by Nathan Tavares
Weird dreams are Angie’s favorites. Dreams about eggs jumping off frying pans and skating around kitchens. Dreams of waltzing with long-dead aunts on bright cruise ship decks. Randomness is easy. It can mean anything.
“Frogs, you said?” Angie asks.
“Yes.” The client locks his eyes on Angie, as do the other six clients in the dream workshop. “I was cleaning my pool and frogs—just everywhere. In the water. On the stairs. I skimmed the pool net thing through the water and dumped a pile of frogs into the grass.”
“And then what?”
“That’s it. I just woke up.”
“Hmm.” Hmms help. Make her sound thoughtful. She looks through her fringe of bottle-red bangs, up from her small pad. Eggs. Cereal. Hair conditioner. The milk in the fridge is probably cheese by now. She should add milk, too. “It’s easy to think that the pool might be the key here, but that’s not where the heat is.”
“Hold on a second…” Shit—what’s his name? Jim? John? Jesse? Jesse. “Jesse, frogs are significant creatures. They metamorphose—of course you know all this—throughout their life cycle. From egg, to tadpole, to adult frog. So, you’re in your backyard trying to get rid of adult frogs. This tells me one clear thing.” She pauses for effect. Two blinks from Jesse, expectant. Angie, the compass pointing north, leading them. “You’re really trying to get rid of your adulthood.”
Wait for it. The breath before the curtain call. Of course, it’s so clear. Slow, considered nods from others in the workshop, in the circle of couches and chairs. On the white walls of the spare, minimal office with its grey upholstery and soothing seascapes framed in chrome, the clients and their dreams fill the space, making it breathe. Today’s group: Jesse, the bearded hipster with mommy issues. A college-aged guy with an entitlement complex and his guilt-machine mom. Beth, desperate to be Angie’s co-therapist, and her friend Gina, with her shivering Chihuahua nerves. Blank-faced Tariq, with the emotional depth of microwaved oatmeal. And then there’s Ben in his finance-bro suit, with his wilting eyes, like a heartbroken fifteen year-old in a linebacker’s body.
“Jesse, I challenge you to think on a happy memory from your childhood,” Angie says. “When’s the last time you spoke to your parents? Maybe they could help. Next, meditate on an even happier memory from adulthood. Was it the first time you bought a car? Graduation from college? Or the birth of a child?” Angie shakes her small pad in Jesse’s direction, her words warm honey. “You’ve got to start celebrating your adulthood.”
Beth nods, adding, “Absolutely.”
A flash of God, I’m good bounces in Angie’s mind when she really nails a reading, like with that “celebrate your adulthood” clincher. Thank you, improv classes where she was a machete-wielding milkmaid or manic bowling champ. Thank you, shitty productions of Bye Bye Birdie where she flung herself in blind lust at beautifully gay and uninterested Conrads. A girl has got to eat, she told herself. Even Serious Actresses need day jobs. Waitressing. Temping. This job pays the best. Plus, it’s acting. Acting-adjacent.
“Jesse, think on this a few days. Then, write down that happy adult memory and read it before you go to sleep,” Angie says. “Be sure to write down any dreams you have after this exercise. Then, next session we’ll circle back. Now, who else wants to share today?”
From the white armchair, Ben avoids her eyes. His broad, square face is dominated by a big nose. One of her regulars—shelling out for sessions three or four times a week—Ben is usually a talker. Last week he wrestled control of the group to talk about a dream where he was sitting in his kitchen, in only a pair of socks, eating a sausage.
“Does this mean I’m gay?” he asked.
“Absolutely not,” she answered. “Don’t listen to Freud. Never—ever—listen to Freud. A sausage is just a sausage.” Ben’s trusting cow eyes beamed out a telepathic whew.
“Ben, we haven’t heard from you today,” Angie says. “Anything you’d like to share?”
Ben is usually so unselfconscious it’s almost adorable, if dopey, as he cracks himself open, spilling things that make her other clients toe the floor, embarrassed for him. Angie decodes the thoughts of the others, through their shifting stares and sudden fascination with their fingernails. That’s a whole lotta shit to dump on a roomful of strangers, man. Ben’s marriage is in the can, the sadness bulldozing him at the worst times. Guerilla crying fits on the train. In line at the supermarket. Between sets of bench presses at the gym. Can you spot me, bro? Hold on, I gotta cry this one out.
