Retreat

by Kathryn Brown Ramsperger

Dianna wakes up screaming. She is still mumbling to someone, holding a dream conversation. Beside her in bed, her boyfriend Danson is shaking her. She sits, dazed, in the glow of the ever-present television screen that helps Danson sleep.

“You were speaking another language,” he says. “You’re completely soaked.” He strokes her hair and clutches her tight against him. She pulls the blanket up from the bottom of the bed, pulls it up all the way over their heads. He feels her face and strokes it as though feeling for tears.

Instead of shedding tears, she begins to gasp. Her face is wet with sweat, droplets of cold seawater. Shudders run up and down the entire longitude of her body. He pulls her closer. He smells like the orchid bulbs they had been potting that afternoon, and she can smell the chlorine in her hair from her laps in the pool, their only form of exercise in the dead of winter. He brushes a wisp of hair out of her mouth, where a strand always stays.

The dream is always the same. She stands in a church; it’s someone’s wedding day. Bright white flowers line the altar, the pews, the aisle, the darkened windows. The room is dark but so white that she cannot see. She walks down the aisle, stepping over lilies and roses, sometimes smashing one underfoot. She is white too, whiter than her skin. Then just as suddenly, the aisle turns red, and she is walking on carpet. She trudges through the red to a high altar. She is cold, hot, cold again. She tries to get to the altar, but she feels a current of air pushing her back with each step.

The altar stretches up like the Tower of Babel, high into the sky, and the church is gone, opening up to a lightning-red sky. She wants to find a taxi or a phone, but all she can see is the straight line to the altar, peaking up into the infinite horizon. Panic surges through her, then the panic becomes a person, or something that looks like a person. It is almost invisible in the strong colors that surround it. It is tall and dark, with a habit and a hood.

She starts to speak and cannot understand the words that come from her mouth. She says them in a rhythm, “Boom, boom, boom, boom.” She knows they will change her, even though she does not know their meaning. She closes her eyes to blot out the harsh colors, but the words keep coming. They sear her tongue and throat.

The dark form lifts her veil. Only now does she understand that it is she who is getting married. A bolt of light and energy shoots between the form and Dianna. It burns and disables her.

“Dear God,” she prays, “don’t let it take off its hood.” Yet she knows already that it will. And here it comes. Its face—if that is what it is—is covered in boils and deep caverns. Black eyes with violet centers jut out of its skull-head, matted with blood and slime. It begins to spit blood, its fingernails tearing into her fingers. It screams, and she screams. Everything turns to bright-red blood.

Danson shakes his head as she tells him her dream. “Dianna,” he says, as he rubs his hand on her leg, only half listening. “What’s this from?” He points at a scar in the shape of a teardrop on her thigh.

She doesn’t answer at first, and he presses against it with his finger. The pressure says that it is OK to tell him, to share this part of herself that she has closed off the past few years. She has a vague recollection that her mother would be telling her to wait to tell him about this dream until after the next morning’s breakfast to prevent it from coming true. Her mother would also beat her to a pulp if she knew she was telling anyone who caused this scar. She tells Danson so, and he laughs his real laugh, pushes her down with a real kiss, and makes the colors disappear. “You don’t have to worry about your mother anymore,” he says. “You have yourself now.”

So she tells him about the scar. It’s the size of a penny and in the shape of a teardrop. She says her mother put it there once, that she didn’t know her own strength, that her fingernails were very long and sharp, that it had been an accident. She watches his eyes for any change in attitude.

“Did she hit you then?” he asks, and his voice cracks.

She tells him the story, at least the parts she remembers. “My mother told me not to get around the boy next door because he had chicken pox. He came up to the window in the front of her house. I told him to go away, and he wouldn’t. That’s when Mama came in. She thought I had disobeyed her.”

“It wasn’t that bad, really,” she says. “It’s just a little scar after all. She didn’t mean to hurt me.” She can tell by Danson’s expression that he doesn’t believe her, so she adds, “much.”

“God,” is all that Danson says. He holds her close, and she knows this is what a baby feels like when it is loved.

She knows the dream will return, but for now she is safe in bed with Danson, in their little bedroom, under the quilt her gran made for her. He holds her until he seems to share her shudders. It will be daylight in a few hours; she can hear the man upstairs walking back and forth, home from the night shift. Her gown becomes silky again, her body cool, her hand warm in Danson’s. They fall asleep listening to each other’s breath.

