And the bones are fixed at five
Under the moon’s timelessness
~ from “A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map” by Stephen Spender
Dahlia found herself reclining in a white vinyl club chair, exact copies of which were arranged in three conversation groups at the rear of the coffee shop. In front of her legs was a low round table supporting a latte in a glass mug, some napkins, a couple of large straws, and a plastic spoon.
She realized that a man was sitting across from her. His eyes were smiling at her.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” the man said. He appeared to be in his thirties. He was skinny, with a receding hairline and a businessman’s haircut. “I wanted you to see this place so badly!”
Dahlia felt somewhat confused. She didn’t feel threatened, or anxious. Just … unclear. She gazed around the spacious interior, breathing in the velvety aroma of fresh-ground beans and brewing blends. Small wooden bistro tables with side chairs were positioned opposite the customer counter to the front of the shop. The walls were painted in angles and sections of burnt-orange, sage, and cream. The floors were grayish Italian tile, and the table-tops and counter-tops were made of polished granite.
The atmosphere made her feel appreciated and at ease. She concentrated on the man sitting across from her. “Do I know you?” she asked him hesitantly. He looked very familiar.
“I’m John. We dated once. I took the liberty of ordering your favorite; mocha with white chocolate and lots of whipped cream.”
She peered down at the clear-glass mug. It sat in suspension, the whipped cream forming perfect peaks. “Is this real? she asked, feeling disoriented again. “Didn’t I drink this already?”
John sat back further and crossed one leg over the other knee. He was wearing blue jeans and black leather boots. He smelled like laundry detergent, aftershave, and coffee. “I don’t know,” he answered. “Do you remember me at all?”
Dahlia inspected her own lap, her arms, lowered her chin to her chest so she could see what she was wearing. It was an outfit that she kept, but hadn’t used in years. Embroidered jeans, a violet Henley T-shirt. “I don’t remember putting this on.” She looked around once more; the surroundings seemed bright, clear, and cohesive. There were customers seated, talking, ambling. People were entering and exiting. She refocused on John. “I think I’m dreaming now,” she said.
“It’s possible,” John replied calmly. “This is my place, by the way. I call it, ‘The Coffee Bar.’ Real original, I know.” He chuckled.
Dahlia shifted, making her vinyl seat crinkle. It all felt real. There was no sense of nervousness or disquiet. Just curiosity. She peered again at her latte, raised her eyes to John. “Did you drug my coffee?”
“Wait, I think I remember you now,” Dahlia said. “We fought a lot. You made me feel like I was suffocating.”
John sat straight, lowered his akimbo leg and set both feet firmly on the tiles under them. “Dahlia, we were lovers. We dated for over a year. But you seemed disinterested, like you didn’t care one way or the other, most of the time.”
“So you drugged me, kidnapped me, and brought me to your coffee shop.” Her voice was resonant, but no one in the place seemed to notice. Soothing waves of conversation floated around her. A couple pushed through the entrance door, stopped to order something at the counter. “This has to be a dream….” she said to herself.
“Go flip the light switches, and find out,” John responded with a hint of humor.
Just then a man with a guitar stepped up on the raised platform that jutted out from the wall to their right. Dahlia turned to stare at him. He was youngish, but wore wire-rimmed glasses and a blue fedora. He adjusted a microphone that rose from the floor in front of him, sat on a stool, and began to play.
Dahlia moved her eyes back to the man opposite her. “You’re John Fisher. We broke up.”
An expression of sorrow but also of understanding spread across his face. “You left me, Dahlia. You accused me of all kinds of things I didn’t do, just to pick fights, and give yourself an excuse to leave. You refuse to acknowledge your emotions. You hardly laugh, you can’t cry. I understand how it is, coming from an alcoholic family, but you have no self-awareness at all. There is no connection between your actions and your feelings.”
“And who by fire, who by water,
“Who in the sunshine, who in the night time….” the guitarist sang.
She thought of him now as he was then, a tall, awkward, highly intelligent man who loved her. “We were both in our twenties, and very immature. I heard you became an addict after I left.”
“I went through a rough time, but survived rehab. I majored in psychology, and was going to specialize in research, get a Ph.D., but then during my NA meetings it occurred to me I was much more effective and happier helping others in recovery. I dedicated my life to mentoring others, conducting group and individual therapy. When my father died, I was left with enough money to build this place.”
“Who by high ordeal, who by common trial….”
