I met Jay in a dream and lost her on earth. Whether I’ll ever find her again, I don’t know.
The dream was what they call a lucid dream. That’s where the dreamer knows that he’s dreaming. I never had one before, so it was the most amazing experience of my life. I was in this place that was pastoral. There were fields, and trees, and flowers, and a bit of fence that seemed to serve no purpose. There was a dirt path that went from somewhere to somewhere, but I don’t know where. There were no animals or birds, which was a bit odd. But it was all very beautiful. The oddest thing, though, was that there was no sun in the sky. The sky was pearly-white, and the daylight was subdued, like on a thinly overcast day. There were no clouds.
Right away I knew I was dreaming. I don’t know how I knew. I just knew. So I followed the path to see where it would lead. It rose and fell gently with the terrain and turned left and right. And then it passed between two rows of very tall trees, which appeared to have been spaced precisely, and I thought, There’s some intelligence here. And overhead there was a canopy of branches and leaves, and the path below was shady. And it went perfectly straight for some distance. And when I got past these trees, I saw fields again. And to the left there was a stream with flowers and grasses on the banks. And on the near bank, a couple of hundred feet ahead, someone was sitting. And as I walked closer, I saw that it was a young woman. She was blonde and wore a pale yellow dress.
As I approached her, she stood up, walked up the bank, and stood there, facing me. She was smiling and did not seem particularly surprised to see me.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello,” she replied. She had brown eyes and a tan complexion. She was quite beautiful.
“I know I’m dreaming,” I said. I couldn’t think of what else to say.
“Ah. Are you now?”
“Then you’re real, and I’m not, is that it?” She was smiling in an ironic sort of way.
“Because I was about to say that I’m the one who’s dreaming, in which case I’m the real one and you’re not.”
I laughed. “No, no. I know I’m dreaming.”
“But I was here first, wasn’t I? I was sitting here for a long time, and then I saw you coming.”
“But I was walking and I didn’t see you until now.”
“Ah. Now there’s a conundrum.”
“I don’t know that word.”
“Then how could you dream it?”
I was baffled. “I don’t know.”
“Do you know that this is a lucid dream?”
“Is that what it’s called?”
“Yes. There’s another thing you didn’t know. So I think the evidence is on my side. This is my dream.”
“Well, I don’t know what to say to that. This is a pretty strange argument.–Say, who are you anyway?”
“My name is Jay. What’s yours?”
“John.” She certainly looked real. She looked perfectly normal. This never happened to me before. “Is it possible for two people to be in the same dream and they’re both real?”
“One wouldn’t think so, would one?” One wouldn’t think so, would one? I didn’t know anyone who talked like that. “Of course, if a third person shows up, we may both be in trouble.”
This was getting to be too much for me. I stepped close to her and took her hand. She didn’t flinch. I was holding a real hand. I looked at her all over. She was too real for a dream.
“Put your arms around me,” she said. “The burden of proof is on you to prove yourself.”
What nerve! I thought. As if I’m not real! So I put my arms around her.
“Come on, you can do better than that.”
So I held her tighter, and she relaxed her body against mine. Her fingers stroked my back gently.
“All right, I think you pass,” she said.
“Thanks,” I said. “So, like…what does all this mean?”
“I think we shall have to agree that we’re both real.”
“Okay, fine. But I still don’t understand what’s happening.”
“Don’t worry about it. Let’s walk a bit, shall we?”
And she led me by the hand. She seemed quite happy. I was happy, too, but still confused.
“What if we wake up?” I asked.
“We wouldn’t wake up at the same time, now, would we? After all, we’re not sleeping in the same bed, are we?”
“I wake up when I wake up, and you wake up when you wake up. And that’s something we have no control over — unless you set an alarm, which I never do.”
“And then what happens? Does the dream end, or what?”
“One of us wakes up first and leaves the dream. That’s all.”
“I guess that’s logical.” This woman was much smarter than me. I was liking her more and more. I didn’t want to lose her. I thought, I don’t want to wake up.
“I want to show you the house,” she said.
“There’s a house?”
“Yes, but it’s empty.”
“You mean there are other people up here?”
She turned in mid-stride and shrugged. “I don’t know.”
The house was not far away. It looked very plain — a one-story cottage of wood. The white paint was faded. The roof was thatched and had a little chimney. There were two windows. There was no garden around the house and no path leading to the front door. Nearby was a tree of a type I didn’t recognize.
There was no lock on the door. Jay opened it and led me in. There were no interior walls, just a few vertical wooden beams supporting the roof. There was no back door. There was no furniture. There was a small fireplace, but it looked unused. The floor was bare wood.
“You’ll notice there’s no dirt anywhere,” said Jay.
It was true. The house was perfectly clean, as if it had never been lived in. I walked all around and touched the surfaces. I could see the nails in the carpentry. It was all quite normal. “I don’t get this,” I said.
“It’s rather mysterious, isn’t it?”
We went back outside.
