The Cure for Insomnia
“So, do you think that you’re interested in her? As more than a friend that is...”
I close my eyes for just longer than a blink, but I see years pass by. A handshake, a smile, a car ride in the rain. I see a waterfall, a dark bedroom, and her hands crawling up my thighs. I smell her smoky breath, and I feel her fingers in my hair as she pulls my mouth closer. My chest constricts, and I drop my head into my hands.
“Kayla? Do you need a moment?”
“No. No, I don’t need a moment. Thank you, though. Um. No. I don’t like her. Like that. I uh...I think I might love her? I mean. I have Natalie. I am with Natalie. I love Natalie. No. I’m not interested in Jade. She’s a close friend, but I don’t want more from her. It was just casual. Just fun.”
My therapist is not amused. Her single raised eyebrow makes any further comment unnecessary, so I hold her stare until she caves.
“Kayla. I need you to understand that this only works if you are honest with me but also with yourself. And more than that even. If you aren’t being honest, you and Natalie will never work. You can hold onto her for as long as you want. But you won’t be happy, and neither will she. It’s no surprise that you can’t stay asleep at night. You’ve both already had deeply intimate relationships that you tried to keep a secret from one another. Not to mention that you seem scared to admit that you may have been more happy in this secret relationship.”
I don’t respond. My mind is still racing through footage of Jade and what each moment meant to me. I’m thinking of nights when I held her in cars and beds and on strangers’ couches. Bars and parties. I’m thinking of how she felt like a part of me that I had lost. Of how many times I stayed with her when I should have went home and slept in my own bed. Her eyelashes brushing my neck and her hand in mine. Her soft voice whispering into my skin. I’m thinking about her slight frame. Of when I should have been holding another girl in my arms and how much easier it was to just hold onto Jade instead. How easily she could always convince me to go on adventures. How she actually made life an adventure. I’m holding the moments out in front of me to study.
“I want to back up, Kayla. You said you might love Jade? Do you believe that? Why are you holding on to a relationship with Natalie if you love Jade?”
My head is pounding with thoughts. I throw them up like so much bile poisoning my heart and my mind. I can hear the pressure building inside of me more than I can feel it. It sounds like I am underwater. I squeeze my eyes closed and swallow hard. I swallow Jade, and I forget what she felt like. My face feels hot and tense.
“No. I didn’t mean that. I just meant that she was fun. I had a lot of fun with her. I loved my time with her. I don’t love Jade. I love everything that we did.”
And for a second I almost believe myself. So when she picks me up it’s easy for me to look her in the eye before I get in the car.
“What’s up, babe? Get in.”
“I don’t love you. My hands aren’t yours to hold. And my eyes aren’t yours to hold. And you should have never kissed me. I don’t think you’re beautiful or any of that shit I told you. I’m glad you played along, but I think we both know the fun is over.”
“Kayla. What? Where is this coming from? Who said anything about love? Can you just get in the car?”
“Fuck you, Jade.”
I turn and walk home. I fall asleep holding Natalie. I pretend I don’t feel someone else laying beneath my arms. I pretend I can’t hear someone else’s shallow breathing. I pretend this is home. I pretend I’m not scared. And the lie’s so pretty, I don’t even need to open my eyes the next morning.
My memory has been good to you since you left.
It's taken you and buffed your sharp edges,
polished up your one-liners,
and edited your conversations for wit and sensitivity.
It's rationalized your selfishness and rather quick temper,
forgotten how you hated sharing a single bed,
inconvenience in general.
It even injects feeling into your empty phrases.
You'd love my memory of you.
So I wouldn't advise you to come back.
You could never compete with this memory of mine.
Even your eyes aren't that blue.
"I once knew a man who swore he sold his soul to the devil. Can you believe that?"
Throaty laughter punctuates the rhetorical question. The old man sits in a wheelchair that is as old as me, a worn pillow between him and the fraying vinyl of the seat. He keeps chuckling as he unwraps his McDonalds cheeseburger, plain, no onions, his one eye tracking the movement of the yellow wrapper while his other hides beneath a blue-white cataract.
