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I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead

19. An Evening at Home

The house was miniature Norman castle, hands down the most imposing building on the cul-de-sac. Upturned floodlights embedded in the lawn showcased a virtual stage set. You’d have to sleep blindfolded to get any rest under these conditions. Were we staying for Christmas? Details seemed fuzzy or were missing. I could only hope my room would be at the back of the house; in the servant’s wing. Otherwise it would be like sleeping on an airport runway.

All that raw newness made the house seem thrown together overnight, like a fake-front Disney castle. A “Potemkin village”. Is this the kind of house that bankrupts build? You didn’t need to be psychic to intuit disastrous cracks, fundamental leaks, yawning chasms beneath all that stucco and stone. Or is this rental maze jealousy spilling over?

“I better warn you I’m unpredictable around money,” I told Chase. “Everyone I’ve ever known has been broke. ”

“There are so many levels of brokenness,” said Chase, holding my hand.
The ornately carved front doors opened in a central turret; a sort of castle keep, guarded by stone lions. I imagined them swiveling blank orbs to inspect as I went past: “Who goes there?” in some foreign tongue, but a door opened before Chase could ring. The tiny, shriveled figure standing there could have been any age from child to grandmother.

“Hi, Mom,” said Chase. “Long time no see.”
“Steven!” she breathed out in a great rush ofjoy, embracing him in a mighty hug. Finally turning to acknowledge me.

“I’m Zoya,” she told me shyly. Rigidly coiffed, heeled and pearled, she was heavily made up and had unlikely red hair but her eyes were soft and gentle. When she reached out to embrace me I could feel her birdlike bones. I couldn’t hug back because I was holding the damn plant so I just stood there like a lump of baloney. It would have been an excellent moment to unload our gift but it was far too big for her. Chase could have warned me!

“This is for you,” I said, demonstrating the cactus, making it do a little dance. “Happy birthday.”
She touched it uncertainly, as if it might bite her.
“Oh, dear,” she said sadly, as recalling past distress, “I suppose I’m just like this plant. Prickly and ancient.”

Gift-giving is loaded with symbolism all right; we just forget that sometimes its unintended symbolism. Chase did try warning me about that, but I insisted on behaving as if we were in my world where uncertainty equals fun surprises.

“That’s not it at all,” said Chase-Whose-Real-Name-is-Steven, rescuing me from the suddenly unbearably heavy present, “You’re the lady who blooms even in winter. It’s going to have three blossoms, see? A Trinity, like a shamrock. That’s why we thought ofyou.”
Her eyes filled with tears. “Oh, Stevie,” she patted his shoulder, so moved she could hardly speak. “Such a gift for words.”

A look flashed between us that spoke more than words, but Chase’s voice was robo-speak. “I’m called Chase now. Remember, Mom?”

Zoya said fiercely, “Chase is a disgusting name. It doesn’t mean anything! Steven was your great-grandfather’s name, and your great-great grandfather’s. “
Chase sighed, the put-upon son. “Primitive tribes give their children temporary names, until they are old enough to say who they are.”

I could certainly see the flaw in that reasoning. Why should we emulate primitive tribes?
Zoya darted forward to grab Chase’s hand. “Oh, what have you donetoyourpoorwrist?” Shefeltaroundherbosomforapairofglasses, tried dragging him beneath the chandelier, but effortlessly he pulled away. Probably he had been too big for her since toddlerdom.
“I was tied up to something,” said Chase. “Jazz got me loose.”
Another look. I may have blushed.

His mother glanced back and forth between us, trying to smile but making disbelieving throat clicks. “Oh, sweetie,” she sighed at length, “I never can tell when you’re teasing.”
Like many tiny women, she scurried when she walked; and like many thin women, she kept her shoulders hunched protectively forward against a permanent chill. She lectured the plant as Chase unloaded it on the hall table; “You behave now.” I stole an opportunity to look around.

On either side of the staircase stood two life-size white plaster statues like a pair of sleep-struck guests. This could only be Chase and his sister on the cusp of puberty. Some people have their baby’s shoes bronzed; this family was more ambitious. They apparently subjected their offspring to full body-casts. Untouched by time or fate, with clear eyes and perfect skin, they lent a scary threat to the entryway, as if anyone stepping beyond this point risked ossification. Behind me I heard Zoya whisper intimately to her son, “I’m so glad you’re here. It’s the best birthday present I could ever have.”

But Chase wouldn’t let his mother forget about me. He propelled me forward. “Meet Jasmyn Suzino,” he said.

“Jazz.” I tried hard to look nice and unthreatening, as opposed to, say, psychic and weird. But honestly I wished myself elsewhere. How did I become captive in Chase’s life story exactly? This dream felt very unlucid. Is there opaque dreaming? I once asked for a cloak of invisibility in my Christmas stocking. Oh, to be a fly on the wall, and figure out the dance before you’re asked to join in!

Zoya gave me the once over, then she gave me the twice-over. She walked around me like I was the Statue of Liberty. A full seven-twenty. Was it the name? Make up or lack thereof? Filthy clothing? Because I seemed to be wearing unprepossessing black jeggings and a weightlifter’s sweatshirt. Was I just too “ethnically diverse?” I felt crazy unprepared, just like Soliz in her naked dream.
Now she peered beyond me as if questing for my retinue. “Aren’t you staying the night? I don’t see any luggage.”

“No luggage,” said Chase. “We had kind of an incident at school. A woman jumped out of Jasmyn’s window, so the police won’t let her into her room. I thought she could borrow from Cyanne.”

Another flashed exchange of looks – challenging from him, warning from me. This was only going to get more difficult if Chase insisted on being one of this dream’s unmanageable elements.
“Oh, my goodness,” said Zoya, “How terrible. Was it your roommate? Was she badly hurt?”

I had to let Chase answer for me.“It was a school nurse, actually, and we barely knew her. She was
killed.” He seemed to take malicious pleasure in this recitation.

“Oh, my God!” Zoya’s hands flew up to her heavily powdered cheeks. “Why would anyone do such a thing? Why couldn’t you stop her?”

“Don’t you think some people are better off dead?” Chase queried lightly. “We weren’t there, Mom. I swear we had absolutely nothing to do with it.”

Zoya glanced uncertainly from one of us to the other. “You’re joking with me, aren’t you?” she queried. “You know I hate it when you tease about serious things.”

“Well, I do need fresh clothes,” I croaked, the cat-got-my-tongue turning frog. Frogs need water, and I needed a bath. “I hate showing up at your house looking like this.” In our next OBE I’m doing all the steering.

“Well, you’re welcome to borrow anything of Cyanne’s,” said Zoya. “She’s at school in Tennessee anyway, and she’s got way too many clothes. I’m always telling her. Think of the starving Africans! She buys things and then decides she doesn’t like them! What a flibbertigibbet! It’s like she’s a different person every morning!“

She chased us up the stairs shaking a dust cloth, “I hope you won’t go back to that university, Stevie. It sounds most unsafe. Or will they give you both an automatic A?“
“Urban legend, Mom.”

“At the very least they should give you the rest of the semester off. Give Jazzelle the tour, Steven. I’m working on dinner. It’s going to be fabulous.”

On the stairs I muttered bitingly, “Trouble-maker.”

“I’m more of a rabble-rouser really,” said Chase. “So much rabble. So little time.”

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