Welcome back, Dear Reader! If you’ve been following along in the first fourteen excerpts (it is a novel, after all!), some of this you will have read already, and some will be brand new! (The first chapter below was actually written anew with the second draft.) If this is your first time here, welcome!
These are exciting times for your ol’ pal Jerry – after talking about it for most of my life, I finally put the proverbial money and mouth together and started my first novel, Of Dreams & Angels, in the fall of 2019. I’m continuing to work on the second draft now, but in the meantime thought it would be fun to start putting pieces of it (and thereby my entire soul, don’t you know!) out into the universe. Maybe you’ll get caught up in the intrigue and start following along too.
The synopsis – well, before we get to that, Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing, wrote that many of his stories can be expressed as a What-if question, and after reading that, my imagination (as it pertained to story ideas) started framing situations that way. Of Dreams is this question: What if a man started dreaming about a woman he’d never met, but who actually exists; falls in love with her based on what he sees in the dreams and sets out to find her?
Don’t ask me where it came from, and believe me when I say I’m just as shocked as you are that my first idea for a novel – ok maybe not the first idea in the grand scope of my life, but the first one to make it to fruition – was a fantastical love story. But as soon as I thought of it, *I* wanted to know what would happen, which made me think others might want to, too.
At all rates, here you have it, Dear Reader (also a not-so-subtle borrow from Mr. King, who as you may know refers to us as “Constant Reader”) – the first three chapters from Of Dreams & Angels. In Chapter 1, Joe expounds upon his jaded views of love and romance. Chapter 2 finds Joe dreaming of the mystery woman (seeing through her eyes) for the first time. And in Chapter 3, we catch up with Joe as he hikes away the travails of the week—including the vision that so forcefully disturbed his sleep—while getting to know a bit more about what makes him tick. Enjoy!
“True love never fails.”
Dawson regarded him for a moment, trying to get a read.
“Are you being serious right now?”
Joe burst into a laugh, threw his hands behind his head and lifted his Italian loafers onto the corner of his desk, and leaned back to soak in the moment.
Dawson, arms propped against the edge of the desk, shook his head and pushed himself off the oak monolith. He dropped into one of the high-armed leather chairs normally reserved for clients.
“You are an unmitigated asshole,” he finally said. At this, another burst of laughter from Joe.
“Look, Dawson.” Joe kicked his feet off the desk and propped himself on his elbows, leaning toward the younger man. “This is what—your second heartbreak this year? And at least the third since you started working for me?”
“What of it?”
“Well, that makes you either one of two things.” Joe pushed any hint of mirth out of his expression and leveled his eyes at his associate’s bloodshot ones.
“I can’t wait to hear whatever this is,” Dawson said, leaning his head into a hand propped against one of the chair’s arms.
“I’m being serious now,” Joe returned.
“I don’t doubt that.”
“Either you’re a slow learner, or a glutton for punishment.” Normally in command of a stolid poker-face, thanks in part to the nature of his profession, Joe once again broke composure and freed the laughter tenuously contained at the top of his chest. Dawson shook his head.
Joe got up from the rich desk—custom designed to emulate the gravity and grandeur (and perhaps, though it would never be admitted aloud, the intimidation factor) of the Resolute Desk in the White House—and came around to take the other client seat adjacent to Dawson. The chair let out an audible groan as the leather cushion brushed against the seatback, which turned the heartbroken younger man’s attention away from his misery, to his boss now seated beside him.
It was peak autumn daylight that met the turn of his head, and Dawson had to squint against the late-afternoon sun that hung just over the mountain peaks beyond Joe’s floor-to-ceiling windows. He couldn’t see Joe’s eyes or expression (which likely wasn’t a bad thing—the Senior Partner was clearly enjoying every moment of this); just what looked like a misappropriated halo around his head.
“Don’t worry, I’m gonna go easy on you,” Joe said, slapping a hand on Dawson’s knee.
“Good. Because it’s been an awful twenty-four hours, and I don’t need you piling on.”
“I know you don’t. And all kidding aside, I know how you felt about Kerri. But do you mind if I tell you some other things I know, too?”
“Do I have a choice?” Dawson knew he’d been walking a tenuous line—his free-pass latitude with his employer might only extend so far—but as usual, in the fight between reason and emotion, the latter was the consistent victor. He peeked between the splayed fingers of the hand cradling his head, and saw a smile remained on his boss’s face.
“No. But credit to you, at least you know that.” This time, Joe replaced the knee-slap with a clap on the back. “Here’s the thing, young man—”
“You’re not that much older than me. Twenty-five and thirty-seven don’t exactly constitute a generation gap.”
“Maybe not, but they do constitute a learning gap, when it comes to matters of the heart.” Joe shifted in the chair, the groan of the leather releasing a hint of that warm, rich scent associated with achievement. This—to compliment the oak, the plants in the corners, and even the waterfall feature behind the desk Joe had had installed the year before—all designed to evoke the possibilities of proper financial planning. Not just getting ahead, but staying there.
“Here’s what you need to do. And I know it’s going to sound crass, or shallow, or whatever words you want to throw at it. I know it’s going to deeply offend the sensibilities of your young, romantic heart.” Joe reached over again and shook Dawson on the shoulder, trying to pull him out of the physical and emotional cradle he’d nestled into.
“Again, I can’t wait to hear this,” the young associate muttered.
“You came in here—what was it, three years ago?—fresh off your degree, top of your class, and looking for work that would annihilate those student loans as quickly as you racked them up. We went for coffee. Then dinner. We worked out at the private club. Rode in the car I paid for with cash. A professional courting process, as it were, so I could get to know if you were a fit on this team, and to show you what’s possible. And in the end, you said you wanted what I had, am I right?”
“Okay. Just recapping what you told me, seeing if it’s still correct. And do you still want that?”
