The Missing Ingredient

The ambulance was cruising across the highway. Another restless shift. Why couldn’t he just be a fireman? Just having boring shifts playing cards with the guys and maybe once every few months going to fight some fire which most of the time ended up being a malfunction in the fire alarm. After all that’s what he wanted. A nice job he can have fun and get paid for it. Nothing too much. Well, of course, that’s what most of the human kind wanted. But only few chosen ones actually live to have it. Most just find themselves with a job they can’t stand and a boss they can’t stand even more. It was always a hard choice for him. In any of his jobs he found himself contemplating with the existential question of why can’t he stand his job? Is it because of the actual job or is it because of his boss? Since he couldn’t find the answer he just waited for his boss to be replaced. If it was the job he couldn’t stand, a new boss won’t make it better. If it was the boss to blame, he might start having fun.

 

He always liked cooking. That was probably the first thing he would have done if not being a paramedic. Well, as long as he doesn’t need to wake up every day to drive somewhere to do it. He liked cooking for his friends. He was actually in the process of cooking his favorite dish before jumping on the ambulance. He learned how to make this dish from some one-time guest in a cooking show he watched a few years ago. Just five more minutes in the oven and it was done. Maybe it’s for the best. There was always something missing with this dish. He remembered the guy in the show reading off the ingredient list. A phone call. He missed the last ingredient. Only one. His friends always gave him compliments for every dish he made. Not for that one. Something was missing. They called it the “unfinished dish”. No girlfriend stayed with him more than a week after cooking this dish. Women like guys who cook but only if they cook something to their taste. He knew the one missing ingredient could make the difference. He will win the perfect girl. That one ingredient would have made the dish a masterpiece. Instead of being remembered in the hospital as a paramedic that used to cook he will be remembered as an unforgettable cook that used to be a paramedic. If only he would have received this dreadful phone call one second later. His life would have meant something. He googled all over the internet and found like seventeen different ways to make the dish but none was the one he saw in that cooking show. He even tried calling the TV station but they told him the program is going off air due to low rating and they have better things to do than help someone find some so-called missing ingredient. He never got a hold of the actual show guest who made the dish.

 

The guy lying on the bed near him was definitely fighting for his life. Connected to all those machines it was obvious it’s going to be a miracle if he makes it to the hospital. He asked him to hold his hand. Looks like he was afraid to die. How does it feel like knowing the end is near? You are about to disappear from earth and if there is no heaven, reincarnation or even hell it doesn’t look like you are going to exist in any form or even get another chance. That’s all. You finish your life as “Mr. X”. If you just knew in advance. Maybe you wouldn’t have bought so many groceries that will stay to rot in the refrigerator. And you probably wouldn’t have waited so long to buy that huge TV you always dreamed of having. You could have had six donuts instead of the one you get for breakfast. After all, who cares about obesity in the last day of his life? Maybe people with cancer should consider themselves lucky. After all they have some advance notice. They can at least plan their grocery shopping better.

 

Traffic jam. Cars trying to clear the way but there is still nowhere to go. It’s not a good idea to die in a rush hour. If you can, better do it in early morning. If you woke up too late try to stay alive during the day, make sure the roads are clear and then have your heart attack. Early evening was the time between shifts and usually the “day shift” didn’t have the same patience to deal with a patient who decided to die during rush hour. They might connect him to life sustaining machines before doing everything they can to save him. He wondered if anyone ever checked statistically how many people in a life-threating situation died during the rush hour compared to other times of the day. He just wished the ambulance would make it to the hospital soon. His favorite team is on TV tonight.

 

The dying guy’s grip of his hand got tighter. Desperately trying to hold into life. But, taking all into consideration, the guy should feel lucky. There are much worse ways to die. Like in a plane crash or burning to death in some public building. When you die you want to be alone. Think about your life, your childhood, your first kiss, your first sex and your loved ones. Going back to life intersections where you could have taken a different path. Where you might have been today? For sure not in the ambulance. All those people screaming around you, sharing their death with yours distract this thought process. You might start feeling sorry for everyone else around you. It is hard enough feeling sorry for yourself. Much better dying here in the ambulance holding hands with the paramedic.

 

He stared directly into the dying guy’s sad eyes. He looked somewhat familiar. Dead people looked the same lying there. Same fear. How does it feel to die alone? No one was at the house besides him when they came. While he was still able to talk he didn’t mention anyone else. He looked lonely. Just like him. One lonely dying guy holding hands with one lonely living guy. Maybe that’s one of the main reasons you stick with your spouse, if you have one, after the age of sixty. You don’t like her, she annoys you, it feels like hell on earth to be with her in the same house but – she is going to be there in the ambulance. Sitting near you, holding your hands, maybe even crying. It makes you feel good to see someone crying on you when you are dying. Even if they are faking it so you won’t feel bad. If you are leaving this world while someone is still crying on you, you know that you made a difference. If not you, this someone might have been having fun on the beach right now. Instead he is sitting here crying.

 

The dying guy was fully dressed. Probably just came back from work. Somebody should call his office. Let them know he is not going to make it tomorrow. What if there is a major project for which he is supposed to give a presentation tomorrow. Actually, that might have been one of the reasons he had the heart attack in the first place. The room filled with all managers waiting for him to come and give the presentation. Checking their phones. The presentation is about to start. The company is going to lose so much money by having so many managers doing nothing for one hour. Almost as much as it is going to lose having them doing something in this one hour. His boss is frustrated. Thinking, why did I do this? Why did I give him this responsibility? I should have done the presentation myself if only I didn’t delegate my role to everyone around me so I can make it on time to the dates with my mistress. He shouldn’t have counted on anyone else beside himself. He never felt confident putting the project in the hands of this guy. He was always late. This time is one time too many. He better have a good reason or he is out of here. He will probably have some excuse, as usual. Something about the traffic or his mother not feeling good. He is history in this company. Not even one month’s notice. He is out today. If he can only give the presentation himself, the manager kept thinking. But what’s the point of being a manager if you are actually doing something that someone else can do much better than you?

 

He looked at the guy’s phone lying beside him. He was not lonely after all. Still had the ultimate friend, his phone. Did he have enough time to post a Facebook message saying goodbye? What about his account? Who will inherit all his wonderful pictures and funny posts? What about his Facebook friends? Are they going to come to his funeral? Are they actually going to miss him? Are they even going to notice he is dead? Some people die in their cubes while no one notices for few hours. How long does it take your Facebook friends to notice you are not posting anything? A week? Month? Year? How can they even notice when each has more than five hundred friends? Unless he unfriended them just before he was about to die. They might notice a change in the number of friends. But it will take them some time to find who it was.

 

He used to google the names of the people in the ambulance. It was interesting to see who they were, what they did in their lives. Not every time he found the right one. After all he couldn’t search for something like “Mr. X dying in an ambulance”. His phone was dead. He looked at the guy’s phone. No, he can’t do it. He can’t use the phone of a dying man. Well, still not dead but definitely on the fast lane for being one. He looked again at the phone. Maybe only this one time. Nobody is going to notice. He really wanted to google his name. The last respect he can give to someone lonely who has no one to cry on his dying bed. At least he will know who this guy was. And then, holding his hand he will feel something for him. Not like a spouse, a family member or even old friend but still something. Before the guy takes his last breath he will see someone caring for him.

 

He took the phone. The weak battery signal flashed. The battery was dying, just like its owner. They were close to the hospital. Even if the guy lying here is not dead by then, he will definitely be dead by the beginning of his next shift. He holds the phone gently almost trying not to annoy the battery hoping it will give him a few more valuable seconds. Not much time. The last thing he can afford to happen now is someone opening the door and finding him playing with the phone of a dying patient. He will probably need to look for a job as a cook. He checked again the name of the guy on the medical board. With shaking hands he typed the name. The search engine gave few results. He checked images related to the guy. Few faces appeared. One of them resembled the dying man. The phone beeped about to turn off. Last few seconds. He must find who this poor guy is. He pressed on the guy’s face on the screen and was redirected to a website. Some TV channel. He scrolled down looking for his name. There was a link to a cooking show with a list of guests. The guy name was the last one. He checked again the name of the TV channel. The name was familiar. It was the same channel he watched the cooking show with the missing ingredient. He looked at the guy again. The phone. The guy. The phone. The guest. The phone. The cook. The phone. The missing ingredient. It can’t be. It just can’t be. That’s him. That’s the last guest of the cooking show he watched. The phone died.

 

Here in front of him was lying the guy that meant so much to him. Gave a reason to his existence. His hero. He got his last chance to find the missing ingredient. Here he is sitting in front of the treasure. He just needs to find the combination to the lock.

 

He didn’t think twice. He pushed the guy aggressively waking him up. “Wake up, Wake up, please!!! I have a question. One question and then you can die!” The cook opened his eyes, probably for the last time. “Remember the show? The cooking show? What was the last ingredient? Please. Just tell me. The last ingredient. Please!” He yelled not caring if anyone would open the ambulance door. He must find the missing ingredient. The cook looked at him. He understands! He understands what he was saying. “Please”, he cried, “Please help me. What was the last ingredient???” The cook looked suffering. He was making an effort to say something. He start uttering some unrecognized words and crashed shutting his eyes for the last time. The recognized dead monotonous sound came from the machine. He cried like he never cried before. All he wanted was the missing ingredient. The ingredient missing from his dish, from his life, from his happiness. He took the cook like a baby in his arms. Someone cared for him after all.

