Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Age of Guilt

She forced herself to wake up and she would force herself to do whatever she had to do for the remainder of the day.
She would dress the kids in a hurry, make them breakfast, take them to school, go to work where - to put it briefly - she'd suffer for ten long hours, come back home late in the afternoon and cook lunch for the next day, since her husband didn't want to eat the same food two days in a row, clean the house, help the kids with their homework, scold them - even though that made her feel terrible - because they'd have made mistakes and they should do well in school, call her mother and endure her ramblings about her blood sugar levels and her latest medical test results, but mainly about the latest vacation she'd go on with her friends (even though she needed her to wash the dishes or read a story to her little devils). Then she'd listen to her husband whine about his boss, and at night she'd shut her eyes in exhaustion for a short break from this incessant madness, only to have him wake her up with his horrible snoring. She'd poke him, he'd mumble an apology and change sides, only to start snoring even louder five minutes later, pulling her from the threshold of a beautiful dream, in which she'd find herself all alone in an endless sea.
Of course she doesn't have the time to acknowledge all of the aforementioned tasks as she performs them mechanically, like an automaton that society, family and most of all her own self keep feeding with coins. For years and years this automaton was working fine, but now with the recession people had less and less coins to feed it with and she felt like a robot which was creaking irritatingly, with its gears spinning out of control.
She did everything a working mother does each morning under stress and frustration and then took her kids to school so that they'd have an education, even though she wasn't at all certain whether this would secure them a job, money and most of all the peace of mind that people need in order to live a decent life. The sky was blue that morning, but the voice on the radio made everything look black. The people in the streets had blackness in their souls and so the sky seemed black as well when she looked at it, even though it was blue. She drove by a crazy old lady who was shifting through the trash. The old woman found a half eaten breadstick and sat on the pavement to eat it with a smile on her face. It was a cruel scene and one that she couldn't bear to watch, and - as people usually do when they can't bear to watch something that cruel - she turned her head and turned up the radio, where they were discussing the new tax law and so that's where she focused her attention on, getting all stressed out again because she didn't know if the new financial situation would allow her to even go on vacation, to lay her tired body on the beach and not have to think about anything for a few minutes every day.
As she was contemplating the beach and the taxes, she felt a weird bump. She turned and looked behind her and saw a young man making vulgar gestures at her and calling her names because she probably hit his elbow with her side view mirror. She felt a pang of guilt, but didn't stop because, first of all, his vulgarity made her angry and, second, she was afraid he could turn violent. So she simply stepped on the gas pedal and finally reached her workplace.
A huge, black cloud had settled over her company's building since the beginning of summer, when the first whispers about lay-offs started spreading around, along with the first salary cuts and the news that the entire company was facing bankruptcy due to significant losses. Everyone was angry about this situation for which no one was prepared. Half her colleagues had families, mortgages on houses which they had once so joyously furnished, kids studying abroad or in another town - to whom they couldn't even dare suggest that they get a job, especially in these times where there weren't any - and a desperate need for vacation on some beautiful island with picturesque alleyways, gift shops and colorful drinks on the beach. The other half of her colleagues, the younger half, that once dreamed of getting married on some beautiful estate, wearing a stunning wedding dress during a romantic sunset and having children, which they would probably see rarely, and when they did see them, they'd feel like killing them - though she didn't tell them that, so that they wouldn't be discouraged out of the sacred task of the perpetuation of the species -  were now discouraged anyway and said that they'd grow old with their parents and that at least they'd have someone to clean their room since they wouldn't have the energy to do it themselves, having come back from work so exhausted that they couldn't even drag their feet around the block. All of her colleagues, as well as herself, were mad at their employer and at the government. Their employer was mad at them because he had to pay all that money for their social insurance, and also mad at the government. They would fight frequently about a lost pencil or when someone forgot to send an e-mail, and the only thing that was keeping them together was their collective wish that their competitors would go out of business and that their own company's turnover would increase, even if that meant that people just like them would be left unemployed. Everybody was angry when the competitors did well and this anger lingered in the corridors, in the offices, it came and went through the windows, it followed them home and sometimes all this blackness over the company would be interrupted by volcanic eruptions.
It was another bad day for her and the other employees, as were all days during these last months. Finally, she clocked out of this hateful place in which she was actually spending all of her life, and which didn't reward her adequately, but she needed it all the more because she wouldn't be able to find another job if it went out of business or if they fired her, and unfortunately the private school her kids were attending didn't agree to lower the tuition fees, even though the Parents' Association kindly asked them to.
