This story was previous published in The Creative Launcher
There is nothing that I find more repulsive than the dirty, melting snow on the sidewalks of Cluj-Napoca. People say that my dislike is rather peculiar, but to me, this unsightly scene, which becomes more frequent by the end of March, reflects the duality within the city. One day, Cluj is a beauteous bride dressed in a snow-white wedding gown and betrothed to an amazing winter night. Then, overnight, the snow blackens and melts away, exposing the cracks on the sidewalks, the poorly paved streets, and the leafless trees. The random footprints of passersby mirror the absurdity of life, an ordeal that most of us do not have enough courage to escape on our own terms.
I moved to Cluj-Napoca from the countryside four years ago, upon inheriting a small apartment from my aunt. Before that, I had never had the desire to leave my small, nearby hometown. However, the prospect of living in a nice, downtown building that overlooked the scenic Someșul Mic River tempted me. The river ran through Cluj like an open artery, adding vigor and youth to the city’s spirit. No matter how cold it got, it never froze; no matter how hot it got, it never dried up. It just kept on flowing under the watchful gaze of the Romanian sky.
Shortly after arriving in the city, I found a job as an office clerk at an IT company. My main role was to handle client inquiries and respond to emails. Although boring, the job paid quite well, and I, therefore, suffocated all my complaints and stifled my aspirations for something more fulfilling. “What is fulfillment, after all, but a pipedream? A buzzword life coaches and other scam artists use to trick the simple-minded into buying books,” I used to say.
My life seemed fairly settled at that point, and, as I was well into my thirties, I felt that I had to have a family. I thus started dating Cristina, a secretary who worked for our company. She was timid and soft-spoken. Her green eyes were vastly uncomprehending. Her fake blond hair made her indistinct and obscured all that might have had been special about her face. Yet, she had a nice figure. Her breasts were large and inviting, and she had marvelous, long legs.
Above all, what attracted me to Cristina was the fact that she fell in love with me rather readily and quickly. Six months into our relationship, we moved in together, and by the eighth, we were engaged. For a year or so, nothing seemed able to disturb my outwardly blissful life. Everything society said was important, I had: a loving woman, a good-paying job, and a nice apartment. On a depressing day in early March, however, that all changed.
It was a Saturday morning, and Cristina was away on a trip to her hometown near Arad. I was standing by my bedroom window. The sky was exceptionally grey, and the cold wind madly raged as though it were trying to intimidate every single soul in the city. By the railings of the bridge that overlooked the Someșul Mic River stood a disheveled, barefooted man, who appeared to be homeless and in his mid-forties. He held a bunch of pebbles that he threw in the river one after the other. Then he would disappear for a while, only to come back with more pebbles and do the same thing all over again. People passed by without even looking at him. My curiosity got the best of me, so I approached him.
“Bună dimineața (Good morning).”
“Bună (Morning),” he replied without looking at me and continued casting pebbles into the river.
“Aren’t you cold?”
“Why would I be cold?”
“For starters, it’s quite cold, and you are barefoot.”
“What do you mean ‘maybe’? You’re either barefoot or not.”
“Everything is subject to interpretation.”
“I have no time for you. I’m out of pebbles. I need to get some more.” He hurried towards the other end of the bridge.
I waited for him to come back. “So, what is so special about throwing pebbles in the river?”
“What is so special about anything?” He looked at me at last. His bulging eyes, grim lineaments, rotten teeth, and untamed beard looked even more dreadful at a close range.
“True.” I smiled at him. “Are you hungry? Can I buy you any food?”
“Do you need anything to drink?”
“Am I bothering you?”
“I really don’t know.”
“Should I leave you alone?”
“Do whatever you want,” he answered.
I returned to my apartment and watched him doing the same thing repeatedly. I eventually got bored and went about my day.
I woke up the next morning to find him still there, still engaged in that Sisyphean task. Despite his rather bad attitude, I looked around my apartment and found a pair of black winter boots that I had no need for.
“I see you’re still barefoot,” I told him kindly.
He stopped what he was doing. “I see you’re still not barefoot.”
“Here you go.” I offered him the boots.
He stared at them, looked me in the eye, and smiled. “I don’t want them. Thank you.”
I was happy that I seemed to have finally gotten to him. “You’re welcome.”
“So how long have you been doing this?”
“Ever since my release.”
“From the mental hospital. The state says that I’m crazy.”
“What difference does it make? What is ‘crazy’ after all?”
“I don’t know. You tell me.”
“They say I’m schizophrenic.”
“You seem fine to me.”
“You too. You seem fine to me as well.”
I paused for a second. “So, you didn’t tell me why you keep on throwing the pebbles in the river?”
“I find it purposeful. And you are keeping me from doing it.” He gazed at me with his bloodshot eyes. “Lasă-mă în pace! (Leave me in peace!)” he shouted.
