed in one way or another to survive―and it’s an important ritual for us.
He drives his Sentra out of the condo parking garage every morning at eight-fifteen. Our son is in the seat next to him. The elementary school is on the way to the office. “Be careful,” I say. “Don’t worry” he answers. Always the same little dialogue. I can’t help myself. I have to say it. “Be careful.” And my husband has to answer, “Don’t worry.” He starts the engine, puts a Haydn or Mozart tape into the car stereo, and hums along with the music. My two “men” always wave to me on the way out. Their hands move in exactly the same way. It’s almost uncanny. They lean their heads at exactly the same angle and turn their palms toward me, moving them slightly from side to side in exactly the same way, as if they’d been trained by a choreographer.
I have my own car, a used Honda Civic. A girlfriend sold it to me two years ago for next to nothing. One bumper is smashed in, and the body style is old-fashioned, with rust spots showing up. The odometer has over a hundred and fifty thousand kilometers on it. Sometimes―once or twice a month―the car is almost impossible to start. The engine simply won’t catch. Still, it’s not bad enough to have the thing fixed. If you baby it and let it rest for ten minutes or so, the engine will start up with a nice, solid vroom. Oh, well, everything-everybody-gets out of whack once or twice a month. That’s life. My husband calls my car “your donkey.” I don’t care. It’s mine.
I drive my Civic to the supermarket. After marketing I clean the house and do the laundry. Then I fix lunch. I make a point of performing my morning chores with brisk, efficient movements. If possible, I like to finish my dinner preparations in the morning, too. Then the afternoon is all mine.
My husband comes home for lunch. He doesn’t like to eat out. He says the restaurants are too crowded, the food is no good, and the smell of tobacco smoke gets into his clothes. He prefers eating at home, even with the extra travel time involved. Still, I don’t make anything fancy for lunch. I warm up leftovers in the microwave or boil a pot of noodles. So the actual time involved is minimal. And, of course, it’s more fun to eat with my husband than all alone with no one to talk to.
Before, when the clinic was just getting started, there would often be no patient in the first afternoon slot, so the two of us would go to bed after lunch. Those were the loveliest times with him. Everything was hushed, and the soft afternoon sunshine would filter into the room. We were a lot younger then, and happier.
We're still happy, of course. I really do think so. No domestic troubles cast shadows on our home. I love him and trust him. And I’m sure he feels the same about me. But little by little, as the months and years go by, your life changes. That’s just how it is. There’s nothing you can do about it. Now all the afternoon slots are taken. When we finish eating, my husband brushes his teeth, hurries out to his car, and goes back to the office. He’s got all those sick teeth waiting for him. But that’s all right. We both know you can't have everything your own way.
After my husband goes back to the office, I take a bathing suit and towel and drive to the neighborhood athletic club. I swim for half an hour. I swim hard. I’m not that crazy about the swimming itself: I just want to keep the flab off. I’ve always liked my own figure. Actually, I’ve never liked my face. It’s not bad, but I’ve never felt I liked it. My body is another matter. I like to stand naked in front of the mirror. I like to study the soft outlines I see there, the balanced vitality. I’m not sure what it is, but I get the feeling that something inside there is very important to me. Whatever it is, I don’t want to lose it.
I’m thirty. When you reach thirty, you realize it’s not the end of the world. I’m not especially happy about getting older, but it does make some things easier. It’s a question of attitude. One thing I know for sure, though: if a thirty-year-old woman loves her body and is serious about keeping it looking the way it should, she has to put in a certain amount of effort. I learned that from my mother. She used to be a slim, lovely woman, but not anymore. I don’t want the same thing to happen to me.
After I’ve had my swim, I use the rest of my afternoon in various ways. Sometimes I’ll wander over to the station plaza and window-shop. Sometimes I’ll go home, curl up on the sofa and read a book or listen to an FM station or just rest. Eventually my son comes home from school. I help him change into his playclothes, and give him a snack. When he’s through eating, he goes out to play with his friends. He’s too young to go to an afternoon cram school, and we aren’t making him take piano lessons or anything.
“Let him play,” says my husband. “Let him grow up naturally.” When my son leaves the house, I have the same little dialogue with him as I do with my husband. “Be careful,” I say, and he answers, “Don’t worry.”
As evening approaches, I begin preparing dinner. My son is always back by six. He watches cartoons on TV. If no emergency patients show up, my husband is home before seven. He doesn’t drink a drop and he’s not fond of pointless socializing. He almost always comes straight home from work.
The three of us talk during dinner, mostly about what we’ve done that day. My son always has the most to say. Everything that happens in his life is fresh and full of mystery. He talks, and we offer our comments. After dinner, he does what he likes ― watches television or reads or plays some kind of game with my husband. When he has homework, he shuts himself up in his room and does it. He goes to bed at eight-thirty. I tuck him in and stroke his hair and say good night to him and turn off the light.
Then it’s husband and wife together. He sits on the sofa, reading the newspaper and talking to me now and then about his patients or something in the paper. Then he listens to Haydn or Mozart. I don’t mind listening to music, but I can never seem to tell the difference between those two composers. They sound the same to me. When I say that to my husband, he tells me it doesn’t matter. “It’s all beautiful. That’s what counts.”
“Just like you,” I say.
“Just like me,” he answers with a big smile. He seems genuinely pleased.
So that’s my life―or my life before I stopped sleeping―each day pretty much a repetition of the one before. I used to keep a simple diary, but if I forgot for two or three days, I’d lose track of what happened on which day. Yesterday could have been the day before yesterday, or vice versa. I’d sometimes wonder what kind of life this was. Which is not to say that I found it empty. I was―very simply―amazed. At the lack of demarcation between the days. At the fact that I was part of such a life, a life that had swallowed me up so completely. As the fact that my footprints were being blown away before I ever had a chance to turn and look at them.
Whenever I felt like that, I would look at my face in the bathroom mirror―just look at it for fifteen minutes at a time, my mind a total blank. I’d stare at my face purely as a physical object, and gradually it would disconnect from the rest of me, becoming just some thing that happened to exist at the same time as myself. And a realization would come to me: This is happening here and now. It’s got nothing to do with footprints. Reality and I exist simultaneously at this present moment. That’s the most important thing.
But now I can’t sleep anymore. When I stopped sleeping, I stopped keeping a diary.
