She spent long evenings mooning around dreaming she was Marilyn Munro. Then entire weekends grafting on her play, being Arthur Miller. Being Marilyn was a breeze. Everyone loved her and the gnawing on her insides was easily masked by a fifth of whiskey and a deeper shade of lipstick. Arthur was a bit more tricky. That damn second act was a bitch and the G-men were constantly banging down the door. And it seemed so much harder to persuade people you are not what they think you are, than to cover up yourself what you yourself really know to be true.
I had a dream last night. Not so strange, some may say. But, as well you know, my darling, there are men who never dream. Your father was one, and his father another, blissful souls who entered into sleep as innocents to the grave, blameless and unknowing.
I counted myself among them, for fully forty-three years and seven months, but last night, I had a dream.
Should I tell you? Isn’t that what lovers do when they awake from a dream? Does the telling make it real, or does it flap it away, a feral cat from an old woman’s doorstep? But my dream was already real before I dreamed it, I suppose, and it can never be gotten rid of, so I will tell you it now, my darling, and hope that, for me at least, the telling will prove a talisman against any more to come.
You took me by the hand and walked through the doorway. We were happy. You were laughing at something I had just said and you were exhilarated, ready to go. I pulled back on your hand because I wanted to shut the door, but you pulled harder, told me to leave it open – told me we’d be back soon. I looked over my shoulder. It remained ajar (why did I expect it to close?) and at the last moment I saw our boys, the tousle-headed toddlers, not the almost grown men I have raised since, standing silent on the threshold. I turned back to look at you, saw a word half-hanging from your mouth, and the ground sucked us in.
I had a flash of excitement and I thought we could do it. I remembered a book, a manual, with line drawings of knives and knots. We had to relax, or flip on our backs, or both. And just as quickly, I knew that we were gone, that it was useless, that there was no saving us. But worse than this, far worse, I lost your hand. The cold sand closed over my head, and over yours, and I never knew where you went, only that you went there separately from me.
Then I woke up, and screamed at the empty space where once I held you.
Sometimes the wind blew so hard, it blew scraps of paper, wrappers and dust from the gutter – clear up to the twenty-fifth floor. You wiggled your toes through the railings, and you saw the birds go higher. You watched them wet their wings in the clouds.
You knew you were going to fly. It’s all you ever wanted to do.
Your old man dragged a stool out to the the balcony, to be with you. He stretched his legs long and said, That’s good, son. So get yourself a plan. You need to study X and then you’ll get to Y. Might take a while but that’s the way to Z .
You turned to look at him and thought you saw the Z he got to. You saw the blood in his eyes and the dirt in the crease of his neck, but you never saw a bird with a plan. You just saw them fly.
But Marcus said:
This is how we get you there, fly boy. This is the fast track.
Marcus will have you a private jet in no time, with a pilot, and rye whiskey in a sharp cut glass, scything through sky.
You took the gun, because he took the wheel. He said it was fair. And fair was fair for the white boy in the suit, the one that had to mess with the fine balance of things, the transition between earth and air.
You dig for worms in the exercise yard. The others watch you and spit, slit-eyed.
Hey birdman, they say, you’re cleared for takeoff. Go ahead and fly.
Sure, your nose is in the dirt, but it won’t be there long. They think they know you, but they can’t see under your skin. There’s a feeling – like bubbles under glass – just above your shoulder blades, and back in the cell, if you reach back around your neck, you can feel two lumps, smooth as eggs. You touch them and they vibrate, low and mellow, living things that breathe with you. They quiver and itch. This time around, they won’t melt off your back. Marcus, you can rot in hell, wherever you are.
Carson squats over the bucket in the corner. You see the white sinews of his thighs. His voice is all naive and quizzical, but his eyes are the flint of no good.
You got fleas, birdman?
It feels right to hold his head in his own shit. He can rot too.
That was three days ago. You won’t get out anytime soon. Three days they’ve watched you on their CCTV. Your screams are reedy, and repetitive. You’re hopping around in their strait jacket like a baby starling in traffic, and they sip their coffee and throw their heels on the desk. You hear what he’s sayin’, they grin. Listen.
