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an essay by ralph robert moore
Last night I dreamt I was wandering through a city.
It wasn't until the dream was almost over that I realized this is a recurring dream I've had the past year or so.
It's almost the only dream I have now, or at least the only dream I remember. Usually when I wake, there's a soothing blackness in my mind, my first memory that of the night before, turning over in bed, breathing against my pillow. I'm sure I do dream, but their cycle must be such that I wake too long after the last one to remember it. If I remember anything at all, it's a color and confusion that quickly evaporates as I'm still getting up on an elbow, reaching blindly for my water glass.
I wish I did experience my dreams more often, because I love that wonderful unsteadiness felt in the midst of a dream, the passivity, and the sense you are being shown selected objects and actions by someone or something, each selection, by the fact it was selected, therefore imbued with a significance it isn't granted in the waking world.
The city might be New York, where I worked for a year between high school and college, when I was seventeen turning eighteen, in the late sixties. This city I walk in resembles New York in some ways. It has the intimacy of street corners, the wide sweep of avenues passing around and through the skyline.
In the dream I start wandering down a city street at mid-day, a few newspaper pages lying spread-eagle on the sidewalk, looking at the posters outside clubs, bookstores and diners, taped to the tall metal posts supporting the street lights, taped on the sides of a row of newspaper vending machines under a tree. The posters are not that large, about the size of a sheet of copy paper, dark reds and blues, print only, no graphics, listing different writers, and their stories. The typical poster might have three or four names and story titles on it. I pass by people on the street while I'm looking around, who are friendly and distracted, like me. Are they also dreamers, wandering around looking for something in this city? Where I see the posters, do they see something else?
When I first started having the dream, once I realized there were posters with writers' names along the street, I looked for my own name, not expecting to find it, and not. But after the initial disappointment it was pleasant enough to just wander, seeing the other writers' names, most of whom I didn't recognize (the two famous names I recognized from last night's dream, for whatever reason, were Stephen King and Mark Twain. With Twain, his name was above "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court").
What am I wearing? I force myself back to my memory of the dream, and in that memory force myself to look down at the front of my body, but it's blurry. Whatever it is I am wearing, I have a sense it's light-colored. It may be a light grey suit. The weather is pleasant, nether too warm not too cool. I sense Spring, or early Summer.
Last night I wandered down the sidewalk again, reading the names and story titles, and then there was a period where I was driving, or perhaps being driven, swiftly through and around the city, then I was back on the sidewalk again, moving among the friendly but distracted people. Now, towards the end of the dream, the familiar practice of reading the posters reminded me I had had the dream at least several times before. With a sense that the dream would soon end, I scanned the posters more rapidly, and there, there, just as I was about to be whisked backwards, I saw a poster, not with my name on it, but at least with the title of one of my short stories on it. In my dream, and maybe in my sleep, I smiled, leaned forward quickly to squint again at the poster to be sure - the title was at the very top of that poster - the first one listed - I recognized it as my title, but couldn't tell which title it was - then I was getting up on one elbow, reaching blindly for my water glass.
My story The Rape was written entirely during a particularly productive dream. When I say that it "was written" during the dream, I don't mean I had a dream in which the events of The Rape occurred, then the next day decided to turn that into a story. I mean I was fully aware I was dreaming at the time, aware I was in control of the naked people running back and forth in my head, and had them repeatedly stop what they were doing to try it a different way, or to substitute one line of dialogue for another, until I had the story written the way I wanted it. I even remember them waiting patiently while I decided how I wanted to handle a particular scene.
Was The Rape the story title I saw just before I woke? It would make sense (which probably works against it, since it was in a dream), but I don't think it was. It was a longer title, perhaps four or five words long, the shortness of one or two of the words suggesting prepositions.
Throughout the eighties, and literally for that ten-year period, I had two recurring dreams, and would tend to remember them the next day whenever I dreamt them (sometimes I dreamt both dreams the same night, but not usually). Although this may seem odd now, it was only towards the end of the decade that I realized the dreams were recurring. Before then, each time I had the dream I'd let myself forget about it at some point during the day, much like we decide to forget so much each day; to put it in an area of my mind where it's retrievable, not completely erased, but not noticeable. It was only towards the end of the decade (for whatever reason), that the dreams caught my attention enough for me to think back if I had ever had them before. At which point I realized I'd had each dozens of times, a feeling at once exciting and sinking.
In the first dream I'm by myself. I have a tickle in my throat, cough a little, then realize there's a hair or something in my mouth. There's the usual frustrating waggle of fingers in my mouth trying to wetly pinch the hair, then I finally get it, I can feel its thinness between thumb and index and middle fingertips, and I start to pull on it, to pull it out of my mouth. As I'm pulling on it, I realize by the feel between my three fingertips it's actually thicker than I thought, more like dental floss. How'd that get in there? I tug on it some more, and feel a thin, straight pain down the length of my esophagus, as if the floss stretches all the way down, and my fingery tension on it is cutting it into the ruby inside flesh of my throat. Still, I want it out, so I keep tugging, feeling like that's cutting deeper and deeper into my esophagus, all the way down to my chest now, tugging it out of my mouth like rope now, left hand over right hand over left hand, and still it comes out, coiling on the floor, and as I'm pulling now it dawns on me - maybe, again, it's the feel of it between my three fingertips - that what I'm pulling out of my body is alive.
