The worst part about insomnia was all the wasted time. I could have been cleaning my apartment, or binge watching The Crown, or learning Spanish. Instead, I spent hours lying in bed with my eyes closed, unable to fall asleep but too tired to get up.
Once, years ago, I had tried taking a sleeping pill. I woke the next morning mostly naked and stretched out on the picnic table in the back yard. Our neighbor was out on his deck, drinking his morning coffee and staring at me.
My husband was not amused. He had learned to tolerate the blackout shades and earplugs, the pacing around the house in the middle of the night, and the screaming fits if I managed to fall asleep and, God forbid, he sneezed and woke me. He had even weathered the time I didn’t sleep for three days straight and started using a hammer to kill the giant spiders crawling up the walls. Public nudity was a step too far. He moved out shortly after that, and I wasn’t sorry to see him go.
I had learned over the years that sometimes physical exhaustion would help me fall asleep, so I went to a sixty minute spin class after work. I had followed it with a hot bath and a cup of tea laced with brandy, and was just starting to drift off when the phone rang. I jolted awake with a gasp, heart pounding.
I had forgotten to shut off the phone. I wanted to pound my head against the headboard until I knocked myself out. Instead, I fumbled for the phone and looked at the display. It was a name and number I didn’t recognize.
A wrong number. Perfect.
“What?” I said, preparing to use words even sailors didn’t know. I was met with crying, and someone drawing a shaky breath.
“Lydia?” the weeper asked.
I knew that voice. I dug through the murk in my brain, trying to place it. The display had said Jeannie Talbott. A picture formed in my head of a teenager with acne and big hair, sobbing over a fight with her boyfriend. I hadn’t seen her since I divorced her father twelve years ago. Phillip had been my second husband. After the third, I gave up.
“You remember me!” she said in a wobbly voice. “Will you come meet me at the Main Street Diner?”
“Why?” I asked, disoriented by this wraith from the past.
“Please,” she said, her voice catching. “I need help. I’ll explain when you get here.”
I was wide awake now, anyway.
“Okay. I’m coming,” I said and disconnected.
My joints creaked and my muscles protested as I rolled out of bed. Fatigue made me feel like I was at least thirty years older than my true age.
I splashed cold water on my face and swallowed a couple of aspirin, then pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt. I didn’t bother brushing my hair or putting on makeup. Surely the patrons of an all-night diner had seen worse.
On my way out the door, I stopped to grab an ice cube and a napkin to lay it on. I could at least pass the ice over the bags under my eyes while I drove. It may not shrink them, but maybe it would help keep me alert. They say that tired driving is worse than drunk driving.
My second marriage had blown up when I discovered Phillip was cheating on me. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I had been his mistress before he foolishly left his wife and married me. Negotiating who was going to pick up the dry cleaning and fighting over what to watch on TV wasn’t nearly as much fun as secret trysts in hotels. We quickly grew bored with each other, but the marriage limped along for over a year before I found the texts from his new mistress.
I hadn’t thought about Jeannie in years. We were never very close. She had been torn between loyalty to her mother and fascination with her father’s glamorous new wife. I had been stuck with her more times than I could count, while Phillip was out at business dinners or holed up in his study avoiding both of us.
She had been an awkward girl, younger than her years, and never able to get her hair or clothing quite right. I tried to help her. I took her shopping for clothes that didn’t make her look like she was twelve, and then to my hairstylist for her first professional cut. She had small, squinty eyes, so I showed her how to use eyeliner to make them appear larger.
All of this had precipitated an epic hissy fit by her mother, who accused me of making her daughter look like a whore. That woman had been the bane of my existence during my whole marriage, always calling with some guilt trip or household emergency that sent Phillip running off to his former home. After we divorced, I had expected him to remarry her, but he didn’t.
I allowed myself a small, smug smile at the thought.
At the diner, I found Jeannie sitting in a booth at the back. The acne was gone and her hair was no longer big, but her eyes were still small and squinty. I slid into the seat across from her and turned the coffee cup upright. Normally I tried to avoid caffeine, but I was going to allow myself half a cup.
She was staring at me, and I started to feel defensive. Maybe I should have taken the time for a little makeup. Chronic inadequate sleep ages a person prematurely. Ask any of the women’s magazines.
“Why did you call me?” I asked, sounding a bit harsher than I had intended.
The waitress arrived and filled my cup. Jeannie toyed with her napkin-wrapped silverware, and I noticed the wedding ring on her finger. It was a plain gold band, nothing impressive. We waited until the waitress had gone.
“Happy anniversary,” she said with sarcasm.
It took a moment for her meaning to sink in. I had three wedding anniversaries. Three dates to remind me of my failures. For the most part, I had stopped noticing them.
“I’m surprised you remembered.”
“It was an easy date to remember. And appropriate. The Ides of March.”
I suspected she was trying to say, in her passive-aggressive way, something about my destroying her parents’ marriage. But the blame for that should lay squarely at Phillip’s feet.
“Right. When the conspirators killed Caesar because he wouldn’t discontinue Daylight Savings Time.”
“What are we doing here, Jeannie?”
She leaned back and looked away. “I didn’t have anyone to call, then I thought of you. You always tried to be nice to me. Even when I was horrible to you.” She cleared her throat. “And you always gave good advice about boys.”
I sighed. I hadn’t been called to a diner in the middle of the night over boy trouble since I was in college. I didn’t know whether to be annoyed or amused.
“Remember Geoff?” Jeannie continued. “You said to start going to his tennis matches and make sure that he saw me there, then ask him to teach me how to play.”
I vaguely remembered a cocky little bastard that she had been obsessed with. I had been having a blissful nap one afternoon when a crash in the next room woke me. I found Jeannie and the little twerp making out on the couch. One of them had kicked an empty champagne bottle on the coffee table into a couple of flutes. I grabbed the bottle by the neck and chased the boy out of the apartment.
