I awoke this morning gasping for air.

Lately, I’ve been having eviscerating dreams. I wouldn’t call them nightmares so much as gut-punches: hard-hitting and breathtaking in the worst possible way. Clearly, someone (or something) had been trying to get my attention – but the message was beyond me.

After several sleep-disrupted weeks, I finally had enough. With only myself to hear, I cried out desperately for assistance. As my head fell back to the pillow, somehow, it found me.

I felt an electric hum as a faint glow of neon washed over my eyelids. When I opened them, I found myself staring out of a diner window toward a foggy, empty beach. I sensed warmth on my hands, and realized I was nursing a cup of coffee. Uncertain if it was real, I lifted it up to my face and attempted to inhale the steam. Curiously, I could not breathe.

I looked across my booth to see a subtly-shaking, scrunchy old man. A simple joy radiated from his sagging cheeks, which sunk into patchy wisps of white hair. Laugh lines on his face and suspenders across his torso suggested he was in his mid-seventies. Strangely, he seemed more real than me – as if I were merely a ghost in his mind, of some life long before lived.

Before I could ask his name, he spoke up: “You really ought to try the pie. Key lime! Yellow, of course, never green – they do it right here, simple and special.”

As he grinned, my eye caught a gap in his front teeth that curiously mirrored my own. In fact, his whole expression seemed to mirror my own. He noticed me staring and began to chuckle: “I guess I remembered that we needed some help today… well, your today.”

Of course this man had heard my morning cry for help: this man was me.

I was in the future – er, his present? – and it was happening right now. My jaw dropped briefly before lifting back into an astounded smile. Who better to coax me through a rough phase of life than myself, still standing decades later? Who better to answer my many questions, or my prayers?

My curiosity surged as I shuffled through everything I needed to ask. But when I finally attempted to speak, the old man sighed. It took me a moment to realize that since I had no breath, I couldn’t speak. It took a few more to realize I probably shouldn’t: I was not the one with wisdom here, after all.

Without much choice, I resolved to simply listen.

“Diners are quite retro now, you know? Though I suppose they always have been… bit of a paradox there, huh? Sure, there are better places to eat out here, but you really can’t beat this pie. It’s simple, it’s satisfying – it’s enough to keep me happy.”

I nodded along at his pleasantries, awaiting something more substantial. Soon I would have the remedy to my problems, a path to the future!

He knew that was what I needed, but didn’t seem to care.

“I know you’d love to hear what happens next, but honestly? I don’t remember much of anything these days. I probably wasn’t paying enough attention…” he adjusted his glasses, staring down at his own cup of coffee. “Sometimes – most of the time, really – you just need to focus on what’s right in front you. Like, what do you have NOW, you know?” My head tilted, anticipating an epiphany…

“PIE, of course! Heh. So, why not order some pie? Not tomorrow, not in the past, but PIE RIGHT NOW!”

He seemed so proud of his irritating folk wisdom. I didn’t even know when now was, and I had no control over it at all (how perfectly indicative of my life in general). Then, remembering the present – well, my present – I began to drift and fidget. His tone soured in response.

“Sure, I’m just a rambling old man. Magical, maybe but still old. Today could be the last day of my life, you know… if it were, it wouldn’t surprise me. I’d be here rambling. Right here, rambling and eating my pie.”

As the corner of his lip winced – a tell I had often seen in the mirror – I had a chilling intuition. This was the last day of his life. Somehow he knew it, and he was choosing to spend it with me. I grew emotional, not quite realizing that I was mourning myself. He didn’t appreciate that at all.

“I’d be flattered if those tears were for me. But yes, my life is over. And you’re more upset about it than I am — imagine that! Imagine being you, in your thirties, moping over a death half a lifetime away.” It was a fair point. There was no need to worry about the future when my present held enough problems. My countenance fell as I remembered them.

Recognizing his own youthful fear, he laughed: “You’re afraid of the future, you’re afraid of the present… you should be grateful that I’m not afraid of the past! Otherwise, I would’ve chosen to forget you, ha! Maybe I should have. Maybe that would’ve been better, for both of us.” Ouch.

I had almost forgotten how cruel I can be, especially to myself. Still, if this man remembered my problems – my trauma, my tragedy – surely he would empathize! Surely he would take pity and save me. Then again, maybe he couldn’t: he was only human, and quite old at that. Maybe that’s why we were both so irritated.

Maybe this was just a dream like any other, and it didn’t matter at all.

