9:14 PMTime and Space
Time and Space-Lakshya Dutta
I woke up one day and everything was the same. The unbreathing air, the naked tree outside my window that lost its coat of warmth due to that unfeeling air’s unseeming wrath, the girl at the coffee shop that noticed me and I noticed her but neither went further - everything and everyone was the same in a way that time is the same all the time. Time changes, but not in an unusual way - it may stay the same, but it is still never in the same place.
All I wanted, all I was hoping for was a similar path. Moving but staying in the same place. But that Day had to be different. That Day had to come. Even fate gets bored of being a know-it-all.
So on that Day I found out that time was going to go about its business but I was no longer invited. I was being forced to move from my place in this world. Sure there were thoughts of “It's a new challenge...” and “reasons are only found by discovery and not my search...” and other things that people say when words are needed to distract our minds from the ever-patient silence.
But what’s the point of thinking when doing is asking for its turn?
So I did. I decided to do what I wouldn’t have done if everything was still the same.
I found a town. Very far from where I was, and barely close to anywhere I had been before. This town was like me before the Day - alone, unnoticed, unchallenged, immovable.
I found myself in this town when I noticed that I was no longer running away from anything. This town didn’t care for who I was before the Day, or who I was going to be when I ran again. Here, I had forgotten how long I had been running. Here, I did not remember what I was running from.
The people who call this town home call it something else, but I call it Stopton.
The lodging I call home in Stopton is a bed-n-breakfast run by a couple that have been together for over 30 years. The Husband found me sitting at the local bar and asked me what I was doing in town.
“I’m here to do nothing."
The Husband seemed to already have a pre-recorded response, but after hearing my reply he decided to not say anything for another few minutes and simply gestured the Bartender for another pint. He did smile, and I smiled back. Reflex.
Those few minutes were almost becoming an hour when the Husband finally spoke.
“His next one’s on me,” he said to the Bartender, noticing my empty glass.
Thank you, I gestured with my newly full pint. When I asked the bartender where I could find a place to sleep for the night, he pointed to the Husband, who smiled the same smile as before. His smile told me three facts about him: more old than young, happier than most, luckier in love.
The me-before-the-Day would have stayed the night and then moved on to something that resembled a visible path. But the me-after-the-Day was a plan-virgin. So I didn’t plan, and just breathed without purpose.
Six days passed. Or eleven.
On this seventh or twelfth day, I was sitting at the local Cafe, drinking my morning coffee - another new for the new me - when I noticed a shadow taking over my table. I decided to do what was customary behavior when dealing with shadows during the day: I ignored it until it became a person. That didn’t take long, but the reveal wasn’t as expected: right at the moment when shadows usually take a bow and turn into their human form, this one decided to become bigger and bigger and bigger until…
When I opened my eyes, everything around me looked almost exactly identical to what it looked like before the shadow’s intervention. Everything wasn’t most definitely exactly identical because of one small difference: my reference point to the event was somehow 90 degrees off. Two possibilities popped up in my head:
A) Gravity has become bored with consistency and has chosen this exact moment to switch things up by acting horizontally rather than vertically, or
B) The shadow’s human counterpart knocked me down and must think I’m crazy since my eyes are open but I am still choosing to lie down sideways on the floor.
“I am so sorry,” came the sound made of words from my left as my arm was pulled and my theory about gravity’s boredom was debunked.
“How long was I out?” I said louder than I should have with my eyes opening and closing without permission.
“About two seconds,” spoke the same voice, but this time from much closer. Or maybe it was a whisper - the voice’s way of balancing my choice of volume.
When my eyes finally rested on the open position, there was a face staring at them. But this wasn’t a face I had seen before, in Stopton or the world around it.
“Are you okay?”
At first I thought that question was directed at me by my own Internal Voice Mechanism (IVM - although he likes to be called IVY for reasons I do not wish to ponder). I have never heard what that voice actually sounded like - since it was always in my head and therefore didn't have a audible voice - so I was a bit surprised that it chose this moment to reveal itself. But then I saw the mouth part of the Face move exactly at the same time as the question was asked. By now the Face was away from my eyes and sitting, whole-bodied, on the other side of the table. For reasons I didn’t have time to be bothered by, I didn’t like the new distance my eyes and her Face had established.