Wispy white hair, thin, unbrushed and unwashed, pokes its way out from beneath the sides of his black "Veteran" trucker cap. His denim jacket is faded with dirt and memories of better days. It looks like he's been wearing it since before Bon Jovi had a number one hit, complete with pinholes and patches that aren't intended to be decoration. Somehow, though, they still are; half a dozen military unit patches in different colors and from different branches litter his jacket.
He smiles a gap-toothed grin as he takes his first bite of the still-warm cheeseburger. This is our Wednesday routine; on my lunch break, I bring him a sackful of burgers and a Coca-cola. He doesn't care for fries, but the burgers he can actually stretch into a couple of meals, and he doesn't mind them cold. This week, I drop a twenty into his little three-gallon bucket he uses to panhandle. Some Wednesdays, it's the key to a room I'd get him at the Motel 6. Others, it's just a fiver. I don't want him to think I feel too sorry for him. Besides, we have a business arrangement. He tells stories, and I listen.
Every Wednesday, I feed him and we chat. He grabs his bucket and I wheel him over to a shady spot where I can sit on a low wall and listen to his stories. I'm sure some of them are probably even true.
I hope some of them aren't.
I believe he really is a veteran. Like knows like. His demeanor, word choice, and knowledge base are too good to be fake, but I'm no expert. It could all be a carefully constructed fairy tale to earn a few extra dollars from sympathetic strangers. I don't believe that's the case, but if so, I tip my hat to his committal to the role.
Overall though, the man is a mystery, and I am content to let him stay that way.
He doesn't blame his tours for where he is now. The lost leg he left behind in a motorcycle wreck near Miami in the summer of 79. The cancer, though, that he firmly believes is due to his relationship with a foreign agent. Codename: Orange. But he doesn't dwell on it.
I've offered to try to get him into treatment under indigent care. He just shakes his head and refuses to go when it's warm outside. "Talk to me again after the first snowfall," he says and laughs when I bring it up.
I know he has some mental health issues. I know he has some physical health issues, too. But I also know he's lived this way for almost as long as I've been alive, and some people don't want to be saved. So I do the next best thing; I listen.
"The devil, eh?" I ask, biting into my own McDonalds fare. This week, it's a quarter pounder. I don't skip the fries.
He nods. "Yep. Prince of Lies himself." He slurps his Coke, looking over at me. "Do you believe in God, Jack?"
I've told him my name a dozen times. It doesn't matter. To him, I'm Jack.
"Yeah, I do, Chief."
"Just Jon will do, Jack."
"Yes, I do believe in God, Jon."
I take a bite. Chew. Look over at him. His one good eye locks in on mine.
"Why not?" I finally ask in response.
He laughs. "That's cheatin', Jack. But I'll take it."
He reaches for his second burger, and we eat in silence for a few minutes.
"I believe in God because I know the devil is real."
His statement is delivered so matter-of-factly, so absolutely convincingly, that I am struck with a chill that travels down the nape of my neck into the red brick where I sit. That is quite a trick, to be chilled in August.
"How do you know that, Chief?" I slip right back into old habits; he is Chief Warrant Officer Jon Michael Sparks from Carey, Idaho, and once a CWO, always a CWO.
"Because I've seen him, Jack. I saw him with my own two eyes, and I saw the fella he was talking to. I couldn't hear nothin', but I can guess what was up. That same cat the devil was talkin' to, he eased over my way one evening after it was all said and done. Asked me what I seen. What I knew. What I heard."
I notice Jon's hand is shaking a little as he balls up his empty wrapper.
"So, let me get this straight. You saw a guy sell his soul, and you saw the devil, and then this guy came up to you?"
He shakes his head. "No, man. You got the timeline all wrong. See, you know I got a couple of purple hearts, right?" I nod, remembering when he had told me a little about one of them. "Anyway. That first one, I got when I was co-piloting. Bad LZ, bullets zipping, I'm the only bastard catches any. It wasn't bad, it burned, stung for a while, got me a few days back in the city with cold air conditioning and hot food. Nothing major. Anyway, while I was there, this young guy, he comes in, and he's all fucked up. Screaming at night, always sweaty, yelling about how pretty the Morning Star was and shit. Really weird. He had a wound, but I think he was mostly psyche."
