Sleeping Partners

by Sjohnna McCray

I sleep like my father, one arm
raised above my head, thrown back
as if to push something away. But he
sleeps soundly, and I don’t.
—Robert Kinsley, “Where the Light Bends”

I wish I could be romantic and say it was her sheets that I fell for first, with its pinky-fleshed pigs and reoccurring water pattern, but it wasn’t. I was interested in Alex even before I saw her bed, before I was in it. Oh, this isn’t some macho statement about having scored. Alex and I never had sex; neither one of us was brave enough to initiate the act, to break the pattern couples developed: of kissing, touching, fondling then stripping—we stopped ourselves at total nudity. Naked, we stopped as if going any further, we would discover too much at once. We lay together and touched. I believe we were fond of the likenesses to one another more so than the differences.

Under that 100% virgin, navy, Anksa acrylic blanket, the most exciting result of our being in the same place at the same time was being able to incorporate, “Yeah, last night we slept together,” into conversation.

We told snatching of the cover jokes.

I liked Alex. She resembled the character Ernie from the PBS broadcasted Sesame Street. A furry, androgynous hand puppet of a person. She kept her hair boyish and short. She wears lots of horizontal stripes. I have to believe we liked each other; we dressed alike. Those shopping sprees for unisex Gap outfits. We wore black Gap jeans. We were a pair: black and white, short and tall, big/small, Burt and Ernie. We were pioneering a friendship but strained a little too much to be seriously “into” one another.

I don’t think we were physically attracted to each other. Me, with my gut and she, with her unshapely, X-large button downs. What I like in her was a combination of enthusiasm and ambition. When Alex loves you, she loves you like she’s taking on a major project.

This sounds hokey but I admired the amount of color she chose to live in. I don’t think color was a part of her, dressed in her androgynous stripes and grays, black shoes and mottled skin, but she wanted color. Her room was decorated with various, motley toys. Exotic toys.

Hand-carved animal figures from Chile, a group of neon foam men that interlocked at the head and legs, and a cracked-but-glued red desk lamp in the shape of a jumbo jet. I would later discover that most of these exotic toys could be purchased at the Contemporary Arts Center Gift Shop but at that moment I was mesmerized by her things; her nice, middleclass things.

When I lay in her bed, underneath her pig blanket, tension left me. It was and still is the softest blanket I have ever encountered. I marveled at how much it seemed as thick as wet fur, but dry and clumpy smooth. She laughed. Her mother always bought this kind of blanket, this type of material. I seemed very silly. The fact that I adored one of her things so much probably endeared me even more to her.

I wondered if all middleclass people had such nice bed stuff. Matching spread, blankets and sheets. When was the last time the stuff on my bed matched? In high school, my father had gone to the thrift store for bedding. He returned with two brown, orange and yellow multi-striped sheets along with a lemon-lime, wavy striped, 70s style bedspread.

My fantasy was to slip into the beds of middleclass girls everywhere. The plan was to wait until the parents were asleep and infiltrate the house. I’d come as that moment right after the television is turned off and sight is not readily available. The period of optical adjustment. I would creep up the stairs to their little hon’s room, her name either Jennifer or Heather, and slither into that canopy bed, slither under that Eddie Bauer 8114 goose down comforter. Not for sex but for the sheer pleasure of comfort. The 8114 was famous for its thickness, and tufted, baffled construction.


Although she had a roommate, Alex had the room to herself most of the sophomore year. Her roommate, Rhonda spent most of her time off-campus with her Japanese boyfriend, Chi. They were both physics majors—and in love. Most nights, I would wait for my roommate, Karl, to either fall asleep or click off the little reading light clipped to his bedpost. I didn’t care if he was asleep or not because the dark afforded me some kind of avoidance of him.

What did I care if Karl knew I was going upstairs to sleep with a woman? Perhaps, I was breaking some type of roommate code, sleeping somewhere else. Was I breaking the pattern roommates create of sharing the day’s events, trading news from home, getting ready for bed and chatting before turning out the lights? Karl and I were not the type to have in-depth conversations in the dark. The security of not having to respond to body language or facial contortions meant nothing to us. Sometimes, lying in the top bunk, I wanted to break out of our code.

I wanted to realize the outrageous courage that darkness provided, to ask questions about the body. Our pre-lights-out chat would turn toward the physical. What features do you like about women? What have you done? What do you like to be done to you? Have you ever—how far have you gone? Do you ever just want to fuck? How would you make love?

