“Alright, Fi’, we’re back,” Jesse whispered.
My eyelids drifted open as he set me gently down on the ground.
I yawned. “What time is it?”
“A little after eleven,” he answered, and pulled me into the tent.
“Oh,” I muttered groggily. It felt so much later than that.
I crawled on the floor until I felt a pile of blankets beneath my hands and collapsed.
“Aren’t you going to change?” Jesse asked, a frown in his voice.
I heard his question but I couldn’t even come close to answering. I was too tired. Instead I used my last bit of energy to pull the elastic out of my hair, unwind my braid, and kick off my shoes.
It was as if all my sleepless nights were crashing down on me en masse.
To top it all off, the rare glass of wine that Jesse insisted upon me drinking was drowning me like a sedative. It had been months since I’d had more than a sip of alcohol and my tolerance was negative. My eyes were glued shut and it was only a matter of time now. . .
The last few moments of semi-consciousness were dedicated to the usual checklist of sleep time worries.
I went through them all as I drifted. . .
The nightmares were going to be horrible tonight. There was no way around it. This location ensured it. That’s why this whole camping trip was a bad idea. I should have fought it harder, should have insisted against it. . . but saying no to Jesse was getting harder and harder as I fell deeper and deeper in love with him. So looking back I didn’t think I would have done anything differently, couldn’t find any alternative course of action. . .
While I pondered, I felt my winter clothes slowly disappear and being replaced by some much more comfortable cotton linens.
Jesse. Such a good boyfriend. . .
But I panicked as my destiny for the next few hours loomed.
Was this it? The night he would hear me scream? Please don’t, I begged, to no one in particular. I had done so well so far. . .
It had been a while since I woke up in a horror like that and I was due for another episode. The last time I was lucky — Jesse was on a business trip and I was sleeping alone. I literally got down on my knees and thanked my lucky stars the next morning that he wasn’t there to see that.
But tonight, after so long, with this outdoor setting — was asking for it.
I tried to stay optimistic but it was hard.
Even with Jesse by my side I could still hear the wind rattling through the trees, could still feel the cold hard ground beneath the tent. . .
Yeah, the dreams were going to be awful tonight. I curled myself tightly into a ball in preparation for the onslaught.
As I worried, I felt Jesse’s hand running through my hair, and a calm soon washed over me.
“I love you so much, baby,” he whispered in my ear, his voice cracking. His broken voice startled me and I wanted to say it back but I was too tired. He continued combing his fingers through my hair and I quickly lost consciousness.
The next thing I knew, the sun was beating against the tent, and the temperature was warm. The birds were chirping and the neighboring campers were rustling. To top it all off, a heavenly culinary smell was wafting from a few feet away from me.
Wait, I wondered. . .
Why was everyone up so early? Even the forest animals?
None of it made any sense.
And where was Jesse? I couldn’t feel him next to me. . .
I zeroed in on his essence and soon heard his velvet voice sounding outside the tent.
“. . . yeah my girlfriend and I are headed up there today, by any chance did you. . . ”
I tried to make sense of it.
Jesse was up and about before I was? How was that even possible? The man practically slept half the day on the weekends. . .
Was it. . . morning?
. . .Noon?
No, of course not. . .
Don’t be silly. There was no way I could sleep that late. There was no way I could sleep through the night without the usual. . . interruptions. . .
But what else could explain this permutation of simultaneous observations?
Everything was out of place.
This was way too peaceful a transition from unconsciousness into consciousness. I couldn’t get past the notion that if I was really awakening from slumber, then why wasn’t it the middle of the night? Why wasn’t it in the midst of one of the same petrifying nightmares? Why wasn’t my chest on fire?
More importantly, why wasn’t I choking, gagging, or screaming?
That’s when I realized —
I had just slept through the night.
The whole night.
Without dreaming. Dreaming or screaming.
Choking or gagging.
My heart literally stopped.
I didn’t know which feeling was stronger — the relief or the shock.
I tried to process it.
Unbelievable. Impossible. . .
Something was wrong. This couldn’t be happening.
