In all honesty, Ruben was at a loss to explain what was happening to him. He told his friends and family a story about feeling tired and drained, while he in himself saw a different sort of picture: somebody, who knows who, some huge and powerful being was squeezing him the way the last squirts of toothpaste are squeezed from a toothpaste tube. The crush of those huge fingers, the blunt thumb and the slightly angular index finger, produced so much pain at times in Ruben that, lying in bed, or mid-stride, he could barely hold back his screams. His life, he realized one morning, had become, over time, anticipation of pain, as if nothing else mattered and as if the pain had become a measure for all that shaped his life. His visits to doctors produced no tangible results, all his test results were fine, or, at the very worst, on the border, but never beyond it, over onto the other side.
“From a physiological perspective,” a doctor told him, “your health may not be the best it has ever been, but close to it, at least as far as your body is concerned.” He added, “You have nothing to worry about.”
“What should I do, then,” asked Ruben, “which direction should I take?”
The doctor touched his forehead in passing, as if embarrassed, then he touched his temple. “It may all be in the head,” he said finally.
“In the head,” said Ruben, surprised, “what do you mean?”
“Everything is in the head,” answered the doctor, “though many fail to understand that.”
Judging by the tone of his voice, suddenly tender as if he were speaking to a child, Ruben realized the doctor meant him. He could, of course, have been offended—after all, it was as if the doctor were telling him he was crazy—but he didn’t allow himself that. He smiled, shook the doctor’s hand and went off to pay for the visit. While he was waiting for his receipt, the doctor appeared again and handed him a sheet of paper with the address and phone number of a woman, a colleague of his, whom, he said, he trusted completely.
Ruben looked at the sheet of paper only when he’d gotten home. The name Violeta Puhalo was written out in large letters. There was a phone number next to her name, but no address. Ruben crumpled it up and tossed it into the wastepaper basket which stood by his desk. Ten minutes later he pulled it out and smoothed it, then he stared for a long time at the name and number. He picked up the phone, set it back in the cradle, then picked it up again, and, without allowing himself to change his mind, started dialing the number.
The voice was different from everything he’d expected and that unpredictability made him immediately accept her suggestion that he come for an introductory session. “As soon,” said the voice, “as possible.” She had already spoken with her colleague, the voice went on to say, and he, her colleague, felt they should waste no time. The voice suggested they see each other Monday.
“I hate Mondays,” answered Ruben.
“So much the better,” said the voice, “that way we’ll tear down a barrier right from Day One and open the pathway to each other.”
Ruben pictured himself for a moment as a lone demonstrator, surrounded by a fence with various slogans. Would everything really get better once the fences and the obstacles were gone? He asked what time would be good, he wrote the address and phone number down, although the number was the same number he already had, but he stopped writing when she said her name.
The voice asked him if he had gotten everything down. “If you need,” the voice said patiently, “I will repeat all of it again.”
“Violeta,” said Ruben, “is not such a common name.”
The voice hesitated for a moment, and then added, in order not to lose rhythm: “What do you mean by that?”
“Exactly what I said,” answered Ruben. “There aren’t many women these days with that name.
“Does that mean,” asked the voice, “that you already know a Violeta?”
Ruben could feel the voice grow surer. “I have known three Violetas,” he said finally.
The voice, again, almost imperceptibly, lost rhythm. “Will you,” said the voice, “tell me about them?”
“I already am,” answered Ruben.
The voice stopped. Ruben pressed the receiver against his ear, but he heard nothing. Then he had the impression that he could hear someone breathing. “Hello,” he said, “Violeta?”
“See you Monday,” said the voice and hung up.
Monday began with a gloomy morning, sunless, everything had a uniform, colorless tone and seemed brittle and fragile. A real morning for hatred, thought Ruben as he stood by the window and scratched himself. He was scheduled to meet with Violeta at eleven, which meant he had plenty of time to take a shower, have a shave and get dressed, and even change his clothes if he didn’t like what he had selected. He thought, also, that it was amusing that he was thinking of his meeting with her as if he were seeing a girl, and he assumed this was some sort of defense mechanism piping up inside him being as he was going off to see a psychiatrist. Ruben, actually, wasn’t sure whether Violeta was a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but he sensed that this didn’t make much difference, at least in his case. Like most people, he felt mistrust of these professions, because he believed that they could, as if they had some special kind of X-ray vision or scanner, see everything that was in his soul, and even things that no longer were in his soul. And not only what had been in his soul, but even what was to come, because if they didn’t have the power to see future events, how would they have the knowledge to heal?