You’re back with your dad, struggling against him, high above the city. He won’t let you go. You’d pull him over with you, just to be given a chance. But you’re too weak still, and he pulls you back from the edge.
Now you know it’s the truth, but you’re talking to blank walls.
These wings are real. These wings are real.
Your ex has a weak case. Flimsy, my lawyer says, and gives a little snorty laugh into her coffee mug. The mug advertises her services as a ‘Law Diva‘ and she sets it down on a photograph of a baby, made into a mouse pad. The bubbles on the surface of the coffee pop softly, one by one.
I can’t lose my son, I say.
Don’t worry, she says.
Her mobile phone rings. She makes an apologetic noise and swings her desk chair around to face the window. I can see the top of her head, stiff with hair spray.
Well, she says, did you take her temp? She snorts again. No, I can’t come home now. I have three more clients.
Outside the window, a crane hauls something heavy upwards.
Let’s take the tube to the end of the line.
His eyes widen.
Where does it stop?
I don’t know. Let’s find out.
He stands in front of the colourful map, chin straining upwards, straight blonde hair falling back from his face, and chooses the line that goes furthest away.
It’s not to scale, I say. But green is his favorite color, so that’s the line we choose. I buy him a packet of crisps and a Mars Bar, because he asks.
Don’t you have to go to work?
I shake my head. He munches thoughtfully. I help him push through the turnstile.
When we get there, it’s what I expected. I think I may have been here before. We cross a car park and over a triangle of grass, dotted with broken-off saplings, each inside its own battered wire fence. On the other side there’s a brick wall. I lift him onto the top, holding him round his waist while he dangles his legs over the other side. He points at things: a church spire, a shop window, a bright red sports car.
This is the best day, he says, with a slow starting smile. Where do we go now?
“It would be apreshated if gests would take there shoes off.”
It’s written in childish block letters and taped just above the doorbell. There’s a drawing too. I would have expected a pair of sneakers or maybe some feet, but instead it’s a picture of a Rambo style character, with an AK-47.
That’s a new one, I think. Sherice didn’t used to be so house-proud. I guess the kids are on board too. I always knew my brother was a neatnik, but when he retired from the Marines and got married, Sherice softened him up around the edges, made him realize that four kids (in three years) and an incontinent pug (that she found at the bus station and kept for the kids) were not compatible with high levels of barracks-style cleanliness. We have to band together on this one, she would say.
It’s drizzling, cold. The wind chimes she gave him on his forty-fifth birthday hang limply from a porch rafter. I ring the doorbell again. My brother’s broken-up face appears in the bubbled glass of the door lite.
Yeah. Let me in.
Let me in, would ya? It’s shitty out here.
He opens the door in full dress uniform, medals, epaulettes, white cap and belt, the whole deal. Except no shoes. His socks have HANES in blue across the toes.
He points an M9 Beretta at my chest.
He doesn’t move. I step backwards, knocking into the wind chimes.
C’mon Jerry. Quit it. Put it away.
There’s a small black lump lying in a pooled shadow on the hallway floor behind him. I think I see a pink collar. From further inside the house, a crash and a child’s high-pitched wail.
Jerry’s eyes flick away, back to me. He laughs, like when I would tell him my stupid kid brother jokes.
That’s a good one, he says.
Et voila! says Jonnie, with a flourish.
The place is pretty sweet. You step out of the elevator. One of those key lock elevators that open into the apartment, like in the movies.
The ceilings are high and molded. There are tall sash windows with leaded panes. Yes, you feel like you can maybe taste air again.
Then he leaves you.
There’s a gallon of milk and three microwave dinners in the fridge.
Far below, mangled swings in a playground, a liquor store and a sign. ICE OLD EER.
Voices through the wall – Fuck you. No, fuck you.
You fumble for your phone, then you realize he took it. Your laptop’s on the table.
Jonnie’s there, smiling.
He lays a cool palm on the back of your neck. He switches off his smile and the overhead light, picks the keycard back up from the counter, and he’s gone again.
The setting sun makes drops of blood out of the glass roses, across the polished oak floor.
