These days, the dogs that pass by out there on the sidewalk look trim and happy. They’re getting a lot of exercise with their work-from-home humans. They sniff out little mysteries and tag bushes and never glance up to ask their masters, “Why are you home so much? Why so many walks?” The dogs are not having bad dreams. Two neighborhood friends who are both biologists walk by wearing sleek, face-fitting masks. I could call from the door to ask how their dreams are going, but I don’t have to. These two know exactly how microorganisms like to boogie. When my spouse and I walk, I feel my breath warm on my cheeks, the cotton pulsing in and out, touching my face. It’s no wonder people are having stress dreams. You’ve probably had one too.
Just before my nagging xylophone alarm clock went off, my spouse and I hopped on a big glassy city bus. Following the logic of dreams, this was the college town where we fell in love all those years ago. She scooted to the back of the bus, nearly empty. I joined her, and the bus chugged on. I had a ball-point pen and was writing a poem for our daughters on a clean foam tray, the kind meat comes in at the store. We haven’t had meat in the house for weeks. Stop by stop, the bus began filling up. Most of us didn’t have masks on. Somehow, I had forgotten mine. Maybe yesterday’s mask was in my jacket pocket? No. People were standing closer and closer to us, friends and strangers. All I could do was pull my scarf up to my nose. Thank goodness I had that. Our daughter who lives in Manhattan knitted it. I could see the blue of the wool now on the ridge of my nose. I hid the foam tray with the few lines of poetry for Grace and Miriam about how every day of their lives mattered. We were all standing too close.
In my COVID-19 stress dream, the bus was crossing a bridge. Out the window, down below, the river ice was shiny and wet. The sun gleamed off its melting surface. We stopped there, in traffic, so I saw it all. Someone was driving an old open-topped jalopy, tentatively at first, out onto the ice. I pointed. Don’t tell me we’re going to have to watch this, I said, meaning watch another person’s fast, desperate, pointless death. Everyone looked toward the river. Silence on the bus now, just the diesel engine in a throaty idle below the floor. The jalopy made its way across the river. When the ice held, the driver turned the car downstream and adventured toward the next bridge. Almost immediately, the ice collapsed and the car began sinking, water rolling in over the top of the doors. The driver, it turned out, wasn’t a complete fool. A friend on the shore had a rope ready and tossed it out. I could see the brown fiber rope across the ice and the open water. The driver held the rope and an effort was made to pull the half-submerged car toward the shore, but the rope popped free. All around me on the stalled bus, we watched in silence. Now a first responder in a blue uniform came skiing across the ice toward the open water.
In the dream, the car was drawn by its own weight to the bottom of the black shiny river. I could see only the driver’s head and hands now, and her wet hair, above the water. Still more or less calm, she was keenly watching her partners on the shore bustling with a new length of rope. Then the xylophone commenced. Downstairs, my spouse tapped a metal spoon twice on the side of a pot, then silence. I thought I smelled warm oatmeal and chopped fruit. She must have sat down at the table and gotten back to reading the morning newspaper.
Music: "The Twilight Zone" by Bernard Herrmann