Annie couldn’t sleep. It was not the first time she felt this way and it wouldn’t be the last. Her husband was lying in the space beside her, he was already gone. He had been gone for hours and this crumpled half-effaced body breathed silently in his absence. Annie was alone, he had left her alone to herself and the empty space and the evening stretched out like an endless yarn with nothing fortunate at the end.
Hours malinger and weigh heavy on the exhausted consciousness. The curtains tremble slightly in the passing of a stray wind that heralds the passage of nothing in particular. The hour breeds and spawns its identical twin, bringing forth nothing which proves a painless birth. Annie feels the birth; she feels the pregnancy of the room in bringing forth what time can only bring to the exhausted imagination. The room expands, contracts, and she feels her brain do the same with the pressure of an inflated object that swells to breaking point. When the mind reaches such a crisis, exhilarated in sheer abandon to what it dreads the most, the walls break forth and admit the truly dreadful things that prey on sleeplessness. And then everything relaxes once more.
The curtain drops. The mind winces and recovers from its ordeal.
Annie turned to her husband and watched him in his abstraction. She knew him now as he would never know himself. This face which moved out of accord with his consciousness now betrayed him. When Joe was awake his mouth was hard and fastidious, now it was pulled back ignominiously over his teeth. It was an expression in no way sinister because it failed simply to be an expression. This was merely a face that revealed a disembodied personality which could never be reconciled with the man she had come to know as her husband. His face now debarred her from knowing him. It was a clumsy, oafish sort of face that lay below her now. She lifted an eyelid to see the dazed, sluggish eyeball beneath staring idly back up at her. The sensation of looking in the eye of a man who was fully blind in sleep thrilled and disgusted her. She pushed her palm against his slightly open mouth and pinched his nose. Some faintly reductive quality in the room, a density in the air quashed her spirits and made her cruel. Was he stealing her oxygen or was the window not open wide enough?
She wondered how he was so present to her now, so robust, with his slightly phlegmatic breath as his chest rose and sank and the great bulk of him weighed heavy on the empty space, forcing it into accepting him. She could not comprehend how he might one day be dead. He was so present, so insistent. She felt his physicality all the time, it consoled and irritated her. She had taken to hurrying out of rooms when he stumbled into them, almost as if by accident, forgetting why he was there. The imbecility of such a man! She hated how he held himself, how he dropped his arms when he wasn’t doing anything with them. It agonized her to have a conversation with him as he was obtuse and spoke belatedly. If he were deliberately taciturn it might thrill her; she longed for an argument, however tedious. But his silence was the silence of a man who simply didn’t know how to fill it. And when he did she rather wished he hadn’t.
There was only one period in Annie’s life when she slept soundly every night and it was in a post-adolescent, pre-marital era. It was a long hot summer in 1992 when she met Laurie Mayer. She was twenty-one and approaching the end of her degree in Literature; he was thirty-eight, divorced and derailed. What had caught her attention was the small groove indented between his eyebrows when he frowned. He had the most alert and persistent expression in all circumstances and he had no eyelids so his eyes were deeply set within his face. This seemed to give the impression that he was always watching the world from afar with his eyes closer to his brain, and always registering signals a few seconds in advance of the rest.
She met him in a cafe in London. He asked for a coffee and swore madly when he dropped his change. For some reason, Annie was close yet she liked to watch him struggle as he stooped for the errant coins. One was by her foot and she stared idly as he crouched near her. Sensing something half-tender beyond her idleness, he asked her what she was reading. It was Women in Love.
‘I thought nobody appreciated Lawrence anymore, certainly not with the second wave feminism,’ he said. ‘It’s a shame, really, I think he’s been horribly misunderstood. Please do put a good word in for him in your paper.’
‘I’m not interested in the author. I just like one character,’ said Annie.
‘Who would that be? I can’t imagine that it’s Birkin, seeing as you don’t like the author.’
‘I have to go now,’ Annie said abruptly and grabbed her coat. The man’s face darkened; there were years of sleeplessness in his eyes. She closed her coat around her waist and felt the blood flowing freely in her body, enriched by the magic of intuition. She knew instinctively that, in this small space in time, she was a sought for thing. No matter that she could not quantify or even fumble for its legitimacy. She was about to leave but she leaned in close for a second and said ‘Gudrun is my favourite character.’ It was a half joking answer but also entirely sincere.
She felt surcharged by desire which was, for the first time, not purely contrived or half invented for effect, and she thought that it was necessary to be brave, brave and a little gauche, in order to keep it going. Trying to preserve an impression of bored indifference all her young life was, more often than not, very dull and she believed it did not aid sleep in any way. She was tired, horribly tired. And now this new discursion might just set the wheels and cogs of her body in motion and put the rest, the mental strain of it all, to sleep at last. For that reason, she left Women in Love at the cafe. It was for that reason that Laurie Mayer followed her back to her flat.
When she opened the door, he seemed tired as he stood there, loitering like a man half his age with the book in his hands. She let him in and they laughed it off; she offered to make a drink. The hollow rent in his forehead loomed large over the rim of his coffee cup. They talked about the book. They talked about her literary tastes and favourite quotations, his job as a teacher of foreign languages. They moved on to semantics, Sanskrit, insomnia, Mirtazapine, metaphysics. It seemed that an inexhaustible terrain of thoughts could be navigated; no subject was so anomalous that couldn’t be broached for fear of overstepping a mark. He told her he had once wept so hard in the night that he woke to find his sheets drenched; the cleaner thought it was urine at first. She admitted that she had dreams where she was falling so far into her own body that, when she screamed, she could see her innards reverberating all around her, like a purple fleshy organ.
They eventually proceeded to make love, treating it as though it was a natural progression in the conversation; a kind of dialogue in and of itself. Their limbs became the natural instruments of their thoughts, which had so recently flickered into lucid life. And she was violent, violently storming through the act with all the discontent of life and the sleepless rage that had kept her body on edge for years. What meant more to her than anything was the fact that this man accepted the livid streak in her. He was livid too. They worked into one another’s flesh furiously without fear of what they might find there. She dug her nails into his back and could see the black static slowly receding from the forefront of her vision, leaving all else clear for the first time. After an age, they rested. After a few hours, she slept soundly.
He left early, before she had awoken. And Annie always remembered that her bedroom felt different once he’d gone. It was less hostile to her, more expansive. And when she watched her face in the mirror, the eyes were more expectant and less troubled. Her roommate, Laura, noticed the difference too.
‘Did he leave you his number?’
‘You ought to call him. Don’t play any games though; it never gets you where you want to be although you think it will.’
‘I might ruin it,’ said Annie.
‘Ruin what? It was just one night.’
‘Yes, but I slept so well.’
Annie got in contact with Laurie Mayer after two days. When she listened to the phone ringing at his end she kept trying to focus on pieces of a conversation they’d had; flashes of insight into a raw and purely authentic soul. He had seen her stripped bare and weeping under the shadow of his arm. They’d woken at intervals to check the other was not purely a product of a dream.
‘Hi, Laurie? It’s Annie. Hi.’ She was nervous.
‘Annie. How are you?’
She resented that the gravity of their nocturnal intimacies was suddenly so reduced. The ordinariness, the banality of life and its predictable routine threatened to overthrow the balance.
She craved strangeness again.
‘I think I’d like to come to you this time. What do you think? When are you free?’
‘Great, yes, great. Just the thing,’ he dropped something on the other end. ‘Great. Come on Saturday morning if you like but I can’t be with you for long. My daughter’s coming in the afternoon with her mum.’
Annie felt her breath come in smaller spaces. ‘You never mentioned-what’s her name?’
‘Alice. She’s beautiful; I’d love you to see her. Another time though, not now.’
‘Right. Give me your address?’
‘Great, yes. Great.’
Was he turning into a gibbeting moron already? Annie hated that he kept repeating ‘great’, especially as he had only told her a few days ago that he resented what he referred to as redundant adjectives; ‘nice’, ‘good’ and so on. And he was nervous too, though his anxiety was not tinged with exhilarated expectancy like hers. It was more the kind of anxiety which springs from a shattered consciousness, taut as though the knuckles probed the temples into hourly submission.
She saw him several times again and each time she grew more despondent once she left him, less reassured as in the first instance of their meeting. When she turned up at his house she was shy and lost her spirited irony, something which she previously always used as a talisman in unfamiliar quarters. Laurie was knocking down a wall that previously separated the bedroom from the guest room and, consequently, the upper floor was a site of anger and loose rubble. Initially this set her at ease. And yet there was always something not quite the same. He was distracted and consistently rambling now about so many things, so many articles of hate that punctuated his days and left them riddled with blotted errors like an angry telegraph. He was insatiable in making love but there was, now she began to realize, a callous and crest-fallen fury that was the catalyst. He was disappointed, horribly so. He hated that he was approaching forty and he’d been cheated on by God. Those were his words.
‘God cheated on me. He cheats on me every day,’ he said to her one Sunday as they sat side by side against the headboard, ‘He fucked me. Don’t you think he fucks us all?’
Annie admired him deeply; he was the most sensitive man she’d ever known. And yet, as she dropped herself easily in between his thighs and held his hot chest, she could not, would never be able to touch him. He was inscrutable. Inscrutable and entirely alone in the density of what he was dealing with, whatever it was. She held him tightly, knowing she was going to be exiled at some point.
The curtain rolled back again. In this room, which bound her to a different fate, Annie saw the head of a man whose dreams were silent on the pillow beside her. It was always a surprise to her when Annie realized just how much anger she actually harboured toward this man who did nothing to intentionally provoke her. And yet he did all the same, simply by occupying a space beside her which she wished someone else had filled. He could be endured most days, and yet there was a small spot of tension after so long that grew like an abscess on her brain; a blank spot threatening to take over the rest, wiping out the memories.
Joe was like a tap that hadn’t been turned off properly so that it still dripped once every minute; a sound without any real menace but persistent enough to widen the crack. And the water level rose daily, threatening to burst the banks. Which would finally triumph over the other: irritation or inertia? Was it worth getting out of bed to turn the damned thing off, or was it not worth the fuss? After so many years of habit, Annie felt as though she had no other choice but to listen in stock silence to his breathing. Too much effort was required to pull away now. Divorce loomed in her mind like an ugly midwife, beckoning her to let go. Bloody entrails and entanglements would follow. And the screams of betrayal, of being crudely ejected into the empty space without warning. And what would she do? Who would she fall back on? No, it was no use.
What could she have done differently? She knew she had occupied a position of some substance in Laurie Mayer’s life, and yet it was not enough. Was anything? And yet she knew she had caught him being happy, she had stumbled across those moments in which he was entirely happy, as if by accident. Usually they were closed off moments in time and she had not been trying so hard to come close to his core. Sometimes, he just pulled back the leathery folds and there it was, without a hint of irony.
On one particular occasion they were at the theatre, watching a play, ensconced in darkness and breathy silence. Annie sat in between Laurie and his daughter, Alice. For some reason she was trying very hard not to laugh. It was one of the actors which started her off; he was playing a hard done by aristocrat, morbidly depressed and bitter. The play was awful really, Annie loved that she could hate something with such gleeful abandon. There came a sententious speech, spoken with an expression of calculated woe and she began to shake. Once the first giggle came, the rest were just waiting in line and she couldn’t hold herself. Alice shot her an angry glance. Laurie was bemused but he continued to watch the play. There was a pause as one of the actors forgot their lines and then Annie felt an added pressure to stifle her laughter. In this precious gap between lines, she was completely gone; the compulsion was too great. Alice was white-hot with fury. And out of the darkness came Laurie’s hand, reaching for her own which was firmly grasping her knee. The added contact of someone who faintly understood combined to destroy her. She laughed loudly, without any dignity. Alice nipped her arm, hissing, ‘get out of here!’ She got up and stumbled across a line of legs along the aisle; it seemed everything was conspiring to make her laugh harder. She sensed that Laurie had got up after her and he followed her to the side door.
Once out of the theatre, she kept walking down the corridor; the further she walked away, the louder she could be. Laurie stopped her suddenly and pushed her against the wall. He was laughing too; his face was scrunched up and, perhaps for the first time, Annie saw the upper side of his soul, the side which occasionally flipped up like a capsized boat. His gloominess was momentarily beneath them and they were balancing the waves. ‘You little shit-you,’ he said, holding her close and breathing in her neck, ‘you little bastard.’ They shook with laughter together. Then he held her at arm’s length and studied her. Annie thought his eyes were clear now, they were focussed. He said nothing for a space; but he might as well have told her she was his greatest love. She knew she was safe then.
And yet she was still never sure of its legitimacy. Things always conspired to break her. They were together for three years when she finally knew that things were drawing to a close; the curtain call was nigh. It was Alice’s twenty-first birthday and Annie had specifically not been invited. Laurie was quietly resigned to the fact and he avoided bringing it up with Annie, but she was queasy about it. It was going to be held at Alice’s mother’s house and there would be a great number of people, including her mother’s ex-boyfriend and her mother’s current boyfriend. Laurie had bought Alice a white shift dress as a present, which had cost over a hundred pounds. Annie wanted to tear it apart.
‘Will you drop by after the party?’ she asked as she watched him button up his shirt. The line in his forehead seemed deeper; was it just that evening? Or had she just not noticed until now, after three years together?
‘I will. I absolutely will,’ he said. He turned to her and held her face in his hands; it was a steady weight to him. ‘I’ll come by as soon as I can. I’ll leave a little early.’
‘Well, you don’t have to do that.’
‘No, I will Annie,’ he turned to the mirror again and wound the tie round his neck. She knew it would be a cliché to assist him so she sat still on the edge of the bed. ‘I’ll come round and put you to bed, my cherry blossom.’ His lip curled and she laughed. But she felt stiff.
The night came and dissolved into a strange sort of space that was neither the end of the day nor the beginning of the next. She waited on the end of the bed, too tense to lie down and too hot-headed for sleep. Three o’clock came without a sound, four o’clock gave her a little shake, five o’clock gripped her by the spine and folded her in half. She eventually crumpled into sleep. But it was the kind of sleep that made her less rested than before. She woke at eight o’clock and saw the clean expanse of her duvet; the empty space before her, stretching out her patience to a dead end, perhaps forever. Perhaps it was then that she finally gave him up. She was done with waiting; it would be the death of her before anything else.
Laura persuaded her to stay with her again, at their old flat, and Annie agreed. She thought Laurie might find her there though and she was half afraid of this, half hopeful. But after a month of waiting for this she realized he was gone. She switched her phone back on to see if he’d tried to leave any messages. There was just one. It was quite short: I’m sorry I never got in touch. Don’t be angry A. I’m going to Barcelona with Alice and her mum for a week or so-it was a surprise gift and I couldn’t say no. Be back soon. L. Annie read the message over and over again until Laura eventually took the phone away and deleted Laurie from her phone. Then she hid the phone away somewhere; Annie never found it in the flat, though she searched for days.
Laura was adamant that Annie used this opportunity to re-evaluate her life. She was going to do so much with herself after University, after all! Now she had to straighten out the creases and get herself back in the running. Get up and get back into the swing of things! If she could only be positive, great things might happen for her! Shitty attitudes bred shitty lives!
‘What the hell are you talking about?’ said Annie. She thought of Laurie and how he would have turned Laura’s trite analysis of life swiftly on its head. Then he would have torn the head off and stuck it on a pike. She missed him horribly. It was as though she had been placed in a coma.
