3:33 a.m. Every night for the past six weeks. In the long moments before dawn, far away but imminent. The sleeplessness wasn’t just annoying, it was persecutory. Waking in a pool of her own sweat, blazing like she was running in her dreams, chased by demons. Quickly falling into sleep only to be woken with a start.
And why 3:33? Or was it sometimes 3:23, or 3:43, or even 4:33?
Marjorie had an issue of The Atlantic flipped open on her nightstand to the last page where there was a regular column “on life” by a male staff writer. He said, first and foremost, “You have to get up.” Not lie there and “let it have its way with you.”
What could a man know of this? she thought in her worst moments. What could a man know about waking every night for going on months now, with months and months and years ahead of her? How could he know what it was like for the sleeplessness and the heat to intersect cruelly with the responsibilities of middle age? Not when there was her husband Mark, slumbering peacefully next to her. Having his way with sleep and not the other way around.
On really bad nights it was 2:23 and then she’d get up. Then it was still four hours until sunrise at this time of year, but only four hours since she’d fallen asleep, and bitterly only one or two hours since Mark had come to bed, counting on his eight hours when he wanted them.
Then Marjorie would reach around in the dark for a sweatshirt, trying not to wake the dog…god, not the dog…and make her way down the hall, past where Sloane was tucked in, sleeping like the tween she was becoming. Like a baby. Her baby.
Marjorie smoothed her fingers along the wall for where the oak cabinets ended, sidestepped through the archway, and parted the curtains to slide the heavy glass door open, feeling the suction lining pop. Her right shoulder hurt from the heft it took to open this door, especially when the nights were warm like they were in late summer on the California coast. Mark would never notice, although he’d probably fix it if she asked. Or at least he’d say he would even if she ended up having to call a repair person.
Marjorie stepped out onto the patio and felt the darkness circle around her. When the moon was full it shed a comforting light, even though it made the sleeplessness worse. But the moon was new and the stars lit the sky from far away, like a glass dome standing on top of the Earth and the lights of a faraway metropolis glowing from beyond.
She vowed to stay off screens, but what else was there to do? Night moves were restricted to reviewing, composing, commenting. Even reading a book involved turning on a light and disrupting the darkness. Everything to do was a screen, except the things she wanted to do but couldn’t. Run up into the scrub oak forest behind the house and join the howling coyotes. Get in the car and leave with no destination, and plea bargain for bitterness later when she returned and it sparked a fight with Mark about whatever was happening to their family.
The night sky was the only way. She was lucky to have it.
The midnight hot flashes had started right about Labor Day when she found Mark’s brother with their daughter Sloane in the beach grass on the dunes.
“I know what I saw,” she told Mark as soon as they got home that night, although she wasn’t entirely sure that she did.
“Babe I hear you, but you gotta know Ben is just like that. He’s not…you know…he’s just not.”
“You don’t know that. I don’t know that.” She saw a familiar look of wild impatience flash across his face.
“You get this shit about my family from your mother. You two have always had it in for them.”
And with that she backed down.
Mark’s was an old California family. Closely related to the landed aristocracy that ranched cattle on unceded acres up the coast, with a comfortable network of extended relatives and investment properties. An old family for an unincorporated area that was only what was left of the wild west. Her mother liked to say that Mark’s hometown was “Middle America with a beach.”
The big lawless family had seemed like a gift at first; there was refuge in numbers and traditions, so different than her own on the other side of the country. It was exactly what Marjorie had needed back then, even though those assets had eventually become liabilities, as they do in nearly two decades of marriage.
Marjorie listened as the echo of the wild Pacific barreled through the yard from a distant western corner of the sky. Waxing and waning in volume and intensity, whether the tide was rising closer or drifting away. But it was also always rising wasn’t it? Isn’t that what kept her up: two steps forward with fury, one step back, low with ebb. The peaceful proceeding of time that she longed for during the day and feared at night.
