Where the curtains once were…there, I can only see the sun rise dragging its morning colors along, feathers of pink and orange. Much too bright for Earth. The back of my hand provides protection long enough for me to reach for the glasses with the old prescription. The walls in the room are no longer aquamarine. They’re a creamy sort of color. Like cinnamon. John stirs, but doesn’t open his eyes. I have at least an hour before he asks me where I’ve been.
I notice he hasn’t used the kitchen in a while. Dusty with granola and wine stains. A stitch of guilt boils to the surface of my throat. I turn on the stove and listen for the click, click, click of eager fuel. Blue flames appear and they’re just as I remember them. Swaying like a cold wind has just entered a windowless room. The certain quality of the dream. Deceiving me with expectation and long forgotten memories. I gather myself, taking deep breaths, taking care where I place my feet. The tile beneath me is moody. Anytime now, the shift could come. Black tiles are a green light to elsewhere. White tiles keeps me where I am.
John, if only you knew where I’d been.
I listen for any periodic vibrations or mental impressions to determine my exact location. Car horns, New York. Private conversations, Austin. An odd silence, Los Angeles. Morning light fills the apartment and I wear it like a fur coat. John came to Los Angeles after all. He’s beginning to believe in both versions of our cities.
I dress myself in the room with mirrored walls. Off with his oversized white t-shirt. I button a black blouse, tailored for my body, and trace its gold buttons with my finger. The skirt is ruffled with gray patterns. It’s old, but always does the trick. I become so absorbed with its otherworldly qualities I forget where I am. The room changes, tiled with earth colored bricks, a bath and sink. A large sack sits on the floor covered with a pair of jeans.
The most gentle shift I’ve ever felt.
As I stuff the jeans into the bag, a phone rings displaying the name Lily across the screen. I see an image of her in my mind, a shy girl with auburn hair, eyes framed with thick brows. I waited for her call some time ago. Some life ago. Don’t answer it. Another shift and I’ll never discover who I’m dressing up for.
The door opens and I watch the girls slam their glasses together, half full. They’re older and several drinks ahead of me. I step into the limelight and discern I’ve interrupted a privileged conversation. Sudden hush and smiles can be so difficult to hide. The one closest to me stands up and kisses my hand. She steps away and bows.
They’ve been waiting for me. I discover my presence was not only expected, but planned with precision. She should arriving soon and when she does she will devour me. A perfect, long awaited harvest.
She’s more beautiful than I remember. Lipstick so red I think of cherries saturated in sticky syrup. She never was one to waste time. “You and I could be together right now,” she says, unblinking. Still, those lips are beckoning something strange. It isn’t desire. It’s lascivious in nature. It courses through my body like negatively charged ions releasing the smell of bitter almonds into the air. Such is the way of this poison.
The pain is satisfying for some time before she releases the cyanide nectar into my neck. I close my eyes and expect to see John, but I’ve drifted too far. She carries me up, then gently presses herself against me, the cool pavement against my cheeks. Once extinguished, the extraordinary pain feels like pleasure again and I’m on my feet. She licks her lips and communicates her address. Electrical signals form into words and numbers. Snap. A image of her house forms in my mind. It’s close enough; we’ll have dessert by the beach.
I imagine I’m going somewhere else and the drive is brief. The exit curves sharply and I believe I’m dodging fallen debris over the road when a hand touches my shoulder. He grips and pulls hard. That’s all it takes. We land roughly shattering most of the mirrors, the sound of muscle tearing in our necks. The sounds of his breathing soothes the discomfort of my contorted body. With ease he lifts and brushes the hair away from my face. His eyes twinkle with a fading sadness.
He doesn’t ask me any questions. I understand I’ve been gone for too long this time. He holds me and whispers his updates into my ear. Her name oozes the tenderness of a street covered with Christmas lights, a pretty flickering of primary colors and buckets of glitter. In secret, I thank the dream and pull away from his embrace. I get ready for the flood of emotions to emerge and send me back to my original state. If I’m lucky I’ll wake up completely and release this memory into the darkness of the night.
The bell tolled for the final time. Still, there were a few students running frantically to get to class. Harold didn’t mind being a few minutes late. He found it loathsome to arrive to class out of breath, pens and notebooks trickling out unorganized onto the desk. He liked to stroll in casually, notebook and pen in hand and begin writing.
