It was the night before Christmas when I met him at the local pub. I went there alone to drink my pain away, minutes after she informed me of her decision. I was aware of the situation, that things were not going great between us lately. She had warned me that she would leave if I did not make an effort. The problem was I was not in the mood for any effort of that kind.
He looked my way as if he had been waiting for me for hours, as soon as I made myself comfortable on the seat next to him. I could have chosen a different place to sit, to drag my tired body two chairs aside to avoid him, but I felt my legs heavy, as if they magically transformed into cement pillars. I blamed fatigue and alcohol, but it was something more that managed to nail me down beside the strange man, as proven later on.
“I can relate,” he told me. I could not be certain as to what he was referring to, since I had not told him anything he could relate to. Actually I had not spoken at all. My mind had been pretty busy with thousands random thoughts, since the moment I made the decision. I casually touched the pills in my pocket, just to make sure they were still there, as a man sentenced to death would take a glimpse of the firing squad, without the corresponding agony I suppose, since I was not only the victim, but also the judge and the executioner as well. Too many roles for my numb soul, that seemed able to deal smoothly with the situation, unable to be taken by surprise any more, determined to leave the body which had been home for years, without second thoughts. A last night into the world, one more trip into an intense living, and all would end like it started. Smoothly, easily, sweetly, without much drama and pain.
“Along with maturity comes the right perspective. Feelings still exist, but cease to have the horrifying dimensions they used to have, when they oscillated back and forth, between exaggeration and nothingness, right?” he asked.
I had forgotten all about him at that point. But he was even closer to me, ready to clink his glass with mine.
“Cheers to you!” he said but immediately decided to take back his words, looking away. “I assume it is pointless to use such words,” he concluded smiling. I realized then that I must have been looking a mess since a random stranger could easily tell my intentions. I nodded awkwardly as we clinked glasses.
“By now, you are way too mature to throw away your feelings like garbage onto others,” he went on after taking a sip of his wine, as if there had been a discussion going on, left unfinished for a pleasant break.
“Sure,” I answered, despite my lack of certainty. “I keep my garbage to myself lately. The only way to get rid of it though, is to get rid of my whole existence.”
In the past, there were moments I felt flat, distant, as if I had no feelings whatsoever, besides indifference, if you can count indifference as a feeling. Those moments were when I could easily hurt somebody, not out of wickedness, but because I could not understand even my own feelings, let alone other people’s feelings. On other occasions, sadness or joy overwhelmed me, drowning me with their intensity. I hurt people again as, immersed in my own mind, I could not see anybody else around me, lost as I was in the vortex of my own personal drama. At last, I have finally reached the point where I can see pain, mine and other people’s, without exaggerations of any kind. Some people never reach that point, as they always remain immature children, although they grow up and their characteristics harden, as the wrinkles get engraved on their faces. It’s certainly good to keep the child inside you alive as you grow up, but not the selfish brat who wants everything for one’s self, without recognizing the pain around.
I had been witnessing her pain for a long time. I was never enough for her. Not for a second did I feel surprised by her decision to leave me. The thought of trying to get her back never crossed my mind. Only a spoiled brat would do something like that.
I did not share my thoughts with the old man sitting next to me though. We kept on drinking silently, drink after drink, until I choked with smoke and had to go out for fresh air. Or maybe it was the thoughts that choked me; I cannot be certain about that. The man followed me and we walked around for a while. We crossed the city, traveled over mountains, seas and rivers, a last trip around the world, before the final farewell.
Right there on the roof, next to the chimney, he gave me a mirror. When I looked at myself, I realized that something strange was going on. My face was fresh and clean, with no lines or marks to reveal my age, my cheeks bright red like ripe strawberries. Nothing had been capable of surprising me before. In dreams, I am a timeless form of me that cannot be taken by surprise. As I grow older though, it gets more difficult to identify with my timeless self, who insists on remaining young.
It was then that I realized that something out of the ordinary was happening to me.
“Is it a dream?” I asked my fellow traveler. It had been completely normal to me to fly over the rooftops, seas and mountains like it was something I used to do every day and the only difference was the brightness of the world that night. In fact, I could not be sure of the difference, since I had never managed to fly before, by myself I mean, not watching the world through the window of an airplane. That night, we flew over brightly lit cities, we watched Christmas trees with colorful lights blinking, even the waters down there were so bright that I could imagine swarms of fireflies taking a trip over the lakes, the rivers, the sea.
I remembered that a festive day would soon dawn. Another Christmas day. The weight on my chest came back the moment I took another look at myself in the mirror that was given to me. Instinctively, I turned my eyes the other way, to avoid a confrontation with my image. The mirror followed me, leaving me no choice. I remembered the first time, when I was still a kid, that I took a good look at myself in the mirror that stood in the corner of the living room in the house I grew up. I had taken some glimpses before, but that day I stood in front of it for hours, staring at my image. It was that day when I realized that that was it. That was my face and nothing could change that. That every day on I would have to carry that same face around with me. That I would be the very same person. That was my first contact with the meaning of identity.
It was too soon then for me to be aware of the effect of time. I could not predict time’s influence on me, nor did it cross my mind that time could change the way I look. Things change, but change usually comes slowly. We tend to think that things will always stay the same, and sometimes we are even afraid that they will.