She went into her car and turned on the radio, but this notion that was stuck in her mind since noon was now growing and growing and starting to flood her brain. What if that young man sued her for a hit and run? What if she'd broken his arm? Even worse, what if he had a child with him and she ran over it unknowingly? What if she was a murderer without even realizing it? What if she went to prison and never saw her children again? She shared those fears of her with a friend, who told her that she was probably just too stressed lately and that she should go to a therapist if she ever got to make more money again, and with her mother, who told her that the pedestrian could have broken his arm and that she should have stopped and taken him to the hospital. Her mother had the bad habit of panicking over everything. She realized that she was being irrational, that her mind was playing tricks on her, that she'd just bumped the guy's arm with her side view mirror and he just got mad. But then why all this guilt, this huge burden, suffocating her like a tombstone over a living body. Why all this horror, pulling her mind towards disaster and making her imagine herself all alone in a prison cell, hopelessly counting the rest of her days?
Suddenly she realized that she was passing through the spot where it all happened. She pulled over and got out of the car, not actually realizing what she was doing. She spotted the dumpster and started looking at the ground for any signs of blood from the crime she hadn't actually committed. She looked furiously, she wanted to rub the pavement with her hands, to scrape it and then scrape her own hands clean of this imaginary blood and the fear that she'd never see again her children, her husband, her mother, to tear it apart and throw it away so that she'd be able to breathe again like a living human being, not like a human being with a tombstone over her body.
Then she was startled by a voice coming from behind. The old lady who had found the half-eaten breadstick that morning had found some more food.
"I guess I'm in luck today!", she said.
She looked at her in shock and started moving away.
"And what a beautiful, blue sky we're having", finished the old lady and started devouring the leftovers that she'd found.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Halcyon Days


          The last couple of years have been hard on me and it was the first time that I had gone through something like that. Up until my forties my life had been good, without many ups and downs. I grew up in a wealthy family, without any tensions between its members. I was a good student and quite popular at school. I went through college easily and I was quite skilled at business, so I opened a company that was doing well. It took a lot of work, but it was a labor of love. I lived in a condo in a wonderful building on the beach and I had a good and beautiful wife. I thought that we had a successful marriage up until the day when she announced that she felt unhappy living with me for years now. There's no reason to describe that conversation in detail. Besides, I was so shocked that I only remember it vaguely. However, I will never forget the look in her eyes when she told me that I never gave her anything.
          A few months later the recession hit my own company as well, so I was forced to work from home and be deprived of some of the small luxuries that I had grown accustomed to. My lifestyle changed dramatically and it was the first time in my life that I felt so alone.
          At first I only felt anger. I yelled at bank officials and customers over the phone, I was angry at the politicians, the journalists and all those who pull the strings of the stock market. I broke a couple of plates and kicked the stove three times while I was trying to learn how to cook for myself. My wife never asked for alimony, nor did she claim any of the property that we'd acquired after we got married and for everything she needed I was asked to contact her through her lawyer. For me, it was as if she were dead and when I learned from a common friend of ours that she was living with another man I felt my heart freezing and my whole body freezing and I quickly changed the subject.
          Everything was already going to hell, when on top of it all I started having health problems as well. My heart would beat fast, I felt dizzy, I couldn't sleep and I felt an unbearable tiredness which made me crawl around the house in my dirty pajamas like a sick old man, hardly being able to get any work done. That was strange because I always looked after myself. I never smoked, not even once, and I exercised regularly. I got tested for everything and visited three doctors. The last one told me that I showed symptoms of depression and that instead of having my blood tested over and over again, I should visit a psychiatrist. I told him that he needed a psychiatrist himself, I grabbed my tests and left, slamming the door behind me in anger. I didn't visit any other doctors after that and I let myself slip inside a black winter. All I did was work and I didn't see any friends or relatives. I even avoided calling my parents on the phone and so my sister was left visiting them on her own for dinner every Sunday, as we used to do. During the night, I thought that I would die alone and desperate and that my body would rot and smell and when they discovered it after several days it would be repulsive. I must admit, I had never imagined myself dying this way before. And then I would plead with God, not to help me, not to save me, not to redeem me, but only to turn all this pain that I felt into tears so that I could get some of it out of me.
          Truth is, up until then I never believed that praying made any sense at all. I think that I didn't even believe in God, even though I'd go to church on every important holiday and I would actually carry the Epitaph on my shoulders every Easter, just like my father did when I was a boy, feeling so proud of myself. However, I learned from a young age that life is unfair and that maybe there is no God, when a seven year old boy I went to school with died of a brain tumor. I came across such injustice many times again, in documentaries about hunger in Africa, whenever I would throw some change in beggars' cups in the street or whenever I heard about children that had lost their parents or people that had their limbs amputated. Up until I lost my marriage and my professional success that so many envied, I hadn't really lost anything myself. I have never really sympathized with anybody and I had never wondered if I deserved all these things that I had.
