You know, people talk all the time about how something is their worst nightmare, but usually they’re referring to situations or events that upset them, upset their plans or lives. They are not talking about real nightmares. Of course, one could argue that nightmares aren’t real, they’re only a product of a sleeping brain. However, people who have had a nightmare know their occurrence is a real thing. We tell them to (unwilling, usually) listeners all the time. They make us break out in disgusting sweats. They startle us out of a sound sleep. Nightmares can be quite cruel, and I can testify to that.
Some people, and I am one of them, can recall the bad experiences they encounter while trying to sleep, and can retell them with great detail if allowed to do so soon after waking. Some great art, which includes music, painting, and writing, has its roots in nightmares. So they are real all right and some even make us productive. The other nightmares should be referred to more accurately: as a dangerous event, as the revelation of a dark secret, or as a blizzard you come across while driving back to Maine from Boston.
(Note: A blizzard you dream about, one that sends you skidding of a road, is real. The one with the car, on a real trip back to Maine, is only a metaphor. Remember that the next time you get caught in a storm.)
I want to talk here about the real sort of nightmare, not the metaphorical (fictitious?) one. Mine are made worse by the fact that I most often dream in technicolor. There is also a lot of moving around, searching, desperation, when I have nightmares. No second-class little ‘upsetting’ moments for me. The screen is bold, impressive, and indelible. Those little monsters never go away, like coffee or mustard stains.
Since friends and family have forbidden me to tell any more nocturnal tales, perhaps you, my listeners, would not be adverse to hearing my terrible dreams. Think how much better I’ll feel if I can get a few of them off my chest. Plus, you might want to provide some input toward the end.
Nightmare Number One:
Wild animals get out of the zoo in the city that’s about thirty miles from my town and come straight to where I live, entering my house. No, not the whole zoo. Sometimes it’s a lion or a tiger, other times it’s a huge snake or maybe a polar bear that squeezes its prey to death in its coils. Any fierce animal can be the protagonist; they clearly all know the route to my house. I, aware that the animal is coming, try to hide behind the sofa in the living room, crouching down beside the huge conch my parents got in Florida. It is the most obvious hiding place in the whole house. I am doomed.
Nightmare Number Two:
Fishing in what feels to me to be the deepest part of the St. Lawrence River that forms the New York-Canada border, I hook what my father thinks must be a sturgeon. The nibble is normal, and then, deep down, the line goes very taut. The very angry, very large, fish pulls me overboard. Seaweed is everywhere, slimy and mixed with sharp rocks. I can’t swim, could never get to the surface on my own. Plus, I cannot see without my glasses, which disappeared when the monster pulled me overboard from the little fourteen-foot boat I was in. I am a goner, maybe not drowned (yet), but frightened enough to die. It is hard to breathe.
Nightmare Number Three:
I’m giving my first public talk in some serious, upscale venue and look for my paper when I reach the podium. It isn’t in the folder where I put it. No, I did not put it in the folder after printing them off. I have left the pages at home. I freeze and know my career is over. I can’t improvise the talk and gulp. There is a target on my chest and I’m a sitting duck.
Nightmare Number Four:
I am in Afghanistan, Yemen, Palestine, Honduras or another sad place. I only use sad to refer to the chaotic situations there and the terrible danger the populations face every day. It makes me sad too, so I am in one of these places and am trying to save animals caught in the conflict. Animal rescue is not a normal activity for a war zone, and the people become suspicious. Somebody throws a rough rope around my wrist. I realize I am not long for this world. Somebody must have put a price on my head.
Nightmare Number Five:
My grandfather is trying to go out the back door from the kitchen to the porch. He is not alive. My beloved and only dog, a spaniel, is edging through the door. Do I need to be afraid or try to save them? Neither is living, though. How can I save either of them? Must I choose? The only danger is that they will slip through my fingers and pass into the netherworld, forever lost to me. This is the most confusing on the list. It has but one scene, with a doorway, a dog, and an elderly man. Nothing really happens. I am obviously losing my mind. Just put me out of my misery. (Note: I don’t much like my grandfather, so there’s the guilt of knowing which of the two I really would have wanted to save.)
Nightmare Number Six:
My ex… no, you don’t want to hear that one. Even I don’t want to hear it. It’s better to let sleeping dogs lie. Which he is. And does. This time I am not the one in the line of fire: he is, and I am gunning for him. He should know that, in case he ever comes sniffing around.
Nightmare Number Seven:
Having to go teach but getting lost on campus, lost in the enormous building I should know like the back of my hand. That’s not all: I have no book or syllabus, no student roster, nothing. Not the slightest idea as to what I’m supposed to be teaching. Nobody has told me, so clueless, I enter a classroom, naïvely confident I can pull it off. Things start to unravel quickly at that point. (Note: After teaching thirty years in the same place, I am happily retired. Classrooms are over for me. Still, the displeased students look like they want to take aim and surely some of them are carrying weapons.)
