A Good Dream, Almost
Once, I dreamed about a man’s late wife—Ellen. It was my first night as a guest in his home, and the dream took place in her kitchen. I dreamed about her after live music at The Coney, after an attempt to ease the passage of his ancient and suffering family dog using opioids ground with mortar and pestle, after the moment he kissed me goodnight and showed me to the guest room, returning later with an extra pillow and a smile as he climbed in next to me. His bed—their bed—would remain empty. I’ve carried the dream alone, heavy at times. In it, Ellen inhabited his body. She looked at me through his cerulean eyes and her voice erupted in a guttural and angry scream from his mouth. Though the scream was directed at me, I somehow understood that Ellen was angry with him. It was a scream to say, Wake up and pay attention. I dream often, and vividly. Once, he told me, “You are the dreamiest woman I’ve ever known.”
* * *
Do you hear voices?
High in our backyard, along the western ridge, runs a narrow row of sunflowers. The sun hangs low at dusk and casts its glow on the evergreens and solar panels that share space with these summer wonders. It is our evening ritual to walk this ridge, hands joined, recounting the mundanities of the day, or saying nothing at all. There is a peace in our communion that is felt best in ordinary moments. As we descend the hill to the house, a bright red cardinal flits by and lands on the branches of the newest tree in the yard, already eight years old, gifted to the family after Ellen’s death. I name this bird, and every one like it, Ellen. I see her everywhere.
She’s a very free spirit, this woman…why is she so attached to you?
We met two years after Ellen’s death. As we sat across from one another eating Greek burgers, he told me about the day she almost died. He picked the sesame seeds off his bun as he talked, avoiding them because of the tumor the doctors were watching on his prostate. He hadn’t told his five adult children. “Do you think that’s wrong?” he’d asked. “I don’t know you well enough to answer that question,” I’d replied. It didn’t seem right, he’d said, to tell his children he had cancer so soon after they’d lost their mother.
Three ice cream dates later, we saw a musical and stayed overnight in the city. Inviting him to the theater and booking a hotel room without asking if he wanted to spend the night together felt risky, out of character. I was drawn to this much older man, and I would step far outside myself to be with him. I worried what this nontraditional invitation might imply. I packed a roll of duct tape, prepared to run a strip down the center of the king-sized bed in an effort to ease any awkwardness, but I hadn’t needed it. After dinner and the theater and snacks on the couch, we had lain in the bed facing each other, talking early into the morning. We weighed the pros and cons of having sex the way an old married couple might decide whether to share the pot roast or the cod. We were strangers that night, uncomfortable but wanting. “Does our connection have to lead somewhere,” he had asked. “No,” I’d answered, “but it needs to mean something.”
Oh, her husband paints?
Anyone who knew Ellen would recognize her presence in our sunflower field. Planted high on the hill, overlooking the backyard where a healthy, vibrant Ellen once chased squirmy toddler boys and shouted to her husband to please finish the dishes, the blooms watch over the family home. Photos of the woman and mother who once walked this ridgeline with her husband, the man whose hand now holds mine, still grace our walls, as does the sunflower he painted in her memory. In the photos, her straight blonde hair cascades down her slender body and she is draped in pure white or vibrant blues and greens. She is holding a tiny hand, or two, or carrying a child on her back. In pictures from later years, she is a bookend to her husband, their brood of gangly children between them. Their positioning approximates the emotional distance between a husband and wife in the thick of the child-rearing years. Later still, in pictures taken near the end of her life, she is tucked in close to him, her head against his chest. His arm drapes her shoulder with certainty and familiarity. The children have grown. It is just the two of them. Her blonde hair is gray, shorter. She looks older than her years, older than her husband.
Somebody’s singing the song “The Great Pretender.” Look at the lyrics; what’s the message?
He was running for public office when we met, perhaps also running from the cancer diagnosis and a layoff from twenty-eight years on a tenure track, and he had just sent his youngest child off to college. I was soon-to-be divorced, sifting through the wreckage of a life, tending to my own four children, working, and writing a book about grief while steeped in it. I thought it might be difficult to love a man whose lifelong love had died. Would the space in his heart where she resides have room for someone else? What share of that space would a new love acquire? I didn’t know Ellen, but she comes to life in his tender stories, which are always funny, sometimes wistful, but never regretful, never sorrowful. Each retelling is a simple remembrance of their life. It brings him joy to tell the stories, and I am happy to receive them. Ellen, ever present, doesn’t divide us.
Here in Ellen’s kitchen, I stand cooking at her stove, dropping vegetables into her stock pot, preparing my white chicken chili recipe because it is his favorite, though it’s not chili weather at all. Our dogs bark at passers-by. The washing machine hums from the laundry room. He walks to me where I stand chopping peppers and onions near the sink, playfully tousles my pony-tailed hair, wraps an arm around my waist. He leans down and kisses the back of my neck. I fold into his touch, feel myself soften. He chirps an order at Alexa to give us the evening news and begins searching through stacks of papers on the kitchen table for The State Theater’s season schedule. He fancies himself an actor. I am a theater devotee. He loses himself in a character. I lose myself in another life. Losing myself in someone else’s story has always been a comfort to me.
She says you’re the kind of person who goes for it, it’s all or nothing.
