Fiction: Dreaming of a Cheeseburger

Todd Schoepflin

Another night of bad dreams. I’m still having the one about running from bad guys with guns. Why they’re chasing me, I have no idea. All I know is I can’t run fast enough and I’m dodging bullets. Why can’t I dream of puppies, or making love?

The least unpleasant dreams involve me being late or lost. Like being at a wedding that’s about to begin. Suddenly I’m gone from the room. Outside at a dumpster, my hands are soiled by garbage. After washing my hands, I can’t find my way back. I hear familiar voices. Just when I think I know where to go, children are running toward me throwing apples.

I’ve been told I should go to therapy and it’s probably good advice. All I can say is I’m not ready but I expect the day will come.

Driving to work yesterday I saw a man with a cardboard sign that said Dreaming of a Cheeseburger. It shook me. When people see a man like this, they feel drawn to him, or they pity him. Others recoil. Some may even hate him. Waiting at a stoplight, we made eye contact. Should I give him money or tell him I’ll be right back with a cheeseburger? I stuck my hand out the window with three dollars. “God bless you, brother,” he said, as I drove away.

Upset, I called my sister to tell her about it, but she didn’t care. She said something about praying and having hope. That set me off: “Talk about God and faith and hope do not soothe me because people are fucking starving and I’m seething with anger.” She said, “You can be miserable, or you can change your direction in life,” and I replied, “That’s not the point. I’m not trying to elevate myself. I’m not trying to self-actualize. At least you have the excuse of being clueless and could care less about the suffering that surrounds you. Worse is me who sees it all and does nothing except complain and stew with anger.” That led her to yell at me. I yelled back. Then she hung up on me.

I’m sick of what I’ve become. I go to work and focus on the job and secretly feel embarrassed when I’m employee of the month. Every morning I drink coffee until I’m caffeinated enough to deal with the day and do it again until the weekend arrives. And then I sit on my ass until it’s time to start over on Monday.

***

I’m not sure when my last entry was, guessing 4 or 5 years ago. I met someone at work. I won’t say anything else for now. For fear that it’s too good to be true.

***

It’s been a year since I last wrote something here. Once in a while I see two people in all their awkwardness enjoying each other. They hold hands or throw their arms around each other to show affection. I think I belong to one of those couples now. Wild. The cynical side of me thinks we’re just performing cuteness (did I really just write that?) but the hopeless romantic part of me loves it.

We went to three weddings together this summer. It freaked me out the way the couples behaved during the ceremony. I saw no passion. Granted it could’ve been nerves with all their friends and family watching. Still I’d expect to see some excitement on day one. It’s like, how are you supposed to love all of the person if you don’t even like the person?

***

Saying “I love you” isn’t hard for me. Learning to be vulnerable is.

***

It finally happened to me. I’m married. It’s weird to write it, to say it, to be it. It was just me for so long. Only needed one coffee mug. It’s going to take time for me to grow into marriage. I was so used to feeling nothing. I’m still getting used to feeling something. I’m still learning to be vulnerable. I suppose part of me is scared of going back to empty. I had sunk so low in life. I feel like I’m in a state of disbelief that I might not feel that way again.

***

Spent time reading old entries. Looking back all those years ago, I think my heart was hungry. I remember the fear of being alone, convinced I’d never find anyone to be with. It’s still hard for me to believe I’m married. I didn’t see it coming. Living a conventional life rubs me the right way. Comfortable plus, as I like to say. But I still don’t write happy. Even when I’m feeling good or okay from day to day, it doesn’t show in my writing. I try not to be gloomy all the time but I think it’s my natural state.

What’s around me hasn’t changed much. For the most part, shit is still the same. When I look back through this journal, I see how I feel differently. The anger is still there, but it’s more a feeling of sadness. It’s probably a matter of getting older and mellowing out.

I used to think I could figure out the meaning of life. I stopped trying a long time ago. You reach a point when whatever you’ve figured out is the closest you’ll ever get.

I recognize things now that somehow I didn’t always know. Like how in this life I’ve been too concerned with fitting in. The cold truth is that I’m good at conforming. If we have kids I want to teach them be more than courageous than me. I know how it is to feel like a coward. No one should feel that way.

My dreams still fuck with me. I wouldn’t say they’re nightmares but they’re definitely unsettling. Whatever has haunted me in this life stays with me. I don’t lead a spiritual life, and I still haven’t been to therapy. I’m not sure what anchors me. At least when I look in the mirror I don’t mind what I see. It helps me get through the day.

Weird things happen to me. Driving home from work yesterday a shitty red car weaves between lanes in front of me. I tap on the breaks because the driver isn’t staying in their lane and we’re traveling at high speeds. The car spins around in a 360 and just misses the front end of my car. I swerve and somehow avoid hitting cars zooming past me. The red car slows down until it stops. I pull over. Cars keep flying by me on the highway. I walk up to the car wondering what I’m getting into. I see a man with his head between his legs. When I ask if he needs help he says, “Can you find my glasses?” He’s shaken. I rummage through his car. There’s trash everywhere, mostly from fast food restaurants. I’m thinking, I need to get out of this car before someone crashes into me, while staring at a pile of cheeseburger wrappers from McDonalds wondering what this person’s life is like. I see that he’s out of the car with phone in hand. I give him his glasses and ask if he’s okay. “Yes,” he says “I’m okay. I’m waiting on a friend.” I tell him I’ll stay until his friend arrives but he waves me off. I can’t believe the police aren’t here yet. Then again, maybe this all happened in a minute. I know I should stay at his side but I just want to get home to my wife. I get in my car and drive the rest of the way home.

I couldn’t sleep most of the night. I tossed and turned, churning over in my head what happened on the highway, and thinking if the man would be okay. It was probably 3:00 in the morning when I drifted off to sleep. There’s only one dream I remember. It’s me in a car driving smoothly through traffic. I’m getting all the green lights and loving my easy ride home. I notice a woman hustling to get on a bus. She’s close, but the bus pulls away from the corner and gets back into the flow of traffic. In my rear view mirror I see her trip on a curb and fall face first onto the street. I wake up crying. My wife holds me and says, “It’s okay, it’s okay! Just a dream.” 

I don’t ever want to become numb to suffering. I think my shame comes from not knowing what to do about it.

***

I’m dreaming less of myself lately. I like not being the main character. I even had a dream of being a dad and calling to my son that it was time to come home for dinner. I watched him run home with a giant dog on a leash as his friends split off in different directions. He seemed happy. Maybe it’s the dream that comes true.

Exegesis

There’s a true detail in this story. Many years ago, I saw a haggard man with a sign that said Dreaming of a Cheeseburger. In my life I’ve encountered countless individuals asking for help, but it’s this person I’ll always remember. I’ve always wanted to write about the moment. But it wasn’t until this story came to me that I finally found a way to do it. That’s what fiction does for me here. It offers a way to creatively write about human suffering.

I do feel anger and use fiction to express it. Anger about how the fortunate among us go about our daily business, overlooking or ignoring the plight of people scraping their way through life. True, there are many acts of kindness and charity, and people who devote their life to activism, but we live in a cultural world that encourages preoccupation with self and promotes an ethic of personal achievement. There’s a stronger cultural imperative to work on oneself rather than to collectively work on social problems.

I set up a “then and now” structure to this story to portray change in a person’s life. I wanted to capture a person at different moments in the course of life: first as a sad man angry at the world, and later as someone personally content but still disturbed by pain and hardship.

What I see as sociological in this story is how we make sense of the suffering that surrounds us. From our position in society, how do we interpret inequality? How do we feel about inequality? Do we believe we’re capable to do anything about it? If we feel powerless to effect change, does it make us feel shame? A final question to contemplate: In a world with extreme inequality, do you ever feel guilty if you’re one of the fortunate ones?   

Todd Schoepflin is Associate Professor of Sociology at Niagara University in Lewiston, NY. He has a Ph.D. in Sociology from Stony Brook University. He is author of Sociology in Stories: A Creative Introduction to a Fascinating Perspective (Kendall Hunt). He is a contributor to the Everyday Sociology Blog.

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