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Today's Story by Mike DiMarco

He wants to be free but knows he never can.


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My world is one of constant possibility.  The parameters of my very existence flex however I so chose.  No, I am not delusional and no, I am not a drunk; I am simply privileged to be allowed the frequent journey into the endless world of the human psyche.  Some would call narcolepsy a disorder, even a pity, but for me the opposite is true.  If only the world could experience the glorious tip-toe into the realm of the subconscious a half-dozen times a day, then the word disorder would never even be considered.

In technical terms aka the world as you know it, I spend my days in the confines of the Horwick-Mills Center for Sleep Disorders amongst a collection of men and women who suffer from similar afflictions to the very condition on which I thrive.  I suppose I have been here for quite some time, how long exactly I don’t know anymore, but I do know I have been here long enough to realize I’ve been given a gift.   You see, while the rest of you sit through the agony of waking life, just waiting, begging for some adventure, I am busy drifting in and out of miracles.  Where I play there are no laws, no boundaries, no nevers.  Today was my birthday, this is how it went.

The only dreams I struggle to recall are the ones I actually have at night.  When they woke me this morning – they being the kind nurses who tend to us lowly patients and consider us nothing more than plants that need watering—they informed me that today I would be turning 40 and thus I should smile.  Smile Paul, Smile.

From across the room Kevin said Happy Birthday.  Not literally of course.  Kevin hasn’t spoken since he arrived last year but yet he has a way of speaking more genuinely than any human being I have ever met without ever uttering a sound.  When everyone in your world is telling you to cheer up it’s healthy to have someone who will shut up with you forever.

Over the years my episodes have become so frequent, I am no longer allowed to walk the hallways of the clinic.  I’ve been issued a wheelchair for my own safety, and in said chair is where I generally spend my time waiting for the next slip into fantasy.  The first door is always the hardest one to open.  It usually takes a few hours to find myself drifting off and today the wait was longer than I’d hoped.  It was nearly four hours of waiting and wheeling back and forth, avoiding eye contact in all directions, before I felt the familiar rush coming on.  It doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing, when the time arrives there is no denying it.  Your breath disappears and your head ceases to belong to you.  Your thoughts stretch like puddy into long, thin strands and begin to twist and braid into ropes upon which you simply grab hold and swing into the ether.

There are two main types of dreams you see: memories and speculations.  Dreams of memory take you through time and throw your past up all over your brand new shoes.  Now dreams of speculation, these are the ones in which the impossible does not exist.  When you dream as much as I do, you learn to mold the nasty little memories into the beautiful spectrum of infinite possibility.  The average dreamer travels in time and remembers circumstance as it was.  They will take the worst parts of memory and fixate.  Anxiety loves to creep in and spoil all the fun.

Take for example today’s first adventure.  The average dreamer would travel back to the lake house in the summer of ‘82, my 14th birthday, and the year I met my real father for the first time.  That poor average dreamer would remember the disappointment he felt when he first saw his father’s broken face, the stretched skin scarred not by violence but by negligence.  He would recall the absolute absence of emotion when the two first shook hands, both understanding that no future was in store, no memories to be made.  That dreamer would then fixate on the part where the man who fucked my mother in a hotel bathroom and then disappeared into the masses tried to bond with his baby boy by finishing off a bottle of Dewar’s and falling into the fire.  He almost certainly would recall the wails of a stranger in agony as the embers flecked from his singed gray hairs and I bet that dreamer might even stop and focus on just how long it took for that pissed off little boy to dive in the water and pull the ridiculous old fool out of the lake after he jumped in to douse the flames.  And maybe, just maybe that dreamer might realize a few months later when he started falling asleep in class, that meeting his father wasn’t such a good idea.

Not me.  When I travel back to that summer, I remember that same drunken bastard teaching me fly fishing; except this time no booze, just trust.  I watch as he carefully cleans Trout, sweat welling on his forehead as he takes the time to look up at me and smile every so often.  His hands are powerful and lean; they remind me of birch roots digging into earth.  I remember watching him pluck cattails and teaching me how to shuck the husks to get to the hearts, which he sliced thin and cooked over thick red coals with some fiddle head ferns and a pinch of salt.  I’ve been to this place so many times and every time I learn something new.  Today he taught me a trick for scaling trout that cuts the time in half, a lesson I didn’t want to know.

