“But I love you,” said Ann.
She wiped her tears and running nose on her sleeve. Saying those words back to her would have been easy. They were true. But Alan swallowed them. Saying them out loud would only make things worse. Ann had every reason to expect they would marry. Her family and friends did as well. But from the very beginning, Alan had known they never would.
She reached out to touch him and he stepped back. Normally, he would’ve been the one to take the initiative, wrap his arms around her, and kiss away her tears. But a tender touch between them now was a risk he could not take.
“Say something,” she said, stomping a foot.
She turned, walking away. As the distance between them grew he stayed silent, despite something inside him pleading that she look back if only this one last time.
As the door shut, he pulled out his desk chair, sat down, and took his head in his hands. Loving both Ann and his wife was not supposed to happen.
Awakening, Alan opened his eyes. Once again, he’d had The Dream involving Ann. It was unsettling, haunting, and had been looming in his life for a while now. He didn’t know why. Though the locations, situations, and people appearing in it changed, one detail remained constant. He was not going to marry Ann.
Ann had been his first true love. This version of The Dream, in which he was married and having an affair with her, made no sense whatsoever. He and Ann hadmarried when he was in grad school. While he pursued his degree, she waited tables and modeled for Alan and his art school classmates. After graduation, his first gallery show had been an overwhelming success. His good fortune had continued when Anita Savard, the gallery owner, signed him to an exclusive contract.
But shortly thereafter, things turned sour. Paintings were dollars to Anita and she was in the business of selling paintings. When Alan told her he couldn’t create art like cars on an assembly line, she became incensed. As the tension between Alan and Anita escalated, fractures developed in his relationship with Ann. In the end, the love they’d both thought would last forever failed to survive.
Their parting had been amicable. After leaving the divorce court, they had lunch together. She ordered the Salmon Plate, him a Pastrami Sandwich, and they’d shared her French Fries. After lunch, on the sidewalk outside the cafe, they’d hugged goodbye. That had been the last time he’d seen Ann.
Alan got up from the divan. He’d only intended to rest his eyes for a few moments but fallen asleep. As his vision cleared, he stared at the painting he’d been working on.
The studio door opened and Carol’s head appeared.
“You’re awake,” she said, entering. “I checked earlier, but you were asleep and I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“I need to finish this,” said Alan to himself more than in response to her.
Carol walked over and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“The couple looks like us,” she said.
He turned and kissed her forehead. In her eyes he saw that familiar warm loving glow.
“Don’t stay up too late,” she said as she left.
When Alan met Carol and her two girls a few years after his divorce he was thinking of giving up his dream of being a successful artist. She had convinced him to give it one last try. That had been 30 years ago. Now, the girls were gone, had families of their own, and it was just the two of them growing old together.
Alan frowned, his lips tight. Something about the painting still felt incomplete. The couple at its center were encircled within an open space. All around them people were applauding and cheering.
Picking up a pencil, Alan began sketching in the painting’s upper left-hand corner. He quickly completed an outline, then added in definition. Paintbrush and palette in hand, he applied color using short controlled strokes.
When he finished, he laid down the paintbrush and stepped back from the easel. Ann was now among those celebrating the couple. Perhaps now Alan had exorcised The Dream.