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These days, Bonnie Saks is lucky to gets four consecutive hours of shut-eye, what with her bed-wetting young son, her unfinished doctoral thesis, her meager teaching salary, and the fact that she?s pregnant by a lover about as reliable as her ex-husband.
Meanwhile, Ian Ogelvie, an ambitious young research scientist, is setting up a study of a promising new sleep aid. Their chance encounter forms the backdrop for this richly exuberant portrait of contemporary America, ...
These days, Bonnie Saks is lucky to gets four consecutive hours of shut-eye, what with her bed-wetting young son, her unfinished doctoral thesis, her meager teaching salary, and the fact that she’s pregnant by a lover about as reliable as her ex-husband.
Meanwhile, Ian Ogelvie, an ambitious young research scientist, is setting up a study of a promising new sleep aid. Their chance encounter forms the backdrop for this richly exuberant portrait of contemporary America, encompassing everything from the slippery evasions of love to the intricate network that binds together the pharmaceutical industry, managed care, and a shadow population of lost, sleepless souls. At once entertaining and philosophic, Inspired Sleep heralds a major voice in American fiction.
Chapter One: The Old Mistakes
All afternoon there had been a chilly, puttering rain. Now, though the clouds had torn open with the onset of dusk, Bonnie could feel the dampness lingering in her sinuses, smudging the lines of the road ahead. Perhaps she was coming down with the flu. She hoped so. Stuck in rush-hour traffic, daylight failing, the tinny and diminutive roar of the heater her only comfort, she conceived an alternate vision of herself dozing in bed, sipping fatty soups, and acting generally like the pampered creature she was destined, but for circumstance, to be. Oh God, she hoped to hell it was the flu. But she did not really think it was.
On the radio, a voice was pleasantly droning out the closing prices of shares. Some were up, some down. For all her education she could not have said why.
It had been her intention to take a shortcut to the meeting, avoiding the traffic on Massachusetts Avenue by routing through the flatlands of Somerville, but due to some new phase of construction or demolition on the roads, this had turned out to be an error. And now she was stuck. On Beacon Street the cars were inching forward. Brake lights glowed like embers in the mist. They might have been spelling out a code, a dimly luminous fragment of instruction, but whatever it was she failed to read it through the fog-smothered windshield.
Slowly the city ebbed past. A black statue, an idling milk truck, a dry fountain in a vacant square. A dog lay facedown in the stiffening grass, limbs twitching spasmodically from some febrile dream.
Bonnie yawned. She herself had lost the talent for sleep, the nocturnal equipment. Lately four hours in a row was a signal event. More often it was three. Her friend Suzette, an ardent interventionist in these matters, had recommended Ativan, but Bonnie, for reasons that were not entirely clear, had to this point resisted. Now for all she knew it was too late. The long blue nights had torched her nerves. Her head felt fried, its gray matter calcifying; her eyes, scooped and raw, rattled around irritably in their sockets. These days even when she didn't have an actual headache she felt as if she had one. And today she actually had one. Which meant, she thought crabbily, that she was currently entertaining two headaches: the usual one, plus this other one, which was not in truth so unusual either. Plus a third that came from performing all this pointless math on the other two. Or was it just one enormous ache?
However you added it up, the pain was debilitating, so she tried as she drove to affect some relief. She massaged her temples with the balls of her thumbs. She listened to a tape of light, noodling piano jazz. She performed several deep-breathing exercises. When it became clear that none of these remedies would make, would ever make the slightest bit of difference, she began to fish around in her shoulder bag for the echinacea and zinc tablets Suzette, who had moved to Vermont with the man of her dreams — the absence twitched inside her like a phantom limb — had also counseled her to carry, but which as yet, it seemed, she did not. Just as well. Her stomach wouldn't have been able to handle them anyway.
Her stomach, as it happened, was in arguably the least presentable shape of all her essential organs. Queasy and capricious, it was running through its full repertoire of post-red meat convulsions, attempting to cope with the enormous trapezoidal hamburger Alex, her eleven-year-old, had — as he did every second Tuesday of the month — overcooked for her, and which Bonnie, standing at the sink with her coat on, staring dolorously into the charred, soapy skillet, had bolted down in record time. Alex's hamburger, truth be told, had tasted pretty good. She regretted it now, of course, on her way to the meeting. But it appeared that was her character, if not her fate: to do and to regret.
"When's Cress coming?" Alex had asked, watching her eat.
Bonnie checked her watch. "Ten minutes ago. As usual."
"It's not fair. Why can't we stay alone?"
"Because you can't."
Bonnie allowed her eyes to close just for a moment, savoring the delicious, timeless witticism that was her life.
"Because," she sighed, "you can't. It's against the law."
"It's not fair," Alex repeated, failing to hear her, or perhaps himself, above the music playing on his Walkman, which he had neglected as usual to take off. "I can put Petey to bed, you know. I've done it lots of times."
"I thought you liked Cress. I thought you had fun with her."
"She's weird. All she does is eat and space out in front of the TV."
"She's a baby-sitter," Bonnie said. "They're paid to do that. Someday if you play your cards right, people will pay you to eat and watch TV all night too."
She looked at him, this bony, crew-cut creature in his Red Sox cap and oversized T-shirt, hunched like a gargoyle over his plate, his vast complement of aggressions swathed in twenty-five milligrams of Prozac and some syrupy overproduced top-forty dream. A poor thing but my own, she thought. How had they arrived at this windy station? Who was driving the train? For a moment she thought she glimpsed in the boy, furled up like a flag, some of the coiled, recalcitrant DNA of his father. But perhaps that was only her imagination. The yearning of a vacancy for the shape that once filled it.
"Baby, please," she said. "It's been a rotten day. Give me a break, okay?"
Alex made a grudging frown. Giving his mother a break had become something of a domestic catechism by this point, a fervent daily appeal. Possibly, after all that repetition, even he had begun to see the justice in it.
"Anything left in the fridge for Cress?"
"Couple of apples. Mustard. We're out of Dr Pepper again."
"Good," she said.
"Hey, you're the one who said it was good for you. Some kind of medicine. You and Suzette."
"That was in the old days, we said. A hundred years ago. Now, of course, it's full of junk."
"You say that about everything," Alex pointed out.
"I'm late." She pulled on her gloves. "All right, so I'll leave my credit card. If Cress's hungry she can order a pizza."
"Large or small?"
