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With her free-spirited daughter away at college and her "hip" ex-husband living across the country, Charlotte has grown used to being alone. For the most part, she prefers it. She relies on familiar routines: manicures, grocery shopping, game shows. But at night, no matter how hard she tries (and in spite of the Dream Machine her daughter Emily sent her) she can't stop her logical mind from running wild imagining burglars, strange noises, and all manner of trouble that might befall her fearless daughter.
Having just graduated from Wesleyan with a pierced tongue and an arsenal of opinions, Emily has always been passionate about her beliefs from mindfulness to vegetarianism to her new live-in boyfriend. Though Charlotte rarely understands her, she's learned to keep her doubts to herself. But when Emily and the new boyfriend arrive for a weekend visit, secrets are revealed that compel Charlotte to take a stand. Forced to examine her own life choices, she's about to learn she can't control everything. What she can do is open her heart to new possibilities, and to the fact that headstrong Emily might have a thing or two to teach them all.
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Elise Juska's short stories have appeared in many magazines, including The Hudson Review, Harvard Review, Salmagundi, Black Warrior Review, Calyx, and The Seattle Review. She teaches fiction writing at The New School in New York City and The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her first novel, Getting Over Jack Wagner, is available from Downtown Press.
Visit the author's website: www.elisejuska.com.
Read an Excerpt
The Hazards of Sleeping Alone
By Elise Juska
Downtown PressCopyright © 2004 Elise Juska
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA creak. A shift. The pressure of a footstep on the living-room floor. But if it were a footstep, wouldn't there be more than one? Wouldn't the creak be followed by another? Many others? Unless an intruder just happened to strike the single weak spot in the floorboards - Charlotte doesn't know yet if there is such a spot - and is, at this moment, creeping undetected toward her bedroom door.
But wait. If there's an intruder, he must have broken in. A break-in would cause more commotion than a single creak. A window shattering, a door kicked in. Charlotte would have heard him. All she heard was a creak, a shift, just the sound of a - what had her mother called it when she was a child? - "a house settling into itself."
Then again, what if the creak had been the sound of the door opening? Unlocked by a skinny MasterCard? A toothpick? Bobby pin? Charlotte can picture the sliding door in her new living room, the meager pane of glass separating her from the outside world. It wouldn't be too loud, the sound of that door sliding open. The intruder could have broken the lock, nudged the door an inch or two, and slipped inside. Which would mean he's in her living room this minute. He's easing his feet across the plush beige carpet that came with her new condo and that she doesn't like - not because it's beige, Emily's always teasing her about her wardrobe "the color of pantyhose" - but because a rug that thick could easily swallow the footsteps of a man as he made his way toward her room.
Charlotte snaps on the bedside lamp. The room is assaulted with pasty white light. She swings her legs over the side of the bed, steps into her slippers, walks down the short hall to the living room, the kitchen, throwing on lights as she goes, her white eyelet nightgown billowing behind her. She hums a little, an efficient hum. See? Nothing wrong. Everything intact. The yellow refrigerator with the "Welcome to the Neighborhood!" magnet she received in the mail from Millville County Electric. The coffee table strewn - well, not strewn exactly, but piled - with Prevention, People, the latest TV Guide, Martin Sheen's face gazing sincerely from the cover. On the mantel, Emily framed and smiling at ages four, ten, fifteen, twenty-two.
Just think, Charlotte reminds herself, in less than twenty-four hours Emily will be sprawled on this very couch. Emily will be regaling her with stories of the great book she's reading, the students she's teaching, the foods and philosophies she's discovered since the last time they talked. Emily holds passionate opinions about everything. Charlotte smiles, imagining the way her daughter will flip critically past the celebrities in People, tongue ring clicking between her teeth.
She realizes then that there can be no intruder tonight. It would be impossible, someone breaking in the night before Emily arrived.
In the kitchen, Charlotte retrieves a glass and slides it under the icemaker. She never had an icemaker in the house on Dunleavy Street and likes its efficiency, its dependability, the endless supply of cubes shaped like smooth half-moons. She pours herself water from her Brita (as if water had been her objective all along), then strides back toward the bedroom, nightgown swishing by her heels. She misses having two floors, misses the feeling that the space for sleeping is separate from that for being awake. But the condo is more compact, she reasons: life minimized, simplified. Condensed. Lately, Charlotte can't help but feel that she is en route to old age. That she has entered life's downward spiral, when accumulating begins to seem, well, just not practical anymore.
