From the author: Horse, a college student in Khon Kaen, Thailand, has troubles. His girlfriend seems to be losing interest in him, and he has to share a dorm room with a sleeper -- one of those unfortunates who still find it necessary to sleep at night.
My phone beeped, and I paused the game.
"Hi," said Victory, calling from way down in Bangkok. Good thing the picture wasn’t on; I wasn’t wearing my university uniform or slumped wearily over a computer. "Just calling to check in,” he said. “How's everything?"
"Fine. Listen, Victory, I don't have time to talk right now, OK?"
"You're not in class now, are you? From the schedule you sent us, I didn't think--"
"I'll call you back in a few hours."
"A few hours? That'll be after midnight."
"I know." I hung up. I'd wake him up if I felt like it. Who did he think he was, anyway? My brother. What did that have to mean? That we'd be tied together for life? But he was a sleeper, and I hadn’t slept since before I was born. He was the past, and I was the future.
Too bad I couldn't afford to study overseas. I could have gone to the U.S. or Australia. Or Germany. There were a lot of Thais in Germany. It would have been harder for Victory to call me there. Too expensive.
But I could forget about overseas. I couldn't even afford Bangkok. I was stuck here upcountry, in a no-name provincial university, far from the center.
If Sky ever found out about my family. That was on my mind.
I turned off the game and went out to see if Bird or Fat could think of anything we could do. The trouble with never sleeping is you got to fill all those hours.
One day a couple weeks later I invited Sky over to watch Increase sleep.
I figured it would be a laugh, something different to do. I’d planned to go out with Fat, but then he cancelled. And Sky had been asking me about Increase since he'd moved into my dorm room. Sleepers were maids or rice farmers seen walking along the road, not university students.
I pulled my own bed down from the wall and we sat on it, watching Increase.
"So, what happened when he went to sleep tonight?" Sky asked. She held her long hair back with one hand and leaned closer and closer to Increase, until her nose almost touched his, then drew back again. "Did he just, you know, collapse, and you had to catch him so he wouldn't break his nose on the floor, or what?"
"No, not like that. He just gets slower, and finally he just gradually goes to sleep. Come on, Sky. You sleep, too." I got up and crossed the room to the little refrigerator. I pulled out a bag of sliced papaya and a couple of Green Spots.
"Not like that, though." She wrinkled her nose and plopped down on my bed. "I mean, every night, just sleeping for all those hours. Like an animal or something." I passed her a Green Spot and she took a swallow. I jabbed some toothpicks into the papaya slices and lay the open bag between us, along with a smaller bag of salt and ground hot peppers for dipping.
"There we go," I said. "You wouldn't find better service in the best restaurant in Bangkok."
"Yeah. Only Khon Kaen is a long way from Bangkok. Lord, I thought I would die when I got placed here. Third choice!"
"I know. Me, too." Not really. Northeasterners like me got a special rate, buffalo kids from Kalasin and Mukdaharn and Surin, and that was the only reason my family could afford the university at all. But we're all so poor and disadvantaged in the Northeast, you know. Or so Bangkokians thought. Like there weren’t gangs of sleepers in every alley if Bangkok, City of Angels.
Increase had curled into a funny crouch, like a fetus in the womb. It was a warm night, because it hadn't rained for a couple of days, and he had pulled the sheets from his chest, maybe without even waking up.
I'd been at the university for less than two years, and already seeing someone sleep like that was like a visit to the zoo.
"Turn the light up. I can hardly see him."
"No, I'm not supposed to. It might wake him up."
"How do you know?"
"Oh, I got a brochure when he moved in. It explained all about noise and lights and stuff." Well, they could have sent a brochure. They should have.
Sky was getting bored. She turned to brush a hand across my computer screen and paged through the list of my vids. "You don't have anything new."
"No, I got to get some more."
"Hey, you got a message." Before I could stop her, she'd tapped the icon.
It was Victory, his face tired. "Hey, Horse. Mom says you haven't called for a while, so I'm just checking to make sure everything is OK, that you don't need anything. Call us when you get a chance. During the daytime or evening, you know."
"That your brother?"
"Yeah. Older brother."
"Where does he go to school?"
"Oh, he's finished." Never started -- but I couldn't tell her that.
