[November Breaks] NOW | 19 | Brett

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You sleep better here, in this house, whatever made that change possible. Maybe I sleep better too sometimes, but 4am still drags me out of bed, wide-eyed and juggling contingency plans. I leave you with an arm outstretched across the empty half of the mattress while I pace and wander from carpet to wood to polished concrete. There’s a gentle familiarity to the shift in texture and moonlight slides cold through unsheltered windows.

I want to wake you. I want to lead you sleep-slow downstairs to the kitchen and pretend not to see you shaking your head while I make instant coffee. Because it’s the only kind of coffee I can be bothered to make in this dead space between night and morning. Because you’re still horrified that I have it in the house at all. Because I keep leaving it out on the counter and you keep putting it away.

I want us to sit with a table corner between us while I pretend not to see you yawning. Because I’ll never say I need to talk about the fractured galaxy exploding inside my skull. Because you’ll never admit to still being exhausted after however many years you survived on less sleep than this. Because we’re both tired. Because after a while the words don’t matter and I need your hair falling in your eyes, your hand warm over mine, your presence in general. Just you.

And I want to wake you. But I don’t.

Earlier, I peeled off my ocean-drenched suit while you watched from beneath a raised eyebrow, then we thawed in the steam of a shower that felt like waterfalls in hell. I didn’t notice it at the time, but now that I’m sitting here on my own, drinking the cheap coffee of your disapproval, I can see the tidy duality of it.

There is no middle ground, no happy medium. There is freezing and there is boiling with nothing in between. There are only extremes, competing states. Firm structure versus frenetic detachment. And there’s us. And where are we?

The road outside is silent, but I can hear the sea. The rest of the world feels so far away and I don’t know many miles it is to the nearest people. The next house along from ours has been empty for a while. The owner vanished, but no-one’s sure exactly when. His disappearance was only discovered when someone delivering take-away menus noticed the mail was stacked so high on the inside of the door that it was blocking the letterbox. He had no family, so it’s now a year into the required however-many before he can be officially pronounced dead.

We went to look at that house a while ago, mostly because I was curious. I don’t know what I expected to find. Was the air going to be thicker, heavier, wrapped around it like a force field to keep time from touching it? Would it be the same as walking around a house that was only deserted for a few hours while the people who lived there were at work or shopping or at a funeral?

It didn’t feel like anything to me, but there was that moment when we were walking down the driveway and you said, “Someone died here. Right here.” I asked how you knew and you said you weren’t sure. You didn’t know you were going to say it until you said it.

Tomorrow, it’ll be Monday again. And what if I did it? What if I quit? Not now, not this week, but one day. What if I did more than think about it and talk about it? What if I drew a line under that part of my life, accepted it as complete within me, and moved on? How easy is it to do that? I don’t mean just quitting a job, but quitting anything, changing anything significant. It happens every day. And traffic lights malfunction and people fall from windows and well-meaning attempts at resuscitation do nothing but break a corpse’s ribs. And does anything change, really?

I hear your footsteps on the stairs and I see you from sound and familiarity before I actually see you. Pushing your hair back from your face. Tilting your head from one side to the other so your neck cracks. Then you walk into the kitchen as you stretch your arms up for the final cathartic crunch of your shoulders. You go to lift my mug, but I hold my hand over it in a cautionary gesture, so you withdraw quickly in mild disgust and start making your own coffee. Real coffee.

I watch you because I can’t do anything else. I don’t want to do anything else. I watch other people so I can file away their tells and their fears and the small details that create opportunities to control them. But you, I watch you because even in moments of quiet routine, you are both the tunnel and the light at the end.

You make two real coffees and set one in front of me, but you leave my mug of offensive instant where it is. “How long have you been up?”

“Since eleven minutes past four.”

“I missed you.”

“You were asleep.”

“I missed you in my sleep.”

I still don’t know where to put myself when you say things like that. You’re the only person in the world who has this effect on me, and you don’t even do it on purpose. You just leave words hanging between us and they catch in my throat when I breathe. These small moments of gentle honesty choke me. “I didn’t want to wake you.” I can’t stop looking at your hands. “Wait. No. I did.”

“You should have.”

“I couldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because you had sleep and I couldn’t take it away from you.”

“Sleep isn’t a commodity.”

“We both know it is.” I down my instant, leave the mug on the table, lift my real coffee and get up.

You almost follow me into the living room, but the abandoned mug stops you. I wait until you put it in the dishwasher because we all have loose ends we can’t leave untied. We all have our quirks and comforts, and sometimes they have to be allowed to play out.

I’m full of caffeine and I can’t sit down, so I relinquish my next dose and stand by the vast picture window, trying to fade into the morning. You arrive behind me and wrap around me, one warm hand against my chest, your other arm reaching from shoulder to shoulder across my throat.

I lean into it. “What do you feel when it stops?”

“When what stops?”

“Someone’s heart.”

“Brett, don’t.” It’s a dark, resonant warning, but a warning is just a challenge that hasn’t yet fulfilled its potential.

“Why not?”

You hold me tighter. Not tight enough. Almost, but not quite. It feels like an impulse, outside of intent. “Because I don’t want to talk about it.”

“You don’t want to or you don’t know how to?” My pulse is trapped against your forearm and I’m sinking.

“Both.” But you’re thinking about it. There’s a crush to your grip that wasn’t there a moment ago and maybe it’s some kind of inner conflict, or maybe it’s need.

Words still have space to escape, barely. “Does it feel like this?” The world turns dark at the edges and the floor melts lower.

“No.” And you don’t let go. You don’t let go.

My lungs reach for a breath I don’t want to take and I trust you. Survival instinct struggles to assert boundaries, but you step beyond them. And I’m drowning. And it’s beautiful.

Your voice is molten gold. “Nothing feels like this.” Now you let go, but only for half a breath. My breath. Yours. And you catch me. And you hold me. “You know that.”

I do.