I looked around and noticed people had started staring at us. “I thought we were friends now.” I tried to diffuse the situation.
He ignored me completely.
I decided to leave, as I feared that any further insistence would make him not only less talkative, but possibly hostile. I went back home and kept on observing him, something that I frequently did the next week during my spare time. I also often passed by him on my way to and from work. I would greet him and say something like “My friend, I hope you’re having a great day. If you need anything, anything at all, you can always tell me.” But he would not reply or even look at me.
The days flew by and were filled with soul-crushing tedium. As usual, I answered the clients’ calls and tried to act as if I cared about them. I wrote embellished, kind emails to those whom I neither respected nor liked. And I occasionally talked to my colleagues about the most mundane of stuff: football, TV shows, political scandals, and other useless matters.
Although Cristina was still away and I truly abhorred spending the weekends alone, I was looking forward to Saturday. It had been a burning idea in the back of my head to try to make the homeless man tell me more about his pebbles. As the day finally came, I approached him with two paper cups of coffee.
“Good morning, my friend,” I said to him.
“Good morning,” he answered without looking at me.
“Don’t you get hungry?”
“I don’t know.”
I paused. “I see that you’re still throwing pebbles in the river. Indeed, you’ve been doing this all week long. Impressive! It must be tiring, though, especially while being barefoot in this cold.”
I waited for a reply, and once he had no more pebbles to throw and finally looked at me, I handed him the coffee cup. He took it and smiled politely.
“My fiancée is not coming back until tomorrow, and I don’t want to drink my morning coffee at home alone. It’s good that we’re drinking it together.”
I remained silent for a while. “I’m Sergiu. What’s your name?”
“That’s an unusual name.”
“It’s a name, just like any other.” He seemed irritated.
“Okay, nice to meet you, Man.”
He took a sip of coffee, paused for a second, and then drank it all at once.
“Whoa, careful, friend. That’s still hot.”
“I realized that. I’m just thirsty.”
“Maybe you’re hungry as well?”
“Do you want to eat something?”
“Listen, there’s a small coffee shop nearby. They offer nice sandwiches. Do you want to grab a bite there? My treat.”
On our way, people looked unkindly at us. Their uncaring eyes radiated disgust and censure, but that did not annoy me in the slightest. Once we arrived, I opened the door for him.
The waitress gazed at us and seemed shocked by the fact that my companion was barefoot. “How can I help you, sir?”
“A table for two, please.”
“Sir, your friend is—”
“Not wearing any shoes. He’s a customer just like any other. Just give us a table, please.”
She pointed at a vacant one in the corner.
We sat down, and I gestured to her to get us the menu. She came back and carelessly threw them on my side of the table as though Man did not exist. I apologized to him for how cruel people can be, and we both ordered the food. We ate in silence, then I ordered us two more cups of coffee.
“So, is your name truly ‘Man’?”
He looked at me as though he knew there was no escape from our conversation and gave a resigned smile. “No, my name is Nicolae. But names do not matter to me. They mean nothing.”
“What do you mean ‘they mean nothing’?” I gazed at him in bewilderment. “They’re everything. Your name is your identity, and that is important.”
“No, your name’s what your parents give you against your will. Society determines the meaning and significance of that name. Throughout the whole process, you’re powerless. Your identity’s merely an illusion. But since most people aren’t strong enough to deal with this truth, they embrace that make-believe identity. They just can’t face the fact that they are bags of flesh that have no significance or purpose beyond their physical functions.”
“But don’t you think that you’re forgetting that we are all God’s children and that—”
“‘God’s children’ you say! Then how about the billions of people who are not Christian? Aren’t they ‘God’s children,’ too?”
“Well, they are. All people are God’s children.”
“Yeah, that’s why the church accepts interreligious marriages,” he said sarcastically. “That’s why historically it’s been the norm for the members of a religious majority to persecute and brutalize minorities into assimilation and submission.”
“But that’s not—”
“That’s not true religion, you’d claim. What a pathetic excuse? I won’t talk about the crusades, the brutal Muslim conquests, or modern Islamic terrorism. Just look at Europe and see how people are reverting to religious tribalism and sectarianism. The other day, a young guy handed me a flyer saying, ‘Orthodox Identity Movement, Say No to Islam, LGBT, Communism, and Atheism.’ The guy must have had more than two hundred flyers that he gave away to the willing in less than an hour. How’s it possible for Muslims, gays, atheists, and communists to unite against anyone, as the flyer suggested? That’s just paranoia, a form of schizophrenia that our ‘modern’ society happily tolerates.”
“Yes, but that’s not a reflection of our whole society.”
“Trust me, it is. Societies are only as good or as bad as the ten percent that’s willing to take things to the extreme, whether positively or negatively. The rest of the people are unwilling participants – just like you, no offense.”
“No offense taken.” I smiled. “Honestly, your ideas are very impressive. You surely sound highly educated.”