NapNap

We surrounded the pit with our backs to it and held hands. It looked odd. As if we were making a circle but backwards. Ethan came closer. We wanted him to stay away but the strange circle just made him more curious. Mom always told me that if I don’t want to be noticed, I should act normal. I guess she forgot to tell me that sometimes, when you’re afraid, you don’t think right. We should have stayed away from the pit and then Ethan probably wouldn’t have even noticed it. OK, maybe he would have picked on one of us, but we were used to that. He was in our class but looked a lot older. Danny always said that he was probably held back like eight times but I said that if that’s right, then he should be in the army by now. Simon, who was really smart, said that kids were afraid of making him mad because he is always irritated, because he didn’t have any parents and he was living with his older sister and that there were stories about her screaming at him all the time and even hitting him. Danny and Simon held my hands really tight. Out of fear, not love. Maybe fear is a kind of love? Ethan stopped next to us. “So, what do we have here, my darling little children?” he rubbed his hands together, like some witch. I never understood the enjoyment in playing the bad guy. Once, when he was passing near our house, I came out to the balcony, yelled “good” three times and hid behind the blinds. I thought maybe I could remove the evil spell off him with a counter spell. He stopped, looked up and called “Asshole, I’ll get you at school tomorrow” and kept going. The next day he hit me on the head and I realized my spell failed. Maybe he needs to kiss a frog.

“Go away” I said, holding Danny and Simon’s hands even tighter, “there’s nothing here.” He became serious and came closer to me. It was always like that. Even in the movies, after the bad guy would laugh, he would become serious all of a sudden. He put his face right up to mine and whispered “did you say something, worm?” I wanted to say something back but the words were stuck in my mouth. I felt Danny trying to pull his hand out of mine. I was probably hurting him. Ethan took a couple of steps back. “I’m gonna count to three. If you don’t back away and let me see what’s there, I’ll…” -he thought for a moment what to do. We stood and waited for Ethan to decide what he wanted to do to us. He thought of it and clapped- “then I’m gonna punch you, one by one. And I’m not telling you who’s first.” He said while looking at me. We didn’t look at each other, but just by feeling both Danny and Simon squeezing my hands I knew they were not going to move. Ethan walked away a little, grabbed a stick and sat on a large rock. “One” he yelled. No one moved. We stopped breathing. Mothers with strollers were walking by, but must have thought we were playing. “Two” he said. I think he wanted us not to move. It’ll be more interesting this way. “Let’s run, he’s going to beat you up” Danny whispered in my ear. “He’s just a coward, and besides, don’t worry because my brother is going to kick his ass” I whispered back loudly, so Simon could hear it too. Truth is, my brother, who was two years older than I was, was also afraid of him. He didn’t know I was using his name to build up confident. Maybe Simon had an idea? He always had ideas about how to save our asses. But maybe now Ethan made him freeze. “Th-“Ethan dragged out the word, trying to torture us- “rrr”- “we’ll let you see what’s in here but you can’t touch it.” It was Simon. It was a pretty simple idea actually. I didn’t believe he would go for it, but at least Simon bought us some time to breathe. “You’re gonna let me see what’s there”-Ethan answered with a scary look on his face-“and if I feel like touching it I will and if I don’t, I don’t. How’s that?” Well, this wasn’t exactly what Simon had in mind. But Simon jumped in front of me and said OK. I looked at him, annoyed, but from his look I realized I had no choice. Danny calmed down a little and let go of my hand. Danny and Simon stepped aside. I was left standing alone. I was going to move but wanted to make it clear that he can’t touch it. Ethan came closer, slowly, and stood in front me. I looked up. He was much taller than I was. I was thinking to myself that, with a built like that, he was probably sorry he couldn’t beat someone up every day. “So, worm, did you not get it? Or would you prefer that I beat you up first and then see what’s there?” I moved aside slowly. “Don’t touch it” I mumbled. I was actually hoping he wouldn’t hear it. But he did. He grabbed my ear and pinched it. “What are you up to? Don’t touch what?” But then he saw it and let go of my ear.

So now Ethan too knew about our secret. An anthill. For about a month now, since Danny found it, we’ve been coming every day to see the ants building their home. It was huge, not like the little ones you can step on accidentally. They were taking grains of sand from the woods by the garden and bringing them here. It was a line of ants, carrying grains. They were building this high mount that was in the shape of an almost perfect sphere, going up and then lower in the center. It looked like in the old cities when they barricaded before a war. Danny, who used to collect apricot pips, would come to class with like ten apricots every day. His mom used to think he ate them. He would hand them out in class and then collect the pips. He would always keep one though, and we would cut it up into little pieces and put it by the line of ants so they would have something to eat on their long journey. They were regular ants, not at all special. The kind of ants you could step on, like five at a time, and not even notice. In the last few days the ants’ home was nearly ready and only a few ants were still bringing last grains of sand. The rest was busy searching for food. Danny kept following this one large ant with wings. We called it “the flying ant”. But Simon looked it up in the encyclopaedia and told us it was their queen and that it laid eggs and that the other ants, who were called “workers”, took care of them. Danny was a little sad after it disappeared for a few days and decided to call it “NapNap” because it was always napping. Simon calmed him by saying that ant queens didn’t leave the nest much. They were busy giving birth to “workers” for the nest and a few new “queens” as well. The new queens would leave the nest to mate with male ants and form new nests. I asked if “NapNap” was the queen that formed this nest but he said that after forming a nest, the queen will chop off its own wings because she doesn’t need them anymore. “So how come “NapNap” has wings?” I asked. “She is the queen of the next nest” Simon said and left, because he was tired of explaining things to me.

At recess he asked the teacher if after the feminist revolution people will have queens too, that will control everyone and fly off to form new kingdoms. But the teacher just laughed and said it was a bit early for that. Simon suggested we play by the pit every day and this way we can guard it from people stepping in it accidentally. Every day we used to put our bags at home and go down to play near the pit, until the evening. During the day, at recess, we’d sneak out through a hole in the fence and go to check on it. We were at recess now. Ethan wasn’t at recess because he didn’t even come to school. Truth is he only came to school when he felt like it and that wasn’t often.

“An ants’ nest?” -Ethan didn’t believe it-“you idiots. This is what you were making such a big deal about? Stupid kids. I thought you were protecting some treasure.” Ok, so he didn’t care about the ants, maybe he’ll go then. Or he’ll do it out of spite. “And you were worried I’ll ruin it for you? I have better things to do. But I will tell your entire class that you three are a bunch of geeks who play with ants at recess.” Fine, let him tell. It’s not as if we had a lot of friends in class anyway. Just don’t ruin the pit. But you could never tell with him. He could still wreck it, just out of boredom. The bell rang. We went back to class. Ethan went in and wrote on the board in big writing: the three geeks play with ants. The teacher came in and asked me to erase the board. It was calculus and Ethan got bored pretty quickly. He was like a small child. All he’s going to think about now are the ants, until something else will enter his head and then he’s going to forget about them altogether. Simon, who was sitting next to me, said we should find something else to occupy him with. In the middle of class, Ethan said he had to use the bathroom and disappeared. When he didn’t return I said to Simon that he might have changed his mind and went to wreck the pit. I told Danny quietly that we should take turns in going out to check the pit every couple of minutes. I didn’t want Simon to go out because he was good at maths and we could copy off of him later. Danny went out first. He came back with a big smile on his face and told us Ethan was playing soccer with the big kids. “Great” Simon whispered, “He’s already thinking about other things.” I relaxed and finally started listening to the teacher. I waited a few minutes, so the teacher doesn’t suspect anything, and went out. It was getting chilly outside and the sun was being hidden by clouds. Winter was coming. Simon explained to us that the ants were working really hard now to build all kinds of underground tunnels and gather plenty of food for the winter. Ethan really was playing soccer and when he saw me walking past the fence he said: “What’s the matter worm, you skipping maths too?” I smiled and kept going. I got out through the hole in the fence to go check on the ants. I got to the pit but something seemed odd. The ants were rushing and running around in every direction. Even “NapNap” came in and out several times, probably to give orders to the worker ants. Maybe Ethan came past, maybe the ants felt that he wanted to do something bad to them. I didn’t know what to do. I’ll go back and talk to Simon. It started raining all of a sudden. That was not good for the ants. They were busy building their nest and I wasn’t sure they managed to build enough tunnels or gather enough food. On the way back, near the hole in the fence, a big puddle was forming. Water was coming from the school drains. The puddle was so big that water started to flow from it towards the garden, like a stream. The water was pouring into a tunnel in the sand. I started walking along the tunnel. It led me to the ants’ nest. It was in its path. The queen that set this nest up made a mistake. But it couldn’t have known. Even Simon wouldn’t have noticed it. The distance between the puddle and the pit was about the same as the distance we ran today in gym class, when we did the sprint. I had to go get Simon.

