Night and Day of a Dreamer

Every now and then I dream about you.

Tonight you play a central role. You tell me you like the way my hair smells as we walk together down the empty hall towards our designated offices at work. I clutch my papers to my chest and you hold yours loosely in your swinging hand. In your other hand you hold a cigarette. You raise it to your lips and as you take in the smoke you half-close your eyes; your face is smooth and serene. When you exhale the soft cloud of gray it rises and streams from your mouth, trailing behind you like words left unsaid.

Once, in real life at the office, I overheard you talking to a coworker about smoking. You said you only smoked when you were nervous.

My eyes find your hand–I see your fingers shaking–and then your face. You nod a farewell and veer off to the right, disappearing into the dark cave of your office while I walk on, listening to the muffled taps of my heels on the carpet. I turn into my office and flip on the lights, which flicker and ring as they come to life. My office is small. There is a desk. I try to keep flowers on it, but I often forget to water them and then they die, slowly and thirstily, before my eyes. There is a beauty to their death, though, with their crippled petals on drooping heads, too heavy for the frail stems to support. The once deep blue petals have decayed and lightened and curled up along the edges. They look delicate, and crunchy.

“Ahe-he-hem.” I whip around at the sound of a voice, a throat, mouth and teeth preparing to formulate sentences, clearing the runway so that the words can take flight.

You are there. In the doorway of my office.

You and I have never spoken in real life, but short, nice conversations between us are not unusual in my sleep. Our dream-speak is simple and pleasing, but I wake up always wanting more, wanting real-speak.

“You dropped some of your papers,” you announce. It is a true statement. I glance down at my arms and find them empty. How did I manage to drop all of them when I was clutching them so tightly? It occurs to me that maybe it wasn’t the papers I was crushing to my chest, but just my own arms, trying to hold myself together as I walked next to you.  My heart rattled in my chest.

“Oh. Yes. It seems I have.” The words come out clear and well enunciated. I am proud of my voice. I feel a power coursing through me. How loud and strong my voice sounds! I tuck a lock of hair behind my ear and smooth out my skirt once, twice, three times and then glance up at you–but you are gone. I hear your footsteps tapping down the hall, the sound echoing off the walls. I shuffle quickly to the door and watch you kneel before the puddle of white papers on the floor of the hallway. The building appears to be empty. The offices are dark. The receptionists are gone.

I see you reach forward to the center of the white and topple in, head first. You are swallowed by them. Damn those files.

I stride gracefully and cautiously forward again, my steps shortened and restricted by my heels and skirt. I stare down into the white abyss, freckled here and there with inky words, fresh from the printer. I see a tiny black speck, miles and miles down. It is you.

Falling.

The speck grows smaller. Disappointment swells in my chest and numbs my mouth. My voice was just getting so strong, too. I would’ve spoken so many words to you.

The speck is more like a pinprick now. You are barely visible. And now you are gone. I sigh and kneel in the exact place you were and gather the papers from the outside in, narrowing and narrowing the white. Finally I have reduced it to a single rectangle. I place my hand on the white and find it to be paper again. The portal is gone. All that remains are some words on the page. Boring words, business words. Some numbers and figures.

I gather myself and stand up tall and perfectly straight. I am alone in the hallway. My own powerful voice still shouts in my ears. I begin to think, why silence myself? Why not speak a little? I don’t need an audience. “Hello!” I call, and the sound is so loud that for a moment I doubt that I made it myself. I stare in wonder at the blank walls around me, still hearing the echo of my voice reverberate and cling to the plaster.

I pause and a gentle smile plays across my face as a tiny, distant voice, certainly not a clone of my own, calls back a greeting. I look at the papers again and hug them softly to my chest. They do not fall this time.

