Saturday, 14 May 2011

Sleep and Wake by Holli Mintzer

At the top of the Greenbriar Building, in Brooklyn, a girl has been sleeping for a hundred years. In fact, she may have been sleeping longer. But the Greenbriar was built a hundred years ago, and the room in which she sleeps was walled off and hidden, and ivy tangled its way up the sides of the building until even the window was lost. She would likely sleep there still, except that Rick wanted to know why his apartment was a hundred and fifty square feet too small.

It was a nice apartment-- it had a breakfast nook, and a washer/dryer combo, and floor-to-ceiling built-in shelves in the living room and at the end of the hall. Rick liked it a lot. The building had never been renovated, not really, except to split the apartments up into smaller studios and one-bedrooms and to replace the stove and fridge. There were weird poky corners and weathered wooden floors and ornate brass fittings everywhere; Rick's bathroom contained a massive claw-foot tub that, when she saw it, made Angela say "Oh, my God, no fair."

Angela was a friend of Rick's who lived in the building already-- she was the one who had gotten him the apartment. She had been living in the Greenbriar for six months when she found out the previous tenant was leaving Rick's apartment, and she called him more or less instantaneously with the news. He probably wouldn't have gotten it, otherwise-- it was the least expensive apartment in the building. This was, apparently, because it was slightly smaller than the other apartments on the top floor, and because the elevator only went as far as the floor below, for reasons no one could quite explain.

The Greenbriar was twelve stories tall, with a lot of complicated ironwork on the doors and the fire escapes, and it had a shabby, halfhearted Art Nouveau lobby. The elevator shaft was set right into the crook of the building's L-shape, with Rick's apartment just above it. Rick moved in on a gray, damp late-winter day, filling a U-Haul with his disassembled furniture, his boxes of books and dishes. Angela's boyfriend drove the truck. Rick had grown up in New York, and never needed a license except when he moved, so he sat in the passenger seat with a grocery bag full of beer balanced on his knees. He distributed the beer to Angela and her boyfriend and the other friends he'd wheedled into helping him move, and they set up his stereo on the bare floorboards, sitting cross-legged on blankets and sofa cushions while his buddy Paul tried to make the TV talk to the cable box.

His first night in his apartment in the Greenbriar, Rick slept with his mattress on the bedroom floor, the pieces of his bed frame still in a pile in the breakfast nook. He dreamed about walking in the rain, carrying a clinking plastic bag of glass bottles, the handles pinching his fingers. In the dream he passed a bus shelter, and saw through the glass a girl sitting on the bench.

"Oh. You're new," she said, and suddenly he was sitting next to her, the way you do in dreams. She had a lot of curly dark hair and gray eyes, eyebrows a little too heavy for her face and a red mouth that turned down at the corners.

Rick offered her a beer from the bag.

"Thank you," she said solemnly, and they clinked bottles. "It makes a nice housewarming present," she said. "Very thoughtful."

"Aren't you supposed to give me the housewarming present?" Rick asked. "I mean, I'm the one that just moved in."

"True," she said, "but I was here first."

Rick didn't remember the dream in the morning. He had taken a Friday off work to move, so he had the weekend to paint and hang pictures and screw legs onto chairs. Rick worked in an office, in a job so boring he refused to devote any mental energy to it when he wasn't actually there. He unpacked his books, and decided this time he'd organize them; he made a good start before he gave up and crammed all the odd-size ones onto a shelf together, and all the paperbacks on the narrower shelves in the hall. When he went through the kitchen things, he found a whole box of stuff he'd written off as lost in the last move: a bunch of dishes and his smallest cast-iron pan and his old measuring cups-- he'd bought new ones since then-- and a scattering of coffee mugs. Angela and her boyfriend came up at dinnertime with boxes of takeout "to christen the kitchen," Angela said.

"Don't I have to cook to do that?" Rick asked.

"That's crazy talk. Eat your eggroll," Angela said, shaking her head at him.

