“Every day, the sky is full, full of diamonds for you…”
Insomnia for all means noise. Televisions and computers and microwaves brewing toddies that never work, screams and arguments and other crash-bangs of conflict — all these noises puff like low tympani beats thrumming on the floors and walls of this egg-crate called an apartment building. It sounds like the projects, but it’s a middle-class building in a middle-class neighborhood, if middle-class is white collar transients on their way to somewhere else. There is no working class. Everyone works. But not everyone sleeps, and no one dreams.
Karen and Gary are able to sleep, so come 5:00 they are able to wake. The blinking red LEDs call to mind the stuttering brake lights on the freeway. The clock radio offers news, but Karen will not hear about war in Algeria or floods in Mississippi. Her brain is still processing last night’s REM dump. There was a lot of information, and without the editing process of dreaming, Karen’s cerebral cortex is jangly with unsorted ramblings. She sets her feet on the floor — neutral grey polyester carpet that somehow always feels oily — and shuffles to the shower. She’s got to sort fast, dress, summarize on the mitt and attack. Gary lies in bed, staring at the ceiling — plaster in lazy whorls. He hasn’t dreamed either.
Karen is mad. “Don’t distract me!” she hollers from the kitchen/dining space as she flings the brochure to the floor. Gary hears the Northwest Territories travel flyer flutter loose from the travel folder he left on the breakfast table.
“I heard the new REM dumps have a two square-mile fallout. The rich are already buying up more and more land.” It’s a sad counterattack, but it’s the best Gary can muster in his condition.
“We’ll be them someday!” Karen shouts. She’s shouting because her head is already on. She’s eating breakfast while digesting information through her earpiece and airscreen. A new commercial for the very breakfast cereal she’s chewing is playing at 4x speed on her airscreen — a creepy sugar-bombed cheetah decorating the virtual screen on her retina.
“It’s all a lottery. Gambling.” Gary grumbles this to himself. He doesn’t want to start another day with a fight.
Gary calls them “the rich,” but no one in the business does. To do so would admit one is not them, and to do that would be admitting defeat. Simply to be there, working in their presence, enduring their monomania — that’s enough for Karen. She’s there. She’s doing it. “Attack!” Paz Moro commands, and she attacks, snatching information from the air in a desperate, crazy-paced data-grab. She attacks all the way down the elevator, into the garage, and out on to the freeway. A 90 minute commute — not a moment to waste.
“Attack!” Here’s how it works. Karen puts on her head and her mitt. Now she’s an information processing machine. Ads, pop culture, new trends, world events, waves and waves of hyper-revved information pour into her head, then into her brain. Every second she eats this food, then her fingers pulse on the Manual Information Transcriber (no one knows where the extra T came from) clutched in her fist. The mitt is QWERTY in eight keys — three for thumb, two for pinky and one apiece for ring, index and middle. Her fingers barely move. They just quiver, pressing the right combination of keys to Gregg out a summary of what she sees and hears and tastes. There was a short period where assistants like Karen used voice transcription, but that did not leave them free for mobile phone transactions. Wasted moments! In fact, the phone starts ringing the moment she leaves the apartment.
“Where’s my summary?” It’s Paz. He’s the rich, and there’s no reason he has to be up early (no insomnia for him), but he would say that is the reason. As usual, he’s called and demanded before checking his email, sounding surly and personally offended. As usual, Karen says “In your box.” She has to wait on the phone while Paz opens his mailbox and scrolls through the daily post to find the summary of Karen’s REM dump. When she first started working for Paz, a summary did not make it to his mailbox before the 6:00 call, and Paz hit Karen in the eye with a bottle of Nunavet polar ice water when she walked in the office door. It was not an accident, and Paz apologized. This is what he said: “Free shot!” Then he held his arms out like an early Christian martyr, waiting for the return fire which would never come.
Paz reads the summary: Violence down for the first time this year, being supplanted by “entertaining verbal assassination and humiliation, mostly of a tart sexual nature.” “Assassination?” Paz bellows into the phone. “What’s wrong with ‘assault’?” He loves that word, Karen thinks. (Her thought is a small and daring leap out of the slipstream of information processing.) It sounds like “Attack!” Paz finishes skimming the summary.
“That’s all you got?”
“That’s all there was.” Karen barely notices the collision she almost causes.
“How much sleep did you get?”
“Seven hours?” She’s lying. She only got six. Stealing time from Paz to spend with Gary.
“Get nine from now on.”
Karen doesn’t protest. One bottle in the face is enough.
