Dr. Sandman

By Deesha Philyaw

Issue 114, Fall 2021

August 31, 2021

Mi Hermano, 2019, oil and acrylic on canvas, by Jerrell Gibbs. Courtesy Mariane Ibrahim

“Dr. B, what’s that called again?” From his hospital bed, Cody pointed his T’Challa action figure toward the monitor behind Reg.


Reg laughed. “You just like to hear me say it. This time, I want you to say it with me. Ready?”

Together, they enunciated each syllable in “polysomnographic monitor,” then high-fived to their success.

“These wires on your head, chest, and legs will send information to the PSG monitor about your brain, your eyes, your heart, and your body movements,” Reg said. 

“Will it hurt?” Cody dropped the Black Panther and grabbed Reg’s hand. Reg squeezed back.

“Not at all.” 

“Like I promised you,” Cody’s mother, Mrs. Paul, said gently. “We just want to make sure you’re breathing okay while you’re asleep.” She stood on the other side of the hospital bed, stroking her son’s neat cornrows, careful not to dislodge the wires taped to his scalp and temple. Reg felt himself flinch slightly at the mention of a promise. Not that there was any chance the sleep study would be painful; there wasn’t. Rather, he flinched because promises, the whole fraught business of making them and keeping them, were the chink in his armor. And with his nerves already frayed from exhaustion, it really didn’t take much to make him flinch.

Reg looked up at the clock on the wall above Cody’s head. “Okay,” he said. “Erica, the technologist, is going to come back in and put a little clip on your finger to help us get even more information.” Cody mouthed the word “technologist.” Reg chuckled. “And then, it will be time for you and T’Challa to go to sleep, my man.”

“Will you stay with me?” 

Reg smiled. His young patients often asked that question. His answer was never “yes” or “no,” because the truth was always a shade of gray. Reg himself barely understood it.

“I’ll . . . be around for a while,” he said. “But if you need anything, Erica will be here all night.” Reg gave Cody’s hand one last squeeze before heading for the door.

“And I’m staying too, baby. Remember?” Mrs. Paul said. She called after Reg. “You’re really good with him. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” he said as he began walking to the door.

“You have kids of your own?”

Reg paused with his hand on the doorknob before turning to face her.

“Yes. A son. Sixteen.” Reg hoped his offer of that last detail would seem cordial enough so as not to appear rude, but also brief enough to end the conversation. 

“What a time to be raising Black boys,” Mrs. Paul said. 

Reg took his hand off the knob and watched her stroke Cody’s head. She looked out the window toward a city she and Reg could not see but knew was burning. Protests in Raleigh against police violence had begun in a tepid spring and escalated that boiling summer.

“I wish I could be out there, in the streets with them,” Mrs. Paul continued. “I can’t believe we’re fighting to be seen as human. For our children to be seen as children. Still.”

Cody frowned at his mother’s words, but kept his focus on T’Challa’s careful balancing act as he crept along the bedrail. 

When Jonathan was eight like Cody, he had been snaggle-toothed and sensitive. Back then, Reg believed he could always stand between his boy and harm. Back then, Reg had less rage to mute in order to stay employed, out of jail, alive. He thought himself fully capable of keeping his promises to his family, that he would always protect and be there for them. Had he simply been naïve and idealistic then? Or was he just a coward now?

“Yeah,” Reg said softly. “My son . . . Jonathan . . . It’s like he was Cody's age just yesterday, and now . . .”

“And now he’s a target. All of our babies are.” Mrs. Paul leaned down and kissed Cody’s forehead. Reg didn’t think she was waiting for him to respond. And what could he say anyway?

He placed his hand on the doorknob again. “Well,” he said. “I, uh .  .  .  I’ll check in with you all later.”

Back in his office on the second floor of the sleep clinic, Reg stretched out on the couch. His body hummed with fatigue, but he knew it would be many hours before he slept, if he slept. Dr. Reginald Braxton, renowned sleep psychologist and insomnia sufferer. The late-night jokes wrote themselves.

Reg checked his text messages. Ashley had not responded to his working late, babe text. Jonathan had sent Dad, I need to ask you something. Jonathan rarely texted him and rarely asked for anything that didn’t involve video games or sneakers. So Reg figured Jonathan had already asked Ashley the something and been told “no.” Avoiding Ashley after their son had gotten on her nerves was one benefit of Reg working late more often than he had to. Ashley could analyze a small thing to death, and somehow Reg always ended up the bad guy for being unwilling to stir the tempests she brewed in her teapot.

