I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead

5. Limbo

Everyone was strangely uncooperative. Aleksa refused the sheet I wanted to hang in our window and promised to order curtains that matched the bedspreads; while campus security gave me a card with a series of phone numbers to call in case Bex threatened me. Seeing him hanging around was not enough. They also let me know they did not consider picture-taking threatening, and they said he could get a visitor’s pass to the library so quite possibly he was entitled to be there, even to take pictures from the roof. If he was hacking into other people’s emails those people needed to be contacted so they could “alert the proper authorities”. Because maybe Annika gave Bex permission to use her email! Of course I didn’t want to complain to my little sister about my ex boyfriend! I just sent her a cryptic message telling her I’d gotten spam that made me think she should change her password. Pretty frustrating.

I was stomping with rage as I hustled through the late September monsoon to Dr. Corso’s fairytale castle. Late as usual. It bothered me that Bex could make me think about him, which of course is just what he wanted. I’m superstitious about being late for a first appointment, because then it’s like you can never catch up. So I was running in stilettos, which is so not me.
The groaning and sighing of the ancient wooden stairs beneath my weight suggested fairytale castles might be deficient in some ways. Such as fire safety. And plumbing. Was this really one of academia’s desirable footholds or had Dr. Corso been banished to academic Siberia? And ifso, why?

He had asked me to meet him at the top of the stairs outside his office; “Under the portrait.” I almost ran into him. He was standing there looking at his watch just as I arrived.

“Obsessive,” said Dr. Corso, admiring, I guess, my punctuality. “I can work with that. In psychology we have a saying; if you’re late you’re resistant and if you’re early you’re neurotic. Obsessive is on time. On the whole, I prefer obsessive.” He wore a crisp red and white striped shirt with his khakis, a shirt with a blindingly white collar and cuffs. I envisioned the mysterious Mrs. Corso toiling slavishly over hissing machines, freeing him to strut upon this stage.

The portrait above us was a beauty, even if the woman it depicted was not. It was also big, big, big. If it ever fell off its crumbling wall, it could probably take care of the future problems of several people at once. In gray, black and silvertone it depicted a squashy-faced middle-aged lady whose shapeless figure, festooned with diamonds and sapphires and encased in a long, dark dress, posed rigidly beside a curtained window. Outside, in the far distance I saw a depressed looking lake, a weeping willow, and an unattainable mountain shrouded by mist. Her eyes seemed to plead with me: “Get me out of here.”

Those eyes were the realest things in the picture, in opposition to, say, her hands, lying wasted and useless across a musty tome far too heavy for her fingers to lift. “Help me, help me,” her eyes begged so nakedly that I had to look away.

Out loud I said, “She looks sad.”

“A tad psychic, are we?” asked Corso, eyeing me shrewdly. “I can most definitely work with that. I like to think I’m a tad psychic myself. As for the late Lady Emily, she had her demons, but I pride myself in thinking I was instrumental in teaching her how to battle them. Tell me, Miss Suzino, how often have you experienced these “psychic” moments?”

I could feel my cheeks firing up beneath my hopeful dusting of Chinese white. Anyone else would have missed my reaction to the portrait, anyone but Corso. It’s like I only blushed around him! Maybe because other people looked at me (or through me). Dr. Corso looked inside me. Deep inside. My insides shivered as if plucked like harp strings.

“I’m not sure,” was all I could say. “I think everyone’s psychic really but it gets blocked. You only find out you were psychic in retrospect.”

“Well!” he exclaimed. “I see we have quite an interesting conversation ahead of us! “ He turned to head back up the stairs. “I only wanted you to take a look at the benefactor who endowed my chair and your scholarship.” At the top of the stairs he took my arm and gestured at the painting I feared to confront. “Consider yourself a wraith she summoned from the future,” he declaimed grandly. “You must become the woman she wanted to be.”

I must, must I? “Oh…Bosch,” I said, holding my metaphorical nose in the fetid aroma of his style. Would he guess I spelled my “Bosch” with a “c”? Aleksa’s poster had inspired me, suggesting as it did the potential monstrousness of everyday life. Or maybe I’m impressionable. Dr. Corso leaned over me, murmuring as he unlocked his office door, “So…this psychic tendency you’ve been plagued with. Tell me about it.”

Six locks to unlock his office door! I had just a moment to wonder why he would bother to lock it up so thoroughly just to await me six feet away along the stairs! But what I should have been thinking about was how to dress up my “little problem” to greet the company.
“In school I got a reputation for seeing the answer,” I said unwillingly. “I had to leave. They thought I was cheating.” It was worse than that, of course. Whole paragraphs used to just come to me that really belonged to other people. I was lucky I wasn’t officially expelled. I learned to be wary of “good” ideas arriving from nowhere. Just say No to inspiration.

“How very, very interesting,” said Dr. Corso. “Tea?”

Dr. Corso’s office had a fire sale quality about it that astonished me. His person was fussily immaculate, but this place looked as ransacked by hooligans. The space was loaded and overloaded with musty, ancient books, shelved and unshelved; old medical engravings of distorted, naked bodies, and scary-looking ethnic masks. Papers scattered everywhere.

