Two weeks after Jane and Richard sent their only son Bobby to college, Richard lost his job. He’s been talking in his sleep non-stop ever since, nearly six months now. Jane is exhausted. She knows any sane woman would have exiled her husband to the guest room by now, or marched him into the office of a reputable sleep specialist. But for Jane, Richard’s new habit is revelatory. Since he started talking in the night, Jane has learned more about her husband than she did in the entire twenty-two years prior.
Richard’s job search is going poorly. In order for him to sleep at all he first sought the escalating assistance of bourbon. Every clank of ice in the glass was another reminder of the bleakness of their situation. Richard’s drunken sleep was deep at first, his midnight ramblings nonsensical and humorous.
“We’re not getting a fourth cat,” he said one night with a firmness Jane found hysterical. Thanks to Richard’s severe allergies and disdain for pets in general (filthy and expensive, he said) they would never get a first. On another night, he sighed in a way that made Jane picture the disappointment on his face, so clear she was certain he was awake. Yet, when she moved to comfort him, he rolled over and said simply, “I know, but he’s a dumbass.” On still another night, she woke to Richard shouting, “the scrotum!” with William Wallace-style conviction. Jane was forced to bury her face in her pillow that night, biting down hard on the cool cotton sheets to keep from howling out loud.
With each passing week, the balance in their savings account dips lower, along with the number of Richard’s boxer shorts Jane runs through the wash on Wednesdays. When the bourbon stops working, Richard switches to a rainbow of over-the-counter pills and supplements loaded with scientifically-proven ingredients. With these, he begins to open up.
“I don’t want to fail,” Richard says.
“Fail how?” Jane asks, rising to her elbows.
Richard nestles his head into the pillow. “I’m barely a dad. I’m a half-assed husband.” The words appear in a voice that isn’t Richard’s, too supple and watery to belong to her precise, authoritative husband. “All I had was that fucking job.”
In the morning Jane tucks away his confessions like the expensive chocolates she hides in her sewing table drawer. The only sound at breakfast is the clicking of keys on Richard’s laptop, his angry, intermittent sighs. Jane buys more sleep supplements and another bottle of bourbon.
“She never loved me the way I love her.”
Jane has taken to coming to bed late, counting the cars that pass on the street until Richard begins to speak. Carefully, noiselessly, she leans in to hear.
“I’m just security for her, and now…” Richard trails off, smacking his dry mouth.
“Now what?” Jane says.
In his sleep Richard is someone else, by day he is exactly who he’s always been—making lists, creating budgets, complaining that Jane has purchased the wrong brand of mustard.
“Expecting an interview any day,” he says, his voice hard with determination. “I might need you to take in my suits.”
Jane listens to the old Richard and squints, trying to square the sound with man she sees in front of her, pale and shrinking under his bathrobe like a week-old balloon. She takes in his suits and buys the right mustard and waits for the new Richard to meet her in the night.
“What have I done?”
Her husband’s words are crumpled like the balled newsprint he tosses into the fireplace. Jane can tell he’s crying. The same way she did when his mother passed away, or when he got that gash in his hand while cleaning the gutters, Jane touches his shoulder.
“Shhh,” she whispers, “It’s going to be okay.”
Richard startles at the contact, his body flopping about like a fish on the edge of suffocation. Jane rolls away from his unpredictable limbs. When he sits up in bed a moment later she can see the whites of his eyes, still glossy and round with fear.
“Must’ve had a bad dream,” he says, commanding as the dark gray shadows around them.
Richard puts his bathrobe in the wash and tosses his sleeping pills in the trash. He rescues his running shoes from the garage and wipes them clean at the kitchen sink.
“Pity party’s over,” he announces.
Jane cannot pry her eyes from the wastebasket. She sees only Richard’s rainbow pills, resting on a bed of discarded mostaccioli.
“I’m done with the drugs, done with the booze,” he tells her. “Getting back into running will help me start sleeping again.”
Running does help Richard. In no time at all his mood improves, his thighs harden and compact. At night he is silent.
“Feeling really good about my prospects with Whitman Courier,” Richard says over dinner one night. “Good feeling about this one.”
Jane is listening, but only halfway. She misses the night Richard and sees more than enough of the old one, his former arrogance wrung out and replaced with a fresh version in a sleek new athletic container.
While Richard is out running, Jane visits her doctor.
“It’s just been difficult,” she tells the doctor, “What with Bobby off to college and Richard’s job search taking longer than we thought—”
Jane has looked in the mirror. She’s seen the dark rings of sleeplessness under her own eyes, her cheeks hollow with worry. She stays awake all night, but hears nothing more than Richard’s shallow breathing, the rhythmic hum of their four-bedroom, three bath suburban dream.
“And are we having trouble sleeping?” the doctor asks his clipboard.
“I’m afraid so,” Jane says.
Jane starts slowly at first, unsure. Crushing the pills proves difficult, until she finds the mortar and pestle she ordered when she had designs on making aioli. Her first attempts are tentative—granules of powder sprinkled onto a chicken breast, a bit more stirred into the pudding she serves Richard for dessert. Perky with anticipation, Jane waits while he drifts into a still and wordless sleep. Richard sleeps so hard he is unaware he’s clutching Jane’s breast.
Slowly, Jane increases his dosage, searching for recipes to mask the taste. She changes the bed sheets twice a week, invests in heavier curtains. She fills their room with essential oils known to induce deep and uninterrupted sleep (or your money back). At last, Richard speaks.
“She’s taken good care of herself, but you want to know the truth…most wives get fat.”
Jane decides to research just how much is safe. She is no longer sure how many pills she is giving him, or how much it will take to bring the other Richard back. On a whim, she adds some to his early-morning protein shake. According to her findings, a nice, even release should yield positive results.
Richard returns early from his run, waving his phone in the air.
“Just got a call from Chuck at Whitman,” he says, breathless and grinning. “They want to see me today. Right now.”
Jane opens her mouth to speak, but Richard is a blur. He grips her by the shoulders, kisses her firmly on the forehead, and makes his way to the shower. A short time later he is at the door in his perfectly-fitting suit.
Richard doesn’t get the job, at least not that day. The car accident leaves him indisposed.
“I explained the whole thing to Chuck,” he says in the emergency room. “They want to see me as soon as I’m feeling up to it.”
Jane fusses with his blankets and cords, tells him their first priority is getting him well.
“I still just—I don’t know what happened,” Richard says, pulling at his temples, shaking away the cobwebs. Jane places a hand on his shoulder and strokes his hair until he falls asleep.
The doctor tells Jane how lucky Richard is, if accidents can be lucky. Nothing more than a sprained wrist and some abrasions, he says, and Jane feels some relief.
“He’ll be a little stiff, so I’m sending him home with some heavier pain relievers today. Should have him back to his old self in no time.”
Jane shakes the doctor’s hand and finds her forgotten smile.
“I should mention,” the doctor tells her before he leaves. “You’ll want to be careful. Those pain pills will make him a little sleepy.”