A Night at the BSS

A Night at the BSS

published in Trampset.org October, 2017.

He hears the city wake up with the faint whoosh of a few cars then the rumble of buses and the scraping on the sidewalks by who knows what instrument and the clang of trash cans then the sound of people and the light coming in at the edges of the shades getting brighter and brighter then the metallic four notes of Greta’s iPhone alarm, that infernal tune that tortures him every morning. All day he will try to shove aside thick murk, all day pushing it apart, squinting to see through it, administering internal pep talks not to give up because giving up isn’t an option for Simon. He is what his grandfather warned him not to be, a wage slave.

If only he could stay in bed longer! If only Greta would pull down those shades instead of flinging them up so aggressively as if to say, Get up you stupid moron and become a different person. As if she’s blameless. As if she’s superior, as if she’s not the cause of it all. He hears her grinding coffee in the kitchen. If only three minutes with his head against the pillow and no one next to him, a bed free of threat.

He plods to the bathroom, sits on the toilet to pee because standing up is too much effort and closes his eyes to catch a few seconds more sleep. Why make pee come out from there? He’d put the pee hole on the end of the forefinger so the human could just point and let out the water anywhere, on the sidewalk, in a cup on the desk. Of course if the pee hole was on the finger, he couldn’t put the eye on the end of the finger, a necessary redesign for seeing behind and around corners. Maybe he could put the eye on the end of the right forefinger and the pee hole on the end of the left forefinger. Or, even better, get rid of the pee altogether. Put an organ inside that vaporizes it. Same with the other stuff.

“Simon!” Greta shouts from the kitchen. “What are you doing? It’s 7:45!”

Too much effort to get his voice up to his mouth and anyway he doesn’t have to justify himself to her. He splashes cold water on his face, opens the medicine cabinet, smears shaving cream on his face, shaves, rinses the razor, splashes more cold water on his face, sighs, and goes into the kitchen. “Finally,” she says. She’s sitting at the table with a cup of coffee and her iPad. She says, “Is your meeting tonight or tomorrow?” He answers. She says, “What?” He answers again. She says, “What?” He pours a cup of coffee glad that it’s already made and at least he doesn’t have to do that. “What? Did you say yes or no? Stop mumbling!”

They live in a one-bedroom on West 87th on the tenth floor with a view of rooftops and water towers and sometimes the sunset puts fire in the sky over the Hudson River and that’s when Simon loves New York and loves living on the West Side with a view of the George Washington Bridge twinkling at dusk. The drawback is the nursing home on the corner. The people who work there talk on the sidewalk after their shift ends, stand there chatting and laughing and hooting it up until the boyfriends or husbands arrive in cars blasting rap music and for some reason they have to honk though they can see the women standing there and it’s four in the morning. Last night it sounded like they were having a party on the sidewalk with someone who’s laugh was a machine gun. Simon flung up his window and called out, “Will you shut up? I live here for Christsake!” One of the men looked up and said, “Hey, sorry, man.”

​He takes his mug of coffee to his chair, a big boy recliner he thought might help. Greta objected saying the chair was the size of a nightmare. Now here it is, green faux leather, taking up half the room. “Why settle for such a tiny place?” Greta’s mother keeps saying. “If you move down here you could afford two of those mouse holes. And on the beach!”

​Greta stands up. “I’m off. Don’t forget your pajamas. Did you find the sleeping bag?” She moves toward him for their goodbye peck. “Anyway. I hope you have a good time complaining about me. See you tomorrow. Maybe you’ll get some sleep tonight. I know I will. You kept me up all night.” How can she say such a thing? She was sound asleep! He was there in the bed right next to her listening to her blissful inhale and exhale. She grabs her purse from the table and goes out. He hears the elevator outside their door, then quiet as it takes her down to the small lobby with its wall of brass mailbox doors and the dying rubber plant the super never bothers to remove.

Simon pours skim milk into cereal then balances the bowl as he sits down on his recliner and eats what tastes like sawdust. Has to chew, has to get the stuff down, has to have fuel. Granola would be tastier if he could ever remember to buy some. No, not fair. He did remember yesterday when he passed Whole Foods. Another redesign would be the wish pull reflex. He would stand on 14th Street in front of the store and think about the granola and pull the package toward him with a few blinks. The wish-pull would be learned as a toddler when the mother says clean up your toys. Give those little eyes a few rapid blinks and all the toys would go back into their proper places. If only he could lie down. Should he call in sick?

