The Woman Who Only Comes Out at Night Lives Rent-Free in Your Cupboard, Derek Heckman
Updated: Jun 14, 2021
She knows when it’s safe.
Your house has a different feel when you’re asleep, a stillness that is somehow palpable, the dust motes all finally settled. Your heart makes a different sound when you have passed into Stage IV sleep, an indication that you will not be woken far stronger than your throaty snores.
—If you did not know that you snore, now you do.
Do not feel bad about it. She has known for years.
She inches the cupboard open and unfurls herself down to the counter. Every evening, it feels so good, the silent unbending of elbows, the slow stretching straight of her spine. Long ago, she practiced yoga, or maybe it was some kind of dance, but these are the only balletic movements she ever performs anymore. There is applause somewhere in her memory. For her or another, she can no longer recall, but she likes to call it up anyway when she’s finally standing up tall. Alone in the moonlight, she bows to the faint reflection of herself in your kitchen window, her long black hair spilling over her head and cascading into a pool on your floor.
In the fridge and cabinets, she helps herself to whatever of yours she can. In her memory, there are words like crepe and chicken parmesan and brie, but she can no longer picture what these words mean, let alone how they taste or smell. They belong to a time she thinks of only as Before—a time before cupboards and keeping still while you are awake; a time before something terrible she cannot name, or won’t, left her in a desperation she resolved by becoming this. She knows that she had money once, and was pretty maybe, and kind. Occasionally, you’ll try to cook something new, and if you manage not to burn it, the smells will rouse her from her daytime sleep, and remind her what it was like. She will remember a time of garlic, a time of butter, a time of sauce. She will remember holding hands with someone across a candle-lit table or carrying home a paper bag with her name on a white receipt. What that name was or who might have been waiting are as lost to her now as this last piece of pizza will be to you in the morning. The hows and whys have all slipped away. She knows only that she had once, and now, she has not.
She hears you on the phone sometimes, begging off an engagement by claiming that you are broke, but you, she knows, have no idea what being broke really means. You are a person with a house, with things, with so much sprawled around you, you don’t notice when something’s been touched. You wash lip-prints from your glasses, imagining they are yours. A few birdish bites of your leftovers—you think you ate more than you did. It’s possible you’d miss this sweater, if she took it with her into the cupboard, but that doesn’t stop her from trying it on, from posing in your bedroom mirror with each of your pairs of shoes.
Sometimes, behind her, you roll over in your sleep, and she stops a moment to watch you, your clothes hanging large on her frame. You have actually passed her several times when getting up for a drink or the bathroom, and once or twice, you’ve come so close that she could have reached out and touched you. Once or twice, she has raised her fingers to the bone at the base of your neck, but you have never noticed and she’s always withdrawn her hand. How long it’s been since she’s pressed her skin to the skin of another person. But to do it to you, without you asking—she knows what you would think.
Every night, it breaks her heart, the certainty she’s developed, after all these many years, that if the two of you had met each other while she still lived in Before—if you got talking in line at a coffee shop or sat next to each other at a movie or did any of the thousand, thousand things that now exist for her only as dreams—she is confident that the two of you would have wound up being friends. She knows what it sounds like when you laugh alone and when you laugh with other people. She knows what it sounds like when you cum the same way, and when you eat, and when you cry. She’s heard you ecstatically happy about a new person you’ve started seeing, and heard you fall completely apart when this new person stops stopping by. She has wanted, in these moments, to climb down from the cupboard and hold you, to rock you slowly back and forth, and kiss you on the part in your hair. She did this for her lover once, or possibly for her child. Either way, she thinks it’s in her still to comfort another person like that. She wants it to be, anyway. That, then, would be something she’d have.
When the sun starts to rise, she crawls back into her cupboard, folding her legs and arms back in and softly shutting the door. This is everything that is hers now, this nothing where she just fits, but she yearns, one of these slow grey dawns, to peel apart your covers and climb instead into your bed. She dreams, as she folds her head down, of pressing herself to your sleeping back, of humming one of the songs you sing at night when you do the dishes. She longs to feel you relax against her and slowly open your eyes, to hear and see you realize what she accepted long ago:
That whatever else has passed through your life, she has always been here.
That whether or not you think of her, she always, always will be.
Derek Heckman was born in Peoria, Illinois, and holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Montana. His work has appeared in Embark Journal, Milk Candy Review, The Collapsar, and Wigleaf, and was also featured in the anthology “Teacher Voice” from Malarkey Books. He currently lives in Boston, Massachusetts. You can find him making greatly unappreciated jokes on Twitter as @herekdeckman.