I remember with perfect clarity that first night I lost the ability to sleep. I was having a repulsive dream―a dark, slimy dream. I don’t remember what it was about, but I do remember how it felt ominous and terrifying. I woke at the climatic moment―came fully awake with a start, as if something had dragged me back at the last moment from a fatal turning point. Had I remained immersed in the dream for another second, I would have been lost forever. My breath came in painful gasps for a time after I awoke. My arms and legs felt paralyzed. I lay there immobilized, listening to my own labored breathing, as if I were stretched out full length on the floor of a huge cavern.
“It was a dream,” I told myself, and I waited for my breathing to calm down. Lying stiff on my back, I felt my heart working violently, my lungs hurrying the blood to it with big, slow, bellowslike contractions. I began to wonder what time it could be. I wanted to look at the clock by my pillow, but I couldn’t turn my head far enough. Just then I seemed to catch a glimpse of something at the foot of the bed, something like a vague, black shadow. I caught my breath. My heart, my lungs, everything inside me seemed to freeze in that instant. I strained to see the black shadow.
The moment I tried to focus on it, the shadow began to assume a definite shape, as if it had been waiting for me to notice it. Its outline became distinct, and began to be filled with substance, and then with details. It was a gaunt old man wearing a skintight black shirt. His hair was gray and short, his cheeks sunken. He stood at my feet, perfectly still. He said nothing, but his piercing eyes stared at me. They were huge eyes, and I could see the red network of veins in them. The old man’s face wore no expression at all. It told me nothing. It was like an opening in the darkness.
This was no longer the dream, I knew. From that, I had already awakened. And not just by drifting awake but by having my eyes ripped open. No, this was no dream. This was reality. And in reality an old man I had never seen before was standing at the foot of my bed. I had to do something―turn on the light, wake my husband, scream. I tried to move. I fought to make my limbs work, but it did no good. I couldn’t move a finger. When it became clear to me that I would never be able to move, I was filled with a hopeless terror, a primal fear such as I had never experienced before, like a chill that rises silently from the bottomless well of memory. I tried to scream, but I was incapable of producing a sound, or even moving my tongue. All I could do was look at the old man.
Now I saw that he was holding something―a tall, narrow, rounded thing that shone white. As I stared at this object, wondering what it could be, it began to take on a definite shape, just as the shadow had earlier. It was a pitcher, an old-fashioned porcelain pitcher. After some time, the man raised the pitcher and began pouring water from it onto my feet. I could not feel the water. I could see it and hear it splashing down on my feet, but I couldn’t feel a thing.
The old man went on and on pouring water over my feet. Strange―no matter how much he poured, the pitcher never ran dry. I began to worry that my feet would eventually rot and melt away. Yes, of course they would rot. What else could they do with so much water pouring over them? When it occurred to me that my feet were going to rot and melt away, I couldn’t take it any longer.
I closed my eyes and let out a scream so loud it took every ounce of strength I had. But it never left my body. It reverberated soundlessly inside, tearing through me, shutting down my heart. Everything inside my head turned white for a moment as the scream penetrated my every cell. Something inside me died. Something melted away, leaving only a shuddering vacuum. An explosive flash incinerated everything my existence depended on.
When I opened my eyes, the old man was gone. The pitcher was gone. The bedspread was dry, and there was no indication that anything near my feet had been wet. My body, though, was soaked with sweat, a horrifying volume of sweat, more sweat than I ever imagined a human being could produce. And yet, undeniably, it was sweat that had come from me.
I moved one finger. Then another, and another, and the rest. Next, I bent my arms and then my legs. I rotated my feet and bent my knees. Nothing moved quite as it should have, but at least it did move. After carefully checking to see that all my body parts were working. I eased myself into a sitting position. In the dim light filtering in from the sweet lamp, I scanned the entire room from corner to corner. The old man was definitely not there.
The clock by my pillow said twelve-thirty. I had been sleeping for only an hour and a half. My husband was sound asleep in his bed. Even his breathing was inaudible. He always sleeps like that, as if all mental activity in him had been obliterated. Almost nothing can wake him.
I got out of bed and went to the bathroom. I threw my sweat-soaked nightgown into the washing machine and took a shower. After putting on a fresh pair of pajamas, I went to the living room, switched on the floor lamp beside the sofa, and sat there drinking a full glass of brandy. I almost never drink. Not that I have a physical incompatibility with alcohol, as my husband does. In fact, I used to drink quite a lot, but after marrying him I simply stopped. Sometimes when I had trouble sleeping I would take a sip of brandy but that night I felt I wanted a whole glass to quiet my overwrought nerves.
The only alcohol in the house was a bottle of Remy Martin we kept in the sideboard. It had been a gift. I don’t even remember who gave it to us, it was so long ago. The bottle wore a thin layer of dust. We had no real brandy glasses, so I just poured it into a regular tumbler and sipped it slowly.
I must have been in a trance, I thought. I had never experienced such a thing, but I had heard about trances from a college friend who had been through one. Everything was incredibly clear, she had said. You can’t believe it’s a dream. “I didn’t believe it was a dream when it was happening, and now I still don’t believe it was a dream.” Which is exactly how I felt. Of course it had to be a dream-a kind of dream that doesn’t feel like a dream.
Though the terror was leaving me, the trembling of my body would not stop. It was in my skin, like the circular ripples on water after an earthquake. I could see the slight quivering. The scream had done it. The scream that had never found a voice was still locked up in my body, making it tremble.
I closed my eyes and swallowed another mouthful of brandy. The warmth spread from my throat to my stomach. The sensation felt tremendously real.
With a start, I thought of my son. Again my heart began pounding. I hurried from the sofa to his room. He was sound asleep, one hand across his mouth, the other thrust out to the side, looking just as secure and peaceful in sleep as my husband. I straightened his blanket. Whatever it was that had so violently shattered my sleep, it had attacked only me. Neither of them had felt a thing.
I returned to the living room and wandered about there. I was not the least bit sleepy.
I considered drinking another glass of brandy. In fact, I wanted to drink even more alcohol than that. I wanted to warm my body more, to calm my nerves down more, and to feel that strong, penetrating bouquet in my mouth again. After some hesitation, I decided against it. I didn’t want to start the new day drunk. I put the brandy back in the sideboard, brought the glass to the kitchen sink, and washed it. I found some strawberries in the refrigerator and ate them.
I realized that the trembling in my skin was almost gone.
