He saw her sitting on the parapet, legs dangling lifelessly in the moist spring air, inadvertently waving to passers-by 20 floors below. He’d seen her before—she lived in 2D, the apartment below the one he was renting. She had beautiful eyes, he knew. Beautiful, sad eyes, which were now fixed on a point in the not-too-distant future when at last she would fly.

So we’re here for the same reason, he thought.

He walked up to her. He wasn’t sure if she had noticed. Her eyes—those beautiful, sad eyes—continued staring absently into the open skies.

“Hey! I’ve seen you before. I live one floor above you,” he said.

After a moment’s hesitation, he added, “Do you want to talk?”

For the first time now she made eye contact with him, yet her lips remained motionless and her face unreadable.

“I think we might be here for the same reason,” he said in a slightly shyer tone, his head dropping low as he did.

She turned towards him, hesitantly, with a thoughtful, measuring look.

“You’re here to end the pain?”

“Yes, I suppose that’s one way of putting it,” he agreed.

“How would you put it?” she wondered.

“I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. I never thought about it much.”

“Didn’t you leave a note for, you know, family and friends?”

“Not really,” he admitted. “No family. And as for friends, I doubt if I even have any. Real friends, you know?”

She nodded in slow motion.

“Yes, I can understand that,” she said at last. Her manner suggested there was more to follow.

“My friends all live so far away. And I have a love-hate relationship with my family. But I thought it’d be good to leave them a note, just so they can get some closure.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you.”

A hint of a smile spread across her face. Her features now appeared softer, more vulnerable. He felt something inside him give way.

She sensed it, too, and quickly put up her defenses.

“You know you’re not going to change my mind,” she said as her face turned back to face the void.

“I don’t intend to,” he assured her. “I’m pretty determined myself, you know. I’ve given this a lot of thought.”

“Yes, so have I.”

They both sat quietly. He spoke first.

“Do you mind if I tell you a bit about my life?” Pause. “I mean, I don’t suppose it matters much now anyway. Still, I feel it’d be good to have someone to talk to—even if it’s just for a few moments.”

“I suppose so.” Her face betrayed a hidden warmth. “Perhaps you’d better start at the beginning.”

That evening, he told her of his childhood, growing up, moving to the big city, college, and work. By the time he was finished, she knew more about him than anyone ever had.

She listened patiently, compassionately. She never interrupted him. She never flinched or recoiled. She just sat and was present.

At last, the late hour of the night was starting to have its effect on him. He checked his watch and looked at her remorsefully.

“I’ve been talking about myself all this time. I’m so sorry. That’s rather selfish of me, I assume.”

“It’s OK,” she said. “I don’t mind. I actually quite enjoyed it. Perhaps I could tell you my story, too,” she suggested. “But it’s much too late now. Maybe we can just put it off until tomorrow.”

“I’d like that,” he said.

“Tomorrow night, same time, same place?” she asked.

He smiled in agreement.

The next evening, he found her on the rooftop again. She was leaning against the parapet, wrapped in a fleece blanket, the evening breeze lifting strands of her hair like a curious child.

“I made myself comfortable,” she announced simply when she noticed him. “The other night was a bit chilly.”

He smiled.

“I’ve been thinking all day about what I should tell you—where to start and how to convey it all in a way that makes sense. You did such an outstanding job last night. I feel like my story is going to sound much more chaotic and the events of my life a lot more opaque, I’m afraid.”

“I’m not here to tell you how to tell your story,” he reassured her. “I’m here to listen—just like you did yesterday.”

She measured him cautiously with her eyes, pursing her lips momentarily.

“Very well, then. I’m going to give you a series of scenes from my life, if you don’t mind. They might seem disconnected at first, but I promise you there’s a thread that holds them together. I mean, there’s got to be one, doesn’t it?”

He tuned his ear to her voice and listened, occasionally interjecting, sometimes stirring, but mostly just nodding slowly, thoughtfully. His face changed with each scene. Its initial curiosity gave way to sadness, then concern, frustration, and shock. This soon melted and he bounced back to curiosity, then understanding, and—finally—amazement.

“This might sound strange, but I think I want to say that I am very proud of you,” he managed to get out at last.