At this, he pauses. It's his turn to have a visible shiver, but it's different than the fear response I had earlier. His shiver is memory-based, and then he regains his composure. "Mental stuff in a hospital, man. Scary shit. Anyway. So back then, especially in-country, the main hospital non-critically wounded were in, it was a big bay. More serious or higher ranks, they got private rooms and the good life. Hell, the big bay was plenty good, the AC was reasonably cool and the nurses were plenty cute. Nobody was shooting at us. Life was great for a little while. So everybody is asleep, 'cept for me and this guy. And then there was this . . . wind. Like, hot. Smelled like shit, kinda waved through the air like hot asphalt, yknow? It was weird. And then there he was."
"Yes, Jack. The Devil. Whispering to this long range recon guy, the one who was spazzing out."
"So what did he look like?"
Jon paused and stared off into fifty years ago.
"He was pretty."
"Yeah. Not handsome. Not gruesome. Not, like, Greta Garbo or Farrah Fawcett, but not like Clark Gable, either. He was pretty. Like some kind of . . . I don't know. I don't know. I aint gay or nothin, but he was just beautiful. And terrifying. Because I knew it was wrong, all that prettiness."
As I finished my last fry, my eyes didn't leave his face. "So what happened?"
"They just talked. And then the Devil, he kissed that guy on the forehead. It was strange. And sweet. And scary as fuck."
"You saw the Devil kiss a man on the forehead? Sweetly?" I sipped my drink.
He shifted his gaze to me. Cyclops, regarding Odysseus. At least he wasn't hungry anymore.
"Jack. Yes. And the next night, that soldier, he came up to me. Got real close-like. Started asking me what I'd seen, what I knew. I just shook my head. He told me he'd sold his soul, and that he was scared. He told me he knew I had seen them together."
"Did he threaten you, or anything?"
"No. He laughed. He told me the Devil saw me watching, and that he had a message for me."
"What is that? The message? What did he say?" I couldn't help it. I was fascinated.
"The Devil would be watching me, too."
"Oh? What the fuck you mean, 'oh'? Aint that some scary shit right there, Jack? Could I not just end this goddamned story right there and it be about enough to have you pee your pants?"
I had to admit, yes, it was, but still. I had questions.
"So did anything happen? After? To you?"
Jon just looks down at his wheelchair. Back up to me. Over to his panhandling bucket.
I feel pretty stupid.
Imagine how I felt later, when I actually googled CWO Jon Michael Sparks on a whim.
Chief was a Huey pilot, alright. Shot down in 1973 in an operation over the Ho Chi Min trail. His door gunner was the only one to make it back home.
To this day, Jon Sparks is officially listed as Missing in Action.
I still take him cheeseburgers on Wednesdays, but we don't talk about religion anymore.
Mostly because I'm pretty sure that the infantryman he told me about wasn't the only one to work a deal.
And / or, maybe Jon is still being watched.
Honestly, I'm afraid to discover how thick the border is between lies and truth.
Whatever side of that line I'm living on, I'm happy.
But I'm not afraid to admit that I've started going back to church.
Especially on Wednesday nights.
take a look
right there, in the middle
but a bit to the left
a tattoo heart
a distance under my ribs
count to ten
and rip it off
a tortured soul deceives without a hint
a permanent state for a liar
darker than the ink
a needle marks the place
branded symbolic lies
pushed against a wall,
a strong pulse
behind a weak will
a distance under my ribs
tattooed on a heart
that skinny yarning
that selfish need
unable to speak the truth,
so coated for warmth
around a lie
I cannot speak the truth
I don't know how
it's just darker
then I lead it to be
it's quiet inside
more than I want it to be
between rib number eight
and rib number nine
listen to me,
listen carefully, please
just close your eyes
and listen to the slow heartbeats
between the fast lies
I Am an Imposter
Another day, starting at four in the morning, even though I'm not an early riser. But there is so much that has to be done before the end of the day, and there's a sort of quiet solitude in the dark, away from pointing fingers and whispers.
