I lay in that bed. The sheets cold. The heater off. Winter at its depth. A chill seeping in through the bottom of the door. A whistling outside the window. The stars beyond covered with clouds. And the light from the streetlamp creating a glaze upon the glass, a frosted smudge.
I lay there. Waiting. Wondering if he would return. My mind too focused on that question, as often as it seemed to come.
There’d always been a swath of feeling when that doorknob finally turned. When the keys jangled as he cursed the fact they were stuck once more and wouldn’t turn without much coaxing. Even now, I wondered at it. Had it been relief? All those times. All those hours, waiting, wondering, unable to sleep until I heard him arrive home.
He’d been warm when he entered the bed. A heater. A furnace. And even though I hadn’t been cold, I’d turned into him. Felt the hair upon his arm tickle against my shoulder. Hear his annoyed grunt as he shifted away from the stubble on my chin. We never stayed like that. Never woke up entangled in each other’s arms. Always broke apart sometime in the darkest hours before dawn and never found one another again.
I wondered if that was where this feeling crept from. The darkest hours before dawn. Waiting to see if this time he wouldn’t return. If this time, he kept his foot on the pedal, drove past our building, onto empty highways that would lead down a different path.
And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out if the feeling that swept over my body, tingling through my veins when that doorknob turned, wasn’t relief after all, but disappointment. Or even dread. That I would hear his irritated sighs. His exhausted groan as he turned over in the sheets. The blanket tugging, feeling far colder than any empty bed.
I thought back to when we’d first met. When I’d been working on the corner. Serving food and drink in the evening hours after classes. When I’d hide flashcards in my apron and study as the hours grew long and the tables empty.
He’d come in, like clockwork. Thursdays. Always Thursdays when the beers were cheap and the smoke lifted above the bar so thick it was visible from outside the windows.
Work meetings, he claimed. His fellows were coworkers and the conversations easy and comfortable. Networking, he murmured later with an exhausted smile and lips that held the scent of spicy wings I’d served earlier. We’d speak, at first just small talk. About the weather, hot and cold. Him asking about the classes I took and wondering over job openings he saw. That was how we got to working together. Me, grabbing a hold of his offer to toss my resume to hiring managers in his office.
How long had he been planning on wooing me? How long until I finally realized what he was after? How long until I’d wanted him in return?
The doorknob turned without much fuss this time. Twisted like a well-oiled machine. No stuttering of keys against the metal. No cursing from a frustrated man.
I turned over and watched as he stepped inside. He avoided my gaze. Did not turn on the light. Did it make life more bearable? To keep oneself in the darkness. To shy away from the brightness of knowledge and truth.
For me, it kept me lethargic, ready to do the same as I always had, night after night, day after day.
But for him…
He sat heavily, not on the bed, but on the chair, clothes underneath he hadn’t bothered to remove. The computer beyond blinked steadily, marking every third, fourth second like a clock out of tune. Running slow, dragging out time.
“Are you okay?” I asked, voice rough, heart rougher at what might come.
He took a breath, loud in the silence. “No.”
I let the murmur resound in my mind, back and forth, gaining in volume until finally, I struggled into a sitting position, blanket falling from my chest. A chill swept into its place. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“No,” he said again.
I nodded, still waiting, for he had more to say regardless whether he denied it. Another waiting game. This one less comfortable. More chilling. And no less exhausting.
The computer kept up its belated counting, the only tick we had in that silence. Outside the window, a flash of headlights, more glow on the frost than the true shine of light.
And after many uncounted flashes, a minute that felt like twenty, he said, “I want to start over.”
I sat there, numb and unsure, my heart hovering in a place of purgatory.
“I want to do this right.”
Without a pause, I asked, “Do what right?” I wanted to be on the same page, wanted to be reading the same damn book.
“You’re sure?” The question came before I could stop it.
He glanced up for the first time, light catching his eyes. I saw confusion despite the darkness. “Am I sure? I’m not sure about anything, except…” His manner changed, the confusion gone. “Yes, I’m sure.”
I realized my hands were clenched tight against one another. Forcibly relaxed them. “And what would be the right way be?”
