By Sophira Bradford
When I was a child, every night I would stay awake until my father and mother went to bed, and turn on the hallway light. The light made me feel safe. I didn’t think about being scared of the dark, but I couldn’t sleep unless I felt the soft glow of the light, like warm embers, on my closed lids.
That all changed, the dark becoming only a preliminary to when I’d see him.
I didn’t think about loving the dark, but I knew the darkness would bring him.
I felt giddy like a schoolgirl when I closed my eyes at night, fidgeting in bed and anxious for sleep when only relaxation would bring it. But when I saw him, I felt like something more than a girl. I felt like a woman; a mysterious being, fey and fatal and beautiful and a mystery to even myself.
It seemed my dreams had always been vivid. When the nightmares came, I could feel the horror of every moment in startling clarity, or pain even, depending on what happened. Soon, when I’d woken up screaming for months on end during middle school, I’d heard my mother whisper to my father: “night terrors.”
When the nightmares finally lessened, my dreams were as solid and whole as reality. I would tell my parents about dreams where I would speed down a road in a car, the feeling of the wheel under my hands and the smell of leather in my nostrils and the wind blowing through my ears, my hair flying behind me. I would tell them of dreams where I walked on water, an endless ocean that churned under my feet and the amazing creatures I’d see and how exhilarated I awoke. The more vivid and detailed the dreams got, the more nervous and awkward they seemed to react. I stopped telling them anything at all when they began to take me to therapy twice a week.
It was after those times in therapy, frustrating and demeaning and confusing times, that I saw him: after I’d refused to talk anyone at all.
I was asleep, looking out over a beach and then suddenly he was next to me. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” his voice was like a shadow, his eyes were like pools of stars. His brows were dark, and wide, and his forehead shaded his face. He was lithe and wide, muscular, menacing almost (like a bark without a bite). I felt afraid at first, and then his hand touched my arm, and all I felt was alive. I knew he wasn’t here to make me scared, like I knew my own name.
“Who are you?” I asked him. He laughed, a curious sound, like the turbulent waters of a whirlpool.
“Many things, to many people.” I thought about that. I had always been alone in my dreams, rarely seeing anyone except in nightmares, where I knew something was chasing me – but I’d never lay eyes on it. I thought about him, looked at him again, his frame seeming to shimmer out of view for a moment.
“Who are you to me?” His head jerked towards me, his eyes fluid and shining. I sensed surprise, and pleasure.
“I’m here to help you,” he said simply.
That first time, we stood on together on the beach, silent for a long time. I felt his energy. He pulsated with light and dark and mystery and knowing. I reached for his hand, and he was my father, and brother, and friend. I awoke and laid in bed, his eyes still floating in front of me as I stared at the ceiling.
“Why are you here? Why did you come?” I asked him one night, when he was still new, when I was still young.
“I came to show you about things – like people, and life, and dreams, and how to have fun,” he said. His lips were full, and his words were like a song. He put me on his feet, and we danced a funny, awkward ditty that didn’t seem to fit him. I laughed and danced until we swirled around and around and everything was a blur and my heart sped fast and my laughs were sputtering between my teeth.
When I fell, the ground was soft like a pillow under me. He fell back too, sighing and yelling all at once. When he looked at me, I saw what mischief looked like. He counted to ten, then disappeared. I spent the rest of that dream searching for him. I wanted to see him again, but wasn’t mad when I awoke and he hadn’t shown up.
“Why are you so sad and so dead?” he asked me, much, much later. It was like a prayer and a quiz.
“I’m not sad, and I’m not dead,” I argued. I was holding his hands, and we were walking through a dark, unlit tunnel towards a place I didn’t know.
“No,” he said musingly. He walked and walked still silent, until he turned to me and said,
“No, you’re numb and lifeless,” I tried to grasp what he meant, and I couldn’t. I wanted to say things I never said before to anyone, but his words kept me silent. I was afraid of disagreeing with him – he was always right.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know how to live.” I felt judged, and snapped back.
“Maybe not, but I know about life.” I was angry now, in a rage and I didn’t know why and I watched a cloud form in this tunnel. It grew thicker and thicker until I could see nothing, not even him. I wanted him to go away for the first time ever.
