Dream States by Emma Rault
My dad speaks to me in my dream. It’s the first dream since he died in which he isn’t dying or crying, or telling me how awfully I’ve let him down in some drawn-out argument. In the dream, I’m getting ready to make a decision about setting out on a journey. My dad is trying to convince me to leave that day. I ask, “Do I really have to go that far? I was hoping to be back by five.”
He says, “You have to drive at least 300 miles before you can begin to get anywhere. But it doesn’t have to be today.”
When I wake up, I recognize it for what it is straight away: an America dream.
Before I met the men I call my American brothers, who got me (a tentative waif, all European trauma) through my college years, with their firm hugs, their chocolate-chip cookies dipped in milk, their rigorous approach to self-improvement, and their unhesitating warmth towards the world—
before I met my mom’s purple-haired, queer cello teacher from Arizona, who had taught herself sign language in the back of the car while being shuffled across the vast desert between her parents’ homes; who had a tin Rosie the Riveter sign tacked to her wall and seemed to my teen self a singular embodiment of self-determination on a par with the Statue of Liberty herself—
before meeting the various Americans who lit up my life, who drew me across the ocean to meet their European moms and show me the Empire State Building, not as a tourist attraction but as their dad’s first place of employment after coming to the States from the Philippines—
before all of that, there were soap operas, and I suppose that’s where it began.
The first TV show I ever saw was Santa Barbara, soon followed by The Bold and the Beautiful and As the World Turns. I was a kid enraptured by the machinations of the grown-up world, presented to me in these shows in glamorous, compelling hyperbole, all late-Eighties power suits and insults hurled amid acid-green plastic ferns.
I loved Saul, the wise Jewish tailor; Sally’s theatricality and the eternal push-and-pull between her and her arch nemesis Stephanie; Brooke, the clever, scrappy chem-lab worker with her sardonic dimpled smile. With their delight in cliché and corny slang terms (I still remember the phrases I first learned from watching soap operas: “a dead ringer,” “state enemy number one”), the pan-flute score and the unconvincing faux-foliage outside the Hughes’ front door when fall came to Oakdale, Illinois, soap operas provided a vision of the world that was both exciting and ultimately reassuring.
After all, nothing ever really changes in the world of soap opera: you can turn on the TV any day and count on square-jawed Ridge still being torn between two glossy-maned glamazons, in between stock shots of waves rolling onto Venice Beach. World without end.
In high school, restless, I’d stay up until 5 a.m. watching half-heartedly made B movies, whatever convictions they had started out with obviously abandoned halfway through, a world peeling at the seams: mic shadows on walls, telephone voices dubbed by people who weren’t even members of the cast. There was something I found captivating about these worlds so obviously being artificial. And there’s something about that commitment to pretense—willing things into being—that seems very American.
But really, it began with my grandparents and their American dreams. My grandfather was a young man when the Allied Forces liberated his hometown of Zutphen, the Netherlands. It gave him a life-long love of all things American. And then—in pursuit of our French roots—my dad found himself falling in love with the part of Normandy where the Allied Forces had first landed in Europe.
And so I ended up on Omaha Beach and Utah Beach as a toddler, walking there with my grandfather who had lived through the Second World War, with my dad the historian, each of whom must have been struck in his own way by this careless, wholesome child in her striped Breton shirt, gathering stones and seaweed like a little shaman amid the hordes of helmeted ghosts. A triumph over history.
And we careened down French country lanes buffeted by hedgerows in our van, listening to Souza marches. We didn’t mean anything by it—we weren’t being patriotic; my parents just liked the music, with its hyperbolic buoyancy. But those memories are part of what would make me cry, decades later, seeing brass bands at festivals in small Connecticut towns, the echo of familiarity—home—brought back to me via half a dozen unlikely detours.
My grandmother, too, revered America: F. Scott Fitzgerald, the glamour of the Jazz Age, the promise of the New World, unscathed by the Second World War, all lightness and ease like freshly folded laundry. (Years later, a friend, second-generation Italian-American, would tell me scathingly: “When my elegant mother moved to the US, she replaced her entire wardrobe with polyester.”)
I grew up with the photos of my grandparents’ trips to America: 1970s palettes further yellowed by time, oversized sunglasses and a cruise ship on the Mississippi, their faces alive with quiet wonder, open as newborns, as open as the expanse of landscape that engulfed them.
My family was good at wanting to be somewhere else. Every family story is a class story, and my family was trapped in its self-conception. Discussions always returned to the same old line: “We’re nothing but dirt farmers from Vleuten.” My grandmother the Gemini, with a different self to aspire to every day—Madame Bovary, Daisy Buchanan, Thérèse Desqueyroux—could never quite shake off the Dutch mud.