Nightmare Number Eight:
Having to return to my last place of work, knowing what I now know about them. Oh Lord, how can I pull this off, when all I want to do is blurt out their nasty little secrets? They are very scary people. My inner demon wants to banish them to Siberia, so I quietly begin to plan ways to get all of them on international flights to that part of the world. This manipulation will probably land me in jail forever. I will be lost to the world.
Nightmare Number Nine:
Having to eat chocolate every day. Do not look askance at me. Do not judge me. I simply stated the truth: eating chocolate is not my cup of tea. I hate chocolate because it tastes like… chocolate. I’m the sort of person who goes to the peanut butter jar if the thought of a Reese’s peanut butter cup comes to mind. Eat that messy, melty brown stuff every day? I’d gag and most likely choke to death. Chocolate is definitely a nightmare for me. Death by Chocolate has a whole other meaning for me, because once again, it is real in my case, not metaphorical.
Nightmare Number Ten:
I dream that I’m living in a house with no books, and because all I ever do is read, this is like solitary confinement. I will go stir crazy in less than a week. No books and no animals would make it ten times worse. I can’t live without my dogs, my gecko, and my parakeet. That would be pure torture. Animals are my friends, more so than people and definitely more so than the sorry lot that’s my family. I start beating my head against the wall. Things cannot get any worse. But oh, they can. Something else has disappeared. Now I live with no books, animals, or plants. No plants? What will I eat? My herbs were everything. I thrive on rosemary, basil, oregano… and now, everything just tastes like air. I am starving to death. It won’t be long before I waste away to nothing.
One more thing about the empty house nightmare : The house has white walls only. And no fireplace. It’s big and fancy, but oh my Lord it’s set in Purgatory - meaning the Midwest or California. I can’t survive in either of those places and am close to suffocation. I am doomed, done for. Lock me up and throw away the key.
But the really bad, my worst, nightmare would be one I have never had. It worries me that it still could happen, but every night before going to bed I say a little prayer to the gods to never let me suffer through it. That would be…
Nightmare Number Eleven:
Falling in love. In this as-yet-not-real nightmare I am traveling or studying in another country and fall head over heels for somebody. Then the plans begin: a big, fancy, expensive wedding in a big church. (Why a church? No idea, since I don’t go or belong to one.) the perfect honeymoon. A dress to die for. (There may be truth in that description.) Debts piling up all because of a need to flaunt having caught the big fish, maybe bigger than the sturgeon in the St. Lawrence.
Love leads to marriage, but also to other things. The nightmare lasts a long time, most of the night, because so much is wrong about falling in love. I do stupid things, make wrong decisions, lose my temper. The other person does the same types of things. Our fights are intergalactic in force, but we fell in love and now are stuck with the situation. You makes your bed, you lies in it, as grandma used to say. (I wasn’t overly fond of her, either. She scared me. She was kind of off her rocker.)
In this Number Eleven, which is not (yet) a real nightmare and therefore might be considered in the category of the metaphorical, I grow very weary of the person I now have to love forever because I promised after all, although there’s the clause about ‘til death do us part’ and that gives me hope. I did let myself down by falling in love, which led me to say and do a lot of things that are truly embarrassing. I can’t bring myself to tell you about them, but I can reveal how I will escape should this imaginary situation come to pass. Obviously, it’s the ‘til death do you part’ part. The only escape portal available.
And now I am planning for the possibility that I will fall in love, marry, and be miserable. For the need to rid myself of, awake from, the nightmare of supposed bliss. The person, my spouse, must perish. I must become a killer and must be careful not to get caught. Here are my options: Put ground glass in our meal but not eat any of it myself due to sudden ‘stomach upset’. Nudge my spouse in front of an oncoming vehicle, off a balcony, or through a window in the Empire State Building. Find a tsetse fly or a rabid bat. Both of us drive toward the mighty Androscoggin River (or the St. Lawrence) and just before hitting the water, I leap out the driver’s door and swim to safety.
(There are at least another hundred methods to arrange the ‘parting’ thing.)
At this point I’m beginning to kick myself for even dreaming up this nightmare, even if it’s not real. It would surely be the death of me and thinking about being in love has an even worse aftertaste than chocolate. A lot of effort goes into planning the perfect murder and few murders ever turn out to be perfect. Killers always get caught. Ask any author or reader of crime novels. Since I’ve got at least ten good, true nightmares, I’ll stick with them. It’s a good repertoire and they will last me the rest of my life.