WINNER: Bedtime Routine

She lay next to her son, his body steaming like raw dough in the oven.

Little technically happens in this year's winner, "Bedtime Routine." The few characters included are either sleeping or only briefly mentioned. Yet by sitting completely still, the story slows down time long enough to groove into the powerful, unmatched consciousness of a mother, a divorcee, a graduate student, a newcomer to Montreal, and a single human animal, one who knows how to coexist in multiple, seemingly-contradictory realms. A taut and profound glimpse into but one mind in the hive.

—Cody Caetano

She lay next to her son, his body steaming like raw dough in the oven. He had his blankie, his nomnom (stuffed shark), and the nightlights glowing warm. She would lay beside him until he was asleep. It would take as long as it took. She could hear the mothering scolds in the distance, but she was the only mother in this child’s bedroom, and this was her call. This was when he felt most loved. And there were other benefits as well, such as the fragrance of his head or the soft floppiness of his hand; occasionally he said things too, sweet mumblings, or told who was the biggest bully at daycare, essential information she’d never be gifted any other way. That didn’t mean it was easy. In fact it felt like hell, waiting for him to slowly drift off to worry-free child slumberland while a million chores seethed neglected and undone throughout the house— laundry to fold, lunch for school, emails, her reading for tomorrow’s lecture with the nightmare title of “The Basolateral Amygdala Is Central for Learning about Neutral Stimuli in the Presence of Danger, Pending Hippocampal-independent Assimilation.” Yes, she was required to slay this article before she went to bed, and also to slash and burn some at the infinitely proliferating midlife to-do list. Outside the door of his womb-like, humidified room, the salivating beasts of the adult world were waiting, but she would peacefully ignore them for now, she would submit herself entirely to the randomly determined process of a five-year-old boy winding down the content of the day, his little brain blowing off sparks of stimulation like a fizzling pinwheel on the Fete de St. Jean. She would gradually dial down the neuron-firing, utilizing a practice of gentle parenting withdrawal and diminishing response until he let go enough and they reached the holy event horizon: total stillness, that brief period when he was almost asleep, but might jump back in at any moment, when she must stay perfectly still so he would not be inspired by her and it was only a matter of time and she must simply breathe and be with him.

She considered she might be in freeze mode. Like an animal who knows it has been seen by a predator, or the echo of trauma, freezing being defined in the neuropsychological literature as the absence of all external movement except breathing. But this freeze mode was not a defence mechanism, this freeze mode was central to the regenerative wellspring of all life: a mother, perfectly still, while her child falls asleep. Freeze mode, but with a warm body glued to her like he was still nestling in gestation, his existence forever cratered inside her, a weight so deeply rooted and inextricable that she simply could not move, she would not move, she would not leave this bed until her son was asleep. On her outside now but tethered, their spiritual umbilical link drifting in ancient starry night constellations signifying eternal union and bliss, the ceaseless mother and child reunion, always more significant than any to-do list or even personal care needs like showering or scientific research and goddesses please let this child fall asleep now.

Perhaps it was also a form of shared meditation, this self-imposed immobility, time slowing to its constituent parts now as all the thoughts of her day came tumbling towards her and all the ignored feelings too, a slow-motion unpouring of the detritus of her mind.

She stifled a sudden urge to bolt. Calmly devoting ten or thirty minutes to reconnecting this way each night was not dangerous, it was not a threat to her being. She was older and had lived a lot before she got pregnant. She had consciously given up a habit of freedom to be his mother. Which made the decision to lay for a time in total stillness easier. Perhaps it was also a form of shared meditation, this self-imposed immobility, time slowing to its constituent parts now as all the thoughts of her day came tumbling towards her and all the ignored feelings too, a slow-motion unpouring of the detritus of her mind. She checked his departure progress: he’d loosened his grip on the nomnom which had fallen mutely to the side. Heavenly cheeks round, lips smooth rosy, thick curving eyelashes closed finally against the glowing duck nightlight - she could see the baby taking over again, his face returning to incubation. A tiny whistle escaped his nose with each exhale.

