Sleepless Nights

Sleepless Nights
Sarah Bilston

For Rosa and Karl

We held hands once and were beautiful. But what followed?
Sleepless nights, oh, sleepless nights.

—J
AMAICA
K
INCAID,
“A
T
L
AST

Contents

1

Q

2

Jeanie

3

Q

4

Jeanie

5

Q

6

Jeanie

7

Q

8

Jeanie

9

Q

10

Jeanie

12

Jeanie

14

Jeanie

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Jeanie

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Jeanie

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Jeanie

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Jeanie

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Jeanie

1
Q

New York

The party was in a Brooklyn brownstone. I stood on the sidewalk, staring up at the rearing expanse of red-brown brick, on a hot evening in late June. Above the door, gargoyles grinned and glowered at the street and at the gorgons bulging over the casement cornices. A hot, oily breeze stirred fronds of trailing ivy in two giant, swollen urns beside the door. Little piles of itchy grit swirled in the air, down the long flight of steps, and into my eyes. An old man enjoying the evening grinned as he passed, and touched his hat. “Waiting don’t make it any easier, you know,” he said softly, chuckling.

I rearranged my acre-wide blue dress across my belly, shapeless as a burst balloon, and began to mount the stone stoop. With each step I felt the sharp pull in my scar, a hot, numbed mouth pressed awkwardly closed. At the top I checked my cotton overshirt, re-clipped my snarled red hair, and hit the buzzer.

Inside I could hear voices and the deep pound of a bass. There was a pause, a shout suddenly close by (“Don’t worry, I’ll get it!”), and the door flew open; a pale, glamorous woman of forty appeared, dressed in a microscopic black shirtdress, long dark hair flowing glossily over one shoulder. “Oh—Quinn, it’s you,” she said dubiously, looking me up and down. “People call you Q, yes? Congratulations,
and all that. Come in.” She ushered me into the rich, air-conditioned coolness. “There are a few other associates here—over there somewhere, I think.” She gestured vaguely.

Caroline was the youngest woman ever to be partnered at my law firm, Schuster and Marks. She’d had a string of lovers in the five years I’d known her but no husband, and she swore she didn’t want one “until I’ve lost my looks. The only reason to get married is so you can fuck when you’re too old to get it any other way, y’know?” She spent every penny she earned at Schuster on herself—whenever she was away from work long enough to spend it, which was not often, especially in recession-era New York. She thought she was a role model for me and the rest of Schuster’s female associates.

Caroline pushed her way off into the throng, bony arms swinging by her side. I could see the points of each sharp elbow, little pink eyes glaring back at me. Knots of people were collected on each of the three dove-gray silk sofas, while others milled restlessly on the polished parquet floor. Three men were having an intense conversation around the fireplace while a fourth listened, tapping his fingers edgily on the marble surface. There were at least ten people in the kitchen area, spilling off bar stools or talking across the granite countertops while a man with hooded eyes stirred something steaming and blackberry-colored in a copper vat on the stove. A few more were smoking out on the balcony overlooking the slim strip of garden.

“Q—my God, I can’t believe it’s you.” It was Fay, another of the partners from the firm; there were new lines above her mouth, I noticed, as she slipped her arm around the waist of a young blond woman. “How did you manage to get away? Can I get you a drink? Caroline had vodka imported from Russia specially for the party. It’s over there—” and she gestured to a white table on which stood twenty unlabeled bottles beside several towers of stacked shot glasses. “After the first six you don’t notice the shit-awful taste anymore. Karen, why don’t you get her…”

I reached out to stop the girl, whose vacant wide eyes slid over my face. “Thanks, Fay, and Karen, but I can’t. Drink, that is. I’m—I’m nursing,” I explained.

Fay blinked. “Right,” she said cautiously.

“Breast-feeding I mean,” I went on, laughing a little, looking down at my body, feeling a start of shock at my own extraordinarily unfamiliar shape. Since Samuel was born, my nipples, new brown moons, have taken to poking through my clothes to see what’s up. My shirt, I realized suddenly, had fallen aside.

