Who among us has not dreamt, in moments of ambition, of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and rhyme, supple and staccato enough to adapt to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the undulations of dreams, and sudden leaps of consciousness. This obsessive idea is above all a child of giant cities, of the intersecting of their myriad relations.
Charles Baudelaire — Dedication of Le Spleen de Paris
New York, November 1988
Lying down that fitful, fateful night it was as if a stormy sea had descended into her large undulant breasts. When he saw Suraiyya naked for the very first time, Pierre, her most recent lover, expressed delight that her breasts were not fake, unlike the string of silicone inflated models he had dated in the past. “ J’adore tes siens! “ he exclaimed, “ I love the way they billow out of you, heavy as goatskins, spilling onto the sides of your arms like the whipped cream of an incoming tide”. Pierre was an assistant to Dominique de Villepin, the French ambassador to the UN. Villepin was known as much for his poetry and soirees as his staunch left wing politics and liked to keep people around him who shared similar passions.
The French Foreign Service paid well and allowed Pierre to afford an apartment in the posh West Village, which is where they were spending the night after she had reluctantly given in to his repeated pleadings. Suraiyya enjoyed having lovers over at her tiny MacDougal street apartment but she preferred sleeping alone and was usually impervious to the laments of paramours ejected in the middle of the night, shortly after their own ejaculation. “At least I let you come!” was her rejoinder as she firmly shut the door in their faces. Pierre had piqued her interest, however, with his offer to read Baudelaire to her in bed, particularly those poems the dissolute flaneur had composed in Calcutta. Suraiyya liked older men, her philosophy being that men were like wine and improved as they aged. The trick was finding a lover old enough to be interesting yet young enough to satisfy her ferocious desires. What ultimately seduced Suraiyya into making an exception to her strict rule of nocturnal solitude however, was the promise of a completely new olfactory sensation.
When Pierre had asked her if she knew Chartreuse, Suraiyya had innocently replied “the color?” causing Pierre to launch into a lengthy explanation of how Chartreuse was an ancient liqueur produced by Carthusian monks in exactly the same manner since 1737, how it had lent its name to the signature gold-green hue and not vice versa, how prodigiously aphrodisiac it was, how it heightened the senses and in some cases produced uncanny visions. Pierre swirled the sweetly pungent green liquid around his mouth, absorbing some of it in his tongue before he dove in between Suraiyya’s legs. The sensation was unlike anything she had ever experienced before, part fire and part ice. It took a long time for her to reach a climax, but when she finally did it felt like she had been savaged by lightning.
Afterwards there was still a tiny part of her that wanted to leave but Pierre pulled her close, nuzzling the nape of her neck with his warm fleshy nose. The frenchman’s bed was hard as he suffered from back pain and preferred a firm mattress, but Suraiyya was slow and soft post orgasm and also pleasantly full from their excellent Provençal dinner at Le Gamin of escargot, soft-shell crab and a surfeit of Bordeaux. Pierre cupped her face in his hands and said ” I have a confession. I am an insomniac and you had better be careful, insomnia is contagious.” Suraiyya laughed at him. Nothing had ever disturbed her rest. She had been known to sleep through thunderstorms, through seven engine fire alarms, through Simon and Garfunkel tearing through “Wake up Little Susie “ on a hot summer’s night in Central Park with a crowd of hundred thousand cheering them on. Suraiyya would just turn on her side with her legs curled up like ampersands over a couple of pillows. They settled down for the night, lying on her side with him spooned into her. Any minute now Morpheus would drag her down to his kingdom…
The night condensed into its still-most root. Suraiyya began to notice little things; the annoying whirr of the central heating; the distant merriment of the weekend crowd slowly petering out into just a few loud drunks on Christopher Street; the occasional smash of a liquor bottle onto the pavement below. She glanced over to the cold blue digital needlepoint of the bedside alarm clock. 3 am. In another hour the garbage trucks would begin their painful assault on the city’s ears and still she lay there, awake and completely silent. Not panicked yet, just amused at the novelty of her condition. Ticking off in her mind the possible remedies she settled on the simplest one and tried counting sheep…no, too easy in English, try counting in Italian, uno, dué, tré, quattro… her mind began to drift to that beach in Catania all those years ago where a swarthy fifteen year old Sicilian boy had managed to elude the ever watchful eyes of her parents and taught her how to count to a hundred in one sitting. She remembers how icy blue his eyes were, clear as the shallow tide pool behind the rocks that he had led her to…
The contours of that early sensual memory which amounted to nothing more than a stolen kiss and a few furtive caresses brought a smile to her lips which soon faded into exhaustion. She was so ready for sleep but again it eluded her. She needed to pee. The bathroom had one of those movie star dressing room mirrors with rows of light bulbs on three sides. Blinded by the brightness she kept her eyes closed while sitting on the toilet, opening them only gingerly at the floodlit mirror. Then she screamed. There was a strange old woman in the mirror, screaming right back at her. It was then that the enormity of the horror struck her dumb.
