Dreamless Sleep

[Published here and on ashramswithinanut.tumblr.com for the terribleminds.com Flash Fiction Challenge.]

Do we wake up on the morning of our deaths and know that it is coming? Is there a sort of deep, animal, gut feeling, honed over years and years of Darwinian self-preservation, that wakes us with a jolt at perhaps five a.m. with the powerless knowledge that, “this is it, my life is over”?

She never had time for that kind of thought. Feelings of powerlessness never existed in her emotional knapsack. If you talked to her co-workers, the first thing they would say about her, after they have waxed eloquent about her thoughtfulness and righteousness, would be her unflinching, unwavering quest for power. She never questioned her goals. She was ambitious and she went for what she wanted.

If you’re thinking “ruthless ambition,” you would be wrong. Sarah O’Connor was determined in the dogged pursuit of her goal, but she was never ruthless. She was cool, never cold. “Thawed openness,” said a journalist once – one of those young Ivy League graduates that feel the need to speak in contradicting linguistic imagery to prove their intellectuality, as though the ability to write in simple but cohesive sentences was almost uncivilized – which she detested for its unabashed overreaching but respected for its accuracy. She was a woman who loved to love and cared for the well-being of her employees and friends, but on her terms.

But that morning, the morning of July 18th, that unseasonably cold and rainy morning, she woke up with a jolt almost an hour before her alarm normally went off. She wracked her brain for the dream she had been having, wondering if something in it had woken her. But it was almost as though she had had a completely dreamless sleep. This was strange, because for as long as she could remember, Sarah had always recollected her dreams. She knew this because the day she realized this, sometime in her mid-twenties, she had begun keeping a journal.

It was always the same journal. For the past fifteen years, she had bought the same moleskin notebook (in deep-red leather with a white string), once every few months when the previous journal run out of pages. It never occurred to her to buy more than one at a time; she wasn’t the kind of person who believed in planning that far in advance in her personal life.

But this morning was different. She woke up with a hum in her chest and a completely blank mind. She thought hard for a few minutes. Nothing. She finally gave up and got out of bed. “Ouch,” she yelped as she stubbed her toe on her bedside table. She crossed her right leg on her left knee and kneaded her big toe, brows furrowed. This was not a good start to the day. But then, she shook her head. She wasn’t one for superstitions. She gave a final massage to her toe, then headed towards the bathroom.

She didn’t think about her dreamless sleep again until she was in her car, driving to work. She wondered what it meant. That her mind had just decided to stop making up memories for her. Of course, dreams aren’t memories, she reminded herself. Yet, it bothered her. Most days, she drove to work thinking about her dreams. Thinking of ways they could have been more crazy, or more embarrassing, or more believable. But today, her mind was drawing a blank. She felt as though she had no thoughts left. She laughed at her own perceived silliness.

It was an ordinary day at work. Really, nothing different. The same people came by, smiled, made presentations, argued points, debated ideas, discussed strategies. She paid attention to most of it, but she also daydreamed through a lot of it. By daydream, of course, she tried to recollect her dream from the night before. Why did it bother her so much? It was just a silly dream, not like she had forgotten the name of her mother. Wait, what was her mom’s name? Oh yes, Helen. Phew. That was close. What’s he saying?

“Do you think this is the right way to go?”
She looked around for signs to help her know what he’s talking about. Nothing.

After a painstakingly long silence, she finally responded, “You know. I think I need to think that over.”

She noticed the mixture of relief and disappointment in his face, an expression well familiar to her. After preparing something for days, you want the response to be immediate or very delayed. You either want to be heralded as a genius right away, or be crushed much later. She gave him an encouraging smile. No point making him panic.

The drive back home, she saw all the twinkling streetlights whoosh by. She counted every single one of them. She didn’t know what else to do. Every few lights, she’d think of what she was doing and shake her head. What was wrong with her? But she continued anyway. Between her workplace and her office, she counted six hundred and two lights.

She watched a movie that night. She hadn’t watched one in years, and they said “Election” was finally on Netflix. So, she bought herself a subscription to Netflix and settled in to re-watch her favourite director’s best movie (in her opinion). She laughed at all the right moments. Shook her head at all the satirical ones. When it was over, she went to bed thinking how unexpectedly dark it had been.

As she got out of her robe that night, she thought about how fortunate she was. About all the people depending on her at work. About her mother, her best friends. She tried to cram as many thoughts in her mind as possible so she had a good dream that night.

Finally satisfied with all her thoughts, she carefully placed her dream journal right next to her head on the nightstand and went to sleep looking at it.