In the foyer, she double-checks the front door. There are three locks: the standard doorknob, the attractive (but basically useless) linked chain, and the deadbolt she had specially requested. After tugging on the door a few times, satisfied it isn't budging, she makes her final stop: the bathroom. It has an unfortunate underwater theme: fluffy toilet seat cover an algae green, tiled walls swimming with flat blue fish. At night, the fish look vaguely menacing; they don't appear to have pupils. Charlotte keeps her eyes on the floor, avoiding the fishes' blank stares. She is careful not to flush so she doesn't wake her upstairs neighbor - B. Morgan, according to the Victoria's Secret catalogs that bulge from her mailbox for days at a time. Not that B. cares about waking Charlotte. Her first few nights in the condo, Charlotte woke in a panic to the sounds of laughter and footsteps ricocheting in the stairwell. Then, the churn of bedsprings: a grating squeak that reminded her of a dentist's instrument. She imagined B. and her male friend in all sorts of contorted sexual positions. With all that noise, she'd never hear someone breaking in. Sleep was out of the question until it was over.
Marching back to her bedroom, Charlotte is annoyed with herself for letting fear get the better of her. Now it will take forever to get back to sleep. She stops and considers the gadget Emily sent sitting by the foot of her bed. The Dream Machine, it's called. It looks like a miniature white humidifier, a huge Excedrin tablet. When Charlotte moved into the condo, two months ago, she mentioned to Emily that she was having trouble sleeping. The Dream Machine had arrived in the mail two days later, addressed: SWEET DREAMS, MOM! It simulates all kinds of apparently comforting noises: ocean waves, nighttime forest, tropical rain.
Not that Charlotte hadn't had trouble sleeping before. She can't remember the last time she slept through the night. But here in the condo, her worries and fantasies have intensified. For the past twenty-four years, the house on Dunleavy Street was all she'd ever known. She moved there when she and Joe got married and stayed on when he left. It had been a simple decision, staying. She liked the neighbors, the mailman, the supermarket, the teachers at Emily's elementary school. Plus it was important for Emily to have that kind of stability, a home to come home to, especially as a child of divorce. She hadn't stayed (as her book group speculated) because she was clinging to memories of Joe. (It bothered her how the group felt it necessary to find symbolism in everything, as if to constantly prove themselves good readers.) Charlotte had missed Joe a lot, then a little, then only now and then. His absence felt natural, somehow. Even when Charlotte played house as a child, it was the make-believe sons and daughters who were well defined, while the make-believe husband was vague, absent, away at the office or cloistered in his study with the New York Times. In a way, being alone and raising a child, manless, was how she'd always imagined her life would be.
After the divorce, Joe had stayed in the area until Emily was thirteen, picking her up on alternate weekends and Wednesdays, splitting holidays evenly down the middle. Then the year Emily started high school, he moved to Seattle and began claiming Thanksgivings and Augusts. Even now, standing in her bedroom at 2:34 A.M. in the middle of October, the very thought of August makes Charlotte's chest constrict. She used to dread that month - the longest and emptiest of all the months. TV shows were all reruns. Neighbors were all on beach vacations. The air was thick with humidity, and her air conditioner made a nerve-racking rattle. And, worst of all, Emily's birthday was on August 27. Every year Charlotte missed it. Every year thirty-four days - thirty-one in August, plus three for Labor Day weekend - were filled with little else than waiting for her daughter to come home (and worrying every year that she wouldn't). Every Labor Day, when her daughter stepped into Newark Airport, Charlotte's lungs would relax for the first time since July.
On Emily's first night home, Charlotte always cooked the same belated birthday dinner. The presents she'd already mailed, sent overnight on August 26 to arrive in Seattle on the twenty-seventh. As much as Charlotte hated the thought of Joe and Valerie watching Emily open those presents, it was important that Emily receive them on her actual birthday. Charlotte agonized over them. She refrained from sending anything too practical, like the hairbands or rag socks she might have thrown in if Emily were at home. She knew she couldn't compete with the gifts Valerie sent at Christmastime - beaded handbags from Chile, silver bangles from Mexico, essential oils, multicolored candles made of seaweed and vegetable wax - things Charlotte would never have bought, much less found, in the labyrinth of the Millville Mall. The best she could do was send gifts that were, if not exotic, at least not frumpy. A T-shirt from the Gap. A book by Madeleine L'Engle. Matching melon-scented soaps and lotions from Bath and Body Works. Still, when Emily called to thank her, Charlotte couldn't help picturing Valerie in the background, picking over her gifts with an arched eyebrow and a laugh stifled behind her hand.
