July 2018 Contest Winner
R.E. Hengsterman is a writer and photographer. Born helpless and nude he now wanders under the Carolina blue sky. Twitter @robhengsterman and www.REHengsterman.com
Trapped Air by R.E. Hengsterman
I blame my father. Slunk deep into his drab, earth-toned chair. His legs bent, work boots bouncing on the balls of his feet like a prey animal ready to pounce.
His chair sat in the corner, flanked by thin spindled end tables burdened with years of Popular Mechanics magazines. He was king, and this was his throne.
Above his head, a sprouted runner from one of my mother’s dozen spider plants often crept as if poised to tap him on the shoulder or strangle him. I was never sure which I wanted, his strangulation or his attention.
Between his chair and a large bay window sat a sizeable cast-iron accordion–shaped radiator. There were others scattered throughout our old house, fueled by a temperamental boiler tucked in the basement. During the winter months, the radiators knocked as if a ghost inhabited the cast iron, but it was air trapped within torturous iron loops that caused the noise. That’s what my father told me.
My father was at his best when he had a purpose, a solvable equation. Freeing the trapped air in the radiator was a problem to which he had a solution, unlike love, which his mathematical brain was unable to process.
I’d watch him grab the unique radiator key wedged atop the kitchen door frame and find the valve. He’d turn the key to bleed the radiator until trapped air escaped with a hiss. Problem solved.
My father’s official title was head machinist of the electrical and plumbing crib - Building 105, Facilities Engineering 1830, interior, 1st floor.
During dinner, when crib talk flourished, I’d push half-eaten food around my plate as my mother acknowledged his discontent with a nod.
“We had to recast the injection mold again. Idiots, incompetent idiots are what they hire to work in the crib.”
“I wish I could run the crib my way.”
Mother nodded again, removing her red-raw hands from the scalding dishwater to place them on the small of his back. She’d hesitate long enough to leave a soapy residue on his shirt before she pulled away.
“I know, dear.”
My mother understood his triggers. She used the scalding dishwater as a reminder to speak with caution. But I had yet to learn, and I know what’s coming.
Last year I turned fifty. Most of my childhood memories had evaporated. My parent’s arguments had long been absorbed by the dark wood paneling in the old house. What I had carried with me into mid-life was a floater. A floater is a memory that won’t sink or fade away. The same way a dead body, swelled with methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide rises to the surface in still water.
My therapist turned me onto lucid dreaming to work through the floater.
“A lucid dream is a do-over space,” she said, “Where you can change your present-day life by altering your memory of a past traumatic event.”
Before I found lucid dreaming, I had terrible insomnia. I’d vape cannabis to help me sleep. Half the time it worked. The other half I’d lay awake watching the exhale of smoke become ensnared by the whirl of the ceiling fan. I’d stare for hours into the void left by the dissipating smoke.
I’m still new at lucid dreaming, and the floater lingers. Tonight, I’ll try again.
My alarm goes off at 3am, and I force myself awake mid REM cycle. You need to snatch yourself from REM sleep for lucid dreaming to work.
I’m dreaming I say, careful to speak only in the first person to avoid being tossed from the dream by my subconscious. I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming.
I’m weightless in a deep pool. My arms and legs have detached. The separation is painless - my limbs from my body. The physical me is alive, juxtaposed against the dreaming me. The contradiction triggers an ancestral panic: an uncontrollable wallop that explodes beneath my ribcage, sending the tiny hairs on my skin stiff. Chicken skin. Warmth numbs my torso; without restraint, I piss myself.
I’ve been here before.
My arms and legs splay out in a desperate search for something firm. I hear pots and pans clank and the tinny sound of running water drumming an empty sink basin in the distance. I shift toward the noise, neck lax - head whirling in confusion. Warm, familiar hands take hold of me, gentle coddling as if they held a limp rag doll.
I’m nine years old again, perched on the edge of the kitchen sink wearing my favorite footie pajamas. I’m wet, a hysterical response from my mother to revive the unconsciousness dealt by my father’s hand. The water has soaked through the cotton fabric of my pajamas, and the insult snaps my eyes open.
I’ve missed the mark again, gone too far. I can’t escape the permanent groove of the memory.
I see the pale melting face of my mother and squash my eyes to focus. My mother tightens her grasp, flinging my body back and forth - as I have become the broken rag doll I feared. Between the tight, narrow movements of her pursed lips, her face falls into a pool of sadness.
Even in the dream, I can taste my salty, metallic blood–as if copper coats my tongue. I watch my mother extend her arms, pause, and drive her hands together. A thunderous clap explodes inches from my face. The earth-toned terracotta tiles and harvest-gold appliances flash into focus.
“What happened?” I ask.
“You ducked,” my mother said. “And you embarrassed your father!”
“Yes, baby, it was time for punishment, and you ducked. You need to take your punishment.”
“How else will you become a man?”
“A man,” I say.
My mother brushes the hair from my face before dabbing at the blood on my lip with a tissue. She places a single kiss on my forehead and squeezes one final time before releasing her grip and slumping back into herself.
“You scared me,” she says. “Please don't duck next time.”
“Now go upstairs and get ready for bed.”
I slide off the counter and tramp upstairs, each step leaving a squish and a small puddle.
Mamma’s right. How will I ever become a man if I am a coward?
I pretend to sleep, waiting for the familiar heavy footsteps on the stairs. My father was a large man.
When I hear the third creak of the wood, I throw back the covers, quiet my arms and legs, and lay rigid as steel in the small bed.
In a place indistinguishable between lucid dream and nightmare, I whisper, “I am ready, Mamma, going to take my punishment like a man.”
As the whisper escapes my lips, I wake. I’ve failed again.
My therapist says it’s going to take time and not to get discouraged.
Part of me thinks I deserved the beating, ducking to avoid his fist, sending him into a violent rage. The purpose of lucid dreaming is to go back. Take the beating. Stand tall. Not duck.
The problem is avoiding his fist might be a reflex, involuntary and fixed, the way animals flinch, and nothing can alter a reflex, not even a lucid dream.
My therapist says a well-executed lucid dream can change the course of your life. But I don’t think it’s true. I don’t think I can bleed the system and free the trapped air causing the clamor inside my head. I can’t solve this problem and I fear I will always be a coward.
She drapes herself over the back of the living room couch, nose pressed against Liza’s aquarium. She drums her fingers, long nails on clear glass, tap-tap-tap, a monotone, grating sound. The amethyst-colored jellyfish inside—the only two miraculous survivors—seem unperturbed, floating around as languid and disinterested as ever. I want to be those jellyfish. I want the world to seem as distant as a bad dream that can’t reach me through the amniotic-like water...