Before I could answer her question, IVY wanted to remind me that it was still there ---
IVY: Hey, it’s me. I’m okay. That was weird! For a second I thought I had lost you. And in that second I had some horrible existential thoughts. What am I supposed to do without you? Will I even have consciousness? Wait, am I your consciousness? Will it hurt? What is pain? Where…oh wait..shhhh she’s staring at us! Answer her question before she thinks we’re crazy.
“It certainly felt longer than two seconds,” I said as I sipped an empty cup of coffee, realizing soon after that the liquid it contained was now a part of my shirt.
“Well it could have been three, but I stopped counting when you asked.”
I smiled. The Girl had made me smile. Was this my first smile-of-choice since the Day?
“So why did you crash into me?” I asked.
The Girl put her large handbag on the table and started looking for something. As I waited for her to answer, I noticed a couple things:
1. She was beautiful in two ways:
Before I could notice more, the Girl noticed me…noticing. She leaned over and touched my shoulder. Before I, or even IVY, could come up with a theory for why she was interested in my shoulder or the person attached to it, I realized that there was a paper stuck to it.
“I blame this,” she said taking the paper, “I was looking for it in my bag and I forgot to look up to see where I was walking.”
“Delicate stuff. I’m glad I broke it’s fall.”
IVY: Oh no…I don’t think your sense of humor survived the fall.
She smiled. And IVY shut up for a change.
“Hey hey…people would take a bullet for this piece of paper. Although it would still be pointless since whoever wanted to assassinate this paper could quite easily accomplish their job without guns being involved.”
“What is it? I usually like to know the papers I involuntarily protect from falls and bullets.”
She hesitates, probably because I am a stranger asking personal questions. Usually IVY stops me from saying such things but he is still keeping mum until the right opportunity presents itself for him to be right about something.
“Well, it’s a medium-length story…”
I find these situations confusing. The person is clearly suggesting she wants to tell the story. She even used a play on words to make the story sound more intriguing. But she stopped talking! What am I supposed to do? What’s the appropriate response here?
I am able to think about this because she hasn’t exactly started her story yet.
She must know I’m impatient. I give up.
“So,” I began, not realizing that I had more words leaving my mouth, "…medium-length story short…?”
I just enabled her joke. Any chances of acting like the aloof-yet-mysterious male who doesn’t listen to details are out the medium-sized window.
But wait! What's that I see in the short distance through my now normally-blinking eyes? She smiled again! And started talking too, but not quick enough.
Picking exactly that moment, as if to create even more unnecessary suspense, the Waitress showed up to clean up the mess on and around our table. When she saw the Girl, she accidentally dropped the half-empty cup of milk - the one she had just picked up from the floor - onto the Girl’s dress. Since I was watching the whole scene take place in relative slow-motion, as most cup falls feel like in life, I was able to catch it before it landed on the Girl. The Waitress gave a look that a person shouldn’t if she was innocent of the crime, and walked away.
The Girl saw the look too, and was more amused than confused.
“I’m sensing that she doesn't like me.”
“Well I could be to blame. I’ve been coming here for a few days and I think she believes that we might have a thing.”
“What? We like you and me?”
“No, we like me and her.”
“Oh..well isn’t she a bit young for you?”
I should mention at this point that I look like I’m 25-27, and the Waitress is definitely in her late teens at the most.
“Hey! I never said I was interested, nor have I been leading her on in any way.”
“Sure sure. So it’s just a crush then. That stuff is harmless. And kinda cute.”
“Well it wasn’t harmless a minute ago when she tried to hit you with a cup.”
“Teenage girls have tried to do much worse to me."
“Well this teenage girl is the only waitress in the only coffee shop in this town…so if I were you I’d be nice to her. If you want to eat untampered food.”
