Available for purchase on Amazon
I am already in bed when she uses her key.
The key was cut just a couple of weeks ago, new enough that its edges are still sharp and hungry, so it sticks a little going in, then refuses to come out again. I hear that tiny bit of added effort that is needed from my place in the dark, watching the street light cut into wide slats on the wall opposite the bedroom window, waiting.
It's late. At least, late for a week night, and so I was trying to get to sleep, not really expecting her, but not surprised. She comes and goes as she pleases these days, especially now that she has her own key.
My back is to the door, but I hear her come in, shoes kicked off and discarded as she comes, a coat dropped in the dark, the muffled jangle of her keys hitting the floor from inside padded pockets. There is the long, slow hiss of her pants against her legs, then I feel her weight on the bed as she climbs in behind me, slowly.
She's cold. She's always cold when she first climbs into bed, later a bit warmer, cool instead, but never hot, even under layers of blankets.
“Were you sleeping?” she asks. She speaks like she's almost asleep herself, slow and blurry, talking through the claustrophobic, spinning logic of a dream that is just on the horizon, just waiting for permission.
“No,” I answer. I never seem to sleep anymore, not without her here with me. I pause. “I didn't know you were coming.”
“I'm sorry,” she answers, softly, her cool breath on the back of my neck in soft, rhythmic puffs that punctuate each syllable. “I was going to go out, but…”
She trails off, sleepy. So sleepy. She gets like this sometimes: distracted, soft around the edges, like she has become a photo that has lost its focus, faded from time.
“Is… it okay?” she asks, tentatively.
I nod my response to her and I know she sees it, even in the dark, as she moves her body closer to me. I feel her cool legs against the back of my own legs, her arm around my waist, her breasts pushing into my back. Her breath comes wet just beneath my hairline, softly pushing my neck hairs on a current of her cool exhalations.
“Thank you,” she slurs, now still; still enough that I think she may be drifting off to sleep behind me, her breathing slow and deep.
It has been like this for months, her sneaking into my apartment in the dark, curling her long, lean body around mine, holding me as she helps me slip into a deep, inky unconsciousness that wraps my brain and body like a blanket. It was something like seduction at first, a flirtation filled with all of those unspoken questions and pledges that new couples make, but we have since pushed through and past all of that into something different from that shaking, unpredictable edge of intrigue and need. What we have isn't exactly friendship, not so innocent as all that, but not as energetic or driven as passion. It isn't easy to put a name to this thing that we share, difficult to create a label for this, but it feels easy enough, especially in these hours that are normally lost to unconsciousness for others, and so it feels simple and honest, in its way.
I feel her head move a little. Are we sharing a pillow? She moves back a bit and the heft of her breath changes on my neck, gets thicker somehow, slower, and I hear something wet from within her, a sound that becomes sensation as her breath is replaced by something like the wet kiss a parent puts on the forehead of a feverish child, soft, cool, and moist.
I try to relax. It is this next part that is the worst for me and she knows it, expects it, so she tightens her grasp on my waist, pulls my body harder against her, and it comes. It's a pinprick at first, a tiny, bright dot of heat and pressure that I imagine glows in the darkness of my bedroom. Then, slowly, it expands, that heat, its intensity almost becoming a burn, moving out from that single spot at the base of my neck, the heat filling that wetness I felt before.
It continues building, the pressure, the heat. I imagine the wetness left behind by her lips is boiling away, sizzling, as the building temperature radiates from our shared contact. My eyes are closed tight now and then something in my neck gives way; submits under the relentless pressure. It's not deliberate on my part, but it is like she pushes through the last bit of resistance my body has and just as quickly the burning sensation starts to fade. That jab of pressure bleeds away like something I had only just imagined for a moment, something made up in my imagination, and I feel my shoulders loosen and grow lax along with it. I didn't realize that I was clenching my jaw, but I do feel it let go, loosening along with my shoulders.
She makes a noise like she is slurping ramen, a ridiculous sound that I feel as much as I hear, and then the seal of her mouth on the back of my neck connects properly, perfectly, leaving only silence. I want to say something to her, make a joke about that sound, but my jaw doesn't feel like mine any longer. My eyes flutter beneath my eyelids and another, new sensation hits me like a shot of alcohol, warm and heavy and expansive, as if my entire body starts to yawn, then just lets go midway through it.
