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Andrew was convinced the writer had been trans. By this point his friends were tired of hearing about it, but he had no one else to tell besides the internet, and he was too smart for that. That would be asking for it.

Samantha Finnes was a minor historical novelist, unknown outside queer circles. In the mid-50s she’d written three books set during the World Wars. They followed the same group of gay men as they aged in and out of one another’s lives, losing their keys and lunch and innocence and sometimes whole chunks of themselves, then finding those lost things again in each other, transformed by time and mundanity. At mid-century she’d been very popular; in the ’70s if a man wanted to show his hand, he’d carry a copy of her last novel, The Spindle of Necessity. She was out of fashion now. Andrew always felt it was because she was regarded as writing out of her lane.

To him her books still rang desperately true. But then, he couldn’t really know. It still didn’t feel like his lane, however hard he tried.

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘true,’” Dave chided. It was Dave’s lane, and had been since he was a twentysomething beauty and hero of early Grindr. Now he was maturing gracefully, like good wood, cured taut in precisely the right places. Andrew tried not to be jealous. “I mean, true to what? The ’30s? Things are different now. You don’t judge the authenticity of Cabaret by going to Strap.”

Andrew nodded, embarrassed. Of course, he’d never been to Strap, or Philter, or even that one drag bar in the south end where Milwaukee’s straight women flocked for their bachelorettes. He lacked the courage—no, he hadn’t earned it. It was because he romanticized things. No, dammit, say it plain: he romanticized a certain iteration of gayness. He knew it was wrong. He’d been on Twitter enough to learn that. It had taken him so long to transition largely because he could never know for sure if he wanted to be a real gay man or merely an ideal one. Sometimes he still couldn’t tell.

He loved Finnes because it felt like she understood. The dominant affect of her novels was longing. Not hunger or envy or despair, but the kind of weary heartsickness you sometimes met in early fantasy, Mirrlees’s Faerie or Dunsany’s Elfland. People gazing with firm English stoicism over the blue hills at a land where they knew they could never live. Spindle even tacitly acknowledged this: the book’s central lovers struggled to reconcile the love they had with the love they wanted, when the world denied them both.

“Listen to this,” he’d once told his friend Adrian, trying to explain. It was a passage from early in Spindle, where one man has just gifted another, younger and more naïve, a copy of Plato’s Phaedrus. “He hands over the book and tells him, ‘It doesn’t exist anywhere in real life, so don’t let it give you illusions. It’s just a nice idea.’”

“OK,” Adrian said. “What am I listening for exactly?”

They were sitting in their usual booth at the local diner, a chromey tourist trap whose attempt at gentrification had badly missed the mark. Andrew had always liked it. Its inherent embarrassment overshadowed his own.

“Just the—desire for an ideal, something you think is impossible, so you find it in books,” he said. “And you tell yourself it’s silly, but at the same time you live a secret second life there, despite yourself.” Adrian was nodding seriously, trying to follow. Andrew winced. “And that life feels more real than your real one. It’s just—that’s exactly what it’s like sometimes,” he finished lamely, too ashamed to explain further.

“Sure,” she said. “Although lots of people want what they can’t have.” Adrian was kind, and never told him outright he was projecting. “Finnes had a lot of gay friends, didn’t you say? She probably knew enough to get that feeling right.”

“Haha, yeah.” He tried to sound careless. “I guess it’s doing a disservice to her as an author, to think she couldn’t imagine that experience. Pretty sexist of me, too, right? Expecting a woman couldn’t write beyond herself.” He laughed. Above him the diner’s blue lights blinked, affecting cozy authenticity.

“Nah,” said Adrian, in the tone that meant, I hadn’t thought of it, but yes.

 


 

That night Andrew lay, glasses off, in the stuffy heat of his fifth-floor studio in the university district. Two floors below an undergraduate party thumped. At twenty-eight, he was the oldest tenant in the building. Finnes’s biography lay on his chest. Its spine was broken. In the dim light it splayed over his collarbone, irritated his chest’s new fuzz.

