By Palmer Smith
I fell in love with a somnambulist when I was 26 years old. It was before I really knew him that I fell in love with him. I had always wanted to love a somnambulist, mostly, because I’ve always been fascinated with the process of sleep. There isn’t a lot of research on sleepwalking. It is the kind of topic that I am surprised is not spoken about more. There are about three million cases of sleepwalking per year. It is a common misconception1 that if one finds someone else sleepwalking, one should not wake him or her up. This is due to the fact that if the person is not awoken, the chances of the person hurting himself or herself increase. Men are thought to be more violent than women if awoken in the middle of sleepwalking. Sleepwalking falls under the umbrella of a “parasomnia,” otherwise known as an undesired event that occurs while asleep. There have been reports of people doing fully functional things while sleepwalking, such as driving or even killing someone else.
I know how sleepwalking works, because I myself sleepwalk.
The somnambulist stood outside of my glass office and knocked on my door. The door rattled. I could tell he would be the type to have sleepwalking issues, or hallucinate, or generally suffer from insomnia. I could tell because of the way he held himself—seemingly awake but somberly wishing he were asleep. His posture was tall, but the middle of his body slung inwards. He coughed, covering his mouth in order to not spread his germs on my bureau, where all these manuscripts sat one on top of the other. His gaze faded lightly as he noticed the skyline view in my window. His eyes were bright enough to hold knowledge, the type of knowledge I needed—the type of knowledge I yearned for. I had to know that someone else had the problem I had.
He told me his name, but I will only refer to him as the somnambulist, because that is the only identity he will ever have in my brain. He was unexcited about real life, because being asleep would always prove to be more interesting. Maybe he could remember his sleepwalking patterns. Some people can, and others can’t. I made sure to hide my stack of Doctor’s notes in my drawer, locked so no one would see them. These notes ranged from everything involving my own sleepwalking, to the other notes about medication I was on for recently discovered illness that I won’t bother to talk about just yet.
“Good morning, Ms. Thomas. I’ll be working next door to you. I’ll be helping with the editing of the magazine this summer.”
“Great. Glad to have you with us.”
“I’m actually 22, I really should have a permanent job, but here I am. Thanks for taking a chance on me.”
He stood there with his arms moving up and down and his hands jumping. It was as if he was speaking and I muted his voice in order to fully examine him. The truth was I didn’t know what he was doing there telling me thanks—someone else had hired him, not me.
Before he left the office, I decided to ask him to drinks. Now, I had to go about this in a way that was exceedingly cautious of his own reaction. I knocked on his office door and asked him what he thought about the bars in midtown. He said he didn’t know much about them—I insisted he allow me to show him one. He grinned and said he would love to go out.
We took the elevator down together and our reflections were bouncing around all corners of the silver walls. It was June. The sky was blackish, the air bustling with scents of champagne and heated city stone.
The French bar in midtown I took him to had high ceilings, with the walls painted a light pink. There were chandeliers above us and the diamond shapes of crystal flickered light onto our table. We sat so close to each other that I could almost feel his breath from across the table. We both ordered red wine and I finished mine first. He told me that he had just graduated with a major in English and a minor in psychology. I withheld most of the information about myself. I asked him about his English major and what he really want to do with that kind of knowledge. He hesitated, but stated that’s why he took this editing internship at the magazine. He told me Jack Kerouac was his favorite author. This made me smile with a kind of delight I hadn’t felt in years, and a kind of delight I wouldn’t feel in a few months when my sickness would end its course. Kerouac lived life on the edge. Some people hate him and some people love him. Some people hate his work and some people love his work.
It wasn’t until the somnambulist began to smoke cigarettes in my bathroom apartment later that night that I noticed his faults. We were in my bedroom, where the walls are painted a silvery fish-scale color. He turned the lights off and realized I had star-stickers on my ceiling that lit up. He stood up on the bed and touched one to see what the texture felt like. He asked me if it was okay if he smoked. Really, it wasn’t okay. But I didn’t want to be alone for the next hour. I wanted him to stay and I wanted to study him. He smoked 5 cigarettes in a row. His face existed like a statue next to my window in the bathroom, marbled and still.
He cracked the window open and kept it open by sticking one of my books, “The Particular Sadness of Lemoncake,” between the glass and the pane. The moon was big and bursting onto the water. I watched the ashes of his cigarette rain onto the pane, creating a dusty coat over the white paint.
“So, do you just want to sleep with me? I mean…you probably have lots of options,” he said.
I was pulling the sheets over my face in order to try to excuse myself from answering said question, but decided to answer it anyway.
“You’re young. I can’t deal with anything permanent right now.” I responded.
“What, the other guys are looking for permanent?”
“No, the other guys are just assholes,” I stated sincerely.
“Oh,” he said.
