Sometimes we woke up and just lay there. Sometimes we didn’t even talk. We were so used to each other. But not today.
She said, “You were in my nightmare.”
We lay side by side in our bed. I said, “What was I doing?”
“You were riding your bike.”
“Well, what’s so bad about that?”
“You were somebody else.”
“Was my face different?”
“No, your face was the same.”
Then she said, “You were terrible, terrible.”
She looked at me. “You had a number on your back. But it wasn’t a normal number. I don’t know what it was.”
“I was riding my bike?”
“It meant 7 and 3 at the same time, and it was on your back.”
The ceiling was cheerful with morning light. Angrily, I said, “21 means 7 and 3 at the same time. They’re its prime factors.”
“No, it wasn’t that. It was a number that meant both 7 and 3 at the same exact time.”
“I’ve never heard of a number like that,” I said.
We got out of bed and put our clothes on. I went behind the house and gathered the eggs from the chickens. There were four this morning, two for each of us—not four for each of us, because 2 and 4 are not the same number at the same time. Then I went into the kitchen to cook them. I could see her out the window raking leaves.
I put my head out and said, “Didn’t we just get out of bed? Why are you doing that?”
“I can’t look at you without thinking of my nightmare.”
She raked a few more leaves and said, “You had that number on your back.”
“There’s no number on my back.”
“It was there, but you couldn’t see it.”
“Write it down so I can see it.”
“I don’t think anybody could write it down,” she said.
“What kind of number can’t be written down?”
“The kind that means 7 and 3 at the same time.”
I said, “Breakfast is ready.”
After breakfast she put her wetsuit on and got in the car.
“I’m going surfing,” she said.
I knew what that meant. She liked to go surfing when she was upset.
“Can I come?”
“I don’t care.”
“Are you upset?”
We drove up the coast. She drove—I didn’t know how to drive. She drove fast. I looked at the shadows of clouds moving over the islands. There were two islands out there. No one lived on them anymore. The government had forced them to leave. When the tide was low you could walk out to them. When it was high they might as well have been fragments of another planet.
I thought, If those islands were called 7 and 3 and you multiplied them, they’d be 21. But I couldn’t imagine them being the same island at the same time.
I said, “Let’s go to that beach with the little bar on it.”
“That place burned down,” she said.
“What? I didn’t hear about that.”
“Why would you? You don’t talk to people anymore.”
This gave me pause. Normally she didn’t punish me with my shortcomings.
I said, “Let’s go anyway. We’ll take some pictures of the wreckage.”
“You think I’m lying?”
“No. I just like wrecked buildings is all.”
“You like wrecked buildings? We’ve been married for how many years and you are telling me this now? In the car?”
We drove through a village with almost no people in it. At a traffic light, she said, “It was the worst dream I’ve ever had.”
The light changed, but we didn’t move.
“I was riding my bike,” I said.
“That number,” she said. “It was obscene.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“You wouldn’t understand unless you saw it.”
“How can a number be obscene?”
“It meant 7 and 3 at the same time, but it was also your name.”
“So now this number was my name?”
“It was your name.”
“Some crazy number that meant both 7 and 3? And it was on my back?”
“This is making zero sense to me.”
We stared through the windshield without speaking, the road rushing up at our eyes. We had started to move again.
When we got to the beach I saw that the little bar was as I remembered it.
“It didn’t burn down,” I said.
“No,” she said.
“Why would you lie about something like that?”
“I was angry.”
“About the dream?”
“Because you don’t have any money.”
She gave me some money. I went into the bar and got a bottle of beer. Then I sat outside and watched her surf.
Mostly she just straddled her board and sat there bobbing up and down. I waved to her but she didn’t wave back.
“I guess she’s waiting for another kind of wave,” I said.
Two or three times she started paddling and sprang onto her board by some miracle of strength and grace. She rode for a while, then toppled into the waves headfirst as if she were suddenly tired of the whole thing. When her head popped up it looked tiny and dark with the whole Atlantic Ocean around it.
I walked up and down the beach drinking my bottle of beer. You weren’t supposed to do that, you were supposed to remain at the bar, but I didn’t expect anyone to hassle me. There was hardly anyone around. There were tiny snails and mussels in the tidal pools. I wasn’t sure what most of the other things were. Whelks, maybe. Periwinkles. I tried pulling a limpet off a rock but it wouldn’t come off. It was like part of the rock.
I sat on the sand and watched her. She caught a wave and surfed right up to me and hopped off her board like someone stepping off a train. Her wetsuit gleamed in the sun.
She flipped her hair forward and back again like a magic trick.
“I feel better now,” she said.
She put her board in the roof rack and got in the car with her wetsuit on. Normally she changed out of her wetsuit before she got in the car. But not today. I got in the car too.
Halfway home she said, “Numbers are like words, but words aren’t like numbers. But that number on your back was your name.”
“I don’t have anything to do with any number,” I said. “Especially not one like that.”