“Okay. Then answer me this: at any point in that process—whether when you ordered off menus with no prices or when you took the wheel of a car where one of the tires cost more than the entirety of that beater you were driving—do you remember seeing me with a woman? Do you remember me even mentioning a woman?”
“Exactly. Do you remember me telling you how I arrived at a place where I could tell you to order whatever you wanted, or drive my car around for a day, just to see how it felt?”
“What did I say?”
“You said ‘A plan is not just a roadmap, it’s a decision.’ That the paper it’s printed on is useless if you don’t follow the path.”
“I’ll say it again: exactly. I don’t get from the trailheads to the end of my hikes by suddenly veering off course and thrashing through the trees, or shucking my pack when it seems like a grind to carry. I don’t bring on the next seven-figure client by deciding tax planning doesn’t apply to them, just because it’s tedious. And I sure don’t order off the menu with no prices without knowing everything else has been taken care of, first.” Joe loosened his tie, released the top button of his vest, still loving every minute of the chance to educate his young liege.
“You wanna know what love is, Dawson?”
Silence, for a moment, until the broken-hearted man felt the unwavering eyes boring into the side of his skull. Dawson turned his head. “Are you going to make me answer every single one of your rhetorical questions?”
“Part of the trade, and you know that. Never end a sentence in a conversation with someone you’re trying to convert without asking a question—ideally one where the only answer is ‘yes’.” Joe flashed the grin that had won more conversions than anyone in the office could count anymore.
“Do you know what love is?”
“What.” Not so much a question as a grunt.
“’Love’—for most people, that is—is tossing out your dehydrated meals on the first day in the backcountry, deciding you can walk the rest of the West Coast Trail on berries. Simply because they taste better. Love is deciding to pull money from your investments during a down-market to buy a shiny new—and depreciating, I might add—car, because as long as you have to get to and from work, you might as well look good doing it, right? Love is deciding that just because you’ve hit the big-time in an income year, you don’t need to budget anymore. You don’t need to save, because it will just always be this way.”
“I don’t see how these metaphors fit.”
“Maybe they don’t—and maybe that makes them all the more appropriate, my young friend.”
“Will you please stop calling me ‘young’? It’s ridiculous coming from you. Just because you’re salty doesn’t mean you’re wiser.”
“The point is that love doesn’t fit. It doesn’t make sense. It’s irrational. I’m not saying it can’t be beautiful—some people, for reasons passing understanding, say that it is. But I am telling you—especially after three heartbreaks in three years—that if you want relationships in your life, they need to be part of the plan, just like everything else.”
“Since when does someone ever plan on falling in love?”
“Since time immemorial, probably. Matchmakers have existed since biblical times, at least.”
“So now you’re saying I should go see a matchmaker?”
“It probably couldn’t hurt, based on your record, but no, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m telling you relationships need to be strategized for. Planned with conservative rates of return, and extenuated inflation rates. The last time you got dumped—”
“Fine. The last time you got your heart smashed, by—what was her name, Julia? I can’t remember. Doesn’t matter. Anyway, you took at least a week off, and even when you came back you were far below capacity for at least a month.”
A knock at the door, and Joe got up to take a printout of the day’s closing market prices from Karen. He glanced at the values. “Karen, can you call Stan Thibodeau—the new prospect—and find a polite way to tell him he needs to make a decision to get in here and christen the latrine, or else move off and find another twenty years of life expectancy in which to keep working? He’s missing tremendous opportunity here.”
“Will do,” she said, closing the door behind her. Joe leaned against the corner of his desk, not missing a beat on the current conversation.
“It doesn’t matter to me, so much, if you’re not producing—though you’re an integral part of this practice, Dawson. What matters is that it goes against what you said you wanted out of life.”
Dawson straightened up in the chair. “Career and cars and trips and security is not all I said I wanted, Joe. I mean, what’s the point in having all those things if you don’t have someone to share them with?”
“That would be a valid point if A: you had those things, and B: you’d held on to that someone to share them with.”
Dawson crumpled once more in the seat.
“But at the moment,” Joe continued, “you have neither. And based on the way these dump—excuse me—breakups set you back, you’re definitely not going to get there.”
“So what are you saying, I can be poor and in love or wealthy and alone?”
Joe chuckled at this, and took his seat in the wingback chair behind the imposing bureau. “No, you’re still missing it.” He returned his feet to the corner of the desk and crossed them, leaned back in the chair, and folded his hands over a stomach flat from endless miles on the trail. He was still enjoying himself, but sincere in his desire to save the younger man from this paradigm of emotional wounding. “And again, right now you’re broke. Remember there’s a difference between ‘broke’ and ‘poor’; one is a temporary condition, the other is a mindset. Right now you’re broke and not in love—just broken-hearted—and you’re alone.”
“I am still in love.”
“If you say so; I’ll concede you that point. Once more, however, I’ll build off an earlier question: in all the time we’ve worked together, have you ever seen a woman in my life?”
“And do you think I’m a monk?”
“I don’t know; you keep a better poker face about your private life than you do with a new prospect.”
“And do you think I’m lonely?”
“I’ll answer your infernal questions with one of my own: if you’re normally notoriously private about the logistics of your life, how do you expect me to have any data on your emotional one?”
“Another point for Dawson. But the answer to both questions, is ‘No’.”
“Good for you.”
“I’m not a cad, Dawson, I’m not spending the weekends packed into depraved clubs about town, plying women with drinks and flashing the fob from my car. Little as you may know about how I spend my time, you know it’s not there.”
“How would I know? Maybe all your pictures around here are just postcards from the mountains and trails you think look impressive.” Reading now that the man who signed his cheques might have reached his upper limit for barbed retorts, Dawson returned his mouth to the cup of his palm, propped against the armrest.
“I’m going to let you in on a little secret, though based on how you’re receiving the pearls I’m giving you here, you don’t deserve it,” Joe said, the million-watt smile back on display. “Are you ready?”
