She has decided that there are nights not meant for sleeping. She lays flat-backed against the mattress, thin stomach slowly moving up and down. Her eyes open, blink hard, adjust. She wonders what, then, nights such as this one are for.
It’s raining. The quiet kind of rain. The kind you might walk in with a lover, both bodies tucked beneath the spines of an umbrella, knocking elbows, trying to keep the other’s hair from getting wet. She counts the times that the streetlight outside the bedroom window flickers like the tail end of a lightning bug - eight, nine, ten. She counts the inhalations and exhalation of the body beside her. In-out, one. In-out, two.
Her hand finds his side and she rests it against him gently, like you would a stack of things that are about to fall. She whispers, I love you, and then slides her body from the bed. The screen door knocks against the frame. She fumbles at the lighter on the railing, flicks the metal once, twice, holds the flame to the bottom of a cigarette. A charcoal sky has opened wide and pushed the clouds to the west. The pavement smells sweet and blackened like burned pancakes, the humid air as thick as syrup. She can see the smooth outline of her neighbor sitting on the second stair of his back porch. From across the fence, he strikes a match against the brick and his face turns the color of honey. He looks up, nods at her, looks back down.
A night not meant for sleeping, she thinks.
She takes the phone from her pocket and dials a number, slowly, deliberately. Two hundred miles away, he answers.
“I can’t sleep,” she says. She leans against the house and watches the hallway, in case the man in the bed has woken to find that she’s gone.
“Neither can I. But you knew that. It’s been a while. How are you?” She hears him putting a kettle on the stove.
“Really, really good,” she says, and she means it. “I’ve never been so content. I’ve always felt like running until just recently.”
“That’s really good to hear.” He sits by the window. She can hear the city, the stopping and starting of the night busses like a low moan, the hiss of a gutter, someone yelling in the street.
“Bring the phone closer to the window,” she says, “I want to hear the night there.” And he does.
He pours water from one container to another. She hears him take a drink. After a while, he draws in a breath. “I’m moving to China,” he says. The words fall from his tongue, as if he is commenting on the weather.
She moves a hand to her throat and closes her eyes. Two weeks ago, she was in the city. The man in the bed bought her ramen and tea, and they listened to bluegrass in the meadow. There must have been a hundred thousand people in the park that day, bodies like water, swaying and heaving as a fiddle and a cello spoke sweetly to one another on the stage. The man in the bed held her hand and sang along, but she was standing on her toes, eyes moving left and right and left again like a ship captain surveying the sea. “Who are you looking for?” The man in bed had asked, and she shook her head and said, “Someone I used to know.”
Spine curved against the wooden siding, she swallows. “I’m never going to see you again. Are you getting married?”
He laughs softly through his nose. “No. I love her, but it wouldn’t work. I’ll be back. Maybe in three or four years. I’m going to live around, you know how it goes. I’m still looking for what I’ll be doing with the rest of my life.”
Her neighbor rubs the end of his cigarette on the stair and moves back inside. Overhead, a ribbon of clouds pass over the moon and a thin rain begins to fall again. She watches the dry spots on the pavement turn black.
“What do you hope for?” she asks.
“A little passion for something.”
“What are you feeling now?”
He breathes. Outside his window, someone laughs. “Not too much of anything, really. I’ve been all over, you know. Went to Tibet last summer, Peru and Paraguay the fall before that. But I haven’t felt anything - really felt anything - in four years.”
She checks the hallway again. “Has it been four years? My God. I feel like a stranger in my own skin when I talk to you, like I’m present in another life entirely.”
“Nothing’s changed, even though everything has.” he says. She hears the subtle sound of skin moving against a sheet as he lays back.
“I’m going to be thinking about you, wondering about you, longing for you for the rest of my life. And just knowing that is strange. It’s like looking into the future. It’s the only thing I’m sure of.”
She hears him smile. He licks his lips. Softly, he shifts the phone from one ear to the other. “We have something. Something that just seems to last and last and last. I love that you have a daughter and a little family but that’s – that’s something else. Our lives are so ordinary and good, but there is a profound and always present layer where I hold you.”
She is quiet. She checks the hallway once, and again. Swallowed by the night, she closes her eyes and reaches an arm out, as if the simple act of wanting may bring his body forward through time and space. He would stand before her, hold the curve of her cheek in the palm of his hand and run a finger over her bottom lip. And they would collapse together and disappear, just like that, the way two galaxies might when they finally brush edges in the sky.
His voice is hardly there, just a whisper now, two hundred miles away. “I’m afraid to see you, I think. Despite what you say, I think I could find that old, other part of you.”
She nods at the night. “Probably quicker than we would know what to do with it. I would fall apart.”
“Strange how I want both things.”
From inside the house, a floorboard groans. The man in bed is rubbing his eyes, fastening the buttons on a coat, searching for her. She slips the phone into her pocket without saying goodbye. The man in bed leans against the doorway.
“Can’t sleep?” he asks, wrapping her shoulders in a blanket. She shakes her head, and he smiles. “Come back inside. I’ll talk to you.”
She takes his hand and trails behind him. In her pocket, two hundred miles away, the closing of a window.