An American Essay


An Essay for the Fourth of July

Illustrations Drawn from Internet Archive’s Pageants Collection, including A Handbook of American Pageantry by Ralph Devol (Devol Publishing Company, Taunton, Massachusetts, 1914)

 Liz Mackie, 2019, for Nostalgistudio

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The Fourth of July opened sunny. The sky from my real bedroom showed cloudlessly blue. A perfect beach morning for me living with a beach nearby, and a mid-week holiday with no plans but to sun myself and write and work on book files—ahead of me, that is, a perfect day of celebrating Independence. But I couldn’t enjoy a single moment because of how a dream was sticking with me.

The dream described:

In the first place, and maybe like most dreams in the end, it’s a common one. You have this apartment, it keeps showing up in your dreams across years. Although it keeps changing—as apartments do—you can pinpoint two constants. One, it’s all yours, this apartment; and two, behind a particular door lies this extra room you never use.

Common: I stop to wonder how, really, sending my thoughts out to sort and quantify. Apartment-dwellers, to name us for the count, would all be subject to dreaming this, I think. And “all” would mean including anyone who’d ever rented but then “moved on” to owning, for in dreams a change like that doesn’t signify. All whose lives are passing closely-packed with other people’s lives must be tormented by their versions of it—nightly, I hope not—though in the momentary dreaming it would be a balm. The human need to get up and walk into Privacy: to meet it, those confined in crowded spaces force their own slumbers despite how bad it feels to wake.

My own extra room is longer than wide. At the further end, another door faces the one I’ve just entered by—a spare front door, I always realize, to the apartment. One long wall lined with bookshelves faces a row of French windows and a city view behind floor-length sheers, sometimes, or else concealed by the dust. Completely neglected, unvisited between dreams, could be for a year or more, the room would be an inch deep in it. Everything was always a pale lavender-gray in there: leather-bound books, mirror glasses, dried up flower stems and the fluted lips of Chinese vases, the shot silk upholstery on the French Empire sofa, the scattered suggestions of rare carpet patterns still faintly visible beneath the chairs and baby grand. Meanwhile the other rooms in my changeable dream apartment were nothing like this one, never a thousandth so nice, so elegant and sophisticated, so indicative of how good breeding tells; if I could only afford to have someone clean it, or set out to clean it myself. But I don’t and I never do.  I stand there and my dream thoughts run something like this:

It’s still here thank God, I haven’t lost it. I’ve still got this room to move into someday when I’m ready. Someday.

I recall a few times being greatly surprised to find the extra room blazing with lamplight, sparkling clean, fresh flowers around, and myself acting as hostess. I had company, possibly something romantic that came to nothing of course. Once I was meeting a sub-lessee I’d found to take the room and pay me a bundle.

Mostly though it was shut up and left to decay, the airless relic of an elder woman’s pleasure in life. A stranger to me, whoever she was, the room still housed her peerless library, her treasures, her music, her high culture. Someday to be mine, someday soon—this would be my dream sense—but for now instead I had to twist entangled in stuff trying to drag me away; for different problems  filled my other rooms to teeming. Disappearing staircases, table guests at shrinking tables, stubbornly unbreakable dial tones, metamorphosizing toilets, always some reason I couldn’t stay, although this room  alone awaited me.

Someday, though.

When? Sooner than before, I’d think. Looking back, those couple of spruced-up episodes where the dream went dust-free must have suggested progress, if not a break-through. I’d been gifted with recurring future sight, my private evolution’s happy pinnacle revealed in certain glimpses; I’d even stood there, so real had seemed my footprints in the carpet dust. I was born to be a Lady: this was the point, I think, that I kept being drawn to when the dream would come.


Until it came back again around daylight on the Fourth of July. My apartment this time was typically little better than shabby. There was a thin brown floor rug from Target I was standing on in a new spare room I’d just discovered, one of two or three, and I had a sudden idea to get roommates. Then I spotted the door to the familiar dust and futurity, my awaiting room with its hues of dried hyacinth. This might be the time to really occupy it, I was thinking, my hand on the doorknob.

I found the long room completely stripped down to bare plaster and floorboards, the bookshelves emptied and gone, the big windows too blank to see through. The atmosphere that precedes a clumsy low-budget gut renovation was thick. The apartment door I’d never used stood open at the far end. Near it a pair of women, not young, dressed for the real estate business in nice coats and dresses, were watching a couple of workmen and their metal stepladder. By approaching the women I ascertained that the landlord had decided to rent the room (which by now looked cavernous) as a separate apartment. While this loss felt bad enough, what staggered me was the regret over not using the space when I’d had it, all I’d done was waste it; but all I said was, I hope I’ll get a rent reduction now.

