Asleep by Keith Felberg
published in Volume 10, Issue 1 on June 1st, 2003Light slid along thin strands of cobweb, and the morning sun poured through the green vineyards in the valley. He brushed the sticky invisible threads from his face, and walked the steep path towards the top of the hill. He breathed hard of the air that was stale and humid and had the pungent smell of earth. Plants flourished everywhere, and there were groves of small white flowers covered in dew. He could feel them brush damply against his bare arms as he began to sweat. Tall green hills rose on all sides and above them the air was bright and drowsy. There was no breeze and the odor hung thick in the stillness, strong and sickly sweet.
He looked down the way he came, the path vanishing in the green, and then to a farm down in the distance where he heard a rooster crowing. She was sleeping down in the car. There was a monument there where a battle was fought in the Spanish American War. A tall stone stuck from the earth, and the ground glimmered with broken glass all around it.
They had driven in the night, and parked when the sun was still cool and rosy on the horizon, and the air was crisp and fresh and smelled of eucalyptus. They watched the mist that settled in the valley, and the rolling green mountains that rose out of it. There was that potent beauty that comes when the eyes are tired of looking, or when the sun comes after watching the ghosts of places in the night, and the hypnotic rush of asphalt. They dozed in the car while tall palms swayed and swam in the gentle morning breeze.
They rolled down the windows and the breeze came cool and lovely through the car. She leaned back in the driver's seat and closed her eyes. He stared out into the sway of the palms, and the deep sun lightened green of the hedges. It really was a fine morning. He leaned over and kissed her neck. She started at first: opened her eyes, then leaned her head back smiling.
"That tickles," she said, and shut her eyes again.
He pulled the strap of her gray tank top over her shoulder
"Quit it," she said playfully and sat up.
"I'm glad we came," she said.
"Me too," he said, still feeling the dampness of her skin.
"Do you remember when it used to flood by your house, and we'd race paper boats in the street."
"I remember," he said, sitting up.
"I miss it there," she said.
He stared out at the flowers that shivered in the light wind, with the birds singing in the stale humid air, and the long shadows falling across the parking lot.
"I miss how we used to just stay in bed in the winter because it was always cold and the wind seemed to go right through it," she said. "I remember being all warm and tucked in, and just listening to it howl outside."
He still wasn't looking at her, but knew she was smiling, could hear it in her voice.
"What's wrong?" she said.
He blinked, then looked at her.
"Do you want some water?"
"No, that's ok," he said.
"This one's still cold. I froze it before we left see," she said, and put the cold bottle of water against his cheek.
"Don't make me tickle you."
"You wouldn't dare, we're in public."
"You never though of this car as public before," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean."
"That's it mister," she said opening the water bottle.
The water was very cold and his shirt was halfway soaked, but it felt kind of good in the heat.
"You win," he said.
"I know," she said. "I always win." He leaned over to tickle her and she backed against the door.
"No no I'm kidding I'm kidding," she said, and he sat up.
"Are you happy now?" she said softly and almost scared.
They were early at the park, and the sun was hot after the hike above the monument, and there was that over-ripe taste still in the air. Inside she wanted to see the birds, and pointed and smiled with the sun on her face. He told her they should ride the tram first, it would be crowded soon. So they stood in the shadows of the trees and against the rising leaves of the brush until the tram came. The sun was higher now, and white, and their car was full of children. Some cried and were unhappy, and stared sometimes out at the animals that roamed free on the rolling green savannah. Sometimes their eyes were wells and other times fixed, out past the shadows in the heat of the morning sun. The little girl that sat next to him looked at him for a long time, and he looked back at her. She had blond hair and blue eyes and was about four. When he imagined having children, it was always a little girl with blond hair and blue eyes. He didn't know why. They rolled across the bottom of the long green valley, and tigers moved lazily and catlike in the shade. They passed the last of the white rhinos that laid like giant pale stones beneath a broad shaded tree. The guide said there was nothing to be done for them. There were only five left in captivity, and two in the wild. She said all the females were past their breeding age, and they would be extinct inside three years. He looked out at them a long time. They did not move, but laid perfectly still and hot in the shade. He thought for a moment about the last time he was in San Diego, and how they found a whale washed up on the beach. It was long and grey like the sky above the water, and they climbed over the rocks that were wet with rain to get near it. Seagulls pecked at it, and they could see where they'd broken through the thick dark skin to the pink inside. It was sad to watch: those tiny scavengers picking apart that great animal that just laid on its back with dead black eyes. The rhinos were like that, not on their backs, but like stones, like they were already dead.