She turned back to Increase, who had now twisted into a new position. His sheets were tangled, too. It looked like he'd had a fight with them. His head was tilted back on the pillow, and his mouth was wide open, but slack, like when a stupid person is trying to think. A thin trickle of liquid ran out of the side of his mouth, and down to the pillow.
"Look at his mouth," Sky said. "He's probably dreaming about food. They do that, don't they? Have all those dreams and stuff. And his blankets are all twisted around. Look. I wonder if he could strangle himself with them. He'd never even have a chance to wake up as his air was slowly cut off. He'd just drift away."
"I don't think it works that way."
Sky rolled her eyes. Then she smiled. "Hey, would he wake up if we just took a peek?"
"Yeah, you know. See what he's got down there. I wonder if he's like other guys in that way."
"He's just like other guys, OK?"
"OK," Sky pouted. "Anyway, if he’s just like other guys, how come he has to sleep so much? Is he here on a scholarship or something, some buffalo boy from the rice paddy?”
“No, he told me he had the treatment, but it just didn’t take. I guess that happens sometimes, like once in a million or something.”
Sky was already bored with the topic. “Hey, let's go shopping," she said. "I have to get some stuff for my room. We can go with Bird and Cucumber and her fat sister."
I called Victory that afternoon. I had a wait a bit while they got him from the workfloor, and when he finally came to the phone his face was splotched with sweat. He pushed back a lock of hair, leaving a streak of some kind of industrial lubricant across his forehead. I squirmed in my white and black university uniform.
"Hey, Horse. I'm glad you called. It's been a while."
"Yeah, well, I've been busy, you know. Classes."
"Busy, 22 hours a day? Mom and Dad were getting worried. You got the last bank transfer, right?"
"Yeah, the money's fine." I had to be much more careful than my friends -- but there was nothing more Victory or Mom and Dad could do about that. What little Dad hadn’t thrown away on keeping Grandpa drunk was all in the little farm. But a son can’t say no when his father asks him for money, and Grandpa was not shy about asking.
"Also, Mom says she was surprised to hear about your test in Business Ecolaw last month. Is that class going any better now?"
I scowled. "Oh, that was just one test. I don't see why it's any of their business. I'm doing all right."
"It's their money, so they're told. Remember, they gave up a lot to give you this chance. If you don't--"
"I know, I know." Same old thing. Victory’s money, too, though he didn’t say it. "I said, I'm doing OK."
Victory looked at me a long time. His whole face and neck were wet. His factory didn’t have air-con. I thought of the busy, noisy workfloor, with the metal roof that magnified the heat, the smell of sweat, the sounds of men being crude and comradely. Then it would be back home to his tiny room. "OK, then. Just call us more often, right? It's not just about the money, though they've got to think about that. It's you. They want to know about your life."
So I talked a little bit about the dorm food and about the baby cobra that they’d found nestled in a men's room in the Engineering Faculty. I didn't tell him about Sky -- Mom and Dad had made it clear that they didn't want me dating until I finished at the university.
And I didn't tell him about my new sleeper roommate.
Sky came over one morning about 5:30. Increase was still sleeping, and I was unfolding the bookshelf I'd picked up, as quietly as I could.
"What's up?" Sky burst through the door like she always did, no knock. I used to think it was cute.
"Not so loud," I whispered.
"Oh. The sleeper. It’s funny. I’ve never even seen him awake!" She dropped a shopping bag onto the floor and took a chair. Her shirt was unbuttoned to a point that would give my mom a stroke. But it was so hot.
“That’s because he’s in classes most of the day, or off studying in the library. He doesn’t have so much free time.”
"Look at him," she said.
"The red spots on his face. I wonder if they hurt."
"Huh? Oh, that's just from sleeping. If he sleeps on his hand, or something, it might leave a mark."
"Weird. Like maybe the circulation doesn't work right, when his body is slowed down."
Increase opened his eyes, and after a bit opened them a bit wider as he noticed Sky.
"Were we too loud?" I asked. "Sorry."
"No, no, no problem." He seemed a little confused. He looked strange, too. His eyes were puffy, like he was having an allergic reaction to something, or like he'd been crying.
“Increase, this is Sky.”
Increase closed his eyes again, and opened his mouth wide. After that he lay back down again. Then he began to stretch. Finally he sat up and rubbed his face.
