Irene sat at her kitchen table, sipping a cup of hot tea. She never liked sugar or honey in the stuff, but preferred the bitter taste of it resting on her lips. She skimmed the pages of the newspaper, letting the black text enter her eyes and somehow emerge in her brain as words with meanings. She only briefly took it in. The stories never really interested her, but she read them everyday. The monotony and repetition of news provided her with a routine. Someone usually had died, someone else had usually accomplished something amazing, and someone else had usually committed a crime. The letters and words and sentences merged together in the black and white print and eventually all looked the same. She took it in nonetheless, simply because she always had.
She checked the time on her watch, the simple silver band resting gently against her white skin. Nearly ten till seven, she decided she would leave for work early. She sipped the remainder of her tea and pushed back the oak chair from her dining room table. She placed the empty beige mug into the dishwasher and walked across the white linoleum floor to her living room. She glanced around the room, as if she was looking for something. Everything was given a place, the white walls spotless and clean with only a few black and white photographs framed and hung. Her neutral furniture was arranged precisely; she had paid hundreds of dollars earlier in the year to have a specialist come in and Feng Shui her apartment. She enjoyed the look but didn’t really see much difference. Everything belonged, as always. Irene let her eyes rest briefly on the only splash of color in the room—a single fake red rose in a long stem vase.
Irene picked up her black coat and purse from the hanger next to the door and slipped on her black pumps. She smoothed her white blouse around her torso and looked in the mirror on her way out the door. She quickly patted down a stray piece of brown hair and tucked another back into her bun. Her high cheekbones framed her face, and her lips rested in a tight pout. Irene never wore lipstick, and the neutral shade of her lips matched the furniture in the room. Her reading glasses hung neatly around her neck, and the only piece of jewelry she wore dangled from her wrist, a bracelet with a single heart charm.
She sighed at her own reflection, wondering for a moment why she never did her hair any other way. The thought floated from her mind easily, though, and she turned the doorknob and stepped out of her neat, tidy, colorless apartment.
Irene walked carefully down the two flights of stairs, as she did each day, and nodded to the doorman as she walked through the complex door. He never paid her much attention, and she never did mind; she knew she was not anything special to look at. Her black heels were only an inch tall, and her pencil skirt skimmed the bottom of her knees but never hugged her hips and thighs as the other women at her office wore them. The white blouse, always perfectly ironed, hung loosely around her body. The black coat did the same. No, Irene knew she was nothing special, and her appearance reflected it. Carmen always begged her to try new things, but Irene insisted in buying the same clothes, except maybe in a shade of gray, and wearing the same shoes, and doing her hair the same way.
Thinking of Carmen reminded Irene it was her turn to buy coffee, and suddenly the decision to leave early for work had turned into a purposeful one. She walked carefully along the icy sidewalk and took care to avoid bumping into others.
She took the left down Fourth Avenue toward the coffee shop. Keeping her head down, she watched her feet, one in front of the other. Quickly, Irene went over her plans for the day. The gallery was clearing out some old works of art, and a new artist would be bringing in pieces this afternoon. Irene dreaded these days, full of bustle and people and paintings and canvasses everywhere. Even the people were misplaced, moving about in places they usually weren’t, and Irene found it easy to become disgruntled at the artists and the movers, sometimes even Carmen. She did her best to stay in her office, but Carmen eventually would drag her out and ask her opinion on a placement of art. Irene was never sure why she did this; Carmen always put the pieces where the artist wanted them anyway. Irene thought it was Carmen’s attempt to pull her into the artistic world that surrounded her, away from her numbers and figures and bills, into the world of color and art and disorder.
Irene entered the coffee shop and heard the familiar bell ring. The place was packed, as usual for corner coffee shop, but Irene and Carmen had come so often they no longer had to wait.
“Irene lady!” Marty, the morning shift worker, yelled her somewhat nickname across the room. Irene cringed slightly as half the heads in line turned her way. She could only imagine their thoughts as they stared at the woman before them, a woman that shouldn’t deserve to have her coffee ready when she walked in the door.
“Hello Marty,” she replied as she briskly walked to the counter.
“Got your coffees right here,” he said. “One plain black and one vanilla chai with a shot of espresso! Get ‘em while they’re hot!”