I walked into class soaking wet. The teacher turned towards me and asked me where I was. I didn’t answer and walked over to Simon. I whispered “the ants are about to drown in the rain.” We took our bags and signaled to Danny to join us. The teacher yelled: “Where do you think you’re going?” we stopped. I looked at Simon but he didn’t have anything to say. I didn’t know who was worse, the teacher or Ethan. “If you leave class now, you’re not allowed back in until the end of the year and your parents are going to be invited to school to hear about this.” OK, so the teacher was worse. Simon pointed to his watch, showing me there were only ten minutes left before class was over. We sat back down. “And I want the three of you to come to me after class” the teacher said and kept solving the equation on the board. I prayed for the remaining ten minutes till the end of class. I asked god to stop the rain and give the ants enough time to hide deep inside the pit. I drew a little map of the puddle, the tunnel and the pit. Simon said we had to block the tunnel in the sand. Bell. We ran outside without talking to the teacher. Never mind, Simon will come up with a good excuse before next class. On the way I explained to Danny what had happened. He asked if I saw “NapNap” and if she got wet or drowned in the puddle. I told him she went out for a bit but went straight back in and was probably hiding in one of the tunnels that the workers have dug out for her. It calmed him down, even though I didn’t know if that was true or not. The rain kept pouring. God didn’t listen to me. He was probably busy planning something bad to do to Ethan for what he had done to us today. We threw our bags near the hole in the fence. Danny rushed over to the pit, to see if “NapNap” was ok. I showed Simon the puddle. Water was already running in the tunnel. We shouldn’t have stayed in class. But it wasn’t too late. Simon said we should build a barrier out of sand. This way we’ll stop the water and if the water passes the barrier, we’ll build another one closer to the pit. But where we are going to bring dry sand from? “The ants were bringing grains from the woods” Simon said, “there must be some there.” We ran to the woods and between the trees we discovered a pile of sand left from the construction works they did in the garden. We each grabbed as much sand as we could hold in our hands. But by the time we got back the sand was wet from the rain and was useless. Danny found a few plastic bags and we started filling them with sand from the woods and pouring it into the tunnel. We also gathered bits of wood and large stones to build a wall. Danny, who used to help his dad fix things around the house, told us where to pour the sand and how to build the wall. We were almost finished when it started getting dark. But the rain was getting stronger still. The tunnel had already filled with water and became a small stream. We were wet and muddy. We could barely hear ourselves over the rain. Simon was shouting at Danny to go home and bring a flashlight. Danny was worried that once his parents saw him like this they wouldn’t let him come back out. But Simon said we had no choice. Danny asked that if we see “NapNap” that we would pick her up and put her in a bag so that we could later let her out and she would build a new nest. I told him that without a flashlight I’m not sure we’d be able to recognize her, so he ran home.

The water reached the wall and stopped. Simon and I jumped with joy, not paying attention to how soaking wet we actually were. Someone came running. “Danny” I called. He stopped. It wasn’t Danny. He came closer. “What Danny, worm?” Ethan looked at the wall and asked “what’s this?” if we tell him he’s going to ruin it. Actually if we don’t tell him he’s going to ruin it anyway. What should we do? “It’s a wall that’s stopping the water from reaching the ants’ nest” Simon said. Ethan looked at the wall and then back at us. “Smart, huh? You call this crappy pile of sand a wall?” a trickle of water was already starting to break through it. Simon and I quickly grabbed some sand and rocks to try and stop it, but it didn’t work. The sand was soaked and could no longer hold the water back. Ethan stood there and stared. He seemed serious all of a sudden. “I think it’s going to collapse soon” he said. “We need to build another one out of dry sand, want to help us?” Simon asked. I couldn’t believe it. Asking Ethan for help? And with trying to save an ants’ nest, no less. He’s probably going to punch Simon now. Ethan looked at me. I’ve never seen him this serious. He said “I’ll build the wall but I want you to dig tunnels so the water could go in different directions.” I stood there, staring at him. “Hey worm, what are you doing just standing there? Start digging.” I looked at Simon. It was dark but I think he was smiling. There was no time to be surprised. Maybe my spell, from the balcony, was finally working. We gave Ethan a bag and started digging tunnels. Ethan was strong and filled the bags with huge amounts of sand. Every time he emptied a bag of sand into the tunnel, he would stop, look at us, and call “oh-oh-oh” like a monkey, while thumping on his chest. Simon and I laughed. I told Simon that maybe he should help Ethan with his math tomorrow. Danny hasn’t returned yet. His mother probably stopped him from coming back out. It was really hard to see anything. When will this rain stop? We were getting tired. We could barely move, our shoes were wet and muddy and our hands were hurting from digging tunnels. But Ethan was energizing us. He became sort of a commander and kept yelling at us so we won’t stop. The wall was getting bigger and bigger. It became a small structure, with pieces of wood and rocks sticking out of it. Our tunnels were also helping in diverting some of the water in different directions. Meanwhile the first wall we built collapsed and water was slowly reaching Ethan’s wall. I looked at my watch. It was almost nine o’clock. Our parents probably rang the police by now. Maybe the cops will find us and give us a hand with the wall. Although, grownups don’t usually like ants. They think ants are yucky and tiny and that if you can accidentally step on them then they’re worthless.

Once I said to Simon that maybe we are also like little ants in a world of giants, constantly busy with trying to build our nest. Simon said that in that case, where are the giants? I told him that maybe we are so small and they are so huge that it’s just by chance that one hasn’t walked past our nest yet. He laughed.

Our tunnels helped a little bit. Water was really going in different directions, but the main tunnel was so big, that most of the water kept going straight in it. The second wall was ready. It was almost as tall as we were. Ethan found a stick, stuck a piece of paper on it and jammed it on top of the wall, like a flag. He called to the ants “that’s it, you can sleep in peace now” and came over to check our tunnels. I said to him “your wall is like the great wall of China” and he laughed even though he didn’t understand. But the water current got stronger again. We didn’t have the energy to even stand anymore. We stood quietly in the pouring rain and watched. Ethan was so quiet, I wanted to hug him. Simon looked sad. I asked him what was wrong and he said that unless the rain stopped, even Ethan’s wall will fall. We didn’t have the energy to bring more sand and even then, it probably wouldn’t have done any good. The water filled the canal. Hitting the wall and going back with more power. Like those soldiers trying to bring down the city walls with big logs. Ethan, who realized he was too quick to celebrate, started screaming at us to bring more sand but we couldn’t move. He managed to run on his own a few more times but then got tired and went to stand at the other side of the wall, to see that water wasn’t going through. I kept thinking about mom and dad who were probably worried, but I wasn’t sure what I should do anymore. “No! Shit” Ethan called. Simon and I ran to him. A trickle of water has managed to penetrate Ethan’s wall. This is the end. There were only a couple of feet separating between the wall and the nest. “We have to save NapNap” Simon yelled. “But we can’t see a thing” I told him. The water won. Ethan’s wall was now leaking. A small stream was heading straight for the nest. Ethan screamed “stinking water!” jumped into the tunnel and started kicking and splashing water everywhere. Simon and I stood next to the nest. We put our hands over the opening to try to stop the water. I held my fingers tight so the water wouldn’t go through. Water came. Our hands didn’t really help. They were too little. A stream of water got into the nest. I could imagine all the little ants running around like crazy inside their tunnels, trying to escape. Maybe a few of them stayed with “NapNap”, trying to protect her.

I saw a light in the distance. It was Danny with a torch. He was wearing dry cloths. His mom must have dressed him and then he escaped. He saw Ethan screaming and didn’t understand what was happening. He flashed the torch into the pit. Water has already gotten in. “NapNap” Danny was calling into the nest. Ethan didn’t even look at him. He was too pissed off at the water and was busy jumping in the tunnel. Danny jumped into the water-filled tunnel, searching for “NapNap”. Simon and I came closer too. Now, with Danny’s torch, we could see everything. The pit has already filled with water. I looked back at the fallen walls and the tunnels, they seemed ridiculous now. What made us think we could beat this thing? Hundreds of dead ants were floating out of the nest. Just like a real battlefield in those history programs I saw on TV. But they didn’t have a hospital to take care of the wounded. It seemed like a few of them were still alive, struggling to get away, but there was no way for us to help them. Simon pulled Danny back, away from the rising water flow. “Let’s go” he yelled “she’s dead. Come on, nothing we can do” but Danny got back in and started digging inside the pit, pulling nothing but mud and dead ants out. All those cute worker ants we’ve been following for days had turned into corpses flowing in the river that covered their pit. They were so smart and productive but they couldn’t do anything about the water. It was like an earthquake is for us. Even though we’re smart and Simon is really good in math, I’m not sure we could escape the earth breaking in two and swallowing people in. Danny started to cry. He was soaking wet again and was now going to be in trouble with his parents. I also wanted to cry. Simon sat down, holding his head between his hands. Ethan went quiet and was staring at the water, hypnotized. It was sad how someone as smart as Simon or as strong as Ethan couldn’t beat something as stupid as a stream of water. I helped Simon up and we went to get our bags.

