In my dream you laughed at me

In my dream your hair was long again. I remember when we would swim in the ocean together and then let the sun kiss the water off of our skin with its growing, caressing heat. I would run my hand through your hair and feel the salt in it. The salt was what made it stay, you know. Sometimes it would stand almost straight up. I have a picture of you, leaning on my car, wearing your sunglasses, a crooked smile slapped onto your face as you stared at me as I stared at you through the camera lens through the lazy rays of late afternoon sunlight. Your hair reached skyward, saluting the sun.

It is spring now and you are gone, and all that remains of you are memories, throbbing, raw, like exposed nerves in a dry socket. Our summer days have long been over but in my sleep we were somehow reunited, in false versions of ourselves.

We were lying together on a sun-heated slab of old, cracked, dry pavement. A worn sidewalk probably, or maybe just an isolated slab of beaten concrete, somewhere in a suburban maze of endless sidewalks in the shabby outskirts of a city. There were no cars or people in the dream, so it doesn’t matter much what the context of the concrete was. But I know that it was hard cement.  That is the important part.

You lay on your back and I sat on top of you, our hips kissing. We were wearing summer clothes. My bare knees bit the hot concrete. I played with the buttons of your cotton shirt, plaid, soft, forever you. I felt your belt buckle against the zipper of my shorts, felt your hands as they rested on the curves of my waist. Everything was hot with you and with this–hot pavement, hot hands, hot tongue. It all began to burn a bit. I bent over you, folding, my hands cupping your head. Your hair stood up the way it did in summer in summer in summer and you smiled up at me with white teeth and smooth lips.  We were talking, softly, joking and mocking, just the way we used to. The exact words don’t come to me. My hands found your face and began meticulously searching for the tiny grit of stubble, but my fingers slipped over smooth skin, so I suppose it hadn’t grown back since your most recent shave. My fingers went on searching, slipping, lapping up the feel of the glide, of my skin on your skin, of fingertip on cheek.

It was all going along fine, the sizzle of the sidewalk, the dizzying spotlight of the sun, the gliding, the touching, the soft small talking noises that were coming out of your mouth. But then the talking must have changed, you must have said something–a word pronounced the wrong way, a saying with the morals mixed incorrectly, like a recipe gone awry, a joke that poked me in the stomach, not in a silly, harmless place like the ribs or the arm. I remember whatever you said made me mad. But it didn’t seem to bother you the least bit. No, you smiled up at me through white walls of teeth and your eyes crinkled the way they always did when you were smiling too big to be sincere or kind.

Resentment washed me with cold, with darkness, a wave full of seaweed crashing down on a clean shore. I glowered, I wilted, I collapsed down onto your chest, my hair hung thick and heavy over my forehead. You did not rub my waist with that “aw, cheer up!” kind of childlike comfort that you used to.

In sweet dreams, everything that can go right will go right. And if it doesn’t, it still turns out right. You take it with that dreamgrain of salt, and say, “Hey, this is madness anyway, everything is still good.” But in nightmares, things sometimes start out all right and slowly deteriorate into a decaying waste of dreamflesh. You watch the perfect scene crumple, collapse, fall in on itself like a black hole, and like true black holes there is no escape. Not until you wake up. You must keep watching, you must keep witnessing, you must keep dreaming and believing in the dream until you open your eyes and can see for yourself that this is reality, not that other warped thing that’s fading in your memory with each passing breath. But as long as you’re REM sleeping away, there is no escape. Not yet.

As you grinned and grinned at my wilting and weeping, my disappointment morphed, transformed, grew larger and hotter, sprouted webbed wings and venomous fangs, surpassed anger and sprouted straight to fury, coiling, hissing, spouting fire from a gaping, grimacing mouth. It pounded up inside of me, rising in me like a heat wave, and I watched my hands move from your face to your throat, and there they paused, pulsing, feeling the stubble that had grown there. Yes, there was stubble. My fingers pushed at it, feeling the sharp grit. It was like pencil leads growing from your throat. The rage simmered for a moment, coiled back up, held its breath.

