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I dreamt of the old neighborhood last night. It was high noon and I had to squint in the blaring summer sun to make out a front gate, with one single stone pole positioned in the middle and two narrow pathways to its side, one for entry and the other for exit, yet I could not make out which one functioned as which. In one of the pathways stood a woman with her back towards me. I could not recognize her silhouette, nor had I ever seen the stone gates in real life. It felt familiar merely because the dream had recurred so often that drifting into sleep every night felt like boarding a ride to the same location. I fail to remember exactly when I started to have the dream—I only recall it being around a month ago—which had puzzled many psychologists I’ve visited to determine what stimulated the dream.
The woman in my dream always wore a bright orange dress with tiny white flowers dotting its rim. The sleeves were semi-transparent and could sometimes flutter with the fresh summer breeze. Her hair was dyed chestnut—a color distinguishable only in sunlight—the length of which was similar to Audrey Hepburn’s pixie cut in Roman Holiday. Yet she had a much thicker bang than Hepburn since the strands of hair left behind the bangs was too short to cover the back of her neck.
In my dream, I never focused my glance on her shoes or her hands, and could not remember those details after I awoke. I have never been able to move in my dream either, trapped by an unfathomable force that shackled my hands and feet. If I could run, I would have raced forward frantically to catch a glimpse of what she looked like, this woman I see every night yet have never met.
For this entire month, I’ve been traveling, probing my mind for every possible location I had been to in the past where there were a set of stone gates like the ones in my dream, yet the search was to no avail. Nor was my quest for the woman successful: I have attempted to picture her face, yet instinct tells me her beauty is far beyond imagination or description. In bewilderment, I sought the help of a psychologist. During my first visit, he asked me to imagine the faces of all the important women in my life, and put their faces onto the body of the woman in my dreams; he then asked me whose face was the most acceptable. He seemed to believe that the dream must have had its source in reality. Yet I have never been to a set of gates like the ones in my dreams, and none of the faces of women I have met would fit on her body. I’ve never met anyone with a pixie cut and bright orange dress in the summer sunlight, like an angel who had never been sullied by the unchastity of this world.
“What if it was only some random woman I saw on the streets, and somehow I could not forget her? What if I merely did not get to see her face?”
The psychologist looked up from his notebook.
“I suppose it is highly unlikely, Miss Marcella.”
He stared into the empty space with a slight frown and finally a hushed sigh.
I bit my lower lip in regret, since with a single word, “Miss”, my fear had been revealed.
As my session ended and exited the room, that word still echoed in my mind— “Miss”. In
distraction, I almost bumped into an old gentleman who was on his way in with arms full of cleaning supplies.
“Joe, nice to see you back.” “Good afternoon, sir.” “How’s your leg?”
“Much better, sir.”
The psychologist only had one visitor today. It was a lady with high cheekbones, a thick bang, and well-trimmed eyelashes. It was well into summer, yet she still wore a long-sleeved coat, which looked rather odd among others who were all wearing T-shirts by now. She almost bumped into me on her way out—she looked rather disturbed, which was uncommon for patients who exit Dr. Prior’s office—and I noticed a birthmark of medium size on her right wrist, hidden beneath her sleeve. After she left, I grabbed my janitor supplies and entered Dr. Prior’s room as instructed. He was pleased for my return and told me the janitors who took my place after I broke my leg several weeks ago were slacking off, so the office was in desperate need of tidying.
He gave me the keys to the office and left. From his window, I saw him pacing towards the park where he spends most of his time after work. Poor gentlemen, counseling was indeed a disturbing task, but he did not have a wife or close friends or even family members whom he could speak to. It is possible that I am the only person besides his patients whom he converses with, even though it was as simple and short as “how’s your leg”.
I imagined him in the park, with his tight suit that did not seem to fit in with natural sceneries. He was always frowning like a strict scholar with many unsolved problems puzzling his mind, and children playing around in the park might run away from him in fear. When he paced by the pond, he would keep his head down in thought, and when he sits on a bench, he would stare into the empty space, or focus his glance on the clouds behind the trees. He was constantly thinking like that, even after work. Poor gentlemen, all he needed was someone to speak with, someone with whom he could let his guards down, like a wife...or a life partner. Like me.
I must confess that his frowns were somehow attractive.
