Apr/May 2021  •   Fiction


by John Brandon

Artwork by Art AI Gallery

Artwork by Art AI Gallery

These days her dreams were nothing but cautionary tales of the lowest stakes, her nights, though not wakeful, filled with petty, persistent worry—bacteria getting a foothold in her sinks; distant Internet thieves unearthing her passwords; her junior criticism project on feminine rivalry put off and put off until she cobbled something together in a last-minute panic. In the mornings, she went about her routine with stoicism—sit-ups, granola, eyes, lips, watering her plants, the Roxy Music her father had suggested for AM buoyancy—feeling vexed and outmatched without any real-world reason, without life having gotten the better of her in any way.

She missed her dreams from high school, terrifying dreams, wondrous and sexy, that jolted her awake in sweats—she hadn't even needed those dreams, then; her real life had been exciting enough. Her real life now was bland, comfortable, academic. The situation was she had food if she wanted it, food from any imaginable world culture if she were willing to drive ten minutes. She had a neat attic apartment in a stately, big-windowed brick house owned by absent retirees, one block from the park. She had a thousand-dollar phone and access to the college's gym and the college's healthcare and the college's endless sources of media. Her peers liked her well enough—invited her to study groups, shared their complaints about this professor or that, swapped stories with her about their parents, about this fascinating older generation that had tried to raise children in a world grown alien to them. She was never late. She rinsed and recycled her yogurt bins and salad dressing bottles.

As to joy, she never used to think about it, back when she played soccer and ate ice cream sundaes and sang in the choir, but now the word, joy, was bandied about so constantly, it had become hollow. When she said the word aloud, it sounded like a product some multinational conglomerate was selling. It sounded like a book-club discussion topic. She was savvy enough to know joy wasn't meant for adults, and that's why they were obsessed with it. Back in high school, she'd crashed into the midnight bay in her underwear; it wasn't something she would do now, just a few years later. As a young girl, her father would toss her high into the air, and for a moment she'd have no control over herself, and as the world spun blurrily past, it didn't matter whether her eyes were open or closed or even what her name was. Melanie. Mel-a-nie. Joy. Strange-sounding, all of it.


Passwords, the driest little secrets: school email, personal email, bank account, credit card account, other credit card account, frequent flyer account, Hilton honors, the old couple's Internet, Amazon account, Apple, Netflix, Skype, Zoom, YouTube TV, Peacock, the Schwab account her father had opened for her to get her off on the right foot financially, the code to her phone, the code to her computer, the code to the garage...


Sometimes, mired in sluggish traffic, she would furtively push one of her bra cups out of the way and, in an oddly absent state of mind, let her hand go to work, cold fingertips bringing blood to the warm flesh. Radio silent. Face a mask of calm. She did this three times, making it a habit, then a fourth—eventually letting her hand down from her breast to her lap, slipping fingers under silky fabric—and then one morning as she was pulling out of the Bischoffs' driveway, she found herself hoping for traffic, not minding at all the idea of rushing into class ten minutes late with a halfhearted explanation, and as she drove toward the parkway, she felt like a character in a story someone might bring to her fiction workshop, a story she would criticize for seeming gratuitous or overly familiar or unlikely. "Too on-the-nipple?" that girl Skylar would say, blond Skylar whom everyone liked because she always had the right joke.


She drank gallons of Armenian mint tea and ate bag after bag of beet chips. She'd learned, once she'd grown fond of them, that beet chips weren't even healthy, but she kept eating them. She often didn't get it together to eat actual meals, and at least beets were a vegetable. As a guilty pleasure, she enjoyed McDonald's French fries. Her and everyone else in the country. Waiting in that long drive-through line, windows closed, radios droning. One afternoon, she'd had cash in her pocket (an odd occurrence) and the weather had been sunny but brisk, and she'd gone walking aimlessly down to the tiny town square of the neighborhood she rented in (her father had insisted if she lived off campus she couldn't live near the school, because he didn't trust the area) and had bought, in cash, a handsomely bound Russian novel, a physical book, and with the change had bought an order of McDonald's fries, walking into the building and handing the bills and coins over from her hand to the cashier's hand, skin touching skin, a slight shuff sound for the bills and a satisfying clink for the coins, and then she'd found a cozy, dappled corner of the park and turned her phone off and sat there with the book in her left hand, heavy enough to strain her wrist, and with her right hand she ate the fries one by one. Maybe this was the adult version of joy. Fresh air and no phone and pages full of friendly peasants and noble hunters and amateur philosophers. Until you had a baby or something, or got desperate and took up skydiving or triathlons or pills, maybe this was it.