No feverish note taking from Ben that day, as she spoke. In her Serious Actress phase in college, she Meryl Streeped her way through a death scene of some play, the sniffles, the ruffling of tissues from the audience lighting her on fire. She had them with every mournful flicker of her eyes, except for one guy in the front row. Unmoving. A wax statue with a tight mouth that seemed to say, And? So, the rest of the audience vanished. Visions of wax man followed her. And? Confidence blown. If she’s losing Ben, she’s screwed.
Ben’s eyes fall to his hands, where they cap his knees like two wide fronds.
“Not today,” Ben mumbles. He’s built like a broad house under his stark white dress shirt. She expects a drill sergeant grunt, not a puff of air.
“No problem,” she says.
A plate of cookies waits by the front door. No one’s leaving without a cookie, she says, at the end of the session. We should always end with something sweet. Sweet dreams. She says she whipped up the cookies, when really, she stashed the plastic grocery store container under her desk, earlier. Another small lie—Angie in flour up to her elbows, baking for her clients—so they’ll trust her, so they’ll open up.
Her lies ease their weight, their worries. That thought helps her sleep at night. When that isn’t enough, the small white pills do the trick.
When the afternoon sun slants low on the glass windows of the city’s coffee shops and tiny stores outside, Angie tidies, alone in her office. The character of Dr. Angela Johansson unravels around her. Exit stage left.
Maybe she should shake things up for her next session, if Ben is there. Lead with a lecture on common symbols or a guided relaxation or something. If nothing else, Angie knows how to bounce back. Her parents are out of the picture—sounded like assholes from what she could stitch together. She’s the better for it, with grandparents that loved their little spotlight ham and her variety shows after dinner. Sure, she should major in theater. Why not? She had the drive and the talent. Drop out and move to New York? Yes, we believe in you! When the callbacks dried up, they all agreed, that’s ok! Keep going. Try improv. Then comedy. Years of bombing in front of mostly-dude audiences who were still unconvinced that anything attached to a vagina can be funny? Just another setback. Then her grandparents died a month apart, three years ago, and she moved back. Of course she aches, still, but nothing she can do about it. Keep going.
No one gave a shit about Angie, the off-off-off-Broadway performer, or wanted to see her in a show. But her characters? First, a homicidal nun named Sister Mary Christmas. Next, a New Orleans medium named Madame Frere Jacques. Sets that were half standup, half improv sparked by audience suggestions. What if Madame did peyote and channeled Stalin? High tides, waves of laughter rolled through the club, first on random Wednesday nights, then she finally packed the house enough to book weekend gigs. She vampired off the laughter, the energy of an audience, the sizzle of the spotlight. She didn’t change lives, but she helped people escape their baggage, even if it was for an hour-long sold-out set that paid a chunk of her rent.
So, the magic of her characters didn’t exactly pay the goddam bills. The thought started small, at first. What if? Turn a character into a job. Madame Frere Jacques’s pinot grigio-fueled séances wouldn’t help anyone. But what about Dr. Angela Johansson, dream therapist? Based on her, but with fudged credentials. She had a few psych classes under her belt, and—whatever—therapy was bullshit anyway. Mostly, she was empathetic and quick. What if I go bigger?
Her sessions started small, just one or two people in coffee shops, or the occasional bridal shower where she would glean the hidden meaning of the bride-to-be’s dream over cucumber sandwiches. Soon enough, word of mouth spread for her to be kinda known in a circle of rich, bored yoga moms. She charged enough to pay the bills, then enough to save a little. What if I go bigger? Then, enough to rent an office.
A small dust cloud gathers at Angie’s feet while she sweeps. Sure, there’s guilt, sometimes, the thought that anyone with a squick of a conscience would sputter at her about how she’s duping people. But, she’s helping them, dishing out mental clarity with her invoices. Her first session at the new office, a young mother with a doughy face told her, every night I’m baking muffins. Well, it’s clear, Angie said. It’s time to start loving yourself again. After the session, the young woman, tears gushing over her cheeks, clutched Angie’s hand so hard it hurt. You’re right, you’re right. How’s that for changing lives?
