by Itay Frenkel
A plane flew by outside, filling my room with a dull whistling noise, like wind blowing at the peak of a mountain. I turned over in bed and pulled the blanket right up to my chin. Cold slithered around me like a snake, prodding at my feet, stroking my hair, running down my back. I curled into a ball under the covers and closed my eyes, but it did no good. The snake was inside me now, and I was shivering. Dammnit, if I wanted to sleep in a cave I would go and do it, why does he insist on keeping it so cold in here?
I have slept in a cave once, on a class trip, but it wasn’t cold at all. It was so hot the boy next to me had sweat seeping through his sleeping bag. It formed big black stains. I can’t remember anything from that trip except the stains on the boy’s sleeping bag and the suffocating heat.
I turned over in bed, wanting to wrap myself around my husband, maybe then I’d be warm. If not, maybe some of my cold would slither into him. It would serve him right for turning the thermostat so low. I turned over to the side and stretched out my arms, ready to squeeze his slim figure and burrow myself into his back. My arms slid through the air. I poked my head out of the blanket, but I couldn’t see anything in the darkness. I felt around his side of the bed. It was as cold as the rest of the room.
I tried not to assume the worst. He probably got out of bed because he was having trouble sleeping. He could be on the couch reading a book. Maybe he headed out to buy some snacks. I reached over for my phone on the nightstand but stopped myself. I should check the apartment before I call. If anything, he was still in here somewhere.
I forced myself to take a long breath before climbing out of bed. The warm carpet felt good under my bare feet. I stretched from side to side, exhaled a loud yawn, then shuffled through the small corridor that led to the living room. A green couch, a small white coffee table, and a thin tv that sat on the floor. The tv was turned off. Around ten books lay on the coffee table, some piled on top of each other, most with a bookmark stuck between them. His habit of reading so many books at once had always surprised me, I preferred to take it one imaginary world at a time, any more and I’d start mixing up the different books. Hell, if I tried reading as many as him at once, I’d start mixing up fiction and reality.
I walked over to the kitchen, where a large, greasy pan still sat on the stovetop. It contained the remnants of pasta, which I made while he sliced and pickled cabbage, claiming it would add a tangy flavor. I didn’t see much reason to spice up our normal dinner, I hated cooking, and I was happy with my bland noodles. The cabbage was too sour, I tried my best to hide my distaste but he saw right through me and offered to eat my portion.
He shouldn’t be hungry, then again, he wasn’t the type to feel full for long. I opened the fridge, as I did every time I was in the kitchen, instinctively. He wasn't in there. I surveyed the kitchen for a note and turned up empty-handed. He was gone, and his trail, like everything else around me tonight, was cold.
We didn’t own a car. The first three weeks of our married life were spent making decisions; he would sleep on the left side of the bed and me on the right; the beer would go in the fridge, not the pantry, he liked it chilled; my kindle slept next to me on my nightstand, his books called our coffee table home, unless important guests came over, in which case we’d tuck them into a shelf we got from before we were married. With all these decisions springing upon us, like invisible raindrops pouring from the sky, neither of us had even thought of buying a car.
I liked walking, anyway, and he had a bike. Decisions at the beginning of marriage should be natural. I knew I belonged on the right side of the bed like a pilot knows exactly how to land their plane. He knew he wanted his books scattered on the coffee table. It all made sense, we were building up our life piece by piece, together. A car just wasn’t natural, it didn’t fit just yet.
I called him, and my phone rang for a long time. The sound bounced around the room like a bullet before being swallowed up by the walls, which seemed to shiver for a moment. I called again, no answer.
Where could he be?
I turned off my phone and stared at my reflection on the dark screen; bed-hair, dark bags under my eyes. Was that oil on my face or just light reflecting off the screen? I felt tired, so tired, but I didn’t want to sleep until I knew where he was.
I left him a text:
Hey, please call me back as soon as you can.
