Perchance Not to Dream
Parnell Stultz | Terri Kelleher
I’ve been seeing a lot of her lately — more, in fact, than in the whole of the last decade before she died. Upon waking the dreams are followed by the uneasiness of false memory like the little lapse that has you waking early in the A.M. on a Saturday to get ready for work.
For the most part I find her in run-of-the-mill settings: in the kitchen of our old house with dinner on the stove or walking around the grocery store as she pushes the cart and turns a blind eye when I filch a single grape from the piled bunches glistening beneath the automated spray of mist. Our conversations are usually just as run-of-the-mill as the settings — the simple too-and-fro of mother and son who share a vocabulary to such an extent we might be able to speak telepathically. It always ends the same. I look at her and realize the truth despite the shroud of reverie, unintentionally probing that raw part of my mind for which even dreams are a feeble salve. I’ll say something to her: “I miss you,” or “You’re not supposed to be here,” and she simply smiles and agrees with me. My eyes open and for one tantalizing moment I feel good, indulging in the conceit the way one might enjoy the putative deception of a magician’s trick. It will occur to me that she is gone, and so my day begins again.
Though I’ve been an insomniac for most of my life I’ve given in to it lately as a kind of defense. If I don’t sleep I won’t dream and can also avoid the moment just after waking when the truth is disguised. More importantly, I don’t endure the aftermath when the mask of phantasmagoria falls away to reveal the face of reality beneath.
I haven’t slept for the last thirty-six hours in the wake of my last dream—one which was by no means run-of-the-mill. As with most dreams it began with no introduction: a completely anonymous room, containing only the shiny steel, drab décor and faux-sterile chemical smell of a hospital. The man leading me might be a doctor or a nurse, I only know he works here and it is his responsibility to take me somewhere I don’t want to go. He opens a door and leads me from the quiet tension of all hospital waiting rooms into what must be some kind of trauma ward. In this room the light is far too bright, too intrusive, too uncaring and honest in the way it illuminates the damage surrounding us. At least a dozen people are in varying states of decrepitude. Most look like the victims of car accidents. The man says nothing, only leads me to a bed that is really more of a cradle with its structure of steel railing built to keep its occupant from falling to the floor. I look obediently down at what is before me. There is no discernible body beneath the overlapping of medical apparatus but somehow I know who it is. Where bandages fail to conceal there is no skin, only vulnerable, intensely crenellated muscle incased in plastic as if a collection of vacuum bagged meat has been animated by the gross application of electricity. Worst of all, what must be her head is surrounded by some monstrous combination of blood-pressure cuff and artificial lung, its constant gyration beats out a quick rhythm as it expands and contracts, expands and contracts — it’s as if it were a mound of tissue more akin to a heart than a head, unaccountably in need of constant squeezing. All I can hear is the staccato hiss of air pressure then, by bleary degrees, it becomes the not unwelcome sound of my bedroom fan droning away in the darkness.
Thirty-six hours have passed and here I am. It’s either late or early depending on one’s disposition towards such things. My wife and daughter are blissfully asleep, something I am both envious of and repulsed by. On the television there is one of a long series of pharmaceutical advertisements, this one unique in that I find it amusing. The woman, thrashing despondently in bed, peeks repeatedly at the clock as the time drags by in that old cliché — it reminds me of a favorite Donald Duck cartoon where the gentle ticking of a distant clock grows into the percussive crash of symbols and the dripping of water from the bathroom faucet morphs into the scream of falling artillery — at last she gives up her pretense of sleep and sits up to find a rooster perched at the foot of her bed. Though the night is dark the cock crows an enthusiastic good morning and the look on her face is not one of amusement. I giggle quietly as I turn the T.V. off.
I could snuggle under the covers but it would be the lamest of charades. Rather than disturb my wife, I slide out of bed and put on my robe. The boards beneath my slippers groan gently but I know where the geography is most obnoxious and avoid those areas without effort. With nowhere to go I sit in the first random place I come to and gaze at nothing as if it were possible to see the air as a presence rather than an absence. My eyes shift to the phone and I giggle again, though this time the sound is hollow. Strange — these things, these random details occurring to me. I reach for the phone and think of a number — no, a pattern. My thumb knows the choreography of her number. An unthinking muscular twitch guides the digit as if it were not the combination to my mother’s home phone but the diagram of some simple molecule. I hold the phone up to my ear and the sound grows from a whisper to something more insistent. I listen to the ringing of a number I will never call again.
“Hello?” she asks.
“Hi ma, how’s it going?”
“Oh, ya’ know…I’m doing okay. This quitting’s hell but I keep trying.”
“Yea, you’ll get there ma, just gotta keep at it.”
“Well that’s what I’m doing or, not doing. Had a lot of snow here so I haven’t gotten around much. How’s it been for y’all lately?”
“It’s been cold, but I can’t complain really, cold here isn’t anything like cold there. So, what’re ya up to? Just hangin’ out, keeping warm?”
“Oh you know me. Just reading my book, drinking my coffee.”
“Well, I didn’t need anything, was just missing you and thought I’d give you a call. I’ll let you get back to your book.”
“Ok hun, keep in touch.”
“Ok, and hey…I love you ma.”
“If you’d like to make a call please hang up and…”
I place the phone back on its cradle before the automated voice turns into the shrill wailing of a phone demanding to be hung up. The darkness wavers before my eyes in time with each slow beat of my heart. I’m tired —hopefully tired enough to sleep…perchance not to dream.