“Don’t you think you’re giving your looks a little too much credit?”
IVY: Hah! She's good. You're going to screw this up.
We were both now in the dreadful moment where neither one has anything left to say. Knowing very well that such silences are fuel for IVY - who salivates for such moments to give me terrible small-talk ideas - I decided to quit while I was ahead.
“Well, I should get going…”
Exiting conversations is sort of first nature to me. Typical actions of me-before-the-Day. I guess you can’t change yourself that much this soon.
Is it self-improvement if you just take longer to get back to your old ways?
“Really? Where to?”
This is odd. Something is wrong here. I can’t remember the last time someone wanted me to continue talking to them. But I also can’t remember the last time I wanted to continue talking to someone too.
Also, I thought we were both in that Dreadful Moment Where Neither Has Anything Left To Say (DMWNHALTS)! Was that a timing error on my part? Maybe I did my exit phrase too soon. Even more maybe-ly, I think my internal timer is off since the fall.
Before I could answer her question - an answer I hadn’t thought of yet since I was still questioning my internal skills - I decided to sit back down in my chair. Sitting seemed like a better idea than doing a sitting-standing 75-25 combo with both hands holding the chair.
She smirked. “Then why did you say you had to go somewhere?”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“I…well…I’m not from anywhere currently,” I said trying my best to pull off being mysterious. “What about you?”
“Me? I'm from somewhere I don't want to be."
IVY: She wins at this whole mysterious thing, bro. You can't top that.
So how do you move on from that statement without seeming either too eager to want more details or too insensitive to care?
"Is that what brings you here?" I muster as I give IVY an internal smirk, "To be away from where you are but don't want to be?"
"Isn't that why we leave every place?"
IVY: Oh damn. If she keeps on talking like that you're going to fall in love with her.
"Well I won't ask you where you're from because it doesn't matter. Our past is fiction. Our future hasn't been written, so it's irrelevant. Our present is all we have. You're here, I'm here, and that's all that matters."
IVY: Woah. Maybe she'll fall for you before you do. Just kidding. You already have. And I always overestimate your skills. Because it's fun.
Have you ever witnessed the moment you make another person see you in a different light? That exact moment when they stop and reevaluate how to see you? The moment when you become relevant to them? Even if it is just a simple reflex?
That's what I think I saw in her eyes. I'd never seen it before, so I could be wrong. It is actually quite weird to decide what a feeling that you've never witnessed before actually looks like. But she looked impressed.
Good job, me-after-the-Day. I think I'll keep you.
"You must have hit your head harder than I thought," she said while controlling her laughter, "because that was some crazy, existential shit. What the hell do they put in their drinks in this town?"
IVY: HAHAHAHA! Fuck it. I already love her. I'm on board. Don't screw this up!
"I..." I began knowing quite well there definitely isn't another word in the pipeline.
"I'm just kidding. I like what you said. And if you're not going to ask me where I'm from, what else will you ask?"
"Okay. Let me think...okay I got one. Are you ready?"
"What is your name?"
Another smile. So far so good.
"Sabrina," she said, "what's yours?"
"Not yet. You'll get your questions. I have three more."
"Okay, Not Yet. And will I get four questions too?"
"Is that your first question?"
"Is that your second question?"
"Okay, let's do one question each then?"
"And reset it to the original four?"
"Okay. My turn then."
"Wait, I have another pre-questions question."
"Can we do this while we walk to where I'm staying so I can change my shirt? The coffee was quite hot and my brain just processed its effect on my body."
She nodded and we left the cafe. Stopton is a small town that can be walked twice over in two hours, but neither of us knew where we were going so we kept walking on a random path.
"Alright," she began, "I'll start. why did you come here?"
IVY: Are you going to tell her the truth?
"To lose myself," I said, "and maybe find something new in there somewhere."
IVY: Hmm. Close enough. That's the best non-answer I've seen you give in ages.
"Good answer! I was expecting a real reason, but whatever floats your boat," she smirked.
"Hah..hah. You think you can do better? Alright, let's see...okay," I stammered to get some help from IVY. Help me, quick!