“Now I want to show you the tree,” said Jay.
So we walked over to the nearby tree, which was about fifty feet tall.
“You don’t see too many of these,” she said. “At least not this big.”
“What kind is it?”
“I’m not good with trees.” I pulled down a small branch and looked at the leaves. “These leaves are not all the same.”
“That’s right. Here. Look closely. There are four different shapes. You have this one with a lobe on the left. I called it the left-handed mitten. And this one has the lobe on the right. That’s the right-handed mitten. And this one is the double mitten, with lobes on both sides. And this one is just the plain leaf with no lobe on either side.”
“Huh. I’ve never seen anything like that before. So what kind of tree is this?”
“It’s a sassafras.”
“I’ve heard of it, but I don’t think I ever saw one before.”
“It mainly grows in the southeast. Further north you’d find them rather small.”
“I didn’t know that.–So is that where you live?”
“Where I live?”
“Do you live in the southeast?”
“I just thought of something. I can prove I’m real. I can tell you my address.”
“Don’t tell me your address. I don’t want to know.”
“I don’t need to know. We’re not on earth now.” She frowned slightly and started walking away. Then she stopped and offered her hand. “Come.”
I took her hand again and we walked back in the direction of where we’d originally met. I noticed there was no breeze. It was neither too warm nor too cold. This place, whatever it was, seemed to have no changes in it.
“Do you like me, John?” she asked.
“Yes. I like you very much.”
“Then give me a little kiss.”
So I kissed her gently on the lips. And I knew instantly that I loved her. But I said nothing because I simply had no words for such a moment — not here in this place.
We held hands and walked slowly, and then she stopped as if something had distracted her. “Oh!–John–.” And she disappeared into thin air. And I stood there, heartbroken and disbelieving.
“Jay?” I called. “Jay?”
And moments later I woke up, and I was in my bed. The clock was ticking. I don’t know what woke me up.
That was five years ago. That was the beginning of my relationship with Jay, which was to last only fourteen months.
I was 32 years old and living in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I worked as an assistant supervisor in the warehouse of a distributor of electrical parts. I was single, unattached, and had a small house and a mortgage. I am not a brilliant guy. I’m just average. So when I found myself back among familiar, mundane things, I was not sure what had really happened. I’d had a dream in which I knew I was dreaming, and I’d met this woman who had insisted the same thing. At the time — that is, in the dream — I believed she was real. But how could she be if I was dreaming? Two people couldn’t meet in a shared dream. Or could they? I was no mystic or philosopher. But I did not know the word “conundrum”, so how could I have dreamed it? I was very depressed about all this. What I was most depressed about was falling in love with this woman and, the next thing, she vanishes into thin air. I wanted to believe it was real, but then my loss was real, too.
I hadn’t set foot in the public library since high school, but I went and picked several books on dreams off the shelf and sat down and studied them. They all had some mention of lucid dreams, but there was nothing to explain my experience. A lucid dream was still a dream. That was no help to me.
And then I remembered the sassafras tree. I found a book on trees with pictures of every kind of tree in North America. And there it was. And there were the four different shapes of leaves. Now, maybe I could have heard the word “conundrum” once and it stuck in my unconscious mind. But I definitely had never seen the leaves of a sassafras tree. And what it said in the book was what Jay had said. It was a southeastern tree and did not grow as large in the north. How could I imagine someone in a dream who could tell me something I didn’t know?
I thought about whether I should talk this over with someone, but who could I talk to? Anyone would think I was nuts. Or else they’d give me some bullshit explanation from psychology or something. I’m not good with big ideas and big words. Explain it to me in plain English so I can understand it, otherwise don’t waste my time.
I went over all of it I don’t know how many times, and I always came back to the same thing: somewhere in the world there was a real woman named Jay, and we had met in a lucid dream, which was the same for both of us. I wanted to find her again, but I didn’t know how, except by having the same dream again. But I didn’t know how to do that. I kept trying, but it didn’t happen.
People were starting to notice that I was different. I didn’t want to socialize. I didn’t call people. I was gloomier. I didn’t laugh at jokes. I didn’t bother to chip in for the lottery pool at work, and I was the only one in the whole workplace. That was really noticed! If someone asked, “What’s the matter?” I would just shrug and say, “Nothing.”
I almost went to a fortune-teller’s salon, but I stopped at the door and told myself, This is bullshit. This is desperation.
So I just pushed myself through the days in a mechanical way. Some days I managed to distract myself enough that I almost forgot about the dream. But other days I would just stare into space and lose myself.
Almost three months had passed since the dream. When Thanksgiving came, I avoided all invitations. I told everyone that somebody else had already invited me. I had a turkey TV dinner and a bottle of cheap bubbly wine and fell asleep fully dressed.–Then I had the dream again.
I was in the same place where I’d started before. The fields, the flowers, the fence — exactly the same. The sky was the same pearly-white with no sun. There was no breeze. The temperature was moderate. My God, I’m back! I’m here! And the only thing I thought of was to look for Jay.
