Zachary can’t sleep. Insomnia is rare for him, but when it decides to pay a visit, it stays awhile. Once his brain is used to waking up at a certain nonsensical and pointless hour, it keeps at it night after night. It’s persistent and annoying and there is nothing he can do but grit his teeth and wait it out, like a little kid kicking the back of his seat on a crowded airplane.
For lack of any better idea, he gets out of bed and wraps himself in his robe. The house is dark and heavy and he wanders aimlessly into the living room and sinks into a chair. Leaning his head back, he closes his eyes. Gradually the tension that has gathered in his back and shoulders from worrying about not sleeping ebbs away, and he melts into listening to the city.
Night sounds are nothing like day sounds. Common noises are magnified, out of context. The sound of tires on wet pavement cuts through the velvet silence at odd intervals. Others are out early, or maybe late, everyone at this hour a little private satellite of existence, everything focused inward with no one else around to help diffuse the crowding thoughts that press in, jockeying for space, trying to prioritize themselves but doing it badly.
During the day, the world feels enormous, bright and shiny, but daylight only shows you what the city wants you to see. Wide-eyed tourists, laughing children with brightly colored backpacks that make them look like happy turtles as they swarm to school, window boxes full of flowers, quality stores and clean sidewalks.
But at night, the sleeping city can’t hide its soul. Like a post-coital lover, it is defenseless, stripped of its accoutrements, drowsy and vulnerable. It’s then you can see a city for what it truly is. Dark, dripping alleyways, neon signs, cracked, flickering, struggling to stay awake, shadows and secrets slipping quietly out to play after the sun goes down.
Daylight joins people, a blanket of consciousness that’s thrown over everyone, making them aware of others whether they want to be or not. Stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, wave to an acquaintance, hold the door, hand your money to the cashier, smile vacantly at a stranger, not sure what message you’re supposed to convey with that but feeling it’s your duty just the same. Maybe it’s nothing more than an acknowledgement that you see them. That they exist. That they are momentarily in the middle of your consciousness and so they matter. Awake in the middle of the night, no one feels they matter.
Outside the window, Zachary hears a worker, maybe two, unloading boxes from a truck and taking them into a nearby store. A morning delivery, scheduled so that shelves will be stocked and neat when customers arrive and they’ll never have to wonder how everything got there, about the night sounds that carried it all in, past Zachary sitting by his window in the dark. He can hear that the cardboard in the truck smells wet, the earthy cold odor of grocery store stock rooms and discarded pizza boxes.
He hears the lift gate buzz and clang shut, and the truck drives away. Voices bubble up from the street. A man laughs. A streak of orange and pink is beginning to seep through the curtains, and Zachary realizes he isn’t ready to let go of the night yet. He gets up quietly and goes back to bed, the city whispering to life behind him.