The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Dreamer” by Stephen Dixon

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BSS-Pshares-Header1Sometimes in workshops, dreams are spoken of with suspicion, as often through them writers try to awkwardly smuggle in some sort of psychological truth, repressed desire, or foreshadowing of danger. In Stephen Dixon’s, “The Dreamer” (The Southern Review), dreams are the main action and the medium through which the reader must try to understand the protagonist’s waking life.

Dixon opens with the protagonist marveling at having a series of “linked dreams in a row.” These dreams all involve a high school student production of a Greek tragedy. In the first dream, the narrator is attending with his wife—about whom we find some tragic and revealing information.

She seemed healthy in the dream and maybe twenty years young than when she died.

The age of the narrator is never stated, only alluded to, but nonetheless is key for a number of reasons. One is that in our society, those dubbed dreamers are often put into the John Lennon/Imagine camp: youthful, idealistic, and progressive. It can be easy to forget the role that dreaming plays in those whom popular culture pays less attention to: those middle aged and older, like the protagonist of the story.

Notice what happens when he rouses.

He…turned over on his back, and thought it’s always so nice seeing his wife in a dream. She’s in one almost every night. It’s especially nice when she’s healthy in them. Even better, when she’s healthy and nude and they start kissing and making love. Those are the best of those dreams…

…Then he fell asleep while he was thinking of his wife and her body and how he loved to hold it from behind after they made love and she was wearing panties, nothing on top, and after she got sick, only her disposable briefs but nothing on top.

In the short duration while the protagonist wakes, Dixon reveals clues to the arc of the protagonist’s past. We understand now not just that the wife passed away, but perhaps a prolonged illness. We understand the narrator’s pleasure in sex with his wife when she was healthy, but also the attraction to her when she wasn’t well. He clearly loved her.

But the narrator’s focus is still explicitly on lovemaking, and it’s not yet clear why. It’s easy to imagine some readers rolling their eyes: great, another old man fixated on sex.

But the story is still young. In the next two dreams, Dixon introduces another woman, Dolores, who begins as someone his daughter tried to set him up with after his wife died, who then morphs in the next dream into a woman who is some combination of Dolores and his wife. In both dreams, the narrator focuses in on the body and sexuality. Finally in the fourth dream—note: all of these dream are in the same night—the narrator imagines himself getting married to the mystery woman.

I never thought I’d ever get attached to a woman again after Abby died, he said to her. I told her the age difference was too great for there to be anything but a deep friendship between us. But she persisted and eventually changed my mind, and I am glad she did. Now we have to run. To be honest, I want to start my honeymoon before I die of a heart attack. I know. There’s a wedding celebration I already paid for at Petit Louis, but enjoy it without me. ‘Without us,’ I should say.

While the interchange is humorous, as is the dream’s continued focus on the body and sex, it’s here, near the end, where Dixon bring the internal desire (and emotion) behind the dreams into focus. The protagonist is dreaming about his past, but it takes a different form than the first version with his wife. These dreams are about what never happened, and what now can’t happen. Once his wife passed away, we can only assume that he never loved again. And his continued waking is proof of age, a symptom of a body that can no longer operate as it once did. His body can no longer engage in sexual relationships, nor can his it sustain a dream long enough to enjoy sex in a fantasy.

The protagonist continues to try to fall back asleep, so he might once again dream.

He gets up, goes into the kitchen, and takes one each of three different pills with a glass of water and then a tablespoonful of yogurt for his stomach…He gets back in bed and closes his eyes. He stays there till around ten. Can’t fall asleep. Too bad, he thinks. He wanted so much to make love in his next dream, though feels lucky with what he had…

In literary fiction, sex is rarely, if ever, just about sex. Nor do dreams simply foreshadow what the future for a character might hold. Here, sex is about aging, the body, and the desire for a youth that’s gone, and with it, those wonderful intimacies. And dreams are a portal to a time in which that wasn’t the case. Like the plays his character attends, Dixon’s story is a tragedy of age, when one’s body becomes antagonistic, and sleep becomes more desirable than waking.