My friend Anita once asked me what I thought of the afterlife. This was my answer.
In the Summerland Café, the coffee is never too hot or too cold, but always retains exactly the right degree of warmth. You can smoke or not, just as you wish. If you choose to smoke, no one will ask you why you are doing such an idiotic thing. If you choose not to smoke, the second-hand fumes from your tablemates, or from across the aisle, will not bother you in the least.
The Summerland Café is never out of the type of pastry you want, and no stranger there will ever ask you what you need with that brownie. The chairs always fit your seat, and there is always room for just one more at your table.
In the Summerland Café, the people with whom you have no desire to speak will never sit down with you. In fact, they will not even see you. But the conversations with those you do desire to see will always be deep and stimulating, and you will never lose your train of thought just as you hit on something important.
At least, that’s how it is for them, at this time.
For others, and at other times, it is other things. At any given time, it could be a vast, blue-lit meditation hall where rows of monks sit on thin cushions, silently contemplating the essence of Vajra. Or it could be an ancient forest where the moss-hung trees are bigger around than a person can reach. Or a beautiful chrome and glass city whose streets are laid out with such precision that no one ever gets lost. Or a sunlit meadow. Or a blackness void of any sensation or memory. Or a trackless field of stars.
Today they are drinking double lattés flavoured with hazelnut, topped with cocochino and nutmeg. There is precisely the right amount of foam at the top of each drink, and the glasses are not too hot to lift comfortably without first wrapping a napkin around. He is leafing through a New Yorker magazine, looking at the comics, which are all by Charles Addams and all new. She is leaning back in her chair, gazing out the window that always shows something interesting. Right now it is showing Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
That’s what it’s showing her, anyway.
They definitely are “He” and “She.” Not everyone is. Some are neither. Some are both. Some cannot be described in terms that have the least thing to do with gender; it is not in their reality. But they, at this point, are definitely “He” and “She.”
He turns a page, chuckles, and takes a drink. His glass remains full. He puts it down and turns another page. Momentarily, he becomes a waterfall. He says something; the sound is a cool mist with a boat moving carefully through it.
Outside the window, a pig rides by on a bicycle, followed by a clown with a balloon. The balloon is a head that sings.
“I said,” he repeats, “What about the…”
“I heard you the first time,” she replies. “Hush, I want to see this.”
Outside the window, Time is beginning.
“Don’t you want to see this?”
He glances up, shrugs.
“I’ve seen it before.”
“Oh. I suppose I have, too. Still…”
“I’m hungry,” she adds, when Time is well on Its way. Her hair becomes fireflies, which, in turn, become the wind, a small village in Mexico, and the Southern Cross before settling on her head again.
“Biscotti?” he offers, shoving a plate across the table towards her. A minute ago, the plate was his copy of the New Yorker.
“Oooh, chocolate almond. Thanks.” She swirls one in her coffee and licks the foam off before taking a bite.
“I remember this woman who made outrageous biscotti. She gave me a whole bag of them one Christmas, all to myself. Double chocolate and everything.”
“I didn’t like them much,” he says. “Of course, I was a cat.”
“I’ve done that. Several times. More than anything else, really.”
“I always think about it. But when I do it, it never quite satisfies.”
“Poor dear.” She pats his hand. It is long and thin-fingered. It does not turn into anything. “You’re too restless for cats, I think. Me, I love it. The attention, the softness. The tail. The tail is a big part of it. Once I was an alley cat, though. That wasn’t so hot. Scrounging in garbage cans, always cold and scared. Not getting petted… I can’t think why I did that.”
“You’re a sybarite,” he says.
“Yeah.” She decides to smoke and her last biscotti turns into an ashtray. “Or maybe. It’s good, sometimes, not to worry about stuff. When I’m a person it’s not so easy.” She pauses, her attention on the door. “Look, there he is. I hope he doesn’t come over here.”
A small box covered in greyish flesh trundles by. Its corners are rounded. It hums tunelessly to itself.
He corrects her. “It. Not ‘he,’ but ‘it.’ And it’s going away.”
She snorts. “Whatever. Yuck. I can’t stand it.” She exhales smoke. “Do you think that’s petty?”
He smiles. “No. Why?”
