Edition 8: Dreaming of You by Felicia A. Lee
Mira begins to dream of a house and family that aren’t hers. She dreams of them constantly, and it becomes scarily real, especially when her own reality seems to be slipping away. When Mira’s mother suggests that she is not who she thought she was, the dreams worsen. Does her mother’s secret hold the key to escaping the tedium of her oppressive nightmare? SY
Back in Serbia, people never talked about their dreams. Nana said that to do so was not only rude, but bad luck—and, as she always said, wasn’t there already enough bad luck in the world?
But here in Los Angeles, it sometimes seems as though people can talk of nothing else. In high school I took a psychology class and one day the teacher asked each of us to share a recent dream. This was just after we moved here, and I didn’t know Americans liked to talk about their dreams. For me, this felt like being asked to stand naked on top of my desk. When it was my turn, I lied and said I couldn’t remember any.
I was scared too for another reason: the teacher asked this of us just after the dreams started. It was as if she somehow knew.
Now that I’ve been here a few years, I don’t mind talking about my dreams so much. Amy and Caitlin, my roommates at UCLA, said that talking about their dreams made them feel better. I hope you don’t mind.
The dreams won’t seem scary when you hear them. Nothing really bad happened in them. But they were more real to me than my other dreams, and the same people and places kept appearing. In my dreams, I wasn’t me but another girl, a little younger than me maybe, in some little village in the country. I had a strange name—Aracely. I had dark hair, in long braids, and dark skin, like an Indian. My parents and my brothers and sisters were always the same in the dreams—my father was a farmer with a torn straw hat, a dark wrinkled face, and dusty hands with callouses as thick as those on his feet. My mother was plump and short with braids like mine. She dressed like me too, in a plaid skirt tied in place with a thick red woolen sash, and a puffy blouse with flowers on the front. She wore a black-and-white scarf around her head, and so did I. In my dreams, I called my parents “shnana” and “shtada.”
That’s the other thing about my dreams. Amy was majoring in psychology and liked to ask me if I dreamed in English or Serbian, or whether I dreamed more in English now than when I first moved here. Gradually, I found myself dreaming more and more in English, especially when dreaming about school, but my dreams of this girl were different. Sometimes the girl in my dreams spoke Spanish, but this wasn’t too surprising, as I had taken AP Spanish in high school and was pretty good at it. But most of the time, the girl spoke a strange language—it wasn’t English, nor Serbian, nor any other language that I knew. All I knew was that in my dreams, I could understand everything everyone said but I didn’t know how.
Out of curiosity, I asked Caitlin if it were possible to dream in a language you don’t know. I didn’t say why I was asking.
“There’s no way you can understand a language you’ve never heard before,” she told me. “And there’s totally no way you can understand a language you only hear when you’re dreaming. If you do dream in some weird language, I bet it’s just jibberish—you just think you understand it.”
When she said that, I just nodded. She was minoring in linguistics, which is why I asked her. I didn’t tell her that it wasn’t jibberish to me. I was sure the same words meant the same things in every dream, and now I was starting to remember a lot of the meanings when I was awake. I would recognize the parents’ voices if I heard them in real life, and I would be able to speak to them in that language too. That’s how real it was to me. But I knew this wouldn’t make sense to Caitlin. It doesn’t make sense to me.
Then I asked Amy if she knew why people sometimes have dream of the same place over and over. “Did this happen to you, Mira? Did you ever travel to that place in real life?” she asked. It was late on a Wednesday night, and we were sitting in our living room in pajamas. Amy had tied her long blonde hair back in a cloth scrunchie, as she does every night.
“No, I can’t even tell where it is.” I realized it was a bad idea to start this conversation just before bed. Now it would be nearly impossible for me to fall asleep.
“Maybe you saw it in a movie or read about it somewhere. Could that be it?”
I had thought about this too. “No, I think it looks like South America or maybe Mexico, but I’ve never read about it or seen it on TV or anything, I would have remembered.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.” I didn’t want to talk about this anymore. Amy would start asking too many questions. I got up and turned for my room. “I just remembered—I need to finish a problem set for tomorrow. I completely forgot about it.”
