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- Mattie Stepanek
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“Do you know how many women I loved?”
“No, how many?”
“Five. No, seven. No, wait – It’s more than five. It should be...um...eight, nine –” We were talking in my sitting room. 'We' means – me and my guest.
The weather was very chilly that evening, as there had been a heavy rainfall earlier. I was trying to prepare tea for the evening. I use 'try', as it wasn't an easy job. Every now and then ice-cold wind trespassed inside through the holes in the window, and attacked the fire under the kettle. Five or six times I had to light the stove up, before I could remove the kettle. I poured the hot brown liquid in the china cup, and it's when the doorbell rang.
It was almost seven, as my watch was telling. It was very much unexpected for anyone to come and meet me at this time, and the weather outside wasn't suitable either for anyone to get outside, leaving their indoor comfort. I tried to guess who the visitor could be. It seemed unwise to answer such door-bells without second thought, especially when the situation is highly unexpected. But as I stood in the kitchen, the bell rang three more times.
I felt it was a better choice to answer it than simply standing in the kitchen while my tea becomes cold. The visitor could be in some urgent situation that made him leave his own cup of tea and get outside in such bad weather.
“Does Dr. Roy live here?”
That's the first question he asked when I opened the door, after the bell rang four more times. It was a man, or better say, a boy, probably in his twenties. It was him who was disturbing my peaceful evening by ringing the door-bell constantly.
“Dr. Sekhar Roy?”
He was wearing a hooded jacket and denim trousers, and had a cap on his head. The clothes were dampened a bit from the rain, although I could see an umbrella in his hand.
“Do you know Sekhar Roy?” I asked him. I was surprised when I heard my name from him, and was even more surprised to hear the 'Dr.'
“No, but I read his writings,” The boy answered, “I got his address from the publisher.” “But why do you need me?”
A mixture of surprise and relief was spread over his face.
“You are the doctor? I need your help. I am having...issues...just like – ”
I couldn't get a head or tail of what he was saying, but I couldn't suppress the temptation of correcting his mistake.
“But I am not a doctor!”
“What do you mean by that?”
The boy looked awkward. He surely couldn't get me. I thought it was getting very ungenerous of me to keep him standing at the doorstep while it rained outside, so I called him in.
“Come in, why don't you?”
He followed me without hesitation. I closed the door, and saw that he was standing there, looking all around, while water dropping from his umbrella created a pool on my floor.
“Why don't you open that umbrella and keep it aside for drying?”
He obeyed my words without questioning. He seemed lost in some thought, and once the umbrella was positioned aside, he turned towards me.
“It's urgent, doctor, please, I need your help...”
“Why do you call me 'doctor'?” I couldn't help asking.
“What do you mean? Are you not a psychiatrist?”
Psychiatrist! Of all the profession I could choose for myself with a second class in Commerce, being a psychiatrist was the least possible option for me, if not impossible at all.
“Not at all my boy!” I almost shrieked in shock, “Where do you get that info?” “But you just said you were Sekhar Roy?”
“But...How did you know my name?” Some mistake must have happened, I guessed, “How did you get my address?”
“From your publisher,” He replied.
Pathok Prokashan (publishers) published two or three of my writings, and a book recently. “And they told you I am a psychiatrist?”
“No, but –” He seemed to struggle for some explanation, “But you yourself said so in your writing, didn't you? 'Conversation with the man who didn't know'? You wrote about your interview with that patient –”
“My god!” I couldn't understand what I should do. That young man had made a huge mistake which could have been funny enough for me to burst in laugh after hearing what he had just said, unless the innocent, troubled face of him kept looking at me awkwardly. Either way, I felt a huge relief.
“I am sorry, but you made a small mistake,” I decided to bring him out of his mistake, “The story you are talking about is a fictional story. Imagined. The psychiatrist in there is from my imagination, and so is the patient. I am not any psychiatrist. I am a fiction writer.”
The poor fellow was listening to me silently, with his gaping mouth. He was definitely dumbstruck, as he kept his silence after I finished.
He couldn't say anything, so I asked him myself, “You really believed my story to be true?” “It seemed too real,” his mouth finally could utter.
