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I dreamt I was back in our old apartment in the grove, and everything was as it once was. You took my hand, and we walked out into the lush streets. A small green lizard ran across the pavement. The air was a deep indigo, edged with lightness, and I couldn’t tell if it was dusk or sunrise.
I woke with such a strong sense of you, as though your arms had been wrapped around me in the night.
The rains and tides have gotten worse. There’s nothing left of the beach, and we’ve moved several miles inland of what used to be the bay. Devlin, with typical asperity, said that it’s hard to tell if this neighborhood became a shanty town after the floods or was already one. Almost everyone else has taken their buy-out and gone to the settlements. Even the enforcement officers are gone except for the outpost on the golf course, seven miles north of us. Most of the emergency LEDs have gone out too, though a few still flicker – limp, white, and mildewed – at the edges of the districts. I’m tempted to fall back on pleasantries – “We have the place to ourselves” – but that’s laughable, human-centric as one shouldn’t dare to be these days. There’s the implacable hum of insects at night, always seeming to get louder. And the river merged with the ill, tepid ocean so there’s also the stink of freshwater animals who wandered out into the roads and died there – otters and gators, turtles and snakes. (Some of the stink must be residual, and human.) Vultures with red and gray heads clump around the carcasses. The other day, I saw a hawk flying towards downtown at nightfall with a limp blue heron grasped in its beak. I like to imagine the hawk was taking its tribute to a penthouse to disembowel it while surveying the wreckage from on high.
The thermostat reached 130 degrees today. Every day when he comes back from checking it, Devlin says, “A new record.”
It’s tricky, if I want to go out, to choose between utter darkness and testing whether, under this sun, my blood would literally come to a boil.
At first I only had flashback dreams. I woke with my back seizing up like it did those nights on the cot.
The agreement we made – that a life sealed off in the settlements would be no life at all – seems almost comical now. A conclusion reached from wildly different premises: your “glimpses” of something higher and my stubborn love of what is. I’ve heard the reports about a few other “hold outs” on the peninsula. Largely depicted as ill, elderly refusers, they are discovered sunburned, malnourished, and belligerent in their warped homes. So in theory I’ll stay to tend to them (the enforcement notices – that Dev and I must also leave – have almost stopped). I like to imagine an old woman emerging perfectly intact from a storm cellar somewhere, wanting to know what happened.
As the effects get stranger – rust-red mold on the pavements like a carpet, sweat permanently congealed on my skin, finding that a street ends in a chasm or sinisterly iridescent lake – I’m beginning to think you were right. Loving this earth and wanting to live in it is like loving a corpse.
Sometimes I do still dream about it: not about the night itself, but about how I felt. My subconscious connives fresh disasters: a subway tunnel during a bombing, platform shaking; the hold of a ship as it fills with water, exits sealed; calling your name in a stairwell and the crack of a building coming down. Each dream replicates my clarity, almost elation when the storm broke over us: the world is about to end, minutes to go, and the only thing that matters is to be near you.
What does it mean to outlive such a revelation?
You told me you didn’t know whether a disaster destroys the world or points beyond it.
I sometimes imagine you swimming out into the ocean, thinking you’ll reach land on the other side.
You might be glad to hear I’ve been sleeping through the night. I’ve weaned myself off Devlin’s capsules so my sleep is deeper. The bad dreams have mostly stopped, perhaps because real memories outstrip them. As I lie down, submerged in the humidity, I think of the two us on your cot. The rains slamming against the windows for days and days, and your hoarse whisper when the wind stopped: here comes the real disaster.
Now I find myself wishing those winds would come again, that the weather would show a pulse.
Devlin says I’m staying here to prove something to you. I wish that were true. Instead I feel restive, hounded. I’ve already proved that I love my life more than I love you.
But what, exactly, is it that I love? I’ve lost my city, lost you, am losing the ocean and the air.
I won’t choose death but neither will I choose self-preservation in some climate-terrained tin can on the mainland. And I won’t – can’t – choose life as it was.
So I choose dreams.
A few nights ago, I dreamt of paddling a standing canoe downtown and passing the flayed pink bodies of three porpoises. They floated alongside me, pickled in a mixture of grease and alkalized water. I was the only living thing for miles. The pocked, silvery high-rises gleamed in the waters and there were no clouds.
It’s true that, as my subconscious assimilates more of this new world, my dream life becomes less comforting.
Devlin won’t call himself a biologist anymore. Bios means life. Instead he calls himself a marine mortician.
He says it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to study a dying ocean. But I think it’s because, no matter what horrors the sea casts up, he can’t part with it.
At first I stayed because of the clinic. Then I stayed because I was waiting for you. Finding your shoes near the water line doesn’t prove anything.