Half way there we heard Danny “NapNap, NapNap. She’s here. I found her.” We turned around and ran back. Danny grabbed a small ant, gently, by its wings. It wasn’t necessarily “NapNap” because there could be more than one queen to a nest. But for Danny’s sake I hoped it was. Even if it wasn’t, there was no way for us to know. Simon gave him a small bag and he put the ant inside it. We all got closer to the bag. Danny shined the torch on it. “She’s moving” he called with ecstasy. It must have managed to fly a little bit, enough to save itself from drowning. Need to let it rest. Maybe it was sad because all of the little workers were now lying dead in the tunnel. “Great” Simon said “close the bag and take it home and tomorrow we’ll let it out in the sun.” “Ethan, we’re going home” Simon said “our parents must be worried.” Ethan didn’t have parents to worry about him. He could only go back to his big sister’s yelling. He was in no hurry to go home. Danny shined the flashlight on him. I thought I saw a tear running down his cheek but I’m not sure because it was raining and it could have been just a drop of rain. He walked towards Danny, looking kind of odd. He grabbed the bag out of Danny’s hand, threw it on the ground and stomped it. “NapNap” was squashed and its wings broke into pieces. “No NapNap. They’re all dead” Ethan said, as if to himself, turned around and walked off. Danny picked little NapNap body up. Took it to the pit and laid it on the flowing water. Its body was now with the rest of the ants. Now, dead and without wings, it looked just like all the others.

Why?

We got into the water. I’m in my underwear and she with her bra and panties. I told her I never got into the water at night and she suggested we’d do it. On the first date. Two weeks ago I spent the whole evening looking at her. She was with friends. Before they left, when she was alone for a moment, I approached and told her she was very cute. She smiled. I asked for her phone number. She said she was just coming out of a relationship but would be happy to take my number. I thought it was just an excuse but gave her the number anyway. I wasn’t expecting a call. She called a week ago. Said the relationship was over. I said I hoped I would be an adequate substitute. We set a date for today. I suggested going to the beach.

Both of us in the water, on a hot and sticky summer night. Just us and the Jellyfish. I kissed her. On the first date. We kissed passionately. We hugged, almost naked, in the water. On the first date. Didn’t think this could still happen to me. I’m not young anymore. At my age you compromise, settle down to raise a family. And here I am, my heart racing, like a kid, in the middle of the night with my underwear, in the water, hugging her, not wanting to let go. On the first date. Me, who carries the whole damn country’s problems on my shoulders, who doesn’t understand how people can be so selfish when so much evil is around us. Here, in the middle of the night, in the water, I was thinking only about myself. Is this how love feels? I don’t know. I think this is the first time I feel this way. And I’m not young anymore. Recently, a friend asked me if I’ve ever had ‘love’. I said no. She looked at me with amazement: How can that be? At your age? I said that I either loved and wasn’t loved back or was loved and didn’t love back. This can last a lifetime. For married people too. Tonight it was symmetrical. Finally. The look in her eyes, I can’t be wrong. The sarcasm I was so proud of, that is part of who I am, was gone. I felt normal. I stopped being angry at the world. Me, in love. Receiving love. Real love. I joked about our cloths being stolen from the beach. She said that even if they were, we would manage without them. I smiled. Of course we would. We got dressed. I only just noticed that I didn’t even check her out when she stripped down to her underwear. Is this how love feels? All of a sudden her body didn’t matter. Me, who always says to my friend that if they introduce me to someone, she has to have large breasts. Didn’t even take a look at her breasts.

Second date. She was waiting for me on a bench by the house. I sat next to her. She examined me closely. I told her I had many faces. That someone once told me that every day I looked like someone else. She smiled. And kissed. I told her we could hang out right here, on the bench. She smiled. And kissed. Is this how love feels? You can spend a whole evening on some bench, in the street, because the location really doesn’t matter. We kissed. Passersby were sneaking looks. It was me sneaking those looks at couples in love, until today. Rushing, to yet another meaningless place. Slowing down for a second, just to see the kiss. My heart pinching. Why? Why doesn’t it happen to me? Then I would go on. Because I have some meaningless place to get to in a hurry. A girl with a flat tyre on her scooter stopped, asking with a smile if she could bother us. If I was alone, she wouldn’t have smiled. Worrying it might look too inviting. Probably would have turned to someone else altogether. Why ask for help from a lonely guy sitting on a bench? Maybe he is the one that needs help? Is this how love feels? People feel more comfortable approaching you. There’s this aura around you that says: come, be around me, it’ll make you feel good. We gladly agreed. I couldn’t help her but it didn’t make me feel any less good about myself. I don’t need to please others. I don’t need to prove my worth. I am worth something. We offered to help her push the scooter home. We’re in no rush. We have all the time in the world. She turned us down politely. Seemed she felt uncomfortable interrupting a couple of lovers. We went to a nearby pub. Holding hands like kids all night, kissing all the time. I always said I had a problem holding hands with a girl. I feel constrained. But with her I didn’t. The waitress came to take our order. If I was alone I would have felt obligated to look at the menu and make a quick decision. That’s the way I am, obedient, even with waiters. But now, I told her we needed more time. Is this how love feels? You get this sort of power. It’s like being drunk, you stop worrying about other people’s reaction. Your happy with who you are. Don’t have to prove anything. You can relax. Breath. Kiss. She asked me:”so what’s your story?” with anyone else I would have been defensive. Would have felt the need to explain. I don’t have a story. I just go with the flow. Don’t know where it’s going. With her I just smiled. This is my story. I’m with you and I’m having fun. I suggested going up to my place. She was unsure. I promised we wouldn’t do anything. I didn’t want to do anything. I wanted it to stay pure. Sex could pollute it. Could make it into just another relationship. I didn’t want it to be just another relationship. I wanted it to be it. We kissed on the couch. And on the rug. And stopped. We looked each other in the eyes. And kept going. I said she better go. She said we didn’t want to do it right now. That we want it to be different. Yes, we want it to be special. I want to drag this moment on. Don’t care what they say about sex when you’re in love. I know that as soon as we’ll have sex it won’t be perfect anymore. Sex is about our primal instincts. She’ll be just like all the others. But here, now, on the rug, she’s different. I looked her in the eye and I knew I couldn’t be wrong. Me, who was always proud about my intuition when it came to women, that can always tell what they feel about the relationship, can’t be wrong. Here, on the rug. Hot. The air conditioner isn’t working. I hugged her and felt her hugging me back. Symmetry. Finally. Like placing the last piece in the puzzle. When it happens, it seems so simple.

Third date. She’s on her way to a gig. A singer she likes. Stopped by my place to see me before the gig. She called last night, after we already spoke in the evening, to wish me good night. I told her it warmed my heart. She said it warmed her heart that it warmed my heart. She said we’ll be in touch. I said that when we stop saying “we’ll be in touch”, it’ll mean that the connection is growing stronger. That it’ll be so obvious, we won’t have to say it anymore. If I saw this in a movie I’d be constantly looking at my watch. This kind of kitsch doesn’t exist in reality. But it does. Now. So what’s the real reality? I’m banal and predictable and all the things I thought I wasn’t. I’m in her car. We look at each other and kiss. I feel confident. I came out f the house wearing an old t-shirt, unshaved and after eating some onion. I told her this is me looking my worst and I want her to see it now. She laughed and kissed me. With the onion breath. Is this how love feels? When you don’t care how you look, when you break cultural barriers, marching, head up high, into the abyss. And not fall. Games become pathetic. Don’t look too eager, don’t call too often, don’t and don’t… now you can do anything. I started talking a lot. About life. About how I think it should be. I wasn’t afraid of anything. This is me, I told her, and this is my story. She looked. And kissed. And I kissed. And I dove into her. And I touched her legs. She said she had an issue with her legs. She doesn’t like them. I didn’t even think about what they looked like. I just caressed. I didn’t feel as if I was operating under standard, reality based criticism. I’m in an alternate reality. In a dream. And in this reality I don’t think whether her legs are pretty or not. Common sense was irrelevant. Emotion took the throne with great pride. So this is what it looks like. This is the world of emotions. Everything is beautiful. Everybody’s smiling. I hopped over to her seat. Said I was really glad we didn’t sleep together on our last date. I suggested we should only sleep together after fifty dates or after six months, whichever came first. She laughed and said that we better start going on a date every day or several times a day. Is this how love feels? When we make future plans together we hint to fate that it is out of his hands now. We took the reins of fortune. She rang her friend who she was meeting, but the friend couldn’t make it. She’ll go to the gig alone. Not the first time she goes alone. I liked that. I said if you’re confident you go to gigs on your own. Few people can do this. She asked if I wanted to come. I said no. It’s her singer. I said each of us could have his own special ‘loves’ that he could do on his own. Only a few days ago I was alone and today I’m making all these rules about what a healthy relationship should look like. She said she tried hitting on the singer’s keyboard player once. I asked if he was going to be there, smiling. She’s already late. But it’s hard to stop. One last kiss and then another. She said:”hug me” and I did.

She’s at the gig. I’m with a friend at some party. There were girls, a lot of them. I scan the room the way I always do, just without the emotional aspect. Purely physical. Our radar, men’s that is, is always operating. Only now the information I’m receiving means nothing to me. The friend went home early. I stayed to dance alone. I don’t care. Is this how love feels? You can dance alone, surrounded by people and feel at ease. And I danced like I never did before. I turned and bounced and flew and fluttered and closed my eyes and was at peace. Finally quiet. I’m surrounded by girls and I’m at peace. The male instincts are resting. No hunting today. I’m here to enjoy and what perfect enjoyment when the hunter is resting. I looked girls in the eye and was not embarrassed because I didn’t feel like I was attacking. The party was winding down and it was left with a handful of other people. Dancing and dancing. I barely drank. Didn’t need to. I was dancing wildly and felt serene. Outside, a group of older men asked me about the location of a club. When they walked away I stared with intent. Growing older, wrinkly, lonely, trying to preserve a youthful spirit. I’m not there anymore.