“Well, sometimes I think we should be above all that. We’re all equal and everything’s fine and dandy, you know?” The smoke turns into violets, which fall with little “plops!” onto the table. “No right, no wrong, no likes or dislikes. No judgment. But I remember how he…uh…it was that time and I feel all creepy, like when I was slugs. Worse. I guess I shouldn’t hold it against it but….it has delusions of gender, you know.”
“You may have mentioned it, yes.” He plays with his drink. It has become a large mug of tea. The tag on the teabag, which is still hanging over the side of the mug, says “Twinings. By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, Est. 1706.” “I wouldn’t worry. Those are questions for a different afterlife. Buddhist, maybe.”
“Yeah, I know.” Another pause. “Do you think they like it there?”
“I mean, I feel so sorry for them sometimes. They’ve got someone telling them where they can go and where they can’t and who they can or can’t be when they get there…” She shudders. “Even whether they get to go back at all. And if they can’t, all they’re allowed to do is sit around and be everything at once.”
He shrugs again. “It’s what they want, I guess.”
“But you know who I really feel sorry for? The ones who only get one crack at it. I met this guy, once. He was so sure that one appearance was the whole shot. I mean, be real! Like you’d call a play that ran one night and closed the next a smash hit!”
“Or a one night stand a relationship.”
“Yeah, right. So, anyway, he spent the whole time so worried about where he was going to end up afterward that he couldn’t do a thing. Is that any way to spend a life?”
“I suppose it depends what you’re looking for.”
“I saw him later. He was doing the adoration on the steps of the throne number, so I guess it worked out okay for him.”
“I did that for a while, once.”
“Oh, yeah?” She stubs out her cigarette. It is an idea about the meaning of life that flashes through the mind of a poet and is lost immediately. The ashtray is a lemon. “What was it like?”
“It had its moments, you know? But I’m not really cut out for that sort of thing. So I moved on.”
“That’s the way of it, though. You like what you’re doing, you stick with it. You don’t, you do something else for a while.”
“I still wonder about it.”
“Well, that’s you, isn’t it.”
“Yeah.” She looks out the window. A Valkyrie rides by with Stevie Ray Vaughn strapped to her saddle. He’s carrying a mallard duck on a leash. “Would you look at that! I thought they broke up.”
He stands up. For a minute, he’s a rainbow. The rainbow becomes a bear, which becomes the tune Marilyn Monroe played on the ukulele in “Some Like It Hot.”
“Where are you going?” she asks.
The ukulele tune becomes a dark young man in a leather motorcycle jacket.
“Nature calls,” he says. “You?”
She shakes her head. “No, I think I’ll sit for a while, yet.”
He nods, turns, and heads for a door at the back of the cafe’. She hums a T.V. advertising jingle about a chain of grocery stores and stares out the window. It’s showing a pile of rocks being carried off by an old woman in a veil, one at a time.
He returns and resumes his seat.
“Well, that was quick,” she says. “How was it?”
“I died.” He shakes his head.
“Oh, the usual way.” He reaches for his tea. It is still hot, of course. “Well, I’ve had worse times.”
There is a long pause, during which her hands are peppermint-flavoured birds.
“I missed you,” he says, finally. “I kept hoping you’d show up, but you never did.”
She smiles. “Next time we’ll go together, if you want.”
“Yes, I’d like that.”
The birds fly off. After a brief interim as god-like manifestations of enlightenment, her hands return.
“Hey, are you tired of this place?” she asks suddenly. “I’m tired of this place. Let’s be somewhere else.”
“Okay,” he agrees. “Where would you like to be?”
“The beach?” she suggests. And there they are.
On the Summerland Beach, it is always late afternoon, just before dinnertime. The waves are always the right temperature for swimming, and the sand is never too hot to walk upon barefoot. There are not too many rocks on the bottom, and there are no dead fish rotting along the shoreline. You can be naked, if you want to, or you can wear a bathing suit, if you prefer. If you are naked, no one will stare or make lewd comments at you. If you’re clothed, no one will patronize you or ask you what you find so threatening about skin.
On the Summerland beach, there is no litter or garbage, at least, not unless you happen to need a bottle cap, or a sparkly bit of broken glass to decorate your sand castle, or a discarded can to carry water in.
At the Summerland beach you can stay out in the sun as long as you want without having to bother with smelly creams and oils, and the sand never gets stuck in parts of your body you’d rather it didn’t.
At least, that’s how it is for them, at this time.