​It’s a crisp fall day. He used to love these energizing days before he was married. He used to thank the powers that be for his release from the drag of summer’s heat. The molasses was gone from his stride, replaced by bounce and optimism. Autumn! Now he notices the pleasant weather, greets it listlessly and plods to the subway on 86th Street, goes down under the street, inserts his metro card, but the turnstile balks. A small green sign says, “Too slow. Insert again.” Meanwhile the train pulls in and everyone lines up behind him as he swipes his card again. The sign insists again, “Too slow. Swipe again.” This time he does it fast enough and he squeezes into the train pushing the person who has not moved to the back of the car but stands at the door blocking everyone else. Every day some person, usually a young man with earphones in his ears and a hump of a backpack, stands right next to the door. When the disembodied voice says, “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors,” Simon pushes against the backpack and the young man inches forward unaware that the shove is a reprimand.

Simon is forty-three, medium height with eyes that are almost always half closed. His long eyelashes are like dark fringe against the purple cavities under his eyes. His complexion is ashen and if it weren’t for his droopiness more women would find him attractive because of his large hands, thick straight hair, masculine smell, muscular forearms and well-laundered shirts. When women flirt with him he notices but it seems too much trouble to flirt back as happens again today with the receptionist at the front desk who says, “Hello there, Simon,” in a sing-song suggestive way as if they share a secret which they do not. He replies, “uh,” and walks past her down the aisle to his cubicle, one in a long line of cubicles all upholstered in gray fabric that matches the gray carpet.

At least tonight he’ll get some sleep. He’ll go to the BSS meeting and get some sleep and tomorrow he won’t feel so lethargic. He didn’t bother telling Greta that he doesn’t need a sleeping bag, that Ronnie arranged everything, cots for all of them plus sheets and pillows. And not just any sheets, Egyptian cotton donated by Macy’s as a favor to Ronnie who works there in the bedding department. The mattresses were donated by Snooze Heaven as a favor to Jessica who works in accounting there. They would say goodnight to their fellow BSS members and all fall blissfully to sleep wearing the silk caftans donated by Peress Lingerie as a favor to Craig, the store’s buyer. It would be heaven. It would be like Simon were single and living alone or like that time Greta went to Florida to visit her parents. He keeps suggesting she visit them more often but she says, “Why? My sister’s there if they need anything.”

He turns on his computer and finds yesterday’s assignment on the screen. He checks to see if anyone is watching then sets his head on his arm on the desk and closes his eyes. A continuous rhythmic thumping annoys his descent into oblivion. Some drum on someone’s radio. Why don’t they turn it off? Must he be tortured in every place he sets his head down? Oh. It’s his own heart. How did it get into his arm? This interests him, the mysterious machinery that is himself, but it’s annoying too, it won’t shut up, so he shifts his position so all he hears are external sounds, ringing phones, laughter, soft talk, the intercom. Then he feels sleep pulling him, an invitation he tries to resist, he’s at work after all, but maybe he should just give it a try, say, Yes, Morpheus, take me, submerge me in your lake. “Simon? Late night again? Wish I had your luck. Listen, old sport. I can’t turn in the report without your analysis. Any chance you’ll have it by noon?”

“Said I would.”

“But will you? You promised. I told Matthew he could have it by two. That east side lease was canceled. You’ll remember, right? How long do you think you can keep this up? She must be quite some piece. Doesn’t your wife wonder why you’re out so late every night? Tell me what you say. I need instruction in these matters. Did you see the new girl in HR? Why did you get married in the first place? You just haven’t been the same. So will you have it or not?”

“Try.”

“That is not the word I want to hear. I want to hear yes, you’ll have the analysis.”

“Too many words.”

“Then just nod your fucking head. I’m not losing my job over you, old sport.”

Alone in his cubicle he reads the words on the screen, pushes his mind toward them, edits a paragraph, wonders if “oblige” means the same as “must,” checks his synonym app, all through half-closed eyes and a brain that is airless, dense as a mud ball.

At lunch time he takes the elevator to the twentieth floor, opens the janitor’s supply closet, sits on the floor among the pails and mops, then leans his head back against the shelf with the jugs of liquid soap, sets the alarm on his watch, closes his eyes, drifts downward into what seems like heaven, then is snapped awake by a broom poke and the janitor saying, “You again? What you got, narcoleemy or something? I ain’t responsible he spill ammonia or some toxic substance on his own self. Go on. Move.”