Certain words that say “bright and vigorous future” and mean “dark dehumanizing dystopia”: 1. Flexible (adj) at the whim and caprice of one’s employer; 2. Multitasking (v.i.) Working like a plow horse; trying to accomplish more than is humanly possible. Karen is multitasking like no one in the twentieth century would believe. One eye is focused on her airscreen, the other on the road. One hand is driving, the other pumping the mitt. One ear hears the info dump from the head, the other hears Paz repeating himself, talking to be heard. One day, Karen will be heard. She will construct dreams; she will be a reverist. It’s an immense business — making and selling dreams — and one of the most competitive around. Ever since people lost the ability to move into REM sleep, the hunger for dreams has been insatiable. The only ways out are to become super-wealthy and buy bigger and bigger tracts of land to insulate yourself from the fallout, or to become a reverist and inflict your dreams on others. (Of course, there is scarcely a reverist who isn’t super-wealthy, a few “guerillas” in the infra-bands notwithstanding.) In another marvelous irony of the post-ironic age, the path to being a reverist involves using the very machine that causes dreamlessness. VBC Labs invented the REM dump to cater to the transforming work world. First, working America migrated from manufacturing to service. Then once the computer became the focus of every work station, information processing became the occupation of nine out of ten workers of the developed sphere. Decision makers needed assistants to handle the deluge of information cascading from the ether. These assistants needed to process ever-increasing quantities of information. They took their nights, their weekends, until the only wasted time left was sleep. And why not? It was normally just a time when people processed their own information. Such a selfish use of that two pound computer! Now, with the REM dump, workers could process VII (very important information) while sleeping. The only downside was chronic fatigue and mild psychosis easily controlled with drugs. Karen was a fan of Zykrilon.
But as it turned out, the REM dumps created alpha-state fallout. Unlike the fallout from cellular communications and high amplitude satellite transmissions, which had deleterious effects on the human skin and cells, REM fallout affected only the mind. It effectively blocked REM sleep and dreams from everyone within a square mile radius. With the cities saturated with REM dumps, dreaming your own dreams was a thing of the twentieth century.
“Give me the headlines.”
“Sierra Leone adopts new constitution, parliament shifts control to —“
“America! No gives two fucks about Sierra Leone!”
Karen thinks briefly that the way Paz says “America!” sounds like the way he shouts “Attack!” She must be thinking this too long.
If she were in a B-grade sci-fi serial, little quasi-musical bloops and blurps would sound over her thinking. She says:
“Disgruntled worker guns down five employees at HealthTech in Aurora, Colorado. Susan Winn and Rich Hatchitt voted sexiest woman and man in America. Police have no breaks in Gigi Eccleston murder. Two car collision on the 101 kills five. Nevada referendum legalizes polygamy. Carl Honda and Jackie Jurott move wedding back to September. Now to be held on private Scottish estate. House Ways and Means committee to decide on budget —“
Paz grunts loudly. Caveman for “Next!”
“Space station investigation team suspects terrorism for latest decompression. Memorial to be held at Star City for victims. Baptists boycott Disney over ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ Geraldine Cotto beats Milo Dodd in “Lie Cheat and Steal” finals. Valerie Almonderes buys Pacific Palisades house for $90 million —“
Paz holds up his hand. “Ads.”
“Raytheon’s ‘Spot On’ ad most watched, Pepsi’s ‘Pop Idol’ ad most liked, Unicorp’s ‘Future Is Now’ ad most played. Common imagery is optimism about personal gains in the midst of crumbling world. Acquisition of wealth suggested easier than ever. New effect: “cubo-morphism” — people floating in space, camera wildly circling body while face morphs from one angle to another contrary to audience POV, shifting points of reference. Suggests fast-changing world, out of control, but manageable by advertisers you can trust.”
Paz digests this.
“I think there’s an undercurrent of sexual empowerment.”
“Is there sexual imagery?” Paz asks, almost politely.
“No. But all the top ten ads feature gender co-mingling, youth, and the suggestion that —“
“Are you making a leap?” Paz cuts in.
“It’s a leap based on —“
“Yes or no.” Paz pats down the air impatiently.
That’s the end of that, Karen knows. She switches her brain back to data processing mode. She tries to moves on, kicking herself for allowing the intrusion of thought and putting out of her mind the inevitability that she will call Gary at 8:00 to say she won’t be home for dinner, setting Paz off on his “You are not yourself when I pay” rant as he yanks the phone out of her head and demands that she find another parcel of land he can buy so he can dream.
“Every day, the sky is full, full of diamonds for you…”
Someone’s MD must be stuck, or else they have only one song they like. “Diamonds For You” is like ceiling plaster or television — background noise. It’s 9:45 at night.
“Karen, let me ask you something.”
Gary drops it right there. He continues the conversation in his mind…
Him: “When are we going to get married?”
Her: “You know. We’ll get married when I’ve made it.”