The cloud at Angie’s feet is grey and shapeless, some hazy manifestation of the bits of dreams people bring in with them. She dumps the dustpan into the trash.
Angie spins. Jesus! Just Ben. Her shaky laugh rattles her shoulders. Weird. Ben never pops by outside of normal workshop hours.
“Sorry,” Ben sputters. “I was wondering if I could talk to you.”
Here comes. He’s there to shove his finger in her face, I want my money back, you quack bitch.
“Sure, what’s going on?” She waves for Ben to follow her to the workshop area. He takes the couch, she the loveseat next to him. “And please, call me Angela.”
“I can’t remember my dreams lately,” Ben said. “I know I’ve talked about the divorce.” Divorce clatters out in two clunky syllables.
“I know you’re having a tough time,” she says, gently cutting him off. For shit’s sake, please let’s not get into it now. Angie’s shoulders ease a little. At least she hasn’t lost him yet.
“I don’t know what the next step is. I was hoping to get a clue from my dreams, but no luck.”
Ben picks at his thumbnail, avoiding her eyes. The sadness rolls off his skin in thick, cold waves. Angie shifts in her seat. Where to take this one? Ben ditched the jacket of his suit sometime after this morning session, thanks to the sticky, summer heat. Not the best time for Angie to notice his arms straining against the cotton of his shirt, but, well—a while since she had a guy around. Months since her last fling—a couple of dates, a couple of roll-arounds, since it’s easier to keep people away. Less of a chance for those volleyed accusations. Monster, fucking sociopath.
“You’re blocked, it seems,” she says.
Ben gasps. “Is that bad? Can I…unblock?”
“Well. You’re not letting your subconscious kick in and help. I can teach you some relaxation exercises, which can help you be more receptive to dreams.”
“Yeah. I’ll trying anything. Whatever you think.”
His words are a quick gush, almost begging her with his wide, fawn-brown eyes. Something twists inside Angie. Something about his damage, his gooey insides. She can’t look at him. He’s there because of her. She has to help. What if I go bigger?
She thinks fast. Is there another suggestion from the audience? Yes. Invasive dream counseling. She’ll call him in the middle of the night and wake him up for an interpretation over the phone. Though, no guarantee that he’ll pick or even remember any dreams. Keep thinking, Angie. He can sleep on the office couch one night. She’ll wake him, mid-REM. She’s never done that before, but it won’t be hard. He probably won’t remember a conversation, anyway. Even better, she’ll whip up some hopeful dream for him—like a meadow filled with fluffy sheep—and email him an interpretation the next day.
“I dunno,” he says. “I don’t think I could sleep here. I don’t think I could relax.”
“All right. Let’s think outside the box, then.”
“Would you come to my house?” Ben blurts. The tips of his ears blush pink, embarrassed at his own words. After a moment of dead air that Angie scrambles to try to fill, he adds, “My wife moved out a month ago. I’m trying to sell the place.”
Angie hesitates. No predatory, mental alarms whoop at the sight of him—but a night in his house isn’t exactly her warm, happy place. He’s been coming to workshops for a year, so he’s not really a stranger. Maybe he’s coming on to her? Though, there are easier ways to ask her out, that don’t involve invoices. If anything, how he bumbles at her, she gets a hero-crush vibe from him, how she’s Dr. Johansson, bringing clarity to her dreamers, so beyond potentially-bangable levels. Besides, he murmured in a workshop a few weeks ago about how, since his wife left, he’s had trouble getting the soldier to salute, before Angie course-corrected a dream interpretation away from his dick.
“I know your time is valuable. I’d pay whatever you think is fair.” He waits. He went too far? “Sorry. This probably sounds nuts.”
She eases him, halts his backpedaling, with one of her soothing Dr. Johansson smiles, her lips scooping up at his words, whatever you think is fair. Why not? She’s helped him before. She can do it again. It’s not exactly mercenary.
“You know—I think this could work. I want to do what I can for you.”
“That’s amazing!” Ben chirps, spreading his wide palms to the sky. The edges of his square face soften, a smile.