She felt a wave of ecstatic exhaustion ripple through her. He was an intoxicant, his honey-scented breath a stimulus evoking the oxytocin-rich years of night nursing, when they both fell asleep after a good feed like drunken animals. But if she gave in and let herself nap beside him, even for ten minutes, she would be fucked. She would wake too disoriented to do anything with brain, and the chores would still be waiting there outside the door, eager to brutalize her. So she forced herself to stay awake and let the pain of the day move through. The government was going to send more money, some federal benefit related to inflation and groceries. The lawyer needed to be paid. The ex was finally out of the house, but this was only the first hurdle of separation, the lawyer made it clear there were more to come. She could not travel into the future where the phone ringing did not mean anguish, so she paid the lawyer without trying to feel anything about it. The financial dishonesty, the meaning of parental responsibility, the underlying argument about whose needs mattered more: all this had been refined into documents for the court. Somehow the ex always knew his needs mattered more. She had felt eaten alive by other people, but his me-first attitude was basic and effortless. It might be changed, but not without a giant world-historical lever that was still generations to come. Every time a woman mated with a selfish man, this lever slipped backwards. She blamed herself. It was her prerogative to select her uterine companion, and she had not let herself know what she knew. She made the choice willfully blind. And then what happened? If you are among the species who to get to choose their mate, what happens after the choosing? As far as she could see, once the marriage plot concludes in the so-called nuptial payoff, what happens is that mothers get saddled with the childcare, therefore mothers initiate 85% of divorces, the most common complaint being the unequal division of labour, which means she works while he puts his feet up, and the sociologists call this reproductive labour, and who needs any of this shit in a social democracy like Canada, and the child was still not asleep, she could tell from the way he was shifting his knees.

“Mama, did you know if you add zero to zero, you get zero?”

She murmured mmm, careful not to encourage him on this foray into pure mathematics. It was good he knew these words but it was time to sleep. She went back to sorting through her pain. It wasn’t heartbreak, she wasn’t in touch with any heartbreak. That would also require time travel, when the truth of what had happened finally reached her heart. There was only the feeling of anguished escape, tunnelling her way towards a future where she could be a whole person again, no longer eaten alive by two children, one an actual child, the other an adult who drained her like she was a man-size placenta. She had failed utterly to make her marriage meet her needs. Humiliation surged through her as they lay together in the stillness, but the government was going to send more money, some kind of special benefit related to inflation and groceries. The lawyer would be paid, though they both knew there were months ahead of them—she didn’t need to settle the tab quite yet. This check also meant choices: she could pay another few hours in lawyers fees, or she could spend it on new lingerie.

She wanted the new lingerie. Something tawdry from an Instagram lingerie site, black lace flimsy or red, one of these bodysuits that were basically just straps to cinch and bulge out the flesh and make you feel like a wicked bitch with an excess of personal power. This would be an investment in her own pleasure. She felt the glimmerings of a return, the vision of movement. Tinder: a singles bar that lived in her phone. Every time she opened the app she felt like a 1920s movie star in a spangled flapper dress striding into a giant glittering ballroom, a new man offering to light her cigarette or pour her a fresh glass of champagne, at times it could get Busby Berkeley in there, lifted on shoulders with the camera spinning above. She was doing well, she was doing in good trade in right swipes, and the men were decent in this city. She recommended it to all her mommy friends. Surprised by how much fun it was, with so little effort. Just a few pictures that felt pretty, she didn’t go for any chatter in the bio, simply one word—“whatever.” Up to them to ask for more. Why should she put effort into words, which would be secondary for men anyway, so famously visual? If one thing she had learned, it was that men chose with their eyes. Why was everyone a chummy brand these days anyway, and what was she selling, in the middle of a divorce and middle of her life and broke and bitter? What she wanted was free. Free sex. You can’t pay for that.

