Call it the seat of daydreams.
What did it see, anyway? Nothing much, only a pleasant dim bedroom (not his own bedroom, not any room he had ever inhabited), the colors burnt sienna with a little rose. Reddish like a bright light glowing through fingers. It felt like an eternal afternoon through that eye, the drapes closed with sunlight behind them. A blurry, underwater feeling.
Charles had a dominant nose, and maybe that was what focused him on that particular spot in his field of vision. He’d be in a class — or later at work in the Department of Mathematics’ main office, making copies, filling out spreadsheets — and the blur of the right side of his nose would distract him and he would focus there thinking his own thoughts rather than whatever thoughts he was supposed to be thinking. Seeing just the warm ruddy spot of color that was his nose and then, as things progressed, he saw more.
Dottie was tied up with these sights from the first time he saw her. Overfriendly Dottie always smelling of the cinnamon Altoids she used to cover the desperate parking-lot cigarettes she thought she was keeping secret. Dottie who seemed to live in her little office across the hall. She was always there when Charles came in at seven-thirty and had never left before him, not once.
Sometimes Charles would sit at his desk thinking of Dottie, his two eyes on his email, fingers moving over keys, and that other eye would open.
The drapes in the bedroom of the other place glowed red as everything else that was seen through that particular eye. They were made of tapestry or jacquard, thick but not entirely opaque. He could just make out something of the design and something of the stubbled texture.
The plain office decor around him had often soothed him (Charles hated clutter), but now, set against the warm bedroom, it felt overly cool and stark.
• • •
She didn’t work for Math at all; she worked for the tutoring center located on the next floor, but the tutoring staff had overflowed their office space, and because her work was somewhat more independent than that of the other staff, she’d been given that one forgotten office set off by itself across the hall from Math. That space in the hall had become for all that Fall term a popular place for people to linger.
Dottie had come to the college from far away and made a good first impression. Cheerful, genuine-seeming, she was the kind of person who carried all her weight in the middle and tapered toward all her ends. Tiny ankles and feet, tiny pretty hands, a doll-like face and glossy russet hair. Immaculately put together, too, and in the first months she’d smelled of a subtle department store scent rather than cinnamon and smoke.
Yes, she had been popular during that first term. Young women from the Registrar’s office came to take her to lunch off campus, and there were young men lingering in her doorway, too, from time to time. At evening events, such as lectures and film screenings, someone was always calling her over to sit. Charles saw because he attended many of those events, too. He sat alone most times, though if anyone from Math was there, they would wave him over and offer a dry smile.
Dottie didn’t stay popular for long. Charles could have guessed she wouldn’t even if he hadn’t been at that dinner event, though that illustrated the matter quite well. She sat at the table closest to the speaker, Charles at the next table back. She was the freshest-looking person in the room, surrounded by silvery professors and grayed-out staff. Charles watched her speaking; he didn’t need to hear. She had some affinity for the subject they were discussing, and she spoke on it with passion, not for a long time but long enough that two of the others at the table shared a look. She really did seem inspired, like she might strike out or cry. She caught herself, blushed vibrantly, fell quiet. Talk at the table went on, and she joined in but only with little bursts of agreement after that.
And Charles caught a “help-me” look from a student one time when Dottie was talking in a group in the hallway. On his way out one evening, he caught another little something. The hall lights were off, and she must have thought that everyone had gone home.
She spoke to someone on the phone (ninety-nine percent chance it was to her far-away mother): “I try. I know. I will. It’s just…”
Charles watched her even more closely after that. He felt he could work out the story she told herself: She didn’t fit in here after all. These dried-up gray people were wearing her down, everyone around her seemed dead inside. She was most happy when she was passionate and loud and they wished her quiet. She’d gone to some trouble to become this vivacious thing, and here they were driving her back into her shell.
Whenever Charles thought of Dottie, his small eye tended to open up to its warm red vision. It wasn’t just at the office anymore. He couldn’t keep his thoughts on movies or television, let alone games, let alone reading. At times he’d do some dumb thing with his hands — polishing knives, scrubbing pots. He’d look out his kitchenette’s window, look out to the parking lots and think of Dottie. Sometimes he dried his hands, sat at his little table and doodled while thinking of her, and when he thought to look down at the pad, he saw surprising things drawn there. A pair of wire-framed glasses lying on a nightstand, an old-fashioned wind-up alarm clock.
The glasses he’d drawn in brick-colored pencil had a regular lens on the left, and on the right was an almost-regular lens with another smaller lens set in near the nosepiece. Glasses for a person with two regular eyes and a third, smaller one near the nose.
