The Lenient Nightmare by Ivan (Guancheng Qiu)
“…you hear me?”
“I’m, I’m sorry?” I fiercely pulled back my falling head and avoided the coma threatening to envelop me.
A sigh, and then words which I endeavored to comprehend. “I said, you have to stay in the classroom at noon, alright? Just, wait for me at lunch time, okay?”
“And why should I do that?” I asked teasingly. “And what on earth is my little sister scheming?” I said teasingly to Susan, who was sitting opposite to me and having her oatmeal, as if doing so could rid me of the transparent paralyzing fog that was still dragging me down.
“No!” she flushed abruptly, “This is very important, and I’m not kidding! You’ll be sorry if I don’t find you.” She flashed a smile which seemed intricate and mature as she seldom does.
“Sorry for what?” I tried my best to stay conscious and sound nonchalant.
“You’ll see. I mean you’ll see at noon, in your classroom.”
“Alright” I said, sucking the balmy morning wind, not wondering why Susan and I were not walking on the sidewalk already. “Alright.”
As we walked I saw a familiar figure heading in the same direction. His walk was
calculated and casual, defiant and welcoming: a big, slow, stable gait. In one hand he carried a Spanish novel. The other was buried deep in his pocket. Dragging Susan’s soft and tiny hand, I ran to catch up with him and called his name. He responded with a silent and friendly nod. Nicholas’ smile somehow elated me, and I instantly began to parody his steps. His thin smile began to spread, and before he grinned he pushed my shoulder aggressively, and both of us laughed.
At the stairs, Susan left the two of us. She was in Grade 9 and we were in Grade 11. She was comparatively short, cherubic and bright as a freshman.
“See you at lunch time,” I said. She boggled with a confused expression, eyes wide open, and then realized and smiled approvingly. She was cute.
“So what do we have today?” Nicholas asked. I knew he meant the classes.
“Two Readings, two Literatures, then History.”
“I see,” he said. I couldn’t help giggling. He was looking at nothing, and did not react as rapidly as before when some girls who knew him came up to us. His own class table was forming.
“Okay,” he said after a while, “you know what to tell Mr. Lumbard.”
“I don’t.” I pretended to be confused, “Are you at home, at the doctor’s or playing a football game with Little Rock High?”
He decided he should be at the doctor’s.
“Alright,” I laughed, “alright.”
I sat down in my seat. Nick did the same, ostentatiously. My hand accidentally brushed against some velvet silk. It was Claudia’s long and straight hair. Her face was rather short and pinkish, with shiny, mild and concentrating eyes behind a pair of serious rectangular glasses. Her lips were mesmerizing and it was impossible to raise my voice in their presence. Her chin was gently curved, perfectly smooth, and elegantly delicate, like a maiden’s hand carefully holding water.
As soon as I had put all the books needed on my desk, Claudia asked in a soothingly quiet whisper, her eyes looking down at my desk, “We have Nebula Picnic tonight?”
“Yeah, sure,” I nervously said. Nebula Picnic was a monthly gathering of my Astronomy Club: we go to some exposed and consecutive hills in the suburb, have a picnic and watch the stars. I always brought my telescope. Although Claudia never, ever, spoke of looking forward to something, I could tell. She had been my deskmate for over two years. However, it still made me nervous when I began a dialogue with her, because I had never had even a slightest indication of whether she liked me or not. She always seemed indifferent. But I could tell that she was looking forward to the picnic. That was enough to keep me joyous for the whole day.
I decided to skip Literature. While I was picking out a paperback, physics book and other sustenance, Claudia said, without looking at me, “I’ll say you’re sick.” I hesitated for second and thanked her. Then, as I was leaving, I added, “It’s a bit cloudier today.”
A smile rose and rippled across her face, quickly melting away, and she left the room with me, heading for some other destination. I marched up the stairs, unwillingly exchanging greetings with others. Weirdly, most of them felt like strangers to me, but they greeted me anyway, as though I had just done something significant that gave me a reputation.
I arrived at the rooftop, finding Nick’s back toward me, his posture rigid and his medium-length hair stroked by the breeze. He was whispering something to himself in Spanish. I leaned on to the white wall beside him. Nick put his book up-side-down, raised his head and squinted at the skyline squatted on the boundary of the world. The skyline only existed there. There were pink and blue clouds scattered in the sky.