“Do you know why I have the life I have? Why it’s Riley Private Wealth Management on the letterhead, and not Metzger Wealth Management?”
“Because you’ve been at this fifteen years longer than I have, and your last name sounds better than mine?”
“Both things are true, but no, wrong once again.” Joe kicked his feet off the desk, stood and walked to the portico between the office and his private washroom. He grabbed the three-button jacket to match his pinstriped vest and trousers and began pulling it on, still not missing a beat in the conversation. “It’s because when I’m here, I’m here. And when I’m not, I’m not.”
“I can’t remember which school of Buddhism that comes from, Zen or Yoda,” Dawson said to Joe. And under his breath, to himself: “Shut up or you’re really going to get fired this time.”
Joe was undeterred, squarely in charge of this conversation as with most taking place in this office. “This is in many ways a twenty-four-seven type of job, or at least in can be, in the beginning. I told you that when you started, when you said you wanted to build a practice like this one. But it’s important it’s not all-encompassing, that you plan and build various side-accounts, if you like.”
“This is sounding more salacious by the minute.”
Joe re-fastened the top button of his collar, straightened his tie perfectly without aid of the mirror in the washroom. He sat down again in the client chair beside Dawson.
“I’ve been in relationships, Dawson. Proper ones—despite whatever your misguided mind suggested. Beautiful, successful women; some with whom I even shared some of those aspects you spoke of before. But here was the key—and because you took umbrage with my last metaphor, let’s try a different one. Like I said, when I’m here, I’m here, and when I’m not, I’m not. That doesn’t mean you can’t have someone in your life, it just means that it’s important to keep that area as a module in your plan, and not the plan itself. There!—” Joe stood up. “That works—an island. You need to keep your relationships—the person you become involved with—as an island in your life that you visit. The key is that you go to visit, so that if your little romantic beachside firepit becomes a bonfire, it doesn’t burn down the mainland. Understand?”
Dawson looked up at Joe, feeling less like the half of this conversation to be pitied, and altered his posture and expression accordingly. “Who hurt you, man?”
Joe had reached the door of his office, his arm reaching for the handle. He turned to Dawson. “What?”
“Who broke your heart?”
For an instant, the years of practiced expressions in front of the mirror—contingencies of body language built to adapt to any client concern or objection—fell for a flash of a moment, replaced by a look Dawson didn’t recognize. The moment was shorter than the exchange between an inward and outward breath, however, and the look was gone, replaced by Joe’s trademark smile.
“Nothing’s broken here, other than someone’s bank balance after too many nights off wine-ing and dining in vain. Am I correct?”
“Take your questions and get outta here to wherever it is you go, and leave me alone with my dumped, broken heart,” Dawson snapped back, standing now to extend a hand and mimic Joe with his own megawatt smile. “Is that fair?”
Joe laughed, returned the handshake, and opened the office door. He bid a good weekend to the young associate and to Karen, the seasoned admin assistant. He waved a hand through a glass office wall at Janice, another associate currently on the phone with a client.
“After all these years, I never know if he’s off on another backcountry hike nearby, or the Redwoods in California, or the Appalachian Trail,” Karen said, as Dawson came and stood beside her reception desk outside of Joe’s office. “Did he tell you anything about whatever the next adventure is?”
“He said something about islands.”
Of his “Non-Negotiable Success Factors”, Joe readily proffered proper sleep hygiene as a factor firmly in his Top Five. This, usually to the surprise of colleagues and associates, who operated under the notion an early casualty of achievement was a full night’s rest. Joe would happily correct assumptions of training bodies and minds to withstand client meetings until 9 p.m., phone calls and letters until eleven, scanning market prices well into the midnight hours until eyelids failed commands to stay open. Then rinse and repeat starting no later than four in the morning. Seven days a week; eight would be preferable. For Joe, that was as ridiculous as a prospective client attempting to achieve wealth without a plan.
If he was masterful at finding efficiencies in financial strategies, Joe adhered to the maxim of first being efficient himself. “I can do more with four hours than most do with forty,” he’d say. “But that starts with planning for myself as well as I plan for my clients, and that means a mind and body running at full strength.” The Abe Lincoln quote “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe,” was proudly displayed in his office, along with similar axioms by Tony Robbins and Jim Rohn.
When it came to rest and recovery, Joe exhibited the same discipline he applied to exercise and nutrition. No caffeine past noon. Consistent sleep and wake times. Blackout blinds for the summer months where sunrise and sunset didn’t line up with his day-timer. Air conditioning to ensure his room was the optimal temperature to draw him below consciousness between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
As for whatever happened inside the body and brain between those hours, Joe didn’t know, nor did he care. He did know that whatever forces created humankind insisted on a sleep cycle accounting for one-third of the day. If that was necessary to squeeze more out of the remaining sixteen hours, far be it from him to balk at primal forces of nature.
If the trade-off for the thirty-some percent of life spent between the sheets was some occasional subconscious entertainment, so be it as well. Dreams, for Joe, were little more than musings of a drunk-tired consciousness. Nothing to read into, either in expended mental energy or literal books, and certainly not worthy of detailed analysis. What did it mean that he could never seem to turn on light switches or dial phones whilst in the company of Mr. Sandman? Nothing; no more relevant than other nights when he had powers of flight. There had been little evidence suggesting he ought to extract meaning from the bizarre menageries that came in the night. There had been no proof any of his dreams ever meant anything.
Until he dreamt about her. Or more precisely, he dreamt as her.
Joe had only been under anesthesia once, after his dentist suggested elective wisdom-teeth surgery during his mid-twenties to avoid either row of teeth becoming reminiscent of a shark. As such, his sample size of the experience was small, but he did remember the extraordinarily dreamlike quality of coming to, post-surgery. The feeling of being in a constant haze for hours afterwards, yet knowing he was in fact alive, he was in fact awake. Recalling the stifled laughs of medical staff to his frequent and inane inquiries—”Am I falling out of this bed?”—those moments surreal, yet indisputably real-time. As real as the air felt on his naked backside every time he required (or was ordered to) the restroom.
