(very short story)
"I had another nightmare."
Part of me – hopefully hidden and on the inside only – cringed at this. Joe had nightmares all the time. Well, maybe not all the time, but certainly with enough frequency that his close friends could be assured that he would have at least a couple a month. Even his casual acquaintances were likely aware that he had memorable nightmares, by his estimation. I likely would be categorized closer to the latter than the former, but I know he has had them. He had been having them since at last his early teens. But there was something about his nightmares that just didn't speak to me. It was all I could do to offer a shrug.
"It was much worse than usual."
Well, usual for Joe meant something like monsters or demons or something that really scared him. Not in the monster movie or horror film way, because his conjured beings struck at his core being in his dreams. To my mind, however, it just wasn't that interesting. Maybe it was because I usually had some sense of dreaming during my own fits of nightmares. As soon as one knew there is nothing at risk in the dream, the nightmare could be experienced as theater. How could Joe not see that his monsters and demons could not exist in the waking world? He wasn't some kind of delusional.
"You aren't saying anything."
"Sorry, Joe." I looked up to meet his gaze. He looked a little haggard, but that could have just been him being less than diligent in his grooming that morning. I'm sure he would have looked more put together if he had been going in to work. "I guess I don't have anything to say about that."
"Don't give me that shit. You have nightmares, too. I know you do. I thought you would be a little more sympathetic about this."
It shouldn't have surprised me that Joe still thought enough about me – my meager moral character – to think that I would be some kind of sounding board and support for him. It did, but it shouldn't have. I dropped my head to hide my smirk. At least I managed to find enough within me to feel guilty about it.
"Yeah, Joe, I have nightmares."
"When did you have one last?"
"Last night. Why?"
Joe didn't expect that. Maybe he did, but my estimation of his reaction was that he didn't expect that to be my answer. I shouldn't be so cavalier about assuming what Joe expected. He asked the question and "last night" was a foreseeable answer, so maybe he had been expecting it as a possibility. One would not associate idiocy with Joe.
"Fine," Joe finally managed. He looked as though he were shocked by my response, but maybe he wasn't. "What was your nightmare like?"
"It was surprisingly a lot like this, but with different people."
Joe thought on that for a few seconds. I guess he decided I hadn't really told him anything, so he said, "What the fuck does that mean?"
"It means that my nightmare – really all my nightmares – are a lot like my real-life. You know, waking life. You aren't in them, so you can take that as a compliment if you want." I threw that last bit in because I assumed that people don't aspire to be in the nightmares of others.
"I still don't understand what that means. How is it a nightmare if it is just like life?"
"Maybe because I'm living a fucking nightmare, Joe." I paused for effect, smugly thinking that this is what one should do when making a show of one's personal failings. "If you think I can dream something worse that what I'm living, you have too much faith in my imagination. The only difference in the nightmares is that I have to deal with the people I'm avoiding. Or the ones avoiding me. I think a lot of it is mutual by this point in time, but there are social confrontations between those people and me in my nightmares."
"You want to talk about it?"
"No. There isn't anything to be gained in that discussion."
"You might figure out what they mean."
"I know what the meaning in them is, Joe. I think I do at any rate. Seeing as how they pretty much match-up with real life, I don't think there is much need for interpretation."
"They still have to be about something."
"You want to know what they're about, Joe? You want to know that they stem from the knowledge that in my life, only one person ever loved me. Seriously, one person. And not even family. You come from a marginally functional family—"
"Hey yourself, Joe. There is nothing in your family dynamic that even approaches being damaging to you or your emotional well-being. Enjoy that. Not everybody gets that."
"If you were never loved, you'd be some kind of a monster."
"I am some kind of a monster, Joe. The one person who loved me broke my heart the night he told me that he would fuck me over in a heartbeat if it meant he had even the slightest chance of getting laid."
"How old were you when this happened?"
"What? Was this your dad?"
It was not my father. Mind you, I kind of knew that my dad placed his own sexual satisfaction ahead of any kind of relationship with his sons earlier than that. He made me swap seats with him on our flight from Seattle to Anchorage so he could sit next to an attractive woman. He ended up fucking her, too. At least he had fun on that vacation. Still, even with his self-centeredness, it would have been undoubtedly better for me if he had found a way to love me. The closest he came was trying to be proud of whatever meager accomplishments I had as a child because those reflected well on him. No, I learned later that the only person he was capable of loving was himself. I knew somebody else like that, too. He married the person I dread most in my nightmares.
"No. My best friend. Was my best friend." I paused, but this time it was to contain my emotions. I didn't want to start crying in front of Joe. Not that he'd think that I'm weak or something; it's just that he knows that I'm mostly emotionally dead inside and I'm sure that seeing me crying would be a little weird for him. "In late May of '86, when it wasn't certain that we'd ever see each other again, I told him that I loved him. You know, in a friend sort of way. Nothing sexual about it."
"I wasn't assuming there was."
"Anyway, he told me he loved me. We made a little plan that we'd always be there for each other. Forever."
"I think that he assumed – if he remembered it at all – that our declaration of that eternal commitment was just kids stuff. I'm sure he had no idea how fucked up my home life was. His dad may have been a dick – the guy threatened to beat me with a belt when I was nine – but his parents certainly loved him. His brother probably did, too. There was a degree of involvement in his life. Anyway, I think that he began to grow up and didn't understand how much I needed him to always be there for me. No matter what."
"So he told you he would rather chase pussy than be there for you. Then what happened."
