“Gollum and I” by Elena Alexieva
This is part of our special feature on Contemporary Bulgarian Literature.
I still can’t get used to living on ground level. The fact that from my kitchen window I see the people walking between the apartment blocks almost in their actual size keeps astonishing me. Living on the ground floor means we have no terrace. But we do have bars on the windows which we didn’t put there. They are left from the previous owners, elderly twin sisters who hoped our money would grant them a somewhat more comfortable future in one of the less dilapidated retirement homes. At first, when we moved in, I thought I might call them in a couple of months to see how they’re doing, but then I forgot.
Now I don’t even remember what they were called although their names are certainly in the sales agreement.
Living on the ground floor is somehow different, more specific. Not only people, everything looms bigger. It passes by, and if you feel like it, you can even touch it. You can call out hoping it may call back. True, you can’t leave the windows open for long because the noise keeps pouring in from the outside, as if the entire world has invaded your living room, especially in summer. And we don’t even have a living room, just a single multi-purpose room, not really big, and a kitchenette. Sometimes I think we’ll soon run out of air to breathe, but Ivan says nothing. It seems to me his skin is getting whiter by the day.
When we left the fifteenth-floor penthouse to move here, at first we felt simply lost. At night, I’d wake up not knowing where I was. I got scared. Am I still in the hospital, or am I already home, and if so, why is this room unlike my own bedroom and who is this man lying quietly across, glowing like and angel in the dark?
Back then I wasn’t aware that once fear overtakes you, it never lets go, and yet, you can still be happy if you want and it won’t stand in the way. On the contrary, it may even help you, who knows.
In fact, I no longer fear anything. There’s nothing to fear, anyway.
I used to be afraid before, when I had so much that I couldn’t even see it or list it. Eventually, when I lost it all, I realized I had had nothing and I hadn’t lost anything. And so I stopped being afraid, or at least so I think.
This is our first summer here, and it’s a nightmare.
Our first summer without an air conditioner, I say to him one morning as we are having coffee behind the kitchen bars, trying to outshout the clamor flooding in through the open window.
There is a kindergarten across the street.
He smiles at me somewhat sadly.
Every now and then I have this feeling that no matter how trivial a conversation we are having Ivan would always find something in it to feel guilty about.
He drives me crazy. As soon as I come to think of it, my own sense of guilt engulfs me. And yet, I go on.
Do you remember three years ago —
He gives me such a look that I shut up instantly.
Of course he does. How can he forget those fantastic two weeks we spent living like gods amidst the mind-boggling luxury of the Maldives, or the journey we had made across North Africa the year before?
I guess we’ll never set foot on the Maldives again, he says quietly with that peculiar questioning intonation he has been using lately almost everywhere, even at the cash-desk in the supermarket.
What do you care? I smile back as cheerfully as I can and take his hand.
Once again, the illness settles between us, on our tiny kitchen table with room just for two.
Let’s first get this place fixed. Just the look of it makes me sick, he says after a while.
That’s my man, I say to myself, and then add aloud: and buy some decent furniture.
Ivan nods and sips his coffee.
His hand is dry and cool in mine. It feels like he’s made of marble.
I’ve never suspected a human being could be that perfect.
At first I couldn’t even grasp the diagnosis.
When the first doctor mentioned it, I simply laughed in his face and rushed out of his office without any further ado. I could barely hear him shouting that he understood I was in shock, but wouldn’t it be better if I still listened to what he had to tell me. Before his words reached me, I was already running towards the car, the hospital entrance further and further away, and no power in the world could take me back.
My reaction was not really normal, at least not the reaction you might expect from someone who gets this kind of news, but I was completely unable to imagine that what the doctor had just told me actually had to do with me. It sounded not just absurd, but outright incompetent and malevolent. Moreover, I knew perfectly well what my problem was and had no use for his fucking diagnosis. The colitis had been giving me trouble for so many years now, he could have simply prescribed a stronger pill or a strict diet, and that would be it.
