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Authors: Chloe Benjamin

The Anatomy of Dreams

BOOK: The Anatomy of Dreams
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When Gabriel returned to me, I was twenty-one, and I was in the middle of the long summer before my senior year of college. At the time, I was a realist. I was at the top of my class, and I didn't think there was anything anybody could tell me that I couldn't figure out myself. Coincidences, accidents: I believed in those. But it took such effort to unfold other possibilities. That meant opening myself like a paper fan, the ridges flattening to reveal parallel worlds.

My first clear memory of Gabe is from our junior year of high school, though I was aware of him before that—you knew everybody at boarding school, especially one as small as Mills. He was part of a rowdy group of boys who were always getting into trouble. Not pranks or fighting—they were just too investigative for their own good, regularly uncovering some conspiracy: what was actually in the cafeteria meat hash, or what Mr. Keller, the headmaster, was growing in the garden behind his house. I didn't pay Gabe much attention those first few years. I was preoccupied with my courses, especially English; the hard sciences came easily to me, but I couldn't think in metaphors. Maybe that's why I was annoyed by Gabe and his friends, for whom one thing always stood in for an
other: the corned beef in the hash was dog meat, and among the strawberries and celery and mint I had seen with my own eyes, Mr. Keller was growing oleander to make poison.

In our third year, though, a lunar eclipse brought us together. Mr. Cooke, our physics teacher, had been talking it up all semester, and our class had permission to see it. It would be at 6:51
.—dinnertime—but that night we ate outside. It was cold but not snowing: in Northern California, January brought steamy haze that lent each evening a feeling of dark eventfulness. We carried out blankets and trays and huddled at the top of Observatory Hill, where Mr. Cooke had once shown us how to chart the phases of the moon. I sat with Hannah McGowan, my roommate and best friend, who was telling me a story in a rapid, hushed voice and at one point said, “Sylvie. Sylvie . . .” but I could hardly hear her. Her voice trailed into the air like fog as we waited for the moon to change.

Mr. Cooke had told us that a lunar eclipse could only occur when a full moon was perfectly aligned with the earth and sun. For just a few minutes, he said, our planet would cast two shadows and the moon would travel through them. Light from the sun, passing through earth's atmosphere, would bend toward the moon, and our rock would transform: dyed by the planet's sunrises and sunsets, the beginnings of days and the ends of them, she would turn red.

I knew all of this, but I was still unprepared for the feeling that came over us when it happened. Slowly, earth's shadow moved in front of the moon, covering it almost completely. But the moon fought back. Like a phoenix, she shed her ashes and caught fire. We gaped at her change in costume: she hung, a blood orange in darkness. The trees and the sky and even the hill vanished, and we had only each other.

And then, of course, it was over. The moon faded back
to gray, and we all laughed in a jittery, scattered way, as if shaking off the remains of a fear. By 9:00, small groups had formed and left the hill. I stayed, along with a few others. Gabe was one of them. As we started to talk, he asked, “Who wants to see something I found?”

There was something bold and vulnerable about him, standing on top of a rock to the left of the group. We looked at him with mild interest and amusement, the deluded but well-loved member of our small town. He was no taller than five feet six inches and slender then, though he became stockier as he got older. He had the square, densely determined face of a pit bull, hazel eyes, and a thick swath of brown hair that whipped around in the wind like a wild halo. Sometimes the girls on my floor gossiped about him, saying he had a Napoleon complex. Now another boy shouted at him to get off the rock. But Gabe stayed, his eyes swooping from face to face like a low bird before landing on mine.

I shivered. Was it dread? Pity? Or perhaps, somewhere, the thrill of election.

“I'll see it,” I said.

There were whoops and catcalls as we left down the hill, but Gabe plunged silently into the redwoods. The trees surrounded Humboldt County and its bowl of bay, filling our campus with a sweet, grandfatherly smell. I thought of turning back—I'd never had a violation before, and if we were found in the woods, we could both be suspended—but I decided against it. Just as I knew Gabe's reputation, I knew my own: a goody-goody, uptight, not a daredevil like him and his friends. I found them irritating, sure, but when I watched them laugh raucously at lunch or play soccer before dinner, falling whole-body into the mud, sometimes I wished I wasn't always a spectator.

