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Never had a waking dream myself… I keep hoping.





Anselmo Alliegro


            Galen walks past undulating candy-apple tulips. The breeze presses against a beautiful girl to make an S, like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Her long, white cotton dress trails beside her as she stands beneath a tangerine tree gathering tangerines in a cornucopia. Pyramidal green mountains rise above the waves and keep watch on the sun even after it dips behind the sea.


            The girl turns to gaze at him, amiably with bright gems.


            “What is this place?” he asks.


            “Latimer,” she replies.


            She turns and runs to the edge of a cliff and down its precipitous side until the top of her head is veiled by the tulips. He comes to the edge and sees her far below, traversing a beach toward a peninsula of rocks where a tall ship waits for her to board it.


            “Wait! Wait!” he shouts, staggering down the cliff with an avalanche of rocks.


            “I must sail into the sun,” she declares, standing on the deck as the ship drifts away.


            “Take me with you!” he shouts, helplessly from the beach.


            “I can’t,” she says. “I must sail into the sun.”


            “What’s in the sun?” he asks.


            “The truth,” she answers.


            “What is the truth?” he yells, both hands cupped against his mouth. He repeats the question many times.


            She stands silent at the stern, looking at him as the ship recedes into the sunset.


             Lastly he waves good-bye and she longingly waves back.


            What is the truth? He often wondered when he woke from the dream. But he thought that perhaps there was no answer, that it was silly to think so. It’s just a dream, a recurring dream, and a very amusing one indeed. After all, he thought, if anyone has an answer to this “truth” it’s the girl in the postcard.


            It began with a postcard from Holland; nowhere did it say Latimer. He found it in an old book, and began using it as a bookmark for his chemistry text. The photograph was pleasant, depicting a pretty girl in a white dress walking in a field of red tulips, and a quaint, rustic village as a backdrop with a bay harboring tall ships. The dream reflected all these things. However, the tangerine tree – with its sunshine-orange tangerines - was not present in the postcard but very clear in the dream.


Then she appeared, a counterpart of the girl from Latimer: an echo of a dream. Yet Galen, with his scientific air, felt shame thinking how phantoms of his sleep could find their double in the empirical world.


She was taking the footpath again on her way home from class. Galen watched her from a university window high above; had done so for more than a month, and became familiar with her daily routine. Then one day he said hello.


            She said Holland, he thought. She’s originally from Holland … hmm, what are the chances of that. And she said Latimer.… Is that what she said? Yes, that it’s in Latimer Street. Will she show up? What if she doesn’t? If she doesn’t I’ll never see her again – she’ll give me the slip. Maybe she’s afraid of me … might think I’m weird, coming out of the blue like that … telling her I’m crazy about her. Oh Ellen, don’t be such a stiff – no pun intended – be there, please be there …


             He felt a tugging on his medical coat. One of the medical students was playing puppeteer with a corpse. A lifeless finger hooked itself to his pocket. At once he was roused with disgust and shuddered.


            “Say cheese,” cried a voice, and he was bathed in a blinding flash. Now he saw a big, bothersome green spot as a student aimed with his camera.


            At first the medical students respected the corpses. Later it all became second nature. Sometimes, in the professor’s absence, they performed all kinds of elaborate jokes. For Galen it was no laughing matter. The fluorescent lamps, the cold metal, the corpses, the smell of formaldehyde: they were all dismal attributes of the lab.


Seized by the corpse, Galen jerked back. The finger slipped off and the arm fell limp, in a most macabre way, to the side of the metallic table.


            “Grow up,” said Henry, Galen’s close friend. He followed Galen out of the lab.


            “Leave me alone, Henry,” protested Galen bitterly, tearing off his plastic gloves and opening a faucet. “I don’t know who I am anymore,” he said, washing his hands vigorously. “I wanted desperately to be a doctor. But now I hate it, I hate it! I’m sick of the dead bodies, the tedious lectures, all the damn competition.”


            “You wanted to help people, remember? Because it’s an ‘absolute good.’ You’ve made a commitment. What, you gonna throw it to the wind?”


            “Why not, maybe I’m not cut out to be a doctor,” he said, and reached for a paper towel.


