I am lying on my back. The darkness outside the window has a green tinge to it, as though the night has mildewed. If there is a moon or any stars, they are blocked by the limp branches of the mimosa trees and the shed in the backyard — neither of which I can see, both of which I know are there. Also, there is the clothesline where my mother hangs the wet sheets and towels that flap and flap and flap and come back inside dry.
I am in the top bunk, my face not far from the ceiling of the room I share with my little brother. He is asleep, curled into a comma in his cowboy pajamas on the lower bunk. Not far from his face are the red and green linoleum tiles that make the floor of the entire duplex a giant checkerboard. Sometimes I walk through the rooms stepping only on one color or the other. The tiles are big and it is not easy on 4-year-old legs.
I am not usually awake in dark this dark. I am usually, like my brother, asleep, lost in Schopenhauer’s “little death.” But tonight is not usual. Tonight I am lost in what lies beyond the window, what lies beyond my street and the street behind it and the summer night heavy with humidity and the sounds of crickets and frogs and distant traffic. I am lost in something for which I do not yet have words.
It is the strange sensation of being in two places at once, of rubbing my arms and legs across the sun-dried sheets, of reaching out to touch the cool wall with my hand, of hearing the bunk bed creak when I roll over onto my side, while simultaneously drifting through the window and up and over the backyard, pulled by something strong and irresistible toward someplace. It is as though I am both myself and Wendy, for whom Peter Pan has flown all the way from Neverland to take back to the Lost Boys. How is that possible?
How could someone possibly sleep?
I cannot tell my father, who tiptoes in and peers into each of our faces in turn, who leans in close to hear our breathing, who touches our arms to assure himself that we are really there. I cannot tell my father that I am here and also somewhere else, that I have discovered, accidentally and haphazardly, imagination. I cannot tell him or anyone else — because I don’t know it yet myself — that I will never be the same.
It is years later. A lifetime later. I am lying on my back. The darkness outside the window has a blue tinge to it, as though the night has frozen. There is a moon, but it is blocked for the moment by the languid flow of thick clouds. There is another shed in another backyard. The sheets against which I rub my arms and legs have never dried in sunlight.
I am often awake in dark this dark. Often gazing at a ceiling that hovers far enough above my face that I am reminded of my near-sightedness. Often carried away to a place that has grown as familiar to me as my hometown, though I don’t always call it by its real name. I am more comfortable, in some circles, with saying that I am reflecting, daydreaming, or — God, forgive me! — brainstorming, but no euphemism, no circumlocution, no periphrasis changes the fact that what I am doing is imagining. And every last thing that I imagine is real.
I do not need a stocking-shaped shadow folded up inside a bureau drawer or a box of Turkish delight or a passport stamped “Minas Tirith” as evidence that I have been to Neverland and Narnia and Middle Earth. I do not need geological specimens from the thousand other places I created in order to establish their existence. And I have all the mementos I want locked away in the warm summer night of my imagination.