Flash Fiction: Toss and Turn

This week’s entry was supposed to expand on this alternate reality post of imagining my life had I pursued a different career – in my case, a nurse. With the current situation and the literal heroes that nurses are (they always are, but especially now), it felt out of touch to proceed as planned.

I’m not feeling particularly creative this week, and I didn’t work on my new project over the weekend – I’m trying this new thing where I don’t berate myself for not being productive while in quarantine. It’s lovely once you realize you don’t have to have something to show for it to prove you were productive – self-care can also “yield” the result of feeling better, and that’s important too.

So my remedy for feeling uninspired? Attempting a challenge (and being satisfied with the result if I tried my best, but I’m still working on that) gets my writing muscles moving and stretching, and hopefully by the end of it I’ll feel more inspired and excited to go back to my new project.

This week’s challenge: flash fiction.

I have to thank a good friend and writing colleague for this idea. It’s not quite the “a story in six words” challenge – that’s further down in this year’s plan – but it’s equally a challenge to condense a story with a beginning, middle and end in 1,000 or less (my final word count is 1,014 – a respectable first draft). Less words doesn’t mean less writing; it means more editing.

So here I go – tell me if I nailed this!

Image of a broken paper heart strung on string against a black background.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Breathe.

She’s awake. What time is it? Why is the bed empty? How long has she been asleep?

3 a.m. And he’s not here.

She calls him, asks where he is, if he’s okay, why he isn’t back yet. What happened to being back by 11?

I’m across town. I’ll be home soon.

The phone clicks and she turns to her side, knowing sleep was impossible but deluding herself to try. She had just gotten good at falling asleep when he wasn’t there.

Breathe. Toss and turn. Breathe. Toss and turn.

She checks her phone again. Facebook, Snapchat, texts, then Facebook, Snapchat, texts, then Facebook, Snapchat, texts, then… Anything to tell her that he’s okay and he’s on his way home, that nothing has happened to him on his journey.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

The door goes and she comes to, angry that she’d fallen asleep but relieved at the same time. She can sleep without him there, but it’s more comforting otherwise. She doesn’t know this yet, but she would become quite good at sleeping alone soon.

She turns toward him, asks if he’s okay.

Yes.

She turns his back to him, hoping that by some miracle she’d fall asleep. The morning light was starting to stream through the skylight and she checks her phone. 5 a.m. She has to get up for work in an hour and 20 minutes.

He crawls into bed and she feels his arms around her and for the first time in her life, she squirms away. Says no.

Stop breathing. Start crying.

Their house crumbles, disrespect as big and destructive as a bulldozer. Their foundations are not as solid as she thought, if one late night without calling can do this much damage. Where had he been? Who had he been with? Only bartenders, students and dishonest people stayed out past 3 a.m. on a Sunday – which one is he?

In the dim morning light, he looks alien to her. The smell of alcohol and sweat familiar but unknown on him at 5 a.m. on a Sunday. She tries searching for another smell, any indication of where he had been and with whom, what he’d done with whoever it was. But smelling requires breathing, and she is too busy crying to do that.

Breathe. Slowly.

She turns over and hiccups more sobs. She stares at the wall and more sunlight streams in as he repeats, over and over, that he’s sorry. He repeats it so much, he falls asleep and his even breathing is interrupted when her alarm goes off. She turns it off and shoots awake, headed to the bathroom. He tries to grab her again but she shrugs him off and heads inside the small bathroom. She slams the door.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Swollen eyes. Red nose. Messy hair. Where had he been?

Since when was this a place he didn’t want to come back to? What had she done for him to think that staying out past 3 a.m. without a call was acceptable? People who loved her didn’t make her worry, lose sleep and cry.

Is she a good girlfriend? Is she a good homemaker? Is she someone he doesn’t want to come home to anymore?

Is she a good woman?

Her teeth are brushed, her hair is combed back and full of product and her face is washed of the salty tears but not of the shame. She boils herself some water and squeezes a lemon in it – it was time to work on her face.

She’s not tired or sleepy, but this exhaustion was as alien to her as the man who was supposed to be the man who loved her, lying in bed with his eyes closed but not breathing deeply. She isn’t tired but her body is heavy, her head threating to start pounding at any loud sound. Her eyes hurt and twitch every few seconds. Every movement is loud.

Moisturizer, concealer, powder, foundation, more concealer and more powder. She looks more normal, like someone worth coming home to. She flicks eyeliner across and swishes two coats of mascara before putting on red lipstick. She briefly considers the too-red red not really work appropriate, but settles for a muted rose – no need to call more attention to her face today.

She gets dressed, cup of warm water now lukewarm and acidic. She leaves it on the vanity and heads for the door – it’s the first time in months she’d be early to work. She walks past him – he’s awake.

Breathe. Breathe.

He’s on his phone typing and she’s angry. She ruffles through her bag like she doesn’t know everything that is there.

I’m going to the gym after work.

I think we should talk when you’re back.

Talk about what?

Us. Where we go from here.

She turns around and is wide awake. Her body stops being so heavy in a split second and she lets anger buoy her up. Her old self is on a life raft, floating and maybe surviving this shipwreck.

You get home at 5:30 a.m. and you’re the one who wants to know where we’re headed?

It was 5 a.m.

You’re joking.

I’m not. I checked my phone and it was 5 a.m.

She looks at his face. He’s gone. He never really came back from wherever he was last night (this morning?) and whoever came back wasn’t the same man who left. The man who loves her doesn’t look at her with unkind eyes and arms folded across his lap on top of the covers. This man is a stranger.

He didn’t come home last night, in the end. The man she thought she’d spend forever with. Because she isn’t someone worth coming home to. If she were that kind of person, the same man who kissed her goodbye yesterday afternoon would have been the same man who respected their home and came back by 11 as he’d promised. Not this stranger who isn’t looking at her in the face. The face he once couldn’t get enough of.

Breathe. Through a hollow chest. Breathe.

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