I didn’t ever bother to tell Ivan I had been to the doctor.
With the financial crunch in full swing, things at the bank didn’t look well at all. Bad loans were accumulating by the day, our clients were no longer feeding their accounts as there was nothing to put in them, and to top it all, at the beginning of the fourth quarter we had to shut down three branches – something no one had ever thought possible. The fact that all three were located in small towns and had just one officer, one teller and a security guard didn’t mean that in a month or two we won’t have to close offices in bigger cities. As head of division, I was literally being roasted between two fires. On the one hand, I was under pressure from the big bosses who, in their confusion, had become nasty and brutal like kids, and on the other, there were my subordinates who, despite their long years in the bank, still expected miracles from me.
I didn’t flee, though, the office of the second doctor whom I consulted. And in front of the third one I merely burst into tears. I needed a taxi to take me home. I was unable to drive on my own.
I no longer remember what I felt at that moment, maybe nothing at all; I must have been dumb with the kind of terror that even tears won’t let out. All of a sudden my mind was brimming with questions which no one could answer. There was no one even to ask them to.
Once again I didn’t tell him. I didn’t know how. In a way, I was more scared for him than for myself. But after two horrible nights in which I almost drove him crazy, I finally confessed. At daybreak, when I felt asleep in his arms, it was already two of us on this lonely cursed island around which the whole world was quietly crushing into pieces.
The surgery went well. Eventually, when they told me I had spent eight hours on the table, I couldn’t believe it.
The first thing I saw once I woke up from the anesthesia was the idiotic print on the sheet they had covered me with: blue boats on yellow. For a long time, I didn’t know where I was. In addition, they didn’t let Ivan come see me for the first week – head physician’s orders, they said, there was a flu epidemic in town. And they took away my cell phone, too. This I had no idea why. It was snowing outside almost all the time and I imagined the snow piling up in my head. There were two more women in the room, both of them older than me. One of them was in pain and despite all the painkillers, she kept moaning all night long.
I prayed for the snow to bury us. Of everything else God would take care – I had started believing in Him on the day I had come to believe my diagnosis.
The only solution would be chemotherapy for the rest of your life.
This is what the doctor told me on the seventh day.
Ivan had just left.
Hidden in my bedside cabinet, away from peering eyes, there was a large jar of chocolate spread.
And when would that be, I inquired.
The doctor shrugged and glanced meaningfully at the ceiling. He was trying to be honest. The One up there was trying to be honest too. I was standing, or rather lying, between the two, knowing the end in question had just come.
We should’ve had children, I told Ivan when he came to see me the next day. One or two or five — as many as you wish.
He smiled: I never asked for five. Besides, what difference would’ve kids made.
Fair enough, I thought, they would’ve just ended up orphaned. I felt sick with self-pity.
Forget about it, I said. Forget I ever mentioned it.
I already did, he said
But then, maybe I really hadn’t said anything.
It was no longer snowing and whenever I could drag myself to the window, it seemed to me that down there, in the street, the snow was already melting.
Do you sometimes imagine your life without me, I ask.
He says nothing, makes no sign at all that he has heard me.
Of course, his silence already betrays him.
And what can he say? Whatever he says won’t matter. I’ll use it against him anyway.
The illness has made monster of me. And I don’t mean that which is happening inside my body and no one, not even I, can see, but the diagnosis. As it goes, anyone in my circumstances can do whatever she wants as there’s nothing else left for her. And I avail myself of the occasion as much as I can. Not that I’m doing it on purpose, not at all. I just don’t stop myself. I suffer and my suffering grants me infinite power which I exercise tirelessly, with bitterness and an astute sense of guilt, but also with some dark, almost wicked satisfaction.
He, too, suffers and his suffering makes him all the more vulnerable.
Do you sometimes imagine your life without me?
Because I do, and this is what hurts most.
My first round of chemo leaves me in tatters. Up until then, even after the surgery, I’d never felt as ill as they said I were. Now, however, most of the time I am so weak that I am able to tend only to my most immediate needs.
