Imperfect knowledge accompanied him across the field to a big tent. It was strange, it was just like the tent Thomas dreamed about the night before, with green and white stripes and billowing white flaps spread wide like labia. Inside the tent, a three-piece band played “All of Me,” a beguiling smell of gardenias insinuated itself, and five veiled women, their naked, fleshy bellies curling and uncurling—maybe the gypsy women from a small circus in southern Turkey—waved and pointed behind him, and there she was, Grace, his love, embracing him, lustily biting his lips. You’re eating me up alive, he dream-talked, and everything was right in the world, until he awoke.
Déjà vu all over again, Thomas thought, entering the tent. His dream wasn’t a flash of prognostication, he knew the ceremony and reception would be under a tent, so the dream made perfect sense, even if her marriage didn’t. Its inevitability had plagued him for months, especially since Grace had once told him she couldn’t be with him because she didn’t know how to love, couldn’t love, it wasn’t him, she said, downcast, she was incapable. Hers was a hopeless, existential condition. My mother, she explained, made loving anyone impossible. Her mother had disappeared one day, didn’t pick her up from kindergarten, and finally turned up dead, or was pronounced dead, it was murkily put, and that was all, she wouldn’t say more, so he didn’t prod Grace, assuming the disappearance was the result of another man, drugs, or alcohol. He doubted she’d died—her father kept the truth from her—but Thomas believed the terrifying, great loss and abandonment had diminished Grace’s capacity to trust, and desperate insecurity carved out her being. Grace left it, and many other matters, open to interpretation; her vagueness shaped their relationship, until disastrously bent out of shape, it disintegrated.
Now Grace was actually marrying Billy Webster, a man—Thomas would’ve preferred a woman—someone she could love, presumably, unless she had other motives and reasons with which she’d tie her Gordian knot. Living gardenias cascaded down thick, moss-green plastic vines, but there were no women in veils, except for Grace, when she walked down the aisle next to her father, who looked just like the New Hampshire modern-day farmer he was. This was New Hampshire, Thomas reminded himself, glancing away from Grace’s swishing peau de soie dress, whose hem touched his foot as she walked toward the other man. But how much a dream tells and doesn’t, how it plays tricks, just like people. His only consolation was to attend her wedding the way he would a funeral for a colleague or a former friend, because it was required and ennobled him with easy virtue.
Thomas knew only a little about Grace’s dull or bright hubby who stood possessively by her side and appeared to sense subtle meanings in her every gesture, unctuous and fastidious in his affection, and grinned so broadly his eyes disappeared into folds of cheek, which looked to Thomas like abnormal growths. He’s assertive, Thomas decided, a wimp, or a geek, and probably impotent. Grace’s brand new husband produced CD-ROMs, a movie or two, some Broadway shows, and Thomas distrusted his dilettantism, his casualness. Thomas prided himself on his vision and application of skill to one cause, graphic design, whose requirements called for a refined eye, precision, and creativity within limits. He served others rather than himself, far better than making art that encouraged self-indulgence. Billy Webster was a grandstander. Also, Billy Webster had once performed magic, which was how he got into theater, and read palms and handwriting. Grace had mentioned this, as if they were worthy pursuits.
She met Billy Webster after they’d split up, she explained to Thomas, when she also informed him, too delicately, as if his feelings were womanly, of their upcoming marriage. That’s why she’d phoned him. It was chance, they were at a party, thrown by a close college friend she hadn’t seen since, but the friend had converted to Scientology, which Grace didn’t know until the party, when she heard a well-dressed group of men and women, all in their thirties, with too-bright eyes and eager, lubricious smiles, discuss E-meters and getting clear. She listened in, didn’t say a word, fearing intimidation, and that’s when she and Billy Webster found each other’s eyes across the room. The antidisciples soon absconded from the religious or cultish party, to a bar. They talked all night. Until dawn, she’d said, and soon Billy Webster had discovered her and she him, they found each other.
—Were you lost? Thomas asked.
—I am very cute. You’re blind.
—He’s psychic, he knows me better than I know myself.
—And that makes you happy, Thomas said, flatly.
—Yes, it does.
—And you can love him, Thomas said, flat-lining now.
She lost color, at least she lost color, he thought later.
—Yes, I can. I do. I’m sorry, Tommy.
He hated her saying Tommy.
—What about your mother?
—Billy let her, or he let me—he expelled her.
—Like an exorcism, Thomas joked.
—Sort of, she said. Don’t laugh. It can happen.
—Accidents happen, he said.
—No, she said, Billy did it.
—You fell in love with him, I’m not a moron.
She invited him to the wedding anyway.
Thomas now hated Webster with conviction, and wished he had not been decent about making an appearance at the wedding, even though he attended more as a ghost than a person, but still, he was complying with a ritual form of masochism. He thought he hated her, he hoped so, and he strode purposefully out of the tent, to cover so much ground that the tent would disappear, as if it were his bad dream, the wedding, and Grace an aerie faerie, and Billy Webster a devil with a slimy coat, sour, steamy sweat oozing, a tiny, hairy penis, or a mouse where the phallus should have been. Thomas saw him go up in a puff of smoke. All the while he felt someone was close behind him, so he strode faster, running away, exercising his legs, but he didn’t look back.
