In the dream I am a young boy, an adolescent really, fourteen or fifteen. My skin is translucent, my veins sky blue, and my fingers are finally growing. My arms and legs are too long on an awkwardly assembled chassis. My voice has yet to drop and my cheeks show no need of a razor.
I appear younger than my age. This is a constant source of irritation.
She carries her shoulders like a mother, all knots and anticipation. She nods in my direction, and I find myself inside her head at precisely the same time as I’m contentedly in my own.
She stares past me as the slides continue flashing and I know she will remain transfixed; I hear her naming the 20th century masters without moving her lips: Matisse, Modigliani, and eventually Mondrian.
We seem to be stuck in the letter M, though given enough time she will insist on recognizing them all even if she finds it a struggle. I know this to be true because I am the boy, and I am the mother though only briefly, and now I am the boy again.
* * *
My hair is too long the teacher chides. There must be streaks of acrylic on my face because she tells me I need a trim, and to wipe my cheek that is “smooth as a baby’s bottom.” Then she instructs me to get back to work because I’m distracted by the woman who may be my mother and now she in her turn whispers “sorry” and drifts out of the picture.
I lower my eyes. I focus on my composition. But now I find myself in a small room, reclining on a bed pushed against a mint green wall. I am ten or eleven though everyone treats me like I’m considerably younger. I don’t know the woman sitting next to me with her auburn hair and sallow skin, and her own head leaned against a propped up pillow.
She is a stranger but makes herself at home. She rambles awhile saying “I will do my best when I marry your father but that’s all I can promise for now. I tell you this because you never know how things will work out.”
She continues: “I’ve been married before, thirteen times actually, but of course each time I thought it would be good and this will be the fourteenth and I am inclined to think it will be fine.”
She stops and stares with an expression I can’t decipher. Then she remarks that I should dab alcohol on my chin where a pimple is beginning to form. She adds that she will do her best to love me, but love is never a given, even when you try your best.
I say nothing. There’s nothing to say.
I wonder if she is thirty or forty or fifty. I wonder how adults manage to marry and unmarry and remarry, and how old you have to be to do it all thirteen times. But I am a child and I have no say in any of this. All I know is that in the eyes of adults this must be a game, and if it offers cheats I don’t understand why some figure out how to access them, and others can’t seem to win with codes or suggestions or any variation of teaming up.
I’ll stick to my Gameboy and Zelda and Legos. I can wander as I wish, I can build fortresses and skyscrapers, I can escape on fighter jets and space shuttles of my own design.
The woman who may marry my father settles herself comfortably on my bed without ever asking. She closes her eyes. She seems to be sleeping. I notice she has pimples and I wonder if she’s tried alcohol.
* * *
I am getting ahead of myself.
Last night I slept eight hours. For me, this is extraordinary.
Extraordinary is not an exaggeration; the last time I slept more than five hours has to be a month ago, and anything close to a full night’s sleep, much longer than that. My body resists the hours it needs to renew.
* * *
There were one hundred and five minutes on the phone with my younger son. There were forty-five minutes on the phone with two customer service associates. There was a wait and an annoying recording in the morning. There was a lesser wait in the evening, and the people I spoke to were relatively helpful.
My son pushed “submit” and went back to his projects. FAFSA is completed, and in the fatigue and relief of it, I slept.
One more financial document remains, to be prepared and fired off by tomorrow. My day is dedicated to assembling figures, documenting anomalies, eventually pushing the key to an escape of my own.
* * *
In the first dream I am surprised by a visit from one of my dearest college friends. I haven’t seen her in 12 years and for no reason I discern, she is suddenly in town.
In the course of that time and unknown to me, she has married and born five sons. They are 11, 10, 9, 8, and 7; I am flabbergasted at this news, as she is now in her fifties and arrives with her boys in tow and a pleasant middle-aged man she introduces as her husband. As he smiles I realize he resembles my dead uncle, the one with the curly hair and the easy grin, and the sense of fun that never deserted even as he aged.
“Remind me again which one he is?” I ask.
“He isn’t here,” she says. “They say he’ll be okay, but he’s small. He’s still in the hospital.”
I count one husband and five sons, present.
“You mean you have another child?”
“Yes,” she says. “Max. He’s two weeks old.”
I’m stunned and unexpectedly envious and then stunned again. I’m absorbing the fact that between 40 and 52, she married and created a family with a kindly husband who has not abandoned adulthood. Her dream was never parenthood but then neither was mine. She is living the life that became my dream when I entered its house with a masked man. In this same one hundred forty-four months, that man constructed another life, moving on to another wife.
* * *
I am not unhappy, but I float in perpetual free fall.
A thick rope descends from the sky. It’s the sort of harrowing cable onto which we are forced in the gymnasium, as youngsters. It swings with a frayed edge and I’m asked from somewhere if I wish to climb again.
* * *
Waking from my night of women and sons I am clear on this: I see birth in the fifties even with challenges; I see adults who easily dismiss the child; I see others who honor their strength and fragility.
We go about our business. We do the “best we can.”
* * *
Today my duty consists of a straight line and a single story: complete the financial reporting that is required of me annually. This is not play, I tell myself. Parenting is always more than play.
I am not pleased about the hours that stretch ahead. But I tumble back into the sensation of shared consciousness and here, I know consolations. Obstacles are confronted and then dissolved. If there is one dream there may be a second. If there are two, they will surely multiply.