A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Fantasy Land.”
Edited by Susan Clements.
* * *
Time travel makes things shiny and now here we are running away from school, hopping on a plane to New York. Hanging out drinking in our hotel room under false names like rock stars. All the way there on the flight you looked at me as if I was someone else, and I am, I am not me who is with you, I am the other me, from the future, who knows things such as life can be so much more fun and you wouldn’t understand later but maybe I got to you just in time so I can put you on a plane and take you to see the world. We wear dark sunglasses, carry backpacks full of books. This is the best adventure ever. We take pictures looking goofy. We go see bands before anyone knows they’re cool. We have the time of our lives. We live the life. But then I have to go. What’s going to happen when I get back? Does this change the future? Is this a parallel timeline? Who will I be when I leave you and myself and return home? Time travel is tricky. It’s still too new. There’s no telling what will become of us. Is it just rebellion? The need to be cool? Is it our inability to grow up, move on, let the past be what it was? In the main timeline I wake up tired and happy. The two pasts merge into one. We didn’t run away. But we wanted to. Both of us on a plane flying north then west all the way to the sunset.
* * *
If you arrive in March, you will cry five days out of the week. You will be amazed that you can simply drive from Vermont (where you lived for six years in a bubble of river-swimming, raw milk, banjo, rolled cigarettes) six hours due south, and belong to somewhere else. Simple as that: The six hours of geography easily traversed is the only difference between “I live in Vermont” and “I live in New York.”
When you arrive the snow will be sprinkling. Not a good look. You’ll be sitting with your boyfriend (who had packed everything into the car just so), looking out the subletted window of a beautiful Danish lesbian who is also a photographer, and you’ll note the gray that is cut with other shades of the same. It’s not like the snow in Vermont, which puts apples in the cheeks of children. You’ll slip on ice and land in dog shit. You’ll secretly ask the city: Why are you doing this to me? No response.
A few days later, someone will spit directly into your face en route to see an apartment. Your boyfriend will be at work, already. The person showing the apartment will be your mortal enemy from the fourth grade.
You’ll wander. You’ll think about yourself, and the world. You’ll start to talk to people. Soon enough you’ll have found a job, a place to live (in a loft, no less); you’ll have figured out the subway, and learned something about the layout of the city—you’re on your way!
Then: You will move three times in one year. Strangers will flip you the bird, and call you a goddess. You will get your first pieces of writing published, and meet new people, and start to move without effort in the small cycles of the city; you no longer flinch at an armpit in your face. Your boyfriend will cheat on you with his co-worker, and you will lose your job, and you will behave incredibly poorly, and you will cry in various places in front of many people. One of these places will be beside the East River at two in the morning, where you’ll look up and see the skyline. You will feel your heart go on, despite all. The city will blink, and then say to you, Get up, kid—you have a lot left to do.
* * *
Tell me the best fantasy lands aren’t deep, deep conversations. The one you had when everyone else was asleep at a slumber party when you were nine years old on the basement floor covered by a green outdoor rug next to her brother’s barbell stand. Or the one you had on the bus with that boy when you were fourteen who said girls didn’t go out with him because he had a paunch and didn’t play football. And you admitted a few things about yourself that didn’t sound good. Or the one that kept you in the dining hall so you missed all your afternoon classes in college. Or the one that led you to elope. Or the one last week when you talked about how you felt about failing and failing again until one of the children came running in because you’d forgotten dinner. Tell me, aren’t the best fantasies where you have those conversations you don’t want to leave, like an island, ancient volcano, surrounded by jeweled waters, warm in the sunlight, icy in the shadow of its caves—a place you remember best for being rare, for being far in the middle of the sea, uninhabitable, or unbearably too inhabitable, left before we ruined it.
* * *
“That’s a thick moustache,” read the message from NipFun, “I’d sure like to cum on it.”
