2004: An innocuous, 24-10 win by #11 VT over #16 UVA on a cold November night. No one present knows this, but the streak has quietly and inexorably begun.
No one sees the moment it slips. Things might be humming along nicely for you one minute, and then the next minute a new story could start without you knowing it. It’s so easy. You might not even know you’ve stepped over it – the little fault, the crack in life when things changed for the worse, and maybe forever.
That’s what I did. Things were not always great, but they were good. We were mostly good, not great. That was fine, even when once a year, we met them, played hard, and usually lost. But losing is a funny thing. Lose once and the mind assumes a coin has been flipped. A win, buried somewhere in the long chain of probabilities, waits for you. It has to be there, an inevitability of chance. A nightmare dreamed once is bad, but not unbearable.
In 2004, we came up tails, but heads surely lay somewhere down the road, the promise of a brighter tomorrow shining somewhere in the dark.
I was young then. Naive, perhaps. That night I had fierce dreams of fighting alone, surrounded by dark wattled figures in the snow, glass taped to my fists, ears filled with the hushed sound of snow falling and the unmistakable sound of sinister gobbling.
2005: Virginia Tech 52, Virginia 14. UVA’s most lopsided home loss in 21 years.
The signs were there. I dreamt that year of a tidal wave, seamless as far as the eye could see. I would bolt awake in a dry bed miles inland and swear I could taste the salt of the sea on my tongue. I could remember the sensation of looking up in all directions with stinging eyes and only seeing water in every direction. There was no up, no down.
I could lay back down and fall asleep, but that year, it always came back to me. Every time I had that dream, I ran looking for a break, a window, some tiny keyhole of space to slip through and maybe paddle my way to safety.
I misunderstood the dream. I was not supposed to escape. I, reader, was meant to be washed away every time.
2006: Virginia Tech 17, Virginia 0. UVA only runs one play — a punt — in Virginia Tech territory.
A starvation, a desert. I dreamed of walking toward an oasis and smelled the water on the hot wind. Every time I got close, it disappeared, a collection of rocks and scrub where my eyes had invented salvation. In this dream, he is always three steps behind me, never overtaking me, always within a few steps.
I ask him to speak sometimes. He stares and says nothing, only smiling. The Bird does not sweat and never seems thirsty. In the dream, I cannot imagine what is worse: His constant presence, hanging over me like a vulture over future carrion, or the possibility of his absence, leaving me alone in all this nothing.
This, the third year of the Nightmare Era, is different. I have this dream after the game, and wake up believing something profound has changed in our world. I did not see the crack in reality and stepped over it. Now, three years forward, I understand. I live in the desert now, hunted by a silent unblinking tormentor who stays three steps behind me. He pushes me further towards nothing. For some reason, I let him.
2007: Virginia Tech 33, Virginia 21. The rotation of Sean Glennon and Tyrod Taylor at quarterback breezes past the Cavaliers.
This year’s nightmare, every night for a year. I pick up a two-headed snake walking down the road. It speaks to me in turns from either head: “Would you/ TAKE USSSSSS/ to the other /SSSSSSSSIDE OF THE/ road?”
I oblige, and pick it up to walk it across the street. I reach the other side, and setting the two-headed snake on the ground, I recoil as it sinks all four fangs into my arm.
“How could you repay my kindness with such savage cruelty?” I ask.
The answer is always the same, delivered in unison.
“You knew what we were when you picked ussssss up.”
I curse one to play for the Buffalo Bills one day. Then, I die on the side of the road.
2008: Virginia Tech 17, Virginia 14. A 10-play, 40-yard drive to get into position for the winning field goal for VT sums up brutal disappointment for the Cavaliers at home.
A scare happens once. Fear happens without warning, without appointment. A phobia is a subscription to fear, delivered reliably on a schedule.
In the fifth year of the Nightmare, I acquire what I can only call a phobia. The dream that year: I cling to a balcony stories above the ground. My fingers slip, and the world shrinks to a long, dark tunnel of pure terror. At the bottom of all that darkness I hang above a deeper nothingness, looking up at an outstretched hand just out of reach. It is the only way out, but my fear is so deep. I can’t even think of beginning to take one hand off the ledge to reach for rescue.
I am so close. I am so close every night, and it always ends the same way. I fall to the ground and wake the instant I hit the pavement.
2009: Virginia Tech 42, Virginia 13. Another dispiriting embarassment at home. Embattled UVA head coach Al Groh recites a poem, “The Guy in the Glass,” after the game. It contains the lines:
When you get what you want in your struggle for pelf,
And the world makes you King for a day,
Then go to the mirror and look at yourself,
And see what that guy has to say.
Al Groh is fired the next day.
The Nightmare sent me arrows this year. They sound like a flock of birds in the air, so many in flight that they block out the sun. There is no escape to the side, forward, or backward. Whichever way I move, I die.
