What do you do when you can’t sleep?
Everyone has those nights. You get in bed, try to find that perfect spot for your head on the pillow, close your eyes. Wait for that slow haze of darkness to creep into your brain and let you disappear from the world for a little while. And wait. And wait.
It doesn’t come. You start to worry about how much time you have left before the sun comes up, which ironically makes the whole thing worse. Now you’re aware of the fact that you can’t sleep and your whole body feels like it’s tensing up. All this stress is counterproductive, you’re hyper-focusing and it’s making you crazy, all you can think of is how the night is slipping away from you one awful sleepless moment at a time…
But that’s just been my experience. Who knows. Maybe it’s totally different for you.
These nights usually happened when my husband was out of town. There’s something about the absence of his weight in the bed, the lack of a warm body next to mine. Reaching for someone in the darkness only to remember they’re gone.
So this time, you know what, I decided to do something about it. Lance had left for Baltimore on business Sunday evening and I had an important meeting early the next day; I already knew I was in for a rough night without him but I really couldn’t afford to be exhausted. I’d been working on a campaign pitch for the last four months and like hell I was going to have bags under my eyes when I presented it to the client.
Sleeping pills were out of the question – I always woke up feeling like I’d been roofied. Chamomile tea relaxed me, but not enough to get me across that coveted threshold of sleepiness-to-sleep. So I did what most of us do in this glorious digital age: I set out to see if there was an app for that.
And, of course, there was.
It was titled simply “Sleep Sounds” and the thing was loaded with ambient noise. I mean, packed. You want rain? This thing had rain. Summer Rain, City Rain, Rain Downpour, Rain On A Tent… and if rain’s not your bag, there was Crackling Fire, Harbor Seagulls, Outdoor Fountain, even a goddamn Dishwasher.
At first I was a little overwhelmed at the sheer number of choices but I ended up settling on Forest Rain. Just the idea of a quiet green glen in the middle of the woods with the gentle pattering of water on leaves was soothing.
I hit the selection with my thumb, plugged my phone into its charger, and nestled myself into my side of the bed. (I never sleep on Lance’s side, it just feels weird.) I closed my eyes. Using a method I’d read about online, I tried to picture the forest where Forest Rain was falling.
Yeah, it sounds pretty lame, I know, but it was working. Until I heard the whistle.
I didn’t know it was a whistle right away. The first time it echoed through the rain sounds I figured it was a bird, added for effect. I had been drifting towards a sound sleep when it caught my ear and I began wondering if there were other animals in this sound loop, deer or squirrels or bears crashing through the underbrush and dammit I was fully awake again. Stupid bird.
Then, slowly, it came again: a long, wavering whistle. Not a bird call, but a whistle. A distinctly human-sounding whistle.
You know how when you’re trying to sleep, sometimes the weirdest shit pops up in your brain? Like, out of nowhere you’ll remember your 7th birthday party or that embarrassing moment in a public bathroom last week? Well, I heard that whistle again and suddenly all I could think of was a poem I read in college, the one about the goat-footed balloon man.
It was the strangest thing, I could see it on the page of my 20th Century Poetry textbook, all broken apart and scattered like glass on the ground. Nonsensical line-breaks and capitalization, made-up words like “mudluscious” and “puddlewonderful”. Words that belonged in the rainy forest inside my head.
I listened hard and heard it again: two notes, one high, one low. Like someone calling to me.
A bird, it had to be.
Besides, it was stupid to let one dumb whistle distract me from getting my rest. Like a domino effect: the whistle, then the animals, then the poem, it set my brain firing off again when it was supposed to be shutting down.
I turned on my side and let out a deep breath. Tried to clear my head. Pictured the forest again.
Only now, the forest floor was all muddy from the rain. Puddles were collecting in tracks on the ground. Snatches of that poem came to me again.
The goat-footed balloonman whistles far and wee.
Nonsense. Stupid nonsense. I hadn’t thought of that dumb poem in years; even during my poetry class, I remember thinking how dumb it was, how it was just a mash of words all smushed together to sound pretty but it meant nothing. Just what the hell was a goat-footed balloonman, anyway?
The whistle came again.
Where is my husband? I thought suddenly. Where is he, really?
It almost made me sit straight up in bed but I resisted the urge, knowing I’d be starting from square one if I did. Why had that even come to mind? Lance was in Baltimore, sleeping soundly in a hotel room (he had no problems sleeping without me, that bastard) until he went to his conference the next morning.
Oh really? Is that really where he is?
Another one of those weird impulsive thoughts your brain shoves at you when you’re trying to relax but it didn’t feel like that, it felt like something else, like something was needling into my head to put the idea there.
Did he bring his assistant with him? The one with the hipster glasses and the long, tan legs?
I tried to remember and couldn’t. Lance travels so often, it’s hard to keep his itinerary straight.
Yes, he travels so often. Isn’t that a little strange?
