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Insomnia by Hannah Rahimi

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Hannah Rahimi lives in Montreal. She has published short fiction in Electric Literature's Recommended Reading and Cosmonauts Avenue. In 2016 she was a finalist for the Writers' Trust of Canada's RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers.

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Here is what I dreamt when I finally got to sleep in the early morning: Someone had taken all the eggs from my fridge and devilled them.

I’m up at night and so is Eve. It seems like every few minutes we sense each other waking, hear each other padding to the bathroom, hear each other pee—pathetic, half-hearted streams—, sometimes crossing paths in the hall returning to our rooms, half asleep and in a rancid sweat.

It’s my fault. Eve’s a weather vane for any emotions within a twenty-foot radius. When I don’t sleep, neither does she. What does bad parenting look like? Is a child’s insomnia any indication?

I’m sick and haven’t told her yet. Last week I watched the doctor produce a laminated colored poster from a drawer and point to all the parts of me she wanted to remove. 

“Are those the real colors of everything?” I said. 

“We want to err on the side of caution,” she said. I didn’t appreciate how quickly she had learned to ignore me. Her voice was crisp and clipped, medicinal. She talked side effects, prognosis. She talked post-surgery. Chemo. Diet. Morale. She said, “Maybe you should be writing this down.”

An old-fashioned word, morale. You have to keep it up, she told me. Your morale. It really makes a difference. And I thought, get me a doctor who sticks to the facts. Leave my plummeting morale in peace.

On the phone my father says I had better tell Eve right away, honesty being the best policy and so on. But my parents have absconded to Florida to live out their retirement in tanned oblivion, and therefore no longer get a say.

.  .  .

“I’m coming to stay with you,” says Frederick, my oldest, dearest friend. I’ve known him since the second grade. We’re talking on Skype but he refuses to turn the camera on because he doesn’t feel like seeing his own face. Instead I direct my words to the little photo on his profile—ten years younger, impish smile, a magnificent head of orange hair that has since been buzzed so as to pre-empt inevitable balding.  

“I didn’t invite you,” I tell him.

“You want me to come. And doesn’t Eve love me?”

“Don’t you have to work or something?”

“Stop,” he says, extremely gently. “I’ll be there Friday night.” 

Gentleness tends to make me cry because it usually means someone has detected something breakable in me that I didn’t know was there. At least the camera’s off.

.  .  .

Two days later Eve and I head to the Greyhound in the middle of the night, spot his narrow face through the bus window. He’s so tall he has to stoop getting off. He carries the same army-green duffel he’s had for twenty years, taped in places where the cloth has worn through. He’s thrifty when it comes to possessions, but decadent in all things edible. “Well,” he says to Eve. “Your mother certainly has aged.”

“Nice,” I say. “Did you think that one up on your thirteen-hour bus ride?”

Grinning, he wraps his arms around Eve and lowers his head to my shoulder. “I’ve never been so glad to see you two,” he says.

“Will we go to the island?” says Eve, resting her head on his stomach. The island was their tradition back when he lived in Toronto. She reverts to her five-year-old voice to ask him, breathy and meandering.

“Say the word. I’ll go right now!”

She giggles. “The ferry’s closed.”

“I’m a strong swimmer.”

“It’s nighttime.”

“So? I hear you don’t sleep anymore.”

She looks over at me, betrayed. She is of an age where things are beginning to embarrass her. It’s only a matter of time before everything about me becomes my daughter’s ultimate humiliation. I’m already reprimanding myself for just how personally I’m bound to take it. 

“Speaking of sleep,” I say. “I have to at least pretend to be the adult here and get us home.”

We take an Uber out to the Junction, the three of us sitting in the back. A ridiculous expense, but it’s raining, the bus hardly comes at this hour, and Frederick inspires the extravagant in me. Something about the faux-leathery smell of the seats, the flicker of the city reflected in the wet streets, the swish of tires in water lulls us, and by the time we pull up to the apartment, I’m wonderfully relaxed and Eve’s a dead weight in my lap, breathing in short, urgent puffs.

