MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Were you to ask her boys, they would tell you that for Rose, there had always been Hugo.
This was not strictly true. He had come to her first when she was six. Before that was a desert stretch of forgotten dreams and nightmares, populated with the common anxieties of childhood: monsters made of discarded laundry; princes and dresses and tiny pink ponies; mean, dirty neighbor children.
Before Hugo came, Rose dreamed like any other girl child, small damp fists curled, heart-shaped face placid, the calm rise and fall of small lungs under a tangle of blankets.
Of course, she looked the same while she slept after he came to her ... but her dreams were very different.
Rose could recall only one of the dreams that came before Hugo: a nightmare. Lost in a department store, she'd searched for her mother inside an enormous rack of clothes. As she'd pressed her face farther and farther into the slick polyesters, the clothes began to smother her, closing in until she couldn't move. Terror and loss overwhelmed her and she woke racked with sobs.
Sobs that brought (oh my sweet, oh my darling) her mother. Reunited and reassured, little Rose was able to return to sleep.
Rose thought she must have been about four when she'd had this dream. She remembered faint images of the nightmare, but these were slippery and unsure. She wasn't certain if she was truly remembering the dream or if she was picturing the story she must have recounted to her mother that night in the darkness.
This was unlike her adventures with Hugo in every way. These she could recount as easily as she could list the things she had accomplished since breakfast.
Rose knew this was out of the ordinary.
* * *
In college, when their excitement for each other was still new and "above the clothes," and Josh's nightly stubble was still exfoliating patches of cherry on Rose's face, the man who would be her husband told her about a particularly raunchy dream she'd featured in.
"I've never had a sex dream," said Rose.
"I don't think that's possible," said Josh, his hand tracing the denim seams on her leg.
But it was, and that early, early morning was the first time Rose told anyone about the boy in her dreams.
Stretched close to Josh on his twin bed, their heads on a single pillow, atop a twist of sheets in sore need of a wash, Rose began to describe the world she'd inhabited since she was a little girl. A place she'd gone to every night that was more familiar to her than her parents' home.
She described an island ringed by a beach of pink sand.
"Not Bermuda pink, more like flamingo pink. Pink pink."
"Do you want to hear this or not?"
Josh laughed, filled with the smell of her. Her breath warm on his face. "Of course I do."
The sky there was almost always covered in clouds, but when the sun broke through, shafts of light would strike the beach, changing the sand. The grains would begin to sparkle.
"When they do that, if you hit them right ... Run at them just right, they throw you into the air."
"More like bouncing, really, really high. It's fun."
"This feels weird."
Rose sat up. She was still dressed, miracle of miracles, but somehow she felt that Josh had hidden her clothes. Tucked them into a dark corner of his dorm room.
She shouldn't have said anything. Shouldn't have betrayed her secret. Or Hugo.
Rose was quiet in the dark. She stared down at the silhouette of his cheek on the pillow and fought the panic that she'd blown it.
Shit, she'd blown it.
But after a moment Rose felt his wide, warm palm come to rest on the small of her neck. Its gentle gravityinviting her toward his chest ... but not insisting that she go there.
"Please. I want to hear ... I want to know everything about you."
Rose decided then that maybe she didn't need to tell him all of it ... maybe she could just stop at the beach.
But somehow that night, after she succumbed to the pull of Josh's body, she told him everything. Unveiled the secrets of her dreams, of the life she had lived with Hugo. In the dark, Rose painted a landscape of her hidden childhood: the warm waters of the Green Lagoon, the fields of saw grass tall as corn, the Blanket Pavilion and its hundred rooms fluttering in the breeze. The Bucks. Blindhead. The Natters. Spider Chasm. The Plank Orb. Castle City.
Beautiful. Brave. Heroic Hugo.
Josh listened to Rose carefully ... more carefully than he had listened to any lecture, any seminar. He wantedher to quiz him: for her to know how well he attended to her dreams. Because he already knew he loved her ... though he wouldn't tell her for months yet.
This night was, in its way, more intimate than the night they first made love, three months later. Or the night of their wedding.
On the night Isaac was born, after the doctors and nurses had cleared away, leaving Josh and Rose alone to admire this new tiny being they had made-only then did they experience the same unfolding, the naked shift into the new, that they had the night that Rose told Josh about Hugo.
* * *
After Isaac came Adam, born the first year of Josh's residency. There was then a short duration of years, hemming, hawing, and negotiations, before the arrival of Penelope made their family complete. While Josh was busy with the work of becoming a surgeon, Rose settled into the business of motherhood. Diapers and cracker crumbs littered Rose's waking life in those early years.