The terror recedes after the nightmare’s first few visits. I can appreciate the totality of this vision, its fairness, its completion. I have hope when the nightmare is a struggle, where I might for a second believe in survival or victory.
Here there is no hope. The pain of hope is also absent, though, and that is a small mercy in a sea of cruelties.
2010: Virginia Tech 37, Virginia 7. This time, a failed fake punt by the Cavaliers starts the landslide.
I think I have pulled off a heist in this year’s nightmare. For a moment, I think I’ve succeeded, crazy as that seems. I can’t be blamed, really. The desperate measures of the moment can seem so logical at the time, but plans can lie. Sometimes, in the wrong hands, they are just a way to present insanity in an organized way, and slip them undercover into otherwise rational minds. A plan can be body armor for action. It can also be an overcoat draped over lunacy.
In this year’s nightmare, I never realize what kind of plan I have. I don’t get it until I’m in the back of the car, dying again.
2011: Virginia Tech 38, Virginia 0 at home. After the game, Hokies defensive end James Gayle says, “I actually was a little let down. I thought it was going to be a tougher game.”
The nightmare this year is long – so long I become several different people over the course of the terror. Sometimes I am determined to free myself, to escape at any cost. There are other times when I awake terrified, trapped even when waking because the fear intensifies and overtakes me completely. A few times I get sentimental because at the bottom there is nothing to consider but gratitude for what was good, or may yet be good again. The longest nightmare of all of them changes me into something different each time.
The rock, though. The rock never changes. It always falls on me.
2012: Virginia Tech 17, Virginia 14. The Hokies kick the game-winning field goal with four seconds left.
Death by rock.
2013: Virginia Tech 16, Virginia 6. Virginia shuts out Virginia Tech in the second half. Virginia also shuts out Virginia in the second half.
Death by rock.
2014: Virginia Tech 24, Virginia 20. UVA takes the lead with three minutes to play. One minute and seven seconds later, Virginia Tech goes ahead for good.
Death by rock.
2015: Virginia Tech 23, Virginia 20. The Hokies score 17 points in the fourth quarter.
I have the pin, and then I don’t. I have him in my grasp, and then I don’t. The fight is mine, and I can do more than see its end. I can feel him yield in the nightmare, his muscles relaxing for a second in surrender. This goes on for years, and my mind should adapt to this new forever. If I want to survive, I have to understand that this is my boulder: I push it uphill forever and walk back down the hill after each time chasing the pebbles of my burden back down that hill. I should understand that at some point.
I should understand it most after losing for the 10th time. Should is a dangerous word my mind does not understand, evidently. Even now, remembering each moment, I can feel the instant when I thought I would win. I can see it in my mind, as real as anything I know.
My mind is diseased with hope. Not even the crushing power of the nightmare’s hands on my skull can drive it from my mind.
2016: Virginia Tech 52, Virginia 10
A marooning. The dream is an eternal, alien dusk, with a sun that never rises and only sets on me and me alone. The only comfort is the absolute certainty of the end.
2017: Virginia Tech 10, Virginia 0. UVA blows two sure touchdowns. One happens when a defender slips after an interception with no Hokie pursuers in sight. The other: a Hokies defender catches a wide-open UVA receiver running to daylight from behind, preventing a sure score.
The nightmare is the net, as big as all the world, and my shot, flying over the crossbar every time. I try again. I fail again. The next night I lay down to sleep and hope I do not open my eyes to the sight of the goalie crouching in front of a vast, rectangular target I will never, ever hit. The first thing I see is the goalie, crouching, smiling, and waiting like someone who has pages of the script I will never see but understand clearly enough in context.
This movie is a tragedy for me every night. After 14 years, it is a comedy for anyone else watching.
2018: Virginia Tech 34, Virginia 31 (OT). At the end of the first half, UVA muffs a punt recovered by the Hokies. The Cavaliers intercept Hokies QB Ryan Willis on the next play. Cornerback Tim Harris returns the ball 62 yards before being tackled from behind by Willis in a game-saving effort. Tied at 31, the Hokies make a 42-yard field goal. UVA responds by fumbling, and the Hokies recover to end the game. The Cavaliers lose for the 15th time in a row.
I’m closer. I know that now. Every time I fall, I wake up. Every time I fall asleep, I am defeated anew, and then wake again to recover for the next round. I am getting there. I do not know if this nightmare is the last, but I know there is always next time, and next time is the only thing I have. Next time, there will be a few steps further down the field, with a new brand of doom waiting around the corner. Next time is me living in the nightmare like it is home or maybe because it is home now, here, after all these little deaths.
After 15 years, I do not know the difference anymore. I only believe in next. Next is the word I want to drop in the nightmare’s head, to spray-paint on the back of their eyeballs. After long enough, a streak becomes someone else’s problem. Next is my friend, and fear died for me a long time ago. For him – the monster who put me here – next is coming.
Then, at long last, I will have become the thing in the dark. I will be the nightmare.