On a Tuesday in October, Mr. Sutter fired me, waved me toward a cardboard box to put my stuff in, something I’d only ever seen people do in movies. But I guess I’d never thought to bring anything to work. No reusable lunch containers or extra sweaters. Certainly no framed pictures. The only possession I had in my cubicle, atop the brown rings it had made on the squares of my desk calendar, was a Grand Canyon coffee mug. I guess there was also the purple-feathered and white-beaded woven hoop jammed behind my computer monitor; my mother had gotten it from some obscure guru after spending a chunk of retirement money on her solitary road trip to Sedona. Her name used to be Diane, but the guru advised that she change it to Gaia Meadow. Ever since, she’d wanted me to call her Gaia, too. I couldn’t get myself to do that.
In the office pantry, I rinsed the mug out one last time, not bothering to dry it, and it slipped away from me, swiftly cracking into four neat pieces on the floor. So neat I was able to pick them up with my fingertips. Dazed, I stared into the trash at the now three-pieced canyon and its broken handle before proceeding to the supply closet and loading my canvas backpack with sticky notes, legal pads, highlighters, paper clips, and blue pens. Carla, with her shoulder pads and pleated pants and overly scented bath products, twenty years my senior—the only person I’d ever trusted enough at Sutter, Sutter, and McGillen to tell about my dreams of smashing all the windows in Mr. Sutter’s office with his decorative gavel, of flipping his long table over, of taking wheels off his assorted rolling chairs—didn’t notice me slink by her cubicle.
When he’d fired me, Sutter had pushed his glasses up his nose, those rectangular lenses so thin that Carla assumed he wore them to be stylish rather than to correct his vision. “Listen, Sahh-shh.” Sutter’s voice had always been so nasal. He drew out the one syllable into two with showy slowness, sliding his glasses off his nose as he spoke, dangling them between us while crossing his other hand into his opposite armpit. He liked this gesture, defaulted to it; he seemed to feel at once protected by the crossed arm and empowered by the one in front of him. In any case, I’d told him long ago that my name was Sasha—the only person allowed to call me by just the first syllable of my name was Dani, my best friend since third grade. Gaia Meadow wasn’t even allowed.
“Listen, you know I like you,” he’d continued. “You’re a good kid.” This had been another running theme, Sutter thinking I was far younger than thirty-nine, never recalling I’d worked there for eleven years, fielding his tedious calls and smiling on his behalf at all kinds of swaggering lawyers who never smiled back. “Sahsh, you used to be a go-getter. Nobody needed to tell you what had to be done. You did it all. With a smile! I gotta be frank, you just don’t seem like you give a crud anymore. I didn’t say anything in September when you were coming in late all those days—Carla said you weren’t feeling good—listen, I didn’t want to push it. But you didn’t send the Mullaney or Garrison papers out last week. That cost us big time.”
I’d been staring at his glasses hanging in the air between us—probably fake, Carla was right; she’d had Lasik surgery last year and knew all about glasses.
And, staring, I’d felt nothing.
Nothing in my senses, no tingling hands or gaseous stomach, no panic or relief, nothing in the things people tend to call a heart or mind, no thoughts or inklings, no preferences. The office’s perennial coffee scent vanished, and so did the piercing slices of the intern’s paper cutter. The fluorescent lights, usually so severe, abruptly dimmed.
It was as though, in one instant, I’d evaporated.
Without shutting his door, I’d left Sutter’s office; he was famous for always wanting it closed. When he’d called out after me, “Hun, go ahead and close that,” I had pretended not to hear him. The thought then crossed my mind: Guess I’m still here after all. I wasn’t sure whether or not I was comforted by it.
I didn’t take the elevator; there was nothing to rush to and, even on a good day, I hated its repetitive ding. I went down the back stairs, the ones used for emergencies and for middle-aged women dabbling in weight-loss resolutions on their lunch breaks. Thirty minutes up and down. I tried to feel each concrete stair, tried to hear the taps of the balls of my feet ricocheting in the stairwell as they were supposed to. The twelfth floor, the eleventh, the fourth, and in a flash of consciousness at the third, I realized I couldn’t remember ten through five. With my hand pushing the handle on the back door, I concentrated on feeling the metal, but nothing. All that was there was a blank space, an inverted field of skin. For a few moments I shook my hands out, tried to get them back, but drifted out of myself again. They flopped to my thighs.
The air felt more like late November than October, windy and stinging, and as it bounced around my body, my inner fogginess expanded. I could hardly see through it. Or maybe it wasn’t fogginess at all. Maybe it was more like drought. My mind, these past few months, felt like it was being burned though. Now, everything was an echo, each fragment of wind bouncing off my skin, straight back to its far-off source. I used to sense and understand wind, but I couldn’t anymore. I couldn’t understand wind at all, or what it was, or where it went after grazing me.