Speaking of Ashley . . . Reg opened a browser and visited the Coach store. He sorted the results to yield the most expensive purses and purchased a $500 snakeskin shoulder bag. Their anniversary was next week. 

What do you get the woman who has everything? Another Coach bag, of course.

Reg scrolled past headlines about the record-breaking summer heat and the riots happening in his city and around the world. In his mind, he heard Jonathan correct him. Not riots, Dad. Uprisings. 

Reg missed his mother, but was glad she wasn’t alive to see the kind of state-sanctioned hatred, bigotry, and murder she’d suffered under Jim Crow once again captured on camera and beamed around the world, glad she didn’t have the added burden of fearing for her grandson’s life as well as her son’s.

Ashley’s parents, a judge and a physician (both retired), were still alive, safely ensconced in her hometown of Ann Arbor, no doubt embarrassed by the city’s unrest. And they would definitely call them riots. Ashley didn’t call them riots or uprisings. She chose the more neutral protests, if she spoke of them at all. Mostly, she just sighed when Reg and Jonathan talked about the world being on fire yet again. 

Unfortunately, the island of Reg’s marriage no longer provided refuge from the fires of the larger world. So he found solace in other worlds. Folks like to talk about doctors and their god complexes, but Reg didn’t have any desire to be anyone’s god, nor did he believe in his mother’s. 

Yet there were things that defied explanation, defied all reason. In the real world, where he was a respected doctor, husband, and father, he kept such things to himself. Some things were, as his Grandma Rea used to say, beyond man’s understanding. As a child, he’d thought she was saying women were smarter than men. As a man, he’d learned for sure that women are smarter, even if that’s not what his grandma had intended to convey. Grandma Rea had also found her peace in other worlds, and that’s what she’d been talking about. Reg wished she was still alive so he would have someone to confide in, someone who wouldn’t question his grip on reality. In her absence, he had to serve as his own counsel, judge, and jury on the matter.

At around 2 a.m., Erica knocked on Reg’s office door. He didn’t answer, and she didn’t knock again. That was his cue. Reg liked Erica. She knew that he didn’t have to stay and observe his young patients, but never questioned that he did.

Back downstairs, Cody’s mother didn’t stir in the rollaway bed as Reg entered the room. She too was in REM sleep. 

Reg sat down in front of the PSG monitor. If Erica were to look into the room via the camera at the technologist’s station, she would assume that Reg was studying the readings on the monitor. She would not see what Reg saw with his eyes shut, through his mind’s eye, as he entered Cody’s dream. She would not hear Reg’s shallow breathing or know he felt a slight headache, nausea, and a painless sensation of melting—an inadequate word for the circumstances, but the best he could think of—and then re-solidifying once he was inside the dream: 

 

Cody, small and alone on a playground, being shoved off a swing, then chased and pushed around by older Black boys. Cody cried as the big boys called him ugly names—“lil bitch” and “faggot.” Reg watched and listened from behind a tree on the edge of the park.

 

Back in the room, Reg heard Cody behind him, whimpering and stirring around in his sleep. Reg shut his eyes tighter and melted again to re-enter the boy’s dream:

 

Reg leaned against the tree for balance, looked up through the branches at the clouds overhead, and concentrated. Soon, a necklace adorned with fangs made of vibranium nanobots dropped from the sky and landed at Cody’s feet. The boy’s eyes widened as he scrambled to pick up the necklace. He lowered it over his head and let it fall against his small chest, which he puffed out. Empowered and emboldened, Cody shoved the largest of the bullies, a boy who outweighed him by nearly a hundred pounds. The kid went flying over the heads of his friends and landed atop the jungle gym. The other boys hollered and took off running, clearly not wanting to meet a similar fate. As Cody walked back to the swings, he smiled and fingered the shiny fangs on his necklace . . .

 

Reg rolled his chair back from the monitor and stood, his shoulders slumped beneath the weight of both weariness and satisfaction. He knew these interventions, as he had come to call them, would not interfere with the sleep study itself. Changes in Cody’s heart and breathing rate and blood oxygen levels would be the same as during any other dream. And what felt like minutes in dream-time was only seconds in real-time. Back when he used to enter Jonathan’s dreams, the interventions had been a way to steal back lost time with his boy. And even though Jonathan had been unaware, Reg told himself that it counted. That in dreamland at least, no one could separate them.

