Kindred Sleep (Novel Excerpt)

Irene flies away toward a faraway city, another place. It's easy enough; airport traffic is nonexistent, only pilots remain, desperate to leave. No security, no lines. Airplanes sit on tarmacs with their doors wide open, letting on board whoever is willing. Irene takes a plane, a boat, a train and she settles into the deep quiet of another abandoned city. She heads underground. She waits for a subway she doesn't know will come.

It is impossible to say where exactly Irene went or if she knew that her journey was timed to a kind of clock without hands, or that her path had already been laid long before. She traveled unknowingly, crossing city and county boarders with an urge to escape. Irene yearned for all things to be new but could never find a way to ensure this; she always seemed to return to the place she had left from. And even then, she could never really say if she had made headways, or in what direction she had been wandering, if she had even been wandering at all.

 

Headlights snake through a damp black tunnel. A subway screams as it arrives, bellowing, and yellow lights flash as it halts before the railing. There are many people inside, and this surprises Irene who isn't prepared to see crowds. Everyone reading, making phone calls, carrying on what she remembered to be signs of a normal life; all of this astonishes her—how life can still go on. She pushes past the crowds and finds a seat along the shiny orange plastic, beneath the dated advertisements, her head against a window into which words have been scratched; words in a language she cannot understand. Arms brush past her, shopping bags and shoelaces. Muted chatter and the muffled tones of music sound out from nearby headphones. The train fumbles forwards, and Irene takes a rest. Her eyelids quiver over her eyes and the train rolls onward.

Moments pass, hours as Irene sits on the subway, riding towards the end of the line. Her eyes close but she doesn't sleep. Instead, Irene becomes more attune to the world around her—feeling, perceiving the every sensation there. When her eyes open, she notices a man sitting directly across from her. His eyes are a wide, a vibrant green. He stares at her, this stranger. She twitches at the sight of him, for his gaze is strong and strange and at the moment she twitches, he too does the same, as a mirror—his motion in perfect correspondence with her own.

When the stranger moves, Irene watches him; when he shifts his legs across the train's dirty orange seat, crossing and uncrossing them, she does so too. Then a smile appears across his face—subtle, fleeting. Irene smiles back in a silent reply. She's then struck with the sense of the familiar: the stranger's mouth curls in a way that reminds her of James' smile, and this makes her long for him deeply. It is so quick, this moment of recognition, and it is gone before Irene has the chance to say what exactly it was about this stranger's smile that seemed so familiar. Perhaps it was the shape, or its curvature as it formed that upwards arch. Irene shuts her eyes. Her eyelids burn. She cannot look away from herself, even here, so far from home. One can travel around the world a thousand times over before a demon falls away. She keeps the image of the stranger's mouth in her mind because it pleases her. A mental film hurls into play.

The stranger continues to watch her from across the floor of the car without moving. Irene then drifts into a faint and shallow sleep. She drifts into an imaginative distance faraway from there. From this distance, she can watch the scenes of her mind like a movie; she can escape, if only for a moment. She watches how the stranger moves, peeling off the subway bench at the final stop after all of the crowds have left. There in her mind behind her closed eyes, Irene sees the stranger approach her, grab her by the wrist all tight and urgently and guide her away with him into the puddle of the street.

She goes numb as the stranger fucks her vertically later on. Against a doorframe, Irene watches her hands spiral and writhe, then rise to the stranger's face and cover it. She pushes hard over his eyes, his nose, and his cheeks, curling her hands and stretching his skin so that he starts to resemble James again. She distorts the stranger, watching his eyes go from vibrant green to glassy blue if she squints just so, and then his hair turn from brown to black. Sweat pools across his forehead, crooked between Irene's wanting fingers; by then the stranger is a ghost.

"So your heart was broken?" the stranger says as Irene twists spirals into his skin. "Get out. Go out and fuck again, and think of him then. Think of him while you're coming." He tosses her sideways, presses hard and heartlessly against her body, and her bones creak and her muscles twitch. "Think of him now," he continues. "Think of his weaknesses. Conjure up all of them. Every one. Spit at them. Spit them out."

Irene's legs sweat streams of blackish liquid. She knots them into the skin of this man. Together they stink of iodine. The room is dim and muggy and the walls are colorless. Outside, every building is a brick building, every man another James, every heart in wait of breaking and the world still fumbles on.

"Riddle yourself," the stranger hisses, thrusting. "To what degree was he intense like you?" Irene moans wordlessly, trying to answer; the stranger's motions deepen. "And how did he fuck?" He bites her shoulder, her breast, her thigh. "Like this?"

There are embers in Irene's sad eyes and the stranger, nearing climax, flips her like a perception to her knees and takes her that way. Her eyes shut tightly. There is pleasure above this dirty, tile floor. The skin of her palms go raw, the skin of her knees, but even this isn't enough to dilute the image of James that has saturated the screen of her mind. Fuck me harder, she thinks. The stranger forces himself deeper into Irene; he leaves earth and she escapes into the chamber of her pussy's pulse, wailing.

"Replay your memories. Replay them again. Blow up their pixels until you're sick of them. Grow sick of him." Irene pulls away. She isn't done. She turns the stranger around and pins his back to the floor. His arms spread out. His desperate mouth opens. She pushes a hand against his face and the stranger peels his lips apart and bites her fingers. Irene lets out a cry, but there is no pain. She cries loud and hopes that the sound waves might crumble the walls. The stranger stands and maneuvers Irene as an animal, like meat, and she likes it. He stands up, pushes her body against the door. Her neck digs into the light switch there, and at that moment she feels a sense of freedom; something shifts. If only for an instant, Irene sees clearly: she will love again. There is more.

"There’s a world out there." The stranger burrows into her, tonguing her ear. Irene is unsatisfied with these words. She thinks them too definitive. How dare the stranger speak to her in this way. She spits at him. She spits at his face as she comes against the door frame, strips of its wood embedding into her back, into her shoulders, digging deeply.

In the aftermath they are still, their skin stained and noxious, black sweat spidering all across their body's grooves.

"Recall that you were fiction. Traumatize yourself with that." Irene's breathing slows. Her eyes cloud; the sweat that has fallen across her lashes hardens to clumps. "Either that, or make your life a fucking cinema. Then bear it."

Irene peels away from the wall and dresses herself while the stranger watches. He says nothing more. He's served his purpose. Irene walks to the door in silence. She grips its rusty handle and takes a final look at the stranger, who's now sitting on the floor across the room beneath a window surrounded by bricks that lie on the floor. Irene slams the door to a close behind her.

 

The subway hiccups, resuming its unstable troll down the tunnel. Irene is shaken awake; her eyes open. The doors open. The stranger seated across from her stands and squeezes through the exit doors, disappearing.

At the next stop, Irene disembarks, walks up the stairs and heads towards a river. This city feels abandoned and dead. She waits for the night in the cold air. It is the longest winter. Ice sheets drift without plans along the water. There are sharp pains in her bones, reminding her that she is human. Wet comes to her eyes but she doesn't let it fall.