Maybe I died. Maybe I died of alcohol poisoning.
That was it.
That single glass of wine last night had been too much for me. My weight was too low to handle it. It had to be. Because this didn’t make any fucking sense.
My mind searched endlessly to try to resolve the irregularities, but my anxiety and panic reached an apex before I did.
“Jesse!” I shrieked without warning. My voice was practically incoherent, still filled with sleep.
I heard an immediate stirring of sounds and then —
“Yes, Fiona, I’m here,” a soft, melodic voice sounded next to me.
Then I felt his hands in my hair.
My body relaxed.
I rubbed my eyes and slowly opened them.
And there he was. His gorgeous face. His perfect inlay of hazel eyes and thick halo of long, black hair.
Before I could speak he leaned in and pressed his lips against mine.
I took a moment to compose myself. “W-what time is it?”
“Three,” he answered with a smile, moving a few strands of hair out of my face.
“Three in the afternoon?” I nearly shouted.
“Yes, he chuckled.
How was that even possible.
“H-h-how?” I stammered.
Jesse shrugged and climbed under the covers next to me. “You were just really tired, baby. We walked a lot yesterday. We stayed up late. You had some wine. That was probably it.”
The logic of this explanation sank in.
And here I was thinking I had literally died.
“Oh. . .” I remarked, as the stupidity of my earlier assumption hit me.
But then again, in my defense, I hadn’t slept through the night like that in literally years.
Was it so hard to believe?
He smiled and reached out to touch my face, misreading my enigmatic expression. “It’s alright, Fi’, it’s not a bad thing.”
Then I dropped my head into my hands as the implications of my extended slumber sank in. “I’m so sorry Jesse. You probably had a whole day planned. And you were stuck here tent-bound, watching me sleep. You should have kicked me awake.”
Jesse threw his head back and laughed, then reached for my face and shushed me. “First of all, I would never do that. And no, no, darling, don’t feel bad. I’m not perturbed at all. On the contrary, I’m happy you caught up on your rest. I know how much trouble you have sleeping. . .” he trailed off, looking at me with a concerned expression.
I sighed, then asked warily, “Well what did you do the last several hours?”
He shrugged, propping up his head with his wrist now. “Ran and got some food, talked to the hikers next to us. But mainly I just watched you.”
I froze and looked up to see him smiling angelically.
“What?” I asked incredulously as the words slowly sank in.
He shrugged again. “I enjoy watching you sleep.”
The shock did not subside.
“Why?” I asked in horror, then tensed as I processed the implications of what he’d just said.
I knew I didn’t have any nightmares last night. So he shouldn’t have seen or heard anything out of the ordinary. . . I excavated my memories of the night over and over again to be sure. . .
A wave of frustration came over me as a new, fresh set of ramifications became clear.
Typically, I didn’t have to worry about stuff like this. Jesse, like most men, was such heavy sleeper — and I such a light one — I didn’t have to fret too much about him hearing or noticing anything frightening or out of the ordinary. . . like me strangling myself with a pillow to muffle the choking sounds or leaving the room to go cry on the balcony. . .
But now armed with the knowledge that Jesse had been wide awake watching me sleep for the past however many hours, my usual assurances had been vanquished.
My mind was now swirling with activity, thrust into overdrive to try and discover all the horrifying possibilities of what could have happened during that long, uninterrupted expanse of time.
Jesse reached out and brushed the hair out of my face. “Is it really so hard to believe?” he asked.
His words were there, undulating through the space, but I couldn’t process them.
“Did I say anything?” I murmured glumly without thinking, then kicked myself for giving so much away.
“No,” Jesse frowned. Then he froze, his eyes narrowing. “Should you have?”
“Of course not,” I answered, a little too quickly. The heat rose to my face before I could stop it.
There was a long pause.
Jesse was looking at me and I was looking away, too ashamed to meet his gaze.
“What do you dream about? Will you tell me?” he asked carefully, in an even voice.
I sighed. “It’s not important.”
His tone became defensive. “It is to me.”
