Always the same, the strange but hauntingly familiar ending. I swimthrough some dark subconscious sea, chasing a presence I cannot see,who eludes me. Up towards a pool of light I surface, slowly, eyesclosed, rising through all the ages of my life to emerge on a narrowcot, stretching, contorting, squeezing out the last shreds of sleep.Eyes closed, I take in the first breath of the new day, hold thevanished night back behind my eyelids, turn over on my side and reachout for her. But she’s not there.
I come back to Earth each morning in a cheap residential hotel,though for a long time I cannot tell where I am. I lie there still fora while, trying to recapture the memory, feeling the inevitable sweetsadness as it fades out and the sounds of the world fade in, as if cuedby some hand on a volume control, the cars, the construction, snatchesof conversation, even the gentle creaking of the building itself, thissquatting hulk forever shifting in its attempts to be comfortable. Thelight in the morning is nearly always the same, muted by the walls ofmy small room, covered with faded wallpaper. The old floral pattern ismerely the latest in a series of layers of paint, plaster, and morepaper, each the burial shroud of the layer before. The first layer ofpaper must have been faded even before they applied it; I cannotimagine the room any other way. I put up some clippings once, but theykept falling down and being trampled underfoot. The sole ornament onthe walls is one of these clippings, bent forward over its singleremaining loop of tape to reveal a long-expired grocery coupon on thereverse side.
There is no need to drag out the details of my morning; suffice itto say that I take my time getting up. All the other residents are goneby the time I reach the bathroom, all but those on shift work, whoremain asleep in their rooms throughout the day. I rarely see any ofthem; I know them only through the remains left behind about the sink,the strands of hair in half-a-dozen shades, empty bottles of mouthwash,toothpaste smears, lost strands of dental floss. I used to encounterthem at night in the hallway, dark shadowy presences caught for aninstant in the glare of the bathroom light who brushed past me as ifembarrassed by the call of nature. Now I don’t get up at night.
There is nothing in my room to hold me there but my cot, a suitcaseto hold my clothes and a box of papers. I can usually make it out towatch the noontime traffic, which in my neighbourhood consistsstrangely enough of children on their lunch breaks. Children sometimessay hello when you smile at them; adults almost never do. I try to walkin the opposite direction from which they seem to be coming, to see asmany of them as I can, and to get some exercise. Things quieten downonce they go back to school. In the early fall, this time is adangerous one; mired in the heat of the day, it is all too easy to finda shaded spot and take a quiet nap. But my afternoon sleep isdreamless, and it robs me of precious moments at night.
So instead I go to the library. There is a small branch about a mileaway, staffed not by old ladies in granny glasses but young matrons,mothers and consumers all, strong and full of pride. The first time Iwalked in they were horrified. I selected a book and found a smalltable back in the stacks where I would not be disturbed, but they keptcoming around on the pretext of straightening the books, as though theyexpected me to be curled up on the floor with a bottle. They still donot like me, but they have grown used to me.
It is at these times that she is furthest from me. I put down mybook periodically and think of her, try to remember. When I close myeyes to rest them I can almost see her face. There is a scent abouther, not something manufactured, something out of a bottle, but a scentfresh and clean, like that of newly-mown fields in the early morning,in the country. There is no country anywhere near here, but I rememberthat from my childhood, and pursue it nightly. I wish I could say thatI come closer every night, but it is not true. When I grow tooconfident I do badly in the race. That’s why daydreaming is bad; thereI can direct the course of events, and I come to expect too much.
The library remains almost deserted, until the silence is broken bythe voices of the kids. Sometimes I go outside and sit on the curb, andwatch the high-school girls run by, flashing their young pretty legs,tossing their hair like spirited mares. I can’t do this too often, as Iknow someone will complain. I don’t mean anything by it; I watcheverybody. There is never quiet in the city; the closest it comesduring the day is in the late afternoon, with only a few noisy childrenforegoing the pleasures of after-school TV to hang around theschoolyards. I could walk over and catch the workday traffic, butinstead I go out to where the industrial parks begin, to the west. Bythe time I get there the workers have gone home, and the warehouses arecasting oblique shadows on the streets, oddly clean, with only theoccasional crumpled cigarette pack or fragment of newspaper. Walkingthrough these desolate stretches I feel her starting to return, as theday slides downhill into twilight.
There is food, of sorts, though I don’t require much these days. Ifmy meagre funds can stand it, a bowl of chili at a nearby eatery.There’s a diner in the next block that has a bottomless cup of coffee;I know it’s not very nutritious, but it’s a good way to waste time, andthey have real cream. I can sit there writing and no one will ask me toleave. One of the waitresses there has offered to lend me a hot plate,but I’m not sure it’s such a good idea. Some days the only thing thatcan get me out of my room is hunger. If I could cook in my room I mightnot leave it for weeks at a time.
In the evening the streets come alive; everyone is out parading withspouses and lovers, cruising in old cars, sitting on their porches andcalling out greetings to friends. Through this all I pass, unnoticed byall, ambling up and down the city blocks, always watching. Sometimes Isee a smile or a tilt of the head that reminds me of her. Is it wrongof me to conjure her up? She is as real to me as any of these people,only more elusive. All of them have hopes; they must, or there would beno point in living. They know that they are not likely to go anywhere,that this will be the extent of their lives, these supermarkets andbars. But does it matter whether or not our hopes are in vain? I’m notbeing cynical about any of this. I believe in love, still. I believe inher.
My nights are now longer than my days; it is not long before Ireturn to my room. The window has been left shut and the sun comingthrough has heated the air. Heat makes for better dreams. I file theday’s scribblings, put my clothes away, turn out the light and slide inunderneath the blankets. Perhaps tomorrow when I wake she will bethere. And if not, no matter; I’m not impatient. I have all the time inthe world. I relax; the sounds from the street start to fade, I senseher again. The night wraps itself around me like a magical cloak. Andup again I go, into that strange but familiar world, pursuing afleeting presence, a beckoning laugh, a girl running just out of reach,and all about me is the wind and the mist and the scent of the fields.