Joyland

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Algae You In My Dreams

by Rachel Khong

edited by Kara Levy

What I remember is, that same night, eating cabbage, raw, over the sink. Nate was working late again and Lucy was sleeping over at Nate’s mom’s, and now I’m thinking maybe that accounts for everything. When I finally fell asleep, it was to the TV: a program about algae. Coral reefs, the scientists were saying, are in danger. They seemed personally hurt, as though something had been stolen from them. Like they’d trusted us nonscientists, and we’d all let them down.

This was a night last week. I had a dream that Sadie, our husky, got mixed up with the Leavitts’ cat, and in a bad way. The cat gave Sadie a deep scratch in the eyeball, and after the vet sewed it up, he put her head in a lampshade, which he told me was important not to remove for six weeks. He sent me home with eyedrops. Administer once a day, he said. The shade pleased Lucy, who called Sadie “Shady.” Anyway, that was the dream. 

I’d forgotten all about it until this morning, when Nate took Sadie for her walk, and brought her back bleeding from the eyeball.

“That fucking cat,” Nate said. He’d fashioned a makeshift bandage to absorb the blood that was issuing forth from Sadie’s eye. It was Nate’s balled-up sock, and it was bright red. There was that much blood. 

“Quite a cat,” the vet said. He sounded impressed, which struck me as unprofessional. He seemed too young to have his job. He wore shoes with Velcro on them. He told us to call him Charlie.

“How long?” I asked Charlie.

“Six weeks,” Charlie said. He gave Sadie four stitches, a cone for her head, a bottle of drops. On the drive home, our daughter giggled: “Shady.”

“She’ll be okay,” said Nate. My hand was under his hand and he pushed on it, in a way that was meant to reassure me. “The dog’ll be fine.”

Giving the dog her meds now, I remember that on that program about the coral reefs, one scientist—trying to lighten the mood—had said, “Knock knock.” His research partner said, “Who’s there?” still sounding sort of glum. Algae, the joke went. Algae who? Algae you in my dreams. 

“I don’t get it,” Nate says, distractedly, when I tell him. Meanwhile Sadie keeps blinking the drops out. 

 

*

Tonight I dream that a car crashes into the cherry tree out front. The impact shakes all the blossoms off, and dusts the lawn with pink.

 

*

In the morning, Nate already gone, Lucy and I walk Sadie slowly through the neighborhood, like we do every day. Except with Sadie’s cone, it’s even slower going.

Lucy was as heavy as a cylinder of salt when she was born. Or light, I guess. She was eleven weeks early. She’s four now, and in the special-needs class, but it’s only for now—only until she catches up.  

“Bees,” Lucy says.

“Where?” I ask.

“Bees,” she says again. Like she couldn’t be more pleased.

Bees is this week’s word, I guess. Last week it was milk and the week before it was pants.

When we arrive at the house, at the end of our walk, a small sedan crashes into our cherry tree. The driver is Sean, from down the street, who’s seventeen and sometimes babysits. He looks like he might cry.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. D,” he says. I must look stunned, but not for the reason he’s thinking.

“You can take it out of my babysitting money,” he says, upset. There are flowers in his short hair.   


“It’s all right, Sean,” I say. “Just go home.” I pat him on the shoulder.

When I try to rake the flowers, they’re too small, and won’t catch in the tines. Sadie decides she wants to eat them, but there’s the problem of the cone. What’s the harm? I think. I pick a few flowers and drop them into her open mouth, while Lucy’s still repeating, Bees, bees, bees.

 

*

We met on the set of my film. Nate was acting in it. Now he’s writing and directing his own. In his movie, a couple has a baby who’s born premature. It’s up in the air how things will turn out: good, or bad, or just normal.

I’ve read Nate’s script and all the revisions—all the ways it could end. One ending is happy and the other’s less so and the one that isn’t happy, we decided, is the best.