Phillip had appeased the kid’s outraged parents by sending me to a “spa” for a few months.
“I’m not sure that’s the best example.”
She laughed, and the tension between us started to ease.
“So what’s the problem?” I asked.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I think my husband might be having an affair.”
That didn’t surprise me. Girls gravitated toward men who were like their fathers, and Phillip had been a serial cheater.
“Okay. Why call me?”
“Everyone else has given up on me. My parents didn’t want me to marry him. We eloped. We had this tacky little wedding in Vegas.” She sighed. “And my friends have stopped talking to me. Everyone hates him, but they just don’t understand him. He’s quiet and moody, so he makes people uncomfortable, but underneath that he’s really sweet.”
“Except he cheats on you.”
“Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m misreading. . . .”
The waitress reappeared and set plates of food in front of each of us.
“I ordered it,” Jeannie cut me off. She thanked the waitress and dismissed her before explaining. “Remember when we were watching that movie about the guy on death row and you asked me what I’d want for my last meal? I said mac and cheese with french fries and you said waffles and strawberries with bacon.”
I did remember that conversation. Being a teenager, Jeannie had been only too happy to stay up all night with me when I couldn’t sleep, watching movie after movie. We had eaten huge bowls of popcorn with various kinds of candy mixed in. Come to think of it, that had been the only time I didn’t mind the insomnia.
I dug into my food. When you don’t get enough sleep your body overproduces a hormone called ghrelin, which makes you feel hungry. I liked to blame that for my weight gain over the years. It wasn’t my fault; it was the ghrelin.
Jeannie dunked a fry into the cheesy sauce and dragged it listlessly around.
“Your tastes haven’t changed in twelve years?” I asked.
“Of course they have, but they don’t serve sushi here.”
“And it would be a bad idea to eat it if they did.”
She smiled. “Diner sushi. For those who have nothing left to lose.”
A giant teddy bear walked by, on his way to the men’s room. I swallowed with effort, starting to feel panicky.
“Did that . . . ? Was that real?”
Jeannie laughed. “Yes. I saw it, too. There’s a theatrical company near here. Their rehearsals must have run late. How long has it been since you got a decent night’s sleep?”
“About six years.”
“I saw on a Dr. Oz show that you should take valerian to help you sleep.”
Everyone had a remedy. None of them worked.
“Thanks, but I already tried it. So how can I help you deal with an unfaithful husband?”
She frowned at her food. “Maybe he’s not cheating. Maybe I’m being paranoid.”
“If you think he is, then he probably is.”
She took a slice of my bacon and dunked it in her mac and cheese. I had almost slapped her hand, but managed to stop myself.
“There are these emails on his computer. They might be straightforward, but I think it’s some kind of code. I thought you could take a look at them and tell me what you think they mean. To be blunt,” she said with a wince, “you’d know.”
That was fair. I had been both mistress and woman scorned. Who better to ask?
“Okay. Where are they?”
“On his computer. At the house.”
I put down my fork and looked at her in disbelief.
“You’ve never heard of forwarding? Or copy and paste? Can you access his email account on your phone?”
“I’m not very good with computers. I was afraid he’d know if I messed with them. And I don’t know his password, so I can’t access his account on my phone. He stays logged in at the house.”
The lights in the diner were too bright. Despite the aspirin I had taken, my head was throbbing and my whole body ached. I wanted nothing more than to lie down in the booth and close my eyes.
“Okay. I’ll come by some time when he isn’t home and take a look.”
“We could go right now. He’s out of town on a business trip.”
Of course he was.
“I’m exhausted, Jeannie. And I have to work tomorrow. I can’t lose another job.”
“But he comes back tomorrow. Please? It’s only a ten minute drive. You could stay over.”
This wasn’t my problem. I could refuse and walk away, then duck her calls.
“I’ll open a bottle of wine,” she said, starting to sound desperate. “I’ll put on a movie and we can both fall asleep in front of the TV.”
That sounded nice. She had said that all of her friends had abandoned her. She must be lonely. I was, too. It was hard to maintain friendships when you were always too tired to socialize. Maybe a little company would help me fall asleep.
“Great!” Jeannie said, signaling for the check. “You can follow me in your car.”
The drive took closer to twenty minutes. Her house was an ordinary ranch-style in a middle-class neighborhood. In the dark, it looked like every other house on the block. Jeannie pulled into the garage and I parked in the drive behind her, then followed her inside into a large kitchen.
“I’ll pour us some wine, then we can take a quick look at the emails,” she said. “Red or white?”
I wandered into the living room while she opened the bottle. There were several framed photographs lining the mantel. The one front and center was a wedding picture. Jeannie in an overly puffy white dress and an unremarkable groom were standing on the front steps of a church, along with both sets of parents. Phillip and That Woman were both beaming.
“I thought you said you eloped.”
“That was taken later. Mother wanted a photograph for the newspaper.”
Jeannie walked up beside me and handed me a goblet. Her other hand was in her coat pocket.
“Are you going to make me drink alone?” I asked.
“Hello,” said a male voice behind us. The man from the photograph was standing in the doorway, looking at us with an inquisitive smile.
Jeannie stepped behind me, wrapping an arm around my waist, then pointed a gun at the man and fired twice. I gasped and dropped my glass on the floor. My ears were ringing, and the room started a slow spin. I expected the giant teddy bear to pass by again.
“Gunshot residue on your clothing, check,” she said, her voice sounding distorted.
She moved around to face me and pointed the gun at my chest. I had a vague understanding that I should run, but I couldn’t seem to move.
“Mother always said you were dumb as a box of rocks.”