I was dreaming of Aubrey when the phone rang Monday night. I imagine her as a young Lauren Bacall. In my dream, she sat at the bar at The Hole, a place she’s probably never been. Wearing a serious expression, she twirled around and around on a barstool.
Brishen sat cross-legged on the splintered wooden bar, drinking his Southern Comfort from the bottle. “Stop it, girl,” he said. “You’re making me dizzy.”
They’ve never met, know nothing of each other, but I dreamed of them as intimate in a world where I didn’t exist.
Then a phone rang.
I woke up fumbling in the moonlight, stabbing my hand toward where I thought the phone should be. Instead, I felt Brishen’s moist chest. He sat up on the second ring as I crawled across the bed behind him, reaching for the night table.
“Hello?” he mumbled. He got out of bed and walked into the wall, where the door would have been if he’d been sleeping on the right.
“Hello?” I asked the telephone receiver. I heard what I expected, a pause and a click. I thought again about changing the number.
Brishen stood with his forehead against the wall.
“Brish,” I said, and he came back to bed. I put my arm around his shoulder and pulled him close until he began to snore softly.
It was two twenty. I got up, sat on the edge of the bathtub, and opened Aubrey’s diary to where I’d left off:
I dreamed something small and white flew at my bedroom window. I felt like it was trying to get to me, but it didn’t seem dangerous. I wanted to leave, to slip off to somewhere, and I thought to myself, if it gets to 3:30 and I’m still awake, I’ll go. But I slept for the rest of the night.
I closed the dark blue leather journal and returned it to the drawer where I kept it, under the cotton balls.
Brishen had rolled back to the left side of the bed, my side. When we’d started sharing a bed three years before, he’d claimed the right, a change from when he’d been with Tiffany. Nine years had passed since I’d watched Brishen marry his pregnant girlfriend. I used to sit at the bar down at The Hole and listen to the gossip about their fights. After they’d been married five years, a Kentucky cowboy took Tiffany and her daughter away. Some people couldn’t believe she’d stayed as long as she had with Brishen, who smelled like fresh bass until seven most evenings, Southern Comfort after that. I saw his fishing boat wait for weeks in his driveway while he chased his wife and daughter in his rusted pickup. I held my tongue when he came back alone and went from evenings of Comfort at The Hole to afternoons to mornings and back again.
On his thirtieth birthday, I finally said to him, “Brish, I think it’s time we gave each other a try.”
“Why not?” he asked, pushing his empty glass away and handing me his car keys.
But after three years together, we started picking up the phone to hear a click and a dial tone almost every night. He thought it was his daughter, Jessica.
I thought it was Tiffany.
Brishen’s naked body smelled like fish. Tuesday was sweltering and the scent of the river had baked onto him. On his way from the bedroom to the shower, he noticed me curled up with the blue journal on the living room couch. He looked over my shoulder at the small handwriting. “Is that your diary?”
“Not mine. A girl named Aubrey’s.”
He looked closer. “Where’d you get it?”
“The lost and found at work.”
He grinned at me.
“It’s not actually a diary diary,” I went on. “She records her dreams in it. Look.” I flipped to the inside front cover and showed him the quote Aubrey had neatly printed there:
“I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.” – ChuangTse.
“But she’s a woman, right?” Brishen asked. His dick rested against his leg. A dark ring circled it where a doctor had cut the foreskin off thirty-three years before.
“You want me to shower with you?” I asked.
“Will you use that puffy spongy thing on me?”
The phone rang. He closed his eyes.
“You answer it,” I whispered, as if whoever was calling could hear me.
I followed him into the bedroom and listened. “Hello,” he said once, then again a few seconds later, more quietly. His shoulders rose as he took a deep breath. “Jessica?”
A moment later, he replaced the receiver.
“Still want a shower?” I asked.
He shook his head. “How about a bath?”
We filled the tub with bubbles and carried all our candles into the bathroom.
Clean and more relaxed, Brishen leaned over the porch railing to see if it was raining. The clouds hung low and gray. He wanted night crawlers.
“Why don’t you keep your own diary?” he asked.
“Because you’d be getting into it.”
He reached for the porch ceiling, stretching his back, thicker than it was three years before, stronger. I imagined his wife seeing him again. Would she want him?
“I’ll keep one too,” he said. “Then every night we can trade.”
It was an interesting idea, a good way to talk, maybe. Since the hang-up calls had started, I felt smaller every day. I didn’t know how to say that to him.
I settled down on the porch swing with Aubrey’s dream book as Brishen went inside to pour himself some Comfort.
I was a voodoo priestess, with huge, gorgeous, brown breasts. A red velvet grisgris bag hung between them. I wore a long skirt and wandered through my parents’ back yard at dusk, stalking squirrels to use in my Candomble rituals.
I didn’t want to stalk squirrels. I wasn’t sure what a Candomble ritual was, and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to perform one, but I wanted something she had.
I put the diary away for the night and rolled dice with Brishen, helping him drain his bottle. We sat on the bedroom floor and sang old love songs to each other.
“How can I be sure?” I sang. “In a world that’s constantly changing…”
“Girl,” he sang, snapping his fingers. “I don’t want to fight. I’m a little bit wrong, and you’re a little bit right.”
Finally, he picked up two dice and tossed one to me. “Low roll has to be on top.”
We both rolled threes.
Wednesday, as I worked at the circulation desk at the college library, I searched the files for an Aubrey. I looked for library cards, scanned the microfilm sign-out sheets. Nothing.
That night, I dreamed of Brishen with her again. She soaked in our tub while he sat against the wall and read to her from “Alice in Wonderland,” the tea party.
“I don’t think…” Alice said.
“Then you shouldn’t talk,” said the Hatter.
