Sleep – Nicholas Clemente
March 29, 2021
Before Hoodie is fully awake he is aware only and only half aware of being suspended in mist in a stranger’s room. Ache in his head, pain elsewhere in the body, amorphous, unlocalized – pain that seems to float above his knees and elbows and ribs, using malignant gravity to bother the muscles and bones below. The sound of rain hissing on the window and dull cloudy light pressing against his eyelids. The body next to him warm in a damp kind of way and the air under the sheets slick and clammy, barely warmer than the air outside them. A soft human pressure on his face as Callie applies a gesture, conscious or unconscious, waking or somnambulant, that’s less than a kiss but more than a breath. She moves closer, inches over him, thighs pricking around his legs like climbing vines. His eyes come open and adjust slowly to the green-black light of morning, focusing until he can see the moisture gather along a yellow crack in the ceiling and bell and bloom like a liquid kiss into a potted plant below. The room looks out into a brick wall and doesn’t get much light but somehow these broad green flowerless plants of hers find a way to thrive anyway, fed on shadows or cigarette butts or maybe just Callie’s strange nocturnal radiation.
—Callie. What time is it.
She doesn’t answer, doesn’t stir. He tries to lift himself up to look for clocks in the room but she traps him somehow without moving: tenses her muscles, still sleeping, her skin now burning with a soporific fever heat. A blush in her cheeks, motion in her lips: Hoodie watches her closely, studying the texture of her skin, the uneven acne scars cratered beneath her smeared concealer, the flecks of sparkle that have traveled from her eye shadow and scattered themselves on the pillows and sheets like stardust. Watching her to see if her eyes are going to spring open without warning, without any glaze of lost consciousness, perfectly awake, perfectly aware, as if she was the one who’d been watching him. Sometimes she does that, he doesn’t know why. He moves his lips onto her hot skin but leaves them there without kissing, his muscles frozen in the middle of the act. Because he can’t remember if he’s ever done this before, and loses the will to do it in the time it takes to think about it. Slowly, like backing out of a room to avoid being seen, he takes his lips away, breath held, mouth dry. For minutes more they lie there.
—Callie, he says shaking her body. Callie. I have to go to work.
She doesn’t reply. Deep sleep like warm death: if her heart still beats, if she still breathes, it’s only because the action of her dreams demands it. Hoodie’s radio squawks to life, still tied to the shoulder strap at the foot of the bed, and Rocket’s voice comes compressed and metallic through the speaker:
—Wake up, Sunshine. The work doesn’t wait for the rain to end.
The wind sprayed a mist down on them the day before, angry little droplets mixed with city dust and road grime. He squinted through the day, fighting the wind even on the downhill stretches of the city, legs lifeless beneath him, yelling at motorists, grit crunching beneath his teeth every time he opened his mouth. After some days you need more than a shower, more than a drink. Sometimes you need to sleep through the night and then sleep through the next day also.
—And if I remember correctly, Sunshine, says Rocket, you still have an undeliverable from yesterday. Either that comes into the office today or you’re fired. Got it?
Hoodie does what he can to savor the last of the silent seconds: listens hard for the hush of rain on the ceiling and walls, for the whisper of Callie’s breathing, but he can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. His cellphone shrills in its holster beneath the radio, the sound amplified between the four narrow walls of the room. Callie fidgets in her sleep: but instead of sliding off him she creeps over him ever so slightly, moving like a warm glacier, the motion almost imperceptible.
—Callie, he says. I have to get that.
—No you don’t.
Her voice doesn’t seem to come from her throat, her mouth: emanating instead from the very center of her body, resonating warmly in the hollow space of their conjoined chests. A voice clear but impersonal, like it doesn’t really belong to her, like she’s not really there.
—He said I’d get fired.
—He says that all the time. He says that to everybody.
Her limbs come snaking to life, stirring and sliding without goal or aim, her eyes still closed, using the skin of her arms and legs to feel out the environment around her.
—Just pretend like you never heard him, she says. What’s he gonna do.
The radio beeps again, again Rocket speaks:
—I’m trying to be patient with you, Hood Ornament. But the more times I have to call you the angrier I’m gonna be.