I followed the path as before, and it was exactly the same. It passed between those two rows of tall trees, which created a shady canopy. I walked right through and came out facing the same stream. And there was Jay, sitting on the bank in the same yellow dress. But this time I saw her first. And when she saw me, she jumped up and came to me. There were tears in her eyes. “John!” she said, and she put her arms around me. And I held her, and I must have cried, too.
“I didn’t know if I’d find you again,” I said.
“I was here twice, but you didn’t come,” she said.
“You were here? How?”
“It just happens when it happens. It’s luck.”
“I tried to come, but I didn’t know how,” I said.
“Just keep trying. Even if you come and I’m not here. That may happen.”
We held each other tightly. I could see the same stream, the same flowers. I could see the mysterious empty house, and the sassafras tree.
“Just don’t wake up, okay?” I said. “I don’t want to lose you.”
She sighed. “We wake up when we wake up. It can’t be helped.”
“I don’t know how this happens. I don’t understand it.”
“Don’t try to understand. Just make the most of it.” And she pulled me gently by the hand. “Let’s just walk.”
“I’m afraid I’ll lose you,” I said.
“Don’t worry about that. We’re together now. That’s all that matters.”
So we walked slowly, following the stream, which turned this way and that and made little waterfalls as it passed over little ledges. We were following it upstream, but I had no sensation that we were climbing the terrain. In the distance I could see the outline of hills, which looked purple, and there seemed to be forests. There were flowers everywhere, but there were no birds or insects, no fish in the stream, and no sign of other people. If this was a dream, whose mind did it spring out of? If Jay and I were both real, was this place real, too? We had to be somewhere, but it wasn’t earth. Earth-like, yes, but nowhere I could imagine.
“Is this coming from my mind or yours?” I asked Jay. “I don’t think it’s coming from me.”
“It’s not coming from me either,” she said. And she stopped walking, and we had our arms around each other. “I’m happy,” she said. “I’ve never been this happy before.”
Her head was on my shoulder. I could smell some kind of fragrance in her hair. I was about to say something–
The phone was ringing, and I was back in bed, still fully dressed. I’d forgotten to turn off the phone. I was so angry with whoever was calling. How stupid of me to leave the phone on! Damn you, phone! And I let it ring and ring and then finally relented and answered it.
“John! It’s Mike. Are you alone?”
“Yeah,” I said sullenly.
“Jeez, I shoulda called earlier. We just had our dinner and I just thought of you. Why don’t you come on over and have dessert with us. We’ve got too much food here. And there’s a game on TV. What do you say?”
“Thanks, but no. I don’t feel like going out.”
“Aw, come on. You shouldn’t be by yourself on Thanksgiving.”
I had to make up an excuse. “I think I’ve got a flu. I’m sure I’m contagious. The best thing is for me to sleep it off. Really.” I’m not sure if Mike bought it. If I was making a bad impression, I couldn’t help it. I just excused myself and hung up.
And I sat there thinking about Jay. If the phone hadn’t woken me up, I’d still be there with her — wherever “there” was.
A few weeks later I had the dream again, but this time she wasn’t there. So I understood this much, at least. I might be there, or she might be there, but it was pure luck if we were both there at the same time.
The other thing I got settled in my mind was that I no longer had any desire to talk this over with anyone. Nobody would understand. And it was too private.
Several months passed before Jay and I were together again, and this time we had a long time together. We went exploring upstream, and we didn’t worry about getting lost. We both felt that we couldn’t get lost as long as we were together. And another strange thing I didn’t realize till then: we never had physical needs. We were never hungry or thirsty, hot or cold, or tired, and we never felt sexual urges. Nevertheless, we were in love.
We came to a place where there were spectacular fields of flowers. I didn’t know flowers, but Jay knew most of them. And the way the flowers were arranged with so many colors, it was as if some intelligence had arranged them that way. But it wasn’t like the gardens you see in a park, which are very neat. It was more like a bunch of artists were let loose to use their imaginations to create this astonishing landscape.
Amidst these flowers, Jay and I lay down and embraced and held each other for a long time. And we kissed gently, without getting sexually excited.
“I don’t want to leave,” I said. “I want to stay here forever.”
“Ah, but then you’d never wake up, and you’d lose your job.”
“I don’t care about that. What about you? Do you have a job?”
And I realized I knew very little about Jay. And another thing I realized was that she didn’t seem as surprised as I was about this place. She seemed to know…something.
“So where exactly are we?” I asked her.
“We’re someplace. We’re together. That’s all that matters.”
“But is this a real place?”
And she smiled at me. “We’re both real, aren’t we?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t answer my question.”
She sighed. Maybe she was a little impatient with me. “I suppose that depends on what you mean by ‘real’?”
“Well, that’s something out of philosophy, so forget it. I couldn’t answer that.”
“Then forget your question.”
I stroked her back gently. “You know I love you.”
“Yes, and I love you.”