In that other place, he sat up slowly and turned to the window. Up close, the drapes smelled acrid, smoky and metallic. Something else, too, but he couldn’t catch it. He couldn’t stay long, couldn’t ever seem to keep that small eye open.
• • •
She stared up at him, her mouth slightly open. She’d just been bent over plugging or unplugging something.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—” He stepped back. He was very aware of his own face just then and set an appealing expression on it. Masculine shyness, soft interest.
“I’m just killing time before class,” Dottie said. Suddenly she was that old Dottie from a few months before, all open and genuine-seeming.
“I didn’t know you were a student,” he said
“A night class, for fun.”
“Ah, but that doesn’t explain why you’re here so late the rest of the week.”
They laughed nervously and Charles said he liked her wall-hanging, her peach-gold salt lamp (And didn’t her things recall that place? Didn’t they seem allusions to it?). The whole exchange was two or three minutes, but it made him feel triumphant all the way downstairs, all the way to his car.
• • •
They didn’t kiss until after the winter break when she returned from her mother’s. They were chaste for people their age, but eventually they were sharing a bed one or two nights each week. Always her bed, as his poor bare apartment was unfit for any kind of romance.
Her apartment was as red and pink and peach as he’d expected, but it was also surprisingly spacious and plush. Charles appreciated the cleanness and the quality of all that was on display, and yet it was overcrowded for his taste. After an hour or two, the lamps and plants and gewgaws began to feel overwhelming. He would close his eyes, the other eye would open in the other place, and he would shock himself out of it, stand and try to occupy himself or start a conversation, anything to stay in the real world until it was time for dinner or bed or whatever they were doing.
When he was sleeping over, he’d spoon her until she slept and then loosen the hold. He’d let himself slip into that other place.
It was bittersweet now because he knew it wasn’t thinking of Dottie that took him there. He was moving away from her to visit that place where she could not follow. It was something about lovemaking, or the way her apartment made him feel, or her scents of smoke and then shower, perfume and then smoke and then cinnamon. She had him smoking sometimes and drinking more than he was accustomed to doing, so maybe that was also part of it. A rise in blood pressure or something. He’d loosen his hold on her, push his face into the pillow, his heart going harder than it should, and the small eye would open right away.
He saw everything now, from the paisley pattern in the curtains to the pale enamel on the old-fashioned alarm clock. He touched the glasses, brought them to his face. They had those deep-curved wire earpieces that hold tight. He saw the brass footboard and beyond its bars a trunk with a striped blanket folded upon it. He saw beyond that to a small fireplace with a wood-framed mirror hanging above it. He wanted very badly to go to that mirror.
In that place, he always meant to rise and sweep the drapes open and look in the mirror, and he very often could rise, but he could take no more than a half-step in either direction before that little eye would slam closed, cutting him entirely out of the scene.
• • •
Dottie saw things differently. She was back to something of what she had been, on the surface at least. Keeping the secret of their relationship, which she approached as a kind of game, made her vivacious again. New young women came around to take her off campus for lunch. There were always more people to meet.
As the Spring semester went on and the days grew longer, it seemed they spent more time talking. Dottie said more than Charles did. She spoke passionately, just as she had on that long-ago day when he noticed her at the dinner. Charles never wanted to escape her. Sometimes when she talked about people they knew she was surprisingly cruel, and that gave him a little thrill, brought him ever closer to her. She had so many opinions, so many interests, so much derision and even hatred for the people around them. She unfolded like a flower, revealing layer after layer like an onion.
Charles tried to make his face appealing while she spoke. He stared at the right side of his nose and fell to looking down at the rosy floor in that other place, but when she was awake, she always called him back. She’d ask him a question, and, surprising himself, he’d answer it honestly.
She wanted participation, and so he obliged. He told her how he and she were alike. He didn’t have interests, opinions — that wasn’t what he meant. It was deeper than that. It was the way they didn’t fit in and had always been alone, even in a crowd. He told her stories from his life to illustrate.
With a meaningful look, he finally told her it was all tied up with that other place they both went to sometimes. He referred to the other place casually, as though it were only a metaphor.
Something softened in Charles as they spoke of these things, and when they went to bed they were both gentler and more impassioned than they had been before. He said, “I love you” for the first time and she said it back soft and slow. They didn’t try to spoon because the room was overheated. They lay on their backs breathing deeply, all drenched in opioid feelings.
Charles closed his eyes, and he didn’t have to try; when his small eye opened in that other place, he put on the special trifocal glasses, rose and glanced at the mirror so quickly he could not comprehend the strange image there. He turned to the drapes—
—and that was it. The small eye slammed shut.
