I had fallen into a deep sleep the night I met her.
She sat at a high-top table, swinging her legs while staring at a laptop screen. I moved forward hesitantly and she looked up and smiled.
I had never seen her before, but a rushing sense of familiarity overtook me. I knew that smile. It felt like home.
“What are you working on?” I asked, approaching the table.
Her eyes held mine for a moment. Blue, flecked with amber, like a sea on fire.
“I’m uploading a sketch I made for a client.” She tilted her head and studied the computer. “Seeing it on the screen takes away from it though. The character is lost a bit.”
I had never heard her speak before, but I knew her voice. Her words were lilting, tumbling out of her mouth with a sweet cadence.
“Can I see?”
“Not this time.” She smiled.
I was able to take her in for a moment as she closed the laptop and slipped it into a backpack. She blinked more often than the average person, perhaps, because I kept noticing the lashes fall over intelligent, warm eyes. She moved her hands quickly and I was reminded of the way birds flutter and hop from branch to branch when they’re unsure where to settle. Everything about her was new to me, and yet that deep, comfortable feeling of familiarity was still there.
She looked at me again and I meant to ask her name, but before I could speak I felt an odd tugging at my consciousness.
And then, suddenly, I woke up. My bedroom came into focus: white walls, blue curtains, bookshelf. Blankets haphazardly covered me like I had been tossing and turning.
Papers were strewn across my desk, reminding me for a brief moment of a half-written novel I hadn’t touched in months.
I blinked, rubbed my eyes. She was gone, just a dream.
The next night I dreamed again.
I found myself standing in a room with wooden floors and a vaulted ceiling. The space was mostly large windows, and the soft light filtering in made the dust dance in the air.
She was there, sketching, her back to me. My heartbeat quickened.
“Hey,” I said softly.
She turned and warm sunlight found the gold in her eyes. For a moment I couldn’t move, mesmerized.
“Hey, you. You disappeared on me the other day.”
I craned my neck for a glimpse of her sketch. Frustratingly, I couldn’t see it. My vision was blurred or clouded, as it is in dreams sometimes.
She looked over her shoulder at the sketchpad, then wordlessly pulled a piece of paper down to cover it.
“Charcoal,” she said. “I’m no good at it.”
“I’d like to see.”
She laughed. “You will, I’m sure.”
“What’s your name?” I knew nothing and wanted to know everything.
A smile flickered along her lips. “Aya. And yours?”
“Aya…” I couldn’t help but say it out loud. It was like music. “I’m Elijah. Eli.”
“Nice to meet you, Eli. Sit with me.” She gestured to the floor, still smiling.
We talked. She told me she dreamed of seeing the world and I told her about my life in the city and the writing I hadn’t finished. Her face was open and expressive, her mannerisms energetic. She was so overflowing with life that it looked like the stories of joy and melancholy glowing behind her eyes could come tumbling out at any moment. I lost sense of time as I sat there happily with her, but the darkening room told me hours must have passed.
“Want to help me take all this home?” she asked finally, turning toward her pile of art supplies. “It’s a short drive. I just come here to sketch because it’s quiet.”
She reached down to collect pencils while I tucked the sketchpad under my arm.
The sun was setting as she drove. Her hair whipped at the air, and she let her hand float on the wind out the open window. Warm, soft light fell on her face through the windshield and I was suddenly aware that my life would never be the same.
When I woke, the sun was just a whisper of light on the horizon. I wished I could go back to sleep and dream again.
Aya was sketching again when I arrived, and something seemed different about her. She looked solemn, concentrating intently on her work. She glanced up at me a few times but didn’t speak for a few long moments.
Finally, she lay her pencil down and said, “Can I ask you something?”
“Why don’t you write anymore?”
I paused, caught off guard. When I spoke, I spoke slowly, carefully letting go of my words one by one.
“I haven’t written since my best friend died. I just… haven’t been able to. I’ve tried.”
She held my eyes with hers. Softly, she prompted: “Your best friend..?”
I sat down across from her, my mind taking me back to my own world. “A light was snuffed out in the world the day he died. He was larger than life. He was so… real. Like he just was who he was, so genuinely, and everyone loved him. I’m not saying that because he’s dead, but because it’s true. He was a beacon to everyone he met, shining some kind of hope and goodness even as life chips away at all of us.”
Aya’s presence was soothing and solid, keeping me tethered to myself as I stumbled through the memory.
“When he died I didn’t know where to put my grief. It was too… large. I — ” My words caught in my throat.
She reached for my hand. We said nothing else, sitting quietly in each other’s presence until I woke.
I dreamed of her — with her — every night for weeks. I was deliriously happy falling into bed, knowing I’d be near her soon.
At first Aya had been a beautiful enigma drawing me in by my curiosity, but she came to life over the weeks and nights. As we learned each other, she took shape. A vibrant, captivating woman, she blazed like a meteor shooting through the atmosphere. She was quick to everything: quick to kindness, quick to anger, quick to forgiveness. She was messy and courageous. Gentle, yet flinty. I was enthralled by her, a never-ending well of unique humanness bubbling over into the world.
Much of our time was spent in her sketching studio, though I’d still not been able to see her work. I always regretted how quickly morning came. During the day a strange mixture of melancholy and excitement tugged at my heart. If I fell asleep sooner, would I have more time with her?
