Originally published in Drunken Boat #12
Liz is making lists. Things to do before she dies (Latest entry: walk convincingly in high heels). Things that she needs to spend money on (renew car registration, yogurt, tampons). Words that sound funny after you say them repeatedly (ex. “tampons,” “smorgasbord,” “gleen”) and what they start to sound like (gleen=the word for fornication in the language of Sleestacks). The people who contribute the quotes on the sides of her Starbucks cup (Most recent: Mitch Hedberg). The wonderful things the homeless people have said to her (eg. “Thank you for being alive.” “You are beautiful. No, I mean it. Gorgeous.”) and the things that are wonderful but were said not directly to her (“I don't need a gun. I got Jesus. Shoot THAT, motherfucker!”) Places she wants to visit (latest entry: the Maldives to swim with giant jellyfish). The number of times that Jasper says that X is “better than hot buttered sex” (42, as of 12:30 am last shift, where X = a 1972 Camaro).
Her lists this evening: Reasons Why I Will Die and My Ideal Jeopardy Categories. Currently, she has written the following, with neat little bullet points that emboss the page:
- I at this moment do not have enough gas in my car to escape attacks from terrorists, aliens, zombies, etc.
- Cell phone battery dead (see above re: zombies, terrorists, et al)
- The film oeuvre of Sofia Coppolla
- Road Signs As Seen From The Backseat of a Vista Cruiser in the 70s
- I do not like dark green vegetables (anti-oxidants, vitamins, free radicals, etc).
There are 48 places in the human head that require electrodes. She can sing them off in her sleep. Not sleep. Liz doesn't talk in her sleep. This she knows, because she's watched the video of her sleeping self. There can be no doubt that she dreams, as with all things, there is scientific proof in the form of polysomnogram. It's impossible for the normal human brain to not dream. Liz dreams, but simply does not remember. She knows this for a fact. Working at the sleep lab, she has the luxury of complementary brain scans and she has seen proof that her parietal lobe is pristine and undamaged, a plum of an organ, so much better than her, say, liver. She has held her dreams in her hand on a black and white print out. They are bunny tracks in the snow. Liz wonders if her dream bunnies hide behind her conscious mind, if they get together during the day and talk shit about her. She senses them gathering in the edges of her peripheral vision, sparkles along the corners of her eyes like the symptom of retinal detachment. Silly rabbits.
Before there were electric lights, the Victorians slept an average of 9 to 10 hours a night, adjusting for the changes of the seasons accordingly. Researchers know this from diaries, although Liz wonders what the Victorians might have thought of their sleep disorders. Humours would need to be drained, uteruses palpated, perhaps they would employ the use of magnets to realign the senses. If she lived in the time of bustles and pessaries, Liz suspects that doctors would have thought she had a demon sitting on her chest at night, stealing her breath, or perhaps simply an acute case of the vapors.
- Victorian Birth Control
- Brain damage
- Brain tumor
- Brain weevil
- That thing in Star Trek that goes into your ear and fucks up your personality
- Alien Life Forms From The Original Star Trek
Before entering the stage of Rapid Eye Movement, the average sleeper moves around a lot. This is when sleepwalking and sleep talking happens, but then, there's a moment of silence that is a precursor to the dreaming. You can watch from close-circuit cameras and don't even need to look at the machines to know that their muscle tension has gone slack, their chin droops forward like ventriloquist dummies waiting for a line. If they're not already hooked up to a CPAP mask, they start to snore, and then blam
, the delta indicators start making wavy lines, curving into a twisted mountain road pattern, the topographical map of the Oregon Trail.
She hopes for a day soon when the machines will spit out pictures instead of dreams as electric currents. Right now, they only have grey matter seismic activity. In the morning, the subjects must write journals about their night, describing in detail their dreams over breakfast bars and bowls of corn flakes. Some are vivid, with plots and subplots, supporting casts and Vonnegut-esque prose. Liz compares these to the electro-encephalograph for each sleeper. No aliens. No loves lost or hard fought. No fortune cookie slips. Just static on an unused television channel. A dream about Milton Berle and the first pet you've ever owned making sweet sweet love (hot buttered sex) out on top of the Stratosphere while you float beside them playing Jenga is a Category 8 earthquake that could level San Francisco.
