He is asleep and you are awake. This is, regrettably, the norm. He is the one that drifts off within minutes of crawling under the covers, night after night. You are the one that studies the shadows on the ceiling. You have imaginary arguments with coworkers in your head and try to remember the names of everyone you knew in high school. This is how you pass the time, waiting for sleep to coyly tiptoe into your mind. You watch your boyfriend sleep and wonder what his dreams are like and wish you could somehow dive into them.
The light of a nearby streetlamp squeezes itself through the slits in your mini-blinds. Just enough egg-yolk yellow light slips in for you to see his face. It is gray with edges that seem too soft, like the faces in an old tin photograph, but you know it is him. You know every piece of him, the man you share this bed and this apartment and this life with. This is his rough cheek; these are his eyebrows that you beg him to tweeze. Those are his slightly parted lips, dry and flaking because it’s winter and he hates chapstick. Yes, everything in its place. But the longer you stare, taking your inventory, the less you recognize him. In sleep, he becomes a stranger, passive and unlaughing. I love this person and he loves me, you tell yourself. But how are you to know when you can’t see his brown eyes, seeing you? And what makes him yours when he is lying beside you, so quietly, not reaching for you, not even aware that you’re with him?
You lift one arm away from the clinging sheets. You touch his cheek; if you pinched him here, he would wake up. He would see you staring and coo something in concern, or maybe grunt and curse, annoyed to be jerked from serene sleep. You don’t care—any word would do. Hearing his voice would be enough to reassure you that you belong here. But you pull your hand back and roll away from him.
Your mother thinks this is the year. This Christmas, he’ll ask you, she says. Under the tree in the living room, with its charmingly mismatched ornaments (half your choices, half his), a small box is nestled among the other gifts. When you found it yesterday you held it tenderly like a sparrow in your cupped hands, running your thumb over the smooth red paper. Perfume, you’ve decided. Much too heavy to be a ring. You’re trying to accept this.
Your friend who is married tells you that you need to start pushing. If he doesn’t propose by Valentine’s, she says, threaten to leave him. After four years, an ultimatum is smart, not cruel, she says, especially at your age. But you have no intention of taking her advice. You suspect that she has never liked you, or her husband, very much.
A hard gust of wind rattles your window. You shiver to think of how cold it is outside and inch backward until your back is against his chest. He sighs in his sleep and groggily drapes an arm over your waist. This accidental show of affection comforts you. It is a reminder that in six hours, he will shake off this strangeness. He will wake up and put his arm around you on purpose. He will kiss your neck. He will say good morning in his voice that’s warm like sunshine and ask you if you feel like coffee or tea with breakfast. And then you will know again that he is yours—not your husband, not yet, but everything that a husband should be. You close your eyes, match your breathing with his, and wait for sleep to come. Waiting isn’t so bad when you’re in his arms.
Amy Locke received her BA in English from the University of Iowa. Her fiction is soon to be published by bewilderingstories.com. In addition to writing, she is obsessed with watching the Food Network, drinking coffee, reading and playing the piano. She currently lives in Iowa City with her husband.