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The Anatomy of Dreams

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The Anatomy of Dreams

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Author: Chloe Benjamin
Publisher: Atria Books, 2014

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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It's 1998, and Sylvie Patterson, a bookish student at a Northern California boarding school, falls in love with a spirited, elusive classmate named Gabe. Their headmaster, Dr. Adrian Keller, is a charismatic medical researcher who has staked his career on the therapeutic potential of lucid dreaming: By teaching his patients to become conscious during sleep, he helps them to relieve stress and heal from trauma. Over the next six years, Sylvie and Gabe become consumed by Keller's work, following him from the redwood forests of Eureka, California, to the enchanting New England coast.

But when an opportunity brings the trio to the Midwest, Sylvie and Gabe stumble into a tangled relationship with their mysterious neighbors--and Sylvie begins to doubt the ethics of Keller's research, recognizing the harm that can be wrought under the guise of progress. As she navigates the hazy, permeable boundaries between what is real and what isn't, who can be trusted and who cannot, Sylvie also faces surprising developments in herself: an unexpected infatuation, growing paranoia, and a new sense of rebellion.

In stirring, elegant prose, Benjamin's tale exposes the slippery nature of trust--and the immense power of our dreams.




When Gabriel returned to me, I was twenty-one, and I was in the middle of the long summer before my senior year of college. At the time, I was a realist. I was at the top of my class, and I didn't think there was anything anybody could tell me that I couldn't figure out myself. Coincidences, accidents: I believed in those. But it took such effort to unfold other possibilities. That meant opening myself like a paper fan, the ridges flattening to reveal parallel worlds.

My first clear memory of Gabe is from our junior year of high school, though I was aware of him before that--you knew everybody at boarding school, especially one as small as Mills. He was part of a rowdy group of boys who were always getting into trouble. Not pranks or fighting--they were just too investigative for their own good, regularly uncovering some conspiracy: what was actually in the cafeteria meat hash, or what Mr. Keller, the headmaster, was growing in the garden behind his house. I didn't pay Gabe much attention those first few years. I was preoccupied with my courses, especially English; the hard sciences came easily to me, but I couldn't think in metaphors. Maybe that's why I was annoyed by Gabe and his friends, for whom one thing always stood in for another: the corned beef in the hash was dog meat, and among the strawberries and celery and mint I had seen with my own eyes, Mr. Keller was growing oleander to make poison.

In our third year, though, a lunar eclipse brought us together. Mr. Cooke, our physics teacher, had been talking it up all semester, and our class had permission to see it. It would be at 6:51 P.M.--dinnertime--but that night we ate outside. It was cold but not snowing: in Northern California, January brought steamy haze that lent each evening a feeling of dark eventfulness. We carried out blankets and trays and huddled at the top of Observatory Hill, where Mr. Cooke had once shown us how to chart the phases of the moon. I sat with Hannah McGowan, my roommate and best friend, who was telling me a story in a rapid, hushed voice and at one point said, "Sylvie. Sylvie..." but I could hardly hear her. Her voice trailed into the air like fog as we waited for the moon to change.

Mr. Cooke had told us that a lunar eclipse could only occur when a full moon was perfectly aligned with the earth and sun. For just a few minutes, he said, our planet would cast two shadows and the moon would travel through them. Light from the sun, passing through earth's atmosphere, would bend toward the moon, and our rock would transform: dyed by the planet's sunrises and sunsets, the beginnings of days and the ends of them, she would turn red.

I knew all of this, but I was still unprepared for the feeling that came over us when it happened. Slowly, earth's shadow moved in front of the moon, covering it almost completely. But the moon fought back. Like a phoenix, she shed her ashes and caught fire. We gaped at her change in costume: she hung, a blood orange in darkness. The trees and the sky and even the hill vanished, and we had only each other.

And then, of course, it was over. The moon faded back to gray, and we all laughed in a jittery, scattered way, as if shaking off the remains of a fear. By 9:00, small groups had formed and left the hill. I stayed, along with a few others. Gabe was one of them. As we started to talk, he asked, "Who wants to see something I found?"