We emerged in the clearing beside Mr. Keller's house. Trespassing here was much worse than being caught in the
woods. Mr. Keller was forty-five, a firm-bodied man with a bald head and stark, Germanic features. Besides being headmaster, he taught an upper-level psychology course that people practically fought to get into. Dynamic, creative, and impishly appraising, he demanded more of us than any other teacher. He was the harshest, too.

“Jesus Christ, Gabe,” I hissed.

“Don't freak out,” said Gabe. “I won't do anything untoward.”

He said the last word—one of Mr. Keller's favorites—with special emphasis. The headmaster's house was a two-story brick structure with small, turreted rooms rising up like pointed attics. But Gabe led us around to the garden, a square plot inside a silver-gray fence. Two stories above us, the tall windows glowed with light. Gabe barely glanced at them before stepping lightly through the unlatched gate.

I edged inside the gate and followed his footsteps—he wound through the plants with such dancerlike precision I suspected it was not his first time there. The sun was long gone. In the moonlight, the flowers and vegetables Keller tended glowed with the otherworldly iridescence of deep-sea creatures.

“Everyone's probably back in the dorms,” I whispered. “So find whatever you want to show me or don't.”

“Keep your voice down.” Gabe held my eyes. “Come here.”

He was in the corner of the garden, pointing to a little patch inside the ninety-degree angle of the fence. Below his finger was a flower, large, a fuchsia color so vibrant I could see it in the dark. When I bent closer, I saw it was not one flower but two—or one and a half. The flower had two faces, rimmed with slender pink petals, which shared the same central disk and the same stem. What was notable about the disk—that saturated, mustard-colored eye—was that it
looked like the infinity symbol, as if someone had pinched the middle. I touched it, and when I pulled away, there was fine gold dust on my fingers.

“This is what you wanted to show me?” I asked.

Gabe's eyes shone, two small moons.

“This is what we're breaking curfew for? We're trespassing on Mr. Keller's property—do you realize we could be suspended?”

Gabe clamped his jaw shut. His eyes flitted across my face the way they had through our group on the hill. Then a different, steely sheen came over them; it was as if someone had let down the blinds.

“Forget it,” he said, stepping over the fence.

He began to walk rapidly toward the dorms. I hopped the fence and ran to catch up with him. I was almost five feet seven, taller than he was, but I felt like a kid bobbing at his side.

“Was it some kind of joke?” I asked. “Push the Goody Two-shoes, see how far she'll go? See if you can get her in trouble?”

He made a snorting noise and kept walking. I could tell I'd disappointed him, but some resentment deeper than I was capable of moderating was rising to the surface.

“I really thought you'd be into it,” he said, keeping a step or two ahead of me.

“How could you know what I'd be into?” I asked. “We've barely even spoken!”

By then, we had reached the dorms. To the left was the boys' dorm, and to the right was the girls'. I half expected him to grin at me, confess it had all been in play. But he continued toward the door, as if I was the one who had wronged him.

“I'll tell people about it!” I said, the words flailing out of me. “I'll tell the girls in my dorm!”

It was the only thing I could say to disempower him. I had
figured out by then that it wasn't a joke, what he'd found, that it meant something to him and that, for some reason, he had chosen to share it specifically with me.

He turned; his face seemed to hang with resignation. Then he walked through the door to the boys' dorm, leaving me alone on the path.

I didn't tell anyone, of course. I already felt guilty for the way I'd snapped at him; or maybe it was something else that held me back, the curled edges of belief. While we washed up in the bathroom, the other girls teased me, asking how it felt to kiss Napoleon. I told them it felt good.

