'The Dream Doctor'

by Steve Curtin

"The Dream Doctor"


Steve Curtin

My wife Nadine is a buoyant woman, brisk with life and loveliness, and she fills our lives with her lighthearted spirit. But presently we are drifting apart. I cannot direct blame towards either one of us with any degree of certainty, nor can I say that anything would be different if I could do so. We know that something between us is silently unraveling and are inexplicably powerless against it. We have stopped sharing, stopped talking to each other, our dialog reduced to those inane vagaries that, between those who live together, cannot be avoided. We have lost both the physical and psychological intimacy that for eleven years has been the mainsail of our relationship and the foundation of what I feel are reasonably successful lives.

To be an observer of your own circumstance is a bizarre and perplexing sensation, and one that diminishes rationality and self-esteem; it is that familiar dream sequence in which one senses danger approaching but struggles against a walkway which has suddenly become quicksand; it is to feel one's mouth open, straining with great effort to call out for help, but to hear no sound.

We exchange glances in the morning over coffee and a newspaper, and a few desperate words in our attempts to give rise to a sea that is too calm...but there is only bewilderment and the sad, slow sipping of coffee. Have a good day....we both say it, half in hope that the casual phrase and the tone in which it is uttered will restore normalcy. How was your day....we mouth at night, helpless against the neutrality, unable to understand why we have become strangers in our home, prisoners of our own cocooned emotions. Our relationship is dying of its own inertia. It was during this period that the dreams began.

It started without warning, the night after the day that the city was witness to a sprawling rain storm, and high-powered winds that ripped around corners and against the glass windows, diminishing the city's great skyscrapers. I remember walking home that night, and the odd sensation that I had made no conscious decision to do so. The sky was cleansed, the park green and pure. The city's trees were cast shadows in a variety of directions.

But my dream was the darkest of themes, and for someone who rarely dreams, or at least rarely remembers them, it was alien to anything I can recall. From what I can piece together from Nadine's fragmented account, I woke screaming, slapping at my chest and head hard enough to cause bruises. Nadine woke, startled and frightened, but quickly gathered herself, first holding my arms down then actually climbing on top of me and straddling my chest in order to prevent me from further injuring myself. I remembered great confusion and fear, then waking up to look at her; I recall her strength, her chestnut hair glowing in a timorous beam of moonlight that strayed in through our bedroom window. The moonbeam was unusual in both its stillness and intensity.

There was not a trace of wind, and I remembered the raging storm I was witness to only hours earlier. In my bewilderment Nadine began to whisper something to me, leaning over as she held my wrists, her words fuzzy, not making sense, but exercising a strange, hypnotizing control over me.

I could smell her skin and hair. The light from the moon was surreal, and there was a moment when I was no longer certain that I had awakened. But her voice stirred me, as did her lips on my cheek. Nadine has great composure during emergencies, always has....she cradled my head between her arms, bent over to kiss me, speaking softly...calm down...it's all right... I love you....

Her soothing worked, and soon I was fully awake. I turned my head. I noticed that the moon was very full that night, and situated so that its illumination, silver and dusty with brightness, wandered in through our window. I was still, the silhouette of Nadine's figure dominant on the wall opposite the window, and we both stared at the image for some time, at the blackness of it, at the totem-like, negative-like image that our figures cast onto the wall. The stream of light that cast our shadows was something of specific purpose and destination, it seemed to me...and it struck me that that light had taken many, many years to reach us.

Our shadows were motionless, and at first we were puzzled by something the image seemed to represent. I don't know how many minutes passed, but at some point the bewilderment was transformed into understanding, and we exchanged a wordless gaze that was the closest of bonds. I still don't know the exact nature of what happened in that moment. The only thing of which I am sure is that whatever it was, it happened to both of us simultaneously and completely, that somewhere in that shocked and silent interval the stillness between us evoked a transformation of a most primal kind. She kissed me deeply, and without altering positions we engaged in sexual foreplay for what seemed like hours, followed by an orgasm that brought both of us to the verge of tears. Nadine collapsed from her position over me and lay by my side. We slept like children on a cool, autumn night.

