The professor knows I have this unusual insight, so she fixed her gaze on me and said: “Michael, perhaps you have a question?” I could feel everyone’s attention shifting to me. I tried to scramble together something at least partially sane, but my coherent mind was devoid of thought and all I could do was feel judged and ridiculed for my lack of a response. Jenny from the first row saved me from utter humiliation when she said in her screeching know-it-all voice that she had a question, turning everyone away from me.
“Is it a love story? Are Maus and Felicia a couple?”
“Of course they are, isn’t it obvious?” Tina tweeted into my ear.
“You should read it and see for yourself,” said the author.
“Why is he even here if he won’t say anything? Self-important prick,” chirped Tina.
“Shhhh,” I tried to silence her, but only succeeded in getting everyone’s attention again. I pretended to have accidentally exhaled with my lips closed and acted as if nothing had happened.
It was a good ten minutes of uninspired conversation between Jenny and the author during which the professor briefly excused herself. I couldn’t listen to the rambling and drew random geometric shapes in the back of my notebook, still feeling emasculated from that awkward non-exchange earlier.
“Don’t worry about it,” Tina tried to console me. “She caught you off-guard. You can’t force someone to think of a creative interpretation right away.”
“I know,” I whispered back. “But I feel so stupid now.”
“Don’t. You know you’re better than all of them.”
It was like a sudden breeze of inspiration came over me. “I know what I should have asked,” I told her.
“Speak up,” she urged me.
So I put up my hand, all ready to connect the dots for everyone. He gestured in a way that made clear he was uninterested in what I had to say, but I’d already begun.
“You’re of German descent and Maus is obviously of German origin, meaning ‘mouse’. It is pretty apparent the two title characters are romantically involved. Now, seeing you’re too self-absorbed to actually write about anyone other than yourself and taking into consideration Felicia is most likely a bastardization of Latin felis, meaning ‘cat’, am I right to assume your entire novel is a sobbing lamentation about being toyed with by a certain woman in your past?”
The look of disbelief on his face and the collective gasp of everyone present was a priceless victory for me.
“Brilliant,” laughed Tina.
Before he could even begin to formulate a reply, still shocked at how close to home I hit, a cough from the doorway made me turn my head. The professor was there with my mom and she beckoned me to come closer. This gave him some much-needed courage and he proceeded with the awkward-but-usual “Well, your friend certainly has an interesting theory ...” I didn’t really care about him anymore. I got up and went, as silently as possible, to the two women waiting for me.
“Sorry for this, but your mother wants to talk to you,” said the professor. I nodded and stepped outside.
“Michael, dear, I think I should take you home,” mom said worryingly.
“I thought you were kind of hot to the touch this morning. I didn’t say anything, but ever since we came to school I’ve been worried sick you’re coming down with a fever. I’d feel much better if you stayed home today.”
“But, mom, I feel fine,” I objected. She can be so irrational at times.
“Please, honey, I know it’s probably nothing, but sometimes I just worry. Just do me a favour and come with me.”
I’ve been down this road before. There was no talking her out of it, she was dead-set on driving me home and making me pancakes. She’s this proxy-hypochondriac. And, to be fair, I wouldn’t be missing anything important this day, if this so-called “author” was any indication. The sooner I relented, the less bothersome this conversation would be, so I bowed my head in approval. She smiled and started to walk down the hallway.
We were in the car and I sat on the back-seat. It was a ride like any other, nothing different about it, but I suddenly snapped for no reason at all while we were waiting for the green light.
“Why the fuck is this taking so long? Where are you taking me anyway!?”
Mom turned around to reassure me. “We’re going home, dear. Don’t worry, won’t be long now,” she said lovingly.
“Why? Why home?”
“I told you, I’m worried you’re getting ill.”
“Well, screw that, I’m fine!” I yelled at her.
“Just sit back and relax, will you? I promise we’ll be there soon,” she was still kind.
I tried to take her advice, even though she was an agent of control to me then. I closed my eyes and a short eternity passed before I opened them again. Nothing had changed. We were still waiting. It was sickening. Almost like time didn’t pass at all. The familiar taste of radiation tickled my palate. I closed my eyes again.
When I opened them again it was as if I’d woken from a coma. I felt I’ve lived through this whole other life in the mean-time and now had my consciousness thrown back into this long-forgotten world. It was all terribly disorienting. I recognized the woman in the front seat when she turned around after parking.
