Little Nightmares, Little Dreams
by Rachel Simon
And now, he wants us to share our dreams. Not just talk about them in the morning over coffee, like we usually do. He means we should dream them together, at the same time. Try doing it this very afternoon.
I say to him, "Fabian, isn't it enough we've been married fifty-three years, we've known no one in a biblical way but each other, and we've always made a point of having a real conversation every night in bed? That sounds about as close as any two people can get. This doctor you've been seeing - did he put something funny into one of those pills?"
"No," Fabian says, and he lowers his teacup to the saucer. He's used saucers since the day we were married. I like how he respects the furniture, even now that he's retired, sitting around eating cream cheese sandwiches and listening to talk shows on the radio. He never leaves a ring on the wood. Not even after he's bought a can of soda on the way back from the doctor, and when he makes it up the front steps all he can do is fall into the nearest chair. Even then, he remembers to use a coaster.
He says, "Elsie, maybe there are ways to get even closer. Wouldn't that be something - dreaming together?"
"Yeah, it'd be something."
"And I think I know how we can manage it. I've been doing some reading. Seems like it might just be a matter of physical position and will." I look at him, smile, and shake my head. "Come on, Elsie. It'll be easy. It'll be worth it."
This is what he said about all his get-closer ideas, and he's been pushing them since the night he carried me over the threshold. First it was doing the marital act with the lights on. This was not too hard for me, as I was young and curious about the curves and angles of the human body that I'd never been privileged to see before. Then, it was using the commode with the door open. I resisted this till I started shuffling diapers like stacks of soiled playing cards. After that, who can be modest? It's no longer a secret what happens at the far end of our intestines. And, of course, those talks at night. His idea. And a good one too, I came to see. Those talks kept us linked all through the problems of loud music and sibling wars and dreary wedding ceremonies and two-home grandchildren.
I used to wonder why it mattered so much to him to be close. This was not what people I knew expected out of marriage. He couldn't have gotten the idea from the relatives who raised him. They were private people. They were good people - if a few too many in number. Once we took a vacation and drove by all his old homes; our route looked like we'd dropped a handful of lentils on the map of the United States, and they'd scattered to every corner.
His only buddies - besides me, that is - have been my girlfriends' husbands. Married couples would come to our house and split apart the moment they stepped inside, the wives drawing me away to the kitchen so we could talk about our marriages and children, the husbands urging Fabian to come out front and see the new car, or play a few rounds of gin rummy. Now, the few friends who visit come alone; they've all become widows. Fabian, for the last few years, took classes at the community center downtown. Legends of Imaginary Animals; Extra-Terrestrial Influence in Human History. I'd ask him, "Did you meet anyone?" He'd shrug, "Yes, but they're too busy. Everyone's too busy." Recently he stopped going, saying the doctor visits take enough out of him as it is. Now all he does is sit in the house or backyard, reading and listening to the radio. With such a life, I'd be lonely. But he says he doesn't need anyone except me.
The closeness Fabian and I have had, it's satisfied us both. Till the last few months, that is. Suddenly, get-close ideas are all he thinks about. Why, just a few weeks ago he set up two checkerboards, one in my sewing room upstairs, the other in his tool shed out back. My set had the red pieces, his the black. He said, "You move one man every other night, I go on the nights in between." "How will I know where your men are?" I asked. "Marriage ESP," he said.
Now, sitting beside me in the kitchen, he says, "So I found this dream book at that flea market where I got those embroidered handkerchiefs you like so much. And this book, it says there are ways to dream together."
"You know you've also read books that said the sun was going to blink off at six a.m. Christmas Day three years ago. And then there was that whole Inca power series you thought was so good."
"I know, I know. But those books, they didn't give me any ideas on how we can make our lives better. They were just interesting to think about."
"They were." This I had to admit.
Fabian says, "Let me show you the book. Then you can decide." He gets up and shuffles across the linoleum to the living room. The sun's coming through the window, lighting up his hair like a crown.
Fabian's still the most handsome man I've ever seen. Though to be truthful, since I got to be able to tell time by the different ways my limbs creak during the day, I have been noticing younger men. There's one that lives across the street, divorced, women in and out of there every few days like he keeps trying them on but can't find the one that suits him. He's good-looking, this man; I almost want to put on rouge when I take out the garbage.
