Leona Mozart, forty-nine, wearing a baggy gray dress and clunky brown shoes, her long brown hair gathered and compressed into a tight bun, her face masked by large black-framed glasses, the lenses tinted gray, hesitates to knock on the door of the little white house, the voices in her head chorusing, “You stupid desperate fool.”
But misery prevails, she knocks, a dog barks from within, and a moment later she is settling into a high-backed armchair facing another high-backed armchair across a coffee table in a cozy den, a fire crackling in the hearth, a scruffy Golden Retriever sprawled on the floor at her feet, a sleek gray cat sharing the windowsill with seven potted cacti.
“Tea or coffee or water or wine?” asks Leona’s host, Herschel Steinberg, a stocky fellow in his early seventies: spiky gray hair, round-framed red glasses, brown corduroy trousers, purple sweater, green T-shirt, bare feet. “I’m having black tea.”
“I guess I won’t have anything,” says Leona, though she’d love some tea.
“Shout if you change your mind,” says Herschel, heading for the kitchen. “I won’t be long.”
Leona puts her head back, closes her eyes, and grows drowsy in the delicious warmth—the windy winter day having chilled her to the bone.
Herschel takes his own sweet time in the kitchen and returns to the cozy den with a tray bearing a blue teapot and two white mugs. He sets the tray on the coffee table and Leona opens her eyes, embarrassed to have fallen asleep.
“Sorry,” she says, blushing. “I haven’t slept very well for the last few weeks and I got cold on the walk over and your house is so toasty I… sorry.”
“Who doesn’t like a good cat nap?” says Herschel, sitting opposite her. “I brought an extra mug in case my delight in the Darjeeling makes you want some.”
“I actually would like some tea,” she says, smiling shyly at him. “Thanks.”
He meets her gaze and she looks away.
“Needs another minute or so,” he says, lifting the lid of the teapot to inspect the brew. “So… Elisha referred you. I’ve never seen you at Mona’s. How do you know Elisha?”
“Her daughter and my daughter are friends. They’re both being home-schooled and…”
“Is your daughter the marvelous Sylvia?” asks Herschel, beaming at Leona. “Now I see the resemblance. As you probably know, she and Alexandra are making a movie in which I play… wait for it… a dream interpreter.”
“You’re in one of their movies?” says Leona, frowning. “Would you please not mention to them that I came to see you?”
“I will not mention it to anyone,” says Herschel, pouring the tea. “I keep everything about my dreamers strictly confidential.”
“It’s just… I wouldn’t mind if Sylvia knew, but if she told her father…” She clears her throat. “He… it would be better if he didn’t know.”
“I understand,” says Herschel, sipping his tea. “So… you had a dream or dreams you’d like help making sense of.”
“Yes,” she says, taking a deep breath. “Dreams.”
“Well I’d love to hear them, but first I want to give you my brief disclaimer.” He arches his eyebrow. “Ready?”
“Ready,” she says, laughing at his comic expression.
“I am not a psychotherapist and I do not charge for this work. What I think a particular dream means may not be what somebody else thinks the dream means. Or put another way, what you will get from me is my personal response to what you give me. I hope I help you, but I make no promises.”
“Do you need my personal history?” asks Leona, her voice trembling. “To give you a context for the dreams?”
“No,” says Herschel, wishing she’d take off her glasses. “But I’d like to know anything you want to tell me.”
Leona squints at Herschel. “You don’t want to know about my childhood or my marriage or my… sexual history?”
“Only if you want to tell me. Your voice and how you tell your dream and the dream itself will give me plenty of information to work with.”
Leona looks at her hands. “I’m afraid to tell you my dreams.”
“So maybe this isn’t something you want to do,” says Herschel, nodding. “Or maybe we need to have a few more visits before you decide whether you want to tell me your dreams or not.”
“You mean just… visit?” She looks at him, fighting her tears. “Just… have tea and talk?”
“Yeah,” says Herschel, nodding. “Tea and talk.”
So that’s what they do. They drink tea and talk about the weather and gardening and Leona’s daughter Sylvia and cats and Leona’s job editing doctoral theses and what brought Leona and her parents to Carmeline Creek thirty-five years ago when Leona was fourteen.