Music trills from my alarm. The dream is over. The day has begun. I go through the morning motions mechanically, for I have performed each action so many times. I take my time in the morning. I squint against the bright lights in my bathroom. I gently rub the face wash over my cheeks and forehead in small slow circles. I appreciate the soft plush feel of the towel on my face. But the feeling of sleep is still heavy on me. The dream rolls around behind my eyes. I feel it in my chest and cheeks.

I push through the heavy doors of the building where I work, pressing a stack of papers in a manila envelope to my chest with one hand, holding a cup of steaming black coffee in the other. The cup is hot and it’s burning my fingertips.

I clip down the carpeted halls in my heels. People pass me, like they do every day. They dodge around me, heads down, eyes on their watches or phones or papers. I try to keep my head up, but I can’t help myself. My eyes drop, and I melt into the crowd. I’m at ease when I’m invisible.

A shoulder bumps my coffee-holding hand and hot liquid screams down my wrist. I pause and wince, hissing through my teeth as I squint at the burn. But I gather myself quickly and keep moving.

“Sorry!” a voice calls hastily from behind. I pause mid-step and pivot on my heels. I feel my body tip precariously, but catch and center myself. I glance back, searching to find the owner of the voice. Oh. It is you. Our gazes meet and cling and catch on each other.  I search for words, but they are lost within the corridor of my throat. My tongue feels dry and sticky as I suck in a breath quickly through my teeth. My arms grow cold and I feel a thudding in my chest, a low kick drum heavily pounding, its tempo rapidly increasing.

“Alice, right?” you ask, forcing a smile over a confused and slightly concerned look. I try to formulate words, but all that comes out is a shaking sigh and moving lips. I nod once. Short. Sweet. I am embarrassed and angry that my words have turned to ghosts. I can almost see them streaming up from my mouth and into the air, like vapor on a winter day. You don’t see me drowning, though. You glance at your shiny silver watch and toss me one last glance with a grimacing smile. I see the side of your face, a crescent of a perfect silver moon, turning away into the crowd. We were moving in opposite directions.

I watch the back of your head for a minute. Your hair that I’ve watched and dreamt of touching, that always looked so special and soft, now looks identical to the hair of the surrounding heads. I keep track of you for a minute, but I blink, and I lose you in the crowd of ties and jackets and crew cuts. I flutter. The air is gone from my lungs.

My heart is loud and beating hard for a few moments, but soon it calms and my arms relax and the rushing rigidity is gone from me. I breathe. I turn to face back in the direction that I was going. Misery seeps through my muscles as I reach the safety of my office and settle into familiar and comforting solitude behind my desk. My wilting flowers haven’t quite reached their dream beauty yet. They’re halfway there.

Your voice rips through my head over and over, Alice, right? Yes Alice. Right? Right?

Alice. Right.

Lakes in Winter

A frozen lake unfolds and spreads between us.

I see it almost like curdling milk,

three drops of lemon juice and

the milk ruffles in clouds, thick and opaque and white.

I stand on one shore, you on the other,

Gray white ice under white gray sky

The color of cataracts in Elsie’s eyes.

It will snow soon, you say.

Your voice carries like a gull

From one gray bank to the other,

Equipped with the look of flapping wings

And feathers quivering in the thermals.

The ice on the lake looks smooth and hard as marble.

I begin to think Well what if this is just one piece

Of some vast table of marble hidden under the earth.

I’ve always loved marble, marbled bread, rolling marbles

Across the floor and listening to the sound of the spin

Against the wood.

I want snow! You yell, taking a wide stance and

Throwing your arms out to your sides.

Your voice balloons bigger through the air,

The sound breaking up against the trees and the sky.

From this side of the lake, so far away,

You look like a dark star, dressed in jeans and north face,

The five points of you reaching finite on the edge of

The ice unfolding frozen white, shore to shore.

–Jenna Bernstein

The Thaw

Remember the way it

Felt in your lungs that winter?

The harshness of it all

As you took in the frozen air?

Remember how it

Would tighten up your throat

As you gasped it down, but

Once it was down it stopped feeling

So cold

And separate?