          Thinking about what I had done wrong was torment. Why wasn't she happy with me? At first I felt more hurt because I had failed, rather than because I hadn't given to the woman I loved everything she needed. Lately I started reflecting on our life together and on how I treated her. I worked long hours. At home I was always nervous about work or preoccupied with my own success. At night she would read her books and she'd often talk to me about them and I would shake my head without really listening to what she was saying, while thinking about my investments. On Sundays she always begged me to go for a walk by the sea, but we always ended up going to my parents' house, who didn't like her. I would often criticise her body or the way she dressed, especially when we visited rich business partners or clients to whom I wanted to show her off.
          A couple of days ago, on a sunny Sunday morning in January, I felt ridden with guilt, wondering why I was always asking her to lose weight, even though I thought she was beautiful. Then I remembered that when I was young my father had told me that a successful man needs a beautiful woman by his side that doesn't talk much. I was drinking coffee in the kitchen when something weird happened. I lifted my head and looked at the sea. My gaze wandered around its sparkling surface and I felt as if I had seen it for the first time just then. And maybe that was indeed true, because when I was married I was practically never at home and since the divorce there was no beauty on earth that could touch my soul. I remembered my wife telling me how happy she felt in this house because she could gaze at the sea and me responding that day-dreaming is a waste of time. That's what my father used to tell me when sometimes, as I was studying, I would lift my head and stare at a tall, beautiful tree just right out of the window. Maybe my father wasn't right about everything after all, I thought, and gazed some more at the sea, like an enchanted man, waking up after a dark spell. A while later I got up, I got dressed and I went out to buy the newspaper. The day was so beautiful that I felt like basking in the sun. Holding the newspaper, I left my steps guide me to the marina. All around me, people were enjoying their Sunday walk, gazing at the boats. Some were in couples, others in groups of friends, some on their own, others carrying strollers with babies in them, kids running around them without a care in the world and dogs, wagging their tails happily.
          As I was walking among other people who were enjoying their Sunday walk on the marina, my mind was wandering through memories, thoughts and realizations about my life. I had done my share of mistakes in my marriage, but in marriage there are no aggressors or victims and my wife was also responsible for all the miserable years that she spent beside me. How beautifully do children smile, as if there is nothing but the present. I lived my life exactly as my father instructed me to and the other day I read in a book that there is nothing sadder than doing whatever our parents say without asking ourselves whether we really want to. What did I really want out of everything that I had lived and what had I lived out of everything I ever really wanted? In the end working at home is not that bad if you live by the sea. I'll go for a walk every day. I'm certain now that there is a God, if a seagull can spread its wings and fly. All these years, I didn't know how to love. That girl's hair are so beautiful. I want to love again. But until then, I'll learn how to enjoy life even on my own.
          "Ah, halcyon days!", said a middle aged lady to her granddaughter. "Sunny days in the heart of winter". The girl looked up in the sky and tugged on her balloon. Yes, the winter wasn't over yet and I didn't know how many winters I had yet to live. This sunny day, however -  I had earned it.

The Next Corner

He spent most of his childhood with his grandparents. When he mentioned this while talking with people that didn't know him all that well, he could see the pity in their eyes since the first thing that they assumed was that he was orphaned at an early age. Most of the time he would use the same words to explain.
"No, no... I haven't lost my parents. My father was in the Army and he got transferred all the time. My mother was, and still is, a painter. They thought it best that I lived with my grandparents so that I would grow up in a constant environment. My father's father was also in the army, so my father often recalled how horrible it was, having to switch towns, houses, schools, friends every couple of years. They did come to visit the occasional weekend and I would spend the holidays at whichever house they lived in at the time."
The people he was talking with would then seem relieved because surely they would be at a loss for words had he told them that his parents had been killed in a horrible accident when he was still a baby; so they'd usually comment on the hardships of life in the Army and sometimes they'd ask him about his painter mom. In each such conversation he usually felt a numbness or a void of some kind, spreading throughout his entire body.
The same subject happens to be brought up as he speaks with the manager of the nursing home. The manager seems excited. She is a chubby woman, wearing glasses with a thick, black frame over her playful eyes.
"Well, that explains your devotion, dear! I've never met anyone else who comes to visit their grandparent once a week. Not even their own children come to visit. They're all so preoccupied with their jobs, their families, their lives. I don't blame them. It's such a shame though. Your grandfather doesn't remember you, but...", she starts coughing. She drinks a gulp of water from a glass that's on her desk and goes on... "What was I saying? Oh yes, senility. It's a pity. I wish he could remember you. Though the nurse who takes care of him says that he mentions your name. Will you be paying by check?"
