Last night you saved me in my dream. It was about the two men I loved, and your father—a recomposed trilogy.
I am riding in the backseat with my most grateful lover. The car stops, letting us out into the light. Looking up at his face, I see the passed years, but in the mirror of his eye, I am still smooth and tightly packed, like I was the day he ambled up to me at the feast. That afternoon others had considered returning the wayward strap of my blue sundress to the crest of my shoulder, but he had been the one to slide it over my goosebumped skin.
The memory bleeds into my limbs, seducing me. I take his hand to cross the tree-canopied street. Others emerge from the car to witness our touching. Meandering the cobblestone road, we are a disjointed, but familiar group—the pre-childbearing version of me, the quit smoking and gain fifty pounds version of him, his third wife, my still spright parents, and a toddling and toothless you. We stop in front of a brownstone with crumbling steps. Everyone’s mouths are moving, faces molding around words. Except the silent wife. She wafts behind him with the buoyancy of a helium balloon. He nods, as if he suddenly broke free of his rural Midwest roots and can follow the immigrant cacophony of my family.
Hot wind blows circles of dry leaves over the sidewalk. We idle, chattering goodbyes in spectral slow motion. The old ache of parting with him returns. Questions I wouldn’t ask because they would have made me look weak. What thing could we have become? If we had become something, would it be a petrified couple of wax sculptures on the microfiber couch? I look into the gray of his eyes—the only recognizable part of him. Hovering behind the lusty curtain are his own questions and answers.
Now we are in his tiny basement apartment. He drinks beer and I pretend to. He talks and I pretend to listen. The evening weaves in and out of his childhood, sick mother, crazy sister, small-town friends, church choir, failed first marriage, failed second marriage, failed jobs, failed health, failed God, all the while not mentioning why his third wife—the balloon—lives in a house two hours away from the tiny basement apartment and why he visits her every other weekend.
Because I am young and lonely and hopeful, I pretend to not know what they do on those visits. But on the drive home, with his grinding between my legs still fresh, the image of him doing the same to her barrels at me from the oncoming lane. To purge it from my mind, I think of his mouth, gaping from the buzz of sex and beer, of his eyes locked on me in disbelief. I don’t need to pretend. Our sex is what he will remember when visiting the house two hours away. It is what he will conjure up when he hates his job, when he moves to a place where no one speaks his language, when the third wife says his stories are not all that interesting.
Years later, we will run into each other at the student center coffee shop. I am showing. Your presence is a delectable six-month swell. He rushes to pull out a chair for me while rambling about jobs, mutual acquaintances, books he’s read, never pausing for any questions. I know he’s thinking of our sex.
Back on the street, the wind stops. Leaves pause in incidental heaps. The dream goodbye gives us reason to cling to each other for a long moment. No matter that he is broken by age and disappointment and the skin behind his ears gathers in pale folds. The stolen seconds are heady. We hold on to them as long as dream etiquette permits, savoring the solidity of each other’s bodies, pressing harder. Partitioned by the thin blue fabric of my dress, the strain of our flesh feels true. I trust it more than I had trusted the cradle of his arms on the floor of the tiny basement apartment.
The two lovers happened to know each other. I would have been with both of them, but the second was reluctant. They were before you came.
The feast populates the vast green. A party of colleagues, students with families, deans and professors of this and that, dancing the cotillion with paper plates and plastic flutes.
He has a summer glow that sets off the brightness of his eyes. I hear the measured cadence of his voice talking about the new curriculum and find him in the crowd. His wife hangs back in a prissy Stepford get-up. He masks his awareness of me with a squint against the searing glare. I am not disappointed. It isn’t like him to get excited.
Maneuvering around conversation bubbles and swirling fumes of grilled meat, I work my way closer. To anchor me in the festivities, a hot dog appears in my hand. The gathered fade into a Pointillist canvas of dresses, faces, and naked knees. He drifts over with a polite hello, how are you, and your parents, are you happy, still, here, what with the coming changes and all, and is the heat bothering you today? I answer, careful not to look down. Looking not at each other but down the hill, at the erect undulations of purple loosestrife, we speak.