“But I don’t feel — like, how do I put it? — I don’t feel, em –”
“Yeah. I’m not having sexual feelings.”
“Neither am I.”
“Oh.” I was disappointed for a moment, but then I let it pass. I just never felt like this before. It was strange.
“This is better,” she said. “It’s simpler.”
Yes, I supposed it was simpler. We were together. What else mattered? I could see and smell all these flowers. I could hear the gurgling stream. I could see the pearly-white sky above. And we were quiet together, and time passed, although I can’t say for sure how much time.
A thought was bothering me, however. I was afraid to say it, but finally I asked her. “Where do you live?”
“Where do I live?”
“Yes. In real life, where do you live?”
She laughed. “In real life?”
“You know what I mean. When you’re not dreaming you must live somewhere on earth.”
“It doesn’t matter where.”
“I’ll tell you where I live.”
“No, don’t. I don’t care where you live.”
“I live in Allentown, Pennsylvania.”
She sat up and was no longer smiling. “I know where this is going.”
“Do you know where Allentown, Pennsylvania, is?”
“Yes, I know where Allentown is.”
“So where do you live?”
“John, listen. We mustn’t try to meet on earth. Forget it.”
She sighed deeply. Her eyes were very serious. “Because we would probably lose all this. We’d never get it back.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m just afraid that that’s what would happen, that’s all.”
“Well, so what? If we could meet on earth, we’d be together all the time. We wouldn’t have to leave it to luck.”
“We wouldn’t have this place. Things would never be the same.”
“I don’t know how you can know all this.”
She picked a flower and twiddled the stem in her fingers, looking away. “I don’t want to get into an argument. Really.”
“I’m just trying to understand, that’s all.”
She looked me in the eye. “Do you think we would be as happy on earth as we are now?”
“Well…sure. Why not?”
She stood up. “It’s too great a risk. We might lose everything.”
I stood up. “I’m really upset now.”
“Don’t be upset.”
“I’m trying to understand this, and I’m not understanding it. And I’m getting worried, and I’m getting unhappy.”
She started walking, then held her hand behind her for me to take. “Come. Let’s walk.”
I took her hand and walked with her. “You do love me, don’t you?”
“I don’t know how you could doubt it. I keep coming back, don’t I? I keep looking for you.”
We were walking toward the sassafras tree. “I’m going to keep asking you where you live.”
“I suppose you will.”
“You’re going to tell me sooner or later.”
She shrugged. “Maybe.”
And we stood under the sassafras tree. She touched both my arms. “Be happy, John. Be happy with this.”
“I’m happy when we’re together. But when we’re not…”
“When we’re not, we’re not.”
I tried to suppress the deep anxiety I was feeling. I had tears in my eyes. I took her hands. “I’m having a real hard time understanding this.”
“I know,” she said. And then she looked up and blinked several times. “Oh!–I’m leaving now.” And she faded away. My hands were holding air.
And I was too sad to go anywhere. I just stood under the tree and looked up at the leaves. I looked for the four different shapes — the left-handed mitten, the right-handed mitten, the double mitten, and the plain leaf. They were all there. All very green and perfect. My eyes went from leaf to leaf, looking at each shape, branch by branch, and at some point I woke up and was home in bed.
There followed a period of six dead months. Dead days on the calendar, one after another lost and forgotten. Days without life or meaning, just a great desolation. I thought I’d lost her. I had one false start. I was starting the dream and then was awakened by a siren on the street. That was the worst thing ever. My other dreams were sad and morbid. I don’t want to talk about them.
I was oblivious to holidays. My sullen mood was noticed at work. When one of my co-workers remarked jokingly that I must be having “woman troubles”, I replied harshly and walked away. I was becoming bad-tempered, which was unlike me. I no longer had friends. People stopped calling. At times I thought I was losing my mind. I fantasized about suicide and acts of violence. I wondered if I was destined to end up in a mental hospital.
Then I had the dream again. I was back in the same place. And I didn’t want to wake up before I found out what I needed to know. And I was determined to find out.
I found Jay again in the usual place beside the stream. She gave me a serious look. “You’ve got something on your mind,” she said.
“Yes. I want to know where you live on earth so I can see you.”
“I knew you were going to ask me that.” She frowned and looked away.
“I can’t go on like this. This is killing me.”
“You’re not happy to be here with me?”
“That’s not what I mean.” I took her by the arm, and she faced me. Her eyes were serious and I was a little afraid of them. I was afraid she’d say no. I was afraid everything would be ruined. I was afraid she’d stop loving me.
“You know what they say. You should be careful what you wish for because you might get it.”
I took both her hands. “Jay…if you love me.”
“Ah. ‘If you love me’.” she repeated in an almost mocking tone. “You are putting me to a test.”
“No, I’m not putting you to a test. Look, I’m just an ordinary guy. I don’t understand this.” I made a gesture of helplessness with my hands as I looked all around. “I want to know where you live. You must live somewhere.”
“And you’ll come and visit me,” she said.
