He awoke for the sixth time that night. This time, like every time before it, it seemed that his thoughts had masterfully chosen the worst moment to tear him from some sweet dream of her, to rip him from those lips and back into the reality they were suddenly no longer a part of.
The thoughts tore at him, hollering, howling for attention. He groaned and rolled over, waiting for his exhaustion to overpower them again.
“Oh, boy,” said a voice, worry clear in its tone.
His thoughts went silent. There shouldn’t have been a voice in his bedroom. There was a voice he wouldn’t have minded hearing, but it wasn’t this one. This one was masculine, and it had none of the comforting familiarity.
He sat up and opened his eyes. And stared.
This was not his room. Absent was the stack of returned papers he had flung on his desk that evening. Absent was the desk, too, and the bookshelf, both of which he had tidied in a fit of uneasiness the day before. Absent were his shoes and his clothes and his bag.
There were two ottomans on the far side of the room, the same deep red as the blankets on this bed that wasn’t his. They sat beside a window, and other than that window, those ottomans, and the bed, the room was bare.
He didn’t know what to think. He hadn’t been drunk. Miserable, sure; but he hadn’t been drunk. He was sure he had fallen asleep in his own bed, because that’s where he had been the last five times he had woken up in the middle of the—
Night? He felt sure it shouldn’t have been morning, but the light pouring into the room told him that the sun was high in the sky.
He stood and walked to the window. It was extraordinarily large, taking up most of the wall. It was just an opening—no screen or glass—and close enough to the ground that a person could step through. It was, he realized, probably how he had gotten into the room; of the few things to notice here, none was an exit.
Wherever he was, he was on the ground floor, so he stepped through the window.
And into a different world.
Wherever the sun had been shining from, it wasn’t here. Here there was only a thick, white fog which left just a few feet of clear space around him.
He stood at the foot of a hill, but the fog kept him from seeing its peak. What concerned him more than the lay of the land, though, was what the land was. The turf resembled grass, but instead of the usual green, it was colored in blotches of sickly pastel purples and oranges and blues.
Creepy, he thought. I don’t think I want to be here. He turned around, expecting to see a way back through the window. He didn’t see one, but he also didn’t have time to care. As he turned, he lost his footing. He was falling.
He awoke with a start. Ah, he thought. One of those dreams.
The voice. He had forgotten it in his surprise before.
But hadn’t he been dreaming? He sat up and looked around. He was in the same alien room as before, but other than the ottomans and the window, all he saw was the stark whiteness of the walls. There was no source for the voice.
“Um… excuse me?” he said, lost for anything else.
Seconds later, he stopped worrying about any encounter he might have had with alcohol. He must have dealt with harsher substances. Acid, he thought; that would explain the creepy world through the window. And the fact that an ottoman was talking to him.
“You shouldn’t be here,” its cushion flapped.
“Clearly,” he replied, “but where am I?”
“You’re on the wrong side.”
He was confused. “Am I… dead?”
He could tell—somehow—that the ottoman was annoyed. “No,” it said. “You just woke up on the wrong side.”
That still sounded like death. And this still felt like a bad acid trip.
He sighed, exasperated. “The wrong side? Of what?”
“You saw it,” it replied. “You went through the window, didn’t you?”
“Yeah—what was that?”
He didn’t know why he could be holding a conversation with an ottoman, so he really didn’t know why it was possible for an ottoman’s annoyance to be almost palpable. Nonetheless, he could tell that the annoyance of this conversing ottoman was, indeed, almost palpable.
“Your dream world,” the ottoman replied, as if that should have been obvious. Then, after a moment’s pause, “but I guess you wouldn’t recognize it. We’re always showing you other things while you’re in there, after all.”
He still didn’t follow, but he waited a moment, hoping his confusion would go away on its own. It didn’t.
“I still don’t follow,” he said.
If the ottoman had had eyes, he was sure it would have rolled them. In fact, he got the impression that the ottoman had rolled the eyes it didn’t have.
