I’m walking up a busy avenue toward a famous intersection. Pausing at the quiet cross-street just before it, I think maybe I should turn left to avoid being noticed. But that’s paranoia speaking. I press on.
At the famous intersection, I go to the curb. I’m not sure why. I don’t need to cross this street—I’m going left. A woman approaches. She’s slim, unpretentiously self-confident, not otherwise striking. Although I’ve never seen her before, I sense she is sent to me from my past life. Her words—what are they?—confirm my suspicion. I sense she’s concealing a poison-carrying syringe. With a sudden turn, I reach behind her and push her into the traffic. I don’t stay to watch, but I know she has no chance of surviving. My own chances are now slim.
I turn left and walk fast, though not so fast as to call attention to myself, along the big street. Another left, a right. A car is approaching the quiet intersection ahead of me. It isn’t marked, but the people inside are looking around. I slip into a building entrance. When I risk a glance, the car has moved some distance downtown. I resume walking.
My girlfriend joins me, and we go down into the subway. By gesture more than words, I let her know my past has caught up to me. She knows all about it. She is realistic. She knows that after this short subway journey, we will part and might never see each other again. She will disappear I know not where, as I will. We might each guess where the other goes, though it will be a range of guesses. It’s an oddly loving moment in a very public place where we can’t express ourselves the way we’d like to.
There’s danger on the platform. I can tell the searchers are here, though they’re indistinguishable in the crowd. My girlfriend and I board a train. She’ll get off before I do and that will be that. From then on, I’m on my own, deciding in which European city to hide. The past will be there, too, but my chances for invisibility are greater.
Such a dream is foreseeable when you’re in the middle of reading a spy novel. Spy novels enter Kafka’s stark world of original sin, but they soften it by injecting small, if ambiguous doses of rationality and kindness. Unfortunately, my dream of isolation and alienation reversed the process, stripping away all those comforts. Even the love between the girlfriend and me is shadowed by foreboding and made painful at our parting.
I think another event was also behind the dream. Last week I had an MRI, not my first. Familiarity takes some of the edge off my MRI anxiety, but the prospect still runs like a current through the weeks and days.
All too soon, I’m in a dressing room at the MRI center. I’ve long believed that keeping one’s own clothes on is essential for staying on this side of medical discouragement. They let me wear my shirt but have me wear a hospital version of harem pants. Then I’m in the MRI room, the staff telling me to lie on the narrow bed, placing a great rubber-like mat they call the “camera” on my torso and clamping a pair of huge headphones over my ears. All set, the staff leave. The technician, controlling events from another room, presses a button and slides the bed and me into the MRI tube.
For the next forty-five minutes, I must keep still while several images are created. The process of taking a picture involves several minutes of pulsating sounds, their nature and rhythm different with each process. In one, I all but hear the phrase, “We’re taking a picture. We’re taking a picture. We’re taking a picture,” repeated hundreds of times. Another photographic sequence causes my flesh to ripple.
The difference that makes all the difference between the experience of an MRI and trapped isolation is that the technician can talk to me through the headphones. I’ve learned to ask technicians to tell me from time to time how many minutes remain. Also, there are pictures at the beginning and end that require me to hold my breath for several seconds. The technician tells me when, and then when I can resume breathing. At one point, I wiggle my feet to help relax me in the belief the motion will have no impact on my torso. But the technician detects the movement and breaks in to remind me to stay still. How connected all our body parts are, how dependent each is on the rest.
Trying to occupy my mind, I realize that summoning up memories of people and events would only stir up emotions. I’d find even recalling music threatening—I’ve refused the staff’s offer to pipe music through the headphones. The safest memories would be literary. People who have endured solitary confinement write about working through all the poems they’ve memorized or reciting the plots of novels they’ve read. But I’m confronted with how few specific memories I can draw on for distraction. I have very few poems memorized, and my recall of plots and character names is poor. Besides, the MRI machine is clanging away, making thoughts hard to hear and my feelings jangly.
I eventually find two points of comfort. One is awareness of my real-life partner, reading Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger (a novel that ought to put my predicament in perspective) outside the MRI room. The other is the thought of the flowers we planted along our terrace just the weekend before.
At long last, the voice in my headphones tells me we’re done. My narrow bed and I are retracted from the tube. I say, “Thank goodness,” as two staff members hurriedly and wordlessly disconnect the IV and pull the “camera’ off me. Other patients are waiting.
Long ago, I studied dreams and dream theory. A technique I learned was to try to stay with a waking dream. If you don’t, it disappears, and you might be left with a feeling of nameless dread. But if you focus on recalling the details and on the feelings the dream generated, you might start coming to terms with them.
The technique still works. Because I stayed awake with my lonely spy dream, I could analyze and then rewind the story. Each woman in the dream is what Jung called an “anima,” the archetype of woman in a man’s psyche. (In a woman’s dream, the male equivalent is the “animus.”) She doesn’t necessarily represent a real woman. Typically, she’s faceless, as I realize in retrospect were the women in the dream.
I decide the woman with the syringe is one of Kafka’s remorseless, humorless accusers. Now awake, I rerun her story. I don’t manipulate it; I just let it unfold all over again. This time she approaches me with friendship, not menace, and I don’t push her to her death.
As for the generic girlfriend, our need to part ways doesn’t change, but now I know she isn’t the woman really in my life. That element of the dream, even more than the rest, was about anxiety, not actuality.
Dreams can be Kafka’s tormenters, under-the-surface fears that come up at us like battering rams of truth, engorging our terrors so that we feel that’s all we are. But our waking mind can be our advocate, easing us away from that grim place. Our worries might be well-founded and our losses real. But coming to terms with harsh dreams, we recover rationality, fairness, our place in the world: what we call—and want so much to say without irony—our humanity.