I used to have this rather disturbing habit of dreaming about ex-boyfriends while lying beside current ones. The dreams were sometimes a little bit sexual, but more uncomfortable than nightly dream-state visions of my legs wrapped around the waist of someone from my past was the undeniable fact that the dreams were always rather pleasant. On those dark evenings as I slumbered beside someone I really cared for, my psyche seemed to want to entertain all of those yesterdays – and only concentrate on the joy of those former lifetimes.
I never told the unsuspecting men over coffee and egg whites the next morning about what exactly had raced through my mind the night before. To do so seemed cruel to them – and patently unfair to me. It wasn’t like I’d wanted those dreams to happen. But I’d look up and see someone smile as he handed me a steaming cup of coffee and I’d feel a tightness in the corners of my mouth when I’d smile back because I knew I was hiding something and my thoughts would begin to race as I’d try to analyze myself right there on the spot to figure out why that other guy had made a starring role in my dream and what it could all mean and then I’d feel a drop happen in my stomach that would stop me short for just a second because I’d know right then and there that this current man probably had some dreams as well and they couldn’t possibly have all included me.
Last night, however, I did not dream about another man. Last night I dreamed about McDonald’s French Fries. I was able to recall, even after I woke up and took a shower, just how yellow they were and how they tasted just the perfect amount of salty and I knew, even in my dream, that it was a little strange that they were being served out of a navy blue paper container instead of the conventional red one. I think the navy part must have come into play because I picked out what I’d be wearing for work right before I went to sleep last night and I chose a flippy navy-colored dress and I looked at it hanging on the hook on the back of my door right before I closed my eyes for the night.
I haven’t had a McDonald’s French Fry in a very long time, though I’ll happily wager that I could probably find a petrified piece of one should I ever decide to clean out my car. Like Twinkies, cockroaches, and Vicki Gunvalson, my guess is that McDonald’s French Fries will be part of the collection of relics left behind once we all sufficiently destroy this civilization. I take only a bit of comfort in the idea that future explorers will surely deduce that we ate an enormous amount of crap in our time here on Earth, but I also hope they’ll realize that the stuff was yummy as hell. In fact, I pray a distant future scholar will one day write a full dissertation comparing all things Hostess to the lure of those Sirens that Odysseus had to combat. I also pray it’ll be titled The Last Temptation of the Hostess Snoball.
I can’t really say that I miss eating French Fries. I thought I would. I expected to break somewhere around Day 3 and press myself up against a finger-smudged drive-thru window before authorities managed to peel me off with a super-strong squeegee. It hasn’t happened. These days I crave egg whites mixed in a mug with a wedge of Laughing Cow cheese. I dump a ton of pepper on it. I marvel at how naturally white it looks as I eat it and how maybe chemicals don’t make everything appear prettier. When I’m splurging in my own house, I’m eating either a sliced pear or a bag of SkinnyPop popcorn, which has quickly become my puppy’s favorite food. She hears the tear of the bag and she careens from whatever room she’s in and attempts to launch herself at full-speed against my face. There are days I worry she could cause me some harm or at least knock one of my still-ironically-hanging-in-there wisdom teeth loose with her frenzied strength. There are other days I find her primal reaction to the popcorn so hilarious that I laugh full and loud. And it is every day that I confirm in my mind that I am so dragging this ball of fluff to obedience school come the summer because the popcorn deal is one thing, but her new habit of hiding underneath my dresser before booking from there to slide beneath the chaise lounge in my bedroom at just the moment I’m ready to walk out the door for the day is becoming tiresome. I have to kneel down in a little dress and heels to scoop her out. This morning, in a dress and new peep-toe booties that I’m breaking in for the first time, I had to get on my hands and knees and beckon her. When I lifted up the draping on the bottom of my chair to find her, I saw she’d collected three of my socks, one flip-flop, a bracelet, and a tissue. I took my flip-flop back, but I left the other stuff there. I’m kind of curious to see what she’s building. I sort of hope she’s building a lifelike version of me to be there in my absence and, while I personally would have chosen a different bracelet for the creation, I think it’s nice that she understands the significance of accessorizing.