I went home alone. Checked my phone for messages. None from her.

Lunch, Friday. Just finished some laps at the pool. Called her cellular. She’s not picking up. I remembered she had a shift at work today and perhaps can’t pick up. I wanted to know if she enjoyed the gig. I left a message.

Afternoon, Friday. Finished eating with friends. She still hasn’t called back. Familiar emotions from the past started infiltrating the walls of defense. Am I back in the game? To call or not to call?

I called her cellular. She’s not answering. I left a message that I was concerned. Who am I concerned for? Her or me? Do I care about her or about this feeling I have that I don’t want to stop?

Afternoon, Friday. I rang her house. Her mum answered. Said she was at work and probably couldn’t get to her phone. I relaxed. Or not?

Afternoon, Friday. She calls. Just finished her shift. I said I was worried. She said nothing. I asked about the plans we made for that night to go to the movies. She said she’ll probably be too tired. She’ll call me later.

Brain: “something’s up. She didn’t initiate anything during the entire conversation. Completely passive. She couldn’t get back to me all morning? She’ll be tired to go to the movies? Really? Something is wrong.”

Emotion:”nothing’s wrong. Can’t be. Just last night we said goodbye like two lovers. Not a hint. If there was a sign I would have noticed. Nothing happened.”

Brain:”maybe it was something I said yesterday?”

Emotion:”but I didn’t say anyth… or did I? What did I say? I was calm, relaxed. Spoke naturally. Maybe I touched on a nerve? Maybe scared her? Can’t be. She asked for a hug.”

Brain:”maybe she’s just not into it anymore.”

Emotion:”why?”

Night, Friday. I’m back operating according to the rules of the game. Decide to call, but at an odd time so she doesn’t think it was planned. She picks up. Sounding detached. As if she just woke up. Maybe not. Heart pounding. Yesterday’s butterflies have turned into blood-sucking bats. The magical feeling has been replaced by a dark, painful, stabbing feeling. I feel weak. I ask if something happened. She’s fine, she says, but, yes, something happened. Anything to do with me? I ask. Something I said? No, she says, not at all. It’s about her. I’m falling. Nothing to stop me. Heart pounding. Throat choking. I always said that when one side ends a relationship, the other side is better off not asking why. The answer will always be unsatisfying, unclear and unpleasant. Matters of the heart are better settled without painful explanations. But now the brain is in charge. Got to hold on to something. Need an anchor. Need a reason. It can’t be just like that. I must have a reason. Need to know why. The brain is asking for a logical explanation to relate to, maybe counteract, but emotions don’t have logical explanations. They just happen. Did you meet someone at the gig? I ask. I meet a lot of people, she replies callously. But the brain keeps leading the way. It wants an explanation. It’s like poking an aching tooth. It’s no good, but you can’t help it. The emotion doesn’t care for the reason; it’s going to hurt either way. It’s the brain that’s looking for some peace. The logical circuits in my head keep getting stuck. Like a scientist making futile attempts to solve an unsolvable equation. If this conversation ends now I’ll collapse. Something must have happened. Between last night in the car and this morning, something happened. Or didn’t happen? So, what? Just like that? Can’t be just like that. Did you meet someone at the gig? I ask again. Say yes, please, I think. It’s only to do with me, she replies. I sense her backing out. Curled up in the corner while I’m attacking. In love with myself. Oblivious to her suffering. But I keep falling. I have to take something from her to save myself. Can’t stop, not now. Did you meet someone at the gig? I ask, or conclude, with a threatening, scared, shaking tone. Yes, she answers. Quiet. The brain circuits are relaxing. There’s an explanation. The brain got what it needed. The emotion still hurts. Refusing to believe. But how? Why? Just yesterday you asked for a hug, I think. I guess he was more impressive than me, I say. The Cynicism is back. Renaissance era, over. Were back to the darkness of the Middle Ages of the soul. Cynicism rules again. No, she says, not at all. Like a mother consoling her son after failing an exam, I feel her hand stroking my head. It’s just that, it shook me, emotionally, she continues, and… Enough! I don’t want to hear any more. Enough! I got an explanation. More than I bargained for. Just like in a casino, better get out now. While I’m ahead. If we go on, I’ll lose everything. Her every word is like a whip on my back. I think we should end this conversation now, I mumble. She tries to say something. All I hear is a blur of syllables. Everything is foggy. Painful. Very painful. I raise my voice, trying to maintain some dignity. Like a condemned man on death row committing suicide so the executioner doesn’t get the pleasure of doing it, I suggest we end the conversation. Goodbye. That’s it. Storm over. Quiet. The town is in shambles. Residents are starting to emerge from between the wreckage. Cool breeze of sadness in the air.

Night, Friday. I’m on the beach. Staring at the same spot we were at. In the water. Hugging. The air hot and sticky. It’s bugging me now. I’m off the Olympus and down here, amongst the mortals, the heat is annoying. I’m not crying. I can cry from a sad movie but I don’t cry about my life. I think I’m afraid. Don’t want to sink. I look at the sea. The look in her eyes, I couldn’t have been wrong. Why?

Cognac

“Cognac?” I looked at the salesperson in disbelieve. Such a color actually exists? He snickered. I guess I’m not the first to wonder about this. “Yes, Cognac. It’s actually quite a sought after color. In any case, you don’t have that many options, so don’t stress. We have this wardrobe in black, brown or Cognac. Take your time,” he neared me and winked, “let the lady decide. They’re good at it.” He went off. I looked at the ‘lady’, who’s actually my girlfriend, Karen, whom I am moving in with. She knows what Cognac is. She was laughing through the whole thing. Enjoying my innocence. “I think Cognac is the best. Goes well with your shirt, too.” My shirt? I was wearing this red-crimson-Bordeaux or god knows what color. “But I change my shirt every day,” I said with a smile. “Every week you mean,” she was poking me, “besides, all your shirts are in this style.” Why does a wardrobe need to match a shirt? Never mind. “I have to go to the toilet,” she said, laughing, “you have five minutes to decide. And I don’t want the black.” She disappeared.

“Hello there.”

Where did that come from? I looked around. The store was gone. I’m in a bubble of silence. Just the wardrobe and me.

“Nice to meet you,” I whispered.

“Pleasure is all mine,” it replied pleasantly, “so, are you excited?”

“Excited? What’s there to be excited about? It’s just a wardrobe.”

“Don’t be a wise guy,” it smiled in a fatherly fashion, “I’m not just a wardrobe. I’m a Cognac colored wardrobe.”

“So what?” I was trying to ease the tension, “Cognac is just a color. Just like black or brown.”

“Nonsense. You know it’s not just another color. After all, you didn’t even know such a color existed before you came here. Right?”

“Big deal. Now I know. Just another meaningless color. A sort of brown.”

“A sort of brown”, it repeated mockingly, “you are so naive. Or at least you pretend to be. I’ve seen your sort. Patronizing me. Sort of brown…”

“I didn’t mean to, I was…”

“Don’t worry about it”, it cut me off, “so? Are you buying or not?”

“I don’t know”, I stammered, “It’s a bit much. I never bought a wardrobe. I always moved into places that already had wardrobes. And even if they didn’t, I just threw my cloths in a basket. But to buy a wardrobe…”

“So what are you doing here?” it was impatient, “wasting my time?”

“No”, I tried to appease it, ”I’ll probably buy in the end. It just might not be you. You see. Cognac, this color, it’s new to me and…” I couldn’t find the right words. I looked at it. It was rather nice actually. But there is something about the sound of that word. I don’t know. It put me off.

“Are you afraid of new things?” it asked.

“No. I’m actually really into variations and adventures and all that. But Cognac is not just a new color. There is something absorbing about it, restricting, something…”

“Like a couple?” it asked quietly.

“What?” I responded quickly, “What did you say?”

“Like a couple. It’s a couple’s color. Between you and me,” it gestured for me to approach, “you wouldn’t come in to a store like this if you were alone. You said yourself, you never needed a wardrobe.”

“Yes, I think I know what you mean”, I mumbled. Boy, was it right. That’s exactly it. After all, the color itself didn’t intimidate me. I have no problem with it. And it wasn’t the sound of the word either. It’s the meaning of buying a wardrobe in some color that you wouldn’t even be aware of, if you weren’t in a relationship. If you weren’t a couple. It’s the meaning of buying a couple’s wardrobe. Declaring: “I’m a couple.”

“So?” It was calmer now, realising it hit a nerve, “afraid of being in a couple?”

“Afraid?” I’m confused, “I wouldn’t say afraid. Just. You know. I’m happy with Karen. She loves me a lot and I love her, I think. And that’s what matters, right? Love. And I like being with her and we’re moving in together and all that, so we need a wardrobe. I think. No?”

“You’re asking me? I’m not sure you know what you want.”

“About the wardrobe?”

“About the relationship,” it replied monotonously.

“What are you talking about?” enough, what is this? Psych 101? “Karen is my girlfriend. You understand? We’ve been together for three years. All we’re doing now is move in together. That’s it. She was already hanging around my place all the time, so what’s the difference?”

“No difference”, it smiled, “is that why you are so nervous?”

