I no longer sleep. I don’t mean I struggle to sleep or I sleep very little. I mean I never sleep, not even for a moment. I’m not sure when it started– a year, two years ago? It feels as though it’s been going on forever. At first, I thought I must have been sleeping. After all, everyone sleeps. But after lying awake, night after night, spooling through endless thoughts until my mind’s eye showed only a formless, flickering cross-hatching, buzzing like an untuned radio, I realized I wasn’t.
Sometimes I spend the night journeying through memories of dreams I once had, waiting on a dry shore for waves of slumber that never come. Often, I don’t even bother going to bed– I stay up working. You can get a lot done when you don’t sleep.
I write questionnaires for a market research company, categorizing people, their wants, and their desires. The questionnaires are deliriously repetitive. How would you rate your satisfaction with our customer service, our products, our prices? The ease of slipping into oblivion…
When I don’t get up and go to my desk, I lie in bed, making up questionnaires in my head, muttering them under my breath like incantations. I chase magical sleep sheep while the cat snores loudly, taunting me.
It’s best to get up though. If I stay in bed awake too long, the videotape starts scrolling through my head– all those regrets and moments of shame, spliced together to make a 3 a.m. feature film of the worst parts of my life for my captive viewing pleasure.
When you don't sleep, exhaustion makes everyday life feel unreal, formless, an illusion. You spend a long time staring at a spot on the table, watching the light coming through a gap in the curtains. Morning turns to noon, which turns to afternoon. Twilight spreads to darkness. Time passes. I realize my cup of tea has gone cold.
Nobody believes me when I tell them. They all say it’s impossible– I’d be dead.
None of my lovers ever see me sleep. Many have tried, like it’s a game and they want to catch me at it. They stay up all night the first night, but by the second or third they’re snoring before they’ve even brushed their teeth. When they wake up in the morning, most assume I must have slept too.
I put drops in my dry, bloodshot eyes. It’s like smothering them in wholegrain mustard, feeling the grain, the itch, the sting, the intense burn.
I fantasize about inserting contact lenses of pure sleep, popping a dream behind each swollen eyelid.
I’ve become tired of telling people.
Danny was different. When we first met, he told me I had beautiful eyes. People would say that to me, long ago, but after months of no sleep, no one told me my eyes were beautiful anymore. He saw something nobody else could see when he gazed into my eyes. I have always been attracted to dreamers.
The first time he stayed the night, I watched him sleep. He was a beautiful sleeper, a gentle sleeper. In the morning I felt a profound sense of relaxation. I wanted him to stay, not only to cook dinner together and make love. I wanted to lose myself in his sleep.
I love not sleeping with Danny.
Danny is the only person who believes me about not sleeping. He told me that when he was growing up, his sister didn’t sleep.
“Nobody believed her either, but we shared a bedroom and I knew. In the morning I’d tell her my dreams so she could share them.” I fell in love with him at that moment.
“What happened to your sister?”
“One night it went away, just like that. She slept and in the morning she told me her dreams instead.”
He promises that it will happen to me one day.
“Tell me your dreams,” I say to him every morning. It’s so intimate, like being there with him and wandering around inside his mind. I’m sure he makes up dreams just for me. Every night, I watch him sleep, thinking of those dreams.
One morning, I’m lying awake next to him, thinking about what I can make him for breakfast, when I become aware that he is also awake. He strokes my face, smiling into my eyes.
“Last night I dreamt I saw you sleep.” And I had watched him dreaming of me sleeping.
“Here,” he says. “I brought the dream back. Close your eyes.”
I humor him, closing my eyes.
I feel a light kiss on each eyelid– one, two– and I imagine dreaming of sleep.
Terri Mullholland (she/her) is a writer and researcher living in London, UK. She has a PhD from the University of Oxford, where she has taught English Literature and Critical Theory. Her flash fiction has appeared in various journals and anthologies, including Litro, Toasted Cheese, The Liminal Review, and Mercurious. When not writing she can be found curled up with one of her many foster cats and a good book. You can find her on Instagram @terri_mullholland, on Twitter @Lesley_Cat, or on her website at https://www.terrimullholland.com/