As always I am not ready to wake when I do, and after visiting the lake, I woke up to find myself in the cafeteria, a tray wobbling on my lap with a box of milk unopened and a spoon.  I noticed that someone had taken the time to wheel me out of the food line and place me neatly against the wall next to the garbage can.  When I finally reached the counter Gary the orderly gave me a cupcake and told me to be happy.  Be Happy Paul, Happy.

As I traveled back to my room I stopped as I always do to look in at Helen.  The word was her condition was worsening, and she was losing consciousness constantly now.  They say she will have to be transferred to the local ICU if she does not respond to the medications.  When I stare at her in her bed I wonder if she too isn’t taking their god-forsaken pills.  I sense on her quiet face a hint of a smirk, the same fuck you smirk that I get every time they leave the room and I chuck my meds in the goddamn trash.  Helen knows the truth; she is smart enough to see it.

I wasn’t expecting another trip so soon, but right there outside her door, Helen seemed to pull me under with her.  Suddenly we are together in the guest bedroom of my old house.  Somehow this room feels more appropriate for me now then the master bed; I am a guest in my own life.  Helen is pulling me by the collar, dragging me in to her and whispering into my lips.  This is one of those moments where what is said does not matter nearly as much as how it is said.  I say nothing, but open my lips to listen as she breaths into me.

As we undress we never lose eye contact.  Since I haven’t seen her awake in so long, her eyes seem to change color constantly.  Once we have stripped we move to embrace.  Awkward at first as we struggle to find the right spot, then slowly she reaches to pull me inside her and we fall into harmony.  A perfect call and response rhythm; two bodies sinking into each other.   Me steady and firm, strumming bass in 4:4, her keeping pace, flowing through tight riffs but making certain not to leave me behind.  We can feel the blood pumping fervently from our cores traveling through our nerves, me into her and yet her into me.  The moment is better than it should be, more true.  We hold one long breath and our eyes lock.  When she opens her lips there is no sound but I see the words so clear.

“Stop”

“What?”

“Stop”

“Why?”

“If we come we can never be here again”

And she’s right.  At least not like this.  The next time would be flat or out of sync.  The tempo too fast, the bass line too strong.  When you die in your dreams you do die a little in real life.

When it was over I found myself being wheeled slowly back to my room by Rosa the Venezuelan nurse whose last name is Irish.  She was being kind and keeping her eyes from drifting to my lap.  I suppose when you work with narcoleptics you get used to pushing around men with massive hard-ons in the middle of the day.  She took me back to the lounge area where the TV never turns off despite the fact that it triggers nearly half of all sleep paralysis incidents.  I asked her to bring me my music and maybe some juice.  She simply smiled and told me to relax.  Relax Paul, Relax.

As I waited for Rosa I listened to Hue.  Hue had killed his wife while trying to drive her to work and dragging the steering wheel down with him as he dreamt of beautiful things.  I never spoke to Hue, only listened.  He was one of the many who believed they could control the attacks by never allowing their mind to rest.  Hue badgered on all day to no end simply to avoid falling under and risking another life.

“Hey there Paulie! Happy Birthday my boy, I remember my last birthday goddamn, musta been a few months back now, who knows, in this place ya can’t tell two minutes from two months sometimes am I right?  Did I ever tell you about the birthday I spent in the hospital?”

He had; every year.

“I was in Portland hunting moose with my buddies right…  We had a license and all, it was real legit, but we didn’t get one you see?  So we start headin back home all salty and outa nowhere in the woods there comes this girl.  She’s all covered in mud and she looks like she’s been walkin for hours.  Now I wasn’t tryin to make no move, but she was sexy I tell you what.  It was these eyes she had, like she was born needing to be saved you know?  My buddies tried to keep movin but I couldn’t leave her there.  I went over to ask if she was lost, but before I got a word out I’ll be damned if she didn’t pull out a can of mase and damn near burn my eyes out.”

