A Dream Of Clean Sheets

Felix Kent

1. What I Wanted/What I Was Afraid Of

When I was ten I rode the school bus through dusty Los Angeles streets and daydreamed of places to live. An abandoned room in my elementary school, boarded up so thoroughly as to have effectively disappeared, hidden around a rarely-traveled corner of beige linoleum. A nest in a tree, soft yarn wrapped around the branches, a bubble strong and soft enough to hold me. Literary antecedents to my imaginings: The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler; Swiss Family Robinson; Little House On The Prairie (mostly the sod house). Children are tradition-minded and materialistic.

I had my own bedroom in a nice house, leaf-level to the backyard trees, warped and untended giants, home to tree rats.

Some things that haunted me, ages six through ten: the Night Stalker, the absence in my life of the perfect outdoor-redwood-weather-resistant deck, PCP, vampires. My parents would not tell me if they had done drugs in their youth. I thought they had and were, as a result, permanently marred—the fault lines, at the moment covered, waiting for release. My California Dreamin’ Skipper was inferior to my best friend’s California Dreamin’ Skipper, although I was the only one who could tell. I was ugly and could see no prospect of becoming less so. Vampires scared me the most, not the biting and the blood so much, but becoming one, prey to appetite, destroying others in my turn.

My fear, coiled around my nervous system from birth, was ferocious and unrelenting. It demanded a crucifix under my pillow, a golf club at hand to repel intruders, a code word so that I would know my mother was my mother, not an alien who had replaced her.

Things I wanted: a diamond tennis bracelet, $199 from Best, a pack of Garbage Pail Kids, the ability to fly, to talk to animals. I wanted to be pregnant. I wanted a popcorn maker. I wanted a Paddington Bear doll with a duffel coat and rubber boots.

My want hit the world over and over again, and was unassuaged. When I imagined a new place to live, I imagined escaping my fears and my desires. I imagined peace.

 

2. Sick Day 1

I am almost forty, and every morning I still get out of bed for work braced. Driving in, I imagine calling in sick, staying in bed all day. The sheets will be clean, my bladder will be empty, my stomach will be, and stay, full. The dust will cease to fall, my phone will not ring, there will be a book in front of me that I can lose myself in. I will not need to get out of bed to take a shit. Sweat will not pool in my armpits; no yeasty smell will rise from my crotch. The pillow will stay cool under my head. The sun will not move across the sky.

Instead I go to work. At a break, I hit the vending machine, feed in two only slightly soggy dollar bills, and in rapid succession hit the numeric codes for Ruffle’s Sour Cream and Cheddar Potato Chips and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Inside the machine the vacuum-sealed products bathe in the glow of artificial light on foil. They are sealed, preserved, backlit. Clean.

 

3. Two Dreams

When I was 10 my parents got divorced. It was not amicable.

Do no harm, I told myself, and was astonished to see how hard it was to live in the world with any conviction of not doing harm.

I dreamt I was named Yester and lived alone in a walled garden. People came, surrounded me with kindly touches and looks, took me out of my garden. I lived among them, and I was much happier with these other people, but then realized I had lost my soul in all this simple pleasure and was overcome by despair. I told my father my dream. He said that I shouldn’t be so focused on purity, on my soul.

I dreamt of vampires. In my dream I became a vampire, and I realized that they weren’t so bad, vampires, just creatures trying to get by, like the rest of us, and I was filled with a vast sense of peace. I told my mother my dream; she said that it was worrying that I seemed to be relaxing my moral standards.

 

4. New York, early 2000s

A while ago now, I lived in New York City and I moved in with a pack of people I loved, people I still love today, people I let down or failed, mostly in trivial ways. I saw insult in laughter. I drank too much. I became enraged with a woman who stole my seat at a bar.  I burst into tears and screamed at people. This was how I felt: that I had just barely enough love, support, strength to keep myself together, and so I walked around, terrified that even the tiniest bit of it would be taken from me.

