A Little Night Story
Carly met Ted in her first year of business school. I probably shouldn’t be here, he said at the opening-year mixer in the graduate student center. I mean, I want to be a global connector, not just sell crap or be part of an org chart. He was wearing an unbuttoned flannel shirt in brown tones; there was an exposed triangle of freckled flesh and reddish-blond hair a couple of inches below his throat. He looked like a man who still used his body, and in fact he said he’d spent the summer before backpacking in Nepal with some former Microsoft executive who gave books to schoolchildren.
Carly smiled in an unfriendly way, something she had picked up while pushing her way to the sub-middle at a food conglomerate. Oh, she said to him, I am sure your essay about “global connecting” was the reason you got in. He turned red and drank his beer and she felt as if she had been tapped on the shoulder in the middle of a slow dance with herself. The day before, as part of orientation, everyone had taken a lengthy personality assessment and Carly’s said that one of her “frontiers for new colors” was developing her softer side. Hours later at an afterparty when he reached out and drew his fingers across her forearm, she looked at him, considering, and she smiled.
That first week of orientation, Ted hung ethnic blankets on his walls and spent whatever free time they all had driving around the small towns surrounding the university looking for interestingly corroded benches, tables, and containers for plants. The fall was crisp and clear and people loved driving in the country with him—and Carly. On Thursday, Ted and Carly loaded up from the grocery store with wine, olives, almonds, pasta, garlic, good olive oil and cheese, and on Saturday night a few people stopped by and sat around the table while Ted boiled water with a tea towel over his shoulder, chatting while Carly refreshed everyone’s wine glass.
In undergraduate school Carly spent the night before the first day of classes going through textbooks, reading the introductions. She told herself that in order to succeed in business, she needed to experiment. They had been told, hadn’t they, that social relationships would be the most important thing to their success in business school. She would be someone else now.
That evening she played at domesticity with Ted, opening the refrigerator to take out the fruit tart while he brought out plates. Instead of leaving with everyone else and going back to her own campus housing, she stayed while Ted did the dishes and she walked around his apartment picking up crumpled cocktail napkins and little bowls of olive pits. They spoke to each other through rooms about the day tomorrow, what they’d heard about professors, where to have lunch.
“Stay, right?” he said into her temple and chunks of blonde hair. All of her stuff was on the other side of campus. She felt her stomach drop as the scruff of his cheek rubbed against hers. Her first class was at 8 a.m.
Their lovemaking didn’t travel into rills and pauses: it was direct and brought them both ecstatic release. They lay naked and content together. It was after 11 p.m. Ted moved behind Carly, held her to him and kissed her neck, and then in two minutes was breathing regularly.
Carly lay there, willing herself to sleep. She inhaled deeply a few times and released her body. Then her throat tickled, then itched. She tried to breathe. She shifted a microbit. Then she shifted again. Then she coughed.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
“Nothing,” she said. “I usually toss a bit before I settle in.” She took a sip of water and flopped onto her back. Then she shifted slightly. People move in bed, she reasoned, it’s not like you fall asleep by lying like a motionless corpse.
“Get some sleep,” he said.
Eventually, they fell asleep.
The next day when she saw him at lunch, he said, “What’s up with your getting up in the night?”
“What?” she said.
“You, like, were wandering around.”
“No, I wasn’t. I just got up and went to the bathroom. You dreamed it.”
“If you just said you did get up, then I didn’t dream it.”
Someone from the dinner party caught her eye and diverted his stroll towards them. “Hey, you two,” he said, “great dinner party!”
“Thanks,” they both said and smiled, and shifted towards each other.
“Gotta have you two over next Friday,” he said, and waved and kept walking.
They sat there, two tiny figures in the din of the central lobby of the business school’s central building.
“People get up to go to the bathroom,” Carly said. “That’s normal.”
Ted took her hand and stroked her fingers.
On Friday night they met at that guy’s house after class. It was a tense week, everyone jockeying for position and trying to out-expert each other while being assigned to teams to work collaboratively. Everyone drank too many cocktails. People came up to Carly and Ted and said sloppy things like oh-my-god-you-two-are-cute and you-are-so-lucky. They did feel lucky—it was a shark tank of a program, and they had in each other companionship, affection and access to the release of sex. In fact they stumbled back to Ted’s and as they were tumbling up the stairs, Ted reached up under Carly’s skirt and, hooking her underwear with his thumbs, yanked them down. Carly started laughing and when they were at the top of the stairs in the dark hallway, she undid his belt and they made a slobbery blind attempt at intercourse, which they finished when they burst through the door and Carly braced herself against the kitchen table.