“I told you what I thought would happen. We’d lose what we have.”
“But we’ll have each other. We’ll be on earth — in real life. We’ll be together all the time.”
We were looking into each other’s eyes. I could see conflict in hers. She probably saw desperation in mine. Or did she see a fool who couldn’t understand where he was, who couldn’t be satisfied with what he had?
“All right,” she said softly. “I’ll tell you. I live in New Jersey.”
“Where in New Jersey?”
“It’s a little town you won’t find on the map. It’s called Piper.”
“I’ve never heard of it. Where is it?”
“It’s in the pine barrens.”
I was very surprised. “You live in the barrens? But that’s a wilderness.”
“Yes. I’m on the fringes of the Wharton State Forest, in Burlington County.”
“Jeez, that’s Jersey Devil country.”
“If you love me…” she began, intending to mock me slightly, “you’ll take your chances with the Jersey Devil.”
“I’ll get a road map, and I’ll find my way. I’ll come and see you.”
“The map will only get you so far. I’ll have to give you directions using landmarks.”
Of course I had no way to write anything down.
“Can you remember a phone number?” she asked.
“Remember this number.” And she gave it to me. I said it over and over to try to lock it in my mind.
“I’ll call you and get the directions,” I said.
“Yes, I expect you will,” she said, not smiling. “And then we can only hope for the best.”
I hugged her. “I’ll try real hard to remember the number. If I don’t call, it means I’ve forgotten it.”
“You won’t forget it. I’m sealing it in your mind.” And she kissed her palm and pressed it to my forehead.
We embraced and just stood there for a while. I could hear the gurgling stream. I looked at the flowers and fields and the pearly-white sky. And I hoped I was doing the right thing.
“My dear, I think one of us is going to wake up,” said Jay.
“Are you going? I don’t want to go.”
And she looked off somewhere and her eyes blinked. “I love you, John.”
“I love you, too.”
“Must leave you now…bye-bye…” And she faded away.
And I repeated the number to myself over and over. Please, God, don’t let me forget the number.
I called the next day. I had remembered the number. Jay’s voice sounded a little bit different over the phone — a little older. I had a pen and pad ready to take down the directions. My hand was shaking from excitement, and I could hardly read my own handwriting: Jay Eppley, St. Martin’s Road, Piper, N.J.
Now I would never lose her!
“Give me directions from Philadelphia,” I said.
She gave me directions to a certain point, after which I’d be “off map” and would have to follow her landmarks and watch my odometer. She said there was no signage in her area and I would have to come in daylight or I’d never find her. St. Martin’s Road had only two houses on it. The first one I would see had a mailbox with a figure of three magpies. After that, I was to go exactly 1.4 miles and look to the right. Her house was set back about a hundred feet from the road, with a minimal driveway that would just barely accommodate a car.
I figured it would be about a 3-hour trip. We agreed that I would come on the next Saturday. Nothing was said about my staying over. I forgot to ask.
When I put down the phone, I felt that everything was perfect. The problem was solved. We were on earth now, not in some dreamland where meetings were unpredictable and uncontrollable.
That Saturday was overcast with the threat of rain and cold enough to require a heavy coat. Not unusual for early April. I hadn’t slept well the night before and wasn’t feeling my best. I started to worry. Would I get lost? Would the visit be okay?
When I started my old car, I said, “Just get me there, you piece of junk.”
Allentown to Philadelphia was easy. Getting through Philadelphia was slower, and I had to check my map. I never liked Philly. I found it depressing, especially on a day like today. I was taking Highway 90, giving Camden a wide berth. From then on, I relied on my map to get to Wharton State Forest, and then at some point I had to trust Jay’s directions.
It was raining, and the trip took longer than I expected. I had to take it slow because I was afraid of missing a turn.
The New Jersey barrens may look beautiful to a nature-lover in good daylight and mild weather, but in these conditions I found them ominous. They made me think of The Blair Witch Project. I don’t know why any civilized person would want to live in such a place. Calling it rural would be too polite. This was remote. You’d never believe that such a large desolate area could exist in New Jersey.
It was getting too dark, and I was getting nervous. If I made a wrong turn, I’d get hopelessly lost.
I found St. Martin’s Road, which was unmarked. It was a gravel road, probably impassable in the worst winter conditions. I drove slowly and eventually spotted the mailbox with the magpies. Then I watched my odometer and let it turn over exactly 1.4 miles. There on the right I saw her house.
It was a peculiar little house — part stone, part wood, and not belonging to any particular style. It was set in a small clear space with trees all around the back and sides. There were no outbuildings. The only decoration was a low fence in front covered with vines, and a little gate that was not even waist-high. The door was of brown wood and was very weathered. There was a little window in the door.
There was no door bell or knocker, so I just knocked with my hand. The door opened, and a woman stood there smiling. She said, “Hello, John.” And I wondered who she was. She resembled Jay but was considerably older and not as beautiful.
“Is Jay here?” I asked.
