An overworked college student begins to question her sanity when she starts dating a man who may or may not exist
God knows I’d had my share of sex dreams before this one. But this one was different.
This one was about a man who didn’t exist.
And it wasn’t really a “sex” dream, but, even though we were fully clothed, it still felt like one, just like it felt to be in his arms even though he wasn’t there, even though neither of us were there. I didn’t know his name or where we were, and I don’t know why but I could tell he’d just rescued me from something and we knew each other in some private way. He was shorter than I am, but, then again, lots of guys are, and his appearance was very… military, a dusting of hair as dark as his wolfish eyes.
We were alone.
He kissed me right as my alarm clock cock-blocked us with its murder victim’s scream and I felt how a widow must feel waking up alone for the first time to a bed full of emptiness.
I still look back on the dream like it’s a memory.
At that point in my life, sleep was like a good book: something I genuinely enjoyed; something I didn’t get as much of as I needed.
I spent half an hour in bed every morning looking at my phone, then (shockingly) had to run to the bus stop, barretting my hair at the same time. I didn’t even put on my glasses first. I scrolled through emails without reading them, checked various social media, refreshed my emails, stalked this bitch I hated from school, refreshed my emails, wished “happy birthday” to somebody I wouldn’t even say “hi” to if I saw them in person, refreshed my emails.
There were no new emails.
The shower was so hot, the steam warped the mirror, but it still wasn’t hot enough. The light was a sucker punch and the tiles were frost-biting. I toweled a circle into the glass and, like a coal miner, unearthed eyes turned black by the dark circles surrounding them, black as the strings of hair thinning out of my scalp.
A girl in middle school once told me I look like a character from a Tim Burton movie. She’s the bitch I hate who I was stalking that morning to see who her latest boyfriend was and if she’d had her baby yet. She announced her pregnancy more than nine months ago but there wasn’t a single picture to be found of her (presumably) first and only child. I can’t say I blame her for being the way she is – her name is Lexie Klunt.
I’d be a twat, too.
I got dressed in clothes which still weren’t dry after three cycles in the machine and went out to the kitchenette, where my roommate had brewed me a mug of straight, black coffee, coffee that gets the job done. He was burning pancakes for me.
Oh, Josh… When you rejected him, it only made him try harder, and he knew it, too. He was a psych major, graduated a year ahead of me, answering phones with his Capital University degree for Apache Community College at minimum wage. His “never give up” attitude had something to do with a stepfather who wanted first place from a boy who could only hope to get a ribbon for showing up.
But not even Josh knew what to do about his past. I guess none of us do.
He was a pile of back hair and acne scars and stretchmarks in his pajama bottoms, and his aerosol deodorant (he really needed to use stick) crystallized on the pancake smoke. His curls were the color of bloody stool, tied at the back of his neck in a ponytail our generation finds attractive on a man but isn’t, and a patchy neck beard hung off him in cobwebs.
Looks aren’t everything, but, when it comes to the difference between “friend” and “boyfriend,” they are important. Plenty of girls are nice to me, but that doesn’t mean I want to date them. Same thing goes for guys who are… Not my type.
But Josh and I were good friends, the best. I was a double major in environmental science and English (no one will pay you to write for them unless it’s something the public has to read), two roads leading away from him, yet we still crossed paths in our core credit physics class and started talking because neither one of us knew anybody else there. We arranged study sessions on the quad that turned into heart-to-hearts, and it led to us renting an apartment together in downtown Denver.
When I was in a good mood, his pancakes were a touching gesture for how much he still cared about me, even after I turned down his advances. When I was in a bad mood, his breakfasts were a passive aggressive mind game, guilt-tripping me into fucking him.
Today, I was in a bad mood.
I sat on my stool and he stood on the other side of the breakfast bar, two paper plates of black pancakes puffing ashes between us.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. He looked like a junkie when he spoke, all twitchy eyes and random vocal tics. “I don’t know why I always burn breakfast. I can make any other meal without burning it, but not breakfast.”
It was the same apology he made each morning. He learned to cook when we moved in and I gave up on telling him it was okay after the third or fourth time.
“At least you didn’t set off the fire alarm,” I said. “So, Doc, do you want to analyze this dream I had last night?”
“Doc” was the justification he’d used for asking me out with a box of chocolates and a bouquet of flowers I came home to find on my bed one Friday night, both of which I’m allergic to, so he wound up washing my sheets instead of treating me to dinner and a movie. He felt obligated to justify his every action (most psychologists do), and he said he thought “Doc” was a flirtatious invitation. I didn’t see anything sexual about the nickname, and the possibility of him jerking off to the fantasy of humping me on a therapist’s couch made me sicker than the flowers or sweets ever could.
Now, “Doc” was not so much a term of endearment as it was a sarcastic jab. He’d come home from getting yelled at by an associate of arts who claimed ACC didn’t give a fuck about its students but only cared about their tuition money when she defaulted on a two-thousand-dollar debt (meanwhile, Josh was working off close to ninety grand in bank loans), and I’d say to him, “Welcome to the twenty-first century, Doc.”
So I told the Doc about the man from my dream and asked him what it all meant.
“Such a writer,” he said. He always said that when I described anything to him. “Well, first of all, you obviously have a thing for hypermasculine jarhead types as a heterosexual female in this jingoistic, postcolonial, Western patriarchy we find ourselves in.”