IVY: Hmm well you can't ask her why she's here because that would just be the same question. And asking the basic stuff is too boring. Hmm...
IVY: Don't pressure me! You're the one who started this questions game! Oh..I know...ask her this...
"Okay," I started after a brief pause of 10 seconds, "if you were only given one day to fulfill your dream - your most-wanted want - and you were guaranteed that you wouldn't fail, what would you do?"
IVY: You're welcome.
"Hmm. That's...a real thinker! I guess...actually you know what...I think...no...I know...that I would go to my favorite spot in this little town near my hometown, there's a little cabin there with a lake where my family would stay for the summer when I was young. I would go there and leave everything about me back home, and just go spend the day at that cabin. To be so far from the rest of the world that Sabrina disappears and it's just me and this cabin and the lake. That's what I'd do for the whole day."
She stopped walking just as she stopped talking, realizing that I hadn't stopped staring at her and I too had stopped walking. Doing a quick rewind in my mind I realized I may have been the first one to stop walking. I should probably say something now.
IVY: Whatever you do, don't insult her dream. Don't go with your gut.
"How can that be your dream? Doing nothing? I mean don't get me wrong, I'm not saying what you just said doesn't sound peaceful and serene but that really can't be it, can it?"
IVY: You went with your gut. Why would you? How did you? I'm pretty sure I'm your gut. And I did not approve this behavior.
"You think so? What's wrong with spending a day doing nothing without any strings or consequences?"
"Nothing," I continued, ignoring IVY once again, "I'm just...I guess I wasn't expecting something like that."
"Tell me something..."
"Is this your second question?"
"Yes...and it's a follow-up to confirm your prejudice against my hopes and dreams...what is the point of having a dream?"
"Well it depends..."
"Then give me the un-depended answer," she stated blankly.
"Okay...well...dreams give you a goal. A purpose..."
"So like a direction of-sorts to this destination that you may or may not reach."
"Yes!" I exclaimed as if I'd won this thing. What that was, I'm not sure. And even if I become sure, I don't think there is any winning necessary. So I decide to lay down my weapons and say ---
"I'm sensing you're using my responses to make your point?"
"Well, yes, that's the plan, but it's still not complete."
She smiled again. All is not lost. I don't mind losing this to her, given that I am definitely not winning anyway.
"So," she continued, "where is this destination - this checkpoint or final stop to someone's dream?"
"I..." really don't know. And I did not need to finish that sentence to show her how speechless she had made me.
"Okay, let me rephrase - because I know I can make this better and a more fun win for me - what is the end result we all hope for when we wish to achieve something?"
Not that it mattered since I'm too enamored to notice, but IVY is informing me that it's almost 6 o'clock and the street lights just lit up Stopton's downtown - although downtown is a relative term considering how it's a quarter of the whole town and is only referred as that since it contains the only bar in Stopton along with a couple restaurants. And yes, one of those restaurants is the Cafe we sat with a dinner menu in circulation after 6 o'clock.
Sabrina notices the streetlights too, but she still doesn't break our eye contact as she waits for my reply.
"A sense of accomplishment?" I replied in the way someone guesses the solution to a mathematical problem.
"Yes! And what happens after that? Once you feel and live and breathe-in this accomplishment?"
"You feel happy," I said, knowing that my answers were getting closer to the target she had set for me. "You find your peace."
She broke our eye contact, but not to look away from my eyes. She turned to face the newly-lit street and closed her eyes. With a smile I had yet to see on her face - how many kinds of smiles did this girl have? - she says -
"We all want a lot of things - even the ever elusive 'everything' - but any thing we want will lead us to that final stop. The one where we get to sit and do nothing. For a change. Or forever."
She opened her eyes and looked back at me.
"You call it accomplishment. Or happiness. Or even peace. I call it my dream. My cabin with the lake."
I think she's getting to me, because I could have sworn that I just blushed. That's a kind of smile I'm not used to. I must take this in, and I must buy some time to take this in.