“I am chasing a girl in Senior 12.”
“Are you?” I stared at him with surprise.
Nick turned and looked at me. “The problem is that she’s refused a bunch of guys, no kidding.”
“I guess you like the challenge.”
He stood up and leaned beside, clearly in a hurry to go nowhere. Then he talked,
smiled, watched the sky and looked at the tiled floor. For a moment, he almost seemed
“I’ve sat with her loads of times in the cafeteria, usually at lunch.” We have a cafeteria where students read or chat and have drinks. “I ask her if I can sit, and she always acquiesces. I don’t ask every time though – treat them mean, keep them keen. I always greet her though. She nods to me as well.”
Suddenly, the girl’s appearance began to take shape in my brain. I had somehow met her once, and I knew who she was because I remembered seeing Nick sitting with her. But she could be some other girl, who knows? I glanced at Nick. He had serious eyes, a serious nose, sharp cheekbones, and a mouth that disobediently smiles with a sense of superiority. But he was no insolent guy. I knew. I tried not to interrupt his idleness. It together with the fresh air disinclined me from speaking.
“I understand what you’re thinking,” said Nick, “but this is the girl I really want. “Have you ever seen that nonchalant and confident expression she always has?”
“Please, I don’t know this girl!” I almost cried, “I know none of the girls you ever have mentioned, okay?”
“You should be more social. You really should, someone like you.”
“Oh,” I deliberately made myself sound surprised, “someone like who, dare I ask?”
“You.” Nick turned, staring at me. ”You have to be friendlier to strangers, just like
to us your friends.” Then he waited for me to ask why while I hid the truth that I had already known the why.
“Because you do everyone around you good, but it appears that your indifference
to the others makes you look like a selfish and affected guy. Hey, look at me.” As soon as he said, “look at me”, I knew he was about to tease me. “You don’t do what leads to what you don’t want. But you always do. That’s what makes you a bastard.”
I giggled, drily and embarrassedly, soon anxiously realizing that and trying to avoid thinking about as unconsciously as possible I was unable to find examples of my altruism. What made me even more embarrassed was that he abruptly turned into a very earnest phase, which appears only when he tries to convince someone. He asked me, “Don’t you want friends? Don’t you want someone who really cares, when you are absent from school, when you are injured, when you are scolded by a teacher?”
I hesitated. “I do.” I said, walking on the corridor, trying my best to greet anyone I knew. Almost reaching my classroom, I saw Claudia coming from the direction of the cafeteria, a bottle of grape juice in one hand, who was very close to me. Her pace did not change, but her pupil may have shocked for an instance. Then, she began to fall. I stepped in an astounding swiftness, propped up her shoulders with mine and caught the bottle which was about to spill. I held her bare arm and balanced her again.
“You all right?” I asked hastily.
“Yes.” She answered, calm and deadpan as always, but with an unusual mildness,
I told her it was nothing, and then headed to the classroom with her.
The bell rang. The clock showed twelve. I got nervous suddenly, sensing a floating buzz in the middle of my stomach. Now it was the noon that Susan had emphasized. What was I waiting for, then? What had I been expecting? I could not have expected nothing at all for the whole morning. So I searched the expectation in my mind, which I soon found nonexistent. The result turned out to make my further conjecture even more suspenseful. I helplessly took out my The Kite Runner.
When there came a knock on the back door about ten minutes later, I hadn’t turned for one page. Eager to find out who it was I turned and caught the sight of whom I was expecting for.
“Come over here, Sue.” I said, in an overwhelmingly welcoming way. But she didn’t bother. That she never embarrasses me when I was too hysterical is one thing I always like about her. Instantly I realized that I did not go for lunch in the mess. It was quite weird that I felt like I may have asked her, or made some kind of contract with her some other day, to have lunch together in the classroom where there was nobody but us. I felt guilty to find out I could hardly remember if there was any precedent. My little sister as she is, how much attention have I paid for her other identities, including those she reticently wants me to look at?
