They say that you can never dream your own death, but last night I dreamed mine. I was driving along the Sawmill Parkway, a passenger cars-only two-lane highway which goes from Westchester through Yonkers to the city, and I was in my mother’s big white whale of a vehicle, a Chrysler minivan that seats eight with room in the back to fit the population of a small undeveloped country. I’m only slightly over five feet tall, so I have to raise the bottom of the driver’s seat all the way up in order to see comfortably over the steering wheel. The minivan itself rests pretty high above the ground, so with the seat raised, I feel as though I’m riding on a float in a parade. The highway snakes and curves, interrupted only by the occasional stoplight. The speed limit is only 50 mph, but in the minivan I barely feel safe clearing 40. With each turn of the wheel, my weight falls sideways and the skin on the back of one of my thighs comes unstuck from the plasticky leather of the seat. It hurts. Every time it happens, I think I can feel the outside tires losing contact with the surface of the road.
The sky is a burnished twilight; it should be rush hour but there are no other cars on the road, no distractions to keep me awake and focused. I open the driver’s side window and the cool, wet air blasts against my face, flattening my cheeks, sucking them against the back of my skull like I’m trapped inside the Gravitron at Six Flags. Here and there I pass through a patch of fog, and my big white whale disappears for 10 feet or so and comes out intact on the other side. I imagine I’m in the Bermuda Triangle, or that I’m a ghost passing incorporeally through a wall. The twilight is giving way to the tawny brown-orange of an August night, but through the growing dark I see a white bird flying to my left, in tandem with the vehicle. Suddenly, I’m not in contact with the road at all anymore; the entire minivan is airborne, soaring alongside this bird. The white bird sheds white feathers and they flutter through the open window onto my face. Now I’m covered in feathers and the feathers are my own, and the minivan is nearing the ground again, too quickly, but time has slowed and it’s as if I’m in a vacuum, watching myself in slow motion. The minivan spirals in the air, slowly, and I don’t feel it when it hits the ground — it just coasts along, even though the driver’s side of the car is against the ground. I’m lying sideways against the door, curled up in the fetal position, and I feel so tired, I just want to sleep, but I know I’m dying. I feel my feathered arms against my cheek and I close my eyes and I die. Then I wake up.
My therapist nods and rests her chin on her fist. She looks like Rodin’s “The Thinker,” with a manicure. I sigh and slump back on the blue velvet sofa. She thinks. I examine my split ends.
This is only my fourth session with Dr. Epstein, but I’m not quite sure what I’m getting out of our time together. She takes notes and says a lot of “mmm hmm” and “I see.” It’s not that I don’t believe in therapy; I’m the one who wanted to see her in the first place, which I think officially makes me the first teenager in the history of psychotherapy to ask her parents to send her to a shrink. My mother is a therapist, too, but I don’t need her analyzing me any more than she already does. Dr. Epstein is her colleague and sees me for free. She’s a little younger than my mother — late 30s maybe — and very thin, with an ash-blonde pixie cut and a face full of Lancome. She’s pleasant enough to look at and has a rather impressive wall of diplomas. If she’s good enough to have a Ph.D. from an Ivy League school, then she must be good enough for me. I can’t stand being so afraid all the time — I know that it’s just paranoia, but I still can’t make it go away. Maybe Dr. Epstein can. I’ll give her time.
“Well, it looks like our time is up for today, Meghan, but I want you to think about your dream and tell me at our next session what you think it means to you,” she says, adjusting her glasses on her perfectly powdered nose-job nose. I don’t see how this is helpful — if I could understand myself, I wouldn’t bother going to therapy — but I nod in understanding. I thank her, as always, and give her my parents’ best.
She opens the door and lets me step first into the hall, and I hear a low crackly buzz, like the muted roar of a stadium crowd at a sports event over the radio, or the whisper of someone breathing one hard, deep breath directly into your ear. The sound is coming from two small, tan cylinders in the hallway at the foot of the door: electronic noisemakers for privacy, so that no one else in the office can hear our therapy session. I know what they are because my mother has the same ones at her office, and I asked her once. When I was little, she used to put them in my room at night to help me sleep, to block out the sounds of the creaking house (I was sure it was burglars) and the howling wind (it might be a tornado). I’d sink into my soft cotton comforter, willing the noise to block out my thoughts, lulled to sleep by the exquisite blank slate of my mind. I let the white noise permeate through me, and I imagine that I am disappearing into the whiteness.