I was waiting for an answer from the shorter of the two women. I’d figured them both for Russians but looking more closely at this one I noticed she had a strangely curved nose and a bright yellow skin spotted with black like a jaguar’s. She looked like she was going to try some evasive business and indeed, the next thing to happen in the dream was that we were outside on a crowded city street, me in pursuit of her. The jaguar woman was too far ahead and too fast, though. Billboards for brands lined the streets, came down right to the crowds on the sidewalks and mixed there. Far ahead I saw my quarry mount an electric scooter and vanish in seconds. Sometime later, I was wide awake.


Uneasy, vaguely miserable, I ground coffee, stirred hot cereal, breakfasted. My whole holiday felt spoiled by a dream image; it was absurd, but those naked walls stripped bare to the pale discolored plaster were consuming all my happiness. I began to struggle. I called up my sister, tried to talk it out. For how could I not feel that I must have lost something, given what this old dream seemed to be telling me now? And not something minor: whatever the awaiting room had held or meant for so many years was no longer being saved for me. The wait had stretched too long.

What a horrible feeling resulted from these understandings, which even brought more confusion with them. For how could I know, who could ever tell me where I’d gone wrong? Was it between two dreams, or had I been astray for longer—maybe all along? Was this as final as it felt? Would it never return, my beautiful ghostly gray awaiting room? I felt dropped as a project; still no Lady, I had to suppose, and out of time to prove my worth as one. Now I’d always feel different, more fallen.


I got dressed for the beach and began to fill a shoulder bag with stuff. I was figuring I’d write about the dream in my notebook on the beach when it hit me: just because I’d gone to the beach like this every sunny weekend morning for the past few weeks, I was going now on the mid-week holiday, even with too late a start. My late middle-aged skin had seen a lot of sun lately: how much more could those pale old cells take, and here it was almost high noon. Why go? Why leave my apartment?  When what I really wanted to stay inside with my notebook and write about this fucking dream, and how it ruined my waking to a paid holiday, and what I did next.

I wasted no time sitting down—well, that’s not true. I stopped to daydream, and then again to make a new writing glove to replace the one I couldn’t find and keep my hand eczema from flaring where fist crosses page. I was ready to write, at this early point, that I’d cracked the dream code:

My awaiting room is Habit. Clung to but never considered, the beautiful walls silvered by cobwebs shelter no aspirations, only things long-assumed: my own undusted class snobbery, my deep nostalgias, my retreatism and other habits too automatic for my own perceptions to catch—a dimness into which time slips unremarked, to settle in drifts of Proust-colored pastness. What was it once? Whose? Mine, and I the dead woman behind its abandonment, too. All I missed and all that habit killed collects there; not dust but ashes.

And the room vacated, emptied, repossessed? Skip the beach, cut a new writing glove—already a meaning emerges, as the habits start to fall. It’s like Revolution surged out to touch me and its wavelet left a salty tap. Maybe this will keep happening. Yes, it smarted like ice cold water to dream a bare room in place of refuge and old treasures, to dream rude minions of the landlord class in place of soundless gentility. Maybe I was dreaming to wake myself this time.


Still, I’d miss her, and I found it hard to let her go, the woman who ought to have lived there—the Lady I’d waited to become. The accomplished one, the better version of my mother I was meant to be. And keep meaning to be, all the time: only contemporary life intrudes. All the strange ever-changing new exigencies (texting on top) intrude, and I myself intrude my weaknesses and sloth, and of course my mother intrudes no less than ever. From her nursing home chair indeed my mother Myrna keeps doing significant damage on her frequent break-ins; and every holiday she wants an extra call, she likes being invited to havoc.

Her latest weapon is a whistle in her throat she calls to play up in my ear, eight-thirty at night on the third of July. Breath-squeak-squeak. It’s not in my chest. Squeal. Squeal. Just my throat, she tells me. Piercing noises come between every phrase like something demonic she’s enlisted to join her on the call and scream at me; not that I have proof. Could it be my dead father? Is she half in a séance trance? In any case it shakes me but to what effect? Squeak! Squeak, squeaking like hooks, a hooked sound. Pray for me, she says. I could call the nursing home that night or the following day; but I don’t, I don’t even plan to, I don’t even think—not until the much later moments of writing this down—about the trouble it would be at that particular time, on a big summer holiday when she knew I’d be working on my books at home, to have to track down care for my mother instead. Just like she tried same time same holiday last year to sucker me into doing, except the emergency room at Mass General sent her home within two hours. This I know because I called the hospital, last year. No call last night, nor today, not this Fourth of July. In 2019, she’s casting her hooks onto lifeless waters. At the very least, she’s worn the leap out of my loyalty. Now it just sits there, like me, as I sat wishing I could still play WordScapes on my phone when my mother calls the landline but I can’t risk the tendinitis. Disconnected from her; done—feeling so done with her.