Both Karl and I had serious girlfriends back in our hometowns but I’m pretty sure we were still virgins. He was an explosion of acne and limbs and played in the marching band. We had been equals in experience but not now. How could I approach the subject of Alex? Was it intense desire, something akin to all-encompassing soap opera passion? Cheating. I had trouble still trying to present myself as a moral being. I was making all sorts of discoveries about my needs/appetite. It all seemed so beyond Karl and my girlfriend at home. Quiet, dirty and primal. Like a French film.

When the lights went out, I took that as my signal to move and live out a venture I never could if it was commonly known. I usually took a shower before going upstairs to slip into Alex’s marvelous sheets. It was important for me to feel clean. Zestfully so. I learned how to find all of my toiletries in the dark: soap and wash rag, tooth brush, baby powder and a special lotion I had purchased made with aloe vera, avocados, sweet almond oils and a seaweed extract. Often, I arrived in the night smelling of the sea and danishes.

Alex slept in a curled position. I would slip into bed and curl into the same position. I covered her like the rind of a difficult fruit, so close and hard to peel off. I would snore directly into her ear. I sleep like my father. My grandmother calls this cutting down the trees. I loved the warmth of skin and the act of sleeping in someone else’s bed beside my own. I would try to move closer, interlock my legs with hers and lay my head where the hairline of her short cut ended and the soft texture was much like the blanket’s fuzz.


Already it’s two and still no sleep. Above me, I feel the cool of the cast iron bed, the one my father slept on as a boy, some fifty years ago when he was as solid as it was.

—Robert Kinsley, “Where the Light Bends”

There were times when I wished no one was home when I got there. The bus would let me off on the corner of Cedar and Hamilton and I’d climb the slight hill to my house. Actually, it wasn’t my house but a yellow house in which my father and I rented a room. It was in the type of neighborhood where one could still think about trees—how they made a neighborhood look and smell.

Up the street, there was an arts and crafts shop and a place where white women got their hair done in a single style. The one place smelled of cinnamon and the other of baby powder. This was the neighborhood where Beverly Clearly could sit down and write her prepubescent novels except this book would be titled Ramona in the Black Part of the Neighborhood After the Whites Moved Further Up the Block.

I’d kick through leaves and pray no one was home. I didn’t want to say hello to the renters, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. They spent most of their time in the kitchen. Mrs. Johnson, a round and golden woman, spent most of her time at the stove cooking for Mr. Johnson. And Mr. Johnson spent most of his time at the kitchen table—watching her cook. He was a huge, syrup colored mass of flesh. He sat in a black swivel chair and was so old I believed he had forgotten how to talk. Shape syllables. I could never understand a word he said. Somehow, he had regressed to infancy. Their house always smelled of diarrhea.

The Johnsons were an oblivious couple and couldn’t possibly know their house was falling apart. Looked like hell. It looked like a leftover egg, sunny-side up, lying limp in a pool of brown grease. A faded yellow and white. This was the color of their kitchen, this was the color of their house in an otherwise picturesque neighborhood and no one bothered to tell them. I prayed they weren’t home.

My father encouraged me to be courteous and polite. After all, we were staying in their basement. Sometimes, Mr. Johnson bellowed for his wife. ViolaViola! He hollered for everything. Nightly, father climbed the steps that led from the basement to the kitchen and shut the door. If I moved fast enough, I could get through the back door and past the kitchen entrance in one swift move. Unfortunately, the dog always knew when I was home. He hated the tenants. He barked and snapped viciously.

His name was Cap, short for Captain. The old dog hobbled after me with his car injured rear leg. Most times, he compensated for his slowness by using the element of surprise. After he’d come from behind Mr. Johnson’s son’s blue Toyota truck, we’d stop and lock eyes. Would he bite me? Is he faster than I am? Could I make it to the screen door in time?

During these standoffs, instead of taking the back door, I’d climb the steps to the front door. The living room smelled of mold and dog fur. It was always dim and I never stopped to notice the room, just puncture my way through its atmosphere. On the mantle were not pictures of Mr. Johnson’s two sons, but one of JFK and the other of MLK Jr.

If the Johnson’s were out (usually for Mr. Johnson’s weekly medical check up), Ned was in the kitchen fixing himself something to eat. Ned was a WW II vet or so he told everyone. He called me “Brown” for a nickname and I wanted to say, we all know you’re stealing our bread to make your bacon sandwiches. However, my father liked Ned because he always managed to get his hands on some gin. He’d invite dad over to his side of the basement for a drink. Ned claimed he had a girlfriend that lived around the corner. Sometimes, he’d be gone for days. If Ned wasn’t home, I could slip into our room with no problem. No unnecessary human contact.

