Walking the Fringe
Rush hour traffic is always a particular challenge when I’m plagued by residual images from a nightmare.
My dreams are generally nonsensical manifestations of my own quirks and neuroses where, say, I might find myself naked in a high school lunchroom talking to my dead Uncle Ernie about anti-gravity spaceships while eating orange-marmalade pizza.
Sometimes my dreams are so surrealistically vivid the colors of waking life pale in comparison, and the “real” world is rendered monochromatic.
But then, there are the repeating dreams. These are the nightmares. They cling, like spells cast by crones shrouded in mist. I wake up crying out, but only a puff of air escapes my lips as I emerge from the black water of sleep. I hear the echoes of the crones’ laughter die away as daylight diffuses the darkness. They leave me with that edgy anxiety I get whenever I exceed my daily quota of caffeine, as though something is my fault, something grotesque and unforgivable, but I don’t remember what it is.
I left for work this morning after such a nightmare. It is always basically the same: I open a door, look in a closet, round a corner, and I suddenly remember I’ve forgotten to feed the kittens. They are lying there in a heap, starving, barely alive, writhing in agony . . . I scream—one of those silent screams so intense it wakes me up.
Rush hour traffic is worse than usual. A pest control van with ears, whiskers, and tail cuts me off, just as I’m wincing for the hundredth time at the guilt I feel for forgetting to feed the kittens. I slam on the breaks, veer, gasp, and my coffee spills. A string of words all beginning with F and B spews from my lips. I grapple for the coffee cup like a praying mantis with cerebral palsy. I finally get a grip and look around to see high-end European cars floating by me—little enclosed worlds of soundproof plush. Their stone-faced drivers glance contemptuously over their cell phones at me with genteel superiority at my undignified display. I shrink back down to a pimply-faced adolescent, unsure and gangly. A deep breath steadies my nerves and I tune into the classical station, always a sure-fire device to make me feel grown up.
There is a piece of carpet on the shoulder of the freeway. It’s a dead animal, so flattened it just looks like a carpet. I prepare myself mentally for “one of those days” at work.
I arrive exactly eleven minutes late. Trying to be unobtrusive, I slip into my cubicle like I would a tight-fitting pair of shoes grating against swollen carbuncles. Fluorescent lights, cheap coffee, and pop music dripping with cloying sentimentality all coalesce to bring job-reality into focus. I glue myself to the computer screen, shoulders hunched, bloodshot eyes blinkless. Starving kittens and bloodied fur carpets fade from my mind.
Over lunch, Gloria—my informant, since I never watch or read the news on principle—tells me that the U.S. has mistakenly nuked a civilian factory in Afghanistan, Senator B. was caught giving head to Senator M. in the White House men’s room, and three children were blown to pieces in their tree house by a cousin taking an advanced chemistry class.
I fill Gloria in on the realities of mind control, government-issued antidepressants, and the MK-Ultra initiatives. The kitten dream has faded and I’m feeling good. A shot of wheat grass and a raw salad set my atoms whirling like dervishes and the spaces between them expanding at an alarming rate. I decide to weigh myself down a little with double-fudge chocolate torte for dessert. Balance is what I aim for.
My blood-sugar levels plummet around two-thirty. I ponder what I might have done career-wise in another lifetime. I have two fantasies: one is to be the lead singer in a famous all-girl rock band, the other is to be a philosopher. My singing voice renders the first improbable, and I haven’t figured out a way yet to make money from the second. My eyelids droop, the room wavers, the music recedes . . . I stare at the papers on my desk for a good ten minutes. I feel a soft brush against my ankle. I look down and see Fluffy, my cat. I stroke her back. She arches and purrs. I smile and close my eyes.
Gloria’s voice drifts over the four-foot wall and interrupts my reverie with jagged sound waves shaped like shark’s teeth. I jerk awake with an echoing snort, wipe drool from my chin and look around. The cat is gone. Then I remember Fluffy ran away two years ago, and I am in job-reality now.
Brett comes home after work as I’m stir-frying pad-Thai. We eat silently with wooden chopsticks, my nose stuck in a book and Brett surfing the Internet on his phone. Occasional comments fly back and forth, unrelated and abrupt: “Got the Comtec account.” “Pass the chili sauce please.” “Trade show’s been moved up. I leave tomorrow.” “Wow, she thought she was pregnant but only had a tumor . . .”
I read a particularly sad passage in my biography of Bloody Mary. She wanted a child so badly, she manifested a growth in her womb. Something urges me to look across the table at Brett. As if the dream crones have lifted a veil, I see him suddenly: the little boy, the child shining out of his face, skinned knees, uncombed hair, dead beetles in his pockets, wanting only love and acceptance and his own place in the sun. My breath catches in my throat, my heart is squeezed almost out of existence and I long to reach over and touch his cheek, cradle him in my arms and sing to him with a mother’s deep eternal love for her coveted issue. He looks up from his phone as if he’s been touched and speaks. But his voice is decidedly adult; the man is back. I sigh and say nothing.