Remember the taste of my mouth

As I let my thoughts

Go tumbling into yours?

They were thoughts I couldn’t say out loud

But thoughts that I still loved to think

And still do love to think.

Yes, it was a good winter,

One full of ice crystals that would

Form on the windows overnight,

Blocking out the world beyond

With lacey patterns and fractured light.

It was the winter when Reality died

And was buried under four feet

Of powdery snow that looked

Like it should be soft and billowy

But, like all snow, was not.

We didn’t go out there much.

We forgot about Reality for a while.

I would pour us each a glass of

Cheap red wine and we would sip

And sip until the stars outside

Would show up on our ceiling

And the fire in the fireplace

Began to doze off.

But when the snow began to melt

We found it out there, revived,

Lying in a puddle of March slush,

Taking deep, slow breaths of cool air,

Sucking on our dreams like a newborn.

– Jenna Bernstein

Treasures

“I don’t want this anymore,” she said pointedly, her hand held out to him. Her palm and fingers, curved like a soft, round seashell, held a weighty, vital object that did not quite fit into the bowl of her hand.

He looked at her in silence for an endless twelve seconds. She did not return the steady gaze that beat at her like fists. Only he would never beat her with his fists. He would only playfully punch her shoulder before tightening his arms around her and loosening them, swooping her down towards the floor, letting her drop with a feeling like throwing a precious object, before catching her again, locking her safely back against him.

“Just take it,” she said, still not meeting his eyes. “Please.”

The last word was what forced him into action. He could never turn down a polite request from her. He could never deny her anything. His eyes still pushed at her quietly as he extended a hot and pulsing hand. She turned her hand over and let its contents fall heavily into his palm. As soon as she had relinquished the beating object, she folded her arms tightly across her stomach and collapsed in a little, as though it was her own heart that she had just returned. She looked to the left of her left shoe, and then to the right of her right shoe, pretending to examine the cracks on the pavement with great interest.

“So, that’s it? You’re just going to give it back and stand here in front of me and expect me to forget about you and forget about everything?” As he spoke the words, exhaling them light and fast, he moved closer with his free hand poised, reaching to make warm contact. His own furious aching heart still clenched and unclenched, wet and red, in his other hand, with a sound similar to a dry sob.

“Don’t,” she said, recoiling back out of his reach. “Please don’t,” she hissed through gritted teeth, her eyes still cast down at the patch of ground that she stood on. He let his outstretched hand fall limply to his side.

“Why are you doing this?” Pain curled from his throat, seeping into every word like ink on paper.  He craved the sight of her upturned face, the soft, shadowy line where her lips met, the freckle beside her eye. He begged her to look up, look at me.

“I’m doing this because I have to. I’m doing this for me. Do this for me.”

The now erratic beating of his heart drew his attention.  It was troubled. It was straining. It was being torn apart, right down the middle, splitting ventricles and atriums, ripping the chambers one from the other. A soft wetness unfurled on his hand as the crimson liquid spread, and heat breathed from it. He felt it pooling in the lines of his palm. He felt it running, spilling slightly off the side, trickling like water between his fingers, only it was thicker than water and slower than water and warmer than water and richer than water. He strained to hear the tiny splashing sound it would make as it struck the ground, but his own voice interrupted his listening.

“I can’t,” he said. His voice sounded weak and high, like it had come from a mouth located a foot or two above his head. His heart continued to shred itself violently to hot bits of smooth flesh in his hand. It wept silently on the bed of his palm.

Look at me look at me please look up at me.

She shook her head very softly and seemed to clutch herself tighter, her fingers grabbing anxiously at her sides.

“I have to go. I’m working tonight.” Her voice sounded falsely casual and still she did not look at him. Her nervousness, or was it guilt, radiated from her in shimmering waves. He saw her in this state and again he wanted to touch her. He wanted to pull her into his arms and hold her and tell her that it would be all right.

