Study Session

By Kamaria Romeo

As I sleep, the dream returns unbidden. In it, I go into the dark arms of the water. The liquid closes quickly over where I disappear, as down, down, down my body sinks to the bottom of the lake. It is soft and enormous and I’m in it and under it, tucked beneath it. It wants me. I’m holding my breath and I’m inside the silence all around me. At last, I push toward the surface, push the fluid out of my way. But it is too dense, too heavy, and I begin to struggle while buried in the belly of the cold water.

Each movement sinks me deeper, and suddenly I’m small and fragile under the water’s power, sensations thrumming through me in time to my heartbeat and my rocking blood. As my efforts grow weaker, I wonder at something so soft being so impenetrable.

Trapped beneath the great muscle of the water, I can go no further nor can I return the way I came. The cold liquid is growing warm and the ache in my chest begins to ease. My sodden skin rends and water begins to slip into my opened body. I absorb it; nothing else exists. For the first time since having this dream, knowing resolves: the great body of water wants to take me for its own, and I want to give myself.

Then, all at once, I can move my legs. I kick and my toes touch the sandy bottom. I push myself up and through, my body gliding up, and then it is half in and half out of the liquid, breaching the air. There is a rush, and then, something lets me breathe in air.

Without warning, I’m jolted awake by a sharp clap. There’s no transition, just a sensation of being on my bed, on top of warm sheets, curled up into myself. Shaken, I get my wits about me and realize the clap is the ringing of the doorbell to our off-campus apartment. Angus, our dog, who isn’t allowed in our bed, had followed me into it the night before and I’d just let him, let him sleep on Charlene’s side. Tonight, it is Angus and I that dream-sleep together. I glance at my bedside clock. It reads 6:20 a.m. When he hears the bell ring, Angus stirs and then whimpers as though in pain, as if he too had lain trapped in the water’s depths. Waking up, he begins to growl. Trying to get out of bed, I’m clumsy; my hands and legs are heavy, as if sodden.

Licking my face, Angus pads behind me as I work myself out of bed and walk to the door. The second jolt comes when I peer out the peephole and see a framed image of my wife Charlene and two men in what I recognize as the white shirts, black slacks, and black ties of campus-security uniforms. The night before, Charlene hadn’t been at home. It was her last year of medical school, finals week, and she was, once again, pulling an all-nighter. She’d gone to the library on campus, which stays open 24/7 during exam times.

Charlene looks calm as the men flank her like somber sentinels. My drowsiness vanishes as my heart jumps loud and fast all over again and I swing the door open.

As I open the door, I notice that Charlene looks tired.

“All right Angus, be quiet now,” I say, and he stops barking and heels and looks up expectantly at Charlene and the faces of the two men.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

“Mr. Steele?” the older of the guards asks.

“Yes?”

“I . . . sweetie, I’m fine. It’s nothing,” Charlene offers. “I’m not in any trouble or anything. There was just this mix-up. This is just a misunderstanding.”

She steps up to me and plants a hi-honey kiss on my cheek as if to show me that everything really is okay.

“May we come in?” the younger of the two guards looks at me and asks.

I don’t want to let them in. I want whatever this is to stay at bay and outside, but I’m curious. Plus, I’ve answered the door barefooted and in shorts and want to close it against the cold air on my legs and feet. I look at Charlene. She shrugs, her eyes on the carpet as she walks past me and the guards into the apartment.

“Come here, boy. Come here,” she says, and Angus falls in line behind her.

“Uh, sure,” I say, standing aside to let them in.

Charlene leads us all into the living room where she collapses on a couch. I motion the guards to the couch on the far side of the coffee table. Angus sits next to Charlene and puts his head in her lap. When everyone is settled, I sit down next to Angus, looking over at Charlene. She’s massaging a temple with one hand and stroking Angus’s head with the other. There’s something about her chipped red nail polish, the way she’d flopped into the couch as though all she really wanted was to lie on it, that make me want to reach for her hand and hold it in mine.

“Sir, we discovered your wife in the library after it was closed,” the older guard says.

I look at the guard when he says this then back at Charlene. She only looks at me and continues stroking Angus, saying nothing. I look back at the guard.

“I thought the library stayed open last night.”

“The library stays open during finals week, but finals don’t begin until tomorrow.”

“I told them, I tried to explain to them that I didn’t know that the library was closed,” Charlene protests.

“Ma’am, the announcement stating that the library is closing can be heard everywhere in the library except the staff lounge.”