She sees him taking out his checkbook and looking at his watch, so she realizes that he probably doesn't want to talk anymore. She starts talking about the weather, since she obviously can't breathe without talking, and asks her secretary to write up the receipt. He gives her a typical handshake because he doesn't want to get friendly with her and she says cheerfully, "Give my regards to your sweet wife". The void in his stomach turns into a sharp pain. He turns and leaves hurryingly, almost stumbling on his way out.
He always felt emotionally charged when he left the nursing home. His father would tell him that these visits were pointless, that the old man didn't recognize him anymore and that it's a waste of time and gasoline. He, however, sees it as an obligation that he can't disregard. When his grandmother died, ten years ago, seeing his grandfather turn into an old man terrifyingly fast, made him vow that he would not let him die alone. Lately, though, since his wife took their three year old daughter and left him, his feelings have changed, somewhat. He doesn't feel the love and affection that he used to feel for that weak, toothless creature that once seemed so strong, so wise and mighty in his eyes. He doesn't feel sad that his memories have all been erased or twisted, that his life ended up being three meals a day and a bunch of pills, he isn't even afraid of dying or growing old, not even slightly nervous about how his own last years will be and if his grandson will be asking him how he is without getting an answer. He feels a kind of grief, maybe even anger.
Yes, he is generally angry at everyone and everything. He's angry at his father who never understood how insecure he feels about his job, since he never had to worry about getting fired from the Army. He's angry at his mother because she only talks to him about art galleries and theater shows, at his manager who always expects too much, at his colleagues who don't work as hard as he does, at the clients who are late on their payments, at the bank which each month holds one third of his paycheck for the loan that he took out to buy his house, at the neighborhood grocer's because they stopped bringing his favorite brand of cigarettes, at the T.V. because it never shows the movies that he likes and the list goes on. Of course, he is angry at everyone because most of all he is angry at his wife who suddenly told him one evening that she couldn't stand him any longer and at that same night moved to her irritating mother's house, taking his daughter away from him. How could she do that to him, and why? Most importantly, how did it come to this, when he loves her so much? These are the questions he struggles with when he comes home tired from work every night, cooking each of the three meals that he knows how to cook in turn. And a bit later, when he sits in his living room, smoking at least ten cigarettes while drinking a glass of red wine. And even later, as he switches on the lights in the nursery and says goodnight to the empty bed. And then, when he lies down without feeling her by his side, and his house becomes so empty, so huge, so dark, ready to devour and swallow him.
However, why is he angry at his grandfather? He had never been angry at him before. He was his favorite person in the world. It was only with him that he felt safe as a child and he had been a good father to him. Truth be told, he never was very affectionate, but is any man ever? He had his quirks, but who doesn't? His neighbors used to call him "Mr. Grumpy", but they all respected him and thought him a good man. He never hurt anyone, though he didn't help anyone either. His grandfather was afraid of people and he was probably afraid of life as well. "The world is a dangerous place", he would often say to him. "Don't trust anyone completely and don't take any risks". He said these things because he had lived a hard life, that's what his grandma had told him. When he was young he was curious to learn more about his grandfather's life and why it had been hard. However, he was also afraid to ask. He needed him to be strong. Without his grandfather, the world seemed like such a scary place and he felt lost, just like he did when he would visit his parent's tiny apartments in rural towns for Christmas. So, he preferred to live in grandpa's dangerous world, as long as he was there to protect him.
These were his thoughts as he was driving back home from the nursing home. The streets were empty, but, as always, he drove slowly. He never listened to music while driving, fearing it would distract him. And he never rolled down the window because the air would bother him. There was something else that his grandfather used to say. "Don't feel happy in a hurry, you never know what's waiting for you after the next corner." He used to say this very often, but he was right. He will never forget the first time that his parents came back home after his father's first transfer. He was three years old and this was probably his first memory. He was so happy that he hugged and kissed his mother, pulling her to his side to play and draw. He thought that they would never leave again and he felt happy after worrying and wondering where they had disappeared to for a month. They did leave, though. He also felt happy the second time that they came back, maybe even the third. Then he stopped feeling happy and several years later they explained to him that they didn't know when their father would be permanently stationed to their home town so that they could live all together as a family. But he was used to it by now. He didn't want to live with his parents. Neither did he want to feel happy again, because there is no greater sorrow than the one that comes after joy, nor greater pain than the one that comes after joy, nor greater agony than the one that comes after joy.
"You're simply incapable of feeling happy", his wife had told him that evening before she left. "A good pay and a loyal husband is not enough to make a woman happy. I want us to live happy moments, to enjoy life. To listen to music in the car, to travel. You want to go to the same beach and eat at the same restaurant, always. There's something inside you that won't let you live. And you're unbearably suspicious. You think that everyone who calls for a phone research is a fraud. You think that all my colleagues want to sleep with me and that all our friends make fun of you behind your back and don't respect you. You didn't enjoy our marriage, my pregnancy, not even the birth of our daughter."
