I cannot stop dreaming about the sixteen-year-old boy I loved madly almost twenty years ago. We met on the beach during a hot, limitless summer, but we did not consummate our relationship because my parents caught us in the throes of passion and took me away. The boy has visited my dreams occasionally over the years, but lately, he has been coming to me almost every night, walking up the shore with his messy hair cascading behind him, running a hand along the back of my teenaged neck, raising the hairs on my arms. I lean in to kiss him and he disappears, leaving my adult self shaken in the early morning as my husband snores beside me.
I wish I could explain it. I am a happily married woman with two teenage sons, whose eye has not generally been known to wander, but I feel like my heart will explode if I do not see this boy in the flesh. Most people would quietly nurture this longing until it dissipated and that would be all, but most people do not have an experimental scientist and adjunct physics professor for a father, one who has a difficult time turning down his only daughter’s requests at that.
“If your goal is to go to prison, there are other ways I can arrange that,” Papa said, when I stated my problem on the balcony of his rented apartment.
“I just want to see him. Please?”
Papa sighed profoundly and lit a cigarette. “Why don’t you just focus on your work and your beautiful family?”
“I will do that once I am rid of him,” I said.
I must admit, I did not think this request through. I had the sense that, at most, Jonah and I would share one quick, passionate kiss, which would be enough for him to disappear and unhaunt my dreams and for me to get on with my life. Papa was still skeptical, but then I offered to pay his government-assisted health insurance bills for the remainder of the summer and he changed his tune.
“As you wish,” he said, lifting a finger as he descended to his basement laboratory and returned with a thick, milky, lavender-scented liquid in a conch shell. He told me what to do. Before bedtime, I had to close my eyes and conjure the boy to the best of my abilities while swirling the liquid around, and then drink one sip of the substance. Once I dreamed of him ten separate times—which would not take long, I knew—he would appear to me. Papa added, “You must throw out the shell the next morning, do you understand?”
“How long will he stay?”
Papa shrugged and put out his cigarette. “As long as he needs to.”
I carefully took the milky shell out of his hands. I hadn’t even left the block when I turned around to see that Papa was in the parking lot, washing his beat-up Camry by hand, with a sponge. I considered helping him, but I had my own troubles to attend to. I clutched the shell tightly as I headed home, wishing I were on the beach instead of a heat-soaked, mosquito-infested, low-rent neighborhood. I got home just in time for dinner, where my husband and boys were joking around about a movie I had not seen, so I had the luxury of tuning out, picturing foamy waves wildly crashing on the shore. I scarfed down my dinner, counting down the minutes until I could begin my mission.
“Earth to Yulia,” my husband said at the end of the meal, waving a hand in front of my face, and I just waved back and said, “Hi, Earth.”
After my husband went to bed, I did what Papa told me. I closed my eyes and pictured Jonah’s sleek figure, the salty taste of his tongue, his gravelly voice when he said, Has anyone ever told you how beautiful you are? and my sweet lie, Not really, though I was sixteen and many boys had told me that by then. I swirled around the liquid in the conch, drank a sip, and placed the shell under my bed, descending into dreams almost instantly. The boy paid me a visit, this time on a plastic horse on a merry-go-round on the boardwalk, while I failed to catch him, spinning and spinning until I woke up dizzy.
As I began my day, there was just one rule of Papa’s I failed to follow. I could not throw out the milky conch because it reminded me so much of that sweet summer, so I hid it in the back of the fridge.
Life returned to normal for a little while. When my children came home from school, I delighted in their company as long as they let me, even deigning to watch their pedestrian films. In the evenings, my husband and I drank on the front porch, watching the sun go down over the grassy field before us, soaking in our good fortune. My elusive creature would visit my dreams every few days, sometimes skiing ahead of me down a perilous slope or climbing a craggy mountain too fast for me to grab him, or just standing on a beach and calling for me, evaporating as soon as I tried to touch his face. I placed a bobby pin on my nightstand every time he came.
On the morning after I put down the tenth pin, I stormed the porch after my husband left for work and my children went to school, ignoring my students and their final day of creative writing class. A light-filled figure approached, swaggering across the big open field. Only when he stood beside me, rubbing his eyes, did I wonder what the hell I had gotten myself into. It was Jonah, all right, and he was criminally young. He cocked his head to the side, but I could tell he recognized me.
“What happened to you?” he said.
I shrugged and took a look at the life I had made—the clanky but serviceable car, the wilting peonies I had planted myself, the little woodshed behind the garage where I did my writing. A life that was certainly at least average by any standards. “Time, mostly,” I told him.
