Tell Me Something Good

Jenn was knee-deep in a first-trimester-puking-in-between-conference-calls funk. A flat, parched grass veneer lay over her skin, and her boobs remained, much to our mutual disappointment, the same size as they’d been pre-pregnancy. A heat wave the weather app predicted would last five days had stretched to a sticky, interminable ten. My wife needed cheering up and I made it my aim to come to the rescue.

“Oh my God,” Jenn said as she unwrapped the box of Dream Awake I’d picked up at the CVS, along with doctor-prescribed pre-natal vitamins and wife-mandated peanut butter cups. We sat at the kitchen table, the coolest room in the apartment, fanning ourselves with fold-out paper fans from Chinatown and sucking on ice cubes. By day six of the heat wave, we’d run through our A/C credits for the month. “Dream Awake. I haven’t done this in forever.” She cradled the palm-sized, lilac-colored box between her hands. “Have you ever done it?”

“No, never,” I said. Jenn flashed me a bright but brief smile. Hard to tell if she really liked the gift or was tamping down a wave of nausea. A feeble breeze wafted through the open kitchen window, bringing intermittent relief from the heat along with the somnolent sounds of reggae from the apartment complex across from ours.

“Duh,” she yawned and fanned the back of her neck. “Of course you wouldn’t have. This weather is making me a dumbass.” She set the box of Dream Awake aside, leaned across the kitchen table and kissed me. “Thank you, baby. This is super sweet of you.” Opening her laptop, she zeroed back in on whatever legal document she needed to polish to advance the corporate kleptocratic causes of Burris, Burwell, and Black’s clients.

“I thought it’d be fun to do it together, experience what our expanded family will be like.” I glanced at the front of the box, which featured a woman with long dark hair gazing blissfully at a vision somewhere in the distance, beyond the borders of the box. I was embarrassed for her, this generically attractive white woman caught up in some marketing exec’s cheesy notion of how a person looks while caught up in a daydream. At the same time, I envied how her face radiated with certainty and purpose. How did it feel to see exactly what you wanted in your life, right in front of you?

“Absolutely,” Jenn gave my hand a brief squeeze, then she dry swallowed a pre-natal vitamin and followed that up by chomping down a peanut butter cup chaser. Her gaze and fingers drifted back to her laptop. “Later this week, ok?” She pushed the box further towards the edge of the kitchen table. “Gotta finish this brief tonight or my ass is grass.”

***

We met my first week at the Soap n’ Sudz on Telegraph. This tall, fleshy girl in a pink sweatshirt, Cal baseball cap and cut-off jean shorts staggered in under a small bedsheet mountain. I watched her stuff sheets into a series of econo-wall washers, and admired how she stretched and contorted her upper body to get all that cotton-poly blend into each machine. I liked the no-nonsense way she thrust the coins into the slots on the washers. As her wash spun in soapy circles she dozed, her cap pulled low across her face. When other people’s dryers buzzed, she’d twitch awake, wipe the side of her mouth and yawn like a kitten.

The water recycler on one of her washers broke and while I took way more time than necessary to fix it, we got to talking. Jenn was wrapping up law school at Cal and about to take the bar. Several classmates were studying and crashing at her place, hence all the bedsheets. I recited a curated and well-rehearsed list of basics: new to town, working at the laundromat until I got settled. Her face lit up when I told her I was an auto mechanic by trade.

“I don’t care what you say,” she remarked later as we lay tangled together on the floor of the hive room I rented in a downtown Oakland sky-rise. Rain drops tapped weakly against the one slim window. “The best muscle car of 1970 is the Ford Mustang Boss 302, hands down.”

“You’re pretty sure of yourself.” My head rested on the soft pillowed curve of her bare waist, which allowed me to feel and hear every stomach gurgle, every rumbling laugh. Like most people who grow up with enough – enough money, enough love, enough security – Jenn laughed loudly, freely, and often. I was already 100% smitten.

“I am. I absolutely am.” She stretched her arms over her head and accidentally rapped her hands against a storage cubby. She winced, laughed, and launched into her ten-year plan for her law career while I kissed her knuckles. “I also want a family,” she said and then elaborated. Two kids, a boy and a girl, with a two and a half year age gap to maximize sibling closeness while minimizing negative professional impact on her. Named partner by year seven. A mid-century modern house with a deck overlooking the redwoods in the Hills by year nine. “If they’re not completely flooded by then.” She yawned and gave me a sleepy smile.

