CHAPTER EIGHT

DREAMS TOO LIVELY

 


There was a line of costumed people on the street outside the hotel ballroom. We joined the line and stood behind a pair of wings. The three of us were silent as the people in front excitedly conversed. A honk and obnoxious comment from a passing car occasionally interrupted their talk. The people with painted faces snorted and resumed talking.

The line moved forward until we were at the front door. A bearded man dressed like a nineteenth century banker was taking tickets.

"No tickets?" he said after we didn't outstretch our hands.

"No tickets," I said as I looked straight back at the bearded man. I wasn't worried about getting into the ballroom. At gatherings like the Silver Moon Masquerade, I'm a prize catch.

The bearded man turned his eyes to Alexandra. He examined her black covering, then turned to Layla. She returned a suspicious face to his gaze.

Finally he said, "You two can come in." Then he pointed at Layla. "Her, I don't think so."

"Would it help if I came in through the back door?" Layla snapped.

The bearded man -- a white guy -- was abruptly flustered. "He means," I said, "that you're not exactly dressed for this occasion."

"I'm just sayin' it's lookin' mighty pale around here," she commented, indicating the other people in the line. I could see her point. As far as I could see, the costumed people were white. In my experience, affairs such as the Silver Moon Masquerade tend to favor Caucasians. Not completely, but it was still mighty white.

"It's a bit more diverse than it first looks," I assured her.

"We let black people inside!" the bearded men suddenly declaimed.

"How many?" Layla asked.

"Well...I don't..."

"Three? Four? How many Arabs do you let in? I'm one of those, by the way."

This had the makings of a pure New York City Incident when Alexandra intervened. She held up a hand and softly said, "She's with me."

I've mentioned her voice, right? The way she spoke those simple words created an irresistible force. 'She's with me.' That's all you need to know.

The bearded man's face turned blank as he nodded and motioned to the door. Layla, Alexandra and I went inside the ballroom. We saw...

...young men with silver hair, blackened eyebrows, tights around their crotches, and sly smiles; friendly middle-aged men in top hats and cravats; female teenagers with wings attached to their silk gowns; older women dressed as both queens and barmaids.

And masks; some simple golden ones which only circled the eyes, or long ones with the faces of animals.

Painted faces -- red, yellow, green; painted bodies with only a thin loincloth.

A man's body covered with fur and a face disguised with contacts and fangs. (A bit ironic, that.) And a stark gray costume that looked like a walking rock.

These were just some of the things I saw at the Silver Moon Masquerade, including pirates. It was a bedlam of color and anachronism. It was Halloween with a vengeance and a deeper purpose. This wasn't about simply a night of fun. This was about recreating something that only existed in dreams. I had no doubt that a lot of the people there never wanted to leave this ballroom.

"Wow," Layla said. I don't know if she meant "wow, this is amazing" or "wow, this is stupid" or both. I shared the sentiment if she meant the third option. I had a deep ambivalence toward these kinds of affairs. The Silver Moon Masquerade looked like an ungainly mix of conscious infantilism and studied decadence -- a parade of grown people longing for their childhood innocence but also wanting adult eroticism. There were bulging codpieces, naked chests and tight corsets mixed with the sparkles and gossamer wings.

On the other hand, there have always been some dirty things going on in those old fairy tales. Read the original Brothers Grimm, if you don't believe me.

On yet another hand, this party had less to do with ancient fairy tales and more to do with the eighties. A lot of the people at the Silver Moon Masquerade came of age in an era of androgynous rock stars and bong-smoking fantasy novel cults. This masquerade was an absurd offspring of that culture.

On a fourth hand, it was quite a spectacle. Shouldn't I have just accepted it as that and enjoyed myself?

Well, no. There's the fifth hand -- I actually lived in a fantasy world. I actually came from a community that looked like this masquerade, but not so florid. And to live in that world you had to work and sweat to keep the 'fantasy' going. Occasionally you had to kill. These people had just come to play. I couldn't fault them for that, but I wondered how long they could actually live in the Tunnels without their regular jobs and comforts. Or television.