Tiny specific events played rapidly before his eyes. He roved over moments, shared and significant, that stung him. The ragged fragments of his heart quivered and heaved in their death throes, half-drowning in the fresh liquid that had pooled in his hand.  His mind reeled back to his house, to the bottom drawer of his desk, where he kept pictures of them together and notes that she had written to him and postcards that she had sent to him from when she took a vacation to Spain and mixed CDs she had burned for him and a sweatshirt that she had once forgotten at his house that still held the soft blooming scent of her and a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird, her favorite book and–

A bus wheezed to a halt at the end of the street, shattering his long stream of thoughts and images. She looked quickly over her shoulder to confirm that it was her bus. He stared at her blankly, the swell of confusion diminishing to tiny, dull ripples. Her eyes then turned up at him, staring firmly back. For the first time that day she looked him straight in the eye. She held the hurt, empty forlornness of his gaze. He watched her searching eyes, as though she were digging deep for something lost, combing a beach for buried treasure. He watched the small, mechanical flicking movements of her eyes as they surveyed and probed him. “I guess I’ll see you around.”

She waited for him to respond but when he didn’t she bounced awkwardly on her toes several times before turning to walk toward her bus, which idled impatiently.  She left him standing in the middle of the street, alone with his heart. He listened to the doors squeal open to allow her into the belly of the bus. He listened to the gas catch as the bus roared away. He could not bring himself to turn, but he imagined her sitting in the seat, twisting to look out the window at him, a hand pressed delicately against the glass.He listened as the grumblings of the bus faded away into the distance. He listened to the wind that made branches beat against the sides or roofs of houses. He listened to a child raucously laughing somewhere down the street.

His heart had fallen still and dead in his hand. It had put up a fair fight as she spoke the killing words. He tipped his hand slightly to drain the puddle of liquid. It was still warm, but cooling down now.

He turned to make the 14-step journey back to his house, where she had come to return what he had given her. To break the news to him. In his hand, the wetness receded, retrieved by the heart. The flesh in his palm contracted, rounding and compacting itself into a cool smooth, metal surface. As his feet carried him up his steps, as his free hand turned the knob of his front door without feeling it, he rubbed his other thumb across the face of the pocket watch he had given to her on her birthday last year. It had been his grandfather’s watch, and it was a beautiful antique, still fully functional and glimmering through its age. He felt that he had given a part of himself away to her then, happily sure that he would not have it back for a long while.

“Treasure it,” he had said to her in a mock-serious tone when she held it tenderly in her hands for the first time. She had looked at it as though it contained a secret, or a message that only she could decipher. When she held it she smiled.

He traced the edge and pressed the catch and the device sprung open jauntily in his palm. The watch ticked steadily away, the hands depicting an accurate time, according to the clock in his room. So it had not stopped, or even slowed in its time away from him.  Tick-tick-tick-tick. He felt the smooth face of the glass on the watch and stared at it, watching seconds spin out minutes, which spun out a quarter of an hour or so. His eyes prickled and suddenly he could not recall if he had been blinking over the past block of time. His breathing ceased to be an automatic task. He forced himself to take in air and to let it out and to repeat and repeat and repeat. Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.

He curled shut his hand around the watch, closing it with a louder-than-expected click. He opened the drawer that contained the collection of beautiful, tragic little things. He placed the watch with the utmost care gently upon her sweatshirt, half burying it beneath a fold of light blue cotton, a treasure concealed within a sea. His eyes took in the objects for a long moment and a distinct coldness began to bind his chest.  He closed the drawer and crossed the room to his bed, upon which he laid himself heavily down. His limbs weighed more than they had ever weighed before and his head began to pound, riled into a furious aching pain by the twittering of birds outside and the soft gunning rumbles of cars on the street. The loudest noise of all was the sound that knocked from within his desk drawer. The clockwork was seamless and the noise was never-ending. Tick-tick-tick all night long and all day long. It was the only thing he heard.

 

By Jenna Bernstein