That night, Rick dreamed about the apartment he'd lived in two moves before the Greenbriar, when he'd lived with Sophie. Except the apartment was bigger than it should have been: he went through door after door, rooms the place had never held, around corners and down hallways, Sophie always a voice on the other side of the wall too low to make out. At one point, he paused in a tiny, low-ceilinged bedroom, crammed with dusty stuff his dreaming brain didn't supply enough detail to. There was a dark-haired girl sitting cross-legged on the bed.

"Take a break," she said. "You're not going to find her, anyway. Tell me about yourself." She offered him a tiny smile, the corners of her mouth turning up for an instant.

Rick hesistated, and finally sat on a cobweb-draped chair. "Um. Okay," he said, and they talked until Rick's alarm snapped him awake. The dream hung suspended in his head for a few moments, but it was gone by the time he levered himself out of bed.

The next few months went like that: Rick went to work and came home and dreamed; spent the weekends doing minor home-improvement projects and went to bed and dreamed; started a home-cooked meal rota with Angela and the two sisters who lived on the fourth floor, stayed in their apartment drinking hard cider and watching movies until one, and staggered up to his own apartment and dreamed. He never remembered, when he woke up, the dark-haired girl who interrupted his subconscious' normal workings to ask him about his day, or to have long conversations about TV shows he was watching. Once he dreamed of walking on a beach, bemused at the old-fashioned clothes on the swimmers, and passed the girl lying full length on a towel, on her stomach, a stack of paperbacks at her elbow. "Don't mind me," she said, "I borrowed this one from a previous tenant. The books are yours, though." So he picked up a battered paperback, which he recognized as the To Kill a Mockingbird he'd had since ninth grade, and sat down on the sand beside her to read. At work the next day, bits of the book kept running through his brain unprompted, but he didn't remember the dream.

Rick's sister got married in April, and he went home for a long weekend to see his parents and stand with the other groomsmen, Denise's fiancé beaming as she walked towards them down the aisle. At the reception, a steady stream of Denise's work friends stopped by his table to introduce themselves, and it wasn't until afterward that he realized they had, in fact, only been Denise's unmarried female work friends. He felt dumb about it, and she teased him for it at breakfast the next morning-- her oblivious big brother, still.

Rick didn't notice that, while he was under his parents' roof, he didn't dream about the dark-haired girl. Instead he dreamed about sitting in a college lecture hall with Denise and her husband and half the wedding party mixed in with the real students, all of them taking notes intently. When he tried to point out that they weren't enrolled in this class, and hadn't, in fact, even attended this college, Denise shushed him. "Pay attention!" she told him, sternly. "This is the last review before the exam, you know." In the morning, Rick took a moment to reflect that even being years out of school didn't keep you from having academic anxiety dreams, and how that was really unfair.

When he got back to New York, he stopped remembering his dreams, but it didn't really bother him. He was busy: with work, with learning to make good short ribs, with a girl he met at a party on the fourth floor, who he went on six dates with, and slept with, and then had trouble really staying interested in until she told him she was getting back together with her ex, which solved that problem. Rick worried a little, that it hadn't bothered him more, but Angela said it was probably just that he still wasn't really over Sophie.

In his dreams, the dark-haired girl shook her head and said, "God, no, that's not it. You're cute, you know, but you're kind of dense." In the dream, he had found her at the top of a flight of stairs in his bedroom closet, which didn't usually contain a flight of stairs at all. She had been sitting on the top step, arms around her knees, her mouth pursed a little with frustration. "It's easy, I swear, really it is," she said, and leaned forward into empty air to kiss him on the forehead, clutching the stair rail for balance. "See?" she said, and did it again, on the temple this time; by now he had climbed the stair the rest of the way to sit beside her. The space around them looked like an attic, dusty and forgotten. "Just one," she said, and the next kiss landed high on his cheekbone, "if you could just--" on his jaw, "figure it out--" on his mouth. Rick woke up with a confused, half-desperate hard-on like he hadn't had since high school, and no idea why.