This first dream was like that; it possessed the feeling of an entirely real, albeit barely conscious experience. It felt as though he was looking through the eyes of someone else placed under anesthesia. It wasn’t that this person was sedated, exactly, but as though Joe’s mind and vision were restrained behind the irises of another human carrying out all the action. As though Joe had been given a movie-theatre seat inside someone’s head and life, trying to absorb and integrate what was happening, with no ability to influence movement or speech.
Every time the person in charge of this body spoke, it was like a gong echoing in a metal room within Joe’s head. Though the words were English, they made little sense to him. It was a feeling he had walked into—literally—the middle of a conversation for which he had no context. To add to the confusion, every movement from this body he couldn’t control elicited a feeling of swaying or spinning, as though he had undergone orthodontic surgery on a boat.
Then there was the voice itself: unmistakably a woman’s, but ostensibly spoken from his head, his mouth. The tonality and dialect were entirely unfamiliar; Joe’s sleepy and confused mind grasped first for those voices he knew—mother, one of his sisters, past lovers—but no lights of recognition flipped on. He reached further back; was this perhaps the one grandmother of whom he had reasonable memory and who departed fifteen years earlier, or the other one he barely remembered who had passed when he was ten? He was certain it was neither—the accents didn’t match—but as a mind will do in the cacophony of a dream-state, his searched for anything familiar, and came up empty.
He—or perhaps more accurate, she—appeared to be standing in a kitchen. In the midst of a conversation with children; perhaps another woman as well. If the voice coming from inside the head he found himself in was barely intelligible, those from the others sounded like the teachers from the Charlie Brown cartoons of his youth. Joe, with whatever meagre powers of observation and discernment he still possessed in this seemingly drugged up state, didn’t bother trying to sort out what they were saying in question or reply to the woman he was seeing through. It was enough to try and get his bearings—particularly while being unable to direct her physical movement, or even what her eyes focused upon.
The children looked to be scattered in age between single-digits and the teen years. With offspring never part of his plan—and thereby usually becoming a sticking point in the relationships he’d had—Joe wasn’t certain of the proper terms. Pre-teen? Tween? He tried to recall from his infrequent visits with a prolific array of nieces and nephews what the various ages even looked like, but they too—both these dream-children and his memories—remained obscured and out of focus.
He sensed that along with the overall shape of the dream itself, it wasn’t that the kids (or the woman off to the side, whom he couldn’t see but heard in dampened, trumpet-like tones) themselves were hazy, as figures might appear in any other dream. They had the quality of real people—albeit viewed through anesthetic, appearing like those nurses hell-bent on proof-of-life via ordered trips to the washroom to make water once had—yet it proved too exhausting somehow for Joe to pull these dream characters into focus.
The scene itself appeared to Joe as what a normal, beginning-of-school-day-breakfast routine at the kitchen island might look like. At least he imagined so: checking in on homework assignments; discussions around logistics for that evening’s extra-curricular activities; children adorning backpacks as though they were an irksome younger sibling hopping on for an unsolicited piggyback. A coffee pot percolating; a toaster ready to Jack-in-the-box its culinary offering at any moment; animals running through legs excitedly as if to say to their bipedal companions “FINALLY you’re awake! We’ve been waiting to play for hours!”
It wasn’t that he could explicitly see these things from the fog-ringed eyes he looked out of, but it was the feeling the dream offered. And while he had never experienced this environment first-hand beyond his own childhood, it felt warm. It felt welcoming.
Yet confusion remained, and he strained to grapple control over this body. He felt the instinct to blurt out (in his own voice and not this woman’s, whomever she was) things like “WH-WH-WH-HHH-OOOOO A-A-A-RRRRRRREE YUH-YUH-YUH-YOOOOUUUUU?” and “WH-WH-WH-WHEEERRRRRR AM-AM-AM-AM IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII?”—or perhaps even more important: “WH-WH-WH-WHOOOOOOOO AMMMM IIIIIIIIIIIIIII?”
Every attempt to speak either produced no response from this woman’s face, or a string of unrelated and incomprehensible words instead. Still, the others in the room appeared to understand whatever words she did use, and replied in their discordant melodies. The sounds in the room now felt magnified and deafening, as though he were underwater while fireworks cracked off and a band played poolside.
The mounting cacophony was greeted by a sensation entirely new to Joe in—what he now hoped and begged would be the most random of—dreams: nausea. He felt that unmistakeable and non-negotiable feeling, and though this had never happened in a dream before, he thought he might actually vomit. How, he couldn’t imagine: If I puke, will it be through this woman’s body? Or will it just be a sensation like the rest, where she doesn’t feel it, but I do? Or if I’m truly, physically asleep, will I awake having booted all over my own bed?
Desperation came next: a frantic attempt to grapple control over this foreign body and steer it toward a bathroom, a sink, a large salad bowl—anything—but the body refused to heed his commands and remained stationary at the kitchen island. If the body itself wasn’t sweating and shaking, Joe knew he was, and couldn’t comprehend how this human costume he apparently wore betrayed on the outside all the physical symptoms he felt internally.
His panic piqued, he remembered thinking thisisgonnabebadthisisgonnabeuglywhywon’tyoumovewhywon’tyoufindasinkwhatingodsnameishappeningthishastobeadreambutwhywon’titstopitneedstostop—and just as suddenly found himself in his own bed. His own room. Suspicion (and hope) of a dream confirmed, doused in sweat, and heaving uncontrollably.