And so we stayed and we dreamed: me and my family of Americans-at-a-remove, watching as others around us made the jump to the other side.
After getting back from a trip to the US, I watch Spike Lee’s documentary about New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: the splintered wreckage of people’s carefully-cradled homes. I watch a Black woman sob on her son’s shoulder as she beholds their family’s waterlogged heirlooms, and I reflect on the sacrifices my family has had to make.
I watch as one of the evacuees begins a new life in a small Utah community. A crowd of locals applauds. It’s a scenario that’s both American dream-come-true and American fiction. But then any settlement story is. You made it through, body and spirit intact, and to an extent the enormity of that eclipses nuance.
One of us did make it to the other side. Aunt Kaatje followed her American lover to Virginia and gave birth to two American children. She came back to Holland one more time—this beautiful, nervous girl with her long, blonde hair: plagued, it seemed, by an urgent secret, but one that she swallowed at the last minute. She returned to America, and shortly afterwards she was shot in her home. It was ruled a suicide. But then who would miss a Dutch girl fresh-off-the-boat in rural Virginia?—and our arms not long enough to reach her there. Her husband’s girlfriend took her place within weeks of her death.
It’s a scary gamble, uprooting yourself. It’s so easy to slip through the cracks, fall off the map. I think of that gunshot ringing out in my family’s American history: the cost of trying to gain a foothold in this wide, wild country.
This country of hustlers and dreamers: everywhere these lost men. In downtown LA, on the corner of Broadway & 5th, a beggar sits cross-legged in ragged clothes like a mummy’s bandages, the soles of his feet black with dirt, an imperious fire still alive in his eyes. He asks me for change; I’ve just spent my last on doughnuts. I ask him if he’d like one, and he nods, wordlessly like a small child. His fingers close around it, yellow talons touching my fingertips.
A few days later, at the intersection of Washington & Lincoln in Marina del Rey, I give all my hoarded bus change to a guy my dad’s age who is standing there in the blazing heat holding up a sign saying “EVEN PENNIES HELP” to the passing cars. My heart drops, turning around on my bike to wave goodbye and seeing his small frame, the blurred tattoo in the middle of his neck where his spine starts. I think: how is it this country cannot find a way to look after this man, these men?
I feel it so sharply because my dad, too, was once a castaway man—a lost boy—with his wild eyes and torn leather jacket and, as the family legend goes, “a rope around his pants instead of a belt.” My daddy James Dean.
My uncle tells the story of how, when he was little, my dad came to visit in a noisy two-door Rover P5, a rarely-seen, flamboyant vehicle that took on a mythic quality in my uncle’s little-boy-brain. In the week after my father’s death, we drove to the site of that legendary visit. My uncle drove into an alleyway behind what was once the family home. “And here,” he said solemnly, pointing up to the sky, “your father once kicked a football so hard and so high that I remember it being swallowed up by the heavens.”
My dad possessed a brazen freedom that mesmerized people wherever he went. But of course, we pay the price for the wildness we embody. My dad is the reason I know you can eat red-veined dock leaves—a piece of information that to me was charming, quaint even. But he knew this because he grew up malnourished in the wake of the Second World War.
And the reason he had paid this now-fabled visit in his Rover in the first place was because he’d just fled their violent father.
I talk to my friend Sarah from Georgia about our families’ class stories, about telling our origin stories. She says, “Everything I write is some strange love letter to my mother, despite her refusing to read my work.” I say, “I think everything I do is trying to prove my dad wrong about his working-class anxieties over not being heard or welcomed by the world.”
And in the American South, my dad felt welcome in a way he had never been anywhere else. My dad, in this country of plenty, plenty, plenty: waxing lyrical about the huge portions everywhere, places like Wendy’s and Applebee’s. The sheer solidity of the place, compared to his hungry, haggard past. (“The South likes bodies,” Sarah says. “If he was good with his hands or feet he’ll have been able to charm anyone.”)
And maybe he felt so at home in the US because he’d had such a wild life, in a way that is frankly odd in tidy, contained Holland. My dad with his love of Westerns; my dad who would always cite Johnny Cash in reference to the bad people of the world: “May he rot and burn in hell, and may he live to tell.” (It was partly in honor of him that a thrift-store Johnny Cash shirt became my favorite t-shirt some time after he had died: a talisman of damage and survival.) Like these American lone rangers, the hardships he had experienced made him direct and unapologetic. Risk creates beauty—and isn’t that the story of the American spirit?