A glance at the door leading to Violeta’s office was of no help, because her name was the only thing on the door. He touched his finger to her bell, then removed it, checked what he’d put on to wear and ran his fingers over his clothes, checked that there wasn’t a button wrongly buttoned, fixed the knot on his tie and chided himself for not wearing a hat. He looked over his shoes, then polished them on his trouser legs. Now he could ring the doorbell, and it responded with a cheery melodic ditty which Ruben recognized, but couldn’t pin down. So as soon as the door started opening, he asked: “What is that melody your doorbell plays?”
The woman who came to the door had red hair and long fingernails, done in a clear, colorless fingernail polish. Without changing her broad grin, she repeated Ruben’s question and, as if she didn’t know what he meant, she rang the doorbell once more. The cheery melody filled the hallway. “I don’t know,” said the woman, “but I could look in the instructions, they probably say.”
Ruben suddenly wondered whether the woman there in front of him was Violeta, with whom he had arranged to meet, but he didn’t know how to bring it up As if she heard his unasked question, the redheaded woman put out her hand and said: “I am Violeta.”
“Oh,” said Ruben. He touched her hand and immediately let it go.
“I know,” smiled Vioelta, “you didn’t expect me to look like this. The red hair confuses everyone.” She moved a little to the side and invited him to come in. “There is no reason,” she said, “for us to waste time.” She looked at her wristwatch. “Another patient will be coming at noon.”
“I am not a patient,” said Ruben, but still he went into the anteroom. The door softly closed behind him, and for a moment, after the unusually bright lights in the building corridor, he found himself in a protective gloom. Violeta walked by him and the sleeve of her blouse brushed against the fabric of Ruben’s jacket. She opened the door that led into her office and stepped directly in, without waiting for Ruben. He moved slowly, much more slowly than he meant to, and when he finally entered the office and shut the door, Violeta was already seated at the desk. Ruben looked around and with regret saw that the fabled couch was missing; instead, in the corner there were two armchairs, facing each other.
“Of course you’re not a patient,” said Violeta, “we will talk about that later.” She gestured toward the armchairs. “Would you like us to sit there,” she asked, “more comfortable for conversation?” She flipped opened a file that was on the table and peered into it. “Your doctor,” she said, and touched her forehead and temple in passing, “thinks that the real solution to your complaints should not be sought in your body.”
“I know,” said Ruben.
“Do you agree with him?”
“I am not a doctor,” answered Ruben
Violeta was persistent. “You needn’t be a doctor,” she said, “to have an opinion on your health.”
Ruben said nothing.
Violeta repeated the invitation for them to sit in the armchairs, and then, as if to give him an example, she sat down first. Ruben hesitated a moment longer, then he joined her. He believed that when he sat down he would sink into the armchair, but it was surprisingly firm, and, he had to admit, quite comfortable.
“And now,” said Violeta and crossed her legs, “you promised you’d tell me about the Violetas you have known.”
“I fucked the first one standing up,” said Ruben. He saw how Violeta’s eyes widened although he saw no fear in them or a call for caution. To be perfectly frank, he surprised himself by his own words. He had never expressed himself so vulgarly before, especially in front of a person he didn’t know, but now it was too late. He couldn’t take back the words he had said, and anything further he could say would only worsen the already bad impression. He breathed in deeply and counted to ten before he breathed out.
“And,” spoke up Violeta, “how was it?”
“Clumsy,” said Ruben and laughed. His laughter was hollow and artificial, he could hear it himself, he didn’t need a psychologist or a psychiatrist for that.
“I understand,” said Violeta, “not the most comfortable pose, especially if there is a big difference in height.”
“A stool,” said Ruben.
“You need a stool,” Ruben explained patiently.
“In other words,” said Violeta, “you always need to have a stool handy.”