Liz tries not to think about the dreams when she sees them on paper. Are they dreaming or aren't they
, not what. She thinks about the patients who smell like stale cigarettes or like sweat in the morning from their nocturnal hyper hydration or the occasional bed wetter or nocturnal emission (which is the reason that all of the mattresses are coated in plastic, like at a kid's summer camp. Sometimes if the subject is a stomach sleeper, the lab techs each get an adrenaline rush thinking that someone is choking and have rushed into the pods, expecting to save a life only to discover that it's just the snore microphone picking up the crinkle of the piss plastic.)
The lab observation room smells like ozone and static. Jasper pulls the label off of a bottle of water and checks his text messages. Humza buzzes in the first patient and they watch the top of her head enter the elevator.
- Too much caffeine!!!!!!
- Fashion trends of the 1980s
Tonight, Jasper is taking sleep pods 1 and 2, Humza is taking 3, 4, and 5, and Liz is taking 6 and 7. She measures the heads of Humza's subjects as well as her own. Humza finds the sensation of parting the hairs of strangers to be very disturbing, but he brings her a soy chai tea every night. It's a good relationship. Sometimes when they have a very elderly and smelly subject, Humza saves Liz from the horror of yellowed old man toenails. If the tech uses the word “Saturday” while wiring, this is code for “Insane Amounts of Body Odor, Please Kill Me Now” or “This Old Dude Just Tried To Grab My Ass” and usually someone will come in to help. Why is it always the geezers who pinch asses? It was a mystery that Liz enjoyed contemplating and also, she is amused that any resulting litigation would require a lawyer to use the term “morning wood” and that it will be dutifully transcribed on long tape by someone who probably hates their life more than Liz does.
She fades in and out of focus in her lab coat that is worn only for show. The white coat lends a level of authority to their electrodes and smelly glue that they plop merrily onto skulls, knowing that the dried glue will come off in chunks with hair still attached, looking for all the world like leprosy or perhaps syphilis.
Room 5 already contains Humza's first subject, waiting in a Prouenza Schouler t-shirt and pristine yoga pants. Five is a 43-year-old socialite whose snoring is an embarrassment during ski weekends. Liz quickly circumnavigates this woman's cranial landscape with a tape measure and grease pencil, dotting her head with Os to mark each electrode site. After Five, she moves onto Six, then Three then Four. She sings her wire song to herself as she glues (Oh Chin EMG, Central EEG, Occipital EEG, EKG oh my oximeter and thermister and EOG and leg EMG and OMG WTF go to sleep you!
), air compressor in hand, blowing the glue fumes away from herself and the subject. She'll be slightly high for at least twenty minutes after the fifth head. She mentally bids adieu to four thousand brain cells.
She hears Jasper over the loudspeaker in Room 7 across the hall, telling the subject to get dressed in their pajamas and someone would be in shortly, which means that he must be done with his rooms already and he and Humza were about to begin. Humza's voice through the overhead speaker is an aural caramel macchiato while Jasper's is espresso, a jolt to the brain and the sensation of teeth vibrating, a sharp intake of breath. Liz is a vanilla frappuchino, cold and bland and a drink not to be taken seriously. The bits of real vanilla bean are just a constellation of birthmarks, signs that she really needs to do more skin cancer self-checks.
- Malignant Melanoma
- Viral internet videos
Seven is a hypertensive banker with obstructive sleep apnea. His nose is gigantic and she loses her measuring stride when she has to go digging through the supply closet for the extra large mask, all the while listening to the Enya piped through the loud speaker, the soundtrack to spas, retreats and sleep laboratories. Maybe also funeral homes, with that “Only Time” song.
When Liz runs the nocturnal myoclonus leg wires, the banker has an erection. She almost makes a comment for the benefit of Humza and Jasper that some things don't require an extra large, but then remembers that she is actually in the room with the banker, not sitting in the lab playing straight man to their Stadler and Waldorf.
At her desk, there is an unsigned note from Jasper (identifiable by the way he prints everything, as though his right hand is stuck in 7 pt. font) tucked into the spine of her open notebook. She wonders briefly if he has read anything she has written but decides that he would not have resisted commenting on her death list. He has noted a few of Six's readings, the time of system checks and the subject's subsequent sleep latency.
- Secondhand smoke from having grown up when people didn't care about smoking around kids
- Driving too fast after work when it is still dark and hitting a deer that will get stuck in my windshield and before I unbuckle the seatbelt to hide in the backseat, the deer kicks me to death.
