Back to Issue Thirty-Nine




It didn’t feel like a choice, but the sleeping started during therapy. I’d once thought therapy was a transaction between the self-important and the indulgent. I pictured a therapist’s office like some Swiss bank account where the rich deposited their feelings, higher-order memories like pristine blocks of cash.

But Alex’s office was next to a Dunkin Donuts and the people in the waiting room looked like they’d also purchased their t-shirts at Goodwill. I’d just been granted government health insurance, so the sessions were fifteen bucks.

Alex retrieved me informally, her nose sprayed with freckles. She wore overalls and walked leisurely down the corridor of locked rooms as if she had time to lose, then turned a key that dangled from her neck. I admired her armpit hair but recognized it as a choice that wasn’t available to me. When we sat, I wondered what, for a full hour, I would talk about. Alex looked like she was thirty, a year older than me.


Alex’s face was blank when I told her that Niko, the boyfriend I’d recently left, had a history of hitting me. The old school tape recorder that I’d consented to in the waiting room steadily wound, the recordings part of Alex’s training. I pictured the reel that hissed inside like a tiny treadmill, tiring and unsustainable.

I wanted to be worthy of Alex’s time, her tape. She blinked naturally, her knees still. Wasn’t I what she daydreamed about when she’d started school to become who she was? Her tidy notes filling the margins of psychology textbooks. I would speak in a way that moved her. She’d cry when she wasn’t supposed to. She’d think of me at night, rising to make tea in her mild insomnia.

Alex asked me what it was that I wanted. From the sessions, but also my future, how I envisioned it.

It wasn’t a question I’d really been asked.

All I could see was the past. Twenty-three when I met Niko, a college drop-out trying a night class; he asked me to move in with him. His smile when he met my mother, white as an apple slice. After a bad fight, he teased me with the ring-box, snapping it closed. Beer cans that sweat in our hands at shows. Mornings with flaky, dried blood rimming my nostrils. Hiding under a pile of dirty laundry when the cops barged in. How Niko said the taxis outside jail stalked the rotary like sharks. He came for me, no seventy-two-hour cool-off period. How we ordered so much take-out. Fused by the knowledge that we were different from other people, though when I think of it now, isn’t everybody?

I wanted to tell Alex this story, but my vocabulary regressed. The facts surfaced but the feelings were murky. I told her, with both hands encasing a world the size of a snow-globe, that when Niko hit me, my memory turned white.


I couldn’t properly tell her about the time I was dragged by the armpits down the backstairs where the heaps of newspapers collected leaves. They broke apart in my hair, ashy, my eye in the bathroom mirror split open like that Monopoly man with the monocle.

I saw the neighbor’s business card slide under the front door, knowing it was placed there while I was in another room. That was back in our old apartment with the checkered floors and the view of the train, serpent-like, dividing the street. The neighbor was a social worker. She’d circled her number, in case I was stupid enough to miss it. I never called her because of this, the presumption that I was.

Or that time a cop cuffed Niko in the hallway. It doesn’t make sense that I remember this, the fluid way he turned Niko’s shoulder and rammed his chest into the wall. I was in the bedroom. His partner stood above me, said, don’t move. Which was difficult because I was naked. He guarded me with a carefully constructed vacancy, his hands above his holster.

With Niko’s chest pinned to the wall, the cuffs clinked from behind. There were scratches on the back of his neck, faint bright marks above his Hanes t-shirt from where I fought him off. I saw them as if I were the cop. And felt the grit through the cop’s teeth when he said, hold still. Niko was deposited in the backseat. I saw our dark glittering street and the cops up front as if I were Niko. The cop, without turning, said, you can’t hit her, man.

Like he knew why Niko would, but not that he did.

Remembering this, I promptly fell asleep.


I slept because remembering felt like death, and because Alex let me. She hovered above like a deity. There was nothing for her to record but she taped the full sessions anyway. If the tape played, you would have heard the two of us together in the room. From down the hall, chairs scraping. The soft zoom of tires outside, asphalt sun-scorched and malleable.

My new internal clock ticked, and I’d startle automatically, springing from sleep when the hour with Alex was up. Sometimes drool soaked the scratchy cushion like a wine stain. Sometimes snow had built on the bank of the window, blank and powerful. Alex would be sitting with her clipboard on her knees, like I’d been talking instead of sleeping and Alex had been listening instead of watching.