Only one biography of Finnes existed, popular not academic, based on an interview she gave in the ’70s. It provided scaffolding details of her life: born in St. Albans, read Classics at Oxford, war nurse in ’43, where she met her lifelong partner, Madge Sims. After the war she’d drifted for awhile, then moved abruptly to New York, where she joined a loose circle of writers, mostly expatriate, all queer. The biography had no flesh on it. It was all bones and feathers, facts and bon mots. Finnes was top of her class at St. Hugh’s; she’d kept an apartment in Athens with the poet John Merman in the ’60s; she always kept cats. Once she’d called Radclyffe Hall a whiner. She often said she wished she’d been born a man.

Her papers were scattered across several archives. If Andrew hadn’t flunked out of grad school (“left,” Adrian would insist, “you have to stop blaming yourself”), he would have tried to compile them. He’d even tried to write a grant once. But he could find no convincingly scholarly way to say, I want to see if Finnes was like me. It was too facile a project for academia, anyway. He still read Transgender Studies Quarterly sometimes. He knew whatever he wrote wouldn’t cut it.

So he simply read what he could when he could, and irritated his friends with his findings. Two years now he’d been at it, and even his trans friends, who knew what sort of weird obsessions accompanied coming out, were beginning to tire. He had found no conclusive evidence. And though Finnes was dead, she could still be violated. His friends’ lengthening silences said he was edging close.

In his most honest moments—granted, he was never exactly sure when these were—he admitted it was probably futile. He was not even sure what he wanted out of proof, should he find it. Still.

In the orange streetlight slanting in the window, he tipped the biography up on his chest to reread a passage about the war years.

He did not remember falling asleep, but he woke with a start to a high eerie wail.

Where his bedroom walls had closed, a darkened corridor stretched, lined with lumpy cots. Thick black blankets shrouded the windows. Dim lights swung up and down the corridor, cupped in pinecone-shaped lanterns. He knew at once.

He had never had a lucid dream before. At first he tried to see how much he could command it: thinking hard at the ward, the dying all-clear siren, his ill-fitting striped patient’s pajamas. Nothing changed.

He gave up and looked for Finnes. Andrew’s subconscious was not subtle. There was only one reason it would dump him in a WWII British hospital.

It took longer than dream-logic should have dictated. Several harried nurses clopped by before she appeared, a pale woman of about twenty, with the long androgynous face mid-century novelists always called coltish. Probably she could have even passed, in different dress. Clothes meant a lot more in the ’40s.

She stopped by his bedside, glanced at a paper clipped to its iron frame.

“Samantha Finnes?” he asked before she said anything.

She narrowed her eyes but refused, apparently, to be nonplussed. He felt curiously embarrassed, as if this weren’t just a dream, something his id was doing to satisfy him. “You’re American,” she said.

“My name is Andrew.”

“Yes, it’s on your chart. Where did they bring you in from, Dunkirk?”

“I … um.” There was no reason he shouldn’t jump right into it. This was the fantasy where he revealed her to herself, wasn’t it? He wondered if his subconscious was like his friends, secretly nudging him to get over it and move on. He gulped. “Miss Finnes. Have you ever wondered if you aren’t, um, actually a woman?”

Her face did not change, but the horseish line of her neck tightened slightly. “So they gave the morphia already,” she said. “Did they at least change your dressing?”

“I mean you already know you’re queer, right? You’re twenty-three, you figured it out at Oxford.” This was all fake. Why was it so hard? “It’s sort of like that, but different …”

She was ignoring him, leaning over with a roll of white gauze. Concentration hardened her face to marble. He had never seen close-up pictures of her before. He was staring so hard he jumped when she went for his first pajama button.

“Hey—you can’t—”

“Keep your voice down,” she snapped, and kept unbuttoning.

He shut up, humiliated at how amateurish this dream was. The lazy trans reveal: the guy shows his scars, the woman is caught tucking. If he read it in a novel he’d tut-tut. But some part of him wanted dream-Finnes to know, to see, and that part was stronger than the knowledge that it made him bad. He knew that anyway.

She finished. Her face did not shift as she stared down at him. He met her eyes, challenging. “Another world is possible,” he said, soft and portentous and only realizing he was quoting a second too late. God, his id was corny.

Finnes didn’t reply. He watched her eyes for some spark of recognition or surprise, peered as if he weren’t controlling her and this whole dark ward with its sweat reek and keening siren. There was nothing. Only she seemed to turn harder than ever, grim and white, with a limestone weariness too old for her young face.

Like a soldier, he thought, before he woke up.

