halcyon days

Fiction, 6/30/09

He sits hunched over the desk, his face inches from the page before him. In his hand is a pen, permanent black ink, its ball-point rolling slow but steady along the lines, thickening some, tapering others. He pauses to regard his progress. Bringing the paper up to the light, first holding it close, then an arm’s distance away, he tries to determine what is amiss. Nothing is amiss, he decides, picking up the pen anew. Nothing yet, at least. Hours pass, and soon his hand starts to ache—first a tender spot on his left index finger, then another on his thumb, followed by yet another at the heel of his palm. He rolls his wrist and glances at the clock. The wind whips through the trees, throwing newly-leafed branches against his window. Whump! Whap! It is almost 3 a.m. and his eyes feel huge and desiccated, the lids swollen from staring too long. He turns out the lights and climbs into bed but hardly sleeps. The picture lies unfinished at his desk, and he can think of nothing else.

Somehow he drifts off. He is walking through a field, an alluvial plain the colors of conflagration: flaming red, lambent yellow, scintillating white. Today is her birthday, he realizes, a glorious Sunday in spring. The hazy sunlight hurts his eyes, so he squints or keeps his gaze directed downward, marveling at the tidy rows of flowers to either side of him. Tulips and daffodils as far as the eye could see. Nearby, the others are taking pictures against the flowery backdrop. Hands in his pockets, he contents himself with being an observer, keeping to the peripherals of the group. The dirt underfoot is packed solid. Countless soles have trod this path, the weight of each body squishing the air out from the earth. Such a warm day for April—the sunshine has thrown open the floodgates, coaxing everyone outside. He wishes he had thought to bring his camera. He wants to capture this moment—their friends, the flowers, the sheer bliss on her face—and canonize it for posterity. The others will have pictures, he is sure of it. Occasionally she will look back, catching his eye; the grin he returns is effortless, almost involuntary, like second nature. This is pure happiness, he thinks, not for the first time that day.

Another dream, or perhaps a continuation of the first: He is following that same group of friends as they saunter into a bar, one he has never seen before. A waitress rushes up to him, looking perturbed. “ID, please,” she says, arms akimbo, ready to toss him out. He calmly obliges. He is inured by now to this tired routine. “Sorry, you’ve just got one of the youngest faces I’ve ever seen,” the waitress says, a tad sheepishly, handing back his driver’s license. Scanning the crowded room, he notices that almost all the patrons are middle-aged or older—a grown-ups joint. Most of them are white, too: his black curls and olive skin are a stark anomaly here. The stares aren’t unfriendly, though, just curious. They have come to dance, his friends and he, and the country-bluegrass band billed for the evening soon starts to play. He finds an empty table to lean against. I don’t want to dance, he tells himself, I’ll simply watch for now. He smiles and shakes his head when they wave him over to join. “Nah, I’m alright,” he says, sitting down with his beer. But he does want to dance; he just wishes he knew how. He finds himself staring admiringly at the sexagenarians on the dance floor, their fox trots as impeccable as the Sunday-best attire they proudly sport. He drains the beer and stands to find her. She, of course, is shimmying away; dancing seems to come naturally to her. Seeing him approach, she laughs in surprise, and her face breaks into a wide smile. “I have to warn you though,” he says, taking her hands and gingerly positioning his feet, “I really have no idea what I’m doing…”

He wakes up. It is 7 a.m. now; only four hours have passed and his eyes are the first to complain. Blinking forcefully, he drags himself out from the covers and into some clothes. He needs to be at work in two hours—ample time to complete this drawing and mail it off, he figures. He re-assumes the position, hunkering over his desk with pen in hand, until a roommate stops in to greet him. “Have you been at that all night?” she asks good-naturedly, peering over his shoulder. The picture is nearly done but he covers it still. “Well, no,” he replies, “I slept—I think.” His dreams and his reality intermingle and entwine, so much so that he can scarcely distinguish one from the other anymore. Always he feels detached—whether awake or asleep, eyes open or closed. He will sleepwalk through this day, same as the last. What difference did it make? He is adrift, aloof, alone.

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