“Just. . .stupid shit, okay,” I insisted, rubbing my eyes, hoping he would just drop it.
Even then, I was still tired. One day of slumber couldn’t make up for a thousand sleepless nights.
That deficit would never be balanced.
When I looked back up at him, all the previous fierceness melted away. His expression was sad, thoughtful, pensive.
His voice was soft again, accessible as he spoke. “What kind of ‘stupid shit’?” he asked, reaching for my hand.
I tried to come up with an answer that wasn’t a lie.
“It’s. . . complicated,” I exhaled. “Hard to explain.”
“Try,” he insisted.
“Please, can we just drop it,” I begged.
I looked into his amber eyes, gazed into their depths for fathoms and fathoms, and nowhere in their endless abyss could I see anything but pure love and adoration for the object of their sights.
I cleared my throat. “Well. . .” I started unsurely.
“Yes,” he prompted, squeezing my hand.
“I have really bad dreams sometimes.”
He nodded eagerly. “Yeah, I figured that, but what kind?”
I breathed slowly in and out, trying to decide what to say. There was only so much I could reveal. . .
I wasn’t going to tell him the big one. Of course not. That was too private, too much.
Jesse didn’t need to have my nightmares.
But I supposed I could tell him about the others, the proxies. . .the shadow dreams, the phantom dreams, as I sometimes liked to call them. . .
Specters of the original.
I sighed, backtracking. “It’s silly. I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
Then I rose. Jesse grabbed my arm as I tried to get up and pulled be back down. Then he raised his voice. “No, Fiona, tell me, I’m not asking anymore!” he shouted.
The black fire in his eyes was impossible to doubt.
I froze, startled.
Normally I would keep making up excuses and brushing him off when he got like this but the anger and volume of his tone disarmed me. I felt like a child being interrogated by a teacher or police officer, with no other option but to obey.
“Okay,” I whispered anxiously.
He let go of my arm and I continued to speak. “Um, sometimes. . .I have this one where. . .”
Then I paused suddenly, cutting myself off.
I closed my eyes as I spoke, my throat thickening. “You’re going to think it’s stupid. You’re going to laugh. I think it’s scary but you’re going to think it’s funny.”
Jesse sighed impatiently, angry at my sidetrack, all stoicism and composure now gone. “No, I’m not, Fiona, I promise I won’t just keep going.”
His tone was harsh.
I pursed my lips.
Noticing, he closed his eyes and exhaled. Then he reached for my face and tucked a strand of hair behind my ear.
“Please,” he begged, smiling seraphically, with a beam that would have put a Botticelli angel to shame.
I sighed and continued.
“Sometimes I have this one where. . .I’m like, stuck in the girls locker room, in high school. . .”
I looked up. Jesse was staring at me intently but did not use the silence to prompt or in any way interrupt.
I continued. “. . . I’m alone, there’s no one else there, and it’s dark and cold and wet. And I need to get home because it’s late. . . but I can’t because. . .I’m completely naked.”
I peeked at his expression again. It was the same. The signature poker face.
I looked back down, not being able to meet his gaze while I spoke, and went on.
“Don’t ask me why I’m naked, I don’t know. . . But when I go to open my locker, all of my clothes are gone. And I then I start panicking. . .because there’s no one else to help me, and the temperature is getting colder, and I don’t know what to do.”
I paused. The rest I just decided to spit out as quickly as possible. Rip off the bandaid. The words just spilled out with no editing.
“And then, my heart stops because I hear a group of guys outside laughing, drunk, and they say that they have my clothes and I have to go outside to get them, and if I don’t that they will come in. . .So I start crying and they start getting louder and louder, saying that if I don’t come out when they count to ten they come in, so I run all over the place trying to find somewhere to hide, and when the countdown ends they rush in from all entry and exit points to try to find me and the dream ends when they catch me.”
I looked down sullenly, mortified. I couldn’t believe I had just told him that. It was so embarrassing. My cheeks flushed the deepest shade of crimson.
Jesse pulled me into his embrace, kissed my forehead, and began combing my hair with his hands. “That’s horrible. I’m so sorry you have to see that when you sleep,” he whispered.