—At least let me turn the radio off, says Hoodie.
—Just let it run out of batteries, says Callie.
His phone rings and he shifts his weight to slide out from beneath her.
—I’m going to turn it off.
But she grabs him with her hands and hooks her legs around his and uses all her weight to pin him down. Every time he seizes one of her tiny hands and pries it free she manages to find another way to hold onto him, her fingertips white from the pressure, sharp toenails scraping against his calves and ankles. Her mouth is open and her teeth are bared, smiling without her eyes, breath coming out heavy. The phone’s stopped ringing but they remain locked in place like that: Hoodie angled up off the mattress to the waist, holding each of her wrists, easing her slowly backwards. She rearranges her knees to settle her weight and that’s when he manages to flip her away and fling the sheets from his skinny legs. He turns the volume down on his radio and slides the battery from the back of his phone just to make it seem like it was something he really needed to do. But Callie’s not watching him anyway: her eyes are on the ceiling, her face full of troubled thoughts.
They stand in the kitchen, bare feet on cold linoleum, cold air raising the hair on bare legs and arms. Both in boxers and T-shirts, who knows which belong to who anymore. Leaning against counters, arms crossed, waiting for the coffee to finish dripping into the pot. Roommates walk through on their way to work, hurriedly stepping around Hoodie’s dirty bike to pull lunch or breakfast from the fridge, assiduously avoiding eye contact with the two of them, getting what they need and then getting out of the room as quickly as possible. She cracks the window open when they’re gone and they lean on the radiator with cigarettes pointed out the window, mist from the droplets dappling the paper cylinders with tiny spots of dampness when the wind blows the rain against the screen. Rain spattering in rolling waves against the puddles standing in the street, big moving wings of water gushing from the wheel wells of passing cars. When he turns away from the window she’s calmly laying out lines of heroin on the kitchen table, the whitish-yellow powder specked with black coffee grounds. Like vanilla bean, like cookies and cream. Soft and warm like snow and sleep. He remains hunched over the radiator for a moment more, savoring the feeling of the heat and cold running concurrently over his skin, and then reaches over his bicycle to pour the coffee, leaning all his weight on one leg, tiny crystals of road silt pricking against his soft pink sole.
—I don’t want to go out there, he says looking into the blackness of the coffee in his cup.
—So don’t, she says. Just don’t.
At midday it’s darker than the city’s night, the streetlights dormant and the world beneath them lit only by the headlights of passing cars. Black puddles boil with raindrops, slicks of iridescent oil floating on their surfaces. Overflowing sewer drains vomit bubbling knots of water into the gutter. Across the river bicycle messengers soldier through the day, white paper envelopes turning yellow and disintegrating in their leaky bags, gloves and shoes filling with cold water, pants sagging from the weight of the rain, eyelids tired from spending all day blinking through the storm. But none of this can be known from the safety of the room. They leave the blinds down and fall back under the covers, burrowing deep, trying to make the cotton warm. The rain only a rumor, a murmur, an unease lurking somewhere just outside of consciousness. They stick their clammy skin together like a flower bulb in the cold wet soil, nourished in the damp and dark, groping gradually toward the light. Her blood humming like timpani music when he presses his ear to her neck. He can feel it: somewhere beneath the inches of quivering skin and muscle, the dumb resilience of bone, past ages of darkened memories and terrace upon terrace of ancestry, there is warmth, straight from the source, he’s sure of it. A heat so pure it could burn the earth to cinders in an instant – but it has to pass through too many mediums before it reaches the world, so that even the brightest and clearest days remain murky reflections of their truest selves. And this day is therefore hardly any dimmer than any other. All is still except for a rhythmic tapping on the sheets. It persists for hours, staggered like a drizzle, until the water touches Hoodie’s skin through the fabric: the leak from the ceiling trickling through, faster every minute. And all day the rain washes over the city, plunging it completely underwater like a glass in the hands of a young and beautiful bartender, first in the bleachy water and then in the clear, in and then out again, in and then out, from cold into cold into cold.