Sometimes, for what seems no reason at all, the waves of conversation at a party crash into silence, and for a moment there is nothing but an awkward flutter. Women look askance, men grin foolishly. As it happened, I was in the middle of the room at the time, a little gap opened up about me; about thirty pairs of eyes swiveled in the sudden hush to my ludicrous, pornographically swollen chest. Milk: I felt it, warm and dark and spreading. Blushing, I readjusted my shirt over my navy dress—too late; a man six feet away turned his head hastily, and there was an audible snicker from somewhere in the kitchen. Fay made a noise that was half a cough, and backed off. “I see. Of course. I think—” (touching her moist brow with the back of her hand)—“there’s water over there, or juice, or whatever it is that—that nursing—er—people drink. I’ll catch up with you later…”

She pushed her way toward the garden, dragging the bewildered girl behind her.
Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt
…I fixed my gaze on a vast modern art canvas on the opposite wall, a block of shining black slashed with hell reds and oranges, and, as the noise picked up its hum, tried very hard to look as though I was appreciating its aesthetic complexity.

Bland faces with sharp, glittering eyes moved like other-worldly shadows around the room. I didn’t recognize most of the people (lawyers from other firms, most likely) although nearest the fireplace sat Michael, a Schuster partner, now deep in conversation with
Marta, an associate hired a few years after me. Sitting beside her was a cohort of mine, named Julie. Very slim, seemingly self-confident; we’d never quite managed to be friends. I watched her face covertly. Julie didn’t seem to be actively ignoring me.

Tom, why did I ever let you talk me into this
…Pushing my way past elbows, navigating wafer-thin cocktail glasses, I lumbered over to the little circle, positioning myself on its periphery.

“I thought you pulled triumph from the jaws of defeat, Michael,” Julie was saying. She was still in her suit, but had pulled her shirt an inch or two out from the waistband. “When the chief financial officer took the stand my heart just
sank.
You could see how confident he was. But then you confronted him with those receipts—”

Michael shrugged. “It helped that the prosecutor was an absolute idiot, obviously.”

Julie took a swig from her vodka glass. “Your cross-examination was masterly—don’t you think, Marta? Once you’d shown the jury the CFO’s hands could be dirty, Michael, tapped into their “Wall Street fatigue,” I knew we were—oh, hi!”

Seeing my shadow fall over her hands, Julie looked up: “Q! I can’t believe it’s you.” Michael stood up and shook my hand formally; Marta nodded briefly, murmuring something I didn’t catch.

Julie, however, patted a small space beside her. “It’s really nice to see you. You’ve been away for—what, four months? Seems longer. So much has happened,” she added, more quietly now, as Marta and Michael fell back into conversation. “What a crazy time. Alex and Miranda were fired as part of the restructuring, and quite a few new jobs were cut, but in other ways we’re doing okay, relatively speaking—well, I’m sure you’ve kept up with the blogs. Helps to be a big firm in times like these, although as you’d expect, the associates are still very nervous” (with a quick side glance at Michael). “I take it you heard we won the Litchfield case?” she went on, more loudly. “You could hardly have missed it, it’s been all over the
Times,
to
gether with smiling photos of that smug CEO. I hear he’s just bought a new house in the Hamptons—recession be damned…”

I didn’t like to tell her that I’d barely had time to switch on the computer since my son was born, although I had heard of the fate of several associates hired after me, not to mention the expiration of three century-old law firms based near our office and the resultant hemorrhaging of lawyers onto the streets. Schuster and Marks still, for the moment at least, had its head above water. But things could turn around quickly.

“Now tell me: what have you been doing with yourself all this time?” asked Julie at last. She clearly expected a list.

“Well. I was on bed rest for three months at the end of the pregnancy. I had a problem, you see, with—”

“Yeah, I heard all about it. Crazy. I broke my leg skiing in Vail once, couldn’t get into work, almost went off my head. And it’s not clear bed rest even works, right?
I
would have told the doctors to stick it, but that’s just me. Not,” she went on, seriously, “that
I’ll
be getting pregnant any time soon. Christ! Ed was talking the other night about starting a family; I said, “Unless you can find a surrogate mother, forget it. I’m not turning
this
body into a baby-making machine. With the economy the way it is, this is hardly the time—’”

She began to laugh, then stopped herself with comical abruptness. “I don’t mean—well, I’m sure in
your
case—I mean, it must be so great to have this—er—I mean, babies love you unconditionally, right? I can see that must be—nice…” She trailed off awkwardly. I opened my mouth, closed it, took a thoughtless sip of vodka that someone had put into my hand, and choked.

Several of the other young women in the room had come up behind me, I noticed suddenly, and were peering at me curiously. “I heard you just had a baby,” one of them remarked abruptly; wiping streaming red eyes, I nodded, and turned around to face her.
“Yes. I have a little boy called Samuel, he’s five weeks,” I explained. The woman, thin and pale and dressed in a wide-necked red dress, raised delicately arched eyebrows. “Wow. That’s, like, so
grown-up!”

Everybody laughed. “I can hardly look after myself,” she went on, grinning, accepting the joke,
“seriously.
I can’t even imagine looking after a kid.”

“I can’t believe it myself, sometimes,” I admitted. “I hear Samuel cry, it can take me a moment to realize he’s mine—my child, my responsibility.”

Six or seven women had collected around us now; people began asking me questions, and actually listening to the answers. Caroline watched for a moment or two, then surged over and cut in. “What are we talking about?” she inquired, assuming a position at the epicenter of the group with a little shimmy of her sleek black hips.

“Motherhood,” I replied. A cloud passed over her brow.

“Really.” Her lips twitched; her eyes sought out Michael’s, but he was plunged back in conversation with yet another nervy, obviously sleep-deprived associate.

“Different people make different choices,” Caroline said after a moment, blandly. “I mean, if you ask me, the thought of being covered in someone else’s shit makes dealing with a recession look good!” The other women laughed, although not particularly comfortably. “But tell me,” she went on, dismissing me with her shoulder, “
what
are we all doing for the rest of the summer?”

Immediately, the tone of the discussion changed again, as everyone began the struggle to outdo everyone else with ever-more elegant, exclusive social fixtures. (Never show weakness; I could see the old office culture was still thriving.) Other people were soon sucked in; a handsome, very young associate mentioned surfing with an X Games gold-medalist friend in Puerto Escondido but was quickly trumped by an invitation to a Kennedy wedding. Caroline listed the balls she’d be attending, then struggled to maintain her
composure when Michael flaunted the giant yacht he was chartering around Hawaii in July. “I mean, it helps that I saw the crash coming, and shifted seventy percent of my holdings to cash…”

Clearly irritated, looking for someone to scratch, Caroline turned at last to me. “You’ll just be at home with the baby, I suppose?” she said, narrowed eyes like shards of glass; there was a little movement in the group, as if everybody was thinking, well, I might not be going to Hyannis next month, my 401k’s a joke, but at least I’m doing better than
that.
“I seem to remember your husband Tom was into white-water kayaking and paragliding. I suppose all that’s in the past now…”

“Actually, no, we’ll be staying in Paul Dupont’s house this summer,” I said abruptly, before I could think properly, and was rewarded by an audible gasp of astonishment. “Paul Dupont?” ejaculated Julie, beside me, “the superstar partner at Prince and Cohen? You’re not serious! I didn’t know you even
knew
him.”

Caroline’s expression was all I needed to keep going. For a moment, she looked quite old. “Oh yes, he and Tom are good friends from Paul’s days at Crimpson Thwaite,” I explained cheerfully. “My husband’s firm, you know. Paul offered us his house for the summer, and we’ve decided to accept.” I crossed my fingers behind my back.

“I’d forgotten he was at Crimpson until Prince head-hunted him,” remarked one of the senior partners, a quiet man named Alvin, who had just joined the group. “Paul Dupont is a brilliant lawyer, and a man of excellent taste.”

“And didn’t he date—well, you know,” squeaked one of the youngest girls, who looked to me like a summer associate. She was teetering giddily on six-inch heels, shirt split open almost to the waist. “I saw him at the Four Seasons last week, I recognized him from that piece last year in
GQ.
He’s, like, I mean—he’s totally
hot
…” The other women, who were all clearly thinking the same thing, rolled their
eyes; Caroline murmured something just audible about “chicks in heat.” Mortification spread across the squeaky girl’s face like paint through water.

I smiled kindly. “He’s a very nice man, you know. And his house is beautiful,” I went on cheerfully. “Tom and I are excited to spend time there this summer, with Samuel; hopefully we can find time for some serious sailing.”

“He’s friends with that dot-com mogul, Adjile Olawe, right?” whispered another young summer associate, with a nervous side-glance at Caroline. “I heard they were neighbors. He’s supposed to be a real recluse, but people say he has a mansion built on the rocks. And apparently he saw through Madoff…”

I smiled expansively as I picked up my purse. It was obviously time to leave; everybody’s eyes were glued upon me. “So I hear,” I affirmed, leaning forward to kiss my hostess’s cold white cheek. “Yes, we’re planning to visit him as well, while we’re up there. There were some great photographs of Adjile’s place in that piece in the
Times
last year about “Defining Architecture of the Millennium,” did you see? Anyway; thanks for a wonderful party, Caroline. I doubt I’ll see you for a while, because we’ll be at Paul’s, but do enjoy your—I’m sorry, I don’t recall what it was you said you were doing—your vacation this summer, won’t you?”

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