She always found it sort of embarrassing to admit she had dreams. In college, most of her friends didn’t talk about dreams – they were too busy crafting blueprints, reading assignments, drinking beer, finding love and losing it. Sometimes though, four or five of them would get together in the tiny little room she rented above the busy marketplace. It would be quiet then, because it was after midnight, and even the market area, usually so crammed with college students with Kants and Hegels and Juliets swirling in their heads, and young men and women who’d just stepped foot into the real world, and beggars who’d known the real world since they’d been little children lurking outside coffee shops, and shopkeepers who could tell just how torn a money note had to be before it was deemed totally unacceptable, even this area, so crowded and spilling over with all these lives and the accompanying sounds, sights, and smells – it was quiet then. A couple of dimly lit street lamps cast the obligatory harsh orange light on silent streets, a few dogs dutifully curled up near gutters along with shapeless bundles that during the day were something close to human beings.
Anyway, they’d meet, about four or five of them, and they’d have a few beers and they’d light a few joints, and in between talking about all the regular stuff, they’d also sometimes lower their guards down, just enough to speak some sort of truth about themselves, about what they thought, about what they wanted. One night was the same as the other really; they were almost seamless, the way they wove into one another, marvellously forgettable and infinitely timeless.
Seven years later, she’s standing at the corner of a pavement, waiting for the signal to turn green so she can cross, and she is filled with a deep joy that can only be explained slowly, in bits and pieces, and for some reason, with the sun shining on her, so bright that she has to wear sunglasses although she always feels a bit of a fool in them, and her sleek mobile phone clutched tight in her sweaty hand, she remembers one of those nights, and all of a sudden, it is very clear, a photographic memory, even though she’s not sure whether it’s the result of many similar photographs coming together, or a single, brief snapshot, catching her unawares, as yet another taxi sails past her, and the light continues to remain stubbornly scarlet.
She was twenty one years old then, and like most twenty one year olds, she had the world at her feet. They all did, and they knew it, and the thought exhilarated them and terrified them and for the most part, they tried to bury it away because to contemplate it was frightening: too much was at stake, too much was unknown, and it was all too much, sometimes.
“Do you remember when you were little and you used to play that What-I-Want-To-Be-When-I-Grow-Up game?” A said, and though she hasn’t seen A in six years, she can recall her face as if she’d seen her just yesterday. Big trusting eyes (are they still trusting?), a sharp little nose. Pretty, unremarkable, earnest.
“Oh gawd,” drawled M, leaning back on her elbows: a graceless position to be in, but nothing M did could ever be graceless, because M was one of those people who are born to movement.
“I remember,” said C, eyes flushed with cheap wine. “I wanted to marry our electrician.”
A shout of laughter.
“Why?” She’d asked curiously, stubbing out vague memories of the time she was six years old and wanted to marry a carpenter.
“I don’t know,” said C, uncomfortablv. “He was cute. And he always made the lights come on. I guess I just liked the idea of being with someone who could make darkness disappear.”
There was a pause that very briefly threatened to grow serious before she snorted with laughter and soon they were all rolling around the bed and the floor, shrieking with mirth, and that was why she loved them, that was why they were different from all her other friends.
“What do you want to do now?” said M, stubbing out her cigarette and lighting another. She watched M’s face, its angles thrown into sharp relief against the feeble flickering of the flame.
Fine bone structure, dear.
“After college? I want to go to Oxford,” said C dreamily. “I want to go and read a lot and then I want to find a niche and learn all about it and think my own thoughts about it and then I want to write realms and realms of useless papers on it, and teach ‘em all to students...and I want a garden of my own that grows really nice roses.”
She could see C doing that: leading a quiet academic life, revolving around libraries and gardens, and silver rimmed glasses that lay forgotten on polished wooden tables, and she felt a pang of envy.
“Mine never changed. I wanted to write about war and soldiers when I was little and I still do, I guess.” A shot a secret look at M, and she didn’t understand it then and she’s not sure if she understands it now while crossing the road – the light has finally turned green – but either way, she reckons it isn’t important.
That had been the first time she’d heard about A wanting to be a war correspondent and it surprised her because though she could see M doing it, A was the sort of person who just...well, she just sort of floated along, and it sounded terrible to her then, and it still sounds terrible to her now, but that didn’t make it any less true.
“I am going to scram to one of the biggest cities in the world,” said M, not drawling for once, but she suppressed a smile anyway because the thought of M not wanting to live in one-of-the-biggest-cities-in-the-world would have been as ludicrous as the thought of A traipsing around in the middle east or wherever wars happened, dusty and earnest, with a forgotten pen tucked behind her ear and a state of the art laptop swinging from her side. “And once I’m there, I’m going to get a job publishing – or in fashion, I just can’t choose, damn it – and I’m going to make a lot of money and marry someone incredibly handsome and ambitious, and have the perfect family, and deep down all the while, I’m going to be incredibly miserable.”
“Why would you want to be miserable?” asked C incredulously.
She saw the corners of M’s mouth turning up. A secret little smile. “Oh come on, you lot. Like I’d ever be happy if I couldn’t be miserable.”
Laughter filled the room – no stranger to it – once again.
“What about you? You’ve been surprisingly quiet, love.” C turned to her, drawing her in, which was a little odd – she can see it now, as she pauses briefly outside a clothing store to admire the red coat that warms the cold mannequin – because she was usually the sort of person who dove right into things. Or pretended to, anyway.
But they were talking about dreams.
They knew her well so she had to put up a good performance and the only way she could do that was by half convincing herself that she was about to tell the truth.
“I want...” she paused for a second, and took a deep drag of her cigarette. “I want to be a travel writer. I want to travel all over the world and I want to write about what I see – half funny, entirely forgettable stories that make people laugh, just then, when they’re reading it. And eventually, I want to meet the love of my life – maybe have children, maybe not – and keep travelling and exploring and...” she trailed away.
“That’s perfect for you,” said C enthusiastically, clapping her hands and forgetting she had a glass of cheap red wine in the left one. While they were all busy cleaning it up, and laughing hysterically at their own incompetence, M’s eyes met her own. M knew she was lying, and if ever eyes could talk, hers did then.
Pretend I’m telling the truth, don’t ever ask me, don’t ever probe, just play along.
M turned to look at A who was hiccupping uncharacteristically and her eyes crinkled with laughter. M, aggressive, untactful, full of curiosity, had somehow, incredibly, received her message. For a brief moment, she wondered if she’d been imagining it, but when M glanced her way again, she realised that she hadn’t, and felt a surge of overwhelming gratefulness.
And now it's seven years later and she's walking down the road in a city she's always wanted to live in - and now she is, she really is - and the sun is bright and the breeze is sharp enough to add colour to her colourless cheek, and her eyes are brighter than they have been in a very long time, her shoulders are mingling with other shoulders, her legs are becoming part of a world of legs, her future is being lost in other futures, and then she turns a corner - the light is dazzling - and she can't be seen anymore.