House of Clouds
by Leah Erickson
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
She was still having a hard time swallowing. The muscles of her throat were slack and disordered. He helped her to eat, mostly pureed foods. But at least her appetite had begun increasing. She was becoming stronger.
One day he decided to attempt feeding her a wedge of avocado with a small spoon of caviar on top, an old favorite of hers from the old days. He held it up to her lips and, after a beat of confused hesitation, she took a small bite.
And in that one glorious moment that made his heart stop, true pleasure slowly spread across her face at the taste of it. He could almost see the synapses in her brain lighting up like firecrackers; she licked her lips like a cat and looked at him with a devilish sparkle in her eye. There you are, my love!
That look in her eye. He recognized it from elsewhere. What was it reminding him of, from their past? With a shock of sick guilt, he all at once remembered: What it had been like when he had tied her arm off and plunged the needle in for her, to save her from squeamishness. She had looked at him in just that way, lips parted in wonder. A gasp and that lovely, wicked grin, and he, already surging from his own high, knew only paradise, sparkles of light, searing joy that would last forever.
He cut her another sliver of avocado, heaped the caviar on the tip with the tiny silver spoon. She ate this one greedily, smiled again, then said in a faint husky voice, “Ca... Casa. Casa las Nubes?”
Oh... House of Clouds... Yes. Mazatlan. 1972! They had stayed there, in that grand eight-bedroom colonial on the beach. A huge group of them. Friends. Friends of friends. Howard footing the bill, when he didn’t even know half the people. Those three weeks that stretched on forever. A lifetime of its own. Sex and drugs. Madness. It didn’t even seem real, now. It was all a dream.
“Yes, darling. You ate avocado and caviar for breakfast there, out on the patio.” He stroked her hair, he wanted to bring forth more. “Remember how beautiful it was? The clear waves and the green islands...” Patty barefoot in a long printed sarong, cutting her eyes at Gerard, his assistant. Howard’s simmering jealousy. Well. Of course, he had had his things, too. Mistakes. Best left unmentioned. “Remember the brick courtyard in the center? We were so happy there.”
She was silent a moment, looking straight ahead, lost in thought. At last her gaze settled back on his. “Spider,” she said, flatly, in a clear voice.
“Spider?” Was she confused? He didn’t know what she meant. But then suddenly he did. Patty had gotten a spider bite in that brick courtyard. The bite had given her a reaction and made her young arm swell up grotesquely. And she had behaved so oddly, like a different person. Cursing him, even spitting at him once.
She had spent the last part of that trip ill in bed, with the blinds drawn, under the slow-turning ceiling fan. The doctor, an alarmingly young man, gave her a shot and Howard sat with her and fed her ice chips.
He had forgotten all about the incident, until now. Funny how a thing could vanish from memory, only to appear again, unannounced and startling in its wholeness. To think it must have been there, deep in his brain all this time. Like a secret corridor.
Without even realizing it, he heaped the spoon with caviar and brought it to his own lips, eating but hardly tasting it. Staring into space.
* * *
Silent screen test. She was luminous, even in black and white. Minidress with full, poet sleeves, hair piled up high on top, tendrils below. Double false eyelashes made her already large eyes seem to consume her small face. She held up her own clapperboard: Screen Test. 3/69. Director: H Bennet.
She could always, she told him later, find the key light by its heat. She smiled at the camera bravely, but with a little tremble about the lips. A little vulnerability in those large dark kohled eyes. Lips silvery pale and waxen. Just a girl, really, with a girl’s clear-eyed curiosity. Such a lack of cunning.
Howard knew immediately that he not only wanted her for the role, but that he could love this girl. That she could save him from his darkness. Alone, in the shadows of the screening room, he watched those silent lips moving, and she seemed to be speaking directly to him, to his soul. What she was saying, he did not yet know.
* * *
But will it truly be her again? He had asked this of the doctors on the panel. They had been sitting at a table with him in an empty conference room, showing Howard pages of data that he didn’t understand. Truthfully, he felt stupid. His questions sounded so naïve and clumsy. And yet these educated men were so reverent of him, their financial benefactor. He felt like a boy king.
The leader, the tall intense one with the rimless glasses, smiled mirthlessly, eyes steady on his, like two blue gas jets. “Her long-term memory, all the things that make her her, are still there in. Locked in and able to be revived. She will be an upload, in a sense, of your wife. If you are able to accept such a term, Mr. Bennet.”