“Okay, you surely don’t seem schizophrenic.”
“But you told me you are!”
“No, I told you that the state says that I am.”
“I told the doctor that I hear a voice in my head, one that I was born with. The voice narrates my life, criticizes me, and says the most hateful things to me. He makes me fall into despair and have sleepless nights.”
“But we all have a voice in our heads. I think it’s our ego.”
“Yes, but when the doctor heard that coming from someone who looks like me, he just came up with the schizophrenia diagnosis.”
“I’m sorry about that. I can’t even imagine how hard it is to face discrimination from a physician, someone who took an oath to equally care for people.”
“Oaths mean nothing. Politicians take them all the time, and they’re the worst kind of liars.”
“I guess you’re right.” I paused for a second. “I’m really glad we talked. You’re smarter than everyone I deal with daily at the office.”
“Offices! I hate those places. They are where people’s ability to lie and manipulate is displayed at its finest. You smile at those who work with you, and they smile back. You act as if they mean something to you, and they do the same. And when, by random chance, an imbecile is made your superior, you put a smile on your face and nod in agreement whenever he gives you some obvious remark as though he invented the wheel. Then, at the end of the day, you retreat to the safety of your home. You put away the many masks you had to wear, only to go through the same awful ordeal again. And, above all, you must embrace the dreadful prospect that in the process you will lose who you truly are, for the more masks you wear, the quicker your real face fades away.”
“Whoa! I don’t know if that’s true. I mean there’s a degree of superficiality to professional interaction, but you’re making it seem way too evil.”
“Suit yourself. Believe whatever makes you feel comfortable.”
Uncomfortable silence took over both of us, as we continued drinking our coffee.
“Okay, so, now that we’re friends, won’t you tell me what’s with you and throwing pebbles in the river?”
“I told you, I find that purposeful. I have total control over the whole process, something that one can rarely achieve in this miserable life. I look for pebbles; I pick the ones I like; I go to the bridge and drop them in the river. The process is simple, beautiful, and logical.” He started to look agitated. “What’s so hard to understand about that?” he asked rather loudly.
“Alright, Nicolae, don’t get angry. I was just asking.”
I felt it was time to go, so I paid the bill and left a good tip for the waitress, who suddenly did not seem to be bothered by the sight of the barefooted man.
“So, I’m going to see you tomorrow at the bridge?” I asked outside the café.
“Lasă-mă în pace (Leave me in peace),” he blurted.
The next morning, I was awakened by a gentle caress on my shoulder.
“Good morning, sunshine,” said Cristina.
“You’re back.” I hugged her.
After talking for a while and asking each other about our time apart, I made us coffee and we sat in the living room.
Before I could tell her about the strange friendship I had made, she said, “Holy Mother of God, I saw the most heartbreaking thing when the taxi dropped me off now. I saw the police and the rescue squad pulling the body of a homeless man out of the river. The poor soul, he was barefoot. The police said that he must have passed out and fallen into the river due to hypothermia. The poor man, how would he survive the cold weather barefoot?”
Cristina’s words shattered my heart. I started crying.
“What’s wrong, honey? Why are you crying?”
I did not answer.
“Did you know the guy?”
I shook my head.
“So, why are you crying?”
“I don’t know.” The words barely came out of my mouth. “Just hug me.”
That day, in Cristina’s arms, I cried all my masks away. I wept, wept, and wept until I knew who I truly was. To this day, however, I have not told her about Nicolae.
I now still spend my days at the office, smiling and being pleasant. My colleagues call me ‘kind’ and ‘helpful’; they enjoy talking to me, they claim, and I surely reciprocate. At home, I usually have dinner with Cristina, and then we watch TV for a while. Our conversations are still mundane and superficial. Sometimes, I think about telling her about Nicolae and my epiphany, but I bite my tongue. What’s the point of disturbing an outwardly blissful life? Why sacrifice everything for the truth? After all, I’d rather wear a different mask every day than to walk barefoot around Cluj for a single one, for I cannot tolerate the cold. I just can’t tolerate it!
About The Author
Zaher “Zack” Alajlani is a Syrian short-story author, researcher, and translator. Alajlani has a BA in English Literature and Language from Damascus University; an MA in English Culture, Literature, and Ideology from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens; an MA in Communication from the University of Indianapolis; and a Distance-Learning University Certificate in Psychology from Staffordshire University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Babeș-Bolyai of Cluj-Napoca, Romania. His academic interests include analytical psychology, minority identity, communication theory, science-religion relationship, and the theme of madness in nineteenth-century English literature. Alajlani is the author of In Death Veritas (2014), Vera and Other Stories (2015), and Death to the Desert (2018). His fiction and non-fiction works have appeared in Syrian, Greek, Romanian, and Indian periodicals. Currently, he is a proofreader for the peer-reviewed Metacritic Journal for Comparative Studies and Theory.
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