Something stirs me from sleep. My throat rasps, my chest gleams with sweat as I prop myself up in bed. A troubling dream dissipates into the darkness, leaving the faint image of stars speckled across the bedroom window. I mop the sweat with the sheet and glance at the luminous arms of the alarm clock—4.25 a.m.
In five minutes its electronic whine will fill the room, but I switch it off and start dressing. As I pull on my sweatshirt I notice Jerry’s quivering eyelids, which suggest another unsettled dream. I creep out to the kitchen to make a pot of tea, then return to the bedside and shake Jerry gently.
“Hey, c’mon, honey, drink this. Then get yourself dressed, and let’s get going. The quicker this is over the better.”
Jerry squints at me, unable to focus at once. “I was having such a weird dream. I can’t shake it off.”
“Well. That’s not surprising,” I respond, “on a day like today. Never mind, in a few hours we can come back and get a deep sleep.”
Jerry stumbles to the bathroom while I move around watering the plants that make our small apartment like a botanical garden. I love to be surrounded by these fragile forms and now I squeeze my toes into the carpet in appreciation.
The house is closed in by mango trees, and whenever I feel threatened I think of it as a fortress against the outside world. But now it’s time to leave and when Jerry comes out of the bathroom, I’m waiting at the door with our jackets.
“How do you feel?” I ask.
“Oh, OK, I guess, just a bit shaky,” Jerry answers.
“Me too. And not only for the cold. Are you ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
A forced smile flits across Jerry’s face. We pull on our jackets and step out into the cool, Caracas night. I saunter down the path while Jerry secures the front door, the safety gate and the padlock, a clatter of metal in the hushed air. I gaze at my favourite rose bush while I wait, and its buds appear a black velvet beneath the glare of the streetlamp.
We drive the deserted streets in silence, but then my nerves force me to talk. “Hell, I wish I didn’t feel so anxious. We’ve paid this doctor $750 without any idea of what’s going to happen—as if he’ll wave a magic wand and the problem will disappear.”
Jerry’s eyebrows rise. “Actually, I hear it’s more like a vacuum cleaner he waves. I was talking to Carmen, the girl who recommended Dr Mendoza to us. But she said the anaesthetic put her out in a few seconds, and she didn’t remember a thing about it. So don’t worry.”
Carmen is a student of Jerry’s at the British Institute where we both work as English teachers, myself full-time and Jerry a few hours a week to supplement the income of a prestigious job at the Central University of Venezuela.
Jerry reaches a hand across to squeeze my thigh, but my agitation won’t subside. “Well, it may be alright for Carmen—she’s just a teenager. But we’re well into our thirties, and this may be our last chance to have a kid that we’re giving up. What if we change our minds later?”
Jerry’s face becomes rigid. “Listen, we’ve talked this over a thousand times. We aren’t prepared to make the commitment now, so why bring it up again?”
I lapse into silence for a while, but then Jerry changes the subject. “What about the rumour that the institute is closing? Do you think it will?”
“Oh, it wouldn’t surprise me. But I can tell you, if it does, I might not stay around here. I always said this place drives me crazy, it’s so disorganised. Maybe I’ll just take off for Peru. How would you feel about that?”
“Well, not too good, but you know I wouldn’t try to stop you,” Jerry answers, “I’ve told you before that when I leave the university, I want to head for Europe.”
And I suppose that sums us up. Although we’re happy to be together now, we’ve arrived from different directions—Jerry from Australia, myself from England—and will probably leave in different directions. Yet ironically, it’s Jerry’s fierce independence that attracts me to her so much, and I can’t avoid the knot of sadness that tightens in my chest.
We are crawling along a residential street, peering at the house numbers. Then we see another car pull up and a couple tiptoe out. This must be the place! A cryptic smile passes between Jerry and myself as we follow them up an iron staircase onto a terrace lined with plastic chairs.
We step into a small office after the couple, a blond American giant and a dusky Venezuelan, whose sharp features are buried beneath a fur coat and a shock of jet black curls.
We announce our arrival to a matronly assistant, who frowns over the rim of her glasses She consults her ledger, then orders us like disobedient children to take seats out on the terrace. We sit shivering, in part from the chill air, in part from fear, and chat to distract ourselves.
“Do you fancy going to the beach this weekend?” I suggest. “You’re not working Saturday, are you?”
“No, that’s a good idea,” Jerry says. “Why don’t we go to Morrocoy? It would be great to snorkel round those coral reefs and have a quiet day or two together.”
“OK, that’s settled then,” I say. “We’ll just take the snorkelling gear, the Frisbee, and a hammock to swing between the palm trees, and laze away the days.”
Our eyes and hands meet and a wave of joy wrestles the sadness in my chest. But at that moment the matron’s harsh voice pierces the still air and shatters our intimacy. “Jerry Noland!”
Our hands clutch, sticky with sweat. My fingers trail through her thick, black hair as she stands and follows the matron through the creaking swing door. Since the day Jerry told me she was pregnant, I’ve experienced an odd tapping in my gut, and now my stomach muscles constrict in anticipation of an end to all this tension.
Unable to remain seated, I pace around the terrace, hands in pockets, thumbs stretched towards my abdomen. I gaze up at the steep slopes of the Avila Mountain, which divides the city from the Caribbean, and notice the first glimmering of dawn moving in from the east, colouring the sky above the mountain a purplish blue.
