Sleeping on a sidewalk isn’t as uncomfortable as you might think. Besides, when I come to, it’s not the lack of a comfy mattress or fluffy pillows that I notice first. It’s always the voices.
No, not those kinds of voices.
Here’s the thing: When people fall asleep, their senses slip away from them one at a time, like tipsy guests creeping out of a party once all the good booze has run out. The first to go is the sense of taste followed by sight, touch, and smell. The last to go is hearing. When a person finally regains consciousness, all five senses come home to roost in reverse, with hearing making its appearance first.
This is why your alarm clock makes lots of noise in the morning rather than dropping Brussels sprouts into your mouth.
So even though I’m a little groggy, a little disoriented, I’m not uncomfortable lying on the pavement.
I take a deep breath as my other senses come back online one at a time. Even when I’m sure I’ll be able to see, I keep my eyes closed, because I know my vision will still be a little blurry. And I don’t need to move my legs to know they’re still rubbery and weak yet, like a baby foal’s. The medical term for this is Hypnopompic Sleep Paralysis. Translated into action, it means I’d look like a spider on roller skates if I tried to get up now.
I can hear people just over my face, talking about me. One of them is wearing some really fantastic cologne.
“I saw her. She just laid right down there like she was going to take a nap or something.”
“Should we carry her to the hospital, doctor?” says one, an older woman by the sound of it. “Should we call someone?”
Someone takes my hand.
“No,” says a man. His voice is self-assured. “I was watching her when it happened. She didn’t hit her head or fall down. She’ll wake up in a minute. She’ll be just fine, I promise.”
Whoever’s holding my hand squeezes it, places it on my stomach, and pats it a few times before withdrawing.
I hear other voices farther away, their murmurs of hushed concern eventually fading away altogether. Beyond it all is the occasional hum of a car engine, slowing as it gets closer. Rubberneckers, I think. I slowly crack open my left eye. A circle of heads peers down at me like a ground-view shot of a football huddle.
“You okay, honey?” says an elderly woman, probably the hand-holder. Her voice is kind but not alarmed.
This is good. It means that I haven’t been splayed out here on the sidewalk long, which in turn means I probably wasn’t robbed or assaulted. Doesn’t sound like anyone called 911, and no one in the circle of heads looks particularly panicked, so I’m guessing that I’m not bleeding or broken anywhere either.
Suddenly I feel warm breath on my ear. From the smell of it—damp rawhide—I’m certain it’s not a handsome prince coming to wake me. I roll my eyes to the side just in time to see a tiny red wiener dog stretch out his neck and tentatively lick my cheek. Someone above me yanks its leash, and the puppy abruptly disappears like a performer yanked off a stage with a cane.
“We saw your bracelet.”
My bracelet. I automatically touch the bracelet on my left wrist with my opposite hand. (Hey! Arms are working!) On one side of it is the blood red “snake and stick”—the classic medical symbol of a serpent twisted around a wooden staff. On the other side are words engraved into brushed titanium:
I have narcolepsy and cataplexy. These conditions can cause me to fall asleep unexpectedly and appear disoriented.
I sigh and sit up. A teenager with one of those awful trucker hats—this one includes a pithy saying: “Ask Me About My 401 Keg Plan”—offers me his hand and pulls me to my feet. Without thinking, I touch the back of my head for any debris that might have collected in my hair while I was out cold. Once I’d fallen asleep on the Newhall Metrolink platform after going with a friend to Six Flags. When I woke up I had a piece of partially chewed hotdog—relish, mustard, the works—and grape Pop Rocks stuck in my long, blonde hair. The saliva from the one acted as a catalyst for the other.
My impromptu Snap! Crackle! Pop! hairdo really brought on the stares from my fellow passengers. Also, it taught me that yellow mustard stains are impossible to remove from platinum hair. At one point I’d cropped it to a short, pixie length, which made it much easier to wash and style (and flicking chunks of food out of it was a cinch). It’s not as long now as it once was, but nostalgic for a summertime ponytail, I’ve let it grow back to just past my shoulders.
“You were walking in front of me,” says the 401 Keg kid, “and you just stopped walking and got on the ground. Right here.” He points at the sidewalk as if the location of my spur-of-the-moment nap is somehow critically important to the story.
I slap the sidewalk grime off the back of my pants and look around to get my bearings. A Metro sign marks the bus stop directly in front of the Children’s Hospital, the one with the two-story-tall teddy bear affixed to the side of the building.
“Do you want me to call your parents for you, sweetheart?” says the old lady. Her dachshund has honed in on one of my feet and is licking my exposed toes. I jerk my foot back, right out of my flowery, sparkly, ridiculous pink flip-flop.
“Thanks, I’m fine,” I mutter. I bend over to retrieve my stupid little girl shoe, a test of balance I probably shouldn’t be performing quite yet. Next time why don’t you wear a bow in your hair and carry a baby doll? I scold myself.
Once they see proof of life, most of the crowd begins to disperse, but the lack of blood and death is too much of a letdown for some people. Every once in a while a disappointed bystander turns on me.
Today is one of those days.
“Assuming you didn’t just find out today that you have severe cataplexy, shouldn’t you be wearing a protective helmet?”
I turn around. Mr. Disappointed is a pale, brooding guy dressed in layers of black save the silver metallic stitching on the black vest and the silver tie tucked into it. A shock of thick hair the color of dark cooking chocolate creates an interesting contrast against his fair skin. His moss green eyes flash with arrogance. Unfortunately, he’s also crazy good-looking, with two or three days of stubble offsetting his boyishly high cheekbones and Cupid’s bow lips.
