Dine and Dash

By Daikreig el Jevi/Flickr
By Daikreig el Jevi/Flickr

By Yalun Tu

I entered the terminal in a rush, wondering if I’d be asked to turn my phone to flight mode before the what the hell? texts started coming. At that point, things were basically over. Trying to explain your actions via SMS is the same as cybersex. You might finish, but is anybody really satisfied?

The problem had started at dinner, somewhere between coffee and “The Tonight Show.” This was the end of a busted week in Los Angeles. I had told everybody I was coming to “take meetings” when the real purpose was to surprise my manager, who had been steadily ignoring my calls. Desperate to prove I still had value, I had pitched him a series of increasingly poor ideas: the girl with daddy issues stuck in an evil computer. The hitman who kills using an Asian ghost. The billionaire who pretends to be two competing billionaires to get the girl because all girls dream of being lied to by a rich guy.

“I kind of like the robot one,” Nathan said, chewing his burger while I pawed at his fat fries.

“Me, too,” Jen said. Jen was Nathan’s wife and the only girl I’d met in California who didn’t talk about juice cleanses. They were a young power couple in LA and I’d spent the week sleeping on their couch, wondering if they had any faults besides talking about their cat like he was a human being.

“Nobody has any patience for non-evil robots,” I lamented. “By the way, Jen, you look very attractive in that dress.” She was one of those people in complete harmony in every situation, meaning the opposite of me. I could never think of anything to say. I preferred to stay on the fringe of social situations, mocking the successful around me, following the old if-you-can’t-build-something-destroy-it philosophy. Faced with someone who simply enjoyed life sapped me of my observational jabs. So instead I complimented Jen often and ecstatically, a toy dog yapping for its master’s attention, steadily ignoring the WTF looks I’d been getting from Nathan.

“You look nice in that button-down,” she rejoined. I had worn the shirt three days straight. Nathan raised his eyebrow, anticipating my response. It was, “You’re so wonderful. I love you.” The tone was supposed to be jokey but the words left my mouth sounding open, earnest. It was truthful, too, since I had fallen in love with her the moment we had met, as well as their anthropomorphic cat, Sam.

“Oh, I-love-you-too” Jen said in a way that meant both the opposite and I-pledge-undying-fealty-to-my-husband-angrily-chewing-a-cheeseburger. I couldn’t be stopped at this point. It was weird.

“We should have an affair. Elope or something,” I said. What the fuck are you doing? one side of my brain asked. Don’t worry. If you go too far past the point of no return it will go meta and be seen as performance art, the other side said. “I’m much taller than your husband,” I added.

“Don’t you have a flight to catch?” Nathan asked.

As we crawled down the 110 in traffic I tried one more joke, the social equivalent of that last bet in Vegas when you’ve lost it all and are borrowing twenty dollars from the former best friend you’re trying to cuckold. I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was something to do with “Wife Swap,” a popular show on ABC once upon a time, except I didn’t have a wife so Nathan could borrow a life-sized wax head I won at a carnival. That went over predictably well and we drove the rest of the way in silence. I should have just taken a bus, I thought, but since this was Los Angeles, it’d probably be more efficient just to give my wallet and phone to any passing transient rather than go through that whole shiv hassle.

We arrived at the drop-off spot and I shook Nathan’s hand and looked him in the eye, a thing guys do when they want people to think they’re serious. I offered Jen a limp handshake and when she looked confused, I gave her a light hug, whispering “You’re both very lucky with each other,” into her ear. That was as close as I got to an apology. I grabbed my bags and headed to the terminal, looking back once to see if they watched me go. They were already gone; their hybrid slunk away silently. The automatic doors to the terminal parted and I automated myself inside.

“Just you?” asked the check-in girl and I nodded, yes, just me, always. “Did you enjoy your time in LA?” she cooed.

I nodded again, wondering what would happen if I told her the whole dinner situation. “Um, okay…” she would have said, uncomfortable at my honesty, confused why I’d messed things up. “These things just can’t be helped,” I’d explain and she’d be the one nodding, silently judging me as she passed me my boarding pass.

By the time I got on the plane I had not received any messages. Maybe they’d never come, I reasoned; maybe Nathan would sleep on it and understand that hot wives deserve to be hit on by your childhood friends. This was a sort of male bonding — Nathan had won the wife game and I was indicating my approval by dropping lines about affairs. Men can’t be straightforward with their feelings. It’s part of the rule book. Yes, that’s it, I decided. All is fine in the world. I asked the flight attendant for a glass of wine and wondered what they were selling in this month’s Sky Mall.