Bonnie, yawning, waved her hand in exasperation. "Whichever she wants."
"I thought we were so broke," Alex reminded her, in his own helpful way.
Half an hour later, sitting on the floor of the preschool's gym, Bonnie tasted the hamburger again, and while she was at it, everything else she had eaten that day too. Things were backing up on her. Closing in. Her gaze swept over the padded room — the pale, perforated ceiling, the dangling ropes, the blue wrestling mats against which she seemed forever pinned. Life is containment, she thought. Its most vivid events were only a play of mind, nervous and persistent, like the flutter of a starling, or the fitful industries of a magpie adorning its cage. No wonder she craved transport. But where to? Her life was a sunken temple. The doors were swamped in sand, the windows of sleep were shuttered tight. It was not just some rogue mood that had overtaken her but an absence of mood: a crusted ring left around the body when the waters of dreams were drained.
How long since she had slept with a man, really slept? Surely what she had done with Stanley Gottfried back in December could not be counted as sleeping. For that matter it probably could not be counted as fucking, either.
The image of Stanley Gottfried, and the familiar mix of guilt, longing, and distaste he evoked, led inexorably to thoughts of her unfinished dissertation, the pages flung messily across her desk like so much urban sprawl. The desk was solid pine; it had been fashioned from an old door by Leon, her ex-husband, during one of his brief though conscientious nesting phases, and mounted sturdily onto sawhorses for the express purpose of bearing up her thesis. Once, she remembered, that door had opened to a burgeoning closet, full of shoes, cross-country skis, long, tumbling dresses....
Larry Albeit, Caitlin's father, sat down beside her on the wrestling mat and officiously unbuttoned his suit jacket. "Better get comfortable," he said, crossing his legs. "We're in for a long one."
"Oh no. Not tonight."
"Oh yes." He loosened his tie in the casual, distracted way of someone long accustomed to dealing with knots. "Next year's budget. Remember last time? It'll go on for hours."
"But I told the sitter I'd be home by nine."
Larry Albeit shrugged and offered her a wide-angle view of his high white teeth. What did he care? He was a lawyer in a litigious culture; meetings were the connective tissue of his life. Besides, at home he had his cheery, blond, and incredibly narrow-waisted wife, Kip, reading Madeline to the girls, free of charge.
"Well," he said, rising to his knees, "I think I'll get some coffee. Want any?"
"Caf or decaf?"
She hesitated. One would have thought from the amount of time it required that the choice was a profound one. "Make it decaf," she said, more to herself, as it turned out, than to Larry, who had already sprung up and bounced gallantly away to fetch it.
"Okay, guys," said Geoff Dahlberg, brandishing his clipboard. "I move that we get started. Lots of business tonight."
First the secretary, Bill Lake, went over the minutes from the previous month, which had to be accepted by voice vote and put into the record. Then Bethany Freitag ran down the membership report, Eileen Smith reviewed the new curriculum committee proposals, and Dennis whatever-his-name-was gave an update on the physical plant renovations, which were as usual ongoing and expensive. Finally the treasurer, Alice Orkin, was called upon to report on fiscal matters. The preschool was actually in the black for a change, she conceded soberly, though not by much, and of course that wasn't taking into account the rent increase and the inevitable spike in staff salaries and benefits that would come like mud in the spring. To cover all these expenditures, tuition would have to go up. But then tuition went up every year. The only question was how high.
The other question — Bonnie's question — was how on earth she was going to swing it. For a moment she contemplated the slim, well-toned figure of Alice Orkin, standing at the front of the gym in black jeans, a high-necked velvet blouse, and amber earrings, brandishing one of her CPI charts and speaking with the genial and inquisitive stammer of the well-bred. A decade and a half ago, Alice had won a Rhodes scholarship in medieval poetry, but gave it up to marry Steve Orkin and his whole fabulous Brattle Street gene pool. Now she had three children, the youngest of whom was borderline autistic, and passed the time monitoring investments in their huge, turreted, daffodil-yellow Colonial, from whence she emerged on the second Tuesday of every month with her terrific jewelry and laser-printed graphs to command, in her hesitant, soft-toned way, everyone's fiscal attention. Not that Bonnie begrudged her. She too longed to step out from her high tower and address the crowd. But armed with what?
"Thank you," Geoff said, bobbing over his clipboard. "Those are fine reports. We all appreciate the work you guys put in."
Alice, Dennis, Bethany, Eileen, and Bill nodded modestly in acknowledgment.
"Okay, if there's no other old business, I move we proceed to the memo you received in your boxes last week, concerning the benefits package. Now, those of you who survived last year's meetings may recall these budget issues can get kind of delicate at times; they tend to generate some pretty strong emo — "
"Excuse me: Geoff?"
A hand was in the air, bunched into a fist. It belonged to Ginny Stern, whose son Jason was the precocious darling of Petey's class. Why shouldn't he be? He had a principled and outspoken mother who taught Comp Lit at Wellesley, and who took him to museums every weekend, and to France in the summer so he'd grow up bilingual, and the presence of whose hand in the air just now did not bode too well, Bonnie thought, for the pace of the evening.
"I'm confused," Ginny said, frowning. It was her standard opening line, and as usual not even remotely true. "Why are we using Styrofoam again, exactly? I thought we settled this months ago."
She pointed accusingly to the nearest coffee cup, which happened to be Bonnie's, and was in fact comprised of materials that would outlive them all. Guiltily Bonnie snuck a look into the bottom of the contraband cup, where the letters C.H.P. were laid out in small, puzzling indentations.
"She's right," said Bill Lake, checking his notes. "Nine/seventeen: Unanimous vote."
Geoff, his brow furrowed, looked around for help.
"I have an issue with the procedure here," Ginny said. "What happened to the mugs my committee went out and bought for replacements? I gave them to Mia myself."
All eyes turned to Mia Montague, the waifish, ponytailed assistant director. She sat propped against the back wall of the gym, the same spot she always occupied at meetings, blank-faced and serene, stitching their fates, in the form of clustered violets, onto a macramé tablecloth. It was Mia's job to stock the kitchen. Several times in the past this had brought her into direct engagement with Ginny Stern, often on the losing side. But now her mouth had a coy little twist, as if she were sucking on a piece of butterscotch candy. "Mugs?" Mia asked faintly, after a moment.
"There were three dozen. They had dancing cows on one side."
