I first saw her on a Sunday, I know that much. At a church, if I remember correctly. I’m not a believer, not in an all-powerful, omniscient God, and all its various forms, whether you want to call him or her Jesus, Allah, or Buddha. Maybe what I meant to say is, I wasn’t a believer. Although now, what I believe in might be called a belief in nothingness.
This was during my 4th year of college. Ironically, the only two friends I’d made were a zealous Christian named Dole and a girl named Heather, who embraced a religion that embraces all religions, Baha’i. On this particular Sunday, Dole brought us to attend his campus service. It was held in a classroom that I remember being in before, but not for a class. The window was open because it was humid, and I constantly flapped my shirt while failing to dry the perspiration leaking out of me. Outside the window, up in the sky, something groaned through the air, like an airplane. But it was a pure, blue sky.
You look kind of like her. This girl. Even though I can never recall her face. Her hair, even. The tone of her skin. It’s not that the red dress is so mesmerizing, or anything like that, it’s that I just can’t remember anything else about her. Have you ever had a dream that you completely forgot the moment you opened your eyes? The dream itself was vivid, full, complete with a beginning, middle, and an end. And yet you can’t remember it. The more you try to retrieve it, the farther it retreats from your grasp.
It’s that kind of deal. But I imagine that she might look like you. Or maybe, you look like her.
I’ve never spoken to her, and she’s never spoken to me. I’ve only seen her here and there, drifting behind crowds like a breeze. She always seems to disappear the moment I spot her. It’s the red that catches my attention at first. That ideal red from which all other reds come. Do you know Plato’s theory of forms? If a red dress has a form, then she would be wearing it.
I was taking a philosophy class around this time, when she started showing up. It was called Skepticism. The professor was a Japanese man with a light beard and fading, dome-like hairline. He was tall, and would stride around the front of the lecture hall in silence for minutes at a time after posing questions like, “How do you know that you are not dreaming this very moment?” or “How do you know that you’re not a brain in a jar?”
Students would raise their hands and answer with things like, “You just know,” and “Because I’m not wondering if I’m in a dream right now.”
He’d respond with, “Haven’t you ever dreamed a dream that felt so real, that you didn’t question it for a moment?”
“What if you were to wake up this very instance?”
Then with that slow pacing around the front, an unsettling feeling around the room that everyone could feel.
I went to his office hours once. I’m not sure if I’d already begun seeing the girl in the red dress already. Either way, I told him about the dream where she appeared.
I’m driving up a mountain in a long van. The roads are empty and wind sharply, the kind of place where you’d crawl around the turns to make sure you don’t send yourself flying over the edge. It’s sunny, it’s always sunny, but I can see the sun in the corner of the windshield without it stinging my eyes. Like it’s actually a flashlight.
As I drive up, I go faster and faster. My foot’s not pressed down on the gas or anything. It even feels like the van is driving itself. All I can do is react, to turn faster, sharper, to keep myself from tipping over. Eventually, though, I do go over. But as I fall—and at this point the van is no longer there, it’s just me falling—I get this feeling of absolute peace. Almost like nothing really matters, none of it at all.
When my body hits the floor, I feel myself continue to descend, as if I’m somehow slipping into the earth. Down, down I go, and when I finally stop, I see her. I’m in some sort of crowd, and she’s walking away from me, slipping behind people. I try to follow her but people keep getting in my way. When I finally lose her, the most agonizing feeling overcomes me, like I’ve lost something I can’t afford.
Then I wake up.
My professor stares at me with glazed eyes. His pupils are unusually large, and dilate nearly to the rims of his irises. They catch the light intensely, and there’s a look about him like he’s one of those stain-glassed statues. The ones that remarkably resemble their originators.
“When is the last time you asked yourself—really asked yourself—if you were dreaming,” he says, “when in fact, you were awake? Have you ever noticed it never happens that way, that it’s always the other way around?”
Before I can answer he’s up from of his chair and out the room. I sit there, wondering where he went. After some time, just as I’m tired of waiting and about to leave, he comes back. Sweat’s crawling down his face, and he looks nervous, or anxious, or maybe scared.
“I need to go,” he says.
