Photographing Dreams

His daughter’s crying wakes him at 4 am and he carefully gets out of bed so as not to wake his wife Cheryl. Denise has just turned four months old and wakes most nights for a feeding but tonight her crying is louder and more urgent than usual. Cheryl normally gets up with her because she’s still breastfeeding, but it’s the weekend so his turn tonight. Cheryl has a calm dreaming face that he’s used to by now. Given how smooth her features she can’t be having one of those dreams she often has where he is the villain.
She’s been having those more often lately and he wishes he knew why. She claims to not know either but he wonders if she is merely keeping the truth from him. In those dreams he is acting like a villain in a movie.
Sometimes he’s refusing to come to her rescue while she is being physically attacked. Or he’s making out with another woman in front of her and between kisses he and the woman point at her and laugh. Most recently she’s been dreaming that she’s changing Denise and he is standing behind her shouting that she is doing it all wrong. He then pushes her aside and continues to change Denise exactly the same way as Cheryl has been doing it.
She recounts each dream to him as soon as she wakes up and the details are still vivid. For hours afterwards, she stays angry with him and he’s learned to not challenge her on anything, as it will lead to a blow up. In a few hours her dream anger wears off and they are affectionate again with one another.
The man she describes in her dreams is truly terrifying to Scott and not at all how he sees himself, or he believes that Cheryl or anyone sees him. He dislikes that version of himself as much as she does and he wonders what motivates her to dream such a man into existence.
The first few times she dreamed of him this way, he’d ask her to describe this man assuming he must look very sinister and be very different from him physically, but she says he looks exactly like his waking self, only his behavior appalling.
Denise is crying even louder now and he turns away from watching Cheryl sleep and he tiptoes to the bedroom door and eases it open. Cheryl stirs and asks if he is up. He doesn’t answer because that will only wake her more and she’ll get up and attend to Denise even though it’s his turn.
Their apartment is so tiny that Denise’s room is just across the narrow hall and isn’t a proper bedroom but a converted walk-in storage closet. It’s big enough to fit her crib and dresser. He knows that in a few more months they’ll have to find a larger apartment, which isn’t going to be easy in Vancouver at the moment. Rents are astronomically high so they could move to Maple Ridge or even farther east to Abbotsford but that would mean a two-hour commute or longer for both of them, he to his teaching job and she to the accounting firm in Richmond. So they’ve already decided to try their luck at finding a affordable place in Richmond.
Denise is still crying when he picks her up from her crib. He notices right away how hot her cheeks are. The Tylenol Cheryl gave her last night has worn off. They’ll have to take her to emergency as soon as it is light, but for now Scott will give her more Tylenol and try to feed her the bottle that Cheryl expressed last night and put in the fridge.
Denise has also soiled her diaper, so before giving her Tylenol and feeding her he’d better change her. He carries her to the bathroom where Cheryl and he have set up a small change table next to the sink. They picked this apartment, because the bathroom was larger than most of the one-bedrooms they’d looked at.
His parents bought the change table for them and shipped it from Winnipeg. They were here when Denise was born and visited again last month. They’re both retired teachers and Scott’s paternal grandfather was also a teacher in Winnipeg. He teaches geography to eighth graders and people always think that has to be one of the easiest subjects to teach now because of the Internet and Google Maps and Google Earth but it actually isn’t. Most of his students have a flawed sense of geography and he blames that on the Internet.
As he changes Denise’s diaper, he wonders if she’ll be a teacher too or an accountant like her mother. He also wonders how much the world will change during her lifetime. Will robots and artificial intelligence software replace teachers and accountants and many other tasks people once thought immune to automation? He’s recently learned there is a term for this new automation, Singularity. That means a time when computers and software are millions of times smarter than they are now and well beyond the capability of any humans. When that happens, what tasks will be left for people to perform? Will machines outwit all our safeguards? He worries that by the time Denise is his father’s age humans will become expendable.
He wonders too who she’ll fall in love with? What will her friends be like when she’s fourteen? Cheryl has already warned him of how dangerous fourteen is for a girl.
Cheryl got into all sorts of trouble when she was fourteen and was even caught shoplifting. Her father worked then as an auto mechanic in the Canadian Tire in Chilliwack. That was the store she was caught shoplifting in and he had to coax the store manager for over an hour before she finally let Cheryl off with just a warning.
Her father wouldn’t speak to her for a month afterwards. He never lived to see Denise being born or even to know that Cheryl was pregnant. All those years repairing engines, transmissions and brakes had caused him to contract lung cancer when he was barely 50 and he died only three weeks before his 52nd birthday.
