Those men inside my brain

I’ve always had a philosophy about exes: if you liked each other enough to stay together and get to know each other so well, there’s something positive there that should translate into a friendship even after the hot love crumbles away. Needless to say, many of my friends and some of my own exes disagree with this heartily. One in particular, whom I’ll call “the Hater” to give you some idea of the level of friendship we’ve maintained, had a memorable squabble with me after our breakup about whether the relationship was ultimately a success. To him, it was a big fat failure because eventually we split up instead of staying 2gethah 4evah. To me, despite some horrific months, at least half of the relationship (primarily the first half, of course) was love, soft as an easy chair, positive and enlightening, and thus, to me, successful as a interpersonal relationship even though it was finite. Perhaps this difference of opinion informed our relationship from the very start.

Maybe as punishment for having left the Hater a few years earlier, I finally had my first crushing heartbreak at the relatively old age of 34. Though I had dumped this one in a fleeting moment of lucidity for which I am still grateful, the love-dumbed 95% of me immediately regretted it, and despite my acrobatic groveling, he was too proud and too insulted to take me back. Thus began six months of serious pining, weight loss, all the things I had always heard a broken heart entailed (though the new skinny body and sassy clothes I was now able to wear continuously caused me a serious feminist conflict–after a lifetime of unsuccessful dieting and poor body image, this new hot me was almost worth the pain! Future post? Maybe).

The one thing I didn’t anticipate after this soul-gutting, though, were the dreams. Midnight to dawn, there he was, ev’-ry sin-gle night, driving me insaaane: asking me out, breaking up with me, kissing other girls, kissing other boys, coming to my family events, showing up at parties when I didn’t expect it. One frustrated morning I woke up, reached for the journal of my misery, and scrawled to him simply, “Stay the hell out of my dreams!”

My only peace came in between the long nights of him dancing through my subconscious and the long days of my all-too-conscious misery and trying to reign in my uncontrollable shamelessness in begging him back. But in the few seconds between waking up from the nightmares of him and coming to the full awareness of life without him, I’d have moments of foggy bliss before the memory of either the dreams or the reality would bend me double again. It finally took my eventual true commitment to someone else to exorcise his taunting presence from the privacy of my dreams.

Another of my dream-haunters was the sweet hero of a seriously passionate but frustratingly ex-crossed early relationship in which I tortured all three of us (me, him, and my previous ex), innocently but painfully and unnecessarily. When he later busted rudely into my dreams one night like Aerosmith into a Run-DMC video without so much as a how-de-do, a two-three-four!, or anything else, it was a total surprise. We had finally both moved on to new relationships (me with the Hater, him with a hater of me). I was working in Europe for a year and emailed him to get back in touch, immediately adopting the intimate (not erotic, just intimate) tone of friendship I presumed was warranted. His response was, as I immediately identified it with horror, casino online perfectly, cheerfully civil.

I was so insulted I could not write back, and immediately–that very night–he set up shop in my shuteye and squatted there for months. In some dreams, we even had romantic reconciliations, though I had no such designs in my waking life (apart from the fleeting moments of yearning when waking up after such a dream). I didn’t normally think of him all that much, let alone moon over him anymore, but the distance he politely delineated with his cordiality over the net plunged him into the territory of subconscious obsession, lounging shyly in my unconscious while I was awake but roaring into wistful nostalgic tyranny the second my eyes closed. I dreamed about him this way intermittently for a few years, until our chillily civil contact somehow warmed back up to being truly, joyously friendly again. I never brought up the email or the distance to him, but now he lives nearby, his me-hatin’ girlfriend has been replaced by a delightful new galpal of mine, and we enjoy rollickin’ double dates regularly. That’s right: he’s never showed up in another dream.

The Hater, though, continues to stalk me at night even now, so many years later, even though he almost never crosses my waking mind. In my naivete, I always imagined that eventually we’d end up friends again since we were partners for so long and knew each other so well at one point. This is an assumption I fooled myself into, since in the earliest stages of our relationship, I learned that while I was all, “BFFs!” with my exes, he was all “C-U-next-Tuesday!” to every one of his. I knew consciously that I‘d join his Axis of Exes someday, but continued to pretend to myself that I would somehow be different. And guess what? I’m not. I’m one of them. Every few years for a while I would try reaching out, and send a friendly e-mail or call. The last time I tried this foolishness, the e-mail came back to me seconds after I sent it, without any comment. Frosty!! I got the message, or lack thereof (which really, I had already heard but opted to ignore) and decided to finally give him what he apparently really wanted, but which I couldn’t believe anyone would pick on purpose: a me-free life with no other reminders of me, ever.

