Many of my readers enjoyed my poem "Real," published in Cave Scribbles in November. Those same readers might be interested in perusing the story I wrote that treated the same theme. Here it is, in its entirety, complete with gorey details from the mid-1990's, unedited since it was written in the heat of confusion. And heavily under the influence of magical realism.
Happy New Year to everyone. Look forward to more stories, poems, videos and interviews in 2011!
"Is This Real?"
No volverás a mirar tu reloj, ese objeto inservible que mide falsamente un tiempo acordado a la vanidad humana, esas manecillas que marcan tediosamente las largas horas inventadas para engañar el verdadero tiempo, el tiempo que corre con la velocidad insultante, mortal, que ningún reloj puede medir. Una vida, un siglo, cincuenta años: ya no te será posible imaginar esas medidas mentirosas, ya no te será posible tomar entre las manos ese polvo sin cuerpo.
--Carlos Fuentes, Aura
Holding her hand and looking searchingly in her eyes, he said, "None of this is really real, you know. We are both only figments of someone's imagination, acting out our fabricated lives in a world of holographic illusions. It is not really worthwhile to continue reacting to fake situations."
Grasping his hands more tightly, she said, "I am willing to take that risk, darling. The illusion that you are real and that I must continue with this business for you is the only idea that keeps me thinking I am alive. Is this real? I don't care, because I am going to believe it is."
He held her for a moment, and then kissed her, a situation that she found not altogether believable. Surely it all was too perfect; it must be, as Alexander said, just a hologram. Really, was such perfection to be reasonably believed? She let him kiss her again and again. He shut out the reality of other people, of things to do, of politics and sports, of even the reality of the couch upon which they lay. His magic pervaded her and absorbed what it encountered, making his departure and the jump back to reality nearly unbearable.
Had it really happened?
wondered as she studied the picture of the handsome young man under the 60 watts of the desk lamp. No, it couldn't possibly have. No one could expect her to believe she had been so happy. Why, then, did the false memory evoke in her such real emotions: such a bitter nostalgia, such a tangy desire? His absence left her with a feeling of having been stripped of a vital essence— she could almost see it leave her body and fly away to Charlotte , where Alexander was. Berkeley
Reading about the Protestant Reformation was not an undertakable task in this state of mind, so Charlotte climbed into bed and closed her exhausted eyes, despite the lights her room mate had left on, and the incessant flap-flap sound of the flying toasters whizzing by on her room mate's computer screen.
Early the next morning, they were still going, those toasters. The venerable people who had nothing better to do than create advanced computer graphics of toasters with wings for computer screen savers should certainly have been psychiatrically examined. She gave herself to listening to the flapping wings for a moment, but not a long one. "You know," she said, "that is actually very annoying." She only said it because her room mate was not in the room. Where was that girl, anyway? She heard a peltering of laughter from down the hall and figured she must be with the other girls watching "90210." What a thing to do in the morning.
She rose and wrapped herself in her robe and, putting her keys in her pocket, went to wash her face and brush her teeth. When she returned, she found Alexander, of all people, standing outside her door, waiting for someone to answer it after he had knocked. Unseemly as she would have felt in her bathrobe if she had given it any thought, the sight of him struck an electric bolt through her. He also saw her in that instant and each ran to catch the other before they fainted.
Charlotte would have liked to have added some dramatic words to the situation to show how glad she was to see him there, in her world and not only in her fantasy, but her gush of emotions silenced her throat. However, hot tears of gratitude found their way down her cheeks before he let her out of the embrace. He said, "'Behold, you are beautiful, my love; behold, you are beautiful. Your eyes are like doves. Behold, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly lovely.'"
"What a thing to say," she managed. She couldn't think to ask him what he was doing here or how he had arrived, and much less could she think to do anything but stand in the morning in the hallway, holding his hands and looking at him, and absorbing his every feature. He had the presence of mind to guide her out of the hallway and into her own room, where she hugged him again in a vain attempt to incorporate the two into a single piece of matter.
"Don't ever leave me again," she said.