“Well, thank you,” I was pleased to hear that, “seems my effort wasn't for nothing.”
“But what will happen to me?” He continued his uttering, but it seemed to be addressed towards himself rather than to me, “Who will solve my problem?”
“What is your problem, anyway?” I started feeling some curiosity towards my guest, “You can tell me if you want –”
“And you will be able to solve it, will you?” Suddenly his voice became bitter, “You really think it's possible for a fiction writer?”
Angry he was, naturally, as he built his hope based on my story, but alas! My story was a fiction. I tried to calm him down, “But if you want –”
“No one can solve this. No one can cure me. I have already consulted three, and they all said that my problem was beyond the knowledge of psychological science –”
“But can you tell me your problem?” I tried to negotiate with him, as I myself have broken his enthusiasm earlier.
He said nothing, but kept standing there with his sour face.
“Look,” I tried to reason with him, “I think you can tell me your problem, you know? I may not do anything myself, but at least could write about that in a story, and through that it could reach the person who could truly cure you. How many doctors have you met? Three? Do you know how many others are there in this city, or maybe the country? If they knew, they could at least guide you to the right person, don't you think?”
He didn't say anything, but lifted his face a little, and his eyes were changed. Some light was there. “My problem is the same as the patient in your story had. I don't know who I am.” There was a silent pause. I didn't expect this type of answer at all.
“What do you mean?”
“You can't understand? It's what you wrote in that story.”
“My story was about –” I tried to explain, “The man in my story suffers from a struggle for identity, as I saw many people who are unsure about their life, about what they do, or what they should do, or become in future –”
“He struggles for his identity, as he is not sure about the identity he already had. But I have no identity! What can I struggle for?” He suddenly spoke up.
“What do you mean, you have no identity?” My guest was appearing mysterious every minute. “I have no identity. I don't know anything about me. Nothing!”
His voice was becoming mysterious, but probably I could feel a pain.
“What's your name, boy? Where do you live?”
The 'boy' seemed to be amused.
“You're talking like mad, you know? Didn't I just say I don't know anything? No name. No address, nothing?”
“How can that be?” It was getting irritable time to time, “You mean you forgot?” “Even if that happened, how would I know?”
My watch was ticking seven-thirty. I was almost oblivious of the fact that I left my tea in the kitchen.
It could be a possible reason, I thought, that the boy was talking like this. He could suffer from
Amnesia or some memory-loss disease like that. It could be a short term memory loss too; he went away from his home, and lost his memory in road, and forgot everything, including his way back. Now he had come to my doorstep and making stories…
But the story is true, by the way. He knows the story, knows the publication, knows my name, and most importantly, knows my address. How did he got that, and how could he still remember those while everything else was washed out?
Imagination is an important element for fiction writers, and it is a bit more dominant in my writings, and my brain too. But if he couldn't have told my name correctly, and the name of that story and the publisher, and didn't look so innocent, I could easily imagine his to be a thief, or murderer maybe.
“Why don't you come and sit?” I finally decided to speak up, “I have made some tea, would you love to have a cup?”
He was looking at me, but seemed to lost somewhere else, as he didn't answer. Probably didn't hear me clearly.
“Um, would you love some tea?”
“What do you know of love?” he suddenly asked.
“Sorry?” I didn't understand the purpose of his question. “What do you mean by –” “What comes to your mind when you hear 'love'?”
I didn't know what to say. A moment before I had pity on him, because I thought he suffered from memory-loss. But now I had started to think he had some other, sinister problem, and that was gradually growing to my discomfort, if not annoying.
But even if he was mentally dis -balanced, and had lost his logical sense, I couldn't just kick him out of my house, as it seemed to be my duty, as a person with full possession of logical mind, to help another who lost his own. If he ran away from his house or some asylum, I should inform them as soon as possible. But even for that I needed to talk to that weird guy standing in front of me.
Somehow, I was able to control my irritation.
“'Love' is like –” I tried to say what I could, “an affection...towards someone...or something, like I have for tea –”
“Is affection towards 'someone' is the same as it is towards 'something', like tea?” He fired. “But yeah, for 'someone' it's like...the affection...attachment...between two –” “Two?” He interrupted again, “Only two?”
