Nine Dreams About Marriage

In the first dream, there’s a bull shark in a dim, underground bar. The bar smells of keg beer and cigarettes. It’s not before the smoking ban, it’s just one of those bars where people smoke like there never was a smoking ban. The same song keeps playing from the jukebox, but no one can see where the jukebox is. Only the bull shark seems to know its location. He’s put in five dollars of quarters and Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” on repeat.

The bull shark sits at the bar on a cherry leather barstool like he owns the place, which he might. His name is Boss. He's a seven-footer, three hundred pounds and painfully handsome—almost electric blue in the dim light. He has a few dozen dark scars on his sharkskin, not from noble fights or run-ins with boats but from secret self-mutilation. Down inside, Boss suffers from insecurity, abysmal loneliness, but he calls his pain boredom. He will always call his pain boredom, because awareness and self-love are lost causes for bull sharks.

“Beefeater,” he says to the bartender, and the bartender pours him four ounces of gin and the bull shark tosses the gin over his gills, a splash over his left shoulder, the rest over his right. By the end of the night, Boss is surrounded by remoras, all of them resisting what they do best—clinging, hanging on for dear life—and all of them hoping to suck him. Remoras are, no surprise, Anxious Attachment types, which is equally repellent and intriguing to Boss, who, like all sharks except for the whale shark, is Avoidant Attachment.

At last call, Boss nods at the smallest remora, who gasps in gratitude and gets to work, right there, under the bar, no shame in her game.

The next part of the dream is where Boss and the remora get married. After the wedding ceremony, they turn into humans: your parents. Your mother, the remora, spends her whole life sucking and cleaning. Sometimes she breaks down and screams at your father, the Boss, and says: “All I am to you is a whore and a maid! A goddamned hooker and a goddamned housekeeper!” Your father finds her anger amusing, but he knows better than to smile. “Now, now,” he says. “You’re also a nurse.”

Inevitably, your mother sticks around for the free ride. How would she get anywhere without your father? He’s big and fast. No one dares bother your mother when she’s with him.

When your mother was a little girl, she would sit at her bedroom window and gaze out at the neighbors’ blue Mercedes and wait for the tiny wife in tiny heels to come of the house like a bright idea. She would wait for the wife to go to the car and open its big door and get inside and drive away. When your mother was a little girl, this was the only wish she ever thought to make.

The second dream goes something like this: there’s this girl in a parking lot on a hot summer day. She’s removing the gold from her neck and wrists, the piercings from her lobes and lips. She’s lifting up her shirt and taking jewelry out of her nipples and navel. You see her peeling off her artificial nails. Taking out her false teeth. She’s putting all these clattering, chattering things into a little, woven basket like she’s about to go through airport security, except where she’s going is church. She’s in a church parking lot. You’re realizing that now. And also that the basket is actually an offering basket.

Except, the girl doesn’t go into the church. She goes to the back of the parking lot and climbs into the dumpster. It’s like you’re there with her, in the dumpster, because you can see, in Technicolor, what it is the devout actually discard: candle stubs, disposable coffee cups, chocolate doughnuts with one bite taken out of them. There’s even a teen’s secret baby. It’s fresh and wet, lilac and silent. It might belong to the girl, you can’t say for sure. But there she goes, sitting down in the dumpster and dumping out the offering basket. You can hear her adornments, her acrylic tips and diamond studs, rattling down through the trash, sure and steady, like sleet through a pine tree. The girl goes: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Is she saying it to you or to herself or to God or to the baby?

When the girl is done apologizing, she climbs out of the dumpster and walks to her house. You sit on the curb, in the hot sun and wait for her. Eventually, she reappears in an eyelet sundress and silk, chartreuse, ballet flats. She carries a dainty chartreuse handbag full of popcorn. She starts walking to the courthouse and you follow her. She never notices you’re there, but somehow you know that you’re on your way to get married. On the courthouse steps, the pigeons form a ring around you and the girl. The birds wear neckties of amethyst and emerald and sapphire and gasoline. Both of you just stand there and listen to them coo. It’s the sound of blood in a vein.

The third dream is one of those fast, falling dreams. In it, you think of a widow, named Joy, who no longer knows herself. And then you wake up startled, unsure of what day it is.

