A faint noise erupts from my stomach as I adjust my hands on the steering wheel for the fourth time in a minute. I shift my weight and ignore it, skipping to the next song on my playlist. Not a minute later, my soft humming is interrupted by a louder, more fierce grumble from my stomach, forcing my hunger to the surface of my consciousness. With a sigh and an eye roll, I decide to get off at the next stop. I’ll have to remember to tell my wife, Kira, I’ll be late for dinner.
I didn’t particularly mind road trips, but it had been a long week on a difficult project far from home. I was aching to get back and settle down to a glass of wine by the fire with my lover. I thought of her angular face and gentle eyes, that thick, dark hair falling lazily around her neck. A feeling of loneliness creeped up inside me, clinging to my insides. I tried to push it back down by reminding myself that we were about to spend two weeks together on spring holiday. It would be our first spring break as a married couple. I smiled at the thought and my loneliness washed away. Only a few more hours.
Finally I see the big blue sign with some obscure-looking restaurant logo on it. I feel a surge of hunger as the thought of food finally becomes real in my mind. The monotonous hum of tires on pavement fades as my cozy little sedan rolls up the ramp to the stop sign. I hear a gust of harsh late-winter wind hit the car and I’m thankful for the warmth of the leather on my body. Proceeding down the road, I round a turn and the freeway disappears behind a hill of shrubs.
Looking ahead, I see the same landscape I’ve seen for the past few hours: flat and barren with some sparse vegetation and a rocky horizon. I decide to make it a quick meal so I can get out of this ominous landscape and back to the mountains as soon as possible.
As I step out of my car, a rush of wind bites my face between my hat and my scarf. I shudder at the crippling cold. There were no mountains or trees here to protect one from the unforgiving winds of second winter. Tiny flakes dotted a gray sky and tickled my nose and fingers as they melted onto my skin. I looked into the glass panes of the restaurant as I swung the car door shut and locked it. The restaurant seemed dead. Not closed, not empty, but dead. I hesitated, scanning my surroundings. No cars, one gas station, a few shrubs, and an endless mass of gray that threatened to coat the earth in fresh snow.
Having come this far already, I bowed my head in apprehensive determination and walked towards the door with a sign that read “open”. To my surprise, the door swung open with ease as a bell tinkled overhead, announcing my arrival. I froze, my hand still clutching the ice-cold handle. I stared, astonished, into a warmly lit restaurant filled with a handful of customers taking up half the tables in the establishment. The sounds of food frying in a wok and plates clanking plates filled my ears. I glanced over my shoulder to assure that the grey nothingness still existed in its sprawling mass behind me. Confused, I walked into the restaurant and sat at a table under a soft, yellow light, encircled in green decor.
The table and walls were a natural wood, almost soft to the touch. A long rectangular hole served as a window into the kitchen along the wall adjacent to the door from which I’d entered. The room was modest, with booths lining one side and tables filling the open floor. A stream of water flowed endlessly into a small pond opposite the entrance. My eyes followed the stream from the pond up to its invisible source about waist height.
As I surveyed the restaurant, I realized the soft yellow lights emanated inexplicably from regular intervals around the room. I could not make out any sort of bulb behind the light. The wall opposite the kitchen was decorated in art, most of which seemed to display bizarre patterns following three dimensional vectors, making it impossible to tell if it was coming out of the wall or not. I turned back to the seat opposite me, its plain red leather suddenly a comforting sight to my eyes.
As my mind slowly caught up with my new surroundings, I noticed a screen had appeared on the table in front of me, seemingly built into the wood. A picture book menu was displayed on its surface. I swiped through pictures of food, some familiar and some apparently from exotic countries far from here. I found what looked like a simple enough curry dish and put in my order. The screen disappeared back into the wooden surface of the table. My eyes automatically grew wide at the sight, and a feeling of awe at this technology overcame me. I would definitely need to tell Kira about this when I got home. This whole restaurant was quite the trip. Maybe we could come here together sometime on a spontaneous adventure. I pulled out my phone and messaged her to say I was stopping for a late lunch and might be a little late getting home.
My food arrived in an elegant, bean-shaped bowl placed awkwardly on the table by a tall, skinny, vest-clad individual. They were not identifiably male or female, but the side-swept black hair complemented a sharp jaw. As the server turned to go, I thought their eyes looked odd, almost inhuman, but before I could have a look they were gone, disappearing into the kitchen.
Immensely satisfied and perfectly satiated, I leaned back in my chair. Once more I took in my peculiar surroundings, trying to remember the details. The mellow honey glow of the yellow light, the soft feel of the wood, the positively astounding visuals framed on the wall.
I stood up to go, dangling my scarf haphazardly around my neck and stuffing my hat into my jacket pocket, then hanging the jacket over my arm. I suddenly felt stupid for bringing such warm clothes. I opened the door to blinding sunlight that warmed the hair atop my head. I blinked until my eyes adjusted and began walking to my car. The sound of early summer travelers in their luggage-filled cars echoed from the freeway.
I tossed my clothes in the back seat and sat down behind the steering wheel. Excited to get home, I tapped the brake and started the car. Coming back into town, I decided to stop for some flowers for Kim. Hydrangeas, his favorite. Relief enveloped me as I found the local flower shop open, its aisles dotted with customers. Walking through the store, I became so absorbed in finding the flowers that I nearly walked right into a woman. I made an awkward apology then hastily grabbed my flowers and left.
On the way out to my car, my feet slowed and stopped. My face felt suddenly hot. I reached a hand up to my eyes and felt tears begin to stream. Why? It didn’t make sense. I was so happy to finally come home, so excited to be reunited with my family after such a long trip. Why was I crying? Somewhere deep inside me I could feel it. A familiar old feeling of debilitating loneliness, creeping up from the inside, latching on to the edges of my lungs. I turned around. The woman was gone. I got back in my car, dried my eyes, and left.