Header: Counterparts, 2016. Image © Brooke DiDonato.

Header: Counterparts, 2016. Image © Brooke DiDonato.

Somewhere Come Nightfall

by Tyler Dunning

I stay the night, reluctantly, knowing I won’t slumber. Knowing Meg will be dreaming next to me in a state of final surrender. I lie prostrate, feeling her bare skin, jealous of the sounds of her shallow breathing. In terms of love, people who want me to stay the night never get far, not if they prefer sleep to be quiet and dark. I count the minutes until dawn.

Things don’t end when they should and I court her through our swan song: we have disparate views on too many things. Gun control. Condoms. How a summer afternoon in Montana is best spent (me at a computer, her and her dog in a river). I don’t tell her that we’re ill-fated, not as I observe her peculiar habits—how she pays people to analyze her past lives; pays people to exercise her demons. She believes the dead visit in her sleep.

I believe that the dead are dead—rotting, organic matter given back to the earth. The dead visit, but they are never alive. Not a commune. Not a sign. I wake up, eyes dry, remembering it’s okay to forget them. Dreams preserve our ghosts in a formaldehyde of the subliminal, protecting our fragile, toxic psyches.

I don’t tell Meg this. And I never stay the night again.

There is a pattern at work here. I find something adverse in everyone—from my first long-term girlfriend Gina to the more frequent month-long flings. With the former, three years led to shared housing, the lower half of a duplex. Gina, when falling asleep, liked it quiet and dark. The stuff of nightmares. After she’d drowse, I’d sneak away to the couch, needing the bright lights of cartoons to soothe me to sleep. In the morning she’d greet only the daylight, the depression of where my body had once been on sheets and pillows, a phantom in her bed.

With the short-term loves I’d let them get close enough to care, but never let them last long enough to push a butterfly pin through my entrails. I’d flee before fastened to their display cases. I didn’t like Adrienne in my lap, kissing, or Erika on my social media, psychoanalyzing, or Meg cooking me meals, nurturing. I want to be loved, but never kept. Never held with wings beating against another’s hands. Never expected to be somewhere come nightfall.

The last girl I seriously dated, in a city I left in order to leave her behind, believed in witchcraft. Her sister was Wiccan, teaching us spells and casting magic across a phone line from San Francisco. I scoffed at first, thinking it child’s play, the way they repelled household spirits with incantations and burning sage, but now, considering the way I’ve been wholly uninterested in sex after that break up, I’m paranoid they turned their sorcery toward me. I’m starting to believe I’m cursed.

Grass Is Always Greener, 2017. Image © Brooke DiDonato.

Grass Is Always Greener, 2017. Image © Brooke DiDonato.

It wouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t want to want somebody again. But I want to want somebody again. So I take remaining artifacts from former lovers—a homemade birthday card designed like a book, souvenir photographs taken at a Titanic exhibit, gifted beginner’s balls for juggling—and burn them. I take them to my uncle’s property in the back hills of rural Montana—interstate to river bridge to gravel road to dirt passage to resident-proclaimed Red Mountain—and burn everything. It’s not long after that I’m having sex, though short-lived, with Meg.

The curse didn’t start with romance or witchcraft. It bores deeper. My neighbor when I was growing up, Jason, a kid slightly older than me, reigned as trailer-trash royalty. Many of our evenings were spent hanging out in his dad’s singlewide, watching Ninja Turtles or Masters of the Universe. Jason introduced me to Guns N’ Roses, nearly cut off his big toe while mowing the lawn, and smoked cigarettes when the adults weren’t around. Perfect to a younger admirer’s eyes: to someone who’d never cussed or broken a rule or disobeyed a parent. But Jason also shot his dad twice in the chest while his father slept. I’ve never been told why.

 Years before his father was murdered, I caught Jason staring at me through my bedroom window, just a thin piece of glass guarding my six-year-old-self from a future killer and the nothingness beyond. In retrospect, I fear what he was there to do. This, plus the homicide, has left me distrusting of the dark. Now, twenty-six years later, when falling asleep to a silent abyss, it’s guaranteed I’ll wake up panicked, convinced a friend is there, in the room, to kill me. My own brain playing tricks on me.

To cope with this affliction, I put on cartoons, the TV droning, protecting me from my subconscious. I keep a light on. I also keep two decorations above my head: a cheap, wood-carved Om symbol from a Nepalese shop in Estes Park and, hanging from this, a seventy-five-cent dreamcatcher. The former is meant to represent my states of consciousness: waking, dream, deep sleep, and ultimate. The latter is meant to filter my fantasies. Everything interconnected and suspended.

I keep these items because maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is a greater work at hand: alternate realms, ethereal beings, occult powers. If so, and if I was ever to have my past lives analyzed, I would like to hear one thing: that, for centuries repeated, I allowed others to caress me, inviting them in and keeping them there. That my former selves never kept people at arm’s length. I’d like to be told that everything is not interconnected. That whatever happens now, in this life and dimension, doesn’t have to happen again. That if this life is somehow representative of a past, and that karma prevails, that there are ways of breaking a cycle. Because I wouldn’t wish this aversion to intimacy upon anyone.

I’d told each girl that I cared about my reservations: that I’m afraid of the dark because of a boy with a gun; that I object to affection because I sleep best alone; that I’d rather blame witchcraft than accept the reality of my trauma. But denial will always act as an aphrodisiac: they keep touching and I keep waiting on an answer that will absolve a child with a firearm to his father’s chest. Answers to unlock these night terrors that keep metastasizing as the tumor of physical touch.

I look to my patterns. With my latest failed relationship, even after that cleansing sacrificial fire, I’m left scouring my room—boxes come out from under my bed, nightstands gutted—praying to find a more effective talisman to burn. Praying for anything left to burn. My curse. My friend Jason. These familiar ghosts—

I swear to God I’d fall in love with you—I’d even share this bed with you—if you could haunt these people out of me.


Published January 14th, 2018

Tyler Dunning grew up in southwestern Montana, having developed a feral curiosity and reflective personality at a young age. This mindset has led him around the world, to nearly all of the U.S. national parks, and to the darker recesses of his own creativity. He’s dabbled in such occupations as professional wrestling, archaeology, social justice advocacy, and academia. At his core he is a writer. Find his work at tylerdunning.com.

Brooke DiDonato is a visual artist born and raised in Ohio, and now based in New York City. Her clients include AÃRK Collective, Adobe, Penguin Books, and The New Yorker, among others. Her work has been exhibited nationwide, including a 2017 solo exhibit at the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona, Florida.