The fourth dream takes place at a law firm, in the breakroom, by the copy machine. There’s a guy, Forrest, and a girl, Fern. To them their names seem like destiny even though neither says so out loud. Fern imagines thriving at Forrest’s feet and Forrest imagines sheltering Fern from harm. Both Forrest and Fern are rising sophomores at elite colleges that have been used as film locations for slasher movies. Both are unpaid, summer interns toting accordion files bursting with divorce papers. His divorce involves a tycoon, a tramp, and a teetotaler. Hers is less alliterative. “Just a dick and a bitch,” she says. You almost wake up laughing, but then you realize it’s a dream and you make it keep going.

Forrest and Fern discover the breakroom door can be locked. Fern leans over the copy machine and lifts her blouse. The lace of her bra comes out nicely, a silhouette of winter frost; her beauty mark is a dot of ink—her hopes, punctuated. Forrest goes next. He unzips his pants and leans over the copy machine as if urinating into a well. He smiles. His face lights up once by a flash of lightning.

Fern refuses to look at Forrest’s copy. She makes him turn it over when he hands it to her. Then they both take the paper copies and fold them into tight squares the size of crackers. They bring the crackers together. Cheers.

“I’m never getting married,” the girl says.

“I’m never getting divorced,” the boy says.

They are both wrong. Fern will get married and Forrest will get divorced. You know this is what will happen, because you’re the one having the dream. You’re the one who gets to decide.

The fifth dream occurs in November, on a farm. Out in the bleak cornfields, there’s a farmhand snaring rabbits with picture wire and turnip tops. He brings home two, limp bodies to his wife. They are Eastern cottontails the color of bread crusts. You can’t touch them in the dream, but you know they are as warm as a pair of gloves just removed.

The farmhand’s wife makes stew from the meat.

The farmhand makes earmuffs from the pelts.

When the farmhand eats the stew, he is filled with desire.

When the wife puts on the earmuffs, the only thing she can hear is her own racing heart.

You always wake up from this dream crying.

Is the wife’s heart racing because she’s in love, or is it racing because she’s prey?

In this dream, the sixth one, your name is Edward and God is your husband.

Every morning, you bring him rye toast on a pink plate. You bring it to him in bed and say, “I made you breakfast, God.” And he says, “Well, I made you, Eddie.”

And then he eats without getting crumbs in the sheets, because God is good in bed.

In dream seven, you’re in a horse stall with Mason Delaney. The stall is full of fresh straw and lime, and the sun is shining through the bars of the stall, striping Mason’s body, making him into the tiger he is. You and Mason have a plan to elope in his Datsun with a box of white cupcakes and a Mastercard. Every time in this dream, your father finds the two of you in the stall. And every time in this dream, your father punches Mason with a punch so hard that Mason’s teeth go scattering on the packed dirt of the barn floor like a strand of pearls ripped from a throat.

That’s where the dream always ends: you on your knees, naked, gathering the teeth, trying to say STOP! STOP! but unable to speak.

Dream eight. You’re at this party where you don’t know anyone, but this woman named Candy introduces herself to you at the dessert table. You’re grateful to have someone to talk to, but Candy starts telling you everything about herself and her life before you can even help yourself to some cake, and the cake looks really good. You don’t normally eat cake, but in this dream the cake is just phenomenal looking. Eight layers high. Deep maroon. Dusted with powdered sugar that is somehow lavender. How is it lavender?

Candy explains that she has spent her whole life taking care of others. From age five to age eight, there was her mother, the colostomy bag, the broth tipped from a spoon, the morphine dropped under her mother’s tongue, her mother’s arms reaching toward the ceiling like a child asking to be picked up.

“HOSPICE!” Candy explains, loudly, even though the party is not loud. “THAT’S WHERE YOU GET THE MORPHINE DROPS!”

Then from age eight to age twelve, there was Candy’s father. The back pills and the rage, the cliff he’d walked off of, his bones found by hikers nine months later. Bones that Candy and her uncle had to buy a child’s casket for.

“CHEAPER!” Candy shouts. “BUT SADDER!”

Then from age twelve to age twenty, there were Candy’s siblings: Ambler, Best, and Eustice. They’d needed their macaroni mixed with powdered cheese and their hair combed free of nits and help writing their letters and constant reassurance that Candy wasn’t going to die from a bad stomach or walk off a cliff from a bad mind.

