On Waking Up

This is a very peculiar dream.

He’s ready to wake up.

+++

Luke remembers being six years old very clearly: there’s a moment frozen like a snapshot in his head so that the scene (clear and cold, a sunny winter’s day, with pale light that comes in through the kitchen windows and spreads against the white plaster walls, the smell of bacon frying) and the people (his mother with her pale frizzy hair; his father with his small dark eyes; his sister whose smile he could never quite mirror) and the event (his mouth on Gabrielle’s ear, open and sloppy with the threat of teeth as she squeals and pushes at him and giggles, ‘Nooooooo, Lukey’s gross! Ewwww!’) are crystal clear. He remembers it like he remembers his name: a Fact in his life, unchanging.

There are many Facts in Luke’s life. His mother prefers late nights and hates early mornings. He is blond with blue eyes. His sister smells like lilies and small nameless flowers. The neighbor’s dog is fat and stupid and barks at them in their own yard. His sister picks the trumpet to play because it is their father’s favorite instrument. He is twelve years old when his parents decide they have fallen out of love and his mother leaves the house, taking him with her. His sister Gabrielle stays with their father and watches them drive away, the skirt of her white sundress fluttering around her skinny legs.

He writes to her as soon as he can, perched on a still-taped box and resting the paper on his knee. The pencil jabs through the paper a few times; when he’s done, there’s a constellation of small red dots on his thigh. He holds the paper up to the window and peers through the holes left in the paper, but all he sees through them are the blank white walls of the new apartment.

“Gabrielle,” he writes, “The new place is very strange. I do not think I can call it home yet. Mom says it will happen someday. I don’t think I believe her. Please write back. It is very strange that you are not here. Luke.”

Mom gives him a stamp and watches as he stretches onto his toes to tip his letter into the blue postal box; she has a cigarette that is nearly down to its filter and exhales thin sharp-smelling smoke, and she says, “Don’t expect too much from them, Lukey. You’ll just be disappointed.”

Luke stares at the box, with its faded chipped label and round squat shape. He imagines the mailman showing up right then and there, shuffling through the piles of letters that must be inside, and smiling at him and handing him an envelope of his own. “It’s from a very pretty girl,” he’ll say. “I bet a handsome boy like you must miss her very much,” and, “Yes,” Luke will reply, “I do, more than anything.”

When it doesn’t happen, he follows his mother back to their new apartment, a long hallway with rooms branching off on either side, ending in a lopsided bulb that’s supposed to be the living room. That night he lies on his stomach with his face in his pillow and breathes in a ghostly, lingering scent of lilies. Though he is not allergic, it makes his throat hurt.

Nearly a month later, a letter with his name on it arrives. Gabrielle’s handwriting is neat but cramped, so she fills the page with a lot more than Luke managed, and there are no holes poked into the paper. He presses it against his nose and breathes in so hard that his lungs ache. He thinks he can smell lilies.

“Lukey,” she writes, “It is very strange without you here, too. I waited outside the bathroom for a long time every morning for a whole week, before I remembered Mom wasn’t inside. The dog next door still barks when it’s just me, but I think he is confused too. I have been practicing very hard with the trumpet and sometimes it makes Daddy smile. I think he misses Mom even though he doesn’t want to say so. I miss Mom too. And you. I hope you come back here soon. Gabrielle.”

Immediately he goes to write her back. He has a proper desk set up now, so he doesn’t have to worry about jabbing himself with the pencil or poking through the paper. He thinks of what to write: he could tell her about the new Facts in his life (there is no fat and stupid neighbor’s dog, but there is a mean and noisy neighbor man who stares through him at his mother; he has put up posters to cover the bare white walls and is thinking about starting the violin, or maybe theater; he misses her more than he misses his father) that have replaced the old, but instead he writes: “I bet that dog is just jealous of how much nicer our yard is. If it tries to invade, hit it with a stick to drive it back. Mom has a job that means she sleeps during the day and works at night. I think she likes it better than what she had before. I don’t think she misses Dad at all.”

He sleeps with the letter under his pillow, but all he dreams of are gray skies and heavy clouds pregnant with rain, and the hungry watchful impatience of waiting. Right before dawn, he dreams of a soft white light moving in the west – and as he reaches for it, ready to brush it with his fingers, he wakes.