The interventions always left Reg feeling wrung out—hence the weariness—but able to sleep effortlessly, sometimes for the first time in months.

But on these nights, he still had to drive home. So he drove with the windows down, and the cool night air kept him alert. Once at home, he slept, deeply.

 

Upon awakening the next morning, a Saturday, all Reg’s senses and appetites were alive and raging. The interventions were a reset of sorts.

The clock on the nightstand read 9:01. Reg squinted against the sunlight coming through the sheer curtains. 

Already erect, he rolled over and spooned against Ashley’s back. He cupped her breast in his hand and waited. Her body would either stiffen, or slacken in acquiescence. Neither was an invitation. Ashley’s lack of interest in sex had been a gradual thing that first baffled, then angered, and ultimately saddened Reg. It’s not that she wouldn’t have sex with him. It’s that he could tell she was just going through the motions when they did. 

Reg pulled Ashley closer and felt her slacken. After a few minutes of caressing her thighs and kissing the back of her neck, Reg decided he didn’t feel like cajoling. He rolled back over onto his side of the bed and weighed his breakfast options.

There was a knock on the bedroom door. “Yeah?” Reg called out.

“Dad? Can I come in?”

Reg sat up. “Yeah.”

Jonathan opened the door and stepped into the room. A few inches taller, and he would stand eye-to-eye with Reg. Reg swore the boy had grown since he’d last seen him backing out of the driveway the morning before. Jonathan was a careful driver, and a good kid, in general. But not everyone saw the kid he saw, if they saw a kid at all. Reg had had to beat back a fierce urge to block Jonathan from leaving, snatch his keys, or jump in the passenger seat beside him. And then what? What could he do to stop a cop or any random white person who meant to do them harm? At times like that, Reg wished he was still a praying man. A hollow comfort was still a comfort.

He sat up in bed. “What’s up, J?”

“Did you get my text?”

Reg had to pause and think about Jonathan’s question for a moment. “Oh, yeah. Yeah. Sorry. Got caught up at work. Everything okay?” 

Jonathan took a deep breath, then said, “Cam, Jalen, and Ross are going to this action happening in Durham on Sunday, linking up with Cam’s brother Victor and some of his friends from the university. Can I go?”

“I already told you no.” Ashley sat up, swept loose hairs out of her face, and tucked them back up into the pink satin bonnet she slept in each night. Half-awake and agitated, she was still the most beautiful woman Reg had ever known.

“You always say all I do is play video games and now I want to do something that really matters, and you won’t let me.” Jonathan’s voice cracked. 

“There’s plenty of things you can do that matter besides protest.”

“This is an uprising, Mom.”

“Protest, uprising, moonwalking . . . the answer is still no.”

Reg rose from the bed and pulled Jonathan into a hug. “I understand that this is important, son. But your mother said ‘no.’”

“But Dad—” 

Reg whispered in Jonathan’s ear, “Boy, are you trying to get us both killed?” At regular volume, he continued. “Now let’s all just calm down and think about this.”

“What is there to think about, Reginald? I said no.”

“It’s not going to be like the one in Raleigh. Victor said it’s gonna be peaceful . . . What if Dad goes with me?” Jonathan asked.

“No!” Ashley snapped.

When Reg sighed and said nothing, Jonathan eased out of Reg’s embrace and walked out of the room. 

“Come back here and close the door the way you found it!” Ashley yelled after him. Jonathan returned and shut the door without slamming it, but still harder than he needed to. 

Ashley turned to Reg, “Do you see the disrespect?” She brushed another loose lock of hair from her face into the bonnet with precision. “And why did you put that on me? We need to be a united front.”

“That’s what I was trying to do.”

“Really? I couldn’t tell. You invited us to all just calm down and think about it.”

“I meant for us to help him think through the risks involved.”

Ashley pursed her lips. “Risks? Risks? You make it sound like possible side effects from some new medication. Just a little unpleasantness that might happen if you protest. ‘Side effects may include racist cops tear-gassing and shooting people with rubber bullets or worse in a damn pandemic.’

“I know you’re scared—”

“Don’t you analyze me, Reginald. I’m not on your damn couch.” Ashley threw off the covers and swung her legs to the side of the bed. “And you should be scared too.”