A fire had been burning north for several days, but the wind was going the other way. As the sun rose, Marjorie could see the hazy red clouds in the distance but above her it was clear skies. They said wildfire rumbled like a freight train, but so did the sea, she thought as she listened to the call and response of the breakers, the waves of sound that layered the valley at 4:53 California time.
Giving into the temptation of screens, Marjorie noticed her father’s name in the text message notifications on her phone: Mom’s in the hospital. Please call her. And there next to it, her sister Monica’s name as a recipient, cosignatory on the receipt of that one message from their father.
Her first thought was: Be any moment now from Monica in Baltimore. The day was already underway on the East Coast.
Mom’s always in the hospital. That was Monica on the group text.
Ouch, Marjorie responded privately.
I’m sure she’d really appreciate hearing from you both, said their father in the group text.
Didn’t matter, it was still only 5:13 California time and she was off the hook for another couple hours. She was studying her calendar when she saw the call come in.
“You’re up early,” Monica said on the other end of the line.
“Can’t sleep. Haven’t slept in a while now.” Outside the sliding glass door, the sun was preparing for its daily passage from the patio to the palm in the southwest corner of the yard.
“Did you try getting up? They say to get up and do something if you can’t sleep.”
“Getting up, not the rest of it. It seems so pointless.”
“Mom’s in the hospital…again,” Monica sighed. Marjorie could hear the wail of a siren in Baltimore and paused to let it pass before responding.
“I saw. I haven’t had a chance to call her yet.”
“It’s the same as usual. Nothing’s really wrong. She’s just manipulating us.”
“That’s harsh, Monica. I’m sure it’s not like that.”
“It’s always like that, Marge.”
“What did Dad say?”
“Same. He wants us to crowd around her and prop her up in her time of need. But it’s always her time of need, especially if she feels like everyone else has something going on. And there he is, putting aside his needs, enabling her. I’m so glad I’m not married.”
“You’ve been to too much therapy,” Marjorie said. But she agreed about their mother and father, even if she never said it. One volatile and concerned with ego and loyalty, the other conciliatory and codependent.
Marjorie knew this dynamic well. Sometimes when she and Mark fought, he hurled words at her like a cruel person might hurl shoes at a dog. Gloves off, swinging, just to cut her down to size. And for her part, her silence. Good middle-class Catholic manners from her father, and from her mother the bottomless desire for dignity of the Jews. Either served her well in times of suffering and she was sympathetic to her father’s need for country above party to maintain the peace.
“With this family, I need therapy!” Monica exclaimed. “My therapist says I need to drop my expectations that people won’t be in their own narcissistic dramas all the time.”
“Is that what you think I’m doing?”
“You’re out there in paradise. Kid, husband. You don’t see it the way I do. You’re not here. I’m here every day.”
“I’m not in paradise, that’s for sure.” It seemed to Marjorie that Monica had chosen to be there. She could have moved, everyone expected her to abdicate and for Marjorie to come back. And yet here she was, twenty-some years later still 2,800 miles from home, her clock permanently set to the Eastern Standard.
“I was in the hospital room with her last time. You should’ve seen it. She was hooked up to all these monitors. Eating Jell-O. Eating fucking Jell-O like she’s going into surgery or something. And the doctor comes in and says they can’t find anything wrong with her. And you know what she said? She wasn’t relieved. She asked if she could stay another night.”
Marjorie sank into the couch and listened for the mourning doves. Not much she could do from here anyway; Monica was right about that.
“I’ll call her as soon as we’re off,” she said, walking to the fireplace to rest her elbow on the mantle. There was a photograph of her and Sloane when Sloane was three. In the photograph, Marjorie was beaming, dark hair in a wet tangle and sun-warmed skin, holding Sloane in her lap.
“I’m off!” Monica said and ended the call.
Marjorie was tired. This was one of the worst curses of sleeplessness: the feeling of exhaustion during the day while wired open to the whims of the sky at night.
