by Arshan Dhillon
I was ten years old when I finally went fishing with my grandpa. He had promised the fishing trip for months. Before we left the house, Mom handed me a black Nike baseball cap that once belonged to my dad. She said it was going to be sunny and to keep my face out of the sunlight. She asked my grandpa if he had enough sunscreen. He showed her the bottle in his bag. Alongside the sunscreen, there were a couple bottles of water, a few small packets of chips, a four-pack of Budweiser, an orange juice, and two sandwiches which he had made that morning. Mine was without pickles and olives.
We rented a small two-seater boat at Lake Issac. There was a heart carved on the seat with the initials A + D inside. I traced it with my nail. I sat in between my grandpa’s legs and rowed, or at least I thought I did. Somewhere in the middle of the lake, Grandpa stopped rowing. We cast our lines and then waited. He said that’s what fishing was all about.
“We learn to be patient and to sit still,” he said. “We learn to feel the motion. To go along with the movement of the water.”
The breeze picked up, and the mist from the water occasionally fell on my sunscreen-covered arms and legs. We listened to Bob Dylan songs on the portable radio that my grandpa had brought along.
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone.
“How are you doing in school?” he asked.
“I got an A in history.”
I looked at the oblique dancing light of the sun in the water.
He tapped the brim of my hat. I pushed it back up.
“You need to study more.”
He tossed me a bag of chips and took one for himself, and we both ate, listening to Dylan’s raspy voice, watching the fishing lines slowly move up and down with the rhythm of the water, and the warm touch of the sun on our naked arms. Every now and then my grandpa would hum parts of Dylan’s tunes and mimic the raspiness when he sang a few words out loud. The sun was past its prime and fell on my back. There weren’t any clouds, and the sky, in a way, mirrored the lake water. Clear, blue, endless and daunting.
“Mom said you were sick.”
“Did she?” he said.
He crumpled the empty chips bag and stuffed it into his bag.
“Are you going to be okay?”
The sunlight fell on me only. Grandpa smiled.
“Want some orange juice?”
I fell asleep sometime in the afternoon. By the time I woke up, Grandpa was rowing back to the shore with an ice bucket full of fishes. He said that I snored a lot for a kid my size. I said I didn’t snore. He smiled. Bob kept on singing about war, death, and change, and I ate my sandwich and washed it down with the last sip or two of the orange juice.
Since that day, I’ve had this reoccurring dream. I am rowing in a little two-seater boat just like my grandpa’s, and the wood is chipped and scratched in the same places, and it even has the same love initials carved into it. I am rowing in the middle of an ocean, and I can’t see land at all, no birds, no fishes; the water is perfectly still except for the bit I disturb with my push and pull. The sun is the only other constant in my dream. No clouds to block its touch, no hat to cover me. It was me, the boat, the oars, the water, and the sun. Those are the only qualities that are the same. My attire changes every now and then. The khaki shorts and stained Mickey Mouse T-shirt are replaced by button-ups and black pants. Sometimes the empty seat is occupied. But what never changes is that I am there, the oars are there, the boat, too, and all of us are floating on an ocean, including the sun, which, mirrored on the glassy water, simultaneously watches over me and accompanies me.
The first time I had this dream, my grandpa was there. His foot tapped along to his humming “Desolation Row.” The oars peacefully dipped in and out of the water. I wanted to say something, but no sound came from my lips. We just stared at one another as I rowed nowhere. The light from the rising sun fell upon my grandpa’s back; he shielded its rays from me, and he had a smile on his face, and he glowed from the light. His crystal blue eyes teared up, but I felt like the one who was crying. After he passed, I stopped dreaming about him. It was like he had fulfilled some rite or ritual by showing me how to row and now he could move on.
When I graduated high school, I took a year off from studying. In that year I went to Vietnam and Thailand. I spent a week visiting my cousins in Australia. I had plans of going to Japan, but those fell through. I had the same dream often that year. But for some reason, it was unclear, as if I had been staring at the same spot for too long and the surroundings became blurry. I saw my hands on the oars, but the oars themselves were out of focus. The water was lighter. The horizon foggy, but there was no fog. The sun, a distant star from another galaxy. Once that year was over, I started university. The dream started to return to its previous clarity. I once mentioned my dream to this girl I was seeing. We lay in bed, her head on my chest, coming down from both a literal high and spiritual high. We listened to some Beatles, and then I told her about my dream.
“That’s a pretty dream,” she said.
“What else could it be?”
“I don’t know, but something more than pretty.”
She raised her head and looked at me. “Do you want to talk about it some more?”
“Not if you don’t want to.”
She reached over to my bedside table for some smokes, took a cigarette out, and I helped her light it. She smoked and passed it to me.
“You just rowed around in some water by yourself. Doesn’t it seem silly?”
I handed her the smoke. “I think there must be some meaning to it if I keep dreaming about it.”
“You don’t understand.”
“Explain it to me.” She let me finish the cigarette.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve felt lost, like, like—”
“You’re in the middle of an ocean?” she asked.
“Yeah, something like that. Middle of nowhere, not knowing where to go, what to do, just trying to navigate the waves. That’s how life is. You’re being pushed and pulled from different directions, and you’re alone, trying to figure it out.”
“You’re not alone, I’m here.”
I matched her smile and kept the rest of my thoughts to myself. You’re always alone. Others just come and go, but the only constant you have is yourself. Being alone scared me because I didn’t know what to do.
I had told her about my dream because she had been in the boat last time I dreamt it. She was wearing a sundress that revealed her slim ankles and a cream-colored straw hat, which she had worn on our first date. She needed that hat as the sun was above us. She was humming “Yesterday.” I suppose that’s why I told her about the dream. That song came on as we lay in each other’s arms, and she began to hum it; I felt the vibrations from her throat travel to my chest, in my heart.
That year, I probably dreamt of that boat more than twenty times but less than thirty, and each time she was there, even after she had passed away in a car accident. Only after I graduated did I find myself all alone on the boat. The sun blinding me without her being there to shield it.
There were other women in my life, but none had managed to come aboard. I waited for a couple, especially my wife. I thought surely she would meet me there, but she never came. In a way I was glad. But at the same time, it made me question my love for her or her love for me.
I once brought that up during our couples therapy session. At the time, my wife was still my girlfriend, or perhaps my fiancé. All I know for sure was that she was pregnant with our first child, and the stress of the unexpected kid coupled with our work lives and perhaps her hormonal imbalances made us seek therapy. Of course, it wasn’t what I had wanted.
One time we were asked to come separately, so it was me and this therapist who seemed too young and pretty to know about problems let alone have ways to fix them. When I think about a therapist, I think of sages, old wise men, hell, even Gandalf or some wizard who can snap their fingers and make all that is wrong right again.
The therapist asked if there was something I wanted to tell her now that my soon-to-be wife wasn’t in the room. I shook my head. This was her idea and I had nothing to say.
“Nothing at all?” she asked.
“Just try and think of anything. Even something as small as the way she says hello or perhaps the way she sits.”
I thought for a moment.
“She never came on the boat,” I said.
I told the therapist about the dream. The sun was descending. It no longer blinded me, and yet I could not help but feel blind, lost, alone, rowing endlessly, watching the water swell as if something was about to break the surface, break the calm, and I needed someone there with me.
The therapist normally had this rhythm about her. She talked as if she were a calculator and one had to punch an equation in and the answer appeared instantly. The only difference being that, instead of answers, she spat out more questions. But now, at least for a moment, an error sign flashed as if I had plugged in an incomputable number.
When she finally spoke, she asked if I dreamt of this often.
“When I was in college, I kept track of the dream for a year, and in that year, I dreamt of it a hundred and sixty-five times.”
“The same dream?”
“For the most part.”
She picked up her notepad. “Please explain any changes or differences.”
“Well, at first the sun was half consumed by the shoreline.”
“When I was about ten or eleven.”
She wrote that down.
“When I started keeping track of it that year in college, the sun was directly above me.”
“And now?” she asked.
“It had started to descend.”
“No, I wouldn’t say it’s setting, but it’s on its way. Maybe in a normal day, it’s about four p.m., I think, so a couple hours before it really sets.”
“I see.” Her pen scribbled, and she flipped the page of her notebook. “Does it anger you that your wife isn’t there?”
“No,” I said. “It doesn’t make me angry or sad. I was just curious, that's all.”
“You believe if she were on the ship—”
“Boat. If she were on the boat, then the two of you would have fewer problems?”
I thought about that for a few minutes. The therapist was used to awkward silences, but I wasn’t, so I answered even though I was still thinking about it.
“No, that sounds unlikely.”
“Have you told your partner about this dream?”
“Any reasons why?”
“I don’t think she’ll understand.”
“Understand what exactly?”
I took a sip of water. “Do you think it’s silly?”
“Not at all,” she said.
“Did you always know you wanted to be a psychologist?”
“Not always, but when I sat down to think about it, I was drawn toward helping people.”
“So, you always knew where you were going?”
“For the most part, I guess.”
“That must be nice.”
“You don’t feel the same?” she asked.
I finished the glass of water. “I feel like I’m always catching up to things, trying to steer the right way as the wind changes. You know, things just kinda happen, and I don’t know if I can do anything to change what’s happening. Do you get it? Like it’s all too much sometimes. Sometimes it feels like it’s all for nothing. Sometimes I feel like I wasted my life. I don’t know. I feel like, like—” I don’t know why I started to cry.
The alarm on her phone buzzed. Time was up. She said that we had made good progress and that next time she’d like to discuss what I said along with my wife. I asked her what she and my wife talked about, but she said she couldn’t tell me that.
It was soon after my wife gave birth to our son when we stopped going to the counselor. I didn’t dream my dream for a long time after. Probably because of the stress of raising a little human and not knowing the instructions for it. Then came our marriage and then our daughter. In time, I realized I was an adult and that I was old.
I dreamt of it again after I took my son on his first fishing trip. It wasn’t even the trip that triggered it but rather the Dylan song that randomly came on. It’s strange how sometimes what we consider important and significant can slip from our memory. I had spent a good part of my twenties thinking about this dream, and then its significance almost left me. I guess having kids can do that to you. Their needs take over your own, and you spend your time thinking about them to the point where you forget to think about yourself. I told my son about my dream, and like a kid, he asked about the boat and what it looked like, if it was wet, if the water was cold, if I had sunscreen on, a life jacket, and if I was afraid of sharks. If it weren’t for his line catching, I would still be answering his questions.
That night I dreamt it, and my son was there. He was wearing khaki shorts and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt with a stain on the right ear of Mickey. I could not see the sun, but I felt its presence behind me. The setting sun cast a faded bloodlike image on the sky.
Another thing I noticed was that I was no longer rowing. My son was. He didn’t know how to. I could see the strain in his face and feel the rhythmless pushing and pulling. I wanted to reach out and show him how it's done. To tell him how to breathe in and out with the oars and feel the water, using it to help you rather than fight against. But I woke up before I could say or do anything.
As we ate breakfast that morning, my son started to hum “The Times They Are a-Changin'.”
“Where’d you hear that?” I asked.
“You were singing it in my dream.”
He said the sun was rising behind me.
Arshan Dhillon was born in Canada, but grew up in India. He is a graduate from the University of Calgary. He writes short stories and poems on various subjects and themes. He runs a blog called LearnedLiving, which focuses on non-fiction work. He is currently working on his first novel.