by Samantha Eliot Stier
We started wearing earplugs to help with the insomnia. Well, for me it’s insomnia, but for Carl it’s just that he’s a light sleeper and I keep him awake with my insomnia, or so he claims. The real truth, I tell him, is that he keeps me awake with his snoring. The neon tennis-ball colored rubber bullets are like sleeping pills; a few minutes after we pop them in, we’re both out. Carl keeps saying we should be careful, that it might get to the point where we can’t sleep without them. What would happen if we were staying somewhere where there were no earplugs, he asks. I tell him that’s ridiculous, we haven’t stayed anywhere but our own house in years, except for that one horrible trip to visit his parents in Michigan last spring. He says we shouldn’t be relying on the earplugs to sleep. By then I have mine in, and I can hardly hear him. It feels like we’re underwater. “What?” I say. He tries to keep talking but my eyes begin to close as I watch his lips move. “What?” I say again when he stops. He just sighs and pops his in. Then we sleep. It’s so good with the plugs. It’s deep sleep. I feel like I’m making up for years of not sleeping.
In the morning, the alarms go off, first mine, then his, eight minutes apart. The cat starts pawing and then clawing us. I never want to take out the plugs, but I do, pop-pop, and for the next few moments, the world is loud and ugly in my ears. The cat is meowing. Carl is snoring. His alarm is still going off. Outside the window—open, how Carl likes it—cars zoom by, screech, honk, blast music. I lie absolutely still, letting my ears readjust, wanting more than anything to slip back into the quiet of the plugs and sleep.
Carl gets out of bed to feed the cat. I hear him murmuring to her in the kitchen, nonsensical lovey-dovey-baby-talk in a voice still gravelly from sleep, as he pours her dry food into a dish, then cereal into bowl for him. He eats breakfast without even washing the cat food off his hands. I can tell because I keep listening for the sound of the tap, but it never comes on.
I get up finally and brush my teeth. I face my side of the walk-in closet, now filled with clothes that are suitable for work: starchy blouses that require strategically invisible bra straps and rigid skirts that keep my knees prudently trapped together. Slippery black heels that make the arches of my feet ache. I miss the days when I never left the house, when I never changed out of sweats.
We started wearing the plugs about a month ago. Our friend Ronnie suggested it. We were at a barbecue at the condo he shares with his girlfriend, Laura, and somehow we got on the subject of my new job, and I said that I had been having trouble sleeping ever since I started it. I think it’s the waking up early. I used to work from home selling my jewelry online and I’d do most of my work at night, crawl into bed around three or four in the morning. Then the money stopped coming and I had to get a real job working in an office for an actual company, something to do with social media—I can never remember the exact title—where they expect me to plan my day around them. I would get so stressed at night thinking about waking up at 6 the next morning and driving on the freeway, it would take me forever to fall asleep, especially with Carl snoring in my ear. I kept him up, too—he’s a light sleeper, so every time I moved around he would heave this great sigh that I suppose was meant to make me feel guilty. Carl denied that, of course, since I said it in front of Ronnie and he hates it when I make him look bad in front of Ronnie, who, he always likes to remind me, he’s been friends with for years, since grade school. I think he likes the idea of having an old friend from grade school better than he actually likes Ronnie.
Anyway, Ronnie went into his bedroom and when he came back he gave us each a little plastic-wrapped set. A sample. “Laura doesn’t get it,” he said. “But I swear these things will change your life.”
Ronnie’s an EMT and he gets giant bags of the plugs for free from the ambulance. Every time we go over there, he gives us a little baggie. Last time I didn’t even want to go, but we were out of plugs so I went with Carl anyway and listened to Laura blabber on about the joyful little fourth graders she teaches. At the end of the night Ronnie gave us a bag and I figured it was worth it. We got some good sleep that night.
When the plugs are in, I sometimes feel like I can’t even hear my own thoughts. If I stand up, I feel like I’m floating. I’ve started doing this thing, where if I wake up in the middle of the night to pee, I slap the bathroom walls with my hands to make sure I’m awake and not dreaming. I’m always dreaming about trying to find a bathroom because I have to pee. I’m worried that one night I’ll pee the bed. It’s starting to become a real problem, but not so much so that I’m going to stop wearing the plugs.
The cat likes the plugs, too. She plays with them when we leave them out, chewing them to a pulp and pawing them across the floor till they’re black with all the dust and grime I haven’t had time to clean since I started the Job. In the mornings, she’ll bite them right out of our ears. We have to explain to Ronnie that part of the reason we run out so quickly is the cat.