He handed her the drinks and she handed him a crisp ten-dollar bill. As always, he tried to give her change and she refused. She always left the change, not because she wanted to leave a tip but because she hated the loose coins in her purse. She forced a smile, said thank-you, and was out the door before she could hear the usual “Good-bye Irene lady!” from Marty, before all the heads would once again turn and stare at the woman who did not deserve to have her coffee ready when she walked in the door.
“Where are they? I could have sworn they were right here!” Irene dug in her purse for her keys, simultaneously juggling two bags of groceries. Before she could prevent it, the corner of one of the brown bags ripped, spilling all its contents on the hallway floor. Irene stared at the mess. An orange continued to roll down the hallway. Her apples lay in a defeated heap at her toes, and a can of tomatoes hit her neighbor’s door with a decided thud. She sighed and knelt to pick up the mess.
“Here, let me help you with that,” came a deep voice somewhere above Irene. She peered up at the tall man from behind her glasses, and pushed them up the bridge of her nose to bring his figure into focus. He had dark hair and was wearing jeans and blazer. He smiled at her the brightest smile she thought she had ever seen. He was holding an orange—her orange—and knelt next to Irene to grab the can of tomatoes.
“Damn paper bags never seem to hold up when you need them to,” he said. He was on her level now and looked her in the eyes. His were a deep hazel, with speckles of green and yellow. Irene consciously closed her gaping mouth and looked down. She could not remember when she had ever seen a man so stunning. She knew such a man had never stopped to talk to her before, much less help her fetch her strewn about groceries off the floor.
“Th-thank you,” she managed to stammer. She kept her head down as they gathered her things. She managed to fish her keys out of her purse, giving her another excuse not to look the man in the eye. She unlocked her door and placed her purse and unspilled bag of food just inside.
“Well, I think this is all of it!” he said. Irene turned to his arms full of the groceries, the bag of apples swinging from his hand. “Where would you like me to put these?”
“Oh, um, I suppose if you could come put them on my table?” she said.
“Well, yes of course.” He smiled and walked into her living room, crossing it in four graceful strides and reaching the kitchen without hesitation. He gently placed the food on the table and turned back to Irene. “There you are, miss.” He nodded and made his way back to the door. Irene stared at his back, his broad shoulders taking up nearly the entire frame of the door. She didn’t realize she was staring until he turned to look at her.
“How rude of me,” he said. “My name is Eugene.” He held out his hand and Irene took it, feeling his firm yet gentle grip. His olive skin contrasted her pale hand, and she looked into his eyes once more. Those hazel orbs, speckled with pulsing green and yellow. His other hand reached out and covered Irene’s, and she felt a spark of electricity surge through her arm and reach her heart. The shock reminder her that she should say something.
“It’s very nice to meet you Eugene,” she said. He nodded and slipped his hands from hers, and the spark was pulled from her limbs just as suddenly as it had appeared. He gave one last bright smile and turned down the hallway. Irene stood there, trying to comprehend what had just happened. She then realized she had not told him her name, and rushed to the door to catch him.
“My name is…” she glanced up and down the hall but Eugene was nowhere to be found. She thought about running to the stairs to try and catch the man, but then decided against it. A man like him wouldn’t want to know her name. He wouldn’t be interested in seeing her again. Not a plain, simple woman like Irene.
She returned to her kitchen and began to put the groceries away. She contemplated dinner, what she felt like eating and then, more importantly, what she felt like making. She stared at her full cupboards, yet nothing seemed appetizing anymore. She poured herself a glass of wine and went to her bedroom. Her light glowed against the white walls, and she slipped out of her work clothes into her pajamas. The plaid flannel pants and button-down shirt comforted her, and she sunk into her bed, wine on her nightstand. She opened her book and began to read, slowly drifting into her lonely, desolate sleep.
She looked around this place, this open expansiveness of land that stretched beyond the horizon and below the earth and above the heaven. Things exploded with color around her—the ground, the buildings, even the sun. Everything pulsed with a life, a beat, a rhythm. She inherently understood that she was on a date, one of those realizations that only come in dreams. Carmen was there and she drifted about lazily, appearing in front of Irene’s face and speaking to her, but she could only see the shape of her lips moving to form what Irene assumed to be words; no sounds came out. The muffledness that seems to sometimes accompany dreams engulfed her, as if she were floating in a bubbleless underwater world where no sound could reach her. Irene saw a man come near her and instantly knew it was him. The muffled feeling left her, and suddenly all noise was crisp and clear. He said hello to her and put his olive hand out for her to touch. Her fingertips met his and the pads of their fingers pulsed in a rhythmic beat, and she could see the colors pulsing and radiating from their connection. First purple, then aqua, then indigo, then yellow. Like a rippled rainbow created by the joining of their souls. Carmen danced on the ripples, hopping from one to the other as they stretched out across the expanse of this dreamland. He embraced Irene’s hand then and they began to walk. Except their walk no longer involved their feet touching the ground; instead, they floated above the surface of the street, and it took four steps to cover the same distance as a real-life one.