As the weeks went on I marveled at how she blended seamlessly into my life, her presence overtaking my thoughts even during my waking hours, adding something so precious and necessary that I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever been without it, or how I ever could be again. I thought of her smile and I smiled. I thought of her eyes, the way they held mine with such softness and intensity, and prayed I’d have the chance to look into them again each night.
Buzzing with happiness and hopefulness for what may happen next, I wished I could bottle the feeling and carry it with me everywhere, uncorking it whenever life was harsh and lonely and painful.
We were outside her sketching studio watching the sun set over the water. She was sitting in the grass with her knees bent, hands clasped around them.
“I miss you, you know.” The wind pushed her hair back gently. “I never know when you’ll disappear next.”
I looked at her. We had never spoken of the fact that I woke up every morning without her. The way I saw it, as I trudged through my day waiting for night, she was always leaving me behind, living and existing vibrantly in a world I could only visit for a short time.
“I don’t want to disappear,” I whispered, watching her.
She kept her eyes on the horizon but reached out to thread her fingers through mine.
I was suddenly and intensely overcome by how much I needed to tell her I loved her. The sun’s warm, soft light fell across her face and the words danced across my mind: I love you, I love you, I love you.
For a long moment I said nothing, worried about all the things you worry about when you love someone and hope they love you back, terrified they may not.
I felt a familiar tug at my consciousness and knew I would be waking up soon. My mouth opened, ready to say anything, everything — I love you — but I couldn’t speak.The dream was slowing me down. I was moving through water.
When I woke, a feeling of loss flowed through me; I wanted that moment back. I was reminded how fleeting moments of opportunity and love can be, and I vowed to tell her how I felt tonight.
I didn’t dream.
I slept soundly that night, but when the morning light filtered into my room and my eyes opened, I was flooded with the realization that I hadn’t seen her.
A string tightened around my heart. What happened? Where did she go?
Night after night, I did not dream.
I felt desperate, out of control. I tried sleeping during the day. When I was so distraught that I couldn’t fall asleep, I tried sleeping pills. Nothing worked; my slumber was dreamless.
Sometimes in the morning my eyes would open as the birds sang and the sun glowed warmly against my curtains, and for a few brief moments of semi-consciousness I didn’t remember what I had lost. I’d feel rested and light and peaceful. Seconds later, though, an unbearable awareness would come crashing down on me. She was gone.
I had felt such hope and euphoria throughout these past weeks with her, like she had woken me up with the effervescent way she lived. I didn’t just miss her — I missed how the dreams made me feel; how I had begun to see the world as a place full of possibility and life through her eyes. I missed me,with her.
There was no explanation, nothing I could hold onto to account for her disappearance.
And then, after one tortuous week, I dreamed.
I was in the sketching studio, looking up at the vaulted beams. The sun was always glittering in this room, streaming in warmly through the rafters and windows.
Noticing Aya’s sketchpad in the center of the room, my heartbeat quickened. I whirled in a semi-circle, scanning the studio for her and calling her name.
The room was empty, though. She wasn’t here. Overcome by the weight of her absence, I sank to the ground.
I reached out to run my fingers over the pencils near her sketchpad. Would she come back for them? I imagined her walking in the door, seeing her bright, open smile, and felt tears sting my eyes.
A folded slip of paper stuck out from under the pencils. Slowly, I tugged it free. A few sentences were scribbled on the inside:
I had to leave, and I will miss you always.
I hope we see each other again in our final dreams.
I woke before the sun, my cheeks wet with tears. I didn’t bother to wipe them away.
When I got up, it was to go to my desk and pull out my novel. I didn’t intend to write but it made me feel closer to her, somehow, to have my writing near me. She had cared about my dreams.
When I opened the drawer, I let out a startled gasp and leaped back.
Inside was Aya’s sketchpad.
How was that possible? Hands shaking, I pulled it out. The binding crackled as I opened it. The first page was smooth and blank. I flipped it over to the next, and stared in disbelief.
There was a sketch of me. Of my face.
I had never seen myself this way before. Everything, every flaw and every strength, was captured in deft strokes of charcoal. Even where there were no strokes — the areas left paper-white — a story was told, a part of me expressed.
In the sketch I saw a man overflowing with life, made up of both light and shadow. I saw a man who had lost someone; deep pain was reflected in the eyes staring back at me. Flickers of melancholy and grief resided in the spaces colored more darkly and deeply.
The sketch depicted my capacity to love and to hate. Inky charcoal contrasted with stark white, showing me the depth of my character and the contradictions that make me come to life. I was a man uncertain, a little afraid. I saw my ability to forgive, and I saw my resentment and cowardice. I saw fire and flint. In the strong, bold strokes carving out the structure of my face I saw a man who offers a sense of groundedness to those around him. In the set of my jaw and the soft shading around my eyes I saw how much love I carry for the people in my life. I saw pride, and I saw calm, quiet confidence.
For a moment I could not move, could not think.
I hope we see each other again in our final dreams.
Something nudged at the grief and loss that had been clouding my life. I stared at the sketch, at myself.
I set the sketchpad down on my desk and walked to the door. Outside, the sun and sky were glorious. A vibrant world to be existing in. Something nudged at my consciousness again, pushing at the heaviness I’ve carried with me for so long, and it took a moment to recognize it.
For the first time in a long time, I am free.
© Mel Rie 2020. All Rights Reserved.