I couldn’t decide if this was one of the angsty jokes we told one another or if it was a cold reminder from the psychological expert that his feelings for me were one-sided because I was insidiously indoctrinated with the sexuality of an imperialist by our systematically violent culture, which dismissed “nice” guys like Josh Townsend from the oppressive power structure.
In other words, I was the asshole because he didn’t turn me on.
I smiled and shattered a calcified pancake with my fork and knife.
When my head wasn’t nodding in and out of this world around the time those caffeinated jitters crashed and burned me – my lifeless hand trailing off the lined notebook paper with a dull pencil I kept forgetting to sharpen by the time I came home and collapsed into bed – my blurry vision conjured up images of the dinner in my backpack, the peanut butter sandwich turning to pulp in its own juices.
Most undergrads fantasize about sex. I fantasized about food.
I ate it out on the same green where Josh and I studied all those lifetimes ago, scooting away from the squirrels I wasn’t used to being so social because of my pest-controlled suburban upbringing, much to the amusement of the sorority chicks who flocked nearby, the same sorority chicks who fed the squirrels and made them aggressive in the first place because they’re just so cute!
Until they bite you or scratch you and infect you with rabies and leave you to take a needle in the gut.
I had an American Honor Society meeting with the sorority chicks’ frat bro ex-boyfriends they gabbed about hooking up with, the microbrewery heirs whose daddies’ connections got them into the AHS, the amateur golfers whose whispered conversations about “fags” they saw boating out on Bow Mar Lake without any girls onboard (ironic, considering how much dick they suck as pledges in the videos I’ve seen online) just couldn’t wait until after the meeting and forced me to listen to the chapter president and eavesdrop on them simultaneously, massage more pimples into my temples, pull out hair when I ran my hands through it, because – unlike Josh – they made me horny.
I had about as much chance with them as he did with me, and I had as little choice in wanting it anyway, so I got intimate with them not physically, but voyeuristically, a secret audience to their jerkoff stories.
It was as moistening as a peepshow.
I caught the bus to the undead shift of my attendant’s job at Stardust Coin-Op, running later than the routes and forcing me to walk the city blocks and back alleys home after work. Laptop balanced on one knee underneath the countertop and textbook on the other, I updated my senior capstone environmental news blog and social media accounts, begged a professor over email to let me interview her for a three-source, five-hundred-word CU Record story due yesterday and explained to her that I would be the one asking her the questions during the interview, wrote a scholarship essay for next semester, filled out career applications, and tried to cough up the sore throat spidering its way around my esophagus.
The bell rang above the laundromat door.
His nose was bigger than I remembered, but it was the man from my dream, or, at least, someone who was impossibly identical to him, gym bag slung over one shoulder.
Blood rushed to my head and I almost passed out even though I must have already.
“You work here?” he said. His voice was gravelly, like he was trying to make it sound deeper. Guys like that make me roll my eyes till it hurts, but they also make me want to roll my eyes into the back of my head, because, damn, are they sexy.
Which is why they can get away with it.
“Tragically, I do,” I said. My voice sounded wobbly, as though I were facing a psycho with a gun and my knees were knocking together and I no longer knew how to live, like a sleepy person no longer knows how to live here, but the psycho was me, and I wasn’t talking myself out of being shot.
I was talking myself out of the stratosphere, and the fall below it which would only hurt worse the higher I went.
He smirked, and the book slid off my leg. I rested my computer on the counter and bent down to pick it up, lingering just long enough for my face to (hopefully) cool down. I rose and he was grinning, and, if it were anybody else’s grin, it wouldn’t have made me feel as good as his did, especially at a time when my sanity wasn’t overly certain.
“Don’t hurt yourself,” he said. His duffel dropped to the floor. “You think you can handle putting my shit in the dryer once it’s done while I go pop on over to the gym real quick? I’ll leave enough quarters to pay for an hour.”
“I live to serve.”
“Great.” He fed his cash to the change machine like he’d been here before, even though I’d never seen him here, there, or anywhere before.
Not until last night, that is.
“So,” he said, “you go to Capital?”
“Yeah, do you?”
He started loading his washing machine. “Nah, I’m just always on the lookout for people over the age of eighteen who like to party. I’m a promoter down at The Cathedral. You ever been?”
“No, but I’ve heard a lot about it.” Mostly about the middle-aged men who got their jollies shoving their tongues down teenagers’ throats.
He spoke without looking at me. “Well, if you show them my card at the door, they’ll take one dollar off for every member of your party. Bring twenty people and y’all get in for free.”
All I was to him was a club promotion – this really wasn’t too good to be true.
I wasn’t crazy.
“I don’t know about twenty people,” I said. “I’d barely be able to get myself there.”
“Come on, tomorrow’s Friday. You’re only in college once. Even if you’re the only one there, hey, one dollar off is better than no dollars off, and you and I can party together. I’ll pay you back with drinks, and I get an employee discount, so there’ll be lots pouring for you. You’re twenty-one, right?”
“Twenty-two. You must be paid on commission or something.”
“I just really want you there tomorrow night. I’m in the business of making people happy, my dear, and I can tell when someone desperately needs to have a little fun. You’re doing my laundry for me. Please, let me return the favor.”
He wouldn’t make false promises unless he wanted to alienate a promotion, and no commission in the world is worth a night of drinking and dancing with someone you aren’t interested in.
Believe me, I know – I turned down dinner and a movie, and those were free.
How often does one get the chance to make a dream –any dream – come true?
“I’ll be there after I clock out of work,” I said.
He glanced my way from the corner of his eye, tossed the bag in with its contents, and slammed the washer door shut with a clunk of change and a whoosh of water. “When do you get off?”