She shifts behind me, her arm at my waist growing as lax as my body has become, her legs moving to find a comfortable angle, her head rolling slightly on the pillow we are sharing.
That shot, as warm and smooth as old whiskey, starts to overtake me. I feel it first in my brain, then it leaks down into the rest of my body, following closely behind that first wave of relaxation. The room seems to grow darker. Gravity lets go of me. I imagine that I am floating in deep, dark water, slow eddies pushing on my limbs, then pulling them back into place. Thick shadows surrounding me, tiny fish gliding past, close enough I feel their passing, schools of them curious, but skittish; intrigued, but shy. Something like vertigo comes, the room swaying in time with the currents that have my body, that push my doll arms, the bed listing one direction, then another, a raft lost in a forgotten sea on a moonless night.
Her breathing is as slow as mine; the soft, steady rhythm becoming the current in this otherworldly place. I concentrate on those whisper-like winds, listen to them, feel them push on me in the thick tidal flow of my underwater surroundings. Then even that rhythm fades as I drop further and further into the dark, cool depths beneath me, letting go of my body, of my thoughts, letting go even of myself as my mind forgets the barriers that hold the thick darkness away and I am simply gone. I am completely decimated by the calm that overtakes me and I am lost.
Consciousness comes back to me slowly, as if it is trying on my body for the first time and finds the fit all wrong, too loose in some places, too tight in others. My muscles aren't sore, but I can feel them there, under my skin, feel their weight and the long contours they trace inside my skin. My hips feel strange; unbalanced, like random parts used in the wrong model of a car. My head pounds, but the rhythm is slow, so slow, as if it has long given up keeping pace with my heartbeat and it throbs to some other schedule I have never encountered before, some rhythm that is hidden and invisible deep inside of me. At the back of my neck, where my spine disappears into the shallows between my shoulder blades, there is a cold sensation, the kind of chill that meets skin suddenly unearthed by blankets and exposed to the crispness of early morning air.
I try to open my eyes, but the lids are thick with something sticky holding them closed, so I leave them shut for now. For a moment I think that consciousness will leave me again, retreat for another time, a more advantageous moment to move back into my body, but the light beyond the blinds is bright and high and impatient, enough that it cuts through the gunk that holds my eyelids closed with a laser's precision.
I move my left leg, reach out to still deeper folds in my bed, finding the sheets cool there even under the weight of my bed's blankets. The movement doesn't hurt, but I feel my legs creak and resist, almost hear it, my joints needing to be oiled and gently worked to remove the grit stuck in them. I rotate my shoulder a little, finding that same resistance, those same grinding gears in my neck as I turn my head to find her still there, curled up, hidden beneath the other half of my blankets, just the ends of her long, dark hair spreading out from under her makeshift butterfly cocoon.
Climbing to my feet, slowly, I try to be careful, gentle, but she is so lost to her own sleep that it doesn't matter. She doesn't feel my movement, doesn't feel the bed shift as it loses my weight, doesn't respond to the pull and release of the blankets we shared as I struggle to escape from them.
I reach up, twisting the plastic rod at the left side of my bedroom blinds, tightening their thin slats against the steady light outside, turning dim into dimmer still, but not quite dark, before staggering from the room and towards the bathroom.
My legs shake softly, as if they are unused to gravity's persistent force, my torso swaying almost dangerously with each step. My shoulder comes into contact with the wall harder even than I expect when one of my swaying steps overextends a bit too much, my feet barely avoiding one of her dropped shoes in the hallway. In the bathroom the mirror returns a reflection that could be mine, but might not be, my mind still fuzzy, unfocused, an alien to my own body, the tethers between stretched long and thin.
It's always like this when she visits me, slides into my bed under the cover of darkness, holds her cooled body against mine, asks me if it's okay.
How many times have we done this? I try to work out something like math in my head, but the numbers don't feel solid. They slip and tumble from my mind like water, finding any chance to escape, any moment to leave.
I've known Lillian for months. This arrangement, this thing that we have now, started almost from the beginning, as if it were a part of those early introductions of names, those first instances of sizing each other up, drawing whatever clues or theories that could be found from appearances alone. She doesn't need this every night. Only a couple of times a week, sometimes a little less, sometimes more, based on some invisible drive I don't think I could ever understand or even know, and I am starting to think that I cannot sleep without it.