I’ve tried going to his office hours again but haven’t been able to talk to him alone. His door is either closed, or opened but he’s not there, just a chair and perfectly-clean desk that make me wonder where he keeps his books. One time his door was shut when I got to the building, and after I went to use the restroom and was walking back around, I passed by and saw it was open. I peeked inside, and there was a single sheet of paper on his desk. The room was otherwise empty, so I stepped in to look. There was a single circle in blue pen at the top corner of the paper. And that’s all. Although I’m not sure if the circle was drawn or maybe printed, or stamped, because it was a nearly perfect circle.
You’re looking at me weird. I know that look. It’s the look my girlfriend used to give me when I told her about the girl in the red dress. She used to say, “You’re obsessing over nothing,” and, “There’s something going on with you, and you need to get it checked out.” As if I had some disease. After I wouldn’t let up on it, she decided to humor me, and one day…
I was taking an ancient religions class, and was walking to the second-to-last lecture of the semester. I don’t know why I remember that it was the second-to-last lecture, but I do. I remember random things like that, like the specific snippets of conversations I had with strangers over ten years ago. I think that we remember everything, but we suppress much of our past, or we fail to access it.
I remember having a strange sensation when I saw the crowds walking through the cramped quad, trying to get past each other. They looked, not like individual human beings, but like one mass. Does that make sense? No? Okay. It’s like when you see a flood of ants all moving one direction, following a single trail. They are all individual ants. But they end up looking almost like one being, instead. Rather than a thousand black dots, you see a thick line. Think of pixels on a computer. What’s a screen but specks? You can say that about anything, though. The farther out your perspective, the more everything looks like just part of a whole.
That was the sensation that overcame me that day. Everyone blended together into a single mass, and I might’ve freaked out, but then I saw the flicker of red.
I shot through the crowd. There was something off about the girl as I neared. For one, she’s always alluded me, so actually catching up to her, knowing that soon I would actually meet her, did not feel ‘right’. Second, the color of her dress was not the ideal red. The red I’d seen before.
I caught her arm, not thinking about any consequences, and she jerked around. It was my girlfriend, and she told me right then that she was breaking up with me, and left.
I let her go without a word.
You might wonder why I didn’t chase her or anything like that, but I hadn’t been around lately, you know? I was physically present, but my mind would drift to the girl. That red dress, catching in the wind. I don’t really understand why my girlfriend would wear a red dress. It’s the first time I’d ever seen her even wear anything resembling the color red. But that was that.
Look, I’m not crazy, or making her up. I can tell you’re doubting what I say. But I’m as sure of it all—of her existence—as I am that I’m not dreaming right now, or that I’m not a brain in a jar.
If real life is also a type of dream, then what happens when we wake up?
The equivalence of: What happens when we die?
Some forms of Buddhism equate suicide to enlightenment. A person who takes their life has come to understand that their mind—or soul, or whatever you want to call it—is immortal, and that they’re trapped within their bodies, which cling them to this world with its needs and desires. This is why monks spend weeks at a time in meditation, it’s an attempt to transcend their body and enter the higher consciousness of the mind. Thus, to kill yourself is a shortcut for severing the mind from the body.
Don’t worry. I know what you’re thinking. And no, I’ve never seriously considered killing myself. I’ve thought about it before—sure—but to cross that threshold takes something more than a theory or an idea.
You know, if you want to prove to yourself that you’re not in a dream, all you have to do is jump off a cliff. Then again, if you’re feeling bold enough to do that, that might already prove that you’re in a dream.
I’ve come to think that maybe reality isn’t what it appears, and that when we die, we wake up and see things for what they really are. Does this make sense? Yeah, I don’t know, it’s just a thought.
I haven’t seen the girl in the red dress for some time now. The last time I saw her was months ago, in a dream.
I’m standing atop one of the buildings on campus, and see her below, walking through the crowds, from the right to the left side.
I don’t know I’m in a dream, but I fly to her, and it all seems normal and no one notices anything strange. When I’m in front of her, her face is clear to me. I can see her. Every part of her.
She whispers something to me, a wordless message and her lips don’t even move. It’s exactly what I need to hear.
When I wake up, I don’t remember what she told me. Her face, too, becomes a haze and the only face I can make out is one that I have to fill in for myself. I see my girlfriend, or maybe I see you. But I know it’s not her.
Andy likes being mysterious and hidden, which is why he has no author page, twitter, and keeps his Facebook generally deactivated. He also likes to fill his bios with information relating to this fact. His work can be found online, if you search for it.
If you enjoyed The Girl in the Red Dress, leave a comment and let Andy know.
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