A Dream Deferred

It was difficult to sleep, yet almost impossible to move. It was easy to be irritated about everything that was of no consequence, yet care about nothing that mattered.

Richard Flanagan, The Unknown Terrorist

There is no love. There is only proof of love.

Denis Diderot, or maybe Jean Cocteau

One of the firemen from the station across the alley was peeking in Katherine’s windows. She could hear the crinkle of his heavy yellow coat and the tread of his big rubber boots tramping through her garden, where for years the firemen had been stealing tomatoes and zucchini in the moonlight.

This one, the peeker –Katherine had never actually seen him, yet she nonetheless had a clear image in her mind– was a big fellow, sturdy, and modestly handsome, but old as far as firemen go. She imagined he’d fallen through a roof or two.

Katherine had been a thin, graceful dancer in her younger days, but she’d recently been gaining weight.

Things didn’t always –or even often– turn out the way that people planned. Katherine’s father, who was certainly living proof of this fact, took every opportunity to remind her of it nonetheless. He wasn’t a cold or mean-spirited man –quite the contrary, in fact– and Katherine understood that he intended the words to buoy rather than discourage her. She couldn’t deny, though, that she was feeling a bit discouraged, but she was also a deeply practical woman, and had a keen understanding (or so she believed) of the way the world worked.

Still, she knew that she had lost her life, or at least any life other than the one she had. Her father had always told her that it was never too late, and while this may have been literally true, she also knew that she had become a special case. She was more and more convinced that she was slowly being washed out, becoming invisible.

At some point –it now seemed like such a long time ago– her mother had become ill. She had died very slowly, and afterwards Katherine had stayed on to look after her father and keep him company. This was the way the world in which she lived worked, and she had always accepted that there was a rightness to it. The usual horrors were easier to bear when one had the courage and decency to do the right, simple things, even if they were seldom so simple.

She still carried the life she had once imagined inside her, and it was still as beautiful as it had ever been, and likely more beautiful than it would have been if even a small part of it had been made real. Those old dreams, however, had become in time a very real retreat, and at considerable cost to Katherine’s social skills and comfort level when forced to go out into the world.

She still had her piles of old movies, fashion magazines, and travel brochures, though, and there was still a magic to them that even her retreat had not been able to dispel. She could still quite vividly imagine herself aboard cruise ships and strolling through foreign cities with a smiling, handsome man at her side.

Katherine had now been alone in the big, old house since her father died. The calendar on the kitchen wall still showed the month of his death. It had been almost five years, and she still missed his gentle voice, kindness, and old fashioned manners. In the year before his death he had been bedridden, and Katherine would read to him from the newspaper and from his old favorite books. He loved Sherlock Holmes and Trollope. When she would appear each afternoon with his tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich he would kiss her on the cheek and say, "Don’t you just carry a candle to my heart?"

Her father worried about her. Once upon a time he had built her a large, ornate dollhouse –she was a girl who had from a very early age rejected dolls, dismissing them as "dead children"– and had presented it to her for her birthday one year.

The dollhouse was a beautiful thing. There were tiny chairs and tables and four-poster beds; above the dining room table there was a miniature chandelier, and the living room featured a fireplace and candlesticks on the mantle, a detailed oriental rug, and a coffee table on which were stacked tiny books and magazines. There was even a coat rack inside the front door.

"Who lives here?" Katherine had asked her father.

"That is for you to decide," her father said. "In the meantime, you will live there in your imagination, and every night there will be music and lively conversation and all manner of happiness."

One side of the dollhouse was wide open, and when she was a little girl Katherine would crouch beside it in her bedroom and stare into its still, dark, quiet rooms. It was lovely to her, but there was something about it that also made her sad.

Then one summer she started capturing grasshoppers in the weedy lot of the old abandoned Mormon church at the end of her block, and she would carry the grasshoppers home and place them gently in her dollhouse. She went to the public library and read about grasshoppers in the encyclopedia, and scattered green grass and carrot shavings and green peas and corn throughout the rooms of the dollhouse. She lined one of the four-poster beds with grass, and was delighted to discover a grasshopper drowsing contentedly in the middle of a bed one evening.

Katherine brought home more and more grasshoppers, and they would always disappear after a time, but there were nights where her dollhouse would be trilling into the early morning with their lovely music, just as her father had once predicted.

As she got older, and particularly after her mother’s death, Katherine’s father would often tell her that she needed to get out and meet people. She would answer that she’d never met anyone in her entire life, a petulant statement that nonetheless had some truth to it.

She was shy, and had always believed that she would find her future, and whatever friends she might one day make, somewhere else out in the world. She had never liked to go to church with her parents because there was never anyone there that she knew.

She did take dance lessons for a year or two, studying with an old woman who lived in town and had allegedly once danced on Broadway. Katherine had displayed a natural aptitude for dance, and she had enjoyed the experience and the freedom she felt when she was moving. Eventually, however, she danced exclusively in the privacy of her bedroom, dancing to songs on her phonograph and practicing to to be the person she never became.

One night, after the fireman –whose presence she had still only sensed, but never seen– had been peeking in her windows for several weeks, Katherine realized that she was just lost enough to be stirred by the attention. She was simultaneously tickled and disturbed by how stirred she felt. She felt for the first time in a very long while like a candle had been carried to her heart. The idea that she was being watched, that someone was seeing her, recalled to her the private magic of those long-ago nights when the music of the grasshoppers had filled her room and she had fallen asleep with her head full of beautiful dreams.

Katherine showered, brushed her hair, and went to the hall closet and found her mother’s prettiest dress. She dug out and lit some ancient Christmas candles. And then she put one of her father’s old Strauss records on her phonograph player and she danced.