My long short story Blaze of Dreams was published in The Oxford American, The Southern Magazine of Good Writing, in 1995, when I was using my maiden name, Tremewan. The OA is still a vibrant magazine with a great online presence. It helps broaden the view South. I’m in the process of developing Blaze of Dreams into a full length novel. Set in 1978, it’s based on my own experiences after developing epilepsy at age 16, which became a turning point for the better in my life, even though it was a rough road. I believe having to deal with a serious and complicated health condition saved me from the alcoholism that ran in my family and gave me a way to imagine a better life for myself. Here is a slightly edited version of the original story.
The published story was illustrated by the wonderful artwork of Micheal Anthony Donato, which you can see better in the gallery at his website.
Even though it’s about a teenager, it’s a story for adults. Although, so many of us were adults long before we reached 18, it’s not always clear where to draw the line. I do hope to remain true to the real struggles of young girls, the ways they navigate the confusion of our culture and develop their own powerful spirits.
Blaze of Dreams
By Joy Corcoran
For a brief time, during my sixteenth year, I had a blaze of dreams so vivid I was convinced I’d become a visionary. I lay down in my bed and a goddess emerged from the sheets and put flames in my heart. Tigers stood on their hind legs and embraced me. I wandered in elaborate and ornate castles where stone rooms expanded infinitely before me and doors collapsed in my hand.
I didn’t know at the time I had nocturnal epilepsy. My nightly travels were auras, neurological foreshadowings of oncoming seizures. I thought I was becoming like the oracles I’d read about in history class. My dreams were as fantastic as the posters of Buddha Dreaming my father hung in his room before he left. I thought I’d be the recipient of insights that would let me, finally, understand the chaos around me.
When I woke from these dreams a thin, rigid ache creased the center of my head. The sheets, rank with urine and sweat, assaulted my nose. This, I suppose, should have been evidence that I wasn’t entering a better world but descending deeper into this one. I thought I was becoming a visionary because my first aura lied to me.
In those first moments of sleep a woman who had my features – only she was radiant, with wider eyes, fuller lips and hair that curled gracefully around her face – took my hand in hers. She wore a vapor of silver lace and told me she was my true mother. Your time with Inez and her children is to give you wisdom, to teach you mortal frailty. Soon you will fly out of here. Through your words, houses will fall and mountains will crumble.
I shook with pleasure and then I just shook. I woke and it was Inez, my mother, shaking me awake. Her brassy hair in pink curlers, her face pinched against the smell of my sheets, she said, “We ain’t had this problem since you was a baby. Get these sheets in the wash and your butt in the shower.” The light reflected in her glasses and glared directly into my eyes. My head pounded. “You slept through the alarm and if you don’t hurry, you’ll miss the bus!”
Her shrill bitching got me to the bus, to school, where I sat, numb, through the dull haze of History, English and Math. It was well into evening before I could think straight, before I could remember my dream and realize I’d been visited by a goddess, my real mother, and that soon I’d leave Inez, her drinking, her boyfriends, and her piercing nasal voice.
I went to work on my looks. I painted dark, slanted lines around my eyes. I chewed on my lips to make them fuller. I combed and combed my hair to get the unruly curls to fall more gracefully around my face. I put on a white gauze dress I found in Inez’s closet. I floated around the house trying to figure out what I was supposed to learn about human frailty.
“You look like one of them flower children,” hooted Elmer, Inez’s tattooed, orb-bellied, greasy-headed boyfriend. Inez squinted and laughed, but I knew she couldn’t see me. She never wore her glasses around men. I figured that’s why all her boyfriends were so ugly to behold.
Preston, my boyfriend, was extraordinary to behold. “Wow, you look great!” he said when I floated up to him in my loose white pants and blousy white shirt. He’d never seen me in eyeliner, or any make-up for that matter. I didn’t tell him right away about my vision. I didn’t know what to say and I wasn’t sure he’d understand.