Free sex. A playmate. Sex where she didn’t feel like she owed the guy anything afterwards. Sex without cards sent to in-laws, without endless circular fights about her going back to school at this age. Without betrayal, loss, lies. Just fucking sex. On Tinder, she learned she was still alluring, even after a decade of decent lovemaking and competent orgasm delivery had made her doubt she would ever feel wicked again. Which was also probably her fault. Did she create fun scenarios to keep it fresh? Make her husband work for it? Chase her? No. She blamed herself for the bad sex, as she blamed herself for everything. Probably because this provided an illusion of control, and now she understood that like a lab rat in a conditioning box, she was desperate for any kind of control even if it meant failure. Yes, she had tried to convince her husband to branch out, suggested they buy some sex toys, try anal, but he seemed disgusted by the idea, and had she really tried to convince him hard enough? Now they were split and she realized she was starting over in Montreal, renowned city of sexual freedom. Did that mean—was it possible—that this extended to middle-aged women? Formerly nursing mothers? Sagging boobs? Was there any space for her within the cavalcade of shimmering candy pop sexuality that was fountaining out of the psyche of young lyrical geniuses like Doja Cat? Or had that time forever passed her by, padlocked in her memories, along with all the pageantry of self-promotion fluttering like hot pink satin frills on a sequined thong of a stretchy young person who recently started living in their first apartment?

It had most likely passed her by. Time to try another approach: give up trying. Mount a one-word Tinder bio. Whatever. And it worked. They were clamoring for her attention. The glittering ballroom was packed. Whaddaya know. There might be some sex in the future. There might be some new dicks. She might be a MILF. Mother I’d like to fuck could also accurately be MWLF, mothers who like to fuck. But that part is hidden from consciousness and harder to say. Still, every mother you’d like to fuck is also a mother who likes to fuck. And in Montreal, she found, they are not left to meet this need alone. Friends in other cities complained of feeling completely non sexually-viable; too old, too tired, too overworked. They had to gruellingly attend their job simply to pay the daycare bills in Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver. When that’s the situation you’re faced with, who can think about strangers from the Internet? She didn’t want to tell them about Montreal’s many affordable daycares, nutritious meals and college-trained, unionized caregivers, also known as the tip of the spear of the revolution. She knew these privileges were intended to enable women to stay in the workforce and maintain their careers after childbearing, but no one monitored how you spent your time while your kid was eating string cheese snacks at a charming little table among others of his kind. With daycare like this, a woman could use her free time to get fucked.

That was the true vanguard: pleasure for mothers. We want bread and roses too. Her son’s arm flopped suddenly over. His breathing had slowed but he still wasn’t asleep, if she left now he would rouse and clutch at her piteously, Mama don’t leave, please Mama don’t leave. She rested herself. In another five minutes he would be solidly under and she could leave this place. She mentally opened Tinder and scrolled her current conversations. Who would she wear the lingerie for? The Francophone intellectual in his 50s with the vast Prog rock collection? He said he had a hook hanging from his living room ceiling, and a deep thick mattress on a Victorian bed frame. How about the Italian who had a huge, faded tattoo of Caesar on his bulging left pec, cheaply done and suggesting a long gap in his résumé? He was promising. Carried himself with a sense of dignity and personal worth that seemed hard-won, possibly a survivor of some form of abuse. They had already met once for coffee. The man had incredible clothes and wanted to talk about nothing, treated her with respect but also like a slutty girl. She had no idea what fantasy he was working on, but for her sake, she just wanted to know what it was like to ride a man with an aggressive tattoo on his chest who was actually a gentle person. Or what about the scary sharp-nosed Anglo who worked in government, and sent her a video of his penis glistening and hard while he stroked it with a juicy sound something like the lapping of tiny waves in an aquarium?

It was a different kind of choice when it didn’t have an evolutionary impact. There would be no asymmetry of investment this time, this wasn’t a reproductive choice, and she wasn’t going to give any more than she got, that was for damn sure. This was just for fun. Which of these suitors would generously provide her with free sex? A genuinely adult choice. A been-there-done-that choice. This time she didn’t have to pay any dues.

The horror came and went, as it does in any mind, but especially a child who doesn’t really understand the larger implications. Which would take years to understand, a lifetime.