After the third glass of warm wine, he says the baby has made me unbearably beautiful. My dream self knows he won’t live to see your first school play.
He notices my sadness. It’s okay, he says, you have always loved being alive more than I did. Of course, he’s wrong. People often see the hustle and whip of relationships, ambitions, diversions, appetites, as a love for life. It is, for some.
A spindly girl in a red dress runs past, nicking his elbow. Losing her balance, she sends her ice cream on a trajectory to a woman’s shoe. He laughs with robust strength, throwing his head back, sending a ripple of echoes through people. Seeing his abandon—his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down as he chortles and guffaws—I am struck again. Not by his death, but by the things we’ll never know about each other. What he might think at night when he can’t sleep and goes to the bedroom window to watch the orange glow of the harvest moon. How he smells after an afternoon of planting clematis down the length of the fence. The rustle of his sated whispers in my hair.
My hand reaches for him. For a second his face is transparent with reckless meaning. He lies, saying it isn’t like that for him, quoting scripture, cloaking his desire, staring at the marching geese. The laughter is gone. I notice the flowery pattern of his wife’s skirt bloating in the background.
Years later, the dream picks up at the end of his life. You can make necklaces from dry pasta. He is still dressing and eating, and laughing, sometimes. It’s a good day, close to his birthday. He agrees to let me take him out. Doused by the noon sun, the deck of the restaurant sits empty but for one table, where a group of old men plays cards and drinks beer. While the dealer shuffles, the players glance over at my browned shoulders, intersected by the thin blue straps of my dress. Across from me, he is picking at mashed potatoes and creamed spinach, the most solid food his intestines can handle. Loose skin creases over the sharpness of his cheekbones. We talk about the curriculum changes to be made in the fall, neither of us willing to concede the inevitable. When we’ve covered all the work, the conversation wanes. He spoons a heap of ice cream into his mouth from the bowl set between us. A string of milky dribble runs into his beard. I look around for a napkin. Not finding one, I reach for the long hem of my dress and pull it across the table to wipe his chin.
Let me tell you about how my mother died, he says. The telling takes most of the afternoon, leaving him weak, but satisfied. After he’s gone, I choose to believe he had not shared the story with anyone else. Not the way he shared it with me.
That day, I want to thank him for never accepting my affections; for being blind to the others whose affections I had accepted, but with his impending departure, I watch him silently. Volcanic glass forms in my heart. Its weight and sharpness spread to my limbs. On days that come later, my body tries to forget him, but the glass shifts, opening scarred-over memories and leaving me whispering his name.
We get up to leave. His arm winds loosely around my waist as we walk past the card players. Eat your heart out, boys, he says under his breath.
Your father forced his way into my dreams.
It’s my birthday—a big one—or maybe yours. I cruise the palatial hall, finding it too extravagant even for a dream. Tufted into blinding fabrics, the guests shimmy around the floor to Russian rap. I hear the bray of his language before I see him. There must be a door. I search the room. He’s blocking the only way out. His McEnroe era shorts and sleeveless tee are sweat-soaked. Suspended on a hanger in his hand is the suit he brought. He is talking with my peach-chiffon-clad mother. Her back is turned to me, so I am spared her face, but not his. It is a mask chiseled out of madness—all nostrils, spiked hair, and frantic tics.
Lapping at his upper lip with his tongue, he thrusts the suit at my mother, who maintains the inscrutable composure of a valet rack. Unburdened, he pulls off his tee, wrings it out and hands it to a passing waiter. Next he snatches a shirt from under the suit jacket—the hanger still suspended from my mother’s hand—and swings it around the permanent sunburn on his back. I wonder why he’s not dying from cancer.
I should be looking for another door, but I keep watching him. Somewhere, you are waiting to be found.
He yanks down his shorts. The uneven pink orbs of his testicles bob beneath the crisp lavender shirttails. I look down at myself. The straps of my sundress are slicing into my armpits. The pain of pinched flesh makes it difficult to breathe. Imitating the dancing crowd, I sashay around the room, scanning its recesses for an escape. But he meets my eyes at every angle.
My lover from the tiny basement apartment squeezes through the bodies, stopping in front of your father. They study each other. A flutter of hope.