At last it’s 5:30, the office is full of goodbyes sung out in various pitches, and Simon makes his way to the subway where he stands in a crowd on the platform then shoves his way into the rush-hour packed car keeping his eyes away from all the people mashed into him. Everyday he’s surprised and pleased by how mostly polite everyone is, how it’s necessary for all of them to be sardines almost every day, nothing personal, nothing so bad about it. He’s heard it’s not so great for women, and once he even considered putting his hands where they weren’t supposed to be, the girl in front of him was so provocative in her tight tee shirt, no bra, and short shorts. It would have been so easy to make the feel look accidental. But maybe she was a Kung Fu expert. Maybe she was one of those street-smart girls who know how to respond immediately with a blast of sass.

At a diner near Union Square he orders a hot turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes smothered in beige gravy. No Greta to remind him to restrict his carbs. He used to love hot turkey sandwiches but now it’s an effort to chew. He leaves most of it, walks downtown until he comes to a brownstone on 10th Street where he pushes the buzzer, waits for the buzzed response, then climbs two flights of narrow stairs to a door marked, “Battered Snorers Society.”

It’s a dance studio most of the week. A ballet bar is attached to one wall. All the mirrors have been covered by Ronnie, the founder of the Battered Snorers Society. He arrives early enough to make sure none of his clients have to look at themselves. He sets up a circle of folding chairs. Members need to sit down right away. Tonight Ronnie has supervised the installation of seven cots. There being no elevator in the building, this was something of a chore for the moving men who grumbled and tried to charge him double. But here they are now, seven cots with bed linen neatly folded on the mattresses and pillows brought in by a messenger from Sally’s Pillows down on 4th Street.

When Simon enters, his fellow members, sitting in chairs arranged in a circle, nod at him the only greeting allowed. BSS rules forbid cheerfulness. “What is more annoying to a battered snorer than a cheerful person?” the introductory pamphlet asks. “Answer. Nothing.” There are six men and one woman, all with eyelids at half-mast.

Ronnie, soft in the middle, a thin gray ponytail held at the nape by a Hopi silver and turquoise barrette, sits among the others and says, “Okay. Let’s begin. Tom, how was your night?”

“How?” says Tom and he pulls up his tee shirt to show faint red marks on his white ribs. “With her elbow. Jab, jab, jab, all night. I say, Will you stop hitting me? And she says, Will you stop snoring? All night long. I don’t know how much more of this I can stand.”

“We feel your pain, Tom,” says Ronnie.

“Well, I don’t,” says Craig. “I’d rather be jabbed than suffocated.”

“This isn’t a seesaw,” says Ronnie. “There’s no need to minimize what Tom is feeling. He has his issues and you have yours, Craig.”

“A jab is quick, at least. You don’t have to feel like you’re drowning. I wake up in a panic like I’m sinking under water and then she lets go of my nose. She pinches my nostrils closed. I wake up and I’m so mad I smack her and she smacks me back and says she’s going to die if she can’t get some sleep and will I please just shut up and I say will she please not try to kill me every night. Last night I pushed her off the bed and had to listen to her crying all night in the bathroom. She says, How on earth am I going to do my job? Like her job is the only job in the world.”

“You sound angry, Craig.”

“Well, I am. How would you like to wake up not being able to breathe?”

“You should tell her she could give you brain damage,” says Ernest. “I read that if your air is cut off even for a few seconds you can get brain damage.”

“What I pray for,” says Jessica, “is the money to buy an apartment with one more room. Emily says I make her jealous. She says she lies there wide awake and listens to me snore and gets mad at me because I’m asleep and she can’t sleep.”

“At least she doesn’t jab you.”

“At least she doesn’t suffocate you.”

“No. She…” the rest of the sentence is whispered.

“She what?” says Ronnie. “What does she do to you? You can tell us. We do not judge each other here.”

“Kicks me,” Jessica whispers.

“This is new,” says Ronnie. “This is a breakthrough, Jessica. You’ve never mentioned being kicked before.”

“My mother told me not to marry her.”

“Yes, but you said it was because she’s not Jewish. Could it be that your mother thinks Emily isn’t a nice person?”

“She kicks me. On my feet.”