            “Is there something wrong, Galen? I mean, you’re daydreaming all the time. Just now in fact – you weren’t paying attention – you were staring out the window. Ey, come back here. Where you going?”


            Galen walked under Philadelphia skyscrapers in defiance of the frozen, merciless wind that blasted and burned with its sharp teeth. Finally he found a sign, it read: “Latimer.” So it was true! A coincidence, he thought, an incredible coincidence. I’ve probably read the sign and just forgotten, then dreamt about it. He walked to nearby 16th Street and on a long window, in bright, pink neon, he read, “16th Street Bar & Grill.”


The place was elegant but quaint, with a romantic and leisurely atmosphere. Being thirty minutes early, he decided to have a drink at the bar. He sat on a stool and stared at the sparkling bottles and glasses. At a quarter to eight he moved to the dining area and sat on a small, intimate table for two by a long window. There he waited for Ellen.


            Here I am, in Latimer, he mused. Maybe it’s a big jigsaw puzzle, he imagined, thinking of the postcard. Just

need to find the pieces. But the truth … that’s the missing piece. Found Latimer, found Ellen … and she’s from Holland, that’s what she said, she’s from Holland like the postcard. But what about the red tulips, the tall ship, the tangerine tree…?  Find those and I find the truth. Should she leave … back to Holland … what would I…? Nonsense, I’m a scientist for God’s sake. Amazing how the mind averages things out … how it wanders … daydreams. He looked at his watch. “She’s not coming. Damn, so much for dreams,” he muttered.


            At last she appeared, standing by the door, and caught sight of him right away. An ethereal maiden, he imagined, roused by euphoria.


            “I didn’t think you were coming,” he confessed, his face beaming.


            “I said at eight o’clock didn’t I?” she explained with a slight accent, sitting opposite him by a shaded lamp.


            “Oh, of course, I set my watch five minutes ahead. Helps me be on time.”


            Her clear eyes shone in the electric twilight. The eyes were distinct and familiar, in fact almost instantly recognizable, and now more than ever he felt her standing between two worlds. He wondered (given the dream and all) whether she had sunk into his unconscious long before he dreamt her. And perhaps he had not dreamt her at all. These fleeting impressions were tenuous and shameful and to be discarded by his rational mind.


            They selected from the menu and ordered champagne. As Galen poured some in each cup he considered his happiness. It had been a long time such joy kindled his life. Still, behind the seemingly unconquerable joy, loomed the ugly thought that she would leave him to his previous tedium: alienated again amongst the eye-straining paper work, amongst the dull lectures, amongst the corpses and formaldehyde …


            “So you plan to be a doctor,” declared Ellen, looking at him very contentedly.




            “What do you like best about medicine?”


            He looked at her blankly. “Uh … want more bread?” He turned away and beckoned the waiter. “We’d like more bread, please.”


            “Do you like medical school?” she continued.


He sank his head for a pensive moment. Then Galen leaned forward and gazed at her intently.


            “I do it to save lives,” he replied, with an air of impeccable honesty.


            “It’s a beautiful profession.”


            “Yes, but is it worth it?”


            “You mean you don’t think it’s worth it?”


            “I mean there’s too much responsibility,” he said angrily.


            “Too much is never enough when saving lives.”


            Grinning at her in adoration, he lifted his cup and toasted, “To life!” He emptied the glass in one gulp, and said, “Enough about me. What about you?”


            “Oh, I haven’t got a major. Liberal arts – drifting from class to class.”


            The thought she would leave him alone with his somber responsibilities suddenly terrified him. Amidst all the opulence, a great chasm opened beneath, and he felt hollow to the core.


            “I’m sure you don’t miss Holland. Do you?” he asked, and cursed himself for bringing it up.


            “Sometimes I do.”    


            “But people should feel at home wherever they go.”


            “You’re right.”         


            “It’s good to be on your own.”


            “It is.”


            “A self-assured girl like you.”


            “I’m really very insecure.”


            “Nah, you look like a fighter.”


            “I do?”


            “By the way, I love your accent.”


            “Never lost my accent. I moved here when I was ten, to Chicago with my mother. She divorced my father; he still lives in Holland.”


            “That’s good! I mean … that you moved with … no, how should I put it … that you were able to assimilate so successfully.” 


