Sunday, January 8, 2012

Fiction: Dream Bed. A short story from 1988.

Dream Bed

by Sarah Sarai 
{Reprinted from The Written Arts. King County Arts Commission, Seattle, WA}

My nineteenth summer, before my Sophomore year, I went to San Francisco to stay with Fredric, an old friend of my newly divorced parents. I was given a bedroom facing the afternoon sun, the setting sun. Its bed was double-sized and more than soft. The sinking pliancy was empyrean. So cushioning and tranquilizing was that bed, I slept from ten at night to ten by day, or nine to nine, or eleven to eleven, making my waking life a half-life or my life of dreams and imagination the same. Altogether, the effect was that of living an evenly divided sphere of waking and sleeping so balanced and contiguous, all summer was a rhythmic lap of waves on a mirror-smooth sheathing.

Each morning Fredric ground coffee and whisked eggs. He’d scout European bakeries for heavy, dark bread on which we’d smear avocados, then salt and pepper them for our lunch. Our dinners were seafood sweetly simmered in wines and sherries, roasts lovingly coddled, basted as often as sleeping infants are checked by tender mothers. I was as treasured as rare beef; a delight under any circumstances I’m sure, and a necessary slab of humanity in these circumstances. Fredric’s lover had left a few months before my stay. Friends still visited to join in lamentation, as if for the dead.

“Nola, Lon was tops for Fredric, that’s for sure,” I’d hear.

“He was such a beautiful man.”

“So kind.”

“And handsome.”

“So smart.”

“I thought Fredric should have kicked Lon out long ago. Lon’s cold.”

“He was offered a job with a public relations firm. He wanted it more than he wanted me. What could I say?” Fredric explained when the guests had gone and we were still seated, fiddling with the pie’s crust. “Well, of course I tried and said everything, but none of it took. The Sunday before he left we saw a play matinee, then a movie, then a cabaret that evening. He indulged me. Who else will do that?”

I fell asleep sad that night.

I woke one morning to find him moored on my bed. “Let’s go.” He tapped my arm. We drove to Ocean Beach where he and Lon had talked. He pointed to the very wave that pounded Lon’s moving announcement.

“Each time he spoke my stomach opened like an anemone and was crushed by his words.”

We sat, cold, on the sand.

“When I drove Lon to airport,” Fredric said, “I didn’t walk in with him. We stayed in the car until he almost missed his flight. Both of us were crying. Both of our hearts were broken and we knew it.

Death may hit hard, Nola, but there’s nothing like lost love for a full emotional sweep. Maybe it would help if I had an office to go to. I should buy another restaurant instead of living off my past laurels.” My parents had met him while dining at his spare, moderate and fabulous establishment.

I heard Fredric moving around in the kitchen that same night.

“I’m sorry to wake you.” He stroked my hair.

“It’s okay.”

He threw a dish towel on the counter. “My nightmare ended and I had to get myself out of bed.”

I needed an explanation.

“I was driving back from the desert, a resort in a desert, and I realized I’d left something behind and looked, someone else was driving, and I saw the Saguaro cactus twisting like ocean flora, then grow huge, then fade. Lon became a Saguaro, twisting on the horizon. I shouted, but he wouldn’t hear. I believed he wouldn’t hear, refused to hear.”

It was six in the morning; we stayed up. I ground coffee. Fredric made omelets and passed them under the broiler. The cheese-graced eggs puffed.

Another day I was reading in bed and heard him yell.

“His heart!”


“When we were at the beach, Lon and I, we stuck close and quiet. Did I tell you this? That’s why we’d gone there, to work us out, peaceably. I’ve been remembering this, Nola. We didn’t talk after a while. I was trying to exude hope. I could feel Lon’s heart. It wouldn’t move. Mine kept pounding like the waves. I realized it always would, no matter what.”

“That you’d keep living.”

“Of course I’ll live. But I decided I’d never use any excuse, any excuse, to lose heart.” He lifted a glass I'd set on the bedstand. “That I wouldn’t be a downer, Nola. Like Lon. When I’m honest about him, I can admit he was a downer, cold, not willing to try.” The glass rattled with melted ice.

I trekked to and from the kitchen. “Drink,” I told him.

He put both hands around the glass I held out. “I was the one doing the thinking. I was the one hoping.”

