In A Perfect World

In a perfect world, she thought, she would be sitting in the passenger seat of her favorite car, with the top down. There would be loud music coming out of the sound system, and she would singing at the top of her lungs, one hand dangling over the door with a cigarette between her fingers. The person driving the car would be her long-term boyfriend of five years, although perhaps it would be her red-head girlfriend of six months; she couldn’t decide which it would be or which one was the correct choice for the perfect world that was being built in her mind’s eye.

There would, of course, be a destination for this car ride. It would probably be a sweet log cabin with electricity and wi-fi and reading lamps but also be near enough to a lake and a decently mysterious forest, just in case she felt particularly nature-loving. There would be a hammock outside, and a cat flicking its tail stretched out on the porch, meowing in welcome. Maybe, if things could be really crazy in this perfect world, the cat would be a tiger or a jaguar, something large and languorous that would make her feel exotic and dangerous.

In the perfect world, she would also be escaping something, because – she was aware of this, even in her bubble-bath dream – anything worth running to is only as good as it is better than the thing it is replacing. In this world, she thought, maybe she’d be escaping the paparazzi who wanted to interview her about her latest best-seller or her most recent and notorious Broadway performance. Very possibly both.

In the perfect world, her voice was perfect, and thought tears rolled down her face, the wind whipped them away as she sang and smoked simultaneously. Things could be beautiful and challenging in her perfect world, satisfying and ever-changing, shifting and interesting and – most of all – regretless.

In her bubble bath, smoothing one hand over her belly, she wished she could at least get the wind to blow away the tears. But the fan was broken, she couldn’t afford her air conditioning unit, and the heat was oppressive, even in the icy bath water. She cried and waited for the contractions to stop, wishing them away in her perfect world.

The Writer’s Typewriter

Forgotten bills lay scattered on the kitchen table, surrounded by banana and orange peels. The room stank of rotting fruit and the sickly sweet smell of plants that have been shut up inside for two long without any air-flow. Ants crawled along one wall, sniffing out the grains of sugar that were sprinkled all over the counter and carrying it back to their nests in orderly lines. The lamp, left on for so long, flickered feebly, not quite yet burned out, but definitely getting there.

Robert L. Cove sat at the table, unmindful of all this. He had a typewriter in front of him, and his fingers were hitting the keys madly. Every few hours, one of the keys seemed to break and he would growl in frustration and take out his specialist’s kit. He had to fix it right away, or the words, the people, the story in his mind – all of it would disappear. He couldn’t type on anything else. He couldn’t write with pen and paper. It had to be this particular typewriter, the one that his grandfather had given his mother who had given it to him. It was superstitious to think that it was the secret to the Coves’ success, but Robert L. Cove couldn’t help being superstitious in this instance, even though he openly laughed at anyone who fear black cats or walking under ladders.

It had started with a dream; all his books had started this way. He would wake up and remember the dream in its entirety, know that he would have to begin writing now, immediately, or else he would lose it forever. He had been writing for six days almost non-stop. When he got up to get food or go to the bathroom, he spoke aloud to himself the sentences that he was going to write the minute he sat down again. The naps he took were no longer than twenty minutes every few hours, because anything longer would erase his memory of what was coming next. He also didn’t want any other dreams intruding on the one that originated a story.

When he finally finished the draft, usually within some two weeks of the dream, it was as if he was waking from a trance. He would be disgusted with his own smell, with the way his apartment looked, with the invasion of bugs that seemed, inevitably, to follow each of these sessions. He would clean vigorously before falling into a deep, restorative sleep that usually lasted twenty-four hours or so. Then, collecting the manuscript, he would meticulously care for his typewriter, load a new ribbon into it, and store it away carefully for the next time he needed it.

Sundays on the Bus [Flash Fiction – maybe a beginning to a longer short story?]

Rupert took the bus to work on Sundays. He didn’t have to; the divorce had gone through pretty smoothly and he’d gotten to keep the car, which he drove the rest of the week. Monday through Friday, the bus was packed with loud teenagers going to school and busy businessmen and businesswomen who put him on edge. For a guy who worked six days a week, including Sundays, Rupert considered himself to be pretty relaxed, and the tense atmosphere on the bus every morning made him feel unnecessarily stressed.