After he died though, Cheryl became determined to get pregnant. Four months after her father’s death, she woke Scott in the middle of the night and said they needed to start trying right then. They tried for two full years before Cheryl got pregnant with Denise. She didn’t believe it at first and told him nothing until she was a month and half pregnant and had already seen the doctor.
She is on maternity leave now and her accounting firm has nicely supplemented her maternity benefits because they’re keen to have her back.
Denise barely kicks her legs or fights him as he changes her diaper and he knows that means she’s nursing a serious bug. She was a very healthy and normal baby at birth and her Apgar score was so high that the nurse in the delivery room made a point of mentioning it three times and said that she’d never seen a baby with as high an Apgar score before.
Even though she is very healthy they have already taken her to emergency three times. The first two times she had a cold and the doctor and nurses were very helpful in suggesting what to do. The third time she had such bad diarrhea that she was dehydrated and had to be on an IV drip for two hours.
Her poop is normal and well formed and he is thankful for that at least, no diarrhea today. Her skin is very hot to the touch though, so he leaves her diaper off and holds her with one arm as he runs cold water over a cloth and rings that out with his free hand. He lays her down again on the change table and slides the cool cloth first over her forehead and the top of her head and then circles it on her stomach and down each arm and leg.
She doesn’t cry and her eyes stay focused on him the whole time.
The first time she could focus on him and track his movements sent shivers down his spine. He finally existed as a whole for her.
The cloth has cooled her a bit and he fills her plastic syringe with 15 ml of strawberry Tylenol and puts in her mouth. She moves the syringe around with her tongue but doesn’t fight it like she usually does, another sign that whatever bug she has zapped her strength. He easily avoids her tongue and presses the plunger and the Tylenol squirts down her throat. She coughs once and then sneezes and then flashes a half smile, which he takes to indicate that she likes the strawberry taste.
He puts on her diaper and bundles her lightly in a thin blanket so she doesn’t heat up too fast. It will take more than an hour for the Tylenol to kick in. He carries her to the small kitchen, which is to the right of the bathroom. He opens the fridge and takes out the bottle of breast milk from last night. He removes the nipple and top and puts the bottle in the microwave and sets it to 30 seconds. They tested various times with water until they heated to as close a temperature to breast milk as they could.
He takes the bottle out of the microwave and screws the top back on. Denise turns her mouth away at first when he offers the bottle as she is still adjusting to it and prefers her mother’s breasts. He has to push it back in between her lips four times before she finally sucks. When she does take to it, she finishes half the bottle and then stops.
He sets the bottle down on the table and shifts her so that her chin is resting on his shoulder and gently taps her back until he hears three loud burps. He repositions her and she half smiles again. This is new in the past month or so. She started to smile when she was a month old. Quick, accidental smiles at first that flashed by so quick that she didn’t likely realize at first what she’d accomplished. But he’d noticed and so did Cheryl.
Then after two months the smiles became more frequent and purposeful, in responses to actions Cheryl or he did that clearly pleased her. Of late she has added this half smile, not a full smile, but a controlled half smile that at first he couldn’t interpret but now senses means a more reserved pleasure than that which triggers a broader smile.
The smile is gone already and she has closed her eyes and is perfectly still, except for her small hands opening and closing. He has no sense of her thoughts yet and based on his own experiences wonders if she really has thoughts the way she will later. She tugs at her left ear several times and that indicates to him that likely she has an ear infection.
He offers her the bottle again but she rejects it so he decides she’s had enough. He sets the bottle on the kitchen table and rocks her and sings to her softly. His voice is not particularly musical but it usually makes Denise smile.
She has closed eyes again and they stay closed and after ten minutes of this he can tell she is asleep. He stops singing and holds her not wishing to move for fear of waking her. It is already light out now and morning sun forms a faint glow in the east window of the apartment.
Cheryl is up now and comes into the kitchen and stands next to him at the table.
“How is she?” Cheryl asks. “Hot,” he says.
“Time to take her to the hospital then.” Cheryl leaves him and goes back down the short hallway to their bedroom to dress.
On the drive to the hospital, Cheryl leans against the window and naps as he drives. Likely she didn’t sleep through Denise’s crying and in fact likely was awake the whole time he attended to Denise, likely listening in her half sleep state to the various noises he and Denise made.
As he drives, the traffic this early on a Sunday is manageable and the Tylenol has comforted Denise enough that she is quiet in her car seat. When he checks the rearview mirror her eyes are closed and he assumes she is sleeping.