“I’ll carry her,” says Frederick.

“That’s insane. She’s nine years old—you’ll drop her.”

He scoops her up and proceeds with dignity to the front door, which is wedged between a twenty-four-hour laundromat and a flower shop that’s hardly ever open. It’s a relief to see her so deeply asleep, her muscles surrendering to gravity. She has a look of faint puzzlement, as if she’s using the time to sort through any lingering confusion from the day. As we climb the stairs to my apartment, I shadow Frederick carefully in case he loses footing. He says, “You know if I were actually to fall, you’d be powerless to stop me.” Nevertheless I maintain my position until we’re on level ground.

“I’m wide awake,” I say, when we’ve deposited her in bed. 

“You say that like it’s an achievement.”

“Have a drink with me? I promise we’ll let you sleep as long as you want in the morning.”

I’ve always loved the feeling of hushed conversations in the night. I get the same stomach flutter I got as a child, back when whispering in the dark had a wild edge. Frederick and I sit curled into corners of the couch with Bulleit bourbon in between. “Tell me what’s going on with you,” I say. 

“Kate.”

“I can’t, okay? There’s nothing to say right now.”

“When are they operating?”

“I’m waiting to hear, but soon. They want to do it very soon.”

I swallow wrong, and the bourbon catches on its way down. I say, “This isn’t the nighttime conversation I envisioned. Tell me you’re in love or something. Tell me you’re heartbroken.”

Tears collect in the pouches below his eyes.

“Oh,” I say. “Freddie, I’m sorry.”

“I guess both?” he says. “Love and the rest.”

“Someone new?”

He shakes his head, twists his lips. There’s a man named Victor who used to come and go. I thought he was really gone this time, but I guess I should have known better. It’s no revelation that people have a hard time quitting each other. I met Victor once. I liked him. He listened well and told me I had a rather European sensibility. Sometimes flattery is all it takes. Since then, he has treated Frederick abysmally, and for this I channel any pleasant feelings into unadulterated hatred. But Frederick loves him, and he, despite all cruelty, loves Frederick, and for this I grudgingly channel half my hatred into love.

“Want me to talk to her?” says Frederick.

“You can’t just change the subject like that.”

“I mean it! I’ll tell her for you. You’re thinking I’m too tactless but that’s what kids respond to, hard-won honesty.”

“I’m honest.”

“You’re scared shitless.”

“It has to come from me,” I say.

He shrugs. “You’re just going off convention. It has to come from someone who loves her—I agree with you only that much. Just think about it.”

.  .  .

Half awake at odd hours, I see and hear the most amazing things. Just as the sun begins to rise, I am perfectly convinced that the yowls in the street come from two toddlers warring over a strand of spaghetti. 

The next thing I know it’s eleven and Frederick and Eve are burning pancakes while the radio blasts oldies. Hearing their patter from bed over the commotion of dishes is the closest I’ve come to pleasure in a long time. 

“You switched stations?” I say, coming into the kitchen and turning on the fan over the stove. It smells like sugar and smoke. “I’ve had that radio on the same station since the day Eve was born.”

“Ignore her,” says Frederick to Eve, brandishing a wooden spoon that drips with batter. “Continue on with your excellent diatribe.”

Eve sits cross-legged on a wooden chair, elbows on the table. She has visible knots in her fine, frizzy hair, and she’s wearing an old Springsteen t-shirt of mine, inside out. Focused on Frederick, she doesn’t acknowledge me. She takes a deep breath and says, “She’s only mean when the other kids are there. Like one time in grade two she told everybody I smelled like pee. But then she let me hold her budgie when I was at her house one time.”

“Classic,” says Frederick. 

“I know,” says Eve. “She’s really a horrible person.” 

