A Matter of Life and Death (Part two), by Brian Streett
Copyright © 2015 by the author. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Although some characterizations may be based in part on real people, details are the product of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.
This is dedicated to the memory of Tova and Clara.
It is much easier to love after you have seen it done.
Part one: There are many tales (Published in HCH 2, January 2015)
Part two: Though only one at a time (Published in HCH 3, March 2015)
Part three: Yet all together (To be published in HCH 4, May 2015)
Though only one at a time
“Yes, I have heard this before, several times,” he said. Somewhat belligerently, it sounded to me, though maybe I was just hearing boredom. His eyes bored into me as though he was cleaning up all the mess inside. “And I’ve told you that it’s time to get over it and get back to living this lifetime.”
He has, it’s true. And I always reply the way I replied this time, “Yes, but what if this means something? If all this stuff is true, there’s something important to learn here about how to live.”
“I’ve answered that one before also. You don’t know if it’s true. You can’t know. You won’t know, at least until after you die. So stop being so caught up in this dream of yours. If it’s true you can deal with it after you die; in the meantime, you’ve got to live this life.”
Of course he was right. That’s what I pay him for. Certainly not because he’s likeable or entertaining. Yet I still felt that there was an importance to this dream which we needed to examine further. Obviously, he didn’t; so if I wanted to discuss it, I’d have to find a new therapist. Frankly, I don’t know why I still haven’t found one. The only reason I started going to this guy is because his office is close to where I work, and I saw his sign. Every week I leave his office telling myself that this was my last visit; that I’ll find somebody better. Then a few days later I make another appointment with him.
Maybe the reason I keep coming back is that he gets me so upset. I spend days fuming over what he says and reexamining our discussions and my position. I suppose I find this stimulating and even of some value. Still, I won’t give him the satisfaction of arranging another appointment on my way out of the office. When his secretary reminds me to do so, I just tell her that I’ll call.
“All right,” he said, “that’s about all we have time for today. Don’t forget to make another appointment. And in the meantime, concentrate a little more on observing your life when you’re awake, and a little less on observing your dreams. Bye for now.”
I thanked him perfunctorily, nodded to the secretary and told her I’d call, and then headed out. I was surprised that it was dark out until I remembered that I took a late appointment on purpose. I usually went to him on my lunch break, but today I was going to meet an old friend, so I decided to go to the therapist after work and just stay in town.
I had an hour or so to kill until it was time to meet my friend, so I walked around, looking in store windows. Not my favorite pastime, but the weather was nice, brisk without being too cold, and I didn’t really see much of what was in the windows anyway. I was still thinking about my dream and what it meant. The fact is that it seemed as real to me as my “this lifetime” life, and a lot more meaningful.
I was born in a mid-sized town, had a mid-sized education, grew up and went to a mid-sized college, where I took up time and space, and not much else. Spent time with some other kids doing the same. A couple of the guys I’m still friendly with, and the girl I had the most fun with is now my wife. Are we still having fun together? Well, not as much, certainly, but in truth I probably love her more now than I did then; and I think she feels the same about me, even though I’m a lot less fun these days. About the only time I can rekindle the old college spirit is when I’m with the guys, but that usually only lasts for an hour or two, and then a kind of depression sets in. With the friend I was meeting this evening it’s different, though. We’re just comfortable together, not expecting anything special, just accepting each other the way we’ve become, and wishing each other all the best.
Usually we meet for dinner, together with our wives. But his wife was out of town, visiting her mother, who hadn’t been feeling well, so my wife stayed home tonight, and the two of us were set to meet at a bar. I never go to bars, and neither does he, but it seemed like the right place to meet anyway.
