Abigail dreamt that her ex-girlfriend was laying in a field of alpine wildflowers, and that when Abigail reached her–stepping from a flying carpet, holding a juice box—her ex rolled over to offer Abigail the patch of ground she had flattened with her body. The next night she dreamt of walking in on her ex fucking her cousin. Abigail pushed her cousin off the bed, straddled her naked ex, and slapped her. It was a disjointed feeling, the slap; not like ringing a bell but like scrabbling for a hold on a cliffside.
“It switches, every night,” Abigail told her therapist. “One night all tender, the next I’m like Clytemnestra.”
Her therapist was nonplused. “This is normal,” she said. “The brain tries on extreme stories until it tires itself out.”
“Like a child,” Abigail commented. “Or a dog.”
“Does it help to imagine your subconscious as a dog?” her therapist asked.
There were so many plants in the office that Abigail felt as though she were in the wild, or on a set. Every week, the Birds of Paradise was moved somewhere new. “It needs change,” her therapist had told her.
“I don’t really care for dogs,” Abigail said.
Her therapist noted this down.
“What concerns me,” Abigail said, “is that the extremity keeps growing. It’s as if my dreams are reacting to each other. Not like I’m processing the real events.”
“Well,” her therapist said, “we know that every time we touch memory, it changes.”
“Exactly,” Abigail said. “That’s what concerns me.”
Her therapist smiled benevolently at her over her notepad. The rim of her glasses was thick as a finger.
“It’s a relief though,” Abigail said. “I prefer grieving in the dream world.” She was silent a moment, then said, “You know what pisses me off the most?”
“The last thing she said. It was such a cliché. She said that over time I’d forgive her. What kind of a cunt says that while you’re breaking up?”
“She says this in the dreams?”
“No no,” Abigail said, picking at a stain on her jeans. “In real life.”
At the end of the summer, Abigail moved to a new neighborhood, close to the high school. There were three coffee shops in walking distance, and when she opened her bedroom window in the late afternoons, she could hear whistles and shouts from football practice five blocks over. Sometimes she sat at her desk with her work pulled up on the screen and imagined all those teenage boys so narrowly focused on the task at hand, their muscles bulging against spandex, curlicues of calf-hair, penises tucked into little cups, and was delighted and envious of how perfectly contained their lives seemed.
Abigail read that routine is the antidote to heartbreak. She played Settlers of Catan with her roommates on Thursday evenings, and began to take a cycling class every Sunday morning. Her friends told her that her energy seemed lighter. She dreamt that she went to the grocery store, and when she came back her house had disappeared, but that was alright because she was then on a treasure hunt that involved inter-state travel, a rogue vibrator, and a chihuahua, and in the end she was led to believe—led herself to believe?—that her ex had orchestrated it as a means to win her back. The next night she dreamt of driving to her ex’s house in the dead of night with a deer trap and setting it up, jaw gaping and glittering in the moonlight, just outside the door.
“I find nothing problematic there,” Abigail’s therapist said when she reported the dreams. “Your subconscious is doing the work.”
In November, Abagail noticed that her ex was no longer her first thought upon waking. She was ambivalent about this development.
“There’s just something so terribly final about it,” she told her therapist.
“The closest thing to presence is to worship its absence,” her therapist said.
“That’s a good line,” Abigail said. “Do you mind if I write that down?”
“Be my guest,” her therapist said.
Abigail got out her phone and typed it into Notes. Then she crossed her arms and gazed at the Birds of Paradise.
“You know what moving on is like?” Abigail said.
“Like building with Legos in deep space.”
“Could you elaborate?” Her therapist asked.
“No,” Abigail said. “If I have to explain, it ruins it.”
Soon after this session, the dreams ratcheted up in extremity. Abigail dreamt that she and her ex were floating in an amniotic sac, their bodies intertwined to the point of fusion. In the next image, they were driving a Prius, with three kids in the back, and it was clear that the children had been miraculously produced by the mixture of both their eggs. They were all blonde and shiny and wearing red swimsuits. Then she dreamt that her ex was so pregnant that she couldn’t get out of bed, and that Abigail wouldn’t help her, and instead took great pleasure in her ex being prisoner to her own body. She brought her scraps of food and water in a bowl that her ex lapped up like an animal, and despite her ex begging her to stay, Abigail left for the strip club.
“You know what desire’s like?” Abigail said to her therapist.
“Tell me,” her therapist said.
“It’s like one of those food shows, the ones where contestants eat as fast as they can.”
“My mother loved those shows,” her therapist says.
“It’s a race to see who can consume and digest and excrete it the fastest, and the loser is fucked forever.”
“Why fucked forever?”
“Because you can’t stop wanting it if the other person stopped wanting it first.”
Her therapist made a note. “Would you say you broke up over desire?” she asked.
“We broke up because we disagreed about whether we had a problem with desire,” Abigail responded. “Desire in the macro sense. Desire as what keeps you engaged.”