Of all the long and excruciating Augusts, the summer Emily turned sixteen was the hardest. Never would Charlotte have believed as a young mother - nursing her baby, changing her diapers, walking her through training bras and maxi-pads, temper tantrums and Where Babies Come From - that she would not be seeing that baby the day she turned sixteen. It was the day she wasn't a child anymore, the culmination of all those years of crying, pouting, bleeding girlhood. Charlotte wanted to be the one to do something special, something memorable. She had earned it. Instead, her daughter was three thousand miles away, turning sixteen with a woman Charlotte barely knew. She had spent the day trying to distract herself. She watched Oprah. She read People. She spoke to Emily on the phone, chewing the insides of her cheeks to keep from crying. Joe and Valerie - this is what Emily called them, she'd started calling her father "Joe" the year he moved to the West Coast - were taking her out to dinner, she said, someplace "hip." Charlotte spent the night imagining the three of them sitting on the dock of a boat, or at a sidewalk café, Joe and Valerie sneaking Emily sips of cocktails, a frothy, celebratory pink.
That Labor Day, when Emily arrived home, she seemed to have aged much more than thirty-four days. She was wearing clothes Charlotte didn't recognize, clumpy brown sandals and faded jeans patched at the knees. A silver hoop was buried in the flesh of her upper ear, and the patchwork duffel bag slung over her shoulder was crammed with bootleg CDs, sacks of flavored coffee, T-shirts for bands called Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone. (The burned coffee smell had permeated everything in her duffel and would linger in Charlotte's laundry room for weeks.) That night, Charlotte served the usual, carefully meatless belated birthday dinner: oriental salad, vegetable lasagna, and chocolate raspberry torte. Afterward, Emily usually went to her room, chaining herself to the phone to catch up with her friends, but that summer she sat at the kitchen table until midnight. Her body was "on Seattle time," she said, as she brewed cup after cup of Seattle's Best brand coffee - in flavors like hazelnut, French vanilla, chocolate almond - playing her new CDs and talking about grunge music while the curtains in the windows stirred in the thick summer breeze. Charlotte watched her, nodded exuberantly, but she was only half listening. In truth, she felt like crying. Not out of sadness, or loneliness, but sheer joy and thankfulness, that her daughter was here, real, returned, to unstick Charlotte's swollen windows and fill her empty house with sound and life. Charlotte murmured "mmm," "yes," laying slivers of cake on Emily's plate, the raspberry threads like ruby tiaras, as Emily spoke at passionate length about the death of Kurt Cobain.
Charlotte steps out of her slippers and onto the hardwood floor. Hardwood is "in," according to her realtor; people are just dying for hardwood. Charlotte thinks it's too creaky. Too cold. She thinks of her bedroom in the house on Dunleavy Street, the flat moss-green rug whose wrinkles and bald spots she had memorized. She never wanted to leave that house, but with Emily finishing Wesleyan, she could no longer justify staying. As irrational as Charlotte can be at 2:47 in the morning, she also possesses a keen sense of practicality. It didn't matter that the house was paid for, that her parents' life insurance had taken care of the mortgage years ago. The house was simply too big for her to stay in alone.
Charlotte sets her water on the nightstand, switches the Dream Machine to "ocean waves." It sounds vaguely tidal, in that the staticky sound kind of undulates. She climbs into bed, stares at the ceiling. This machine isn't helping. It's covering up the extra noise - "ambient sound," according to the side of the box - but she finds she's only more anxious because of the noise she isn't hearing. What if someone is breaking in and the ocean is so loud she doesn't hear it? What if the sounds of footsteps are swallowed up in the static tide? She tries to conjure up the many tips she's read for falling asleep. One suggested counting backwards from 100, which only made her progressively more anxious. Another said that simply breathing deeply would slow your heart, decelerate your pulse. In other words: force you to relax.
