I was sitting in the cafe, eavesdropping on the people at the table next to mine. There were four of them, two men and two women, older and grey-haired, one man and one woman on each of the table’s sides, and they were talking about their sleep and dreams. One of the women, the one facing me, said she’d lately been dreaming of public bathrooms with dozens, or maybe hundreds, of stalls, but every toilet clogged. ‘When I wake up all I do is lie there,’ she said. ‘You’d think I’d have to go. But I don’t have to go!’ The other three chuckled, and all four took sips from their mugs.

The man next to her, quite plausibly her husband, said that in graduate school he sometimes woke in the middle of the night ready to solve trigonometric equations that had been devilling him for days, even weeks. ‘I’d sit up and just know,’ he said.

The woman who hadn’t spoken yet turned to the man at her side. Though she had her back to me, I was quite close and heard clearly. ‘Tell them about your recorder thing.’

The man didn’t answer right away. I couldn’t see his face, but I felt him wishing the question hadn’t been asked. I imagined his mouth in a shape between a smile and a wince.

He almost never remembered his dreams any more, he said. No matter how strange, involved or vivid they seemed when he woke, they always dissolved quickly, usually within minutes, always by lunchtime. One night about five months ago he set a pen and notebook on his bedside table, and the next morning he tried to write out his dream before it slipped away. But he got down only a few words. ‘I could sort of feel the dream crumble,’ he said. ‘Like the pen was destroying it.’ After two weeks of similarly unsuccessful attempts he bought a cheap cassette recorder. And it seemed to work: for almost three whole months he spoke into it every day as soon as he woke, even if only to say ‘nothing to report’, which became increasingly rare as time went on and his dreams, or dream-memories, grew longer and richer. They still faded by about lunchtime, but since he had the recordings he didn’t mind. When both sides of the tape were full he decided to go for a long drive and play it back on his car stereo. He got on the highway, put the tape in – and nothing came out. He tried another tape, a Roy Orbison tape, and it played fine. Either the recorder or the tape had been broken all along, or he’d been using them incorrectly, and nothing had recorded, and he could not remember a single dream from the entire three months. He remembered lots of talking into the recorder, but nothing of what he’d said, none of the scenes and images he knew he’d described. ‘After that I gave up,’ he said. ‘Lost interest.’

For at least five seconds the table was silent – I think the other three were unsure whether the story was over – then the other man said something I didn’t hear, and everyone but the dreamless man laughed, but gently, and took sips from their mugs, and then the dreamless man laughed a little too, which made his upper back rise and fall in a way I found unpleasant to watch up close, possibly because I’d never seen his face.

How terrible, I thought, not to remember your own dreams – and then I realized that I myself, sitting at the cafe with a laptop and pile of unread magazines, could not think of a single dream I’d ever had. I sipped my coffee, which I’d been letting sit for hours. It tasted terrible now, bitter, the milk sour. I’ve always ‘remembered’ a dream from my childhood in which I was choked into unconsciousness by an alligator while my father, not ten feet away, talked incessantly with the alligator salesman. But over time, and for various reasons, this dream, or my retelling of it, became a well-worn family story – my father, in particular, loved it – and I suspect what I truly remember is the endless retelling, not the original experience. Other than that – the alligator dream: nothing.

That night I set a pen and legal pad on the bedside table and began my quest to have, recall and document a dream. From that point onward I tried something different each night. Among other things, and in various combinations, I: went to bed early; went to bed late; set the alarm to wake me in the middle of the night, then fell back to sleep; slept on my back, stomach, both sides, the couch, floor; in boxers, briefs, assorted pajamas, all my clothes, naked; drank whisky before bed; drank beer before bed; drank water, big cups of water, before bed; ate sandwiches before bed; ate oysters before bed; masturbated before bed; abstained. I sat at the computer, opened the word processor, typed ‘I remember a dream in which’, and nothing came. I remembered that Elise had once given me a digital audio recorder, which I found in the office desk and set on the bedside table. I showered before bed. I took a bath before bed. I read, wrote in my journal and sat on the couch doing nothing before bed, and took long looping walks through the city calculated to induce total exhaustion the second I stepped through the bedroom door. I came to note the different ways in which grains of long-shattered glass shone on different streets and at different hours. I emailed Elise and asked her to please consider coming back from Paris, if only so we could talk in person. ‘I am getting good use of the digital recorder you gave me,’ I wrote. ‘Thank you.’ In a postscript I asked if in all our years together I’d told her of a single dream I’d had, then hit ‘send’ and went to bed.

