Dream Story, #1

Once I was walking in a dream and got lost in a story. It was a dream in a broken down neighborhood under an el train, disappearing sky behind concrete and metal. I walked and walked down vacant streets and entered a home where I became one of four sisters. It was a small apartment with turquoise walls, lit by dull florescent lights, and a bathtub in the kitchen.

The oldest one had a lot of thick, black hair. The kitchen fogged up as she shampooed, scrubbed and rinsed. Our parents were away or missing is what I gathered as my sister combed her wet hair into tight braids and pinned the end of each braid to just behind the opposite ear. She put on lipstick and scents.

"What will you do when they come back?" I asked.

She shrugged. "They won't be back soon."

An older couple came by with a box of food for us. The woman accused, "you look very smart." Sonia told them she was going out to look for a job. They shook their heads at her. "We don't think you should go out. Where would you find a job anyway?"

"Uptown."

They told her no. They would be back tomorrow.

At night we all slept together, the four of us. The two little ones were sandwiched between us. I slept next to the wall with a small open window at the top. I heard dogs barking, and footsteps occasionally, hollow ones from outside and squooshy ones from upstairs. As I drifted off into another dream, I heard his voice calling her in a whisper. He only had to call her once, and the bed creaked as she rose out of it. I could hear her let him in. I knew his voice and wondered why he was here. Even though he lived down the street and we always went to the same school, we never mattered, not before. I listened suspiciously. They talk and the talking stops. They talk again. What did he want with her? I heard her heat up food for him that should have been saved for us. I would ask her in the morning what happened to the food, and she would have to confess.

The next morning she lied to me. She said she woke up in the middle of the night with terrible hunger pains, and she ate the rest of the food. She just couldn't help it, but she was just going out to buy some more. I challenged her and asked her where she would get the money.

"I have money," she said.

"Where did you get it from?"

"I helped Anita upstairs with the old man, and she gave me some money."

"What about Sammy? Did he give you any money?"

"Why would he?"

"Because he ate all our food."

She bit her bottom lip and looked down at her feet. Then she grabbed her coat and said, "I'll be back soon." She never apologized or offered an explanation. I know that part of her enjoyed the secret, and a secret is no good unless it's discovered.

I felt uneasy being alone in the apartment. I didn't know how to be responsible in this place. I could see where everything was. The stove, the sink, the bathtub, the refrigerator, the table. I could see the worn cotton cloth hanging down in the doorway, separating the kitchen from the small sitting room. I could see the short hallway that led to our room where the younger girls still slept. But I didn't know what to do with it all. And what if that couple came back and discovered that she had gone out? What excuse would I give? It was unfair for her to be defiant when there was so much I didn't know.

She came back with food and took care of everything. She cooked, washed and dressed the girls, braided their hair and responded to their chatter. She seemed unaware of the fact that I did nothing to help her, or even that I was watching the lines on her forehead wrinkle and smooth out with each thought she had. Later I caught her alone, examining herself in front of the mirror. When she saw me, she pretended to be cleaning up the dressing table. I asked her to brush my hair.

She sat on the bed and told me to sit on the floor in front of her. My hair must not have been brushed in days. It was full of knots at the nape of my neck. She took the comb and worked a small section at a time. I could feel the strands eventually become loose and free, and then she could run the comb through easily. When all the knots were out, she brushed my hair in long strokes along my scalp.

"Now I'll brush your hair," I said. She handed me the brush with a smile, and we changed places. I took her braids out and brushed slowly. "I want to try something different with your hair." I made small braids and pinned them back in random order.

When I was finished she went to the mirror and looked. Little rivers of braids flowed out from either side of her part. She looked pleased and came to sit next to me on the bed. Sometimes she looked like me and sometimes she didn't. She had full cheeks like mine, not very defined cheekbones. Her eyes were sharper and blacker. Her complexion was sallow and scarred. I took some lipstick and put some on her cheeks.

"Now you look rosy," I said.

She put some lipstick on my cheeks too. And as she rubbed it in she said, "It's nice when someone looks at your face for a long time. Just at your face, even though there are other things around to look at."

"I guess so."

"Even if there's nothing else to look at. Just you, and it might be that when something better comes along, he'll look away. It's still nice."

I didn't know one way or the other.

On another day, I found myself wandering the streets. The sun shined down on me like a searchlight. Since I came I had learned to be afraid. With each step I realized that I was more lost than I was a second ago. Where did that old couple live? They seemed to be family. Of course, this was not a real landscape and I would never find out where they lived.

I entered a neighborhood that was somewhat populated. I captured an old familiar street corner, with prototypes of people I had seen in passing, but I couldn't hold onto it. There was commotion, a loud siren, and the crowd dispersed almost as soon as they appeared. I had to run, too. I found an old school building, where I snuck around corners and entered courtyards. I listened to the walls and I listened to the streets.

I found my way to a broken window. From inside I could not tell what time of day it was. Most of the windows were black with soot, which was just as well. It meant that no one could look in on me. I walked the halls that still had some signs of its former function. There were cluttered classrooms, tables and desks with chairs tossed carelessly aside, as if all the children had rushed off to recess, books on shelves, chalk on the chalkboard ledge, building blocks and furry puppets. In one of these classrooms I found Sammy. In dreams there aren't usually those kinds of coincidences. He looked at me but his eyes showed neither recognition nor surprise. I saw that he was hurt but I kept my distance. "What happened to you?"

He showed me a bloodstain over his stomach. "They're looking for me," he said.

"What did you do?"

"Nothing. I put my hands up," was all he said.

"Is that why they're rounding people up?"

He looked at me like I was from another planet. "Could be ... today."

I knelt down beside him. "Do you know who I am?"

"No idea," he said, but I couldn't tell if he was serious or not.

"You should have turned yourself in," I said.

He laughed at me. His whole body was weak with pain but the smile came so easily and suited his face so perfectly. He started singing --

I shot the sheriff, but I swear it was in self-defense ... "That was a good song, right?" he said. Then I had that song in my head but I didn't know the words.

I found some rags and held them tight on his wound. I made sure my fingers didn't touch his flesh. It was so dark now. I couldn't tell the difference between his blood and his sweat.

"I tried to go uptown and look for work." I thought of Sonia, washing her hair to go uptown. "I tried to go, but they wouldn't let me past 14th Street. I went to tell her not to go uptown. It's closed."

"She could have found that out for herself."

"But I wanted to tell her," he said.

My hands were bloody holding the rags. I could have left him there. He was dying anyway. But I got up and looked for more cloth. I found a child's tee-shirt in the closet.

"I just wanted to see her. Nobody saw me, it was dark, I was quiet as a mouse." Later, he said, "I'm a selfish motherfucker."

His face was turned away from me. I stared at his jawline. I remember thinking just then that if he had chosen me, I would not have said no. I never even knew that she liked him. But this is how I knew it wasn't real. That thought came to me without jealousy or remorse.

"Are you thinking about her now?" I asked him.

In my story, he would crawl on his torn open belly to get back to her.

"I can see her face."

If he disappeared Sonia would go on with her responsibilities. She would wonder why she really wanted him anyway. Was it to love him, or to just get out? And she would think the unthinkable night after night, not that he was dead (and she would hate herself for that), but that he had abandoned her like she always feared. I could free her from this maze of doubts.

His eyes were closing. "She's here."

"No, she's not here. She's wondering where you are."

"She's coming with me."

"She isn't here. If you want to see her you have to get up." I poked him on the shoulder. "Don't you want to see her?"

"I do."

"Then you have to get up. There's no other way for me to get you there."

"I'm tired."

"There's no other way. You have to get up." I got him some water and pulled him to his feet.

He leaned on me, but he led the way down the streets. I saw the overpasses and the train tracks and a brilliant moon up above. I kept looking back to see if he was leaving a trail of blood. If he did I would have to drop him.

When I pulled him into the sitting room everyone was awake. Our parents were home. Sonia fell to her knees over him, crying and tearing his shirt open, while my mother yelled shame and tried to pull her away from him and my father told them to shush as he bolted the door and turned out the lights. Gray light filtered in from the back rooms. I gave Sonia old cotton saris from our mother's bottom drawer. I handed her one after another as she soaked up his blood.

I woke up before he died. I tried to get back, but I didn't know the way.

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