I throw up violently, trying not to look at myself in the mirror.
On my way from the bathroom I literally creep on all fours.
He is at work. Even this I can’t forgive him. Slowly, my helplessness deteriorates into hostility. I know that once I hear him unlock the front door, it will be just a matter of time before I attack him. And then I’ll throw up again – out of shame, anger, and because I can no longer stand myself. He’ll be there for me, holding my head gently over the toilet bowl.
I won’t dare tell him that I love him as my breath will be sour and stinking of vomit.
I won’t dare lie to him.
We had decided to keep my illness secret. I intended to stay at the bank as long as I could. I fancied I’d be able to keep up the illusion that nothing so bad has happened, or at least I’ll be among people till the last moment instead of wallowing in depression and self-pity at home all day long. Besides, I also had to repay the loan for the penthouse which I had taken out from the bank a few years earlier.
But I was wrong. Somehow my bosses had found out about my condition. On my first day back to work, the HR manager called me – we were on friendly terms with her, or so I thought. I knew what was cooking right away, so when the two of us sat in her office, I didn’t even let her open her mouth. I wrote my resignation on her desk and with her pen while she was smoking nervously by the open window, ignoring the CEO’s ban.
I’m so sorry, she mumbled out when I handed her the handwritten sheet, and threw her half-smoked cigarette onto the street below.
I pretended I didn’t know what she meant and smiled.
It’s okay, I said. One more cigarette won’t make me any sicker.
Eventually, when the bailiff came to evict us from our home, I regretted deeply that instead of flaunting my hurt pride I hadn’t thought of pressing my ex-bosses to remit at least the remaining part of the loan. The truth is mine was an outright dismissal, and a totally illegal one. I could have easily won the case in court, no matter how good their lawyers were. But at the time it didn’t even occur to me to threaten them. My mind was elsewhere.
I was no longer able to go to chemo on my own. All I could do was get there one way or another, but I couldn’t make it home unassisted. Ivan took me there and back by car. On the way we’d talk about this and that or just drive in silence. He’d leave me home on the fifteenth floor and drive back to his high-end car dealership to sell all those stupid latest models to the ones who could afford them. He had made a name as a good dealer, but I’m not sure he was able to sell anything in those days.
Nor did I feel like asking him again if he ever imagined a life without me.
I was afraid he might answer:
Strangely enough, his hair started to fall off before mine.
Look at you, I say one morning as I bump into him in the bathroom.
Both of us are standing in front of the mirror, two peas in a pod. We look like a family of extraterrestrials. Our skulls are round and bare. I, however, still have my eyebrows, while his are completely gone. He doesn’t even need to shave anymore. There isn’t a single hair left on his body.
Adam and Eve, a futuristic version.
None of us can stand to stare at oneself for too long, so we stare at each other instead. I can’t recognize him, nor can he recognize me. Right now one can hardly tell who of us is the ill one and who’s the healthy one. The illness has slipped into our lives, erasing the boundaries between us day after day. We are one, the two faces of a single creature.
Are we going to stay like this forever?
I keep forgetting that “forever” is one of the words I’ve been trying to uproot from my vocabulary.
Unfortunately, no new ones come to replace them.
Where the uprooted words used to be, now a chasm is gaping.
The things we can talk about become fewer and fewer.
Look at you, I say. You are like an angel.
Bullshit, he snaps. More like Gollum.
We both burst out laughing. He’s got a point. We laugh to tears, like crazy.
Then I place my hand onto his bare head and gently trace its contour. He does the same with mine, but that’s all. I am aware that it must be too hard to make love to someone who resembles so much the one you used to love.
My first thought was I had infected him.
I knew it was ridiculous and completely impossible. And yet, this doubt kept eating me from the inside, as if I didn’t already have enough on my plate. I begged him to see a doctor; we were fighting over it all the time. At first he’d say nothing was wrong with him. Then he said two sick people in a family were one too many; at the end, someone had to go to work. I felt so offended that I didn’t talk to him for a week. I felt we were disintegrating, turning into something we had never been. Even more cruelly, our disintegration was not just on the inside, but on the outside too. One could easily see it with her naked eye.