"But, you know that I love you more than my own life", he'd replied, taken aback by this sudden assault.
"I know. I love you too, but maybe that's just not enough." 
"Why?"
"Because I'm afraid that you're harming her. Now that she's learning all about the world and life you're teaching her how to fear. You're constantly on top of her. If she strays a bit, you panic. If her tummy aches just a little you want to take her to the hospital, and I hate that you've been telling her to not trust anyone lately."
"The world is a very dangerous place", he said with a low, weak voice.
"Really? Says who?"
He didn't answer that question. A little bit later, his wife pulled a suitcase out of the closet and filled it with clothes. She told him that she needed time to think, she took their daughter and they left, leaving him numb, humbled and confused.
At first he was only angry at her, but also terrified at the idea of having his family broken apart. And he remained angry and terrified. However, during the last couple of days, he couldn't stop wondering whether there was some truth in her words. If their daughter was out of the picture, his selfishness would never let him admit that she was right. The thought that he was somehow harming his child was crushing him, while at the same time pushing him inexplicably to change. It hurt, not being able to make his wife happy, but he slowly understood that he wasn't happy either, and that's because he had indeed learned to avoid feeling happy.
"What if I gave it a try?", he thinks. With a trembling hand, he slowly turns the radio on. His heart is beating fast, as if he's trying to deactivate a time bomb. Music fills the car, making him feel good, somewhat. And then he sees the next corner coming threateningly at him. He grinds his teeth and grips the steering wheel tightly.

"Poor grandpa, who knows what you've been through, to teach me all these things", he says aloud and turns the radio off, hoping that someday he'll be able to break the invisible chain.          

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Path Amongst the Trees

Every morning he goes for a walk down a path amongst trees. It's a small trail in a park at the edge of town, where he can see some greenery, listen to the birdsongs and stop thinking about his life for a while.
Let's start from the beginning. The young man who likes to walk down this path without thinking about his life is an unemployed nurse in his late twenties, who has recently broken up with a young hairdresser and who lives with his retired father and housewife mother in a relatively small apartment. In addition to that, his grandmother who weighs 260 pounds moved in with them recently because she can't walk anymore, so he is forced to sleep in the dining room, on an uncomfortable sofa, since his grandmother wanted to have her own room and that was the term they agreed upon if he wanted her to give him her pension. So, you could say that he rented his room to his grandmother. That rent is his only source of income since eighteen months ago, when his short term contract with a cancer treatment clinic expired and was not renewed.
At home he feels restricted. His fat grandmother occupies every living space, not because of her size, but because of her irritating, unbearable babbling and her constant demands. To put it simply, all three members of the family act as her servants and don't even dare object to any of her demands, not only out of respect and love, but also out of fear of losing this additional income which has become indispensable now that the son is unemployed. It was only the other night that they were forced to turn her down, and that was only because she woke up at four in the morning and wanted to eat octopus stew. After a couple of hours of negotiations she accepted to go back to sleep after eating some lentil soup which had been left over from dinner. It's highly doubtful whether she actually realized that it would be practically impossible for them to buy an octopus so early in the morning. This, more or less, is the situation at home. Thankfully the winter has gone by and our young man can go out on the small balcony and smoke one and a half packs of cigarettes every afternoon.
The young man chain smokes for hours, lost in his dark thoughts. He seems to have lost all hope and each afternoon he inhales despair and exhales smoke out of his mouth. He can't stop smoking because then his hands would simply drop to the sides of a body trapped inside nowhere, and if his hands were to drop maybe he would contemplate suicide, and that is something he doesn't want at all. Smoking however, even though it seems to comfort him momentarily, leaves an awful taste in his mouth which doesn't go away no matter how long he brushes his teeth every night. So, he goes to sleep every night on the dining room sofa, having that bad taste in his mouth, and his thoughts grow even darker before turning into bad dreams. He had always been a bit of a hypochondriac because of his job. Now he is certain that he'll die of cancer. He just wishes that it will be a fast death and that he won't have to suffer as much as all these patients that he took care of these few months when he worked at the clinic, back then when he didn't smoke at all and he was saving his money to get married some day.
The young man was never much of an optimist, not even during happier times. Small fears would always grow in his mind, but he always managed to drive them away, to tear them out forcefully and decisively, to drown them or even to ignore them and keep on moving forward. Now the fear has grown to gigantic proportions inside of him, conquering each and every corner of his soul. He is afraid that he'll never get a job, that he'll never have a family, that he'll spend his life on the balcony and on the sofa and that soon, smoking will make him sick and what will he do then without any insurance? In addition to all that, watching all these documentaries about natural disasters makes him think that there's an earthquake whenever his grandmother walks around the old, creaky floor with her walker. When it's raining really hard he thinks that he's going to drown or that his cigarette butts will reignite, setting their apartment on fire, along with their building, this awful town and this country and that nothing will be left but ashes in the sky.
