The Sleep Consultant
In Tokyo, we worked on the demographics thing for five months solid. After the report was done and the government had accepted the most optimistic of our four scenarios, the three of us walked to a jazz bar and drank for two days straight. We commiserated and shared secrets. Jin-soo cried; a sweet surprise. Parting, we all expressed hope we might collaborate again, in some combination, and perhaps for a wiser client next time.
Now I’m going to sleep, and my real work will begin.
As a university student, I was a heavy sleeper, and though that’s not unique, none of my peers parsed their slumber as finely as I did. Even then, I was constructing a taxonomy of sleep: dark, heavy dozes set against light, spring-loaded naps. Murky surrenders and sun-warmed floats. Of course, I hadn’t ever slept for any truly significant period of time, and I had no reason to expect I ever would.
Jin-soo loved her sleep. Tessa, by contrast, moaned about it: a third of her hours wasted in sessile unconsciousness when she could instead be up, thinking and working! She took drugs for wakefulness, but every five or six days, she would crash, and Jin-soo and I would carry her to the long couch in the conference room where she would lie shivering for 36 hours, breathing in huge gulps, her nervous system on general strike. I’m not sure she came out ahead. For all the laws of nature that we humans have now broken or bent, sleep remains non-negotiable. Sleep, and the speed of light.
For my part, I slept when I could, a few hours every night. Now, I’m exhausted. Catching up on all the news I missed is only making it worse. The government is wrong; there are no optimistic scenarios. Thankfully, I’m set to begin my consulting contract with the Ace-Mandarin Tsukiji immediately. I feel grateful to my past self for arranging it well in advance. Did she predict things would get this bad? I can’t remember. I’ve just walked out of my little rental in Nezu, with the deep, cedar-plank bathtub I didn’t use once. My life is folded into a sleek travel bag, and I will carry it now to the hotel.
Above, a formation of interceptors whispers above the city, casting shadows almost leafy across sidewalks and cafes. In a moment, they are gone, and I know they will soon be cruising low over the Sea of Japan, aiming to rendezvous with something likewise bound for here, something moving just as fast, something that has never arrived, must never arrive.
The Ace-Mandarin Tsukiji is a monolith of wood and glass built on the site of the old fish market, distinguished from the adjacent monoliths by the showy security cordon around its base. Guards in black visors wave me through, but too quickly. I suspect they know I am the sleep consultant, which is not appropriate. Ace-Mandarin contacted me many years ago; I suppose they are happy to have me here at last.
Inside, the hotel’s aesthetic would be flat-footed heigge if not for a selection of interesting textiles deployed in surprising ways. Tall panels of muslin hang and billow in the lobby; navigating around them feels like maneuvering through a kelp forest. The check-in desk is clad in some kind of burlap, and it chafes my wrist when I lower the pen to sign the sleep contract. It’s a good chafe. The staff permits me to find my room by myself. I think they are slightly afraid of me.
The hotel’s topmost floor is fully booked; I can tell from the warning lights set beside the doors. Nothing as harsh as a flashing red bulb, of course; the fat tubes shine colder by only a few degrees. They are very meaningful degrees. One of the doors has a guard stationed outside, wearing the same black visor as the contractors at the hotel’s base. As I pass, I nod hello, feeling sorry for her. What a slog.
The tube outside my room, number six, glows warmer than the rest, and inside, the lights detect my presence and activate with an audible click. That’s a demerit, but I let it pass. I’m not here to evaluate the hotel’s design. Only its sleep.
My job begins with bare legs.
Disrobing in a hotel is special: the puddling of pants or skirt onto a floor unsullied by the rest of your life.
The wall-to-wall window at my room’s far end is uncovered, and I leave it that way. I believe in the city dweller’s compact, and as such I must offer to the anonymous world the same view that I myself have taken in. (To clarify: any use of magnification, optical or digital, violates this compact, which exists between humans alone: slivers of pink, no taller than crescent moons, regarding each other across gulfs that are very importantly unbridgeable. Once, in downtown Los Angeles, I saw the glint of a lens across Flower Street, and oh, how I glared. There is a man still crouched beside his window in a tower there, immobile, turned to stone.) Many years ago, in Milan, I rented an apartment that faced a plaza and, across it, a huge old hotel. I miss that apartment. Both buildings are gone now—the one I lived in, and the one I watched with such amusement.
So: skirt, puddled. The room, I notice and appreciate, is the appropriate temperature for this. Temperature matters critically to the sleep consultant. It’s one of the two or three most important things. The architect whines to the sleep consultant over gimlets that “it’s incredibly difficult to regulate the temperature in buildings of this size and complexity,” but the sleep consultant is not here for excuses. She has come for air across her legs and now her back, a current with no detectable source. The room should be a temperature such that contact with any surface—the bedding, the bathroom tile—offers a spark of coolness fading instantly to comfort. The sleep consultant should travel the space in a sheath of her own warmth.
In hotels, I explode. I am only digging for my preferred soap, but somehow my clothes have formed a blast radius around my travel bag. I’d like to try my hand at making these bags; maybe go to school for industrial design, material science. In class, I could be the cool elder who’s seen it all. I’ll assess the state of the industry when I wake up.
The sleep consultant takes a bath.
Once, in Pyongyang, I spoke at length with a gastronome—at the extremes of connoisseurship, you find kinship in other disciplines, all paths converging at the tip of a great cone of sensual experience; or maybe it’s the bottom of a great pit—and this eater who organized her life around meals explained to me that it was essential to design your hunger. It’s obvious that if you’re not sufficiently hungry, you won’t be able to appreciate a ninety-six course meal, or, conversely, that if you’re too hungry you’ll be stuffing and slurping, not savoring. But the gastronome insisted you had to consider not only your hunger’s degree but its kind. There was, she explained, a desiccated hunger that made water delicious, and, conversely, a sodden hunger that was the perfect backdrop for salty things. She planned ahead. It was an ordeal. She was beautiful, with a sharp, beaky nose.
So, what kind of tired should a sleep consultant be?
Muscle weariness is too easy; it makes any bed sublime. As a consultant, my tiredness must approximate the hotel guest for whom I am a sensitive, articulate stand-in. This Ace-Mandarin is favored by burned-out bureaucrats, so the demographics gig was my preparation, and I feel it now: the sour exhaustion of expertise unappreciated, warnings unheeded.
But, even so, when I pull the covers up to my chin, the wrung-out resignation yields to an upwelling of delight. I’m home. This is my turf. My strongest redoubt.
I am, it must be said, a very good sleeper.
I have theories.
The sleep consultant doesn’t understand why anyone would ever sleep naked. To do so forgoes the the first-derivative feeling of fabric against fabric, and sometimes a second derivative, too, if the sheets and blankets are interestingly-arrayed. The sleep consultant wears a linen shift. Maybe it’s a nightgown, technically, but she has always liked the word shift better. Shift, as in night. Shift, as in work.
Dreams are irrelevant to the sleep consultant. This isn’t to say she is not interested in them. When you sleep deeply, dreams can run long, like novels or netflixen or small hells. Years ago, during a stay at the Wellesley in Knightsbridge, she had a dream of quasi-mermaids that remains one of the most memorably cosmic experiences of her life. No, dreams are fucking cool—but to criticize a hotel for a bad dream, or praise it for a good one, gives it too much credit.
It’s crucial, as you drift away, to feel confident nothing will breach your sleep. But, take note: the security cordon at the hotel’s base works in one dimension only, a shallow one at that, and if you believe it is those black-visored guards who are protecting you, you deserve whatever rude awakening you get. The sleep consultant has scrutinized Ace-Mandarin’s system of corporate governance, audited its debt ratio, and she is satisfied it is secure, or secure enough.
A fresh formation of interceptors zips across the city. From the sleep consultant’s new vantage point on the hotel’s topmost floor, they look like the X-rayed vertebrae of some sinuous dragon undulating in flight. She only half-understands why they move like that. She did a defense gig, years ago, but things have changed since then.
Generally, the sleep consultant tries not to masturbate before sleeping. In her theory, to do so invites something from the outside world into the room. There might be ways around this; a friend claims to masturbate to abstract geometries and gradient fields. The sleep consultant can only masturbate thinking about people she has known (including the gradient-lover) and this seems to break some important seal.
Maybe that’s the core of the sleep consultant’s theory: that her sleep can be self-contained and self-sufficient. A portable island. Which, she supposes, is also called a life raft.
But now her hand is slithering downwards and she masturbates after all, thinking, to her surprise, of Jin-soo.
THOUGHTS BEFORE SLEEPING
The sleep consultant has a memory from childhood of two bowls, one made of thin metal, the other rough ceramic; and how, when she scoured them under the faucet, the metal got so hot so quickly, while the ceramic remained impassive; and how she liked both feelings. She was six years old, standing on a stool to reach the sink. Doing the dishes was her first job. She was complimented, which made her volunteer to do it again, presaging many things to come.