I gave him the courtesy laugh that I knew he wanted.

“I swear I thought I was blind right there.  I tell you what though, when I look back now I realize that was the most alive I’ve ever felt.  It’s like I was pissed off, fucked up, and turned on all at the same time.  Hell of a birthday man, not like my last one…”

I listened to him like we all do and I understood.  We all self medicate somehow, sometimes a man in pain should just be left alone.  Along the way he cracked his knuckles one by one over and over again.  That sharp hiss of nitrogen gas bubbles bursting between joints almost put me over the edge.   It isn’t quite considered rude to fall asleep while someone is talking to you, not in here, but I did my best to focus hard on the nature show playing on the TV behind Hue just to stay afloat.

As promised Rosa returned with my music (though she forgot the juice) and to my delight she took Hue with her when she left.  This was the part of my day I looked forward to beyond any other.  You see, the real magic happens in the moments in between.  The beautiful phase where consciousness begins to give way and the omnipresence begins to emerge.  This is the stage that the professionals will call hypnagogic hallucinations. I remember these scared me the most before I came here.  I think it was the lack of control that rattled me.  In dreams you have time to stop and process; you can make choices, reason.  In hypnogogia you have no choice but to submit.  You flash so quickly between worlds sometimes your brain can’t quite keep up.  Whenever I found myself in between I thought I was dying, like I was overdosing on my own imagination.  That was before I learned how to ride it.  Hell, it took Buddah 49 days to find enlightenment; it only took me a few weeks.

There is a power about hypnogogia that is truly singular.  This shift brings human senses the closest they can ever be to nirvana.  During these times the yellow rhythms shout at you to pay attention. Your soul is erupting in fiery orgasms and if you’re not careful you’ll miss it all and simply fall back in time or land on some perfect boring beach watching the waves like everyone else.  On the days I’m lucky enough, I can stay in between for long enough to capture the world in all its neon, spitshine brilliance before I drift away again.

William Burrough’s once commissioned a technician to build a device called a Dreamachine that uses Alpha Waves to stimulate the optical nerve and simulate hypnagogia in order to find inspiration for his writing.  Beethoven, Edison, Newton, some of the greatest minds in history credit their works to the influence of this mystical state, and here I am allowed its gifts almost at will.

Today’s fix is the product of the vintage vinyl blues of the great Robert Johnson.  You see narcoleptic episodes can be triggered by sensory stimuli; the trick is simply to find your own and use it as best you can.  Death Metal is the kryptonite of the narcoleptic soul.  Today I set my playlist and let the smooth truth flow.  I wait as the familiar feelings of transcendence creep in and I’m flooded with brilliant blues.  While my mind sinks into the rush I concentrate on holding the images.   I let the sharp breeze of the slide guitar brush by my face.  There’s pain in his voice that begs for forgiveness.  He wants to be free but knows he never can.

In the middle I’m not inside the dream, I am the dream.  I slowly evaporate with the waters around me.  In this state I become something far greater than human or even fantasy.  As the raw sounds flood me I transcend existence, if only for an instant, and become an object of pure energy.  For just as long as I can hold the moment, I become truly divine.

Before long its gone and I am back in ‘82 in the hospital waiting for my father.  This is the part where that poor average dreamer sees the old drunk’s doctor come out and say “We did everything we could…” Instead I greet the doctor with a smile and he tells me he got the hook out of my old man’s eyebrow no problem.  The old jokester pops out holding a lollipop just to yank my chain and we hop in the truck and drive on home.

By then it was late, my birthday had slipped past; another year, another day, another life.  I wheeled my way back to my room but as I drifted passed the room next to mine I noticed Frank.  Frank had shared a wall with me for years and tonight as I passed he was was sitting staring out the window of his room.  Something seemed strange about him.  I rolled in and parked to his left.  He nodded just slightly and continued to stare, slowly eating a very green banana and seeming not to notice.  Frank and I had grown somewhat close in recent years, mostly bonding over our mutual distrust in the medical staff.  I have never been one to start conversation but there is nothing on Earth quite so vile as the sound of another person eating a banana, so I felt I must interject.