I glanced at my watch; there was still time to spare. I kept looking at shop windows, without really seeing anything, and thinking about the session I just had and about my dreams. It felt like there was something important that was trying to work its way into my consciousness, but it didn’t quite make it there. This was familiar to me, too. Not that I could explain it, but I had the feeling that if I just had the dream once more I’d suddenly understand everything. I awoke from my reverie and found myself in front of a lingerie shop, staring at a mannequin. And getting some curious stares myself from passersby. Feeling embarrassed and foolish, I walked into the shop and told the saleswoman that I’d like to get a gift for my wife. At least that way I could feel a little less embarrassed.
By the time the purchase was complete it was getting late, and I hurried on to the bar. My friend was already there, working on a beer. I had one also and we eased into the evening. He suggested we pick up a couple of women. He was joking of course, and I laughed. Then he said, “No, I’m serious. Well, sort of. My wife’s been away two weeks already looking after her mother, and I miss having an elbow in my ribs in the middle of the night.” I told him I’d be happy to smash my elbow into his ribs hard enough for him to feel it all night long. He thanked me, but politely declined. Then we concentrated on the beers for a while, our senses taking in the unfamiliar surroundings.
We were comfortable with each other, and the beer and conversation both flowed with ease. At some point I mentioned to him my experience in the shrink’s office. “I still don’t understand why you don’t just dump him,” he said. “If you want somebody to insult you and piss you off, I’ll do it for half the price. And by phone if you like, so you won’t have to come into the office.” “I appreciate your generous offer,” I replied, “but he sets something off in me which feels right.”
He thought about it a while and then said, “So does X-Lax, but you don’t need to take it regularly, only when you need it.”
“Yeah, well,” I replied, “but this psychology stuff works differently. You keep taking it until all the shit comes out, then you stop.”
“Well, that was a lovely image, can’t we talk about something less pungent now?”
We both laughed, and the conversation went into free-flow mode. Between the beers and the conversation my visit to the psychologist disappeared into the distant past. We were really cooking, and gradually some of the other patrons in the bar joined in, and a good time was had by all.
This went on for several hours, though nobody was keeping time. And then, just like that it stopped. Time to go. We said rousing good-byes to everyone, then walked out together. We walked over to his car, where I asked him if he really felt he was capable of driving. He said that he’d tapered off drinking the last hour or two so that he would be able to drive. I told him that he was a hero, and that I had decided not to take the car today and was going home by taxi. He of course offered to drive me, but I wouldn’t let him; it was really nowhere near where he was going. That’s not what I said; I told him that I wasn’t sober enough to back-seat drive. We hugged and promised that next time we’d meet together with the wives, but would go to a bar rather than to dinner, because it was more fun. Then I left and got a taxi home.
The ride home was uneventful. I walked up the steps and finally managed to get the key in place and open the door, and was then immediately greeted by our dog. We played for a while, and then I went into the kitchen to check the mail. Nothing urgent, except a note from my wife to check up on the kids. Of course I would have anyway, but she likes to tell me to do things which I would have done anyway. Sometimes this bothers me, but usually I don’t mind. And it’s actually one of the things I love about her, though I don’t know if you can believe that. It seems strange to me, too.
I put the lingerie on the table, then turned to play with the dog for a while. Then I told him he was a good dog, went and washed my hands and face, brushed my teeth and gargled, and opened the door to the kids’ room. Even when I was sober I liked to stand at the entrance to their room when they were asleep, to hear their breathing and to look at them just lying there. To do so always filled me with love. Tonight the feeling was heightened, and I stood there for several minutes with tears running down my cheeks.
The kids were fine, of course, so I just checked to see if they needed any tucking in and then went to the master bedroom. My wife was sleeping deeply, and as I looked at her I got some of the feeling I had when looking at the kids. Not quite the same, but close enough. I took my clothes off quietly and carefully, probably exaggerating every motion due to the effect of the alcohol. Then I got into bed. I wanted to hug my wife and feel her body melt into mine, but I didn’t want to wake her. What a dilemma. I settled for putting a hand on her hip. She responded by turning toward me, still in her sleep. I just lay there enjoying the proximity of her body until I drifted off.