In the office the next day, sometime after lunch, details of the dream began to coalesce in my consciousness, upsetting the delicate balance of my day. Throughout the afternoon I recalled the kind of mundane occurrences that normally go unnoticed and forgot everything of consequence. I remembered the expression of a vendor I passed on the way to the office, a seller of newspapers and other such items from one of those hastily built cocoons that line the streets of the city. A man peered outward through a wedge, a narrow opening between stacks of magazines and sundry items, his eyes gray, cougar-like. He looked at me strangely, narrowing his eyes in recognition, though I'm certain I'd never seen him before. I became convinced that he knew what had transpired in my bedroom the previous night...not only that he knew, but that he was aware of what it meant. I glared at him bitterly and he withdrew into his hole.

I forgot to attend an important meeting later in the afternoon, one I had been preparing for for weeks. I had to be reminded by a co-worker, who stopped by my office and saw me glaring idly out of the window. What was wrong? He asked. Is everything all right at home? When called upon at the meeting I sat sullenly at the long table, doodling random shapes on a fresh, legal pad.

I remembered a man who left the building at lunchtime carrying a bottle of champagne. He smiled thinly at me, a salesman's smile; then he stopped and began to tap his pockets. His smile faded. He turned and went back into the building. I remembered every crack of his face, every line of his faded grin. I recalled a woman who spoke to me about her daughter, telling me in great detail of the problems of raising a teenager. I remembered every detail of her account, even the words of the arguments the young girl raised....everything except who the woman was. As in that shaken moment of my awakening the previous night, there was a point during the day in which I was not certain whether I was awake or dreaming, and I felt the dichotomy between reality and the mystical, each a stubborn force tugging at each other for dominion.

But by the end of the day, somehow, I had a handle on the dream. I will relate it to you now while it is fresh in my mind; I am sitting on a park bench on a sunny afternoon, the city wrapped around me. It is quiet...that is, quiet for one accustomed to New York. Suddenly I hear a hollow, knotty sound, a wood-like pecking. The sound, and the intensity of the sound, slowly increases. The air is still.

I am suddenly aware of a great rift around me, in the air that moments ago had been still, in the dark shade of sunlight which previously had been clear and bright, without the edges of darkness that enveloped me in that moment. The rift pulls at me and I stand up. As I do a woodpecker descends from the tree and turns towards me. The air is plunging and, inexplicably, I become terrified. The bird hovers; I can see its red crest, and a thin white line sinking from its long neck. I glare at the chisel-like point of its beak. From a nearby construction site the sound of a jack-hammer crashes through the trees. As I am considering both the sound and the woodpecker, the bird whisks through the air and attacks.

It moves incredibly fast, drawn to my forehead; it seems single-minded, purposeful in its pursuit, and I actually feel as though the bird has considered and planned its attack. I back up, horrified, but the woodpecker is fast, upon me like a hornet, pecking at my forehead, striking me again and again...peck, peck peck....peck, peck, peck....the ivory tusk tearing my skin, digging deeper and deeper into my head. I fall onto the bench, great gobs of air swirling around me, the relentless bird continuing its attack.

Blindly and in desperation, I reach out and actually grab the bird by its wings, twisting its neck and tossing it angrily aside. But as I do another takes its place, exactly like the first. It hovers and watches me, sees my fear, then closes. Then there are more. Their wings are like the pulsed beating of helicopter blades. They thrash at my forehead, moving too rapidly for me to respond, peck, peck pecking a giant hole in the middle of my forehead, the sound growing louder and louder; it is more terrifying than I can describe. I feel the prick-point wearing a hole for its beak. I see pieces of my skin and bone flying into the air. I struggle and fight, but I am helpless against their numbers. I protect my head as best I can, but the woodpeckers of my dream are persistent.

After a while the consistency of the pecking numbs the contact point, so that I can no longer feel exactly where the dreaded bird is striking me; the sensation stretches to all sides of my head, my eyes, cheeks, my mouth. I feel myself in a tunnel, or a hollowed-out tree, fighting for air as I wait for death. I don't know what it is about the human mind in its ability to disguise and deceive, but it is a force, I will tell you, that can weave great dread in its patchy images and frail recollections, in its web-like furrows and kaleidoscopic tailwinds.

At home later Nadine constrains me to recall the dream and relate it to her, which I do, though without detail, in very general terms. I can see that her concern is genuine. She appears very lovely to me these days; her eyes are bright, and her cheeks are as red as the leaves of autumn. I have always thought her to have the most beautiful face, especially her mouth; it is like something carved from a fine, soft wood, contoured with the fiery touch of an artist's passion. We go to bed without a word, Nadine turning to smile before putting her head down on the pillow.

