(Appeared in evernight online magazine, 2001)
In the beginning there was the black pit of righteous sleep, a dark slumber whose comfort is drawn from man-made security. At least this is her idea as the ruckus gets louder. There are voices, distant and gleeful, the tinkle of glassware, and the annoying sound of the bedroom’s ceiling fan and its incessant squeak, squeak, squeak. This, ironically, is what disturbs Celeste the most. She lies still, willing herself to wake up, but the body is sluggish; the mind, on the other hand, starts racing over the possibilities:
Number one, and most likely, it’s Marty who’s let in all the people. Although the laughter and words are muffled through the thick floor, Celeste can make out bits of their conversations: Really? You don’t say. Well, dang. Toss me that lighter. Great scarf. Vacuous talk about nothing. Marty knows better than to have people come over late at night. He’s usually a considerate houseguest. He’s quiet, clean, frequently brings muffins for breakfast, and always leaves fifteen dollars on the dresser for our trouble. He makes the two-hour drive into town once a month when there’s a party or a concert he wants to attend. Though he’s flamboyant, has a gleeful personality, a big hit with the ladies, he’s still very respectful of domestic states, and he never makes fun. Marty’s a perennial bachelor, swears he’ll never be saddled with a wife and kids, but somehow he enjoys the comforts of visiting with families.
Celeste’s second conjecture is this: her husband Nick has snuck out some time in the night and run off to a tavern. It wouldn’t be a shock, for the poor man is working himself to death trying to earn overtime money for all the things his they need. Domesticity isn’t cheap. He’s run off to tie one on, but he’ll have hell to pay if he’s dragged home a pack of barflies. Celeste has spent the last week scrubbing the house from top to bottom, and she’ll be furious if Nick’s gone and let some drunks make a wreck of the place. She gropes around on the other side of the dark bed. Nope, not a man there. She’s not surprised, really, having sensed his absence before she physically confirmed it.
The third option is that it’s a dream. Celeste sits up abruptly, like a marionette yanked to life. You see, she muses, I am moving in fact. I can’t be dreaming. The time on the digital nightstand clock is four-fourteen. She drops her legs over the side of the mattress and scratches herself for a few moments, listening to the noises downstairs. The music is on, very low. There is a sudden burst of energetic laughter from the kitchen, or maybe the hallway; it travels up the laundry chute, snaking its way to the master bedroom, and comes out tinny, hollow. Celeste feels around in the dark for her robe and slippers, wincing at the soreness in her muscles. She’s been cleaning house.
Probably Nick was awakened by the noise, too, and he went down to chat with the visitors, discuss some important social thing, or maybe even throw them out. Celeste opens the bedroom door, steps into the smells and noises. She walks across the hall to her little boy’s room to check on him. He’s sleeping soundly, not a care in the world on his smooth little face, such a difference from his angry scowl at bedtime. Celeste would be quick to raise arms against anyone who disturbs him. She moves to the staircase, where she expects, and finds, some people exploring upwards.
There are three of them almost to the top where she stands in wait in the darkness. Their faces register mild surprise when they come close enough to see her. She stands tall, hands crossed over her chest, and she shakes her head at them, forces a disapproving scowl. The trio shrug and turn to go back down, their festive mood unperturbed.
Celeste has never seen them before: two heavy women with garish make-up and a sickly looking, thin man. They are chatting about someone named Don and his new loft apartment downtown, how they visit him sometimes. One of the women drops a beer can from her limp hand, which lands sideways on the stair, spilling its contents.
“Geez, get some respect already,” Celeste scolds her, but the woman doesn’t respond. There is no break in their desperately intriguing conversation. Celeste marches them downstairs the rest of the way, poking them in the back, grown-up mom figure in a sea of child-like night owls. Her own audacity emboldens her. It’s time to clean house again.
Downstairs, the lights are low, but she can see that there are at least thirty people milling around her home. This ticks her off not a little. Music that she doesn’t recognize is playing lightly on the stereo, a jazzy, soulful tune, nothing Celeste owns, a foreign intrusion. She paces around the crowd, hands on her hips, frowning openly at everyone.