“Yes,” agreed Ruben, “a folding stool.”
“And the third one,” asked Violeta, “what happened with her?”
“You’ve skipped the second,” said Ruben
“I did not,” answered Violeta, “I’m saving her for later.”
Ruben studied her face closely. He couldn’t rid himself of the impression that she was toying with him, that she knew everything about him and was only pretending to ask him questions. How, for instance, had she known that the second Violeta in his life should be left for the end, since she, that second Violeta, had so made her mark on his heart that he sometimes wondered how he had survived at all? Of course, he cautioned himself, when one is talking with a psychiatrist or a psychologist, whatever she was, one doesn’t speak of marks on the heart but of marks on the consciousness, about the structure of mechanisms of remembering and forgetting, of guilt and ridding oneself of guilt, about the unconscious and the subconscious. He could have gone on with the list, but he sensed this would change nothing. “The third,” he said, finally, “was not important.”
“Nothing is unimportant,” countered Violeta. “Every part of our lives, at least at the initial level, has the same value. Nothing is purely good or bad in and of itself, meaningful or meaningless, instead we make it what it is.
Ruben couldn’t take his eyes off her. He asked: “Are you sure that’s so?”
Violeta lost her rhythm again. She waited a little longer than necessary, just a little, but enough so that Ruben concluded he was winning. And, of course, as soon as he thought that, he chided himself for seeing things that way. He hadn’t come here to compete, he had come to learn something about himself, but what?
“I am sure,” Violeta said finally.
Ruben no longer knew what her answer referred to, because he was still caught up in the dilemma of his competitive spirit. “The third Violeta,” he spoke up suddenly, “has almost completely gone from my memory, I am no longer even sure her name was Violeta.”
“There’s no reason for you to be angry,” said Violeta, “and if you aren’t enjoying this conversation, we can stop.”
Ruben felt her moving past him and taking up the lead, but he could do nothing about it. This reminded him of dreams in which he watched helplessly while something horrible happened to him, but he was never able to warn himself. He’d open his mouth, widen his eyes, flail his arms, everything was futile: no voice came out of his throat, no warning rang through the air, he could only moan while he watched himself falling from a cliff or sinking into a fresh crack in the earth’s crust. He never saw himself dead, not even from afar, and he believed that his consciousness was protecting him that way from the unpleasant site of mangled corpses. He looked at Violeta and asked: “Why is it that we never see ourselves dead in our dreams?”
Violeta returned his gaze and he could see that her eyes were more alive, interested, her whole face, in fact, shone, and she sat up in her chair, straightened her shoulders, patted her hair. “Whatever gave you that idea,” she answered, “when that is not even so? Why,” she went on, “just last night I dreamt that I was lying dead on the floor in the front room, while a man’s voice could be heard from the other room, saying my name.”
“From which other room,” asked Ruben, “here or the kitchen?”
“Here,” said Violeta.
“Why not the kitchen?”
“In the dream I knew that there was nobody in the kitchen.”
“Do you now know,” asked Ruben, “that there is nobody in the kitchen?”
A trace of insecurity flashed in Violeta’s eyes for the first time. She wasn’t afraid, that was also evident, but she no longer had enough self-confidence. Soon, Ruben thought, she will start looking longingly at the phone, and at that moment Violeta started glancing over at her mobile phone, back on her desk. If she were to get up now and go over to it, she would be admitting she was afraid, and she, Ruben sensed, would never do that. He tried to judge how much farther he was from the phone than she was and he concluded that he probably could grab it before she did, especially if he lunged suddenly. Instead, he was surprised by Violeta’s belated answer.
“I am sure,” she said, her voice trembling a little, “that there is no one in the kitchen, but I am not sure why you mentioned your own dead body in the context of a conversation about the Violetas. Did something tragic happen to the second Violeta?”
“If something had happened to her,” answered Ruben, “why would I dream my own dead body?”
“That is a switch that typically happens in dreams,” said Violeta, “especially in a case when someone won’t admit their guilt, and then the subconscious attributes the death to itself, or rather, it says: It would be better if I were dead, and that she, or he, or anybody, were alive.”
