A guy walks into a bar, sits down on a stool and orders a drink. It’s one of those old-timey places with a mirror behind the bottles, and the bartender’s bowtied. The man does not typically frequent bars, a wife and young children at home, but here he is. Frequenting a bar. He sips his whiskey and feels the room go cold. In the mirror he sees someone standing behind him and he turns to see a woman in a long-sleeved, floor-length gown, flowing in some places and tight in others. He can’t see her feet. Practically crinoline. It’s like she’s hovering there, her body, wavering, and then a sort of alien luminescence pervades the room around her, blindingly bursting, then fading to a sort of bone-white aura, like a puckish fog intent on concealing all peripheral things. She approaches him, closer, floating. She says Tell me what it is you dream.
Off in the distance, somewhere beyond the white, he hears the bark of a dog like the bark of his own dog back when he was a kid, and someone calling her children inside who sounds identical to his own dead mother. For a second he’s convinced he has died, and quite abruptly at that, since his memory passively reports that five to ten seconds ago he took a sip of whiskey at a bar. The taste hasn’t left him yet, the whiskey even, has not left him, drops of the whiskey still identifiable in the crevice beneath his tongue. But he is confused; that he knows. He says I’m dead? and she says This is what you dream of? Being dead? and he must admit that yes, often, he does dream of this, of being nothing, a ghost in the wall, in tune with the impossibility of time. But this is not the dream he was thinking of. She says Tell me and he says No it’s private, because he doesn’t know how to explain it. This dream is something you want more than anything? Yes, he says, but then also No. Because it is not something you can want. If you want it you ruin it.
What he dreams of is a gust of wind in his face. That much, yes, can be an object of desire, but the satisfaction of the dream comes from anticipation in retrospect, the moment before the wind picks up, when you’re lost in busy thought and some part of your animal body recognizes a change in pressure, causing a brief, unnameable discomfort and a sense of directionless expectancy. And then the wind. Nothing could be so satisfying. Nothing in his waking life is.
He thinks about this, but not in words. She pauses to permit his thinking. And then the woman says Now I have revealed to you you are a man with two dreams. What are you going to do with this knowledge? and he says I’m going to finish my whiskey and go home, and he spins around on his bar stool and everything that was hid snaps back into focus, and he realizes with complete clarity that the surrounding bar never left. He can even still see the woman in the mirror, standing behind him, waiting bemusedly, then eventually leaving without another word to him or to anyone.
Ten years pass and the guy spends them unsettled, though he all but forgets that woman and her cryptic musings and if he ever thinks of that day at all it’s in a general disinclination to visit that particular bar again. His kids are in their teens when he leaves them and leaves his wife and moves to the coast and finds a job on the harbor, eventually repairing boats. He has to work his way up to it, but he does work hard for almost a year, and then he buys his own hoist and partners up with the man who’d hired him and trained him and together they tend to the flock of mostly sailing vessels that spend the majority of their lives docked and rotting to their keels. He avoids drink and he avoids women and sticks to himself, and he stops dreaming of death, by and large. Some days he notices that he’s not been sad in a spell. Some days, he takes a boat out to test a repaired rigging and feels the wind evaporate the sweat from his face and he comprehends on an intellectual level what happy people must feel like.
One day he pulls up his truck to the appointed vessel and hops out and there she is, the woman from the bar. She looks quite a bit older than the years should have left her, he thinks at first. But then—she doesn’t. Her face becomes exactly as he remembers it, though he hadn’t even realized he could. Remember it. The dress remains the same. She says You made the right choice, and he says What are you talking about? and she says I showed up at a vital moment in your life and showed you your choices and you made the right one. Didn’t you? You’re here now and your dreams of death have faded and gone, and you’ve achieved what it was you dreamt of.
He says, Even if that were true. So what.
I’m here for payment, she says, for being your guide.
He says You didn’t guide me to anything. It was years after I met you that I made the decision which led me here, to this life. And you believe you deserve the credit?
She says, Absolutely. All of us have vital moments in our lives when we have the opportunity to let a dream live or let it die. I was there for your dream. It was on life support, and I brought it back from the brink of being banished to the realms of the impossible in your mind.
I could’ve made it here without you, he says.
Perhaps, she says. I’ll let you decide. If you can tell me truly I had no effect, I’ll leave.
And if I can’t?
Money, she says. Never leave your debts unpaid.
Well I can’t tell you honestly that you had no effect, because how could I know for sure. But if you’re looking to take credit, you must take all of it. I can answer your question explicitly now, about what it is I dream. Back then I only dreamt in abstracts. Now, they’re quite specific. It is true that now I no longer dream of death—of un-becoming. And it’s true that now, in my waking life, I know just how to elicit that particular pleasure, which then I would not name. I know the different times of day to take a boat out past the point and aim the bow at the horizon and close my eyes to the warmth of the sun, and allow my mind to empty, until a breath of wind comes to kiss my eyelids with the cool vitality of the earth. That dream is tangible now. And if you are responsible for that I ought to thank you.
The woman nods, knowingly.
And yet, he says—the dreams. Now I dream repeatedly about my son’s college graduation and my daughter’s wedding and neither of these has happened yet, but I know them vividly. I know the explicit loathing that can fill a room at the very thought of me, the way an entire church can swell with enmity watching a mother walk her daughter down the aisle. I’m not there, you see. I experience the dream but I am not a player. My son’s graduation has a bitter pall cast on the whole of it, as he tips his tassel to the other side of his cap, looks back at his mother and his sister standing there like a two-legged table about to tumble this way or that, and I can smell in his bloodstream the subtle boost in epinephrine, his gut reaction to the thought of me. Of his father. And then a throbbing sensation in my inner ear that I know to be his quickening pulse. It’s so natural, so intrinsic, my son’s hatred of me made manifest in my own head, and it bears such striking hallmarks of permanence that even once I wake up I can feel its absence all day, all day, deep in my head, affecting me down to my equilibrium.
Please, she says, with a noticeable want for the confidence of a moment ago. I just need enough to take the bus. So you made a trade, then. Now the well-being you once only found in your dreams is the reality, dampened only by a lucid nighttime preoccupation which isn’t even real, isn’t even a thing. Isn’t the real more significant than the dream?
That, he says, is another question I cannot answer.
Five dollars. Please. Just something small would help.
Five dollars, he says, smiling. What is that the price of? Because I didn’t only dream of a vague happiness back then, and not only the vague happiness made itself concrete. Can I also thank you for the veritable death that escaped my dreamworld and made all this possible? Can I pay you a token sum for the cancer riddling me down to the marrow that made me leave my family behind so as not force them to watch me disintegrate? What’s the etiquette on tipping for the privilege of knowing that every ache and migraine is not any invented malady, but the tangible evidence of my body’s self-destruct?
You have cancer? she whispers.
In several places now, yes.
The woman loses her guise of youth, abruptly. She stands up straighter, then curls over to a more natural posture it seems for a woman of eighty or more. She looks up and sees the man still smiling, because he must be. Smiling. She beckons him down with a crooked finger and makes to whisper into his ear. He does lean over her. He gives her the side of his face to receive the ultimate words, and then, on his cheek, by way of apology, she softly blows.