Portrait of a Kansas Night

Submitted into Contest #135 in response to: Start your story with someone stepping outside their comfort zone.... view prompt

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Creative Nonfiction

“Mackenzie?” 


You wake at night to a name nobody ever calls you, something given up in childhood and given back in adulthood unexpectedly, like so much else about the moment and the things that brought you here. It’s a sea of sheets and more pillows than you’re used to, a bed that smells like rosewater liberally doused in cat hair, a white bedspread stained here and there with the wine you both spilled that night. 


An hour might have passed. Two. Her voice makes it sound like a lifetime. 


“Hmm?” you say. Little more than a groan, but in the silvered half-light streaming in through her lacy curtains you can see that it meant something, it helped. Green eyes stare up at you, luminous as the distant moon. No halo, that dark mess of hair. She’s still got her makeup on but it’s all smudged now, stains across a pillowcase and on your skin. 


“You’re awake?” she says. 


“Why are you?” you ask. 


And she freezes. 


You were different when you met her. Faces were a foreign land. The curl of a lip was meaningless if it wasn’t a smile or a frown, exploded out like those caricatures they use on stage. No words for the way shadows pool beneath an eye, or how soft curves turn into a rigid line beneath the fall of her covers. 


Outside this room the faces might still be foreign, expressions imploded and unreadable, but not here. 


“A dream?” you ask. She nods. 


She was different when she met you too. Faces were too familiar, all wrong. Lips only curled to sneer, mouths only opened to scream. All the eyes had shadows and all her curves were gone, softness melted away by nights like these when she’d woken up beside other men, their commingling shadows, beside you, before she’d dared to speak.


So you say “Thanks,” and she says “Why?” and you don’t say a thing. Instead you gather her to your chest because all those other nights when she woke, she woke alone.


She feels so small against you. Shockingly warm, though in her mind she’ll be freezing. Fragile in a way that you didn’t know a person could be, but strong too—stronger than you. Stronger than anyone you’ve ever met in fact, and that’s the kind of truth you never would have known before you met her. 


You feel her shaking. Tears against your bare skin. Her arms clutched tight to her chest as she implodes for a few more awful moments that might have been an hour, might have been two, but that you’d measure in years if you could only steal the time with her. 


“I’m sorry,” she whispers.


“No,” you say. 


“It won’t happen again,” she whispers. 


“It has to,” you say. 


And it’s the wrong thing to say. 


You feel it like your soul is stretching, a part of you trying to pull away to where it’s safe even though tonight is a win. Can’t be anything else. A refutation of the shadows pooling beneath an eye, or in a bed, in the corners of every room that she steps into. 


“I want it to,” you whisper. “Please? It’s me. Not them, it’s me.” 


A time passes where that stretched out feeling is all you know, where a wrong word might snap the night and maroon you both. 


“I didn’t think you’d wake up,” she says. 


“I did,” you say. 


“I was just seeing if I could,” she says. 


“You did,” you say. 


“You don’t hate me?” 


You kiss her forehead. Brush her hair out of her eyes. Tuck the covers a little tighter around her. Tell her that it’s you in all the quiet ways that you’ve been learning, that she has. A brand new world piece-mealed together by two people who both have things to learn, who struggle and who try and who sometimes fail, which is somehow—remarkably—okay. 


And soon she sleeps, another thing she often struggles to do. You have a moment, maybe dreamed, where you see her wrapped up in the moonlight, both of you adrift on a sea of wine stained sheets as if it were all happening to someone else because it couldn’t possibly be happening to you. None of it could. You aren’t someone who can love like this. Not really. A truth you know, or knew. 


“Mackenzie?” 


You wake in the morning to a name nobody ever calls you, something given up in childhood and given back in adulthood unexpectedly, like so much else about the moment and the things that brought you here. It’s a sea of sheets and more pillows than you’re used to, a bed that smells like rosewater liberally doused in cat hair, a white bedspread stained here and there with the wine you both spilled the night before. 


You reach across the bed, bleary-eyed, and discover that she isn’t there. You follow her voice to the cushion she keeps on the floor in front of the mirror. She’s there brushing last night out of her hair, makeup wipes discarded in a halo around her, awake and alert and smiling like she never called your name before, or like it didn’t cost her anything. 


Sunlight spills in through the lacy curtains over her window. Her cat scratches at the bedroom door. Above you and beneath you and all around you her neighbors are waking up, music is playing somewhere, a blender, car horns and sirens in the city. 


And she's smiling. Could you, after what she’s been through? 


Maybe not. Maybe she’s braver than you. 


Or maybe it’s another thing to learn.


You smile. Groan as you crawl out of bed. As you stretch. As you sit behind her and wrap your arms around her and set the hairbrush on the ground for later.


“Thanks for last night,” she says.


“Thanks for last night,” you say. 


“No that’s my line,” she says. 


“No that’s my line,” you say. 


“I’ll send you home,” she says. 


“Bullshit,” you say. 


The cat scratches louder. Time for breakfast. 


Ugh, why are you ruining my life?” she says. 


“My bad.” 


“Not you.” 


“You sure?” 


“Weren’t you going to brush my hair?” 


“In a minute,” you say. Your chin rests on her shoulder, your hands cover her thighs. You feel the sudden, desperate urge to hug her tighter and you do. She lays a hand on your arms where they cross over her belly. 


Sometimes you can steal a morning. A night. Fight the shadows back and brush the bad dreams away.


“We do alright,” you say. 


“We do alright,” she says.


Something crashes outside, followed by an infuriatingly feline yowl.  


The cat, of course, says otherwise. 

March 04, 2022 18:22

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1 comment

Shirrl Beeson
15:49 Mar 10, 2022

Mack, this is a beautiful story that really captures a damaged woman and a sensitive man falling in love. I like the repetition of the meeting and the wake-up a bit like a song. Crystal clear imagery that is still somehow mysterious. Powerful. I really enjoyed. Thank you.

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