I want to get hit by a truck and wake up in a game-like fantasy world. Once I’m there, a beautiful pyrokinetic elf will give me a magic sword that powers up every time I defeat an enemy. She’ll be a little standoffish at first, but eventually she’ll become my girlfriend. We’ll get married and live inside of a volcano.
The first anonymous escapist fantasy is a little long, but it still reads clearly on the digital billboard. Hazel Gonzalez can see it from the far end of the quad and from the tables outside of the campus Starbucks. She texts her co-artist Hira Patel to tell him that everything looks good.
The display cycles to the next fantasy: My body disintegrates at the cellular level. My cells are fused with the trees, the birds, the fish, the people walking by. I get to experience what it’s like to be every living creature, all at once. No earthly secrets are beyond me. Not even his.
This is one of Hazel’s contributions. She doesn’t remember programming it to be #2 in the rotation, but she’s been pulling a lot of all-nighters lately, so it’s possible that she screwed it up. It would have felt better to have it sandwiched in the middle, but the entries are on a continuous loop anyway, so functionally it doesn’t make a difference.
Still, she’d expected a little more buffer time before her innermost thoughts were displayed in purple LED lights.
She inhales through her nose, imagining all the micro-organisms entering her nasal cavity, then being filtered out before the air reaches her lungs. Enjoys the little pang of sympathy she feels for them. It must be painful to be rejected for reasons you’re too unicellular to understand. Even when you’re multicellular, it hurts.
The display has switched to the next escapist fantasy, which is about joining a pack of wolves and gradually transforming into one of them. It was most likely written by the guy in Hazel’s Chemistry class who walks around at night wearing a bright blue fur suit, but since these are all randomized and anonymous it could be anyone.
It could even be her ex-boyfriend Leland Huang. Hazel never knew enough about him to know what his escapist fantasies were. Maybe he left campus every weekend to go to furry conventions, and never once mentioned his passion for dressing up like a cartoon wolf or invited Hazel to join him.
Now that Hazel has verified that the display is working, she has to find a good spot for the sandwich board that explains the project and gives credit to the artists.
The electronic display had to be close enough to the computer lab that they could run a cable through through the window and plug it into one of the desktops. Annoyingly, the ground around that area is bumpy with tree roots, so there aren’t a lot of great options. But after some trial and error - and nearly tripping over one of those roots - Hazel manages to find a spot that’s both stable and visible. She has to stand on a root to properly adjust the sandwich board, but her Doc Martens keep her stable enough that she doesn’t trip twice.
The culmination of months of work spent collecting the fantasies, programming the slideshow, designing the display, and getting permission from the art department and the computer lab to put it all up in the first place is complete.
Hazel smiles, stomps on the knobby ground, and pumps her fist into the air. She texts Hira the word “congratulations” with seven exclamation points, and he sends her back a smiley face with an embarrassed sweat drop.
It’s an accomplishment to be proud of, a collective art project that harnesses the unconscious minds of their fellow students. And Hazel is proud - proud enough to snap photos of the display and send them to her parents, proud enough to post them on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and Facebook, proud enough to attach them to a text to Leland and then delete them.
Leland told Hazel that he would submit an escapist fantasy to her project. It was the last thing he said before he broke up with her. Though, “broke up with her” is a generous description - he’d never officially ended things, he just stopped answering her texts and stopped sitting next to her in their Intro to Shakespeare class.
He probably didn’t keep his promise, but Hazel can’t help combing through the fantasies, hoping that one is from him. If she could learn what he dreamed of when he disengaged from the real world, maybe she’d know why he ghosted her like that.
The alternative was excoriating herself, which she could do. She could blame her insistence on wearing overalls, her inability to braid her unevenly dyed hair, her round glasses or her round belly. She could blame the fact that she never got around to watching Breaking Bad like he asked her to, or the fact that she doesn’t drink, can’t swim, and wasn’t ready to do more than kiss on their first date. She texted him too often, couldn’t ever remember his class schedule, and was ruder then she meant to be about his bad poems and bad pants.
But she doesn't want to blame herself, not really. She isn’t perfect, but if he had a problem with her, he should have talked it through instead of disappearing.
Thinking about it makes her want to punch a tree, but she knows that’s a bad idea so she just balls a fist and swings it around. This nearly makes her trip over the sandwich board.
The display changes. This one reads:
I like to imagine my girlfriend catching a cold and letting me take care of her. While my mother was dying of cancer, I couldn’t go see her because of my immigration status. I guess I’m trying to exorcise my guilt by imagining a caretaking scenario that isn’t as dire. One where the woman I love actually gets better, and doesn’t have to suffer quite as much. Leland’s mother lives on Staten Island, and is alive as far as Hazel knows. She did have a benign tumor on her neck, but that wasn’t dying in another country. He was born on Staten Island, too. When Hazel caught a cold that made her sneeze every other minute, Leland called her gross and refused to see her until she was no longer contagious. That one isn’t him, probably. Unless he lied to her about his mother, his origin, his whole life. A curly-haired girl in flowery overalls walks by the display and peers at it over cat-eye glasses. The new fantasy says: Drifting through outer space, alone. I have nothing to do but absorb the beauty and energy of the stars. No one speaks to me, and I speak to no one.
Hazel has no concrete evidence to support this, but that one has got to be Leland’s. She’s seen it hundreds of times already while doing the programming, but there’s something like seeing it live that makes her feel certain. His need for solitude had seeped from every pore, every moment they were together. He only answered half of her texts, and went stiff whenever she tried to hold his hand.
“Thanks for checking out my installation!” Hazel says to the visitor, who is reading the project explanation on the sandwich board. “You might see someone who you think you know, but don’t worry about it!”
This was an unnecessarily mysterious thing to say, but right now, she’s feeling unnecessarily mysterious. She texts Leland: I know which of the escapist fantasies was yours! It’s the one about drifting through space, right?
An hour later later, while she’s waiting in line to get Frappuccinos for herself and Hira at Starbucks, he replies: You got me. Which one is yours?
The one about wishing I could attach my cells to everything in the world so that I could understand it better. I don’t know if you’ve seen them all yet, the exhibit hasn’t been up long. He writes: I’ve seen it. Why do you fantasize about emotional vampirism? Why is understanding other people important? What’s lacking in your own life that you’re siphoning from other people?
She writes: Wanting to understand the world around me is normal. What’s not normal is closing yourself off from others and refusing to talk about your feelings. Don’t act like I’m the one who did something wrong here. He writes: We are never going to understand each other. We should never have dated in the first place. We approach life from completely different angles.
She writes: I’m a plant and you’re a star?
I guess. Whatever.
Hazel is frustrated, but she’s not going to let Leland force her to turn her brain inside out. She is going to get her drinks, sit down with Hira, and start planning their next project.
Anna Lindwasser is a freelance writer and educator living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been published in Giving Room Magazine, (mac)ro(mic), and Bridge Eight, among others. She can be found on Twitter @annalindwasser and at her website annalindwasser.com.
"Hubble Catches a Bounty of Stars and Cosmic Dust"by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC BY 2.0