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.
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?