I stood so he could take in all of me. I looked good for my age, but I was still more than twice as old as he was, and my hair was limp and dry, my forehead lined with harbingers of wrinkles to come. This boy was hardly older than my oldest son, a mere child, and I didn’t know if he was legitimately checking me out or just rubbernecking me. I didn’t know what I wanted from him, either. I didn’t really consider the fact that whenever I dreamed of him, I pictured myself as sixteen, not as the woman I had become.
I hugged him, just to confirm that my feelings were not sexual, and I was relieved that I did not feel my body melting.
“What do we do now?” he asked.
“Are you hungry?” I said, because I was first and foremost a mother, after all, but he was not hungry.
And then, because he was coming back to me, because I remembered him as a person who could take things in stride, I gave him the broadest outline of how he got here. He said “pretty sick” and shrugged, and then asked if he could take a nap somewhere, he was tired from all the time travel.
“Of course,” I said, still a bit wary as I led him to the guest room and watched him climb under the covers and close his eyes almost instantly. I stood in the doorway for a long time. I remembered almost nothing about him, except the bit about him taking things in stride and how proficient a kisser he was. And yet, I was still chasing that moonstruck feeling he gave me every time I closed my eyes and descended into the fog of rest—if I couldn’t feel it with him, then how exactly was I supposed to feel it, ever again?
I ran in to my final class just as the students were filing out, mumbling something about the importance of pursuing your art beyond the walls of the classroom, though I was distracted beyond sanity, worrying about the boy I had left behind. What was he doing, back there? Was he thinking of me? And I was right to worry, it turned out, because I returned home to find the boy sitting at the kitchen table, an empty cup and the conch beside him.
“What did you do?” I said, trying not to panic. I had completely forgotten about the shell in the back of the fridge.
“I made myself a cup of coffee?” he said. “You were out of creamer so I used this.” He nodded at the shell. “It was pretty sweet.”
“Oh God,” I said.
“Nothing,” I said, trying to figure out what this all meant. I leaned toward him, feeling tempted to wipe the milk off the top of his lip. “Do you ever—dream of anybody?”
His teenaged lips curled into a naughty smile. “Sometimes,” he said, and I almost felt it again, that old stirring
“Well,” I said, “try not to.”
“Some things you can’t control,” he said, almost slaying me with that same smile. I knew I had to stop whatever conversation we were having because I heard my husband’s car roaring up the gravel drive.
He came in, holding his evening coffee, his shirt rumpled and chalk-stained. “What the hell?” he said.
“Sup,” said the boy.
“He’s a friend of the family,” I said. “He’ll be staying with us a little while.”
“What family?” my husband said, looking at our boys, who were playing video games on the couch and grunted at him in greeting. I waited for a follow-up, a chance to explain that I needed to bring back this boy because he reminded me of my younger, more hopeful, and lust-crazed self, that this was the best move for me and our little family. But my husband just sighed profoundly and cracked open a beer after that, knowing better than to ask questions.
The boy quickly became a favorite of the household. I was glad that summer had officially begun, because I did not have to think of logistics, such as whether or not to enroll him in school. Classes ended, and he hung out with my boys, playing basketball and learning the latest video games and how to operate a cell phone. My husband liked him, too, because he was more easygoing than our boys, and the two of them played darts together in the garage, while our sons occasionally peeked in out of jealousy. Meanwhile, I moved words back and forth to no avail in my woodshed or watered the desiccated peonies. Even Papa was fond of the boy and loved that Jonah declared any concoction he made for him to be “pretty sweet.”
I tried to stay away, feeling confused and depressed that I did not have any longing for him, deciding that at my age I was simply beyond it. At night, I still dreamed of the beach, the carousel, the craggy mountain, but I was facing them alone, and when I swam in the ocean of my dreams there was no boy to rescue me. During the day, I mostly stalked around the house, nervous that the boy was going to dream-summon a young me at any moment.
Young Me arrived at the end of the summer. One fine morning I woke to force myself into the woodshed and found my sixteen-year-old self walking through the same open field. I remembered her as fiery and fun, bursting with charm and charisma, but this girl was pudgy and messy-haired and had a rude, skeptical face. She scratched the back of her knee as she approached, scowling at me. This disheveled creature! How did she live?
“I’m hungry as balls,” she said.
“I can fix that,” I said, and then I yanked out her ponytail and smoothed out her hair while she glowered as I made her look presentable. I took a step back, straightened her collar, and decided she was acceptable. “Come in.”