The young man has many friends, but as of late he doesn't feel like going out and he envies all these people with their jobs and their money. He is ashamed of talking with girls that he doesn't know because the word "unemployed" is very humiliating, so he shuts himself in. He reads a book every now and then and he goes to the cinema once a month, but in general his life consists of browsing through job ads, sending out résumés without ever receiving an answer, some dead end job interviews, documentaries, one and a half packs of cigarettes on the balcony and restless sleep on the uncomfortable sofa. And the path amongst the trees.
We will describe today's walk along this path amongst the trees, because something different happened today which may be worth mentioning. But we'll start off a little earlier, from the moment when the young man opens his eyes. It's not a pleasant awakening, because he starts to feel this awful taste in his mouth. A while back he heard someone closing the door, so his father must have gone out to get a cup of coffee. His mother and his grandmother seem to be having an intense conversation. He just wants to sleep some more, to get lost in sleep so that he won't have to think, but his grandmother's squeaky voice pierces his ear and his brain. His eyes open automatically and he gets up hurriedly, wanting to get out of this suffocating apartment. As he furiously washes his teeth, his mother comes and stands by the bathroom door. This is, more or less, the conversation that follows:
"Your grandmother isn't well."
"Why, what's wrong with her?"
"I think that she's lost it."
Grandmother comes in with her walker, causing a small earthquake, and says to him conspiringly:
"Didn't I paint the house beautifully?"
He looks at her and goes on furiously brushing his teeth. He's upset, but he doesn't want to yell at her because she does seem kind of sweet in her pink night gown with her hair standing up.
"Didn't I paint the house beautifully?", she says again, looking as if she's lost in a dream. "I painted the walls and the ceilings. I was painting all night."
She imitates the movements of a painter with her chubby hand. His mother seems panic stricken and keeps staring at her awkwardly.
"Great", he thinks. "Grandma's lost it. One more disaster."
He rinses his mouth, combs his grown out hair and goes out of the bathroom. He goes to his room, shuts the door and gets dressed quickly. He hears them go on from outside, " But I did paint the house, no you didn't, it was just a dream, no I was painting all night, no you weren't, dear God, what's come upon us, we need to call a doctor, where's your father now, I painted it well, no you didn't, it was just a dream", and so on.
He gets out of his room, devastated by this new disaster, but to his surprise his mother and his grandmother were laughing.
"It was just a dream! How did I get so confused?", says grandmother.
"Thank God, she's not lost it. She was just fresh out of sleep", says his mother and crosses herself.
"OK then, I'm going out", he replies.
"God bless you, my little boy", he hears his grandmother say as he shuts the door and presses the elevator button.
On the bus ride to the park, as he gazes at the ugly city through the window, he suddenly turns his head and sees a guy with red hair who is wearing somewhat strange clothes and has an equally strange stare sitting opposite to him. And then he is filled with terror. He fears that this redheaded man will blow up the bus or that he will threaten the bus driver with a gun and hold the passengers hostage, just as he'd seen in some documentaries, even though they were about much more dangerous cities. His palms are sweating and his heart is beating fast. He gets up and sits elsewhere so that he won't have to see this redheaded man, who actually wasn't strange at all, except from being an unkempt teenager with a hair color that didn't flatter him much. We should note that our young man is not paranoid nor is he actually afraid. He's just playing games with his mind because his life has become unbearably predictable, boring and bland, so he'd probably like to feel like he's starring in an action movie for a while. He just wishes for something to happen.
And here we are, at the path amongst the trees. The young man gets down from the bus and starts walking along the path. By focusing on the greenery and the birds, for these fifteen minutes, while he walks, he can feel nice and breathe without thinking about being unemployed, about the future and all the disasters that it has in store for him. So, he has a nice walk for about fifteen minutes, he forgets about his life and suddenly, as he sits on the last bench, as always, he imagines himself being old, but not old and homeless as he usually does. Old, with a pension and children. What if it all turned out well? What if they gave him a job at a private clinic, what if he fell in love again, what if he got married and had children, what if no catastrophic earthquake happened nor the country broke apart as they said it would. What if he quit smoking or didn't quit but didn't die of cancer, or if he never came across a dangerous terrorist on the bus?