“Maybe not, but –” I was feeling very uncomfortable, “Like they say, the love between mother and child –”
“A mother can love three of her sons, and two of her daughters, and her husband, at the same time.” The man sitting before me said without pause.
There was a pause. I couldn't find anything to speak.
“Why two, Mr. Roy?”
“Maybe...maybe I was talking about the love of...two lovers,” I finally found a way to give him an answer, “love that a man has for another woman –”
“Even in that case, is the love restricted between two? Can’t some man love two, three, four or many at the same time?”
“At the same time? I don’t know...” The conversation, the topic was getting insufferable every minute.
“How many women did you love, Mr. Roy?”
“Why do you ask that –”
I was already trying to calm down my temper, but still kept an easy face.
“May be one, or two?”
“Do you know how many women I loved?”
“No, how many?”
“Five. No, seven. No, wait – It’s more than five. It should be...um...eight, nine –” “Why are you asking these questions? What good –”
“Fifteen!” The boy had finally stopped counting, “Nothing, just wanted to see what you know of love, or if it is just one of your fictions.”
Lunacy – that’s the only statement that could be used for that weird guy. He was testing my knowledge, while he sat in my own house, and he could have been kicked out of it if his presence ruined my peace. But…
“You remember fifteen girls whom you loved, but you don’t remember your name?” I was astonished.
“I don’t remember the girls,” He said, “I only remember the love I had for them, or still have, maybe. It’s natural. When you have to so many others to love, and at the same time, you forget to love yourself. Without love, the self dies, and you lose identity.”
“Then you had an identity?”
“Maybe, but it is ashes now.”
The irritation I was feeling a moment ago turned into sympathy at his words. The poor fellow must had suffered some relationship trauma, which had caused him the nervous breakdown.
“You wait here, I’ll go and get the tea.”
Leaving him on the chair, I went to kitchen. The tea must be ice-cold by now, I thought. While I tried to guess if I should boil it again or make new one…
But I saw the cup was empty, and that was not the only surprise. The kettle was empty too. Something, like a cat, could drink from the cup, but how can it reach inside the kettle?
The unusual magic that I just experienced made me dumbstruck, and I stood there in the kitchen for a moment. The evening was becoming more sinister every minute. First the arrival of a crazy man, then his crazy questions, and now I am looking at yet another crazy thing – a cup that was full a minute ago becomes empty without any – reason.
When I walked back to the sitting room, I was still lost in thoughts. Funny, as the man was still there, and didn't disappear like the tea. I wished he did, and then I could consider the unusual things happening with me to be unreal, like I was dreaming or something –
“What happened? You went for bringing tea, I thought?” My guest asked.
“It became cold.” I chose not to say anything more than that.
My guest was amused. “When did you prepare it?” “Fifteen minutes, I think, just before you came.”
“It was hot, right? How can hot become cold? It must have evaporated due to the heat.” There was a loud thunder outside, while I stood inside my own room electrified. “Are you mad?” The words came out of my mouth were not under my control.
“Even if I was, I wouldn't remember, would I?”
The young guy was smiling, but it was menacing. His lips were twisted, as if everything was going on as he planned. The helpless man who took shelter under my roof seemed to take it away from me; I felt helpless in front of him.
“What do you want?” My voice was breaking down. The chill outside was feeling the sitting room, and I was freezing. It was horror.
“I only want my identity.” His voice was horribly calm.
“I can't give you that –”
“But you said you can help!”
“No, I can't. Go someplace else...”
“Where can I go?”
“I don't know! Just get out of my house!” The horror inside me was shouted through my mouth.
But he seemed to understand that I was scared, for his lips curled again in a menacing smile.
“Are you sure it's your house?”
“What the hell do you mean? Where are you sitting then?” It felt like I was becoming mad in front of the mad guest I had.
“Are you sure it's not one of the fictional locations you use in your plots?” “Please, will you go away? I don't want to talk...” “Well, what do you have to talk but lies?”
“What do you mean?”
The concept of a stranger calling me a lier should be outrageous, but I was too weak for that.