“Is that all?” I pulled myself upwards along her torso and let my fingers run along her collarbone. “This can be a one-time thing, you know.”

She drew my face close to hers. “I’m not telling you all this to scare you off. I’m telling you this because I like you and I want you to know what I want from my life.” She tugged gently on my earlobe. “What do you want, Naomi?”

The question startled me. No one had ever asked me that. In my experience, wants were formless, murky things that drifted below the surface of my consciousness. As soon as they started to float up and take shape, I was made to understand that my wants fell into the category of the nonsensical or the unnatural, sometimes both at once. I didn’t know what to say and my heart started to race so I did a dumb thing.

I told Jenn the non-edited version of all my personal history. Coming out to my very God-fearing, very evangelical parentals and three failed run-ins with conversion therapy. Being homeless, first in Modesto and then Lodi, and how I picked up useful survival skills along the way, like stealing and stripping Honda Accords for profit. My recent three-year, two-month stay as a guest of the Central California Women’s Correctional Facility.

“Well that’s that,” I said to no one but myself and the four mildew-colored walls, after Jenn repackaged her abundant curves back into her clothing and departed my hive room, post haste. I’d acted nonchalantly cool in offering my number and she’d done a fairly convincing job of pretending to put it in her phone. I tried to distract myself from disappointment by fixing the loose hinge on the cubby where I stored my meager wardrobe of secondhand jeans and tees and dollar store crew socks. But it was no good. The room still stank of smittenhood cut short and the ghosts of microwaved breakfast burritos past.

Ninety-two minutes later, as a thin, butter-colored bar of light from my one window traveled up the walls of my room, my phone pinged. Fuck the past. Not supposed to rain today. Walk across the bridge later on and grab some ramen?

Six months after that, me and Jenn got married and I was pouring french press each morning for my lady love in a kitchen with a real, working four-burner stove, a first for me in a very, very long time.

***

“This is amazing,” Jenn cradled her phone between her hands, “our baby, in the flesh.” She tilted her head and brought the phone closer to her eyes. “Well, in the pixels. But still!” She squeezed my hand and continued to stare at the ultrasound pic. Our eastbound BART train whooshed into the Transbay Tube with a pressurized thunk and metallic whine. I wondered briefly, as I did most times when riding the train under the Bay, if today would be the day plate tectonics would decide to put the tube’s underwater construction to the test. I looked over my wife’s shoulder and wished I was as thrilled as Jenn about the grainy 3D pic of the 18-week old fetus residing in her womb.

It’s not that I wasn’t ready to become a parent. I had new gainful employment as a mechanic at Sunny’s, an auto shop in Rockridge owned by two Korean brothers who, at the interview, took one look at me and decided to forego a background check. I had a wife eager to be the main incubator for the pair of little Park-Wachsmans we wanted to bring into the world. Plus with all the ass-kicking Jenn was doing at work, it was only a matter of time before our little family moved up even more in the world. It was the right time to get the show on the road.

For the life of me, though, I couldn’t picture myself as a parent. Whenever I tried to conjure up mental images of me, Jenn, and the baby together, or even just the baby herself, I drew a total blank. A band of pressure would wrap and tighten itself around my chest. Tackling a tough repair at the shop or skulking around our apartment to suss out broken things to fix were the only ways I could breathe easy again.

“Hey, how about we do the Dream Awake tonight?” Since the night I’d brought the Dream Awake home, Jenn had shifted the box to various places around our apartment, from kitchen table to countertop to the catch-all bin next to the front door. No matter where it landed, the box remained unopened.

Jenn’s shoulders tensed and she shifted in her seat. “I don’t understand why you keep going on about that stuff. You’re getting weirdly obsessive about it.”

“I’m not obsessive. I want to experience our future family life in all its living color, 3D glory. And I want to do that with you.”

Jenn shrugged. “I know you were enjoying the hospitality of our state’s correctional system when it first came out a few years ago but Dream Awake is…I dunno. It isn’t anything special. I only did it because it was in the news and all my friends were doing it and I wanted to see what all the fuss was. The experience didn’t do anything for me. Honestly, all I remember is feeling a little sick to my stomach afterwards.” She smiled. “But that might’ve been all the Jager I was drinking at the time.”

The train ascended from the Transbay Tube and into East Oakland’s late afternoon haze with a rush that made my ears pop. “Give it a second chance.” I tugged gently on her earlobe and she leaned the side of her head against my palm. “Aren’t you curious to see what it will be like? And do that together?”

Jenn’s fingers played with the edges of her phone. “Naomi, we don’t need some cheap VR nano tech to imagine our family.” She tapped the baby ultrasound pic. “We’ve got all we need right here.”

Although she spoke lightly, the corner of her mouth uplifted, there was a “I consider this subject closed” hardness underneath my wife’s words that hollowed out my stomach. I didn’t want to argue or sink so low as to play the “If you really loved me” card, so I kissed her and said, “Ok, then – tell me something good.”

As the skeletal, half-submerged remains of the East Bay’s abandoned shipyards whirled past, Jenn leaned her shoulder into mine and described our future family life: organic cloth diapers, work-from-home days, carshare visits to New Pacific Grove. I listened closely, trying to absorb all the details and ignore the band of pressure squeezing my chest.

***

I ended up doing Dream Awake alone.

Now well past the puking stage, Jenn loved to point out the many upsides of being pregnant. “At first I thought of it only as a means to an end,” she said as we spent a sweltering Sunday afternoon trawling big-box stores in Dublin for a crib and assorted other baby paraphernalia, “but being pregnant feels sooooo good!” She placed one hand on the six-month baby bump that stretched the confines of her tight black sweater and gestured to her breasts with the other. “Look at my boobs – they’re huge! Finally!”

“Finally!” I said with more enthusiasm than I felt. Jeans had been a bad choice for a day-long trip to hot and unlovely exurban Dublin. The dark, thick fabric kept sticking to my legs and the store’s instrumental version of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” made my crabbiness and discomfort a hundred times worse.

She bumped my hip with hers and threw a fair-trade wooden teething ring into the cart. “I never have to wait in line for the bathroom and I love how much more space I can take up.”

“Hard to imagine taking up space has ever been much of an issue for you.”

She cheerfully gave me the finger, then held up a bright orange onesie that read, just did 9 months on the inside. “What do you think? Too much?”

“Ha ha. You’re hilarious.” I took one hand off our shopping cart and rubbed my temples. “Any chance we can get out of here sooner rather than later, baby? The aroma of baby powder-scented everything is making my face hurt.”

As my wife’s belly swelled, so too did my anxiety. A stubborn and impenetrable blank still lay between me and any visions of my future role as a parent. Once Jenn reached the point of no return in finding a comfortable sleeping position, she said I must be having sympathy insomnia, given the number of times she’d rolled over to find me wide awake. The band that wrapped itself around my chest and slowly squeezed during stressful moments felt as if it’d widened from a thin nylon rope to a hardy canvas strap. Keeping my hands busy fixing one problem or another at the shop or at home no longer provided soothing relief.

No matter how many times I made Jenn paint a happy word picture of our family life, the details didn’t stick in my brain, much to my wife’s growing annoyance. Cheap VR nano tech seemed to be the only means to an end I needed to see for myself. If I did the Dream Awake, everything would be alright. No, more than alright – it’d be perfect.

So the morning after me and Jenn’s baby prep shopping extravaganza, I called in sick to Sunny’s Auto. Standing in our kitchen with the open Dream Awake box, I pored over the directions with the care of someone trying to memorize sacred text. I spread some of the Dream Awake nanites, which looked like grains of iron-colored sand, across my palm. They thrummed against my skin like race horses ready to be let out of the starting gate. I breathed out a slow exhale and tipped the nanites in my hand, along with the ones remaining in the box, into a glass filled to the brim with flat ginger ale I’d unearthed from the back of the fridge. I quickly drank the whole glass down, wincing at the metallic aftertaste. After glancing at Jenn’s latest ultrasound and my phone’s wallpaper, which was a shot of me and Jenn at a friend’s wedding, I picked up the directions and recited the activation code.

