I am in a bed, on top of a pile of bloody sheets. There is a loose cover, blood-stained, draped over most of my body. My head is twisted to the right, eyes half-closed as I squint out beneath my lashes. My left hand is twisted upward, under a lumpy pillow, the fingers grazing a metallic object that I seem to know is a pistol.
There are other bodies all around me, one or more on top of the bed with me. I don’t know how I got here; was it just that I was asleep, checked into a hotel while traveling through the country? Was it some tryst, or was I ill?
Where did all those other people come from? Next, I become aware of noises, jumbled noises. Near me, flies – a constant droning. From the floor, an occasional soft effluence, a release of some ill-defined moisture or gasses. No moans…. Why aren’t any of these people moaning or crying out? Perhaps they are dead; or, perhaps, they are lying in wait as I am, deciphering the situation, trying to get enough orientation to respond.
From the next room, or what I assume to be the next room, a dull rumble of men’s voices, occasionally punctuated by a husky laugh. I strain to pick out words, but cannot. Could it be a foreign language?
Beyond all this, an occasional rumble, as thunder. Not thunder. Explosions, far away. A rattle of window glass follows each of the louder ones. It is night because it is dark and there must be at least one window in the room, and there are crickets somewhere, but not too nearby.
Am I hurt? Shot or cut, or beaten? The cover seems wet, sticky. Clearly blood, which I cannot abide. Why then am I so calm in thinking about this? In my dream, do I know it is a dream, so it doesn’t matter? I try to drag my right hand up from alongside my body, and encounter the cold flank of another person. I think that he could be dead. I know it is not a woman; or, do I just assume it? How much more is assumed, and how much is real?
I slowly pull up on my hand, and its back drags along the clammy flesh of the other. I am afraid to make a sound, or destroy too much of the silent symmetry around me, for I do not know how it is balanced. I decide to test my parts. Slowly I wiggle each hand, move my mouth, my feet, try a deeper breath. Everything works without pain. I ignore the itch between two of my toes, and the cramp across my shoulders.
I fish for a hold on the gun under the pillow, and my left hand slips into position; I seem to know what feels right. With the gun as my protection, I run my hand along my own side, onto my chest and belly, as far down my thighs as I can reach without disturbing the cover. There are some patches of unidentifiable moisture, some sticky, some just damp, but my fingers discover no holes or rips in my body underneath any of them. Somehow I have escaped whatever carnage befell the others, and somehow I slept through it or passed out or repressed it.
A voice grows close and the door opens a few inches. There is a pause, and more words are exchanged. I let my eyes open another fraction, and see a band of light vertically, and echoed on the floor. Then the door pushes wide suddenly, and there is a silhouette of a man in a cap; he is carrying a stick, or perhaps a rifle. I force my eyes shut, and suppress my breathing. In this new silence, even my thoughts pound in my ears.
Deliberately, the man moves across the floor, his progress traced in his boot-falls and his kicks at the unresponding bodies. There is occasional silence, and I let a peek escape from my clenched eyes; he is bending over some of the bodies, and pocketing odds and ends that he pulls from them.
A sharp knock in one corner freezes him, and I shut my eyes quickly. I am forcing myself not to move, and then I sense the knot on my face. I relax my features and go blank. Another tap from some unseen source, and the room is filled with the rattling of automatic gunfire. The slugs thunk into wooden walls, bounce off the cement floor, bury themselves into unyielding bodies with a viscous suction. Every ounce of me concentrates on not moving, but I must have startled because the gunfire stops and I feel his gaze toward the bed. I want to swing the gun barrel to point outwards, but am afraid to move my left hand. He is closer, his breath a short staccato mixing with the flies and the crickets. A voice yells from the other room but my man makes no reply; I hear and feel him picking his way to the bedside. He is there, he is over me. I cease to breathe. The body to my left moves into me, in response to what must be a poke of the rifle barrel. I leave my weight dead, and loll back against the force.
Another voice is now in the room, at the doorway. There is an exchange of gutturals I do not understand, and the nearer man drops spit on my face as he talks. In my mind I twitch in reflex, but my skin seems to remain placid because in another few seconds he is retreating, picking his way backwards over bodies and among limbs. I feel his distrust as he stands once more at the door, his eyes scanning the human debris for any motion. Then the door swings firmly shut, and there is laughter from the other side.
* * * * * * * * * *
I am in a bed, on top of a pile of sweated sheets. There is a loose cover, semen-caked, draped over most of my body. My head is twisted to the right, eyes half-closed as I squint out beneath my lashes. My left hand is twisted upward, under a soft feather pillow, fingers still holding the long strands of her hair.
There is one body next to me, curled and curved to fit into the convex spaces my own body defines on the mattress. I don’t know how I got here; is this my new wife in our bedroom, or some past or future affair, or some hooker drunkenly taken to some hotel room at the end of a long business day in some fungible mid-Western city?
I am afraid to move, to admit that I am awake. What will I say if I am addressed? I don’t know a name, or even the name I have used, or possess. I do not know if I have been sweet, or brutal, or inept; or if I have failed, or have given pain, or been the butt of her laughter.
Without moving, I allow my body to exude out towards her, sensing better her length, heft and feel. She is not as long as I am, but I cannot tell if she is full or slight. Twisting her strands of hair in my hand under the pillow, I know (imagine?) that it is long and blond, fine but without shape and style; I now know that it falls straight unchecked from her head to below her shoulders, and I remember her ears peeking out on each side.
My mind runs across my body for signs, and I am sure we have made love, but not often. I am wet, but sticky and caked. We have loved and slept, and we have not washed or stirred afterwards. There is no hollow ache in me; I am not spent. Did we choose not to continue, or did we just decide to sleep in that single mellow moment? Was it too good to spoil by more, or too poor to tempt a repeat? Or, was I just drunk again, dribbling off into a flaccid snore?
