Story — From the September 2014 issue

They Were Awake

Download Pdf
Read Online

The ladies gathered for one of their potlucks. They brought beautiful dishes. Red cabbage marinated in vinegars and slow-cooked with nutmeg and caraway seed. Salade niçoise with basil and thyme tossed in with the greens, the best Spanish sardines in olive oil, and farm eggs perfectly boiled, the orange yolks on the cusp between soft and hard.

The ladies were happy, and they were pleased to see one another. As they took their places at the table, they were quiet and polite, passing napkins and plates and cutlery, spooning the salad and cabbage with big wooden spoons onto plates. After a few glasses of wine, the ladies became chatty, laughing and drawing one another into conversation: “Emma, I thought of you when so-and-so was quoted in today’s paper,” and “Amy, it seems like you could say a thing or two about that.

“Untitled #4,” a photograph by Laura Letinsky from her Ill Form & Void Full series. Letinsky’s work will be on view in September at Yancey Richardson Gallery, in New York City, and a monograph of the series will be published in October by Radius Books. Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York City

“Untitled #4,” a photograph by Laura Letinsky from her Ill Form & Void Full series. Letinsky’s work will be on view in September at Yancey Richardson Gallery, in New York City, and a monograph of the series will be published in October by Radius Books. Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York City

They began to tell one another about their recent dreams. They’d all been having anxious dreams, every one of them, even though life had been treating them well. Becca began the discussion as she poured dressing over her salad. She said, “Last week, I had this dream that I owed money to the gas company. There was this loud knock on the door, and when I went to the door, there was just this bright-orange notice saying that I owed hundreds of dollars. And then I went to the gas-company offices — it looked like the office I used to work in. And the man, who was my uncle Charley — looked like my uncle Charley — he was very passive-aggressive with me. I said I wanted to pay him, and I went to my wallet, and it was full of Monopoly money! All those pink and yellow bills. . . . I said that someone must be playing a joke on me, all I had was Monopoly money, and he said in this menacing way, ‘Yes, a joke, of course. But where is your real money?’ I woke up in a panic, I checked my account balances online, everything had been paid for, but for a few hours I couldn’t shake the feeling that there must be some bill I hadn’t paid.”

The ladies laughed.

“I had a wild dream, too, earlier this week,” said Emma. “I don’t often remember my dreams, but I woke up in a funk and couldn’t forget this one. I dreamed that an ex-lover of mine and I were in his apartment. Not the apartment he has now — the apartment he had ten years ago, when we first met. And it was full of incredible artwork. Actual, beautiful, rare artwork. And I remember him locking the door behind him, you know? I mean, I saw him do it, but then he showed me this beautiful artwork and I forgot the door was locked for a moment.”

“Funny how dreams work, isn’t it?” Amy said quietly.

“Yes! This dream was so strange. And then he told me I had to authenticate every piece of artwork in his apartment. Somehow, it was my job to do this. And I thought, ‘I haven’t been trained in this! How am I supposed to know?’ And he kept saying, ‘I could sell it, I want to sell it, but I don’t want to get ripped off. You’ve got to keep me from getting ripped off.’ And I tried to go to the door, but the locks were locked.”

“Did you get out?” the ladies asked. “Did he rape you?”

“No, no, of course not,” Emma said. “I woke up when I realized the locks were locked.”

“I had a dream where I was trapped, too, just last night,” Carrie said. “I dreamed that Carl was going to rape me.” Carl was her husband. “I dreamed that he came home from work early while I was doing pilates, and he told me that I had never given him what he wanted. He looked like Carl, but younger. I mean, he was the Carl I’d seen in pictures before I met him, like when he was eighteen. He said, ‘You’re going to finally give me what I want,’ and I thought that maybe he wanted to rape me, so I ran to the glass sliding door and tried to break it, to get away, but it turned into a concrete wall. It wasn’t a concrete wall when I ran to it, but it seemed to turn into that, or I realized it was that — you know how dreams are — and so when I realized I couldn’t break through it because it was a concrete wall, I had to turn around, and Carl was there, and he was naked. The eighteen-year-old Carl, I mean. And then he shoved me to the ground, and I realized he was going to rape me, and so I woke up.”