But back to those dreams. Here’s the thing about those dreams: they don’t mean anything. For a long time, I worried about the stories that danced in fragments through my mind during the night and the implications of having them, but I no longer feel that burden in the slightest. See, as I’ve gotten a handle on controlling stuff like keeping Doritos out of my pantry, I’ve also learned to accept that there are things I cannot fully control and it’s occurring to me more and more frequently that memory is possibly the only thing for which we have absolutely no control. It’s messy, memory. It’s inconvenient. Unwanted memories can slice through the fabric of a happy day and leave me feeling ripped apart and damaged beyond repair, but I think all I can do is acknowledge the memory and then move the fuck on.
You’re kind of getting me at a really crazy time, I mused to someone the other night as we waited for a table at a restaurant. I had to lean in close to speak because it was crowded in there, a fact that was far more comforting than gazing over at a nearby table of eight where every single person was on his or her iPhone and not saying a single word to one another. I don’t remember what his response was, but I guess I felt the important thing to do in the moment was to somehow apologize for not being quite myself. He doesn’t know me well enough yet to know who I really am – most people don’t and they never will – but I suppose I wanted to remind myself that this feeling of being out of sorts and discombobulated will maybe pass. Maybe I’ll be able to feel the effect of things that matter tomorrow or the day after that.
There are all of these hugely exciting things happening at the very same time that devastating events keep accumulating. I’m sure these inconvenient combinations are probably just what it means to live life as a grown-up, but the realization of that truth doesn’t make it all feel any more soothing. I’ve been feeling frightened a lot lately. I’ve felt unsafe. I had to literally beg someone not to finish a story that I knew would lead me to feel someone else’s pain because, at that very second, I knew I had reached my tolerance and to even take a tiny sip of someone else’s misery could lead to the kind of poisoning that would almost certainly destroy something inside of me I might never be able to get back.
I’ve been wearing emotional armor along with my favorite new lengthening mascara. I never take it off anymore. I think the heaviness of the constant armor has tempered and dulled my emotions like some sort of pill might – and that, of course, is the entire point. What I should be ecstatic about feels muted. I called a friend to tell her what is unequivocally exciting news and her unrestrained and gleeful reaction annoyed me. I knew in that very instant that her reaction made sense and mine did not. That’s precisely what upset me. Knowing I’m for sure the fucked up one between us, I chose to go ahead and amend my reaction. I changed the tone of my voice and started to pretend to cheer for myself. That switch seemed to make her feel better, but when I hung up the phone I was exhausted. My eyes felt heavy and even my voice hurt. I need to stop making phone calls, I thought to myself as I looked in the mirror and I saw that I appeared very tired.
Look at this picture, I said to my mother a few days ago. Look at how cute my dog is! I passed her my phone so she could see Tallulah gazing up adoringly at a guy (one I’m not going to write a whole lot about) and she knew better than to ask me anything other than whether or not the dog liked him as much as it appeared she did in the photo. I told her that she would crawl between us when we kissed and how I thought she was jealous that someone else was getting close to me – until she jumped up and started licking his face. Clearly it was not my lips the Maltipoo was after and I told my mother that and she laughed and didn’t ask another question, a choice I really appreciated because I am just not in any way ready to declare anything to be real right now, not while the debris of what I know is real keeps smacking me in the face in this kind of unrelenting way that doesn’t feel quite fair.
Is there an origin story that initially set this present messiness into the kind of motion that’s making me want to pop some Dramamine? Despite all of the people over the years who have declared me “an old soul,” I’ve never believed in past lives. I still don’t, but I cannot deny that lately I’ve considered why so many things are happening all at once and if perhaps it’s a severe (and rather effective) form of punishment for doing something truly awful several lifetimes ago. Honestly, I’m starting to think that I killed the Mother Theresa version of a dragon back in the archaic day, that I somehow personally robbed an entire civilization of benevolent dragon babies. I can really think of nothing else at this point that would warrant the confluence of confusion and fear I feel racing through my bloodstream all too frequently.