When I arrive home, there are no other cars in the driveway. I park in the far end of the three-car garage, lock and alarm my car with the click of the remote and plod into the house. I can hear the theme song to ‘Hey, Arnold!’ coming from the family room intermingling with the high-pitched, collective giggle of teenagers. I drop my book bag at the foot of the stairs and follow the giggles into the den. Jaimie, ever the rambunctious 4-year-old, is doing a headstand on the brown leather couch, her blond curls spilling into the crevices between the cushions, hands dangerously close to the edge of the couch, head centimeters away from the sharp corner of the glass coffee table. I dive across the room and grab her by the midsection, still upside down. I set Jaimie on the couch, her little behind sinking safely into the leather. Tammy is sitting on the floor flipping through a copy of this month’s Seventeen while her three apparent best friends of the week paint each other’s toenails silver. I recognize my brand-new bottle of OPI polish in “Stiletto.”
“If he takes Whitney to Homecoming, I’m gonna be so totally pissed,” one of the teenyboppers, who I’ve never seen before — skinny, tall and exotic, wearing a salmon crop-top — is saying. I interrupt her and address her audience.
“Excuse me Tam, but did you realize that Jaimie was doing headstands on the couch? I thought you’re supposed to be babysitting.”
Tammy is beautiful. She changes best friends as often as her nail polish, and boyfriends almost as often, although she’s been seeing Jason for several months now. He adores her, drives her to school, the mall, her friends’ houses, football games, to Dave Matthews Band concerts and cul-de-sac parties where she drinks and he can’t because he’s driving. They never argue because he always gives in. He’s afraid she’ll break up with him. She’s not afraid of anything.
Her honey-colored curls fall over her tanned shoulder as she turns and gives me the look of death behind her blue contacts. “I saw, Meg — she’s fine, thanks,” she responds icily, rolling her eyes. I turn to Jaimie, now fully engrossed in Nickelodeon and perfectly content to sit normally on the couch.
“Jaim, honey, don’t do headstands, okay? It’s dangerous,” I tell her. She ignores me, caught up in the schoolyard escapades of Arnold, who has a head shaped like a football, and his similarly deformed cartoon friends. When she’s in front of the television, I might as well be talking to the wall. A true child of the Entertainment Age.
When I was four, I didn’t watch TV; I was a hybrid intellectual-outdoor kid. If I wasn’t reading, I’d be collecting spit-bugs from the tall green weeds at the edge of our lawn, watching them fizzle in the foamy bubbles on the tip of my forefinger. Ladybugs were good luck, so I didn’t mind when they collected on the outside of my bedroom window at night, attracted by the warm, friendly glow of my Rainbow Brite night light. It was around the time that Leah died that I stopped shrieking with glee when my cousins dropped cicadas in my curly nest of hair, and I started climbing into bed with Mom and Dad at night. Every night for maybe a year I snuggled in between them, feeling Dad’s scratchy black beard on my back through my Minnie Mouse nightie and warming my little toes in the arch of Mom’s size-8 feet, simultaneously soothed and kept awake by her open-mouthed snoring. Finally, Dad grumbled that he couldn’t take anymore of my fitful tossing when he had to get up to make rounds at the hospital at six, and Mom complained that I stole all the covers. That was when she started putting the noisemaker in my room with me at night; if I focused on the noise I couldn’t dream about fires burning the house down or about dying of Ebola. I couldn’t picture Leah in her cradle, silent and still and blue.
I wonder if Mom and Dad ever think about her anymore. The button nose, gray eyes, surprisingly long baby fingers, made to play piano or conduct an orchestra, perform intricate surgeries, perhaps, or mold sculptures from soft red clay. The fingers that lay still and spread, never to realize their destiny.
Jaimie has stubby fingers. At four, she can barely grip the handlebars of her tricycle; Dad had to take off the rubber padding to make the handlebars thinner. So many years ago, when that tricycle was mine, my hands fit around the handlebars just fine.
I didn’t understand, at first, when Mom and Dad decided to give Jaimie Leah’s room. For six years it had remained as it was, the door always closed except when I used to sneak in and curl up in the rocking chair with a flashlight and a book, as I had often done when Leah was asleep and I just had to finish a chapter. I liked to listen to her soft breathing as I turned the pages. Sometimes, in whispers, I would read to her sleeping form — Mom would be mad if I woke her, but I smiled to think that I was teaching her about the world, giving her subject matter for sweet dreams. The day after the Night, Mom and Dad stood in the room, crying softly together, and when they retreated, they closed the door.
I never saw them open it, not for six years, until Mom was eight months pregnant with Jaimie, conceived on the third round of in vitro. They got a new cradle, gave the old one to Goodwill, and put wallpaper with a border of pink ballerina bunnies over the plain white walls. Leah’s toys, clothes — everything, most of which had once been mine, then Tammy’s — boxed up, given away. A new room for a new child. A new future without a past.
