The British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge told a famous story (which greatly fascinated Borges) about how, with the invaluable aid of opium, he came up with his poem ‘Kubla Khan’ in a dream and managed to get down about fifty verses before the unexpected visit of a ‘Person from Porlock’ interrupted him. Coleridge had dreamed a perfect poem of three hundred verses but only managed a sixth. Kubla Khan would forever remain incomplete. The character in this story by José Miguel Tomasena experiences a variation on the same problem: he sees a story in his dreams and is desperate to get it down on paper, but the entire universe (personified by his immediate surroundings) gets in his way. Tomasena is an artist of brevity. He pares down and polishes each phrase until it is reduced to its essential parts, and here he tells a very amusing story with a poker face worthy of Buster Keaton himself.
When he woke up, Ana had left, and he had an idea for a story. He reached for his glasses on the bedside table, which was actually just a shelf because their bedroom only had enough space for a bed. She had left a note: “I’m going out for a run. xxx”. McCartney composed “Yesterday” in a dream; he couldn’t let this one get away.
They lived in a gloomy flat in Madrid that had no heating. It had been intended for the building’s porter: two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. One table for both work and meals. As he passed by the kitchen he saw that the sink was full of dishes and empty glasses. He pushed open the bathroom door. Once inside, he stepped into the shower to close the door so he could get to the toilet. As he peed he went over the dream. They were standing together on a dock next to a ship that was about to set sail. She wanted to go; he didn’t want her to. He did up his fly. He’d write it in the third person so the characters could grow independently.
On the table was a basket of stale bread, an overflowing ashtray and some leftover pâté. He took a couple of dirty plates to the sink and made some space where he could write. In the dream he had a suitcase in his left hand. The ship was like a floating New York skyscraper. It makes me dizzy just to look up at it, she had said, and he had leaned back and felt as though all those windows and beams were coming down on top of him. At some point she had stretched out to take the suitcase, and he had said that he was going with her. No, she had replied, I’m going alone. She tried to take the suitcase from him, grabbing the handle with both hands. She pulled hard, leaning back like she was rowing. He only needed to use one arm to keep hold of the suitcase. They struggled like that for a while until the skyscraper slid out of the dock, and she had cried, staring towards the horizon, her hand wrapped around his on the handle. Then milk started to leak out of the suitcase, through the seams and the hinges, the locks and clasps. Milk spilling all over the place. But neither of them moved or let the suitcase go.
The lock turned, and Ana came into the flat carrying a plastic bag. I brought you the newspaper, she said, and he thanked her without looking up from his writing. She gave him a kiss, leaving a sweaty mark on his cheek. He went on writing, convinced that he’d be able to rediscover the right tone. In the dream they had both held on to the suitcase, which was leaking milk. He heard the liquid splash on the ground while they looked out to sea until the skyscraper, which was now a normal ship, disappeared. The milk continued to drip, drip, drip, and an enormous white puddle formed on the dock.
“Juice or coffee?”
“Yes to which? Juice or coffee?”
“Both.” After a beat, “Please. Please.”
“What’s the matter with you? You’re in a terrible mood this morning.”
“I’m trying to write.”
She didn’t say anything, but her face hardened. She picked up the ashtray her husband had left in the kitchen and tipped it into the rubbish bin. She tapped it twice to loosen the ash stuck to the bottom. She also banged the basket of bread against the bin to get rid of the crumbs. Then she left the kitchen and said, “Excuse me.” Carlos’s chair blocked the way to the refrigerator. She took out a can of coffee, poured some beans into the grinder and turned it on.
Carlos closed his eyes and sighed. He went to the bedroom, rummaged for the iPod in the cupboard and put in his ear buds, but over the music he could still hear the tapping of the spoon against the grinder, the opening and closing of drawers and the rattling of cutlery until Ana found the lighter and lit the hob. He tried to remember what the skyscraper had looked like, what shape the windows had been, but he was distracted by the clinking of plates, the water from the tap and the bubbling of the coffee.
“It’s going to burn again.”
She answered something he couldn’t hear. He took out one of the ear buds.
“Turn it down. You’ll go deaf.”
Ana brought the coffee to the table. “What is it? A story?”
“What’s it about?”
Carlos closed his eyes and breathed in and out, trying to be patient. “I’ll tell you when I’m done, OK?”
“Oh! Forgive the interruption.”
“You know I don’t like to talk about what I’m writing until I’m done.”
“What a freak.”
Carlos wrote a couple more somewhat coherent phrases until she passed by again wrapped in a towel and turned on the shower.
“When I get out we’re going to clean up around here.”
“Don’t be like that; the stories aren’t going anywhere.”
“Neither is the dust.”
He quickly jotted down the basic structure for the story, sacrificing the syntax. The sound of the shower helped, but then the doorbell rang.
“Doorbell!” Ana shouted.
“Yes,” he shouted back, already walking over to the door, “I’m going.”
He pulled on his trousers, ran his hand through his hair and opened the door. A girl wearing thick glasses told him that her mother had dropped a sock. Carlos told her to wait. He moved his chair to open the door into the interior patio. A Mickey Mouse sock was lying on the ground. He picked it up and looked upwards. A shadow that had been watching him from the third floor drew away from the window. The clothesline from which the other sock still dangled vibrated like a violin string.