* * *

The band plays Coltrane. Not one of Danson’s favorites, but at least it’s jazz. The piano player has long, brownish-black hair, and her skin is the color of earth. Her hands are artist’s hands, square with long fingers. She has a tigereye on her second finger. Dianna can tell she bites her nails. The band leader introduces her to them, and her voice is full of gravel.

Danson buys her a drink, and she joins them at their table. Her name is Kat. She is from the West Coast. Dianna watches Danson’s eyes light up, and she wishes she were traveled, worldly, and a musician. She wishes she had artist’s hands, like this girl. She wishes she could walk up and take over a conversation in a voice full of gravel.

When they get home that night, Dianna pushes Danson up against the living room wall and kisses him until he moans that she is hurting him. She kisses him until she forgets about that pianist, Kat.

The next night Danson and Dianna argue about color. Maybe it’s because they are tired from the night before. Maybe they drank too much. They have strong ideas about the color of the sky and the odd tree that stands near the brick wall of their apartment complex. They argue about what colors go together as they plan their living room decor. Then they begin to argue about the number of colors in a rainbow and in a prism.

The subject shifts to Dianna’s wardrobe. “I don’t think you can tell the difference between navy and light blue,” Danson chides. “I doubt that dark blue even exists for you. And you still have that awful baby blue outfit.”

Dianna walks out on him, slamming the door, and walks to the end of the parking lot and back, comes back in. “Sorry,” she says.

They make up with Danson reading from a new short story, a fatalistic modern-day Hansel and Gretel. Then he takes Narcissus and Goldmund down from the shelf. “Have you read this?” he asks.

Dianna nods yes. She is too tired from the argument to even speak. She read it for class two years ago.

“Which one do you think you are?” Danson asks.

Dianna gives the matter long thought before she answers. She pulls the green shag rug through her fingers. “I am Goldmund, and you are Narcissus,” she says.

“Wrong!” Danson raises his voice in admonition. “It is the other way around.”

“It’s been a while since I read it.” Dianna looks down and picks at the skin around a fingernail until it begins to bleed.

“No matter.” Danson looks as though he will crack a sarcastic joke with his next breath.

“No matter,” Dianna responds. “No matter.” She wants to shout that it does matter what she thinks, but she can already feel his distance. “It truly doesn’t matter. Everyone is everyone else in some way anyway.”

His eyes melt into green globes. “Yes,” he says. “Yes, Dianna, you always get it right eventually. I love you.” He comes and touches the top of her head, kisses her forehead, goes to prepare dinner. She sits for a moment before joining him in the kitchen, which already smells of curry. All is well.

* * *

That’s why his distance over the next two months is so peculiar. He is interviewing in New York frequently, so that’s understandable. Yet he comes home late from his job, and she can tell he is lying about where he has been.

At winter’s first thaw, he takes her to the town cemetery. They walk around looking at graves. Danson lies down on a plot, measuring himself against it. “Why were graves this small back then?” he asks, as he tries to squeeze himself between head markers. “Maybe people exhale size along with their last breath. Losing mortgage payments and Sunday clothes would certainly make me lighter.”

“Don’t, Danson,” Dianna sighs. She tiptoes around the plot, careful not to step on the part that might contain any human remains. “How would you like it if someone lay on top of you?” She shudders as she thinks about all the cracked bones and dust lying underneath them.

A smirk spreads across his face, and she slaps at his arm but misses. He is too low, and she does not want to lose her balance and land on another grave. He’s been acting like this a lot lately, and she wonders why his smart-aleck side has returned.

He sits up and points at the stream running through the cemetery. “There’s a story about that island down there,” he says.

Dianna cannot imagine what “island” he is pointing to. She finally pinpoints a small piece of land about the size of someone’s backyard. “Yes?” she asks, her interest caught now.

“A family of eight lived on that island for forty years,” Danson says.

“No!” She feigns shock, puts her hand over her mouth, and he cracks up.

“True as the hair on my back,” he says, and she laughs now, because it is a mutual joke between them. Danson has no hair on his back. She goes over and rubs his shoulders. “I like your back all the same,” she says.

He jumps up and pulls something, wrapped in gold paper, out of the inside pocket of his trench coat.

She raises her eyebrows, asking a silent question. A gift?

He walks back toward her and kneels. He looks down at the ground. “You know I love you, Dianna,” he says. She touches his chin, but he continues to look down.

“I thought this was an appropriate place for this gift,” he says. “By the water, lots of tall grass to roll around in, birds trilling their love songs.” He says the words, but he does not look up. Something is not right. He is being sarcastic. By now, he should be showing her the twinkle in his eyes, full of sardonic gall.

She gulps and tears off the paper.

