And here we finally get our answers. I was surprise at how short this chapter ended up being. Do you think it needs anything else?
When I woke up, I was lying half-in, half-out of the tide pool. The Sun was shining down, and the sand was warm under my face.
As I raised my head up out of the sand and looked around, I saw that Jimmy was lying beside me, and the strange man from before was sitting cross-legged on the sand in front of us with that big key resting on his shoulder.
“Oh good,” he said. “You’re awake.”
“Where am I?” I asked, still groggy as I started to sit up.
“You’re in the Dream,” he answered.
More of this weirdness. When was this guy going to start making sense? “How can I be dreaming if I’m awake?” I demanded.
“You’re not dreaming, you’re…oh, I get it.”
“Get what?” I asked as I reached over and shook Jimmy’s shoulder. “Jimmy…Jimmy, wake up.” He groaned and started to stir.
“All this time, all these visits, you thought this was your dream,” the strange man said.
“Of course it is,” I said. “All this craziness…what else could it be but a dream?”
“Yes, but it’s not your dream,” he said. “No one ever said it was. This…” He climbed to his feet and indicated the whole beach with a broad sweep of his arms “…is the dream of Coney Island.”
The moment he said it, I knew it was true. But reason rebelled against it – no, not reason…a lifetime of being told which dreams could come true and which couldn’t.
He turned back and grinned at me. “Over the course of one summer, you’ve turned into Tawny Kitaen circa Whitesnake. Is that ridiculous?”
I didn’t have an answer for that.
He offered me his hand. “Come on,” he said. “Walk with me. I’ll try to explain.”
“What you need to understand,” the strange man, who I’d started thinking of as The Mayor, said as we walked along the shore, “Is that cities are living things,” he said. “They have personalities, souls…and dreams. All this here?” He once again indicated the whole expanse of the summer day with a sweep of his arm. “This is Coney Island’s dream. This is what it’s supposed to be, what it yearns to be: a place in the Sun where people come to have fun, some of it innocent, some of it…” He grinned. “…not so innocent.”
“It’s all so old-fashioned,” I said. “I mean, with the bath houses and the boardwalk up off the sand…”
“And the boardwalk being actual boardwalk, I know.” He agreed. “The essence of the Coney Island dream is nostalgia. We held a jazz funeral for the old Coney Island in 2011, when we realized that it wasn’t coming back.” He sighed and looked up the beach, at that elevated boardwalk and the bath houses beyond it. “Decades later, and Coney still misses those things.” Then he turned back, and the grin had returned. “But the Dream can handle the new just fine. Oh, yes it can. That’s why the Childs Building is sometimes a restaurant, sometimes a roller rink, and sometimes the new amphitheatre, and why you see the post-Sandy Steeplechase Pier out over the water, there.”
I shuddered. “Yeah, well, pre- or post-Sandy, I don’t think I’m ever going out onto that pier ever again.”
“Why? What happened?”
I explained to him the thing about the pier and the storm and the sea monster, and when I was finished, he nodded.
“Ah. Yeah. You see, there were a couple of different factors at work there. First, once you get past the shoreline, you’re leaving the dream of Coney Island and entering the dream of the Ocean. The ocean’s dreams are a little more…elemental…than the dreams of some little seaside tourist town.”
“Second, you were in the Nightmare.”
“The Nightmare.” Completely deadpan. I’d finally had too much weirdness, and I just couldn’t muster a reaction to it anymore.
“Everything that dreams has nightmares,” he said. “Dreams where their worst fears come true. And that’s the worst fear of Coney Island: that the rebirth will collapse back into the bad old days, with all the crime and the fires and the despair, only worse.”
“I notice that the boardwalk was up off the sand in both,” I said.
He nodded. “Yep. And it’s boardwalk in both. It’s just that fundamental to Coney Island’s identity.”
I grinned and sang a few bars of “Under the Boardwalk,” and he laughed.
“Exactly,” he said. “Maybe that’ll change as time passes and the people who remember get older…but I wouldn’t be too sure. Coney Island itself will remember.”
Which was all very interesting, but my mind was on something that was, to me, much more important: “So what you’re saying is that place…those things I was so scared of…they were all just dreams?” Then something else occurred to me, and I got sad: “And so is Jimmy.”
“Hey!” Jimmy said. “Don’t talk about me like I’m not here!”
“I’m sorry, Jimmy, but…you’re a dream! You’re not real!”
“I’m a dream,” he retorted. “That doesn’t mean I’m not real. Do you know what a tulpa is?”
“No.” Pause. Light dawns over marble head. “How can you know something I don’t know?”
“Because I’m real and tulpas are a thing here!” he said. “Look, without gettin’ all technical or nothin’, tulpas are dreams that someone brings to life. Usually it’s about focus an’ discipline and meditatin’ an’ stuff, but sometimes it’s enough if someone just dreams it deep enough an’ strong enough.”
“Tulpas are always trying to become more real, more human,” The Mayor added. “When you gave Jimmy a name, that completed the process. He has a soul now. That’s why he was able to enter the Nightmare, when he was limited to Dream before.” Then he chuckled. “Sorry to tell you, he’s going to be a bit less perfect from now on. Real people are like that.”
That was about the least of my worries at the moment.
“Then…what about those…things I…were they monsters, or people, or – “
The Mayor was already shaking his head. “Streetfears,” he said. “They weren’t people or even really monsters. Just nightmares. The collective fear of the scary man in the alley congealed until it’s solid enough to cut you. They’ve got no more mind or will of their own than the trash barrel fires. Now make no mistake,” he pointed his key at me like a scolding finger. “They’re real enough to kill you. But they’re not real enough to ding your karma.”