- Potent Potables
Six is already throwing theta waves, indicating that she's in that hazy stage of pre-sleep. Before Liz started working in the sleep lab, she found this stage of sleep delicious, because random thoughts would pop into her head and it was as close to lucid dreaming as she had ever experienced. Now, whenever Liz sees theta waves, she has to focus on not unconsciously clenching her own muscles. The slightest movement, the off noise and you jolt awake, causing a minor autonomic adrenalin response. There is the constant worry that her sleeper will be too irritated by the wires glued to their scalp, the nasal airflow monitor feeling foreign and tugging against one cheek or the other. One misstep and the statistical reliability of every reading for the next several hours are called into question as an outlier. Liz hates outliers. Outliers make blips on her final report and for every one, there is an asterisk and a footnote. She prefers her charts to have lovely trending data, graceful slopes upward and down with corresponding respiration and heart rate numbers, an elegant standard deviation on her Anovas. An aesthetically pleasing histogram confirms her faith in science, that everything has an answer. Everything.
- Jane Austen
- Nail biting: microscopic tears in gums are entryway for bacteria into the bloodstream, ie. Massive heart infection and subsequent death
- Meals You Only Need To Add Water To
- Myocardial infarction from too many hot dogs
Three snores like a turkey call. His wattle flutters from the exertion of breathing like a fetal beating heart.
“He's going to need a CPAP sleep mask if he obstructs six more times in the next ten minutes. Note it: 11:43 pm.” Jasper could never keep his eyes on his own work.
Each subject begins to murmur. Liz slips her shoes back on and faces inward to her bank of monitors. The observation of subjects does funny things in her head and sometimes she will reach to move a strand of hair out of a subject's mouth. She usually manages to stop her hand just before it hits the glass of the monitor and right now, her fingers itch to fix Six's pajama top that seems to be binding around her neck. Liz loves watching the subject's public face dissolve and their real personality come out, all readable by the graphic nudity of their sleeping faces. The details of the scandals may be ambiguous, but the worried expressions, their hidden shames, all presented on a tussled billowy canvas. There is a reason that sleep clothes are called intimates. This transition, the ripping away of the public veneer was much more fascinating and exciting to Liz than a person's wrinkled nipple or mushroom-capped penis.
The later it gets, the busier the night, the more she stares at the trails of brainwaves scrolling across her screen, she will fade into the starkness of the plain white walls until she is just a set of blue irises floating in midair. Sometimes when she goes home after a long shift and closes her eyes to fall asleep, she sees the spiking and trailing amperage of thought patterns. The human brain has a lot in common with a kitchen blender. Five hundred years ago, sleep apnea was a succubus, hovering above your prone form, or a fragment of undercooked potato.
- Chapstick and lip emollients
- Slide off a bridge on icy roads, car plunges into the water and cannot open doors due to water pressure, subsequently: drowning.
- I decide to put on a pair of shoes I haven't worn in awhile and then get bitten by a poisonous spider hanging out in the toe
- Dorothy Parkerisms
At 5:30 am, it starts to hail. Liz looks out over the glimmer of dawn inside a popcorn popper and wonders if any of the sleepers are dreaming about flying.
Seven's brain is waking up, making beta patterns, his conscious mind winning the fight against lemurs wearing hats who drive Chryslers and his ability to remember the language of flowers.
She unhooks his wires from the network, swings them up over his neck and ties them into a loose bow. He resembles a large, rumbled electric squid. He has another erection. She pointedly avoids making eye contact, but can tell that this time, he's embarrassed. She instructs him to use the bathroom and that someone will be back to start detaching him from all the science. She checks in on Six, who is still deep in delta, and passes Humza on his way back from the kitchen with a granola bar and a Styrofoam cup of orange juice with a bendy straw, which means that the lab assistant hasn't arrived yet. Liz smiles knowing that the banker would be alone for a while, left to think about what he has done.
Jasper is sitting in the lab playing Minesweeper in a small corner of one of his monitors, constantly craning his head back to the big screen to see if One or Two has started throwing some beta or alpha waves. Humza pokes his head in the door.
“Hey, Sheila just called. She's not coming in today.”
“No, some asshat in a pickup T-boned her car. She's fine. Car's totaled, though. But thought you should know. You can't pawn Mister Happy Pants off on anyone. And he's starting to bitch,” Humza makes a face and in that brief moment, Liz loves him, just a little bit. “That means we're on sheet duty too!” and his head disappears.
Without the daytime lab assistant, the three must handle all of their end of shift duties plus all of the prep work that normally gets done long after they had finished their scoring and gone home, like sanitizing wires, sorting and replacing everything they had used during the night and stripping and remaking beds. Normally, their subjects are gone by 8 am and then they can devote a few hours to completing the polysomnogram scores, but they spend an hour looking for electrode cups, and then another fifteen minutes trying to find the D-clips (which are used with electrodes but inexplicably not stored anywhere near the electrode cups) and an extra twenty minutes griping about how they should have two lab rats anyway and how royally fucked they are.
