My clothes are against my body, as though I’ve been wearing them on a Greyhound bus for six straight days.
And I don’t trust the integrity of this disgusting, war-torn ground. Too many soft spots in the concrete. Too many people who have been crushed by one mob or another. Too many objects of varying integrity to trip over. I want so badly to sit down, find a water cooler that actually has water in it.
Thinking about it now, who the hell knows why her sister hit me up on Facebook to tell me in four terse sentences that she had died. But she did, and I spent the rest of the night drinking Old Crow, dicking around on YouTube, and getting myself to the point of believing that for the most part we had done fairly well when she was alive, when I was young enough to still get it together.
The last time I walked through the deranged narrative of a dream like this, I woke up feeling as though I had traded ten or twenty years for the privilege. Son of a bitch, do they build a big, hideous city-of-the-future in the brain. I get that there should be a bit of gratitude in place, if we go our whole lives with only two or three dreams like this. But you know what? Fuck that. One dream feeling as though schizophrenia works like the spring flu should be enough. Zero would be a pretty nice number, too.
I don’t deserve this.
Wake up, man.
My mind needs to shut up, because someone else is talking for a change. And this is kind of important. Reunions always are. “Huh?”
“I’ve been better,” she repeats.
The dream fills in the details. Four days in this flea market, and I think the fluorescent lights are starting to seriously fuck with my appetite, my dirty skin, my lucky fingernails, and my ability to appreciate, but not worship complicated hallucinations.
Earlier, I could actually see the names of the old Hustler magazines and Bible tracts at one of the tables. That was unnerving. I remember someone telling me once that you can’t read things in dreams. I guess this could be a hallucination that’s meeting the dream halfway.
Small talk, stupid. Enjoy this.
“Sorry,” I say, pretending she can read into that on a few different levels. Because I really am sorry for a whole lot of things. Kids are stupid. Kids say stupid things. Kids get angry, and make everything out to be desperate, suffocating. She knew that. I still know that, and I’d like to think I’ve learned something from the admittedly long list of mistakes I’ve made.
“It’s okay,” she says. “It’s fine now.”
“Oh, okay,” I reply. A lot of my really impressive fuck-ups, the ones that I imagine are going to do damage for the rest of my life, started with her. “I’m not being very interesting,” I admit.
I pretend she knows that, and I pretend she forgives all. I would imagine her responses are coming out of that kind of imagination. I’m okay with that. I’m okay, too, with these endless tables, some of which include rotting food, VHS tapes, body parts, guns, cats in carrier cases, stacks of money, bugs, and just about every other crucial, unhappy artifact you could possibly imagine.
“You worry too much,” she says. “You need to work on that.”
But I’m still happy to see a friendly face. Even though I can do whatever I want, I don’t want to ask her about the bruises, the missing eye, or the fact that she never did pick me up at the station that one night. I’m not going to kiss her. I’m not going to scream.
“Yeah,” I say, “I do.”
Give me ten years, and I can let go of most things, even in a dream.
Jesus Crackerjack Christ, wake up. Something is probably going to crawl out of that eye soon.
I can quietly forgive, especially in dreams. I can wish my father well. I can show up for that one wedding clean-shaven. I can love someone, who has every right not to love me back.
“How have you been?” she finally asks, her hands fidgeting the way they would in an empty, moody living room at the end of the onslaught of a busy weekend.
I start to answer, but the other shoppers are Moses strong, and I can feel my tongue getting hot again.
Any time that waking up thing could happen, that would be super-fucking-duper.
I say how I’m doing. Every single memory is fighting for space, judging by something that feels like a migraine, and nothing is getting through. What else can I do? I’m fighting the crowd, and I’m ignoring hisses, fits of laughter from somewhere nearby, and conversations that mention my name, but are otherwise complete gibberish.
She smiles. Where the hell is that breeze coming from? “I kind of figured that on my own?”
“Right.” Wake up. I flex my arms, become tense, and invent my own panic attack to try to jar my mind a little closer to the waking world. It almost never works. “Sorry.”
“Stop it,” she says. She smiles, even though only about half of her face is capable of pulling the gesture off. “Come here.”
When it was over with us it had every right to be over. She had every right to just leave town, and not tell me where she was going. And I never saw her again. I worked hard not giving a damn for a really long time.
“Come here,” she repeats. Like, in the way she actually used to say the phrase.
Not to be unfair to everyone I’ve dated since, but I’ve been measuring every smile, every pair of eyes flickering with easy compassion, every “Come here” against hers. I guess that’s a young love thing, but it doesn’t feel like that right now. It feels like something that has been waiting around for the tangible.
I remember the first time I wanted her to look at me, but I didn’t know where she was that night, and I couldn’t do anything with my anger but sit quietly and pretend I’d find something on TV eventually.
But that isn’t something I’m remembering now. If it was young love, then I decided to settle for spinning my wheels with everything else a long time ago. I could point to a lot of stupid, hilarious things in my life if I were to go back to the moment I settled for the first thing that haunted my thoughts.
Has she been in any of my dreams lately?
“Please,” she said. “It’s gonna be okay.”
And I’m thinking I might just have to move closer.
I keep waiting for the kind of wake-up call that feels like ninety miles of heart attacks. Your mind is scattered, manic, chasing horrifying mental snapshots at a few billion miles per hour, but you’re awake. You can breathe now, and later on complain like a human being.
I’m not good at sarcastic patience, so try to imagine how this is going.
I’m stuck, I don’t like being in pain, or wondering if I have really been here for something along the lines of four days, and I don’t have any other options. I’m also sick of fighting this crowd, the people who keep touching me and taking bits of skin. Move forward, kiss her, wake up, develop a sudden case of asthma, cure the asthma through sheer will, get it together, mourn her all over again, and try to pick up an hour’s worth of sleep from the shambles.
This is the kind of penance I can still avoid in the waking world, but it’s getting harder to do that these days. I guess that would explain why I’ve been open to just about anything that will make me marvel at how much time just passed. It’s been the kind of thing where my road trips to San Diego come with a beverage service. In-N-Out Burger soda with whiskey goes back to high school. If nothing else, I’ve been deeply respectful of the classics in my life.
With a little effort, I work through the crowd. She’s only a few feet away, and I’m ready to do whatever I have to do to get out of here. When I close my eyes, when I wake up, I’ll tell myself that I felt the kiss. Maybe I really will. Anything is possible. Maybe that will help. Maybe that will get me moving in the world again.
Her hands bring me into the embrace, and they burn like a son of a bitch.
Gabriel Ricard writes short fiction, novels, poetry, essays, reviews, and much more. He has also worked as an actor and standup comic. He is a contributor to Kleft Jaw, and is the Film Editor for Drunk Monkeys. Born in Canmore, Alberta, Canada, he lives in Virginia.
Lead image: “Spindizzy” (via Flickr user Jeanne)