When I told them the building would come to flames at half past three on a cloudy Saturday in November, they laughed at me. The men. The firemen. The red axe-holders ran their chuckles up and around my concern. Even the dalmatian laughed with a clipped bark that betrayed its tender spots. I took my lunch pail filled with the ham and lettuce my mother had packed me, and I walked the seven blocks home.
When that Saturday in November arrived, the smoke could be seen from the playground at my school, and our teacher left us mid-sentence when the principal came into the room to let her know that it was her building on fire. Her heels rang on the hallway tile, and the girl behind me began to cry as the principal tried to think of a way to explain what would happen next.
I already knew what would happen next. We wouldn’t see our teacher again, and the person who replaced her would be a retired man called back to service with a bad cough and very little patience for third graders.
The night our teacher lost her home and more to what I had predicted, my mother lay with me in bed and fed me noodles and broth that didn’t rise to the occasion of soup. I’d told her about my prophecy and she begged me to keep such things to myself. Nobody would believe me, and if they did, I would surely be taken away to a government facility to be studied and perhaps even dissected. That was what happened to unusual people during what seemed like a usual time. An era of optics. The foreboding sense that underneath teenagers on fire escapes and fathers sneaking cigarettes with their friends outside the corner store, there was magma ready to bubble up to the cement. A volcano disguised as a sinkhole disguised as a taxi cab that was always idling, but without its driver.
My father was the subject of my next dream after the fire. He wasn’t smoking, but a pack of his favorite brand was being passed back and forth between his palms. This was what he did when he was anxious. The plastic and paper would be shredded by the time he was done, as though a pup had gotten ahold of it. My mother would berate him for spending all that money on nicotine only to use it like a chew toy. He would agree with her. He always agreed with her. In my dream, he’s nodding at something she said to him just before the dream began. The inciting incident of a future memory. I hear a car engine. My throat is irritated by exhaust fumes. On the radio, the Platters are singing about “The Great Pretender.” I might be too young to understand the emotion behind the song, but I place it on a shelf in a hall where everything I’ll cherish and fear will live until I shut the door to my childhood and ask to never enter it again.
My mother is sitting by the window with a book she’ll never finish reading when I come home from school the day after the dream about the greatest loss I’ll ever experience until she dies forty years later of a stroke, leaving me an orphan. Once by death, once by abandonment. Her ashtray is full and the disturbance she must have felt when the exhaust caught in her throat the way it had caught in mine was evident in the carrots that were only half prepared on the cutting board in the kitchen.
“Cassandra, have you seen your father?”
It isn’t until I’m thirteen that I understand why people ask questions they already know the answers to. Five years after my father revealed himself to be a Great Pretender, a boy asked me if I liked him. This was a boy I had dreamt about while asleep and awake. His curls lost themselves in other curls. He had nine freckles on his face and I assigned each of them a small part of my affection. When we were dismissed for lunch, I would snap up his chewed-upon pencil and run my lips over it because I believed it was the closest we would ever get to kissing. In dreams, he took me to Coney Island. We shared cones and secrets and promises that stretched into the next century. We explored every corner of the city, and when we were done, we built new cities, resided in by us and only us. All the empty spaces that were created by the departure of my father were suddenly filled with a presence that was soft and lambent and smelled like newly discovered aftershave.
“Do you like me, Cassandra?”
Every girl in the school received a whisper from my lips that this boy with the curls would one day be mine. Despite the pledge I made to my mother in bed all those years ago, I couldn’t restrain my excitement at the possibility that I had dreamt up something divine that would then come true. In the half decade since the fire and the grand patriarchal exit, all I’d had were omens of pain. A neighborhood child hit by a car. A blackout where a store would be vandalized by those who would otherwise calmly patronize it in the light. A stabbing over a card game. A young girl sent away after her cousin compromised her virtue. I saw him go on to Notre Dame--and he did. I saw her come home with a box full of magazine clippings and nothing else.
And she did.
The expectation of a friendly wind coming just in time for the spring formal was something I couldn’t keep to myself. It didn’t matter that I knew none of the girls I shared my visions with would believe me. In fact, my pride found the notion of their eventual shock and dismay intoxicating. That day at lunch when he asked me if I liked him, I saw the looks of astonishment careen like a rogue wave against pubescent faces that were sure they had seen it all despite age insisting otherwise. My hubris at having been right would come at a cost. After only an hour or two of passing love notes, we were released from school for the day so that we could get ready for the dance that night, and I noticed a strange glance on the face of the boy I would spend endless days with in imaginary cities.
When I looked for him that night under the paper streamers and blue balloons, he was talking with another girl. I waited patiently for him to finish so that we could share our first dance, but their conversation led them outside the gymnasium and they never returned. The betrayal fell inside me but never found its bottom. The betrayal, not just of this boy, but of my prowess. That I had seen something that would turn out to be false. The soundtrack to my humiliation was the laughter of my classmates as I ran from that overheated arena of savage adolescence. It was the same kind of laughter the firemen had presented me with, but this time, I would not be met with a chronicle coming to pass. This time I had earned my mockery.
I convinced my mother that I had come down with something at the dance. She allowed me to stay in bed all week, where she pressed cold compresses to my forehead and fed me. The same broth. The same noodles. The same culinary make-up of my disillusion. When I returned to school, I barely looked at him or the girl he had chosen. My classmates snickered, but then moved on when they saw I would be no fun to tease. I made myself stone--a reverse Medusa. I looked in the mirror one day and decided that would be it. No one would decipher me. No one would find anything worth searching. From that point on, any dreams would be deposited in that hallway next to the broken pack of cigarettes and four love notes soaked with the sweat of unreadable palms.
That summer, I decided to press my hand against the wound to see if I could staunch the bleeding. I took a trip to Coney Island.
“Cassandra, what are you thinking?”
It’s never been about what I’m thinking. I don’t think. I dream. Why ask myself a question I already know the answer to.
Even still, there were things I dared not dream of and would not interpret should they appear to me. Things like the shadow of a boy, now more of a man, standing at the pier--alone. Things like the way his hair was combed to the side. His stubble determined to grow back within hours of a shave. That aftershave. That heart, newly broken by a girl that was never meant to be his, but still stung him with her careless handling of his heart.
I approached him. Before he could see me, he knew. I saw his head tilt. His body relaxed. I thought I heard him laugh quietly to himself. The kind of sensitive laughter I rarely heard throughout my life. The kind that welcomes you to laugh as well. It was a sound I couldn’t imagine until I heard it coming from him. Until then, there were things I wouldn’t even expect to see in the wildest landscapes of my dreams.