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by E.A. Johnson

reality

Eating Freddie’s Rolling Lettuce Chicken is a religious experience. And, as is the case with any religion available on demand (especially at just $2.95 plus tax), a little ceremony is never out of place. First, you take a perfectly crisp leaf of lettuce from one of the three serving dishes. You are fully aware that the lettuce was carefully selected at the Farmers’ Market early in the morning for this very purpose. Next, you cautiously spread just the right amount of shiny brown homemade hoisin sauce over the glistening green leaf with the back of the ceramic serving spoon. Then, you add some of the gently steaming chicken: chicken that has been chopped, seasoned, and secretly spiced before being stir-fried to perfection in the restaurant’s single wok. These ceremonial preparations completed, you roll the lettuce around the chicken until it resembles an open-ended burrito. You are now ready to experience religious bliss.

Raising the Rolling Lettuce Chicken slowly off of your plate, you slide it gently past your lips. Your tongue darts to catch the first few dripping drops of the chicken’s master sauce. As your taste buds explode, you are enigmatically reminded why the recipe for a master sauce is often passed down through several generations of Chinese chefs. There are even some cases where the sauce itself is handed down from one generation to the next.

In a busy kitchen, some of the master sauce is used each day. And so every morning, the chef adds to the sauce and brings it to a steady boil. Thus the clay sauce pot is never empty. When Freddie and his wife arrived in America, she smuggled a vacuum-packed jar of her master sauce hidden in the bottom of her purse. Tradition has it that the master sauce at Freddie’s is over 350 years old. The recipe itself is much older.

That little taste of Chinese culinary history teases you. It excites you. For a few moments, you play gently with the lettuce roll in your mouth. Until, in a frenzy of desire, you bite down. Perhaps a little too hard. But communion has finally begun.

You and your partner eat silently at the table trying to muffle your orgasms of pleasure. The dish is perfect. Perfection is that dish. Perhaps it’s the contrasting tastes (sweet plum/spicy chile). Maybe it’s the contrasting textures (crunchy lettuce/soft chicken flesh). But probably it’s both. That, and the magic of the underlying master sauce upon which each taste and texture is built. Your spirit soars as you consume the delicate culinary tension that keeps the Rolling Lettuce Chicken from flying apart into its constituent pieces.

    OK. I’m sorry to lay my religious beliefs on you like that, but I just got a postcard from Freddie today. He and his wife are back in Shanghai and doing fine. He tells me not to worry about anything. He is sure that everything will work out for the best. He even quotes a line from the seventh chapter of the TAO TE CHING: "Continuous, it seems to exist, yet in use it is inexhaustible."

So here I sit, holding his postcard in my hand, wondering how the hell he got my address, and dreaming about the last time I ate some of Freddie’s Rolling Lettuce Chicken. So much has changed since then, that it takes me a while to remember how everything used to be. And if you happen to be one of those people who has been wondering what the hell has been going on in the world over the last few years, you might find the answer here. Although you probably won’t believe me.

 

    It all started on an ordinary Wednesday night. As usual, Julie and I were eating dinner at Freddie’s. "Everything OK?" someone asked, but we ate on in oblivion. It wasn’t until we had finished the last of our Rolling Lettuce Chicken that I realized that Freddie had been standing over us, smiling, and asking, "Everything OK?"

With the sauce still dribbling down my chin, I answered, "It’s not OK. It’s an epiphany." Julie laughed as she did each time I used the e-word. Freddie smiled, gave a slight bow, and walked back to the kitchen, where his wife was busy behind the solitary wok.

In the glowing aftermath of the Rolling Lettuce Chicken, I looked around the room trying to remember where I was. For at least a moment, I seemed to be in some gastronomic paradise far from Santa Cruz. Far away from the seedy beachfront and the run-down boardwalk that I could see out of the front window of my favorite mom & pop Chinese eating establishment. Far from the Jin Jang Restaurant (and I’m not making the name up) owned and run by Freddie (maitre d’/waiter/busboy/cashier/host) and his wife (master chef/culinary priestess/goddess of the wok).