Instead of calling her mother as she promised, Marjorie crawled back into bed beside Mark, trying to nuzzle under his left arm splayed to the side as he slept on his stomach. The arm was like a dead weight and she settled for the space below, against his ribcage, and rubbed the palm of her hand against his lower back. He rolled over onto his left side away from her.
It had been a couple months since they made love, but she let it go even though it burned in the particular way that rejection took hope and crushed it into an earthy, bitter juice. It was hard to say how she knew it was with malice, the punishment of withholding, except that it was. When she found porn in the browser history, she knew that he was not avoiding sex altogether he was just avoiding her.
In the beginning the sex had been eager and often. He was nearly ten years older, but at twenty-five that had seemed like a good thing. Now she was forty-two, and hormones and work and the kid and a big, intrusive family were all good reasons not to, and the bed was only hot with her own midnight sweats.
“Time to get up I guess,” Mark said, reaching his fingers down to stroke his mangy Australian sheepdog in its bed on the floor.
“Are we driving together?”
“I’m heading over the grade today. Inventory. You’re on your own at the office.”
His family owned a series of local businesses – everything from surf shops to liquor stores – and he had needed help after they got married, so she kept the books and managed the staff. Mark had never asked her to give up a career, but she had because it was exciting to spend every day together, loyal to her new family.
“Maybe we could do something alone this weekend,” she got up the courage to suggest. “Just the three of us, without the family.”
“Not this weekend. We have my sister’s thing. And then I gotta help Ben with his truck,” he said, sitting up in bed now with the dog’s chin on his knee.
“I’m worried about Sloane,” Marjorie said and moved closer again, her voice dropping and her hand reaching out for his.
“Oh yeah, I asked my mother about that. She said he was just holding the towel for her.”
“She’s too old for that now, Mark…” All of a sudden the image in her mind congealed into a scene, her eleven year old daughter with a swimsuit around her feet in the sand and Ben standing over her peaking over the modesty towel.
“You told your mother?”
“You tell your mother everything, Margie,” he shot back and pulled his hand away to wrap it around the back of his neck in exasperation. A flash of resentment in the wrinkles of his eyes. She decided then to skip confiding in him about her mother, knowing he’d take Monica’s position just to sting her, and say it was malingering.
4:43 a.m. Marjorie lay awake in a heavy sweat knowing she should’ve called her mother and wondering if she should check on Sloane. She wished that things were just as Mark said, at the very least so she wouldn’t be so alone in the middle of the night. She wished that he would wake up just enough to roll over and hold her. And also that he would die in his sleep.
It was late enough now to get up out of bed and start the day. She found leggings in an overflowing laundry basket. The hall was dark and she followed the cabinets, and pulled open the curtains on the glass door to let in the light when the sun rose.
She settled on the couch and closed her eyes, not wanting to start the coffee and risk waking Sloane. When she opened her eyes, the phone was lighting with a call.
“There you are,” her mother said in greeting, out the gate with a guilt trip.
“I’m right here Mom.”
“I thought I’d hear from you.”
“It’s been…I’m sorry.”
“I was worried about you. The news keeps reporting these terrible fires you’re having out there. And here I am in the hospital, I can’t do anything. Are you sure it’s safe?”
“I should’ve called earlier.”
“Shouldn’t you be sleeping? It’s early there.”
“Like you taught me, ‘up and at ’em’,” Marjorie sighed.
“I’m glad I caught you. I’ve been in the hospital you know. They’re letting me out today unless they find something.”
“I heard, I’m sorry you’re not feeling well, and that I haven’t called. Did Monica visit?”
“No.” Marjorie imagined a bite of Jell-O in the long pause. “Haven’t seen Monica, no.”
Her mother began recounting the details of her hospital stay. Something about the lower quadrant. Marjorie had developed a skill of listening only for the end of the parade of medical facts, without hearing the details. She was queasy and sure her mother must know this, but then Marjorie had never spoken up and said she didn’t want to hear the details.
“I was thinking the other day about your wedding. Remember those pebbles on the terrace that kept getting into our sandals?” her mother laughed.
