A Small Blue Robot Backpack

“We stood with Sally in front of the corner arts store and then my 2 year old threw his half eaten cookie to the pigeon. For a while after that, every time we passed that street corner, my son would point his finger and say, “Pigeon”. And I would think of Sally,” he finished the sentence and looked across the room where Steve was sitting.

“And you have not seen her since then?”

“Almost not,” he waited for a while then continued. “Well, I saw her one more time, at a fair. It was crowded and we almost did not get time to talk. She was thirsty and I accompanied her outside to get a bottle of water. She got two. We stood for a minute at the building entrance not knowing what to do, then somebody from her team saw her and she got pulled inside. I waited a little bit and walked to the parking lot. It would not make any sense to go in again,” he felt silent.

“I know,” said Steve. “Well, that was a while ago. Tell me what’s going in your life now.”

“I do not know. Everything is fine. You know,” and he pointed his chin towards the kids’ room. “Nick is healthy and growing, all of us are fine, and I think that at the end this is all that matters. Right?”

“Well, yes. A lot of times I think the same. How is work?”

“It is good. Very good, actually. I like our team and, also I have been meeting some amazing people lately. Really, met couple of other guys involved in what we do and they turned out to be smart. We became kind of friends. What else? I guess I am really into the projects we are running. Keeps me busy. Keeps me thinking about things that matter,” he felt silent.

“Well, this is really cool,” Steve nodded and stretched on the sofa.

It was raining and every time there was silence in the room they could hear the raindrops hit the windows and the cars on the street. It was late. After a while Steve took his sweater and walked to the guest-room. He was staying over. He was his best friend and they have not seen each other for a while.

Next morning Steve left. He had to catch his plane back home. They had breakfast together, he watched him pack. He stood in the middle of the doorway and tried to be helpful. Then he opened the door, hugged Steve, they both said how great it was to see each other after all this time. Steve left. He closed the door and turned the key twice.

He walked across  the hall, stopped at the window. He looked at the rain for a while not hearing anything, just watching. Then he shook his head and tried to put his mind back to work. Talking about Sally the day before did not do him any good. “Never share anything with anybody,” he thought to himself. Steve asked and he talked. That was it. Steve was his best friend and he wanted to talk. He did not know it would be painful. Not until now. “This is life. And there is nothing else to it.” No. He did not smile this time. He said it very quietly, watching the raindrops fall.

This was on Sunday. And now it was Thursday and it was raining again. Almost a week has passed. Lot’s of work got done, meetings, planning, talking, writing. And now it was Thursday night and he was tired. He walked to the dining table in the middle of the room and looked at the paperwork that was piled on it. His son’s enrollment to the preschool on the top. He signed the forms and put them inside a brand-new envelope. He placed the envelope on the kitchen table. He should not forget to mail it tomorrow. Then he opened his laptop and looked at the sites he used to read. He went through a new article about compassion and judgment and then switched to the conversion rates review. Then, he looked for the store where he and his wife bought all the things for Nick, and searched for backpacks. Nick will need a backpack for preschool. He liked the one with the orange robots on it, but the small size was out of stock. He called the customer service and they gave him the number of the store that still had it. He called the store and placed an order for the backpack. A small blue robot backpack. All in all it took about 15 minutes. He kept looking at the image of the backpack on his computer screen hoping for a vague feeling of satisfaction. He tried to imagine the excitement that Nick would feel when he sees the backpack. And he felt silent.

The rain was falling heavily outside of the window panes. Its noise distracted him. He looked outside, peacefully, and after a while thought to himself, “This can’t be all there is to life. I know life is much more than that. It really is.”

He moved closer to the window and lightly pressed his forehead against the cold glass. “Do not ever share anything with anybody or you will end up buying a small blue robot backpack on a Thursday night.”

Barcelona, February 28th 2013

Advertisements

Twelve Roasted Chestnuts

La Castanyera is here. It is fall,” said Anton.