Perchance to dream. I think I had some of that same dream, but I must have been drunk even in my sleep, because it was all hazier and more distant than usual. And every now and then, within the dream came an occasional sentence spoken by my therapist. Followed by:
It’s not enough that he attacks my dreams after I’ve had them, he has to attack them even when they’re happening? That certainly wasn’t fair. What does it mean? I guess after I wake up I’ll have to think about that. In the meantime, please just leave and let me have the damn dream!
But the upset or anger or whatever it was didn’t last long, and neither did the dream. I just faded out totally.
When I awoke in the morning the house was quiet. And this was a good thing, because my head wasn’t – it was pounding loudly. I got up very carefully, somehow managed to get over to the bathroom, and then gingerly stood in the shower. First the hammering got louder, but eventually it disappeared, and I was able to walk out of the shower a free man!
Still, to be left alone for so long in a shout-free environment was quite strange. I walked through the entire house, inside and out, and found no wife, no kids, one dog. I decided to contemplate the situation over coffee. Instant; I couldn’t handle anything more difficult at this time.
I sat down at the kitchen table with the coffee, and noticed a note on the table. It said: “Meet us for lunch at the restaurant the kids like at the mall. 1 p.m. sharp! If you don’t show up, I’ll make you take the bra and panties back to the poor woman you swiped them from! xoxox”
I looked at the clock and saw that I had plenty of time to get myself into shape for a trip to the mall, so I picked up the morning paper, and went through two or three cups of coffee until the small print was readable. I thought some about yesterday evening, which was still fun even though it was followed by the next morning, and about my dream. Why couldn’t I have a variety of dreams? Did I always have to have the same one? It must really mean something, no?
Suddenly, it was time to get dressed and go. I decided to walk; it didn’t take much longer than driving and was a lot more enjoyable. The day was a little too sunny and bright, but otherwise quite pleasant.
When I got near the restaurant, the kids saw me coming, yelled “Daddy!” and ran to me at full speed, almost bowling me over when they ran into me. I picked them up, one in each arm, and kissed them both. One of life’s great pleasures. Then I carried them over to my wife and said, “Excuse me lady, are these yours?” She smiled and after I put the kids down, she gave me a hug and said, “Yes, they are, and so is the big, ugly one.” I told her I didn’t bring the dog, and she said, “No, dummy – you!”
We went off to the restaurant, a happy foursome. We were shown to a table, which was neat and cheery, and clean. It never ceased to amaze me how a few kids and adults could come sit down at a table in the restaurant, make it look like a tornado had been there in a few minutes, and then seconds after they left, the place was pristine and ready for the next happy group. I couldn’t imagine myself working in such a place. An entire shift of tornados, not to mention the eardrum shattering decibel level; and they smiled all day long. How was it possible?
Lunch was noisy and messy and chaotic, yet somehow still managed to be fun, and even reasonably tasty.
Then we left, and started walking toward my wife’s car, while discussing the itinerary for the rest of the day. The kids had decided on the zoo, and no logical or illogical argument could dissuade them. So that’s where we headed. My wife drove. I think partly because she knew I didn’t enjoy driving, and partly because she didn’t want the kids to be exposed to me during one of my tirades, which didn’t always occur, but they were quite frequent. Sometimes I would get angry at the crazy drivers out there, sometimes I would just get sad that people were so self-centered that they drove as though nobody else on the road mattered. Rarely could I just drive in traffic, especially when surrounded by weekend drivers, and maintain my equanimity. It was even rarer that I could look at the behavior of all those other drivers and see that I was upset because I acted like that from time to time. But let’s not dwell on that now, okay. Anyway, as a passenger, I could play with the kids and not notice anything outside the car.
We made it to the zoo with ease and somehow managed to find a parking space within walking distance of the entrance. Going in wasn’t a problem; the kids would have walked miles. But at the end of the stay, more often than not I would walk out the main gate with a drowsy kid on each shoulder; so I was glad the car was parked close by.