“Look,” it said, “it’s pretty easy. You know you have dreams, right?”
“Yeah,” he confirmed, questioningly.
“Okay, and you know your dreams don’t happen in the real world, right?”
“Well then where do you think they happen?”
“Well,” he hesitated, “in my head, I thought.”
Another impossible eyeroll. “Of course not. We can’t have you running around and messing with things in here, can we? No. You need a place where you can’t cause trouble, and that’s why you’ve got that nice little box out there. We can just show you some pictures and let you run around all night without screwing anything up while your body gets the rest it needs.”
“Well it makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, we pull the crazy people out of society and stick ‘em in padded rooms to keep them from causing trouble. Why should it be any different with you? At least your padded room comes with 3D interactive television!”
This time, the ottoman was silent until its guest managed to regain control of his mouth and form a thought.
“So when I sleep, I’m in that place,” he said, nodding toward the window.
“But I’m always in my body in my dreams, aren’t I?”
“Well of course that’s how it seems. I mean, you think you’re in your body now, don’t you? And you’re clearly not, ‘cause you’re here.”
He looked down, trying to process one mystery at a time. He certainly looked like himself.
“If I’m not in my body, then…”
“Well what would you rather look like,” the ottoman questioned. “A gorilla? A platypus? You look like you because it makes sense to you that you look like you.”
“Sheesh,” it grumbled, “you really would get nowhere without us.”
He frowned. He certainly felt like he was getting nowhere, talking ottoman or not.
“So, okay—where am I, then?” He wanted to find a bit of reason somewhere.
“On the wrong side. Didn’t I say that once?”
“Look, buddy, it’s not that hard. In the daytime, you’re awake and living your life in the real world. At night, you dream. But you can’t just run around in your body in the real world, right? And you can’t run around inside your head, either. So we give you a little box between the two. And when you’re done there, you’re supposed to pop back out into your body in the real world.” It paused. “Except this time, you woke up on the wrong side. Dunno how you did it.”
“So I’m inside my own head.”
“I… see.” He didn’t see, but he was growing worried. “So, does that mean…” He paused, fearing the answer. ”I’m not hallucinating?”
“Uh, yeah, buddy. Sorry; this is real.”
The acid trip theory was shot down. That could hardly be good news.
“And it sucks,” the ottoman went on, grumbling to itself, “‘cause you’re annoying enough to deal with when you’re not here in person.”
Later, he would look back and laugh at the thought of being insulted by the upholstery of his own brain. Now, though, he was beginning to panic.
“Well what do I do? I have to get back,” he stammered.
“Beats me,” the ottoman calmly replied. “I don’t even know why you’re here to begin with.”
“But what if she—” He paused, fire in his eyes. “I— I have to get back!”
“Look, buddy, cool it. I don’t know what to tell you. I mean, how did you get here?”
“I just woke up here! I don’t know!” He glanced around frantically. “How do I get out of this room?”
He had already tried the window, but that wasn’t what he wanted. From this side, he could see that this room was part of an entire castle. There must be an exit.
“What if I go to sleep again? If that’s all I did to get here, maybe it was just a fluke and I’ll be on the right side when I wake up.”
“I dunno,” the ottoman said doubtfully, “you’ve already woken up here twice. Looks to me like you’re stuck.”
Right—he had forgotten. So that was no use.
“Alright, this room. How do I get out of this room?” He glanced outside again. “And what’s that red tower?”
The castle had dozens of towers, but most of them were the same white as the walls. Only one was colored the deep red of the blankets and ottomans.
“That’s the director’s place,” the ottoman answered. “Hmm… maybe you should go see him.”
“Yeah,” the ottoman said wistfully, “he might be able to help.”
“Okay, how do I get there?”
“Well… I don’t really know,” it began. Before it could finish its thought, though, a piece of the wall opposite the window dissolved away. An opening to a castle hallway stood in its place, and the ottoman’s guest had already darted through it.