He’d laugh, probably. He had a chortling, boisterous laugh that I loved. I never heard anything like it, so pure and delighted, so in control. When I stood beside him, I was elevated. Everybody loved Preston, loved his laughter. At my old school, that kind of laughter would be directed at me.
There’s a way of hiding who you are that makes you popular. Girls with bright, eager eyes and quick, sweet smiles were like that, even if they’d been taking deep drags of cigarettes and crying in the bathroom just minutes before. They smirked at me as they would a child, my face mottled with frustration, unable for days to get my lips to curl into a smile.
That was my old school. When I started at Central, I was new. I had thinned in the middle and blossomed on the edges. Preston plucked me from the gaggle of girls before I had a chance to be pegged as weird. I was under him in no time at all, all tongues and yearning. I fit around him like a suede glove.
I was crazy about him, his spindly legs and his little round butt, his face that opened up in laughter, his long knobby fingers that slipped so easily under your clothes. I knew if I spoke in a loving voice, if I listened carefully and closely to him, he’d love me forever.
And when I became a visionary, when the bud of my heart flowered into magnificence, he’d worship me. He didn’t know about me yet. He couldn’t stop kissing me long enough to learn I wanted power more than anything.
I hated the rambling life my mother had taken to after my father left. I thought at the time she could have kept Dad if she listened to him harder, if when he came home late she could have said, Glad to see you, instead of, Where the hell have you been?
My brother, Marty, and my sister, Brenda, left with my dad and I couldn’t blame them. They were older and Dad seemed so cool. He got fired from the pickle factory for letting his hair grow long. He took to drumming on the week-end for the house-band at the Starlight Cruise. Hippie music, Inez said with disgust. The Starlight Cruise was so hip, kids my age bragged about sneaking in. Daddy wasn’t making much money, but he made friends, especially girls – flushed, laughing girls not much older than my sister and me. Mama drank Blue Ribbon beer when he went out Friday night and had plenty of bottles to sling at him when he came home.
The result was he moved in with a young girl named Miracle. She had long, black hair and wore love beads, tank tops and no bra. When he came to pack his clothes, Inez chased him all around the neighborhood with a dinky pistol. Somebody called the police. They helped my dad out of a tree but arrested Inez – took her to jail despite her tears and even though the pistol turned out to be a cigarette lighter.
Miracle didn’t expect her drummer to arrive with three teenagers in tow, but she cooked us something called tofu goulash and let us eat hash brownies for dessert, so we were very quiet. Mama came the next morning fresh from jail and found us all eating cinnamon rolls and drinking espresso from Miracle’s thimble sized cups. Inez, her hair a lopsided cone of knots, tried to persuade us to come home with her.
“I’m going to stay with Dad,” Brenda said. She wore a tank top and shorts she borrowed from Miracle.
“I’m going to stay with Dad,” Marty said. He wore cut-offs and was laid out on a lime-green beanbag chair, lips glistening with cinnamon frosting.
Inez took each announcement as if it were a physical blow, grunting and grasping her chest. I sat on the floor, next to the table, which was really an industrial wire spool. Miracle didn’t have enough chairs for us all. Before I could make my intentions known, Inez yanked me up.
“Amanda stays with me!” she shrieked. “She’s too young for your hippie friends to poison.”
Dad laughed at her. “You should let her decide –“
At the same time Miracle said, “Take the others too.”
Miracle and Dad looked at each other in a moment of love and hate. An argument immediately absorbed them. I heard their voices rising as Inez dragged me down the rickety, wooden stairs from Miracle’s carriage-house apartment.
It wasn’t long before we lost our house. Dad said he didn’t have to help pay our rent since he was stuck with two of the children. Mama clerked in a drugstore, but started missing work. She drank in honky-tonks, where they played music more to her liking. Different boyfriends brought her home all summer. They helped her sell of what few pieces of furniture we had. Then she met Elmer, who helped us get a new place just ahead of the eviction.