“Party’s over. Go home,” she orders, but no one listens. They continue to smoke their cigarettes, drink their beers and cocktails, munch on potato chips and pretzels. Celeste certainly doesn’t stock such foods, so someone must have made a convenience store run. They smile at one another lazily, lean their heads slightly back when they laugh, show their teeth. In the dim light, their skins look harsh, pale and worn. Celeste wonders if this is what she looked like five years earlier, or now.
From another room, the dining room, she is sure she hears Marty’s gregarious laugh, and she’s almost convinced she caught a glimpse of him through the doorway, but when she stomps off in that direction, he is gone. There is a void in the room, space closing in on itself where he previously stood, his essence distinct.
“Who invited you here?” Celeste demands of a man leaning against her table, a man with a face she vaguely recognizes but can’t place. He doesn’t respond, so she demand an answer again. He blinks a few moments, as if seeing this demanding woman for the first time. He answers absently that Marty invited him. Celeste studies his face, certain she’s met him sometime in the past. His sunken, tired eyes and crooked nose are very familiar. He stares back nonchalantly, glances down at Celeste’s robe, house slippers, appears undisturbed by the sight. He scratches at the side of his neck. On his arm is a roadmap of scars, deep, thick ones criss-crossing one another. There’s another scar on the side of his face, a pink, worm-like squiggle which disappears into his collar.
In the living room, a young man sits on the tapestry couch, a boy, really. Couldn’t be more than eighteen. He has long, shaggy blonde hair and a doped-out expression; his skin is sweaty. There are others sitting near him, but he is silent, oblivious to their conversation. Celeste approaches, startled, because he looks just like an old friend who killed himself years ago, a friend who made phone call after phone call out of a locked bathroom.
“Barry?” she asks him, and she lays a hand gently on his shoulder. It’s impossible. Barry has been gone for so long. The fellow doesn’t respond, continues staring straight ahead, obviously tripping, gone on some chemical. It’s just a resemblance, Celeste knows, and there is no chance this person could be Barry, but she wishes it was.
Again, she hears Marty’s voice, goes to look for it, and cannot locate him. The house smells dirty and musty from the presence of these people, and the smoke is bothering her. Celeste has had enough. The revelers are oblivious to her mounting anger; they are a typical late-night drinking and drugging crowd, and they just don’t care whose house they’re in. Why should they? She never cared when she was one of them. Their greatest fear is having to go home before the buzz is over.
“Nick?” she barks, standing alone in the middle of the living room. “Nick, where are you?” she demands. She hopes her husband is just hiding somewhere. The house is big with many rooms, and so it’s not unheard of that one could miss seeing him. Their blank expressions answer Celeste; not a one seems to know who she’s talking about. She turns the lights up, marvels at the frightening faces: pasty, overly made-up, artificially exuberant. In the butler’s pantry, Celeste finally sees someone she knows for certain. It’s Beatrice, a woman who ran in the same social circles Celeste traversed years ago. They were never really friends, but did bump into one another often enough. The woman is sitting alone, deep in her thoughts.
“Finally, a familiar face,” Celeste sighs, jocular, conspiratorial. She joins the woman at the little pantry table. The woman continues to stare straight ahead. Celeste taps her shoulder, nudges her, to get her attention.
“Oh my gosh,” Beatrice purrs once she finally focuses her eyes on Celeste. “What a surprise to see you here. Long time no see.”
“Well, actually, this is my house,” she explains, to which Beatrice simply nods, her grin consistent. “I was upstairs sleeping, and — have you seen Nick? Or Marty?”
“Oh yeah,” she sighs. “Marty’s around. We all hooked up with him tonight outside of the club. He told us he was staying here as someone’s houseguest.” Just like that. She doesn’t ask if it’s okay that they came by, or how Celeste is doing. She just nods her black-haired head, grins, and squints.
“Didn’t you move to Puerto Rico, or somewhere in South America? You were getting married to a soldier living down there, right?”
“Yeah,” Beatrice replies, “but it didn’t work out. He had a bad temper, so I had to leave.” She continues to nod dumbly long after her statement. For a few moments, Celeste weighs the value of slamming back a couple of shots, in order to communicate better, but steels herself instead. I’m a different person now, she reminds herself, and I have to get all of these people out of my house.