Then, after a few deep breaths that failed to calm me down, I left him another one:
If you don’t answer in an hour I’ll start pulling bookmarks out of your books.
It wasn’t a very serious threat, and it wasn’t a very funny joke, but it was the best my tired brain could think to write.
I walked back into the living room and looked out the window, but I couldn’t see anything, it was dark as a pupil. I should have gone back to sleep, it was late. But still, the darkness felt warm and inviting, like an old friend. It reminded me of the nights I spent in the library, poring over books I should have read earlier but didn’t because I was busy going to the beach with friends. Or nights before I married my husband when we would drive out to get food and catch a movie. I didn’t sleep much back then. My head always hurt, my stomach growled, but it didn’t matter because I belonged to both night and day. I was living two lives, and I treasured each.
I pressed my nose against the dark window, it felt like ice. I exhaled a warm breath and watched a circle of fog appear on the window. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I left it alone and kept making circles. I made a mental note to wash the window tomorrow after work.
How was I forming these circles indoors? Could it be that cold?
I decided to do one more survey of the apartment before going back to sleep. I made sure the front door and all the windows were locked, then I dragged myself back into bed and curled under the covers. My eyes snapped shut. I lay on my side and waited for sleep to take me away. My lips trembled, but why?
I tried to think of something, anything, just to help ease my mind into sleep. Nothing came. My head was as empty as the darkness around me. All I could feel was a faint throbbing headache, more of a sound than a feeling. It was as if my heart had traveled up my throat and slid into my head, where it was beating, pressing against my skull like a baby chick trying to hatch. My ears felt clogged, my nose was stuffy, my lips were too cold to part. It was like my body was closing itself off, trying to keep something out. Trying to keep the darkness out. It didn’t want to sleep, not alone. It hated being alone more than anything. But the darkness was too much, and soon it found a little hole in my otherwise impeccable defense, a tiny opening in my left ear, and it struck, pouring into me and shrouding my brain. I fell into a heavy sleep.
I dreamed that I was standing on the beach, surrounded by people I used to know, and others I couldn’t recognize but somehow felt like I would get to know soon. There was an air mattress on the water, a green one, swaying to and fro over the gentle waves. A little boy was sitting on it. He was the only one in the water. The sky was grey and low; it looked heavy, like it might fall and crush everyone on the beach.
A dense fog settled over everything so that I couldn’t see the waves grow big and deadly, but I could hear them. Nobody moved.
The kid on the air mattress screamed for help. I looked around, but still, nobody moved. I was on the swim team, back in high school. Not that it would help me swim through a ten-foot wave built like a brick wall, but I felt I had to try. I ran towards the water. Suddenly the sand swallowed my left foot. I tripped and heard a loud snap. Lying face down in the sand, which was now pulling me into its grainy shifting skin by the left leg like I was a noodle it was trying to slurp down, I wondered if I would be crushed by a wave or swallowed by the ground.
My ears were ringing. I closed my eyes and held my breath. The ringing grew louder and louder. I waited for death to come, feeling a mixture of dread and relief. At least now I wouldn’t have to go to work tomorrow, it was my first day. I still wasn’t even sure that I wanted the job. Besides, dying in your sleep was a good way to go, even if it was in a nightmare. The ringing grew louder, and soon it drowned out the sound of the waves.
I opened my eyes and stared at my dark ceiling. My phone was ringing. I felt vomit in my throat. My lips were covered in drool.
I rolled over in bed and picked up my phone with a cold, sweaty palm.
“Sorry I didn’t answer before,” my husband said.
“Is everything okay?”
His calm voice, raspy and airy like a quiet trumpet, made me angry. I wasn’t sure why.
“I was so worried, why’d you make me worried like that? I really will take the bookmarks out of all your damn books.”
