The Dream by Stephen Dixon



He had a strange dream that night. He had several dreams that night, not unusual for him, but this was the one he woke up remembered having that interested him enough to want to write down. He always kept a piece of paper and a pen or two on his night table—still does—to write down things that came to him in his sleep or he thought of while lying in bed. If he used up that piece of paper or took it to his writing table to work off of, he replaced it with another one when he went to bed that night. The room was dark when he woke up from this dream. He thought about the dream awhile and then turned on the night table light and wrote the dream on the paper and then probably got out of bed and had a glass of water and peed and went back to sleep. He read what was on the paper when he woke up in the morning and then a number of times the next few days—usually after he first got into bed, since the paper was still on the night table—and then thought this dream is worth saving. If he doesn’t save it he’ll lose the paper somehow—it always happens—and eventually forget what the dream was about. He kept a notebook in the top drawer of his night table—still does, in the same drawer of that night table but a different notebook from the one of that time. That one, he filled up and put someplace. It was the first notebook he ever filled up—took him around fifteen years—and he now doesn’t know where it is. Doesn’t matter. Well, he’d like to have it, but it really doesn’t matter. Whatever he could take from it, he thinks he did, and he’ll probably come across it sometime, not that it’ll be of any use to him. He has a theory—nah, forget that. But it has to do with if something’s lost, it’ll emerge someday if it’s important enough. He means in his mind, an idea or something he wants to add or take out or replace in a work he’s working on and sometimes even in one he’s finished but hasn’t published. Or hasn’t in book form. Anyway, he wrote that dream down in the notebook and got it out of the drawer a few times that week to read it. He did get rid of the piece of paper the dream was originally written on. Didn’t think he needed it anymore now that the dream had been transferred to the notebook. He also read that dream once to Gwen a short time after they got married, all of which is why—the number of times he read it—he remembers the dream so well and doesn’t need the notebook to remember it. How many times does he think he read it? A dozen or so and he doesn’t know why it took him so long to read it to Gwen or even tell her about the dream. Maybe he thought it’d alarm her in some way, or make him out to be somewhat odd, having that dream the first night they met. Or else he didn’t think it’d be interesting to her — this could be possible — and then something came up that made the dream seem more important or applicable to their lives. The whole thing’s a blank. His sister died of a rare kidney disease. Something with “neph” or “nephr” in it. Another of those words he can never remember when he wants to use it no matter how many times he’s said it, or almost never remember. “Demagogue” — he got it now — but it almost always trips him up. “Demagogic,” “demagoguery” — anything with “demagog” in it, the same. For about a year before she died she was confined to a wheelchair. “Confined?” Doesn’t seem the right word for what she was. “Restricted to” would be even worse. At first she could get around in the chair by pushing the wheels herself. Then she didn’t have the strength for it anymore and someone had to push her in the chair. He used to push her outside to Central Park. A few times across the park to the Metropolitan Museum. Someone said to him—maybe Gwen; he seems to picture it, but long before her first stroke—that it must have been difficult pushing her so far, all those dips and hills, up and down curbs. He said it wasn’t, except for maybe crossing the bridle path in the park. The chair had wheels, for God’s sake, and he was much younger and stronger then, and his sister was a lot lighter by the time she became bound — that’s the word — to the wheelchair, down to a hundred pounds from a hundred thirty-five. She looked awful. Emaciated face, bony shoulders slumped forward, ankles swollen to almost twice their normal size, other things. It was before wheelchairs had seatbelts on them, so he had to tie a sheet around her waist so she wouldn’t fall out if he hit a bad bump or crack in the sidewalk or navigated a curb poorly, yet still, she once did fall out and cut her hands and forehead. Just like what happened to Gwen once, but in the house, seatbelt buckled by him but not well, and she broke her nose and had trouble breathing in her sleep from then on. Kept him up so much at times that he left the bed to sleep in another room. She said once “I patted your side of the bed early this morning but, sadly, you weren’t there. I patted and patted in the dark in the hope I’d find you, till my arm couldn’t reach any further. I’m sorry I make so much noise.” But the dream. He and his sister are walking down a dimly lit windowless hallway. This, just around eight hours after he first met Gwen and more than twenty years after his sister died. Low-wattage lights with dark shades on the walls. He says to his sister “My God, you’re walking, when before you were stuck in your wheelchair and someone had to push you. An overnight cure or miracle must have taken place.” She smiles at him but doesn’t say anything. Like Gwen and his parents and his best friend