The saving grace was the wastebasket he kept at the side of the bed; while he never wanted to accumulate trash in his bedroom—his sanctuary—he wanted less to have something in need of disposal and nowhere to put it (he had read once that Walt Disney observed how long guests in his famed park appeared willing to walk with trash in their hands before dropping it; determined that distance was twenty-five feet, and installed garbage cans at that interval. That, to Joe, made for good sense and solid planning). In this moment of frantic, unplanned nonsense, Joe leaned over the side and evacuated both partial and fully digested bits of last night’s dinner.
When the first wave passed, he made a lopsided dash to his ensuite in anticipation of a subsequent episode. Only a brief fit of gagging, coughing, and a half-cup of bile came with the next. This real world began to slow its spinning, and Joe began to get a handle on where he was, and what had just happened.
As he leaned one arm on the toilet reservoir, still hunched over the bowl, he realized his other arm was holding the wastebasket half full of vomit. This prompted a wry smile; his mother always proclaimed the key to keeping a clean home was in never wasting a trip to another room by not bringing something that might belong there. Here he had been, adhering to that maxim; unconsciously attempting to assert order on a disordered (and disgusting) situation. Joe dumped the remnants of dinner into the bowl, watched it join the rest of what his stomach rejected following this bizarre merry-go-round, and flushed.
He moved to the mirror to survey the damage, and found his face looking how the rest of his body felt: drenched in sweat, pale, cold and disoriented. Joe typically remembered fragments of his dreams, but the majority of these were nonsensical: some unconsciously stored memory of the day played out in a greater—or at least comically embellished—way while his body rested. Most of the time he found his dreams a nuisance, keeping his mind active on some peripheral level when he wanted silent and sublime reprieve from demands of the day. He’d already lived his day once, didn’t need to experience it again, but this time in the company of Spiderman and Tigger or his old boss from the golf-cart washing job when he was fifteen.
This bizarre, yet simultaneously benign episode was somehow different than any previous excursion into the land of subconscious. Not only did his dreams—even the rare nightmares—rarely affect his physiology, they’d never taken on such a real (if distorted) quality. There was always something—treehouse building with John from Head Office, for instance—within the dream itself to alert him of an unlikely situation, or the eventual return to wakefulness confirmed it. But here, now, standing in what he knew was his bathroom, he couldn’t escape the feeling of having been transported—violently so.
He mulled this over while regarding his dilated pupils and clammy skin, feeling his heartbeat not only within his chest but pulsating at his neck and wrists. His internal committee—The Parliament, he called it—was having a field day, engaging in full debate over the meaning (or lack of one) of this out-of-body yet in-body experience.
In some long-ago personal development seminar Joe and fellow attendees had been told one of the pillars of self-mastery was recognizing, naming, and eventually claiming the disparate (and often discordant) voices within. He’d labeled his two main internal political parties “The Pragmatists” and “The Cynics”, even assigning names to some of the individual voices that spoke for each. “Uncle Peter”—the namesake a departed relation Joe recalled from childhood mostly for a soothing, wisdom-endowed baritone—was the appointed spokesperson for The Pragmatists. It was Uncle Peter who spoke up now.
“Hey, dreams are funny. They’re not meant to make sense, or to make sense of. Wipe off your face, brush your teeth—stomach acid is murder on enamel, don’t you know—check the time, and if there’s time, finish your sleep.” Joe obeyed these sensible commands: cleaned himself up, found it was one-thirty, and laid back down.
Yet sleep eluded him, and he found himself watching the red numbers of the clock pulse from one minute to the next, eventually begging time to speed up so he could distract his mind with the demands of the day. Of all he couldn’t sort through, what bothered him perhaps the most was why he felt bothered to begin with; it wasn’t as though he had been driving a vehicle that lost control, or slipped off the ledge of a skyscraper, or was bedside for a loved one’s last moments.
He had been in a kitchen, for crying out loud. A perfunctory conversation presumably between family members. The being-in-a-woman’s-body thing was strange, to be sure, but again, that wasn’t what troubled him the most. Whatever did—his mind couldn’t put a name or description or even a feeling beyond discomfited to it—continued to elude him just as sleep had. Until, classic to a night of interrupted sleep, he finally felt himself drifting off twenty minutes before his alarm stood ready to take him back to order, to consistency, to discipline, to real.
Five a.m. wakeup, even on weekends. Even in those instances where a social or work function cut into his usual sleep window.
Even when he’d ostensibly been teleported across an ocean, to see through the eyes and move through the body of a woman he’d never met, forfeiting the time his own body ought to have been in repose.
If anything, weekend or not, the sooner he could get on the trail, the sooner he’d clear his mind of whatever that had been. Whomever she had been.
Hiking was deliverance from whatever the week wrought—professional or otherwise. While he’d long loathed the notion of a life fulfilling the stereotype of “working for the weekend”, his diligence and discipline had afforded him freedom to pick up and go any weekend he chose, which was most. The mountains and trails offered a reprieve from the pressures and pursuits of the week, but mostly they offered a glimpse of a life that was more. They could “right size” Joe in a way few else things could—literally, mentally and physically.
Once he was able to get past the tourist crowds near the front of the trailhead (who invariably turned back at the first signs of serious elevation or less grooved-in paths), Joe was left free to reach back and connect with that thing he dared not put a name to—lest in the end, he be duped by anything resembling belief—but nonetheless had an inkling was there. At times he wondered if that was why he hiked in the first place: to connect with those dynamics of the universe—that created the mountains and streams in perfection independent of human touch—without ever having to admit they were acquainted. But this, like every ephemeral dream up to that point, was something Joe wouldn’t have extended meaning or abundance of thought. All the existential debate in the world made no difference to the mountains in front of him or the paths under his feet. Thought, or faith, or belief was good as far as it went, but philosophy wouldn’t take his steps for him. Contemplation didn’t assuage lost opportunity or regret. Action did.
