Night Owl

By: DW McKinney



The chilled air from the San Francisco Bay curls through the university campus. It’s too cold to be standing outside in the shadows. Smokers leap out the backdoor of my residence hall in ones and twos, but they don’t congregate like they usually do and not every hour. If anyone sees me, they’ll probably call me a creeper. Maybe I am creeping. There is warmth in hiding in the shadows unseen and, for once, I choose to be invisible.

The floorboards whine as I shift my weight. Don’t fall through, I pray. The patio wraps around an abandoned house awaiting restoration. It’s been waiting long beyond its years. I heard a rumor that the second floor collapsed when two students snuck in on a dare. Someone broke an arm or an ankle depending on who recounts the story. I hold my breath to make myself as light as possible then shake out my leg, sending a tingling waterfall coursing to my toes.

I peer across the driveway and into my dorm room window, which—to my displeasure—is wide open. A party rages inside. Silhouettes merge and separate, then shrink and lengthen like waxen blobs in a lava lamp. Laughter and playful screams pour out the window and echo in the night air. It is only a matter of time before the nuns in the neighboring convent call campus security.

Wood digs into my back as I recline against a pillar. I close my eyes and wait for the mandated quiet hours to begin.

The only time I ever slept with a nightlight was at my grandparents’ house. I stayed in my mother’s childhood bedroom, which Granma had converted into a sewing room bursting with Singer sewing machines and boxes overflowing with ornate fabrics. Granma turned on the plastic oval light, purchased from the dollar-bin at the thrift store, an hour before my bedtime. It burned away the darkness from its post underneath the ironing board and remained in the same outlet well into my adulthood.

“Aren’t you afraid,” Granma asked when I turned off the light. It unnerved her that I was comfortable sleeping in the dark. My grandmother thought I needed a nightlight for the same reason she thought she still needed to cut up my meat at dinner. I was a fragile egg destined to crack irreparably.

I spent many weekends at my grandparents’ house in the year after my birth father died. My granma used this time to indoctrinate me with antiquated ideas about childhood. Children weren’t supposed to climb trees—“You could break your neck!” Children participated in gender-appropriate activities with their gender-appropriate toys—“Little girls don’t make mud pies!” Once the sun dipped its orange yolk below the horizon, little children were supposed to be afraid of the dark—“It’s okay to be scared, Pumpkin!”

In the afternoons, my grandparents and I sat on one of their three back patios to watch airplanes fly in and out of the San Diego airport. We would sip sun tea that Granma brewed the previous day and I’d catch June bugs, tying sewing thread around their hind legs to make glittering six-legged kites. Granma hopped out of her lawn chair before twilight fell, as if the impending darkness nipped at her skin. She returned inside to busy herself in the kitchen where the spiced aroma of pork chops and fried apples wafted out the window soon after.

“Pumpkin! Don’t you want to come inside and watch TV with me?” she’d call to me. “It’s getting dark out there, little girl!”

When Granpa rose to “get horizontal and watch 60 Minutes,” drifting upward so smoothly as if the hand of God was gently lifting him out of his chair, I knew my time outside was waning. I lingered behind him in the arc of light emanating from the opened door to his den. I closed my eyes and mentally counted how long I could stand there.

One. Two. Three—

“Pumpkin! Where are you? Get in here, girl, ‘fore those mosquitoes get you. You can’t see nothin’ out there anyway!”

My granma’s fear rustled inside me, and when it settled, I had learned to scuttle around the shadows stretching toward me, knowing that some entity waited there to snatch me with its hungry claws.

I drifted into these yawning chasms anyway.

I first developed obsessive-compulsive disorder when I was seven or eight. I didn’t know it was OCD until I was in high school watching Tony Shalhoub’s titular character count, tick, and squirm on Monk. I examined the carpet’s fabrics as I satisfied chronic urges to lie beneath furniture. The act gave my jangling nerves a rest. The urges perched in the forefront of my mind after my granma drew the blinds and pulled down the thinning shades to shut out dusk and the wandering eyes of some unknown assailant she believed was hiding beyond the tree line.

I pressed my body into the floor and transformed, gripping the carpet with my clawed fingertips. A relative had gifted me a book about human anatomy. It was not quite for a young child, but I made frequent use of it, staring at the pictures and tracing the arrows to the areolae and urethra and interwoven parts of the male and female forms. It’s how I learned about reproduction. It’s how the words I lifted from the dense paragraphs made little sense until the first time I lay underneath my grandparents’ bedroom bench and felt my body humming in on itself.

“Pumpkin! Puuumpkin! Where are you?”

As my granma searched frantically for me around the house, I shuttered my mouth to watch her from the shadows. I learned her scents—cooked fat before dinner, chemical after she cleaned, and the sharpened fragrance of perfumed Ponds face cream before bed, which became a softened bouquet for church and her daily errands. Her body moved with the fluctuations in her mood—tight and rushed when stressed, short and taut when angry, and loose like boiled spaghetti when worn out.