“It’s stupid,” I replied glumly. “I know it’s stupid. I shouldn’t get so worked up over it.”
“Tell me more,” he asked. “Please?”
I backed up and looked at him with a confused expression. “You want to hear more of this. . ?”
The black fire in his eyes was impossible to doubt. “Yes,” he answered.
“Okay. . .” I shrugged, not knowing where to begin.
He played with my fingers as I thought.
“Well,” I began. “There’s this other one I get a lot. Where I somehow get stuck as the only girl on the men’s high school varsity lacrosse team — ” I paused, laughing at the idiocy of it. “And I never really fit in, obviously. . . the guys just laugh at me whenever I get the ball and they foul me really hard during practice, push me down and stuff like that. . .”
I trailed off sadly, in an empty voice.
“That one isn’t as bad as the first one,” I continued, somehow more confident to speak freely now, which was such a change from before, from being the gatekeeper for so long. . . “It still makes me feel really awful when I wake up, all those elements swirling around, the maleness and the jocularity of the boys, the loneliness and the embarrassment of me, the fear getting hurt, the shame of being laughed at. It sucks.”
Jesse didn’t answer. He just turned my palm over in his hands and traced my veins, I assume waiting for me to continue.
“I’m not explaining this right.”
Jesse shook his head and kissed my forehead, still wearing the poker face. “You’re doing perfect. Keep going.”
I let the mental filters fall. “No matter what the dream is, some are worse than others. . .” I paused, hoping I didn’t give too much away. “I always feel awful. Like the worst things you could ever feel all at the same time.”
When I peeked up Jesse’s jaw was clenched, his eyes closed. I paused, unsure, not knowing what that meant.
I sighed. “I know it doesn’t make any sense.”
He relaxed his jaw and spoke. “Actually, it makes a lot of sense.”
“Hmm?” I asked, confused.
Then it hit me. Last night. The hike up to the lookout. Too much wine. Our conversation. . .
I tried to piece it all together, forced myself to remember everything that was said. The alcohol had made everything fuzzy.
I knew I didn’t tell him everything, there was no way I would do that. . . but I remembered touching upon the forbidden subject, just skirting the edges, ever so slightly. . .
What a mistake that was. It wasn’t my fault. I blamed the wine. And Jesse.
It was time to divert the conversation. I would deal with the consequences of these developments at a later time.
“So, what are we doing today?” I asked suddenly.
He rolled his eyes. “Changing the subject again, girl. . .”
I had shared enough. “Seriously, what are we doing?” I demanded.
He sighed. “Well, first, you need to eat something. It’s almost four in the afternoon and your stomach is growling.”
Oh. Right. I hadn’t even noticed. But I didn’t want to slow down the day anymore.
“It’s fine, I can wait until dinner.”
Jesse rolled his eyes again and reached behind him, pulling out a takeout box where the delicious smell had been wafting. “We’re not going anywhere until you eat that.”
I took the box and opened it. Oh, wow. A full breakfast. Then I sighed, “Jesse I’m not going to be able to eat all of this.”
“Well, try,” he insisted.
I grabbed the plastic utensils and scooped a few modest spoonfuls of eggs and potatoes into my mouth.
As he stared at me, I got a bit self conscious. “Are you just going to sit there and watch me eat?”
He rolled his eyes. “Well, if I don’t, you will just move the food around on the plate a hundred times and mix it all together and pretend to eat but not actually eat, so yeah, I am.”
I looked at him, stunned. I couldn’t believe he had noticed that I did that. It was a long time before I even noticed that I did that. He smiled at my mollified expression.
I felt a need to explain myself.
I sighed. “Look, Jesse, it’s not because I’m like thin-obsessed. . .You know that, I know you know that. . . it’s complicated, but food makes me sick sometimes, I can’t explain it.”
Who knew if he actually believed me. He mistrusted most of the things that came out of my mouth.
He nodded, his expression unreadable. “I know, but you can’t just like, not eat, you need to eat, so please, like actually eat what’s in front of you, if possible.”
