“Do you ever feel like we don’t really exist?”
Two men sit on a bench in the park at the end of the street, sharing a bottle between them. To their left, a tree blooms full with vibrant pink blossoms. On their right, the leaves of another tree have gone yellow. They fall to the ground in showers whenever the wind comes in a strong gust.
“What?” asks the other man, the one who has, thus far, remained silent.
“I mean, do you ever feel like you’re not really real?” says the first man. He has red hair and eyes the same color as the grey, clouded sky. “Like maybe you’re not actually a person, like, in this world.”
“I don’t think so,” says the other, whose hair and beard are a deep, rich brown the color of freshly turned earth. “I’ve never really thought about it.”
“Sometimes I feel that way,” the first man continues. He didn’t ask the question for an answer. He asked only so that he could talk about the subject himself. “Like I’m not an actual person. If that makes sense.”
The man with the brown hair looks at this friend, pauses, and considers his words. “Maybe. Sometimes when I think about how I should be acting or feeling, I get this sense that I’m one step removed from where I ‘should’ be.”
“Oh?” The man with the red hair doesn’t look at his friend much. His gaze is forward, on the park, which is empty of other people. The day is cool and grey.
“Yeah,” says the man with the brown hair. “When I was in college, one of my best friends from high school died. It had been a while since I saw him, but I still thought of him as my friend, I guess.” He takes a drink from the bottle and passes it off. He smacks his lips at the sweet taste of the honeyed milk. “But I didn’t really feel that sad. I just sort of acknowledged it as something that happened, and moved on.”
“Okay,” says the red-haired man.
“What I’m saying is, that wasn’t the only time I felt like that,” the brown-haired man says. “Like my emotions didn’t quite fit the situation, or like I recovered too quickly from something that should have upset me more. It makes me feel sort of shallow. Two-dimensional.”
“Oh, alright,” says the red-haired man. He is holding the bottle, but he doesn’t drink from it. “I see what you mean. For a moment, I thought you didn’t get what I was saying.”
“I’m still not sure that I do,” says the brown-haired man.
“I think you do,” the red-haired man says. “Sometimes, to me, it feels like the whole world is flat like that. Two-dimensional. Like some things happen only so that people can talk about the fact that they happened for a while, but then everyone just moves on as though they’re unaffected.”
“Like stuff that happens in the news?” asks the brown-haired man. “Or like, stuff at a more personal level?”
“Both,” the red-haired man says. “When’s the last time you watched a disaster on TV and actually felt like you should do something about it? I’m not talking just about hurricanes or whatever. I mean, like, all of politics.”
The brown-haired man leans back. He puts his hands behind his head, stretching his arms. If the rest of him faded away, leaving only his irises floating in the air, they would blend in perfectly with the grass behind him. “I guess sometimes it does feel like the the world is, what, just a backdrop?”
“Yeah,” says the red-haired man. “A backdrop. And sometimes it feels like I am, too.”
“I don’t really feel that way,” says the brown-haired man. “Sometimes I feel like I’m not really completed. Like I haven’t been fully fleshed out, or whatever. Maybe like someone didn’t think me all the way through before putting me here.”
“I don’t know,” the red-haired man says. “I do feel like a backdrop. Or like, maybe and illustration. Like the point isn’t that I’m here, but more like, the things that I’m saying and doing are what matter. Like there isn’t really a ‘me,’ but only the things that I do and say.”
“What are we beyond that anyway?” says the brown-haired man. “Beyond what we do and say, beyond how we interact with the world and other people, are we really anything?”
“Now it’s my turn to ask what you mean,” says the red-haired man.
“What I mean is, do we really matter except for the impact we have on the world? It doesn’t matter how much time we spend thinking about something, or imagining, or whatever else we do within our own heads. If none of that leaks out into the world, then it might as well not exist.”
“I don’t know if I like that,” says the red-haired man.
“I didn’t say I liked the thought,” the brown-haired man replies. “Only that I had it.”
“Fair enough,” the red-haired man says. “But what room does that leave for the concept of self? I mean, I know that I think and feel and believe and imagine, and that sometimes I had that from the world. You’re saying none of that matters, and that I might as well not do any of it, if there’s not another person who witnesses it.”
“The vast majority of what we do will never be witnessed by another person,” the brown-haired man says. “It all comes back to the question you posed, about whether I feel like I exist.”
“Are you saying that you don’t feel like you exist unless there’s someone there to witness you?”
“No,” says the brown-haired man. “I guess I don’t really know what I’m saying. You started the conversation, and I was just trying to find a sensible way to continue it.”
“I don’t know that most people would call our conversation sensible.” The red-haired man laughs, softly, though there is little humor in it.
There is a pause in their conversation, during which leaves and blossoms fall from the trees around them, dancing together through the air. Some of them land upon the bench, where they stay, for the men do not disturb them. The grey sky begins to emit a light mist, so faint that if it were any less, it could be called a fog.
“What if it’s not you that doesn’t exist, but everyone else?” asks the brown-haired man. “What if everyone you meet is just an illusion that’s just there for you to experience?”
“That’s so self-centric,” says the red-haired man. “I don’t think other people are illusions. I think if one of us exists, we all do.”
“But you can’t know for sure,” says the brown-haired man. “You can never know what another person is thinking or feeling, not really, so therefore you can’t know that they’re thinking or feeling at all.”
“That doesn’t necessarily follow,” says the red-haired man. “But I get your point.”
“And if they are thinking and feeling, and those things alter their perceptions, you can never know how another person is perceiving the world,” says the brown-haired man. “That means you can never know how another person is perceiving you. Other people might see an entirely different version of you than you think you’re presenting to the world. And each person sees someone different than the person next to them.”
“At least they all agree that I exist,” says the red-headed man.
“Not necessarily,” says the brown-haired man. “How many times do you interact with someone, say, at a grocery store, who you don’t really see as a person but more as just a vessel that there to carry out their job? Like an extra in a movie or an NPC in a video game.”
“Well, yeah, but they still see me,” the red-headed man says.
“They see a never-ending line of people, very few of whom will stay in their memory longer that a few minutes, or seconds, even.”
“So you’re saying that, if the service people are NPCs to me, and I’m an NPC to them, we’re all NPCs to each other?” the red-haired man says. “Like we’re all the main characters of our own stories, and it’s all in first person, and we never get to see another perspective.”
“Maybe,” the brown-haired man says. “I’m just making this up as I go along, honestly.”
“I can sort of see that, though,” says the red-headed man. “I do feel like a character in a story. Not a very good story, either. Like you said, I feel two-dimensional. Like I haven’t been given much depth outside of a few words.” He regards his friend, who has a different face and hair but has been thinking and speaking so much like him. “We’re so similar, too. Like what’s even the difference between us?”
“How do you mean?”
“I feel like I’m talking to myself,” the red-headed man says. “We have the same style of speech and thought. We think in the same sort of patterns, and we barely disagree. It’s like someone who’s talking to themself.”
“I can see that, sure, but we do spend a lot of time together.”
“Our whole lives, really.”
A pause. “Do you remember what we were doing before this?”
“Neither do I.”
“Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe we were right, and we are just a backdrop for our conversation.”
“You think the whole point of our existence is this conversation?”
“Yeah. Or, our non-existence, right? Since it feels like we don’t really exist.”
“It does. It really does.”