"Oh," Mia said, "those." She shook her head, wistful. "Those were no good. I had them inspected."
"Inspected?" Ginny looked dubious.
"By a ceramicist. She said they were improperly fired, and anyway there's too much lead in the glaze."
"But they're from Conran's."
"Well, they're a health hazard."
"So's Styrofoam," Ginny shot back.
"Yes, but that's environmental. It's completely different."
All this time Bonnie was sleepily contemplating the decaffeinated dregs at the bottom of her cup, wondering: Her mugs at home — weren't a couple of those from Conran's too? Was she poisoning the kids? Wait, but the kids didn't drink coffee. Thank God, she was only poisoning herself.
"Listen, people," Geoff said, "I don't mean to suggest this isn't an important issue, well worth discussing, but we've got a helluva long agenda to get through. So I move that in the interests of time we go ahead and use the Styrofoam tonight, and meanwhile let's ask the food committee to purchase new mugs, safe ones, for next time. Anyone care to second?"
In deference to Geoff's long service on the board and his eminent if semi-maddening reasonableness, several people rushed to second the motion. Bonnie, sipping surreptitiously from her contraband cup, would have liked to second it too, but she did not trust herself to open her mouth. Already she'd acquired a reputation as something of a loose cannon in these meetings: fickle in her loyalties, wanting in seriousness, slow to volunteer. Doubtless it was all true. She did not feel like a good citizen these days. She lacked the energy, the time, the patience; ultimately, she supposed she lacked the will. It was a shameful thing to admit at this stage in global culture, but she'd about had it with participatory democracy. She'd have been happier writing out a check every month and letting paid professionals make all the decisions. Or better, to give herself over, just for a while, to some stern and commanding fascist dictator. To have at least a few of the trains in her life running on time.
Leon, she thought. At times the name yawned inside her reflexively, a bad flower aching toward light.
It had been Leon's idea — one of the last in a series of charming coercions — that they enroll the boys in a cooperative preschool in the first place. Parental involvement, he'd argued, was the progressive, responsible choice: better for the children, statistically persuasive, and cheaper in the end for all concerned. Which was approximately the same line of reasoning he'd applied some months later to getting divorced.
But that wasn't altogether fair. Strictly speaking, Leon had been no more to blame in the matter than Bonnie herself, who had after all done no one any good by sleeping with Stanley Gottfried at the MLA in San Francisco, for reasons that remained shrouded in fog even now. She'd been five months pregnant with Petey at the time; she remembered thinking, rather magically, in retrospect, that the extra layer of flesh around her belly would somehow insulate her from consequence. But it hadn't, of course. And now here she was. As for Stanley, he still made an occasional appearance, flying in to attend a conference at one of the local universities and, as if incidentally, to screw up her life; but Leon, that dear, sweet, narcissistic mess, was gone — decamped to Santiago, Chile, where the winters were warm, the psychoanalysts were cheap, and at least one of the local theaters was sufficiently desperate for material to produce the artless and didactic neo-Brechtian plays that were his specialty. Yes, Leon appeared to be flourishing down there, across all those borders. Lately his child support checks had even begun to arrive roughly the same month they were due. Also, he no longer called her collect in the middle of the night to haggle over money or visitations. In fact he no longer called her at all.
"...and so," Geoff was saying, "if you'll turn to page three, you'll see the charts drawn up by the personnel committee, detailing the various benefit packages available to the staff."
Bonnie dutifully studied the charts. The fact that they were incomprehensible to her, though discouraging, was predictable enough — like most humanists, she had never done well in statistics — and after the first few seconds her eyes began skating giddily over the numbers, making elaborate figure eights and pirouettes in the margins, fanciful little doodles that seemed to illustrate perfectly the chaotic, trivial nature of her thoughts. The mind, she'd once read, is just a piece of paper, tossed by wind. But the nice thing about these meetings was that she could sit here and let it blow around, and all the competent, initiative-seizing people — the grown-ups, she caught herself thinking — would bear her along in their wake. She could coast. Under the circumstances this was a rare pleasure, the kind of minor indulgence, like getting high in the bathtub or devouring a crumb cake from Entenmann's, in which single people often seek consolation for their grievances, and Bonnie would have been perfectly capable of enjoying it if not for the dull, formless ache behind her eye sockets, and the calamitous way Alex's hamburger had settled in her stomach, and the small test she would have to perform upon herself the next morning, of which the hamburger, in its heavy and dyspeptic way, was a reminder.
"Can I say something?" asked Lucia Todd-Frazen, meekly interrupting a discussion of the dental plan.
Geoff, sitting in a yoga position at the front of the room, nodded beneficently.
"I just want you all to know that Harvey and I, and I think I speak for both of us even though he's not here tonight? Because we really love you guys on staff, the work you do, you're like part of our family, your patience, your involvement, your overall...and we believe in labor, we do, we support it. Even though we're not technically working class ourselves, of course, and sometimes, like with the Teamsters, or the restaurant workers downtown, a couple years ago, those indictments? We had an issue with that. Harvey especially, it sort of shook his faith for a while. But this measure we're talking about addresses some important issues. And so I want to say we support it, we really...both of us...we really...thank you."
The tremulousness of Lucia's voice and the circuity of her phrasing were of a nature so profound that a kind of tender collective prayer went up at the end of her speech, that any additional pain might be spared her. Such is the tyranny of the shy. But her message had touched a nerve. Parents of both genders now began to let fly with a quarter-century's worth of repressed pro-labor sentiments and McGovernish endorsements. What kind of lousy package were we offering our staff, anyway? Dental was one small part of an intricate puzzle. What about, for instance, workman's comp?
"Workperson's," grumbled Thea Doyle.
What about mental health? Job security? Paternity leave for the men on staff, never mind that half were gay? A flurry of amendments were proposed; each had to be discussed at some length before being tabled and referred to the appropriate committee chairperson, that it might be studied and further discussed at the next meeting. Several voice votes were taken anyway. Bonnie tried to participate, but her mouth had apparently lost the talent for shaping sounds. One by one, her powers were deserting her. Pretty soon it was nine-thirty, and she had to go to the bathroom again, and even Larry Albeit in his five-hundred-dollar suit was beginning to look a little rumpled.
Then Lucia cleared her throat again, and everyone froze.