The field turned into a forest, and when Thomas reached a pond, the tent gone to a recent past, he sat upon a log near the water, heard birds singing inside the profound quiet, and dirtied the seat of his suit on the wet log with perverse pleasure. I can’t go back now, he decided. Does she really believe that junk?
His twin sister, Antoinette—Tony—might. Her girlfriend’s day job was as a lab technician, but she was also a working psychic, and while his twin sister wasn’t in thrall or attuned to voices from beyond or the like, Tony sympathized with those who were. Because their mother thought it was all junk, the way Thomas did. Their mother was beautiful, still, very much in love with their father, who returned her love, and his twin had always felt left out. Her mother either didn’t pay enough attention to her, or too much, of the bad kind, overly praised her, which sounded false to Tony, or belittled her, she said. His twin blamed their mother for everything that went wrong in her life, but he didn’t. He loved her.
The last time the twins talked, over drinks, he had managed not to press a single incendiary button, steering their course through comfort zones, but then Tony said, her lips pressed against her teeth, “Mother didn’t love me, she loved you because you were a boy. She’s a bitch.” She sat back in her chair, opening her legs wide like a muscleman on a subway car. Tony was more butch than he was. She liked sports and working out, she’d always been butch and, as a child, acted as if she believed if Thomas were nice, he would have changed his sex for her. Now he supposed he could cut off his penis and have the flesh made into a vagina with folds, but the thought made him sick. He just couldn’t, he liked his penis, and, even if he did change his sex, Tony wouldn’t be satisfied.
When Tony mentioned “our mother” again, Thomas absentmindedly lifted a large plastic cup of water to his mouth, couldn’t hold it somehow, and instead juggled it, kept juggling, until the cup flew into the air and doused his sister and him in spring water. Laughing, wiping herself off, she said, “If you’d soaked just me, Bro, I’d have wondered.” Later, he realized his unconscious had helped him throw cold water on the conversation, a literal-minded unconscious, and kind of great.
Tony had her revenge. He left town sometime after that, and she wanted to stay in his apartment as a break from her too-attentive lover, and he said, as he opened the door to leave, Don’t break anything, OK? This stuff is precious to me. He shut the door behind him, and she marched over to the refrigerator for a beer, then to the Prouvé chair he’d paid a fortune for, plopped down on it, and it crumbled beneath her. That’s what she told him when he returned.
Thomas had never liked birds much, and now they were his company. He twisted around, angled his head back, sensing something standing behind him, but there was nothing. I’m thinking it, I want someone there, I’m willing it, Grace, probably, I want her. He called her name, Grace, Grace, Grace, to an indifferent forest, which regularly responded to wild breezes, not words, and then when his echo disconcerted him, her name bouncing back emptily, he concentrated on hating her, hating what he’d loved. It was better than loving and missing her, having her in absentia only. What will come now? What will happen? The future might stroke him with good fortune or lash him with lies and broken promises, all uncontrollable, like his unconscious, which allowed him to do what he wanted but couldn’t in good conscience, allowed him what he feared, and safely enabled him to engage in gory scenes, loveless sex, abusive and ugly acts with his enemies and even friends. Who was a friend, anyway? Self-interest and betrayal climaxed together, satisfied bedfellows and lovers, common as dirt. He wiped the seat of his trousers without mirth.
Another love like this could shatter him, he’d crack up, go mad, or be forever changed, and he wanted that, to be out of himself, to believe ideas he absolutely never had, suddenly, and he also wished for stability and hardly any—no—he wanted no more sad surprises. He loved Grace, what a joke. What if he always loved her, what if he couldn’t stop, what if he could never have what he wanted. There was too much he couldn’t control. He might as well wish on a star, have his fortune read, believe in obscure pseudoscientific lore, astrology, or handwriting analysis, roll the dice, or throw a penny into this placid pond, his own Trevi Fountain. Thomas humored himself imagining farmers at the pond tossing in coins, dimes and quarters probably—the cost of wishes must be inflated, too—and if he peered in, he knew he’d see his reflection.
So, in the same, whimsical mood, he called up the myth of Narcissus. It seemed fitting, Narcissus’ attachment to himself, to a reflection, all surface, though Echo loved him anyway. Her fate doomed her to repeat his words, which Narcissus might have ambivalently appreciated, since some men like to hear themselves talk and hear themselves in subservient women. Thomas, somewhat uncomfortably and almost against his will, he’d say later, looked down, but he didn’t see his face. He saw the moss-covered still water, and soon, through the interstices of green slime, a woman’s face floating a foot beneath the surface. Distorted, old, rotten. Disbelieving, even alarmed, he turned again, but again there was no creature behind him, and all the while the birds continued to vocalize their complaints and desires in a euphonious chorus, interrupted by a few squawks.
