The morning was only growing colder. The streets were still dark. He crawled down roads, staring, as if looking through a window; drenched with old, haunting images of days that now seemed to never have been.
He stood waiting, coughing. The chill of the night had entered him. The lamp by the bed was broken so he lay in the dark for the best part of the 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, all parts creaking, on a mission to ease him into the day. He knew that the noise would come, and he knew to always let it bend it. His rage was better than breaking. It was a gift.
There were dreams he shouldn’t have had. Nobody should have to clean up their mornings like that. But it was impossible to control them. 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 see them, let alone touch.
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 would they slip into real life, the whole concept fell apart in his hands. There was nothing tangible to stitch together. If only he could pull it all out, long and connected, like magicians’ scarves hidden in magicians’ sleeves, to edit. But there was nothing left but a gently bruised reality.
The early train started rocking along, rushing through villages. Rain was beating against the window. He sat in silence, eyes closed. 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, if only it wasn’t all in his mind.
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 home he would spend maddening hours inside mint green walls again, wanting to alter past dreams in order to form brighter future ones. He might as well start now, he thought. He knew it was impossible to do, but that doesn’t mean one won’t try. But first, he stopped in a bar to catch his breath.
Certain things he remembered for the kindness they showed him. These fragments entered him, 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. Others were cruel and unforgiving, and he was desperate to transform them to make his insomnia more 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 front of him, an intensity that meant aliveness had found a home. Somebody was keeping the light from passing through with short, quick 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.
She was dripping like extra paint onto extra walls. She was a cup of universe, dancing, turning in the orange light with both hands full, almost spilling herself laughing and dancing and throwing her head back, letting her long black hair shake down her shoulders – but never quite.
Magnetising and intoxicating, she had quiet and soft eyes, but a loud and beautiful mouth. Equal parts old soul and starry-eyed child, something about her was straightforward and reassuring while the rest remained silent. It seemed that she was the paintbrush and the rest of the world was her painting.
Soon, they were sat next to each other, with their arms touching and their legs overlapping. She had gentle manners and was soft spoken in private. Sometimes a still day, and sometimes a hurricane, he thought. 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 want to figure you out. I want it so badly.’
“What’s it about?” he asked, pointing at the book he saw in her tartan bag.
“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.”
He laughed. She didn’t. He fell for it, hard. How she seemed to believe her own fantasies eliminated all the noise in the room and blocked all escape routes. He knew he’d hold on to this image 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 already knew he’d love dearly and grow too fond of to put it away.
“I like your stories,” he said, flickering through it later.
She weaved words like a vivid tapestry he couldn’t take his eyes off. The kind one thinks of when they’re standing in the shower too long, bar of soap in hand, soaking in the light, wishing they could crawl inside a second skin and live without consequences.
“Good, you’ll likely be in one,” she replied, struggling up, smiling strangely.
She said it like the most natural thing but to him it sounded like the ticking of a bomb that had just started. She looked like the edge of a map, the place where things are uncertain and dangerous and make little sense. Uncharted Territory her face read, and he wanted to be in her every town, on her every street.
Alive. Alive was what she was, with her running, gushing, swirling blood, cancelling out all the noises of the world.
Clinging to her arm, he followed her 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 her stories 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 the cold went straight into his bones. Checking the time was not a good idea now. He wanted anything, but the sighing back to reality. Her, her, her.
He hoped the intro would read, ‘This was written inside my walls, last Wednesday, next to him.’ In the first paragraph, she would put her head in his lap and closer her eyes, like lying in the middle of an empty field and listening to the birds, 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.
But then, 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 damn great story out of this.”