I wonder what the old man next to me dreams about, whether the deep creases in his face and the pain in his knees disappear as he pours his mind into the body of a younger man, or whether his body and soul follow him into sleep. I wonder if he dreams at all, at this point. I hope his dreams are nice. As for me, you seem to be all I can dream about anymore, understandably; at least in the dream world you still exist. Only lately you’ve been eluding me even there, relegated only to my thoughts within dreams, memory within memory, fantasy within fantasy. My eyes return to the man. I wonder if you would have looked like that man when you were old, deep wrinkles spreading across your face, or whether time would have been kinder to you.
The train jolts, and the man is awakened from his shallow slumber. His bloodshot eyes turn to me and narrow, perhaps judging my disheveled appearance or the deep purple rings around my eyes. I feel a compulsion to fill the silence.
“Want to hear about my dream last night?” I don’t know why I said that.
He just looks at me blankly. “What?” he manages.
“My dream,” I say again.
“Do I look like Freud to you?”
“Maybe a little.” He frowns, and the crease between his eyebrows grow into a chasm deeper than I thought possible. “It was pretty strange, though,” I say, at this point to myself. He has already turned away, facing the window with his eyes shut tight, trying to block me out. You would’ve wanted to hear about it. You were in it, kind of. I dreamt I was on a train to New York, going there to look for you, but I never got there, and I never found you. Time seemed to stretch toward infinity, the seconds moving impossibly slowly; surreal images flashed outside my window. I dreamt I was attacked by a monster whose face I never saw; I dreamt I was falling. If I could tell you about this, you’d psychoanalyze me, laughing as you spoke in a badly-faked German accent. Fear of lack of control, fear of letting go. A lot of that stuff seems like pseudoscience, but maybe it’s true.
I am on that same train now, my usual one to Penn Station. Strange how the lines between dream and sleep have been getting blurred lately. A stack of paperwork awaits me at work, I know; I have meetings all afternoon. I need caffeine, my drug of choice, to slap me awake, to tie me down to my reality, to focus on my work and my family and my friends—on anything else but you. But even after my coffee I still feel like I am dead. Maybe you could tell me what that’s really like sometime. I’m ready to embrace the void, you joked once from your hospital bed, and I cried about that for a week.
I hardly remember dragging myself out of bed this morning. I remember hitting snooze over and over, unable to pull myself out of sleep. Eventually I have to wake up, leave all the dreams behind, and return to this body, to this new self that I’m still getting used to. I left a lot of me behind when you were gone, you know—moved back to New Jersey, because everything in the apartment reminded me of you; cut my hair because you always liked it long.
My hands are shaking, and I try to stop my pulse from racing away from me, stop my heart from beating so fast. What’s the matter with me? I look at my watch, but the hands seem to be moving a little too slow. I still find myself starting to reach for my phone to call you, out of instinct; just the tiniest movement of the hand now before I stop myself, but it’s still there. I wonder if I called you now, would your voicemail message still be there? At first I listened to it every day, listening to your raspy little laugh over and over. I’ve stopped myself from calling, too afraid to hear that voice anymore. But is that better than the alternative—a computerized voice saying the number could not be reached? Static? Nothing?
I take a look at myself to see what kind of state I am in. My mascara has migrated its way down, forming black clumps under my eyes; I try to fix it, smooth my hair. My tights have a run that has crept up all along my inner thigh, and my favorite green wool sweater from a thrift store out on the Cape has a long thread hanging from the sleeve. I try to pull it, but it doesn’t break: it just keeps coming and coming. I’m unraveling.
I remember you laughed at me when I bought that sweater. It’s only three dollars!! I screamed with joy; It smells like a homeless person died in it, you countered. But when I wore it the next day after putting it through the wash three times, you smiled. I miss all those trips to Wellfleet, what feels like ages ago now. We built sandcastles and you bought me ice cream. I swam in the ocean no matter how cold it was. Sometimes it was so cold that I could barely breathe. But you were afraid—you would watch from the shore, pacing back and forth and calling out if I drifted too far away. I didn’t care; I just kept swimming freely. You were the one who was always so worried about losing me.
A wave rushes over my head, and I hold my breath; suddenly the water in which I once could stand easily is bottomless. I dive down, deeper and deeper, feeling my entire body start to go numb. But the train lurches again, and water fills my lungs as I surface out of sleep. I guess I dozed off. I don’t know where I am, who I am, for a moment—until finally my vision clears, and I can see the familiar sand of the beach, the red leather of the train seats, the old man next to me. It is a few moments before I am breathing normally again; I am too conscious of my breaths, in and out, forcefully, rhythmically.
