April 14, 2014
Who do I dream of, if I do not dream of Sylvie? In whose arms do I imagine myself, if not in hers? In whose embrace do I slumber in my most precious heart?
She was my only. No crush or boyfriend could compete. She was the beginning and end of my experience with falling in love.
That feeling of waiting all day for school to end, of doubting it ever would. Rising from my desk and meeting her in the hallway, knowing she was mine for hours. The shock of it, the possibility of loving someone else the way I loved my parents, of being loved back. That silky dreamy feeling of having a friend, of filling hours with only the fact of our friendship. The absolute necessity of this time, like air. Swimming in my own happiness. How I was drawn to her, how I never wanted to be anywhere but by her side.
Sylvie, Sylvie. Golden skin, hair like inky night, limbs clean-run as a wine-bearer’s in an Egyptian mural. Her voice rough bells, her touch a brush against new leather. Wise fingers quick-working as bees. Her breath the sweetness of lemons, of apples. From her mother, her sylph form and sybarite charm. From her father, her piercing intelligence, discernment, perfect eyebrows. But she was greater than their sum, greater even than her vision of herself.
Sylvie, Sylvie. My most beautiful friend.
I fear I have done her a disservice. Have I made Sylvie the villain? Even just de facto, even if only assumed?
I do not want to be unclear or untrue. From the moment I met her, I loved Sylvie Al-Mansour with all my heart. Even still. Even now.
How is this possible, even if I accept the possibility of love at first sight? We were girls playing ball in an alley, children tossing a ball and making grand plans. We were never more than this, really. At our strongest we were willful, pampered teenage girls, couched in the comforts and promises of our parents. What did we know of love, of devotion?
The answer is in our friendship’s true life, in our intimacy. Beneath everyday desires for things and stuff, behind the façade of school and the wrangling of parents and teachers, into the realm of passed notes, shared diaries, the smell of a bed in which young girls have slept together. My love affair with Sylvie took place behind all of this. Backstage.
In my mind we are always walking towards each other. She is seven, eight, nine years old, skinny, tall for her age, hair in those braids, perfectly parted down the center. Sometimes her nimble hands weave beads and yarn into her plaits. Her hair shines because it is bathed in a special shampoo made from argan oil, and conditioned in the pure oil itself. The shampoo comes in a turquoise plastic bottle, the oil in a taupe glass vial, both brought back by her father from his yearly trips to Tangier. Her mother teaches her how to detangle her wet tresses with a bamboo comb, and, later, Sylvie teaches me. Argan oil, we discover, works on my hair too, although my hair should never be combed, never detangled. Only lightly oiled like the parts of a bicycle, run through by wise fingers, moisturized. Caressed.
At first, we are shy with each other. On trips to Sylvie’s country club, we change into our bathing suits in the bathroom stalls. We wear one-pieces. We spend our time diving and staring at the pastel chemical blue of the bottom of the pool. If, by the end of two hours of swimming and yelling above the aquatic din, we are too tired to return to the stalls, it does not dent our modesty. We turn away. We do not look. We turn our small backs on one another and struggle on training bras, refusing help. At sleepovers we wear matched pajamas, long sleeves and long pants, bunny slippers, soft cloth headbands. Everything is covered. Our insides are what we bare, staying up all night, wondering our hearts aloud.
At first the talk is silly. This boy and that boy at school. Sylvie is shocked by the lengths I will go for a crush: retrieving David Molloy’s completed crossword puzzle from the trash, journeying in the middle of the night to uproot Justin Dreyfus’s rhododendron and replanting it in my yard. The latter story is invented to please Sylvie. She must know it is a lie. Isn’t she wiser than me, even then? But if she knows she says nothing. She laughs at the details, the mud on my pajamas, the suspicious new bush in the yard I promise to point out but never do. We agree on a codename for Justin, to camouflage discussions of him at school: “Shrub.” The first word in a secret language.
Sylvie trades secrets for my own. Her parents have always slept in separate bedrooms. Her first best friend liked to play a strange game in the woods, in which she commanded Sylvie to undress, covered Sylvie’s naked body in mud, stuck leaves in the mud and then laid Sylvie out in the sun to dry. “You’re a leaf lady, a leaf lady,” her friend sang happily. She admired Sylvie for an hour or so, before washing her with buckets of creek water and toweling her off with her own sweatshirt.
Her little secrets prepare me Sylvie’s big one: for her entire life, Sylvie has had strange encounters with food. Sometimes, a particular vegetable or cookie—it can be anything, really—tells her something, transmits a message only Sylvie can hear and decode: “Eat me” or “Never eat me” or “Eat all of me, all you can find” or “Throw me away, throw every one of me away.” Sylvie always does what the food tells her, even though she knows she will be in trouble if her parents notice.
Her parents do not notice. They think she is picky, but they don’t use that word. “Picky” is what my parents would say. Sylvie’s parents call her “discriminating.”
“I have a new motto,” I tell Sylvie in sixth grade. It is a Friday night and I am sleeping over at her house.
“Did you have an old motto?”
I ignore her.
“There’s no better thing to be than weird,” I tell her. She rolls her eyes.