Still, other men, though I think about them, they're nothing to me. It's been so long since Fabian and I walked up the aisle. Then and now, we keep each other from falling. That's what those talks before bed are about. Holding out our arms as we stumble through life together, working each other loose if one of us gets stuck in some bad situation.
He comes back into the kitchen, lays the book on the table. It's dusty, smells like a basement, has mold crawling across the cover. The Greatest Intimacy. I have to put on my glasses; the words are hard to read, all squiggly like dripping batter. Like those posters Peggy used to pin to her wall back when she kept skipping school and staying in her room all day, smoking what kids did then, we later found out.
"Looks like one of those Leary treatises," I say.
"Don't knock it, Elsie," he says. Not everyone back then was a - what did James used to call them?"
"Yeah. Give it a chance, don't fight this like you did some of my other ideas."
The book crackles as I open it. Fabian lowers himself slowly to the chair. "I picked this up because of that talk we had a few nights ago, remember? That talk where you said - how'd you put it? - that we could lay the maze of our minds on top of each other and they'd lock together just about perfectly."
He was right, I'd said that. Me and my mouth. I say things that sound grand, and I don't mean them fully. See, he'd been talking about entering us in the Couple of the Year contest the local park's planning to hold in a few weeks. Couples will sit under a tent and get asked questions to see how well they know each other. Like some game on TV, I'm told, though we don't watch TV. Anyway, I said then we were a shoo-in if we entered. Being married so long, we don't even need to talk, when it comes to things like what's for dinner and what our bodies are feeling and what mood we're in. The kinds of questions I expect they'd ask in that contest. Skin-questions, as Peggy called them when she was on her anti-superficiality kick. Nothing that shows you really know someone, know the parts of him he can't put into words himself. Maybe even know something before he does.
Truth is, though I admire Fabian's get-close ideas, I'm of the opinion - and I do tell him this from time to time, but he likes to forget - that you have to have some private place inside you. Not for secrets, necessarily, though that's nice too. But for a feeling of yourself and what it means to be alone, on two legs instead of four. Because I'm no fool, I know it's all good now, but the time will come when one of us will be gone. Then where will the survivor be, if our I's have always been we's? I'll tell you, this is my little nightmare.
But I said what I said, and in marriage the words you speak to your mate are never forgotten. "So you really want to do this. But I still don't even know if we're playing the same game of checkers."
"We'll look at each other's boards tomorrow, OK? And as for this dreaming stuff - it'll be fun. At the very least, we'll have a nice afternoon together in bed. And it's been a while since we've taken naps together, hasn't it?"
I think for a second. "Only about thirty-five years."
"So we're long overdue."
"Well, what makes it happen? Some weird contraption? Hypnosis?"
"Says here" - and he flips though the book - "that all you have to do is lie on your backs with the arms that meet in the middle hooked together and the arms on the sides propped up on pillows. Says doing it in daylight is good too, because the sleep levels don't drop as low, so it's more likely you can dream."
"Sounds a little too easy."
"First, tell me this: do you make up a dream together? Or does one of you start and then the other joins in?"
"It didn't go into that," he says, pushing his bifocals up on his nose and turning to the dog-eared pages. Then he looks at me. "Does it matter?"
Well, actually it might. For the past few weeks, Fabian's felt tired all day long. He keeps calling the doctor, who tells him to come by for more tests. They've tried five different kinds of medicine so far. I offer to go with him, but he's got too much pride to let me come along, and I don't push the issue. So, when he leaves, I lie on the beach chair on the front porch and wait for him to return. And this is why dreaming together might matter: once, while I was on that chair, I took a little nap, and dreamt about the man across the street. I'm almost embarrassed to admit it: in the dream the man took me into his house and, well, I actually felt a little guilty when I woke up. But now, sitting here across from Fabian, thinking about that dream, I realize that once the clothes came off, I was no longer with the man across the street; I was with my husband. "No, it doesn't matter," I say.
I peer at him, with his white hair and white eyebrows, his brown eyes the color of coffee. Except for this dream with the man across the street, I don't do anything without Fabian at my side in my dreams. He's like the smell of my own body, the way my hair feels on my neck - something I don't think about, he's so much a part of me. And it's nice, because when my dreams fade into waking, he's next to me still.