I come to America, and my family seems to be everywhere: the dude in the diner at 11 a.m. (with his gormless, earnest teenage son in tow) deadpanning to the waitress, “I’ll have a whiskey”—so like my dad. America suits us: that wit and repartee, that engagement with the world: waiters who laugh with you and put their hands on your shoulder; strangers giving each other fashion advice in stores and saying goodbye with the words “God bless.” This country of people so casually warm with each other.
And all these hoarded scraps of Old-World treasure, too, hit home: how one of the only German words Dori knows is “Trottel” (which translates to something like doofus, klutz, silly goose), pure Austrian dialect, passed down from her mom’s side of the family.
All these inherited stories, culture-by-association, belonging everywhere a little bit, but nowhere entirely: that’s very much like my family, forever yearning over its shoulder toward another place. But in America, there’s a charming lightness to these nods to roots: like a teen girl wearing her mom’s heirloom jewelry to the prom. (Ali in Transparent defiantly strutting down the campus to seduce her professor, her great-aunt’s ring worn around her neck, never mind its notionally being cursed: creating her own destiny.) America so young and hopeful, this country where grown men drink Coca Cola and eat mac and cheese.
I go to LA’s Union Station to visit a friend in Ventura County, and I am dwarfed by the train: a three-level behemoth that’s all brushed chrome, with a comically jovial conductor who makes an elaborate performance out of every announcement (drawing out his vowels: “If you’re trying to get to Glendale, you’re on the wrooooong train. I repeat: you aaare on the wrooong train”). It’s a jarring, contradictory place—this America so big, so small, intimidating and endearing in equal measure.
Hiking in the desert, I think about the nuclear experiments that took place there in the Fifties, the bloated confidence of the ignorant. But faced with the physical reality of the landscape, so much of the “American temperament” makes sense: both the reckless belief in endless bounty and the fear of the Great Unknown.
I’m as intimidated by the vastness of this place as I am by people’s attempts to wrest control of it. At Joshua Tree, Dori and I look out on the San Andreas fault line. “People crossed this landscape on horseback,” she says. “Can you imagine?”
“Yes, and they decided they owned it,” I say wryly.
“Well, maybe by the time you’ve traversed it, you feel like you do.”
It makes sense, but it’s unsettling, too: freedom marred by an undercurrent of violence. The “New World,” the “First World,” the “Free World”—but it’s so selective about to whom it affords freedom. In Spike Lee’s documentary, I watch women pitch tents in the grounds of what used to be their two-story homes; I watch people stumble shell-shocked down the interstate in some 21st-century recreation of the Trail of Tears.
At what price does this freedom come? The stakes are so high here. Aunt Kaatje’s American children grew up to become staunch believers in the Second Amendment. But what does that mean? The right to bear arms so your mother can get shot. Passing endless military airports and artillery ranges on the train, I shiver involuntarily, unused to this kind of display of power. It makes me long for little old Holland with its safe parameters.
And I can’t quite make sense of it: nowhere else do I feel so free (to engage with people in a way that comes naturally to me; to be loud, loving, outgoing, weird); nowhere else am I so frightened. All the casual ways of laying claim to the world, subtle forms of civil disobedience—running a red light on my bike, jumping a fence to sit somewhere quiet by myself—that as a European I take for granted, and that I instinctively shy away from doing in the US, noting the presence of security guards, noting signs threatening imprisonment and multi-thousand-dollar fines.
And how can I feel free somewhere where other people aren’t afforded the same rights and privileges? What does that say about me and my commitment to democracy?
I witness a Black guy get arrested, seemingly for riding his bike on the sidewalk. Later, my friends will argue that I didn’t know the context of what was going on; he could have had an unpaid parking ticket, there could have been a warrant out for his arrest. But the sheer excess of the police’s response to him—summoning a backup vehicle within minutes, teaming up to handcuff him—is so unheard-of for me that I feel physically ill, watching this silent man with his head bowed in resignation on the other side of the street, not responding to passers-by calling out “Hey, man, are you okay?”
After witnessing the arrest, I go home and calm down for a little while before heading out to meet some boating friends in the marina. When I step onto the deck of Rumrunner, my friend Mike’s pristine sailboat, the guys are talking about cycling. The Australian in the group is laughing as he recounts a drunken misadventure on his bike. “I was in London, cycling home after a night out—wasted. I was weaving through traffic, and there was this really tight spot between two wing mirrors. Thing is—one of them was a cop car. And I fell over—ended up splayed on the bonnet. They pulled me over. Told me to get off my bike and walk home.” He laughs, and I look at his jovial white face, the white faces around him erupting into laughter.
