Life is But a Dream by Dale Peck

BOMB 54 Winter 1996
Issue 54 054  Winter 1996

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

He had been very young and very ill, and very hot, and his mother had put him in the bathtub to cool. When she set him in the tub she had already turned the water on but not plugged the drain, and only a sheen of liquid rippled over the cold cold cold surface of the tub, itself just a glaze of white enamel over bitter black cast iron. His ass and his heels burned for a minute and then were numb, and then gradually temperature and feeling rose again as his fever and his pain reasserted themselves. Drops of sweat coalesced on his skin and rolled together like rivulets; they slipped into the rising tide of the tub which, very slowly, very gently, more gently than even his beloved mother had ever touched him, took hold of his arms and started to lift them, and as his arms rose with the water level the leadenness of his body left him and he relaxed suddenly, too suddenly, and his back and the thing which he would come to name Candy slapped against the tub in a cold hard splash. His body retreated then. He felt incredibly solid and heavy, and yet impossibly light as well, like the filaments that glowed and floated in the air for a few brief moments after being spat by his Uncle Kenny’s blowtorch, and he drifted in this daze for an unmeasurable length of time until he heard his father’s voice tell his mother’s shadow, “Jesus, Candace, he’s unconscious,” and then there was a feeling, a firmness under his back, an inevitable roughness, hands, and then there was just a blur that ended that time, and every time thereafter, in the hospital, where the cold hard instruments of medicine returned him to a state which could only be described as less sick, for it in no way resembled health. But he had kept hold of a memory from the tub, a feeling, a physical sensation, and it was that feeling he associated with his illness forever, and for a long time after he got out of the hospital he wanted only to be sick again, so that he could float again, and fly. This drifting was his only dream, his earliest desire; it was his desideratum. From that day on time moved remorselessly forward, toward the day of his death, and even in the blaze of fever Henry could not escape this. He could only forget about it for a while, and so forget his fear.

 

A B, capitalized, delicate, elegant, filigreed, almost gothic, entirely filled the sheet of stationery that came with the flowers. They came just a week after Henry had fallen in and out of Beatrice’s window: a bevy of hothouse tulips whose egg-shaped egg-sized petals were the same color as the sheet of stationery that came with them, a creamy off-white just touched by red, and Beatrice had written her B with a bevel-tipped felt marker that gave her handwriting the look of old-fashioned calligraphy. But when Henry saw it, his heart, the organ he trusted much more than he did his brain, sank into his bowels in despair, because he realized that this was Beatrice’s way of saying goodbye. There was no other interpretation possible, for he had told Beatrice of the gifts his relatives had sent him, and how he despised those gifts, and now Beatrice had sent him a gift. And sure enough, the phone didn’t ring that day, didn’t bring Beatrice’s voice to him as it had every day since he’d fallen through her window, and the wheels of her car didn’t roll into his driveway, bearing upon their axles her big clanking wreck and within that hull her precious body. They’d talked every day and met every night, and, on the night after their midnight rendezvous, he had driven them to the beach and parked on a bluff overlooking the ocean, and they had, for the first time, kissed. Beatrice had kept a hand on Henry’s shoulder the whole time. He felt it wander up his neck occasionally, but never higher, never to the smooth magic marble of his head; and Henry had kept a hand in Beatrice’s hair, caught there in a woolen net so thick that his probing fingers never managed to find her skin. Beatrice kept her other hand on the door handle, and Henry, afraid of where he might put his other hand—afraid of where he might put it on her body, and afraid of where he might put it on his—kept a tight hold of some knob on the dashboard and they kissed and it wasn’t until a boy Henry’s age but with a full head of mussed hair and a tucked-in button-down shirt that was half unbuttoned and half untucked knocked on the window that Henry found he’d been turning the light switch on and off for over an hour. “What’s up, dude,” the boy said, more LA than LI, “you know Morse code or something?” Henry was embarrassed, as was Beatrice, and they left that night but returned the next, and this time held each other tightly, a little desperately even, and in the morning Henry found bruises on his upper arms where Beatrice had pressed her fingerprints into his skin. Henry looked at the bruises as if their pattern might reveal something to him, some mystery about life or love, but all they showed was his own fragility, his mortality, his impending death, and there was neither mystery nor revelation in that. He saw the same message in Beatrice’s flowers, and it was summed up by the note which accompanied them, that solitary huge letter that said nothing, that said there was nothing to do except wait, as Henry had been waiting all his life, for him to die.

