One night I dreamed a long, long dream. My sleep was terribly fitful. The wind blew strong and never stopped until it dried up all the oceans. In my dream, life just went on. We went to work and the children went off to school as if nothing had changed. But something had changed. India and Africa had suddenly become our neighbors. There was nothing between them and us any more.
I did not understand, until I saw her face. I saw her as I left my half-eaten plate to get desert at the buffet. She pressed her little face against the restaurant’s window, staring, eyes wide. Was she a child? Her face was so taunt, her bones so frail, like something from last night’s news. I grabbed an apple and hurried out to find her, but she was already around the corner, drawn by the excited cries of other waifs who were excitedly crawling in and out of the restaurant’s dumpster. The older ones hoisted up their treasures to share with their little brothers and sisters. A pizza crust, a melon rind, a fist of mashed potatoes.
I stared, unable to move, then finally turned in a daze and wandered down the street. The mall was right across the way, but what was that out front? The water fountain had become a water park. Children were swimming and splashing. Mothers were bathing. The joy, the laughter bubbled up and flowed out towards me. It was like they’d never seen running water. Maybe they hadn’t. But what was that? Men were gathering all they could into bottles and cartons. Where were they taking it? Had they come from drought-stricken countries, where water for drinking, cooking, or bathing came from a single well miles away? Were they afraid this too might dry up soon?
I passed them slowly, trying to comprehend what their lives might have been like. Then I walked into the mall. There I saw a crowd, a growing crowd, of men and women, children too, rags covering their bony ribs. They seemed as dazed as I, wandering in and out of stores, clerks stared, too shocked to know what to do.
I stumbled into a bent over grandma. She was gazing into a store filled with rows of books. I mumbled an apology and tried to move on. Then I stopped to look again. Was that a look of longing in her tired eyes? Had she never learned to read? Did she feel that life had passed her by?
Nearby a man gazed, transfixed by a huge television proudly displayed at the front of an electronics store. He reached his thin arm to touch the screen as if he thought the images were real. The picture was so clear. The sound was so perfect. I guessed the price tag made no sense to him. Had he ever seen that much? Ever made that much even in four or five years. I watched him slowly, stiffly lower his body to the ground. His eyes never left the many wonders on the screen.
I dropped myself on a bench. I stared at the man while he stared at the television. Why him and not me? Was I more clever at business? More industrious in my trade? Or was it simply where he and I happened to be born. I’d never thought such thoughts. My mind began to ache. I closed my eyes and covered my face with my hands. I too felt weary. I longed to sleep and have it all go away. Is that how they felt too?
But what was that shuffling sound? I opened my eyes and searched. Behind the bench a woman moved herself slowly across the ground. She stretched her hands forward, then pulled herself up, then dragged her feet close. Like an inchworm she was working her way towards the popcorn stand.
Was it polio that had maimed those legs? Polio had been gone from my country for years. Was there no clinic in her village to immunize her as a girl? And what was she doing? I saw her finally reach the stand and realized the object of her effort. She stuffed the popcorn into her mouth that had fallen to the ground. I fumbled for change in my pocket. I wanted to get her a fresh, clean bag. But my pajamas had no pockets. My money was at home. Was this a dream? A nightmare? Or was it real?
Again, I covered my face. Sobs shook my body and then I woke up. My pillow was wet with tears, but it was just a dream. The oceans had not dried up after all. Or had they? Were these precious people now my nearby neighbors? Were their heartaches now my concerns? Only the new day would show if I was truly awake.