The wedding was in their backyard in California. It was east-meets-west, with a rabbi even though it wasn’t really a Jewish wedding. It was quaint and simple, just the way she wanted it, checkered tablecloths and no assigned seats or expensive catering.
Marjorie’s family came from Baltimore and didn’t approve. His family was rough around the edges. They all drank, and drank a lot. Mostly local brews but sometimes the hard stuff. They started early and they quit early. “Rich white trash,” her mother called them, even though, other than the way they spent their money and the difference in urbanicity, her family was the same.
His mother wore designer jeans and a feminine Western-style button up shirt. Her mother wore a dress of course, wanting to know why no one had warned her of the pebbly terrace so she’d know to wear closed-toed shoes.
“We still have that terrace,” Marjorie said, wincing with the awareness that her mother had seldom visited since the wedding. She’d been sick so often, after all.
“How are things there? How’s Sloane? Everyone well?”
“You don’t sound so sure.”
“I’m going outside so I don’t wake them. Give me a minute.”
She stepped out on the paver patio she and Mark had laid their first summer together and looked up at the redwood in the back corner, where Sloane had broken her arm when she was six. Marjorie loved its agelessness, how it shaded the yard at just the right time of day. She could faintly smell smoke in the air, but wasn’t sure it wasn’t just a neighbor’s chimney warming up the morning.
“Marjorie? Marjorie!” she could hear her mother yelling into the phone.
“I’m here mom. You don’t have to shout.”
“What’s up? I’m worried about you.”
“It’s nothing, I’m sure it’s nothing…it’s just…I saw something. With Sloane. And Mark’s brother. You remember Ben?”
“Mm hmm. He’s the one who Monica…never mind. Yes, I remember him.”
“I didn’t see anything, I don’t think. At the beach after a barbeque.”
“You felt it in your gut.” Marjorie felt tears beginning to prickle and held them back.
“I told Mark, but he said it’s nothing. He tried to make it seem like I’m the problem.”
“You’ll always be an ‘out-law’ to them, Marge,” and Marjorie could tell that her mother was going to tell her exactly what needed to be done. As much as Marjorie hated that tone, her mother was usually right, especially when all seemed lost. “Always trust your gut, hon. Especially when it comes to Sloane.”
“He won’t listen to me and things haven’t been good between us since. Not that they were great before…” and she trailed off, not wanting to go there.
“Well of course he won’t talk about it. Look at his family. They’re barely literate. They don’t believe in protecting children, or they wouldn’t be half in the bag all the time,” her mother said, switching to her favorite indulgence – how it wasn’t as good a family as Marjorie’s.
Marjorie could hear something in the background at the hospital. “Listen, the doctor’s here and he’s waving some papers at me. Call me later!”
Marjorie sat on the steps that led down to the sprawling decomposed granite terrace below where she’d gotten married and looked up at the palm tree growing like a stubborn shoot, a voodoo doll with a mass of unruly hair and a stout figure. The air was so clear at dawn this time of year, not like the months that dragged before when the marine layer hung over the sky all day, every day, for months. Now in early fall, when it would just be starting to cool in Baltimore, it was really summer in California.
Marjorie walked down the hall to knock softly on Sloane’s partially opened door. Sloane was still in bed, her arm hanging over the side with a book in hand.
Sloane had always been bookish. She learned to speak at not much more than nine months, and to read at four. In Kindergarten, she’d been placed in the first grade reading group, prompting a joke from Mark about whether she was really his kid (Mark preferred outdoor sports adventures and music festivals to books). It reminded Marjorie of her own hunger for words on a page at that age and how a good book could make the rest of the world slip away into the background. And there she was, wrapped in a sheet with her sandy head on the pillow and a paperback copy of Wonder in her grasp as if the rest of the world didn’t exist.
“Why don’t you come with me to work today?” Marjorie suggested.
Sloane looked up from her book for only a second, squinting to see her mother in the doorway. Sloane already had glasses at eleven, but she didn’t need them to read.
“Do we have to go now?”