"Guess I'll get up," he said.
Sky laughed. "After such a long sleep, you should sure be ready to!"
He got out of bed, and stumbled a little, as if he had forgotten how to use his feet after such a long time in bed.
"Hey, I saw you the other night. You had a dream, didn't you?" Sky said.
"I guess I did. But I don't remember it now." He sat on the edge of his bed facing us.
"You know, a dream about eating something."
"Eating something?" Increase rubbed his face again.
"Yeah. Hey, you still seem a little groggy. How can a person sleep so much and still be tired? Anyway, there was some, you know, saliva coming out of your mouth. So I knew that you were probably dreaming about eating." Sky hardly blinked, and her mouth was open in a smile. I fidgeted.
He was embarrassed, yet he smiled at her like he knew a secret. "No, no, that just happens sometimes. It's not because I was dreaming about food. At least, I don't think so."
"You guys hungry now?" I asked. They ignored me.
Suddenly I felt like the air-con had been turned way, way up. The thought came to me: Sky was playing around with someone else. I had no reason to think that, but watching her, the way she flicked her eyes all over Increase even though I was right there, I believed it.
"Besides, you dream, too, when you sleep. Everyone does. That's what the scientists say, at least," said Increase.
"I know that's what they say, but I've never remembered a dream when I wake up. I don't know anyone who does. None of my friends."
"Yeah. I don't always remember them, either. I often remember just parts when I wake up. It's like I've been channel-surfing."
"Sounds like fun."
"Sometimes it is. But sometimes they just keep me from resting."
"But you're already asleep when you have them!"
"I know. But some dreams are so weird or tense, like dreaming about a test, or someone I know doing something weird, that when I wake up I feel like I haven't slept at all."
"That doesn't make sense," said Sky. "What's the point of a story that doesn't make sense? I wonder if you have some kind of psychological problem, and these strange kinds of dream are a symptom. Maybe the same deficiency in your brain that didn't allow you to be, you know, cured, is also causing that."
She looked at me. "What? Just trying to be helpful."
"I'm fine," said Increase. He snagged his paokama from the floor next to the bed and went down the hall to the bathroom, wrapping it around his waist.
Sky said, "It's like a time machine. Everyone used to be like that."
"A lot of people still are. Probably most people."
"Yeah, but no one I'd want to know!"
Still, she hung around our place a lot. She would watch Increase sometimes, kind of wary and kind of fascinated.
Increase never seemed to have enough time to study, to keep up with the rest of us. He had developed ways to fight his sleepiness. He would take cold showers, or drink Red Bull, or exercise, or eat. I kept expecting to find some crazy medicine, but I never saw any pills around. One night in November, before midterms, he did all of the other things, trying to stay awake so he’d be ready for the tests. About four o'clock he stood up to get a picstik off a shelf, and he almost fell over. He had to grab the back of his chair to steady himself.
My family just went to bed when they got tired, or when they got a chance to. They knew where they belonged. Increase had too much money to know his place.
I had to say something. "Go to sleep, already! You're going to cause yourself some kind of damage."
"I'll be fine," he said. He couldn't even enunciate all that clearly -- the damage, I thought to myself, was already occurring. "I'll sleep after the test."
"It doesn't work that way," I said. I threw down my comic book. "You can't sleep for a week and then stay awake for another week."
"How would you know anything about it? Anyway, for a day or two, you can."
"Right," I said. "I think you'd better call your doctor. This is just not healthy. Look at yourself!"
"I said I'm fine."
"You can't do this." I hunched over in my chair and looked at him. He looked back at me, but I don't know how clearly he could see. I remembered once when my father got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. He'd walked right into a wall. "Listen, it may not be too pleasant to hear, but you have to accept reality. You're just not like normal people. You just can't keep up the way other people can. Sorry, Increase, but that's just the way things are. Even if you fail a class, you can take it again." He could afford that. Or his family could.
He was angry. "I said I'd be fine, OK? Now just let me get back to work. I have to get a good grade. How am I going to get into grad school otherwise?"
I was surprised. "You plan to go to grad school?"
"Do you know any jobs for undergrad geology majors?"
He was taking on too much, but what could I do? Then it came out of my mouth before I realized it.
"Someone here needs a dose of reality."