Her legs bustled by, her toes rhythmically lifting the surface of her loafers—anxious—when she paused in doorways as she searched for me. It wasn’t until I hid in the gaps, the hulking furniture crammed in too small bedrooms, did I learn the nature of silence. It was a thief unto itself, stealing calm, replacing it with the shaking insecurity of our consciousness. Sometimes it rattled me until I slithered out from behind a bed and collapsed in front of the television in the living room. Other times I sat in the quiet dark and waited to see how long it would last—the silence, the buzzing of my body, and the engulfing blackness. Years later, when OCD and anxiety overwhelm me, I start gagging involuntarily for stretches at a time, my body coughing up the rejected parts of myself.

It is no great feat to hide the shattering of myself from the world. At least, not in my household. As an only child, I fortified myself in small, enclosed spaces. As a teenager, I hid the compulsions and anxieties behind closed doors. This was not difficult to do with two teenage (step)siblings carving out their independence in the privacy of their own rooms.

In some ways, I was left to myself. And so I cried—unafraid of parental oversight and judgment from my sister and brother—while I twisted the doorknob past six counts, unable to stop at five, and had to re-twist and re-count again and again until it was right.

I could not, however, hide this mental breakage with two college roommates.

When one roommate hosts a surprise birthday party for her friend’s vagina, I recognize the usual slippage of my mind dripping out of me. A miasma fills the room. I breathe sweat-thickened air and stale breath. Strangers sit on my bed. People make out in the bathroom. Red Solo cups litter dressers and corners of the room. There is a white sheet cake displayed on my desk. It reads: “Happy Birthday, Beulah!” in brown icing, along with a gnarled tangle of pubic hair covering a crudely drawn vulva.

The party is thrown without asking for my consent and I have no time to prepare myself ahead of time. The panic kickstarts when I enter the room. It sets when I realize my textbooks are missing. The cake stands in their place. I am lost reorienting myself.

The music is cacophonous. The pulsing beats suffocate me as they flood my ears and throat. My temples throb with the piercing loudness of a screeching siren. Everything is slightly out of alignment—a double-exposed moving photograph. I drown in noise.

“Happy Birthday” repeats in an endless singsong spiral in my mind. Creaking edges up my vertebrae—the first time anxiety’s talons unfurl to grasp ahold of my mind. I slip out the room, down the hallway, and out the side door, shunning the fluorescent streetlamps until I first stand on the patio shrouded in gloom.

I cannot follow my grandmother’s scents across the hundreds of miles between us. So I hunt the world instead. I chase the soothing balm of peace between shadowed cracks in the spaces around me. I find a home in the darkness and watch the world pass through it instead.

There is so much to see in the dark.

People scurry. No one praises the beauty of the stars or lets the breeze settle on their skin like they do when they bask in the sun or embrace a cool wind. They jump out of their vehicles as if pursued by a pressing enemy. Those who stop and became like stone, hardening their nerves and dulling the slightest twitches, learn what I do—that if you conform your body like the stillness of a tree, the night offers up sweets gifts for your pleasure.

Deer pass nearer than when under daylight’s gaze. They wiggle their shining black noses at my scent, but when I merge my consciousness into the ground and the air, camouflaged in the world nearest me, the deer lower their guard and nibble the freshly watered grass at my feet.

The haunting notes of nightfall’s fleeting nocturne rise in the dizzying clouds of moths that dance in fluorescent halos. Their soft buzzing is a Siren call that entrances me into a haven amongst the void.

The obscurity in darkness provides Love its best arena. Satisfied moans float through the treetops. Yet, Love is equal parts passion and pain. I see women key their anger into car doors and scream vulgarities at constellations. They laugh triumphantly then scatter into the dark with their friends. Sometimes they cry in solitude as they walk across campus, their sorrow rebounding off the buildings. I never see men in the throes of their pain. Perhaps they do this is secret or in places I had yet to discover.

I do not doubt that most everyone unspools in the dark. Lovers and friends. Even enemies. Single and coupled in their many forms. We give the fractured parts of ourselves like offerings to this abyss and hope that these fragments get lost within it.

I have always had a few friends, but I enjoy wandering alone more. This is hard to admit when the world looks at you differently for choosing to be alone. There is a necessary self-cleansing that is found in self-isolation. I never knew how to engage it properly when I was younger. It was in the paths I traced through the sandbox, weaving between the lifeless swings as I shook something loose inside me. It was there when I lay in fields of clover while my classmates played on the blacktop and I felt the rightness of my loneliness.