She can only be describing her friendship with Audrey, very on-again-off-again.

“We’re all horrible people,” says Frederick. “Just wait. You’ll be mean one day too.”

Eve looks aghast. “Don’t say that.” 

He touches her shoulder. “Sorry. I’ve been away too long. I forget you’re the one good human left on earth.” There’s not a touch of sarcasm in his voice. 

“That’s ridiculous,” she says firmly. “There are lots of good humans.” For years she’s been delightfully pious. She gets this moralizing look—jaw set, a little frown between the eyebrows. I love to imagine her at twenty-five, once all that righteous virtue has mixed with a biting sense of humor and a healthy dose of ironic distance. I wonder what her face will look like then, what features will sharpen or blur, what history her eyes will hint at. Whether her smile will remain crooked and unabashed, teeth a charming jumble. Braces are the death of character, is what I tell her on a regular basis.

I sit down next to her and kiss the side of her head. I say, “Freddie’s just pretending to be cynical. He’s really a big softie underneath.”

Frederick shakes his head. “Not anymore,” he says. “Too much has happened in this lifetime. Softie no longer.” 

When he sets out our breakfast, I see that he has made pancakes in various sizes and arranged them to look like flowers on the plates. 

I want to ask about Victor, what new wound has been inflicted, or what old one reopened; what flashes of joy are keeping Frederick on the hook. I want to ask about his father, who is quite rapidly losing his grip at a home in Newfoundland. I want to ask what else has happened in this lifetime of his. Tell me. What else? But for all his gregarious exterior, Frederick is contained. He reveals bits of himself only when he’s ready, and though it has taken me a regrettably long time to realize it, I have come to understand that I must cultivate patience.

I suppose, if I’m honest, I’m not much different when it comes to sharing matters of the heart, but it appears to be a trait much easier to accept in ourselves than in each other.

.  .  .

One of the nicest things about Frederick in the second grade was that he loved to dress up in his mother’s clothes. She had a chest in the attic of extravagant gowns and jewelry, costumes from a time when she had been in plays, and he would take me up there and urge me to enter into skits with him, little half-baked scenarios that were difficult for me because I was shy. He was shy too, but in his mother’s clothes he transformed into someone very gracious and assured. He made sweeping gestures. He expressed delight. He even delivered the occasional command in a queenly fashion. The shoes in the costume chest were far too big, so instead of wearing them he maneuvered himself around the room on the balls of his feet, heels lifted, and in this way he was able to affect a wonderful glide.

At seventeen, Frederick professed himself in love with me, and I rejected him with all the accidental cruelty of a slow-bloomer for whom the thought of sex strikes only terror. For years afterwards he wouldn’t speak to me, and when he finally did again he was queer, and a few years after that he was wearing skirts a lot of the time, though in a different style from the ones in the costume chest—more minimalist, more Scandinavian. 

When Eve was one and I split with Len, Frederick moved in and remained our roommate for the next four years. All it takes is a restless night and a pancake breakfast for the three of us to gratefully re-assume our roles. He’s the instigator, Eve’s the accomplice, and I’m the naysayer. By Wednesday, we are fully ensconced in routine. I wake at six thirty, set out cereal, make coffee, wake Eve, wake her again, sit with her while she eats, offer educational or gossipy tidbits from the paper, wake Frederick, shower while he sits with her, then bike with her to school before heading on to work. Frederick works on his laptop from home, then picks up Eve in the afternoon, rescuing her from the dismal after-school program she so loves to complain about. I get home at six to find them making their glorious mess in the kitchen. 

Frederick is the most haphazard cook. He is always dropping onion skins into the cutlery drawer and flinging raw chicken into far corners of the kitchen. He assigns Eve tasks—corn shucking, bean trimming—and like the perfect apprentice she too wreaks havoc. I begin to find corn silk in odd places. 