Irene was consciously aware of the dream. As if she were watching a film, she saw the couple progress down the road to her home, to what really felt like their home. With each step, yellow pulses rippled from their feet, emanating from the tips of their toes and rippling out like water across the pavement. The longer they held hands, she felt an inconceivable joy, as if simply being there with him at that moment was all she ever need to sustain her. Forever.
She knew it was not real, yet the pure joy she felt could in no way be fake. Her happiness grew with each passing moment, until at last she felt as though she would explode in a blissful euphoria. She could see Carmen in the distance now, still hopping on the ripples that grew further and further apart. She finally settled on a purple one, faced the couple and waved goodbye. Then she disappeared in only the way people disappear in dreams.
They stopped walking just then, and he turned to look at her. She could see herself through his eyes. She noticed the pulsing blue of her iris, bluer than any summer sky or any crystal lake, and wondered why they were not this blue in reality. As he leaned toward her she entered her own body again, just in time to taste his lips, his tongue, his essence.
Irene, you have to wake up, she consciously though. This is not real. This is not real. You have to stop!
But dream Irene was too engrossed, too enveloped in the taste of his kiss to realize the danger of her happiness. She returned his pressing lips with passionate ones of her own, and moved her hips closer to his. She wanted more. Had to have more. She wanted the pulsing to keep rippling out from their embrace, to fill this entire mystical place with a yellow ripple and to make their world explode with happiness and pure joy.
Irene, NO! This is not real. This is not real. This is not real!
Irene lay motionless, her eyes closed. She saw only a faint yellow ripple, and then darkness. She tried to momentarily grasp at the dream, but it was like grabbing smoke in the air. It escaped her and lifted like the morning fog, and no matter how hard she tried she could not hold on to it any longer. She replayed the image in her head. His hand, his face, his taste. The sea of colors pulsing and rippling across the expanse of the horizon. The want for it all to be real in all its absurdity. The man she wanted to fall so desperately in love with, and whom she truly believed was falling in love with her. The bliss still anchored in her heart, heavy like an iron burden. She lay still, attempting to will her dream into reality.
Please be real. Please let it all be real. Let this be my life.
One minute later, a minute that for all Irene knew could have lasted an eternity, she came to the bitter acceptance that it was not real. It was simply a dream, and she opened her eyes and stared at the blank, white wall of her room.
Irene continued her life, her day to day activities. Outwardly, nothing about her had changed. She wore the same clothes, did her hair the same way, drank the same black coffee. Yet each night she escaped to her room in anticipation of the dreams, where she and Eugene met and talked and loved. At first she looked for him in the hallways of her apartment complex. After a few weeks she gave up on seeing him there again and simply looked forward to seeing him each night. At first she was afraid. After a few weeks she surrendered completely to the dreams, to the desires, and to the love. At first she remembered the dreams every night. After a few weeks she only remembered every other night, then every few nights.
She woke with a heaviness on her chest. Irene opened her eyes, foolishly expecting to see him laying on top of her body. Her white ceiling stared back at her and broke the illusion, and the weight instantly lifted. She hated when she woke not remembering the dreams; only small traces remained to assure her they had met that night. This morning, the weight of his body on top of hers. Last week, the taste of his tongue on her lips. Once, a subtle tingling between her legs.
At this point experience told her it was no use willing herself back to sleep in hopes of continuing the lost dream. She sat up and swung her legs off her bed and looked around her. The beige walls, her white comforter, her sparsely decorated room. She hated that she had slept three nights now without remembering the dreams. She longed not just for his face, but for the pulsing colors, the vibrating rhythms that seemed to emanate from the dancing yellows, purples and blues.
She reached for her phone.
