Anyone could see it was an office building. It loomed over the houses on a peaceful tree-lined street in an upscale neighborhood. But there were non-office activities going on in the back of the building on the ground floor behind tinted windows. A place were people arrived at odd hours of the night, and escaped at dawn looking like they’d been dragged through a wind tunnel.
A place known as the sleep clinic.
I strode into the waiting area at nine p.m. on a Thursday night. It was empty except for a couple of straight-backed chairs and a display of mannikin heads lined up in a bookcase like trophies from a hunt, wearing what appeared to be gas masks. I wasn’t there for the masks. I was there to be fitted for a mouthguard. I was there to have my jaw jutted forward via remote control while I attempted to sleep.
There were six doors leading to six rooms, and a woman swung out of one. “I’m Olga,” she said, and loping along behind was a man named Bruno. Olga looked like one of the mannikins, but without the mask, and a lot more alive. She had straight blonde hair that swung down her back, and a face full of makeup. She wore blue scrubs and leather sandals, and her toenails were unpolished. Bruno was hefty and his scrubs were rumpled and his face was peeling off in white and brown curls, revealing swatches of pink underneath.
Olga herded me into a faux hotel room decorated with walls the color of a Butterfinger candy bar. There was a double bed fitted with sheets the shade of bullets, and someone had nailed an abstract painting above the headboard that screamed red and orange. There was a handful of fake flowers shoved into a white tin bucket on the low bureau, and near the door on plastic hooks hung the same collection of electrodes that I’d been wired to at the other clinic. But underneath it all anyone could see it was just an office space with ceiling tiles.
I knew the routine: change into leggings and a T-shirt and sit on a chair to get wired up. But when Olga reappeared she fiddled around at the bureau, unboxing a couple of plastic molds that looked like miniature horseshoes, while Bruno pressed himself into one corner of the room keeping watch. Olga squeezed purple goo from a long white tube into one of the horseshoes, told me to open wide, and squashed it onto my bottom teeth.
“Bite down,” she said, and I did.
It was like sinking my teeth into wet clay.
The tasteless goo squished out the sides and after thirty seconds she worked the suction off. Bruno stepped close and the two of them examined the impressions and decided they passed muster. Olga set the mold aside, and Bruno went back to pressing the corner.
We repeated the whole sequence with my upper teeth. But this time upon examination they both frowned. The impressions weren’t deep enough. Olga peeled the goo from the mold and started over. Bite, ooze, dislodge, examine. Still no go. One more round and they decided it was good enough. They weren’t about to spend the whole night making teeth molds.
“We won’t torture you,” she said.
And then the wiring began.
It was the same wires as last time, with three more pasted to my scalp. She marked the spots in red ink. “It will look like blood in the morning when you shampoo,” she said, “but it isn’t.”
Her reassurance made me squirm.
“The guy at the other clinic only used five wires on my head,” I pointed out.
“Impossible,” she said in her efficient voice. “You wouldn’t get an accurate reading with five. You need eight.”
I wondered if the other technician, Johnny-something, was an impostor. Or maybe he had said he had used five but had really used eight, like the phlebotomist who says he’ll stick the needle into your arm on the count of three, and before you start counting he’s already jabbed it into the vein.
The wiring completed, “Are you ready for bed?” Olga asked. I looked up at the television on the wall but she didn’t offer any remote controls. She stood by the bed waiting. So I got in. I settled back against the headboard. Olga plugged the wires into the wall, stuck the white gizmo on my finger to measure oxygen levels, fetched the two goopy horseshoes, fit them together back to back and told me to open wide.
“Bite down,” she said, and I did. I suspected that everyone who came to this clinic did exactly what Olga told them to do while from the corner Bruno mentally cracked his knuckles. She hooked a wire to the gizmo protruding from the front of the mouthpiece, plugged the other end into a machine, told me goodnight, flicked off the lights, ushered Bruno out the door and left me alone in the dark, drooling.