“It’s me,” she said. I stood there, perplexed. “Come in out of the rain.” And she pulled me in gently by the sleeve. The house was not well-lit, so she turned on another light. “Don’t you recognize me?”
The eyes were the same. The facial features were the same. Even the complexion. Her hair was a little darker. Her voice was a bit deeper. Her height was the same. Her figure was almost the same, allowing for a little weight.
“Why are you older?” I asked.
“We all look a little more perfect in our dreams than we do in real life. Besides, you’re a bit older, too.”
“A little bit, but that’s okay.”
I suddenly felt a bit faint, so I took off my coat. “I’m confused now.” My voice was weak, and I was a little afraid. “I don’t understand. How can you be Jay? This isn’t a joke, is it?”
“There’s no joke. Come on, now. I thought you loved me. If you love me….give me a kiss.”
Hesitantly, I leaned forward and gave her a shy kiss.
“Put your arms around me,” she said. I did, tentatively. “Come on, you can do better than that.”
And I held her closer and smelled the fragrance in her hair. It was the same. “It is you,” I said. “What happened to that nice yellow dress you wore up there?”
“I still have it.”
She was wearing a brown print dress of a style I think is called an Empire dress. I looked at her hands. They were the same, but older. I was looking at her up and down.
“You’ll get over it,” she said. “Come sit down and have a tea.”
She led me to the kitchen, and I sat down at a heavy wooden table. The kitchen window faced the back. There were just tall trees. On the outside ledge of the window were numerous potted plants. The rain was letting up.
She served me an herbal tea. I looked around. The house was uncovered stone half-way up and wood-paneled above that. Everything was like from some earlier age. You couldn’t really tell when. The kitchen was minimal in its appliances.
“You have electricity,” I observed.
“Yes, of course. And plumbing and a phone, and that’s it. No TV. I have a little radio.”
I sipped my tea. My mind was stuck. Here I was with the woman I had declared my love to, and I couldn’t think of anything romantic or even intelligent to say. “How long have you lived here?”
She gave me an ambiguous smile. “Since some time in the past until now.”
“Okay. How do you live? Do you have a job? What do you do?”
“I just live modestly. I’m able to do that.”
“Are you all alone? Do you have family? Do you have friends?”
“I’m all alone.”
“Don’t you get lonely?”
Then she didn’t really need me, I figured. “So…did you miss me?”
“Of course, I missed you.” She reached over and held my wrist. “All you men are the same. You need constant reassurance.”
“I guess maybe.”
“Let me show you the house. There isn’t much, but I’ll show you anyway.”
The house had four rooms — the kitchen, the living room, a bedroom, and another room that was almost empty except for a small, old-fashioned bed and a very small chest of drawers. The room looked as if it had never been used. Overall, the furnishings were very sparse. There was a small bathroom that looked pretty normal but very old. Adjoining it was a small laundry. The phone was in the bedroom. It was one of those very old rotary phones you don’t see any more — the heavy kind made of metal, not plastic.
The walls of the bedroom and the spare room had dozens of small paintings — oil, I think, because there was a thick texture to the paint. They were all the same size — about 8″x8″ square. And each one had a circle that I took to be either the sun or moon. It was painted in a solid color, and the background had a different solid color. And all the combinations were different and made a beautiful effect. In the bottom right corner of each one I could see small initials: J.E.
The living room had a small fireplace and two small sofas and a wooden table. There was a small bookshelf full of odd little hand-crafted ornaments.
There was nothing in sight with any sort of date on it — nothing to pin the house or its occupant to any particular point in time. No newspapers. No photos.
There was an attic accessible by a pull-down ladder, but there was nothing in it. And there was a small space under the floor which served as a cellar, but it was empty, too. She doesn’t accumulate stuff, I thought.
I asked myself if I could live in such a place for the rest of my life with her — that is, assuming I married her. I didn’t think so.
After I’d seen everything, she took me by the hand, and we walked back to the kitchen and stepped out the back door. The rain had stopped, and the sky had gotten a little brighter. It was late afternoon.
“Where does your property end?” I asked.
“The neighbors haven’t told me,” she said, deadpan, and it took me a moment to realize she had made a joke.
I felt so strange. I was on earth, but I had never stood in such a place. I had never experienced such a moment. I could have been in any country, in any time. It was as if everything here had decided never to change. I can’t put these things into words very well. Here I was with this woman I had fallen in love with in a dream. Was this place a dream, too? And who was I? Was I the man from the dream or the man from Allentown? Was I still real? I felt I might evaporate and disappear, like from the dream, but then where would I wake up? Where was here?
Jay took my arm and rested her head against me. “Poor John,” she said in a slightly humorous way. “Are you sorry you came to visit me?”
“No,” I said. And after a moment I said impulsively. “I’m sure you’d say no if I asked you to marry me and move to Allentown.”
“You don’t need to marry me, and I don’t need to live in Allentown.”
“Do you still love me?” I asked.