What was that old man in black? I asked myself. I had never seen him before in my life. That black clothing of his was so strange, like a tight-fitting sweatsuit, and yet, at the same time, old-fashioned. I had never seen anything like it. And those eyes ― bloodshot, and never blinking. Who was he? Why did he pour water on my feet? Why did he have to do such a thing?
I had only questions, no answers.
The time my friend went into a trance, she was spending the night at her fiancé’s house. As she lay in bed asleep, an angry-looking man in his early fifties approached and ordered her out of the house. While that was happening, she couldn’t move a muscle. And, like me, she became soaked with sweat. She was certain it must be the ghost of her fiancé’s father, who was telling her to get out of his house. But when she asked to see a photograph of the father the next day, it turned out to be an entirely different man. “I must have been feeling tense,” she concluded. “That’s what caused it.”
But I’m not tense. And this is my own house. There shouldn’t be anything here to threaten me. Why did I have to go into a trance?
I shook my head. Stop thinking, I told myself. It won’t do any good. I had a realistic dream, nothing more. I’ve probably been building up some kind of fatigue. The tennis I played the day before yesterday must have done it. I met a friend at the club after my swim and she invited me to play tennis and I overdid it a little, that’s all. Sure ― my arms and legs felt tired and heavy for a while afterward.
When I finished my strawberries, I stretched out on the sofa and tried closing my eyes.
I wasn’t sleepy at all. “Oh, great,” I thought. “1 really don’t feel like sleeping.”
I thought I’d read a book until I got tired again. I went to the bedroom and picked a novel from the bookcase. My husband didn’t even twitch when I turned on the light to hunt for it. I chose “Anna Karenina.” I was in the mood for a long Russian novel, and I had only read “Anna Karenina” once, long ago, probably in high school. I remembered just a few things about it: the first line, “All happy families resemble one another, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and the heroine’s throwing herself under a train at the end. And that early on there was a hint of the final suicide. Wasn’t there a scene at a racetrack? Or was that in another novel?
Whatever. I went back to the sofa and opened the book. How many years had it been since I sat down and relaxed like this with a book? True, I often spent half an hour or an hour of my private time in the afternoon with a book open. But you couldn’t really call that reading. I’d always find myself thinking about other things―my son, or shopping, or the freezer’s needing to be fixed, or my having to find something to wear to a relative’s wedding, or the stomach operation my father had last month. That kind of stuff would drift into my mind, and then it would grow, and take off in a million different directions. After a while I’d notice that the only thing that had gone by was the time, and I had hardly turned any pages.
Without noticing it, I had become accustomed in this way to a life without books. How strange, now that I think of it. Reading had been the center of my life when I was young. I had read every book in the grade-school library, and almost my entire allowance would go for books. I’d even scrimp on lunches to buy books I wanted to read. And this went on into junior high and high school. Nobody read as much as I did. I was the middle one of five children, and both my parents worked, so nobody paid much attention to me. I could read alone as much as I liked. I’d always enter the essay contests on books so I could win a gift certificate for more books. And I usually won. In college I majored in English literature and got good grades. My graduation thesis on Katherine Mansfield won top honors, and my thesis adviser urged me to apply to graduate school. I wanted to go out into the world, though, and I knew that I was no scholar. I just enjoyed reading books. And, even if I had wanted to go on studying, my family didn’t have the financial wherewithal to send me to graduate school. We weren’t poor by any means, but there were two sisters coming along after me, so once I graduated from college I simply had to begin supporting myself.
When had I really read a book last? And what had it been? I couldn’t recall anything. Why did a person’s life have to change so completely? Where had the old me gone, the one who used to read a book as if possessed by it? What had those days―and that almost abnormally intense passion―meant to me?
That night, I found myself capable of reading “Anna Karenina” with unbroken concentration. I went on turning pages without another thought in mind. In one sitting, I read as far as the scene where Anna and Vronsky first see each other in the Moscow train station. At that point, I stuck my bookmark in and poured myself another glass of brandy.
Though it hadn’t occurred to me before, I couldn’t help thinking what an odd novel this was. You don’t see the heroine, Anna, until Chapter 18. I wondered if it didn’t seem unusual to readers in Tolstoy’s day. What did they do when the book went on and on with a detailed description of the life of a minor character named Oblonsky―just sit there, waiting for the beautiful heroine to appear? Maybe that was it. Maybe people in those days had lots of time to kill―at least the part of society that read novels.
Then I noticed how late it was. Three in the morning! And still I wasn’t sleepy.
What should I do? I don’t feel sleepy at all, I thought. I could just keep on reading. I’d love to find out what happens in the story. But I have to sleep.
I remembered my ordeal with insomnia and how I had gone through each day back then, wrapped in a cloud. No, never again. I was still a student in those days. It was still possible for me to get away with something like that. But not now, I thought. Now I’m a wife. A mother. I have responsibilities. I have to make my husband’s lunches and take care of my son.
But even if I get into bed now, I know I won’t be able to sleep a wink.
I shook my head.
Let’s face it, I’m just not sleepy, I told myself. And I want to read the rest of the book.
I sighed and stole a glance at the big volume lying on the table. And that was that. I plunged into “Anna Karenina” and kept reading until the sun came up. Anna and Vronsky stared at each other at the ball and fell into their doomed love. Anna went to pieces when Vronsky’s horse fell at the racetrack (so there was a racetrack scene, after all!) and confessed her infidelity to her husband. I was there with Vronsky when he spurred his horse over the obstacles. I heard the crowd cheering him on. And I was there in the stands watching his horse go down. When the window brightened with the morning light, I laid the book down and went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. My mind was filled with scenes from the novel and with a tremendous hunger, obliterating any other thought. I cut two slices of bread, spread them with butter and mustard, and had a cheese sandwich. My hunger pangs were almost unbearable. It was rare for me to feel that hungry. I had trouble breathing, I was so hungry. One sandwich did hardly anything for me, so I made another one and had another cup of coffee with it.
To my husband I said nothing about either my trance or my night without sleep. Not that I was hiding them from him. It just seemed to me that there was no point in telling him. What good would it have done? And besides, I had simply missed a night’s sleep. That much happens to everyone now and then.
I made my husband his usual cup of coffee and gave my son a glass of warm milk. My husband ate toast and my son a bowl of cornflakes. My husband skimmed the morning paper and my son hummed a new song he had learned in school. The two of them got into the Sentra and left. “Be careful,” I said to my husband. “Don’t worry,” he answered. The two of them waved. A typical morning.
