The Interpretation of Life
Copyright © 2011 by Daniel King. All rights reserved.
Gord sat up with a start, scrabbled to turn on the light switch. But he had forgotten how close he was to the bed lamp. Dazzled, he quickly shielded his eyes, in the process knocking from the bedside table the copy of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams that he had left there before going to sleep. He began to grope on the floor for the book with one hand, patting the eiderdown with the other, absently seeking the comforting form of Boodie. But then he remembered that because of their row she was sleeping in the spare room tonight. He felt a massive disappointment. Lately the violence of his dreams not only had been startling Boodie but also had been causing her to question his sanity; and he took an extreme masochistic pleasure in her spirited grilling, her intense questioning of his behaviour. He wished that she had always been so spirited; perhaps they would never have gone through with their separation then.
His fingers closed around the Penguin paperback. Still bearing its Amazon sticker, it was orange and thick and rectangular like a brick from some gaudy carnival building. It was ironic, he thought: he was the one who was interested in psychoanalysis, and yet it was Boodie who freely offered diagnoses of insanity. He moved to replace the book, but this time knocked over the bedside table itself.
There was a thump on the wall. “Gord, what the hell are you up to? I’m trying to sleep! If you’re having yet another nightmare, for Christ’s sake be an adult and do something about it!”
He was surprised at the clarity of her words, but then recalled both their windows were open. But he resolved to make no reply. Experience had taught him that this encouraged Boodie to be even more spirited. He wondered absently if she were a Freudian hysteric. What a pity, he reflected, that the concept of the hysteric was no longer considered psychologically legitimate. Boodie, of course, thought all of Freud’s ideas were nonsense!
Forgetting his resolution, he called, “As far as I’m concerned the only nightmare is hearing someone yelling from the next room!”
“Then start applying your precious Freudian analysis to that, and let me sleep!”
“I -” He paused, the full significance of these last words all at once registering on him. He realized that his life with Boodie, particularly since getting back with her, had indeed been a nightmare. Or, at least, most people would consider it a nightmare, even if he didn’t. Apparently there was little difference between his waking and his sleeping life now. So suppose his life literally were a dream? That time Boodie had caught him on the head with a frozen can of Coke – he had been unconscious for several hours. Suppose he were still unconscious, and everything around him were illusory? How could he tell?
Catching sight again of The Interpretation of Dreams, he picked it up, and was suddenly resolved. He would indeed follow Boodie’s “suggestion”. He would analyse aspects of his everyday life – its manifest content, as it were. If, as was the case with dreams, they suggested latent content, he would have strong evidence, perhaps even proof, that he was still unconscious, that reality was different from what he thought. If he searched carefully he might find all sorts of indicators that pointed to his mental state. Oddly apprehensive, he settled back on his bed and closed his eyes.
It was Boodie’s turn to make the breakfast, and she didn’t look too enthusiastic about it. “It took me hours to get back to sleep last night, thanks to you – and I have an allegedly important meeting with some retail people today.” Stepping back slightly with her arms stretched out in front of her so that she wouldn’t splash her multi-coloured, tunic-like blouse, she began to pour rapeseed oil on to the grill. Her long red hair, which reached almost to her waist, swayed as she moved.
Gord had been absently making rows of paper aeroplanes with some serviettes, still dwelling on his nighttime resolution. He looked up distractedly. “I’m sorry about that. I don’t mind fixing breakfast today instead of tomorrow, if you like.”
“No, it’s all right. What do you fancy, anyway?”
“I’m surprised I have a choice – what is there?”
“Only sausages, actually. You’ll have to go to Coles today.”
“Sausages?” Gord was taken aback. “When did you buy them? I thought your rule was Froot Loops or Just Right.”
“Well, I thought we could do with a change. They’re German, no, Thai chicken flavour, and we both like chicken.” So saying, Boodie tore open the Coles tray and gingerly lowered on to the grill nine thick sausages.
They’re phallic symbols, Gord realized suddenly. He felt startled. Given the fact that they’d never had sausages before, there was no other interpretation. So did that mean that he was really unconscious after all? Surely not – the idea was too wild!
