The morning was only growing colder. The streets were still dark. He crawled down roads, staring, as if looking through a window; drenched with past and haunting images of days that now seemed to never have been. But the minutes wouldn’t stop.
He stood waiting, coughing. The chill of the night had entered him. The lamp by the bed was broken so he lay still all night, counting the hours until dawn. There was a strange rage inside him and it was fascinating being so angry.
Then the morning came, with its pure air and the things that spoil it – like bicycles going past the train station, their parts creaking, as if on a mission to ease him into the day. He knew the storms would come, and he knew to always let them bend it. His rage was better than breaking. It was a gift.
These were dreams he shouldn’t have had. Nobody should ever have to clean up their mornings like that. But it was impossible to control them. They took place while he was awake, and they were incandescent, burning through him, radiating through him for days. They were, in a sense, the skeleton of all reality. They seemed the work of a sick man, a work of great patience and simplicity and sadness. They were his masterpiece. He knew he could never let another touch them.
But in the mornings, in his shower, in the walk out the door, as he reached for them, turned them around and wondered if, by any rearrangement of events, by any accident could they be slipped into real life, the whole concert fell apart in his hands like old newspaper. There was nothing tangible to stitch together, only memories of things that screamed in his dreams at night. If only he could pull it all out, long and connected like magicians’ scarves hidden in magicians’ sleeves. But there was nothing left but reality, and reality couldn’t give him what he wanted, and he didn’t want what reality was willing to give; so they began to ignore each other.
The early train started rocking along, rushing through villages. Rain was beating against the window. He sat in silence, going ahead only because of some sort of curiosity, to discover where it would all vanish. The world outside was no longer mysterious. There was nothing on the other side; there was no other side. He was living in hell and hell was all there was, daylight to midnight.
Hunched over his seat, listening to the rain, he thought of how what didn’t kill him only made it all much harder. What didn’t kill him kept him up all night. What didn’t kill him made him want to kill it; but he wasn’t all that brave. He sighed, feeling a moment of great loneliness rushing to meet him.
Then the train stopped, and The Day started.
When he left the office the clouds had melted like ice, the air was lucid and sweet, and the skies were unexpectedly freshened – all things that did not matter at all. He was battling monsters, pulling himself out of burning building. Back in his silent house, he would spend maddening hours inside mint green walls again, altering past dreams in order to form brighter future ones. He might as well start now.
Certain things he remembered exactly as they were and nothing could be done about them. These fragments entered him, able to part his flesh, a story of things that almost happened and made a world that almost did what he said and almost loved him back before the sunlight plunged everything into the darkness again. They were merely discoloured a bit by time. Most of them, though, had long since been transformed or rearranged to make his insomnia bearable – just like one alters his past memories to better deal with their real life.
Then the light changed and a new quality appeared in it, an intensity that meant aliveness had found a home. Somebody was keeping it from passing through with bold, brusque movements. Somebody was living out loud next to him. Somebody was still living out loud. He brushed his hair behind his ears and coughed hard; he knew he’d thrown something away and he was mean, but he was going in for one last chance at redemption.
A fiction for which a place already existed in his heart turned into fact. Images of her were flashing in front of him, dripping like extra paint onto extra walls. She was a cup of universe, dancing, turning in the orange light with both hands full of life, almost spilling herself laughing and dancing and throwing her head back, letting her hair shake down her shoulders – but never quite.
The future didn’t surprise him. Much of it existed already but she did not exist until then, and she was magnetising and intoxicating. She had quiet and soft-eyes, but her manner was lively and decisive. Equal parts old soul and starry-eyed child, something about her was straightforward and reassuring. It seemed to him that she was the paint brush and the world was her painting. He knew what she was, and he was ready to fall to his knees like a believer.
It was by glances, exhausted glances from across a crowded place that he discovered her, the flashes of her eyes through the night promising to be his newest, most haunting dream. He confirmed her only in the silences that came after, when they sat next to each other with their arms touching and their legs overlapping. He saw the tender way she touched things and knew that she, too, was soft and alive; sometimes a still day, and sometimes a hurricane. Her power was flickering, sometimes present and sometimes not.
‘I don’t know who you are,’ he looked into her eyes and said to himself, ‘but I’ll dive into you. I’ll get to you, from your lightest shades to your darkest.’
His curiosity was going down the rabbit hole.
The book was in her lap.
‘What is it about?’ he asked.
‘It’s a brief guide to recreational time travel,’ she answered, and her voice had a sensitive, magical, calm quality. ‘I keep it with me always. I must never be without it.’
He smiled; she didn’t. He fell for it, hard. How she seemed to believe her own fantasies eliminated all noise and blocked all escape routes. He knew he’d hold the image in his head for a long time after the moment had passed. It was his own warm, still thriving with life kind of memory to preserve now, as if he had collected an object he loved dearly and grown too fond of it to put it away.
‘I like your stories,’ he said, flickering through it.
She weaved words like a vivid tapestry in her stories, the kind one thinks of when it’s breakfast and they’re standing in the shower for over an hour, bar of soap in their hand, soaking in the light, wishing they could crawl inside a second skin and relive them reborn, wild-eyes, free.
‘Good, you’ll likely be in one,’ she replied, struggling up, smiling strangely.
She said this quietly but to him it sounded like the ticking of a bomb. She now looked like the edge of a map, the place where things are uncertain and dangerous and make little sense. ‘Here be dragons,’ her face read, and he wanted to be in her every town, on her every street.
Alive. Alive was what she was, through her running, gushing, swirling blood and amongst all the noises of the world.
Clinging to her arm he followed, along the dark roads. It was night for many miles, but she insisted to walk. Then she put one hand to the knob and he kept toward the sound of her voice, wild-eyed and sleepless, going up the stairs of the building, in her rooms, amongst her drawings and all her things. He liked existing with her; everything else was sealed up, labeled Not Now. He wanted to swim in the way she made him feel, until his clothes were soaked and it would all go straight into his bones, altering his essence and – who knew? – his reality. Anything, but the sighing back to reality. Her, her, her.
He hoped the intro would read ‘This has been created inside her walls, last Wednesday, in memory of life’. In the first paragraph, she would put her head in his lap and closer her eyes, like lying in the middle of an empty highway and listening to the road, and she would like his voice and he could hear her breathing. He smiled; he knew there was no fiction without fact.
‘You sat on my counter, on my couch, on the piano bench. You asked me to play for you. You called me your “girl” and said every song was about us. I was tired and you wanted to stay up and talk. You laid with me on the couch, our faces almost touching and told me you were in love with me. Then you took off your gold-rimmed glasses and slept beside me and held my hand.’
He shook his head; not now. Reality and dream couldn’t blur together tonight.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.
‘They want you to love the whole world but you won’t, you want it narrowed down to one fleshy man who knows what to do with his hands, with your body. A man with almond eyes and a long jaw and a serenely contemplative, kindly mischievous air, who cuts you open until your light streams out between the stitches, no matter how soft, how scar-free you think you are.’
She narrowed her eyes, much to his despair.
‘Nothing,’ he said, cold sweat streaming down his spine.
He could smell them and hear them and touch them and see them. He wanted to cry out loud. The dreams were coming to him.
She came closer, too.
‘Talk to me,’ she said, gently touching his leg. ‘I will listen, and I will write it all down. You and I will make a pretty great story out of this.’