I woke up again today. Not one-hundred percent sure I wanted to. Still, I’m here, living the dream.
In this dream, my life is a series of buttons to be pushed. It starts with the alarm. Continues with the microwave, where I heat up my breakfast burrito. There is a button that locks my house with a bzzz and a click. A button that unlocks my car doors. Plays the car radio. Calls the elevator at the office. Every single key on my keyboard is a button (ones that make annoying clickety-clackity sounds—but buttons nonetheless). Buttons on a different microwave. Back to the elevator. Back to the car radio. Back to the lock. Over to the TV remote. I like those buttons best. They’re colorful.
The details of my dream differ. Sometimes traffic is worse. Sometimes it’s Karen’s birthday. The broad strokes of it, the pieces I remember most clearly, never change.
A couple of days ago, I wondered if I could change any part of my dream. Instead of leaving through the front door of my house, I left through the back, stepping into the yard. Apparently, the sun rises in that direction and hangs there for a few hours. It was so bright I had to shield my eyes with my hands. In the corner of my yard a cardinal built a nest on a branch of the tree, arranging twigs into a bowl. Pretty low branch. Hope no cats find it.
The change felt good. Even the air seemed somehow different from the front yard at this time of morning. Warmer. Sweeter. I cut around the side of the house. It was cooler in the shade of the house. Just a little bit, but noticeable. But then I was at my car, pressing the button to unlock the doors. Pressing the buttons to change the radio station.
I slid back into my dream. Buttons and Karen’s birthday and more buttons. By the time I got home I forgot to re-enter through the back door. Feels like I might have missed something. Maybe the cardinal’s nest was finished. Or maybe it was gone, eaten by the cat I had tried to wish away. I should’ve checked, but it was late and I had to be up for work in the morning.
Yesterday, the night having successfully drained my brain of its exhaustion and cynicism for a few hours, I resolved to again try something new. To build on what I had started.
After my shower I stepped into the kitchen, the search for an opportunity to change fresh in my mind. My stomach gurgled with hunger and I instinctively went to the freezer (in as much as pulling food from a freezer can be considered instinct) but stopped short of the breakfast burritos. No part of me wanted to tap those buttons on the microwave.
Instead, I lowered myself to the fridge. There were eggs. I had green onions. Cheese. Everything I needed to make an omelet. It might make me late, my morning routine was calibrated to maximize sleep, which meant variations from the norm would delay my commute to work, but this felt important.
I’m a poor cook, so the omelet was overdone. Still, it was better than another consecutive day of frozen breakfast burrito. Content, I slid the dishes into the dishwasher and washed the frying pan. Like the day before, I left through the back door. The cardinal’s nest was there, but the cardinal was missing. Gone to collect more building materials, perhaps? I imagined the cardinal at some avian Home Depot, and smiled at the absurdity of it.
Again, like being placed on a conveyor belt, the rest of the day became the same dream. Except that I was aware of it. Prepared for it. I varied my routines at work. Instead of microwaving leftovers for lunch, I took a walk to a nearby restaurant and ate there. I tried to look out the window more. Karen noticed. “Are you ok?” she asked.
“You seem distracted.”
I smiled. She had posited an interesting interpretation of my expression. Like she couldn’t recognize change, or happiness. She had to find other words.
“No,” I said. “Just daydreaming a bit.”
She nodded slowly, like she had the sudden realization that she was in conversation with a madman. That’s fine. My dream isn’t for her, anyway.
On the drive home I tried to think of other ways to break my routines. As I neared my street I was overcome with a desire to keep driving. I didn’t want to be home, where I knew I’d make dinner and then fall into a trance in front of the TV, only to break from it the following morning. Time had an urgency to it, now. How much of it had I wasted without a thought in my head? How much of it had I spent waiting listlessly for the next day to arrive so I could move meaninglessly through it?
So I kept going. I drove aimlessly, turning down random residential streets, following their curves into one another like a series of tributaries that may or may not lead me to the ocean. Most houses were quiet, the lights from the televisions in their living rooms like private fireworks. Bursting into bright colors, all empty noise and harmless heat. I’m one of those people. If you had looked in on me just the night before there would be a similar strobe coming from my living room.
There were a few streets with people out. Children playing on front lawns, their parents standing guard nearby. Older people reading on their porches or just sitting, allowing the evening breeze to touch their face. I felt envious of them. More envious than I remember feeling before.
That night, after I had eaten dinner at a small diner nearby, I sat on my porch. The night was cool and the chill wormed its way into my bones. But I stayed. And I was better for it.
This morning felt different. Like there was an urgency to sever the ties to my old routine in favor of a new one. A better one. I woke up before my alarm, showered, and made myself pancakes as a treat. I left through the backdoor—the cardinal was in its nest, sitting quietly, vigilant for threats—and walked around the house to my car. My finger hovered over the “unlock” button and I paused, suddenly aware that this is precisely the spot every morning where I fall into my dream. I’m only ever able to escape it when free from the car.
I turned away and walked. I had a vague idea of how to get to work by foot, but that would take hours. Instead, I found myself at the bus stop. There were others there—an old lady with a little metal grocery bin, some young kids wearing headphones—that stared at me like I was an alien come to observe their ways. I smiled as politely as I could, probably just as reassuring as an alien would be.
I had no idea what to do to get on the bus. Did it still take coins? Everyone seemed to have a card they swiped. Luckily, the bus driver allowed me on without one, taking the buck-fifty in cash but admonishing me to get a card for next time.
No longer forced to focus on the road, my mind wandered. Connections I’d have never made formed easily, problems that I’d struggled with for months suddenly solved with minimal effort. A clarity washed over me. Not of anything specific. Just of my being. I know it sounds crazy that something as simple as taking the bus unlocked this new potential in me, and it is, but I finally felt free of my daily dream and that was enough.
Or was it? Would my dream just start later once I got to the office? When I was sitting at my cubicle, Karen yammering away on her phone in the cube next to me, would that sense of sameness return?
A salvation appeared in the window in front of me. I pulled the chime and the bus stopped at the next designated corner. I had to backtrack a few blocks, but when I arrived I knew this was where I wanted to be.
I called into work, claiming to be sick. No questions were asked, just a half-hearted “feel better” uttered from the other end of the phone. I wasn’t sure what I expected. I’m not an important cog in that machine, as much as I like to pretend I am.
I entered through the gates and took a deep breath. The air was sweet with pollen and grass clippings. A bumble bee buzzed by me. It felt good to be outside, bucking my traditional day, even though I knew it wouldn’t last. It didn’t need to. A single day every once in a while is enough to make the rest of the slog tolerable. At least, I hope that’s true.
Every tombstone in the cemetery has a story to tell. The love between the family buried together. The tragedy of the child that died too soon. One day my story will rest in a place like this, and I wonder what sort of story it will be.
That’s not giving myself enough credit. My story is what I make it. Every day should be a new dream.
For the story behind this vignette, check out this blog post.