 


 

In the morning, when he relayed the dream to Adrian over pancakes in their booth, she pursed her lips and nodded tolerantly.

He remembered the time—probably at this same diner—she had asked him directly why he cared so much about Finnes. He’d sat for a long time, thinking. He could easily have said, Finnes loves men the way I do, and if she was one, I can be too; his cis friends liked answers that meant they could reassure him. Yet it was not the whole truth. Finnes’s idealized lovers moved him too deeply. He feared he loved them more than reality, and tricked by that love, he’d become the wrong sort of man—a gay groupie, a fetishist, a naïve idealist. If Finnes was trans it made it OK, somehow. If she was real, he could claim to love reality through loving her books. And loving reality was his ticket to being accepted by it, by himself.

All right, so maybe he did still need reassurance. But Adrian couldn’t provide it; no case she might make could prove his romanticism was defensible. Dave might have made one, if Andrew had ever had the nerve to ask. But he hadn’t—not Dave, or any of his cis gay friends.

How had he answered Adrian, that day? He couldn’t remember.

She was staring at him now over her coffee with open concern. Clearly she thought he ought to forget about the dream, because she started steering the conversation towards more general Finnesaria.

He obliged. On reflection it was pretty embarrassing. Even his id refused him a real answer.

“I mean if you’re still this obsessed, maybe you should apply for a grant again?” she asked. “There might be interest, given that reissue of her fourth novel. Fantasy’s hot right now, you know? Even though it’s barely fantasy, just kind of fake Greek history …”

Fourth?” he said, loudly enough that when she stared at him, he pretended his surprise had been at something else. He kept pretending until the end of breakfast.

When he ran home there it was, on his shelves. The Relayers, in an old orange Penguin edition, its cover a winged foot crowned with laurel. He didn’t remember reading it, but when he opened it up the margins were full of his tiny, neat notes. Feeling entranced, he carried it gingerly to his chair by the window, sank down, and read.

It was, as Adrian had said, kind of fake Greek history. The story followed a pair of lovers, both runners, as they grew up together during what was transparently a fantasy version of the Persian invasion of Attica. It culminated with the battle of Marathon. Beneath the veneer of fake names, it seemed excruciatingly careful about getting its details correct, as if Finnes were half-ashamed of doing what Britain itself had, robbing and mutilating someone else’s history.

But mostly it was a love story, unlike any Finnes Andrew had ever read. Her characteristic longing was still there, but focused, purposeful as light honed in a prism. At the story’s climax, the great relay from “Fennelain” to “Polias,” the elder lover ran ten miles extra to save the younger part of his stretch. And when he died (beautifully, of a heart attack), it had the sting of high tragedy rather than kill-your-gays. If Finnes’s prose were less restrained, this melodrama might have curdled into ridicule. But the book was marble, refusing to apologize for its idealism. Its warrior-lovers were devoted and unafraid. They’d never once thought to be ashamed.

Reading it, he felt the same way he had the first time he’d opened The Spindle of Necessity: exposed, as if the book had caught him out. A white light burned in his chest, too bright to look at. He knew its name was desire, but that word was too small for the feeling, which was like looking into the sun. There was no nuance, no tidy explanation (say, wanting to be a man like that); just a ball of fire.

When he put the book down he was shaking. His dream could not have caused this. The novel was old and full of his handwriting. His friends were right: he was losing it. He should step away.

He called Dave to talk himself down. He tried to introduce the dream delicately, but Dave knew something about avoidance, and where to push.

“So you dreamed you tried to crack Finnes’s egg and it made you forget she wrote that Greek book? Yeah, I’d say that’s a thing to worry about.” He could hear the small sigh of Dave blowing smoke, and the hum of the docks district below. He must be on his balcony. “Is this about you feeling inadequate? Like, feeling you can’t go to the bars with me?”

Andrew wanted to say that feeling unwelcome wasn’t the same thing as inadequacy, but he did, also, feel inadequate. So he just said, “No. I don’t know what it is.”

“Maybe you should call your therapist again? Work through it?”

“No.” The bristle in his voice surprised him. “I just need to grow up and get over it.”

Dave’s pause was so long it became a silence. Andrew did not dare break it. Finally, Dave said, “I didn’t think I’d hear you talking like this again. Do what you have to, I guess. Just remember, Drew, you can’t get over who you are?”