We make love in the dark. Brett’s head is buried in the shallow of my neck, but I see his dimly lit shoulder, the smooth curve of it, the strength emanating from his body. He is the warrior, the protector, the brave knight, the lustful Roman. Memories flood me, sad, poignant, bitter, sweet, of things said and unsaid between us . . . the unsaid things taking lead. I try to concentrate on having an orgasm but it doesn’t quite happen.
I lay wide-eyed afterwards, held fast by phosphorescent prison bars filtering through the blinds from the all-seeing streetlights outside. Silence fills the room, spreading out like warm water poured soundlessly over polished marble, ancient memories mirrored in its depths, unreachable, only just felt like a word on the tip of the tongue. I ponder the edge of the known universe and fight back the queasiness I experience each time I try to visualize what lies beyond it, or if it even has an edge. Where is the universe anyway? I finally drift into sleep to escape the ball of unanswerable questions churning in the pit of my being.
The crones cackle. The mists eddy. An ancient three-fingered hand forms runes in the air. I try to claw my way up from sleep like a drowning woman with cement shoes, slowed to a snail’s pace by the thickness of the water. I sink down. Blackness envelopes me, holds me, comforts me, laughs hideously at me with omnipotent god-power, takes me down deeper. I open a closet. I find the kittens. One of them is standing, hobbling toward me, staring into my eyes. The scream starts. The heartbeat quickens.
Blackness again. There is a God and she/he rewards my suffering with a splash of riveting color and knee-trembling flight against a star-studded sky pulsing with quasars and nebulae, my fingers at the controls of an alien ship. I smile at an insect-like ET and he/she reveals all the secrets of the universe to me in a phantasmagorical stream, politely leaving out the parts about life-sucking comets crashing into unsuspecting planets.
I wake up to an off-key falsetto aria emanating from the direction of the shower. It’s Saturday, I realize dimly, while pushing away the clinging strands of sleep. Brett is leaving this afternoon for a couple of days. I shuffle to the kitchen, enveloped in mists, still one with the creatures of night, still one with the crones and the ET, all of them unwilling to follow me out into the sting of stark daylight in a third-dimensional existence where white males and Christianity currently reign supreme.
I take Brett a cup of coffee and pick up a book (any book with a protruding bookmark will do). I curl up on the couch, open the book and sip my morning stimulant. The universe spills out in front of me, endless, star-lit, throbbing, empty, brimming over. I hover just outside the event horizon of a black hole contemplating the time warp at its singularity. Some part of me senses Brett entering my space. I back away from the event horizon knowing that his added mass could plunge us both into unexplored territory. He sidles in next to the couch. I am enveloped in a shampoo, soap, and deodorant cloud. Gently, but firmly, he pulls the book from my hands. “You need to lighten up. No physics this morning. Let’s go rollerblading.”
I look up into his familiar eyes and the child is there again, peeking out mischievously, laughing at me, with me, for me. Suddenly the mists part, the sun shines in and I feel the tethers of solemnity loosen, uncoil, fall away and evaporate. The child in me smiles back at the child in him. We recognize one another, the dark spots, the hidden spots, but they don’t matter . . . nothing matters. I laugh, at myself, my book, my mists, and throw off the night like an old coat gone out of style. I dress in bright colors and pull my hair into a wild knot that pokes out sideways. I wear three pairs of earrings.
We blade around the neighborhood. I marvel at the brightly colored world, full of noise and movement, oblivious and innocent. I am temporarily disposed to the innocence rather than the oblivion, momentarily suspending judgment against the ignorant masses. Brett sails in front of me, greeting strangers, blading backwards. The child survives the morning. My knees survive the hard sidewalk. I thank the powers-that-be for kneepads.
At the airport we kiss good-bye, a dry pecking kiss that reminds me of old, sexless couples, long-married and long-resigned, fresh from the pharmacy where they procure the means to poison their livers. Brett walks down the accordion tunnel to the plane, the tunnel shivers, ready to collapse and suck the unsuspecting travelers into a parallel dimension of freeze-dried food, stale air and insufficient leg room. As Brett walks away I gaze at his shoulders. I long to throw myself down the tunnel after him, declaring my undying love and kissing him with real passion. I swallow back the tears that swell out of nowhere. I’m convinced the plane will crash, and I will have to live with horrible guilt the rest of my life because I never seem to tell him what I really feel. But my uncooperative feet stayed glued the floor. I sigh and shuffle back to my car.