            The champagne bottle was almost empty. He drank most of it, and now, unrestrained by reason, his mind flooded with wild ruminations. He looked at Ellen and saw her double and thought it quite remarkable. He allowed himself to play a game, a game that required him to keep his reason at bay while he explored it - perhaps only to satisfy a childlike amusement and for no practical end. One might call it “Connect the Dots.” Wherein he speculates if the person before him has any knowledge of the objects in his dream, since (though highly insubstantial against the light of reason) yonder, in the shadowy world, she walked in communion with the objects and herself was one.


            “Do you like flowers?” he began. He remembered the flowers vividly.


            “Yes, they’re very pretty,” she replied.


            “What’s your favorite color?”


            “On a flower you mean?”


            “Yes, on a flower.”


            “Ah … red, I like red.”


            Now he grew excited, but tried to stifle it for the sake of intellectual integrity. Leaning towards her, elbows on the table, he began gesticulating with his hands.


            “Is it red? I mean, if you have … what I mean is, do you have a red flower?”


            “Yeah, actually I do. It reminds me of Holland.”


            “Is it a …” He couldn’t give anything away. His game was working, although he imagined it strange but  nonetheless continued. “What type of flower is it?” he rephrased.


            “A tulip – they grow those in Holland, you know. It’s in a pot by my window.”


             The pieces of the puzzle, observed Galen in reverie, however obscure, began to connect. Stern responsibilities and Henry’s advice about his duties diminished in his flight of fancy. What is the truth? He wanted to ask her. But such discourse is, and venturing therein, unseemly for anyone with healthy faculties.


            While eating their Italian cuisine, a woman with a worn overcoat and shaggy hair stared at them through the window. She came intrusively close to the glass with a rigid smile. At once Galen remembered her; same woman he had seen strolling down the marketplace and staring into store windows. It was that uncanny, blissful smile he recalled most. Yet he was struck by the fact that a reasonably young, attractive woman lived masked by an unkempt guise and invisible affliction.


            “Don’t look at her,” said Galen.


            “She’s smiling … maybe she’s happy,” observed Ellen.


            “She’s hiding from the pain.”


            “You think she’s in pain?”                                      


            “I would love to believe that she’s happy, and so would she, and so would you. But then we’d all be …avoiding reality. C’mon Ellen, don’t look at her.”


            “Turning your face won’t make her go away.”


            “You’re encouraging her.”


            “When it gets cold she sleeps under the stairs,” said Ellen, piteously.


            “You’ve seen her before?”


            “At my apartment, at the bottom of the stairs. Poor woman.” Ellen’s face grew sad.


            By the end of dinner, Galen learned much about Ellen. She told him her father was a sea merchant, which conjured up dream images of the tall ship.  Again, this surprised him but he thought it inept for any dialectic.   Also, it was amusing when she revealed, in a way he found both mysterious and lascivious, that she lived above that very restaurant, in one of the apartments housed within the same building.


            “Want to see my tulip?” she asked.


            Right away he wondered if this statement was an inviting connotation, or a straightforward denotation.


Years before, as a naďve young man, after driving his sister’s friend to her house, the girl stepped out of the car and asked, “Want to see my dog?” He quickly replied,


            “No, that’s okay.” Later he imagined this could have been a connotative statement and cursed himself for being stupid.


            Galen followed Ellen out of the restaurant. He stepped into a hallway and Ellen opened a door leading to a brightly lit corridor. They proceeded down the corridor and came to a stairway, under which – as Ellen had mentioned – lay the destitute crumpled woman curled as she slept. Galen glanced at her and noted she was cold. She coughed, deep and gurgling, and he worried about bronchitis.


            It is cold, he thought. Too cold! Even inside it was frightfully cold, so bitter he saw his breath. It couldn’t be otherwise, he observed, given the deteriorated condition of the building.


            He stepped over the sleeping woman and ascended the rotting stairs.


            Ellen’s second story room, however, was surprisingly pleasant and cozy in contrast to the frigid, fluorescent corridor. And on a small table by the dormer window he saw the tulip. It burnt like a torch before the frozen wasteland outside.


            He didn’t stay long on a first date. Galen hurried home beneath the freezing, jagged February wind. “I should’ve been a penguin,” he said to himself. Then he recalled the story he heard on the news, about the man shoveling snow who slips, lapses into unconsciousness, and turns into a Popsicle.