Angie’s heart breaks a little. He’s giving himself up, so easily, when does he know about her? She can count on one hand the things she’s let slip to clients about herself. She’s named after the Rolling Stones song. She plays cello.
She’ll send him the paperwork.
He brushes his palm on his pants and holds it out to her by the front door. I knew I could turn to you. Her hand small in his. His trust, his words, stoke something warm in her that lingers long after she’s alone, again, in the stark room of her rented office.
Two days later, Angie’s finger hovers above the doorbell of Ben’s front door. His street is an archipelago of tidy houses with slate front porches and three-car garages floating in lush lawns. Mingling choruses of crickets chirp from patchy grasses at the edges of picket fences. Angie’s never made a house call before. She pulled a number out of her ass yesterday—five-hundred and fifty bucks for a private over-night session. She never charged someone so much for anything. A flicker of guilt stayed with her as soon as she sent off the email, until Ben’s instant reply—no problem—and direct deposit. From the looks of things, he’s doing all right.
Nerves hit. If things get weird, she can always bolt. Plus, the pepper spray stashed in the outside pocket of her purse. No turning back now. She rings the bell.
Ben answers in gray sweatpants and a T-shirt. They’re a pair, both in drag. He: off-season semi-pro quarter back. She: corporate accountant in a beige skirt and a blouse buttoned to the neck, with her Dana Scully dyed hair. When she first fleshed out the part, she figured no one would trust a twenty-seven year old blonde, not with the experience she claimed. So she became a thirty-three year-old redhead with a penchant for quoting Jung.
“Come on in, Doc,” Ben says through his goofball half-smile. “Thanks for making a house call.”
Angie trickles past him, inside, to the fringes of the wide first floor and its garland of bare, pastel-painted rooms. An empty mausoleum of a hutch for prissy wedding china dominates a wall in the dining room nearby. The only evidence of Ben is a standard-issue bachelor futon across from a behemoth flat-screen in the living room, surrounded by stalagmites of videogame piles, the top title nearest to her some rage-spiral of a first-person shooter. Jesus. Poor guy.
“You usually spend Saturday nights with clients?” he asks.
“Not every Saturday,” she says, thankful for the joke. “You know, I gave my doorman your address so he could call me a cab. I told him I was meeting a client. I probably should’ve lied and said I had a hot date. He keeps trying to set me up with his nephew.”
His laugh is a quick, jittery bark. “The bedroom’s upstairs.”
Of course they’ll go to his room. Angie trails him up the carpeted stairs, into his bedroom with its weepy watercolor lavender walls, the color he can’t have picked. Stripes of paint samples—frost blues, tea greens, eiderdown gray—slash one wall.
“This is where the magic happens,” Ben says.
Angie’s laugh is a long, warm gush, the sound softening the edges of Ben’s shoulders. He blushes, waving into the room like the host of a TV home makeover show. A single lamp on a bedside table sends a jellyfish-shaped splotch of light into the room, across a bed so huge Angie could stretch out horizontally without touching the edges.
She nods to the paint swatches. “Doing some redecorating?”
“What’s the word? Cath…cathartic?”
Good to know he’s making changes, however small, plodding his way into the future. Maybe he’s not such a pushover. “That’s smart. Definitely time to make the space your own.” She drops her bag on a chair by the bed, some overstuffed wingback he must’ve lugged up from the living room.
Ben rocks on his heels. He points to the bed. “So, I should just hop in?”
He tiptoes to the edges of the bed, like he’s afraid of waking some invisible bedmate on the sleet-gray down comforter. “Been a while since I had a woman in this room. I mean, not someone I’m paying by the hour.” He winces. “Sorry. That came out…strange.”
“Just relax. Pretend I’m not even here. This is your space.” She wanders to the window to adjust the blinds. He’ll quit blushing and tripping over himself if she’s not looking at him. Maybe he does have feelings for her. Hopefully not. Things could get messy. Though—not that it’d be so bad, right? He’s a good guy. Oblivious in kind of an endearing way, a doof. Even with what she’s charging him, she wouldn’t be there if she didn’t care about him on some level. As a kid, Angie’s friends played dress-up brides with bedsheets and bouquets ripped from neighbors’ gardens, still dripping dirt, while Angie rehearsed her Oscars’ speech. I’d like to thank the Academy, and of course, my grandparents. She felt the pull, the weight sometimes—over single-serving pizza boxes on Sunday night, the only sounds after she switched off another crap TV marathon, the scattered conversations from her neighbors drifting through the walls.