NipFun was getting straight to the point; I had to hand it to him. The grid on my phone displayed images of men, mostly shirtless, some naked. NipFun was in a harness, black leather and steel rings strapped across his chest, his cheeks red with sun. He was smiling, and eating a McFlurry™. I couldn’t help but wonder if NipFun had chosen the wrong photograph to represent himself.
He was four miles away, which is typically the kind of distance that lands you far from the top of the list in a bigger city, but I was in Oxford, Mississippi, a town where people looking for fast and easy gay sex are few and far between, and four miles is about as close as they get.
I’ve employed this app mostly for entertainment purposes, a virtual game of “Who would bone you today?” After living in New Orleans for a year, I know which of my neighbors I could sleep with, and how easily, at least based on my profile.
I’ve only followed through a few times; interacting with flakes is par for the course with apps like these. You’ll be putting on your shoes, about to head out the door for some good old fashioned blow-j action, and suddenly receive a message like “Oh my god, I forgot I had guests coming to town and they just showed up!!!” or “Can I take a rain check? The soufflé I was baking deflated and now I’m just really bummed.” I’ve heard ’em all.
I’ve even done it a few times, once in particular with a member named 4sknlvr, who persisted that we meet despite the fact that, disappointingly, I am circumcised. I knew from the beginning that his picture was an accurate representation of his body, because prior to our exchanging naked pictures with one another, we had shared glances at the gym, unsure as to the other’s attraction. In real life I’m not brave enough to say some of the things I send as messages. I’ve seen every inch of 4sknlvr’s body on my phone, and he’s seen mine, but when we see each other passing in the mirrors of the weight room, our glances shift back to our own reflections.
* * *
There was no more mayo, mustard, or ketchup. A full setup, otherwise, for the Filbert family barbeque, ready to be served. A bowl of diced onions sunned, uncles drank their Bud Lights, aunts their Lime-a-ritas. Younger cousins utilized the playground, but energy levels collectively dwindled. To them, condiment-less entrees seemed a prison sentence. They’d only known buns and meats to be partners in a flavorful dinner waltz. Hot dogs would maybe be edible for those not averse to conflict, since there was a minimal amount of relish, but the burgers? Oh, had the setup man thought it was chicken and steaks for fifty-five people, was that why there was no foresight to bring the accoutrements? Ample soda but no ice, except for what was cooling the cooler. Sure, it could be plopped into a drink, but the uncles had been dipping dirty hands. Who would take responsibility and make a Superman-speed run to the grocery store? There was nobody who would. It was like Daisy’s wedding again, when everyone knew it was a terrible idea for her to marry Ted, but they let the ceremony go on anyway.
It was July 4th; someone had to have brought fireworks. Jerry procured some and lit a few even though it wasn’t dark, to distract the whiny, young ones from their tightening bellies. There was lettuce, washed and chopped! Aching to sit atop a ketchup-ed patty. The rest of the spread was ready to do its job, too, or had actually already done so, had died for its countrypeople, even though the only part of the country it might have seen was the inside of a terrible-smelling warehouse. Young Joseph thought it heartbreaking, this, how the animals all died for no reason. He’d become a vegetarian later in life, his mother said to one of her sisters. She just knew it. He was so averse to violence, so enthusiastic about salads. Or he was crying, one uncle said, because he couldn’t distract himself from his hunger like the rest of them could, with their wild imaginations. Young Jerry brought a browned hot dog to his father and they rigged it to a firework. Everyone stood back. They lost sight of it in the cloud-spotted sky, and then they heard the blast and the product came down among them like they were the platter and needed a splattering of something to be edible, to hide the true taste.
* * *
It’s impossible to eavesdrop these days. All the windows are open but a fan whirrs in every one, drowning out the inside sounds and blocking your passing glimpse of the life within.
