When she closes her eyes these days, there is just dream after dream of floating. The water so thick with salt that she need not make any effort, she is held. A hand on her thigh, warm and heavy, such comfort. The sun above her, water warm too, a basket of blankets to float in. Far off is the cliffside and there is the building, so much having happened there. It hovers above the sea full of memories, all rustling about in the floorboards. She’s been gone so long though in her floating, never tired, never rested, never tomorrow, never today. Flute music bounds through the little waves that splash against her cheeks, and there’s an underwater sound of dripping. She lifts her head, the dripping much sharper in sound in the air. But enfolded in water, the dripping’s an echo; harmonium in a minor key, the sound so sad and lovely.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Jonas,” Elsa says. “I was distracted by this song that’s been stuck in my head. I hear it each night in my cell, like someone is playing it just for me. It was choppy at first, but it’s smoother now, and quite lovely. It brings me back to the softer places I’ve ever been. Like the orchard at night, waiting for him to come to me, right on time, just as I ordered.” Dr. Jonas nods, accepting.
“It’s fine, Elsa, don’t worry. We have all the time in the world.” She smiles.
“All of it?”
“Of course,” he says, “who else could it belong to?” She ponders his question for a moment, the pages turning back and forth in the breeze: the wind licking their ankles, the dust on their toes; his little cheeks bright and red from exertion, his hair slightly damp beneath the blue sunbonnet. He points at the map with a tiny, fat finger. It’s got to be this way, Elsa, he says, for the birds were all flying east when I had that thought. She smiles at him, her joy overflowing. He remembers all the things she says to him and remembers, as well, all the things they’ve ever done. She thinks of the things they’ll still do, as the road winds away from one ending and on toward the next beginning—after the dust has settled, the pain mostly forgotten. Or mourned in small intervals with the sun setting slow on the ocean at the beach they once walked; all the words they spoke there buried now in the sand—bits of seashell, which once she would hold to her ear. “Anyhow, I don’t believe you, Jonas,” going back to a previous thread, the tapestry woven from so many angles. “Or perhaps I should say that I disagree with you, because I know one person who is. When his arm is around my neck and his head on my shoulder, he is perfect then. And perfect at other times, too.”
“Here we are, Elsa,” says the old woman, having shown her down the hall to her room. “Does this look familiar, dear?”
“Yes,” says Elsa, though she is slow to feel certain. Four walls erected to meet the ceiling, indeed, that does seem familiar to her. In the far corner a trunk: smooth wood, once knotted; the patterns of the knots such soft spirals now, like their bodies coiling round her limbs. Suddenly she remembers, the room now echoing with all the sounds they shared together. His voice deeper, then an exhale; he rests his face against her back. She brings his thick fingers in hers to her lips, their breathings both heavy, a tune all their own. She stands still and listens, her fingertips gently on the cold cement wall, feels more of it coming back to her. Across the room she sees him, brown hair floppy and his wrinkled white coat. She looks down at her hospital gown, which is smooth and wrinkle free, thick with starch, unyielding.
The courtyard so still and quiet with the heat almost audible, cracking the stone, so dry. He sits on the bench, the heavy almanac open on his lap, absorbed in the facts and the secrets of disease. She clutches her notebook tightly to her chest as her footsteps announce her presence, the sun hot on her shoulders, the sky a light, bright blue above them. She looks furtively over at him as she sits on the bench, opposite end, and yes, he has looked up. Not too absorbed after all, perhaps because he already knows it, just reviewing, a way to fill the space and time.
“Hi,” she says, a brave and courageous girl, her training was not for nothing. “I’m Elsa. I think we’re in the same class; I see you at all the assemblies.” He nods, his eyes brown and a smile on his lips.
“I see you too,” he says.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it then,” says the old woman, and she too feels familiar to Elsa—to her gaze at least. She closes the door behind her, and then all is dark. There is no sound, not even a rustling. The floor is smooth and chilled, a pleasure for her hot, callused feet. She walks with her arms out in front of her, groping, til the trunk bumps against her timid fingertips, the wood threatening splinters no more— the fangs all removed many years ago; an experiment at the medical center, a daring endeavor.
Her heart stops its beating, if just for a moment, the breath all gone from her body. His words in her ears: still repeating, an echo down a long dark corridor. She smiles at each reverberation touching her ribcage.
“I have to go now, though,” he gets up from the bench and, standing, explains: “study group, you know. Insomnia, other sleeping disorders.” She nods to him, her words still galavanting with her breath as she watches him go. The heavy almanac in one hand, he looks back at her from the doorway. Then he disappears from the light of the bright sky, and her heart slow to beat again, the words ringing.I see you too.