He now: “We’ll do everything when you’ve made it. House, marriage, kids…”
She turns on him, the Don’t Tell Me Life’s On Hold litany already spouting from her mouth before she completes her whirl of rage. Gary, once again, lets it lie. This is her dream and it’s not his place as a progressive, caring mate to contest that. After a few minutes of hissing steam and creaking cooling pipes he says:
“Then why don’t we have our honeymoon? No marriage, just a getaway. We can go to Iqaluit or Auyuittuo.”
The pipe stops creaking. Karen is heating up again.
“We’ll get away if you can’t stand L.A. that much.”
Gary knows he shouldn’t be lured into treading old water. He watches helplessly as his body and mouth dive in to the fray.
“For the last time, the last interminable God-forsaken time, it’s not L.A.! It’s any damned city!”
“And where are we supposed to live?! In a hut somewhere in the woods?”
“I don’t care! Look at us! Look at all our friends! We’re missing out on something!”
Karen composes herself, loading the catapult. Attack.
“Don’t you dare tell me I’m missing out on something. I know more about that something than you do. That’s my business!”
She knows it’s hard pressing on without REM sleep, without giving the brain a rest. She knows how suicide has blossomed, how violent crime has bloomed. She knows how a disagreement in a store now has a 50-50 chance of becoming a shooting or an assault…
“I’m interested in what people want to dream! I want to dream one day. You want to settle for one week of it, then return to sleepless nights? Fine! I’m in it for the long haul. It’s called deferred gratification.” The phrase rolls off her tongue without thought — a catchphrase. “I’m sacrificing for us!”
…how the average 40-year old has already been married to five different people, how most reverist assistants like her are not married or even close, with no one to answer to, no one to wait up for them, more mobile, unfettered, flexible …
“Do you know how lucky I am to be working for Paz?”
“Why?” It’s a good question. Karen hasn’t written a dream since quitting the infra-bands in western Virginia, wooed to the Coast by the prospect of working for Paz. Although she mingles often with other reverist assistants, she’s not sure she’s ever met one who’s advanced to reverist. Reverism requires dreaming. Dreaming requires sleep. Sleep requires a break.
“I’m there! I’m doing it!”
Gary can’t hold back. “You’re a processor!”
“I don’t intend to be a processor forever. At least I’m not one of 50 processors working for Vogi.” A marketing director who employed her before Paz. “I’m on the path. Don’t get in the way!”
Even in his fantasy, Gary comes out on the losing end. He thinks, I really have forgotten how to dream.
The next evening comes, and Gary can’t be certain the conversation didn’t happen. Karen arrives home at 8:12 — early for her, but head still on, meaning she’s still on Paz’s time if her needs her — with a contrite appearance and a sheepish smile. Gary knows what this means. Love. She puts a tyvek takeout bag on the kitchen counter and hands Gary a single Jacaranda rose.
“What’d you get?” Gary asks.
“Indian. Palak paneer and korma.” Karen doesn’t offer any information which would help Gary discern if last night’s fight was fantasy or reality. No apology or acknowledgment of brusqueness. Gary is confused, which is why he doesn’t ask about the rose or even say thank you.
Karen’s sheepish smile is still there as she says “I ordered us a dream for tonight.”
Gary, shocked: “What about your job?”
Karen waves it off. Gary is still confused, but very happy. Karen belongs to him for now.
Gary has to ask: “One of Paz’s?”
Karen: “Hell no.”
They wake up at 4:00, roused by the pay-to-order dream. They lie there for five or ten minutes, until Karen whispers, “Gary?”
Karen would roll over and drape her arm on Gary’s chest, but something prevents her. She feels sticky, muddy. Gary senses this.
“What’d you think?”
“What’d you think?”
“You’re the dream-woman. I want to hear your opinion.”
“It was well-made.”
“The money was there,” Gary concurs. Then he breaks the wall: “I don’t feel so good.”
Karen sighs, almost in relief. “Bebé is normally such a strong reverist. And this is the number one dream right now.”
Gary also sighs in relief. “Everyone at the shop — they’ve been talking this dream up for weeks.” Then, another wall down: “It was awful.”
They could be sleeping. Karen could be working. Instead, they have to unload. For the sake of their humanity. It felt scummy, tense, depraved. It made both of them want to tear their skin off and scratch the raw bleeding muscle underneath. It was dissipation in its purest form.
“God,” Gary says, actually invoking the Deity instead of swearing, “what’s happening to us?”
Karen wonders herself. Are their values changing, falling behind the march of progress? Are they becoming disturbed by the descent of man? Or is he asking what’s happening to humankind? What’s happening to us that we choose to dream this sick, animal mess? This nerve-jangling, face-puckering, watch-through-your-fingers geek show? This mean, adulterous soul-slapping? This dream that’s the opposite of everything a dream should be — the anti-dream, the number one dream in America?
