Audrey considered the doctor’s question. She squinted, tilting her face to the Halogen lamp until bright colors appeared from behind her eyelids. A swath of scarlet appeared, but not the shade of red from her dreams. Too much orange. “A deep red,” she explained.
“Which things were deep red?” Dr. Bergman asked. “It’s important to identify the images specifically.”
She opened her eyes stared at Bergman, then at the spartan surroundings. Why were psychiatrists’ offices always dark and depressing? They were supposed to treat depression, not add to it. She took a cleansing breath and pressed her eyes closed again.
“All the people wore red jackets in the same style. There were long-legged birds, cranes or something, with red crests. The bushes had red berries. Everything the same color red. A Chinese red color,” she said. “Then I was in a city where red banners hung from the façades. Red signs lettered in Chinese characters filled the store windows.”
Bergman said, “What you’re describing sounds like Japan.”
She wrinkled her nose. How could he possibly know what color she saw? It was her dream.
“You’re seeing Chinese red in your dreams. Do you mean vermilion?”
She picked a hair off her camel-colored trousers, a long, mousy-brown strand. Her own. When she turned forty, she began shedding like her Golden Retriever. “If I ordered the color in a paint store, I’d tell the clerk I want Chinese red. Is vermilion Chinese red?”
Bergman nodded and scribbled something on his tablet. “In dreams, vermilion is the color of passion.”
She gulped. “I’m embarrassed to tell you this.” If she felt too much shame to tell him what happened while she dreamt, why she paying him $200 a week? “In this dream,” she continued, “I met a stranger in the city. It was full moon. He took me to a tiny restaurant with red hanging lanterns. As we were leaving, he pressed me against the front porch rail and kissed me right underneath that huge golden moon. Harder than I’ve been kissed in years.”
“Are you married in your dreams?” he asked.
Audrey shrugged her shoulders. “David’s never in my dreams. Is that bad?”
Bergman fingered the stubble on his chin. “In dreams, red can also be the color of shame and urges.”
Shame and urges? Was she supposed to feel shame for kissing a strange man in a dream? She’d not felt passionate about anything in a year—her volunteer work with the thrift shop, meal preparation, laundry, ironing, making love—things she used to enjoy doing.
For the last two years, she slogged through passionless days. “I don’t have urges during my waking hours anymore. I can’t stand up to anyone either. I don’t fight for anything. I may have been passionate about life—once. A long time ago. No more. Everything in my life is blah. Duller than blah. Beige. I have a beige life,” she said, feeling contempt for the shade of brown that encroached on her life, like mold on once-good food. “If everything in my life is beige,” she asked, eyeing the run creeping up her nude-colored trouser socks, “why am I dreaming in Chinese red?” she asked, feeling more stretched-out and washed-out than her tan undergarments.
“Just like light,” Bergman began, “color can have a pervasive influence on mood.”
Then why don’t you buy some decent lighting for this office, Audrey wanted to tell him.
“Here’s what I want you to do,” Bergman continued. “Go find your Chinese red. Chase it down.”
“In my dreams?”
Bergman shook his head. “Go to Bloomingdale’s, and buy yourself a red silk scarf. Better yet, it’s Asia Week in Manhattan. Galleries and shops are displaying Asian paintings and sculpture all across the city.”
Audrey shook her head. “I’m not crazy about that tacky lacquered stuff with the golden dragons painted on it.”
“The pottery and paintings, et cetera, are all authentically Asian. Mind you, I’m not insisting that you buy anything,” Bergman said, “Just be fully present as you’re taking it all in. It may help you integrate your dream states with the unconscious longings crowding out your ability to enjoy life. Doctor’s orders.”
Over a bowl of oatmeal, Audrey told David she was going uptown because it was Asia Week.
David muttered something and picked up his coffee cup. It had gone through the dishwasher so many times, the image, a cityscape, was all but scrubbed off, leaving only a crescent moon on cream-colored porcelain. While David pored over his morning paper, Audrey rushed out the door, excited to commence her Asian immersion. Her first stop was East 71st Street, to view an exhibit called “Humor in Japanese Art,” where she found a pre-modern hanging scroll with a laughing Buddha holding a red teacup. The same color red as in her dreams!