He stared at the rotten face, hoping to see something. It felt imperative now to realize something, to apprehend—“make it work” was his design credo. He felt, suddenly, less sure of himself than ever, but maybe there would come a sign to help him, though wishing for that made him feel more vulnerable. He stared, and occasionally a trace of his own reflection filtered through the muck, but only for a moment until the watery mirror exposed her face once more. The face changed, by the flow of water, he thought, its labile movements. And as he stared, meditating on her, or it, and this oddness, he noticed something, the thing behind him that wasn’t there and the thing in front that was and yet wasn’t. It wasn’t clear, it was more a sensation than an idea or image. But then it became an idea: the face was Grace’s dead mother’s. She had, like Virginia Woolf, drowned herself, a suicide, that was why Grace couldn’t love. And then: Grace’s mother had been murdered, that’s why her face looked hideous, she died in terror, thrown into a river. In either case, her mother was condemned to haunt the waterways of New Hampshire. So: Grace never stopped mourning her mother and hating her, too, her mother had left her, had not loved her, and how could unloved Grace love—that must be it. But Billy Webster had made Grace know her mother was gone, he let her go for Grace. No, he told her that her mother had been kidnapped, that’s what Webster insisted, and she had never wanted to leave Grace, and she believed him.
Why couldn’t he have calmed her? Led her from doubt? Why couldn’t he have given her what she needed? Thomas couldn’t accept his fate, either, to have lost her. He wasn’t her knight in shining armor.
It’s not your fault, a voice whispered.
Thomas shifted around, and a form lay on the forest floor, like a woman’s, a shadow, or a ghost, then of a man, a child, a woman again, but there, absolutely, it was. It appeared to be wearing a hat, with a feather, as when an Indian stood in his doorway when he was a child, and, though Thomas awoke, the Indian stayed there for several minutes, he wore an elaborate feather headdress, his bare chest smooth and brown, luminous in the dark of the bedroom.
Now she, he, or it sat up.
The indecipherable shadow muttered: Thomas, Thomas, don’t be silly.
That’s what it sounded like, he thought, he heard that, but do ghosts or sibyls call you silly? He was hearing things, of course, hearing what he wanted. Thomas believed the ghostlike shape was created by a weave of branches and leaves, the winds causing it to shift its shape. It was a shadow created by nature, the play of elements, and maybe of his desire, with an illusion of physicality, but even when he shut his eyes, then quickly opened them, it was there. He accepted his own explanations or interpretations and waited for more.
Someone will love you, the voice said in a deeper register.
Thomas scoffed, then he snorted, and the birds stopped singing, as if they recognized his sounds as derisive and objected with their silence. He stood up, brushed off his pants, boldly walked toward the form, and stuck his arm through the air above it. The shadow disappeared and his own shape hovered, instead. Selective hearing, selective memory, selective living. Maybe he was going mad, this was it, but he didn’t feel mad. Would he ever be happy? He couldn’t imagine it. A dream is a disguise, his college therapist explained, while his Spanish teacher taught Calderón’s La vida es sueño, and if a dream is a disguise, and life is a dream, then life is a disguise, too. The tautology satisfied him since it demonstrated he was able to think, so he wasn’t crazy yet, but if life were a disguise, what did it disguise. Was there a design? No, not a design, there was too much randomness, but then what does life disguise?
Thomas sat on the log again, thoroughly engaged in the question, listening to his thoughts, to the birds who sang again or argued or cried, until he fell asleep. He must have fallen asleep, because time passed and kept passing, and reality didn’t feel real, he was looking at himself looking at himself. The big striped tent was back, he saw himself go through the opening, he saw her walk down the aisle, everything repeated itself, he saw himself, he saw his twin, Tony, she was a man and a woman, and she didn’t hate him, his parents smiled, then looked sadly upon him. He saw life rushing by, was he dead? Life is a dream, life is a dream. Now everyone was in disguise, everyone, and he fled the tent again, horrified, because if everyone’s in disguise, and a disguise is also disguise, then where does it end. IN DEATH. In death, in death. He was dead. He wasn’t asleep, he was dead. Life disguises death. We only think we’re alive. That was the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and, realizing that, he breathed. He wasn’t dead, he was only reading a book. Nothing made sense. A dream is life, life is death, death is life, and all of it is a disguise. Everything. Lies, lies upon lies, only lies on lies only. He finished running away and again he was where he was, by the pond, and the birds were singing, and a mourning dove flew to him and alighted on his chest, so, startled, he rubbed his eyes to better see the beautiful grey bird.
The mourning dove chirped: The biggest lies are the ones you tell yourself.
OK, that’s good, Thomas said to the talking bird.
It was as if I’d seen a ghost, but I was the ghost, he explained to his friends later. He told his twin, Tony, that he knew she was a man and a woman, and he thought, in his dream, he was also. Tony liked him better then, maybe forever after. Thomas did forget Grace, he forgot Billy Webster, and one day he forgot falling asleep and dreaming at the pond, because that’s what he’d told himself. It was all a dream, life is a dream, a dream is life, life disguises death, and only I can lie to myself.