“I understand hope,” I said, “but I understand wanting better.” I wanted the arts of history and prophecy abolished. The surprise divorce of my parents was an ambush of my innocent serenity. My world had been overturned and I not unreasonably saw their unhappiness as a threat to my future happiness; an indication of my future inabilities.

I never slept fitfully in Frederic’s house but I slept thickly one night and awoke fraught and coincidental to the phone’s ringing I sprang into the kitchen and yanked the receiver. My father was on the line. He talked and talked and I kept my ear dutifully glued. My friend was by my side by the time my father had finished.

“He drives me crazy!” It was my turn. “ He called to see if I’d talked to my mother recently because even though they’re miles apart, in all ways apart, he’s still attached. Of course he is. But he has to let meknow. ‘Your mother’s a good-looking woman,’ he says and I hear the clink of ice in the glass and more than o.j. is being poured.” I click my glass of spring water against his.

“‘You don’t understand any of this,’ my pop says, ‘you kids don’t understand. So have you been in touch with your mother? Your mother and I spent many years together. What do you know? What does your mother know, anyway? That temper of hers. Your mother should take care of herself. Your mother has some deep troubles. Maybe a psychologist would help. Have you considered that? Have you asked her?’ Finally, we said our good-byes. I was crying but I didn’t let him know.”

Fredric poured me coffee then raced out and returned with fresh raspberries from the little market on the corner and served crisp waffles under berries.

I walked and rode the bus that day, all over the city. Twice, cast-adrift men followed me and it was part my doing. By looking into faces, by trying to read character and nature, I connected with the vulnerable fringe. I had to divest myself of my enamorees, once by hopping on a bus, once by asking directions from a cop. When I returned home, I asked:

“How could you two break up after crying together about breaking up?”

“It was bad,” he conceded, “and it doesn’t make sense. I guess the heart isn’t connected to the brain; and I believe the body does have a deep wisdom. Maybe it’s too deep.”

I slept soundly that night and dozed the next day and slept even more deeply the following night and said to Fredric in the kitchen the next morning:

“It’s doomed. My future is doomed. My love future. All the information I’ve been given is deceptive.”

“Because your parents divorced?”

I stared. “All of it. Because everything they passed on that could lead me to believe I could live and love and do it all successfully, has been changed by the divorce.”

“Now, Nola . . .”

“No, listen,” I interrupted. “Something went wrong way back. Have I told you my aunt’s story? My mom told me. This was years ago when they were still living at home. Aunt Sheila fell totally in love. And he was totally in love with her. A nice guy, too, my mother said. They became engaged and he asked her if she’d work the first couple of years of the marriage so they could get ahead. Sheila refused and the engagement busted. She turned down her true love and then she cried for a year. Can you imagine that? She cried a whole year. My mother watched and vowed she’d never get hurt like that. Maybe she adored my father when she married him, but he wasn’t the man for my poor mother to love. So what chance do I have?”

“Thatisan awful story.” He turned the radio on and off. “They could make an opera about Sheila. I can see that kind of resolve in your mother. But didn’t you write last spring you were seeing someone?”

“Yes, and it was crappy. Thank God it didn’t last. Three months of begging for love.”

“You’re not the first.”

“Well, any begging is too much. I’d be at his place and it would be logical for me to spend the night and he’d say no and I’d have to ask a couple of times for him to relent. Who knows who’s right. It felt like begging and as I did it I swore I’d never do it in another romance. Do you believe romance and marriage is all no-fault?”

“Not always.” Fredric sounded balanced.

“He wanted everything his way. I stayed with him the last few days before finals were over and vacation began. I had one dream.” I described the dream:

“There was a light-skinned black woman. She had purple blemishes on her body, below the collarbone and across her cheeks. I thought they were splotches and began trying to be overtly sympathetic. Then I saw her boyfriend. He had the same markings. I inspected him. The blemishes were swirls in the marble. Both man and woman were statues. I touched them. The man was perfect. She crumbled.”

We busied ourselves. We beat eggs. We baked three layers of genoise; light, rich, spongy cake. The confectioners of heaven get orders for this sybaritic delight. Angels eat their namesake cake as an everyday dalliance and genoise for on-high holy days. We saturated it with rum, spread the layers with mocha cream and dropped slivered almonds on top. We both had unruly dreams that night. I dreamt hot butter was oozing from a chocolate bar and a chorus of shrill women were sighing in the background. Fredric dreamt the clouds were hurling black eggs, far too large to be coffee beans, on the city. He remembered regretting they weren’t coffee beans.