“Soon. Thirty minutes,” Marjorie said, adding, “Up and at ’em.”
In the front seat of her Toyota hatchback, Marjorie noticed that Sloane seemed almost as tall as her. Those were Mark’s genes. His whole family was enormous, like a pack of Vikings. Marjorie’s own father was diminutive – if not in size than in demeanor. Especially compared to her mother, who wore her opinion on her sleeve and her heart at the end of a pointed finger.
Marjorie wanted to ask questions, to know if there was something to be concerned about, or whether it was just sleeplessness and stress. Just an issue like so many others between her and Mark that seemed to be accumulating rapidly, as if time was condensed. Regardless, Marjorie had resolved to keep a closer eye on things with Sloane herself, knowing that if she brought it up to Mark again, it’d be four more weeks of porn in the browser history for him and desperate pleas to the midnight sky for her.
Marjorie didn’t want to ask too many intrusive questions, raise too many concerns that would worry Sloane. Her own mother had always been so protective – building walls, staving off imaginary riots. Loving and caring underneath, but always too aware of how the world was going wrong and the dangers that abounded Marjorie and Monica. When she was five, their mother had gathered Marjorie in her lap and Monica only two years older into her arms, and told them in a grave tone that if anything ever happened that made them uncomfortable, they were to tell her immediately. This compulsion towards physical safety stuck with Marjorie, kept her watchful and wanting someone strong to keep chaos and collapse at a comfortable distance from her orbit. Mark and his well-rooted family had seemed to do just that. Monica had turned the other way – towards the unknown, the rising tide – daring it to blow her house down. Marjorie admired that, envied it a little, but she wanted to be safe. She believed, just a little bit more than she was sure she should, that her mother was not just loving and intrusive but also wise.
“Got a birthday coming up soon. What should we do?” Marjorie asked Sloane.
“Can I have a party?” Marjorie spotted her opening, knowing she’d never forgive herself if she failed to inquire, to be available.
“Sure, do you want to have it at the beach? Should we invite dad’s family or just your friends?”
Sloane thought for a moment. “Well, since I’m just starting middle school, it seems like it should be a big deal this year. Let’s invite everyone. But I don’t want to go to the beach…not this time.”
Marjorie tried to fit this into evidence one way or another, either to reassure or alarm her. The dunes glistened in the receding fog over the estuary to her left, and the light was coming over the coastal range to her right, and she had the familiar disoriented feeling that the ocean was on the wrong side.
“You know that you can tell me anything,” Marjorie added.
“Can we stop at Dolly’s Donuts on the way to your office?” Sloane asked, changing the subject. And Marjorie left it at that for now.
As soon as the sun came up that Saturday, Marjorie grabbed a pair of sneakers and her keys from the front hall. She scribbled a note and when she heard the dog’s paws clicking on the hallway floors, she opened the front door slowly, hoping to escape before anyone noticed.
On the beach at the south edge of town, Marjorie felt exhaustion burning at the edges of her mind as if the hot flashes consumed her from the inside out. Marjorie skirted the crumbling bluffs and thought about how the world seemed to be getting more dangerous even though crime rates were down. About the fires, mudslides, earthquakes. The way the ocean was getting closer and eating away at the shoreline. She thought about a camping trip in Big Sur the summer she was ten. With the roar of the ocean over the other side of the road, her mother warned that these cliffs were melting into the ocean, crumbling with every rainstorm. That was one reason she had fallen in love with the Central Coast and returned for college. The way time stretched forever into the past even when the future was unknown.
She took her phone out of her pocket. No cell service, but hours had passed, and she was hungry. Back up the bluff from the rocks, she made her way onto the trail. The wind had shifted and the red from the fire was rapidly spreading along the coast, turning brown and expanding south, the breeze carrying the smoke and the spray.
Once she was away from the shoreline the air was thick with smoke. Back in service, her phone exploded. A message from her father. They were taking her mother into surgery at Johns Hopkins. “Where are you? Answer your phone Marjorie. You need to come home.”
