By: Vivian Trinh
Over burnt green beans and dry pork chops on the night before her eighteenth birthday, Lyla, not knowing what else to do, humored her dad with a dream she had the night before. She found herself in front of a vending machine in the middle of a school hallway. And so it started the way most dreams tend to start—bizarrely, with little sense and no direction—and in Lyla’s case it was with the car that she received in place of the chips she wanted. It wasn’t a bad trade, she thought, for the dollar she’d fed the machine. She took the wheel and drove to show all her friends in class, only to have a teacher expel her for being disruptive. But it was fine. Deciding she was free, she sped away from the rustic hills of her hometown and followed the stars onto new worlds, far from the prattle of her daily life, away from the gossipmongers next door and the grade-school bullies down the street.
Within seconds she was across the country, cruising along smooth highways, listening to the steady hum of tires running over asphalt. In San Francisco she watched the glow of the midday sun melt like butter over the Golden Gate Bridge; in New York she saw flocks of peckish seagulls roost on Lady Liberty’s crown. In Vegas she was stopped by dozens of men and women alike who, embittered by their own misfortunes, said that they wished they could travel the world too—and suddenly she was in Venice watching the stars fall from the sky; she was in Seoul listening to the bustle in tongues she could not yet understand; she was in Rio tasting brine from the temperate sea winds.
Her dad took a swig of week-old milk and slammed the carton back down on the table. Lyla stopped in the middle of her sentence. A coat of silence fell over the room. She asked him if he wanted to hear the rest of her dream, ripping a chunk of wheat bread as she did so, chewing it slowly in her mouth as she waited for him to say no. Her dad turned over the green beans—once, twice—before ultimately spearing through the last of his pork chops and downing it all at once. He said nothing, made no indication that he knew she was even in the same room with him. One of the two lights hanging above them flickered and died after one last spark, and suddenly the room was doubly as dark. Cursing under his breath, her dad wiped his mouth with a napkin and then threw it at his plate as hard as one could possibly throw a napkin. Lyla stared at the cold butter over her green beans.
“I came home,” she said, continuing despite herself. In her dream, she had taken the car and had driven it across the ocean back to their sleepy little town in the middle of nowhere. At fifteen miles an hour, minding the speed bumps placed arbitrarily all over town, she crawled her way back to the old, squat house she grew up in, her eyes set in front of her but her mind already swirling with a bitter wanderlust. The sky was gray and overcast, as if drunk with languor, and the clouds hung low with prospective rain. Lyla neared a stop sign but forgot to stop. No matter, she thought; there was nobody around. But then something hit the front of the car, and before Lyla could remember where the brakes were, the tires climbed slowly over another bump in the road. From somewhere underneath her, a dozen twigs snapped—one at a time, as if in order—before becoming silent forever.
Lyla stepped out of the car and pressed herself against the asphalt, dragging the body of a child out from underneath the front tires. She thought then that if the rain started coming down now, it could wash away the blood, and nobody would have to know that when she had propped the child up against the side of the car, his head fell forward and the rest of his body followed, folding over itself at the hips like a new book. Lyla cupped her hands around his cheeks, still rosy with life, and asked him where she could run, where she could go. All she wanted was freedom—Kyoto, Delhi, Rome, Sydney—anywhere was fine so long as it wasn’t here. But she came back anyway, because she knew her dad wanted her here, and she loved her dad, and she knew that her dad loved her too.
He hadn’t been listening to her dream anyway, so Lyla gave the last bits in explicit detail, feeling as though she needed to say more than what she should. There was another silence as she shoveled the rest of her dinner into her mouth and excused herself from the table—but her dad grabbed her by the wrist, pulled her back, and demanded her driving license. Fighting through tears, Lyla said it was just a dream—really, honestly—and after ten minutes, she asked him how long it would be before she could drive again. Her dad went to the closet to get another light bulb, not looking at her once. She stood at the dinner table and traced the old marks on the wood with her finger. With a solid frown, he screwed in the new light bulb, and it sparked to life. Then the other one went out. He screamed at her until she ran back to her room.
That night, she saw the child’s mother in her dreams, a sickly lady with a chiseled, mannish jawline and a mop of copper hair that sat upon her scalp. With a watering hose in hand, she asked where her son was over and over until the lilies she was watering budded, blossomed, and finally wilted over in death. The rain came down, but it meant nothing; the boy’s mother continued to water the lilies, asking where, where, where. Lyla stood with her feet together, shaking her head vehemently. Not in the storm drain, she said. The only things down there were scraps of dead leaves and tiny paper sailboats.