I didn’t give a shit about my karma. I was mostly just glad I hadn’t murdered anybody. You don’t think about it when there are monsters trying to cut your dream boyfriend to pieces, but afterward, it hits you in the gut.
And that brought me back to my other big concern at the moment.
I turned to Jimmy.
“So…” I began. “You’re…a person. I created a person. I dreamed you into life.”
He nodded. “Yeah. You did.”
The next thing I said, I don’t know where it came from. But the moment I said it, I knew it was true, though I didn’t know how I knew: “But you’re still bound to me, aren’t you? I gave you a name and that made you real, but it didn’t make you free. If I wanted, you could still be my perfect high school dream boyfriend, at least for a while.”
“For a while, yeah,” he said. “But after that, I’d probably start letting you down.” He shrugged apologetically. “That’s what real people do. I’m sorry.”
“You big dummy,” I said. Then I took his head in my hands and pressed his forehead against mine. “That’s the last thing in the world I’m worried about.”
We stood there for a long time, heads together. Finally, I kissed him, and this time it was tender instead of passionate – warm instead of hot.
“Go,” I said. “Find other dream girls and rock and roll angels. Maybe see how you like the girls over in punk or hip hop. Or maybe some nerdy girl with coke bottle glasses who spends her whole life waiting for the coolest boy in school to call her…or some shy, quiet boy if that’s who needs you, and who you need.”
As I said it, I saw the joy come over his face, and it was transformative. I’d never seen anything like it on his face before, not at our best moments. Maybe he couldn’t feel anything that real back when he was still just a dream.
I knew then that I’d done the right thing. Who wouldn’t choose freedom over slavery, even to a master they loved?
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you so much.”
“It’s nothing,” I said, trying to wave it off. “No, really, it’s nothing,” I interrupted when he tried to say more. Then, as if to prove how much of a nothing it was, I tried to follow up with a little joke: “After a while you’ll forget everything. It was a brief interlude and a midsummer night’s fling. And you’ll see that it’s time to move on.”
Unfortunately, my voice broke at the end of my little “joke”. I don’t think he would have been fooled even if it hadn’t, though. With a gentle, knowing smile he took me in his strong, leather-clad arms.
“I won’t do that,” he whispered. “No, no, no I won’t do that.”
We stood there a long time like that, and soon the Sun started setting, even though it had been high afternoon shortly before, because of course it did. Goodbyes should always happen at sunrise or sunset.
Eventually, he stepped back, took my face in his hands, and looked me in the eyes.
“You’ll miss me less than you think,” he said. “It’s not love you need right now. It’s adventure.”
And then he kissed me. One last time. And it was like that last time I made love with Justin: a summation of all the kisses that had come before, an attempt to make up for all the kisses that would now never happen.
Then it was over. And he let me go. And turned, and walked away.
I stayed brave as he walked away, so when he turned back at Stillwell Ave to give me one last look, as I knew he would, I was able to smile and wave and hopefully not show any wetness in my eyes that he could see from that distance.
He smiled and waved back, then set off down the ramp to the street, and I haven’t seen him since.
It was then that I broke down crying. He – the dream of him, of that perfect rock and roll rebel boyfriend – had gone slowly and gently last time, replaced by the real boys around me. It was so much easier that way.
I cried for a long time, but it had to stop eventually. By the time I was done, The Mayor was still standing nearby.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve had dreams end myself. It hurts, and the only thing for it is to find a new dream.”
I nodded and wiped my eyes. “So what’s next?” I asked.
He shrugged. “That’s up to you,” he said. “This is the Dream of Coney Island, but your own dreams helped you to get here. They shaped you into what you always wanted to be. There’s power in that. You could become a dreamwalker like me – explore the Dream, help it to thrive in the Waking World.”
I cocked an eyebrow at him. “Doesn’t seem there’s a whole lot to really explore just here in Coney Island.”
“You’d be surprised,” he answered. “But Coney Island is hardly the only place that dreams. Hell, New York is the city of dreams. And out there beyond, in the Dream of America, there are other cities of dreams – Los Angeles, Nashville, even Silicon Valley, in its way – and there are safe small towns to come home to. There are trains and drive-ins and video arcades and neighborhood movie theatres and soda fountains, jazz and country and rock & roll.”
“The Dream of America was never safe. You should visit the Dream of Ellis Island sometime – but when you go, bring sunglasses.”
I thought about it. For a long time. I paced the Boardwalk for a while, then sat on a bench watching the darkness rise over the Atlantic. The Mayor left after a while to get himself a hot dog from Nathan’s. When he returned, I had wandered down to the shoreline, but he didn’t have much trouble finding me. When he joined me, I was staring out over the water, watching the stars wink into sight as the dancing music started up behind me.
“Do I have any choice in this?” I asked.
“Of course you do,” he answered. “You can go home and ask your ex-husband for some money to get you over your hard patch. I’m sure he’ll give it to you – he’s always felt bad that things have gone so badly for you since the divorce, especially considering how you stayed with him during his own bad times.”
I didn’t ask him how he knew that. Even if I’d wanted to, he didn’t give me the chance.
“Then you can find a couple more jobs to keep body and soul together while you look for something more solid, which you will find eventually. Focus on everyday things and forget about dreams: spend your evenings watching reality TV and internet porn. Go to brunch with friends and gossip about whoever isn’t there that week. Within a month, you’ll never find your way back here. Within a year, you’ll forget any of this ever happened.”
I nodded. “Knowing I have the choice makes this easier to accept.”
So I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and went into the midnight blue.