‘Can You Really Sleep Like This?’
The inside of the house was dark. He slipped his shoes off by the door. The kitchen opened widely into the family room, a comfortable space with couches angled to take in both the large television in the corner and the oversized fieldstone hearth. The latest newspaper sat, folded and unread, on a glass coffee table in front of the couch. The moonlight would be bright enough to read by.
He heard the dog before he saw it. Toenails on the hardwood stairs. The animal, called Boomer, was a broad-chested old German Shepherd. It paused at the opposite entrance to the family room. Man and dog made eye contact. Boomer’s head angled down and slightly to one side. It was a moment when the canine expression can seem remarkably human. The thing to do, he had learned, was to make the first move. If he let the dog make the first move the animal would become excited. So he got down on one knee. Boomer came over. Tentatively, then with exuberance, the dog’s tail began to wag.
George whispered, “Good boy, Boomer. You’re a good boy.” It pleased him that his dog might still be glad to see him.
He had extinguished something, she had said on the last night that he’d lived in this house. Because of the lies. He’d never meant to lie. It’s just impossible to stop once you’ve started. He had been coming irregularly, at night like this, ever since. He felt compelled. Losing a night’s sleep meant nothing. Sleeplessness was now a fact of life. Sometimes he’d hear a noise from upstairs and retreat, panicked, to the kitchen. Sometimes he’d sit for hours, like a patron in a theater after the show had ended.
George sat on the couch closest to the windows. Boomer sat upright on the floor with one shoulder warm and sturdy against George’s calf. It was difficult for George to sit on this couch and feel that familiar shoulder alongside him and still remain vigilant about his movements and the noise he might make. Only the light seemed wrong. He surveyed the room. The blank television was surrounded by the glowing red dots of an extensive stereo system, one he had put together with great enthusiasm over several years. He suppressed an urge to go over and turn the system completely off. He unfolded the newspaper and laid it on his lap.
He was thirsty for a drink. He knew that would be tricky. He couldn’t consume anything that might be missed. She wouldn’t miss scotch, of course. She might not even know where it was. If only he’d thought to bring a plastic cup. Next time. He decided he could just slip the bottle out of the cupboard above the stereo and drink right from that. He patted the dog and got up. In the liquor cabinet he found a Christmas-season-sized bottle of Dewar’s scotch whiskey. The kind with a circular handle in the neck. He felt a little bohemian. He hated the plastic inserts they put in the mouth of the bottle. He balanced the jug on his right elbow and, with his index finger through the little handle, he took a sip. It was exactly what he had been wanting. He took another, longer, sip, then closed his eyes while the warmth in his throat subsided.
His first reaction was to put the cap on the bottle and lift it toward the cabinet. Then he remembered that there was more going on here than sneaking whiskey.
“Hi, sweetie,” he whispered. Christina wore a pink nightgown with a faded image of Cinderella’s castle on the front. She had a drawer full of nightgowns. She only slept in this one. “What are you doing up?”
“Looking for Boomer.” She yawned, bringing the back of one hand to her mouth
“He sleeps with me now. I woke up and he was gone.”
Carefully, George closed the cabinet. “Is Mommy awake?”
“Nope. She told me she was taking a special pill so she could get a good sleep. I can have breakfast in the toy room if I want.”
“You’re lucky. So Boomer sleeps with you now?”
Christina nodded. “He’s really warm,” she said.
“I remember. He used to sleep with Mommy and me. Let’s go sit on the couch.”
They sat down in the patch of moonlight at the end of the couch. Christina tucked her shoulders under his arm and her feet under her body. Boomer resumed his position.
“I wake up at night sometimes,” she said.
“You do? What wakes you?”
Christina shrugged. She was perfectly untroubled by any sense that she ought to know what woke her.
“I wake up sometimes, too.” George said.
“And you come here in the night?”
“Sometimes. But not -- you know, not every time.”
“Were you reading the newspaper?”
“I was. In the moonlight.”
“I don’t want a pony,” Christina said.
George pulled away slightly, so he could better see her face, and she could better see his own. Her large, slightly heavy-lidded green eyes would have a coolly perceptive look when she got older and her countenance aged to match them.
“When Kimberly’s parents got divorced, she got a pony. When you left I thought maybe I’d get a pony, too. Then you were gone. Now I wish you wouldn’t be gone instead of wishing for a pony.”
“I’m not sure if a pony would help much.”
“Do you want to have breakfast in the toy room with me?”
“It’s still late at night, sweetie. It isn’t time for breakfast.”
“I know. I mean later.”
“I shouldn’t be here later.”
“You shouldn’t be here at all, Daddy.”
“Well, I suppose -- yes. You’re right, I shouldn’t be here.”
“That’s okay. I like it. I can sleep right here with you until breakfast time. I’ll sleep like I haven’t slept in weeks.” Christina raised her arms triumphantly as she said this. George recognized the phrase, and the gesture, as his wife’s.
“Then when I wake up,” she continued, “we can have breakfast in the toy room. We’ll watch for Mommy together.”
“Watch for Mommy?”
“Yes,” she said. She began speaking faster and in a more sing-song cadence as she went along. “We’ll keep a lookout. Boomer can help, because he’s a watch dog. These days she comes down the stairs very slowly, with her hand on the banister. And when she comes you can go out the kitchen door and I won’t tell her anything. Just skibber out the back. And I’ll say, did your pill help you sleep, Mommy, and she’ll say yes it did but I need some coffee. Then I’ll say I made you some coffee, Mommy, but really you can do it, Daddy, because I don’t know how. And she’ll say thank you very much for making me coffee. And she won’t even know you were here!” Then, in a stage whisper, she added, “she told me there are some things she would rather not know about.”
“Isn’t that a good plan, Daddy? We can do it whenever you’re free. If Boomer’s missing, I’ll know you’re here.”
“I don’t know. What if Mommy came downstairs and we didn’t notice?”
“We’ll have to be very careful. Boomer’s a watchdog so he’ll help us.”
“Are you tired, sweetie? Could you go to sleep right here?”
“I could sleep just like this.” She stretched her legs out and folded her arms using his left thigh as a pillow. She was a small girl. “I’m very comfortable,” she said.
He stroked her hair. “I’m glad you’re comfortable.”
“Wake me up at breakfast time!”
She closed her eyes. We could keep this up for months, he thought. Christina and me. She’s clever, self-possessed. She would learn quickly. He could feel his face flush, his pulse quicken. She lay taut and still against him, pretending to sleep. He thought about what it was that she might learn.
“Christina? Christina sweetie?”
She flipped over and looked up at him.
“Can you really sleep like this?”
She nodded. Something had turned her expression solemn.
“Okay. That’s fine, then. If you want to sleep here, then you go ahead and sleep. I’ll stay for breakfast. I’ll make Mommy’s coffee, too. And when she comes down I’ll – I’ll just say hi. That’s what I’ll do. You can go ahead and tell her what happened. Let’s don’t lie to Mommy. Not telling is a kind of lying. You’re a good girl. You should only do things you can tell about. That’s very important. I know what she said, but -- well, just don’t. Okay?”
Again, Christina nodded. In that moment she crossed the line from solemn to silently tearful.
“Promise?” he said.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather sleep in your bed? I’ll send Boomer up. You might be more comfortable.”
“All right then, sweetie. You close your eyes, then. I promise I’ll be here when you wake up.”
To his surprise, the child was asleep in minutes. He felt her rhythmic breath on his knee. He would have to learn to live without that feeling, and the dog’s shoulder against his leg. He wiped a silent stream of tears away. He watched as the line of twilight advanced across the room to the foot of the stairs.