And after a pleasant hour of such talk, Leona takes off her glasses and curls up in her armchair and asks, “How did you become a dream interpreter?”
“Long story,” says Herschel, getting up to put a log on the fire. “Shall I start at the beginning or cut to the chase?”
“The beginning,” she whispers, liking him more and more.
Herschel resumes his chair. “I was born in Los Angeles in 1948, Herschel Moses Steinberg, the middle of three children. My mother Naomi was a seamstress, my father David a bookkeeper. My younger brother Larry and my older sister Ruth were both excellent students and both became successful academics. I might have been an excellent student, too, except I was obsessed with playing baseball and basketball, so that’s where I put most of my energy.”
He pours himself a bit more tea. “However, despite my thousands of hours of playing those games, I did not make the basketball or baseball teams in high school, which was a source of great sorrow to me because I didn’t care about much else. Then a week before my senior year, I fell in love with Myra Liebowitz, a gorgeous brainy gal who aspired to be an actress, and my infatuation with her was so strong, I signed up for a Drama class just to be near her, and lo and behold I turned out to be a pretty good actor. I was in two plays with Myra, and miracle of miracles she fell in love with me. We got married two years after high school, had two kids, and lived unhappily together for nineteen years. We divorced when we were both thirty-eight. She remarried a year later, I remarried seven years later, divorced again after three years, married one more time after I moved here, that lasted four years, and I have been single with occasional girlfriends for seventeen years now.”
“Are you still in touch with Myra?” asks Leona, her eyes full of tears.
“Oh yes,” says Herschel, wistfully. “The children and grandchildren keep us connected. Otherwise I’m fairly certain Myra wouldn’t have anything to do with me.”
“Did she become an actress?”
“No,” says Herschel, shaking his head. “She became a legal secretary.”
“And what did you become?”
“I became many things,” he says, thinking of the dozens of jobs he’s had over the course of his life. “All preparation for becoming an interpreter of dreams.”
Leona smiles bravely and says, “Speaking of which, I’d like to tell you my dream now.”
“Please,” he says, closing his eyes to listen.
I am standing beside a fast-flowing river. I’m wearing a luxurious brown fur coat that nearly touches the ground, and my hair is down. I am neither sad nor afraid, yet I’m about to jump in the river and drown.
Now a raven wings by and makes a sound I hear as Sylvia, so I turn away from the river and go in search of her.
I enter a palace and stand at the entrance to a large ballroom where couples are waltzing to a live orchestra, the women wearing ball gowns, the men fancy suits. Now someone touches my left shoulder and I turn in that direction and behold a handsome man wearing an elegant white suit.
He bows to me and says, “May I have this dance?”
And I reply, “I cannot dance with you because I’m wearing nothing under this coat, and I cannot dance in this coat.”
“Then let’s dance naked,” he says, offering me his hand.
Now I am standing by the river again, my beautiful robe turned to rags, and I am about to throw myself into the torrent when I hear laughter and turn to see a man and woman sitting at a table under a flowering cherry tree. The woman has short brown hair and is dressed as a toreador. The man has long brown hair and is wearing a scarlet evening gown. They are drinking wine and eating grapes and talking and laughing.
The man gives me a quizzical smiles and says, “You realize, don’t you, that nothing they’ve ever told you is true.”
The woman nods in agreement and says, “Took me the longest time, but once I stopped believing them, I was free.”
“But what made you stop believing they would kill you if you tried to leave?” I ask, falling to my knees.
“Oh that’s not what I stopped believing,” says the woman, helping me to my feet. “I stopped believing I was weak and helpless and stupid, and discovered I was strong and resourceful and brilliant, and everything followed from that.”
Now I’m wading across the river, determined to reach the other side.
Herschel opens his eyes and gazes at Leona.
“I know what my dream means,” she says, unknotting her bun and giving her head a shake to loose her long brown hair. “Pretty obvious, huh? I guess I just needed to tell someone.”
“How quickly you found me out,” says Herschel, his eyes twinkling.
“May I have a glass of wine?” she asks, meeting his gaze.
“Of course,” he says, delighted she no longer fears him. “Red or white?”
“Red, please,” she says, seeing herself on the other side of the river, raising her arms to the sky.