Distant: Sam Moore
03. MUSIC INSPIRATION
I stared down into a cloudy cup of coffee I had barely touched. Next to it, a plate with some sort of generic pastry with a tiny nibble taken out. I stirred the cup with a spoon and watched the cream swirl and churn like the warning signs of a terrible storm.
“...Anyway, does that make sense?” she asked.
I looked up. Her head was cocked slightly to the side with a look of genuine concern. The cafe was mostly empty, minus us, and the baristas. One person, presumably a student, sat in the corner with textbooks and papers that were strewn about in a big mess. An elderly man sat by the window with a newspaper draped across his lap and his head drooped forward. The occasional snore escaped his mouth.
I met her eyes. Deep pools of dark blue, like the ocean at night. Too deep. I look away. Behind her, rain splattered the windows in a steady, monotonous tone that sounded like countless bubble wrap being popped simultaneously. The world seemed stuck in a groggy, lethargic haze. I rubbed my eyes, watched strange colors pulse and splash behind their lids.
“I’m sorry, I--”
“This is exactly what I’m talking about,” she interjected. “You seem so...distant.” She said it without any trace of malice or indignation, as if she was simply stating a scientific observation. “Are you even here in front of me now? Sometimes I’m not so sure.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She considered it for a moment, glanced down at her hands like she was looking for something that wasn’t there as she organized her words exactly how she wanted them. “It’s like I’m talking to a fragment of you. A shadow. Like I simply think I’m speaking to you when in reality you’re in another world entirely, and this is just the residue that got left behind.”
Lush keys and a subtle beat droned over the speakers like a gentle wave ebbing and flowing through the room. I swirled my cup of coffee again out of nervous habit and stared down and through its murky colors.
“I’m pretty sure I’m still here,” I said half-smiling. “More than residue. Flesh and blood, right? Drinking a mediocre and overpriced cup of coffee and enjoying a rainy day.”
She didn’t smile back. In fact, she didn’t do anything but patiently wait in hopes that I’d say something more substantial. At the bottom of those deep pools of dark blue I could see her grasping for something. Something to hold on to, something she could take away from this talk. Noiseless walls closed in our conversation, walls I couldn’t very well push away.
“Look,” I said, filling the palpable silence. “I’m still here. I haven’t gone anywhere. I’m just tired. This happens sometimes. You’ve known for me for, what, how long? A long, long while. It’s like a cycle that comes and goes. You’ve seen it. Nothing out of the ordinary, right? Sometimes I just have to thaw out, so to speak, the same way the branches do after winter so they can sprout leaves again. No need to worry.”
Something told me she wasn’t convinced. Maybe she was still waiting for me to say more. Perhaps she was trying to get a read on me and see if I was convinced of what I’d said. The student in the corner was rapidly flipping through the pages in their textbook, evidently searching for an answer they missed. The old man by the window was still sound asleep, his newspaper having slipped off his lap and onto the floor. Another song similar to the last one played on, like one continuous blend of sonic waves. Noiseless walls, closer.
“Really, I mean it,” I added.
She cupped her hands around her mug of tea, absorbing its warmth. She looked like she was formulating a response but simply, finally settled on “Okay” and took a sip of her hot tea. Was that all? Should I be relieved or worried by how quickly that ended? And why couldn’t I tell?
“Want to try it?” she asked, scooting her mug across the table towards me. The tea smelled like earth and flowers and tasted similar.
“It’s not bad,” I said.
“You ought to be a professional critic.”
“Maybe I will.”
We chatted for the duration of several more songs, catching up for the first time in a while. The conversation was much more relaxed and casual from here on out. This was her last semester before leaving for Europe to study abroad. I’d known for some time, but she didn’t talk about it much. When I asked her about it, she offered up only surface-level details and tried to sound modest. Underneath, though, I could tell she was about to burst with excitement. Maybe she found it the polite thing to do.
“Anyway, I have to get going,” she said after some time. “Closing shift tonight.”
“I hope you make tons of tips,” I said.
“Not likely. But thank you anyway.” She grabbed her umbrella, put on her coat, and stood up to leave.
“You know, even if you’re not here, it was good to catch up from a distance,” she said. Then, she was gone.
I stayed for a while longer. The rain continued to fall, warding off any more potential customers. The student left soon thereafter, leaving just me and the sleepy man by the window. I imagined he’d be there all night until the staff had to awkwardly wake him up and ask him to leave.
I turned in a couple assignments online and tried to do some pleasure reading, but my mind was elsewhere. I’d reread a page several times, but none of it was being absorbed. Her words lolled around in my head, knocking into any other thoughts that tried to pass through.
“...you’re in another world entirely, and this is just the residue that got left behind.”
Residue. Was it true? If I wasn’t here, where was I?
The groggy, lethargic haze the world seemed to be stuck in was lulling me into a tired staleness, like I could pass out any moment without even realizing it. I decided it was time to leave. I was no longer being productive, and trying to read was about as successful as trying to water a plant through concrete. Nothing was getting through. I still had barely touched my coffee or pastry and felt bad about throwing them away. To alleviate my guilty conscience I took another bite of the pastry so I wasn’t wasting quite as much, and I asked for a to-go cup for the coffee even though I probably wouldn’t finish it anyway. I packed up my things and left.
The moment I stepped outside, it stopped raining. Or, to be more accurately, it hadn’t been raining in the first place. Not here.