He slept beside me on these blue cotton sheets and his eyelids wavered every few minutes like a flickering light. He had made love to me in a way that was soft and unusual, almost in slow-motion and my brain was imprinted with stills of his touch. He was not overwhelming or intrusive. His body felt weightless when it was atop of mine. He was a lay next-to-in-the-grass-and-look-up-at-the-stars-lover. He ran his hands across my stomach, with his fingertips acting like spider legs, inching one by one down to my navel and straight below.
At 2a.m., after I had fallen asleep and he had too, he began to sleepwalk. I didn’t know until I heard his wine glass break, the pieces making a sound that reverberated around the corners of room. He knocked it over trying to drink it, but he was still asleep. He had left the bed and exited the room. I stepped on the glass when I was looking for him. The shard went into my pinky toe and sliced into the skin. Bright bursts of blood encircled my feet and I immediately shut my eyes. The deep color reds juxtaposed my bright oaky floor. I knew what could happen in these type of instances, and I knew I needed to find him as soon as I could. I realized the medication for my sickness was right on my table. I don’t think he had seen it yet.
Sleepwalking. My first bout occurred when I was 10 years old, and I walked downstairs in my grandparents’ house in Maryland in the summer. I turned the light on, and I got a glass of a water. But I only half remember all of it. The next morning, the light was still on and that’s how I convinced myself it was all true and real. It is most often children who sleepwalk, but then again, adults can too.
“How did I get here?” “What time is it? Who are you?” “Why the fuck are you just standing there watching me?” We know so little about sleep. The brain. The brain during sleep. We know so little about what we spend half of our lives doing.
The somnambulist wasn’t in the bathroom. He wasn’t in the living room, and he wasn’t in my closet. He wasn’t in the hallway. Walking towards the kitchen, I began to hear some form of music that sounded familiar. I realized he had turned my radio on to an oldies’ station and Cyndi Lauper was on, singing “Time After Time.” The somnambulist was laying down on my kitchen rug, naked, with a bloody hand. His eyes were slightly open.
His eyes opened upon the lines of Cyndi’s: “Sometimes you picture me—I’m walking too far ahead.”
I decided to wake him up by dropping some water on his forehead. I figured this would be somewhat subtle and at least not too physically invasive.
“Wha—what?” he asked.
“Why are you out here?”
“Oh my god…Karen, I’m so sorry. I didn’t think this was going to happen. This never usually happens after I have sex.”
He sat up straighter.
“What are you talking about?”
“I have a sleepwalking problem.”
“Oh, I see. Are you…okay? What happened to your hand?” I asked.
“Yeah, can you just help me up?” He asked me.
I held onto his arms, trying to lift him up as best as I could. He told me he needed to stay awake.
“Please don’t tell anyone at the office about this. I’ve done some questionable things during my um…recurrent bouts of somnambulism.”
“Somnambulism?” I repeated, acting like I didn’t even know.
“The fancy medical term,” he replied.
“Let me take care of your hand,” I said.
I grab ahold of the cut hand and turn on the sink water. He flinches slightly. I go to get my Neosporin and bandaids out of my bathroom, and rubbing alcohol. He smiles and tells me no one has ever put a bandaid on him before.
Soon enough, I began to have recurring dreams the entirety of the week I first met the somnambulist, but not about the newspaper store. It was different this time. He was coming over about every other day, and I’d begin to experience these dreams around 3am in the morning. I only know this, or think that I know this because once one of them became so vivid that I woke up because of the extremity of the vividness, and my digital clock held the numbers: 3:02 A.M.
My dream was relatively simple—but the more I reflected on it the more it frightened me. I would walk onto the train in Union Station in Washington D.C., where I went to boarding school, and I would board an Acela train back to New York. In the dream I was my high-school age, and I was on the way home to see my parents for Winter Break. I’d pick a seat in the middle of the quiet car, and I would throw my suitcase on the top shelf. I’d put my earphones in my ears and turn on my music. I had a sandwich in my bag, and I’d start eating it. The train would leave, and I’d begin to look outside of the windows at the suburban areas of the East coast—full of mechanical storage places, gas stations, warehouses, empty fields and patches of trees and lakes. Other people would get on the train but I’d never really notice them. I’d zone out, and stare at the space outside that would fly by at such a fast, but settling pace.
Just as I closed my eyes momentarily, I felt my body shake, my feet rise up—-and the train, almost in slow motion, fell off a bridge we were traveling across. I’d watch as bodies began to levitate in front of me and I’d see facial expressions frozen in front of me. I’d remember these faces of awe and grief. Just before it actually fell and would crash, I would feel my body falling, and I felt that physical sensation while I was asleep, until it became so real that I instinctively would wake up.
I didn’t tell the somnambulist about the dreams, but they began to seriously interrupt my ability to pay attention at work, and other people in the office began to notice. I would be grammatically editing a document, and all of the sudden I would feel my body falling downwards again. I could hardly eat my lunch without my arms shaking and other people beginning to appear blurry as the train was about to land in the water. I had to stop myself from yelling “help” when my mind became disoriented as to where I was. I wondered for a while if there may have been some connection between seeing this person who had a habit of sleepwalking and my own sleep issues beginning to come into play.