This must be a metamorphosis of a kind, I thought. I even prayed occasionally. Not for me. For him. I’d lock myself up in the bathroom and repeat the Lord’s prayer – or what I remembered of it – till I dropped. And all because of the shameful fear that he may die before me.
This was all the doctor said once I managed to drag him there after a spectacular row. That was all. No chemo, no nothing. Only a vague explanation that it was a condition affecting the immune system, often as a result of serious stress, could not be cured and, just theoretically, may disappear on its own, but chances are small.
So I’ll be left bold, Ivan said.
Could’ve been worse, the doctor remarked wisely.
I kept quiet.
What a fool, Ivan said as we left the doctor’s office.
Could’ve been worse, I repeated, meaning to make him laugh.
I told you nothing was wrong with me, didn’t I, he insisted.
Nothing’s wrong with you, I echoed.
As we crossed the clinic’s parking lot, I embraced him. Although he had also lost weight and imperceptibly grown smaller, my embrace had shrunk too much for him fit in. It was the end of March, and yet, there was no trace of spring in the air. A cold north wind blew and feeble snowflakes danced under a metallic sky.
We have to get you a cap, I said.
The wind took my words, carrying them so high that they were instantly lost.
Shortly after he got sacked.
The formal reason they quoted were his frequent absences from work due to my condition. But except for the days when he took me to the hospital, he hadn’t even once been away because of me. This poorly fabricated lie was nothing but a way to cover up the opinion which had spread around the dealership, that with his new looks were driving customers away. To prevent the case from appearing as sheer discrimination, they paid him a ridiculous compensation which made his humiliation even worse, but which he could not refuse, given that from now on we would be having no income at all.
Somewhere around the middle of my second round of chemo we were evicted from our home for failing to pay the loan installments. As a former employee of the bank, I managed to get us a respite, although it felt disgusting. But I could see us clearly – in another couple of months, having finally lost all our property – move into our car to spend the muddy Sofia winter like dogs, digging endlessly into waste containers for food, not even caring that someone who knew us from our previous life might just happen to pass by and recognize us. Then we go to sleep in beds of cardboard boxes, and, covered with newspapers, we dream of the Maldives until one particularly cold January morning we no longer wake up.
Ivan made several reluctant attempts to find a job, but they didn’t work out. No one wanted him, nor did he want anyone for that matter. It was getting increasingly hard for him to go out; he had even stopped coming with me to the hospital, unable to bear how people stared at him, not even for a second. Finally, he found some kind of temporary employment at a construction site, but didn’t stay long there either. Day after day I observed how a stranger was being born inside him – a stranger I neither knew, nor cared to know. A Gollum who watched me with eyes red from lack of sleep, tormented by what was happening in his own head.
The closer our future felt, the more it crumbled beneath our feet.
Then suddenly it all came to an end, as unexpectedly as it had started.
I’m not sure if God was fed up with the insincere, panic-driven prayers of a sworn atheist like me, or the evil force got bored by watching us meet out fate like lab rats, without putting up any resistance, but our life began to once again, little by little, feel just like that – a life.
All at once I found a job as something my new employers labeled an ‘online financial advisor’. In reality, I was connected to a platform offering all kinds of business advice online. I worked from home and every time a client posted a question in the Finance section, I’d get an alert and respond. The rest of the time I was free to do whatever I wanted. They paid by the piece and although the money wasn’t much, I was still earning something. At first I was serving the low-end segment, that of the occasional clients. However, it didn’t take long before they moved me to the ‘perms’, that is, those who paid subscription. I liked my virtual job. It made it easier to believe I was my own master.
The tests after my second chemo showed no trace of the illness. To the utter surprise of all doctors, my chances of slipping out of their hands alive and kicking were quite fat. They just shrugged and said such things happened.
