“And when you leave your body on your bed at night,
And you drift away to somewhere like you do,
In the morning when you open your eyes,
Do the lovers in your dreams wake up, too?”
- Ray Wylie Hubbard
One of my favorite works by Neil Gaiman is the graphic short story “The Hunt,” which is collected in Fables and Reflections. When I read the story, what I enjoy the most is the humor in the interaction between the old man who narrates the story and his teenage granddaughter, who thinks herself too old for stories but is interested despite herself, as well as the gradual revelations about who the protagonist is and about the true nature of the old man and his granddaughter. Still, last fall at my high school reunion, I was surprised to find myself suddenly taking a life-lesson from the story.
In “The Hunt,” a young man comes into possession of a locket that contains a portrait of the local duke’s daughter. He stares at the locket constantly, and, dreams of the woman portrayed. Finally, in payment for a piece of magical business with the personification of Dream, he is transported to the woman’s bed chamber. When he sees her, she is “everything he had dreamed of,” but all he does is hand her the locket and walk away. Defending the story to his cynical granddaughter, the narrator says, “It was about what he saw when he looked at the sleeping woman. Why he turned his back on her. It was about dreams.”
At the reunion, for the first time in years, I saw the adult versions of several girls who — unknown to them — were the recipients of my first crushes. In fact, off and on, I spend the better part of the evening with several of them. It was all very Platonic, but initially made pleasant by nostalgia and alcohol.
Eventually, though, the encounters were more sad than wistful. Two of the women had foregone the music careers they wanted, one because she was shy about performing, the other because of her family. A third seemed more successful, but in subsequent months, her business proved shaky, and she revealed an unpleasant side that I would probably find intolerable if I were ever to see her again. For that evening, though, she made a pleasant enough companion.
Then, halfway through the evening, my adolescent crush of crushes arrived. I had spent too many of my early teenage years obsessing over her not to recognize her immediately. But even if I had never been infatuated, I would have recognized her, because she looked younger than most people in the room and was still very fit and animated. Almost immediately, she dove into a corner talking with someone I didn’t recognize.
For a while, I waited for an opportunity to approach. I wasn’t so foolish as to imagine any romantic interest was possible, let alone desirable — I’m the sort who is so married that the fact might as well be branded on my forehead. I even wear an engagement wedding ring, which is not that common among men of my age (the engagement was a good excuse for my partner and I to buy the West Coast rings we had always wanted). Still, this was the latter day version of a girl who had occupied much of my thoughts at one time, and who still made occasional guest appearances in my dreams as an obvious Anima figure. What better closure, what more fitting sign of maturity, I thought, than to meet her as an adult and recognize that she was simply another woman, and most likely someone I had nothing particularly in common with?
After about an hour, I realized that I would have to interrupt the discussion. I ran through a few fitting phrases of introduction in my head, and was starting towards her when Neil Gaiman’s story popped into my mind.
Abruptly, I realized that I had no reason to talk to her. I had long ago lost touch with the woman, and the dream images that began with her had long since assumed an independent identity of their own. What possible good would come of having the two meet? I knew the woman and the mental images weren’t the same. In the end, I smiled at myself, and turned to talk with someone else. For the rest of the evening, I barely looked in her direction.
Probably, some people would say that I had a juvenile mind, to take a life-lesson from what they would dismiss as a comic book. But you take your epiphanies where you find them, and that moment of revelation has done me good service in the months since.
For instance, when the third crush revealed her unpleasantness, I had a momentary pang, but, once I realized my reaction was based on a confusion of past dream with present reality, it seemed unimportant. That’s not to say that, were I to hear from her again, I would immediately walk away or hang up the phone. After all, literary analogies only go so far, and I hold grudges in the abstract far more easily than I do in person. Still, I’m not saying that I wouldn’t do one of those things, either — or that, if I never encounter her again, the disappointment will be unbearable. Learning to negotiate the interplay between fantasy and reality is an important lesson, no matter where you learn it. Frankly, I consider myself lucky to have learned it at all.