Fourth Wall

by Kirstin Allio

I picked up Freud, On Dreams, and he seemed to be saying that dreams
are colored gases borrowed from waking life, reconstituted in fantastical
forms and many-headed feelings. Traditional Australian aboriginal
artists had a different idea, painting dotted lizard treks straight out of
the red earth to the water hole, an aerial view borrowed and projected
from the subconscious.

I looked out the plexi porthole, badly scratched as if the air, at ten
thousand feet, were fiberglass. Power lines shaved through winter
trees with follicles, like body hairs under a microscope, housing de-
velopments like sutures. Then the plane pulled its shadow back into
its hold. I closed my eyes, and the Earth was imprinted.

We were flying to Washington, DC, to read Shakespeare. This time
my husband was Banquo, and I was Hecate, the commando witch
possibly snuck in by some lesser poet in ruff and tights, ink under
his fingernails. We’re not buffs. I’m not even a fan, blasphemy, but
who can resist the promise of theatrical fellowship, a long evening of
reading and drinking?

We took a cab up Cathedral Avenue, past all the deep-lawned em-
bassies. What a party, characters within characters: my cackle released
by a Halloween wig (I’m a pale redhead); Macbeth, the host, slipped
my husband a little tub of stage blood. Details, details. We read in the
round till one in the morning. But this is another story, lively, loud,
generously and gaudily ornamented.

The morning after the play we took a long walk through immacu-
late, glistening Georgetown, like a stage set for April. Every leaf was
polished glass, every star of air quartzed with sunshine. We wandered
Dumbarton Oaks with its quixotic dog paths up and down ravines,
over streams, and through peaceable meadows.

There were glossy rainbows of expensive flowers, each block worth
tens of millions, some blocks worth hundreds—of course we pretended
we lived there. We measured the merits of many houses, some had real
gas porch lights, glassed-in flames; dreams of horses; supersaturated,
crimson tulips; pale garden walls elegantly accessorized with wisteria.
Up ahead a police car had splayed itself out sideways to block an
intersection, and as we approached we looked down another almost
too-lovely block, but this one choked with cop cars and a single silent
fire engine.

We rubbernecked: no apparent accident. What could it be? we asked
each other. Just then a well-dressed young woman, quilted jacket
and patent loafers, careened from behind a car in a state of unhinged
agitation. She was gesturing wildly with a cell phone, as if she would
puncture the fourth wall with a dagger. Something was all wrong,
more than off-kilter—just looking at her I could feel how the plane
might drop, suddenly, like a rock, the Earth falter and slide off its axis.
How you could wake up to the nightmare. She exuded a terrible
chaos; green could drain from greenery; a whole body could become
a throat, at once twisted, stopped, and bursting.

Now she was pacing toward us, blinded by the stage lights, weeping
in shouts and gulps, and we didn’t avert our eyes. We gaped at her.
Come on, said my husband, reaching for my hand. But I was riveted
to the spot, or magnetized. I couldn’t leave the scene—I had to know
what had happened. The conviction took hold of me: I must find out
what was loose in the world, what might be coming my way, as if it
were my future staged on that block, strewn with emergency vehicles
gone silent. This was my chance to see it.

We paused in heavy shadow, the trees suddenly enormous and old.
You go ahead, I said to my husband. We’d meet on the main street,
filled with shops and brunch places, that appeared now like the light
at the end of the garden.

She let out a sharp wail, and it hit me. I wanted to walk into it, I
needed to see how it worked—the surprise, the shock, the weeping
in public, the weird suspension of disbelief, a dream; whether time
could or could not be compressed or attenuated. I needed to foresee,
in order to keep my own parade of loved ones on course, keep passing
the open windows.

A young man emerged, stage left, a kind of twin to the young
woman, shirtless, assiduously muscled, pacing his own burning route,
crying out loud and pounding the air, then abruptly catching himself
with both hands against a lamppost. He hung on, and I heard him
pleading, Come on, come on back now. For a moment I felt what he felt,
raw, jagged, and I knew the whole story.

Then the spell broke. How could I trespass on their tragedy, once
I understood? I kept walking, back into the dense and glittering
neighborhood, where no one knew what was happening, at any given
moment, to their neighbors. This wasn’t an indictment, not a Kitty
Genovese moment, just that human life kept flowing, a river borrow-
ing from its very banks, the shape of a story, the murmurs of warning.

Back on the plane home, I peered again through that scarified port-
hole. The little whitecaps below were like stars, and the boats, more
constant, were comets. The plane shuddered down toward the green
sky of the Atlantic. Again I thought of the Dreaming paintings, to-
pography from the depths of shared consciousness, and they seemed
so apt, seemed to describe how we’re all weaving, wearing down the
same paths to the Earth’s bones. Here’s the map that tells the heart’s
circuit. I’d like to borrow that dream, and carry it toward waking.