The first time she dreamed of the golden city, she woke to the thin gray of morning. Light filtered through the strained gruel of cloud and smog to paw weakly at the whitewashed concrete walls of her apartment. She couldn’t recall anything of the dream, but a subtle, persistent yearning followed her like a lingering shadow as she went through her day. She felt as if she had heard the faint snippet of some familiar melody that she couldn’t quite place. Something ached just behind her breastbone as she gathered up her bag and her coffee and walked to the subway on her way to work. It grew as she avoided eye contact with strangers passing by on the streets, and as she bundled herself onto the crowded subway and narrowed her shoulders to keep from accidentally touching the people on either side. It grew as she ate lunch silently in the break room, hearing the chatter of the other teachers chatting in the kitchen space. It grew as she graded student papers alone in her classroom as students played basketball on the court outside after school. And it grew as she walked back to her apartment, her windows dark, while the silhouettes of families gathered around tables or TVs in the yellow glow of their windows.
What was this ache inside her chest? This tenderness, like a wound, that had awakened in her inexplicably? She turned on an episode of some TV show she never really watched as she cooked a simple stir-fry for herself. She didn’t even know all the characters’ names. She just liked to hear their voices.
That night, she dreamed of El Dorado. The golden city, arrayed along the horizon edge with shining, bright spires. Always shimmering on the horizon, always caught in a sunbeam. The desert sands were grains of gold, a pathless expanse where mirage turned to pools of water as blue as the sky, and the jungle sprang up, uncurling only around the famed city. She could feel the wind, gentle and sweet, running its fingers through her hair, the slow brush of sand against the tops of her feet, the warmth of the sun that melted into her core like yellow butter. And there was a song on the wind, the faint strains of some summer melody.
And then she woke to the thick navy shadows gathered about her bed, the omnipresent lines of electric light striping the ceiling, seeping through the ghostly curtains that attempted to shield her from the sleepless city crouched outside her window. She raised her hands toward the ceiling, toward those sickly yellow lines, as if she could compel the sunlight to return and shimmer around her fingertips. But the only thing overhead was the bare electric bulb that dangled from the ceiling and the throbbing patterns of dimmed fluorescent glow. She couldn’t capture even the shreds of that golden sun.
He dreamed of El Dorado. The golden city, bathed in the long, slanted rays of late afternoon sun, framed by the broad, deep green leaves of jungle plants. Always just a glimpse, the rest of its expanse hidden by the bend of a canyon wall, or veiled by draperies of vine and canopies of green. Always glimmering, gleaming in the corner of his vision. Sometimes he was in a boat, a canoe adrift on a river of gold, the sun melting into the water. Sometimes he was hiking through a burnished canyon, the sand soft under his feet, the rock walls glowing warmly with all the colors of the sun--oranges and reds and yellows. There was always a path, always the warmth like a blanket thrown around his shoulders, always the gold and the green. And always the faintest hint of a song, sometimes carried in the twitter of unseen birds flitting amongst the dense trees, sometimes in the whisper of water against the canoe, sometimes in the susurration of wind in the treetops.
And then he would wake to the frantic electric hum, to the ceaseless neon shadows playing across the walls cloaked in night, to the incessant clamor of streets and youth far below, the glowing, hazy cloud of desperate life always stretching up from below. He would shut his eyes tight against the sharp edges of the urban night, and try to conjure up the slow lap of water against the side of a boat, the lazy, timeless current rocking him back and forth, the sun-drenched carpet of sand into which he could sink his feet. But there was only the wail of some far-off siren, the buzz and pink flicker of a neon sign that poked its way through the corner of his window, the swirling of traffic streams around skyscrapers in a city that never slept and never ceased.
Sometimes he would wake to blinding mornings, streetlight and sunlight multiplied and reflected in a million metallic windows. The soft gold of the dream obliterated by the glare of white fluorescent bulbs, false light beaming and bouncing all around, always, the brilliant, hard-edged heart of a diamond. But throughout the day, a faint, enduring longing, like a flickering ember, burned in the center of his chest.
The city was a blurry reflection in the bus window. Steam billowed up from somewhere below the city streets and wavered in the reflection, obscuring the figures of men and women walking along the sidewalk. The bus lurched forward, fighting through traffic on this late Saturday afternoon. Someone was honking in front of them, blending in with the wail of a distant siren. All the other people in the bus hunched into themselves, some wearing earbuds or on their phone or staring blankly into the middle distance. She had the distinct feeling that she could stand up and scream at the top of her lungs and no one would hear her. She was made of glass, and the whole world could look right through her.
But she didn’t. She just turned her gaze to the blur of grimy concrete apartment buildings and the snarl of cars crowded upon the streets. Everything stank of car exhaust and stale coffee.
Just then, as the bus came to a halt at another stoplight, she caught a glimpse of something shining in an alleyway. A glint of gold, a leafy vine curling around. And faintly, like someone’s music playing too loudly in their headphones, she caught the sound of a distant melody. Her heart leapt within her, her feet carrying her to the bus door of their own accord. She knocked on the door insistently, barely glancing at the bus driver. He glared at her and shook his head, but opened the doors anyway, and she tumbled out. She could still see it, a faint shimmer between an apartment building and some hole-in-the-wall bakery place, just beyond the narrow alleyway.
It was irrational to just hop off a bus and dart through a shadowed alleyway in pursuit of a golden shimmer and a leaf that reminded her of a dream. She didn’t care. All she cared about was the distant melody, a song carried on a breeze, and the impossible hope.
But when she emerged from the alleyway, there was no golden
city, no desert, no jungle. Just a yellow brick wall illuminated by the late afternoon sunlight with one scraggly vine barely clinging to its surface. Her heart sank, but she went to the wall anyway and placed her hand against the warmed brick.
“Are you looking for something?”
She whirled to see a young man. He was smartly dressed, too fine and pressed to be standing in this empty space behind an alleyway.
“Sorry,” she said. “I just thought...I saw something.”
He frowned a bit at her, a bewildered little smile turning up one side of his mouth. “Looking for a golden city?” he said.
Now it was her turn to peer back at him. “Standing in the middle of a vibrant jungle?”
“Do you…” he hesitated. “Do you hear music?”
The song was fading. She couldn’t really hear it anymore. It was more an impression in the air, a whisper of a breeze on her skin.
“It’s disappearing now,” she said.
He stepped closer, looking at the wall behind her. “I’ve been having dreams,” he said. “Of...El Dorado. Or that’s what I’ve been calling it at least. In my mind.”
She swallowed, watching as he pressed his hand against the yellow brick. “Me too,” she said. “How is that possible?”
“Do you think...do you think it’s…real?” The last word was hardly more than a breath.
“I don’t know…But I want more than anything to find it,” she said.
A shaft of sunlight fell upon a little wooden fence, just beyond a little clump of weeds. In the distance she could hear the hum of traffic, the hiss of another bus stopping at the light, a car honking. The young man had already wandered over to the gate. He ran his hand along the top.
“Even if it isn’t true,” he said, hand on the latch. “Don’t you want to search for it? Because...what if it is right there?”
She glanced back down the alleyway. A discarded pizza box had been stuffed between the bars of a fire escape. The hammering of some construction project echoed from the city beyond, and the whir of a distant helicopter.
“I’ll search for it with you,” she said. “I want to find the El Dorado.”
He held out a hand to her and she placed her hand in his. They stood in the warm afternoon sun, and he unlatched the gate.
“Onward then. Let’s find the El Dorado.”