There's more than one of everything arranged on the table before her. In a perfect circle there are six sets of French glass goblets with special twisted stems, white napkin swans on gold-rimmed plates, matching coffee cups in saucers, and more silverware than she knows what to do with. Dylan picks the smallest of the four silver spoons for drawing the things she needs to remember on the pearl-white table linen. The whole picture doesn't come to her at first, just a few ambiguous images that seem meaningless. A black tiger with bright orange stripes the color of fire. A big yellow sun over a forest of palm trees.
In the most spectacular of dreams, she had been in some other place, living some other kind of life—something so enchanting she can't shake the fire growing in her belly. She was alone on the beach, watching the waves coming up high as the trees until they froze midair over her. Like any other moment in which she might find herself in new surroundings, she let her curiosity take over to make sure this place was true. The water was cold when she reached out to touch it with her fingertips. The air boiled so hot she tasted it on her tongue; the sweat above her eyebrow dripped down her forehead until it reached the end of her cheek. The grainy white sand was warm and sticky, clumping between her bare toes, as she made her way inland. A roar echoed past the palm trees towering high over her head; at the time, it seemed important to find it before it was gone.
That strange feeling, a thousand pins and needles, shoots through her left arm. Her mother has been swatting her a few times before Dylan returns to the moment and remembers where she is. She's the middle of the sandwich—her mother on the left and her father on the right. They arrived an hour early for brunch at the Bluefish Bistro, an expensive restaurant inside a Hyatt hotel. She usually made it a point to never eat in such places, packed with tourists and suits and cliché elevator music. There couldn't be anything worse than bandaging and squeezing her toes into a pair of heels, throwing on some black sleeveless dress from the back of her closet, and hiding her freckles behind layers of ivory foundation. In the mirror this morning she'd found herself frightening, like a big-eyed waif staring back at her with a look that could either be interpreted as great emptiness or hopefulness.
Her future mother-in-law insisted today was meant to be a special occasion. After the long, five-hour drive to St. Louis, Dylan and her family arrived as the restaurant was opening. The table by the window was chosen by her, next to the oversized glass mosaic hanging on the wall that first brought her dream to mind. She wants to count all the pieces, each of them its own distinct shade of red, orange, or yellow. She prefers to enjoy them one at a time, same as how she looks at stars in the sky, never wanting to be told the names or where they came from. Not everything has to belong to something larger in order to make sense, and not everyone needs to be told why a painting is beautiful, which is a thing her mother hates about art.
Her eyes start on the outer rims of fragments—left to right, up and down, then in reverse—and her pulse begins to beat like a bongo in her ears. She is filled with this sensation of running on the beach until she's running out of breath; she knows it from her dream, only it has become some muscle memory with the aching in her chest. It's a good pain, reminding her that she is still alive, even when she is not completely herself. In the very center of it, she can see a sun with a crooked smile. She looks again. There are little tropical flowers in the red and contorted, curvy creatures in orange—all upside down or moving in different directions. So imperfect and strange and beautiful; its colors burn brighter by the second.
Her future family arrives at the entrance, all but her fiancé, Thomas, while she's practicing her best "I'm getting married" smile. She's taken aback as she sees the two of them dressed in matching blue and white. The woman catches Dylan's eye, particularly the small gold-plated brooch she is wearing, maybe a fleur-de-lis. Dylan is convinced they're the type of couple who travel to places well beyond the fields, streams, and plains of Missouri and Arkansas, where she'd spent most family vacations since she was a child. Dylan smiles on the thought of being a traveling wife like her future mother-in-law. Her father—a carpenter who avoids brunch when it's his one day off—is dressed in his best short-sleeved shirt, finished off with an out-of-season tie. His head is pointed facedown at his plate, quietly buttering another sesame roll. She follows his lead while trying to recall her mother's last words of advice on what exactly is considered appropriate table conversation. She hides the spoon in her lap for later.
"Dylan is so happy you made it," her mother exclaims as she greets them, taking it upon herself to make up for her Dylan's lack of social graces. Dylan nods as if to say yes, she is Dylan, and yes, she approves this message. "It's awful we haven't had a chance to meet until now."