“No my love, you don’t know about life either. Not completely, not yet. You just know about pain. And that isn’t life.” It was like gray fog, and my head felt like I would explode and I screamed at him, reached in the fog to grab him, to attack him in my rage.
A memory rushed into my mind. It was of a little girl with a man. That little girl was me. The man was a vile thing, like a demon. But his face wore a bland smile, and he hid behind human skin. I watched him take that little girl’s hand. She fought him, thrashing and screaming and crying, until they were both gone out of my sight. No one followed them. No one came for the girl, or the man.
I slid to the floor, the fog now fading, and a pain like a hot poker seared my chest. I couldn’t move, not at all.
He would leave me too now, I thought. I accepted that. I accepted it and I felt nothing. No…I accepted it – and I felt numb.
Life IS pain, I thought.
“No… pain is only a part of life,” I heard him say in my mind. His hand appeared like out of nowhere, but I was paralyzed. I couldn’t reach up and take it.
“You never told anyone what happened.” He said. He wasn’t asking. I knew what he meant.
“No… I don’t know why.” I lied, and I knew that he knew. I felt grief wash over him. His emotions seemed connected to mine. We felt each other more than we spoke, it seemed.
“You didn’t think they would believe you…you thought they’d say… it was a dream…” I began to cry. I felt the stink of the memory. This man I knew, who I’d loved and now despised, this man, who changed me forever. All I felt was for a long time shame, and anger, and loneliness. After a while, I felt nothing when I thought of him.
“That’s when the nightmares started,” he said. We held hands, and I felt that hot poker pain, but his hand kept it at bay. It was right there at the surface, and I wanted it to go away. I wanted to tell him to stop, but all that came out was a dry heave.
“That’s why you only really talk to me,” he confided. Tonight, I couldn’t, I wouldn’t talk. That was ok with him.
“One day, one day,” he said menacingly. I thought of that man, and the stink of him, and shook my head. One day, but not today.
A dare was a dare, and I was safe, wasn’t I? He taunted me with his hollow laugh from the other side of wide river. It was teeming with fish, who were jumping out of the water to laugh at me too. The river was as wide as two streets, as wide as a house.
“Jump, Jump, jump,” he chanted, and he laughed and laughed and suddenly, I began to laugh too.
I was afraid for just a moment – so ominously long and high that jump would have to be. But he was laughing so hard, and I was laughing, and it was hard to think about that for too long. I stepped back and pushed off my legs as hard as I could.
In the air, weightless over the river, gaining height, nothing under me but a serious drop, my heart was racing. He was still laughing, the sound of it was closer now, his eyes bright like a thousand stars. I came down into his arms. He was still laughing; it shook through me as I leaned on his chest.
I looked up at him exhilarated and assured. My head was spinning and I was happy and tired and his arms were like an envelope around me.
He looked down at me, his usual shimmering self, and I felt a flood of something foreign and beautiful – something I wasn’t sure I’d ever experienced.
It was more than happiness, it was more than joy or pleasure. It was more than safety and security and desire. It was more than all of those things, but it was all those things as well.
I fell asleep in his arms and opened my eyes in bed. Laying there quietly, I cried. I cried until my chest shook and my head began to hurt and my pillow was damp. I cried until I felt empty. Slowly, slowly, as the sun rose, I fell back asleep and slowly, slowly, everything felt okay.
High school never interested me – besides science. Mr. Abatemarco, my science teacher seemed to be the only one who had glowing things to say about me. No matter. I was fine with that.
I found a ridiculous, unexplainable serenity in high school that had escaped me before. Up until now, I’d always felt uncomfortable in my skin, like I didn’t fit properly inside myself. Slowly, slowly and suddenly, suddenly like the rising sun, that feeling evaporated. I felt ok with my weird dreams now, and I felt ok about how I preferred writing to speaking, and I felt ok that my parents and family didn’t understand me and were constantly worrying about my lack of friends and communication. I felt ok that they didn’t believe that I was ok. (Was this all because of him?) I spent lunch time writing in my journal, or running around the track; both were pleasures to me and left me free to daydream as much as I wanted. I made some friends. Anya, who was editor of the school paper, and Terry who ran track with me; we were in the same gym class. But I could never tell them about him, I felt, and so they were never really my friends.