Gregori nodded and looked towards where Anton pointed with his chin. When he first heard La Castanyera, for some reason, he thought of a dancer with castanets. But following Anton’s look he quickly realized that the other referred to the woman who was roasting and selling chestnuts on the street. “So, this is how they call them here,” he thought to himself. And he looked at La Castanyera for a while, following her hands, not losing any detail on how she kept the coals burning and how she made the paper cones out of an old newspaper, and how she stacked them one inside the other on one side of the booth, waiting for the rare customers. “Must be a lonely job to be staying like that all day long,” thought Gregori. Couple of school-age boys stopped in front of the coal burner and got a bag of chestnuts. Laughing, they run away.

It was late night and Gregori was sitting in his living room and writing emails. Then it started to rain. First a few heavy drops, and then the rain formed a wall between his window and the rest of the world and absorbed all the sounds that ever existed outside of his living room. He paused his typing and listened. Then he thought about the woman who was selling chestnuts on the plaza. “What did she do when it started to rain like that?” he looked outside of the window, but he could not see the corner of the plaza where he knew the woman would be staying. “La Castanyera,” he slowly pronounced the new word.

Gregori took his umbrella and went down the stairs. It was not cold outside. Just dark and rainy. The raindrops glistered under the traffic lights. He crossed the street and walked around the plaza. La Castanyera was not there. He felt some kind of relief knowing that the old woman was not getting wet under the rain. The clock on the church struck quarter past eleven. “It is probably too late for her,” it occurred to him. Gregori had not realized the hour it was till the moment he heard the church clock strike. He stood for couple of more minutes on the plaza, spinning slowly on one foot for no reason.  He was alone. He touched the puddle with the tip of his shoe and smiled at the ripples his shoe made. Then he slowly went home. Moving his feet carefully, from the heel to the tip, as if he was walking on a wave. It was raining.

And then he knew what he really wanted: to be sitting with Amanda back-to-back and eating roasted chestnuts. They would just sit like that and laugh and eat chestnuts. And the chestnuts, the dark, almost black chestnuts with the cut in the center, would be slightly burning their fingertips.  He imagined that they would sit in some autumn field, with the high wheat around them and it would be about to rain and the sky would be dark blue and the wheat very yellow. And they would sit in the middle of this field and just eat chestnuts, talk and laugh.  Amanda would probably wear one of her long-sleeved wool sweaters and she would hide her fingers in the sleeves and take the chestnuts through the thick wool, so as to not burn herself. And they would make jokes about it. And the words would have no weight at all and the sounds would fly, caught in the wind, as soon as they would pronounce them. The words would barely have enough time to touch their ears and disappear, like the bells disappear from the laughter way before the person stops laughing. And he knew that this would make him happy. And he went to bed. He was laying on his pillow and imagining chestnuts and Amanda, and listening to the raindrops’ heaviness.

When he woke up the next morning it was still raining. At short intervals the rain would stop and the sun would come out. And all the streets would look new and inviting in the sunlight of the morning rush. Walking to his office, Gregori gazed at the elegant silver pattern on the pavements. And with the rhythm of his own steps, through that morning mist, came the memory of his dreams about the roasted chestnuts and Amanda.

Then later on he called her from the office and asked if she wanted to get out for dinner that evening. But she was busy at work, and besides her family had some kids’ birthday party in the afternoon that they needed to go to and then it would be too late anyway. May be some other time.  Gregori was fine with that.  “If she could get out, she would,” he thought to himself.  His back rested on his chair. He bit his lip and threw his head back. He did not think of anything. It was raining heavily and he listened.  Then he smiled with the corner of his lips, and started to bite on his fingernail. Then he stopped. A nasty habit he was getting rid of.  “Ok, she is busy. I need to move on with my work too,” he glanced at the window one more time and turned his head towards his laptop.

His fingers started typing slowly. He wrote one more sentence. It was the new client’s contract that he was working on when he called Amanda. Gregori stopped, deleted the last line he wrote. Then reread what he had so far and deleted it all. “I will start it all anew, it will be better that way,” and Gregori started typing the contract details again.

