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His eyes opened to the weak light of sunrise, which touched the glass of the bedroom window. In those lingering gold moments, his whole body screamed for an unawaken state, an unconscious dream. He watched as the light entered the room. A new day has arrived, he thought. Another long night is over. Slowly, he rose from his bed, preparing himself for his early morning run.
The track near the river was his favorite route, an idyllic pathway that belonged solely to him at 6:30 am. At this hour, solitude was his companion, granting him dominion over the tranquil surroundings. A brief warm-up of five minutes, followed by an intense twenty-minute sprint, and concluded with a soothing five-minute cooldown. The grip of summer had faded away, surrendering to the coolness that marked the early hints of autumn. Crispy, dried leaves adorned the ground beneath his swift feet. Only the melodic symphony of birdsong and the gentle murmur of flowing water accompanied him. By 7 am, fellow runners would start trickling in, dissipating his interest in the place. Yet these solitary runs endowed him with a renewed strength, allowing him to confront the world and temporarily forget the burden of his insomnia.
After the run, he would start his daily routine by reading news on his mobile on the way to work, getting a take-away coffee from the café near his office and greeting to his colleagues when he reached his desk. Only Frank, his buddy at work, knew about it.
“Hey, mate! Look at you! Those pills didn’t do the trick, did they?”
“Hmm, a little. I managed to sleep well until around 2.”
“Oh, man! You’ve been awake since 2 am? Damn! Those pills are just a waste of money! Didn’t I tell you?”
“Well, the pharmacist seemed quite confident about them. Let’s just say I have the resilience of an elephant.”
“That’s rough. What you really need is to get laid, tire yourself out before you sleep.”
He tried Frank’s solution a few times by seeking companionship from the local bar. Like the pills, it had a temporary effect. A few hours of blissful slumber were the most he could salvage from those encounters. However, each time he awoke beside a stranger, he felt even more adrift. These experiences often perpetuated his nights of restlessness, further entangling him in the web of insomnia.
“I wonder if it has something to do with your aging.” His mom said.
They talked across time zones. She called him on Skype after her morning gardening, a cup of fresh coffee in hand. She sat in front of the monitor with her gray hair, bright smile and blue eyes surrounded by wrinkles. She looked like a finished drawing, so perfect, so complete.
“Is that your way of saying I’m getting old?”
“Nonsense! You’re always a child in your mother’s eyes. I have been there, sleepless nights, tired in the morning, anxious, and angry… but it will pass eventually, and you’ll see your way through it. Your body is adjusting.”
“To what?” he asked rubbing his itching eyes from the monitor’s light.
She took another sip of the coffee, another genuine smile.
“You know, it’s not so bad after all. You’ve got plenty of time to read, listen to music or do the things that you like at nights, things that daily routine doesn’t let you do. Think of it that way.”
He closed his eyes and pictured her mother’s image in his mind. The night seemed less arduous.
As time went by, he got used to the fact of his insomnia and the consequent habits which were his escapes: short journeys to the kitchen, drinking water, then making multiple visits to the bathroom, and aimlessly flipping through TV channels. Occasionally, he managed to do something with the unwelcome gift of extra time. One sleepless night, he immersed himself in Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy. The hues of his night transformed into shades of blue, white, and red. In a realm where tragedies, comedies, and romances lost their significance, he felt a peculiar sense of freedom, equality, and yet a profound loss. A moment etched in his memory when he paused on the face of the female protagonist in the film Blue. Her innocence, beauty, allure, and carefree demeanor reminded him of Rose.
It was almost dawn. After watching three movies, he was left with unbearable emotions. His solution was to go for a run, earlier than usual with swift strides, he began his journey along the footpath illuminated by streetlight poles. A slight chill greeted him during his warm-up, but he soon warmed up from the exertion. Occasionally, the stillness was interrupted by the passing of a car or the rumble of a heavy truck. The night possessed its unique melody, accompanied by the rhythm of his own breath. While passing a corner where a homeless person lay buried under a blanket, he unexpectedly encountered another individual running towards him. It was a woman.
“Hello.” he exclaimed, unsure of what else to say.
“Argh! Jesus!” she screamed, almost startled.
Spontaneously, they both halted their run, catching their breath, and locked eyes. In those fleeting moments of shock and indecision, he took the opportunity to observe her. Her long, sleek black ponytail cascaded over her wide shoulders, and her slender legs were clad in a black running outfit. Once again, she stirred memories of Rose within him, making his heartbeat faster.
“It’s unusual to see another person on the street at this hour. I don’t think it’s safe for you.” he expressed, concern lacing his words.
“Is it safe for you but not for me? Do you own these streets?” she said with an unfriendly expression.
“No, of course not. It’s not safe for me either. Usually, I run along the track near the river after sunrise, but today it was exceptionally early and quite dark down there.”
“Well, assume the same thing for me,” she responded.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to bother you.” He stepped back, hearing the bitterness in her voice. A moment of silence passed.
“It’s okay. I was heading home anyway,” her voice softened.
She passed by him slowly, leaving him with a sense of rejection as he gazed at the black pavement, listening to the fading sound of her footsteps.
“Do you usually run after sunrise?” her voice reached his ears again, as if she had returned after a while or mere seconds had passed. Time had slipped from his grasp.
“Sort of,” he replied, “I struggle with sleep.”