As we waited for our main course that evening — Pork in Imperial Sauce (the deliciously distant Chinese ancestor of that bastard American Sweet & Sour Pork) and the amazing Chicken with String Beans and Mushrooms (not on the menu although I was allowed to order it ever since I caught Freddie eating it one day) — I tried to engage Julie in conversation.

"Did I ever tell you why Freddie’s closed down a couple of years ago? When Deng Xiao Ping visited the US, Freddie’s wife was driven up to San Francisco to cook for him. She’s that good."

"You already told me that story," Julie mumbled.

"Well, did you know that Paul Simon named his song ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ after a dish at some Chinese restaurant?" I was trying my best to keep the conversation going.

"I was the one who told you that," Julie smiled although she wasn’t really paying attention. I could see that she was already food drunk. There was no point in talking with her for a couple of hours. Fortunately, the main courses arrived and we could continue our meal in awed silence.

Of course, the actual eating could never begin until Freddie had performed his ritual blessing. First, he would wave his hand over each dish, suffusing the table with its rich aroma. Then, he would smile proudly and say: "Smell." The Chinese believe that before you can properly taste with your tongue you must first learn how to taste with your nose.

 

    Don’t worry. I won’t go into the delicious details of our meal this time. Because I can’t go back to Freddie’s and it hurts. But, nevertheless, I have to tell you about Freddie’s (as all my friends called the Jin Jang Restaurant with its huge Tao sign) because that’s where everything started changing.

 

    After some extra bowls of rice (Freddie always thought that I was part Chinese because I usually managed to eat three bowls), the Pork in Imperial Sauce and the special Chicken with String Beans and Mushrooms finally disappeared. We pushed back from our table. Julie and I looked at each other contentedly. We barely noticed Freddie as he delivered our two fortune cookies and cleared away the dishes.

We both reached for our fortunes automatically. As I put a piece of the crisp rice dough in my mouth and started to chew, I looked down at the fortune that had fallen on the table. It took a while for the words to register: "When two people dream the same dream, it ceases to be an illusion". Somehow it sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.

"What does your fortune say?" I asked Julie.

She answered with her mouth full of half-chewed fortune cookie: "When two people dream the same dream, it ceases to be an illusion."

I spluttered, almost choking on what was left of my cookie. Instead of saying anything, I grabbed her fortune and passed her mine. We stared at each other knowingly for a minute and then burst out laughing. It must have be some kind of cosmic joke.

When Freddie came back with the bill, we started chatting in Russian. We both had studied it back in college — except I went to UC Santa Cruz and he went to Shanghai State. With my Russian degree, I got a job as a cook at an Italian seafood restaurant on the wharf. With his, Freddie spent five years in a re-education camp after Mao suddenly decided that the Chinese should stop talking with the Russians.

After a while, I asked him in English, "Freddie, where do you get your fortune cookies? Does your wife bake them herself?"

"Oh, no," Freddie said. "We buy here in town." He then walked to the back of the almost empty restaurant and returned with a large plastic bag full of fortune cookies. Stenciled on the side of the bag were the words TAGOMI FORTUNE COOKIE CO., SANTA CRUZ, CA. The name sounded familiar but a little strange. Perhaps Japanese instead of Chinese.

"Do you mind if we each take a couple more cookies?" I asked.

"No problem. Go right ahead." Freddie passed the bag and Julie and I grabbed two more cookies apiece. As we paid the bill, we cracked open their thin rice shells to get at the hidden messages within. As I chewed on the sweet rice, I noticed that these cookies really did have a different, distinct taste.

Holding my breath, I unfolded my two extra fortunes. The first one read: "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, refuses to go away." And the second said: "It’s a cardboard cut-out universe, and if you lean against it too hard, you fall right through." Again, the words sounded familiar. I could feel something triggering in my brain, but it produced no thought that I could grasp.

Half expecting Julie to have the same messages that I did, I exchanged fortunes with her. But this time hers read: "If you think this world is bad, you should see some of the others" and "Build a universe that doesn’t fall apart two days later!" Julie and I exchanged puzzled glances.

We thanked Freddie for the meal and headed out into a spectacular orange sunset. I started up my old Honda VT1100 Sabre. Julie jumped on the back and held on tight. As she rubbed up and down against me, I forgot about the fortunes. But I couldn’t forget that food.