I’m more on the fastidious end of things. When I am taking honey from a jar, I wait until all the excess honey has evacuated the spoon and I can maneuver what remains, drip free, into my cup of tea.

Whenever I enter the kitchen Frederick makes a big to-do out of my disapproval. He goes around on mock tiptoe, motioning for Eve to help him cover up all evidence of mess, which sends her into spasms of delight. She loves the feeling of conspiring. That’s the nicest part—how gleeful it makes her, and how transparent.

She’s sleeping through the night now. After two days observing our nocturnal activity, Frederick marched out to the drugstore and came back with child-sized earplugs for Eve. “You are simply suffering from noise sensitivity,” he said. “A common urban plight. Put these on and I guarantee you’ll be just fine.”

Possibly a placebo effect, in which case I wonder if he needs to remain present for it to continue working. He got me earplugs too, but they just amplified my inner noises to an alarming degree. I panicked, hearing my cells do their work. 

.  .  .

We go a whole week in familial bliss. On Friday night, I’m lying in the dark, listening to the washing machines downstairs thump out their message in what sounds like Morse code, when Frederick comes in and plants himself at the foot of the bed. “Hey,” I say, pleased for the company. “What’s keeping you up, Mister Urban Plight?”

He refuses to smile. “What the fuck is your plan?” he says. His voice is quiet with fury.

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re going to what, say bye bye have fun in school today, then go ahead and get your uterus ripped out, start chemo and assume she’s not going to notice something’s up?”

I prop myself up on my elbows. “No,” I say. “Of course not. It’s just—”

What? It’s just what?”

“Her birthday’s coming up, remember? In June.” I’m spinning. I haven’t actually been thinking about her birthday, but as I say it I feel frantic with the need to protect it. 

“And if something goes wrong? In the operation? Or if the chemo doesn’t work?”

“What are you doing? Why the hell would you say that?” I can hardly breathe.

“Kate, you are incredibly selfish. You’ve always been selfish, and that’s fine, I’m selfish too, and I know you care, and I know you’re legitimately terrified, but you have a kid in the next room who deserves to know what’s going on.”

I start to cry. He closes his eyes for what feels like a long time, and then crawls over to lie down beside me, shadows the length of me and grips me across the chest. “I love you,” he says fiercely. “You know that. But I love her too. I don’t think you realize what you’re doing.”

Now he’s the one crying, his face pressed into the back of my neck, hot tears pooling. 

“I’ll tell her,” I say. “I promise.” 

Eventually he falls asleep, and in the comfort of his arms I lie there gutted and afraid, listening to the laundry machines going, new ones starting up, the intermittent jingle of the bell on the door. Always on weekends it’s busy like this, people wandering in all through the night, unaware that I am up here bearing witness to their lonely routines.   

.  .  .

In the morning Frederick announces he’ll be leaving at the end of the weekend. “The bosses aren’t exactly thrilled with my satellite work situation. They didn’t exactly give permission in the first place. This is it, friends, our last blast. Let’s make it good.”

I can’t bear to look at Eve as Frederick delivers this news. Her disappointment is palpable, verging on dread. The thought of being alone in the house with me. The thought of having to share once more in my nights.  

“Stay,” I say, my voice cracking. It’s hard to read the look he gives me. There’s pain, I think; contrition, frustration. Absolution, I hope. I don’t know.

He says to Eve, “So. What are we going to do to make this last day memorable?”

“The island!” she says, without a moment’s hesitation.

“The island it is. What are the chances your mother’s going to join us?”

They look at me. I’ve been known to insult the Toronto islands, a string of little lumps in Lake Ontario, housing aging hippies, a dingy amusement park, a nude beach. An hour-long wait for an eight-minute ride in a dubious ferry. The lifejackets strapped to the ceiling of the cabin are so faded and old as to be clearly past the point of saving anyone. 

“You two act like I’m going to hate the idea but I really don’t,” I say. “I love it.”