“Me? Nervous? You’re imagining.”

“Fine,” it backed off, “I must be imagining. Anyway, I don’t want to stress you out, but, Cognac is just the beginning.”

“Just the beginning?” I could barely pronounce the words.

“Exactly. After the wardrobe there’s the bed, a washi…”

“We already have a bed.” I felt triumphant.

“Washing machine,” it kept going, ignoring me, “refrigerator, dresser, iron, ironing board, rugs, coffee table, chairs, big screen TV, garden, porch, outdoor furniture, stove, microwave oven, drill, curtains, tool box, kitchen cupboards, another wardrobe, because I won’t be big enough, pots, pans, plates, car, jeep, D.V.D player—”

“Most of this stuff I already had when I was living alone,” I tried invalidating what it was saying.

“But now you’re going to have to buy it all over again,” it said abruptly, “and this time,” pause, “as a couple.”

“So what? So we’ll buy them as a couple. Karen and I will buy everything together and it’ll be fun.”

“So this is what you look like when you’re having fun?” it mocked, “keep having fun then.”

“That’s enough. Stop it. Why are you enjoying abusing me this way? It’s hard enough as it is,” I withdrew, “hard enough.”

It looked at me quietly. Letting my internalization sink in. It didn’t need to speak any more. I don’t know what I want. I was used to living alone, being the master of my own time. Being able to change the course of my life at any given moment. The ultimate freedom. A drug. You don’t have to be nice if you don’t want to, flatter someone if they don’t deserve it. You only need to be in touch with yourself. Master of the universe. But you’re alone. And you also want to feel loved. That’s the only thing you’re missing. Love. So at first you fuck. As much as you can. But it’s not enough. You start to feel insecure. Growing older. Vulnerable. Free, but fragile. Freedom is seen as a lie. You don’t take advantage of it because you’re waiting for love to arrive. And it arrives. And you’re ecstatic. God. I love and I am being loved and it’s great. Now everything is perfect. Perfect? Not exactly. Love means your freedom is restricted. It’s just like what we were taught at school. If you add to one end of the equation, you have to subtract from the other. So I subtract from freedom. But I do it with joy. What do I need freedom for? I’m in love. You scorn freedom. It’s seen as dangerous. The world of the lonely. You’re living within a shell. A love shell. But time goes by. Love becomes somewhat dull. You’re still in love. After all, you wouldn’t dare say you’re not. But the sex isn’t what it used to be. The excitement of seeing her is gone. It’s a habit now. Love that has matured. The equation is out of balance again. You have to add to one end of it. It can’t be the love end. Love can only fade. You put some more effort into the relationship. Going on a holiday. Flowers. But whatever you do, say whatever they will, this is not love. You’re only reinforcing the habit. Gluing it tight so it doesn’t crack. Because that’s all you’ve got. And everybody is busy persuading you this is what being in a couple is. And they’re right. Each person compromises for the other and together you create this harmony that… that what? Harmony that will lead you to family? Children? And you want children. Can you not want children? Little rugrats that look like you, running around the place and you look at them and realize the meaning of life? Can anyone not want that? You’d have to be crazy. Everyone keeps saying. Get married already. Not for the wedding. For the children. You don’t want to be an old dad, do you? Using a walking cane to walk your child to kindergarten? And what about the equation? What equation? Does it still exist? It’s not there anymore, buddy. It was in your head. Freedom is down to a minimum. Only what you need to live, breath, eat and go on your yearly mini- vacation. But freedom doesn’t matter. What do you need freedom for? What are you, a child? You’re a family man. Kids. Work. Structure. Model citizen. What the hell are you talking about? Freedom? Do you even remember what that is? It’s an illusion. An illusion you’ve built, until love came along. At first you refused to let it go. Tried convincing yourself that you’re going to do it your own way. Not like everyone else. You’re going to decide what this relationship is going to look like. So you go out with friends to a pub once a week, you take a philosophy course and you convince your girlfriend that it’s really important that she would have her own thing just so you could have more freedom to yourself. As if you care if she her own thing or not. I want freedom. I want to be within a structure, but free. That’s impossible. Everything collapses. The equation collapses. You increased your freedom by a couple of inches but the structure, the habit, the family, that whole other side, grew by miles. So you stop dreaming. You’re a maintenance guy now. Living your freedom vicariously through others. You survive in order to allow freedom for others, so they can fit into a frame, grow bigger and survive, so others can have freedom to… and so on. You do all this with your partner. You love. Your habit. You’re an alchemist. You’ve done the impossible. You’ve traded in your freedom for a basket full of goodness. This is what you live for, isn’t it?

“Is this what you live for?” asked the wardrobe.

Oops, I thought this was just in my head. I guess it can read minds too, the bastard.

“Yes”, I answered, trying to sound decisive.

“And there isn’t another way?”

“Another way? What are you talking about? What do you know about life? You’re just a wardrobe.”

“Not just a wardrobe,” it declared.

“A Cognac colored wardrobe,” I was mocking it, “Cognac, Cognac, Cogn-“

 

“So?” it was Karen, “have you decided? I can hear you mumbling Cognac so I guess I don’t have much left to say.”

“Why? Would you prefer a different color?”

“No, it’s a great color. I also like the sound of the word.”

The salesperson approached. “Well, have you made a decision? Going with the Cognac?”

“Yes,” Karen replied with a smile.

“Good choice. Most couples choose this wardrobe. I guess there’s something about it.” He winked at me, “well chosen, dude.” Yes, well chosen.

“By the way, would you prefer the wheels the same color as the wardrobe or black?”

“Does it matter?” I asked naively. Karen and the salesperson laughed and looked at each other knowingly.

“Well,” he said, in a business like demeanor, “to the painful matter. The wallet. Shall we?”

They walked off. I was left by myself, next to the wardrobe. I looked at it.

“Is there no other way?” I asked.

I went to pay.

 

 

 

 

 

Racquets

I don’t feel like waking up at seven o’clock on a Saturday morning to go to the beach. “But dad, we’re going out with some friends and I don’t know when we’ll be back,” I offer an apology on the phone. “Never mind, it’s only if you want to. So, you go out this late every week? I’m out there from six o’clock. I’ll take another Racquet with me either way.” “OK dad, we’ll see. I’ll try,” my heart is breaking. I know he really wants me to play with him. Even for a few minutes. For him it’s priceless. He’s been retired for years now. This is all he’s got. “Let the child be,” I can hear mom in the background, “let him sleep. He works hard all week. At least let him rest on Saturday. He’s thirty. Racquets, Racquets. Every Saturday the same song.” “I’m not forcing him,” dad answers her but speaks to me, “why do you have to interfere? Just keep in mind this is the best time of the year”. “OK, dad, I have to go, they’re waiting for us downstairs.” “Ok, good night, drive safely. Your mom sends her regards to Dana,” he hangs up.

Always the same crappy feeling. It’ll take an hour for it to go away. And as usual they’ll ask me what’s wrong. Nothings, it’s fine. Just the usual deal with my dad. Why can’t I say no? Just no. Sorry dad, I just can’t wake up this early in the morning. Old habits. I used to play with him almost every Saturday. Set an alarm for the morning. Madness. But not just for him. I used to love it. This way I had the whole day free. Up at six, Racquets at seven, breakfast at my parents at nine, by ten o’clock I was home. All that, instead of getting up at midday, as usual. It was great. Dad is a good player. Not one of those you’d stop to watch play, but good. Keeps asking me to slam the balls. He likes playing defense. So I did, but not too hard. I was so happy when he put a grip on the racquet handle to stop the blisters. It showed he was serious about it. That he has interests. That’s another thing about the emptiness of retirement. When life becomes this big block of time, and there’s no difference between morning, noon, evening or night. No purpose. Just surviving. Waiting for an illness. Or death. Whichever comes first. After the game I sit exhausted on the sand. He jumps in to the cold water and out for a long sprint along the shore. This time people do stop to look. He runs funny. Like a ballet dancer. On his toes. And he’s fast. Really fast. As if he’s trying to prove that he is still alive. A dialog with death.

“Hello, I’m death, I’m here for you.”
“Not so fast, pal.”
“Sorry, but according to our records you are retired. Pretty old. I think it’s time.”
“Old? Sir, check out this sprint. The whole beach is staring. Twenty year old would be grabbing their sides by now. And the Racquets, have you noticed the grip? It’s not there for a game or two. This is a grip for years.”
“But, sir—“
“Sorry, got to run. Take care.”

Six months ago I met Dana. Two months ago we moved in together. Since then I hardly ever make it to the beach. Hardly ever go to sleep early on Fridays. When I was alone, Friday nights would get so sad sometimes, that I would go to bed at ten. It’s a different story now. We go out every weekend till the small hours of the night. As if to make up for all that alone time. I’m back to waking up at midday on Saturdays. And if we wake up early we use the time for sex and breakfast at the local café. Dana has gotten used to my ‘threats’ about waking up early and going to the beach. She knew I wouldn’t. Once she even tried to wake me up, “hey, remember you have a date with your dad?” but I just turned over and kept sleeping. One Saturday I nearly jumped out of bed, but Dana hugged me really tight. So I gave up. In the evening, when we go to my parents, my dad looks at me and smiles, “the water was perfect today. You missed out. Never mind, next Saturday”. Yes, next Saturday. I’ll plan my time better. We’ll go to sleep early Friday. I’ll come home before Dana even opens her eyes. Dana looks at me. She knows what I’m thinking.