They’ll have given her the anaesthetic already. Yet I am quite conscious, and I shudder as my imagination moves over shelves of shining scalpels and the operating table with its leg clamps.
I flex my shoulders and breathe deeply to regain control of my body, reminding myself of the yoga I practise to get through a typical day in Caracas. I turn back to face the terrace, lean my elbows on the wall behind me and slowly take in the scene as it emerges from the shadows of the night.
The blond giant fidgets in the corner, chewing his nails and lost in thought. Near him two women, their faces turned to each other, sniffle into handkerchiefs, looking like twins. Another woman, clad in emerald satin skirt, pats her glum friend on the back and rummages in her handbag for tissues and chewing gum.
The sky lightens, the stairs clatter with new arrivals and fifteen to twenty people shuffle uncomfortably close to one another on the terrace. A few plants straggle from untended pots between us, and I turn to gaze outwards once more.
A woman emerges from the door below the terrace, supported by the doctor’s assistant. She takes a few steps with her hand to her forehead, then almost crumples before the assistant catches her fall and leads her to the gate. A taxi driver hovers near, obviously aware of potential fares. The woman’s body folds into the back seat and the cab purrs off into the onrush of day.
By now the sun has cast its glow over the peak of the mountain and is spreading downwards like a luminous curtain. I glimpse the flash of a waterfall high up on the mountain before the sun’s reflection shifts.
I slump into a chair in the corner and drop my head into my hands. Driven almost crazy by my surroundings, I move into the dubious comfort of my own fantasy. I recollect meeting Jerry and the electricity of that time—how we clung desperately to each other as if we’d been waiting for that meeting all our lives.
I wallow in the memory of those days when life was too full to think of sleep, all the time getting high, high, higher. I remember at parties after the initial excitement cooled down, how we would separate to share ourselves with others, then come back together at the end of the evening like two halves of a whole, rolling into the fullness of being together.
My mind wanders on to our occasional fantasy of touring this continent together, if and when we save enough cash. And I realise the impossibility of taking a child on mountain trails in the Andes or through the mosquito-ridden depths of the Amazon jungle.
Of course Jerry is right—if we had a kid now we’d resent each other later for missed opportunities. I find myself plotting a route through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and on into the dark side of our dream, that secret shore secluded from the world.
I am jolted by the voice of a nervous teenager who wants a light. It takes several seconds for him to steady his cigarette, but I notice that the flame from my lighter stands firm amid the wave of restlessness around.
I follow the sense of calm through my hand, up through my arms to my chest, where my heart now beats evenly. I smile at him, sensing a great distance between us, and glance at his young girlfriend, whose eyes are wide with fear.
Just then the door opens and I see the unmistakeable silhouette of Jerry’s hair shimmer onto the terrace. She staggers. I rush to support her and clutch at her armpits, pulling her towards me.
Looking into her wide brown eyes, I see her quizzical gaze fixed on a point behind me. I turn to look at the mountain peak, which now stands verdant against a cerulean sky.
I am flustered for a moment. Jerry’s so drugged she can’t even recognise me. I shuffle her down the steps, and lean her against the car while I grope in my pocket for the keys. She begins to slip down as I unlock the door but I grab her waist and bundle her into the front seat. Her head slides onto her shoulder, covering her face with a curtain of hair.
The engine roars into life and I jerk the car into action, but we’ve only gone two blocks when we run into the morning rush hour. Cars snarl up into six lanes of solid traffic, the exhaust choking drivers on the way to work. The pavement is bustling at this early hour, as workers crowd the kiosks for a taste of coffee.
I switch on the radio to a classical station and the strains of a soothing guitar fill the car. Jerry begins to mutter in a semi-conscious state, and squirms in her seat. I turn off the commercial streets and drive home through winding residential lanes. At last I pull up in front of our home on the lower slopes of the mountain.
I park the car, get out to open Jerry’s door, and catch the strong scent of roses. Now they have burst open in the daylight, the blood-red petals stretched back to soak up the sun. I help Jerry from the car and her glistening eyes seem to look deep into mine, but they are focused far beyond.
A faint smile is fixed on her lips and for a moment I think she’s just faking her weakness as I help her up the steps to the apartment. But when I turn from opening the door I find she’s crumpled into a ball beside me. Quickly I pick her up—she’s light as a fawn—and carry her through to the shade and comfort of the bedroom.
I lower her onto the bed, draw the curtains, slip her out of her clothes and tuck her between the sheets. She is still wearing that abstracted smile but her eyes are now closed. I throw off my clothes, collapse into bed and snuggle up as close as I can to Jerry without disturbing her.
A strange lightness comes over me. I settle my head against her neck and reach out to enclose her. I clasp her shoulder with fond fingers and the underside of my arm tingles as it comes to rest on her silky breast. The warmth and dizziness of release floods over my body. Within seconds I slide into the liquid contours of dream.
I float unrestricted by gravity, above a landscape littered with garbage and decay. I turn a few slow-motion somersaults, revelling in my weightless state. I drift upwards to the heights of a familiar peak. I hover a moment, then glide over the peak and soar along the coastline, where the surf rolls idly onto the sand of faraway bays.