Charlene sighs heavily and roughly rubs Angus’s head so that he yelps quietly in protest.

“Yes, yes, you told me. And I told you, I must have dozed off.”

The younger guard glances at his colleague then looks back at us.

“It’s fairly loud, ma’am. It’s a little hard to miss.”

“Sir, we have reason to believe that your wife hid in the bathroom or under a desk at closing time, only to emerge later,” the older guard says.

I sit up straight and lean forward.

“That’s not what happened,” Charlene says. “I didn’t know I was the only one there. I didn’t know that. It’s just this huge mix-up. I had no idea the library was closed.”

“I’m sure if she says she didn’t know, she didn’t know,” I say, knowing my words sound inane, all the while not really knowing how she could not know she was in an empty building. Didn’t she find it strange that she didn’t see anyone else?

“Security does a walk through after closing time but saw no signs of your wife when they did,” the older guard says.

I look at Charlene again, but without turning my head, just my eyes traveling to hers.

“I wasn’t hiding!” She throws her hands up.

When she does, Angus lifts his head from her lap and his ears twitch.

No one says anything. The only sound heard is Angus’s tail steadily thumping the cushion.

Then, “I wasn’t.”

The four of us and Angus sit in silence for a while. The couch feels too plush, too soft and it feels as if all of us—me, Charlene, Angus—are sinking deep into it and will disappear.

My mouth is dry when I say to the guards, “Is she in trouble?”

“No, no trouble, nothing like that. We just wanted to get her home safely,” he says, then adds, “Sir, can we talk to you alone for a moment?”

I know I’m supposed to say, anything you can say in front of me you can say in front of my wife, but the words don’t readily come. Also, I have an idea of what’s going on.

Before I can say anything, my wife speaks.

“You know what? I’ll leave. I’m a little tired of having this conversation anyway,” she says, and standing up, she walks down the hallway. Shortly, we hear a door close and the shower start up.

The older guard says, “Sir . . .”

“Derek. Call me Derek.”

“Okay. Derek. Is your wife experiencing any problems? Any personal setbacks?”

***

Nothing exactly like this had ever happened before, but that’s not to say that Charlene hasn’t pulled a few stunts. She and her friends had once snuck onto rides at Coney Island after it was closed. By acting as though she belonged there, she’d snuck into pools at private hotels. She’d even crashed a wedding and no one there seemed to know. She is spirited, unpredictable, always coloring outside the lines. This ignites me, but it frightens me too.

After the guards leave, I go into the bedroom. The part of me that hopes that Charlene is sleeping, the part of me that doesn’t want to hear another story about her sneaking into somewhere is suddenly held by a vision of Charlene asleep. In it, the room is still dim. Only a slim shaft of sunlight streams in through the curtains as a gentle breeze flutters them briefly. Outlines take shape. Charlene in the warm nest of sheets I’d left. A blue blanket peeking out from under her so that it looks like spilled liquid, and Angus settled into a half circle beside her. I see myself moving closer to the bed. Floorboards are solid under my feet and they even creak as I approach Charlene and gather her into an embrace. The body dents in our bed deepen as we sink slightly.

I hear her breathing slow and steady, and the smell of a flowery soap drifts off of her as she stirs gently and burrows against me. I kiss the top of her head. I lean down and kiss the petal of each eyelid lightly. Charlene opens her eyes and looks at me. They have that vacant, absent look she sometimes gets when she’s fresh from sleep. She’s oblivious to the slow silent suck of the dents under us.

But no, this is wrong. This is an odd second sight possessing me. An assault of false shadows. My wish overwhelming me, defying what is really there. What I really see, what is really there, is Charlene with a towel wrapped around her and another in her hand as she towel dries her hair while standing before the mirror. I pause, blinking. The phantom pressure from her body as it was snug against mine has somehow left a warmth that traveled all the way up to my chest. I rub my chest as my eyes move to her face. Charlene’s eyes fix on me and there is no momentary disorientation. This reassures me in some small way, in a way I didn’t know that I needed until then.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you in front of them, but I did know that the library was closed. I just thought I’d stay and finish up.”

I move over to the edge of the bed to sit and run a hand through my hair.

“I wondered if it was something like that.”

The guard said that library staff had found Charlene working on one of the computers when they opened their doors this morning. I’d imagined her sitting alone, in the near-darkened library, the books in the stacks looking on with indifference as she sat before the pale-blue, soft glow of the computer.

“Why not just come home and finish up?”

She stops working the towel through her hair and comes over and sits next to me on the bed, leaning into me. Sweet-smelling air from her soap and her shampoo envelops us. And I can feel the heat from her body, like breath from her limbs. Her scents and body heat mix to form a welcoming cocoon around us.

“I mean . . . I don’t know. I’ve done it before and nothing happened. I didn’t think it was a big deal. And I didn’t see anyone on a walk through.”

“You’ve done it before? When?”

“I dunno. Off and on. Don’t be mad.”

“I’m not mad,” I say. “It’s just . . . it’s kind of embarrassing them bringing you home like that. Aren’t you embarrassed?”

She touches my cheek with cool fingers as if to make me see, but I think I already do. I’d asked her once why she snuck into places. She said it was the same fleeting impulse we all get looking out over a bridge, curious about what it would feel like to leap into the air and fly away. She said she was never fearless enough to fly from a bridge. And now, as I think of her tucking herself into a study carrel to avoid detection, I have trouble imagining her taking flight from anywhere.

Yet in her presence, I don’t need fixing. She is seemingly blind to me being incomplete. Around Charlene, an inner hollowness grows more bearable. And yet, lately, a clot is dislodging, freeing itself to open something up. More and more I’m being visited by vivid dreams. Or maybe it’s that I no longer glimpse scraps of them. I know all what’s in them but I don’t know what summons them. I dream the blood dragging through my blood vessels. See my waterlogged body, my teeth loosening in the soft cave of my mouth, a bone white clutter of them in my palm. My fingernails float off in the hole of sleep, while my hair stays in place, a net of dark strands around my head. I want to tell Charlene I’ve been visited by the dream again, how this time every part of me wanted to be insensate and mindless in the water. But there’s no room for these words now.

Now, Charlene says, “Well, yeah  . . . this time I am embarrassed. But I’m not gonna do stuff like this again, okay? Because I need for you to trust me.”

Her words sound as though they’re coming from inside my head. I flop back on the bed, falling away and into myself, saying nothing. I clasp my head tightly to close a dark place in the water that’s opening. She hasn’t changed. She is the Charlene I’d married, but even that isn’t enough. I’ve understood that before. Maybe it’s a legacy of the moment of clarity I had before pushing through my dream, but for the first time this understanding holds sway and stays.

***

 That evening Angus and I run the entire eight miles from the apartment to the lake. I sit on the edge of the deserted lake pier, pushing my fingers into Angus’s soft golden fur, looking out at the water and the sunset; I’m looking at the sunlight and wind dancing on the water, watching them make it shiver and give it accents. Angus lifts his head, whines, and nuzzles my palm with a cold nose. I scratch his head and he puts his head back down and whines again. My wedding ring clinks against his collar as I rub his neck, absently raking my fingers through his warm fur. Usually, I’m loose limbed after a run. But today, the run, coupled with thoughts of this morning have only keyed me up.

I shake my head once, inhale deeply. I want to relax, stop the thoughts that are buzzing like angry flies in my head. A chilly heat spreads like a bruise beneath my skin as I find myself remembering Charlene sitting on the couch, her hair a little wild, her eyes moist and bloodshot from lack of sleep. She looked as if she had so much to say but forgot what it was, or didn’t know how to say it and I couldn’t help her, couldn’t give her the words. I don’t recall having felt that helpless since I’d been a child.

Sitting here at the pier, I look out at the sun glittering on the water in front of me, how it makes it look beautiful, serene, and soft. I want to lose myself in it, arrange my arms and legs in its blue cool, and let it cradle me.

Before Charlene and I had even been married, I’d told her about my mother, how she’d been institutionalized after she’d capsized a boat she’d taken us out in by standing up in it. I told her how my mother would rock back and forth on her bed and weep in her sleep and wear her clothes inside out and twisted back to front and crunch ice day and night, like cold, broken bones between her teeth. Although my mother was still alive, living in an outpatient facility, she was gone, had been to madness for some time now.

However, I didn’t tell Charlene that on the days when my mother seemed stunned into stillness, she would stare straight ahead, at something she alone could see, eyes dull and shuttered. She would open her mouth as if to speak. But nothing came, words getting caught somewhere between thoughts and tongue.

Other days, all her unspoken words dislodged and she spoke to me continuously and stitched words together to create her own language. “The sun raised itself and sneezed into color,” she exclaimed once, or, “Repeat the wings feathered with sewn-on roses.” I was glad that she was no longer silent, that her eyes were bright once more. But her words, her vague and distant smile, frightened me more than her silence did.

There had been curious pockets of attention. Sometimes she kept me home from school and we would spend the day at the movies, watching whatever I wanted to, wolfing down hot dogs, sharing cherry-flavored slushies and eating pop corn. And while icing a cake on my seventh birthday, as we stood in the kitchen, she shook the bag of confectioner’s sugar over me, then herself. Powdered sugar sifted down on us, making the air sweet. I laughed in delight, breathing the sugar in with my mouth open. I licked my fingers and we lobbed handfuls from the bag at each other. I didn’t know yet that around her indifference toward me a nagging hollow was clotting in me.

I never told Charlene how I clung frantically to the capsized boat that day and tried to scramble onto it. Or that the eyes of the police officers who were questioning me changed, went alarmed so momentarily that I almost missed it, when I told them that my mother had fixed us what she said was a special meal of steak, roasted potatoes, and coleslaw, had let me help myself to as much ambrosia as I wanted. Or that the effort showed as the officers tried to make their faces expressionless as I told them how my mother had instructed me to take a bath, had taken one herself then dressed us in our best clothes before rowing us out to the middle of the pond.

However, I didn’t tell anyone that she’d set the table with the good china and silverware and had let me have some of her wine, something she’d never done before. No one knew that just before the boat overturned, my mother kept moving around in her seat and fidgeting. Then, looking at me and smiling her sad distant smile, she stood up and began rocking the boat from side to side. Ever since, I’ve slid on the memory of that day. My dreams have hummed with the echoes of a woman whose hair is braided with silt and twists around my arms and legs to drag me down.

I’ve always wondered if there was someone before my mother who’d spiraled into their own hapless tailspin. Who had gone first? Who else was tied to the liquid tether of blood that she could not tear herself from?

Now, standing on the pier, I push off my sneakers and socks with my feet and strip down to my underwear. I take the steps, which lead into the water. Angus follows. I wade further out into the water until I can feel the liquid lapping softly on my neck, then lie supine and begin to float on my back. The water is warm and feels good. Angus stands so that all his paws are in the water on the steps, his tail hitting the water as he looks at me quietly.

My mother complained that her food was being poisoned, that her shadow had a heft that she could no longer bear. The lake presses against my back and the back of my arms and my legs as it pulls on my underpants, making them heavy.

I take a deep breath and let the water pull me down to another place. I sink, submit, let it receive me. The water eases me down slowly until I’m inside of it. Water pours into my mouth and fills it and there is a wet gurgling sound as large bubbles race toward the surface. The breath looted from my lungs, I open my eyes wide. There is only a blue haze. I hold my breath and the moment with my mind and my thighs and my arms.

I am now in the water, having disappeared under its surface. A buzzing ache begins in my head. The blue bleeding into darkness is beginning to frighten me, but still, I hold myself under. The effort of fighting against myself and refusing to flail and surface makes me rock and vibrate. There are air bubbles around my face and Angus’s barking cracks open the silence.

When I can no longer tease the moment out, when my lungs feel as if they are on fire, I stand and begin to cough and vomit water, then begin to walk steadily through the water back to where Angus is waiting. I’m dripping and shivering, my fingertips wrinkled. I’m lake-wet and shining, the world and I gilded in the glow of the setting sun.

But no, I am wrong. I must be mistaken. That is not what happens. The dream has become the thing itself. I scream, or try to scream, and liquid rushes into my mouth, into me. I look up. My eyes cloud with fear and go far away so when I look out from them my world is curved and contracted. I tremble under the water’s pressure, and the lake pushes me until I can take no more and my limbs sag. The water lowers me, presses watery lips hard against my warm, water-softened mouth. It breathes into me, marking me. The breath becomes a kiss. I kiss back, ruined now for all other kisses. But it feels right. The lake places a hand gently upon my chest to ease the wild pain of its beating. My heart calms. I break free of the lake’s killing arms, and drift, low, lower, like a stone sinking into syrup. I melt into the water. The lake wants me, takes me for its own. And I give myself. I want to.

 

——————–

Kamaria Romeo lives in Brooklyn, New York, and graduated from Brooklyn College’s BFA in Creative Writing. After discovering a love of the law, she completed a Master’s in Legal Studies. Today, when she’s not working toward the completion of her Associate’s degree in Legal Assistant Studies, you can catch her penning fiction stories. Her fiction appears in Diverse Voices Quarterly and The Alembic, and is forthcoming in Blue Lake Review.


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