Sometime in the darkness I wake yelling, reaching upward, smacking my head and face. In the misty moments that follow, Nadine is suspended over me, my arms restrained by her grip, and I realize that it has happened again; and again I am aware of very bright moonlight. I am confused, frightened, and Nadine is shelter in the darkness. She talks to me in whispers, saying strange things in a way that has become characteristic of these dark, erotic wake-ups; I feel her chestnut hair in my face, her body pressed to mine.

She insists that I tell her everything. I try but it is difficult; I am distracted. Nadine is a curvy, delicious woman who prefers to sleep in very brief silk, and I am in a very vulnerable position. I do not have to tell any man the effects that REM sleep has on certain parts of the male anatomy. I pull her down and she responds. We make love in the moonlight, then a languorous, deep sleep that lasts into a brilliant sunrise.

Each morning we speak of it. You must talk to someone, she insists. You have friends at the office. But a man doesn't speak of such things, certainly not to the predatory sharks of Wall St. Such information in that business can destroy a man. It was clear I needed help. But what kind of help?

I conduct internet research on dream interpretation, and find many sites describing Freud and his methodology. He of course ascribed past trauma to most forms of psychosis, especially sexual trauma. This information causes me to ponder the meaning of my dream and to thoughts of my youth, and I scan my memory for anything relevant, to the pets we had, to incidents at school, to my relationships with girls. I prod my father when I see him, casually leading our conversation to my youth. His eyes narrow as he responds, but he patiently answers all of my questions; No, you never had a bird for a pet....no, you never had an incident with any kind of animal that I can recall...no, I don't know of any incidents at school that upset you....

He asks no questions and I offer no explanation.

Later that night I lose myself surfing the internet. I read diverse news updates, keep up with the latest technical gadgetry, the Wall St. news. But I cannot keep focused on anything for too long these days, so I return to my search on 'dreams', this time coming up with thousands of hits. I shrug and go back to the news. But in the corner of a page of the New York Times editorial, there is a bright, menacing rectangle in the upper corner. I say 'menacing' because I couldn't look away from it. It said, click me. I did.

The next thing I know I am reading the details of a woman's dream. She has obviously submitted it to an area for interpretation, to someone called The Dream Doctor, a web shrink, I gather, and I read on. She spoke of a recurring dream in which she is walking down Fifth Ave wearing nothing but a hat. The hat is quite striking, she writes, and I recall it with great detail; bone colored with a yellow band, and bright flowers extending from one side. I am completely unaware that anything is wrong, uninhibited and free. I am happy, and spread my arms wide, showing off my body. Then suddenly, my husband is watching from the curbside...my smile fades and I am ashamed. I look around for something to cover myself with, astonished that I could be caught in public completely naked, wondering how this turn of events came around. I cover myself with the hat. I wake upset, sometimes crying, and always ashamed. What can I do? The letter is signed, Hats Off.

I am fascinated, and click to read the 'Dream Doctor's' response: Dear Hats Off; This is a very common dream of married women who feel themselves inhibited, whose emotions are 'locked up' by society's norms and their husband's expectations. Your emergence into a parade is an interesting departure, however, and I suspect that you have recently made a major change in your life that your husband, and possibly in-laws and your own parents, are not happy with. In the dream you say you are 'happy and free' until your husband sees you. Then you are confused and ashamed. The dream is simply a repressed desire to assert yourself, magnified by the mystical powers of the sleep-dream mechanism. I suspect also that you have not made your feelings clear to those involved...but you are doing so in your dream. The 'spreading of your arms' is an unspoken 'here I am, and this is what I want'. My advice to you is to verbalize these emotions to your husband and to anyone else who may be confused or unhappy by the changes you are going through. Good luck....The Dream Doctor.