It was the sort of crypto-philosophical thing Dave was always saying. Andrew hung up without asking him what it meant.

That night he walked for a long time before sleep. He was ashamed, and not even of the right things—like how Finnes’s novels, problematic in the way of all aged art, rung him more than the modern books he was supposed to love; like how the community he longed for was rife with misogyny and racism; like how he could never tell if his fears were his own, or internalized transphobia: all the shameful truths that, before his transition, he’d seen as proof he didn’t deserve it. No, it was the same damn romanticization of lovers who didn’t exist—and maybe shouldn’t, he realized, for all the reasons he’d just listed. Maybe the shames weren’t so distinct.

He walked. Up the lakefront, past the art museum, among the old, car-clogged streets of the east side; down one street which had been the city’s Castro in the ’70s; down another where the famous trans activist had once lived, before he moved west and died young, in ’91. He listened, but the streets were mute, like a refusal. He felt like he was dragging himself along behind himself, an extra weight on his own legs. There was no one to relieve him, to pass the baton to.

 


 

This time the dream room was dark and unfamiliar. He did not recognize its faded furnishings or the musky couch on which he lay. Runnels of candlelight drained down the walls from a cracked door. Beyond, pleasant voices chatted.

Pushing through, he saw a tall dining room whose shadows leapt to the ceiling. At one end of a long table clustered eight people, hands linked around a flickering candelabra. He knew three: Finnes, Madge Sims, and the poet John Merman. The man next to Merman, chin on his shoulder, was likely his lover Daniel Hepham. From their clothes, he guessed the early ’60s.

This would be one of Merman’s famous séance sessions, then, and the location his rambling Victorian in upstate New York. Andrew knew Merman had held séances and Finnes attended. But it was a strange turn for his subconscious to take. For starters, the metaphor was backward. Why a séance, if he was trying to exorcise something?

As if speaking for his id, Hepham said as Andrew entered, “It worked! We’ve summoned your Midwesterner, Sam.”

Finnes turned. Age had squared her coltish face, and her smile was casual but guarded. “Hello again,” she said. Next to her, Sims pulled out a chair. Bewildered, he sat.

Someone uptable called, “Come on, Jack, must you give Sam special treatment? I want to bring my fan club next time.” Someone else replied, “You already did; you’re here, aren’t you?” A different voice shot a rejoinder, and the séancers groused genially at each other for a minute. The warm dark caught and held their rising voices, a cozy, hermetic atmosphere.

Andrew wondered what his dream wanted with this backdrop. Maybe just the usual, dangling a belonging he didn’t feel he’d earned as a deterrent, or punishment.

He noticed Finnes did not take part in the raillery, though she watched it with stiff attention. Of course: he knew she hated any whiff of tribalism. In Spindle, the older lover flees in disgust from a party of winkingly fey men, complaining they’d made their secret into their prison. Andrew had always found this an uncompassionate position. If you never left the closet, of course you’d dig yourself in, decorate the walls, make it a home. He had always wondered how Finnes applied her severe standards to herself. Well, no, be honest: he thought he’d known.

He looked over to find her frowning at him. His id again, telling him to get on with it.

“I, um, enjoy your work,” he said.

“I hope so, as you’ve been christened my fan club.”

He fiddled with his hands a moment, then remembered how absurd reticence was. This was his dream, his quest to get over himself. He drew a deep breath.

“You write desire between men very movingly,” he said, like a Vintage Classics introduction. “Especially for a—woman.”

“High praise.” Her voice was flat.

“Sorry, I meant for a—someone who doesn’t—”

“Yes?”

Andrew realized, horrified, what question he was wading towards. None of his friends had ever needed to object but Finnes was a lesbian. The point was understood, one of the reasons his theory was especially cringey. For his part, he’d never had the guts to reply, that doesn’t matter, or some of us think we are, at first.

He caught himself in time. “—actually I was wondering if you planned on any more fantastic novels. I really liked The Relayers.” A dull question, which would grant him time to think of one that could give her—his brain’s version of her—a cue to snuff his obsession forever.

Instead she straightened. “Did you prefer it?”

Surprised, he didn’t reply at once.

“Well? Did you?”

There was no safe way to answer this question, to a writer. He settled for the truth. “It felt freer.”