This whole time Candy’s talking, you’re looking at the cake and wondering if it’s going stale. Getting dry. It still looks moist. Will you ever get to it? How many more people has Candy cared for? Get on with it, Candy.

Candy starts in next on the animals. The stray cats and the litter of raccoons that she fed with her milky fingertips and the two dogs with three legs, and then she’s back on people: Zaine, the neighbors’ boy that the neighbors didn’t want, and then all the babies at the daycare and then, of course, J.C. J.C. had jumpstarted Candy’s car at the county fair and she’d thanked him for taking care of her, but before he could get the cables back into his truck, they’d locked eyes, and Candy knew that look, because it was the only look she knew.


You think the cake that you can’t reach in the dream is red velvet cake. But it’s dark enough to maybe be devil’s food, while also still red enough to maybe be cherry. Black cherry? Cherry cola? That powdered sugar though. It’s purple, right? A pale purple? Or is it the just lighting?

Candy goes on to tell you that she took in J.C. that very night. The night of the jumper cables. She made him a plate of biscuits and a place on the sofa with a clean sheet tucked around the cushions, because that’s who she was. That’s what she did. People always thought she and God must be real tight, but Candy didn’t much believe in him. She supposed she believed in doing all the things God wanted people to do, but him as a person, he just wasn’t her type. Candy didn’t need a church to tell her what she should and shouldn’t be doing. Her conscience was for that. Plus, on Sundays, she had to feed everyone: Ambler, Best, and Eustice and all their kids. Candy couldn’t waste the day sitting in a pew listening to things she already knew when she could be home making chili and cornbread and marshmallow Jell-o salad and jugs of instant tea set out in the sun with sugar like snowdrifts in the bottom. Church wasn’t going to make Candy any better. Her only sin was the eating and she wasn’t going to stop eating.


After this, Candy eats the cake. All of it except for one bite. You watch her eat it, and then, while she’s still chewing the last of it, except for that one bite, J.C. shows up to pick her up. He comes into the party like some sort of groupie, and he looks at Candy the same way you’ve been looking at the cake all night.

“I MARRIED HIM!” Candy says before she walks out the door, pointing at J.C. “SPOILER ALERT!”

When Candy is gone, you eat that last bite. It tastes like nothing you’ve ever had and nothing you ever will have again.

Dream nine. You and Corey meet for the first time on the ferry. You have the smokes and Corey has the vodka disguised in a Sprite can. Neither of you have a lighter, which you both refer to as flame.

“Got any flame?” you both say.

“Jinx,” you both say.

“Buy me a Coke,” you both say.

You go around the deck looking for someone with fire. It’s windy and the wind whips your long hair into salty ropes. You have to yell a little, even though you don’t know each other from Adam. This shouting makes you instant family, like you’re going back and forth in some kitchen at Thanksgiving, getting hot. While you look for fire, you share cavalier sips from the Sprite can like you’ve swapped spit in other ways. Eventually, you find a guy your age wearing a backward, collegiate baseball cap.

“Hey, Biff,” Corey says. “Gotta light?”

The wind takes Corey’s words right into your ear like an inside joke. You feel yourself go damp between the legs and warm in the face. The guy pulls a silver Zippo from his flannel shirt’s chest pocket. He zig-zags the lighter on his denim hip until a flame appears, then he cups his hand and goes to light your Marlboros as if he’s just swung down from a mustang.

“Easy now, Lone Ranger,” Corey says, taking the lighter from him. “We can handle the physics of firing up our own Reds.”

The guy’s face flickers with disbelief then falls in disgust. “Dykes,” he mutters.

You and Corey snort like he’s crazy, but it’s clear in the split second your eyes lock over the Zippo that maybe the guy is onto something true and terrifying.

“Here’s your fancy Bic back,” Corey says after she lights her cigarette and exhales in his direction. “We lesbians appreciate your chivalry.”

The guy has heard enough. He huffs away, turning his cap around as he does so, and you and Corey stand victorious at the bow of the boat, smoking in tandem. It’s then that you can see the island in the distance for the first time, a dirty thought gaining traction in the June haze.

“Just one dig,” Corey says flatly, “and he went from Superman to serial killer.”

