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The Phantom Lover

A Short Story by Marshall Riggan

Martin Craft watched his wife sleeping. She was lying on her back, her face toward him, the sheet pulled down around her hips. For a long time, he gazed at her, as if committing the beauty of her face and body to memory. When he reached to touch her, he could see that her eyes were moving rapidly beneath the lids, REM, they called it, a sure sign that she was locked within a dream. How odd, he thought, for all these years we have shared our waking life absolutely, but in our dreams, we are total strangers. Even when I am holding her in the night, there are times when she goes away and does not take me with her.

It doesn’t seem fair. Where does she go? Who is she with? Even now as he watched her sleeping, her eye movements became more rapid and she began to take deep ragged breaths and a pulse began to appear at the base of her throat and her nipples were becoming erect and swollen. Damn, he thought, she’s having sex in her dream! At first he thought it would be cruel to wake her, to interrupt her plea sure. After all, maybe she was making love to him. But, then, how could he know a stranger wasn’t in bed with them, and that was unacceptable. When she began to moan, he shook her gently and called her name. “Alice?”

She sighed deeply and her lips opened and she mumbled something unintelligible and she seemed to be pulling herself up out of a deep sleep. Then, after a while, she opened her eyes and she looked around as if wondering where she was. She turned toward him. “What?” she asked, with some irritation, he thought.

“I’m sorry. You were dreaming,” he said.

“I guess I was. Was I making a lot of noise or something?”

“I thought you might be having a nightmare.”

Alice smiled. “No it certainly wasn’t a nightmare.”

“What was it?”

“Just a dream.”

“What kind of dream? Why are you smiling like that?”

“Well, if you must know it was a sexy dream. I dreamed I was making love.”

“Was it with me?”

“No. Look, it was only a dream.”

“Who with then?”

“Honey, you’re being silly. She rolled toward him, touched his cheek. “Don’t you think it’s kind of private, a dream like that?”

“ It looked to me like you had an orgasm.”

“So? Men have orgasms in their sleep all the time. Why not women? Haven’t you ever had a wet dream?”

“Well, yes, but.” He was embarrassed, but he couldn’t resist asking, “Who was it?”

“Stop this, Martin! You’re being disgusting.”

“But who was it?”

“It was just a guy.”

“What guy?”

“If you must know, it was a guy at work.”

“Was it good?”

Alice rose on one elbow. Martin noticed that her nipples were still hard. “You mean you want the gory details?”

“Yeah.”

“You’ re joking.”

“No.”

Laughing, Alice told him that it happened in one of the storage rooms at work. “First Jeff kissed me, then I kissed him back. Then we were doing it.”

“Naked?”

“As jaybirds.”

“So his name is Jeff? Did you have oral sex?”

“It was a dream, Martin! A fantasy! Alice climbed out of bed and slipped into a robe. “Let’s get some coffee.”

Alice brewed the coffee and Martin went out on the porch to get the morning paper. On his way, he couldn’t help thinking about Jeff, trying to picture what he looked like, trying to picture Alice naked with somebody else. It was all more than troubling.

As he browsed the paper and sipped his coffee, he glanced up at Alice and was once again startled by how pretty she was, even without makeup and her hair drifting off in all directions. How could Jeff not be attracted to her. And they worked together every day.

“What was it like?” he asked.

“What was what like?” she asked, not looking up from the paper.

“Last night. With Jeff.”

Alice slammed the paper down on the table, spilling her coffee. “Martin! Get over it! It was a dream!”

“I just don’t think we should have secrets from each other.”

“Jesus, Martin. It’s not a secret. I told you what happened. I had a dream and in that dream this guy and I were making love. I apparently had an orgasm, a dream orgasm.”

“Was this the first time you dreamed you were with Jeff like that?”

“You are making me angry, Martin. Think how crazy it is to be jealous of a man in a dream.” Suddenly, she stood, threw the newspaper at Martin and went to her studio.

At her day job, Alice was an illustrator in an advertising agency. But her passion was creating original oils and her home studio was filled with her paintings, mostly nudes, large, bold images rendered in thick vivid colors applied with a palette knife. Martin wished she would paint with brushes like a normal artist. For one thing, it would save on the cost on paint. For another, maybe the images would be more human and accessible and detailed. Now he watched her as she worked on a huge male nude, at least he thought it was a male nude. It seemed there was a suggestion of male genitalia. He couldn’t help wondering if it was a painting of Jeff.

