Uplifting Nightmare

by Shaun Terry

Hugo broke the silence: “I had this terrible dream last night.”

She looked up until her eyes met Hugo’s.

“I was in my mother’s house, but it wasn’t her house. I never dream of places as they are. I wonder if people ever dream of places as they are. Do you?”

“I think I do, sometimes.”

Does she know that she does? Why would she respond that way? “Oh. Well, I was in my mom’s house, but not my mom’s house, and I cracked an egg to make a cake. I don’t really know how to make cake.”

“Uh-huh. I know what you mean, though. Sometimes, I dream of places and I’m so sure that it’s that place, but then I wake up and realize it was nothing like that place. Why don’t you know how to make cake? You just do what the box says.”

“Right. It’s just been a long time since I made a cake.”

“Yeah, why would you have made someone a cake? I can see that.”

Maybe that was a slight insult. “Sure. So I crack this egg and the egg is coming out, but it’s way more than a normal egg. It’s just running and running out of the shell, and little bits of shell are getting in the bowl — in the egg, I mean, in the bowl — so I’m concerned as I’m looking at the mess I’m making, but suddenly, I’m doing this in front of a kind of ledge. I don’t know if the ledge just appeared or if I just never saw it, but it’s actually a balcony above a bunch of people who are seated in these rows of black plastic chairs, with an open column in the middle, like some big thing is happening. There’s a stage in front, but instead, they’re just all watching me, I guess. Maybe there was a big-screen TV or something. I dunno. But they’re wearing suits and dresses and shit. They only come to my consciousness… sub-consciousness? Huh. Well, I only become aware of them in my dream because they start applauding me and I feel that helpless feeling you get when people applaud you.”

“Helpless?”

“Yeah, like you can’t do anything. Suddenly, everyone’s attention is on you and you can’t make them stop. Like, what if you wanna talk or something? Or what if you just wanna walk off-stage? But you’re supposed to stand there and smile and acknowledge it in some way that shows some poise and appreciation or something.”

“You’re right. Shit. That’s terrible, sometimes.”

“I hate being applauded.”

Her head lowered, but her gaze stayed on Hugo. She made a face as though she’d just eaten something surprisingly sour. “I hate people just looking at me.”

“It’s a terrible feeling. Suddenly, everyone thinks they’re doing you this great favor and it’s worse because I then feel guilty. Everyone’s there praising me and all I can think is how I want them to stop. Usually, it’s because I did something for the purpose of getting positive attention, but then I instantly regret it.”

“Like makeup or heels. Well, I guess I wear those to feel good about myself, but that’s not totally true.”

She sipped her tea and gazed at the ceiling.

“Like, would I ever wear makeup or heels or revealing clothing or deodorant if society hadn’t told me I have to?”

“Male gaze.”

“Not just male gaze. Female gaze sometimes seems worse, but it’s informed by the male gaze because it’s the men who’ve been in charge.”

“Of course. Fucking Disney, man. Well, not just Disney, but a lot of it is Disney. I couldn’t imagine what it’s like to be a woman and to have to deal with that. My friend once recommended I go around in drag one day and see how it works out, but honestly, I nearly shit my pants any time I hear people applauding, so how would that work out for me?”

She smiled, but her eyes and cheeks didn’t move.

Hugo’s mouth opened as he looked around the room, and he walked in a path the shape of a small, strange orb. “You know what I’d really like? I would just love if everyone, instead of applauding, would simply come up to me discreetly and pay me compliments: ‘Hugo, that egg-cracking was so good and you’re so handsome,’ ‘Hugo, you really shut down that internet philosopher with your argument on the hypocrisy of violence. Please have my babies.’ And some people could touch me a little more — well, they all could if they were just more earnestly effusive in their praise of me and if they showed some emotional intuitiveness. I’d love if everyone would just wear weird, fun socks and be sensitive and quietly sure of themselves, if they wouldn’t talk too much, except to talk about philosophy and shit, if they’d appear a little androgynous, and if they’d all just say moderately sweet things to me with no expectations. That’s a world I could get behind.”

“Let’s get that revolution started, Hugo. Do we start with a blowjob?”

“That’s crude. Kiss me first.”

She looked at him with no real expression.

Hugo’s mind could only wander so far from his current preoccupation. “It really shook me. I mean, I woke up and I felt terrible. I almost cried. I wanted to cry and I was frustrated that I couldn’t cry. I laid in bed and —”

“Lay.”

“Huh?”

“You lay in bed.”

“I thought it was ‘I lie down to sleep.'”

“That’s in the present tense. In the past tense, you ‘lay’ down to sleep. Well, you also lie yourself down. That one’s a little complicated, but the way you said it, it would’ve made more sense to have said ‘lay.'”

“Really? Well, I was just laying there, okay?”

She winked at him.

“It really bothered me. I couldn’t get back to sleep. I wanted to. I mean, look at my eyes. I look like shit.”

“You look okay. You look a little tired, but you’re fine.”

“I woke up, and my heart was beating so hard I could feel it in my shoulders and neck.”

“That sounds scary. You should’ve meditated.”

“Yeah. I mean, I think I kinda tried, but I just kept thinking about things. It made me so anxious. I don’t know why. I don’t know why it upset me so much. People were just clapping for me. That’s not so awful. Then, I woke up and started thinking about how I should be working, about how I have no money, about how I need to be a better father. I thought about Lily. I woke up so scared. I’m such a failure. I fail at everything.”

“Maybe you haven’t always achieved what you’ve wanted to, but I wouldn’t say you’ve failed at everything. It’s all subjective, anyway. And it’s all in the past. It’s not this reality. It’s not what’s happening now.”

“No, I’ve failed at everything. Really.”

Hugo wasn’t understanding her.  He’d made several laps around the room by this point, and seemed to be picking up speed. He stopped.

His arms made wide, sweeping movements, making him appear bigger. “I don’t deserve applause. I’ve never deserved any applause. Why would anyone ever applaud anyone? Who deserves it? Why? For what? We’re all self-motivated and nothing we ever do is some great display of anything except our environmental influences and the arbitrary things that make us different from others. It’s not my fault. Nothing’s my fault, but I don’t deserve anything good or bad, either.”

Hugo realized that he’d had these and similar thoughts a thousand times before. It wasn’t helpful. Maybe it felt good to say these things, but he wasn’t solving any problem. He’d thought he might’ve been finding important answers a few times before, but he’d learned better by now.

“Applause is this act that says you should’ve been doing something or you’re better than someone because of what you did. Applause is kind of a violent act.”

Hugo felt self-satisfied, but it didn’t help anything. He sat, distracted from his company.

He made an expression that wasn’t like his usual freakout expression. She was concerned, but she knew that there was nothing she could say to help.

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