“Oh my goodness!” the ladies exclaimed. Amy said, “Carl would never, ever do that.”

Sabrina, gal of the world, who’d traveled to Russia and China and South Africa, said, “I had a nightmare on Thursday. I was helping a woman, in a clinic-like setting, doctors and nurses were milling around, and the woman had just been raped, she was Russian, and she kept yelling at me, ‘You did this! You paid the man who raped me!’ That’s what she kept saying.”

“But why did she think you had paid a man to rape her?” asked Liz. “Because it was a dream,” Sabrina said. “And anyway, I kept arguing with the woman, I wanted to help her, but she was so upset with me, and eventually she became my sister. I mean, the woman’s face eventually started to look like my sister’s face. I kept saying, ‘I didn’t put those bruises on your body. Who put those bruises on your body?’ This woman was covered in bruises, all over her arms and her thighs. But then she ran away, and I woke up. I was so nervous from the dream, I called my sister the very next day, but she’s fine. She’s traveling, consulting for environmental-engineering firms, so she’s been a jet-setter the past few months. She’s looking forward to being home.”

“Good for her,” exclaimed the ladies. “How exciting,” said Amy. And then Amy said that she, too, had dreamed an upsetting dream.

“I dreamed I was making popcorn,” she said. The ladies nodded; Amy loved popcorn. “And I looked out the window, and I saw my mother. I ran to the kitchen door and opened it, and my mother walked toward me. She looked so old; her hair was gray, her face was wrinkled. And I just took her in my arms and held her. But over her shoulder, I could see my mother, a younger version of my mother, standing in the yard. I was just holding this old, frail woman and looking at my beautiful mother standing out there.”

The ladies were entranced. “And then what?”

“And I woke up,” Amy said.

“Are these the worst dreams we’ve ever had?” asked Becca. “I mean, what’s the worst dream you’ve ever had?”

“I dreamed, in middle school, that my face was eaten by a dog,” said Carrie.

“In college, I suppose it was a few months into my freshman year, I dreamed that my math professor at the time told me I would never be smart enough to learn math,” said Liz.

“Throughout high school, I had this recurring dream that I kept trying to cook dinner for my parents, and I kept ruining dinner — burning it, forgetting to turn on the oven, that sort of thing,” said Emma.

“After I got my first job, I kept dreaming that my co-workers were screaming at me, ‘You’re a fake! You can’t do this!’ in the break room,” said Amy.

“I had this wonderful dream last year, when I divorced John,” Becca said, “that I had killed this man with my bare hands, just wrestled him to the ground and wrapped my hands around his neck, strangling him, and as I was doing it, I felt capable of anything, I could do anything I wanted.”

The ladies smiled politely. Amy said, “You certainly can do anything — just look at this salade niçoise.” The ladies tittered now, grateful for Amy. They picked up their forks again, stabbed at their salads.

“I had a dream like that, too, years ago,” said Emma. “I dreamed that police showed up at my door, banging, you know, and shoved me into a car. They wouldn’t tell me why, and I thought it was a mistake. They put me in one of those rooms, like you see on TV, interrogation rooms, and they asked me why I had killed this man, some man. They kept showing me these awful pictures. They kept saying, ‘You beat him! You beat him with a copper pipe, didn’t you?’ ”

“Terrifying!” “Yes, terrible, just terrible.” “And then you woke up, yes?”

“No,” said Emma. “I mean to say, I did wake up. I thought I had woken up. But I woke up in the dream, you see? And then I realized that I had killed him. I had beaten him in an alley. I thought he was trying to attack me, so I got the copper pipe out of my purse and I nailed him in the head. And then I kept hitting him, over and over, all over his body, and then I ran away. And once I realized that, I felt proud of myself.”

The ladies reached for their wineglasses, scooped lentils onto their plates from the nearest bowl. “Go on,” said Sabrina.

