Behold a cutting parable for a generation that undersleeps and overworks to get underpaid—where paying your student loans is quite actually a waking nightmare. Pls enjoy this dispatch from the not-too-distant future of late, late capitalism. -the Ed.
Aishwarya just signs up for a few shifts, short ones. The wireless electrodes arrive by courier. She puts them on her temples and dreams of schools she never attended, underwater chases with other people’s parents, snowy beaches. A banker in Chicago feels suddenly refreshed, like after a nap. Aishwarya wakes up in Bengaluru, unrested and several hundred rupees richer.
All I have to do, she tells Sumitra, is sleep for an extra hour or two before bed.
And you have their dreams.
Right. I sleep so they don’t have to. They get more waking hours in the day without feeling tired.
So you rest while you’re on the clock.
No, I wake up exhausted. I still have to sleep for myself on my own time. But the money’s good. Three or four naps a week, I can pay off my loans early.
Fucking capitalism, Sumitra says.
They glance across the call floor. Their supervisor is still berating a coworker.
They hiring, asks Sumitra.
The key to falling asleep by day is to keep yourself in a bubble of night. Aishwarya’s shift at the call center ends around breakfast time. She dons sunglasses, drives home in self-imposed twilight. Her mother has left for work and the house is quiet. Outside, staccato car horns. The cries of the man who collects used newspapers. She does some coding homework before her SleepTyte shift. Upstairs, she passes the empty bedrooms of her younger sisters, already married off.
Blackout curtains keep her room dark. She puts on the electrodes, then headphones playing forest sounds. She must sleep deeply or the customer will give her a one or two star rating. Aishwarya closes her eyes. Thinks about the app she’s going to build, the startup she’ll own. Her office will have a standing desk, a door that locks, floor-to-ceiling windows letting sunlight flood in. She rearranges the furniture in her head and falls asleep in minutes.
She doesn’t remember her own dreams, or her mind is too tired to dream at all. That’s how she knows she’s sleeping on her own time. Stillness. Silence.
An email from SleepTyte informs her that sleepers must sign up for two eight-hour shifts each week, minimum, in order to keep working. If she cuts further into her own sleep time, she still comes up short on class days.
She sleeps better during the day than most. Customers tip her well. An eight-hour shift pays more than the call center.
Call in sick Thursday, she decides. See how it goes.
Aishwarya pedals a ten-speed through an art gallery. She mustn’t look at any of the paintings or she’ll become aroused.
As she wakes from the customer’s dream, she can only remember high white ceilings and a sense of peace.
Her own memories return. Deadlines for loan payments. Dates grinning through their mustaches at her, calling her ambitious, not in a good way. Her mother’s face, skeptical, asking what exactly her app is going to do.
Her life crashes over her, surrounds her, like cold water.
She dreams of an all-night blues session in an office park surrounded by evergreens. She wakes at dinnertime, answers the deliveryman at the door, eats balancing on one stiff leg, then the other. The chief minister is on TV talking about brain drain in the workforce, blaming companies like SleepTyte.
Her mother asks when was the last time she changed clothes. Aishwarya blinks, not knowing.
She and Sumitra bring colorful salwar kameezes to work and put them on in the bathroom after their shift. Aishwarya has picked out a restaurant atop a luxury hotel. They breakfast among business travelers.
New income bracket, says Aishwarya. Spending it on you means I can’t spend it on drugs. She smiles to show she’s mostly kidding.
Sumitra shuffles potatoes around her plate. How’s your app coming, she asks. You haven’t talked about it lately.
Aishwarya squints. Sumitra’s dupatta is the same color as an Easter egg from a customer’s dream.
This is what you did in college, says Sumitra.
Took you to breakfast?
You missed classes and you stopped talking about your plans and when I called you wouldn’t pick up and we couldn’t get you out of your room… Her voice quavers and she stops.
That’s not what this is.
What if you go away again?
I’m better now. Look at me. I’m fine.
Her left leg swells and throbs and becomes discolored. The doctor tells her it’s a blood clot, very dangerous. Happens when your legs don’t move for hours and hours. On the waiting room TV, the chief minister is holding a press conference, something about SleepTyte, an inquest. The doctor prescribes blood thinners, asks if she was stuck on a long international flight or something. She nods, not hearing him.
Her kids sit behind her in the minivan, her in-laws sit in the next row back, her sisters from Alpha Kappa Alpha sit behind them, and Aishwarya can see in the rearview that the van goes back indefinitely and contains everyone she knows, all of them calling up to her with directions to school, exhortations to hurry.
But she’s calm. These friends and family belong to a customer who’s pulling an all-nighter for her bar exam. Aishwarya feels a kinship with the woman whose dream this is. She’s overworked too, back in the waking world. She forgets the specifics. This weightlessness is all she needs. The school looms ahead; she plows the van into a red brick wall that ripples apart like gossamer.
Aishwarya awakens in her car in the call center’s garage. She doesn’t remember falling asleep. Eight hours, without the usual preparations, without even making it home to bed. A flash of pride. It’s getting easier.
Stairs hurt her legs. Her bag strains her arms. She quits caffeine. Watches a sunrise with Sumitra from the window in the handicapped stall. Takes up caffeine again. Jogs in circles in the park, sits in a puddle of sweat in coding class. Neighboring students scoot their chairs and laptops away. She wants to approach the instructor, push a gentle hand through the membrane of his chest. See if she’s dreaming.
After security escorts Aishwarya from the call center, Sumitra sneaks out to find her at the tea stall they visit on breaks. Aishwarya’s looking into her cup like a diviner. Sumitra knocks it from her hands.
You’re quitting this sleep thing, she says. Non-negotiable.
It’s late. There are only some police and a sex worker having tea at standing tables nearby. They glance over without saying anything.
I could hear you on your calls, says Sumitra. You weren’t making sense.
Aishwarya watches Sumitra’s lips and wonders what her friend is trying to tell her. Maybe she’ll understand when she wakes up. She’s free to dream full-time now. The trick is scheduling meals so your hunger doesn’t intrude on the dreams, building in stretch breaks so you don’t have muscle spasms, showering so your dreams don’t reek, getting a new lock and playing the forest sounds at high volume so your mother’s pounding can’t wake you.
By the time her mother finds the electrodes and tries to destroy them, Aishwarya has saved enough rent for her own apartment. Soon she’ll have enough to hire a private nurse to change her IV, to turn her over and stave off bedsores.
The apartment has one working lightbulb and even that hurts her eyes. Whenever the ache in her muscles or the tightness in her chest wakes her, she finds the pills waiting. She was born for this. She has always known, at the bottom of her mind where the dreams crystallize, what being awake means. Avoidable pain.
She’s in the back of a rickshaw at noon, Sumitra beside her, whipping through red lights, past trees and beer halls, sun hot on her skin, and Aishwarya realizes it’s not a customer’s dream. It’s her own.
She hopes it never ends.