“What a silly question.” And I embraced her gently — but still not really understanding — and we stood there without speaking for a while. And the thought came to me: If I love this woman, why don’t I have any sexual feelings? And I couldn’t tell if she did either.
We went back inside.
“Shall I make you dinner?” she asked.
“I’m not hungry,” I said.
“I have some home-made soup. Let me know when you’re hungry.”
We sat in the living room. There was a low fire in the fireplace. I sat without touching her. I was holding a starfish, which I assumed had once been real — that is, alive. It occurred to me that I still knew almost nothing about Jay, and she was deliberately not telling me things — that is, normal things that people want to know. How is it that we had met in a lucid dream and continued to meet? And was that all over now? And why was she older on earth? What was I supposed to do with all this? Was I supposed to be in two worlds and carry on a complicated relationship?
“So what happens next?” I asked.
“Every person has free will. You can decide what you want to do. But nobody can be sure what will happen.”
“Ah,” I said, as if I understood, but I didn’t really. She seemed to understand everything better than I did. She seemed less surprised by things. She knew too much, or so it seemed. But I guess it’s relative. I was ordinary and had spent all my life among others like myself, so what did I know? Why would she love such a dullard as me?
“You must have some soup,” she said. “I’ll heat it up.”
I sat at the kitchen table and ate her vegetable soup, which was very good, but I didn’t finish it.
“What’s bothering you?” she asked.
How could I explain? “Maybe I’m stupid or something. I’m trying to understand all this, and I’m not getting it straight in my head. I just don’t know what to think.”
“We have more answers inside ourselves than we realize. Search inside yourself, and you may find the answers. Or you may decide you don’t really need any.”
That was no help at all to me. I wanted her to explain everything in simple terms. I wanted to know what was going to happen to us.
I looked at the clock, and she noticed. It was dark out.
“I wasn’t sure what to do about staying over or not,” I said.
“You can if you want.”
“Suppose I don’t. How will you take it?”
“I’ll take it as your personal choice, that’s all.”
“It doesn’t mean I don’t want to see you again. I do.”
“If you want to, then you will.”
I was silent for a moment. I really didn’t know what to do. Finally I said, “I need to go home. I think I should just go home and think.”
“Take all the time you need.”
“You’re not angry with me?”
She shook her head, smiling slightly. “Stop looking for reassurance. That would be a step in the right direction. Think, decide, and act.” She collected the dishes and put them in the sink.
“It’s that simple, is it?”
“John, your problem is you’re insecure.”
“Yeah, I guess maybe.”
She walked me to the door, and I put my coat on.
“At least it won’t be raining on the way back. But you must drive carefully because the road has no lights.”
“I’ll call you,” I said, repeating words said a billion times before by people who meant it or didn’t mean it.
“I know,” she said.
I smiled bravely and tried to joke. “Or else I’ll see you in my dreams.”
“I don’t think so,” she said seriously. And I felt undermined.
I stood in front of her, coat unbuttoned, wondering if these would be the last words I’d speak to her. “Well…” But no words would come. So she kissed me gently on the lips and said, “Get home safe, John.”
We said our goodbyes and I went out to my car and started it and drove carefully down the driveway. She stood in the doorway watching me until I gave a final wave and was out of sight.
I drove back the way I came. I was very mentally distracted, however, because I made a wrong turn somewhere and got myself lost in those horrible barrens for an hour. By the time I found a paved road with signage, I was disoriented and heading in what I thought was the right direction. Well, it was sort of right, but I ended up on the wrong highway and found myself crossing the state border at Camden, a total hellhole. I had to stop at a red light in a dreadful neighborhood to check my map to see which way to Allentown, thinking that at any moment I would be swarmed by hoodlums coming out of the shadows. I eventually got out of there, found the highway I needed and got back to Allentown. When I got home, I was stressed out by the drive and needed a few drinks to calm down. Then I went to bed, thinking about Jay, and about the dream, and about the barrens, and what else I don’t remember.
As it happened, we were doing inventory at the warehouse, which was immensely tedious because it had to be done manually. I had a heavy responsibility for it but was not at my best. My underlings caught me in two mistakes and joked about it. In the lunch room someone made a quiet comment to somebody else, which resulted in restrained laughter. I knew it was about me because I caught him nodding toward me and tapping his head. I finished my coffee and walked out.
I’d been thinking and looking for answers, but I got nothing. The strange thought crossed my mind that maybe I’d been the victim of an elaborate hoax. The Jay I met in the dream had given me the phone number of a much older sister, who then received me in New Jersey and pretended to be Jay. But what would be the point? What kind of joke was that? And it didn’t explain the dream and everything that was in it. No, it was Jay in both places. And I guess I still loved her. But what if she got older a second time — and I mean like an old woman? And if I wasn’t going to live in the barrens and she wasn’t going to marry me and move to Allentown, where did that leave us? It was too much for my poor, dumb brain.