He would show up on almost every dark night now, and when I fell asleep, his smile was the first thing that focused in front of me. I’d feel his pleasure, his silent approval. We would sit together sometimes in the weirdness of a bustling dream that made no sense, and watch things pass by, people pass by together. After him, I had starting seeing many people I knew show up in my dreams. It was like he’d let in the world with him when he came.
“Dreams shape life, you know,” he said as if it were a funny joke. I laughed.
“I know.” He turned to me. Now, his eyes were gray and soft like cotton.
“You know?” He was laughing now. He stood, and suddenly it seemed he was ten feet tall. I watched him in awe, and a little bit of fear. He looked down on me, pulled me up from the grass with his hand, and turned to face the orange sun that shined over us.
“What you do here, what you face here, what you believe here, what you release here, will be what you become.” I felt a chill down my spine, and the fear blossomed in my chest. He turned to me, and held both my arms, pulling me to his torso.
“What will you become?” He asked. His voice was thready, and I was confused, and afraid, and I didn’t have an answer.
“I don’t know,” I whispered. I was crying, silent tears streaking my face. Someone walked past us, a familiar face I couldn’t place.
“Become free,” he whispered back, still holding me to his chest. I felt his energy, his heart, pulse through his being and into mine. I was afraid of what that meant.
His words seemed to haunt me through high school and into college, when I was finally away from my parents and their expectations and their concerns.
I was uncertain again, and it was saddening to me because I’d gained in my youth a certainty being with him that I hadn’t been aware of until it was gone.
Being adult was the same as being a child – nothing ever really changed. More responsibility, more choices, more opinions and options surrounding you, but still – that unsureness lurked. The unsureness of whether I would completely know what I was doing. The ambiguity of my course, the questioning of every correction on it. I thought about him more and more in my waking moments than I had as a child. And I was ashamed of that.
Was he like a stuffed toy, or a comforting blanket? I pondered this almost every night as I slept, and my dreams became dull and forgettable and he was nowhere to be found. Maybe I had outgrown him, I told myself. Besides – no one has an imaginary friend as an adult, right? Wait – was he imaginary? That was a confusing and unsettling road all on its own…
And had I really outgrown him?
I filled my mind with responsibilities, and papers, and classes and jobs. I made friends, and tried dating. But was it as clear to everyone else as it was to me that I was going through the motions?
I didn’t sleep well – a permanent insomniac, it seemed.
And I thought and I thought and I thought about what it meant to be free, and wondered how I could become so.
He came to me one day – on a sunny day with a slightly cool breeze right on the edge of spring.
I was laying on my back in the park, the one several blocks from school, with a chemistry book covering my eyes. I was tired of working through the book, preparing for a test, when I thought again about those words: about becoming free.
My mind wandered, I felt myself drift and float between sleep and awareness, that twilight place.
“You’re beautiful.” He was there, and I felt his gaze assess me though his eyes were hollow pools of darkness.
I started, staring at him. I felt myself breathing hard. I wanted to call out his name – but he’d never had one, and I’d never named him.
“You’re here,” I said – all frazzled. I tentatively reached out to touch his arm. Was that his arm? As usual, he was all shadow and light, all shimmer and dark. I was happy to see him. But I felt the façade of nonchalance I’d learned to slip on as I extended my hand.
He laughed – a lonely, ironic sound – dry, echoing and quiet. With it, his presence washed over me like I was a child again.
“I missed you,” it was an accusation and a cry and a confusing request that pattered out in tune with my heartbeat.
“You never forgot,” he lay next to me on the grass, and disintegrated into a puddle of darkness that flowed under me. It surrounded me and swallowed me up and suddenly, we were gone.
What a familiar view, I thought, as we looked out at the ocean on a white sandy beach. Drinking in the heat of the sun, I couldn’t tell if it was rising or setting. But here he was next to me as I dropped to my knees in silence. He stood over me. He was a stark, dark contrast of shadow against the backdrop of the sand and trees swaying behind him on the beach. What was he? Who was he –this, this thing I could only see in my dreams?
