Inspired by M., a dear friend. 1985-2006.
The early sunlight comes through the window slantways. She has been lying here, awake, for hours. Last night he joked about the two of them, lying side by side, holding hands, as if they were sleeping in pods. She rolled over onto him then, arm across his chest, leg across his middle, hand still in his.
She has been dreaming again, and the dreams are always the same. M. is there, or she is gone, an absence the size of a small country already, worming elaborate tracks below the skin from a single point of entry. They are walking across the Charles Bridge, and then M. is gone. She is alone now on the bridge, and the bridge is in Minnesota somewhere, leading to the door of M.’s parents’ home, a home she has never seen, but recognizes in the brown-grey light and the fog, the colors that seem to permeate her life in M.’s wake. She sees the long stretches of road M. used to talk about; how she would get high in the dark, open Minnesota night and drive around for hours without seeing another car on the road, letting her music carry her. They had that in common—the road—though M. was on it, and she only watched from a bench along the Prospect Expressway, listening to the loud roar of the cars and 16-wheelers going places she didn’t know. What is remembered, what is imagined, she can no longer distinguish.
She is fitful, in sleep perhaps even more so than in life, the desultory bits of consciousness weaving themselves together to form a memory, only half there—colored light and the bits of rubble that once held together a 14th century castle in Trisov, the café where she left her passport, the cobblestones she tripped on making her way back, the soft firmness—firm softness—of the hand that gave it back, and the wall of postcards and postage stamps they stood at for over an hour—or was it only really ten minutes?—in Budapest. She has lost the ability to determine which bits are true, and which are false. Are solitary truths possible? She considers the question now that M. is gone. Having no one to corroborate her tales, the snaking paths in and out of gulleys in Eastern Europe and the transcendent light of early morning in a home that is not yours, she feels unmoored, falsified. Is only half-a-truth still truth?
They two were a pair, clasped like hands, for a time, and in her dreams, they never touch. M. is walking just too fast, or stops, but is never the one who gets lost. It is her dream, and she is simultaneously the one lost and also losing.
She recalls the fight they had in Ljubljana; their first—M. was bound for Croatia, she for Vienna to meet her then-boyfriend, and they quarreled on an empty street corner. M. was supposed to go to Vienna with her, and had changed her mind the day before their departure. Something was ending, she knows now that she knew it then, and was afraid for it. They spent the night in a former prison, watchful for spirits of political prisoners murdered, and, upon hearing a stirring, woke in the middle of the night to find a woman in a nightshirt walking up and down the hallway. Convinced it was indeed an apparition, they, terrified, huddled together in bed like kittens, mewling every so often. The next morning they woke up late and had to run to catch their trains. They embraced, quickly, and as their trains passed one another, she put her hand up to the glass and waited to catch sight of another palm stretched taught. I know you like the back of your hand, she thought, and laughed.
She is the sole survivor of this memory. And there are so many. But she does not trust easily, nor often, and least of all herself. In her waking life, she does not let on that these secrets exist. She has buried them—lifted earth, watered and tamped it down. And so they emerge nightly, grown like weeds, quickly and invasively, in her dreams.
She is on the banks of the Neretva, ungodly green and shining in the bright sun, staring at the Stari Most through her toes. M. is on the bridge, yodeling down to her, and then diving, falling into the water, splashlessly. Drops fall on her face, ice cold, and she leaves them on her skin, watching the surface of the water for a break she knows will never come. She is in a red minibus in the Himalayas and the road is narrow and poorly paved. She avoids looking down, avoids thinking about mountain rock and crags, reminds herself to breathe, takes a photo. M. is folding her pants past her ankles, up her shin, and opening the door of the bus. Jumping out, casually, waving. She tries to follow, but the door is locked. She fights with the metal, pulls at it, hits it with her fists, bites it, to no avail.
She is not in the Andes. Not in Peru. Not on the bus as it swerves and dips and falls, not there to see M.’s face, illuminated by the moon’s light in the dark caverns of rainforest. Not there for the loss of blood or the crumpling of bones. Not there to see her sneaker, the one M. painted over with little white bubbles, the one she borrowed in Wales to wear to the pub, and then, sullied by having been pushed into the thick, oozing mud of rainy seasons, having to be washed in a basin and faded permanently, floating downstream, stuck to a branch like the flag of a country she once lived in, for a time.
She wakes before it is light, unsure of where she is. Feels a hand next to her in bed, and, grasping, smells the scent behind an earlobe, a neck. Stay. Stay.