I carefully opened the lunch box. There were potato sandwich, which is my favorite, fried rice, French fries, beef and salmon. She said she made it the previous night when I was out. I couldn’t remember where I had been. But as soon as I started eating, I couldn’t help but throwing all doubts away and imagining Sue, who braided a tiny ponytail on each side of her head, wearing mom’s apron which was yet too large for her, reaching the kitchen range with great effort. The images spiraled intermittently above my head until I, all of a sudden, found myself not delivering anything into my own mouth and Susan giggling at me.
“So far so good?” she asked.
“Amazing.” I looked at her happily, my eyes shining, “All by yourself?” I could hardly breathe, indulging myself in aftertaste.
“Sure.” she said with childish aplomb, “Why, can’t you believe? Was it that amazing?” We could not help laughing when she said that.
“But why?” I asked with great curiosity, “Why did you do this for me? I mean, is that a whim or something? I mean the-”
“You mean my making the lunch for you.” she helped me out, but then she flushed a little and asked, “Do you really not know? Don’t you realize what day it is today?”
I boggled for a while, and then shook my head. Astonished, Susan exclaimed, with her glittering eyes wide open, “No one forgets his own birthday!”
I frowned, looked a little upward, and then patted my head on the side. “So it is!”
I found myself equally astonished as Susan was. She laughed and patted accusingly on my waist. She loves doing so.
“So it is my birthday,” I said with relief, “Happy birthday to me.”
“Happy birthday.” Susan put her arms around my neck and gently stroked her face against mine. She released me and earnestly asked, with her fists hanging in front of her breast, “Am I the first one? Tell me, am I the first one? I must be, right, cause you didn’t even know it’s your birthday.”
I deliberately sighed. “I’m sorry,” I told her, “but unfortunately someone did before you.”
“How’s that possible?” She nearly shouted, her mouth unclosed like a circle.
Then, a silence hanged between us for seconds, in which I chuckled to her. Then a smile bloomed on her face and she began hitting my stomach. We made jokes of each other for another several minutes, and then she remembered that she still had some present to give to me. It was a card, a blue card with a contraption inside that extrudes clouds and an aircraft when unfolded. It was a magnum opus.
“All by myself.” Susan said. I suddenly felt like I was not full by either the lunch or her caress. I felt like embracing her, and I did. Both of us were sitting in chairs, so
we twisted our waist for a little. Then, when we let go each other, she looked at me with her eyes earnestly twinkling and her mouth curving upward vividly.
The bell rang. Claudia came to her seat, where Susan might have been sitting only seconds ago. The clock showed 2 p.m. It was Physics class, which was Claudia’s and my favorite. But we did not consider Mr. Lee to be suitable for both of us, so we usually taught each other. She seemed not in the mood for the class and took out a mini notebook that was about the size of her hand. By the first sight I understood, or recollected that what she was about to do. Almost automatically I took out my fountain pen which hardly appeared in the classroom, prepared and curious. She tore down a piece of the tiny paper, which was soon delivered to my hand on which a trace of the very existence and vivid life unexpectedly grazed.
The words that came the first, undoubtedly, were the question whether I was willing to chat-a question gazed with strangely familiar sentiment by its former patentee. While I was replying, she broke a contract of ours by glancing at the paper.
So I wrote, “Watch your eyes!”
We chatted about the teachers, complained about the food in the mess hall and debated on the necessity of some ruled in the school. Someone happened to shift the topic to a match, of which I only have little but fresh memory. Claudia asked whether I felt better how, for she saw I was “unhappy” that afternoon.
“I shouldn’t have been unhappy.” I wrote, “You could never make sure what happens in football games.”
She was right, I thought. But I wanted to stop short of being too logical when I was able to stick to a discussion between only her and me. So I asked her how she knew I was unhappy.
“I just knew.” She wrote, without even showing any inclination to other topics. So I straggled to make a new path out of the silence, while Claudia, probably conscious how worried I was, seemed to pick up the lesson as cryptically. Minutes later, she grabbed the paper to her table and supplemented, “At least you goaled. That’s enough.” Yes, I thought. I really did goal, and for this reason I could console myself a little, completely forgetting the fact that the match was already forgotten. I managed to shift the subject again to what I curiously and timidly took interest in.
