Floating

“I was floating beneath the surface,” she said, staring at the space beside me as if I was sitting next to her memory.

“Were you conscious?”

“I remember being awake, eyes open, floating like a seaweed in the pool.”

“That’s some dream.”

Carrie was quite the dreamer growing up. She would tell me stories at school, in between classes, filling the gap between History and Biology with a scene from her unconscious hours. And they were unusual dreams. Once she talked about being at the corner of a dining hall, standing with just one shoe on, just standing there as if waiting for some cue. What cue, she didn’t know. There was no one else in the room and a wall was gone, leaving her a view of the open sea.

In these dreams I noticed that she was always still. She never talked about being chased or about flying. She was either standing or lying down. Or floating. I told her once her dreams carry a different mood from the music that she listens to. She replied she doesn’t have headphones on when she sleeps. I believe her when she smiles.

She loves happy music. She listens to British bands with bright, upbeat melodies and names I never remember. I’ve always felt their videos show a carefree charm that only partly obscures the loneliness behind the music, like the practiced laugh of a woman asked about her absent lover.

“How was your interview?” I asked.

She turned to me but held a gaze that seemed focused past my eyes. It took her another second before answering that it went okay.

“I’m sure you’ll get it.”

“Maybe.”

“Was it a guy?”

“Who?”

“The one who interviewed you.”

“He was.”

“You’ll get it. Don’t worry.”

Carrie placed her fingers on the sandwich as if deciding to finish it. She looked out the window but there was nothing more interesting than her dream. The empty street was holding on to the moisture of a morning rain, and the light was just yellow as it’s always been. I imagined she was out there, floating, weightless in a pool of wind. I thought it was beautiful. But I liked her better where she was.

“There was light,” she said.

“Where?”

“In the pool. It was bright everywhere. I think the pool was in the desert.”

“You’ve never seen the desert.”

“Haven’t I?”

“No,” I said, smiling.

There was uncertainty in her face. Sometimes it seems she’s trapped in a limbo of half-awakedness, dancing between the present and some reality I couldn’t see. I’ve never seen her walk in sleep. But sometimes when it’s not yet dark and we pass along the small avenue of parked cars to her apartment, I look at her and wonder if she’s also walking with me in her dream.


This vignette was inspired by Magpie Tales post #182. I had the scene in my mind when I saw the featured photo by Elena Kalis, but I wasn’t able to fully picture it until recently so this piece didn’t make it into the entries.

Underwater Photography by Elena Kalis
Underwater Photography by Elena Kalis

Magpie Tales is a weekly writing blog hosted by poet Tess Kincaid.

Stella

When I got home, there was still a bit of sunlight coming through the window. The house was silent except for a Miles Davis track playing in the living room. Stella bought the CD on our last anniversary and she loved dancing to the tune. I called out but heard no answer.

There was an apple at the far end of the sofa. It had a bite on one side and was sitting on a page of Vanity Fair. The page wasn’t even halfway through the magazine. As I came closer, the bite began to look more like a crater carved up by a knife, as if it was the only satisfying portion of a forsaken fruit. But there weren’t any knives beside the magazine. There was no trace of Stella.

I went up the bedroom to take a nap. Whatever it was, she’d soon be back. No worries, she always said. In my dream, we were dancing again in my friend’s wedding.

“Tell me your plan,” she said.

“My plan?”

“Yes,” she smiled more openly. “What’s your plan?”

“Ah, I don’t know,” I said, looking past the balcony and into the faint outline of hills beneath a trail of stars. A breeze touched our faces and I watched her squint off her smile.

“Let’s just go like we always wanted,” she said, looking like a child again. “Tomorrow.”

“If you say so.”

When I woke up, the place still felt motionless like there wasn’t even air. I had left the CD playing and the smooth trumpet was the only sound that answered my voice.

On the sofa was a CD case and an issue of Esquire open to a page with a poem about James Franco on the sidebar. The page that followed had nothing but a bottle of perfume. There was no apple and still no knife beside the magazine. But I found Stella on the playlist at the back of the CD case.

There was no Stella for me to call. I picked up the phone and dialed someone else. There was a hollow, carved-up feeling when I heard her say hello.

 


 

This piece of very short fiction was written for Magpie Tales #30 back in 2010. I remembered this while talking to a friend a few minutes ago. I remembered this was the first and last story I ever finished, and that no one who read it before thought it was.

magpietales30

Magpie Tales is a weekly writing blog hosted by poet Tess Kincaid.

