by Josh T. Alto
Can we live someone else's life? Do we ever have a chance to decide about our own lives?
|“You are not even listening to me.” It was my wife. She was looking at me irritably. “As if you were living in another world. As far as you care I could be living with a stranger as well.” she added. We were sitting in our living room and I was glancing at the bookshelf when I suddenly caught sight of that book. It was the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez, my favorite book in my twenties and I was instantly pretty sure I had the old photos hidden there.
Even at that time, it was bizarre that someone read real books. I liked the smell of those books, the sensation when I opened them and a new world full of miracles unfolded in front of me. I still have several hundreds of books; that is something really odd in the eyes of many people I know.
The photos were well hidden over decades in that book, even from myself. I had been looking for them for months all through my drawers and old cardboard boxes but somehow I lost track of them until I remembered that they must be in that book. One hundred years of solitude, just like a prophecy, I really felt lonely sometimes; I could understand why people might be lonelier with someone than being alone; it is only a matter of time.
Printed photos are something very strange nowadays but I have always preferred printed copies to digital images, something that you can hold in your hands or even hide in an old book. Earlier I used to sit hours and look at old photos, especially when I was a child, they told me stories of unknown people, lost uncles, nephews, my grandparents; I only knew they were somewhere watching my steps, extending me a helping hand if I needed.
When my wife went to sleep I withdrew with the book into my study, opened a fine bottle of wine and took out the photos. In the first photo it was she, Anna. She was at the seashore with the setting sun behind her. She wore a short white dress and she was smiling, as always in photos, with that beautiful smile of hers. The sky was shining behind her in every color from light yellow to crimson. I have not seen a more beautiful woman in my whole life.
I can remember that day very well, even after so many years. I often thought about it, that we hardly ever had a real chance to decide about our own lives; all of our decisions were either consequences of events that had happened earlier in our lives or decisions that our fate has brought in front of us, but everything that happened that day I decided and planned very carefully, I thought so at least.
The photo was taken on that Saturday afternoon when I met Anna for the first time. I called her one Friday morning and I do not even know now how but apparently I was convincing or interesting enough that she agreed to meet me in a nearby cafe the following day.
When I entered the cafe she was already there. Although I could not see her face I recognized her immediately. She was looking out through the window, watching the people outside on the street, holding an unopened book in her hands. I went to her table; she looked up slowly, our eyes locked. “I’m Harry” I said. It was the first time we had ever met but we both sensed that that was not true.
I sat down at her table and ordered a cappuccino for me and a chocolate cake for her. She smiled. “You spoil me” she said. I knew she would say that, it was her favorite cake. “I’m Anna” she continued and watched me long and mysteriously. “Have we met before?”
It was a logical question. “Thomas is dead” I said, “He donated his memories. You knew he would do that, didn’t you?” She looked surprised. “He was always desperately in need of money” I continued. “He made the donation months ago, actually long before he ever thought of dying”.
The donation of memories was nothing new at that time but since memory extensions were available also for the human brain; it was more and more popular to buy someone else’s memories though it was not quite legal. Unlike with other organs in exchange for money people could make a donation, or if you like, sell their memories to a research centre that could use them for the benefit of the human race, but illegal copies sometimes reappeared and they acquired quite a good price on the black market.
Why anyone should buy the memories of someone who was already dead? Probably everyone had a reason, out of curiosity or solely for looking for an adventure. My reason was obvious, at least I thought it was and I was sure that I had to do that.
“So you are Thomas now?” she asked. I hesitated. What should I say? I was certainly not myself anymore. I had heard people saying earlier it was like a drug, you suddenly become someone else and it can be like a shock sometimes, so it is better to never try to buy the memories of a serial killer. But how about buying the memories of a man in love?
“I’m Harry but you’re probably right, I’m Thomas as well.” I said. “I’m in love with you.” It was necessary to tell her. “I know everything about you. You’re in my dreams every night.”
She smiled. “And what do you want from me?”
Her smile had everything I ever dreamed of; it was the most beautiful smile I had ever seen, I felt I could die for that smile. Unfortunately, I also knew that it was exactly what Tomas had done for her but I was hopelessly in love with her. Looking into those eyes of hers made me weak all over my body.
“Could you imagine going out with me?” I asked.
She looked at me even more mysteriously than before. “Why should I do that?” she answered with another question.
“Because you were in love with Thomas. At least that was what he thought.”
She smiled again. “We stopped seeing each other months ago. Thomas had been a swindler. He even betrayed me. Look up his memories from 5th August last summer.”
I suspected she knew that. I probably blushed and remained wordless. What should I say? Should I defend Thomas? He was already dead. I should make her believe me, I thought. She should believe I had changed, I mean I was not like him. “Oh my god! You cannot be serious. I only have his memories.”