My father and I were the only people in the basement to have our own room. I mean with a door and a lock. There were three people who rented out the basement. Ned was one of the tenants and the other was Jarrod. I would never see Jarrod, just hear him. He laughed and giggled behind the wall that separated us, behind the strung-up sheet that separated him from Ned. My father said the only things in Jarrod’s room were two mattress pads, a lamp, and lots of old paperback novels. When I went to the bathroom that everyone shared, I’d catch glimpses of Jarrod masturbating through a crack where his sheet folded back. Jarrod smoked Kools and every time he cooked at the basement stove, he’d ask me if I had read any good books lately. I’d answer no and wonder how come the long ash from his cigarette never fell into his food.

The most Jarrod wore around the house was an old t-shirt, faded piss stained boxers, and blue flip flops. He smelled of musk and what a teenage boy later discovers is the smell of his own sex. My father told me to stay away from Jarrod.

If I could just make it to our light blue door, make it inside of our room without one encounter; I’d be okay. But I suppose nothing really mattered anyway, once I’d made it inside. I’d come to love that room. It was painted in this awful teal and there were brown water streaks down the side of one wall. It was cluttered. Two old brown couches which we laid our clothes on, a steel desk that served as a counter for kitchen utensils, and a five-foot tall rusted safe. We placed a red handkerchief and a mirror on top and used the safe for a dresser.

We had two windows. The side window let us see the thighs and calves of visitors. In the back window, dandelions grew. They were like hobos lost in the grime and dust, shaking their big yellow heads. These dirt streaked windows let in sun, rain, and in winter a tremendous draft. It would be so cold in that crowded room, we’d wear pairs of socks to bed. Because of the small dimensions of the room, the bed was always the focus.

When I’d come home, I’d throw my backpack on the bed and turn on the little twelve inch, black and white television. Usually, I spread out all of my books and completed homework while watching Oprah. My father would be gone for hours, either at work, trying to get more work, or going to churches for food and bus tokens.

Once, when I was looking for my social security card to fill out a high school application, I found my father’s dirty magazines. This was not the stash of important documents we kept together in a brown paper bag. After that, I spent my free time looking at airbrushed men and women on beaches straddling horses. Actually, there was more of a thrill taking the magazines from their hidden crevice in between the mattress pads than from any of the x-rated photos. I would remember exactly what page and position I found a magazine when returning it.

I liked to read the stories the best. I even thought about writing a letter to Penthouse Forum. My encounter in a high school gym, my encounter in a virgin forest, my encounter at a Seven-Eleven. Typical stuff. I thought it would be neat to have a career as a “pornographer” writing about the most mind-blowing, sexual experiences all in the missionary position.

I didn’t write in.

When my father came home, I’d move to my side of the bed. The left side. He’d turn the TV channel and ask me to get the water jug from the basement refrigerator. Sometimes, he’d come home loaded down with peanut butter sandwiches and doughnuts from the Catholic Church downtown. Sometimes, he’d have actual food. Usually chicken wings because they were the cheapest meat in the grocery store and a box of generic macaroni and cheese, twenty-nine cents a box. He cooked something every night whether it was rice or macaroni. This was important to him. I tried not to complain. In a play I had written for school, the husband says to the wife, “Damn it, I’m tired of eating macaroni and cheese!”

There were days when my father would come home utterly sad and dejected. He’d throw his bag on the bed and I learned not to ask if he had found a job. I chatted. Brought forth all of my dizzy, silly topic producing powers to start a conversation.

“Hey Dad, on Oprah—. Today at school—. My friend Nina says—.”

He’d comment slightly, if at all. But I knew he was listening. Later in the night, he’d ask follow-up questions.

“What did you say to Nina after she said—?”

Dad usually fell asleep with the television on. I spent a lot of time in the flickering light watching my father sleep. He had a round, beige stomach that moved when he snored. He slept with an arm raised above his head.

Our bed was covered with hideous, abrasive army surplus blankets. Khaki green. The blankets scratched the skin and smelled like mothballs and spilt food. The blankets were given to us by the Johnsons so I didn’t complain. I liked pulling at the stringy edges. Besides, when it was cold I pulled them up to my neck. When it was thoroughly freezing, I’d wake up warm and covered with my father’s leather waistcoat. Around the collar was the smell of cheap cologne that was comforting. It was a smell that said everything would be okay despite the numbing toes.

