I had horrible nightmares when I was little, just horrible. The first recurring dream I can remember was one of having to cross a bridge, a plank bridge over the Susquehanna River. The Susquehanna is a wide river, usually shallow, but rock-strewn, and in the dream, those rocks sharply radiated the pain of falling and hitting hard. The dream bridge went from mountainside to mountainside (mountains on both sides of the Susquehanna defining its course, you see -- no oxbow bends for this river, not a chance) and was narrow, so that the crossers had to go single file. Over and over, through terror and forebodings, I had to cross that bridge. It would get too narrow to turn around, and oh, yes, you guessed it -- planks would turn up missing, the side railings would begin to give, or there would be planks ahead so flimsy and far apart that I knew they would break beneath me.
I would awaken shaking with fear, and creep out of bed in the dark (I was very thankful for the street light in front of our house; at least when I woke up I could see that there was no river or bridge before me), and down the hall to my parents' room. My father worked night shifts most of the time, and I would call to my mother from the doorway, trying to pitch my voice just right. Too loud and she would awaken quick and crabby, and tell me to "Stop carrying on and get back to bed!" Too soft and she wouldn't be able to protect me by letting me sleep in her bed for the rest of the night. Nights when she wasn't interested in childishness, I usually didn't sleep again until daylight began to show, and I would pray the Guardian Angel Prayer over and over, finding no comfort in it whatsoever.
When Jesse was born, I was sooo fortunate as to get the bedroom downstairs at the back of the house, as an infant needs to be nearer to the parents, blah, blah, blah. I knew it was an end to crawling in with Mom, and besides, Dad's shifts had changed, and with the new addition Mom was crabby most of the time. "Solange, it is time for you to start to grow up. You know there are no monsters or ghosts and it's just a bad dream, for heaven's sake. Say some prayers and you'll fall asleep right away. I always do."
Bedtimes were fraught with fear and tears until my parents gave in and bought me a good bedside lamp that I was allowed to keep on while I slept. The worst of the nightmares stopped, and I had begun to read avidly, so that was an added benefit. I didn't stay up too late reading, either. My parents had the ultimate threat: removal of the bedside lamp. Since I was now at the back of the house, I also got the clock of my choice: a big comfortingly loud windup ticker with twin brass bells on the top. At nine, Klanger the Clock cued me to put the book away and say those same old prayers.
Around age nine I was already tired of being the coward on the playground, the coward in the schoolyard, the coward in the bedroom. Bigger and older and more aggressive kids seemed always to be beating on me because we were not from around Penn's Vale. We were Outsiders, and therefore I needed to be tarred and feathered, or burnt at the stake, or pounded to tears by those whom I dared to consider peers. Along with the terror in real life, nightmares joined forces with the Home Militia and made my sleep miserable as well. When you're afraid to sleep, afraid to go to school, and afraid to go outside the yard to play, being a kid is fairly depressing.
One night I dreamt that Godzilla was going to catch me and crunch me up, and as I ran from it, I thought, "There should be a super hero here to save me." (I had become a regular Superman addict courtesy of the comic book selection at Benner's Drugstore downtown.) In the dream, I stopped running, because there He was, Superman himself, and he beat the tar out of the monster and I awoke, panting with the effort of dream running, surprised, and pleased as if it was going to be Christmas tonight. No, you missed that one, I didn't develop a crush on Clark Kent over it. I was old enough to recognize that I did that, I made Superman appear, just by wanting him to, and that from now on, the nightmares would have to look out for me.
The dig team was encamped on a hill jutting out from the side of the mountain. The soil was rough and rocky, and with just our luck, what surrounded the soil was a crunchy reddish-yellow clay, the dust of which would stick to everything if it got even a little wet. There were a number of sites we intended to investigate on the west side of the hill; as long as it didn't rain, the excavation wouldn't be too difficult if we used little scrapers rather than brushes. There was no vegetation on the hill, as though it had been sprayed with a soil sterilant. The slope was not too steep to stand on, but equipment would undoubtedly roll down the whole bare twenty-five yards and lodge in the tangled brush at the bottom every time we'd need it.
