I’m walking up a busy avenue toward a famous intersection, perhaps Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. 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.
Arriving 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 poor.
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.
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 come 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 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, expanding 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.