On the rare occasion when dad turned off the television before bed, I noticed the ceiling. It was covered with little sharp points and bumps. Miniature stalactites. I would picture faces in the ceiling. Most often the classic Jesus Christ or a Native American woman. I knew this woman by her fine, straight hair. I never imagined she could be Asian or even my mother with her shocking black hair but always this Native American woman.

One night, when I couldn’t find any shapes in the ceiling, I rolled over to find my father crying. I was frightened. I asked him what was wrong. He spoke like a child between gasps of air and moans, deep gales of breath, about what a failure he had been. He beat his fists against his head, the two objects unusually working against one another. I told him it was okay but he didn’t believe me. He said that he missed my mother.

I took him into my arms. It was the first time I had taken someone’s trembling body into my arms, taken something so wounded into my arms and loved it. Loved it so deep that it hurt, like I was giving birth to a tightly wound bird in my lungs or some new and massive air.


. . .in this room of half shadow I can see my shadow, caught in the hand-silvered mirror on my grandmother’s dresser, the silver as shiny as the new bride I imagine she was on the day she bought it.

—Robert Kinsley, “Where the Light Bends”

There were so many reasons to say no. Don was shorter than me. He was a copy center manager. He wore fat blue laces in generic, white sneakers and his 90’s hair was gelled to crunchy perfection. He hovered near the border between conservative and country music star. I was 26, fresh out of grad school with an MFA and working as a temp at TNT (This was before they knew drama). I had lived in Atlanta for one year and gone on two unfortunate dates.

The first was clearly a member of AARP. He had a blind toy Pekinese he couldn’t bare to put down. In the middle of the night, there’d be a thump. What was that? That’s just Charlie, getting off the sofa. Sometimes, he walked into walls. In a jealous rage, Charlie climbed atop of the bed and let fly a putrid stream at the smell of our post coital sheets. The second date was a 21-year-old who had drunkenly stuffed his number in my pocket leaving a club called “Backstreets.” The following week, we had dinner at a place called Einstein’s while he explained how Madonna had shaped his life. Was this really better than being alone?

Don and I met at a bar called Burkhardt’s. It was all dark wood, laid back and casual with a patio on the first floor and pool tables on the second. My friend Josue and I (another male assistant) would go after work when we wanted to feel pretty. Most of the men were weathered and in their thirties; we didn’t even need the dim light to look good. Even though Atlanta was a full-fledged city, the south had been a difficult adjustment. I was black with an advanced degree and spoke in a flat, nasal shrillness marking me from the Midwest. To the natives, I might as well have landed from Mars. People in grocery stores, librarians or clerks could never understand what I was saying because I spoke too fast. Everyday life seemed to move without any kind of urgency whatsoever.

Don spoke with a twang and clarity that was odd for my overeducated, twentysomething brain. There wasn’t a lot of running around for subtext. Sometimes he’d turn a phrase or crash words together in such a way that it would make me laugh. Where exactly is the movie theater?Downyunder. What? It’s just downyunderthere. Wait, say that again. Down. Yonder. Down yonder? Who says that? Right then, I knew I was hooked.

Back then, he was soft-spoken and I probably wouldn’t shut up. I talked about Cincinnati, the University of Virginia and the death of my father. He talked about the small town of Canton, which he described as “really country” and his family. As I rambled, I remember his eyes glazing over and I thought I’d lost him. I said I loved the movies. He said, he hadn’t finished college but liked history. So on our first date, Thanksgiving Eve, we arranged to see Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett. Before the show, he tried to impress me with the bits of the world he had accumulated. We ate dinner at a Thai Restaurant while he talked about the lovely woman he worked with from India.

As he shoveled down his pad Thai, I noticed everything—from the way he held his fork to the way he hurriedly chewed his food. There was something sad about the way he moved despite all the first date smiles. Before he spoke, there was a little tick, a bob of the head like a cat hacking up a fur ball. Sometimes, he got so excited he nodded before the words came out.

We had time to kill before the movie started, so we opted for a beer at a nearby hole-in-the-wall, Buddies. Several of the overweight men shifted in their leather barstools to see if another regular had come in. We were both gay newbies and when we entered the bar, you could feel the smoke-irritated eyes peeling the designer shirt off my back and the Gant Christmas sweater vest off of Don. As I looked for the spot where the lumberjacks housed their axes, Don nodded and asked if I wanted to play pool. As we awkwardly stalked around the table, posing and aiming for the hole, Don was more at ease while I was thinking, “Did I put my wallet in my front pocket?”

