Originally Published in Portland Review
I am running naked down the street, screaming for help, my girlfriend Joe chasing me in her car, shouting out the window for me to stop. My bare feet have left a clear trail in the snow for her to follow. This is both a dream and reality.
In the dream, Joe is a vampire, a very hungry vampire, and I am her quarry. It is daytime, and my fear is enhanced by her ability to fly after me without burning or melting or exploding. In reality, I am in the midst of what Joe clinically refers to as an episode. She is chasing me to save my life—to return me safely to our bed where I will not die from exposure. When she does catch me, she is supposed to gently lead me to the car; attempting to wake me suddenly by shaking me could result in injury—more than likely injury to me because, as she has said, she’s not going to, “fucking sit there and let you hit me just to boost ratings, Wes”
The ratings to which Joe refers are Neilson Ratings. As in TV families. As in I’m on TV: American Reality Television, the ART channel. I’ll be on at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, right before Fire Screamers, which is pretty much the best time slot my agent tells me. If you haven’t heard of ART, that’s because it’s an up and coming network. You can watch on the internet, which is where all people will be watching TV in the future. That’s according to ART’s head of programming, Derek Nikitas. That guy invented Internet television; that’s what he says anyway. I didn’t even own a TV until all of this started.
The show is called Sleepwalker X. The X is supposed to stand for extreme. That’s because I suffer from REM behavior disorder. As the promos for the show say, I sleepwalk, “to the extreme.” I thought I had to be the only person in the world who would cook and eat a full meal while I was asleep. Not even close to true.
I was in New York a few years ago, and I went to see this Off Broadway show, Sleepwalk With Me. The guy who wrote and stars in it, Mike Birbiglia, built a career around his sleep disorder. He almost died after jumping through a second story window, and now he’s in his own movie.
That’s not how I got my show. I’ve never even met Mike Birbiglia. After we saw his performance, Joe told me I had better go to see a doctor before I ended up jumping out of a window. “Or I end up jumping out of a window,” she added. At that point, Joe and I had been together for a year or so, and I had already tried to strangle her, have anal sex with her, and give her a bath. It was in the opposite order though, so she thought it was fun at first.
She never took off, though, even after I went to the doctor, so I know she loves me. She jokes and says, “If I leave you, I’ll end up feeling guilty when you have a suicide dream.” I’m glad Joe has a good sense of humor.
I say “even after I went to the doctor,” because my doctor is actually the reason I ended up with my own show. Dr. Caroline Nikitas is Board Certified in sleep medicine; she’s also the wife of Derek. Joe called the whole thing a scam and “a conflict of interest in the least.”
“This is serious money,” I told Joe. “Besides, after the first season, she’ll treat me for free.”
Joe wasn’t sold. “If I wanted you to get help for my sake,” she said, “I would have dumped you when you choked me.”
I told her I would get help, and I could be famous, too. She agreed to take a meeting with Derek.
The whole setup is genius. I will admit, I was confused when he explained it: “You’ll wear a Go-Pro, one of those little cameras for your head. We’ll have sensors set up in the house so when you get up, it will start recording.”
He said they’d also have a small crew working out of a mobile unit on the street, “And the best director out there.” They’d also be alerted when the sensors picked up my movement. There would be a live feed for subscribers, but the actual show would be fully produced and edited.
“So these people will be in my house?” Joe asked.
“No, just cameras. The people are for when Wesley goes outside,” Derek said.
“So America will be in my house every night,” Joe said.
Derek slid a piece of paper across the table. I picked it up and showed it to Joe.
“I feel like I’m buying a ridiculously expensive car,” she said.
“You could buy two,” said Derek.
Joe worked out the details of the contract. She works at a law firm, and she wanted to make sure that there were no loopholes for them to get out of treating my disorder, “instead of just exploiting it,” she said.
Her boss said it seemed fair, to which she replied, “He’s not a very good lawyer.”
Still, I got the show.
They decked out our house with sensors and not-very-hidden cameras, and they even bought us some new furniture—for production value Chris, the director, said. I had a Go-Pro that I wore to sleep, and one kept in my bedside table in case the first one didn’t work. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to change it while I was sleeping, but I did change a tire asleep once so I didn’t ask.
When I was a kid, my dad had this trick he’d do when I had the hiccoughs. He’d tell me that if I hiccoughed one more time, he’d give me all the money in his wallet. And like magic, I’d stop. He’d show me a $20 or a $50, and I’d try to work up one more diaphragm contraction.
