The two men met every night in the room of ghosts and antiques to read the puzzles. Being dreams, they did not actually meet every night, but were unaware of their absences, and were always absent together. The room’s furniture stayed fixed through the nights they awoke together, and both claimed agency for most of the objects. A grandfather clock from the older man’s uncle’s first house or the younger man’s wife’s family home; a thin coat of sawdust, both being carpenters, the dreams of carpenters, or men who dreamt of nothing but carpentry. The only object neither could place was the box on the table (a table from his childhood, from his kitchen) which held the puzzles. Neither remembered the other’s name, but they were close enough not to need names, just a nod and a smile when the room solidified enough to make out the other’s shape.
“Well?” said the older man, with a nod and a smile. “Why don’t you read the first one?”
Still trying to remember the pictures and places just lost on waking, the younger man walked to the box, opened it, withdrew the waiting paper, and read.
“‘The leopard gardener’s fifth-floor contradiction was bleak, for it neglected the forms of desire that play quick sequined tricks in firelight.’” He paused. “That’s a very good one, isn’t it?”
He closed the box.
“Let’s start at the beginning. The leopard gardener.”
“A leopard cultivator, leopard trainer, breeder; or conversely a tame leopard, a zoo leopard, born in captivity, fed steaks its whole life, pushing out spots like roses.”
“A tamer of the wild. A zoo. Or flowers. Or leopards. Or what a flower is or what a leopard or zoo is. What’s a flower?”
“Not sex. Maybe romance. I’ve never bought into the sex of flowers.”
“A woman, then, or an apology, or beauty, or spring, or blooming, or just a flower. Or just a gardener, a protected world, a god of some microcosm somewhere.”
“Captivity, exoticism, the wild, cages, children, eyes, feline femininity, the hunter, the hunt, death, or just the leopard.”
“Sounds right. Let’s move on. ‘Fifth floor contradiction?’ A divide, argument, contrary forces. And something of the number five, or height, or actually the fifth floor.”
“Symbolism of fives? Pentagrams, Masonic seals?”
“Fine. Is that enough?”
“For me. ‘It neglected the forms of desire.’ Seems clear. Let’s move on.”
“‘Quick sequined tricks in firelight.’”
A long silence, and when their eyes met they smiled.
“Fine, then. Let me think.”
“Of course…Actually, I’m ready if you’re not.”
“When I was a child, my grandfather lived with us, and in the seven years of my life before he died, he lost his mind to dementia. He would wake up most nights and scream for my mother, yelling about the eyes that covered his walls, wide open and staring. When he sat in our living room, pacified by the soft lights and sounds of daytime television, I would sneak into his room and play with my plastic animal figurines. And among them all, the leopard was king in that place, because the unseen eyes were his spots, and he covered the room, one huge leopard built of a thousand, thousand leopards. When I grew bored with my toys, I would stare at the wall and try to call out the leopards, to see the eyes, to be mad. I called it playing crazy. And I really wanted it, too—to be crazy, to see the eyes, all children want to be mad, to live in their own wonderland of magic leopards that coat the world. When I was seven, my grandfather threw himself out the living room window. And I could never understand how he could do that, just leave the leopards behind, who gave their secret only to him.”
“Mmm. Wonderful. Hold on a moment. I was listening and not remembering.”
“That’s fine,” said the younger man, feeling a vague stirring of hope, lost after a few minutes as the other man began speaking.
“My first wife died of cancer. Of the stomach, that is. It took four years to come about. She was too frail to make love, and the hospital bills took all my money, and the constant scares and disappointments of one failed procedure after another broke my constitution and nerve. At some point along the way I decided I didn’t love her anymore, and I couldn’t separate my life enough to determine whether I never had, which would have been merciful, or if I was really just the worst selfish bastard around and couldn’t handle the burden. Either way, the guilt almost killed me. I won’t lie—the only escape I could see most days was killing her and myself. But, perhaps simply because I was too depressed, I could not motivate myself into any kind of action, and just remained, tried to show myself to her as lovingly as possible, by her hospital bedside, every night. So when she died, I felt this enormous, crushing, drowning, weight of relief, a curtain, an ocean, descending over everything. It wasn’t long before I got a date, and I took her to the zoo [a little laugh] and dinner. We walked around and flirted, enjoying ourselves. Zoos are perfect for watching your date, because in the time she takes looking at the different exhibits, you can look at her, and of course when you’re caught staring at a lover it’s taken as romantic, as long as you’re not embarrassed about it. As I watched her over the course of the day, the changing light and shadow seemed to play many different women on her face. Not my dead wife, don’t misunderstand, just different women, maybe lovers, maybe just other women, and I realized that love, or desire [a little laugh], might be nothing more than the ways we rearrange the articles of our attention until we run up against something real that defies recategorization, like death, or cancer. And I felt godlike, rearranging living people to fit inside the wormy, fleshy parts of my mind. And after realizing all that, I looked at her again, and realized I still wanted her. Two months later I married her. Married still.”
They sat in their draw a while, listless, until the older man said,
“Care to do another?”
“Of course.” Midway to the box, he stopped. “How long have we been doing this?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m still very sure it’s my dream, you know.”
“As am I.”
He remembered the first day they had met, when one had raised the question of who dreamt whom, and the seemingly endless nights that had passed since, identifying metaphorical puzzles of memory for supremacy of existence. And when he slept and dreamt of his waking self, he had the sensation that he was swallowing himself slowly, mouth to tail, a circle closing upon itself, a bubble containing the two dreamers that would one day pop in the mind of some sleeping whalebird somewhere, with the smell of sawdust.