Valerian Sleep

by Shauna Marie Barnes

The boys who have gathered beneath Janice’s window tonight are laughing and keep her up. She makes tea from valerian leaves, pinching five from one of the potted herbs in the box window. It takes her nearly twenty-five minutes because she has to get Nature’s Kure and see how many leaves are used to make two cups’ worth. She always refers to the book because, well, partly Janice is forgetful, and partly she’s afraid of the numbness she read about in Reader’s Digest: a woman named Rosie—Janice had smiled at the irony—made a tonic from an entire valerian plant, and when she woke up in the morning her right arm was numb. The article had read, “the poor woman still can’t clench her fist or swing a tennis racket like she used to.”

The boys are swearing now, and Janice creeps to the window and squats next to the potted herbs: mistletoe to ease nervous heart palpitations, valerian and California poppy for insomnia, lady’s mantle and meadowsweet for diarrhea, and white deadnettle for the irregular periods she’s never had. Janice has a condition. You’ll never pass puberty, dear, her mother would tell her like she was talking about kidney stones. But you’ll live a normal lift ‘gardless.

She cups the mug in her hands and blows on the tea. The boys are laughing about sex and things Janice would rather not listen to at 1:30 in the morning. She stretches her neck to peek over the windowsill, but she’s on the second floor and can’t see the sidewalk, only the streetlight that flashes like it has the hiccups.

It’s happened before, the boys laughing and keeping her awake while she has fitful dreams of gang rape like it’s background music. People tell her to be more assertive—well, not really people she knows, but she does watch talk shows where they say people like Janice are afraid to tell the waiter when they don’t get what they order. And that did happen to her once, but it was only Italian dressing instead of raspberry vinaigrette, so she didn’t bother.

One of the boys is named Macker, and he’s telling stories of things he’s stolen for fun: a compact case, a peach toilet brush, a   pack of D-size batteries, and one roller blade. Janice can picture the boys elbowing him. “Yeah, Macker. You got the fingers.” “A toilet brush?” “What do you do with one roller blade, man?”

“I threw the brush through my old girlfriend’s window. What a laugher.”

“Macker, man. Grow up.”

“No, see. There was stuff on the brush when I threw it. Get what I’m saying—real sewage.”

Janice thinks Macker is taller than the rest. Taller than Pinch, Scott, and Pete. His hair is dark, and it glows blue under the streetlight; a red bandana catches his bangs to his forehead. Their skateboards roll back and forth, sounding like gravel in a cash register. Janice peeks over the windowsill again and formulates a request in her mind. Please boys, she thinks, could you move your conversation down a few blocks? That sounds assertive, yet friendly—what Janice would like to be. She stands a little taller on her knees, her heart beating a bit more quickly, but only whispers what she had thought to yell.

Janice sets her empty mug on the windowsill and crawls to her bed. She’s had her tea and should be sleepy soon.

Now the only light on in her apartment is the bedside lamp with goose cloth draped over the shade. She’s been thinking about making curtains from the same material, muting her apartment like a memory. It reminds her of the seventies. She was thirteen in 1975 and wanted to go braless. She could have—no one would have noticed either way, and Janice still forgets to wear one some-times. Her mother told her she was lucky to miss puberty. This way, she said, you’ll never fall in love. There you go, life minus misery. And her mother snapped her fingers like she had performed a magic trick. Ta-da.

Janice is madly in love with a man from work named Mark. That’s his first name, but the woman from the cafeteria calls him Jennings and winks when she says it, like she’s sending him a dirty joke with mascara dust. Janice also has a crush on her next-door neighbor Annabelle who dehydrates tomatoes and apricots in the spring.

Janice has never talked to either of them, though—at least not in person. There’s this running conversation she has with Mark in her mind, and he’s always very careful not to hurt her feelings. He really did smile at her once, raising his finger to let Janice know he’d seen her before. You are a woman of magic, he said to Janice in her imagination, his voice thick and deep, sounding like someone running a telethon. She felt a swell in her chest that nearly made her sing out loud. Janice wanted to talk to Mark, to place her hand on his forearm while she asked him questions about his clientele and her organization of the storage closet. It is an important job; she has come to realize that.

Annabelle knows how to talk to men. Janice is aware of this only because the walls are thin and she can hear Annabelle talking in the hall with the people she dates. Just last week she was conversing with Kevin. They were back from a date at the Four Star Theatre, and Kevin wanted to step in and try a dried tomato. I can spot a quality dehydrator from a mile away, he said. Annabelle laughed like a wind chime but wouldn’t let him in. I know, Kevin said, there are crazies out there. And Annabelle told him there were things she had to do early in the morning.

Janice tries to ignore Macker and his chorus. They’re singing a love song in four-part harmony, substituting obscenities for terms of endearment. One of them is flat.

