The Art of Staying Awake

Submitted into Contest #96 in response to: Write about someone welcoming a stranger into their home.... view prompt

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American Fiction Friendship

"I'm going to send someone over," the voice is awfully calm, leaning towards treachery and meekness. He waits, silently for her small voice to slice through but she remains quiet. This, he believes, is called acceptance. "Just treat him like you would treat me, please."


She presses the phone against her ears until she can feel the coldness of it. That way, she hopes she can hear his hesitation. When she hears nothing, she looks around at her small apartment and sighs. She can always tell him no, she knows, but she wants to please him. She understands having a stranger in her place would be an awkward show but she doesn't want to turn his offer down. 


"Are you still there, Freya?" he asks suddenly.

She shakes her head, says nothing. The coldness against her ears starts to burn but she lets it stay in place. She can feel her hands shaking though but there's always been something familiar about burning flesh.

"I am," she answers and closes her eyes. "Why can't you make it, Dean?"

There! She hears it now: the slight hesitation and his soft intake of breath

 It's almost as though he wants to say something but can't find the words.


Freya waits. She's always been good at waiting, especially for him. And perhaps he knows it too. The silence stretches thin, so thin she fears it could slice through the phone. She starts to release her hold on it. She can't hold on for too long. That's her rule. 

But then he speaks. "It's my wife, Freya. She wants me to go with her to her parent's house."

She can feel anger flush her cheeks. "Can't you cancel? You promised you'd be here."

"I can't turn it down, you know," he isn't shouting but Freya thinks he is. 


That's a problem for her. She's become too emotional and too obsessive. She wants him with an ache that tears down her willpower. He holds her in position. He knows it.

"Why the fuck can't you cancel?" she asks, treading carefully. Freya already knows the answer but she wants to hear it from him again and again. 

"I canceled the last trip because of you," he says and draws his next words. "If I cancel, she'll suspect me."


Freya wants to scream at him or throw things away. She touches the wall of her home and trails her hands across. The paint peels and joins her fingers. Within her, she knows she wants his wife to find out about her and she wants them to divorce. She wants that desperately but somehow she knows she has to wait another day.

"Fine," she gulps. "Who is coming over?"

She can hear him tapping his table. She knows he's in his study, in his home. She's only visited him once when his wife went out of town and the moon was only a sliver of dust in the sky. But she's learned all she needs to know.


He says, "He's been a childhood friend. He's going through a rough divorce right now and doesn't want to stay at his place."

Freya listens even though she can't tell why she's needed.

Dean talks quickly. Freya pushes the phone closer so she can hear his wife's voice in the background.

"Is she there with you?" she asks, letting the words slip through.

"Yes," he whispers. "But, please, just let him stay for the weekend. I promise he'll be out of your hair by Monday."


Freya tiptoes to her kitchen. The plates are dirty and the sun is orange in the sky. The curtains are open, pulled aside to allow the sun to finger her wooden counter. 

"Why can't he stay in a hotel?" 

He doesn't hesitate. "You said you wanted someone to be there with you so you can practice your speaking stuff…"

She can tell that he's forgotten. Which makes her wonder how many things he's forgotten about her.

"Okay?" she implores him to talk. 

"My friend is a good listener. He can help you," he tells her. "More like you help him out and he helps you too."


She has so many things she wants to ask him but she agrees. "When will he be here?"

"Thank you, sweetheart."

The sweetheart is a little sloppy, like an afterthought. And Freya knows he can only tell her if his wife is not around. She isn't. Freya presses the phone tighter and doesn't hear anything. "When is he coming?"

"By four," he answers. "Thank you."


So Freya does the dishes and she arranges the cupboard: plates. Cups. Knives. It's a small kitchen but she knows how to manage it well. Next, she dusts the windows until the sun dances lazily across her face.

"We don't want a stranger to call us dirty now do we?" she tells the windows and they let her clean up until they become shiny little memories.

Stranger hangs in the air. 

"I'm an idiot, aren't I?" she asks the peeling paint. They stare back at her with disinterested looks, letting awkward secrets pass before her eyes. 


