By Patricia Crisafulli
In the Small Hours of the Morning
By Patricia Crisafulli
Without looking at her phone by the bedside or the antique clock on the shelf across the bedroom, Emilie knew the time. For seventeen days in a row, she had awakened at 2:45 a.m., give or take a few minutes. If the pattern held, she would be up for an hour or two, rolling left and right, trying to find a cool spot on her pillow, kicking covers off and pulling them back on again.
This time, she’d had it. Sliding off the mattress without waking Dave, who infuriated her by being able to sleep through almost anything, she found her bathrobe on the chair in the corner and felt the velour softness slip over her arms and fall to the middle of her calves. With only diffused light through the windows to guide her, she descended the stairs, one hand clutching the banister, the other trailing along the wall. At the bottom, her bare feet hit cold hardwood floor. Passing by the kitchen, she looked through the archway toward the microwave oven; it blinked the time into the darkness: 2:57.
With the switch of a lamp, shadowy hulks changed into two armchairs, a sectional sofa, and twin ottomans. She sat, hands clasped in her lap. Watching a one-star movie or reruns of The Golden Girls held no appeal, and her eyes felt too gritty, her brain too tired, to read.
Getting to her feet, Emilie walked to the closet. She stepped into a pair of slip-on sneakers, feeling garden grit against her bare soles, but didn’t want to risk going upstairs to find socks. Her tan trench coat ended two inches above her powder blue bathrobe. Realizing that she’d left her phone upstairs, she nearly ended this mission, but wanted to do something—anything—to stop feeling so helpless against whatever force kept awakening her in the small hours of the morning.
Standing outside the closed door of the four-bedroom colonial she and Dave had lived in for the past eighteen years, Emilie stared into the darkness that blotted out the front yard. She remembered when she and Dave had put in the gardens and the hedge themselves that first year, running back and forth to buy plants and tools and hoses with a baby and a preschooler in tow. She could still picture four-year-old Jason pushing a toy truck along a mound of topsoil and one-year-old Gwen on a blanket streaked with grass stains. Now, they were twenty-two and nineteen, both away at college.
She descended the steps to the sidewalk and began walking the circle of houses on their cul-de-sac. She passed two darkened facades, then paused in front of the third where a light blazed from an upstairs window. Suddenly aware that someone in that house could be looking out at her, Emilie averted her gaze and continued to the corner where a streetlight cast an orange-yellow glow. She passed through it, watching her shadow elongate, then become swallowed by darkness, and reveled in the anonymity of night, the closest she’d ever come to invisibility.
Dave’s phone alarm beeped, high pitched and urgent. He fumbled, the phone clattered to the floor, the beep finally silenced. “What time you get up?” he asked.
Emilie pulled the covers over her head. “Three-ish.” As she lay there, she recalled walking until four-twenty in the morning, up one street and down the other, all through their neighborhood, until the slight brightening in the east had sent her scurrying home like a night creature.
“You just sit downstairs?” Dave asked.
Emilie pushed the covers down and stretched, trying to discern whether her husband had gone in search of her or only rolled over to find her half of the bed unoccupied before falling back to sleep. She guessed the latter. “I couldn’t sleep so I got up. Better than tossing and turning. I came back upstairs around four-thirty or so.” She’d managed to avoid a lie with a partial truth.
Dave reached over, his hand on her shoulder. “I’m so sorry this insomnia keeps dragging on.”
Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she planted her feet on the floor. His solicitousness stirred up her guilt over keeping something from him. But Emilie knew how he’d react: his warnings about tripping and falling in the dark, the danger of running into a stranger. “It’s okay. I think it’ll get better.”
“You’re sure you don’t want to ask the doctor for something?” Dave insisted.
Emilie shook her head. “You know I don’t—we talked about this.” She remembered what happened a few years ago when she’d broken a bone in her foot and had been prescribed painkillers. Her dependence on them had been swift and frightening, and weaning herself had been tough. She had vowed never to take anything narcotic again.