The house morphs subtly in Brett’s absence. I wonder intermittently why I never got another cat after Fluffy. I turn on more lights than I need, to sweep shadows out of the corners. I know the crones are waiting. They hang back, safe in their fastness cackling nefariously, ready to weave the dream.
I call Gloria. Strange clicks and beeps echo as her cell rings. I try not to indulge my fears of phone tapping and the fact that every single word spoken over the digital network is scanned and duly noted for rebellious intent. A dossier nonetheless rises in my mind’s eye with my name written on the front qualified by “libertarian” “vegetarian” and “saucerian.” Gloria picks up.
We meet for coffee at a cafe-slash-used-bookstore, the one pocket of culture left that doesn’t roll up its sidewalks at nine o’clock. I order a large double espresso hazelnut latté with chocolate chip whipped cream, and resign myself to a sleepless night.
I proceed to bore Gloria with a stream of consciousness on wave-particle duality as soon as the caffeine starts to kick in. In the back of my mind I know she’s bored, but like an addict, I can’t stop myself. My career as a philosopher spans the extended hours of The Literal Latte.
Wired and unable to keep my eyelids shut for three consecutive seconds, I stretch out diagonally in bed with Brett not there to occupy his usual two-thirds. While staring up the ceiling, which begins to shift and blur as my mind races headlong through a synaptic wormhole, I realize with sudden clarity how diametrically opposed the two of us are, yet alike. Brett is the sun and I am the moon. I actually have an epiphany. My heart pounds; my pupils swallow my irises. I’ve connected the female-male/yin-yang to the wave-particle. The moment blazes, eternal, unspoken, lighting up the cosmos with wattage heretofore unseen. But as soon as words start to form of what I’ve just realized, I forget it all in a lump, as if that sort of knowledge is forbidden, and God has snatched my moment up and thrown me out of the garden. Then I remember I don’t believe in God and blame the whole experience on caffeine.
Of course, the dream comes. Always in waves, like a handful of poisonous spores thrown down periodically from some extraterrestrial sentient mushroom bent on mischief. I give myself up to the pain, the horror, the utter devastation. I embrace it. I laugh at it—frightening laughter akin to hysteria. This time the kittens are mewing thinly and I stop laughing. I manage to feed them some dried pellets of “real meat” by-products, but I wake with the same clutching sense of anguish.
Sunday my feelings wax and wane, build and diffuse. I miss Brett. I can’t stand Brett. These conflicting emotions are directly correlated to when I am, and am not, in direct contact with some pile of his pocket leavings as I clean the house. I don’t touch his study with rag or mop, but only peer into it disdainfully, vindicating myself for every cruel thing I’ve ever said to him with one swift glance at his clutter. I spy the remains of an old shriveled-up peanut butter sandwich beside his computer. I snort, filled with self-righteous indignation.
The rest of the day I indulge my obsessive-reclusive tendencies. I do not even venture into the back yard, but only glance out periodically to check for enemy infiltration. I rebelliously read “Quantum Quirks” for hours while drinking ginseng tea and eating chocolate chips from a bag, one at a time, between sips. Only after the sun sets do I go outside to the mailbox, which I forgot to check yesterday, because Brett took every spare second I had helping him get ready to leave. I slink down the driveway while scanning for neighbors I may have to say hello to. If I look straight ahead and only move my eyes, I can keep up the pretense that I don’t see anyone. I hesitate at the mailbox, however, and gaze into the western sky. No stars are visible yet. Jupiter and Venus are conjunct but look entirely too bright. I’ve never seen them this bright especially in the absence of any stars. My heart flutters. I speculate that these are actually mother ships. I hover momentarily, waiting for one of them to shoot off at an angle. Nothing. I slink back up the driveway, disappointed but still convinced they aren’t planets.
Before reentering the house, I hear a quick rustling. My next-door neighbor’s cat has flattened himself under a bush, and I catch his glinting stare like the flash of a silver guppy in a muddy pond. Something passes between us. A stream of electrons lines up and connects our minds. I know he sees the mother ships and he knows I am a creature of the night like him. Time screeches to a complete halt and we, the human feline and the feline human, whorl into a vortex of satisfying vindication. The moment breaks and I go back into the house smiling a secret smile.
I begin to get used to sleeping diagonally. I ponder the relative merits of sleeping alone or with Brett. Sleeping with Brett wins out as the shadows grow in the corners . . . shadows detected peripherally, always frustratingly just out of view . . . shadows that appear and disappear so quickly my heart jumps repeatedly into my throat seeking cover. I light a white candle and mutter an invocation for protection. I make it up since I don’t know any witchcraft and cap it off with a lyrical “Om.” The shadows recede. The crones shrink back. My dreams are the ordinary jumbled kind.