At emergency the nurses and doctors will treat Denise as very special. They will put her at the top of the list of patients because of her age. Those with broken ankles or cuts and scrapes from car accidents will have to wait until the nurses and doctor determine the cause of Denise’s fever. Likely he’s right and it is only an ear infection, nothing life threatening, but at first they will want to rule out meningitis or rheumatic fever. The youngest like Denise are the most vulnerable.
Cheryl stirs and asks how far it is.
He tells her that there are only four blocks to go.
At the next stoplight, an ambulance hurries through on the cross street, its lights flashing and the siren blaring. It brakes briefly at the intersection and turns in the same direction they are going. He takes his time turning at the corner and drives slower now wanting to give the ambulance enough time to arrive and unload before they get there. The lights are red at the next two intersections.
When he pulls into the hospital entrance he can see the ambulance parked at the Emergency doors and a stretcher being pulled out. People are running out of the Emergency doors and he counts five when he brakes. The person on the stretcher is too far away for him to tell if they are young or old or male or female. He can see that there is an oxygen mask over their face and there are two attendants on each side of the stretcher. They run the stretcher inside. Given the urgency in their movements, it could be someone having a heart attack or stroke or suffering from a gunshot wound or a car accident or a fentanyl overdose, which has become very common lately.
He turns toward emergency parking lot, which is quite full even at this early hour.
“What was all that?” Cheryl asks.
“Don’t know. It looks serious.” “Yes,” she says.
Denise starts to cry and when he looks in the mirror her sees that her face is already red and realizes that she has been crying for a minute or so already and he hasn’t noticed because of that ambulance.
As soon as the car is stopped Cheryl gets out and slips Denise from the car seat and holds her, the morning fairly chilly for a March morning in Vancouver. At least it’s sunny and not raining.
He hurries out now too. Denise hasn’t stopped crying even though Cheryl is rocking her lightly, which usually calms her right away.
Seeing her holding Denise like that he remembers something from the dream he was having when Denise’s crying woke him two hours ago. Cheryl was holding Denise just like she is now and was standing in a parking lot for the Vancouver Aquarium. They haven’t taken Denise there yet but plan to soon. He remembers nothing else about the dream except that seeing the two of them like that made him feel the happiest he has ever felt. An intense full happiness and when he woke it had already diminished some and he wanted back in that dream to take in more of that happiness.
He wishes now that it were possible to photograph dreams as he would like to have a picture of Cheryl and Denise as they were then, and to look at it whenever he wanted to remind himself of what exactly it was that made him so unbelievably happy. Although they would look so similar how they are at this very second, it isn’t the same at all. He’s often thought too that he wishes that Cheryl could take a picture of that dream version of himself. He’d get to study it then and find the flaws. He knows that Cheryl would never take such a picture even if she could. She wouldn’t want a record of it, wouldn’t want a reminder of that man.
The ambulance has already driven away from the Emergency doors. Either it has left for another emergency or has parked inside the hospital garage with the other ambulances, ever at the ready.
Denise is still crying as they hurry now to the doors of emergency and when they step inside her cries become part of all the noises and activities there. The three rows of seats are fully occupied and nurses and orderlies hurry about.
This is a good and important place, he thinks, and knows that when they leave again with Denise she will be okay and Cheryl and he will know exactly the right things to do next to help her heal.
They go to the Emergency reception and the nurse smiles even though Denise is crying even louder. There is no sign of the stretcher that was just wheeled in and he assumes it is out of view somewhere deeper in the belly of the emergency ward. He hears several voices coming from behind pulled curtains. A doctor asks someone to point to exactly where it hurts and then hears a yelp.
He tries to imagine this as being his daily life but can’t. He turns back and sees the nurse put a thermometer in Denise’s ear and gets an immediate reading. Her fever is 39.4 degrees Celsius and the nurse says they were right to bring her in, as her temperature would be even higher without the Tylenol. The nurse is super friendly to Cheryl and he’s used to that because Cheryl is someone people always take to right away.
“This way,” the nurse says and guides them toward one of the beds with a curtain around it. “The doctor will see you shortly,” the nurse says and pulls the curtain around them.
Cheryl lies down on the bed and holds Denise with her. She sings softly to her.
Denise stops crying.
The curtains part and a woman enters and introduces herself as the paediatrician on call. She appears to be not a lot older than Cheryl and him.
“Let’s see what we have here,” she says and smiles as though attending to each infant brings her great joy.
Cheryl sits up and holds Denise as the doctor examines her. Cheryl asks most of the questions to the doctor.