How does she smell? Neutral, but bathed; slight residue of flowers. Safe – not the smell of the kind of dangerous woman one can imagine in a nameless tavern where no one looks at you squarely. A friend perhaps, or at least an acquaintance.
But what if she is a friend of my family, or someone from my office, someone whose morning-after brings awkward complications, or at least the need to tell and repeat a story until its details become consistent from both of us? I had long ago hoped to avoid those mornings, no matter how tempting seemed the prospect of the night.
She exhales heavily, stretches, and parts of her torso and limbs lose contact with mine. Then there is a long pause, as she also remembers where she is and whom she is with, or perhaps realizes that she cannot do so either. Slowly, she pulls away from all contact, and I feel her hand grasp the cover to hold it in place as she slides out and onto the floor. She lets the cover fall back, and its warm drape settles into the curves where her body used to be. Bare feet move across the unidentified room, and the floor is not carpeted; the stick and pull of her toes and arches squish into the dark air. A door gently closes behind her, and in the next moment a line of light appears on the floor, its shine dissipating as it spreads towards the bed. I open my eyes, and water is running.
I take this chance to strain against the dark, forcing my eyes wide to absorb the scant light from under the door and learn what I can from the room. There is a pile of clothing half-way across the floor, a dresser and a mirror and two large windows with curtains drawn. Each side of the bed has a small table with a lamp, and I still hear the water so I grope and turn on my lamp – one click. Forcing my eyes further, I look at her end-table; there is nothing on it but a crumpled tissue, with blotted lipstick at one end. On top of the cover there is one plastic wine glass, a trace of white wine in its side. Stuffy air masks a smell I do not know, and the slow whirr of the fan masks all sounds outside the room save the now dying trickle of water.
I click off my lamp and lower myself to the position I remembered. I wait and my mind waits, and we are both very tired, so tired because it is late and it is confusing and we are oh so very tired that we lack the energy to decipher it all, although we want to, my mind and I, or we sort of do, except the bed is soft and the room is humming and I recognize the smell at last, it is almonds, and I love almonds, which are sweet and gentle things with romance and bouquet. My mind wishes to sleep, and I cannot deny it.
Later, sometime later, I awaken with a start. I know I am alone. Light eludes the drapery and outlines the contents of the room. The bathroom door is open, empty beyond. On her end-table she has set the empty wine glass upright, and in it sits her tissue. I unroll the tissue and breath through it, drawing the air through the lipstick, but all I smell is almonds.
* * * * * * * * * *
I am in a bed, on top of a pile of bloody and semen-caked sheets. There is a loose cover, similarly coated, draped over most of my body. My head is twisted to the right, eyes half-closed as I squint out beneath my lashes. My left hand is twisted upward, under a feather pillow so ancient that it has gone to lumps. My fingers graze some object that repels with disgust but I cannot move away from it when I try. There is no link between my will and my body.
There are other bodies all around me, and they are all still, except for the woman pressed against my side. Her curves reach into the spaces my body leaves but we are out of sequence, and touch only roughly, bone upon bone. I know how we got there, this woman and I. We wandered down a street, into a hotel, came together over the sounds of the war that came ever closer, and then there were shouts, and gunfire, and as we sat up in amazement the door sprang open, men poured through it and then other men followed them, spraying gunfire and then settling their sights on each crippled body and pressing the trigger for a long time until the bodies no longer responded to the punctures and the thuds. The men looked at us in bed, and laughed, and one pointed his weapon at us but another barked a guttural command in the language of the country, and reluctantly they backed from the room, leaving us seated among the corpses.
We looked out beyond the curtain then, this woman whose name I did not know but who was stranded, as I was, for a night and day and another night in the airport when the rebels began their unexpected drive to the sea. She was from Germany and was traveling to the interior to see a sister; I was returning home from unsuccessful business.
Or perhaps she was a prostitute caught between the lines of war, attaching to any man who wandered into her view, even if he was not really there but just bouncing through his personal stream of dreams. Yes and then we hid together in a dark room upstairs in an unattended hotel, I just took the key to room eleven from the slot behind the desk, and made love in the emptiness and waiting because that night might have been our last through no fault of our own.
From behind the curtain could be seen that much of the town was afire, and men were walking and running, and the sky to the East glowed red. There was noise and bombs and small arms fire and crickets were dying in their fields as the fire swept over them. We returned to our bed and lay there because we did not know what else to do, and we smelled the bodies and their emissions, and the heady fumes of fuels and floating dust of burnings, and we made love and fell asleep.
I hope I gave her pleasure, although I now recall that she gave me pain. Then I tried to place my body so that our curves would coincide, but she was the wrong height, or she resisted subtly, or I did not remember how, but it did not work. Then the noise below grew louder and came up the stairs, and again men were in the room. I reached beneath my pillow for my gun, but withdrew instead long strands of blond hair, and stood naked on the shiny floor pointing strands of hair at them.
They overcame their surprise, and laughed. He shot her many times, and her blood sprayed over the bed and splashed onto my naked torso. I tried then to awake, but they saw my game, saw what I was trying, and moved to foil my escape in ways that I could not understand. I heard other voices, real voices then, and I tried to cry out, but the power ran out of me, and I lost that detached control that had carried me over and through that dream, that variegated dream, the infinitely repeated concentric circles of my dream, and the bullets hit me, racked me, finally disemboweled me, after all those nights when I was impervious, unassailable through all permutations of my story, my dream that I had played with, toyed with, edited and rewrote with impunity.
The bullets killed me as surely as if they were real, and I floated back into sleep. On my tongue, there was the faint taste of almonds.