“Our Mira, forget to do a problem set?” Amy said. “That’s a new one.”
“I’ve been busy this week.” This much, at least, was true.
“Every week is busy for you. That’s why I didn’t major in engineering,” Amy said, grabbing the TV remote. “See you tomorrow.”
Passing the kitchen on the way back to my bedroom, I glanced at Caitlin’s calendar pinned to the wall. It was filled with photos of kittens, and this month’s picture was a tiny white Persian in a velvet Christmas stocking. December. Of course it was—finals would be in two weeks, then winter break.
But this was the odd part. It was December, but I remembered nothing of October or November. Not Halloween, which was always a big deal for Caitlin’s sorority, nor Thanksgiving, when I’d usually have to give Amy a ride to the airport so she could visit her parents and brother in San Jose. And yet I was completely caught up in all my classes. I somehow managed to get everything done without remembering how.
This too was related to my dreams, I was sure of it. The more I dreamed of that girl, the more time seemed to slip away from me. But as time passed and the dreams grew more frequent and more vivid, my real life became less so. Maybe Nana was right. It wasn’t good to think about one’s dreams, and especially not to talk about them.
I spent winter break with my parents across town, helping at their civil engineering firm and trying to replicate Nana’s Christmas recipes. When winter quarter started, I decided to stop trying to understand my dreams. I thought if I stopped thinking about them, they would stop. But they didn’t.
In my dream village, I, or Aracely, the girl with long braids, was spending more time with housework—gathering firewood, caring for my fat little baby niece, feeding the pigs and chickens in my family’s yard. Like my mother and grandmother, I used my long black scarf as a sling to carry the baby or to hold the cactus fruit we gathered from the hillside behind our yard.
That yard—a large, dusty open courtyard closed off by an adobe wall with a gate in it up front and the rooms of our horseshoe-shaped adobe-and-stick house on its other sides—was my mother’s and grandmother’s universe. Here was where we fed our animals, washed our clothes in big tin tubs, and hung them to dry in the sun. This was also where we dried the corn that my father in the dreams grew in a field on the edges of town. In the early mornings, after I fed the chickens, I would see him tying our two skinny black oxen to a wooden yoke before taking them to the field for another day of work.
When I was not in that courtyard in my dreams, I was in school. It was nothing like my waking-life public high school in Los Angeles, with its computer labs and big new gym. Rather, my dream school was a tiny concrete building of about five rooms, and was covered inside and out with chipped turquoise paint. The window in my classroom had been broken for as long as I had been there, and my desk was shaky and gave me splinters, but it was my favorite place in the world. I was good at algebra, which was the only thing I could think of that my dream self and real self have in common.
But in my dreams, my parents were starting to suggest that so much school wasn’t really necessary and too much of an expense. The number of the chores needing to be done in the courtyard seemed to expand by the day. And I was spending more and more time with pigs and babies and my mother and less and less time in the turquoise haven of my school.
Americans think of dreams and fantasies as the same thing. But my dreams were filled with the most boring life I could imagine. Before, life my in dream village was merely uneventful, but now it was starting to grow claustrophobic, and my dreams became more and more frequent. Amy says our dreams reflect our deepest hopes and fears, but that can’t be right. Goodness knows I would never hope to have such a boring life, and thankfully I have no reason to fear ending up like that.
And then it was spring break. I remembered nothing of winter quarter. It felt as though I had spent all of it in that dung-scented courtyard feeding pigs myself.
But I must have done well in all my classes again, because Mother congratulated me when I came home. Both Caitlin and Amy had gone away for break—Caitlin to Cancun with the Pi Phis, Amy to her parents’ time share in Lake Tahoe. So I decided to take a break from campus too.
Mother was waiting for me in the front yard when I arrived at their house. Father says we look almost alike—we’re both a little taller than average, rather slender, with pale complexions like almost everybody back in Serbia. But now Mother’s dark hair is laced with silver strands, which sparkled like metallic threads in the afternoon light. I noticed that she had cut her hair into a stylish chin-length bob. She announced that she had finally managed to make Nana’s Easter cookies taste right using American ingredients, and we celebrated by sharing a plate of them over coffee while she told me about the bridges and water projects she and Father had been working on.