"Then I went home. Nobody was there. My brother was at Madison. My dad may have been working, but I'm almost positive he was at his girlfriend's that night. I cried. I wrote a lengthy, rather hateful suicide note. Then I went into my father's bedroom, took his little .22 pistol, put it to my head, and pulled the trigger."
Joe sat silent for a few seconds. "Didn't check to see if it was loaded?"
"No, I did. There is a lot that I am compressing in my retelling here. I was crying most of my walk home from the party where he told me that I didn't mean as much to him as the chance of sex did. I got the gun out and made sure it was loaded before I started writing the letter. It is very important that it be conceived as a letter, because I actually mailed the fucking thing. Written with a DOS version of Word Perfect."
"Holy shit! That is a long time ago."
"Not really. In a lot of ways, its yesterday. Something being a long time ago assumes that you fill the span between then and now with living. If you don't, then it will always be close. If you don't do anything with your life, it will be yesterday. Anyway, I wrote the suicide letter without ever mentioning that I was killing myself. Wrote the thing for someone with whom I had no real relationship. Printed it out without proof-reading it; back then you had to run spellcheck, the program wasn't set to let you know whenever you fucked up."
"Put it in an envelope. Addressed the envelope. Put a stamp on it and ran it downstairs to the entryway where the mailboxes were. Went back upstairs and checked the gun again. Sat at the edge of my father's bed facing the TV – it was off – and pulled the trigger."
"It didn't fire?"
"Nope. And you know that thing they say about jumpers, the ones that survive? How they immediately regret the decision to jump the instant they jump?"
"Well, I experienced something like that. It scared the fuck out of me. It emotionally drained me. I'm not so proud as to hide from the fact that I am terrified of dying. Still am. And there I was, not dead, after I had found the strength to try to kill myself. For a couple of seconds I thought about finding the other pistol he kept hidden in his room and trying with that one. If I couldn't find it, though, he'd have been really pissed that I went digging through his things. I really only wanted to kill myself in his room because if I did it in my room or the front room, there would be a chance he wouldn't notice right away. If I was going to be dead, he should know about it. Didn't leave a note for him, though."
"What was in the letter?"
"How the fuck should I know? I didn't keep a copy of it."
"How did it start?"
"'I don't know why I'm writing this to you except that I have the feeling you hate me.' Not my best work."
"You remember that?"
"Yeah. Like I said, in many ways its yesterday. I couldn't tell you what else was in it. It was three pages long. The plan, such as it was, was that she would have to ask my best friend why I had sent her this letter and he would have to tell her that I was dead. In that way, both would be hurt – yes, I'm aware of how stupid it sounds now, even then the next day – and neither would have the full picture. I tried to get the letter the next morning so it wouldn't be sent but the mailman came before 11am. Or one of the neighbors took the outgoing mail to the post office; there was a woman who did that from time to time. Also spent two days trying to convince my friends to help me steal the letter out of the mailbox after it was delivered. Even got them to drive me over one day to try, but it hadn't arrived yet."
"Tell me about it. Then it was embarrassing dealing with her after that. But I found a way to make her deal with me and even having contact as fucked up as that felt better than being alone all the time. She was the one who talked me out of my plan of enlisting in the Army or killing myself, right and proper, after graduation. She didn't know that she did, mind you. To her it was just an off hand comment. But I was so starved for any kind of attention I interpreted it as having much deeper meaning."
I didn't want to talk about it any more. I never want to talk about it. I knew a kind of constant fear of every having to deal with this person ever again. After a short while, Joe wanted to talk again.
"So, that is your nightmare?"
"In a sense, I guess. Its emblematic. My nightmares, the ones when I'm asleep, involve having to deal with her. Or my best friend. Or some of my other close friends from back then. Or the only woman I've ever loved, whose parents once offered to pay me to sleep with her because it might break up her relationship with her boyfriend. They did not like him. My nightmares harken back to a time when I still had promise and potential, a time when my life could have been anything other than utterly wasted. Come to think of it, if I ever do kill myself, that's the line I want as both my note and on the headstone. Not that I think anyone would pop for a headstone. 'There was a time when I had potential and promise, and friends expected great things from me.' My nightmares are just dream versions of the truth of my situation. That I have no meaningful emotional connections because I pissed them all away. My nightmares remind me that I am unloved, Joe, and that the people who might have helped me save myself from that simply ran out of patience long ago."
"Yeah. And I may have hidden the point, but I am a monster because I effectively used a total hateful impulse to manipulate someone into my life. And I wasn't especially kind to her while she was enduring all my bullshit. Can't be that pissed that she grew tired of it. Or that she threw me out of her life. Just wish she had done it face to face."
"She do it over the phone?"
"Because I'm betting this is before email and texting."
"There was email. She had an email account through the university. No, she had her roommate do it."
"Could have been worse. She could have had her boyfriend do it. Or my best friend. Important thing is that she doesn't have to deal with me anymore. And my nightmare is as much that she would have to deal with me, me like I was then, as much as it is that I would have to deal with her. Or any of a number of people from back then. But she is the easiest one to explain."
"So, your nightmares are what, just talking to her?"
"They tend to be a little more involved than that. They are still nightmares, but I don't think there is any substitute imagery. The things that scare me are the truths of my life. I would like to be able to hide from those in my dreams."
"You still want to talk nightmares, Joe."
"Yeah, I do. But not with you. Yours are kind of fucked up."
"You should probably see somebody about them."
"They're just dreams, Joe." I said this last bit with a forced, wry smile. "They don't mean anything."