“Repeat after me: if you don’t like me, screw you.”
“That’s my new motto. I made it up.”
“If you don’t like me, screw you.”
“But I do like you.”
“I know, Sylvie, it’s, like, a thing for the world. For when people are mean.”
“I don’t think people are really mean. Just stupid. Or uninformed.”
Gentle heart, she tries for years to convince me that cruelty comes from a lack of knowledge. I do not have a gentle heart.
“Just say it. If you don’t like me, screw you.”
“Fine. If you don’t like me, screw you.” She giggles.
“See? It feels great!”
We write it over and over again, draw pictures and comic strips. By dawn we’re shouting it out the window. Miraculously, Sylvie’s parents do not wake.
Sylvie, don’t you know that only because of you can I speak these words? Don’t you know that your love for me carried me here?
I fell in love with Sylvie at first sight, but she won my trust slowly.
We are also sleeping at her house on the night when I begin to tell her about my strange dreams. It is March, just before spring break, another Friday. I remember the feeling of possibility, of buzzing freedom, on that special first night of the vacation. After school we go to the strip mall to eat slices of pizza with giant air bubbles baked into the dough and to rent movies, a great pleasure made more pleasurable by its quotidian regularity.
We are fourth graders. I am a little girl. I have not yet begun to take showers. Mama still regulates my bath time, helps me get the shampoo out of my hair and work in the conditioner. She and Dad still tuck me in together, perform a little ceremony of bedtime kisses and turning off lights.
But I have strange, bright visions in my sleep. Personal movies of lust and tension. The settings are embarrassing, lifted from cartoons and the program on public television where fairy tales are staged on a gray soundstage with only a handful of props.
At eight, I dream myself into the tower of a Swiss castle. What makes it Swiss, I could not say, but I know I am in Switzerland, trapped up high like Rapunzel, but I have no beautiful long hair to show for it, only a kind of flimsy gown. I drift from mysterious old implement to mysterious old implement—spindle, churn, abacus, astrolabe—wondering why and where I am, until I see the boy I like, Justin, “Shrub” Justin, in a far corner, dressed as a chivalric knight in armor and a bright green sash.
Then the dream goes to purple and I wake up upset, but I don’t know why.
When the next dream comes, I am nine. This dream is a desert fantasia. I wear a harem outfit that my pudgy, prepubescent body does not fill. I am in a room with camel couches and leather chaises and Kael Olds, that year’s crush. He waits for me in a leopard Speedo, his red hair flames against his freckled face, his boy body strangely muscled. Again, the dream ends in a flash of colors, and I am horrified when I wake: at the dream, at waking.
These are the fairy tale dreams I can recall. There may be others, but they came before eight, before Sylvie, and have slipped so far back into the recesses of my memory that I no longer know whether I invented them or whether they came to me, unbidden, like the others. Here, anyway, is the first of the many gifts from Sylvie, to whom I have done such poor justice. Even in fourth grade, she understands these dreams for what they are, does not mock me, encourages me, comforts me. I bring them to her like stinging sores, the source of pain and suffering, although secretly they thrill me, and I treasure them. She understands. The pain, the sting, the treasure, the thrill.
We do not have the vocabulary to discuss this realization, so instead we reassure each other with platitudes. Dreams are weird, dreams are strange. They are not real. Dream dictionaries are purchased and lazily consulted. Even in fourth grade we understand they are written by hucksters and bought by weak readers.
When the third dream comes, I am ten, a fifth-grader now, and unprepared for how it will be different. I have read of ways to bring on desired dreams, but I have not attempted them. The methods frighten me: lie on a couch and stare at your hand, counting backwards. Let yourself sleep but hold to the brightest thread of your desire. The books say this is where the control lives, in the interstitial state between sleep and waking. But I think that meddling with the shadowy meshes between sleep and waking is unnerving and unwise. If the space behind the mirror is where I have to go to choose my dreams, I will not go there.
I visited these meshes once. I was seven years old. Dad was out of town and Mama allowed me to sleep with her in their bedroom. We watched an old movie on the television at the end of their bed. She fell asleep at the very end. I stayed awake and watched the next movie, a Dracula film from before I was born.
I thought the movie was boring, and slow, not scary at all, but then, when I fell asleep in the middle of it, I did not really fall asleep. I went instead to the vampire’s realm, a garish pink and red place, and all night he preyed on me there. I could not wake, I could not sleep. His face was just a gash mouth and the black V of his widow’s peak, blurry because they were so close to my face. I dreamt him and fled him in dreams but did not lose him in waking.
Somehow by morning I found my way back to Mama’s bed. It was the last time I was allowed that special little-girl pleasure of sharing her bed, of waking to her sweet smell and helping her briskly make the bed. I wonder if she knew.
When I am ten, the dream comes to me in my own room. I am alone, and the dream is as vivid and strong as an attack. A white man with a scratchy red beard accosts me as I walk to school. He drags me into an alley and rips off my clothes, my real little girl clothes, no fantasy outfit, just blue corduroy overalls with a pink t-shirt underneath. Yellow panties with green polka dots. My new clear plastic backpack is dashed to the ground, spilling the pencil case and books so prettily arrayed inside. Too little for a training bra, I wear a long white undershirt. He tears it in half and with his tongue draws a thick stripe of spit down the center of my chest.