Driving up West Cliff, towards Julie’s small one-room apartment, we stopped the bike to admire the magnificent orange sun being swallowed by the ocean. But the deep blue beauty of the Pacific was marred by the huge offshore oil rigs. And the horizon was disfigured by the cooling towers of the Moss Landing Nuclear Power Plant at the other end of the bay. Both Julie and I shuddered in disgust as one of the rigs belched black fumes into the evening air.

We hopped back on the bike and drove off. Julie’s rubbing was really driving me crazy. And I began thinking about what we would do on her futon when we got home. I loved how the flavors of one of Freddie’s meals would permeate her skin altering the scents of her body and the taste of her sweat. There are few meals that you get to enjoy twice.

 

    Later that night I had strange dreams of fruits being peeled. First, the long slim fingers of a woman peeled an orange. I watched as her bright red nails dug into the skin, tearing off the peel in large orange chunks. Then, a pair of old male hands peeled an apple with the help of a fruit knife like my grandfather used to have. He rotated the apple slowly in his hands until the peel fell off in a single spiral piece.

That’s how it was all night. Pears. Peaches. Plums. And all of them got peeled. But I never saw anything of the peelers other than their hands.

As I woke up slowly the next morning, I was aware of Julie’s body next to mine. I could smell her as we lay there facing each other — her hair, her skin, her mouth.

I took a deep breath trying to breathe her all in. And as I did, words began forming in my head. I watched a poem slowly taking shape. And suddenly it was there. Complete. Two faces. I repeated it out loud to make sure that I wouldn’t forget it.

                 Lying side by side
                            face to face
                              you asleep
                      and I awake,
                   our soft breaths
                         warm the air.
             What you breathe out
                             I breathe in
                    into my soul
               and back again
          and with my breath
                you do the same
                              and so
                         I know
                   we too
         are one
      and twain

   Lying side by side
face to face
you asleep
        and I awake,
       our soft breaths
      warm the air.
    What you breathe out
    I breathe in
           into my soul
           and back again
          and with my breath
         you do the same
          and so
               I know
                     we too
                         are one
                       not twain

    As I finished, Julie woke up and smiled at me. I wondered if she had been awake all along. Or maybe I was the one who had been asleep. And she had written the poem. I kissed her and she gurgled happily.

But as I turned away from her and tried to get out of bed, I stopped abruptly. Julie and I were surrounded by some kind of gossamer shell. A cocoon of sorts. It was translucent enough so I could see through it. I reached up to touch the shell and it felt as smooth as silk. I saw Julie do the same. We looked at each other suddenly wide-eyed and very awake.

After a little further exploration, we found that the cocoon (or whatever it was) enveloped us completely. It looked like we had been sleeping in it. There was nothing else within the shell — no sheet, no blanket — other than our own naked bodies. Finally, I saw Julie’s hands reach up and peel back the cocoon until we were finally able to get out of the bed. A huge four-poster bed.

It wasn’t until I failed to find my way to the kitchen that it hit me. Not only had the bed changed and grown, the one room had mushroomed overnight into three. Julie was busy building a fire for the fireplace. Fireplace?!

"Ah ... Julie," I mumbled, my mouth barely working. "Do you notice anything different about your place?" I glanced around the immaculately neat apartment.

"No," Julie said. "Why’re you asking? This is the kind of place I always wanted. Remember ..."

"Yeah," I interrupted. "But remember what it looked like yesterday ..." I could see it hit her. She stopped playing with the fire. She remembered. So I wasn’t going crazy.

"So what’s going on?" she asked, looking scared.

"I don’t know. But it all started with that cocoon or whatever it was." I found my way back to the bedroom and looked at the huge four-poster bed. But there was nothing on it. The cocoon had vanished.

I reached for the phone and dialed directory assistance. For some reason I thought that what had happened must have something to do with those fortune cookies.

"What city, please?"

"Santa Cruz."

"Name, please."

"Tagomi Fortune Cookie Company."

"I’m sorry, sir. But we have no listing under that name."

"What about Tagomi?" I spelled it out for her.

