Compared to dreaming, the act of waking up is not gentle at all. She opens her eyes with the slow sound of a flame guttering in a sudden gust. That awkward, groggy fluttering as dawn goes small, blue and hot around her for a second, a tiny wild animal hunched around its wick, and then—gone. The moment between lit and snuffed, between dream and day, resolved in one quick exhalation. She's awake.
For a long moment, all she does is breathe.
The gods have gone inside to worship. Everything outside of her is blue and dim. Beyond the window is a haze that for a moment she always thinks is fog, but isn't. It's only dawn again. Inside, the singing has started; she can just barely hear the humming of her blood beginning. She turns, stretches, curls, and ventures a single thought. No. Not even a thought, yet. Her body still flushes slightly with rose-colored dreaming, cushioned in the folds of the deep down blanket and dark cotton pillows. She smolders like a peat-fire feeding on a silent blue wind. She breathes, and each breath says only: gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. She is a noun, a state of being, a creature all on its own, with one foot still sleeping and one stretching its arch, flexing from ball to heel. A toe creaks. Her gratitude stirs, but does not bother to go out, to move from one place to another. Not yet. It nestles down into her breath, and sighs.
Coolness seeps in under an open window and dawdles along the hardwood floor, working itself into the loose weave of the throwrug by the bed. Next to her, another warm body moves, sleeping or curling, pale with gathering blood. A body with its own gods. What is he dreaming? She rolls under the dark blankets and watches his back turned to her, the one shoulder rising and falling. The bed is small, but nowhere do their bodies touch. The soft bedsheets fall between them like a fog separating opposite banks of a river.
She closes her eyes again and listens; in his sleep, he works his mouth and makes a noise that sounds like chewing. What is he dreaming? What would she hear his gods saying if she pressed her ear to his skin, if she touched the nape of his neck with her lips or brushed his calf with hers? Her own gods are inside praying in hushed whispers, huddled in their pews. She can hardly hear them at all by now. This is all the gentleness she can withstand; any more would devastate her. To go utterly out of herself in praise, that transgression of boundaries, irreverent adoration—to learn secrets from the steady breathing of space, to open the doors and windows of the body to let the wind in, to kneel at his altar as it pushes his blood around, pulse of pushing outward, pulse of his praise, beating against her own—it has been too long. Waking to another warm body waking, its strange gods wild and achingly tender, provoking her own to dancing—it would be like getting caught between two sunsets. She is too vulnerable for so much gravity.
This is better; solitude is better. And in it, that memory of dreaming, a finger tracing the palm's lines, inviting the future to unfold itself like the arrowroot or the magnolia blossom, like something that has always been there. Like it was just waiting for this to happen. Better, this distance, this gradual becoming. To pull her self around her like a comforter against the chill of morning, instead of rushing off towards intimacy like a bird tossed out a window, legs still tangled clumsily in the bedsheets.
Her gratitude stretches, and rolls a long tongue out in a yawn—looks upwards, looks inwards, and says a small prayer. She curls around that movement, some fragile thing, the company of herself, and breathes over it, steady and awake. In a second, she'll have to look at the piercing red numbers of the alarm clock; in a second, the birds outside will begin to make noise, and the neighbors will drag their trashcans to the curb, and the sun will turn everything yellow and bright again. In a second, she'll swing her feet out from under the covers and knock her heels softly against the cool, rough wood of the floorboards.
Meanwhile, he will sleep another hour or two, dreaming his gods, not knowing she is gone.
This short story first appeared in The Particular, Summer 2008. If you're interested in checking out the rest of the issue, please email "the.particular.mag [at] gmail [dot] com" for a free .pdf download. Also, check out our page on Facebook.