The morning was only growing colder. The streets were still dark. He crept through the streets, staring as if through a window, drenched in old, haunting images of days that now seemed to never have been.
He stood waiting, coughing. The cold of the night had gotten into him. The lamp by the bed was broken, and 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 to be so angry.
Then the morning came, with its clean air and the things that spoil it— like the bicycles that passed by the station, all parts creaking, on a mission to see him into the day. He knew the noise would come, and he knew he’d always have to let it bend it. His anger was better than breaking. It was a gift.
There were dreams he shouldn’t have had. No one should have to clean up their morning this way. 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 to be the work of a sick man, a work of great patience and simplicity and sadness. They were his masterpiece. He knew he could never show them to another, much less touch them.
But in the morning, in the shower, on the way to the door, when he reached for them, turned them over, and wondered if by some chance they’d pass into real life, the whole concept crumbled in his hands. There was nothing tangible that he could put together. If only he could pull it all out, long and coherent, like magicians’ scarves hidden in their sleeves. But nothing remained 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 about how what didn’t kill him only made everything that 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 head.
When he left the office, the clouds had melted like ice, the air was clear and sweet, and the skies were unexpectedly refreshed-all things that did not matter at all. He was fighting monsters and rescuing himself from burning buildings. Back home, he would spend countless hours inside mint green walls, changing past dreams to create better future ones. He might as well start now, he thought. He knew it was impossible, but that did not mean it would not be tried. But first he stopped at a bar to catch his breath.
He remembered certain things because of the kindness they showed him. These fragments penetrated him, things that had almost happened and had created a world that almost did what he said and almost loved him back before the sunlight plunged everything back into darkness. Others were cruel and unforgiving, and he tried desperately to transform them to make his insomnia more bearable—just as one alters his past memories to better cope with one’s real life.
Then the light changed and a new quality appeared before him, an intensity that meant that aliveness had found a home. Someone stopped the light from passing through with short, quick movements. Someone was living out loud next to him. Someone was still living out loud. He brushed his hair behind his ears and coughed hard, as if to say, I’m here too.
She dripped like extra paint on extra walls. She was a cup of universe, dancing, spinning in the orange light with both hands full, almost rolling over with laughter and dancing, throwing her head back and letting her long black hair shake down her shoulders—but never quite.
Magnetising and intoxicating, she had calm 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 as if she was the brush and the rest of the world was her painting.
Soon they were sitting side by side, their arms touching and their legs overlapping. She had gentle manners and spoke softly in private. Sometimes a still day and sometimes a hurricane, he thought. Her power flickered, sometimes it was there and sometimes it was not. I don’t know who you are, he looked into her eyes and said to himself, but I want to find out.
‘What’s it about?’ he asked, pointing to the book in her bag.
‘It’s a brief guide to recreational time travel,’ she replied, and her voice had a sensitive, magical, calm quality. ‘I always have it with me.’
He laughed. She didn’t. He fell for it, hard. How she seemed to believe that her own fantasies eliminated all noise in the room and blocked all escape routes. He knew he’d hold on to that image long after the moment was over. It was his own warm, full of life memory to keep now, as if he’d collected an object that he already knew he’d love and grow too fond of to put away.
‘I like your stories,’ he said, flipping through them later.
She wove words like a living tapestry he couldn’t take his eyes off of. The kind of stories you think about when you’ve been in the shower too long, a bar of soap in your hand, breathing in the light and wishing you could crawl into a second skin and live without consequences.
‘Good, you’re probably going to be in one,’ she replied, smiling strangely.
She said it like the most natural thing but to him it sounded like the ticking of a bomb that had just gone off. It looked like the edge of a map, the place where things are uncertain and dangerous and make little sense. Uncharted Territory was written on her face, and he wanted to be in every one of her cities, in every one of her streets.
Alive. Alive was what she was, with her flowing, bubbling, swirling blood cancelling out all the sounds of the world.
He clung to her arm and followed her across the dark roads. It was night for many miles, but she insisted on walking. Then she found the doorknob, and he followed the sound of her voice, wild-eyed and sleepless, up the stairs of the house, into her rooms, among her drawings and her stories and all her things.
He liked being 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 to his bones. Checking the time was not a good idea now. He wished for anything but 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 close her eyes, as if she were lying in the middle of an empty field 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 that every song was about us. I was tired and you wanted to stay up and talk. You joined me on the couch, our faces almost touching, and told me you were in love with me. Then you took off your gold-colored glasses, slept next to 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 do not want it, you want it narrowed down to one man who knows what to do with his hands, with your body. A man with almond eyes and a long jaw and a serene, thoughtful, kindly mischievous air, who will cut you open until your light pours out between the stitches, no matter how soft, how scar-free you think you are.’
She narrowed her eyes.
‘Nothing,’ he said, as cold sweat ran down his back.
He could smell them, hear them, touch them, see them. He wanted to scream 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 good story out of it.’