Tilt

by

Candace Armstrong

Jake recognized her first by the way she walked. As he stirred his second large latte, the woman from his dream walked to the next table. She brushed crumbs from the seat before she sat, effervescent with energy, chatting with a friend. Overhearing was unavoidable.

“It’s the same dream,” she said. “I am forever looking through doorways from bedrooms into a long hallway, like a hotel. I see a shadow pursuing me; I think it’s a man. But we never come face-to-face.”

Jake felt a chill. His recurring dream had driven him to buy a dream interpretation book. He closed his eyes to relive the images.

Peeking around corners of doorways in a long, dim hallway, the woman showed a glimpse of herself to entice him to pursue her. The gauzy sleeve of her flowing garment disappeared seconds before he reached each doorway, and he was left standing in an empty bedroom scented with patchouli, arousing him.

The dream book defined sex in a dream as “harmony of self.” Jake wondered what that meant. Perspiration erupted on his skin as he opened his eyes. She was still there, and her friend was gone.

Calling upon his courage, he spoke to her. She smiled and invited him to join her.

“Couldn’t help hearing your conversation,” he said, gripped with sudden uncertainty. His hand shook and he spilled a few drops of coffee onto the tabletop. She frowned and wiped it off with a napkin. “Sorry about that. Well, the dream you described caught my attention. It sounds like the one I’ve been having.”

She looked skeptical. “You were looking through bedroom doors onto a long hallway?”

“No,” he said. “I’m the shadow pursuing you.”

She folded her arms across her chest and pushed her chair back. “Are you inventing a way to meet me?”

Jake blushed. “No, I swear. It’s the truth.”

She looked at him with her head tilted for a long while, and he noticed the dimple in her heart-shaped face when she finally smiled. “I don’t know—”

“The faint scent of patchouli lingers when I reach each room, and I’m always confused. Looking ahead, I see you slipping into another doorway.”

“Now I do believe you,” she said. “I smell the same scent in my dreams.”

Her name was Claire, and her stories were outlandish but believable. Jake was enchanted. He envied her self-assurance, but when he said so, he was startled by her serious reply. “Believe me; I don’t know who I am.”

Jake laughed before her sober face told him it wasn’t a joke. He felt a deep dismay bubble within him, and he thought it was a sign of caution. He didn’t want to be cautious. The old insecurities beckoned, but Jake decided to ignore them. When that moment slipped away, Claire’s charm resurfaced.

He invited her to an art museum’s new exhibit that weekend. She was vibrant and witty until they came to a special showing of Monet’s work. Claire stood transfixed before his Poplars for such a long time, Jake asked her what she was seeing in it.

“Do you see that little patch of mauve?” she asked, pointing to a wavering blend of subtle colors. “It looks so beautiful there; the clouds in the powder-blue sky. Shade and sun and water are all somehow combined. Doesn’t it look like that could be a person under the trees but not reflected in the water?”

Jake didn’t think so, but he said, “Sure. Why not? Perhaps that little patch of brown next to it is another person. Who knows?”

Claire frowned. “No,” she said. “It’s too soon to tell.” She held her palm out toward the spot of mauve for a moment, turned, and walked away. Jake tamped down an uneasy feeling and followed her.

Eight weeks later, he bought her a framed reproduction of the painting. Although he spent long moments studying it, as Claire did, he couldn’t see what she saw.

* * *

The unsettling dreams abandoned him. Claire’s every quirk delighted Jake, and soon they were inseparable. On a whim, they married at the local courthouse, laughing together throughout the judge’s perfunctory statements.

A month into their marriage, Jake stood at the bathroom door, watching his wife wipe the meticulous soap dish after washing her face. It took nearly five minutes for her to hang up the towel because it had to be perfectly aligned and centered on the towel rack. Catching him watching her, she closed the door.

One night soon afterward, he noticed Claire standing at the kitchen sink, drying a carving knife with a linen cloth over and over, intently staring at it.

“Claire, what’re you doing?” he asked. “Trying to rub a hole into the metal?”

She jumped, dropping the knife. Jake moved to pick it up, but she stepped on the blade.

“No!” She bent and grasped the handle. “Now look, I have to wash it again.” Claire stroked the sharp edge with her fingernail. “I hope it’s not scratched.”

Jake swallowed hard. Adrenaline was tickling the tips of his fingers and shooting through his legs. He backed away. “What were you thinking, Claire? Why were you drying it like that?”

Claire wheeled around with the knife pointed at Jake. “Don’t you think I know how to dry dishes, Jake?” She swung the knife like a pendulum then, and he took another step back, pushing his heels into the floor to disguise his quivering knees.

