This story is by Rebecca E Van Horn and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Dream (Not Quite) Lover
Sara and I publicly and loudly eschewed organized religion and the outmoded idea of sharing eternity (but we secretly referred to each other as soul mates). “Beliefs systems are for rubes!” we’d cackle, while clinking glasses of prosecco at our local speakeasy-style bar. Together, we identified the trappings that were required by a self-deprecating yet entitled millennial couple, confident in our knowledge of contemporary cultural zeitgeists and tropes. We were able to navigate through and indulge in them ably without letting them taint our own unshakable authenticity.
We were the real deal, Sara and me. We didn’t argue, so much as have diplomatic summits. We used the “I” statements we learned from our self-actualized parents: “When you don’t load the dishwasher properly and I have to do it again for you, I feel invalidated.” If there was any doubt that either one of us was a proactive, meticulously ethical citizen of the world, we would simply go to the other one for reassurance. We were a self-righteous powerhouse, like a fully-woke Voltron. Together, we felt, we were the best; everyone around us could see that instantly as we supped on the finest free-range, antibiotic-free artisanal pork sliders in a café in what had once been the industrial part of town.
Since there had never been anyone like us, and we were great together, we were married (in the perfect low-key, yet meticulously-planned, ceremony). In a barn up in Sonoma County, surrounded by cows and supplied by the finest locally sourced, gluten-free catering service recommended by Yelp!, we recited our personalized vows: “I waited for you for so long, and now that you’re here, my life can finally begin.” That kind of thing.
We decided to leave our apartment for the same reasons many newlyweds move: we wanted to settle down, settle in, and help produce the next generation of perfectly woke people. For that, we needed a house. The place we found was cheap and nondescript, situated in a decent part of a town that was dotted with small residences. Our pick was rather ramshackle, but we were tickled to be able to afford what our friends referred to as a “starter home.” There were flowering trees and a small expanse of yard out back, which descended down to a trickle of creek. The noises of the semi-wilderness kept us awake at night. From every direction, we could hear frogs and what we found out were the screeches of opossum mating rituals.
The house was small and cheery—the color of yellow cake batter. Windows streamed in light from all four horizons. The air inside practically hummed with the promise of a bright future. Since we had more space than the one-bedroom studio apartments we had grown accustomed to during our short adulthoods, we were finally able to unpack the boxes of stuff we had placed in storage years ago: small kitschy trinkets and tchotchkes passed down from grandparents and great grandparents. Finally, all of our stuff could be put on display for our friends to ooh and ah over. At long last, our eclectic tastes would be vindicated.
After the sale closed, we tumbled all over each other and stumbled from room to room, giddily christening each corner of the house with our naked romping. For once, everything had aligned: love, money, property, hope. Now I can see that the picture we created together was brightly-colored, jaunty, and ultimately two-dimensional. But the tableau was too pretty and too precarious to risk doubting.
We wanted to play at being a domesticated suburban couple—the “cool” young marrieds. Sara planted a vegetable garden; we talked about putting in rooftop solar panels and a compost heap; we were going to have barbeques and backyard birthday parties, complete with gingham aprons and homemade ice tea in a pitcher. If I ever felt an icy column of anxiety about the future, or disdain for Sara’s prolonged (and misguided and ill-informed—although I kept that notion to myself) railing against the anchors on the PBS News Hour, I tamped it down, hiding it behind the knowledge that I had done everything right in life. I had. Really.
But within that cake batter house, there was the one room. From the very beginning, it had an odd feel to it, a sort of crackle to its stillness. It was always too chilly, no matter how much heat we pumped in through the vents. We even had the air ducts cleaned by professionals; they checked to see if there was anything blocking the circulation, like—god forbid—the corpse of a raccoon, or an old rat’s nest. But the heating and plumbing guy descended the ladder from the crawlspace with his brow furrowed, perplexed. “There’s nothing, as far as I can see. There isn’t any rot or rodent feces. It’s weird.”
The room itself was spacious and had a view of the creek out back. I set up my office in there, with my desk near the window, so I could see out. With my back facing the middle of the room, I would try to work, but I always felt like someone was standing behind me, just about to brush my neck with their fingertips. Soon, the thought of spending time in there hardened my stomach into a tight coil. After suffering several days sweating in the cold, my shoulder blades contracting at every strange breeze with no source, I moved operations to the living room. Sara was irritated at first to have me working in our designated shared space, but she understood. She was uneasy in what was now the spare room, too.
And then there were the dreams. We both had them. Sara laughed that hers were the result of the questionable supermarket sushi she tended to pick up after long evenings at the office. In her recurring dream, she said she was always walking down a long corridor. She could see that it bent left into shadow ahead of her, but she never actually reached the turn; she always woke up too soon. “The dreams aren’t scary, per se. It’s not like there’s a creature pursuing me. I just am really…frustrated. Nothing happens, no matter how much I walk towards the turn. A monster or something would be a relief, to be honest.”
I don’t know if I believed that, that she wasn’t scared. She was the type of person who thought that being afraid of one’s dreams was a sign of weakness, or a lack of control over one’s mind. Accordingly, she scoffed at my weekly trip to the therapist, even though she knew the trips helped me with my chronic anxiety and depression. She thought that I should take up boxing instead; that would “toughen me up,” and add another colorful layer to what she referred to as my “easily cracked candy coating.” She never wanted to hear about what I talked about in my sessions.
Me, I had the dreams, too. But I wasn’t being pursued or walking anywhere. Rather, a voice came to me and hovered above me as I lay on the soft and fragrant ground of an overgrown garden, looking up into the blurry canopy of leaves. The voice spoke to me in a feminine murmur, soft and comforting. She was inquisitive, and wanted to know as much as I would tell her about my life and my experiences. And so I tried to explain myself in that dream state where I’d half-forgotten what language I spoke, or who I was in the waking world. But I found that I didn’t really need to do much talking at all. All I had to do was let my mind drift and she was there with me; she understood what I was feeling; she found me utterly fascinating. In her, I found the reassurance and comfort I couldn’t access anywhere else, except for at the bottom of a third tumbler of bourbon.
And so it goes, even years later. I still have two women in my life. Sara and I followed the track laid before us, even though we were convinced we were doing it in a new, unique way. We made house, all three of us. Gardens were planted, promotions were attained, and cars were upgraded to mid-sized SUVs. Soon a baby came. As my waking life progressed, I stopped trying to rationalize what continued to go on in my dreaming life. When I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, brushing my teeth before bed, I felt like I was getting ready to dive headlong into my second life, which was just as important as the first. I never told my wife about the extent of my relationship with whom I sheepishly call my “dream lady”—but what else can I call her, really? She is always there for me, in perfect understanding, with a seductive caress and kind whisper. I wouldn’t want to go on without her. I don’t think I could.