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There’s always been something so strange about being awake when everyone else is asleep. When everyone breathes deep and long and streetlights make pools in inky black. When everything is so silent, so still, so pristine and so ugly. Shadows are jagged and rust looks like dried blood. There’re all the things you don’t see when everybody’s awake. They’ve always been there, though. Just beneath that layer of consciousness, just beneath that layer of awareness. To live in those moments, the spaces between days stitched into seams, is to be alone.
Most nights I can’t sleep, and it’s no one’s fault, really. My heart is always beating too fast. I’ve always liked being awake when everyone else was asleep. I’ve always liked knowing I was the only person with my quick beating heart on the block. It was mine, for those hours, it was all mine. The pavement, the streetlights, the rats and dried-blood rust. Everything. It wasn’t that I liked rats or rust or dark, I just liked being singular. Singularity is so rare, so precious. You have to grip it, you have to choke it.
But what I’m trying to say is that I was alone, except for her, but she’s a different story. I was alone in my apartment with the lights on, and she was there too, but in the kitchen. I was sitting on the bed, in my boxers, listening to the record she’d put on and smoking a cigarette. She was the type of person that let you feel alone when she was there with you. We’d gotten back from the record store at 8, it was 2 now, and the downtown air still felt febrile.
I hadn’t shaved in probably 3 days, and my hair was dirty. The ceiling fan was rotating slowly, stirring the smoke.
“Jay,” She was standing in the doorway, leaning on the frame, her little toothpick arms crossed tight. She was so thin, she was so tall. “You gotta get up.”
“I don’t.” I say, but it comes out more like a whisper. I tilt my head back, blow smoke at the ceiling fan blades.
“Jay,” She says again. “C’mon.”
“I’m fine.” I close my eyes and I hear her sigh.
“Just relax.” I hear her flop down next to me, I feel the mattress sink. I crack open my eyes and turn my head to look at her. “I’m sorry.” My voice aches when I use it. I put out my cigarette on the bed frame, so when I lie down next to her the sheets don’t catch on fire.
“I know it’s hard.” She says, and one of her thin little hands starts combing through my hair. “I know…I know-“
“We’re gonna be ok.” She says, an echo.
“I don’t wanna leave you-you know that.” My mouth tastes stale. I want another cigarette, but I don’t want to move.
“It was just a mistake.” She’s talking about the sliced wrists from last month, when I wanted to rust. When I wanted to decompose, I wanted to sleep.
“Deadly mistake. Potentially fatal mistake.” I say. She frowns.
“It’s not your fault, Jay.” She says, and laces her fingers in mine.
I just have to remember Winona, because being alone isn’t half as good without her to be alone with. I have my rusty wrists as reminders. I have the rats in my head and the streetlights in my stomach.
I met Winona in a dive bar, three years ago, an old attempt at singularity. She was smoking at the end of the bar, trying to drink scotch. She hates cigarettes and she hates scotch. She was so out of place, her thin blonde hair all gathered up on top of her head, her doe eyes batting away smoke. She’s a starving artist, looking for depth in puddles. So am I, to be completely fair.
I don’t know what I did without her, she’s the one who knows how to live, I’m the one who knows how to think. I’m not sure which one is worse.
She gets up from the bed, and I sit up. As she walks by, she pats my cheek.
“You should take a shower.” I’m back to staring out the window, trying not to think about how my wrists itch or my head aches or how I should get up. I really should. I can’t remember the last time I ate. She’s back in the kitchen, I hear her open a can of coke.
I can’t work up the energy to stand.
“Winona.” I say, the same tone as before. The same tone as always.
“What? Finally hungry?” She’s still in the kitchen.
“No, I just…I don’t know. My head hurts.”
“You’re hungry.” She says.
“What’s wrong with me, Win?”
“Plenty of things, but it doesn’t really matter.”
She doesn’t answer, just sits down next to me and takes my hand. So we sit there, staring out the window into the exhaust and the rain and wait to wash away.
I don’t remember falling asleep, but when I wake up I feel significantly better. Maybe not in body, but in mind. Winona is still there, like she always is. When I sit up, she stirs. The light filters through the blinds.
“What’s wrong?” Her voice is heavy with sleep.
“I’m sorry. I’m a piece of s***.”
“Don’t apologize, it’s over now.” She sits up too, one hand running through her hair. “Things are gonna be better.” I nod, looking at her. She’s so beautiful, and I’m annoyed I can’t be anything for her. I want to change. I want to learn how to live. I want to want life.
“I’m so sorry.” That’s all I can get out. I don’t want to cry in front of her. If I try to say anything more I might cry.
“You just have to…care. You have to care about yourself.” She stands up, stretching her arms above her head, arching her back. “You’re not indispensable. You have needs. You have feelings. It’s okay to have feelings. You’re not broken.” She disappears for a minute, flipping light switches.
My hair is dirty, there’s filth under my nails. I wish it was night again, so I could feel alone. When the light hits I start to feel awake, I start to feel aware. It’s so easy to hide in the dark, it’s so easy to feel alone.
She hands me a package of saltines and a half-empty glass of tap water.
“Time to start over.”