Aubrey giggled. Brishen smiled, never looking at her. I realized where Lauren Bacall had come from. In one of Aubrey’s early dreams, she’d had a low, husky voice. After I’d read that entry, Brishen had rented Key Largo. I was dreaming Aubrey up, as if she were my creation. I’d started to feel like a ghost in my own dreams. But in her dreams, Aubrey’s awareness of herself dazed me, as if only she mattered.
I was a nun, eating with a hundred other nuns in a cold stone hall with a skull on the table, like a holiday centerpiece. Candles burned in steel braces on the walls. My back was sticky with blood, and every other woman in the hall mouthed words to a prayer, but I didn’t know the prayer. I thought if I did believe in God, I believed he was evil.
Even her bad dreams made me envy her.
Brishen brought two blank books home on Wednesday afternoon. The picture on the cover of mine was like a nursery rhyme illustration, a sun and moon, holding hands and running on thin little legs.
His had a gnome on the cover. “Self portrait,” he said.
I tried for a couple of hours to write something in my book. I kept thinking of Tiffany and Aubrey, worrying over one, jealous of the other. I wanted my book to be about me, but I couldn’t get my mind on myself.
The phone rang. I answered. After a moment of silence on the other end, I heard a click and a dial tone.
“How much is caller I.D?” Brishen asked.
Thursday, I read:
It was Christmas, and my house was full of people. Grandma was there. Everyone avoided her, and her feelings were hurt because she came all the way from the dead to see everyone. I hung out next to her and she cried, so I finally blew up at everyone and ordered them out. I hope 1986 is a better year for dreams than 1985 has been.
I almost dropped the book. This had been written over twenty years before. I took the diary to Brishen. “That does say 1986, right?”
“Damn,” he said.
I wondered how long the diary had been lost. Its age made it seem like a relic. I felt kind of let off the hook for keeping it, even after I dreamed of Aubrey in our house. She wore blue jeans and a white t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She searched through drawers and scanned bookshelves. Brishen sat at the kitchen table, writing in the book with the gnome on it. Aubrey stopped beside him.
He lifted his journal to show her the cover. “This one’s mine, girl.”
She frowned and kept searching, so determined.
In the dream, I looked into the mirror to be sure I was there and saw Lauren Bacall. I thought, I don’t know if I’m me, dreaming I’m Lauren Bacall, or if I’ve been Lauren Bacall, dreaming I am me.
We installed caller I.D. on Friday. Brishen and I sat on the porch, silent, for an hour. He didn’t drink his Comfort and I didn’t read. We watched the birds hop around in the trees and listened to the river.
I wondered what he’d say to her if Tiffany’s name showed on the display, what might happen if she answered him. I thought about what would be different if she and their daughter were back in his life. I didn’t want the phone to ring.
“You know,” I finally said, “the display will record any calls that come in whether we’re here or not.”
“You wanna go out for supper?” he asked.
After we’d fed on steaks and made love with the bedroom windows open, Brishen slipped out to the living room. I dozed.
When the phone rang, I jumped out of bed and was down the hall before I was completely awake. Brishen stood by the phone, his hand on the receiver, frowning at the caller I.D. display. I recognized the name there. The Kentucky cowboy.
Brishen lifted the receiver and said hello. The person on the other end of the line hung up. Brishen called the number back.
Tiffany wanted a divorce. She wanted to marry the cowboy. Brishen talked to Jessica, who asked to visit in the summer. They’d both been calling him and hanging up, as if they both had something to be ashamed of.
When he got off the phone, his face had a brightness I hadn’t seen in so long. Even I was relieved. But then he asked me a question that seemed unrelated, one I wasn’t prepared to answer. “Why do you want to keep Aubrey’s diary?”
And why was I fixated on a stranger’s dreams? Why did I not want to talk about any of this? I felt like Chuang Tse, like I was the butterfly, dreaming, like my waking life wasn’t real.
“My dreams are never about me.” I thought we might get into an argument.
But Brishen pointed to the kitchen table, where his gnome journal lay. “I wrote you something.” He kissed my cheek on his way to the bedroom.
His first entry read:
My baby’s bored with romance novels because the woman in the book ain’t got nothing on her. So this is my baby’s romance novel and I’d better be the hero. We could be like Humphrey Bogart and what’s her name on the African Queen and I won’t look while she’s taking a bath in the river because I know she’s gonna fall in love with me anyway. And we’ll live on my boat and have boat kids who get seasick when they walk on land. And on Saturday nights when Grandma takes the kids and makes popcorn and rents movies (here’s the sex part, baby) we’ll sing love songs and eat shrimp and make love under a white sheet until the sweat falls out of my hair onto your cheeks and then we’ll jump in the river and let the minnows nibble us.
I had put our future out of my mind. I’d done the same with his past and my own present.
I tried to think only of myself, what I liked and didn’t, what I looked like, what I wanted. I shook my head hard each time my mind wandered.
When I tiptoed back to the bedroom, I was so aware of myself that I knew I could do magic.
Today, I called the Gazette. I put an ad in the lost and found column for a dream journal. Approximately twenty years old. Call to describe.
I pulled my own journal out of my underwear drawer and ran my fingers over the cover, the sun and moon, running, hand in hand. I wanted to fill the book and grow old with it.
Last night I dreamed I wore a blue and white dress with a hoop skirt. I smiled at myself in the mirror. That’s all.
It is a strange place to begin. But the first words I wrote in my diary came easily. They are these:
“Last night, I dreamed I was me.”
Sandra Maddux-Creech’s work will feature in THEMA in February and has appeared in Summerset Review, Arabesques Review, Ballyhoo Stories, and other journals. She has been a finalist in contests sponsored by Glimmer Train and Many Mountains Moving, and her story, “Ceremony,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She earned her MFA at Colorado State University.
© 2008, Sandra Maddux-Creech