Luke mails the letter on his way to school. He imagines Gabrielle receiving it and unfolding it with care, smiling at the sight of his name. The autumn is very warm, so she must still be wearing those light sundresses she favors. Her knees are probably sunburned pink. He imagines the mailman again, but now he thinks he would be angry if this stranger made comments about a pretty girl he doesn’t know.

The newest Fact of Luke’s life becomes Gabrielle’s letters – once a month, and he always replies right away -they grow slowly longer as she gets used to writing to him. She tells him how she and their father are adapting to life on their own (it takes him over a year to start seeing someone new, and Luke meets her briefly when he visits – a nice, plain, dark-haired woman named Mary, who is the opposite in nearly every way of their pale loud angry mother), about her improvement with the trumpet, how she has become a star player in her school’s band. She sends him a picture once a year: her yearbook photo, where she is brushed and dressed up and smiles blankly at a spot over the cameraman’s shoulder. The pictures smell like laminate paper, nothing like flowers at all, but Luke saves them anyway. And he writes back, religiously, dedicatedly, as soon as he gets the letters, though he always sleeps on them first.

(His dreams never change: the nervous anticipation of rain and waiting, and the light that he strains for and can never quite touch.)

Years pass in this pattern. Luke starts to forget the smell of lilies as they are caught in Gabrielle’s hair – their weekend visits are never long enough for him to memorize it again, not when he’s busy listening to her talk, watching her play, cataloging what is different about her rather than what has stayed the same.

When he is eighteen, he is tall and broad-shouldered; he is still blond and blue-eyed, and there are girls who glance at him sidelong and giggle to their friends when they think he isn’t looking. He plays the violin and he plays football, and the two put together has caused more than one person to give him a surprised double-take. The first girl he dates is the first girl he kisses on the mouth, and she is slim and pretty with a waist that curves gracefully under his hands. He likes her because she has long pale hair and favors white dresses and flower perfume. She likes him, he presumes, because he is handsome and strong and can lift her without much effort.

“She likes it when we go driving,” he writes to Gabrielle, “I think she likes it better than when we go to her house or mine, even when Mom’s at work.”

“You’re very charming,” she writes back, a month later, after he has kissed two other girls and has settled for the time being with a third. “You always have been. Don’t break her heart too much.”

“You like it when I’m charming,” he writes back; it is all he allows himself, and after that he changes the subject to music, asking after her trumpet, telling her about his violin. He buys his girlfriend – because he supposes that is what she is, at this point – lily-of-the-valley perfume, which she first wears too strongly, and then stops using altogether. When Gabrielle’s next letter comes, he is single again, and he tells her as much: “I may be charming, but not for very long. You and Mom are the only two women who stick around.”

That, though, is becoming less true: his mother, who was already thin when he was young, has become stick-thin, and nocturnal: she has fever-bright eyes when he does see her. Her fingers tremble when she tries to light her cigarettes, and she takes to heavy eye-makeup to cover the deep bruised shadows on her face. She tells him how tired she is, how much she just wants to lie down and sleep forever, god she hates working, fuck that noise, did he have to eat so damn much, did he always have to need so much, school’s a privilege and not a right, Lukey, god. She spits these without really looking at him, holding a cigarette loosely by her mouth without ever setting it to her lips; they burn down and get stubbed out in shaky succession. Luke is fairly certain she hasn’t seen him in years, not since he grew up with his father’s strong nose and jaw and casual arrogant grace.

“Sometimes I don’t know why I bother,” she says once, lying sprawled across the couch with an arm over her eyes as he gets ready for school. “It’s all such a pain. I don’t even know what I’m working for. Lukey, just take it from me: don’t bother trying. Nothing’s worth it.”

He looks at her, thin and shivering without a blanket, her shirt riding up high over her stomach, an ashtray overflowing with unsmoked butts near her trailing hand. He imagines his father looking at her as well, with his solemn little dark eyes, his mouth twisting this way and that under his heavy mustache until he would finally say, “Lilian, you’ve made such a mess of everything. What were you even thinking?” and then his mother would say, “Oh shut up, as if you did any better for yourself.” And she wouldn’t move until his father left, and when Luke blinks away the fantasy, it is just him and just her, and she doesn’t even move as he picks up his backpack and walks out of the apartment.