Watching myself in the mirror, I bring my hand up to my neck, feeling the bumps of my spine below my hairline moving downward, bump, bump, it's there. A scab, fresh and thick between the vertebrae, surrounded by a clear, thick fluid that has yet to dry, but from the feel of it, has been trying to do so for a couple of hours now.
When did she let go of me, I wonder, and wander to her own side of my bed, sleepy and satisfied?
I never know.
The way I sleep whenever she visits me like this… I can't explain that either. I've never known that kind of sleep: deep, complete, almost pharmaceutical. If babies sleep a shallow sleep, their needs always ready to bubble up and demand attention, demand consciousness with a crying, red-faced effort, what I sleep is the opposite of that. My sleep is contentment, complete contentment, like my body would never have any need again, my mind able to swim slow and deep into my own recesses like a whale gliding into the darkest, coldest waters of the North Pacific.
I run some warm water and splash it against the back of my neck, washing away the thick residue there, feeling a few stray drops escape to race down my spine. The warmth feels good, but quickly turns cold as the drops shaped and pulled by gravity lose their heat, tickling as they rocket down my back.
Lillian will be asleep for a long time now, lost in her own contented, heavy dreams, curled up in my dark bedroom, curled up under my heavy blankets. Does she sleep like I do? I should ask her, try to remember to ask, but when we're finally speaking to each other again I'll either forget or feel unable to ask. This thing we do at night, we don't talk about, don't discuss, as if it's impolite, as if it's not the kind of thing people talk about.
The tap is still running, the water getting warmer and warmer, so I splash some of it against my face, washing away the thickness and crust that struggles to keep my eyes closed, to keep me asleep. I swish some of the hot water, like a diluted tea, in my mouth and spit out a metallic taste that has collected there, a taste that always comes to me after her visits.
I need to get to work. I'm probably late already. The sun was too high in my window for it to be early, so I need to get moving.
I leave her in my bed, asleep, cocooned, alone.
When I was just a boy I used to spend time walking through the rigid lines of a tree farm. My grandparents owned a cabin, just over one hundred miles from this same, cold city, on a relatively featureless lake in the next state over. The lake was lined with cabins, tiny, Spartan weekend getaway homes that during the summer months formed a community where everyone knew each other, but schedules rarely overlapped enough to see anyone for more than a day or two.
Along the only paved road that lead in the direction of my grandparents' cabin was a huge, flat field filled with evergreens. There were long rows with trees planted at regular intervals, maybe every eight or ten feet. The field had a methodical precision to it, something robots would plant, or maybe scientists.
It was huge, this terraformed piece of the Midwest, the trees so tall that their bottom branches gave up on growing and just withered away to bare, needle-less things, leaving rough, spiny trunks that stretched to the sky, whatever green they had begging for sunlight far above my child's height.
It had always been like this, a place that started in my memories and never changed from those first mental images of it. I imagine that the field was planted and then forgotten, maybe the land having changed hands, changed plans, and so it just grew, untended and uninterrupted. In perfect lines, perfect rows, the grove stretched from a tiny path of asphalt into areas much deeper and less tamed beyond the normal reaches of men, stranding like a wall against the wild.
I loved walking through that area. I appreciated its order and precision, but it frightened me. It was still. Even with a heavy wind blowing over the nearby lake, blowing so hard that the peaks of the waves grew white at their tips, the field of trees was always perfectly still inside, the outer rows stopping whatever wind moaned and roared beyond. The trees stood like monuments, like old, Roman pillars, straight, tall, hard to the touch, ancient, the ground littered with a carpet of discarded needles inches deep. Inside the trees it was so quiet it felt like the forest itself was holding its breath, waiting in anticipation for something.
It was alien. Nature didn't create spaces like this, and if men had, they had eventually deemed this place they toiled to build a failure and abandoned it, leaving it all behind, leaving it to its own intuitions and fate.
The forests surrounding the lake were thick with deer, but even deer knew not to enter the grove. Their mute eyes occasionally watched me pass the threshold of the trees, the deer shifting their weight on their long legs like they were about to follow, but then they would turn away, gallop away, knowing something I didn't and fleeing so they wouldn't have to be witness to what would happen to me inside that timeless space.
She is gone when I return home.