“Interesting,” her therapist said.
Abigail picked a piece of lint off her shirt sleeve and rolled it ferociously between her fingers. “She was bored of me. She wouldn’t admit it, but she was. I was always starved for attention. That’s not a life. You can’t live like that, always peckish.”
“No,” her therapist said, “you can’t.”
Abigail got a raise, and cleaned behind the toilet basin, and planned a cross-country ski trip, and dreamt that her ex caught the virus which was sweeping the globe, and would not stop calling out for Abigail from her hospital bed. She flew to her ex’s bedside, and from her sweaty bedclothes her ex confessed: getting to a state of such precarious mortality had made her realize what really mattered in life. It was obvious, in the dream, that they would live happily ever after. The next night, Abigail dreamt that she and her ex were walking through a semi-apocalyptic city when a zombie jumped out of a man-hole and tried to grab her. Her ex intervened, and he latched on to her instead, and Abigail ran, leaving her ex behind to certain, and gruesome death.
“You’re leaving her behind,” Abigail’s therapist said. “This is a critical part of letting go.”
“To be literally eaten by a zombie,” Abigail replied. “Also, even in the nice dream I’m exposing myself to a virus without a mask and getting back together with her. That’s not really laying healthy patterns as a foundation, is it.”
“Feed it time,” her therapist said.
“Oh, I am,” Abigail said. “I feel like I’m sleeping more and more.”
Her therapist gave her an odd look, as though there’d been a misunderstanding, but neither of them addressed it.
In the spring, as the year anniversary of their breakup approached, the dreams began to fuse. Reconciliation was interwoven with revenge. Her ex pleaded for Abigail to tie her up and beat her black and blue as a sign of love. Every night, Abigail beat her harder, and longer, until her own hands were raw and bleeding and it was only because of her own pain that she stopped. When she looked down at her ex, curled into the fetal position on the mattress, clumps of hair missing, scratches and bite marks and bruises blooming over her body, Abigail felt a tenderness so potent it was as though she had been turned inside out, her unaccustomed flesh quivering against the air.
Abigail had this dream, in the exact same sequence, every night for a month. She finished the roll of 500 trash bags she and her ex had purchased at Costco. She bought the Seafarers expansion pack to Catan. She visited a sex therapist, who told her that on a cosmic level, violence had shifted into the realm of sexuality, as there was no acceptable place for it in society anymore.
“Chopping wood or taking up boxing just isn’t cutting it,” the sex therapist said.
During the daytime, Abigail thought of her ex frequently, but without friction. Her ex scampered across the country lane of her mind, as though her thoughts and the trajectory of he ex inside of them were at right angles, with places to be. It was a pleasant way to live. She began to take naps over her lunch break. She would eat quickly, and then sleep for twenty five minutes on a yoga mat under her desk.
At night, Abigail prepared herself for the dream world—at first nervously, but then, as May turned to June, with excitement. She enjoyed their nightly encounters, which always began with violence, and found completion in sex. Sometimes she woke in the middle of an orgasm. In the mornings she leapt out of bed, invigorated and refreshed. She stopped setting an alarm.
“I think I’m lucid dreaming,” she told her therapist. “It’s incredible. I’m discovering new parts of myself.”
“You feel in control in the dream world?” her therapist asked.
“Oh yeah,” Abigail said, nodding. “Way more than in real life.”
“And what do you dream of, now?”
“Different things,” Abigail lied.
Abigail, who, since the age of fifteen, had never been single for more than twelve days, was no longer interested in dating. Everything she could want from a romantic or sexual partnership was being fulfilled in her dreams. When she heard that her ex was with someone new, the information passed through her heart like water through a colander. That night she dragged her ex around by her ponytail, rode her face, and then commanded her to get herself off, because she didn’t deserve Abigail’s touch. Her first thought on waking was that the sheets didn’t breathe very well, and that she’d take herself on a date to buy a linen set. She deserved it.
It is possible that Abigail could have continued like this indefinitely. Over the summer she lost seven pounds. Her co-workers and friends told her that she was glowing.
But what Abigail didn’t know is that the dream world is not immune to the laws of the real world. In the dream world, time operates with a different pace and velocity, but its properties are the same. Dream characters grow up and change and move on. Abigail could set the scene, but she couldn’t actually control the outcome. In short, her ex grew bored of her, just as she had in real life.
It was subtle at first. Her ex asked if they could have more gentle sex one night, and framed it as though it were an exciting adventure. Then she seemed less turned on by the slapping and the clawing and the pushing around. She began talking less in bed, no longer encouraging Abigail the way she used to. At first Abigail responded with more dominance, but this was difficult to maintain. Her confidence withered. She tried communicating. “This doesn’t work unless I really know you want it,” she said.
“I know,” her ex said, but nothing changed.
