The drone of the machine resembled the heavy breathing of the old woman, and the distilled water swashed into the concentrator’s bottle. Alexandra Filotti took care of changing the oxygen bottle for her upper floor neighbor daily but, at the same time, she felt depressed if she stayed more than five minutes in this living-room.
„That moron left me,” she said to herself, dragging hard from her cigarette and blowing the smoke towards the open window. She was aware that Mrs. Lina didn’t allow or need smokers around, as she was hardly breathing through that mask, but she didn’t care at all, given how angry she was at the moment. He said he’d be in London on business, but only a week has passed and he already doesn’t have time to chat on Messenger. So much the better I turned his marriage proposal down. He was quick to replace me with some bitch over there…
The old woman sat calmly on the edge of the bed and looked at Alexandra slightly disdainful. She was bothered by her smoking into her apartment, but had to tolerate it because she was the only person who came by anymore.
„I’d like to tell you you’re young, that you have all the time in the world to look for happiness. But I’m afraid I’d be lying. I waited my whole life for that unique chance to love and be loved from the heart and soul, but it didn’t happen.”
„I know, auntie, but now we’re talking about me, not you,” Alexandra said sulkily. „Come to think of it, it was nobody’s fault you avoided men like plague and ended up a spinster. You were selfish, you wanted to share your life with nobody, and now you complain you’re alone. And selfish you still are, even now when you’re almost as good as dead.”
The old woman listened quietly and sighed.
„I was talking about me, auntie, about my bitter life. You’ve lived yours, but I’m still young!”
She stubbed the cigarette out into the coffee plate and got angrily out the door without even saying goodbye.
She thought about it all day. Usually, when she set her mind on something, she wouldn’t give up until she got it done, no matter what. So, she was almost certain it wouldn’t be different this time.
After a morning filled with rejected phone calls and unanswered facebook messages, Alexandra realized she’d cried a lot in those few hours and decided to get some fresh air. She called her friend, Denisse, the cashier from the bank she worked at until two months ago, but the woman refused her again, giving her some stupid reasons. As if some simple migraine would have stopped her from meeting her at the McD’s, after work.
No, it was something else; after the incident that had triggered her layoff, her coworkers started to ignore her as if afraid to catch on it and also be fired. They were such jerks, but she needed them more than ever. Nevertheless, she was part of their gang no more.
So she spent the afternoon nibbling on chips at the McD’s near her block. No wine there, so he drank a few glasses of cold Coke, not worried about the relapse of the faringitis she’d came down with that summer. She didn’t care anymore.
She smiled vaguely when a man at the next table told her she had tears in her eyes while offering her the clean napkin from his tray. She shook her head, wiping away the tears that kept flowing, embarrassing her.
Men saw her in every which way, except this one. Not even Alin, her friend, hadn’t seen her crying, because she couldn’t afford to seem weak in his presence.
And now she wailed like a fool in front of strangers. She was pathetic, and she was sick of herself. Still, she was too upset to control herself.
She got up from the table only when darkness fell, then thought it was time for carrying out her plan. But when she saw the Christmas tree lights in Piaţa Unirii, she had a strange feeling of resignation and thought about giving herself a chance.
When she got home at her little two-room apartment in Militari, she tossed her boots in the lobby, then the coat and bag onto the armchair in the bedroom, then sat right away in front of her laptop that was running in standby. She got on facebook, into her mail account and other social networks where she had virtual friends, searching frantically through the mail. She only found holiday offers and today’s TV program; she swore and slammed the laptop lid shut.
She half opened the shutters, turned off the ceiling light and turned on the watch light.
She went over to the couch and lied down, dress still on. She closed her eyes and waited. She was more awake than ever. Felt her pulse in her temples, her eardrums. She opened her eyes and gazed at the ceiling. The lamp light wasn’t strong enough so most of the room, the ceiling too, rested into shadows. Alexandra imagined some little demons hiding there, giving her nightmares every night. She slept little and fitfully, and most of the times she would spend her night thinking if there was nothing interesting on TV.