I feel my face turn red with equal parts embarrassment and anger. I’ve woken up from these attacks in a lot of strange places, but one thing I’m proud to say is that I’ve never cried once. I’m one of those strange people who tend to cry only when they get really angry. Unfortunately, most people don’t believe you when you tell them that the reason you’re boo-hooing isn’t because you’re feeling a little low, but because you want to punch their running lights out.
The little old lady calling me “sweetheart” is one thing; the elderly almost always get a pass when it comes to offending me, but this guy…
“I fall asleep,” I tell him. “I’m not brain damaged.”
He frowns and straightens his tie. “Yet.”
My lower lip starts quivering. I want to scream at him and tell him what it’s like to fall asleep, and not know when you wake up if minutes or weeks have passed; how humiliating it is to keel over in random places in front of total strangers; what it’s like to never be able to wear dresses or skirts, or carry anything more valuable than a tube of lipstick; how at twenty-nine I can’t get a driver’s license, can’t hold on to a regular job, and can’t keep a boyfriend.
But if I do, all the words would be lost in a slurry of mortifying sobbing. So instead, I scowl and push past him and the rest of the rubberneckers, and head towards the hospital entrance. I’ve almost reached the doors when I realize I’m being followed by Mr. Disappointed.
Once inside, I head for the check-in desk and glance over my shoulder. Mr. Disappointed transforms into Mr. Departed, breezing past the security guard and getting right into the Willy Wonka-style glass elevator.
“I have an appointment in neurology,” I tell the woman behind the security desk.
“Oh, you won’t need a badge then,” she says, smiling broadly. “Only your parents.”
I don’t even fight it anymore; I just hand her my California-issued walker’s license and wait for the inevitable response.
“Oh, I’m sorry. You look so, uh, young.” She’s cheerful about it, as if being mistaken for a sixteen-year-old is supposed to be a morale booster for me.
I get my badge and queue up in the line for the elevator. While I wait, I look down at the pink, sparkly flip-flops that I found in the little girl’s section of a department store this morning. I usually special order my size four shoes from Petite Feet, but the rain finally stopped, it was suddenly blazing hot, and I was desperate for summer footwear. I blame myself. Put glittering flip-flops on a five-foot, one (and one-quarter) inch woman with the gracile body and the petite facial features of a Celtic Faerie, and you’re just inviting bad outcomes.
Once I’ve checked in at the neurology desk, I take my place in a waiting room full of babies and kids under the age of ten, and their parents. An unsmiling woman walks to the middle of the room and calls my name. She doesn’t even look at me as I walk towards her. I can make out her last name and rank on her hospital badge from ten feet away—PROTO, RN—printed in large, block letters. When I’m closer, I can read her first name too: TABITHA.
Without even a “good morning,” she leads me through the doorway. I follow, fighting a smirk as I form an idea that PROTO RN isn’t a real nurse, but a prototype that is being beta-tested and will, in time, be improved upon. In short, Proto Nurse has the bedside manner of a bedpan.
Inside the exam room, her lips tighten as she peruses the wad of forms I was given when I checked in—all of them still blank. With pursed lips but nary a word, she measures my height, weighs me, and jots down my vitals. “How can we help you today?” she asks, once she’s got me in a room decorated to look like the inside of a lunch box. There’s even a six-foot-tall inflated celery stick in the corner that I plan to shadowbox as soon as I’m alone.
Maybe it’s her patronizing use of the “Royal We,” or the fact that I’m still chafing from being scolded like a five-year-old by Mr. Departed. But suddenly my hackles are up. Way up.
“Sorry,” I say. “We don’t do this.”
Proto Nurse looks up from her clipboard, one wiry, graying eyebrow raised.
“I had all my medical records sent here and specifically asked that the doctor seeing me today read my case file prior to me coming in.”
She stares at me. “But you didn’t fill out any of the intake forms.”
I sigh. In the last two years, I estimate that I’ve spent about five percent of my time filling out “intake forms.” Seems like a real waste, especially considering that I’ve been sleeping a large part of the other ninety-five percent. “Sorry, I don’t do that either. I looked through them, and there’s nothing there that’s not already in my records.”
She mashes her lips into such a vacuum-tight circle of disapproval that I think she could suck a brick out of a wall. Then she sweeps out of the room, leaving me with the man-sized celery stick.
I’ve barely had time to read the first few pages of that perennial children’s classic Everybody Poops when there’s a tap on the door. I gird my loins for Round Two.
And in walks Mr. Disappointed, aka Mr. Departed, who is apparently Mr. Doctor. He stops short, and we stare at each other for a few seconds before he attempts to salvage the train wreck that’s become my office visit.
“Hi, I’m Dr. Charmant,” he says, sticking out his hand. “And you must be Claire?”
“Egalitarian medical relationships work best for me. I don’t mind calling you ‘Doctor,’ but in that case you shouldn’t presume to call me ‘Claire.’ It puts us on unequal footing, which I don’t believe is conducive to a positive doctor–patient rapport.”
Charmant stands very still, his head tilted slightly. I hold his stare, refusing to look away. I’ve had my share of arrogant doctors over the last two years; I’m done with their holier-than-thou attitude.
He clears his throat. “Um, are your parents with you today?”
I half exhale, half growl. “You didn’t even read it, did you?”
“Let me guess: You’re a fellow, right?”
Ah, The Fellow: A post-medical school, post-residency doctor with the overconfidence of a seasoned physician, but the actual skills of a parking valet. No disrespect to valets, of course.
