by Steve Mitchell
I dreamt his dream again. He was sleeping soundly, warm beside me, and I dreamt his dream; opening my eyes with a start but no sound, opening my eyes without moving. Shocked into place. With only the hush of breathing. Not his. Not quite mine. The breathing which has become a part of us, settled into every inch of our lives. The breathing which reminds. Because the past can become so real that I get loose in time and don’t know where I am and it takes something to snap me into place, something to call me forward again, so I can lie in bed beside him in the dark, early hours of morning, feeling the heat of our knowing under the blankets all around me, and realize for a moment where I am. Soon, I’ll get up and make coffee, leaving the couch to Jim alone. I’ll sit in the kitchen to drink it, watching the light ease into the trees, then the sky, outside the window. The world will take shape around me and the dream will fade and I’ll only be vaguely aware of the breathing, still present, low and even. For now, I let the dream circle around inside me, clacking like a pinball from one organ to the next, one thought to the next. I let the dream have its due. We had left the party early. The night was clean and humid after a summer rain and we wanted to claim our own time. Jim was driving and I was leaning into him, my head resting on his shoulder, my lips at his neck. His hand had drifted along my thigh, under my dress, and his fingers turned there, out of sight, stroking waves of heat into my flesh. We were working to get further into each other’s skin. We were catapulting home on our own rail, rushing to arrive before our bodies exploded into each other, there in the front seat of the car. His fingers slowly stirred a gear, angling deeper inside me, my hand on his chest, my mouth half-open at his neck, his neck warm with the scent of the rain and cigarettes smoked long ago. The car whistled through the slick night: a part of our world, the definition of our world; the shell delivering us home. Home to each other. His head tilted, his mouth angling toward my ear, and he whispered something. Now I can’t remember what it was. I remember his breath building there and the gentle hum of his voice, but not the actual words themselves. And we felt the car hit something. Something slight, a glancing blow. We felt it before we heard it. ‘What was that?’ I straightened in the seat and Jim brought both hands to the wheel, his foot instinctively lifting from the accelerator. ‘I don’t know. A branch, maybe. A squirrel.’ ‘Do you think we ought to go back?’’ The road was black, even and empty, and Jim didn’t bother to pull off to the shoulder. He eased the car to a stop in the lane and we sat there for a few seconds, Jim staring forward through the misted windshield while I studied the road behind, the wet asphalt tinged red in the glow of the taillights. ‘It might be a cat,’ I suggested, ‘or someone’s dog. It might be hurt.’ ‘Yeah, you’re right,’ he replied with a sigh. Jim accelerated slowly, turning the car in the road, the front wheel bumping off the shoulder then bumping back onto the asphalt. He turned the car again 500 feet up and brought it to the edge of the pavement, creeping forward, the headlights throwing a yellow pale into the trees rising a few feet from the road. We inched along, staring hard into the thick wet underbrush and spreading branches. Jim’s hand had returned to my knee and I laced my fingers into his. Finally he found a slight opening in the underbrush where an animal might have darted. He slowed the car to a stop and we got out. I had forgotten how thick and warm the night had become. The dew in the air was nearly visible. Jim was in front of me in the break of underbrush and I bumped into him when he stopped. ‘Oh, my God,’ he whispered. He raised his arm to hold me back but I pushed past him, without thinking, and nearly stumbled over her. In the dream, the woman is naked; in the dream I can see her broken bones beneath the skin, the blood filling the cavity of her lungs. In the dream, I cannot remember her face but I am surrounded by the wet green of the high trees and the rasp of her short, shallow breaths. She was older, in her late forties or fifties, with thin, light hair lying close to her skull. She was wearing rain galoshes unbuckled at the top and a yellow rubber raincoat thrown open to reveal a chenille housecoat over a loose fitting floral dress. Her legs were folded slightly to the left and one arm had been thrown above her head, as if her body were in the midst of a single ecstatic leap. In the dream, she turns, there upon the wet leaves, in a slow spin which never ends, but on that night she lay completely, inescapably, still. I knelt down beside her, Jim stumbling up behind me, and reached out to touch her cheek. ‘Emma,’ Jim said, his voice uncertain and frightened. ‘It’s okay,’ I told him, without knowing what I meant. There was no blood. Her face was deeply lined, her skin pale and loose. Her lips shuddered with the quick, labored breaths. Her eyes were low slits beneath the eyelids. She was cool and wet. “We have to get help,’ Jim said, his voice stronger and more centered now. ‘I’ll stay here,’ I told him. Jim knelt beside me and took the woman’s wrist, searching for her pulse, then his hand came to my shoulder gently. ‘There’s nothing you can do here.’ He helped me up and we moved quickly toward the car, my knees and dress dripping, my hands trembling. ‘I think there’s a gas station a couple of miles ahead,’ I told him, ‘Of all the times not to have my phone.’ The break in the underbrush was larger when I looked back, the high weeds broken and dangling. A mile and a half down the road, Jim began to slow the car. It had come to a stop again before I noticed it. ‘Emma,’ he whispered, turning to me in the seat, ‘we can’t tell anyone.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I stammered. ‘We can’t tell anyone. Don’t you see what it would mean?’ His voice was low, he was staring at his hands. ‘We’ve been drinking, we’ve been to a party. It would mess everything up. The police.’ ‘Jim,’ I was crying now, ‘We can’t just leave…’ Jim leaned in close and placed his hand over mine, ‘I felt her pulse, Emma. It won’t make any difference.’ We are home already, making love on the floor in front of the sofa. A half-empty bottle of wine rests upon the coffee table beside two abandoned glasses. There is a single candle burning high in the window and the night is dark and calm. My fingers stroke the curve of Jim’s shoulder. We are lifting her into the car. I am pushing the door wider with my body, sliding her legs in first along the back seat. Jim is at her shoulders, speaking softly, reassuring her, as we arrange her along the width of the seat. We find a blanket in the trunk to keep her warm. We are sitting, talking, in the front seat with the car idling, the windows fogging around us. There is not another car on this road. Jim is talking about finishing med school. He’s talking about what our life could be. I say something about accidents. ‘There was nothing we could do, Emma,’ Jim whispers, drawing me toward him, ‘she’s probably dead already,’ And she was dead by the time the paramedics arrived. Emily Barstow lived alone in a small house not far from the highway. The police knew her well, as she often called them to complain of aliens landing in her backyard or stood on the shoulder of the road berating cars as they passed. The short newspaper article stated that Ms. Barstow had been arrested on numerous occasions for public drunkenness and had spent several months at the State Mental Hospital. I had convinced Jim to stop at a phone booth so I could call the ambulance anonymously but, by the time they arrived, she was already dead. The newspaper article didn’t help me to know her any better. The texture of her skin and sound of her fading breath told me all I needed to know.
Six months later, I found myself on the bathroom floor at two in the morning. Jim was off, cramming for exams with friends, and I couldn’t keep any food down. I had awakened from the dream again, twisted tight around the sheets, bile rising into my dry throat. I lay naked at the base of the toilet after vomiting, waiting for the next cramp to come. The floor was a hard, cold white rising into the mouth of the toilet and my feet slipped along its surface as I lifted myself to vomit again. I bent low into the bowl, the cramp pushing fluid from my nose and mouth, acrid burning water, which splashed back into my face. I tensed around the cramp, pressing my body at the waist, pressing hard. I wanted it out, I wanted it all out. I lay my cheek along the porcelain rim. It was cold beneath my face where the sweat had dried. I was trying to breathe as my stomach lurched. My legs were curling under me, my body closing in on itself. There was another breath in the room pushing down upon me. I could feel its rhythm and its rustle all around me. My own breath was ragged in my lungs and it would not stay there, it would not settle. As if the body purging itself of all food was now purging itself of air. I struggled, raising myself upon my elbows along the cold floor, gasping for breath, a jagged panic beginning to churn in my stomach. I pursed my lips and tried to exhale in a slow and steady stream, afraid of hyperventilating, afraid that my bronchia were tightening in some weird kind of anapyhlactic shock. I tried to slow my breathing but nothing happened and my lungs were slowly closing; I could feel them tighten, I could hear the air whistling through the narrowing spaces. The panic became electric and my arms flung themselves outward, grasping for anything, slamming the tiled wall and white floor, my bloodied knuckles leaving thin red scars along the tiles. I wheezed and struggled. The other breath was there, slow and steady, around me; trying to enter, trying to force its way through. I heard its rhythm beneath my anguished, constricted gasps. It pressed itself at my lips, it pushed its way into my mouth. I fought it, lying flat upon the floor, slapping my palms against the tiles, the crisp shock cracking from the walls. I fought it until there was no breath of my own left, until my lungs folded in upon themselves, loose as a paper sack, and I wheezed empty, my eyes glazing, my fingers twitching on the floor. Then, it entered me, bringing its own rhythm; it filled my lungs softly. It filled them completely and my body relaxed, all at once, each cell awakening. I began to cry, naked, on my back, staring into the white ceiling. I cried and gave myself to the new breath. I cried, the tears streaking the sides of my face, drying there, then streaking again until pools formed in my ears. The breathing slowed within me so completely that I thought I was dead. Then, I threw myself forward, clutching the toilet bowl, and vomited until I was certain there was nothing left.
