Chapter 1 1
I was never a dreamer.
I mean that in the most literal sense. Figuratively speaking, I absolutely consider myself a dreamer. Aspirational, at least. Optimistic? To a point, although my profession—journalism—mandates a certain cynicism. When I say I was never a dreamer, I mean at night, in the depths of sleep.
No dreams. Just didn’t have ’em. Not good, bad, happy, or sad.
Slept well, though. I slept well. That’s hard to believe these days, but I know that it was true once.
People talk about their dreams all the time. I dated a woman for a few years who would wake up and recite the bizarre and vivid stories that had accompanied her through the night. Sometimes, I’d be tempted to pretend that I could share the experience. Dreaming seems normal, right? Seems like something that should happen to all of us. And yet we don’t know much about the mechanisms of dreams, for all of our scientific research and psychological theorizing. We believe dreaming is tied to memory, that REM sleep is an archival process. We believe dreams are indicative of repressed emotions, or perhaps harbingers of maladies that haven’t yet offered physical symptoms. Warnings. Messages from the dead. From God. We believe all of these things and more, but what we know is this: dreams are still not fully understood after all these years. They come and they go.
For most people, at least.
Until I returned to Hammel, Maine, in the autumn after I was laid off from my newspaper, I enjoyed deep and untroubled sleep. Not for long, maybe, but enough. Five or six hours were plenty.
Whitney, my ex, was a nightly dreamer who always seemed bothered by my blank-slate sleeping. When I returned from a stretch as an embedded correspondent covering troop drawdowns in Afghanistan, I think she was waiting on nightmares, PTSD terrors, cold sweats. That didn’t happen. The visions that came for me from the war zone were—and remain—real memories.
Once, she asked me to explain what dreamless sleep felt like. We were in bed in our apartment in Tampa with the windows up and a humid spring breeze fanning through the screens, coffee cups cooling on the nightstands, a lazy Saturday morning. She’d just recounted her latest theater of the mind that passed for sleep and returned to the question of whether I’d dreamed that night, too.
“Maybe,” I said. “I don’t remember them, that’s all. I’m not like you.”
“Everybody remembers something from a dream,” she said, dark blond hair falling over her face before she pushed it back.
“You’ll have to ask me before I wake up next time,” I said, a dumb joke I offered just to move on to another topic. She’d minored in psychology and loved to guess at the meaning of a dream, loved to hear opinions on what the subconscious or unconscious mind was trying to tell her. I think that’s one of the reasons the empty archives of my nights bothered her—there was nothing to dissect.
“What does that feel like, then?” she asked.
“What does not dreaming feel like?”
She nodded. The hair fell across her face again, and she swept it back again. Whitney and her hair had a war each morning and she always surrendered first but on a Saturday morning the battle could go on for quite a while.
“It doesn’t feel like anything,” I said.
“Come on, writer. You’ve got to do better than that. You fall asleep, you wake up, and that sensation feels like…”
She hung on that dangling unfinished sentence, waiting for me to turn a phrase that explained the experience. I could see that she was serious and so I tried to come up with an honest answer.
“Blackness,” I said. “It’s that simple. The world is black, and then I crawl out of it—float out of it, if there’s no alarm going off—and the world is light again.” I shrugged, sensing her disappointment. “It’s the best I can do. Sorry.”
“That sounds sad,” she said, and her expression was so forlorn I couldn’t help but laugh.
“At least I do wake up,” I said, leaning over to kiss her. “Beats the alternative.”
She cocked an eyebrow, giving me mock scrutiny. “Something goes on in that brain at night. It has to.”
“You say the same thing during the day, and you’re wrong then, too.”
“False. I’ve never accused your brain of working during the day.” She propped herself up on her elbow, studied me. “Promise me you’re not hiding them?”
“Hiding my dreams?”
She nodded. “I want to know what they are. Even if they’re always about that bitch from Chicago you dated back in—”
“Now, that’s not nice.”
“I want to hear. Actually, don’t tell me if they’re about her. Turn her into someone more interesting, would you?”