Within moments, a circle the size of a basketball appeared and hovered at eye level. It had a blue-green shimmer and the light danced up and along the kitchen walls. It reminded me of the water surface of a lighted outdoor pool at night. The light circle continued to expand until it surrounded me and the kitchen disappeared from view. A sense of calm washed over me, followed by a reassuring pressure. It was as if my whole body was being cradled in the palm of a warm, strong hand. My heart throbbed slow and steady in my ears as shapes began to emerge from the shimmering light and resolve. I stepped forward, excited to see the family scene the nanites were sure to root out from my unconscious mind.

What appeared instead was my cell at California Women’s Correctional. Much as I’d left it in real life only…neater, brighter, less antiseptic. A distinct lack of dried-out cockroach corpses and contraband food smells. In place of a scratchy prison blanket the color of fruit mold, an orange and purple batik-style bedspread–identical to the one in my old bedroom at my parent’s house in Modesto – lay neatly folded along the metal bar at the foot of the twin bed. Another big difference was the window adjacent to my bunk. It had no glass and sunlight brightened the floor in a rectangular, happy slab.

Pinpricks of light flashed before my eyes and I tried to deepen my shallow breaths. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. Was there something wrong with the Dream Awake? Or was something wrong with me? I tried to recall my deactivation code but no luck. The last remnants of calm vanished and my breath sped up and I thought, “You need to calm the fuck down, Naomi.” Disassembled parts for an original alternator for a 1968 Mustang appeared on the bed. I picked up the pulley. The weight of it in my hand, the way its cold metal absorbed the warmth from my palm made me slide into fix-it mode. By the time I put the alternator back together, my breathing had slowed but my insides prickled with residual antsiness. A tidy pile of Car and Driver magazines materialized at the foot of the bunk. Old issues, like the ones I used to thumb through as a kid when my family went to the Turlock Flea Market. I sat down on the bunk and read all the issues, cover to cover.

Later that night in bed, somewhere between reaching to turn off the bedside light and Jenn asking me to rub her lower back, I drifted into an easy and sound sleep.

***

When I walked into the diner in Tracy, he was in a corner booth, the one I’d started to think of as “our booth.” I didn’t want to be too soft with him, though, so I said, “You’re on time, for once.”

“Hello to you, too.” He smiled and the realness and warmth there surprised me. Of course, odds were 9 in 10 it was the upcoming birth of his first grandkid rather than the sight of his daughter that made him seem genuinely glad to see me.

I nodded towards the empty space on his side of the booth. “I thought you said Mom was coming this time.”

He shrugged and made a “what can you do?” gesture. “Your Mom is a woman with strong beliefs. Maybe after the baby is born…” he stared into his coffee cup.

“What? She’ll deign to text me back after I send her some cute newborn pics? If I’m lucky? Can hardly wait.”

He sighed. “Naomi, I’m trying. I really am.”

His face had a gray pallor and his eyes looked pinched at the corners and I needed coffee so I decided to believe him. I slid into the booth, shrugged off my jacket and we launched into a variation of the patter we’d developed since I’d first messaged him six months ago about Jenn’s pregnancy. I told him about the mice family I’d found nested in a Tesla’s air filter; he told me about the time a customer ended up with a steel-coil mattress wrapped around the entire drive shaft of their Ford F-150. He tried to share his scrambled eggs, bacon, double order of cinnamon raisin English muffins with me; I declined and ordered black coffee and dry toast from the auto kiosk. He commented on how tired I looked, that with the baby I’d need my energy now more than ever; I reminded him that I’d been meeting my own food, shelter, and security needs for some time now, but thanks for the concern. He winced and looked out the window; I apologized by offering up a photo of Jenn’s latest ultrasound.

“Can I ask you something?” I said, once he’d ooh-ed and ahh-ed over the ultrasound pic, labeled “30 weeks”, on my phone.

“You just did.”

“Ha ha.” I paused. My index finger tapped out a rapid rhythm against the phone screen. “When Mom was pregnant with me, could you see yourself as a parent?”

