When I was a kid, my parents frequently invited company for dinner. They had interesting friends. Long past our bedtimes, my sister and I used to sneak halfway down the stairs and hang over the banister so we could hear the conversation. This was back in the days before conversation became a spectator sport, something celebrities did on televised talk shows while everybody else just listened. (To this day, I don’t watch talk shows. When I hear a good conversation, I want to participate.)
My father was a wonderful raconteur, as were some of their friends. They would tell stories—extended jokes that drew us in till we could hardly wait to hear the punch line. And then they would tell the punch line in Yiddish! All the adults would howl with laughter. It always sounded hilarious, since Yiddish is an innately comical language to the anglophone ear. Mind you, neither of my parents spoke Yiddish. My father’s native language was Russian, my mother’s Hungarian. But everybody always understood the punch line—except us. “What does it mean? What does it mean?” we would clamor. They would invariably reply, “It’s untranslatable!”
This intensely frustrating experience left me with an imperative need to know the ending of any story. In mysteries, the ending is of crucial importance. In fact, it’s what distinguishes them from most literary novels. They start with a setup: a crime is committed, but we’re missing some key information: we don’t know whodunit. Or in a thriller, something will happen if it isn’t stopped, and it’s a race with the clock—or an obstacle course—to prevent disaster. We keep reading—often long past our bedtimes—to find out how they’ll end.
I had a thriller-like dream last night. It took place in West Africa, in a country that might have been Burkina Faso, just north of Côte d’Ivoire where I lived in the Sixties as a Peace Corps Volunteer. In the dream, I was part of a group of people, black and white, who loved Africa and had spent years there helping the surrounding countries get rid of oppressors. We had just discovered that some hidden airports in the bush were international airports. At first we thought they were brand new and couldn’t understand why the Africans hadn’t told us about them. Then we realized they’d been there all along. In the dream, this meant that once they’d finished ousting the oppressors with our help, they planned to get rid of us as well. We were outraged. Each of us talked in turn about how betrayed we felt. I gave quite a speech—probably out loud, as my husband swears I often do while dreaming.
We knew we had to leave at once, before our enemies arrived. A plane was waiting. As we began to board, a plane or helicopter landed. Armed men rushed out and headed toward us. We tried frantically to get everybody into the plane. As they reached us, we all made it on board, but we still had to take off before they could attack. Through a kind of transparent bubble, we could see them aiming their weapons at us.
At that moment, my husband woke me up. “You were having a nightmare,” he said. I was furious. “No, I wasn’t. Why did you wake me?” “You were,” he insisted. “You were saying, ‘Please don’t shoot us.” “I was not! I was saying, ‘Please don’t hurt us.’ We just wanted them to let us leave.” I tried to explain the dream, not doing it very well since I tend not to remember my dreams in any detail. He couldn’t understand why I thought it wasn’t a nightmare. But it wasn’t. I wasn’t scared, or at least not with the dread or terror that characterize nightmares. What I felt was more of a sense of intense urgency. I certainly didn’t want to be rescued at that moment. I wanted to know if we made it into the air before they started shooting. Dammit, I wanted to know the ending!