I laughed, and she did, too, but then her smile faded and she said, “You will tell me when you remember them, Nick? Even if they’re bad?”
“I’ll tell you,” I said, and I meant it then.
I really did.
I also knew better than to believe it was my literal lack of dreams that put up the wall between us. Yet, when the breakup finally happened, I couldn’t help the thought. I remembered the combination of scrutiny and concern in her eyes when she asked those questions, remembered her emphatic insistence that everyone dreams something sometime, and I wondered what she saw in my own eyes when I insisted that I did not. Whether there was something in them that scared her.
Nonsense, right? It had been a silly conversation in a loving relationship that had simply run its course. There was a gap between us, and eventually in a long-term relationship you ride up against that chasm, judge its risk and reward, and make the hard choice: try to make the jump on faith, or retreat?
She retreated and tried a new path. Last I heard, she was dating a man who owned a sailboat and they were talking about taking a year off and cruising the world, untethered.
I have a feeling that guy’s dreams made for the right kind of conversation.
Better than blackness, anyhow.
I don’t know if the happy couple ever actually weighed anchor. Whitney and I fell out of touch, the way you do. Except I’m not sure you ever really do. Everyone insists they’ve lost track, of course. “Where’s the ex? No idea. Haven’t heard from her in years.” But there are days when I’ll think of people I lost touch with long ago and have a near-physical certainty that they’re thinking of me, too, right then, as if there’s some electric current riding through the atmosphere and we happened to connect on the same circuit one more time. It’s always a good feeling, like a kind touch.
For a guy who can’t dream, that’s not bad, right?
I returned home for the reason most people do it: a lack of options.
It wasn’t a formal move. Just a visit. The kind of visit without dates that you can make only when you’ve got no demands on your time. I was unemployed and doing what you do—calling in favors, hunting for leads. Networking is the polite term. Begging is the feeling.
I started with editors, working my way through contacts in an industry that was hanging on the ropes. Even the more optimistic colleagues I spoke with couldn’t promise a job. On down the line I moved, from the overseas bureau folks and the managing editors at big metro dailies to Patrick Ryan, the oldest friend I had who was connected to anything remotely related to journalism. Pat ran the PR department for Hammel College, one of those tony New England liberal arts schools that have been around long enough to justify the tuition rate with a straight face.
I’d graduated from Hammel at a discount because my mother was a faculty member. The student loans were still equivalent to a mortgage payment, but in exchange I emerged with a degree in journalism—a dinosaur of a profession and a historically low-paying one at that. (I have a theory that some basic finance class should be taught in high school. It’s the kind of theory you arrive at in your late twenties, but rarely before that.)
I loved writing, though, loved newspapers, loved the daily grind of reporting. First draft of history, and all that. Pat had started in the J-school with me, but he read the industry’s writing on the wall and bailed for a degree in folklore—which he claimed was the same thing as journalism—and a heavy focus on schmoozing with anyone who could hire him for… well, for anything. In the end, he didn’t have to leave at all, remaining at Hammel to work in the bold world of college PR. Yawn. But, hey, nice benefits package.
Pat had come east from Montana for school, and although I was technically a townie, I’d lived in Hammel for less than two years, a move we made following my father’s death, and I still felt like an outsider when college began. I was used to that, though; as my mother’s academic star ascended, we’d moved frequently. There was always another school that could entice her by promising fewer lectures and more research time. I attended four different schools in four different towns between the ages of eight and eighteen, so moving into the dorms with out-of-state and international students didn’t feel all that unusual to me. Fresh starts were standard operating procedure in the Bishop family.
Pat Ryan and I bonded the fall of our freshman year over two things: beer and bullshit. Much of the latter was based on endless arguments over who was tougher, Mainers or Montanans. He was a big, rangy Irish kid who sunburned easily—no small feat in Maine—and loved fly-fishing and hiking and sailing. He bought three sailboats while we were in college, each one cheaper than the last, and the first one set him back only fifteen hundred bucks, so you can imagine how seaworthy these tubs were. I answered the phone one Friday night when the harbor master, a cranky old Yankee named Bobby Beauchamp—who was also the caretaker of my mother’s cabin in the off-season—called to report the sinking of the boat Pat had christened the SS Money Pit.
