by Michael Pikna
Who could sleep, tethered like this? Wires snaking off my scalp, face, and legs. Belts girdling me, cannula lassoing my face, tiny jaws clamping my index finger. Like throwing a net over a bird and saying, okay, fly! It doesn’t help that my sixty-eight-year-old frailties and inadequacies are being documented. Maybe even my thoughts. For your amusement, the inner stylings of Dwight Harris. You joke, but you never considered how I was supposed to fall asleep with you burying your face in my neck and throwing a leg over me in the middle of the night. You were asleep again before the next breath left you.
Sandy, the tech, tries to reassure me. If I sleep, I sleep. If I don’t, I don’t. ‘No pressure,’ she adds. She can’t be much younger than me. She’s got fine white hair with green streaks in it. What person her age does that? Not you. You were so age conscious. Coming into the study modeling an outfit while I was trying to write, asking me if you were too old for it. I’d say no and then you’d tell me why I was wrong. Without the weight of your sensibilities lying next to me at night, I sometimes imagine it was aggressive self-awareness, not cancer, that ate you up inside.
I press the call button after thrashing around for a few hours. Sandy appears, arms akimbo.
‘Bathroom?’ she offers.
I walk to the john, Sandy behind me holding the little box I’m plugged into. Like I’m on a leash. Do your business, Ike. Good boy. You enjoy this, don’t you?
At the commode, she hands me the box, then stands outside the open door.
‘I can manage.’
She shrugs an apology. ‘You’re a fall risk, Ike.’
I am not a fall risk. Am I? I’ve been doubting myself since you’ve been gone. She wins this little standoff and gets to bear witness to my trickling stream. Not much could make a man feel more decrepit.
She walks me back to the bed. While she’s leaning over to plug me in again, I peak down her blouse. There’s a crosshatching of wrinkles in her cleavage. A pebbled gully of skin. My eyes cut to the ID badge dangling in the same vicinity. Her picture looks a lot younger.
‘How long you been doing this, Sandy?’
She straightens, crosses her arms in front of her. ‘Too long, Ike.’
I try to sleep. An eternity passes before I press the call button again. This time she sweeps into the room and shuts the door. Her movements are more expansive, and her eyes look like they’re coated with cellophane. She stands over me, head lowered, pondering me. Her recalcitrant patient, colluding with wakefulness. She says nothing for a time, then angles her head.
‘Move over, Ike.’
So, I make room. I don’t even question. Maybe it’s the authority of the lab coat.
She lies on her side, facing me, head propped on her left hand. I see no wedding ring, just that soft white band of skin that remembers it. She smells of lavender oil. And something sweeter just underneath.
‘I don’t imagine this is protocol,’ I say.
‘Sometimes you improvise, and the hell with protocol.’
Hell wafts over on fumes. She’s hammered. Or well on her way. I glance at the camera mounted on the near wall.
‘This is your last night, isn’t it?’
Her answer is to move closer. She lays her head on my chest, a knee across my thigh. I know it’s not you, but somehow it is. Your warmth, your life. Then you fall asleep, and I remember how it was:
You were always the one who could shut out the world when it came time. You simply closed your eyes and slept. Me, I was busy trying to conjure a better version of myself out of the day’s wreckage, but I’d end up building a monument to my anxieties with it instead. And every night, just when I was on the verge of falling into the pit of my own stomach, where I might have churned all night long, you folded yourself into me. At first, it lit me up. How could it not? Your skin on mine, the heat coming off you. But as you settled, I did too. My thoughts quieted. It felt good to be more than myself. Your breathing was easy, like a walk down a gentle slope, so I followed it.
I wake sometime before dawn, pleasantly surprised that I slept. I am alone, and that surprises me too. Sandy comes in, releases me from my bonds. She seems none the worse for her intemperance, a little rumpled is all.
‘So…you got what you needed?’ I ask. I don’t intend for it to come out that way.
She blushes. ‘You can tell a lot in a few hours, Ike. You can get dressed now.’
I dress in a state of stupefied wonder, part sleep deprivation, part revelation, although what’s been revealed doesn’t lend itself to words yet. As I’m looking out the window, Sandy comes in and stands next to me. She takes my hand.
‘That moon,’ she says. ‘Looks like a face peeking in, doesn’t it?’
‘Gibbous moon, that’s what my wife called it. Always made me think of monkeys.’
‘You’re thinking of gibbons.’
Gibbons! You knew, didn’t you? Of course, you did. It was my happy ignorance that held the moon in place.
‘It’s funny,’ she says. ‘How the moon hangs around after the sun comes up. Like someone who doesn’t know when to go home.’
‘Can you blame her? She was the life of the party.’
She squeezes my hand.
We stand very still while the morning presides over us. The dawn needs you to be quiet, to be at peace. It needs you to be a witness and nothing more. It needs you to be its memory.
Michael Pikna is a psychotherapist in Aurora, Colorado. The son of European high wire walkers, he manages to keep himself grounded most of the time. His short stories have appeared in Bryant Literary Review, Rathalla Review, Water~Stone Review, Still Point Arts Quarterly, The MacGuffin, Sky Island Journal, and others.