When Harold entered the classroom his heart began palpitating. The room was empty. The windows were low and faced the south and in the distance a curvaceous figure, shadowed by a seven foot noble fir, stood under it, her head tilted as if she was listening. The curtains came down from their brief sway, dimming the room and directing a sliver of light over the board covered in peculiar writing. Maybe class was cancelled. Or switched to another building.
As Harold tried to read the phrases scrawled across the board he noticed an open book on the desk. When he drew closer, shuffling his feet to the sound of his breathing, the phrases moved away from him. The pages of the book flipped back and forth with startling velocity. Quickly, Harold held them down trying to read something, but was met with uncanny resistance. The words sprung up and fell like water from an in-ground fountain. Harold’s hands were large, but not nearly robust enough to push the words back onto the page. After a moment he pinned down page seventeen and brushed his palm over it. Some of the words landed on the desk and dematerialized. Stunned, he repeated the same motion and watched as the daggers, periods, semicolons, and bullets fell near his feet. Unlike the words, which were sooty and fragile, these punctuation marks seemed resilient and flowing.
Liquid spread across the tiles and soaked the tip of his boots. He thought he saw a message within it. But it suddenly seeped out of focus. Harold was slowly acclimatizing to the strangeness. He left the building and emerged at sunset. How long had he been inside?
He decided he needed water. Something cool to soothe his dry mouth. The coffee cart near the library was close. He approached with caution, anticipating a continued apprehension and spotted a large bottle of water placed directly in front of him. He took it and drank. It wasn’t as refreshing as he’d expected. He took another gulp and spotted a poster pinned against a nearby pole. A tutoring ad. The girl had placed a photo of herself using her hand to form the shape of a phone. Her brown eyes were relaxed. Her smile unfading. For almost a minute there was no sound. His own breathing ceased to exist, then as he felt calm, a woman’s voice, a guttural sobbing that came from the library.
No more buildings he thought. He was conscious of the subtle time manipulations. While the tension in his body swelled he found himself moving toward the familiar howls. They grew more deafening, maintaining a steady intensity. Blind panic surfaced until Harold could no longer control the thoughts in his head. His knees buckled and crashed into the hard, concrete surface. First, only a glimmer of memories. Then, without notice bottomless memories rose, unfiltered, dismantling his defenses with infectious voltage. They burrowed like viral worms, zigzagging between what was left of his denial and the surrounding trenches of dissent, until he was left gasping for breath.
Harold was coming home.
He was a forty year old man. Over the years the women that had inhabited his bed were different versions of the weeping woman he’d met seventeen years ago. As the memories of that life found a safe place to dwell, the dream unveiled its local layers and comforted Harold. The pain is his knees diminished, his defenses were restored.
This was not a good place for him to visit. It catered to his age old tendencies, to the bliss of his willful amnesia.
Months after this woman left Harold, he made a place where he could see her again. All he had to do was go inside the library.
Two years apart and upon his return the reason he left seemed inconceivable. In those late hours of night he’d told himself it was easier to leave and begin anew in another country, a place where he would never see her face. What he hadn’t anticipated were the remembrance of dreams. The weeks passed until he found another woman, sweet and tender, to shuffle his hair in the morning.
But these dreams came in unforgivable waves, coercing the memories out of the darkness of his mind. He remembered everything. For three minutes, in the barely audible lull of birds chirping over the rooftops his other life was still alive and well. She was still calling him. His head rested on her lap as she flipped incessantly through the television channels.
A colossal distraction. Nothing more.
Now that they sleep in the same city again he cannot silence the primal urges. She is everywhere.
The morning dawned, autumnal winds shining the edges of the bedroom window with freshly crushed leaves and he awakens with a sour taste on his lips. The computer hummed and the screen delivered a message. An email with a single line reading: we’ll see each other soon. It twisted his stomach in knots. Even in the simplicity of her words he could still see a future that wasn’t there.
It never was.
A dark library, barely illuminated by the lantern, gives refuge to a young dreamer–dreaming of an old lover despite the passing years–rested her head on the pillow of a known bed and scent. After a moment she stopped and observed the way the old lover removed the bags, a few minutes too late, from the steaming cups. She knows she should withdraw her interest. After all, it’s only as real as a dream.
Helena Feignier, with her sleepy eyes, and a hint of amnesia waited for the woman to slip under the covers. She waited and waited until another figure appeared at the edge of the bed. Now there are three women in the library, but only one is real. Helena rubbed her eyes and tried to remember. The woman making tea exists. The woman on the bed…her presence is comforting.