She took so long to reply that when she did, the badinage had lulled. Her words stamped bright on the silence. “Yes. I suppose it did.”

As she spoke, it seemed as if she wanted to look away from Andrew. But she refused herself, and held his eyes. Beside her, Sims touched her hand.

Merman chose that moment to intercede. “Come join the circle, young man.” He scooted aside and patted the bench to his left. “Nine is a lucky number for a séance. Three by three—we could raise Dante.”

Bewildered that the dream hadn’t ended, that nothing seemed expunged, Andrew stood and resat where Merman had indicated. He lay his hands on the red damask. Merman took his right and thumped it on the table, reassuringly. At his left, a duckish expat took the other. “Don’t get your hopes up,” he stage-whispered. “We’ll try for Dante but settle for Leopardi.” “Leopardi isn’t settling!” someone else hissed.

As Andrew stared around the circle of amused, middle-aged faces, smiling at him in degrees of awkward or encouraging welcome, what struck him most was how little it felt dug-in or tribal, despite Finnes’s laborious scorn, and how even though his own brain had conjured the scene expressly to thrust him outside it, he did not feel like an intruder, not at all.

 


 

When he woke there were two more Finnes novels. He’d checked his bookshelf first thing, and there they stood: The God’s Mouth, about a poet from fantasy-Delos; Thunder from High, about an actor from fantasy-Sicily. Both books were old, filled with his handwriting. When he googled them, they had multiple pages of hits. He couldn’t remember either.

Fear made his chest seize, the room loll in and out of focus. He sat. He lay the books on his lap and tried to hold the weight of his disappointment. The novels were proof he’d failed to wring himself of his theory. If anything, the dye now bled deeper. What good were dreams if they made things worse? How many more Finnes books would he forget in his idiot quest to prove something he apparently needed to be true?

He pulled his knees to his chest and rocked. He knew he should text Adrian, and not read.

He was halfway through Thunder when she called. The sun had filled his lungs again, burning out the air. As he read he’d had to keep getting up to pace out the joy, the panic.

“Put on something nice and be ready at seven,” she said.

“Why?”

“Blue’s having jukebox bingo tonight. I’m going. You’re coming.”

He obeyed to the letter, though wondered about nice. Blue was the city’s sole dyke bar. It was low-key and midwestern, and smelled of imported beer and stale popcorn. Its crowd was a mix of older queers in hoodies or basketball jerseys. Andrew had always felt safe there.

Adrian knew it. As she maneuvered them a seat, he could tell from her cheery rescue-mission tone that she was here to drag him out of himself. He hoped this meant she wouldn’t ask him about Finnes. She didn’t. For an hour they played bingo, made mild conversation. The white light in his chest dimmed, and he could feel his own heartbeat for the first time that day. He almost forgot Thunder from High, waiting half-read at home, filled with his unremembered handwriting.

As he calmed, he paid closer attention to Adrian. Like him, she was overdressed: a blue split-sleeve with a sheer back, her good dark skinny jeans. Theoretically, dressing up helped people feel better. He’d never experienced it in practice. But Adrian had tried. He felt warmly grateful.

“You look good,” he said, smiling. “Just wanted to be fancy tonight?”

“Actually …” She tapped her phone. “Dave and I are going dancing later. Strap, maybe Level. You want to join?”

Her nonchalance was exquisitely practiced. Put on something nice. A ringing numbness filled him like white noise. In his chest the panic whined, rose, became anger. He knew by Adrian’s flinch he’d failed to control his face.

She said quickly, “We thought you might—”

“I know. I know.” Their intentions were good, he tried to remember. They were his friends. They would not consciously mock him, fling him into a place that saw only what he wasn’t and suspected him for it, confirmed what he suspected of himself. “I appreciate the offer. But no thanks. I’m going home.”

He stood. Elsewhere, beneath another world’s sun, dawn glinted from the rostra of a fleet blockading an island that wasn’t quite Sicily.

“Drew,” Adrian said. “Please.”

He half-turned. He owed her not to be a dick about this.

“Listen,” she continued. “We’re worried about you. It’s not that your Finnes thing is bad! We’ve all got our obsessions, right? But it’s like the only way you’ll be OK with yourself is by proving this. But you’re you, not her. And you live now. Here! With us.”