She tilted her head slightly. Her face was as inscrutable as it had been the day before.

“Perhaps you misunderstood my story?” she suggested after a while.

“On the contrary,” he argued, “I think I understood it better than if you had told it the same way I told mine.”

“I’m not sure about that,” she said in a quieter tone. She seemed—what?—a little perplexed? Or was it just his imagination?

“Why don’t we give it another try tomorrow,” he proposed. “I’ll tell you what I’ve heard and you can tell me if I got it right. What do you think?”

She nodded, got up, and walked off, eyeing him curiously. He couldn’t help but smile again. “That’s the second time I’ve smiled today,” he observed. He left equally baffled.

The next evening, he brought a thermos with tea. “To keep us warm and hydrated,” he explained.

She motioned him to sit down. “What did you mean yesterday?” she asked without any preamble. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it all day.”

“That makes it two days in a row,” he quipped.

That night he told her how he understood her story. The next night, she explained to him how she made sense of his narrative. He’d brought tea, she’d brought some cookies. They shared the blanket. When the conversation ended, they both stared over the parapet at the endless rows of high-rises that spread out before them.

“Well, I guess that’s it,” he said when they had sat down without a word for some ten minutes. “It’s been good talking to you.”

Her eyes were watery. They sat together in silence for another ten minutes. Then, at last, she spoke.

“I don’t know what to say,” she attempted, hesitantly. “When I came here the first night, I was convinced there was nothing but pain in this life. Pain I could not imagine living with for the rest of my life.”

She paused.

“The pain is still there, but somehow… It doesn’t weigh me down so much. It doesn’t feel so overwhelming. I’m not sure what it means.”

He looked her in the eye.

“Perhaps we don’t need to decide right now. Tomorrow?”

She nodded as she watched him leave.


When snow fell

That morning, snow fell in clusters so thick even the birds, which had lately been signaling the coming of spring, looked up in astonishment and shook their heads. With their cries stifled, the horizon I woke up to was a land mass covered with a duvet of angel down and silence. Both comforted me immensely.

I sat up in my bed and gazed at the snow in voiceless prayer to the one who would surely hear. With all noises drowned, my unuttered words would surely rise to him and his voice would thunder from the white sky overhead. Perhaps the clouds would part, revealing a display of resplendent, golden light that would fill my room—and my soul—with the warmth it had been craving.

I sat and waited. My prayer never rose to the skies. It hovered briefly in the air, then sank to the ground as it grew colder, heavier.

The clouds remained impenetrable, the ambient silence impervious. Unmoved by my feeble attempt. The colorless landscape was wearisome to my eyes. I grew restless again.

It had been like this for days, perhaps months. I’d wake up in anticipation of new hope. It turned out to be still-born or short-lived. I’d hold its limp body in my arms, surveying the beauty that could have been. A moment of grieving later, I’d sing a solemn dirge, and lay my hope to its eternal rest. I’d fashion a simple cross out of twigs and plant it firmly in the ground, affirming the finality of this act.

Day after day, I’d roam the streets, looking for hope among the unfamiliar faces. But I saw none in those hapless oblong approximations of human form. They were equally bogged down, each hauling their own barge, a load too heavy for one’s back.

There were times when I thought I saw a glimpse of joy, a smile. But when I drew closer, it turned out to be a grin or a sneer. The pleasant contours had dissipated like a dream when one awakens. All that was left was a faint memory, a whiff of hope—but even that had turned sour.

So I kept walking, covering kilometer after kilometer of paved streets as they meandered through the city center. I’d reach the embankment and stare across the river—not directly across, where the distance was shortest and I could still make out even the minutest objects distinctly. Instead, I’d look diagonally over the steel-gray expanse which gradually faded into mist. I wanted to know if perhaps, one day, a solid shape would emerge from this nebulous canvas and advance slowly, majestically towards me. And when that did not happen, I’d carry on for as long as my feet could carry me—and by now, they’d been trained to walk as far as the ends of the earth.

In the end, when I saw the sun reaching a low point on the horizon, I decided to turn back and continue the next day. I’d take the tram and stare out of the window or blankly gaze at my own reflection until my stop came up. Then I mechanically got up, made for the door, and walked the rest of the way home without even remembering how I got there.