“What’s out there man?” I asked

“Just the real world.”

“Then what you staring at?” I asked

“I haven’t had an episode in days.  I think the meds are actually working.”

“Wow.  What are you gonna do?” I asked

“I think it’s time I go home.”  He said, with that same fuck you smirk.

After that we said nothing else.  We sat for a while staring out beyond the slowly dying lawn stretched across the clinic’s front landscape.  Above the strawberry swirls of clouds and sunset I could just see the first peeking stars, some of which I had visited, others which I had seen destroyed in brilliant displays of catastrophic drama.  I looked across the oceans I had traveled and the thousands of faces whose paths I had crossed in the years I have spent in Horwick-Mills. Frank just looked out at his new life, his real life.  Between us was so much distance.  Two truths, two paths parked side by side, separated by silence and a green banana peel.  I turned and left after a while and just as I got out the door, without turning from his window Frank said, “Take it easy”.  Easy Paul, Easy

Then I was back in bed.  Kevin was already asleep and looking uncomfortable as usual.  Everytime I watched him sleep I somehow always expected him to jolt up out of bed and howl for someone to save him.  Not literally of course.  As I lay there I wondered if this birthday was as good as the last, or even as good as any other day.  I wondered why it mattered to me.  If I count all the birthdays I’ve had since I’ve been here I would probably be a thousand today and yet 40 seems like a much larger number.

It was then I felt myself sliding under.  This time felt different though, unfamiliar.  I wasn’t going on a journey, but more a mission.  I find myself crouched over the scope of a rifle, carefully lining my crosshairs on a face in a window; my face, sitting stoically next to Frank, staring across the void between us.  I pan my scope left to see the face of confidence and hellbent hope, then back to the right and again on me.  This is not the gaze of contentment, nor even satisfaction, but rather the mugshot of a shame-ridden antihero who knows he is a farce.  I want badly to put down the gun and drift off to the lake but something in the face through this scope won’t let me go.  It seems to be begging for release, pushing my grip tighter on the trigger.  As the first tear wells up and falls I can’t help but squeeze hard and watch as the single bullet cuts slow and powerful through the thick air, unstoppable and yet beautiful.  It arrives at the window, shattering the panes of glass in spectacular webs of asymmetry and through the labyrinth of cracks I can just make out the wry beginnings of a smile.

I awoke before impact, but this time I wasn’t startled; it felt right.  I was surprised to see Kevin awake again, he rarely wakes during the night, and when he does it is only to vomit or run for a quick piss before he’s back out for good.  He seemed to have been watching me while I dreamt, and when he could see I had regained my composure he looked direct into my eyes.  There was an odd fear in him, one I hadn’t seen since he arrived.  He seemed to be sweating so hard I feared he would melt into the sheets in a puddle of human soup.  I had to ask him if he was ok, but he spoke before I could.

“I don’t want to die in here” he said.

His voice was not like I’d imagined it, deep and reassuring, but rather timid, like that of a shy teen with an untimely erection during show and tell.  I was stunned, dislodged.  I wanted to reassure him, give him something to latch onto to pull him back from the edge but I was crystallized.  Quickly he fell back to sleep, but still I had nothing to offer.  It’s amazing how after years of dancing through fantasy and tackling the surreal, one little statement could bring me unhinged.

On my nightstand there are the familiar paper cups I see every day.  One contains the three little enemies, two in red and one in blue; Modafinil to stimulate the hypothalamus, and Fluoxetine to battle cataplexy and keep me nice and calm.  The other cup half full with clinic tap water.  I stare at these cups for almost an hour until I begin to feel drowsy.  I take one more glance at Kevin, twisted and cringing in his bed, and I swallow down both cups.  Then I lay back as calm as I can and try hard to just breathe.  Breathe Paul, Breathe

—–

Mike DiMarco is a writer out of the University of Maryland whose work has been published in several literary journals.

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