Balm

On the deck of a ship made of stars and woven by the magic of dreams, you and I stood together. It was a cruise ship, and we were surrounded by other people. I always start conversations about important things when there are other people around. I wondered whether he actually listened anymore. Whether it mattered at all, that there were others there to hear. Maybe I created them as witnesses to my downfall, to my humiliation.

“It’s his birthday,” I told you. You nodded, and you smiled.
“He would have been sixty-six,” I told you. You bowed your head, and frowned.
“Yeah,” I said. You rubbed my arm a bit, a cursory gesture, a symbolic one with nothing behind it except the weight of a history that I remembered and you didn’t.

There was a cord tied around my chest, making it hard to breathe. It was tied to your wrist. I remembered how, when I was little, my parents would tie balloon strings to my wrist so that I wouldn’t let go and lose them and cry. But they’d tie them tightly, making a red stripe in my flesh. The cord on your wrist was so loose that it was almost falling off. Had it ever been tied tightly? I couldn’t remember anymore.

A wave rocked the ship, making me jump. You stayed calm, collected, cool, even though there were tears in your eyes. You said there weren’t. But there were. I wished they were there because of me, but I knew they weren’t. They never had been, even though once, a long time ago, I had convinced myself that they were.

When I woke up from the dream, I found that I had wet the bed. There were still strangers all around me. They were asleep, thankfully. I was on the bottom bunk, and I got up and stripped the sheet as quietly as I could. I hadn’t done anything like that since I was five or six years old. The smell of urine was as familiar as your scent but far less pleasant. I tip-toed out of the twelve-bed room, into the hallway, down to the back and out the hostel door to the courtyard. I threw the sheet in the industrial-sized garbage cans there. I was too embarrassed to leave it on the bed to be stripped and washed. I decided I’d rather be charged an extra four euros for stealing it.

The night was balmier in this foreign country full of guttural voices. Barefoot, I stretched out my arms and felt the wind cool the sweat on my body. It was the nicest thing I had felt on my skin ever since your fingertips had traveled the same soothing route when I used to have bad dreams.

Nothing’s Wrong [Short Story]

The fragrance of fresh bread woke Thomas up one morning. He leaped out of bed excitedly, knowing what the smell signified. It meant that Uncle had come for a visit.

Thomas was six years old, and he could tell, with the instinct that all young children share, that his father liked Uncle a lot, but that his mother didn’t, even though Uncle was her brother. Thomas didn’t know why his mother didn’t like Uncle, but he sensed that it had to do with Uncle being a baker. He thought that maybe bakers weren’t as good as bankers, which is what his mother was. Thomas thought that being a baker was much nicer; Uncle wore comfy clothes and always smelled good, whereas Thomas’s mother always complained about her pantyhose and put too much perfume on.

Uncle was tall and skinny, but this morning, when Thomas went downstairs, he thought that Uncle had become like Flat Stanley, the flat boy that they were reading about in school. The illusion passed, and Thomas realized that it was only that Uncle looked even thinner than usual. He looked gaunt, although Thomas didn’t know that word, and he looked worn out and weary, more words that Thomas didn’t really understand.

“Morning, Tom-Tom.”

“Hi! What’s wrong, Uncle?”

“Drink your milk. Eat. We don’t want you to be late for school.” Thomas’s mother pushed a plate of eggs and a glass of milk at him without looking at Uncle at all. Then she swept right out of the room again, and Thomas and Uncle looked at each other as they hear Thomas’s parents yelling at each other upstairs. Uncle got up and checked on the bread in the oven. Whenever he came to visit, he’d let himself in very early and would bake fresh bread that would be ready for the family’s breakfast when they awoke.

“Here you go,” Uncle said, pulling the bread-pan out of the oven. He cut a thick, still steaming slice, and put it on Thomas’s plate. “Eat up.”

Thomas wasn’t going to give up on his question, though. “What’s wrong, Uncle?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all.” Uncle smiled.

In the car on the way to school, Thomas asked his mother the same question. “Nothing,” she said. “Why? Has Uncle said anything?”

That evening, Thomas tried again. He went into the bathroom where his father was drying off after a shower and began to swing from side to side while holding the doorknob.

“Stop that, you’ll break it,” his father said, without much conviction. Thomas kept swinging.

“Daddy, what’s wrong?”

“Well. What did Mommy tell you?”

“Nothing.”

“And Uncle?”

“Nothing.”

“Oh dear. That must mean that whatever’s wrong, it’s a big deal. Listen, bub, you and I – we shouldn’t get involved, okay?”

“Okay,” Thomas said. But when he went to bed that night, he couldn’t help feeling scared by what his father had said. It sounded like his father didn’t know what was wrong either. If nobody knew what was wrong, then what would happen now? For the first time in months, Thomas had nightmares and wet the bed.

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.

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.

Santa Ana

A Los-Angeles girl at heart and soul in many ways, there are certain feelings and scents and types of weather that I can identify as being utterly LA-ish, even though I have no good reason to know or understand LA weather to such an extent. For instance, there is a wind blowing outside my window right now – a warm wind, carrying with it dust and grit and a dryness that makes you need to lick your lips every few seconds.

This sort of wind is called a “Santa Ana” wind, because that’s the sort of wind that flows through that area in California. It’s a desert wind, and there’s something infinitely creepy about feeling it on one’s face at midnight in January. It is earthquake weather – it feels as if the earth is about to tear open, as if all the dogs are going to start becoming giddy soon, feeling the disaster coming on. It feels as if the sky will break open and sandy, dirty rain will fall, even though there are no clouds to speak of.

It is the sort of night that is build for unconventional horror stories, a night where you know you won’t be able to fall asleep because the warm air will prevent you being comfortable in your quilt. Moreover, the wind will be moaning its dreadful sound and making the dry, dead leaves shake like death rattles. The wind brings to mind graveyards in summer nights, endless deserts and no water or sustenance, haunted houses and funerals. It is unpleasant, and yet it still smells and sounds like a bit of home to me, a bit of LA transferred to this tiny country.

A Hellish Night Indeed

Drenched in sweat, tears leaking down my face, I woke up repeatedly from the most horrid night’s sleep I’ve had in memory. Tossing and turning and throwing blankets off and pulling them back on again, I could not get any rest.

In the books, in my lovely, loved books, the heroes always sleep badly before a battle, before a grand decision, when there’s a monarch’s life on the line or at least a wedding or something else significant the next day. For me? None of these. Today is not a special day, is not supposed to be anything special or life-altering or even exciting. No offense to Monday, the 20th of October.

So why? I have no answer. I just know that of all the nightmarish nights that I’ve endured – and I’ve had my fair share, believe me – this was the worst. I dreamt of my boyfriend dying, I dreamt of every mundane chore and how I cried through it because of his death. When I woke up from the dream, it took my a full ten minutes of lying in bed and sobbing to realize that it was just a dream. Even after that, I spent the next four hours until my alarm was to ring waking time and again thinking I was late, thinking it was a different day, panicking that it was afternoon and I’d missed the bus I’m to take.

Small wonder then, that I feel like I’ve been up all night running.