“How vain it is to sit down to write
when you have not stood up to live.”
Henry David Thoreau
Be real. Be real. If not for anyone else, you must be real at least for me, I whisper. I wait for salt spray to splash me in the face and for wind to knock me into the waves, but all I get is a dent in the painting where I kicked it. At the subway station, I am seized by a wild hope when papers come flying past, only to find myself in the same dark and dismal place five minutes later. I’m not in Narnia, I’m in New York. The rain is falling, it’s getting darker every second, and I’m five hundred miles from home.
I bury myself in a copy of The Last Battle until darkness falls and my eyes go to waste. When the lights go out, I lie awake in that cold night for hours, imagining. I am no longer me. I am Lady Nessa, the daughter of King Gale, the hero who slew a dragon and became the first emperor of the Lone Islands. In this dream world where I am a queen, each of my flaws is idealized: stiff becomes shy, arrogant becomes ambitious. I don’t look like myself, either. My hair is lighter and wraps more naturally around my face, my eyes are soft and doll-like, my skin is creamier. I am wearing royal clothes. I am young enough to be treated like a child. I play chess with a talking mouse. I fight valiantly in a battle. I stow away on a ship. I talk to a star.
I wake up. I look in the mirror. I’m me, and outside the window, the rain is falling again.
Back home, the tension is growing thicker. I bolt my door, stuff a pillowcase into the cracks, and reach for the nearest book. Rainbow Valley, the cover says, book seven in the Anne of Green Gables series. Before long moss creeps up the walls, and I can smell the wildflowers Jem is gathering for his mother. From outside my window come the shouts of delighted children, enjoying each other’s presence in their favorite place in the world. And suddenly, I am no longer the onlooker. I am there with them, and Walter is reading poetry, and the Meredith boys are frying a string of trout, and there is happiness, and there is camaraderie. There is friendship, too, at last, at last.
A door somewhere slams and the book falls shut, cutting off my escape. But the escape is not over. That night I snuggle into the blankets and shut out the world again. I return to Rainbow Valley, not through a physical copy of the book in my hands, but through a mental copy of the world it created for me. This time the characters are different. The people in that world become real, and people in the real world become fictional. I borrow their names and their faces, changing them here and there to fit my needs. Then the names and faces fade and only the emotions remain. I spend hours refining five-second moments into perfect movies of love, creating enough warmth to fill the cold room where I lie in numb inaction. I feel more comfortable with Eeyore and Rabbit in the Hundred Acre Wood than in my own backyard, where my own stuffed animals stand lifeless, with perfectly sewn mouths that will never smile.
Presently I stop reading, content to indulge in the worlds I have already visited. With the numbness grows the need to make the worlds tangible, and I begin to have trouble distinguishing the dreams from reality. The dreams play with my consciousness, terrifying me into a perpetual state of distraction and confusion. I pace for hours as I save a family from a burning building. I fall asleep, and the exhaustion carries through into reality. The sirens start again—I shut myself back in—I am confused, and slowly, as day after day goes by in a dream, I begin to flounder.
The real world ceases to be real. My brother leaves for college, but I am not there to say goodbye. I wake up in the middle of the day, pale and in tears, and do not know whether I have been sleeping, whether I am even now awake, whether I am not still in a dream, a dream of a dream. I stare into blank faces above me and do not recognize them. One day, deep in the middle of a fantasy, I realize I am drowning.
The water is warm, but it suffocates.
I am breathing, but I am not alive.
I wake up.
The light is streaming from the windows of the hotel room, struggling in through mesh curtains, warm and quiet. There is a face above me. An air conditioner hums below me. All of these things are so imperfect that they must be real.
I begin to read again, cautiously. I read not to insert myself into their realities, but for the lessons they learn to insert themselves into mine. I read novels. I read biographies. I read memoirs. I read in English, and as I read, the language becomes intoxicatingly real to me.
So do the languages of others.
I like the guttural letters of Arabic. I like testing the limits of my own voice, trying my throat with ayn and ghayn; the exotic sounds are sharp and strict and down-to-earth in my world of painful fantasies. I smile when I hear people speaking Spanish in public, even when I can only decipher one or two phrases. In my own room, later, I let my tongue run over sentences from my textbook. “El lobo,” I whisper, wrapped in blankets at three a.m. “El lobo morará con el cordero. El leopardo. El leopardo se echará con el cabrito.” The wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. This world that I’ve unlocked for myself is audible now, and it opens up for me on street signs, on instruction manuals, on pockets of dialogue that drift past on busy Chicago streets. “Tomatillo,” I whisper as I pass a booth at the farmers’ market. “Toh-mah-TI-yo.” A Mexican husk tomato. The word turns vivid, and with it the world swells, sagging at the skins with light and color.
The light grows until it is everywhere. The color, too, explodes. It settles in shafts of soft orange and sunny yellow on the windowsill, then slips under my arms like the homespun blankets too shaggy to be from a dream. Dusk falls, then night. My book falls shut, but this time my eyes stay open, dizzy with the magic of wind and fading gold.
I lie awake in that warm summer night. I am no longer Lady Nessa of Narnia with her quiet bravery and starry eyes. I am no longer Rilla Blythe with her flawless world. I am just me, and I am where I am, and I am exactly who I need to be. Alive—awake—and real.
Tomorrow when my brother leaves for college again, I will be there to say goodbye.