This Is Us

Welcome to Nightmare Country

The year of ghosts and dreams

It is early in a year in which I can’t remember how to sleep at night. I do my job in between naps, so often pinned to the bed or the couch by fatigue and grief. Frequently, I find myself awake at 3 a.m. here in New Jersey, texting with friends in Los Angeles. When I do fall asleep, long after they’ve finally gone to bed, the sun is on its way up, the blue-gray light of morning slowly brightening the blanket of snow. Sometimes I can hear the first birds chirp as I drift off, wrapped in my warm quilt. This is when my nightmares begin.

Upon waking a few hours later, shaky and sweaty, before I meditate on my back, pray on my hands and knees, and commence my workday, I dictate nightmare summaries through the talk-to-text function in my phone. I began this habit after listening to audiobooks about the life and work of Carl Jung. I figured that if I ever get together enough money to go into psychoanalysis, a prohibitively expensive therapeutic relationship that involves multiple visits per week to a trained Jungian therapist, I may be able to bring in the dream notes for interpretation. Then, maybe, I can figure out why I am like this and how I can fix it.

The trouble is that the notes on the nightmares are never very detailed. By the time I’m a few sentences into my description, the memory has begun to dissolve like cotton candy in a summer storm. My voice trails off and I open my meditation app or fall back into a more pleasant sleep, the bad dream forgotten.

Today I reviewed a recent nightmare entry that simply read: “Us.” This referred to an early morning bad dream about the trailer for Jordan Peele’s 2019 horror film Us. Not about the film itself, mind you, which I have yet to see, although the cast includes some of our finest living actors, and I am told the movie incorporates one of my favorite songs. I have been informed, in fact, that after I finally watch this movie, I may not ever hear Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleurs” in quite the same way.

Peele is a brilliant director, and I really enjoy his work. But I often wait a long time to see even films I know I’ll like. I am fairly impressionable, what you might call a bit sensitive, and films and television stay with me for a very long time. For this reason, I am selective with what I watch. Sometimes I prefer light, silly fare to anything that will really affect my heart. Only occasionally will I sit down to watch a horror film, even a critically acclaimed one like Us.

But again, my nightmare wasn’t about the film. My nightmare was about the trailer. In essence, I had a bad dream about a commercial. Embarrassing, but perhaps a testament both to my own impressionable nature as well as to the power of great marketing.

I don’t remember what happened in my dream, but I’m sure it involved doppelgangers and mirrors, and possibly the Monkeypaw Productions logo.

I woke up and, half-awake, texted my writing partner, one of my reliable West Coast night owls. We are writing a pitch for a TV comedy about a pair of estranged Italian American brothers from Boston’s North End who turn to ghost removal as a side hustle to help save the family restaurant (working title: GHOST BROS). The brothers were raised by their strict Catholic immigrant grandparents and forbidden to ever use the inherited family curse/blessing of spirit communication. But they find plenty of landlords, developers, and homeowners willing to pay cash for their services — not ghostbusting, which is rather brutal and very 20th century, but ghost negotiation. Through charm, wheedling, subterfuge, bribery, therapy (one of the brothers is a psychologist), and occasionally just begging, these guys convince the ghosts to cross over to the next realm.

Half the fun of working on this project is the ever-growing list of comedian and actor friends we dream of casting as ghoulish guest stars. We’ve both pitched and sold projects before, and I’ve adapted a couple of my books for TV and film. But we’ve never tried to do something like this during a global pandemic, with a writing partner located across the country, and it’s been a highlight of this still-very-young-year in which I can’t sleep like a normal person. Matt can’t sleep, either, which renders the time difference less of a hurdle.

Anyway, as one might imagine, Matt and I talk about ghosts and monsters a lot. I like to read about the history of mythology and occult belief. He watches horror films every single day, often more than one per day. He has a library of horror DVDs and VHS cassettes. He recently ordered blueprints of Dana Barrett’s apartment in Ghostbusters, and I assume a framed version will join all the Sam Raimi stuff on the walls of the apartment he and his wife share with a tiny kitten. Maybe that’s why I thought texting him about a horror movie trailer dream made sense. My other friends would just laugh.