In a slow-motion half hour, Celeste shoves, nudges, pulls, and otherwise coerces the people into getting out. They drift past the threshold of the door unperturbed, unannoyed. They move sluggishly, like tired sheep after a long grazing. The crowd shuffles out quietly, some to their cars to drive away. Some walk down the darkened sidewalk, disappearing into the night. A few say farewell.
Finally Celeste closes and locks the door, and she is alone again. Marty and Nick are nowhere to be found. She turns off the stereo and relishes the silence; the only faint sound is the ticking of the mantle clock. The wonderful, protective house was invaded and is now a wreck, so mechanically Celeste begins to clean up the mess: glasses, ashtrays, food wrappers. There are cigarette burns in the new Oriental carpet, and a tear in Nick’s leather ottoman. Celeste is grateful that she’s left their nocturnal world behind. She sees, in a moment of lucid insight, that it’s an ugly, false world, one that makes zombies who shift aimlessly from party to party, talking senselessly about nothing, sharing few opinions, never taking a stand. It’s important to take a stand. There are homes to be had, and a family, a life, a little respect. Celeste is suddenly very tired and melancholy, so she stops her cleaning and lies down on the couch, hoping her husband or Marty return soon, and she dozes off.
When Nick shakes Celeste out of her slumber, there is a gray light in the living room; it is early morning. He looks at her wearily, sits down next to her, on the edge of the sofa.
“Are they all gone?” she asks abruptly, grabbing his wrist.
“Is who all gone?” he responds, his eyebrows furrowed in confusion. Then his face softens. He runs his fingers through his mussed hair. “You must still be dreaming.”
“No, no,” Celeste insist. “The house was full of people last night.” She struggles to sit up from out of the plush cushions, and looks around, shocked at the appearance of the home. Not a thing is out of place. Spic and span, just as she’d left it the day before. Tidy. In perfect order. She shakes her head. It couldn’t have been nothing more than a strange dream. She grasps its parts, trying to retain the vividness, trying to hold on to its magic.
“Listen, I have to tell you some bad news,” Nick starts slowly, but his wife interrupts him. Her head is still fuzzy and full of the dream, full of the party.
“Beatrice was here, too,” she proclaims. “We chatted in the pantry. She left her husband. She came back from South America.”
“You were dreaming. Don’t you remember? Her husband beat her to death.”
Celeste’s chest skin tightens, each hair follicle stands on end. She mustn’t believe him. She would never forget such a huge event. She remembers things. “I couldn’t have been dreaming. I came down here and chased everyone out. They left a mess. I cleaned only a little bit of it.”
“Then you were sleepwalking, too. You do that.” He holds his palms up at her, signaling her to cease, desist. “Listen to me. Listen. I have bad news to tell you.” Nick looks at her earnestly, and her determination to convince him trickles away. It is very, very troubling that the house is clean, that it smells clean, antiseptic.
“Honey, Marty died last night.” Nick watches for Celeste’s reaction. There is little. The dream, she fixates in her mind, the dream!
Nick explains that he got a call after three o’clock from the hospital. Marty was admitted there and barely hanging on. He’d been shot while leaving a rough nightclub. “I was glad the phone didn’t wake you. You’ve been overdoing it this week, and you were dead to the world. So I went to the hospital alone. I left you a note on the nightstand. Didn’t you see it?”
“No, I didn’t turn the light on,” she explains, and then summons emotion for Nick’s sake. “Oh, dear God, no. He’s not really gone?”
“He was dead by the time I got there,” Nick says quietly, shaking his head, and rubs his tired face. “I’ve spent the last few hours trying to get a hold of his family members.”
The coldness of the news doesn’t permeate. Marty was a wonderful person, a charmer with his social ways and boisterous personality. Everyone loved Marty. “Who shot him?” Celeste manages to ask.
“They don’t know. Maybe it was a random drive-by. I’m sure we’ll hear more later.”
“Let’s go to bed and get a little rest before baby wakes up,” she coldly suggests, catching Nick off-guard. He can’t reason with her, can’t penetrate her gauzy post-dreamworld, not tired the way he is. She can see that it’s going to be a bad day for them, in more ways than one. There is gratitude in her heart; at least that’s something. At least the dream gave her something. Nick is home and her life is intact.
They walk upstairs together, and on the way up, Nick asks about the spilled can of beer on the stairs.