You jolt upright, your pajamas a loose layer of skin. Your senses are in overdrive. Every little shadow, every little sound, makes your hair stretch and skin crack. The creak of a floorboard sounds like a window cracking in the cold, a car rattling by takes you to stones hitting steel. The wind is howling, the cold breeze hitting you in a way it shouldn’t, and the must of your blanket is the earth, rotten with stink. You feel small, the room around you unnaturally large and empty. You stare at the clock as the deep red numbers turn, glowing in the inky dark. You go to the desk and pick up a pen.
Your mom suggested you keep this log. She’s a psychiatrist – she never stops being one – so you know she knows best. The above is the way you wake up every night, you write. You’ve been having this recurring dream. You can’t take it anymore. Every morning you wake up and breathe until you begin to calm down, and it isn’t getting any better. You know this log can’t offer any advice, but it is what it is.
Your mom says if you deal with this dream enough, it won’t bother you anymore. If you write it down, it might make some sense to you. You aren’t sure. But you’ll try. See what happens.
You run out the back door. You’re running down the hallway towards the stairs, your feet bare, feeling the carpet grasping at the hair on your toes like so many vines and twigs and insects, half expecting someone to be right in front of you when you round the corner, perhaps holding an axe, perhaps just grasping at you, clawing hands reaching, stretching, feeling for your neck. There’s no one. You keep running, your feet flying under the darkening lights on clouds made of terror.
You know you fling open the door to the stairwell when you reach it, so hard the door puts a dent in the drywall, but the above is all you remember from last night. You don’t know why. You can never remember the entire dream, but you know it’s all connected, all these little bits and pieces you have night after night. You’ve had this dream so many times, it can’t not be connected.
Every time you have it you sit in bed for minutes and digest it, but you can never make any sense of it – no more than usual. Why you can’t remember all of it every night, why you keep having these little flashes that you know are connected … you don’t know. You wish you did. Your mother says you do know, deep down, but you always say that doesn’t help you. She doesn’t help you. She isn’t being a mother when she says stuff like that. She’s being a therapist, even though she says that isn’t her job. You just don’t get it.
You’ve always been very conscious of your feet … you have a fear of stepping on a nail and impaling yourself, ever since you first saw Home Alone. That must be why your feet are bare in the dream; fear manifested. Why do you always expect someone to be around the corner? You’re only half aware in the dream, that’s true, but after all the times you’ve had it, you should know by now that no one is going to be there. You do know. You wish you had the answers, but you guess if you had them you wouldn’t be having this dream, and then there’d be no answers to have.
You race down the first flight, the second, the third. By the time you reach the fourth, you’re practically flying through the air, the wind ripping past your body, grasping at every hair on your body, tweezing them out by the roots, your hands reaching for the handrails every time you round a corner. You barely catch hold of it each time, and your own momentum carries you around the turn, although you don’t have much of that to work with. You’re moving in slow motion. You never have to touch the concrete floor, cracked and chapped beneath your feet. You don’t feel like Superman. You don’t feel like Flash. You don’t even feel like Spider-Man swinging through the concrete corridors of Manhattan Island on wings of web.
Your mom thinks you should be recording emotions, not just what happens. You don’t really want to, but what the hell. You can try it once. All you can feel at this part of the dream is … fear. Fear, because someone is following you. You know they are, they’re there, you know it. You don’t know how you know it. That doesn’t matter.
You don’t know why you feel so panicked in the dream, so panicked the staircase turns into a blur. Even now, as you write this, you can barely slow your heartbeat. Maybe this is about the schoolyard when you were younger, and the kids used to chase you, playing tag, or just torturing you.
You keep moving, up and down and under and over and through it all, forever and ever, never to reach the outside air. The staircase never ends, even after you know it should have long ago. It goes down and down, into the core of the world, through mud and dirt and stone, through clouds and air and sky. You zig-zag down until your palm is raw and your feet are craving contact with the ground you cannot find. You can feel the air moving in and out of your lungs, in and out, in and out, in and out, but your lungs aren’t burning. Perhaps they should be. You feel gravity pushing you upwards, away from the ground, like you’re a magnet being pushed away from another, and hope your follower is slower than you are. The lights flicker, on-off-on-off. Light-dark-light-dark. It never ends.