Our new place was closer to downtown, where nobody cared if people lived in unfit housing. It was a rankled down, three-room A-frame with spongy floorboards that gave under your feet. It was no house to dance in.
“It ain’t that bad,” Elmer said, and Mama smiled up at him, seeing it all with her glasses off.
The tiger fur tasted salty and cottony. I buried my face in his chest as we waltzed to “The Stars of Loredo.” As we danced I grew larger. The tiger’s paws slipped from the back of my neck to my waist. His hot breath warmed my chest. As it is in dreams, things changed instantly. All of the sudden, I was in the castle of turtles, a swampy place where the pace slowed to that of dribbling molasses. Jewels adorned the turtles’ shells. They walked like men, upright, their stubby front legs replaced with Preston’s thin arms and hands with three knobby fingers. The way is long, the way is slow, they whispered as I wandered through damp rooms, my feet chilled by the carpet of moss. Is this the room where my mother waits? The turtle woman smiled in her lipless, toothless way, her green skin wrinkled and warty. Her black eyes were barely visible, but in them I saw my reflection. She urged me through the door, but the knob turned to liquid, hot liquid. It burned my hand and then between my legs. I cursed her. The rooms opened before me and I ran and ran and stumbled over a ledge and landed on the floor of my bedroom, urine, now cold, chafing my thighs.
A college student named Clovis Barnes taught poetics at Central as part of Arts-in-the-Schools. He assigned animal poems. My head hurt. My eyes watered. “Don’t write about the physical characteristics of your animal. Write what the animal represents to you, what feeling the animal symbolizes. And I don’t want to see any poems about favorite kitties or puppies.” I wrote of the turtles –
The way is long. The way is hard.
They plot and point
All warts and wrinkles
Turtles don’t waltz
They point the way
They don’t tell you that you will fall
Clovis read it to the class. I blushed red in my white dress. “This is brilliant, Amanda. This is visionary.” He kept me after class, stared directly into my breasts and told me to consider writing seriously. I had no intention of taking anything seriously. Soon I would fly out of my life, away from crisp voices telling me what to do.
I tried to tell Preston. I never ate lunch, afraid some warp of fat would envelop me, change me into my mother. I sipped a soda and watched him wolf down school slop: rubbery burgers and sodden buns, a nest of iceberg lettuce and clots of shredded potatoes called “fritter fries.”
“Clovis says I’m a visionary.”
“You’re certainly a vision.” Laughter like a song.
“I’m meant to be great. I feel it.” I took a deep breath and sputtered. “I’m destined to become great – a goddess. I’ve had a few dreams –“
“You were a goddess last week-end. I felt it for true! And Friday Mom and Dad are going to see a movie so I hope to feel it again.”
“No, really, Preston. I’m having visions. I’m going to be like a Greek oracle, like we read about in history, remember, who advised the gods. I’m going to be like….” My head pounded. I couldn’t think what I was going to be like. The clatter of plates and forks ricocheted in my head.
“Sure, baby,” he said and smiled. “You don’t look so hot. Aunt Sally’s not coming to ruin our week-end, is she?”
Aunt Sally was my period. He took my hand across the gray-flecked linoleum where years of high school love were scratched into the surface. He had an all-knowing look in his eyes and a drip of pickle relish on his chin.
“No,” I said and smiled till my face hurt. After lunch, I went to the school nurse for aspirin.
I sat on my bed in the lotus position, dressed in a white robe, a white towel wrapped on my head. I breathed deep to clear my mind, then on the outbreath, I begged for power. With every breath, every little movement, my bed crackled, informing me I was nowhere near Nirvana. Inez lined the mattress with a thick plastic sheet without even asking.
“You know why,” she said when I asked her why the hell it was there.