The flowers were still in full bloom when a note came from the post office: a package awaited him there. Henry dropped a few drops of black dye into the four water glasses that held the flowers; he tied a bandanna on his head; he drove to the post office, and there he was given a box which, like the flowers, lacked a return address. But he knew it had to be from her because that’s how these things work—and as Henry picked up the big light cardboard cube he noticed that a corner was soaking wet and ripped open and leaking mushy newspaper. He pried at the box, at the seam and then at the wet hole, but the whole thing was sealed with a fanatical amount of packing tape and resisted his fingers. He used his keys then, cutting through layer after layer of tape, and then he scattered over a long counter wadded newspapers filled with alarming accounts of Iraqi tanks invading Kuwait, and then, at last, he held it in his hands, and it was a hat. A mauve hat, a fedora, old-fashioned and high-peaked and sharp-brimmed, and made of a felt as heavy and textured as the folded piece of paper that was tucked into the band along with the eye of a peacock feather. The paper was the same heavy cream that had come with the flowers, tinted this time a light orange, and the message this time was equally enigmatic but, to Henry, equally clear: “It was my father’s,” was all she’d written with her calligraphy marker, and below that the letter B, and this time she’d written in tiny letters so that the abbreviated sentence and affected signature floated in a peaches-and-cream sea in the middle of the page. Henry carried the hat on his balled fist as he went to the car. He felt a little fazed—his head was starting to ache—and at the car he found he was missing his keys, and he had to return inside and set the hat on the counter and search through the mess he’d made. While he searched Candy began to throb in earnest, and as soon as he found his key ring he shuffled back to his car, where he was almost undone by the gummy residue of packing tape that encrusted his keys, and when he made it into the car he stretched across the seat and let the attack bear him away from the world. When he’d closed his eyes the sun was high in the sky and when he opened them it was dark, and he closed his eyes again when he saw this. He went straight to bed when he got home, and it wasn’t until he awoke sometime in the middle of the night and turned on the light to stare at the flowers, drooping now and bruised by black dye leaching into their petals, that he realized he’d left the hat at the post office. It had disappeared by the time he arrived in the morning. Nobody who worked there remembered seeing it although several people remembered the mess on their counter, and one gray-haired gentleman went so far as to say that this was life’s little reward for being inconsiderate of the needs of others, and then he hollered, “Next!”

The poem came next, a few sad wet days later. By then the tulips faced the dresser like narcissus blossoms, but they were the color of factory smoke and their petals had begun to fall off; by then Henry recognized not only the paper and pen but knew, from a trip to the Hallmark store, that Beatrice had bought the Sunset Collection, a boxed stationery set that included sheets of paper in six out of the seven colors of the rainbow as well as a violet quill with which to write on them, and he was terrified, because she was only up to yellow. The poem was just long enough to fill the page completely, the smeared black ink of the marker obscuring the yellow in the paper’s color in the same way his dye darkened the tulip petals, and at the bottom of the page, squeezed a little tightly into a bubble created by the paper’s simulated hand-ripped edges, was the letter B, familiar by now but strange as well, as the person who was represented by that signature retreated from his memory. He read the poem; it was a little sentimental, he thought, and a little sad as well, but mostly it was maddeningly vague, filled with falling tears and falling leaves and falling stars, and what it had to do with Beatrice, with himself, with the two of them, he had no idea. Poetry mystified him. He understood better real things: the lost hat, the dying flowers, the silent telephone. A wall of silence had built up and surrounded him by the time the last petal fell from the last stem. Henry had sat up watching, and he was almost surprised when the petal plopped to the dresser rather than wafting down, and he had to remind himself they were not, after all, ink-stained pieces of paper, even though they resembled them. He swept the petals into the trash as soon as the last one fell, and then there were just 24 forlorn and brackish green stems poking into the air, their bare sex organs drooping like snail antennae. He threw them away too; he took the blackened water glasses to the kitchen and left them for his mother; he read the poem a few more times, but it remained a maze he couldn’t navigate.

Before he could decide what to do next, Beatrice called. Her voice on the phone was nervous, apologetic, slightly crazed. She said, “I love you,” and she said, “Forgive me.” She said, “Meet me at the beach tonight,” and there was nothing in her voice that told him why she’d called now, nor why she hadn’t called yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that. Henry wanted to make love on the blanket she brought but it was October after all, the wind blowing off the ocean was freezing and wet, and so they only held each other, kissed and shivered and giggled, and as they lay there a memory opened in Henry’s head, not like a box but like a pitfall, and he fell into its darkness. What he remembered was the faucet in the bathroom of the beach house his parents had rented in Cape May years ago: it had been plumbed in such a way that the four-year-old Henry, standing on a stool to brush his teeth, had been able to feel the hot water coming in the left side and the cold water coming in the right. He had stood there for ages sometimes, feeling the hot and cold stream pass over his hands, until all the hot water was gone and only cold water passed over both sides of his hands, and the 17-year-old Henry felt like that as he lay on the beach: the heat was inside him and the cold outside, and slowly, very slowly, the cold pushed into him, and as it did warmth, and consciousness, retreated, and the water that passed over his hands took him down with it, into the ground.