After they were gone, I sat on the sofa and thought about how to spend the rest of the day. What should I do? What did I have to do? I went to the kitchen to inspect the contents of the refrigerator. I could get by without shopping. We had bread, milk, and eggs, and there was meat in the freezer. Plenty of vegetables, too. Everything I’d need through tomorrow’s lunch.
I had business at the bank, but it was nothing I absolutely had to take care of immediately. Letting it go a day longer wouldn’t hurt.
I went back to the sofa and started reading the rest of “Anna Karenina.” Until that reading, I hadn’t realized how little I remembered of what goes on in the book. I recognized virtually nothing―the characters, the scenes, nothing. I might as well have been reading a whole new book. How strange. I must have been deeply moved at the time I first read it, but now there was nothing left. Without my noticing, the memories of all the shuddering, soaring emotions had slipped away and vanished.
What, then, of the enormous fund of time I had consumed back then reading books? What had all that meant?
I stopped reading and thought about that for a while. None of it made sense to me, though, and soon I even lost track of what I was thinking about. I caught myself staring at the tree that stood outside the window. I shook my head and went back to the book.
Just after the middle of Volume III, I found a few crumbling flakes of chocolate stuck between the pages. I must have been eating chocolate as I read the novel when I was in high school. I used to like to eat and read. Come to think of it, I hadn’t touched chocolate since my marriage. My husband doesn’t like me to eat sweets, and we almost never give them to our son. We don’t usually keep that kind of thing around the house.
As I looked at the whitened flakes of chocolate from over a decade ago, I felt a tremendous urge to have the real thing. I wanted to eat chocolate while reading “Anna Karenina,” the way I did back then. I couldn’t hear to be denied it for another moment. Every cell in my body seemed to be panting with this hunger for chocolate.
I slipped a cardigan over my shoulder and took the elevator down. I walked straight to the neighborhood candy shop and bought two of the sweetest-looking milk-chocolate bars they had. As soon as I left the shop, I tore one open, and started eating it while walking home. The luscious taste of milk chocolate spread through my mouth. I could feel the sweetness being absorbed directly into every part of my body. I continued eating in the elevator, steeping myself in the wonderful aroma that filled the tiny space.
Heading straight for the sofa, I started reading “Anna Karenina” and eating my chocolate. I wasn’t the least bit sleepy. I felt no physical fatigue, either. I could have gone on reading forever. When I finished the first chocolate bar, I opened the second and ate half of that. About two-thirds of the way through Volume III, I looked at my watch. Eleven-forty.
My husband would be home soon. I closed the book and hurried to the kitchen. I put water in a pot and turned on the gas. Then I minced some scallions and took out a handful of buckwheat noodles for boiling. While the water was heating, I soaked some dried seaweed, cut it up, and topped it with a vinegar dressing. I took a block of tofu from the refrigerator and cut it into cubes. Finally, I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth to get rid of the chocolate smell.
At almost the exact moment the water came to a boil, my husband walked in. He had finished work a little earlier than usual, he said.
Together, we ate the buckwheat noodles. My husband talked about a new piece of dental equipment he was considering bringing into the office, a machine that would remove plaque from patients’ teeth far more thoroughly than anything he had used before, and in less time. Like all such equipment, it was quite expensive, but it would pay for itself soon enough, since these days more and more patients were coming in just for a cleaning.
“What do you think?’ he asked me.
I didn’t want to think about plaque on people’s teeth, and I especially didn’t want to hear or think about it while I was eating. My mind was filled with hazy images of Vronsky falling off his horse. But of course I couldn’t tell my husband that. He was deadly serious about the equipment. I asked him the price and pretended to think about it. “Why not buy it if you need it?” I said. “The money will work out one way or another. You wouldn’t be spending it for fun, after all.”
“That’s true,” he said. “I wouldn’t be spending it for fun.” Then he continued eating his noodles in silence.
Perched on a branch of the tree outside the window, a pair of large birds were chirping. I watched them half consciously. I wasn’t sleepy. I wasn’t the least bit sleepy. Why not?
While I cleared the table, my husband sat on the sofa reading the paper. “Anna Karenina” lay there beside him, but he didn’t seem to notice. He had no interest in whether I read books.
After I finished washing the dishes, my husband said, “I’ve got a nice surprise today. What do you think it is?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“My first afternoon patient has cancelled. I don’t have to be back in the office until one-thirty.” He smiled.
I couldn’t figure out why this was supposed to be such a nice surprise. I wonder why I couldn’t.
It was only after my husband stood up and drew me toward the bedroom that I realized what he had in mind. I wasn’t in the mood for it at all. I didn’t understand why I should have sex then. All I wanted was to get back to my book. I wanted to stretch out alone on the sofa and munch on chocolate while I turned the pages of “Anna Karenina.” All the time I had been washing the dishes, my only thoughts had been of Vronsky and of how an author like Tolstoy managed to control his characters so skillfully. He described them with such wonderful precision. But that very precision somehow denied them a kind of salvation. And this finally―
I closed my eyes and pressed my fingertips to my temple.
“I’m sorry, I’ve had a kind of headache all day. What awful timing.”
I had often had some truly terrible headaches, so he accepted my explanation without a murmur.
“You’d better lie down and get some rest,” he said. “You’ve been working too hard.”
“It’s really not that bad,” I said.
He relaxed on the sofa until one o’clock, listening to music and reading the paper. And he talked about dental equipment again. You bought the latest high-tech staff and it was obsolete in two or three years... So then you had to keep replacing everything. The only ones who made any money were the equipment manufacturers―that kind of talk. I offered a few clucks, but I was hardly listening.
After my husband went back to the office, I folded the paper and pounded the sofa cushions until they were puffed up again. Then I leaned on the windowsill, surveying the room. I couldn’t figure out what was happening. Why wasn’t I sleepy? In the old days I had done all-nighters any number of times, but I had never stayed awake this long. Ordinarily, I would have been sound asleep after so many hours, or, if not asleep, impossibly tired. But I wasn’t the least bit sleepy. My mind was perfectly clear.
I went into the kitchen and warmed up some coffee. I thought, Now what should I do? Of course I wanted to read the rest of “Anna Karenina,” but I also wanted to go to the pool for my swim. After a good deal of agonizing, I decided to go swimming. I don’t know how to explain this, but I wanted to purge my body of something by exercising it to the limit. Purge it―of what? I spent some time wondering about that. Purge it of what?