I’m on the bus, going to see Mom, Monica had texted. I guess she is really sick this time!
A voice message and a text from Mark, a text from Sloane. We’re heading to the house in Laguna with the family. Too smoky!
The sun was a fuzzy orange knob, and with the smoke capturing and withholding the light she could stare directly into it. She walked through the house to the sliding glass door at the back. Her skin was hot and wet and she struggled to open it.
I’m coming, she texted Sloane and Mark together.
And I’m taking Sloane. We’re going to Baltimore, she texted Mark alone.
What about the fire? We should stay close to home.
I am going home, she tapped and then deleted. Then added: My mother’s in the hospital.
Three little dots pulsing with each deleted and composed message, and then a profile picture of Mark’s beloved sheepdog lit the screen and she hesitated for a second before answering his call.
“Sorry to hear about your mom, Marge,” Mark started.
“My dad wants me home, and I want to take Sloane.”
“I get it babe, but you know your mom’s always sick with something….”
“This time is different,” Marjorie said, not sure whether this time was different or she was just looking for an excuse to leave.
“Give it a couple days, just ‘til they contain this fire. Why don’t you come down here? We’re having oysters Ben grabbed from the trawler.”
“Ben’s there? Where’s Sloane?”
“Oh c’mon Margie, don’t start with that now. Not now.”
“Yes now. Everything is collapsing,” she said, feeling her throat close and her eyes water.
“You’re freaking out about your mom, that’s all.”
“What about us?” Marjorie pressed, not sure she wanted to go there now, he was right about that. When Marjorie had searched online for “male withholding of sex” she’d found a few posts about survivors of sexual abuse, how this might become a coping strategy in an intimate relationship in order to regain control. It made her wonder if maybe his family was bad apples like her mother said…how many layers of this thing were there?
“I’m packing a bag and coming for Sloane. We can fly out of LAX in the morning.”
“Oh god, not this again. You told your mother, didn’t you? What did she tell you? That of course someone in my family would do that?” He spat into the phone. “You think the world is a bad place but you’re the one making it that way.”
“Maybe my mother was right about your family.” Marjorie stomped her foot on the terrace, knowing she was trading one cheap shot for another as the gravel scattered like a ripple. She felt her toe come down at the wrong angle and send a pain up her leg that made her sit back on the steps again. She looked at the dog’s cockeyed expression on the phone before it said Call Ended and went black.
Marjorie heard a freight train and knew it was the fire or the ocean, rising from the earth like a hot flash and a cold sweat. Wasn’t that the worst part of menopause, how it brooded and burned and demanded, announced time and maturity even at the worst possible moments? Fire would come, strike the dry summer grasses, race up the palm and explode its funny headdress.
But the redwood wouldn’t burn, Marjorie hoped. Redwoods hold their water; they aren’t often victim to fire. They’ve seen generations pass and burn through the world. And now, feeling her own body etching the passage of time, it seemed even more important that it was gravity that held the earth together and stopped catastrophic collapse, that kept it close but not too close to the sun. Was that what a ‘good mother’ was? Someone to be counted on to hold things together. But what held Marjorie from collapse?
Marjorie packed a suitcase as she’d promised. She looked around the room and thought about the things she was supposed to have in her go bag if she was prepared. The wedding album. The baby book. The favorite novel. But it was all in the cloud now. Ephemeral in the hand and permanently etched into the universe, and all she really wanted to take with her was her mother’s vigilance. Monica’s fearlessness. And, like her father, to put country above party when it mattered most.
Laysha Ostrow lives on the Central Coast of California with her husband and chihuahua. She writes about belonging, connection, and dignity as forms of personal resistance against institutional forces. Her creative writing has been published in STORGY and she is a member of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. Laysha holds a PhD from Johns Hopkins University and a Master’s degree from Brandeis University, and is pursuing a certificate in writing from University of California, Los Angeles. She enjoys small brushes with wildlife, gourmet cooking, and listening to local radio. You can read more about her writing at www.layshaostrow.com/