“Oh, while I’m thinking of it, let me get something for you,” she said, pushing back her chair. “It’s a gift I’ve been meaning to give you. I thought I had lost it. A little something I got when your father and I were working on that project in Mexico.”
Mexico? “When were you in Mexico?” I asked, trying to sound calm.
“A long time ago, only a few months after we came here from Serbia. Do you not remember? We were helping the government retrofit some historic structures in Oaxaca. We were there for several weeks. A very interesting project. Many of the structures were old Indian pyramids and monuments, not built with our rules. But yet they stand, hundreds of years later, in an earthquake zone no less. Oh, you would have loved the challenge! Did I not tell you about it?”
“Maybe,” I said. How can I not have remembered this? What was I doing back then? I do remember coming here from Serbia, and seeing this house for the first time. I remember how hard I worked trying to learn English at school. But I don’t remember Mother going away to Mexico. Just as I don’t remember anything from last quarter at school, except that I did well.
I heard her footsteps upstairs, and in a few minutes she came back into the kitchen. “Here—it doesn’t look like much, but it is special,” Mother said, holding a dark folded cloth out to me with both hands. “It’s a traditional scarf worn by the women in the Indian village near where we worked. All the women dressed the same there, even the little girls. But there was one girl there who was special, so smart and curious. She was learning English in school and every day she came to practice with me after school. How I laughed! I explained to her that I was from Serbia so I wasn’t the best English teacher, but I could help her with math if she liked. And the next day she brought me a book from school and showed me a map of Serbia and told me that she had read all about it–in Spanish, of course. She was quite fascinated by me. Young girls in that part of the world aren’t used to seeing professional women. It was she who gave me this scarf.”
I knew that black-and-white scarf. My scarf, from my dreams.
“I was so happy to be a role model for a smart young girl, someone who has the talent and ambition to do wonderful things,” Mother continued, her gentle gray eyes sparkling. “I told her how proud I was of her, and how much she could accomplish if she only lived by her dreams. I began to think of her as my daughter—the daughter I could never have…”
The still-folded scarf slipped from her trembling fingers to the floor, and a tear slipped down her right cheek. My heart stood still.
“Mother, am I not your daughter? Am I adopted?”
Mother always spoke to me directly. But now, she was covering her face with her hands, which frightened me.
“I shouldn’t have said that; I ‘m so sorry. I wish it were that simple, Mira. If you had been adopted, Father and I would have told you a long time ago.”
“Then who am I?
“I cannot tell you. Not yet. Please do not ask. I am not ready to speak of it.”
“If you are not my real mother, then who is? Can you tell me that? Please!”
Mother stood up and walked to the kitchen sink, where she stood with her back to me. “Mira, I asked you not to ask about this again. I wish I could tell you—but I am sure you would rather not know.”
“But I do, Mother! You always promised there would be no secrets between us. You said you respected my ability to understand the truth. Please, Mother, this is important.”
Mother did not turn from the sink. “I know, Mira. It is not that you are not ready. It is that I am not. Not yet.”
I felt numb. Mother had never behaved like this in front of me, not ever. Caitlin and Ashley had spoken of fights with their mothers, who sometimes disapproved of their social lives and always disapproved of their boyfriends. They teased me about having a mother who always took my side and was always there for me. What had happened to her? And what was this secret that she couldn’t tell me, even now that I am almost grown up?
“Does Father know this secret?” My heart was screaming for answers.
Mother’s tone turned to ice. “Do not ask him about it. He does not wish to talk to you. Mira, it is best for both of us that you go back to your apartment. I cannot be with you if you are going to be asking all those questions, and I know you will. Please go. It is for your own good. Trust me.”
I dragged my still-packed bags out to my car, wondering how I would be able to drive and cry at the same time. How could Mother treat me like this? Why won’t Father speak to me? He had always been quiet, but I never doubted his love. And now I learn they’re not even my real parents. They were turning me away, and they wouldn’t even say why. My world was falling to pieces. Nothing made sense anymore.
I can’t remember much about what I did spring quarter or over the summer. I have vague memories of working with Mother and Father again, but only at a distance. Occasionally, they smiled at me from across the room, but I didn’t have long conversations with Mother like we did before. I also went to spend time with Amy and her family at Lake Tahoe, where I learned to water-ski. This was easier and even more fun than it looked.
But these memories lasted only moments. The rest of the time I dreamed of gathering firewood and making tortillas in the village. Aracely’s village. My dreams felt as though they went on for days at a time. Even in the fleeting moments of waking life that I could remember, I could feel the wet stickiness of ground corn dough for tortillas between my fingers and smell the ox and chicken dung and wood smoke from the courtyard. As I walked between my engineering classes at UCLA, I could hear my dream mother’s voice in the back of my mind, reminding me in that strange but familiar language of clothes to be mended and firewood to be gathered. I wanted to ask Mother about all of this, too, but I was sure she wouldn’t tell me what I wanted to know. I also wondered if Aracely had something to do with Mother’s secret, but I knew I couldn’t ask. It was bad luck to speak of one’s dreams.
As the dreams continued, the courtyard grew more and more confining until that night, towards the end of summer, when I had the worst dream of all. In it, I could only see my parents through a veil of tears as the gates to the courtyard opened in front of me, and my parents paraded me out of the courtyard and towards the village church in a new white dress, a band playing behind us. From there, a familiar man a bit older than me, with the same thick callouses on his hands as my father, walked me to another house with a courtyard very much like the one I left. That night, he lay me down on a woven straw sleeping mat and unbuttoned my dress.
I awoke in my apartment bedroom with a searing pain between my legs and a hole in my heart. I think I screamed, but I’m not sure because neither Caitlin nor Amy were there. Neither would be back until classes started again in a couple of weeks.
But Fall quarter, what little I remember of it, was splendid—wonderful enough to make me forget that horrible dream, at least for a while. I loved all my classes, and for the first time ever, I had a boyfriend. Sinisa was so handsome—dark hair and eyes just like Father, and Serbian too, which I knew immediately from his name. He was a graduate student in architecture, taking a graduate class in structural engineering with me. I was better at it than he was, but he didn’t mind. By Halloween, he told me he loved me, and by finals week, he asked me to marry him after I graduated in June. He said he would go anywhere my future took me and would help my career any way he could.
This, I had to tell Mother and Father. Ashley and Caitlin always complained about how their parents never liked their boyfriends, but I was sure Sinisa was everything my parents could have wanted for me.
Just as I had expected, Mother was genuinely happy when I told her. Oddly, she didn’t sound surprised when I called her, nor did she sound surprised by my news, even though we hadn’t spoken in months.
“Please come home—I must see you again. I knew this day would come; you have grown up so. I knew you would find somebody wonderful.”
I could feel the warmth of her voice flowing through the phone line. It was so familiar and wonderful—like the embrace of her arms in the form of sound. It was as if our mysterious conversation in the spring had never happened. I immediately packed an overnight bag and drove the familiar road back to my parents’ house.
Mother was at the door even before I had a chance to pull out my keys. “Mira, my darling Mira, I have missed you so,” she said, hugging me. “Come in and tell me everything.” Her hair had grown much grayer—almost completely white—since my last visit, and the gentle creases around her eyes had grown longer and deeper. Had I really been away for so long?
We sat the kitchen table, the first time I had been there since she turned me away that horrible day last spring. This time, there was a plate of homemade Christmas cookies on the table, which she said she made just for me. I told her everything—about the first day I saw him in class and heard that Serbian name, about our first kiss, and our first exam together, and our talks and plans for the future, and finally, our engagement. Mother was even happier than I had hoped she would be.
“I am so proud of you,” she said, holding my hands. I noticed that her hands, like her eyes, looked older too. “You are so grown up, almost ready to be on your own,” she said. “Very soon, you will not need me anymore—you will be free.”
“Mother, I will always need you—there is so much I will want to tell you, how could I not need you?”
Mother smiled then looked sad. “I don’t want you to need me, Mira. I don’t want to hold you back, ever. I was thinking—when you called me and told me about Sinisa, which I knew you would, that it meant that you are now fully grown. It is time I told you something important.”