“Suppose I go out with you, you must be prepared I’m not like other women.” She looked straight into my eyes expecting some kind of reaction. I knew she was not. Otherwise I wouldn’t have asked her. She fascinated me ever since I saw her sitting at the table, waiting for me, or at least for someone who claimed to be Thomas now.
It was a hot day but the evening brought some fresh air from the sea. We left together and walked down the streets to the sea, watching the setting sun. She liked the idea of taking some pictures and leaned against a rock, smiling at the camera. I took several photos in that beautiful sunset and let her choose one. Looking at the photo after so many years I just felt sorry for myself and for her as well. If only I could bring back that moment. We were standing there for a while watching the sea and the setting sun until it grew cold and she asked me to accompany her home. I certainly knew where she lived and probably it was obvious for her as well because we did not speak much. As if there was a secret telepathy between us that did not need words.
“I am perplexed.” She said when we reached her house, with a thoughtful expression on her face. “I need some time to think it over.” She wished me good night and disappeared behind the old oak door. I walked all the way back to the restaurant trying to capture all the moments that we had spent together. I knew I should not have shocked her with my love but she was everywhere, I just did not have any other choice.
In the second picture it was Anna and I in a little restaurant near her place. The photo was taken by the waiter, who spoke only a smattering of English, I assume he was Greek, and he made both of us laugh. When you look at the picture you would think we were a newly married couple, holding each other’s hands. After the photo was taken she just looked into my eyes without a word and gave me a smile. Finally she asked: “So you think it is only a question of time?” Should I say yes or should I say no? I was an optimist so I certainly thought it was, but I was a realist as well and I knew there were things you could not really force. Either they happened or not and time could not solve anything.
“You know I’m in love with you and I’ll wait as long as it is necessary” I gave her a smile, “There’s no hurry, we have plenty of time.”
She smiled too and kissed me on the cheek. “You are a dreamer but I like it” she said. Sitting there holding her hand I felt I was the happiest man in the world. Too blind or too cowardly to see the reality of just enjoying the moment.
In the next picture we were both smiling with two huge ice cocktails. It was taken by the same waiter that took the previous photo as well. In the meantime we were almost regular guests and he liked us, especially Anna. She was a girl to fall in love with at first sight. While walking home afterward, the fresh October wind swept over my face. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the moments being with Anna. I just loved being with her, listening to her voice and dreaming of a whole life together in front of us. I somehow had expected our relationship to become more sensual with time but nothing happened. I might have had my expectations that she hated because she did not like to be pushed towards a decision that she did not want. We were neither lovers, nor a married couple as she sometimes announced, so what could I expect of her? But I knew every inch of her body, like a map laid in front of me.
“It is not like that” she said “either you fall in love with someone and you cannot do anything about it or you do not fall in love, but you cannot do anything about it either.” She told me this looking at me in the eyes and I just could not believe it. We had known each other for more than a month by then but she was telling me that she could not see anything in me. I knew that she could not be blamed but it was the most depressing conversation I had ever had. “You know I really tried” she continued “I went out with you a lot, sometimes it was fun and you made me laugh but I just did not get that kick I was waiting for. I can only tell you how it is now, we never know, it might happen that everything changes but I cannot promise anything.”
I went home, filled the bathroom basin with cold water, dipped my head in it to cool it down and looked in the mirror. Somehow I felt it was not me anymore. I saw Thomas looking at me from the mirror. It frightened me but if I really wanted to replace him and wanted to be everything for Anna, it all made sense somehow.
In the fourth picture we were sitting in deckchairs under a palm tree, smiling with Piña Coladas in our hands. It was our first vacation together; we flew to Florida for a few days. It was my idea; actually I wanted to fly alone, I had somehow had enough of her hesitation, I was fed up with all the maybe’s and never know’s. I wanted to think it over, our relationship, friendship or whatever it was but she called me the week before rather late one evening. “Do you think I’m totally crazy when I ask you whether I could come with you?” she asked. It was almost too late but I could still arrange her ticket and find a room for her in the same hotel as well. I was certainly happy and thought it meant something but even if I made up to her several times, nothing happened, she kept the two steps distance and slowly I was also realizing, but still could not believe, that she did not want anything from me.
I dropped the photo onto the table, refilled my glass and went to the window. Outside I could see the many lights of the village in front of me and thought that life was beautiful after all; it brings us memories that keep us alive even after so many years. But it was not always so trivial. I know, sometimes I was really desperate and just could not take it anymore. After some time I started thinking about removing Thomas from my head. Physicians recommended it only in a state of emergency because it could have serious effects, something like a partial lobotomy because of the millions of nerve-cells that suddenly lose connections and it could take months until they recovered from the shock if ever.
