The word claws me away from the consoling tentacles of dreams, and I’m wide awake, sitting bolt upright on the couch. I hunt for the source of the sound. The apartment is completely silent. My chest is heaving as I gulp down air. My blood is rushing in my ears.
But there’s no one in the living room. No one to have spoken the word.
And I did hear it.
I knock on the bedroom door. No answer. The door creaks as it swings inward. The room is empty. Beto has cards spread across his little altar of creepy brujeria shit. It smells of pachouli and weed. I try not to think about what the stains on the black silk scarf are. I close the door.
I lie back down on the couch and don’t fall asleep until it starts to turn gray outside.
“You are fucking dragging today, man.” Drea blows out a cloud of smoke and barely misses me with it. She’s still mad I forgot the salads for three of her tables tonight.
I wave my hand in some kind of response whose meaning I’m not even sure of. “Slept like shit again.” That’s about as much as I want to share with her, though I know I owe her at least that.
“Yeah,” she says, softening a little as the nicotine offsets the stress of a double, “I don’t blame you. I’d sleep like shit in your position, too. You gotta move the fuck out of there.”
Now, I regret sharing what I have with her in the past.
“Try harder,” she snaps back, angry again. She’s been where I’ve been, and if she could get out of that situation, everyone can. She believes in tough love because that’s what works for her, and she has an overabundance of it. “I don’t know why you didn’t pick up that extra shift. The more time you spend here, the less you’re in that shithole with that possessive asshole, and the sooner you can get the fuck out.”
She’s told me it all before. It makes sense.
I just can’t. The idea of spending any extra time at this corporate cesspit nauseates me, and all I can think about is getting back home to the couch and drinking.
Fuck, and the breakup was my idea, but I’m the one who can’t move on.
“I can’t just leave. He hates living alone. You know—“ The excuses sound whiny even to my ears.
“It’s not your fucking problem anymore.”
She’s right. He wanted the open relationship. I didn’t. I stab out the rest of the cigarette. Break’s over.
“You want to close out for me today?”
The question stops me with the back door to the kitchen open. I want to say yes, it’s a couple extra hours, it’s more money.
Just say yes.
The words stick in my throat, like some creature digging claws into them won’t let them out, and I shake my head.
I hear her laughing before the metal door slams shut.
I’m wide awake again, fast enough the word hangs in the air for a moment before vanishing in a cloud of dread. My heart pounds. Sweat trickles down the nape of my neck.
But there’s no one there. The apartment is empty again.
I sit up on the couch. I didn’t even make it out of my work clothes. I kick off my sticky shoes, pull off my wrinkled, sweaty shirt.
I imagined it. I must have. Just like I have every night for the last–
Even I can’t live in this much denial.
I hunt around the apartment. It gives me something to do. The air in Beto’s room is stale, and I blow out the candle burning in the middle of his altar, wondering if dying to smoke inhalation before I wake up is such a terrible way to go.
Back on the couch, eyes closed. I tense up. I feel it coming. I feel it waiting for me to fall asleep, wanting to keep me from dreaming. From escaping even in sleep. It doesn’t want me at peace.
I get a glass of water and turn on the only light in the room that still has a working bulb. I flip through the social apps, the food apps, the dating apps, looking for food or a stranger. But it’s closer to morning than night, and I can’t get either. The fridge is still barren after the third time I checked. I slam it shut and get back on the couch, pulling the blankets completely over me.
Keys fumble at the lock, it swings open, and I lie still. Two whispered voices, giggling and shushing each other, stumble across the room, and the bedroom door closes. Beto with one of his hookups.
A part of me is so fucking mad. And ashamed.
Another part is just glad I’m not alone in the apartment anymore.
I turn over and catch Beto looking at me as he closes the door, his eyes bright in the darkness of the apartment. Our eyes meet for a moment, and he smiles before closing the door.
The noise of them fucking fills the quiet, and I drift off to sleep with a hard-on.
“I ordered my steak medium-rare. This is medium.”
He holds his plate out to me, showing the small piece of steak he didn’t eat. It looks medium-rare to me. The corner of his mouth is curled up into a sneer. Or maybe a smirk. I can’t tell, but I am not dealing with this today.
“Let me grab the manager for you.”
He nods, and the smirk becomes a self-satisfied smile.
I take the plate from him and make it two steps away from the table.
I scream. The plate shatters. The world goes dim.
“How often does this happen?”
I’m sitting on the edge of a doctor’s table, following up on my little ER visit. The paper is crinkled up beneath me and the robe is riding up. It’s drafty.
“Once a night?” She looks overworked. It’s in her tone. It’s in the forty-five minutes I had to wait to be seen.
“Yeah, once a night.”
“And it happens as you are falling asleep?”
She steps closer. She tilts my head back and peers into my eyes.
“Have you heard of Exploding Head Syndrome?”
I have not. “Um, yeah, maybe.”
She steps back and writes something in my chart.
“Despite the name, it is harmless. The sounds should not be painful. Are they?”