- Shot during late night convenience store robbery gone wrong
- Complications due to overly strained bladder (ex. Tycho Brahe)
- The Oscars
By the time they are done with the tear down and set up, it is almost noon and they have been awake an average of 17.4 hours (Jasper does a quick Excel formula and then mentions that it would have been closer to 19 hours if Humza didn't basically stumble out of bed and drive to work, throwing off the average). Humza and Jasper decide to brew some of the lab's coffee (tasting of dirt and melancholy, the nose with just a hint of cat urine) and power through their scoring rather than going home to sleep and then coming all the way back to the lab for their next shift.
Liz weaves her way through the day shift workers on their way back from lunch and hates them, just a little bit, for all of their options, so many restaurants that cater just to them. The sun is drilling holes into her cornea and the thought of coming back in a handful of hours to score before the next subjects come in is unbearable.
She manages to makes it back to the lab by 6:30 pm. Humza and Jasper are sleeping in pods right next to each other, 3 and 5. She knows this because she can see them sleeping on the video monitors when she walks into the lab, although they have left her a note to wake them before 7 pm. Liz sips her venti triple shot mocha and watches them, waiting for the caffeine to wiggle its way through her brain juice and fire up the synapses. Jasper and Humza aren't hooked up to machines, so it's a bit like watching a foreign movie without subtitles. She can't even tell something as basic as whether they are dreaming or not. Jasper sleeps on his back, arms at his side, in what is called the soldier position, a position favored by kings and presidents. Humza is a starfish, arms thrown up on his pillow as though in surrender, his legs sprawled. There is not a single spot on the plastic-covered mattress that could accommodate another person, not even if they curled up tightly against him.
Liz already knows that she sleeps on her side, although her own sleep study video from her orientation at the sleep lab confirmed this. Her arms are always outstretched, sometimes as though cupping an invisible fragile object. Maybe in her dreams, she is carrying baby birds or engaged in some kind of circus act involving crystal balls or snow globes. Sometimes she wakes up in this position, her fingers are outstretched, the sheets wrinkled, a white cotton zen garden of neat furrows. Maybe instead of highly structured plotlines, she just organizes and rearranges a very messy pantry during her entire dream cycle, labels all facing outward and when she awakens, she was just reaching for a box of cereal. Hardly worth remembering.
She opens the case files on Six, queues up the sleep video and plays it in triple fast speed, charting the times and circling notable trends to forward on to the subject's sleep specialist. She plots Six's graphs and statistics while playing Seven's sleep video in double time, watching the patterns and listening to him do his somniloquy in a high-pitched Chipmunk voice. Then she pauses, backs up the replay and listens to it in real time. She goes back to Six's scores and notes the initiation of delta waves, then queues Six's video to 11:58, the same moment as Seven's strange comment, and hits play.
Six says, very clearly, “The girl with the sheets should wear a seatbelt.”
Seven's comment almost overlaps with Six's. “Pick up truck does not stop.”
She compares their deltas. While Six entered her Phase 3 sleep much earlier than Seven, they both remain in delta for the normal length of time. Liz remembers that the previous night, almost all of the patients were in delta at the same moment. She pulls up One's video. She queues it to 11:58 and pushes play.
“It's a bad intersection.” “There goes her premium.”
“The girl with the sheets should wear a seatbelt.” “Hail, hail the gang's all here” “Pick up truck does not stop.”
“Guy is an asshat.” “Close call for Sheila.”
She sits at the pod, staring into the monitors. There is a moment of restlessness amid the sleepers, and then, at 12:04:
“Japanese school girl fetish.” “Little Star Twins.”
“Cat that is not a cat.”
“Answer in a question, moron.”
“Face that launched a thousand malls.” “What is a Fender guitar, Alex.”
“Frog cat another cat rabbit dog.”
Totally meaningless and just a coincidence? Please let it be so. Her hand is shaking as she flips up the video surveillance of the sleep lab and at 12:03, she watches herself chew on the edge of her pen, then write in her notebook on the top of a new page. She already knows what is on the page, but flips open her notebook to confirm. At the top of the second page of her ideal Jeopardy categories:
On the video, Jasper talks about a hot date over the weekend. Humza and Liz nod and Humza makes a smart ass comment about getting some. Jasper says nothing, but when Liz turns away, Jasper looks at Humza and makes the universal gesture for oral sex.