Pat was far too drunk to drive down and do anything about it by then, and he reasoned the boat wasn’t going to be hard to find, because it was still tied to the mooring buoy, the buoy was still above water, and he’d paid for the space, so what did it matter whether his boat was on the water or beneath it, shouldn’t his renter’s rights remain intact?
Hell, let’s have another beer and deal with the boat in the morning, he said, and so we did.
Needless to say, he had a strained relationship with the harbor master after that.
On the day Pat offered me the job that brought me back to Maine, he was long removed from his carousing days, a respectable staff member of an esteemed college, one with enough clout to offer me a freelance job.
“Five grand for a puff piece,” he said. “Nick, you gotta do it.”
“I gotta find an actual job, man. Not a Band-Aid.”
“I love a man who’s bleeding out on the battlefield and still waving off Band-Aids.”
“We’ll even reimburse your mileage,” he said, and that was the first time I realized he expected me to show up in Maine. I’d been viewing it as a phoner, Hammel College covered from a Tampa condo, because that was the way it usually went. Nobody had travel budgets.
“I’m in Tampa. If I’m coming to Maine, I’m flying.”
“Yeah, we can’t reimburse that, brother. I can probably spring for one-way mileage, though. I’ll siphon it from the intern fund. Those little shits don’t need the help. Drive north! Live a little! Seriously, it’s summer. You want to stay in Florida? What happened to my Main-ah buddy?”
In point of fact, I didn’t want to stay in Florida. I was sick of the trapped heat, of the stagnancy I’d begun to associate with the summer air in Tampa—hell, with everything in Tampa. I also hadn’t been home in years, and there was an instant, just thinking about it, when I swore I could smell pines and clean water.
“Be good to get up here for a visit,” Pat pressed, as if sensing my nostalgia. “See your mom while you’re at it.”
That made me feel guilty, but only a little. I spoke with my mother twice a week, and yet I hadn’t had a conversation with her in more than a year. That was when the stroke had claimed her mind. She verbalized plenty now but didn’t communicate, her mind stuck in a slow spin cycle, churning on the same details but never able to add anything fresh to the load. A lot of us are headed to that place, be it through a stroke, Alzheimer’s, or dementia, and I think it is one of the great fears of my generation—we are, after all, obsessed with remaining connected, and narcissistic enough to believe that the rest of the world wants us to be.
For my mother, though, it was a tragedy that transcended family. Alice Jane Bishop had been one of the nation’s preeminent scholars in the field of memory research. She published in leading medical journals and spoke at conferences around the globe. She knew the intricacies and mysteries of the human memory as well as anyone—until she lost her own.
Cruel joke, right? Cruel world, kids.
She had been hiking alone in the Camden Hills on a favorite trail along Mount Megunticook. When the stroke came a fall followed, and she tumbled down into the rocks. It was early December and light snow was blowing in—hardly a foul-weather day by Maine standards but still cold enough to kill you if you were exposed to the elements all night. Mom always hiked with a headlamp, though, even on a day hike—a habit I’d teased her about mercilessly—and it was the headlamp that saved her life. She fumbled it out and succeeded in not just turning it on but in setting it to the blinking red distress strobe. The last hiker in the park that night found her. He crawled down through the rocks to look for the light source.
I’d been optimistic when the first doctor called. My mother was alive but disoriented, he said. Just disoriented. Then days turned to weeks and months and it became clear that the Alice Bishop who had departed the trailhead that morning wasn’t going to return to us.
“Hell, just come to see me,” Pat Ryan said now, maybe realizing that a face-to-face with my mom wasn’t as appealing. “I’m offering you a paid vacation.”
“That makes it sound worse, Pat. Let’s at least pretend it’s a job.”