There was something bold and vulnerable about him, standing on top of a rock to the left of the group. We looked at him with mild interest and amusement, the deluded but well-loved member of our small town. He was no taller than five feet six inches and slender then, though he became stockier as he got older. He had the square, densely determined face of a pit bull, hazel eyes, and a thick swath of brown hair that whipped around in the wind like a wild halo. Sometimes the girls on my floor gossiped about him, saying he had a Napoleon complex. Now another boy shouted at him to get off the rock. But Gabe stayed, his eyes swooping from face to face like a low bird before landing on mine.

I shivered. Was it dread? Pity? Or perhaps, somewhere, the thrill of election.

"I'll see it," I said.

There were whoops and catcalls as we left down the hill, but Gabe plunged silently into the redwoods. The trees surrounded Humboldt County and its bowl of bay, filling our campus with a sweet, grandfatherly smell. I thought of turning back--I'd never had a violation before, and if we were found in the woods, we could both be suspended--but I decided against it. Just as I knew Gabe's reputation, I knew my own: a goody-goody, uptight, not a daredevil like him and his friends. I found them irritating, sure, but when I watched them laugh raucously at lunch or play soccer before dinner, falling whole-body into the mud, sometimes I wished I wasn't always a spectator.

We emerged in the clearing beside Mr. Keller's house. Trespassing here was much worse than being caught in the woods. Mr. Keller was forty-five, a firm-bodied man with a bald head and stark, Germanic features. Besides being headmaster, he taught an upper-level psychology course that people practically fought to get into. Dynamic, creative, and impishly appraising, he demanded more of us than any other teacher. He was the harshest, too.

"Jesus Christ, Gabe," I hissed.

"Don't freak out," said Gabe. "I won't do anything untoward."

He said the last word--one of Mr. Keller's favorites--with special emphasis. The headmaster's house was a two-story brick structure with small, turreted rooms rising up like pointed attics. But Gabe led us around to the garden, a square plot inside a silver-gray fence. Two stories above us, the tall windows glowed with light. Gabe barely glanced at them before stepping lightly through the unlatched gate.

I edged inside the gate and followed his footsteps--he wound through the plants with such dancerlike precision I suspected it was not his first time there. The sun was long gone. In the moonlight, the flowers and vegetables Keller tended glowed with the otherworldly iridescence of deep-sea creatures.

"Everyone's probably back in the dorms," I whispered. "So find whatever you want to show me or don't."

"Keep your voice down." Gabe held my eyes. "Come here."

He was in the corner of the garden, pointing to a little patch inside the ninety-degree angle of the fence. Below his finger was a flower, large, a fuchsia color so vibrant I could see it in the dark. When I bent closer, I saw it was not one flower but two--or one and a half. The flower had two faces, rimmed with slender pink petals, which shared the same central disk and the same stem. What was notable about the disk--that saturated, mustard-colored eye--was that it looked like the infinity symbol, as if someone had pinched the middle. I touched it, and when I pulled away, there was fine gold dust on my fingers.

"This is what you wanted to show me?" I asked.

Gabe's eyes shone, two small moons.

"This is what we're breaking curfew for? We're trespassing on Mr. Keller's property--do you realize we could be suspended?"

Gabe clamped his jaw shut. His eyes flitted across my face the way they had through our group on the hill. Then a different, steely sheen came over them; it was as if someone had let down the blinds.

"Forget it," he said, stepping over the fence.

He began to walk rapidly toward the dorms. I hopped the fence and ran to catch up with him. I was almost five feet seven, taller than he was, but I felt like a kid bobbing at his side.

"Was it some kind of joke?" I asked. "Push the Goody Two-shoes, see how far she'll go? See if you can get her in trouble?"

He made a snorting noise and kept walking. I could tell I'd disappointed him, but some resentment deeper than I was capable of moderating was rising to the surface.

"I really thought you'd be into it," he said, keeping a step or two ahead of me.

"How could you know what I'd be into?" I asked. "We've barely even spoken!"

By then, we had reached the dorms. To the left was the boys' dorm, and to the right was the girls'. I half expected him to grin at me, confess it had all been in play. But he continued toward the door, as if I was the one who had wronged him.