Dr. Jonas wanders his cabin by the lake, taps his finger absentmindedly against the spines of musty old books, neatly arranged on the shelves, floor to ceiling. The one she last read fully closed now, both covers hugging their pages between. He sits in the circular chair by the fireplace, the window and the lake beyond it. He holds it on his lap, traces its title with a finger. The title’s no comfort really, but his mind is elsewhere, anyhow, swimming around in the pages she read to him, the pages he read while she slept. He doesn’t dare open it or try to find the page now, for he’ll have to read all the others just to get there—a feat he’s not ready to try. But he remembers it anyhow, clear as day, her voice like sandpaper scraping the walls clean—wallpaper long gone, dark blues and greens in place now. The book on his lap, he closes his eyes, reads the scene in which she reads the scene to him:
Elsa stops twirling and realizes she has been. She takes a seat in the circular chair by the French doors, gazing out at the veranda, at the moonlight that rolls very quietly through the orchard. The trees are all shimmering, wearing silver—at a ball and they’ve something to celebrate.But celebrate what? Elsa wonders. There is no answer from the orchard, where the breeze is the music swaying branches back and forth in tune. It’s just everything so bright, the moon all dressed in silver, too. She has a thought and gets up from the chair, walks over to the nook beside the piano where she keeps her precious things, a box with hinges. Inside it is the bracelet he gave her, shaped like the waves, like the sea they both loved, carved from silver. She puts it on her wrist, returns to her chair close to the French doors, taps a foot in tune to the music.
“This,” says Elsa, “is something I remember from long ago. But how funny, it never rains here. It really never does,” she says, her roommate still dumbfounded at the window. Off goes Elsa once more, down the ladder, a flurry of activity to match the motion in the sky, water falling fast in front of them. “This is beautiful, I’ve got to go find Jonas,” she says.
He’s by the window, as she expects him to be, when she bursts in, her hospital gown barely on, the little strings not designed for such running. He turns to her, some rain on his face, but she shakes her head at him.
“No, this is good. Come,” she takes his hand. Down the hallway, toward the courtyard, the drops on their heads, a pounding sound, like fists, but gentle—a steady drumming. With no tears now, he spins the girl around in the rain, pulls her close, her back against his chest. A pause: her three gray hairs so close to his nose, but for a moment.
“Did you feel that?” the girl asks. “Fifteen years from now. You can tell from the way the sun hits the ground.” The courtyard slowly rinsing, no sounds from the medical center, the students all surely confused. But with her therapist, at last, a real breakthrough. “Come,” she says, “let’s go even further. A dance in the rain on the cliffside.” No limits today, he smiles.
“Why not?” he says, “the time is now, I guess, for such fanciful things as that.” He knows a shortcut: through this doorway, up this hallway, it breaks like a wave into the open. Hand in hand, they laugh and twirl, his linen pants drenched, sticking to him. She’s seen it all, plus how he ages, but now is where they are right now, plus or minus fifteen years, all contained within, just spinning around on the cliffside.
By the window as she taps her foot, the silver of her bracelet catches the light of the moon and dances, and soon she is up and through the French doors, then twirling down onto the grass. The wind in the branches of the olive trees somewhat eerie, but also romantic, as most things are in this orchard. There have been others, dancing together and—in the sunlight, his brown skin and her purple dress—Elsa can see them clearly, as if they just twirled past. But they are dancing in their far-off house, she knows, the dripping faucet and the leak in the ceiling no match for that big old dance floor, parquet. It wasn’t what happened afterwards that mattered (Elsa remembers this from long, long ago) it was the feeling right before they collapsed in a heap laughing, all sweaty, knowing that something would happen. Elsa can feel that something dancing around with all the silver. Silver forks and silver spoons, olive branches made of silver. High above, a silver moon, spilling across the bedroom floor where they now lie, breathing slow and deep, bodies so close but worlds apart now.
Elsa is considering renovations once more. The French doors onto the veranda maybe need curtains; she can’t decide. There’s not much for people in the garden to see, anyhow. As for the near wall, a colorful, lively pattern would be nice, the piano outlined against that, like a regular old parlor. And by her trunk, a darker color. The dark is good, she has learned, for sleeping. In this dream now, her left knee hurts and she doesn’t know why. But there’s a memory of another dream, the really awful one, lurking close by in the dark—the one she can’t bring to Dr. Jonas though it’s in her mind all the time on repeat. Specifically the part where she falls to her knees as they all circle round. But she doesn’t want to talk about that, though perhaps the injury still lingers. Maybe when they start doing cartilage Dr. Janet will want to take a look. The students will practice, and during this time he will put his hand on her leg; she can feel it already:
“And then pulsate along the back of the leg with the fingers,” Dr. Janet instructs, and the boy, such a diligent student, does as he is told, his fingers warm but firm, not rough and painful, like some fingers she’s known, unwelcome but pulsating nonetheless, elsewhere. No, she’d rather not think about that. She focuses instead on his eyes, looking up at her from under his brown hair, asking: Is this okay, Elsa?