“Sorry I let you down. I shouldn’t have mentioned it.” Claudia replied. “Why, it’s totally okay. And I’m feeling better now. Actually, thank you.” After I passed it to her, she somehow stared at it for a moment without even moving a finger.When the class was over, Claudia caught my sleeve when I was about to leave for somewhere, and said, “You sure you are going to the Nebula Picnic?”
“Sure,” I laughed, “why not? I’m never absent. And you are as well. ”
“I’m looking forward to it, really. This time is special.” She said, with a mysterious air she usually made looming.
For a second, I struggled to strength my legs to prevent myself from falling in shock. But then, as I recalled, I realized she put not much emotion in the expression. Sometimes, Claudia’s personality drives me crazy. She’s just like a cloudy day, everything behind never visible.
A shout abruptly pulled me out of slackness. I reacted almost instinctively but grasped the ball tight. I got through a tall boy but could not have a clear shot. As fast as I could, I caught a wink from Nick. So awkwardly the ball left my hands, bounced off the bank and, all of a sudden, was caught by Nick in the midair. His body stretched like that of a fish leaping out of water, sputtering sweats like a fish does spray. The class ended with a fantastic score.
“It was pretty cool,” I said to Nick. Both of us were on the rooftop again, by his desk for private use.
“Indeed.” said Nick shortly, simulating an English teacher of ours.
“You remember the counterattack, the one by you and Jason? You remember the last one? ” I could hold myself back.
“I didn’t know you play so well,” Nick said with a mature smile, “We shall cooperate more. It is proved that girls don’t only look at me now.”
“Oh not again,” I slammed his shoulder.
“Claudia saw you. She was staring at you. You should have seen her face.” I did see it, but I just kept laughing as if I was thinking nothing complex.
“What a good present, huh?” asked Nick, one of his eyebrow raised.
“What did you say?”
“I said present, you birthday present.”
I was shocked. “You remember my birthday?”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“Of course you shouldn’t! You should have been someone who is…someone who…”
“I don’t know,” I relaxed my shoulders and smiled, “I just, I just think things shouldn’t be that way.”
“Well it is.” he said, a little proudly, “Happy birthday.”
“Thanks,” I said earnestly, “So where’s my present?”
He blinked at the sky, and then answered, “My sincere honor.”
“It’s very hind of you.” I heard mine and Susan’s voices simultaneously. She giggled lightly.
“You really not coming?” I assured.
“No.” she said , as if knowing what would happen, but I knew she couldn’t. “Be careful, and come before 10. Promise me.”
“Alright, alright. I promise.”
“Cool,” she said. She always used that word in an aberrant manner. I carried my telescope and food supplied and waved goodbye to my little sister. There were only a few people in the park. The night fell, pressing its all weight on the breathing chest of the hills, only to find itself forced to compromise with the though dim lamps, stirred by the balmy wind and stabbed by the lawn, growling gravely and soundlessly but had nowhere to retreat or not to fill. There were those who wandered alone-it must be the darkness that made them realize awareness itself, apart from the rampant boisterousness of the day, during which one’s shadow is seldom not revealed optically. I met with a passer-by, and how strange did I feel when I found myself avoiding his eyes! The eyes were placid, animated and pacifistic, just like those of Nick, of Claudia, of Susan. But they were different. They were strange.
They were unfriendly.I looked up, and stars began to respond me by coming out from the curtain, as if claiming to oppose my previous idea.
I felt like setting my telescope right in the middle of the path to inspect them closely, so that they may fade with self-doubt. But I knew I wouldn’t, just like when I could speak out a sentence that was so simple to construct but could rip up everything.
“What…Hey, good evening, Claudia.”
“Shall we? You are going the wrong way.”
“Oh, alright.” said I, “Sure.”
So, was I able to revolt, since I had such power to control and manage? Was I really unable to speak out, to do what I was not supposed to do? Claudia and I roamed towards a faraway hill, where we always had our picnic by a solemn and lonely tree. There were no clouds in the sky. The wind was baited and soporific. I came up with the recognition that the rest of our club members were all absent for various reasons. But never mind, I thought, as I set the telescope in the middle of the hill.