“That’s for me to know.”
He reached into both his pockets and cowboy-waddled over to the counter. I normally would’ve pressed the silent alarm under the countertop at the approach of a stranger with his hands down his pants, but, after last night, I was as comfortable with him as I would be with a lover.
He laid one fist on the countertop and extended the other hand for me to shake. I could feel the creamy ridges of the embossed business card in his loitering grip.
“Can’t wait to find out,” he said. “I’m Max McKittrick.”
He let go of my hand and lifted his palm off the counter to reveal a pile of quarters wrapped in a dryer sheet. I watched it unfurl like a flame and smothered a laugh.
“At least it isn’t flowers and chocolates,” I said. “You’re a man after my own heart.”
I gazed up.
He was gone.
I never even heard the bell ring.
I wasn’t drowsy anymore, but that didn’t mean I had the energy for homework, either. I had begun to believe a man like this really was possible only in my dreams, a man who was as drawn to me as I was to him, who made me feel the same way about myself as I did about him because I was desirable to a desirable. As clear as I was with my boundaries for Josh, I wasn’t immune to the idea of becoming his Mrs. Townsend, because, hey, at least he treated me decent. I could turn down the lights when we made love and scare him into submission every time he pissed me off, but the all too realistic possibility of settling for Josh thrilled me about as much as writing instruction manuals for a living after college.
It made me want to fall asleep and never wake up. As much as men and women tell themselves they don’t need anyone else to be happy, what makes life worth living when there’s nobody there to even know you’re alive?
What’s the point of living when you don’t care if that other person’s alive?
Max was more than I could ever hope for, and two people who are crazy to think they’re worth each other have a better chance than two people who are smart to know they’re practical together. Choosing a roommate should be pragmatic; choosing a lover should be passionate. Max made me want to fuck him with the lights on, and I couldn’t picture him doing me wrong, so I couldn’t picture myself driving him to hate me (was it because I didn’t know him well enough yet? I was too tired to tell). I’d use my bachelor’s degree as a paper towel scrubbing public bathroom mirrors at the mall if I had to, as long as I had him to know I was alive, as long as I had him to make me come alive.
It didn’t feel like I was getting ahead of myself.
Our relationship transcended dream and reality.
His wash cycle hissed to a halt and I cleared out the lint trap in a dryer before moving his laundry to the new machine. I even laid his clothes in flat, one at a time, so they wouldn’t wrinkle, and took his graphic tees, washed inside out to keep the designs from fading, and pulled them outside out so he wouldn’t have to when he put them away.
Then I handled a pair of white boxers with red hearts on them, the kind you see in cartoons. I looked down at them in my hands like a worshipper would a piece of Holy Communion.
For whatever reason, I have a thing for underwear. Maybe because my dad in his boxers was my first glimpse of the male form (and, judging by the mound of flesh worming its way out of his fly, he wasn’t as uncomfortable as he should have been with his daughter spying on him shaving through a crack in the master bathroom door). I can remember asking my mom when I was little if my boy dolls had underpants on beneath all their clothing. She’d laugh because she thought I was making sure they had clean underwear in case they had to go to the hospital just like she made sure of with me, but I guess it just didn’t register with her (or she didn’t want it to register with her) that I wasn’t asking the same question about the girl dolls, and I felt a rush thinking about my dolls in their drawers that I recognize now as sexual.
Max’s undies, in particular, really got me going.
I threw them in and started the dry cycle, but I had to keep these shorts when they were ready, a souvenir from paradise. He’d never know they were missing – boys don’t even pay enough attention to their outfits to know how just how ugly white socks really are – but wouldn’t it be my luck to fuck up something like this by stealing from the one guy who would notice?
Even if he didn’t, it was theft, and it was creepy.
I paced back and forth from the door to the tumbling dryer, scared he’d return before I got my chance, scared to take my chance. With every minute that passed, he was closer to catching me.
When I was there, the two-and-a-half-dollar washing machines took thirty-four minutes with varying degrees of water temperature and lengths of rinses, depending on the settings you chose. The dry was twenty-five cents per seven minutes, and Max left me nine quarters, enough for sixty-three minutes. If it took him fifteen minutes to get to the gym, an hour to work out, ten minutes to shower (the thought of him in the locker room made me itch to take the boxers even more), and fifteen minutes to get back, he’d be gone for roughly an hour and forty minutes, which would be three minutes more than the total laundry time, three minutes for me to commit a five-second sin, except I took ten extra minutes (give or take) to fluff his clothes, not to mention all my estimates were unscientific approximations anyway…
There were fourteen minutes on the timer. I’d spent forty-nine debating with myself.
That was time enough for them to dry.
I opened the door and the dryer died with a breath of hot air and pitch of the drum. Wherever the boxers were, they were buried, and I had to claw through the rest.
I flicked my eyes from the clothes to the clock.
I found them.
I backed away, gawking at them in my hands.
The tiny bell tinkled over the door.
A salty squirt of piss trickled down my thigh.
He opened the door from behind and backed into the laundromat in a half-circle that would’ve been cute if he wasn’t about to walk in on me panty-raiding him. It would’ve been more suspicious if I threw them back in the machine and slammed the door shut behind them, so I turned toward him and bunched them into the ass of my boxer shorts.
He froze, still holding the door open, once we were facing each other.
“You just now loading the dryer?” he said.
“Do the washers here take longer than they say they will? That’s why I had to stop going to my old place.”