All pain is secret; that is its power and its boundary. This pain was once a single tight stem but it has blossomed. The hurt, the ache and guilt then burst outward around the center, becoming larger and more beautiful, forming a sunburst mist in which I could see every tendril, every thread and synapse. It bloomed into a perfect sphere, trembling, waiting only for a breeze to loosen each thin stalk. With my new breath, I blew gently into the sphere. Once I had healed; once my knuckles were no longer bruised and my stomach eased, once my ribs no longer ached and I could sleep. The breath loosened each spore and they took flight, blowing through me, seeding the pain and taking root throughout my body, penetrating every cell. Two years later, I am packing boxes and we are moving from the small med-student ghetto apartment, across town, to a house with a yard, to be near Jim’s practice and the law office where I work. The years here have accumulated all kinds of things, but I’m packing it all and taking it all with us. I know some boxes will be unpacked later and some will simply be shoved into the attic or basement and not disturbed for years. At first, Jim and I tried to talk about the accident. In hushed, urgent tones, for weeks after, we tried to make sense of what we had done. But after a time, each exchange fell into the same grooves and we found ourselves repeating lines we didn’t understand or believe. Eventually, each conversation faded simply into silence or halted whenever Jim said, ‘Some things are best forgotten.’ I think we had always dreamt together; it took the accident to bring it out. We continued to talk about the dreams for weeks after we had stopped talking about the accident; sorting our own images one from the other, and the spaces where they grew thin or overlapped. The dreams were not real, they were imaginary, and that made them cleaner, safer. Soon, we stopped talking about the dreams also, but Jim continued to turn and ache in his sleep and I eventually found myself on the bathroom floor. His dreams sunk deeper, so deep he could no longer recognize them; while mine kept rising to the surface until they were finally indistinguishable from the world around me and pressed in upon me so strenuously that I threw up. Again and again. I had Delacorte, though, and I could always talk to her. We had been students together and, while we didn’t work at the same law firm, the two were close enough to each other that we could manage lunch on Fridays. The Friday lunch eventually transformed into a weekly dinner, our ‘dinner meeting’. It was Delacorte who could make me laugh. With her ridiculous bug-eyed impressions of her co-workers, her outrageous gossip about the law partners. Her well-planned and idiosyncratic shopping trips, with me in tow, to some chic new uptown boutique housed in an old bus garage. It was Delacorte who picked me up at work one afternoon and drove me to the beach. ‘No arguments,’ she explained, ‘just sit there and enjoy the ride. You can complain all you want on Thursday. Thursday is a good day for complaint. Today, however, you just gotta be quiet.’ When we arrived at a strip of coastline secluded by a high dune and a short plateau of rock, she drew two flimsy lawn chairs from the trunk of her car and strode toward the water, planting each resolutely, side by side, a few feet from the surf. ‘Sit here,’ she commanded, ‘watch the sunset. You’ll like it.’ Soon, the sunset erupted over the clear horizon, threading itself into strata of pink and orange and gold, and it was beautiful. I did enjoy it, just as she said I would. I was having dinner with Delacorte earlier in the evening, our usual dinner meeting, and she was talking about another paralegal at the practice whose increasingly shoddy work she constantly had to repair. ‘I don’t want to make a scene at the office but I don’t know how long this can go on before I just snap his neck and force his body through the paper shredder,’ she paused, a forkful of spinach salad near her mouth, and asked me, ‘Sooner or later, someone will notice, right? Sooner or later, one of the attorneys will see who’s to blame.’ My mind had been wandering but her pause drew me back. ‘Maybe it’s not about blame,’ I told her as she chewed, ‘maybe, sometimes, we take responsibility for the people we love. Maybe that’s a part of what love is.’ Delacorte snorted, “Well, I certainly don’t love Burnell!’ ‘I know,’ I smiled, then I tried to explain, ‘What I mean is, maybe you’re responsible for what you see. And the people who don’t see something, or can convince themselves they don’t, maybe it’s not their business. Maybe it’s only the business of the ones who see.’ ‘Lord,’ Delacorte exclaimed, thumping her tea glass on the table for emphasis, ‘that doesn’t seem very fair.’ ‘I know,’ I giggled, ‘It doesn’t.’ ‘Sometimes…’ Delacorte sighed, shaking her head and pointing her finger at me, ‘sometimes you need a second glass of wine.’ I knew Jim was dropping by the new house after work, to finish painting windows, so I was surprised when the lights were on in the apartment. I walked into the wreckage of the living room to find he had fallen asleep on the couch, surrounded by stacked and open boxes, thick wads of newspaper. Over the past weeks, he had hardly slept, dividing his time between the new practice and the house. Now, he was lying on his back, his mouth slack, one hand trailing on the floor. Beside him, on the top of a closed box by the couch was a small gold foil packet of chocolates, a single red rose and a scrawled note which simply said, ‘I tried to wait up…’ I knelt by the couch and whispered into Jim’s ear; he turned onto his side without waking, to face the back of the couch. I took off my clothes and lay down beside him, spooning into the curves of his body, my arm sliding along his chest and coming to rest there. I enjoyed the texture of his clothes against my bare skin. Jim still tossed at night, wrapping the sheet around his body, sometimes clutching the pillow, sometimes murmuring. Often, in sleep, his body felt taut, a fluttering voltage pulsing just beneath the skin. But tonight his muscles had loosened, his face had gone slack. My fingers dusted the features of his cheek and shoulder. I fell asleep beside him and awakened, with a start, to the dream. In the dream now, she spins, winding herself in a fine, translucent thread. I watch her turn for a long time; her face relaxed, her chest hardly moving. The thread winds around her, glistening like a spider web in the dew, until it begins to cover her, swaddling her within a silvered cocoon. This turning slows until the cocoon ceases its spin and drops slowly to the damp leaves. I turn onto my back, fresh from the dream, half on and half off of the couch. Jim is at my side, his breathing slow and even. He sounds peaceful, calm; deep in the arms of night. I’m thinking of the night in the car, his easy touch along my leg and the simple heat between us. I am watching the earth hurtle by us in wet, green streams outside the window, fading into darkness as soon as we pass. I’m remembering his smell then, on that damp night. We are already settled, with good jobs and a modest house. We have breakfast together every morning and drink our coffee slowly, imagining our day or studying the sharpening shadows on the blonde wood of the kitchen table. We are explaining the accident to a policeman and he understands our fear and our concern. He listens to us intently, prompting us with the occasional question. Then, he leads us to a room where we sit together, waiting, while they type our statement. We are lying together on the daybed by the big window, naked, a single cool sheet over us. A storm is raging through the night outside and the rain and occasional leaves whip against the panes. We are not making love. It is before, or it is after. We are holding each other close. I dream the dream for him. I hold a space open, a place he could step into at any time, a self I keep alive for him. I dream the dream so he can sleep.
STEVE MITCHELL lives and works in North Carolina. He has a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that a great wisdom informs very bad movies. Steve is open twenty four hours a day at: www.thisisstevemitchell.com