“I do the same sometimes,” she echoed his words. Under the harsh glow of the streetlight, he examined her features—the dark circles around her eyes, the weariness etched into her skin, and the lines around her lips—all too familiar to him.
“Can I accompany you home, or at least part of the way?” he offered hesitantly.
“I live across the river, on the other side of the bridge.”
“That’s fine. I don’t mind walking,” he assured her.
She shrugged her shoulders. “If you’d like,” she agreed, “but only until we reach the bridge.”
Side by side, they embarked on their walk, the sound of their footsteps reverberating through the silent space. Gradually, as daylight emerged, the street grew brighter, and the streetlights flickered off. The flow of passing cars increased. They veered off onto a side lane from the main street, heading towards the river.
“May I know how long you have had … it?” He avoided giving it a name.
“Not sure exactly. It’s been a while.” She replied.
“Same here. I never thought that somebody else would choose the same solution as mine.” He asked.
“I tried a lot of things,” she continued, “yoga before sleep, herbal teas at night, swimming, sleeping pills. None of them worked. My therapist suggested going for a run before work. It helps clear my mind.”
“True! When you can’t sleep the entire night, your head becomes a jumbled mess in the morning, right?” excitement tinged his voice.
“Yeah, I feel drained, trapped in an endless cycle of thoughts,” she responded calmly.
The street gradually transformed, bathed in daylight, as the pair made their way closer to the river. The sound of bustling cars and the cacophony of urban life were replaced by the symphony of birdsong and the gentle melody of flowing water. They inhaled the crisp fragrance of autumn foliage—a scent both calming and rejuvenating.
“May I ask what you usually think about at night?” he inquired, the apprehension unhidden in his voice.
“A lot of things, you know, stuff. It’s all here,” she pointed to her forehead, “but I just can’t figure it out.”
“I know!” he chuckled. “My mom thinks it’s a kind of middle-age crisis. I’m turning 40 this month.”
“You don’t look 40.”
“Well, lucky me! So, I should stop worrying and sleep like a bear, right?”
They both laughed, the tension dissipating, transforming their walk into a pleasant journey. They arrived at the riverside track as the sun neared its ascent. The clamor of cars and the bustle of the civilized world gave way to the symphony of birdsong and the gentle murmur of flowing water. Inhaling the crisp scent of autumn trees, they felt a sense of tranquility, an all-encompassing and healing atmosphere.
“Do you agree with your mom?” she asked thoughtfully, her voice blending with the melodic surroundings. He found solace in its sound.
“It might be a part of it, but not the complete picture… I know there are other reasons,” he sighed. After a pause, he inquired, “Do you know yours?”
“Can you tell?” she responded.
Silence hung in the air. How could a stranger be trusted enough to share secrets unless the secret itself could only be entrusted to a stranger?
“I feel like I’m missing something, like there’s a hole in a picture. I can see it, but I can’t make sense of it,” he whispered.
“Hmm, or perhaps you’re missing someone who can fill that void?” she suggested.
She knows, he thought. She knows the pain. There was no logical explanation for it. Either someone knows, or they don’t.
As they neared the path to the bridge, intersecting their walking track, she wordlessly pointed towards it. He nodded in agreement. They crossed the bridge and stood in the middle, with the river flowing below and the sun preparing to rise before their eyes.
“You take control of every aspect of your life—your studies, career, income, family, friends, basically everything… and then there’s just this one thing that’s out of your control,” she spoke in a serious tone.
He listened attentively as she continued, her voice tinged with sadness, “It’s either there or it’s not.”
“I had it once,” he confessed.
“What happened?” she asked.
“She left me,” his voice hardened, the pain evident.
“He stopped loving me too,” she whispered, her voice trembling. He fought the urge to embrace her, keeping himself in check.
“It becomes a monster at night, consuming my thoughts. I keep asking myself how to get it back, how to fix it,” she confided.
“Maybe there’s no fix. Maybe we must bear the pain until it fades away…” he suggested, his gaze fixed on the river below.
“Like this autumn that has just begun, leading to a cold winter,” she mused.
They lingered in that moment of intimate connection between two unknown souls, watching as the sunrise transformed the sky from fiery red to deep orange, welcoming the vibrant blue of a new day. The trees by the river displayed their autumnal hues, radiating shades of orange and crimson. They now saw themselves within the community of runners who would soon populate the track at the usual morning hour.
A few minutes passed in a still, silent state. Then, she checked her watch, both donning the masks of strangers, concealing any signs of what had just transpired.
“I should be on my way,” she said.
“Me too. It’s getting late,” he agreed.
“Thank you for the company,” she expressed her gratitude.
“No, thank you for the conversation,” he replied. “I didn’t catch your name.”
She hesitated for a few seconds, then beamed at him with inviting eyes.
“I could have any name or be anyone,” she said with a smile.
“Take care,” he returned the smile, and with a wave of her hand, she passed in front of him.
He turned his back and ran in the opposite direction. The autumn morning chill embraced him in the air.
Lida Ghahremanlou Jones
Lida Ghahremanlou Jones holds a PhD in Computer Science and pursued Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne in 2016. Her Farsi fictions and essays have been published in various literary magazines in Iran, and her English non-fiction piece “I Talk Like a River” was published in Kill Your Darlings magazine in Australia. She is also an English-to-Farsi translator. Her translation book “A Collection of the New Yorker Short Stories” was published in 2021 in Iran, and her translations of “Swing Time” and “The Last White Man” are set to be released by late 2023.