“You ask a lot of questions,” He whispered. I reached for his hand, and he held it.
“That’s good,” he added.
“Got any answers to them?”
I thought about that, and shook my head at him. I wanted to cling to him, tell him to never leave again. I wanted to take him with me into the light, into reality, into life.
“Why did you leave?” I asked. I was sad, and I felt detached from him somehow. It was a like seeing a close friend after decades apart; an awkward dance of slipping into familiarity and intimacy and at the same time wondering if it was still there.
“So you could live life, remember?” I thought about that for a moment. I knew what he meant, but struggled with settling into acceptance of it.
“I missed you – I need you…” It was a vulnerable, open statement. I felt the weight of that and embraced it, instead of feeling embarrassed or ashamed. He sighed, and pulled me to my feet. Yanking me against him, pressed against his chest, I looked up into his face, his body looming over me.
“Don’t miss me. Don’t wonder about me. Don’t long for me. Don’t twist and fight against life. Don’t you see? Don’t you see it? It’s all about life – making your life fit your dreams.”
“Life could never be like this!”
“You’ve forgotten already? Dreams shape life…” His voiced wandered off, like he was lost in thought.
“I don’t know how to make that happen,” I cried out into his chest.
“You don’t know how. You just do it. Like when you walk on water, or jump over a river, or fly through the air. You don’t have to understand it all. Life means just accepting that you can make it happen – though its not without obstacle.” I sighed, and pulled away from him. A part of me knew I would never dream of him again. I was childish, longing for something I’d outgrown. There were new things for me to grow into, but I missed the simplicity of knowing him.
“I’ll never see you again.” It wasn’t a question.
“Silly girl, you see me all the time. Have you been looking?”
I just stared at him, watching him shift into himself, watching him bleed into the background.
He sighed, and held my hand. But I couldn’t feel his grasp.
“I was here to reach out to you, pull you in from the dark you were hiding in. Now I want you to reach. Reach out to others, reach out in the face of your fears. Reach out and experience the pleasure and the pain of truly loving. Reach out – and forget the past. Forget the little girl who wouldn’t speak to anyone. She’s a woman now – fast and fearless and beautiful and no longer broken.”
His words immersed in finality, I reached for him to pull him into a dance, to make fun of his cheesy words. He smiled; it formed a gaping dark gash across his face and as I reached for him, he was gone.
“This was… weird. Amazing. I – I don’t know what to say,” he actually blushed as he handed me back the papers. They were shuffled, a little creased as if he’d read through it quickly. I’d waited all weekend to speak to him about it. He was the only one I’d ever shown it to; he was so new to me and yet we’d fallen into sync since the moment I met him. Did he feel that way? It was too soon to tell, too soon to ask.
I wanted to touch his face. I wanted to know what he thought.
“Tell me what you think!” We sat in the library, whispering like two teenage girls. But he was far from that. He smiled, and I felt my heart jump.
“Did this really happen to you?” He asked. His eyes were sparkling and I felt his curiousity.
“Some of it, yes. Yes, it happened,” I said with finality. He pushed him brown hair out of his face, closing his eyes for a moment.
“Wow, Marah. Wow.. It’s – it’s like reading Alice in Wonderland.” I pondered that, beginning to see his viewpoint.
“But – I like it. I couldn’t tell you why….but I do.”
We stood together, drifting out of the library and into the breeze of the day.
I didn’t realize until he’d given me his approval how much I’d wanted it – how much I needed him to understand the words I’d worked so feverishly on. They were a part of me. His ability to connect with my story, it was everything to me in that moment.
I opened my mouth to tell him that, but there was something happening, some thought, some decision registering on his face.
He looked at me intently, his eyes alight and his gaze intent. In a completely simple and random moment he stepped close to me, the hardness of his chest pressed on me making my heart dance to a crazy staccato. Dark hair in his deep brown eyes, his smooth skin cold from the wind, he kissed me.
It felt like jumping across an ocean.
Sophira has had a torrid, painful and passionate love affair with writing since she was old enough to pick up a book. They just can’t seem to break up. She’s from Brooklyn, New York and she though she plans on leaving one day and never returning, it will always be home. She loves discussing good books and the perils of being a writer – her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to reach out.