But Sundays were special. On Sundays, nobody else in his line of work went to the office. He worked in Finance, at a Big Corporation where he made a Nice Living. He never explained to people anything beyond this, because he’d learned that his job-description made their eyes wander and their mouths open in embarrassing yawns. He didn’t begrudge them. He knew that not everyone found beauty in what appeared at first glance to be monotonous number-crunching.

Three years after the divorce, Rupert had to admit to himself that he also took the bus to work on Sundays because of the chance to see Her. She was taller than him, more giraffe than woman, with a wide mouth, high cheekbones and soft brown eyes. She had a small boy – Rupert saw him grow from a newborn baby to a large toddler of three – and She took him to the big park near Rupert’s office to watch other people flying kites. Rupert toyed with the idea of mysteriously gifting them both with a kite one day, but he never quite worked up the nerve to do it.

He wondered sometimes, especially during the dreary winters when She and her son rode the bus far less often, whether he was obsessed. He didn’t think he was creepy; he never stared at Her inappropriately and never offered Her son any candy. But he kept taking the bus every single Sunday, rain or shine, in the hopes of speaking to Her, even accidentally. He sometimes dreamed of criminals hijacking the vehicle or getting into a dramatic crash so that he’d have an excuse to perform a heroic act for which She’d be so grateful that She’d speak to him. Then he remember his puny arms and his ever-growing paunch and sadly realized that in the event of an emergency, it would probably be Her who would rescue him.

Weird

The past two-three weeks have been odd. I can’t put my finger on what it is, but things are being turned topsy-turvy in my mind, in my gut, in my heart. I don’t understand it, and although I’ve been trying to, I’ve also realized that I might not be able to really fathom what it is I’m going through.
Because of this, everything I’ve seen, done and experienced during the past couple of weeks has seemed dreamlike, as if it hasn’t been taking place in reality.
Have any of you experienced this? Do you have any tips on how to deal with it?

Full of It [Flash Fiction]

The world outside my window seems to be covered in mist but I don’t know whether my vision is screwed up, my medication is affecting my eyesight, or there is simply a haze due to pollution and humidity. I find myself doubting my own perception a lot lately. Ever since I had that dream the other night, my reality has been compromised.

My boyfriend tells me I’m full of crap, of course. He’s tall, six-foot-something, and he has to bend down quite far to kiss me. Not that he does that a lot anymore. Usually he expects me to climb up on my tip-toes or stand on some higher ground and reach up to him. He still leans down to whisper in my ear, though. I used to love it, but not anymore, not since the dream. I made the mistake of telling him, yesterday, that his whispers were giving me the creeps. Maybe I could have been more tactful about it, but I was telling the truth, asking him to stop sneaking up on me like that. He blew a gasket. I’m not actually sure what ‘gasket’ is (according to Google, it’s “A shaped piece or ring of rubber or other material sealing the junction between two surfaces in an engine or other device.”) but I think that’s what he blew. He told me that I was losing it, and that if I wasn’t careful, he would force me into the loony-bin.

I’m not scared of psychiatric hospitals, though. I sort of, kind of, accidentally-on-purpose forgot to tell him that I spent a lot of time in them when I was a kid. Although I’m kind of still a kid. But you know what I mean; when I was prepubescent and innocent, I spent a lot of time in hospitals. They were quite helpful, actually. I wish I hadn’t agreed to quit therapy for my boyfriend. But he told me that we needed the money for a bigger place, and I caved in without really thinking about it. But I wonder what Sonia, my most recent psychiatrist, would have said about the dream.

A scream echoes outside, and I can’t tell whether it’s a cat or a baby. Sometimes they sound the same. Maybe my neighborhood is actually full of shape-shifting babies, turning from human to kitten and back again? There are old people in the park, with Filipino caretakers swarming around them, chattering in their local dialects, socializing with others who know the village where they grew up. The old people drool and blink at each other, silent. Actually, they’re not there now; but I know that they’ll be there soon, gathered around the benches, so I’m already prepared for the way they’ll all look and the conflicting emotions I’ll have when I see them.