Eve looks so dismayed by my lack of negativity that I say, “But if you think I’m going to go on any of those ridiculous rides, you’ve got it all wrong.” 

“Mo-om,” she says. “You have to go on the rides. That’s the whole point!” And with that, equilibrium is restored.

.  .  .

I nearly vomit watching Eve get jerked around in one of the pods of a flimsy, spider-armed machine. 

“I can’t look,” I say.

Frederick says, “It’s not the looking that’s the problem. It’s the sound of all those kiddies shrieking. Like a horror movie. When I was her age I was appalled by rides.” 

All morning he’s been going on rides with her, shrieking right alongside her, while I cheer them from the ground and ply them with water as they disembark. This is his first break. It’s a cloudy day, and not especially warm for May. Here and there, families drift through Centreville, the Centre Island amusement park, trying to keep their spirits up, trying to convince each other it’s a good thing the lineups are short or non-existent, parents saying to their kids, “It’s too cold for the bumper boats but how about the swan ride?” 

No one under the age of fifty enjoys the swan ride. 

“Are you warm enough?” I ask Frederick. He’s dressed in billowing harem pants and a tank-top. 

“Are you trying to show concern because I called you selfish?”

“Fuck off,” I say. “I can’t win with you.”

“I’m teasing. Yes, I’m warm enough. Listen—”

He stops there. Eve is staggering towards us, woozy from her ride. I can tell she didn’t enjoy herself, but that she’ll soon enough supplant the unpleasant experience with a memory of giddiness and thrill, so that the next time she comes upon a nauseating ride in a mediocre amusement park, she’ll want to get right back on. So begins the deceitful work of surviving.

“Did you see me?” she says, breathless from screaming, skin blotchy from the wind. “Did you see how fast I was going?” 

I reach out to smooth her hair away from her face. In the grey light, her eyes are a clear, startling green. For a moment I put a finger to her hot cheek, collect her sweat. She shakes me off lightly. 

“What next?” says Frederick.

Eve frowns, toying with gloom. “I don’t want to do another one by myself. I wish Audrey was here.”

“Audrey the pee-gossiper?” says Frederick.

“That was a long time ago.”

“Hold your grudges, Eve! Don’t let go so easily.”

“How about this?” I say. “I will go on one ride with the two of you if you promise to choose an easy one.”

Eve cheers up immediately. In a gesture of great kindness she says, “We’ll go on the carousel, Mom. You won’t mind that one.” 

She’s probably right. Of all the rides, it is certainly the tamest. We traipse to the sparsely attended carousel, select our animals and assume our positions. Mine is a dainty yellow horse, mid-prance. Eve takes a grey hare, disproportionately large beside the horse. In front of her is Frederick on a flying pig.

As the music starts up, the carousel begins to spin, slowly at first, our animals rising and falling out of sync, so I’m up when Eve is down, with Frederick somewhere in the middle. We wave to one another from our respective heights. It’s difficult to know what to do on a carousel, how to keep reacting. Frederick takes to antics, standing up on the pedals, look, no hands, pretending to kick surrounding animals, while Eve puts faith in the prolonged grin, until her mouth is frozen in an opening of no relation to a smile, an uncanny facsimile of joy. Things are going faster now, really whirling at quite a disturbing speed. I can only imagine the stoned carnie in the control booth, liberal with the joystick. My horse gallops in see-saw waves, and again the kids are screaming—Frederick is right, a terrible sound—and I have to focus all my energy on breathing so as to tamp down the nausea. It would help to be looking straight ahead, but I can’t take my eyes off Eve, who is now gripping the large, pointed ears of her grey hare, now letting loose her mouth, letting her eyes go wide, registering confusion, resigning herself to what is out of her hands, knowing, or trying to know, that it will stop soon.

The carousel, in the end, more frightening than any of the other rides. The animals with their silly smiles, in dogged pursuit of each other’s tails.