"Sorry, sir. Nothing. Is there anything else?"

"No, thanks. That’ll be it I guess. Bye." And I hung up. "Shit," I continued talking to myself. "I should have called yesterday. It’s probably already too late."

"What’s that, dear?" Julie said from the kitchen. I could see that she was already beginning to enjoy her new apartment. Like a snail trying on a comfortable new shell.

Thanks to a long hot shower, I got through the rest of the morning — until I went to start up my bike. Standing there in my parking place, I found a brand-new VT700 Sabre. Overnight, I had lost 400 ccs. But the key in my pocket worked. So I headed off towards the wharf and work.

Along the way I noticed that the oil rigs were gone. And Moss Landing’s cooling towers had been replaced by a single conventional stack.

I ran into the restaurant and punched in without a minute to spare. The other cook walked out of the walk-in refrigerator carrying a bucket full of spinach.

"Hey, Paul," Matt said in his too loud, too friendly voice. "I thought you might not make it today, dude. But that would have been a first."

"Sorry, I just had some real weird dreams last night," I muttered as I pulled on a clean apron.

"Since you weren’t here," Matt prattled on, "I flipped to see who would fry today. You won. I got grill and saute."

"Right," I said and started getting the deep-fryers ready for a busy day.

After a few minutes of working in silence, I finally had to ask him. "Hey, Matt. What happened to the oil rigs out in the Bay?"

"Oil rigs?! What oil rigs?" Matt dropped the crab cannelonis he was prepping to look at me. "Talk about weird dreams." Then he laughed his annoying laugh. "What’s up, Paul? We’re you off ‘shroomin’ last night?"

"Right," I said again and shut up. I hated talking to Matt even on those days when I was in a good mood. But soon enough, the restaurant filled up and we were too busy to talk.

 

I had another night of vivid dreams. Julie did too. In fact we had the exact same ones. The dream that I remembered best was the one of the egg. First, we watched an egg falling towards a table. We thought at first that it was going to splatter everywhere. But after the egg hit, we realized that it had been hard-boiled.

Some of the shell shattered. And then a pair of hands appeared. Slowly, carefully, they peeled the shell from the egg. When that was done, the fingers started peeling the egg white from the yolk. Finally, with the yolk cradled in one hand, the other hand began scratching through the boiled yolk until it found a tiny red spot. The egg had been fertile. And the strange dreams went on and on.

That Friday morning when we woke up, the cocoon was back. But it seemed a little harder than yesterday’s. Not as silky smooth. And not as transparent. As we lay inside it talking about our bizarre twinned dreams, we watched the shell change as the sun began shinning through it. It seemed to become harder yet brittle. When Julie turned over, it cracked, and we hatched.

I got out of the old sleigh-shaped bed making sure that I didn’t cut my feet on the sharp shells. And once again, the kitchen had moved. But at least this apartment was smaller — we had lost one room overnight. And the fireplace as well. Julie pouted.

The place was a mess. There were books and records strewn everywhere. I put Lennon’s "Imagine" on the turntable since it was the first thing I tripped across. Later, as I helped Julie pick up, I came across an old album by Jean-Michel Jarre called "Oxygene". As I looked at the illustration on the cover, I shuddered: the Earth’s skin was peeling off of the surface to reveal a human skull beneath. I decided not to show it to Julie and tossed it behind some other records.

Out on the street, Julie helped me find my bike. Or at least the bike that matched the key in my pocket. It was an old Yamaha XT 250. I hadn’t ridden an on/off road bike in years.

"Great," I muttered as we got on (it was a tight fit). "If my bike keeps losing ccs at this rate, I’ll be riding a bicycle by tomorrow." Julie didn’t seem to share my concern. The continued remodelling of her apartment seemed to have really upset her.

After I dropped her off in front of the bookstore where she worked (fortunately it was still there), I headed towards Freddie’s. Maybe he would know what the hell was going on.

The Jin Jang Restaurant had only moved a couple of blocks up Beach Street so it wasn’t too hard to find. But my heart had stopped at first when I didn’t see it where it belonged. For a moment, I had thought that it was gone.