She goes into the living room and puts on her record player. She can't remember who's singing but she lets the song move her until she begins to sway like the morning breeze. Since it's a holiday, there's no work. She just has to clean her apartment and wait.


But waiting could make her go insane. She starts to count to ten in German but stops at five. Forgetting things has become an art lately.

She removes the soup from the freezer and stares at the square-shaped food. She knows she has to melt it on the stove but she's reluctant. She can't appear too keen on having a visitor who is as broken as she is. She waits in the kitchen as the sun builds and breaks her. Finally, she puts the square-shaped soup in a pot and lets the flames burn through. 


Next, she boils rice and lingers by the door, waiting for someone to pull up. When the food is ready, she thinks about adding dessert. Her freezer —sandwiched in a corner away from the prying eyes of orange and purple sunlight— welcomes her. She sees the chocolate ice cream and shakes her head.

"I'm prepared, aren't I?" she tells the ice cream and laughs at the silence.


Eventually, a car pulls up outside her door. Freya opens the living room curtain only a bit and eyes the car. It's classic, sleek, and perfect.

She should have known that a friend of Dean would know how to spend money. In truth, they are all the same. Quickly, she dusts her dress, arranges the rough edges, and makes her way to the door. Freya pulls it open with a smile that's too wide and dirty.


The man locks his car and swiftly moves over to where she is. In his right hand, there's a bag. Freya knows how her weekend is going to look like already. When he meets her, he puts the bag in the other hand and pushes it forward to shake hers. They shake hands, briefly, until Freya is tempted to ask him to leave.

"I'm Luis," he tells her, smiling but not meaning to. She knows what that smile means and it infuriates her. But she smiles back and leads him inside the house. "You have a nice house."

"Thank you, Mr. Luis."

He shakes his head. "No, please. Call me Luis."


Freya doesn't think they've gotten to the point of using first names but she nods her head.

"I have an extra room upstairs," As she says this, she leads him to the room. Pulling the door open, she lets him enter. "You can stay here if you like."

He thanks her and looks around the room. It's smaller than what he's used to. The bedsheets are clean but they look worn out, stretching the stars that mark themselves on them. The room smells like summer rain; like the specks of dust that follow before a rainstorm. He sits back on the bed and sighs.


Thirty minutes later, he comes down and heads to the kitchen. Since it's a relatively small place, he can tell which way he's going. She's in the kitchen, her back against him. He spends the next minute watching her. He thinks the dress is of good length and her skin is beautiful. There's not much he can say, really. So he clears his throat and she turns.


"Good," she says. "Dinner is ready."

"Can I help you out?" he asks.

She shakes her head. "No. Thank you."

He sits back against a chair and waits for her to set the table. Afterward, they dig in to eat.

The silence is more than awkward: two strangers having dinner with nothing to talk about. 

Luis puts a spoonful of soup inside his plate of white rice and starts to eat.

"You're a good cook, Freya."


She hasn't yet told him her name but she can guess how he's come to know it. Freya doesn't know if she needs to be a little attentive or a bit relaxed so she leans on the fence between good and bad. "Thank you," she tells him.

He joins his lips together and eyes the wall.

"How do you know Dean?" She brings him back.

He chuckles nervously. "We grew up together. Then we went to the same college."


Today is the first day she's heard about Luis and it bothers her that he can keep something like that from her. 

"Best buddies, I see."

He shakes his head and continues eating. The conversation is over.


When it gets gloomy, she lets the bulb break the darkness. 

"Wanna watch a movie?" she asks him.

Her question feels forced but she doesn't want Dean to be upset with her. If he was here, she'd have kissed him, desperately. 

"Sure."

In the living room, he takes his seat on her love couch. Freya on the other hand kneels by a large box, pulls it open, and starts searching for a movie.

"Do you like romance?" she asks, raising one above her head.

He shakes his head, laughs. "What a clichè," he tells her.

She drops it and picks another. "Horror?"


He raises his hands in surrender. "That should work, I guess. Do you have a favorite?"