Later that evening, when he was walking home, Gregori caught the sight of La Castanyera, who was selling the roasted chestnuts on the plaza. He paused his steps for a moment, and then playing with a couple of heavy coins in his pocket approached the coal burner.

“One bag of chestnuts, please” said Gregori and peeked inside the booth with almost a childish curiosity.

The lady smiled at him and started making a new paper bag.

“You have lots of them pre-made,” noted Gregori without thinking.

“I know,” answered La Castanyera, “there are not much people now, thus I will save those for later when the children come.”

“Is that mostly children who buy the chestnuts here?” asked Gregori

“Well, you never know. But yes, mostly, children. Sometimes tourists. Sometimes couples. Sometimes just people like you. Hay de todo,” said La Castanyera

Gregori wanted to ask her what would she do if it started to rain again like the last night, and if the coal would keep burning under the rain or if she had to cover it with a lid, but instead, to his own surprise he suddenly said, “Do you want me to get you a cup of coffee? You must be cold standing here all day long.”

“Thank you. No. I am fine. I am used to it, besides, the coals keep me warm,” and the lady pointed to the coal burner.

Gregori did not know what else to say but he wanted to say something nice. He looked around, at the church behind them, at the people passing by and then said, “I like how the chestnuts smell.”

“Me too,” nodded La Castanyera, ”it is the fire that makes them smell so well,” and she smiled and there was nothing else to say and this was the end of the conversation. Gregori took his paper cone with warm chestnuts, paid the lady three euros, thanked her and slowly walked away.

He did not go home. He just strolled down the street with the warm paper cone in his hands and the smell of roasted chestnuts on his skin. He breathed the smell. It occurred to him that this smell had not changed at all with years. These chestnuts smelled exactly the same as the ones his dad used to buy him in fall in Paris.  “How come the smell does not change at all,” he mindlessly asked himself without really asking. “So in twenty years from now the people will buy a dozen of chestnuts and the smell will be exactly the same as the one that enchants me now. And the same that enchanted me as a kid on the streets of Paris. And they will like it the same way and think about the moments from their childhood, and how they were in love and how they were laughing and kissing when it was raining. And then, later on, they will remember all that and just smile and stroll down the street with the paper cone filled with the twelve chestnuts. And the smell will be always the same. Every year buying the same roasted chestnuts and thinking of all the good memories they bring. And then it does not make any sense that the roasted chestnuts smell the same when you are in love and when you are just walking silently on your own. Even if you smile or sing,“ Gregori was thinking to himself, “and so, this is all there is to it.”

Once at home Gregori opened a bottle of red and ate the chestnuts on the small coffee table in the living room. He worked carefully on the first one to make sure that he peels it right, he bit into it and chewed a small piece and drank some wine. “Well, it is just a chestnut. It is a good one though,” and he finished it. Then he opened his laptop and automatically checked his mail and started writing his agenda for the next day.  He peeled and ate some more chestnuts, not paying any more attention to them, as he was already absorbed by a conversation with somebody from Nebraska, somebody who could give him a few good tips on his business.

Amanda called on Sunday and said they could meet on Monday if he did not have any other plans for that day. Gregori said that he did not have any and asked where they should meet. Finally they agreed that he would pick her up on the corner of her office in the downtown at six. That worked fine for both of them and they talked for a little while about life and small things that were going on. They joked in between of the daily routine questions and light smiles tapped on his cheeks. It was good talking to her. As good as when they just started seeing each other. Gregori was in a very good mood and he sat down on his sofa and typed the metrics report that was long overdue.  This time the work went smooth and easy and his fingers moved on the keyboard like that of a pianist preforming his favorite piece.  “What an amazing woman Amanda is. It will be nice to see her tomorrow,” Gregori thought to himself once the work has been done and he was able to relax. But then it was too late and he was too tired to think of anything else, and he felt the urge to lay down and sleep right there on the leather sofa in his living room. He opened the window, turned off the lights, took his clothes off and lay on the sofa pulling the plaid to his chest. He heard the vespas roaring on the street, and people talking on one of the balconies. Somebody was having a late barbeque on a Sunday night, and then the window flapped, and the voices of two young men were discussing something arduously. Somebody opened a cava bottle and all the exclamations were shisshed and everybody said “brindis” and there was silence. Amanda’s smile flew in front of his eyes and he could not remember how the chestnuts smell. He tired hard to imagine the smell, to recall it from his childhood, but he could not. Amanda smiled to him, the window flapped once again and he dreamt of the waves his fingers produced when he typed. He was sleeping.