Abigail’s waking hours grew more difficult. She thought of her ex incessantly, missed her, resented her, could not wait to get back into the dream world to confront her. She started taking naps during hours when she was supposed to be working. She missed two important meetings, and was given a warning by her boos. Her head felt fuzzy while she was awake, like it couldn’t latch on to anything. She stopped replying to her friend’s texts, and began to exercise very hard, right after work, so that by the time she got home and had eaten dinner, she was exhausted enough to go to sleep.
She tried surprising her ex. She suggested dates, and weekends away, and matching tattoos. She tried wining and dining her. She tried initiating sex not before bed, but in the middle of the night. She tried mornings, too. Her ex didn’t stop her at first, but her heart wasn’t in it. Abigail could feel it. It filled her with desperation and a sadness so deep she thought she might fall through it into oblivion. She wanted to shake her ex and yell, “wake up! Remember us? Remember how it used to be?”
Abigail broke up with her therapist.
“Processing in waking life doesn’t do anything,” she said. “All I want to do is sleep.”
Her therapist set her notepad down. “Surely that’s a sign you need to spend more time awake,” she said.
Abigail shook her head. “Things are getting really serious,” she said. “I’ve got to be present for it, you know?”
“Abigail,” her therapist said. “I must admit, I’m a little concerned.”
“Don’t worry, Doc,” Abigail said. “I’m using everything you taught me. That’s the point, right? Learning how to do all of this on my own?”
Exercise fatigue stopped helping Abigail get to sleep, so she began to drink half a bottle of Merlot before bed every night. It was an effective method. Nobody at work commented on her glow anymore. Her friends, deciding it was time for an intervention, forced her to come out dancing with them one Saturday. She drank seven Pina Coladas, threw up on a sapling, and ordered an Uber. On the way home she looked through her text thread with her ex for the first time, but she didn’t last long. It felt like a cheap imitation of the real relationship, which was the one that existed in her dreams. The next day, she lay on her living room floor and listened to an Esther Perel podcast. Esther was right. They were in the death spiral of desire. Abigail felt a cosmic injustice, that even in the dream world, nothing lasts. She resolved to stop initiating.
Now, when she slipped into bed beside her ex, she wore pajamas and brought a book with her. At first, her ex seemed suspicious, but after about a week of this, stopped commenting. She read her own book. Sometimes she put her hand on Abigail’s thigh as they read, or leaned her head against her shoulder. Abigail’s cunt pulsed, but she ignored it. All I have to do, she thought, is smoke her out. The first time she initiates, I’ll say no, and then we’ll be off to the races. We’ll fuck and she’ll buy me a ring and we’ll start talking and things will get better and better every single day, forever.
But it never came. It was as though intimacy had died and gone to live somewhere else, and her ex was perfectly fine without. She didn’t care about sex. She didn’t care about conversation. Little by little, a part of Abigail changed, too. She lived in a perpetual state of waiting for the romance to return, but while she waited, she learned to enjoy the minor interactions they shared; the jokes, the nighttime cuddles. She could almost live with this.
It was November, again, by then. Abigail was jumpy at work, and had bags under her eyes, but insisted that everything was fine. She felt as though she were soaring through a large open sky, suspended by her fingernails to something she couldn’t look up to see for fear of losing balance and falling. Her ex and her new partner moved to a new city together. “It won’t last,” her friends said. “It’s insane for them to be so serious so quickly.” Abagail shrugged. “I’m happy for her,” she said.
Then, one glorious December day, her ex left her. When she woke to make coffee, she found her ex already out in the living room with a steaming mug and a packed bag. “I feel like we did everything we could do,” she said.
“Are you kidding me?” Abigail yelled. “I literally can’t remember a single thing that you’ve done.”
Her ex shook her head. Abigail could feel the sun beating against the windows and the door. She could not comprehend how she would survive the minutes after her ex left. She was convinced all the oxygen would go with her.
“I did the best I could do,” her ex said. She brought her full cup of coffee back to the kitchen, where it steamed, redundant, on the counter.
“How the fuck is this the best you can do?” Abigail said, trailing behind her.
A garbage truck passed outside.
“I think,” her ex said, “with time, you’ll forgive me.”
“I won’t,” Abigail said. This time she was ready. But the words didn’t do anything. Of course they didn’t. They never would have. They were just words, after all.
Her ex left. Abigail stared at the coffee until the steam died off, and then she went back to bed.
Finnegan Shepard is a trans writer, classicist, and entrepreneur. He holds a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, a third of a PhD from the University of Cambridge, and three quarters of an MFA from the University of New Mexico. Recent work has appeared in The Mystery Tribune, Amarillo Bay, Darkhouse Books, and Typehouse Literary Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Archer’s, and the founder of a trans and non-binary apparel start up called Both&. He is currently finishing up a collection of short stories entitled Turn Your Feelings into Animals and Talk to Them, from which this story has been extracted.