You don’t know why that is. Your parents think you do. Your mother especially. They don’t understand. ‘You’re repressing something,’ she says. Nobody understands. You’re isolated from everyone around you.
Maybe you’re running toward something, not away from it. You’re craving something, not horrified by it. Security. Friendship. Trust. Maybe the pursuer is someone you’re supposed to love. Maybe it’s a stranger who isn’t meant to be strange.
You jolt awake, your clothes plastered to your skin, your skin pasted to your body, your body gripping your bones. Each layer is like wet paper gripping the next with a fragile insistence. Your muscles are hardened, your tendons taut strings, your pores vibrating like atoms. Your bones ache, stretching and contracting with your heartbeat.
You sit upright, your chest pounding in your ears. You look at the clock. 3:00 a.m. You can’t go back to sleep. You lay there until morning, counting the imperfections in the stucco ceiling, the patterns among the inverted molehills, the shadows along the walls. The bright green walls, shades of lime and grass and truth.
There’s nothing else. You feel alone. Terrified. Like someone is still there with you, someone you don’t want to know. Someone you know but don’t know, don’t want to know. Someone you’re not on the same plane with. You feel violated.
It isn’t a family member. More along the lines of … you don’t know. An old friend, maybe? Old friends always leave. They don’t come back. Maybe one is in your dream. You don’t know. It’s weird. You’ve never had a friend more than two or three years. Not long enough to be an old friend. So it can’t be that. Maybe it is a family member. One who also leaves, has left, will leave.
There’s somebody outside the front door, trying to get in. You can’t hear them, or see them, but you know they’re there. You can almost feel them. Taste them. Like a nosebleed dripping back into your throat. Or a cut between two teeth, a slice at the back of your throat or behind your tongue. Blood. You don’t know.
Your apartment is different, yet the same. It’s not quite what it always is. It’s darker, but all the lights are on, contained. You back away from the door, rush through the apartment to the back door, dodging furniture, clothes, and ghosts of family. You fumble with the lock until it opens, your fingers worms that won’t obey your thoughts.
You rush outside, glancing back only once to see if anybody’s following you. You can’t see them, but you know they’re there. Someone’s there, something’s there, in the flickering lights.
You guess this feeling scares you.
The beginning of the dream again.
Your mom’s taken to calling this thing a nightdream. It’s her word for a nightmare that has special meaning, a message specific to someone. Something terrifying that’s meant to tell you something. Something you’re trying to tell yourself.
She always says a lot of people think therapy is about one question: what does it all mean? It isn’t. It’s about something different for each person, something specific. What’s wrong with a relationship, childhood issues that need to be worked out, why a person is so aggressive, why people are always bullying them. It’s about figuring out what’s causing a specific problem, and trying to find a solution, a way to treat it. She says she’s too close to you to be your psychiatrist. She also says, though, in your case, therapy would be about coming to terms with a deep part of yourself, a lonely part. An angry part that craves expression and tries to get it through your dreams, your nightmares. It’s about attaining a connection, to something, or to someone. Maybe a close family member. She doesn’t know. But while the job of the therapist isn’t exactly what most people think, her job is still further different. It isn’t to give you all the answers, hand them out on a silver platter. It isn’t to analyze you, your problems, find solutions for everything, or help you find them yourself. It’s to be there for you, as you work through everything you talk about, and draw you in the direction you need. It’s to give you the tools you need to get past whatever is causing these nightmares, whether those tools be a sympathetic ear or a pen and paper. She needs to be a mother to you, and help you that way, not the way she would if she were acting as your psychiatrist. That’s what she says.
Every time she talks to you, you stare straight ahead and struggle to breathe, your throat closing up with cotton every time you try to draw a breath.