We have reached the next station, and more people file in neatly. I see a row of figures out the window, waiting to board. They are all dressed in gray, and I swear that all their faces are identical. But something about the shapes of their noses, or the color of their hair, reminds me of you in a way. I find myself searching for traces of you in everyone I see. They all look straight at me with their dead black eyes—just for a second—and I feel a chill. I want to scream at them. I don’t know who they are, but I just want them to leave me alone, these quasi-copies of you following me everywhere I go. Or if I can’t make them go away, I want one of them to be you, even just for a moment. I turn to the man next to me to see if he’s seeing what I am, how he’s reacting. But he is gone. I didn’t even see him get up, didn’t feel him move, and he had the inside seat. I stretch up in my seat to look around the train car, trying to see if maybe he relocated to an empty row. A man wearing blue swim trunks catches my eye. Where is he going? Maybe he’ll head to Rockaway Beach, or make the long journey out to Montauk. Or Coney Island—I remember going there once. My mind heads back there, an escape from this, from you.
A rollercoaster, cotton candy, a carousel ride: the colors swirl around me, and I feel the body rising rhythmically beneath me. I look down—a zebra. This is a nice memory, at least for a while. I am surrounded by children riding horses and elephants and tigers; I am small, too, wearing a pair of white sneakers that light up. My zebra slows, but the music continues, floating in the sticky air. I pat the zebra on the head as I slide off. Some of the children want to stay on for another ride, but suddenly I want to ride the bumper cars more than anything else in the world. And I want some popcorn, and someone to carry me because my feet hurt. But I’m all alone, and I don’t know who brought me here. I feel hot tears starting to form. As I go through the gate, I fight against the current of bodies pressing against me, and spot you. I’m sure it’s you. What are you doing here, in this place where you do not belong? You’ve been creeping into every corner of my mind, invading every thought. When I blink my eyes again, you are gone.
We inch toward Manhattan and the train begins to fill up. I look out the window, at the deli and sushi restaurant and hair salon near the station, at the Chinese takeout restaurant we stopped at when we were caught in the rain as I drove you home to meet my parents for the first time. I remember driving out to that restaurant again when you first got sick because my mother used to always bring me their wonton soup when I wasn’t feeling well. I thought it would cure you somehow. The names on the signs are all scratched away now, as if my mind is already starting to erase anything that reminds me of you. It’s probably better that way. Now that you’ve started showing up in places where you don’t belong, maybe the only solution is to erase you for good.
The line to board the train stretches all the way down the platform. I see a woman in high heels frantically run out of the deli to catch the train, and she falls somewhere. I don’t see her get up, and I imagine her still falling. I slide over to make room for someone—a tall man, so thin he looks like he would break, probably about my age. He wears a white collared shirt and a bright yellow tie.
The first time I saw you, you were wearing yellow. My favorite—the color of sunflowers and lemonade and the Juicy Fruit that I used to get as a reward from my parents so that I stayed quiet on long car trips. I was standing on the subway platform, waiting for the train after work. My music was loud, pounding against my eardrums, and I didn’t want to talk to anybody, didn’t want to see anybody. But then I saw you. You were standing just a few feet away, reading a book of poems by my favorite author, though I noticed that later; all I could notice at first was your bright yellow shirt. When I try to return to that day in my mind now, I can’t seem to remember what book of poems it was: I can see the cover, but the shapes of the letters look strange to me, foreign somehow. Your soft smile fades away, the noises of the station get louder; I can feel the edges of the memory starting to crumble. I need to make this stop—save the good from being rotted away by the bad, stop my mind from self-destructing. I need to stop returning to you, escaping into a fantasy world that keeps growing more and more separated from reality.
When we rode this train from New Jersey together, you told me that you thought the wetlands around Secaucus were the most beautiful place on earth. I thought you were crazy. But you said you loved it because the water was still, the grasses sprout up in a vibrant green, and it was an undeveloped patch of land before we got to the city, a blank canvas. We used to wonder together what would be here if this land were developed, letting our fantasies play out. I still do this each time the train reaches this stretch. When I’m dreaming, my mind seems to know no logic, skipping from one image to the next with only the most tenuous connections, growing more and more absurd.
I look out the window. A skyscraper rises from the water: no, it reaches too high, it is too far out of place. Apartment buildings are constructed, only to crumble. Mall after mall comes and goes; too many people. A playground would be nice, but the children all sink into the water, and they cannot swim. An enormous condominium made entirely out of glass, where you can see in, but the people inside cannot see out: endlessly voyeuristic. You got that idea from Brecht, and I liked it. I think you’d have liked living in that building, letting the world see in. Me, I’m not so sure: I’ve kept the blinds closed on my window for a while, closing myself off from the world. But now, I look out: my mind populates the glass units with young couples, little kids, old men living alone, old women living with their pets. I give them all families and stories and hopes and dreams before the building comes down and they, too, all shatter in an instant. I can hear them scream. Everything’s falling apart, and I can’t do anything to stop it, can’t get my terrors to leave me alone.