“Mom is pretty sick,” he writes Gabrielle shortly after, on a clear winter morning, just like that day years ago. “I guess she’s been working too hard. I’ve got a part-time job of my own, now, because she sleeps more than she works. You should come visit. I think she’d like that.”

A month later, Gabrielle writes him back, and her letter arrives on a sleeting unpleasant morning. “I’ll come,” she says. “For Christmas holidays. Mary is coming over, so Daddy won’t be alone. Will you come get me?”

Luke does. He takes the car early in the morning and drives the hour and a half it takes to get him to his childhood home. He knocks twice at the door and keeps his hands warm in his pockets as he waits. Gabrielle is the one who answers, sleepy-eyed, her hair in a tumbled disarray. She pulls back in startled surprise at the sight of him, one hand flying to her mouth.

“Lukey?”

“Gabrielle,” he says. He smiles as widely and charmingly as he can. “Want to come see Mom?”

“I–what? Right now? Lukey, I can’t–” She pulls further away from the door, and her small white hands flutter nervously. They have long graceful fingers. He thinks they would have been better-suited for the violin, like him, or the piano – not the trumpet, it’s such a crass and graceless instrument. “Lukey, why are you here?”

He shrugs. He doesn’t take his hands from his pockets. “You said you wanted to see Mom,” he says. “It’s the weekend. When’s a better time than now?”

“I said I’d come for the holidays,” she says. She has moved to half-close the door, like it could stand as a barrier between the two of them. Her frown is a graceful downward slash of her mouth. “I’ve got plans, Lukey, I’m sorry. You should have called first, then you wouldn’t have had to come all this way.” She starts to close the door the whole way, and Luke’s hand moves fast, catching the edge of it and leaning his weight against it, watching surprise flicker through Gabrielle’s pretty eyes before it is replaced by wariness.

“Lukey, please,” she says. Her voice is soft, almost gentle. “I promise I’ll come for Christmas. Isn’t that enough?”

He reaches out with his free hand. He takes her chin in thumb and forefinger. The skin under his fingers is softer than anything else he’s ever felt, and he can’t quite help himself: he pinches and pinches until the skin goes red, then white, and Gabrielle swats his hand off with surprising strength and pulls away. “Lukey–”

“I miss you,” he says. He has never actually said these words to her before, not when they meet, not when he writes to her, not during their sporadic phone calls. He puts all of his sincerity into it and sees her eyes go wide. There is a red spot on her chin now. It is the exact shape and size as his thumb. “I want to see you, Gabrielle. How about that?”

“Lukey,” she says softly, then, “Luke. I really do have plans today.”

“Plans can change,” he says. He wants to reach out for her again; his fingers itch with the desire. “And I’m already here.”

“I’m going shopping with Mary today,” she says, like that’s a proper excuse. When he continues to look at her, steadily, waiting, she says, “You have to bring me back before two.”

He holds out his hand to her and he smiles – charmingly, as she has always put it – “I promise,” he says. She stares at his hand like she expects it to grab at her too roughly again, but then takes it anyway, her fingers curling gently into his; and something in his stomach thrills. She steps over the threshold, beautiful in her messy hair and hastily-donned clothing, warm and smelling of lilies. Luke takes a deep breath when her side brushes against him, and there is something that is delicately, hesitantly happy that unfurls in his chest. He thinks about putting his nose in her hair, but she turns her head and he sees the mark on her chin, and so he stops himself. He leads her to the car, opening the door for her (she looks at him so strangely at that, her rosebud mouth pursed and her head tilted to one side, like the concept is completely alien to her) and waiting for her to slide in before he closes it. Luke looks at her, delicate and pretty in the passenger seat, and can’t help but smile.

He gets in, and he drives. They don’t talk. Luke thinks it’s a comfortable silence, because every time he glances at Gabrielle, quiet and thoughtful, he can’t help but smile. The few times she catches him, she smiles back – more quietly, subdued, gentle. It’s like her, so very like the lovely thoughtful woman she has grown up to become, and Luke is pleased. Part of him wants to never stop driving – past his little apartment, down the highway and on forever.