Are you a believer, the doctor who had promised me chemotherapy for the rest of my life asked me.
Well, I don’t know, I said. It didn’t feel right to go on cheating both myself and Him.
It’s good to believe, he asserted. Belief makes the spirit stronger, and sometimes, in cases like yours, only the spirit can heal the body.
I promised to think about it. Then we parted as good friends who don’t expect to see each other again.
Meanwhile, a stranger called from the countryside to inform Ivan of the death of a distant relative who had left him all his property as there were no other heirs. At first we thought it was a practical joke or something. Then we decided the property in question could at best be some dilapidated village shack, but nevertheless, out of respect for the memory of the deceased, we decided to go there and see.
It turned out that in addition to the shack and all the junk in it, now Ivan was also the owner of an impressive amount of arable land which his relative had received from the restitution. The money we managed to get from its sale was not enough to repay the loan, but would definitely do for a cheap flat in the poorer suburbs of Sofia.
That’s how life is, we thought as we could make no sense of it, nor was there any.
With all my heart I now hoped that his hair will start growing back.
But it didn’t.
He is someone else and that’s all I know of him.
The other one, the old one – I have no idea where he’s gone. I miss him badly though I’m not sure I want him back. Moreover, I myself am a completely different person, although I still look very much the same.
We cannot separate. Under no circumstances should we separate. The illness holds us in its grip tighter than any feeling, habit, interest or will.
It turns out I did infect him.
Not with the disease but with the fear of my own death. The fear of our shared death as a single being – this is what I have induced in him.
There is no cure for it. Even if you don’t actually fall ill, you’ll carry the virus in your bloodstream forever. And it doesn’t matter who of us got it first and who gave it to whom.
For some time now he has been working at a newspaper stand in the neighborhood and says he likes it. Being a professional salesman, he loves selling no matter what. He stands between the corrugated iron walls, hot as hell in the August sun, the baseball cap low over his eyes, and watches the passers-by. They too glance at him; some even say hello. They don’t look away. By now, they are already used to him.
All that remains is for him to come to terms with himself. Accept himself and then also accept me. Waiting doesn’t bother us; we’re in this together, after all. We are waiting to see what will happen, if anything.
And little by little we forget who we used to be.
On my way to the metro station I pass by his stand but he doesn’t see me – he is busy putting the newspapers and the magazines away. He is done for the day. And I’m in a hurry so I don’t call on him. Once a week we hold a meeting at the office of my new bosses, all of them five to ten years younger than me. It’s pretty depressing. At least that’s what I’ve told him.
These meetings somehow always drag on long into the evening. Which is why, even though it’s still broad daylight, I have fixed his dinner and left it in the microwave.
Sometimes, when I come back, it’s still there.
The attic room is dusty and stifling, god only knows when it has been last aired. The sheets on the rickety extension sofa are just as we have left them last time. I might be imagining things, but they don’t smell exactly good. Yet, we are rolling in them, perspiring, sticky and tired – not so much of the physical strain as of the heat. The skylight right above us is open but makes no difference. The sky is still bright and pigeons are marching on the roof, fluttering and shitting all over the place.
Petar is smoking and between two drags he tells me something I don’t hear at all. Then he drops the butt in a paper cup on the floor, half filled with water, rises and tries to forcefully push open the skylight a bit more, but is unlucky.
Let go, you’ll break it, I say.
What a fuckin’ hole, he says, shaking his head.
The attic is not his. It’s his friend’s. I hope for the moment being we are the only ones using it, although one can never be sure.
Standing stark naked in the middle of the room, he grips the skylight frame and attempts a few pull-ups. Thanks god he stops before it had collapsed on his head.
He is not very tall but leaves the impression he is big. Probably because he has already put on quite some meat, like most young man his age these days. He doesn’t look particularly attractive without clothes. With his clothes on, there’s not much difference either.
He is one of my new bosses, though in our tiny little company we like to say we’re one big happy family where everyone’s equal.