We cannot see the gorgeous colors of galaxies and nebula we see on photographs with naked eyes. Most of the time, I searched for geosynchronous satellites and ISS rather than celestial bodies. As for Claudia, she only liked to watch planets in the system-I wasn’t sure if I could say “like”.
After eating up the snacks prepared for several more people, Claudia and I decided that we lie on the tablecloth and do nothing. So we did. At some point I turned to look at her eyes secretly, and I could almost see the stars in her eyes. Then, she turned and our eyes met. Her eyes wide open, she asked a question that deserved no completely serious response. She must be embarrassed, so I decided to trick her.
“What are you looking at?”
“Well, I’m looking at your face.”
Claudia breathed hard, and moved like she should have turned around, but I got her shoulder. “Hey, don’t ruin it.” I said.
“I was not ruining anything!” she said, her voice trembling a little. She looked lovely now.I stared at her and kept my mouth shut.Her eyes moved to our naked feet, and she apologized to me.
“It’s okay not to say that if we are friends.” I said, “Are we friends, Claudia?”
Hearing her name, she naturally rose a little. She got closer to me and nodded at my neck. “Sure we are.” Claudia said, “Sorry I didn’t recognize that.”I shook my head and moved myself even closer to her. We searched the night sky and competed on spotting constellations, Claudia using her left hand and I using my right, the rest two holding each other.
“And that should be Altair. No that one. Is it so hard to find out the Triangle? I don’t…You are much more accurate than me indeed, Claudia! Can you…”
She was not answering me. I turned and found out that she had turned her slender but not skinny body to me, her eyes close with calmness and one of her knees touching mine.
“Only if I can just sleep here.”
“Then I shall stay up for the whole night for you. But no, we have to go home now.”
“You are right.” Claudia said without getting up even a little bit. I sat up and, when I was about to pick up our belongings, she caught my arm. I asked what was the matter. Then, to my surprise, I saw her smiling to me sincerely, saying “happy birthday”. Happiness and fulfillment hasted through my throat. But it wasn’t what I want the most, it was not, and Claudia knew.
“What if I tell you that I’ve always felt happy having you around?” she said.
“No way,” I laughed, kind of derisively, “I am too boring to please your majesty.” Suddenly she cried. I only heard murmurous moans, but a line of tear on her plump cheek shone under the moonlight. Hesitantly I wiped the glacial tear.
“Hey, Claudia.” I said, “I’ll tell you something about me. Can I?” She nodded, still recovering from the twitch.
I breathed in deeply.
“Recently I’ve been having a nightmare. It repeatedly comes to me and harasses me so much. In the dream, Nicholas is the same pretentious and decent and, well, Español jerk. But he ignores me. That’s true. Can you imagine? And I sort of get angry in the dream when nobody stands out and criticizes him when he borrows money from while still ignoring me. And he is so superficial a high-school student, but he always pretends to be cool in front of the girls. Well maybe he really does so, but the meanings are completely different. And I know he doesn’t have to pretend to do most of the things he does, in reality. And Susan, my little sister, is some pretty popular kid among the boys, especially those in grades higher than she is. And she always brings those tall boys with tattoos to our home and rock-n-rolls till morning. How ridiculous! As for you, Claudia, you are still my deskmate. Surprise. But you hate me, really. Once you say you don’t want to talk to a coward. And I also have found out, in the dream, that you don’t attempt to change your seat only for you want to show that you can get along with anyone. Well, I sincerely apologize for dreaming you like that. I know it’s crazy. There I love no one. Maybe the reason is that I seldom love anyone.”
Claudia’s eyes were fixed on me. She asked, banteringly as well as seriously, “Are you afraid of it?”
“No, no way.” I laughed, “It is just too crazy for me to be afraid of it. But actually, I guess I am afraid. It is stupid, but it is too overwhelmingly realistic.”
Realistic enough to make me feel, to make me tremble, to make me doubt. I bowed my head. My shoulders were held by two hands, and Claudia was looking at me earnestly.
“Hey, I’ll never hate you.” she said.
“I know,” I smiled, finding my sight obfuscated with liquid. Claudia was consoling and caressing me as if I was a kid who struggles awake from a nightmare.My eyes were open. An illusion that was about to be forgotten was sticking on the ceiling of the narrow attic. The bed was sat. Violent music was gradually heard. The illusory phantom of light faded, leaving the genuinely grisly darkness outside. No stars were revealed. No self-awareness should be established in such a night.
