“But my roommate: she has, I think, night terrors. She can’t sleep one night without making these noises, like she’s screaming or whatever. Like a zombie noise, like: euaaagh, like that. And sometimes she wakes up at like eight in the morning and sits up in bed and just says, ‘Oh, fuck…’ and then goes back to bed… I swear it’s impossible sometimes. I’m up in bed reading at night and she just keeps making those noises, like every couple minutes. Woken me up once or twice… But, at least it’s never happened to me.”
The third floor is really an attic or loft—I can’t be sure of the specifics—and it is warm and dark and womblike given the night and the humidity in the air. It smells like our sweat and someone is burning incense downstairs or has, at least, recently.
“Oh, my god,” Pietra murmurs. “Yeah, I’ve definitely had like waking nightmares. Like, hypnagogic—”
“Wait,” says Jeanne. “What’s that word mean?”
“Like liminal,” she says. “Like between asleep and awake.”
“I was like fifteen,” she says after a moment, resuming her cadence. She looks around at the exposed timbers. Our shadows flicker against them; our hosts have scattered electric tea lights on the hardwood between the mattresses on the third floor because—as far as I can tell—there is no electric lighting up here. It is night. The window gives us nothing.
“I was in high school, and I woke up one night convinced I was just covered in scorpions,” she says, and she lets it sink in. She runs her open hand over her belly in the air like she’s communicating a pregnancy. “And I threw off the cover and like I saw the scorpions crawling all over me in bed. So obviously I screamed and I fucking fell out of bed.” Pietra shakes her head. She cannot believe what she’s had to endure, and it is a sympathetic time of the night: neither can we.
It makes me think of a certain story to tell, because god, if there were ever a time to tell it…
Instead this girl who we talked to earlier in the night comes up the stairs behind Jeanne and Pietra, who has her legs in my lap and is leaned against Jeanne’s arm. The girl stands over us for a minute, and she has brought us, we see, red plastic cups with what I assume is wine.
“Hey,” she says.
“Go on down,” I say, and it’s kind of nonsense, so I amend: “Take a seat.”
She sits on the mattress, next to where I am resting my head, but she only perches, tensed, to set down the four cups of wine. She has their quivering plastic casings pinched between the fingers of either hand. I lift my head and she seems to get the message, and moves so that when I set it back down I do so on her crossed legs.
“We are talking,” Jeanne announces; someone in a shadowed corner of the third floor shushes her dreamily, asking her to preserve the quiet. We have sunken into a pool of our legs and Merlot.
But I take a sip from the cup, and it’s nothing so sophisticated. I know that the thoroughly fine bottle of Sutter Home I brought out got drunk up quickly, and I espied, earlier, the jug wines lined up on our host’s kitchen counter to be uncorked. It is sweet and nothing about it challenges my tongue—so I think it is the perfect wine for this time of night.
“What is this?” I murmur to no one in particular.
“It’s—good,” is what Pietra replies after a little bit too long. She has an incredibly small frame and in drinking, the toxins bleed right through the walls of her flesh into her bones. When she shifts her legs in my lap—the heel of one foot is perched on my breastbone—I hear the lees slosh from femur to knee.
“We are talking about dreams and things,” Jeanne says a little urgently. She leans forward to address this new girl.
I debate whether or not I ought to say anything, but I come to realize that I am obliged. I look up at the girl’s face. She looks down when she feels my head move in her lap.
The girl seems to understand and she nods her head, and she asks, “Can I touch you?” It’s broad but we’re contextual animals. I close my eyes in satisfaction and nod my head “yes,” and I feel her place her fine-boned and very slim fingers sort of on either side of my head.
I have long, thick, dark, heavy, beautiful hair. Handfuls of the stuff. She collects some into one hand and strokes my cheek.
The thing to understand before progressing is how, individually, in a police line-up, or in file photos—you get the sort of thing that I mean, just something independent of our placement on the third floor of this house—we are all cool, young, and beautiful to look at. Even this girl whose lap I am laying my head in, having gotten to talk to her a little bit earlier with our second drink of the evening, seems to fit in. She’d had glitter dusted lightly all over her chest and collarbone and in the flicker of the little tealights her skin is iridescent still, but it could be sweat, and it could be shadow.
“I don’t really ever remember my dreams,” the girl says. “So I don’t really have nightmares like the kind you wake up in the middle of the night from.”
“I don’t know if I’m jealous or not,” Jeanne murmurs. “I feel like you’re missing out on something.”
I shrug lazily. “Don’t ascribe meaning to something for no reason.” But no one seems to react, so I’m not entirely certain I really said it.
“Wait sorry,” Jeanne says suddenly. “But what’s your name?”
“Clio,” the girl says softly. I look at up at her, and I was right, she is beautiful to look at. I’m sorry I didn’t catch up with her earlier, because the third floor has become quiet and meditative and I’m sort of obligated into this conversation with Pietra and Jeanne. But, you know, maybe I could get her number.