It wasn’t that he carried any conscious or pervading sense of disappointment with his life; he felt content, he felt organized, he was pleased most days with the life he’d designed and the progress he’d made. Yet at times the question would needle at the back of his mind: Progressing towards what? Maybe it was simply a rite of passage that came with one’s late thirties; perhaps it was just an ironic good sense to question the sanity of one’s choices, no matter their practicality.
It was probably perfectly normal to wonder if there had been squandered time; if he should have followed improbable yet exciting childhood yearnings to go to space, write novels, or become a movie star. Somewhere along the way the committee had taken over—The Parliament began sitting in regular session—and voices purporting reason and practicality steered him toward the tangible, the controlled, the self-made. Joe watched family and friends forfeit their lives to paradigms of paying the mortgage and taxes on time, of contributing to employer-matched retirement accounts, of sitting on condo boards. He wondered if life in those circumstances hadn’t merely regressed to consumerism in the name of lifestyle, and working merely to support whatever it took to keep up appearances.
He quietly observed as friends from grade school and college lived haphazardly and whimsically, settling into lives of reactivity versus proactivity before they were conscious of it. If awareness dared ever rear its head, it usually came in the form of masquerading tee times at the country club or poker nights at the pub as forums to complain about wives they couldn’t remember falling in love with, or why they’d asked to marry. To vent about children they’d had out of obligation opposed to love. To bemoan careers they never would have chosen if they’d known at twenty what they knew pushing forty. All this seemed in service of a dubious trade for homes and cottages and boats and vehicles, to house relationships they apparently couldn’t stand, working in careers for which they had no passion, to pay for lives they couldn’t afford.
That wasn’t Joe Riley. Life was far too demanding—too finite, too fickle—all on its own, to be approached with improvisation and inaction. Planning was key, discipline was paramount. Consistency and execution were the corner and keystones to any well-ordered and well-lived life. “One shot,” he was fond of saying to his clients, “one shot is all we get, so don’t you think it’s important to aim?” In moments of wondering what he might have missed, Uncle Peter would proffer a comforting reminder that in every choice there is inherent sacrifice. That sacrifice was merely the cost of admission to the life one chose to design. One determined what cost was acceptable—making certain never to be a borrower nor lender in money, time or emotion—made the payment, and pursued the path.
If at times he privately lamented his solitude—a quiet voice from some rogue, backbench party that would sneak in while parliament was in session—he’d rarely indulge beyond the initial, unasked-for thought. That voice was swiftly quieted by a coalition of The Realist and Cynic Parties who would say “This is just what life is about. The biggest choice one will ever make is whether life happens for you, or to you.” For Joe, it had become an enduring mantra that one’s life was framed by deliberation, by action, by determination. Why leave things to chance? To the stars? Make your own universe. Live your own design. Those watchwords had served him well throughout his thirty-seven years, and while there hadn’t been a complete absence of bumps in the road, there was no reason to believe the trend wouldn’t remain the same for the next forty or beyond.
He was the youngest advisor in his firm’s history to reach nine-figures in assets under management. A sleek practice with less than one hundred clients. A team where the associates courted him, not the other way around. Special dispensation to brand under his own name, and private wealth banner. After expenses and overhead, there was passive income from his practice, funneled into further passive income from investments and real estate.
He could make more money in a day without getting out of bed than many of his peers earned in a week—and yet there was no wasted time to sleep, no wasted opportunities squandered to complacency. And certainly, no distraction in the way of a serially-broken heart as was the pattern with Dawson, or a debilitating, drawn-out divorce as had happened to their colleague, Janice.
Joe had been spared these encumbrances; the pain, mourning, and lost time that came with them. He’d laugh it off when family or friends would pepper him with the “When are you ever going to settle down and enjoy your hard work?”, while delighting in rides in his BMW, or standing in awe of the pictures he’d taken from one backcountry excursion to the next. He was enjoying the work. He was settled, in his own way—married to the dopamine of discipline and achievement. The former fostered the latter, and the latter kept him free from shackles he saw restraining friends and family.
Yet from time to time that other, quiet voice would continue to needle at him.
This is just the way it is, he told himself. There are people the world over far worse off, with honest-to-God problems that exceeded the existential ones. He was free. He was secure. He’d built something that was meaningful to him, even if it didn’t always fit the accepted paradigm of society. He wanted for nearly nothing, and when he did, it was simply a matter of creating a plan to attain it. If the price for that was the occasional mental trip into the Forest of What Might Have Been, so be it. It was probably far better to wonder what might have come to pass from a place of security, than wonder what might have been while struggling to survive, or worse yet, feeling trapped by one’s own life.
The mountains and the trails always served to reframe the debate, however. Out here, none of those surface questions mattered. There was only the sense that somehow this was what was important. No matter what a person wound up doing to make a living—advisor, ad executive, astronaut, au pair—in the grand design none of it would be of any consequence. If the mountains themselves weren’t eternal, then neither were the pedestrian pursuits of life.
It was almost a contradiction that further exasperated Joe’s ability to reconcile his choices, but this too was healed by the sojourns, grand or small, to places where humans hadn’t made much of an imprint beyond the paths beneath his feet. It called to mind a sense of what was important once the minutiae and superficial had been stripped away: the need to eat, the need to sleep, the need to survive, and the need to move forward. Something about having to hike to where he would lay his head for the night, construct his own shelter, create his own heat for food—these things always brought him back to a sense of peace. A reminder that of all that could be questioned or go wrong in a given day, interaction, or relationship, this much of life could be conquered through these individual feats of survival, with none of it taken for granted.
For all the nights he fell asleep shivering from misjudging the weather and packing the wrong weight of sleeping bag, or frozen evenings when he couldn’t get a fire started due to unexpected rain; rather than consternation, these small defeats usually came with a sense of peace, of humbling. This was what mattered. This was where life made sense. It was one thing to conquer the worlds of business or self-mastery—it was another to prove to himself he could not only survive against the elements, but thrive.