I shake my head, ignoring the stitches along my forearm where the plate cut me.
She presses her lips together in what I suppose is supposed to be a smile. “It is harmless,” she says again, like she’s trying to convince me. “Neurons firing as you drift off. Even awareness of what it is should reduce the frequency and intensity. Would you say you’re under a lot of stress right now?”
I think about Beto and my lack of savings and—
“No, not really.” Why did I say that?
She arches an eyebrow at me, unbelieving. “Try to reduce your stress. Meditate. Work on your sleep hygiene. No light after 10 pm. Get some exercise. Some sun. Drink plenty of water.”
We look at each other, and both know I’m not going to do any of those things. “Isn’t there anything you can give me?”
She sighs and writes me a script for Ambien, I thank her, and I get the fuck out of there. I’m almost out the door when the reception calls out to me. “Sir, we have some forms for you to fill out.
I sit down with the clipboard. When I get to emergency contact, I can’t help but fill in Beto’s name.
I’m on the couch, my eyes on the ceiling, counting every lump of ancient popcorn on it, torturing myself by straining to hear every quiet moan and sharp grunt coming from the bedroom. I could put headphones in. I could turn the TV on.
This is the fourth time this same guy has come over.
The bandage around my arm itches, and there’s a dull throb along the bone from the cut. The ER nurse who stitched me up said I was extremely unlucky to have a shard of plate cut me that deep.
The noises coming from the bedroom are reaching a crescendo.
I jump up and smash into the cheap Ikea coffee table, knocking over the empty beer bottles that didn’t even give me a buzz. Pain lances up my arm. The noise in the bedroom stops. A moment later, the door squeaks open.
“Hey,” he says, his eyes searching through the crack in the door. “I didn’t even know you were home. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I lie.
He squints at me. “What happened to your arm?”
He steps out of the bedroom, wrapping the kimono I got him for Christmas three years ago tight around him, and closes the door behind him. “Let me see.” He reaches out and takes my arm before I can step away from him. Maybe I did drink enough beer.
He runs his fingers over my palm, my arm, clicking his tongue the whole time. “Why didn’t you tell me you’d hurt yourself? Was this at work?”
“Don’t you have someone to get back to?” I’m proud of the amount of venom I put into the question.
He shakes his head. “No, this is important. I can send him away.”
I take my arm back from him. “I don’t want to get in the way of you getting fucked.” This time, the acid sounds more childish than anything.
His lip curls into a predatory smile. “You can join us.”
“That’s not how this works. You don’t get to have me and have everyone else, too, asshole.”
Beto sniffs and leaves me swaying in the living room. Hushed voices and laughing bubble out from the bedroom. I know where it’s heading, and I don’t have the strength for it tonight.
I text Drea. “Can I crash at yours?”
By the time I’m leaving, the rhythmic groaning in the bedroom is reaching a new peak, and I hate that a part of me wants to walk in there.
Drea only lets me stay two nights. For my own good. She doesn’t want to be an enabler, she says. More tough love.
The apartment is empty when I get home. It feels frigid. Not cold, the AC doesn’t work, but icy. Even without Beto there, the fight hangs over everything, like a chill mist. It makes me shiver.
At least I was able to get some sleep at Drea’s. I don’t remember hearing the word the last two nights, and if I did, the Ambien helped me sleep right through it.
It’s late, and I down the pill with a third glass of wine.
I hate that he’s not here. He’s probably out getting fucked. Am I thankful he’s doing it somewhere else? Or am I angry he’s leaving me alone here?
The last thing I remember is crying.
Then it’s nothing. An extended blankness. It isn’t a gap in my memory because I remember the nothing. I remember floating through the void. Currents of air brush the hairs on my skin and it’s just bordering on cool. I remember a tear gathering in the corner of my right eye, and I remember blinking it away. I remember smiling.
Beto is there, though I can’t see him. Beto like how he used to be. Or how I used to be with him. We’re together.
It lasts for a very long time.
“Mine,” someone whispers in my ear. For the first time, I recognize it as Beto’s voice.
I snap back from the void.
Beto is on his knees in front of me, my cock in his mouth. My fingers, sticky with seeping blood, are tangled in his hair. He stops and looks up at me, his eyes bright. Hungry. Predatory.
That same creature in my throat claws the word back from me, and I gag on it, unable to get it out, unable to swallow it. I can’t move. I can’t scream. I can’t tell him to stop. Do I even want him to? Yes, of fucking course I do.
A single candle flickers in the darkness of the room. The coiled scarf, black with white stains, is wrapped around the base. Red wax drips down the length of it. An effigy, standing as stiffly as I am, leans against the wall behind it. More stains cover it. Red and brown and white.
The shadows in the room, the gathered darkness in the corner that I thought was just an absence of light, shimmer as Beto drags me closer and closer to ecstasy. It wavers and ducks, a crowd of shadow beings watching their master get what he wants.
Just as I can’t take it anymore, Beto stops and looks up at me again.
“Mine,” he says.
“Yours,” the shadows force me to say.