Lillian's clumsily discarded shoes, her coat, her pants are all missing from where she had dropped them on the floor of my small apartment. My bed, still unmade, has a gap her size in the tangle of blankets and sheet that she had left behind, round and perfect enough that I can picture her there. I see her curled up like a fetus, neither sleeping nor awake, floating in some impenetrable thought, waiting for time, waiting for sensation to puncture the stillness that is found there.
I touch the space where she had been, but feel nothing. There is no warmth there, no sensation of her, so I make the bed, straightening the sheets, pausing occasionally to reach up, under the collar of my work shirt, to touch the scab she left for me after her visit. I use my fingertips to measure, one vertebrae up from the new, tiny wound, one vertebrae down, the scab precisely, carefully placed between them. Not finding any meaning beyond just the fact of its placement I turn back to the task. I start layering each blanket over my bed, pulling each one straight and crisp before moving to the next one in the stack, shuffling my exaggerated cards.
The bed made, I reach out and touch it again, my fingers searching for some sign, some invisible residue, some faded color of her aura. I find nothing.
I know what it means to keep reaching out to her, disappointed when she is not there. I know what I am risking and it worries me, the unconscious way I check for her, the way I lay in bed, sometimes for hours, listening for her arrival, sleepless until she joins me in the dark.
She found me by accident, but I found her on purpose. I was searching for someone. Not consciously, but I had just been left devastated and hollow by a failed relationship that ended too soon when maybe it should have ended even sooner, and I was seeking some salve, some sort of romantic balm. It was easy for her, entirely too easy, and I fear that this will only be hard for me.
We met in a drug store; one of those big, featureless commercial places that hold a little of everything, open early in the morning, then open late at night. I was looking for food, a late supper during some stifling, August night, finding various things freeze-dried and salty, but more convenient than the grocery store two miles still further up the road. I suppose she was looking for food too, but her hands held a basket filled with other things: a bottle of lotion, a bit of make-up, a trashy gossip magazine, and one of those pay-as-you-go phones wrapped up in a hard, sharp, plastic shell like some powerful exo-skeleton.
“Excuse me,” she said, then didn't move to pass me.
“Hi,” I answered, my stomach squeezing in on itself. She stood too close to me for someone I didn't know.
She had long, dark hair, some shade between brown and black. Her eyes were just as dark as her hair, just visible beneath the veil of her shaggy bangs, her complexion deep and indistinct, its color dependent more on the observer than the light, I think. Her clothes were, like mine, the kind of thing a person changes into after a day in an office, after striping away the ironed shirts and thick, leather belts into something comfortable and often mismatched.
One of us laughed a little, almost a giggle, nervous, maybe it was both of us.
That was how we met. When we saw each other again, a week later in those same overstuffed aisles, I was hoping to see her.
That was always how it worked for me. I would see someone, someone that sparked something, maybe scratched an itch that didn't start bothering me until that moment when I first saw them. I would quickly start to invent reasons to see them again, try to plan out a series of words that, in the right order, would sound casual, but not flippant. I'd practice those words while folding laundry, while showering, and when I did see that person again, accidentally on purpose, I'd forget the script I spent so much time writing and just say, “Want to share some pizza?” holding up whatever had found its way into my basket.
She didn't answer. She just smiled and followed me through the check-out lane, then followed me home, watching carefully as I opened the cardboard and plastic, speaking rarely, but seemingly saying a lot more somehow.
“I'm not hungry,” she said when the pizza finally came out of the oven, looking neither similar to the picture on the box or dissimilar enough to raise suspicion. She watched me eat, almost smiling, making me nervous, self-conscious, but something about her also put me at ease. I opened a beer for us to share, but I was the only one who drank it.
She left early, earlier than I wanted, but when she moved to the door she paused and hugged me. Some embraces are awkward, strange. This wasn't.
“We should do this again,” she said. And, we did. Again and again, things between us becoming more intimate, more physical, but safe and chaste. I talked a lot. She said very little, but she was always the first to reach out to touch me.
Fall came and went, easily, almost unnoticed. Then winter came, the cold pushing us inside, making our evenings dark, almost secret. This is where we are now, her gone again, me running my fingers over my bed, wondering when I'll see her again, wincing at the soreness at the back of my neck.
Available for purchase on Amazon