Of course, inside is a book. It is a very strange book though. It is a book full of cartoons, each cartoon showing the evolution of a relationship. In the front he has inscribed, “To Narcissus, From Your Narcissus.” A breeze that smells like winter passes through the graves, and she shivers.

“What is this?” she asks.

“It’s our relationship,” he answers. “Read it and learn. I’m sorry, Dianna. I really tried.”

He walks away, his hands stuffed in his deep pockets, wide shoulders hunched over his angular body.

She does not move for a moment. Then she flips the pages, searching for some clarification. She doesn’t bother with words; the pictures are enough. She gets it on the last five pages. She sees the couple arguing. Next page, the man is flirting with another woman. Next page, the couple is hugging and crying. Next page, the man is packing. The final page shows the woman alone.

Oh, she thinks. How silly of me!

“At least I finally get it now. Why?” she mouths. She knows it is over, but she does not understand why.

He stands rigid. His sarcastic grin has returned.

“That woman?” she asks. She advances toward him.

“No,” he answers and backs away.

“My weight? I’m working on these last ten pounds.”

“No,” he says again, a bit louder.

“My family!” she shouts, certain this is the answer.

“No,” he shouts back. “It’s not you. It’s me. Come on, Dianna. You’re about to graduate anyway. You’re moving on. I’m moving on.”

Why does he have to give her this trite excuse? Why didn’t she see this coming from the beginning? She goes to him now to hold him, but he turns away. “Time to go,” he says.

“You go ahead,” she says. “I’ll call someone to pick me up.”

He doesn’t hesitate, and she watches him walk away with a vigorous step, never looking back to determine if she will change her mind. She is reeling, and her stomach feels as though he has punched her. Why did she ever think anyone could love her? She drops between graves and wraps her arms around her knees. It doesn’t matter if she is sitting on a dead person now. It feels like she is one of them.

She sticks her finger down her throat. That helps a little. She does it again and again until her stomach calms. There, it feels better now. At least it makes her feel like she might live.

* * *

The day she moves out, he tells her she can have a copy of his novel, and then he takes it back. Can she not keep some small piece of him, if he is to take the rest away?

“I only have the one copy,” he says, and she believes he is lying. She doesn’t know what truth he has in him any longer. How could she have believed anything he said? How could she ever trust her judgment again?

“I’ll have it copied,” she answers, a spark of defiance lighting her body.

“You don’t have enough money.” He is scoffing at her now. She knows it.

“I certainly have enough money for something that means this much to me,” she says and touches the cover of the book with her fingertips. “How much could it possibly cost to make one copy?”

He throws his hands up in the air and paces back and forth across their—no, his—tiny living room. He gasps for air, and tears begin to run down his face. They flow and flow, his face becoming ruddy and swollen.

“Please tell me what’s wrong,” she says, but she stands her ground. She couldn’t cry if she tried.

“You—You’ll destroy the book. You’ll get mad at me one night for leaving, and you’ll tear it up or burn it or—or…”

She feels as though he has slapped her. She can actually feel the sting of his fingers on her cheek, even though he is on the other side of the room, huddled in the corner. “That’s not you; that’s art,” she says in a low voice. “What kind of monster do you think I am? It was created, and it can never be destroyed. Especially not by hate.”

He looks up, but his eyes are dull. No sarcasm, no pain. Maybe he’s crying over the book instead of the end of their relationship. “All right,” he says. “Take it.” He begins to sob again. She cannot understand why he is crying when he is leaving her. Nor can she understand why she is not crying. It is as though all her tears have gotten lost somewhere like bread crumbs in a forest. She’s done something to push him away, but she doesn’t know what. She should have never let him meet her family, see her roots, share their supper. He probably believes she’d never be a good partner for somebody famous, that she’s not good enough for him.

He begins to pack a box for her: his novel, the Billy Joel album, two button-down shirts, and a family piece of jewelry.

She walks out of the apartment and leaves it all behind.

 

BIO: Kathryn Brown Rampsberger grew up in Virginia and attended Hollins University. Her novel Moments on the Edge won the Hollins Fiction Award. A lifelong writer, Kathryn has been featured in local newspapers as well as National Geographic and Kiplinger publications. Her most recent short fiction appeared in Forge and The Penmen Review, and her nonfiction on Thought Catalog. Also a life coach, all of Kathryn’s work focuses on the connections between people, places, and finding peace. Though she’s worked and lived in Africa and Europe, she now lives and writes in Maryland, with her husband, Brian, two teens, and two cats. You can read more about Kathryn, and her new novel, on her website: kathrynbrownramsperger.com.