The kids were familiar enough with the zoo to know which animals they wanted to visit first. The rule was that they had to come up with a consensus choice, and then we would all go together. Actually, the rule worked fairly well. When we got inside the gate, the kids had a brief animated discussion, and then yelled out “Chimpanzees!” They immediately began running in the direction of the chimpanzee enclosure, while my wife and I walked in that direction at a leisurely pace.
We all walked around together for a while, then we told the kids that we would go sit on our favorite bench, centrally located, and that they could go anywhere they wanted to, so long as they could still see us sitting there. Off they went, and we plunked ourselves down. Fortunately it was cool enough, and there was enough shade, for us to be fairly comfortable.
Normally, in the evenings, after the kids go to bed, my wife and I like to sit down in the kitchen over a hot drink and just talk about our days, or whatever else pops into our heads. Of course, there are days when one or the other of us is so busy or caught up in something that we skip this part of the day, but generally we both really enjoy it. I understand that with time spouses are supposed to have less to talk about, but this hasn’t happened with us; at least not yet. So far, it seems that we keep having more and more to talk about, and keep enjoying the conversations more. I suppose that the level of conversation wasn’t spectacular, nor was the subject matter all that intriguing, but we liked the feeling of intimacy that arose from the discussions, as well as the way that we were able to add humor to whatever happened during the day, actually turning our mundane or unpleasant experiences into something a lot more enjoyable.
So having missed out on this event yesterday, we were hungry to make up for lost time. Even without the hot drink, we sat and talked about yesterday and this morning, while glancing up from time to time to look for the kids or notice something interesting that they were doing.
She told me a couple of anecdotes from work, and a few children stories, and how they expressed how they missed me, and then she asked about my friend. I wanted to tell her how I felt when I looked in on the kids and when I got into bed with her, but couldn’t bring myself to let my emotions show in such a public place, so I just said that I missed her and the kids too, and would tell her about it later. Then I talked about our friend and how we really enjoyed ourselves, and that there was something about sitting in a bar which was different from sitting in a restaurant, and that maybe we should try this when the four of us were together. She asked if there were any cute guys, and I told her I didn’t know, I was too busy ogling the women.
Then we talked about my visit to the shrink. Not that there was much new to discuss. She felt that I should let him know that I functioned fine in this world, as a husband and lover, and father, and at the office, and then he would be more inclined to look into any meaning that there was in the dream. I felt that I didn’t need to woo him over to my way of seeing things; the sessions were of more value because he saw things differently from me and was able to give a different perspective. She got it, but felt that the time had come to look more closely at the dream. I didn’t disagree with her about that, and told her that I thought that this wouldn’t work with him, maybe I needed to find a different therapist. She said she’d ask around to see if she could find someone who would be more willing to look at the dream with me. I thanked her, and we turned our attention back to the kids. Given the surroundings, we discussed sending them to a summer camp at the zoo, where they would be able, together with a counselor, to go into the cages and get up front and personal with some of the animals. They would certainly love that. As we walked with them through the zoo the idea kept seeming better and better.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. We finished off at the zoo towards evening, the kids actually walked on their own back to the car, and then we went home. The kids bathed and then watched some TV while we got dinner ready. Our kitchen table was hit by a tornado, and a good time was had by all. Then the kids played computer games while we cleaned up. We read them stories and kissed them goodnight. I dreaded to think of the time when they would be too old for that sort of thing, but I knew it would come far too soon. In the meantime I’m sure I enjoyed their childhood as much as they did.
Afterwards we adjourned to the kitchen for our drinks and conversation. We recounted some of the more piquant incidents from the mall and the zoo and noticed how the kids were growing up and in some ways were more fun to be around and in other ways less. Then I talked about the way I had felt last night when I looked in on the kids, and when I saw her sleeping afterwards. She said, “Sir, I do believe you are giving me a line to try to get me in bed with you. Well, it’s definitely working!” And she threw her arms around me and gave me a big hug. I hugged back, and both of us got a little teary. How wonderful to have this kind of relationship. Then I said, “Well there’s that, too.” And she responded, “So I guess I’ll just run up to bed and get to sleep quickly so that you can look at me.” I answered that I had a better idea.