People gazed into the hard white sun with fading sour smiles, cameras cocked, no wind. There was a woman in front of him: horse toothed, wrinkled eyes, and just staring. They were just staring out at them. None of them would ever see another alive again. Would they live on vacation film? One last generation brought down from time immemorable, to be gawked at by tourists in khaki shorts with sun burnt noses. How could that be destiny. Their lives, such startling and beautiful things, fierce and wild, but now just like stones, porous, unmoving, flies swarming. The rhinos were colorless in the shade, and the harsh whiteness of the sun. They were alive, but not alive. There in that car full of people he felt unspeakably lonely for a moment, but just for a moment and then it was gone.
He looked away from the horse toothed woman.
"Hi." Said the girl.
"Hi," he said.
His wife squeezed his hand, her eyes the color of corn flowers.
"Why do you miss my old house?" he said. "Don't you like the house we have now?"
"No I do. It's just, I don't know, good memories."
There was water down in the gully and he could see the insects alive in the sun. They walked over the boardwalks, and she gazed into the water that was green muck, and at the birds that swam heavily through it. It was very hot now, and too bright. He could see the giraffes nibbling on the long slender limbs of the trees, and the children pointing though the wire mesh of the fence.
They left the park and were very tired. It was early in the afternoon, and he slept in the car and did not dream. He was almost awake when they pulled into the hotel, on that pleasant edge of sleep, but he kept his eyes closed so she could whisper to him to wake up, they were there.
The air came cold and damp off the water even before the sun had set, and now he stared out past the end of the pier to the darkening Pacific. The ocean was always strange at night, a dark vacuum, with the lights of the city pushing at its edge, and the sound of the waves coming in. He looked up for the stars, but they were distant and weary with the lights of the restaurant, and San Diego glowing not so far away. They ate fried clams that were fresh and greasy and looked out at where the ocean should be. He took a drink of the cold wine, smelling the salt air, and the fish death smell of bait from where the old men sat with their poles at the end of the pier. He looked up at her, and she was just watching the darkness. She looked back at him and smiled. People always smile when you catch them staring.
"How's your food?" she asked.
"Not bad," he said, watching her sip her wine.
"Whatcha thinkin' about?" she said, watching him with her full beautiful eyes.
"The Rhinos," he said.
"The Rhinos at the park?"
"Oh you must mean the rhinos back at our hotel," she said smirking.
"The two left in the wild." He said, turning to the darkness where the tide was coming in.
She did not speak for a long time, but it wasn't bad with the clams and the crab in drawn butter, and the old men fishing in the night.
"I remember when you went to San Diego when we were in college, and you brought me back that seashell nightlight you said you bought at the airport because you didn't have time to shop."
He didn't speak, but just looked at her.
"You always used to bring me back little things when you'd go away," she said, and she was still smiling, but her eyes were sad. He'd watched that look on her face before, the way a smile could ebb, find its peak and then pull back just slightly.
"I couldn't afford big things then," he said.
"No, I didn't mean that," she said. "I loved it. I loved that you did that. I loved all those things. Didn't you ever notice how I kept all of them?"
He smiled sheepishly and squeezed her hand, and stared back out at nothing. He felt sad now, but didn't know why. Gifts always made him feel sad after they'd been given.
"I miss my seashell nightlight," she said.
"What ever happened to it?
"It broke when we were moving," she said. "I put it in a box, and then when I opened it up again there were just the white shards of it."
"I could buy you another one," he said.
"It wouldn't be the same."
They walked up the beach in the dark ocean breath of the night. He listened to the sand shift in their footsteps, the tide washing up the shore. His eyes glided over an infinity of footprints dimpling the sand, and the strange dark shapes of seaweed washed in by the tide.
He stopped though he wasn't really sure why. He felt his hand against hers, closing on it, stopping her, moving it to the small of her back, her feet turning in the sand. She opened her mouth in surprise, but she was already against him, and he kissed her long and soft beneath the starlight. It was funny too because he was thinking about the winter in Korea, about waking from the cold in the dead of night with a month's worth of pneumonia. He remembered about how the heat was out, and he shivered and huddled over the blue light of a stove burner for warmth, listened to Miles Davis, watched the light dance over the empty liquor bottles strewn though the kitchen two days before Christmas. She was warm and close against him. It isn't the loneliest I've ever been he thought, and ran his hand through her hair, pulling it towards him, down against her cheek, fingertips tracing her throat, down against the edge of her breast.
