Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Corona Dreams by Eleanor Lerman

Everyone I know is having bad dreams. One friend says that in her sleep, an enormous car is trying to break down the front door of her house. It backs up and speeds forward again and again, its engine growling angrily because it can't get in—at least, not yet. A neighbor tells me that she spends her dream time rummaging through imaginary drawers, trying to find enough forgotten money to hire an exterminator to rid her house of bugs (Apparently, her fears trend towards the literal.) Someone else, so traumatized by her nightmares, can barely whisper to me that even by the morning light, she can’t shake the exhaustion of being chased all night by a murderer who shouts that she can't escape him because he knows her name and her address. 

I’m dreaming, too, but my midnights bring me images that are less threatening than they are full of yearning for a lost world that I fear I will be prevented from every embracing again. Often, in my travels through dreamland, I find myself standing in an empty apartment, a place I have never been before. I walk across the floor, stepping carefully because the light is dim and I can’t see very well. Finally, I reach a sliding glass door, and after I pull it open I am standing on a balcony looking out at a heartbreakingly beautiful scene: before me is playland world, brightened by a golden sun riding high in a pure blue sky tented above a merry-go-round, a rollercoaster, cotton candy booths and a tilt-a-whirl. Parents and children are strolling around here, holding hands, enjoying the mild weather, being happy, being alive and well. And in the middle of my imaginary playland, resting on his stomach and smiling a smile of great joy, is a huge, plastic blow-up replica of a creature born to glide through great, chilly currents but who is now only swaying gently in the soft breezes. I would know him anywhere, that giant from the deep. He is an old friend, a welcome vision, and he brings me to tears because I think, in the dream, that I will never be able to enter that wonderful, sunlit world again and say hello to my beloved Nessie. 

From now on, that dream tells me, I will only be able to stand at the edge of the darkness, looking out at the bright, happy world where the Loch Ness monster is protecting everyone from harm. That must sound absurd, so I suppose I’d better explain why the sight of even a facsimile of a supposedly extinct aquatic plesiosaur who swam the ancient seas about sixty-six million years ago is, to me, a symbol of strength and safe haven. And of defiance, as well. 

When I was a teenager, I lived in a chaotic and often frightening household. My stepsister was descending into the violent depths of schizophrenia, which my father and stepmother would neither recognize nor admit (they kept telling people that she ate too much sugar, which made her “irritable”), and my stepmother and I did not get along. In fact, as in dark fairytales, there was real animosity between us. One afternoon, while I was in the library, searching through books about how to cast spells that would banish evil people (listen, I was maybe fourteen and I was so desperate to get rid of my stepmother that I would have tried anything), I opened a book about mythic creatures and saw a black-and-white photo of what was said to be the Loch Ness monster. The picture showed his lozenge-shaped head atop a long, graceful neck that arched up from beneath an expanse of roiling water. The photo, of course, is a fake, but fifty-four years ago, in an old library building in the dying beach town where I lived, that photo was as real to me as my own breath. I loved the idea that there was a monster alive in the world, a great, silent being who kept his own counsel and harmed no one. Maybe he was far away, swimming through the depths of an ancient Scottish loch, but I knew that I knew him, and he knew me. I tore the page out of the book (my stepmother kept telling me that I was a bad person so what was it to me, to do this bad thing—stealing a page from a borrowed book?), took it home, and taped it to the wall above my bed. 

And so a new front opened up in the ongoing war between my stepmother and me. She hated the picture and told me to take it down. I would not. She screamed at me that it was sacrilegious, and even though I didn’t think she really know what that meant, I remember telling her that was fine with me. Sacrilegious was something to aim for. Let God be angry: I didn’t care. I wanted Him to know I was angry, too. 

That fight went on for four long years. Sometimes my stepmother would take the photo down herself, but I had already bought another book that had the photo in it, so I would just go back to the library, copy the page on the Xerox machine, bring it home, and tape it back up again. I left the picture behind when I finally left home at the age of eighteen, but by then the Loch Ness monster had served his purpose for me: he had been my monster, my you-don’t-control-me guardian, my screw-you to all the bad people who didn’t care about me and all the bad things that might happen to a young girl who had to live in a dangerous and unhappy world. 

Over the years, I’ve happened on that photo again from time to time, like when it’s included in an article about how it was faked and by whom. I’m always happy to see Nessie and totally disinterested in all the evidence that proves he doesn’t exist. To me, he does, and he has since that long-ago day when I first brought him home to watch over me. I guess that’s why it is so sad and disturbing to find that all through these long, virus-haunted nights, my dreams tell me that the Loch Ness monster is lost to me. He lives in a world that has vanished overnight, a place where people are happy, where they can walk around freely, in the sunshine—and they’re not wearing Latex gloves and surgical masks. 

But in my heart, I don’t believe that all is lost. I know there really are monsters alive in this world who burn with unspeakably evil intentions: some of them wear the skin of human beings and some of them want to tear us apart from the inside. They are absolutely to be feared, and I fear them. But I also fear the monstrosity of passing time that ages us and sends us to bed with nightmares of illness and infirmity even when there is no pandemic. In those cruel dreams, we become the kind of old, cursed outcasts who wander dead roads answering the questions of jackal-headed sub-gods and hump-backed witches, trying to find our way home. But as it turns out, home is the new prison. How, I wonder, will I ever escape? And when? 

Lately, I’ve been trying to remind myself that I escaped once before. Maybe I was physically a lot stronger then, when I was younger, but I can make up for that because I’m a lot more cunning now—at least, I believe that I am. I can wage more subtle battles these days, even if they are just with myself and my own anxieties. And I want that happy world back, that blue sky and sunshine out there beyond the dark and empty place I’ve come from, even if that bright world is something that I’ve totally made up. I am determined to get there even if I have to put on a damn mask and disposable gloves and take the infected subway to some library, somewhere, where I can find that same photograph of the Loch Ness monster and hang it on my wall again. Of course, now, I could much more easily and safely download the picture from Internet, but the day will surely come when even a short journey to meet an old friend won’t be quite so dangerous anymore. Then I will be able to let Nessie go again, without regret. Let him return to his deep waters, his mysterious home in a far-away land. And I will continue on my road and you will continue on yours. This is me waving to you before I walk off into the future, which will certainly contain more monsters. The trick is to outlive the bad ones who want to eat you and embrace the good ones when they swim your way.

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Eleanor Lerman is the author of numerous award-winning collections of poetry, short stories and novels. She is a National Book Award finalist, the recipient of the 2006 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts for poetry and the New York Foundation for the Arts for fiction. In 2016 her novel, Radiomen, was awarded the John W. Campbell Prize for the Best Book of Science Fiction. Her most recent novel, Satellite Street, was a finalist for the 2019 Montaigne Medal.