 

He closed his eyes on the ocean; he opened them on the focused glare of a hospital room; he saw Beatrice sitting by the side of his bed, and when he spoke it was to neither of them, Beatrice or the ocean. “Mom,” he said, and then he said, “I’m sorry.” He smiled at Beatrice for a long time as she looked at him with a confused expression on her face, and gradually he realized that she wasn’t his mother at all and at length he took her hand; he pretended to have forgotten what he’d just said, and he said, “Beatrice,” and he asked her how she was. Beatrice cried then. She blubbered and bubbled and babbled. “Oh God,” she said, “I didn’t get it,” and Henry was confused because he thought she had got it, but Beatrice was still talking. “I mean, I did get it. I mean, I didn’t get it and then I did, but I didn’t really get it until the other night. You got so quiet, I thought you were sleeping, but you weren’t, you were, you—Henry,” she said, “you were unconscious for two days.” And there was Henry: his legs disappeared beneath the hospital sheet and his arms, just as mysteriously, lay atop it, long thin blue-veined limbs that ended abruptly in the white crabs of his hands, which scuttled across the bed clutching at the railing, at the sheet, at his legs beneath the sheet, his left hand slower than his right because of the IV it dragged, until at last Beatrice did what he wanted her to do and took his hands in her own. “Beatrice,” he began, but he stopped. He sensed that she was just starting to ponder something he had been pondering for years without success, and he wanted to tell her it was okay that she didn’t get it because he didn’t get it either—that, in fact, there was nothing to get, only to give up. But he didn’t want to admit that, to her or to himself. He only said, “It’s okay,” and when Beatrice just stared at him fixedly, he said, “It’s okay,” again, and when Beatrice suddenly started and said, “I’ll take care of you no matter what,” he closed his eyes and said a third time, “It’s okay,” but his words carried the force of negation, and when he opened his eyes Beatrice was gone and his two hands held only each other, and he was looking at his mother.

He peered at her suspiciously, as though, again, she might prove to be something other than herself, but the body in the chair was defiantly solid and definitely hers, and behind it stood his father, and his father was looking at his watch. He looked at his watch and then he looked at the clock on the wall and then he made a minute adjustment to his watch. “Dylan,” Henry’s mother said, and then she said to Henry, “I thought he should be here for this.” “For what?” Henry said. “Henry,” she said, and she reached out to touch him but he pulled away. “They want to, they, they have to operate soon.” “Oh God, no!” his voice cracked, and in his panic he thrashed at his sheets and even considered running for it, as if he could escape Candy that way. When, finally, he turned back to his mother he saw in her eyes a waiting patient triumph, and he realized then that she would not win this strange war between them but he would lose it, because he would die. If he hadn’t hated her before he hated her then, and he shoveled that emotion over the rest of his feelings. “I won’t do it,” he spat, and his mother’s voice was cold as his when she answered. “Then you’ll die.” Her voice was so cold that his father actually put his hands on her shoulders and spoke. “Candace,” he said, and Henry thought he even heard reproach in his voice. “And if I do it,” Henry said, “if I do it, then what? I’ll die anyway.” “We’ll all die anyway,” his mother said, and she grabbed his hand before he could pull it away. “Henry,” she said softly, though her hands on his were rough as those of a cop on a criminal. “Baby,” she said, and then she said, “There’s a chance,” and then her voice disappeared and she looked down, and Henry looked at all she offered him. All she offered was the top of her head. Its hair was brown and parted in the middle, and tightly curled permed waves fell down either side of her face. The inch or so closest to her head was straight. It was more gray than the rest of her hair, and flecked with dandruff, and the scalp line of the part was tender and white. This was the woman whom Henry wanted to offer him a new life. It didn’t occur to him that she had given him life a long time ago, and that it was neither her responsibility nor within her power to do it again, but as he stared at her skull shame filled him, then hopelessness, and then rage. He just wanted her to lie to him. He just wanted her to say, There’s a chance you’ll live, but he knew she wouldn’t. She couldn’t, not even if it was true, because his living wasn’t a possibility that had been planned for in her mind, or in his father’s. She cried all the time and his father stood in strangled silence, but really, they were only waiting, and for a moment he didn’t blame them. What can you do with your dying son but wait? Even Beatrice was waiting, he realized then, and he was waiting too. They were all waiting for him to die, and when he realized he’d constructed his entire life around this event—the operation that had always been synonymous with his death—he laughed so loudly and so strangely that his mother winced and his father actually turned away. He refused to say anything more after that, and when his parents finally slunk from the room Henry thought they looked like rabbits seen through the telescopic lens of a rifle, and then, when he awoke in the morning, there was a doctor in the room, a young doctor but a good doctor, and it was time for Henry to choose the date of his death.