“Fine, fine. It’s a job. Crucial work.”
“I’ve got a profile for the alumni magazine that won’t write itself.”
A profile for the alumni magazine. Two years ago, I’d been reporting from Kabul for international syndication. How quickly things come apart.
“Who’s the pride of the alma mater these days?” I asked, trying to keep my tone light, trying not to let Pat hear any humiliation. He was, after all, doing me a favor.
“You’ll dig it,” he said. “Some young tech guy who—”
“Got a bit of VC money and—”
“Heaven help me.”
“—built an exciting little company right here in Hammel that—”
“Has a billion-dollar IPO?”
“Not yet. Give it a month. Your profile will be ahead of the curve! Bloomberg and Wired and even our austere friend the Wall Street Journal will be madly envious.”
“Terrific.” I opened a bottle of Blanton’s bourbon. “What did the precocious young lad do, pray tell? Invent a blender that sources private consumer data to retailers in real time?”
“That’s next year. This year, he’s working for the good of the people!”
“Seriously. He’s developed an app—”
I held the phone close to the glass while I poured the bourbon into it, and I could hear Pat laugh.
I put the phone back to my ear. “Go on.”
“In total seriousness, the app is for the human good.”
“It’s a mindfulness app.”
“Aren’t there already about a hundred of those? I see ads everywhere. ‘Still your mind, calm your soul, and do it on the go!’?”
“Yeah, I know. But there’s only one of them that is headquartered in the old Hefron Mill. They’ve injected some serious capital into the place.”
The Hefron complex had been a sprawling brick dinosaur looming over the Beaumont River when we were in school, a long-defunct pulp mill, its impotent smokestacks cutting a bleak silhouette just past the pristine campus.
“Donors like revitalization projects,” I said, and sipped my bourbon.
“Exactly! And you’ll be paid a princely sum to capture the young titan in your eloquent yet concise prose. Everyone wins.”
“Five grand more than you’re making this week, right?”
It was indeed.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Pat said, and I had to laugh.
“What?” he protested.
“I’m thinking of how many times you said that about something that nearly left me dead or in jail.”
“And you regret none of those adventures.”
That was the truth. I could see Maine then, the dark pines and blue water and the gunmetal November skies and the fogbanks that floated in thick as bed linens. I could see it, and I missed it. Badly.
Plus, I needed the money, and it was a chance to see my mom.
“All right,” I said. “And thanks. Sincerely.”
“My pleasure. Be great to see you again.”
He turned serious then. “This guy is interesting. He’s got a team that’s very talented, and the app has some big-league neuroscientists as consultants.”
“What does a neuroscientist bring to the table beyond credibility?”
“That special thing that separates it from all the rest. Gotta be different, right?”
“What’s their special thing?”
“Shaping your dreams.”
“No, really,” Pat said. “That’s the gimmick. That’s how they intend to separate from the pack.”
I lowered my bourbon.
“Shaping your dreams?”
“Yep. Consider your quality of life if you could remove every nightmare and replace it with a sweet dream. Think that might have an impact on anxiety, stress, blood pressure, et cetera? Can you even imagine that?”
“No,” I said.
As a non-dreamer, I truly could not. And something strange happened then, while I stood in my kitchen sipping bourbon and talking to an old friend: the pleasant memories of the Maine coast were gone and I had a flash of Whitney’s face, of the concern in her eyes when she asked me to explain what my sleep was like.
Had she recoiled, then? No. Surely not. It had been an inconsequential conversation.
She’d have liked the idea, though. Shaping your dreams. She’d subscribe to that app, no free trial needed.
I thanked Pat once more, promised to see him soon, and then went out onto the balcony and let the Florida heat envelop me. I thought of Maine, of my mother and of my friends, and I waited for a cooling breeze that never came while I imagined a blond woman on a sailboat beneath a starlit sky, pushed ahead by a freshening wind.
Then I went inside and went to bed. Sleep came and sleep went. Blackness rose and blackness receded.
Reliable as the tide, back then.
I miss those nights.