The Last Caress A Recurring Dream
One Last Caress: A Recurring Dream
Words & Photos / Whitney Branshaw
It was summer. I can verify this because there’s no forgetting the way the Alaska summer air feels on your skin. The way I want to describe it is almost dew-like. It’s soft, like fresh cream. The feeling of the air is beside the point though. I’m just trying to distract myself from the way I felt and what I saw on that day because it carried the most painful moment of my life, summer haze notwithstanding.
I awoke to that small remnant of the beginning of the dream left in my mind. I sat straight-up and sucked the warm bedroom air into my lungs, my hands coming to my bare chest, as if trying to hold what was left of me together. “Breathe,” I told myself. “You are alone in your bed.” I’ve had this dream more than once, ever since he left. I lowered myself back down to my pillow and tried to coax myself back to sleep. “You know how the dream ends,” I whispered to myself. “At the end, he’s just as gone as he is now.”
When I met him the year prior, I was fresh off the fishing boat for the summer. I was strong, confident, bronzed and could handle my liquor in a way only summer fishing in Cordova can allow. I was fierce and assertive, though slightly guarded from a rough divorce that had opened me up to a period of being happily promiscuous and uninterested in opportunities for long lasting relationships. We met and it was instant fire, electricity and bright lights. Our connection was pure and animalistic in the beginning. We couldn’t get enough of each other, which marks high up on the list of reasons we stayed connected for as long as we did.
We spent the first few months in bed. One morning, after waking up, having sex and him making me cum several times, he tilted my face towards him, tracing my jawline with his finger and said, “Baby, your eyes, I’ve never met a girl like you before. You're magic.” And, in that moment, I put my blinders on and decided to accept whatever kind of love he gave me. It was magic. Nobody had ever made me feel like he did. I told him I was tired and he kissed me softly: “baby, go back to sleep.” So, I slept. And even though he didn’t tell me to dream about us, I did.
I had a dress on. A-line. It cut perfectly at the top of my hips and flowed downward, gracefully skimming the top of my knees. A kitchen towel lay over my shoulder and I registered the feeling of a heavy weight on my left hip. This felt odd to me because I likened the feeling to carrying a small child in your arms. I could hear my daughter chattering to herself through the open window of the living room. Confused, I looked down to a small baby boy straddling my side, smiling up at me. He was beautiful. His hand was in his mouth and he cooed at me, drooling, eyes dancing all over me. He had slate colored eyes. Almost blue, but not quite. I found myself smelling his head, bathing in his scent. The scent of a baby is hard to forget. I held him close to me and swayed from side to side. I don’t know how long I stood there. I didn’t even know whose baby I was holding. It wouldn’t take but a few more minutes to realize that this baby boy was undeniably mine. I heard my daughter Ophelia call for me and I snapped back into reality. I felt my way out the front door and stumbled into the white light that was waiting for me.
As soon as I got outside, it was almost as if I had shifted into another world. It was so bright. So much white sunlight, I could barely breathe. It took the air out of my lungs. I shielded my eyes from the sun with my right hand and tried to orient myself in the direction where Ophelia was calling to me from. The birds were chirping so loudly. The wind blew around the little boy in my arms and it became like a tornado. Suddenly, my daughter was at my feet smiling at me, hands easily intertwined with those of the little boy’s. She’s laughing and I’m smiling and it’s just one of those moments in the summer sunshine with your children that makes you understand that this kind of love is the greatest value in life. Pure, unadulterated joy. We stayed in this moment for quite some time, just us three. That bright white sunlight, the feeling of the dress brushing against my knees in the wind, the weight of the small boy in my arms, the rich resonance of her laughter. I was there. I know it happened. I know what I felt that day in my dream. I got to that point of no return, the point where it doesn’t get any better. In my mind, it was that good. All of this was cut short by the sound of a car door slamming.
I jolted awake again. I was on the couch in my living room and the loud noise that had roused me was my daughter crashing through the front door. I must have dozed off while reading a book. She walks over to me and brushes the hair out of my eyes, “Momma, I’m hungry.” I scoop her up and check my surroundings. Still alone, still in the same house he helped move me into, yet couldn’t remember the layout to. I suck a deep breath into my lungs and reminded myself of how the dream always ends for him and I every time I go back to my waking life.