For one week after production of Sleepwalker X was supposed to begin, I couldn’t sleep; and when I did, I didn’t dream, or at least I don’t remember any of them—I and certainly didn’t sleepwalk.
I was so nervous that I had somehow been cured by the promise of money, but Joe assured me that according to the contract we’d signed, they had to pay me anyway. She probably wishes she hadn’t told me that because the next night, I had my first episode.
We had gone to see some airplane movie with Denzel Washington, and that night I dreamt I was a pilot. The cameras started recording when I sat up. There was one high angle camera mounted above the door, and, of course, the Wes-Cam on my head.
I walked onto the plane and took my seat in the cockpit at the end of the bed. I was drunk, but the real problem was that I didn’t know how to fly the plane. The stewardesses kept yelling at me. When I turned back to tell them I was sorry, I was face to face with Joe. In the dream she was the head flight attendant. On the dailies that I got to see, she was the irritated, bleary-eyed girlfriend with her arms crossed shaking her head. Then she rubbed my shoulders to wake me up.
At our meeting with Chris and Derek, Joe got a reprimand.
“It was a funny scene, for sure,” said Derek, “but the show is really about how Wes navigates the world in his sleep.”
“Which he can’t do if you wake him up,” added Chris.
With the help of Dr. Nikitas, Derek and Chris made some suggestions to enhance my dreaming experience. They were more than suggestions. We now own the biggest television I have ever seen. It’s like something out of a sci-fi movie. They have put me on a diet of late-night viewing: horror, fantasy, sci-fi. Between that and the ice cream and bourbon, I was set for some ratings-boosting somnambulating. Just in case, as an added precaution, Dr. Nikitas also prescribed a low dose of Ambien.
The few paid subscribers would get quite a treat after that. I did some major damage to the living room floor when I tried to dig a grave in it. I had to, though; this secret organization had killed my family, and the only way they would let me live was if I dug a mass grave for all of them. I had no choice. When the assistant director saw Joe trying to stop me, he had to send in a crew to intervene. They promised to replace the floor when principal shooting was over; they’d even let her pick out whatever hardwood she wanted. She said she wanted the floor that had gouges in it, and then she had them sign an addendum to the contract that they would replace it with an identical floor.
They would have to also replace the light fixture that I had to climb up to escape the snakes and mirror that I broke to kill the woman living in it.
The show is 42 minutes plus commercials and credits. My episodes don’t always fit that time frame, especially since half the time it just looks like I’m wandering around, so they cut in with interviews and backstory.
In one of the interviews, I told them about the first time I remember sleepwalking. I had almost drown. I was a kid, and we had been living in this gated community with a pool and tennis courts. Our house was right by the pool. I had been dreaming that I was an Olympic swimmer—I think the summer Olympics were on that year—and I needed to practice to beat my archrival, this merman from Australia. He had the advantage of a tail, but I could hold my breath forever. I guess maybe he could, too, but that wasn’t part of the dream. I put on my official Olympic suit, which was a pair of my little sister’s underpants, and walked barefoot down to the pool.
I don’t know how many laps I swam, maybe not even one, before I inhaled a lungful of water. That will wake anybody up. Only I was swimming at the bottom of the pool, and it was pitch black out, so when I woke up I panicked and swam into the side of the pool.
My mom had said she could sense that I was in trouble, but I think she must have heard the front door slam. She dove in and pulled me out.
Chris said it was a great story, and they even tried to film a reenactment of it, but the kid actor they hired never could get the drowning right, so they scrapped it.
Less than a month in, Derek called us in for a meeting. By that time, Joe was sleeping in the guest room with a white noise machine. She said she just couldn’t stand to see what I was doing to myself.
“The test audience doesn’t connect with Josephine,” he said. “They just don’t find you to be likable.”
“I’m barely in any of the shots,” she countered. “How can they—“
But Derek stopped her. “That’s another problem. You signed a performance contract.” He said he didn’t want to have to point out the obvious but that she was breaking her contract.
She said she’d have her lawyer take another look at it, but Derek said that wasn’t necessary.
“Reality TV,” he said, “isn’t real real. I mean, it’s real. You’re a real person, Wes, but if it were real, we’d be showing you going to the bathroom and buttering your toast. Snoozeville, right?”
