The first time Willa appeared to Stephen he thought he was dreaming. She slid shivering under the blankets. She felt as cold as ice and her flesh was almost the color of ice as she pressed into him. Any second he would awaken to an empty bed. But this was when his power over his dreams was at its peak. He would be able to make her want everything he wanted.
Then he realized he was awake. She said It’s warmer with you on top. He started and she said Go faster so I’ll get warm faster. Suddenly his excitement was mixed with fear. He wondered why a young woman he didn’t know had joined him in bed and how she’d gotten in through the locked door and closed windows. But as she moved with him he stopped caring about his fear. It became part of his excitement and it was over quickly. He said I’m sorry and she said Don’t apologize for demonstrating your mortality, just stay on top to keep me warm. She’d stopped shivering. He didn’t understand why she was there or why she had brought up mortality out of the blue but he was too sleepy to feel afraid. Soon the dream that always began in the same way had come back and he was afraid again until he remembered again that he could control it.
Stephen’s dream would begin with a line of men stretching for an indefinite length from the foot of the bed where Charlotte lay. The line—queue, she’d have said—was visible for a great distance inside the tiny room with no door or windows. No door or windows yet visible for an even greater distance inside the tiny room was the country where both Stephen and Charlotte were outsiders, him on a lark putting out of his mind the thought that he ought to go back to university and her. . . he liked to pretend that he hadn’t heard the rumors about how she paid her rent. She would say Whoever called England a green and pleasant land never had to lie in my bed, but then she would add Course I’d make it pleasant for him. Stephen was both apart from and part of the queue of men. He was in bed with Charlotte but also, like the others, eagerly awaiting his turn. Cost you a pretty penny, lads, a hawker cried out. But you won’t regret it, mate, he added, pointing to a man whose state of arousal betrayed his eagerness. Charlotte swam toward the man like a fish. Her pale eyes opened wide and her lips puckered and unpuckered.
Stephen made the hawker and the other men vanish. He was alone with Charlotte saying You don’t have to do this anymore.
She said Bit late to play the hero Stevie. He changed her face so that it smiled and said Yes, all right now.
On the Internet, Stephen found the abstract of an article called “On Treating Nightmares with Lucid Dreaming,” published in Journal of Experimental Psychology by Morten Laudrup and Sonja Knudsen, of Aarhus University. The full article would have cost forty dollars. The abstract’s claim that “lucidity was unnecessary to reduce nightmare frequency” intrigued him. Was there another way? Lucidity hadn’t reduced the frequency of Stephen’s nightmares. He’d contented himself with accepting their frequency and changing their courses after onset. But forty dollars was forty dollars.
Willa’s first appearance affected Stephen’s nightmare about Charlotte. He made the hawker and the other men vanish. But Charlotte’s small breasts and every other part of her body were ice cold. He said You’re dead. The tiny room had gone dark but not so dark that he couldn’t see Charlotte’s face. It was featureless, with a line crossing it horizontally rather than vertically because she was female, not male, in the way that the Lakota represent their ancestors in their art. He said You’re Lakota, not Kiwi? She made as much of a face as her lack of features permitted and said Course I’m Kiwi and you’re in England not bloody North Dakota or South Dakota if that’s what you’re on about. He said You’re dead and she said You don’t know that but might as well be if you don’t have me to shag anymore. He said I don’t understand and she said Course you do, shagging’s all I was good for to you. He said But are you dead? and she said Don’t bloody have to tell you, care so much why don’t you come looking for me?
Even though Stephen didn’t know whether Charlotte was dead, now he understood Willa.
“You live in this apartment, don’t you?” he said when he woke up on top of her. “For how long?”
She was beautiful but he wondered if he could get out of his lease.
“It depends what year this is,” she shrugged. “But I’ll always be here for you.”
“How. . .”
“I think I’m in purgatory.”
He knew little about religion but he associated purgatory with Catholicism.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
She started moving beneath him and her breathing accelerated. Her breath was sweet and cold.
“You’re ready again,” she smiled.
He thought he couldn’t have been asleep for long. But at his age he didn’t need a lot of time. His position on top of her had not changed so he penetrated her as if by accident and then thought maybe he wouldn’t try to get out of the lease after all. Michael must have known about Willa. That’s why he was charging so little rent and where else could Stephen find such a good deal in San Francisco?
When Stephen woke up again he believed he loved Willa as he’d loved Charlotte. He resolved to do better with her than he had with Charlotte but he didn’t know what that would mean. Charlotte had been easy to hurt. But if Willa wasn’t alive, but in purgatory or a ghost or a succubus or a vampire or a Siren or a djinn, he might not be able to distinguish between being good to her and hurting her.
“A penny for your thoughts” he heard Willa say.
She stroked his face.
