It was a dark night. No moon. Pema was stirring next to me in an unfamiliar bed. Was she awake too? The cat mewed, shaking the last remnants of a dream from my head. How long had I been lying half-awake? Grumbling, I turned over. I was hungry, but I didn’t want to do anything about it. And why was this bed so hot? I had nothing but a sheet covering my legs and chest, but I was sweating in all the creases. I couldn’t make out the rumpled form of Pema next to me, but I could feel her inch her way towards me. She raised her leg and set it over my hip. I flung it off - be gone, foul leg of the hot night - but it was back in less than five seconds. Mid-night wrestling. I couldn’t tell if she was asleep or not. There was a soft rasp at the door. The cat mewed.
I rolled over to my side and stuck my butt out, hoping to block Pema’s advances with a stiff back. On occasion, I’ll even steamroll her back to the middle of the bed if I have to, but I was satisfied with the narrow purchase I had on the bed, at least for the moment. Plus, I had that beautiful void on one side. As a child, I would flip my pillow in the middle of the night just to feel the coolness against my cheek. I felt a knee in my back. A foot. Silke was asleep on the far side. At least maybe she was. It was hard to tell.
I drifted, my stream of consciousness latching onto a dream I had sifted through earlier. There were five of us in a large room with iron railings surrounding a large pool of water. It was dark and the setting was flooded with a strange green light, like a warehouse at night. We knew there were fish in the pool, big fish. Something kicked furiously at my side. Pema. She was scratching her skin violently, angrily. I turned over. “Pema?” I said out loud, “You awake?” She squirmed into my chest, her little body fitting into the pocket of my fetal posture. I wrapped an arm around her. She is so darling. Then she bucked and began to sob. “Daddy…!” she said, peeling into a high-pitched whine as she scratched her butt.
“Hey Pup,” I said, “Do you want to go wash your butt?” A familiar scene had replayed itself off and on the last few nights, a persistent itch on her bottom that sometimes woke her up at night. I had a plan.
“Yes, Daddy. Now.”
“Okay, let’s go,” I said, prepared for the urgency.
I threw the sheet off my body and rolled toward the floor, my bare feet touching the dusty planks of wood. “Come on, Pup,” I said, grateful for the coolness of the night air, glad, in a way, to have something to do other than not sleep. Pema got on her knees and scooted toward to my open arms. I lifted her in a motion so practiced between us as to make it almost effortless. She nuzzled into my neck. I felt strong. I am strong. Clutching Pema to my chest, I passed round the foot of the bed, determining my position by feel and the length of my stride. A mental map of the room lay vaguely before me, the door about five or six steps away. Silke lay somewhere off to the right, making no sound. Maybe she was asleep.
Stepping into the open floor space, I judged my position against the mental map in my head, taking cues from the scant light seeping in the windows. “Hold on, pup,” I said, believing I had reached the far wall. I held my hand in front to feel for it. The door rattled in place.
“I’m going to have to put you down for one second while I get the water,” I told Pema.
“Okay,” she muttered.
Last night I had stashed a bottle of water and a small plastic bag with three leaves of aloe near the door. I crouched down and felt for them now, finding the water bottle on the floor, the plastic bag on top of a few soft pieces of clothing. “Got it,” I said, standing back up, “Let’s go.” With the bottle and the bag in my left hand, I reached down with my right and pulled Pema back to my chest, then groped for the door. Feeling the smooth, brass knob, I clamped down with the two free fingers in my left hand and pulled back the door, sticking my foot in the crack to block the cat from bolting through.
The door hinged on the right, knob to the left, so as I shuffled through I also spun around in reverse so that, Pema sweeping the outside in my right, my left hand traveled the shortest possible distance in space. I released the inside door knob, felt over the latch with the back of my palm, and groped for the handle on the opposite side, now facing the empty hall. Silence. I shut the door behind me. The latch set with a click.
Pulling up a new map, now of the hallway, I passed the stairs on my left and set myself in space against the wall on the far right side where, if my footsteps were correct, another door should be. It was. I opened it with a mere shove as Pema hopped down and reached for the light. Bing! Lo and behold, the whole world was still there in all its former glory. The shower tiles, the curtains, the porcelain toilet. Nothing had ceased for even one second. I rubbed my eyes. My pupils shrunk.
Pema was on the toilet, leaning over her knees. I dropped the bag of aloe onto the counter and unscrewed the water bottle, now so evidently blue. “Okay, should I wash your butt?” I asked, breaking the silence. “Yeah,” Pema answered, grateful for the resolution, the mere act of doing something. Her condition, which remained mysterious, had at least given us the chance to settle into a routine, after which she usually fell back asleep without further discomfort.
