Episode 9: Elliott
“I’ve never been in love,’ he told his therapist earlier that day. “Never. I have been in relationships. I have made serious commitments, because that is what adults do, they try to make a life together.”
The session went the way it always went with Dr. Chettiar, Arya. Elliott would describe how profoundly different he was from the rest of the world. Arya would either try to demonstrate how normal it was to feel a certain way, or to root his feelings in the typical psych-babble that made Elliott feel she was as much at a loss for explanation as he was. Not that he expected more. He had heard it all before.
“I am a grown man and the only time I have really felt that way, you know the way. The only time I have had that vulnerable feeling, that stomach quiver and flutter, like the way they describe it in books and movies, you know that kind of closeness. The only time I have ever wept, really cried for that feeling, was in my dreams. Her.”
That night, Elliott sat outside in the cool air and tuned an old acoustic guitar he picked up in a pawn shop some years back. He only knew a few chords. Still, the strumming was relaxing. It didn’t take his mind off of things, the strumming made it all easier to take in.
Her face was as clear in Elliott’s mind as when he was dead asleep, dead dreaming. Olive skin, soft brown hair, chestnut eyes, and a dimple on only one cheek. The dimple was the first thing he noticed about her. Such a silly thing, when they were in line to get on the ride, in his dreams.
“Among other things, dreams are a way the brain tries to resolve conflicts and stresses in a person’s life,” Arya proclaimed. “For you, the fictional, or the dream love, it’s how you compensate for not being able to find someone special.”
‘Dream love,’ the therapist called it. The implication was obvious and difficult for Elliott to argue against, that the brain manufactured not only the experience, the feeling as well. ‘Dream love,’ a feeling so profoundly real that he often awoke in tears. The foggy ascent from the dreamy REM depths had left him with such loss, as real a loss as any other he could remember, and in response he wept.
Elliott didn’t want someone special. He was incapable of feeling that type of connection within the boundaries of what was expected to be interpreted as real. Outside of sleep, in the antiseptic sunlight, he walked amongst cardboard cutouts. The supposed real was one dimensional, as flat as the images that played on a television screen. Outside of sleep, the knowing was as artificial as plastic plants meant to resemble real. They weren’t real. He wasn’t real.
The dreams, on the other hand, were profoundly intimate. A warm bath to the skin. Vibrant colors for the eyes, because in dreams Elliott could see color the way he did before the day he could see only blue. A gentle sigh to the ears. A subtle, soothing aroma to the nose. The senses were alive there.
The carnival was real, the smells of sweet treats and the sounds of the games of chance, the cotton candy and the candy apples, and the hair band ballads that roared against the fast rides. Smells and sounds mixed together in a chaotic sensory eruption.
It was real, he went to the town’s carnival every year as a kid, and the last time he went was after senior year. He didn’t go on the one ride, the highlight of the carnival. He would never get in line for it. Elliott always hated fast rides, especially the ones that went upside down. In his dreams, he was in line for the ride that he would never go on, and that’s where he met her.
In his dreams, Elliott understood perfectly why he was in line for a ride that in summers before his friends couldn’t have dragged him on. In the supposed real, Elliott left town never experiencing the powerless feeling of g-force. In his dreams, he was along for the ride because it was wonderful, it was in the moment, and it was the only thing that mattered at that very place in time.
The craziest part of the re-occurring dream was not that meeting her seemed so real. It was that the dream, for however long it truly lasted within the confines of REM sleep, Elliott experienced an actual relationship that went on for months.
They took road trips that summer in his blue Ford Escort that you had to pump the gas pedal three times and turn the ignition just right to start the engine, and there was a hole in the passenger floor that filled with water when it rained and the little Escort went through the puddles. Elliott actually owned the same car that summer. In his dreams, she was in the passenger seat, laughing, the rain beading up on the windshield, her feet on the dash to avoid the flood that came pouring in. Laughing.
They laughed a lot in his dreams. Her smile was big and her chestnut eyes glistened in the sunlight. They stayed in cheap motels because it was all they could afford. Two kids just out of high school, just before college. They drove for hours, listening to music, laughing.
The dreams ended the same way, driving down a woods-lined road, enamored by the feeling of isolation, catching a glimpse of living in small lots with small houses in between the dense trees. Until they came upon a house that was burning.
Elliott stopped the car on the edge of the road, and even though the small rancher with the flat roof sat fifty feet back, they could both hear the screaming. He jumped from the driver’s seat and ran toward the burning, with her yelling his name behind. He was scared, which felt cold, and the fear that butted up against the adrenaline of running into the house, fifty feet, felt hot, long before he got to the front door of the burning. Elliott pushed his way inside and was immediately engulfed in thick, black smoke. He tore off his t-shirt and used it to cover his mouth and nose as he tried to see through the nearly opaque air and followed the sound of the woman until he made it to a short hallway at the back of the house. That’s when Elliott saw the flames. At the end of a narrow hall was a bedroom engulfed from the floor to the ceiling and quickly spreading toward the hall on the green shag carpeting that acted as a wick.
Elliott’s eyelids felt as though they were filled with boiling hot sand that was being rubbed against his eyeballs. His lungs ached and he choked. As he got closer to the bedroom, the air was as hot as an oven. He hopped around the flames best he could, knowing that if the adrenaline was not turned on high, the burning would be too much to bear.
Under the sounds of the blaze, Elliott heard the woman inside the closet. He opened the only window in the room, and took a moment to breathe in the cool air, and to choke out the smoke. Outside, on the grass, in the bright sun, he saw her. In the dream, it was always the same way. She stood there looking back at him, a small boy next to her with a turtle at his feet. Such a ridiculous sight. The dream love, a boy, a turtle.
Elliott took a final look before sliding open the closet door, dragging the hysterical woman out by the arm and pushing her out the window onto the grass. The summer afternoon bright filled Elliott’s eyes briefly, then black. Dream black.