I flew to Los Angeles, where the house I grew up in, the one with the rats, was being sold. Several different plane trips around that time blur together into one. On that amalgamated airplane I listen to Hilary Duff’s album, Coming Clean, over and over again on the airplane-supplied Disney radio station, drink Bloody Marys, dribbling tomato juice slightly out of the corner of my mouth. I refuse to surrender my window seat so that a married couple can sit together. I watch the lights of Los Angeles, where the streets are wide and sunlit, fade beneath me. At intervals I talk to the man next to me. In our conversation I float free of the actual life I am leading, the actuality of the people I love. They are restored to me flattened and stripped. Seen in a certain light, it is bliss.

So I move to Tulsa.

 

5. Some Notes On How I Live Now

In the morning I sit in my car in the parking lot of the place where I work and I stall. I read the Internet on my smartphone, my seat belt still on. I do the same when I come home. Sometimes it is hot, and the car, turned off, becomes a hot little box of metal and plastic, but I sit still anyway, seat-belted and sweating in my work clothes. I am not trying to avoid anything in particular. I just don’t want to move forward.

I swim in the pool at my gym, and my heart tells me, Come on, let’s go, we can’t stay here, and I keep swimming and my heart becomes frenzied, would leave on its own if it could, and I don’t know if it’s trying to run from something or towards something.

Every day I take 10 milligrams of generic Prozac, exercise, try to get enough sleep. Even so, sometimes I am still scared in the way of a mouse under close observation, shaking hard enough to make its outline blur. Mostly not.

I live again among people that I love and I attach the billowing desire inside of me for safety and absence of harm to small, everyday things: a pot of coffee on a weekend morning, a glass of wine in the evening, a suitcase more expensive than I deserve, my gym with its two pools and indoor hot tub bathed in soft gray light. In these things I feel, for a moment, safe.

And then the feeling goes away, mostly in the evening. That stage of day, neither dark nor light, punches me in the stomach and tells me things are wrong and I have failed.

 

6. Sick Day 2

A long time ago, before I ever went to New York, I spent my junior year abroad in Germany. One night I was drinking and smoking with my housemates, and I began to shiver and could not stop. I was not in control of my body—I could not make it stop shivering great big gulping shivers.

The next morning I felt better but I went to the doctor anyway, walking through winter brownness to the hospital. They told me that I had a bladder infection, that I needed to take very serious antibiotics, that I needed to buy a thermometer and carefully monitor my temperature, because if it went over 105 degrees I would need to come back and go to the hospital. They told me to stay in bed. They told me this in German, so there was an element of underwater guesswork in what I heard.

I walked back, and as I walked back I felt worse and worse, more quavery and weak. The sun and clouds were low in the sky; they felt very close to the ground. And I decided on the walk that before I retreated to bed in accordance with the doctor’s orders I would take all my clothing and bed sheets to the laundromat. It was a long way to the laundromat and while I waited for my laundry to be done I felt just awful, and wished I had gone home. But then it was done, and I felt proud of myself and I lay in bed and watched the thermometer creep up and up, but never so high that I needed to go to the hospital.

 

7. Tulsa

I sucked at my job. I had a car I was too scared to drive, which sat in my parking garage until the battery went dead. There was no grocery store in walking distance of my apartment and the bus ran once an hour. Instead, I walked to the gas-station convenience store to buy tallboys of Budweiser, chips, Donettes. This made me feel better and reminded me that I would not starve to death. My mother came to visit, and we crossed a pedestrian bridge where the streetlights flickered and went out as we passed them.

I went back to New York for Christmas and a homeless woman kissed me on the lips after asking me for change on New Year’s Eve.

Tulsa was a bad time and a hard time, but clean in the rearview mirror. Nobody I spent time with then turned out to matter later. Nothing happened that kept running down the years towards me. I lived alone in a brand-new $730-a-month apartment with beige carpet on the floor and air conditioning and a pint-sized washer and dryer stacked one atop the other. In the winter when the pool got too cold at my apartment complex I went swimming at the YMCA pool which was sticky and overheated. When I wanted a drink I walked to the Doubletree Inn and drank gin and tonics and ate bar snacks. I watched minor league hockey and went to a cat show. I daydreamed a future where Ryan Seacrest fell in love with me because nobody makes me feel safer or cleaner than Ryan Seacrest. I walked to work every morning in flip flops, and even though I was bad at my job nobody fired or reprimanded me. I kept thinking they would, but they didn’t, and then my boss quit unexpectedly and I didn’t have to finish out my year. I went to Paris for two weeks and then moved to Los Angeles.

