Wednesday, February 27, 2013

dreaming off the grid

1. faith nice smart love

I hadn’t seen my mentee, Daniela, since June. On Sunday texted me: “headin to la tomorrow cuz I got court the next day I be so happy to see yuh and unfortunately Jasmine [her year-old daughter] won’t be able to go.” I met her at a Yogurtland in the shiny mixed-use complex near the Red Line station.

She was beautiful as always, cat eyes made cattier by Amy Winehouse eyeliner. Her hair was nearly black, like her clothes, but she could never really be goth. There would always be a part of her that seemed like she was dressed in bright pink. The stud above her upper lip sparkled.

I had told her—via text, our main method of communication between her visits from Palmdale—that I’d been diagnosed with an early stage of breast cancer. That things were hard, but okay. That I’d had surgery and started chemo. Just the facts, ma’am.

I knew she knew what cancer was, and I knew she cared about me. But somehow I’d thought she didn’t really know I was sick. My drama happened offstage just like hers did—my miscarriage and periodic relationship troubles and cancer. Her job changes and fights with her mom and frequent moves. To each other, we could just be good listeners and good people.

But when she saw me, when I’d barely filled my self-serve yogurt cup, her eyes filled with tears. I’d seen her cry maybe twice before.

Yogurtlandia, a true dreamland.
She wiped her eyes with her hand. “I worry about you,” she said.

“I worry about me too,” I said. “But I’m going to be okay. They caught it early. I have to go through a bunch of stuff like surgery and chemo, and I have to lose my hair, and it sucks, but I’m going to be okay.”

I figured I had at least five years before the inevitable doom that I secretly worry awaits me. By then Daniela would be twenty-five, almost as old as I’d been when I lost my mom. She’d be able to handle herself; enough time would pass that she couldn’t accuse me of lying. I’d be okay for a while.

It was the first time I’d felt the need to be okay in this particular way. For my dad and sister and AK, I produced a self-interested sort of functionality. I understood that if I wanted them in my life, I needed to give them breaks from the pile of shards I was inside. I needed to earn their love. Then I could cash in my chips and fall apart later.

With Daniela, I understood that she loved me unconditionally. I suspected that my family did too, maybe even more so, but Daniela’s love felt pure. Which, in the strange math of the subconscious, made the need to stay strong more instinctual, less hard-won. I would be brave and tearless because she needed me to be—whether she actually needed me to be or not. I felt it like a blow—the paradox of parenthood.

She gave me a silver chain with a glass dolphin the size of my thumb. Later she texted: “The dolphin mean faith nice smart love and most of all it mean your soul.”

“It just ain’t fair,” she said when we were still at Yogurtland.

“I know. It’s not, but that’s life. You’ve had some unfair things happen to you too, and you just have to keep living anyway.”

Then I awkwardly slipped into my default mode, which was to ask her lots of simple questions about herself and give encouraging responses. When do you start your job training? What words is Jasmine saying now? Is your girlfriend working? Does she take good care of you—like, emotionally?

She was going to train to be a medical assistant, she said, even though she really wanted to work with women in prison or abused kids. Her girlfriend was working construction—she kept getting stopped by the cops for driving without a license. Her cars kept getting impounded, and she couldn’t afford to get them back. She kept buying new-used cheap ones. Only luck had kept her from getting deported.

Okay, so Daniela's girlfriend probably didn't buy her car directly from the Joads.
The old me knew, as Daniela did, that her girlfriend was asking for trouble. The new me, the one failed by the grid, admired her for living off of it. For buying cars the law said she had no right to, for co-parenting Jasmine, a baby the law said she had no right to; even when the law said Daniela’s baby-daddy—who’d never even tried to meet the kid—had a right. Because the grid wasn’t fair, and she couldn’t wait around for it to acknowledge her. She would drive full speed into the desert, fuck the consequences. Get fucked by the consequences.

Daniela brought her cousin and two friends along to Yogurtland to keep her out of trouble. She knew the temptations of the city—her old gangster friends and all the things they did. They went home at the stroke of curfew.

2. lost girls

She updated her Facebook page later that night, and I knew she was tucked in safely, but I had a dream that she was lost in the city. I found her in the wee hours, when the night was strange and bright with the first cast of dawn. She took me to her apartment, which we had to enter via an underground garage. A door opened onto a ladder against a brick wall, and we had to squeeze through a narrow hole to get inside. We emerged into a small bedroom painted bright green and yellow.

I knew that this was where undocumented, off-the-grid people lived, and that no one else knew she was here.

“Don’t ever start a fire or leave candles burning,” I told her in the dream, thinking of turn-of-the-century tenements, burnt to the ground because the people inside were expendable and uncounted.

These are the dreams you have when you spend your high school years obsessed with Jacob Riis.
And then I was magically in my therapist’s fictional other office, which was buzzing with people. It was hard to find a place to talk, but he showed me to another secret room, behind his alleged office. For some reason we were going to walk to our cars together afterward. For some reason we were going to hang out. I felt giddy and awkward. I reminded myself not to be a self-centered asshole—to show him that I knew other ways of being besides talking endlessly about my hurt feelings.