Reading Divisadero

Divisadero Page

David opens the other room and finds the small space bathing in sheets of sunlight. Standing beneath the doorpost, he watches the drapes billow lightly from a blistering breeze. He is paused, as though in a moment of memory, and it takes a while before he enters and lifts the paperback lying on the shelf.

He opens the volume, runs his digits across a page, and breathes it in while the apricot glow by the window burns his cheek. It’s become a habit to keep returning to the book. The thick paper keeps its sweet, earthy scent. And he knows the scent won’t fade for years, even as the leaves turn rustic gold. He has another book made of the same paper, with words written by the same writer—its pages yellowed in all the years it’s been laid on beds and tables, moved in and out of shelves, grasped and touched and felt. It was a gift from a friend. Claire—someone in the book is also called Claire.

David reads a page and remembers what brought him to the room.

* * *

It was an uninvited cry interrupting the stillness of a burning afternoon. A wailing beggar had broken the sacred sloth of siesta and David laid awake to his own hunger. More light, he noticed, was penetrating the curtains and the air conditioner was fighting a battle it has already lost. His skin imagined beads of sweat dripping from his chest.

He willed his toes to the kitchen and put butter onto bread while his coffee brewed in a small, blue press. There was a tremor in his hand as he poured the black liquid, and it told him he’ll need more sugar in his cup. Later he thought that there was too much milk. He sat alone, satiating his need until a different craving entered his thoughts.

* * *

“Only the re-reading counts,” the page quotes Nabokov. Some pages David has read far more than once. He’s listened to a recorded reading of Divisadero through many tired evenings, and even now it’s still for him a point of pleasure to hear Hope Davis voice out the printed letters. Melodic melancholy. He can perhaps recite pieces as if straight from the recording, and yet when asked to tell its story David always finds himself without an answer. How can he, he asks, when the story presents itself not as a single tale but as a stream of episodes which at almost every scene sweeps like clean, gentle gusts after hours of violent rain. And it works like memory, feels like memory—like the way we remember not a continuous narrative but selected fragments of an experience. “It’s like a villanelle . . . the way the villanelle’s form refuses to move forward in linear development, circling instead at those familiar moments of emotion.”

David reviews the mosaic of characters, creatures separated by time and distance but linked together like echoes of each other’s pasts. He thinks about the father who lost his wife, the daughter borne of the dying mother, the daughter of another corpse taken to fill the loss, and the boy delivered into the family by a tragedy only to be separated by another act of violence. And then in another time, another continent, there is the other orphan, the daughters he would love, the woman that would not be his, and the old man he would be. And then, another boy. We are all orphans of history, abandoned children of our forgotten selves.

“For we live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes.” Michael Ondaatje could’ve been describing his own writing. David has read that novelists start out as poets but later learn that they don’t have the patience to obsess on every word. But in Ondaatje’s novels, he finds a poet who shifts to a longer form without losing his practiced precision and economy with language. This poet of prose brings with him the musical breaks and cadence of his verses.

And so it isn’t those lost, languid souls that pulls David back to the book again, but the words—words with the terse intensity of a photograph. On the cover of his copy of Divisadero are faces of two women, eyes cropped out of the picture as if damsels blindfolded by their captors, or heroines blinded by affection. It’s the two sisters, he is sure, but as to which pair David remains uncertain.

* * *

He retreats to the relative comfort of the colder room. On the bed lies the other book and he takes it down with him to the floor—its pages yellowed in all the years it’s been laid on beds and tables, moved in and out of shelves, grasped and touched and felt. The English Patient. He opens it and finds another David in the page.

“We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.”

Divisadero Cover

Divisadero is Michael Ondaatje’s fifth novel. He is better known for this third novel, The English Patient, which was adapted into a film by Anthony Minghella and won nine Academy Awards in 1997.

Disconnected

“It’s awfully quiet,” Cheska said, before letting her lithe fingers leave my wrist. The nurse’s hands were free of rubber gloves the first time I saw her during my admission. This time, she was wearing an isolation gown which on her tiny frame looked more of a spacesuit. The mask concealed her lips and powder-white cheeks, hiding with it a patch of skin that I noticed previously was peeling, possibly from the changing weather. But her wide brown eyes is without protection, and in them I saw a smile flashing as she spoke.

“Don’t you watch TV?”

“I’ll open it after you leave,” I said, after a brief laugh.