I reach out, precarious on my steed, to clutch Eve’s calf. She glances at me for a moment, surprised, before returning her focus to the path ahead. My grip breaks when she’s too high and I’m too low, and vice versa, but I grab on again every time she comes into reach. 

I will say, There’s something wrong inside of me and they are going to get it out.

I might not feel well for a while afterwards. I might be very tired from the medicine. 

There’s a chance I’ll send you to visit your grandparents in Florida. Would you like that?

The odds are very, very good of them getting everything out. 

But sometimes—  

It all sounds patronizing, euphemistic. If I had the right words, I might have told her already. 

.  .  .

Soon Eve has exhausted her options. It’s a small amusement park and a third of the rides are closed for maintenance. 

“What do we do now?” she says, unhopefully.

“When’s the next ferry?” says Frederick.

“Wait a minute!” I say. “We haven’t even been to Ward’s Island. The day’s not over yet. We’ll go and lounge on the beach.”

They look at me strangely, detecting desperation. 

“What?” I say. “I don’t want the day to end, do you?”

Ward’s Island is the shabbiest of the bunch, and for this I like it best. There’s no entertainment at all, beyond a baseball diamond no one ever seems to use. The beach that I’m so desperate to lounge on is all scraggle and debris. It’s where they exile bad lifeguards and teenagers with a hankering for bonfires. There’s always charred wood in the sand. 

At least the sun finally emerges as we make the trek away from Centreville, over the bridge to Ward’s, and along the boardwalk towards the beach, where we search for a spot that isn’t littered with beer cans. 

“There’s only one thing to do,” says Frederick, ripping off his tank top dramatically to reveal a skinny chest and the slightest hint of paunch. “Swim.”

We all look at the lake, choppy and brown and suspiciously foamy.

Eve crosses her arms. “It’s polluted,” she announces. “Mrs. Calverly said it’s full of garbage and all the fish are dying. I’m only supposed to swim in the pool.” Eve’s a firm believer in everything they tell her at school. If the curriculum were to shift, she’d just as easily become a staunch creationist and climate-change denier. 

“It’s fine,” I say. “They have a flag to tell you when the water is clean enough. If it’s red, you don’t go in, but look, today it’s green. Anyway, the pool is all the way back on Centre Island.”

She studies the flag, a tattered affair in the sand next to the rusty tower where a twelve-year-old lifeguard sits reading a magazine. “But where does it go?” she says.

“Where does what go?”

“The pollution. If it’s there in the lake, how does it just disappear on some days?”

“God. I don’t know.” I’m suddenly flustered. “Freddie? Do you know? Where does the pollution go?”

He shrugs. “Just trust the scientists, kiddo. Trust the scientists.”

She hesitates, but Frederick wastes no time stripping to his suit, and after a moment she does the same. In a sagging polka-dot number from Goodwill, she races down the beach after him. He whoops and grabs her hand before they make it to the edge of the water, and then they’re in, yelping from the cold and laughing. 

I settle into the pebbly sand to watch them. 

.  .  .

Frederick and Eve stand chest-deep in the water—he must be sitting or kneeling to match her height. Their silhouettes are solemn, confidential. Presumably they are talking to each other, and I have the edgy feeling of knowing they can say anything, of not being able to control it and not being able to hear.

He’s telling her. I know he is. He is determined to give me this, even if I never ask for it, never admit to needing it, even if I never forgive him for it. 

And if he tells her, what then? How will we sleep? I will do my best to comfort her, but she, in turn, will go about the work of comforting me, with a grace and compassion I do not want her to have to summon. It will get into everything, I see this now. No one is to be spared. 

When Frederick comes out of the water he has Eve on his shoulders, gleaming in the sun. She clasps him around the forehead for balance. Together they make a figure so slender and tall I have to catch my breath, their posture deliberate and abiding, throwing a long shadow in the sand as they wend their way towards me, tired now, triumphant, worried, wanting to go home.  •