I swear I could feel the heat coming off Joe’s face as she stared at Derek. He picked up his phone and asked his secretary to send in someone named Rita.
“Wes,” he said. “I’d like you to meet Joe two point oh.”
I believe Joe’s exact words were, “No fucking way.”
As I tentatively shook Rita/Joe’s hand, Derek tried to calm down Joe/Joe by explaining that she could continue as she was, sleeping in the guest room, staying invisible, and avoid breaking her contract by allowing Rita to play her.
“She’s a model,” Joe said, to which Rita replied by blushing and thanking her.
“Will Rita—“ I began.
“Joe 2.0,” corrected Derek.
“Will she have to live with us?”
“Only at night,” he said.
“So she’ll sleep with my boyfriend,” said Joe.
“Just until his performance,” said Derek. After my “performance,” Rita would be officially off the clock until the next night.
I could see the validity of both sides. Rita would only be in the house for two or three hours a night, and we wouldn’t be having sex or anything. But this was a younger, much more attractive—in the conventional sense—woman than Joe.
“We lose some footage, sure, but everything’s digital nowadays anyway,” explained Derek. “And with some expert editing, we could salvage a lot.”
He dismissed Rita and asked us—mostly Joe—“Do you realize how important this show could be to the sleep disabled citizens of our country?”
The first night she woke up to me tearing the bedspread into bandages for my head wound, Rita looked more excited than surprised. My parachute had opened at the last minute, but I had hit the ground with such velocity that I thought I had split my skull open. Luckily, the parachute would make for a perfect tourniquet.
As I watched the footage, I could see how Rita made a better Joe than Joe. As Chris put it, “She is the eyes of America, and unlike Joe point oh, America isn’t going to be annoyed when you’re doing your thing.”
Rita didn’t hear me get up during the vampire dream. She didn’t hear me strip naked to get the scent of cologne off or rub garlic on my chest and neck. She didn’t hear me leave. Joe did though.
Dr. Nikitas has told us that loud noises are preferable to shaking, so Joe is laying on the horn, despite the fact that it is after two in the morning. About five blocks from our house, I finally hear the dying whine of her Honda’s horn. I am standing in the middle of an intersection, looking down at my red feet and shrunken penis. Like a child who doesn’t feel pain until he sees the scratch, I immediately begin to shiver. To my left is Joe’s Honda, Joe leaning across the passenger seat, yelling for me to “get the fuck in the goddamn car.”
Her car has not had a chance to warm up, and the cool air blowing out of the vents forces me into a ball, my knees pulled tight to my chest.
The ART van pulls up beside us and Chris is yelling for Joe to stay put. The van door opens and out comes Rita in a nightgown I have never seen and that is way too skimpy for this weather.
As my chattering teeth vibrate my head like a tuning fork, Chris is telling Joe that she needs to get in the van and let Rita drive me home. Joe turns to me and says, “I am doing this for you” in a way that tells me this is the last thing she’s going to be doing for me for a while.
I just want to get home and get my clothes on, so I nod my head energetically as Joe pushes past Rita.
Rita whispers, “Sorry” to me as she puts her hands around my head and pulls me in for a kiss. The Go-Pro hits her in the forehead so she takes it off. Behind her I can see Al, one of the camera guys, focusing in on us.
Rita rubs my freezing thigh and says, “We have to get you home, love.”
Joe, backing herself into the van, is shaking her head slowly.
Joe doesn’t sleep at the house. She tells me she’ll be packing up her stuff and moving in with a friend from the office.
“Do I know her?” I ask.
“Do you know Rita?” she replies.
I want to tell her to stay, to convince her that one day we’ll look back on this experience and have all kinds of terrific stories to tell at parties. Maybe even Hollywood parties. I almost tell her that Rita means nothing to me, but that sounds like I was cheating on her.
“Call me when this,” and she waves her hand in the air, “is all over.” She says she can’t promise she’ll pick up, that she has a lot of processing to do, that she’s not sure she can be with someone whose values are so screwed up.
I wanted a better life for us, an adventurous life. I wanted to be able to use my disability to pay Joe back for putting up with me.
Maybe I still can. Maybe when the show airs and Dr. Nikitas treats me, I can use my Sleepwalker X money to pay for Joe to go to law school.
I’m lying in bed alone thinking about that when I get a text from Chris: “Derek is already talking season two. You’re beautiful, baby.”
Joe never called me baby.