IVY: No. Don't. I know what you're going to do. So don't.
"Have dinner with me tonight? I mean you technically owe me one for spilling this coffee over me," I said as I noticed I hadn't changed my shirt even though we had crossed my bed-n-breakfast twice on our walk.
"That's your second question," she said, giving me no clue about her answer.
"I know," I replied.
IVY: That's a hail mary, buddy. And I say this with love - it's not going to work.
Before I could respond to IVY, or even realize I can’t since that is more of a one-way communication situation, she responded:
"Give me an hour?"
"Sure. Why don't I put on a new shirt and meet you at the bar in an hour?"
"There's only one. It's also conveniently called the Bar."
"Of course. See you then," she said along with another new smile - this one much more warm and kind - as she started to walk away from me.
She will look back.
IVY: You need help, my friend.
She will turn.
IVY: Why don't you turn around too? Then you won't have to be disappointed when she doesn't!
IVY: Come on! This isn't you! You're the one who turns away so he won't see her not looking back. The one who doesn't ask out a girl the first time he meets her. The one they forget! I can't even recognize you any...
IVY shut up. Because she turned. The smile did too.
An hour later, I found myself in another unexpected encounter with another stranger. But this one was not as desirable or healthy.
I was in my first fist fight. It was also my first fight involving any limb, but I couldn’t resist the triple-word alliteration.
I never saw myself as someone who would punch another person. It was never a life goal, nor did it come up when I thought of “what if” scenarios. Those scenarios were more practical and their probability of occurrence was much more realistic. But this…I didn’t expect this. So I followed the protocol of one of the “what-if” scenarios:
“What if you find yourself in a situation of which you haven’t created a what-if scenario?”
Unfortunately, or of-course-ly, before I could access the answer to that scenario, I was in the way of a moving fist.
But then, fortunately, but not-so-just-in-time-ly, I found the answer and applied it subsequently. Maybe getting punched for the first time does that to a person’s memory-location-service.
Here’s what happened:
I took a sip of my pint, which was luckily on the bar top and not in it’s usual place (my hand) at the point of first contact.
I turned to the person attached to the fist and got in my fight stance. I had no idea what this stance looked like from the outside, since this was the first time I was in one and had never practiced it in front of a mirror or previewed it to an audience before.
I put my pint back on the bar top. It was still in my hand and was preventing my right hand from making a fist.
As soon as the glass left my hand, I slammed a backhand slap onto the opposition.
If this was an arcade fighter game, my move would have only made the other guy lose about 10% life. The game would have continued, and I would probably have had to throw in a few actual punches.
But this wasn’t an arcade fighter game. It was a real, actual fight. Before the slap, I had figured my trick move had a 50-50 chance of ending the fight. IVY had done a brief calculation while I was taking a sip of the beer. Here’s what that sounded like:
IVY: That’s good. Make it a long sip. I need to think. What the hell was that? Did it hurt? Don’t answer that. I need you to concentrate. There are two ways this can go. You can punch him back and accept his proposal to make this an official flight. What happens after that is up in the air. I will probably be knocked out by the next couple punches so don’t count on me to be of much help.The second way is riskier, but has a definite 50% chance of you ending this fight before it begins. I like option 2. You too, right? Okay, now put the glass down, you’ve been drinking it for like 20 seconds. Now, as soon as your hand leaves the glass…
So it worked. As I had hoped, the other guy’s adrenaline-infused anger with a splash of bravado and ego quickly turned into surprise, but only for a brief second before the surprise turned into a stabilized form of shame. He stared at me for another five seconds, then began walking towards the exit - where Sabrina stood, with absolutely no expression on that Face.
“Hi,” I said. We’re standing outside the bar, and did I mention she looks beautiful?
"I'm sorry, was that fight supposed to go longer? Because from where I stood it was a 50-50 on whether the other guy ran or reciprocated."
We talked about the fight. About how I was not someone who had fights. But the man had disrespected the Husband's Wife. So I intervened. I told her that intervening was also something I did not do previously.