These were his thoughts, and instead of pulling out a cigarette out of the pack, as he usually did, he took out a pen that he always carried with him and wrote a poem which more or less went like this:
I am an old man
I've been ready to pass on for some time now
I spent my life predicting disaster
And waiting for it to ravage me
Now my time is over
I've not any more to live
None of the disasters
That I was expecting
Ever came
And my life
Was ravaged
By fear alone

So this is what took place today, on the path amongst the trees. Unfortunately, we can't make any guarantees regarding this young man. We don't know if the country will eventually break apart, if he'll find a job, a wife, if he'll have children, not even if his grandmother will keep giving him her pension. We don't know if he'll quit smoking, what he'll die of, nor can we guarantee one hundred percent that he won't fall victim to a terrorist attack in this town or another. There is no deeper meaning to this story. The only thing that we could say is that often we use our fear to fill some of the holes in our lives, to avoid feeling happy or simply because that's how we've learned to think. Most probably the young man will revert to his despair, he'll waste away his noon watching documentaries about natural disasters, he'll smoke one and a half packs of cigarettes on the balcony in the afternoon and at night he'll go to bed with this awful taste in his mouth.
However, today, in the path amongst the trees, on the back of a pack of cigarettes, he wrote a poem.

A Trip to the Zoo

I woke up in a bad mood this morning, without knowing why. My wife was waiting for me all dressed up. She had made my favorite breakfast. "Hurry up, love", she said, "we 're going to be late".
"Where are we going?"
"To the zoo."
But of course, how did I forget? They had arranged it weeks ago, with her best friend, her husband and their six year old boy. I think that my wife was even more anxious to go there than the boy and I couldn't understand why. Often I would give up on trying to understand her and this was one of those times. So, one night, when I was watching the news, I mumbled in agreement when she asked me to go with her to the zoo because we are a couple and it wouldn't be right if she went on her own. We pay for our mistakes and now it was time for me to pay for the fact that I chose to waste one Sunday rather than listen to her whining. But now that this Sunday has come, I wished I had thrown the remote control at the wall and yelled, "I don't want to go to the zoo, I've only got that one day to rest!". Many times I fantasize about smashing everything in the apartment, but unfortunately I'm incapable of even raising my voice. My aggression is relieved through my razor sharp sense of humor and as my wife says, my indifference and sarcasm are sometimes even worse than physical violence.
I ate my breakfast in a hurry because every minute and a half I could hear her saying in her sweet voice that "we shouldn't let our friends waiting, let's not forget that they have a little boy". We left the house and practically ran to the car. She decided to drive herself, so we got yelled at by two drivers and an old lady, but with the help of God we made it to that damned zoo. Our friends, who I don't consider my friends, were waiting for us at the ticket line and their kid was hopping all around them, pretending to be an Indian. My wife interrupted him and started asking him about school. A couple of minutes later she was practically interrogating him. How do you like school? Are you a good student? Which course is your favorite? Do you have any friends? Do you like your teacher? Do you like any of the little girls? The six year old boy got bored of all these questions and started playing the Indian again, upsetting his mother who told him that it's rude not to answer when he is being asked something and that he should apologize. He said that he was sorry in Indian, his mother sighed wearily, his father was browsing a newspaper and my wife started looking around. And that's when I realized that we shouldn't have gone there.
I was surrounded by families. All kinds of families. Couples with a baby in the stroller and a toddler, couples expecting a baby and having another one in their arms, couples with a teenage child and a baby or toddler, couples with two teenagers fighting with each other, couples with a grandmother holding their baby, couples with three kids, warning them not to stray too far, everywhere children, children, children... I wanted to scream. Don't get me wrong, I've nothing against all these little people. They are quite cute and usually smarter than us adults. Then why did I want to scream, you ask. Because whenever my wife sees a baby in a tummy, in a stroller, in somebody's arms or on its own she turns and gives me this persistent, suppliant, sad, angry look. I turn my eyes elsewhere but she keeps her own on me and this is followed by a heavy, charged silence during which we hate each other for some time. And during these thirty minutes that we were waiting at the zoo we hated each other once more.
We never talk about having children. I had made it clear before we got married that I didn't want to have children. She said that she could not live without me. And so we had a wonderful first four years without this cloud over our heads. Until one day she said to me very seriously that she wanted a child. I replied just as seriously that I didn't and that she knew this all along. She said that she hoped that my stance on the matter would change over time. I told her that it hasn't. There followed a long period of time during which one tried to convince the other, resulting in drama, tears and bitter comments. One day I had enough and left home. I stayed at my brother's for a month. One night she called me in tears and told me that she couldn't live without me. I told her that I didn't want her to make such a sacrifice. She replied that she could never love anybody else, so she would never have children anyway. I came back home and for a while we enjoyed each other. I had missed her and she had missed me and we realized how much we loved each other. Sharing your life with someone that you love is a very beautiful thing. But, after some time she started sending me these stares, for which I can't do anything because they are never accompanied by words. If she whined, as she does because we don't go to the theater, I would be able to manage it, maybe I'd even break up with her permanently this time. I'm afraid to open up this old wound, I'm afraid that our marriage can't take it and the truth is, I can't live without her either. I hate myself for not being able to make her happy, but I'm also angry at her because I had told her, I was clear, she had promised me that I would be enough and now I'm not. I know that whenever she sees a cute baby sleeping she hates me because it's not our baby, she hates me but she can't even say it because she's afraid that she will lose me and all that she has left are these stares that become more intense as time passes, leaving more and more charged silence in their wake.