David stretched his arms over his head, then squeezed his shoulder blades together. “Melatonin?”
Emilie saw the softness of his torso, still trim but no longer with the defined muscles of his younger self. Without yoga or fitness classes over the past 18 months, her own body had drooped, as well, everything sliding lower like melting wax on a candle. “It’ll pass at some point.”
“Maybe there’s a meditation app you can listen to at night.”
Emilie wheeled around. “Please, I appreciate your concern. But I don’t want you to fix this—to fix me.”
His expression flickered from concern to hurt, and she regretted saying anything. Fatigue shredded her filters, and exhaustion flowed through her like truth serum.
Settling in at her desk, Emilie nursed a fourth cup of coffee and rubbed her eyes to clear the blur as she studied a spreadsheet. Overhead, the upstairs floorboards creaked, a telltale sign of Dave’s pacing during one of his phone calls. All day, every day, they lived and worked in constant awareness of each other.
Their commutes used to be mirror opposites: he to the city administration offices downtown, where he worked as an urban planner, and she to an office complex further out in the suburbs, where she ran the finance department for a marketing firm. Now, Dave occupied the small spare bedroom upstairs, and she had turned an alcove off their rarely used dining room into a makeshift office.
After working at home for most of last year, they had each looked forward to returning to their familiar routines this year. Emilie had spent three weeks in her office, vaccinated and socially distant, but out of the house at last. Then the world shut down again. Dave seemed resigned to it with his usual resilience, but she had cried over the email that her office would be closed until at least next year.
Feeling isolated made her miss the kids even more. Gwen had been home last year when her campus closed and stayed all summer; now she was back at Pepperdine in California. Jason was at Cornell, living off campus and working a part-time job. She’d only seen him at Christmas and for a week in July. To cheer herself, Emilie texted them both—friendly check-ins with emojis of hugs and smiles. Gwen’s “miss u, love u” came back immediately. Jason’s “in class now—text u later” returned after three minutes. She stared at the phone screen and felt their distance, while she and Dave remained behind, trapped like butterflies under glass.
That evening, Emilie fell asleep on the sofa. Dave gently shook her awake after five minutes, with apologies and explanations. “If you sleep now, you might not sleep later.”
Her eyes dry and burning, Emilie couldn’t remember ever being this tired—except maybe after Gwen’s birth when that sweet-faced baby had turned into a howling demon every night. At nine-thirty, she could no longer fight the waves of sleep dragging her under. She kissed Dave good night and went upstairs. Minutes later, she felt herself slip away.
Her eyes snapped open in the darkness. Assuming the usual 2:45, she calculated five hours of sleep, but when she went downstairs, she saw it was only one-thirty. It was too early to be up, Emilie told herself. Then, through the front window, she saw two deer move through the glow of the streetlight in front of the house. They walked shoulder to shoulder, down the pavement that shimmered in a light rain.
She put on the socks she had stuffed inside her sneakers, buttoned and belted her trench coat, and added a hat. Outside, the rain pattered softly, the air smelled fresh and new.
For five consecutive nights, Emilie walked the neighborhood, looping in and around and back and through familiar streets transformed by night. She watched the ghost-white shape of an opossum disappear into a hedge of boxwoods. Cats scampered in the shadows—feral, she guessed. Turning one corner, she smelled a cigarette and reversed her course. A car passed by.
Clouds parted to reveal a quarter moon, precise as a melon slice. Admiring it, Emilie thought of how often she failed to notice the sun, the moon, even the trees and birds. But now, at night, she took in everything like a tourist in a foreign land.
The next loop led to the cul-de-sac, and she resisted the pull of her house the way she had as a child when dinnertime meant the end of playing outdoors.
Then she saw it: light blazing from the outside lights and the front window. Emilie panted a little, her mouth dry. “Shit,” she breathed into the night air, the word soiling everything.
The door swung open before she reached it. Dave stood inside, barefoot in pajama pants and a zip-up sweatshirt. Emilie waited for him to say something. He closed the door behind her.