She noticed she had started, now and then, to give people a hard time. Classmates she wasn't precisely ethically aligned with—she'd challenge their assertions out of spite, hearing the unbecoming snark in her voice and unable to quell it. Visiting scholars—she'd pounce on any theoretical sally that felt outdated, any nugget of wisdom not universal or readily provable. She didn't do it on purpose, exactly. Service people on the phone. Even baristas—but really, was an extra-dry cappuccino brain surgery? She had a little mean streak going, no doubt about it. "A bee in her bonnet," her grandmother would've said. She could admit it—she felt something like relief when she initiated these confrontations. Relief, yes. But relief at what? That she couldn't say. She was probably being too hard on herself, as she was prone to do. As women were prone to do. After all, other people spoke out. Other people were shrill and opinionated, and got praised for it. Other people exaggerated how upset they were to win arguments. It happened all the time. There weren't rules in arguing. Well, there were, but someone had just made them up a long time ago, probably in hopes of winning an argument.


There was a guy she'd kissed at three different parties, and they had somehow not yet done more than kiss. She didn't know why. She seemed destined to see him only at random, fleetingly, in public, and on the rare occasion they made actual plans, one of them, usually him—actually, always him—would break the plans at the last minute. Always a good excuse: a friend in crisis or a big exam to study for. Just bad luck, she supposed. Or lack of good luck. There was another guy, a classmate in her American Literature as Isolatable Aesthetic Object course, who obviously liked her but could only manage to endlessly chitchat after class, hands jammed in his pockets and head tilted to one side; could only mill around and suggest bluegrass bands she had to listen to and vegan burrito trucks she had to try. Never anything more than that. Not even a grin with traces of slyness in it. Not even a regular grin. She liked that he was nervous, she supposed—she could talk herself into that, to liking his nervousness.

She'd lately caught herself stealing glances at workmen she saw around town, the type of men you wouldn't find in a college lecture hall. The way the hard-earned muscles twitched around in their arms. The offhand cocky strength of their big, tan hands—movers, repairmen, the wiry, green-eyed guy who did the lawn for the old couple. They were sure of themselves because they didn't attempt anything they weren't made for. Their manners were boyish. Good-boyish. She couldn't quite explain it, but they were innocent. They would do whatever you told them, she sensed. If she went down and told the Bischoffs' yard guy to put down his shears and come upstairs, to rearrange the furniture in her attic apartment while she watched and then grill her a steak with mushrooms and then shower himself and put on some John Lee Hooker, he would just immediately do it, no questions asked, not even surprised, really. And then when she made herself available to him, he would fall right to work on that, too, enjoying her body like a kid with a bucket of Halloween candy, like he was relieved for the both of them that she'd had such a good idea. Roofers. The guys who brought vegetables in panel trucks to the farmers' market. The mechanic who'd put on her new tires. Their loose-legged gaits, wearing boots they actually needed for their jobs. They smoked, some of them. Glugged their water from gallon jugs. Had no plan for or pride in their hair. And then, on the other hand, there were these college guys, brains on fire with dozens of pretzeled, bookish insights but without enough chivalry, or even strategy, to pick up a pen you'd dropped, guys who jumped in to condemn Hemingway before the girls in the class could even raise their hands, who worked up such a lather explaining the perils of a settled, traditional canon that everyone else in the room was left cold.