When Josh found a placement in the dry reaches of Colorado-a nice-sized hospital, he said, enough population to give him a steady stream of bodies to practice upon-Rose moved house with an efficiency of lists. School districts were researched. A mortgage was calculated. Without too much drama they found a nice home in a nice neighborhood in a nice suburb.
Rose had pictures hanging before they went to sleep that first night.
"It feels more like home that way," she said, curling into the crooked "S" of Josh's body.
* * *
Rose and Josh quietly slipped into the pause between youth and middle age-the moment when all the questions that plague the young have been answered: "Who will I marry? What will my children be like? How many will I have? What will I be when I grow up?" They reached an age when one realizes that all these questions have been answered and now the only thing is to watch one's life unfurl. There were still questions, of course, but these questions were by their nature less exciting than the ones that came before: "Will we get sick before they grow up? Will we be able to afford to keep the house? What if that terrible something happens? That namelesssomething that waits for those unlucky masses?"
Rose, for example, was saddened by the fact that someday, inevitably, either she or Josh would have to experience the death of the other. She hoped she would go first-though it seemed unfair to wish the pain of loss on Joshua.
It was, however, the unavoidable cost of having someone so dear that the idea of living after they're gone seems impossible.
* * *
And so Rose and Josh watched their life unfurl. The boys grew from sweet, sticky toddlers into wild-legged children, their shouts and protests the music of the house. Penny toddled after, happy to simply be acknowledged.
Josh put in the early work of a career surgeon. His hours were long and odd, leaving and returning while the house was still abed. The lessons he now learned were more terminal, in the meat of the human body.
This left Rose alone with the routine of motherhood. Children up. Bodies dressed. Breakfast made. Book bags packed. Every day a list to be checked off.
She was a good mother. Loved by her boys, who also knew enough to fear a certain pitch her voice could take when they played too rough.
Perhaps because it didn't seem to matter otherwise, or perhaps because this is just the way of things, Rose settled into the sweatpants years. The close attention she paid to the dressing and care of three little bodies left little room for her to attend to the dressing and care of her own. Her body bloomed, thighs no longer the straight, taut lines Josh had traced that night so long ago. More often than she would have liked to admit, the shirt she went to sleep in was the one in which she had woken up: though since Josh was rarely around, there was no one to witness Rose's resignation to piggishness.
* * *
She could not remember precisely when she began telling the boys about Hugo.
The beaches of her dreams were populated with tiny white crabs, their shells and legs constructed of the delicate tines of feathers. When they were young, she and Hugo would place these creatures on each other's necks, to see which of them could tolerate their ticklish skittering the longest.
"Tickle Crab" was a favorite bath-time game for the boys when they were very small. Rose would lean over the edge of the tub, her belly soft and round with Penny, snatching at their slick, brown bodies. The "Tickle Crab" would grind them into giggling submission, until she would relent, pulling away.
Adam would kiss his tiny wrinkled fingertips against each other.
The sign for "more, again." And then a gentle swipe across his chest, "please."
Of course, little boy, littler boy.
* * *
As they grew, the boys learned to ask Rose about her dreams. The simple, straightforward adventure of their mother's nightly visits with Hugo appealed to their testosterone-fueled little-boy fantasies. Isaac and Adam would reenact Hugo and Rose's never-ending quest to find a way into the glowing spires of Castle City. They would beg her to pull the chairs and unfold the sheets to make a "Pavilion" for them. They recruited Josh-when he was around-to play the part of a giant Spider (Bigger, meaner, Daddy!), whom they would kill and then resurrect, but only so they could kill him again.
It was through the boys that Hugo came to occupy Rose's household and not just her dreams. They argued over who would get to be him, never implicitly stating that whoever was not him was by default their mother and therefore a girl. Hugo was Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker and Batman all rolled into one-a personal superhero they didn't have to share with anyone but each other.
They plotted maps of the island, drew pictures of the places in Rose's dreams. They quizzed her and appealed to her authority to settle debates.
"Is the Plank Orb like a submarine?"
"Yes, but it's much smaller and made of wood."
"Why is it so small?"
"Well, it only ever has to hold the two of us."
"Why is it called the Plank Orb?"
"I don't know ... that's just what we call it."
Even the loneliness of Hugo's island, which, but for the mystery of Castle City, was populated only by Hugo and their mother, played into their innate desires for self-reliance.
* * *
The boys also sensed, in their young way, the distance between their mother and Hugo's companion. Though ostensibly they were the same person, they couldn't quite reconcile the sharp taskmaster who cut their hot dogs lengthwise before placing them in the bun with the heroine in their mother's tales.