With what he hoped Finnes would’ve called great restraint, he faced Adrian. Her voice was split with worry. What an ungrateful bastard he was. Was this his version of digging in, making himself a tribe of one? How much worse than the closet Finnes despised.

He drove compassion into his voice like a nail. “Thanks, Addy. Really. I appreciate it. I just—can’t, now. Please understand.”

“OK,” she said faintly. “Do you need—”

But he was already turning.

At home, on the beach of not-quite-Sicily, the soldier-lovers were bathing. Above, the setting sun was a ball of fire, too bright to look at. Tomorrow they would attack. As evening bled the sea violet, they leant together in the night wind, hair prickling on their damp thighs. They gazed at not-quite-Syracuse. This campaign was doomed, the pet project of a bored and overripe democracy. But the lovers had no regrets. They’d chosen it as they’d chosen each other, freely.

That was how you knew it was fiction, Andrew thought. But he didn’t stop reading.

 


 

That night he tried so deliberately to fall asleep it took him hours. When at last he succeeded, it was as if his subconscious, surrendering to his desire to dream, gave him an even dreamier landscape than usual.

He was sitting against an oak’s bole in the green eye of a meadow, painterly and unreal. Every outline wavered, like some liminal fairy space, the Debatable Hills or the edge of the fields we know. Watercolor trees smudged the milky sky. The air was sweet and heavy. It was all very English.

“Hello, fan club,” Finnes said.

She sat beside him, her profile the only sharp thing in the landscape. This time her face was deeply tan above its white oxford. The color suited her: rough and alive, like good wood.

He did not bother with pleasantries. Maybe the spareness of the scenery meant he’d peeled something back, and spoke directly to the deep, flinching part of him. Maybe that part would finally listen.

“I need to ask you something,” he said.

“Go ahead.”

He explained then, haltingly—not just himself, but everything. He drew from the 101 he’d given his parents when he’d first come out. He gave a potted summary of trans history, old and recent; of procedures generally; of the ones he’d had. He omitted nothing. At last he reached into his chest and scooped out the heart of his shame, his romanticization of gay men, the men in her novels.

As he spoke, he watched Finnes’s face. It creaked, but did not move.

He finished. He waited.

“Well?” she said.

“I—aren’t you surprised?”

She smiled, not unkindly. “Did you think I didn’t know? I’ve met men like that.”

He reconsidered. She was his dream—wasn’t she?—so of course she knew. What had he hoped to achieve by telling her? What did he want out of this again?

Knitting his fingers, he gazed out at the downy English meadow. He thought suddenly of the end of Spindle, when one lover apologizes to the other that he’s fucked up his life by idealizing him, idealizing their love, and that he was leaving so he couldn’t do it anymore.

“I think you are a man like that,” he said. He swallowed. “I mean, I want you to be.”

“I know,” she said without skipping a beat. “You don’t see the virtue in playing the cards you’ve been dealt.”

His chest tightened. “But see, you don’t have to.” Somehow he’d landed here again, trying to claw back what he’d come to disprove. “You don’t have to be miserable.”

“You have no idea of my pains or pleasures, young man. I’d thank you to stop assuming.”

“But if you could be different—”

“Then I would be different.” Her tone was final. “Thank you for your concern, Andrew.”

He stared at her, straight-backed against the oak. Against the meadow’s pastel wash her outline was rigid, though when he peered closer it trembled slightly, as if held together by military effort. Her eyes were illegible. He could not tell what part of himself he was facing.

Looking back at him, she said, “My books have been something of a refuge for you. Is that right?”

“Yes, of course,” he said bitterly. “That’s the whole problem.”

Their eyes were still locked as he said this, so he saw the shift, the tremor. “Problem?”

“They’re not real, they’re nothing close to my life or anyone’s life. They’re wrong, don’t you understand? And loving them makes me wrong.” He barreled through this explanation, resentful he had to give it, as if it wasn’t the whole reason they were both here. In his fervor, he nearly missed the stitch of humiliation cramp her face.

“If they are so upsetting to you, then stop,” Finnes said coldly. Each word was punctuated with anger. He suddenly understood it was not at him. “Just stop.”

A bubble of silence dropped over the meadow. From inside its emptiness Andrew looked at Finnes, fixed against the oak. Her spine was straight as a captain’s who has never left the field, her eyes as exhausted.

