Bourbon Penn 30

Bachelard Forgets the Kitchen

by Cedrick May

He grunted, “It was only a dream …” before rolling over again. But that is a string of nonsense words that carry no significant meaning, especially when the dream in question is the kind you can’t find a way out of. And why in the world would anyone imply that a dream—any dream—could be harmless? Madness can come out of our dream-induced traumas, especially when we fail to master knowing our dreams from our waking hours … Or does that even matter?

Jorge Louis Borges once wrote that dreaming and wakefulness were the pages of a single book, and that to live was to read the book one page at a time from cover to cover, but to dream was to skip through the pages at random. What a luxury it must be to choose which pages to land on. To know where you should slide your thumb on the dappled edge of the tome, to pick the very location you’ll turn the stack of pages to in this brick of a book we call life. The opening? The middle? Straight to the finale in order to satisfy that unbearable curiosity to know the protagonist’s (my own?) fate? If only I could read the spine of my own book, to see if my story is a drama, a fantasy, or even whether it’s non-fiction at all! What category does the publisher of my tale place in tiny letters at the bottom of the back cover, right near the ISBN number, so that store clerks know where to place me on the shelves? What a pleasure it would be just to know the title—I might even have a name other than the one given to me by these strange people I find in my life.

He keeps calling me Janie, but am I really an Anne, a Tess, a Lizzie or possibly even a Tiffany?

I’m certainly no Lolita.

I think I may be a Carrie.

And I think Borges is right. Dreaming or awake, this thing I’m enduring must belong to the pages of some terrible, never-ending doorstop of a book that I have to master, or at least find some measure of control over. But am I its author? Who is in control of this narrative? Borges never specified that …

The man lying next to me is perturbed, I can tell that from his jerking and bouncing as he grumbles about my whining, taking too much cover as he rolls to face away from me in his cocoon of winter comforter, leaving me perched at the very edge of “my side” of the bed where the moving air chills me as it slides under the part of the comforter that doesn’t quite fully cover me. Somehow, I know not to pull back any of the blanket he took from me, to disturb him now that he is comfortably warm and cozy, and I’m no longer screaming in my sleep.

This feeling of caution perplexes me.

I want to kill him.

• • •

I flip through the pages of my consciousness, trying to find the title page, or even the frontmatter, thinking they may have a clue as to the title or genre I’m working with here. If I’m going to kill the man lying next to me, knowing the genre will help me do it right.

I clearly land short of my goal, as I find myself in the seating area of an airport coffee shop. I have no idea why I am here, but I’m wearing sunshades and there’s a throbbing pain in my jaw. There’s a woman sitting across from me, thirtyish, broad-shouldered, well put together, actually quite elegant in a sort of chic, European way. She takes one of my hands in both of hers. She has a strong grip.

“You know you can stay as long as you want,” she says to me, “Just tell me what you need.” I remember her name is Stephanie.

“Do you have a compact, Steph?” I think I’ve always called her Steph. I try it out, even though it is an unnecessary narrative tag, in order to see her reaction. She doesn’t bat an eye, so I think calling her Steph is normal.

Steph reaches into her purse and takes out a small round compact and hands it to me.

I open the compact and look into the mirror as I take the sunglasses off.

Instead of the black eyes and bruises I was expecting, I saw puffy, red-rimmed eyes that looked like I had been crying.

“Are you okay, honey?”

Steph’s question barely registered in my mind as I studied my face, the dark, smooth features of a woman in her early thirties, cocoa brown and without a blemish. Not one. Just the watery eyes of sadness and profound disappointment.

“Janie …?”

So, it is Janie.

I close the compact and slide it across the table to my old friend just as a shadow crosses the table.

“I’m sorry for the wait, the staff here isn’t very efficient …”

I was startled by the basso voice of the man who was suddenly standing next to our table holding a cardboard tray of paper coffee cups and pastries. Steph patted my hand and gave me a concerned look, as if to say, relax, it’s okay … She turned and smiled up at the man, taking the tray and then rubbing his quite impressive arm as he sat down next to her. He and Steph kissed and that was when I remembered they were married—Steph and Dieter.

They seem so happy.

I’ve known Steph since high school, and I recalled how she used to brag about how she liked her men like she liked her coffee—black! She would laugh and laugh at this, but she was serious. I didn’t date much, but I took whatever I could get when I could get it. Steph, on the other hand, dated a lot, and always black men, all the way through to our senior year in college. Until Dieter.

We had gone to this little dive jazz bar about four miles from campus at the corner of Division and Bowen Avenue. We’d never heard of it before, but someone we knew told us about it and since we were bored decided to go.