She doesn't answer him. Freya doesn't see a reason to reply. So she puts a horror movie in and joins him on the couch.

He falls asleep in the middle of the movie, in the part she thinks is the most important. 

"Oh, Dean," she shakes her hands and stands up on her feet. "What do I do?"


Freya tiptoes upstairs to her room and comes back with a blanket and pillow. She helps him without waking him up. Afterward, she goes back into her room and locks the door. 


In the morning after she takes her bath and combs her hair, she goes to meet him in the living room. He's still on the couch.

"I'm sorry," he whispers and sits upright.

"Why?" She wants to know.

"Slept off last night," he says and shuffles his feet. "Came to your place without warning. Everything."

It's Dean she blames. Not him. So she smiles. This time, it isn't forced. She doesn't even feel compelled to do it but she does it anyway. "What do you want to do today?"

He shrugs. "I don't know."


But they end up restacking her movies. 

"Why do you say romantic movies are a clichè?" she treads through, looking past his head.

He starts laughing. "What better way to describe the silliness? Come on."

Dean loves Romantic movies. She's always liked it. Now, there was someone else who thought otherwise. 

"So which do you prefer?" she asks.

"I'm not much of a movie fan," he answers. 


She laughs at him and the way he rolls his eyes with every romantic movie she brings up. She asks him, "why do you hate them so much?"

He stops laughing. She can't tell what's on his mind. Then, he answers, "I fell in love and I'm just realizing how stupid it was."


Finally, without thinking, she says, "What happened?"

Luis sits back on the floor and closes his eyes. "She just had a way of frustrating my best efforts. You can't be with someone who makes you feel small, you know."

Freya starts to think about Dean. She loves him even when he's hurt her. Sometimes, she wants to storm his house and call out his wife. Does that mean she's small?


It's now that she sees him. The brown eyes. The golden hair. The dimple. He has tanned skin and bright eyes and Freya stares too long.

"Do you love Dean?" he asks, quickly. She can tell that he's unsure of what to ask or say but somehow she wants him to ask her why she's been foolish all along.

"I do," she answers. "Why?"

He shrugs and takes up the last movie. It's a cartoon. He shakes his head and drops it back.


"Dean loves me," she says suddenly.

Luis turns to her and stares at her. They don't talk. There's not much to say. He's a stranger and she's Freya. But then he talks and it feels like she's talking to her best friend.

"How do you know if he does?"

She hasn't ever asked herself that so it comes as a surprise. For this, she hesitates. "I just know."


But even her answer, to her, sounds foolish.

"You do know that he has a wife, right?" 

She nods.

"I'm his friend but the truth is still going to be the truth."

Freya doesn't know what betrayal feels like. Not like other people do. So she can't tell if Luis is doing the same to his friend.

"He told me he would leave her."

Luis shakes his head. "If you do love him, then it's okay. But just be sure you aren't being blinded by emotions."



As she goes to bed for the night, she can't help but think about what he's said to her. He's only a stranger but he's said more things than anyone she's ever known. She can't sleep. She calls his number even though she knows he hates it. 

It rings once. Twice. Until finally someone picks the call.

"Hi, Dean," Freya says quickly, sitting upright.

"Who's this?" 

It's a female's voice. Freya thinks it's his wife but she doesn't want to hang up. He loves her. There's no need to be afraid.

"I want to speak with Dean," she insists. "Where's he?"

"Out to get something. Who are you again?"


Freya gulps. Backed up by Luis's words and her need for something more, she blurts out the words she's been practicing. "I'm his girlfriend."

She hears a sharp intake of breath and then she knows she's done it. It feels liberating, sort of, that it pins her down and she flushes. 

And there's something else. She's deliberately slow. "Give him a message for me, will you?"

Freya imagines the lady nodding, waiting for the message.

"Tell him I'm pregnant."


Freya doesn't wait. She hangs up and switches her phone off. Her sleep is peaceful, the best she's had in a long time.

Luis greets her first in the morning but she hugs him, laughing at how free she's become.

"Excited?" he asked.

"I told his wife I was pregnant."

Luis frowns and goes backward. "Why did you do that?"