A fun tale of a drunken lark—experienced in a country that doesn’t need an app for citizens to record police conduct; told by someone whose rented suit just happens to be the right color, a suit that makes it far more likely for him to just be slapped on the wrist and sent on his way.
Moments later, Mike makes a comment about it not being PC to refer to people as Mexican. “But it’s a nationality, not a pejorative,” I say.
“Yes. But it’s a ‘negative nationality,’ somehow, in this America,” he replies with a hollow laugh.
I try to give my sorrows to the waves, but it doesn’t come easily—and it doesn’t feel like something I should just shake off. Because it’s striking—the number of times I’ve had to preface my stories of beauty and wonder in this country by acknowledging the latest horrible thing that’s happened. It feels totally contradictory that this should be the place where I “learn to feel free.” And that’s part of the story too, this shadow-narrative—more than just an annoying distraction from the magical realism, as I would once have thought.
I watch my friend Patti walk away from me in Santa Monica, her silhouette sinuous and powerful in her distressed leather jacket and pointy-toed boots, her afro a wild halo—and my heart catches in my throat at her sheer vulnerability, at all of our vulnerability, the utter outrage that some of us are more vulnerable than others.
From Europe, we admire Americans for their bravery and activism, but this is a symptom of how spoiled we are: that to us, this is something exotic.
And yet, and yet, and yet.
In post-Katrina New Orleans, three generations of women stand in their now-desolate back yard, gesturing widely around them. “How could we leave?” they say. “This is where we were born. This is where we’ll die.” Even though most of my life has been about leaving places behind, I get that. These stupid allegiances we form. The places that choose us, that refuse to let us go.
I have two recurring dreams. In one, I’m at the shopping center where you have to go in order to get on The Plane to America. It’s a big place with a Chinese market and a bargain basement with discounted fabrics. Every time I have the dream, I’m stressed and looking for some of my luggage and trying to push through this vast, labyrinthine place to get to my plane on time.
The other dream is about a vast harbor that’s meant to be in Cologne, Germany, but which doesn’t exist there in real life. When I first started dreaming about it, I tried to find it on maps, described the journey on public transport to friends and asked if it sounded familiar to them, so real a place did it seem to me.
During my first visit to LA, I dreamt about it again. I was standing in front of the water and asking myself: where am I? This isn’t the Rheinauhafen. So where is it?
I woke up and looked out the window, Marina del Rey sprawling before me. It was right there.
I had dreamt about LA before I’d ever set foot on the West Coast. My dad speaks to me in my dream and he is whole, healthy, like a video of the demolition of a building rewound, the tower hauling itself up, straightening itself, walking out of the frame. Jonathan says, “There is reason to believe the reality of time far exceeds our understanding of it.”
In New Orleans, a brass band marches down a road flanked by ruins. At the end of the day, I suppose, it’s about our allegiances—whatever ties draw out in us that resilience and warmth, even in the face of maddening inequity.
All through this whole horrid 2016 election cycle, I’ve heard that Ginsberg line running through my head over and over again: America, when will you be angelic? Because how even to make sense of this anymore? Kaatje, a first-generation immigrant, laid down her life so that her children could vote for the wall, for America to be restored to “the Americans.” What does that mean?
It was like this in Britain just months ago. And now once again, I’m left wondering about my kinship with a place that’s not rushing to welcome me, a stranger with no more legitimate a claim than the love that I bring to its door.
But still America’s the place I reach for, everywhere, always, dreaming it from the other side of the world. It seems crazy that it’s there, of all places, where I am on borrowed time, nervously counting the days till my entrance pass to the funfair expires.
I’m still just running through that shopping mall, with its cheap chow mein, its carpeted drugstore and Chinese-owned video rental store, and trying to reach that plane.
Two nights before the election, I dream of my dad again. He is sitting in a creaky rocking chair with a rifle on his lap.
“I’m afraid it’s all going to go all wrong,” I tell him. “Is it going to be okay?”
His hair spun silver, the eerie, rhythmic creaking of the spindled rocking chair—he is more crone than wizard somehow, Lady Liberty, old now on a Southern porch.
He shakes his head sadly. “It’s not going to be good,” he says. “But I’m here. They’ll have to get past me first.”
©2017 Emma Rault
Emma Rault is a writer and translator who belongs to many places, including Cologne, Germany, the Netherlands, LA, and a canal boat on the waterways of London. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Media, Shooter Literary Magazine, and The RS 500, among others.
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