I feel wronged. People shouldn't marry expecting to change each other. I understand, though, that she feels wronged too. I am depriving her of motherhood which is supposed to complete a woman. As time passes she becomes sadder and sadder. I can see the puzzlement in her eyes. When we were still talking about it and she asked me why I didn't want children, I couldn't give her an answer. This made her hope that she'd convince me, eventually. It's actually weird how determined I am about something, without being able to explain why. I haven't given it much thought, nor do I want to. It's my right to not want to bring a life into this world for which I will be responsible for eighteen years. It's not that I shy away from responsibilities. I've been holding my own from a very young age, since I grew up without a mother. I just don't like this world, it's unfair and cruel, life is unpredictable and full of hardships, nothing is certain and I don't want to contribute to the creation of a young soul which will face a thousand perils, such as disease, accidents and most of all mental pain. If people weren't so fragile I'd probably be ok with having a child. Of course, I've never shared my thoughts on this because everyone would think me crazy, what is more natural than a couple having a baby, people have been having them for centuries and most of their offspring manage to survive one way or the other. However, I've made up my mind and I'm not going to let society force me to be a parent. I just hope that I won't die too old. I'm guessing that the loneliness of old age is unbearable when you don't have someone to take care of you, but this is certainly not enough to change my mind. And since I've learned to accept the consequences of my choices without complaint, I understand that I must learn to live with these moments of hate that I share with my wife when we see babies and children, so I was bearing them stoically that morning, waiting in line at the zoo.
And then something happened which upset me greatly and brought to my mind a memory which I wished had remained deeply, very deeply buried. A young couple with their two children shamelessly cut in front of us poor people who waited all this time and went straight to the ticket box. Some started shouting and cursing, others complained to the ones next to them. In any case, the culprits went in straight away. I closed my eyes for a while, trying to understand why my stomach had been tied in a knot and my entire body felt so tense as I shrank back to my six year old self. I was a frightened, skinny little boy, deeply hurt because my mother had left me and completely dependent on a cruel and ill tempered father. My memory of our visit to the zoo came alive; it was a couple of years after my mom had left us. I was gripping his hand tightly, fearing that he would leave me too, fearing that I would be sucked into the crowd, that I'd be left all alone in this dangerous world and that I'd die. I didn't love him, that's for sure. He was solemn, he never read me any stories, he never played with me and he always complained that I didn't help him around the house. Sometimes he would bring women over and he'd made me stay in my room. I'd want to go to the bathroom, but I was scared to leave my room because I sensed that something horrible was going on outside, so I held on until I couldn't hold on any longer and...
I'd cry and fall asleep with soaked trousers and soaked eyes. It's no use remembering all this and I'm happy I had buried it all these years, but this couple that cut in front of us reminded me how we'd done the same thing. He was dragging me forward, I felt that we were doing something wrong but didn't know what that was, people around us started shouting and he was looking at them defiantly, cursing them every now and then until someone cut us off. I fearfully held on to his hand. It was cold and rough, just like his heart, but it was the only hand I had to hold on to and suddenly that someone who I only recall as a huge shadow shoved him and our hands got separated and I was swallowed by an abyss, I was lost and I started crying and then I heard a lady yelling, "Stop it, you're hurting that little boy". They kept on shoving each other and then they stopped and he pulled me abruptly and we went in the zoo while I was searching in the crowd for the lady that had yelled, hoping that she'd take me with her.
I pretended to have a headache and left before my wife could come after me. Of course, I'm going to pay dearly for this and I'm already preparing to shut myself down for the endless whining that's coming. That's ok, I'm used to it anyway. I'm back home now and I feel nice, I've found my good mood and myself again. Life is not to be taken very seriously. The more you invite misery the more it will fill you up inside and no, I don't want to die whining, that's something that I've decided a long time ago. Someone once told me that behind my sense of humor hides a broken hearted child. I don't know if he's right, but I stopped hanging around with him. I don't know what the future brings and I may end up dying alone, I've thought of this possibility often, but it's no use thinking about my death, my future, not even about my relationship with my wife. Right now I'm sitting on the balcony with a cup of coffee in my hand, somewhere far away the sun is setting, the sky is red and a bird, a free bird, not like those poor birds at the zoo that I didn't get to see today, is flying somewhere far away...