He picked up Amanda at six, as they have agreed. He was couple of minutes late and she was already waiting for him on the corner. He apologized and she said it was fine. She never made any trouble out of anything.  It was that easy with her. He touched her hand and she did not pull it away. And they walked like that, holding hands a little bit and talking nonsense and laughing lightly.

“How was your day?” he asked

“Mine was good. Yours?” asked Amanda

“Mine was good too. Was looking forward to see you today.”

“This is nice. It is fun to see each other sometimes, is not it?” said Amanda

And he said that it was and they walked side by side down the street.

“Where are we going?” Amanda asked finally

“I do not know, any place you like. Are you hungry?”

“I am starving,” said Amanda. “Let’s eat anywhere you like and then we will go have coffee.”

“Good,” nodded Gregori.

They went to a small restaurant on one of the side streets and ordered their food and ate. They talked all the time, and his knee touched hers and they laughed and said all the unimportant words, and her crossed legs under the table were along his and it was good to be just sitting like that with her.

“You know what I was dreaming the other day?” said Gregori

“What?”

“Chestnuts. Roasted chestnuts and you. And I thought we just got some roasted chestnuts and we ate them together and laughed. And you were very pretty eating chestnuts.”

“This is a nice dream,” Amanda smiled. “Let’s get some chestnuts once we are done with the dinner. Shall we?”

“Sure,” Gregori nodded

They walked for a while till they saw the chestnut stand on the street. It was getting cold and windy. He could see that Amanda was cold, even though she said she was fine. He put his jacket over her shoulders and passed his arm under the jacket.

“We would like some chestnuts,” Gregori said to an almost angry looking chestnut vendor.

“Three euros a dozen,” said the woman and turned her back towards them, checking something in her booth.

“Ok, we will get one,” and Gregori gave her the coins.

The woman put twelve chestnuts into a paper cone and handed it to Gregori.

“Thank you,” said Gregori. The woman did not reply or smile back. She turned her back to them again and concentrated on something inside the booth.

“Well, this lady was not nice,” Gregori told Amanda when they turned the street corner.

“She might be tired or upset. You never know what is going on in her life,” replied Amanda.

“Yeah, I know.”

“By the way, they are called La Castanyera, did you know?” asked Amanda

“Yes, just was told so couple of days ago. But this was not even La Castanyera, it was just an upset woman selling chestnuts. She did not have La Castanyera spirit. Anyway.”

Amanda smiled. And they stopped to open the paper cone package and Amanda touched his face and kissed him. Gently and almost intangibly, like only she knew how. They stood for couple of minutes on the street kissing, with the warm chestnut package in his hand. Sometimes the wind would blow her hair over his face and he would hold it back with his free hand. Quietly. He liked its touch.

They walked a little bit more, eating warm chestnuts, one by one, together. Talking lightly about what was going on in their lives. Sometimes they laughed, sometimes he kissed her on the forehead, and all the words were weightless and not prone to gravity.  And the wind occasionally blew her hair over his chin and he did not think of anything at all, except that he knew he was happy.

He left Amanda close to her house and took a taxi to his place. It started to rain lightly. His hands were still holding the paper cone with the leftover chestnuts, his face was smiling emotionlessly, and his eyes were not noticing the streets they drove through.  The driver made a comment about the weather, but Gregori only nodded and said, “yeah”. For a while he sat quietly on the back seat of the yellow and black taxicab, his tired back resting on the brown leather of the cushion, his hand touching his chin. Then he slowly closed his eyes and took a deep breath. With the breath came the smell of the roasted chestnuts.