When she followed me in, I saw that she did have a certain strut, a confidence I’d lost over the years along with my hope, ambitions, and ego. My husband and sons greeted her, walking around her in circles first.
“It’s me,” I told them, “before everything.”
“I can see that,” my husband said, but this time, he looked amused, not exasperated.
The girl hadn’t yet realized how we were connected, and she didn’t seem too thrilled by the revelation.
“So this is, like, what became of me?” she said, taking in my average-looking boys, average-sized house, and above-average husband.
“It could be a lot worse,” I said.
“How’s that?” she said, and my husband snorted.
“You could be dead,” he told her, and then he squeezed her shoulder and began making her an omelet, though he hadn’t omletted me in years. The boys joked around with Young Me, too, and everyone seemed to like her more than me. My theory was proven true when the boy shuffled down the stairs still in his pajamas, just as we were finishing breakfast. He stopped dead in his tracks. If he had been holding something, he would have dropped it.
“You,” he said, moving toward Young Me like a baby chasing a cat.
“You,” she said, running a hand through her hair. “Whoa.”
They devoured my husband’s omelet straight from the pan and did not even thank him. Then they left to go for a walk and spent all day together, laughing and joking around and eating Pringles in front of the TV, every crunch of the mindless food like a blade slicing through my heart. I went to bed early that night. Their giggling and flirting made me so confused and bewildered that I touched myself, filled as I was with envy and dread and longing, and the confirmation that I had become utterly irrelevant.
Their flirtation only intensified over the next few days. Young Me was shameless, wearing my most provocative clothes, licking her lips, not caring who saw—laughing her head off like a victorious general. She and Jonah talked about the dumbest things, like their Driver’s Ed teachers and childhood pets, and it was impossible to believe anyone could fall in love over such nonsense. My husband was mostly amused. He was busy, anyway, with work and the boys and trying to tolerate his wife, as well as the teenaged love affair brewing under his roof. Papa was delighted to discover Young Me, but also disappointed in me for not following his instructions. He found her when he came over to borrow a toaster.
“Why did you give me more liquid than I needed?” I said.
“You always have more than you need, don’t you?” he said. Then he patted Young Me on the head, and she smiled under his approving gaze. “Not a bad child,” he declared, leaving through the back door with the toaster under his arm. “Not a bad adult, either!” I heard him cry as an afterthought as he entered the car, but I could tell his heart wasn’t really in it.
My husband emerged behind him, having heard the whole thing. I could see he agreed with my father with all his heart, so much so that he was not even mad about the toaster. He put an arm around me, and we stepped out to watch my young self and the boy canoodling on the porch, usurping our rightful places.
“You were a little spitfire,” my husband said. And then: “What happened with this—friend of the family?”
“We met on vacation,” I said carefully. “My parents didn’t like that we were flirting, so they packed up and took me away.”
“And good riddance,” my husband said.
This was what I told him, but the more I thought about it, the less certain I was about what actually happened. All I remembered was that Mama and Papa found us embracing on the beach late one night and dragged me into the car and drove off while I screamed like a wild animal in the backseat, pounding on the sandy glass.
And now, we watched Young Me throwing back her head and laughing uncontrollably, like she was never going to die. I marched over to them, just because their happiness was an affront to me.
“You guys need anything?”
The boy looked at Young Me and gave her the same easy smile that won me over by the waves. “Not at all,” he said.
Young Me didn’t even bother looking at me, offering the same brusque indifference I gave my mother until the moment she walked out just after the summer of Jonah. As I looked at Young Me’s non-looking, I had the sense that I had missed something about that summer, that this brusque indifference of Me’s was somehow at the heart of it. Though I did not see why it mattered, whatever happened half a lifetime ago. What mattered now was that the harlot continued ignoring me while she gave my husband a sly smile before returning to her conquest. He returned her smile, smirked at me, and then I followed him up to bed.
Young Me was taking too many liberties. Just the other day, I caught my husband teaching her to throw a dart in the garage, while my sons waited their turn to also give her unneeded help. Her most recent offense was the decision to take the boy on a picnic in the woods behind our house. I knew Me through and through, and this was no good. Still, I packed up the basket for them, with strawberries and sandwiches and potato chips. I considered adding two Bud Lights for good measure, because who was I kidding? But I settled on two Cokes and a tiny bouquet of the last of our peonies. Anyway, it was almost dinner time, and it would be a relief to be with my family without two horny teenagers grab-assing all over my house.