One day a week ago, when I awoke from another dream of the stone gates, I got the notion that I must record what I saw. So I prepared some paint and went to work. I drew the image countless times, and I, who knew nothing about painting and color, used my feeble knowledge to mix the paint into the orange on her dress. I knew I had to add white to make the orange brighter, yet as I poured white paint onto my palette I felt uncomfortable as if what I poured out was not pure white. The orange in my dream was divine, so perfect that even changing the smallest detail would tarnish the illusion. Its perfection came from its originality—no second artist other than God could have created a color like that on the dress of my angel. One might question whether the color existed at all, and I journeyed to every artist’s store I could find for white paint. The storekeepers would show me standard color cards by some international art committee and prove that their white was pure, but I pushed the cards aside. After days of journeying, I slumped back against the wall of my bedroom, the corner of which I had turned into my own painting studio, and I held up my palette to the sun, feeling its radiance reflecting onto my palms, carrying the colors within the light. I would never be able to depict what I saw in my dream; every step I took to approach it, every stroke of the brush on the canvas to mix the colors, would only make my dream more distant and sullied. The idea frightened me the most when, for several nights, I did not dream of the woman, and mixing colors only made my memory of her vague and indistinguishable.
I spent days and nights in bed, not eating or drinking, forcing myself to fall asleep to meet her again. Still, she did not appear in my dreams. My slumber became more and more shallow, and after five days I could no longer fall asleep. I curled up in my bed, praying for her return, silently devoured by sunlight pouring through the crevices of the curtains. Once in a while I would sit up and paint without any purpose, hoping that with the theory of omission, I could depict the woman in my dreams unconsciously. Yet the only image I could unconsciously paint was a waterfall, which also felt familiar but I have no clue on why it was so important that I would sketch it down. I still could not paint the woman, and memory of her was only becoming more blurred. As depressed as I was, I could not cry—not a single droplet of tear rolled down my cheeks. Sorrow piled in my throat, suffocating me in the room with much sunlight and warmth as life slowly drained from my spine, which I willingly let go of in order for her to return.
Dr. Prior never touches alcohol—or so I thought.
I found empty beer bottles in his office yesterday evening. He had just finished a call with one of his patients and was slumped on his office chair, pretty much drunk.
He had been visiting the park rather frequently these days. His counseling sessions seemed to be rather unsuccessful, especially the one with the lady I bumped into on the day of my return. From her documents which he examined whenever he was free, I could tell that her case had been bugging him for a long time. I was rather worried about his own mental state.
And as I approached to clean up the mess, he suddenly grabbed my hands and stared into my eyes. In nervousness I stuttered, and he replied with a mumble.
But then he did it, and my mouth watered as the scent of alcohol crept in, followed by texture of his skin.
On the seventh evening, the psychologist called, and I told him my conditions. I decided to visit the clinic again the next morning, hoping that he would retrieve her.
When I entered the room, the psychologist had his eyes closed and leaned back against his chair. The old gentlemen I met during my last visit, in his janitor outfit, was gently massaging the psychologist’s shoulders and murmuring words of comfort with affection glimmering in his eyes.
The psychologist sat up as I entered the room and gestured for the janitor to leave.
He was still staring at the doorway where the old gentlemen had just left, with gentleness unlike that of a strict scholar.
That was the last image I saw before I fainted.
In my coma, I drifted off to the familiar stone gates. This time I felt myself taking control of my body, and I ran, stepping in midair, skipping and almost tripping forward as I ran towards her, the silhouette I had been so desperate to catch. Her image came closer and closer, the tiny white flowers on her dress became more and more vivid, and I could almost touch her.
Then, she turned back, and finally, I saw her face.
Under the chestnut pixie cut, in the glow of the bright summer sun, lies a face with high cheekbones thick eyelashes.
It was my own face.
My glance focused at her wrists, and beneath the semitransparent sleeves, I saw a familiar round birthmark. It was as ugly as a piece of human excrement, and I suffered through so many summers with only long-sleeved coats in order to hide it. Yet she did not seem to mind—she was smiling like an angel. In her eyes, I saw what I had longed for all these years. The definition of stigma was so ambiguous, and judgement played its role. But judgment by “them” was nothing compared to judgment I imposed on myself: I hid myself and my identity, like how I hid my birthmark with a long-sleeved coat to hide it.
Then scenes in my dream switched to a waterfall, like the one in my painting. Pouring down from the clouds, its torrents crashed on random stones and splashed into pearl-like droplets, bouncing up in midair and dissolved by the currents again as they landed. I stretched out my arms and the momentum of pearls striking against my fingertips with such force suggested that the water was alive. Under the cascade of water was another world, where God's creation bested artificial replicas, where one could witness purity, void of stigma of the world upon colors of an angel.
And then I awoke.
Beside the sofa I rested on at the clinic sat my psychologist and Joe.