Without her license, Lyla was forced to get up at five o’clock the next morning to walk to school. When she arched her head back, the raindrops pounded against her forehead like the way a hammer pounded a nail—except it wasn’t really raining, and the throbbing in her head was only the result of another restless night. It didn’t matter. She stuck her tongue out to taste the rain, remembering the balmy sweetness of those Sunday mornings when her mother was still alive. The images of the after-rain had etched themselves into her mind: sparkling fields of dew, almost unnaturally fluorescent leaves. But then, so did the images of the drowned earthworms, the beetles and ants floating in the rainbucket, the milky gaze of a bird whose claw got stuck between the wooden boards of their front porch and died too quickly from the cold.
The grief on her mother’s face haunted Lyla still. The bird and the porch had both been the same color, so nobody had noticed it stuck there while it suffered through its last moments of life. When her mother finally saw it, she had cupped the bird in her hands and stroked its red feathers—gently, as if careful not to wake it from death—while Lyla stood beside her, her curious heart split over the fact that the first time she was able to see a bird so up close was when it was already dead. And her mother, in whispers, told her that so brilliant a color was that cardinal that perhaps its vibrance was the very thing that killed it.
“We might have noticed it then,” her mother said, “if it had been any color other than red.”
The irony wrung Lyla’s heart now as sharply as it did that day. Her mother wanted the porch to be painted in her favorite color. The cardinal could not help but be red; it could not help that its existence hinged on its violent coloration; it could not help that the very thing that it depended on to be noticed was the very thing that caused it not to be noticed.
“We should have seen it,” her mother said. “It was right in front of us."
In essence, the bird died because her mother’s favorite color was red, and Lyla never frowned harder after that realization. How cruel, she thought; how sadistic. But life went on, and they buried the cardinal under the tree in their backyard.
When she got to school, one of her classmates asked her why she was sticking her tongue up at the sky. Not really thinking about her answer, she said it was so that she could taste the rain. Her classmate called her weird, because it clearly wasn’t raining, and without a word Lyla tucked her head in and took her seat in the corner of the classroom. Between mandatory English and the other English class she didn’t remember signing up for, she dreamt about dreams, closing her eyes and letting the smell of Saigon street food overwhelm her senses. Later she recalled the documentary on French pastries she saw two years ago and traveled back there; in a Parisian bakery she found herself gawking at golden croissants and glazed strawberry tarts. What did it matter if she couldn’t tell between metaphor and simile or anaphora and epiphora? She could live the world in her mind, and a botched essay could only jeopardize the numbers on her report card, not her plans to see the world.
And so she sprinkled her essay with misplaced commas and quotes without quotation marks, handed it in to the teacher, and left class forty minutes early after asking to go to the restroom. She fell asleep under the bare willow on the outskirts of town, and again it was raining in her dreams—not the same kind of rain from those Sunday mornings but the kind that stung the skin and chilled the heart. It was the same kind that poured when she cried over the earthworms, the beetles and ants, the bird she couldn’t save. And as much as she wanted to accept that the rain was just another truth of life, she could not. Perhaps she could never embrace something so deceptive and two-faced: cold on some days and warm on others, roaring and boisterous in the wake of a storm yet light and hazy on an otherwise sunny afternoon. But she could also not deny that she wanted to see the rain at its worst on that day the child walked in front of her car.
His mother was watering lilies in the rain again.
“Where is he?” she asked, but Lyla had places to be, and she knew that when she woke up she could not get to those places anymore. In her dreams she sacrificed self-awareness for immersion; she knew only what her subconscious allowed her to know, and she had neither the desire nor the volition to question her experiences.
“I didn’t see him,” Lyla said, and it was true, but it wasn’t an answer. Unlacing her fingers, she backed up into the car she left idling at the stop sign. Her hand reached for the handle and pulled, but the door was locked from the inside. At the other end of the road, through the mist of the rain, she thought she could see the silhouette of her father. With relief flooding over her, Lyla took a step toward him. He could explain everything; he was her father and therefore he had credibility. People would believe him, of course. But then the boy’s mother began to scream and beat her with the water hose, and she woke up.
On the way home, she could not help but laugh at how ridiculous the situation sounded, a woman beating up a random girl on the street with a water hose. It was funny, she thought, and she had to tell her dad.
Over mushy cauliflower and pink chicken on the night of her eighteenth birthday, Lyla, seeing that her dad was in a particularly bad mood, decided not to say anything after all. They ate their meal in silence, with only the occasional clack of a beetle flying into the new light bulb disturbing the peace. Every now and then her eyes stole a glance at her dad, who seemed at the end of his patience about something she didn’t know about. Her mind could only wonder. Was it the food she made? The light bulb? Or did he find out about her skipping class again? In the end, she could not go long without an answer.
“How’s the chicken?”
And she offered an apology, which he did not take.
After dinner she spent a few hours throwing up in the bathroom since the chicken was, in fact, undercooked, but she didn’t have the sense to throw it in the trash in fear of her dad’s reprimands. And so this was her only choice, and for her there was no better way to spend her eighteenth birthday. Maybe if her mother was alive, Lyla could have gotten a cake like all the other kids. Even the ones who didn’t celebrate birthdays anymore got cake every now and then. But her mother wasn’t alive, and she knew she shouldn’t let it get to her; after all, she knew that getting a cake for your birthday wasn’t any measurement for a parent’s love, not at all, because she hadn’t gotten a cake in a few years, but her dad loved her all the same.
Later that night, Lyla sat in the darkness of her room and thought about Tokyo. If she moved there, she probably wouldn’t have to do her English homework; she would be speaking Japanese instead, so it was a win-win in her mind. She was eighteen now. She had been waiting to be eighteen for eighteen years, but if she told anyone that, they would just laugh at her. Of course they would laugh. They would still be laughing after she turned away from them and took a one-way flight to Japan. But when she landed, she would be greeted with the utmost respect and dignity, and nobody would be laughing anymore because she was in Tokyo now, and she’d go to Akihabara to buy all the new electronics her dad wouldn’t let her have, and she’d waltz right through the cotton candy colors of Harajuku to window shop at all the trendy boutiques. Perhaps then she could measure her life in the bowls of ramen she would slurp down every evening—thick, robust tonkotsu topped with fermented bamboo and wood ear mushrooms; lighter, milder shoyu garnished with green onions and colorful slices of cured fish.
And then she’d go to Shinjuku Gyoen to see the cherry blossoms scatter across pools of still water. And she’d stare into her reflection there, and her reflection would stare back. And she would see her face—not yet eighteen, but wishing it was—with eyes too large and a nose too flat, with a mouth that always curved a little too much on the left side, with skin too dark to be taken seriously but too light to be accepted. And her locks of ash-brown hair would cascade down her shoulders and cover her face once more. And she would stop looking at the water, and maybe then she would go somewhere else.
She was eighteen, and she was supposed to be free. But in the darkness of her room, as she crawled onto her bed and clutched a flat pillow to her chest, the world turned its head and ignored her.
Shortly after breakfast the next morning, Lyla walked to the only public library in town and wandered through the aisles. It was a Saturday, and she didn’t see as many of her classmates as usual, given that they were probably sleeping in. She ran her fingers through dozens of books but read none; on one occasion she had made it as far as the checkout counter with one before realizing that she had no interest in the history of realist fiction, which she would have known sooner if she had read the title. On the way back to return the book, she was stopped by a man in a green shirt—an acquaintance from science class, she realized soon enough, who only interacted with her whenever he needed a partner for a group project.
He said that he was turning eighteen in two weeks and that she was invited to his birthday party. His parents had already booked a venue at a nice hotel in the city nearby. It would be one of those events that only happened once in a lifetime, he claimed, so Lyla would never live it down if she missed it. In lieu of a response, she stared into the brown pools of his eyes and thought about how small that city was compared to the capitals of the world. Their town paled in comparison to Washington, but Washington was smaller than Cairo, and Cairo was but a third of Bangkok. Lyla considered thus: they were in a library in a town in the middle of nowhere, situated next to a city that was only marginally less pathetic than the place they called home. For what reason did this place even deserve to be on a map when it was so insignificant, so useless and tiny?
“Hey, ” her classmate said, waving a hand in front of her face. “You okay?”
“Sorry,” she said. “I can’t go.”
For a moment he was quiet, and Lyla looked down at her shoes.
“I know things are pretty crazy right now, with the police investigation and all,” he said. “But that shouldn’t keep you from going to something like this. Once-in-a-lifetime, remember?”
“My dad took my license.”
“He’s—afraid for my safety.”
He scoffed. “Come on, you know how parents are. Just because some kid went missing doesn’t mean that everyone will. Why do you need his permission anyway? Haven’t you been eighteen for a while now?”
“I just don’t want to worry him, that’s all.”
He frowned and glanced at her quivering hands. “Well. The offer’s still there if your dad ever lets you go. See you around, Lisa.”
