Alicia was only eleven when a nightmare rose within her. Days and weeks would pass, sometimes months and years, but the nightmare never left. In fact, two days before Alicia’s eighty-eighth birthday (incidentally, a week before she passed away) her nightmare returned after an eleven-year absence. The old woman was startled to wake in the dead of night, though no longer scared.
“This too will pass,” she said to herself, and went back to sleep.
Barbara explained away Alicia’s recurring nightmare as a random sequence of images. But why one sequence? Why this particular sequence?
“That’s just how it is,” said the mother. And so when her eleven-year-old daughter invaded her parents’ bed at two o’clock in the morning, Barbara hugged Alicia and said, “There there, honey, it was only a bad dream.” And when her fourteen-year-old daughter came downstairs for breakfast and sat down at the kitchen table with a spectral face, Barbara sputtered from across the room, “It’s nothing, Alicia. Still nothing at all.” And when her twenty-six-year-old daughter mentioned over the phone, “It happened again,” Barbara laughed, asked “Still?” and changed the subject.
I don’t want to condemn Barbara. I don’t think she sees the difference between nightmares and a recurring nightmare. I don’t see it either, so I’ll tell you what I see: The year is 1982. Milan Kundera is shedding a tear over his typewriter in a dimly lit Parisian apartment. He is finishing his masterpiece:
“Seeing a horse and a coachman beating it with a whip, Nietzsche went up to the horse and, before the coachman’s very eyes, put his arms around the horse’s neck and burst into tears. His lunacy (that is, his final break with mankind) began at the very moment he burst into tears over the horse. And that is the Nietzsche I love.”
But it seems that in breaking from mankind, Nietzsche at once steps into himself. But time is short, so I’ll be more straightforward: I suspect that in the intermingling of tragedy, Nietzsche saw into his eternal recurrence. Perhaps, amidst plain feeling, there dwells a single truth too profound for intellect.
And that is the Nietzsche I love. The one who, after a lifetime of epiphanies, sees himself in a moment of eye contact.
Which brings us to Alicia, eleven years old and looking for firm footing when a single truth sweeps her dreams out from under her. Alicia, a girl battling the world when a piece of the horse and coachman enters her.
In Alicia’s nightmare, she is strapped to strangers like twigs to a bundle, which itself is strung to a big balloon that carries them into the sky until sixty-six seconds have elapsed, at which point the individuals must press buttons on their vests to free their bodies from the balloon, and importantly, from one another. If anyone refuses this dictate, the bundle will detach from the balloon and the twigs will plummet together, toward the earth’s surface, into its core.
As Alicia’s feet leave the ground, she spots a nameless and faceless stranger within the bundle. Her fears are confirmed sixty-six seconds later when, suspended in space and then hurling downward, she cries and laughs as the ground approaches because it’s devastating, hilarious and there’s nothing she can do.
“This too will pass,” she thinks and wakes with a start.
Of course, Barbara would remind us that, a few hours before the nightmare’s awakening, Alicia was watching footage of Joseph skydiving. She found the moving pixels beautiful, horrific, vertiginous, soothing: Joseph’s hands clutching the hands of strangers; plummeting together, toward the earth’s surface, into its core.
Naturally, Joseph’s moving pixels were the culprit. Barbara was resolute in this conclusion, but of course, Joseph pretended to sleep when the eleven-year-old jumped into his bed. And Joseph was glued to his newspaper when the adolescent came downstairs for breakfast. And Joseph never thought to ask about anything “happening again” when they spoke over the phone.
But he is besides the point. Let me tell you about Alicia.
When I imagine Alicia I see her smiling. Rather, I see a single, irreplaceable smile. It is a shameless smile overtaking an oval face; a head cocked to the side like an off-balance egg; a pair of pale eyes sparkling beneath an unaccountable source of light. Seeing Alicia as she is is to see an unmistakably human stance locked in place, as if contained by a frame for the scrutinizing gaze of a thousand generations.
And that is the Alicia I love. The one who, after a lifetime of reservation, lends you her world in a smile.