But my reasoning has fallen apart.
It took a couple weeks for Devlin to find you. You had washed up near Summit Park, covered with the gelatinized remains of fishes and other things. You didn’t look much better than those porpoises, darling.
When Devlin brought me out to where he’d dragged you, I touched your face but immediately wished I hadn’t. Your flesh felt spongey and hot, as though it was running a fever. I didn’t even recognize you at first, just that your body was less bloated than the others.
I thought, it’s not looking so good for your emanations, for your “going beyond” – you didn’t even get beyond the harbor. (But every day since you left I’ve wished I’d listened more carefully to what you said.)
We no longer bury people in the spit of beach by Venetian Way: it also receded. We did try to get you on Devlin’s boat but you were too heavy and it started to sink. So, you see, the only thing we could do was push your body back out into the water.
After Devlin dropped me off back at the shelter, I used up an entire week’s water supply trying to get your stink off me. My forehead feels convulsed and heavy.
You would say, that body isn’t you. There would be no closure in honoring it. Vessel, husk, lump of meat: mourning rituals are based on a fallacy, the sticky, primal intuition that a soul remains linked to its corpse.
That body isn’t you.
You’ve gone somewhere else. Closer to my dream world, the night ether. But you’re receding there, too. When you speak to me, I can’t always understand your words. The other night you came to me – another dream in our old apartment, with the windows intact and the sky outside a healthy blue. But you were different. Please please speak slowly I can’t understand say it again.
You just shook your head, and ran your hand down my arm, from my shoulder to my palm.
When I woke, I felt as though I had spent the whole time sobbing not sleeping. I’ve sweated out all my tears but my head’s still trying to cry them.
When I think about your body, my whole mind recoils. Instead I seize on what I can grasp. The weather. How you looked alive. An oil-black lizard scuttling out from one of the cracks that startles when I stamp my feet.
I dreamt that Devlin and I made a fire on one of the dry streaks of pavement, the way we used to when we first moved out here. I was talking about a Viking funeral. Devlin’s objections (there’s no body) only agitated me. But then he agreed. He began to seem like someone else, not Dev at all. We decided to sacrifice the raft for you. We thought about setting the barge on fire, but – carryover from waking – Dev thought the oil on the water’s surface might catch fire, too.
I laid your shoes and one of your books and something else on it and we pushed it out into the low, dark waters. I watched the barge drift out as the moon’s ashy, occluded light mingled with the pale flickers of Dev’s LED lantern. We knew our pyre would capsize or sink or get caught in the bank of dead grasses, but that didn’t matter.
It was the most beautiful thing. When I woke up, I rolled back over, wanting to fall back and find that moment, watching your barge under the moon.
Later on, when I got up, I knew what I needed to do. No, not hold a proxy funeral. I needed to go back to the shore where we’d left you. Where does recklessness meet despair, you might ask. But I didn’t think of Devlin’s warnings. I was full of the most pure exaltation, the happiest feeling I’d had in weeks. The dream’s gift to me.
That afternoon, Dev came into my room. Usually, we don’t speak to each other during these stultifying hours of high daylight; we avert our eyes, pretend we aren’t aware of the other’s fidgety presence, and try to rest.
I’d wanted to tell him about my dream, but instead he spoke. He told me he was going to leave for the outpost. He asked if I would come. I shook my head. “No, Dev.”
He made me promise I would think about it. The contrast between his skin and the turbid light that comes from behind the curtains made his face look ghoulish. I told him I would think, and he left.
I was furious at him. I lay back on my pallet and turned on my lantern. Its thick plastic is opaque with moisture; the battery is almost dead, leaving the barest flicker of light.
I reread one of those old, enigmatic passages you loved:
As darkness recedes when light appears, so lack recedes into perfection … form and image vanish in the fragrance of Unity… In time, multiplicity will vanish into Unity … in time, Unity consumes darkness into life…
When the blue, lowering glow of dusk started creeping in at the windows, I fell asleep. When I woke, my room was full of the cooler light of the moon and my sticky wrist was over my eyes. I could hear Devlin in the other room, packing or moving things around. I shut my eyes and, in time, fell asleep again, more deeply this time.
Some time after sunset, I woke and found that Dev was away, and knew I should take my chance. I turned on my lantern. Its thick plastic is opaque with moisture; the battery is almost dead, leaving the barest flicker of light. I unhooked the spare raft from the wall and dragged it into the water. At first I didn’t get very far. I’m not used to steering – Dev’s paddle was a broom handle fused with plastic chopped off a refrigerator door, and proportioned like a gondolier’s. I ran aground in some of the muck that settles wherever it’s shallow. (The water evaporates a bit further from our building every day.)