I leave Tammy and the Teenybopping Trio alone, trusting that Jaimie won’t do anything else that requires serious supervision, and head up the stairs, letting my backpack bounce heavily behind me on each carpeted step. I settle onto the recliner in our refurbished attic with a fresh sheet of college-ruled notebook paper and crack open my calculus textbook. Even with the door closed and f(x) = x^2 on my mind, I can’t block out the laughter from downstairs.
At dinner, it’s just me and Mom and Dad. Tam’s friends have gone home and she is out to dinner with Jason. They’re probably slurping the remnants of a Strawberry Freeze milkshake out of matching straws at the Friendly’s off Exit 8 as I cut into my soft slab of meatloaf. I hate meatloaf. Mom and Dad are discussing the latest cuts in Managed Care — those HMOs are really screwing over doctors. Dad jokes that we could go to our timeshare in Puerto Rico for a month and he would still collect the same amount from Empire BlueCross/BlueShield as he would working.
I’m scraping the sticky meatloaf off my plate and into the sink disposal, wistfully imagining a plate of piping hot Friendly’s fries and Josh Evans, the beautiful blonde boy in my American history class — the popular one, something that Tam takes for granted — popping one into my mouth when Mom asks me, “Wait, Meggie, how was therapy?”
I tell her the truth: “I was bored.” But she’s already asking Dad if he picked up the dry-cleaning today; she doesn’t hear my answer.
I’m used to it. She has a lot on her mind — patient insurance forms to fill out, kindergarten carpools to organize, an academically disinterested 15-year-old to nag about homework. I’m the responsible child: the one who skips school only when ill, who drives the speed limit, who never misses curfew and who requests psychotherapy when she feels abnormally anxious. If I walked out of the house right now and dissipated into the mist, she’d think I’d gone to the library to study the SAT Hit Parade. Tammy would move into my room and use up all my good nail polish.
I had finished my homework before dinner, so I plan the rest of my evening: me, the recliner, the snuggly purple fleece blanket that I got on a family ski trip to Okemo, and the remote. Friday night television sucks; I flip back and forth between “The Price is Right” and the “I Love Lucy” marathon on Nick-at-Nite. Tonight, Bob Barker gets on my nerves (you can only listen to him say, “Come on down!” so many times), and I’ve already seen the “vita-meata-vegamin” Lucy episode a thousand times, so I leave the cable box on the TV Guide preview channel, listlessly half-watching the half-screen, extended advertisements for the Hair Club for Men, Milli Vanilli’s Greatest Hits (available on CD or cassette), and the Miracle Magic Mop-Duster (order now for just $19.95 and get this handy mini-flashlight-keychain-pocketwatch absolutely free!). I watch one 1-800 number after another flash across the screen as the evening’s television schedule loops reliably, over and over. As the channel numbers increase passing from network to cable, through HBO in the 400s and Cinemax and the SciFi Network and finally the Pay-Per-View porn lineup on Channel 900, I know that the trusty schedule will always go back to the beginning, and once again I’ll be able to see what’s on ABC and Lifetime Television for Women. Over and over the channels loop; I don’t bother paying close attention because I know that if I miss a channel, I’ll get another chance to see it when it passes by the screen again. I sometimes wish life were like the preview channel, where I always know that something is coming next.
A car door slams and I startle violently. Tam is home. I could recognize the snort-snort of Jason’s dented ’88 Mazda in my sleep; the engine is still running. I sit home night after night watching Tam ride off in that deathmobile, and it’s always a relief when she gets back. The headlights cast an uncomfortable glare on the TV screen; I couldn’t have read the toll-free number for Hooked-on-Phonics if I’d wanted to. I stare blankly at the screen, forcing myself not to peer out the window to watch them share a languorous, lingering goodnight kiss.
In the reflection of the headlights, I see not the preview channel, but myself. Wide-eyed and still. Despite the blanket, cold. And silent. And blue.
I started seeing myself like that when I was eight, soon after the Night. Dad had tucked me into bed eons ago, but I couldn’t sleep. I was up to the last chapter in my Sweet Valley Twins book (which Mom had tsk-tsked as too old for me, and worthless besides, but had let me take out of the library anyway) and I thought that maybe if I finished the book my restless mind would be able to settle and let me fall into dreamless slumber. Pushing back the comforter and grabbing my book and flashlight from atop the nightstand, I crept out of bed and down the hall to Leah’s room. As always, her door was open several inches; Mom wanted to be able to hear her if she cried. I sucked in my stomach and slipped through the space between the door and the frame. Cupping my palm around the head of the flashlight, I turned it on and let the red glow seeping through the flesh of my fingers lead me to the rocking chair. I curled up on the smooth wood, knees against my chest, and cracked open the book to the dog-eared page. Slowly I uncovered the light, focused my dilated pupils on the page, and began to whisper the last chapter to my sleeping sister.