"Not here," she said, gently pulling back. "There are people." All he could think was she used to close her eyes, she used to tremble.
His eyes drifted, watching the facades of the houses along the waterfront. Light came thin and latticed through the shut blinds, or the windows were dark and uncovered as if no one was home. He imagined people behind those dark open windows, sitting back against the furthest wall, watching the night.
There was the veil, the silence: the almost purging drift of it.
"I don't know what to tell you," he said, and her not looking up, but straight ahead and towards the sand, and him listening to it shift in their footsteps.
"It's alright," she said evenly, and not hurt, and him not knowing what to do or say ever when she started to lie.
"I'll be back before you miss me," he said, listening to the movement of the sand again.
"When I was a girl I used to want to live on this beach," she said.
"But not anymore," he asked.
"No." she said. "Not anymore."
"That's alright we couldn't afford it anyway."
"It doesn't look the same as it used to," she said, and never lifted her eyes from the sand.
In the morning they drove east, with the sun bright against the horizon. They traced their way back along the same roads: all different somehow, the desert flatness, the upturned boulders against the road, and the white crests of dunes gleaming in the sun. All of it seen before but from another angle, and the backward motion making it seem new and eerily familiar at the same time. He did not speak, but watched as they fell back through those landmarks with dry mouths, and felt the hum and shiver of the road run in reverse till they came through the glaring heat to places they knew. Farmhouse with the rotted fence and green hills against the pines, the world he knew materializing suddenly, snapping into focus the way it can when you know where you are.
They turned the corner of the drive, the house seeming small, the sun sloping through a break in the clouds. The engine sputtered to a stop, and when the car door creaked open she stretched in the shade of the pines. The air was clean and cool and tasted damp like it would rain in the afternoon. He felt his lungs empty. There is never anything like coming home.
He drank a glass of water, and put his tackle in the car.
"Be home tonight," he said, feeling the dust of Sonora as he pushed his fingers through his hair. Her face still as he kissed it, and still again as she waved from the drive, and he thought of the rhinos sleeping far to the west in the hot shade of the afternoon.
Flowers tremble beneath the starlight. You remember how it was; dark against dark, the still, shallow curves finding each other in the night, the petals black and damp. You felt it then, in the turning of limbs, in the quickening pulp of the heart. Don't feel love or the slipping burning purity of any true thing. Do you still taste that air, that fertile decay, bleeding its strange musk through the tram. The heat of it gone like milky bowls of rice wine, or the skin taste of salt, blossoms of apricot in moonlight. He watched the twin yellow curves vanish beyond the headlamps and lose their color, the red of the stones faded to nothing. The steep mountain roads darkened and cool.
A haze of moon glowed through the thinning clouds, and he felt the crisp fragrant darkness wrapped around him. It was comforting somehow, the blackness, and the dreary silent rain that fell like sparks past the streetlamps. He walked up the street in the cold gentle wind, and the trees whispering with wet branches, and he could see the lights in his house. He remembered he left his pole and tackle in the car, but felt too tired to turn back. He opened the door, and felt a stirring queasiness in his stomach. The lights were dim inside, but it was pleasant and warm. He saw her, and felt suddenly weak, and hollow. Her eyes had become heavy with sleep, and she stretched lazily on the couch. He came closer, towards the fire, and felt its warm crackling breath. She shifted silently on the fat white cushions, and curled like a cat in the fire's flickering glow. The rain had stopped, and droplets slid off the roof and past the window to the damp and curving ground. He smelled the rain through the cracked window, and saw the luminescent beads of dew that collected on the screen. He slid his cold white hands underneath her, and lifted her gently into his arms. She grumbled, half awake, but was soon relaxed and soft. She breathed slowly as he carried her back towards the dark of their bedroom.
He couldn't see the clock, but it seemed he'd been lying awake for hours. He wasn't particularly comfortable anymore, but didn't dare to disturb her. He just kept looking at her, and secretly apologizing. He told her silently I love you, I love you, again and again. He meant it too. He stroked her hair, and in his heart thought of all the things he could say to make things right. This was the only time when everything seemed right, when she was sleeping against him. They didn't fight or speak, they only loved each other silently. He closed his eyes, and ran his fingers through her hair, and she kept her eyes closed and pretended to be asleep.