At this point, I was staying late at Sunny’s so I could do Dream Awake every day. I had yet to see, hear, touch my new family life – my old prison cell always materialized–but I told myself I just needed to keep at it. Plus, more and more doing Dream Awake was the only way I could relax and unwind. Unlike my real life, which was increasingly dominated by “All Things Baby”, I could change my environment however I wanted, do whatever I wanted. Wrap the batik bedspread around my shoulders and thumb through old car part catalogs. Daydream about the restoration of the ‘70 Chevy Chevelle I’d buy someday. Paint the cell’s cinder block walls bright blue. Any feeling of ease evaporated the minute I walked in the door at home, and came face-to-face with one or more needs of my immediate future reality. Jenn asking me when I’d be getting around to painting the baby’s room. The many sharp and breakable knickknacks scattered throughout the apartment that needed a new home. Even Jenn pressing my palm to her belly and murmuring in my ear “Do you feel that?” sent my heart racing. What made the time spent at home at all bearable was knowing that only a few hours stood between me and my next Dream Awake experience.

“You always asked such odd questions.” He chuckled and leaned back against the booth, hands stretched along the top of the pale brown plastic “Of course I saw myself as a parent.”

“Could you, like, picture being a dad right away? Or did you start to see it over time?”

“I don’t know what you mean. Your mom was pregnant, I was going to be a father. There wasn’t any need to picture it. We knew what was going to happen next in our lives.”

I sighed, dragged my hand through my hair. “That’s not what I’m – did you have daydreams about me?”

His mouth scrunched up as if he’d bitten into something unsavory. “Daydreams? What kind of daydreams?”

“Going to Modesto Baptist on Sundays, riding out to the flea market in Turlock to look for vintage auto parts. Mom doing the books at the shop while you showed me how to change the oil in a car.” He stared at me. “You know…daydreams about being together as a family.”

He threw me a guarded look, picked up an English muffin half. “I didn’t imagine you would turn out as you did, that’s for sure.”

Past experience told me not to tread further into these familiar but dangerous waters, but I pressed ahead anyway. “Please, I know it’s weird, what I’m asking, but I…I can’t picture myself as a parent, can’t picture the kid. Jenn sees everything so clearly and I can’t seem to see us all together, no matter how hard I focus on it–”

He put the muffin half back on the plate. “Naomi, God has given you the chance at a fresh start.” He reached across the table, put his hand on mine. “Even with your poor life choices, He still said, ‘I choose this lost one to shepherd new life into the world.’ You are so fortunate, so blessed.” He let my hand go, scooped up eggs with his fork. “That’s real. That’s what you should embrace instead of focusing on nonsense like daydreams.”

It was as if I was back in my old bedroom in Modesto, Mom and Dad staring at me while I stared back and tried to find words for thoughts and feelings I was struggling to fully understand and square with myself. So familiar, the awful feeling of being scrutinized and found to be both an unfathomable mystery and a heartbreaking disappointment. All the will to be understood went out of me with a great whoosh, like air from a blown tire.

I didn’t wait for him to finish breakfast. Made up an excuse about needing to get back to Sunny’s because the shop was super busy blah blah blah. He responded with the quick, tight smile of the perpetually disappointed parent. I didn’t care if I was letting him down for the hundred thousandth time, and I didn’t bother to answer his question about Jenn’s due date. By the time I paid the bill and hopped back into the car I’d borrowed from Sunny’s, my thoughts were focused on calculating the number of minutes standing between me and my next Dream Awake experience.

***

“Baby?” Jenn stood in the middle of my prison bunk, legs bisected at the knees by the twin bed. She wore a puzzled expression, low-slung jeans, and an “I’m eating tacos for two” t-shirt. A silvery-white crescent of pregnant belly dominated the space where the t-shirt hem ended and the top of her jeans began.

I stared at my wife. Was she part of the Dream Awake experience? The wrench slipped from my fingers. I fumbled to catch it and the confused look on Jenn’s face deepened. Nope, definitely not a VR wife, she was the real deal, this woman staring at me as I scrambled to catch a tool only I could see. For a wild half-moment, I considered making an escape through the open window in my prison cell. But common sense prevailed and I recited my Dream Awake deactivation code. The reality of Sunny’s Auto filtered back in, a section at a time. The oil-stained concrete shop floor replaced the batik bedspread packed with transmission parts. The untidy used tire pyramid reappeared in the corner. Jenn stood before me, confused expression unchanged but body no longer bisected by the Dream Awake setting. A blue-striped cloth bag hung from her wrist. The sharp scent of ginger, garlic, and vinegar made my mouth water.

“What are you doing?” she said.