Her whole life, she’s been recognized for her diligence and her sensitivity, which is why her onetime colleague, an elevator designer, told her about a client of his, a hotel in San Francisco, that was searching for a sleep consultant, and suggested that she would be a good fit. The proposal she tendered to that hotel was buoyed by a few elegant lies, but she doesn’t have to lie anymore. She has slept in hotels around the world. She could never afford to do so on her own, but as a consultant, the sleep is provided free in exchange for her diligence and her sensitivity. Her friend the elevator designer is long dead, and she misses him.
Before she conks out completely, the sleep consultant is aware, briefly, of the room’s rising chill and the lemony change in the air. A miscalibration.
She’ll comment on that.
The sleep consultant prefers to wake just once during the long night, and the Ace-Mandarin obliges. Consciousness returns like a cat slinking out from under the bed. A glass of water, a peek out the window. It’s midday, but a gauzy screen has descended, so she’s not blinded. On the notepad beside the bed, the sleep consultant makes a mark, just one light slash. In the morning, she won’t remember this, but when she sees the slash, she will smile at the comfort and solitude of that other person who was born, who died.
The sleep consultant is, of course, afraid of death, and therefore fascinated by sleep.
Later, much later, there is another period of wakefulness, this one unscheduled. The sleep consultant becomes murkily aware of a great commotion in the hallway. An amplified voice bleats instructions. Through eyes still half-lidded, she watches a hex-rotor swing lazily into view, hovering very close to the hotel’s topmost floor, its belly yawning open, the black-visored crew inside aiming spotlights and other instruments at some unseen target.
The sleep consultant sits up awkwardly. Her head lolls forward—she can’t seem to support its weight—and she strains her eyes in their sockets to find the door. Sounds from the hallway: a clatter, a cry, a hollow brat-brat-brat. Technically, she is still asleep, her room chilled and gassed, and if anyone opens that door, she will die.
With great effort, she hoists her arms, uses one hand to wrap the other around the pencil, and makes a second mark on the notepad: a faint crossbar that turns her slash into an X. Slash for comfort, X for danger—a code of her own instant devising. She fixes it in her mind. The hex-rotor’s spotlight washes into her room, licks the foot of her bed. Something in the hallway thuds against her door. If her body wasn’t so heavy, she would…
In the morning, I am greeted by that sparkling configuration of the nervous system only available, I believe, to those who wake into a world exactly the right temperature: skin tingling, every sensation delicious. The feeling somehow of being deeply seated in the socket of the world.
I want to revel, but curiosity beckons. I hop up to retrieve the newspaper that has been slipped under the door and carry it to the chair by the window where I will await the knock announcing the arrival of my coffee and breakfast. The staff knows I’m awake. Hours ago, they sucked the cold gas out of the room and replaced it with regular air.
The newspaper summarizes the past five years of events. Ace-Mandarin is particularly good at this, and it’s a persistent advantage for the brand. The macro overview confirms the bleakest of our scenarios from the demographics project. Elsewhere: another new fever; rising nostalgia for the 2030s; more inscrutable images from the Chinese probe. Pakistan joined the NEU, thank goodness. The secret chairman of an AI control committee was assassinated in his sleep. (The details of that last story are uncharacteristically vague.) There’s nothing about sports. They know I don’t care about sports.
Outside, the sky is glowing gray, the sun still below the horizon. Tokyo’s silhouette has changed.
On the last page of the newspaper are the obituaries, every one of them about a person I know or whose work I’ve followed. A shock: Tessa is there. Young, shivering, impatient Tessa. Caught by that new fever. I thought I was inured to the obits, but this one settles heavily.
The knock comes, two light raps, and I rise to receive my breakfast. Passing the bed, I see my customary mark on the notepad—memento of the person who was born and died. A crooked X; interesting. She’s never drawn an X before. What does it represent? Maybe the city was beautiful from high above. Maybe she watched the sun rise behind those new buildings when they were still just skeletons. Sometimes I think I do this just for her, that other woman, and her moments of perfect peace in a bubble of quiet darkness, safe outside of history.
The images above are from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: a peridot ring stone, Roman, about two thousand years old. The typeface used for the story’s title is Marvin Visions, a brilliant reinterpretation by Mathieu Triay of Michael Chave’s original.