But later, days later, he looked up at the ceiling of his bedroom closet, and noticed for the first time that there was a trapdoor up there, its edges nearly painted over. "Does this building have an attic?" he asked Angela that night, over baked ziti. Her boyfriend was working late. "Because I think there's a door to one, up in my ceiling."

"Don't think so, but we should check," Angela said. "There might be some cool stuff up there." So they borrowed a ladder from the super ("to change some light bulbs," Angela lied), and scraped the painted-over seams free, and levered the trapdoor open. There weren't any pull-down stairs, which Rick for some reason had been expecting, just a dark hole into nothing. He insisted on going up the ladder first, making Angela grouse at him about misplaced chivalry. "If a bat poops on your head, I'm going to laugh," she warned him.

"If a raccoon tries to eat your face, so will I," he shot back as he flicked on the flashlight.

"Please, we're twelve stories up, there's not going to be any raccoons--" Angela began, and stopped abruptly, head and shoulders through the trapdoor. The attic was, in fact, full of stuff: cardboard boxes, old trunks, a stacked pyramid of artificial Christmas trees. The space was bigger than Rick's place, but clearly didn't extend across the whole building. There was a rough red-brick wall that broke it up, about where the next-door apartment would start. They had their own attic, Rick supposed.

"This is so cool," Angela breathed, swinging the flashlight around. "Look, you can see where the rooms are, in your apartment," and she was right, the wall studs from the floor below came up through the floor just a little. "Okay, so there's your living room, and this is your hall, and-- huh."

"What?" Rick asked. He was getting a closer look at the boxes; the top one seemed to be full of very old Halloween decorations.

"Rick, what's on the other side of those bookshelves in your hall?" Angela asked, her expression thoughtful. She was pacing out a square across the creaky attic floor.

"Uh, the elevator mechanism, I think," Rick said, and closed the box.

"Hm." Angela frowned. She got down on the floor, tried pressing her eye to a knothole. "I don't think that's right."

They came back down the ladder into Rick's apartment, stood back a few feet from the shelves and gave them a long look.

"I could take the books down," Rick offered, but Angela made a face and shook her head.

"That'd take forever. Maybe just one shelf?" So they did, clearing one long shelf from end to end and stacking the books neatly along the baseboards. Angela ran her fingers along the newly-bared strip of wall. "Oh! There. You feel that?" Rick tried, and he did: a ridge, under layers of paint and wallpaper, and then another one a few feet farther on. It felt like a door.

"I think we should take down all the books," Rick said. But by the time they'd done it, the day was practically gone, and they both had work in the morning.

"Aaugh!" Angela said, before she went back downstairs. She stamped her foot in mock anger, like a kid play-acting at a tantrum. Rick thought it was a little cute, although that was a thought he tried not to have about Angela for a lot of reasons. She was a really good friend, in possession of a boyfriend, and also someone who knew him way too well for him to comfortably have "that's cute" thoughts about.

So he put it out of his head, at least until he went to sleep that night, where his dream was about a dark-haired, pretty girl stamping her foot, too, and saying a lot of things that boiled down to "Aaugh!"

As soon as Rick got home from work, the next day, he started taking the bookshelves down. He was almost done by the time Angela came; her boyfriend, who'd offered to help with the heavy lifting, had been a no-show. It was just Rick and Angela, then, who painstakingly cut through what must have been a dozen layers of paint and wallpaper, tracing out a shape that looked, unmistakably, like a door.

"Now we just have to wedge the sucker open," Angela said, which turned out to be easier said than done. But they did it, eventually, jerking the door free in a shower of paint chips. and they both paused for a moment and looked at each other before either one tried to venture into the dark space on the other side.

They went together, both leaning in through the doorframe to look around before taking their first hesitant steps inside. The room was dark, with only a little dim green light filtering in through the single ivy-covered window. There was furniture-- a desk, a dresser, the kind of antique sewing machine you have to pedal-- but all of it was so thickly shrouded in dust that it was hard to make out the details. The bed was covered in dust just as deep, which was why it took a long moment before either of them worked out what the shape on the bed was.