We quickly cleaned up in the kitchen, checked on the kids and got ready for bed. Then we climbed in, hugged each other and slowly began exquisite love making. Pardon me, please, but I won’t describe the details. I know that you probably want to know about every move, every area touched and caressed. But I’m afraid that this is much too intimate for me to discuss with anyone but my wife. Actually we don’t even talk about this much ourselves except during the activity, when we tell each other how much we like something or make a request. But I don’t feel right about discussing this with anyone else. Just imagine whatever you like, and it doesn’t matter if the details are wrong. Just focus on the fact that there was a lot of passion and a lot of pleasure for us both.
When we awoke there was already some significant noise in the house. This was unfortunate, because it would have been great just to lie in bed with each other and slowly wake up. Maybe making love again before finally getting out of bed. But in my experience this doesn’t happen when there are kids awake. Fortunately the second best thing happened – the kids heard us talking and came in to visit us. This allowed us all to be together, and for us old folks to wake up slowly amid smiles and giggles. There was no time to think about dreams.
We had thought we would go to the beach today, but a look out the window made it clear that it had rained overnight. We would have to check the weather report to see if going to the beach would be possible. But first we started the day with breakfast. We were all feeling special, so everybody named what they wanted, and everybody got their wish.
After that was over, we checked with the weather bureau, and it seemed like it would probably be a good day for the beach after all, though perhaps too cold to spend much time in the water. We packed lunch, put our suits on and then our outer clothes, and got into the car. Today I drove. Keeping the kids occupied without screaming and beating each other during a long trip is at least as difficult as driving, and my wife was much better at this than I was.
Eventually we got to the beach, which wasn’t too crowded – so far the rain last night was working to our advantage. At the beach the kids need closer scrutiny than they do at the zoo, so we all stayed together, running around and collecting shells and chasing after the waves, and having a great time. Then we had our picnic, relaxed for a few minutes, and finally gave in to the children’s desire to get back to running around. After what seemed to me like about ten hours, although it was probably only three, we enticed the kids away from the beach and back to the car with the promise of ice cream cones.
After the ice cream, we got going again. This time my wife drove, because we expected the kids to conk out, which meant that I would be up to the task of looking after them. The rest of the day was pretty much like the previous evening, with some extra play time thrown in. Well, for the kids, anyway. Children are much better at giving themselves over to the task at hand than adults are, so they were playing merrily without any thought of what would happen later. My wife and I were already beginning to get caught up in the sense of loss that hit us when the weekend was about to end, the necessity of changing gears in order to function reasonably well in the weekday world of childcare and work and being on such a strict schedule. I think pretty much everybody starts getting the Monday morning blues already on Sunday evening, we certainly do.
But the kids didn’t feel it. If there was more sadness in the way we read them their bedtime stories or hugged and kissed them goodnight, you wouldn’t have been able to tell from the way they reacted. Still, as we stood there watching them after they fell asleep, a sadness was definitely a part of both of us. Whether it was the impending return to weekday mode, the impending end of innocent childhood, or a little bit of both, I didn’t really know.
With a repressed sigh we went to the kitchen for our evening ritual.
Over tea we began talking. About the laundry. Somehow this was an important topic to her. Certainly not to me; I just couldn’t care less about laundry, and she seemed to perceive this lack of care as an insult. It was not. I have never cared about laundry. I do my best to follow instructions, but totally without enthusiasm, and often I don’t do something I should or I do something I should not. I’ve explained to her that when I was living alone, I did laundry when the hamper filled the entire room, and the way I did the laundry was to take a shower wearing an item of clothing, and wash it along with myself. She understood that this was the way I felt about laundry, but it didn’t make her any less upset when I did something wrong.