When they went to sleep that night, warm and pressed against each other, nothing was remembered. Until Carly woke up two hours later with a dry mouth. She sat up in bed and sneezed, then she got out of bed and sneezed, sneezed more on the toilet, and then she was in the throes of an allergy attack, with mast cells sending so much mucous to neutralized pollen that she soaked through Kleenex with a single sneeze. She didn’t have any Benadryl. They were both drunk and they couldn’t drive, so Ted boiled water and poured it in a bowl and Carly breathed it in with a towel over her head and eventually she was over it for the most part.
On Saturday morning Carly woke up feeling perfect and thought it would be good if they went to the farmer’s market by the water. Ted said he wanted to study and Carly said okay, but then at the last minute he agreed to go. They shopped with their canvas bags, stopped to talk to everyone, and they sat next to each other on a bale of hay and passed a waffle and coffee back and forth. It was a perfect fall day, and Carly suggested they stroll along the river for awhile. As they walked, Ted grew more and more quiet.
“What is it?” Carly asked.
“Bill Gates didn’t take Saturday mornings off,” he said darkly.
Carly laughed. “It’s just a couple of hours!”
“It was just a couple of hours at the farmer’s market,” he said. “This is, like, hour four. At least be accurate.”
“Okay, fine. But you wanted to go,” she said, and turned on her heel and walked back to the car. It was his car and she’d left her bag at his house so when he started to drive to her side of campus, she had to remind him. Instead of getting out of the car with her, he waited while she went inside and got her stuff, and then drove her to the library. Carly knew how to do this. She walked into the library, back straight, and fished out a book she needed to read—it wasn’t exactly the work she immediately needed to do, but she used it to draw herself down into a little point of concentration. When it got to be twilight, she walked out of the library and went to her cruddy shared apartment with two roommates. She was boiling water for ramen noodles when Ted called.
“I’m sowwy,” he said in a little voice.
Carly chuckled. “It’s okay,” she said. “I miss you.”
That night, she came armed with Benadryl. They both worked until about midnight. Carly took a Benadryl. When they got into bed she was narcoleptic, and lovemaking was out of the question. Two hours later, she awoke with a full bladder: the Benadryl had done its drying-out work and pulled water out of her system. She got up to go to the bathroom. On her way she opened the door, but the apartment had uneven walls and the door banged heavily against the wall.
“You woke me up!” Ted moaned.
“I’m so sorry,” Carly said, then went to the bathroom and came back and slid in bed.
“The thing is, when I get woken up, I have a hard time going back to sleep,” he said.
“I didn’t intentionally wake you up,” Carly said. “I think when two people share a bed, sometimes you can’t help it.”
“Just please,” Ted said.
They waited for a few days and then it wasn’t really planned, it was twilight and they bumped into each other and they went back to Ted’s and had sex and made dinner. They studied and brought each other tea, pens, absently over hours. Carly took a Benadryl and also had throat lozenges. They got into bed and Carly’s mind was still racing from all the reading material and the paper she had started on. Carly was both waiting and sliding into sleep but keeping herself from tumbling all the way. Her throat was itchy. She reached for a throat lozenge and in the dark fumbled with the crinkly plastic wrap.
“You woke me up again!” Ted said.
“Shh,” Carly said illogically. She curled up on her side. She sucked on the throat lozenge. She wondered about the tickle. Was it going to turn into something more? What if she sneezed? Was she going to sneeze? She sneezed. Then she turned over.
“I am going to sleep on the couch,” he said.
“No, it’s my fault,” Carly said. “I will.”
Neither one of them moved. Moments went by and Carly felt the moment leaving and herself relaxing.
“Well?” Ted said.
Carly got up and fished for warmer clothing, opening his drawers for a pair of sweatpants and sweater. Ted flopped over angrily and swore. She grabbed the pillow she had been sleeping on and went to the living room. There was a stabby bright light from a street lamp that shone on the couch and Carly had to go looking for anything, finally settling for a sour-smelling dish towel, to put over her eyes.
In the morning Ted was pale from exhaustion. “I just wish,” he said, “you’d be more organized.”
Carly and Ted, as an early established couple among the first-years, were treated with great respect and affection. When one girl, who had a massive crush on Ted but was trying to get over it by talking about how great Carly was all the time, said, “We were all thinking of a name for you two and we came up with ‘Cad,’” Carly smiled and said, “Except Ted is so sweet.” He was sweet: Ted would talk about his willingness to move to wherever Carly got a job, and they both smiled contented, crinkly-eyed smiles when people asked when they were going to plan for children.