“This is a perpetual problem for city dwellers,” says James giving a sniff and adjusting steel rim glasses. “As far back as Tolstoy. In The Death of Ivan Ilyichwhat are the mourners talking about at the funeral as they pretend to care about Ivan Ilyich? They’re talking about how they wish they had one more room. If they only had one more room. All that long ago. Even in St. Petersburg.”

“How was your night, James?” asks Ronnie.

“Mine?” says James sniffing twice. “Fine. Good. Everything’s good.”

“You say that every week,” says Craig. “What do you come here for if everything’s so good?”

“We all have our own needs,” says Ronnie. “James sits among us for reasons of his own. When he’s ready he’ll share.”

“Well, he better share soon before he goes bald. Looks like your wife pulls out your hair,” says Craig.

“No, no. My wife is a good kind person.”

“So you’re telling us you’re not tired? You’re saying you get a good night’s sleep?”

“We do not challenge each other here, Craig. James will share when he’s ready. Roberto, how was your night?”

“Terrible.”

“Tell us about it.”

“Maybe two, three in the morning I wake up, she standing there with eyes bugging out her head. You don’t shut up, she say, I go crazy.”

“Last week you told us that she now sleeps on the sofa in the living room.”

“Yeah. She say she can hear me. Don’t do no good.”

“Can’t you sleep on the sofa and she sleep in the bedroom with the door closed?”

“Me? You see me. I’m six two one hundred ninety five pounds. I don’t fit on no couch. She say those earplugs hurt her ears. Says she can hear me right through the bedroom door. Says I sound like a bulldozer coming to tear up the apartment.”

“At least she doesn’t kick you,” Jessica whispers.

“No. She don’t kick me. She smacks me with a magazine. Says I sound like a giant mosquito. I gotta be swatted. She rolls up that magazine and smacks me on the head. I wake up and realize she’s smacked me a few times already. Today at work? I handed the doctor the wrong patient record. Made me go check all the IVs I hooked up.”

“Greta bought me some new nose saddles,” says Simon. “Guaranteed to keep me from snoring. I paste the damn thing on my nose, next thing I know she’s thumping the bed with her fist and shouting, Stop snoring! Shut up!”

“Nose saddles?”

“You get them at the drug store.”

“Oh, them things,” says Roberto. “Them strips don’t work.”

“Neither do those teeth guard things. I tried one. Made me feel like gagging. I took it out of my mouth in my sleep. Didn’t even know I did that until I get that jab in my ribs.”

An hour later, after everyone has a chance to speak and are hungrily eyeing the cots, Ronnie says, “Tonight, as you know, we’re trying an experiment at our monthly Battered Snorers’ meeting. We agreed that snoring is involuntary, that we will all snore for the rest of our lives, probably. Most of us have tried everything from the drugstore and some of us have sent away for drops and apparatuses advertised in the classified sections of various magazines. We had a whole meeting last March on teeth guards and nasal sprays. Our challenge is how to handle sleeping with another person. We cannot continue being exhausted every day. Our partners have no sympathy for us because they claim to be in the same boat. They keep us up, we keep them up. We all agree that if we could sleep in separate rooms the problem would be solved. Most of us love our partners, but we agree that this problem erodes that love and makes going on vacation with that person seem daunting rather than fun. If we could afford a bigger apartment or two rooms at the vacation hotel, all would be well. But we cannot. We agreed that if we could have one night without pokes, kicks, or shouts, a night of quiet, we could heal. We agreed that this is the perfect street, there being little pedestrian traffic after nine and not many cars either. In the morning we will meet again for coffee and Danish donated by Morning Glory Café. Unfortunately I cannot be here with you for the whole night. As you know I’m the sole caretaker of an elderly father. But I will be back tomorrow morning in time for breakfast and I know I’ll see shining faces alert and eager to meet the new day. Are there any questions?”

“What if we can’t sleep?” whispers Jessica.

“Just leave,” says Craig. “We’re not going to be locked in.”

“Now, before I depart,” says Ronnie, “I want all of you to check your cell phones and make sure they are in the off position. Go on. I mean all of you. Please take your cellphones into your hands and check now while we’re all sitting here.” They do. Then Ronnie bids them goodnight and before Simon pulls down the shades he sees Ronnie walking away on the sidewalk below.

The choosing of a cot takes some time. Craig says, “I have to sleep next to a wall.”

Tom says, “That cot is too close to mine. Please move it.”