The only other topic that would arouse this much anger had to do with punishing the kids. I generally felt that they needed to know how upset we were when they did something unacceptable, and that we should be sure that they received a significant punishment. She generally felt that our dissatisfaction was punishment enough for any but the most heinous of crimes. But here we have been able to compromise – before discussing punishment with the kids we discuss it between us and then discuss with them the next morning, by which time everybody has calmed down. The system had its faults, but usually it worked pretty well.
Unfortunately we had no such system to deal with laundry. So we just talked about it, catching ourselves whenever we raised our voices too much, so as not to wake the kids. Eventually, on this occasion as on most, we apologized to each other for getting so worked up about it, and then moved on to the other aspects of the day. All in all it had been a fun day for everybody, so the mood lightened considerably.
Then we got to the topic of my dream. This wasn’t actually a topic that came up all that often in these discussions, though we did discuss it from time to time. Today, however, there did seem a reason to discuss it. I was really beginning to feel that I’d gone as far as I could go with this shrink, and I wanted to know if my wife felt that there had been anything that shifted in me since I started going to him. She said that she thought I was less worked up about what he said than in the past, but other than that she hadn’t seen much of a difference. I thought about that, and it seemed to me that she was right. At first I had been really upset that he didn’t deal with the content of the dream and instead had pushed it all aside, but now I felt just that he had made his point and I didn’t agree. Maybe it really was time to move on. So should I find a different shrink or just work on my own? My wife repeated her previous statement that she would ask around to see if she could find someone more appropriate for me to go to, so that if that was what I wanted there would be a possibility, but, now that I mentioned it, she thought it might be a good idea for me to see if I could work with it on my own for a while, without somebody pushing me in one direction or another. This made sense to me, and I said I’d give it some more thought.
There wasn’t anything else that came up to discuss, so we cleaned up after ourselves and went upstairs to bed.
After the alarm rang I remained in bed, motionless, looking at the dream from which I had just awakened. Were there any differences from previous dreams? Is there something it was trying to tell me that I hadn’t heard clearly enough? I don’t know; I couldn’t find anything. Eventually I got up, needing to get into hyper speed mode immediately so that we could get everything done and still both make it to work on time. Pangs of guilt and sadness appeared and disappeared with rapidity as we efficiently got the kids and ourselves ready to leave the house without being able to spare any time for such things as conversation and hugs. Bundle them up, get them out, drop them off and get to work. Mission accomplished.
At work I didn’t have the time to contemplate the shock of returning to a weekday routine after our weekend routine. I was too busy taking orders and giving them and smiling and chatting without really listening to what the others were saying, because there was something very urgent that needed doing. I don’t know why, really. Maybe some of my coworkers felt that the work was fulfilling or that they were doing something important, but for me, and most of us, I’m sure, the only important thing was the paycheck.
During the lunch break I had a chance to think about whether or not to go back to the shrink. I decided that I would make one last appointment to tell him that I didn’t feel any need to continue going to him. But then I decided that that wasn’t a good use of my money. So I called his secretary and told her I wouldn’t be returning. Would she please convey to him my thanks for all he had done for me, but I felt quite complete and didn’t need to see him again. She asked if he could call if there was anything that he felt still needed to be said, and I assented.
Actually he never did call, and by now I was totally convinced that this was the right course of action. I had decided to continue exploring the dream on my own. I spent much of my spare time over the next few months examining every aspect of the dream, reading about symbols and trying to get a deeper understanding of the relevance of this dream, but made little or no progress. Eventually I got bored and tired of putting in all the work, so I just figured if there was something in there for me to learn, I just had to learn it in my subconscious and forget about getting a conscious handle on it. Slowly but surely I stopped having this dream, and forgot about it.
Part three: Yet all together (To be published in HCH 4, May 2015)
TO READ IN PDF (pp. 50–69): HCH-3-MARZO-2015