Smelling the cool, fresh air that still clung to her trench coat, she hung it up in the closet and kicked off her shoes. “I took a walk.”
“Yeah, I figured that out.” Dave sat down on the sofa.
Emilie glanced toward the kitchen; the microwave clock read 4:37.
“Where do you go?”
“Nowhere—I just walked. I get some fresh air.”
“You left two hours ago.”
“More like an hour and twenty minutes.”
“Whatever!” Dave’s voice rose. “What’s going on?”
“I told you—I can’t sleep,” Emilie repeated.
“I’m going back to bed.” Dave walked past her toward the stairs.
Emilie curled up on the sofa, in the spot her husband had vacated. Finally, she dozed off.
She smelled coffee. Dave stood in the kitchen; the microwave read 6:15. Emilie sat up, her neck stiff. When he brought a mug to her, she took it from him.
Dave clutched his cup with both hands. “I just don’t understand.”
Emilie inhaled deeply, tipped her face toward the ceiling. “It was just an impulse. I couldn’t sleep so I came downstairs and sat for a little while. I decided to step outside and then I started walking.”
“No—wait. I heard you get up. I thought you were using the bathroom. Then I heard the front door. It had to be two minutes later.”
“I’m talking about the first time.” She waited for his response. “Five nights ago.”
Dave’s mouth slacked open. “Five nights. You’ve been going out every night this week?”
Emilie’s nostrils flared as her breathing quickened. “You act like I’m at the corner bar or something. I’m just walking around the neighborhood.”
“At three o’clock in the morning. Who the hell knows what kind of people are out there at that hour?”
“Do you want to know? I can tell you. Nobody—except me.” Emilie grabbed her coffee, sloshing a little of the hot liquid on her hand, and headed upstairs.
They said little to each other for the rest of the day, and silence cloaked the dinner Dave cooked. After one bite, Emilie set down her fork. “I didn’t do anything wrong.” She spoke each word deliberately, a hammer on a row of nails.
“I’m not saying you did. I’m just trying to understand what’s going on.”
“Nothing!” Emilie shouted. “My world keeps getting smaller and smaller. That’s why I can’t sleep. I feel like I’m going crazy. Night is the only time I have to myself.”
“So what are you saying? You want to leave?”
She wanted to shake him. They’d been together since college when they were a year older than Gwen was now—thirty years ago. They’d spent more than half their lives together—twenty-six of them married. “Why would you even ask me that!”
Emilie left the table, but with nowhere to go inside their own house, she ended up in their bedroom. She curled on the bedspread.
Dave followed a few minutes later. He sat on the edge of the mattress. “I get it. If you want to keep walking, you can, but.”
“No buts.” Emilie slammed her head against the pillow. “I really, really need to figure this out myself.”
Dave got up and left the room.
Light came in through the gap between the shade and the window. A text sounded on her phone: a message from her boss. It was 7:45. She had slept nearly nine hours without stirring.
Dressed without taking a shower, she ran downstairs to make coffee. Dave’s mug rested in the sink, used and rinsed out already. As she popped the coffee pods in the machine, she wondered if exhaustion had overtaken her or if truth had released her—perhaps the potent combination of both. When Dave entered the kitchen, she handed him his refilled mug, but he set it aside and took the cup out of her hands.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I just worry—about everything. When you stopped sleeping, I knew you were unhappy. I began to think the worst.”
His arms wrapped around her, holding her tightly against him. She surrendered to the familiarity of his freshly shaved cheek against her face, the smell of his soap. He was her home and always would be.
“I’m not running away—not from you or us. It’s just everything is so—so tight.”
“I know. I feel it, too.”
Emilie pulled away just enough to look into his dark eyes, crinkled at the corners. Her mouth curled into a slow smile. “So I was thinking. Maybe I could walk before bedtime—at nine or so. Then maybe I’d be tired out.”
In his nod, she saw his relief and something else, a question he couldn’t risk asking.
“And, yes, you could come with me,” she told him. “Sometimes.”