Dream Valuation

by Lucy Zhang

For one dream, you can afford chemotherapy. Two dreams for a real fancy car. Three dreams get you a down payment. Four dreams, a child who doesn’t cause trouble. Of course, the price varies based on the quality of dream, but this is the baseline we all know by heart. Sell too many dreams and you risk becoming a Shell. Normally Shells come from desperate folks who sell all their dreams—those drowning in debt or trying to pay their way out of prison. You can see Shells anywhere if you look carefully: they run errands like automata programmed to execute the same sequences of events every day. They remain silent even when others try to converse with them, and they move with a rigidity resembling mannequins. I’d see Shells working at banks, staring at me yet not staring at me, eyes lost to the blank wall as they processed my request and then pivoted their chairs to their screens as they typed. The Shells don’t type with the same staggered rhythm I use, faster when I’m thinking straight, slower when my thoughts cannibalize. Shells type like metronomes.

Valletta gave up two dreams to save my life and now she’s deteriorating fast. We thought she’d be fine since most folks still resemble humans after selling two dreams. But Valletta was too simple and dumb to have a sufficiently substantial third dream. She said her life goal was money and that’s it. I wasn’t even sure where her second dream came from.

I am healthy now, organs in full operation, cooperating like a well-oiled Rube Goldberg machine. The underground doctor had said a parasite was eating me from the inside out and the only way to ensure my survival was to cut me open—one long slit from head to crotch—and carve out my uterus. The expensive part of the procedure came afterward: the doctor incised my uterus, and from the opening, dumped out its contents and inverted the organ like a dirty sock in need of a good rinse. That was the best way to clean out any residue which could easily rise to new parasites. My doctor had done this operation many times and knew not to leave steps out, including scraping the uterus down with straw bristles, scalding it in blue flame and soaking it in bleach before stitching it back together and reinserting it into my body. This procedure costs one dream. Valletta purchased my recovery care with her second dream. I was convinced we didn’t fancy recovery care but she insisted, claiming it wasn’t worth the risk. I think she felt bad because it was her ex-boyfriend who’d infected me—stuffed his prick up me the wrong way. Was there supposed to be a right way? The doctor said most people healed fine without additional care. I figured it was like driving a used, dented car: cosmetically disadvantaged but functionally passable. A body only needs to get you around, a vessel for the brain. But Valletta paid up and I recovered without a hitch.

Without her dreams, Valletta argues less, speaks less. She eats with the same motion: hand opens, arm extends, fingers grip utensil handles like claws, hand closes, arm retracts toward mouth. She takes twenty bites and swallows. Always twenty whether it’s something you’re supposed to slurp like liang pi or something that resists the strongest of jaws like undercooked beef tendon. Her daily routine never changes: ten brushstrokes in each direction when she brushes her teeth, seven steps to the closet to dress for the day, one blouse hanging in the front of the queue in her closet and one pair of jeans sitting on an office chair as the standard work outfit. I end up moving in with her because the construction contractors have started digging up the old sidewalk pavement, and she might fall and scrape herself up during her 557 steps down the street to her parked car.

But Valletta is not a Shell. I know this.

I ask her what she wants to do with the parasite the doctor sent us in a container filled with formalin. It’s all hacked up with a 0.5 cm eyeball suspended between fragmented, macerated fetus parts. I think I can make out a finger but can’t identify the hand.

“We’ll hold a funeral,” Valletta replies. A proper Shell would suggest tossing it in the trash or sending it back to the hospital for research or going to a proper parasite disposal area.

“Where?” I ask. 

And then her eyes dull and she goes silent even though it’s not a hard question. There are plenty of places: the ocean bay, the cliff far off in the backyard, the bridge crossing over a river we used to play near. I tell her I’m ok with anything. I shouldn’t be picky.

But Valletta never answers. The container stays on the counter for days.

We have money, but not much. Even though her dreams covered the operation, I require long-term medication and checkups to ensure parasites don’t grow back. These forms of life are tenacious, the doctor warned. I tell Valletta I can afford my expenses without her help.

“Save up for your life of luxury and abundance,” I advise.

“Why?” she asks me. I don’t know why. And it’s no use asking her now.

Before Valletta sold her dreams, she penny-pinched like no one else. She saved banana peels to cook in curries and soups when she ran out of vegetables. She charged all her electronics at the public library. She woke up while it was still dark outside so she could walk the six miles to work rather than purchase a car. Her wardrobe consisted of my old clothing and the few things mom bought during her teenage years. But when I visited, she’d set out a floral tablecloth and whip out the good olive oil, freshly-slaughtered-from-the-tank flounder, Kimlan soy sauce, and freshly ground spices. She’d turn on all the lights in the kitchen, the brightest her home ever got, and drag a chair to the upper cabinets to retrieve the few porcelain dishes she possessed. When I visited, she’d be bustling around, pulling utensils and bottles and bowls out at her leisure even though I figured she was secretly counting the number of things she’d have to wash, to wastewater on. Once, she had been cooking rajma in a pot and gleefully told me we’d be getting plenty of protein at a fraction of the price of meat. Then she dumped two cans of kidney beans in the pot and started slicing these brilliantly red vine-ripened tomatoes. “I still splurged on the tomatoes though!” she had proclaimed like she’d won the lottery. I said, “good job, that’s amazing.” Then I asked her what she’d do if she had infinite amounts of money to which she answered: “buy a better pressure cooker.” The one she owned required several jostles to get the lid fitted tightly and beeped until you unplugged it once it was done. Plus, it was chipping around the edges. I eventually bought her a new pressure cooker because I couldn’t handle the sound, and when I asked her again what she’d do with infinite money, she said “buy free-range eggs, the kind over six dollars a dozen.” I figured I could just fulfill her dreams for her, although I didn’t know when they’d end.

“We’ll worry about it later, after you’re completely recovered,” Valletta replies out of the blue, several days after I posed the question.

“There’s no need to wait.” I eye the container. “Plus, it looks real creepy sitting there. If it’s between waiting and throwing it away, I’d rather chuck it.”

“It almost killed you,” Valletta says.

“Sure did,” I agree. “All the more reason to get rid of it.” I dislike looking at the eyeball, the bundle of cellular mush.

I am trying to leave her the courtesy of deciding what to do with the parasite since we acquired it at the price of her dreams. But she never acts on it. Valletta has trouble doing things that deviate from routine. They said this would be a side effect of selling her dreams. And because her routine doesn’t include cleaning the counter or staring into the parasite’s eyeball, Valletta never seems to notice the container. We never hold a funeral. I end up stuffing the container into my backpack on my way to work and tossing it into the public trash can, hoping the garbage gets collected soon.

For the most part, I feel healthy now. I can bend and stretch and run again. Valletta continues to penny-pinch, but when I ask her what she’s saving money towards, she shrugs and says, “living expenses.” “I can comfortably afford both of our living expenses,” I reassure her, but she continues saving water and working her nine-to-five like a trusty, grinding gear. She buys the same crates of bruised apples and bananas that are sold for two dollars each. I start replacing the groceries with organic produce I buy from Whole Foods, waiting for her to throw a fit about wasting food and money. Instead, she opens the fridge without a word. I begin to wonder if she’d even notice if I disappeared. If she’d remember that we are our only blood ties now that the parasite is gone.

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