As she had grown older, and rounder, Rose, too, had recognized the divergence between her waking and sleeping selves. The mirror would daily force her to recognize that her current state-the stripes of stretch marks, pulled sad nipples, creases of crow's-feet and brows-was as good as it was going to get. Yet on the island, she was still as beautiful as she had ever been, probably more so.
On the island she was Rose the Spider Slayer. Rose the Fearless, who danced from treetop to treetop and rode the backs of charging Bucks. She was the trickster who led Blindhead into knots around the trunks of trees. The mouse-quiet thief of the Natters nest.
But in her home or in her car, she was simply Rose.
Saggy Rose in the pajamas with the fraying cuffs. Rose at the stoplight, breathing the stale, dust-speckled air of her minivan. Rose in the butcher section of the grocery store, comparing the price of pork chops and London broil. Rose at the bus stop, among the other mothers, acrid coffee cooling in her mug, watching her boys push their way to their seats.
Rose knew she was no one special.
That is, unless she was to recognize in herself that certain specialness, of which it has become the fashion to recognize about everyone. The modern impulse to hand out trophies to every player in the game, regardless of their score. In that way, Rose supposed she was special, which is to say that all people are special and therefore none of them are.
The truth is that Rose knew she was special to only a few people: the small ones she cared for, the old ones who had raised her, and the tall one who slept next to her in her bed.
To everyone else she was just another someone.
And if in her dreams she was a somebody ... well, that was just the way of things.
* * *
Of what consequence are the dreams of housewives? she would think whenever she caught herself daydreaming of Hugo and the island. The odd phrase would interject itself, with its strange archaic cadence. Of what consequence ... Like a canker sore in the mouth of her mind, her brain would tongue at it, sending a shock of pain into her fantasy life. Of what consequence ... A mental tic. A strange old song stuck in her head.
What did any of it matter?
In traffic, Rose would find herself studying the slack faces of other drivers at stoplights: trios of landscapers in the cabs of trucks; blown-out blondes in face-swallowing sunglasses, with their sullen teenagers texting shotgun; aging men in expensive cars; pretty girls without the armor of their smiles; bumper-riding boys, fists full of energy drinks.
To Rose, they were dreamers all.
She imagined them following their paths through their own days, leading them to their own beds. Each of them surrendering consciousness.
A nation of unconscious protagonists.
Rose supposed that there was spread among these ordinary people the ordinary proportion of cowardice and bravery. They all had their own share of the small victories and defeats of ordinary lives.
But when they dreamed? Rose wondered. Were they masters of the universe or garden slugs? Victims, heroes, or villains in the absentminded movies of their own minds?
Rose would shrug off the thought. What did it matter? The victories and disappointments of ordinary people's dreams would have slipped into the haze before they poured their first cup of coffee.
Of what consequence ...
But since Rose's dreams did not disappear upon waking, since her adventures with Hugo had something of the substance of genuine memories, she did struggle with the question as to which Rose was the "true" Rose.
Oh, she knew reality from fantasy.
But when she found herself bullied by a persistent PTA mommy, or frustrated with the boys' constant need for a referee, or fed up with Penny's nighttime wakings ... it was easier to believe that the brave, strong, calm Rose of the island was her true self.
And that this woman leading this drab, disappointing life was ... something else. Not not her, exactly. But notreally her.
* * *
And what exactly do I have to be disappointed with? Rose would ask herself as she loaded dishes or folded laundry. She had three beautiful, healthy, intelligent children. She had the love and devotion of a man who was not only well employed and attractive, but looked as though he were going to go to his grave with a full head of hair. She got to be home with her children while they were still young enough to want her. She had a nice home filled with nice things. She was healthy, still young.
Well, if not young, then youngish.
This was the life she had said she wanted.
So what if Josh wasn't home enough? Or if Penny was taking forever to potty train? Or if Isaac's teacher said he wasn't paying attention in school? She knew these things wouldn't last forever. Penny would be able to wipe herself by the time she went to college. Isaac would (God willing) get a teacher next year who didn't bore him to tears. And Josh would someday be able to make someone lower on the totem pole take the worst shifts at the hospital.
Rose tried to imagine different lives, ones in which she didn't marry Josh or have the children. Career paths. Lifestyle choices. These alternative lives seemed wrong. Empty. Sad.
She knew she had made the right choice. Chosen the best life possible.
And yet her disappointment did not abate.
Copyright © 2015 by Bridget Foley