Increase looked up. "Yeah, well, maybe I'm not the only one in this room."
"What is that supposed to mean?" I said.
"I mean about Sky." He reached up again for the picstik.
I was really starting to get angry, now. "What about Sky?"
"I mean you know that she's going to dump you."
"No way. You have no clue how firm we are. So just be quiet."
By now Increase had given up pretending to study. "Oh, come on!" he said. "She flirts with every guy she comes across!"
"I haven't seen her flirting with you." I touched him a little with that one.
"I see her all over the place. And you're blind if you can't see that you're just a stop along the road for her."
“Lizard!" I said. I’d never called anyone that name before, never used that kind of language.
"A well-traveled road, too."
"Whatever. It's true, though."
"What would you know? It's not like girls are lining up to be with a sleeper like you. They want someone like that, they can go for the handyman or the garbage collector --"
"I know what I am!"
"And I don't? Is that what you mean?" Had he talked to my brother, my parents, somehow?
I left the room, shaking.
From the hallway I called Sky. She wasn't in, so I left a message.
"Sky, it's Horse. Listen, I think it's time for us to make some decisions. I can't take living with the sleeper anymore. I think we should look for an apartment. Get back to me as soon as you can, and we can start looking. I don't want to spend another day in that damn room."
I felt drained. The rage had leaked out of me. It had taken something else with it, and left me exhausted. I decided I'd better sleep. Not in my room, though. I crossed the campus to dorm 16 and went up to the third floor. I knocked at 1634.
Bird opened the door. "Hey, Horse. Come on in."
"Hi, Horse," said Fat, looking up from the computer. They were the only two in the room.
"Hi, guys." I pulled down a cot and sat on it. Bird sat at the desk and started writing something.
"You ready for midterms?" asked Fat.
Fat looked at me more closely. "Something wrong?" he said. "Some problem with Sky?" Bird looked at me then, too. "Oh, yeah," he said. "Water was over here earlier, and she said that yesterday she saw Sky with--"
I interrupted Bird as if I hadn't noticed that he was speaking, and I ignored Fat's question. "No problem, really," I said. "I had a little fight, a bit of a misunderstanding, that's all."
"You had a fight with her? Did you hit her?" Fat's eyes went wide. "I can't believe it!"
"Lord, Horse," said Bird. "I can see your getting pissed off, but hitting?"
"No, I did not hit Sky!" I said. "What are you guys talking about? I had a fight with that damn sleeper. With Increase."
Both Bird and Fat took a moment as what I had said sunk in. "Oh," Fat said, finally. "You hit Increase? I thought you guys were friends."
"Yeah, he's just a great friend," I said. I couldn't even think about why they thought I would hit Sky. My mind veered off when it came too close. I waited for them to explain, but they didn't say anything. Bird turned back to his desk, and started tapping his pen against the plastic, and then Fat swiveled back to the computer, trying to look both busy and casual.
"Mind if I sleep here?" I said after a while. Fat looked up as if he had forgotten I was there or something. "Sure," he said.
So I stretched out on the cot and closed my eyes. For the first time I could remember, I had a little trouble falling asleep.
When I woke up it was about seven; I'd been out nearly an hour and a half. Fat was sleeping, and Bird wasn't in the room. I had to get ready for classes.
I went back to my room. I paused outside the door, but it was quiet inside, so I opened it as quietly as I could and looked in. Increase was sleeping, mouth open and sheets tangled. I got my stuff, jamming my pad and memchips into my little yaam. Sky liked to say that carrying that traditional type of shoulder bag made me look like either a hick or an art student, but I'd told I didn't care. In fact I'd thought it made me look different, and so somehow stylish, cutting edge. Idiot.
I slung the yaam over my shoulder and left the room. The door slammed shut behind me as I left, and there was a muffled "Uhhhnn?" from inside the room. It didn't make me feel good, but I smiled as if it had.
I sat through my classes that day, not paying attention. Afterwards I went to find Sky. Maybe my imagination was making this into something it wasn't.
But she wasn't in her room, and none of her friends knew where she was. Maybe it was just as well. I was trying hard not to think about what Bird had started to say. I scuffled my feet, and red dust rose up from the unpaved path. The rain the afternoon before had tamped it down a bit, but now the sun had dried it back to powder. The dust lay thick on the banana leaves along the path.