Dinners were a simple, lonely affair bathed in incandescent light: A sandwich or a cup of chicken broth or both, if I was feeling fanciful. Afterwards I’d seek solace in the embrace of a book; at other times, I’d put on Grieg or Chopin and hum along. On occasions, I’d turn on the TV and scroll endlessly through a list of movies none of which I intended to watch. In the end, I’d retire to the bathroom, soak my body in steaming-hot water, and thus cleansed of any lingering listlessness, I’d lie down on my spine, arms neatly arranged alongside my body. If they find me like this, I thought to myself, they’ll be pleased I made it so easy for them.

And thus, my mind turned to my ultimate destiny, I watched myself practice dying peacefully in my sleep. For in the morning, I’d be born again from my ashes.

That morning, when snow fell in clusters so thick even the birds, which had lately been signaling the coming of spring, looked up in astonishment and shook their heads—that morning I was full of anticipation. Surely, things would be different today. The resounding voice would fill the sky and, enveloping me in its echoing warmth, pronounce the long-awaited affirmation.

Instead, it was another day of plodding through the countless streets and, hour by hour, watching the comforting blanket disappear under a million footsteps until the pavement was bare once again.

When dusk arrived, I found myself in a neighborhood I did not recognize. I was walking down a narrow street whose houses, like me, had seen better days. Their vibrant colors had given way to grime; their proud, boisterous visage weathered, sagging.

I turned a corner and came out on a dimly-lit square where, out of the shadows, stepped a bold, opulent edifice erected to the one who should have heard my prayers. And, suddenly, without the slightest sign of caution, I felt my anger stir inside me and rise until it reached the spire. My voice thundered, then broke, pleaded, and, eventually, gave out.

I do not remember the way home that day. My thoughts had all been poured out and left behind in that squalid square.

When I reached my apartment, I threw my body resignedly on the bed, hoping to bring to completion what I had been rehearsing for. This was it. That very night my life would be demanded from me, I knew. I had been embittered and enraged. I had spoken when I should have kept silent. I had blasphemed the one I did not understand. Then darkness closed in.

I woke up void of any expectation and infused with a growing sense of embarrassment. I did not venture to glance out of the window. I hastily ate breakfast, dressed, and rushed out to spend the day hiding from the one whose wrath was sure to swallow me up.

Three paces later, I came to a halt, right by the patch where I had buried all my hopes. There the little twig crosses were planted in a neat, narrow row. And sprouting out of one was a tiny green shoot.


Oliver’s Twist

When Oliver woke up that morning, he could sense something was amiss. For one thing, he felt rested—which never happened. Even more significantly, the only thing coming in through the open window was—silence.

He looked out onto a street full of slumbering cars. It unnerved him.

Finding the remote, he turned on the TV.

“We are potentially all at risk as it is yet unknown how quickly the virus may spread,” the reporter was saying in a cheerful, peppy tone. “The government has therefore declared a state of emergency, banning all citizens from leaving their homes without a face mask.”

While the words were still fading into his consciousness, he heard his phone vibrate—briefly but resolutely.

“Due to present health crisis, all employees are to work from home until further notice. Email communication to follow.”

Although Oliver had occasionally worked from home before, it had never been on his boss’ orders. He looked up from his phone and in a single glance captured the entire living space of his studio apartment. Instantly, something gripped his throat with an ever-tightening squeeze.

“Must go out!” his brain was screaming.

“Must go out!” his legs were pulling him.

“Must go out!” every single cell in his body was chanting.

Pulling on yesterday’s pants and the sweater he’d meant to have washed a week earlier, he tied a bandanna around his nose and mouth and broke out of the confinement of his four walls.

He sped down the stairs and was out of the building in seconds, but didn’t stop running until he reached the park.

Predictably, there were no people around. It was barely ten minutes after seven.

Oliver looked up at the sky—the vast, endless canopy overhead—and felt the grip around his throat relax. He could breathe again. He could enjoy life again: The crazy birds with their boisterous arguments, the air fragrant with nascent spring. It was all there.

He made his way to the pond where the ducks and the moorhens observed their breakfast quietly. But as he leaned over, to get a closer view of this spectacle, he noticed his own reflection and saw the unnatural muzzle. He could have sworn it was beginning to tighten around his face.