He hasn’t played in a month. Knee problems. Huge bandage around it. He’s a bit sad. Mom said he over did it with the running. Thinks he’s still sixteen. She’s been telling him to take it easy. But he’s stubborn. This week the bandages came off. The doctor recommended an extended rest. He called to make a date with me at the beach the next day.

We got home at five o’clock in the morning. I set an alarm for six thirty. My conscience set the alarm, more like it. I told Dana I made a date with my dad at seven thirty. She smiled. Didn’t answer. I have to try. He hasn’t played in a month. He’ll be so happy to see me there. He seemed to have gotten old all of a sudden. In one month. As if old age was just waiting for him to stay at home. He runs, plays, jumps but as soon as he sat down for a moment, old age caught up with him. But he won’t give up, I know him. I got up at nine. I can still make it. Last half hour perhaps. Dana was asleep. Stayed in my pajama pants and just threw a shirt on. Whispered to Dana, “be back in an hour,” and left. I drove like mad. Saturday morning. People are strolling in the spring sun. And I’m flying. I made it at half past nine. Looked over from the boardwalk. He wasn’t in his usual spot. I went down to the beach. Probably went home earlier than usual. But I have to be sure. I don’t want to call my mom because she stresses over these phone calls. And dad doesn’t have a cellular. I walked along the beach. Early summer. Too cold to swim but people are already filling up the beach, walking along the sand. I walked to the end and back. Nothing. I’m tired. Haven’t had anything to drink. Where is he? I can see his usual buddies. But he is not amongst them. Oh well, probably went home. He didn’t like the beach when it was crowded. I went home.

“Where were you?” I asked aggressively when we came to visit that evening.
“What? You came? How come I didn’t see you?” Dad was surprised.
“Sure I came. We had a date, no? I was there at nine thirty.”
“Ah, nine thirty. I was resting in the shade. Told my buddies if they saw my son to call me. You didn’t see them?”
“I saw them. But thought you’ve already left. It was so hot.”
“Yes, it was. But the water. Never mind, next Saturday.”
Dad passed away the next day.

Fat Moses

“You stinking moron!” Moses screamed.

“Fatso, can’t you see you’re blocking the way? You’re fat.” Kaden replied quietly.

“Get out of here, do you hear me? Get out or−”

“Or what?” Kaden smiled, “or what? What can you do? Look at you. By the time you move that fat belly of yours, you would have already had your butt kicked.”

Moses exploded. His face blew up and looked like a giant tomato. He started to drool. He used to drool whenever he got really mad and couldn’t speak. It was as if spit was replacing his words.

“Hey ugly, wipe that spit. You’re going to give the entire classroom your germs. My mom told me to stay away from you.”

“You…” Moses was approaching Kaden. I jumped out of my chair and stood between them. I grabbed Moses and sat him down. “Enough, what are you getting so upset about? Can’t you see he’s trying to annoy you?” I told him quietly. I turned towards Kaden “Let him go. Why are you picking on him? You have room to pass.”

“Why are you b-b-butting in?” Kaden started stuttering. He would stutter when he was nervous. His parents sent him to speech therapy and it didn’t happen much anymore. But this time I really upset him. “Fatso, after you clean the spit off your face, come to the sand mound near the b-b-basketball court. Unless you are a coward. We’ll see if you’re a man there, not here with geeks p-p-protecting you.” I looked at Moses. I gestured with my finger for him to say no. But the whole classroom was looking at him as well. If he didn’t answer, Kaden would have won. He has to say yes. Maybe he is better off losing the fight rather than not agreeing to fight at all. Hunter, the ‘class king’ and a good friend of Kaden, approached Moses. Moses looked down at the desk and muttered, “after class, in the sands by the basketball court, you s-s-stuttering idiot.” He imitated Kaden stuttering. Kaden jumped at him but Hunter stopped him and whispered in his ear, “after class, don’t worry, the fat guy will get it.”

The teacher walked in. Moses sat next to me. Up until a month ago he used to sit by himself, but the teacher had asked students to volunteer to sit next to him. No one would do it. I used to help Moses with his math homework and his mother had a talk with me.

“I want you to sit next to Moses. He sits alone and I think it bothers him,” she said. “Moses’ mom,” I was embarrassed, “I sit next to Ron and he’s my best friend. If I move next to Moses, Ron won’t be my friend any more. Besides, Iris already sat next to him for a while but she stopped because no one in class would speak to her and also, she said his spit got all over her when he got mad.” “I don’t know what happened with Iris,” his mom wasn’t as nice anymore, “but I’m sure that if Ron is a good friend of yours, then he would appreciate you moving to sit next to Moses. About the spit, I think that’s a made up story and if a little drool comes out when he gets annoyed, well, that can’t kill anyone.”

“I don’t know,” I wanted to go home, “my mom told me that—”

“I already spoke to your mom and she said its OK.”

Moses was sitting next to us the whole time and didn’t say a word. He looked me in the eye and I think he was crying. I wanted to say “no” but couldn’t. So I said “ok” in kind of a sad way. I’ll tell Ron that Moses’ mom made me sit next to him and that after he’ll get his spit all over me, I’ll come back to sit with him. Moses’ mom smiled and gave me a candy.

So now we’ve been sitting together for a month. At first Ron didn’t talk to me but because I’m a good student and he wanted to copy off me, we started talking again and then became best friends again. Hunter and Kaden were not talking to me. I told the teacher that kids were not talking to me because I was sitting next to Moses and she said “If students in this class want to behave like children with no manners and education, that’s their business, you don’t need to take it personally. Well done for helping Moses, I’m sure your parents will know about it in the next parent-teacher meeting.”

Moses wiped the spit off with his hand. I didn’t look at him. If he’s going to fight Kaden, that’s his business. If I help him, that’ll be the end of me in this classroom. Ron will never talk to me again. I took a piece of paper out of my notebook and wrote ‘tell the teacher you are not feeling so good and then run home.’ Moses read it and said quietly “butt out, leave me alone.” Fine, he can do whatever he wants. Maybe if it was me, I’d also fight Kaden. But I knew how Kaden felt. Moses was so fat, that sometimes it looked like maybe he was doing it on purpose, just to irritate. I was also annoyed when he was clinging to me in class. Once, I told his mom not to give him so much candy, but she said it wasn’t candy, it was his ‘build’. I didn’t get it, but it sounded like a grownup excuse.

After class, I’ll hurry to Ron’s house to play on his computer. It was quiet during class. The teacher asked if something had happened but no one said anything. Everybody was waiting for the bell. Except for Moses. I knew he was scared. His hand was shaking when he wrote. I felt sorry for him, but what could I do? Wasn’t it enough that I was made to sit next to him, now I have to get into trouble because of him?

Bell. Everybody was packing their bags in a hurry. Hunter called “everyone to the sands!” The teacher asked “what’s happening in the sands?” and Hunter said “we’re playing soccer.” Moses rose slowly. Only I could stop him, but I didn’t know how. I told him “want to come to Ron’s house and play on the computer?” but he pretended not to hear. Anyhow, I’m not sure Ron would have agreed.

Ron walked past us. “Are you coming to the sands?” he asked. “Aren’t we going to play on the computer?” I said. He pulled me and said, “come on, let’s go see the fatso getting beat up”. I pulled my arm back, “let go, I’m going home”. Ron looked at me shocked, “I thought you said you weren’t his friend.” “I’m not,” I answered quickly. “So why aren’t you coming?” he asked. “I don’t like seeing fights,” I said. Ron turned around in anger and left.

Beth, the cutest girl in class that I’ve wanted to ask to be my girlfriend for the past two years, but was always too shy, stopped next to me. “Do you want to stand next to me at the fight?” “Are you going?” I asked. “Of course I’m going. Didn’t you hear Hunter?” “Yes,” I replied, “but do you like watching boys fight?” “Yes,” she answered, “besides, it’s not just boys”- she looked over at Moses with disgust “its fatso, he deserves it.” “Save me a spot next to you,” I said and she kept going.

I was left alone with Moses. I would call his mom, but that would be more humiliating than getting beat up. I didn’t know what to say. Moses put his backpack on. “Don’t go,” I said quietly. “Why? Do you think I’m scared?” he asked. “No, but why would you? Kaden is an idiot. Besides, he’s got Hunter with him and almost the entire class, so it’s not fair. “Listen,” he has already made up his mind, “I’m going. Want to help me?” “How?” I asked worryingly. “Watch over my bag. Don’t let anyone take it.” I took his bag. I was going to get into trouble because of him after all.

It was raining heavily outside. The sands near the basketball court had turned into mud. It was late and it was getting dark. Apart from the fight area, the whole school was empty. The entire class stood in a circle, with Kaden in the middle. Moses and I came closer. I started thinking about how I’m going to explain the whole thing with the bag. I remembered a picture I saw in the encyclopaedia of an armor-bearer. I felt a bit like that. Moses is the warrior and I’m his armor-bearer. The circle opened to let Moses in and closed right behind him. Beth called, “come here, I saved you a spot”. I smiled and stood next to her. Ron, who stood across from me, was not looking at me. He’ll get over it. Hunter stood in the center, next to Kaden. “When I say go, we start. Anything goes and—” Moses jumped at Kaden. Kaden, who was not prepared, fell on his back with Moses on top of him. Hunter kicked Moses in the stomach and threw him off of Kaden. He stuck his face in Moses’ face and said quietly, “now we start.”

