I struggle to open my eyes, knowing this is the middle of the night and it is much too early to be up. I have to get up at 5:30 every day, and I know what the sky should look like beyond my curtains. I know I should have heard my neighbor’s old Dodge fire up next door since he goes to work at 5:20. That’s like alarm clock number one for me, my wake-up before I wake up.
Other sounds are missing as well. Morning sounds. The sounds of life getting under way. Today there is only the specific sound of a timer beeping to indicate the oven has pre-heated. That was what had woken me up.
What time was it? Was I dreaming? I roll onto my right side to look at the alarm clock; the red digits are flashing 12:00 over and over. I become aware of a low rumbling outside, as if a storm is coming or has recently passed. Something had interrupted the power, I guess. A storm. Typical for this time of year.
My cell phone is in the bedside drawer. I take it out and swipe the screen to wake it up; the display lets me know the actual time: 2:37. I return it to the drawer.
“Honey,” I murmur, putting my head back down, “the oven timer just went off. Does it do that when we have a power outage?”
I expect my wife to answer me, to hear her sweet dream-drenched voice mumble a reassurance to me. She is a lighter sleeper than I am; if I heard a noise then she would have heard it too. But she does not answer. Maybe I just imagined the sound. Maybe I dreamed it. I allow the soft pillow to convince me that going back to sleep is a good idea, and I visualize how the stormy night would look outside the window.
I hear the unmistakable sound of a pan being set on a metal rack. What is going on? I ask myself, and then I ask my wife aloud. Again, she does not answer, does not even adjust her position in the bed. I roll onto my back and reach my hand out to touch her shoulder.
She is not there.
I turn my head to verify this, wondering why she would have gotten up at this hour of the night. I can still see the indentation in the mattress where she had lain; she could not have gotten up long ago.
A thin stream of light shines beneath the bedroom door. She’s out there, I tell myself. Everything’s okay.
But is it?
Did the storm wake her up? Possibly. But I am worried about her anyhow. Getting out of bed in the middle of the night, that’s unusual for her. And the sounds coming from the house – is she cooking something?
“Honey?” I call out, loudly enough to be heard anywhere in the house. Our house is not small, but sound carries easily at this time of night. “You okay?”
I hear nothing for a moment, and then I hear the oven door close and her soft footsteps cross the tile of the living room floor, coming closer. The doorknob turns and the door cracks open. I can see that the kitchen light is on. Her curly hair is silhouetted against that distant light.
“What?” she asks. Her voice has a sleepy quality to it, a soft whisperish tone that seems ephemeral against the storm rumbling farther and farther away.
“You okay?” I repeat, smiling slightly now that some mysteries are resolved.
“You have a bad dream?” I ask.
“No.” There is a question mark to her tone, as if she does not understand why I would be asking this question.
“You cooking something?” I know it’s a stupid question. I heard the kitchen noises, can see the kitchen light. But her tone makes me feel as if I should ask something else, just to fill the silence.
I sit up and swing my legs off the bed to stand up. “I said, ‘Are you cooking something?’ Do you want me to help?” I stand up, sliding my feet into slippers.
“Shh!” Her silencing noise is louder than seems right, as if she is loudly telling me not to be loud. “Just stay here.” I sit down and look at her. “And be quiet.”
“Wh-” I begin, but she cuts me off again with an urgent “Shhhhh.” She extends it out, long enough for me to wonder if she is joking and then longer still to make me realize she’s not, not at all.
“Go back to sleep,” she hisses in the darkness.
“It’s not even 3 a.m.,” I whisper as quietly as I can.
“I know what time it is. Please be quiet.” I wait, not answering. After a moment, she whispers, “Just go back to sleep.”
I pause but see no reason not to do what she says. If she needs me, she knows I am happy to help. She’s an independent woman, and she knows her own mind. I can ask her about it when I wake up in a couple hours. One last rumble of the storm echoes from far away, and I can tell it has moved far enough away that I won’t hear any more thunder.
I press the right combinations of buttons to reset the alarm clock; it is 2:44. She does not say anything, does not move as I do this. I kick off my skippers and lie back onto the mattress. One last word, whispered earnestly: “Let me know if you need anything.”
