Nightlight by M. Špoljar


 
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There’s a monster under your bed and no one else can see it. But if I close my eyes at night, I do hear it breathe.

We met in a club. Well, outside a club. Well, next to a club, on an old playground, but we’d both been in a club, originally, and we both left it, and then we met.

“I don’t know how to do this,” I told you, which was very much the truth. “But you’re pretty.”

I’d had a few vodka chasers that night, which is why I was brave enough to say it. You looked me up and down, with big eyes and smudged eyeliner, and when you laughed I almost chickened out.

“You wouldn’t think so,” you finally said. “Not if you saw me in the daytime.”

“Try me,” I said.

Your eyebrows went up.

I got you to go on a walk with me.

We watched the sun rise together later that morning. But first, we spent two hours walking. We did not talk, but we did play music. You liked bands that sounded bad, and I liked Top 40 singles from the early 2000s. I think you must have liked me, even back then, because you kept letting me play song after song. That, or you secretly liked pop too.

You smoked a pack of cigarettes and assured me that you weren’t hungry. You still had some of my croissant. You ate it slowly, layer by layer. I thought you were weird. And even though the sun had come up, I still thought you were pretty.

There is a monster under your bed, and it won’t let you sleep.

You stayed at my place for three days, and I thought I had finally learned what love was. You made scrambled eggs and needed help opening jars, and I pretended not to hear you vomit those three times. I made you coffee with cream because I learned you had a sweet tooth and fed you cake from my own plate because I learned you’d never get your own slice. And I held you afterwards—draped myself over you, kissed your open palm like I was counting the cells that made it.

And it was only partially to break your purging cycle.

Three days later, the monster found you again. So, you left my apartment.

We met in a club, again. You tried to lose me in the crowd.

I say ‘try’ because you never did, because you couldn’t, because I didn’t chase you. I told you that a week later when you phoned me out of the blue. That you can’t lose someone who is not running after you.

“You can’t be my therapist,” you said.

I think I yelled at you. I sounded calm in my head, if I look back now: calm and wise and coherent. But I know I must have been yelling.

I told you that I didn’t want to be your therapist. That I wasn’t trying to be your therapist. That, honestly, I wasn’t sure you knew what a therapist was. That maybe you should go see one.

“Okay,” you said. “You’re angry.”

“Let me finish,” I said.

I told you I just wanted to make you coffee the morning. And fuck you, maybe. And hold hands. And tell you about my day and hear about yours (and fuck) and buy you eco-friendly milk-alternatives, even though there was no ethical consumption under capitalism. And that all of that was free of charge.

“That is not a just,” you told me.

And your monster came back home with us.

I asked you what it looked like the following morning.

“Who?” you asked.

“Your monster.”

You were quiet for a second.

“It doesn’t,” you finally said. “It just grabs blindly.”

I mused on that for a whole minute and then asked you what you wanted for breakfast.

“Why is it scary?” I asked again as we were doing the dishes.

You rinsed out a plate and told me you didn’t have an answer.

“I don’t want it to hurt you,” you added.

“It hasn’t yet,” I said.

“But what if it does?”

I told you I could take care of myself.

“I don’t want you to watch me waste away,” you said finally.

“Then don’t,” I told you.

You looked at me for a long moment and then pulled me close with soapy hands.

Two weeks in, I woke up to see you gone. It took me a minute to realize where the sobbing was coming from.

You were curled up under the bed, in the fetal position and shaking. I called your name before crawling under with you. You let me hold you but said little else.

“What is it doing?” I asked you.

“I think I need a hospital,” you told me.

It would be a lie to say that the idea of killing it did not sound nice. Doing it for your sake, you know. Being the white knight I know you don’t need but strongly believe you deserve. Bringing you its head in a gilded box so it’s not as morbid, presenting it to you on one knee. Letting it signify my devotion—and the opposite of everything that keeps you up night.

But love is no place for such self-centered theatrics. So, I called you an ambulance instead.

I planned the next ten days around your ward’s visiting hours and snuck cigarettes in disguised as roll-up candy. The monster went after you, two days into intensive care, but for the nights in-between, I lay awake and alone in our bed, listening to it laugh.

“Can I tell you what it looks like?” you asked three months in. We were doing the dishes again.

I told you that you could, so you did. Your hands started shaking real bad, halfway through, but you still insisted on finishing both the chore and story. Later, we curled up on the couch, and you kept apologizing, and I let you tire yourself out.

I won’t tell the reader what it looks like.

You either know, or you don’t.

We live together now. You, me, and your monster.

We got it a nightlight because it is scared of the dark. Sometimes, we all cuddle up under the bed. When it gets mean, you tell me what it’s saying. I’ve long ago stopped debating it. but I can still mock its words. When you laugh, it bows its head in shame. Sometimes I hear you talk to it too—hear you find words of your own, tell it to shut up. I hold your hand through it all. You make me think pride does not have enough synonyms.

Sometimes I bring small imps home, little monsters of my own, and you hold my hand as I pluck them out of my hair; you roll your eyes when I try to apologize. I say I shouldn’t be making you baby me. I say your monster is so much bigger. You always roll your eyes.

“There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism,” you remind me. It’s become an inside joke by now. A Twitter-era love confession.

To this day, the monster is still there. It’s probably never leaving, but that’s okay. Its breathing has become white noise, and its threats have grown old. I hold your hand without thinking too hard on it, and the three of us sleep through the night.

 

M. ŠPOLJAR is an author from Zagreb, Croatia. She is a full-time student of comparative literature and English language, and works as a translator.