Matt did not laugh. In fact, he cheerfully informed me that Us was a fantastic movie and that his own bachelor party was largely centered around getting a group of friends to fly to Austin to watch it in a rented theater. This is how I learned that my friend’s bachelor party was, literally and figuratively, my nightmare.

We are not the same.

I do plenty of things that Matt finds odd. For example, he thinks it’s terrifying that I live in an apartment furnished with items owned by the dead woman who used to live here. He especially recoils at the notion of me sleeping in her bed.

“Just the wooden frame is hers,” I always say. “It’s a new mattress and boxspring!” He cringes every time. I like working with Matt because he’s a true weirdo, very kind, and unabashedly himself. Also, he was once a product model for a line of Brookstone personal massagers, and I will never not think that is hilarious.

A few days after the Us dream, I woke midday from a nightmare that I logged as “something with my shoulders where my skin was gone.” In this dream, I faced my dream self and saw that her shoulders and upper back were bare, stripped of skin to reveal what appeared to be some sort of white plastic skeletal structure beneath, as if she (I) were actually some sort of robot. I reached out and touched what I took to be synthetic material, and found to my disgust that it was living flesh.

That’s what I look like under there?” I asked in disbelief and disappointment. Then I woke up.

In real life, I am used to judging that part of my body. I have shoulders and a back that are broader than I’d prefer. I’ve experienced back pain since I was a teenager as a result of a car accident, too many years of sitting at a computer, overall improper posture, and breasts that are quite large for my frame. I am familiar with chiropractic, yoga, acupuncture, Pilates, and lying flat on one’s back for days, rising only to use the bathroom. I have vomited from back pain. Mainly it’s under control, especially when I pay attention to the ergonomics of my work setup and switch between sitting and standing.

My “standing desk” involves plopping my laptop on a stack of books not unlike the tower created by the library ghost in the opening sequence in Ghostbusters. I make a smaller stack of books to place my external keyboard at the proper height, and a third stack to support the mousepad and mouse. This has made a great difference for me and has reduced my back pain, just as a physician and chiropractor both told me it might.

An actor on the internet was once adamant that I should read a book by a popular quack who advised that back pain is all in one’s head. Men are generally very fond of telling a woman that pain, physical or otherwise, is all in her head. I am under five feet three inches tall and have G cup breasts, which first began to emerge when I was eight years old. My actual physical structure might perhaps yield some reliable evidence as to why my upper back has long been so stressed.

I didn’t feel like getting into that with him, since those breasts are why married strangers like him feel it is their right to speak to me about my body online, anyway.

But back to the dream. I don’t know why I was so disgusted to discover that my dream self’s musculature was real. I think it was the notion that something or someone had done away with my skin, and that my shoulders and upper back were exposed to the elements. I suppose I was afraid of the pain that would come. My dream self looked raw and unprotected.

I woke up and found that all my skin was where it was supposed to be. That was a relief.

Another recent dream note reads as follows: “Being afraid I would take care of the puppy wrong and it belong [sic] to my family and not knowing if I was feeling right and then there were more puppies and I didn’t want to have to take care of them.” Talk-to-text is an as-yet imperfect science, and my half-conscious mind is not very meticulous about punctuation.

I cannot remember anything about this anxiety-producing dream in which there were too many puppies. In fact, my waking self rejects the very concept of “too many” puppies! But in my day-to-day life, I am often enormously relieved to not have children. Getting pregnant has always been one of my greatest fears, along with getting a paper cut on my eyeball and being attacked by a home invader.

My relief at being childless (or child-free, as some people say) has only been heightened as I see so many mothers struggle with the weight of added responsibilities. So many of their usual healthy outlets for stress are gone. I try to be of service where I can, but I know that I cannot empathize with them, nor they with me.

I am sure that some of these women pity women like me, single women living alone without a partner or children. It has sometimes been lonely and depressing, that’s for sure. I hear sounds and get scared that a man has broken in. I sleep with a knife under my bed, in the event this theoretical villain is weak enough for me to overpower with a kitchen implement. Most likely, they’d take the weapon and use it on me instead. Even in my fantasy of protecting myself, I create an even scarier imaginary result. I know that. I still keep the knife nearby.