A tiny yellow house appears, like a miniature version of the one I grew up in before my parents sold it and moved to the white box that I share with them now. It even has the red shutters, the window boxes overflowing with the geraniums that my father so painstakingly took care of and made me help water on summer afternoons, the white lanterns hanging from the porch, the beaded lamp in the front window, the sunflowers in front. I can make out some shadowy figures moving inside. But it’s not quite right. I hear a dog barking faintly, but I never had a dog. Our house had a red roof, not a black one, and I can tell that the voices inside are not those of my parents. I turn away for a moment, looking at the conductor as she passes by. The yellow house is gone, a sprawling graveyard in its place.
Then we’re in Copenhagen, in the summer. That trip was your idea; it was a place you’d always dreamed of going. Things were calm. I went out alone on our second day, because you weren’t feeling well, because it was one of your bad days. I headed to the cemetery, Assistens Kierkegaard, where I heard Hans Christian Andersen was buried. I walked along perimeter of the never-ending yellow-orange walls until I found the entrance. There was supposed to be a flea market along these yellow walls on weekends, so I looked for that, too, but didn’t see much. A woman sat at a lone table piled high with books, all in Danish. I sifted through the rest of the junk: a lamp, some postcards, an old camera, and a few picture frames with peeling price stickers on them. Inside the frames were brightly-colored images of Elvis, David Bowie, Andy Warhol, Audrey Hepburn, and, I notice for the first time now as I go through the memory again, me and you. The last one of my photographs of us that I didn’t hide away in storage. It is slightly out of focus, and the tops of our heads are cut off, because the old man we asked to take it didn’t really know how to work the camera. But we’re smiling; we look happy. We were happy.
When we took the train through Norway, the days there didn’t feel like summer anymore. The mountains that we passed on the way from Oslo to Bergen even had snow on them. We trudged through the thick curtain of fog, and I bundled myself up in my rain coat, but still the cold seeped into my bones. The apartment we rented was loud, with thumping bass and murmuring voices in the other room, but we didn’t mind. Our host seemed nice enough. He told us that people come and go here all the time, but they always leave a little something for the next residents on the bathroom wall. It seemed like an invitation for us to write something. I went in to take a look when you went to take a nap again, because back then you were always tired. But I didn’t know what I would even say. A mannequin stood inexplicably in the center of the bathroom, naked except for a rainbow clown wig, legs spread and arms thrust defiantly into the air. Messages were scrawled across the wall, and most of them were pretty cheesy: a pot leaf, with the inscription “Freedom doesn’t exist if nature is illegal.” Another, in lopsided script: “Roses are red, violets are fine, I’ll be yours if you’ll be mine.” A drawing of a dove. A shark. A disembodied pair of eyes, opened wide and staring me down. Then I noticed something written on the opposite wall, reflected backward in the mirror. I looked at myself and at the words, floating above my head: “I’m dying soon.” Your face appears beside mine in the mirror.
I see my reflection again in the train window. My hair is all frizzed up, getting completely knotted around itself. It gets dark as we go under the river. It is almost time to leave, to go forth into the world. Perhaps I’ll take a walk in Central Park after work and feed the ducks. Perhaps I’ll go to the planetarium. I wonder if you’ll follow me there. A woman seated next to me whispers something, but her words are unintelligible to me. I lean in closer to try to hear her. The sounds are all muffled, swirling around me in half-noises and whispers. I feel as if I am separating from my body, shedding my outer self, a fragment of my soul breaking away and soaring into the sky.
She repeats herself, her gaze burning into me. “We’re here,” she says. She is standing now, wearing a conductor’s uniform. I look around. We have reached the station; the train is completely empty except for me and her. I grab my bag, ready to head to the door, when something stops me, pulling me back toward her.
“Have you ever had a really strange dream? One that terrified you, and you weren’t sure what it meant? One that you weren’t sure you would ever wake up from?” I say to her.
She smiles at me and gives me an understanding nod. “I can’t say that I have.”
I step out into the station and turn my head up to look at the stars. No, something is wrong. I look up at the constellations on the ceiling, their painted forms golden against the blue-green backdrop—precarious, just as beautiful as I remembered. But this can’t be. This is Grand Central, not Penn Station. How did I get here? It doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve given up trying to impose meaning on my dreams, or find logic in the world, and I let the people swirl around me.
Then I spot you at the other end of the concourse, and my heart stops. I want to scream. For a moment I start to run after you. But something stops me. I look up at the ceiling, and search for Orion and the other constellations you showed me. Then I turn back to you, your form already starting to fade. A woman brushes against me, and I turn to look at her, at the rest of the people in the crowd; their faces are no longer the same, and they don’t look anything like you. They are all smiling at me. I remain still. I am not going to follow you this time. I let you disappear down a corridor and the blackness consumes you. I head toward the door, bursting forth into the bright street full of people, and start walking down the street as fast as I can, maybe heading toward home, maybe not, afraid that if I stopped even for a moment I might lose myself completely.