We had dinner at the restaurant that wasn't the Cafe. She told me about her life outside of Stopton. She told me how she was in town to find this artist that only surfaces into the public eye for one week every 3 years to showcase his work. She told me that she moved away from home 6 years ago and had lived and worked in 9 countries since.
"The only thing I take with me from one place to another is one handbag," she told me as we walked out of the restaurant, "and my cabin."
Since the bed-n-breakfast run by the Husband and the Wife was the only lodging in Stopton, she got a room there too. We sat on a bench in the front porch and talked for a couple hours. IVY kept mum through most of it. There were a couple times where I was afraid that if I keep talking to her I'll end up saying something that the me-before-the-Day would say and then she wouldn't want to talk to me anymore. To reduce the risk of that happening, I figured I should quit while I'm ahead - perhaps this moment is the most I should expect my rationality to justify as a happy happenstance wrapped around a flicker of happiness. So at about 2 am, I asked her -
"So let's call it a night?"
Please don't say yes.
IVY: Honestly, buddy, how far do you think you can take this?
"Sure..." she started, fully noticing the un-enthusiastic expression on my face, "if you have somewhere to be."
"Besides," she turned to face me, "I have my third question."
"Sure," I said.
"Where do you go from here?"
"This town? I don't know yet. I mean, I came here a few days ago without any expectation of it changing the way I see the environment around me. But I think it has. I don't know if this will make any sense, but I feel like I've finally started to learn that I don't need to fit into the world around me. That if I just say no to the world it will actually stop affecting me. I didn't think that would ever happen."
"What do you mean?"
"You try to follow the path. The plan. You go to school. The options are limitless. You pick a field of study. The options narrow down. You go to college. The number of paths in front of you keep going down. So you pick one before someone else does or it closes. You keep running because everyone else is. Take a break, and you're losing money. Even worse, you're losing time. And you hate it. You hate every breathing second of it. You blame your boss for being on your ass all the time. You blame your parents for always pushing you to become better. You blame anyone and everyone that reminds you that you are who they see and nothing else. But for what? Who is to blame really..."
There was only one emotion surrounding that word - kindness.
"Yes...," I said as I stared into the air, "I'm the one who did all of it. No one else. Just me. The world doesn't care - nor should it - for what I went through. It is what it is."
She held my hand. I'm not going to lie - the same calmness that she carries in her smile and eyes extends to those hands. "So what will you do? Fight them? or become them?"
"Fuck them," I smiled. She made me smile. Again. A lot.
"Good," she said, as she put her head on my shoulder, "that was a real answer."
We sat there....just sat there. I wasn't thinking about the Day anymore. I wasn't thinking about tomorrow. I wasn't thinking about anything.
A few minutes later, with her head still on my shoulder as we both stared at the hills beyond Stopton, she said ---
"I'm leaving tomorrow."
I wasn't afraid of losing her. There was no fear of anything left in me anymore. She wasn't expecting a response. We didn't move. The bench wasn't going anywhere. This moment wasn't going anywhere. The Sabrina in the present wasn't going anywhere. This time is mine. I own this time.
I hadn't felt IVY for a few minutes now. He just left. With everything else in me.
After a minute or so, I say -
"I have my third question."
"Hmm," she mumbled with her eyes closed, "ask me."
"Where are you going?" I asked.
She opened her eyes. She sat up. She faced me. She held my hands in hers.
"I'm going to answer that question with a question."
"Your final question?"
"Do you want to come with me?"
Her hands are in my hands. Her eyes are seeing me. Her face is smiling at me.
"Yes," I say.
"Good. Then ask me."
"What you want. Your last question."
She is it. I found it. I know it now.
This may not make sense, but the smile she has on at this moment - the same one she had when she told me about her cabin - it makes me feel like I've done something. Achieved something.
With her hands still in mine, her eyes still seeing me, and her face still smiling at me, I say ---
"Can I kiss you?"
And with that smile still on that Face, she says in that Voice ---
I can see her cabin. I can see her peace. I can see her happiness.
I can see everything.
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