sleep sounds by Emily James

sleep sounds

Could I listen to sleep sounds? she asks me. I could download them on my iPad. There’s an app.

You have sleep sounds, I tell her, looking at her crooked blinds with a missing panel. Her room looks out to the sidewalk of Independence Avenue, lined by small hedges not high enough to block her window. In the dark outside, the man from 3k paces back and forth speaking Mandarin through his mask into his phone, voice louder and softer as he approaches and passes and pivots, approaches again. Across the street, the crickets scream from the trees in Henry Hudson Park, or the bushes, or the hedges, or the tree pits where dogs stop and sniff. They’ve learned to be heard on these city streets. To become part of these sounds, these sleep sounds, so many noises in the song of an open screen on a September night on a small street in the Bronx.

I let her download the app, put on the headphones, and listen to whatever white noise she decides on as she stares off into the shadow of the streetlights on her wall. I placed her here on purpose, gave her and her sister the room facing the sidewalk. Two small beds, ivory comforters, pink and purple velvet headboards. Shag pillows, lots of them – greys, pinks, some with tiny stains. String lights cascading down the pale walls, fabric bins holding dusty toys. I needed softness inside those four walls that lean into that sidewalk. Their windows have bars; they are protected from trees falling in storms, from people trying to climb inside, but also, from silence. But you are not hidden, say the windows, the streetlights, the man pacing as his voice curls behind him, the dog’s collar jangling. You are part of it all, a glass pane away.

Some nights, I lay in my bed on the other side of the apartment, away from the sidewalk or the road, my windows overlooking the neighboring building’s garage wall, and wonder how I can close my eyes and sleep. How I can tuck myself into the back of this home safely and leave my daughters exposed. They lay in beds right next to cars that are parked and locked with clubs on their wheels and shields on their bumpers. The cigarette smoke wafts through their air conditioning sleeve, the sour spray of wandering skunks, the impatients along the building entryway. The wet-backed rats crackle in the garbage cage and tear open black plastic and swim through hair and paper and pizza grease. I chose their room to face the street, the smoke, the rats, the crickets, the conversations. Here is your box, I’m telling them, but these are the sounds and the scents and sights I want to etch into your souls, night after night, to slowly pick away at who you are – make you bigger, softer, more full of song.

My childhood window was on the second floor of a two-story house on a plot of land, overlooking a cherry tree that I only remember in bloom, a driveway, a lone basketball net with our handprints in the cement at its base. The dark was the dark. I’d lay in bed and hear the nothingness of night, wait for something, for anything. I’d find so much comfort in whatever I could hear – scraps of life – my mom putting away silverware in the kitchen sink, the hum of my father’s television set where he sat in the den two floors below, holding the popcorn in his fingers for a minute before putting it in his mouth, the click of a lock on the front door as the house turned in for the night. Maybe it was just the sounds I would wait for, maybe it was more. Rolling over and readjusting a knee beneath the blanket, the soft of my belly turning, my toes exposed at the edge of the sheets. It would feel like the night had fallen into me and I was everything, the stillness outlining me into something too prominent, too big. All those years I went up to that room and lay in that bed in the sky. Maybe I was supposed to feel peace. Mostly, in the silence, I felt alone. My mother told me years later that the view of a sliver of mountain from my window is what made her realize that house was meant to be our home. But mountains don’t speak. She was giving me my sleep sounds, the small etchings on my soul. They weren’t loud enough to make a mark on me, to break its skin.

Tonight, my daughter lies, her bed facing the window, the big headphones and pink wire plugged into an iPad that glows with an app that may be playing rain. Or wind. Or the rush of grass blowing on a mountainside. I tried to choose her sounds, but I know she needs to choose her own. I still wish for her to understand she is complex – that life isn’t something that is happening outside of her but it’s existing beside her, that nothing is truly separate and all our experiences are intertwined. Maybe I wanted that noise to quiet her wonder of why she’s here. I can’t hear the sounds she’s chosen, so I sit on the edge of her bed and listen to those I chose for her. A motorcycle revving its engine along the West side highway. An ambulance echoing in the distance. A set of car doors slamming out of rhythm, signaling friendship, or love, or resentment, as two people get out into the night. I keep them for myself. My daughter’s face has fallen still – her eyebrows resting, her lips apart. The man outside her window still walks back and forth, the phone against his cheek – I can’t understand what he’s saying, but I can hear it, and that’s enough. I know he is telling a story, and I know his voice is a part of mine.

Emily James is a teacher and writer in NYC. She is the submissions editor at Pidgeonholes and the CNF Editor at Porcupine lit. She’s the winner of the 2020 Baltimore Review CNF contest, a Smokelong Flash 2020 Finalist, and the winner of the 2019 Bechtel Prize. Her work can be found in Guernica, River Teeth, The Atticus Review, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. 

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Image by Aaditya Mahato Pixabay [ALT Nighttime cityscape lit up by blue and pink ribbons of light weaving like traffic between the buildings]

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