The Painting

by Jason Tougaw

The kid is on a bench, planted in overgrown grass. The canvas is thick with paint chunks, but the image is all hazy outlines, the kid’s hair the same soft greens as the grass and the bench. The kid’s wearing a smock painted in lavender textured with inky purple shadows. The view is mainly of the kid’s back. No eyes, no features other than an ear and a cheek. She’s a girl, but sexless in the way that only orphans from another era can be. If you were to walk around her and look her in the face, you’d see her staring into the grass, looking at the spaces between its blades. The kid is suspended in a green and purple haze, her own ether force field. The frame, both rough-hewn and ornate, traps her. If I’m staring hard enough at the precise minute when this happens, Nanny and I and the whole room might float through the dissolving frame and lie around in the grass with the kid.

The green-haired girl, stuck in her frame.

The painting will always hang in the most prominent space in all of Nanny’s many houses. By the time I am nine, when I am old enough to try on Nanny’s sarcasm, I will say to her, “When you die, I inherit that painting.”

“Killing me off already?” she will reply.

“Yep,” I’ll say.

 

Of my early memories, the dream is particularly vivid, maybe because it was recurring, whereas real life events happen only once.

I’m skipping on a road made of pink ribbon winding through outer space, in the body of the kid in Nanny’s painting. My hair is long again, thin and green like hers.

I skip along the ribbon at a clumsy glide, wearing the smock-dress, purple in the painting but green in the dream I have her skinny legs and expressively still face. I’m fragile but tenacious. I’m Christopher Robin. I’m the Little Prince.

I’m skipping in pure, calm terror. I know I can’t keep this up. It feels like my body might shatter into shards of atom and become floating debris. So I change my pace, to a frantic run. The running is chaos and feels almost like spinning, but less graceful, more agitated, like I’ve lost my footing, permanently. It’s excruciating but preferable to the calm terror of the skipping.

I start to realize that I know what scares me. It’s something like God, more remote than Satan but no less powerful or frightening, an omnipresent but disembodied male figure somewhere in space. He has in his hands a large nuclear bomb and is planning to drop it on me. The force of the threat propels me. I can’t shake it. I can’t outrun it. All I can do is alternate between the skipping and running, hoping the combination will keep my fear from killing me before he can. Skip, run.

The pink ribbon road has no surface, so I never feel it when my feet hit the ground. There is no ground. I skip, for minutes at a time, then run, slow to a skip, and break out running. I will do this eternally, as long as sleep persists. Skip, run. Skip, run, skip.

 

I had this dream so often that the calm, pure terror became a permanent element in my life. I called it the dream feeling. It still sometimes seeps into waking life, but it did so regularly when I was a kid—at my mom’s weddings, later when I was alone skipping rocks at Lake Hodges, in a crowd at a dance in high school. It neutralized me each time.

I couldn’t tell anybody about the dream, because telling brought up the dream feeling. Before I knew it, not telling became a way of life, a personality trait. I spent a lot of time around Nanny’s painting. My comment about inheriting it was a running joke between us, but I never told her I needed to inherit that painting because it was a version of me I was afraid of.

Of course, I’d never heard of Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung, the most influential dream theorists of the twentieth century. If I’d been a patient—and they were both fascinated by the minds of kids—they’d have coaxed the dream out of me. They’d have put it under the microscope of their competing theories and diagnosed my terror.

Freud and Jung disagreed about the nature of dreaming. Freud argued that dreams fulfilled wishes repressed during waking life. Through dreams, he believed, the more primitive, socially uninhibited self makes its presence known. Jung agreed that dreams are expressions of the unconscious, but he argued that their function was more positive, that they compensate for psychological imbalances and create mental harmony. My dream did both. It put me continuously in touch with a father figure who terrified me, but it also took me outside time and place—which is what I wanted more than anything as a kid. The dream made me think about a father I wanted to pretend didn’t exist and it gave me a new place to live, where I could battle his giant ghost.

But there’s more to it. Children dream differently from adults, and according to psychologist David Foulkes, dreaming is integral to development. Dreams help build minds and selves. According to Foulkes, children between 3 and 5 dream in isolated, static images, and they report a lot of dreams involving animals and few about people. Between 7 and 9, a dream self develops, becoming a hinge for the images in the dream, and emotions become associated with these images. The images begin to form stories. After 9, the dream self becomes active, and dreams become emotionally charged scenarios involving other people. I’m sure I had this dream before 9, and I’m convinced that it changed very little over time. Still, I think Foulkes must be right when he argues that dreaming serves a cognitive function (as opposed to Freud’s psychological function or Jung’s metaphysical function)—that dreams help build our minds. If Foulkes is right, this kid in the dream wasn’t just a product of my imagination. That kid gave me somebody new to be, somebody who could live in Nanny’s painting and in outer space while the rest of me lived in a string of tiny houses my mom was fixing up, houses where we might start over after the disaster that was Charlie. And then after the disasters that replaced him.

Maybe someday you’ll be able to put a kid like me in a scanner while he sleeps and reconstruct his neural connections, trace the origin of his dreams. In doing so, you’d be seeing my response to Nanny’s painting, my running away to her house, the fact that God in this dream is also Charlie, my absent father threatening to steal me back, my inadvertent decision to become mute about the dream and anything else I felt. Could a researcher stand before this kid, white lab-coat precisely pressed, and ask just the right questions, the ones that would get the kid to offer up his mind so his brain might be visible?

Probably not, I guess.

 

From the manuscript of my memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (represented by Carrie Howland at Donadio & Olson)

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