His throat closed up again. His nose refused to take in air and his mouth was just gasping and gaping. In a fit of panic, Oliver took to his feet again and did not stop running until he had shut his apartment door behind him.

“Free at last!” he announced jubilantly to no one in particular as he ripped off his makeshift face mask.

His smile soon faded. Here it was again: The same four walls closing in on him.

He looked at his watch. The dial read 7:25. And a voice inside his head came mocking him, “Until further notice.”

It was going to be a long day.


Carried along

He spoke with a mild African accent, if you know what I mean. Not the sort of accent you’d call soft; rather, mild. But it wasn’t his accent that first caught my attention. It was his linen robe made out of several stripes of different colors, carefully sewn together, as if to last an entire lifetime. He was just about to pass me when, after a moment’s hesitation, he stopped right in front my face.

He asked about a place in my town, and could I take him there. I slightly raised my eyebrows in an expression of surprise, but immediately checked myself and said I wouldn’t mind.

There was a dull silence before either of us said another word. I can still hear the streetcars screeching over the bends and the pep talk of the early-morning engines, encouraging the two of us to start a conversation. But none of us really felt like it.

It wasn’t that we found each other uninteresting. There were tons of questions I could have thought of, in fact. Still, maybe we just didn’t know what to start with. And maybe we suspected that the answers would anything but quench our curiosity.

“Watch out!” I said, noticing that my companion had stepped onto the road after he’d looked the wrong way.

“Oh,” said he, “thank you.” Another pause followed.

“You know,” he suddenly turned to me, some 10 meters past the road crossing, “this isn’t the first time it’s happened to me. But I must say I’ve been lucky so far.”

He frowned a bit to himself. “This,” he continued, pulling up his sleeve,” is as bad as it got.”

He now revealed a purple bruise on his arm. “Not too bad, huh?” he asked me. “And, of course, a couple scratches here and there.”

I smiled politely, or intended to, for that matter. I never knew if he’d noticed because he just went on explaining.

“Back home people drive on the left side of the road, you know? Don’t ask me why. It’s always been like that, I guess. But then – you guys have been driving on the right side as far back as anyone remembers. Maybe it’s something to do with the hemispheres…”

“They also drive cars on the left in Britain,” I objected.

“Do they,” he seemed surprised. “Well, I guess that ruins my theory, then.”

“I’m afraid so,” I nodded.

For another minute my companion seemed to be absorbed in his own thoughts. He pressed his lips together and bit one corner of his mouth. A second later, his eyes had spotted a bakery.

“Hey,” he exclaimed, “can we stop over for some breakfast?”

“Sure,” I shrugged my shoulders.

We bought some nice pastry and ate it with hot cocoa as some sort of religious ceremony. I looked around a bit every now and then, only to find people employed in the same ritual. My companion noticed it and smiled.

“Breakfast is breakfast,” he said, “whether you drive your car on the left or right side of the road.”

We slowly finished the pastry and the hot cocoa, and left the bakery. Yet, out of the corner of my eye I could see him taking in the smell of fresh bread for another 100 meters. And I was doing the same.

“As I was saying,” he started over again, “back home people drive on the left side of the road. What do you suppose – which is better? To drive on the right, like you do, or to drive on the left, like we do?”

“Left sounds good,” I blurted out not to offend my companion.

“Nonsense,” he replied. “Do you think fewer accidents happen when you drive on the left side of the road?”

“Not here,” I attempted to joke my way off the subject.

“Nor anywhere else,” my companion said. He seemed determined to go on, so I let him talk.

“The truth is neither of us really knows which is better. That leaves us with two possibilities – either both ways of driving are equally good (or bad, when it comes to that), or one of them is better, but we can’t really tell which.”

“I suppose so,” I shrugged my shoulders again.

“Now, if both ways are equally good, both your people and my people can lie down and sleep and feel safe. But what if one these ways of driving is wrong – what then?”

It began to dawn on me. “You’re not trying to tell me you came all the way from Africa to figure this one out, are you?” I asked unbelievingly.

“No,” he said quickly. “That’s not the only reason I came. There are many more questions waiting to be answered.”

“Like what?” I was curious.