He felt a sharp, overpowering surge of shame and grace, as if he’d never fought anything as hard as she had, was relieved he would never have to.

“I can’t,” he said.

“Then don’t.” Pain cramped her face again. Then softly, “I couldn’t.”

“Wait, do you mean you—”

She stood, refusing the support of the trunk. “Goodbye, Andrew.”

Turning, she began to walk away. Her hard angles receded into the floral blur.

He considered stopping her, then accepted he could not, or did not want to. That same strange, shameful relief tugged at his eyelids. Somehow he knew this dream would be the last. Finnes had refused to absolve him of his love; he’d refused to absolve himself. Was that forgiveness? Or didn’t it matter, because he was never going to stop?

You can’t escape reality, he thought hazily, in books or dreams. But you couldn’t live without dreaming either. And sometimes, if you were lucky, you dreamed yourself awake.

Drowsily he watched Finnes go. She diminished, enfolded by green, until he was left alone in the dream’s fairy no-place: its ideal of a meadow, which did not exist but lived only in the mind as a language for loving real meadows, a door into their endless summer, a way through.

 


 

He woke to a string of texts from Adrian and Dave. They’d skipped Strap and wanted to meet him for brunch, to apologize.

not your fault, he texted groggily. give me a few hours. Morning was gold in the window. He must have dreamed all night.

Next to him on the bed lay a slim, faded book, margins blue with his handwriting. Symposia, by Samantha Finnes.

Instinctively he knew he would find no answers there. He would never find them. From the fog of sleep his shame choked biliously up. He breathed, and let it. It was part of him, like the dream itself. No truth about Finnes or anybody else would change it.

At length the burn cooled, and he was still himself after.

He flipped open the first page.

Familiar names leapt out at him. How strange: not another fake-Greek novel, but a sequel to Spindle. It had been published in 1982, a year before Finnes’s death.

There was no way he’d go to brunch without at least starting. He settled back into bed, and read.

The book’s centerpiece was a dinner scene, hosted by Spindle’s main couple. Now middle-aged, they’d settled comfortably in a rambling stone bungalow, where they entertained a rotating cast of friends and lovers. That evening they’d invited some younger people, painted in Finnes’s characteristic detail. Andrew read the descriptions slowly: Ralph, a coltish and inflexible twentysomething; his lover Laurie, an anxious ex-scholar. As the dinner got cozier and drunker, Ralph hung back in a fever of scorn.

Laurie fared better. He let himself go, as in those trust exercises where you fall back into your teammates’ arms. By the time the hosts pulled out their inevitable Ouija board, he was laughing. With everyone else he put his fingers to the planchette. Hands touching, they talked to the past. When the past replied its answers were cryptic: half-remembered and half-created, neither real nor ideal, a prison and a refuge, as the past always is.

From the sidelines Ralph watched, his eyes burnt, until Laurie got up and pulled him in, smiling.

Andrew’s phone buzzed again. It was 11:30, and Adrian was offering to pick him up. wear whatever you like, she joked contritely.

sure, he texted.

He stuck a bookmark in Symposia and clambered out of bed. On his chair he found flung the shirt he’d thrown off last night. As he buttoned it up in the mirror, he practiced his own apologies.

Pulling back, he surveyed his reflection. He had none of Finnes’s power of description. But he thought he looked OK.

As he jogged down the stairs towards Adrian’s waiting car, he thought with gratitude that he still had Thunder to finish, and The God’s Mouth to reread. Whatever game his brain was playing with him, it meant he’d get to encounter Finnes’s work as if for the first time: dream worlds he could gaze through like windows, different from this one but transparent to it, on whose light glass his own image moved.

But that could wait. He felt a sudden keen hunger to be outside, in the lifting mist of the morning city; to get sunburnt on a sidestreet patio; to drink in a dark bar beside someone he liked. Maybe he’d even go dancing.

 


Editor: Hebe Stanton

First Reader: Hebe Stanton

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



B. Pladek is a writer and literature professor based in Wisconsin. He’s published fiction in Strange Horizons, Slate Future Tense Fiction, Lightspeed, and elsewhere. His debut novel Dry Land appeared in 2023. You can find him @bpladek on all socials.
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10 Jun 2024

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