She takes a deliberate, final drag, flicks her butt out into the Atlantic. You do the same to keep the dance alive, before taking a long sideways look at Corey. The early summer mist is all over her—her knotted hair, her eyelashes, the faintest fur along her jawline. It’s all dew and cobwebs, and for a moment you feel like you might burst into tears. You crack your knuckles on your temple. The ferry chugs eastward. The dark dream of an island appears for good now.

“Guys wear hats to let you know they’re schooled, when school is nothing more than a load of horseshit,” Corey says. “What do you remember from school this year? Because here’s what I remember: Mira Kinnison shitting herself during the school play but not the quadratic formula.”

“I took German,” you say. “For what?”

“Her shit was the color of stoneground mustard, but don’t ask me to graph an X and a Y.” Corey finishes the vodka. “You know what I’ll remember when I’m eighty? Mira Kinnison. But the Treaty of Ghent? Stab me.” Corey pauses, closes her eyes like she’s in throes of existential pain, then sneezes.

“Gesundheit,” you say. “That’s German.”

“My name’s Corey,” Corey says.

“My name’s Trapp,” you say.

“My summer job on the island is at a bed and breakfast.” Corey says. “Washing sheets.”

“I don’t have a job,” you say. “At least not yet.”

You see the dewdrops are gone from Corey’s lashes, but the lashes are still wet, stuck together in dark triangles like a doll’s. “Work with me,” Corey says.

You say nothing. Which you suppose is a way of saying yes. And then, there it is, the island. No longer a dirty thought, but a decent one. Emerald green and dotted with white and red and blue. The sun is high and bright. The mist is gone. The sea birds rain down like black and white confetti. A hush settles over you and Corey like a fever or fear. You are out of your element altogether, but you are together. And when the ferry pulls in and blows its loud horn, even it is unable to break the spell between the two of you.

This is one of those dreams that never seems to end. The kind that goes on all night—like for nine hours, uninterrupted. In the next part, you’re at the bed and breakfast. The one Corey mentioned on the ferry. It’s called The Cliffs after the couple who owns it, Cliff Hampstead and Cliff Quincy, who was originally Brian Quincy before he’d fallen in love with Cliff Hampstead at a wedding.

“It was a wedding for a fellow named Ezra and a girl named Maryland—like the state—and Ham and I were sitting at a far table sharing a secret joint when we both said, like we were two fucking fortune tellers, THIS WON’T LAST!”

“I hadn’t smoked weed in fifteen years,” Hampstead says.

“And I hadn’t been in love in fifteen days,” Quincy adds.

“But when we both said the same thing at the same time,” Hampstead says.

“We were jinxed. We just locked eyes and passed the joint under the tablecloth and six weeks later we were out here,” Quincy says.

“On a fucking cliff,” Hampstead says.

“Some pot that was,” Quincy finishes.

The two men look at one another like dogs do owners. They’re dressed in sky-blue pants and sorbet-colored sweaters and sipping drinks through striped paper straws. Cliff Hampstead has a large, handsome head as square as a birdhouse. Cliff Quincy is frail and thin. You can’t look at him without hearing the snap of wood. You notice Hampstead can’t look at him without getting teary. Time is of the essence in some way that you have yet to decipher.

“Every day at ten, you ladies will go to the guesthouse and get the linens,” Hampstead says, pointing at an outbuilding with good posture. “And then you’ll take them back to The Engine,” he says, pointing at one that slouches.

“The Engine is just a ridiculous name for the garage,” Quincy says. “It’s where the washer is. Along with Hammy’s tinker toy.”

Hampstead shrugs. “So, sue me. I have a Porsche.”

“A pink one” Quincy groans. “And it’s been on blocks for six years. On blocks! A Porsche! What a sin. The original one, if you ask me.”

You look at Corey in the hopes she will look at you, but Corey is staring out at the sea in a serious way that reminds you that you know nothing whatsoever about her.

“Just ignore the car,” Hampstead says. “All you have to worry with are the linens.”

“And they’re worry enough,” Quincy says. “You have to strip them, spot treat them, wash them, dry them, iron them.”

“Then fold them, in the case of towels,” Hammy says.

“And make the beds in the case of sheets,” Quincy adds.

“It’s not hard work. Just time consuming. And it’s time consuming because it has to be done every day.”

“’Has to be’ is a matter of debate,” Quincy says. “We just believe it should be.”