Then she hopped the M5 to Pier 1 Imports in Midtown and bought two Chinese-red teacups.
The next day, while sipping tea from yesterday’s impulse purchase, David looked up from his place mat and smiled. “Your eyes are deep blue today, honey.”
How many years had he sat there with the morning paper covering his face, making her feel like an intruder at her own breakfast table whenever she asked him a question?
Dumbfounded, she just stared at him.
By week’s end, she’d seen more than a half-dozen exhibits at the China Institute, the Korea Society, the Tibet House, and the Japan Society. Each of those days she returned home with something new—a crimson throw, a silk flower arrangement, new Chinese-red lamp shades. New pieces for her wardrobe, too—a shawl, a cinnabar pendant on a sterling silver chain, and a red silk blouse from Bloomingdale’s.
Saturday morning, while on her to the way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she slipped into a nail salon on 34th Street to get a professional manicure for the first time since she and David were married.
“Pick a color,” the young Asian manicurist barked at Audrey without looking up.
“What?” Audrey asked.
“Color.” The nail technician pointed to a rack filled with polish. “You pick!”
Audrey surveyed the polishes, selecting the one that looked closest to Chinese red. She glanced at the name on the bottom: Big Apple Red. She set it on the manicure table.
The young woman made a funny face. “Nails too short!”
Audrey made a face right back at her. “I’m the customer. That’s the color I want,” seating herself and sticking her right hand in the soaking bowl without invitation.
They both fell silent for the rest of the appointment.
It was while window-shopping at the Met Store that Audrey had an epiphany. A set of museum magnets featuring reproductions of pieces Monet had painted while visiting Japan had caught her attention. There, among the collections, were the same two scenes she’d seen in her dreams—people parading in snowy drifts and a cityscape identical to the one where her dream man kissed her against the porch rail. She swore she’d had never seen those images before, yet there they were. Or maybe she had seen them before but hadn’t been fully present. She grabbed the magnets and whipped out a twenty-dollar bill, clenching both in her hands waiting for her turn at the checkout counter.
“Come in,” Bergman said, noticing Audrey’s appearance for the first time in the year she’d been his patient.
Audrey wore her Chinese red silk blouse and cinnabar pendant. Normally she headed straight to his leather couch to recline. Today, she chose to sit.
“You’re a vision,” Bergman said. “How are things going—as well as they appear?”
“I took in as many exhibits during Asian Week as I could squeeze into my schedule and still found a few hours to volunteer at the thrift shop. I was fully present, too. My house is more colorful. My clothes are more vibrant. And guess what? David’s noticing me—again. Really noticing,” Audrey said, her words rushing out like the spray from the Central Park fountain. “He took me out to dinner Saturday. We,” Audrey paused, “we made love after.”
Bergman laughed heartily. “The attention to your outward appearance is mirroring a more important development. Dare I say a wholesale improvement in your emotional well-being?”
Audrey nodded. “Those scenes from my dream that I thought I’d never seen before? I’d been looking at them for fifteen years on a pair of mugs David and I got as a wedding present that got scrubbed off in the dishwasher. I guess my unconscious mind noticed them, huh?”
Bergman nodded. “What about my directive to be fully present?”
“I’m seeing things I never noticed before. Like how the street slopes downward near the curb so all the rainwater runs into the sewer,” Audrey said, gesturing with more flamboyance than in previous sessions. “Amazing!”
Bergman put down his tablet. “I think we can reduce the frequency of our sessions to once a month.”
Audrey gasped. “What? Why? You can’t mean that.”
“You’ve just been regaling me with examples that speaks to a much-improved quality of life.”
“B-but I need you more than ever,” Audrey stuttered. “Y-you don’t understand. I eat pizza and maraschino cherries and drink tomato juice before bedtime. I bought a red negligee though I’d rather be wearing flannel jammies.”
“Wonderful,” Bergman said as if talking to a child. “You’re integrating your conscious and subconscious mind.”
“Integrating, my eye,” she said. “Now that things in my life are Chinese red, all my dreams have turned beige.
# # #
Author’s note: “Chinese Red” won the second round of a serial fiction competition, which amazed me at the time since it didn’t have any vampires or zombies in it. Usually the horror stories always won in this contest.