“You see, since the beginning of your story, you have been lying; you said Sekhar Roy was a doctor, a psychiatrist, but he is not; you talk about a conversation that never happened; you speak of some problem that you know nothing of; your tea disappears but you say it became cold –”
“Stop it!” My anger and rage was boiling inside me, “I told you my story was a goddamn fiction!” “Even your fictions,” His voice was still calm, although cold as ice, “Are they true? I mean, are they truly yours?”
“What the hell are you saying?” The air inside my lungs were horribly cold; I was losing my breath.
“Don't you think someone could notice the similarity between your writings and Neelam Chauhan's?”
My heart gave a jump; It was sure going to fail soon...
“How do you know Neelam Chauhan?” I asked.
“No, I don't know Neelam Chauhan. But I know her story, and it isn't yours.”
There was silence in the sitting room. My voice had given up already. My guest broke the silence as he continued –
“I regret believing your story. I thought you could give a solution to my problem, but you yourself are in a worse problem. I may have no identity, but you are living with a false identity! I do not know my identity, but you don't even want to know yours!”
“I do.” My dry throat suddenly spoke out; it wasn't in my control anymore.
“Tell me who I am.”
He seemed confused, but certain satisfaction was visible in his eyes.
“You really want to know?”
“Look at the mirror.”
I turned my head to my right; my own face looked at me. The eyes were feeble.
“Now look at me.”
I did. The face I saw in the mirror was sitting in front of me, wearing the hooded jacket and denim trouser. The cap was held in his hand.
My eyes widened, but my throat was too dry to scream. It was unnecessary, though, as I could feel my heart was beating too fast, and was going to burst out of my chest any minute.
“See, now we both have identity.” He (or me?) smiled, “You're me, and I'm you!” I had to agree, but the happiness of him couldn't cheer me up. “Have you read the story by Satyajit Ray, 'Ratanbabu ar Sei Lokta'?”
“No” I answered. I didn't understand why he was asking that, but it didn't matter anyway.
“It's a good fiction. One day, a man suddenly finds another man who was very much similar to his own. They had almost similar faces, almost similar names, same taste for foods, or other likings. They enjoy that for some days. The first man was happy to have a match, but after some days, he thinks it was not acceptable. Two similar people shouldn't live on one earth. He kills the second one. But the twist is, he also gets killed, by the ghost of the man he murdered.”
I listened to his story silently as he spoke. It gave away the hint of what my guest had intended for me.
“Do you understand what I want to say?” He asked.
I couldn't speak 'yes', but I nodded.
“I have to kill you,” He continued talking, “But I also want to do justice. I want to give you a chance. I brought two revolvers –”, his hands went inside his jacket and brought out the guns, “Let's have a duel.”
He came towards me and handed me a revolver, and walked to a distance.
“I will do the counting, and we both fire after I say 'one'. Let's see who kills the other first. Ten, nine, eight, seven –”
I sat there like a limp, the gun in my hand. I didn't know if there was any bullet in there. I had read
many adventure stories when I was a child, and some I read recently, but reading about gunfights
taught me nothing about firing one. It was heavy, and the metal was cold like the blood of my
opponent. My heart was beating too fast; it was going to cross the limit of horrors it could
tolerate...but probably that wouldn't happen either, as it would be gunned down before it could cross
“– three, two, one!”
There was a tremendous sound, as if the sky was cracked open. But it wasn't lightning, as the blinding light came out of the mouth of his revolver...
Suddenly everything became slow, as if motionless. I could see the bullet coming towards me, but it was moving so slow that I thought I could catch it. But I couldn't get up. Instead, I lifted my gun...
There was another 'bang', louder than before, and blinding light, and a bullet came out of my revolver.
My hand dropped the revolver. I looked at the bullet that was coming towards me, and the one that was going towards the head of my immobile guest...
I felt the heat as the bullet penetrated my chest. My skin was burning. The bullet I fired had already reached his forehead...who was going to die first, me or him? Me or him? Oh god, please get me out of this nightmare...
Suddenly I woke up. My room was dark, except for the light that was coming out of the laptop. The movie I was watching, 'Waking Life', was almost at it's end. I saw the man was trying to hold onto the car door, but he couldn't. He was going up in the sky; up, up, and disappeared.
I missed the whole movie, right after the car hits him.