“I’m not analyzing—”

“You’re fine with our son putting himself in harm’s way? Taking his suburban ass down to the city and getting arrested, or worse? This is what you want?”

“Come on, Ash. You know that’s not what I want.” He reached for her and felt relieved when she didn’t pull away.

“We’ve worked so hard to give him a good life. A safe life,” she said. “Why would we allow him to do something so reckless?”

“Babe, he made a good point: We do stay on him to do something besides play video games. This isn’t reckless. He’s acting on his conscience. And you know he got that honest . . .” 

Ashley held up her hand. “Stop. I know what you’re thinking, but this is different.” 

“Cops killing Black people with impunity? Black folks living like second-class citizens? That’s different?”

“Okay, Reggie P. Newton,” Ashley scoffed, gesturing toward their well-appointed bedroom furnishings. “Second-class citizenry? Really?” She laughed.

“What’s funny is that you think any of this”—Reg gestured, mimicking Ashley—“will stop a cop from killing—”

“Stop it! Don’t you dare say that!” Ashley jumped up and stormed into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her. 

“Ash,” Reg called out to her. “Ashley. Do you want pancakes?”

He heard the shower come on, full blast.

The island of Reg’s marriage no longer provided refuge from the fires of the larger world. So he found solace in other worlds.

In their freshman year at Yale, Ashley’s suburban ass led an anti-apartheid protest on campus. She was only a few years older than Jonathan was now. Reg admired Ashley from the periphery of the rallies. She was cute, curvy, and confident, confident enough to rock a short Afro at a time when “going natural” meant wearing braids. In addition to apartheid, Ashley was standing up to the tyranny of her bourgeois parents’ expectations. Meanwhile, Yale’s annual tuition, room, and board totaled $23,000, more than Reg’s single mother earned in a year. Grants, scholarships, student loans, a work study job, and pocket money and prayers from his proud Pentecostal church family back home in Georgia carried Reg over the finish line to graduation. 

With or without a megaphone, Ashley’s voice would ring out over Beinecke Plaza, powerful and compelling. Reg was used to being the smartest person in the room, and here was this woman using words that sent him to the dictionary, talking about places that, to him, were little more than words and shapes on a map. After one particularly fiery speech, Reg strolled over to the New Haven green and spent his last $5 on a red-black-and-green leather Africa medallion. He asked Ashley out after the next protest, and she said yes.

Three decades later, he remained more in awe of her than in love with her. 

To her parents’ delight, Ashley had taken a lucrative investment banking job after college, gone back to school at Duke for her MBA, and quickly made a name for herself in the financial services industry. Time, motherhood, c-suite cushiness, and Reg’s affairs had tempered, but not extinguished, Ashley’s fire. Reg wasn’t proud of the affairs. He had never wanted to be the kind of man who kept secrets; his deadbeat father had been a mystery entirely. Still, Reg had slipped into strange, hungry women, momentary worlds where people needed him, where he was the best version of himself. The last thing he wanted was to hurt Ashley, so he convinced himself that he wasn’t hurting her, as long as she didn’t find out. 

But he’d been sloppy, and she did find out. And she was hurt. And it didn’t matter that his stepping out was the result, not the cause, of the growing gulf between them. A rift she had never acknowledged. It didn’t matter that the affairs were about sex, yes, but not only about sex. He had longed to be touched, wanted. Still, there was no excuse for his behavior. So he made none. He had ended the affairs immediately and suggested to Ashley once again that they go to marriage counseling. And once again, she had chafed at the suggestion.

In the seven years since he’d found that he could enter children’s dreams, Reg often wished that he could enter Ashley’s, to find some clue as to why she’d grown distant. He’d begun to accept their marital drift. He told himself to be thankful for the remnants of their happiness that remained, outside of the bedroom. Her unwavering support for Reg and his work at the clinic, her absolute devotion to Jonathan, the way she threw herself into lavish birthday and holiday celebrations for them that still managed to feel intimate and thoughtful, unforgettable family vacations. Though Reg couldn’t imagine not having a relationship with Jonathan, he didn’t stay married for Jonathan’s sake, nor for fear that he’d end up like a buddy of his whose marriage imploded beneath the weight of his mid-life crisis—broke and worrying about STIs at 50 years old. Reg stayed married because he felt safer that way. Save for seven miserable months after graduation when Ashley had insisted they see other people, sow any residual wild oats before settling down, the only adult world he’d ever known had Ashley at the center of it. Who would he be if not in her orbit?