My sabbatical was wasting away. More books and magazines arrived each day by mail, and I promptly added them to various neat stacks on the office desk. Sam kept emailing to ask if I had any tasks to assign him, and implying, I was sure, that my failure to keep him busy was a sorrowful waste of taxpayer dollars. Sam, I knew, had no interest in airports. Sam studied immersive online multiplayer video games and had been assigned to me more or less randomly. I didn’t respond. The fact was that until I knew more about Elise’s plans I could make no further progress on my research. In the meantime only the dream project gave any semblance of shape to my days. At the high points, which were not, I think, infrequent, I saw myself as an explorer, not of some abstract field of knowledge but of a world, a world I seemed able to call forth simply by moving through it with a sense of purpose. Other times – wrenched awake at dawn by the alarm and unable to return to sleep – I felt not bemused or intrigued, not pleasantly distracted, but tired and afraid: afraid that without dreams, a present wife or even wifely emails, or my students, let alone children of my own, I might easily vanish. Thankfully this feeling came upon me with its full power for no more than a few consecutive minutes each day.

One night, about two weeks in, I took the train out to the airport, hoping the trip would cheer me up or jumpstart some work, as it had so many times before. It was late, past ten, and I was alone in the car. The ride went like always, city proper giving way fast to deserted factories, swamp, shacks by the river drawing (probably stealing) power from who knows where, which meant I could sometimes (though not this night), through a window or open door, see TV light inside, inside the shacks, not all of them but many, and I sank into memories of similar trips with Elise. I tried to remember the last time I’d come alone – the last time I’d sat taking notes in the food court between Terminals B and C without Elise across from me, grading papers or eating orange chicken from Asian Chao’s – and I couldn’t. At each terminal the train stopped, and each time I stayed in my seat, and after the doors closed at Terminal E I let myself be carried back to the city. On the walk home from the station I felt brittle. My coat, despite having been tailored to my exact specifications a mere six months prior, seemed to hang about me like a pathetic shawl, and I wondered what I looked like to the homeless men and women I passed. I wondered if I looked muggable.

Early in the grey morning of the project’s eighteenth day, having put myself to bed the night before with a short walk and a scotch, I woke with a dream alive and well in my consciousness: First I was at a fancy party, in a back room, maybe the room where waiters hang out on their breaks. So I couldn’t actually see the party, and yet I knew it was a fancy one. There were two trays of food set out, sandwiches that someone I couldn’t see said were pepperoni. They didn’t look like pepperoni. I put some on a plate. Then I was outside, no plate, it was dark and I sat on the ground beside a young woman with long brown hair. We sat under a weeping willow by a lake ringed with soft lights placed at consistent intervals. We were close, just inches apart, and at the same time I watched from far away, like I was watching a movie, and the name of that movie sat on the tip of my tongue. I was also reading a book describing the very scene I was watching, and in this book, which I couldn’t see but was reading anyway, the words said ‘He looked up her skirt,’ which I (my dream-self) didn’t do. I kept sitting there inches away from the young woman’s long brown hair, and still the book went on in this mildly pornographic style. ‘He could see she was ready,’ and so on.

After that I was in my bedroom, my childhood bedroom with the slanted green ceiling, and I was looking at the floor, which was messy, but not my sort of messy. Things were now completely first-person; I was no longer watching myself from the outside. The mess on the floor was the sort of mess Matt, my first college roommate, used to make. I looked up and saw a woman staring at me from the hallway. It was the actress Kathy Bates, in one of her younger incarnations. She didn’t speak, but with the configuration of her hips and shoulders conveyed something like, Hey I know your secret and I’ve come to keep it a secret. The secret, I understood, was the full story of my dream self’s lifelong love, stretching from childhood to the present, for Elvira Povitch. Elvira Povitch: the girl from under the weeping willow. I looked under the mattress, where underneath some of Matt’s pornos I found a worn khaki-brown notebook with ELVIRA POVITCH scrawled big across its front in pencil, and I just knew: here was the book in which I’d logged detailed descriptions of all the experiences Elvira and I had ever shared.

I was sure I wanted to read this book in private, so I started to nudge Kathy Bates towards the door. When she didn’t move I gave her a push, but she pushed back, and once more I was watching like it was a movie, and I raised my left arm in preparation to give a karate-style chop to Kathy Bates’s shoulder, but before I could she jammed a finger into the raised arm’s pit and I went totally slack, fell to the floor and Kathy Bates said, or perhaps again communicated with body language alone, Look as I intimated before I know everything about you, including your secret armpit weakness.

And I’m not sure how long I lay there replaying my dream. But eventually – minutes later? hours? – I remembered my project, and in that moment of remembrance became aware of myself teetering half-awake on a knife’s edge between success and defeat. I looked to make sure the pen, pad and recorder were on the bedside table. They were, but I hesitated. What if trying to write the dream down made it crumble? I thought of the dreamless man sitting in the cafe, smiling his tight little smiles, laughing along with the others’ jokes. I pushed myself from bed, scuttered naked from bedroom to office, woke the laptop, opened the word processor and typed, anxiously, afraid of what I might have lost and might yet lose. It was less grey, more light, and I went too fast for consistently correct spelling, punctuation or grammar, and the word processor marked some screw-ups with red squiggles and others with green squiggles, and when I got to the end I saved the file – povitch, I named it – and sat scrolling up and down through what I’d written.

