May 03, 2005

The Sleep Lover

The first time he ever glimpsed her was in a dream about a tiger. The tiger was jumping at him through a fiery cloud, but that was easily taken care of: he stopped the tiger in midair – it hung with red eyes and dripping mouth, growing larger but coming no closer. And there in the upper left corner was the woman, floating in the blue, an angel in a Renaissance landscape.

He knew at first glance that she was the one he’d been hoping for all his life.

Usually he dreamed about people he knew, but she had no source in his past, she represented no one but herself. An autonomous individual who lived only in his dreams. And unlike other dream creatures, she never changed form.

The whole dream rang with his love for her: thigh–moan and heaven–murmur and the shiver of invisible bells. And then there was a black space and another dream took over – airplanes, skyscrapers, get them out of his head! She was gone.

What if your perfect partner only comes to you in your sleep? And how do you persuade a dream to replay?

Sleeping pills every night at seven. Ten, twelve, fourteen hours of sleep a night. Sometimes she came to him – but oh so rarely. He pined for her during dreams about his parents, his co–workers, his childhood friends. He hated all of them now, he only wanted her.

Opium–soaked hashish after red–wine dinners. Beautiful flights, exponentially multiplied hours of space travel stillness – but not her. Supernova fireballs, red and blue nebulae – and she was in an infinitesimal meadow on a planet infinitely far below his star–specked window.

Forget the hashish, just the opium. Deep undersea sleep – green fish with electric lamps on tentacles – transparent fish that were all stomach and blood vessels – bearded black fish with three rows of scimitar teeth – and she was there beside him in the bathysphere – and the Marianas Trench rang with his love, with heart–swell and spine–sweetness – and the dream ended…

More smoke the next night, more the night after that. A great expedition, like looking for a unicorn in a world–sized forest, with a glimpse every few nights. After each sighting he smoked more and more, trying to force the flower. Adding this and that – scrounging friends for whatever they had – diving into the deep and shooting through space at the same time, and one night he teetered on the sharp lip of a cloud–boiling volcano, and peered into the foaming red below, and stepped outward …

“Here’s an interesting one,” the doctor said, guiding a visitor through the vegetative ward. “Came in about six months ago, so at this point there’s less possibility of recovery. But he’s got remarkably little damage to the higher centers. We’re speculating that there was a sudden switching–off of his Reticular Arousal System, the switch in the brain that wakes the cerebrum up from sleep. The RAS is not a localized morphological feature of the brain, it’s a functional system of connections – thousands of nerve fibers dispersed through the brainstem, the thalamus, the hypothalamus, the cerebral cortex. Not something we can poke an electrode into and fix, not for the next generation or two. This poor guy’ll lie here for as long as his body holds out – and he’s a strong young man, you can tell. His life’s over. But he’s retained a capacity for deep, healthy sleep that’s almost unheard of in brain trauma patients. We can tell when he’s dreaming, even before we check the EEG. When he enters the dream state, he smiles.”