He walked briskly down the hall, in the direction of the red tower. He reached a branch in the path, and he continued on what he thought was the most direct path.
At branch after branch he did this, but, he realized, his destination was growing no closer. His hurried walk became a run and then a full sprint, and he finally collapsed, gasping and glaring at the tower that still loomed far in the distance.
“Alright, what am I supposed to do?” he panted. “I don’t know! I want to get back, and then—I don’t know!” His vision blurred, and he felt his frustration on his face, welling up in his eyes and running down his cheeks.
As he sat gasping on the ground, he saw the room around him darken and felt the air grow inexplicably heavy and thick.
She’s fifty miles away, he heard, and contrary to whatever delusion you might be nurturing, not thinking about you.
The voice was strong and deep, and it echoed from every direction. He looked around for its source; the red walls told him he was in the director’s tower, but he saw nothing but empty space around him.
There’s a reason you don’t know what to do, it continued. There’s nothing you can do. Stop whining and get over it.
“Hey! I—” Intimidated though he was by the presence around him, he couldn’t help being offended by its bluntness.
A human relationship, it continued, ignoring the protest, cannot exist without two people, but it can still be ended by either one of them. It’s not the first time you’ve encountered this asymmetry; you shouldn’t be shocked by it.
He knew it was right, and he knew that the last time he had struggled with the issue, he had been resisting one of the wisest decisions he had ever seen made.
“But this time it’s different!” he yelled. “You’re right; I was wrong the last time. But this time, she’s wrong!”
So what? Assume she is wrong—which might be a stretch; do I need to point out that you thought the same thing the last time?—what does that mean you should do about it? Can you change her mind? Can you prove to her that she’s wrong? Feelings are subjective; can you prove that anything’s right or wrong?
He opened his mouth to argue, but he couldn’t find the words.
And do you really think she’s wrong? Look at yourself, it prompted, the guy she dumped for being more invested in the relationship than she wanted. Do you think she’s wrong? Do you think your reaction is doing anything but testify to how right she is?
Silence. He was beat, and he knew it. Nonetheless, he didn’t feel better.
“So what about me?” The question meant nothing, but he didn’t know what else to say.
What about you? What kind of question is that?
His mouth flapped uselessly.
You can argue emotions as much as you like, but you can’t dispute numbers, right? Well let me give you some: you’ve existed for twenty years, been self-aware for, say, the last fifteen of those, and reasonably mature for the last five. Know how much of that this was? Nothing. Less than a percent. You have a long history of getting along just fine without her.
“But I—I liked the person I was with her,” he stumbled.
Yeah? And? You decide who you are. Suggesting that your personal identity depends on anyone but you is ludicrous. All you’re really saying is that you’ve learned something about yourself. Great—now take that knowledge and use it to move on.
“Move on? Sure—to where?”
I couldn’t tell you. I have near-infinite ability to help you make it happen—he felt an immense weight upon him again, and this time he realized it was the weight of a million threads of computation simultaneously starting and ending all around him—but exactly what it is is your decision alone.
It paused. You enjoyed doing meaningful things to make her happy. Maybe that idea is what matters, not its recipient.
He grunted, contemplating this.
Regardless, it continued, it’s not useful to either of us to have you trapped in your own thoughts about an ended relationship. We can be something amazing, and one girl’s opinion doesn’t change that.
“You know,” he said, hesitantly, “I agree.” Then, “Thanks.”
The presence’s tone grew gentler. The best thanks you can give me, it said, is getting out of here and going back to being awesome.
“Right.” He smiled. “So then, how do I leave?”
I think, it said, you won’t have too much trouble with that now.
Again he felt innumerable thoughts firing up around him, but this time their weight was too much. He blacked out, and hours later he awoke to the real sun shining on his real eyelids through his real window.
He stretched. Meaning and happiness, huh? Maybe that is what matters, after all.