"I'll tell people about it!" I said, the words flailing out of me. "I'll tell the girls in my dorm!"

It was the only thing I could say to disempower him. I had figured out by then that it wasn't a joke, what he'd found, that it meant something to him and that, for some reason, he had chosen to share it specifically with me.

He turned; his face seemed to hang with resignation. Then he walked through the door to the boys' dorm, leaving me alone on the path.

I didn't tell anyone, of course. I already felt guilty for the way I'd snapped at him; or maybe it was something else that held me back, the curled edges of belief. While we washed up in the bathroom, the other girls teased me, asking how it felt to kiss Napoleon. I told them it felt good.

- - -

During the rest of that year, I barely spoke to Gabe. The flower incident had ended so badly that we were skittish around each other, prideful and embarrassed. But something uncomfortable and magnetic glowed between us. When we found ourselves inescapably close in proximity--in line at the dining hall, or seated at one of the dreaded two-person desks in Keller's classroom--our silence was as loaded as any acknowledgment. Finally, one of us would break: "'Scuse me," I'd say, reaching past him to grab the 2 percent milk; or Gabe would clear his throat and ask, "Pencil?" his body angled the tiniest bit toward mine, until I reached into my zip-up case and wordlessly handed one to him.

If the eclipse brought us together the first time, our next real meeting was equally serendipitous, orchestrated by forces that felt as fated as the phases of the moon. Summer had passed in a close, muggy blur, and now it was late August, the beginning of senior year. My flight from New Jersey had been delayed, and it was nearly midnight in the Arcata/Eureka Airport. The student shuttles ended at nine P.M., so I was slumped at the Delta desk at baggage claim, calling the dorm phone without success. I hung up and dragged my bags--two massive duffels and an overstuffed, twenty-pound backpack--to the nearest bench. Outside, it was cool and dewy. Drops of moisture clung to the parking meters and the slick yellow uniforms of the crossing guards. In ten years or even five, most of the students at Mills would have a credit card or a cell phone, and being stranded at the airport would be easy to fix. Having neither, I felt like a forgotten piece of luggage myself.


I turned. Gabe was outside the sliding doors of Baggage Claim 3, wind ruffling his hair as the doors whooshed shut behind him. He stood wide-legged in a pair of too-small flip-flops and worn cargo shorts; he'd slung a bag over each shoulder, making his T-shirt ride up around his waist. A dark fuzz of hair extended down from his belly button, and his skin was sun-browned. He grabbed the bottom of the shirt and tugged it down.

"Lennox," I said.

"You're late. Late for senior year."

"So are you."

We regarded each other, wary. Then I scooted over on the bench, and he lumbered over, dropping his bags on the sidewalk with an inadvertent, gruntish sigh.

"Well," he said. "I guess we're stranded."



We grinned at each other, at our senior-year banter, at the strange August night that was as wet as early spring on the East Coast. I looked at Gabe's shirt. It was holey around the neck and worn thin, with a blown-up image of Darth Vader on the front. Below, it said in block capital letters, WHO'S YOUR DADDY?

"Nice shirt," I said.


I looked down. I'd forgotten I was wearing an old T-shirt of my dad's, a comfort on plane rides back to school. GET YOUR REAR IN GEAR, it read: 5K WALK FOR COLON CANCER.

"Touché," I said.

We sat for a few moments in slightly bashful silence, both of us knocked down a peg. Absentmindedly, as if he'd done it a thousand times before, Gabe stuck his thumb through one of the holes at the neck. I'd heard he was on scholarship; there were rumors that his family was broke, that his dad had died penniless, though others held that his dad was just a living asshole who refused to pay child support.

"Where'd you fly in from?" asked Gabe. "Jersey?"

"How'd you know that?"

I was genuinely curious. I had never discussed my family with Gabe. Then again, we'd never discussed his, either, and I still knew that he lived in California with his mother. I knew, too, that she was morbidly obese, a consequence of some medical condition, though no one knew exactly what it was.

Gabe shrugged. "I listen," he said.

"What about you? Where'd you fly in from?"

"Michigan--I was visiting my gran. She lives on Lake Superior."

"Was your flight delayed, too?"

