All That Matters Is What’s Above You

Leah Wingenroth

Clair can’t stop dreaming about her teeth falling out. Every night for the past few months she’s startled before the sun, sleepy hands moving hesitantly to touch her mouth, making sure they were all still there. Her chest rose and fell arrhythmically and she squeezed her eyes shut to blink the remnants of the dream away, tongue searching in her mouth for a coppery taste. One night last week, after checking her gums at two in the morning when the lack of light through the window still made the furniture look like faces in the dark, she decided she wanted to know.

She avoided thinking about the patterns in her sleep, the bunched up blankets and the plaguing dreams of her jaw hollowed out. She hated remembering them the next morning, making them real. But that night she had enough hiding from it. She knew it wasn’t normal for her dreams to be so bloody so often, but there she stood, in her childhood bathroom, Blues Clues toothbrush resting on the counter by her hand. She watched herself from the outside as if her consciousness had mingled with the shower steam and hung in the air above her body. Dream Clair stared at herself in the mirror, gaze unblinking. Blood dripped from the corners of her mouth like some kind of vampire. She knew it had to mean something, in the far crevices of her head where she tucked all of those unacknowledged things to hide away for awhile.

So after the tenth dream, or maybe the twelfth, of watching herself decay from above, she googled it. She wouldn’t call a psychic or a doctor because that would mean the dreams were worth addressing in the outside world, the universe apart from her own. Just enough of an inquiry to satiate the prying voice in the back of her mind that she was actually going insane.

Times of change, the website attributed her recurring dreams to. Feelings of loss. Lack of balance. Inferiority and insecurity. Are you about to make a big move, or start a new job, it asked? Craving structure? Maybe start a dream journal! Or see a therapist!

Clair tossed her phone towards the mound of sheets at the end of the bed that had ripped themselves from the corners of her mattress, and it bounced off of the ground with a worrisome, echoing smack.

Clair’s grandmother died a few summers ago, right after she graduated from university. She was a regal woman with a high, tight voice, her silvery gray hair never out of place. Her eyes were a sharp blue just like Clair’s mother’s, just like Clair’s. She was a pretty constant presence in Clair’s life, but in a way that sent a shiver across the surface of her skin. There was always something cold about her, something detached. Her mother used to bring Clair here to spend July and August with her grandmother, but she could never feel settled in the house. She had heard once that old buildings hummed, ones that had lived through centuries. Something about emitting a frequency the human brain can’t register, making inhabitants feel watched or even haunted. It sounded like bullshit, until she stayed the summer months in her grandmother’s old home. Then she understood.

They had held her funeral in the backyard of her grandmother’s old estate. It was impressive from the outside, white pillars and marble floors and a sprawling garden of herbs and roses. But it was tearing at the seams just like her grandmother had been. There was mold around all the shower curtains and Clair knew the expensive paintings on the walls covered up holes that never got fixed. There was nothing more important than appearance, even if the foundation was cracking. The sun was high and hot that day and all the old ladies fanned themselves with the obituaries like they were swatting invisible bugs. Sitting through the service with her face shamefully dry, listening to stories from friends, watching her mother sob, Clair realized she knew absolutely nothing about her grandmother.

It was her mother who had suggested she move in to the old house, just for a little while. A change in environment would do you good, she had said, get out of that apartment. Sitting in the guilt, in the memory, was only making things worse. No matter where Clair was, though, she remembered.

Clair pushed her dark curls out of her face, greasy and knotted with turbulent and troubled sleep, and flopped back onto the stuffy, decorative pillows. She shut her eyes and hoped for no dreams at all.

Hours later, the breaking sun teased at the curtains, heavy with age, making the dust mites waltz in any light that managed to filter through. Clair managed a few hours of dreamlessness before the light of the morning pestered at her closed eyelids. The bedsprings groaned under her shifting weight as she swung her legs over to meet the cold, hardwood floor. She wiggled her toes and cracked her neck, waking up her stiff joints from a night spent in utter restlessness.

The house always seemed so menacingly huge no matter what age Clair was, each corridor like a gaping esophagus ready to swallow her whole. Old macrame tapestries hung from the walls next to the expensive paintings, collecting dust and lint in their foreign fibers. When she was younger, she used to love to trace the patterns she could reach with her fingertips. Clair would run through the halls to touch them like they were hiding secret messages written in Braille, always earning her a shout from her grandmother. Even now she couldn’t help herself to reach out and feel the time bleached fabrics, rougher against her hands than she remembered.

