I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead

6. Microsleeping

The “student health center” turned out to be a once-charming Victorian house surmounted by a widow’s walk and a cupola, a building whose whimsical architecture failed to destigmatize its obvious purpose. It sat alone like a spider at the center of a web of ramps and walkways, so if you were headed down that hill, everybody knew where you were going. Birth control? STD’s? Alcohol poisoning or an incipient nervous breakdown? They could take their pick. I could almost hear the thoughts of the other students as I shuffled shamingly past, weakly hoping Miss Howk had stepped out to lunch.

But Miss Howk was there, all right and Miss Howk had plenty of time for me. No doubt about it, Miss Howk was a piece of work. So unbusy was she that she had her feet up on her desk while she perused a fashion magazine, revealing to anyone who cared to look that she kept up her sheer white nurse’s stockings with a lacey garter belt.

Once she’d read Corso’s note, she looked at me like I was a prize heifer and she was a 4H judge. Something about her slanted glance and set jaw told me she seriously rued being on the wrong side of thirty. I hoped she wouldn’t be the type to take it out on those of us still at play her in Eden. I mean, it’s not our fault when our birth dice came up snake-eyes.

She didn’t need to slam her private door behind us, announcing to the universe that I was now her prisoner, but I got the impression she enjoyed an audience for everything she did. She put her face right up against mine, under the light, as if searching for blackheads. Wise men have said that when the abyss is looking into you, at least you are in a prime position to look back. Did she want me to try to read the strange Arabic inscriptions tattooed around her eyes? Who reads Arabic in New Jersey? Anyone? But Miss Howk was all business. Mine was neither to look back nor apparently even to reason why. She shone a light into each of my eyes until I was effectively blinded.

“You remind me of somebody,” she said.

Not that damn Bettie Page thing again. Or for Miss Howk would it be Katy Perry? Blinking, seeing stars, I refused to help her out.“I’ve been told I’m a recognized archetype,” I said stiffly.
Beneath her sedate nurse’s cap Miss Howk had long chestnut hair with frosted highlights. She wore a nose stud and a collection of different earrings in each ear; a silver moon in one and an onyx star in the other and piercings all the way up each lobe. Could she hear better or worse with all that hardware? I couldn’t help asking myself, is this what she wore to her job interview? And what did Corso think? Do ears like Swiss cheese turn men on or do you have to be something of a predator to start with?

I asked myself if Miss Howk and Dr. Corso were having a “thing”. That’s the problem with being “psychic”; I can’t tell whether there’s really a rabbit at the foot of every hole I dig for myself and then trip over. While prodded, poked and documented for Miss How’s secret file, my “reptilian brain” found time to wonder what Dr. Corso made of this fashion in permanent cosmetics and transitory relationships. It’s right up his alley I’m guessing; he struck me as a collector, and collectors love people to obligingly sort themselves into “types”. Wouldn’t want to make the mistake of collecting the same one twice.

So what if they were having “a thing”, what did I care? Consider it “preventative medicine”! Out here it’s every girl for herself. Nurse Howk keeping him busy might keep him off the rest of us.
Satisfied with her research into the back of my head, she ripped open a sterilized kit and said, “You have to pee in front of me. No faking.”

“You mean I can’t use that stuff I got out of the vending machine?” I said. “Darn. Good stipend money wasted.”

“A humorist,” said Miss Howk. “Har har. You’ll need that where you’re going, soldier.”

Jesus, I thought, what people – specifically, unfortunately, me — will do for money. She watched with crossed arms while I managed to leak out a few drops, but only because I’d just had Imperial Gunpowder on top of eleven cups of coffee. The scent of caffeine filled the room.

“That should do it.” Miss Howk swirled my product around and held it up to the light like a fine wine.

“Cape May, New Jersey, 1993,” I quipped. “A very good year.”

Miss Howk sealed the cup and wrote upon the label. “Subtle, yet unassuming,” she announced, “But with a ricochet that bites you in the ass.” She smiled at me. “You and me could get along.”
But I didn’t want to get along. Not with Miss Howk, anyway. Frankly, I was praying I’d never have to see her again. Let Corso have her. I looked pointedly at my watch, like a person with a class to go to. I did have a class. Like subway cars, there is always another one coming up soon.

Maybe Miss Howk was psychic too. She got the message. She sighed loudly. “I hate paperwork. Guessing you will too.” And handed me a clipboard.

Mostly it was things like swearing never to tell and promising not to sue if I grew another head. What can I tell you? I signed. I was used to promising to be responsible for myself and not haranguing grownups for treats and favors. Self-determination; isn’t that what being an adult is all about? I settled down with my documents while Miss Howk stepped into the hall to make a series of short, angry calls on her cellphone. Maybe

that’s just her phone voice, but I got the impression Ms. Howk had been promised big things in her lifetime and somebody had stiffed her on the deal. Miss Howk was canceling any self-determination pre-arrangement; it was time for somebody to step up to the plate, like now.

I tried not to eavesdrop but maybe this was all part of the stage show; to distract me from reading, or to hurry me into signing, or something. I’m telling you, psychology is not my thing. Leave me alone to get on with the creation of weird but spectral beauty. The kind that makes the people say “huh?”

Miss Howk slammed the door again, rolled up my sleeve and said, “Look the other way.”
“Deposit or withdrawal?” I asked faintly. I didn’t want her taking out her annoyance at Mr. Anonymous on my poor corpus.

“Withdrawal,” she said. “You won’t miss it. You’ve got plenty.”

