Beautiful Dreamers

Mindy Lewis

I’ve long been aware that my high hallway closet, the closest thing to an attic this lifelong New York City apartment dweller has known, is a metaphor for the subconscious. On the intermittent occasions when necessity or nostalgia sends me climbing atop a tall metal chair to retrieve some urgently sought item (Is it there? Have I lost it? Did it ever exist?), I have the distinct sense that I am reliving fragmentary, almost-but-not-quite-forgotten dreams, salvaged from oblivion. 

On this day I pull down a file box from my hallway closet hoping to find a certain stack of letters, but when I reach inside the manila envelope where I remember storing them, it yields unexpected treasure: a series of black and white photocopies (Xeroxes we then ubiquitously called them) of our young faces—David’s and mine—taken in the early 1970s, when we lived together in the apartment I still inhabit. I relegated the photocopies, along with other relics of our life together, to the closet after David and I parted in the late 1970s, sadly but lovingly entombing them to slumber together through eternity like a 2-D Romeo and Juliet.

Here’s what I see: our youthful faces, distorted from being pressed upon the glass of the photocopier, the near planes of nostril, cheekbone, and brow brightly illuminated, while the far curves of jaw, neck and forehead recede into darkness. Dreamers in a fishbowl—cheeks flattened, eyes closed against the glare of the scanning light beam, each pore and lash engraved in black. A dark mole dots David’s cheek, while mine flaunts a few hormonal remnants of post-adolescent acne. Our plump lips betray an innocence we denied, thinking ourselves world-weary when in fact we were alive in every cell, in body, heart and mind. We couldn’t have known that we really would grow old, that we would become disillusioned and wearied by the trivia of days and sleepless nights, that our skin would wrinkle, that our abundant, wild hair would one day thin and be dusted with gray.

The photocopies were made at the midtown office of the group of magazines where David worked—his first real job—as managing editor of Drive-In Fast Service Magazine, a trade journal for the fast food industry. I’d felt betrayed when David was hired. I knew him as a dark-eyed poet versed in mysticism and the occult, a student of higher consciousness (fortunately with a sense of humor that allowed him to coin such memorable phrases as “Help! I’m caught in the dire fire of the liars’ pyre in the higher Maya mire”), who also wrote and performed lyrical, “deep” songs on his acoustic guitar. We’d met at a poetry reading (I was 19, he was 24) and I’d counted the days until he phoned me (six). “I’d like to see you,” he’d said, with visionary emphasis. And we did see each other, looking deeply into what we thought were each other’s souls: the dark brown, long lashed pools of David’s eyes, and the somewhat glazed, skittish, hazel deer-in-headlights gaze of mine. We were fledglings, just struggling to find our footing while keeping our ideals intact. So when David joined the corporate world, hooking his talent to a paycheck, I was dismayed. Until then we’d done a series of odd jobs, and worked together at a crafts-cooperative where we apprenticed to master craftsmen: David to a coppersmith, and I to a woodcarver whose chisel moved through wood as if through butter, whereas mine stuttered and skidded. I felt adrift in my unemployable, vaguely artistic nihilism. I couldn’t claim to be an artist; it was a term I knew I had to grow into, to earn. 

With David working fulltime, my days were long and unstructured. To steady me, David would invite me to meet him for lunch. When I entered his building, I felt I was setting foot on enemy territory: the guard and mandatory guestbook in the lobby; the crush of people, their footsteps echoing importantly off the marble walls; the static in my hair and clothes erupting with an audible snap from my fingertips as I pushed the elevator button; the pressure filling my head as the elevator rose scores of floors in seconds. I’d mumble my name to the receptionist and shift uneasily as I waited for David to come get me, then zigzag behind him through the warren of cubicles from which issued the tapping of typewriter keys, and finally sit whispering, sheltered by the fabric-coated acoustic panels of David’s cubicle. At some point he gave me a tour of his new territory and introduced me to his colleagues, whose hands I’d shake after surreptitiously wiping my sweaty palms. I couldn’t decide whether I felt inferior or superior to these corporate conspirators: on one hand, I envied their sense of purpose and belonging; on the other, still steeped in the Sixties, I bristled with self-inflated pride for preserving my non-worldly values.

