Copyright© 2004 All Rights Reserved.
Many thanks to my editors, who considerably improved upon the original draft - one who shall remain anonymous, and GentleButFirm.
Remaining errors and shortcomings are solely my own.
It was the sound of the dog growling that finally brought me around. With only the light from two tiny windows, the room was dim -- too dim to recognize furniture or other details. Nevertheless, through the fog of disorientation, I had a faint sense that my surroundings were somehow familiar.
And I was disoriented. My life was a very structured and predictable thing. I went to work every morning, to the same job I'd held for a dozen years. Each evening I came home to my wife and kids, to the same house we'd lived in for seven years, and retired to the same bed. Nothing new had happened to me, it seemed, in years. I certainly hadn't fallen asleep in a strange place for a very long time -- not since before I'd been utterly tamed by marriage sixteen years ago.
Try as I might, I could not remember what had brought me to this place, wherever it was. I sat up on the couch I found myself upon and swung my feet to the floor. The dog growled louder. Dealing with it seemed like a reasonable first priority.
Some instinct told me to reach to my left and turn on a table lamp I would find there. Without thinking I did so. What I saw almost made me wish I hadn't.
The dog was one I hadn't seen in nearly 20 years. Not since the awful day I'd had to have her put down, ravaged as she was by relentless pain in her old age. She'd been a gift from my parents for my sixth birthday, an unlikely little black terrier-poodle cross, who was my indispensable best friend through an often difficult childhood. I'd named her "Samantha," which immediately earned me hoots of derision from my older brother. "I'm not going onto the porch and yelling 'Here, Samantha!'" he sneered. So the dog was called Sammy.
Sammy was standing on tile flooring, white with gold flecks, poorly laid over an uneven concrete floor. I recognized the cedar paneling on the walls, a built-in bookcase filled with 1960s Readers Digests, and an alcove that contained our first colour TV, the one my Dad had somehow acquired in 1973. The furniture had arrived at the same time as the TV -- a couch and a chair covered with fuzzy rust-coloured fabric. That chair followed me through my next four moves, until my wife finally refused to have such a worn and ugly relic from the 70s in her house. I was in the basement of my childhood home, precisely as it should have been in the last couple of years we lived there in the mid-1980s.
Mystery solved, I thought to myself. It's just a dream. An unusually vivid one, but still a dream. Go with the flow, enjoy it.
I knelt on the floor and slowly extended my hand, palm down, to the dog. "Sammy. Come here girl! That's a good dog!" Whether she'd recognize the scent of my 20-year-older body was one thing, but I was confident she'd know the inflection in my voice. Tentatively her tail began to wag as she sniffed my hand. Then, convinced, she launched into her trademark frantic greeting, bounding up and down, licking everywhere. Being with her again filled me with a warm glow, a reunion with a best-ever friend.
I wandered around the room I'd known so well. This basement had been my refuge, my domain. That was clear enough from the mess. I remembered my student days, and the mounds of paper that the classes had generated. I'd discovered long before that I learned more effectively the more notes I took in lectures. By the end of a semester you could literally weigh my notes by the pound. Evidence of that was everywhere, with foolscap, textbooks and binders piled precariously on every flat surface.
Leafing through one binder, I noticed that the date on the last page of notes was Friday, December 7th, 1984. Not a date that particularly meant anything to me. Likely the last day of lectures in the fall semester. Perhaps it was exam season. Then the thought struck me -- please don't let this be yet another -exam dream." The dream that seems incredibly common among university students, and haunts them for years after they graduate. You're reading the posted exam schedule when you suddenly realize that you're enrolled in a course that you've forgotten about, for which you never attended lectures or bought the textbook, and you're supposed to write the exam in half an hour. I'd had that dream, periodically, for easily ten years after I graduated; I'd really hoped it was behind me. But somehow this didn't seem like the same thing.
I tried to remember everything that my life had been in 1984. I was a student, living at home with my mother. That brought me up short. In my real life my mother had been dead for over two years, my father for ten. Would I see them now, talk to them? That happened so seldom in my dreams -- I wished it could happen more often, since I usually awoke feeling much more at peace.