There was a couch in her apartment, a "davenport" the Bischoffs called it, and in an attempt to vivify her dreams, to rid her unconscious existence of bourgeois fretting, she tried sleeping on it instead of the bed. Then she tried piling all her blankets on the hardwood floor and burrowing down into them. She tried sleeping the opposite way on the mattress, the balls of her feet pressed against the headboard. She tried lining the tub with pillows. Finally, she ventured down into the greater house, where she usually only lingered when she had clothes to wash or wanted to cook, and slept on a chaise lounge in Mr. Bischoff's study, on a settee in the front hall, on a thick bearskin in front of the cold, black fireplace. She slept everywhere except the master bedroom, and slept soundly in every spot, but still the same dreams—dealing with cavities because she sometimes forgot to floss; sending an insulting text, through a slip of the thumb, to the subject of the insult; putting her best sweater in the dryer and pulling out a doll's costume.


She wanted to be happy, like everyone did, and she knew being happy meant being happy with herself. When it came to happiness, you had to do the work. Wanting was empty without action. You had to exercise. You had to think positive. You had to give of yourself. You had to give yourself a break but not make excuses. You had to have goals, but still take things one day at a time. You had to eat vegetables—fresh ones, not just beet chips. You had to despise your privilege but also be grateful for what you had. You had to seek out new experiences while avoiding danger. You had to hate people's beliefs without hating them personally. You had to respect tradition (especially if it wasn't your own), but also question it (especially if it was your own). You had to make your mark but without leaving too big a footprint. You had to travel to places you knew nothing about, but without being an ignorant American. You had to be yourself, but try to improve yourself however you could.


Heavy, heavy traffic—an accident involving a flatbed truck hauling rolls of vinyl tarpaulin and a tiny, red, Audi sports car. It took her 45 minutes to grind through the three miles to her exit, and not for one of them did she attempt to resist her urge. She crept past the Audi, crushed in on the passenger side, sitting there mangled and ignored, awaiting its fate. She crept even slower past a team of men in fluorescent vests who struggled, not ten yards from her closed, tinted window, to roll and stack the enormous blue tarps, digging their boots into the gravel of the median and heaving in unison to overcome the incline, pressing the weight with teamwork up over their heads, arms straining. They didn't talk. They weren't in a hurry, nor did they seem put-upon. They were the ones who could do this task, and thus they were doing it, and when finished they would get in their trucks and go do whatever task was given to them next. Sweaty in the cool morning. Stubble-jawed. Forearms the color of toast.

By the time she was inching her car off toward the right shoulder and onto the backed-up exit ramp, her head was fogged and hands trembling. She was in a story again. That same story, a later scene. She could hear Skylar, blond lock wrapped around her thumb: She really lent herself a hand. Well, Skylar would say something better than that—Melanie didn't know what. There was a travel pack of tissues in the console, she remembered. Of course there was. The crisp air from outside was delicious and bracing, now that she could roll down her window.


You can probably guess by now that, barring a freak accident, nothing exceptionally good or bad is going to happen to Melanie. She understands this herself, or at least has a sense of it, which is probably a big part of her problem. So, the following, a dream she won't totally realize is a dream until she awakens from it, will have to pass for progress: a colossal indoor aquarium, nothing in view out the high windows but night; a city outside, she knows, closed, cold, windswept. It's afterhours. Nobody's around. Melanie could be any age, but she's looking up at everything from a low vantage. They left her here, whoever "they" were, thinking she wanted this, wanted to be left, wanted this illegal privilege. And maybe she did. Maybe they hadn't left her; maybe she'd snuck away. She was somewhere she wasn't supposed to be, no way to tell exactly what to be afraid of. Octopi. Eels. Loneliness. The big tank in the center of the place, just enough light coming from somewhere, from the stars through the windows. Beautiful animals, and she was one of them. That was something about it—to the sharks, she was mysterious and gorgeous. She was capable of inspiring fear, but this she already knew. She was herself at no particular age, observant and serious. The sharks, when they ran out of water—or ran out of space, ran out of room, because they didn't know what water was—would veer off in another direction and disappear in an instant, flashing like a nickel, a quick, bright flame. Depthless shark eyes. Fast, silver flare. Then nothing. A real animal doing real magic, hundreds of miles from the real ocean. Even in the dream, Melanie knows dawn has to come and nothing can stop it, friends and enemies crossing each other's paths in the streets, but the image, the shark's clever turn, is all she'll remember, all she'll have to work with when she wakes up seven minutes before her alarm sounds, a tentative smirk on her face, her stomach growling.