“Ready again?” she said.
“Put your hair up first?”
Its black shine fell below her waist.
“Don’t want to get tangled up in it?” she said. “But it’s how I’ll trap and hold you.”
He stared at her until she burst into laughter.
He would need to change his position because in his sleep he’d rolled off of her. He said This time with you on top and she said It’s warmer with you on top.
“I’m lucky to have you,” Stephen had told Charlotte only once.
“Not taking the piss? What is it about me? What in particular?”
They had made love. He didn’t want to think. He should have been good at thinking according to Charlotte. She’d inferred as much from his having spent a year at a university in Nebraska. She hadn’t finished high school so this impressed her.
“Know you’ll go back to uni,” she would say. “Make something of yourself.”
He tried not to think about it.
“Can’t say anything specific about why you’re lucky, can you, Stevie? Comfortable like an old shoe I am. Except you slide in something else besides your foot.”
She put her hand on the pubic hair that was red—ginger, she said—like the hair on her head.
“You need a twat,” she said, “and any twat will do.”
“Not ‘any’ twat. You’re good at sex.”
“Good when the time and person are right.”
“But sex involves technique,” he said. “The people who practice a lot or who have a knack are going to be better at it than other people. The best people will be those who have the knack but also practice a lot.”
“So what you like about me is I practice a lot. Fair enough: what I’m known for. Explains the distinguished social position I’ve attained.”
She cast her eyes around her dingy bed-sit.
“You think I don’t understand my potential,” she said. “You think if I applied myself I could be a high-class tart instead of a low-class tart.”
He never again told Charlotte that he felt lucky to have her.
Stephen slept the most he ever had in his life. Willa wanted to make love many times every day and he would doze afterwards. He came to believe she was not a ghost or a succubus or a vampire or a Siren or a djinn, but in purgatory as she’d said. He decided that purgatory consisted in having nothing to talk about: no stories about oneself or one’s family, no opinions, no knowledge of the outside world. In the renovated Victorian’s self-contained apartment only the carnal pleasures of sex and food existed for her. He spent the most on groceries that he ever had in his life. Willa never gained a pound.
Stephen considered himself an adequate cook. Yet the joy Willa took in his food was out of proportion to what he prepared. He would begin each meal with a green salad. He made his salads with organic produce and the results pleased him, but not as much as they pleased Willa. She would chew with her eyes closed and sigh with pleasure. The sighs would become louder as she accelerated the pace at which she shoveled the greens into her mouth, leaning forward so that whatever she spilled fell onto her plate. Stephen had learned by his third day with her not to serve the main course immediately after the salad because Willa would hike up her ankle-length dress and climb onto his lap as he sat at the dinner table. He had already solved the problem of her elaborate undergarments on the second day by pointing out that they were unnecessary with nobody besides the two of them in the apartment.
The satisfaction she attained between the salad and the main course would hold throughout the latter. She ate his main courses indifferently. He suggested once that she ought to split the cooking with him since she would do a better job. She gave him a blank look and said she didn’t know how. At first Stephen thought he’d learned something about Willa and her family: they had been well-to-do, with servants who made it unnecessary for her to learn how to cook. Then he thought her ignorance of cooking might have been another manifestation of the purgatorial erasure of her memory.
Because he slept so much he often dreamt. He possessed mastery over his dreams. On the night that his dream of Charlotte and the line of men stretching for an indefinite length from the foot of the bed in which she lay was supplanted by a different nightmare he was at first frightened but then confident he could control it. He’d thought often of Charlotte but he hadn’t wanted to remember the Lakota girl who like Charlotte had never finished high school. On an ice-cold street in Rapid City on a Saturday night she’d offered sex to Stephen and his high school friends. The money they pulled out of their pockets didn’t make her happy but she said Okay but you have to do it fast. They were nervous. To make small talk they asked where she was from even though they didn’t care. She said Pine Ridge.
The next Saturday night they recruited another friend who had a pickup to drive the eighty miles to the reservation. If they couldn’t find the same girl there would be others. In the truck they drank Bud Light that someone’s brother had bought.
At a stoplight on the reservation two Lakota men in an old Chevy waited next to them. The driver rolled down his window.
“What are you doing here?” he shouted above the rumble of the engines.
The boy with the pickup reached in front of Stephen, who was in the passenger seat.
“Hey chief,” the boy said as he rolled down the window. “White men who speak with forked tongues looking for pussy.”
He showed the men his tongue and wiggled its tip.
“Think you can take us?” the other man shouted.
He was holding a baseball bat. The driver took a hand off the wheel and hefted another bat. The light changed. Stephen shut his eyes as the pickup screeched through a U-turn in the face of the oncoming traffic.
They drove back to Rapid City. There she was.
“Her name’s Lily?” Stephen said.