Karen wants to get up and take a shower. “I don’t know. Dreams seem to be getting filthier, more anxious and desperate.”
Listen to me, she thinks. I sound like the Christian Action Mission. She tries to switch rails so she can shower in peace. Dreams are losing their fantasy and cathartic value, she thinks. Aristotle is moaning on Mount Olympus.
Karen’s contrition was genuine. Something in the pit of her person screamed guilt. She couldn’t form words to manifest what she felt — just loose thoughts. Loose thoughts that stirred her to action, aroused her lethargic soul to make penance to the mate she ignored. Dinner and a dream. And now the dream is whipping the pit of her person again into — what? Making penance to all of humanity for inflicting this kind of uneasiness on souls while they sleep? For thrusting it deep inside their consciousness and laying it where they can’t get it out? I’m sick, Karen is thinking. I must do something.
She starts mitting: Market research shows increasing desperation in America and elsewhere. Dreams need to address anxiety…
Karen knows better. She worked under Vogi the Marketing Director for thirteen months. Vogi the Marketing Director rubbed his hands together grinningly wherever there was anxiety and desperation. Paz would be the same. Karen’s fingers stop pulsing. There’s nothing she can do. Except remind herself that people choose these dreams themselves, and that any desperate suicidal sociopath has only herself to blame.
The next day, Paz has no idea Karen played hookey. She cheated and used a headline dump posted on the net by another assistant. She knows it’s considered bad form to do this, but she’s in no shape to dodge the bottle today. The analysis she mailed to her boss was meaningless — words on a screen, lots of syllables, voids of definition. Paz hummed and stroked his chin, wearing the emperor’s clothes. Karen enjoyed her small surge of power over Paz.
She did not feed Paz her complaint about the dreams she helps produce. Bebé’s dream (the title, for what it’s worth, was “Darkling Plain”) is making her and her studio money that makes even Paz envious. At this moment, Paz is already scheming ways to reproduce her success. Karen refuses to help.
She ushers into Paz’s inner sanctuary a young woman, maybe 21 or 22. Karen sizes her up: expensive suit, ambitious, cold. A huge horsey grin that flattens her eyes into little gunports and shows off juvenile enamel bleaching. Her name is Paris. She’s from Rancho Palos Verdes. Karen knows this girl has the edge. If she weren’t so tired, she would fret about job security. The overanalysis begins: he saw through her charade; he knows I used a stock head dump; he didn’t buy my meaningless summaries; now that Bebé has knocked Paz off the top, he’s regrouping and reloading his guns with younger, prettier ammunition — richer ammunition, too. I’m finished.
For six minutes she’s furious. What do youth and beauty and Gagnier shoes have to do with my work? Dreams are too important to be artifacted and peddled by such worthless minds. Only quality — well-crafted and cathartic dreams — will save humankind. They’re the only barrier between a civil society and a rampaging pack of psychotic animals.
Then her six minutes are up and she realizes how little she cares. She’s astonished by something — a daydream. Her desk and mitt and airscreen and head dissolve into nothingness. The walls of this Beverly Hills office start vibrating, shaking off plaster and marble dust. The violent rumble of an earthquake tears the building down, folding the ceiling and the floors up like the pages of a book. Karen covers her head and sits quietly while the world implodes around her, until only black smoke pours out of the rubble, comingling with the ubiquitous smog. She uncovers her head and realizes she hasn’t a scratch on her, while Paz and Paris and everyone else in her office lies twisted under the debris. She wanders the cracked sidewalks of Wilshire Boulevard, looking for Gary. He works in Santa Clarita, but she knows he’s here. She finds him waiting for her on La Cienega — restaurant row. They’re hungry, so they decide to try a teppanyaki place. The maître-d’ is happy to see them; business has been slow since the earthquake a few minutes ago. Wouldn’t they like to be seated? They have the teppan table all to themselves as the chef appears — a bona fide Japanese artisan who studied for ten years before wheeling out his cart of steak and shrimp and peppers — and smiles broadly. In here, life continues as always. Then they’re away. Karen and Gary are sitting on grass eating their bowls of rice and pickled ginger and sense that something in their heads has stopped. Some miniscule oscillation, some infrasonic unease has become quiet wind. They know that all the airscreens and all the phones and all the REM dumps have gone dark, and now it’s just the two of them talking to each other over futo maki and green tea.
A peep breaks into her reverie. Her happy surprise at summoning such a gift is stopped mid-sip by something in her environment. She realizes it’s dark outside —almost 9:00. How long has she daydreamt? The phone has been off the hook and her message light blinks like a siren. Maybe that’s what shook her awake.