I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t know what he was saying. I was so sure the next words out of his mouth would be disgusted accusations, I couldn’t believe he’d talk about anything else.
He pointed at the dryer door. “It looks like you’re…”
“Oh!” I said, and it was as loud as the puzzle pieces falling into place in my mind. My voice tripped over itself to construct an alibi. “The load’s finished. I was just going to fold your clothes for you.”
I pulled the back of my shirt down as far as it would go to cover the bulge.
Max put his hands on his hips and let the front door rattle shut behind him. “For fuck’s sake, Nat, you don’t have to do that.” No one ever called me “Nat” before. I was flushed all at once with shame and delight, and my cheeks weren’t the only place my blood was flowing. “I came back early so you wouldn’t have to do it. Now I feel like an ass.”
“No, don’t, you’re fine.” I backed toward the counter because I didn’t want to turn to the side for him to see the lumpy seat of my jeans.
“Now you really have to come tomorrow night.” He filled his gym bag and I plopped in my chair, pulled down by the gravity of my secret. “I’ll never forgive myself if you won’t let me make it up to you.”
“Don’t sweat it,” I said, shifting my weight because these boxers were not comfortable to sit on. “I’ll come for you.”
He zipped up his duffel and dropped me a wink. “I’ll make it worth your trouble.”
I unwound back in my chair and sighed, too keyed up to fall asleep like I would’ve two hours ago. I instead locked myself in the bathroom, sat on the toilet, and fingered myself, sometimes sniffing the crotch of his undies, sometimes using them to pleasure myself with.
I came so hard, my legs shook straight out in front of me and I had to gag myself with his shorts.
I stayed up so late getting my homework done, I was too tired to dream, and, immediately after waking up to my alarm, I fell back to sleep with Max’s boxers under my pillow, missing my first class of the day.
Thankfully, that meant none of Josh’s breakfast. I skipped the shower and took the half-hour walk to campus since the bus only arrived every hour, the chill lacerating my throat. I’d be sick and unclean when I met Max tonight, perfume on unwashed skin.
Served me right, I suppose.
I attended an advising appointment and I went to a career center resume-building and networking workshop. At work, I gave myself an emergency makeover in the same bathroom mirror where I saw my own “O” face the night before (why the mirror overlooked the toilet, I’m sure I don’t want to know), using what makeup and hair ties I’d managed to sweep into my backpack that morning. My sweatpants and hoodie weren’t the attire one would expect from a night at the club – more like a night at the soup kitchen – so Max was going to have to drink plenty to be seen with me.
The Cathedral was a former Catholic church erected in the Gothic architectural style, early twentieth century. The local bishop eventually abandoned it for a more modern design in the northern part of the city in an effort to liberalize the papacy after the election of a Catholic Democrat to the presidency in 1961, leaving the old location to be appropriated into the postmodern countercultural scene as a palace of rainbow neon and thudding beats.
I climbed the fanning staircase where many a wedding must have been held before this house of worship became a hall of dance, and surrendered Max’s card (greasy and frayed from twenty-four hours of fondling it, touching his name, making it mine) to the oversized and androgynous bouncer at the door, entering the multicolored stage smoke and strobe flashes of the sweaty dancefloor, starlit skyscrapers sparkling beyond the arched windows.
What if I see him with some other woman he laid the same line on to collect commission from her? What if I don’t see him at all because he’s sick or because he’s dead or because karma is getting back at me for taking his underwear?
He was standing by the mirrored bar with two rhinestone-encrusted goblets in hand, his smiling face shining in and out of the blackness like a lighthouse beckoning me, his voice a siren’s song with the DJ’s music backing it.
He was alone.
“Let’s go upstairs,” he said when I got to him, shoving a cup into my hand. “I feel like a smoke.” We clattered up the spiral staircase to a balcony overlooking a night too cold for anyone else to join us, and we rested our elbows on the stone handrail as we leaned over the edge. Max offered me a cigarette that I turned down and I sipped the sweetened buzz of my drink while he puffed something which reminded me of those summers when wildfire smoke from the mountains triggered asthma attacks.
We watched the lights of the streets flow like rivers.
“So why do you use the laundromat?” I said, not knowing what else to ask. I knew what he did for a living and I knew he didn’t go to school, and I also knew he could talk to me about fungal reproduction and I’d still memorize every word he spoke.
“My complex only offers laundry off-site, eight machines for our entire community, and no change machines, so, if you don’t get to the manager’s office by closing Friday afternoon, you don’t get to do laundry that weekend. Sometimes, they run out of quarters. Sometimes, my jackass neighbors take my load out of the dryer before it’s done so they can use it. Sometimes, the key doesn’t work in the lock. Sometimes, it’s too cold or too snowy to carry baskets of clothes back and forth. So I gave up on the whole thing.”
I nodded, as if nodding off to sleep.
“Now that you’ve asked me why I came to your work,” he said, “can I ask why you came to mine?”
“Because you invited me.”
“You could’ve said ‘no.’ You don’t even know me.”
“You don’t know me either. Why were you so keen on inviting me?”
“Because you made me laugh last night. You know, it’s a show of intelligence to make someone laugh. It’s the hardest thing to do. There’s so little to laugh at in this world, precisely because there’s so little intelligence. I make it a point to get to know as many people like you as possible, because there aren’t very many people like you.”
“All I did was drop a book.”
“Yeah, but you did it when you were trying to impress me. It was cute.”
“What makes you so sure I was trying to impress you?”