I dress quickly and head up to roof, where I will swim several laps before breakfast. Physical exertion helps focus my mind and I thrive off of pushing myself harder each time.
About an hour later, I'm drying myself off with a towl, changing clothes again, and heading down for breakfast. While I eat, I write up an email that will be sent to every single last employee at I.S. Tech. I do this every Monday, updating them on any new deals or developments that are happening, and making sure they know just how much I appreciate all the work they do. I don't derserve employees like them.
As soon as I've finished, I grab my briefcase from by the door, get in my car, and drive myself to work. Although I haven't picked up a newspaper in a about a year now, I've been told my face is usually plastered across the cover from at least two or three, not to mention a couple magazines. I've been hailed one of the "30 under 30" and called the "most motivated business woman of the century."
It's lies, and the face they all print is smiling, eyes sparkling and full of life. I'm not sure where they get these pictures, but I have to admit they look nice.
Must have photoshopped them or something, I think.
I don't have bodyguards--I don't need them. When it's my time to die, then I'll die, and no amount of bodyguards is going to change that. And besides, I don't need a bunch of silent people dressed in black watching my every movement. I need my alone time.
The rest of the morning, I am distracted for some reason. I only get to send out emails to half of our investors, as I write them myself. Auto-generated, impersonal emails don't go as far, and besides, it just doesn't seem right to me.
Anyway, I can't finish them all because then I have to go through the suggested ad campaign designs, make my own suggestions, and send them back. After that, it's a meeting with the heads of the different departments, then walk through all the different floors, greeting my employees. Their smiling faces make me feel happy.
Meeting after meeting follow, and I give an "inspirational" speech at two to an auditorum full of dreaming college students. I hope they all make it farther than they thought was possible. I then drive to where I am volunteering at a children's home, nestled about an hour from the city. Nobody knows that I do this, and I'd prefer it would stay that way. It's the one thing in my life that has remained a constant, playing a part in helping these children as they grow up.
But even though there are no cameras, no reporters waiting for me to slip up, I am scared that people will find out.
I don't deserve my fame, my wealth, my company . . . none of it. I am no different from any of the people around me except that I am an imposter, pretending to be hard-working and business savy, caring and thoughtful.
I am none of those things.
I don't even know what I'm doing right now.
Or how I even got where I am, but I don't deserve it.
I don't deserve this.
When I was a little girl, and I was playing with my brother and his friends, and things got a little rough and I fell, they asked me if I was okay; I wanted to be tough, so I said "I'm fine".
When I started high school and I met one of my best friends, I also realized how hard people find it to connect with others. You know how it is; everybody desperately wants to connect with people but everyone is so fake at that age that sometimes it feels like you're not connecting at all, ever. I spent four years watching one of my closest friends struggling to feel connected; struggling to feel happy; struggling to feel loved. On her bad days, I would gently ask her how she was feeling. She'd say to me, "I'm fine".
When my brother got bullied growing up, and then when we were in highschool and he kept getting bullied, I worried about him. He would get himself into trouble as young boys often do, but I've always seen him as a kid with a good heart. He loves people, and wants to be accepted (don't we all?). On his bad days, I'd ask him if he was okay. He'd say "I'm fine".
When my grandmother was sick, she came to live with us. It was really hard on my mom, who was looking after me, my brother, her mom, and running a business. She never let it break her though. I know she was stressed, and of course it hurts watching your parent crumble in front of you. On her bad days, I'd ask her how she was doing. She'd say, "I'm fine".
When I was in my second year of university, I was a full time student working 20 hours a week - basically pulling 15 hour days all week and trying to stay on top of homework. As so often happens, the stress got to me and I developed anxiety. For two weeks I could barely get any work done because starting anything made me shake. I would do my shifts while holding back tears I didn't understand the source of. On my bad days, my friends would ask if I was doing okay. I'd say, "I'm fine".
In this world the biggest lie we tell is that we're fine. We are desparate to be loved, anxious about money, tired from our jobs that work us too hard for too long without giving us room to live happily, wishing we could escape reality; we binge eat while we binge watch, we don't have the energy to exercise, we use tinder to meet people for one night stands because real emotional intimacy is daunting to a millenial generation of trust-issue-ridden children.
