We wake up in the night, uncertain, unhappy, and we find each other in the darkness. My wife’s familiar shape, her body almost more familiar now than my own. Tonight my wife is crying, though some nights it is me. It depends whose dream is more vivid. How could I forget you? she says, sobbing, her tears bleeding through my t-shirt.
Today, I am talking to this woman in line at the DMV. She takes me out the back door and into a parking lot cast in deep midwinter shadows. She tells me that she is my wife, but I don’t recognize her. She insists, and because she seems so sure, I believe her. How could I have forgotten you? I ask. She shakes her head. I don’t know, she tells me.
When the dreams began, they were short—they were parts of other dreams. We hardly remembered them. My wife first mentioned it to me one night when we both found ourselves awake. She told me hers and I told her mine. We laughed about it. But that was just the beginning.
Recently, my wife has been sleeping with this man who works at her office. They have been running around together for a while behind his wife’s back, going on dates and drinking milkshakes in hotel rooms—one night, she finally asks him his name—how is it we have been sleeping together for all this time without knowing such a basic detail? she asks him. He props himself up on one elbow and says that he is her husband. Who did you think I was married to? he says.
We sleep at night and work during the day. We eat together, we call our parents, we read books on the couch. All of these things happen just as they always have happened, but our dreams burn brighter, and they take longer—they consume us. Our waking life together is beginning to fade in the blinding light of our parallel dream lives, and in our dreams, we are strangers.
My wife goes off for a few days to take care of this rich older couple’s dog while they are on vacation. Their dog is named Jacqueline; she is a geriatric golden retriever. My wife has the run of the house; she drinks bottles of wine from the cellar and makes boxes of instant macaroni and cheese and watches the Food Network and HGTV on the older couple’s massive television. My wife sleeps on the couch and wakes up and feeds the dog and drinks wine, and it is the greatest vacation she has ever had. She doesn’t see anyone, and she doesn’t speak to anyone. This is my wife’s idea of a good time.
One morning my wife wakes up, slightly hung over from the previous night’s solitary revelry. She wakes up on the expensive overstuffed luxury couch wrapped in a warm luxury blanket. She looks up at the vaulted ceiling of the living room.
The geriatric dog, Jacqueline, is dead. My wife isn’t sure how the dog died, but it doesn’t matter. My wife is crying. She knows she needs to call the older couple and tell them about Jacqueline, but she isn’t able to compose herself for the phone. She cradles the dead dog in her lap, and it isn’t a dog anymore, but her husband. How did you mistake me for a dog? my lifeless eyes seem to ask her.
Now, in the evenings, when we come home from work, we look at each other with mistrust. Is it really you? my wife asks, a bag of takeout food hanging from her arm. It’s really me, I say, is it really you? We stand face to face, and we try to remember, even though we already know. We are reminding ourselves. Each time we meet, we carefully practice this ritual in the hope that we will do the same in our dreams—in the hope that the ritual will become somatic. My wife’s body feels like my wife’s body, and that is what I try to memorize when I hold onto her. There is nothing anywhere like her, and I try to remember that.
At work, for example, I know this woman who makes jokes to herself quietly when she thinks no one can hear, but I hear. We have been working together for years. Sometimes I stop her in the hallway, and she says funny things to me, and she enjoys that I find her funny. We slack off together. She laughs at my jokes, even though hers are better.
One day we pass each other in one of the sterile office hallways. Hallways—an office completely made of hallways—everyone walking all the time, doing business while walking like it’s a TV show. She says something funny to me, and I tell her to stop exactly where she is. A few people pass us without seeming to notice what is going on. She turns to look at me, confused. She asks if something is wrong. I take her gently by the shoulder. It’s you, I say. It must be you. It must be you. We stand face to face—she looks uncomfortable, as if I am doing something inappropriate, as if she does not know what is about to happen.
Kaj Tanaka’s stories have been selected for the Best Small Fictions Anthology and Wigleaf’s Best (Very) Short Fictions. He is the nonfiction editor for BULL Magazine. He lives in Houston. Find him online at kajtanaka.com and tweet to him @kajtanaka.
Artwork by: Fabrice Poussin
Fabrice Poussin teaches French and English at Shorter University. Author of novels and poetry, his work has appeared in Kestrel, Symposium, The Chimes, and dozens of other magazines. His photography has been published in The Front Porch Review, the San Pedro River Review and more than 350 other publications.