“That’s what you’re doing here right now, isn’t it? Call it instinct.”
“Yeah, I think I know a thing or two about that.”
“Promise me you won’t think I’m crazy.”
“My dear, I already know you’re crazy, and I work at a nightclub, so I’m something of an expert. You’ve got to be, to be wasting your time with a guy like me. You do real work, you do important work, putting yourself through school while I lead your friends down the path that gets them kicked out.”
“Then why are you wasting your time with a loony bird like me?”
“Because ‘crazy’ is the best I can hope for, and you’re the top of your class, sweetheart.”
I downed my drink, and with it went my filter. “When I visited home for break my junior year of college, I had a dream that my aunt had a daughter when she was a teenager but gave her up for adoption, and she came back years later looking for our family. I told my dad the next day, because this was my aunt on his side, and he was… weird about it. He asked me for details, like the girl’s name and how old she was, and he asked me not to tell anyone else about it. Then, he sat me down later in the day and told me my aunt did have a baby when she was fifteen and gave her up for adoption. Her name was Bethlehem because she was born around Christmastime. My roommate’s a psych grad and he thinks I probably overheard my dad bring it up to my aunt when I was younger – they fought a lot – and, because arguments are traumatic to witness when you’re a kid, I repressed it, and my subconscious regurgitated the memory as a dream. Anyhow, whatever the cause may be, clairvoyance or psychology, my mind has a talent for uncovering the truth about things, and I had a dream about you, too, the night before we met, the night before I even knew who you were. My thoughts were crying out to me to include you, or someone like you, in my life, and I’m starting to get the feeling there’s no one else like you, Max.”
He flicked away the butt of his cigarette and it was a shooting star, sailing the lights around us. “Alright, now that you’ve told me how insane you are, I want you to show me.”
“May I have this dance?”
I led him by his hand down the stairs to the dance floor, where I hooked my fingers around the back of his neck and he placed his hands on my waist and I was his snake and he was my charmer, slithering up and down against his body, hypnotized by his stare.
He used one hand to unzip his fly and the other to thumb down the front of my sweatpants. I looked from side to side for any onlookers, but, at the club, if somebody’s eyes aren’t on whoever they’re dancing with, they’re on whoever they want to dance with.
Max entered me in the middle of the dance floor. He grabbed my ass to keep my sweats from falling down in the back and pulled me closer. He kissed me to conceal his moans. Fuck, it’s so much hotter when the guy moans than when the girl squeals like a monkey finding a banana (if you’ll be so terribly kind as to pardon the terrible analogy).
I wonder if that’s why men get violent with women, because porn teaches them that screaming means she likes it.
Max made me cum twice, seizing two fistfuls of the back of his collar, and it didn’t take him long to finish, leaving me sticky and him glowing.
I didn’t have to worry about a ride home after that.
I invited him over the next night for dinner, movies, a quickie, and an introduction to Josh, who thought I was playing some sort of prank on him.
“It has to be a coincidence. He can’t be the man from your dream, just, like, a dead ringer or something.”
“Sometimes, coincidence is divine intervention.”
He wasn’t helping me in the kitchenette so much as he was standing up my ass and breathing down the back of my neck, but, as with anything Josh did, you had to appreciate the intention, not the result.
I was preparing a family recipe for baked French bread pizza, a delicacy I inexplicably called “pizza sandwiches” when I was a toddler. I timed it so the apartment was warmed through with the oven, as inviting as a blanket on a snow day, when Max was supposed to arrive.
I took the pizzas out right as they were about to burn and let them cool off a few minutes.
Still no sign of him.
Before they could go cold and inedible, Josh and I started eating them.
Nothing from Max.
We were full and the leftovers were plastic-wrapped in the fridge and still he never showed up.
“I’m sorry, Natalie,” said Josh.
As you can imagine, I was in one of those moods when his condolences struck me as an opportunity for him to put his hand on my shoulder, to feel me up. I shrugged him off and dripped back to the shadows of my room, where I closed the door and plummeted to my bed.
I fell asleep with my glasses and clothes on and without putting my retainer in, because I didn’t plan on going to sleep, but I didn’t plan on staying awake, either. I didn’t feel like crying or screaming or laughing or rolling my eyes with a sigh, but I sure felt something.
I found myself wishing something happened to him on his way here, but I also found myself wishing he was okay, and hating myself for thinking the worst of him, because I still loved him.
Yes, I loved him, after spending three nights with him, one of them in my dreams. None of this made any sense, but just because I knew it didn’t make any sense, didn’t make it any less real.
When I woke from a fleeting dream at dawn, so tired my eyeballs hurt, I remembered Max and the pain was too strong to go back to sleep. I touched his underwear under the pillow and the only thing getting me out of bed was knowing I’d gotten exactly what I deserved.
I spent as much of the day as possible in my room, even eating the leftover pizza sandwiches there. Josh was visiting family back home, which typically would’ve meant walking around the apartment in my bra and panties to tease the cute neighbor whose living room was exposed across the way and who was given to shirtless smoking sessions out on the balcony, but I stayed in bed so long I didn’t have time to shower or change for work, walking to the laundromat in the same outfit I slept in because buses didn’t run on Sundays. All I did was sit, unable to pass the time with my phone or with a book, my stomach noisier than my thoughts, roaring with acidic despair.
The door clanged open.
Max came lurching in without a bag of laundry or anything.
I launched myself from my chair.