When you’re sixteen, you can overlook many things. You can reshape what’s in front of you into something that will never happen. There were images in my dreams that promised nothing and made no sense: vicious yo-yos, barking cartoons and collages of bizarre happy TV characters. When you want to believe something, you can ignore jumbled dreams in favor of any thread of hope that runs through your life.
When you’re sixteen you can also be mean. Inez embarrassed me. She was hopelessly redneck and her boyfriend was married. I spit in the bottle of Jack Daniels that Elmer left at our house. I told Inez that Miracle made homemade biscuits every morning for Dad, Brenda and Marty, even though Brenda complained all they ever got was cold granola and soymilk. Inez worked in a drugstore while women burned their bras and screamed into microphones. They marched around in mini-skirts and made advances in the world, why couldn’t she? I told her she was stupid to work where they sold laxatives and tampons.
“Honey, I’m lucky to have a job there. I quit school to marry your no good father. You don’t see women like me on that damned TV. Am I right? Got to be twenty with big tits and a saucy mouth. Ask your father.”
“You could at least learn to type.”
She swigged her beer. “You just don’t know.”
I begged the goddess to rescue me, breathing in, breathing out. I didn’t know where I wanted her to take me, but somewhere, anywhere else. When I dreamed of her again, she wore a slinky gown of brushed gold, her shoulders creamy and slight. I kissed her feet. She spoke to me, but her voice sounded far away, a wave of warbles. She took my hand and I faced her and she turned into a man. We hid from Preston who called for me outside the door. I buckled on to an ivory sofa with the man. He lisped, my love goddess, pushed into me, jumped up naked and ran. The goddess returned. Tell me when, I begged. Soon and soon and soon, she sang. Again I sat at her feet. Her shoes were long, flat turtles, the turtle faces grinning and nodding, like Inez’s loving gaze at Elmer, flat and unseeing. I started to think it might be insanity, not immortality, that had gotten hold of me.
Dad made me visit him once a month. I don’t think he really wanted me. He slept all day after drumming all night. Brenda had dropped out of school and moved in with her boyfriend. Marty had dropped out of school and was holed up with some bikers in a gutted gas station they called a club. It was afternoon before Miracle stumbled out of bed, round and clumsy with her first pregnancy, and vomited in the sink.
My visit was the only way Dad could cause a flash of anger on Inez’s face. He couldn’t make her mad about Brenda and Marty anymore. I guess any hellhole is better than what you gave them.
Brenda told me Miracle and Dad laughed at Inez, her beehive hair, her Tammy Wynette records. “At first it was funny, then Miracle upped and called me and Marty white trash. My baby isn’t going to grow up with a bunch of rednecks, she told Dad. You better get us to California before my sweet angel is born.”
They didn’t leave right away – Dad had a hard time earning money. Plus he wanted to bug Inez, I think. She’s still my daughter. I believe he missed Inez, at least a little. Inez went to work when he decided to be a hippie, but Miracle told him he’d better get more gigs because there was no way he was sitting around on his ass every night.
I sat in their apartment alone. I tried to have a vision, but nothing came to me. I sat in lotus position in the beanbag chair, breathing and begging until my mouth felt papery. The visions were of Dad with Miracle, Brenda with her boyfriend, Marty with his live hard die young tattoo, Inez with Elmer and me with nothing. I called Preston.
His mother and father were at a dental convention in Burlington, North Carolina. He had to call his grandmother every morning and evening to check in, but the house was his, he said. When I went over he led me to his room, through the valleys of dirty laundry, and nudged me into a great slurping forgetfulness.
Since I started wearing all white, since I lined my eyes with black kohl, since I seemed distracted and moody, he’d taken to calling me goddess. He’d grunt goddess in my ear while his hands slid all over me. It felt good and right. I was lonely beyond my own ability to comprehend it. I fell asleep in his tangled bed and was visited for the last time by my goddess, the goddess of lies and mortality.