I can’t really remember the dream from the other night. I think it involved old people. And Filipino caretakers. Maybe even babies morphing into felines. And maybe none of these things. The dream has passed beyond the veil of my coherent memories now, and all I know is that I feel, for the first time in years, bereft of something. It’s as if, when I woke up from the dream, I woke up into this life that I wasn’t really aware I was living. The thought has even occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t living in this body before I woke up the other day. Maybe I was an old person in a wheelchair, or a lonely Filipino sending money to my wife back home, or a baby watching in wonder as its fingers grow claws and its thumbs retract back into its skin.

My boyfriend says I’m full of crap, though, so maybe I’m just imagining things and foaming at the mouth, desperate for something different to come along and save me from the monotony.

Night Lessons [Flash Fiction]

Stephanie got to know her sister at night. The two shared a bedroom, for the apartment was small and there was no chance of their mother and father ever earning enough to allow them to move. Cordelia complained to anyone who would listen, listing the ways a room of her own would benefit her, explaining how the pipsqueak of a sister who shared what used to be her sanctuary was disruptive to her everyday life.

Cordelia was twelve when Stephanie was born. She knew it was an accident; everyone knew it was. There was a lot of speculation among the neighbors as to whether or not the girls even shared the same father. Stephanie never heard those rumors herself, because Cordelia never told her anything. That was why she could only learn about her sister through her dreams.

Communication didn’t play an important role in their family. It wasn’t a silent house by any means; there was a television, a radio, a computer and a stereo, and they often made sounds all at once, causing a confusing sort of ruckus. Even at night, the urban streets outside streamed with traffic and sirens were heard at least once between dusk and dawn. Stephanie didn’t learn about silence until much later, and by then she wasn’t able to abide it.

The first time it happened, Stephanie was three. She awoke in the middle of the night, during a heavy rainstorm, and saw Cordelia sitting up in her bed across the room. “Coria?” she whispered into the dark room. She’d always had trouble with her sister’s name, and this butchering of it stuck with her for the rest of her life, although she never dared use it in public when she grew up. That night, her sister didn’t answer her; instead, Cordelia spoke to the wall in front of her: “No fair. Fancy dress with crocodiles. Nu-uh.” Then she lay back down, still fast asleep.

Stephanie was puzzled, and in the morning, she asked her sister what she’d been talking about. Cordelia pushed her over irritably and told her that she was making things up. “I don’t talk in my sleep, ugly-butt,” she said. But Stephanie knew that she did.

It didn’t happen every night, but once or twice a week Stephanie would wake up, quite by accident, and hear her sister mumble about tornadoes, boys, Mom and Daddy, motorcycles, and other obscurities. The nonsensical sentences began to take shape in Stephanie’s mind over time, and she watched her sister closely, yearning to understand her, thinking that if she knew things about her life, Cordelia might like her. When she had an abusive boyfriend, Stephanie was the first to know, because she heard “Bobby, don’t!” and “Makeup won’t cover the clover, it won’t work. Daddy, you try,” and other bizarre fragments that she pieced together.

Not that Stephanie did anything with the knowledge – she was too afraid of her sister’s temper to tell her parents anything, and more often than not she didn’t understand the reality of the situation in quite the way Cordelia was living it. But she felt like she got to know her sister, and that was what mattered.

When, many years later, Cordelia lay in a hospital bed, Stephanie told her about the things that her big sister had never told her and Cordelia raised her eyebrows in surprise. Her voice was almost nonexistent by this point, and it was hard for her to breathe, but she managed to utter “Smart ugly-butt. Who knew?” before a fit of coughing overcame her. Stephanie handed her a glass of water from the bedside table and helped her drink it, before laying her back down against the pillows.