“Nat,” he said. He didn’t look like he’d gotten much sleep last night, either, which wouldn’t have made me lose a wink. “I came here to apologize to you in person. I’m so sorry about yesterday. I was on my way out the door with my phone in my hand looking up your address on the GPS when I dropped it and it shattered on my front porch. I can’t go without a phone – I do a lot of my promotions through social media – so I had to go get it replaced, and I had no way of getting in touch with you to let you know what was going on. I lost your number, I lost your directions, I lost everything. When I dropped you off at your complex, I couldn’t see which unit was yours. It was too dark. I’m so sorry, Natalie. I don’t expect you to forgive me, but just know that I was never out to hurt you.”
It wasn’t anger I felt, but relief. He was the only one who could bring an end to the pain of living without him, because it was pain without end.
I smiled. “Well, you’re not doing anything right now, are you?”
He shrugged. “Not a thing.”
“Neither am I. We could hang out now, if you want. You got paid to spend time with me, and I can get paid to spend time with you.”
He prowled toward me.
“I did enjoy our night together.”
“Then you’re going to enjoy what I have in store for you.”
He climbed up on top of the counter and bowed down and I tilted my head back and he kissed me, clutching at the hair on the back of my head as I reached up from underneath and squeezed the bulge between his legs. He gasped and backed away long enough for us to take off our clothes.
The thought of someone wandering in and seeing this naked man facing me on my counter like a statue on a pedestal made me too weak to stand. I laid down flat on the floor behind the counter and he padded down and ravished me.
I could explore his body this time, raise goosebumps with my fingertips, wrap my legs around his rising and falling hips, suck on the skin between his neck and his shoulder, feel his voice breathe against my ear.
We laid there side by side after he had his first orgasm of the night and I, my second, lazily stroking each other.
“I love you, Nat.”
“I love you, too, Max.”
“Sorry,” said Josh, “I don’t know why I always burn breakfast. I can make any other meal without burning it, but not breakfast.”
Not even his pancakes could darken my afterglow the next morning. “How’s the family?”
“Shitty, as is to be expected at this point. Resolving conflicts with your relatives is a Sisyphusian burden of human nature. You’ll never succeed, but you’ll never stop trying, either.”
He liked to talk with his mouth full, smacking his tongue against the palate, slurping syrup off his fingers.
“Max came to Stardust last night to apologize for standing me up.”
I knew that would make him stop eating.
“He dropped his phone and lost our address and my number, so he had no way of getting in touch with me. Ain’t that some shit?”
“You mean you saw Max again?”
“…Yeah? I talked to him.”
“How much sleep did you get Saturday night?”
“I guess not much. Why?”
He made eye contact with me for the first time I could remember.
“Natalie, Max isn’t real.”
“What do you mean? You think he’s being fake with me or something?”
“No, I mean he doesn’t exist.”
I didn’t interrupt him because I was at a loss for words.
“As soon as you told me you met the man from your dream, I knew something wasn’t right. I called The Cathedral and they’ve never even heard of any Max McKittrick. They don’t have a spiral staircase, either, something to do with fire safety, and they don’t allow stage smoke on the dance floor. They don’t have any deal with their promoters like what he told you. You were never there, Natalie.”
What he was saying was crazy. What he was saying meant I was crazy.
“Sleep deprivation can produce powerful hallucinations. I think you’re just exhausted, and I didn’t say anything sooner because I didn’t want to freak you out and stress you even worse. I thought you got it all out of your system Saturday, because, when I conveniently couldn’t see him after you swore you did, that’s what confirmed it to me. But if he keeps ‘visiting’ you…”
“No.” I strode toward my bedroom and he trailed close behind. I could barely speak louder than my own breathing. “He gave me a pair of his boxer shorts. I have them.”
They weren’t under my pillow. They weren’t under my sheets. They weren’t under my mattress. They weren’t under anything I tore apart searching for them. Josh watched me from the doorway, and I turned to him with the whirlwind of my madness at my feet.
“Oh, God,” I whispered, tears pushed to my eyes at the slideshow flashing through my mind of syringes and fluorescent lights and straightjackets and people in white coats. “Oh, God, I’ve lost my mind, Josh. I’ve…”
Sobs bubbled out of me. He stepped forward and wrapped my shaking body in his arms, and, for once, I didn’t question his motives. I hugged him tighter. I was relieved to feel something real, like how chicken noodle soup sounds good only when you’re sick.
“You’re not crazy,” he said. “It’s just like a lucid dream. Everyone has them. They confuse us all from time to time. You have nothing to fear from something that’s not there. We know what it means, we know your body is trying to tell you to rest, and you can fix it. You shouldn’t see him anymore now that you know what he is, but, if you do, take good care of yourself. That’s all you have to do, okay?”
I was choked up with terror. I was choked up with losing Max.
I was choked up with learning I never actually had him.
Josh held my face in his hands. “Natalie, sleep deprivation can trigger psychosis if it gets severe enough. Do you understand me?”
I nodded, blubbering.
“It’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay. Trust me. Life after college gets so much easier than life in college. There’s a reason so many people our age have to drink themselves into a coma just to have a good time. We have a ton of shit to cope with.”
“Thank you,” I said in between gasps.
“Of course. I love you, Natalie.”
That’s when we realized he was still holding my face. He backed off with his hands raised, a victim retreating from a mugger after offering her his wallet.
Knowing I was about to be late to class is what roused me from the daydreams of hell.