"I won't," he assured her with a reassuring hand on her hair.
Oh, but yes he would, and they both knew it.
He had walked two miles, and sometimes jogged, from a bed and breakfast down the road, so she showed him the bathroom where he could clean up a little. She then walked to the end of the hallway, out to the balcony. It was a very agreeable day; a little bit dark, perhaps, but the stars shone and the sun promised to warm the earth, warm the blond heads of the two soulmates as they made their way across the campus to eat breakfast. Wild geese flew over their heads and cascaded into the pond, honking happily now that Alexander was here with Charlotte.
He dipped his spoon into his grapefruit juice and stirred it around before he would drink it, despite her reassurances that it was unnecessary. "At Berkeley, the water and syrup separate out before you can take the first sip," and he sipped. He then held up his prize for her to see. "You guys have bagels. That's very good."
"You're lucky it's plain: they usually only have onion ones," she said, trying to convince him that the food really was as bad as everyone said. But he would have none of it. No matter what, he always replied, "This is much better than Berkeley."
Charlotte found it fun to at last eat with someone who would praise the food instead of condemn it. Praise always makes a more pleasant conversation than complaint, and, unlike all the very rich and privileged students who attended the New England college with Charlotte, Alexander had very little talent for complaint and a genius for praise. "It's so easy to criticize," Alexander had said disparagingly when the both had wearied of reading angry, political literature. "How beautiful he is," thought Charlotte as the sunlight exposed his full glory: even the beauty of his soul was visible in this light. Surely the sun had come out to study him, as it had never shone so pleasantly before, and certainly not when Charlotte was on the way to her 9:30 sociology class.
She wondered what was going through his mind when he saw that the class had only ten students in it. Here was a Ph.D. teaching to ten first year students, all sitting at three tables arranged in a horseshoe, when at Berkeley the Ph.D's only came out to lecture in great arenas of 800 students or more. On Alexander's face was a look of pleasant, dumb surprise, and Charlotte was proud. "It's not a bad little college I'm going to," she thought, self-satisfied.
"This is a very nice place," he told her when she asked at the end of the week. "It's quiet, and boring, and perfect. When I walked here from the bed and breakfast, all there was was trees, and some houses once in a while." It must have reminded him of his home town of Klamath, California, a town with more bears, owls, and squirrels than people. The town where Charlotte attended college had 2,000 people in it, and 1,500 of them were college students. There was no movie theatre, no gas station, and only recently was there a grocery store. It was a good place for a retreat from the world, but not a place to keep worldly college students from complaining. Except Alexander. The man worked so hard that he was too tired to do anything interesting the rest of the time.
"You are so boring," Charlotte told him several times, as he sat with her in the library, or in her dorm room. They had contented themselves all day Saturday just holding each other in a silence that was invaded only by someone's alarm going off in the next room and by Charlotte's room mate's flying toasters on that blasted computer screen. When was she going to turn the thing off, or finish writing her paper? The screen had been on, toasters flapping away, the other night when there had been a party while Charlotte was trying to sleep. She did not want to be rude, and because she liked her room mate's friends just as well as her room mate did, Charlotte had quietly slipped into bed, allowing them to leave the lights on and talk loudly, even though Lea was not in the room. Where was that girl? She heard a peltering of laughter down the hall and decided she must be watching "90210" with the others.
Michelle was moving all the furniture in Charlotte's room to a place completely inconvenient. Joanna was trying on Charlotte's favorite black pants and running out of the room with them on. But Charlotte tried to sleep, because she liked to get up early every day this week, because Alexander was there to share life with. She awoke to complete silence the next day. Lea was turning in her sleep, and when Charlotte went out to the hallway, she saw that the sentence Alexander had written backwards in Spanish on the message board had been erased.
In sociology class they had analyzed Distant View of a Minaret by Alifa Rifaat, considering what the short stories told the reader about the situation between men and women in Egyptian society. "The women see the way the men treat them and they take pride in themselves, saying, 'Well, at least I'm not a man,'" Charlotte had said.