It hadn’t occurred to me before. I loved Lance, I trusted Lance, why should I be worried that he was away for a few days on business?
Exactly. I make it easy for him. He leaves the warmth of our bed for strange hotel rooms with his slutty little assistant and I don’t even ask questions, I just lay here alone and wait like a stupid puppy for him to come home.
Now I did sit up. I knew Zoe, she was a nice girl and smart as a whip. She wasn’t a slut. She had worked hard for her position with my husband and had never been anything but nice to me.
Through the rain, the whistle again. Louder now.
I’m sure she worked hard. Worked hard in a position under my husband. Don’t you know what’s really going on here? He is far and wee from you, don’t you know it, far and wee indeed.
“Stop,” I said to my empty bedroom.
For a moment, the awful thoughts did stop. I fell back against my pillow, squeezed my eyes closed, and forced the image of the forest to my head. I tried not to think about the accusations that came from nowhere or whether my husband was where he said he was.
Far and wee.
The whistle again. High, then low. Longer than before.
If he’s cheating on me, I thought suddenly, wildly, I’ll kill him.
The whistle again.
I seized onto this thought like a dog on a scrap of meat. Yes, I’d check his luggage when he came home. I’d see if anything smelled like another woman, whether it was Zoe or not. Look for condoms. Snoop on his phone. Find out what was really going on.
The rain came down endlessly, endlessly, and the whistle echoed through the trees in my mind.
I could Google “tasteless poison” and see what comes up. Or, even better, take the old-fashioned route and spike his food with drain cleaner. Slow, but effective. Watch as he gets sicker and sicker, stroke his hair and tell him I wish he’d feel better, watch as he vomits out his insides and laugh at him behind his back, laugh like he’s been laughing at me.
It filled me with such a simple pleasure that I actually clenched the sheets between my fists. In the forest, drenched by rain, I could see Lance doubled over, his face twisted into a grimace of pain as he clutched his middle and retched onto the mud, onto the cloven hoof prints squelched deep into the ground.
Puddlewonderful, I thought inanely. Oh yes, puddlewonderful, it would be mudluscious to see the light go out of his eyes…
Far and wee.
Far and wee.
The whistle again.
Suddenly, the rain (and the whistle) was cut off by a pleasant tinkling of bells. The forest of my mind shuddered and vanished.
I sat there, dumbstruck, for a few seconds before the bells got louder and I realized it was my phone ringing. The call had overridden the sleep sounds app.
I picked up the phone in a shaking hand and stared at the screen. My husband. I slid my thumb across the glass and answered.
“Hello?” I hoped my voice was steadier than my hands.
“Hey sweetheart,” Lance said, and it was enough to bring me all the way back, make me realize what I’d just been fantasizing about. “Just touching base, my flight landed a little late and I only checked in at the hotel a few minutes ago. I didn’t want you to worry.”
My stomach felt loose and watery. Where had those thoughts come from?
“Thanks, babe,” I said, trying to keep my tone bright. “That’s sweet of you.”
“I’m headed to bed now. Flight was bumpy as hell, I need some rest. How’s it going with you? You gone to bed yet?”
“Not yet.” I closed my eyes hard. “Headed there, though.”
“Well, try to get a good night’s sleep. You’ll need it if you’re gonna nail that presentation tomorrow.”
“You know I’m gonna nail it,” I said, faking our old banter, praying he’d hang up the phone before I couldn’t keep my bile down any longer. How could I have thought those things? Those awful, terrible things?
“Yeah, I know.” There was a smile in his voice. “All right, I won’t keep you, get to bed. Love you.”
“Love you too,” I managed, and hung up the phone the second I heard the line go dead. Almost at once the rain started up again and as fast as I could I closed the app.
Jesus. Those thoughts. My husband, dying. The pleasure I felt at doing it myself.
Just what the fuck was wrong with that app?
I was staring at my phone, running through the potential solutions in my head – some kind of weird sound frequency, auditory hallucinations, subliminal messaging – when I heard it.
Not from the phone – from the air vent beside my night table.
I could feel the anger from earlier beginning to boil inside me again but I pushed it down. I scrambled out of bed and headed towards the stairs that lead to my basement. It was crazy, I didn’t know what I was doing but all at once I was overtaken by an urge to catch whoever it was, see the person who was whistling into my brain all night.
I flew down the stairs and as I did I heard a bang, the sound of one of the basement windows slamming closed.
Had the windows been unlocked? I didn’t think so. No way to tell.
When I reached the bottom of the steps, I just stood there. What else could I do? Cry? Lose my mind?
All I could do was stand there and stare at the muddy prints that tracked from the source of my bedroom vent all the way to the window that had just banged shut. Muddy, cloven hoof prints.
Far and wee.
And so I ask you again: what do you do when you can’t sleep?
Because I don’t think I’ll be sleeping for a very, very long time.