“I’m not sure what that has to do—”
“Because if you had read it, you would know that I am twenty-nine years old, and that I’m only here to be evaluated for a class of sleeping disorders that usually only affects teenagers.”
A look of profound confusion overspreads his face, and he starts wildly flipping through the pages on the chart.
“Look, I’m aware that this is a teaching hospital, and I’m all for supporting the training of medical professionals, but at the very least I expect my time to be wasted productively.” I turn to the magazine rack on the wall and pluck out a Highlights for Children. “So if you’re done playing doctor in here, then I’d be really thankful if you’d send the real doctor in.”
Mr. Doctor decides that escape is the only viable option. I hear the door whoosh open and closed as he scuttles out.
I’m actually absorbed in finding the dog bone in the Hidden Pictures section when the door opens. An extremely tall woman with a friendly, heart-shaped face and the torso of a linebacker enters. She’s wearing sensible shoes, and sports a no-nonsense bowl cut. She looks like she’s trying hard not to laugh.
“I heard you sent Dr. Charmant packing,” she says, breaking into a grin as we shake hands. I start to apologize, but she waves my words away. “The fact that this is a pediatric hospital notwithstanding, he should not have assumed that you were a child. Although,” she says, looking over her reading glasses at me, “you are very petite for a twenty-nine-year-old. Besides the sleeping disorder, you’re otherwise healthy? No smoking habit as a toddler that stunted your growth?”
I laugh. “No, I’m just small. My grandmother was tiny too.”
She nods. “I’m Wendy Pickering. You can just call me Wendy. Unlike Dr. Charmant, apparently, I spent the morning looking over your records, and I’ve come to the conclusion that you’ve got to be sick and tired of looking at us.”
I don’t know what to say to this. “Who?”
“Us.” She clicks her pen and starts writing in my chart. “Doctors.”
I imagine what she’s writing: Patient is sick…of looking at us. No evidence of any other illness found. “Well, it’s not that,” I say.
She smiles. “Sure it is. You’ve been to four doctors in the last two years and every one of them has punted to the next one. You’re frustrated.” She closes my chart and throws it onto the nearby countertop. “That’s why we’re going to start from scratch.”
She tilts her head and looks underneath me, smiling at the Dagwood sandwich exam table. “Let’s move to my office. I think you outgrew this room twenty years ago.”
I slip off the table onto the floor.
“You’re at the onset of an episode?” she says as we walk.
“It’s like labor. The fainting spells—”
I nod. “The cataplexy attacks get closer and closer together until I don’t wake up at all. Well, not for a few weeks.”
“I want you in the sleep lab for observation the day after tomorrow. With any luck we’ll catch a few of the cataplexy attacks. Once they’re a few hours apart I want you to call me, and I’ll clear the lab for an emergency observation.”
“But I already—”
“You already did it, I know. The testing was poorly done and the results in my opinion are inconclusive.”
I follow her down the hall past a row of exam rooms. I play “Guess the Décor” as we pass: outer space, sports, dogs, lollipops. I stop for half a second at the last to marvel at an umbrella stand filled with gigantic Tootsie Pops. With Wendy now ten steps ahead of me, I lean in, pluck one out, and squeeze it. Another inflatable. Cool.
I see a flash of white out of the corner of my eye and look up to see Dr. Dismayed, who stops short at the sight of me fondling an oversized sucker.
“Oh, there you are, Dr. Charmant,” says Wendy. “Please schedule Claire for the sleep lab the morning after next.”
Charmant looks glad for something to do. “Absolutely. Which sleep tech should I request?”
Her face lights up. “That’s the best part.” She turns away and continues down the hall. “Clear your calendar, Dr. Charmant. You have a date with the sleep lab in forty-eight hours.”
His expression turns from haughty to disbelieving. Well, I’m not exactly thrilled about spending the night with you either, I think.
Once he realizes that I’m watching him, he goes from disbelieving to absolutely mortified. I hold my ground as he walks towards me. “Ms. Beau, I want to apologize. I’ve embarrassed you twice today, and—and I really just don’t know what to say.”
The use of my last name doesn’t go unnoticed by me. Neither does the fact that he looks even hotter when he’s being apologetic. I lean into the exam room again, pluck a real green lollipop out of a glass jar, and hold it up. “I’d rather just have one of these. Isn’t this what you give to kids when you hurt them? A sucker?”
He freezes, and I watch him try to work through the word puzzle to see if I’m waving a white flag, or raising the gauntlet even higher.
“Come join us, Brendan,” Dr. Pickering calls to him from down the hall. “You might as well do something useful today.”
Wendy ushers me into her office. Charmant slips in behind us and takes a chair closest to the door, like he’s going to bolt the first chance he gets.
“Any family history of sleep disorders?” she says, closing the door. “Narcolepsy, insomnia, sleepwalking?”
“Neurological disorders? Manic depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s?”
“Nope, nothing like that.”
“Ah. Well that complicates things.”
She tilts back in her leather chair. “Well, for starters I’m not convinced that you have narcolepsy.”
I sit up straighter. “Really? I mean, what else could it be?”
“Oh, there’s lots of stuff it could be. But we can’t answer that question until we determine what it’s not. Once we have a diagnosis, we can talk about how we’ll move forward with treatment.”
She jots a few things down on a pad of legal paper while she’s speaking. I lean forward and see “Beau, Claire, 29” in left-handed, nearly horizontal scrawl at the top of the page.
“Are you married, Claire?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Have a significant other?”
