She wishes that she knew why the dreams keep coming back. They start a year after graduation, just when she’s finally sloughing off the last vestiges of childhood and trying to find her way in the world as a young woman. The first time she has the dream, it transports her right back into those halls. The orange lockers. The squeak of old hinges. The din of teenaged voices. It’s all there in her dreams. Instead of walking past her and pretending that she doesn’t exist, which he’d done ever since he’d found a new group of friends, he stops and gives her a lazy smile. The corners around his brown eyes crinkle up and all she can think is that he’s cuter than he’s ever been. He places his hand on her shoulder long enough to tell her that he’ll see her after school. As he drops his hand and starts to walk away, he asks her to meet him at the bleachers as soon as sixth period ends. Soon, she’s sitting on those cold metal bleachers, the uncomfortable ridges digging into her thighs, but she doesn’t care. She’s waited forever for this moment. Okay, maybe not forever, but for what feels like a really long time to her sixteen-year-old self. She waits and waits. When the dream finally ends as her alarm jolts her awake, she recalls that he never showed up.
He comes to her in dreams more and more as the years pass. She tells a few people about them because even she can admit that dreaming about him is disconcerting. Everyone tells her to reach out to him to see if talking to him will make the dreams go away. No matter how often she tries, though, she can’t make herself dial the number that will connect her to a brick ranch house in that small town where they both grew up. She knows his mom will remember her and would probably be more than happy to give up his number. She can’t do it. She doesn’t know why, but she just can’t.
She pushes him from her mind again and again because when she has one of those dreams, they always stick with her long into the next day. Sometimes, the love and desire and need she wakes up with leaves her head cloudy; it’s hard to tell the nighttime from the day. As one year fades into another and her life takes her from city to city and job to job, one of the only constants is that he’s there. In her dreams. She finds what she thinks is real love and for a little while – maybe only a month, at most – she gets a reprieve. She’s so wrapped up in this amazing new man in her life that her dreams about him cease. The first night after the relationship ends, her dreams come back. He’s back.
She notices a pattern forming. In every dream, no matter where it’s set or what happens, it always ends the same way: he tells her that he’s coming for her or that they’re going to be together. And then, in each and every dream, he never shows up and she’s left waiting. The more the dreams happen, the more frustrated she becomes. After eight years of dreaming about him once a week, she starts to analyze the situation. There has to be a logical explanation, right?
It makes no sense, she tells herself. Except for one brief trip to the movies together when we were 13, we never even dated. She navigated her high school years just trying to make it through. Her nose was often in a book, her hopes centered on finding a life with a view unheeded by cornfields. He, though, became the quintessential bad boy – drugs, alcohol, sex, arrests. She remembers watching from afar as he struggled to keep his grades up enough to even graduate with the rest of the class. Every once in a while, he stopped being the surly teenager and became the boy that used to flirt with her again. She relished those brief moments. She still remembers vividly the day she found out that he’d asked the pretty blond to the prom. She heard about it in hushed whispers in the hallway. Christy’s going with him, they’d said. Christy broke up with Jimmy and now she’s going to the prom with him, they’d murmured in that way that only a bunch of seventeen-year-olds can. The halls were abuzz with gossip about the brand new couple, but all she remembers is the lump in her throat as she made her way to Chemistry class. She’d known that he’d never ask her to the prom. And a few weeks later, when everyone else was at the prom while she was behind the cash register at her job, she’d hoped and prayed that he wouldn’t come in for cigarettes. She’d learned to have a thick skin and handle a lot of things by then (something frizzy hair, glasses, and being overweight had taught her), but she knew that if he showed up in a tux with her on his arm, she would cry.
The ten year reunion comes in the mail when she’s least expecting it. She considers going and thinks about her old girlfriends. Wonders what has become of them. For a fleeting second, she allows herself to wonder if he will be there. By that time, she has a husband and he makes it clear that he didn’t go to his own high school reunion and he’s sure not about to go to hers. She uses that as her excuse to throw the invitation away. Later, she sees a group picture from the reunion – he’s in the back row. He looks older and his features have hardened, his baby fat long gone. He’s turned into the man she’s been seeing in her dreams for the past few years.
Just a year later, she’s standing in a store when she hears the familiar piano strains of a popular ballad by The Eagles. Immediately, she’s carried back to that odd dance that was held inside a restaurant in that tiny town (back when local promoters were trying to create a nightclub in a town that didn’t even have more than two stoplights). She hasn’t thought about that dance in years. Truthfully, she doesn’t remember much about the dance, only that the building was sprawling and filled with a bunch of people from the local college. The only part that she even recalls, she does so clearly. As Don Henley’s smoky voice sang about pain and hunger driving you home, she stumbled over a rug left haphazardly in the doorway. When she righted herself and looked up, it was his eyes from across the room that her own gaze landed on. He was standing in a corner, a red cup full of beer in his hand. The lyrics of the song hit her in the stomach at the same time that their eyes locked. Recognition and hope and a thousand other unspoken emotions passed between them as Henley mournfully sang about letting somebody love you before it’s too late. But in the beat of a heart, whatever was happening between them was over. He tossed his cup into the trash can, slung his arm around a girl she didn’t know, and left as she stood there, gaping at him and wondering if she’d just hallucinated. The next day, he breezes past her on the way to History and doesn’t even glance her way. Years later, that song still makes her stomach somersault and her heart clench. She can’t forget the look in his eyes that night.
Thanks to the advent of modern technology, she sees a post that he’s gotten married. She sends a silent prayer up that, now that she knows he’s happy, the dreams will stop. Three hours later, she’s dreaming that she owns a ranch and he shows up to repair the tin roof over her horse barn.
Sixteen years after the last time she saw him in person (the day after graduation when he came in for cigarettes), he’s still there. In her dreams. She doesn’t try to understand why that happens anymore. All she knows is that it just takes one song and one dream for her to tear up and wonder about him. A few times, she catches herself wondering if he’s ever dreamt about her, too. As much as she wants the dreams to stop, she also clings to them. There’s something familiar about them. He’s part of her, even if he’ll never know. She has her own life and career and future, but for some unexplainable reason, she has a piece of him, too. As selfish as that makes her, she doesn’t want to give that up. She thinks about that song and those lyrics and wonders if it’s true – do you only want the ones that you can’t get?