Then I am naked and the man rapes me. It is not exciting or pleasurable. No colors swell. I am conscious and terrified. It hurts badly, like being stabbed. My rapist has desperate, red-rimmed eyes and a morose matter-of-factness that frightens me more than anything. His face hovers, breathing hard, sobbing. He burns inside me, and it hurts again to think “inside me,” but in the dream I understand, without question, what this means.
I wake feeling like a different person. The plastic gaze of my stuffed animals shames me. I snap at Dad when he tells me to have a good day at school. I worry it is a prophetic dream. I worry that I wanted it, because I did: in the weeks before the dream I have been fixated on rape, have sought and read rape scenes in books with a racing heart, have wondered hard what it would be like. I am ashamed, and terribly excited, and I flush and wince when I see my own face in the mirror.
When I bring Sylvie the third dream she is unsurprised. We are at her house again, in her room, on her four-poster bed with its carved posts and billowing canopy of pale pink silk. My voice starts and stops in my throat. She does not mock me. She comforts me, brings the mug of cold water to my mouth, presses wetted paper towels to my eyes. She tells me that the dream is normal, that it is only a dream. I do not need to be afraid. That, as with the other two dreams, I can laugh at this one, too.
But since the dream I have felt weird. Different. Changed.
“I don’t think so,” I tell her.
“Just try,” she says. “If you knew it could never happen, would you laugh at it?”
“It scared me. I think it was trying to tell me something.”
“Could it be something funny? You can make fun of it.”
Tentatively, we do so together, mocking the redheaded rapist, his resemblance to a doctor on a hospital television show we both watch, the unlikely scenario—what alley would be so deserted? There is no alley on my block, even in all of Creek Grove, Sylvie assures me, where such a thing could happen.
We lie side by side. The dream clings. It is too soon to relax, to touch each other.
“But that doesn’t matter,” Sylvie says. “There is no place you could go, in Creek Grove or the world, where I would not find you and protect you.”
Did she say it because she had heard the words on TV, or in another person’s mouth? How could a fourth-grader even know what that kind of promise entails? How can she hold up her end?
She does. It is Sylvie’s second gift. The first she gave me on the day we met: the lesson in how to throw the ball, the dream of Paris. And then, at ten, she gave me freedom from the fear of these fantasies that flickered inside me and came unbidden in my sleep. Sylvie was calm when I could not be. She swept away the night so that I could be in the day.
At the root of those dreams was my burgeoning terror of my sex. I mean it in every sense: my femaleness, my genitals, the tenuous, orbiting connection between the two, the indomitable knowledge of my desire. The indomitable desire for my knowledge. I recognized a force that would direct and control me if I didn’t learn to direct and control it.
I see Sylvie at ten, eleven, twelve. In her turtlenecks and leggings (Sylvie is not allowed to wear jeans until seventh grade, Mrs. Al-Mansour says that they are too informal), in her sunflower-patterned leggings and bright red turtlenecks, in her lace-patterned leggings and sky blue turtlenecks. She is so lovely, she is what the word means to me.
Our friendship remains oddly smooth as we enter puberty. We do not fight with each other as we do with our mothers. We do not fear each other as I do everyone else. If Sylvie fears anyone, she does not tell me. She protects me. We are together, secure as everything else changes, even our bodies.
I knew the direction mine was headed from day one, or at least I had an idea. I was never as small as the other children, even when I was child-skinny I felt awkward, as if my mind was preparing me for my body future, for my wide hips, my big ass, my large chest, my swelling thighs.
Sylvie suffers no indignities, no acne or ungainly breasts. Unlike mine, her body does not go rogue on her and try to become a grown woman in the space of a few months. Instead she monitors my progress, gently breaking the news that a beloved shirt has been made too sheer by my new breasts, urgently telling me to cover up when I’ve misjudged whether I can venture one more braless day or have been too foolhardy in the measure of the gap between the bottom of my shirt and the top of my pants, revealing a thick cutlet of nowhere-else-to-go flesh.
My body metastasizes, floats away from me, becomes strange and distant, but Sylvie is my anchor. She recognizes my changing shape as my own. She touches me and lets me touch her.
LISA LOCASCIO’s writing has appeared in N+1 Santa Monica Review, Salon, Sou’wester, Joyland, Wigleaf, The Los Angeles Review of Books, the Scottish journal Product, and the anthology California Prose Directory, among others. Her research on the life of Roberto Bolaño has received mention in The New Yorker, Bookforum, Arts and Letters Daily, and The Los Angeles Times, and she is the first Anglophone writer to be granted an interview by Bolaño’s widow Carolina López, which will appear in The Believer. The winner of multiple awards and honors for her writing, including the 2011 John Steinbeck Award for Fiction, Lisa lives in Los Angeles, where she is at work on a novel, Jutland Gothic; two short story collections, and a monograph about affect and aesthetics in contemporary American fiction by women.