It’s just that I didn’t have anything to say. Even if I did, I wouldn’t know how to say it.


After I left Niko, I came up with cash for my studio by walking into a random bar with a poorly disguised purple eye. I got the job on the spot. I filled the studio with furniture from the alley, milk crates, a dresser. I felt, like with Mary, there was something impossible inside me. I’d open cabinet doors, bang them shut, forget what I wanted. I’d open them again, but I wasn’t hungry. Even if I was, I wouldn’t have known what it was that I wanted.

The El leveled with my window, the tracks like a ring on some pocked planet. When it delayed a businessman lowered his newspaper. I stood there, topless. We locked eyes, and then, like in some warped heaven, the man vanished.


One week, in Alex’s office, I had a dream about the train guy. I saw the graffiti that doused the platforms, juicy, bursting. Hunger on the way to work was my de facto state. I’d eat full-blown subs under someone’s armpit, the wrapper’s cheese like melted plastic. There was a guy I saw often, phone on his waist, like some pimp who’d wear sunglasses in a porno. One time he asked me what my name was. I laughed, lied, and said my name was Jackie.

It wasn’t something I did anymore.

I used to go to Wonder Bar, all alone, and flirt with the bartender. Fresh from altercations with the train guy, I said porn was for people who had no imagination. I pictured the bartender gripping my waist in a lit bedroom, the pimples of my nipples, every pore, curve, and vein. His arms when he flipped me over bore demonic tattoos. Accumulated, these were the kinds of fantasies, my badness, that convinced me I should leave Niko.

Not just again, but for good.


At the beginning of one session, I looked down, and my jeans on Alex’s couch resembled a puddle. I never ate; the bar I worked at was murky inside. I liked the feeling of counting soft, torn cash. Liked the feeling of counting anything at all. Liked the knife in my hand when I cut limes, that solid thwack, how the blood on my finger looked beautiful. How the lemons and limes filled the pitchers as if blooming. The zoom of opened cash registers, the clink of stacked plates. I was happy the bar was dark. Outside, the sun was a fist, lighting my jagged key, which looked dangerous. Birds cawed loud as car alarms.


I slept through every session. Sometimes corpse-like with my palms crossed like dead doves over my chest. Sometimes with my neck twisted back between the cushions where it was dark and closed in. Sometimes just sitting there, like in a wheelchair at a nursing home, the backs of my lids static peach fuzz. Alex’s outline a white sheet in the shape of a guard dog. I’d hear the rude suck of my breath. Then I’d cross over, chained to sleep.

I wasn’t self-conscious. I was unconscious. Who owned my dreams?


Alex never told me that perhaps I was wasting our time here. That I simply wasn’t awake, a form of not showing up at all. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even do as much. I paid the fifteen bucks so I could picture Alex sitting where she always sat. Yogurt unpeeled. Clipboard on knees. I paid for a feeling, to know that someone, in all seriousness, was waiting for me. To know my silence was worth something after-all.


During our last session, I woke up refreshed and with time left. I sat next to a box of Kleenex, like some civilized break-up, untouched knives between us and the world outside filled with people we didn’t know.

The task of separation felt like peeling Duct tape from a wall.

So, I told Alex, for the first time, about my dream. I told her, image by image in vivid, illustrious detail. She listened expertly. Then, before I left, I told her that when I slept, I just wanted to know that someone was there. That someone was there and that nothing would happen.


Kate Wisel is the author of Driving in Cars With Homeless Men, winner of the 2019 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, selected by Min Jin Lee. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in publications that include Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, Tin House online, Los Angeles Review, New Ohio Review, DIAGRAM, The Best Small Fictions 2019, Redivider (as winner of the Beacon Street Prize), and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the “Poetry on the T” prize and the Marcia Keach Prize. She was a Carol Houck fiction fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and awarded scholarships at The Wesleyan Writer’s Conference, the Squaw Valley Writer’s Workshop, the Juniper Institute, Writing x Writer’s at Tomales Bay and Methow Valley and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago where she teaches at Columbia College Chicago and Loyola University. She is represented by Stephanie Delman at Greenburger Associates. For film/TV, she is represented by Hilary Zaitz Michael at WME.

Next (Andrew Grace) >

< Previous (Kit Pyne-Jaeger)