My debut nightmare remains vivid in my mind, and not because I possess a stellar capacity for memorable dissolution, but that it has occurred in a thousand different forms since the pilot episode in 1982, when I was 8 years old.
I was walking across the wooden bridge near my childhood home, and the railings began disintegrating with every step I took. I was definitely wearing my high-top faux-leather sneakers from Kmart, making the trek from the rural cornfields to town (town being a sleepy village of 4,200 in central Illinois) to purchase a roll of SweetTarts from the IGA for thirty-five cents. My feet felt like the concrete anvils in Looney Tunes, symbolic of the sleepy heaviness that causes all nightmares to transpire.
As I reached the apex of the bridge, I glanced below, noticing the train tracks, a thousand miles away, gleaming in the torrid Midwestern humidity, and that’s when the reality of life struck: I could easily fall from the bridge, because there were no barriers to stop my demise. My untamed imagination, spurred by scenes I frequently read about, caused my overactive brain to envision my tragic death as I attempted to cross the bridge, unscathed. I eventually woke myself from the dream paralysis and found myself hovering over my mother’s side of the bed, attempting to alert her to my assured ruination.
“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”
In nightmares, we always assign the largest distance from my destination. The unknown quantity is the scariest, because you cannot brace the landing.
In reality, the gap from the bridge to the train tracks was probably less than 100 feet.
I would’ve landed and survived.
My mother eventually woke up to shoo me back to bed, but she never said a word, which compounded the silence.
It’s not the reality that scares us, but rather what we imagine DISTANCE to be….
The bridge nightmares continued, and there are plenty of realistic happenings that my subconscious drew upon. When I was 12, my siblings and cousins were exploring the woods behind my grandparent’s house, very near the steep bluffs that carved a surreal landscape upon the Mississippi River. We had stumbled across a fallen tree that traversed a ravine, and we all dared each other to walk across the log. When I recall this absolutely stupendous and realistic event, the log was 400 feet long, and the ravine was 1,000 feet deep. Being a daredevil and wanting to prove my worth to my kin, I slid my butt across the log, dangling my legs over the crevasse that reeked of danger. I imagined my cousins, who I so desperately wanted to impress, running back to the humble homestead on Yoder Drive: Julie fell in! She done fell in! We must save her!
That doesn’t dismiss the imminent fear that I feel when bridging all of the gaps. That ravine in rural Iowa has materialized in several of my adult nightmares, and in those nightmares, I fell all the way to end, yet never perished.
My current nightmare is a refined version of the original wooden bridge episode, with 36 years of experience added to the subconscious images that define my sleepy trances:
I am driving on the highway, usually across a river, and always in rush hour traffic, to heighten the anxiety. While rounding a curve, the bridge just ceases to exist. There is no disintegration; just absolute disappearance. The river is part of a sprawling metropolis, such as Seattle or San Francisco or Boston.
In real life, I’ve traveled extensively across the United States, and profound moments have transpired from behind the wheel of whatever car I was operating at the time. The bridges in my nightmares are rooted in an endless quest to achieve an unspoken agreement with myself: get there, and embrace fear….
While experiencing the daunting factor that my car (and my soul) is going to traverse into space before gravity pulls it toward the raging water, the facades of the surrounding urban buildings also begin to crumble. I am spinning through dour chasms, facing the terror of falling, bracing myself to experience the unknown.