“And then I actually woke up,” Emma said. The ladies exhaled and laughed. They really thought that Emma’s story was going somewhere else, to an even darker place.

Sabrina shook her head. “You know, it’s funny how we keep describing our dreams. Everyone keeps saying the word ‘realize.’ ‘I realized.’ But it’s not like that in dreams, is it? It’s knowing. It’s only after you wake up that you use the term ‘realize.’ ”

“Yes, that’s so, isn’t it?” said Liz. “I had this dream in childhood where I knew something awful.”

“What was it?” asked Sabrina.

“I knew, for certain, that my brother was going to kill himself. And the dream was exactly like our real life at home. It was Thanksgiving Day in the dream. Everything was like a regular Thanksgiving — the whole family eating breakfast, Mom making stuffing, my brothers playing in the yard with our cousins. Like an old home movie, almost. But the whole time it was happening, I just knew he was going to kill himself that night by cutting his wrists in the bathroom, and that I’d be the one who found his body. The dream went through a whole day — everything normal, except for what I knew — and as we were all going to bed, I tried to hug him, and he kept saying, ‘Not now, Liz. Hug me later. Not now.’ ”

Liz looked at her plate. “That dream happened almost a decade ago, when I was in college, and I didn’t remember it at all until my brother did kill himself . . . let’s see, four years ago.”

The ladies clutched their wineglasses. Emma asked, “Did he slit his wrists in the bathroom on Thanksgiving Day?”

“Oh, no,” said Liz. “He stabbed himself until he bled to death. And it was June. He was in his apartment. This was many years after the dream, you understand.”

“What an unusual month for your brother to kill himself,” said Becca. “Don’t most suicides happen around Christmas?”

The ladies nodded. “Yes, I think I read that somewhere,” said Carrie.

“Where’s Amy?” asked Liz.

“In here!” Amy called from the kitchen. She appeared in the doorway with a lemon-meringue pie. “I figured we could all use some dessert.” The ladies clapped and nodded at one another.

“Perfect timing, Amy.” “That pie looks fantastic.”

“I bought it at Publix. It’s not homemade, so I hope it’s good,” Amy said.

Becca went around the table, gathering and stacking the dirty plates and carrying them to the kitchen, and then Amy cut up the lemon-meringue pie. The ladies put the edges of their forks to their soft pieces of pie.

“It’s not a bad pie,” said Sabrina. “No, the meringue is good,” said Carrie. “The lemon part is a little gluey for me,” said Amy, “but I’m glad everyone likes it.”

“We like it fine,” said Emma.

“Have you ever had the kind of dream where you’re cutting something, like a pie, and it just keeps fusing back together, so you keep cutting and cutting?” asked Liz.

“Or the dream where you’re trying to empty something, and it just keeps filling?” asked Amy.

“What about the dream where time stands still?” asked Emma.

“Or what about when actual time stands still, in real life?” asked Sabrina. “I had an experience like that.”

“You mean like at work?” asked Emma.

“No, it wasn’t at work. It was when I was living abroad in Russia,” said Sabrina. “I went on a blind date with this man, and when I showed up for the date, I realized how much older he was than me.”

“And the date lasted forever? A bad first date?” asked Becca.

“No, the date went pretty quickly. We ended up back at his apartment, and we started drinking absinthe.”


“Nothing happened, really, we just kept drinking this absinthe. He kept telling me that it was very good absinthe, and that something would be happening soon. I kept expecting to hallucinate, really.”

“And did you? Did you hallucinate?” “Time stood still because you were hallucinating?”

“No, not at all,” said Sabrina. “We just got very drunk, and when I woke up the next morning he was gone. I was very hungover. I was so hungover I felt almost glamorous, you know. Like an epic sort of hungover.”

The ladies stole looks at their glasses of wine. Some were full and warm; some were nearly empty and still cold.

“And so you felt like time stood still when you were hungover,” said Becca.

“No, no. I drank some bottled water from the fridge and put my clothes on,” said Sabrina, “and then I realized that his apartment was locked from the outside. I couldn’t get out.”