I started drinking as well and sometimes I drank so much I felt I was flying over the clouds, but still I saw her face everywhere. I was dreaming and had a beautiful dream, but later I just wanted to get rid of it because I knew it would not bring me anywhere. If she was not in love with me and could not even see anything in me that attracted her then it was a game that ended before we could even start it. I knew I would give it up sooner or later but I was in love with her and unfortunately I could not think of anything that could help me.
The next photo was a beautiful one, taken on the top of the Empire State Building of Anna and me on a sunny afternoon. It was always my dream to go there with a girl I was in love with and make her a proposal, but it was everything but romantic.
“We have only known each other for about four months. You might know a lot about me but we are not even friends, I do not think man and woman can be friends anyway, so it’ll never work. We have known each other for some time but that’s all. Four months ago when you came to my table you were a stranger to me. I’m definitely not in love with you. I do not say that I’ll never be but this is how life works, you cannot hurry love. Please do not push me and do not expect too much of me.”
I often ransacked my brain trying to find out why it could not work between us and I assumed that she would probably never forgive me for knowing her much better than she would ever know me. But there was nothing to do about it.
In the next photo it was Anna again, with the old city wall behind her with the full moon in the sky. I took it after we went to a movie and I accompanied her afterward through dark and empty streets. We were talking about life and how nice it would be to finally find someone who had the same interests as me, to have someone to draw back with near the fireplace and watch the logs burning. I asked her again for the hundredth time to go out with me. I meant really, like lovers do but she looked at me even more disappointed than ever. “Why can’t you understand me?” and she almost cried, “I might be alone, I might need someone but it is not you. I really tried very hard, I know you are a good man and I would be the happiest woman in the world if I could make you happy, but I cannot. At least now I cannot promise you anything. “
I just stood there speechless; it was like a blow to my head or rather inside my head, I regretted ever having thought of buying the memories of Thomas. I was probably an idealist, I had seen them a few times and I thought if Anna was in love with Thomas she would love me as well, but then I felt even more miserable than before. It felt as if I had lost something that I had never had in the first place.
The next one was a photo of me with the Columbia Memorial Hospital in the background although I cannot remember who had taken it. It was probably my sister as she picked me up when I was released from the clinic. I felt almost happy, or at least relieved. I knew something was missing from my life, from my head, from my thoughts that used to be there but I had no idea what it was so I slowly got used to it and did not seek through my head ten times each hour to find some clue that could help me to solve that mystery. I knew I had lost something but I also knew that it was my only chance to survive although I did not know why.
After that my life was normalizing slowly, I started giving lessons at the university again and I happily realized that my life started to settle down again though I had my habits, some of them were just funny because I had no explanation as to why I was doing them.
The next photo was taken more than a month after I had left the clinic, but it is still a funny picture because I could never really place it correctly. I could only see the same people at the same cafe so I really was perplexed sometimes. But still I could remember clearly that something had happened that day, that afternoon. I was sitting in my favorite cafe, reading a book and occasionally watching the people outside on the street. I did not even know why it was my favorite cafe or since when but I went there quite often at that time.
When I closed the book to ask for the bill the door opened and a woman came in. She was beautiful with a pretty face and wearing an elegant coat. She looked around, apparently looking for someone. Mesmerized by her beauty, I was probably staring at her like a zombie because she smiled when she looked at me. Although I did not know her I thought I recognized her somehow as if she reappeared from one of my previous lives. To my surprise she came to my table. “Hi Harry, nice to see you again, don’t you remember me? I’m Anna” she said. As far as I could remember it was the first time we ever met but somehow I knew it was not true. She smiled at me again and it was the most beautiful smile I have ever seen.
The photo was taken by the waiter that was happy to see us again. This was also something I could only understand months later after Anna told me all the details. I often thought about it, why Thomas killed himself, what it was that he knew but I would probably never know to solve this mystery. I know that people always fall in love with someone but not with someone else, I mean falling in love does not work with just anyone. If you take a thousand or one million people, you will find maybe only one whom you could fall in love with and no more, so love must be the reason but more than that I’ll probably never find out. I also wondered what it was that Anna saw in me, why she finally thought she was in love with me.
After so many years it is difficult to tell whether it was a good idea to buy Thomas’ memories, but I wanted Anna more than anything else. After Thomas’ memories were removed it took me months to recover from the shock and it took me some time as well to understand why Anna was so familiar to me when she came to my table in the cafe. Probably I should have known better than that but I do not think you can show me anyone who could tell that he did not make any decisions in his life that he regretted later? Are we really making our own decisions or are we only toys of our fate?
I probably drank too much wine because my wife woke me at half past two in the morning. I was still sitting at my old writing-table bending over the photos in front of me. Anna was surprised, “I did not know you kept all these photos” she told me, “You looked really handsome, do you know?” What should I say? Would she ever understand me, all these lost and empty years, my one hundred years of solitude?
(Word count 3,659)