Again I am fascinated, and impressed by the Dream Doctor's acumen. I read another, this one is from a young family man who finds himself in his dreams every night driving a car that is invisible. Except for the steering wheel, he writes, and the seat I am sitting on, I cannot see the car....yet I am obviously driving....I am on a freeway with many other drivers...but my car passes through them, and theirs through mine. There are no engine sounds, no noises of any kind. For intervals during these transitions, men and woman in their own cars are actually sitting next to me in their seats as we 'pass through' each other. No one looks at me, no one turns their head, though I am desperately trying to get their attention, to get some reaction from them. Against my will, I exit the next ramp and my invisible car leaves the road, drifting upward into the clouds. Please help.... Ephemeral

I rapidly click for the Dream Doctor's response; I think it is interesting and revealing that you sign your letter 'Ephemeral'. The word means fleeting, brief, short-lived. Like many others you have thoughts of death, and also like many these thoughts trouble you. You say that it is silent in your dream, that there are no sounds. Is this a confession of a lack of communication between you and your loved ones? The 'passing through' is both a goodbye to those you love and a desire to 'touch' them in a way you apparently have not been able to. 'No one turns their head', you write...'no one looks at you', even though you are 'desperately' looking for a reaction. I suggest that you are repressing a great many thoughts and emotions, keeping them from those you love, and that you are afraid that you will die without ever doing so. If every dream is a wish, as Freud suggests, then your dream is simply a desire to 'touch' your family and for them to 'touch' and notice you. Don't leave the crowded 'freeway' without opening up to them. Make them notice you by telling them what you think and feel. Sincerely.....The Dream Doctor.

Again I am impressed, and search for information about the 'Dream Doctor', but find only an e-mail address and an area to submit a request to have your dream interpreted. It is not free. But I feel this is the perfect avenue to vent; an impersonal, unseen, unknown adviser who apparently has considerable insight both into the meaning of dreams and the mysterious arc of human interaction. I have nothing to lose, I surmise, and so in great detail I commit the dream to the page and submit it.

I cannot concentrate on my assignments at the office the following day; I am lost in thought, thinking about the Dream Doctor, concerned that I acted rashly. Perhaps I was like the young family man who dreamed of invisible cars, repressed, unable to speak to anyone about my sensations and thus creating my own problem.

I stay late at the office but I am not working. I power down my computer and take the elevator to the streets. Preposterous images spider-web their way into my mind, images of a doctor's waiting room, its walls white and antiseptic, with that aroma of alcohol and cotton swabs. A starched nurse emerges, her uniform crackling; The Dream Doctor will see you now, she utters with great effervescence. Her voice is a light, bouncing melody; The Dream Doctor has a remedy for you and will see you now. He is a wonderful man who has helped many people. With variations, the image replays itself over and over. My laughter is a bitter sound in the twilight streets.

Nadine is lovely in bed that night, brushing her hair over her bare shoulders, and I turn to her as if to initiate touch, gliding the back of my hand across the skin of her shoulders. She does not respond. We still have not made love in the 'normal' fashion for quite some time. She turns, a twinkle in her eyes; Go to sleep, she whispers. Pleasant dreams. I cannot tell whether or not she is smiling.

I wake later in the position that has become 'normal' for us between the hours of 2-4 A.M. Because of my weakened, agitated state, Nadine takes total control. She moves slowly, lightly touching me with her fingers, her cheek, her lips, slowing down time with her dream-like movements, continuing until my every pore is awakened, until each individual cell of my body is straining for attention.

Nadine is not bothered by the disturbance each night, does not seem to mind the sleep that she is losing. In fact I think she has grown accustomed to it, just as I have, to the wonder and excitement of it, of drifting off to sleep each night with our thoughts trained on what is to follow, like children on Christmas Eve. Some nights before bed I can see her in the mirror through the bathroom door, getting ready, as though preparing for a rendezvous. She uses lotion on her long legs, brushes her hair, applies makeup, takes great care selecting her underclothes. She eases into bed and pulls the sheet over her slender body; Goodnight, she purrs.

In the mornings I feel wonderful. My face has a shiny hale to it. I walk with a bounce in my step. Nadine and I sit together and talk, drinking cup after cup of coffee, grinning at each other as we recall the details of our nightly wake-up. I watch her smile, see the sparkle in her eyes, the bright, slender curve of her cheek.

There is little doubt that my dreams are bringing us closer together, to a level of intimacy I once would have thought impossible to attain. There is something here that has marshaled Nadine's most feminine instincts, directing them towards me, her strong, virile husband, who has suddenly digressed to a most unpleasant season of childhood, to a time when sleep becomes the enemy and nightmares threaten existence. I need her and she is aware of this need, feels it for the first time in years. I wake in her arms each night, prisoner to the vulnerability in me which she has discovered and is so compelling, spellbound by her power to comfort me, safe in her grip, protected from myself and the demons that torment me in my sleep. We hold each other like lovers who will never see each other again, like those who have been torn apart and vow to find a way to reunite. Afterwords we talk, sometimes until sunrise. We are learning each others secrets all over again.