No, you say to the closing doors, in the darkening room. Everything’s not okay.
That night, the sound of chains and ropes cranking unknown bodies up and down. The bed facing the elevator and you can’t decide which way to lie in it. Head down, head up – you’re always vulnerable.
There’s a crack in the dark paneled elevator doors. Something not adjusted quite right. As the elevator passes, light flickers and dances across the sheets in odd random beats.
So you lie on the floor.
The ceiling starts to crawl. Gargoyles erupt from the molding.
Open your eyes. See burned fingers pry the elevator doors apart. A woman. Blisters on her lips, a narrow thread of blood across her cheek. Her eyes fall into her head like sinkholes.
Looking into them, you see chains, going down forever.
Jonnie finds you, in the morning, curled around yourself as if to protect a child, and he takes you in his arms. He rocks you back and forth, touches your cheek.
And he leaves you, just one more time.
I’m sitting outside on my deck in the early morning sun, smoking a menthol while I drink my coffee. I don’t smoke, and if I’m honest with myself, the cigarette has really ruined the taste of my espresso. Since Sara left, I’ve been doing this a lot. Doing things, I mean, that seem like they’re going to be really cool – like they’re going to make me feel really cool – but turn out to be, well, a disappointment. Take Ellen, for example.
My brother introduced us, which was probably a bad sign. (He never had liked Sara, pronouncing her ‘dry as a lawyer’s wet dream.’ Nothing was ever exciting enough for him, as witnessed by a trail of broken marriages and a missing middle fingertip, victim of his obsession with carnivorous fish.)
A mutual friend had talked me into a party on the east side – nothing wild, just the late young adulthood, early midlife kind. The kind of party I needed to ease me back into sociability. I sat in a corner, watching people drink lite beer out of paper cups, while a lone baby (the sole entertainment) bounced up and down in a primary colored plastic saucer, enthralling the assembled crowd.
Sara loved babies. Loved them so much in fact, I got sick of hearing about it. When you are, you know, of the Sapphic persuasion, the whole procreation thing is just so inordinately complicated. Birth mothers, sperm donors, gestational surrogacy. Whatever.
We would sit up nights, straight backed at the kitchen table, and discuss it until the sun cracked through the drapes and shot a shard of light between us. The best I could come up with, after all that, was a poorly disguised yawn and a specious offer to ‘investigate the cost of adoption.’
Darren rolled up to the party: late, drunk and uninvited. Ellen was draped over his arm. A thin gold headband encircled her frizzy squared-off hairdo, and her rosebud lips sipped at a menthol cigarette through an ivory holder. With her full sleeve tattoos, she put me in mind of a tribal Lillian Gish.
Darren winked at me, flipped me a stumpy bird, and left us together. After an awkward moment, punctured by the squeaking of a rubber zebra, Ellen flicked her cigarette ash in the direction of the performing child.
“Dear God,” she whispered, her breath hot in my ear. “I simply cannot stand infants.”
We hit it off.
The next Saturday morning found me relaxing in the tub, languidly relishing the memories of the previous seven nights, up to my neck in milk and honey. I was pondering the pros and cons (but mostly the pros) of getting my nipples pierced, when I caught sight of my lone toothbrush in its glass by the sink – and allowed myself the merest hint of a hope that it might soon be joined, on at least a semi-permanent basis, by Ellen’s. Babies or no babies, I just couldn’t help myself.
Then the screen door slammed. In the eerie silence that followed, I became slowly and painfully aware of the soft fizz of my bubble bath deflating.
She did leave me an opened pack of Kools, thrown on my pillow like a half-chewed mint. She took the ivory holder, of course. My brother says he saw her yesterday on one of his delivery runs – she’s the back of house specialist at Kidz Kottage. She didn’t tell him to say hi.
Whatever. It’s now eight-oh-four. Time to get ready for the nine-to-five. I’ve got a hollow, dry feeling in my chest, but I guess I can say one thing for that menthol cigarette. Unlike the coffee (a bitter Bolivian blend I’ve been drinking for years) – it gave me one hell of a buzz.