We are sitting around by the edge of the third-story staircase, and it’s warm from all the body heat and the insulation, and the fact that heat rises, or so I’ve been told.
“You were talking about nightmares?” Clio asks us. She is running one fingertip around the ridge of my ear; it feels good.
“I used to have nightmares about drive-by shootings,” says Jeanne.
Clio sort of blinks.
“Wait,” Pietra says, sort of sitting up a little straighter, and looking at Jeanne with a slight look of peering concern, “why?”
“Like why were you afraid of them?”
“Because there was a drive-by at my elementary school and two at my high school back home,” Jeanne says.
“Oh,” says Pietra, and settles herself back on Jeanne’s arm.
“Did anyone die?” I hear Clio ask. It’s the sort of question that could very easily be gleeful and lascivious, but it sounds genuine, like she’s asking after the ill health of a friend’s relative.
“Well, one, the first time,” Jeanne replies. She resettles herself on the mattress, crossing one leg over the other. Her skin collects the light and spreads it around like a liniment. It is dark and in the dark appears soft. She and Pietra have been together for hours now, and I can’t say it hasn’t been a spectacular thing to watch.
“But you said,” Pietra adds suddenly, turning to me, “you said you had nightmares.” The stud in her nose catches the light and glitters. Her hair is short, thick, cut at home and choppy and uncaring. There are freckles on her skin, something oxblood in the glare from the tealights.
I am confused. I don’t remember having said that. “What?”
“You said that you had nightmares, earlier,” she says. “Right? Isn’t that how we got started on this?” She turns her head to my left, to look at Jeanne for confirmation, who shrugs and takes a drink from her wine.
“You said that you had a nightmare and you were going to tell us about it,” says Pietra.
I cover my eyes with my hand and after a moment squeeze the bridge of my nose in a very grand and operatic way to show everyone that I’m kidding, I’m alright. If you believe it, or not. I’d actually just managed to forget for a moment the reality of the situation. This girl showing up made me start thinking about girls, about wine, about, you know, other things.
Outside, at the window, it is snowing again, and the snow against the sky is white; it is evocative. In another corner of the attic, someone in the dark moans very softly, closer to a sigh. They are pleased and satisfied.
“Yeah,” I say after a moment. “It’s fucked, though.”
“Well, whatever,” Pietra says.
“What is it?” Clio asks me, it seems like, out of the blue.
I look up at this girl. Her face is fine-boned and pale, and she has dark circles under her eyes, but make up too, and they work together to lend her gaze this vast intensity. Because she is small, and she is thin, you wouldn’t expect this of her, necessarily, no. But she looks down at me and it’s shocking; it’s striking to see this intensity so close to me, like holding in the palm of your hand barely contained a frenzied dynamo.
I take a little breath. “You know like lucid dreaming?” There is a murmur of agreement. “Well sometimes I sort of lucid dream, or like—well, anyways, you’ll see what I mean.
“I had this dream that I was at my house, I was at my house alone, in bed, no one else was around in the middle of the night. And the—the men in the clean white coats—you know what I’m talking about? I got this premonition that they were coming. And sure enough they did, they came, got ahold of me, butterfly net, straitjacket, everything. They put me in a straitjacket and threw me in a padded cell.
“And before long they come and get me and have got me strapped down to a gurney, they’re carting me along to—an operating theater. And I’m strapped down and this is—I’m taking biology I guess, at the time—so I realize what’s gonna’ happen. I realize that they’re going to dissect me. They’re going to cut me open and root around and take things out; kill me.
“And I’m freaking out, and demanding, begging to be let go, but the doctors or surgeons, they keep insisting: ‘Shh, it won’t hurt a bit. It’s not going to hurt…’ They had this—mask, or helmet sort of thing. With a bunch of straps and a big rubber part that went over my mouth and nose. And they, you know, they put that on me… And I knew I was dreaming, I guess? But at the same time I couldn’t convince myself to wake up, and I knew whether it hurt or not, if I couldn’t convince myself to wake up, it was going to be an experience I’d have to start carrying on with for as long as I’d remember it.”
I am then quiet for several moments. I notice, suddenly, the absence of movement. Clio is not touching my head any longer, though she has not become so upset as to upend my head from her lap.
I have disturbed our gloss, I realize. We are four women sitting together, but just a few moments ago we were, I think, a single thing. Tangled legs and hair, four pairs of hips and thighs. Several colors come together in the waning glow from the electric tealights.
But though our bare skin is cool and dewy in the dark, I realize: I became naked, and my nakedness was worse than the penny dreadful horrors I described.
I resettle myself slightly, as a form of punctuation. I stir beneath Pietra’s long tan legs, and in Clio’s narrow lap. My hair is heavy and beautiful.
“But I guess I must have woken up then,” I add, by way of conclusion. “I don’t remember what happened next.” Then I laugh, to show them everything is alright, me and them, we’re all alright.