Grief was a love language we spoke with ease. In an email soon after his dog finally died, he wrote, “You are the first woman I’ve met since Ellen’s death that I could see having a future with.” In the weeks that followed, he had no choice but to tell his children about the cancer. The watch-and-wait situation turned quickly to one needing surgical intervention and later, radiation and hormone therapy. We held hands in the guest bed after his surgery, after I’d met his sister, his best friend, the college-age neighbor who walked the dog when he was unable, but never his children. It didn’t seem right, he said, when he’d just told them about the cancer. I shoveled his driveway, brought in his packages. When we were apart I texted, “I am building a tiny home inside your heart, one board at a time. I will live there.” I was still assembling the foundation when he decided that we would be only friends. I longed to whisper in his ear, Lean into me, let me love you. He couldn’t, and I didn’t.
We danced in and out of each other’s lives in the years that followed, still uncomfortable but wanting, like that night in the hotel bed—wanting to free the other, wanting to hang on. “It feels right to stay connected to you,” we would say by text, screens keeping us at arm’s length.
Do they have a daughter?
I stir the chili and set the pot to simmer. I wash the dishes and watch him where he has settled in the family room. His oft-unwieldy 6’5” frame rests comfortably in the brown leather reading chair. Rainbow socks peek out from his slippered feet. He wore the socks to a political debate after learning that one of my kids is trans. I like to think the socks were a message. On stage, his long legs tucked uncomfortably under a plastic folding table, his brightly striped ankles stole the scene. Feet propped now on the ottoman, he talks on the phone to his oldest child, his only daughter. She looks like Ellen but has her father’s height. She worries about him, as we all do. Genetic testing indicated that his once-benign cancer has a high likelihood of recurrence and malignancy. Cancer is never benign.
Who’s a photographer? Like, a real photographer?
His voice carries into the kitchen. He is telling his oldest child about my youngest, twenty years her junior. The last child at home, my daughter is settled comfortably into this life, too. Our adult children move in and out of our sight by way of visits and phone calls from the places their wings have taken them. During summer visits, our grandchildren toddle to and from the sunflower summit, their smiles bright and wide under Ellen’s gaze. I hear him address his daughter using his pet name for her, and though I’ve heard him say it a hundred times, the tenderness in his voice still catches my attention. Ellen might once have stood at this kitchen sink and watched her young husband in the family room with their tiny daughter on his knee, patiently explaining layups and free throws and dribbling, sharing his love of a game. His tow-headed toddler daughter once threw a ball bigger than her head in the direction of a driveway hoop, and he captured the moment on film. The image graces the cover of her memoir.
Is this a book of stories that you’re writing?
I ladle the chili into Ellen’s bright, shallow pottery bowls. I set her spoons next to the bowls, cross her kitchen to the pantry for the store-made tortilla chips. We share meals on Ellen’s dishes, at Ellen’s counter, in Ellen’s kitchen. I run a rag over the green Formica counter, the one Ellen chose when they built this house. He is laughing now at something his daughter has shared, his voice soft but animated, very much alive. Our separate lives posed challenges that at first made our connection seem impossible, but we returned easily to each other when the time was right. We are years into our love story. Ellen’s love, served within these walls, yielded the man before me. The man who wears rainbow socks to debates, who calls his daughter by her childhood nickname, who tells and retells the same eight stories of his youth, whose attention is easily caught by the tinkling laughter of small children, who stops the car at midnight to admire deer grazing in a field.
She’s here to inspire you, keep you centered, keep you not crazy.
Later, in bed—after dinner, after I worked on my book while he graded papers and we mused over property in Costa Rica, after we discussed plans for holiday visits with family—I reach for his hand in the dark. The bed is cool and the space between us is wide. I move closer to him, reach out again. My eyes search for him, heavy. I sit up, rub the sleep away.
I am awake now, the room has my attention. I am in my own bed, in the house I kept after my divorce. There are no ghosts here. No lost loves. Ellen’s warmth is not in this place. Then, I remember. He is not here. He leaned away from love and I dismantled my tiny house. We moved on, though not quickly, not cleanly. I am the dreamiest woman he’s ever known.
In the dark, grief overcomes me. I sink back into the mattress and nuzzle my lips against the soft neck of the photographer, whispering my love language into his skin because I know he speaks it, too. Slowly, I reorient myself to my actual life. My hand absorbs the heat of my lover’s chest. His place in my bed will soon cool when he rises to make his art, photographing today’s birds and wildlife along the river near my home. The cardinals are plentiful there, and he will capture them in flight, on branches, hiding in thickets. I imagine he’ll name them: Rebecca, Wendi, John, Rob, Gerald. Deborah. The cat, curled up at my feet, lifts her head and yawns. Her yellow eyes pierce me. It’s a fragile place, the space between awake and a dream.
I think you’re going to be talking to her soon.
* * *
The cardinals have been everywhere since my first visit to the professor’s home, the night I dreamed of Ellen screaming in the kitchen. Cardinals in unusual places, cardinals in groups of five or six, cardinals that flutter in the bushes along the roadside as I run past, cardinals that startle me as they fly urgently across my path in intersections and on exit ramps. One visits my front steps and stares at me through the window while I work. Another lands on my deck and peers in my back door. Their brilliance commands my attention. A year after I parted ways with her widower, I found myself sitting across from a psychic, asking to speak with Ellen. It was her birthday. It had been a year of crimson birds, a year of questions. I was ready for answers.
Megan Reilley is part of the writing faculty for Goucher College’s Center for Professional and Creative Writing in Baltimore, Maryland. She also teaches in the Goucher Prison Education Partnership program, which provides incarcerated adults a pathway to their bachelor’s degree. Before earning her M.F.A. and embarking on a teaching career, Megan was an editorial professional for more than twenty years. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Proximity/TRUE, 3Cents, and Five Minutes. Her memoir examining societal and personal expectations of female identity, mothering, female bodies, and the bodies of our children, is in progress.