VIII. A Dream
One night, after a bad day in college, I have a very vivid dream. The details of the dream are so full, round and rich – the brightness of the colors, the sharpness of the sounds – that although I do not know where I am, what is happening, or how I have ended up in this little piece of the world, I never doubt that it is real. One moment I am breathing quietly, listening to the yells of drunken fraternity brothers outside my window, and the next I have crossed over to a place near the water. I am walking on a wooden boardwalk, little whips of water landing on my cheek. On the left side of the boardwalk is the ocean. There are places where the wood is splintered, as if someone’s high heel has punched through. Above me, a ceiling of floating lights, strung together in crisscross patterns, blocks the sky out. The chill of the water, the white of the lights, the splintered boardwalk, I feel it all in exquisite clarity.
I am wearing an evening gown, a sheath with cutouts on either side of my ribs. The dark fabric is drapes down my hips, revealing glimpses of my skin. It is an erotic statement, and although I am usually uncomfortable in these kind of dresses, I find myself alluring. The skirt makes a pleasant noise as I walk and each step seems significant. I walk in quick steps. I walk in slow strides. In the distance, there is someone playing a saxophone. I wonder if I am going to a wedding. Other people pass me on the boardwalk in opposing directions, jostling my shoulders. The host of a popular reality TV show I like to watch is one of them. He is also wearing an evening dress instead of his usual suit, a shimmery, white sheath and a matching shawl. It fits him well, and I admire the effect. He stops in front of me as if we are friends, yanking the shawl over his shoulders.
“The Irish may know how to drink,” he says, “but depend on it, they cannot swim.” There are beads of sweat on the sides of his face. He leans in, and then all I smell is spicy musk. It is strange, having the face of this man so close to mine, this face I have seen many times in high definition clarity. It is not in the least sensual. There is nothing sexual about his cold breath, sour mingled air on my face.
“They cannot swim, the Irish,” the host says. His eyes are haggard, and so although I do not understand, I nod. Perhaps this information may be useful in the future. I slip past him. I must walk on.
The boardwalk stretches into obscurity but my forward momentum is unstoppable. Five minutes pass, and then the splintered end of the boardwalk comes into view, and I stop a few feet from a cliff drop off. It is as if a meteor, a giant force has smashed the railing, and the ground beneath it, morphing the landscape in a ridged scar. There is nowhere else to go. The urge to look beyond the walkway is strong, the pull of gravity tugging at my bones. One foot peeps forward, and then I retract it. I cannot do it. The two instincts scream in me, a thirsty desire pushing me to look, a shriveling fear pulling me back. This is how it ends, I think. I will be paralyzed.
A rapid beat drums insistently, rat-tat-tat. Somewhere plays the saxophone, the jazzy melody ascending to a lilting tune that swells in me in turns, surges of happiness and sadness. I feel this way often when I am alone. There are voices and murmurs mixed in with the sounds. It is coming from a party, I am certain. The volume increases; I spin blindly, feeling for the source in the darkness Away from the yawning infinity of the lookout, to the surrounding abyss! I hope I can still swim. I may need to swim.
A large town house. It does not have doors. Instead, the front of it is an open wall that spills onto a porch. There is a spread of people in full party array. The collective noise of the party washes over me in a warm rush – the murmuring undertones, the raucous jokes, the leaps of loud laughter, and the ever-present melody. Is the song in my head or outside of it? I search the people that are on display hungrily and memorize their expressions. They dance for my enjoyment as much as theirs. Somebody tall in the crowd catches my eye and I start: it is a classmate of mine, from my high school days, whom I have not seen since we both graduated. Although quite tall, almost six feet, the girl had a penchant for high heels. She is wearing them now and squats from the knee, her weight forward, to whisper in somebody’s ear. A queer déjà vu washes in, for I am almost certain the girl has whispered in my ear in the same way. I have never wanted to become a part of something so badly. My hands are chilled from coastal wind. The girl will remember me, I am certain!
I open my arms to the warmth of the house, but a doorman in a white suit and a cane steps forward. His face is hidden behind a tie-dye bandana. It is a ridiculous outfit, but the effect is frightening. The cane is thick, painted green. The arched handle of it appears to have cracked off.
“The party,” I say, “I want to go inside.”
The doorman does not move.
“Have you been to Belfast?” Although his face is obscured, his voice is somehow crisp.
I think back to the boardwalk, and the lookout, and the old fear rises. I do not want to return there.
“I have an invite.’ I say. “I know the people inside.”
“But you haven’t been to Belfast yet, have you?” the doorman says.
“I’ve been to other places!” I cry. “Let me in!”
The lights sharpen, the cold tightens. I can see my friend inside, tottering on her heels. Somebody sends a long, shrill cry up into the air and others respond, until the entire air is dynamic. I slash at the ridiculous bandana, tearing it off the doorman’s face. The doorman screams and stumbles back. He opens his eyes, and I shrink back. It is my father in the slim white suit.
“Dad!” I cry “Why are you here?”
My father picks up the tie-dye bandana and then looks at me with no love.
“You didn’t go,” he says. “I told you to go.”
And then it dawn on me in a rush. I know what how to enter the party. I swim-
-up to the sharp coldness of my own drying sweat, the sheets tangled around my ankles. The vents are grinding again, a rat-at-at that appears sometimes halfway through the night, and continues until morning. I can still taste salt. The tune of the saxophone lingers in my head. I close my eyes, feeling the darkness behind my lids spiral, trying to dive into the dream again. Depend on it; the Irish cannot swim, I think groggily – where have I heard this? They cannot. Swim. When I fall back asleep, twenty seconds later, I do not dream again.
It’s morning. I lie still for a while, breathing. It is a little cold because there is no duvet yet, just the sheets that I brought over, stuffed in the lining of my suitcase. The room is undecorated still, although it is a month into school, but at this present moment I do not care. If I let my mind drift, the lingering impressions are hazy but there. Something about the wet and the cold and the dark. Belfast, I suddenly remember. Was I somewhere in Ireland? Before the dream fades entirely, I search for my phone and type the city into Google Images. A place of grey stones and green, domed arches; a bloody history, Catholics and Protestants murdering each other, painting murals throughout the city in their grief and violent anger. A series of Peace Walls still exist, separating the city into divisions, smothered in graffiti and scribbled messages of good will. At their highest point, they look insidious and metallic. The tourists like hearing about a part of history that so recently occurred. Just another European city, I think. Built on war and blood and people’s mistakes.
It is almost mid-morning; I must get out of bed and make breakfast. But there is a change after that day, a certainty that drains away something tight and tense I have been holding onto all my life. I don’t spend half an hour in the store deciding between different brands of shampoo anymore. Heights do not frighten me as much. When I go home to Australia for a break, old school friends and I will plan expeditions to the small inlets and coves on the city’s coastline. We will pick our way across the rock pools, pure pockets of water that plunge down deeper than they appear. Because I cannot swim as well as my friends, I am cautious around the pools and the harsh rocks that slide into the Pacific. A spray of wet seawater will lash at my legs, and I have learnt that it is easy to slip. Sometimes, inside the cough and sputter of the waves, I will hear the ghost of a tune, barely discernible, that I have heard before. The lilting notes have a jazzy lift to them. I try hard, the first few times, to tie it to the places I once passed through, important places. It doesn’t really matter. Probably just a childhood memory, I decide. Probably one of the tunes my father used to play on the weekends on our second-hand CD player, so loudly that I could hear it even from the backyard.