Sometimes I forget what Fabian looks like. I forget I'm there too; I can just feel us together. This is the opposite of how it was when we first met, my eyes following his lips as he spoke to me, following the skimming of his fingers over my porch railing as we stood in the brisk winter chill. I watched him so closely, I swear I could see his cells reproduce. When I turned away, it was only because my parents were calling me inside.
In marriage, for years, this was how it went too. With each other but separate. Especially in our bed: very me and he. Air all around us, between us. Two bodies touching self-consciously, even when in rhythm hearing our own inner beat.
Then - when did it happen? And how? The difference between me and Fabian just seemed to disappear. This even when we had to lock the door to keep the kids out, or when Barbara ran away to Montana and we were so worried. This even through my fifties, when my hormones surfed out of me on waves of sweat, and I dried up inside my private parts. And I can remember when our last grandchild was born. We got off the phone and stretched out on the sofa. Even there, we fell into step, didn't hear anything but our own breathing, mixing with the sighing of the furnace. And this is how it is now, even when all we do is lie back and hold each other.
"Come on," he says, rising to his feet and tugging on the sleeve of my house dress.
"You wanted to try marijuana too, after we read about it in Life magazine," I tell him. "Look where we'd be now if we'd done that."
He shrugs. "As bad off as Louise, but as good as Peggy. Who can say what will happen?" He lowers his head and coughs. "Please. Do this for me."
I tell him, "All right. OK. I'll try it this once."
We go upstairs. I have to walk beside him on the steps so I can hold his elbow for support. I move slowly because lately he's had to.
In our bedroom he lowers the shade. The afternoon sun lights it up from behind, and the shadows of branches and leaves lay across it like lace.
I stand by my bed. He comes toward me. I raise my arms and he works my dress over my hips, belly, breasts, head. Then he peels off my underthings. I am doing this to him too, unbuttoning, unbelting.
We lie down. There is no blanket, just sheets, and we do not get under them. We breathe, the window shade taps against the sill. What does my body look like? My friends complain about theirs, about how fat or thin or weak they are, about how their imperfect bodies made them avoid intimacy when their husbands were alive. Me, somehow I always forget to notice my body when I'm with Fabian. And he's with me all the time; I am never naked alone.
Always we roll to face each other. But this time we don't. Instead we each take one of the extra pillows at the top of the bed and fit it beneath our outside elbows.
"And now what do we do?" I ask.
"We lock arms," he says.
He lifts his left arm and hooks it into my right.
"What do you want to dream about?" I ask him.
"I don't know. I just want to see what happens."
We lie there, looking at the ceiling. A few cars buzz by outside. A little girl down the street calls for her friend.
Then I start giggling, and in a moment Fabian joins in. There we are in bed, in this crazy position, laughing. "I feel too silly to do this," I say.
"So do I," he says. "Wouldn't you just die if the kids could see us?"
This makes me laugh more. I go on like this for a while, the laughter rolling out of me, the bed trembling. I go on until I realize Fabian is no longer laughing with me, and then it occurs to me that I feel more nervous than silly. I am panting as I laugh, the way a child does when he's lying.
I close my eyes. Fabian is breathing deeply already. He twitches, that teetering-on-the-edge-of-sleep twitch. I follow his breath as if it is a broom sweeping my path clear. I jolt awake, I sink back down.
And then finally I fall asleep.
The dream opens to me slowly. We are sitting on the sofa in our living room. At first this dream feels no different from any other; how can I tell if Fabian is dreaming it, too? "Are you with me?" I ask him. "I think so," he says, but a look flashes across his face and then he adds, "Where are we?" "We're at home," I say, "See? There's the lamp Louise made in school and the family photograph we got for our fortieth anniversary and that fern you bought last week." "Yes," he says, "I see."
Someone knocks on the front door. Fabian rises to answer and, since our arms are locked together, even in this dream, I must rise with him. Side by side we make our way across the room.
When we open the door, the porch is empty. But then Fabian says, "Is that a man or a woman?" as he peers into the darkness.
I am not sure if I should tell him I don't see anyone. I can feel him getting scared. "What are you doing, just standing there?" he asks the invisible - to me - stranger. "What do you want from me?"
I turn to Fabian. His eyes are wide, and he is sweating. "Is this your dream?" I ask him. "Or is it mine?"
"It's not my dream," he says, still staring ahead. "It's my nightmare."
