The machine sleeps in the corner. Its dreams are projected onto large white walls where we watch them and record our reactions. We are told to note anything familiar, anything we have seen in our own lives and dreams. When we see something familiar, we check a box on a form and record the time. In addition to the forms, sensors clipped to our fingers and sticky patches attached to our skin monitor our bodies’ reactions. The lab techs tell us this is for their research, that they appreciate our continued cooperation. When the machine’s dream is over, lab techs peel the sensors away, disconnect us from the monitors, hand us passwords for the away survey and small heart rate monitors for home use. Before we leave, they give us checks and remind us the next session will happen the following weekend.
When away from the lab, we report dreams to an app on our phones. We clip the heart rate monitors to our fingers as soon as we wake up and type everything we remember. Every color we saw, voice we heard, the people we dreamed about, the clothes they wore. Did the dream take place in our childhood home or our college dorm? Every detail is essential for the experiment’s success. The reports are fed directly to the machine. We are told it uses an algorithm to find patterns and turn our descriptions into images that resemble things and people we describe. The machine has access to our social media, so it sees pictures of our friends and families, knows what we say to them, where we are when we send them messages, what we say about them to other people. We are told this information is as important as the dream reports we submit, that it helps the lab understand our complete cycle of information.
We are not allowed to talk about the experiment away from the lab. We cannot talk about the machine, the projectors, the forms, or what we write on them. We can say the tests are about feedback loops, cycles of information, but no one has explained how these concepts relate to dreams. We are not allowed to talk about our dreams, either. Our dreams are data that belong to the lab. Sharing would taint the experiment.
Our neighbors, spouses, and coworkers still tell us their dreams. Last night I dreamt you walked my mother’s dog, they say, the one with white paws she adopted when I left for college. What do you think it means, they ask. We shrug, say we don’t know, dreams are feedback loops, cycles of information. Then we continue our routines, as always, until the day ends and we go to bed, to sleep, to dream. We do this all week then return to the lab to watch the machine dream. Sometimes what the machine shows us resembles our neighbors’ dreams. We check boxes in the familiar column, but wonder what it is we recognize. We have never walked this dog, or seen it. We know little about this dog, not even if it is alive or dead, but the machine’s algorithms show us a white pawed dog being walked.
Other times, the machine’s dreams are terrifyingly familiar. Our parents are projected onto the walls, our children, spouses, co-workers, college roommates, high school crushes, neighbors, and bosses, too. In these dreams they are kissing and scolding us, holding us close to their chests while we cry. They are naked. Or we are naked and they are laughing and pointing. Sometimes they have coy smiles. We wonder if these people appear to everyone. When we see our wives, do they see their neighbors? Is our son their teacher? Do they enjoy watching our coworker’s skirt slide higher up her thigh? Or are they embarrassed? We are not allowed to look at each others’ forms, so we wonder.
In the lab, we are quiet. Talking before, during, or after the machine dreams is not allowed. We define each other with our senses. Hair color, freckles, body odor, these only make the outline of a person. We have moments, in the silence before the machine dreams, in which we learn greater details. One of us always sneezes three tiny sneezes. Another bends at the waist when laughing, letting out a single, explosive HA! A couple of us wipe tears from our eyes at the end of every dream. We do not know each others’ names, but we take these moments away from the lab and bring them to our homes and offices.
Sometimes we lie when we report dreams. Our wife might be looking over our shoulder when we type, so we put her name in place of the woman we watched dance last night. Sometimes, we would rather see the mail carrier’s smile and biceps, so we describe him in the reports, hoping the machine dreams him the way we want to dream him. The light on the heart rate monitors blink faster when we lie. We wonder what that means. Maybe they throw out these anomalous reports. But we lie anyway and hope for some control.
Some nights we don’t dream. We type “null” into the app, don’t wear the heart rate monitor. We drink coffee in anxious peace these mornings. Something has gone wrong. Our feedback loops have been disrupted. Did skipping lunch to work on project proposals starve us of our dreams? Was it the slow mile we ran after dinner, an attempt to repent our sins? Was it because we’ve missed church for three years? We drove a few blocks out of our way to drop the paid utility bill at the post office. Was that diversion enough to reset our cycle of information?
