The thing he noticed first was how lurid his dreams were becoming.
They seemed louder, more crowded, iced with an extra helping of that particular dream anxiety where something or some action has been forgotten and has to be completed NOW. That was one thing. There was also the sensation of clawing yourself up to reach the surface of wakefulness and then spending minutes under the covers convincing yourself that it was only a dream, there is no crisis, it wasn’t real, your mother, who died in 1994, hadn’t lost her luggage at the airport and was going to miss her flight to Johannesburg to meet with Joan Blondell.
Soon he was experiencing things much more stressful than the Mom/Joan Blondell dream. He was caught up in the sort of panic inducing scenarios that kept him from falling back to sleep for fear the dream would pick up right where it left off.
They were his dreams, he recognized that, but there was the sense of someone or something stirring the cauldron, pouring in hot sauce laced with LSD. They were photographed at closer range and with a disturbing wide-angle lens. And the things revealed in the dreams, the appetites… He was surprised by what he seemed to want, experiences he was open to, desires without precedent.
Or maybe not. Maybe these were things he always wanted. He started to look back and began to see moments when he seemed much closer to the figure in his dreams than he thought he’d been. He started to remember moments, slices of moments, looks and gestures, errant thoughts. Not even complete thoughts, but something like the subway platform idylls that come in those empty moments of watching the lights of the local collect on the tunnel walls. When’s the last time he waited for a subway?
Flickers of things. What if that happened? What if this presented itself? What if she said she wanted to kiss you? What if the glass rolled off the table? What if you fell off the bridge or down the elevator shaft? What if you were being pulled under the waves, ignored by the people on shore like the man in the Stevie Smith poem? ”…not waving but drowning.”
The dreams were rummaging through forgotten boxes of memory and aggressively re-mixing the contents so that the falling of the glass was the thing that made the girl ask if it would be all right to kiss him. Now the front of the house he grew up in was suddenly attached to his second apartment in Floral Park.
At first he thought it must be a factor of quarantine and the endless roiling of the crisis. Other people were telling him their dreams were getting increasingly weird and strident. The world was turning into a vulgar nightmare, why shouldn’t the same thing happen while he was trying to get some sleep?
But then he thought, “What if my dreams are getting more fantastic because my life is getting so dull?” All his missed opportunities were coming back with a vengeance as he clocked more and more years and everything went gray. His hair as well as his outlook. His dreams were welling up like banshees to torture him for all his prudence, all his careful, well considered judgements.
He came to the grim conclusion that it was only a matter of time before V. showed up to join the punishing chorus. Chorus nothing. V. would have a solo. An aria.
Like so many men…maybe even most men…he was guilty of looking at a woman and being willfully unaware of her history and all those relationships and events that orbit a woman’s life like invisible asteroids and comets, warping their personal gravity.
V. was at the center of a particularly unstable solar system. He ignored that, to both their regrets.
It ended very badly. Very selfishly. Too often men get into relationships misinterpreting their greed as an act of charity. “What she needs is me.” When the truth is what he wants is her and what she needs doesn’t enter into the discussion. He wasn’t a terrible man. He was probably better than most. At least he felt bad about what happened.
What he did, unfortunately, was try to bury the memory of his blunders. Nobody wants to be revealed as a selfish, unfeeling jerk, least of all to himself. He pushed the memory away, eventually pushing away the entire geographical area associated with the affair and moved to the other side of the country.
But now disease and an incompetent federal government had conspired to bring a vast assortment of his chickens home to roost during his nightmares. He anticipated V. every night, and while those nights were filled with magnified childhood shame and amplified examples of his cowardice, V. did not appear.
And every morning, he feared what was to come.
He moved through the day, one Zoom meeting to the next in that sort of daytime sleepwalking we all seem to be doing now. He would have a drink in the evening, followed by another drink, followed by looking at the news on the internet and having another drink. It had become the structure of his life. No wonder his dreams were attacking him.
He didn’t realize he was dreaming at first. He was at his desk, working on the computer when the doorbell rang. He got up from his desk and left his den, stepping not into his house in North Hollywood, but into his apartment in Jackson Heights. As is the way with dreams when we’re in them, this didn’t seem unusual at all.
He opened the door and saw V. standing on the other side. She was smiling. She was wearing her black velvet coat with the fur collar. There was fresh snow on the collar and on her blonde hair. She was wearing her red leather gloves and offered him a sack of White Castle cheeseburgers. And since this was a dream he didn’t question any of it. And he wasn’t afraid of her.
He remembered the coat and the snow in her hair, but she hadn’t arrived with the cheeseburgers. They had gone out together to walk up to Northern Boulevard to buy them. It was snowing and the snow pulled the sound from the air. The streetlights turned the snow on the branches of the trees a sort of sepia tone. Like a tintype.
In the dream V. came into the apartment and the bag of cheeseburgers was left on the kitchen counter. She took off her coat. She was wearing black jeans and a sweater that changed color from green to pearl to rose each time he turned and looked away. She sat down on the sofa and unzipped her boots. He took the boots and put them on some newspaper near the door.
At this point the dream edited out the part about eating some of the cheeseburgers and smoking some grass and went directly to the two of them naked, making love on the floor in front of the sofa. He was on his back looking up at her as she looked down at him. She was on her haunches, straddling him.
And the world fell away.
There was nothing but the two of them. Nothing but what she felt like in his arms, the sound of her breathing, the thin draft he felt on his side, coming through the bottom of the window above them. The light coming through the window was from the streetlights that turned everything…V.’s face shadowed by her tousled hair, the edge of the sofa at the corner of his vision, the ceiling a mile or so above them…all the color of amber.
No regrets, no confusion, no concerns, no questions about the husband or the other lovers she had or why she had them.
Back then, the grass they smoked worked to make things feel like a dream, so having it all come back to him now in a dream seemed to reverse the process and made it vivid and real and precise. Time stretched in all directions. Slowed by the grass, compressed by the dream.
There was the feeling of things being pulled toward their centers, something magnetic. He bent his head back as the sensation grew and when he did this he could see out the window and saw, upside down, how the snow had collected in an even drift-let along the fire-escape railing. The snow was as amber as everything else.
He woke up then and sat on the edge of the bed and was, a moment later, crying. Weeping. The sort of weeping you associate with grief.
In pushing away his shame, he had pushed away the memory of what was one of the few perfect moments he’d ever had.
He was sure she hated him when it ended. The parting left a sour aftertaste and was not accomplished with any grace or respect. It was like dropping a cinder-block on a two-by-four. The board breaks apart, but the ends are a mess of shards and splinters and spikes. Like crude weapons. He was frightened by the letter she wrote to demand he return all the photographs he’d taken of her. He had no right to her image. He returned the photographs and for weeks afterward kept looking over his shoulder expecting…he wasn’t sure what.
To survive he built a wall between himself and the end. But that meant walling off what had come before: What he thought the first time he saw her, the way they stumbled toward each other, how grateful they both seemed at the start of things. He was bold back then…bold or stupid, they often achieve the same goal…and he had won her. At least some of her. At least for awhile.
Regardless of how it ended, regardless of how he bungled things, there had been that one night. There had been a couple of hours when everything rhymed.
And while that was gone, it had happened. He was part of it.
He did not know where she was. He did not know if she ever thought about him, remembered him, cursed him. It was such a long time ago. Forty years. They were both old now. He didn’t know if she was even alive, if the virus had found her. After all, they were both members of a “vulnerable population.”
If he didn’t have the right to keep the photographs of her, did he have the right to remember that night?
He stood up, went in the bathroom and washed his face. Then he went into the dark living room and looked out at the street through the front windows. He could see the streetlights. They were a cold, blue-white. They were not amber.
Joseph Dougherty is a writer living in California.