Barcelona, October 11th 2012

The Twelfth Kind of Loneliness

(a short story)

Leo went down to the street. It was 8pm. He walked passed by the shoe storefront and the bakery and turned the corner towards the grocery store. His steps echoed steadily on the pavement. Fresh air of the evening did him good. He smiled to his own thoughts and worded one of the ideas that was rounding in his head since he started reading the new book this morning. Wording came easily this time and he felt happy with the result.

“May be happiness does not exist, but I feel truly happy right now,” he thought. “I love the beauty of the people around me. The streets. The quietness of the tall apartment buildings. The kids on the playgrounds. Old people having their coffee outside. All of them sharing their small problems. Talking. The moon. I do like the moon over here. I notice it every night from the balcony. These people do not know how silently beautiful this place is.”

“… and you know, I have her on my mind. Every day. It’s just not going away. What a rotten…”, he did not hear the rest of the sentence. Two men sitting at the coffee table outside were talking. One was sharing his worries with the other. Complaining. Leo stopped and made a puzzled face and looked at them for a second. Just two Spaniards. You see them everywhere. He kept on walking. The grocery store was on the next block.

“Spanish people are always complaining,” he said to himself. Leo has lived in Spain long enough to know all about complaining. He used to complain before too. Then he stopped. He believed complaining never gets you anywhere. And he had a strong enough willpower to change his habits. And he was proud of it. Leo never said it out loud, not even to Lisa, his wife. But he was very proud of himself. Then he was busy too. When you are busy and the things are going well you do not complain. You have enough great things to talk about and not to complain.

But now, overhearing this bit of the conversation filled him with emptiness. Emptiness as heavy as steel. He remembered his old college friend Noah. When was the last time he talked to him? Two years ago. May be less. No. More. More than two years ago. A thin needle stitching years in his chest. He slowed down. The pain washed away with a deep breath leaving three thousand unpronounced words stacked in his throat. Then he clearly felt what he wanted: to be sitting with Noah in some cafe and telling him all the same words he just heard. These and others he never pronounced in front of anybody. Can you really say you pronounce something, if you only tell it to yourself in the darkness of the empty streets? No. Leo did not think so. It makes no sense to lie to oneself.

He looked at his cell phone and found Noah’s number. “Should I call him? I can fly there tomorrow morning and spend a weekend with Noah.” He felt the warm sweetness under his tongue. This is how a well made freshly grounded coffee felt. This is how he thought talking to Noah would feel. He could tell him everything. He could tell him everything and be himself. And not be judged. Be understood. And like the last time they saw each other Noah would tell him “…and whatever you decide to do in your life, I will think that you are right.”. Yes. He will call Noah tonight and get on the first plane tomorrow. It was just an hour flight. He was sure Lisa and the kids would be fine without him for couple of days. At the end, he always spent all his free time with them. And Lisa herself always told him to spend some days with Noah away from home.  He was very happy about his sudden decision. He felt some sort of kind impulse towards these two Spaniards at the cafe.  He almost turned back, wanting to find their table and tell them something nice and smile. But then he knew this would be awkward. So he kept walking down the street feeling a warm cloud dwelling inside his chest. Something he last time felt when he was close to her. Last time. Maybe it was years ago.