After spending an entire day with no human contact, going to work again becomes a Twilight Zone experience. As I leave the dark parking garage and emerge onto the sunlit street, a girl with purple hair hands me a neon orange flyer. I am temporarily blinded and grope for my sunglasses. Details emerge. I gape at a plethora of unrelated though beautifully needled tattoos. The girl asks me a question but all I can see is the tongue stud flashing behind her lips. I embarrssingly answer with a lisp as I take the flyer for a band called The Holocaust Camels.
I enter the office building and fight back the disorientation I feel when co-worker’s greetings whiz past my head and echo off the walls, which seem to be leaning at weird angles.
By mid-afternoon, I complete the transition back into job-reality: radios stop intercepting communications from mother ships; enemy infiltrators dissolve back into middle management; and the ignorant masses are just ignorant, not clones bred for the New World Order.
Brett calls. He has returned and taken a taxi home. I soften towards him and admit to myself how much joy he brings to my life. My revelation is short-lived. On the way home resentments crowd back in, jostling for retribution. I smolder at the fact that he never called while he was away, never mind that it was only forty-eight hours. I’ve only just thought of this and my indignation swells exponentially with every mile. He was off schmoozing, sparing no thoughts for me, while I was home cleaning up his messes and dealing with going to the mailbox myself.
It is a well-known fact that Brett never misses me. He is the intrepid explorer who willingly goes off to war, or sea, bent on amusement, leaving the womenfolk behind to do all the mundane chores. And he doesn’t appreciate my interests. He never wants to discuss unified field theories with me.
I walk into the house armed and ready. I am Cleopatra, Cassandra, Joan of Arc, Hillary Clinton. I immediately fix on the open briefcase, the coat and tie hanging over a chair, decidedly askew, the papers strewn haphazardly over the dining-room table. My lips purse. My pulse quickens. I see business cards with female names on them.
Brett walks in from the kitchen smiling. Apparently he does not notice the wild look in my eyes, my trembling hands, the electric sparks whirling about madly in my dangerously red aura. Some distant part of me registers a mouth-watering smell emanating from the kitchen. I brush this aside.
He walks right up to me and enfolds me in his arms. I resist but his hug is engulfing, strong, virile. He buries his head in my hair. “I missed you,” he says. I hear a thin little voice say, “You did?” He squeezes me tighter in answer and to my horror I feel hot tears prick my eyes. I press my lips together tightly, blink back the tears and ride out the sudden wave of emotion. My protector has returned and he missed me. I shrink back down to the little girl I really am and give myself up to the embrace.
“Of course I missed you, silly. I always do.”
Brett kisses me, not a dry pecking kiss, not even a passionate one, but a kiss of friendship—the kind of friendship that two children have, sturdy, loyal, innocent, trusting. We look at one another and smile into each other’s eyes. I forget why I was mad. Candles burning on the sideboard that I hadn’t noticed before cast a soft light over the room. I feel the strength from Brett’s arms. His warmth, his solidity flow into me as he takes me into the kitchen. Seen through the eyes of a little girl, the disarray of pots, spice jars, wooden spoons and chopped vegetable remains become the artist’s palette and canvas, our dinner the art. The kitchen is our hearth, refuge against an uncertain, barbarous world. Here, within these walls, bathed in the rosy glow of love and friendship, we are safe, because we have each other.
Brett leads me past the stove where I give an appreciative sniff. There is a box on the floor. He kneels down next to it.
Inside the box is a sleeping kitten, curled up on one of Brett’s old t-shirts. She is shabby and looks uncared-for. Her fur is spiky in places, as if it has been glued together. Her face is splotched with odd patches of color: black, orange, brown. I immediately name her Patches.
“Just picked her up at the Pound. I thought it was time for another cat,” Brett tells me.
I reach down for Patches. She yawns and mews as I pick her up. The Eternal Mother within me flowers, filling the room with her possessive pollens. I press Patches to my breast protectively, crooning in that universal language reserved for babies of any kind. I feel her purring seep through my chest to my heart, our rhythms mingling harmoniously. I try not to think of Fluffy.
After dinner I sit on the couch with a book and Patches curled up on my lap—a little ball of fur with a motor. I am riding an inertial frame through the universe, soaring mechanically past black holes, immune to the warpage of spacetime around them sucking in every other thing but me, Patches, and Hawking radiation. Brett has ventured forth into his study to wage war on the computer. I hear the strains of zombie annihilation come exploding down the hallway. I sigh luxuriously.
While basking in the ephemeral glow of contentment, I vow never to get angry at Brett again, to think positive thoughts about the ignorant masses, and to reconsider my paranoia about the powers-that-be.
On second thought, I realize a change of this magnitude could warp my tenuous hold on reality right out of existence. I decide not to risk any psychological crises the corrupt medical community could not talk or drug me out of.
I can always put off total enlightenment until my next lifetime.