I didn’t know.
But this thing, whatever it was, this mistlike something, hung there inside my body like a certain kind of potential. I wanted to give it a name, but the word refused to come to mind. I’m terrible at finding the right word, for things. I’m sure Tolstoy would have been able to come up with exactly the right word.
Anyhow, I put my swimsuit in my bag and, as always, drove my Civic to the athletic club. There were only two other people in the pool―a young man and a middle-aged woman―and I didn’t know either of them. A bored-looking lifeguard was on duty.
I changed into my bathing suit, put on my goggles, and swam my usual thirty minutes. But thirty minutes wasn’t enough. I swam another fifteen minutes, ending with a crawl for two full lengths at maximum speed. I was out of breath, but I still felt nothing but energy welling up inside my body. The others were staring at me when I left the pool.
It was still a little before three o’clock, so I drove to the bank and finished my business there. I considered doing some shopping at the supermarket, but I decided instead to head straight for home. There, I picked up “Anna Karenina” where I had left off, eating what was left of the chocolate. When my son came home at four o’clock, I gave him a glass of juice, and some fruit gelatin that I had made. Then I started on dinner. I defrosted some meat from the freezer and cut up some vegetables in preparation for stir-frying. I made miso soup and cooked the rice. All of these tasks I took care of with tremendous mechanical efficiency.
I went back to Anna Karenina.
I was not tired.
At ten o’clock I got into my bed, pretending that I would be sleeping there near my husband. He fell asleep right away, practically the moment the light went out, as if there were some cord connecting the lamp with his brain.
Amazing. People like that are rare. There are far more people who have trouble falling asleep. My father was one of those. He’d always complain about how shallow his sleep was. Not only did he find it hard to get to sleep, but the slightest sound or movement would wake him up for the rest of the night.
Not my husband, though. Once he was asleep nothing could wake him until morning. We were still newly-weds when it struck me how odd this was. I even experimented to see what it would take to wake him. I sprinkled water on his face and tickled his nose with a brush and that kind of thing. I never once got him to wake up. If I kept at it, I could get him to groan once, but that was all. And he never dreamed. At least he never remembered what his dreams were about. Needless to say, he never went into any paralytic trances. He slept. He slept like a turtle buried in mud.
Amazing. But it helped with what quickly became my nightly routine.
After ten minutes of lying near him, I would get out of bed. I would go to the living room, turn on the floor lamp, and pour myself a glass of brandy. Then I would sit on the sofa and read my book, taking tiny sips of brandy and letting the smooth liquid glide over my tongue. Whenever I felt like it, would eat a cookie or a piece of chocolate that I had hidden in the sideboard. After a while, morning would come. When that happened, I would close my book and make myself a cup of coffee. Then I would make a sandwich and eat it.
My days became just as regulated.
I would hurry through my housework and spend the rest of the morning reading. Just before noon, I would put my book down and fix my husband’s lunch. When he left, before one. I’d drive to the club and have my swim. I would swim for a full hour. Once I stopped sleeping, thirty minutes was never enough. While I was in the water I concentrated my entire mind on swimming. I thought about nothing but how to move my body most effectively, and I inhaled and exhaled with perfect regularity. If I met someone I knew, I hardly said a word―just the basic civilities. I refused all invitations. “Sorry,” I’d say. “I’m going straight home today. There’s something I have to do.” I didn’t want to get involved with anybody. I didn’t want to have to waste time on endless gossiping. When I was through swimming as hard as I could, all I wanted was to hurry home and read.
I went through the motions―shopping, cooking, playing with my son, having sex with my husband. It was easy once I got the hang of it. All I had to do was break the connection between my mind and my body. While my body went about its business, my mind floated in its own inner space. I ran the house without a thought in my head, feeding snacks to my son, chatting with my husband.
After I gave up sleeping, it occurred to me what a simple thing reality is, how easy it is to make it work. It’s just reality. Just housework. Just a home. Like running a simple machine. Once you learn to run it, it’s just a matter of repetition. You push this button and pull that lever. You adjust a gauge, put on the lid, set the timer. The same thing, over and over.
Of course there were variations now and then. My mother-in-law had dinner with us. On Sunday, the three of us went to the zoo. My son had a terrible case of diarrhea.
But none of these events had any effect on my being. They swept past me like a silent breeze. I chatted with my mother-in-law, made dinner for four, took a picture in front of the bear cage, put a hot-water bottle on my son’s stomach, and gave him his medicine.
No one noticed that I had changed―that I had given up sleeping entirely, that I was spending all my time reading, that my mind was someplace a hundred years―and hundreds of miles―from reality. No matter how mechanically I worked, no matter how little love or emotion I invested in my handling of reality, my husband and my son and my mother-in-law went on relating to me as they always had. If anything, they seemed more at ease with me than before.
And so a week went by.
Once my constant wakefulness entered its second week, though, it started to worry me. It was simply not normal. People are supposed to sleep. All people sleep. Once, some years ago, I had read about a form of torture in which the victim is prevented from sleeping. Something the Nazis did, I think. They’d lock the person in a tiny room, fasten his eyelids open, and keep shining lights in his face and making loud noises without a break. Eventually, the person would go mad and die.
I couldn’t recall how long the article said it took for the madness to set in, but it couldn’t have been much more than three days or four. In my case, a whole week had gone by. This was simply too much. Still, my health was not suffering. Far from it. I had more energy than ever.
One day, after showering, I stood naked in front of the mirror. I was amazed to discover that my body appeared to be almost bursting with vitality. I studied every inch of myself, head to toe, but I could find not the slightest hint of excess flesh, not one wrinkle. I no longer had the body of a young girl, of course, but my skin had far more glow, far more tautness than it had before. I took a pinch of flesh near my waist, and found it almost hard, with a wonderful elasticity.
It dawned on me that I was prettier than I had realized. I looked so much younger than before that it was almost shocking. I could probably pass for twenty-four. My skin was smooth. My eyes were bright, lips moist. The shadowed area beneath my protruding cheekbones (the one feature I really hated about myself) was no longer noticeable―at all. I sat down and looked at my face in the mirror for a good thirty minutes. I studied it from all angles, objectively. No, I had not been mistaken: I was really pretty.
What was happening to me?
I thought about seeing a doctor.