You never know what goes on behind closed doors....
Walking away from my high school campus, chemistry book in one hand, violin case in the other, a busload of football players from the next school unloads, and I keep my head down towards the asphalt as I pass them, unaware of the gawking. They hold their flattery, and if they hadn't, I wouldnt believe them, because I do not see who they see. The shade of the tall oaks and maples cannot shield my anxiety as I start my journey home. There are few winding roads and no hills in this little hamlet of middle to upper middle class families, where the proximity to NYC justifies the high cost of real estate. The large homes I walk past are in a straight line and close to the road on small lots, making it too easy to glance in the windows from the sidewalk. Truly I mean no harm to my neighbors and there is no derelict intention to invade anyone’s privacy, so I would not call myself a voyeur. If they only knew my pain, wouldn’t they be pleased to know the momentary pleasure they all offer me?
If needed, I come up with antics, like putting my violin on the ground and pretending I’m tying one of my worn shoes. My long blond hair now covers my face just enough to conceal my yearning stares. Through the bay window, inside 214 Tulip Avenue, stands a young sandy haired boy talking to who I’m sure is his aproned mother in the center of living room. Her arm is delicately placed on his shoulder and her eyes look into him in a way that allows me to imagine her say, “I cherish you son. Come and enjoy my fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies and a glass of milk and tell me all about your school day.” Inclined to stay and stare, and strongly opposed to the absurdity of my desire to be him, it is hard to pull myself away, but I must and do continuing on towards home till I come across two young girls inside 256 Tulip Avenue.
Looking around 360 degrees, I see no one, so I linger for a minute, peeking into their home from behind the giant sycamore. Perhaps it is sisters I am observing sitting on the couch laughing. They are poking and tickling each other affectionately, when a man, I assume their Dad, comes into the picture frame of my view. He is making a “Nani Nani Foo Foo” gesture at them and the two girls are clearly in on the joke. The scene infects me, making it hard to hold my laughter, and I can see myself as part of their family, in the room with them, telling knock knock jokes and watching Laugh-in later that night, eventually going to bed, safely tucked under my purple down comforter with a smile on my face. When I hear the footsteps of Mr. Kemnitz coming around the corner, I am not worried that he has caught me in the act. He’s ancient and suffers from dementia, often found wandering around the neighborhood, sometimes in his pajamas. The spell is now broken and I forget why I stopped, so I forge on towards home, and it is soft music that captures me next at 310 Tulip Avenue.
Barely audible, the faint sound is coming through the unopened casement window. Is it Mozart or Chopin? From the back of his head, I can see a young man playing the piano and two adults, presumably his parents, one on either side of the Steinway look towards him with a peaceful certainty, knowingly moving their heads in tempo. If I could conjure a dream, I would stand beside the pianist, me and my violin, in concert with his magic fingers and all in the room with awe, would applaud my talent, seeing me, hearing me, understanding that I hear the music too.
And then just like that my walk is over and I must enter the stucco house with green shutters, and dark drawn shades, 360 Tulip Avenue, the place where I live and don’t breath. The bills are piled high in the foyer, ignored, other than the tab left by the local liquor store. Perhaps she’s asleep, if I am lucky, passed out from a binge that has no time limit, just a never-ending nightmare. The gratitude felt along my walk helps me up the dusty staircase, and it will remain with me if I can make it to my bedroom without being accosted. Would it soften my realty if I could face the truth; if I ascertained that my fantasies were nothing but big fat lies I’ve been telling myself all along? How is it all wrong if a lie sustains me?
How could I know that the mother at 214 was also an alcoholic and would die of cirrhosis of the liver in a few years? How could I know that the father of the girls at 256 went to jail for sexual assault? How could I know that that young man playing the piano at 310 was autistic and would live in a group home upon his parent’s death. If they walked by the house at 360 Tulip Avenue, would they wonder what goes on behind the dark drawn shades? If they saw me walk in, or better yet if they knew me, they might say, "She is pretty, kind, talented and smart, but I would say, "I don't know who you see, liars, all of you."