Instead of stepping out onto the gloomy, rainy sidewalk…
...I found myself in a vibrant, thriving forest.
Endless trees loomed like giants with outstretched limbs, splashed in heaping doses of glossy green. I watched leaves bud and spring to life before my eyes, like time was passing through them and speeding up the process. As real and unreal as anything I’d ever seen. I plucked a leaf off a branch--I had to see if it was real--and no sooner had another leaf sprout in its place. The wind made the forest appear as if it were taking in large gulps of air and letting them out slowly. A living, breathing haven. Almost as if it were sentient. I let the leaf go and watched it float off, carried away by the gale.
Above was cloudless twilight, the sky perfect nightfallen blue. I looked behind me--the door I passed through in the cafe was replaced with an old, worn-out one the color of dead leaves. It stood there, detached from anything else, as if it had blossomed from the ground as a natural part of the woods. If I turned the handle and went back through that door, would I find myself back in the other world? Something held me back. Perhaps I didn’t want to leave the tranquility, or maybe felt that it wasn’t time to leave. Not yet. I turned and left the strange door where it was, guided by nothing so concrete as consciousness, but something deeper. A sleepwalker in a waking dream.
If this is a dream, I thought. I’m not so sure. Why does it feel so strangely familiar?
I waded through this strange and peaceful forest, unsure of where I was heading, only knowing that I was supposed to be heading somewhere. How did I know this? Logically it made no sense, which, for some reason, didn’t alarm me. The illogical seemed to flow smoother here, and I was swept away in its current.
A gradual change started to take place, like a mask slowly being peeled off. The comfort of here started to drain. Something churned inside me. Worry? As I progressed further and further in, the vibrancy of the forest seemed to dwindle as if it were dying right before my eyes. Gradually, at first, as leaves changed from greens to reds, before plummeting into lifelessness and barren branches. This is when I realized--
“This is where you’ve been going, isn’t it?”
She was sitting on a tree stump as if she’d been waiting for me. The color had been completely sapped from every particle now, a black-and-white lens placed over the vibrant one. The trees looked were inky silhouettes, like shadows I could put my hand right through. The air had a cold greyness, and the moon above was crumbling concrete.
“I get why,” she continued. “Why you’ve been coming here. Why you’ve been so distant, slipping off somewhere else. This place is really far away. It’s nice at first. Peaceful.Tranquil. A haven...”
A black leaf fluttered off a branch, but disappeared before it touched the ground.
“...but there’s nothing here for you.”
Behind her a tree started to disintegrate, wisping away like ashes in the wind. The particles fluttered for a moment, and then were gone. It left an emptiness in its stead, like someone had rigorously erased reality.
“I’ve been here many times,” I said, more to myself as a sudden realization. “I’ve never seen this happen before, though.”
“That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been happening. You just haven’t noticed it. Maybe you haven’t wanted to.” Behind her the erasing picked up speed, an encroaching wave of emptiness that made a noise like crackling fire as it removed everything in its path.
“Why wouldn’t I want to notice this? It’s all going to be swallowed up. Then what will happen? Where will I go?”
“I don’t know,” she said as the next line of trees disappeared behind her. “That’s not for me to say. I’m just glad I found you here. Like you’d finally let me find this place. And find you.”
The erasing was louder, closer, right behind her. An invisible inferno eating everything in sight.
“It seems like I was too late,” I said.
The tendril-like roots of the stump she sat on started to fade. “I don’t think it’s too late,” she said as the erasing grabbed the base of the stump. “But you can’t stay here anymore.”
I tried to respond, to say anything at all, but before I could she was gone, just as everything else was going, and I was hurtling back through what remained of this place like I’d been tethered by a long string and violently yanked backwards, the trees turning to comets of light trailing beside me and the crackling invisible inferno swallowing everything up just as I reached the door I arrived through that was already open and waiting and I fell through into a shimmering glow--
--and groggily churned to life like an obsolete machine, rubbing my eyes and seeing more strange colors pulse and throb and then wash away as everything clicked back into focus. I felt like I was coming out of a dark tunnel and seeing light for the first time in days.
“Ah, there you are. Welcome back,” said a voice. It belonged to one of the baristas. He was wiping down a table a few feet away. It was dark out, and the rain had stopped. There were no other customers, not even the old man who had passed out earlier in the middle of his newspaper. My book lay open, exactly where I’d left off, the same page I’d tried reading over and over to no avail.
“We’re just about to close,” the barista said. I must have looked very disoriented, because he was holding back an amused smile. “You want a to-go cup for your coffee?” he asked. Some sort of vaguely-human noise must have lazily spilled out of my mouth because he returned a second later with my drink swapped from a mug into a paper cup. I thanked him (I’m fairly certain), and stumbled out onto the wet, grimy sidewalk. The jarring, cold night air swept away the lingering grogginess as I felt myself return to concrete, flesh-and-blood personhood again.
Hazy images drifted in and out of my mind that night. Images of a strange door and a familiar face, of green being eaten up by emptiness. A place I’d been slipping away to too often without even knowing. That dream (if it was a dream--it felt more like a place I had actually traveled to while my body remained here) had jostled something loose in this world; a cause and effect that stirred something up inside me. Residue or not, I couldn’t ignore the feeling that something was changing. As I drifted off to sleep I thought of doors closing, of distances disappearing, of leaving empty places behind.