Oliver and Penelope—how delightfully European—take their seats on the far end. Dylan's father looks up with interest, mostly because he's starving and anxious to call the waiter back over. The rolls are gone, and he is resorting to eating the remaining butter as though it were ice cream.
Their table is too long and wide, making her feel small no matter how much she tries to straighten her back. Dylan would rather think of the beach, the frozen waves, and the feeling of being anywhere but this place. The parents are being polite, getting to know one another, while they wait for Thomas to show. Out of nowhere their waiter appears, inserting a break in their awkward exchange. Dylan orders cake, but her mother tells the waiter she means chicken Caesar salad. Dylan thinks about interjecting, but then she remembers the waterfall, after she'd pushed her way through, a few hundred yards into the forest. Drinking from it, there was a wild black tiger with orange stripes, the one she had been chasing. Beautiful and strong. It was quietly drinking, and when she looked away it leaped into the water. The tiger then became a golden-orange fish, its scales glimmering in the sunlight. She followed along the banks as the fish swam away from the falls, believing that she needed to know where it would end up.
Using her spoon she traces the golden fish on her leg, hoping she'd remember it for her sketchbook later. She props her elbows on the table, attempting to tune in. A new challenge presents itself in the large centerpiece of lilies, creating a divide between the two sides of the table. Dylan struggles to make eye contact with Penelope, twisting her head around the lilies to be seen. Penelope asks Dylan about her studies at college, to which she mentions the art gallery across the street from where she works. Is she smiling? Is she angry? There's no real way to find out, but it is possible that her mother-in-law is purposely using the lilies to avoid speaking directly to her. All the possible conversation topics scroll through her mind, but she is only able to think of the things she can't say. Dylan keeps her recent revelation to herself: When she dies, she's decided to donate her body to art, not science. She's also careful to avoid mentioning she and Thomas have been living together for a while, uncertain whether it would be a sensitive topic. By the time she attempts to open her mouth, they're already ten steps ahead on a spiral toward wedding-planning purgatory.
"What's wrong with orchids?" Her mother is stirring her tea with a spoon of nothing, waiting for the answer she doesn't want to hear. "Orchids are nice for a spring wedding, aren't they?" Both mothers turn briefly to Dylan for her opinion, but they realize she won't be much use.
"No, orchids are lovely, but I do love hydrangeas. There's a florist downtown and I had the perfect place for a reception in mind, just a few minutes from here."
"Oh, I don't believe so. Most of our family is in Redmonton or Little Rock. We couldn't possibly have them travel this far." Like her father, Dylan is slinking down in her chair with the hopes of disappearing.
Dylan is thinking about perfect Penelope, wife of Odysseus, wondering if that's how her mother-in-law was given such a name. What a welcome relief it would be to talk about Homer, instead of flowers, guest lists, or churches. When it came to discussing the future, she and Thomas had something very different in mind. It occurs to her now they've been so focused on the honeymoon, deciding between mountains and the ocean, it seemed only logical to conclude they'd be eloping. And it's the strangest thing how every time Thomas' mother mentions him, she speaks as if he were a show dog. Dylan closes her eyes for a few seconds until the warmth returns to her cheeks again.
"What about your colors?" Penelope calls out. Dylan says she's confused. Isn't there only one color, white? There's a song stuck in her head, and she knows if Thomas were here, he'd be able to tell her. He would squeeze her leg under the table; they'd privately joke about what a mess they've gotten into. As lonely as she feels sitting here, it's comforting that he knows she prefers cold pizza over eggs for breakfast, is obsessed with weird antique collectibles, loves to draw passersby at the airport, and is the only person who can slip into a dream while awake. There must be some place where marriage isn't so complicated, requiring her to become an adult and lose the unique fragments of her spirit. She liked not knowing where life was headed at times, and the idea of a wedding is forcing everything to fit inside of boxes. She tries to hold onto a shred of a thought: that it will just be her and Thomas soon.
Their meals arrive and she notices everyone else has ordered the same salmon dish, its orange colors popping out with a bed of rice and bright mango and red pepper salsa. Dylan watches, with her stomach turning in knots, as they devour the salmon's body. That's when she remembers the end of the dream, when she reached the end of the palms, where what once had been a majestic and free creature had been withered and ripped apart until there was nothing left.
Title image "All Set" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2017.