There is a pause in the wind, during which Hammy sighs, loudly and suddenly serious. “All good things take time, and then the next thing you know there’s no more time at all.”

You and Corey and the two Cliffs stand outside the tall, shingled farmhouse on a square of green lawn. Quincy considers a gull fighting the breeze; Hampstead considers Quincy; Corey continues staring down the far, gray Atlantic—not the blue stretch you came in on, but the deviant one beyond. You, now convinced you’ve made a mistake or three, distract yourself with a visual tour of the property. There is the proper guesthouse on its own patch of fescue; there is The Engine, slouching on a circle of gravel, where you and Corey will stay; there is the long, unruly grass, like parched summer hair, waving this way and that between the buildings. You turn back to the green lawn underfoot, then point to where, past the house, a stretch of turf has been plowed up into a black crumble of soil. “What goes there?” you ask to everyone’s audible relief.

Hampstead and Quincy burst into laughter.

“You tell her,” Hampstead says.

“We’re pregnant,” Quincy says.

“Come and see!” they sing as one.

The four of you go out to the black crumble to meet the baby. It’s a pumpkin, the size of a volleyball and the color of free-range egg yolk. It’s nestled under a firm and decisive leaf, a parent’s hand held out in salute. “It’s an Atlantic Giant,” Hampstead says. “Starting next week, she’s slated to put on ten pounds a day.”

“By Labor Day, four hundred pounds a week.” Quincy says.

“And by Halloween, our daughter should be one ton of fun.”

“We blanket her at night,” Quincy says, “with my Aunt Diana’s silk quilt.” Quincy points to the clothesline he had pointed to earlier, when you and Corey had asked about a clothes dryer. It blows something fierce up here, darlings. “We’ll keep her warm till the end.”

Corey, finally back from assessing the sea, crosses her arms and shakes her head. “And then what?” she asks. “What comes after that?”

Hampstead and Quincy go silent. You wonder why on earth Corey would say such a thing. In your mind, an orange balloon loses all of its air until it’s nothing more than a soft sliver of rotten rind. There’s a possibility Corey has a real mean streak, and now, here you are, poised to share a futon with her for ninety days.

“Death,” Quincy says simply. “That’s what comes next.”

You watch Hampstead watch Quincy. The wind picks up on cue, so determined and self-confident, spiteful even, that you feel certain it will take all ninety pounds of Quincy up and away.

“That’s Quincy for you,” Hampstead says quietly. “Always giving away the ending.”

The dream goes on.

In the garage, the convertible Porsche is displayed top-down, exposed and captive, like a pink woman at the mercy of someone else. When the Cliffs go back to the farmhouse, and their yellow upstairs window turns black, Corey climbs right inside of the car and closes its door with an expensive thump. She sits behind the wheel and runs her hands all over the leather seats in a territorial fashion. You stand by the washing machine, inwardly appalled, with an unaffected look on your face. Outside the wind has died down. It’s finally getting dark though it’s nearly ten. Where are we? You wonder. The North Pole? Santa’s workshop? You’ve never been this close to the top of the map in the summertime. Will the sun rise before deep sleep? Above, a ceiling fan goes around, slow and lopsided, accomplishing nothing. Corey produces an unlit cigarette and puts it between her lips. She looks at you, once again in need of a flame. You rummage around The Engine’s shelves and cabinets until you find a soft book of matches. You go to the driver’s side where Corey sits waiting, and you light a match and hold it out to Corey who leans forward, puffing her cheeks like a pro and squinting her eyes.

“My parents’ first date was in a convertible,” Corey says, smoking and talking with both hands on the steering wheel. “Climb in and we’ll go nowhere just like they have.”

You resist. You hold the burnt match to your nose and think of birthdays, fireworks, causes for celebration.

“My mother got shit-housed last fall and told me she slept with my father on their first date. ‘That’s a mistake, Corinne. The sooner you give it up, the sooner they give up on you.’” Corey makes her voice ditzy and defeated in imitation. “Ever since she confessed, I’ve been meaning to ask where she slept with him. In a car? In a bed?” Corey reaches up and scissors her cigarette between two fingers and taps a long ash out onto the floor of the garage. “Is it horrible that I’m trying to get a visual? It has to be. It has to be some sort of mental illness.”