"I just want to say this issue, the one we're discussing? I've had it for a long time. Because my life, it used to be a different...a different...like that proposition for the farmworkers, back in ninety-two? I worked on that. Harvey didn't want me to, not at first, he thought it took too much time away, I guess, I don't really remember what he thought. But I said, Harvey? I have a real issue with the fact that people who work hard in this country should make as much as we make, and have benefits that are just as good. This is something I think we should wake up to. I have a real issu — "
Jesus, thought Bonnie. Give me a fucking break.
And then an odd thing happened. Lucia froze; her face went white; one hand flew to her mouth to stifle a sob. It was as if the walls of Bonnie's head had been made transparent, and her whole stark infrastructure of anger and cynicism was revealed to all. There Lucia stood, damp-eyed and immobile on the wrestling mat. From the clench of her hands, she might have been grappling with an angel.
Now, under normal circumstances, the sight of Lucia Todd-Frazen getting emotional at a meeting was no more surprising or upsetting a phenomenon than the buzzing of the sodium lights in the parking lot outside. But to Bonnie it seemed the evening's very skin had been punctured. Horrified, she tried to remember: Had she said the words aloud? Oh God, she'd done everything else wrong that day, why not this too? Here we go, she thought: her nature, her true nature, had finally revealed itself. She'd said something bitchy and awful, severed the thin, precarious cord that bound civilized, progressive, cooperative people together, and now they'd all feel perfectly justified in hating her, if they hadn't already. And meanwhile it would be Petey, poor Petey, who was tormented nightly by dreams, who could not even count past twelve, whose skinny nose, a small parody of her own, could not be persuaded to stop running — it would be Petey who'd suffer the consequences.
Abruptly, she stood, muttering something about the bathroom, hoping no one would notice the tremble in her voice, or the mottled and inflamed condition of her cheeks, or the tears that were now blurring her eyes too. Tears! There was no accounting for them; they'd simply arrived on her face, dumbly, brutishly, like strange orphan children toward whom she felt no family feeling but for whom she understood herself somehow responsible. Room would have to be made, but where? There was no room left.
Only when she was alone in the bright-tiled shelter of the bathroom did the anxiety begin to subside. Standing at the sink, she rinsed her trembling hands with antibacterial soap and splashed cold water on her face, sensing that some personal crisis — she could not have said what — had been narrowly avoided. Nonetheless she was left feeling more than a little depleted. Lucia's speech, in the momentary stillness, continued to galumph indignantly through her head. I have a real issue with this. When had issues become possessions, Bonnie wondered, and why didn't she own more of them herself? But then she did, didn't she? She owned plenty. What would it matter if she added one more to the pile?
Though she had not lost her looks, increasingly she had to hunt for them awhile in the mirror before they showed up. The nights were doing their work. Her cheeks were shadowed and pale. Beneath the skin, like red ink bleeding through a page, she could make out tiny flailing capillaries of desire. Her wide, generous mouth, her flashing brown gaze: Where had they gone? More makeup was needed. The bags under her eyes had begun to take on some of the depth and capacity of marsupial pouches. The skin over them was lumpy, erratic, as colorful and intricately scalloped as a rainbow trout.
There were no paper towels in the dispenser, so she wiped her hands on her jeans, which she intended to throw out soon anyway, because they were threadbare and shapeless, like so much of what passed for her wardrobe, from when she was pregnant with Petey.
Out in the hallway she stopped to call home. The line was busy, of course. Cress, her baby-sitter, was a popular girl. Though plain to look at, to say nothing of her rather limited child-care skills, Cress had something, an aura or energy or low-frequency signal, that endeared her to other people, particularly children and men. Or were these two separate categories? Standing at the phone, the busy signal pounding away angrily at the protective insulation of her heart — what now? what now? — Bonnie looked over the construction-paper lions and monkeys the Green Room kids had done that week (Petey's, she was relieved to discover, was no more crude or haphazard than any of the others), and two of the tears she had worked so hard to suppress back in the gym finally worked their way free.
"Hey, Bon?" Larry Albeit was approaching her with a concerned look on his high pink rectangular face. "You okay?"
Bonnie touched a finger to her cheek, where it was warm and wet. "Okay?" she said.
"You're kind of crying."
"So I just thought maybe you could use a shoulder to lean on."
Bonnie shook her head. The offer was not promising. "You should probably get back," she said. "The meeting."
"Ah..." Larry waved his wrist cavalierly and, unless she was out of her mind, actually blushed. "Fuck the meeting."
Despite herself, Bonnie tittered. The sound it made in the hallway was so loud, so awful and garish, that it might have issued from the wall of paper jungle animals behind her. "I better go," she said. "I've got a lot to do at home."
"Who doesn't? Listen, come on out to my car. We can talk there."
"It's nice in there. You'll see. Besides, I believe I've got some opiated hash in the glove compartment with your name on it."
Bonnie hesitated. Lately all the junctions in her life's road seemed to be marked by this same sign: WHERE NOW? But she was lonely and tired and felt vaguely inclined to please, if not herself, then someone else; and too, she was almost forty, and for all her previous experience in minor drug use had never in fact seen opiated hash with her name on it before. So she followed Larry Albeit through the double doors that led to the parking lot.
Outside the wind was being its dumb, arrogant night self, banging at doors and windows, tossing around the phone wires that dangled between the poles. The temperature had fallen. The day's puddled rain had turned to ice. Coatless — she remembered it now, too late, back in the gym — Bonnie skidded reluctantly across the asphalt in the direction of Larry's black Saab. There it gleamed under the yellow halo of the sodium lights, enormous and sleek, a vehicle for all the soul's burdensome dreams.
At the last moment, however, she veered off abruptly toward her own car.
"Better not," she said, giving Larry a quick wave over her shoulder at the same time, lest he too think her unbearably rude. "I should stay straight for the ride home."
"You sure?" His forehead crowded over his eyes. For all his surface congeniality there was about him a tenacity, a bullishness. "I could drive you."
"Maybe some other time."
She needed to go back for her coat, no question about it, but she knew that would appear strange and awkward to Larry Albeit, so instead she strode to her car, jangling her keys in a purposeful and businesslike manner. Her haste to get to the meeting had made her park in such a way, she observed now, as to occupy two spaces at once. It was not a surprise. Everything she did of late seemed faintly transgressive, contained this small, glowing trace element of waste.
The lock was frozen. Shivering, she bent down to breathe on the mechanism, a technique that had worked for her occasionally in the past.