My fingers slid down behind your neck and I felt my knuckles scrape on the concrete. I laced my fingers and let my thumbs lie lightly on your throat, framing your Adam’s apple. I could feel my own pulse in each of my thumbs but I could also feel yours, too, gently tapping out a message beneath the thin, stubbly skin. You began to laugh. The rage returned, this time pounding at the limits of my chest, filling me as though a freight train were coming full speed down the track of my spine, through the tunnel of my ribs.  I spoke words to you through gritted teeth, my frustration hissing out of me in the form of words and words and spit and words and the pulsing clench of my hands around your neck. And still you laughed.

I began to shake you, to stop you from laughing. Never had I wanted to tear the sound of laughter apart before. But I wanted to rip the sound with my hands, to tear the sound away from your mouth and shred it over and over, like a piece of paper, smaller and smaller until there was nothing left but a tiny pile of miniscule shavings. There would be no way of putting them back together. Laughter would never be the same, never so whole. It would never be so cruel, it would never draw a finger and point and point and laugh that vicious, snarling, whooping laugh that I have come to detest so much. Laughter should never come to that. In my dream I tried to stop it.

I shook you, softly at first, but then harder, hard enough to make your head bobble and to alter the sound that sang from your throat. I remember the weight of your head, goddamn, that was a heavy head. But I shook you I shook you and I bared my teeth and snarled at you and tried with all of my might to make you see that “now is not the time to laugh, you bastard, you stupid fuck, you can’t laugh at me, not now, not now.” And I shook you and screamed the words into your face. But your face was still warped, distorted, the face I loved doing something that the face I loved should never do, not ever. You mocked me unfairly, unfeeling, unfriendly. You laughed at my misery and I would never forgive you for it. I could never let you live with it.

Your head rose from the ground, slowly, as though it were choreographed and filmed, slowed down to twelve frames per second. In a sickening arch your head lifted, curved forward and up toward me, and then fell again, drawn back to earth by gravity.. Your skull kissed the concrete hard, the way you used to kiss me.

The sound of your skull cracking against the concrete sent shivers down my spine. There was a shattering. Not only of your skull but also of everything, of the world and the sky and the dream and my memories. Nothing stayed intact. Nothing but your laughter and the expression on my face. The freight train within me blared its horn. The anger stayed.

It stayed as your head cracked against the ground a second time, and a third and a fourth, on and on. And your laughter stayed, slaying the air, echoing off the concrete slabs of sidewalk and up into the bluewhite abyss of the sky, but your face began to change. You looked sleepy, so you half-closed your eyes, and your mouth stopped making the laughing shape and went slack, but still the laughter ripped on and on, like the unbearable sound of a flock of birds beating their wings hard against the air, the sound the flapping made as it hit the ground and bounced back up and off and over. Your laugh went on and so did I, shaking you over and over, relishing the feeling of your heavy head as it sprung back up from the concrete into my hands.

I realized, then, that your face was no longer there. You had dissolved and I had not even realized it. The last bits of your skin flaked off on the palms of my hands. I no longer gripped a hot throat and the weight of a head, but a skeletal neck, flimsily attached to a naked, empty skull. And still I did not stop. Still, I shook and shook and watched with great pride as my hands delivered the final blow, the last shock. Your fragile skull could take the abuse no more and, upon hitting the pavement for the umpteenth time, it fractured, splintered to bits and went ricocheting off in a cloud of bony dust and grayish white chips. The sidewalk was burning by now. If you had had a brain it most certainly would’ve fallen right out and lain dripping and miserable on the hot concrete. It might have even fried.

As I realized what I had done, my fury subsided, fast and sudden, as though it were embarrassed. It was like that burst of flame when you feed kindling or newspaper into a dying fire. The flame roars up, strong and hot and bright, but then it dies down, retreats back to the safe darkness of the singed, heavy logs, the sweet, soft light from the glow of the embers.  I stared down at the broken skull, the plaid shirt that covered the shoulder blades, the exposed ribs. The hipbones were hurting me, digging in to the backs of my thighs. Part of me whimpered, What have I done? But I hushed that part and nodded gently, ignoring the single tears that streaked from each eye.  It had to be done.

The dream ends. I wake up. I take a breath, another, another. The dream does not fade. It stays fresh and sharp in my mind. Every time I blink I see the empty eye sockets, the gaping mouth of the hole in the dome of the skull, the edges jagged, like teeth. Why doesn’t it fade? I wonder.  Why doesn’t it fade?

Jenna Bernstein


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