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The Sleep Consultant

A peri­dot ring stone depict­ing a sleep­ing woman.

In Tokyo, we worked on the demo­graph­ics thing for five months solid. After the report was done and the gov­ern­ment had accepted the most opti­mistic of our four sce­nar­ios, the three of us walked to a jazz bar and drank for two days straight. We com­mis­er­ated and shared secrets. Jin-soo cried; a sweet surprise. Parting, we all expressed hope we might col­lab­o­rate again, in some combination, and per­haps for a wiser client next time.

Now I’m going to sleep, and my real work will begin.

As a uni­ver­sity student, I was a heavy sleeper, and though that’s not unique, none of my peers parsed their slum­ber as finely as I did. Even then, I was con­struct­ing a taxonomy: dark, heavy dozes set against light, spring-loaded naps. Murky sur­ren­ders and sun-warmed floats. Of course, I hadn’t ever slept for any truly sig­nif­i­cant period of time, and I had no rea­son to expect I ever would.

Jin-soo loved her sleep. Tessa, by contrast, moaned about it: a third of her hours wasted in ses­sile uncon­scious­ness when she could instead be up, think­ing and working! She took drugs for wakefulness, but every five or six days, she would crash, and Jin-soo and I would carry her to the long couch in the con­fer­ence room where she would lie shiv­er­ing for 36 hours, breath­ing in huge gulps, her ner­vous sys­tem on gen­eral strike. I’m not sure she came out ahead. For all the laws of nature that we humans have now bro­ken or bent, sleep remains non-negotiable. Sleep, and the speed of light.

For my part, I slept when I could, a few hours every night. Now, I’m exhausted. Catch­ing up on all the news I missed is only mak­ing it worse. The gov­ern­ment is wrong; there are no opti­mistic sce­nar­ios. Thankfully, I’m set to begin my con­sult­ing con­tract with the Ace-Mandarin Tsuk­iji immediately. I feel grate­ful to my past self for arrang­ing it well in advance. Did she pre­dict things would get this bad? I can’t remem­ber. I’ve just walked out of my lit­tle rental in Nezu, with the deep, cedar-plank bath­tub I didn’t use once. My life is folded into a sleek travel bag, and I will carry it now to the hotel.

Above, a for­ma­tion of inter­cep­tors whis­pers above the city, cast­ing shad­ows almost leafy across side­walks and cafes. In a moment, they are gone, and I know they will soon be cruis­ing low over the Sea of Japan, aim­ing to ren­dezvous with something bound for here, something mov­ing just as fast, some­thing that has never arrived, must never arrive.

The Ace-Mandarin Tsuk­iji is a monolith of wood and glass built on the site of the old fish market, dis­tin­guished from the adja­cent mono­liths by the showy secu­rity cor­don around its base. Guards in black visors wave me through, but too quickly. I suspect they know I am the sleep con­sul­tant, which is not appro­pri­ate. Ace-Mandarin con­tacted me years ago; I suppose they are happy to have me here at last.

Inside, the hotel’s aes­thetic would be flat-footed heigge if not for a selec­tion of inter­est­ing tex­tiles deployed in sur­pris­ing ways. Tall pan­els of muslin hang and bil­low in the lobby; nav­i­gat­ing around them feels like maneu­ver­ing through a kelp forest. The check-in desk is clad in some kind of burlap, and it chafes my wrist when I lower the pen to sign the sleep con­tract. It’s a good chafe. The staff per­mits me to find my room by myself. I think they are slightly afraid of me.

The hotel’s top­most floor is fully booked; I can tell from the warn­ing lights set beside the doors. Noth­ing as harsh as a flash­ing red bulb, of course; the fat tubes shine colder by only a few degrees. They are very mean­ing­ful degrees. One of the doors has a guard sta­tioned out­side, wear­ing the same black visor as the con­tractors at the hotel’s base. As I pass, I nod hello, feel­ing sorry for her. What a slog.

The tube out­side my room, num­ber six, glows warmer than the rest, and inside, the lights detect my pres­ence and acti­vates with an audi­ble click. That’s a demerit, but I let it pass. I’m not here to eval­u­ate the hotel’s design. Only its sleep.

My job begins with bare legs.


Disrobing in a hotel is special: the pud­dling of pants or skirt onto a floor unsul­lied by the rest of your life.

The wall-to-wall window at my room’s far end is uncovered, and I leave it that way. I believe in the city dweller’s compact, and, as such, I must offer to the anony­mous world the same view that I myself have taken in. (To clarify: any use of magnification, opti­cal or digital, vio­lates this compact, which exists between humans alone: sliv­ers of pink, no taller than cres­cent moons, regard­ing each other across gulfs that are very impor­tantly unbridgeable. Once, in down­town Los Angeles, I saw the glint of a lens across Flower Street, and oh, how I glared. There is a man still crouched beside his win­dow in a tower there, immobile, turned to stone.) Many years ago, in Milan, I rented an apartment that faced a plaza and, across it, a huge old hotel. I miss that apart­ment. Both build­ings are gone now — the one I lived in, and the one I watched with such amusement.

So: skirt, puddled. The room, I notice and appre­ci­ate, is the appro­pri­ate temperature for this. Tem­per­a­ture mat­ters crit­i­cally to the sleep consultant. It’s one of the two or three most impor­tant things. The archi­tect whines to the sleep consultant over gim­lets that “it’s incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to reg­u­late the temperature in build­ings of this size and complexity,” but the sleep consultant is not here for excuses. She has come for air across her legs and now her back, a cur­rent with no detectable source. The room should be a tem­per­a­ture such that con­tact with any surface — the bedding, the bath­room tile — offers a spark of cool­ness fad­ing instantly to com­fort. The sleep con­sul­tant should travel the space in a sheath of her own warmth.

In hotels, I explode. I am only dig­ging for my pre­ferred soap, but some­how my clothes have formed a blast radius around my travel bag. I’d like to try my hand at mak­ing these bags; maybe go to school for indus­trial design, mate­r­ial science. In class, I could be the cool elder who’s seen it all. I’ll assess the state of the indus­try when I wake up.

The sleep con­sul­tant takes a bath.

Once, in Pyongyang, I spoke at length with a gastronome — at the extremes of connoisseurship, you find kin­ship in other disciplines, all paths con­verg­ing at the tip of a great cone of sen­sual experience; or maybe it’s the bot­tom of a great pit — and this eater who orga­nized her life around meals explained to me that it was essen­tial to design your hunger. It’s obvi­ous that if you’re not suf­fi­ciently hungry, you won’t be able to appre­ci­ate a ninety-six course meal, or, conversely, that if you’re too hun­gry you’ll be stuff­ing and slurping, not savoring. But the gas­tronome insisted you had to con­sider not only your hunger’s degree but its kind. There was, she explained, a des­ic­cated hunger that made water delicious, and, conversely, a sod­den hunger that was the per­fect back­drop for salty things. She planned ahead. It was an ordeal. She was beau­ti­ful, with a sharp, beaky nose.

So, what kind of tired should a sleep con­sul­tant be?

Muscle weari­ness is too easy; it makes any bed sublime. As a con­sul­tant, my tired­ness must approx­i­mate the hotel guest for whom I am a sensitive, artic­u­late stand-in. This Ace-Mandarin is favored by burned-out bureaucrats, so the demo­graph­ics gig was my preparation, and I feel it now: the sour exhaus­tion of exper­tise unappre­ci­ated, warn­ings unheeded.

But, even so, when I pull the cov­ers up to my chin, the wrung-out res­ig­na­tion yields to an upwelling of delight. I’m home. This is my turf. My strongest redoubt.

I am, it must be said, a very good sleeper.

I have theories.

PAJAMAS

The sleep consultant doesn’t under­stand why any­one would ever sleep naked. To do so for­goes the the first-derivative feel­ing of fabric against fab­ric, and some­times a sec­ond derivative, too, if the sheets and blan­kets are inter­est­ingly-arrayed. The sleep con­sul­tant wears a linen shift. Maybe it’s a nightgown, technically, but she has always liked the word shift better. Shift, as in night. Shift, as in work.

DREAMS

Dreams are irrel­e­vant to the sleep con­sul­tant. This isn’t to say she is not inter­ested in them. When you sleep deeply, dreams can run long, like nov­els or net­flixen or small hells. Years ago, dur­ing a stay at the Welles­ley in Knightsbridge, she had a dream of quasi-mermaids that remains one of the most mem­o­rably cos­mic expe­ri­ences of her life. No, dreams are fuck­ing cool — but to crit­i­cize a hotel for a bad dream, or praise it for a good one, gives it too much credit.

SECURITY

It’s crucial, as you drift away, to feel con­fi­dent noth­ing will breach your sleep. But, take note: the secu­rity cor­don at the hotel’s base works in one dimen­sion only, a shal­low one at that, and if you believe it is those black-visored guards who are pro­tect­ing you, you deserve what­ever rude awak­en­ing you get. The sleep con­sul­tant has scru­ti­nized Ace-Mandarin’s sys­tem of cor­po­rate governance, audited its debt ratio, and she is sat­is­fied it is secure, or secure enough.

A fresh for­ma­tion of inter­cep­tors zips across the city. From the sleep con­sul­tant’s new van­tage point on the hotel’s top­most floor, they look like the X-rayed ver­te­brae of some sin­u­ous dragon undu­lat­ing in flight. She only half-under­stands why they move like that. She did a defense gig, years ago, but things have changed since then.

MASTURBATION

Generally, the sleep consultant tries not to masturbate before sleep­ing. In her theory, to do so invites some­thing from the out­side world into the room. There might be ways around this; a friend claims to masturbate to abstract geome­tries and gradient fields. The sleep con­sul­tant can only mas­tur­bate think­ing about peo­ple she has known (including the gra­di­ent-lover) and this seems to break some impor­tant seal.

Maybe that’s the core of the sleep con­sul­tant’s theory: that her sleep can be self-contained and self-sufficient. A portable island. Which, she supposes, is also called a life raft.

But now her hand is slith­er­ing down­wards and she mas­tur­bates after all, think­ing, to her surprise, of Jin-soo.

THOUGHTS BEFORE SLEEPING

The sleep con­sul­tant has a mem­ory from child­hood of two bowls, one made of thin metal, the other rough ceramic; and how, when she scoured them under the faucet, the metal got so hot so quickly, while the ceramic remained impassive; and how she liked both feel­ings. She was eight years old, stand­ing on a stool to reach the sink. Doing the dishes was her first job. She was complimented, which made her vol­un­teer to do it again, pre­sag­ing many things to come.

Her whole life, she’s been recog­nized for her diligence and her sensitivity, which is why her one­time colleague, an elevator designer, told her about a client of his, a hotel in San Francisco, that was search­ing for a sleep consultant, and sug­gested that she would be a good fit. The pro­posal she ten­dered to that hotel was buoyed by a few ele­gant lies, but she doesn’t have to lie anymore. She has slept in hotels around the world. She could never afford to do so on her own, but as a con­sul­tant, the sleep is pro­vided free in exchange for her dili­gence and her sensitivity. Her friend the ele­va­tor designer is long dead, and she misses him.

Before she conks out completely, the sleep con­sul­tant is aware, briefly, of the room’s ris­ing chill and the lemony change in the air. A miscalibration.

She’ll com­ment on that.

WAKING

The sleep consultant prefers to wake just once dur­ing the long night, and the Ace-Mandarin obliges. Con­scious­ness returns like a cat slink­ing out from under the bed. A glass of water, a peek out the win­dow. It’s midday, but a gauzy screen has descended, so she’s not blinded. On the notepad beside the bed, the sleep con­sul­tant makes a mark, just one light slash. In the morning, she won’t remem­ber this, but when she sees the slash, she will smile at the com­fort and soli­tude of that other per­son who was born, who died.

The sleep con­sul­tant is, of course, afraid of death, and there­fore fas­ci­nated by sleep.

Later, much later, there is another period of wakefulness, this one unscheduled. The sleep con­sul­tant becomes murk­ily aware of a great com­mo­tion in the hall­way. An ampli­fied voice bleats instructions. Through eyes still half-lidded, she watches a hex-rotor swing lazily into view, hov­er­ing very close to the hotel’s top­most floor, its belly yawn­ing open, the black-visored crew inside aim­ing spot­lights and other instru­ments at some unseen target.

The sleep con­sul­tant sits up awkwardly. Her head lolls forward — she can’t seem to sup­port its weight — and she strains her eyes in their sock­ets to find the door. Sounds from the hall­way: a clatter, a cry, a hol­low brat-brat-brat. Technically, she is still asleep, her room chilled and gassed, and if any­one opens that door, she will die.

With great effort, she hoists her arms, uses one hand to wrap the other around the pencil, and makes a sec­ond mark on the notepad: a faint cross­bar that turns her slash into an X. Slash for com­fort, X for danger — a code of her own instant devising. She fixes it in her mind. The hex-rotor’s spot­light washes into her room, licks the foot of her bed. Some­thing in the hall­way thuds against her door. If her body wasn’t so heavy, she would … 


In the morning, I am greeted by that sparkling con­fig­u­ra­tion of the ner­vous sys­tem only available, I believe, to those who wake into a world exactly the right tem­per­a­ture: skin tingling, every sen­sa­tion delicious. The feel­ing some­how of being deeply seated in the socket of the world.

I want to revel, but curios­ity beckons. I hop up to retrieve the news­pa­per that has been slipped under the door and carry it to the chair by the win­dow where I will await the knock announc­ing the arrival of my cof­fee and breakfast. The staff knows I’m awake. Hours ago, they sucked the cold gas out of the room and replaced it with regular air.

The news­pa­per sum­ma­rizes the past five years of events. Ace-Mandarin is par­tic­u­larly good at this, and it’s a per­sis­tent advan­tage for the brand. The macro overview con­firms the bleak­est of our sce­nar­ios from the demo­graph­ics project. Elsewhere: another new fever; ris­ing nos­tal­gia for the 2030s; more inscrutable images from the Chi­nese probe. Pak­istan joined the NEU, thank goodness. The secret chair­man of an AI control com­mit­tee was assas­si­nated in his sleep. (The details of that last story are unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cally vague.) There’s noth­ing about sports. They know I don’t care about sports.

Outside, the sky is glow­ing gray, the sun still below the horizon. Tokyo’s sil­hou­ette has changed.

On the last page of the news­pa­per are the obituaries, every one of them about a per­son I know or whose work I’ve followed. A shock: Tessa is there. Young, shiv­er­ing, impa­tient Tessa. Caught by that new fever. I thought I was inured to the obits, but this one settles heavily.

The knock comes, two light raps, and I rise to receive my breakfast. Pass­ing the bed, I see my cus­tom­ary mark on the notepad — memento of the per­son who was born and died. A crooked X; inter­est­ing. She’s never drawn an X before. What does it represent? Maybe the city was beau­ti­ful from high above. Maybe she watched the sun rise behind those new build­ings when they were still just skeletons. Some­times I think I do this just for her, that other woman, and her moments of per­fect peace in a bub­ble of quiet darkness, safe out­side of history.

The reverse of a peri­dot ring stone depict­ing a sleep­ing woman.

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