This reconnection with the fundamentals also went a long way to assuaging the lack of connection he felt elsewhere. Even before the seminars on non-verbal communication or positive reinforcement, Joe had always been a charmer—could get along and find a connection point with anyone—yet for most of his life he felt true relationship eluded him. Small talk—despite its place in his profession—was maddening to him; he had never been the guy who could pass the minutes at a social function talking about football scores or when the writ would drop on the next election. Even amongst other hikers and outdoor “enthusiasts”, he was left wanting for conversation once initial talk of trails and gear was exhausted. If anything, he felt more frustrated in these superficial bids for connection—wasn’t one of the main reasons for hiking to be deliberately anti-social?
If small talk was tedious and wasteful, its opposite was equally daunting—if and when Joe was called upon to share details of his own life. He was an expert listener; that was the part of his career he’d mastered long before he’d attended his first seminar or signed over his first million-dollar client. When he’d interviewed with Summit Wealth nearly twenty years ago, the hardened and cliched sales director asked Joe what he knew about closing clients. The young graduate pivoted immediately and replied that he knew how to listen, how to hear the pain points, and how to respond with a word or an expression—or even a hand on a shoulder—that conferred understanding. Translated into compassion. Elicited connection—one-sided though it might be.
Maybe it had come from being the youngest in a family of three girls and a boy. Perhaps it had been the years spent observing the serial entrepreneurialism of his parents—of fortunes won and lost, gambles made and profits squandered, of relationships pushed to their brink. He’d learned to watch, to listen, and ultimately, to empathize without patronizing. Most importantly, he’d learned to let listening be the extent of his connection to misery or compromise. He’d heard and observed the difficulties of others, and drawn the pitfalls and obstacles onto his own map of life. Learning where others had strayed from the path, and how to keep his steps within the edges.
Dawson’s question—“Who broke your heart”—had thrown him, if only for a moment. There had certainly been moments; temptations to deviate from the plan. A stolen glance, a profound impromptu conversation with someone newly introduced. Some of these progressed to those islands he’d permit himself to visit when that quiet voice within became persistent. Yet these little “holidays” rarely led to more than unnecessary complication or distraction, and often had the side-effect of forcing a—misguided, he was certain—sense of loneliness every time the isle turned to ashes. They’d leave him with the pervading sense—if not fear—that in the end, he was still truly, irrevocably, alone. Perhaps meant to be on his own. A completely independent entity, in practice and spirit.
He knew the whispers of friends and family; of women who had drawn close to the flame—and most certainly from those who had been burned by it—wondering why he wouldn’t (or couldn’t) commit. Conspiracy theories proliferated as to what might be wrong with him. For those untouched by the fire—especially in this age-range witness to many of the long-term relationships around him crumbling, where many a hungry divorcee entered back into the dating pool—there was no shortage of female suitors keen for his affections. Yet for the (dubiously) lucky few who cracked past the outer shell, Joe remained as unreachable as ever, and they often left their time with him even more baffled about the man he was, what made him tick, or who he was searching for.
For Joe, he left those same dalliances more disillusioned than before, viewing couple-hood as nothing more than two people trying to indulge biological and emotional needs for a time, and in the end, ultimately compromising one another. There were too many layers, too much complexity—though he endeavoured to be clear and simple from the start. Most relationships seemed to amount to little more than a protracted game of who could compel vulnerability from their partner without acceding too much of their own heart. A disillusioned friend once said “The person who cares less in a relationship is ultimately the one with the power,” and Joe experienced little evidence in his own liaisons to suggest this wasn’t true. One person always fell harder than the other, and that was the person who inevitably got hurt. It was dangerous to be that person. Vulnerability was a trap.
There was a part of him that loathed the instinct of his mind to go to these places when it came to relationships; he knew some part of his encased and fortified heart longed to believe it wasn’t true. Just as he subscribed to the mantra of “Map your life, follow the path, enjoy the destination,” when it came to business and achievement, he briefly attempted a similar paradigm when it came to “love”. “Make a list of the qualities you want in another person, find them, date, move in together, propose, marry and make a family, live happily ever after.” For a time, he had begun that journey only to watch the plan fall to pieces after he’d bent his knee.
Rachel had been a good girl—sweet, trusting, and honorable—but even at twenty-three carried enough pain and patterning (they both did) to lead Joe to the realization one is never dating just the one human being. We’re in relationship with everyone who ever held sway over that person. We’re not just dating the woman (or man), he’d think, we’re dating their mother and father, brothers and sisters, and every single person who has held their heart—for better or worse—up to that point. Rachel was beautiful, wickedly intelligent, studious and ambitious, but in their mutual inexperience of knowing—if anyone ever could—the necessary ingredients and recipe for a successful relationship, they had done untold damage to one another’s hearts. Rachel had long ago moved on—literally, had moved across the country—but Joe’s heart had not.
Not in a feeling of yearning for her, but in the scars that remained. After their dissolving relationship made its final death gasp in the form of Rachel’s announcement she was going to pursue her graduate degree at McGill—which might as well been half the world away in the universe of a young relationship—and due to her scholarships would “Need to focus on nothing but school; can’t have any distractions these next couple of years,” Joe had taken his mortally wounded heart and dealt with it as an animal deals with illness or injury. Alone. He wasn’t about to fight for someone who viewed his heart and love as a “distraction”, though cognitively—and later with the quality of wisdom only ever extracted from looking back—he knew that’s not what she meant, or at least entirely.
She was hurting too, and under the coded language of “needing to focus” and “can’t have distractions” was likely saying “You and I, in all our fallibility, occupy all my thoughts and emotions. I want us to work, but I can’t carry this pain at the same time I’m trying to build my life.” On that last day, he had seen her off at the airport along with her parents. After his ne’er-to-be in-laws stepped away, she handed him back the engagement ring adorned with the tiny rock he scrimped for with serving jobs squeezed in after his own undergraduate hours.