“Carmen? I won’t be in today. I’m taking a personal day.” Pause. “Yes, a personal day. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
When she arrived at the store she wasn’t quite sure what she was going to do. She instinctively gravitated to the paint aisle. The number of color swathes baffled her. She thought these colors had only existed in her dreams, yet here they lay, neatly ordered according to color, tone, and shade, for anyone compelled to redecorate their lives in the colors of dreams to come and do so. She ran her index finger along the samples, first the reds, then the blues, then the greens. She wondered where she would start. She wondered what she even had in mind. All she could see were the pulsing colors from her dreams, and she suddenly thought the countless color palettes were dull and lifeless. Nothing like the colors of her dreams. Colors that were dynamic, that ebbed and flowed like the tide of the ocean, pulled by the enormity of love she experienced instead of the full moon. The color swatches blurred together, and soon they all seemed to be a shade of gray. Irene felt her spirits drop.
“Can I help you with anything?”
Irene slowly turned and looked at the person addressing her. She scanned him up and down, a lanky college-aged boy with a nametag that read “Steve.”
“Yes, Steve, I think you can,” she said slowly. She thought for a second, glancing back at the black and white board of colorful bits of paper. “Can you get me three gallons of paint? All different colors, as long as they’re not black or white. Or any type of beige. Colorful. The most colorful colors you can make.
“Sure I can do that. Indoor or outdoor?” he replied. His casualness made her smile, as if he was used to women coming into the store and being indecisive, leaving the decision-making up to him. She was comforted by his assurance.
“Indoor,” she said, smiling. She still was unsure of what exactly she was going to do, but she felt she was making progress toward some attainable goal. Making progress toward some change that had maybe been a long time coming. A change that involved color.
Irene stood back from the wall and took in the piece of work. Splashes of green and yellow crisscrossed and made blue. The shade of red melded with the blue and turned into a purple. The wet paint slithered down the wall, and the yellow joined the splotch of purple and mixed into a murky brown. Irene frowned. Her attempt to liven up her bedroom failed miserably. She had always questioned the paintings of Jackson Pollock, yet now she found a new respect for the drips of paint that created the movement within his art. Instead of her own version of Pollock she had a wall full of muck. Nothing like what she had imagined doing when she walked into the hardware store with a newfound feeling of liberty and freedom.
She sat and stared at the wall for some time. The minutes faded into hours and the hours faded into night. Eventually, she got up from the floor and crawled into bed, knowing comfort would only come in her dreams.
Irene splashed water on her face and let the cool droplets trickle down her neck and reach her t-shirt. She was restless. Sleep escaped her, and the more she craved it the less she got of it. He had become an addiction, one she could not shake. She rushed home to meet him each night, anticipating their meetings like a rooster waiting for the sun to rise. She looked at herself in the mirror. Her hair up in a pony-tail, stray pieces floating down to her shoulders. Dark circles under her eyes. She grasped the edge of the counter for support. He consumed her. She no longer wished to be in this world but only waited to unite with him in her dreams. His touch, his kiss, his love. It was all that mattered to her anymore.
She opened the medicine cabinet and reached for the bottle. Her hand shook but she grabbed the pills dutifully. He would be waiting for her, and she could not disappoint. A drop of water fell from her chin and hit the lid of the bottle. Her soft fingers became steady as she grasped the childproof mechanism and forced the bottle open. She poured the pills into her hand, then picked out two and placed them in her mouth. She built enough saliva around the white orbs to swallow them. She stared at the rest in her hand. Each capsule a night with her lover. With her newfound life. Dancing across the sunlight and into the world of dreams. Her hand came slowly to her mouth, cupped to contain the pills. She looked her reflection in the eyes one last time, then closed her eyes and consumed the remainder of the meds.
Her mouth was dry. She turned the faucet back on and ducked her mouth under the cool, running stream. Some pills escaped and slipped down the drain. Eyes still closed, she only heard the tink of their fall as they hit the sink and continued down the pipe. Mouth crammed with pills now swimming in water, Irene tilted her head back and swallowed. She choked slightly but managed to consume the portion of pills.
She danced back to her bedroom, lit a candle, and crawled under her covers. The satin sheets enveloped her body and she sunk further into her night. Her head rested on a cloud of pillows, and she sunk into softness, patiently anticipating the pulsing colors and the electricity of his touch.
Tonight, she would meet her lover and dance across the rays of the sun into eternity. She looked at the wall of her bedroom, splashed with the murky brown colors not anywhere near the ones in her dreams, and closed her eyes.