Behind her, a rustle of sheets. “Can I tell you why she left? My wife was pregnant. But the kid wasn’t mine.”
“What happened?” She sinks into the chair next to his bed, where Ben rests on his back.
His hair is soot against the white pillow.
Ben shrugs. “Some guy at her office. I met him a couple of times. He seemed decent enough. It didn’t bug me that they spent a lot of time together. I figured it was work stuff.”
“So what changed?”
“She started going on all these business trips, told me they were group conferences. One day I went by her office. Surprised her for lunch—you know. I saw her and the guy walking in together, all smiles. He had his hand on her back as she walked through the door. She looked up and saw me at her desk, standing there like a real asshole. Her whole face dropped, like she was busted. I just knew.”
Angie pulls a thread in the chair’s fabric armrest. A thick seam unravels.
“Sorry,” Angie whispers. “That’s really shitty.” Her college boyfriend, her co-star in Westside Story, banged two backup dancers practically right under her nose. She should’ve seen it coming, too.
“She told me that night that they’d been sleeping together for months.” His eyes fixate on a spot on the comforter. “She only told me because she took a pregnancy test, right there in our bathroom. Came back positive. It’d been weeks since we had sex, since she was gone all the time. So, the nights suck. Mostly me lying here. Staring at the ceiling and wondering why I wasn’t enough.”
She’s glad for the dimness of the room. One hand bunches the hem of her skirt. Ben’s hushed brain-dump of a confession pulls at her. She’s way out of her league. Maybe being here is a mistake. And if they get closer? She snatches her purse from the floor. “Back in a minute. I’m going to make you some tea. Try to relax. Deep breaths in and out.”
Ben clears his throat and nods. The gush of his breaths follow her, over the thuds of her quick footfalls on the stairs, down to the kitchen.
Alone again, she hops on the countertop as she waits for the kettle to boil. A cappuccino maker that looks like it doubles as a blood centrifuge gathers dust nearby. She’s a liar, a walking, two-act dramedy. He’s a mess. What advice can she dish out that’ll even do him any good? The kettle whistles.
She plucks two white mugs from the cabinet. While she steeps tea in each mug, she grinds a sleeping pill into a mound of fine, white powder with a butcher knife. Ben’s a big guy. She crushes another whole pill, just to be safe. She can’t make him dream, but at least he’ll sleep—a mercy. She’ll whip up an interpretation of some shimmering, symbolic dream she’ll say he told her, barely out of the haze of sleep. Instead of having to confess to him, I’m a fake. I’m just someone else to let you down.
She waits for the tea to cool. Then, she stirs the powder into one of the mugs. Back in the bedroom, Ben’s sleepy eyes barely meet hers when she hands him the tea.
“Chamomile,” Angie says. “It’ll help you sleep.”
“Thanks.” In the huge bed, even Ben looks small. He props himself up a little so he doesn’t spill.
Angie curls her feet under her in the chair. Ben blows across the top of the tea before pulling in a long gulp.
“What do you dream about, Angela?” Ben asks, his words half-muffled by the mug. Another mouthful of tea.
For all of the workshops she ran, no one ever flipped the script on her. She likes that the question comes from him. She presses her palms together and closes her eyes.
“I dream about being a kid a lot,” she says. “And the magnolia tree in my front yard.” She doesn’t remember a lot of her dreams. Mostly, just the feelings, when she blinks past the haze in the mornings, islanded in her bed. The jolt of her name in lights, the high of a belly-laughing crowd. The warmth of someone waiting for her, after the show, and pressing her face into his neck. The feelings that fade about as fast as she rustles up in bed.
A silence like a stretch of snow widens between them. Ben’s head sags.
“Do you really think your dreams can tell you who you really are?”
She flicks off the bedside lamp. “I think you are who you think you are.”
“You can call me Angie,” she whispers. “If you want.” She leans forward to tuck the loose comforter around him.