That night she could have some other type of entertainment. Or maybe not; evil thoughts come and go fast.
She run her hands through her lush tawny hair, then took the tickler file with cream covers from the edge of the sofa, then started browsing it, bored. Mircea and Andreea let her know they had set their wedding date, and Claudiu with Roxana kind of ignored her last time they went out. Those were clear tokens that it was time to wipe them off her list and find other thrill-seeking couples. But in her condition she would overdose her heroin, would drink too much to humanly communicate and surely would find some morons she could use only sexually.
The overdose wouldn’t mind her, but she’d rather do this at home, not in some joint full of scums, so everybody would find out about her stupid death. Especially about her secret life.
Alin was like a child to Alexandra, or so she saw him until he’d drifted away from her. All in all, he wasn’t worth it, he was just a fool. Still, this fool had managed to convince her he loved her, and she had let him into her house, even when he hadn’t proven to be the right man to satisfy her every craving.
Lost in thoughts, at some point she had the feeling that the ceiling started to glow like when you light a candle in full dark. She thought about the comparison and remembered the little lights in the Christmas tree. Hope. Fasting and prayers. Faith?… Nah, those were long forgotten.
But the resemblance was real, and it amazed her. The amber light flooded the ceiling, hugged the pendant and seemed to descend through the glass tassels. Alexandra could’ve sworn that a silvery dewdrop fell on the floor. What the hell was that, now?… She considered the light could flood the room, like hot lava melting everything in its way.
She leaped off her sofa and put on her slippers.
An angel must’ve come down from heaven to take that selfish old woman’s soul, she smiled.
She didn’t believe in angels or in anything else anymore, but that seemed a nice explanation. She went out into the hall.
Alina Antoni – or auntie Lina, as everyone called her – lived in that building since her teenage years. At that time, Alexandra’s mother was only in kindergarten, merely growing under her very eyes but hadn’t reached even half the age of this old woman that was still crawling.
Alexandra knew it wasn’t the old lady’s fault her mother and, later, her father had left her, but she felt spiteful against the octogenarian. She was glad the old woman could still get to the bathroom alone or move as far as the concentrator’s hose allowed it; if not, Alexandra should’ve been forced to help change her diapers, and that was because of the foul smell, not that she would’ve give a damn.
Climbing up the stairs, she realized the old woman’s bed was on the east wall, same as hers, so if she were dead by now she had only that rundown lighted ceiling between them while she stood on the couch just moments ago. She felt the hairs on her body bristling.
She looked at her watch as if to be sure it was a reasonable hour to visit. It was ten of six. He climbed upstairs and, in front of the door, took out the key and unlocked it. Then she started calling the old woman, just to make sure she was alive.
No answer. She took out her cellphone, ready to call Emergency, though doubtful paramedics could’ve saved her neighbor anymore. She decided to enter the bedroom.
Auntie Lina was lying down on her bed, eyes wide open looking at something only she could see. Her breath was a gentle breeze, almost imperceptible. Big tears flowed down her wrinkled cheeks, making way towards the corner of the eyes to stop at the base of the neck, wetting the hose of the oxygen mask.
Her rare age-white hair, once tawny, rested now disheveled on the pillow. Usually, the woman combed it and tucked it into a thin tail, not every day though, because she couldn’t stand the brush full of strands after merely touching the old woman’s hair. The eyes, though, maintained that sea blue color, and seemed the only living thing in her being.
The old woman was alive and, like her soul, her mind was still there. And she wasn’t looking at some depiction of a bad memory from her youth, but at a real being present in that bedroom. Alexandra followed her gaze and flinched when she saw at the window a young man with short hair, dark and curly, sky-blue eyes, wearing a navy blue frock coat and a lacy blue scarf.
She imagined he must’ve been some relative, maybe a grandson that had decided it was time to meet her aunt in her last days. In fact, the old woman’s countenance was justifiable in this case, as the young man was a stranger to her. She didn’t like him because he made her cry.