In time, David hired me to do illustrations for his magazine, starting with spot drawings, then single-page features, and finally full-color covers. At first, I was terrified by these assignments, fretting for hours in protracted anguish, but ultimately rose to the challenge with creative solutions. And so, I came to understand the marriage of art with commerce, and forgave David his job choice. Plus, I could now call myself a freelance illustrator (a step closer to artist) and carry my black zippered portfolio with purpose, if not pride. 

David’s boss, the Editor-in-Chief, genuinely liked my work and continued the assignments, although I was sure each one would be the last. When he asked my permission to keep the original artwork for one illustration to frame and hang in his apartment, I was honored. Belying my bohemianism, I believed in the power of titles; to me, Editor-in-Chief was tantamount to God on High. I was amazed by his casual friendliness, and was shocked and distressed when, after several meetings in his office, I finally realized that the fumes that wafted toward me were not cologne, but bourbon. I shared this revelation with David in the hushed tones one reserves for tragedy—and perhaps it was, but such awakenings had extra resonance in those years. 

David hadn’t totally sold out. He still wrote poetry and songs, which he’d type on his IBM Selectric and duplicate on the big expensive Minolta copiers kept under lock and key in a special room. I too engaged in acts of corporate sabotage for my own creative purposes. Among our self-portraits is a photocopy of a 2×3-inch black and white photo of fluffy white clouds in a middle-toned sky that I’d taken with David’s camera. For about a year, I kept the photo in my wallet and when people asked for my business card, I’d hand it to them, then ask for it back. The tattered original has long disappeared, and only the copy remains.

Our photocopied faces are precisely detailed, every whisker on David’s face sharply drawn in black toner, and etched equally strongly in memory. We loved truly, in spite of mutual infidelities—common in the ’60s, but more damaging than we’d bargained for. When we parted, at my suggestion (I needed time to “find myself”), the ground rushed out from under me. “We’ll get back together when you pull yourself together,” David promised, but it took me too long. David married the friend of a mutual friend when I was 28—a heartbreak that took decades to heal. For years I dreamed I was searching for him in strange houses, entering rooms he had just left. 

Life has brought us together on occasion: a chance meeting in a bookstore where we talk at length and fill in the decades; with a pang I peruse photos of his two kids—I’d slid through my thirties unmarried and childless—and I find in their faces the imprint of David’s features. We meet for lunch after the death of each of his parents: first his kindhearted father and then his formidable mother, who disapproved of me even in my dreams. I cross paths with David and his wife at the memorial of our mutual friend; we make friendly overtures but never follow up. In a dream mini-series, we reunite briefly, then part with shared relief. Finally, I prefer the life I have to the one we might have shared. Yet only last week I dreamed I held David in my arms and comforted him as he sobbed out a great grief, and then he did the same for me. 

But I knew none of this when, on an undated day in an unspecified season, I took the crosstown and then the downtown bus, walked to Third Avenue, traversed the lobby, ascended in the elevator, and visited David in his office. At some point, suppressing smiles at our secret mission, we looked both ways before David nonchalantly unlocked the room that housed the copiers. While David stood watch, I laid my cheek down on the glass, closed my eyes and held my breath until the bright beam passed. Then David took his turn, and the machine hummed as it produced our sleeping mug shots. Because the lid of the copier was open, our faces glow pale and moonlike against a dark field speckled with white stars.

About the Author

Mindy Lewis is the author of Life Inside: A Memoir; co-author of A Curious Life: From Rebel Orphan to Innovative Scientist; editor of DIRT: The Quirks, Habits and Passions of Keeping House; and recipient of New Letters 2015 Essay Award. Her writing has appeared in Newsweek, NY Times Book Review, Lilith, Body & Soul, Poets & Writers, Arts & Letters, New Letters, Santa Ana River Review, Many Mountains Moving, Psychoanalytic Perspectives, and in anthologies.