• • •

During the rest of that year, I barely spoke to Gabe. The flower incident had ended so badly that we were skittish around each other, prideful and embarrassed. But something uncomfortable and magnetic glowed between us. When we found ourselves inescapably close in proximity—in line at the dining hall, or seated at one of the dreaded two-person desks in Keller's classroom—our silence was as loaded as any acknowledgment. Finally, one of us would break: “'Scuse me,” I'd say, reaching past him to grab the 2 percent milk; or Gabe would clear his throat and ask, “Pencil?” his body angled the tiniest bit toward mine, until I reached into my zip-up case and wordlessly handed one to him.

If the eclipse brought us together the first time, our next real meeting was equally serendipitous, orchestrated by forces that felt as fated as the phases of the moon. Summer had passed in a close, muggy blur, and now it was late August, the beginning of senior year. My flight from New Jersey had been delayed, and it was nearly midnight in the Arcata/Eureka Airport. The student shuttles ended at nine
., so I was slumped at the Delta desk at baggage claim, calling the dorm phone without success. I hung up and dragged my
bags—two massive duffels and an overstuffed, twenty-pound backpack—to the nearest bench. Outside, it was cool and dewy. Drops of moisture clung to the parking meters and the slick yellow uniforms of the crossing guards. In ten years or even five, most of the students at Mills would have a credit card or a cell phone, and being stranded at the airport would be easy to fix. Having neither, I felt like a forgotten piece of luggage myself.


I turned. Gabe was outside the sliding doors of Baggage Claim 3, wind ruffling his hair as the doors whooshed shut behind him. He stood wide-legged in a pair of too-small flip-flops and worn cargo shorts; he'd slung a bag over each shoulder, making his T-shirt ride up around his waist. A dark fuzz of hair extended down from his belly button, and his skin was sun-browned. He grabbed the bottom of the shirt and tugged it down.

“Lennox,” I said.

“You're late. Late for senior year.”

“So are you.”

We regarded each other, wary. Then I scooted over on the bench, and he lumbered over, dropping his bags on the sidewalk with an inadvertent, gruntish sigh.

“Well,” he said. “I guess we're stranded.”



We grinned at each other, at our senior-year banter, at the strange August night that was as wet as early spring on the East Coast. I looked at Gabe's shirt. It was holey around the neck and worn thin, with a blown-up image of Darth Vader on the front. Below, it said in block capital letters,

“Nice shirt,” I said.


I looked down. I'd forgotten I was wearing an old T-shirt of my dad's, a comfort on plane rides back to school.
, it read:

“Touché,” I said.

We sat for a few moments in slightly bashful silence, both of us knocked down a peg. Absentmindedly, as if he'd done it a thousand times before, Gabe stuck his thumb through one of the holes at the neck. I'd heard he was on scholarship; there were rumors that his family was broke, that his dad had died penniless, though others held that his dad was just a living asshole who refused to pay child support.

“Where'd you fly in from?” asked Gabe. “Jersey?”

“How'd you know that?”

I was genuinely curious. I had never discussed my family with Gabe. Then again, we'd never discussed his, either, and I still knew that he lived in California with his mother. I knew, too, that she was morbidly obese, a consequence of some medical condition, though no one knew exactly what it was.

Gabe shrugged. “I listen,” he said.

“What about you? Where'd you fly in from?”

“Michigan—I was visiting my gran. She lives on Lake Superior.”

“Was your flight delayed, too?”

“What?” Gabe looked confused, then shook his head. “Oh—nope. I just forgot the shuttles ended at nine.”

“You would,” I said, but it didn't sound mocking; it came out downright affectionately, much more than I'd intended, and Gabe laughed in surprise. My cheeks warmed, and I fiddled with the zipper on my suitcase. We fell into another silence, but this time, it was relaxed. Maybe it was the late hour or the unusual circumstances; neither one of us knew whether our new amity would last once the clock struck midnight and we arrived at old, familiar Mills, where the social hierarchy was as firmly set as the granite foundation.
Right then, though, it didn't matter very much. We had a delicate understanding, a connection like a spiderweb, and we navigated it with earnest, clumsy excitement. It felt like being outside after curfew: an extra hour tacked onto the day, wondrous and strange.

“So,” said Gabe. “What say you? Are we sleeping here?”

BOOK: The Anatomy of Dreams
4.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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