When the dream man comes to steal kisses it means the morning has passed. It happens somewhere near ten, after the landscape workers have cleared leaves from the concrete paths outside my apartment. I expect that is what they are doing, but in all honesty cannot say for sure. I have never looked outside my windows to see. The workers could be doing anything from cutting the hedges to butchering loved ones. They could be doing anything they wanted, since I am never awake to watch them. I have paid not to be burdened by knowing. So long as the paths are clear and the plants are evenly potted.
When I finally unfold the covers and put on my jeans, the imprint of my dreams lightens. Most importantly, I start to forget about the man who steals kisses. Turning the dial, I slant my blinds to let in the sun. It is very late in the morning; I would hardly call it that anymore. The inside of my mouth is dry, as though I slept for a thousand years. Without aim or purpose, but purely by instinct, I go to the sink and open my mouth under the faucet. I have many cups in the kitchen, but feel it would be useless to take the time- walk through the living room, open the cabinet, wipe the rim of the cup, hold the ring and drink in that very civilized way. It is lonely for me to use those cups. So I forget my loneliness like I forget my dreams, and drink from the faucet.
I lock the front door and have forgotten my dreams entirely now. Outside the sun is strong and the air is warmer than it should be for March. Sweat falls from my thighs and drips down my pants onto my calves. With a little twisting in my hips I can grind the fabric and wipe the sweat away. The landscape workers carry weed whackers over their shoulder as natural as though the blades were their children. They move separately through the lawn but seem connected as if each one had a string between his shoulders that led to the same pulley. Perhaps they look so connected because of the matching green jerseys they wear over their sweaters, or the way they all walk from low in their hips. But I believe it is something else. I will never know because I wake up late and they have been laboring since dawn. The men are nearly done with their work when I come down the steps to leave my apartment. Each morning I see their tired faces and expect them to scowl and think of me in words like lazy, asshole, rich bitch, and princess. However their mouths do no move. It is the mouth in my mind creating the chatter. Still, as I walk past them I whisper the words to myself- princess, rich bitch, asshole, lazy. In the end I know the landscape men are kind, and do not have it in them to hate so freely. They are tired, they are hot, and all they can think is a ringing from their machines.
The next morning is the same. The man stealing kisses steps out from his hiding spot behind the curtain and kisses my wife. I am sorry, my ex-wife; from the woman no longer my wife. For all purposes, I should be calling her simply, “the woman,” because she is not mine anymore, and possession does not exists unless it is real and here and now. To say she used to be my wife only makes it harder. After the kiss, the dream man steps behind the curtain, which frames a large window. The window is mine. I know it well. It has been in the living room of my apartment since my wife, ex-wife, the woman, and I first moved in four winters ago. When I begin to wake from the dream and reality crackles over my creamy mind, I am aware the window is just beyond this wall. At the back of my bed. Only feet away.
I check my clock and it is nine. Grinding comes from the lawn and I cover my ears. The dream man steps from the curtain again. Kisses again. He holds my wife, ex-wife, the woman, tangling his fingers in her hair. Fingers so thick and brown they could be snakes. My wife, ex-wife, the woman, puts her hands on his back. Her arms are tucked under his and the two look so perfect fitting together than way. It is nearly time to wake up.
I leave my house wiping sink water from my chin. What a slob, I think to myself, adding the word to my list of insults. Was I always this way? I cannot remember. It scares me and I touch my chest to be sure it is still beating. I cannot remember how I used to be. I must have been different. Felt better. Been better. The landscape men have their masks off. Clear goggles pushed back to sit on the crown of their heads. They hold strips of thick cloth in their hands, used to cover their noses from breathing the grass and debris. A round orange tank is on the ground in a manicured patch of lawn. The men take turns pushing the tank so that it tips on its side, and filling their plastic cups. Once the man is done the next steps up. The line never gets shorter. The man in front becomes the tail and waits his turn again. This continues like a dull game, but I stand at the top of my stairs watching through the trees. I am able to look at each man fully. Measure the way they lean and take hold of the water jug. The unique wave of their Adams apples as they drink. We all measure this way- to compare a man to the ones from TV and to ourselves. I feel so inadequate. The trees sway and blot out the man’s face as he bends to the tank. Then it is the next one’s turn. He reaches for the jug and I catch only hands within the spaces between the leaves. I know those hands. Fingers thick and brown as snakes. I am reminded of the kisses he has stolen, although by this point in my waking I should have forgotten. It is colder today, but the chill only makes my anger and fear and those thick brown fingers burn in the light.
How can love be so easily put in another man’s pocket? It is difficult to leave home after being reminded of the dream. For the rest of my day I tell myself, ‘you have all day to forget.’ The hours are long, and the more I try to forget my life the harder time wears. I remember strongly. I always have. The way my wife, ex-wife, the woman, would pull the ends of her hair and stick the loose strands on the wall when she showered. And how beautiful I thought it was. Or how she would bite her nails and spit the clippings out the car window. I loved that too. The filth of her living was gorgeous, and that is how I know I loved her deeply. It was a torture- to find charm in her dirty habits- because it made the traditionally beautiful parts of her all the more lovely. I knew when she left for vacation to Brazil that another man would see her beauty. Many men. And as she left me through the terminal I did not trust her. I never saw the man she kissed, but have a picture of him in my mind. He is an image made from the measurements of other men, and of myself, and the TV men, and even my wife, ex-wife, the woman. I have even built him from her stories about the exotic plants and flowers. The surf, the sun, and the way the two play with one another from opposite sides of the earth. I made his skin from how dark her arms turned after only two weeks away. Then more measurements, and more, as we tried to work through the distrust. I made a promise to forgive, but every night I saw the dream man, and every night he was doing the same thing. I woke beside my wife, then dreamed, then woke beside my wife, and dreamed. Until one day I thought, if she is gone the dreams will leave too. I woke up alone, and dreamed the same.