I got back to my room about seventeen o'clock. Increase was there, sitting at his desk. I didn't know what he was going to do. Start fighting? Tell me more about Sky? But I had no place else to go. I glanced at him and then plopped into a chair, sighing and taking some disks out of my bag. I tossed them on the floor with disgust.
"A lot of homework for tonight, huh?" said Increase. He was mumbling his words.
"Yeah," I said. "Ajaan Tawatchai seems to think I have nothing better to do than run case studies."
I waited a moment. "Sorry, you know," I said. “It was nothing.” If I made him mad, he might tell me too much.
"Yeah," he said.
“Come with Bird and Fat and me for dinner tonight.”
I didn't see Sky for the next couple of days. She didn't reply to my messages, and she seemed never to be in her room. Finally I saw her coming down the steps of the Central Library, just as I was heading up, to return some tapes for Fat. She had put a yellow streak into her hair, like an old-time Japanese girl.
She looked up and saw me, then glanced around. "Hey."
My mind had suddenly emptied. "Uh, I've been looking for you. Your roommates didn't seem to know where you've been."
"Yes, well, I've been kind of busy." Her gaze moved past me, flicking from one thing to another. "You know how it gets around midterms. Actually, I really have to get going. But I'll see you around, OK?"
"Sky? What's going on? You've been avoiding me. What's going on?"
Sky laughed. "Wow, so serious!"
I stepped closer, and she took a step back.
"You act like we're married," she said, giggling. "You know that I've never liked restrictions. Nothing personal."
"'Restrictions'?" I heard a distant buzzing in my head. "You're breaking up with me? Is that it? You want to break up? But we've been so... perfect!"
She maintained her empty smile. "Oh, don't be so theatrical, Horse. Sorry, but I have to go. See you around."
Then she was off down the stairs, and hurrying across the road to the central canteen.
Later, I tried to put the best face I could on it. She wanted no restrictions -- that could mean that she thought that we'd fallen into a rut, and she needed some time to herself. I could live with that. So I didn't call her the next day, or the day after that. I'd allow her some time to relax, think things over. She'd appreciate my restraint. The third day, I just left her a message -- "Hope everything is going OK with you. I hope you do well on your midterms!" -- just to show her that I was thinking of her, but that I was comfortable with her having some time off.
She didn't answer, and a few days later I dropped by her room. She wasn't there, but I talked to Cucumber. She was munching on fried bananas out of a greasy paper bag, dipping them into a cup of strawberry yogurt, in front of a video with the sound turned off.
"Hi. Have you seen Sky?"
"Not for a while. I saw her this morning, but I'm not sure where she is now." She wiped some yogurt off her chin with the back of her hand.
"Ah. Well, could you give this to her?" It was a little stuffed panda, like they used have in China, with a note attached, saying, "Let's talk. Call me, OK? I miss you."
"Oh, sure, yeah. It's cute." She wiped her hand on her skirt before taking the panda from me.
Another week passed with no word from Sky, and I thought about leaving another message. Part of me knew why she hadn't called, had known for a long time, but I couldn't give up. I just knew that if I could talk to her, we could sort out whatever the problem might be. We’d been too close for her to shrug me off the way Increase shrugs off one of his bad dreams.
So I sent another message to her computer. "I hope you liked the panda. I just thought of you when I saw it. I would really like us to talk. Don't worry -- I just want to talk. I'm sure we can work this thing out."
Still nothing the rest of that week, although I checked for messages several times a day.
Then Increase and I were out at a Korean barbecue restaurant in downtown Khon Kaen, the open-air place in front of the Prince Theater, celebrating the fact that Increase had squeaked through the midterm that had been worrying him the most. We had already eaten, and all that was left on the metal cone stove in front of us were sizzled dried scraps. I was on my third beer when I saw Sky come in, walking from the direction of the theater.
I almost called to her, and then it registered that she was pulling a guy behind her, tugging on his hand. How could I have not seen him earlier? I just watched as they found a table. There were two seats at it, but they used only one, because she sat in his lap. The waiter acted like nothing was wrong.
I was numb. I seemed to be watching myself from mid-air, or plastered against a ceiling, halfway across the room.