I sighed. He didn’t understand. But I obeyed as best I could. The food was really good and I was starving, but I knew if I ate too fast I would be sick, so I took my time.
I could see Jesse was annoyed by this.
His eyes narrowed in irritation as he watched me slowly nibble piece by tiny piece.
“So, what’s going on with that project at work you were telling me about?” I asked, trying to get him to stop staring at me funny.
He rolled his eyes, clearly seeing right through my attempt to distract, but entertained my question anyway. “It’s alright. They’re are some fuck ups on the horizon that I know I’m going to have to deal with. Basically. . .”
I let him go on, and although I was originally trying to get him off my back, I really did enjoy hearing him talk about this stuff. He was so smart. I loved this side of him. This conversation lasted a long time because I kept probing and asking so many questions.
Jesse for his part could never understand why I found his “work bullshit” so interesting. When he was finished he sighed and rubbed his face in his hands. “So that’s it. Your update on my crazy work shit.”
I laughed. “You I know I like hearing about that.”
He shook his head incredulously.
A cold gust blew through the tent and I shivered. Jesse crawled over to me and wrapped his arms around my frame.
“Thanks,” I whispered.
He didn’t say anything, and instead just pulled the leg of sweatpants up to my thigh. I flushed as he saw the fresh new bouquet of bruises flowering along my leg like a vine. Jesse traced them softly with his fingertips. He didn’t gasp this time like he used to, in the beginning.
“Have you always been such an easy bruiser?” he asked.
I didn’t know what to say. Yes? No? Both were technically true, in a way. . . Yes, I had always been prone to injure and bruise easily. No, it wasn’t always this bad, it got much, much worse later in life.
I settled for the truth. “Yeah, but it was never this bad until a few years ago, when I lost all the weight.”
He nodded but did not probe any further.
I sighed warily. “So where to today? Are you going to make me swim across some freezing lake for fun?”
He grinned. “Actually, today is kind of a surprise.”
My eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What does that mean?”
He laughed. “Don’t worry, this one you’ll like.”
I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t like surprises.
He saw my hesitant expression and chuckled. “Eat the rest of your food and I’ll show you.”
I forced two large spoonfuls of food into my mouth and then pushed the container away. My stomach was already starting to feel squeamish.
Jesse frowned at me.
“That’s it,” I insisted. Here, I was putting my foot down. Any more and I would be sick.
“Just try a little more,” he pressed, pushing the container back towards me.
“No, Jesse, it’s my body and I’m saying no!” I recoiled, a little harsher than necessary.
He sighed. “Alright.”
And that was that.
From there, we got ready to leave. I began changing out of my sweats and into my winter gear, all the while making very sure that Jesse did not see the bloody cuts on my ribs, turning my back to him as I disrobed. Luckily for me, the shirt I wore last night was black so none of the blood from my body was visible on the fabric.
The cuts where thick, pink, and angry, a long way from scarring, and the bruises even worse. Even I had a hard time looking at them.
As I searched for through my duffel pack for my thermal, I felt Jesse’s eyes on my naked back. There was no way I’d be able to throw a shirt over my head without him seeing everything.
“Jesse, can I have some privacy?” I squeaked, an edge to my voice.
He glared. “Why?”
“I — I’m just feeling a little insecure right now,” I lied anxiously.
I could hear the incredulity in his voice. “Fiona, that makes no sense I watch you change all the time and you never care.”
The pitch of my voice increased as my fear of being exposed reached an apex. “Look, I’m having body esteem issues right now can I please have some privacy I’ll be right out!”
Jesse glowered suspiciously but got up and left the tent.
I sighed in relief then whipped the shirt over my body in one swipe.
While I packed all my clothes back up, I started to panic. I still had no idea how I was going to hide this from him later, when he initiated sex. Jesse’s horrified reaction and his impending cross examination played itself out in my head. I pushed both away, deciding to cross that bridge when it presented itself.
I threw the backpack over my shoulder and climbed out of the tent into the winter, air anxious and unsure about the day ahead.