After a while, he slept and woke to a room even hotter than before. Light came from the bathroom, a tinkling sound.
Charles closed his eyes, the small eye opened, he put on the glasses and rose and took a long look in the mirror this time. The face was his own face only thin and old. The small eye blinked out of time with the others. Concentrating more than he’d thought he could, Charles turned to the line where the two drapes met and pushed them back.
The scene before him was red, bright and strange, incomprehensible really. It reminded him of coral, of frilly mushrooms, but it wasn’t either. He caught a hint of something (worm-arm?) and the eye slammed shut.
Dottie walked by the bed to the window. “Too hot,” she said. She pushed up the old wooden window with some effort. A warm gust came through the room.
Charles was already back in that other bedroom, and this time he was still standing, still walking. He moved around the bed, between the trunk and the fireplace. The paisley drapes had fallen closed. The far side of the room was in dark red shadow.
In the depths of the shadow, he could just make out two doors.
“You want a cool shower?” Dottie said. She’d already thrown off her little nightie.
Charles rose and followed her to the bathroom. He was in both places.
He was not coming in or out but remained in the two places! He’d have liked to say something about it to Dottie, but he was too overcome.
In the other place, Charles opened the door to a bathroom laid out like Dottie’s but with a clawfoot tub, no showerhead at all. Maybe showers had never been invented in that other place.
Dottie stood in her tub, waiting for him to get in. He knelt and put the plug in, started the water.
“You want to take a bath?” she said, sitting down. Her voice came clear and close, but in that other place her voice was far away. It seemed far beneath the floor.
He knelt beside the tub while the water poured in.
He saw — in both places, he saw — the water was filling. The strangest thing: in the other place, the bottom of Dottie was there in the tub. Her heels, her calves, her thighs and butt stuck up out of the water, all flattened as though a length of heavy glass pressed down on them. Just an absent pink span of flesh, yet he knew it must be her.
Here in her own dim gold-colored bathroom, Dottie smiled at him, pulled his arm. “Get in,” she said. She pushed herself back to make more room, and he moved in, kneeling in the cool deep water between the faucet and her body
In that other place, he knelt in exactly the same place. Her upside-down feet pushed back toward her upside-down butt. She was coming into that space with him. Like being born breach. He grasped her ankles and tried to pull from that side, but nothing happened; she was stuck and did not move.
He would have to try pushing from this side instead.
He placed his hands on her shoulders and pressed — not too hard, not violently. He pressed from this side, and in that other place her cubelike body came up another inch. It stopped.
“What are you up to? Want to rub my back?” she said.
Charles nodded, and there was an awkward rearrangement, her body going so strange in that other place. Once seated behind her, he pressed again on her back. It had no effect.
“That feels good,” she said. “Go lower.”
He did. The little eye remained open seeing the bottom of her, but here on this side, he rubbed her back just like a normal person with no motive except to give pleasure. After a while, he poured shower gel on a pouf and washed her back. He washed her front as far as he could and she took the pouf to finish.
She looked back at him so happy, like all her life and energy had come back stronger. “I love you,” she said, a euphoric feeling coming off of her. On the other side, she lay before him like a grotesque rose. I have to push harder, he thought, but what if…
“Can’t you come over by yourself?” he said softly.
“Hmm?” she said. She was sleepy again.
“Open your other eye,” he said.
She only giggled.
A red-toned image of a violent push came to his mind — splashing gurgling fear and horror, her nails raking his arms and chest — but he pushed that image away. She pushed back against him and turned on more cool water with her foot.
Something had changed about his vision on Dottie’s side. Perhaps his eyes had adjusted to the dim light. Her bathroom was no longer the calming gold color but jarred with blue and yellow-green and a great deal of staticky gray. He closed these eyes and opened the others wider.
In that other place, all was still red. He looked away from the terrible thing she was. The window called to him. Somewhere there was a door to the outside. He just had to find it.
“You’ll follow when you can,” he said. On the one side, his body stayed behind her, just a flesh-chair for her to lean back against, but on the other side, he eased away from her and carefully stepped out of the tub. He knelt and pressed, gently, until all of her was gone, until nothing but clear water remained in the red-lit bathtub.
“Are you asleep?” she said, but it was far away. He did not feel her turn and put a hand to his face.
He stood and found he did not need to dry himself. All was red, pleasingly warm but not hot. His element. He left the bathroom, hovering toward the enticing window.
He heard her screaming for a moment, but it was very, very far away.
Front & Back cover art by Rew X
Lorna D. Keach
John Wm. Thompson
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