I was happier in New York than in Tulsa, but I daydream more about Tulsa. I imagine going back. I would have nothing in my refrigerator except beer and pecorino cheese. I would think clearly and strongly. I would shed that part of me that bounds towards the world dog-like. I would eradicate the oozy rancid need that runs through so much of my life. I would not be afraid.

 

8. One Hill

As a child, on the beach with my father, I set off to climb the drop that separated the beach from the street. No reason, just bored. I became aware, midway through, that it was too steep for me. I don’t remember the actual dimensions; I remember clinging on to the dirty rise, filled with a sense that further movement, in either direction, was impossible. I think I thought I might die. I got down without harm, but I don’t remember how. I don’t want to leave you with the sense that I was in any danger, because I wasn’t—the drop was small and harmless. And I was old enough to know that, but too much of a coward to feel it, also prone to self-dramatization. But that feeling has never left me, the feeling of clinging, paralyzed, to the hill. It comes to me in the middle of a sunny day as I scroll down the list of tasks ahead.

 

9. What Do You Want And What Are You Afraid Of?

A friend of mine was hit on by a guy, who told her that in every situation he asked himself what he wanted and what he was afraid of and that only after doing so did he act.

I knew the guy, a little, and I thought he was a jerk, but I was caught by the way he put it. I act out of multiple impulses. The idea of clearing away the underbrush and moving in a straight-forward and pure and graceful way towards a particular objective charms me. When I imagine a respite from the world, I imagine that when I return to action again, my actions will be more harmonious, more aligned with my best self.

 

10. The Howard Hughes Of The Hampton Inn

I imagine winning millions and millions of dollars in the lottery, enough to insulate myself from ever moving through time again. I will be the Howard Hughes of the Hampton Inn, living out of a white-on-white motel room (black and white photos on the wall) in a city where I know no-one. I will wake up before ten to catch the continental breakfast, where I will eat Yoplait and Frosted Flakes and not-quite-ripe honeydew melon. I will stroll out to allow my room to be cleaned, leaving a generous tip, and I will take my lunch at the nearby Red Lobster with a gin and tonic. Because alcohol makes doing things harder, the lunchtime drink defies any demand for accomplishment—a hallmark of the stripped-down cleanliness that makes up my idea of safety. After lunch, a return to the Hampton Inn and my new-made bed. Television. Dinner at Olive Garden, where I read a book downloaded instantly to my electronic device. The book will induce no tension or anxiety in me, will leave my emotions alone. Back to the hotel room. Cheap red wine in the bathtub. More television. Ideally a marathon of some kind. Episode follows episode and eventually I fall asleep.

Howard Hughes was germ-obsessed, tried constantly to avoid them. In my imaginary hotel-oriented lifestyle, germs are a metaphor for impact on the world.

I lived that life briefly when I was twenty-nine. I had quit my second job in less than two years, was beginning to think I might be unemployable. I needed to be away from everything that tugged at me. I took Greyhound buses and spent nights in: Billings, Montana; Seattle, Washington; Pensacola, Florida; Mobile, Alabama; Savannah, Georgia; Nashville, Tennessee. Among others. In Nashville I ate steak at a piano bar, and was taken to see the model Parthenon at night by a married doctor. He tried to kiss me, and I turned away. He took me to the bus station. I did not kiss anybody on that trip. I did not make new friends. I was not interested in making new friends. One night I slept outside on the Georgia Coast. A raccoon touched my foot at midnight, and I awoke in the morning with a million mosquito bites. The money I used for the trip turned out to be money that I did not actually have. This is something that I should feel worse about than I do. But the world had been unbearable, and after the trip it was not unbearable, although it was still hard.