As I thought, it wasn’t an even fight. Moses was very slow. Kaden was ecstatic. He was laughing and smiling and didn’t stutter at all. Every time he kicked Moses he said “so, fatso, was it worth eating like that?” He did his best to hit him and move back each time. Moses tried to grab him, but every time he reached for him, Kaden was already too far. Hunter pushed Moses from behind and he fell on his belly. Kaden jumped on top of him and pushed his face in the mud. One time. And another. And another. The whole class was delighted. They were chanting “Kaden! Kaden! Kaden!” people in the street were stopping by the fence to see what’s happening but the circle was tight and hid what was going on. Beth, standing next to me, was overjoyed. She noticed that I wasn’t calling Kaden’s name like everyone else and asked, “what’s going on? Can’t you see that Kaden is winning?” Yes, I can see. I think that if I was chanting with everyone, I could have kissed her now, for the first time.

Kaden stood up and Moses did too, his face covered with mud. He looked like King Kong on the high-rise with all those planes attacking him. Kaden and Hunter surrounded him and started playing ping-pong with him. Hunter pushing him towards Kaden and Kaden pushing him right back. Moses wasn’t really a child anymore; he was a lump of fat. A little bit like a misshaped soccer ball. With every push, the entire class yelled “Ole!” just like at a soccer game, when the winning team passes the ball around in the last minute of the game. Kaden pushed Moses towards the other kids in the circle. Now the whole class was part of the game. Each side passing him over to the other side. Hunter and Kaden joined the circle. Now it was Moses against the world. He ended up in front of Beth. She looked at me so I would help her push him, but I pretended not to notice. She screamed “get off me, fatso! Your getting mud all over me!” and pushed him off with the help of her friend. I have to leave. It’s all wrong. Moses, Beth, Ron, Hunter, Kaden. I end up being the most messed up. Ron pushed Moses towards me, on purpose. Now he was in my hands. The whole class was looking. Beth was looking. Ron was looking. What do I do? I started hearing voices “come on, what’s up with him?” Moses’ eyes met mine. I have to take him home. His spit was blending with the rain and the mud on his face. He said quietly “help me”. The circle started closing in. They could easily take him back, but they were testing me now. Beth. Ron. Kaden. Hunter. If I let them down, I’m finished in this class. My only friend will be fat Moses, and even that is not certain. I drew Moses closer and whispered in his ear “sorry”. I pushed him back to the circle. Beth kissed me on the cheek. Ron was smiling at me from the other side. Even Hunter was looking at me.

It’s dark. The rain is still coming down. Moses fell into the mud and they couldn’t get him up so they all went home. I had his bag. I am trying to pick him up, “let’s go home, Moses”. He takes the bag back, but is not getting up. “Come on Moses, your mom is waiting” I can’t look him in the eye. I try picking him up again but he won’t let me. “Are you coming or not?” I say for the last time. “Looser,” he mutters. I turn around and start going home. Just before I walk out the gate, I turn around. Moses is still sitting in the mud. I call “Moses!” but I choke. It turns into a whimper “I’m sorry, Moses.”

The Knight

It was past Blake’s bedtime but he had to finish his drawing. It was a knight with all his armor. Tomorrow is the art competition at school and he must submit his picture to the teacher. His brother was already sleeping so he tried to work quietly. He didn’t want his mom and dad to wake up. They, again, had one of their fights. They were so mad at each other, they even forgot to check on him and tell him good night. He hates it when that happens. The knight didn’t look happy. Blake tried changing the mouth, the eyebrows, the nose, but nothing helped. Well, too late now. Maybe in the morning he will fix it. Time to sleep.

“Hey! Hey!”

Blake jumped out of his bed.

“What?” he looked at his brother across the room in the other bed. He was sleeping.

“Hey! It’s me. On the table.”

He got up and reached for the table near his bed. The only thing on the table was the knight picture.

“What took you so long?” said the knight.

“I was sleeping. How can you talk? You are my picture.” Blake was surprised.

“So? Does that mean I can’t talk?”

“Never mind. I am tired and I am probably dreaming. What do you want?” Blake just wanted to go back to bed.

“I need your help,” said the knight.

“My help? I can’t help a knight. I am only a kid.”

“You are the one that drew me in the picture. You didn’t draw a helmet on my head. I need my helmet.”

“This is my picture, not yours. I drew you holding the helmet in your hand. I wanted it to be a smiling knight. Not a knight with a helmet that covers his face. ”

“Well, I am not smiling now, smart guy!” the knight said rudely, “I lost it. I need you to draw it again, and this time on my head.”

“I need to go to sleep now. Maybe if I have time in the morning before school I will add the helmet,” Blake just wanted to end the conversation.

“You can’t go to sleep now!” the knight almost cried, “The joust is about to start. I need my helmet!”

“What is a joust?” Blake had never heard of it.

“How can you draw a knight without knowing what a joust is? Jousting is a sport in which two knights on horses fight with lances.”

“And a lance is a kind of sword?”

“Not exactly. It is a long wooden shaft, which we use to knock down the other knight from the horse. I must win the joust and I can’t do it without my helmet. Come, “ a small hand stretched out of the drawing, “Help me look for it.”

Blake looked at the hand. He didn’t move.

“My mom told me to never go with strangers”, he said.

“I am not a stranger. I am your knight!” the knight screamed. “Please help me”, he begged.

Well, Blake thought to himself, he has a point. I drew him, so I might as well help him find the helmet.

“I can come but I have to be back in time for school tomorrow morning”

“Don’t worry. You will not be late for school,” smiled the knight.

Blake reached for the hand. His room disappeared. He found himself in the middle of a big field surrounded by hundreds of cheering people. The knight was near him on the horse. On the other side of the field was the other knight, ready for the fight. Suddenly, the crowd got quiet and sat down. Only one man with a long white beard wearing a red and white robe remained standing.

“This is the king”, whispered the knight.

“I am calling for the beginning of the joust,” announced the king, “are you ready?”

“I am not ready!” said the knight quickly, “I am missing my helmet.”

“Your helmet?” the king was surprised, “where is it?”

“He drew it in my hand instead of on my head, ” he pointed at Blake.

“It’s not my fault”, screamed Blake, “You lost it.”

“Calm down, you two.” said the king, “Now, Blake, can you please describe what the helmet looks like?”

“It is a blue helmet with a red rose on top of it,” said Blake.

“Are you sure about the rose?” the knight didn’t like the idea of a rose.

“Yes, I am sure about the rose!” Blake didn’t like questions about his drawing.

“Did anybody see a blue helmet?” the king asked the crowd.

“With a red rose on top of it!” yelled Blake.

“With a red rose on top of it”, the king smiled softly.

A woman came out of the crowd and got closer to the king. It was Blake’s mom. She had a blue helmet in her hand. “Here it is,” she said handing the helmet to the king.

“It is blue,” said the king, “but I don’t see a red rose. I am not sure it is the right helmet”.

“The rose was there. I am sure I drew it just before I fell asleep”, yelled Blake.

“Maybe you just dreamt that you drew it?” said the king.

“No, I didn’t dream about it. I did draw the rose. Besides, how could I have dreamt about it if I am dreaming now?”

“Are you sure you are dreaming now?” smiled the king.

“Well…” Blake wasn’t so sure anymore.

“I am sorry,” said the king to the knight, “I can not give you the helmet if Blake says it is not the helmet he drew.” He returned the helmet to Blake’s mom.

“I don’t care about the red rose! I just want my helmet!” the knight was very frustrated.

“Wait!” a man came out of the crowd and approached the king. It was Blake’s dad. “I found the red rose. It just fell off the helmet. “ He approached Blake’s mom like he didn’t know her. “Can you please give me the helmet to see if the rose fits?” Blake’s mom handed him the helmet with some suspicion. His dad pushed the rose’s stem into a hole in the helmet.

“So, what do you think?” He asked the king “Does it fit?”

“I am not the one who drew it,” said the king “we need to ask the boy. Blake what do you say?”

Blake got closer to the king, took the helmet and checked it. He looked at his mom and dad. The crowd was silent. Everyone was waiting for his word.

“It fits! This is the red rose I painted,” he said. The entire crowd cheered. The king and the knight smiled to each other. His mom and dad hugged and kissed.

The knight got down from the horse, gave Blake a hug and took the helmet.

“Do you want to stay and watch the fight? You can sit near the king”, said the knight.

“I really want to but I am very tired and I don’t want to be late for school,” Blake was disappointed.

“I understand,” the knight was very friendly now. He hugged Blake and jumped on the horse, “Don’t forget to check for the rose when you wake up.”

“Wake up?” asked Blake.

“Wake up, Blake. Wake up. ” It was his mom, “you don’t want to be late for school. It is the big art competition today and you drew a beautiful knight”.

“The knight!” whispered Blake. He jumped to the table. His drawing was there. A knight with a blue helmet in his hand. And a red rose sticking out of it.

“I like the rose.” It was his dad behind him. “Goes well with the blue helmet.” He winked at Blake’s mom. Blake looked at them and smiled. The knight looked happy.