The place was a mess. Looked like a half-dressed barn on the inside, and we were the only black people out of about a dozen patrons and the two-person staff there—including the band! Dieter was the lead guitar player, and after the band’s second set, he hopped off the stage and just strode over to our table and started talking to Steph in that deep, smooth German accent of his. He was polite to me, too, but he was clearly there for Steph.

I watched as Miss Black Coffee practically wet herself sitting there, stumbling over her words, and giggling like we were back in high school.

I had to finish college practically by myself, because those two became inseparable. I remember being happy for Steph, but I had to jibe her about her change in beverages.

“I thought you like black coffee? Guess you’ve switched to cream, huh?” I laughed.

“Yes, girl, and it sure is sweet!”

Steph and Dieter sat across the table from me now, looking at me with concern and pity. But pity for what, exactly? What’s my story?

“We should have had you come stay with us here a long time ago, anyway,” Dieter said, “The fall is beautiful this time of year, and next week we can take the train to the Oktoberfest down in Munich.”

Is this dream just an adult drama? Is it all about me leaving my—well, whomever that is in my bed later in this story—leaving that man to come for a visit with my friends in Frankfurt? I look across the table at Steph and Dieter smiling and whispering to each other in German. Steph seems particularly giddy. Maybe they’re planning to introduce me to a big hunky German man like Dieter, maybe this is a Romance. Maybe that’s what I need.

But my heart isn’t in that.

I try to use telepathic powers to make Steph and Dieter’s hair catch on fire. They just continue to sip on their coffee and make plans for my visit.

I’m thinking about the man lying next to me in bed a few chapters ahead, and I take out my cellphone to see if I can pull up photos of him. I have questions that need answers, and if I can’t set Steph and Dieter on fire (since this is apparently not a horror novel I’m flipping through), then at least they can give me some answers.

The problem is, I don’t have any pictures of the man lying in bed next to me. All of the pictures are of me and some other man I don’t recognize.

All of the pictures.

I don’t know exactly why, but my heart begins to beat hard against my chest and my throat feels full. I stop swiping when I land on a picture of the man and me standing shoulder to shoulder, smiling. We appear to be at a party, we look happy. I hold the cellphone up to Steph and Dieter.

“Who is this?” I say a little too loud. My hands are shaking.

Steph and Dieter look at the photo, and then at each other, and then back at me. There is confusion on their faces. Steph puts her coffee down and places a calming hand on the table between the two of us.

“Honey,” she says in a voice so quiet it is barely audible, “You know who that is. That’s your ex-husband.”

Tears come to my eyes, and I feel like puking. I don’t know the man in the picture.

“Then who is the man lying in my bed with me?” I say this a little too loud again. People at the next table look over at us. I wish I could make their hair catch on fire. This isn’t a romance—I won’t let it be …

Who am I lying next to in bed?” I yell, this time as I shove the cellphone photo toward their faces. Steph can’t talk, she starts to cry.

“We should leave now, go to the house for a talk …” Dieter says, standing, placing a hand on Steph’s back and elbow to help her up.

Who am I …” I begin to stand, too, still holding the phone out at my friends, knowing that what I’m doing isn’t very kind or generous, but I don’t care—I don’t care for the kind of story they’re trying to lead me into—I have to take back control …

But as I stand, my head begins to spin, and I find myself falling backward—white, dappled pages flip across my vision like the pale wings of flocking birds startled from a restful reverie …

• • •

I’m lying back again in the bed next to the man who has rolled once more in the covers, having taken even more from me while I was gone. There’s barely a flap of comforter left covering me, and I am cold.

I slide from under what’s left of my covers, careful not to shake the bed or bump the side table and shuffle out of the dark bedroom and into the hallway. I make my way to the kitchen.

As I step slow and careful through the darkness, I think about what Gaston Bachelard said about houses, that our homes shelter our dreams and protect the dreamer, that the home allows one to dream in peace.

I don’t feel very peaceful here.

I just skipped across chapters like Borges said, and now I’m reading the pages of my walk from the bedroom to the kitchen in the dark, and I don’t feel at ease at all, from either the dreaming or wakefulness. My feet seem to know the way, without any illumination, but the familiarity with the house’s geography doesn’t give me any solace.

Bachelard has never been in my house.

And while he talked a lot about attics and cellars, he never mentions the kitchen. How can a Freudian philosopher not talk about kitchens, for Christ’s sake?

I stand in my own kitchen looking into the night through the wide, bay window. There’s a waxing, gibbous moon bright enough to let me see the details of a well-manicured, but empty, back yard. I turn, and the silver light coming through the window (and my eyes already having adjusted to the darkness) allows me to find my way through the bare kitchen to the silverware drawer where I take out a butcher knife.

I find my way back to the bedroom and slide back under what’s left of the covers not wrapped around the man with his back to me. His head pokes out from the comforter cocoon he’s wrapped himself in and I start to wonder …

How should I do this?