I am trying to say that out of my terror of what is entailed in being alive I came to believe that I needed distance and anonymous clean rooms. And to some degree I was right. In that space I was rebuilt, although the way I was after the rebuilding was almost identical to the way I had been before. And the rebuilding did not have a feeling of clearing away the underbrush or reducing myself down to a steely-clean essence. Instead, my self sprawled across the country, into the houses of friends, ex-boyfriends, my mother, my father, and strange motels, into night buses with Mormon missionaries swapping territories in Montana and cowgirls running away from romantic entanglements. And I was the better for it.

 

11. A Second Hill, On Which I Am Too Old To Be Killed By A Serial Killer, 2006

I am walking on the shoulder of a road running down one of the San Bernardino mountains, headed back to San Berdoo itself, a matter of seven miles. My hair is pulled back in a ponytail and I am wearing flip-flops and a Dodgers hoodie. The shoulder is narrow and the cars are coming fast. It is a foggy day. The shoulder is moist from the fog and my flip-flops are sliding a little on the asphalt. I’m there because the taxi driver that was going to take me down the mountain first told me that he was running late and then, when I called back later, that he wasn’t coming at all. I’m there because it’s Sunday and I have to be back in L.A. by Monday morning and there aren’t any buses before then. I’m there because I don’t drive—I’m too scared to drive, scared that I’ll hit somebody, scared that I’ll lose control. I’m there because the week before it was burning hot in the city and I had this idea about swimming in a lake in the mountains. I’m there because there was a man I hoped would come with me and he almost did, but then he said no, he didn’t feel like it. Not his fault—all my idea. The city cooled down the day I was headed for the mountains on a train rattling through Fullerton and Upland and Fontana. By the time I got to the mountains, canned cocktails and the collected works of Mark Twain in my backpack, it was positively chilly. I had imagined an oasis in my life, that weekend at the lake, but it was just a place, just a mountain town, a little seedy. Now I’m trying to get home and my face is burning with the panic of that narrow shoulder and the cars zooming by. A truck pulls up. “Hey,” the guy says. “Need a ride?” I clamber in. It’s not that I’m not scared of him, but I can’t resist the prospect of being carried forward again.

“How old are you?” the guy says.

“Twenty-eight.”

“Oh,” he says. “I thought you looked younger.”

Later that night, after I’ve made my way home, I watch National Lampoon’s Vacation with the man I had hoped would drive me to the mountains. I tell him about the trip down. “Oh, man,” he says, “he totally was a serial killer. You were just too old.” He laughs. I laugh, not as hard.

But before that, when I was at the San Bernardino Greyhound Station, waiting for a bus to take me home, I was so happy to be there, and I was so happy to listen to the men waiting for the bus talk. They were talking about getting out of jail and they were talking about getting drunk and they were talking about women who had done them wrong. And one of them talked about being on the streets of Anaheim at night, about the Disneyland fireworks show and Mickey’s giant firework face smiling down at him. It was beautiful to hear, and beautiful to think about. I was glad to be alive, and I was glad to be at that place at that time, listening to those men, who I didn’t know at all.

 

12. Home

Earlier this year I came back home from a long and hard trip through the snow to see my dying grandmother. In the middle of the night I woke and didn’t know where I was. I could see pictures against the off-white paint of the hallway out my bedroom door. This place is nice, I thought. This is a nice place to be staying.

Truth: it is better for me not to think about the things that make me anxious. It is better just to move forward. The workbook on anxiety next to my bed tells me this, but I have also seen it myself. Just go, I tell myself, we’ll worry about it later.

The world we live in is a brutal and unfair one, but has given me a great deal more than I deserved, by a series of accidents of birth. My fear reminds me of the contingent nature of what I have, reminds me of the debts I owe, reminds me that the world can reshape itself. It gives me space, sometimes, to let other flowers bloom in my head.  

Sometimes the world is too much for me. But at my best I can hold my fear and desire inside me, the tension between the two crackling in my spine, and what I feel is peace. Sometimes I can watch a tree shiver in the wind, pixelating itself against the blue sky, and the noise in my head quiets and I can feel, although I am out in this world of entropy and loss, a sense of promise and possibility.

Author Portrait

Felix Kent grew up in Southern California, but now lives in Northern California. Her writing has appeared in The Toast, Spork Press (online), and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.