She hears it again — a stifled cry. Surprise, with a dash of distaste. No, stronger — distress. She buzzes Paz.
Brusque even for Paz. No alarm that he hasn’t had a call for the last hour, or summaries and analyses from Karen. No Nunavet water bottle for falling behind.
Karen is certain at least one of the blinking message lights belonged to Gary. But not all is right with the world. It could just be I’m coming out of the dream-state, Karen thinks. But it could not. Karen is abuzz with heightened awareness.
She hears it again and walks purposefully to Paz’s closed door. Through the vertical window beside the door she sees movement on Paz’s yakhide couch. Two Gagnier shoes lie on the floor. Paz lies atop Paris. They kiss, then Paz’s hands disappear from sight up the Kerala skirt and Paris bites her lip and lamely tugs on Paz’s wrist as her whole body goes stiff. She puts her hands up on Paz’s chest, trying to keep air between them, but then Paz’s bulky middle-aged body presses down — a definitive “yes” to Paris’s half-hearted “no.”
Karen continues to watch, her heart beating faster. In a fit of lucidity, she wonders what resolve looks like. If she has any. Her caution and worldly reluctance, fed by Paris’s indecision, keeps her in the spectator’s seat. She will leave when Paris capitulates. But Paris’s resistance, in Karen’s mind, appears a leaky bathroom sink, the drain plugged and water gurgling out. But a shallow pool remains at the bottom. It’s the shallow pool that drives Karen to open the door.
She says nothing. Paz does not hear her at first; he’s laughing while tearing elliptical holes in Paris’s stockings. Karen follows this visual train to a pair of women’s underwear on the desk — black. Paris notices her first and lets out an exaggerated gasp, then summons her strength and jumps up from the couch. A good job, thinks Karen, of masking her relief with embarrassment. Paris’s exposed knee knocks Paz in the chin. He swears mightily, intoning the word “bitch” too many times, before he sees Karen. The sight of his neatly groomed assistant standing there upsets the balance of the room.
“Karen! Out!” He barks like a dog, but Karen senses something else. In the quietness of her mind — remnants of the daydream — she divines panic in Paz’s barking.
“Karen, get out of here, you stupid —”
She realizes then she hasn’t moved for several seconds.
“I better go.” Paris whirls around the room collecting things like a dust devil.
“Hold on.” It’s a firm command, but even Paris must sense the impotence behind it. She doesn’t make eye contact with Paz — just scoops up her shoes and panties and slides past Karen, who doesn’t move to accommodate Paris’s hasty exit.
If Karen were not staring steely-eyed into Paz’s being, he might just button his pants and go back to work. If Karen were to lower her eyes, Paz would pounce on her with all his fury and false powers. But there she stands, still in the doorway, as Paz crosses the floor to confront her.
He covers the ground fast, like a rhinoceros charging. Paz reaches out to grab a fistful of Karen’s cantaloupe silk blouse, but somehow he doesn’t complete his invasion of Karen’s space. In a jerky aborted motion, his threatening claw closes into a fist with one outstretched finger — Attack! turned into Look, you! Through all this, Karen has not flinched. This man, Paz Moro, a top-35 reverist, billionaire with a 120-acre estate in Agoura Hills — this man-god stops because Karen refuses to move. Karen can see her mind. In her humility she knows it’s not courage, or a steadfast righteousness, or a love of confrontation. It’s boredom. Paz bores her. Everything in this man is a falsehood.
Paz gathers himself and screams blood and spit in Karen’s face — threats of blacklisting, murder, forcible rape, unspeakable vengeances surpassing a pallet of airborne Nunavet water bottles. He curses her every gene and action and reaches out again to strangle her. But Karen stands her ground, uncaring. And so again, the talon of hate becomes the quivering soft hand of indecision. He looks to slap her one hard across the cheek. Before the daydream drains completely out of Karen’s consciousness, she sees his soul’s fire, and she knows she’s immune. Her brown eyes do not flicker or change. So the hand drops, and Paz, like Paris before him, whirls on his heel, grabs his jacket and plows past Karen like a malignant tornado. His shoulder assaults Karen’s on the way out. But with his eyes averted from meeting hers, how can she even be sure he meant it? His last act is to turn off the office lights, leaving Karen in her dark victory.
“Every day, the sky is full, full of diamonds for you…”
Karen hears the song, half-muffled behind the pasteboard walls, as the last of her daydream-consciousness slips away like the last drop in a glass of cold water. Then the noise rushes back in — the subsonic clicking and buzzing, fallout from dozens of TVs and REM dumps and cell phones — as she unlocks the door.
She finds Gary lying in the dark, trying to sleep. Karen starts undressing, as silent as she was in her showdown with Paz. She knows he’s not asleep because he’s not snoring, and she knows he’s seething with rage because he turns away from her wherever she is.