It was during the time Ashley had briefly put Reg out of the house that he’d discovered, by accident, that he could enter his young patients’ dreams. And it wasn’t lost on his medical mind that this was also when the insomnia began. Jonathan was nine, and they had told him a partial truth: that Reg would be away for a while because he was helping to open a new sleep clinic. He had begged Ashley to let him sleep in the guest room. He understood her anger, but he did not want to be away from Jonathan. He had never fully believed the lies he told himself and others, that his own father’s absence hadn’t mattered to him, that you couldn’t grieve a ghost. But Ashley had told Reg that she felt sick having him anywhere near her, that she needed him away from her so that she could think clearly about whether she could ever forgive him. But is that what’s best for Jonathan?, Reg had wanted to ask, but didn’t. He felt he’d had no right to ask anything of Ashley, after betraying her.

So he called Jonathan every night and took him out on the weekends. Most weeknights, he opted to stay late at the new clinic to avoid the crushing silence and austerity of the extended-stay suite. One night, the technologist on duty had a family emergency and Reg offered to cover for him. Kendall, a patient with sleep apnea who was probably in college now, had insisted on staying awake. She played tough, but Reg knew she was afraid. Her parents had opted not to stay overnight with her, so Reg checked on her periodically. Sometime after midnight, she’d finally fallen asleep. After confirming that she was in REM sleep, Reg turned to leave and saw Kendall—a slightly shimmering, iridescent Kendall—standing at the door with her back to him, dressed in street clothes. He whipped around and saw Kendall without any glow, still sleeping, connected to the PSG monitor. When Reg spun back around toward the door, he saw Kendall again:

 

This time, she—they—stood frozen in place on a vast highway, with traffic in the distance moving toward them. Kendall sobbed but did not move. Reg knew intuitively that he should not allow the child to see him. But he had to do something. He shut his eyes, cast his thoughts down the highway, and slowed the traffic. He conjured a construction crew in front of Kendall. He erected detour signs between the crew and the oncoming traffic. Reg ducked into the woods alongside the highway. It didn’t take long for a crew member to spot Kendall and usher her to safety.

 

Reg returned to the reality of Kendall’s hospital room, shaken and bewildered but not frightened. Suddenly, he felt more tired than he had in nearly a year, the last time he’d had a decent night’s sleep. He stumbled back to his office, collapsed on the couch, and slept soundly for eight hours.

Over the course of the next several nights, Reg visited other patients and quickly discovered that he could only enter children’s dreams. All that was required was his proximity to them during REM sleep. Once inside their dreamscapes, he could prevent catastrophes, right wrongs, and soothe the fretful, fatherless boy inside him, all while clinging to the hope that his own little boy was sleeping soundly at that very moment, 15.7 miles away. In the children’s dreams, he could be the stand-up guy, the good father he had been, before the affairs.

As a mental health professional, Reg knew that telling anyone about his forays into his patients’ dreams would be the quickest way to lose his colleagues’ respect and his license to practice. He’d be lucky if he wasn’t forced to undergo a psych eval. So he told no one. 

But after ruling out the possibility that he was suffering from some kind of psychosis that put him or others at risk, Reg turned his attention to the nagging feeling he’d had all along: He didn’t know what the ethics were for the supernatural, but the interventions just felt wrong. His patients’ parents had authorized him to treat them and to access their medical records. This did not give him permission to access their children’s dreams. Undoubtedly, his actions constituted a clear violation of consent. 

There was also the matter of privacy. Reg made a point of only entering the dreams of prepubescent patients (and Jonathan, before he hit puberty), but he knew that younger kids were just as entitled to privacy as anyone else. In all his years of intervening, he had never seen indications of abuse, or anything of that nature. Just the usual fare: monsters; wild animals; being eaten, trapped, paralyzed, chased, lost, or kidnapped. And sometimes the dreams were mundane, ordinary. But Reg always thought about what he’d do if he did stumble upon knowledge of abuse in this way. In session, he would ask the child questions to ferret out whether the dream had any basis in reality, and if so, get them to give him enough information to address the parents and, if need be, report to Child Protective Services. The end—protecting the child—would justify the means.