They laugh a little bit too. And they seem to settle things down themselves. Clio’s hands resume care of my head. I did not misjudge her—exactly—because the notion of a kindred spirit is so much hollow pataphysics. It’s a dull joke. And I couldn’t have expected from her, as a stranger, anything other than what she’s already given me: her lap, her fingers, the glitter on her breasts, the sublime intensity of her smoky eyes.
But I’m allowed to be disappointed, I think. I’m allowed to feel on the pads of my fingers and the grain of my tongue, if and when I can.
“Honestly—” says Pietra, stepping down off the trail of her laughter, “if I’m honest, that sounds kind of hot.” There’s a little pregnant moment, but not swollen, just prepared half-full of half-formed contestations, and she adds, qualifying, “I mean, not the dissection part, but like, kind of—everything else?”
So I laugh, to put her at ease, and everyone else, seeing that it’s okay, laughs along with me. We’re all okay. It’s the right context to say a thing like that, and we’re the right people—her feet are on my tits, for god’s sake. There are words of relieved assent; you can’t trace their truthfulness but to do so would be a fruitless and purposeless exercise.
We are quiet for a moment but after another Pietra lifts her voice again and she brings something up. It is a question, and it hangs in the air like the scent of incense, the musk of lathered thighs, and the snow in the air at the window, standing up, standing tall, and never falling under our sleepy eyes. And like the snow falling someone answers, and we laugh, and someone says something, it could be me.
But I can’t be a part of this with them, not really, because of—not even the fact that in my nakedness I bred nothing but shame—but because of—the—the thing of it—when a dream—or a nightmare—if a dream is not a dream—regardless—
They have taken out all my organs. My insides are grain and pulp. Copper wire nested through the stuffing. The stars they put in me, red dwarfs, are insulated so that they don’t burn the sawdust where my stomach once sat. I would burst in flaming effigy, and I—it might be the truthful I, if I am not the chimera I once imagined—would go on living still in their canopic jars, living in my heart and lungs. I am in my incised guts.
And my head is in Clio’s lap and she is feeling my hair. The thought arrives—though I cannot be sure it was not a dream and was not imagined—that when I awoke as an outpatient, and the surgeons gave me a brief overview of adjusting to it all, that they promised me: for every story you tell, you will get one organ back.
And I wonder if it will be my heart or lungs, but probably something as small as the gallbladder—they took everything out, and I am human taxidermy, though their work was flawless, and no one will ever be able to tell. And beyond this, I didn’t even finish the story—and I felt no barometric change; I received no postcard notifying me of my upcoming surgical appointment. It must not have even registered. If I didn’t imagine the plea bargain in the first place.
I run my thumb across my flesh where there is no seam and feel the real weight of their precise replacement; the pressure of my flesh where no one’s caring hands could divine an empty wrongness. But I’m all fugazi.
“What are you doing?” Clio asks curiously. She is holding my chin gently with one hand, and when I smile at her, she smiles back.
I am paralyzed, but there’s bootstrap in this husk, and I can talk, I can smile, I can make love indistinguishably. I would say that it is like riding passenger in your own body, but no, the sense of the shell is still all there.
Later we all go off into the night and the snow. We are tired—yes even my skin sags outwardly—and there are places we must go. A cherry bomb airbursts above the snow and the spalling travels in water. We are the exploded fragments of this night’s detonation—because nothing will ever be the same again, and not in an apocalyptic sense, but only to say that in our coming together and going apart, we have collided, glanced, and altered each other irreparably.
When we are alone and we suppose that this is it, Clio and I stand facing each other ankle-deep in a snowdrift. We shiver but it is not too cold. The sky only looked dark from the inside, because above us it is all cloud, and the city hammers copper against its snowing surface.
She has a scarf wound around her neck; her face is red from the cold and the wine. I see her reach into her jacket pocket and pull something out in one gloved hand. She hands it to me: it is a scrap of paper. “Here,” she says. Her voice is hoarse and tired. She might be drunk. This might not be the decision she wants to make, or, going forward, it may be nothing but a bellyache of regret. “If you want to get coffee or something sometime.”
I smile at her. “Sure,” I say. I don’t mean to give the impression I have things figured out myself. “I’ll say good-bye to you here, then.”
Going down the road the world has become quiet and still. I know that eventually the hands on the clock will resume their turning, and sooner, rather than later (checking my phone, it is almost 4 AM)—but not right here, and not right now. I imagine that the road is a hundred-thousand miles long, snow and sleeping trees, and because I imagine it, it becomes the truth. I am alone and I am walking in the dry falling cold. There is no one and nothing else around, only me, because this is how it is on the inside, underneath the skin.
(I’ll take off everything I’m wearing, if you want to see. I’ll peel off my skin and pull out my hair. I don’t know what’s holding it all together underneath, but I’ll show you, if they’re there, the strange bones beneath.)