He pulls into the parking lot, and as Gabrielle fumbles with her seat belt, he skips over to the other side to open the door for her. She gives him that same odd look as before, but she steps out and tugs at her shirt, looking around the dimly lit parking lot. She hugs her elbows. It makes her look small, and he wants to put his arm over her shoulders. Instead, he says, “This way,” and walks ahead, listening to her footsteps behind him. He wants to turn to see her, but he forces himself to keep walking instead.

Luke opens the door. Gabrielle makes a small noise. Her feet make a squeaking noise as she jumps back.

“It’s all right,” he says. He turns then, and grabs her arm before she can pull even further from him. “Don’t be afraid.”

“Lukey,” she whispers, her voice quavering. She looks at him with huge shaking eyes. When he tugs on her wrist she digs her heels into the pavement, so he has to pull, harder than he would like – the bones of her wrist are so small, and his hand is so large – to force her into the apartment. “Lukey, oh my god, what did you do?”

“Don’t worry about Mom,” he says. “I told you, she was sick.”

Gabrielle won’t even look at her, splayed out on the couch where she is – ah, he thinks, the blanket’s slipped off. No wonder Gabrielle is upset. He closes the door and locks it; he goes back to the couch and he adjusts the blanket over the awkward bend in their mother’s neck. She looks better, he thinks. More rested. Now maybe she’ll get enough sleep.

He turns back to Gabrielle. She has moved so that her back is to the wall, still hugging her elbows. He moves towards her, opening his arms. “Gabrielle,” he says.

“Don’t,” she says. “Don’t, I don’t – I’m leaving, Lukey, I’m sorry, this isn’t–”

“Gabrielle, I love you,” he says. He smiles as widely as he can, as charmingly as he can, but her expression doesn’t change from wide-eyed fear. “I know it’s been a long time, but I’ve always loved you. We always used to be together, right? And then I had to leave, but I’m ready to come back. Gabrielle–”

“No,” she says. “No, no, no, Luke–Lukey, I don’t want to–”

He lunges. He is fast and he is practiced; he has played football for five years. He brackets her with his arms and leans close. She smells of lilies, so cleanly and strongly, and he gives into the impulse and presses his face against her. He brings his arms around her and marvels at how small she is. It makes him happy, in a fragile, tentative way, so he holds her closer and breathes her name again. It is like the entire fabric of his life is being rewritten into something brand-new. There are Facts he has never even dreamed of now, cataloged and filed away to remember forever.

He is nineteen years old. He will graduate in four months. His sister smells like lilies and her hair is soft as kitten-fur. She fits more perfectly in his arm than any other girl he’s kissed, her head tucked neatly beneath his chin. Something in the weight and build of her makes him think of willow trees, bending and yielding to the weight of him curled against her.

“Lukey,” she protests. “Lukey, stop it, this isn’t good – this is sick, what did you do to Mom? Let me go!”

Luke bends at the knees a little. He hooks an arm under her knees and lifts her, and oh, he’s glad to have this Fact in his life: that Gabrielle is as light as she looks, like dandelion fluff, the smell of lilies in his nose. He carries her to his bedroom, and though she protests, No, Lukey, no, this isn’t right, no, she doesn’t actually fight him; she hangs in his arms limply. He thinks that this means she must be all right with it: his sister is a good girl. She has to protest for someone’s ears, even if he knows the truth.

He puts her down on his bed and looks at her. “I’m glad you’re here,” he says. “I love you.”

He leans down.

When he lifts his head again, Gabrielle stares at him with dark wet eyes. She whispers, “I wish you wouldn’t.”

“It’ll be all right,” he promises. He thinks of the mailmen he’s imagined over the years, of his father’s dark eyes and the scowl on his mother’s face. “This is just how things were supposed to be.” He runs his fingers down her cheek, and he says, “Gabrielle, I love you.”

Her face twists at that. It becomes the saddest thing he’s ever seen. “I loved you, Lukey,” she says.

Her hand moves. Luke turns his head to watch as she yanks up his bedside table lamp and smashes it across his face.

+++

In his dreams, it’s raining. He turns his face upwards, squinting against the downpour, mouth open. There are puddles forming around his feet. He opens his arms and breathes in air and water and he knows there is something very wrong. Though he strains and turns in a full circle, cupping his hands over his eyes to shield them as best he can, he sees no light anywhere.

It’s a very peculiar dream.

He’s ready to wake up.

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