Posted by Nic Fort ’20 as part of the course “Myth and Modernity” taught in Spring 2020.
I stand in the check-out line at a supermarket. Behind the cashier, light streams through the glass panes that line the front of the store. I reach the front of the line, unloading a pile of groceries, wine, a bottle of bourbon. I can only see the cashier from behind the translucent pane of glass that shields her–from the air I breathe, the illness that might circulate within it. I slide my card beneath the pane. She holds it up, glances at it for a moment. She asks if I have a Safeway club card. I shake my head, before remembering that I do in fact have a Safeway club card. I remove it from my wallet, send it beneath the pane as well. I watch $20 erase itself from the total of my purchase. I walk away from the register, amble outside without picking up the bags. Outside the store, in the sun, I ask someone (my mother?) where my bags have gone. She informs me that my uncle has taken them and driven away. None of us know where.
I found myself astonished at the detail with which Freud could recall his “Irma” dream. Such a precise recall of the visions that appeared to him in his sleep no doubt took sustained practice, intention and attention. I have a vague sense in which this scene, the only one that persists with its frayed edges from last night’s sleep, was only a part of a larger arrangement of events. I doubt that I can read any logic or significance into which piece of the dream insisted on inserting itself into waking memory. Nonetheless, I’m inclined to examine the part of it left to me, although perhaps not as exhaustively as Freud.
Do I understand this dream as wish-fulfillment? In a straightforward sense, yes. I remember even within the dream I had the notion of picking up supplies for my 22nd birthday, which is coming up this weekend. In January or February, I began to formulate imprecise plans for how I would celebrate. Thirty or so people–friends, and those I wouldn’t necessarily consider friends but I nonetheless wanted around, just to see their faces and increase the proximity of the bodies in attendance. I’ve never had a real party for my birthday, in the adult sense, and I wanted to use the back patio of the house where I lived on campus. A friend and horse-racing enthusiast pointed out that my own celebration shared a date with the Kentucky Derby, so I thought I might bring out a TV to watch the horses, make mint juleps, perhaps even bring out the garish, pastel-green shirt I only wear a few times a year. Hence, in the dream, the bourbon, the trip to Safeway.
In another sense, however, the dream portrayed my birthday in a way I would never have wished to have it. Quite frankly, I never intended for my family to be involved, or to do my shopping from a safe social distance. A future closed to me, one in California, mingled with the one left open to me now, only coming within six feet of my immediate family. Actually, not much of it had any resemblance to the reality I live in–I don’t spend any time now with the uncle in the dream, although he lives about ten minutes away from where I’m sheltering in place in New Jersey. As far as fulfilling my wish went, the dream presented a pretty meager way to do it. And at the end, from what I remember, my uncle absconded with the groceries, leaving me with no idea where he’d went.
Another detail seems strange as well. I in fact don’t have a Safeway club card. I shopped a lot at Safeway this year, but every time I went, I would punch in the home phone number of a friend’s family to get my discount. It’s somewhat absurd that I would dream in such detail watching my rewards accrue, and such a specific amount. It makes me recall the last time I went to Safeway (which doesn’t exist in my area), with a few friends, to buy some beer for an empty weeknight, perhaps one which we sensed (yes, unconsciously) might be one of our last together. It was a time when life went on just about the same, before classes shut down or we all had to go home, yet an atmosphere of dread seemed to persist everywhere. I remember just having gotten over a brief cold and trying to avoid coughing in the store, to avoid glares. Feeling sheepish, I slid a packet of Halls down the conveyor belt with the beer.
At the end of the dream, all that I bought, the purchases I planned out, were taken away from me, much as my actual plans for my birthday melted into air. As far as disappointments go, I try to keep reminding myself that this is a minor one. More than wish fulfillment, I view this dream as a muddled product of my mind, an expression of the way it moves with a will of its own between the world I inhabited not so long ago and the one I have been thrust into now, making sense of the present moment despite the residue of the one that came before it. Illogically, I’ve found myself trying to keep hold of that old world, one which doesn’t exist and I can never access again.
The horizontal glass of the supermarket’s window, which I remember so distinctly, brings to mind Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. The painting places us outside in the dark, gazing in on a lit world with no visible entrance, one without any means of access. The scene inside is a melancholy and lonely one: a few diner patrons, whom we sense have nowhere better to be. Yet the outside seems lonely in a different way, a darker way. What we wouldn’t give to be inside, within arm’s reach of other human beings, in an imperfect world that might have once been our own.
For now, as in the painting, I am on the street, only the receding light of the forbidden diner, of the old world, diffusing onto the sidewalk. Someone has driven off with my plans, with the groceries I have bought.