Being sick always makes me have bad dreams. I can never figure out whether it’s the viruses themselves that forge the nightmares from the odds and ends lying around my mind, or if it’s some hidden cemetery inside my brain whose gates open up when my body’s sick. But it always happens.
This time I had two dreams: in the first I was in Hell, but nothing hurt and there were movie theater seats waiting for me, though there was no movie playing, nor any ushers taking tickets. Somehow knowing that this was Hell and that I would never leave it was painful enough. But there was no mention of escape, or even how I had gotten there, so I could only walk around, speaking to people who were familiar to me, but whose names I can’t remember anymore, and wait for myself to wake up.
The second dream was simpler. I stared into a mirror. Felt my right bottom canine tooth wiggle. Already I knew how this was going to end — I’ve had this dream before, I remember even now, months later — and I wasn’t sure what to do with this tooth. I tried to place it back into its resting spot in my jaw, but it wouldn’t stay. So I decided finally that the best thing to do would be to remove it — because surely it wanted to be removed if it had already come loose — and I pulled it out.
I didn’t dream any blood. Just a sort of snapping sensation that didn’t hurt. And when I looked in the mirror again, there was no tiny hidden older tooth waiting to take its place. Only empty gums, bleeding slightly at their edges.
That was it. I was missing a tooth for the rest of my life. It scared me because everything irrevocable does; somehow, I had screwed up and the tooth I had ripped out of my mouth impatiently was the price I had paid.
And then I was lying in my bed at 5:00 in the morning, my sleeping bag gnarled and twisted around my body, and I remembered that I was awake now.
It was not yet dawn.
The sky was black. The street light outside the window burned yellow; the windows of the townhouses opposite mine were blank or curtained off. Nothing moved and everything was silent.
When I was a kid, I would lie awake in my bed on Saturday mornings when it was too early for cartoons and watch the sky mix with the branches of the tree our neighbors across the street had planted. The birds that lived in our neighborhood had a call that was so distinct that I wondered if it was just one repeating its song over and over again.
In my bed, I was 22 years old, and my window had been shut tight for months. February was cold to us here, but not cold enough for snow.
I shut my eyes again, ran my tongue over my teeth to remind myself that still had all my teeth, and wished I could go back to sleep. I couldn’t. Don’t know why.
The sky became the deepest shade of blue that isn’t black, and I noticed. The wonderful thing about eyesight is that you don’t know exactly when color stops being one hue and starts being another, but you can feel it.
So I tried to decide whether to watch the dawn or try to go to sleep again. I was supposed to go to work that day. Thing is that the only time I see dawn is for reasons that all start with “I have to”: I have to take the car into the shop early. I have to truck in early to a meeting in the city.
It used to be different. When I was a kid, I’d wake up on Saturday mornings sometimes before my parents did, before the cartoons came on — even before my little sister woke up. For some reason, in my memory it’s always spring that I laid in my bed and stared at a whispering willow tree that the neighbors across the street planted. The birds of my neighborhood had a call so distinct that I thought for a long time that it was just one repeating its own song over and over again.
It felt special to be in a moment like that, where there were no cars driving past, no kids skipping down the street, no neighbors silently moving from their cars to their houses, where there was no weather at all except a wind that stirred the screen of my window.
I decided to go back to sleep and closed my eyes once more, as honest boys do. For a space of time no one could measure, I did lie there.
And then the sky changed color again and my eyes burst open as if my alarm — set for seven o’clock, nearly two hours away — had gone off. So I watched as blue took root in the atmosphere.
I couldn’t see the sun rise; my window faces north. But though I missed out on burning bubbling orange, there’s a joy I think a lot of people miss out on. Blue. The color of faraway water growing into waves. The color of our planet dancing with the sun. The color of a woman’s iris just as she leans over to kiss you for the last time.
Aching, indirect light grew around my bookshelves as the blue grew into bluer blue that grew into what seemed to me to be ghostwhite. The street light was now only a yellow blob reflected in my neighbor’s window, and my body was awake and my mouth dry.
Two planes passed overhead. Already, people’s journeys through the day had begun. Already their stories were taking shape. Today, some people’s lives would come to an end. Others’ would just begin.
I wondered what my place in all this was.