I confessed to enjoying the quietness of the moment. It’s not often that I find myself wrapped in lingering silence. She suggested I do some “soul searching,” and as with the television I told her I would, even though I knew I wouldn’t. My soul wasn’t in need of being found.

But she was right in that, there in that quiet hospital room, was a chance to take a break from the daily rituals of answering emails and browsing a parade of Facebook feeds. I needed that escape from online noise, that time to connect with the present. And I could not remember when I last had lunch that way, consciously consuming a prepared meal and not having it as a sidedish to a television show. In this state of ever-connectedness, we seem to have grown more interested in what near-forgotten acquaintances are having for breakfast than what we are about to feed ourselves.

Two hours later, Cheska returned with the antibiotics and attached the IV. She told me about the difficulties of her job and I told her about the distresses of mine. We talked about her mom who worked in the same building where I do, and about my mom who worked at home most of her life. I told her I know little else besides writing computer programs, and she asked me if I could make her a website.

“What kind do you want?”

“One where I can sell products,” she answered. I told her I would, even though I knew I wouldn’t.

The nurse that came in the evening had short hair and wasn’t dressed in coveralls. She was also not as pretty. I was out of the hospital a day later and had seen neither since.

A Long While

“So, what’s keeping you busy?”

“Just work,” I said.

The owner had welcomed me with his usual grin, teeth bared, cheeks pushing his black-rimmed glasses. He’s the sort to treat you like a regular even if it’s his first time seeing you, and it’s been a long while since he’s seen me in his café. I approached the counter and before he spoke I thought of pulling a bigger smile than the one I had.

“You still hike?”

“No, but I’ve been wanting to.”

Behind me was a picture that stretched to the width of a red wall. The owner pointed and mentioned they were up that mountain just the week before. I glanced over my shoulder and said it was my last climb. I have memories of being on the same spot but couldn’t remember which was my last. Much of my memory is that way—vivid yet uncertain, like a pile of undated photographs in a cardboard box.

I looked at the picture again. In it were silhouettes clustered on a small clearing, looking far into the receding sun.

“You guys do day hikes right? That’s a bit fast for my normal pace but I can try and join you sometime.”

“Sure,” I said. “Sometime.”

There were many people that afternoon and the only space I could sit on was a small couch beside the entrance. The logo on the glass door reads Subi Monte, which in a dialect not our own means to climb a mountain. The owner loves the outdoors, and I met him the time my buddies and I took hiking as a sport and a pastime. It felt like a time long past, and it was.

The plan was to sit still and finish The Cellist of Sarajevo. But the quiet tension of a city waiting for the next sniper fire could not hold my attention under siege. Outside the book, a crossfire of voices were shooting from different corners of the crowded room. At my far right, a man was shouting stories people my age hadn’t witnessed but nonetheless knew about. Grade school teachers wearing funny smiles and dull grey uniforms sounded like they were laughing at both the latest gossip and the loud man. My friend Michelle, oblivious to my presence, was making endless calls on her Blackberry while the old man tells the owner about the big, blocky cellphones of an earlier decade. The spoken noise went on while bossa nova notes drowned in the background.

I could not remember the last time I enjoyed the comfort that fiction brings, and it’d been some time since I finished any book. There was work, of course, and other things. But it wasn’t the lack of time nor interest that kept me from reading. I continued buying books, shelving one paperback after another next to a stack of magazines I similarly failed to resist, similarly just skimmed over. The appetite was there—a compulsion I could still rely on. But reading has its toll. It requires a measure of will, a discipline to not drift one’s eyes off the text and onto another title in the shelf, or another story in memory. And I’m always drifting.

That time that I wasn’t reading, I was training my eyes in capturing life with a camera. I will always be in love with words, but sometimes a story is best told with a photograph. Saul Leiter’s picture of an umbrella’d figure standing on the other side of snow-soaked glass can paint a longer narrative than a story in the New Yorker. His photographs of the 1950’s street scene—shot in the cover of windows and canopies like that a Cold War spy—make me dream of moody stories playing along a jazzy tune. But where I was, there was neither fog nor snow to mask the dullness of the city and draw colour into the frame. All the colour was in the chatter around me.

The next evening I found myself sitting again in a loud, crowded space, miles from home, reading without pause for a long while.

***

This was written a couple years ago when I was supposed to return to my old blog but never got to. Today I found myself hanging out in the same café and, while the interiors have changed and the characters no longer there, the scene was still real in my memory. This is the finished version of that original sketch.