But as time passed, my mind replayed the week’s events in lurid detail. That’s the trouble with planes; they’re engineered to make you reflect on your life. Buses and trains offer the dual distractions of finding your stop and not being murdered by crazies, but in the sky there’s no scenery, no proper indication of time passing. There’s nothing but the noise of the engines, the buzz of your life at a crossroads. I tried to distract myself with more wine and in-flight entertainment. But all I could think of was what had got me here, and why I had messed with a friendship simply because I couldn’t be bothered not to.

At this point, the only thing to do was wait. I waited for my ego to take over, for my momentary bout of self-awareness to become hard, defensive. I channeled my inner Homer (the classic one not the yellow one) and readied my yarn for spinning. I must be the hero of my story, so heroic I would become. It was Nathan’s fault I was in this position to begin with. If he were feeling weird he should have said something. My brain analyzed each situation not for my indiscretions but for Nathan’s. It rewired each memory, rewriting my role as the falsely accused.

What the hell, Nathan? We were long and fast friends. I had got him his first condom at age seventeen in a Chinese sex shop while dismissing an old woman’s upselling attempts for nipple clamps and rust-colored anal beads. I had shopped with him for flowers to impress one of his many sub-par girlfriends. I was there to commiserate right after Lindsay dumped him on the phone, his angry yelps cut short because her roaming charges were too high. Did Nathan really think I was brazen enough to hit on his wife? Or stupid enough to hit on her in front of him? So I’m a cad and a moron. Real nice, Nathan. I jabbed at my in-flight meal angrily, fully convinced now that I was the scapegoat.

Next I played our upcoming exchanges. It would start with the thank-you note I’d write. My dearest Jen and Nathan, it would read, thank you very much for letting me stay at your great apartment in LA. What a view! I had a wonderful time and you guys are great. I hope you appreciated my unique sense of humor and hope to see at least one of you in Hong Kong. You know what I mean. Nathan would respond rudely. Fuck. Off. It was as if he had no sense of propriety, or humor for that matter.

In time, the story would spread to family emails, dinner party tales, and class-reunion letters. “It was a normal dinner …” I’d begin. Jen would still be perfect—at least that part of the story would be true—but I was the happy-go-lucky everyman who had come to LA to find my old friend transformed! Nathan was a workaholic, rage-fueled beast; his green-eyed irrationality scorched everything around him. “You should have seen it,” I’d tell my audience, “his eyes literally turned green.”

“Like the Incredible Hulk?” one might say, looking for validation.

“Exactly like the Incredible Hulk,” I’d affirm.

“That sucks. Some people are just dicks,” another would say.

I’d take a moment to process this truth. “We used to be close,” I’d offer. And I’d sigh a heavy sigh, full of the terrible weight of others not living up to their expectations. “I just—” here’s where I’d pause for dramatic effect—“wish that it weren’t the case. That everybody could be cool and not make a big deal out of nothing.”

I imagine the cute girl next to me putting her hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’re cool.”

“We are cool,” I’d agree happily. Then I’d raise my glass to friendship and to the people who really understood me.

•••

YALUN TU is a writer based in Los Angeles. You can reach him at yalun.tu@gmail.com or follow him @yaluntu, where he very rarely updates anything.

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A Year of Dreams

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By Jody Mace See more at I Draw My Dreams on Facebook

By Jody Mace

Once I was involved in a political revolt. The situation leading up to the revolt was horrifying. I’ll just mention the worst of the atrocities. The dictator was sawing people in half at the waist. Led by a wise, bald man, we succeeded in overthrowing the autocracy. My personal heroism was as follows: I rescued a baby from a river, and after we restored a peaceful democracy I contacted a dentist, because many children had lost their retainers during the struggle for freedom.

This was a dream.

The only reason I can describe this dream, three years after it occurred, is because for one year I drew every one of my dreams in cartoon format. I’ve been asked why I did this, and I’m not sure why I started, but I continued because when I shared the first picture on Facebook, it got lots of likes and my friends said it was funny, and I will do almost anything for a laugh. So I created a Facebook page.

It turns out that I had very few dreams in which I was a hero. In fact, the dreams exposed the worst of myself. I did things that I wouldn’t do in real life but might think about. I cheated in sports and I called small children “bitches” (and then lied about it: “Tell their parents I called them ‘witches.’”) I went ape-shit on a college professor who said I wasn’t listening, throwing desks around the room in an uncontrollable rage.

In my dreams I examined what I would do if presented with situations I was unlikely to face in real life. I learned that if I were a soldier, I would avoid injury by finding hiding spots whenever the shooting started. Also, after a rampaging hippo at the zoo was shot and killed, I looted its cage and stole its toiletries. (“This shampoo looks good!”)

Everyone knows this about dreams: they’re fascinating for the dreamer to talk about but boring as hell for the people who have to listen. Try telling someone your dream from last night and watch for the exact point when the listener’s eyes glaze over. It won’t take long.