I only wish he’d do the same for me, because since the relationship is still unsettled in my burbling psyche, he pops up scowling and grousing in my dreams all the time. Usually it’s in the context of seeing me with my husband, whom he knows but doesn’t know I ever dated, so the suspense of him finding out and how he will/would/did react to that news has always plagued me. In my dreams I go to a lot of parties where he shows up and I have to leave, or rock shows where he shows up and I have to leave, or friends’ houses where he shows up and I have to leave, or classrooms where I’m the teacher, but he shows up and I have to leave . . . and in the dreams he is always enraged and he always hates me. And you know what? He probably always will, at least in my dreams, because I don’t expect to ever have that resolution with him that shooed my other exes out of my dreams so successfully. I hope and sort of assume that in real life, he doesn’t waste his time hating me or even thinking of me anymore–it’s been 10 years, for chrissake–but I’ll never know, and since I’ll never know, he’ll always hate me in my dreams.

There are more exes in smaller cameos, of course: a sleepy-eyed foxette who ended awkwardly and shows up silently reproachful some nights; a cocky Israeli who now lives back in Haifa, so I worry; the German babyfraulein who ended up with one of my friends after I came back to the USSA (you don’t know how lucky you are, girl). Sometimes it’s not even exes; even students parade through sometimes, usually the few I’m uncomfortable with. It makes me wonder, do I show up uninvited in other people’s dreams too? Is it a drag? Does one night still remind you how we touched and went our separate ways?

Obviously, these hauntings are definitely tied to the level of resolution I feel about each relationship. For example, my first major ex remained (and remains) so close to me that despite troubling rocky periods (years!) of trying to define and redefine our relationship, his presence never felt uncertain enough in my life for him to start lurking in the subways of my dreams. Similarly, now I have a husband who, except for the ones where the Hater is seeing us together for the first time, never even gets a one-line walk-on. To be fair, I never feature in his dreams either, which tend towards the cast-of-thousands, high-speed-chase, action-adventure genre, but that’s another psychoanalysis altogether. If we ever split up, though, I’ll know where to look for him: in dreamland, when he becomes one of them . . . those men inside my brain.

13 responses to “Those men inside my brain”

  1. Lisa Parrish says:

    “Axis of Exes”!!

    SW, this is brilliant.

  2. Scott Godfrey says:

    I know that he’s not, but if Jeremy were one of my exes, I’d dream about him all the time.

  3. Jeremy says:

    Steph, even though I had to look up the freedom-rock song reference in the title, I still loved this post…

    And while I can’t relate to my dreams being haunted by exes (sadly, I rarely even remember my dreams), I still awkwardly run into my first “real” girlfriend all the time–at the coffee shop, at restaurants, walking around the neighborhood. If only I could banish her to dreamland…

    By the way, how do I start remembering my dreams again?

  4. Lisa Tremain says:

    Aw, Steph, I love this post (and you) and can’t wait until you show up in one of my dreams. I’m wondering, though, if we’ve just had one too many Cheap Trick references? I mean, the horse has been beaten dead, people.

    As fpr dreams, this was awhile back, but I did have one once where I hugged Jeremy so hard he cried.

    I dream fairly regularly about an ex, who I’ll dub “the addict.” He is almost always high in these dreams, glassy-eyed, and too wasted to give much time to my co-dependent attentions. Other times, I’ll dream of finding him all dirty, sitting in a dark corner; one time he was surrounded by needles. Can I admit I’ve got a bit of an earth momma complex?

    Hell no. And: xo.

  5. Tim Wager says:

    I took a peek at this early this morning, but then had to go run a bunch of errands, the whole time anticipating giving it a thorough reading. Needless to say, I was both very intrigued and a bit trepidatious to see if and how I figured. Thanks for not telling about that time we fought until the neighbors called the cops. I dreamed about you all night in the county lock-up.