            In his cramped room he began pacing about and brooding. I couldn’t last a day out there, he thought. And she … well, that’s life. “I’m not God,” he said aloud. You see something like that, and what can you do? You can’t save the world. He opened a cabinet above his stove and reached for medication, it read: “Ceftin 500MG.” Antibiotic and…. He rummaged in the closet and found a thick blanket. No, absolutely not. She’ll be fine … at least she’s indoors – I can’t save the world!


            He sat on his bed and removed his shoes and coat. Back he fell onto the mattress and stared blankly at the ceiling. Then he sprang up, and again reached for his shoes and coat. He returned to Latimer with the antibiotic in his pocket and the blanket under his arm.


            At last he arrived at the 16th Street Bar and Grill. The restaurant remained open even past midnight. Again he walked down the brightly lit corridor, at the end of which lay the sick woman. He gently covered her with the blanket.


            “Miss,” he whispered, and tapped her shoulder. He didn’t want to frighten her.


            She opened her eyes and resumed her beatific smile.


            “I brought you a blanket.”


            She looked to it, remained silent, and nodded her approval.


            “You see these.” He showed her the antibiotic as he knelt before her. “Take one three times a day with plenty of water. You understand?”


            “Yes, with plenty of water,” she repeated. She had a pleasant voice.


            “You know, it’s a brutal winter. You should go to an emergency shelter, it’s a lot warmer there,” he suggested, and rose to his feet. As he retreated, “Plenty of water.”


            With a feeble gesture, barely raising her hand, she waved at him in gratitude.


                                                                                                                        *                      *                      *

The girl in the white dress still frequented his sleep. And she continued to gather tangerines in a cornucopia, before running away to the tall ship. Galen could see, with urgent clarity, the green foliage and the

sunshine-orange tangerines. Yet he found nothing in his waking hours to reflect those tangerines. The last piece of the puzzle, he thought.


One month after their first date Ellen stopped calling him and never answered his calls. On seeing this and troubled by it, Galen decided to pay her a visit.


            He knocked on her door many times and no one answered. As he turned to leave the latch clicked and the door slid open.


            “Come in,” she said, in a mournful voice.


            “I’ve been trying to call you all week. It’s like suddenly you disappear. What’s wrong?” He saw her facing the window with a grievous air that made him terribly uneasy.


            “I was going to tell you that – “


            “Wait wait. Don’t tell me. I know how this story ends:  with me all alone waving good-bye from the pier – my life in shambles – and you sailing into the sunset.”


            “I knew you wouldn’t understand,” she said softly, still facing the window.                                                                                         


He noticed the room was clean and almost empty. On the floor, by his leg, were two large suitcases fastened and packed.


            “But what about school? What about – “  


            She turned to face him. “I’ll be working with family in Holland. They need me.”


            “Well, Ellen … I hope … you have a wonderful trip,” he said piteously.


            “You can come with me. Oh Galen, just like the dream you told me about. Fields of red tulips, tall ships sailing into the sun…. I was the girl you saw, with the white dress. Dreams can come true!”


            Galen paced about drawing his fingers through his hair. The prospect of leaving everything behind – of throwing everything to the wind – had an alluring charm.  Latimer beckoned with its magical and seductive shore.


            The pacing stopped.


            “I can’t go with you,” he said, his lips pressed in anguish.                                                                                                                                   


They agreed to remain friends despite the vast sea between them. However, Galen felt that, once settled, as new days advance and old ones recede, even Ellen would fade in the ebb and flow of time.                           


Before they parted he observed the tulip by the window. She gave it to him as an emblem of their friendship.


            Down the stairs he carried the tulip. At the bottom the sick woman lay sprawled on the floor. He passed over her and stopped a few paces away, as if he’d forgotten something. Abruptly he was face to face again with the lectures and corpses and formaldehyde. Still, having returned to this place he could not imagine leaving it again.


            Galen walked back to the sick woman and, leaning down, placed the flowerpot by her side. While doing this he noticed, under her worn gray overcoat, a clean, white cotton dress embroidered with green leaves and tendrils and tangerines.


            “You feeling better?” he whispered.


            “Much better,” she replied, and smiled blissfully.