Two weeks after my visit I woke up and certain things were clear in my mind. I loved Jay, no matter how she looked, and I’d gladly go live in the barrens with her. We could get married or not. Didn’t matter to me. But life without her was too hard, too lonely.
I called her number and got a recording that said that number was not in service. My mistake, I thought. I dialed again very carefully. Same message. I panicked. What’s going on? Maybe I waited too long to call her, and now she’s through with me! I called Information to see if she had a new number. They had no listing for her anywhere in that area code. I asked the operator if the town of Piper was listed at all. It wasn’t.
I had to go there at once. It was Easter Monday, so I had the day off. But I’d be getting a late start and would be arriving in darkness. I found the original directions and got my map and got in the car and drove off. I was sick with fear that I’d lost her. If there was a reasonable explanation, I couldn’t think of it. But I was hoping that when I got there, everything would be okay.
I got to St. Martin’s Road faster than the first time. The sky was clear, but it was dark. I looked for the mailbox with the magpies, and I found it. Then I noted the odometer and drove exactly 1.4 miles. The house should have been on the right. There was nothing. No clearing, no little driveway. I must have made a mistake. I made an awkward three-point turn and returned to the mailbox with the magpies. This time I counted the clicks on the odometer out loud. At 1.4 miles I looked, and there was no house. I shined my flashlight, but it was too weak. I turned the car and aimed the headlights. There was just trees. I stepped out of the car and walked inward, but there was no house. This is impossible! I thought. I was out of my mind with fear and confusion.
I got back in the car, backed up very slowly for a considerable way and kept looking to the right. Nothing. Then I went forward slowly, looking to the right, until I got to a dip in the road and realized I’d gone too far. The house physically had to be along that stretch of road that I’d checked and rechecked. But it wasn’t.
I stopped the car and turned off the ignition. I looked up at the stars. God help me! God help me! I sat in the car and cried. I lay across the front seat and felt sick. I don’t know how long I was there like that. Such horrible, morbid thoughts. I wanted to die. And there was the moon in a crescent, and I watched it move behind some branches, and I was getting cold. I sat up and had no ideas. Maybe I had just dreamed everything — the dreamland, Jay, the house. Maybe none of it was real. I must have lost my mind.
I started the car and just drove slowly straight ahead. I drove quite a long distance before I came to a paved road. I turned left for no reason.
I saw a service station that was open, which surprised me. I stopped there and got out. An old white guy came out and asked what I would have. I asked him, “Is there a town around here called Piper?”
“Piper? Oh, my goodness, that’s an old historic name. That place faded away ages ago.”
“Was it around here?”
“Yes, in this general area. In the barrens.”
“Have you ever heard of St. Martin’s Road?”
“Mm…don’t believe so. Could be an old historic name.”
“Oh, hell,” I said to myself.
“You want gas?”
I got some gas just to be polite to the old guy, and to make sure I didn’t get stranded in the barrens. And then without much attention to direction, I drove until I got to a highway, and eventually got oriented. I drove for hours in a daze until I got back to Allentown.
I was beyond sorrow. I was numb. I was angry with God for putting me through such a cruel joke, whatever it was. I sat in front of my window looking out at a deserted street. And whatever thoughts I had are gone, and who cares? I was just an ordinary guy who didn’t understand enough, and I had to suffer for it.
I drank and took pills for a long time after that. I struggled to get through every day at work. I wondered if there was anything I could do? Should I hire a private detective? Should I go to a psychic? Should I go back yet again and search? No. It was all pointless. It would only make it worse. I could never forget what had happened. All I could do was try not to think about it. XXX on the calendar. Another week. Another month. Rip it off. Repeat the process. That’s all.
I was “Silent John” to my co-workers. My boss asked me why I’d undergone such a “personality change”. I just shrugged and said, “Can’t explain.” He said he knew a nice psychiatrist, and maybe it would do me some good to see him. I said no, not interested.
Every night when I went to bed, I thought, Maybe I’ll have the dream. But, of course, I didn’t. And in fact I never had the dream again.
In early November the strangest thing happened. I had returned home from work, and as I was getting out of the car, I noticed something. On the floor mat on the passenger side, there was a leaf. I reached in and picked it up. I recognized it. It was a sassafras leaf — the double mitten one. I couldn’t imagine how such a leaf could’ve gotten in my car. And what made it even stranger was that it was now autumn, but this leaf was perfectly green and fresh. I took it into the house with me. I brushed it gently to remove any dust or dirt from the car and put it in a little bowl in my bedroom.
The leaf is aging but very slowly. And every night at bedtime I kiss that leaf and say, “Jay, wherever you are, I love you.”
And I just go on living, clinging to one hope: that when I die, I’ll find myself in that place again, and Jay will be there. And we’ll be together forever.
Copyright@ 2013 by Crad Kilodney. E-mail: email@example.com
Thank you to all my readers, old and new, for your support. This is the last piece I will publish in my lifetime. My French book, Villes Bigrement Exotiques, is still in print. Published by Le Dilettante (Paris).