Once, I saw a female mannequin wearing nothing but a blonde bob-cut wig and a bikini, propped against a vintage Chevy outside a coin laundry in Swansea, where I am from. Her eyes were painted blue—sickeningly bright with eternally-dilated pupils, and I couldn’t look away. Now, her image often appears in my dreams. And there is something awful about finding yourself thinking about a lifeless woman-body in the morning—first thing, before you even open your eyes and say hello to the world. The dreams you never forget, the ones you carry inside of yourself long into the waking hours.
I dream about ghosts, sometimes—not dead people, but ones I haven’t seen in many years, people who feel like ghosts when I try to remember their faces. I had an elementary school friend with comically bright red hair forfeit all the people who loved her to chase boy bodies relentlessly in middle school. She works at the Piggly Wiggly now. She long-distance dates some boy in Wisconsin, I think. I remember how things once were, when we sat on her bed staring at the ceiling, and she told me that she wanted to be a professional singer. She wanted a fancy life of singing in big concert halls and signing autographs. Now she’s out of high school and in the grocery store checking out old people, and sometimes I wish that there were more fairytale endings in the world because her dreams were always so much bigger than her body, but she still never made it out of Swansea.
In the town where I am from, there is nothing to pass but time, unless you find an escape. Like forty-five minutes north, where one of those ax-throwing bars somehow manages to combine copious amounts of alcohol with sharp objects without getting into trouble with the law. It’s a decent location for birthday parties and marriage proposals and awkward first or second dates—like, Baby I know I can’t throw this ax into the bullseye, but I’d still really like to score tonight. Or a small town baseball team about thirty minutes away that sponsors a fireworks show after the last game of the season, fireworks that whiten the dark sky over into the next county and send veterans and dogs into basements. I went there once. There is also the Escape Room, which is a long drive into the city, probably even farther than the ax bar, but teenagers I know like it there the most.
I went to an Escape Room once on a field trip, and my English teacher at our religious private school encouraged us to hastily make a pentagram on the floor out of magnetic rocks so he could go use the bathroom. Turns out I was no good at making pentagrams or searching through dark spaces for clues of how to escape a haunted voodoo bungalow before the witch’s ghost came for our necks. I saw other kids around me working hard and discovering clues, but something about being trapped in there rendered me incapacitated. It was a place with one door out, unusually hard to open—a place not unlike Swansea, except for the undead swamp witches.
At my old high school, one of the biggest football players on the offensive line had a crush on me for the entire two years that we knew each other. He was so big he never had time to talk about small, silly things, like crushes. Instead, he always wanted to talk about big things, like politics and religion and college. He was so big that they let him start for varsity as a freshman. He was big because his daddy was big—a hardened and scowling police officer in another small town near Swansea. The offensive lineman was a wrestler, too, and won his weight class at the private school wrestling state championship. He let me try on his championship ring a few months later. It hung gold and heavy on my ring finger. Once, he made a thousand dollars shooting a tagged coyote in the woods behind his house. He showed up to school the next day smiling, like he thought he was a hunting god. In a way, he was.
In late May, just after the end of sophomore year, I dreamt that the offensive lineman grabbed me by the shoulders and kissed me. His big pink mouth tasted like red Gatorade and the grainy protein powder that he kept in his locker. He kissed me for an uncomfortably long time, until my spirit curled up out of my body and hovered above us, looking down at his smooth and rounded buzz-cut head, like a giant baby growing fuzzy little hairs for the first time. I know this doesn’t make sense, but you know the strange way that you can escape your own body in dreams and look at yourself through some extraterrestrial form? Like the Escape Room in the form of a body, desperate for any way out. That is what I did—hovering above us, wondering if my fake dream body really loved him. Then, I woke up. And nothing had changed.
I knew a girl, the oldest of eight children, the only daughter of the bunch, who always wanted to be a missionary nurse. She was impossible not to trust if you looked at her long enough—small, with a gentle voice and a fresh face full of freckles and blushed cheeks and striking blue eyes not unlike the eyes of the mannequin in front of the coin laundry. After high school she enrolled in a tech school nursing program, but dropped out after only a few months. The workload was too hard, her mother said. Instead, she worked in the kitchen at a local restaurant, then at a church bakery, then at one of those anti-abortion clinics that sets up tables outside of Planned Parenthood. She married a handsome firefighter the same day I left for boarding school, the day my mother told me how much it hurt her that I’d never come back here, back home to good old Swansea. She said, It makes me so sad sometimes that you don’t seem to like anything about the place you grew up. Sometimes it seems like you’re just trying to get away from all of us. Sometimes it seems like all you want is to be somewhere far, far away.
Like half the boys in Swansea, the offensive lineman I knew wanted to play college football then get drafted into the NFL. He was invited to a Clemson University training camp over the summer—he told me he thought he did pretty well in comparison to all the other linemen. He told me that he’d miss me after I went to art school. He told one of my friends on his wrestling team that he didn’t really mind if I didn’t like him back, he thought I might come around. He’d always been an optimist—a dreamer, of sorts.
When we are children, we want to be singers and missionaries and princesses and NFL players, then we find ourselves trapped, tired, and pregnant, working at the Dollar General—dreams turning stagnant and ghostly in our chests. Or maybe we all just disappear from history, lost somewhere out back behind the coin laundry or buried in the tightly-packed dirt under the trailer parks from which we all emerged. I want to turn on the television in ten years and see that offensive lineman’s acne-scarred face grinning under a shiny NFL helmet. I want to turn on the radio and hear my childhood best friend’s voice rising proud and pretty out of my car speakers. I can’t decide if I want to grow up and see a little bit of Swansea everywhere or if I just want to get out and never return. More than anything else, I want to go back and find the mannequin. I want to give her nice clothes and a pair of shoes. Find her a jacket for the colder months. Straighten her old blonde wig. Lean down with my mouth to her ear and tell her how pretty her painted blue eyes are. Tell her that she can escape too. Tell her she is braver than she thinks she is. Tell her that if she can believe in a ghost town, then she can believe in a world beyond boys with Gatorade mouths, beyond girls working down at the Piggly Wiggly, ringing up all those old ghosts.