Agitated, I thought about calling Carla. The window closest to her cubicle was right above my head. Maybe she could quit in solidarity and, together, we could try to sense wind.
About half the orange and yellow leaves had fallen from their trees, but most of the red ones were still clinging. They seemed full of heat, as if their colors were literal, and when I stared at the red ones, I swear my body’s temperature flared. I closed my eyes, opened them, closed them again. Tried to get all the correct levels back. It had to be simply that I was tired, confusing metaphors with the real. Sleep and I hadn’t been on good terms for months.
Bending down near the dumpster, with its smells of old lunch and rotting cardboard, I picked up a couple crumbling bits of leaf and laid them on my tongue. With a gag, I spit out the flecks immediately. They tasted like what I imaged rotten seaweed would taste like. Looking at my hand, brushing off the remaining leaf bits with my other hand, letting an ant crawl from my finger to the pavement, I sat there stupidly on the ground, briefly hoping nobody was watching me, then briefly hoping someone would, then deciding I didn’t care.
The trolley squealed, the hot dog vendor offered mustard, the office workers and construction workers and art students and homeless vets, they were all a mirage. I swear I could have put my hand through the whole thing, poked it right through that wobbly screen. I couldn’t figure out if any of our bodies were actual, or if perhaps we were all cosmic holograms or some other theory in quantum mechanics my mother insisted she understood and would never stop going on about.As in a movie, they seemed to share a layer of existence I had no access to. I wondered what would happen if I tried to touch their calves, their nostrils. Whether or not their bodies would melt further and further away the wider I spread my fingers out to them. But maybe, like me, they didn’t feel anything. Maybe it was a pact we’d all made to pretend we did.
The throngs went faster and fumbled with umbrellas; everywhere except where I sat, puddles were forming, pavement was getting slick. Over my hair it rained hard, then harder. But as with a bird’s feathers, the drops seemed to roll off my body, something within me suddenly untouchable by water.
I rode the subway home, my cheek absorbing the vibrations of the pole, and when I exited, everyone without an umbrella was running. Too tired to run with them, I plodded for eight blocks with the office supplied I’d pilfered. I’d read and ignored the weather report that morning, as if I could will warmth by dressing for it.
Sutter’s voice flooded me. You’ve got to dress appropriately for the weather, Sahh-shh. His voice had an echo in it, just like the wind had earlier, making him sound uncanny, as though his voice lived a few inches outside itself. You were once a Grade A worker bee! It leaped around inside my brain like the cold drops outside me did, first to the left, then the right, until Dani’s own disembodied echoes swallowed it. As if from a lost ship’s radio signals, she murmured: Let’s get a drink this weekend. You’ve been acting so weird! Did you end up hearing from your dad? My mother’s voice, in turn, slurred over Dani’s. Hun, I know everything that happened back then was hard for you. But I had a vision of the goddess and she told me to tell you she loves you.
The echoes gradually bounced away, drizzling out my ear to join the downpour as I arrived at my triple-decker apartment. The hallway, the living room with no TV and no lamps, my bedroom to the side with its tall windows. Nothing else except a bed. Even before, I’d never really cared about filling up space.
When my fingers brushed against the light switch, I realized they were dry.
I scrutinized my plain white blouse and khaki cargo pants and black canvas sneakers, my half-hearted attempt at business casual. Smoothed my hands over them to double-check. But like my palms, my clothes were not wet. Neither was my hair. Or my canvas bag.
I rolled it onto the floor to dig through it; none of the office supplies had been touched by the eight blocks of hammering rain.
Shoving my bag into the corner, I reasoned that time was escaping me because of my insomnia. That was why I couldn’t remember getting dry. All those patterns of cracks in the ceiling’s paint that I’d memorized right above my bed, the rivers they formed and how they led to a fanned-out delta over the middle window. They were the only thing I noticed lately. Yes, it was simple, really. The insomnia was poking holes in my mind. A passing glimpse of my bed—its ball of blankets, one pillow with a case and one without—dissolved me.
Never before had I been one to remember my dreams; in fact, I’d resisted them because of how adamant my mother was about their symbols. But when I fell into my musty bed, my sleep was engulfed with landscapes and geography. There arose a dark ocean with air that smelled of ice, then a turquoise ocean with air that smelled of salt. Then a mountain, then a blue-gray field and a tan one, then an alpine forest. There were two vast icebergs—one solid, one melting—then a desert overrun by cactuses, then a desert nearly empty save for a baobab so high and wide it seemed to have no beginning or end. There was every single type of rock and dirt. And water. River, ocean, landlocked sea, forest puddle, field puddle, pond, the damp insides of broken succulents, mist in a field and mist over morning bodies of water in spring. All flipping by serenely, like a slideshow of someone else’s vacations or the memories of an animal.
But in none of these landscapes were there actually any people or animals, houses or human-made objects. I wasn’t in them, either. There was just a consciousness, an awareness which was mine but that simultaneously didn’t belong to me. It was an implied yet invisible eye, an eye both larger and smaller than that which it observed. And it observed no less than every single chunk and element of the earth.
As the night went on, those chunks and elements were increasingly detached from their systems, like me. The oceans lost their smells, then the deserts. All temperatures vanished. There was a waterfall that came from nowhere and went nowhere. A volcano with no other mountains around it, not even a hill. Yet those pieces, those landscapes, were three-dimensional, as if real, as if contextual, following some important rule I could not articulate after I awoke. There was no time or story in any of it.
The dream’s eye was watching a frozen tundra when I heard a palm slapping at the front door. My body remained completely flat, but my eyes blasted open to the delta of cracks above the bed. The landscapes kept flipping, only now they were materializing from the ceiling. If I had stood on the bed, stretched myself up, I could have grabbed them, so clear as they glowed before my delta. But then I remembered my body. My godawful work clothes. The dirty pillows.
The ceiling’s cracks sucked all the landscapes back in.
Smoothing my hands across my clothes, I tried to remember what had happened, Sutter, the subway. The rain. The inexplicable dryness.
The slamming on the front door paused.
The sun was blazing through the tall middle window when Carla’s face arrived, with its frame of wide, permed hair and its lipsticked mouth bellowing my name. I sat up, my dry hands indenting the mattress, creating empty molds of hands there.
“Damnit, Sasha! Let me in!” All her sounds were muffled.
“I got fired yesterday,” I called through the glass.
“Yesterday? That was Tuesday.”
“It’s Friday. Where’s your head? Open up!”
My body pressed against gravity and shuffled to the door, where I fumbled with the lock; Carla barged in. “The hell’s up with you? Why won’t you answer your phone?”
“Dunno where it is.”
“It’s right there.” She seized it from a little table by the door, where I’d apparently tossed it yesterday, which was actually Tuesday. When she yanked a charger out of her purse and plugged it in, a deluge of dings from text and call notifications pummeled me. They were all from Carla and Dani.
“Sasha, I wanted to give you space, but at some point, you gotta understand, your friends are gonna get worried. You look like hell. Have you showered? Eaten?”
“I guess I wasn’t hungry.” More for her than for me, I walked to the kitchen and tore open an old box of corn flakes. But a dryness in my throat and chest choked me. “God, I’m so thirsty I could puke,” I murmured.
“What was that?”
“Nothing.” Placing my hand on my neck, I threw the faucet on, filled a mason jar with water, downed the water, filled it again, downed it. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been this thirsty.” With my back turned to Carla, I drank a third jar.
“Why’d you get fired, anyway? What’s going on with you?”
“It was that report I forgot. But I’m fine, seriously. I’m feeling better—I’ll get dressed. Let’s meet over at O’Brien’s Tavern.”
Carla glared, trying to read me. “Okay. And we can start finding you a new job.”
I kept drinking, but the impression of sandpaper coating my stomach was only getting worse. At last, my throat clenched from nausea and I spit up a violent wave of water into the sink.
“You’re obviously not okay.”
“I drank too fast. No big deal.”
“Give me Dani’s number. I’m going to have her meet us, too.” She flipped through my phone to find it. “Six o’clock. You better show.” Her feet tapped themselves out through the back porch, and each step sounded like a pebble thrown into an empty well. I put my hands over my ears and closed my eyes, and when I opened them, she was gone, and everything was silent.
Against my ears, my palms were cracked and bleeding. Frantically, I slapped Band-Aids all over them, but they wouldn’t stick.
When I went out this time, I made myself wear a sweatshirt with a fall jacket over it, and even stuffed an old knit beanie in my pocket. But, like the sky had been waiting for me, it started raining again as soon as I stepped out.
From the curb, I looked up, kept my eyes open wide as if daring the thick clouds to touch me, and for one second, I felt the water—I swear I did. But when I touched my face, neither my face nor my hands were wet. It was pouring now, and my heart started beating exactly as fast as the drops fell. I guess I shouldn’t have still been incredulous, but I held my hand up to my eyes as if looking for more proof. The splits on my palms were dotted with dried blood. I put my lips there, all over my palms I moved them, desperate to turn the blood wet again, to bend it back to liquid, to taste the salt I knew—but neither my spit nor the liquid of my blood would come.
