By ARI DENGLER
Trigger Warning: Mention of sexual assault
It’s 4:32 am.
Liza is awake, lying in bed, listening to the intent scratching of pencil across paper. Lukas hasn’t slept for more than three hours a single night this week. Instead, he’s spent all day and night hunched over his desk, lamp basking him in light as he scribbles down his new book.
“Lukas?” She sits up in bed, gripping the bed sheets to her chest. Lukas remains silent. He claims his hearing is bad, but Liza sometimes wonders if he says this merely to justify his silence, to ignore her without repercussions. His hearing seems to work when he wants it to. She tries his name a second time, but his head remains down, his hand sliding across the paper, a desperation and dramatism present in every stroke of pencil.
“Lukas.” The third time she speaks, he turns to her. “Yes?” He brushes his fingers against his chin. They leave a mark of pencil lead. It reminds Liza of when she was a little kid and would finger paint, always managing to smear the cheap paint across her cheeks and chin despite her mother’s attempts to keep everything on the canvas. She suddenly feels a little nostalgic, saddened by the memory.
“Yes?” Lukas repeats, standing up from his desk and making his way towards her. When he gets close, she notices he smells like pencil lead too, a sharp, metallic perfume, and gray pencil smudges dot their way across his white t-shirt. He probably hasn’t changed his clothes or showered in almost a week, and the way he’s standing there, mouth slightly agape, body pointed downwards at her, makes her a bit uncomfortable.
“You haven’t slept,” she mutters as she pats the bed beside her. “You should sleep. It’s almost daytime.”
“I’m not tired. And the book-”
“Lukas.” She hates the way she says his name, the annoyance that seeps through her voice. It’s the same way her parents spoke to each other in the years leading up to the divorce. When she was little, she’d stay up at night listening to the passive aggressive conversation of her parents, the way their words remained calm and apparently friendly but actually held daggers. She had sworn she would never be in a relationship like theirs. Now she understands that it’s more complicated than that. You could both love and hate someone, feel drawn to them and be repulsed by the sight of them.
“I’m not tired,” Lukas repeats. His eyes are glowing, sharp against the darkness of the room. He links his fingers through Liza’s, softly trapping her hand inside his. When she was watching him from a distance (sitting, writing frantically in the dim desk light) she could romanticize him, imagining he was some kind of starved, overworked, beautiful artist. Now, up close, she can’t do anything but think that he looks sad, his hair in bedhead upheaval and his eyes burdened by huge, drooping sacks beneath them. He looks tired, and she wishes he would sleep and take a shower.
“You haven’t slept,” she repeats. Their conversations lately have been them repeating the same words time and time again, each time hoping they’ll gain new meaning to the other. So far, their attempts have failed.
“I don’t want to sleep,” Lukas mutters. He tugs on her hand, brings it to his lips and dots his mouth against it. “You can’t write forever,” she responds, moving her hand away from his. He takes it back, circles his fingers slowly across her palm. “Fine. I’ll take a break.” He locks eyes with her again and leans in to kiss her. She turns her head away, lets his lips graze her forehead instead.
“I’m not feeling this right now. I’m tired.” She pulls her arm away, but Lukas tugs it back, his nails digging into the flesh of her lower arm. She feels afraid for a second. In their relationship, Lukas has always touched her right. He’s never made Liza feel the dread of being with a man who takes ‘no’ as a suggestion, begging and pleading with his body language and (sometimes) his words until she decides it’s easier to give in.
But Lukas has never been like that. So she lets her fear sink away.
Liza tugs her arm away again, and Lukas lets go. She feels a cool wave of relief rush through her, and she slides her arm under the mound of covers, further nestling her body away. Liza likes being buried away under blankets, like a child being told a bedtime story. There’s something comforting about it, one of the rare, lingering feelings of childhood found in adulthood.
Lukas begins to undress, to abandon his shirt and pants on the floor, his eyes fluttering over the room in dazed tiredness. He joins Liza in bed, lying next to her, his breath soft and warm on her neck. They lie there in silence for a few moments, and Lukas’s warm breath morphs to gentle kisses that he leaves on her neck. They feel playful, youthful, like young love. Liza is about to drift off to sleep when Lukas’s kisses become more urgent, rushed, young love morphed to lust.
“I’m not in the mood,” she mutters. She knows she shouldn’t, but she feels bad every time she says no. The tendency to people please is so deeply instilled within her that her voice drips with apology anytime she rejects Lukas’s advancements.
“Can you not get in the mood?” Lukas asks. He presses his body against hers, runs his fingers through her hair. Liza feels her body tense at the question, her calves tightening, her shoulders bracing inwards. She pushes her body away from Lukas, lets space and silence sit between them in the bed. “What sort of question is that?” “Do I not get you in the mood?” Lukas responds. His tone is soft, sullen, almost hurt.
Liza can’t figure out how she’s supposed to respond to this. The silence returns, its weight collapsing onto her. The pile of blankets feels suffocating rather than comforting. “Of course you do,” she finally responds. She worries that she’s hurt Lukas’s feelings, and she scoots her body towards him, the space between them whittling away. “Of course,” she whispers again, suddenly feeling very sorry. She can’t be mad at him for his lack of receptiveness; how could he be receptive when he’s barely slept, when his thoughts are cluttered and blurred, when the underarches of his eyes are this darkened? All he was trying to do was love Liza, to feel loved by her, and she failed him.
“I love you,” Liza whispers, and Lukas cocoons his body around hers. “I love you too,” he whispers. She lets him rub his groin against her thigh, lets him show her how much he loves her.
Ari Dengler ’24 is a staff writer
Bela Achaibar ’25 is a staff artist