This, too, is who Theodore loved. When they first met, Theodore spoke, listened, disclosed, flattered, danced – until, at last, Alicia lent him her world. Theodore clung to Alicia’s world, which is to say that his love was inseparable from sporadic moments of adoration. He craved her shameless smile because it was the glossy manifestation of a soul yearning. And so Theodore spoke, listened, disclosed, flattered, danced – whatever it took to reestablish disequilibrium. Days and weeks passed, sometimes months and years, but his longing for her smile never left.
“I am Alicia,” were the first words between them. Theodore, at home alongside liminal moments of silence, stewed over Alicia’s introduction and allowed his lips to part and a cocksure grin to take shape as his right leg crossed over his left while his left shoulder leaned onto the wall and the toes of his left foot sprang upward into a 45-degree angle between ground and ceiling with his boot’s heel coming to support the entirety of his weight.
His movements were simultaneous, interconnected, flawless, unconquerable. Alicia was ill-at-ease but fascinated and still – still! – the nameless man had not spoken and still – still! – silence hung between them like an increasingly static electric fence as Alicia’s discomfort grew in direction proportion to Theodore’s expanding fascination with she who had not said “My name is Alicia,” or “I’m Alicia,” but rather, “I am Alicia,” as if laying claim to her identity with a defiant syntactic stroke.
“So you are Alicia?” he finally gasped. They laughed themselves silly because they were twenty-two years old. In sixty-six years her body was being lowered into the earth while in less than half that time his remains were being scattered far and wide across the Rocky Mountains, but here and now Alicia and Theodore were alive and well in a triangular apartment complex that resembled the Flatiron Building and overlooked Grand Army Plaza on the northern tip of Prospect Park. They stood near a window in a spacious living room with mahogany wooden floors and dashing tawny wallpapers covered beneath framed photographic portraits taken by Zelia, Alicia’s friend who had loved, and would love, Alicia more truly than Theodore ever could.
When Zelia’s roommate suggested they throw a party, Zelia invited Alicia, who invited one of her roommates, who invited somebody she was dating, who invited a work acquaintance named Theodore, which explains why two twenty-two year olds were laughing themselves silly after only seven words between them.
“Hold on,” Alicia managed through the mirth, “What exactly is that supposed to mean?”
“It’s whatever you want it to mean,” proclaimed Theodore.
“So you take me for that type?” She frowned, conscious of feeling unsurprised. “I didn’t take you for it.”
“Not at all,” he responded, straight-faced. “Oh, no!” he then exclaimed, eyelids called to attention, fingers interlaced with plaintive melancholy. “Nonononono!” he pressed on, for he knew no other direction.
“No?” Alicia inquired.
“Yes, no, please – I see now, and I don’t blame you for thinking that. What I mean is that… that I didn’t mean anything of it, at least nothing in… nothing in that way.”
“Go on,” she permitted.
With this allowance, a familiar sensation of preordained victory prickled Theodore’s skin as he readied his onslaught.
“What I mean is that I didn’t mean those words in that way. I see now how they were.. understandably understood as crude, blasphemous, philandering, vainglorious – all of Dante’s hells wrapped in one – and I know you don’t know me, but please believe me when I say that I promise – I wouldn’t, I couldn’t say such a thing. Look, it’s not in my nature to insult – surely that much you can see – and especially not someone like you.”
“What did you mean then?” asked Alicia, looking at his worn sneakers.
“Well, on account of your introduction, those words came to mind. They’re your words to define, yours to interpret, since you are Alicia – not I!
“Wait, hold on,” interrupted Alicia, raising her arms and snickering frustratedly. Her annoyance and confusion over the rambling beast’s petty logic was surpassed only by the annoyance and confusion she felt over her own percolating attraction to the rambling beast himself. “Which words are you referring to?”
“The bad words, the words where you thought I was saying – well, you know. But I suppose what I’m saying is applicable to my very first words, if only at a strange sort of phenomenological level.” He trailed off, half-grinning and glancing inwardly with a self-pride whose reflective coating redounded on Alicia as she watched: dumbstruck, irritated, flattered – utterly fooled. “So, what’s your name, Word Man?” she asked, smirking.