I had a doctor who had been taking care of me since I was a child and to whom I felt close, but the more I thought about how he might react to my story the less inclined I felt to tell it to him. Would he take me at my word? He’d probably think I was crazy if I said I hadn’t slept in a week. Or he might dismiss it as a kind of neurotic insomnia. But if he did believe I was telling the truth he might send me to some big research hospital for testing.
And then what would happen?
I’d be locked up and sent from one lab to another to be experimented on. They’d do EEGs and EKGs and urinalyses and blood tests and psychological screening and who knows what else.
I couldn’t take that. I just wanted to stay by myself and quietly read my book I wanted to have my hour of swimming every day. I wanted my freedom: that’s what I wanted more than anything. I didn’t want to go to any hospitals. And, even if they did get me into a hospital, what would they find? They’d do a mountain of tests and formulate a mountain of hypotheses, and that would be the end of it. I didn’t want to be locked up in a place like that.
One afternoon I went to the library and read some books on sleep. The few books I could find didn’t tell me much. In fact, they all had only one thing to say: that sleep is rest. Like turning off a car engine. If you keep a motor running constantly, sooner or later it will break down. A running engine must produce heat, and the accumulated heat fatigues the machinery itself. Which is why you have to let the engine rest. Cool down. Turning off the engine-that, finally, is what sleep is. In a human being, sleep provides rest for both the flesh and the spirit When a person lies down and rests her muscles, she simultaneously closes her eyes and cuts off the thought processes. And excess thoughts release an electrical discharge in the form of dreams.
One book did have a fascinating point to make. The author maintained that human beings, by their very nature, are incapable of escaping from certain fixed idiosyncratic drives both in their thought processes and in their physical movements. People unconsciously fashion their own action- and thought-drives, which under normal circumstances never disappear. In other words, people live in the prison cells of their own drives. What modulates these drives and keeps them in check―so the organism doesn’t wear down as the heel of a shoe does, at a particular angle, as the author puts it―is nothing other than sleep. Sleep therapeutically counteracts the tendency. In sleep, people naturally relax muscles that have been consistently used in only one direction; sleep both calms and provides a discharge for thought circuits that have likewise been used in only one direction. This is how people are cooled down. Sleeping is an act that has been programmed, with Karmic inevitability, into the human system, and no one can diverge from it. If a person were to diverge from it, the person’s very “ground of being” would be threatened.
“Drives?” I asked myself.
The only “drive” of mine that I could think of was housework―those chores I perform day after day like an unfeeling machine. Cooking and shopping and laundry and mothering: what were they if not “drives”? I could do them with my eyes closed. Push the buttons. Pull the levers. Pretty soon, reality just flows off and away. The same physical movements over and over. Drives. They were consuming me, wearing me down on one side like the heel of a shoe. I needed sleep every day to adjust them and cool me down.
Was that it?
I read the passage once more, with intense concentration. And I nodded. Yes, almost certainly, that was it.
So, then, what was this life of mine? I was being consumed by my drives and then sleeping to repair the damage. My life was nothing but a repetition of this cycle. It was going nowhere.
Sitting at the library table, I shook my head.
I’m through with sleep! So what if I go mad? So what if I lose my “ground of being”? I will not be consumed by my “drives.” If sleep is nothing more than a periodic repairing of the parts of me that are being worn away, I don’t want it anymore. I don’t need it anymore. My flesh may have to be consumed, but my mind belongs to me. I’m keeping it for myself. I will not hand it over to anyone. I don’t want to be “repaired.” I will not sleep.
I left the library filled with a new determination.
Now my inability to sleep ceased to frighten me. What was there to be afraid of? Think of the advantages! Now the hours from ten at night to six in the morning belonged to me alone. Until now, a third of every day had been used up by sleep. But no more. No more. Now it was mine, just mine, nobody else’s, all mine. I could use this time in any way I liked. No one would get in my way. No one would make demands on me. Yes, that was it. I had expanded my life. I had increased it by a third.
You are probably going to tell me that this is biologically abnormal. And you may be right. And maybe someday in the future I’ll have to pay back the debt I’m building up by continuing to do this biologically abnormal thing. Maybe life will try to collect on the expanded part―this “advance” it is paying me now. This is a groundless hypothesis, but there is no ground for negating it, and it feels right to me somehow. Which means that in the end the balance sheet of borrowed time will even out.
Honestly, though, I didn’t give a damn, even if I had to die young. The best thing to do with a hypothesis is to let it run any course it pleases. Now, at least, I was expanding my life, and it was wonderful. My hands weren’t empty anymore. Here I was―alive, and I could feel it. It was real. I wasn’t being consumed any longer. Or at least there was a part of me in existence that was not being consumed, and that was what gave me this intensely real feeling of being alive. A life without that feeling might go on forever, but it would have no meaning at all. I saw that with absolute clarity now.
After checking to see that my husband was asleep I would go sit on the living-room sofa, drink brandy by myself, and open my book. I read “Anna Karenina” three times. Each time, I made new discoveries. This enormous novel was full of revelations and riddles. Like a Chinese box, the world of the novel contained smaller worlds, and inside those were yet smaller worlds. Together, these worlds made up a single universe, and the universe waited there in the book to be discovered by the reader. The old me had been able to understand only the tiniest fragment of it, but the gaze of this new me could penetrate to the core with perfect understanding. I knew exactly what the great Tolstoy wanted to say, what he wanted the reader to get from his book; I could see how his message had organically crystallized as a novel, and what in that novel had surpassed the author himself.
No matter how hard I concentrated, I never tired. After reading “Anna Karenina” as many times as I could, I read Dostoyevski. I could read book after book with utter concentration and never tire. I could understand the most difficult passages without effort. And I responded with deep emotion.
I felt that I had always been meant to be like this. By abandoning sleep I had expanded myself. The power to concentrate was the most important thing. Living without this power would be like opening one’s eyes without seeing anything.
Eventually, my bottle of brandy ran out. I had drunk almost all of it by myself. I went to the gourmet department of a big store for another bottle of Remy Martin. As long as I was there, I figured, I might as well buy a bottle of red wine, too. And a fine crystal brandy glass. And chocolate and cookies.
Sometimes while reading I would become overexcited. When that happened, I would put my book down and exercise―do calisthenics or just walk around the room. Depending on my mood, I might go out for a nighttime drive. I’d change clothes, get into my Civic, and drive aimlessly around the neighborhood. Sometimes I’d drop into an all-night fast-food place for a cup of coffee, but it was such a bother to have to deal with other people that I’d usually stay in the car. I’d stop in some safe-looking spot and just let my mind wander. Or I’d go all the way to the harbor and watch the boats.
