I don’t how to explain this, but I just had a dream about Joyce Carol Oates!
I had dined with her during a student function at Trinity University. I wasn’t the only student at the luncheon, but I certainly felt as though I talked to her the most (even though it wasn’t much). I remember ordering steak (the English department paid for it), while Ms. Oates only had salad. She was vegetarian, and now that I think about it, having a light meal was probably wise for her. Certain professions have to watch what they eat, and visiting writers could be invited to too many parties (and gain weight) if they are not careful. On the same day Ms. Oates had critiqued one of my short stories for a class (a great honor for me), and two years later, I stumbled upon her again at Rice University after a lecture.
But a dream! What a surprise!
I was at a bookstore cafe and was in the middle of writing a reply to two young girls who had written me a strange and flirtatious letter. I have no idea what this strange subplot was about, except that I remained hopeful that it might lead to a date although I had no idea who these girls were and had never actually met them).
At the same cafe was Joyce Carol Oates, apparently working behind the counter. I wanted to say hello to her, but was a little shy about it; plus, I was busy writing my reply to that flirtatious letter. Eventually I talked to Ms. Oates after she returned from the backroom. When I started talking with her, she informed me in a low voice that she was undercover and didn’t want her identity exposed. I said I understood perfectly, and we strolled out into the mall. We didn’t talk about literary things, only random things that came to mind. No, she hadn’t remembered me from before (although I could hardly blame her!) We talked about our surroundings and maybe a random point of politics (what would you talk about if you were with her?) I did most of the talking, but I never got the sense that Ms. Oates was being taciturn. She made clear that she didn’t want to talk about her situation, and I guessed that she was doing some research for a novel or simply wanted a break from academia (which she spent too much time in). I didn’t mention my fondness for her fiction; (I hadn’t read anything by her until several years after meeting her. I particularly enjoyed Because It Is Bitter, Because It is My Heart and have a stack of her other volumes on my bookshelf right now). But I did mention my secret writing project. She listened politely, clearly not interested in having shop talk with me (and I did not pursue it). In fact, literary shop talk sort of bores me too. Writers have to do it with one another occasionally (for most writers, they have nobody around them to have shop talk with), I find it more interesting just to hear about the unfolding of mundane events occurring in all of our lives: the car repairs, the family problems, the ephemeral enthusiasms. Ms. Oates never told me her reasons for going uncover, but I suspect she just wanted to hang around real people for a while and just wanted a sinecure which let her come in contact with all kinds of random characters (as a distinguished professor, doing that can be a challenge). The dream did not last long, but it was pleasant enough. I was about to ask her about my current literary research on author Jack Matthews (curious if she had an opinion about him) and throw out a comment about Because it is Bitter, but I never got around to it; I woke up – completely startled by this imagining.
I almost never have dreams I remember, and even if I do, I rarely talk about them. I guess I enjoyed the feeling of talking with another writer about anything unrelated to writing.
Awake in my bed, I pondered that dream for a few minutes. Amazing! What should I have said to her? Why didn’t it occur to me to ask her opinion about Jack Matthews? Finally I arrived at what I should have said to her. I should have said, “Ms. Oates, I have enjoyed the opportunity to spend this time with you. I don’t know your reasons for being here under such circumstances. Even though I of course would be all too happy to spend the rest of the afternoon with you, I of course would fully understand why you should want to return to your retail job and continue doing what you had been doing before.”
An hour later, I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if I had had a long enough to ask her this; how would she have replied? Would she have given me a polite brush off?