She nods. “Are you able to work?”
“When I’m not in the middle of an episode, I do work.”
“What do you do?”
I smile. “What else do people in L.A. do?”
“You’re a waitress?”
I laugh. “Close. I’m an actor.”
“Really? We don’t get a lot of actors in a pediatric hospital. Do you stay busy? What kind of roles do you play?”
“I stay pretty busy. In the last couple of years, I’ve had some regular parts in a few TV sit-coms and dramas, just small parts. I do a lot of steady work as a background actor.” She tilts her head almost imperceptibly at the term, so I add, “You know, an extra.”
She nods in comprehension at the outdated term.
“Anyway, I had a decent part in Sophia Coppola’s next movie, but then I had an episode and they gave it to someone else.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. What were you going to play?”
I shift in my chair, knowing my answer is going to resurrect a lot of ill-will from Dr. Charmant’s side of the room. “Um, I have, uh, an appearance and abilities that cater to a very much in-demand market niche.”
Dead silence all around. I realize I’ve just made everything worse. Great. They probably think my “niche market” is fetish pornography.
I sigh. “Studios try to avoid hiring minors if they can help it. If you’re under eighteen, you can only work a certain number of hours, which is really expensive for the production. If they can find someone over eighteen to play a teenager they’ll do it.” I shrug. “It’s a pretty common thing. I’m short and I look young, so I end up getting cast in a lot of roles as an older teen…sort of like Ellen Page in Juno.”
I refuse to look in Charmant’s direction. He probably feels vindicated.
“That must be really exciting!” says Wendy. She leans back in her office chair, a look of almost parental pride on her face.
It’s nice for someone to look proud. My parents never did recover from the horror of a daughter graduating from college with a perfectly serviceable English literature degree only to “run off with the circus.” Fortunately, I was spared any long-term disapproval when my brother, West, one-upped me shortly thereafter, informing my parents that not only was he gay, but he was going to forego college altogether to join an alternative rock band.
My dad’s response was true to form. After a stunned silence, he looked at the ground, did a couple of knee bobs, harrumphed! a few times and said, “A rock band?”
I’m wondering if we’re going to spend the entire visit talking about my dubious career when Wendy changes tack. “Okay, let’s get down to business. When did your symptoms begin?”
I settle in. This could take awhile. “About two years ago I started to notice that it took a long time to wake up.”
She nods while she writes. “Tell me about that.”
I clear my throat, trying to think how to explain. “Well, I would be awake in my mind, but I wasn’t always sure I really was awake.”
“Because I couldn’t move. Well, sometimes I could open my eyes, but not much else.”
“Okay, you couldn’t move. Anything else?”
“And I would have these, uh, visions.” I hate even saying the word aloud, so my voice sort of drifts off at the end.
“What kind of visions?”
Oh lord, this is embarrassing. Why she had to ask Charmant to sit in on this after our disastrous first encounter (well, disastrous second or even third encounter, I suppose) I have no idea.
“I would see things…people and colors and things in the room with me, around my bed.”
She looks over at Charmant. “Brendan?”
His tone reminds me of the genius kid in a class who knows that he’s smarter than the teacher. “When a person enters deep dreaming REM sleep, the brain paralyzes the body so the dreamer doesn’t act out the dream and hurt themselves while they’re unconscious.” He looks right at Wendy, as if I’m not even sitting here. “Hypnopompic Paralysis like Ms. Beau is describing, happens when you wake up while you’re still in REM. The person will be largely unable to move, and may even continue to dream while awake.”
Finally he makes fleeting eye contact with me, but at least he looks like he’s trying to work up some empathy. “This can obviously be terrifying.”
I want to volley back something sarcastic like, “No shit, Sherlock,” but I hold my tongue. No need to destroy the tentative armistice we have in place.
“Did you tell your doctor about this at the time?” says Wendy.
“Eventually. She referred me to a psychiatrist—not because she thought I was crazy or anything,” I hurry to add. “He barely listened to what I told him, and said I was just depressed.”
“What did he say about the visions?”
I shrug. “He said he’d probably want me evaluated for schizophrenia.” I feel myself getting angry at the memory, so I stop to push my tongue to the roof of my mouth before my tear glands go into hyper-production. I am not going to cry in front of this guy. I take a deep breath. “It was a long time before I mentioned it to anyone again.”
“What did the antidepressants do for you, if anything?”
I laugh. “They made me tired for one thing, which wasn’t good because by this time I was scared to death to go to sleep.”
Wendy flips through my chart, running her finger down the page. “What did you say when the next doctor told you he suspected narcolepsy?”
“I told him there was no way.”
“Why did you say that?”
“Because at the time I only knew about ‘Hollywood narcolepsy.’”
She looks up from the page. “What’s that?”
“Whenever they show narcolepsy in the movies, it’s always some guy at a restaurant who flops over into his soup and starts sawing logs like a lumberjack. I never did that.” I stop. “Well, not at first. A few months after I started having problems—with the dreams and not being able to wake up—I had my first cataplexy attack.”
“Tell me about that.”
“I was at work one day and I felt weak all over, like I was about to faint. I thought I was fainting.”
“What did you do?”
“I sat down on the floor. The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back and there were people standing around me crying. Someone had even called 911.”
“How long before the attacks resulted in not being able to wake up at all?”
I exhale slowly and look up at the ceiling, thinking. “I think it was about a month later. A guy I was dating at the time came to pick me up. I didn’t answer my phone, and the door was locked. My brother got inside and found me. I was in the hospital for three days.”
