Finalist, Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction 2017
“Why do you only cry when you’re sleeping?” I ask her. Her eyes are purple and bruised from lack of rest. Collapsed, like those old women that we used to mock and pity in the park, feeding the pigeons and counting down the days till they see their husbands in heaven, or, if they’re lucky, their kids on Christmas.
I’m counting, too, now. Counting my words. Baiting reactions, setting traps. Three, two, one:
“It’s OK to show some feeling, you know. Every once in while,” I say more—what, bitterly?—than intended, but I’m not looking at her. I’m looking into my cup of coffee, failing to find my reflection to see what my eyes look like. It’s snowing too hard outside to use the kitchen window. They probably just look bruised, too, anyway.
“Well”—she’s not looking at me either—“you only smile when you sleep, these days.”
These days, she says.
Has it really been long enough to say “these days?”
I look down. I guess I’m not still wearing my formal wear. My wedding-or-funeral clothes. Funeral, in this case. We don’t get invited to many weddings lately.
And I guess it is snowing again. How time flies.
She looks so beautiful sitting across the table. Paper mache skin, wafer-thin, delicate. She’s long, graceful, elegant. Colors muted in the dim light. Small bones. Baby bird bones.
Her arm moves—does it? yes, almost imperceptibly—to brush back a few stray strands of hair. Statuesque. Carved marble. Perfect feminine frailty. There’s something captivating, alluring, sensual about it.
Jesus Christ, what is wrong with me? But—
I want to reach over and stroke that hair, her hair, to brush her lips with mine. Grab a hold and take, carry, drag her into the bedroom and stain our white sheets, pure as the driven snow. Tell her how I can help her. That she’s damaged, messed up; that’s okay, me too. We can start over, do it right this time. Drain out this pain, this bright red god-awful suffering and spill it out on the ground like phosphorescent roses on the tiniest plot of freshly turned graveyard dirt, the smell still pungent and stinging in my nostrils.
God, I feel so turned on.
I feel so sick. God, I feel like throwing up.
Mostly though I just feel like crying. Probably I’m shaking. But she sits still, so still. Barely moving at all as she sips her coffee.
And I want to say, it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault, and I love you.
But instead I say, “We should go to the park. When do the pigeons come back?”
“Spring.” Her voice sounds so even, so normal. I find this infuriating for some reason.
“Yeah, that sounds about right.”
But I don’t say, Yeah, as if I could ever forget. I don’t say, Yeah, and I can’t wait for us to go count down days and feed them our broken dreams in the park.
I just… don’t say. Neither does she. My coffee has gotten cold. I drink it anyway.
Already I’m thinking about going back to sleep. I haven’t been awake for an hour and already it’s on my mind. I don’t think about much else these days. Eating. Working. Breathing. It’s all rote motions. Weekends are the worst. Just a long, 48-hour stretch of 48 hours. These days, anyway. All I really think about is sleeping.
The coffee just doesn’t cut it anymore. I wonder when I’ll move onto other chemical crutches. I wonder if she already has.
Mass will be starting soon. We used to go on Sundays, sometimes. I’ve never been religious. In fact, I hated going and would complain petulantly every time. She was never too religious either, but she was raised Catholic and I think she liked the tradition of it all. I miss it.
I watch the seconds tick by on the clock until they turn into minutes. Too many minutes. And she still hasn’t said another word. I stand up and grab my coat. She doesn’t turn to watch when I head out the door.
It’s cold outside. I don’t walk far, only a few blocks down to the liquor store. I ask the cashier to recommend some cigarettes and end up with a pack of Camel Turkish Royals. A few more minutes and I’m back at my house. I head into the garage. She never goes in there.
The bassinet sits perpetually unfinished right there in the middle of everything. I suppose I started on it too early. Too optimistically. Prematurely, one could say.
And I do. Out loud. “Prematurely.” My hot breath turns to mist which turns to nothing. Not even an echo in here.
I light up a cigarette and inhale tentatively. It’s my first time. My body reacts poorly. I hack and cough and it tastes awful. But my head spins a little and it feels good in my hand. I could grow to like this. I could use a vice.
Hours pass as hours do. The sun rises higher, hangs overhead somewhere, and sets. My pack is now half gone. Nothing else has been accomplished. I hear some pigeons somewhere out in the dark, I think. Stragglers that never left. They’ll freeze to death. I leave the garage door open for them when I head inside. The bassinet remains unfinished.
I’m cold and smell of cigarettes when I climb into bed. If she notices, she doesn’t say anything. Or maybe she’s already asleep. Hardly matters anyway. I can barely tell the difference.
I put my headphones on and turn on my small radio. It’s a new vice that’s starting to grow old already. I spin the dial until a find an AM station with inconsistent, spotty reception. Just barely intelligible just some of the time. Incorrect signals coming in layering onto the broadcast. Strangers calling in to talk strange conspiracies or in-depth sports analysis. Politics. Religious sermons.
Nothing I care about. All I care about. I lay back and let the electric melatonin get to work.
Her back is to me. That’s how she sleeps now. She also wears long pajamas now. Layers upon layers.
I’m always awake longer than her, even though sleeping is all I really think about these days. Or, rather, it’s all I really want to think about. I can’t keep things out of my head, even with the headphones on my ears and the white noise of other people’s lives trying to drown everything out. So before I turn my back to her for the night I always check to see if she’s crying.
I can’t help it. One of these days I’ll build up the courage to wipe away the tears.
But not tonight.
I turn my back to her and close my burning eyes. AM noise, static distortion, meaningless sound, and total lack of fury. Drifting, drifting, and I’m almost happy.
I’m suddenly hit hard by a sharp, painful thought, the kind that hits you out of nowhere in that perfect spot between sleeping and waking and sends your adrenal gland pumping and your heart racing. She said I only smile when I sleep. Does she watch me when I sleep?
I lay there for a long time, pretending, but I don’t feel her move. Liar. The stillness is overwhelming. I smell graveyard dirt. I want to strangle her. I want to roll her over and make love to her. I want to vomit and cry and turn off my stupid radio.
Eventually, though, the voices put me to sleep.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Jans Canon