Redefining north.

Pleasure Like Grief by Sarah Pape

Pleasure Like Grief by Sarah Pape


Associate nonfiction editor Jenna Quartararo on today's bonus essay: A beautiful mediation on perversion. Pape's dreamy, lush prose explores the boundaries between our unconscious selves and our waking life, between desire and repression, between pleasure and pain, between what is normal and what is debaucherous. Are we safe in our dreams?  Safe from ourselves? The answers might haunt you.

Pleasure Like Grief

Some mornings I wake up coming. A noise stirs me—the shrill pitch of our Andalusia chicken, the one with feathers so gray, she is blue—and I can still feel the spasm, the precipice moment tethering me to the pulsing subconscious between my thighs. The bird grows louder as the edges of the room crisp, calling me into the light spreading thin between the dust-covered blinds.

Second to pleasure, a kind of heartache.

This is the place people return to me. Where I find the dead in the full-blush of living. College friends arrive naked. Colleagues, passersby, men who helped my father pull an engine, babysitters who braided my hair. This is the place I hedge their advances until some firm part of them presses into a soft part of me and I relent. I make the decision to give myself to them again and again and again. And then they dissipate like the sweet fragrance of Mock Orange on a street you can’t find your way back to.

It’s no longer clear whether this desire is real before, but in the dreaming, it becomes so. I have to train my lips and hands away from them in the light of day. I want to say, Remember? How tenderly your thighs pressed to the back of mine. The soft white belly you revealed just before.

No one is safe from my dreams.


What does it mean that I enact infidelity so often in my sleep? For years, I think I am an unforgivable pervert. For the years after that, I decide everyone has sex dreams about everyone and I am normal. Then a friend shakes his head at me after I describe an explicit scene with a mutual acquaintance, “You do this with everyone, don’t you?”

He says his sex dreams are populated with strangers. Sometimes, just parts of bodies with the rest of the person indistinct, faint. I say this seems like fucking silly putty.

The limited research on sexual dreams bears this conversation out. According to the dream researchers and professors of psychology, Calvin Kai-Ching Yu and Wai Fu, men have sexual dreams seven times more often than women. In those dreams they most often engage in sex with strangers, classmates, and those that could only be recalled by their “blurred faces.” In one particular study, Yu and Fu wanted to know if men’s nocturnal emissions can be tracked back to specific dream content, or if one might ejaculate for other reasons unrelated to sex, maybe because they had to pee, were imagining themselves in battle, or making loads of cash (other most common dreams of men, according to the study). They also tracked how often incestuous content found its way into erotic dream narratives.

“How do you imagine them if you’ve never seen them before?” I ask, realizing that we could now be talking about art. Invention. I see that I have little capacity to desire something I’ve never seen.

Perhaps it is like creating a character in a story and collecting the drawl of my first friend, my father’s limp, and my husband’s deep cleft to animate some nobody. They don’t exist. Yet, they do. I stitch them together, pose them, bring them anguish, sometimes pleasure.

From where does the guilt emerge? After the pulses of indulgence fade, my first concern is fidelity. Have I ruined my life? Did I give away my husband and my chance at happiness so easily that it was like nothing, like a silken shroud pulled over me by some unseen hand? Would I feel anything of consequence if all I rubbed against were an amalgamation or fuzzy rendering done in a shaky hand? It must be the specificity that matters.


I used to think that before anyone could know me, they had to know about my father. As if there was nothing more crucial they would ever discover. If their face did the wrong thing, we could end it right there.

Then years passed without telling anyone. The words left me so seldom, I wondered if it ever happened, but my dreams reminded me.

Will my body ever stop betraying me in sleep, I wonder, waking up in the rented room of a mountain cabin, my husband next to me, against me, as the last threads of my father’s naked frame escape through the cold morning air?

I am not safe in my dreams.


A friend dreamt into me once. He wrapped his arms around the parking meter, embarrassed at mentioning it. Tell me, I begged. He said one half of me lay next to him in bed, talking about poetry. The other half rode him, facing away. Our spouses were making us breakfast downstairs. In the final moment of ecstasy, the Apocalypse began. You have quite a conscience, don’t you? I laughed.