“The old curiosity shop,” I said out loud.

“Is that a kind of tea?” asked Dr. Corso. “If so, I don’t have it. Will Imperial Gunpowder do?”

I nodded, afraid to upset the precarious balance in the atmosphere by speaking. Something might fall on me. Even the filing cabinets, piled threateningly atop one other, seemed to bare teeth that on second glance revealed themselves as bicycle locks twisted through the handles to maintain confidentiality. I don’t know about you but as soon as anyone tells me I can’t find something out that’s just the moment I decide I’ve just got to know the truth. There was also a Freudian leather sofa. Stretched out upon that I would feel like a corpse at a viewing. Fortunately, if I moved a chunk of Greek statue – just the torso, mind you – I could sit down in a high-backed leather wing chair.
On Corso’s littered desk was a scrimshaw inkpot, a glass jar of colored crystals, hand weights, postal scales and a scuba knife in a pen tray. No photographs. No framed degrees. Nothing really personal. I instinctively knew he would not be knowable through the items assembled here.
“You’re not like your office,” I said. Making conversation, the way my Mom taught me. He handed me a scalding mug. Imperial Gunpowder is very green.

“I’m so flattered by your interest,” said Dr. Corso, seating himself in his desk chair and waving his own mug back and forth. “The maid is out on leave. Or are you accusing me of imposture?”
Hmmm. I said, “I just expected modern. Chrome and glass. You know–” to distract him from the truth, which was that I’d hoped to see a picture of his wife. I feared this man could pick my brain like a lock. In my experience you never know a husband until you meet his Other Half. It can be pretty scary at times, as if Dorian Gray had been forced to take his picture along when he went out for a stroll.

Dr. Corso steepled his fingers, regarding me with furrowed brow. “I will admit to being surrounded by the detritus of past experiments,” he agreed. “Call this my staging area. I believe it was Edison who said every success is built upon a thousand failures. The failures are of course most interesting. But I might be getting ready to move on.”

He made it sound like an indecent proposal. I sipped hot tea nervously. Innocent comments can be Pandora’s boxes when Corso gets hold of them. In self-defense, I flat-footedly changed the subject.
“I looked at the books you gave me,” I said. “I thought the OBE one was especially interesting.”
He toyed with his scuba knife. “Sound like anything you’d care to try?”

“I’m game,” I said.

He winced a little as if I’d been too gauche.

“How about your college experience so far? Your schedule? How’s that going? Any complaints?” he asked.

Would he stab me if there were? I certain didn’t want to complain about Bex, or say that so far it sure beat Fluffernutter’s. Dr. Corso would never be my “chum”. “Well, I’ve never had a roommate,” I offered. “Its hard enough to share a room, and those Hadleigh rooms are cubicles.”

“Hadleigh is a rite of passage, I’m afraid,” He laughed. “Trust me, your freshman year will pass so fast you’ll think you dreamed it. Maybe we can do something about that roommate. I’ll see if I can dream something up. ” He drummed his fingers in a musical incantation. “Oh, excuse me, “ leaning forward with a sharky smile. ”You don’t dream. I forgot. How’s that tea? Would you prefer sugar?”

The tea had a strange taste sugar might have covered up. I was still trying to get used to it. I like knowing what I’m up against. “I hope it’s not real gunpowder,” I joked.

“Anything is explosive in knowing hands,” he teased. “Allow me to explain what you can expect you first year of college.”

He began to drone on and on about classes. Exams. First Level and second level. Syllabi and study circles. Independent study. Travel. (He himself was leading a group to Amsterdam.) If he’d spoken this boringly at the college fair, I’m sure I wouldn’t have found myself sitting here. Plus the tea was making me sleepy.

My attention wandered irresistibly to the window behind him. He sat gloom-shrouded and it was the sole focal point of light. A round – rose window. A stained-glass insert in its upper sash depicted some sort of intriguing flower. What could it be? Thistle? Tulip? Lily? Hanging just in front a crystal teardrop prism shot the occasional ray right into my eyes just when I thought I could finally focus on the flower behind it. The rainbow feelers quivering toward my brain were not unpleasant. Sort of like a brain massage. I did wish, however, the room weren’t so unbearably hot.

A clanking, banging, hissing radiator steamed the dust into the ruptured air. The maid’s on leave… With anyone but Corso I would have taken off my jacket. As it was I determined to suck it up and suffer.

How could Corso remain so fresh in this hothouse? Maybe it was this mysterious tea…don’t they drink it in the tropics? Lack of sleep caught up to me; I felt my eyelids flutter and it seemed so rude to prop them open with my fingers so I consented to shutter them for the merest pause.
Instantly I found myself standing alone on a wide, level plain. Not a tree, not a cloud or star; an empty world. If I tried glancing toward the tilting horizon my perspective rocked dizzyingly, as if the world itself bobbed at sea. Looking down, at my feet was a manhole cover. It was the only thing in that eternity; the only item in a cracked, starved and sun- baked universe. Asking myself what circle of hell I had happened upon I pried the cover off with my fingers, breaking in the process a couple of perfectly good nails.