“A dangerous thing this subconscious,” smiled Ruben. He did not miss noticing that Violeta, pretending that she was getting more comfortable in the armchair, had moved an inch or so closer to the desk.
“The subconscious doesn’t lie,” said Violeta.
“I didn’t say it lies,” replied Ruben.
Silence reigned. Ruben stared unblinking at Violeta. He saw her touch her forehead, but then, instead of touching her temple, she dropped her finger to her nose. Again she crossed her legs and leaned even more toward the desk. Ruben knew that she knew that she mustn’t stop talking, but nothing was coming to mind to talk about, or, more likely, nothing that came to mind gave her any sense of security. Then she mustered her courage. This was evident by the way she quickly licked her lips and brushed the hair away from her face.
“You killed her,” said Violeta, “isn’t that so?”
Ruben finally took his eyes off her and looked down at his hands.
“No,” Violeta nearly screamed.
“You strangled her, didn’t you?”
“Never,” said Ruben and stopped talking.
“I would never do that,” Ruben said through clenched teeth.
“I can’t say why,” said Violeta, “but I do not believe you.”
Now she was poised to stand. Her legs were no longer crossed and she was leaning with one hand on the edge of the seat. Always that hope, thought Ruben, that fate can be changed, that it is possible to win a race you are doomed to lose. Her wrist, almost white from the pressure, was so slender he could have snapped it like a twig. He could hear Violeta’s bone snap as clear as a bell, at once both sharp and dull. But she heard it, too, and not just once, but twice. Her body abruptly relaxed, the shadows cleared from her face, her hand rose from the seat edge.
“What was that, “asked Ruben, “did something happen?”
“The cleaning lady,” answered Violeta nearly triumphant, “the cleaning lady came in.”
And sure enough, there were sounds of the door opening and closing, of someone walking, hesitating, moving some things, and then the sounds disappeared and it was quiet again.
“How do you know,” said Ruben, “that was her?”
“I know,” said Violeta, rising suddenly, grabbing her mobile phone and, without a break in her movement, striding to the door of the doctor’s office, she opened it, stepped out and quickly closed it behind her. He soon heard her speaking to someone, then the person replied, then there was a brief silence, then someone’s steps slowly, cautiously, neared the door of the office, a key jangled as it slid into the lock and then turned twice. The steps moved away, followed by hushed whispering, and then there was nothing else to be heard.
Ruben did not move the entire time. He knew that Violeta was now calling the police, he could imagine what she would say, how she would urge them to hurry, because, who knows, she was telling them, what he is prepared to do, she could see by his behavior that he was crazy, that he was obsessed, and after all he had all but confessed that he killed a woman whose name was the same as hers, perhaps he is obsessed by the name, no, the person is no relation of hers, she has no idea who the person is, but hurry please, and we, the cleaning lady and I, no, her name is not Violeta, she just happened in and has nothing to do with the man, in any case we will go out and wait for you by the front entrance.
Ruben got up and went to the window. He opened it wide, leaned out and looked down. The office was on the third floor, and if he found no better solution, he would be able to jump to the roof of the kiosk that was in front of the building and reached up to the second floor. He turned and surveyed the office, then he went to the desk and looked into the file that had his name written on it. The file was empty. He looked under it, peered under the desk, but found nothing. He looked around and saw his own face in a small, framed mirror. He didn’t know how he had gotten there. Maybe he should take the mirror down from the wall, remove it from its frame and free himself that way? He turned toward the wall, heard the front door slam, he flinched and hurried over to the window. He stood with his left foot on the sill, then his right. He imagined Violeta’s startled expression when she saw him at the entrance to the building and he smiled. His muscles tightened, especially his stomach muscles, but then he realized he’d never dare to jump. He tried again, but his thighs wobbled, his hands went limp, his knees went all soft and shaky, he had to sit down. Above him, he noticed when he looked up, stretched a perfectly empty sky. He had never seen anything so simple and so beautiful. He swung his legs back and forth, whistled a tune from his boyhood days, and while the sound of the police siren grew louder, he tipped forward until he felt himself losing his balance, the weight of his head was drawing him down. He closed his eyes and tipped his head forward a little more, ever so little, but far enough.