Beth’s insomnia had grown increasingly worse throughout her twenties and now, at 32, she was hardly sleeping four hours a night, and never four hours straight. She’d heard a long time ago that over the course of one year, people ate on average thirteen spiders while they slept. She didn’t know if this was true, but she’d seen her share of spiders on walls near her bed, crawling up the leg of a nightstand, hunkered on the inside of a paper lampshade suggesting itself through a small lump of shadow. And she’d also seen her share of men lying next to her, heads tilted and mouths invitingly agape, drawing violent breaths in their sleep while she watched them, propped on her elbow long into the night, thinking, it’s possible. This spider thing is possible.
She slid out of bed, trying not to twist the sheets any worse than they already were. Loose, twisted bedding made for a miserable night’s rest. The condo was swallowed in darkness, as the faint hue of pre-dawn sky failed to pass through the windows. She had the layout imprinted in her brain and she found the bathroom without a bump or even the need of a hand out in front of her. She didn’t really have to pee but she did anyway, sitting in the dark with her chin dropped onto her fist, the toilet seat cold, and tried to figure out if she’d slept at all yet. Which meant she must have, at least for a short while, or else she’d have known for sure. Still, it could not have been for long.
This was a small victory: her dismissing the need to turn on the bathroom light for a quick scan of the corners for spiders. Not bad. She’d told a couple people at work about it and of course they thought she was a bit tapped and even tried Googling it to show her it was just a myth. But it wasn’t like she dwelled on this all the time, certainly not every time she went to bed. Only in those hours when she failed to surrender to sleep, rolling this way and that, on her stomach, back, then on her side, arm pinned below her. She could never remember what position worked, where she found comfort. And that was when her mind wandered—more like darted—into dark places. Like the spiders. But what people didn’t realize was that it was not just that they could find their way randomly into your mouth. In fact it wasn’t random at all. She’d heard that spiders were known to search out mouths to inhale the mist of saliva that laced the warm, expelled air. And she’d even heard that they’d been known to seek out those middle-of-the-night tears to drink from the eye.
She fished a bottle of water from the fridge, squinting in the burst of sudden light, and padded over to the window. Her condo had an extra-deep sill at each window, an 18-inch space between the interior walls and the interior brick façade. It was a good place to lean, to rest her bottle and look down at the street and houses below. Relaxing, like a bar.
So much had gone astray lately, that’s what it was. There was no real mystery to the insomnia. Her doctor had put her on Clonazepam for anxiety after she’d complained that other traditional sleep aids not only weren’t helping but even led to a ‘trippy’ feeling the next day. But the anti-anxiety stuff wasn’t doing the trick either, because you couldn’t just snow over real life, you couldn’t wish it away. It’d now been five months that she’d been sleeping alone, five months since Dane had left for New York. His ex-wife had moved there last year for a job opportunity, taking Dane’s three year-old daughter with her, of course. For a while Dane had traveled by train to visit on the weekends, cutting their free time together way down—but she didn’t complain—until he began sending resumes out that way. Then an interview came, followed by a second, punctuated by a job offer and an acceptance that she’d thought came a little too quickly, without really consulting her, to be honest. He’d said he wanted to her move with him, and so she’d been thinking about it, but when the time came she was still thinking about it and so he’d gone ahead, saying all the right things about frequent visits and a little bit of the long-distance thing and it’s only four hours away. He said she’d feel a lot better about moving if she had a job waiting for her there already, and she’d agreed, if only to buy herself more time. But since then she’d only sent three resumes, all in the first week he’d been gone. None since. She didn’t know what the hell she was doing with herself. Pills couldn’t undo this stuff.
From the window she looked down at the solar nightlights that lit the foliage-enclosed walkway behind Ms. Tuttlegreen’s small back yard. In the morning gloom she couldn’t see the new tea house, not through the tall twisted tree reaching out over it. Admittedly, Beth was a little jealous that she even had a backyard, small as it was, but enough to build this slice of an oasis, away from the hot brick of the mill buildings—some crumbling with decay—and the car horns and vicious city heat. A couple blocks behind her own building was the Merrimack River, which had been for a time her go-to for an impromptu taste of nature when she’d needed it, but it was on the backside of the building and there was no view of it from her condo windows, and ever since a woman had gotten attacked out on the Riverwalk the previous summer Beth had avoided it.
It was just this afternoon that they’d formally met, that Tuttlegreen had given her a tour of the tea house. “Where is this boy I always saw you with?” Tuttlegreen had asked, leading her out back, down this short narrow walk with the high hedges fragmenting the sun into tiny flickers. It was nice of her since they were all but strangers, Beth nodding hello to her once in a while when she walked back home from the market or the night class she’d signed up for this semester just for something to do.
“New York,” Beth told her, moving her plastic shopping bag into her left hand, letting her right brush against the leaves and stiff branches. Ten steps from French Street and Lowell felt a million miles away. “I like this already,” she added.
“So this is called a tea house?” It didn’t look that much different from a backyard shed, a little nicer, a more ornate lip to its roof. Vegetation grew right up beside it and climbed its walls. It felt a lot cooler back here, away from the sun; quieter too, somehow, and sweeter on her nose.
Tuttlegreen opened a small door, smiling back over her shoulder. “I call it that, I suppose,” she’d said. “My grandmother would have called it chashitsu. She had one in her own yard when I was little, but wouldn’t let me go inside. She knew I just wanted to play house in there.”
By the time she’d returned home she’d lost so much of the afternoon it was dark. The ground beef she’d bought had gone warm and, after a tentative sniff, she threw it away and had cereal. She’d wanted to stay in there with Ms. Tuttlegreen even longer; her essence was calming, her personality reflecting the aura of the tea house like they were one and the same, and it had felt like some kind of meditation, this long, quiet ritual. Tuttlegreen kneeling on a mat fixing the green tea with a grace she’d only seen in ballet. Otemae, she had called it. And then they’d talked, about Dane, about her job at the hospital and her inability to make a decision, her inability to act. But they also didn’t talk, sitting for long stretches, sipping, clinking cups against saucers, looking through the window at the setting sun spraying the dense yard like lasers.
She unscrewed the water bottle and took another sip, her forehead almost against the glass as she strained to look down at the tea garden. Then she twisted the cap back on, looked at the clock in the kitchen—4:39—and unscrewed the cap again and took another swallow. She didn’t know why she kept putting it back on each time. Maybe to give her fingers something to do, and, she supposed, because it provided a noise—even just this small, plastic scraping—audible enough to mask the silence, that true, four in the morning silence: the worst kind.
Dane had been such a loud snorer, and she imagined she had to have been one of the only women in the world who didn’t mind such a thing. Probably one reason why they were so good together. Somehow she’d found a certain comfort in it. Reminded her, for one, that she had a man, a good man at that, despite the snoring and the layer of heat that always emanated off his nighttime skin, the way he’d roll away and tug the sheets with him. The way his chest rose and fell, the moon highlighting the hairs around his nipples. She’d lie awake for long stretches of time, listening to him, watching him sleep, sometimes closing her eyes and letting his snores blanket her in a dependable rhythm, which was the whole thing right there: that it was in fact, to her, a blanket, covering whatever late-night sounds—creaks and snaps and clicks, often from above—that otherwise tortured her middle-of-the-night senses. Now, without him, she relied on the bedroom TV to do the job.
That was the thing with these old converted mill buildings. They were old. Long before being reconfigured into condos and artists lofts, these buildings, scattered all across Lowell, had been textile factories with hundreds of heavy, violent, deafening machines stretching the length of the floors, immigrant workers sweating through long hours during the first half of the twentieth century, young farm girls from Tyngsboro and Pepperell the century before that. She knew all this because the mill almost directly next door, perpendicular to the river, housed a museum on its first two floors. She’d toured it the first week she’d moved in, one bored afternoon when Dane was unavailable and the cable hadn’t been installed yet. She’d thought she’d find the stories to be inspiring and even romantic, tales of the boardinghouses and the literary magazine these girls created while working endless hours during the week and even Saturdays. Instead, she’d left feeling grim, disturbed even. Stories about the workers hanging their lunches by chains from ceiling beams so that the cockroaches didn’t get to them. Another story—and this is the one that stayed with her—of a girl who failed to tie her hair back properly and was snatched by one of the feeders and killed, a violent jerk lifting her from her feet, coworkers screaming and scrambling to punch the emergency shut-down button.
Without Dane she heard noises over her head, where the top two floors of the building remained unfinished. She didn’t believe in ghosts—at least, she didn’t think she did—until it grew to be two, three, four a.m. and an undetermined clunk might echo from somewhere overhead. But she did believe in karma, and often found herself in bed gripped with the horror that this building was suffocated, strangled, in bad karma.
The city toward five a.m. was a host of sounds. The neon gas station sign across the street humming in starts and stops with each extended blink (and why was it left on all night?), the flop of water dumping in the nearby canal from one level down to another, a male voice talking much too loudly—probably several blocks away but carrying on the fall air, then the nightmarish screech of a cat…maybe fighting or in heat or maybe even hit by a car…a horrible sound at any rate. Beth stood on her brick steps now and let herself adjust to the darkness, twisting and untwisting the bottle cap, then made her way across the short lot and onto the sidewalk, flip-flops snapping at a quick, middle-of-the-night clip. She slipped between two well-maintained hedges and onto Tuttlegreen’s side yard, then, three more steps, into the backyard.
And now she was someplace else entirely. The sounds, so ever-present a moment before, felt hushed, deflected by the house and the massive side of her own mill building, masked too by Tuttlegreen’s backyard waterfall—an endless triple-trickle carving through smooth stones and peppering her small koi pond. She noticed the smells too, more so than she had the other day, with the afternoon sun burning everything away. A lush, healthy smell, earthy. Nothing urban about it at all.
The tea house stood at the end of the pebbled path, draped in greenery, a maze with only one option. Four white solar lights guided her toward it, giving the structure its own energy. She stood for a long time tuned in to her own fluttering heartbeat, willing it to settle. Some time later, perhaps without even being conscious of it, she felt for the door handle, looking back at the dark house, twisting it only to find resistance. Locked. Of course. She tried once more.
She uncapped her water and finished what little was left, then recapped it. Her fingers dented the plastic with a surprisingly loud crunch that tensed her. She looked at the house again, then, for some reason, up at the massive brick wall of the mill building behind her, lifting her chin toward the top floors. She looked at a stretch of dark windows, some reflecting the moon and the gas station sign, others jagged and broken.
The aluminum screen window next to the door came free easier than she’d imagined. She actually hadn’t expected it to budge, and she would not have forced it—because it was wrong, yes, but also because it would most certainly be a struggle. Instead, her fingers slipped under without even pulling back on it, and as she slid her hand up its side the whole frame released and suddenly she was pushing the water bottle into her armpit and catching the screen in both hands.
From inside, she could not quite get the screen back, so she leaned it against the frame where it stayed. It felt cooler in here, darker. The mat Ms. Tuttlegreen had kneeled on to fix their tea that afternoon was still rolled out on the floor. The tea tray and cups were on a small shelf, with other teas and spices and sugar, all jarred and labeled. Beth put her water bottle down and kneeled, as Tuttlegreen had done. Something in her left leg popped but felt good. She let her flip-flops slip from her toes.
“Tell me more about this boy of yours,” Ms. Tuttlegreen had asked her, kneeling and sipping tea, steam swirling off its surface in ribbons. It had cleared out Beth’s sinuses and felt, somehow, like a truth serum. For some reason, drawing a breath, she told her everything.
“He says he wants me there. In New York. But thinks I should have a job lined up first.” She pulled a big sip, a little too hot for her mouth. “I don’t know if he’s saying that honestly or trying to stall things.”
Ms. Tuttlegreen brought her cup to her lips, her eyes on Beth. Beth had the green light, and was a little surprised to feel herself take it so readily. She told her more about the ex-wife and daughter Dane had wanted to be closer to, how those long weekends commuting had been taking their toll, sapping his energy and muting his personality all week long. How he’d grown distant from her in the months and then weeks leading up to his move. The sex had tapered to almost nothing, then nothing. And then he was gone. Beth said that he’d left her feeling empty and lonely, but that, deep down, she thought she might have deserved to feel this way. So she’d lain in bed night after night and, like prey pinned in a web, let it eat her.
Ms. Tuttlegreen tipped a smile at her. “How come, hon?”
Beth drained back the rest of her tea (truth serum, she decided she wanted it to be truth serum) and told her that when she’d first met Dane he was married, maybe even happily, that the entire first year of their relationship had been built on his sneaking around, meeting her for drinks up in Nashua or somewhere out off route two, their sex relegated to his dropping by before work—she was working second shift back then—followed by her drifting back to sleep on his chest until, fifteen minutes later, he’d slip out from under her and get dressed. And she’d pretend to not wake up so she wouldn’t cry. She even told her, and it had felt so good to do so, about the night they’d gotten caught, Dane’s wife finally going through his phone and calling Beth at nearly one in the morning. How Beth had snatched the phone up on the first ring, first worried but then maybe even a little excited, allowing herself in the blink of a moment to hope that maybe he was calling to tell her that he’d become available and was on his way over, that his wife had decided to stay up in Portsmouth at her sister’s rather than drive all the way home. Instead, Beth heard her voice for the first time.
“And for a while,” Beth had told Ms. Tuttlegreen, “I thought I’d won.” She smiled, huffed from her nose. “I thought I’d won because, well, because he chose me.”
Now, in the gloom of the morning, she rolled from her knees onto her side, lying down on the mat, so tired, pulling her legs up into her chest. It was quiet here, the only sound the plinking of the waterfall into the koi pond outside the (now busted) window. Her mind still racing but beginning to slow down. Ms. Tuttlegreen hadn’t given her any advice that afternoon, hadn’t really said anything other than she didn’t think Beth was the kind of person who would ever have trouble finding a man. Which was true, but wasn’t the point. She’d had men before Dane, and she could have had men after Dane, easily enough, and the truth was, with a little effort, she could even have Dane if she wanted.
“Maybe I don’t,” she’d said to Tuttlegreen, looking down into her empty cup. And now, curled on the mat, so close to sleep, her thumb finding its way into the pocket of her cheek, she’d said it again, this time to no one: “Maybe I don’t.”
Sleep was coming at her fast. Not the teasing, torturous ripples that seeped toward her and then receded, seeped and receded. This was a riptide, dragging her away. She let her eyes fall shut, let it pull her under, the hope of real sleep at long last. She had a thought—her final thought—that she would be found here later this morning, that she would open her eyes and see that familiar gray hair and those familiar eyebrows, a gentle touch and an offer of tea and a silent promise to make it all right, to hold at bay those thoughts of spiders, or ghosts, or whatever else she might need protection from.