The dreamless nights are replicated in the lab like this: a dark room for eight hours, dull flashes of light to represent each time we changed position. We mark on our forms that this is not familiar, write in the comments that on dreamless nights we fall asleep and wake up in what feels like a moment. A better representation of these nights would be a dark room suddenly filled with light. They tell us we are required to be monitored for eight hours. It isn’t about what we experience or stories we tell, but stories we don’t know we can tell, stories that emerge, stories we can’t hide from ourselves.
What do you think it means, a co-worker asks after explaining a dream in which she lived underwater with the lead singer of her favorite band from middle school. We repeat what we’ve been told about feedback loops, cycles of information, and stories we can’t hide. We tell her maybe its significance is inexplicableness. It matters because it has no meaning. That's silly, she says, and searches dream interpretations on her phone.
A funny thing has happened. We have appeared in the machine’s dreams. Our heart rates spike as we all check boxes in the familiar column. Lab techs flip through the results with wrinkled brows and squinted eyes. We are unsure if they are pleased. We wonder how it happened. Who wrote our name into the app? In what context were we mentioned? The moment stays with us as we leave. We think about it on the drive home, and in our beds that night. It comes to us again and again in our own dreams.
Away from the lab, we think of the lab. Recount the details we remember about each other. The length of beards. The density of moles on shoulders. Tropical scented hair. Our spouse describes a reoccurring dream about his high school history teacher juggling beehives. He says the beehives are cartoonish and his teacher is wearing a tuxedo. He asks if we are listening. We are not listening, but remembering the way certain people stand duck-footed and waddle rather than walk.
The following week, we appear in the machine’s dreams multiple times. One of us is watching our grandchild crawl across a carpeted floor. We are picking tomatoes from a garden stretched across miles of prairie. We are hugging each other, sharing embraces we have never felt. In the dream, the woman who laughs a single HA! kisses the man who sneezes three times. They blush and look away from the screen. We crane our necks to see which of them checks a box in the familiar column, but we cannot tell who dreamt this because their motions are small and careful. All of us, sitting and watching the machine’s dream, are the final image the machine dreams. We wonder what will happen if we continue to dream about each other, will we be the only things the machine dreams? Fear, like a burrowing animal, rests deep beneath our chests and pushes against our sternums as we check boxes in the familiar column.
We are careful the next time we are away from the lab. We have only dreamt of each other, so we don’t write the truth. Instead, we describe our surroundings. We consider the shape of every haggard feather when we write about our neighbor’s rooster. The specific breed of grass in our dying lawns. The single second we spend airborne when we drive over a speed bump without slowing down. We type and breathe slowly, keep an even pace so our heart rates don’t rise.
The machine dreams of all these things. We check so many boxes in the familiar column, too many to record the times for each. Those of us who wipe tears away, let them fall onto laps. Those of us who never cry have wet spots shining beneath our eyes. We avoid eye contact when the dream is over. We think about the things we saw, how they’ve suddenly yoked us together. The same way we know someone by their freckles, they know us by the collection of ceramic clowns on our desk. They know our laugh and the careful, mathematic way we make coffee. See the same mural of a mongoose fighting snakes that we pass on our morning commute and the way our children run to greet us when we get home. The lab techs collect our sheets and announce that they have all the data they need from us. We may delete the app from our phones. We will not be given another password. There will be no session next weekend. They thank us for our cooperation. We leave the lab for last time unsure if we are allowed to talk to one another.
Later, we know silence was a mistake. We had so many questions. Questions about your grandkids. The age of that haggard rooster. What other buildings you pass on your morning commute. What do you do with all of those tomatoes? Could you please send us some? How many ceramic clowns do you own? We have so many gaps to fill, so few images to fill our dreams. Things that still haunt us: your coworker’s skirt, your mail carrier’s biceps. We twist in our bed sheets wondering what you thought when the laughing woman and sneezing man kissed. We fall asleep and dream of you, dreaming of us, wondering what you see. What did we give you? What, from us, do you still need? We have left you with versions of ourselves we only see while sleeping, that we’ll never complete or correct. We could send you letters every time our coworkers embarrass us at a conference, or text you every time the neighbor cuts his lawn with shears, send a photo of whatever makes us giggle when we giggle. All of these small things we pile inside ourselves, they could be yours too.