Mischa, and his sister in other dreams—none of them ever said anything to him when he dreamt of them after they died. Actually, not so. His father did once, if it was his father; it certainly was his voice. And in one of the many dreams he had of Gwen last night and this morning, she could have said something to him and he forgot. But with his father in that dream of just a couple of weeks ago, he was sleeping alone in this bed when the voice said “Martin!,” just as his father used to do when he didn’t like how he was behaving or wanted him to do something for his mother or him right away or some household chore he’d been assigned to and his father thought he was avoiding or stalling. One, when he was a boy, he remembers hearing a number of times, “Martin! I’m surprised at you. Take the garbage out already. And this time line the pail with newspaper when you bring it back. For some reason only you know, you’re always forgetting.” He woke up, in the dream, though it seemed more like from it. He doesn’t believe in spirits or ghosts, but the truth is he came closest to thinking one of those could be so after he had the dream. Anyway, he was lying in bed, in or out of the dream, and saw a gray amorphous—smoky would be the best word for it—figure, no definable feature or form and taller by about six inches than his short father was and with his father’s rough voice, moving back in a slow curling motion to the corner between the picture window and closet and then come apart, the last bit of smoke disappearing where the head would have been. He stared at the spot he last saw the figure at and then sat up and turned on his night table light — he was now definitely out of the dream — and looked at the time — he’d already guessed it by a few minutes; three-fifteen — and lay back in bed with the light on, thinking about the dream and how real it was and what it might mean. His treatment of Gwen those last few weeks and especially the last night, that’s for sure. What else could it mean? Oh, he could come up with something, but that one’s probably it. His father was saying “Shame, to treat your wife, and so sick, that way. Where’d you ever learn such behavior? Certainly not from your mother or me.” He could just hear him. And what would his mother say, if she knew? “Oh, Martin.” So his sister smiles at him, doesn’t say anything, and they continue walking down what’s turning out to be an endless dimly lit hallway, with no doors in the walls either. “What do you think will be the outcome of all this?” he says. She smiles and shakes her head in a way that says “Not to worry, dear brother; you’re going to like what happens.” They start walking up a long steep flight of stairs similar to ones he remembers in the London underground, or maybe it was the Metro in Paris, where he and Gwen, on a short visit there more than twenty-five years ago and he’d been to Paris and ridden the Metro long before he met her - decided to walk up them rather than take the elevator or escalator. “You’re right,” she said, when he suggested the idea, “we could use the exercise. Too much good food.” She also said, between her first and second strokes, or second and third, “I’m sorry we didn’t live more in Paris. Now we can’t chance it.” He and his sister go around another landing and start walking up another long flight. At the top of the stairs is a fireproof door that looks like the one that opened onto the roof of the building he was living in when he first knew Gwen. “Ah, at last: fresh air and natural light,” he says, and sees he’s now talking to Gwen. “Miracle of miracles,” he says, unbolting the door and pushing it open, “not only was my sister alive and walking but she’s turned into you, when before you were paralyzed from the waist down.” “That is something, isn’t it,” she says, “since the only time I’ve ever been sick in my life was with chicken pox: twice.” They go outside and from the middle of the roof—“Don’t go any further,” he says, taking her hand. “It’s dangerous and I wouldn’t let you go out there alone and we could fall off” — and look at the city all around them. “Tell me,” he says, squeezing her fingers, “which—” and she says “Ouch, that hurts.” “I’m sorry. I thought I was being gentle,” and lets go of her hand. “But I was saying, out of all these buildings, if you had the choice, which one would you want to live in with me if you wouldn’t want to live in the one we’re standing on now?” and she says “I have a very nice apartment uptown, big enough for both of us and with a view that rivals this.” The dream ended then and he woke up. He doesn’t think he turned on the night table light—no, he had to have, but later, to write everything down. At first he just lay in bed in the dark thinking about the dream and what it might mean and how quickly she entered his dreamlife—that must mean something, he thought. Then he turned on the night table light—there was only one, on the same side of the bed he sleeps on now, the left. At least he thinks it’s the left. He’s always had trouble with that one. For facing the bed, it’s the right. But it’s got to be the left. Left side of the road, right side of the road. That doesn’t work. Maybe it’s just that he’s a little more tired than usual right now, and the whole terrible day. Nah, the last is just an excuse. Tired, maybe. He once even asked Gwen, when he got confused again as to which is which — it had to do with something he was writing — and she told him and he knew she was right — she didn’t hesitate when she told him and she looked at him as