Then I got the hang of it. As the water deepened, it became easier to steer.
I had a feeling of peacefulness as I passed rows of water-stained concrete homes, mostly intact, though missing their roofs. The fact that there was no one didn’t alleviate the feeling that there might be people in them – the dark, blown-out windows almost stared back.
I had the sense that I might learn to navigate the city again, that, without Dev, I might learn to commune with this world just as I did with the old one. The moon was almost full and I watched it, big on the horizon. Its light seemed like a faint, beneficent illumination.
Part of me was also aware that the full moon, when the tides are high, is a bad evening to set out.
When I got to the interstate underpass, I hit something hard just beneath the waters and almost capsized. The lantern did fall off the raft. It floated for a moment and I tried to grab it with the paddle, but then it sank, the waters devouring its little pallid spark. The water had become very deep. The puddle stillness of the area around our house had vanished. I was nearing the influence of the tides. For a moment, I thought that beyond the battered concrete of the underpass, I would be sucked straight into the open ocean. I paddled hard against the water, which suddenly felt slow and viscous, until I hulled against one of the undergirding slabs of concrete.
I could just make out something on the other side of the highway. It took me a minute to realize it was the top of a barbed wire fence, barely protruding above the water. Beyond, I could see the emaciated forms of downtown, darker than the by-now roiling night. Seen from our house in real life, the skyline looks like a mildly pocked version of its old self but up close, its decomposition was clear. Ragged glass and plaster ligament hanging from the windows. Upper floors torn off. Crushed, slant concrete and rebar protruding from the waters. Everything very, very dark.
I remembered how Devlin goes the longer way, just to avoid downtown. I thought I would do anything just to get back safely.
I had made it less than a mile.
I don’t really remember how I turned around: just a frantic scramble over turgid water, afraid I’d fall. My pants soaked with the oily water lapping at the raft’s sides. I’d totally lost the composure I’d had on the way out – but you know me, love. I’ll get it back.
As I dragged the raft back onto the pavement, I saw that Devlin’s boat was back. Then Dev came out to watch me. The gray smudge of dawn had appeared on the horizon. Dev didn’t help me pull the raft in. He just looked on: must have known impassivity would rattle me more than a display of fear or anger. Part of me wanted to apologize. Part of me exulted in my shame and stupidity. I withdrew my eyes from him. As I walked by him to the shelter, he tried to catch me, laying a hand on my ankle. He said my name in a low voice. I didn’t even look at him, just kept walking, like he was a beggar trying to get my attention.
He followed me inside. “Don’t stay here, come with me, try it. You can always come back.”
But we both know that’s a lie.
By then I’d reached the entrance to my room. I turned and looked at him. He had this awful stricken expression, a beseeching look in his eyes. Quite unlike the Dev we used to know. It’s sad to see someone so proud and stubborn crack up and give in.
Back in my room, I took one of the last capsules I’d squirreled away. I lay down, marinating in the daylight that was spreading through the windows. I fell into a sweat-drenched, shallow sleep, as though I was just below sleep’s surface with my real life on the other side. My arms will ache from my little journey downtown, but it’s good to think that, in a few days, the muscles will be stronger.
When I woke, I found a note from Devlin telling me he’s left for the outpost. Next to it, he’d left two of the thick plastic water drums. His last rations, sweet man.
So I’m alone. At sunrise I stand in the doorway, watching the first rays of daylight strafe the rotting blacktop and waters beyond it. When the day arises, I go inside.
Sometimes I think that some strange inverse is at work by which the land’s decline and your death restore me to sleep. Call it solipsism; call it a busted coping mechanism – I’m done trying to stave off my bereaved illogic. The kingdom where I’ve taken refuge is an uncertain one in any case. I go to sleep without knowing whether we’ll be reunited or if nightmares will toss me back. But yesterday I dreamt that you came and held me. We were in a new place, different than the old one but bearing no trace of the hellscape our city’s become. It was very foggy all around us and it was that blue hour, dusk or daybreak. But even with all the fog I had the sense that there was mud and grass beneath us. I knew that we were in a shady verdant place. I felt as though we weren’t in the place so much as inside it, and I told you that. You nodded; you understood.
This is what I want to tell you now. I won’t wake up in the middle of the day anymore, missing the weight and solidity of your chest. Instead, I’ll fall back deeper, and try to follow your scent to that place where it’s warm, not scorching, and dappled with shade.
Ingrid Norton's essays, fiction, and reportage have appeared in publications such as Boston Review, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The St. Ann's Review. She is a doctoral student at Princeton University, and a former editor and journalist. Norton is working on a novel.