"Let's go," I said finally. I signaled to the waiter and fumbled my debit card onto the screen he held out. "Let's get out of here." My throat was tight, and the words could hardly escape.
Increase hadn't seen Sky. His back was to her. But he seemed to understand that I wasn't going to entertain any stupid questions. "Right," he said, putting on his jacket. It was too hot to wear a jacket, and I almost told him so. But he wanted to keep his skin pale.
That night, as Increase slept with a silly little smile on his face, I lay on my own cot. I kept replaying the scene in my head. Each time it was worse.
I clenched my teeth. What an idiot I had been -- continuing to chase after her when she had made it clear that she wanted me out. I sat up in the cot and hit my thigh with my fist, hard. It hurt, but not enough.
Increase made a little noise and turned over in his bed. I had almost awakened him. I glared at him, and then got to my feet and left the room, closing the door loudly behind me.
I walked all over campus, trying to outpace my thoughts. The night air was hot and still. I was seething and humiliated and I knew that I would throw myself at Sky's feet, crying and begging, if I saw her, which made me even more furious.
I walked past the Science faculty and the Humanities faculty and the pool and the tech center, and I couldn't think of anywhere to go, so finally I returned to my room. Increase was still sleeping.
I stood at the foot of his bed and watched him. A single dim light was burning in the corner, and I watched his slack, brown face. He was a Northeasterner, like me. What was he thinking? Nothing but dreams. Or nothing at all, there was just blankness, holes in experience. My own periods of sleep were just gaps in my awareness, dollops of unconsciousness doled out with a teaspoon. Increase had oblivion every night, for seven or eight or ten hours a time. Sometimes he could even sleep just because he was bored or hot, even in the middle of the day.
I couldn't do that. My family had taken that option from me, and I’d been so happy that they had. But I had to live nearly every minute of my life, and every minute all that was in my head was Sky, laughing and throwing her head back and sitting on that guy's lap. There was no place I could run away to. I suddenly wanted to hit Increase.
I got up from the cot, restless, and went out again, this time to the 7 Eleven at the edge of the campus, and bought two bottles of Mekhong. I'd never been much for whiskey, but if there was time for it, this was it. And anyway it was a lot cheaper than beer.
I brought the whiskey back to my room. I pulled down my cot again and started drinking. I took it like medicine, in as few swallows as possible, not mixed with anything. I didn't want to savor it, I just wanted to get it down. I emptied one bottle and started on the other. It burned a raw runnel down my throat like gasoline, like pesticide.
After a time I got dizzy, but my mood hadn't improved. A few more drinks, and I tried laughing at myself -- weren't drunks happy? -- but the most I could do was chuckle. There was no relief in the laughter, but it distanced me from myself, or I told myself it did.
I put down the second bottle, and lay back on the cot. The room was swirling around. I was underwater. Time had slowed, too; when I decided to put my arm under my head, there was a long delay before my arm did it.
I turned my head, and after a short blank time I focused my eyes and looked over at Increase, sleeping in his bed. Time had not only slowed down for him, it had completely stopped; he lay in the same position as he had been in when I’d started drinking.
Then I had to go to the bathroom, so I stumbled down the hall. I was surprised at how little the drink had affected me. After I urinated I stood there for a moment, feeling my stomach squirming, but I didn't let myself get sick. I was tempted to, but I didn't want to donate the therapeutic effects of the whiskey to the toilet. I went back to the room, and lay down.
Sky was still there, in my brain, but my actions, her reactions, my further actions, her lack of reaction, all felt now more like theories than as lived events. The whiskey had not made me unconscious, not made me forget, not made me happy, but at least I was detached from my life, looking down on it like as a schoolkid I had watched a little houselizard dying on the wall of my house. My dad had been painting the kitchen. The lizard had started walking across the wall, and had become stuck in the wet paint. I had watched it struggling, moving less and less as the time went by, and I had felt nothing but a mild curiosity. Later my reaction horrified me; now I envied that way of seeing things.
I felt so tired. My eyes closed, and eventually I fell asleep.
I slept for almost three hours, and woke with dizziness and a headache and a desperate need to visit the bathroom again. Returning to the room, I saw that it was nearly daybreak. There was a soft light outside, just outlining the window shade, and I could hear a few tentative birds peeping from the mango trees near the dorm. Increase was still sleeping.