How did a piece of shit like you end up here, they both say, deflecting a handshake.
Not that I would have wanted your part, each says to the other.
They nod, a Devil’s pact admission in their eyes.
Who would want this, your father says, hiking up his arms to reveal the dangle under the shirt. I really did you a favor, he adds. Not to mention her, he gestures in my direction. She would have withered with the likes of you.
The lover from the basement forms an empty O with his mouth. He stumbles backwards into the reluctant lover, who is in the pre-diseased, racquetball-muscled-splendor of fitted white polos tucked into slim jeans. Champagne bubbles from his glass.
Aren’t you dead, your father asks him.
The reluctant lover looks down at himself as if to check the solidity of his presence. Your wife brings me up now and then, he says.
That makes sense, your father says. It’s like I’ve tried to explain, but women don’t understand. Half of our lives is our own doing, the rest is divine will—his eyes roll to the ceiling—and there is no messing with that. The two lovers follow his gaze; all three men stare at an idle disco ball.
Your father finds me and scowls with tobacco-stained teeth. Yoo-hoo, he trumpets with his hands funnelled around his mouth. The lovers flee, lurching in reverse as if their limbs are being jerked by invisible fishing lines.
I run. My shoes clack on the hardwood. The windows fly open, sending freezing winds through the ballroom. The floor turns to blue ice. If only you were here. I coast on the ice. A wall passes, a window flashes by, the buffet is left behind, another wall, more people, same faces, another buffet, windows, walls, more, the same. You are nowhere. The hall reels back in a merry-go-round of men and women, tables and voice snippets, in equal eighths, on an endless spin. As I orbit, he is watching me; the crater of his mouth dilating with a deafening shriek. The two halves of his body break into a dissonant sprint. The starched lavender hurdles, and the shriveled pink ricochets. His breath burns at my shoulder blades. Another window appears. I leap, knowing nothing of where I will land. The room warps.
A girl-child wrenches me from the reel of bodies. Her hand grasps mine with the strength of many. I remember this hand. It’s the smallest hand I’ve ever held. I close my fingers around it and we are gone.
Your love is the constant of clean sheets against my skin. Each time I wake my mind believes in getting up and walking away. That nothing ever happened. That everything is still to come. That stories can have beginnings without ends. I look down the length of the bed at the smooth expanse of white. It absolves me of the stains on my soul, blotting colors from existence. I gather the will to turn my head. The curtains are pulled back. Sinking behind the cottonwood, the sun colors its draping fleece. A gust of wind plucks cottony seeds from the pods, waltzing them to the ground in incandescent revolutions. It’s June, I think.
In my dreams, you are silk-cheeked, luster-eyed, exuberant with curiosity, and my arms are strong enough to lift you high over my head, letting your giggles rain on me. In that realm, I don’t yet know what name you’ll carry or who you’ll grow into. In this one, you are a warrior, slaying dragons made of volcanic glass.
I sleep often. When I wake, you are next to me, reading.
“You don’t have to be here all the time,” I say.
You tilt your head. Your hair falls to my shoulder. “Where would you have me be?”
“You’ve done more than anyone, more than I ever did, more than any man could have.” I focus on my muscles to lift my arm. The effort leaves me mute. With all my strength, I send messages to my bones and raise my clenched fingers to your cheek. “If you hadn’t come when you did…”
You take my hand, easing its weight. Your skin is warm with life. “Mama, what will I do when I can’t see you anymore?”
Your face is set, full of resolve. You could leap out the window, sprout wings, swoop down and, in one dazzling measure, free the world.
My eyes close. Dancing leaves flicker through the sheath of my eyelids. “You’ll see me in your dreams.”
Jacqueline Feldman holds an MA in English. She lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio, where she also serves as Programming Committee Chair on the Board of Literary Cleveland. Having moved to the U.S. from Ukraine as a child, Jacqueline often touches on themes of immigration and estrangement in her fiction. Her short story “Fast Forward” is in the July 2020 issue of Novel Noctule Literary Magazine. When not writing stories, Jacqueline is querying agents for her debut novel, Ten Days Until Tomorrow.