Sleep that evening was about as easy to come by as expected, particularly once I blocked the number in my phone I’d thought was Max’s but was actually nobody’s. It was as final as an amputation – having four limbs one day then three the next – seeing the extent of my insanity in the number I made up for him, deleting the last of him from my world forever.
I went to class and I went to work sleepless, my bowels grumbling like there was a dragon clawing its way through my intestines, my eyes two bowling balls hitting a strike every time I opened them, the crash clanging around in my head. I was sitting behind the attendant’s station when the bell rang over the door, and I glanced up from my laptop.
I locked gazes with Max McKittrick, the door swinging shut behind him.
I flew out of my chair.
“Hey, Nat, is there something wrong with your phone? I’ve been trying to reach you, but…”
“I know what you are.”
I covered my ears and closed my eyes and turned my back on him. “You’re not there. You’re not real. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head…”
Tears stung the backs of my eyelids, and the words strung out faster and breathier as they went along.
Max grabbed me from the other side of the counter by my shoulders and spun me around. He pulled my wrists down from my head and I squeezed my eyes tight and threw my head from side to side with a closed-mouth whimper, like a baby being force-fed veggies.
“Natalie,” he said. “Natalie, you’re scaring me. Tell me what’s going on.”
I held still and caught my breath, but I wouldn’t open my eyes. Maybe if I tried reasoning with him, reasoning with myself, it would make him, it, whatever, go away.
“I know I didn’t get much sleep last night, and I know this whole thing with you is putting a strain on me, but I also know you don’t exist, Max. I know this is a dream right now. I’ve accepted it. Now, please, just let me wake up.”
“Natalie, are you okay? You’re not making sense.”
I opened my eyes, but I peered past his shoulder, not at him. “No, I’m not okay. I’m so sleep-deprived, I think I’m talking to you right now. Josh called The Cathedral. They’ve never heard of you. There’s no spiral staircase, no stage smoke…”
“Wait, who the fuck is Josh, that creepy psychologist roommate you friend-zoned? Natalie, he’s lying to you. He’s fucking with your head. He has the motive and the means to do it. You know you were at The Cathedral that night. You know what you saw. You know what you felt.”
I looked him in the eye. He was right. Like I said earlier, I’d had sex dreams before, but they’d never made me cum, no matter how graphic they were, no matter how close I felt. Max took me all the way. There was something real about that, something real about him, but it didn’t explain the dream that started it all, the dream that made me fall in love with him before I even met him, the dream that made me want to go to The Cathedral to begin with and fuck him on the dance floor when I otherwise would’ve thrown his business card away.
Then again, hallucinations are stronger than dreams… Maybe I hallucinated my orgasms…
He’s fucking with your head… He has the motives and the means to do it…
I wrenched my forearms from him.
“No,” I said, “that’s true. You’re real. You exist. But that doesn’t mean you are who you say you are. Josh paid you to make me feel like the perfect guy doesn’t exist and he’s the closest I’ll ever come. I must’ve seen you lurking around our complex or something, waiting to meet up with him so he could tell you what to do. That or he fucking hypnotized me or some shit to somehow plant you in my unconscious, but, either way, whether or not I remember seeing you, I saw you before I met you, and I had that dream about you because you were exactly my ideal man. He went to the club one night when I was at work to pick up a guy like you, have you come to my laundromat and flirt with me and fuck me, then disappear and reappear in my life whenever it’s most convenient for him to gaslight me, to turn me into the crazy bitch he thinks I am for rejecting him, to get back at me by literally driving me insane. That’s what you’re doing here right now, isn’t it, Max? Is that even your real name?”
I felt like a peasant in a fairytale, cursed by an evil and vindictive sorcerer to be an ugly, hairy monster. I couldn’t tell if Max’s bleached expression was because I’d figured them out, or because he thought there was a stark raving lunatic ranting a few feet away from him.
“You need to get out of that apartment, Natalie, tonight. You can stay with me. I’ll take care of you. Your roommate is dangerous. Can’t you see what’s happening here? He wants you to think these things of me. He wants to tear us apart, drive a wedge between us, and what better way to do it than to make you believe I’m a figment of your imagination, or to make your lover out to be your worst enemy? He’ll destroy you if that’s what it’ll take to have his revenge, Nat. He’s so crazy, you feel like the crazy one, because how can you wrap your head around him?”
The tears at last spilled over. I believed him, or I just wanted to believe him.
What difference did it make, truly?
“Kiss me,” I whispered.
He leaned over the counter to do it, cradling my head in his palms, and I laid my hands to rest over the back of his neck.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I love you, Natalie. You might not know if I’m real, but I know my love for you is. I love you because I know you inside and out, and I know you’re not crazy. The craziest thing about you is that you can find it in your heart to love a guy like me, but that’s my favorite part about you, because it means I get to have you all to myself.”
I laughed. “I love you, too, Max. I love you because I never would’ve thought I’d have it in me to laugh at a time like this. You bring out sides of me I can’t bring out of myself. Yes, I’m crazy about you, but you’re wrong. Loving you is the sanest thing I’ve ever done.”
“I probably shouldn’t go up with you tonight. Who knows what he’ll be liable to do if he sees me? You need to pack as many essentials as you can, sneak out, and call me up, okay?”
I nodded, sobbing.
“It’s going to be okay. I promise you.”
“It already is.”
I crouched on the counter and held his face and kissed him till we were both naked and he was on top of me and we didn’t even try to hide it this time around.