The next evening I had the dream again and something alarmingly strange happened. The somnambulist slept with me in the bed after we had just had sex for the 7th time since I had met him. After the crash was about to happen and I woke up, I had an intense amount of pain coming from my arm and my leg. The somnambulist was sleeping next to me and I didn’t want to wake him, but I couldn’t contain myself with these dreams anymore. I was sincerely worried. They were scaring me to death, and made death feel like it would more and more tangible as the dreams continued; what would happen if my body hit the water and everything did end? As I was about to wake the somnambulist, I had the sudden realization that he was more beautiful than my mind’s eye recalled him being. His eyelashes were long and thick, blonde and they curled in a way that seemed almost innocent. His eyebrows were light brown and blonde, and they arched up high towards the middle-ends of them. His nose was stumpy, but it had personality. His skin was creamy and freckled. His lips were curved at the top, at the bottom, buoyant and red and almost shining.
I pinched his arm to wake him up. His green eyes—deep green and golden on the outer circles, with bits of yellow swirling around them, stared into mine.
“Karen…Karen?” he sounds confused, scared, unsure of why I have awoken him.
“Listen…I need to tell you something.”
And then I say it. I say that I’m concerned about my sleeping patterns. I tell him about the dream. I tell him I am afraid I am going to die if I keep sleeping. And I tell him that my arm and my leg hurt, even when the crash didn’t happen in my mind…He begins to give me a look of understanding, as his eyes stare at mine and he grabs ahold of my hand.
“Like my legs…” I say and I pull the sheets down so he can see them, how they’re shaking.
“Why are they still shaking?” he asks.
“I don’t know. I think your problems with sleeping really got to me. And look, my arm is even a little bruised but I don’t know what it’s from,” I say.
He runs to the kitchen and pours a glass of ice water. I hear him drop ice cubes into the mug I always drink out of and he comes back. He teases a hand across my leg and he tells me to drink the water, but all I really want is an explanation from him as to why this is happening. He must know.
I swallow the water and it runs down my throat.
“Do you know anything about this kind of stuff?” I ask him.
“Well…I mean, there are definitely times where I am having an intense dream and something happens to my body and it might seem to hurt for a while,” he says.
“But nothing like this,” he adds.
He begins to run his fingers through my hair. I begin to feel like I have exposed the depths of my inner mind to him. Now he knows what I’m really afraid of…and I want him to fix this. I stretch out my entire body across the bed, and I ask him how sleepwalking began for him. He says it started when he was only four years old.
“I didn’t tell you at first, but I actually sleepwalk, too.”
In the morning It’s 3:02 a.m. again. I am not aware of it yet. I am sleepwalking and my eyes are open and the somnambulist is asleep. I blink every few seconds as if I were awake, but I am not. I am in my dream and I am falling off the bridge and I can hear my music playing in the background so I’m running around the kitchen and I half-see my window that faces the river. Right below my window is a city parkway that lines along the water. My window is half open and my brain views it simply as empty space.
I feel my body begin to sweat and I am in the dream—bodies are floating above me. My head. I can feel the pain in my brain like pulsating knives and I imagine cells multiplying over my memories, covering them up like a blanket.
I watch my arms grab ahold of the window. My hands press against the glass, and in the dream my forehead hits the train window and my head crashes through the glass. In the dream I see blood. I begin to blur reality with my dream, with a half asleep-half-awake brain.
I begin to lift myself up onto the side of the window and I hear the noises of the cars rushing by like static candy wrappers mushed together. I tell myself I need to get out of the train—that I need to get out of the window. I’m sitting on the ledge of the window and I’m eight floors above the ground. I know this somewhere in my mind but I can’t put the dream and the present together. I don’t know what’s real anymore. It’s misty outside and I breathe in the air and my left leg is dangling, hanging like the weight of another world. If I fall, I fall. I close my eyes.
The somnambulist is sleepwalking during the same period of time I am reaching the window. He thinks he sees something, but he doesn’t know it is me yet. I hear him, but he doesn’t hear me until he runs into the flat-screen television and hits his head as he reaches for the remote. That’s when I feel his hands wrap around my waist—just as my other leg begins to dangle. He freezes in the moment. He becomes my stop watch. I think it’s gravity pulling me back, pulling me out of death—but I am wrong.
The somnambulist has saved my life. I fall back to the floor of my apartment, and our bodies are entangled. He asks me what I was doing, and I tell him I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing. I tell him thanks, thanks for saving my life. I watch us from an outsider’s view and I watch us kissing and our tongues are dancing for a permanent moment, locked into each other, and I tell him he can move my body on top of his. The television turns on and then it goes black and our heads are up against my wall. I don’t know what I’m doing.