Sara Lippmann



When I turn six, my mother starts school. She walks me to my classroom for the first and last time. After today, I'm on my own. A stringer for the local paper snaps our photo. We wear backpacks like parachutes. The caption reads: like mother, like daughter.


Fish slosh in the toilet. Fish we flushed, an unlucky pair born in Ziploc, blanched at the glimpse of holiday Gefilte, as if to say: how could you? My grandparents read German fairytales. There are worse things. Children on fire. Don't play with matches, they say. Children starve to death protesting dinner peas, but this fish, this floppy gold fellow, is Jonah in scale. Back from the dead. Shut the lid, they say. Walk away before it comes for you.


My mother says, Pay Attention. She is studying how to help kids with problems. I am her guinea pig. Not because I have problems, mind you, but because I'm a kid. Later, she will bring me into dream analysis class for show & tell. Remember. Recall. Draw what you know.


Cliffs, teeth, bloody gums. Tarantulas and snakes. House on fire. In dreams I am falling, being chased. Textbook dreams. My dreams are disappointing, lacking in case worthy complexity. In dreams my parents wear masks, fumy rubber, their cheeks burning coals like Ronald and Nancy Reagan on MTV. This is the Land of Confusion. Capes soar. Putty peels from the forehead down. Their faces open onto other faces.


When I stand sweaty, hot over her pillow, my mother pops up. I thought you were a ghost. Go back to sleep. Think happy thoughts. Here's a paper, take a crayon.


Plates crash. My father pulls in and out of the driveway. When you work your fucking balls off it is reasonable to expect dinner on the table. He returns, contrite, with Ding Dongs and frozen entrees. Anger gives way to prayer. His room abuts my room. Walls are thin. At night, I listen to him read from the Torah—Genesis, Numbers –—his voice lulling yet nasal, as if his pathway has been blocked.


Jack Tripper makes me happy. Three's Company makes me happy. Television is my babysitter. I laugh with my mouth open and blackened in crumbs. My mother is right: with a little practice, you can train your brain to dream anything. Pratfalls and short shorts and baby doll fringe and swinging kitchen doors.


Years from now, I will ask: If you are so unhappy why do you stay? She will say it's complicated and you don't know the half of it and I will close my eyes and conjure her pushed, banister split, tumbling backward, downstairs.


The Ku Klux Klan shows up after school. They knock like Jehovah's Witness knocks only louder, more forceful. I am a latchkey kid. We know you're in there. The signpost on my door gives away my faith but they won't find me. In the living room, MTV blares. Fists pound but I am deep inside my mother's closet crouched between dry cleaner bags. When I sketch myself hidden behind a curtain of dresses, suffocating in plastic, long forgotten, my mother gets an A+. Finally, she has material to work with.


You don't need school to know everything signifies something else. Vanity. Fear. There are categories. It is false to go around puffing stuff up with extraneous meaning. Still, people see what they want.


I am in a barrel floating downstream. I am in Ireland in winter, in Ibiza in summer, on a scooter, a wicker between the handlebars, hibiscus in my hair. I pedal fast and faster, as if the wheels might miraculously grant me lift.


When swastikas crop up on the playground equipment near my daughter's school, I say, don't worry. Things happen. You are safe. My daughter goes to a school named after a female paratrooper in World War II. Before Hannah Senesh was killed by the Nazis, she was tortured for enemy secrets. She never told. Instead she wrote poetry. This line's hers: A voice called and I went.


I am failing Shakespeare in college. I can't get to class because I'm nursing. I am always nursing and when I'm not nursing I'm being puked on. There is no time. I live in a dorm but forget my dorm key. I can't get a new key because duh, I'm a mother now. I've had my chance.


The vivid dreamscape is a side effect of my new antidepressant, I'm told. Don't you understand: Everything is a trade-off.


My husband is cheating with my best friend. She is in real estate so we are drinking wine in a mid-century modern overlooking the valley, somehow in California. They lay out the new world order. Marriage should be a lease, not a purchase. My merlot drops from my hand. The difference between glass and crystal lies in the drama of its shatter.


Before bed, my daughter reads to me and to her stuffed animals, among them, the tattered bear I had as a child. This is my gift to her. Proximity is enough. That smell. She does all the voices. I'm out like a light.


Last night, the land of dreams is at once unknown and familiar. Leafy ferns and ficus, lush and green like Rousseau only minus the beasts. Rousseau never left his house anyway. The only animals here are women: on the bed, on the floor, arms flung overhead in reckless abandon. I tiptoe. I do not wish to disturb. There is a blue basket of mushrooms on the countertop. Ingredients for dinner. I pop the stems and launch the caps out the window. They catch wind and drift. The sky is full of them.





Credit for the dream mosaic concept goes to the inimitable Kathy Fish.