That strange, faraway tone of voice again. The one I had heard from her on only one occasion before—during our fight in the spring. She had told me she was not my mother. Maybe she was not my biological mother, but that no longer mattered to me. All I knew was that I loved her and Father, or whoever they were, as intensely as I loved Sinisa. But that tone of voice and the hardening of her face chilled my blood.
“Last spring, I told you there was a secret I was not ready to tell you,” Mother said in a near whisper. “It is time you knew the truth.”
“I was hoping to wait until after you were married. Until after I had the chance to meet Sinisa and tell him how very fortunate he is. But Father insists it’s for the best that I tell you now.”
“I’m ready,” I said, my heart beating faster. Was I really ready?
Mother sighed. “Remember I told you, by accident, that you are not really our daughter. I learned after I married that I cannot have children. You asked if you were adopted. You are not, though I wish you were. We couldn’t adopt back in Serbia because of the war, and by time we came to America, everyone said we were too old.
“But I dreamed of having a daughter, my Mira. Every day I dreamed of her, in my sleep and when I was awake and it was quiet in the house. You are the girl I dreamed about, the daughter I always wanted.”
What did this mean? Did Mother and Father buy or kidnap me? My mind ached from the possibilities.
“I even told that little girl in Oaxaca, Aracely, about you. She was so much like you, Mira; you would have loved her as a sister. She wanted to know what it would be like if she were my daughter, and I told her all about you. She loved you dearly and wanted so much to meet you and to be like you. Every day, she asked about you. That’s how real you are to me, my Mira—so real I can tell other people about you and they believe me.
“I even talk to you as if you were actually here. A grown woman, a scientist, no less, talking to an imaginary friend like a child. Father used to indulge me, when we first married. He knew it made me feel better. It even made him feel better. He, too, knew what you looked like and what your loves and ambitions were. He wanted you, too.
“But last year, when you came to help us in the office during your winter break, you and I became so involved in a conversation that I didn’t notice one of our clients come in. He heard us talking. But to anyone but us, it looked like me talking to a blank wall—which of course, it was. But I didn’t want to admit it.
“Father was angry, and worried about me. We lost a major client, who told Father he thought I was schizophrenic. Maybe I was, and still am, but I didn’t want it to stop. But Father did. We had a long talk and I cried and cried—and realized he was right. He sent me away to an institution, Mira, and I agreed to go. Since September I’ve been seeing a counselor and trying to focus on my real life, sad as it is without you. I have been trying to train myself to live without you, so when I do allow myself the treat of thinking of you, I only wish wonderful things for you. I knew you would love Sinisa; he is perfect for you, no?”
My Sinisa—he isn’t real, either? And Caitlin and Ashley and—
“It is time for us to say goodbye, my Mira—but I know that down in that little village in Mexico, there is still a wonderful girl who will always dream of you.”
Mother’s last words dissolved into sobs. This explained everything. Why Mother had been withdrawing from me, and why my life seemed to slip away as she did. Why I succeeded at everything, but remembered so little of my life. Why my periods never hurt, like Amy’s, and why I never got sick. Caitlin was right. There was something unreal about how I never caught colds or had cramps or headaches or got anything less than an A-minus on a test. Not ever. I was a scientist, too, like Mother, so I had to accept the truth as the evidence presented it. But I wished I didn’t have to.
And my dreams…they weren’t dreams. They were Aracely’s reality. And now her reality, like Mother’s, no longer had room for me, either.
Shaking, I jumped from my chair to hold Mother, but my outstretched arms passed through her as if she were a hologram. Then I realized that she wasn’t a hologram—but then, neither was I. A hologram, at least, actually exists in the physical world.
I never was. I never really felt anything, did anything. I never really knew nor loved Mother and Father, nor Sinisa.
So why is it that my heart still aches when I think of them?
Felicia A. Lee is a Florida-based writer and editor. She holds a BA and MA in English from Stanford and a Ph.D. in linguistics from UCLA, and has worked as a video-game tester, promotional writer for the Space Shuttle program, baker, and dessert cook, and, for almost ten years, a professor of linguistics. Her passions (besides reading and writing) include birding, cooking, and wondering if ghosts exist. Her non-fiction essays have been published in the Los Angeles Times and in Salon.com. This is her first published work of fiction.