“Wax” by Perel Skier, Washington Heights

BLOG,Love and Heartbreak July 13, 2011 22:39


as shared at a PenTales event themed “Love and Heartbreak”

You were in a dream I had.
I was buying candles for Chanukah at a supermarket and they huddled in a molten grey lump at the bottom of my shopping cart. The front wheel was broken or stuck in that exasperating way shopping carts sometimes get, so every time I pushed forward it squealed and left a black streak on the waxed floor. I was desperate to pay and get out of there, but weaving through aisles and aisles of canned vegetables I found no cash registers, no refrigerated section, nothing, and the whole time the candles kept growing into each other and becoming smaller, greyer, their colors bled out.
I think I was looking for you. In dreams like this, where time is sped up and slipping and my heart beats like a fever, I am always looking for you. I run through hospital corridors and subway tracks and school halls, opening every door, peering through every window. Sometimes I meet other people who love me. Their faces are always the same, like Kabuki masks, pulled down at the corners in sorrow and fear. I find my mother often. She runs after me, holds onto my shopping cart, my IV pole, purse, schoolbag, to slow me down. I turn and look at her, hair flying in my face, confused, because for some reason she’s always the last person I expect to see. “He’s not here,” she says, in the polite, regretful tone of a receptionist. With her hands on my shoulders, she will try to shepherd me back the way I’ve come. “Forget about it. Let’s get back to what we were doing.”
But this time it wasn’t my mother. It was Ted. Do you remember him? I dated him two years before I met you, and then again during one of our countless off-agains, to prove something to you. Well, to prove something to somebody. He was thin and long, like a tall glass of water, in a tube sweater and those important-looking black-framed glasses. I came upon him in what felt like the forty-seventh aisle of canned peas, studying the ingredients on a tin of green beans, while my candles burned a smoldering hole in the bottom of my cart. He looked up at me from behind those rims. I felt a swift, sharp sting of embarrassment.
“Rachel,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you.”
This was patently untrue—he had been reading the back of a vegetable can—but somehow I knew I couldn’t angle my cart around him. He said, with that aloof intelligence that always annoyed me: “I wanted to tell you that I read your blog and I enjoyed your description of the Heights community very much. I really did, it was very vibrant. I got a great sense of the place. Just answer me this: Why did you have to lie?”
I stared at him, clueless, frustrated. My candles were melting and I hadn’t even paid for them yet. “Lie?” I said. “Lie about what?”
He didn’t answer. He stood there, holding the can, eyes narrowed in cold suspicion, and an awful certainty yawned in the pit of my stomach. I knew suddenly that I had lied. One hundred percent. Not remembering what about only made it worse, somehow. I grabbed the can from Ted and threw it in my cart, and the rusty wheels wept as I slammed past him.
I found the checkout at last when I remembered it would be in the front of the store, with Rabbi Eisenbach, who you don’t know and never met because his grocery’s in the snowy town where I grew up. He’s bearded and portly and from the Old Country. According to my mother that means he has a clearer understanding of what G-d expects from us; but I used to think that was why he smoked a pipe. He looked me up and down and shook his head, lifting his mountainous eyebrows. “Maideleh, maideleh,” he chided, his vowels shining like china. “What you did to my candles? This you want to pay me for?”
I bent over the cart and threaded my hands through my hair. The wax had fused completely with the steel grating, and I was so frustrated I could feel the tears in the back of my throat. I wanted to ask Rabbi Eisenbach for a sucker—he had always given me a sucker when I came with my mother, when I was little. They were hard as diamonds, older than three wars. I think I had some dim idea of scraping the candles off the bottom with the edge of one.
Then I saw you.
You had one hand on the door handle and the other in the pocket of that crazy leather-fringed jacket, the one you bought for a Purim costume one year, as a joke. You looked back over your shoulder, not as if you were looking for anything in particular, just the way everybody glances back at a place they’re about to leave, and when you caught my eye there was no particular recognition or fondness in your face. You didn’t smile. I felt a coldness in my chest.
The truth is, I remember that look. You probably know yourself. Toward the end, when we would sit on my couch, not talking, just staring at each other? Trying to bore holes into each other with our eyes, to dig new wells in our hearts. My hands knotted over my knees. You, stray red hairs in your beard curling over your lips, freckles dotting your pale cheeks. We’d sit there and look at each other until there was nothing left: like fish treading water. Glug glug glug.
