“And put on a nice shirt!” – shouted his wife from the kitchen. Simeon Milev grunted but went over the wardrobe obediently. All week he’d been postponing the horrible shopping under different pretenses. It was their daughter’s birthday and they had to pick out a present. Simeon couldn’t grasp why he needed to be present but his wife was adamant. “The child is special, you know, she doesn’t have clear taste, I don’t want to decide on my own.” In the end, of course, the decision would be hers once again.
Simeon had no idea about the preferences of the child, already 22 years old; he just knew her taste in men – disgusting to the last drop – especially the most recent one.
They finally went out, his wife carrying a cloud of pungent perfume. Naturally, they would walk around the shops in the city center where cars weren’t allowed; as usual his knees would swell from all the walking; he’d get a headache from the sun but his wife was against hats – they made him look older. What would people think if they saw her with an old man?!
Simeon tried one of his old tricks: “Ah, we can pass by the office, I need to check some files…”
His wife cast a cold glance at him: “It’s Saturday. No one will see you kissing anybody’s ass.” Simeon Milev fell silent. It never worked out but he had to give it a try. Ten minutes at the cool, cozy and empty office along with a sip of gin from the fridge… Foolish hopes!
The street absorbed them, Simeon always felt squished like in a bowel on the overcrowded streets; he was falling helplessly into the boiling belly deep down, this was his destiny, and he was the one who let this happen, next to him his wife was pulling on his sleeve and chattering:
“I suggest we see the dresses first, Maya loves anything a little bit dressy, bows and straps…”
They went to where they sold dresses. Simeon squinted immediately – a defensive position where your vision gets blurry, everything is colourful and even turns into a cheerful patterned blob, although it smells like dresses but you can handle it if you’re at least a little deaf. He wasn’t deaf – he spent hours listening to calm chamber music while his wife was falling asleep, trying not to wake her up – but somehow he managed to suppress the noise attacking his eardrums here among the kingdom of dresses meant to transform women’s heavy asses into butterfly wings. His wife had already drowned in the gaudiness. Milev tried to escape but as soon as he glanced at the overcrowded street where dozens of little figures were slipping into their death, he attached himself to one screen and stood still. His wife was going to find him anyway and drag him outside; she was in no way buying anything from here; she had to visit all the shops and only on the second round might she consider buying something, already seen and examined hours ago.
Simeon had counted more than 600 dresses when his wife found him and ushered him outside in an imperative manner.
“This shop has never had anything good!” – she stormed out and all the other customers turned to look after her.
The street swallowed them again. Simeon tried to think about work issues – also another old trick of his – you drown yourself in work-related trouble and your surroundings shrink, they becomes distant and insignificant and time goes faster, as that naughty Jew Einstein had already realized long before Simeon.
His wife sank into some boutique shop for hats and bags; Simeon stood by the entrance obediently and started wondering why they didn’t build hitching posts into the shop walls for the ladies to tie up their men. The sun was scorching down so horribly you could fry eggs on Simeon’s balding head. He tried to move into the shade but he didn’t have the strength. What was left from his strength was curled up in the pit of his stomach and was saving itself for the long shopping trip ahead. Wouldn’t it be better to give their daughter money to buy whatever she wanted? – that was Simeon’s suggestion although he already knew the answer. Nonsense, she never knows what she wants, his wife snapped – you’re like two peas in a pod in that respect!… Actually when was her birthday – tomorrow, the day after? But what did it matter, all these awful holidays were never-ending, since they were strung together like beads, as soon as you almost got rid of one of them others would come immediately afterwards, even duller. What was the meaning of such birthdays, especially when you were a fluff-headed redhead at 22? You’d get a year wiser? If there was a scale from stupidity to wisdom, my daughter would be around zero, just half a point above her mother. And nevertheless, we celebrated every year as if the girl has drowned us in a sea of pride and happiness.
The mother rushed into yet another store, Simeon Milev didn’t even look what they were selling. It didn’t matter; it stopped mattering a long time ago. Way back in the blurry past there might have been certain periods full of intentions, plans and dreams; exciting things might have happened, but this was erased long ago, drenched in time and rather useless. At least there was work, where you could find oblivion and something similar to satisfaction; Simeon often imagined life after his retirement in horror. Thank God, he still had a long way to go.
The horde around the exit of the bowel had thickened, apparently humanity decided to raid the shops on precisely this Saturday. Or maybe all daughters had birthdays tomorrow? Maybe Mother Nature was joking with us? You put the bug in all couples’ ear in town to breed on a particular date and there you have it – the whole young generation will celebrate birthdays tomorrow and everyone will be plundering shops like mad until shelves and pockets are completely empty. Milev focused on several passing faces and examined them – most of them were tense and annoyed, probably going shopping. On the other hand, there was a kind of weird passion in women’s eyes similar to hunters’. Then he remembered the end of his university years when girls from the provinces had to either get married urgently or ingloriously to go back to their despised hometowns.
Something – the heat or the blur of memories – choked him. He looked around for mineral water but there wasn’t any in sight so he bought an ice-cream. He’d never done that, he didn’t have a sweet tooth but the coldness in a sloppy cup cooled him down and cheered him up. He finished the ice-cream just when he heard his wife.
“Now’s the perfect time for you to get a stain!”
She didn’t buy anything but Simeon had expected this. He melted into the flow, holding on the sticky cup. He would never find a trash bin to throw it into, he would never wash his hands, he would never.