If the lawyer was paid now, it would mean less anxiety later, her brain told her. But her brain also told her that anxiety was a normal response to this world. Sitting in the park at Christie Pitts, waiting. The night getting cold. Mom said she would be right back. First the odd awareness that she was still not back. Not right. Then sinking, churning down that she wasn’t coming back. What did it mean? What did it feel? Her mind did a whiteout. Some kids took her in, absorbing her into their game of gathering acorns and stashing them for later, she could see tangled '70s hair and striped shirts, but then their mom came and got them and the streetlights went on and the other kid went home. Getting dark. The blue twilight. Alone. Of course there were no cell phones back then. She remembered the moment of realization that she didn’t have a quarter. Scanning the houses along the park and wondering which door she should knock on. The horror came and went, as it does in any mind, but especially a child who doesn’t really understand the larger implications. Which would take years to understand, a lifetime. The way her mother started crying as soon as she opened the car door and ran over to her—blubbering, really, even though she was an adult in a skirt suit, she snot-blubbered—I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry honey—another lifelong realization, that it wasn’t true. This blubbering. More precisely: it wasn’t due to regret, it was because she couldn’t follow through with it. It took a lifetime to be able to face the evidence. Her mother’s tears were for herself, had always been, always would be. There was another message inside those tears: I can kill you. I can kill your life. I can leave you here, and I want to. Who the fuck let this woman be a mother. But there was no one, no one researched your fitness, no one investigated into how burnt up your heart was before you had a child. There was no scale to predetermine motherlove. Of course random kids took her in, sibling society, opening like an amoeba to absorb her reeling, bubbling foamy escape of play and freedom. The rules may not be clear when there are no grown ups, but it means integrity. You are who you are. Kids find each other, they see the truth of each. Then she was alone in the bluing, corroding night. How long was the time at the picnic table? Tiny amygdala, tinier hippocampus, what decisions did you make? Or maybe it was the drive home. When the freezing started. When she finally understood she was in danger. And froze accordingly on the passenger side.

What happens when you fall asleep remembering, do you dream of it? Do you activate and relive it?

A dark warmth was soaking her vision, consuming the images. But she didn’t want to fall asleep with this memory. What happens when you fall asleep remembering, do you dream of it? Do you activate and relive it? Hebb’s theory: cells that fire together, wire together. Or: the coincidence of pre- and post-synaptic neuronal activity leads to synaptic strengthening. She was fucking going crazy. Time to snap out of it. It was his soft, regular breathing. Almost pulled her down. Where was her mind. Stillness, sex, choice, PTSD. Lingerie or lawyer fees. How many others lying still this very moment all over town, every night roughly between the hours of eight and ten pm, wishing the kid[s] would just fall asleep already, poutine gravy congealing in bowls, the cats sleeping their hair all over the unfolded laundry on the couch, science blathering interventions into chronic pain or maladaptive coping mechanisms while the past ceaselessly thrums through. Meet me in the hive mind as we lay beside our children convincing them to let go, time to go to sleep. The kids don’t know where we go after they fall asleep but we do, how many of us have this universal experience, is this a pattern of dissociation or is it trauma shared so widely and so deeply that cuts way back into the ancestors, explaining that faraway look in our mother’s eyes when we were trying to get her attention, trying to drain every last morsel out of her at the end of the day when she was unquestionably tired too but we didn’t see that, like grown men we thought we were the centre of the world. When in fact the centre was elsewhere, the centre was in these connecting patterns of elsewhere that our mothers universally experienced, a mycelium of unseen networks of thought pouring out of mother-minds, some of it yearning, some of it productive, some of it amygdala and some of it hippocampal, all of it unseen and unknown to the children.

Until the mother grew out of them. And then they too, lay still. He was asleep. The love she felt for him was incontrovertible. She rolled to the left, smoothly sat up, walked her feet carefully over the floor to the door, swung it open like a dancer with a steady partner, and pulled it softly closed.

About the author

Born in Owen Sound, Ontario, Zoe Charlotte Greenberg graduated from NYU with a BFA in Film & Television. Her experimental films have been shown internationally, including New York City, Dublin, Luxor and St. Petersburg. Currently studying to be a Psychologist in Montreal, she is a Leo sun with a Cancer moon.