She picked up her flesh between thumb and forefinger and let it drop. It hung like wrinkled washing from her bones. Old. So old. She probed her sex; it was dry, and its soft curls which could be pulled back in pleasure had fallen out. Her lustrous black night had vanished and left in its place a few grey strands which barely made it to her neck. She touched the spot on the nape of her neck where she liked being kissed. Her skin was as flaky as the crumbs of yesterday’s bread. Her breasts? They were shriveled tents long ago deserted. How old was she? From somewhere a voice came that told her ‘You have stopped counting a while back’. ‘No, no!’ she spoke to the disembodied voice, ’ I’ve fallen asleep and I’m dreaming.’ But she knew that this was real somehow. Perhaps the only reality. Already she had the resignation of age.. and if she was so ancient how old was Pierre? Was he alive?
She walked back to the bedroom but the naked youth asleep in his bed was in the prime of his life, his smooth body magnificent in repose. She looked on in craving and awe at the sensuous muscles of his arms and thighs. A gigolo? Has she paid a gigolo? She must have. He slept carelessly, with the air of a faun, of a tawny indolent cat. Compared to this Apollo she was so ugly. No, not ugly. Just old. Suraiyya gathered her clothes and dressed quietly in the pale darkness of the windowed room, then softly closed the door on the sleeping Pierre. After all she had not spent the night.
In that instant which encompassed infinity she felt that was entering into a new realm of her senses, she had always lived with too many in-between moments; moments when she prayed for the nectar of oblivion but it eluded her like quicksilver. Those moments were populated with flashes of memory, the lost lands of her early years churning in multitudes of ghosts that would flash and disappear like fireflies on summer nights. In those in-between moments she had tried to catch them but they had always escaped into a nebulous past where she could not follow. Summer was an alien season on this cold cold island.
But now memories flooded into her like an intravenous drug. Curiously the only thing she could not remember is precisely when she stopped sleeping. All those days, months, and years of insomnia, of facing the rotation of the earth hour after hour, without respite, of watching everything that went by, hearing everyone who spoke. At first it was fun, she was delighted with her inexhaustible wakefulness. She would go out at night, close the after-hours places, come home, have breakfast and go right back to her dreary job proofreading academic texts at Palgrave Macmillan on 5th Avenue. Unsurprisingly she began to fail dismally at spotting errata and before long she was fired. As for Pierre, he stopped returning her calls. Could she expect anything else from a man who had once candidly told her that while he enjoyed Suraiyya’s intellect his primary attraction to her was physical?
There were very few refuges in Manhattan for the chronically sleep deprived and newly homeless; the Rose Reading Room at the main branch of the New York Public Library; the medieval gardens of The Cloisters; where she would marvel over the architectural beauty of Angelica Archangelica, the intensely aromatic leaves of glaucous rue, the beautiful but sinister spines of the hallucinogenic datura or thornapple. Alas, at a quarter past five the Cloisters would close and she would head back to midtown to certain plush rows of Cashmere coats at the Men’s department of Macy’s where it was possible to lie unnoticed sometimes for an entire hour before being evicted by a diligent Bangladeshi salesman.
The ever present floaters in her eyes had taken on the shapes of fantastical hallucinations. This bestiarum vocabulum was made up of monsters that were political animals from the country she had left behind. Zia Ul Haq was a two-headed worm, Maulana Maudoodi was a boomerang shaped flying fish, Zulfi Bhutto was a sea horse with wedgwood teacups for ears, Ayub Khan a bulbous bullfrog blowing cigar smoke rings as he croaked, Jinnah a praying mantis with trademark stick thin legs but wearing neat oxfords nonetheless. Sometimes it seemed as if the top of her head would burst and all the creatures living in her eye seas would come tumbling out onto the urine laced sidewalks of lower Manhattan.
Had years passed? Or merely weeks? The present was becoming ever more unreal while the past grew heavier and heavier like a giant sheet of soaked blotting paper. It was on yet another day of sleeplessness, as red-eyed, she fiddled in her purse outside the subway station on the corner of 4th Street and 6th Avenue to give a homeless man a quarter when he whispered to her, “Don’t you know that an overdose of memory will kill you? ” She was so shocked that she dropped the quarter on the street, and hurried off into the stinking bowels of the city, the Underworld, the Subterranean Way. Hades was alive and well and living off of giant feral rats in New York City.
People had taken on a strange transparency; she could see right through them. Underground, at the 4th St Station the N train pulled up, drowning out the Peruvian playing his pan flute. To her it felt like a long screeching needle full of pain, isolation exhaustion, anger. She knew that the man intently solving his crossword puzzle had all but killed his wife an hour earlier over coffee. All around her there were those that were quite dead but smiled cheerfully as they gorged their hunger with anything they could find, but most of all she began to recognize others like her who had not slept; some since before she was born.
Those certain others slyly glided by her on escalators; in the gilded darknesses of the cinema; sometimes they pretended to be spectators while busy acting out that elaborate drama called life giving her a forward-backward glance on the way to nowhere. Some were prominent, their faces looming large on billboards, on television, on the covers of magazines. Insomnia. She saw it in the unblinking eyes of bums and billionaires.
There was an unspoken communion between them. They knew each other on sight but would pretend not to acknowledge it, because to acknowledge insomnia would be terrible. They didn’t know why, but it would be terrible. Theirs was a mea-culpa of smiles, laughter, wit and silence. They knew, and they knew she knew. This knowledge was both punishment and power.