Eventually, though, Reg tired of playing fast and loose with medical ethics and tired of the absurdity of it all. But not so tired that he stopped altogether. He just limited his interventions to those kids he felt most protective of, the ones who most reminded him of his own kid. And Reg couldn’t be sure if those kids just happened to show up at his clinic whenever the world was on fire, or if the overlap was inevitable because the world burned so frequently now.  

 

Good pancakes, Reg knew, covered a multitude of sins. And his pancakes were the best. By breakfast’s end, Ashley’s laughter filled the dining room. Jonathan ate a tall stack drenched in maple syrup, but his face remained impassive. He washed the food down with a glass of milk, then carried his dishes to the kitchen, without asking to be excused from the table. 

When Reg had finished eating, he went upstairs and found Jonathan in his bedroom with his AirPods in his ears, staring at the ceiling. He closed the door behind him. Jonathan sat up, expectantly, and removed the AirPods.

“Hey,” Reg said. “Listen. I just want you to try and see things from your mom’s—”

Jonathan sighed and shook his head.

“What?” Reg asked.

“I thought you were coming to tell me that I could go to the action. Why can’t you go with me?”

“Son, it’s not safe. Not for you, not for me, either. And your mother would be worried the entire time. She’s asked that you not go—”

“She didn’t ask.

“Okay, fair. She doesn’t want you to go. And I think we should respect her wishes.”

“I’m not a coward.”

“You don’t have anything to prove,” Reg said. “And neither do I. Watch your tone.”

“I swear I’m not trying to be disrespectful. And it’s not just about the action tomorrow. Mom decides everything. I just don’t understand why you need her permission to do something.”

“It’s not about permission. It’s about respect and being a parenting team.”

“But she’s the only team member who gets to call the plays?”

Reg didn’t know what to say. For a moment, he imagined his marriage through his son’s eyes and didn’t like what he saw. He did defer to Ashley a lot, mostly because she cared more deeply about most things. But perhaps some of his deference was rooted in residual guilt about the affairs. They had never gone to counseling. After three months, Ashley had just called him one day and told him he could come back home. And he had rushed back, grateful. But the Reg who came back wasn’t the Reg who had left. The Reg who came back acted like an appreciative guest, going along to get along, in his own home. And his son had noticed.

Reg started to speak, but the look on Jonathan’s face stopped him cold. He couldn’t be sure if it was pity, disappointment, or something else. Whatever it was, he couldn’t bear to see it. He left Jonathan’s room and closed the door behind him. 

Reg didn’t know what to say. For a moment, he imagined his marriage through his son’s eyes and didn’t like what he saw.

For dinner, Reg put salmon, Ashley’s favorite, on the grill. The two of them ate and drank wine poolside while watching the sun go down. Jonathan ordered pizza and spent the evening in the den playing video games.

Insomnia, the perennial pebble in Reg’s shoe, returned that night. Ashley slept against Reg’s back, snoring lightly. He grabbed a book from the stack on his nightstand and tried to silence the war inside him with sci-fi/fantasy stories.

Around 5 a.m., he climbed out of bed.

Downstairs, he found Jonathan asleep on the sofa, his game idling. Reg shut off the system then called out to his son, hoping to wake him without startling him. But Jonathan didn’t budge. 

Don’t keep standing there. Just leave him. He’s fine, Reg told himself. But he hesitated, remembering their earlier conversation, and the way Jonathan had looked at him. What did Jonathan see when he looked at him? 

The den furnishings began to dissolve into a swirl, and instead of backing away, Reg leaned into it with his eyes closed. When he opened them, he was in a different room, in daylight. It took a moment for Reg’s eyes to adjust and for him to realize he was in Jonathan’s bedroom. 

 

Sunlight flooded the room, and a much younger Jonathan slept beneath a Thomas the Tank Engine comforter. Reg gasped at the sight of him, so small, so long ago. The boy stirred, and Reg tiptoed to the closet to hide. Through the crack he left in the door, he watched Jonathan awaken and heard him call out for Ashley. When she didn’t answer, he climbed from beneath the covers and stood up. He wore his tee ball uniform. He was six. Reg remembered that year. Jonathan reached back and felt his rear, and then slid his hand beneath the comforter and felt the mattress. He began to cry softly. It took everything in Reg not to bolt from the closet and comfort his child. Jonathan walked to the bedroom door and opened it slowly. Reg followed behind him to the hallway. Voices from downstairs floated up to them. 

