“How on earth did I get here?” You know the scary thought I mean, don’t you? You’ll sometimes get it when you’re driving – which is quite possibly the scariest time of all to have it. You’ll be bowling along in your car, thinking you’re taking note of traffic, hazards, places along the way and suddenly you look around and think. “What?!! I’m here! But how?” And you panic , ‘Did I go through lights?’, ‘Have I been speeding?’ It’s as though a bit of your mind had disengaged from the rest of it – like you’ve been driving on autopilot. Coming to awareness pulls you up so sharply you start to drive in a very precise way, taking note of everything around you and making doubly sure you keep to the limit and stop at every red light. You wipe your palms down and calm your breathing. Scary!
I can’t think what that process is called, but it’s happened a few times to me, while driving and also while walking – often in busy town centres. But it happens in life too. You get to a point and you have that scary thought, “What brought me to this place” As though you don’t recall the route you took, or you can’t recall the reasons you had for making certain decisions that led you to arrive at this point – this job; this house you live in; this marriage. As though you have been sleep-walking and suddenly you wake up and find yourself in a place you don’t recognise. Scarier still, you find you no longer recognise the person you have become. ‘Who is this person standing in this supermarket buying this food?’
Lady feels like this. ( “Lady’s Dreaming”. by Tobias Woolff) As the story opens, she fights to stay awake in a hot, airless car, driven by her husband. ‘Lady’s suffocating”. Seems to me that might be a metaphor for her life – if only she could have stayed awake, she might have noticed where she was going, but she can’t have the window open, “because the air blowing into the car bothers his eyes”. Not that he’d make a fuss, he’s a nice man, “never a mean motive”. It’s an “effort of will” to keep her eyes open now – it’s so hot, it’s almost like having a fever. In this strange place – on the edge of sleep, but skirting consciousness, she begins to see more “things more distinct and familiar”. Is she coming to a place pf greater awareness now?
We learn about Robert, her husband, from her thoughts. “Tells the most boring stories. Just lethal”. Says so much. Maybe it’s the storyteller within me, but those short lines had me – I couldn’t like him from that point on! He’s a man who considers all his words. He’s careful. Orderly. He is considerate. Before the second page I find myself wanting to scream. No wonder Lady wants to stay asleep. Even though he is desperate for her to stay awake. He likes to say her name. “Shut her up in her name”. You can do that with someone. Make them a prisoner to what you say they are. He loves her name – she is what she is called. And he traps her there. Now it seems she can’t move away from it. He has defined her and curtailed her existence. She’s trapped.
He tried to call her to wakefulness but, “Sorry, sir, Lady’s gone”. Where to? “She’s back home”. Lady has escaped down the years back to a place with her mother and sisters. She’s waiting for Robert, the young soldier and her beau then, to come, but also “not waiting”. Why is that? Because the three of them on that porch are actually complete as a unit. They are at ease with other, joking and teasing each other. “Sufficient unto themselves. Nobody has to come”.
Robert is on his way to her though. Now we see him as a thoughtful man, who learns poetry and recites to her, although she laughs at that. He believes he needs to get her away from that family “among sensible people who don’t think everything’s a joke.” Where she can become the very Lady she is named for. This young woman is so very different to the girl his family would choose for him. This washis rebellion, though it’s a subconscious one. But he doesn’t believe that you just fall in love – that’s something more purposeful, “you master your choices”. He speculates nervously about what his father will think; of her “rawness” and the fact she is “spoiled and willful and half wild”. He is so afraid that he is on his way to end the relationship. It seems he has been sleep-walking and has shocked himself when he wakes up and finds himself in this place. “He’ll tell Lady anything except the truth, which is that he’s ashamed to have picked her to use against his father”. How could he? Having met him in Lady’s thoughts earlier, I’m now really angry at this guy. So he was going to use her to beat his father over the head with, was he? ‘You can’t make me choose the sort of woman you’d like for me, Dad, I can have anyone I like and if I want trash, as you would say, then I will have trash!’ I don’t like the man and I like his father even less.
But wait, nothing is ever so simple. Maybe choosing him is her own personal act of rebellion? Maybe she wanted out of this place more than she might admit? Or is that she actually does love him? That young girl goes to meet her young man, the one resolved to break her heart now. He sees her and tastes in his mouth the sweetness of her, even as she stands at a distance from her. It dissolves his intention and “he takes the steps as if he means to devour her”.
As she revisits this place of her youth, the girl she was is there before her, but neither of them see that early hesitation of his. Instead this older self wants to call to the young girl, “This man is not for you. He will patiently school you half to death”. Would our younger selves ever take any notice of our older, wiser selves though? The young girl won’t listen; she is moving towards her beau even as Lady is dreaming. Oh the irony that his earlier resolve to leave her would actually have saved her from being locked in this prison he has made for her! Instead it is her sweet freshness; her rawness and her wildness that melts his heart, lulls him back into his own sleepy state and washes away his previous purpose. He is smitten. But over the years, the very charm that drew in has been smothered and now her only escape is to pretend to sleep.
We fall in love with who we see and their very differences draws us to them. Do they stay appealing? Or do we want them to conform to what we had imagined we really wanted? Do we want to be lifted from our sleepy states and awakened to something richer and wilder? Or will we try to tame the ones we love so that they fit the lives we think we need to fit?