The tents and the transportation were close to where the mountain met hill on the east, out of the wind, we hoped. We didn't need heavy shelter as it shouldn't start raining here for about another three months. Nights would be chilly, but we had good sleeping bags and lightweight cots to keep us off the cold ground. With the lack of plants and large rocks, we figured the only vermin we'd encounter would be scorpions and ants, which I suppose are vermin enough for anybody.
The air was chilly and the sky overcast, and we wanted to move around, get started, dig a little and find some motivation there in the ochre dirt. We walked to the top of the slope. There were about six or seven of us, and we were standing looking down at the west side sites when some movement caught our eyes at the bottom of the hill. From the dusty low trees some soldiers crept out, moving crouched and cautiously. They were armed.
A drone in the air -- there! to the south, a big transport plane had just become visible. We knew there was big trouble ahead and we turned and began to trot back to our camp along the path. More soldiers appeared out the brush and ran along the road at the base of the hill, headed east. They were dropping rifles as they ran, extra rifles that threw up puffs of the reddish dust in the chill air as they fell on the dirt, and the bushes on the south erupted as the concealed troops charged out from their hideout, scooping up the weapons and joining the charge. There was shouting at the camp as we ran in, some of the vehicles were already started and the drivers gesticulating wildly for us to climb in. We had to make it down the hill road to the base of the mountain before the troops cut us off. We may have been neutrals, but that didn't mean that we couldn't be taken hostage, and we had no idea whose militia in that war-riddled country they were.
Oh, that dream was a good one, and I was fighting hard to hang onto the story line, but I could feel the threads begin to break. I threw myself back into the dream, like a swimmer doing a back dive, and rejoined the other archeologists and our driver. Our car had taken a hit, and we were sitting on the dirt in a narrow alley, sooty and disheveled, bickering about who the jackass was who said our car wasn't targeted and couldn't be blown up.
My sister really is an archeologist, not one in just a figment of an interesting dream. Five years younger than I am, Jesse had studied hard in high school, excelled in college, and was snatched up to work for a prestigious university museum, traveling the world in her khaki trousers and sensible hiking boots, picking over little pieces of pottery in dusty fields with unfeigned, unflagging interest. (Am I sounding jealous? Should I describe the dirt and endless tedium with scarcely a chance for creative thought and the isolation from good restaurants and clothing stores? Now am I being unfair? Not nearly enough, she's my sister! Should I portray her as a female Indiana Jones? Come on, I taught her how to put on lipstick when she was eight.) While at a formal dinner involving some of the university staff and some rich backers, she met Charles Reich, a kind, pleasant, unbelievably rich man who was approaching his fortieth birthday and was looking for a wife who would be interested in having children to pass on his name and inheritance. She married him and had five children with him, twins, another child, and another set of twins. The Reich clan were delirious with delight, especially when Jesse pretty much let Papa and his doting parents raise the babies, while Jesse went back to clambering about on dusty hillsides stringing off dirt sections for excavation with toothbrushes. I'm sure that conversations I had with her sparked the symbols for my archeology dream, even though she never has had to face a battle while on a dig. Or maybe it's just that I love the Archeology magazine; I love to read about the results of archeological research, but would have no patience for what Jesse loves -- the little scrapings and brushings and comparing things to other little pieces of things.
Jesse has been still and quiet and calm and unwavering and fearless for as long as I can remember. She says she knew what she wanted to do from the time she was four or five, and I believe it. No teasing from schoolmates, no tempting by dates gave her any wobbles on her path to pottery shards. Our mother wanted us to be physicists or doctors or even, at worst, veterinarians, but where I caved in and took science courses in the face of her wrath at my considering taking an art major in college, Jesse just ducked her head a little, looked out from under dark brows with those grey-green eyes, and said, "This is what I am going to do." And got no shit for it, that's what amazed me. I always thought Mom browbeat me more than Jesse.
Since I came into the world first and took the lumps convincing Mom that a spanking may produce screams but doesn't necessarily produce compliance, yes, Jesse undoubtedly got away with more independence of mind without having to flee the country, so to speak.. Until she was older, anyway.