It was just yesterday morning when I looked up at a sky filled with rolling grey fog and actually mumbled, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the pain I’ve caused others. I’m sorry for the things I didn’t once know. I’m sorry for believing lies I was told. I’m sorry for the times I closed my eyes and boldly lied to myself.” Then I drove into what felt like a black and hazy cloud and said a prayer that maybe my apology would mean something, that vocally forfeiting a game I’m not even interested in playing anymore would somehow settle things down in the scattered universe.
I arrived to visit my stepfather and the taps of my footsteps as I walked down the linoleum hallway echoed behind me like a stampede of ghosts. I realized right before I walked into his room that I’m not even certain what I’m running from anymore. I sat on the edge of his bed and encouraged him to eat just a little bit more of his breakfast and I asked him to tell me the story of the time he met the Navy Seal who killed Osama bin Laden. I wanted to make sure he could remember details and he absolutely could. I held his hand for a little while and kept waiting for both of us to feel better. After a lot of minutes went by, I found myself feeling a very real need to confide in somebody I’ve always seen as strong. I wanted to relieve the brain and soul burden I’ve been carrying around while having the opportunity to pretend that everything between us has not been altered in the least. Put it this way: I knew full well what it was that I was after. I just didn’t know how much I’d end up revealing because I sort of only explain painful stories in disjointed pieces.
I’m feeling a lot of anxiety, I told him suddenly. For a few long seconds it appeared that he wasn’t going to respond. Then he turned his head and clenched my hand and asked me, “Why are you feeling so anxious?” It was sort of all I could do not to burst into sad laughter, but I also know that his situation is not the only thing making me feel this way. I decided to embark upon what felt like a nonreligious confessional by exploring the aspects of my life that don’t involve him. I told him different truths, like how I sometimes don’t want to write anymore. It’s not because I don’t enjoy writing – that will never entirely be the case. I actually love the action of crafting sentences and noting the things that inspire me. My fantasies about putting my laptop away for good stem from the fact that I don’t always want to engage in this world, even as I’m tossing my prose out like confetti. It’s the fact that people who don’t know me walk away from reading my stuff feeling like they know the entire me. It’s the fact that I know certain people check up on me in ways that are entirely unnecessary. I take responsibility for much of that – I have to, after all – but it’s not like I particularly want to have that responsibility. I’d much prefer to avoid it completely, like the fucking cattle plagues of yesteryear.
I can’t say that my conversation with my stepfather made me feel much better, but I take responsibility for that, too. I didn’t really get into the heart of the matter. I didn’t tell him that it all just feels like it’s too much sometimes and that I feel like I’m drowning whenever I take in a huge gulp of air and that it sometimes actually hurts to smile. I also didn’t tell him that sometimes I feel truly alive – lit up like the stars alive – and that I don’t quite know what to do with all that energy. I didn’t tell him that getting naked on my couch during a recent sunny afternoon helped to ease my ravaged mind for just a little while or how I really enjoy figuring out precisely what someone responds to during those naked moments and how I’m really good at figuring that information out. I didn’t tell him that sometimes I do things just so I’ll feel something and that the numbness I tried my best to cultivate for years has started to work all on its own.
I didn’t tell him that I watched every single episode of The Girlfriend Experience and walked away from it without thinking of it as a cautionary tale, but instead wondering if I had that level of callousness in me that would make me a success in the escort world. I didn’t tell him that there are a few people out there who really seem to want to hurt me. I didn’t let him know that I’m worried about everyone around me, even as so much of me believes that somehow – some way – everything and everyone will actually be just fine. I decided not to discuss how guilty I feel when I tell someone, “I am not talking about that,” because it’s not that I don’t want to talk about something, it’s that I just cannot do it on command. I chose not to reveal how clear it’s become that a life can change in one single second or how scary it is that I’ve already learned that lesson yet I still feel the recoils of shock anyway.
I didn’t tell him that I had a dream about the boyfriend I loved back when I was in my early twenties the night before.
Instead, I held his hand and felt him grip my palm tightly. Then I kissed him goodbye and left to take my mother and my brother out to breakfast where we spoke about only good things so we could all go ahead and collectively pretend for just a little while.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.