“I was about to call the cops.”
He’s angry because I never called, and also because I’m so late.
“I figured you were dead on the freeway somewhere.”
“I’m not dead,” Karen says. Then, letting go her old defenses a bit more, she adds, “How much is that vacation?”
Gary smashes his face into the pillow. “Ah forget it. I know we can’t afford it.”
“Idaho, north of Coeur d’Alene.”
Gary doesn’t question her because he doesn’t want to shatter the hope.
“It’s still in the U.S. We could move to Idaho and dream.”
Gary, challenging: “There’s nothing to do there.”
The next morning, Karen writes Gary a letter. She transcribes it off her mitt, shunting it straight from her consciousness to her fingers. It reads:
My dearest Gary,
I have spent this day seeking wisdom. There is little wisdom to be had in this seat, in this car. It is a wisdom-deprivation chamber. There is only information. Information is not wisdom. Information is not even knowledge. And yet I am information, so I am neither wisdom nor knowledge. Keep this in mind when reading my letter.
I want to ask “what’s happening to us?” but I know your response would be “what do you mean ‘us?’” As usual, you’re right and I’m wrong, and for the first time in the last five years I wonder if you’ve always been right and I’ve always been wrong. You would tell me, in your enlightened, 21st-century way, that it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong, but it is. Everything is about right and wrong and the world has forgotten that.
When I was a big fish in a small lake, when I was the star of the Shenandoah infra-band, someone told me my dreams were the next best thing to real REM sleep — refreshing, joyous. He told me he awoke next to his wife and felt a warm kind of love in a marriage that had gone gray with fatigue. Has anyone in the major bands ever been told that? You say I’m in it for the control, for the pleasure of insinuating myself into other people’s consciousness, but I say I’m in it for this man and his wife. And logic told me if an infra-band reverist could create joy and wonder for one, a major reverist could do it for millions.
You warned me. You spat cynicisms — joy and happiness were poison for the GDP, the majors would never let me peddle such pollyanna nonsense on a hungry population. But I wanted it and I would have none of your sourness. And I found out you were wrong. We the reverists don’t inflict dreams of wonder on the sleepless because of the national economy. We don’t do it because we don’t know how. We’re lost in a mire of wonderlessness. We’re alone. There’s only me and there’s only Paz and there’s only Bebé Shapiro and that’s considered good. It’s not loneliness, it’s self-greed.
And that’s where I blame you. I rail against you! I shout at you and demand to know “Why have you chosen to be my companion? My Comforter? Accepting of me as a Nobody, an Ordinary, an Unexceptional?” Why have you done this to me? Why have you gone into my soul and rearranged me? Why have you wrecked and destroyed the woman I could have been? A woman mentioned in indexes, bibliographies, quoted, a woman of influence, an earthquake, a tidal wave, a nor’easter blanketing the land and inspiring thousands instead of a laughable single digit number. A greedy woman who succeeds because she does want to control and burgle the minds of sleeping innocents. That’s her food, and she dies if she does not eat.
Instead, you have forced me to be a Woman in love. A Woman unable to hold on to her self-greed. My industry friends will laugh and scoff. Only you — you small minded, simple, average — average height, average weight, average hair color, average income — only you will love me. I will become that hidden genius who shares her wild creativity with her girlfriends while sitting in lawn chairs on cricket-filled nights, dampness hanging thickly in Idaho air, in the forms of wild stories that, once the words “The End” issue into the ether, disappear, leaving no legacy. What will the world benefit from such small ministry? Where are the inspired throngs?
You have determined my destiny up until this point. Your beauty controls me. Your wisdom manipulates me. I gave up my misanthropy, my agnosticism, my bachelorhood and now I give up my Dream the way I had envisioned it — me in my studio phasing in and out of consciousness, drawing from my lucid fantasies and fears, with you in your garden, coaxing beauty from black earth. Both of us creating life to feed a lifeless world. I give it up because, as you so acidly point out, I am not creating life. I am draining life — my life, the life of Paz’s audience, your life. Is my Dream worth the death that comes before it? Is being an accomplice to vampirism worth the fifty acres of my dream? I’m there, I’m doing it, because, as you know, I know no other way to get there.
There is right and wrong in this world, my love. Together is right.