Telling himself that he would keep an open mind until more evidence presented itself, he put his head in his hands, as he always did when trying to think. Began idly to knead his temples. His thumbs chanced against the under side of his jaw; and he felt a relief that at thirty five there was still no sign of jowl formation, no sign of a double chin.
Boodie caught sight of him. “Are you all right?” Her voice softened slightly. “You look as though you have a migraine.”
“It’s just because of my dream,” Gord lied. “They tend to make me feel funny in the head.”
“What are these nightmares about, incidentally? I don’t think you’ve ever told me.”
“That’s the strange part – I can’t remember! You’d think that something that has such a profound effect on me would be easy to recall, wouldn’t you.” He contemplated Boodie’s large hands, imagining them grasping a whip, bringing it down with a whish! On his back. “All I know is that they’re violent but intoxicating. I certainly wouldn’t describe them as nightmares, really.”
“Well, the sounds you make suggest strongly that they’re nightmares. It’s almost pathological. Frankly, Gord, I don’t know whether I can put up with them for much longer. I’m seriously thinking of getting into writing again, but I need to be relaxed for that, especially after coping with all the fools I meet at the office during the day. Imagine a person of my talent pushed into being a glorified clerk for Dulux! I could soar if I had the chance – and so could you, if you could be bothered.”
Gord stared at her, alarmed. “What do you mean? You’re not throwing me out again, are you?”
Boodie’s lips and eyes narrowed, and she placed a hand on his shoulder, tightening her grasp so that the pointed nail of her index finger dug in slightly. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed she was wearing her gold torc; against her blouse it was like the sun through a stained-glass window. She made the ruthless smile that always put him into a submissive mood. “Oh no. You don’t get your marching orders this time. I was too gentle with you before the separation. I realize that now. But my New Year’s resolution was no longer to give up, no longer to accept defeat. So you’re stuck with me.” She turned back towards the grill. “That’s also why I’ve decided to get into writing again, by the way. I have a historical romance planned.” She reached for a sausage, which she speared on either side with a fingernail. Then she brandished it in front of him, fixing him with a piercing gaze. “Is one enough for you? I think we’re also out of sauce.”
The Freudian imagery was so stark that Gord could merely stare from her face to the sausage and back again, speechless.
As soon as Gord heard Boodie hooning down the road in her red Tarago, he lay back on the couch, pleased that for the rest of the day he need do nothing. Technically, he was on the dole and would have to get a situation at some point; but fortunately the people at Centrelink seemed to understand that tutoring work was difficult to find, and they generally left him alone. And Boodie had money. Contentedly, he undid his suede jacket, stretched his arms, and belched. Chicken always repeated on him. He remembered the way Boodie had held the sausage, and wondered what other aspects of Freudian thought might help him to decide if he were awake or unconscious. The idea that dreams were a wish-fulfillment was one possibility – although the fact that he was now happy, and could, therefore, presumably be said to be in a wished-for state seemed to him inconclusive evidence for his being in a dream. After all, there were other paths that led to a wished-for state; that he was dreaming was only one of them.
He drew up The Interpretation of Dreams, realizing that lately he had had it with him almost as if it were his phone. Opening it, he saw that he had underlined in pen the sentence “There is at least one spot in every dream at which it is unplumbable”. He wondered what Freud had meant by that, but told himself that he wouldn’t let himself be distracted. Flicking to the index, he ran his finger down the ladder-like columns of words.
Free association, he read. He raised an eyebrow. Yes, free association might give him the evidence he needed. He tried to decide how he should proceed. But then he remembered that too much thought was supposed to invalidate the process; so he quickly held the book at arm’s length, deciding to free associate on the first word he saw.
His eyes came to rest on the Amazon sticker. “Amazon – female warrior – Boodie,” he read aloud. Immediately, he felt taken aback. Boodie and Amazon: that couldn’t be a coincidence, for Boodie was nothing if not an Amazon. Here, then, was more evidence that objects in the “real world” corresponded with those in his psyche!