I had only gotten through two paragraphs when I realized just how quiet the room was. Too quiet. I held my breath. Silence. I put the book on the armrest, breaking the spine, and cupping my hand again around the flashlight, tiptoed to the cradle.
She was quiet all right. Pretty still, too. I touched her silky hand, the long fingers spread. She was cold; the room was drafty and the blanket had fallen around her ribcage. I started to tuck it around her chin, but as my hand brushed over her lips I felt — nothing. No breath. I held my own and uncovered the flashlight, directing the harsh beam onto her face. Her skin was the color of an ocean-polished stone. And I was screaming.
I see my blue face in the TV screen now and I scream.
In a frenzy, I gather the blanket in my arms and tumble out of the recliner; as though stricken with claustrophobia, I just have to get out. I run down the attic stairs, tripping over the loose ends of purple fleece, past a bewildered Tammy. My Nikes are under the bench in the front hall, and I slide into them, letting the back of the sneakers fold under my heels. In one motion, I snatch my car keys from the hook inside the door and hit the unlock button on the remote with my thumb. The car alarm disarms with a high-pitched choot-choot, and with my other hand, I slap the garage-door switch on the wall.
Normally, I would pause for a moment to enjoy the reassuring click of my seatbelt while peering into the backseat and waving a hand around for hidden intruders, as I’ve done ever since wasting $8.75 at the Cineplex to see ‘Urban Legends.’ I know it’s nearly impossible for anyone to be hiding back there, since the car has been in a closed garage, locked and alarmed, but I can’t relax until I check. The top-notch security features are one reason that I picked the Passat, but mostly I bought it because “Car and Driver” called it the Safest Car of the Year. Front and side airbags, steel runners in the doors to protect against side impacts, anti-lock brakes and fog lights. Automatic enrollment in AAA. A Nokia cell phone in the glove compartment. I wouldn’t have even bothered getting my license if I had been relegated to driving the Suburban because I never would have allowed myself to drive it.
Today, though, no pause. Forget the seatbelt. I throw the gearshift into reverse and back out of the gaping garage, tires squealing against the rain-soaked asphalt. Now into drive, down the driveway, quickly, quickly, away from the house, away from the TV, away from Tammy and Jaimie and myself. The headlights barely cut through the soupy fog, but drive, drive, faster now, sneakered toe against the accelerator, feel the hum, feel the growing distance between my body and my mind, myself and my reflection, feel my long fingers like vices around the steering wheel, nails digging into the supple flesh of my palms. Stop sign, hit the brakes, and — my God — the car isn’t stopping! I hydroplane through the stop sign, turn the wheel, hit a patch of drier pavement, and come to a dead halt in the center of the road.
Pulling into the driveway ten minutes later, I’m calmer. Head on my shoulders. Parked in the garage, I let the steady vibration of the engine quiet the heavy thudding in my chest — the “lub-duh” of my ventricles snapping shut, as my AP Biology teacher would say — but for only a minute, mindful of the dangers of carbon monoxide emissions in a closed space. Locking the car behind me, I kick off my now-warped sneakers in the front hall and trudge sock-footed up to my room.
As I nestle into bed, I think of my session with Dr. Epstein: what does my dream mean to me? Well, clearly I don’t feel comfortable driving the minivan, and the Saw Mill is a dangerous parkway — but I shiver and lose my focus, and I see myself as I saw before, reflected in the television screen. Was I Leah at eighteen, as she never was, or was I myself, blue and dead?
I’m never going to be able to sleep tonight.
Then I remember the noisemakers, buried somewhere in the back of my closet, beneath old textbooks and board games and long-forgotten stuffed animals. Sure enough, they’re there, and I set them up on the floor right outside my door, far enough away to just be a noise and yet close enough to settle into my subconscious. One tiny click and the noisemakers are on, emitting their desperate whisper.
I turn back to my inviting pillow, but as I do, I catch a glimpse of movement outside my window. Murderers! Kidnappers! My mind runs wild with the possibilities I had imagined for a decade. My body is frozen, my breathing nonexistent, but I stare hard into the brown night. A figure takes shape before me, and it’s a bird, a white bird, sitting on a tree branch not three feet from my window, and it’s watching me. Without taking my eyes from the bird, I crawl into bed and curl up with my knees against my chest, arms wrapped around my ankles, and I feel how tired I am. I wonder if I’m dying. As I close my eyes, I fall into the white noise, and the white bird takes flight. n