As Don sunk the eight ball, a sturdy man in his mid-forties with a brown plaid shirt and a Brawny paper towel swagger came over and asked to play the winner. He had a wild glint in his eyes and hairy forearms the size of pork tenderloins. There was a triangle of sweat in the front of his t-shirt that clung to his “years of hard labor” chest. As the lumbering Jack and Don traded shots, I couldn’t figure out what was going on.

Was I losing the pale, uneducated, Tourette’s syndrome afflicted and completely wrong for me Don as I casually sipped on Bud Light? As he bent over and stroked his pool stick, I tried to make as much eye contact as possible. I didn’t go as far as suggestively licking my lips even though Jack was staring hard at Don’s round bottom. In a burst of testosterone, Jack finished off the last three shots and stumbled toward us. He gripped our shoulders in his meaty hands and pulled us close into a huddle. He said his truck was just outside and if we wanted, we could follow. His place was just around the corner.

I resisted blurting out, “Me too?” I was excited at not being forgotten in this illicit three-way offer. Don and I looked dumbfounded at one another and said we had movie tickets for the 9 o’clock showing. We were both nervous, but at that moment, not about each other. As I bumped into him getting out of the door, we smiled and grimaced in unbelief.

After Elizabeth, Don warmed up his steel blue 85’ Camry and I sat in the passenger seat trying to figure out how to extend the evening.

“So, what’s Canton like?” I asked.

Don stared back in palpable fear. No one had ever asked about Canton. “It’s quiet,” he said pausing and nodding. “There’s really nothing to do. . . but you can see the stars.”

I folded my hands in my lap. “Okay. Let’s go to Canton.”

“Really,” he asked, “are you sure?”

“I think so. Take me home.”

As we sped along the dark highway, he commandeered the steering wheel while holding my hand. After about 40 minutes, I started to have second thoughts as we exited and turned down a hill into darkness. As we drove past the dense, slim black bodies of trees, the image of policemen in orange reflective vests with search dogs looking for my scent, a scrap of cloth, followed me down the winding roads. When he pulled in front of the tiny house, I inwardly gasped. When he said he lived alone, I was expecting Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Maybe a little choo-choo running through the main room on its way to Make Believe. As he parked on the lawn, this was definitely not Make Believe.

Across the yard and several feet to the right, sat another white house. “Who lives there?” I asked.

“That’s my sister’s house,” he said. “Further back, if you cut through those trees, that’s where momma and daddy live. Behind them, down yonder, my brother, his wife and their kids stay in a trailer.”

“Oh.” I hadn’t understood that when he said Canton, he meant the whole family.

The house resembled something a person might construct from watching YouTube. Don said the tiny property had once belonged to his grandmother. As he showed me the dimly lit rooms, the wooden floor seem to groan from my weight. What struck me as a dingy sort of poverty was just a simple life to him. He asked if I wanted anything to drink. I noticed there were roaches running across the stovetop.

He showed me the bathroom which was accessed through the kitchen and I had to lean down to get in. I shut the door which didn’t seem to fit properly in the doorway. As I held my penis in my hand, I looked down and thought, “This is your fault.”

What I realized by glancing around his bedroom with the cheap black dresser with ill-fitting drawers and the squeaky bed with the cotton wall hanging of Ganesha, the affable elephant-headed god thumb tacked above it, was that this was a man in transition. He was five years older than me and had lived another life. While I had gone to grad school and equipped myself with all kinds of books and references, he had been married, had children, and gotten divorced. He was slightly broken and made love like he was slightly broken: careful, ravenous and grateful.

On Thanksgiving Day, I woke up at five o’clock because I had to pee. Don’s head lay on my chest and he had one leg thrown over mine. He was shorter than I was and fit perfectly in the crook of my arms. I wondered how he slept so soundly with a stranger. Intently, I listened to him breath and imagined us in sync. I felt rested in a way I never had before. It wasn’t lightness exactly but more like my bones, my entire body, had settled. The room was hazily lit and I remembered it was Thanksgiving. Later, I’d catch a bus for Cincinnati, but at that moment, I felt thankful, more thankful than I ever could for any meal. However, my bladder was insistent that I wrap this up. It reminded me I needed to move—but I couldn’t. Moving would have broken the spell. So, I laid there for over two hours—holding it in like a kid on a field trip—listening to him breath.

SJOHNNA McCRAY is a University of Virginia and Columbia graduate. He has taught in Arizona, Chicago and New York. McCray’s essays have been published in the Watershed ReviewStorm Cellar and Carolina Quarterly. Poems have been printed in several publications including The New York Times MagazineThe Southern Review and the Evergreen Review. In 2015, he received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. He lives in Athens, Georgia.