The Mekhong bottles lay at the foot of my cot. I hadn't realized how strong they smelled. They clinked against each other as I swung my feet down off the cot. Then, since I was still dizzy, I lay down again. But I couldn't sleep anymore, and I kept thinking of Sky, of what I should have done or said differently, or of what she might be doing right now. And about who she was with.
I had hoped that some time spent in oblivion might give me a chance to get a hold of myself, to pull myself back together. Time to let my brain accept things and move on. But my thoughts of Sky were as immediate and cutting as before.
And Increase was still sleeping.
A few weeks later I was in the dorm room with Increase, running a case study and bouncing a ball off the wall. He was on his bed, but he wasn't sleeping. He was reading a comic book.
The ball rolled under his bed. I couldn't see where it was, so I reached for it, feeling around with my hand.
I touched something soft. I pulled it out to see what it was.
A hair band. I recognized it.
"Hey, this is Sky's. Was she over here looking for me or something?"
Increase didn't put the book down, but he froze.
"I don't know. Maybe it's been there all this time."
"Did you see her over here or not?"
"How should I know?"
"What do you mean? I'm just asking—"
He was mad now. "She came over here two nights ago, when you were out. And she--" He said it all in one breath, and then stopped. "Things are over between you two anyway. I didn't plan it. It's just she is really cute, and you're right that girls don't usually--" He looked up and saw my face and shut up.
I tried to say something, I don't know what, but nothing came.
And then he started to say something, but before the words could leave his mouth I lunged at him. The blow was badly aimed; I could hardly see through the haze. But it was a solid punch, just at his left eyebrow. He fell back, his book falling to the floor, and when he got up I hit him again. He sat on the floor groggily, holding his hand to his head. I left.
I sat down in the hall outside my room. I wanted to run away, go somewhere. I wanted to get out of myself. I wanted to sleep.
Victory called the next night. He told me that he and dad were coming up to visit me next weekend. They'd jam themselves into an all-night common bus, next to the laborers and maids and chickens in baskets, and the bus would stop at every little town, and people would try to sell Pepsi and skewers of chicken and sticky rice at each one, pushing them through the open windows, and the red dust would cover everything. When I met them at the bus station in town they'd be puffy-eyed and smelling of sweat, in rumpled peasant clothes.
"Don't come up," I said. "I'll come down."
"Dad says he wants to see the campus."
See where his money was going. "It's not much to look at."
"We can meet some of your classmates. We'll take them out for dinner."
Lord. Roast chicken or fish, with green papaya salad and sticky rice. I could just picture Sky sitting on the floor and eating with her hands like a peasant.
"Don't come up."
"Why not, Horse? We'll have some fun. You can't study all the time."
"Don't. Please, don't."
Victory's face went dark. "You're ashamed of us? Is that right? Dad is paying for your life there. Remember that? Do you?"
"Leave me alone! Dad is paying – I know that! But I'm going to escape – I'm going to be big, and make a lot of money, and then I can throw it back in his face! I'll have new friends, and a new life, and I don't need you to embarrass me!"
"We’re all Thai – and there are still more of us than there are of you. Horse, you should—"
"No! No 'should's! I'll call you when I graduate. I'll send you some money then. Until then, just leave me alone! I don't need you! All you do is drag me back down!"
I hung up.
We’re all Thai. Right. Sleepers and non-sleepers: we might as well be different species. But he was right. We’re Thai, and sleeper or not we remain so. Take away sleep, and you get all those extra hours in a day, to do things. But we’re Thai, we’re not Singaporeans or Koreans or damned Japanese. Hyper-accelerate the Thai world and you have more time for eating and playing and videos and talking, and for wallowing in yourself. We’re just pretending to be Asian Tigers, putting on the show – no sleep, Westernized lifestyles, chasing the money, the honor – but we’re still water buffaloes under the skin, patient, content to be.
I still wanted to sleep.
I got through the rest of the quarter. I failed Ecolaw and English. I got put on academic probation. I spent most of my time in Bird's room. It was crowded, but they didn't complain.
The next semester I applied for a new roommate. I saw Increase around the campus sometimes, and twice I saw him with some girl. Not Sky. Once I saw Increase napping on a bench under a papaya tree, a little smile on his face. I didn't wake him.
This story originally appeared in Asimov's.