I don’t sleep with him because of work, of course.
I just sleep.
I get up and sit on the edge of the sofa. Instinctively, I cover my breasts with my hands as if I’m cold. I hate to show them. They are no longer what they used to be, not that they have ever been something special.
Petar is still standing right in front of me, his groin almost in my face.
That’s enough for today. I need some fresh air and besides, I’m thirsty.
Do you know that I’m living a second life which has nothing to do with my first one, I say.
He doesn’t quite get it.
He thinks I’m talking of the time I spend with him.
And how is it, he grins. Are you satisfied with your second life?
I open my arms and take him in, sweat-covered belly and all.
Not just satisfied, I say. I’m happy.
He is perplexed. My reaction takes him by surprise.
Tell me, but please, be honest, he says seriously, is it just the sex, or is there more to it?
There’s always something more to it, I say.
Seemingly pleased, he lifts me up on my feet and kisses my breasts tenderly, with reverence. Then he mumbles, his faced buried in the hollow of my neck:
Same thing here.
Same thing here.
Every time I get home it’s darker and darker.
The days are getting shorter.
These days, so identical with each other, which in any other respect would be similar beyond recognition.
Inside, the place is submerged in darkness. Only from the outside, through the barred windows, does the night illuminate it faintly with the help of one of the two street lamps in front of our apartment block. The neighborhood is not yet asleep. The spaces between the buildings are swarming with people hoping in vain to enjoy some evening freshness. The hubbub doesn’t die away.
It is impossible here for one to be left alone. Not just alone with your thoughts, but really alone.
I take a bottle of water out of the fridge and drink greedily until my teeth start aching with the cold. Then I slip into the bathroom and in the cool jets of the shower I finally begin to come to my senses.
The bathroom is still in the same deplorable state in which we found it. It’s rundown, old and squalid, and no matter how much I clean and scrub, it always looks dirty. But we have saved almost all the money needed for the repair and are planning to start this fall. I am not sure this rathole can ever be made into a proper home, but at least I can try.
I am angry at myself for sneaking around like a thief. I dare not turn on the light, nor make any noise, nor even turn on the shower faucet properly. Every time I promise myself I won’t do this again, but the following week I act exactly the same. And I don’t feel guilty, just tired.
He is lying in his bed in the dark, facing the wall, but not asleep. My own bed, at the other end of the room, is meticulously made.
The sheet is tossed aside and his naked, embryo-like body looks tender, defenseless and strange. This new human being, child of the illness, which she left behind for me to take care of.
The words for the infinite future have returned to my language and I surround him with them from all sides, like a wall.
You will suffer no more, I tell him. Never ever. Not for eternity. Not on your life. Not until the world turns.
All the rest doesn’t matter. It’s not ours. Just mine.
I carefully lie down by his side so the outline of my body fits into his. Outside, he doesn’t stir or say a word, but I can feel everything inside him moving constantly, restlessly.
He is white like silver and smooth like a stone. It seems to me I can easily count his cells, touch each and every one of them.
I feel as though I have created him.
The window is closed. The shower faucet is dripping resonantly.
The cool, refreshing gust of something unknown sweeps through the room.
Elena Alexieva was born in 1975 in Sofia. She majored in international economic relations at the University of National and World Economics in Sofia, and continued her studies in the doctoral program in semiotics at New Bulgarian University, Sofia. She is the author of two poetry collections, Ladder on the Heart (1994) and Face of a Killer Angel (1996); the novel The Blue Stairway (2000); two collections of short stories, Readers’ Group 31 (2005) and Who (2006); as well as the novels Knight, Devil, and Death (2007) and She Is Here (2009). She has recently released a third short-story collection, Pets Syndicated (2010). She is winner of the 2006 Helicon Prize for new Bulgarian fiction for Readers’ Group 31. Her works have appeared in a number of periodicals and anthologies in Bulgaria and abroad. Elena Alexieva lives in Sofia, where she works as freelance interpreter and writer.
Published on December 6, 2017.