Six months later, Karen is wondering about God. It seems like a rudimentary inquiry, something everyone must have thought. But in Karen’s time, no one has the faculties to think metaphysical thoughts. Still, as Karen drives back from the supermarket, she muses about who God is and what he, she or it wants of her. She knows she’ll find out, since they’re moving to the Bible Branch, as northern Idaho and Montana are sometimes known, the American South having relinquished its branding as the Bible Belt. But she’s also wondering something else of a more earthly and trivial nature, spurred on by the receipt encoded on her phone. Karen wonders at all this wandering her mind is doing, and realizes she likes it. It feels like a luxurious bath in her skull, her warm meningeal fluids saturated with the salt of thought. Only since she quit (and it wasn’t so much quitting as simply never returning and never again communicating with Paz) and let Gary support them working his landscaping job has she had the gift of mental moseying. Still no dreams. Still constant fatigue. But at least no more REM dumps.
She arrives back at the apartment. Their neighbor has stopped playing “Diamonds For You” and has switched to something without words. She unloads the empty produce crates into the disheveled living room, stepping around packing tape and carefully wrapped dishware, and thinks about the farewell gift she’s bought for the two of them.
“I ordered a dream,” she reports. As expected, Gary is indifferent, even though this dream has been the talk of town since its debut two nights ago. She knows what Gary thinks — what do we care anymore?
“It’s Paz’s.” She almost giggles this. Gary joins in, ironically.
“So you have to know what that weasel’s been up to.” He’s moved from indifferent to unhappy.
“Oh come on. It’ll be our send off. Not that I care, but I don’t really want our last dream to be ‘Darkling Plain.’” Gary sees her point.
In the dark, amidst stacks of book boxes and old movies and bed linens and clothes they should really donate, they drift off and the flickering dream light comes on in their heads. First, the requisite ads — in dream-time they barely register, but the suggestions will last for weeks unless they’re crowded out by subsequent ads. Then, running. You’re late for work. For some reason, you’re not driving, but running on the roofs of cars stuck in rush hour gridlock. Each step gets lighter and lighter until you’re bouncing several stories with each push off the balls of your feet. And then you’re there. But you’re still late.
It’s dark (you’re very late), and it’s just you and a female co-worker several pens over. You go to talk to Karen, realizing with each step the woman is moving farther and farther away, except that she’s not moving at all. She’s standing stone-still in empty space; the office has disappeared. You summon your strength, fearing complete impotence, then launch into the upper limits of sky. At the height of your arc, you feel the power returning to your body. Your confidence, your influence, your lucidity all rushes back, as if the starstuff of the exosphere is penetrating your pores with radioactive sugar. You descend, and spot the woman standing alone on a grassy plain, and as you swoop down toward her, you’re no longer her co-worker, her equal — you’re her superior. You’re to her as God is to you. Desire, greed, entitlement. You crash down on Karen, strong hands on her shoulders. But still she doesn’t move. She looks deep into you, daring you to violate her. So you do. You grab her breasts and shred her hose and mangle her dress and yank her hair, all the while relishing the immunity of dreams. You push her into the mud and as she lies there, a thought occurs to you: her unyielding is also her passivity, and you can commit rape in good faith.
There’s wet everywhere when they awaken. Karen has lost half of her day’s fluids through sweat, and Gary discovers he’s had his first wet dream since he was eighteen. (It’s not his fault. The dream is engineered to have that effect.) Gary runs to the shower to cleanse himself, while Karen lies there in the near-dark, light from the bathroom slicing her face in a thin cut. Then, as the pounding of her machine gun heart gives way to the ambient noise of the apartment block, she feels an inspiration. She gets up, knowing she should fight it. By the time she’s torn the packing tape off the crate, it’s too late for takebacks. By the time she’s dug to the bottom of the crate and fished out her head, the stones have become bread. She straps on her head, adjusts the airscreen and plugs in the earpiece.
Buzz. “Descent” breaks all order records in first three nights. The bounds of reverism pushed back. Completely redshifted. The edge. The limits. Paz Moro, after a nine-month hiatus, back in the high band. More buzz. Intense controversy. Dream almost yanked by studio, until nascent lawsuit filed by women’s groups settled for undisclosed amounts. Same groups still launching critical mass media-generating protests, apparently unhappy with settlement (unless, someone speculates, the protests are part of the settlement). Religious groups do not protest. Despite hype, “Descent” is no more depraved than some dreams in the blue bands. But for a major studio, it’s radical reverism. Other studios regrouping, shoving emergency “Descent” clones into already crowded production bottleneck.
More buzz. Who is this woman, this ingenue? Speculation abounds. New hot thing. Commodity up on the people board. Her passivity — according to this speculator or that critic — is complicity, fetish, existentialism, inner strength, incompetence, feminist commentary, or sexual suicide. Moro maintains mystery of the woman. Some rape victims groups applaud Paz’s refusal to name names. The search for Her beginning to rival the search for Scarlett O’Hara. She has it. Project concepts whizzing about the ether. “Descent” in reverse — the revenge scenario. The Woman at war. The Woman at work. Her unyielding and uncaring is the final word in anxiety management. We want that Woman.