"What?" Gabe looked confused, then shook his head. "Oh--nope. I just forgot the shuttles ended at nine."

"You would," I said, but it didn't sound mocking; it came out downright affectionately, much more than I'd intended, and Gabe laughed in surprise. My cheeks warmed, and I fiddled with the zipper on my suitcase. We fell into another silence, but this time, it was relaxed. Maybe it was the late hour or the unusual circumstances; neither one of us knew whether our new amity would last once the clock struck midnight and we arrived at old, familiar Mills, where the social hierarchy was as firmly set as the granite foundation. Right then, though, it didn't matter very much. We had a delicate understanding, a connection like a spiderweb, and we navigated it with earnest, clumsy excitement. It felt like being outside after curfew: an extra hour tacked onto the day, wondrous and strange.

"So," said Gabe. "What say you? Are we sleeping here?"

"God, I hope not," I said, but the truth is I was buzzing with excitement. I pictured us making a nest of sweatshirts, a pillow of old tees, searching the airport for coffee and bloated muffins the next morning. Back at school, we would have an inside joke--a raised eyebrow, a "Remember the night we spent in baggage claim at Arcata/Eureka?" We would groan for effect, making it sound much worse than it really was. So my heart went limp when we saw the wide, maroon-colored Mills student shuttle careen around the corner. It pulled up in front of us and ground to a halt.

The door popped open, and out blundered Sandy, the hulking, enthusiastic grounds manager. His curly red hair was pulled into a low ponytail, and he huffed as though he'd run to the airport instead of driven.

"All right, all right, you're saved," he said, grabbing our bags, giving each of us an amiable clap on the shoulder. "Load 'em in and let's get a move on."

"How'd you find us?" asked Gabe as we climbed into the carpeted body of the shuttle, which always smelled faintly of Cheetos. Was it possible I detected a strain of disappointment in his voice, the same one I felt?

"Hall monitor noticed two of you buggers were missing," said Sandy, eyeing the rearview mirror and pulling onto the road with a lurch. "We checked the phone in the girls' dorm--knew you wouldn't be the one to call, Lennox--and what do you know, five missed calls. Number traced right to the airport."

"Five?" Gabe looked at me, grinning.

"Well..." I said in protest.

"Anyway," said Sandy, "no harm done. Just a little excitement on a Sunday night. I should be used to it by now."

With Sandy in the car, Gabe and I went mute again, staring out of our respective windows. But there was a presence between us, a fullness, and the molecules in the van seemed to shift to accommodate it. The drive to campus was only twenty minutes long, but it felt like hours. At one point, Gabe shifted his large boy-foot, and his calf--warm, hairy--rubbed against mine. I shivered, and his calf muscle tensed. But then the shiver passed, and his leg relaxed, and we stayed that way: linked by the barest touch as we wound toward school, stars winking in the windows.

When I woke up in my top bunk the next morning, Hannah snoring vigorously below me, the previous night felt like a dream. But when I saw Gabe across the dining hall at breakfast, sitting at a round table with David Horikawa and Michael Fritz, he stuck his arm in the air and motioned me over with the exaggerated enthusiasm of an air traffic controller.

"Yo!" he called. "Patterson!"

A few of the other seniors craned their heads around in surprise--Hannah and I usually sat with the girls on our hall--but I grabbed Hannah by the wrist and walked over, feigning confidence. Teenagers have a nose for insecurity, which is probably why we so often pardoned Gabe: everything he did had a robust aplomb that sent us sniffing elsewhere.

"Patterson and I had a little adventure last night," said Gabe as Hannah and I took our seats. ("What the--" asked Hannah, who had heard none of this, before I jabbed her thigh under the table.) Soon, the five of us were eating breakfast together almost every day. By the end of September, Hannah had entered into a passionate, ill-fated liaison with David Horikawa, but Gabe and I still hadn't kissed. We'd had plenty of opportunities--late-night meet-ups in the multipurpose room; riding cafeteria trays down Observatory Hill, Gabe and I crashing at the bottom in a tangle of legs and plastic--but whenever the laughter stopped, we could only stare at each other, red-faced.