"She doesn't love him as I do."

Luis nods. "And are you pregnant?"

"No."



They share a cigarette in the afternoon, as the sun pounds through the curtains. Her phone's been buzzing. She knows who it is but she doesn't want to talk just yet.

"Don't you want to hear what he has to say?" Luis finally asks.

"No," she draws in the smoke and then releases it. "Not now anyway."

"He could be angry," he says.

She laughs. "Or he could be happy."

"Highly doubt that."


They share a laugh that feels so genuine it starts to hurt. Like she's never laughed like this before. 

In the evening, he tells her he wants to leave. She feels sadness envelop her so they hug and she lets him lean in. 

"What do we have in common?" he asks.

She doesn't need to think about it. "We are both broken."

"So are we friends?" 

"We are."


After he leaves, she stares at the cigarette butts and the kitchen counter and sighs. Then, she calls his name, softly, gently, until she can't remember who he is. 


May 31, 2021 16:23

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17 comments

Kelly Dennison
10:06 Jun 04, 2021

I like how layered this story is. You just give us a peak into her broken nature and it’s quite compelling. I’m always interested in characters that make some questionable choices... Great job!!!

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Batool Hussain
16:22 Jun 01, 2021

The little details like "the plates are dirty and the sun is orange in the sky..." are a cherry on the top on this already beautiful story of yours. You never let the reader's interest divert. This is amazing!

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22:18 Jun 03, 2021

Thank you

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05:21 Jul 09, 2021

This was very nice! Good job!

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Hans B
14:42 Jul 03, 2021

Nicely done. I enjoyed the way you lead me through her world. Her wanting for more, Dean’s hesitation for giving it to her and then Louis making her question everything. How he pushes her off the fence she is sitting on. How awkwardness of being forced to be polite turned in a genuine bond between strangers. Very nice! Was a wonderful read.

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07:40 Jun 16, 2021

This was an interesting piece, I've been mulling it over for a while now. I like the idea of how she confides in him about things even though he's a stranger...it's just an interesting take on the prompt I don't think I would have thought of. Nice work.

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Charlie Murphy
16:02 Jun 08, 2021

Great story! Easy to visualize. Good for Freya to dump Dean over Luis!

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Arya Jackson
11:41 Jun 08, 2021

Such a nice story!!! I love the name Freya! good choice!

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Harriett Ford
21:02 Jun 07, 2021

I found I was hoping for better for Freya. You have drawn all three characters well.

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Amaranthine Sky
15:03 Jun 04, 2021

*Gasp* I can't bear it anymore; this is too beautiful for words. Your characters are so wonderfully crafted that I feel like I'm sitting on the sidelines, going on Luis and Freya's journey from afar. These lines were just pure emotion: "What do we have in common?" he asks. She doesn't need to think about it. "We are both broken." "So are we friends?" "We are." Ack, this is so full of emotion and layered with honest characters. It is gorgeous, the way you write. Amazing job. (By the way, I loved the title)

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Is "Light you up" like: "You light me up like the, fourth of July"? (Also Hi :)

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22:18 Jun 03, 2021

Hi!! Don't know exactly what you mean.

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Ayoo! In your bio, your giving song recommendation, correct? One of them was "Light Me Up." In the song, is one of the sentences "You light me up like the fourth of July"? Sorry if I was too confusing.

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05:23 Jun 04, 2021

Oh, I get now. Well, no I don't think so.

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01:15 Jun 01, 2021

Oh my. You crafted a story that was so heartful, true, and amazingly blunt. I'm literally speechless because all I can say is wow. This is so perfect,so adequate. I have no critiques whatsoever. Your prose is gorgeous and you adequately portray the emotions felt by both Luis and Freya. I could feel her inspiration and the tension. That last line was truly a cliffhanger, so sad. The Art of Staying Awake had an air of soft sadness. The title is just perfect. Ugh, everything was perfect. My favorite sentence was: "Within her, she knows she wan...

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22:18 Jun 03, 2021

Thanks, May. That made me smile

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06:02 Jun 05, 2021

My pleasure.

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