Warm sunlight floods my bedroom when I open my eyes, and even though I find it immensely disturbing, there is something else that sends a shiver down my spine: a noise in the bathroom, the smell of freshly brewed coffee, the whistling of a song I don’t recognize.
I look around and see a pair of light grey sneakers, black pants and a white collared shirt scattered on the floor. They belong to the stranger I met at the bar last night, this much I know, and I assume that he is the one in my bathroom taking a shower.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
That’s how it started last night; it was nothing but a mundane question that had led to this situation. When I heard it, I rolled my eyes, almost automatically. Why do men so often assume that a woman sitting alone at a bar is just waiting for someone to approach her, so she can flirt a little, and then maybe, hopefully go home together for a night of quick relief? It’s not that I have never done it before. I just can’t be bothered anymore.
I turned around to quickly dismiss him with a simple but affirmative “No, thank you,” but hesitated when I saw his face. He wasn’t particularly good-looking, but there was something in his eyes, a deeply engrained sadness and melancholy.
He didn’t wait for an answer but sat down on the chair next to me and called over the bartender: “Could you please bring me a whiskey neat, with a splash of water?”
His voice was hoarse. He looked at me. “You?”
I smiled politely and shook my head, pointing to my glass of red wine. “I’m good, thank you.” He shrugged and waited for the bartender to prepare his drink, which he then emptied in one gulp.
It was only then that I saw his hands. Smooth but masculine, slim fingers and clean nails, delicate and gripping at the same time. I couldn’t help but staring.
We sat next to each other in silence, and after a while I didn’t pay much attention to him anymore – we were just two strangers in a bar, following their own train of thought. When I looked at my watch and realized that it was almost closing time, I asked for the bill. But the bartender shook his head, pointing to the stranger next to me. “He already took care of it.”
Annoyed that I was now forced to talk to him after all, I turned towards him, but before I could get a word in, he already put up his hands in defeat and gave me an apologetic smile.
“Look, I heard you earlier, and I don’t mean anything by paying your bill.”
“Then why did you?”
“I don’t know. You looked exhausted… a little bit lost, and so I wanted to do something nice, I guess.”
“Well then… thank you, I guess.”
I grabbed my bag, put on my jacket and was about to leave when I noticed that he also seemed to be heading out. There were only a few patrons left now, most of them by themselves, finishing up their drinks or staring into nothingness. It was a sad little place, this bar – which was exactly the reason I had come. Here, I could be by myself without being alone and make it through the night in one piece, drowning out the voices in my head.
Also read: What Good Would It Do Anyway?
The stranger held the door open for me.
“How are you getting home?”
“I live just around the corner, I’ll walk.”
I don’t know why I didn’t refuse when he asked if he could walk with me, just to make sure I’d arrive at my place safely – maybe it was the genuine concern I thought I saw in his face. We remained silent, and the echo of our steps on the pavement was the only sound to accompany us in the darkness.
By the time we reached my building, I was strangely comforted by his presence. Unwilling to let go of this unfamiliar but soothing feeling, I asked him to come upstairs.
“I’m having trouble sleeping,” I tried to explain. “Ever since… a year ago. As soon as it’s getting dark outside, my apartment shrinks, it dwindles, it disappears… and I need to get out of there. That’s why I usually go out at night. It helps me to hang on until morning.”
To my surprise, he nodded. When I looked for my keys, I realized that I was slightly shaking. He saw it, too, because he reached out and put his right hand on my shoulder. His touch, light and tender, seemed to calm me down.
He sat down in my tiny kitchen, and the silence between us hung heavily in the air. We had not exchanged more than a couple of sentences, and I started to feel embarrassed for inviting him in. I poured him a drink and cleared my throat because I wanted to offer him yet another explanation, a better one than before.
“This may sound strange, but for some reason, I feel better with you here.”
He smiled at this feeble attempt.
“Sometimes it helps to just be in the moment, without having to question everything”, he said. “What do you need?”
“Would you mind… would you be willing to sit next to me while I’m trying to fall asleep?”
Inside, I gasped at the insanity of my own suggestion, but in the end, he was the one walking over to my bedroom first. I took a deep breath and followed, only to find him perched on the left side of my bed. Neither of us uttered a word when I took off my shoes and my jacket before lying down.
I didn’t face him but could hear him breathing evenly. Suddenly, I felt his hand on the back of my head. It rested there for a while. Then, he began to stroke my hair. To share such a soft and loving moment with a complete stranger made me choke. My eyes filled with tears, and I was afraid that I was going to start crying uncontrollably – but at the same time, the exhaustion I had suffered from over the past months took hold of my entire body and mind, and I drifted into a deep sleep.
Also read: Not All is Lost
I’m awake now, and it’s almost noon. I can’t remember the last time I have slept more than a couple of hours in a row without being woken by my usual nightmares. He has finished his shower, and a few moments later, he comes back to the bedroom with a cup of coffee that he places on my nightstand.
“Listen, I need to go. Are you going to be OK?”
“Yes, of course, thank you, I’ll be fine”, I say too quickly, and he hesitates as he collects his clothes.
“I can come back later today, if you’d like?”
He smiles, gets dressed and leaves.
I spend the day working on my graphic design project. In the early evening, I decide not to escape to a bar, a café, a restaurant or wandering around the streets. Instead, I force myself to stay at home, desperately trying to ignore the panic, the fear, the shortness of breath. Just when I think I can’t take it anymore, my doorbell rings. To be honest, I wasn’t sure until this moment if he’d really return.
He comes up the stairs with steady, determined steps, and when he sees me standing in my hallway, he gifts me with yet another smile.
“Do you know that you still look like a mess and extremely tired, even though you only woke up six, seven hours ago?”
I am lost for words but it doesn’t matter. He takes my hand, leads me back to my bedroom and tucks me in as if I am a little child.
I want to tell him about my beautiful twin brother – my other half, my soul, my best friend, my voice of reason. My brother who died last year in a car accident, with me on the passenger seat, and is now buried in a hole in the ground, all alone in the dark, although he used to sleep with a night light, even as an adult, because sometimes he’d wake up not knowing where he was.
I open my mouth to tell the stranger sitting next to me that my insomnia started right after my brother’s funeral, and how I can’t stand the thought of him being swallowed by eternal blackness – and that I want to keep him company, if only until dawn.
Yes, I want to say all these things, I want to talk to someone, anyone – it doesn’t matter that I met the man only two nights ago at a bar. In a way, this probably makes it easier for me to open up. But then he gently intertwines his fingers with mine. The reassuring touch of his hand sends a deep sense of release throughout my whole body: my muscles begin to relax and a sudden calmness washes over me, almost as if I am weightless.
An image of my brother appears in my head. But it is not the one I have seen during so many restless nights, where his face is already rotten and he desperately reaches out for me to help him. Instead, I see him on a bright and sunny day at the beach, sticking his toes in the grainy sand, feeling the saltwater around his ankles.
My eyelids instantly grow heavy. I am floating. It’s all right, I think. I can tell him tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day. These are famous words, aren’t they, from some movie?
With a faint smile on my face, I fall asleep.