Then I Wake Up (a short story)

Then I wake up. I’m in a… a bar? a café? Hmm. Yeah, I seem to have fallen asleep curled up in the corner of this café. I’m thirsty. I go to the counter and order a drink.

“What do you want?” asks the woman at the counter.

I stare at her blankly for what seems like a long time. What do I..? …what do I want? This is a tough question. Even if I came up with an answer, how could I know that it was truly what I wanted? The human mind, I know, is good at answering the wrong question. Maybe whenever I think I’ve figured out the answer to “What do I want?” I’m actually answering “What feels good to think about right now?” Or something.

“Tea? Or coffee? We have a nice medium roast…”

Ah! Yes. What do I want to drink?

“Uhh, black tea, I guess?” Might help me stay alert.

I’m pretty sure that the question I’ve answered is more like “what feels like a good idea?” than “what do I want?” but that seems okay. This drink decision isn’t super important.

I see my friend walking by, and go over to say hi.

“Nima!”

“Oh, hey!”

“It’s super cool that you’re here in my dream with me,” I blurt out.

He gives me a weird look.

Wait, what? “In my dream”? But then I realize that whatever part of me said that is right. I just woke up a few minutes ago, but I’m still dreaming.

Then I wake up.

This time I’m in a bed—that makes a bit more sense. Okay, bed. Wait, whose bed? The bed feels familiar and yet it’s clearly in some sense not my bed. I hear Sam’s voice in an adjacent room… oh yeah, I slept over here last night.

She hears me getting up, and calls from the kitchen, “Do you want tea?”

“Black tea!” I’ve got this one, I’m thinking. Although that bigger question (what do I really want?) is still on my mind.

I go into the kitchen and sit down at the table. On some level, I’m interested in the what-do-I-want question philosophically, but to be honest, I think I’d be satisfied with a practical answer.

Sam pours the tea. “How’d you sleep?”

“Pretty well. Kind of a weird dream.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Have you ever had a dream where you wake up, like, in the dream?”

“Like this one?” she asks.

“No, like…” Wait.

Then I wake up. I’m sitting on a bench, in a park, with Jackson. I haven’t seen him since high school.

Let’s be real—I’m clearly not a trustworthy narrator at this point, right? It sure felt like I woke up, but the last two times I said that I was wrong. But I’m not sure what else to call it—it felt like waking up, and also, I’m now somewhere other than where I last remember being. Which was Sam’s place, right?

In terms of the timeline of my subjective experience, yes. But…

Jackson looks at me expectantly.

I blink. “Sorry, what were you saying? I think I dozed off…”

“I just said, ‘Isn’t it weird that we’re made out of stuff.’ I mean, it’s kind of not weird that we’re made out of stuff… everything’s made out of stuff. But… it’s kind of weird, still?”

I’m nodding, but I’m thinking about dreams. Eventually, I’m going to wake up into my actual life, right? Which means…

“Although, everything’s not made out of stuff if you’re dreaming,” I say to Jackson. “Like ultimately it’s atoms somewhere, but if you pick up a rock in a dream, that’s not atoms picking up atoms, it’s just all consciousness.”

“Huh, true. So if you’re dreaming, you’re not… not made out of stuff, but you can’t poke at the stuff with your finger…” He lifts his arm and prods his forehead.

I mimic him, poking my own head. Then I wake up.

I’m alone this time, as far as I can tell. Definitely dreaming. I’m in a tunnel made of metal and glass, and looking out at the stars.

No conversation—or person offering me tea—means time to think.

This is kind of convenient, really. Doesn’t time move slower in dreams? Like you can dream for 10 minutes in only 1 minute of clock time? That means this is an efficient place to be trying to figure things out.

Okay, what was I trying to figure out? I was trying to figure out that “what do I want” question, but now I’m distracted by the more pressing question: “What is my actual life?”

Like, at some point before the conversation with Jackson, I ran into Nima in the café… No. That was dream too. Where did my actual body fall asleep, such that I had this deeply nested dream? And how many layers out am I? Is that even a meaningful question? I guess nothing requires one to have fallen asleep within a dream, in order to wake up from said dream. That only matters at the first level. You need to have fallen asleep somewhere in order to be dreaming at all.

I’ve been talking to myself out loud, to keep track of my line of thinking. When I said the last part, I noticed I kind of didn’t believe it.

I don’t understand how it could not be true, and yet… somehow I’m not quite sure. “Real life” feels far away. I try to remember, “what was I doing yesterday?”

My memory reports a few fragments—a conversation with a coworker?—but they don’t feel much different from the dream memories. How can I tell?

I look at the stars. It’s a decent night sky. Prettier, actually, than normal stars, I think. I make a mental note that if I ever meet the part of my brain that handles dream graphics, to tell them they’re doing fantastic work.

Then I wake up. I’m in a plain, square white room, the kind that you see in movies or whatever. The room is lit diffusely, but I can’t actually tell where the light is coming from. There’s a figure (also in white) standing on the other side of the room facing the wall.

I approach them, and they turn around. “You again?”

I look at their face, which is androgynous and expressionless. They feel kind of familiar but I really have no clue who this is. I improvise.

“Yeah! It has… been awhile!”

“Not really. You really didn’t last long. Not that I’m surprised.”

I give up the pretense. “I don’t really know what you’re talking about…”

“The last time you woke up—like, woke up, for real—you didn’t want to get up. You told me you preferred dreaming, although not so much the dreaming itself as the moment you wake up and realize it was a dream. And so—”

“I’ve changed my mind. I mean, it was neat, but I’d like to actually get up.”

“It… might be too late for that.”

Then I wake up.

an eye that is closed; photo by Eric Chisholm

(Eric Chisholm has been taking pictures of eyes recently, and I asked him to do a closed-eye one. Color edits by me.)

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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