by Robert Hebditch
In my dream a voice calls my name. “Shirley,” it says startling me awake.
“James,” my voice echoes back in the dark, unthinking, automatic. For a moment, my thoughts waver back and forth, uncertain if you or my dream cried out.
You say nothing, but lie next to me sweating, breathing deep and easy as you do when you try to hide your wakefulness. For weeks you have been restless, a man so long without sleep you’ve lost the knack of it. I feel the cautious movement, so subtle, almost delicate for your overweight frame, as you half lift yourself to look at the clock on your side of the bed. Through the triangle of your forearm and your shoulder, my bleary eyes see it is 5:13. Your head drops lightly to the pillow and I drift back into my dream.
I’m in a large grey room with ill-defined paintings on the wall, beige with age. A cafe or bar — bare but for two tables set wide apart giving it the spare look of a place close to being abandoned. No plates or cutlery in sight, no person holding a tray, no one with a towel over her arm. One table leans against the far wall diagonally across from me. You are seated there opposite a woman, not beautiful but rose-lipped, pale-skinned and aglow in the shine of her prime. She is somewhere in her late 30s. You both hold your hands in front of you but do not touch, each gazing at the other with the sadness of orphans. I wonder how someone so much younger does not see your receding hair line and long teeth, the liver spots and sagging skin. Unbidden, unwanted, incomprehensible a sting of jealousy runs in me, cold like the first rush of a saline drip before an operation.
I am seated at the other table, opposite a slim person in a tuxedo who I cannot place but whose familiar feel verges on recognition. His features seem absurdly smooth, unmarked by life. We play cards. A game played with a facility my fingers do not feel. Mimicking my opponent, I select from my hand and place the card face up in front of me. We play back and forth for several minutes before I notice that all the cards are knaves or queens.
Once in a while he scoops up all the cards in front of me and puts them face down underneath the pile in front of him. I do the same but less often and each time, take fewer cards than he. After each play he says “yes,” suggesting that I am obeying rules I cannot fathom. With a thin smile, he puts all his cards face up on the table.
“Game, set, and match,” he says with no sense of triumph. He steadies himself by grabbing one-handed on to the table and leans toward me. His right shoulder drops as his face comes closer. I now see that he is a woman with short razor cut hair. She wears a gold bracelet engraved with a name I can’t quite make out.
I feel my skirt swept up as her hand comes to rest on my knee, assured but not insistent. My face burns, but a thin squeak of ancient memory steers my body into a relaxed anticipation, heightened by the long play of denying and having been denied. My palms are sweaty yet my tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. I sink in the chair and, tearing through any will to restraint, slide my hips forward.
My eyelids drop to a slit, my head lolls onto the high back of the chair, a junkie at the first hit. I roll my neck with unaccustomed slowness, eyes tracing an arc to where you are. The woman at your table is mesmerized by you, but your gaze turns to me. You lower your head slowly in ambiguous affirmation and put on that wry smile, half approving, half appalled before turning back to the woman you hold enthralled. Under my table, the hand trails lazy circles on my thigh, calling me back. My breathing deepens, the blush spreads through my body, which in a few tingling seconds, is more than ready.
I wake again, but still not quite out my dream. “What time is it?” I call, knowing that you stand in the darkened room.
“Around six,” you say.
My dream still grips my body but my thoughts are dragged into the reality of the cold room. In the morning quiet, you pad over to the bedside and kiss my forehead. Your lips are as cool as mine are hot and I wonder how long ago it was that you kissed my lips.
“Another day, another dollar” you say and stroke my hair in that gentle but studied way you have. I throw back the covers and swing my legs out of bed. The warm imprint of the card player’s hand carries over. I pull on my dressing gown with a swift, sweeping motion as if a police detective were waiting downstairs.
In the bathroom I drop my gown off my shoulders and assay what the mirror shows — the lines, the grey, the slight sag of the jowl, the loose folds of the neck, the patches of brown skin. “But you’re so pretty, so trim,” friends say, leaving “for your age” to those who don’t worry about hurt feelings. My eyes move down from the reflection of my shoulders, the phrase “tired old tits,” comes to me from a movie I saw when I was 19. I thought little of it at the time.
As I rinse my face and clean my teeth, I hear you opening drawers pulling out socks, and sweaters, sliding back the closet doors pulling pants and shirts off the rack three and four at a time. I don’t have to look to know you are laying them out on the bed, picking up one and then another, holding clothes against your body like a woman quizzing the mirror for what is most pleasing. Before I step into the steamy comfort of the shower, I hear you close the bedroom door quietly, always quietly, and go downstairs. My dream remains in my head, strong, unshakable. I close my eyes, the warm water hugs me and I roll the soap round and round in my hands, sniffing its scented aroma. I rub myself a little but the pleasant pitch of it leaves me wanting.
In the bedroom, I towel off, but combing my hair out seems an effort not worth making. I kneel at the bottom drawer of my dressing table, pull back a couple of layers of pajama bottoms, camisoles, night things and retrieve Mr. Buzzy from his hiding place. Unused in months, spare batteries lie undisturbed in a plastic bag next to him. I flick the switch and he comes alive strong and steady. From 30 years of mornings I know that, once you go down to the kitchen, you will not come back. Yet, I lock the bedroom door anyway.
You are dressed and shaking a saucepan back and forth over the flame when I come down running more than a little late. My knees tremble and I feel like melted butter.
“Oatmeal today” you say, deadening my lightness, “tea’s brewing.”
For all your bedroom fussing, you have on the same shirt you’ve been wearing most of the week. I feel I should remark on it, but say nothing. We break the silence here and there with idle chat. I tell you about my dream as we spoon up our heart healthy breakfast, but I leave out the card player and how alive she made me feel. You confirm your disinterest by paraphrasing Bob Dylan’s Talking World War III Blues,
“You don’t wanna worry about them old dreams mama, they’re only in yer head.”
You chuckle as if this were the first time you’d said this to me. I smile anyway and go back up to the bedroom to slip into my Ann Taylor suit. I change my panties and re-touch my lipstick.
It’s well after seven. I should already be out the door but feel I must offer an explanation, a defense. I call down to you.
“I can’t find my damned keys, James.” You don’t answer. I stand and use up a long couple of minutes in front of the mirror, turning my head this way and that, patting and spraying my hair. I slip on my gold bracelet and recognize it is the one from my dream. I grab my keys from the bedside table and take the stairs rummaging in my bag as I go.
I run by you, “Got ‘em” I say and peck the stubble on your cheek.
“I can give you a ride, if you want.”
“S’ok.” I dash to front door and pausing there, shout over my shoulder
“Bye love.” I close the door shutting off your reply.
Outside I hear only the rush of the cars on the busy street, but I know that you say
“Bye love,” as you stand alone in the kitchen, drying the breakfast things.
Hebditch grew up in London, and entered the U.S. after a five year odyssey around the world. He was a contributing editor to the Macmillan Dictionary of Archaeology, wrote movie reviews for the Courier News and published a short story in last year’s fiction issue of US1. Married with two sons, he is a retired staff member of Princeton University and lives in Princeton.