Resigned, I resolved to wake up – until I saw our waitress approach. She was the perfect archetype of a diner maiden, an essence needing no further description (even in the future, some things never change). I couldn’t help but smile at her, wishing to stay a little longer.

Unfortunately, this only irritated the old man further. “He’ll have the key lime, thanks” he blurted, as he waved her away. I glared at him, tight-lipped; he glared back.

“You like her. She’s a waitress, of course… you like her because of that, because of that boundary. She makes you feel comfortable and safe, heard and serviced. You know exactly what to expect from her, and she has no expectation of you at all. How convenient!” I would’ve been more defensive, if his words weren’t so truthful. Have I always been like this?

“Questionable taste aside, there’s at least something to the idea of strong boundaries. They really do matter…” he tapped his fingers on the table before resuming. “Of course, you don’t have any of those right now, do you? Boundaries?”

I hung my head and collapsed my shoulders, my body language affirming his truth.

“That’s a shame, truly, because we all need boundaries – and not just in love.” He looked at me, gravely. “In life, no walls matter more than those between the past and the future. They create the present, you know. Yet here you are, way off in the future. You hear me?”

I did – maybe? At least, I was listening.

“Me? I’m going to die today, but I’m still here. Living for the moment, ready to enjoy this pie.” He looked to the table, realizing he had already finished it. “That’s, uh… that’s why you keep a boundary between the future and the present, you see… so you can have the moment, and the pie… boundaries and such, you know.” He adjusted his glasses again.

“Of course, it may be tempting to plan for the future sometimes.” Tempting? Try necessary  –  how had he even lived this long? “You steal a little from the present to invest in the future, sure… but most of your focus, that’s for the right-here-and-now.”

Of course, be present and live in the moment. I had received that message once before, in a fortune cookie (which did not require a mystic, time-bending visitation). I wanted to resent him for wasting my opportunity on platitudes. But as I observed his shaking hands and stumbling words, I couldn’t help but grow empathetic. I remembered that he was dying, that he was as human and fragile as me. And it showed.

“What’s that? Worried you won’t receive your enlightenment before I kick the bucket?” The buzzing neon grew louder, and my eyes drifted to the sign above us. He saw that as an opportunity. “LOOK, son, look at the sign! Do you see the electricity, do you feel it? THAT is enlightenment. THAT is what brought us here.”

I saw only one word: DINER.

I probably should’ve contemplated that a little more; instead, I looked immediately back to him. His frustration with me (and in another sense, himself) swelled and his fist slammed the table.

“You want to know about my life? Well, too bad – it’s not yours, it’s mine. And in the end, it’s NOTHING. Nothing to either of us, nothing at all. Nothing but a moment…” exasperated, he paused to collect himself. “Look, I wish I had more to tell you, but there’s just nothing else worth knowing. I barely remember anything about your age at all, other than feeling so horrible all the time. Thinking about it just makes me feel horrible now – and it still doesn’t change anything.”

He seemed so distraught, and I couldn’t help but feel I had ruined this moment for him. Ashamed, I looked out the window and grimaced. Why would I ever do that to myself? Why would I let my demands, my feelings, tarnish a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? What would be the point of that…?

In that moment, the fog dissipated and I began to see the beach. I could hear the tide gently scraping the shore as a flock of seagulls soared into the sun. I couldn’t tell before, but it was truly beautiful. I remember thinking, what a peaceful place to live. What a peaceful place to die…

The old man smiled, and sighed.

“You see it now? I always was a little slow, ha! But surely, you see it now – that there is nothing more important than this moment, nothing else worth protecting. Nothing more sacred, and nothing more beautiful…” he looked to his coffee, smirking at his own reflection: “…well, almost nothing.”

I smiled, and he chuckled – each of us remembering one thing we could never lose.

I did feel like I understood (at least a little). Still, he wasn’t convinced: “You know what I’d do, if I were young again? I’d be far more handsome than you. No contest! Because I would love the opportunity I had, even if I didn’t know why. And I would be in love, all the way up in it. And I’d love to show the world that I was grateful for it – especially for the pie.”

The waitress returned and, without a glance, slid a saucer of key lime across the table. It looked divine. Still, I toyed with my fork and looked back to the old man, hungry for my final words.

He reached over gently and touched the top of my hand. In a soft and sagely voice, he asked: “If you’re not going to eat that, do you mind if I take a bite?”

I awoke in the present, hungry and smiling.