“Did you go through the window?” “Had he locked you in there?”

“There weren’t any windows. It was a basement apartment. And yes, he had locked me in there. At first I thought I was just hungover and confused, so I took a shower and ate something. I drank all the bottled water. And I looked at his books,” said Sabrina.

“But he came home later that day? And realized his mistake?”

“He came home, yes,” said Sabrina. “But he’d meant to do it. He kept me locked in that apartment for two weeks.”

“Two weeks!” “Didn’t your employer report you missing?” “Did he rape you?”

“Yes, two weeks,” said Sabrina, sipping her wine. “I was working for a newspaper at the time, and they just assumed that I’d quit. It was a dreadful place to work, really. Those long, late hours. And no, he didn’t rape me. I mean, we had sex, you know, but it wasn’t rape. I fell very much in love with him.”

“Where’s Carrie?” asked Liz. The ladies paused. They heard the sound of running water.

“Oh, she snuck off to do the dishes!” “What a sweetheart.” “Let’s keep her company.”

The ladies grabbed their wineglasses and pie plates and walked into the kitchen. Carrie turned around. “You caught me,” she said. “I couldn’t leave all these dishes to Liz!”

“I brought your wine,” said Becca, setting Carrie’s glass on the counter. “We were still talking about dreams. When you’re trapped, or when time stands still.”

“These dishes feel that way! I’m in a nightmare right now,” said Carrie. The ladies laughed. “I’m kidding, of course — the dishes are nearly done.”

“Leave the pie plates for me,” said Liz. “I should do some work in return for all this beautiful food.”

Carrie dried off her hands and picked up her wineglass. “I’ve had those dreams. Mostly when I’m trying to finish a book.” Carrie was a published author. “I have dreams where I’m writing and writing, I’ll write pages of stuff on my computer, but when I try to go back over what I’ve written, the pages only have a few lines on them.”

“Oh no!” “What do the lines say?”

Carrie said, “They turn into lists. Commands, really. Like, ‘Tell us about your other father.’ Or, ‘Have a son with dark curls.’ Or . . . or, once the paper said, ‘Write the story twice, at the same time.’ ”

“But how could you do that?” asked Becca. “I mean, no one can write the same story twice at the same time.”

Carrie thought. “I suppose you could,” she said, “if you put it all in the same story.”

“How do you mean?” asked Emma.

“It makes perfect sense if you think about it,” Carrie said. “Every story is at least two stories at the same time.” The ladies murmured in response.

When the wine was out and the pie plates were stacked by the sink for Liz to finish, the ladies drifted toward the door. For a few minutes, they stood near the entryway as a group, planning the next potluck, clutching their empty bowls, rattling keys and rummaging one-handed in purses. Emma had parked a few blocks over, and as she walked to her car she got the eerie sensation that someone was following her, but when she turned back to look, she saw only a stray cat sitting in the road. At home she stayed up for hours, practicing her favorite Schubert sonatas on her electronic keyboard. Carrie lived nearby and so she had walked, and on her way back to Carl she texted her lover about the upcoming weekend. Becca drove to her studio apartment, where she fed her cat, changed into pajamas, and opened another bottle of wine. At home, Amy made popcorn before she realized she wasn’t very hungry, but she ate half the bag out of duty, and made a to-do list for the next day. Sabrina read a novel to kill time until two a.m., and then she Skyped with a friend in China, a former boyfriend whom she was to see on his next visit back to the States. As for Liz, after she shut the door behind her, she left the plates next to the sink, put on a jazz record, and took half a Valium. Each woman looked at her clock and marveled that the dinner had gone so late into the night, and yet when each one grew tired, she fought sleep.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Single Page
’s story “Snake” appeared in the November 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

More from Rebecca Evanhoe:

Fiction From the November 2011 issue


Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada


October 2015

Lives by Omission

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Lifting as We Climb

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Cattle Calls

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Getting Jobbed

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Please enjoy this free article from Harper’s Magazine.