Held Breath

“Breathe in, deeply, to a slow count of four. Hold your breath for another count of four. Let it out, slowly, gently, to a count of eight, so that every gasp of air in your lungs is let out. This way you’re cleansing yourself, letting out all the dirt and old air that’s been in your lungs for a while.” – Yoga teacher

“Breathe with both your mouth and your nose, and feel the air going into your stomach, your diaphragm and your chest. Good. Now hold it and feel the air inside you. All that air, and the power to keep it inside, that’s all the air you can sing with. You can hold a note for longer if you control your breathing this way.” – Vocal coach

“Oh, this came out blurry. Look, let’s try again, and try holding your breath when you click down.” – Friend, on photography

“Huh, yeah right. Don’t hold your breath, it’s never going to happen.” – Character in a nightmare

***

It feels like I’m always holding my breath, waiting for something or other. Soon, the waiting, the holding pattern, the in-between-time will be over. Soon I’ll be able to let the air out and take another breath.

Horror

Horror doesn’t only happen at night, you know. It happens on the streets of London and in the slums of New York. It happens in the homes of the rich and the poor alike. It happens in your back garden when you’re not looking, or right in front of you when you’re trying not to see. Horror is everywhere.

Believe me, I know. Why? I’m not sure you’d understand. I’m not sure you really want to know. See, there’s a problem with you people – you always say you want to know, but then you cringe and cry, snivel and beg, and I need to deal with it. It all gets very tiresome. So if you want me to tell you why I know about horror, you need to promise me that you can deal with what I’m going to tell you. Well?

Ah, there, I knew it. Once you’re confronted with what happened to everyone else who asked the same question, you back off. That’s smart of you. Sometimes you people actually do learn something. I like that. There’s nothing fun about playing with your food if it doesn’t know what the outcome is. The mouse, for instance, instinctively knows that the cat wants to eat it, so when a cat’s paw descends on its tail, it’ll bit that bit off in order to get away. Of course, once it does that, the cat will catch it by its body and eat it anyway. But the point is, the only reason it’s fun for the cat to play with the mouse is because the mouse knows what’s coming. And now, you do too.

Now, now, don’t give me that look, please. You knew from the moment you called for me what was going to happen. Yes, remember? You’re the one who called me here. You called horror upon you, and horror comes in the guise you gave it. It’s time for you to live with it simply being your own fault. You think you’re dreaming, I know, and maybe you are! But tell me… Right now, does it matter whether or not you’re dreaming? I’m pretty horrible either way.

 

Joshua

Josh put down the Starbucks paper cup and breathed a sigh of relief. He’d been craving his chai latte since three in the morning when he first woke up. The dreams were back, and he was sleeping worse than ever. His therapist kept asking him if he could describe them, and he tried, he really did, but the problem was that the moment he talked about his dreams, they’d flee his mind. It was as if the contents of his horrible nightly escapades were only alive when they could torture him, and him alone. If he tried to confide in anyone else, he would suddenly find that he couldn’t grasp any detail of dream. He wouldn’t find the words to describe the monstrous visions or the frightening scenarios, and he’d finally fall silent, muttering feebly that he knew the dreams were horrible but simply couldn’t remember them at present. His therapist thought that he was repressing something, and was very worried about him.

If he was being honest with himself, Josh was worried too. The last time he’d had the dreams was when he started law school. They’d caused him to drop out after a while, and he’d spent almost a year in a haze of pot, occasional boozing and general self-destruction. It took him a long time to force his life back together. He’d felt like Humpty Dumpty for years, putting himself together piece by piece because all the king’s horses and all the king’s men had given up on him.

Now he was thirty-five and was the manager of the distribution offices in a company that sold furniture. It wasn’t an impressive job by any means – his office was one of many that were spread around the country, and so there were some fifty other people in the company with the exact same job title as him. That wasn’t to say that he hadn’t worked hard to reach this position. He had, and he’d suffered for a few years at the entry level customer service before he began climbing the ranks. All in all, he was pleased with his job. He had his own office on the tenth floor with a view of the courtyard that his building shared with the other five in the office complex that was comfortably nestled in Downtown.