"A problem?" Larry buzzed down his window to observe her better. He had just started his car.
"Just...this...door," she said, pushing against it with her full, her swelling weight. But it refused to give. She began to look around for something to hit it with. "On cold nights it gets jammed."
"Leave it," he said. "C'mon, get in for a minute and warm up. We'll figure something out."
Her gloves, of course, were in the pocket of her missing coat. As if to remind her of this, a crack had opened on the back of her hand, a sliver of blood at the knuckle where the skin was dry and chafed.
You have to keep the body lubricated, she thought. It will turn on itself.
Quickly, so as not to change her mind, she crossed over the white lines that separated her car from his and climbed in on the passenger's side. The position gave her an odd sensation of backwardness, of the self inverted by mirrors — she was accustomed to being the driver, not the driven — but in the end she decided that it was no stranger, in fact, than anything else.
"Now..." Larry, bent over, was fumbling in the glove compartment with his right hand, creating in the process no small amount of incidental contact with Bonnie's right knee. "Where'd I put that hash?"
"Oh," she said, "it doesn't matter. I'm happy just to get out of there. You don't have any hand lotion by any chance?"
Larry, face pressed sideways to the wheel, mumbled inaudibly.
Bonnie leaned back and closed her eyes. "It would be nice to really freak out sometime," she sighed. "To just blow it all off. But I don't think I remember how."
"A lost art," Larry agreed.
"One thing became perfectly clear to me tonight, anyway. I'm living the wrong life."
"I mean, these college towns, really, how do you stand it? All these earnest, overeducated people with their careers and their issues and their meetings that go on forever, their perfect kids who just happen to go to private schools, their potluck dinners with pad thai and tabouli, all those stale wedges of pita laid out in a basket — "
"Actually," Larry admitted, "I like pad thai and tabouli."
"Oh," she said bitterly, "so do I. At least I think I used to. That's what's so awful. All these things I used to really like, and now I can't stand them anymore. Do you think something's terribly wrong with me?"
"Oh no, I wouldn't say wrong...."
"I don't care if there is," she asserted. "I mean, good Lord, she was crying over dental benefits in there."
"Lucia," Larry allowed mildly, "has strong convictions."
"Well, so do I. And one of them is she's wacko."
"Now, now," Larry said, "she's not so bad as all that." He bestowed on her a tall man's gaze of laconic tolerance. "Around here everyone's in pretty much the same boat, I think. You want to do things the right way for the kids. Avoid the old mistakes. Sometimes it makes people clumsy. But all in all they're doing their best."
"Yeah, yeah. I know."
Bonnie leaned wearily against the door, too sleepy all of a sudden to be properly ashamed of her own small-mindedness. The door itself was so much more substantial a piece of metal than the door of her shitty little Subaru that she found it hard to believe both could be accurately described by the same word. "Can you turn up the heater?" she asked. "I've been cold all day."
Larry adjusted a dial on the illuminated dashboard. Warm air purred noiselessly out the vents.
"I want to go south," she said, thinking wistfully of Leon. "Somewhere loose and fun, where they play loud music. Where they eat honeydew and mango and take naps after lunch."
"It has been a long winter," Larry agreed.
"I need to speak a different language for a while. I've got this weird craving for vowels."
"I've always wanted to live in the desert," Larry confessed. "I have an ascetic streak, and I retain water pretty well. Kippy says I'd make a good camel."
She watched him rummage around in the glove compartment for the wayward hash pipe, tossing aside documents of insurance and registration, maps, receipts, bookmarks, school notices, and scraps of notebook paper, hastily torn, full of directions to other people's houses. The plenitude and casualness of it all, the intricate rustle of pages in the car's interior breeze, gave rise in her to a small, rolling wave of anger. "What is it with lawyers, anyway?" she demanded. "How come you're the only people who smoke dope anymore?"
"Our work," he said, "is very taxing."
"Psh. Whose isn't?"
"It's a question of degree. People are unsympathetic to lawyers, which is understandable but unfair. They only see the surface symptoms. The behavioral tics and rashes. What they don't see is the pressure, all the money that rides on our ability to make fine discriminations. Draw little lines between their side and our side."
"I know what discriminations are, thank you."
"Of course you do," he said. "It's just these little lines — how do I say this? They can be very little. Practically metaphysical. Take this napalm case I've got now."
"Napalm? I didn't know they still made that stuff."
"They don't," Larry said. "This is left over from Vietnam. It's been sitting around a storage facility up in Maine all these years, but there's some kind of leakage problem, evidently. Some groundwater thing. So now they want to ship it to Virginia. They've got a technology down there that breaks the stuff down into its chemical constituents and recycles it into clean, cheap fuel. Elegant solution, right?"
"The only problem is the transport issue. You can imagine how the environmentalists and citizen action groups feel about this. Six states, sixteen lawsuits. No one wants this stuff rolling through their cities at night, when they're asleep."
"I wouldn't either."
"Of course not. Though the fact is it's probably the best thing for everyone. The collective good. It's already out there, right? It won't go away. You have to do something with it. It may as well be something useful."
"Who's to say what's useful?"
"There you go," he said, "this is what we're up against. Semantics. You hear the word napalm and what do you see? That little naked peasant girl running half-dead down the street. But suppose I say there's twenty thousand gallons of gasoline mixed with a compound of benzene and styrene being stored in heavy metal isocontainers over a foot thick. That's a different story, right? I mean, people are used to that. Check out Charlestown, seven days a week."
"Whatever you call it," she said, "the vibes are still bad. Some things get tainted forever. Even if they're only words."
"My point is it's a gray area. There are a lot of gray areas in the law. That's all I'm trying to establish. You asked about the dope, I'm trying to tell you. It's because of the gray areas. The stress."
She nodded sympathetically, though in fact she felt only scornful and irritated. Stress. Another bad, tainted word. It was so inexact, so overused, so meaningless, she found even the casual, sibilant hiss of it objectionable. Still, she did not wish to sound as though she objected to everything, so she held her tongue.
"Hence," Larry went on, "the lawyer's lifestyle. The long hours. The early heart attacks. The dope, the booze, the kill-or-be-killed, thirty-five-and-over basketball leagues. Coping strategies. It's hard to sleep after you've been up late doing intellectual work. You need something to make those lines start to blur. Get a little loose, you know?"
Oh, thought Bonnie grimly, I know.
"Plus we can generally afford the good shit."