There was a long silence on the phone. I could hear his heavy breathing on the line, it was uneven. I considered yelling at him more, but I was too tired, and I wanted to see him again. I wasn’t used to sleeping without him. We’d often go on long walks together after dinner, come back, and fall into bed. I missed it when he could stay up all night with me whenever I asked. I tried waking him up sometimes, but he insisted that he needed to sleep to function at work, so I would go and read on the couch alone until I was ready to call it a night. I didn’t like being alone at night.
“Buy me dinner,” I said, “as much as I want and we’ll call it even.”
“Aren’t you starting at that place tomorrow morning?”
“Yeah, we’ve still got a couple of hours.”
He considered it for a moment before answering.
“Alright, I’ll come home and pick you up, I’m ten minutes away.”
I hung up the phone and rolled out of bed for the second time that night. I took off the plain white tee and grey sweatpants I slept in, changing into a pair of jeans and a white knitted sweater, then I went to the couch to wait. I didn’t feel tired, just empty, as if I was nothing but a balloon, ready to float away. A chilly breeze had burrowed itself into the house to remind us that summer was over. It ran along the walls and whispered in our ears that it was time to get a job, a car, maybe even a kid.
I spread out on the couch and closed my eyes. I had just enough time to exhale a long calming breath before hearing the sounds of keys jingling, shaking like they had stage fright. Then the lock turned, and my husband stepped in. A tall, thin man with large round glasses, perpetual bed hair, and dull brown eyes. He shuffled into the living room, looked at his books on the coffee table, and smiled when he saw all the bookmarks were still in place. He lay down on the edge of the couch, holding onto me to stay on.
I bit him on the nose, he recoiled and almost fell off the couch. Now we were even.
“What was that for?” He asked.
“It woke you up, didn’t it?” I said.
“I guess, why are you still up?”
“Yeah, me neither.”
“At least we’re on the same page.”
“I’d rather be asleep than on the same page right now.”
I laughed. He leaned in, not that he had to, and kissed me on the cheek. His lips were warm, alive. I could feel his heartbeat through them, like a reassuring pat on the back. He moved his head away slowly so as not to roll off the couch. His breath carried the faint smell of pasta.
“Do you still wanna eat?” He asked.
“Where are we going?”
“Breakfast place, something like Denny’s.”
“In the mood for pancakes?”
I nodded. We lay on the couch in silence. I looked at my reflection in his eyes, shooting myself a reassuring smile. He smiled back; a tired, strained smile that made his nose look small and his eyes extra big. I wanted to have kids, and a car, and, if I had to, a job. It was the logical next step, and I felt good taking it with him by my side. He nodded as if he were reading my thoughts.
“There’s a place ten minutes away with good pancakes, shall we?” He asked.
“Lead the way,” I said.
He yawned, and before he had stopped I rested a hand on his shoulder and pushed him off the couch. He landed gently on our brown carpeted floor, looking up at me with a bewildered smile and a slight tilt of the head, like a parent whose child just did something unexpected but impressive.
“You’re on a bit of a mean streak tonight,” he said.
I got off the couch and extended my hand to him. He grabbed it, then let go like it was on fire.
“You’re freezing,” he said.
“But like seriously, I don’t even want to touch you, and that’s never the case.”
He got to his feet and took hold of my hands. His slender, bony fingers intertwined through mine.
“Thanks,” I whispered.
"The cold breeze that whispered rude reminders and unsolicited advice was pushed away. "
He nodded. After a moment of gripping my hands, he smiled, appearing satisfied, and let go. We walked to the door, got our shoes on, and headed out. It was warm outside, with a gentle wind that did its best not to upset anyone it bumped into. The cold breeze that whispered rude reminders and unsolicited advice was pushed away. The sky was dark and filled with silver stars, like polished marble embroidered with silver gemstones.
I buried my hands into the thin pockets of my jeans.
“You’d be better off holding one of my hands, they’re pretty warm, I’ve been sitting by a fire all night.”
I gave him my right hand, and we continued walking down the cracked pavement. We turned into a street with low buildings on either side, it was too dark to see the end.