„Good evening. You’re a relative of auntie, aren’t you?” she asked politely. „I found the door unlocked, so I assumed she’d opened it for you…”
„Good evening, Alexandra,” the young man said, smiling faintly. „I’m glad you decided to come. I was just on my way down to your place, but you spared me the effort.”
His words convey no irony or conceit at all, but Alexandra got angry.
„How do you know my name? What makes you think I would’ve let you in? May I know who you are? If it’s not so much an effort… of thinking…”
„No effort at all, my dear. I’m Patrick, a soul collector,” he said simply.
„Hm, you don’t look like a Patrick to me,” she said with a grimace of displeasure, taking him in.
„And how should one look?” he asked half amused, half puzzled.
„Well, I don’t know,” she admitted, „but not the way you look…”
And wanted to add he was too sexy to be a dull Patrick, but she kept it to herself.
„And what the hell does a soul collector mean?” she said under her breath. „By the way, do you have any idea about that milky light that flows through my apartment? Because that’s why I came up here…”
„I would’ve expected you drunk or stoned at this hour, but you’re still standing, I see.”
Alexandra’s face went white, and then she turned her gaze towards the old woman. She was speechless.
„I knew you were just another scumbag, like all of you men are,” she said disgusted. „How do you know about me? You followed me, right?”
„Truth is I don’t like BOGO promotions. I could be of help, you know.”
The woman bit her lower lip and broke into a hysterical laughter. He shook his head.
„I say you think about it, don’t lose everything because of your conceit.”
„No, little handsome, I’ll settle this my way.”
„I said I don’t like BOGO promotions: I don’t want two souls for the price of one.”
He turned to the old woman who sighed. She was downright terrified by his presence.
„Wait! Let’s get this straight, you’re an angel of death, a demon, or what?”
Patrick looked at Alexandra, and then shook his head.
„Nothing you could ever imagine…”
The old woman looked at the cuckoo clock on the wall near the window, and then turned her gaze back to the intruder.
„There is nothing much to be said about myself,” he added. „But Mrs. Alina here has quite an entire story, don’t you, auntie?”
The old woman sighed again. She slowly raised the hand that clutched a handkerchief and wiped the tear streaks off her cheeks. Her voice was a faint muttering.
„Mister Patrick, forgive me… but I-I’m not ready to go.” Tears melted her cheeks again. „I gave you to go by when you showed up in my room because I didn’t think you were real; lack of oxygen can cause hallucinations, once it happened that I saw beings or objects that weren’t real. Or not from our world,” she added, and Patrick felt a little irony here. „Truth is I didn’t know how to live my life and now, when I see the time has come, I feel sorry to leave.”
„Why, granny, you amaze me,” the man said. „Do you think you’re the only one who told me such things?”
And he laughed faintly. Alexandra sighed and sat on the edge of the bed, near her.
„Don’t take me today, at this hour. It’s all I want. I remember my grandma died at my age, this hour, tied to an oxygen bottle. Doesn’t it seem strange to you, Mister Patrick? I have made lots of mistakes, I admit it, I haven’t made the right choices and this has misled me.”
She smiled sadly.
„This is nobody’s fault, I told you before,” Alexandra cut in.
She realized then that she would miss their arguments. Because that’s how they met, in an argument; Alexandra came by to complain that water flowed down her bathroom wall, and the old woman claimed it was not coming from her. Then they reconciled and they were having endless conversations since, each sitting in her own balcony; Alexandra smoking, and the old woman above reading playing cards.
„I wanted to go visit The Holy City, to climb the mountain of Golgotha, but I only got as far as my neighborhood church. I wanted to walk the streets of Paris, to see the shows at Moulin Rouge, to eat savory cookies in the most famous pastry shop, to visit Louvre, but whenever I got out of town, I just stayed awhile and did nothing of what I wanted to. I wanted to teach piano lessons to the wealthy kids,” she kept on excitedly, „but, as I was just a simple maid in the house of some bourgeois, I only played surreptitiously at the family piano.”
Her voice became a nagging wheeze while she was trying to speak louder.
„And you bought the piano into the living room and jangled at it sometimes,” Alexandra joked.
The old woman smiled.