I fit myself between the cart and the narrow conveyor belt, but you were gone when I looked up again. In the dream I knew then that it was you I had been looking for, not Chanukah candles or green beans, and Rabbi Eisenbach yelled something I didn’t hear as I hoisted myself over the counter and ran out after you into the snow.
Do you remember that day last March? I’m not sure how we ended up together. Those were still the days when we needed a reason. Maybe you brought an article from the Atlantic over to show me, or else we were going to learn something together, Psalms or Kings. Yet you came that bright Sunday morning and leaned in my doorway and smiled at me, at the floor, at me, and I smiled back, hiding my mouth behind my fist. We could barely look at each other without smiling, and somehow that made it more embarrassing. You asked me if I would walk with you to the park, and I tugged the ends of your scarf as we skipped down the stairs, I think because I wasn’t brave enough then to tug your hands.
That was the sky in my dream: the brilliant, dry blue that framed your face in the afternoon, as you sat crosslegged in the snow and drew shapes in it with your finger. It was such a bright day. Sun ricocheting off gleaming white spaces and bounding back into the atmosphere. We couldn’t see our shadows. That was the first day that we sat together in silence, saying nothing, fingers weaving shapes close to each other. I felt so full of light, like a lantern, and I thought: I will carry this back with me, into the dark.
But in my dream I didn’t see you. Sidewalk stretched out and out before me, and the red brick dragon of the hospital where I knew I would not find you, because I never found you. You would laugh at the dreams I’ve had. The first time I saw you in my dreams, you were a pirate. Yes, with an eyepatch and a sword and everything. We were on the deck of a wooden ship, with cannon fire all around us. You swung down from the sails and hacked away at intruders whose faces flickered dimly in my memory. Boys from my undergraduate classes, big smiles and uncertain voices. Sometimes I wonder if your sword was made of wood, in that first dream. I remember my hands on the ship’s edge and the cool spray of sea foam. I remember your laugh. You were right when you said I remember things that never happened. Does that make them less terrible, do you think?
I didn’t go into the hospital. I thought I was smarter. I plummeted down childhood streets until they began winding higher, over the snow and out across the water, to the George Washington Bridge. Cars ghosted beside me, rattling and trembling without sound. The cement shook. I stood looking up at the enormous silver wires, plunging from the sky like metal snakes, and my legs weakened. I wanted to turn back. It was night: the city dangled beyond us in the black river, glinting cuts of ruby and sapphire light floating in a chasm. I saw the shape of your shoulders bent over the railing. You were looking for your face in the water: but you would never find it, it was too far down, I could have told you that. The blood in my veins felt heavy as lead. I knew I had to reach you. You began to climb on the little wires that connect the railing to the bridge, wedging your feet in the gaps, and my breath hitched in my throat, and I thought, it’s not too late—but I didn’t move. I didn’t grab you by the waist and tug you down. You turned your head and saw me, and watched me, waiting to see what I would do.
I don’t know what comes to people in dreams. I stuck my hand in my pocket and showed you the wax, the grey lump of nothing cradled in my palms. There was that heavy, desperate sadness at the stem of my heart. Later I would cry for hours, allowing nothing to touch me, nothing near. But I’ve never cried in front of you and didn’t intend to start then.
You looked at me for a long moment. The wind was merciless on the bridge, tangling in the purple lights strung from the wires, tearing your orange-brown hair back and forth across your forehead. This time your eyes knew me, and something bigger than me.
You hopped down from the rail, lightly, and came to stand over me. Cupped your gloved hands under my own and lifted them toward you, peering down, like a doctor.
“We’ll get more tomorrow,” you said. So lightly. Like it was nothing. I had almost forgotten your voice. “What are you worrying about? Poor Rachel. Always worrying.”
When at last I began to weep, a tiny, stolen sob at first, and then another and another, wild spasms that seized my body like a lightening storm, I knew I was asleep. You pressed my hands closed over each other and locked your arms around me, enveloping me in the familiar smell of your jacket and the feel of your cheek against the top of my head. I did not hear any sound or feel any sensation, not the inhuman shaking of my body or the clatter of cars over the bridge. I did not open my eyes or uncurl my hands.  Swallowed in heat and light, I did not think of the wax, fusing my hands together, scalding my palms.

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