Later, when they leave, it has been determined that she does have an ear infection and they have antibiotics for her. He thinks as they reach the car of Denise coming to a hospital many years from now with a daughter or son of her own. He imagines her arriving with all the same weight of worry that parents have and leaving with the same relief that he feels now.
As he drives them home he wonders if the person on the stretcher survived and chooses to believe that they did as he wants to believe that most people who go to hospitals are saved and get better. He also wants to believe by bringing Denise there he hasn’t caused a harmful delay for the person on the stretcher. He knows that Denise’s ear infection isn’t life threatening, that he could have waited a day or so and taken her to see her regular paediatrician but he didn’t want her to suffer that long.
He stops at a light and sees one of those Google cars with the cameras on top to take streetview photos. He didn’t know they went out so early in the day. He thinks then about self-driving cars and robots and can’t imagine robots doing what doctors do in the emergency ward nor can he imagine them being capable of caring for someone sick but supposes that robots and AI will be capable of all sorts of tasks he can’t imagine at this moment.
He knows by then that Denise won’t be driving a car like he is now, that all cars will be self-driving by then and people will wonder how it was possible that once long ago people had to steer them. She’ll be able to tell her car where she wants to go and then sit back and watch the scenery.
The car will be very smart about all things related to driving from point A to point B but not so much so with all the other messy bits in between. Or at least that is what he chooses to believe now as he drives home relieved to know the source of Denise’s crying.
He is through the light now and the Google car has dropped back behind him a few cars. He wonders if this car will appear in a streetview photograph. He’s seen those photos on Google Maps and they often include cars and pedestrians accidentally caught along with the streets and buildings. The people’s faces and the car license plates are blurred out, but not the cars.
He checks the rearview mirror and the Google car is gone, perhaps turned down a side street for more photos. There is a different car behind his and he tries to imagine what he would think if it were a self-driving car. To such a car, this one and the three of them would just be part of the data it takes into account as it goes to where it has been told to go.
Stopped at another light, he can see that the man in the car behind him is alone and close in age to him. The man is tapping the steering wheel in time to some song Scott can’t hear from here. He wonders if the dream version of him is like that man, preoccupied by a song and not caring about what’s going on around him.
Scott truly doesn’t know if he’d recognize that version of himself if he ever encountered him even though Cheryl says he looks exactly like him.
If he did encounter this version of himself, then what? He knows it wouldn’t help him understand Cheryl better or how she loves him or even those times when she doesn’t love him. In those dreams he is certain she doesn’t love him at all, even hates him or fears him.
He knows, whether he accepts it or not, that this despising version of him exists and nothing he does now or at any time will cause him to disappear. He doesn’t resent Cheryl for these dreams or think she is wrong for having them. How could he? That man is simply a phantom. To look for him is a hopeless pursuit. Still he catches himself doing that from time to time like right now because just one sighting would change everything.
He looks in the rearview mirror and Denise is sleeping, all cried out and hopefully the Tylenol is finally kicking in and will work for several hours more. He wonders if in time that version of him that her mother has will show up in Denise’s dreams too. Not because of anything that Cheryl has told her or done but because it may simply work like that. Maybe there is something true about this version of him that he can’t admit to or accept and Cheryl isn’t saying. Maybe there is some dangerous aspect to his personality that hasn’t really surfaced yet but is there percolating just below the surface and only Cheryl’s dream self can see it.
He glances over at her and she smiles at him and then looks out the window at the car beside them. He expects her to turn back but she goes on watching that car and the people in it. He doesn’t have a clear view of it and has to return his attention to traffic and keep his eyes on the road and so misses whatever it is that has caught her attention. He drives because that is what he is supposed to be doing right now. He loves her and she loves him. There is no higher math required to determine that or even simple arithmetic. It is just plain truth. Their love is a simple love, the kind most people have. And those dreams? Well there’s that too. He brakes for the next red light, but his thoughts keep on running.

About the Author

Robert Hilles

Robert Hilles lives on Salt Spring Island and has won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for "Cantos From A Small Room" and his novel, Raising of Voices, won George Bugnet Award. His second novel, A Gradual Ruin, was published by Doubleday Canada and now is in paperback. His books have also been shortlisted for The Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Prize, The W.O. Mitchell/City of Calgary Prize, The Stephan Stephansson Award, and The Howard O’Hagan Award. He has published fifteen books of poetry, three works of fiction (including A Gradual Ruin) and two nonfiction books (Kissing the Smoke and Calling the Wild). He recently completed a short story collection called, Little Pink Houses. His latest poetry collection, Line, was published in the spring of 2018. He is currently working on a novel set in Thailand tentatively called, Don't Hang Your Soul On That.