A Drink Of Water
By Inderjeet Mani.
Sometimes a man from within his sleep will thirst after a drink of water. This is not a bad thing in itself, given the dehydrating atmosphere of our modern, centrally-heated bedrooms; however, there are certain dangers inherent in the act, certain frightfully morbid possibilities, so it is best to remain forewarned. It is no accident, of course, that such acts, if such thoughts may be described as acts, have the structure they do. The hindbrain, whose silent, symphonic cycles modulate the various observed patterns of sleep and their peculiar qualitative properties, is linked by slender fibers to the ventromedial hypothalamus, long believed to be the thirst center of the brain. But there is not much point burdening you with a psychophysiology which is still quite speculative. What is important is that when these acts occur they sometimes take on a bewildering appearance, a syntax unintelligible to all except the most scrupulous of observers.
* * *
It is rewarding work, this business of watching over the sleep of others. Perhaps it explains the leisure I now have to write about it. For I am sitting in a favorite armchair in my study, watching the evening emerge over the streets of the city. It is beginning to rain slightly, a light patter of water dripping down my window sill. Or else I am back in my bedroom, wearing the thin silk pajamas that Sarah loved. No, I do not keep a cat. I refer to my dear, long-departed wife — she was once my mistress — curled up against the comforter, freshly bathed and scented for the long October night.
* * *
There was a violent electric storm in Philadelphia on the night of the 21st March. A disturbance in the Gulf of Mexico had spilled over to us. We had been advised to stay indoors. I remember the 21st because I had returned from a conference in Boston on the 20th. Boston is not a bad city, of course, but it lacks the charm of Philadelphia with its Jeweller’s Row and Elfreth’s Alley, and of course Rittenhouse Square, where the prettiest secretaries can be spotted feeding the pigeons and gossiping with their bosses at lunch time. Even the neighborhood around the Wistar Institute where I work is fairly decent.
My house is across the street from work, and I often sleep over in the lab. We have a sturdy little microwave oven and several vending machines in the lab, but of course there’s nothing like having a hot supper in your own home. I have a lady who comes and does the dishes. Otherwise, one has to rise in the morning and plunge one’s hands deep into the sink through a shiny veil of water and grease. It’s bad enough to wake up in the morning with your throat parched and your eyelids almost sealed with nocturnal secretions. But this is only a natural response to the terrible dryness of the air inside, often completely at odds with the weather outdoors.
* * *
I have it now. It was not the 21st, but the 22nd. I know that because I had gone to Boston to present a paper entitled “Sleep and Thirst – Some Proposed Cerebral Interactions.” It was quite well received, although it must be noted that some of my colleagues are always willing to fling stones or verbal excreta at each other. We had some strong winds the night of the 22nd, gale-force winds, terrible thunderclaps, gigantic explosions of lightning. Water — so much water, gushing from the sky in a great fountain! I remember drawing the curtains and watching a movie, and then, after a few sips of brandy, putting on my pajamas and bedroom slippers and tiptoeing off to the bedroom. The bedroom was deathly quiet, as it always is during thunderstorms. Sarah was sleeping quietly, not a snuffle out of her nostrils. I got into bed, my body instinctively curling away from hers, and then I heard the radiator.
On nights like that, when you lock the bedroom door, the radiator always gives trouble. You have to bang the door shut, and then the radiator — I can see the Wistar if I pull aside a curtain, but I will not — emits a strange thudding noise. It must be the thermostat being violently thrown about, because the room gets very hot and dry at night. Still, there is nothing quite like climbing into bed, your head nodding slowly, and then sinking back into the softest of pillows, hearing, in spite of the radiator, the pat-pat-pat on the window sill and the quiet ticking of an alarm clock somewhere in the room. The entire system shuts down — well, almost the entire system: the blood pressure slides down to quite a low reading, the heartbeat dies away out of earshot, the digestion settles down to a quiet chuckling contentment, until you can no longer chase a thought across the darkness of the room – you simply twiddle a toe (never the little one) and adjust your neck more comfortably. The position of the neck is of course crucial, as it controls the quantity of blood supplied to the hindbrain.
I have found it useful since childhood not to sleep on my back. I usually sleep on my right side, but invariably find myself waking up on my left. Perhaps I am in the habit of turning during the night, or of waking up to fetch a glass of water, and then returning to sleep forgetfully on my left.
* * *
I am a sound sleeper. I don’t hear very much, not that one is supposed to hear very much during the various stages of sleep. Sarah once told me that I slept unperturbed through a particularly violent thunderstorm, refusing to wake up even when my first name was bellowed repeatedly in my left ear. She ought to know. Storms do not frighten me. Even after watching a horror movie, I can sleep without imagining anyone walking into the kitchen or bathroom or a bearded face examining me through the curtains. And during the thunderstorm we had the other day, a violent electric storm that demolished trucks and uprooted trees, I slept like someone under sedation. As usual, the central heating was on, but I had been too tired to adjust it before bed: my mind was filled with ideas from the Thirteenth Annual Neurophysiology Conference in Boston, and I woke up the next morning as if nothing had happened, except for feeling very thirsty.
* * *
It is odd, is it not, to wake up after a storm and to feel very thirsty? Alas, no birds sing just after storms, only long afterwards when the sky has cleared, and the air drips with clarity, and the freshness feels like a crystal. Anyway, I opened the curtains and saw a light still on at the office — I must have forgotten to switch it off. Everything was as always in the kitchen and the bathroom, and after dragging out a rattle of phlegm, I coughed once more, then urinated. I wondered then why I urinated so little, especially after drinking so much water during the night. But then the body itself is mostly water.
* * *
One night, I was working in the lab, conducting one of those interminable water-deprivation experiments on animals – the kind that necessitates whole nights dedicated to scientific discovery. After injecting various water substitutes into the anteromedial hypothalamus, I sat there, brooding over my creatures, watching for signs of hyperactivity or satiety. Soon after midnight, my thoughts started to wander. I was sitting on a high stool by the window, my neck sagging a little, a glass of brandy beside me, the pages of my lab book fluttering under the table lamp. Around me were flasks of colored liquids swirling over bunsen flames, each yearning for an ontology of its own. There is a dream-like quality to such moments, a steady alternation of reverie and deliberation. But that night my thoughts were interrupted. Looking across the block through the pelting rain, I saw my room suddenly lit up in a flash of lightning. Sarah was there, asleep in her pink nightdress on the double bed, and someone was standing by her side, watching her. From the rapid saccades of her pupils, it was obvious she was dreaming, dreaming that after the terrible storm was over, I had gotten up, in my absent-minded way, and shuffled off to fetch her a drink of water.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Inderjeet Mani studied creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania (with Carlos Fuentes), at Bread Loaf (with Patricia Hampl), and at Harvard (with Paul Harding). His work has been published in a variety of venues, including Drunken Boat (Finalist for the Pan Literary Award, also one of Story South’s Million Writers Award Notable Stories of 2007), Slow Trains, Nimrod (Finalist for Katherine Anne Porter Prize), WIND (2003 Short Fiction Award), Word Riot, Kimera, Plum Ruby Review, The Reston Review, the Deccan Herald, etc. He is also one of the people behind the lit-film web portal www.webdelsol.com/f-solpix.htm. Before moving to Thailand to become a full-time writer, he was a Research Scholar at Brandeis University, a Research Affiliate at MIT, a (tenured) Associate Professor at Georgetown University and a Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University. More information about his books, short stories and travelogues can be found at www.cs.brandeis.edu/~im5.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 12th, 2009.