When he came back into the house he found the girl flicking through his notebook.
“What are you looking for?”
The girl looked up at him with her artificially huge eyes.
“Here’s your sock.”
The girl took it and ran out. Carlos closed the door.
Ana, wrapped in the towel and dripping water onto the kitchen floor, asked who it was.
“The neighbour again.”
“Carlos,” Ana said.
He didn’t answer.
“Carlos, I’m talking to you. You do the bedroom and living-room. I’ll do the bathroom and kitchen.”
“Fine,” he said. But he kept his notebook open.
“Carlos, we agreed.”
Carlos sighed again and stood up.
She gave him a kiss and said, “It won’t take long, love.”
It really wasn’t a lot of work. Carlos went into the bedroom. The bed took up almost all the space. He shook out the duvet, and when the feathers were evenly distributed, spread it over the mattress. He picked the dirty clothes up from the floor and threw them into the laundry basket. He shook out the rug and lay it on the bed. Then he swept.
Once he’d finished sweeping the room he gathered together the old newspapers piled up in the living-room and put them in a plastic bag, threw out the pizza and cosmetics fliers, found a mouldy old cup of coffee under the sofa and put three books back on the bookshelf.
As he worked he kept on thinking about the suitcase. What was inside it? Why did they both want it, and why would neither of them let go? What did that never-ending flow of milk mean?
One night, before they were married, he had invited Ana up to his flat. They were down in the street, making out in her car – he’d never got around to learning to drive – and were about to get carried away. He shoved a couple of fingers inside her panties, and she pulled down his zip.
“The police will catch us. We’d better go up,” he said, but Ana refused. Carlos kissed and nibbled her neck. “Come on.”
Ana kept on refusing. Carlos tried to get her to say why, but she just said no. He thought that something must be wrong. Maybe he had been too rough. Or too gentle. Or maybe it was her time of the month.
“Why won’t you come up?”
She still wouldn’t answer, and Carlos started to get annoyed.
“Don’t be upset,” Ana said. Carlos promised that he wouldn’t, even though he knew that whatever was coming wouldn’t be good.
“It’s just…” she said hesitantly, “it’s just that your flat is so dirty.”
Carlos sighed. Then he got out, slammed the door behind him and walked around the back of the car.
“Does anyone care about the dust at Hemingway’s house?” he shouted through the window.
Carlos picked up the living-room rug. Then he mopped the floor, thinking about what was inside the suitcase and whether it was a good idea to reveal it to the reader. It was the same old dilemma: if he were too explicit, the narrative tension would be lost; if he hid too much the story would be meaningless. Once he finished mopping the floor, he went out into the patio and tipped the dirty water down the drain.
“Here’s the bucket, love. I’m done.”
“Did you dust?”
Carlos held his breath.
“And sweep under the bed?”
“Love, I need to get back to my writing.”
“Carlos… it’s just once a week.”
He went back into the bedroom. From there he heard Ana repeating a refrain of her grandmother’s, “A stitch in time saves nine.”
“Yes, yes,” he murmured. Why the hell was it milk? Rather than blood, say?
Ana came into the bedroom. She went to the bookshelf and ran her finger along the top. It came up black.
“I thought you’d dusted,” she said accusingly.
Carlos bent down and shoved the broom under the bed. Two balls of fluff and a novel he was supposed to have returned to the library by now came back out with it.
“That’s where it was! Oh, Carlos!”
Carlos shook some hairs off the book and blew away the dust. Great, he smiled, and she laughed.
Ana walked out of the bedroom. Carlos sat down on the bed and opened the novel. He heard her wringing out a cloth and mopping the bathroom floor.
“You’re procrastinating again.”
He closed his eyes and saw her in the dream. She was pulling on the suitcase like a little girl trying to move some impossibly huge object.
“Look how disgusting this water is,” she complained. “A couple of wipes and it’s black. This is a pigsty. I can’t do it all on my own.”
Ana dragged the bucket and cloth out to the patio. Carlos saw her bend down over the drain. She emptied out the bucket with her arse in the air, shouting that she was sick of it, she couldn’t go on like this, cursing the day she’d ever set foot in this hovel.
Carlos shook his head. He should spank her. Or fuck her just like that, from behind. Instead, he walked over to the door to the patio and turned the key in the lock.
Ana, who hadn’t seen, came back to the door and tried to open it.
“What’s going on? What are you doing?” She peered through the window and saw Carlos put on a jacket, pick up his notebook and novel and walk to the door. “What are you doing? Don’t leave me out here!”
Out in the lobby he could no longer hear his wife shouting. The sun was shining; there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. He walked a couple of blocks to the park, sat down on a bench and opened his notebook.
The dream seemed much clearer now.
But a few paragraphs later he hesitated. He crossed out a word then the final sentence. The paragraph was no good either. He tried to change the point of view – maybe she should tell the story – but he just cut more of the text.
After a while he gave up. What kind of mood would Ana be in when he got back? What would he say to her? What could he say?