"He seems to like you," Alexander told her as they were walking in the sunlight away from sociology and toward golf, where the instructor had forced Alexander to swing the clubs the same as the people who were actually enrolled in the class.
"Of course he likes me," Charlotte told him. "I actually like the books we read in that class when no one else does. Professors love it when you do that!"
"Grapefruits and cranberries: two juices that are definitely acquired tastes," Alexander said at breakfast. At lunch and dinner Charlotte proudly sat with her beloved, hoping everyone could see their happiness, and noticing that everyone stayed away from their table at a radius of at least ten feet, so astounded were they that Charlotte and Alexander were together again. He reaffirmed every time that this was indeed better than Berkeley.
They had strolled around the pond, holding hands in the darkness that seemed interrupted only by a light that seemed to come from Alexander. The wild geese slept. The stars shone. She had written him, "The tradition allows a young lady to push her beau into the pond if he does not kiss her by the time they walk around it three times."
"I don't blame her, considering the size of the pond," he had written back to her. They hadn't walked fully around it even once when he decided they had better sit on the picturesque bench in the gazebo. They watched the geese sleep. "What the heck, man? That one's going for a swim!" he exclaimed. In the light radiating from him, Charlotte could see that yes, it was, and it was waking all the other geese up.
"You have geese," he had said that other morning going to breakfast. "That is so cool."
They had been going to watch some television on Friday night, but it was not as interesting as the subject at hand. They augmented each other's spirits and tried to fill the holes inside of each of them, fill them up with pieces of the other, or at least to give of themselves in order to fill the other's hole. The phrase "I love you" had never been used so well in all of its history. They never felt so complete before, and never was there such a sense of terror at the thought that they were purposefully planning to spend the next three years of their lives apart, three thousand miles apart, while they ran after the material goals that can be earned with bachelor's degrees.
"Should I ask you this here? Right now?" he asked doubtfully.
"Yes," she said, her curiosity intolerably tantalized.
"Would you marry me?" he asked, with his eyes true and pained. The lamp took the darkness away from him less than he illuminated himself.
A tangible emotion was at her throat and collapsing her lungs with his words, which hung so heavily that she could not reply. She tore herself open and cried and said "Yes." She collapsed onto him. He lifted her up and kissed her, but all she tasted were her own tears. They were saltier than they were bitter and they came from happiness. "Is this real?" she asked herself, but her self had no answer.
The tears dried and left her face swollen, but he still said she was beautiful. Their delight went uninterrupted until Emily came and told them to come to the dance.
All they found were a few mailboxes, flung open in April Fool's Day spirit. "And, no, this is not an April Fool's Day joke," he had said.
Charlotte had not worked at all since Alexander had come, and it was fortunate that she did not have any pressing assignments. How could she work when there was someone far more important to attend to? He had carried most of his luggage from the bed and breakfast and put it in the floor of her room so that he would not have to carry it later. Charlotte thought that his four miles of walking and his 27 dollars a night were very wasteful, since he could have slept in Lea's bed, the girl not having shown herself since before his arrival. True, the computer with its toasters had been turned off on Wednesday, but Thursday it was back on. When they had come from looking at the geese, they could hear the flapping of toasters through the closed door and Charlotte was reluctant to go in and disturb them. But she unlocked the door and there was no one. Alexander followed her inside. His handsome face filled her field of vision.
"You are so beautiful!" she said, joyful with looking at the harmony of his features.
"So are you," he said, and then he was gone, out into the night with her flashlight, and tears remained on her face.
Massachusetts had never had such brilliant weather before. The light warmed the pavement and shone in his blond hair as Alexander and Charlotte walked from the library, in the depths of which they had been for the last hour and a half. In her room, they sat down at the computer together. "I installed Scheme into your computer while you were gone," he said. "Look how useful it is."
"Life is so hard," he had said when there was no peace to be found. Lea had all but annexed Charlotte's room and populated it with people. The kitchen upstairs had been a regular freeway of traffic and commerce. Even the library was full of serious people studying. He had wanted to kiss her and hold her but there was no place to be found, short of broad daylight in full view of the entire student body. "Life is so hard!"