Charlotte shifts, but slightly. She's read that it is important to keep the body as still as possible when trying to fall asleep. She tries to concentrate on the ocean, on letting the waves carry her away. Instead, she's straining to hear the elusive "ambient sounds" under all that static. It occurs to her that the Dream Machine was probably manufactured by the same people who break into houses in the first place. Perfect for concealing the sounds of lock-picking, tiptoeing, breaking glass... This is what the real advertisement must say, the one that circulates privately to all the criminals. Probably on the Internet.
Charlotte turns the Dream Machine off (feeling guilty, but telling herself she'll use it once Emily gets here) and climbs back into bed. She tries to be brisk, assured, yanking the sheets to her chin, smoothing them with her palms. You're being absurd - it's a condo! In New Jersey! She pictures the world outside: tidy mailboxes, arc of parked cars, glowing lampposts. In the morning, she'll chastise herself. Look at where you live. It's perfectly safe! Tonight, remember this scene. PICTURE THIS LAMPPOST.
Charlotte pulls her knees to her chest. Was she this fearful when she was married? She's sure she wasn't. She didn't need to be. She hadn't been alone. It is the particular quality of aloneness - its detachment, its vulnerability - that sets the mind whirling and gives the imagination free reign.
Excerpted from The Hazards of Sleeping Alone by Elise Juska Copyright © 2004 by Elise Juska. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
Elise Juska's fiction is my favorite kind: fun, funny, real, and full of feeling.
author of GREEN GRASS GRACE
In this poignant and often funny novel, Elise Juska does the work of an archaeologist; she digs deep to uncover subterranean truths about loneliness, the mysteries of human connection and the delicate push-pull of mother-daughter relationships. She excavates, she reveals, and she gets it exactly right.
bestselling author of THE DOGS OF BABEL
Elise Juska's fiction is my favorite kind: fun, funny, real, and full of feeling.
author of GREEN GRASS GRACE
Elise Juska writes of real people and her voice rings true. Charlotte is an utterly original character: at once fearful and hopeful, honest and funny, naive and wise. This is a wonderful novel.
author of SHOUT DOWN THE MOON and THE SONG READER
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Hazards of Sleeping Alone is a nice contrast to Juska's first book 'Getting Over Jack Wagner.' Juska shows versatility and energy in her writing. Her take on mother daughter relationships is sometime's too accurate. Well done, I look forward to future work!
The misleading title and cover art might suggest a shallow romance, but Juska's novel goes deeper to reveal profound truths about human relationships. Beautifully observed and elegantly written, 'Hazards' works as both a penetrating character study and a well-spun story. Juska's expertly rendered images--like a scene set inside the giant heart exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia--will linger in your mind long after you've finished the book.
Elise Juska's characters are so real, so believable, so well developed that you feel like they are in the room with you as you read. Juska understands the complexities of the human condition and she never takes the easy way out. Her books are fun to read AND they make you think...a lot. You'll be blown away by this book. Each line pulls you into the next. It is graceful, stylish, true-to-life. Buy it. Read it. Give it to a friend as a holiday gift. Bravo, Elise Juska. This writer is a star.
I liked the books plot but it just took about 150 pages for anything to even happen in the beginning. I would say skip over this one.
In her late forties, Charlotte Warren has become increasingly neurotic about life as she is a compulsive worrier. Unable to sleep at night and a bundle of nerves during the day, Charlotte has been divorced for fifteen years from Joe, who she sometimes misses in the lonely darkness. However, her biggest concern besides some imaginary thief breaking and entering her home is her passionate living twenty-two years old daughter who lives life with gusto.................................... Emily arrives home on a visit, but this time has brought with her Walter, the black man she plans to move in with. Charlotte is stunned but has a new reason to panic as she fears her daughter¿s ¿alternate living arrangement¿ selection as mixed relationships are difficult. However, the appearance of Walter and Emily does more than just turn Charlotte into a nervous wreck; that first weekend shatters the older woman¿s memories as events she buried in the furthest reaches of her mind has arisen like an avenging Phoenix.......................... This is an intriguing look at an individual struggling with a compulsive disorder that keeps her from fully functioning in society. Readers¿ hearts will go out to Charlotte whose palpitations and fears can be felt on almost every page of the tale. Of interest is how opposite her daughter who lived much of her life with her mother (Joe had visits and ultimately moved far away to Seattle) has turned out; sort of as if she has had a reaction formation to the phobic driven lifestyle of her mother. Though somewhat dark in tone, Elisa Juska paints a portrait of a woman in trouble from demons running amok in her head...................... Harriet Klausner