At home she peeled her wetsuit off and hung it on the clothesline. I took her hand but she pushed me away.
“I’m covered in salt,” she said.
I licked her shoulder. Then I took her hand and she didn’t push me away.
* * *
The next morning she said, “I had the nightmare again.”
I didn’t say anything. It was too early for this.
“It was the same as last time. You were somebody else.”
“Sometimes I wish you were somebody else,” I snapped.
“Oh! Start right off with the insults, first thing in the morning.”
“You make me feel like Hitler!”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Like I’m some sort of werewolf who terrorizes you in the night.”
“I’m not blaming you for how you behave in my dream,” she said.
“Did I have the number on my back again? Was I riding my bike?”
“Why are you so angry?”
“Why are you so crazy?”
She laughed and I laughed too.
“I can’t fathom any of this,” I said, laughing again. “I honestly can’t.”
We were both laughing now. She took my hand.
Often we treated our anger as if it were a private joke. Sometimes, however, we hid the meaning of it even from ourselves, and the anger swelled into absurdity.
“I hope I’m more than just a number to you,” I said.
“At least you’re auto-divisible. At least you have that.”
“Don’t try to sweet talk me. Because it won’t save you. It won’t work.”
She looked at me, and now she wasn’t laughing. She wasn’t smiling. She said, “I’m probably the only person in this world who can see you.”
That freaked me out a little. I said, “Well, you’re the only other person in the room.”
We had breakfast. Just some toast and coffee today. Then I had to paint the living room. I’d been putting it off for so long it hardly made sense anymore. But I knew I had to do it.
I went out to the garage to get the paint and found her doing stretches.
“I’m going for a bike ride,” she said.
“Did you feed the chickens?”
She unlocked her bike, pulled it away from the wall, got on it, pedaled away. Not a word of goodbye.
Fine, whatever. Who knows what she was thinking?
I went in and got started.
There is nothing like painting your own living room to get you panicking about every little problem in your life.
I thought, Why is my wife having nightmares about me? Why does she think my name is a number that means 7 and 3 at the same time?
I took the paintbrush and cut in the ceiling. Then I cut in the corners and around the baseboard. I cut in the windows and the doors.
I thought, What am I doing wrong?
Then I thought, I am doing everything wrong.
I kept thinking that until I had to sit down in the kitchen. I said, “Calm down, calm down, calm down.”
I set up the roller and rolled out the walls. By the time I finished I was in a panic. The future terrified and obsessed me. It was bottomless and dark and everywhere. I appeared in my wife’s nightmares as someone else. My name was a number. How did she tolerate me? What were we going to do? What were we doing? I didn’t understand our lives anymore.
“We live like children,” I whispered, “children.”
While I was cleaning out the brush and roller in the garage, she pedaled up behind me on her bike. Without a word, she locked the bike up and went into the house. I found her standing in the living room.
“This changes everything,” she said.
“Do you like it?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Well, Idon’t know.”
She looked at the walls, appraising my work, hands on hips. Then she looked at me and said, “What color would you say that is?”
This was probably the one question I hadn’t asked myself while painting this room.
“It’s yellow,” I said.
“Are you sure about that?”
I looked at her, unsure of what she was asking me. I said, “It’s yellowish.”
She scrunched up her nose and bared her teeth for a moment, as if getting ready to scream, but then she said, “Whatever the hell it is, it’s making me hungry. Where did you get this paint?”
Before I could confess that I’d gone ahead and mixed together all the old paint in the garage, she said, “You know what these walls make me hungry for? An omelet.”
“They’re pretty yellow,” I said.
“Are there eggs?”
“There are always eggs. We never run out of eggs.”
“Yes,” she said, laughing, “yes.” Then she said, “Anyway, I wanted to tell you—I’ve figured everything out.”
“Everything?” The word felt weightless and hollow in my mouth, like part of an imaginary language.
She poured herself a glass of water in the kitchen and stood there drinking it. I watched her from the doorway, waiting for her to speak again, to tell me something. Or everything.
Finally she said, “I guess we both know by now that life is not a puzzle. It’s not a crossword in the newspaper you can solve with a dictionary or thesaurus. It’s not to be solved.” She waited a moment before adding, “There is no solution.”
I hadn’t had the slightest notion of what she might say, but I hadn’t expected her to say that. All I could do was nod.
She set her glass on the counter like she didn’t remember what it was for and said, “Or maybe there is. I really don’t know anymore. I’m not even sure I mind.”
“I never thought of it like that,” I admitted.
She laughed—a wild gust of air through the nose. Then she went into the bathroom and turned on the shower.
From the doorway I watched her take her clothes off and lay them on the floor one piece at a time. She stepped into the shower and drew the curtain. I took her glass from the counter and drank the last swig of water. It was her water and it tasted different from ordinary water. I held the empty glass in my hand for a moment. Then I set it in the sink and washed my hands, making sure to scrub my fingernails, which were the color of our new walls—whatever it was—very carefully, one at a time.
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