When Martin got to his office at the Chevrolet dealership he booted up his computer. After checking his e-mails and making a survey of the baseball scores, he sank into his chair and thought about Alice and Jeff. He knew he was being irrational, but he couldn’t get the dream out of his mind. He went on the Internet and made a Google search of sex dreams. He was surprised how many sites were listed. He clicked on the first one and read the text. He learned that the studies showed women had just as many wet dreams as men and that most of these dreams were connected to something going on in real life. He also learned that psychologists explain that some sex dreams may be wish fulfillment. What she desires in real life and cannot have, she resorts to in her dreams. But the most disturbing fact he learned, which was repeated on many websites, was that the sex in a woman’s dream was often described as more erotic and satisfying than sex in the real world. So, he surmised, Alice’s dream might well have been wish fulfillment and was better than the real thing.

He had always considered that he and Alice had a good sex life. She was passionate and inventive and gave him no reason to believe that she wasn’t satisfied. Although she had been rather wild in college -- among the reasons he had been attracted to her -- she had since been a model of decorum. So why would she dream of Jeff? He thought of them now, together. They would probably go to lunch together and then what?

By noon he had worked himself into a state. His heart was racing and unwanted images kept flashing behind his eyes. He locked the office door, moved to a wet bar within a credenza and poured himself a drink. Installing the bar was one of the first things he had done when he bought the dealership. It was obvious he was in no mood to get much work done, so he poured himself another few fingers of bourbon, and he laid down on the office couch. He took a nap. He didn’t dream.

In the late afternoon, he drove to the office building where Alice worked. He parked in the parking lot and watched the employees file from the building at closing time, some alone, some in pairs. He wondered which one was Jeff. Then he saw Alice. She was walking with a young man. They were involved in an animated discussion, gesturing dramatically, laughing together. He couldn’t remember when he and Alice had laughed together like that. At one point, when they reached the curb around the parking lot he touched her waist, as if to guide her safely over the obstacle. Martin thought his touch lingered a bit too long. When they reached Alice’s car, she opened the driver’s side door and they stood there talking. Then she smiled and slipped into the seat, closed the door, waved and drove away.

The young man watched Alice’s car until it was out of sight. Martin studied his rival. He was younger than Alice, tall, with dark hair that curled down over his collar, and a short beard and mustache. There was no doubt in Martin’s mind that the young man was Jeff, the man who had made love to his wife the night before.

That evening, Martin and Alice had martinis and watched the news, as was their habit. Then, she prepared a salad and he grilled steaks on their patio. As they were eating, Martin asked a question he had been burning to ask since he had seen Alice and the young man in the parking lot. “Did you see Jeff at work?”

She looked up. He could see something between anger and resignation in her eyes. “You won’t let it go, will you? Yes, I saw Jeff. I see Jeff every day. We work for the same agency, in the same building.”

“I was just curious how it felt seeing him after what you dreamed about him. I wonder if you were embarrassed?”

“Martin. What do you want me to say? That I’m having an affair?”

“You must be attracted to him or you wouldn’t have had that dream.”

“Oh, Lord, Martin. Where is all this coming from?”

“It’s just that I don’t want to lose you, that’s all. I don’t want you to be intimate with somebody else.”

Alice got up and began washing the dishes.

“Was Jeff good?”

“He was wonderful, Martin. He was tender and passionate and knew just how to turn me on. I had an orgasm, you know. Possibly two. And, yes, we did have oral sex.” She rinsed the dishes, dried her hands. “Now I don’t want to talk about this ever again! I’m going to have another drink, work for a while in the studio, and then I’m going to bed.”

For the next several days, there was no mention of Alice’s phantom lover in the Craft household. Yet, try as he might, Martin couldn’t shake the notion that she was having an affair. After all, in many ways, she had always been something of a mystery. He had never really known what was going on in her mind. She was like her art, enigmatic, incomprehensible, more like Rorschach images than paintings. His own taste in art leaned toward the illustrations Alice painted at her day job at the advertising agency or the beautiful images of the new Chevy Malibu or Equinox in his brochures at work. This was why they rarely talked about art or, for that matter, anything else much deeper than the events of the day. In fact, since his reaction to her erotic dream, they had stopped talking about anything at all. Certainly, they didn’t discuss Alice’s second passion, her membership in the Jugian Society, a strange group dedicated to the teachings of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. It was a club that met far too often and from which Martin had been mercifully excluded. The purpose of the meetings had to do with a discussion of the id and the ego and consciousness and Lord knows what else they talked about or did at those meetings. It seemed Alice viewed everything in life through the eyes of this nutty shrink.

At night, Martin continued to watch his sleeping wife for evidence of further erotic dreaming. At first he pretended sleep and then when he knew she was asleep, he would stand guard against any further intrusions into their marriage bed. Keeping watch all night, he found he was getting fewer and fewer hours of sleep and he began to take longer and longer naps at work. Several times, at closing time, he would drive to Alice’s agency and watch she and Jeff as they walked together to their cars. He had to admit, they were very discreet.