I was instantly enveloped by such a hideous stink I reeled back. That smell assumed a life of its own, an ugly putrid paugh reaching out to steal my air and crush my lungs. But I couldn’t seem to get the darn manhole cover back in place; either it had swollen unaccountably or something blocked its way. A gnarled claw appeared, reptilian, first the nail and then the whole three-toed monstrosity reached up to scrape its way toward light. I banged on it hard with my heavy iron shield and the thing began to shriek…

The shriek became an overlooked teakettle while I struggled back to consciousness; finding myself stretched full length on the Freudian sofa, miniskirt riding hip-ward and Dr. Corso busying himself with tea caddies and tongs. Or were those forceps? Thank God for Spanx tights. I vaulted up and, unable to resist, checked my nails. Full set. Did I struggle with dragons only in my sleep?
“Care to try something different?’ he inquired, looming over. “Oolong enhances concentration. Raspberry is for cramps.”

I was having my period, damn his eyes. “Oh, my God,” I said, almost plunging from the slick leather surface to the Aubusson below, “Was I sleeping?” I was even more frightened by the panic in my own voice. I did not plan to discuss my menstrual cycle with my advisor. The only cramps I had were induced by him; in my brain. I thrashed as if still struggling with the monster. Sleeping? Dreaming? Now my lungs were cramped as I gasped over my lost time.

“Don’t let your reptile brain run away with you,” said Corso. “That’s the part of us that turns hat-racks into monsters while we sleep. Remember why you’re here, my darling. Sleep is allowed and dreaming is encouraged. I’m flattered you can be so comfortable with me. Even monsters can be manageable once you figure out what they want. Sometimes I think the greatest gift I give to freshmen is teaching them to relax. They’re so fearful of missing the least little thing. But don’t be concerned. We will meet anon; many times, I hope. This has been a most successful meeting. I learned – and I trust you learned – that under the right circumstances you sleep beautifully. Possibly even dream. Forgotten dreams are anteretrograde amnesia. I assess you a better subject than I could have possibly have expected.” He chuckled. “Almost as ifI dreamed you up. More tea?”

“No, no, no,” I gibbered, sitting up nervously with pressed-together legs. Last time I would wear a miniskirt around this particular monster. And how the hell had I gotten over here? I never sleep so deeply the merest touch won’t wake me up. Plus middle of the day and all…A thought occurred. ”Did you just hypnotize me?” I demanded.

“Why fear hypnosis?” asked Corso. “Hypnosis is but de- programming. It frees us from all these restrictive parts we think we have to play; male-female, old-young, professor-student. In this circular multiverse you must face the fact that everything you fear has already happened. We emerge stronger at the broken places, coming out the other side. At any rate, no one can be hypnotized against his or her will. Permit me, as your mentor, to know more about your will than you possibly can.”

He reached out to touch me, a fingertip touch that stung like a wasp’s tail. “Why not just trust that your elders have the experience to know better than you what you need? Next time choose a safe word.”

What word would serve in this uncertain world? And there wasn’t going to be a next time. I launched myself to my feet. “Got to be going,” I said.

“I don’t comprehend your panic,” he said, coming closer.

“Everything within these walls is confidential.” He gazed at me as if I were just the most fascinating specimen. “Don’t you think you might be overreacting because of that spot of bother when you were little?”

I felt the hairs rise along the back of my neck. How the hell did he know about that? Would it show up on my medical records? Are they that detailed? I racked my brain. Unfair that the embittered whines of therapists, their health and sanity ruined by years of pounding round pegs into square holes should take precedence over anything I had to say. Or – even more chilling thought – maybe Corso didn’t bother with records – maybe he had romped through my mind like a toddler through daisies.

Inelegant, but determined, I changed the subject. That’s what’s gotten me this far. “I’m worried about the exam,” I asserted. And it had the benefit of being true. “I hate exams.“ Multiple choice requires guessing and you know about my problems with that.

“Oh, it’s a physical exam. Nothing to do with book learning or even intelligence,” said Corso smoothly. “Interestingly, neither has dreaming. Opossums have the most REM sleep, dolphins hardly any.” He sat down at his desk to scrawl upon a pad, stuffing the sheet into my palm.

“Take this to Miss Howk at the clinic and get it over with. She’s there right now. ” He leaned across the desk to stage whisper, “Anything we find out?” He zipped his lip and tossed an imaginary key. “Confidential, I assure you. “ Fine by me. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

“Uh, thanks,” I said awkwardly. I stepped over a note thrust beneath the door – not even folded – so I could not miss the stuck-on newsprint letters: I’LL SLEEP WHEN YOU’RE DEAD. I stepped right back as if doing the hokey-pokey. Had the monster had escaped after all?

“My stalker,” said Corso, palming it smoothly. “Be still my heart! The disappointed play these little games. If you knew how valuable these research positions are, Miss Suzino, perhaps you would value yours more.” He flipped his hand dismissively as I scurried away.

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