Stumbling inside, I crashed my hands through the medicine cabinet for lotion, slathered it all over my body and clothes. My hands, then my elbows and my arms, then my stomach and the back of my pants. Panicked, I sniffed at the lotion’s synthetic lavender, then I licked at the lotion itself, completely covered my coarse tongue with it. It was both bitter and tart as every inch of it rolled off, first down my chin, then off my shirt, plopping to the bathmat.
In the bathroom mirror, my face didn’t show up. All I saw was a shore.
A shore of black sand, as if my dream of flipping landscapes was on the mirror, like a movie, like the people I’d examined from the dumpster yesterday—or was it Tuesday—pacing around inside their special layer. As the shore gazed back at me from the glass, I felt utterly banned from the world I used to know. The world before these difficulties with water. To ban the vision in return, to get back at it, I lathered a fat mound of lotion on the glass.
My palms were bleeding again, worse this time, full drops of blood which refused to last, each curling almost immediately to crust. My stomach churned with dehydration. Coughing, grabbing at my hair, which was becoming more frizzy and coarse by the minute, I turned off every light, locked the doors, jerked down all the window shades. Dumping out all of Sutter’s office supplies from my dry bag, I tore off the sticky notes from their pads, slapped them around my bedroom until they formed a sea on the floor. On them, I scrawled every word associated with water I could think of. First the obvious ones: Lake. Ocean. Shore. Drink. Hydration. Rain. Puddle. Ice. Then the ones which felt secondary: Brook. Hydrogen. Saturation. Aqua. Aquifer. Pipe. Toilet. Soup. Tea. My words quickly descended into haphazard connections. Veins. Valleys. Grass. Mountains. Volcanoes. States of matter: Air? Gas, dirt? Cars. Lava, stains, gasoline. Look up the periodic table. Review all science, later, after. Thousands of words spewed out of me, and I moved the sticky notes around, comparing, making a map, putting this word next to this one, until the truth could no longer be avoided: I was the only thing in all of creation that was untouched by water.
So I made one last attempt at my own liquids and I tried to spit on the floor. But my lips pursed, my tongue positioned itself carefully, my cheeks flexed, and nothing. It was true, I had no liquids inside or outside me. They had all gone to air. To earth.
Through the rain I walked. The sticky note titled multiverse—google this later fell off the bottom of my sneaker and became sodden in a puddle. Faster, looking at nothing, feeling no temperature or air, I marched to the far corner of my neighborhood where the budget grocery store was, all its parking lot potholes filling up with little pools. I trotted, faster, past the subway stops I never went to, then to the end of the subway line itself, where the commuter rail to the suburbs began. The rails and fences around the train, the train itself, and the pavement in the train yard were all shiny from rain. I wasn’t. I stomped my foot in the biggest puddle I could find, watched the drops blast out. I don’t know why I even tried. The thin canvas of my sneakers was, of course, impenetrable.
I sat on a bench and contemplated boarding the train—my mother lived an hour south on that line—but I jumped up as fast as I’d sat down and kept going. My mother had never once been rational in the face of a predicament and, besides, we hadn’t spoken in two years.
My phone buzzed inside my jacket pocket, and Dani’s number flashed on the screen as she left one voicemail, then two, then texted and texted again. It was all just a haze of words which I couldn’t read through the drops on the screen. But then the haze rose and clarified itself into a three-dimensional volcano without any other mountains around it, not even a hill, just like the one in my dream. It popped towards me, almost grazed my shoulder. When I waved my hand through the volcano, the volcano disappeared, then reappeared.
I growled a string of curse words at the screen to intimidate the projections. I called them the worst names I could think of. But they remained.
Fumbling my scratchy fingers through the volcano to check Dani’s message, I closed my eyes. I concentrated. “Listen, Sahsh, it’s the middle of the night, you didn’t show, me and Carla went to your house, I even dug out your secret key. All dark, everything a mess, no sign of you. You’ve been acting so weird for months now. You’re gonna kill me, but I had to call your mom, k? I didn’t know what else to do. I know she’s a freak, but she means well.”