Still another note: “I was in a house like this one, and I was very scared because the lights weren’t working. I came out of the house and saw a truck there that I didn’t recognize. It turned out to belong to the man next door, who was not a bad person. Then I saw another unfamiliar car, a gray sedan that looked neglected. I was scared again, but then realized it belonged to another neighbor. I saw a woman I couldn’t identify, and I was afraid of her too, but then the kind man next door, the one with the truck, gave her a hug. His daughter came out to greet her. It turned out they were friends. I realized the home was safe. The sun was coming up slowly.”

I have grown used to this home, with its two airy levels, its abundant windows, and all the space to spread out. I don’t know what to do with all the space, accustomed as I am to living in small apartments. You could multiply my last apartment by two, fit it into this new place, and you’d still have room to spare. And of course, this place is cheaper, being in an allegedly less glamorous part of the world (although, as most Los Angelenos can tell you, the city isn’t actually very glamorous at all).

But this is temporary, a pretty place to rest for awhile where the suburbs meet the countryside, and soon I will move into a city again — not Los Angeles, where I spent most of my thirties, but New York, where I spent most of my twenties.

I have spent most of my life living in a way designed to make a quick escape relatively simple.

People say moving is a nightmare. It’s stressful, and can even be awful, but at least it’s real. There are objects, and they go into boxes, and people move these boxes to a new location, and then it is time to take the objects out. You might have a panic attack in the process, but for the most part, your flesh stays on your human body. I have spent most of my life living in a way designed to make a quick escape relatively simple. The idea of putting down roots and committing to a home for the long haul is far scarier than the thought of dealing with yet another set of boxes that I’ll never entirely unpack.

I plan to move into New York, but who the hell knows? Life is strange and we’re not in control of how it turns out. I hold space for the fact that I may end up in Asheville or Paris or the bottom of a ditch in Western Pennsylvania, presumably after the aforementioned home invader transports my corpse in the trunk of a beat-up Cadillac. I don’t think there’s much in Western Pennsylvania besides cornfields and decaying bodies, anyway.

I have moved across the country several times, always to chase a relationship or to get away from one. Until late last year, I had never moved for so practical a reason as “it’s time to leave one city that horribly bungled a global pandemic to live in my home state, which did a bit better with the crisis response, and also I’ll be nearer to family in the event that one of us goes on life support.” Emotionally speaking, it was a far healthier reason than “my boyfriend is scary.” Growth!

An old friend emailed just the other day — I can’t remember the day, I read it between fits of restless slumber — and he said, “These past 12 months have really been a nightmare, as you know.” He’s had it harder than I have. So many people have had it so much harder. For the past year, I’ve hardly been able to write about anything but graveyards and ghosts and nightmares but I’m grateful to be alive, and there are people who are alive who are not grateful for it, and I understand. Most of them have lost something precious: a job, a relationship, a loved one.

A lot of people have lost a lot of people.

I am writing as the sun comes up. It is warmer this week than last week. The temperatures are rising, and the trees have mostly been relieved of their heavy cold burden. Their branches arc against the ever-bluer sky, unfettered by frozen water.

I miss somebody who died seven weeks ago, in the first days of this year. He died in his sleep, we are pretty sure. We didn’t expect it, and he certainly didn’t seem to expect it. That strikes me as a good thing. You know, considering. I mean it’s a bad thing, but it’s good among the bad.

I am relieved to mourn him in winter. I know that I will still miss him in a month when the calendar says it is spring at last. I know that as my life goes on, if it goes on for awhile, I will lose people in winter, spring, summer, and fall. Death knows no season. But it feels easier to hide inside in winter.

I have not dreamt about him yet. Another friend did. I was a little envious. They were much closer, though. In terms of friend hours put in, this friend definitely deserves a dream visit before anybody else. It wasn’t a bad dream, from what I hear.

The sun is almost up. I’ll sleep soon.

Author, REAL ARTISTS HAVE DAY JOBS (and other books). Writer of scripts. Host of WELL, THIS ISN’T NORMAL podcast. Patreon.com/SaraBenincasa

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