I suspect that Layla felt something close to what I felt. In fact, she probably leaned a lot more to the negative. She was too hard-nosed to enjoy the Masquerade.

As for Alexandra...she just stood there and looked over the crowd. She spent a whole minute doing this before saying, "Stay here."

Then she went further into the crowd. I almost stopped her but Layla placed a hand on my shoulder. "She'll be fine. Come on. I see food."

She guided me to a table. The table had been decorated to resemble an eighteenth-century banquet, even though the food was cookies, punch, and deviled eggs. Wreaths of red and yellow flowers surrounded the plates. The punch could be poured into crystal glasses. Brass statues of cherubs wagged their naked behinds over the food.

I picked up a cinnamon cookie and started to chew when I heard a voice say, "Hi!" The voice was female, and I recognized the tone.

I turned and saw two young women. Their costumes were relatively simple. With their green shorts and pointed ears, they were apparently going for some kind of elf look. They also had nice breasts. "Are you with somebody right now?" one of them asked.

Before I could answer, Layla put an arm over my shoulder and said, "Yeah, he's with me. Beat it, you twerps."

Their eager smiles turned to scowls. They stomped away as they snorted "Who does she think is?" and "Robbing the cradle."

"That wasn't necessary," I told Layla.

"I don't want to put up with your fan club all night," she responded.

"Or maybe you're defending your territory."

She looked at me as she nibbled on a cracker. Then she said, "You know, Jacob, when I first saw you, I thought, 'This is the most beautiful young man I've ever seen.'"

"Thank you."

"I also thought, 'He's probably terrible in bed.'"

Layla made me temporarily speechless -- again. She continued, "Oh, I'm sure you can get it up readily enough. And you're as strong as most full-grown men."

"I'm stronger than most full-grown men," I sputtered.

"Okay. But I bet that Joe in his early fifties was a better lover than you are."

"I got a long line of women who would tell you otherwise."

"You think so?"

I almost said "Damn right," but then I remembered the words of a famous actress. "You're like something out of a movie, Jacob." I suddenly realized how very hollow my sex life had been. I had lived an adolescent's dream life, but nothing more substantial than a dream.

I had been a dream to these women. I was young and strange and strong. I knew loads of poetry. I was the kind of boyfriend those women would have wanted in their teens. Sex had just been a way of getting close to that fantasy, but what had I been in reality to them?

"You're advanced in a lot of ways, Jacob," Layla told me. "But in the most important ways you're still a kid."

Layla's words struck home for me. What if she was right? Had I really changed in the past two months? Was I still just a teenager with some unusual gifts?

I would have just meditated in silence on her observations, but then Layla said --

"Alexandra doesn't need a kid for a lover."

"What?"

"Alexandra needs an adult."

"For chrissake, Layla, she's fifteen years old. She's my age."

Layla shook her head. "She has the oldest soul I've ever met."

"What the hell does that..."

"And if you can't be the person she needs, then you should back away."

I was slightly conscious that my hand was grinding my cookie into bits. I mainly concentrated on Layla's confident expression. A need to wipe off that expression boiled inside me.

"Speaking your mind is one thing, Layla," I said in a low voice. "Speaking on things about which you don't know shit is another."

"I know more than..."

"Shut up."

So there we were. As the other people in the ballroom danced and laughed and posed for photos, a long-haired teenage male and a dark-skinned women in her thirties stared at each other like a couple of cobras.

"Don't you dare to judge the feelings Alexandra and I have for each other," I told Layla. "Don't you dare to tell me to back away when she is the love of my life. And don't you dare tell me what she fucking needs when you just fucking got here. And if you were a guy, we would be stepping outside right..."

"No need for chivalry, Jacob," Layla said in a cold voice. "I'll step outside with you."

I paused, then said, "You know what I can do."

