by Natasha Yglesias
She showed up like she should, and in the heat of the tiny office they tried. They met in the same office each time, and each time a sound like an air conditioner hummed but it was always too hot—a signal, almost, of the beginning of the process. There the therapist asked her, “Can you tell me about the dreams?” but he did not receive an answer, just like the last two times he had asked. They tried each Wednesday at 4:15—just for this month to see what happens, the therapist promised—tried ever since the nightmares had started, or to be more specific, ever since Tessa had been fighting sleep. For a while, the therapist had waited for something organic to occur, and then, when that did not work, he tried asking.
“Do you want to talk about them at all, today?”
“No,” Tessa said, “but please keep asking.” She could not explain out loud how that question was in itself a comfort, like a hand placed on her shoulder without actualizing the physicality. The therapist leaned back into his chair, the chair that always seemed too large in this tiny, hot office, and focused his eyes on his patient.
“Okay,” he said. “Whatever you need.”
Half the time, instead of stacking books, Tessa studied them. She felt the paper, tested the weight of each page, and examined the variation of textures, glosses, the shades of white and yellow. Sometimes when she was stacking books, she paused to trace their spines. She would bring her hands from the cold metal of the library’s push cart and place them against the worn covers, trying to memorize the way that tactile change made her feel, so that at night, when she would go to bed and get under her covers, she would think of it as something similar.
Last night she fought again—the weight of her blanket, the weight of her eyelids. She sank into the mattress, eyes shutting tight, and then she was sketching the curve of a man’s spine. He was middle aged. He was not fit, but he had runner’s calves and a strong jaw line that reminded her of her father when he was concentrating. She dragged the charcoal across her paper, sketching bent knees and curved shoulders. She clenched her teeth as she drew his face and ignored the pain in her mouth as a warmth pooled inside. She moved it around, tasted the sharp metallic flavor. Some of it spilled out, dribbled red across the paper. It blossomed beautifully, and before she woke she thought, yes, it is better now this way.
“How come you never answer when that number calls?” May had asked one night as Tessa reached over and placed her phone down on the nightstand beside them. “They call all the time. You never pick up.”
“Because,” Tessa said, stepping out from under the covers and putting her clothes back on. “I don’t want to talk to him.”
It was six a.m., and the pool manager was looking at her with that same sour expression he always had each time she showed up this early. As he twisted the keys into the front door’s lock, he said to her over his shoulder: “What are you, part of the swim team or something?”
He propped the gym door open with his foot and turned on the lights, and Tessa walked past him towards the locker room.
She shoved her clothes into a locker and stepped into her bathing suit. When she was younger she hated how the material felt against her skin, but she was used to it now.
She swam a few laps. There was a clock above the entrance, and she looked up during strokes to track her time. When her arms got tired, she stopped and rested against the lip of the pool, tried to calm her breathing.
There was a moment while she rested that her eyelids closed, but panic curled her toes and she strained her eyes open again. Taking a deep breath, she submerged herself, sinking until she hit the bottom of the pool.
A buzzing clicked on. She smiled. That sound.
“I’m going to get fired,” Tessa said. “People use this library.”
“If that were true you would have been fired months ago for all of that book-fondling you do,” May had said, leading Tessa in between the stacks. They kissed, and then May began to undress. At the sight of May’s pale belly, Tessa turned her head away.
“Why are you always trying to make me uncomfortable?” Tessa had asked as May’s hands drifted up her shirt, releasing the clasp of her bra.
“Tessa,” May had said, stopping to lean against a stack of books with a weary expression. “You’re always uncomfortable.”
When she was a little girl she had obsessed over loose teeth. She used to love the dull ache. She would wiggle the tooth back and forth with her tongue. She would press the tooth as far forward as she could without ripping it out and savor the sharp sting before giving in and releasing, enjoying the relief that pulsed after. There was a way saliva pooled near the bottom of her mouth; it was something she could not explain.
Tessa had stopped smoking many months ago, but here in this tiny humming office her fingers always wanted to hold a cigarette, roll it over the skin of her knuckles. It was an impersonal kind of space, plain white walls, no pictures of any kind. The desk between them took up most of the room. Sitting in this office always seemed so confrontational—at least at the beginning of their meetings—being forced to sit so close to another person in such a small space. With each visit it was easier than the last, if only through familiarity—same room, same sound, same questions. She closed her eyes as she listened to the noise in the air, thought of bitter chlorine, imagined being submerged, hearing a humming like the one she heard now through the bubbles that floated upwards as she sank lower and lower.
“There’s something about that sound,” Tessa said. “It reminds me of something.”
“What does it remind you of?” the therapist asked, bringing his pen to his notepad.
“I don’t think it has a name.”
To her, running was the same as sleeping, except once she slept she had to stay sleeping until her body decided to stop. Unable to stand the thought of drifting, Tessa got up and slipped her sneakers on. She stretched outside, getting used to the chill before setting off onto her usual route in a jog. The air pricked her skin, widened her tired eyes. The sun would come up soon. She always liked the shade of blue the sky was at this time of night. She picked up speed, focusing on the sound of her feet hitting the sidewalk in tandem with her breathing.