It’s after 10 p.m. and still stuffy outside. You wait until dark to take the dog out, and he pants every step of the way, as if the walk is his chore instead of yours. You walk through the park, past the stretch of sidewalk under the streetlights where Shan used to park his shopping carts overnight. You haven’t seen him since the heat came. Past the couple on the hill, her head on his stomach, his hand in her hair, each of them looking at a telephone screen. Romantic, you think, like fireflies. The dog pulls back on his leash and flops dramatically in front of them onto the cool dark grass. He hasn’t eaten in three days, and you don’t blame him, your own appetite emerging only for frozen grapes, and only if eaten straight out of the bag, standing naked early mornings in front of the open refrigerator door. You are becoming this hip bone of a body, and you’d like to show someone, but your apartment has a west-facing window and for weeks it’s been too hot a place to be touched. Overnight, the bananas go from green to brown in the bowl.
There’s no point in eavesdropping anymore. Past the stacks and rows of open windows on the old brick buildings; it’s too hot for sex and all the babies are fussy. Even if you could hear what was happening inside, it’s just blue light, just TV conversation, just the sound of the same program you left on upstairs in your own living room. You already know that story.
* * *
Daniel wears his baseball cap low, brim flat as the day he bought it, stickers still on the underside. The kid is mint. He leans against the railing of our building with some other guys in his crew.
Daniel is sixteen, two years older than me and not really a feasible boyfriend option—he doesn’t like his girlfriends to be chubby, flat-chested, and fourteen—but he is perfect for imagining his body pressed against mine, him whispering “Lola, Lola,” like his life depends on it. Honestly, my fantasies about Daniel don’t have to go much further than that, since the simple thought of what his skin might feel like, or imagining the gentle expression on his face after telling me a secret, is usually enough to make me come, bucking against my fingers, rocking on the closed lid of the toilet in the bathroom which is the only room in our apartment with a door that locks.
Even then, sometimes Junior or Miguelito bang on the door because they have to pee or because they want me to make mac and cheese. I yell at them to leave me alone, but they don’t care. Still, it’s easy enough to tune them out, to close my eyes and pretend that the smell of the dried potpourri on the back of the toilet is a field of wildflowers that Daniel and I are walking through, that he is holding my hand and saying that he loves me.
It is in a different bathroom, years later, when I am eighteen and Daniel is twenty, that we finally do what my fourteen-year-old self could only imagine. Pushing the lock on the door into place, I feel the same nervous excitement as my first time. Outside, the party is still going strong. Daniel watches himself in the mirror. The voice in my head keeps asking if this is real, if this is happening. “Yes,” I tell the voice, “yes yes yes.” He covers my mouth with his hand.
When the party is over, I go back home and I sit on the toilet, replaying his alcohol-and-cigarette whispers, the weight of his fingers on my waistband. Then, thinking about all the times I have loved Daniel over the years, I come to the conclusion that he used to be better.
* * *
I’d heard of this happening before. A sidestep and an intrepid adventurer finds himself in a land far from home. But I believed it to be a bedtime story. Everyone knows the only way from here to there instantaneously is through a carefully crafted pentagonal portal, requiring the sustained and concerted efforts of at least three Class Red sorcerers. The idea that one could exist, say, in someone’s broom closet, was preposterous. They are far too large and generate too much heat. You’d set your house on fire or, at the very least, your brooms.
Yet one morning when I was digging into my own broom closet, I heard a peculiar sound: a coin rolling down a long, hollow hall. Then, from amid my cleaning supplies came a cold wind that smelled of snow.
I am no adventurer but I am a scholar. When a winter wind blows through your house on one of the hottest days of summer, you do not hesitate. You put on a heavier cloak and sturdy boots. You paint a sigil of protection under each eye, tuck a roll of parchment into your belt, and you step into that icy air. I stepped into the back of the closet, pressing into the recessed darkness that had recently been a mere panel of wood.
The space got narrower and colder as I went until far off I could see shimmers of color. The world resolved itself into a towering city of glass filled with noise and light despite a dull night sky. There were people and strange carts filling the slushy streets and walkways. Many people seemed to be reciting incantations, causing the earth to rumble and colorful illusions to dance across the glass walls. I wandered in a daze for many moments until I finally took out my parchment to record observations.
Suddenly one of the covered, armored carts skidded to a halt in front of me.