As if my mother were the psychic she claimed to be, the phone sang out its insufferable ring again, and the word Mom flashed on the screen. The volcano was bigger now, and the letters of Mom morphed into their own lava flow. With each ding and pulse the lava grew more ember-flecked
With all of me—whatever I was, this arid, reflection-less being—I concentrated again. I forced myself to listen to her message through the molten rock. “Sweetie, it’s me, Gaia. Just got a call from Dani, said you got fired? She’s with Carla, they can’t find you, said your house is all locked up? Sweetie, I know you’re upset about everything that happened with your father, but every day I send you love. The universe’s love. The goddess, she’s holding you in her light. In her light, Sasha. I had a vision of you just this morning. Intuitively, I just knew you weren’t okay. Intuitively. You were standing at the door of a cave, some formation like a bear’s cave, and there was water filling it up—”
Slapping my finger over the delete button, I hid my phone as far as I could inside the inner pocket of my jacket, stuffed it way down under my knit beanie. The volcano and all its orange liquid slid in, too. I could feel it hot against my side.
Dani called again, then texted, and Carla texted again, and the dings kept vibrating out and out in concentric circles, each circle transmuting into a line of lightly dinging drops, then a line of louder dinging drops. I covered my ears to block out the slamming water and the cacophony of dings. Gingerly pulling my phone back out from underneath my beanie, I saw the volcano rise up, larger and then larger, roaring and shrieking like a tornado. Each word on the screen just kept bursting into fire. My hand, which felt so separate from me, heaved my phone behind the next bench. I hurried. To where, I didn’t know, but I hurried.
When someone yelled out to me that I’d dropped my phone, I turned to see a young woman, soaking wet, waving it above her head. “You dropped your phone!” Her voice was blending with the rain, her self becoming a waterfall before my eyes, carved out and complete as Niagara. Above her own roar, Niagara called again, “You dropped your phone!” And I started running, really running this time, but still I was not cold, and still the rain did not touch me.
By the time I stumbled past the abandoned mill buildings at the edge of the city and landed at the interstate onramp, it was almost dawn. The moon and every star were blocked by clouds, the air utterly clogged with water. It was not five minutes before a trucker pulled over, his New York license plates glossy with moisture. In desperation, I clung to the passenger door handle and dragged myself up to the window so he couldn’t leave. He leaned over, rolled the window down, and nearly shouted: “The hell you doin’ out here? Lady your age hitching alone? In this weather?”
“I just want to go north,” I panted.
“You look sick.”
“Not sick—no—no, I just…I don’t understand what happened to the water!”
His face, as he assessed me, was first a flat shadow. Then that whole face converted into black sand, all of it, and the black sand became more and more grainy the more I stared. At his cheeks, a shore started to form.
“I go up to Buffalo. You’re gonna see lotsa trucks on Route 90 goin’ there.”
“How do I keep going more north from Buffalo?”
“As north as possible. I don’t know. The Arctic Ocean? Greenland. Do any trucks go up that far?”
He chuckled. “Ha! Greenland, sure. Whatever, lady. Get in.”
Slumping into the seat and dragging the door shut, I asked him, “Do you know about the Bay of Fundy? And the tides there? Can I get there? I learned about it once in this geology class when I was a kid. Every day, enough water to fill the Grand Canyon goes in and out of it.”
“Can you imagine that much water?”
“Sure, I’ve seen the ocean.”
“No. That isn’t what I mean.” And we sat silently.
We rolled away from the onramp and were moving swiftly, the windshield wipers slapping back and forth on their strongest setting. Almost every leaf at the far edge of the highway shoulder was autumn dirt now and, soon, there’d be a New England whiteout of snow. Maybe the snow would land on me. I’d stand in it, waiting, for as long as I had to.
For now, the water was pounding its hundreds of thousands of drops into the flood of light from the truck’s high beams. My breath formed a cloud on the cold window. Promptly, the cloud peeled off, became three-dimensional just as the volcano had, just as the dream landscapes on my ceiling’s delta had, suspended in the space before me. In my cloud of breath, hovering there like a murky mirror or crystal, I saw as clear as day a mound of new earth made from liquid, from lava, straight from the ground, spewing hot as gods. Then I saw old earth rotting to sand, tumbling low. I saw salt flats, steppes, prairies, mesas, tectonic plates, and fumaroles. And I saw water, I swear I did, all the many different types of water, and the shores with their tides, and all the big and small forests, which were kept alive by water, and all the vast pillars and spires of rocks with their smooth orange and red alcoves and crevices, which had been carved out by water. I saw every path, tendency, and material on the earth, from the droplets at the top of the atmosphere, right down to the volcanic waves at the bottom of the sea, and I went forward.
Carolyn Zaikowski is the author of the novels In a Dream, I Dance by Myself, and I Collapse (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016) and A Child Is Being Killed (Aqueous Books, 2013.) Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared widely, in such publications as Washington Post, Denver Quarterly, The Rumpus, PANK, DIAGRAM, Huffington Post, and Everyday Feminism.She holds an MFA from Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Find her online at www.carolynzaikowski.com.