Wendy nods. “So they ruled out obvious things like heart attack and stroke. And then what did they do?”
“They said ‘thank you very much for staying with us, don’t forget to tip the nurses,’ and they discharged me to follow up with my primary care physician.”
“And did you?”
“No. My ex-boyfriend drove me home, and then I slept for another week.”
“Did he stay with you during that time?”
I look down, trying to decide how to answer. The short answer would be “no.” The long answer would be that my ex got so freaked out by my medical problem, he was gone by the time I woke up. I feel a wave of fury roll through me. I try to stave off the anger-tears, to no avail. So I put on a brilliant performance of a sudden sneezing attack, which prompts Wendy to hand me a tissue, which allows me to cover up my weepy little face. I can’t exactly tell them that I’m so pissed right now that I could kick a baby (especially not in a pediatric hospital), so I blow my nose to give myself a moment to calm down.
I sigh. “My brother’s boyfriend, Davin, stays with me most of the time during episodes. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have survived the first one.” I roll my finger against the bottom of my eye, trying to catch the overflow. “Or any of the rest of them for that matter.”
It’s subtle, but I see Wendy’s eyebrow raise a little, no doubt wanting to ask why my brother didn’t take care of me. Great. Now I have to say something without telling the complete truth. “My brother—he’s a musician—he was afraid his band was looking for someone to take his place, and he had to go on tour.”
In my peripheral vision, I see Charmant just staring at me. When I look over, he makes a show of adjusting the stethoscope around his neck.
Oh, my God, he knows, I think, before dismissing the idea. Stop imagining things. He doesn’t know what you don’t tell him.
“Ah. Your parents, are they local?”
I shake my head. “They died in a car accident five years ago.”
The mad scratching on her notepad halts. “Oh, I’m so sorry. What a terrible thing.” After a respectful pause, she says, “And how many episodes have you had total in the last two years?”
“Three. The first one was the shortest: one week. All the others have been between two and three weeks.”
She pauses, looking over her notes. “Three weeks? Well, you must wake up at some point.”
I see where she’s going with this. Barring a urinary catheter, a colostomy bag, and a feeding tube, no one could survive being unconscious for three solid weeks.
I nod. “I do, but I don’t usually remember. Even when I’m awake, Davin says it’s like I’m sleepwalking, just going through the motions of, um, you know, using the bathroom and eating. He would force me to shower, and I would do it, but I wouldn’t remember it.”
She looks at Brendan. “Motor memory?” She turns back to me to explain. “We can all do things when we’re not fully awake if we’ve done them enough times. We remember how to find our bathroom in the dark, or what to do if the phone rings in the middle of the night.”
Charmant thinks this over. “Hmm, maybe. I was thinking it sounded more like automatic behavior.”
Wendy’s face lights up. “You’re right.”
“Sometimes the brain of a person with a sleep disorder goes to sleep for a few seconds at a time,” says Charmant. “It’s called ‘microsleep.’ They appear to be behaving normally—talking, driving—but they won’t remember it afterwards. It’s called ‘automatic behavior.’”
“What kind of things do you remember from the times that you were semi-lucid?” says Wendy.
I shrug. “Not much. It’s sort of like an alcoholic who has blackouts. Davin says there are stretches of time when it seems like I’m coming out of it. I’ll watch TV, or have a conversation with him, or return emails and phone calls. One time we even played an entire game of Monopoly over two days. But I never remember any of it. Well, rarely any of it.”
“And then one day you just sort of wake up—for real?”
“Uh-huh. It’s like waking up from a coma. I flip on the news and all these things have been happening in the world that I’m hearing for the first time. One time my brother started growing a beard during the three weeks I was out of it. It’s disorienting.”
“So you’re sometimes lucid, sometimes responsive during your episodes. Anything else your brother or his boyfriend see during these times?”
I smile. “A lot of binge eating. I’d get really hungry, ravenous. They said I would eat everything in the fridge and cabinets and then go back to bed. One time Davin said I ate an entire bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, three apples, a bag of Oreos, and a half gallon of milk.”
They both look me over, probably wondering where I put all that food. Seriously, I didn’t even believe my brother at first. It seemed like if I’d eaten that much, I would’ve swelled up like the Burmese python that tried to eat an alligator and exploded.
“Compulsive eating,” says Wendy, writing away. “Anything else they—or you—remember or observe?”
No way, uh-uh, I think. Under no circumstances am I going to divulge the only other thing that happens at the onset of An Episode. Wild horses couldn’t drag it out of me. My face grows hot. Fortunately, Wendy’s busy writing things down, but I can feel Charmant’s puzzled stare.
I tap my fingernails against the wooden arms of the chair. “Nope. Just things like feeling really hungry and being scared.”
Charmant clears his throat and leans forward, elbows on his knees. “What about—” He stops and leans back in the chair. “When you’re not in one of these episodes, how do you feel? Sleep okay? Appetite’s fine?”
I can’t even look at him. I know that he knows. And he knows that I know that he knows. “Everything goes right back to normal. Just long enough to make me think it’s not going to happen again.”
“Are you able to exercise?” says Wendy. “I was thinking it would be nerve-wracking to work out or go running if you thought you might faint. Might even be dangerous.”
“I, uh, you know…” I wince, preparing myself. “I surf.”
“Yeah, I surf.” I shrug. “It’s good exercise.”
“You’re not concerned you might experience a cataplexy attack in the water?” says Charmant, his lips tight with disapproval.