if he were kidding— and he probably said something like “That’s what I thought,” but forgets which side she said was which. He also doesn’t remember how they decided which sides of her bed they should sleep on after they made love the first time. It wasn’t that after they were done and had uncoupled, they stayed on the sides of the bed they ended up on. And he, probably, with his weak bladder, no doubt got up to pee so he wouldn’t have to an hour or two later. He thinks he remembers her saying she sleeps in the middle of the bed when she sleeps alone. And he thinks he remembers saying he sleeps on only one side of the bed, and it’s a double bed like hers. She must have first said, when they were getting ready to go to sleep, “Which side of the bed would you like to sleep on?” Or he asked her which side of the bed would she like him to sleep on. Or it could be, when he got back from peeing and maybe washing his face and rinsing his mouth, that she was already on what he’d call the right side of the bed or on the right side close to the middle. But he doesn’t recall that. He recalls one of them asking the question and he saying something like “Either side’s okay with me. Though at home, because the night table’s there, though I guess I could always move it to the other side — there’s room — I sleep on what I think’s the left,” and pointed to that side, and he doesn’t remember her correcting him, so that time, unless she was just being polite or didn’t think it important enough to correct him at the time or thought it the wrong time — their first time in bed — he knew. If she had had only one night table by her bed he would have known which side she preferred sleeping on when she slept with someone. But she had matching night tables on either side, with the same kind of lamp on them. One of these lamps—the other he broke when he was trying to put back the plug that had come out of the socket behind this bed and pulled the cord too hard — is on the night table now. She bought a different lamp for her side, though it was his night table lamp that he’d broken, one for two bulbs. Next he took the piece of paper and a large hardcover book off the night table — probably one of the Gulags - and placed the book against his upraised thighs, flattened out the paper on it and wrote the dream down on both sides of the paper and also what he thought the dream might mean and other things about it—that he’d never met anyone who entered his dreamlife so quickly, for instance, and that must mean something, and so on. He filled up both sides of the paper, knew he could write even more about the dream, but this was enough for now, he thought, and he was getting sleepy. He turned the page over to the first side and wrote in printed letters in the little space not written on at the top of the page and underlined it: “This dream is significant. 3 a.m. or thereabouts, Nov. 21st, 1978. Do not destroy! ! !” After he read the notes to Gwen—only what happened in the dream, nothing about what he thought it might mean and other things related to it—he asked what she made of it and also that he’d had it so soon after they met. “Literal interpretation, I suppose you want? Then nothing more than the obvious. The long hallway resembled the stairway in Pati’s building. You know: the one I told you of that I didn’t want to walk down. Drearily lighted, dank and scary, no windows, naturally, and in a way, no door at the end of it either, on the ground floor, since it was locked or stuck the one time I tried opening it. What I don’t think I ever told you was that at the time I was petrified that I wouldn’t be able to get out of any of the doors upstairs. I saw myself pounding on the door on Pati’s floor till someone rescued me, and for a few moments I even thought I’d suffocate there. Real panic. So, substitute bottom of the stairs, in my real-world experience, to us walking up the last flight of stairs to the roof in your dream.” “I don’t understand,” he said, and she said “The obvious, the obvious; how could you not see what I’m saying? You? My guy who rarely lets anything get past him? Please, you have to be kidding. Dankness for freshness? Unknown for the known? Dark night without end, to daylight? Seemingly lost in that corridor, to finding one’s way to release? Bleak prospect for hope, and so forth, but maybe I’m going too far with that one. With the last three, probably, and I said I’d stay literal. Although your dream did end hopefully, didn’t it? For you: the two of us together, even holding hands for a while till you started crunching mine. Now what was that all about? Perhaps to show there’s a little pain in every relationship, even at the beginning, no matter how promising and good it looks. And then, with that big sweep of the city, talking about where we should live in it and my saying why don’t you move in with me. Another thing is how protective you were of me that night. In the real world, I mean—saying you’d accompany me down that horrible stairway, and later, that you’d walk me to my subway station or bus stop, I forget which.” “Subway,” he said. “Because you thought the streets might not be safe. And in the dream, warning me not to get too close to the edge of the roof—for all I know, the warning might have been about getting involved with you — and also sort of saying that if I did fall off, you’d go over with me. You weren’t alluding there to falling for me if I fell for you, were you? No, it would have had to be the reverse, since you fell for me first. So, not only protectiveness and concern for me, but already, in the dream, sticking by me in the worst of circumstances — the literal interpretation