“Get out of the road, asshole!” the driver shouted.
“I’m lost,” I protested.
“Get a GPS!” he raged, and swerved around me. I backed out of the way and bumped into a woman.
“Where am I?” I asked her. She wore a dress covered in a million tiny shards of silver.
“Duh, Times Square?” She rolled her eyes. I wrote down Asshole. GPS. Times Square. Clearly, I had much to learn.
* * *
I watched it rip itself from the bottom and float to the surface one marine-foggy day.
The amber bulbs floated as buoys for the stalk and leaves that followed the ascent.
It was a longish piece
from the fringe of the bed of kelp,
and it seemed
to writhe and struggle against the waves
until it could snap its base and
untangle itself from the roots.
lungs and I followed the piece of kelp,
a little sorry for
having to breathe at all, and leaving
My yellow and green fins stirred up
some sand on the way up, raising
some floating seagrass so
a few got tangled on my legs
and came along for a free ride.
There was a little more foam floating around
me than when I first went down,
and I figured it was due to the winds
picking up and churning the waters
a little bit more.
I looked back to the shore.
The lifeguards’ pole had a hysterical fabric
orange cone attached to the top,
as if struggling to break free
and warn us all.
The kelp I had followed
was floating next to me, some of it
draping down the wave it
It had trapped some of the
mocha foam in
circulets of stem it had looped in the water,
creating little hills of salty fluff.
I didn’t feel like I was moving,
except for the motion of
the ocean breathing, raising and
lowering me in a gentle lull;
I kissed an amber bulb
and wished the kelp the best of fates
as it drifted away from us, and decided
my own fate would not fare as well if
I drifted towards the horizon.
There were still a few long,
dark green strands of seagrass
wrapped around me for good luck.
I let them come along:
who was I to interrupt the destiny of seagrass?
The wind had indeed picked up
and it roared in my cold ears.
In my trek back, I could only relish
the memory of watching that piece of kelp
furiously snap itself and drift away,
It didn’t mind the hills of foam that it collected,
nor the slight wilting some of its leaves
succumbed to by surfacing.
I swam on my back and watched it
Float in the direction of the sun.
* * *
The plane lifts, then banks sharply. I’m looking out the window as we leave Mexico behind us. We’ve been in Puerto Vallarta for two weeks, a trip Tess planned after the last in vitro attempt failed.
“I want to stop,” she said in the car leaving the hospital. “I want to move on.”
Later that night, she brought her laptop into the bedroom and we searched for a dream vacation to somewhere we’d never been. Tess found a touristy place to stay, a resort with all the amenities, and we booked our flights.
But after we arrived, we grew restless lying by the pool with its full bar and manufactured wave. Soon we struck out for adventures not on our itinerary. We rented a car and drove to Mismaloya, the town where Night of the Iguana was filmed, and followed a faded sign to the house Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton bought together, now in romantic disrepair. We took a small boat to a hidden beach with a palapa that served grilled fish pulled straight from the sea. The young boy collecting tips for opening the front gate had fallen asleep in the sun so Tess had to wake him up to give him a dollar.
We drank a lot without talking much about it. It was something Tess had avoided before, but now we said yes to tequila tastings, sipped weak margaritas with breakfast and strong ones at lunch, ended our nights stumbling down El Malecon. One night, I fell on the cobblestone street and nearly chipped my tooth.
“Watch it,” Tess screamed, twisting away to avoid going down too, then, “poor baby, poor baby,” as she helped me up.
Before heading to the airport this morning, I watched her slip off her wedding ring and tuck it into the inside pocket of her makeup bag. But on the plane, her hand is in my hand. At 20,000 feet, everything below us runs together, the edges bleeding. There’s no way to tell from this distance where a city or country ends and another begins—the border is just a fantasy inscribed on the land, held together by collective dreams: ownership, permanence. But you can find yourself on one side of it in the morning and another at night, when the light dims and things become indistinct. Whatever you imagine, what’s ahead is always a place you’ve never been.
Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.