How little this is about actual fucking, I think. The boundaries we’ve drawn around the corporeal allow for sharing language, meals, drinks, drugs, cigarettes, but when the body arrives with its yearning, we turn away. In dreams you can hold someone as long as sleep allows. You can bury your fingers into their hair, pull them close enough to smell, and taste their sweat on your tongue.

It is rare in waking life to embrace someone other than those granted to you by an institution. There are so many people I wish I had held longer, until we were embarrassed by it, until we wept from the necessity of it.

I dreamt of him too, in part, because I dream of everyone. But also because I love him, feel the full thrum of my intellect when with him. I hesitate to share in kind because sometimes the sharing makes it real, tells me something I don’t want to know. Yu and Fu say that “dreams function as a channel for the expression of instinctual needs.” What is my need when his body is delivered to me, when anyone’s falls from my consciousness into the folded cloth of reverie? And what need do I serve when I tell someone, I dreamt of you last night, and watch as their face reveals some pleasure, perhaps revulsion, incredulity, surprise.

I come to understand that I might never forget his apocalypse, the obliteration that sprung from our pairing. It ignited, then torched, a corner of our private acre.


Yu and Fu were in my dream last night. I saw a flash of their white coats, heard the scribble of pen on the unyielding expanse of clipboard. I want to ask them why they didn’t study women too. Why does there have to be physical evidence mucking up the sheets to qualify as proof? Why did they ask the men so many questions about incest? Their research revealed them to be concerned, largely, with whether the subject’s mother made an appearance. Yes, almost all of them answered, their blush and shame almost pinking the stiff white paper of their study. Teachers, too. Mothers. Teachers. Blurred faces. This is the stuff of dreams, I’m told.


A queer friend tells me that she has only ever fucked women in her dreams. She always has a cock and has never been penetrated. Half of this is true in waking life. I can hear the desire, as she tells it, for the entire truth. In dream there is no schism between what the body wants and what it can provide.

I, too, have grown a phallus in the open space of my subconscious. I take the familiar/unfamiliar part and place it inside another. Inside myself.


Other mornings, I emerge coming and crying. I dream of my childhood friend, who I played board games with when visiting my grandparents, who smelled like band aids, whose parents sent me a stuffed dog when he died of leukemia. We are children again together, small and tufted like pale baby chicks. Then we are grown. He touches me and I begin to feel the orgasm rise like a Ferris wheel.

I wake. He is gone. Gone again and I think now that pleasure is so like grief. I want to smell the antiseptic glow of his boy skin. To feel the vibration of Operation through the tweezers when I hit the empty metal bones. I let him win every time. I still would.


I ask my husband about his sex dreams, hoping he will tell me he’s had countless, and they were all about me. What would Yu and Fu say about this—my desire for his monogamous dreams, that I constrain the subconscious to the same margins of waking life? Perhaps they’d say it’s normal to want and to be wanted, which sounds so democratic, reasonable, overly simplified. I would confess to them, Yes, Yu and Fu, but sometimes dreams make me fall in love! I feel heartbroken when I feel myself rising up through sleep as if breaking through the surface of water. Sometimes it takes hours to shake myself from the feeling that I could reach back down into the depths and find my partner there.

Perhaps they would tell me to let go my preconceived notions of fidelity, at least in dreams. I might think of my sleeping brain as a merry-go-round, those riding next to me as spontaneous and undetermined.

Alas, it seems the answer is always buried in the self. Yu and Fu resolve their inquiry with this declaration: “[No] matter how bizarre and unfamiliar they appear to be, all characters and things occurring in dreams are the derivatives of the psychical material pertaining to oneself, and each dream component can be conceived of an aspect of the self.”

I caress myself. I beat myself. I penetrate myself. I am smitten. I am spurned.

Furthermore, I am my father. I am my colleague, my best friend, my husband. In me, they are joined in an unending orgy, and as long as I am alive, they will writhe there.

Sarah Pape teaches English and works as the Managing Editor of Watershed Review at Chico State. Her poetry and prose has recently been published or are forthcoming in: Ecotone, Crab Orchard Review, Harpur Palate, The Pinch, Smartish Pace, The Collapsar, Pilgrimage, The Squaw Valley Review, The Superstition Review, and Hayden's Ferry Review. She curates community literary programming and is a member of the Quoin Collective, a local letterpress group. Check out her website for more:

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