"Oh yeah? So where is it, big shot?"
"Funny. I stuck one in here the other day. I wonder if Kippy might have — "
"Like a chimney. Ever since the chemo. Though she promised me she was going to stop," he said. "'Cause we're trying to have another, um, bambino, hopefully a boy this time, and it probably isn't such a great idea just on the biogenetic end to be toking up every night when you're — "
"Jesus, Larry, I didn't even know Kip was ill."
"Oh, that was two, three years ago. We had a little scare, but it's in remission now. We've got it on the run. There's this mushroom extract, Maitaki? Wonderful stuff. Then there's Noni Juice, and Essiac tea, once in a while a tiny bit of shark cartilage...."
"I know, I know. I'm as skeptical of alternative remedies as the next person. But I have to admit it's all been very...very...ah — " He extracted, at last, the hash pipe. When he'd got the thing lit, he blew out a jet of smoke and handed it across to Bonnie, who had fallen silent.
"Very what?" she asked.
"Hopeful. Very hopeful."
He waited for her to pass the pipe back to him before he spoke again.
"It's terrible what we're doing, isn't it?"
"I don't know about terrible. Irresponsible, maybe."
"No, I mean talking about Kippy's illness. Married people aren't supposed to talk about their spouses in a revealing way, especially to members of the opposite sex. It's a subtle form of betrayal. It violates any number of unwritten conjugal codes."
"What should married people do? Walk around feeling bottled up and lonely instead?"
Larry considered the question.
"That's what's so irritating about marriage," she announced, the blunt needle of her rage slipping into a well-worn groove. "The unspoken laws. They're so tyrannical and unnatural."
"Institutional insecurity," he said. "You have this great, dying empire. It's obsolete, true. But nothing's ready to replace it. So you pass new laws to prop up the ancien régime."
"Well," she said, "one thing I know about people is they're countersuggestive. They don't do well with laws."
"True. But they do even worse without them."
"Exactly," she cried, grabbing his arm with both hands. It was as if he had put words to something terribly elusive.
Larry, for his part, nodded vaguely. He appeared to have lost the flow of their conversation. Then, after a moment, he began to laugh.
It really was good shit. It must have been that, or the late hour, the nice car, the vast reservoir of boredom inside her, or simply the promiscuous way that laughter and empathy, like some canny hybrid virus, travels between people — it must have been something along these lines that caused Bonnie to begin laughing now herself. At least she assumed it was laughter. It had been a while. Was laughter supposed to make her stomach so sour, her cheeks so streaky and hot?
"Bon?" Larry was leaning forward again, his eyes small reddish stones on the placid pond of his forehead. "You okay?"
"I think I'm pregnant."
It was in the nature of an experiment, saying it aloud, and once the words were out, part of her continued to listen carefully for some kind of explosion. But nothing happened.
Larry nodded soberly. "I thought so."
"You thought so? What kind of crazy thing is that to say?"
"Just a feeling," he said. "I saw you back there when I first sat down. Very haughty and impatient. I remember that look from the hospital." He laid down the pipe and closed the ashtray with a snap. "I figured either someone died, or else you were pregnant."
"Actually, Larry, you may be right on both counts."
Both of them sat there digesting this information for a moment.
Larry cleared his throat. "Forgive me for prying, but I take it the father's not in the picture?"
"The father!" she snorted. "The father is a hot young turk post-structuralist. The father won't even concede an author is responsible for his own book. What's he going to make of this?
"Also," she added wearily, "he lives in Toronto. With a woman. Maybe two women. It's not entirely clear."
"Well," Larry said, rubbing his smooth jaw, "that's a tough situation."
"Anything I can do?"
"Do?" She tried to look out the window, but the glass had begun to fog over. She lacked the energy to wipe it clean.
"Sure. You know. To help."
She wheeled around to face him. "What are you talking about, do? I hardly know you. Our kids happen to go to the same preschool. What could you possibly do — adopt us?"
"Okay, okay. Take it easy. I'm just trying to help."
"What is it with you people anyway? Where do you get your confidence? Tell me the truth: Was it Mom? Did she love you so much you think you can just go around doing things?" Her stomach was flopping over like a salmon. "Oh, shit," she wailed, "oh filthy mother of God — "
"Sometimes just talking," Larry said gently, inching toward her across the leather seat, "just letting it out..."
Though she did not herself subscribe to this theory, in truth something did begin to happen to Bonnie as the tears fell: her head became very heavy and at the same time, on the inside, remarkably light. She could feel it zooming off on its own, circling dizzily for a while and then slowing, easing itself toward the broad, solid topography of Larry's shoulder — the surface to which all earthly gravity would consign her. All right, okay: she allowed her eyes to close. And it did feel luxurious, damn it, like falling into a wide, silken net. And she deserved it too. She deserved it for all the meetings, all the parent conferences, the open houses and holiday programs, all the bills she'd paid or avoided, all the baths, the Band-Aids, the vitamin supplements and antibiotics, all the piles of laundry that never seemed to diminish no matter how often she ran the machine, all the omelettes and sauces from which she'd obligingly left out the herbs and the onions, all the aimless hours she'd passed in the middle of the night staring vacantly at the crack in the wall above the toaster, wondering how not to fall in. Yes, she had worked hard, very goddamned hard, and now she was due...well, something, she was certainly due something....
How long her head rested that way on Larry's shoulder she didn't know. Not long enough to sleep. And then much too soon there it was again, in its stubborn, corklike fashion, bobbing right up. "I have to get back," she said, reaching for the door handle.
"Are you sure? The meeting, they'll still be at it, you know."
"No, no," she said, "I mean home."
But once she had extricated herself from the car, the wind caught her by both arms, whipping around like a shroud, as if to expose — or was it enfold? — her. Overhead, through the skeletal branches, she could see the cold clear eye of the moon. It was getting late. Lights were on in the Victorians across the road. Parents and children floated through the chambered rooms, silent and sure, like skaters in a dream.
And now the double doors were swinging open. People began to emerge from the meeting in clusters and pairs, making their way carefully across the parking grid in search of their cars. She could not make out their faces in the darkness, but she recognized them by their good bulky winter coats: Geoff Dahlberg, Lucia Todd-Frazen, Dennis (all at once, she remembered his last name) Peeler. Alice Orkin and Thea Doyle were hugging good-bye; Bethany Freitag was leaning into Ginny Stern's car, hammering out some detail of carpooling; Ron Kubikowsky was talking into his cellular phone, informing his wife to stick his dinner in the oven, he was on his way.
Shivering, she remembered her coat, still back in the gym. She had bought that coat on sale at Filene's several years back; a musk of obscure disappointment had clung to it ever since. Somehow it had never fit quite right. She was tempted to leave it behind, to cut herself free of it, of all her old mistakes, but the coat, made of the finest cashmere substitute of its day, was warm, and had another year or two left in it, and she could not afford another right now. So she turned and headed back through the double doors.
The hallway was deserted. Of the forty-odd people who'd attended the meeting, only Mia Montague, locking up the kitchen for the night, remained. Mia looked tired but content; apparently the Styrofoam debate had been resolved to her satisfaction. She stuffed her sewing into her shoulder bag and began to wind her scarf loosely around her neck. "Forget something?" she asked brightly.
"Just my coat."
"I think Geoff locked the gym when he left. He usually does."
"Oh. Oh well — "
"I think I can open it for you, though."
But when they got the gym door unlocked and flicked on the lights, Bonnie looked around with a dry mouth and a sinking heart. No coat was in evidence.
"Let's try the lost-and-found box," Mia suggested brightly.
The coat was not there either, though she did find one of Petey's T-shirts, mislaid since early October. She clutched it with both hands as she followed Mia out. This, she thought, was what had been due her, not escape, but a deepening of her hole. After all, she had been digging it for years; it would take more than a little hanky-panky with Larry Albeit at this point to vault herself free.
"Hello," Mia said. "Is this the one?"
Bonnie blinked. There, just outside the door of Petey's room, was her coat. It had been folded and draped, with what seemed an almost unnatural delicacy, across one of the tiny plastic chairs the children sat in. There was a rise to the shoulders she hadn't noticed before. She was reminded of wings. When she unfolded the coat a slip of paper fluttered off and fell to the floor. She looked down at it for a second, aware of being a little bit stoned, and of Mia Montague, keys in hand, holding the door that led to the foyer, watching.
The note, written in a mother's careful hand, read: Does this belong to Bonnie Saks, Petey's mom? Please make sure she gets it.
Suddenly a gate rose in Bonnie's heart, and all its channels flooded at once. She was here, she was known, she was being looked after. Things would be delivered unto her.
Outside the stars were tossing around like blossoms, swaying amid the tree limbs. This time the lock on her car door sprang open at once. Perhaps Larry, or someone, or the moonlight itself had breathed on it while she was gone.
Driving home through an infinity of green lights — they dangled in the mist like Chinese lanterns — Bonnie reflected upon the many people in her life who had been irritating her so. She thought of the kids, of Cress, of Lucia and Ginny and Larry, and Kip, poor Kip. She thought of Leon, and even Stanley, that careless, wretched bastard. They were, after all, to be pitied, not hated, for their estrangement from what they had wrought. And she thought of the writer of that unsigned note. It could have been any one of the parents at the meeting, tired, harried, laughably earnest, squeezing good works without recompense from their busy schedules. Larry was right: everyone was trying so hard to avoid the old mistakes — of course it made them clumsy, it makes all of us clumsy, she thought, all of us but not all the time.
When she got home she found Cress at the kitchen table, thoughtfully smoking a cigarette.
"How were they?" Bonnie asked.
"Sorry. I tried to call."
"That's okay." Cress waved her wrist, dispelling the smoke. Above their heads, a bouquet of dried roses twirled indolently on a string, a petrified souvenir from Stanley's last visit. "I guess the meeting ran long, huh?"
"Yeah." Bonnie glanced over at the dishes piled in the sink. Was any pizza left? She was famished.
"Well...I gotta get me some sleep."
Cress stubbed out her cigarette and reached for her bag.
"Let me just sit for a minute, okay? Then I'll call you a cab."
So they sat there awhile. Cress put down her bag and lit another cigarette, pausing every so often to tap the ashes into a teacup, and whatever obsessions were running through her head she chose to retain there. Bonnie, too tired to shrug out of her coat, allowed her eyes to fall closed. She was not thinking about the long evening she had just passed. She was not thinking about the dishes to be done, the lunches to be made, the sleep to be approached like some wary jungle cat, with stillness, reverence, and guile. No, she thought only of this moment right now, this space that did not demand to be filled because it was not in fact vacant, but only suspended — like the tiny unformed being in her womb, or the dried garland that dangled overhead — caught in time's web, between past and future, in a state of pure potentiality. And it occurred to Bonnie that in the final analysis she was a very capable person, capable of more, oh, much more than she could possibly envision, perhaps even capable of being happy....
Then Cress yawned. "Can I go now?"
And Bonnie, her eyes still closed, purse clutched to her stomach, thought clearly and without bitterness, This is going to cost me too.
Copyright © 2001 by Robert Cohen
1. From Freud's view to that of the fictional Howard Heflin, what are the different interpretations of dreams explored in Inspired Sleep? When Bonnie sees her children sleeping she thinks of her dead parents: "At times her own life and that of her children seemed only an effusion of theirs, a pale bloom. A dream not yet enacted" [p. 59]. What view of dreams does her statement invoke? How is this alike or different from the view expressed by Bonnie when she describes art and asks Ian, "Don't you ever see something that looks completely real and completely dreamlike at the same time? Something by de Chirico, or Magritte, or anyone, really, that's both meaningful and crazy?" [p. 275] Is the experience of dreaming a metaphor for living, and, if so, what is the implication of Heflin's assertion that "dreams have no meaning at all" [p. 75]? What would the impact be on psychology or contemporary society if Heflin's statement were true?
2. Bonnie asks Ian rhetorically, "But who draws the line? Who says what's okay and what's pathology? Because there are an awful lot of us in the middle, you know, who don't know what to call what we've got. What're you going to do, go around treating everybody for everything. . . . I hear they've got a pill for shyness now. What next? One for obnoxiousness? For boredom? For . . . love?" [p. 275] "Was there to be a remedy for everything, then? For life itself?" [p. 126] Do you agree with Bonnie's outrage? Does Inspired Sleep offer any solutions to these questions?
3. How are the written and visual arts contrasted with science in Inspired Sleep? Is Heflin correct when he states, "It's the poets, not the scientists, who are most adept when it comes to observing the human mind up close" [p. 107]? Is there irony in Ian's opinion that "one of the many dubious features of the artistic vocation was . . . the abysmal lack of quantitative standards" [p. 223]?