A little disturbed, he nevertheless forced himself to concentrate; the sound of people driving to work was very distracting. Thinking of Boodie’s car, he intoned, “Tarago – virago – warrior woman – Boodie.”
Another correspondence. . . . Even more taken aback, he stood. Clearly, he reflected, the evidence that he was still unconscious had become overwhelming. Telling himself that he still however needed one final, clinching indication that the hypothesis was correct, he began to concentrate on the name “Boodie” itself. “Boodie,” he stated. “Short for Boudica.”
Hadn’t there been a historical warrior queen called Boudica? He tried to remember. The more he thought about it the more convinced he was that there had been. Wondering why he had never questioned Boodie about the origin of her name, he quickly went to the computer, brought up the appropriate Wikipedia page. Then he entered the name “Boudica”. Immediately, his suspicion was confirmed: Boudica had been queen of the Iceni tribe in the first century AD.
There could no longer be any doubt. He was indeed in a dream.
The door slammed, and Boodie flung her thick cloak on to the couch. Under one arm were wedged some Dulux pamphlets. “What a pointless day! Do you know that gawdelpus who considers himself my boss actually told me off for noting down a few novel ideas when I was ‘supposed to be working’? I’d pour paint down his throat, if it was still lead-based!”
“You’re an intelligent woman, Boodie – some men have problems with that, especially as you tower over most of them physically as well. Speaking of paint, there’s a spot on your eyelid.” Gord, stood, cleared his throat. “Boodie, this may seem a wild thing to say, but do you realise that even though it’s four years since we fell for each other we’ve never discussed the full significance of your name?”
Boodie had been inspecting her eyelid in her compact; she paused to regard him sharply. “Are you trying to be funny? Frankly, Gord, sometimes I think you enjoy taunting me just so that I’ll attack you.”
Gord blushed. “No, I’m really curious. Why did your parents call you Boudica?”
She pursed her lips. “They had a thing for English history. I suppose I would have ended up ‘Boadicea’ if they hadn’t found the right way the name is pronounced. I wish I’d been called Ruth. Why do you ask, anyway?”
“Well, you’ll think I’m loopy – I know you do anyway! – but lately I’ve begun to suspect that everything around me may be part of a dream.” He met her eyes, trying to ascertain how she was responding. “So I’ve been applying Freudian analysis to my environment, the way you jokingly suggested last night, to see whether I can confirm the hypothesis. And I really do believe this is all a dream! That sausage this morning – that was a phallic symbol! And as you seem to have guessed, I’ve always had a fantasy about dominant women. Your telling me that your name is Boudica fits right in with that!”
“A dream.” Boodie bit her lip, regarded him pensively. A smile began to form, but her facial muscles tightened, and it disappeared. “OK, I’ll suppress my initial impulse, which is to say that, yes, I think you’re soft in the head, and instead assume for the sake of argument that you’re right. How long do you think you’ve been in this phony dream?”
“I suspect it’s ever since you threw that can of Coke at me. Although I suppose my memory of that event may be part of the dream too,” he added uncertainly.
“That’s the point I was just going to make – that because all your experience would be within the dream, no evidence of an outside world would ever reach you. It’s basic Kant; I had to research him once for a story.”
He felt irritated. “Why must you constantly relate everything to your writing? Why can’t you consider me for a change?” He looked slightly hopefully up at her, wondering if she’d clock him one.
Boodie laughed – a deep, booming laugh. Then she gave him a bear-hug. “Because, you fool, writing is absolutely central to your concerns here! Don’t you know that Freudian psychoanalysis can also be used to analyse texts? Those towering chimneys of Coketown in Hard Times – it’s easy to read them as phallic symbols!” She began to laugh again. “And the obviousness of the Freudian aspects you mentioned suggests to me that, if anything, you and I are not part of a dream but, rather, a story!”
She flung the pamphlets into the fireplace. “Still, I did say I wanted to get into writing again – so thanks for the happy ending, Gord.” Shaking her head in amusement, she went upstairs to change.