This surely wasn’t a part of the dream we had planned to share, right?

His neck and body are wrapped too protectively inside his comforter cocoon, so I place the point of the butcher knife right below the base of his skull, in the little crevasse where the back of the head ends and the top of the spine begins. Just inside that little indentation. The same kind of spot I might put the blade when carving between the bones of a turkey leg at Thanksgiving, or the meat between the hard bones on a rack of spareribs. I know this knife will slide in there easily, right through his spinal cord and into the brain. I’ve practiced this many times before while preparing dinner.

I get ready to push, but the pages flip with a sudden white fluttering and I find myself spinning backward again through the narrative. I reach out to grab the bedpost, to stop myself from falling away from this crucial moment, but my fingers slip on something wet and slippery, and I spin through the flurry of whiteness, unable to hang on to this moment. I open my mouth to scream, but nothing comes out but a long, hollow breath.

• • •

I’m standing in darkness, again. Can barely see. I raise my hand and feel a wall just a foot or so in front of me. There’s something on my hand, too. It’s wet. I realize the wetness is sticky, too. I’m still holding the butcher knife in my other hand.

I hear a sucking sound.

No, more like gurgling.

Behind me.

I turn and my breath catches in my throat. In the light of the moon coming through the window, I see them. Two baby cribs, side by side. I know what’s inside them.

My dream. Somebody’s dream.

I can’t breathe.

• • •

I need to get away. I fall forward quickly, jumping to a new chapter only to find myself trapped, unable to move. I’m in a blinding white room and I feel like I’m strapped down. I yank at my restraints, but they refuse to give.

I scream.

“Help me! Somebody, help me!

• • •

The pages turn quickly. In fact, I skip farther back than ever before, leaping over a huge chunk of the narrative in one big turn of pages.

• • •

I’m at the party now. The one from the cellphone. In the airport. I’m with the man in the picture I showed to Steph and Dieter. We’re smiling big for the picture, but I don’t feel happy. The woman who takes the picture hands me my phone with a smile. I thank her and look at the photo as she turns to go. The man in the picture, whatever his name is, doesn’t have a genuine smile. It’s totally fake. So’s mine. I didn’t see it in the airport, but I see it now.

I turn to say something, but he’s already walked away, heading for the front door.

I think we’ve had an argument.

It’s an old argument.

Flip …

• • •

The wedding is beautiful, and everyone is smiling. Great big champagne grins and singing. The man lying next to me in bed is in a tuxedo now, lifting me in his arms. My chest is full of joy, about to burst wide open as we embrace once more, kissing deeply.

He smells so good. I feel like I’m about to fly away.

I know it won’t last, tough. I’ve already flipped too far ahead—or is the man lying next to me in bed somewhere in the past, some earlier moment in the pages of this book?

Oh, how I wish that would be the case now—I want this moment to last forever!

• • •

But now I’m back in the dark room looking at the two baby cribs. I know what’s inside them. I just know.

Somebody else’s dream that would not be denied.

I walk with slow, heavy steps to the side of the cribs and look inside.

There they are, in the silver light of the gibbous moon, sleeping. My twins. My two babies. One of them is gurgling wet snores through his wide-open mouth.

The other child stirs.

It’s about time for them to feed again, so I put the butcher knife on the changing table and pick up the waking child before he can disturb Mr. Snores. I sit in the comfy rocking chair in the corner and lift my blouse over my left breast so the baby can find it. Even in his half-awake state, he finds the nipple and latches on, feeding in his sleep as if it were his last supper.

I stroke the child’s bare head and soft cheeks. The wet stickiness on my hand smears over him, and I can see it matting his hair and glistening over his skin in the silver light coming through the window.

• • •

I feel out of breath as the man in bed next to me shakes me awake.

“Holy shit, Janie,” he says, “You were screaming again.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Maybe don’t eat so close to bedtime anymore, okay?”

“It was horrible. I was …”

“It was only a dream, Janie. Get some sleep now.” The man turns away again to lay on his side, facing the opposite wall. He’s fast asleep in no time and I’m just lying there thinking about the babies and all of the blood.

What would Borges say about this? Symbolism? Allegory? No, he’s not a Freudian like Bachelard. Borges was a poet. He would say there is no difference between dreaming and wakefulness. He would say both are a part of life.

I carefully slide from beneath the covers left over by the man lying next to me. There is something I need to get from the kitchen.

Cedrick May lives in the Dallas/Fort Worth area where he teaches African-American literature and screenwriting at The University of Texas at Arlington. Cedrick has stories published or forthcoming in Aphelion, Coffin Bell, Dark Horses Magazine, Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers, Volume 7, and Violent Delights & Midsummer Dreams: A Gothic Anthology of Shakespeare Retellings.