“What are you doing?!” Gary is apanic, jittery and embarrassed from the dream. Now there she is, in Pazland.
“Gary!” she cries. “It’s incredible! You should feel this buzz! Everyone’s talking about it!”
Karen mistakes Gary’s stuttering silence for happy surprise, and continues: “This is going to be huge. It’s already huge, and it’s not just Paz. It’s the Woman. Gary, everyone wants her. Everyone. All the majors and everyone in between. She’s a star!”
Gary’s silence has now taken on a defeatist tone. He knows where this is headed. He just waits for the end.
“I’m a star! Literally overnight! Gary!”
Gary wants to rip the head off Karen’s face, but he holds back. There’s been enough violence tonight. That doesn’t stop him from lashing out.
“You’re a victim!”
“Yes! And everyone wants to know who I am. I can turn the tables, Gary. I can make this work for me.”
You can’t turn the tables. Three hundred million people have already gang-raped you. Gary’s skull is so full of these thoughts, Karen’s voice is to him like the undertones of an immense bell — a subsonic hum.
“What about our move?” he asks feebly.
“We can’t leave now! This is the break I’ve been waiting for!”
“Karen…” He measures out his words. “If you consider this a break, you are not the woman I thought you were.”
And who is that? Karen wonders through her teeth. I know who I am. I’m a woman who’s been aiming toward this for ten years. Who’s dragged a boyfriend all over the country, through debt and workshops and guilt and late night fights for this. Who refuses to let all that sacrifice flutter away because we made an ill-timed plan to run away to Idaho. I deserve this. I’m better than all these wealthy, well-connected stepchildren of the dream factories. I’ve won your lottery.
“Gary, you listen. For once, you think about it. It’s just a damn dream. Your manhood is still intact.”
And that’s all it takes. Twenty minutes of shouting and accusing that drowns out the wordless music from down the hall. It ends with “I didn’t want this,” followed by “Well, you’re all packed.”
Karen has dinner in an automat five months later. They’ve come back into fashion, the windows showing the food now virtual and accessible by phone and airnet. Karen had thought about going to the bistro she used to frequent with Gary, or even the white tablecloth place where celebrity-watching is an unlisted menu option, but it didn’t feel worth it, even with the new nine figure credit line she has. So she called ahead to the automat and arrives to collect her food in the drop tray. There’s no place to sit, so she stands and eats rehydrated pho and thinks about the coconut cake she’ll collect next — her extravagance for the evening.
Standing next to her is a young man, an Inuit by his looks. He’s shabby and dirty — maybe semi-homeless, an immigrant come to the city to find work. There’s a moment when her concentration lapses, and Karen finds herself looking straight into his eyes. He does the same. It’s a cold, uncomfortable coincidence, this meeting of gazes. Karen turns up the corner of her mouth in a nervous smile. Her Inuit neighbor does too. Then they both turn back to their food.
Karen does not find this man attractive. Still, she feels a warm flattery because the smile was genuine, even pleading. Then suddenly, her mind dives into paranoia. Does he intend to rob her? Rape her? (The possibility is very real since she came out. For many, the dreams only feed the hunger for the real thing.) Then, depression. She is a southern California knockout now, her skin recombined and her first month of enzyme hypoxy completed. She’s been on the cover of Alpha, Morpheus and Time, and constantly toys with changing her name to Canon. But when the day is over, there she is, standing in an automat eating cheap food next to a migrant worker who’s all alone in a loud, crowded metropolis. Quickly, before the funk becomes overpowering, she pops a Zykrilon in her mouth, washes it down with the salty broth and hastens out to her Porsche Rampage.
She has a five square-mile plot in Coldwater Canyon. She’s starting small, being wise with her wealth. But it’s enough to do her own dreaming. In her studio over the four car garage, she daydreams a lot — daydreams about her first big release in three weeks, about her long and important career once people realize there’s talent behind the passive victim’s face. Just as Paz revolutionized the universe of reverism by using Karen, so will she on her own power. As she parks the Rampage in the garage and charges up the security perimeter, she repeats to herself the mantra that keeps her going: I’m there. I’m doing it.
There’s Gary, meditating quietly on the edge of an ice shelf. The only thing moving on him are the hairs on his sealskin parka. A strange symmetry — him standing motionless as she approaches. He hears her boot crunch on the crystal snow. Somehow she knows he’ll turn his head just a hair, peeking over his shoulder from behind the fluttering fur of his hood. He takes his ungloved hand out of his pocket and grasps Karen’s. She stands with him on the frozen beach. There’s an electric blue berg floating past like a porcelain ghost ship. They watch as it sails by on the green sea.
©2004 M. K. Ching