One time, though, I was questioned by a policeman. It was two-thirty in the morning, and I was parked under a street lamp near the pier, listening to the car stereo and watching the lights of the ships passing by. He knocked on my window. I lowered the glass. He was young and handsome, and very polite. I explained to him that I couldn’t sleep. He asked for my license and studied it for a while. “There was a murder here last month,” he said. “Three young men attacked a couple, killed the man, and raped the woman.” I remembered having read about the incident. I nodded. “If you don’t have any business here, Ma’am, you’d better not hang around here at night.” I thanked him and said I would leave. He gave my license back. I drove away.
That was the only time anyone talked to me. Usually I would drift through the streets at night for an hour or more and no one would bother me. Then I would park in our underground garage. Right next to my husband’s white Sentra; he was upstairs sleeping soundly in the darkness. I’d listen to the crackle of the hot engine cooling down, and when the sound died I’d go upstairs.
The first thing I would do when I got inside was check to make sure my husband was asleep. And he always was. Then I’d check my son, who was always sound asleep, too. They didn’t know a thing. They believed that the world was as it always had been, unchanging. But they were wrong. It was changing in ways they could never guess. Changing a lot. Changing fast. It would never be the same again.
One time I stood and stared at my sleeping husband’s face. I had heard a thump in the bedroom and rushed in. The alarm clock was on the floor. He had probably knocked it down in his sleep. But he was sleeping as soundly as ever, completely unaware of what he had done. What would it take to wake this man? I picked up the clock and put it back on the night table. Then I folded my arms and stared at my husband. How long had it been―years?―since the last time I had studied his face as he slept?
I had done it a lot when we were first married. That was all it took to relax me and put me in a peaceful mood. “I’ll be safe as long as he goes on sleeping peacefully like this,” I’d tell myself. Which is why I spent a lot of time watching him in his sleep.
But, somewhere along the way, I had given up the habit. When had that been? I tried to remember. It had probably happened back when my mother-in-law and I were sort of quarreling over what name to give my son. She was big on some religious-cult kind of thing, and had asked her priest to “bestow” a name on the baby. I don’t remember exactly the name she was given. but I had no intention of letting some priest ‘bestow” a name on my child. We had some pretty violent arguments at the time, but my husband couldn’t say a thing to either of us. He stood by and tried to calm us.
After that I lost the feeling that my husband was my protector. The one thing I thought I wanted from him he had failed to give me. All he had managed to do was make me furious. This all happened a long time ago, of course. My mother-in-law and I have long since made up. I gave my son the name I wanted to give him. My husband and I made up right away, too.
I’m pretty sure that was the end, though, of my watching him in his sleep.
So there I stood, looking at him sleeping.. soundly as always. One bare foot stuck out from under the covers at a strange angle―so strange that the foot could have belonged to someone else. It was a big, chunky foot. My husband’s mouth hung open, the lower lip drooping. Every once in a while, his nostrils would twitch. There was a mole under his eye that bothered me. It was so big and vulgar-looking. There was something vulgar about the way his eyes were closed, the lids slack, covers made of faded human flesh. He looked like an absolute fool. This was what they mean by “dead to the world.” How incredibly ugly! He sleeps with such an ugly face! It’s just too gruesome, I thought. He couldn’t have been like this in the old days. I’m sure he must have had a better face when we were first married, one that was taut and alert. Even sound asleep, he couldn’t have been such a blob.
I tried to remember what his sleeping face had looked like back then, but I couldn’t do it, though I tried hard enough. All I could be sure of was that he couldn’t have had such a terrible face. Or was I just deceiving myself? Maybe he had always looked like this in his sleep and I had been indulging in some kind of emotional projection. I’m sure that’s what my mother would say. That sort of thinking was a specialty of hen. “All that lovey-dovey stuff lasts two years―three years tops,” she always used to insist. “You were a new bride,” I’m sure she would tell me now. “Of course your little hubby looked like a darling in his sleep.”
I’m sure she would say something like that, but I’m just as sure that she’d be wrong. He had grown ugly over the years. The firmness had gone out of his face. That’s what growing old is all about. He was old now, and tired. Worn out. He’d get even uglier in the years ahead, that much was certain. And I had no choice but to go along with it, put up with it, resign myself to it.
I let out a sigh as I stood there watching him. It was a deep sigh, a noisy one as sighs go, but of course he didn’t move a muscle. The loudest sigh in the world would never wake him up.
I left the bedroom and went back to the living room. I poured myself a brandy and started reading. But something wouldn’t let me concentrate. I put the book down and went to my son’s room. Opening the door. I stared at his face in the light spilling in from the hallway. He was sleeping just as soundly as my husband was. As he always did. I watched him in his sleep, looked at his smooth, nearly featureless face. It was very different from my husband’s: it was still a child’s face, after all. The skin still glowed; it still had nothing vulgar about it.
And yet something about my son’s face annoyed me. I had never felt anything like this about him before. What could be making me feel this way? I stood there, looking, with my arms folded. Yes, of course I loved my son, loved him tremendously. But still, undeniably, that something was bothering me, getting on my nerves.
I shook my head.
I closed my eyes and kept them shut. Then I opened them and looked at my son’s face again. And then it hit me. What bothered me about my son’s sleeping face was that it looked exactly like my husband’s. And exactly like my mother-in-law’s. Stubborn. Self-satisfied. It was in their blood―a kind of arrogance I hated in my husband’s family. True, my husband is good to me. He’s sweet and gentle and he’s careful to take my feelings into account He’s never fooled around with other women, and he works hard. He’s serious, and he’s kind to everybody. My friends all tell me how lucky I am to have him. And I can’t fault him, either. Which is exactly what galls me sometimes. His very absence of faults makes for a strange rigidity that excludes imagination. That’s what grates on me so.
And that was exactly the kind of expression my son had on his face as he slept.
I shook my head again. This little boy is a stranger to me, finally. Even after he grows up, he’ll never be able to understand me, just as my husband can hardly understand what I feel now.
I love my son, no question. But I sensed that someday I would no longer be able to love this boy with the same intensity. Not a very maternal thought. Most mothers never have thoughts like that. But as I stood there looking at him asleep, I knew with absolute certainty that one day I would come to despise him.