Jesse had come to stay with me for a few days before her wedding to Charles. (She would have been out of her mind to stay at Mom's and be subject to the relentless picking of the psyche.) Adam was off of a long run to Tennessee, most handily so -- I really didn't want to deal with him hitting on her while I was trying to understand the whys and wherefores of this marriage Jesse was engaging, not to mention the uneasy convolutions of my own. We were sitting on the patio with a little charcoal and green twig fire going in a hibachi to chase off the mosquitoes. She'd slept most of the day away, recovering from jet lag, while I was tapping out my endless numbers at work. Tonight we each had a glass of wine, mine dry and white, hers dry and red.
The briquettes were glowing nicely, and I added some green grass to make a fragrant smoke, and we sat quiet for a bit. Hoping to break through the awkwardness I was feeling, I reached across the little table between us, holding my glass of wine. She reached up with her glass in her left hand, and we clinked them together. A swig. Another. "Whatever you may think, my kids are going to grow up rich," Jesse said, leaning her head back on the cushiony chair.
"Sooo, kids? Surely not pregnant already?" I asked. Rude? Yes. Jesse and I had barely begun to see each other as adults, rather than objects of pestering or sibling rivalry. We still seemed to interact in the teen mode most of the time.
"Nope. Never even a boink yet." Swig. "Never even a hearty feel."
Gulp, cough. If it wasn't professional interest (Charles was no field researcher) and it wasn't sexual interest, then what was going on? She was only interested in his mind? Or was she, to the shame of us all, merely a gold digger, hankering for his money? "Hang on here, I am going to be blunt because we have never had enough time to sort things through -- why are you marrying this guy?"
Sip. "Sully, I like him. He's going to be a great father, he's a nice man, he has a nice family. They do good things. He's wealthy and so I know my offspring will be well taken care of. He's what a father should be."
"Father? You're looking for a father, for God's sake? What --" I stopped, choked with the effort of not jumping up and grabbing her by the hair and shaking her. No, hair pulling was one of our mother's specialties, not mine. I will not become my mother! Instead, more calmly, deep breath, "What about you, personally? Not kids, but you, Jesse. You're not marrying his mother and father, but the very person, Charles Deimer Reich. You've got to have some reason for marrying him besides what he can do for the kids you may never have."
Jesse took another taste of her wine, wiped the back of her right hand across her mouth, and turned in her chair, leaning on the arm of it and sticking her chin out a little. "He's going to raise our children, if we have them, to be considerate and well educated. They will never lack for health care. When I'm with him, I am comfortable. We speak well together. He doesn't want me to give up what I do. His family doesn't object to me. I don't object to them. What is your problem with this?"
I took a quick wash of water chaser before I answered her. "Jesse, what I don't hear is you saying, 'I love this man and can't live without him.'"
"So I should be nuts in love with him, quivering and giggling, is that what you think?"
"Yeah, I think so. It's the rest of your life that's going to be affected, yes? yes? Don't you think you should be in love with him?"
Jesse looked away from me and I could see the clean profile of her face glowing in the light of our fire. She exhaled through her nose, looked off over her shoulder into the darkness, and back at the fire. She twitched her shoulders back in the old 'Okay, I'm ready to fight' gesture of old. She took another deep breath, sat up straight, and said, "Then I can make the same mistake you did?"
God, what could I say in reply to that? "No, I don't want you to do that." What a conversation killer.
"I'm sorry, Sully. It's just that you and everyone else seem to have this idea that marriage is like some movie with a dramatic story and a happy ending. And maybe it's just not. Not for everybody, not even for most of the people I've known. We've known. Damn it, I want to try it my way!"
"And your way is what, exactly? What do you need with Charles? Someone to make you settle down? Or a nice home for a few years until the kids are out of school? I didn't think you were even interested in that." My mind was still spinning with the thought that my turmoil of a marriage was so obvious, so horrible to someone else that they'd axe the thought of romance right out of the story of their life. I was saying anything, trying to climb away from my own skin.
"Think of it as a partnership, Sully. I think it's going to be a good one. Charles has had his family crawling all over him, pestering him to 'carry on the family name'. His parents want to be able to pass on to their grandchildren the things their parents handed on to them. That's not a bad thing. I can buy into that. I'm not selling myself, even though you and Mom seem to think so. If anything, I'm insuring that I can keep doing what I love most and make a safe haven for when I need to come home to roost."