„I wanted a family of my own, to be surrounded by grandchildren now, but I got disappointed when I was young and never opened my heart to anyone…”
„Well, that’s how it is, granny, each to his own regrets. Life’s bad and, when you hope it gets better, you die.”
„But I don’t wanna die now,” she said with a shy smile.
„You’d rather torment yourself in this bed, with this oxygen mask, your legs that won’t listen, your whole helpless body that doesn’t let you live?” he asked her, trying to sound as convincing as he could.
The unflinching answer astonished him. He came closer.
„What to live for then, granny? Make me understand.”
„For the sun that greets me in the morning, for the perfume of flowers in the window, for the birds that come and chirp waiting the crumbs on the balcony plate. For this unhappy child.”
Alexandra sighed against her will. Patrick amused himself a little.
„For the Holidays to come, to be spent together.”
Patrick started to laugh in earnest.
„This is bullshit, old woman! This woman wanted to kill herself today, and it’s not the first time she thinks of that. I came for both of you, but I see she got over it somehow.”
„I’m not over it,” she muttered.
„I know, and I don’t blame her. So many times these years I wanted to get away from it all – the loneliness, the health problems, arguments, crying… all of it. But I thought there is some plan, that God gave a destiny to each of us, and maybe tomorrow will be better. I didn’t always think like this, not at all; but I tried to comfort myself, to be content with the things and friends I had, to find happiness in simple things.”
„I don’t want to live anymore,” Alexandra muttered. „Nothing pleases me anymore. I don’t want anything from life any longer. I want to end it. I don’t care for any plan. I can schedule a nice marriage and ten fine kids, but if they will only happen five or six years from now, I’m not interested. I don’t have parents now, my boyfriend left me, and my boss fired me because I didn’t want to give into his advances…”
„You haven’t mentioned this to me,” the old woman cut her short.
„What did you want me to say? His wife took me to clean the mansion, wipe the dust and vacuum the rooms, and I accepted because I needed the money, I have rates to pay. But from this to get to doing laundry, ironing, making beds, cooking – while she was with her lover in the bedroom. I’ve got a college education, not only three grades to wipe the asses of some nitwits. Today I skipped work.”
„That’s why you didn’t go to your college ten years’ reunion?”
„Will you get off my back, old hag?” she said angrily. „The first one I attended, though I knew I was hurting myself. Each and every one of my ex-colleagues is a director, manager, professor, each with a family, kids…”
„So, what’s the problem? You’re a bank adviser, right?”
„I was, granny, now I’m the housemaid of some twerps. I won’t find a job too soon. Christmas is here, and Alin is gone. Do you understand, Patrick?” she said, turning towards him. „I wanna go, and you can take me with you.”
Begging was felt in her voice. Patrick stretched his hand and caressed her hair. She didn’t recoil at his touch.
„It’ll pass, tomorrow you’ll want to live,” he said with a gentle smile.
„No. I tried to kill myself two times before; Denisse stopped me when I wanted to jump in front of the subway train, then the sleeping pills only made me sleep. When I woke up, I was still alone; nobody cared I wasn’t out of the house for two days, I could’ve happily rotted there. See, Patrick? She wants to live, I want to die.” There was a strange glint in her eyes. „I wonder… would you take me instead of auntie?”
Patrick burst into laughter.
„Yes, sure I would,” he answered in amusement.
„Can you do that?” auntie Lina asked.
Patrick stuck his hands into his pockets and pondered. Then he turned to them grimly.
„You must make up your mind, dears. This can’t be undone.”
The women nodded.
„Take each other’s hands…”
The young woman took the old lady’s hands and squeezed them feelingly.
„I saw kindergarten kids growing before my very eyes, going to grad school, then high school, walking with their lovers around the block, getting married. Then you were born,” said the old woman warm-heartedly. „Only then I understood life had passed me by and I had gotten old…”
„I saw my mother die, my dad too. You tried to comfort me, but I rejected you. You were the grandmother I never had,” the woman said and a tear slid on her right cheek, washing the sea-blue of her eyes.