She nods, and tells him: “It only hurts a little.” And kindly, and knowledgeably, he speaks to her, his voice so soft.
“It seems you had a tear in your cartilage here, never fully healed. There are a number of ways we can help you with that.” He looks momentarily unsure of his wording, adds: “different options for treatment, if you’d like to hear them.” Elsa nods, watching him quietly. Maybe dancing is one of those ways, she thinks to herself, and she can see them dancing quite clearly, that time in the kitchen, the old screen with a hole scratched in it by the cat, the water dripping from the faucet, though she used both hands and pressed all her weight against both handles. Still the dripping remained: a metronome, a beat to count their steps to. His steps areheavy, yet graceful, and he twirls her too, in time with the music—or the faucet, whichever.
“So one of the things we could do is regular massage,” he is saying, “because you have a lot of scar tissue buildup. And we could work that out but it’s likely to be painful.” Then Dr. Janet interrupts.
“Very good, Charles,” she says. Then to the class: “Notice his bedside manner. He’s developed a real rapport with his patient, and I think it’s clear that she trusts him, has faith in him. Is that true, Elsa?” The girl looks out at the sea of white coats, some writing down notes, others just watching as the boy’s fingers knead her leg behind the knee. “I think Dr. Charles has a very good bedside manner,” she concedes, then sees his blush come up his cheeks as he quietly whispers.
“Not a doctor yet, Elsa.”
The knee very painful, but she smiles at him. “But you are.”
She passes him in the hallway on her way to see Dr. Jonas that day. He nearly bows to her, nods his head.
“How’s the knee today, Elsa?” and then as a bit of an aside, “I see you’re walking alone down the hallway.” Not so much to do with her knee, that remark, as with other things, like with leaving her cell unattended, most specifically. She nods confidently. “I’m off to see Dr. Jonas today.” She blushes only slightly, holding quietly to her secret knowledge: they’ll discuss Charles.
“A well respected doctor,” Charles says, smiling. In his nearing adulthood, he is quick to say a kind word, but somewhat formal and awkward in his regards. She looks at his ear, and at the courtyard beyond, as the adoration swells.
“Yes, he’s a very good doctor,” Elsa agrees, wanting to linger by the boy’s side forever, catching his scent as the breeze blows in from the courtyard. “And I must be on my way, for we have an appointment scheduled.” She bows back to him, quickly but graceful, a hint of humor in the gesture, and tosses her now-long hair behind a shoulder, pads off quietly on her bare feet, not looking behind but wondering, with an internal flutter, if perhaps he took notice of her ankles.
“Have you ever noticed my ankles?” Elsa asks. Dr. Jonas smiles quietly, for she’s come such a long way in her askings.
“Of course,” he nods. “We’ve run many races together, Elsa,” he says. “Three-legged races, wheelbarrow races, a couple of relays…” She cuts him off.
“How do you know me as you do, Jonas? What is this, anyway?” Her therapist chuckles, and it’s a bit like the silver glinting off treetops in the orchard, late at night, while she dances with her bracelet on. He gets up and walks over to his desk, his linen pants hardly making a sound, his bare feet leaving imprints on the carpet. He reaches into the drawer and takes out a small object.
“Have you forgotten all about this, Elsa? I think you have. Remember long ago when we used this?” he crosses the room once more, a ship sailing across the sea. Arriving in the harbor, he joins her on the red loveseat. “I think you did forget,” he says, placing the object on the girl’s knee. But she’s not so young anymore, as she brushes a long strand of hair back behind one shoulder, picks up the magnifying glass and looks at it. She looks at the man beside her, then at the instrument in her palm, and smiles with one half of her mouth.
“I see,” she says, and he rubs her back gently—a few circles, nothing more. And then playfully she holds up the glass, peers through it at his earlobe. “Here’s someplace we’ve not been in a while,” she says, “won’t you join me, Jonas?” and she presses her lips very gently against his cheek.
-- Originally from the East Coast, Phoebe Brueckner graduated from Brown University with a BA in sociology and a Weston Award in playwriting. She now lives in San Francisco and is working on her first novel and constantly photographing the beauty she finds in regular, everyday moments.