(missed the last chapter? Go to 46: Splitting in Two)
IN THE DREAM I remember the musician’s name—Branson.
We’re in the painting. Branson, John, and me. Both men stand naked and erect, staring down at me with flat expressions. They look impossibly tall, until I realize that I’m flat on my back, unable to move anything except my head.
I look down at my naked body and see vines like manacles holding me spread eagle on the ground. One vine runs like an IV into my arm, dripping a milky white sap into my veins.
Neither of men touch me. Instead they begin half-chanting, half-singing a haunting, erotic song. Their voices weave and twine together. I shut my eyes. I want it to stop but, instead, I moan and writhe, straining against the vines, climaxing against my will again and again. I open my eyes to see a thick vine thrusting in and out of me. I scream and wake myself. My body still pulsates from the orgasms.
In the dark sky outside my window, a distant streetlight strains through the branches of the oak. The light forms patterns on the walls and ceiling. Rose-faces twist and float above me like moons reflected in a muddy river.
I snap on the bedside lamp. Wild-eyed, I survey the room, as if John or Branson might be lurking.
I see only the dresser, locked medicine cabinet, bedside table. Since I’ve been “making progress,” I’ve been allowed the luxuries of a lamp and a digital clock, which now reads 5:24 a.m. Beside it sits the stack of family photos.
The top photo is the one of Uncle John, playing tennis. I rub my face with both hands, trying to orient myself. Okay. So I had a sex dream about my uncle. Hardly a comfortable thought, but sex dreams about inappropriate people are within the bounds of normal psychology. How do I know that? Again, I wonder if I worked in the medical field. Was I a therapist or some kind of counselor? The idea clicks into place with a sense of rightness. A counselor. If it’s true, it means I’m not a total fuck up. I had, at least, tried to help others.
Images from the dream coat my mind, sticky as the white sap that dripped from the vines. The chanted song. The flat, inhuman looks both John and Branson wore. The vine working its way in and out of me. It feels like a warning. You know very well who he is. My head pounds and I shove the thought away.
I want to bury myself under the pillows and drift in the haze between sleep and wake, let the grown-ups figure things out. Dad’s dead. My mother’s schizophrenic. Dorothy’s in rehab. Uncle John is…. My eyes snap open. I have to be the grown-up.
Wanda arrives to give me my meds around 8:00 a.m., so that gives me a couple hours of privacy. I heave myself off the bed, headache be damned, and head for the bathroom.
In the shower, I alternate the hot and cold water until the thick sludge in my brain begins to recede. After, I wrap myself in the robe hanging on the back of the door and blow-dry my hair, brushing until it hangs straight and glossy. The tranquilizers leave me with an expanded, fuzzy feeling, as if my head is bobbing above my body like a helium balloon. But this is as good as it is going to get.
Back in the bedroom, I rifle through the dresser trying to something that isn’t by Lily Pulitzer or a Talbot’s summer collection of country club pinks. I find underwear, thick socks, navy blue yoga pants and a white camisole, but I can’t find a top that doesn’t look like a garden riot.
My eyes wander toward the closet. In all the days since I’d “woken up,” I haven’t gone in there¾even that night when the terror of vines sent me scrambling, desperate for a place to hide. Something about the closet repels me. Just thinking about it makes me feel me itchy.
“Time to face the monsters in the closet,” I mutter. But it doesn’t feel like a joke.
I gaze down at the fading wound on my arm. Earlier this week, the scar had been red and angry. Now it’s just a thin, pink line.
It seems to be healing bizarrely fast. Has it been longer than a week since I woke up? Was the cut more superficial than I’d realized?
I’m stalling. Wasting precious time before Wanda’s arrival.
Before I can change my mind, I yank the door open. On one side: expensive-looking blouses, dresses and pantsuits, again all florals and pinks. On the other: men’s slacks, suits and button-down shirts in classic greys, navies and blacks. My heart flutters loose and irregular.