"Oh, I know. That's why you won't get the drop on me again."

At that point, I was too mad to remember Alexandra's prophecy. All I wanted at that point was one clear punch at Layla's face. And she wanted the same for my face. We were both ready to step outside when I noticed something strange out of the corner of my eye -- stranger than the costumes in that ballroom.

People had stopped dancing. Their backs were turned to me, forming a multi-colored wall of skin and cloth. I stared at them. So did Layla. A DJ was playing 'gothic' dance music -- techno beats with harpsichords and ethereal female voices. However, the music met resistance in those motionless bodies. As far as I could see, everyone was staring at the center of the ballroom. Eventually the DJ turned off the music, knowing that all melodies were ineffectual now.

Layla and I both realized who was at the center. Who else could bring this party to a sudden halt? We forgot about our squabble and pushed our way through the crowd. We broke a few wings and masks on the way.

There was a ten-foot space at the crowd's center. Alexandra was there. She was walking up to each person around her. As usual she moved as if she wasn't quite in the world, but was conscious of every detail. For the first time, though, I noticed that there was as much poetry in how she moved as in how she talked.

She whispered in the ear of a man with antlers. Then she whispered to a witch, and then to a man with the face of a frog. Each person became surprised and awed.

I looked around the room. I saw the same expression on dozens of faces. Alexandra had been moving among the dancers like a ghost. What had she been whispering to them? Some secret from the past? Some desire that they hadn't revealed? Whatever she had said to each person, it had been frightening.

And it also excited them. In this place which celebrated magic someone had brought the real thing. In a room full of the imagined, a true representative of the fantastic was walking. Imagine if you had been dreaming about aliens your whole life, and then one showed up at your doorstep. Alexandra wasn't an elf or a fairy, but she might as well have been. Even those who didn't receive a whisper from Alexandra understood that something fantastic was happening. They could hear amazed descriptions of what Alexandra was doing. They could see her power in the way that she had brought this room to a halt. They could feel it from the others.

As I said, though, there was fear in that room as well as enchantment. If someone instantly knew your secrets, how would you react? How would these people react? Layla and I were both tense as stretched wires. We were ready to grab Alexandra and hide her from these people. We were held back by...well, we were held back by Alexandra. This slight, tender person seemed to know exactly what were doing, despite the risk she was taking. She was deliberately calling attention to herself and her gift. Despite what was happening, I wanted to trust her judgment

I wanted to trust her, period.

Alexandra whispered to one more person, then walked to the center. For a few moments she was as motionless and quiet as a faraway star.

Then she began to uncover her face.

I couldn't hear Layla breathe. I wasn't breathing, either. I was yelling at myself, "Get her out of here now, she's gone mad, get her out..." But a softer voice seemed to say, "She is in control. You cannot stop her. This is her moment."

When the scarves were removed, everybody knew what they were seeing. I could read the collective knowledge on the people's faces. This was no make-up, their expressions said. This was the true face of a seer. Just as she frightened and amazed them with her gift, she bewitched and disgusted them with her snake eyes.

I have told you about the scared Alexandra, the haughty Alexandra, the murderous Alexandra. The person at the center of the Silver Moon Masquerade was somebody new. Her expression was a cool one, but not distant. She gazed at the others with a muted kindness. She had a confidence that no one would raise a hand against her. I was not so confident. Would fear overcome enchantment in that room?

I had forgotten that sometimes fear and enchantment are the same thing.

A part of the crowd moved. Layla and I readied to step between them and Alexandra.

Instead of going toward her, they went to the front of the ballroom. At this spot was a set-up for picture taking. The area had been designed to look like ancient ruins. Cardboard facsimiles of pillars stood in the background. At the center was a throne on a raised dais.

Several people gathered around the dais and raised it off the ground. The crowd parted so that the dais could be hauled to a corner at the back of the room. From this corner everyone could see the person sitting on the throne, and that person could see everyone else.