I was missing something here. "What do you mean, come home to roost? I thought you were going to have all kinds of babies for the Reich clan? Doesn't that require you roosting at their estate? Or were you going to drag the babies along in perambulators while you dig?"
Jesse drained her glass. "Digging is what I do. I'm not planning on re-populating half the earth here. It's called 'Leave of Absence', not 'Quit.' Charles and his parents and the nanny-to-be get to do the dirty work. I come back between digs, or when the season allows me to get away."
Dirty work? Aghast at this cool approach to family, I spluttered, "How will they know the difference between you, the visitor-mama, and the nanny, who does all the mama things?
Jesse frowned a little, a muley kind of look that indicated that she was just about through talking about this. "They'll know who their mother is. Maybe they'll even appreciate what I do someday. Maybe it's better for kids to have a happy, productive mother than one who carps all the time about how much she could have done if she hadn't been stuck in a marriage that didn't turn out the way she thought it would! How many times did we hear that story when we were growing up? And still hear it now if we can't change the subject in time? How many times have both of us sworn that we wouldn't turn into our mother? Well, this is my bid to not become like her. I know exactly what Charles is going to provide, and no, he isn't going to be my personal entertainment for the rest of my life. He's not going to make me famous. He's not going to be the most beautiful power-house lover in the entire world --" She stopped, realizing that I'd expected that last of my husband, and much grief it had brought me already. She'd made her intended hit early in the conversation, this last was just an accidental cut. "Sully, I do like Charles very much. We look forward to being together as much as we can. It's just not going to be as 'conventional' as some marriages. Why isn't that good enough? Isn't it what we were taught, to go for the top, no matter how unconventional it may seem to others? Why do you and Mom think that we have to find happiness in marriage doing things the way everybody else does?"
"I don't, Jesse. It's just foreign to me. I always wanted the head over heels kind of love, myself. If you and Charles are both okay with this, then, I guess the rest of us just need to sit down and shut up. You knew you'd get me with that last comment about 'me and Mom', as if I would ever want to be in agreement with her...didn't you?" Sigh, and think. She's an adult, and a very capable one. Another sigh. "Okay, well, uuhhh, what about the loser sister-in-law? Do I get to play Auntie or are these kids going to be Reich property?"
Jesse shook her head. "I told you to think 'unconventional'. I'm keeping our last name, as well as taking Charles' and the kids will carry the hyphenated name until they decide for themselves at 18 or so. Then they can re-name themselves 'Elvis' if they want to. And Sully, I want you to be Auntie to my children. Teach them how to draw, and plant gardens. Encourage them to get dirty. Do funny foreign accents with them. And I will teach them how to make hieroglyphs, and dig for buried treasure. And Mom will teach them..."
I laughed, with a couple tears welling up, "...she'll teach them how to be headstrong to the point of obstinacy and...unconventional."
Jesse grinned, too, looking at our smoky embers in the hibachi. "Yeah, I guess she did teach me something, didn't she." She looked up at me suddenly. "Sully, will you teach my kids how to dream like you do?"
"What is this? You want them to grow up screwy and day-dreamy? And just how many kids are we talking about, anyway?"
"I'm thinking two. Charles is thinking two. But I just got to thinking how you used to tell me what you did in your dreams when I was little. It was like you got to be a character in a book or something. Great stories! They made me listen to my own dreams, and they meant a lot to me. Though I have to admit, mine were never quite so involved as yours." She scratched her eyebrow with one finger. "If there's any worry that I would have about this marriage-partnership, it would be that it's going to be too comfortable. I'd like to see the kids be able to tap into all that unconscious stuff, too."
"Dream Theory with Auntie. Yeah, sister, old girl, these kids are going to be weird in spite of the Reich-ness."
"You know you really need to stop saying stuff like that."
"Oh, all right. Actually 'Jesse Reich-Ambris' sounds pretty cool. Ahh, that's it -- when the little childrens-to-be have nightmares about learning to write such a long last name, then you want Aunt Sully to step in and teach them to analyze the scary bits and defeat their neuroses."
"As long as they don't become our mother."
"At least until they grow up and move to another continent."
That conversation gave me a lot to think about. Love, romance, partnership, kids. And when was the last time I had done any good dreaming?