My back tingles and I look away from him, down at my legs. They're thick and netted with varicose veins. My eyes sweep up my body and I see myself now, as if I'm naked for the first time in my life. The dimples on my stomach, the wrinkles that fan down my breasts, my navel gaping like an open mouth. So this is how I look.
I want to tell him this and I raise my head to speak directly to him. But it is in that moment that I wake up.
He is still beside me, breathing deeply. I look at his profile. I know every pore on that face.
Lying there, watching him, this is what I feel: his nightmare was telling me something. Though maybe it was my nightmare, and all it was doing was making clear a fact I've suspected for the past few weeks but haven't wanted to face. And maybe I haven't faced it because he hasn't yet, either.
I unlock my arm from his and sit up. I could wake him to ask what he dreamt, see if it overlapped in any way with what I dreamt. I want to; but I can't bring myself to do that. Not right now.
I roll off the bed and throw on my dress. In the dying sunlight I see his body, white and covered with hair, his love handles and the smiles under his knees. I leave the bedroom and close the door.
Light no longer shines into the hallway, so it must be near dusk. I walk downstairs. I'm not sure why I don't go to my sewing room, where his shirts sit in my basket, waiting for buttons. I have let them pile up for months; now I wonder if I can finish them in time.
I go through the living room and the kitchen, out the back door. The sky is deep blue, receding into black at the tree line. I pad across the grass, noticing his sandals, a book he was reading, a glass half empty. When I reach the tool shed, I hear the crickets, rising around me like hymns.
It is dark inside the shed. I have to wave my arms in the air as I creep forward until one hand brushes against the hanging light bulb. I click it on.
Everything - floor, tools, work table - is covered with sawdust, as it was the last time I was in here. When was that? At least a few years. But there is regular dust now too, thick on everything, even the air. Well, almost everything. Not the checkerboard.
I walk over and look down. A few of his checkers sit along the side of the table. I guess he thought I jumped them. I close my eyes and try to envision my board. That man here, that one there, those three kings... And when the picture is sharp, I open my eyes and lay it on top of the board in front of me. He was right, we can play the same game without even looking. We do have marriage ESP.
On the chair in front of the board is one of his shirts, a red flannel shirt that he wore all last winter. It has no dust on it. I pick it up and hold it to my face. It smells like a shirt; no, like his shirt. He does have a smell, I just never notice it; I forget and think it is me.
I lift my dress up over my head and drop it on the chair. Then I fit myself into his shirt. It is large. I don't button it; I wrap it around me, like his arms.
It is dark when I make my way across the yard, back into the house, and upstairs. I feel my way along the wall. The house is so quiet when I think of him gone.
In our room, I raise the shade and moonlight beams in. He looks like he's covered with snow. As I sit on the bed, he groans and turns his head toward me.
"You're up?" he says.
"Not for long," I say. "What did you dream?"
"Oh," he says, rubbing his eyes, rolling over to face the ceiling. "I couldn't figure out where I was." He pauses for a moment. "You were with me. I asked where we were and you said we were at home. But it didn't look like home to me. It looked like a combination of the houses I grew up in. Familiar and strange at the same time.
"And then there was a knock on the door. I had to tug on your hand to get you up to answer it. I opened the door, and there was - someone or something. Not really a person. I asked who it was, and it wouldn't answer, it just stood there, staring. I wanted to lock it out, but when I turned to ask you to help me close the door, you were looking down, away from me. That thing - I was looking at it again - wanted me to step onto the porch. I didn't want to but I couldn't walk away. All I could do was stand there like I was frozen. And then I realized that you weren't holding my hand anymore; you were gone. It was just me and it. And we stared at each other so long..."
My skin grows cold beneath his shirt; I grab it tighter around me. "Fabian," I say, "that was the same dream I had."
"I knew we could do it," he says, but he doesn't sound happy. He takes hold of my hand. "It scared me, Elsie. It made me feel like something terrible's going to happen. Did you feel that? Did you feel that in your dream?"
I want to reply that it won't be terrible, but I know it will. And I cannot be dishonest; after all, we have marriage ESP. I lie down on the bed and stroke his chest. His hair tickles my palm. I have not been aware of this, of him and me, for so long now. "Fabian," I whisper, telling myself to remember how his hair feels beneath my hand, how his body feels next to mine, "I'm sure we'll be all right."