"You guys hang out all the time. I just don't get what you're doing," said Hannah. Blotchy, blackberry-colored hickeys had started to appear on her body in surprising places (collarbone, inner elbow, and once, she showed me, smiling wickedly, her inner thigh); she was baffled by our restraint, not that it was intentional.

"We're talking," I said helplessly, and it was true: we'd become expert in the kind of simpatico conversation that usually only fell into place after years of friendship. Tucked between the redwood trees in the forest behind school, we traded stories: our secret plans ("To be a physicist," I whispered, hot-cheeked), our childhood fears ("Pill bugs," said Gabe), our families. What I'd heard of Gabe's was partially true: he lived with his mother in Tracy, California, a humid town in the San Joaquin Valley--"best known," said Gabe, "as the place where people stop to pee on the way to Tahoe." His mother worked from home for a telecommunications company and was heavily medicated for a chronic pain condition that made her yell, he said, or sleep. His dad wasn't dead, but he "wasn't in the picture"--a phrase Gabe said with such swift automatism that it sounded like something he'd been trained to say.

I didn't push him. Instead, I told him about my family. We were closer, maybe, but not cuddly. My parents prized their intellects and encouraged the same in my brother, Rodney, and me. Rodney was five years younger, thirteen during my senior year, and he was the softest one of all of us: a boy unusually gentle for thirteen, who kept a pet newt and wrote short stories on my father's hand-me-down laptop. They lived in New Jersey, ten states and six hours away, and most of the time I kept them tucked in one compartment in my mind--a compartment I opened up when I went home but otherwise kept firmly lidded.

A narrow channel had opened between Gabe and me, and we wriggled through. What we had was a likeness, an understanding of the way that solitary people could and had to drift together. Though Gabe was often surrounded by a troop of boys, he was more reclusive than most people knew. He took long, tangled walks alone on weekends, returning to the dorms with dirty fingernails and forearms scratched by brambles. He did his homework in the attic of the library, a tower that one of the headmasters in the 1960s had dubbed a place for silent thought--Gabe claimed he couldn't think if anyone else was around. Having spent most of the past three years at Mills ("It's like this weird alternate universe," he said, "where everyone is sixteen"), we were both independent by design, expert in adopting friends and in letting them go. As solid as Mills felt while we were there, we knew we would have to relinquish it at the end of senior year, just as we had our real families. Against our better judgment, in defiance of our transience and the rush of time, we built a raft and clung to it.

When I was with him, I longed to kiss him, but I was starting to despair. ("We couldn't do it now," I said to Hannah, rolling around in my bunk. "We're already friends. It'd be too weird.") On Halloween, Hannah--sick of my whining and already to third base with David Horikawa--came into our room armed with a trough of makeup and a minidress purchased at the thrift store in Eureka.

"Tonight is the night," she said. "Women's intuition."

She was right. In the middle of the annual Halloween party--a teacher-patrolled affair in the multipurpose room, with an epic snack table to offset the booze we seniors snuck into the punch--Gabe pulled me into the boys' bathroom and took my face in his hands. He was a hamburger with pool-noodle fries, I a Roy Lichtenstein comic girl. We kissed pressed against the stalls until one of the resident advisers came in to pee, his eyes bulging; then we ran, hysterical with adrenaline, our hands clasped tight as sailor's knots. We took the fire escape to the first floor and burst outside. It was raining faintly; above us, the windows of the multipurpose room had been pushed open to release the collective heat and Cheez-It breath of two hundred teenage bodies. Their voices floated out to us, free and high-pitched as loose balloons.

"So," said Gabe.


I could barely get the word out. I felt like I'd swallowed my tongue.

Something--not love but its precursor, a love embryo--loomed between us. I moved toward him again, and this time our kiss was tentative, investigative. We covered more ground, moving from mouth to ear to edge of cheek as if to memorize the topography of each other's faces. That night, we fell asleep outside, and though we got in trouble for it later--Sandy glowering as he lumbered toward us through the trees, his red ponytail slapping his back--I still remember the first few moments of that morning: the sun blushing over the hills as the sparrows trilled the day's first song, their notes soaring through the air like streamers.