* * *
One night Carl tells me I get a dreamy look on my face when I put the plugs in. I tell him he always has a dreamy look on his face, to which he replies “What?” and I see that his plugs are in too, so I shake my head and turn over to sleep.
It’s true, though, about him having a dreamy-looking face. Carl has very droopy brown eyes, a heavy jaw, and shaves his head because he thinks he is balding, which he really isn’t, except maybe his hairline is receding a bit. He’s sort of dopey-looking, the kind of person you wouldn’t stand behind during checkout at the grocery store if you were in a hurry, or someone you’d be extra nice to, because with the shaved head he sometimes looks like a cancer patient. I told him this once and he was very insulted. Carl is just a slow-moving person. I’m always waiting for him. He takes forever to get ready in the mornings—devotes ten full minutes to applying Rogaine—or on the rare occasion we go out and he can’t decide which of his three outfits to wear. He gets distracted easily, usually by Google. He googles everything. If we walk by an apartment for rent, he googles the listing to see how much it is, even though we have a house and a giant mortgage to prove it. He googles all the gross stuff that goes on with his body. We’ve been more than an hour late because of Carl’s googling.
Carl and I have become one of those couples that has a routine so solid, if we miss even one thing we do, we fight about it for hours. One Sunday, I suggest we skip Ronnie’s, and Carl gets very huffy. He claims I never liked Ronnie and I never give Laura a chance. I tell him Laura is a painfully dull person, and she always wears bikini-style underwear that cuts diagonal creases across her butt cheeks, which you can see through the yoga pants she insists on wearing even though she’s not doing yoga. Carl asks why I’m looking at her ass anyway, and I say it’s hard not to since she’s always sticking it in our faces, but that he probably likes it. He gets mad when I say that and leaves, slamming the door. I hope he’s going to go to Ronnie’s by himself, but not thirty seconds pass before he comes back in and says he’s sorry. And even though I’m mad, I feel obligated to forgive him, because the couples’ therapist we went to (only one time, a complete waste of $120) said I should try to be more forgiving.
At Ronnie’s, I try to get Carl to look at Laura’s panty-creased ass, which he refuses to do. Finally I give up. While Carl recites a list of googled facts about the beer we’re drinking, Laura tells me a story about a colleague with an eating disorder, which I think is meant to be a funny story, so I paste a smile on my face and laugh here and there, but the whole time I’m thinking about that baggie of brand new neon earplugs Ronnie’s going to give us at the end of the night.
I think dreaming is sort of like tripping on drugs. And it’s addictive. I never craved sleep like I do now.
I tell Carl this. He says dreams are nothing like drugs. He did acid one time in college, and he always holds it over me, the fact that he has had this drug experience I never had. He thinks it somehow makes him more worldly, more mature. I say that dreams are probably more trippy than an acid trip, and he gets very upset. He wants to know how I could possibly say something like that, having never done acid. He looks like he might cry. He starts to say something else, but the plugs are in already. “What?” I ask. I wish I could wear plugs all day. I want to wear plugs whenever Carl starts telling me what he googled. I could hide them with my hair.
It’s going on a solid three months of the best sleep I ever had.
There are some side effects, though. When I use the bathroom in any unfamiliar place, including at work, I have to smack the walls to make sure I’m not asleep. I try to make sure no one else is in there first. I’m afraid I’m dreaming and I’ll wake up in a puddle of urine if I don’t do this every time. When I eventually dream about smacking the walls in the dream bathroom, I have to add more to it in real life; I slap my cheeks, the walls, and say something out loud; a sentence detailing my observation of the bathroom. Carl can hear me doing this at home. He immediately googles it; he tries “fear of wetting the bed – adult,” “slapping bathroom walls,” “obsessive compulsive behavior during urination,” but nothing that applies to me comes up. He says I need to talk to a therapist. Carl always talks about seeing a therapist for every little thing, but he never actually does it himself. He likes the idea of having a therapist better than going to one, which was one of the reasons we never went back to couples’ therapy.
This is the kind of person Carl is: he still has the business card of the banker who helped him open his account at Wells Fargo about a hundred years ago, all the ink rubbed off by his wallet, and he calls the guy any time there’s a problem with his account or he has a question. He calls the guy his “banker.” I tried to tell him that this guy is not his personal banker because this is not 1952, that he’s just another employee at Wells Fargo and it ultimately makes no difference which stiff-suited, oily bank employee he talks to, none of them actually work for him. Whenever I tell Carl this, he uses it as an opportunity to point out how I am always trying to cut him down. I tell him not to be an idiot.