I gently rinsed Pema’s behind with water as she leaned over the edge of the toilet seat and grasped my leg, a posture so intimate and common to our daily lives. Life is full of small things like this. I could sense that Pema was relaxing. I breathed a little easier. “How’s that?” I asked. “Good,” she answered, a simplicity in her voice. I reached for the toilet paper.
“Dada, look,” Pema said. I followed her eyes out the screen window. The stars were unmistakable against the black, moonless sky, a patchwork of constellations so vivid as to almost feel them. Behind them, the great dusty sea of the Milky Way unfolded in a vast arc. Crickets chirped noisily in the bushes nearby. I smiled, then wiped the damp toilet paper across the back of the gleaming white seat. There were rose petals in the trash can. The air was soft and cool.
“Do you want aloe?” I asked.
I reached for the bag and split a thin line in the green aloe skin with my thumbnail. Dreams don’t have this potency of color. Neither does daylight. Mashing the pulp within, I smeared it across my fingertips and applied it delicately to Pema’s irritated skin. “How’s that?” I asked. “Good,” she answered, in the same passive tone as before.
I placed the aloe leaf back in the bag and turned on the faucet. A soft rush of sound filled our ears, followed by a gentle gurgle. The water was cool. “Do you want to wash your hands?” I asked. “No,” Pema answered. “It’s probably a good idea,” I suggested, leaving the faucet on as I reached for the blue towel hanging on the back of the door. I caught my face in the mirror. Me. Pema turned off the water and regained the silence.
“Do you want a bite to eat?” I asked, offering the towel to Pema. We were awake now, and I felt the stir in my belly. Plus, I didn’t want the moment to end. The whole world. Just the two of us. “Sure,” Pema said, happy to go along. She reached out her arms. “Carry me,” she said. I smiled. She hit the light switch as I pivoted her on my hips, and we were out the door.
Advancing slowly across the hall, my eyes readjusted to the darkness. I felt carefully for the stairs. The floor was bare, but the steps had been tacked thoughtfully with strips of carpet. I shook my head. How had they known? My toes arched up, then out, as the ball of one foot, then the other, leaned forward and effortlessly caught us in balance, easing all two-hundred and fifteen pounds of us six inches further from the stars and one step closer to the earth. It was as if no one had done anything at all, as if I was merely descending a staircase in the middle of the night with a five year-old child. My ankle pivoted at the bottom, the cold tile floor seeping into my footstep. “Do you smell that?” I asked, a whiff of cat food having reached my nostrils. “Yes,” Pema whispered.
I stared blindly into the sea of darkness before us, across to the kitchen. The entire downstairs was black save for the faint green light coming from the kitchen stove. The tile countertops, the inlaid butcher block, a vase of flowers - everything was bathed in tiny, phosphorescent light, revealing only shadows. A cricket chirped, then stopped. The refrigerator clicked.
I took a step forward, now with a third map in my head. Keeping the wood stove a safe distance to my left, the couch to my right, I advanced through what should have been empty space toward the kitchen island. The air was still and a thick odor of fruit greeted us as we approached, along with a steely scent that reminded me of insects in a basement, or the taste of metal. At last I felt the edge of the island and leaned over, setting Pema down on the counter. “Hold on,” I said, reaching to my left for the light switch. I glanced at the clock, 1:31, and flipped the switch. Once again, as before, the whole world filled with crisp yellow light. It was all there - the color, the tile, the dish rack, the cupboards. I smiled. Life, so magnificent.
Off to the side there was a large glazed bowl with a butternut squash and two bananas. “I get the bananas for you,” Silke had told me once, “I don’t like them.” That was kind of her, I thought, but I wondered where she got the idea. I rarely buy bananas. Pema doesn’t like them. Still, they looked awfully tempting lying there in their thin, soft skins. I grabbed one for myself and held the other up to Pema. “Want a banana?” I asked. “No,” Pema shook her head. I shrugged and set the second banana back on the squash.
I spied a loaf of bread on the counter next to the sink - store bread! I set my banana down and reached into the translucent bag, scuffling up that telltale sound. I wasn’t sure if it was Silke’s or not. She has roommates. But when I felt inside, I cringed with delight. The bread was cool and moist, almost gummy, like the store bread of fantasies. I pulled out a small slice - it appeared to be rye - and offered it to Pema. Her eyes lit up. She’s so used to my dense, homemade variety, all brown and full of seeds. She grasped the delicate white slice eagerly and put it to her mouth. Smiling, I picked my banana back up and glanced at the clock, 1:33. I peeled back the yellow skin and took a bite. My whole face was on fire with love. Pema returned the sentiment with smiling eyes. Off in the corner, a cricket began to chirp. I swung my hips left and right to its catchy rhythm. Pema laughed softly, then squiggled left and right on the counter.
Other people’s food.