Annabelle’s probably asleep by now. She doesn’t have windows facing the street and goes to bed by 8:00. From her window, Janice has watched Annabelle get into her car. It’s an ’89 Hyundai Excel with rust on the corners like cake dust. She wears flowing skirts and boots thick with heels. Janice wants to talk to Annabelle even more than she wants to talk to Mark. She imagines she and Annabelle are best friends, even though Annabelle seems busy with work—she’s a radio show host, and the men shuffle in and out of her apartment like dentist appointments. Janice has tired of her life and the comfort she finds in surrounding herself with intimate strangers; she watches Mark and Annabelle like a television series. It’s time, Janice knows, to do something differently.

She takes out the pad of paper by her bed and makes a list of things to do tomorrow: (1) Say hello to Annabelle. (2) Ask Mark his name. (3) Buy cilantro to make homemade pasta. And (4) Ask the clerk at the bookstore about that Stephen Covey book Oprah talked about. Janice crumples the three lists that precede her new one, and tosses them out the window.

She smooths the comforter on her bed. Why isn’t she sleepy yet? She knows thinking about sleep will only make things worse. The one theory Janice does have about life is whatever you wish for always stays a wish. That’s why she tries not to fantasize excessively about Mark and Annabelle.

Janice thinks about praying for sleep, but that’s too much like a wish, so she decides against it. She does believe in God, like she knows she has a boss at work, even though she’s never seen him. And while he signs her checks, she’s pretty sure he’d never recognize her if they ran into each other in the hall. And not even that bothers her; she wouldn’t recognize him either, and she does prefer strangers. Mark, on the other hand, must believe in God. She wonders if she’d love him less if she actually knew him—Mark that is, not God. Mark probably prays every night, on his knees like a child, with his thick fingers pointed to heaven. And please, Lord, she hears him plead, help me be kind to the winking woman in the cafeteria, because I know you love her.

Janice’s walls are comforting periwinkleblue with water stains spilling from the windowsills. Toothpaste gets out rust stains. She read that today somewhere, Good Housekeeping maybe, and thought about her countertops and Annabelle’s Excel. Could you use it on cars, Janice wonders. Probably not or someone would have bottled it by now—in big jugs with bright colors—car colors. Man colors.

Last year she had that flu everyone weak was getting. Janice was really sick, cramping in her bed and touching her fingers to the handle of the pan on her night stand. No, Janice likes her apartment with its fitted walls and her neighbor, Annabelle, who knows when men shouldn’t come in to look at a dehydrator or eat a dried tomato.

The problem with her apartment is the location, only two turns from the blocks that elbow each other for miles. Only two turns from the graffiti that always reads friendly, a language of loops Janice is not familiar with and colors she might try on in a dressing room. But teenagers, usually, stray from their corners to stand under Janice’s window, an unintentional serenade that gets louder and later closer to the weekends. Macker has invited more friends to his square on her sidewalk, and they’re telling jokes about AIDS and diseases that make men swell.

“No, man,” Macker says. “I’m telling you this guy died from it. Right there while that woman watched and laughed.”

“Vicious,” someone says, and Janice hopes they’re winding down. They never talk long about things that frighten them. Goodness, Janice thinks, is it really three in the morning?

Annabelle’s now talking to a man on the phone named Phil.

She’s telling him it’s late and she hasn’t gotten any sleep yet. Janice moves from her bed to the wall she shares with Anna, in the kitchen. She curls on the countertop and places her palm on the striped wallpaper.

“Phil,” Annabelle says. “It’s too late.” Her voice scratches at the phone. “You’d better figure out the decent times to call.” The phone slams down. Her thick footsteps make their way to Janice’s door and finally, three loud knocks.

“Excuse me,” Annabelle says. Janice snaps to a sitting position. “I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am,” she calls. “Ma’am?”

Janice toes her way to the door. “Hello?” Janice says. “Yes?” “Why don’t you tell them to shut up? You’re awake, aren’t you?”

“Excuse me?”

“Excuse you? Those kids—tell them to shut up. Are you lead-headed?”

Janice stands by her door, her toes curling against the scratched linoleum. Annabelle’s door slams.

It’s now 3:22 and Janice sets her alarm for 6:30.

“Damn, that’s harsh,” Pete says, and Janice knows they’ve told one of their last jokes about sex diseases. She stands in the window and watches the tops of their heads. Macker is leaning against the lamppost, his strawberry blonde hair short. Their skateboards are all turned upside-down like sleeping dogs.

“Boys,” Janice calls from the window.

“Excuse me.” All of their faces turn to Janice, and she smiles at them. “It’s late,” she says. “You better go home now.”

Macker swears and waves Janice the finger. With their backs to her they kick their skateboards onto the wheels and grind away, their golden heads glowing until they escape the haze of the streetlights.