I think back to the story that fuels this recurring dream that haunts my sleep. A time when it was good, better than I had ever had. But when things went wrong, it was the the worst I had ever had. You see, we were doomed from the start, as most tragic love stories are. I knew it then, and so did he, but on we went, for the sake of experience. I cared for him in a way that I never had cared for anyone. Deeper, faster, stronger than anyone had ever made me feel. The feeling was mutual. We established the fact that longevity was not in our future from the get, and that was where I made my first mistake. I accepted the way he wanted things to accommodate him, not myself. He didn’t just want me, he wanted others too, for reasons that I thought I could understand. And so, I allowed us to continue even though I had never been in anything other than a monogamous relationship. “You are magic,” I told myself. “He will get over his need for variety. There will come a time when he only wants you. These other girls mean nothing. You are the one who he bares his soul to. Be patient, impatient girl. Looking back, I wish I would have been honest with him about how broken I truly was at the time we met each other, that I wasn’t capable of sharing the greatest love I had ever felt with anyone but him. But I didn’t, I embraced the silence, the kind that forces you to sleep so deep you can’t tell what a dream is and what is not.
I bristled at the deafening sound. It was heavy. It was loud. I was angry at the interruption. I felt the sun fading rapidly, as if there were clouds rolling over us. I watched as everything around me muted in color and took on almost a sepia tone. I turned around to see whose car door had slammed and robbed me of my time in that moment, and there he stood.
It was like we had time traveled to a different era. He was dressed in a World War II uniform and standing next to an Oldsmobile that matched the times. No wonder that car door slammed so loudly – those vehicles were solid. I could hear his boots scrape the gravel underneath his feet as he shifted his weight. He took off his hat and held it at his waist. His jawline was still so sharp, his hair was the same. His slate-colored eyes pierced right through my chest, cutting deep down into my heart. It hurt just to look at him. I felt my eyes brim with hot tears, another memory of him that I was familiar with. His lips parted as if he wanted to say something, but nothing came out. He hung his head and I kept my eyes trained on him as I watched him slowly crumple to his knees. A panic rose inside of me, another familiar memory of him. There was a distance of 20-feet or so between us. The three of us, and him. I wanted to move towards him, but I felt frozen. I held the baby tighter to me, secured my grip on him while I wrapped my other arm around my daughter. We stared at each other and one single tear rolling down his cheek. There was a reason for my disdain. He dropped his hands to his side, palms open to the sky and mouthed at me, “I’m sorry.”
Hot tears and soft crying rouse me from my sleep. I realize it’s my tears that I can feel and I wipe them away while I sit up in a bed I’m not familiar with. I reach over to my right and realize I’m not alone in this bed, but I’m not with the one from my dreams – he’s been gone for months now. I’m so tired of these images playing over and over again in my mind while I sleep. Where am I? A four post bed, with floor to ceiling windows, the view displaying the lights of Anchorage below us. I slip out of bed and feel my way across the floor, gathering my clothes. I pause naked at the window to take in the view. I dress quickly and slip out the door into the stillness of the night, not saying goodbye to the person I had just shared a bed with. “You’ve gotten so cold these last few months,” I whisper to myself. “Cold” is generous word. In reality, I feel nothing.
Like I said before, when it was good, it was really good. We went to Kauai for Valentine’s Day weekend that year. We were in love. I was so elated to get away with him. I felt his hand slide over my hip the first morning we woke up there, he whispered in my ear, “Baby, we’re in Hawaii.” I turned over to face him, tracing the outline of his jaw and the crinkles that formed next to his eyes when he was truly happy. I pulled him close to me and kissed him deeply. We made love in the hot Hawaiian air, and spent the next few days adventuring over the entire island. We settled in for our last dinner before we went home and he handed me his phone to show me a picture. While I was looking at the photo her name dropped down as a text notification. I felt my blood run cold, the ice cracking my veins, the deepest daggers thrust into my heart. I knew who she was. I had asked about her before. He swore up and down that she was nothing. Did you read that correctly? She was nothing. But in that moment I knew she was something. I never hated him more than in that exact moment. My heart would be broken a hundred times over after that experience, but in that second I never felt angrier. But I said nothing. I handed him his phone back like nothing had happened. Who was I? What was happening to me? Why didn’t I stand up for myself? Why didn’t I leave?
The regret that built up in me morphed into a pool of pain so deep that I couldn’t hold my head above water. So naturally, I numbed my feelings. I got high as a kite and wasted my days away holed up in my apartment alone and angry, constantly on edge and growing increasingly insecure. I spent hours staring at myself in the mirror trying to recognize who I was looking at. “I promise I will find you again, just don’t go too far” played over and over in my mind. I was quickly losing sight of myself, but I stayed silent. The kind of silent that gets you stuck. The kind of silence that allows you to wade through life without deciphering whether you’re awake or asleep. So I floated through, undeterred by the idea of never finding the parts I loved so much about myself again.