There he was the next morning, putting order to the daily debris that finds its way into my front yard. Cleaning and cutting and working hard, working early. The dreams I should have forgotten stuck to my collar.
He is there again this morning. He was there all day in my mind and again in my dreams last night. He is the sun and the moon and never has a living thing existed without being under one of the two. The rest of the landscape workers have finished their work and sit on the lawn with their feet in front of them. He is nearly done evening the hedges across the pathway in the courtyard. The blade in his hands is dirty and looks like the heaviest metal in the world. I walk the long way to my car to avoid the whispers. Instead of going to the office where I ordinarily work until three, I went to the hardware store.
Dreams come as easily as the sleep and one does not come without the other. I have to ask myself, did I truly walk through the aisles of nail guns and wood chippers with the intention to make the dream man go away? I cannot remember. This is my room, I know. The window is beyond this wall. But I cannot remember whether I dreamed the hate or enacted it. This is what scares me. The man I once was is even farther away. In fact, I have forgotten his face, my face, entirely, in exchange for the dream man’s. I have stopped existing and he has multiplied. He hardly tries to hide himself anymore. Kissing and kissing and kissing without returning to the curtains. If I were to blame anything on my forgetting and his bravery, I would blame sleepy. And how it changes me without my asking it to. I have slept so much since my wife left. It is more a life than waking.
Water! On my dry lips and tongue. I take my time under the faucet and am relieved to be awake. In my living room, the weed whacker is propped against the window seal. I have the receipt: time, cost, lovely Susan who helped me with those old hands. The event is pulled into waking memories when I think of Susan’s hands and the gold wedding ring a hair loose on her finger. She looked at my ring when I paid, of course I still wear it, she was mine- the woman, ex-wife, wife, and I saw in Susan’s face an expression of admiration. She was so sure I was the type of man with a family and a house; one that uses the steam of love to make the front yard beautiful. On my own time and effort. It was nice to be looked at like that kind of man, although it was not true.
I am afraid even an alarm will not wake me, so I decide not to sleep. The weed whacker is as heavy as I guessed, and my arms strain all the way to my collarbone and neck like a taut wire. It is not enough to wait at the window until the men come to work, so I go down the stairs and sit in the grass until morning. I try my best to look like them, wearing my stained sweatshirt and a pair of thick khakis. A truck rattles from the road. It is easy to listen to each man jump out. The rubber on the bottom of their shoes squishes softly into the path. They speak low to each other, and even those who do not speak are connected to those that do. That bond I could always sense but never identify. Work begins without a buzzer or countdown like I had imagined. I have risen from the grass and fall in line beside the dream man. As he wraps the cloth around his nose I do the same with my bandana. Double knotted like his. He nods to me like I am one of the pack and lifts the weed whacker so it is horizontal with the tall shrub. We move together. The task is surprisingly difficult and I want to give up within minutes. The labor makes it difficult to remember what this man has stolen from me. When my muscles scream they are all I can listen to. Since I have trouble knowing myself, I cannot say with full certainty why I went outside to meet the dream man. I circle back to that anger and fear and hate. I went outside to hurt him. But soon the sun comes up and watches from above as we move from shrub to shrub with little rest. The exertion creates a lightness in my chest and although my arms tremble, it was with joy that I continue to work alongside the dream man and his band of brothers. I do not expect for those insults to become praise- princess, lazy, rich bitch, and in tradition the men said nothing as they return to their car.
Sleep does not come to me the rest of the day. In the evening before I crawl under the comforter, I am afraid for a moment. The mattress itself seems to hold a wickedness. The pillow taunts horrible dreams. My body cannot stay up any longer and although I am scared I lie on the bed and wait for the dream man. Yes, he does come, still taking kissing I believe are mine. But I do not hate him and this allows me some peace. My arms are sore in the morning; sore but solid, as though I were a shadow becoming something real.
It starts, as every other day then becomes a daily ritual: joining the landscapers at dawn and working beside the dream man. He sweats and I sweat. He is happy some days and sad others – like me. We labor and I am able to live with remembering and hate a little less. There was a short time yesterday, the same length as that short breath when the sun sets and the moon has not yet come into brightness because the sky is still aglow, when I forgot completely about my wife and about the dream man. It felt like a new type of forgetting- unlike the burying I had become accustomed to, where forgetting is only a pile of dirt thrown on a sore. Within that time I was able to exist as the new man I am becoming. The smell of baking pies in a dessert shop reminded me of my wife again, and the stolen kisses followed like a trail of cans rattling off a bumper. As I eased back into remembering, I was able to smile. Knowing one day soon or one day far I will suddenly remember my heartache and find myself surviving.
Jahla Seppanen was born and raised off the grid in Madrid, New Mexico, USA. She received her BA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Last year she completed her first novel. Jahla enjoys Puerto Rican rum and listening to the Ramones. Her stories have been published in Fourteen Hills, Litro Magazine, The Bookends Review, Niche, Used Gravitrons, and Turk’s Head Review.