The restaurant was closed, so I rapped on the glass door hoping that Freddie and his wife had already come back from their morning pilgrimage to the Farmers’ Market. Eventually, Freddie opened the door after checking to see who it was that was disturbing him so early in the morning.

We walked back towards the kitchen past the rows of empty tables. One thing that always struck me as strange about Freddie’s was that the restaurant was much too big. There were twenty tables in the main room although he and his wife could at most serve five or six. Some nights when it got really busy, Freddie would ignore some of the tables. On those nights, you either had to be really patient or know Freddie to get fed. Lots of tourists from San Jose would wander in the place thinking that it was just another cheap Chinese restaurant — only to walk out when the service wasn’t fast enough. You got to know Freddie by being patient. I was. And so Freddie and I had become friends.

Freddie’s wife smiled at me as we walked into the kitchen. She was carefully boiling a whole chicken to add to her master sauce. While I told Freddie about what had been happening to Julie and me, Freddie continued cutting some onions for the sauce. He bathed each onion in water. And every once in a while, he would stop his cutting to run some water over both the knife and the cutting board. Using water to combat the fumes from a raw onion was an old cook’s trick that even I knew.

Freddie listened patiently to my story (his wife didn’t know a word of English). I tried telling him how each time I saw reality shifting, I started doubting my own sanity more and more. At least Julie remembered everything the same way I did.

"So do you have any idea what’s happening to me?" I finally asked Freddie.

Freddie paused for a moment before holding up a fresh onion for me to look at. "Reality is like the onion. You peel off layers one by one. Under each layer is another layer."

"Yeah," I said, glad that Freddie at least was taking me seriously. "But you can peel and peel forever. When do you get to the real reality? When do you find the real onion?"

Freddie smiled as if I had answered my own question. "The onion is in the peels. The onion is in the peeling. Each peel is real. Each one is the onion. You find reality in each." His wife reached over for the chopped onions and got ready to add them to her master sauce.

I was about to ask him about the onion’s skin and roots, when I realized that my question had already been answered. I thanked Freddie and his wife and apologized for disturbing them.

As Freddie walked me out, he led me over to the cabinet where he kept the fortune cookies. He pulled out a plastic bag and showed me the label: CHINA LUCK FORTUNE COOKIE CO., SAN FRANCISCO, CA. Freddie shrugged and handed me a cookie. I cracked it open but all I got was a traditional and laughable: "You are going to have a pleasant experience."

I thanked Freddie again and he locked the door behind me. I had to kick start my damn bike to get it running.

Work sucked. Since my last shift, it seemed that the Italian seafood restaurant had gone nouvelle cuisine. I had to improvise all day as I went along. And once again I was stuck working with Matt who did nothing but bitch about my cooking and my presentation.

That evening, Julie and I walked along West Cliff for hours trying to figure out what was happening. We talked about what Freddie had said. Over the roar of the waves crashing below us, we could hear the seals barking on Seals’ Rock off in the distance. Sitting on a bench on top of the fastest eroding cliffs in America, we marveled at the awesome power of water eating away at the ground beneath us.

 

That night the dreams were back. I dreamed I was in a harem watching Julie dance. She wore thousands of veils. And she danced a slow erotic dance removing one veil after another. But no matter how many veils she took off, there were still more veils underneath.

When I woke up, I asked Julie about her dreams wondering if they had been the same. And they were. But instead of her dancing for me, I was dancing for her.

And, of course, the cocoon was back. But this time it was thin and flimsy as if it were made out of white gauze. Impatient after the tempting and never ending dreams, I tore it apart. And soon Julie and I were making love on her big brass bed.

The kitchen had moved again. But at least the apartment was the same size — a kind of mirror image of yesterday’s.

I closed my eyes as I walked towards my bike. I wasn’t sure what to expect today. I sure didn’t want to pedal to work. When I opened them, I found an XT 125. It whined on its single cylinder all the way to work.

But work wasn’t what I expected either. The Italian name had vanished from the restaurant’s awnings only to be replaced by MATT’S ALL-AMERICAN SEAFOOD GRILL. And my boss Matt was waiting for me outside with two strange men.