I sent them off and made a salad and drank rosé while my husband complained about his students, and by the time I had drained the glass I felt on edge, nervous. What were they doing out there? Were they really on the verge of making love? My life was an endless slog of reading student stories and making art nobody cared about and only occasionally having my soul affirmed by some act of kindness from my husband or sons. Why should I allow them such unmitigated joy? It wasn’t long before I told my husband I was going for a walk to clear my head.
“Sounds like it’ll be quite a long walk,” he said, but he did nothing to stop me.
I walked through the woods feeling like I was trudging through sand. It didn’t take long to find them because all I had to do was follow Young Me’s abrasive laughter. The happy couple was splayed out on the picnic blanket, lovingly feeding each other potato chips. They hadn’t even touched any of the other food I had packed, and Young Me was sitting on my bouquet. As I watched my young self being charmed by this boy, I was beginning to feel that old passion again, rearing its ugly, inappropriate head. They had not even kissed. It was worse: they were just holding hands, gazing at each other.
I didn’t really have an agenda beyond stopping the fun. I plopped down between them.
“You have to get out of here,” I told Young Me.
She folded her arms over her perfect chest. “Why?”
“My husband,” I said. “He needs your help with something.”
“Really?” she said, jumping up instantly. I could see her interest was piqued.
“But—” The boy looked crestfallen, his throat tightening, just as he did when my family had to leave the beach, and for a moment I felt it, that old longing. Young Me was already skipping off, not even turning around to say goodbye. Why would she? She was practically an embryo and thought she would have all the time in the world to say goodbye to people. But I shrugged her off like an ugly coat. I was alone with the boy for the first time since she arrived.
“Hey there,” he said, moving closer to me.
“Hey,” I said. I could feel the sweat pooling all over my body, into my drooping, formerly-desirable cleavage, but he seemed unafraid, still down for anything. I added, “We should eat.”
We slowly chewed the sandwiches, and Jonah told me about his plans to take a gap year, to backpack all over South America and get “a real education.” I told him these were wonderful, beautiful plans, that he should definitely follow through on them. I moved closer, and so did he. He really was game. But when I got close enough to kiss him, I couldn’t do it. He still smelled like a boy, gym socks and body odor, reminding me of the musky scent of my boys instead of the manly smell of sex. The whole thing was about as erotic as a trip to the gynecologist. Well, that was settled, I supposed. At least I was not a complete pervert. The sandwiches were gone, and we had killed the sodas, and there was nothing left to do but head back.
“Let’s go,” I said, grabbing his hand, because I felt bad for summoning him across decades of time and not even making out with him.
Jonah didn’t let go. We were quiet as we walked out of the woods. I was weighed down by cosmic dread, though I was not sure why, until I crossed my backyard and saw something truly disturbing through my dining room window. Papa, who could never turn down a free meal, had returned with the toaster and was patting Young Me on her ratty little head. The girl was spooning salad onto my husband’s plate like she owned him. He was laughing wildly, as if a girl that young could possibly be so clever. I could see my companion liked the situation about as much as I did. He let go of my hand.
“I should have known,” he said.
“It’s just the way you are,” he said, shaking his head. “You wouldn’t know a good thing if it slapped you in the face. Don’t you remember why we never ended up hooking up that summer?”
“My parents took me away.”
He snorted. “Is that what you think? They took you away because they caught you fucking a lifeguard. We were supposed to meet on the beach, but I could hear your laughter from a mile away, in his stupid cabin. I told them where to find you.”
As he spoke, the memory of that hazy summer came back to me. How could I have forgotten? I was right to feel unsettled by my earlier memory of things. Of course that was what happened. Though I could barely remember the older lifeguard, the stubble on his chin, the swim trunks he scurried back into just as my parents ran up, their feet crunching through the cool sand. Yet there he was, another useless paramour.
“But you’re the one I’ve dreamed about. Not him,” I said. I considered apologizing, but I did not quite know how to go about it, or what to say I was sorry for.
Jonah shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t matter now,” he said, scratching the back of his head. “See you around,” he said, pivoting back to the field.
“Where are you going?”
He just threw up his hands and shook his head.
The boy was a speck in the distance and I was alone again, watching my father and husband and sons and Young Me recklessly slurping up their pasta, all of them firmly rooted in the planet, not one of them thinking further ahead than what movie they were going to watch that evening. I pounded on the glass, but nobody looked up because they were all having such a good time, laughing at Young Me’s wild, wasteful gestures. Eventually, the girl caught my eye and winked, and I lurched back and tripped over a tree branch and fell to the ground, a darkness washing over me as I understood the mistakes I had made. The boy I had summoned was gone, but there was no telling how long the girl would stay, or what it would take for her to leave.
Rumpus original art by Madeline Kreider Carlson.