“Ok. Angie. I like how that sounds.” He drains his teacup and reaches to rest it on the nightstand. He misses and the mug bounces harmlessly to the rug. “I know we don’t really know each other. But, thanks for making me feel less alone,” he says.
Angie’s lips quake. She lets her eyes flutter closed with his, just for a second. “Sweet dreams.”
As Ben sleeps, Angie wanders his shadowed house, her bare feet on his carpets slowed by his words. A flowery hand towel in the bathroom. Scented candles. A crystal vase by the door. She should throw the knickknack artifacts from his old life away for him. Like she’s one to talk, with costumes from past shows cramming the back of her closet, with backstage photos taped to her bedroom mirror, with a date to move back to New York, to try again, that she keeps pushing back. She’s chasing ghosts, too.
When she circles back to him, he’s on his back in the nest of the comforter, his soft snores rustling against the silence of the room. She peeks into his closet. One half is almost empty except for a knee-length white cotton sundress with a lace back. A pair of white sandals and a black ski coat. Leaning against the wall is a large picture frame that Angie slides out and flips over. Ben and his ex on the beach, he in khakis and button-down, she in the white sundress, her light hair pulled back.
Angie shucks away her skirt and wiggles out of her blouse. Down goes the sundress over her head. In the mirror—the light from a car passes through the window—she pulls back her hair and half-closes her eyes.
Downstairs on his futon, she squeezes her knees to her chest, shuddering against two choked sobs because Ben is conked-out, alone upstairs, and it’s all her fault. And feeding him lies is just as easy, feels just as good as slipping into bed with him would feel—his hands on her, his breath. She should just leave. Tell Ben he was unresponsive when she tried to wake him. Instead, she dozes, waking hours later, the house still plunged in darkness. She’ll feel his eyes on her in every workshop after this and she’ll know that she could’ve helped him, really helped him.
He’s still on his back in the bed. His eyes flick beneath his eyelids.
She kisses him softly, at first, pushing aside the down comforter and sliding onto him with a slink of the cotton sundress. His clumsy lips bob against hers, out of some slumbering instinct. Only when she presses his slack hands to her waist does he try to lift his head from the pillow. Honey, it’s me. He struggles to open his eyes against the undertow of sleep. It’s ok, I’m here, she whispers between the kisses. His doughy arms sag around her as he sighs, moving under her. Through the bliss of the sleeping pills, she knows he sees what he wants, what he needs.
She wriggles out of the sundress and her underwear and tosses them to the floor. She tugs down the front of his sweatpants. Baby, he mumbles as she moves onto him. Tears leak from the corners of his closed eyes.
Afterwards, she tucks herself close to him, happy to pretend, for a while. At dawn, she rustles out of bed, careful not to wake him, and hangs the dress back in the closet.
She pulls a pen and paper from her purse. A breeze from the window cools her bare skin as she writes.
I woke you up around midnight during your first REM cycle. You were very confused, but I hope what I will tell you will help.
You said you were with your ex on the beach and the two of you made love in the sand. Then—just like that—she disappeared. Afterwards, you watched the waves crashing for a while, and felt the warm water against your feet.
What your subconscious is telling you, Ben, is that you had this beautiful moment, in your dream and in your life, and now it’s over. And that’s ok. You could see the waves and feel the water, and realize how beautiful those things were, even though you were alone. I want you to tell yourself this when you paint your walls, and fill your home with things that make you happy, and travel to places you’ve always wanted to see: It’s ok. I’m ok. There’s an ocean waiting for you.
If you can’t do it in your own voice for a while, use mine. Hear my voice promising you: You’re ok. You’re ok.
Crickets chirp in the stillness. She leaves the note on his nightstand.
From the piles on the floor, she pulls up her skirt and buttons her blouse around her. With each inch of fabric, each footstep down Ben’s carpeted stairs, she takes shape. She’s Dr. Angela Johansson. The hazy, shapeless forms of dreams speak to her, almost aloud. Sometimes she lets her client’s call her Angie.
Nathan Tavares writes fiction, sometimes about benevolent frauds, young immortals, and the terrible and/or wonderful things people do for/to each other. His writing has appeared in PANK, Necessary Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. You can find more of his work at nathantavares.com.