Josh rubbed his eyes and tried to wake himself up. Since three that morning he’d dozed on and off until six, when the alarm clock rang and his day began. He’d gone to bed at one in the morning, so he had, in reality, a total of two hours sleep. He smiled as he took another sip of his chai latte. At least his slow and tentative relationship with Mia wasn’t being screwed up by his dreams. She’d kissed him sweetly last night after they’d enjoyed a glass of red wine at the bar he took her to after dinner. They’d talked for hours, sipping their wine slowly in a corner table and enjoying the dim light of the bar that made them feel as if they were all alone. When he’d walked her home, she’d kissed him at the door, called him a perfect gentleman, and then, with that ever-surprising grin of hers, she’d ducked into the building and shut the door firmly behind her. He’d walked back to his own apartment in a delirious daze.

Mia had been part of his life for two years, although she hadn’t realized how much she’d meant to him. She’d been serving him chai lattes, apple pie slices and chocolate chunk cookies at Starbucks almost every morning since she’d started working there and Josh had fallen for her just a little bit more every day. He’d finally gotten the guts to ask her out after she’d been promoted to assistant manager of her branch and wasn’t working at the counter anymore. Josh’s therapist was very proud of him and felt that this was definitely a positive step forward in his constant struggle to keep the normal, functioning life he’d built for himself.

He hadn’t told Mia about his dreams. He hadn’t even tried. They’d been going out for over a month, but Mia, as she told him last night, was in a precarious emotional state. She had survived a badly abusive relationship and had abstained from going out with men for about three years. Josh was the first man she’d felt comfortable enough to go out with, and her own therapist, she reported to Josh, was proud of her as well. They’d joked about having a conference call with their respective psychologists and fixing them up. They’d also wondered idly whether the two were married already without their patients’ knowledge.

But Mia had kissed him, finally, and Josh was ecstatic. As he finally turned from the window in his office toward his computer and the work that was waiting for him, he decided that he’d call her later that afternoon and tell her that he’d had an incredible time last night and that he hoped to see her again. Soon.

He reached for his diary and checked which tasks he’d written down that were a priority that morning. He decided to get the phone calls over with first and then turn to the stack of reports that were awaiting his scrutiny. It was as he clicked on the speaker-phone button that he remembered that Mia had been in his dream. His hand froze over the buttons and eventually the dial tone was replaced with the beep-beep-beep of a phone off the hook. Josh sat still as a stone as horrible visions flashed through his mind again, Mia’s face featuring clearly in them.

Finally, he turned off the speaker and held up his Starbucks cup. He stared at it, unseeing, and turned it around and around in his hands. Not Mia, he thought, pleading with his subconscious. Please, not Mia…

Faced with an Empty Page

Opening a new, white and pristine page can be one of two things. It’s either exciting, pulse-raising and inviting, or terrifying, threatening and off-putting.

It doesn’t matter what sort of page this is – it can be a new page in a much used notebook, the first page of an unopened one, or the electronic, virtual one that comes up in a writing program.

No matter what emotion arises when faced with a blank page, the demand that it throws is undeniable. A blank page craves to be filled, to be written upon with ink or to be full of coded letters.

There’s nothing worse than opening a new page and feeling the terror bubbling in your throat, the pressure building up behind your eyes, in the crevices of your very mind. The emptiness seems to call to the very soul, demanding in loud and certain tones what it needs. Sometimes, fear can lead the way into the second, better emotion. Once a page starts to fill up, the demand lessens, the pressure recedes, and bit by bit, the terror evaporates.

There’s nothing better than opening a new page and feeling the excitement bubbling in your stomach, the itch in your fingers as they long to start writing and the images that jump around your mind, urging you onward, ever onward, so that you can’t resist putting down your pen to the paper or your fingers to the keyboard and beginning to write. When the page fills up, bit by bit, a sense of pride in your own words filling up such a space is added to the other emotions, and it too spurs you onward.

Sometimes, when a page is full, it demands another page to be opened. It’s not finished yet, the emptiness of the next page tells you, you must continue.

Sometimes, when the page is full, it’s enough. The urge, the need and the drive all quiet in you, and you can look at the full page and know that you’ve completed something, even if it’s not finished, you’ve put something down on the page, and there it will stay.

Being faced with an empty page is an adventure, whether dream or nightmare.