Still clutching the doorknob, I turn away, only to be assaulted by the swath of sheet, white as a rib, floating against the grey walls. Feeling claustrophobic, I stand in the doorway. It’s just a painting, just a closet. But whose clothes are those?
I remember a metric about the obvious answer usually being correct. The obvious answer is that the women’s clothes belong to me. I want to think that Wanda or someone else replaced my old clothes, but they aren’t new, and they match the ones in the dresser.
On the current scale of strange revelations, the possibility that I adore pinks and floral prints would seem to rank pretty low, except that all the things I don’t know are taking on a cumulative effect. Even small disconnects have the power to incite heart-pounding anxiety.
And then there’s the painting. Someone created the abomination and hung it above my bed like a billboard. With or without my consent—it doesn’t matter. The person I am today loathes that painting. Is it possible that my breakdown has caused a personality shift? That I’m being assaulted by a past version of myself?
Goosebumps prickle my bare arms, and I shiver. If pinks are what I have, pink it will be. I grab a thick paisley sweater from the dresser and pull it on. I glance at the closet door and the question closes in on me again¾encircling vines, dangerous as barbed wire. Whose clothes hang opposite mine?
We’ll sell the houses to get you out of debt. John’s disembodied voice floats through my head. So maybe these are John’s clothes, stored here temporarily. Simple.
Deciding I have nothing more to learn from the bedroom, I tiptoe down the hall and into the front room. Pale green walls and aqua retro furniture, bookshelves lined with DVDs of Noir films, and a TV on the wall across from the couch. Beautifully framed movie posters from The Lady Vanishes and Chinatown that look old enough to be originals. Intricately made wind-up toys line the top of the bookshelf—a mechanical monkey, an ostrich, a robot, and an adorably hideous chthulu. I wind it up and watch its tentacles wave.
The room is charming. But, at the same time, the charm feels calculated¾like a magazine photo. Where are the messy details that give away the truth of a life?
In the hall, a desk sits in front of a long window. I open a drawer with hanging files and rifle through old bills, tax returns. I discover that my given name is, indeed, Legacy. That I’d worked for several schools over the past couple of years—was I a teacher, then? That I owe $37,450 in student loans. The other drawers yield only office supplies, a cell phone charger (but no phone), and a few notebooks, all blank. I can see impressions on one of the pages, as if the previous page had been written on, then removed.
I grab a pencil and lightly shade over the impression. 10:30 am, Dr. Ha … something, Hand? Hall? The migraines … n’t problem. Voices. Voices. Easy to make that one out—the word was written twice, hard. And the two “voices” have been doodled around with spiky lines and stars. Drinking. Underlined. Medication?
I try to decode the palimpsests of a few more pages, but only come up with banal words and phrases. As dawn breaks, I prop my chin on my hands and stare out the window at the brick rowhouses on the opposite side of the street. That’s when I notice the stack of books lined up in the deep windowsill, partially hidden by the desk. Among them, a black leather photo album.
I flip it open. On the first page is an 8×10 photo of John and me. I don’t recognize the location, but it looks like it might be the outdoor patio of a restaurant, with dark wood, leafy plants and a fountain in the background. We’re dressed up. John in an iridescent gray silk shirt that brings out his strikingly light eyes. I wear a pink sheath dress and pearls. John’s arm is around me; his hand rests lightly on my shoulder. Both of us beaming.
I flip the page and scrutinize the snapshots of a crowd. John and I are in most every shot, surrounded by beautiful people. Could it have been my graduation from college? Dorothy and Dad are there, too, sitting together at a table.
On the next page, John and I stand at the head of a table. All around us, people I don’t recognize raise their glasses to toast.
I flip the page again. I am there, in a white lacy dress with a bouquet of pink roses. And the next page: my father walking me down the aisle. And the next: John in his tux, waits at the front of the church, smiling.