Together we went to Daniela’s apartment. There were other kids there now, a sort of ragtag, half-naked bunch of Lost Boys, although there were girls and Jasmine among them. Senor Freud made easy conversation with them. I was excited to make introductions: Therapist, meet my own patient—the girl who can only afford an untrained, off-the-grid therapist/sometime-SAT-tutor like me.

3. cut the dream sequence

I told my therapist about the dream the next day. I’d spent our previous session talking about a handful of seemingly connected dreams: hypercolor scenes of lost worlds populated by damaged freaks, me as witness, perpetrator and fellow freak. We’d talked about identifying as a threatened class, about finding the beautiful colors in hidden worlds even as you accepted your own victimization.

I love talking about dreams with Senor Freud because it feels like old-school therapy, especially since he has a German accent.

But then I interrupted myself. “Wait, is hearing about people’s dreams in therapy sessions like it is in fiction?” I asked. “Really boring?”

“Are dreams in fiction boring?” he asked.

“Well, I usually tell my students to take them out. Usually they’re really obvious in their symbolism, and they’re like these failed shortcuts, when it would be better to tell the story by telling the story.”

He considered this. “Maybe in fiction they’re not such a window into the subconscious,” he said. “In real life, they’re stories we tell ourselves, and we can learn about ourselves.”

For the first time I realized the real reason dreams rarely work in fiction. “Because fiction is a dream.”

So I rambled on about mine, and we unpacked it together. The part I got from the start: This was about a breaching of boundaries and a transferring of roles, parent to child. He elaborated: If therapy is the place you go to remake your relationship with your actual parents, then he was my dream-parent, being introduced to his dream-grandchild, Daniela. It was also about having trouble finding Daniela, and wanting more care from my dream-dad than I felt it was okay to ask for.

I had full therapy buy-in, I promised him—I understood both the possibilities and the boundaries. But, I wondered, if I spent half my week with my four oncologists and two therapists, was I turning into a kind of strange celebrity, someone whose only friends were paid to care for her?

“Some people compare therapy to prostitution,” he said, “but I don’t see it that way. Yes, you pay me so that I can be here and be emotionally engaged instead of worrying about how I’m going to pay rent or buy food. You pay me for my time and a certain set of skills. But the emotions and friendship between us are genuine.”

Hey, big guy. Is that the DSM IV in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?
I didn’t have time to tell him that I thought real emotions could probably develop in prostitute/john relationships too, or that the whole reason escort services were legal was because they operated on the premise that “You’re paying me for my time. Anything else that happens is just extra, and between consenting adults.” Because the hour was up.


Peter Varvel said...

"finding the beautiful colors in hidden worlds even as you accepted your own victimization"
. . . a favorite line I want to write down in a notebook (yes, I WILL credit you) because I don't want to forget it.

This was so much like reading enthralling fiction that I almost had to remind myself that I was reading about your reality.

Claire said...

Ah, dreams. I had one earlier this week I wanted to blog about but then decided not to hoping I would forget it and not stumble upon the post later as a reminder.

Twitter seemed fleeting enough that I wrote: "You know your nightmares have taken a turn when you imagine something creepy is growing inside you& u think, Aw man, now I need a Dr.'s appt"

It wasn't even a nightmare so much as my brain logically running through all the things I would have to do next which annoyed me. (Well, it was and is disturbing but not a proper cold sweat or wake up in panic nightmare.) Ultimately in a lucid dreaming state, I decided I'd rather go to Paradise Island where the Amazons have healing waters and that crazy Purple Healing Ray. But then I wondered if I'd have to stay on the island to stay healed, if I'd want to. In theory hanging out with Wonder Woman's sister Amazons seems good but I wondered if I'd be able to fit in with a warrior race. It's always something, right?

Cheryl said...

P: I'm so honored to have made the notebook!

C: You should visit one of my hidden dream worlds, where people live their whole lives in tropical pink trees that are fifty feet tall. That's as Amazonian as it gets!

Claire said...

Robin Crusoe style, right? Awesome.

Have you seen The Lorax? I totally pictured its fuzzy trees at first. :)

Cheryl said...

I haven't, but the trees in my dream were definitely Seussian.

jenny said...

I couldn't agree more with Peter's comment above. This was some beautiful writing.

And that it was set in a place called Yogurtland? Photo, or it didn't happen. Oh wait...

Cheryl said...

Do they have Yogurtland in Chicagoland? It's really a magical place--tasty, all-natural flavors like Taro and Cupcake Batter (but, like, ALL NATURAL cupcake batter) and a DIY toppings bar. Also, you can get about a gallon of yogurt for like $4.

jenny said...

I just checked... apparently there is a Yogurtland in Chicago! But taro flavored yogurt falls just under poi flavored yogurt on my list of "Things I Should Never Eat." Cupcake batter, on the other hand... sign me up!