 

*

At the drive-through ATM, I try to withdraw $60 and the machine gives me $200. I know the 140 extra dollars are probably my own, but still it feels like a lucky sign. At the grocery store, I buy the more expensive brand of pasta. In the cosmetics aisle, I buy “mood-boosting” blush.

I decide to cook Nate’s favorite spaghetti sauce. Around five, Nate calls to say, “Hey, you haven’t started cooking, have you?”

“No,” I lie.

“Well, don’t wait up for me,” he says.

When he gets home, it’s midnight, and I’ve already put Lucy to bed. I’ve washed the dishes and swept the floors.

“Lucy’s seeing bees,” I tell him. “What do you think that means?”

“Probably nothing,” he says, and turns over, and is asleep.

 

*

I dream the grass dies.

The next week, out of fear, I overwater it, and it does.

I dream I break an empty wine glass. The bulb snaps neatly from the stem and rolls onto the floor.

When it happens, Sadie runs after it, and tries to catch it.

 

*

One night, while Nate’s reading in bed, he looks different.

“Are those new glasses?” I ask.

Nate nods, without looking up.

“When’d you get those?”

“Week ago? Two? I don’t know,” he says. “I picked ones that looked exactly like the old frames. Aren’t they close?”

“They’re close,” I agree.

 

*

I dream Nate falls in love with his lead actress—the actress that has been cast as me.

Her name is Tess. We have the same color hair and the same color eyes. She’s from his hometown. I’m marginally prettier, but she’s more talented. It’s possible she’s smarter. It’s possible they have more in common. He met her after he met me, so it’s possible he picked me incorrectly—prematurely. It’s possible. Of course it is.

 

*

Mr. Frank, Lucy’s special-needs teacher, says, “Call me Stephen.”

Stephen asks, “Would you like a beer?”

It strikes me as strange for a parent-teacher conference, but I do like one.

We talk about my daughter. It’s foreign, to hear myself talking. I can’t remember the last time I spoke at length about anything. I’ve been spending all my time with Lucy and with Sadie, and all my adult conversations—with strangers, with the grocery bagger—have been stilted ones.

Pretty soon we’re out of time. Stephen asks if I’d like to come back tomorrow.

That would be nice, I tell him.

Before I go I ask if Lucy’s ever mentioned bees.

“Never,” Stephen says.

 

*

That night I dream about Stephen, and when, the next day, when I’m in his office again, he offers a beer and I decline. He’s saying that I have nothing to be concerned about—that Lucy’s been showing marked improvement.

“May I?” he says, comes close, and pulls off a leaf that’s affixed to my sweater.

“Thank you,” I say. I excuse myself—I say I’m going to the restroom—but instead what I do is I get in my car and drive away.

 

*

In my dream I see Nate and Tess at the movies together, at the AMC, the one Nate knows I hate to go to.

That’s all, though, because I wake up. Nate’s turned away from me, and snoring from his mouth.

 

*

That night, I call Sean to watch Lucy. He seems surprised that I’m still phoning him, after the accident. The truth is I like Sean. He has an archaic style of babysitting. Whenever he comes, he brings oil pastels and Pick Up Stix. 

Sean shows up with two plastic grocery bags filled completely with cherries. They’re gifts for me. They must have cost him as much as he’s going to make tonight, babysitting.

“For all the ones I kept from being born,” he says.

I drive to the AMC, the one that’s part of the shopping mall. The movie that’s showing on four screens is the sort of movie I’d never pay money to see, no matter the actors. From the trailer, I already know that the crucial plot element is a note that’s meant for somebody, but never gets to her. That’s the sort of movie I’ve never been able to stomach—the sort of movie with some central miscommunication. I buy a ticket to the screening that started twenty minutes ago.

Inside, there they are: Nate and Tess, sharing a soft pretzel with a bright yellow dipping sauce in a small, translucent cup. I sit behind them, watching them watch this movie: they whisper and laugh and tear pieces from the pretzel. At one point, Nate puts his hand on the back of Tess’s head, the way he does with me.