Several days later I was again resting and again I heard the phone ring. I’d just crawled into bed. The time was only 7:30 p.m. but an increasing despondency had prompted me, maybe dulled me, to choose an earlier shift in my bed-bound summer. I hadn’t yet patted the final pat on my pillows and therefore rolled without resentment onto the floor to answer the phone. My bed wasn’t going anywhere without me.

Lon was on the line. He asked for Fredric, who by this time was at my side, wrapped in a towel.

“I knew it,” he declared as he took the receiver from my hand. “I knew it would be you. I’ve been thinking of you in the bath. I was in the bath.” Fredric shooed me away, then grabbed me before I was farther than arms’ distance and pulled me to his moist towel and held me throughout the conversation. I was able to hear it all. Lon had overshot his mark in settling into luxury living and was in debt. The firm he worked for had provided moving expenses, and a big salary, but he’d been banking on a commission, too, and had spent with that in mind; apparently done betting and didn’t want to blemish his reputation in a new town. He asked to borrow money. Fredric was ecstatic.

“And I’ll send some right now, tonight, by Western Union.” He hung up the phone and turned to me. “Excuse me, my dear.” He ripped off the towel and shouted, “Hope!” He dressed and raced out with cash he kept under his mattress and I returned to my bed of dreams where I saw a moon rise and a lizard try to leap over it without success, then claw at its center.

I described this lizard the next morning. Fredric was delighted with the lizard—with everything. He was glad Lon had called. He hoped, with calculation, Lon would find his new life unfeasible, and return.

“And you’d take him back?” I asked.

“You think I shouldn’t?”

“Beats me what should happen. I just want to know.”

“Well, I would,” he said. “I refuse to give up. You haven’t met him. You’d like him.”

“How will I meet him? I’m leaving soon,” I moaned. “Where’d the summer go?”

“Nola, there’s so much we haven’t done.” He leaned on me, as friends do. “There’s so much we haven’t cooked. We must atone.”

“Let’s make pancakes.”

“Why not!” He set me to grating orange while placing pecans on a cookie tray for roasting. “Roasted pecan and orange pancakes. Nola, don’t bother with your degree. Stay here and eat your way into old age.”

The day before I left, there was a post card in the mail from Lon, from the Bahamas. He was on vacation and he wasn’t alone. Frederic didn’t say much, except he’d always been prepared for the worst. He went out and I wandered the apartment all day. He still hadn’t returned at midnight and I pulled back all the drapes so the moonlight aided by city light could enter. The rooms felt sallow and ill as I roamed the wooden floors for hours. Each thing in the apartment stood remote and objective in the night glow. Each thing looked distant and self-sufficient. Each thing was impersonal and I began to feel very lonely. I went to my room and stood at the window. The moon was full, almost bursting its sphere. I pushed my dream bed to the window so I could sink in and keep watch. I stared so long my gaze numbed. I slept. In my sleep I saw it happen. I looked to the night sky whose velvet was corroded by city light and with horrified eyes I saw the moon break. In a wrenching snap, the translucent twins cruelly outlined against the night sky, two things, two half-symbols, fell. I awoke shaking.

My mind flicked on and I began to bawl, unrelentingly, unremittingly, loudly and unceasingly. The giant tears poured onto the pillow and my sobs, at first muted by discretion, soon filled the air.

“Nola?” Fredric was in the room.

I kept crying.

“Don’t stop.” He held me.

I cried until I was drained and then I stopped.

“It’s almost four p.m. Why don’t we have high tea.”

“Do you have cookies?”

“Cookies!”he shouted. “High tea isn’t for cookies. We need cakes and pears. We need the tea of old Russia. Come and help.”

And so while Fredric zipped to the bakery and little market, I was set up at the kitchen table, polishing a samovar, making it bright. I lit the charcoals to brew the tea that could sustain all the Russias through a nineteenth-century winter. At the end of a warm and good summer, Fredric and I sipped mighty tea and nibbled rum cakes, pears and grapes.

We did this together.
Sarah Gancher Sarai.  Reprinted with permission. The Written Arts. King County Arts Commission, Seattle, WA. 1988.

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