He chose, finally, the last day of the year. The good doctor tried to dissuade him of his choice, not because the date was too soon or too far away, but because he said he didn’t want Henry to think of the operation in such all-or-nothing terms. Indeed, Henry realized, it wasn’t all or nothing—it was something but it wasn’t that. But, Henry reminded this doctor, as other doctors had reminded him in their sickeningly gentle terms, he wasn’t expected to survive this operation, and he wasn’t expecting to survive this operation. If he could have waited until May he would have, because it would have been neat to die on his 18th birthday, but he’d been led to believe that February was as late as he could possibly postpone this thing—that, come February, Candy would surely accomplish what surgery only probably would—and there were no interesting days to die in January, so why not die the last day of the year? The doctor, who wasn’t so young he hadn’t heard this sort of talk before, nor so old that he’d found a way of responding to it, said brightly, “Well, there’s Christmas to look forward to,” and when he said that Henry tried to switch the day of the operation to Christmas Eve because he couldn’t bear the thought of another surreal load of presents pouring in from his family. But when he suggested it the doctor shook his head. “Even neurosurgeons have to spend some time with their families,” he said, and Henry said, “Why don’t they spend some time with my family?” The good doctor just laughed as though Henry had said something funny, and then he said, “Well, I guess it’s settled,” and Henry said he guessed it was, and the doctor, who was sitting down, slapped the tops of his thighs with his hands and pushed at them. Not, Henry thought, as though he were pushing himself up, but as though he were pushing the top half of his body right off the bottom half, and Henry’s only consolation that morning was the realization that he had made him do that. He had caused the good doctor that pain.

As he left Henry asked him to close the curtain that separated his bed from the other bed in the room and then, quickly but smoothly, he pulled the IV out of his arm and watched the blood leak from his vein until his eyes closed. As a stunt, it cost him a few days, cost his parents a few dollars more, but it changed nothing. The date of his operation was pushed back to January second, in the late evening. “New Year’s Eve,” the doctor said, by way of explanation. “New Year’s Eve?” Henry said. “New Year’s Eve,” the doctor repeated. “We have to give your surgeon a little time to recover.” “You mean he’s going to have a hangover?” Henry said, and he waved his arm with the little bandaid on his wrist and tried to be dramatic. But it was hard for him to get worked up about it, and when he was offered the chance to choose another date he refused to answer. In the end he only stayed in the hospital a week because, really, there was nothing wrong with him except a brain tumor. He got out before Halloween, and the only thought he allowed himself to have was that he had all of November and December to spend with Beatrice. Everything else he pushed away. It was as if choosing the day of his death had been his last tie to earth, and after he had severed it his feet never touched the ground: they hovered a few inches above it, suspended by the turning turning turning wheels of Beatrice’s car, and by her love. For Henry was young; he was dying and he was in love, and these conditions, like lenses, aligned themselves before his eyes. What little energy remained in his body left it in a sharpened gaze that he focused on Beatrice like a laser beam. His love shone on the jewel he had made of her skin, was absorbed, reflected, refracted. It polished her until her brilliance was dazzling, almost hot, almost nourishing, and the last days of his life fed on that brilliance like a flock of greedy pigeons until, full to the point of bursting, they exploded into flight in every direction: up, down, forward, backward, north south east west, and then, as mysteriously as they had appeared, they were gone, and so was Beatrice—and so was Henry.