“Be careful with that,” he said. “Someone could get hurt.”

Claire looked perplexed for a moment. She shrugged. “Guess I’m a little preoccupied.” She laughed, put the knife in the sink, and went to hug Jake.

But later that night he heard her talking to a friend on the phone about having found a tool for change. He thought nothing of it until he saw the dream book lying open, curiously not in its usual place. Thumbing through it, he learned one of the symbols of a tool for change was a knife.

* * *

The next day he found her sitting in her car with the engine off, staring straight ahead, her hands resting in her lap. Jake watched for a few minutes before he tapped on the window glass. Claire looked through him at first. Then she blinked. Jake saw the recognition in her eyes a second before she opened the door, smiling.

“Hi there,” she said. She grabbed her purse and hopped out.

“What were you doing?” he asked.

“Nothing.” Claire rose onto her toes to kiss him on the cheek, and he hugged her tightly. She squirmed until he released her.

“I mean, what were you thinking? You were sitting there, staring ahead for the longest time.”

Her eyes were empty. “I really don’t know,” she said, pivoting to walk into their house.

That night Jake dreamed of riding in a shiny convertible, an exhilarating trip until the car simply stopped. Feeling disturbed, he located the symbol. The physical body is the soul’s vehicle, often represented in dreams by a car.

* * *

Claire shuffled through their gleaming kitchen and stooped to get cleansing powder stored beneath the sink. She furrowed her brow while she scoured the sink and countertop. Jake came into the kitchen and sighed heavily.

“I thought we talked about this,” he said.

Claire whirled to face him. Her eyes flashed. “Talked about what, Jake? All I’m doing is cleaning the sink. You do want to live in a clean house, don’t you?”

Jake set his coffee cup on the counter and put his hands on her shoulders. Claire’s eyes shifted toward the coffee cup. “It must be making a ring,” she said and pulled away from Jake, but his hold was firm.

“Look at me, Claire.”

Claire looked at the toes of her slippers in between furtive glances at the coffee cup. Jake shook her shoulders. “Listen to me, Claire. You don’t have to do this. Everything in this house is spotless because you wash it constantly. There’s no room for anything else in our lives. I’ll get you any kind of help you need, but we have to do something. Do you hear me?” He shook her shoulders again.

Claire jerked up both arms and with all her might pushed Jake away. Then she reached for the coffee cup.

“Not so fast,” Jake said. “Listen to me this time.” He grabbed her wrist. She was too quick and lunged past him. Spinning around to catch her, Jake knocked the coffee cup off the counter, sending hot coffee spilling onto Claire’s legs before the cup shattered against the floor.

Claire screamed, dropped to her knees onto broken shards, and scooped up sharp pieces with her bare hands. Dripping blood, she cried, “Oh no. Oh no. Look what you’ve done.” She wiped her tears with her hand, dragging slivers of ceramic across her cheek, creating a trail of tiny bleeding cuts.

Jake knelt, put his arms around her, and pulled her close. Claire sobbed, her arms hanging limp at her sides.

“Shh,” Jake whispered, stroking her hair as she leaned into his chest. “It’s okay. Now I know what we have to do.”

* * *

Claire’s doctors were hopeful, saying her treatment would take only weeks and not months. Jake was buoyed by their positive expectations, although he was nervous about bringing her home, then having to leave her alone. He had the recurring dream, only this time after he raced along the hallway toward Claire’s disappearing form, she was waiting for him, naked in the bedroom. Being naked in a dream represents openness and honesty. Still, he fought to calm his churning stomach.

Is it ever possible to change anyone? I miss her so much, but, hell; I don’t even know who she really is. Was she right when she told me she didn’t know either?

Coming home from work after that first day of leaving Claire alone, he crept inside. The television was on in the living room, but Claire wasn’t there. Jake sat on the couch with his head in his hands.

Then, looking up, he saw the Monet print hanging crooked on the wall.

 

BIO: Candace Armstrong’s short story, “The Kiss,” won first place in MUSE’s 2011 short story competition. She attended the University of Iowa Writing Festival, Writer’s Digest Write Stuff Boot Camp, Crazyhorse Writing Workshop, and has taken various online courses. Over the years, she has studied with Adam Johnson, Gordon Mennenga, Bret Anthony Johnston, Bart Yates and Kathleen Kirk. Her work has been published in Negative Suck and The Lyric, in addition to MUSE. She makes her home in the beautiful woodlands of Southern Illinois.