At night, she lay in bed with her eyes streaming from suppressing coughs, rigid in her efforts not to move. Before she went to bed she unwrapped cough drops so there was no crinkle. She crossed her legs and squeezed inward when her bladder felt full.
For winter break Carly and Ted went on a holiday with Ted’s father in Cancun. Ted’s parents were divorced and Ted’s father brought along a girlfriend who was the same age as Carly and Ted. She laughed and raked her French-manicured fingernails through Ted’s father’s thick, graying hair. Ted’s father was a driven vacationer: their schedule involved brutal amounts of guided tours, excursions, and hikes when all Carly wanted to do after final exams was sleep.
Carly was putting out pre-unwrapped lozenges and passing out after trying to hold herself rigid instead of falling asleep naturally and she was starting to wonder if she had a bladder infection. She and Ted were talking about what city they were going to move to and held hands cuddled in a hammock near their luxury vacation cottage when they were able to beg off on a particular excursion.
One morning when Carly woke up with hives, she grabbed her pack of Benadryl and went to the living room to sleep. It was seven in the morning and Lisa, the girlfriend, was there doing calisthenics. “Oh wow,” Lisa said, seeing the red blotches on her thighs and neck and a couple of small welts on Carly’s face, and then drew back in a way that communicated that Lisa would resist unspooling too much sympathy lest that divert her from her full-time job of serving Ted’s father. Carly laughed openly at her. “It’s just hives,” she said.
“I mean, I think we’re supposed to go swimming today,” Lisa said.
“I can go swimming,” Carly said and yawned. She was tired but knew what would happen if she tried to go back into the bedroom.
“But shouldn’t you take it easy?”
“I’m tough,” Carly said breezily and rolled her eyes at silly, simpering Lisa. She was pretty sure that she was going to be offered a three-rung promotion at the food conglomerate should she return. The former Microsoft executive was talking to Ted about heading up a $10-million capital campaign. This Lisa had, well, a nice body and silky hair. Carly did go on the boat that afternoon, though the red blotches hadn’t receded much. She was tired from the Benadryl and hadn’t been entirely successful in not scratching and had really dug away at the ones on her legs.
“Salt water would probably stop those from getting infected,” Ted’s father said.
“They aren’t going to get infected,” Carly said. “And I expect the salt water would sting.”
“But maybe refreshing in a good way,” Ted said.
“Maybe,” Carly said. Then: “No.”
“Try it,” said Ted.
“Um, I don’t think you’re supposed to go in the ocean with an open wound,” Lisa said. “There are, like, organisms in the water.”
“No, the salt sterilizes,” Ted’s father said.
“Carly barley,” Ted teased and came towards her.
“Stop,” Carly said.
“C’mon,” Ted said. “I’ll go in with you. You’re probably burring up from just sitting in the sun.” He lifted her up. “I’ll go for a dip with you.”
“If I had been able to go back to bed and sleep, these wouldn’t be so bad,” Carly said.
“You’re a bad sleeper,” Ted said.
“But I still like nighttime. Just because I don’t meet your standard of resting in a coma.” Carly meant that to come out in a light, teasing tone. She ruffled his hair.
“I’m going to dunk you for all the times I woke up exhausted,” Ted said, also meaning that to come out in a light, teasing tone. He jostled her in his arms as if to practice. “When we’re married you’re going to have to let me sleep.”
“I mean,” Lisa said, only capable of protesting via incomplete sentence.
“Dunk her!” Ted’s father cried.
“I’m—” Carly said, but she didn’t get a chance to finish. In one wiry, strong heave, Ted tossed her overboard.
Underwater, she looked up and saw Lisa’s wavering figure pointing to her. Her boyfriend had just thrown her off the boat. Do wives get tossed off of boats? Then it hit her. As a girlfriend, she would accommodate, minimize. Go along with things. But a wife stands her ground. A wife has rights. She kept thinking if she acted like a great girlfriend, when she arrived at marriage, her choices and quirks were going to be safe to express again. Safe in a marriage. No safety here. And blood draws sharks. News which she delivered to Ted with a slap across his face that put her on a plane that afternoon.
Years later, in another city, she met a kind and sedentary man. The first night she spent at his house, she said, “I have to warn you: I am a restless sleeper.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “I have frequent nightmares.”
They married and were very happy together.
A. Major holds an MFA from Cornell University. Awards include a Sage Fellowship, a Norman D. Leavitt Fellowship, and a fiction prize from the Berkeley Fiction Review.