Dahlia heard someone in the next circle of chairs exclaim, “… I know, ‘A Waking Life’ is one of my favorite movies. Remember the part about how there are six to twelve minutes of brain activity after we die. Or, the part about the experience of time. How subjective time as we die becomes detached from objective time.” She looked into John’s eyes. “I must be having a lucid dream, right?”
“I don’t know exactly,” John said. “You might be experiencing a psychotic break. Can you tell the difference between a dream and psychosis? Between a nightmare and a nervous breakdown?”
Dahlia didn’t feel any fear or urgency to leave.
“And who by brave assent, who by accident,
“Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
“Who by his lady’s command,
“Who by his own hand….”
“What is that song?”
“Leonard Cohen, remember? It’s called ‘Who By Fire.’ We both liked his music.”
“And who, who shall I say is calling….”
One of the waitresses approached them. She was dark and pretty with flashing brown eyes. She stood by Dahlia’s right shoulder and said, “You have to choose. From the menu. Is the dying-brain theory right? Is everything that we experience after death merely the last few minutes of an injured brain flooded by serotonin or endorphins. Is the brain a quantum non-locality, is the mind capable of being independent from the body?” And she walked away.
Dahlia whispered, “Am I dead?”
“I don’t know, are you?” John answered. “Time, life, and death are a matter of human perception, relying on neurons and neurotransmitters. Consciousness of self and our environment is stored, emitted like the pulses of a neutron star. Dopamine is our internal stopwatch.”
Now on the small stage, a compact man with deep eyes and black curly hair was reading a poem:
“A stopwatch and an ordnance map.
“At five a man fell to the ground
“And the watch flew off his wrist
“Like a moon struck from the earth….”
“That’s about the poet, Garcia-Lorca, isn’t it,” Dahlia said. “He was murdered.”
“Yes,” John said in a low, sorrow-filled voice. “It’s almost time to go, Dahlia. You are the love of my life. You are stuck now, still in that emotional labyrinth, that disengagement from life. You are only thirty-two…. ”
The wall sconces, the overhead deco ceiling lights, were dimming in the shop. None of the patrons seemed to notice. The man on the dais continued to read poetry in a drone of words that Dahlia could no longer understand.
I have to be dreaming, she decided. She didn’t recall any moment of blinding pain, or an untimely accident, or long years battling a killing disease. I can’t be dying….
“Listen to me Dahlia,” John interrupted her thoughts. “I love you. Don’t forget. It’s time.”
The aromas of The Coffee Bar, the ambient colors and illumination, the voices began to swirl into eddies, overwhelming her senses. Red patterns and black spots spattered her vision. “I’m going to faint …” she sputtered.
There was a moment of soundless, lightless, breathless nothingness. Broken by the incessant and insistent roaring of a purr in her ears. She gasped for air as if just being born, and sat upright so fast in her bed that her cat, who had been trying to awaken her, lept to the ground, meowing.
“It was a dream, thank God, thank God,” Dahlia said loudly, feeling enormous relief. She waited a moment before flinging off the sheet and coverlet. Finally, she swung her feet to the carpet, and glanced at the clock. It clearly read, five-forty-five a.m. Lavender dawn light was glowing through the bedroom windows. She could hear the twittering and songs of the earliest birds outside. Dahlia finally stood, and began to get ready for another day of work at the bank.
That late afternoon, while fixing dinner, tuned to the local news on television, she thought about John Fisher. She thought about her dream. She was in her apartment kitchen, slicing little red potatoes, watching her cat play, listening to the television newscaster intone the latest events, when she thought — he’s right, I’m stuck. Frozen in place, hers was a life lived without self-examination. Since she was a child she had entombed her emotions, walking the world without pleasure or pain, wandering her particular maze; her personal hell.
She paused — what did that reporter on the television say? She listened to the sounds coming form her living room. “… a police spokesman has confirmed that local entrepreneur John Fisher was shot and killed early this morning, during a robbery attempt at his local coffee shop. Two suspects are in custody….”
Dahlia didn’t move. She reflexively darted her eyes at the clock — it was five p.m. She felt a sharp and intense stab in her soul. Like a hot iron jabbed into ice. She resumed preparing her meal. The potato slices fell like leaves layering around the pork in the French White ceramic roaster. So, now he’s dead, she said to herself. It was his dream, not mine.
All the while her dinner cooked, Dahlia tried to think of trivial things. She set a place for one at her dining table. After a time she carried her food and a glass of wine in to the dining room, positioned everything perfectly, and sat down. The television was screaming at her to buy something. She sat motionless for a few minutes, staring at her plate. And then she started to cry.