I stare at him. Really? I think. This is where you want to go after the helmet remark? I break eye contact with him and look at Wendy when I answer. “I always surf with my brother or his friends. They know what to look for. And we’re all floating on, like, seven-foot-long life preservers.”
“Did your doctor ever prescribe anything else for the cataplexy attacks?” says Charmant.
“Two things. One was a liquid—sodium something-or-other. I took it at night, and it was supposed to stop the cataplexy attacks. The other one started with an ‘M.’ It was for keeping me awake during the day.”
He nods. “Probably sodium oxybate and modafinil. Standard narcolepsy treatment. Did it work?”
I suck the inside of my cheek between my teeth, thinking. “I don’t know. I didn’t notice any difference in the number of cataplexy attacks, but maybe there would’ve been more without it. The other one stopped me from being able to fall asleep in the daytime during an episode, but my brother says I wasn’t any more alert than usual, and that I cried a lot and acted out nightmares.”
“No memory of that either?”
I watch Wendy write. She taps a period at the end of a sentence and lets the pen fall.
This whole time I thought she was prompting him to chime in as a way of teaching him, but now I’m beginning to think she’s looking to him to develop a diagnosis.
He’s silent for so long that I think he must’ve just mentally checked out, but no. He’s studying me like he’s trying to figure out the missing pieces, all the parts I was too embarrassed to tell. He slips the fingers of his hands through each other. “Narcolepsy seems unlikely, although it’s easy to see how the symptoms led to that diagnosis.” He turns to Wendy. “I’ll feel more confident after I perform the sleep testing.”
He says this like the only person in the sleep lab will be him. I scowl.
Wendy smiles at me apologetically. “Despite his lack of social graces, Dr. Charmant is one of the most promising neurologists in the field of sleep research.” She stands up. “I think you’ll find him much more enjoyable to be around when you’re asleep.”
“Can’t wait,” I say dryly. “I’ll bring the sleeping bag and popcorn.”
“Uh, what should I bring?” says Charmant. Clearly, lighthearted banter is outside of his comfort zone, because the words are forced, his expression pained. His choice of treating non-verbal children is starting to make a lot of sense.
I stand up and pluck my wallet off the floor. “You can bring the protective helmet.”
The look on his face is priceless, like he’s not sure where he can go with the repartee that won’t make him look like an ass-hat. So he does the next best thing: gets up, tucks his hands into his white coat pockets, and beats feet out the door.
Wendy eyes me curiously. “Protective helmet?”
I smile. “For him. For when he makes me mad again, and I have to knock him out.”
My back is towards the street when the faded, dark green minivan pulls up alongside the cluster of people, me included, waiting for the bus outside the hospital.
I jump at the sound of my name. When I turn around, the tinted, passenger-side window is halfway down. My face lights up. “Davin!” I hop off the curb and yank the door open.
Cars jam up behind him, their horns blaring. Before I’m even all the way in the seat, the van’s tires squeal as Davin pulls away.
“Hey!” I yell as he accelerates from zero to sixty as fast as a beat-up, old, suburban grocery-getter will move. I quickly slam the door and click my seatbelt into place. “What the hell? Are they giving away board wax up ahead or something? Calm down.”
“Sorry, dude,” he says, checking the rearview mirror for the offending honkers. “I hate pissing people off in traffic.”
Davin does this, calling me “dude.” Actually, he calls everyone “dude” unless he’s at work or trying hard to be on his best behavior in mixed company. In either case, it’s usually best if he just doesn’t try to talk at all.
He glances over at me. “Don’t you answer your phone anymore?”
“Love it when you get angry with me. It’s hot.” I hold up my wallet. “This is all I brought.”
“I left you a voicemail first thing. What are you doing taking the Metro? I said I’d drive you.”
I look behind me at the four surfboards affixed to the walls of the minivan and propped up against the rear seats, and I decide to mess with him a little. “I knew you’d rather do dawn patrol.”
He shifts into protective mode. It’s cute. “That’s crap, Claire. Why do you do this?”
“Make it seem like you don’t want anyone’s help.”
“I was fine!”
“Cool, now you’re a liar too.”
“What are you talking about?”
He reaches over and tugs at the back of my shirt. “If you’re going to act all Ms. Independent, you might want to wear something besides a white t-shirt. Where did you end up this time, the sidewalk?”
I push his hand away. “I texted you back this morning when I got up.”
“Well, I didn’t get it.” He shakes his head. “I don’t like the idea of you out-cold around a bunch of strangers. There’re a lot of weirdos out there, Claire-Bo.”
“If you weren’t busy surfing this morning, you would’ve been at my place three hours ago to pick me up.”
He sighs. “Promise me you’ll stop doing that, okay? Just ask and I’ll drop whatever I’m doing. Promise me.”
“Fine, I promise.” I flick the hem of his swim trunks. “So are you going to tell me you weren’t out there this morning stealing the beach?”
He laughs. “I’m starving. Let’s go eat.”
“Am I right?”
He takes his hands off the steering wheel, holding them up like he’s being arrested. “Guilty as charged.”
“I knew it. Good times?”
“It was cranking for a couple of hours, then we got an onshore and everything got crumbly.”
Talking to Davin is like being trapped in the surfer movie Point Break. He has a working grasp of conventional English, but when he lets his guard down he says things like: “Surf was epic today, fully macking double overhead corduroy to the horizon.”
I understand the sociological concept of the “ingroup,” and how slang helps members of a group identify one another, but I don’t care about being seen as legit by a bunch of waterspiders. For extra fun, every summer brings a fresh crop of high school and college surfers adding their own lingo to the collection.