“Nothing.” I snatched the empty Dream Awake box from the shop floor and tossed it into the nearest trash bin. “What’s up? What are you doing here?” My tone sailed way past the air of breezy nonchalance I was going for and well into the territory of guilty annoyance.

Jenn blinked and tucked her hair behind her ear. “Well, um…you know that big case I’ve been working on, the one with that sad little organic soap company in Marin suing my client for patent infringement? I got them to reach a settlement. So the partners said, go out, have a good time, celebrate! I thought, I’ll drop by Sunny’s, surprise Naomi with kimchi stew from that food truck she likes.” She raised her hand in a half-hearted wave. “So…surprise.”

“Oh.”

“You look real happy to see me.”

I shook my head. “I’m just…surprised.” I forced my mouth upwards into a smile. “See? Yay. Mission accomplished.”

“Uh huh.” Jenn took a step towards me. She gave me a sly grin, raised her eyebrows. “Were you doing Dream Awake?”

I avoided her gaze. “No. I was…picking up some nuts and bolts from a repair I just finished.” I swallowed hard and my stomach rolled. Nothing like the lemony, bitter aftertaste of a lie told badly.

A huff of disbelief escaped Jenn’s lips and her gaze slid from me to the rest of the shop, which was devoid of cars up floor jacks, the loud chatter and mutterings of mechanics leaning over open car hoods, the whirring, clanking, and pinging sounds of broken things being taken apart and put back together again. “You said you were working late tonight.”

“I am. Well, I was. Like I said, I was just finishing up.” Lie #2. My stomach did another somersault. “It’s super sweet of you to stop by,” I gestured toward the shop sign declaring the presence of chemicals that could harm pregnant women and children, “but you shouldn’t be in here, baby.” I gently took her elbow and steered her across the shop floor and into the customer waiting room. “You wait here while I finish up and then we’ll carshare home, ok?”

Jenn rubbed her lower back, a distracted grimace playing across her face. Then she refocused on me with one of her lemur-clutching-a-branch stares. “No. Not until you tell me what you saw when you did the Dream Awake.”

“Baby, I told you, I was just finishing up work–”

An impatient sound rumbled in her throat. She put the bag of take out on one of the waiting room chairs, sat down in another. Taking a deep breath, she sat back with her hands on her belly. “I’m not mad.”

“That’s funny because you seem pretty mad.”

“Ok, I’m a little mad. Not about you doing the Dream Awake. I’m not into it, but if you want to do it, that’s your choice.” She waved her hand dismissively, as if my choice was an annoying but small bird making a racket outside her window. “It’s that you lied about it, just now. It’s like you think you did something wrong and now you’re trying to hide it from me.”

“I’m not trying to hide anything, Jenn.” I sounded like the whiny, wayward teen to her older, wiser adult. But her whole attitude – disappointment buoyed by a hearty undercurrent of contempt – got under my skin.

“Great!” She leaned forward, flung her hands out wide. “Then tell me what you saw. I’ve been telling you all these months what I imagine our kid will look like, what our family will be like. Now it’s your turn to share something good with me. I mean, that’s the whole reason you wanted to do the Dream Awake in the first place, right?”

“I – I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because it has nothing to do with you or the baby, ok?” The words broke free from my mouth in a sudden burst, then gained speed. “Every time I do Dream Awake, what I see is for me and me alone. Just because this whole situation is happening,” I waved my hand toward Jenn’s pregnant belly, “doesn’t mean you have claim to my entire fucking life.”

The ferocity in my voice surprised me. Jenn’s head jerked back as if I’d slapped her. She sat down heavily in one of the waiting room chairs, looked up at the ceiling. It felt like forever before she tipped her gaze back towards mine. And when she did there was an unsettled look in her eyes, as if she was seeing something new in me that she hadn’t at all expected and didn’t care for in the least. “So…it wasn’t a one-time thing then. How many times?”

“What?”

“You said, ‘every time I do Dream Awake.’ Implying that you’ve done it more than once. How many times?”

I said nothing.

“Wow. You won’t even tell me that much? Really?” The disbelief in Jenn’s voice made me wince. “Is this because I wouldn’t do the Dream Awake with you? Is this some weird passive aggressive revenge thing?” My wife’s voice wavered. Her shoulders sagged, deflated of their usual upright confidence. Which was entirely my stupid, thoughtless fault. Heat swept across my face and my anger melted away, replaced by a raw sense of shame.