You look up at the ceiling fan and try to make it speed up telepathically. “My mother didn’t sleep with my father until their wedding night,” you say. “And he still gave up on her.”

“But when?” Corey asks, patting the vacant passenger seat. “Year two or twenty-two? That’s the key.”

You walk around to the passenger side and get in. The cool leather reaches out for your thighs. The door gives its rich, reassuring thump. When did your father give up on your mother? Or more importantly: why is your mother still trying to make him care?

Corey passes you the cigarette. There isn’t much left to it. You can taste the taste of filter when you take a drag. “My grandfather saved a bottle of wine for thirty years and when he finally got around to drinking it, it was nothing more than a douche,” Corey says. “So, I say, if you want to fuck on the first night, fuck on the first night.” Corey takes the butt from your fingers and flicks it out of the car and out into the garage. It arcs up toward the open washing machine and lands in its drum with the muted ding of a dead insect, once again unnerving you and delighting Corey. “Did you see that?” she says, turning to face you. “I just scored.”

Corey takes her hands off the wheel and places them on your left thigh. A small but urgent fear rises in you, up from your stomach and into your throat—a single white butterfly looking for light. But you only resist by closing your eyes. For a mild moment, there’s nothingness, and then, warm and decisive, Corey is upon you, in a way similar to boys past, but with less neediness, less weight, more conviction. You feel your mouth taken in by Corey’s. Your thighs peel away from the leather. Corey moves one of your hands this way, your knees apart that way. You can see: there is an agenda of sorts; there are steps to take. But there is a gentleness involved and you can also see: Corey’s mission is based not on consuming but converting.

Soon enough, behind your eyes, you are back on the ferry, looking out at a dark shape in the gray mist. With every move Corey makes, the distant shape sheds some of its darkness and reveals more of itself. A shirt is unbuttoned for a shade of green. A clasp is unclasped for a hint of blue. You taste salt and tobacco. You see the fog lifting, lifting. Before long, your need to see all of the island is so profound that you take over what Corey started. You are the one to press the two of you through the last of the mist, until, for the second time that day, the island appears—bigger and brighter than before. You open your mouth in relief. The butterfly bursts free. It flits from your parted lips and into Corey’s. The first thing you see, when you at last open your eyes, is not the medicinal pink of the Porsche or a single curl of smoke rising from the washer, but Corey, beneath you, timid.

This dream has legs. You always think it’s over, but there’s always PART IV. Sometimes it even says that in the dream, like on a movie screen, a black background with white font: PART IV. PART IV is just an overview of the rest of the summer. That cinematic device called the montage. This is the part of the dream where you see the sun rising every morning at 3:45, the pale blue of another day washing over the futon that you and Corey share. This is where you see you sliding some part of yourself between two parts of Corey, and the two of you waking each other up in a way that melts fog. This is where you see how many islands are within you. There are islands upon islands, chains and keys and archipelagos. Daily destinations of green and white that burst forth after expanses of tedious mist. This is the part of the dream where you see the ropes that you and Corey pull from the dark sea together, wet knots thumping onto the wood floor of the ship, until your limbs lose power, until all that remains is the lone white butterfly, flitting back and forth.

This is also the part where you see beyond The Engine. A summer of guests with their rented bikes and checkered shirts. Ninety days of the Cliffs, wandering the property mid-morning in their keen pants and v-necks. Three months of Quincy shrinking. Three months of the pumpkin growing. There’s the curious influx of the town. The local journalist arriving with his clipboard and pumpkin questions. Parents snooping with kids and cameras. That boy from the ferry, that one with the lighter. Biff. Here he is again, on the property, whistling impressed at the pumpkin. He’s offering to come with a forklift, he’s shaking hands with the Cliffs, he’s looking side-eyed at Corey who’s looking side-eyed at him. This is how the dream always ends. As a nightmare. With you sitting up, alone on the futon in a cold sweat. Waking from a dream within a dream. Knowing that Quincy is gone. That Corey has left. That the pumpkin has split on its driest side to show what it’s made of.

Waking up from this dream is always a relief, but always comes with a haze, a daze. You’re out of the dream but still in the fog. The dream sticks with you for two or three days, and the only cure seems to be laundry. Only washing and drying and ironing bedsheets for a bed large enough for two people is what melts the fog, what talks you off the cliff.  

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