The dream used to end with the cutting sensation caused by the string rubbing against my esophagus as I pulled it out. After a few years, it would end with my realization that whatever it was I was pulling out of my body through my mouth was alive, which made it a particularly odd recurring dream, since it not only repeated its actions, but the 'plot' actually progressed a little dream to dream.
Towards the end of the decade, in my dream I was leaning forward to yank more and more of it out of my mouth, it coiling up higher and higher on the floor, and widening and livening more and more between my hands (I was using both hands by then, because of the girth it had grown over the years). Finally, one morning, in my dream I pulled it all out, and it suddenly turned multiple jewel colors, like a pliable length of the most beautiful stained glass, with a sort of parallelogram flat head that twisted up slightly, as if it wanted to finally have a look at me. There I am, straightening up after having bent so far over in effort, this beautiful, jewel-plated something supported in both my palms like a weak baby. I never had the dream again.
In the second dream I have a sense I'm traveling, I'm in a land I've never been to before, or else visit only infrequently. This dream too evolved over the decade. At first I saw only myself and the dog; as the years went on, I started to see more and more of the scenery around me, until finally I was able to imagine or perceive the entire tableau.
The final version of the dream takes place in a small valley between hillocks. By small, I mean it is about large enough to comfortably accommodate a country gasoline station, one of those built out of wood, with a wooden store attached where you can wander in to buy dream cigarettes or a dream sandwich (not a modern, crowded, 7-11 type of franchise). There's also some sort of wooden structure around back, but I'm not sure what it is. It may be carports, for keeping cars out of the weather while they're worked on. Certainly, that would make sense.
In the dream, I'm standing outside the front of the store, which is attached by its roof to the pumps section of the station. I see the hillocks surrounding the station are green with grass, but the entire area where the station is, is dirt. I can, in fact, see some brief, circular tire tracks in the dirt where cars from before wheeled as they left.
There are people near me, but the cast changes dream to dream. Sometimes there are men in the small gathering, dressed like farmhands, sleeves rolled up, but often its young women with their small children. The women are usually in long, loose-fitting farm dresses, usually with a small, blue-check pattern. I don't know any of the people. We all just happen to be here at the same time.
We're all standing outside the store, in the dirt, in the tire-track circles embossed across the dirt.
And there's a dog there, too.
It's a black dog, one of those dogs with hair so short it's glossy. It has an ugly, root-beer colored muzzle, and although it's not a huge dog, it's tall enough on its four paws to be scary. It stands to where the long back of it comes up to my hips.
There's no leash on it, although I think there may sometimes be a collar. But its owner isn't anywhere around. It just trotted over, over to where I'm standing with the others. And it's starting to get mean. We all ignored it when it first came over, still talking about something, but I don't know what, but now it's started moving among us, even brushing against us, testing us, starting to growl. Its eyes look angry, confused, paranoid. We all look over to measure how far we are from the country store's front door. Too far away.
The big, black dog starts backing up now, backing up to face all of us, the growls bursting into barks, the type of loud, rough, aggressive barking that propels the animal forward an inch each time in the dust on its sharp paws.
To protect the others, I put my fist in the dog's mouth, put my fist all the way to the back of his throat, then start pushing my balled knuckles down his throat. I feel his fangs resting around my mid forearm, the tips of the fangs pricking slightly, me staring down into his black eyes, him staring up into mine. It seems to me an endurance contest then, to see which of us will break under fear first.
And there the dream always ends.
In the early nineties, some time after I stopped having the two dreams, thinking back on them one day, I realized they were, for whatever reason, related to each other, in that in the first dream, I'm pulling something out of my throat, and in the second dream, I'm pushing something down a throat.
Freudians of course would have a quick explanation for both of these throat dreams, but few people listen to Freudians now anyway, so I suppose it doesn't matter.
At the time, I didn't think of either dream as a nightmare, even though both dealt with frightening situations. Towards the last year or so I was having the "hair in my mouth" dream, I actually started looking forward to it, because I could sense it would conclude soon, and I would see, finally, what it was I was pulling out of me. As for the dog dream, I had dreamt of him so often by then, I think we both knew we would never really hurt each other, but just continue testing each other whenever one or the other of us needed that kind of test. I remember him with affection. The pet I never had, but still managed to lose.
The concerns in my new recurring dream, me wandering around the city, looking for my name displayed in public as a writer, seem embarrassingly obvious. But this new cycle is still early in its evolution. Last night, for example, was the first time I drove (or was driven) through the city, however brief and confusing that tour may have been. In the whirl of that accelerated exploration, I caught thousands of windows, hundreds of doors. Am I able to open one? If I ultimately can, what will have been patiently waiting there for me, behind one, for all those years?
background on the essay
I wrote this piece a few hours after waking up from the 'wandering through the city' dream discussed in the essay, and in fact composed a lot of it in my head on the way to work.
Along with "knowing you are about to have sex", "realizing this meal is going to taste good", and "not having a clue where this book/movie/song is going", one of the most exciting experiences in life is "being in a dream".
I always thought the over-quoted entity confusion (man? butterfly?) was cloying, but it is true we do seem to get glimpses, to be slowly, carefully, told things that are important to us, in dreams. I only wish they didn't wisp away so quickly.
After I wrote this essay and posted it, I remembered another dream I have that I meant to discuss but had, in the writing, forgotten about. For the life of me, I honestly cannot recall it now.