Leo entered the grocery store. What was that Lisa asked to buy? Yes, a chocolate bar, apples, cucumbers and sparkling water. August was always hot in Barcelona. They were drinking tons of sparkling water.  He made his way through the aisles. He stood for a while in front of the chocolate bars, not knowing which one to get. He forgot which one she asked for this time. He called Lisa. He took three of the ones she wanted. “Enough for the weekend,” he thought. Then he also picked one of his favorites. Dark chocolate with orange pieces. He looked at it for a while. Put it in his basket. Then took it out, looked at it again and ended placing it carefully back on the shelf. “I should keep myself in shape. I must look good,” he thought to himself.  Some other thoughts were crawling in his mind too, but he stopped himself and instead remembered that on the phone he promised Lisa to tell her something exciting once he gets back home. And the childish happiness of the decision invaded him again, this time with a more powerful grip. Happy he went to the wine aisle and read through the Italian labels. He was looking for that sweet sparkling wine they had in Rome last month. It was a red wine, so mild that it never got you drunk; Fresh and young it woke you up and made you instantly open to the next layer of sensitiveness.

When Leo got out of the grocery store he was empty and salient. The decision was still there and the enthusiasm of seeing Noah has not diminished. But the cloud of cool and calm air pressured him and his silence. The rim of the cold night breeze touched his eyes making him blind and lonely for a split of a second. And he thought about the book. Not the business one he was reading now, but the one he got at the Oslo airport last April. When the runway was icy, and the white strings of cold snow and ice seemed to scratch the dim air and it was scary and fascinating to look at. His flight was delayed and he got this book, “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness” by Richard Yates.  He sat at the airport cafe, in front of a young woman in a black wool sweater. He read the book and looked at her. From time to time. She mildly reminded him of someone else. Of someone he loved. And he looked at her and wished she would never leave. He wished her flight would be delayed too and they both would just sit on the opposite ends of this small cafe in the snowy airport and read their books. At the end may be they were not that different. May be they could talk and have a glass of wine together. She might agree if he invited her. He looked outside of the window. It was dark and the freshly fallen snow gleamed under the bright airport lights. There were footprints outside of the window. A couple of people must have passed by in the last hour. Still distinguishable, but without their pristine neatness, footprints looked almost intangible. He wanted to think that while he was reading there was a wedding outside and the footprints were that of the bride and the groom. They just got married and walked to the first airplane they saw and flew somewhere. Without guests, food or music. A perfect wedding. Perfect like the freshly fallen snow. Perfect like something that never happens.

The woman in the black wool sweater was gone. Leo stared at the empty chair where she was sitting before. Then he slowly moved his head down, his eyes catching the end of the story he was reading and his fists clenching so hard that his nails left its marks on the book cover, right on the man in a light brown suit.

“I am fine,” Leo said in a low voice. He was walking back home carrying grocery bags in his left hand. He thought about his life. “Amazing life,” as he used to refer to it himself. His lips smiled as he whispered “amazing” in the night air. An old habit of his, the word “amazing” always made him smile. It will be fine to see Noah, and talk to him and tell him everything. Everything he only shares with himself at nights, when he lays in their bed and suddenly feels miles away from everybody. No human soul except himself. And a rye field beneath him and he is flowing in the air, right over it. And he can feel the whisper of the rye, and the light touch of the sun on his skin. And no weight in his body. And he can think about absolutely anything then.  About her, him and about the rest of the world in terms of intact silence, blue sky and immense lightness.

Leo thought of calling Noah from the street before he gets home. He hesitated in front of the door and finally entered the building. “I must talk to Lisa first,” he told himself. The marble floors and polished mirrors in the hall echoed his rightness.

He left the groceries in the kitchen. Poured two glasses of red sparkling wine, for Lisa and himself. Left one glass on the coffee table and silently proceeded to the balcony to call Noah. On the balcony he looked at the moon, drunk half a glass in one sip and started dialing Noah’s number. Then he put the cellphone back into his pocket and leaned on the rail. He clenched his fists, and hardened the muscles on his face, as if he was undergoing some impossible hardship. Leo stood like this for a while not thinking anything.

It was close to midnight when he went inside, kissed the kids and instead of calling Noah, wrote an email to his old acquaintance in California. Leo wrote that the work was keeping him busy, things were going great, the kids were growing and that he has renewed his swimming lessons as he planned to swim a route among different Greek islands next summer.

Barcelona, August 3rd 2012