The music was still playing, but no one seemed to be alive or, strangely in some extent, alive on the music. The floor was stepped on and the bed lax. The desk was found to be messed with thin pieces of paper, paper with words on it, photos and photos with human faces on them. A murmur of shock sounded. The heavy air was breathed slowly but unconfidently.
This was the dream. My sight suddenly expanded and I could see more, as much as in reality. I went to the desk, and found some relatively large pieces of notebook paper that could still be put together. The jigsaw eventually turned out to be a poem, titled The Lenient Nightmare or the Love Song of Spencer Parker.
Am I near? Do I fear?
To see it all, see it clear.
Have I cared? Do I dare?
To dismiss the cold light in the midnight
Flowering silently, tranquil and kind,
Evoking a story for me to share,
To no one but me, of the lenient nightmare.
As weak as it is strong,
As true as it is wrong.
Crossing through the distorted ramp
Lingering about the burning land
In a shivering hand,
By the fancy shore where crows fly
And figures tremble,
Drowned in great delight.
And finally, a vociferous metro line
Roaring over a balmy ranch,
And there I stand
There I stand.
Is it weird? Is it fair?
To have me clawed, cold and fierce.
Is it sheer? Is it here?
To kiss me again, to hug me like a dear.
But I’ve had enough,
The incessant drums,
The duplicitous flaunt,
The blinking skin under which-ha!
Nobody knows, hatred triumphs.
Alright then, thus I shall speak:
As weak as it is strong,
As true as it is wrong.
“Nonsense!” I giggled unwillingly. But then I flushed, learning that the poem must have been created by me.
I recalled that Claudia and I were together at the hill. I must have lied down on the tablecloth and fell asleep. “And I was supposed to wake her.” I shook my head wryly. At the same time, all that Claudia had told me came back to my head as well.
She told me not to believe it, to face it and to conquer it.I trusted her. I also trusted Nick and Susan, trusted them for they shall never abandon me, nor would anyone else who, in some extents, were supposed to be my friends. I was always sincere and earnest to them, and so were they who always recognized my existence by greeting, mentioning and talking with me. And the world was so friendly as well. There was no strangers, only people who, with suspicious eyes of which purposes were often misunderstood, sought logically pessimistically and sentimentally optimistically for chances to appreciate or intersect with other fates.
Everything shall be fine once I woke up, I thought, and that must be sensibly true, for I was in a nightmare and nothing could be worse. I had to call my name. Maybe doing so could wake me up.
“Spencer, wake up.” I called,”Hey, wake up, Spencer. Spencer Parker.” It was useless, but maybe somehow was not, for it did make me soberer. I blinked my eyes hard. I jumped from the bed. The music submerged the sound I made. At last, I helplessly decided to go to bed, hoping I could wake up in reality, a hope neither scientific nor based on any common sense.
Immediately I shut my eyes, I began to feel the warmth and coziness, to hear the birds by my window and engines of cars that seemed to come from another world, and to softly hold the lolling dawn. Assuring all these senses, I satisfactorily and languorously opened my eyes. Who would have woken earlier, Susan or I? Which classes would Nick skip today? What would Claudia want to share with me, and would she accidentally reveal her own emotions in doing so? I was eager to know.
But nothing had changed. Nothing! I almost shouted, and ran around the room-I
was not sure. It was by then that I discovered that there was a rope suspended like a dead snake on the beam, a chair placed beneath it. That was what I was looking for, the rope. And sure, how foolish I was! One can find a rope nowhere else, for nothing other than a rope should appear on a beam.
Therefore I stood onto the chair hastily and eagerly, and rounded the rope on my neck. It shall not fail this time. Without hesitation I kicked off the chair. Immediately, I felt as though flying among clouds, breathing a redolent blandness that reminded me of my authentic carnal life and the world got dizzy and misty. I do care and I do dare. The touch of the velvet warmth and tranquil murmur of the awakening city beckoned me again. I advanced, stretching my body. Everything shall be alright, as soon as I wake up. Everything shall be alright.