“Oh, you’ll see for yourself,” he waved his hand, “once you’ve made this question your major concern.”

“You must be joking,” I guessed. “There are things far more important than that. I don’t have time to spend my life trying to figure out which side of the road is better to drive on.”

“Then,” he said with an almost theatrical gesture, “you’ll never know the answer.”

That left me stunned and for a good while I could not bring myself to say anything. I just stood there, watching the cars and motorbikes quickly passing by. Were people naturally right-handed or were they left-handed? Did they naturally prefer cars or motorbikes? Would younger children prefer the same means of transport as the older ones?

I finally realized what had happened inside me. I managed to make the left-or-right question the center of my attention for once. And all the other questions were beginning to come up. I turned to my companion, quite satisfied with myself, but – my companion was no longer there.

At first I thought it was a miracle, or a sign from some deity. I found out a minute later my wallet was missing and so was my cell phone. Even worse, I still didn’t know which side of the road was better. But I decided if this was the price to pay, it really wasn’t worth knowing anyway.


Nothing happened

I personally found those days enervating. Long and toilsome. The several times my friend Jason asked me how I was doing on the writing front I had to respond that there was no time. I mean I was doing fine on other fronts — redecorating our apartment, spending time with my wife, even reading. But somehow my mind was empty as to the potential subject matter.

I was often left wondering what I would do if I could never again produce a single sentence worthy of a second one. I dreaded just the thought of it. And as the days progressed my fears seemed to be getting painfully real.

“I am a sore loser,” I said. I wanted to hear my wife’s reaction.

“Why would you say that?” she replied. That was not the right reaction. None would have been.

“It’s not a matter of whether I would. I just did.”

“Well, why did you?” Another bad reaction.

“Oh, don’t bother,” I said, rising from my sofa, overcome by a surge of righteous anger.

“I won’t,” she added lightly, upsetting the last bits of my delicate ego.

You can see now how empty I felt. It was like waiting for Godot when you know the funny fellow’s never really going to show up. I hoped my wife at least would turn a compassionate ear to me, but she acted as if she was trying to raise my spirits by being cheerful herself. That really got me down.

One day, as we were going through our sore-loser routine, my wife seemed to have forgotten her lines.

“You know,” she said with not half the joyfulness of the previous days, “I think I’ve heard this enough times. I can’t take it anymore.”

“Fine,” I replied, “go and find somebody else to live with, then.”

“I will,” she agreed and continued doing the dishes.

I watched her for one more hour and as she made no effort to keep her promise I thought I might as well leave in search of a kindred spirit myself.

I left the apartment without further ado. I wondered when was my wife going to find out I had gone. I could picture her running around the rooms, on the verge of collapsing with despair, checking every tiny crack in the walls. But I would be nowhere to be found.

I grinned with disgust. Nothing like that was ever going to happen. If my wife ever discovered I’d left, she would simply shrug her shoulders and go to bed same time as usual, then get up the next day as usual and do everything else as usual. But I doubted she would even notice. I had been right, after all. I was a sore loser.

I made my way through a group of people surrounding a street entertainer. Down the road an old man was selling hotdogs and corn on the cob. I looked at him as I imagine some junkie would, big sunken eyes bulging out of their sockets. He smiled awkwardly, expecting business. I took out some coins and held them up on the palm of my hand. I looked at him, at the coins, back at him, back at the coins. The old man frowned. I dropped the coins into his outstretched hand and turning away, I set off.

I could hear him yell after me and the louder he did, the more pleased I was with myself. At least I got someone upset.

Grinning in a Mr-Hydeish way I pictured my wife again — desperate, her hair unkempt, her clothes torn at places, revealing some of her more intimate places. Crying her head off. Begging me to forgive her. It really turned me on.

I made up my mind. I would go and make her suffer. Show her who’s the boss. Let her feel my contempt. My revenge.

With great determination I pressed the door handle. The door opened slowly, almost soundlessly. I made for the kitchen. She wasn’t there. I halted abruptly, then turned, slightly raising my finger.

“Well,” I heard her voice from the hall. “It’s been fun. Enjoy the rest of your life.” The hat on her head, her long coat and her tightly packed suitcase were all I could see of her. Then the door slammed shut.