They hugged tightly, and then watched each other endearingly. Then, amongst tears and farewell whispers, Patrick’s hands descended over the two women’s heads.
At first, it all looked like a bad joke and they some gullible persons, but after a while the old woman coughed as if stifled.
„It’s happening… God… finally…”
Alexandra’s eyes filled with tears. The old woman started to breath fast, trying to ease the beating of her heart, then slower and slower, until she settled down. Alexandra squeezed the candle Patrick had already lighted between her dry fingers. The old woman gave up the ghost slowly, calmly, and departed to the world beyond.
Alexandra, the new Alexandra, wanted to cry, but couldn’t. She felt hollow and relieved at the same time. She sat there, heedless of time and people, the cold hand of young Alexandra in her warm hand.
Patrick stepped back, silently, to the window. Words were of no use in that moment.
„You can’t go like that! Can’t leave me alone here!” she shouted to the shape that stood with its back to her, leaned onto the window sill. “You cannot…”
„I can’t stay,” he broke in with a gentle voice. “You know that, Alina.”
„Then take me with you! There is nothing here that I can’t leave behind.”
„It’s not that easy,” he said sighing. He turned to her and passed his hand once through his hair, in a fake gesture of frustration.
He seemed lost, Alina thought. And young… so young.
He took two steps towards her, then stopped and let his head hang, his hair covering his face completely. They stood there, in a strained silence, punctuated every now and then by the voices of the people walking the streets in spite of the late hour, until the antique clock struck eleven. Only then did he look at her again. He strode over to her, stopping in front of her, so close that Alina could feel the subtle whiff of the men’s perfume he was using. He raised his hand and lightly touched two fingers onto her forehead.
Alina flinched. A pleasant flow surged through her body and, for a moment, she thought he would listen to her, take her with him, and give her a chance.
But he smiled; that all-knowing smile that exasperated her and attracted her at the same time. He leaned over, his lips kissing her hair.
„Patrick,” she whispered relieved, clinging to that warmth as if it were a life saver.
And he spoke, so softly that she couldn’t hear him, but she didn’t care. Patrick was there for her, and bound to stay. Nothing else mattered.
Later, much later, when she awoke alone and confused in the cool office, lying on the divan, those whispered words were the only ones she remembered clearly:
„I’m sorry, Alina.”
How could I forget something like that?
With tears in her eyes, she looked at him and a strange feeling of deja-vu passed through her. He was standing, like before, near the window, his back to her. She couldn’t see his face, but she knew he was waiting… waiting for her.
Two words, nothing more, and her heart pounded in her chest, her blood gathered to her cheeks, and her tears dried out. The void in her – eternal confidant that swallowed nearly all her emotions during her life, that kept her awake so many nights, so many years, asking herself what’s missing, who’s missing – blew away under the weight of an overwhelming fury. And her light became full of shapes and colors again, hopes and regrets… so many regrets. Hers and Alexandra’s; maybe his, too.
„Alina, I…” Patrick started to speak, turning to her and taking her in head to toe with his fiery blue eyes that had stolen her girlish heart over half a century ago.
It was the same. He was the same. Even the scene was the same.
The only thing that had changed was her.
And in that fraction of a moment she understood everything, and the corners of her mouth rose into an ironic half-smile.
Patrick frowned. The deep furrow that crossed his forehead made him look like her finances teacher in college. Alexandra’s teacher, she corrected herself right away. Alexandra’s, not hers.
„For someone older than the world itself, you’re quite a nut-head. Has anyone told you that before?
„Due to the unusual nature of my workplace, people find it hard to talk to me,” he said sincerely.
„And you’re not talking to them. You just take their souls and pass by like nothing happened.”
Patrick shrugged seemingly uncaring, his eyes locked into hers.
Alina stood up off the edge of the bed with a fluid movement that made her smile even more. The shriveled hand of the old woman, of Alexandra’s, fell stiffly on the white sheet. She didn’t look at the feeble body that a few moments ago had been hers, didn’t think of the pain she’d endured in recent years, of her life that had been snuffed out so that she could live. If she was right, all these didn’t matter, never did.