Lyla stared at his back as he walked away, a little offended that he couldn’t remember her name. Then she realized that she couldn’t remember his either, so she let it go.
Instead of trying to cook dinner that night, she decided to microwave some frozen alfredo pasta that she got from the supermarket. It dawned on her that it was impossible to undercook microwavable alfredo, unlike the chicken she thought she knew how to handle. Her dad seemed hardly pleased about the edible food, but Lyla thought it was a new milestone in her culinary endeavors.
While twirling a noodle around her fork and wondering what real Italian food would taste like in Italy, her dad spoke up.
“The police came again today.”
Lyla stopped everything and looked at him, shocked that he was trying to have a normal conversation with her for first time since her mother died.
“What did they want?” she asked.
“Same thing as last time,” he said. “Information on the kid. He was last seen around here, after all. Apparently his mom won’t stop bothering them.”
“Oh.” The alfredo suddenly didn’t taste so good anymore, and she put her fork down.
Her dad remained quiet. He finished the rest of his measly dinner, threw away the plastic tray, and returned to the table to scroll through news headlines on his tablet. Lyla studied his face. The wrinkles ran deep into his cheeks, and his dark eyebrows were angled so that it looked as if he was perpetually irritated. His skin, tainted by age, sagged downward, especially underneath his eyes. She wondered if he remembered the promise he made to her and her mom. A long time ago, he said that he would take them to see the world—starting with Athens, since Lyla’s mom loved ancient Greek architecture. Lyla, too young to really understand at the time, went to bed that night wondering why her mom was interested in seeing statues of naked people.
She picked at her food. Athens seemed so far away now.
“Dad,” Lyla started, unsure of what to say but sure that she couldn’t say nothing. “Could you go to jail for accidentally killing someone?”
He didn’t look up from his tablet. “Depends on what happened.”
“If I—if you hit someone with a car. And you didn’t see him.”
“Like in your dream.”
Her voice sunk to a whisper. “Like in my dream.”
“You didn’t see him because you were daydreaming again.”
“Because you were thinking about other places.”
He slammed his fist down onto the table, rattling the glasses of water left over from the morning. Lyla retreated in her seat and brought her legs up to her chest, caught in her dad’s focused gaze.
“How do you intend on going anywhere without any money? No job, no friends, piss-poor grades. You keep watching those damn documentaries, but they don’t tell you anything about what really matters, here and now. It’s always some other places and the future. You don’t want to see the world. You just want to run away. I’m sick of it, Lyla.”
Her dad stood up at once. “You should have seen him. He was right in front of you.”
That’s what Mom said about the cardinal, Lyla wanted to say. But her lips seemed to be glued together, and she couldn’t look away from the hands on her lap. Her dad left her, and Lyla was alone with the bugs flying around the dining room light bulbs. She leaned against the wooden table, rested her head on her arms, and closed her eyes.
Paris was good to visit this time of year, or so she heard. She thought about it every spring. But for the first time, she wondered if what she knew was even real. She had never been there. Perhaps the experience wouldn’t be as great as she thought. Maybe the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre had nothing to really offer her. Maybe they were all cliches in the end—face-value stereotypes, like the guns and idiotic patriotism that marred the American name. In the end, what did she really know about Paris? France? Europe? Anywhere else besides her miserable hometown, which she had never even been able to leave? She couldn’t even go to that birthday party in the next city over, not without a license.
The rain splattered on the roof above her head. She thought about the boy and his mother. The rain had washed away the blood that day. Nobody saw her slide him down the storm drain. They’d find him eventually, but they wouldn’t know it was her. It was just an accident. It was cruel to imagine just one accident undermining a lifetime of dreams, a single moment sabotaging all that she ever wanted in life. She couldn’t see Paris or Tokyo, New York or London. She would never leave this place—all because she had been thinking about leaving this place when she ran the stop sign.
Lyla wondered if the boy’s mother would forgive her. Her son was gone forever, and Lyla didn’t even have the decency to offer her a body upfront. Though it was an accident, it was an accident she imposed, and here she was being overwhelmingly selfish. It was awful and terrible and wicked of her—she knew this, but she couldn’t bring herself to try the alternative. She didn’t want to think that there was an alternative. To be noble and virtuous here would be to assign herself a life bound by nature’s cruel laws.
And yet, the sunlight in her dreams seemed so much darker than before. The pork slices in her Tokyo ramen were chewy and full of fat. The Statue of Liberty was covered in bird droppings, and Rome was overrun with rats. Would it have been better not to know?
When the morning came, Lyla took her license from her dad’s room and drove herself to the police station.