In my first dream, I am small like the proxy-girl asleep in my bed, and warm like her, too. My dimpled hands clasp the bars of a cage. Am I caged in or caged out, the zookeeper or the beast being kept? It is hard to say. I feel a sense of dread but also of longing. Then, I hear elephants trumpeting in the distance, and as they draw close, I see they are walking single-file, their trunks and tails intertwined. They look like elephants I have seen at the circus, enormous and wrinkled with a silver sheen. Their toenails are painted white as chalk. Their long tusks, like those from the picture books, are missing. Once, I told my grandmother how I rode an elephant at the circus, how I slipped from my seat and crashed all the way to the floor. It was true, but she didn’t believe me. She said I must have been dreaming. My parents were there, but they each held a finger over their lips, whispered, Let’s not worry Grandma. In this way, my first truth became a lie. Even my witnesses would not confirm my story. In the dream, the bars turn white as the toenails, as the missing tusks of the elephants, and suddenly my hands are clutching, trembling, holding on for dear life. Fear slides down my throat like a soft egg. Am I afraid for the elephants or afraid for myself? Am I safer within or beyond the bars? It is hard to say. For years, my father will tell this story, how I woke him in the dark, crying—how I whispered, Please, Daddy, the night pictures were very sad. I remember the dream, but nothing of the waking. Whatever happened after, as with so many stories, I will have to take someone else’s word for it.
A little dream of me
For my voice recital, I’m practicing the song “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” It’s a sweet melody, and catchy, so I sing it in my head all day long, memorizing the way the bridge swoops up into a high octave, taking all your breath, your faith (Stars fading…) and then quickly stair- steps to a lower register: (… but I linger on dear….). Cass Elliot made this song famous in 1968, or maybe it was the other way around: the song put her, and the Mamas and the Papas, on the charts, selling close to seven million copies in an era devoted to political protest songs and drug-induced surrealism. Her voice—strong, yet oh-so-tender—was well suited for this twenties-era ballad. She sang it for the last time on July 27, 1974, then two days later died in her sleep. We can’t know if she was dreaming when it happened, or what she might have been dreaming of. Perhaps the lyrics still trilled in her head, words like sycamore, or sunbeams, words that are fun to sing. As I study the song now, I see that the light melody actually rubs against rather insidious lyrics: the lover insisting, desperately, to be remembered after the night (or the relationship, or perhaps even her life) is over. It’s an unrealistic demand, as if you could force yourself into someone’s dreams; usually it’s the other way around. Lately, I’ve been dreaming of my ex-boyfriend, a man I lived with nearly twenty years ago. In the dreams, I’m always chasing after him, or perhaps it’s the other way around. We weave down labyrinthine corridors, skim past witnesses who lurk in the corners. He’s always just out sight. Sex simmers in the air: either sex we’ve had or are about to have. Or sex that has failed. Sex that wanted to be love. I wake in a panic, sure that I’ve done something wrong, an old reproach burning beneath my heart. I blink and I blink my way into the present day. Which is the lie and which is the truth? It was just a dream, I tell myself, thank god it was just a dream.
Once, when I was fifteen, I dreamed I was following a woman in a white sundress through the aisles of a Thriftway supermarket. Her feet were bare, and I kept thinking how cold they must have been, how dirty their soles. I followed her because she reminded me of Roma Downey, the woman who played the main angel on Touched by An Angel—that heavenly ingénue. Monica was her name. I watched her every Saturday night instead of going out with friends. She had red hair and long, slender hands and an Irish brogue. I told myself I was reclaiming my spirituality, reexamining my agnosticism, but really I was just so attracted to her that I ached—a pang like hunger but deeper in the body. I prayed it would go away. I can laugh now and make jokes about how much I wanted to be “touched by an angel” in the literal sense, but not then. I couldn’t have laughed then. In the dream, the woman turns to confront me in the canned food aisle, and I apologize, protest too much, say I’m not actually following you, and she raises one of her long, slender hands, places a finger over her lips, and says, Listen. Her hair is black, her accent distinctly American, and she doesn’t look so much like Roma Downey after all—but I’m still drawn to her in a way I can’t explain. I have a message for you, she whispers. From God? I ask, and she nods. Then, right then, my mother is calling for me as if over the loudspeaker in the supermarket, the way she did once when I was a lost child. I say, Just a minute, Mom, but I can’t ever get back to the dream, and every time I pass that Thriftway in real life, I think of the woman, the possible angel, and what she might have said, what message she might have been sent to deliver if there really was a God and if he had taken an interest in speaking to me. Then, one day on the way home from school, I see the Thriftway is on fire. My father is driving, and I hang my head out the window like a dog, watching the firemen with their hoses, the futile spray. Such a shame, my father says, as if he knew already and wasn’t surprised, as if he always expected the Thriftway to burn. For many days after, there is ash in the air, and I can smell the building in the distance, smoldering.