He had written on her message board, in mirror writing so that only a select few could understand, "peligroso es divertido."
All of Saturday was gone. They had spent it on the words "I love you," and in the study of hair, eyes, and lips. Charlotte was feeling a bit ill, and she supposed it was from the pizza they had ordered and eaten as they sat on the floor, playing mambo records and thinking of high school.
Grease spilled into the bottom of the box. "It's very oily," he said.
"I like it that way," she affirmed, though she knew that he had an aversion to all kinds of oil, that any oil was an unforgivable aberration. "I love you," she repeated.
"I love you tremendously," he said. Then, "I should probably be going."
"But it's Saturday night! There is so much to do!"
"We have been staying up too late. I know that you are really very tired." It was true. He himself was very tired. "We have a big day tomorrow! We're going to the Cape!"
"You’re always leaving me!" she exclaimed, thinking of all the times he had driven away from her while she watched from the window. The sight did not always make her cry, but now the emotions were strong, without reason.
"I love you," he cooed, trying to reassure her, but words could not comfort her when his movement away from her ripped a bloody chasm in her soul.
He pulled the covers over her and tucked her into bed with her tears. He sat down next to her and told her a story in an unfalteringly soft and calm voice... "There was once a young boy who lived in a house in the middle of a huge field. Far, far away the boy could see another house, which was like his, only it was covered with jewels! The boy wished he could live in a house like that. One day, he packed some lunch and headed off across the field toward the jeweled house. He walked and walked and walked and walked. He became very tired, but he kept on walking. As he approached the house, he noticed that it looked less and less magnificent, and when he finally arrived, he saw that the two houses were identical. At the house he met a girl, and he asked her how she liked living there. 'It's alright,' she said, 'but every day I look over at that jeweled house on the horizon and wish I could live there.' The boy looked and saw that she was pointing to his own house."
Of course, it had nothing to do with the present situation, but he had intended his smooth voice to calm the raging agony inside her. However, it only caused a concern: "How come you don't cry?" she asked, wiping away some of her own incessant tears.
"Conditioning," he sighed.
"Aren't you sad?"
"Yes, very sad. Do you want me to cry?"
"At least I would know what you're feeling without having to ask. It's hard to tell."
He stroked her hair. "If I cried every time I wanted to, it would take all of my time."
Later Charlotte will ponder the physiological impossibility of stopping oneself from crying, and the rigorous conditioning — brainwashing — that must have gone into such an achievement. Now she only cries, blinding herself with bitter, salty poison. She doesn't see him leave.
She rolled over. That man has made me cry more times this week than I have ever done in my life.
Her eyes were not as swollen and hot as they should have been after such tears, and when she awoke she could see very clearly that it was 7:23 and not 7:00, as it should have been when she woke up. She was appalled. She tossed on her bathrobe and ran out to see if Alexander had been waiting for her for nearly half an hour. As she dashed out of the room she saw his suitcases and books in the floor, a fleeting vision in the corner of her eye reassuring her that he had to come back, at least to reclaim his items.
At the bottom of the stairs through the glass door she could see that he was not there. This was worse, far worse, than his having had to wait for her. Where was he? She looked searchingly down the long hallway, and there was no one at all. She went out the door and heard quacking of geese and saw parked cars, and delivery trucks delivering. She saw barren hedges, stripped by the New England winter. At each turn she expected to see him walk toward her in his red sweater and illuminate the day, take it out of this half-light. Heart pounding, she looked left and right, as though if she looked enough times, he would come out of hiding. "I can't take all this drama!" she shouted to the empty sky. And it echoed.
Tears leaped out of her as she turned back and ascended the staircase. It had been a long time since she'd had a good cry. Maybe she was due for one. "He has made me cry..." she thought. She entered her room. Her roommate's computer was turned off, and there was her roommate, trying to sleep, in the bed.
Charlotte looked at the corner of the room with Alexander's books and suitcases in it, to make sure. She went to the window and watched for him. She did not leave her post until all the books and suitcases had disappeared.