“I had a weird dream,” my six-year-old said, crawling into bed with me this morning.
“So did I,” I said, feeling his little body shudder before he tucked himself under the duvet cover and snuggled up against my side. “What was yours about?”
“There was a singer in our house and people were coming here to see him. There were TVs everywhere and he was on all of them. What was yours about?”
I pulled him in close and thought about what to tell him. Weird for kids is different from weird for grownups. I knew I couldn’t tell him what I had really seen in my dreams.
So I modified. “I was in a boat, and someone fell out.”
“Did you try to save him?”
“Did he have a life jacket on?”
“To keep him from drowning?”
“Safety first,” I said, biting back at the bile in my throat.
I couldn’t tell him what I really saw. I couldn’t say I had dreamed of being in a boat with my friend Michelle and her family. And that we were white water rafting. And that at one point, Michelle’s head went under the water, and the rest of us didn’t know she was in trouble. And she drowned. Right there in the boat, with the people who loved her.
I also couldn’t tell him I woke up crying, angry with myself for letting her drown. And that – for a few moments – I thought that story in my mind was real – that my friend had really drowned in a boat, wearing a life jacket, two feet from me.
“How could you let her do that?” I said to myself.
And then the realization came to me: I’d never been white water rafting with Michelle. I’d only met her family once – at her funeral, just a few days after her step mother called me and said Michelle had been putting away groceries and, somewhere in the middle of it all, she set a can of peas on the kitchen counter and swallowed a bottle of pills.
Fresh tears spilled out of me, as the object of my anger switched to her. It’s easier to blame her instead of myself. It’s easier to imagine that I did try to save her, as my son had asked. That I reached out for her, but couldn’t grasp her.
That is easier to accept than what I really thought the dream was trying to tell me – that I let her drown. Right in front of me.
Michelle has visited my dreams several times since her death. I assume it’s my subconscious’ way of working through those emotions, which clearly remain strong.
I’ve seen her in other places too. Every time I walk into a Victoria Secret store, I smell their Pear Glacé lotion and feel the prickle of Michelle on my skin. A few weeks ago, I saw her eyes in a movie called Broken English.
Like Parker Posey’s character in the movie, Michelle had these dark brown eyes that, in the right light, pooled in a way that made the pupil indistinguishable from the iris. This effect made her seem as if she were staring off into the distance, under some kind of trance, as if she were having an ethereal moment I couldn’t take part in.
And perhaps she was.
She also had panic attacks, the way Posey’s character does in the film. And sometimes she had a desperate loneliness crouching inside her. It seemed she was never able to escape that unhappiness, no matter the beauty she had in her life.
But Michelle’s story didn’t have a happy ending. And as a writer, I desperately want to rework that ending for her. But I can’t. This is a story line I can’t control.
But clearly, I need to write about it more – to get that buildup of anger and fear and guilt off my chest. So I can have better dreams. And so I won’t have to lie to my son about them.
Tomorrow, I will see you.
You will fill my lungs with your sweet smell and your pink lips will break my heart.
And I will forgive you.
Tonight, I am seeing your small hometown for the first time. I am sitting with your friends at a coffee shop that sells dumplings from a side window. The sound of grinding coffee beans melds with the chatter of the line cooks and the sizzle of the fryer. Grease hangs in the air as I sip from my cup.
We talk about you, about the tone of your laughter, the way your eyes crinkle when you smile.
I love you. And I hate you. But I cannot say the words aloud.
We recall a trip we all took to New York City a few years ago. We were all strangers then. Our only connection was you. You said you wanted to see everything, but you rarely looked up from your map with the infinite folds. You laughed when I said all I wanted was to buy a hot dog from a street vendor. I knew you would laugh, and your eyes would crinkle over the top of your map. But you wouldn’t look up.
You smiled when people ran into you on the street. You smiled when we made fun of your huge map. But just a second before those deep brown eyes cut into absurd slits on your face, I saw it. I saw the anger you held inside. The sadness, the pain.
You should have told us to shut the hell up. You should have screamed out loud to the people on the street. You should have kept your eyes open and shared your pain with the rest of us. But you didn’t.
You just smiled.
Tonight, in the dark, I drive back to my tiny hotel room. The grass is so green here. The deep color is visible even in the mask of night. Dampness hangs in the air, threatening. Tomorrow there will be rain.
Suddenly, I feel you. I am signaling for my exit, and your sweet smell seeps into the crevices of the small rental car. You are there with me, in the backseat, slitting your smiling eyes into the rearview mirror.
“Don’t do this,” I tell you, out loud, to the empty car. ”I can’t handle it.”
You respect my wishes, and your smell fades.
And I feel guilty.
I am guilty of never seeing your hometown before now. I am guilty of not visiting when I said I would. I am guilty for not loving you enough. I am guilty of being too much of a coward to speak to you now.
Maybe you wanted to explain to me. Maybe you had reasons I didn’t see. Maybe you wanted to offer selfless consolation to me in that empty car. But your smell and my remorse were too much to handle all at once. And now I’ll never know.
Tomorrow, I will see you.
I will touch your cold hands, folded on your chest. I will look into the face I once knew. I will tell your father I am sorry.
And I will try to forgive myself.