But what can I draw from the timing? The matter of hours this recurrence between call and dream, disconnection and loss? My heart pools with fear and also resentment as I ask: Was my lost room a mother-daughter thing? Plausibly, yes. There was my relationship with Myrna, the reclusive book-loving snob who had better things to do than lift a finger yet found time to give birth to me; her neglect and mine combining to cloak in dust what should have been bright and busy with cheer, blending graceful beauties from every age to make and speak a burnished Welcome.

Not for me, to have a room like other women somewhere have, that doesn’t feel too good for them. For what they possess, they don’t have to wait; for us who lack, the wait’s forever. We don’t get the extra room—it goes.

Yes, it goes. The loss feels horrible at first and then it starts to figure: with habits so ingrained and an envious mother so immortal, my chances at high-level ladyhood were never that great. I had a cheering dream that came and went and finally turned against me. From Proustian swaddlings ripped away I raced into the antithetical city after my better deal. I lost a room I never used: so what? I had spares already. At best I’d have sublet it, at worst let it rot—better it should go to house a stranger. The biggest loss besides the bookshelves was the charm and neither would be irreplaceable, the bones of the room were too good for that. I never really got a good look at the view. Sure, I should have acted when I had the chance to aggrandize myself with it in dreams; but the plain truth is, I didn’t need to.

Other dreams of mine also satisfy. And of what’s real, I have so much. So much more than I need, just like my mother had; in fact I have so much of hers now on top of my own already excessive number of bookshelves and antique furnishings and LL Bean corduroy overshirts draped on a chair back. I have as well, such a luxurious abundance of Privacy, along with different real rooms to write in, and Time—a day of hours to write this. Now close to eleven, the illegal street fireworks have been crackling and booming pretty steadily since dark, same as at New Year’s. Too bad: it used to be nice to walk around here on holidays. Men and the wrong men have spoiled that, a common happening in neighborhoods everywhere. Bang bang, the shut-ins hear. Ka-pow. Here in Brighton Beach Brooklyn it’s only fireworks and I’m not listening for screams, nor for a loved one’s safe return; I’m not out on a migrant trail hearing explosives in the background at home when we FaceTime; in practically every way possible, I’m sheltered. Here’s a whole holiday I gave up entirely to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness across the written page. My country allows this.


Sometimes my thoughts about the multitudes of discontented fast food workers roaming the earth in search of cellular service, better pay, and their own apartments, start to lack generosity. Then I feel hard-hearted. Better than winding up dead that they wind up in cages, even packed in there as they are, much too tightly, better than death by drowning or maybe worse, dehydration. Absent a willingness to wait, these are the choices. No one should do anything but wait and still too many don’t and then too many survive this terrible decision to make their mass imprisonment a very pleasant one. So go my thoughts from day to day while my heart atrophies from lack of use—or so I supposed.

Instead, inside where dreams get scheduled, a better me was busily revising.

I took it away from myself, that wasted awaiting room, I’m realizing by now, while the occasional rocket shrieks and sizzles towards midnight and Boom. I threw myself out of a space I’d been hoarding for years. I never would need it; that was the point, after all those recurrences. Quite suddenly maybe, my better part must have decided that the time had come to make myself say Welcome.

A set of fireworks finally intersects the courtyard opening and I get a glimpse—gunpowder spiders falling past to mark the night from my window. I think about making another count, this one of all the apartment-dwellers waking up lately in possession of one less dream room. Our snuggeries, our turrets, our hobbit holes, our scholars’ nooks, our when-the-grass-is-greener-someday hideaways, how many of us shedding and turning them in to be strangers’ refuge  instead? And for curiosity’s sake, how many less than willingly, like me, to jaguar women and their bosses? Because I don’t believe I’m alone. A poll of hearts to tally dream-visited multitudes, what would it find, and how much new square footage?

Yes, we give it up.

All that space, what if something in there is real?