Her back straight, her chest stuck out, her chin raised, she advanced towards the man who seemed to just stand there, near the window, where the outside lights frolicked on his face, untouched by time.
„They’re just humans.”
„They’re just humans,” she repeated his words, „who wish to feel and forget, laugh and cry, live and die.” She stopped near him and put her hands on his chest. Just humans – flawed, selfish, and egocentric – who always wish so much,” she continued. „They’re just impulsive people, like me and… you,” she said after a short hesitation, rising on tiptoes and kissing him lightly on his lips.
The kiss only lasted for a few seconds and could be described only as caste and innocent, but she needed nothing much. All the answers she waited for were there, in front of her, so obvious and so confusing though, if you didn’t know where to look.
„Alina, I’m not…”
„Human?” she broke in, parting with him lightly and crossing her hands to her chest. „Maybe, but you’re an impulsive and an idiot.”
His gaze turned cold and defying.
„I’m not the one who’s spent her life searching for death only to realize too late that she wants to live,” he answered flatly.
The peal of laughter that burst from her throat took them both by surprise.
„Have you ever thought that all this time I wasn’t looking for death, but for you? You, Patrick! More than fifty years… and I was looking for you.”
„I did what was right,” he insisted. „You couldn’t spend your entire life waiting for me!”
„But I did. I waited for you, not a lifetime, but a lifetime and a half.”
Both their eyes turned to the lifeless frail body that she’d loved, that she’d shed only to take another chance.
„I wanted to give you what you wished.”
The confession should’ve warmed her, but she only realized how much time she lost, looking for something that was never meant to be hers.
„And I only wanted you,” she said sharply.
And this was the only truth that matters in her world, their world.
„History repeats itself,” he muttered to himself, his attention being suddenly drawn by the voices outside.
„Maybe,” she approved, „but circumstances change.”
Smiling, she stretched her right hand and, eyes glinting playfully, she said:
„I’m Alina Alexandra…”
Patrick blinked, looking puzzled at her face, then to her stretched hand and again to her face. Alina could almost see the question marks floating above him.
„Patrick,” he answered at last, his hand covering hers. It was as warm as he remembered.
„Strange, you don’t look like a Patrick…”
„And how should a Patrick look?” he asked her watchful, even if he already knew the answer.
„I don’t know, but not the way you look…”
His laughter was the last thing she heard before the cuckoo clock struck eleven.
Paris wasn’t how she imagined it. Nothing was how she’d imagined it at first, but lately she learnt to adapt on the go, to take life boldly as she dreamt to, but never had the courage, till then, to do it. It was a new and revigorating experience to be a woman of the XXI-th Century and in control of her own life. Well, control it only as it gets, because the economy was still in recession and most men she met were married, boring, or gay.
She flipped over another page from the menu in her hands she’d been reading for ten minutes now without managing to decide if she wanted a raspberry sorbet or a choix a la creme. Maybe both? Maybe neither? Maybe something more Parisian…
Decisions, decisions… so many decisions and so little time when the waiter waits at your back.
But, all in all, indecision was a decision by itself.
She flinched, almost dropping the menu. She managed to catch it at the last moment and put it safely on the table. She looked puzzled at the man that had just materialized on the unoccupied chair across the table.
„Patrick,” she said as a greeting. „This is the last place I’d have expected to find you.”
„It may be that Paris is one of the most romantic cities in the world, but people die here too.”
Saying that, she waved to a waiter who was passing by their table. The waiter stopped and took their order, then disappeared through the crowded tables back into the little pastry shop before Alina could utter a single word.
She inhaled deeply, trying to calm down. Another thing she’d learned in the last months was that her temperament couldn’t be described as pleasant, not even in the most beautiful and quietest day.
„What are you doing, Patrick?” she asked him through clenched teeth, tapping lightly the table with her fingernails. The subdued clink attracted the attention of the men at the nearby tables who looked at Patrick with sympathy and even sorrow.
He only smiled.
„I’m offering you what you desire.”
Translated into English by Dan BUTUZA