The heavy bathroom door, like everything else in the house, creaked and strained under her touch. Clair undressed and stared at her body in the mirror as steam from the shower filled the room, making the air stick to her skin. She was thin, thinner than she used to be. She was still adjusting to the sight of new scars on her body, still getting chills up her spine whenever she caught sight of herself in a window. One traced from where her black curls parted on her forehead through her right eyebrow and barely touched where her ear met her cheek. The other, a much bigger tear in the pale canvas of her skin, started at her shoulder blade and ran down just below her elbow. There were other little chips and nicks and railroad shaped patterns from where the stitches came out all over her body, but only those two made her recoil at her own reflection anymore. They were still pink and puffy months later, bathed in rawness. They didn’t hurt like they used to, but when Clair ran her fingers over the rough, new skin and healing edges, an ache spread through her entire body.

She stepped into the shower and let the scalding water cascade around her form. Maybe if the water was hot enough on her skin, Clair thought, it would finally scrub her clean. Closing her eyes, she let the feeling take her from her shameful body.

In these small moments, these instances of inexplicable clarity when the world stopped turning so damn quickly on its axis, Clair let herself think of Alex.

She didn’t often let her mind wander to the where she kept Alex locked away. Too often it made the bile rise in throat, made her eyes burn with tears she didn’t know how to cry anymore. She could still feel where he rested his hand on her knee while she drove, could hear the strain in his voice when he smelled the alcohol on her breath as she rode them down the winding mountain highway that night, headed towards their favorite Indian restaurant. She couldn’t bring herself to go to the funeral. His mother had opted for an open casket and allowed the mortician to reassemble Alex the best he could. Even if his family had let her through the door of the church, Clair knew seeing him lying there enveloped in an uncanny stillness would only drag her down further into her abysmal grief. He had that same stillness when he was cut from the seatbelt of her Jeep, crushed like an accordion from the impact of metal on cliff side. He was dead before the ambulance got to the hospital. And all Clair had anymore were scars that littered her skin and sliced through her brow. She had sat in the totaled car as the universe collected itself around her and gazed at the night sky through the shattered sunroof, the edges of her vision twitching and vibrating. She could’ve sworn she saw Cassiopeia.

She wrapped herself in a towel, the pungent detergent smelling sharply of her grandmother. Clair hadn’t been intimately acquainted with death till that summer, till her grandmother. It had always just been her and her mom, first in the one-bedroom apartments, then the trailers, on the white rice nights and the graveyard shifts. Their world was always enough, sacred and untouchable. She could remember the last time she saw her grandmother almost healthy, many months ago, tendrils of her gray hair falling to the floor like remnants of a November forest. The leaves crumbled and fell, and so did grandmother.

Clair had sat on the bed and watched as her mom took clippers to her grandmother’s once coiffed bob. Silent tears fell from her pin prick eyes down her wrinkled cheeks, darting through the grooves of her skin like tributaries. She saw death then, in the face of her grandmother, in the grief of her mother. There was a feeling of unbecoming that shrouded her like a mist, one that fell upon all three of them as she sat watching the first bits of life part from her grandmother. She had tried to make herself cry, but she couldn’t.

The fridge was painfully empty, the top cabinet even more so. She never said it out loud, but Clair knew that was another reason her mother pushed her to stay here for a little while. She knew Clair would need something to cut through all the static. Her old place, right before she left it to find a temporary sanctuary here, had recycling bins full of all different shades of glass bottles and the right side of the bed preserved and untouched in the timelessness of her guilt. It was a war zone suspended in grief. But here, there were no glass bottles or unmade beds or constant, tangible reminders of what Clair had let herself destroy. Here, there were only empty liquor cabinets and unfamiliar bedsheets.

Spending time here reminded her how to cook, how to sustain herself again. There were no delivery places close so Clair could no longer scavenge off the same Chinese leftovers for a week. She bought produce and grains from the farmer’s market and told herself it was better. Her cheeks were filling out again, her skin not so dull. She found routine in tending to the garden out back. A lost cause, maybe, the roses and lavender having fallen victim to summer heat and winter chill and neglect. But it made her feel needed, watching the water from her can soak into the parched soil. As the days passed, Clair found herself putting her pieces back together again. She needed a lot of glue and time to dry. But the wholeness was almost coming back, the fog clearing.