But that’s not because dreams are boring. It’s because our storytelling is boring. We don’t know where to start the story and we sure don’t know where to end it. The interesting parts are buried in mundane detail. If I were to describe the political revolt dream but started at the beginning of the dream, where a tour group was packing into a bus and the driver said something a little weird and I looked out the window and saw someone selling hats, nobody would be listening by the time I got to where the dictator was sawing people in half, and that’s when it started getting interesting.

If you were telling someone a story about a close call on the freeway in the afternoon you wouldn’t start out by describing brushing your teeth in the morning. You probably wouldn’t include what kind of shoes you were wearing. Just because something happened doesn’t make it a part of the story.

Because I was drawing the dreams, I was forced to boil each dream down to its essential elements, maybe five or six frames. It also helped that I can’t draw. So everything that happened had to be depicted in the simplest manner possible, which made it impossible to include extraneous details. The cartoon me had maybe three distinct facial expressions during the course of the year, but I learned to draw those three facial expressions convincingly. My “angry” expression was particularly iconic.

My poor drawing skills did occasionally call for some explanation, so there are a few notes here and there, like “Third arm is an accident,” “Not really this tall,” “This is not a penis,” etc.

The exercise of identifying the interesting elements of a story, and figuring out where a story begins and ends helped me in my other writing as well. I became more ruthless, slashing words, sentences, paragraphs. I think that drawing badly made me a better writer.

Drawing my dreams also made me work harder at the visual aspect of storytelling. Sometimes the dream could be told with hardly any words, just pictures. In one dream I had read a book on caring for chickens and it said that it was good for chicks’ social skills to spend some time every day with a rooster. So the picture consisted of several frames of little chickens climbing all over a rooster, and finally a close-up of the rooster with a pissed off look on his face and the words, “The rooster is not amused.”

And maybe being creative in a medium for which you have no skill or talent helps your creativity as a whole, because you can’t rely on any skill you might have developed. I don’t know the “rules” of drawing the way I know the “rules” of writing. If there’s a grammar to illustration I don’t know what it is. So I had no filter, and it felt good to create with no filter.

Sometimes I drew other people’s dreams as well. They’d tell me the long, boring version of the dream, and I’d boil it down to the essentials. Several times I drew my husband’s dreams. They were interesting to me because of what they said about our relationship. Like this one: We were climbing around on a cliff. We got to a dangerous part and Stan said, “We should stop,” but I said, “No! Let’s go!” Then I fell off the cliff into a body of water. Stan had to jump into the water to rescue me, risking his own life, but I was dead. Only I wasn’t dead! I jumped up and said, “That was fun!” What this dream says about our relationship is that I’m the fun one.

I also drew my friend Christie’s dream in which she and Stan were driving a truck through the mountains, hauling several refrigerators wrapped in towels. The interesting part of the dream is that Christie and Stan were flirting with each other. Later Christie claimed that I misinterpreted her dream and that they were not flirting, but when you ask someone to draw your dream, the artist gets to make the call.

My favorite dream I drew was one of Stan’s. It’s also probably the most offensive. In this dream we were browsing a catalogue of organic meat and we had this conversation.

Me: “I think I’ll get a midget.”

Stan: “What? Do you have any idea how big a midget is?”

Me: “I’ll cut it up and put it in the freezer.”

Stan: “I’m not eating some tough old midget!”

What I like about this dream is that on the surface it appears that he’s the virtuous one, rejecting the notion of cannibalism. But really his objections focus on the space the midget will take up and the quality of the meat. (Also, I know we don’t use the word “midget” anymore, but this wasn’t my dream.)

During the year I drew my dreams, I found that I remembered more of them, probably because the first thing I did each morning was recall them so that I could draw them. I also kept a notebook by my bed so if I woke up in the middle of the night I could write down a word or phrase to help me remember the dream I had before I woke. Sometimes the scribbled notes made me a little sad, like when I read “monster on house” but couldn’t remember the dream.

Reading notes about these lost dreams made me appreciate even more the staggering creativity that goes into dreaming. During the day, sometimes I stare at a blank Word document wondering if I’ll ever get another idea, and I hit “save” after writing just a couple sentences, afraid of losing even one word. But at nighttime ideas flow so freely. I tell stories, make jokes, invent things, and paint pictures with absolutely no effort at all, and then they’re simply released, like they’re nothing. If I don’t catch them as soon as I wake, they’re gone forever.

I rarely draw my dreams anymore, but I still look forward to sleeping every night and not just because I’m tired. Every night I anticipate the places my brain will take me, the surprising connections it will make, the unlikely storylines and the unselfconscious confessions. Every night I hope that when I wake, before I fully surrender to the morning, that I can grab a thread from a dream, give it a gentle tug, and bring that lovely diaphanous memory with me into the world of solid things.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina.