What happens is this. I dream about him, not the first dream of the night, but the second or the third, after I’ve turned over a few times. He is not always the same, but I know it is him anyway. I dream he holds my wrists, his thumbs pressed into my veins, and he squeezes so tightly that I can feel his thumbs on my heart and I wake up because my chest is about to explode.
My new apartment came to me fully furnished. It was branded as a minimalistic European getaway. The landlord has used this general catch all phrase as an excuse to kit the apartment out with $200 of IKEA furnishings and a single abstract painting. The first afternoon I was there, I spent an hour looking at that painting, because there was nothing else to look at, unless you count the notably sleek knobs on the three kitchenette cabinets. It’s just an orange line over a red line, framed in a thin black plastic frame that says either you’re a cheap college student or a minimalist European genius.
And that night he is in my dreams. The first night, it is the fingers on the wrists, but he comes back the next night, and it’s something different. I had thought I had left him behind at the previous apartment, the previous city. But here he is, and I tell myself I’m asleep, I’m asleep, I’m asleep, even as he hangs me with a dog tie-out in what looks like this new apartment. He pulls one hand over the other, the tether pulled tight over a hook in the ceiling. This hook is how I know I’m dreaming, because I would’ve remembered a hook. It would’ve given me something else beside the painting to look at.
But it feels real as I press my hands to my throat, feeling the skin crush beneath the rope. I can’t breathe I can’t breathe
In the morning, I check my skin for bruises. I won’t admit to anyone that I do this. Like any minimalistic European genius, I have access to Wikipedia, and so I know all of the easily found facts about night terrors and sleep paralysis and panic attacks. I know that my lucid dreaming is a function of this miraculous mass of wrinkly brain inside my skull. But still, I look. I am so very afraid that one morning, I’ll find evidence of these midnight crimes.
* * *
I am good at what I do. I am a sales rep for a novelty toys company. I like what we sell, and I know how to play all of the games, and so I am a very good champion for this unique assortment under $25, fun for the entire family and cheaper than a movie night out. But the economy is tough and other sales reps aren’t as good at what they do and so the others get fired and I stay hired. I live in hotels and short-term apartments. I pay for my life with a company credit card. I often get dessert. Often I only get dessert.
Tonight, when I dream, I open my eyes and find him standing by the bed, just watching me. I’ve always felt there’s something inherently wrong about him, something terrifying just in his form, and now, as he studies me, I realize what it is. There’s something soft and formless about his head, his face. Like it is made from a wet paper bag. Not the color, not the shape, but the texture. The sort of soft creases of damp paper. It is too malleable.
He watches me and I watch him, my heart tapping a beat on my voice box, and then he climbs onto the edge of the bed and kneels on my chest. He is unbelievably heavy, and when my breath escapes, I can’t find the space to bring in another one. I turn my head and gasp, gasp, and the red numbers of the alarm clock say it is 2:23. Above me, kneeling on my chest, knees digging into my breastbone, he makes no sound. So the only noise is my gasps, getting tinier tinier tinier
In the morning, I check my collarbone carefully. My skin is smooth and unmarked, though I look tired. I do my best to freshen up. Accounts don’t want to order toys from someone who looks like they stopped having fun ten years ago.
I have a bit of time before my first appointment, so I invite myself out for a cup of coffee. It’s a funky little place wall-papered with yellowed newspapers and scraps of old band posters. They’re playing a song I like overhead and I think this would be a nice coffee shop to come sit at every morning. In my head I imagine an existence where that has happened, where I’ve moved to this city and I make this my morning ritual. They know how I take my coffee and they laugh when they point me toward the sugar, because even though they know I know where it is, they also know how much sugar I put in my coffee and they’re amused, as they were the day before. As I drink my coffee, I pretend to read a magazine someone else has left on the table and I wonder if I really did stop having fun ten years ago. It’s hard to tell. I sell fun, and I’m always laughing, and I have a trunk full of toys. I really, really enjoy eating dessert, and I get a lot of opportunities to do just that. I don’t think I’m not having fun, I think. I think possibly I’m just homesick. I’m not sure which zipcode I’m homesick for, though.
* * *
It’s my last night in the minimalistic European getaway. I fall asleep quickly, and when I wake up, I’m hot, which is always a bad thing. I kick off all the blankets and lay there, sticky and uneasy. Staring at the abstract painting — it’s brown and black in the darkness — I try to stay awake until I cool off.
I can’t tell the exact moment I fall asleep, because in my dream, I’m still looking at the painting. It is like a horizon line, really, with a foul orange sky above over a burning landscape. I’m sitting now, and sweat beads my skin. I feel it tickle my upper lip. When I go to wipe it, a hand presses over my mouth and nose.
I should’ve known. I should’ve taken a bigger breath. He’s pressing my head back toward the pillow, still covering my mouth and nose, and every time I fight for a breath, I only suck in the thin fabric of his gloves. It feels like they should smell, but all I can smell or taste is the clean, dusty scent of new down pillows.
It’s taking longer this time. I’m more aware of the process. I can feel how hot my body’s going as it runs out of oxygen. My fingers are tingling and numbing. I’m sinking into the mattress under the pressure of his hand, his nails hard through his gloves, pressing into my cheeks. I feel that more than anything else, the pricks of his nails on my skin. I’m breathing heat. I’m sucking in that orange sky, that red horizon.
In the morning, I am tired and I move slowly around my room in just my t-shirt, packing my things slowly. In the bathroom, I pack my things in my travel case, and finally, I look at my face. First my left cheek. Then my right. There are no marks. Just a sagging, tired face, formless as wet paper.
I press my nails into my cheeks. First my left, then my right. I press until it leaves a mark.
Author’s Note: for Halloween month!
image courtesy: gnackgnackgnack