Six months passed by and Laura had somebody she wanted Annie to meet. Joe Barnes was originally a friend of Laura’s from work, during their University years. They had both waited on at The Sad Sea Lion on campus, a self-consciously kooky cafe reserved for all the first years who nurtured hopes of becoming ecologists and graphic designers. Annie had perhaps been there once and she was certain she hadn’t noticed him, though Laura insisted Annie had made an impression all those years ago, somewhat unintentionally. Laura had run into Joe again in town, buying coffee. She was bursting with praise for him. He was still very attractive, he had so muchgoing for him, and he was so easy to talk to. She wanted Annie to come with them on a sort of date with Laura as the overseer. She wrung an answer out of Annie and Annie agreed eventually, though she was so nihilistic at this point that she would have agreed to anything.
There were a great number of things which marked Joe as the complete inversion of Laurie. When they met at the restaurant, he emerged from the table to greet her and somehow-she didn’t quite know how he managed it-he rose, yet made his body stoop simultaneously; he stooped while rising. His face was round, open, expressive like an infant. His ears stood out to attention like flowers reaching for sunny words. He wore his clothes as though he was still learning how to dress himself, with the collar still sticking up a little at the back, and one pant leg tucked into his sock. He had accidentally picked a table near a large mirror hanging on the wall. When he turned to it he cringed and changed something, whether it was malleable or not: a stray piece of hair, his tie, shirt tucked in, the plaque on his teeth, his earlobes, big mouth, hair, earlobes, breath, ears. He was slyly watching himself with dismay when they made their way toward him.
They all said hello and sank into a forced familiarity with Laura as the pilot, steering them along. He was instantly diffident with Annie, coming forward each time shyly with a series of monosyllables to take the edge off; ‘hi!’ ‘ha!’ ‘great!’ ‘yes’ ‘right’ ‘so!’ Laura talked a lot, Annie a little. He never began a conversation; rather he seemed to seek an opening half tentatively toward the end of one, by which point the topic had been exhausted and put to bed. Annie watched him with interest; it was fascinating to watch a man so wary of his conduct, so self-effacing in company. He was self-conscious, though not in any grand sense in which an accelerated mental drive wound the ego up too tight; rather, he found himself intimidated on all sides by societal forces he couldn’t understand. Should he pay for their meals as well as his own? How much should he tip the waiter? How could he speak of himself without being immodest? The meal was over before he had a chance to collect himself.
Annie was entering into a strange phase at this point in which the world was chugging along without her interest in it. Shadows insinuated themselves into her brain as she slept, and they were more fleshed out than the people within her life. She worked as a typist for a law firm now, having firmly tucked away her hopes of securing something with a literary focus. She would write and yet she could not think who to write for. When she was with Laurie, her melancholy was enough to reinstate her love of words; her continual disconnection with him, interspersed with moments of hope and clarity, combined to set her on edge. Now she had fallen off the edge and was lying in the undergrowth. She was listless. Words never came. She typed official documents for a cooperation she had no interest in, no stake, no purpose. The sweet ache of melancholy had soured into an ugly and unresponsive depression. Ennui was too elegant a word; it was black yet blackly beautiful. Annie had touched its beauty when she slept in the arms of a disembodied man, waiting on darkness. Now she was experiencing a state of torpor unlike no other. Little things made her idle and she was too weary to empty the bin, wash her hair, open cupboards. She had taken to cursing under her breath at everything; small children crying, old women dithering with change, little dogs yapping. She felt better when she called everyone a ‘cunt’ in TV commercials. She might have cried but she never did; tears were the product of energized grief and she had none. Sometimes when she was sitting on the tube, she was afraid of herself. She was afraid she had no feeling left in her body.
She continued to see Joe because, though she cared about nothing, she did want to have some hold over herself. And Joe was kind. He had none of Laurie’s insight or black wit; he was not the kind of man who would withdraw, physically or spiritually, without notice. In fact, he was more present to her than anything else. He was present all the time. He waited for her almost every minute. He waited for her after work, he waited for her to say something first, he waited for her to get up first. It was mildly irritating to Annie from the beginning, though she could never know the extent to which this irritation would grow over the years so she was accepting of his over-zealous, slightly neurotic attention. There was only one thing he didn’t wait for her to do and that was sleep.