“Pocahontas,” the driver said.
“Sacagawea,” someone said and the driver said “Sack o’ something.”
“Maybe we can pay her a little more tonight,” Stephen said.
“We already know how much she’ll take,” the driver said.
“And how much she’s worth,” someone laughed.
In Stephen’s dream he erased her features. He put a horizontal line across her face.
Stephen decided he’d gotten as much as he ever would from the abstract of Laudrup and Knudsen’s article. On the Internet he found an entire article called “The Divine Lucidity of Dreams,” by Piet Seedorf, S.J., of the Catholic University of Louvain. Father Seedorf’s piece, which had appeared in Forschung in der Psychologie in both German and English, proposed several possible explanations for the frequent experience of divine light by lucid-dreaming Christian mystics. Stephen read the thirty-plus pages to the end but Seedorf did not adjudicate. Stephen’s experience of lucid dreaming bore no trace of divine light so the article had been useless.
After a week Stephen was satisfied that he’d treated Willa better than he had Charlotte. But he’d also decided that Willa was irrelevant to his wish to redeem himself for his behavior with Charlotte. Charlotte had wanted appreciation of something other than her sexuality while purgatory had rendered Willa able to appreciate little else. Stephen had a first novel to write and Willa was a distraction. Under her sexual spell he hadn’t produced a word. He knew neither how to free her from purgatory nor how to expel her from the apartment. He would need to get out of his lease.
To his surprise, Michael begged him to stay and offered to halve the rent.
“Just don’t take me to the Rent Board,” he pleaded. “She came with the house so what can I do?”
Stephen paused to think. Would he be foolish to decline such a low rent in this city?
“The Rent Board knows about her?” he said.
“She’s on their radar after two or three complaints.”
Michael lowered his voice.
He had responded to Stephen’s phone call by coming over right away. He was at the door and Willa had been sleeping. But she appeared suddenly in one of the Edwardian ensembles of dress, coat, and cape that she wore to keep warm when she wasn’t in bed.
“I think you’re a lucky dude,” he said after Stephen had closed the door behind himself, adding “But I understand.”
Michael wasn’t a bad guy. Stephen wouldn’t have minded helping him but of course his first priority was his own good.
“Could you get a gay guy or a woman in here?” Stephen said. “Maybe she’d back away.”
“A straight woman.”
“Tried that,” Michael said. “I think. . . I think because of when she lived that doesn’t register with her. She just tries harder.”
He’d said he would halve the rent. Now he offered to subtract another hundred dollars. Rents were higher even in Rapid City.
“I’ll think about it,” Stephen said.
Michael left but Stephen stood for a moment longer on his doorstep. He thought about the single piece of Lakota ledger art that he owned. It showed a group of Lakota teenagers, packed into an old Chevy customized for low-riding, who had been stopped by a policeman. As he wrote the ticket a Lakota warrior dressed as in the time of the buffalo and with a vertical line across his featureless face prepared to shoot an arrow into him. Stephen wondered why he couldn’t experience the dead in the way the Lakota did.
He told Michael he would stay at least one more week while considering his offer.
“Effective now,” Michael said. “And retroactive to the first of the month.”
Stephen was relieved that the nightmare about the Lakota girl came to him only once. As for the nightmare about Charlotte, his recurrent success in altering it gave him confidence that he could let it go farther before taking control. So instead of making the hawker and the other men vanish he allowed them to stay. He watched her with them until she pushed one man away and got out of bed. Pissing off out of here, she said, adding Think I’ll try France. He said The men will be the same and she said But I won’t understand what they say about me. He said And do what? and she said I don’t know, bloody au pair?
He remembered that she was from Auckland. A few times she had said something about missing the beaches. Years later he’d looked at a map: two main islands, with Auckland close to the northern tip of the North Island, so pretty warm. So South of France?
He dreamt of a road lined with palm trees, sloping toward the Mediterranean. He dreamt that he had an address to find: numéro 7. It was camouflaged from the road by spruce and cypress trees studding a wide expanse of lawn.
A woman in gardening clothes answered. Her commanding presence indicated that she was not the gardener, but the lady of the house at her leisure. She spoke strongly accented English.
Charlotte, she said, stressing the second syllable.
He glanced at the pergola he’d passed beneath. Bougainvillea spilled over the sides.
Pretty, she said, although when you pick one you only come away with part of it.
He turned to leave but she said Your bougainvillea petal takes pleasure in the walk to the lighthouse.
The Frenchwoman said I don’t understand, but your bougainvillea petal says she likes to walk to the lighthouse because there are no men there.
The day after Stephen had called his landlord to say he would stay at least one more week he had the idea that he might succeed in writing his novel by spending all day in coffee shops and returning to the apartment only at night.