Jessica whispers, “I have to sleep next to a window.”

Ernest says. “Ventilation is extremely important during the night hours.”

Roberto says, “What are you talking about, man? Them windows don’t even open.”

At last the BSS members get into their beds and turn off the light. Simon is so relieved to be lying down that he thanks the Great Unknown. “Thank you for this pillow, thank you for no one laying next to me, thank you for keeping me alive today, thank you for my head sinking down, down.” Someone in the room sniffles. Simon pretends he’s in an army barracks. Every night he sleeps among others. No biggie. Nothing to worry about. But who is sniffling? Why don’t they just get up and blow their nose? One sniffle, yes. Two sniffles, maybe. But sniffle, sniffle, sniffle? He says up into the dark room, “Excuse me, could you just blow your nose and stop sniffling?”

“I can’t help it,” says Ernest. “I have a post nasal drip.”

“Shut up,” says Tom. “Just shut up and go to sleep.” The room becomes quiet.

Simon starts his descent again. Down he sinks toward oblivion. If only he could get there, yes, it’s within reach, the Promised Land, he’s almost there, the tension releases from his muscles, his lower lip becomes loose. A sharp snort blasts him upward. Then another snort. It’s Craig in the cot next to his. Maybe he’ll stop. Maybe he just makes that noise for a little while. Simon waits while resentment builds. He was almost asleep. Why doesn’t Craig just shut up? But he doesn’t. Simon listens, tries to pretend he’s in an army barracks and finally, desperate, he takes his pillow and throws it at Craig’s head.

“Wha? Who?” Craig sits up. “Whose pillow is this?” No answer. “Someone just threw their pillow at me.”

“Oh, shut up,” says Tom. “Just shut up.”

“How can I shut up? Someone just threw a pillow at me. Scared me to death.”

“Please, please be quiet,” says Ernest.

Craig drops the pillow on the floor and the room becomes quiet again. But now he’s awake. Who would do such a thing? What kind of person throws a pillow at another person in the dark? Craig sees Simon in the cot next to his, sees that Simon is sleeping with his face away from his and that he doesn’t have a pillow. Okay. He’d get him in the morning. Main thing is to get a good night’s sleep. But he’s angry. He was asleep. He was sound asleep and someone, probably Simon, woke him up. He lies there boiling and then someone near him has the gall to fall asleep. Someone on the other side of him is snoring, three phlegmy intakes then a noisy exhale. Who? It’s Ernest. No way can Craig fall back asleep with that racket going on. He’s tall enough for his leg to stretch across the aisle. He kicks Ernest’s cot. Then he kicks it again.

“Wha!” Ernest wakes up. “Hey! Did you feel that? It’s an earthquake. Hey everybody. It’s an earthquake!”

“Oh, God, will you shut up,” says Tom.

“I can’t sleep,” says Jessica.

“Didn’t you feel it?” Says Ernest. “New York is on that fault line!”

“I’m going to kill you, Ernest,” says Tom, “if you don’t shut up.”

“But aren’t we supposed to do something? Aren’t we supposed to get away from glass windows and lie down on the floor or something?”

Ronnie returns to the room at seven the next morning and finds pillow feathers scattered everywhere and blood and torn clothes and Simon cowering in the corner. Simon describes the night to Ronnie, how everyone attacked everyone else, how Ernest got his nose broken, how Jessica changed into a virago and tried to kill Craig who slammed her against the wall, how Tom slapped Roberto, how everyone finally ran out of the room by five in the morning, all of them with injuries. Simon says, “I hid. I just hid here in this corner.”

“Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea,” says Ronnie pulling up the shades.

The door opens and a woman in leotards stands there. “Hey! What the…? What have you done to my studio? Ronnie! What’s this mess? It looks like feathers. Is that blood?”

Simon leaves Ronnie with the dance instructor. In a morass of fog he takes the subway uptown to his office, doesn’t get off but takes it further uptown. Greta will be at work. He will have the apartment to himself. He’ll call in sick. He doesn’t care how many vacation days he has left.

How perfectly his key fits in the lock! Soon he’ll be in his own bed. Soon he’ll get some sleep. But the apartment doesn’t feel empty. He goes into the bedroom. Greta is there. She’s in the bed. “I think I have the flu,” she says. “What are you doing here?”

 

Diana Altman

© 2010 Diana Altman. All rights reserved.

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