On a map Long Island’s roads resemble a skein of yarn that’s been had at by a cat: they’re a tangle of bypasses, detours, alternate routes looping in and out and over and under each other so many times that it’s impossible to know quite where you are, and yet impossible to lose yourself either, owing to the finite nature of an island’s geography. In practice this meant that Beatrice could drive for hours without going anywhere, and this relieved her worry that something would happen to Henry and she wouldn’t be able to get him home. What would happen, she wasn’t sure, but in her imagination it took the shape of a fit, an epileptic seizure, convulsions and spasms and vomiting; and it was home she had to get him to, not a hospital, and why that was she also didn’t know. It seemed, confronted by his illness, by Candy, that she didn’t know anything anymore, and as she drove she asked him endless questions about being sick, questions that he answered reluctantly or not at all, until finally she took it on herself to explain it to him. She went to the college library, checked out books, looked through them; the next day she offered him the sum of her knowledge. “Death,” she pronounced, “is in all of us.” She looked down at him. Her lap held his head and his left hand; the rest of his body unfurled on the side bench seat of her car. Even that brief glance seemed to convey the whole of his being to her, for in the past few weeks it seemed that some thing inside of Henry—some essence uniquely his, and yet almost universal, human—had leached outward, manifested itself on the surface of his skin, which seemed to glow in its translucence and hide fewer and fewer secrets beneath its drape.

Henry sat up. He looked out the window. The trees flashing by the road were scrub pine; it was daylight and exhaust-blackened needles were visible, and trash tangled around trunks in lieu of vines. He said, “It is?” “It is,” Beatrice insisted. “I mean, we can all die. I mean, we all do die. We just forget about it for a while.” Henry didn’t say anything for a moment, but then he turned to her. “Oh, Beatrice,” he said, “we don’t forget about it. We just don’t think about it. We deny it. We block it out,” he said, and that was that. After a pause, Beatrice touched his head. She touched it often: it was her right, a privilege accorded only to her. “How’s Candy?” she said. “Candy’s fine,” Henry said, in a voice so flat it made his former speeches seem sparkling. “Candy’s dandy.” “Why,” Beatrice said, “why do you call her, why do you call it Candy?” Henry just repeated himself. “Can-Dy,” he said, breaking the word into syllables. “It’s just a combination of my parents’ names, that’s all. Candace and Dylan.” “Can-Dy?” Beatrice said. “Candy? Isn’t Candy just short for Candace?” “Oh, nobody ever calls her that,” Henry said. “It’s always Candace or it’s nothing. She isn’t exactly a Candy.” “But Candy is short for Candace, right?” Henry nodded. “And you knew that, right?” Henry nodded again. “What is it about your parents?” Beatrice said then, and Henry said, “Oh, you know. They only stay together for my sake.” “A lot of parents do that,” Beatrice said, “most parents do that.” “It’s different with my parents,” Henry said, “with me. It’s different.” Later, Beatrice realized that she should have figured it out, but the trees were gone and a town had replaced them; traffic was heavy, and she was distracted by the mechanics of changing lanes, accelerating, braking, checking the rear-view mirror. “Why,” she persisted, “why’s it so different?” Henry sighed. That always scared Beatrice: he had so little air to lose. His hands were still but Beatrice saw his shoulders hunch, his head droop. She was about to tell him to forget it when Henry said, “They’re just waiting for me to die,” and Beatrice gasped, as though sucking in the air Henry had exhaled, and then she was quiet. Henry was too. They were quiet until they had cleared the traffic and the lights and the town and were back on the open road, and then Beatrice said, “I’m sorry.” “It’s okay,” Henry said, “it’s just, it’s true,” he said, and he said again, “It’s okay.”

And it was okay, because it was the middle of November, and Henry was going to die a week after Christmas. In that context everything was okay. The roadside restaurants they ate in were okay, the lumpy mashed potatoes and leathery steaks and tepid coffee they served, and using his parents’ credit cards to pay the bill: it was all okay. “What’re they going to do, sue me?” Henry told her when Beatrice said maybe they shouldn’t. But Beatrice was really worrying about her own financial situation. Mail was invading her house, and she was beginning to understand that her father hadn’t left everything in perfect order when he’d died. Letters were piling up on the coffee table and she was afraid to open them. Not just phone bills—and gas and water bills, and bills from plumbers and electricians and other repairmen who’d visited their house in the last seven years—but letters from the bank that were stamped “Priority Mail” and “Urgent—Reply Requested” and, most plainly, “Mortgage Documents Enclosed.” At some point the letters were no longer addressed to her father but to Beatrice, and this frightened her even more: they knew who she was. They knew she was alone. But they didn’t know about Henry, and Henry, she made sure, didn’t know about them. November was slipping away: elm and oak and maple and sycamore trees stood naked among the pines along the highways; guttery ditches glittered with frost. The exhaust plumes from a line of jammed traffic waved like a salutatory colonnade of flags on the front of a hotel, and Beatrice thought that there was more than enough history in even these finite things to keep any mind busy. She would shelter Henry, she told herself, she would save him from everything else. She would save him for herself.

Dale Peck’s novels are Martin and John and The Law of Enclosures, which will be published in January by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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Issue 54 054  Winter 1996