The smoke from the chimney, like the smoke from the pub earlier, blurred my vision and stole the air around me. The weight on my chest got heavier and heavier. I cannot recall the exact moment that I felt it for the first time, but I have been learning to live with it, except for the few moments when it decides to leave me alone. I used to blame a lot of people and situations for this weight until I accepted the fact that I would carry it around for life. Nobody was to blame, except for me.
“You were a talented kid, remember?” he asked.
Of course, I remembered. I never let anybody down. I succeeded in everything, except for the most important of all. It seemed that no matter how hard I tried I could not make her happy, until I finally gave up.
“Talented kids are in danger of getting caged in other people’s expectations and lose themselves. They are put on the path they are supposedly destined to follow, in exchange for the rest, less important pieces of themselves, which lie on a corner forgotten and neglected, considered as disorientation threats. But man is a complex being and the fragmented self sooner or later will come back for revenge. Their really complex personality lies buried under the mask they are obliged to wear, so they do not recognize it at the appropriate time, but instead are destined to chase after it for the rest of their lives. They usually transform into adults who get successful but are unable to live. They spend their time looking frantically for challenges that will grant them instant gratification, setting goals and running after then just to feel alive. Not happy, just alive.”
I never asked for happiness. The only thing I wanted was to get rid of the weight.
“Not all relationships are straight lines. Some of them are circles that come to an end, or at least they are supposed to.”
The blame was on me. I take full responsibility for our failure. I just wanted to see her happy next to me. I wanted to forget the world, for a while, and look at the ceiling and the world through the ceiling, holding each other’s hand. I never managed to convince her to stand still beside me. She was always on the move, with the aim of improving our life. I was fighting for years because that is exactly what I am good at. To fight for better conditions, I mean. But at some point, I realized we would never stand still, beside one another, for one another. All I wanted was to spend some time doing nothing but standing still with her, ‘chasing cars’ around our heads
“You are losing your mind,” she answered mockingly when I told her. I just asked her to stand still next to me, holding my hand, without neither thinking nor analyzing anything, not even speaking, lost in space, like we truly are, two souls that wonder in the universe, trapped for a while in bodies that grow old.
It was all downhill after that day. I do not blame her though. We all ask for security. When the calculated risk is beyond our capability, we give up the game. That is what she did. We are eager to look ahead, calculating all parameters, before even the game begins. If we fail, we get angry. She got angry before she left. She was not the person I had fallen in love with. She yelled at me on a daily basis, expecting me to try harder. The problem is I did not care.
“To answer your question, this is not a typical dream.” The old man beside me decided to interrupt my thinking process. The thought that I had already swallowed the pills, thus being dead, crossed my mind, whistling relentlessly, as a fast train in a science fiction film. The pills were still in my pocket though.
“Who are you? How come you know so many things about me?” I asked terrified. I should have avoided him in the first place.
“You could have avoided me, when you still had the chance. Inevitably though we’d meet,” he replied as if he could read my mind.
“I cannot be already dead.”
“You are not. But you were ready to kill yourself when you met me at the pub. I know because I was once in your shoes”
“You were in my shoes,” I repeated reluctantly.
“Literally in your shoes. I am you. Or the ghost of Christmas future if you prefer.”
Before I even had the time to wonder, to think about what he said, the smoke accumulated around me and the air got so stuffy, that I had to close my eyes tightly, coughing loudly in my effort to breathe. When I opened them up, through the dense smoke, I could only detect a strange image. A woman lying on the floor, looking at the ceiling. I could tell that she was not the woman that left me behind. It was someone else, waiting for me to hold her hand, so that our souls can get lost together beyond the ceiling and dive into the infinite. The image disappeared slowly, fading away, leaving nothing but smoke behind.
“You would have left this woman alone for ever,” the strange man told me.
“Who is she? I have to go find her and never leave her eyes wondering alone anymore.”
“You will find her when the time comes. For the time being, all you have to do is survive. Sometimes, our older and wiser self has to come to our rescue, to remind us of things we already know, but have not yet discovered. Do you understand?”
I did not fully understand but I was trying my best to understand more.
“I am you,” I mumbled, repeating his words.
“You will not remember anything in the morning. You will be a bit wiser though. A bit stronger too I hope. I cannot think of a more beautiful human invention than these festive days in the middle of winter, that miracles like this one can take place.”
I felt a bit proud of mankind for a while, even though I did not personally invent Christmas or any other special occasion for that matter, so there was nothing for me to take pride in.
On Christmas day, he woke up to the sound of his favorite song, from a deep sleep filled with dreams. He tried hard to remember even one of them but all he got was blurry memories of flights over mountains and seas. He surprisingly no longer felt the weight on his chest. Light as a feather, discrete as a summer breeze, joy found a way to sneak into his heart again. She had left. Her absence though, instead of depressing him, gave him hope for the life ahead of him. He stared at the ceiling, letting his eyes wander into the infinite. He was certain he was looking forward to something, but could not tell exactly what.
Mileva Anastasiadou is a neurologist. Her work can be found in many journals, such as the Molotov Cocktail, Jellyfish Review, the Sunlight Press (Best Small Fictions 2019 nominee), Ghost Parachute, Gone Lawn, Ellipsis Zine, Queen Mob's Tea House, Bending Genres, Eastern Iowa Review (Best of the Net 2019 nominee), Litro, Moon Park Review, Spillwords and others.