Meanwhile, clandestinely, I check each day for a response from the Dream Doctor. It comes exactly five nights after submitting it, on a Saturday, which is fortunate considering what the Dream Doctor has asked me to do. I am surprised and challenged, and uncertain how to proceed. I am troubled by his response and wonder if my nightmare is of a variety unknown by the Dream Doctor. This thought troubles me even more, and I go for a walk after dinner, not stopping until darkness forces me to pause and realize that I am in a foreign and unfriendly gulf of the city. The skyscrapers rise darkly, their windows tiny points of candle-light in a black terrain. Sunset is a few blue-black clouds stretched thin, their edges fading into the black cloth. I feel fatigue, chased by my own footsteps. I quickly head home, and once there lock the door behind me.

I go to my computer and read the response again;

Your dream sounds quite troubling, and I can only guess as to the effect it is having on your life. This is what you must do. Write your dream down in great detail...not as a narrative, but as though you are writing a fictional story, complete with every ounce of expository information you can recall. It should be several thousand words in length. Judging from your account this should be no problem. Then you must allow someone close to you to read it. Follow these steps without deviation...this is imperative! The Dream Doctor.

That is all; that is it. That is all there is! I stand up and tear open a window, then go downstairs and concoct a strong drink. Nadine crinkles her green eyes at me, watches me pace through the house. I go back upstairs.

I am frightened, and quite annoyed that his letter ends so abruptly, with no explanation, no words of wisdom to diminish my apprehension. Is my nightmare a symptom of some serious psychological malady? Is his absence of analysis a warning that things will worsen? What will happen if I refuse to take his advice? In none of the responses I have read thus far has the Dream Doctor sounded so final, so dramatic. More than concerned, I can only do as he advises.

When it is done I give it to Nadine. There is no one else whom I trust, no one else who can carry this burden. We are so close now, closer than ever, so the choice is natural. And she does know the essence of the dream, albeit without the details. But the instant I give it to her I am filled with a sense of dread that I cannot explain.

She reads it that night after dinner, her eyes sliding away from me. She is silent for a long time, then asks, genuinely puzzled, why I did not simply tell her. I have no answer; I am too embarrassed to tell her of my relationship with an Internet dream analyst, so I make something up. She is bewildered, agitated. I feel an unsettling in my stomach.

I am worried that I have done something that is irreversible. Lately I am a bundle of worries. That night I go to bed and wake at sunrise. Not before. Nadine is awake, sitting up, looking straight ahead, her arms crossed over her torso. I didn't wake up? I ask. She shakes her head. No nightmare? I ask. She is glaring at me.

Two days pass without my nightmare, without our familiar wake-up. We try to initiate sex, but this is never the same; sex is an act that must be performed without attempts, without prior knowledge or planned intentions, best accomplished in absolute uncertainty. Now we can only struggle, searching for the serendipity that has suddenly been taken from us, our movements dull, awkward, like the first touch of teenage lovers who are confused by a passion to which they can give no voice.

On the third night Nadine wakes screaming, wildly batting at her face, fighting something I cannot see or help her with. I do not handle it well; I wake groggy and confused, and cannot give her comfort, cannot be there for her. She wakes up fully and glares at me; You gave it to me! Son of a bitch! You gave it to me! She hands me my pillow and blanket.

Nights are very long these days, even though my freakish nightmares are finally gone. I have been sleeping on the couch now, four nights in succession. My wife has not said a word to me in a week.

I sit in the park after work now, almost every day, on the bench from my dream. I like to watch the sunlight change the leaves, the wind turning them in its powerful way, unaffected, and I feel in sync with their lack of will, their detachment.

I see birds among the naked branches, watch their soft, fragile bodies glide in and out of the narrow openings. Two of them land on the bench near me. I become sexually aroused. I am Pavlov's famous dog, salivating, not at a bell that evokes images of food, but at the thought of wild, attacking woodpeckers poking holes into my skull and the primal motions of Nadine's body as she guides me back to the safety of sleep.

But I have lost my power to analyze; I can only sit, perplexed and excited, and watch the fleeting, fanciful flight of the birds.


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