Saturday, September 13, 2008

4:30 am, RIE

"I can't sleep."

It's a pattern I've followed my entire life. As a child, I would wake up far too early in the overcast Northern California mornings and beg my mom to let me watch movies. In adolescence, I rarely had time to sleep, so it wasn't as big of an issue. By the time I left for college, my insomnia was typical of my age group, and honestly, came in somewhat handy.

All of this runs through my head as I am sitting on his bed, still in my dress and heels. He is at his desk, fervently and faithfully revising for another biology exam. I can tell that he is trying to decide whether to be annoyed or delighted by my presence. He lights another cigarette, the third since I've been there, and makes two more cups of coffee. He offers me one, and as usual, I decline. I'm surprised that I've stopped drinking coffee and haven't started smoking. I watch as the smoke from his clope snakes out the open window, dancing innocently toward the tree outside.

Sighing dramatically, I lay down, letting my head dangle lazily from the edge of the bed. I pick up my book, a poorly-written paperback that cost me 50 centimes. I bought it because it was the only fiction I could find in English, but each page is trite and overdone. I cover my face, grumbling. He hands me an essay, asking that I spellcheck it. Even in English, I doubt I would understand the subject matter, but my spelling and grammar are as solid as they would be in my mother tongue.

"Go to bed. Tu m'as dit il y a cinq minutes que t'avais envie de faire dodo." His French is rapid, slangy, and heavily tinged with the accent of his first language.

"No. Can't. I'm not tired anymore. I'm hungry." He looks confused. I know that he is trying to decide whether I've said "hungry" or "angry". "J'ai faim," I add. Our conversations are always like this. Any outsider would think we were crazy. He always addresses me in French. I respond in English. I am fluent enough to reply in French, but refuse. His English is conversational at best, but I only speak French when he needs a translation or when we argue.

He picks up his backpack and throws it at me. "J'ai des biscuits la-dedans."

I unzip a pocket to find an unopened box of cookies. My stomach growls. It's nearly sunrise and I haven't eaten since dinner. I've mastered the art of surviving on French cafeteria food, but it is a rough-edged craft. I had rice and veggies for dinner, because they seemed safer than whatever sort of mystery meat was available. I was hungry when my girlfriends and I stepped off the bus, so we stopped at the kebab place for frites. But that was hours ago, before the dancing and the long walk home in the cold that made our winter coats seem thin as our nylons.

"You keep an entire box of cookies in your backpack?" I laugh as I nibble at the chocolate wafer. It is definitely a biscuit, like the English eat, and not a cookie, like my mom makes. I am disappointed.

He does not laugh. He laughs when I am embarrassed or cynical, but he rarely laughs at the things that I find funny. He is taking notes on a legal pad with a mechanical pencil, his handwriting clear and elegant. He is ignoring me; he finds it difficult to study in anything other than complete silence.

I survey his room for the thousandth time. It is more cluttered than mine, more lived-in. My own feels empty, sterile. There are no posters on the walls and hardly enough clothing to fill the tiny armoire. I envy the fact that he has lived here for years and that his life is tangible, while I am simply on vacation.

I would like to pretend that if I had a room like this, the night wouldn't bother me. It's not the darkness, but the silence, that keeps me awake and alert. I never have to fight away nightmares. The silence washes in like the tide, bringing doubts and fears and grief. The silence is accompanied by the ghosts of my distant and recent past. The silence is what causes me to weep until I am too exhausted to truly rest.

I know that if I stay with him, I won't allow myself to cry. I will be petulant, manic, infantile. But I will not shed a single tear, and for tonight, that is my only goal.

Daybreak will come in less than two hours with the comforting whispers of a handful of languages I can't quite understand.

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