"He’s the one that had the strange dreams, officers," Matt seemed to take great pleasure in pointing me out. "I always thought he was a problem employee."

The two overgrown suits caught up with me before I made it back to my puny bike. They threw me in the back of an unmarked van and took me down to the county jail.

Without saying a word, the two suits wired me up to some strange machine with a metal skullcap and sat me there for a few minutes while they fiddled with some dials. Finally, they seemed satisfied. And they made a print out of whatever it was that made them happy.

That done, they led me to an interrogation room on the first floor. A nervous, mousy little man was waiting for me.

"C’mon in, son," he faked a warm smile as he looked down at the printout. "Take a seat. I would like to ask you a few questions."

I said nothing.

"Oh, c’mon, son. Don’t act all innocent," he went on trying to ingratiate himself. "We know you’re one of them."

OK. So I bit. "One of who?"

"One of them. One of the dreamers." He held up my print-out for me to look at. "Look at those abnormal spikes in your alpha wave pattern. You’re all over the graph."

I said nothing again. So he went on.

"All over the world, dreamers like you have been popping up. Some try to change things. Others try to hide. But you know what? You can’t." He grinned a shit-eating grin.

"Last Wednesday," he went on, "Our satellites spotted some strange ripples over Santa Cruz. Although we still don’t know how things are changed, we know that those ripples mean that another dreamer has shown up. So the Company sends out a team, the team asks around to see if anyone has been having bizarre dreams lately, and — BOOM — we snag you."

I was busy thinking about how to get the hell out of this. But the mousy man seemed to be enjoying himself. He seemed like the type who enjoyed thinking that he was in control of everything. So I decided I might as well play along.

"So what do you want from me?" I asked.

"That’s a good question, son. Shows you want to cooperate. Not everyone is as helpful." Again he grinned. "You see, we want to help you. And we want you to help us."

"Help you what?" I said but I was busy thinking that if I could only get to sleep, maybe this short little asshole might be gone by the time I woke up.

"Help us bring things back to normal. Help put things back the way they were."

"But I thought you said you didn’t know how things changed?"

"You’re a smart kid, son. You listened to what I said. But although we don’t know exactly what’s gone wrong, we have an idea. We’re aware of some of the results although we don’t understand the process. Have you read a paper or watched the news lately?"

I shook my head no. Santa Cruz’ isolation was one of its strong points.

"Good God, son!" he cried. It was his turn to be surprised. "The whole world is in turmoil! It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. Look at what’s happened in the last few years. The South African’s have released Mandela and let him set up an opposition party. Some Czech playwright thinks he can lead a bloodless revolution. The Yemenis have stopped fighting with each other and are thinking about reuniting their country. The Berlin Wall comes falling down. And just recently, our colleagues behind the Curtain, tell us that some Kazakhs think they can become the world’s seventh largest country while tiny little Estonia believes it can go it alone. You call any of this normal? Expected? Shit, the next thing you know, the Israelis will be hugging the Palestinians."

I shrugged. So far, everything he said sounded fine by me. "So where do I fit in?"

"Well, son," he began strutting again. "With your dreams, you can help us put everything back together again. Make it all right. Remember the good old days? When it was all black and white, us against them? You knew where everything and everyone stood. You knew who the good guys were. And the bad. You have to help us bring back the good old days. Life was so much simpler back then in our old bi-polar world."

"But how?" I asked to keep him talking and give me some time to think. He sounded like a real nut.

"Well, we think that each dreamer can generate their own alternate reality. Everything is such a mess right now because all these separate realities begin to merge, to overlap, to contradict. They crash into each other and collapse into conflict. We have to stop it or the world will degenerate into chaos."

He had a point there. So I tried a different tack. "Well, how did this mess begin?"

"Heh, heh," the man grinned as if someone had just kissed his ass. I sure hoped it wasn’t me. "I was the one that figured that one out. Did you see some kind of message before you started dreaming? On a bumper-sticker, perhaps? Or in a neon sign? Or on a banner pulled along behind a small plane?"

I thought back on the fortune cookies and nodded yes.

"Well, those messages act as informational triggers. They start the dreaming process." He crossed his arms as if he had just won some fight.