“For God’s sake, will you be quiet?” Her voice is almost a shout but still remains a whisper. I pull the comforter over myself as a silent show that I am sorry for upsetting her. I wonder if I’ll be able to go back to sleep, at least while she’s in the other room.
“Good,” she whispers. “Now just go to sleep, and no more talking.” Her silhouetted head moves out of the door opening, and I can barely hear her final words: “Be quiet, or you’ll wake the baby.”
The door closes and her footsteps move away again, but I am more worried now than I was before.
We don’t have a baby.
I think about this for several minutes, lying on my pillow but not resting, my eyes open to stare at shadows created by the last vestiges of moonlight creeping through the slats in the blinds. We don’t have a baby. It’s just us in the house, us and the dog. We had tried to have a baby when we first married five years ago, but one or the other of us must be infertile. Babies had quickly become a non-issue. She and I just focused on our careers. And neither of our careers was focused on food preparation. What in the heck is going on?
And then I realize: she must be sleepwalking, dreamtalking. I’ve heard about people walking around, having conversations and carrying on life tasks without actually being awake or aware of anything in a real sense. I have also read that this can be dangerous.
I sit up and get my slippers on, realizing that I cannot take a chance she will hurt herself. If I’m wrong, we can laugh about it some other day; but if I’m right, this is the right thing to do.
The oven timer chimes. Whatever she was cooking is done. I wonder again what her dream self had decided needed prepared. Would I get to the kitchen to find cookies? A cake? a casserole? A little smile turns up the corners of my lips; she is going to be so amused when she hears what she has done.
I walk to the bedroom door and open it slowly, not wanting to startle her. I have heard that this is also dangerous for sleepwalkers. I can see her shadow on the wall of the living room as she bends over in the kitchen to take a pan out of the oven. Her hands look comically large in shadowed oven mitts.
I know the distance from the bedroom through the living room and to the kitchen door is exactly 22 footsteps. I have walked it often enough to have that memorized. I take my first four steps as I watch her shadow turn and place the pan on the counter next to the sink.
I walk slowly, re-considering whether I should even be interrupting her at all. If she has the presence of mind to wear oven mitts, she’s probably going to be safe enough, right?
Two more steps, and she has opened the utensil drawer and taken out a meat cleaver, the one we use to carve Thanksgiving turkeys and the occasional roast beef. Not cookies then.
Six more steps, including a brief pause after the third when she stops moving and I think perhaps she’s heard me. But no, she cuts into the meat she has prepared – smelling now, I know that it is meat. A roast, then. Or a ham. She’s going to laugh when she realizes she woke up at 2:30 to make and eat a plate of roast beef. I almost chuckle aloud, but I remember her warning. I don’t want to wake up baby. A huge smile fills my face.
Six more soft steps, until I am just outside the door to the kitchen. I take a breath and put on a polite, apologetic, understanding smile. I’ll weather the storm of her emotional outburst, whether she is angry I ignored her instructions or embarrassed to be caught sleepwalking. I love her, and we can withstand anything so long as we’re together.
Two more steps, and I watch her back as she stabs her fork into the roast and brings the fork to her mouth. I hear the tines scrape her teeth and she removes the fork, and then I hear her groan with pleasure as she chews the dish she has made. I wonder if she’ll share any of it with me, sleepwalking or not.
I am about to say something to her when I have several sudden realizations.
We had roast beef two night ago, and neither of us has been to the store since.
She cuts and takes another bite, moaning softly again.
There was a storm tonight, and our dog always whines whenever it hears thunder. I hadn’t heard the dog. A quick glance shows me that the cage is vacant, its door open.
Another bite. Moan.
My wife is a light sleeper.
The storm would have woken her. She would have heard the dog whine of it did. She hates it when the dog whines in the middle of the night.
Our black Pomeranian is named Fifi, but my wife always calls her by an affectionate nickname.
Fork and knife clatter to the plate. She’s done. It was a small meal.
My wife always calls the dog “Baby.”
She turns toward me, a contented smile on her face, strands of black hair between her teeth. Her eyes are open but she is not seeing anything, not even me four steps away from her. She’s asleep.
She places both hands on her belly, belches softly, and whispers, “Don’t wake the baby.” I walk slowly, softly away from her as she begins to wash the dishes in the sink.
Lightning flashes outside, no thunder, and I hear my wife say “Shhhhh.”