4. During her period of good sleep, Bonnie is described as having "awoke the next morning as someone alive in dream" [p. 288]. Does Bonnie achieve the experience foretold in the epigraph by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge? Taken from his personal notebooks, the epigraph is associated with the famous eighteenth-century Romantic poem, "Kubla Khan," subtitled "A Vision in a Dream." This work is widely acknowledged by critics to have been written while Coleridge was taking opium, the popular nineteenth-century drug which alleviated his many painful ailments and to which he became miserably addicted by the end of his life [sources: A Coleridge Companion, by John Spencer Hill (1984), pp. 61—; The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2, Fourth Edition (1979), pp. 329-ETH-332]. In light of this information about Coleridge, is Cohen's choice of epigraph tragically ironic? Does the title of the book, like the fate of Ian's spiders, also convey this irony?
5. From Ian's first exchange with Bonnie, when he thinks that the Tinteretto postcard she accidentally drops was "very busy and colorful, not his style at all" [p. 102], to the end when he seems to be repeating Bonnie's own feelings: "What don't humans need? Where does it stop?" [p. 366], Ian undergoes a transformation. How does the author develop Ian's scientific persona in the beginning of the novel and gradually break it down as the novel progresses? How is Ian's personal transformation an internalized version of Bonnie's own odyssey? What do they learn from each other? What does Ian mean when he summarizes his relationship with Bonnie: "He had put her to sleep; she in turn had woken him up. The study was over. There would be no more double blindness" [p. 387]?
6. Why does Ian decide to leave the study? Is he a martyr or a failure or just "working really hard to do the right thing" [p. 306]?
7. What does it mean to Bonnie that her pills were placebos? To the industry? To the reader? How might the outcome of the experiment have been different for Bonnie or Ian if the placebo had not had the same effect?
8. When Bonnie relays to Larry that Ian used her for his paper, Larry suggests she sue for "unnecessary pain and suffering," and Bonnie responds cleverly, "Who knows what's necessary and what isn't?" [p. 397] Is Bonnie simply restating Ian's theory: "It's all that keeps us going. Pain, I mean. Keeps us awake" [p. 235]?
9. Why do Larry Albeit, Donald Erway, Cress, and even Heflin take drugs? Do the drugs provide the relief they are seeking, or for them is it in fact the "taking itself [that is] the cure" [p. 376]?
10. How does Cohen blend the genres of fiction and nonfiction in Inspired Sleep? For example, in Chapter 7, which contains the selections of articles on the pharmaceutical studies of Dodabulax, does the blurring of fact and fiction affect the reader's nearness to or distance from the events in the novel?
11. In his introduction to The Portable Thoreau, editor Carl Bode summarizes the essence of the American Transcendentalist movement to which Thoreau belonged:
The affirmation of a knowledge beyond that gained through the five senses; the belief in the supremacy of spirit over matter (even to the extent of a "noble doubt" as to whether nature itself existed); the reverence for, and enjoyment of, nature in spite of any doubts as to its final reality; the declaration of a high unselfish standard of personal conduct, and with it, a caustic criticism of the shoddy way in which the business of the world was conducted . . . [p. 16]
Does Bonnie experience any of Thoreau's Transcendentalism when she says she feels that "[a] membrane had risen between her and the world, or else the membrane that normally separated them had slipped away" [p. 283]? Is Larry Albeit's desire to be like a plant [p. 293] a parody of Thoreau's philosophy? Does Cohen perhaps share with Bonnie a love-hate relationship with Thoreau?
12. Frantz's expectancy theory is defined as follows:
Existence precedes essence. One acts in order to become. Frantz's placebo studies appeared to confirm this. Chemically speaking, the body's metabolic changes were often determined by functions of the mind. Action first; then transformation. That was the whole nub of expectancy theory. Maybe even life itself [pp. 99-100].
Does "expectancy theory" have anything in common with Thoreau's Transcendentalism? How do these two different philosophies affect characters in the novel?
13. In a characteristic outburst, Bonnie says, "I mean, these college towns, really, how do you stand it? All these earnest, overeducated people with their careers and their issues and their meetings that go on forever, their perfect kids who just happen to go to private schools, their potluck dinners with pad thai and tabouli. . . " [p. 26]. Inspired Sleep is filled with critique of "overeducated people"—academics, scientists, pharmaceutical executives, lawyers, etc. What is the tone of Cohen's critique? What purpose does it serve in the novel? Other than Bonnie's children and Ian's sister, Barbara, is anyone left unscathed? Why are these characters exempt from criticism?
14. What is Bonnie looking for or hoping to get out of her relationship with Larry? How does it compare to her other relationships with men? Might she avoid such "painful, embarrassing episode[s]" [p. 393] in the future and, if so, why?
15. From comparing the composition of the classroom to a brain [p. 75], and a receptionist's cheeks to "plump eggplants" [p. 87], Cohen's use of metaphor is elaborate and original. How would you characterize his prose style? What other stylistic elements are prevalent?
16. Ian thinks that "even if one's nature was dogged and thorough and earnest and responsible—all the wrong things, in short, in life if not in research—one had to be true to it" [p. 169]. According to Inspired Sleep, do these characteristics make someone a successful research scientist? Why do Heflin's and Chu's ways "work" [p. 44 and p. 48]? Is it likely that Emily Firestone will be a successful research scientist? Are the clinicians like Dr. Siraj and Dr. Preiss portrayed differently than the researchers like Ogelvie, Chu, and Heflin?
17. Erway observes cynically in Chapter 9, "First you score the treatment, then you find the illness to match it. Sign up some white coats, create a little psychological dependence in the user, and bingo. You're in business" [p. 144]. How does Bonnie's foray into the internet chatroom on anxiety in the very next chapter [pp. 148-151] substantiate Erway's observation?
Posted May 18, 2012
I was really hoping there were a few more reviews to look at for this book, because at the halfway point, I'm really struggling with whether or not to give up on it and hoped to find some positives. Yeah--it is putting me to sleep. When, as in this case, I can't identify with any of the characters, it's hard to care about their outcome. I don't get what Bonnie's problem is, aside from deciding whether or not to have her baby, but she seems completely unconcerned with her irresponsibility. I know I'm missing something, but I don't know what it is and hope another reader will enlighten me!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 21, 2003