He wondered how to refuse going into the mall, but his wife herself ordered him to stay by the door and not go anywhere. If I need you, I’ll call for you, she added, but he didn’t hear her. It was cool by the mall’s entrance and when you turned your face towards the wall, you couldn’t see anyone. He leaned on the heartless marble, closed his eyes and tried to imagine the mountain – green, good and silent. Before his wife declared that they weren’t shepherds to go roaming over the hills, Simeon used to go there every week – he walked around, gathered mushrooms, lay on the grass and watched the birds in the sky and the bugs on the flowers – and probably he was somewhat close to happy. But at that moment the mountain didn’t appear – it was wiped out somewhere among dead memories and he couldn’t resurrect it.
Actually, I don’t hate her, he said to the revolving door which had gulped up his wife a moment ago; what would I hate her for? We look after each other, and we have a daughter, we help each other, visit friends; what else? How many more miserable couples there are!
And he fell into his favourite trance – something like a nap where the world moves around you like in a silent movie, you don’t care about anything, time has stopped; a little painless death, a pleasant stop beyond anything and anyone. No family, no colleagues, friends, neighbors, relatives; a minute of Paradise begged for in advance. This was a life-saving trance and easily accessed: you just had to switch off all the irritations, put your consciousness to sleep and fall into the nothingness. Sometimes he did it at work, repulsed by the absurdity of his job and all the fuss the surrounding creatures made; to an inexperienced eye it looked like he was involved in office problems and inspired respect. None of his colleagues suspected the mindless trance which led Milev into the confines of Nothingness; but he was afraid of getting caught by the other experienced clerks and didn’t take his theatrics too far.
His wife showed up out of somewhere and explained how useless these empty malls were. Simeon dragged himself along next to her submissively as if he was afraid of getting lost in the crowd. I asked you, she was insisting about something – why didn’t you answer me? I nodded, he said in his head and bumped into some youngsters, they cursed at him but Simeon didn’t see or hear them; he was going forward, they had to buy a present and go home, and then he would lie in front of the TV with his beer and he’d hide in his sleep, in its deepest dens without any sound or light, without anything accessible for the senses.
Once long ago he suspected his wife of cheating; he even doubted his paternity. Maya was the spitting image of him, and later on his jealousy dialed down somehow, it faded away; there was no pain left, only suppressed scorn. His wife didn’t even notice. She could be cheating even now, at 45; women at the office were doing it but her life was distant and foreign, it didn’t even bother him. Just like his own life. All of this existence rolled like a movie somewhere outside of himself, moreover the movie was boring with faded colours and a weak snuffling sound. I am a pretty normal person, Simeon thought sometimes, I’m even more normal than plenty of neurotics around me and my life is normal; the emptiness around me is obviously some natural emptiness of middle-aged life when your illusions are dead, dreams like frozen flowers and passions are gradually turning into their own opposites and they drain away into the sands of the worldly desert. A normal person with an ordinary life, he assured himself and poured himself a drop of whiskey – these people prop up the world.
He remembered his little brother who had died recently and got sad. They were so different and until the very end Simeon couldn’t understand his boyish spirit of adventure and treasure hunter’s passion. Since his youth he was always snooping around caves and digging, he looked for trouble, sometimes he brought home cheap coins and bragged like a child exhilarated in his own foolish happiness. In the end he had gotten himself stuck in some hellish hole and stayed there, no one succeeded in finding him and everyone agreed that it was his own fault and there was no one else to blame. Simeon cried a little, more for the forgotten boy from the past than for the perished treasure hunter; but he didn’t even mention it at work, they would ask how and why it had happened and it wasn’t appropriate to explain the dead man’s business. “How many times did we tell him!” – that was his wife’s reaction. Simeon couldn’t remember telling him anything; he didn’t like poking his nose in someone else’s business, also his brother was stubborn, would he even listen to him?
Yes, he sighed and almost crossed on a red light. His wife was scurrying behind him jabbering something in her perfumed cloud. They were both almost the same height but could never synchronize their pace. She had crafted a special way of walking as if she was wearing a very tight dress: click-clack heels, swish-swash hips and taking a deep breath with breasts ready to break free from her neckline. Simeon meandered with wide lazy steps tossing his legs out sideways; there was no need to hurry when your life is organized and everything is in its place, haste is unnecessary.
Finally he found a fountain and washed his sticky hands, rubbed his eyes and his sweaty horsehead. He had to make it, there couldn’t be much left, he could see the end of the shopping street and on the way back his wife would buy something and they would get home where it was cool, quiet and calm. There she would continue with her grumbling, unhappy with her choice and Simeon’s indifference; but he would hear just a quiet buzzing. Just a little more, two blocks more and the shopping trip would be almost half-way over. Encouraged he picked up his pace – apparently time was passing before they would reach the end of the bowel. With large strides he crossed the street with the blinking traffic light, his wife probably changed gears: click-clack-click-clack; somewhere behind him a long horn was honked; brakes started creaking and the horrible hassle of the crowd turned into an alarming hysterical wail. Simeon Milev found himself in the whirlpool which suddenly swirled around; people were frustrated, they crowded around something, screamed; something bad had happened but it was outside the world of Simeon. The women, someone was screaming next to him: the woman!… Two people tugged at his sleeves and repeated: The woman who was hit by the truck, she was with you, right? That’s your wife, isn’t she?
“Wife? Wife you say? – Simeon didn’t understand – What wife?”… Finally, the annoying people left him alone. Simeon found himself outside the ball of people crowding around something and relaxed. The crowd thinned out and an exit appeared so he slipped into it. There were just 100 meters until the end of the street, and Simeon Milev ambled slowly and calmly. He knew from experience – unnecessary haste never leads to a happy ending.