Since I never intended to devote my life to the pastime the way Davin, my brother, and the rest of their crew have, my vernacular always feels about six months to a year out of date. After we’ve all sorted out who is who, I wish everyone would just go back to speaking normally. I swear, it’s enough to make me want to give up surfing altogether.
“Up for some scran?” he says.
“I’m not sure. That sounds mildly unpleasant. Is it high in fiber?”
He sighs, sits up ram-rod straight, and gets that look, a warning that he’s about to take a shot at formal English, or what he calls Professional Speech: “Pardon me, madam. I was contemplating patronizing a local eatery, and was hoping you would be willing to accompany me. It would give me the greatest pleasure to break bread with you.”
I look out the window to hide a smile as he slouches back into his seat. “Do people at your work care that you talk like Jane Austen after a three-day bender? How do you stay employed anyway?”
“It’s day to day, baby.”
Which is total bull. Davin gave up the drugs and full-time surfing in his early twenties, and wandered off the beach long enough to finish a degree in computer something-or-other. He’s worked at a small, independent film distributor since I’ve known him. “Independent enough to pay well, but still not do drug tests,” as he says. “And Earl is old-school, used to be totally core.”
In other words, the older gentleman who owns the company used to be an avid—and apparently skilled—surfer back in the day. During the peak months from December through March, Davin doesn’t even try to make up an excuse or call in sick; he just rings up Earl, and tells him that conditions are prime and surf’s up. In return, he’ll work eighty or ninety hour weeks April through November to make up the time. The film industry goes into high gear in May in preparation for summer releases, so it all works out perfectly.
Being a successful, gainfully employed professional is no small feat in the surfing world. In fact, Davin Wibbens (or “Wib” as he’s called by everyone else) is one of only three hard-core surfers my age who isn’t either homeless, living with their parents, or working at some transient, minimum wage job. Davin and the other two—Navy Lieutenant Commander James “Gray” Grayson, and hot-shot criminal defense attorney Revnor “Rev” Carlin—are such a renowned rarity in local surfer circles that they’re referred to as One, Two, and Three, and collectively as The Three.
Sort of sad when you can count the “local boy makes good” success stories in your social circle on one hand, but there it is.
Davin pulls the van into a nearby mall parking lot, and takes my hand as we walk towards my favorite pizza joint. I watch, always amused, as every woman we pass shoots an envious look at me before undressing Davin with her eyes. And why wouldn’t they? He’s one of those gay men you want to take a stab at converting.
He doesn’t mean anything by the hand-holding, but there was definitely a time when I thought about staging an intervention, and sending him off to one of those bogus de-gayification religious camps. He’s tall and blonde and tanned, with gorgeous, big brown eyes, and when he splashes out of the surf with his board tucked under one arm, beach girls from Hawaii to Australia weep and wail with the goddamn unfairness of it all.
Shortly after I’d met him, I’d tried to convince him that he was still bisexual, pointing out that he’d dated girls in high school and college, and often made crude, heterosexual-type comments about women’s breasts and their relative “do-ability.”
He thought about it and said this: “I like women. I like the way they feel, I like the way they look. I love the curves, and the way they laugh. I can tell a spiffy from a swamp donkey.” He shrugged. “I can’t really explain it. After my last girlfriend burned me, I realized I have a bisexual heart and a misogynist penis. If I could figure out how to date women without my penis I would.”
Kind of hard to argue with that logic, so I stopped crying about it. As an added bonus, he can tell me that I look good in a short skirt without me having any reservations about him crashing overnight on my couch.
“So?” he says.
I’ve done a solid dive into my Hawaiian pizza. Davin’s interruption comes just as I’m trying to slurp in a string of wayward mozzarella and a square of ham. “So…what?”
“What did they tell you?”
I roll my eyes. “Same thing everyone tells me: ‘We don’t know, but we’d like to do some tests.’”
“What kind of tests?”
I pluck a sliver of pineapple off a slice and pop it in my mouth. “Another sleep study. Day after tomorrow.”
“Did you tell them how close you are to an episode?”
“No, we mostly just talked about your mad surfing skills.”
He wipes his mouth with a napkin. “Man, you are bubbles.”
Since he’s calling me the surfer equivalent of an airhead, this is not a compliment. “Aw, come on now. I thought I was a betty.”
“It’s possible to be incredibly beautiful and stupid, you tool.” He takes a long pull on his soda. “Does your brother know?”
The compliment takes the sting out of the name calling he tacked on the end. “I haven’t talked to West in a few days.”
“You going to tell him?”
“No you won’t. You’ll just wait until one of us wonders why we haven’t heard from you for a week.”
I don’t answer. I hate this conversation already. I take a huge bite of pizza, hoping this will make it impossible to talk.
“Did you tell him about how you get really hungry?”
“‘Him’ who?” I mumble from the corner of my full mouth.
I masticate for awhile and take a swig of my Coke. “He was a she. And speaking of hungry, I’m eating.”
“What about the nightmares? And the zombie stuff?”
“I told her!”
“You tell her about the—the other thing?”
I freeze, a pizza slice halfway to my mouth. I lower it back to the plate. “Davin. Please don’t.”
His face clouds with fury as he balls up his napkin and drills it onto his plate. “How do you expect her to help you if you don’t tell her everything?”
I feel my face turn red. “It’s only ever happened twice, okay? And I don’t want to talk about it.”
He screws his mouth up into a scowl. “See? I knew you were going to get all pissy about it.”
“I’m not pi—I’m not mad, I just don’t want to talk about it.”