Every other Tuesday, Clair found herself behind the wheel of her grandmother’s old Porsche. She could only cope with driving in small doses, but the trip to the community center wasn’t quite long enough to make her eyes glaze over. At first, Clair felt like a bug under a magnifying glass, with the heat of an absent sun far too stifling and pointed directly at her. But after her third or fourth time, she found the monotonous chorus of “Hi, Clair” comforting. She was beginning to see warmth in the faces that grew in familiarity each meeting.

Alcoholics Anonymous had been mandated to her, a bureaucratic loophole for her not-quite-drunk driving. She had blown a 0.07, not technically above the legal limit, but enough to make her loudly and erratically combat Alex’s protests against her driving, to make her swerve two seconds too late. She didn’t want to admit it to herself, but it was helping.

“Hi, my name is Clair. No E.”

The other attendees responded exactly how she knew they would. At first, she had gone so long without speaking her own voice sounded like a different tongue. But now she hardly shook anymore when she said her name.

“I’ve been sober for almost three months now.”

It felt good to say it out loud, the most simplistic and uninhibited goodness Clair could imagine in this moment.

Before summer of her grandmother’s funeral, drinking had never been a problem for Clair, not a persistent one at least. But after sitting in the yard in plastic chairs as the roses wilted, after packing up the attic with her mother who had relegated herself to a silence Clair couldn’t penetrate, something changed. I hardly knew her, Clair kept repeating to herself over and over. She shared no intimate connection with the woman who had always treated Clair with a detachment she couldn’t begin to understand. But yet she never seemed able to shake the film that settled in the empty spaces around her since then. Her first brush with death manifested itself in a thick, summer haze that remained stagnant no matter the weather. Drinking helped her wade through all the noise, at least for a little while, at least until the accident.

They say it takes twenty one days to form a habit. But it only took Clair a couple more for the murky liquid to saturate down to the very essence of her being, flowing viscous in her veins like a sick honey and stinging under her skin. Not even Alex could make her blood run freely again after that.

“Anything else you would like to share with us today Clair?” pried the moderator. Clair thought her name was Sarah, or maybe Susan.

She wanted more than anything to just shake her head no, feeling the gaze of every single person in the room on her, waiting. But they held no blame in their stares, no judgement or criticism. There was an openness in the faces around her, something Clair could only hope to emulate. They reminded her of Alex. So instead, she took a breath.

“I keep having these dreams about my teeth falling out.”

She waited for a reaction, for someone to recoil. But the open faces remained trained on her, not disapproving, but expectantly.

The words tumbled out of her mouth before Clair even realized what has happening. She was shocked with herself, in a good way.

“I’m not really sure what it means. I mean, I looked it up, intense stress or something. But-” she trailed off, closing her so tight she saw stars. “I feel like I’m running, constantly running. Like I can never catch my breath. And I think I want to stop.”

She opened her eyes, slowly, not knowing what she was waiting for.

“That’s great, Clair,” said Sarah or Susan, “really great. Thank you for opening up to us.”

Her voice was gentle and dripping in genuine encouragement. Others around the circle nodded, or shared small, true smiles with Clair.

They didn’t know about the accident, or Alex. They didn’t know that every waking second she felt haunted by the ghost of a woman she never really knew, or suffocated by the grief of destroying the person who knew her best. All they knew is that mistakes led her here. They knew that she was starting to try. The phantom hold on her throat was beginning to loosen.

Clair slid open the screen door that led out to the backyard, the patio furniture covered in a layer of dust under the faded, striped awning. The rose bushes sat just out of the shade of the covered porch and she hadn’t had much luck in reviving them, having gone so long unprotected from the wrath of the elements during the human absence from the house. The leaves and thorns withered and disintegrated at her touch, any petals left having lost their color and silken texture with time. But still, she watered them.

As she rounded the corner to the bushes, Clair almost dropped the water can, a shockwave tremoring through her nerves to the tips of her fingers and her toes.

Amongst the decaying life that persisted through the stems and the pistils, a single bud of pink sat tucked in the dull leaves. Clair reached a cautious hand to it, terrified that if she touched it that the color would recoil and disappear at her fingertips like it never existed, like everything else did. She felt the velvet petals against her lonely skin and smiled softly to no one but herself.