Her bed used to be her favorite place—but perhaps that was because someone she loved used to fill it.
In another dream, her gums were bleeding.
Her mouth filled with a coppery taste. She could feel the wetness coating her cheek. She looked down, saw the pillow pressed against her face stained red. She rolled off the bed, rushed towards the bathroom, stretched her mouth open in front of the medicine cabinet mirror and smiled pink.
“You’re so closed up,” May had said to her that final day, angry and wild in the doorway of her room. “You’re so stiff. Why can’t you ever be open? Why can’t you ever just relax?”
Why, why, why.
She had once read in a magazine that there were thousands of nerve endings in a person’s lips—that during a kiss, the blood vessels dilate, and it makes the mouth more sensitive. She remembered this during her first kiss—the jolt in her spine as she bit down on a boy’s lips. She got in trouble at school when her teacher found them hiding in a corner of the playground, the boy crying and bleeding. Her father picked her up in the office afterwards, led her out to the car. “What were you doing?” he asked, wiping the blood off her lips. “Those are big girl things.”
They were still trying once the leaves on campus had turned orange and red. She had been getting a few hours recently—progress, the therapist had assured her—but this time of year was always harder for her to sleep. Her brothers loved this month. They thrived during this time. She would watch them run wild across the surfaces of her home in their new skins and new faces, pausing to take cover—hiding in bathrooms, closets, under beds—ready to reach out and seize hold of prey. When she was nine, one had worn a mask that gave her nightmares for weeks.
It had deep-set eye sockets and two black horns on top. It was the color of mud. Her brother had grabbed at her ankles, pulled her down towards him, and she landed on her own body, awkwardly trapped in her fear as she was dragged across the carpet, screaming.
When they were done trying for the day, the therapist said “and Happy Halloween,” and Tessa stopped, turned, and said: “Thank you.”
Afterwards, she sat outside underneath the branches at one of the wooden tables. She drew a beetle that was close to her, because she had nothing else to draw. A leaf fell down onto the table, orange-brown, veins red and deep and dark. The beetle went over to it, its little horns bumping against it over and over. With her pencil, she stabbed the tip into the beetle’s back. For a moment, she felt proud; but then, she realized that wasn’t exactly what it was.
When she forced her eyes open in the middle of the night, she realized she was sweating. Tessa removed the thick covers, planted her feet on the floor. She opened the window, letting in fresh air, and pressed the base of her palms into her heavy lids. She stood there for a moment as her skin adjusted to the change in temperature.
Tessa grabbed a glass and headed towards the bathroom. As her feet pressed into the cool tile, the glass slipped from her fingers and shattered. The other door to the bathroom wrenched open.
“Hey, what happened?” the girl said, looking more angry than concerned.
Tessa looked up through blurry vision. Her suitemate stared down at her, lines marring her pretty face. Tessa tried to remember her name.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
The girl looked skeptical, searching Tessa’s face for signs of something. “Well, are you okay? Do you need to go to the hospital or something?”
Tessa closed her eyes. She felt the wetness on her eyelashes.
“No,” she said, reaching down to pluck a small shard out from the skin of her ankle. “I’m just tired.”
There was a nightmare that happened near the end of each night—one that wouldn’t go away. In it, she sat outside at that wooden table, bit into an apple, and whimpered at the pain in her gums. Not the good pain, but the bad kind. Her eyes watered as she tried to remove her teeth carefully, but they removed themselves from her gums and remained lodged in the apple’s skin—a perfect pair of parentheses inside. Her fingers reached up, prodded the irritated tissue, the raw, open gaps which stung from meeting the air. She looked down and saw her blood stain the white flesh of the fruit. She looked up at the people in their coats as they stared at her from across the other tables, hands over their mouths, silent but watching. She pressed her lips together, felt the soreness from her gums touching. A hand reached forward, pried open her mouth, and someone said, “What do you have in there?” and she said, or tried to say, “Nothing, I am missing things,” and then he said, “Here, my big girl, let me help you look.”
It was Wednesday again, the day to try and heal, when she sat down in that office and waited for the therapist’s question. For a moment Tessa lost control of her body, her eyelids pressed shut and her neck bowed under the weight of her falling head. Then, as if coming up for much needed air, she forced herself up and awake.
The therapist leaned forward, placed his hands onto the large desk between them and said, “Why don’t you sleep, Tessa? Just for a little while. You’re not alone. It’ll be okay, I promise.”
Tessa tried to say she was fine, but that sound—as if to second the therapist’s assurance—clicked on. With that familiar comfort, Tessa nodded and sank into the chair, sank into that tiny, hot office, and Tessa closed her eyes and breathed.
Natasha Yglesias received a BA with a concentration in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She is a reader for Post Road Magazine and an editorial assistant for an educational publishing company in San Francisco. Her short story, "Inheritance," was an honorable mention in Glimmer Train's April 2015 Very Short Fiction Award, and was recently published in Lockjaw Magazine's Vol. II.