“I don’t know.” He seemed angry, though not at me, but at his ignorance, as if he’d failed somehow and didn’t know why, didn’t know when and wanted to fix it. But couldn’t. The admission made him talkative, a cover for his ignorance. “I just know that I can’t imagine living like this, the way we are right now. I can’t stand it. But… I can’t imagine living without you either.”
My heart sank, but not down to my stomach. It sank from where it had sat lodged in my throat. My heart beat steadied. The strain left my shoulders. I looked up cautiously, but he wasn’t staring at me anymore, his gaze focused on the corner of the bed, yet seeing something else entirely.
“So we pretend to not know each other?” I forced a chuckle, hoping to relieve some of this tension.
But he did not laugh. Did not even smile. “No. We start over the right way. As equals this time. I want to date you right. Unless, of course, you’d rather not. You’ve been unhappy, and don’t deny it, you voice it even when you’re not trying to. So if you’d rather go, then you should go. We should—”
He didn’t want to be the one to break things, I realized. He didn’t want to let me go. Where my heart had relaxed, it now began to hum, a harmony, a gentle song that echoed the sudden looseness of my mind. And that told me all I needed to know.
“I don’t want to go,” I said softly. “But you’re right about everything else.”
He nodded, as if he’d been expecting that answer, had steeled himself. Maybe even thought I intended on slowly moving on, an escape that would take months rather than a clean break. “Why have you been unhappy then?”
“Because…” All those nights, waiting, shoulders taut as I heard him grumble, but didn’t think I could say a word. “Because…” Now I did not seem to know how to voice this answer.
The silence stretched long. Longer than the shadows.
This time he did not break it. He sat waiting.
Was he struggling, same as I had in all those hours? Was he counting the times the glow from the computer blinked against the blanket? Why could I not break this dreadful lack of sound, cast it away into a place where I’d never be able to find it again.
And then it hit me.
My words were a whisper, more to me than to him. “Because I have trouble saying what I want.” I lifted my head, all the stress back in my muscles, my fingers twisting about the sheet in my lap. “I’m not like you. I don’t steamroll my way through life.”
“You think I steamrolled you?” he responded.
“Not like that. You know what you want and you go after it.”
Another silence, this time shorter, a safety line stretched between us, tying us together.
“I wanted you,” he said.
“So talk. Tell me whatever’s going on in that brain of yours.” Like an order this time, not a plea. He seemed done with pleas.
“I…” I swallowed, unable to tear my gaze away from his. I started quiet and grew louder. “I hate it when you’re out all night, even when it’s just for work. I hate it when you use the couch as a drawer so I have to move the clothes before I watch anything. I hate that you don’t let me help you cook. I hate—”
“I hate it when you don’t tell me these things,” he interrupted, his voice unemotional.
I finished in a quiet voice yet again, this last the most important. “I hate it when you don’t touch me enough.”
For another moment, we locked eyes, then finally, he broke, his lips curving just enough to show some hope. “That’s it, then, is it? Thought this was harder, for some reason. Thought maybe we didn’t belong together.”
“And now you think we do?”
“I think you need to open your damn mouth more, and I’m actually meaning that in a nonsexual way, and I need to hug you a whole lot more.” He shrugged. “Hell, babe, maybe that’s all we need.”
He spoke so smoothly, so happily, as if just the act of us speaking had loosened something in him. For a moment, I thought back to those first days when we’d met, how he’d ask question after question, drawing me from my shell. He’d spent more time figuring me out than he had touching me, and because of that it’d taken me so very long to realize he’d been courting me that whole time.
Braver now, I took a breath. “When you come to bed, come find me. Don’t sleep as far away as you can.”
“I don’t care.”
His smile grew. “Can I touch you now?”
And any tension left disappeared. “You better.”
~ ~ ~
This one was a race against the clock, no prompt or idea before I sat down. Started with the first line that came to me and just wrote whatever I thought up next.
Generally in exercises like this, the story doesn’t show up until partway through, so naturally I trashed the entire beginning during the editing phase. This left only the actual story behind without any of the nonsense attached to it.
I used a neat (and free) program available online called “Fighter’s Block” to do the first draft of this story. It forces you to continue writing, getting the words out without overthinking them. This means you do have more crap words (at least I did) so you’re forced to do heavier editing later, but I found it a fun and inventive way to force the bare bones of a story onto the page.