 

“. . . his first game, and Reg doesn’t get back from DC until tonight,” Ashley said. “His keynote at that sleep conference has been on the calendar for almost a year. It couldn’t be helped. But kids don’t understand, you know? He cried himself to sleep, poor thing . . .”

 

“Well, you’ll be there,” a man said. “That’s going to mean the world to him. And you mean the world to me . . .” 

 

Jonathan knelt down and looked through railings. Reg kept his distance but craned his neck to see what Jonathan saw: Ashley and . . . Terrence, a former business school classmate and colleague at the bank Ashley eventually left to take her current CFO position. They had stopped talking because they were kissing. Terrence slid his hands along Ashley’s thighs and then beneath her skirt . . .

 

Reg wanted to do many things at once. Rush downstairs and punch Terrence in the face. Focus his mind and will Terrence to spontaneously combust. Grab Jonathan and take him back to his room. Run downstairs with Jonathan and out the front door. Punch Terrence in the face and demand that Ashley tell him when and how long and why . . .

 

In the end, Reg did none of those things. He stumbled back into reality, back to the den where Jonathan still slept, and then back to the safety of the hallway. With a wall between himself and more truth he couldn’t handle, between himself and another world where he couldn’t be the hero, he dropped to the floor and wept silently.

At dawn, he went down to the basement to get two cardboard boxes from the pile of boxes left from their last move. Back upstairs, he crept into his study and began making signs for the protest. 

Just as he finished, Ashley opened the door and poked her head into the room. “Good morning. Did you sleep at all?” Her face dropped when she saw the signs. 

She stepped fully into the room and pointed at the signs. “What is this?” 

Reg opened the desk drawer and put the scissors and markers away. 

“Reginald, what are you doing?”

“Terrence?” Reg leaned back in his chair, looked at Ashley, and sighed. “Terrence,” he repeated.

Ashley shrunk back. In her eyes, Reg could see questions, but she didn’t say anything. She just leaned against the small space between the door jamb and the bookshelf, staring at him. Reg felt a flash of rage that she would force him to drive this particular conversation. 

“You . . .” Reg said, jamming his finger in Ashley’s direction. “You disrupted our son’s life! You kicked me out of the house! For doing what you had been doing all along! All those times, year after fucking year, I tried to hold you, to touch you, to make love to you, to talk to you. I planned date nights . . . And you kept turning me away. I asked you over and over again what was wrong, had I done something, and you insisted nothing was wrong. That nothing had changed. Like I was imagining things. You pissed on me and tried to tell me it was raining! I begged you to go to counseling with me, and you wouldn’t. I believe your exact words were, ‘For what, Reg? So one of your colleagues can teach you how to keep your dick in your pants?’ And the whole time, you . . . were fucking Terrence!”

“I’m so sorry,” Ashley sobbed. 

Reg rose from his chair and walked to the middle of the room.

“How long? Did this start when you were at Fuqua with him?”

Ashley shook her head. “Afterward. It started at the bank—”

“You made me get STI testing before I could come back home, Ashley! You . . .” Reg clenched his fists, resisting the urge to put one of them through a wall. Ashley shrank further away from him, and in response, he backed away until he was up against the wall on the opposite side of the room.

His chest heaving, he asked, “Are you still—”

“No. No.” Ashley shook her head. “He ended it. I swear. A few years ago.”

“A few years ago. He ended it?” Reg nodded the way he did in session with patients and their parents, slightly detached, the wheels of his mind turning, turning, in search of some nugget that might offer relief. Then the wheels stopped, settling on a realization: Ashley had never asked him why he’d cheated. Over and over, she had asked, “How could you?” A question designed for indictment rather than understanding.

Did he want to indict or to understand? Would either relieve him of the furious weight bearing down on his chest, the fresh flood of tears that threatened, or the loneliness he’d carried for so long?

“Are you leaving me?” Ashley asked.

“Do you want me to?” 

Ashley’s face contorted. Reg’s question had shocked them both. But Ashley chose to answer questions he hadn’t asked. “I’ve always done what I was supposed to do, what was expected of me,” she said, sniffling. “For four years, my mother told me that if I got arrested and embarrassed my father—‘a sitting judge!’ she would say, as if I could ever forget—they wouldn’t bail me out. She dismissed my college years as my ‘little rebellion,’ like it was a glitch in the system. But that time in my life was the most me I’ve ever felt. Sometimes I wish I’d never known that feeling, so that I could be satisfied with this life, this me, the me my parents are proud of. But I can’t stop wondering about that other girl. Who I might have been if my ‘little rebellion’ had never ended.” 

