I once was a plant nurse. Plants were in fashion because they added a splash of color to an office. I went from office to office with a watering can, all the way up to the fifty-sixth floor, spending the most time in the executive suites because the executives had the plants that were the toughest to care for, plants that were breathtakingly grand but finicky. I carried a little electronic scanner to tap against the barcodes taped to every plant that was under my care so that there was record somewhere that each plant was visited and tended to.
Horace took care of the animals. Animals were in fashion because they added a splash of life to the office. Fish were popular. Horace took care of all the office pets. He had the harder job. These were living things with brains: fish, lizards, hamsters, and chinchillas. He had to feed all of them and check on their water. He had to make sure they couldn’t chew through things and accidentally get electrocuted.
Carnivorous plants lived in a crimson corporate negotiation chamber on the very top floor of the skyscraper. Some Venus flytraps and monkey cups stayed alive and hungry in elevated terrariums. This was where our paths crossed, mine and Horace’s. The Venus flytrap was my responsibility. The monkey cup was his. The Venus flytrap didn’t need any insects to stay alive. It just needed good plant-care: light, water, soil, a good conversation. The monkey cups, on the other hand, needed insects in their cups to survive, a thawed out cricket every once in a while.
We had the whole place to ourselves Friday afternoons in the summers. This was where he wooed me, in the clean aftermath of the departure of the executives. Sometimes Horace would hold my head in his hands and massage it, which was something he did from time to time with the animals. I’d read to him from my stash of adventure novels the way I read to the finicky plants. (It is scientifically proven that they respond to the sound of the female voice). We pilfered imported chocolates from the candy dishes until the executives started hiding them from us.
For the longest time, ever since I was a girl, I had a problem with insomnia. I couldn’t remember the feeling of sleep. There was an incident when I was young. Once in the winter, I woke up in the middle of the night to the face of a stranger staring into mine before he disappeared through the open front door as I screamed for my parents. Who was that man?
I did not miss sleep at first. In the home of my now deceased parents, I collected hair from the carpeted floors and shaped the strands into figurines when I was supposed to be sleeping. My first figurine was a bunny sculpted out of hair and dust and lint. My hair gathering became a habit: at sleepovers in strange homes, in motel rooms, in the wilderness surrounding a tent. I grew my hair long, past my waist, infused it with olive oils and honey, and brushed it with one thousand strokes every evening. I moved my hair figurines from home to home until I’d amassed two suitcases full of them; the suitcases were light.
After work, Horace took me out, somewhere in Chinatown, where we ate steamy pork buns, got our hair cut on a balcony, and did our shopping. We purchased supplies there because they were cheap: plant food, frozen mice for the snakes, cockroaches for the lizards, crickets for the bearded dragon and the monkey cups. Horace kept all the feed animals at his house. He kept them alive until they were to be eaten. His last stop in Chinatown was always the same. He knew a vendor who set up her station on the sidewalk and sat on a stool all day with a fan in her hand. She wore a straw hat and flowery kitchen pants. Five plastic washtubs surrounded her, and inside each washtub were slippery swirls of anchovies in water. The anchovies came in all sizes, from fingernail-sized to half my arm in length. Horace selected anchovies out of a washtub and she plopped them in a plastic bag full of water that he balanced on his lap as he drove us home.
When Horace stayed over on certain evenings, I’d pretend to drift off to sleep beside him as I’d done with lovers in the past, waiting until he fell into a deep sleep before slipping out from under his arm to do what I’d always done. His hairs were thick, black, and gleaming.
The anchovies were for the catfish. Horace’s toughest client was a celebrity, a chef. In his office, one huge catfish named Ivan drifted alone in a large tank that glowed a rich Yves Klein blue. I called it the dream chamber. The tank though wide was very narrow. The poor fish had to swim at an angle, his whiskers brushing against the glass. Horace had to climb up a stepladder to reach the top of the tank so that he could toss each flapping anchovy into the water. The catfish would prowl at its slow pace, moving no faster than before, and we would watch it devour entire anchovies whole with its vacuum cleaner mouth and casually join the leftovers afterward. It was a tight fit. At the end of the feeding, Horace and I would remain, eating peaches. We would turn off the light and let the Yves Klein blue light the room.
I was working on a scene of a miner in Colorado one night using a mix of my and Horace’s hair when I found him standing over me, rubbing his eyes. “Come back to bed,” he said. I shook my head. I was looping my long hairs around his short ones to make a shovel. He pulled me back into bed, telling me he had a remedy. I was dubious. “Do you know how often I’ve heard that?” I said. I crawled into bed with him. He slipped his hand under my right breast, squeezing in a rhythm, kneading it like an expert bread maker. I tried to discern the rhythm.
I woke up at dawn weeping, having slept for the first time in years. I couldn’t make myself stop. We all learned once that our brains process things in sleep; there must have been a lot in the queue, a line of anchovies for my catfish-brain. Horace told me the tempo at which he squeezed my breast matched the song “Staying Alive.”
I asked Horace to come over every evening. All I ever wanted to do was sleep. My eyesight improved. I became more beautiful. I lost twenty pounds. I grew four inches. Horace had firm but delicate feminine hands; that’s all I really remember about him. That’s the only thing I can still picture. I loved those hands.
I noticed that the plants began to look healthier after my rounds, as if there was something I gained during sleep that the plants needed, a sort of limpidness that I think the plants liked about me. I thought this would demonstrate that I deserved a raise of some sort or some words of affirmation. But one day I walked into work to find these timed spritzers everywhere that would wet the plants at the appropriate hours. These automatic feeders had been attached to the cages of the office pets so that a pellet or two would be spit out every so often. The celebrity chef apparently cooked the catfish when he had important French visitors one weekend. There was nothing left for us. Building management had hired consultants who were trying to find ways to save money. We were the losers. The old construct was what held Horace and me together. We received our severance packages.
Horace eventually grew tired of me. He told me I was directionless. But, it was more like he met another woman. I saw them in Chinatown together and followed them. They performed all the same rituals Horace and I had once done. I was cleanly replaced.
Sleep left me for a second time, and it was more painful than the first. I wanted that feeling of beginning anew every morning, not that of one long endless life. Sleep was like getting a little taste of death. Life had to be squeezed into the time in between sleeps. The little deaths were important. I returned to my hair sculptures.
Reenacting our rituals, I wandered through Chinatown on my own. I was Jeanne Moreau walking through the streets in Elevator to the Gallows with the jazz music. I passed the lit up storefronts of psychics, karaoke taverns, restaurants full of families, trinket shops, and massage parlors. Men smoked in the alleyways next to their motorcycles with their shirts off. Then I saw something, as if it were meant for me: A neon sign advertising a soft breast mechanism glowed against a shop window right above the storefront of a foot massage parlor.
I climbed the stairs. The room smelled like medicine. A woman in a stiff white suit that looked like a karate outfit pointed me to a testing chamber. It reminded me of a doctor’s office, all the apparatuses. I had to take off my shirt and my bra and lie down on a small bed. A hand would appear from a hole in the wall, holding a different mechanism each time. There were many soft breast mechanisms to try, all with a different pulse to them. I hummed “Staying Alive” against each soft breast mechanism until I found one with a pulse that matched.
“It works best if you have some help,” the woman said.
I told her that really wasn’t an option.
She went into the back room and procured a kit that allowed me to screw a metallic appendage into the wall by my bed. It would hold the soft breast mechanism in place.
If someone were to ask me if there was anything I’d run back into a burning house to save, it would be the suitcases if only for all the midnight hours spent collecting in the silence. When I returned home, I unzipped my suitcases and waded through my figurines. My collection of hair belonged to my mother and father, to all my lovers, the animals I’ve had, the people who occupied my life at some time. A human being sheds up to 100 strands of hair a day.
I amassed all my hair figurines into one giant humanoid. I laid it beside me, the hairs pressing against my body. Then I considered my new purchase. The soft breast mechanism came in a beautiful clamshell box with a pick enclosure that you slid in and out of a red loop. I opened the box, took out the object, and set it in the flexible arm that I’d attached to the wall. It swooped over me just like a lover’s would in the spooning position. In that manner, I found a sleep all my own.
Janalyn Guo writes and bookbinds in Norwalk, Connecticut. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Anomalous, Interfictions, Bat City Review, Tarpaulin Sky, and other places. She is an editorial assistant at Unstuck.