Sometime in the process of falling asleep, between when she turns out the light and when her brain slips away from her, there’s always a small moment when her mind falls into an incomprehensible daze — a kind of limbo, where thoughts drift between the unintelligible language of dreams and the sharp diatribe of reality. She knows it well: where anything goes, where dreams, memories, intrusive thoughtful musings all find a home.
I wonder what would happen, she thinks, but the thought doesn’t complete before she moves on to the next. And I have to wake up early tomorrow, don’t I quickly makes way for I wonder if I’ll dream tonight.
Dreams were not always common for her, but when they did show up they did so with a force, filled with vivid imagery and nonsensical plot structures.
Do you remember … From a few weeks before. She was sitting on the couch when she was suddenly struck by a moment of déjà vu so strong that she sat straight up. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve seen this exact moment before, in a dream many years ago.
For a moment, she wonders if dreams are the reverse of a memory — a way to see into the future. And then she reminds herself of dreams she’s had about ducks and washing machines, or broomsticks and licorice. That can’t be right.
And then there are the dreams inspired by real life. She thought of dreams with people she knew — always people she hardly spoke to, or generally hated, or had recently thought about for the first time in years. An unwanted cameo. And she remembered once when a siren had woven its way into the fabric of her dream, the sound conjuring the image of an ambulance driving through the dream-streets of her brain before she finally woke up.
Another time, with the pterosaur. She had taken a class on dinosaurs to complete her natural science credits, and she learned that the pterosaurs had bones in their fingers to create the framework for their wings. That night she dreamed that her ring finger extended, and as her arms raised gracefully above the ground, she found that she had wings. And she got up and she flew.
Another time, French class. Real-life. She showed up to her first day taking a new language, feeling optimistic, but the words didn’t quite fit in her mouth, her tongue spluttering, her brain whirring. All her life, she’d had the words to say what she meant, or what she thought, or what she didn’t think — but in this new setting, she was reduced to such a limited vocabulary that it felt like she had nothing to say.
Then one night, she dreamt in French, the thing that people always talk about like it’s life-changing. But the conversation she was met with in her dream state was more like the conversations in real life: she could understand nothing. She could only reply with the one phrase she remembered in this non-reality: “Qu’est-ce que c’est” — What is that.
But then there were the other dreams, ones where the lines of limbo blurred after she woke up. A middle school dream about holding hands with a friend had turned into a real-life crush come daytime. A nightmare about not being properly prepared for a presentation had turned into real-life anxiety. And there was the dream where her sister’s boyfriend was trying to kill her, his cloaked head silhouetted against the moon as he let loose arrow after arrow. She never trusted him much after that.
The thought strikes her: Dreams and memories must not be so different, then, if they are so easy to confuse. The word ‘memory’ is a trigger, the stick of dynamite that knocks down the dam and releases the flood.
Out of nowhere, the memories hit her — because memories always hit out of nowhere.
In an instant, she is struck down, walloped with a crippling case of Sudden Onset Nostalgia that curls through her from the inside out. She is no longer in her bed, but a dark void, her body weightless. Images float by, projecting themselves onto her closed eyes: the colorful thesaurus she had when she was a kid, and the neighbor who had a zipline that ran to the apple tree in her backyard, and the salamander she convinced her mom to let her get, and the elephant stuffed animal that she bought for her friend’s 10th birthday and —
Change the subject. If you don’t, we’ll be here all night.
She moves back to thoughts, easier to mold than images.
She wonders why characters in teenage movies never seem to have homework unless it’s convenient. And why it never rains in movies unless it’s convenient. She remembers the time in her life when she tried to write love songs and love stories, but she had to stop; she kept thinking of herself as a fraud, writing about something that she’d never experienced.
She remembers how she was always a creative child, but in an unbridled way. Her imagination ran rampant, stomping its way into every situation and bending the world to her vision. She talked too much. She was too restless. She always struggled to follow the instructions she was given, knowing that beyond them was something that couldn’t be missed. Something intangible. Something spectacular.
Imagination is something you’re supposed to grow out of, isn’t it? She wonders if she ever did.
But every moment was ripe for imagination. Every scenario was worth considering. The world would shift slightly, as if to open up to abstract possibilities remembered like dreams. She saw every car that she passed in front of as a hypothetical with a reckless driver and a potential car crash. She saw the diamond-patterned footprints she kept noticing in the snow as a person that she might have met before.
Her family used to make fun of her for not discerning specific things that seemed obvious. She thinks that she’s just observant about the wrong things, the small details that others ignore because they’re too trivial or too imaginative to matter.
Her eyelids feel heavier than ever, and her body feels far away. Maybe I will dream tonight. Maybe I’ll dream about broomsticks and licorice.
Her brain is floating, fading, drifting. In the last moments before it slows to a full stop —
Dreams and memories go hand in hand, two siblings with enough similarities that they get mistaken for one another on a regular basis. And at times they blend, like —
Don’t forget to … she thinks, and make sure you …
… oil and water, like fiction and memoir, like the limbo between two worlds, until it’s impossible to tell the difference …
Senior Arts Editor Kari Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.