Suddenly, Alicia knew him by name, which changed the whole dynamic because he was no longer a rambling beast but a man with a story.
“But because you are Alicia, please call me Word Man.”
The silliness of the situation, the audacity of the man, the electricity of the night – it was all too much for Alicia. Unwittingly, involuntarily, against all power of reason and self-preservation, she offered him a moment of her smile, a piece of her world.
I don’t want to condemn Theodore. I don’t think he sees the difference between his world and Alicia’s. I’m not sure I see it either, so I’ll tell you what I see: It’s February in New York. Theodore is clasping his hands and ushering Alicia onto the apartment’s balcony. The air nibbles at their skin. They’re painting dreams onto the canvas ballooning before them.
“You can feel it, Alicia, I swear. You can see it when you close your eyes. It’s the air we breathe, the drumbeat we hear.”
And that is the Theodore I love. The one who, after a lifetime of duplicity, shows you his world in a sketch.
This, too, is who Alicia loved. An hour later, Theodore’s arm is around her shoulder. She leans into his embrace, he kisses her hair – an hour later and they’re an old couple reflecting on their lives together. Before leaving he kisses her lips and, with her world in his heart, wanders into the night.
Zeila’s photographic sensibility notices Alicia standing alone, staring at the doorknob: dumbstruck, irritated, flattered – utterly fooled.
“Who was that?” asked Zeila gently.
“I don’t know.”
“Jesus, Alicia,” said Zeila, feeling her friend’s cheeks. “You’re freezing.”
The next afternoon, Alicia’s phone rang.
“Who is this?”
“This is Alicia’s phone. Who’s calling?”
“I met her last night.”
Zeila explained how Alicia had never left the party; how Alicia had slept on her couch; how Alicia had contracted a fever from being outside for too long.
Theodore’s body – dictated by the whims of a temperament that seeks refuge in gesture – penned an apologetic note on a scrap of paper and grabbed a bouquet of roses from a street vendor before hailing a Taxi.
“What do you want,” said Zeila, picking up Alicia’s phone.
“I’m outside your apartment.”
“Jesus, man,” she hissed into the electronic device, flinging open the door. “Was it too much to tell me you were coming?” she raged, still speaking into the phone while looking into his eyes.
“Please, can I see her?” pleaded Theodore.
“She’s still sleeping,” said Zeila, closing the door.
“Wait!” he cried. Zeila paused.
“Please,” he continued, shuffling his feet and looking at the ground, holding the flowers aloft and stooping over pitifully. “Won’t you give Alicia these flowers and this note?” he muttered at the floor. “Can’t you tell her I was here?”
Begrudgingly (utterly fooled, nonetheless), Zeila grabbed his items, closed the door and fell into an armchair where she sat anxiously scrolling through her iPhone until her friend woke.
“Oh, Zeila. How I love you,” grinned Alicia, delirious from sleep and sickness. “Thank you for letting me sleep. Thank you so much.”
“How are you feeling?” she asked, feeling her friend’s forehead.
“Better,” said Alicia, yawning. “I was having the craziest dream. You and I were on an island.”
“Just us?” smiled Zeila.
“Us and a big group. We were starting a little farming community. It was so… so quaint.”
Alicia giggled and Zeila said nothing. Smiling was enough. Alicia spotted the roses on the coffee table.
“What? Him? He really?”
Zeila’s heart dropped, but she saw Alicia’s heart fluttering, which is why as Alicia settled into her dreams, Zeila grabbed her camera and, with the afternoon sun vivifying her friend’s sleeping form, captured a moment she had no desire to capture.
And that is the Zeila I love. The one who, after a lifetime of skirting, suggests her world in an image.
This, too, is who Alicia loves. In Zeila’s photography, Alicia lets go of the world she’s been given. In her friend’s artistry, Alicia recaptures the woman she knows herself to be.
Gradually, Alicia grew conscious of this interplay. By the time she was an old woman, a mother and grandmother, Alicia understood that her passion for Zeila was inseparable from five piercing words:
“Smile for the picture, Alicia.”
Barbara. How many times had Barbara uttered that command? How many holidays and vacations? How many first-days of school and graduations?
“Smile for the picture, Alicia.”
Alicia almost opened her lips, not to appease Barbara, but under the weight of tradition. “I am smiling,” she would retort.
“No no, with your teeth,” the mother was saying.
Zeila stood to the side, visibility separate from Barbara and the cluster of family members. Zeila, who was now Alicia’s wedding photographer; Zeila, whose cheekbones flexed poignantly beneath her lens; Zeila, whose smile brought Alicia to her knees before an image of herself: twenty-two years old and falling asleep on a red velvet couch, framed above a sliver of fraying yellow rug and mahogany wooden floors, ensconced in a pixelated sunburst and hovering beneath the floral stucco of a fin-de-siècle ceiling.
It is a photograph, but real. A moment in time, but an epoch. Blasphemously, against all power of reason and self-preservation, she leaves her wedding and returns to New York in February, to a night when air nibbles at their skin.
“You can feel it, Alicia, I swear. You can see it when you close your eyes. It’s the air we breathe, the drumbeat we hear.”
But his arm was not around her shoulder, keeping her warm. A foreign, oppressive arm was wrapped around her waist; beads of sweat sprouting against the edges of tightly clamped fingers. She dare not glance up for she knew that a nameless, faceless man was waiting for her to – but she couldn’t stop it – the thick fingers, tilting up her chin; the slobbery, puckering organ forcing itself on her; the faraway applause and jubilation while she cried and laughed because it was devastating, hilarious and there was nothing she could do as her tears only amplified the crowd’s reflexive exultation, which was ripping off her gown and heaving her body into a black pit where she’d plummet down from the earth’s surface, toward its core, into a place where only Zeila’s camera could enter.
Above the deafening ring, Alicia heard Barbara’s caw.
“I’ve never known why she won’t smile with her teeth.”
Alicia was remembering herself saying: “Mom, stop.”
“And you know very well,” Barbara was squawking for the umpteenth time, “how your father appreciates when you smile with your teeth.”
“Teddy appreciates my smile as it is.”
“Of course Teddy does,” she scoffed. Then, with a disarming note of sadness, “I don’t mean to be mean, dear. It’s just that your father always said that too.”
“Oh don’t mom me, dear. You know I’m right.” Then, for good measure: “I can see it in those big green eyes.”
How many times had Barbara made this triumphant observation? How many screaming matches and astringent putdowns?
Above all, how does a finite number feel like forever?
Alicia never found answers to these questions. Instead, she learned to scorn Barbara for regurgitating a collection of conclusive phrases, honed and perfected over her eighty-four years. She looked down upon her mother for sanitizing life’s messiness; for repackaging ups and downs into a display window of hackneyed commodities.
“You know I’m right. I can see it in those big green eyes,” Barbara observed triumphantly for the last time.
How could Alicia reject Barbara now? How could the daughter turn against the frail, gurney-ridden mother?
“Stop it, mom.”
“It’s true though, dear. You relish that scowl, even though you knew your father loathed it.”
“Because he loathed it,” said Alicia.
“What did you say?” rasped the tearful, desiccated mother.
“Because he hated it,” the daughter responded flatly.
Four words snapped the last thread between them. Barbara turned to the window and Alicia left the room, though in reality, they’d been leaving one another from the beginning. Barbara had learned to mistrust Alicia for weaponizing experiences. In truth, she disliked her daughter for shining light on narratives; for exposing their ugly underbellies.
Of course, I don’t want to condemn Alicia. I don’t think she sees the difference between experience and truth. I don’t see it either, and I’m afraid I never will. Instead, one last time, I’ll tell you what I see:
It’s February in Colorado. Alicia’s smile is spreading in spite of itself. Her knees are buckled, arms wrapped around her midriff, air nibbling at her skin. She is the frail body condensing itself to stay warm. She is the trembling hand that scoops up the soil and lets it fall. She is the one who closes her eyes and sees herself plummeting, toward the earth’s surface, into its core, and she understands it must be.