When she quietly whispered in his ear “I know you loved me, and please know I truly loved you, but maybe love is having the courage to do the hard thing when things are impossibly hard,” Joe had taken his pain and gone underground. In doing so, he vowed he would never be that open again, he would never be the one who cared more, or shown their cards first.
Joe was certain a therapist—to say nothing of Dawson—would have a field day if he ever coughed up that information, should he ever require therapy that the mountains and trails couldn’t offer. He knew, in that pivotal moment of donning his armour, he had likely sacrificed untold gifts, passions, growth and connection. But he also knew he had successfully never been hurt like that again. Not even close.
He had resolved then and there to build his life without compromise, without pain, without that maddening dance of wondering who should go first or who was more involved or who was feeling what or who was doing whom. If the cost was the occasional ruminating on potentially—and only potential—lost connection, that was a cost he could bear. What he couldn’t bear again was a heart shattered as it had been that rainy morning on the departures level. No reward was worth that price.
As was the usual effect of hiking, Joe realized he’d been musing on these things for the better part of several hours, as the endless shades of green, orange, and red of the fall foliage passed with every step. Though the breeze carried traces of the bitter cold that would envelop this part of the world in the coming months, this was his favorite time of year to hike. Snow had begun to cap the highest peaks again, returning the mountains to that bit of majesty the summer meltdown somehow robbed. The trees blanketing the hillside ascents looked like an ocean on gentle fire. Metaphors danced in Joe’s head about the passing of the seasons; how life can be at its most beautiful during times of endings. That in order to rebuild, for a time life must go dark, cold, and quiet.
Joe reached his destination for the night; a beautiful treed-in stretch along a slow moving but talkative river. He would always walk as far as needed to find that perfect backdrop, although fifteen minutes into the mountains that was almost anywhere. A place he could raise his tent along water, whether one of the emerald glacial lakes found at these elevations, or one of the freezing but incomparably beautiful rivers Joe sensed were more alive than other moving bodies of water. Streams teeming with life, carrying endless stories of nature’s secrets. A world untainted by man. Life unfettered by obligation, desire or heartbreak. Life at its purest, simplicity in survival.
There were few things closer to perfection than opening a tent flap to watch and listen to the narration of a flowing river, set against mountainside in every direction. What kind of stories existed in those hills? What kind of eyes might be on him now, as he sat beside his obscenely colored tent and gear? Part of the joy was in knowing he would never know. Part of the bliss was the knowledge that here, he was just a temporary part of the backdrop, of a wild community where his stature was reduced. Far from being just a man among men, he was a creature among many, and certainly no longer the most powerful. These brief, but frequent sojourns did more to charge Joe’s batteries than any new client, acquisition, purchase or investment—and certainly any dalliance—ever had, nor could he imagine ever would.
Joe built his fire and went to that most sublime of places—being active in tasks necessary for survival. He wasn’t about to freeze or starve anytime soon, but sat in the knowledge that if he wanted heat, he had to create it himself. If he wanted warm dinner, that subsequent action was reliant on the first. Sure, he had a stove to heat a dehydrated meal if needed, but that would cheapen the experience of relying on the elements. Relying on his own abilities. Action, combined with the soundtrack nature provided; the consistent, indiscernible—yet somehow entirely understandable—language of water and woods.
The discussion of leaves in trees as wind began to nudge them toward the denouement of their short lives; their resistance in trying to stay connected for a day or week longer. Fallen branches that occasionally snapped from footfalls of animals Joe knew he couldn’t see. Stifled and random discussion from squirrels and chipmunks fighting over wares needed to last the frozen months ahead. A few remaining birds offering last-minute travel tips to their companions as they squeezed out the final habitable Canadian autumn moments, as did Joe.
This was perfection. This was life at its essence. Whatever else mattered between 9 a.m. Monday and Friday at 5 faded out of existence and importance here. No matter how pressing anything ever seemed in that fabricated hamster-wheel of being evaporated in these woods and these hills. There were no deadlines to meet, no traffic to contend with, no Black Friday deals to queue for, no Must-See screen moments, no broken hearts to mend, no dreams to decipher. There was just this: food, heat, shelter, the elements, the animals, and peace in his thoughts. Peace in his heart.
Joe leaned back in his portable chair, a steaming cup of food in his hands, the fire at his feet, and a book in his lap. He watched as the last lines of sun slowly crept down to the tops of the west-facing peaks, and satin-suede drapes of stars began to reveal themselves. In his downtown condo he rarely saw stars from his balcony; as cities do, his had expanded at a relentless pace since his youth and the light-pollution, particularly in the inner-city, made stargazing next to impossible. Not here. It was like having a nightly view of an entirely random but intentionally beautiful Christmas display. The stars and moon created a natural nightlight—mixed with an interminable and pure blackness—that the city and its sodium arclights could never duplicate. Even the moon- and starlight was somehow restorative, in counterbalance to the way the city-light was draining.
It was only around seven in the evening, but “campers midnight” was setting in; Joe read until he could no longer discern words on the page, then tilted his head back to fully rejuvenate at the sight of his private, celestial backdrop. He sat in quiet meditation on nothing, and everything. Every concern faded away now; any stream of thought lingering in his mind merged with the blackened but undeniable stream beyond his feet. The dancing of the orange and red flames framed his hiking boots, the sway of shadow-cloaked trees encircled him, and silhouetted mountaintops blanketed him with an ocean of stars. When the fire burned down to its slow-dancing waves of blue heat, he finally—and very reluctantly—covered them with the forest floor and retreated to his tent.
Breathing in the cool and pure mountain air, Joe fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Thanks again for stopping by, Dear Reader! Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more.