* * *
Until Patty, he had been dead inside, scoured by ambition and free floating anxiety and the jeering voices always attacking him in his head. He had gotten his start in television, had always wanted to make films and now he was, through his own sheer force of will and years of relentless work and perfectionism. He had achieved everything he ever wanted, but it wasn’t enough.
Only Patty assuaged his fears and doubts. No more night sweats or bad dreams. She made him feel safe, yet free and easy at the same time. She even smelled fresh, like an open door on the first day of spring. She embodied joy.
At the end of their first long, amphetamine-fueled night of listening to opera and speed-reading Kierkegaard together, Patty insisted on going for a night walk on the beach. She did not want the night to end, she said. It was so beautiful. She pulled him outside. There was a black wind, and long thin clouds raced past the light of the moon.
She stretched her arms up, and she seemed to be encompassing everything when she said, “I want to consume this night and make it a part of me forever.” She turned and looked at him, with a smile of such delighted amazement at the possibilities of the world, that she transferred the feeling to him, too. Then she pulled him down with her into the sand.
Did he even know his good fortune, back then?
* * *
Patty continued to grow stronger two weeks after leaving the hospital. Her eyes were brighter and she could walk unassisted, without having to pause to catch her breath. In fact, it was hard now for Howard to keep up with her. His old man’s body was a burden that slowed him down. Though he was still slim and fit in his black jeans, he feared his body was finally giving out on him.
But his young wife was like a chrysalis, ready to bloom wings. Earlier he had gone shopping on his own to buy her new clothes, wandering through the boutiques in the quaint village square, trying to guess what she would like. What did she used to like, when she was alive the first time? Don’t put it that way, he reprimanded himself.
But soon he lost himself in his task. Bright lovely dresses with a generous sweep, a flowing cut, that’s what he remembered her wearing. It made his fingers tremble to touch the clothes on the rack, but he heaped piles of lovelies into his arms. He fumbled, overcome, as he passed over the credit card...
And she did seem to like them, later, looking into the mirror at herself with a soft smile of dawning recognition. She chose a crimson dress, cut on the bias, and a crocheted sweater. Howard insisted on a wide-brimmed hat — she was still sensitive to the sun — and out they went, on their first public outing, to the autumn festival in town.
It was a gorgeous day, with a soft golden light in the air. The streets of the harbor side town were shut down so that pedestrians could fill the streets that were lined with stalls. People sold paintings of the local coastline. Hammered silver jewelry. Hand-poured candles and jars of dark, golden honey. There was a smell of fried dough and cotton candy in the air. There were shuddering inflatable bouncy houses filled with the delighted screams of children.
His wife walked ahead of him, tall and beautiful in her new leather boots with stacked wooden heels. The sea breeze stirred her hair, the silk of her long dress. She paused here and there to look at a tin garden sculpture, a tray of glistening glass rings.
Usually in public, Howard would be recognized and occasionally approached by fans. But this time it seemed people were looking more at her. It occurred to Howard that people might think he was her father. Her grandfather.
But that did not dampen his love. It looked as though she were really enjoying herself, and it made him happy.
A gaggle of girls her own age were up ahead, at a rack full of velvet hats. Chattering, laughing lightly, trying things on before a full-length mirror. He saw his wife approach the group hesitantly, watching them with a shy, hopeful smile.
Anxiety tugged at his heart, to see her this way. She belonged with them, she was more beautiful and sweet than any of those others. After such a long period of darkness, didn’t she deserve some light? Some fun? Please, let her in, Howard tried to will the girls with his thoughts.
But as Patty’s reflection appeared wanly behind their own in the mirror, a ripple of unease seemed to pass through the group. Patty lifted up a shawl of patchwork velvet and draped it over her shoulder, lifting it to her cheek and smiling with pleasure at the soft touch of it. She said nothing, but smiled at the girls in such an appealing, dreamy way.
But it was as though Patty carried a cold chill around her, that cast a pall over the group like a cloud passing over the sun. The energy changed. It was as though those girls could sense death in their midst, and things grew quiet and strange. They put back the hats and moved on.
It all happened in just a small moment, a fraction of time. As Patty looked longingly after them, Howard quickly strode over, paid the exorbitant price of the shawl, wrapped it lovingly around her and said, “Here, here, darling. Never mind. I love you.”
But his jaw was clenched, his face flushed red with anger at the unfairness of it all.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Leah Erickson