all of which you still are today. Even, on occasion, overprotective of me, as if you think I can’t deal with certain things or, more to the point, look after myself in what to others might be stressful situations, and need your help. And I’m not criticizing you, you understand. Better that attitude from you than indifference and neglect, and it’s just your way. Incidentally, the roof-edge part of your dream is like a very short story you wrote before we met and was only published last year. What I’m saying is it could have snuck into your sleep and influenced that scene. The one—are you still with me?” and he was thinking something like Boy, her mouth’s on a roll; he’s never heard her go on like this, but said “Why? Sure; yes.” “That had a man jumping out of a plane after his young daughter, who was sucked out of the door when it flew off. The father grabbing the girl in the air—you had it that he catches up with her because he falls faster, being three times heavier, but I don’t think it works like that in real life—and holding her close to him and their flying together like that at the end, chatting normally and admiring the beautiful mountains and rivers and forest from so high till they can find, he says, a safe place for a landing. It was about, I think, a father’s feeling of invincibility regarding his child, something most mothers might not feel, but I could be wrong there. You know — and this is how I think you’ll feel — that he can get his kid out of any perilous situation when they’re that young. The same reason he’d run into a burning building to save his child even if, from a practical standpoint, there doesn’t seem to be a chance in the world his rescue attempt will succeed, so instead of only the child dying — tragedy enough — they both do, something the father would probably want anyway if he couldn’t save his kid. Or maybe, taking from the last thing I said -- have we talked about this before?” and he said “All you said after you read it was that you liked it and that you had read something else of mine similar in plot, maybe too much so because some readers — not that I have many; you didn’t say that; I did — might think I was repeating myself.” “That wasn’t nice of me, and I now can’t remember what it reminded me of yours.” “‘Free-falling.’” “Still no bell rings. Not even the title. Anyway, your story also might have been about that the father knew, even before he jumped out of the plane after her, that they were both doomed, but wanted to alleviate her fear as much as he could by not having her go down alone. Did I get close that time?” and he said “Both are good but the second’s better. But at the end they’re still flying as if it’s a perfectly normal thing for humans to do, so I don’t know. The flying part could be an after - death fantasy — I’m the last person to ask — but what else about my dream?” “Something to do with elevators. Riding down in one. I’d have to have the dream read to me again or read it myself, something I haven’t the time now to do. I know the elevator didn’t come for a while when we were waiting for it in Pati’s building, which gave us time to start talking. Otherwise, we probably wouldn’t have continued to talk on the street and exchanged names and my telling you how you can reach me, and so on. By the way, do you ever hear of men running into hopelessly burning buildings to save their mothers or wives?” and he said “It has to have happened; it’s just not as dramatic or emotional a news story. As for wives running in to save their husbands — I’m sure many mothers have run in for their young sons — it probably almost never happens. They instinctively know, if the fire’s really out of control, that they’re not physically capable of carrying or dragging out what in all likelihood is a much heavier and larger man.” She said “Now as to my coming into your dreamlife so fast that night -- you asked that — I don’t know what to say. Can I be a little immodest by saying I might have made a strong impression, maybe even more than that? But I’m only repeating what you’ve told me a number of times, just as I’ve told you I wasn’t that immediately taken with you. Interested, curious, at least open to meeting you for coffee? Yes. You were so awkward but I thought gentle and civil and even gallant and possibly deep, funny and smart. That’s right, I took all that in. As for your dream — and I really have to get back to my work, sweetheart — starting out with you walking with your sister in that hallway and ending with you going up the stairs to the roof with only me, and I assume I was on the same side of you as your sister had been, and entering and walking around it? I’m going over old ground, I think, but that was both. . .oh, shoot, I lost it. It’ll come back, and when it does I bet you’ll find it wasn’t all that sharp.” “Never,” he said: “everything you say.” “Sure. What else, though, but quickly? My suggesting in the dream you live with me in my apartment? And how would you have known it was large enough for two? Maybe you were fantasizing a life with me that could go, for want of a better expression, all the way to the top. The roof’s the acme of a building, no? So: meeting for coffee, next for a glass of wine or beer, couple of dinners out, later seriously dating, sleeping together, part of our first summer together vacating to someplace north of New York, professions of love, or that came along before. You know: ‘You know I love you,’ and ‘And I love you.’ ‘But I said it first.’ ‘But I mean it as much.’ Then the big kiss and long embrace and so on. You moving in. Summer after that first summer, traveling around France. Picasso, Matisse, Giacometti, Braque, Chagall, Miro, maybe a chateau. Marriage, children, years and years of me till you’re sick of my wizening face and kick me out. Or, because it’s my apartment originally — no, by then we’d be joint lessees and would have gone through several residences, maybe even owned a house anyhow, you leave and take up with a woman twenty years younger than I, which would put her around thirty years younger than you. That’s me now kidding, I hope; how come you didn’t laugh?” He said something and she said “I don’t know. My mother says I’ve become a lot funnier and my sense of humor has vastly improved, since knowing you,” and he said “I agree, but then you know I would never disagree with your mother. Oy, what am I saying? Bad joke, not even close to one — mine, and no offense there to your mother, whom you know I really like and admire — and only kidding with my failed joke too. Your sense of humor and flair for comedy and also your wit, etcetera — whatever I’m trying to say — were always tops. And you have, and not just compared to me — I’m hopeless, can’t even remember punch lines to jokes I’ve heard a dozen times — a great memory for the whole joke.” “I just thought of something,” she said. “In your dream did you have to unlock the roof door to get out?” and he said “Wasn’t that in what I read you? It was one of those sliding bolts, no lock, same as in the brownstone I lived in. Why do you ask?” and she said “I thought there could be some connection to the stairway’s ground floor door in Pati’s building when I tried it from the inside and it seemed locked. And no alarm went off when you unbolted and opened the door? Although I think that only happens on roof doors of buildings when someone tries to break in from the outside, though in a dream anything can be the reverse of the real. All I’m saying is that if an alarm had gone off it could have been of some relevance to me. Think of it. The first night. We’ve just met. Hardly spoke. But your fantasy life’s been fired up. You’re already dreaming of me, and in the closest sorts of ways. So something self-protective could be warning you ‘Wait a minute, hold off, don’t jump in so fast,’ especially after your ending up so disappointed and hurt in what you told me were your last three relationships the past year. Not so much the long one with Diana — that one you said was already over, other than for you sleeping with her once or twice a month, when she broke it off completely with you — but the short one with Karyn and the quickie with whatever the third one’s name was,” and he said “Nadine, and no alarm, outside or in. If there had been one I think I also would have thought what you said. But it probably would have awakened me, as dream alarms do — ringing alarms, I mean — before we stepped onto the roof.” “So I got carried away a little, but no solipsistically, I hope you don’t think.” “Once again: you? Never.” “Sometimes I think you’d let me get away with or explain myself out of anything,” and he said “Maybe anything but sleeping with someone else, which you’ve said, and I’ve said too, you’d never do.” “Why would I?” and he said “Same here, so long as we’re together, which it seems we’re going to be—I don’t know how it can’t be — for life, right?” and she said “I’m glad we got that cleared up and worked out, not that I was worrying. Holding hands was sweet. I’m talking about the dream. And squeezing my hand, in addition to how I originally saw it, I’d say it was you who got dreamily carried away with your ardor or some emotion—not ardor. What am I trying to say?” and he said “Beats me.” “It could have been just your uneasiness that I’d leave you for good if you let go of my hand—translate that as my not agreeing, when you called, to meet you for even a first date — so you felt you had to clutch it to stop me from pulling it away, and squeezed too hard. Anything in that?” “Would you consider it as even a slight act of desertion if I said I don’t think so?” “Whatever reason you did it, I forgive you for hurting me. And you did seem, from your account, to let go the second I showed pain, and were genuinely sorry. Just as you are in your waking life if you accidentally hurt me — stepping on my foot, that jar of olive oil you thought you’d tucked safely away in the cupboard, or even in sex when you go in too deep or poke around the wrong hole. I did like the line — I know, I said I had to go, and I do have to, so, much fun as this is, I’ll finish up — ‘Which of these buildings would you like to live in an apartment with me’ what was it again?” and he read it and she said “I liked it—the way it was worded, and also the rest of the line: ‘if you don’t want to live with me in the building we’re standing on now?’ Again, what was the exact wording? Though it’s something I remembered even that much of it,” and he read it and she said “Nice, uncomplicated, no trouble in understanding what it means. Oh! And then I’m really going. Your deepest wish, hence your sister turning into me as she went up the last flight of stairs to the roof, was that she hadn’t got sick and had stayed as healthy, active and ambulatory as me,” and he said “That makes sense.”





© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas


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Stephen Dixon