He knew he was dreaming because he remembered going to sleep but didn’t remember waking up. That meant he was dreaming. Also, his friend’s face kept shifting, looking like overlapping frames of film – famous people, kids he went to school with, his boss. That also told him it was a dream. If he didn’t remember going to sleep and not waking up, and if his friend’s face didn’t keep shifting, there was always he, himself. He dreamed he was a man from time to time, but really he was a woman.
When he was awake, he was a woman.
Only, it didn’t feel like a dream. Not feel like he felt with his senses. Everything was still black and white, although the scotch he and his shifty-faced friend kept tossing back had an amber hue. He couldn’t smell alcohol or cigarettes, although he knew both choked the air. He couldn’t feel the shot glass in his hand, although he understood what it was like to hold one. All of that was dream-normal, but something here was different.
His dreams always felt like an amusement park ride. Feet on the rails, looking from the windows of his eyes, part of him screaming as the body that was and wasn’t his did whatever it wanted.
This dream was different. He thought about what he was hearing, just like life. His forehead itched so he scratched it. He got sick of sitting, so he stood and paced. He didn’t want to listen to what the shifty guy was telling him, so he left. The guy followed, which was inevitable, but still, he wanted to leave and so he left. Making his body do what he wanted it to do, this was new.
He forced his hands deep into his pockets. A wide-brimmed hat, a smart suit, a long, dark trenchcoat, open and flapping in the night air. This was the time it was fun to be dressed like a man.
“You can’t run away from this.” His friend’s name was Jerry. When Jerry grabbed his arm and forced him around, he looked like Jerry Seinfeld looked before he became famous, all teeth and nostrils and eyes.
He tore free of Jerry’s touch and stood face to shifting face, breathing hard. He was bigger. If he wanted, he could belt Jerry across the face and run.
Jerry smiled like he had heard this thought. His name was still Jerry but now Jerry looked like a man he’d had sex with once in college. It was a drunken thing, experimental. It didn’t make him gay.
He thought about what to say. This was unusual for his dreams, and another thing that made him suspicious. “Okay. I’ll listen to what you have to say. Then I’m going to beat you bloody.”
The guy named Jerry who he had fooled around with in college smiled again, and his face turned more familiar. When he wasn’t dreaming he was a man, he saw this face in the mirror. Long, black hair. Blue eyes. A pointed chin. High cheekbones. Slanting forehead. The European features of the father mixed with the Colombian features of the mother.
“When you wake up, I’ll be dead,” Jerry said.
“What are you telling me?” He didn’t mean to lean over Jerry, to intimidate with the depth of his chest, the breadth of his shoulders, it just happened. He was scared, and he wanted Jerry to leave him alone.
“When you wake up, I’ll be dead,” Jerry repeated, and his face didn’t change. He didn’t back up and he didn’t look intimidated. He looked sad, worn by the telling of hard truth. “You won’t want me to be, but I will. Not only will I be dead, but the cops will blame you.”
“I think I saw that movie,” he said, relieved. “It wasn’t even straight-to-video. It was some lame USA movie-of-the-week.”
“You’ll wake up and my lifeless corpse will be lying next to you.”
He laughed loud and long, letting his head fall back, relishing the deep, rich sound of his laughter bouncing back at him off the empty buildings.
“I think I read that one. It was some pulpy piece of trash that was big in the forties. I got it for a nickel at a thrift store.”
“The important thing is,” Jerry continued, ignoring his mirth, “not to panic. If you panic, they’ll see that you’re guilty, and you’ll go straight to jail. If you stay calm, you’ll stay free, and then you’ll have a chance to find out who did really did it.”
“But if they let me go, where’s the tension? Don’t they have to be chasing me while I chase the killer, so that when I finally find the killer, they’re there to take him in?”
“That’s been done,” Jerry looked disappointed.
“Yes.” He smiled, happy for the pay off at last. “You’ve had your say. Now here’s mine.”
He probably imagined the crunch of Jerry’s breaking nose echoing off the buildings, but not the feel of cartilage against his knuckles. His fists were giant, clumsy, battering things. One blue eye closed beneath them, one high cheek shattered, the small, even teeth bent backwards, the full lips split apart. Jerry fell to the sidewalk a bloody mess. He looked at his knuckles for a long time, wondering at the heavy veins running along the back, flexing the thick fingers. Instead of picking Jerry’s tooth from the middle knuckle, he sucked it out, swallowed it.
In dreams, losing teeth is a fear of aging, or of losing sexual potency.
He bent over Jerry’s limp body and grabbed fistfuls of his collar. He brought the familiar, blue eye inches from his own.
“Let’s do this again sometime,” he told Jerry. “Once you’re healed up.”
Fear darkened the blue eye from ocean to twilight sky. He laughed and let Jerry fall back to the sidewalk, where he coughed blood into his long, raven hair.
He stepped over Jerry, back toward the bar and the scotch waiting there.
She opened her eyes. As always, disappointment over shrinking into her real body mixed with the relief of grace. The ceiling looked like it always did, stucco patterns making what look liked pictures, if you imagined hard enough. She studied the coyote howling, the duck gliding, the fire engine, the Dalai Lama. She let her breathing fall back to normal. She couldn’t say why the dream had terrified her. When she felt calm, she looked at her husband, sleeping beside her.
He lay on his side so she couldn’t tell if he was breathing or not. She wanted to reach out and lay her hand on his shoulder. She wanted to call his name. She wanted to laugh, to cry. Instead, she waited.
Eventually, he stirred, holding himself tighter. The hand over his shoulder reminded her of her dream hands.
She swung out of bed, sat up, and crossed her arms over her body. She told herself she wasn’t feeling what she was feeling. The sinking in the pit of her stomach, that feeling like she’d almost reached the finish line but had fallen on her face instead, that was joy, right? That was relief sweeping through her, of disaster narrowly averted, and no one had to know otherwise. Her husband was alive and she was glad. She was alive and she was glad.
It meant nothing so she told herself again. We are alive and I am glad.
Instead of crying, she went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face. Nothing was new. Nothing was beginning. None of this was leading up to anything. It was a Soap Opera on Friday, promising resolution, but starting Monday with the same shit. But it was fine. It was just her life.
She left the light off, left the room in shadow. When she angled her face one way, she looked Colombian, like her mother. Angled another way, she looked European, like her father. In the mirror, meeting her own eyes, her face looked like overlapping frames of film.