Things are getting bad at work. My boss says my behavior is “disruptive” and that I have an “unenthusiastic” attitude. In our next conversation, after a presentation for a client who is impossible to please, he says my attitude is “bitter” and “offensive.” A coworker hears me doing my obsessive bathroom thing and tells my boss, who seems to agree with Carl that I might need professional help. He even gives me the name of his wife’s therapist.
I worked at this tween fashion clothing store when I was a teenager and I hated it. I hated it so much I tried to get myself fired, since my parents wouldn’t let me quit. I rang up the customers wrong. I stocked shelves wrong, putting the XXL size pink skinny jeans in the XS section. I showed up late and took hour-and-a-half lunches. I was rude to everyone. My boss was a forty-year-old Asian man named Phillip, and he thought I was just about the greatest thing to walk into his ugly linoleum-floored store. He was always reprimanding me, then smiling and saying not to take him too seriously, he wanted us to be friends. He bought me cake on my birthday and clothes from the store that were too small and pink and sequined. I realized eventually that he would never fire me. The minute I turned eighteen, I quit. I told Phillip I was moving to Argentina.
Carl says I am too cynical. I ask what that means and he says I am disenchanted with life. I laugh, which makes him puff out air. He’s trying to have a serious talk. He thinks I don’t love him. I tell him he’s being ridiculous and I want to take a nap. I start to roll the plugs between my fingers until they are thin enough to slip in. They expand with a slow whooshing noise in my ears. Carl is still talking, so I say “What?” until he sighs and leaves.
I have these recurring threads in my dreams. One of them is that I’m having an affair with Ronnie. In the first dream, we are both in his car, which has been abandoned on the beach. It’s half-submerged in ocean water. Ronnie tells me that the doors are locked and we’re eventually going to die when the water fills the car. We mutually agree to have sex—for the last time. When I wake up, I wonder why we didn’t just roll down the windows.
I get fired the next day, and go home to nap. My dream continues as if I never woke up, never went into work, never got fired. I dream that Ronnie and I have somehow escaped from the car, and he’s helping me find a bathroom because I have to pee. In this dream, Ronnie wants to tell Carl about the sex, but I say he can’t. Ronnie says Carl will understand, because we thought we were going to die, and it seemed like the natural thing to do.
It’s getting more and more awkward when we go see Ronnie and Laura on Sundays. Eventually I stop going altogether. To my surprise, it doesn’t even cause a fight.
I have developed an ear infection. There’s no way around it. I have been trying to get the plug into my left ear for a full ten minutes now, and it just hurts too much. Tears are streaming down my face. I am sobbing. Carl comes home and asks me what’s wrong. I tell him I might possibly have an ear infection, and he puts his arm around me and whispers that it’s okay, just don’t wear the plugs tonight, we’ll go to a doctor tomorrow. This makes me cry harder. I keep trying to get the plug in, and it feels like I’m driving a pickaxe into my ear. Carl pulls my arm away. Stop it, he’s shouting, you’re going to hurt yourself.
But I can’t stop. I want that earplug in. I want it in so bad.
Finally he gets me to drop the plug. It rolls onto the ground and the cat pounces on it instantly. I can’t stop crying as I watch her destroy it with her claws.
Carl doesn’t understand why I’m so upset. A couple nights without the plugs won’t kill me. When he looks at me, I see pity in his eyes. Pity, and a tiny bit of something else, like fear.
I lie down with the one plug in my right ear, which makes me feel lopsided. Carl lies down next to me and puts in his plugs, which seems very unfair; I feel like he should sleep without them in solidarity.
I wait until they’re in before I roll onto my side and look at the spot on Carl’s neck that he missed while shaving. That little uneven patch of wiry black hairs irritates me so much I want to punch him, right in the neck.
“Carl,” I whisper. I dig my fingernail into his arm until he yelps.
Irritated, he points to his neon yellow ears. “What?”
I lean close and drop my voice to below a whisper. “I’m having an affair with Ronnie.”
He doesn’t hear me. I roll back over. I think about when I was eighteen and I told Phillip I was moving to Argentina. Maybe I’ll do it for real.
Samantha Eliot Stier’s stories have appeared in many literary journals, including The Faircloth Review, Black Heart Magazine, Infective Ink Magazine, Mojave River Press & Review, Citizen Brooklyn, Drunk Monkeys, Gemini Magazine, Spry Literary Journal, and Blank Fiction Literary Magazine, and were featured in L.A.’s 2014 New Short Fiction Series. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and lives in Venice Beach, California. You can visit her at http.//samanthastier.com/.