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The next Monday I awoke early and took a long shower. To go or not to go? I heard my wife talking to my daughters, their usual morning wrangle. A door slammed, then another: everyone was gone. It was 7:45 a.m. I had a little over two hours to make a decision, hopefully the right one. I dried myself, brushed my teeth, breakfasted, slow as if it was my last meal. 8:45 a.m. I was ready. I stood in front of a mirror trying to find any doubts in my tired blue eyes and couldn’t. It was my opportunity, I told myself, to make something out of my miserable life. In a few years no one will remember. Anatoly was right: time itself, like a miracle doctor, will erase from people’s memories the good deeds and the bad ones. Anatoly was right: if it’s not me, it’s someone else, someone younger, more decisive, braver. Survival is the name of the game.
I finally left the apartment.
Cloudy sky, freshness in the air, the magic of chlorophyll. I went on foot and soon was at the bookstore. Once inside, I asked for a telephone.
“Please be quick, Comrade Trubman,” said the young freckled clerk.
“I will,” I assured her and dialed the number. After a few rings, a woman answered the line. Her flat, soft voice discouraged me. “Anatoly, please,” I asked, glancing at the bookstore clerk.
Whispers on the other end. Then Anatoly’s voice: “I’m listening.”
“This is Lazarus Trubman...I’m not coming.”
“You shouldn’t be calling from a bookstore.”
“Hopefully, we’ll have another lunch someday,” I said. I didn’t know how to end this conversation.
“I doubt it,” said Anatoly, and the line went dead.
I thanked the clerk for the risk taken and left the store. A huge cloud above the nearby park finally gave birth to a light cool rain. I inhaled deeply and began walking down the boulevard, an anonymous creature in a gray raincoat whose life had just changed forever.
In a small restaurant I occupied the corner stool and asked for coffee.
“In a minute, teacher!”
I closed my eyes and imagined Anatoly’s face, his rare anger. The restaurant was empty at this time of day, just a young couple at a distant table holding hands together.
“Your coffee, teacher,” said the barman placing the cup in front of me.
“Thank you, Konstantin.”
“Is your family alright?”
“Everybody’s fine, thank you for asking.”
“That’s good, family is without doubt the most important thing in life,” said Konstantin, now rinsing the glasses. “When my Stella died, I thought my life was over, but then again...”
“Is it too early for a shot of cognac, Konstantin?”
“Well, it depends...”
“I’ll have one then.”
They were touching their tongues now, the young couple at the distant table, slow, enjoying every moment of it, and I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Then they kissed: first the upper lips, then the lower ones, then the upper ones again.
“Your cognac, teacher.” He brought a glass for himself too.
“I am very sorry about your wife, Konstantin, a godly woman she was,” I said, taking a sip. “Do you have any kids?”
“All grown up and gone,” said the barman. He splashed more cognac into both glasses. “That’s to my Stella — let the ground be soft to her.”
We touched glasses.
The drink burned my throat.
“Some fresh coffee, teacher?” asked the barman.
“Unfortunately, I have to go,” I said and pulled my wallet out of my chest pocket.
“Please, teacher,” Konstantin forestalled my attempt to pay, “it’s on the house.”
The rain had stopped while I was inside the restaurant, but it would probably start again in an hour or so. I walked fast, feeling younger, lighter — no longer a robot. The sun fought its way through the clouds, brighter than ever.
Well, I thought, what was done was done, and thank God I never discussed it with my family.
A month passed. One Monday, as soon as we finished watching the late night movie, my wife was ready to go to bed, and I promised to join her after a quick cigarette.
“Are you alright, honey?” she asked.
“Alright is the right word.”
“I can change it for ‘much better’ in a heartbeat,” she said, touching my hand.
“How about a rain check?”
“A rain check it is. Don’t take too many though.”
On the balcony, a cigarette in one hand and a glass of young Fetească Neagră wine in the other, I tried to understand why I felt restless all of a sudden. It wasn’t the movie and it wasn’t the food. What then? I glanced at my wristwatch: almost midnight. A black car, a Volga, attracted my attention because it appeared suddenly and stopped under a streetlight. Three men, tall, wide-shouldered, in shiny leather raincoats, got out and walked briskly to the entrance of my apartment building.
I finished my wine and put out the cigarette.
A few minutes later I heard the impatient ringing of the doorbell, followed by loud knocks.
They came for me.