“You’re an introvert!” proclaims one of my grandmothers, this one is a life coach in Oakland. I reconnected with her when I started college. During our first visit together, she asks me to take a Myers-Briggs test so she can analyze and lay out who I am for the both of us. “You hang out with others, but you draw your energy from being alone, am I right?”

I nod in agreement, but I know that in the whole of it, I seek introversion because there is a comfort in privacy, in entertaining my clamoring nerves.

The summer following my sophomore year, I stay behind to work on my algae research. Most students leave during final exams week. Life on campus dwindles like a slow-leaking balloon until there is nothing left but discarded cardboard boxes and broken appliances cluttering the dumpsters.

The campus is empty except for two other friends and a skeleton crew of staff members. I walk slower than usual. I dawdle in the streets to gape at the Queen Anne Victorian architecture of the abandoned house. I shout in a clearing in the woods that edges the campus. I stop and smell flowers, giggling at the absurdity of my behavior. I discover alleyways, a racquetball court, and stained glass windows. I look up instead of down.

A week later, the campus refills with high school-age foreign exchange students and their adult chaperones from Japan, France, and Turkey. The Japanese only hang out in front of the vending machines in the freshman dorm and in the library, always leaving in groups of three at closing. In between English classes, the French hang out with two of my friends and me but stay in their dorms once dusk falls and a sherbet glaze covers the horizon.

The Turks never sleep, especially the boy who looks like someone’s father. He wears a rotation of the same five shirts and tight-fitting grey jeans that were at one time black. I only see him at sunset holding a crinkled pack of cigarettes. He smells of Old Spice, cologne, and stale Newports, which confuses me when a French boy whispers that this boy sleeps with a different girl every other night. How is this possible? Sweat permanently coats his brow. His mouth mostly knows the shape of a scowl when he smokes and alternates between a line and a frown when he doesn’t.

The Turkish boy, aged beyond his years, leaves his window open and when I am conducting my usual nighttime rounds—after counting the Japanese on my way home from the research lab—I stop in the parking lot in front of his residence hall to look up at his room on the second floor. A breeze kisses the curtains to life. I imagine this Turkish boy, not quite a man but a facsimile of one all the same. Is he charming? Is he sweet? I never see entangled silhouettes framed in his window. No sounds tumble to my perked ears below.

It’s standing under his window, in the grey middle of a Venn-Diagram of a pervert and curious wanderer that I realize my feet are suspended over the edge into the profane. In trying to right myself, I have become lost again.

I leave for two weeks to see my family and to work at a university lab in San Diego. When I return to campus, the French are gone, the Turkish boy’s room lies empty, and the Japanese gather in the foyer of the freshman dorm with their compact, wheeled suitcases. I stand on the second-floor indoor balcony to peer over them. Everyone is smiling and laughing. Some of the girls hug large stuffed animals as they wait. One cradles a brown fur ball that garners joy from everyone around her.

I eventually sit on the floor with my back to them as I listen to their chatter. A charter bus squeals into the front driveway. The students applaud then gather their things and file out the door. When they leave, I walk downstairs and circle the floor in front of the vending machines. The hollowness of the foyer makes me uncomfortable. There is no one left to count, no one left to mull over in the confines of my thoughts. As I turn to go outside, I see the fur ball atop the left vending machine. I pull it down and laugh. It is a small stuffed owl. On a hunch, I squeeze its belly and it releases four gurgled whooo’s. I cradle it like a newborn baby in my hands and take it back to my room. It reminds me of Bubo in the original Clash of the Titans, so I love it deeply and make a perch for it on my desk where it watches over me while I sleep.

During one of my last nighttime strolls, I sit in the mulch behind a copse of mulberry bushes and breathe a sigh of relief. There are too many stars splashed across the deep indigo sky to count with any real earnestness. So, I wait underneath the low branches to catch sight of a shooting star. I am still full of wishes.

I let darkness pulse through my veins with each heartbeat until peace pours through every part of my being. I do not know what to call it, but I know I am no longer shattering.

On the way back to my dorm, I spot an owl sitting atop a streetlamp. We eye each other. Perhaps it eyes the world and me altogether, everything and the two of us wrapped up in the night sky’s inked palms. I stand there staring up at it as if in supplication then I whisper good night. I shake myself loose and leave to go my own way, releasing the tensions from my body until they fall into the squirming world around me.


Des McKinney head shot

DW McKinney is a writer and amateur photographer living in Nevada. She holds degrees in Biology and Anthropology and is the recipient of the 2018 Hellebore Scholarship Award in Creative Nonfiction for her essay “Bitter Grief.”  Her work has appeared in Elite Daily, Stoneboat, TAYO Literary Magazine, Cagibi, The Hellebore, and elsewhere. She is a regular essay contributor to HelloGiggles and On Our Moon. She currently serves as the creative nonfiction editor for The Tishman Review.