    Also, I couldn’t be the only one to have noticed the Journey reference. I may be wrong, but I think that’s their GW premier.

  6. Tim Wager says:

    And that’s not to mention the Barbara Streisand one, too. Must look for more I missed!

  7. Ruben Mancillas says:

    A post even a kook could love.

    As for the Trick, it is (always?) the perfect call.

    I mean, what was she supposed to do, pull out the Gary Wright card?

  8. Stephanie Wells says:

    Ruben, you genius, I was SO close to titling the post “I just close my eyes again,” but thought no one but Tim would get it (I know he has the entire Gary Wright Dreamweaver album). Guess I should have gone for it. Lisa T, as for the Trick, maybe it’s a bit “done” around these parts, and it’s not even like I’m such a huge fan, but when writing a post about people I dream about who live inside of my head, come to me in my bed, evry single night theyre driving me insane, I try to sleep, they’re wide awake, they won’t leave me alone, they don’t get paid to take vacations, or let me alone, they spy on me, I try to hide, they won’t let me alone; they persecute me, they’re the judge and jury all in one–what the hell else could I call the post?

    Coincidentally enough, I was emailed an offer *today* from a ticket service offering 60% off Cheap Trick tickets for tomorrow night!! What are the odds? And no, I’m not going–unless that’s how you’d like to spend your West Coast Thursday, Parrish? Nah, me neither.

  9. Trixie Honeycups says:

    oooh girl,
    i feel you. what i wouldn’t give to escape certain midnight dreamland rendezvous. a million dollaz? sold.
    is there something therapeutic about these hauntings? possibly. but i, like you, would prefer to take on these unresolved relations voluntarily. maybe we can formulate some sort of pharmaceutical that would abort said dreams. i am sure it would be a big seller. we can’t be the onlies.
    i am also on your side philosophically regarding that interest in forging friendships with exes. my partner does not necessarily agree with my notions on that subject however. but what fodder for friendship lies there? must be rich. one of my very BFFs is a girlfriend from 15 years back. she rules, and she knows me so well, and vice versa. luckily that friendship was way solid before i got with my current mister. so it’s off limits.
    anyway, i loved this post, and i think you are just the greatest evah.

  10. i love listening to ph.d.s and MDs talk in gangsta talk. i do.

    sw–i liked this post too and like others have these hauntings. my first Great Love, to use Wendy’s term, shows up a couple times a year. usually in those dreams i’m trying to win her back, to plead convincingly that we shouldn’t have split up (though we clearly should have). then, after i do a pretty good job convincing & we start to make out, i suddenly realize i’m married and wake up.

    luckily i’m married to someone *soooo* much better for me.

    nice to have a post from you with your own damn name on it. xo — bw

  11. WW says:

    I am so damn late commenting on this post — because I hesitate to reveal all the feelings it brings up in me — but reveal I will. With certain exes, one in particular, who did a really truly awful thing, I mean, really awful — with this person, I don’t have nightmares. I have daymares. They are at their worst in LA, I think because of all the lag time you have sitting in traffic, waiting waiting for the green. I have these full-on fantasy/horror scenarios: running into him, running over him, and the worst — he rings my doorbell and rather than say anything to him, I – and I am not a violent person, hate conflict in general, etc – but rather than speak to him, I rear back and POW! clock him on the chin. So hard that, like, my turquoise ring catches a little flesh, even. It’s crazy. And happens very often. All day long. The nights are clear. Although I dreamed my mother had another kid last night. A boy. Hum.

    I was lucky enough to get to tell you how much I loved your post in person, but I’ll say it again here, in cyberspace, where perhaps it will live on longer than us.

  12. […] This movie-in-my-mind happens to me all the time, not just on dates. I’m at work and should be listening to my boss, but instead I’m picturing myself in the grocery store, figuring out dinner. I’m driving and rather than give my full attention to the road, I’m back in NYC, walking down Mott Street, headed toward Rice To Riches. I’m rarely all in the same place at once. But I’m always me, and not some Walter Mitty-esque West. That kind of surreality is saved for my actual dreams, which if they’re about anything, are usually about airplanes. […]

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