“Who is she?,” asked the woman, the tips of her toes touching the floor.
“Someone I remember.” The words flowed from Helena’s lips to the gnarled fingers on her lap. “Someone I miss.”
The woman moved away from the edge of the bed. She placed one finger on Helena’s knee and drew it down with ease. “Why is she so special?”
“I can’t remember.” At enunciating those syllables Helena’s mouth trembled. Some memory was forcing its way back into her mind. Grainy images of a college campus, the tall trees and passing faces. Her mind searched for a way to place the memory, to categorize its carried emotions.
As the woman handed over the warm cup, an old energy was triggered and there came the story lines, their personal narrative. Heartbreak. Humiliation. The tenderness had gathered to form a large, bruised mass with thorns sliding along the edges. The woman had made tea as she always had–before those summer months of silence. She’d gone to Mexico to study. To forget.
But Helena knew the timing was right. How else would she mend her broken heart?
Helena placed the tea on the table and rested her head on the pillow. The reverie would give her at least a few more hours before changing. She could continue to pine over lost time or settle in next to her lover and willingly embrace the illusory tendencies of the dream.
As Helena ran her fingers through her lover’s hair, caressing her long white neck, the woman at the edge of the bed smiled awkwardly and looked away. She noticed the woman’s small nose and pouty lips. Familiar. When she looked back into her lover’s eyes, the woman vanished. The tiny vapor trails left behind released the scent of wet soil. A well acquainted scent from her real life. The gravity of memories came forth once again.
Sweet delusions are unstable.
Helena drowned the memories in the kisses of her lover. It seemed fruitless now that she knew who that other woman was. But she clung nevertheless and held her close; she said her lines on cue and submerged herself under the surface, just deep enough to keep the dream still.
Midnight approached. A deadline. Precisely eighteen minutes left of the year with another one ahead full of doubt, anticipation. The progress of the novel was consistent enough for the last month, but without the necessary inspiration and writing space I resorted to drinking coffee in the middle of night. It took one cup to keep my eyes open, two to stay focused. And a third to begin writing.
As the sun rose, Rebecca parted the curtains and watched the dust float in a beam of light.
A laughable attempt at beginning a final chapter. My editor will certainly mark a line straight through the sentence. Six minutes left of the old year. When the new year finally comes the chapter will be complete, a bittersweet end for the Sanctuary Saga, pouring the old year’s frustrations and disappointments into the space between words.
Ah, two more minutes and I will forget who I am and why I write. I will be possessed by an unstoppable force that propels my fingers forward and across the keyboard, where my eyes are no longer directed onto the screen, but on the stretch of world beyond the window. If I rotate the blinds I’ll let the night sounds console me as I ignore the strain in my hands and arms. After four hours I will need twenty ounces of water. But I will not get up. I will remain on this seat, fixed to the images that run from inside my mind outward and replay before me.
Rebecca parts the curtains, but an old memory disturbs a seemingly ordinary Wednesday morning.
Alas, the deep recesses of my mind, of the past and its secrets will rise swiftly and join into sentences. The images in my mind will come alive and I will become an observer. Rebecca will breathe, move, pick up the phone when her husband tells her he won’t make it for dinner. She will not need me anymore. Not until the disease begins to heal itself, to fade away into the next sunrise. The final chapter will shape itself into a raw mold only I can form. Rebecca follows her husband to work. That wasn’t a lie. When he leaves she follows and enters a neighborhood on the other side of town. She needs fuel, but will run the dial and wait for the warning light.
I see now why she doesn’t trust him. In a matter of weeks, his happiness was restored by someone else. Hers, it was left without a glance during her childbearing years. An hour gone and Rebecca’s journey appears to come to an uncomfortable end. But she doesn’t follow him because the truth will ruin their marriage. She wants the truth. What matters is the knowledge. Not the reaction.
I’m thirsty. The story won’t acknowledge this. Two more hours before the healing can begin. On the final hour, when Rebecca’s journey is complete and when the fleshy ache in my back and neck cease my fingers will slow down and I will rest. Night becomes day and sleep will subdue the force occupying my body.
The midnight disease will arrive in three, two, one…
Before she could reach for the telephone the man wrapped around Sam’s legs ran his hands across the front of her dress and pulled her away. The phone rang once more and ceased. She knew it was Kevin. He was home early from his weekend ski trip with his boss. Three whole days without tending to his every need and Sam felt a weight had been lifted. She could leave the unbearable silence of the house behind her and enter the city. Alone and without supervision. What she found was a man willing to indulge in the passion of secrecy. A hotel room for two. Two open windows. The noise of the city below them as the man’s kisses reminded her of an earlier time; before she married Kevin and entered a world filled with pretense and unforgiving expectations.
The man continued to kiss her as she unbuttoned his shirt and slid slender fingers past his shoulders. The sensations of his touch drifting through her body were losing their vivacity. Instead, what emerged were old memories. Kevin the morning of their honeymoon. Cooking in a tuxedo, barefoot, and over caffeinated. It was an image she involuntarily recalled whenever the guilt arose. If he knew, she had another year or two before Kevin broached the topic. If he was oblivious, she had an indefinite period of time to elongate the shadow of their marriage. Either way, it would half a decade for either of them to sever the last twelve years. It was easier to ignore the awkward glances, the routine of sharing the same bed with the unmistakable center divider and the sloppy goodbye kisses, all for the neighbors who watered their lawns on Saturday mornings. It seemed almost natural to lie about where she’d been.
She moved her head from side to side as if to shake away Kevin’s face from her mind. The man continued to discover the intricacies of her outfit. He folded her skirt and climbed over her, still covering her with kisses. The fantasy was falling apart. She shut her eyes tightly and began again. The new man is still here. His hands are warm and firm. Not like Kevin. Every gesture is meaningful. The kisses resume over her shoulders and down her back. Still here, she thought.
The heat of the room became still. She opened her eyes and recognized the grainy ceiling above her. She’d wanted to smooth it out, but Kevin insisted in keeping it. He said some things were meant to be kept pure. Her eyes moved down her legs and noticed the other pair of feet beside her. Much larger than hers and all too familiar. A birth scar over his toes. The odor of unopened windows, dusty curtains and unwashed bed sheets. Kevin wrapped his arms around Sam and held her close. The forceful break of the fantasy left her stunned, unmoving. She waited until Kevin fell asleep and slide over to the other side of the bed. The sheets were cold, but soothing over the skin. She stared at herself in the mirror and examined the lines across the eyes. No matter how much she’d wanted her internal world to hold shape, it had taken nearly a decade to admit the truth; her fantasies would never leave the confines of this room.
He hadn’t visited in a while. Not for lack of trying or desire or understanding. It was simply a matter of remembering where he’d first seen her. Was it a warehouse? A cabin in the woods? No, it was Spanish house built three hundred years ago with two rooms and a kitchen perfumed with melted butter, cakes and frosting. She always wore a green scarf and walked around the house barefoot until the bottom of her feet were smudged with dust and dirt.
Having walked nearly fifteen miles through the blizzard he knocked on the door, setting his expectations aside and eagerly listened for the unlatching of lock and key. A crack in the door and the wind carried the strength of his voice away. He asked again. “May I come in for a rest?”
The door opened and the bits of snow on his face dissolved and landed on the floor. She took his things and tossed them over the chair. “Have a seat,” she said.
She disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a loaf of bread and a jug. “Not from around here, I see.” She spoke with a peculiar tone, as though the words were not hers.
“Not sure where here is,” he said, surprising himself with the revelation.
As she cut the bread he noticed the finger where the shadow of a ring used to be. Curious, he studied her face, noticing the deep blue eyes framed by the straw hair. He’d found his old flame, burning the loneliness inside a warm house without windows. She was still beautiful and youthful, but something was concealed in her movements, the knowing glances she gave him as he ate the bread. “Thank you,” he said, as though their time in that other life never was. “I’m here for you,” she said. And this time she meant what she said.
Now that she was here, after all the traveling, the amnesia, he’d finally recovered enough to reach her. But it was too late. He knew that now. She wasn’t married anymore. It didn’t change anything. “I’m moving to New York,” he heard her say. He looked away and the knowledge and love that drove him to this very moment grew heavy with despair.
The kiss that followed served as another reminder. She was his lover that one night.
The lingering obsession was of his own making. When he fell asleep it brewed into a dark stew that simmered through the dreamlike hours of the night. As his visual field grew blurry and the denial pulled down on this shoulders, he looked for certainty in this place and found the illusory traces of broken heart. The bread he’d eaten had vanished. The storm had ceased. The woman with the green scarf stood there, with the tenderness of aged love, and said, “I’m here for you.”
It was a kind of truth. She was there, not for him–because of him– and his unwillingness to surrender the rapture where the instance of love leaves the human heart branded with immutable sentiment.