It was a few days before they finally found her.

[For the record, my “random phrase” was Thawed Openness.]

Brown Eyed Girl

(also published on www.shrutiswaminathan.com; written for Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge on http://www.terribleminds.com)

The first time I saw him, “Brown Eyed Girl” was playing on the radio. I remember the day like it was yesterday.

I was at home. “Home” was a tiny 10 x 12 I shared with my roommate and sometimes lover at the time. Her name was Melinda. We were in California. Our room was littered with “peace” signs from the war protest that we had been attending all week. The Beatles had Guest of Honour status on our walls, looking down benevolently. The rest is a haze. Not because it has been so long since I lived in that cramped room. It was the sixties, you know?

That small transistor radio was my favourite, if not only, possession at the time. I listened to all my shows religiously. It wasn’t called classic rock in our time. We just called it popular music. Our parents called it the music of the devil. I remember the radio host – his name eludes me – going on a long, funny diatribe against the “old” generation. I used to think a lot of my parents in rural Minnesota. Religious churchgoers. Rule followers. They hadn’t been happy when I decided to come to California for college, but they never stopped me. When I listened to the host, I used to think of them.

My parents were High School sweethearts. They were married the day before he left for the War. My mother was among the first women in her town to start working when the men were gone. She was pregnant but she still drove ten miles every day to work at the factory. I was born eight months after they were married. I used to wonder if I was the reason they got married. I look at her fresh-faced smile in their wedding picture from time-to-time. Did she know then?

Mother was a pioneer. But she was also among the first women to drop out and stop working when the men came back. I asked her once why she stopped. She’d just shrugged. “I didn’t have to stay.” I think it bothered me a little. Maybe.

What would they think of my lifestyle? They might have been shocked. Most people were. But my parents were rocks. When father came back from the war, he used to wake up screaming at nights, drenched in sweat. I used to run to their room and stand in the open doorway. Watching my mother hold him and gently rock him back and forth until his breath slowed and he was ready to sleep again. In the morning, they betrayed no emotion; no signs of having seen me witness the scene. They were Immovable. Soon, they started sleeping with their doors closed. “What goes on behind closed doors…” was an opened-ended sentence my mother loved to leave hanging in the air.

The first time I saw him, I was sitting on the small ledge outside my window, smoking. It was a precarious ledge – only about a foot wide. A little miscalculation and I would go flying through the air ten storeys down. But that was part of the charm for me. Many a day was spent on that ledge, imagining what it would feel like to go hurtling through the air, no way to go but down. How long would it take? Would time stand still as I flashed back to my past and pictured every friend, every lover I had ever had? Or would it be over in a flash? Would it hurt? I used to look down at the concrete pavement and imagine my skull cracked open and people gathering around my lifeless body.

I had been enjoying an hour of listening to The Doors. I loved Jim Morrison. My friends and I had been planning a road trip to Los Angeles. I had heard that the man living in his old dorm room at UCLA had been letting people visit his room for a fee. I wondered if his room had a ledge like mine. I imagined him sitting on that ledge, the sharp L.A. sun blinding him as he thought of songs. I wondered how he came up with his songs.

A glint caught my eye and I peered down through the gap between my feet at the ground. A small puddle of water had gathered on the pavement underneath. I wanted to crane my neck to see what was dripping, but some kind of self-preservative instinct didn’t let me. So I busied myself instead by staring at the slow, ripples spreading out evenly, only to be disturbed by the next drop, and then the next.

Suddenly, “Brown Eyed Girl” came on. I was briefly disappointed that The Doors hour was over. I blamed myself irrationally for a moment. I had gotten distracted from my Jim Morrison daydream so they’d stopped playing. Then I laughed at myself and continued watching the puddle, humming along with the song.

Out of nowhere, a foot stomped right in the middle of my puddle. Droplets scattered, spreading all over the pavement. I yelled out angrily, “Hey!” The foot froze. And he looked up.

Brown eyed girl. Lala la la la la la la la la lala.

He had the most beautiful brown eyes I had ever seen. A light coffee brown that when caught the sun in just the right angle, looked almost amber. I’d never seen eyes like his before. Honest, steadfast, with an infinite capacity to love. In the five seconds that I stared into his eyes, I imagined the next fifty years of my life waking up to those eyes every night.

Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the song ended. I broke eye contact and climbed back into my room, embarrassed.

Did he stay and wait for me to come back out? Did he keep walking? Does he remember that day just as clearly as I do? Does he think of me every time he listens to “Brown Eyed Girl?” Does he know me?