The throne-carriers melted back into the crowd. Then, like sand being washed away in the water, a long path was cleared between Alexandra and the throne.

Everybody got down on their knees and bowed their heads -- except for Layla and me. She probably felt a little dizzy. I certainly did.

Alexandra looked at that throne as if she was judging it. Then she walked over the path -- slowly, but with no fear.

She stepped onto the dais, turned around and sat down on the throne. I realized that she belonged there. She was the true queen of this Masquerade. Her new followers waited for her command.

Alexandra sat on that throne with her hands folded in her lap. She didn't move. Nobody else did or would have until she gave the word.

She pointed a finger at the DJ. He immediately started the music again. The dancing and laughter resumed, only more joyous than before.

Layla and I kept still for a few seconds. Then Layla said, "Come on." I followed her, completely forgetting about the fight we almost had.

We made our way to the dais just as a man approached the throne. Layla quickly stepped in front of him and placed a hand on his chest. "You want to talk with her?" she demanded to know.

The man -- another fellow wearing tights and a big wig -- nodded anxiously. Layla turned to Alexandra.

The queen nodded. Layla stepped aside and allowed the supplicant to approach the floor. He got down on his knee and opened his mouth.

"I know of your problem," Alexandra said. "This is what you must to do." As Alexandra explained the solution, Layla slowly grinned.

And I just stood and watched the whole thing like a doofus.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

A band took to the stage. As did the attendants of the Masquerade, they accepted Alexandra's status and began to play. They called themselves Saint Eve. They dressed in colorful outfits -- ruffled shirts and fishnets, heavy boots and bracelets -- but the most eye-catching was the beautiful red-haired front singer. She was dressed in an enormous hoop skirt and a loose blouse. Originally the dress had been white, but it was painted with black-and-red swirls. A simple black mask covered her eyes as she belted her first number to the microphone --

"There are no human words for this/ The human mouth cannot express."

Normally I would have enjoyed it, but the sound of guitar, drums and crackling synthesizer only gave me a headache at that moment. I had watched Alexandra for the last half-hour listening to one supplicant after another. As always she knew their problems and the proper solutions. After so many years spent in darkness she had truly found a place where she could belong.

No, that wasn't true. She had been accepted in the Tunnels as well as the Masquerade. In the former she had been a guest. Here she was a queen.

And who could blame her for wanting to be the latter?

What did that make me then? Her consort? Her knight-in-arms? I had no answer then. I only stood near the throne, feeling ignored. I was being ignored. As previously in the day, Alexandra didn't seem to know that I was near her. Layla, on the other hand, would constantly whisper words in her ear, and Alexandra would nod to her.

Saint Eve began a new song -- less driven than the others, but no less strong. The woman in the black-and-red dress sang calmly yet with an ache --

"They recognize each other though they have never met..."

Alexandra raised a hand. A new supplicant stopped in her tracks and moved aside as the queen left the throne. Everyone made room as she walked toward the center of the ballroom. I could see her standing still and listening to the music alternate between gentle flute-like sounds and sudden snarling guitars.

Then she turned to the throne and held out a hand.

I knew she wasn't motioning to me.

I suddenly knew a lot of things that should have been obvious to me. My love and my pride had blinded me. I had needed a plain visual to clear through the blindness.

I had to see Layla walk over to Alexandra...take her by the hand...allow Alexandra to place her head on her shoulder...and dance with her.

"One day we're standing in the snow..."

Lovers closed around them in their own pairs like the petals of a flower in winter.

"One day we're waiting in the garden..."

I kept still. I wondered if I could remain on this spot forever.

"Sometimes we wait for you to wave goodbye..."

Eventually I headed for the exit. Nobody tried to stop me. I left the color and sound of a dream taken shape in the middle of a grand stone city. And yet as the sound of traffic and the shadow of black towers took over my senses, I couldn't help wondering if I had left reality for a dream -- a dark and narrow dream.

"'Cause we'll be here one day."


Continued in Chapter 9