The dream started as a Gumby cartoon. He will walk through the wall if you want him to, but she emerged from the block of clay and grabbed my hand. They’re after you now. They’ll catch you if you linger. I clutched her hand and we leapt into the clay. I turned to claymation, tripped and disintegrated into white tear-shaped pieces, then pulled back together. Gumby and Poky watched, their eyes enormous, their clay mouths drooped in wormy frowns. I ran alone, the hall got longer. A ball of fire burned in my hand. Mother, Mother! I called. Inez screamed Drop the ball! I didn’t know I had a ball, I dropped it and it exploded in my face – a blinding light and searing pain that cut through my forehead.
A dream is usually in black and white, but not an aura. It’s as real as the floor beneath you. When you’re pulled out of a seizure, the real world seems more like a dream that what just happened in your head. I slowly became aware of the paramedics. They were jowly men, the top buttons of their navy blue uniforms squeezing their necks so that their heads looked like trapped balloons.
“I think she’s coming to.”
Preston was far away, dressed only in red boxers. The red boxers were a beacon that made it all real. I sat up straight and naked in front of crew of men I’d never seen before.
“Easy does it,” a man said.
“You’ve had a seizure. We’re going to have to take you to the hospital.”
I covered myself with the sheets. “My clothes?” Preston scrambled to pick them up, handed them to me, then turned his back, but not before I saw his disgusted expression. Then I smelled the urine. Drapes parted. A vision appeared, real this time. The men looked at me with pity and condescension. I was sixteen in bed with a boy. Not the wise and lovely goddess – if anything a sad vision, an emblem of youth gone bad.
The realization that you aren’t in control of anything, not even your own body, can be instructive.
It took awhile to get my seizures under control. Pills were doled out to me in varying amounts. I spent the school day laying my head down in one class after another.
They reduced the medication and I had a seizure at school. It began with a vision of Preston reaching for me with his fine hands and it ended with a broken nose and split lip. The electricity of my own body threw me to the floor in front of the entire tenth grade geography class.
My mother was drunk when she arrived at the hospital. I was hooked up to a monitor, and they had just finished a cat scan so blue and red wired glued like snakes all over my head. Inez screamed at the nurses, “Why are you doing this to her again?”
They tried to calm her, then ran for my doctor, but by the time he arrived, she had passed out and was snoring in the chair next to my bed. When she woke up, she took my hand in hers and wept into the sheets.
I came home from the hospital with a huge bottle of Dilantin. They looked like peppermint capsules, pure white with a bright red belt. They turned out to be the right drug for me. They kept me contained.
On the day I came home I shook my bottle of Dilantin like a rattle. I didn’t want to put it down. Inez and I sat on the porch steps and watched the traffic speed past our house.
“I’m not going back to school.”
She looked at me and opened her mouth as if to argue, but stopped at sight of the bandage on my nose and the red slit on my lip.
“You didn’t learn a thing there anyway, except how to sleep with boys.” She took a sip of her beer. “Elmer called. Said he and his wife are going on a second honeymoon. Said it was better to end our thing and do the right thing. He took back the car he gave me.”
I nodded. Mom had told him my problem while she fixed his dinner. He said, “Epilepsy? That’s that geek disease, ain’t it?” Inez chucked him in the head with a can of beef stew.
Dad hadn’t come to visit. Brenda said he was on his way to California.
Inez’s face drooped. “What in the hell’s going to happen to us?”
I thought of Preston’s face as he turned in fear and disgust, his face that hid from me all he so easily revealed before.
Before, before, the great before, when my dreams promised an ethereal new life.—before when he reached for me, before he avoided eye contact, his hands nested deep in his pockets.
“Probably nothing, Mom.”
She laughed softly to herself, took a gulp of beer, then cast the can into the yard, its contents frothing wet circles in the afternoon air. We sat there, on the porch, not talking, not looking at each other, until it was dark and the bright lights of cars passing made us tired enough to go inside.