Ashley wiped tears from her eyes with the back of her hand, and then pulled a Kleenex from the box on Reg’s desk. 

“Reg, please forgive me. We—”

“No,” Reg said. “We’re not talking about us. We’re talking about you. Why don’t you want Jonathan to experience what you experienced? That feeling?” 

“Because that’s not real life!”

“It’s not your life anymore because of choices you made that you don’t have to keep making. You could quit your job. You could stop living for your parents’ approval. You could join your son at today’s action. You could leave me. None of your choices are irrevocable.”

Reg pushed himself off the wall and stretched. He gathered the signs and walked toward the doorway to leave, giving Ashley a wide berth. She stopped him with the question he had been anticipating: “How did you find out about Terrence?”

For a moment, Reg considered telling her the truth. In the end, he decided that there was too much uncertainty and too little trust. “I know this sounds crazy,” he said, “but it came to me in a dream. I fell asleep downstairs last night. Slept like I haven’t slept in years. And it came to me in a dream.”

 

J

onathan connected his phone to the speakers in Reg’s Benz, playing songs his father had never heard before, as they sped down the highway toward Durham. He closed his eyes and bobbed his head to the music—I turn the news on when I smell death in the air—content, unaware of his father stealing glances at him from the driver’s seat. On the backseat, there were the signs Reg had made:

 

we have nothing to lose but our chains 

i can't breathe 

 

We forget most dreams upon waking. Reg counted on that being the case for Jonathan’s latest dream, but wondered whether his son’s conscious mind had held on to the actual memory of his mother and Terrence. And if so, what had he done with it? Reg couldn’t shake the feeling that the memory informed his view of his parents’ marriage, of Reg as less than his mother’s equal, even subconsciously.

They would make new memories today. And, hopefully, for many more years to come. Reg wondered too if there would ever come a day when he didn’t ache at the sight of his son leaving or returning home. Maybe it would stop when Jonathan made it safely through high school. Or college. But . . . he would never cease to be a Black man in America. And the ache would begin anew if Jonathan had children of his own. 

Reg and Jonathan fell in step with the other protesters as they wound their way through the streets, toward City Hall. After that, they would head toward the interstate, to shut it down. A young woman with a big Afro and a kente cloth mask led the crowd with call-and-response chants through a megaphone. Reg thought of Ashley and their college days. How she’d traded in her idealism for the creature comforts she and her parents had always enjoyed, creature comforts that Reg’s mother only got to enjoy in the last decade of her life, thanks to Reg.

That morning, as Reg and Jonathan prepared to leave for the rally, Ashley had joined them in the mudroom as they put on their shoes. For a moment, Reg thought she might come with them. But she avoided Reg’s eyes and handed Jonathan a backpack. 

“Here. I filled this with bottled water,” she said. “And a few jars of milk, if . . . for the tear gas. At the very bottom, there’s a first-aid kit. And an extra mask.” Worry and resignation jockeyed for position on her face. 

Safety, like control, was an illusion.

As the march continued, Jonathan turned to Reg and asked, finally, “What made you change your mind?”

Reg paused a moment before answering, but he was prepared for the question. “I thought about how, in less than two years, you won’t need anyone’s permission to be out here. You’re going to learn and change some more between now and then. But you’re already smart and solid enough to do this work.”

“Mom doesn’t think so.”

“That’s not true. She knows you can do this. It’s not you she’s worried about. But she’s still learning too. We both are. But it’s time for me to hang up my cape.”

Jonathan laughed. “What?”

“Nothing, man,” Reg said, also laughing. “Nothing.”

Soon, Jonathan found his friends and fell in step with them. Reg gave him space to be. His voice was as powerful as his mother’s, and he wore his convictions on every inch of his face, as she once did. At some point, Reg fell behind, and from a distance, he could see the young woman with the glorious Afro handing Jonathan a megaphone. 

That boy, Reg thought, is going to sleep good tonight.


Deesha Philyaw

Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2020/2021 Story Prize, and the 2020 L.A. Times Book Prize: The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies focuses on Black women, sex, and the Black church, and is being adapted for television by HBO Max with Tessa Thompson executive producing. Philyaw is also a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and will be the 2022–2023 John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi.