I’ve lived a thousand lifetimes, all originating from the space in my father’s skull. One night he spun a story in which I was a pilot, flying a ’50s-style turboprop over oceans made of sapphire; in the next, I was a cunning thief, pilfering from greedy ghouls who lined their pockets with the misery of others; yet another night, I was a magician, pulling rabbits out of a hat during the day and frolicking with them on my farm by night.
But in my favorite timeline, I was a princess and a knight and a scholar in one. I studied in my cozy corner of the castle by day, wrapped in a woolen blanket and sipping cocoa by the fire as I learned about diamond mining and read The Art of War. And by night, I donned my emerald tiara and my leather knife sheath and climbed aboard my vehicle of choice: the scaly back of a fire-breathing, multi-headed dragon.
I was no ordinary kindergartener, terrified of any animal I couldn’t fit in my pudgy hand. I wanted to ride a dragon to school and parade it around during show-and-tell, and I was only sorry that such things only happened within the infinite yet very real boundaries of imagination. With each new version of this story, I added more details: The two heads became four, its back sprouted horns that shooted sporadically to ward off enemies, its eyes turned from cunning black to frightening red.
“Where do you think the dragon takes you today?” my father asked one such night, perched in his usual spot in the rocking chair beside my bed.
I pulled the covers to my chin, tucking my head in thought. “To Disneyland!” I burst out.
“Disneyland?!” my dad exclaimed. “That’s a long trip. What does the dragon do when he gets there?”
“He eats pickles,” I giggled. Like most children, my interests came in phases and waves, and at the moment I thought pickles were the wittiest answer to every question.
“Of course.” My dad nodded sagely. He crossed one leg over the other and let the momentum of the chair carry his weight back and forth, back and forth, as he thought about what to ask me next.
My father had a hard time reading, an unjust result of his fractured schooling, but he was still drawn to stories the way even the most stagnant of tides is drawn into a whirlpool. Whether it was a tale of heroic antics or the quiet search for a soul, a film or a summary of a co-worker’s boring weekend, he was immersed. He could find the moral in a gum wrapper’s joke, the climax in a rambling monologue. He could see the world even if he wasn’t seeing the words describing it.
Tonight, I’m on the train. I’m wearing stiletto heels and a miniskirt and I smell like cigarette smoke. The wind lashed at me on my two-block walk from the party to the subway station, and I’m slouched in a corner seat breathing hot air into my palms, trying to bring my frigid hands back to life.
My night was spent in a multimillion-dollar penthouse in what most people call the greatest city in the world. I drank top-shelf vodka with friends who make me laugh until I cry and cry until I forget. I fielded compliments on my designer outfit, and come Monday I’ll be back in my office, playing the role of a high-powered executive of a well-regarded marketing firm.
And yet I sit in the subway car half-drunk, with only a tired-looking nurse wearing blue scrubs and a busker who plays guitar like he stopped enjoying it a long time ago for company, and I look at my phone, at its screen devoid of messages, and feel a familiar sob pressing against my throat.
When I fell in love, I thought it would be like those stories my father told me as a kid: sweeping, majestic, incredible, with me at the center of it all, pioneering all the good things that were to happen to me. Sure, Colin and I met on an app, and not on the North Pole as I literally swept him off his feet on the back of my pet polar bear — but after our hours-long first date, our steamy first kiss, the subsequent days and weeks falling into each other as we fell for each other, I imagined the epic future. We’d travel the world together, poke around in the dusty corners of castaway countries. We’d get engaged after spending a night lying on our backs in a lake, looking at the stars and talking about our deepest desires. We’d build our house together with our own two hands.
I wanted it to be all-encompassing, but not like this.
I’d embraced his life in my arms and gradually, quietly, he’d slipped out of them. Maybe I’d smothered him or maybe he’d found somebody else, but the truth is that the truth always lies somewhere in between. Our bantering back-and-forths became short, generic jokes. Our discussions about favorite books and the state of the universe became one-line sentences. Our daily dates dwindled to sporadic lunches. And lately, all I could think about was that blank message thread, mocking me with its starkness in a place that had once bloomed with life and the promise of love.
But I couldn’t let it go. I was being inched toward the edge of a cliff and I was scrambling for any sort of foothold to steady myself, to get us back on level ground. I sent funny photos, I left contemplative voicemails, anything to slip my fingers back around whatever final puzzle piece had gone missing. And each time I tried, I felt more ashamed.
I wondered how a girl who was raised to believe she could be anything had grown up to become someone who accepted being treated like nothing. How a girl who tamed dragons in her dreams turned into a woman successful, lost, stemming tears alone on a train.
I let the busker’s half-hearted version of “Daydream Believer” and the metallic screech of the railcar take me one, two, ten stops past my apartment, until we reach the end of the line. I flag down a bus, filled with nothing but fluorescent lighting that harshly contrasts my solid black surroundings. The bus takes me to a familiar road and I disembark, leaving a hollow “thank you” in my wake.
The street is devoid of life except for the trees towering above me, absorbing the echoes of my heels clunking against the pavement. Silence and darkness and the cold air press around me like a narrowing tunnel. But I come to the house at the end of the lane and the pressure dissipates.
I don’t go inside, though I’ve been told I’m welcome anytime. I sit on the crudely carved stone bench, wrapping my bare arms around myself as I stare at a window. I know my father is asleep on the other side of it, that he went to bed several hours ago, content after a long day of managing his construction crew and cooking dinner with his wife, my stepmother Camile. I know they are in love, have been for a dozen years.
Last time I was here, I gave my father updates on my promotion, my salary, my new apartment. He nodded and congratulated me in all the right places but didn’t ask a lot of follow-up questions. I asked what was new in his life, and he shrugged and said not much. I rode the train home feeling like I’d disappointed him in some way because the trajectory of my life had changed so much, and I was disappointed that his had not. But one of us was happy, and it wasn’t me.
It’s six in the morning when I return to my apartment. I kick off my heels immediately, groaning in agony as warmth and pain simultaneously flood through my feet. I fall into bed clumsily without changing my clothes or removing my makeup. I’m already drifting off, but I reach for my phone, search for Colin’s name.
I know this is more of an in-person conversation, but seeing as you haven’t replied in 17 days, I think we, I type and delete.
Hey, just thinking about that conversation we had as we hiked in the Catskills and you told me you had never felt so understood in your life. Did you mean that or were, I type and delete.
what happened what did i do why don’t you like me anymore. Delete.
I settle on a brief, casual message declaring that this doesn’t seem to be working out and perhaps we should stop seeing each other. I let the phone fall from my hand onto the pillow beside me and shut my eyes. I’ve been heartbroken before. Love’s become something like a callus, each new bit of torn skin healing atop the previous wound. I know at some point I won’t feel the pain anymore. But I didn’t want to become so hardened, either.
Later, I dream I’m trapped inside a glacier. Two feet of ice encase me on all sides. I can see trickles of water dripping down the edges, my prison melting slowly, but by the time the warmth reaches me it will be too late. I bang my frozen fists against the ice anyway, listen to my yells ring out against the unyielding walls.
A dark spot emerges in the distance. Though my sight is cloudy, it looks like it’s coming closer, closer, until it’s landed in front of my glacier, observing this object closely. Its wings seem to expand and contract in thought. He’s green and has four heads: It’s my dragon. A thin stream of fire surges from one of his mouths, and the ice falls away from me like the old skin of a molting animal. For a moment the dragon and I stare at one another, and I have the urge to run to him, to hop upon his back again, wrap my arms around his neck, and let him take me through the air to a yet-determined destination.
But it’s been so long since I’ve seen him that he doesn’t recognize me. I open my mouth to call out his name, but realize I never gave him one. He charges at me, rows and rows of teeth baring, eyes aflame with malevolence. Figures it would end like this: I may not be frozen out, but I’ll still be eaten alive. In the dream I squeeze my eyes shut and duck, arms covering my head, bracing myself. But a minute passes, then a few minutes more. I crack one eye open and see the shimmer of sunlight. I stand up and glance around to see I’m not in the jagged jaws of a dragon. A familiar smile beams at me instead. I’m safe and alive. I’m in the arms of my father.