Is it really hygienic to hold the syringe between your teeth while you prepare the client’s arm? Or maybe I was just turning into my mother, who thinks the worst of everyone. She blames my early daycare contretemps for her paranoia, but more like my dad running out on her had something to do with it. The most depressing thing about her suspicions is how often they are right.

“Is that it?” I unwisely inquired.

“Not hardly,” said Miss Howk. “No X-Ray, no strip search, no safe word. Just one more thing. Drink this.”

I felt like Alice crashing through the mirror. Drink this. It looked syrupy and grape-colored, like that nasty cough medicine given to unwary children who have the bad timing to get sick at school. I didn’t want to taste it so I tossed it down.

It fizzed. “What the heck was that?”

“Gives you a nice buzz,” said Miss Howk. “Why should both of us be miserable?”

God, I thought, now it’s official. I’m a mindless research guinea pig, who will do anything for money, on par with those people who accept pills in parking lots from total strangers. “Let Jazz try it, she’ll take anything.”

According to my marketing professor people will always accept “one more thing”, whereas if you told them everything you wanted at the beginning they would just say “no”. And even after going through all this humiliation, I was mindful that Corso could theoretically still reject me from the program. And I was counting on my research pay to round out my tiny, tiny stipend! I might want to occasionally view the city. Or buy something. I’ve got aspirations, dammit.

I’m going to have to learn to ask the right questions, I thought as I lay uncomfortably on the cold examining table, waiting for God knows what. My natural inclination is to rush through any unpleasantness, but here was a forced opportunity to reflect. If I only knew what the right questions were. Maybe I was dreaming already. I felt I’d stumbled into a pre-language world where concepts float namelessly past before you can tag them. Worry? Anguish? Dread? Maybe that’s what adulthood really is; still having the amorphous sensations but at least being able to name them. Miss Howk dimmed the lights.

“Music requests?” she inquired. “Mars Volta or Harry Connick Jr?” And I had her pegged for Florence and the Machine.“Thanks anyway,” I said. “I’m fine with silence.”“You’re the only one,” she told me. “No one else wants to listen to their own head. Now, if you’ll just stay put for a moment, I’m going to run a test. Relax for just a sec and you’re all done.”

I stretched out my legs. I’d had a nap – even if unwillingly, so how come I was still exhausted? “Change”, those therapists used to say.Change is the most tiring thing, and maybe they were right. Heck, a broken clock tells time correctly twice a day.

“I warn you,” I yawned, “I may fall asleep.”“Feel free,” Miss Howk called over her shoulder. “Ah, the bliss of unconsciousness. That’s what we’re all about.”

Not something health professionals routinely say, I remember thinking. Then I heard a mechanical noise and I was inside a foosball game, where every other player was part of the machine except me. But I was attached to the mechanical arms and I couldn’t get away.

I scrabbled wildly at the ball with my feet as it rocketed past. Was it my imagination the little metal men were sneering at me? “What are you looking at!” I snapped as the buzzers rang, the bells gonged and the floor beneath me tilted maniacally.

When the lights were snapped back on, I woke up on my stomach, still arguing with weird half-memories and trying to get the ball. Was that echoed laughter in my head or my own brain tumor banging off my skull?

“Ow,” I said, holding my temples against pain. Sadistically, Miss Howk made it worse by ruthlessly ripping open blinds.

“A tummy sleeper,” she said, out of the side of her mouth. “Aww. Cute.”

“Am I finished?” I winced.

Miss Howk, she of the Hippocratic oath, had given me the mother of all headaches.

“Finished as you’ll ever be,” smirked Howk. “What’s a little microsleep between friends?”

She certainly had Corso’s lingo down; weird and unsettling, as if she was his female clone. In spite ofwhat I’d said previously, I was still amazed at actually nodding off. Unconsciousness was highly prized at this wretched university. Who falls asleep on an examining table? And after eleven cups of real coffee, too. (I’m afraid of decaf because it’s soaked in carcinogen.) But what could I say? If this is an institution of learning how come my brain’s all scrambled? No, that can’t be it. What are the questions? If only I knew.

“What the hell was in that syrup?” I asked, patting myself down. Arms, legs, tatas, check. But still, an uncanny sensation that I was missing some vital part of me.

“Tolerance test,” said Howk. “There’s a sedative administered as part of the research, since, duh, you have to sleep on cue. Let me know if you get a bad reaction. You seem “fine’ to me.”

She put it in air quotes, giving me a good look at the Chinese writing along her underarm. Isn’t it kind of creepy to take a tattoo artist’s word for how he’s designating you for life? I can’t imagine being so trusting.

Bt what am I saying? Maybe Miss Howk speaks Arabic and Chinese. Everything she said was at least a triple entendre. I was actually afraid to think about what she might really mean – and I also think that’s the way. she wanted me to feel. So I said, “Bad reactions? Like what? What should I look for? Convulsions? Hallucinations? Foaming at the mouth?”

Miss Howk leaned against the wall watching me dress like an idler at a peep show. “Nothing. I’m telling you.”

I wanted to get out of there but still I fumbled. The questionless will be sacrificed. “So what happens next?”

Howk shrugged, yawned and turned away. I wasn’t fun or interesting any more. She had plumbed my depths. “Richard will send you an email.”

Richard. OMG. Guess I should be glad she didn’t name him “Doctor Dick.“

“Then, ‘bye.” I had to squeeze past her to get out the door. Howk gave me one last look from beneath her kohl-laden lids.

“A mañana,” she threatened.

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