I couldn't believe we'd done it--that one of the most beloved boys in our class had kissed my cheeks and chin and eyelashes until the red dots that Hannah had so painstakingly applied (bent over our art history textbook, lip liner in hand) smeared my whole face blurry. If Gabe was a pit bull, I had the pert, close features of a dachshund: quick brown eyes, small pursed mouth. A snub of nose, a dash of freckles. It was a utilitarian face: focused, unobtrusive, fine to look at but nothing that would make most people look twice. I was as lean and agile as Rodney, even at sixteen; I kept my chestnut hair in a taut little ponytail, my widow's peak a dark point. Sometimes I envied girls with voluptuous features--plump lips, lush movie-star hair--but just as often I was grateful for my inconspicuousness. There's nothing more dangerous than a teenager who looks like a librarian, because we can get away with anything. On the day of the Halloween party, a group of us snuck out to the closest corner store that sold alcohol, and I was the one who purchased it. I was never ID'd; I looked so plain, so earnest, that the paunched owner gave me the benefit of the doubt. That Gabe wanted me was just as thrilling as buying a bottle of whiskey at the age of eighteen: both meant, somehow, that I had passed.

Gabe and I began to sit together in class, scribbling notes on old homework assignments whenever the teacher turned to the board. He saved a chair for me at lunch, his beaten-­down black JanSport marking my spot. I still remember how it felt to walk into the dining hall and see it there. My stomach rose, as if pulled by strings; I moved not by foot but by hovercraft. Most surprising was how little I resisted. Some of my friends had boyfriends, and I'd always scoffed at how distracted they became, how easily they relinquished their former selves--and here I was, vaulting away, leaving behind the tidy rows of my independence.

It took us weeks to figure out how to sneak into each other's rooms at night without the resident advisers catching on. The trick was to go between hall checks, walking nonchalantly past the monitor's station as though you were just going to pee, then taking the fire escape to ground level. The boys' dorm was separated from the girls' by a thin path, but if you snuck around the back of the buildings, James Bond style, you could avoid the Cyclops gaze of the security camera. Those first few nights were deliciously illicit; we clung to each other even more fiercely for having made the trip successfully. But one morning, I woke to find that Gabe was gone. That time, I chalked it up to the discomfort of fitting two people in one pancake-mattressed twin bunk. But when it happened a second time, and then a third, I was hurt.

"Different people like it different ways," said Hannah, who was not bothered by Gabe's presence at night. She slept so deeply that our friends had started to call her Hannah Van Winkle; the only thing that woke her up was our CD alarm clock, blasting Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" at full volume. "Could be he's trying to send you a subliminal message, say he doesn't really want to have sleepovers after all."

Hannah was the baby in a bright lineup of sisters--sisters who knew how to braid hair, who flattened cardboard boxes and slid down the hills that surrounded their father's farm, and who handed down to Hannah a complicated mythology about boys in addition to old sweaters and winter jackets and bicycles. But Gabe didn't seem the type for subliminal messages. His face was open and readable as a dog's. When we talked, I could tell if I'd offended or pleased him just by the tightness of his mouth.

One Tuesday in November, I saw him leaving Mr. Keller's garden. I had woken up at four thirty and hadn't been able to fall back asleep, so I pulled my pillow over to the window that overlooked the grounds and began to read with a flashlight. Soon I caught some motion in the corner of my eye, and when I looked outside, I saw it was Gabe. My dorm faced the front of Keller's house, but Gabe appeared to be coming from the back, where the garden was.

My first thought was that he was still stuck on Mr. Keller's flowers, and a wad of dread gathered in my chest. Neither one of us had mentioned the doubled flower since the night of the eclipse. I was embarrassed for him--his interest in it, his suspicions about the school as a whole, made him seem paranoid. So when I saw him in the dining hall that morning, I meant to bring it up. But his skin was pale and his eyes were sunken, the lower lids rimmed by sallow half-moons. It frightened me--I wondered if something much worse was going on. I made him a plate of food, and we ate together by the windows that overlooked Observatory Hill, where we had watched the eclipse almost one year before. By the end of the meal he seemed to perk up, the color of his cheeks becoming more beige than white, and for the moment, that satisfied me.

Copyright © 2014 by Chloe Benjamin


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