Joe slept more in their marriage than he had done at any point in his life. It was as though the closer he came to death, the more he cowered in the unconscious; he didn’t like to think over anything. Annie watched him now, taut with irritation, though she relaxed herself with every other breath. She even tried to synchronize their breathing but he seemed to change his every minute. What was it that made him so lifeless now, at this stage in his life? Had she hurt him along the way? She had always been so careful to moderate her despair and take it elsewhere. But intuition, even in the most primitive animals, is a powerful regulator of consciousness. He had probably known for some time that she had never loved him. He had merely been an aid in her recovery, a self-soothing device. She had used his dogged patience and love to correct the imbalance Laurie had left in the fabric of things. And yet, now she was in her forties, she was all the more hollow for it. She had tried to remedy something irremediable, something that was always going to need the poison itself and not the cure, to subsist.
Joe’s head lay there on the pillow, still breathing, still perspiring, and she held it in her hands. The window opened a little wider as the night moaned its eternal lament. Annie felt soothed by the sharp quality of the air and she relented, unsure of herself again. As she took her hand off the face of her husband his face reacted simultaneously. She watched the sleep abate from his eyes as they focused on her. He looked at her and she felt vindicated somehow. He was looking at her and seeing her as she was, as something even she could not quite speculate upon in the height of her self-consciousness. For one moment she keenly desired to see herself through his glassy, fearful eyes. What was it that he saw? She had seen the expression before and she was piqued by it. He was spooked and couldn’t speak.
‘What is it?’ she said, excited. He couldn’t, wouldn’t speak. ‘What is it? Tell me.’
‘What-what-‘he whispered, as though to himself as opposed to her. He was uncertain of her.
‘Did you have a bad dream?’ Annie said in mock sympathy.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Want to talk about it?’
He was the most frightened, defenceless thing. It was quite extraordinary, the change in him. He was so present before and now his stolid bulk seemed to have shrunk beneath her between the covers and continued to withdraw, where she did not know. It was as though he was slowly retreating into a vacuum somewhere beneath the sheets that swallowed his body mass and left a sunken shape behind with two glazed eyes suspended in space. For the first time, Annie could conceive the fact of his mortality. For the first time it was conceivable to her that he would die.
His warm solid shape failed to trick her into believing otherwise.
He shifted uneasily and she felt herself slide into the empty designated space. She was still excited. A confrontation was surely nigh.
‘Close the window.’ She heard him say. She closed it abruptly.
He turned his back to her and sought for the rest she had broken. She intuited a restlessness that had developed in his nature now, a desolate state of unease which she alone had given birth to. For the remainder of the night she knew he was not sleeping and she knew he no longer wished to. It was surely his primary motive to remain awake for as long as possible. Annie closed the curtains and submitted to their shared gloom.
Sally Oliver graduated from Lancaster University with a 1st class degree and an MA with distinction in English Literature. She likes to write short fiction which is deeply existential in tone, revolving around central characters who are perhaps fated to be dissatisfied in every circumstance of life. She gains inspiration for her short stories primarily from early 20th Century modernist writers such as D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. She is currently an intern at Anaphora Literary Press and has worked as an editorial assistant for two publishing companies in the North West of England.
David D. McIntire is a sound artist and producer based in Kansas City. He currently teaches at Missouri Western State University and operates Irritable Hedgehog, a label devoted to minimal and electroacoustic music, several of whose releases have been widely praised for their excellence. He also leads the Ensemble of Irreproducible Outcomes, a trio that specializes in performing indeterminate works.
Learn more about David D. McIntire’s Irritable Hedgehog.
Learn more about the Ensemble of Irreproducible Outcomes.
Performers: Eastman Percussion Ensemble. John Beck, conductor. Find the album.
The Flexible Persona was founded in 2013. We are an independent home for emerging and established writers and poets.