"Triggering what?"

"Well, we’re not quite sure. There’s some force at work here that we don’t quite understand. Sometimes it writes books. Sometimes it signs it’s name as Philip K — sometimes as Ursula K — depending on what side of itself it decides to show. But the power behind both of them is the same."

So that was it. Philip K — that’s where those quotes were from. I had read several books by him. I began paying closer attention to what the short man was saying.

"We think their books carry some kind of virus," he said. "So we’re busy burning as many of them as we can find."

"A virus? You mean like tuberculosis?" I asked stupidly.

"No, of course not," he answered. "More like a computer virus — an informational virus — an idea virus. A feeling that there’s something wrong with the way things are. That the world should be — or is — different than it is. You read the books and absorb ideas that are open-ended, unresolved. Like a conversation that was started but never finished. This idea-virus can lay dormant in you for years. Until you trip across the right verbal trigger. And then — BOOM — you’re a dreamer."

I silently thanked my interrogator for answering all my questions. "So how can I help?" I asked trying to sound perky.

"Well, you can start by telling us if you know of any other dreamers," the man said becoming very serious.

Shit, Julie. "I’m the only one I know," I lied.

Somehow I must have given something away, because the mousy man said, "Listen, son. You can tell me the truth now. Or we can give you some sodium pentothal and then wire you up to a lie detector. Either way, we’ll get what we want from you. And you don’t sleep until we do." He was grinning that grin again.

Help me, Julie! I cried out inaudibly.

And as the man asked, "So which way do you want it?", the shock waves from a monster quake hit Santa Cruz.

The ground shook like Jell-O. The man looked scared shitless. In fact, I could even smell his shit. They must not have any quakes back where the Company is from.

As the quake went on, I got a little worried to — even though they normally thrill me. You’re so used to assuming that the ground is solid that it’s a real big rush finding out that it isn’t.

But this one was a REAL BIG ONE. Noisy as hell. And the epicenter wasn’t far away. During the far off quakes, the ground rolls gently like swells out on the ocean. This time the ground was shaking like a huge washing machine gone haywire.

The mousy man crawled under the table. I was busy looking for a way out. Suddenly, I noticed the outside wall begin to crack. I pushed against it and it fell apart like cardboard. I fell through and landed on some bushes. Thankfully, nothing was broken as far as I could tell.

The quake finally stopped, but the ground kept on quivering. As I looked around trying to figure out which way to run, I caught sight of a row of parked bikes. All of them had fallen down except for a big cherry red Harley Soft-Tail that seemed to have my name written all over it. And what do you know? The key in my pocket worked.

I started it up and drove away from the jail, filling the suddenly quiet town with that distinctive backfire a Harley makes.

A couple minutes later, I screeched to a stop in front of the bookstore where Julie worked. I looked frantically for her praying that she was OK. She was. She stood half in shock looking at what was left of the bookstore.

"Get on!" I yelled. "We have to get out of here. Now." So we headed up into the Santa Cruz Mountains, but the road had vanished in several places. Finally, we drove deep within a redwood forest and pulled to a stop. We held onto each other for a long, long time. The aftershocks shook the hills for the rest of the day and into the night.

 

That night, our dreams weren’t of peels, shells, or veils but of a deep underground river. Of a current running deep beneath us. I was down there — underground, underwater — swimming. Swimming without needing air. At some point I found Julie or she found me and we swan together. Somewhere up in the distance, we could see other shapes swimming around. Julie and I turned to each other and smiled. Somehow we knew that those shapes belonged to other dreamers like us. And sometime soon, we would be able to swim with them. I slept peacefully after that.

But when I woke up, there was something really wrong. Instead of finding Julie lying side by side with me, I saw the face of a strange man. Shit, I thought to myself, and immediately froze. I’m sleeping with a man. I can even feel his hand on my breast. Breast?! Oh, shit. I slowly moved his arm away and felt my two breasts to make sure that they were real. Oh, my god. My hand instinctively darted down to check for my vital equipment. But it too gone. I started shaking. My own internal earthquake.