When I googled Elvira Povitch all I got was a bunch of junk about Maury Povich, the talk show host.

For the next several hours I tried to comb through a pile of successful terminal expansion proposals from the eighties, but was unable to go a half hour without returning to the dream write-up. At first I read it as I would a book: word by word, left to right, top to bottom. But after three or four such re-readings I started to look at it as if it were a painting, or some modern collage-type piece of visual art, white space covered in a fine mist of type not meant to be read in any particular order, just sitting there between red and green squiggles. I don’t know how well I would have enjoyed it on a museum wall, but there on the laptop screen it brought me a great sense of calm. Keen to preserve the effect for future use, I resolved that direct alterations were not allowed. If at any point I remembered anything differently than I’d first written it, or remembered a detail I hadn’t written in povitch at all, I would have to type the addition in a new document: first povitch_2, then povitch_3, and so forth. I set up these rules on the assumption that I’d start making changes right away. But nothing new came, not that afternoon, and the original lost none of its hold on me. Again and again I walked back to the office to look at it, and at five minutes past one I emailed it to myself in case the laptop died.

I was about to leave for the library when I received, at long last, an email from Elise: a forwarded copy of a flight confirmation email, Paris to Philadelphia, landing in – I checked the clock – three hours. This meant she had sent the email from the plane, which was at that moment above the Atlantic. Besides the flight information there was nothing else, no see you soon, no explanation or apology for the short notice, no clear indication as to whether she wanted or expected me to pick her up. For probably two whole minutes I stared at the email and wondered what to make of it – not only its suddenness but also its stark refusal to tell me anything certain about Elise’s thoughts or moods or plans – and then, despite having reached no conclusions, I shut the computer, showered and shaved, lifted my hair from the shower drain with a tissue, changed the sheets, vacuumed, wiped the counters, put the pen, pad, and recorder in a desk drawer, and set off shooting around the neighbourhood, spending like a playboy suitor on Elise’s favourite breads and cheeses and pâté, those olives she liked, that prosciutto she liked, the fruit sodas she sometimes packed in her purse for our airport dates.

At Terminal A – all international flights arrive at Terminal A – I checked a screen and saw Elise’s flight had landed well ahead of schedule. I looked over at the baggage carousels and there she was, against the wall, staring up the baggage chute. I’d missed her coming through the gate, hadn’t seen the expression on her face, whether she’d scanned the crowd expectantly, and what she’d looked like walking through the usual field of reunion hugs and kisses alone with her carry-on, past the drivers with their cardboard signs, not one of which read ELISE. My casual estimate is that at least one third of all passengers read those cardboard signs, despite the obvious fact that far fewer than one third have cars waiting. She’d cut her hair short, not quite a boy’s cut, but shorter than I’d ever seen it, and I pictured a muscular linguist named Jean Jacques looking up her skirt in a park by the Seine. I walked towards her, thinking that when she spotted me I’d break into a run, run and take her in a big hug, look straight in her eyes and go in for a serious long kiss. This would have been out of character and so perhaps risky, but I was becoming with every step more keen to engineer, right there by the baggage carousel, a ‘shift in the rhythm and logic of our interactions’, as she herself had put it in her first email from Paris. I saw us speeding home to make love in the clean apartment, soft daylight all around and afterward sandwiches, salmon and prosciutto sandwiches, served in bed on a tray with fruit soda. I thought too of sticking a finger in her armpit – either before, during or after the big hug – and saying ‘secret armpit weakness!’ – but of course she hadn’t read povitch, and this was not a joke we shared. As I grew closer I saw the telltale glaze of jet lag in her eyes, which stayed trained right up the baggage chute. Big Raoul from security was standing over by the vending machines, and when he saw me he grinned and started walking over, but I shook my head and pointed towards Elise, who continued to show no sign of seeing me, and somehow Raoul understood right away, stopped walking and made a thumbs up with his meaty hand, the thumb like a fingerling potato, and took off in the other direction. I was I think twenty steps away from Elise, and I kept annihilating the distance between us, and not only in that sense in which I am, like all of us, constantly annihilating the distance/time between the present and the next. No, this was something more heightened, or certainly more self-conscious and, I think, musical. Musical because each second seemed to determine its replacement, as in song – to be issued by the second before it in a way I experienced as essentially inevitable but not completely beyond my control. As maybe it feels to conduct an orchestra. Still Elise was looking blankly up the baggage chute, and finally I was right there in front of her, almost close enough to kiss, and still she showed no sign of seeing I was there, which seemed to me basically impossible, jet lag or no, and finally all I could decide to do was sort of wave a hand in front of her face and speak her name like a question. She blinked twice and looked not at the baggage chute but straight at me, and – I’m certain, despite the well-known fallibility of emotional memories, I’m certain – she smiled, and she swayed against me in a familiar way, a way I knew she’d swayed against me many times before, and that’s meant a lot to me, that she did that then.


Photograph by David Salafia

Vanishing Virgil