Twice he followed Jeff home. He lived in an apartment at an upscale complex for young singles. Martin wondered if Jeff had taken Alice to his apartment where their coupling would be more comfortable than among the supplies in the advertising agency storeroom. And there were all those evenings when she claimed she was at the Yungian Society meeting. Or worse, My God, maybe he’s a Yungian! Maybe they discuss the profound mysteries of art and life and the world of the subconscious and other Lordly themes. Martin realized how dull he must seem to Alice with his interests basically confined to sports and the inner life of automobiles. Because of lack of sleep, stress, an overwhelming sense of betrayal, an increased consumption of bourbon and plummeting self-esteem, Martin soon realized he was coming apart at the seams.

One night, about midnight, Martin suddenly sat up in bed, his eyes wide, his heart pounding, his body greasy with sweat. He was terrified, appalled at what he had done.

“Are you okay?” Alice asked, turning toward him.

Martin shook his head. “I don’t think so. I had this crazy dream.”

Alice touched his forehead. “You’re burning up with fever. I’ll get you something.” She climbed from bed. He heard the faucet running. He tried to control his breathing. He couldn’t shake the dream. Alice returned with water and some pills, sat on the edge of the bed.

“Maybe it’s the flue. You should sleep in this morning.”

“No it was the dream. It was so very real. I can still smell the blood, almost taste it.”

“What blood? Whose blood?”

“It was Jeff’s blood.”

“Oh, Jesus, Martin! Not Jeff again!” She slammed the glass of water on the table and rose from the bed, turned to leave.

“No! Wait, Alice. You weren’t in the dream. It was just me and Jeff.”

Alice paused, turned back, raised her eyebrows. “So tell me what happened in this dream about Jeff?”

“What happened was I killed him!” Martin was crying now. Mortified, a mighty sob escaped from somewhere deep inside. “I stabbed him.”

“Where?”

“In the throat.”

“No, Martin! Where was all this supposed to have happened?”

“At his apartment. I accused him of breaking up our marriage. We fought. I stabbed him. With one of your palette knives.” Martin fell back down on the bed, covered his eyes with his arm. His sobs were silent now, embarrassing little spasms.

Alice studied her husband for a long while. Sighed, took his hand. He averted his eyes. “It was a dream, Martin. A dream. According to Carl Jung, a dream is a means of concealing your true feelings from your conscious mind. It’s a means of finding a solution to a problem you are facing in your waking life. You wanted to kill Jeff, so you dreamed it. The Jungians call this a mind shadow. The shadow represents aspects of ourselves that we are reluctant to admit.”

Martin half listened to this Jungian mumbo-jumbo.

How ironic,” Alice said. “It all began with a dream, and now this. In my dream, I was unfaithful. In yours, you punished the one I was unfaithful with. I guess I’m lucky you didn’t stab me, punish me for what you dreamed I did.”

“The dream was so real!”

“So was mine.”

“How do you know the difference?”

“Between what’s a dream and what’s real? In a dream, we wake up. That’s one way. But in another sense, some Jungians would suggest that the waking world is simply a creation of our mind. Reality is a thing we dreamed. And it is the life we live in our dreams that is real.”

Martin was exhausted, more than confused. “So maybe it’s real that you fucked Jeff and real that I killed him.”

Oh, Jesus, Martin. You are absolutely bonkers. She got out of bed, pulled on a robe. “Pull yourself together and I’ll make us some coffee.”

After washing his face in cold water, Martin made his way to the kitchen. When he passed Alice’s studio, his eyes were drawn to the huge red nude. On an impulse, he entered, and he remembered that after he had killed Jeff, he had returned the palette knife to its place with the others. Maybe it was there. But they were all covered with paint the color of blood.

Martin slumped down at the kitchen table. “How do you feel?” Alice asked, as she brought him a steaming cup of coffee.

“Not so good. I think I’ll go back to bed. I didn’t get much sleep last night. I feel like I’m not quite here.”

Alice moved behind him, bent low and put her arms around him. “Poor Baby.” She hugged him, turned his head and kissed his forehead. “It’s way too early to get up. Maybe we should both sleep in.”

She took his hand and led him into the bedroom. They turned down the covers and climbed into bed. Alice cuddled up to him, pressed against him, held him close. Martin wondered why this sudden tenderness, and if it was generated by affection or pity. He could smell turpentine in her hair, or whatever she used to wash her palette knives. Soon he felt himself slipping deeper and deeper into sleep. What awakened him was when he dreamed the police were at the door.

 

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