Later, at home, Nate kisses me, more eagerly than he has in months. I’d object, were it not for the fact that I miss this too much. I try hard not to think of what it might mean. I try hard not to wonder if he’s only pretending I’m her.

 

*

After Lucy was born, Nate and I were in and out of the hospital every day for two months. We watched as she slept inside her incubator. We fetched snacks for each other from the vending machine. That wasn’t lost on us: that we could pay to get a candy bar from inside a glass case, but we were helpless when it came to our daughter, inside hers.

We took her home. The doctors said she’d catch up by age two. We’d test her response rates. We’d clap in her face, as loud as we could. We’d see how long it took for her to cry. Crying was a good sign. It thrilled us when she cried.

“Lucy, what’s this,” I’d say, holding up a plate.

“Plate,” she’d say.

“Lucy, what’s this,” Nate would say, holding up a sheet of paper.

“Paper,” she’d say.

Back and forth like this, it went. Most of the time, she got them right, but it was always the things she got wrong—those times—that had us worried.

 

*

Lucy is saying bees again today when, as if summoned, a bee lands coolly on the back of my hand. When it flies up, I follow it. Lucy and Shady/Sadie totter after me. The bee disappears into the wall.

I put my ear against the wall and hear buzzing. I look quickly around the kitchen for the proper tool, but there’s nothing appropriate, so I pick up a cleaver. I hack into the wall with the cleaver and pull whole pieces apart with my hands. Bees start whirring out, all around me. Inside there’s an enormous honeycomb, dripping with honey, in which several of the bees are sitting—just lounging.

In the Yellow Pages, I look up “beekeeper.” The guy I find says he can extract the bees and bring them to live with him. He comes within the hour, and in another hour, he’s gone—all the bees with him. He leaves me the comb, and I try a little honey, on toast. It doesn’t taste like anything.

 

*

While Lucy’s at school, I drive to Nate’s set, where Tess is lifting a baby and Nate is instructing her on how to lift it. Tess is wearing dark jeans and a plain white T-shirt and a ponytail—same as me. Later, when she puts the baby down to hug me hello, I collect data: the smells of her shampoo, her detergent, her face.

“You smell like Tess,” I tell Nate, at home later.

“What?” he says.

So I say it again.

“You’re tired,” he says, very slowly, “and there’s a hole in our wall. You’re not being reasonable.”

“What does being tired have to do with being reasonable?” I say.

“That’s a thing that unreasonable people say,” he says. “Anyway, here’s what we ought to do. We ought to go to bed. We ought to talk to about this in the morning.”

But I’m afraid to sleep, and afraid of what I’m going to dream. It used to be that I could sleep and sleep. The way I finally manage to is by counting backwards from 6,000.

 

*

I dream the vet tells us that Sadie needs to keep the cone on for one more week.

I dream the desk lamp catches fire.

I dream that Lucy glues her hands together and cries when I try to pry them apart.

I dream Nate and I grow old and die, but in my dream I can’t make out whether or not we are together.

 

*

In the morning, Nate takes my hand and says, “I’m sorry, sorry, sorry.”

He says: “Nothing’s ever happened.”

He says: “It’s you I love.”

He says: “Forgive me.”

 

*

When we take Sadie for her checkup, Charlie the vet, wearing Velcro shoes again, says, “This looks like—”

“It might take another week?” I interrupt.

And he says, “Whoa ho ho, now look who’s the professional here.”

I grab the scissors he’s been using to cut Sadie’s stitches and wonder if this is a dream or isn’t, and what would happen if I stabbed the vet with the scissors, and Nate grabs my wrist—the hand holding the scissors—and says, “Jesus, what’s gotten into you lately?”

On the drive back from the animal hospital, Nate says, gently, “You really ought to get more sleep.”

I notice a sign at the Sonic that says, “Our secret ingredient is our people.”

“Look at that,” I say to Nate.

“Look at what,” he says, and misses it.