It was understandable that it took them a little while, to figure out that there was a person lying on that bed. Her hair was fanned out on the pillow, but it was so thick with dust that it looked gray. The dust was on her face, her eyelashes, on the thin pale arms that rested limp on the cobwebbed bedspead. Only a little of the skin around her mouth and nose was clear of it, where her breath went gently in and out, slowly, steadily. Her mouth was red, and it turned down a little at the corners.

Rick and Angela looked at each other, and then back at the girl on the bed. "Holy shit," Angela breathed out, and then they backed out of the room again, and Rick called 911.

The next couple of days were, for Rick, not a lot of fun. There were a lot of people-- paramedics, police officers, social workers-- who gave him and Angela long, skeptical looks before taking them to separate rooms to ask them a lot of questions. But they both told everyone the same thing, and anyway the story was so completely unbelievable that Rick figured no one would have the balls to make it up.

Eventually, everyone stopped looking at Rick like he was some sort of depraved kidnapper, and started trying to figure out who the girl was, and how she got into the secret room in Rick's apartment. The girls on the fourth floor let him sleep on their couch for a while, because most of his apartment was full of confused CSIs and the police tape they left behind. Also, they were the only ones in the building, besides Angela, who'd ride in the elevator with him anymore.

It all died down eventually, although Rick still had a lot of anxiety dreams where he was getting sent to prison, forever, and also wasn't getting his security deposit back. He woke up from them flailing to throw off the covers, sweaty and breathing too fast, and took a long time getting back to sleep. The realtor who owned the building sent a guy out to strip the hidden door of its layers of paint, and make sure the secret room was up to code. And finally, weeks later, Rick got up the nerve to go see the girl at the hospital.

He wasn't actually sure they'd let him in, at first. But after he explained, the nurse at reception said they hadn't been able to find any next of kin, or identify her at all-- she was still a Jane Doe on her charts. If he told her he thought they might be related, she could get him in the room for a minute. "Because, honey, we do not know a *thing,* and it is driving everyone who's had anything to do with this case nuts. Just talk to her doctors, you'll see. Completely around the bend."

And, yeah, the scrubs-clad doctor slumped in a chair by the girl's bed, scribbling halfheartedly at her chart, did have a kind of an edge-of-his-teeth look to him. When Rick introduced himself the doctor just nodded, and went back to staring at the chart. His name tag said DR. N. CHAUDRY.

"So, she hasn't woken up?" Rick asked, and for his trouble got a look that could probably have withered houseplants. Dr. Chaudry ran a hand through his hair, making it stand on end even more than it already had been.

"No, she hasn't woken up. Nor has she required IV fluids, or the use of a bedpan, or responded to any test beyond taking her pulse manually, and I'm quite sure I'm not supposed to be telling you this but--" He slammed the chart down with a crack. "This makes no sense! The nurses can't get a line in, because the needles all develop spontaneous clogs or the IV bags start to leak, and the monitoring equipment fritzes out if we bring it within six feet of her-- we had to move her so she wouldn't screw up the other patients' heart monitors!"

He scowled down at the bed, as though the girl was trying to piss him off personally with her failure to cooperate with medical science. "Either I'm going to get a hell of a paper out of this, or a nervous breakdown."

Rick winced. "If it helps, I'm as confused as you are. Possibly more, because apparently we've been secret roommates for a while."

The doctor nodded. "I read all those interviews you and your friend gave, when they first brought her in. This is the weirdest fucking case. What are you doing here, anyway?"

Rick shrugged. "I just-- wanted to see her, I guess. No one's told me anything. I was hoping she'd have woken up by now. What are you going to do, if she doesn't?"

"Send her to long-term care someplace, I suppose. But that's not up to me. I'm just supposed to get her eyes open. Or a blood sample would be a good start, too."

Rick looked at the girl lying on the hospital bed. Her face was still and expressionless. She was wearing a hospital gown, now, not the old-fashioned white nightgown he'd found her in, and now that her hair was clean he could see it was dark brown and wavy. Her eyelids didn't even flicker. Rick wasn't sure what he'd been expecting.

A nurse leaned into the room, waving a chart at Dr. Chaudry. He scowled, and ran his hands through his hair one more time. "I've got to get this. Don't... I don't know. I don't think there's anything you can do, but don't do it, anyway." He walked out, following the nurse.

Rick took his chair and sat for a while. The girl didn't move. He tried taking her hand, but it was cool and dry and totally, completely unresponsive. Holding her hand was starting to make him feel like a creep, so he put it back down, and sat for a while longer.

Nothing happened, and kept happening. Rick started to feel like an idiot-- no, he'd been doing that for a while, actually; what he was doing now was giving up. "I'm sorry," he told the girl in the hospital bed, though he wasn't sure what he had to be sorry for. He hadn't even known she existed, before the day he found the trapdoor in his attic.

Before he left, though, he leaned over he and kissed her forehead, like he might have kissed Denise good-night when she was little. "Bye," he said, and turned for the door.

Right before he got there, someone behind him said, "Took you long enough."

He turned, and the girl was propped up on her elbows, looking at him. One corner of her mouth turned up. "Hello," she said.

"Um," said Rick. "Can I-- I think I need a nurse in here."

There followed another flurry of doctors, police, and social workers, only this time Rick wasn't the target. The girl was, and she answered all the questions in a flat, rapid-fire voice, with a sardonic twist to her expression. Yes, her memory was fine. No, she didn't know how she got in the hidden room, or how long she was in there. Her name was Jen Weaver, and she was twenty-six, and she didn't have any living family. The social worker asked her what year she was born, and for the first time she paused, just a flicker, and closed her eyes for a moment before she said "Nineteen eighty-three. December ninth."

Rick offered her a place to stay without quite thinking about whether it was a good idea. He was more than a little surprised when she took him up on it. He and Angela came and got her out of the hospital together. Angela brought Jen clothes, which Rick hadn't thought of. Jen sat in the wheelchair they made all the patients ride to the door in, flicking thoughtfully through the stack of proof-you-exist paperwork the social worker had put together for her.

"So why didn't you have a birth certificate, again?" Angela asked. She looked skeptical.

"I told you," said Jen. "My parents didn't believe in them. Little bit paranoid, my family. Over-protective. Sweet, though. Very religious. " She frowned down at her Social Security card. "She put my name down as Jennifer."

"I thought it was Jennifer," Rick said.

"It's Jennet," said Jen, "but it'll do."

Rick didn't suggest that Jen sleep in the hidden room, and he wasn't surprised that she opted for the couch instead. It was a pull-out, anyway, and she was one of the very few houseguests he'd ever had whose feet didn't hang off the end of the mattress. Angela's clothes, and the things the fourth-floor sisters gave her, were practically swimming on Jen.

The first full day Jen spent in Rick's apartment-- or, rather, awake in Rick's apartment-- she spent cleaning out the hidden room of its accumulation of dust. She twirled a broom in the corners, catching banners of cobwebs, and took the sewing machine to pieces on the coffee table, cleaning and oiling each tiny part. Then she put it back together, and spent her second day cutting down all the donated clothes.

Rick hadn't expected her to pay rent, not really, but after the first week she went out and came back, hours later, with a job at a theatrical costumer's. Then she spent the next few days turning the hidden room into a workshop. Rick sort of wondered if it wasn't just an excuse to take the old wooden bedframe to pieces, which she did with savage satisfaction, and hurl every stick of it into the dumpster behind the building.

Most of the other people in the building were still avoiding Rick, but the next time it was his turn on the meal rota Angela came up with the fourth-floor sisters, and they ate dinner around the coffee table in the living room. Jennet stayed in her workroom, appearing occasionally to get a notebook or a tape measure or a cup of coffee. It was the first time in weeks Rick had just hung out with anyone without something incredibly strange happening. He and Angela drank a bottle of wine between them, easily, while the fourth-floor sisters sipped their own drinks and gave each other significant looks. They left early, after the first movie ended and before the second one started. Angela left two movies later, after it was way too late to have anything like a decent day at work tomorrow. After she was gone, he found that Jen had gone ahead and fallen asleep on his bed; Rick ended up sleeping on the pull-out, his ankles hanging out in empty air.

That night, Rick dreamed he was sitting on the couch with Jen, watching Gone With the Wind. "I still haven't seen this live," Jen mused, taking a pull off her beer. "And the dream version never makes as much sense. You'd be surprised how much stuff isn't turning out how I expected."

In the dream, this all made perfect sense to Rick. "Is that why you make that face when you're eating sometimes, on the first bite?"

Jen laughed. "That's exactly why! It never tastes how I think it will." She wasn't wearing an outfit Rick had seen before. Her dress was long and high-collared, with lace at the cuffs, but she was wearing big, bright green bangles and earrings he could swear were Angela's.

Rick called in sick to work the next morning. He'd only managed a few hours of sleep, and the pull-out was uncomfortable as hell. He asked Jen if she wanted something better, but she just gave him the same opaque look she usually wore and said, no, it was fine; she didn't sleep all that much anyway.

Living with Jen was strange, all things considered. She was neat, after a fashion, and quiet, but she didn't put things away like a normal person. Rick kept finding his measuring cups in the medicine cabinet and his pans in the dish cupboard; once, Jen came into his bedroom without knocking, said "sorry, I thought this would be the bathroom," and left again. Jen explained why she did it in a dream-- it was something about her sense of spatial relations being a mess, after so long asleep-- but he didn't remember it.

Rick wasn't actually all that surprised when Jen announced that she was moving out. She didn't explain where she was going until that night, when Rick was sleeping. "I got this job in Richmond, with a fashion label," she told him, while they floated in inner tubes some distance from shore at Coney Island. In the distance, the people on the beach were wearing funny old-fashioned swimsuits. It all seemed vaguely familiar, which Jen got a little defensive about. "Well, it's one of my favorites," she said, "and I won't get to see it after I leave. It was strange, in the hospital, not dreaming."

"Do you think moving away will help?" Rick asked. "With, you know, the trouble you've been having?"

"I hope so." She paddled close enough to bump inner tubes with Rick. "I'm sorry I'm so weird when I'm awake, you know. I'm just not used to it yet. But I think I'm getting there. I'm hoping it will help, to leave New York." On the shore, a family of swimmers was waving to them, beckoning Jen closer. She splashed around so her back was to them.

"I get it," Rick said. "After a while, dream logic starts to make sense."

"Yeah. That's kind of the problem," said Jen. They floated companionably for a while.

"Hey," said Jen, right before Rick woke up. "When Angela tells you about her boyfriend-- there's something you should really do." But Rick woke before she could tell him what it was, and he felt vaguely dissatisfied the whole rest of the day, as though there was something important he wasn't getting.

The day Jen moved out was also Angela's turn on the meal rota, so Rick went down to her apartment for dinner. Her boyfriend wasn't there, the way he usually was, and neither was her loveseat and a bunch of the art on the walls. "Um," said Rick, "where's--"

"He moved out," Angela said. "The couch wasn't worth fighting over. Shut up, I don't want to talk about it, let's just have dinner and watch a movie."

"Oh," said Rick, and he shut up.

But late, as the movie was ending, there was a moment where for the first time in months Rick felt like he knew exactly what he was supposed to be doing. He leaned in and kissed Angela, just once and quickly, on the mouth. There was a long pause.

"What was that for?" asked Angela. She was smiling, which seemed like a good sign.

"I don't know," said Rick. "It seemed like the thing to do."

About the Author:

Holli Mintzer lives in College Park, Maryland, where she reads, writes, and attempts to knit.

Photo by Dario Cogliati