I thought it was
When the 1971 San Fernando earthquake hit, I thought it was a dream. It happened at exactly 6 a.m. on a school day, an hour before normally my mother would gently shake my shoulder and whisper sing: time to get up, dear, rise and shine. I felt my bed rolling, and thought it was King Kong, a figure I often dreamed about; he stood in my front yard shaking the olive tree, grabbing the fruits in large handfuls as I watched, or he lumbered toward me, swooping me up in his fist to set me in the high branches of the ash tree. From there, I could see my entire neighborhood as if through a fishbowl lens, the edges of everything curved and distorted. I’d be frightened, but also exhilarated: to be have been chosen, singled out, by something so mighty. So on the morning of the earthquake, my sleepy mind conflated King Kong with the hand of the earthquake, tipping my bed like a see-saw. I woke fully to my mother’s scream, and saw her blurred figure in my doorway. She wore a white nightgown that billowed around her like a halo. I wonder now how much is memory, how much is fiction, how much is still a dream. Memory often feels like a dream, with a dream’s logic, blurred images hovering just on the edge of meaning. We stood huddled in the threshold because that’s what they told us to do in the event of earthquake, though nowadays that advice has changed: do not stand in doorways, get under something heavy. Or go outside, away from falling buildings. Or don’t go outside, stay where you are. Where I live now, we’ve been told “the big one” is likely to hit within the next fifty years. In the worst-case scenario, no amount of emergency water will save you. The common wisdom, like memory, keeps shifting, revising. You never know what to believe.
Bring me a
When she came to tuck me in, my mother often sang Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream, make him the cutest that I’ve ever seen. It was the same tune she played on the piano, lyrics we sang together as I perched beside her, learning the simple bass chords. But at night, a cappella in the dark, the song sounded different—less a cheerful ditty and more a bawdy ballad from that grown-up world to which I did not yet belong, might never belong: Give him two lips like roses and clover, and tell him that his lonesome nights are over! I always pictured the sandman as our mailman, Mike, skinny and reliable in his beige shorts and button-down shirt, a messenger bag slung across his shoulder. The sandman was bringing me an invitation to sleep, I thought, the same way the mailman brought invitations to parties, postcards from family at the shore. But then this: Mr. Sandman, I’m so alone, don’t have nobody to call my own. My lip quivered as I slipped beneath the covers, turned over on my side. And I was alone, wasn’t I, alone in my small, pink bedroom at the end of the hall, alone in my childhood without siblings or school mates or neighbor kids with whom to play? Mike told us once he had two daughters, Daisy and Lily, and one of them was about my age. I kept asking my mother where the flower girls lived, but she said they were too far away. Most of the mail that came to our house was for my mother after all. She paid the bills, clipped the coupons, answered all the correspondence with her elegant script. So when Mr. Sandman turned on his magic beam, it only made sense that she would receive the dream.