The biggest thing in my life then, though, was my girlfriend, Ellen. If I really were back in 1984, we'd be coming up on the second anniversary of our first serious date, the one that launched us as an exclusive couple. And which led me to propose to her in 1987. Which in turn led to our children. I didn't see that ahead of me in 1984 -- then I didn't see much past getting good enough grades to get scholarships, graduating, and finding a job.
A couple of years before she died, my Mom had made a remark about how Ellen had 'set her cap' for me. I chewed on that for a while, and realized she was right. Funny how I'd been too dense to realize it before. Ellen was always by my side, undemanding and supportive. We had a small circle of good friends with whom we had great times. And we had plenty of time to ourselves, to get to know each other and to fall thoroughly in love.
I'd once described the period I now found myself in as our "glory days." Ellen was as focused on me as she was on her studies, perhaps more so. It seemed that there was nothing she wouldn't do for me, sexually or otherwise. In those days, Ellen was the complete package -- smart, caring, gorgeous (in a Playboy centerfold way) and passionate. In some ways more passionate than me, labouring as I was under the weight of my prudish upbringing. I'd had no idea at the time just how good I had it.
It wasn't that way anymore in 2004. We seemed to be drifting apart. Ellen's caring had seemed to shift to the kids, her passion toward her career. I was becoming increasingly worried about our future together -- if indeed there was to be one at all.
My reverie was interrupted by a ringing phone. I walked down the hall to the washer and dryer, next to which the basement phone had sat forever. I hadn't heard the sound of a rotary dial phone in years. I'd forgotten how clunky they looked. You could even still see on the wall the spot when the old 4-prong connector had been mounted, before the phone company had converted everything a few years before. Next to the phone was a cheap orange plastic ashtray that someone had picked up at Expo '67, full of the white-tipped cigarette butts from the habit my Mom wouldn't kick for another year or two.
Should I answer the phone? I hesitated, then laughed at myself. Why not? Since when was talking on the phone in a dream ever a problem.
"Hi Phil. What'd I drag you from? You took forever to answer."
I knew Ellen's crystal sing-song voice instantly. It had hardly changed. I tried frantically to remember what pet names I'd used for her back then.
"Hey, CBD! What'cha up to?"
"Grrr, I told you not to call me that," the smile in her voice belying the words. CBD stood for -cute, but dumb," a nickname she earned one day in the cafeteria after a malapropism worthy of Gracie Allen left us all in stitches. But in 1984 a woman aspiring to be a professional, no matter how bright, still couldn't always count on a fair hearing -- having that nickname follow her wouldn't help.
"Sorry, Ellie - you're never dumb. But you're always a babe."
"Flattery's good, Phil. A bit more and you'll dig yourself out of the hole," she said with the hint of a giggle. "You studying?"
"Uh, ya." I was starting to feel lost, as if I really had found myself in 1984. I didn't know what exams I was supposed to be prepping for. I didn't know when I'd last spoken to Ellen, or kissed her, or made love to her. A sudden burst of inspiration -- something jogged my memory of this semester. "For econometrics, with Simunson."
"Huh? What are you talking about? You're taking that course next semester. Are you OK?"
So much for memory. "Sorry, guess my head was too far into a book for too long. I'm a bit out of it."
"I'll say! Too out of it to know what you're even reading? Good luck on that exam," she said sarcastically. "Look, I just called to make sure we were still on for tonight. You're gonna pick me up, right?"
I hadn't, of course, the faintest idea what she was talking about. Astute girl that she always was, she picked up on it right away. "You forgot, didn't you? How could you forget? We talked about it last night. You knew it was important to me..." I'd hurt her, clearly. This was getting out of hand.
"Ellie, it's not real. None of it is."
"What the hell kind of excuse is that?" she demanded. This wasn't going the way I wanted at all.
"I'm not the person you spoke to last night."
.... There is more of this story ...