“Then quit deluding yourself about it. It’s happened every time. Same as the bingeing and the zombie-walking and the hallucinations.”
“Not every time.”
He leans towards me. “Every. Time.” He sits back and stares at the tabletop. “I mean, you’ve done it to me at least, you know, at least—” He breaks off and clears his throat, clearly embarrassed. “At least twice.”
I freeze. “I have?” He and my brother have always been purposely vague about who I’ve “attacked” at the onset of an episode. I figured they just didn’t want me feeling awkward around, say, my landlord or my dentist when I saw them again. “You? Why don’t I know that?”
His expression clouds. “Trust me, it’s probably better that you don’t remember these things. But I’d say that’s regular enough to tell your doctor about, wouldn’t you?”
I flush. It’s bad enough that he’s had to go through it twice, even worse for him to have to keep bringing it up and reliving it. Then something occurs to me. “Wait, I’ve had three episodes.”
“Right. I forgot the cameraman on the set of Nurse Jackie you took down during the last one.”
“Can we not, you know, talk about it like that?”
He laughs. “You don’t even know you’re doing it! You never remember it. Ask your brother.”
“No!” My palm hits the tabletop hard enough to make the Styrofoam plates bounce. People around us turn and stare.
Davin’s smile vanishes; now he just looks annoyed. “Jesus, gidget, chill out!”
“Gidget” is slang for a short surfer, the origin obvious. Surfers are almost compulsive about giving people nicknames. Other guys can get away with calling me everything from “Claire-Bo” to “dally” to “betty,” but Davin is the only person who gets to call me “gidget” without losing a body part.
Suddenly he blinks, like something’s just occurred to him. He leans forward, all intense-looking. “Wait a minute. Is that what this is about?” He doubles over, hooting with laughter, injecting a word here or there in between. “You think—you—when you—”
I glare at him. “You’re an asshole, Davin.” I push my chair back and stand up.
He reaches across the table and grabs my arm. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Sit down, sit down. C’mon, Claire-Bo. I didn’t mean to laugh, I swear.”
I sit back down, but leave my chair where it was. There’s a two-foot gap between my torso and the table. If he so much as cracks a smile…
“I get it now, I get it,” he says, crossing his arms, thinking hard. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it.” He lowers his voice, and leans forward so only I can hear him. “Never, okay? Not even once have you gone after West, and he’s been there for two out of three. It’s always been me, except for the time with the lucky camera guy. You always go after someone you’re already hot for, and you always know West is your little bro’.”
“Clearly not if I attacked you.” I close my eyes. “God, this is so embarrassing.”
He rolls his eyes. “Whatever. Look, it’s not the world’s biggest secret that you would steal me away in a heartbeat if I didn’t happen to be dating—”
I feel my face turn red. “Okay. Conversation over.”
“You should’ve asked me before. I could’ve saved you two years of getting all stupid over it.” He digs into his pizza. “Now we’re cool, you can make West do his fair share.”
“Taking care of you. Boy’s your brother. Time for him to shoulder a little.”
I shake my head. “It’s just that he’s got the band, you know and—”
“That’s crap, Claire-Bo, and you know it.” He leans back in his chair and points a finger at me. “West is twenty-four. I give you props, I always give you props for stepping in after your parents…you know, and you did what you did. I know he’s five years younger, but—”
“I’m not his mother,” I say.
He raises an eyebrow. “Well, good,” he says dryly. “Looks like we’re making real progress here today.”
“That’s not what I meant.” I pick up a plastic fork and tap it against the tabletop a few times. “It’s not just that he’s my little brother.”
“Or maybe it is. I just—” I groan, trying to think how to explain. “West is always my brother and you’re, like, always not.” He startles at this, and I hurry to clarify. “I didn’t mean it like that. I mean, you are like a brother to me.” I frown, uncomfortable with how that comparison sits in my mind. I try again. “I mean, when I wake up from an episode, I feel panicky, and I just know that I’ll feel better once I see you, once I talk to you.”
Davin gives me that strange look again, like he’s listening, but he’s not sure how to interpret what I’m saying.
I shrug. “I don’t feel like that with West, probably because he’s my annoying little brother. When he’s in my room I still feel like he’s going to, like, go through my dresser and read my diary, or steal my dank or something.”
I turn to watch a woman at the table next to us struggle to unfold a stroller. When I look back Davin is smiling at me, arms still crossed. I raise an eyebrow. “What?”
“‘Dank?’ You don’t partake of marijuana, gidget.”
“I was being sarcastic.”
“You need help.”
“Great, question my sanity. That’s just what I need today.”
“You know what I mean, Claire-Bo. I’ve got no problem taking care of you, you know I don’t. You’re like a—well, I don’t want to say you’re like a sister to me, because that sounds really nasty seeing you’ve jumped me twice now, and to be honest, it was actually pretty tolerable—”
“Ugh! Stop. I’m not even listening to this.”
“—but you’re like a cousin.”
I wrinkle my nose. “A cousin? That’s still sounds pretty offensive.”
He bows his head in acknowledgement. “Okay, the kind of cousin you’re allowed to be attracted to if you lived in a state where that was legal, and you agreed not to have children if you got married.”
“Okay, this is going from uncomfortable to totally unbearable.”
He goes from bantering to playful to annoyed in a split second. “Can you just tell the damn doctor? She’s a chick! How hard can it be?”
I think of Dr. Brendan Charmant lurking in the corner of Wendy’s office, suspecting everything and saying nothing, and I blush all over again. I sigh. “You’d be surprised, dude.”