Life is but
There are more songs with the word “dream” in the title than you can count. Add in the songs that have “dream” in the lyrics, and it might very well be one of the most sung words in history, perhaps vying only with moon and love. The vowels in dream are actually rather difficult, requiring some modification to avoid a shrill “eee” high up in the back of the throat, like the whine of a mosquito. But I suppose songwriters can’t avoid it, that impulse to compare the beloved, or love itself, to a dream, given that love can be so unpredictable and refuses to play by diurnal rules. Even in our earliest lulls to sleep, dreams are thrust upon us: Row, row, row your boat/gently down the stream/merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily/life is but a dream. Sing this to a babe in arms and you impart one of the basic Buddhist tenets: that life, as we know it, is mere illusion. This song is often executed as a round, voices intermingling while vying off one another for dominance. You need to concentrate while singing a round, staying firmly embedded in your part while allowing the competing voices to fade into the background. Kind of like love I suppose: voices trying to meet and harmonize, while the lyrics drift out of unison. Rounds are supposed to create beautiful, textured songs—and they’re often sung as part of team-building activities, to show that all voices have a part to play—but you can’t really hear the totality of a round while you’re inside it. You have a vague sense that the voices are intersecting beautifully, but if you stop to listen you’ll lose your way and dissolve in nervous laughter. Whenever I sing row row row your boat, I imagine a fool jauntily paddling toward a waterfall. He can’t see it (his back is turned) though the roar of the rapids rises in his ears. He keeps singing and singing, keeping time with his oars, while the boat tips over into the roiling froth below.
When we thumbed through catalogs, my mother called the men she found attractive “dream boats.” If I was lucky and good and kept myself trim, a dream boat would someday paddle his way toward me. I pictured myself stranded on shore, waiting. When we watched Lawrence Welk as a family, my father often whistled at pretty Anacani, then grinned at me: Wowee, isn't she a dream? But how could I answer him, really? By then, all the lullabies and bedtime stories had given way to alibis. I spoke in fragments, half- truths, always looking beyond and away. My friend left a Mariah Carey tape in my locker. You have to hear this, her note read. I turned the volume way down, pressed my ear to the tinny speaker: Dream lover come rescue me, bawdy Mariah moaned. Take me up take me down, take me anywhere you want baby now. In her little dream boat, pretty Anacani is always paddling hard. I am always standing on the rocks, screaming her name, but she never hears. Night after night, I wake in terror: both of us, in our own ways, bound for capsize.
When Susan Boyle took the stage of Britain’s Got Talent, no one expected her to succeed. She looked to be the butt of everyone’s joke, with her wide face, bushy eyebrows, frumpy dress and clunky shoes. She said she wanted to be a famous singer “like Elaine Paige.” When the first notes of “I Dreamed a Dream” left her mouth, the audience surged with applause; the judges glanced at each other, flabbergasted, and one even started to cry. Was it the mismatch between body and voice that got to them? Or maybe it was just the song itself, its woeful depiction of the gap between fantasy and hard reality. Now my father is dying in his hospital bed, and we’ve gathered around, playing songs on my brother’s iPhone. It’s late, and we’ve done a lot of work today: a DNR order, a Power of Attorney, a list of the myriad transactions that will need to happen upon death. He’s tired, lying on his side, eyes closed, gripping my mother’s hand. His face is soft, mouth slack. I ask him what his favorite song is, and he says, in a voice that no longer seems to be his voice, anything from Les Miz. This story, Les Miserables, is something of a cult in my family; my mother says it’s her favorite book and my brother has seen the film 12 times. My parents saw the stage production in London, and they own at least three different dvds of the musical. I’ve never seen it myself, but I seem to know the songs by osmosis. My brother finds Susan Boyle belting out “I Dreamed a Dream,” the dying mother singing of how dreams must always die, and what made life worth living before everything went wrong. It’s not the most uplifting song, but somehow we’re all still smiling.
-- Brenda Miller teaches in the creative writing program at Western Washington University. Her newest collections are An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books, 2016), winner of the Washington State Book Award, and Who You Will Become (SheBooks, 2015).
Julie Marie Wade is an associate professor of creative writing at Florida International University. Her most recent collections are Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems and The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, co-authored with Denise Duhamel.