As he drove me home, I couldn’t help but interrogate myself still about the dream, wonder if he might’ve come into Stardust before since he seemed so confident with the machinery the first time we spoke but he just got lost in my mental shuffle of customers only to resurface again as a sex dream, a dumped corpse rising to the top of a lake, except why did he choose the night he chose to invite me to The Cathedral when he could’ve done it before? Did I dream only an outline of him and seeing the closest resemblance filled in all the missing details, but I can’t tell the difference anymore between the dream and the memory? Could I have even passed him one day on the street, or in the bus? Or was I right about his and Josh’s plan all along, and he was going to use the occassion to take the money and the girl for himself?
Or was it possible that he was going to kill me because I knew too much? As far as I know, gaslighting is more of a moral question than a legal one, but Josh and Max’s relationship (assuming they even had one) ran deeper than met the eye, and if Max was motivated not by money, but by love, then he was either out eliminating the competition for Josh’s heart, getting me out of the way, or he was silencing me because I was too close to discovering his sexuality for comfort. Guys like him are always closeted when they’re gay, death was a sleep I’d never have to wake up from, and that sounded just fine right about now. But I knew Josh wasn’t gay, not even secretly, not if he was so obsessed with my jilting him, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t manipulating Max’s emotions, too, if gay sex was at play here.
How sociopathic was this guy?
Or was I the sick one, and Josh was right all along about my sleep deprivation, and I was actually sleep-walking home right now, not riding in a car with the ghost of a memory of a dream? Was I just being paranoid about Josh, clumsy, childlike Josh?
The boxer shorts…
Those were what persuaded me Max was a fantasy when I didn’t find them in my bedroom. If they existed, where did they go? The only viable explanation was that Josh took them out of my room while I was in the shower that morning, but how did he know they were in there? Not even Max knew I swiped them, not unless they were his only white pair with playing card-red hearts and he and Josh really were in cahoots and he told Josh they had disappeared, but it struck me as more likely that one of them was a sicko than both of them, and I found it more believable that the sicko was Josh, who displayed unnervingly obsessive behavior when he cooked pancakes every day, first thing in the morning, for a woman who wasn’t interested in him, punishing me with them.
Did he have a ritual of laying down in my bed when I wasn’t in it, pretend he was waking up next to me, roll around in the scent and the heat of me while it was still at its freshest, his hand coming across some men’s underpants only days after I told him about Max…?
Could that be when he decided to tell me I was “sleep-deprived?”
I had to see if Josh had those boxers.
Max idled in an empty parking spot and I scurried up to the darkened windows of our apartment. Using the light of my phone screen, I found my way to the butcher’s block in the kitchenette, pulled a knife, and hovered on the threshold to Josh’s hot, body-odorous room, listening to him snore without seeing him, unsure whether I drew the knife to defend myself from a psychopath or to scare him into giving me back a stolen pair of underpants which may not have been real.
I flicked on the light.
“Wake the fuck up!”
He tore off his bedding and sat up, blinking at me with glazed eyes. I never knew he slept in the nude, because he was always in pajama bottoms whenever I saw him in the mornings, but he was so desperate to sleep under my roof, naked, that he had found a way.
“Where are Max’s boxers, Josh? I know you took them out of my bed.”
Either because I’d outsmarted him or because he was a trained psychologist who knew when to fear for his life, he threw himself off the bed and charged toward me.
I didn’t stab him to wound him. I slashed his throat to slaughter him.
I backed away, his blood like war paint spattered down my front, and I watched him fall to his knees, put his hands to his neck to stop the bleeding as though to strangle himself.
Finally, Josh Townsend was a twisted, unmoving heap.
The knife splashed to the soaked floor, and my world became as grainy and sluggish as a film projected from melting celluloid.
I tried calling Max, forgot I’d blocked his number, unblocked it, and tried calling him again.
“I need you up here.” I can’t remember if I was crying or in shock.
I suppose that’s a sign of shock.
In any case, he came barreling through the door like a linebacker down the field, leaving it open behind him.
He stopped and gaped when he saw me standing over Josh.
“I just… He’s dead. I don’t know what happened. All I know is, we have to run away together. We can…”
Max backed out the door so suddenly he tripped over his own feet and landed on his ass right outside of it. He crawled away from it and kicked it closed.
I never saw him again.
Feeling emotions I didn’t know how to feel and thinking thoughts I didn’t wish to think, I went to bed and fell asleep with Josh still drying on me.
I made sure to turn off the next day’s alarm first.
I wouldn’t be needing it anymore.
When I awoke to the metal of blood dusting the air, I realized Max hadn’t called the police, either because he didn’t want his involvement with Josh to go public, or because he didn’t want his involvement with the killer to go public, or because there never was a Max McKittrick. I searched Josh’s room while I waited for them to answer my call.
I found nothing. Unless Josh threw them out, there had never been any boxer shorts.
I didn’t tell the cops about Max. I couldn’t risk them investigating The Cathedral and finding out what Josh had found out, that the man I killed for wasn’t a man at all.
He wasn’t anything.
I told them I was following the logic of a nightmare, where you all at once forget how to fly as soon as you realize you’re flying, and I didn’t even know until I’d woken up what had happened in real life.
The public defender pled not guilty to murder by reason of temporary insanity, had a court-appointed expert witness professionally diagnose me with sleep deprivation, and, since the prosecuting attorneys couldn’t prove motive for premeditation in the death of my roommate, their charges failed, and I was institutionalized rather than imprisoned.
And Josh knew his vengeance.
I get more than enough sleep now.
I don’t know why I ever thought it’d make me happier.
May 23, 2015 – December 20, 2015