“No, baby–” I reached for her hand but she stepped back.

“Then what is going on with you, Naomi?” Jenn’s eyes jumped around my face and one hand rubbed back and forth across her stomach. “Because I don’t know what to think. All I can do is…wonder. Like, I’m wondering if you’ve been lying to me about working late these past weeks, so you could sit around in your own personal VR bubble doing who knows what. And if you’re lying about that, I wonder if you’re lying about other stuff, like wanting a family.” She put her hands on her knees. “When I saw you sitting on the shop floor, you looked really happy. Like, happier than I’ve seen you in months. If what’s making you happy isn’t me and it isn’t the baby, then…” She paused. “I don’t want to claim all of you, Naomi. But I can’t – I won’t – be kept at arm’s length by you either.” She looked away, brushed the corners of her eyes with her fingers.

“I was rebuilding a transmission,” I looked her in the eye and my voice came out at a low, steady throttle. “When you came in, that’s what was going on. I was in my old cell at California Correctional. That’s what happens when I do Dream Awake. I hang out in my old cell and…read car magazines and catalogs, rebuild engine parts for vintage cars. Whatever I want to do, really.”

“Oh.” She made a noise in her throat that sounded like a cross between a relieved sigh and a strangled laugh. “What kind of transmission was it?

“For a ‘70 Chevelle. Best muscle car of the year.”

A smile, small and sad, flitted across her lips. “Bullshit. The Boss 350 is way better.” She glanced out the waiting room window, as a car with a bad muffler gunned it down the street. “My due date’s in two weeks.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want kids? Do you want to be with me? Do you know what you want at all?”

Jenn had asked me what I wanted once before, back at the beginning, as we lay together in my hive room with the mildew-colored walls. I could tell myself it was my deep love for Jenn that made me adopt her wants and dreams as my own. But I was no selfless romantic. No, the simple, pathetic truth was that I was afraid. Of putting a name to my own wants and dreams. Of shaping my life around them and still ending up with the short end of the stick. Maybe that’s why all I could see when I did Dream Awake was my old life. A 4 x 9 foot cell at California Women’s Correctional wasn’t what I wanted for my future. But at least it was what I knew.

“I’ll stop doing Dream Awake. I’ll step up. I’ll be there for you, I promise.” My words came out in a rush, the verbal equivalent of a capsized non-swimmer flailing in deep water for something, anything solid to hold on to.

Jenn wasn’t having my panicked half-promises. “I love you. So much. But you need to figure your shit out, Naomi.” There was a tenderness to her voice, but she wouldn’t look me in the eye. Then she ordered a carshare and left.

***

Yesterday’s Dream Awake experience showed me something new.

I’d finished rebuilding the Chevelle transmission and was sitting cross-legged on the bed, staring at the finished product and wondering why I didn’t feel more satisfied with it. Thought of taking on another rebuild project – electronic control module maybe?–but quickly pushed the idea away. Restless, I got to my feet and stood in the rectangular beam of sunlight that stretched along the floor. A couple of Dream Awake sessions ago, I’d widened my cell’s window into a doorway – it flooded the space with light and made it feel far larger–but I hadn’t bothered to look beyond the door frame. I stood in the doorway, placed my palms on the warm, smooth cinder block. A blurry brightness obscured the details of what lay beyond my cell, as if the scene was set with an overexposed filter. The only thing I could make out was a three-foot wide pathway of the greenest and most pristine stretch of grass I’d ever seen. It extended outward from where I stood until it got swallowed up by the overexposed brightness in the middle distance. I took a couple of steps away from the doorway, but still keeping one hand on the frame. A light breeze tickled my cheeks. Further off, shapeless, shadowy figures bent and flitted in and out of all the brightness. Walking down the path and getting closer to those shadows seemed the thing to do. So that’s what I did.

The farther I stepped along the path, the more the surroundings changed. The grass shimmered and lengthened to the tops of my knees. When I brushed the blades of grass with my hands, they curled around and softly squeezed my fingers and then fell away. Sunshine dipped down and moonlight dipped up. The shadows began to resolve into sharper shapes. My breath quickened and the nape of my neck prickled but I picked up my pace on the winding pathway, too curious about what lay ahead to be afraid.