After it subsided, I felt my crotch again to make sure. There was something there after all. But not as noticeable. Overnight, I had become a woman. When I looked over at the man sleeping with me, I realized he was staring at me. And he was as frightened as I was.

Somehow he seemed incredibly familiar. It took me a second to realize that the stranger looked like a male version of Julie.

After we stared at each other for a while without moving, I cleared my voice and said: "Ah, hi ... Julie. Is that you? This is me. Paul." My voice sounded very different.

Julie was quiet for a moment but then burst out laughing. Then she grabbed me and started hugging me. We rocked back and forth for minutes. It was only then that we noticed the cocoon: it resembled a huge white sheet.

Before long, our hands were busy exploring our own and each other’s bodies, trying to make sure that they were real. A long time later, we found out that they were. Although I’m still not sure if Teirisias is always right.

As it turned out, I was — or my body was — a virgin. Julie laughed when she found the large blood spot left behind by my ruptured hymen. S/he stood up laughing and whooping, waving the stained sheet in the air like some backwater male. I guess s/he was high as a kite on her/his first dose of testosterone.

"Real funny," I said as I reached for my clothes. But s/he was strutting around like a cock in a hen house. S/he always said that males tend do their thinking with their little heads and not their big ones. When I had had enough, I said: "Cut it out or I’ll cut it off, you dick."

Finally, Julie calmed down and got dressed. Then s/he hugged me and kissed me and the old Julie was back. As we bathed in a nearby stream, s/he dunked me in the water and said, "I now baptize thee, Paula." I sprinkled water on her/his head and christened him, Julian. And so that’s who we came to be.

As we walked up to my bike (for some reason yesterday’s Harley Soft-Tail was still there), Julian asked for my keys.

"Right," I said. "Dream on. I’m driving. It’s my bike." Testosterone really does addle the brain. "You’re welcome to walk if you want to."

Finally, Julian got on behind me. And teased my new breasts mercilessly all the way to Las Vegas.

 

We stayed in the Vegas desert for a few years. Laying low. The cocoons never came back. And the Company never seemed to track us down either. Who would have ever thought of a double sex change?

Each day we went to work (I stayed in kitchens, Julian in bookstores). And each evening we slowly got used to our new bodies. I had a hell of a time with the monthly bleeding and cramps. Julian just laughed and thought it was the funniest thing ever until I started kicking him. But in some way, I kind of like the idea of my body being in tune with the moon and the tides.

And then there were the thousands of changes — both subtle and not — in the way that others started treating me. Especially men. Fortunately I’m a cook so I spend most of the working day with a skillet or chef’s knife in my hands. Maybe one day I’ll sit down and write about that too.

But most importantly, each night we swam in the river of dreams meeting up with more and more dreamers. I wouldn’t say things have gotten better. With the world I mean. But they sure are different. And at least the whole place hasn’t blown apart into its constituent pieces yet. So Julian and I still have hope.

A few weeks ago, we figured that the coast was finally clear. And so we headed back to Santa Cruz. As I drove the Harley down the Pacific Garden Mall, we finally got to see the aftermath of the earthquake. Huge pieces of downtown were still missing.

"Look," I said, "No Cooper House. It’s gone. You always wanted it that way."

Julian laughed as he reached around and rubbed my pregnant Buddha belly. "Yeah, I always hated that place."

We both held our breaths as we drove down Beach Street. But Freddie’s was gone. We drove everywhere looking for the sign of the Tao without any luck. Depressed, we got off the bike and walked up and down the boardwalk.

On a whim, I went into the tourist trap that stood where Freddie’s had once been. It was filled with the usual T-shirts, bikinis, sun-tan lotion, and postcards. But for some reason I started flipping through the magazine rack in the back.

And there, half-hidden beneath a copy of SURFING, I found a single copy of an thin book with a large Tao sign on it. My heart almost stopped when I read the title: JIN JANG RECIPES. I quickly flipped through the pages and there it was. The recipe for Rolling Lettuce Chicken. And the secret of the Master Sauce. And for just $2.95 plus tax, I walked out of the tourist trap with the keys to the universe in my hands.

 

Thanks for everything, Freddie.

[Copyright 1994 by E.A. Johnson. All rights reserved.]

 


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