The thought made me terribly sad. I closed his door and turned out the hall light I went to the living-room sofa, sat down, and opened my book. After reading a few pages. I closed it again. I looked at the clock. A little before three.
I wondered how many days it had been since I stopped sleeping. The sleeplessness started the Tuesday before last. Which made this the seventeenth day. Not one wink of sleep in seventeen days. Seventeen days and seventeen nights. A long, long time. I couldn’t even recall what sleep was like.
I closed my eyes and tried to recall the sensation of sleeping, but all that existed for me inside was a wakeful darkness. A wakeful darkness: what it called to mind was death.
Was I about to die?
And if I died now, what would my life have amounted to?
There was no way I could answer that.
All right, then, what death?
Until now I had conceived of sleep as a kind of model for death. I had imagined death as an extension of sleep. A far deeper sleep than ordinary sleep. A sleep devoid of all consciousness. Eternal rest. A total blackout.
But now I wondered if I had been wrong. Perhaps death was a state entirely unlike sleep, something that belonged to a different category altogether―like the deep, endless, wakeful darkness I was seeing now.
No, that would be too terrible. If the state of death was not to be a rest for us, then what was going to redeem this imperfect life of ours, so fraught with exhaustion? Finally, though, no one knows what death is. Who has ever truly seen it? No one. Except the ones who are dead. No one living knows what death is like. They can only guess. And the best guess is still a guess. Maybe death is a kind of rest, but reasoning can’t tell us that. The only way to find out what death is is to die. Death can be anything at all.
An intense terror overwhelmed me at the thought. A stiffening chill ran down my spine. My eyes were still shut tight. I had lost the power to open them. I stared at the thick darkness that stood planted in front of me, a darkness as deep and hopeless as the universe itself. I was all alone. My mind was in deep concentration, and expanding. If I had wanted to, I could have seen into the uttermost depths of the universe. But I decided not to look. It was too soon for that.
If death was like this, if to die meant being eternally awake and staring into the darkness like this, what should I do?
At last, I managed to open my eyes. I gulped down the brandy that was left in my glass.
I’m taking off my pajamas and putting on jeans, T-shirt, and a windbreaker. I tie my hair back in a tight ponytail, tuck it under the windbreaker, and put on a baseball cap of my husband's. In the mirror I look like a boy. Good. I put on sneakers and go down to the garage.
I slip in behind the steering wheel, turn the key, and listen m the engine hum. It sounds normal. Hands on the wheel, I take a few deep breaths. Then I shift into gear and drive out of the building. The car is running better than usual. It seems to be gliding across a sheet of ice. I ease it into higher gear, move out of the neighborhood, and enter the highway to Yokohama.
It's only three in the morning, but the number of cars on the road is by no means small. Huge semis roll past, shaking the ground as they head east. Those guys don't sleep at night. They sleep in the daytime and work at night for greater efficiency.
What a waste. I could work day and night. I don't have to sleep.
This is biologically unnatural, I suppose, but who really knows what is natural? They just infer it inductively. I’m beyond that. A priori. An evolutionary leap. A woman who never sleeps. An expansion of consciousness.
I have to smile. A priori. An evolutionary leap.
Listening to the car radio, I drive to the harbor. I want classical music, but I can’t find a station that broadcasts it at night. Stupid Japanese rock music. Love songs sweet enough to rot your teeth. I give up searching and listen to those. They make me feel I’m in a far-off place, far away from Mozart and Haydn.
I pull into one of the white-outlined spaces in the big parking lot at the waterfront park and cut my engine. This is the brightest area of the lot, under a lamp, and wide open all around. Only one other car is parked here―an old, white two-door coupé of the kind that young people like to drive. Probably a couple in there now, making love―no money for a hotel room. To avoid trouble, I pull my hat low, trying not to look like a woman. I check to see that my doors are locked.
Half consciously, I let my eyes wander through the surrounding darkness, when all of a sudden I remember a drive I took with my boyfriend the year I was a college freshman. We parked and got into some heavy petting. He couldn’t stop, he said, and he begged me to let him put it in. But I refused. Hands on the steering wheel, listening to the music, I try to bring back the scene, but I can’t recall his face. It all seems to have happened such an incredibly long time ago.
All the memories I have from the time before I stopped sleeping seem to be moving away with accelerating speed. It feels so strange, as if the me who used to go to sleep every night is not the real me, and the memories from back then are not really mine. This is how people change. But nobody realizes it. Nobody notices. Only I know what happens. I could try to tell them, but they wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t believe me. Or if they did believe me, they would have absolutely no idea what I’m feeling. They would only see me as a threat to their inductive world view.
I am changing, though. Really changing.
How long have I been sitting here? Hands on the wheel. Eyes closed. Staring into the sleepless darkness.
Suddenly I’m aware of a human presence, and I come to myself again. There’s somebody out there. I open my eyes and look around; someone is outside the car. Trying to open the door. But the doors are locked. Dark shadows on either side of the car, one at each door. Can’t see their faces. Can’t make out their clothing. Just two dark shadows, standing there.
Sandwiched between them, my Civic feels tiny―like a little pastry box. It’s being rocked from side to side. A fist is pounding on the right-hand window. I know it’s not a policeman. A policeman would never pound on the glass like this and would never shake my car. I hold my breath. What should I do? I can’t think straight. My underarms are soaked. I’ve got to get out of here. The key. Turn the key. I reach out for it and turn it to the right. The starter grinds.
The engine doesn’t catch. My hand is shaking. I close my eyes and turn the key again. No good. A sound like fingernails clawing a giant wall. The motor turns and turns. The men―the dark shadows―keep shaking my car. The swings get bigger and bigger. They’re going to tip me over!
There’s something wrong. Just calm down and think, then everything will be O.K. Think. Just think. Slowly. Carefully. Something is wrong.
Something is wrong.
But what? I can’t tell. My mind is crammed full of thick darkness. It’s not taking me anywhere. My hands are shaking. I try pulling out the key and putting it back in again. But my shaking hand can’t find the hole. I try again and drop the key. I curl over and try to pick it up. But I can’t get hold of it. The car is rocking back and forth. My forehead slams against the steering wheel.
I’ll never get the key. I fall back against the seat, cover my face with my hands. I’m crying. All I can do is cry. The tears keep pouring out. Locked inside this little box, I can’t go anywhere. It’s the middle of the night. The men keep rocking the car back and forth. They’re going to turn it over.