In the dream I was Melissa.
I wasn’t pretending to be Melissa. I really was her. I was as fat as she had been. I had her hair and glasses. I was wearing her clothes. And I was back in England. I was working at one of her other jobs; at the school. I was on my hands and knees in the cloakroom, trying to clean under the benches, using a tool to get the chewing gum off that had been stuck there. But it wasn’t her job anymore. It was my job. This was my life now. I’d taken it on entirely.
It was my crazy ambition come to fruition, not just as a holiday fantasy played out to ridiculous extremes but as an actual shift in my identity. My old life was gone. There was no way back to it.
She was Dahlia Western now. She was a famous model. She had made her comeback and the world loved her as never before.
I was a nobody; a nothing. I had no respect and little money. I was morbidly obese. I’d ruined my eyesight. I ha no prospects or future apaprt from more of the same; endless days of humiliating, back-breaking labour, lorded over by petty-minded employers.
I was peeling more gum off the underside of the benches but I realised that I wasn’t alone anymore. In the dream, my brother, Steven, was there.
He was standing with his hands clasped behind his back, glaring down at me with scorching disapproval. Then he was shaking his head and in a stern but brittle voice he said, “Oh Dahlia. What are you doing, you silly girl? You’ve ruined your life.”
I was stammering, trying to explain why I was there in this fat woman’s body; why I had made the choices I had made. I told him that there was still a way to get back to my old life; that the change wasn’t permanent.
But he only glared at me. He knew I was lying to myself as much as him.
“You’ve let me down,” he said. “You let all of us down.”
And then I woke.
I jerked up in my seat on the bus, still on the way back to my hotel from Melissa’s. I was sweltering hot in the blaze of sun coming in through the window. My head was pinched and throbbing.
I slumped in the seat but that made my back ache all the more. I made myself sit up instead, rubbing my temple to push out the agony I was feeling. Nothing seemed to shift this headache I kept getting, except maybe food. I always felt better when I was eating.
I checked my watch, wondering how long it was before I could eat again. It wasn’t long before I had to start the second half of my split shift.
I still had the earphones in with the recorded conversation I had just had with Melissa; her explaining exactly what her home life was like with her kind and loving husband.
It sounded idyllic. It made me think that it was a shame this was only a temporary swap. What would it be like to have such a tender partner; to live in such a caring environment? Surely being poor; having such a basic job; these things would be worth it for the love of a good man.
It made me wonder how Melissa could bear to be apart from him for so long. But surely they were in regular communication. And wouldn’t he be pleased when she went home having lost so much weight to take up her life again?
It made me wish that it wasn’t just a holiday game; that we could really trade lives long term.
But that was crazy surely. What we’d already done was crazy enough.
But if it was crazy already then why not push further; take it all the way?
The bus juddered to a stop. I got out, my head still aching; my ankles sore. Walking wasn’t as easy now that I was carrying so much extra weight. The heat and sweat took a toll, as did the pressure on my muscles.
I walked back to the hotel and went up to my room; shut myself in and the heat and light out.
I sat on the edge of the bed, remembering my dream; picturing my brother’s disapproving face.
But I didn’t want to think about him now. I couldn’t.
I fetched the half bottle of gin I’d left by the TV and poured myself a generous glass; knocked it back with eyes pressed tightly closed. It pushed away the headache for a few moments. That was good. I poured myself a second and that pushed it back even further. It took the hard edges away and I needed that; I really did.
I really couldn’t think about my brother now.
And for now he wasn’t my brother. He was her brother. Dahlia’s. I was Melissa now.
I took in a long and brittle breath then sighed it out.
I thought about the tapes I was listening to; about how much I was learning about Melissa’s life. At first I had been a little confounded about Melissa’s reasoning for it – especially learning things from back home that I would never need to use – but I felt like I had absorbed so much already. I didn’t want to think about my real life. It was too tainted by tragedy, pressure and disappointment. I could pretend with Melissa’s memories that I had a simpler existence. It was such a relief to be able to wrap these stories around me while I did my cleaning around the hotel. Over and over I listened to them. The tales were becoming more real to me than any of my own past, especially because I refused to summon up any of my own memories.
I had a third gin, fantasising about a time when I might think these really were my memories. How perfect would that be? How much better?
Perhaps then the headaches would stop.
In fact… I made a decision.
As soon as I could, I would buy myself a voice recorder and into it I would retell these stories. Doing my best to effect Melissa’s patterns of speech, I would retell these memory tales as though they had really happened to me. Maybe then, when I listened back to them over and over again, they would seem even more real.
I smiled at the idea of that. I liked it very much.
Eventually it was time to start working again. I went downstairs, heading outside.
Someone was calling for aid down the steps into the hotel basement. “Can someone give me a hand with this?” she called. As I got closer I realised it was Maxine. This made me pause. I wasn’t eager to suffer her hostility. But then I made myself remember that she was more accepting now at last. She wanted me to play poker with her.
I hesitated for a moment longer then called down. “I can help! What do you need?”
“Who’s that,” called Maxine.
I hesitated again. Then, eager to ingratiate myself and eager for her approval, I said, “It’s Piggy!”
I heard her giggle then her voice came again and this time it was friendlier. “Oh good, Piggy. Get down here. I need help with this trolley. Someone your size will easily be able to move it.”
I smiled and hurried down to her but I got a shimmer of my dream again: the image of my brother’s disapproving face. I pushed it aside almost angrily. That was from my old life. As long as I was here in Greece I was Melissa. This was just my life. It was nothing to be ashamed of. This was just who I was.