I started moving towards him, eyes trained on the shape of his lips. Hands still resting at his side, palms open toward the sky. I felt as if something was behind me. Before I knew it, I was shoved to the ground. At least I thought I was shoved. My knees hit the gravel first, taking the impact of my fall. I curled both of the children underneath me and turned towards my side, my head meeting the ground, the taste of blood filling my mouth. I focused my eyes toward him and noticed the sorrow on his face had shifted to fear, that’s when I saw her step over me. The largest grizzly bear I had ever seen. She was a mother. I know this for sure. The ground shook with the impact of her paws on the earth, her nails scraping grooves into the dirt. She had the most powerful smell, the smell of the underworld. She lumbered towards him and I was so full of fear I couldn’t help but scream at her. I struggled to my knees, the small boy clutched to my chest, my daughter crying in my lap. The taste of blood still commanding my attention as each plea spilled out of my broken lips. I hurled every insult at her that I could. I didn’t want her to take him. I don’t know why I thought we were a better choice for her than him, to this day I can’t explain that to myself. I screamed for what felt like hours, but was only seconds. The wind swirled around me and the rain plummeted from the sky as the sow swung her head back towards me and let out a silencing roar.
It was only then did he start speaking. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but I knew he was pleading with bear, bargaining for safe passage. I could see the bear getting agitated, she was shaking her head and chuffing and I was struggling to hear what he was saying. All of a sudden, his words became clear as day. He pointed at us, shaking his finger directly at me and finally screamed, “not me! Take them!”
I felt my blood run cold, the familiar feel of ice in my veins. All of the air sucked out of my lungs in one sharp swoop and I couldn’t breathe. I had never felt so scared in my life. I held my children close to me and made eye contact with the mother bear while she roared at me, seeking my approval, asking me, “Is this enough? Have you had enough yet?” I nodded “yes” and let hot tears that had been waiting to crest the edge of my eyelids spill over. I hung my head, afraid of what I would see next.
The bear let out a final roar and took him with her, deep into the earth. I saw a tiny piece of myself jump from my skin and race over to him in his final moments in front of me, that piece crawled deep into the earth with them. He was gone, silent through it all.
I sat there until I could breathe again, my hands clasped tightly in my lap. When I opened my eyes everything was green. The weather was pristine and a cool breeze was only noticed on the apple of my cheeks. There was no baby boy in my arms anymore. The old car had disappeared from my driveway. My daughter’s rich laughter boomed towards me from the corner of our yard. She ran to me and leapt into my arms and noticed the tears streaming down my face. She smiled and wiped them away as she reminded, “Momma, you did what you had to do to survive. And that’s ok.”
I gasped myself awake, hand clutched at my heart. The same dream, again. The man next to me reached out and pulled me close to him, I fit perfectly in the crook of his arm. “What’s wrong, babe? Bad dream again?” He had spent enough nights with me to know I dreamed heavy and hard. I still wasn’t warmed up to him calling me that either – “babe” – it stung coming from someone else. He wasn’t going to be there forever, but he came around often enough that I was able to forget him. I wasn’t ready to let go or address what was haunting me, not even a year after it ended. “I’m ok,” I whispered to him, “just can’t sleep.” His grip tightened on me, and I did feel safe, even if just for a few seconds before I drifted off to sleep again.
As I’m sure ya’ll have gathered, our story did end. Tragically of course, but that’s how love goes some times. He left the state, I stayed, and she went with him. Our relationship continued in the most inappropriate way – across state lines, in private – until we got caught. Even after that, she still stayed. I often ask myself, “does she know? Does she really fucking know what we were?” In the end, the answers to those questions don’t matter, I’m the one that fucking matters.
Not long ago I finally let off the pause button when it came to dealing with what was left of my emotional self after experiencing true heartbreak. After 18 months, it felt more than past the time to do it. It has taken me months to process the experience and piece together my version of the story. Falling in love with him changed me in a way that I will never be able to explain. The only thing to explain is what is left of me. I’m still here, but I’m not the same, even though my heart is stronger these days. Fuck, what I would give to trust freely again. He took that from me.
I still miss him in certain scenarios. I find things I want to share with him and debate about, but those desires are fleeting. I often force myself through songs we fell in love over. I can’t recall the last time I had this terrible dream and that is measurable progress. But you know what? I caught a glimpse of that girl that I was desperately searching for in the mirror recently. She’s alive and well and she is safe inside my heart. Heartbreak is a sound that is deafening. But I swear on my own bleeding, healing heart this one thing: you will survive, and you will be ok. But you will never be the same again.
Art by author // "Pieces I did after we split"