“You're a good boy.” “Not true.” “Virgin.”
“Pants on fire.” “Lies.”
“Telling tales again.” “Bullshit.”
The next five minutes are without comment. Then she watches herself write in her notebook. Before her pen leaves the page:
“No spider.” “Martyr girl.”
“Painful death.” “Angel.”
“No icy bridge.” “So young. Too young.” “No stopping it.”
Her hands are asleep. On the video, Liz and Humza both look at their screens and start typing madly. Six and Three have gone into REM cycle.
“More!” she hisses at the screen, as though trying not to wake up the sleepers. She feels her coffee burble in her stomach, so she leans forward in plane crash position, breathing through her mouth and waiting to throw up into the trash can under the desk but nothing happens. From the video, Four tells someone to get off his foot. Two minutes later, One asks his absent wife if she paid the credit card bill. Seventeen minutes later, he calls someone a “Turd Bugle” and then, as if to prove a point, farts.
Liz forwards through everything at quadruple speed. The seven sleepers cycle in and out of delta, but never all at the same time. Liz replays the time period between 11:43 and 12:11 again. She should go wake up Humza and Jasper and show them—whatever this was—play them the tapes and try not to cry when they talk about the girl dying young. She should. She should—something. She looks at the charts again, all perfectly normal and boring when split apart, dissonant and strange and exceptional when thrown together.
One theory of sleep is that dreams are just a nighttime hallucination that the brain simply strings together into a meaningful narrative, which means that all of the sleep talking Liz is hearing on the video playback is just a series of words, echolalia from the day tossed together with her own mind making connections. It's like reading a horoscope in the paper. Her mercury is in retrograde and the sleepers are air signs.
Humza and Jasper stumble into the lab, groggy and swearing but stop complaining when they see that she has brought each of them coffee. Liz watches the videos again as she's buzzing in the subjects, taking notes, and then it is 8 pm and they are all busy gluing electrodes to the heads of fresh subjects and testing equipment. Tonight, her Six is a football coach with night terrors and her Seven is the insomniac dean of a little private performing arts college with a crazy silver thicket of hair that makes navigating the electrode sites difficult. Liz puts everything out of her mind and focuses on the numbers, the addition and subtraction of measurements, division by two, and then the tight swimmy scent of adhesive filling her head. She says nothing to Humza or Jasper. She is a true scientist, this above all things. She wants to make sure that their bias won't skew tonight's data.
All subjects tucked into bed for the nights, Jasper announces lights out and then slumps down, puts his head on his desk and groans. Humza asks if it's ok with them if he streams techno off the internet because he's going to be dead by 10 pm if something doesn't wake him up. Liz cracks the tired ache out of her fingers and watches the overhead projection of the seven people each trying to find the cool spot on their pillows. Jasper wonders if they shouldn't make another run for coffee and Humza declares that he's going to Amsterdam on the overtime because it gives him something to think about instead of feeling sorry for himself. Jasper tells him to fuck himself. Liz worries that the insomniac will ruin everything but had managed to convince the woman to take a sleeping aid to counteract the discomfort of the wires, and already Seven is heading into light delta, followed by Four, then Two, then Three. Five thrashes a bit, twisting his wires into the pillow and then Six throws K-complexes and is out. Liz sits absolutely still, eyes flipping from Five to One to Five to One. Five offers up a deep gulping snort that Liz is certain will wake him, but he ekes it out and slumps into delta sleep. Which leaves One.
Liz stares at the overhead, muscles clenched so hard that she realizes her neck is aching from the angle. She shakes it out. Six shouts something about peanut butter. Jasper is flipping through the take out menus and arguing with Humza about which was the better 70s movie: Cannonball Run
or Every Which Way But Loose
. When Jasper makes the argument for Dom Deluise, One throws her first delta wave.
Liz waits for a second, to see if it will hold, then spins her chair around to her workstation. She queues up all videos and audio at once, hunches down, throws her headphones on to drown out the lab noise and stares down at the sleeping bodies. Her ears are filled with the slow even breathing of seven strangers. There seems to be a slight upturning of their mouths, as though they know she is watching, that this time she is listening. She does not breathe and hears the blood pound in her ears, in staccato relief against the exhalations. Finally in a voice she can only hope is a whisper, she breaks.
“Tell me what happens to the girl. Please. Just tell me.”
She closes her eyes and waits for a response.