“Mom?” I whispered.
“How much time has passed?”
“What do you mean?” she asked, apparently very worried.
“Since we left from school,” I explained myself.
“About ten minutes. Why? Did you fall asleep?”
“I think so, yes.” It felt like weeks, at least.
She put her hand on my forehead and I could see the distress on her face. “You’re burning up. Come on, let’s get you to bed.”
I suddenly felt very inert and I let her guide me to my room.
I lay down on the bed and after a while she brought me tea and those pancakes I’ve been expecting ever since she plucked me from school. I didn’t feel like eating, but did it anyway to reassure her I’m fine and it seemed to work.
“Michael, I’m so sorry, but I have to go back to school now. I’ll call someone to come take care of you, shouldn’t take long. Just stay in bed until then, okay?” she said, holding my hand.
“Sure,” I replied.
“I’ll call your father to see if he can come home any sooner than usual. And I’ll try to do that as well.” She was obviously feeling guilty.
“Don’t worry, mom, I’ll be fine,” I smiled.
“I know, I know, but I still worry,” she said and kissed me on the forehead. “See you soon, honey. Just try to sleep.”
“Bye, mom,” I said and promptly fell asleep.
I don’t know how much time had passed. I woke up to find Tina sitting on my bed.
“Oh, hey,” she smiled.
“What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you still be in school?”
“I was worried, so I snuck out. I took a bus. Just got here.”
“You’ll get in trouble.”
“Nah, don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. How are you?”
I was surprised to realise I was actually very rejuvenated from my nap and didn’t feel weak at all. “I’m good.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
“Yeah, I should’ve just stayed in school. Kind of a waste to be home today,” I said.
“Well, we could do something, now that you’re fine. We have plenty of time.”
“I suppose so. But what?”
“I have an idea,” she said with one of those mischievous smiles I’ve grown to like. “We should go to your old place. What do you think?”
“Well, I don’t know,” I stalled. I haven’t been there in a few months.
“Oh, come on, it’ll be fun,” she said and poked me in the ribs.
I let out a giggle. “Sure, sounds good.”
“Let’s get going, then.”
We sat at the back of the bus and she held my hand gently.
“It’ll be just like old times,” she smiled.
“It’s been so long since we last did this,” I sighed.
“I know. I’ve missed it. I’ve missed you,” she said and squeezed my hand a bit harder.
“I’ve missed you too. You’re the only one who believes in me,” I said and she put her head on my shoulder.
“Don’t worry, we can stay as long as we want. You didn’t tell anyone about the place, did you?”
“Of course not,” I replied. “It’s our little secret.”
I noticed people staring at us. It was as if they knew we shouldn’t be here. I pushed Tina towards the last seat in the row. “Let’s not draw attention to ourselves ‘till we get there,” I whispered.
We were both pretty bored by the time we got there. We could talk, but I felt too on display to risk them overhearing our conversation, so we kept quiet, just occasionally exchanging glances. It took about half an hour for us to arrive and it was a huge relief to step out. Nothing had changed since I was last here. The ice-cream-selling guy was still there, as was the shop and the café and the never-ending river of people on the street.
We climbed up the stairs to my derelict studio and I unlocked the door. A gush of stale, warm air greeted me and I stepped inside. Lone rays of sunshine pierced the dusty darkness, but other than that, everything was still the same. I locked the door behind me and left the key in the keyhole to prevent anyone from entering even if they had the key.
“It’s good to be back,” said Tina as I opened the windows.
I pulled up two chairs so we had a nice view of the people below and poured myself a glass of water. Then we sat down and she took my hand in her lap. It was as if we’d travelled back in time.
“Look at them,” she whispered into my ear, “going about their daily lives, thinking they’re so unique and complex. Insignificant specks of dust.” She squeezed my hand, as if trying to suck some insight from me. “Tell me about them again. Tell me how much like insects they all are compared to you, how devoid of meaning their tiny little fates are.”
I smiled and an aura of confidence enveloped me. I’ve missed these talks of ours.
“Who do you want to hear about?” I asked.
“Tell me about the ice-cream guy again,” she said.
So I did as she told me. I told her all about how he’s dedicated his life to providing a useless luxury to those who see him only as a figurehead for something pleasing, not even pausing to consider what his take on himself might be. Even worse, how he doesn’t even comprehend this discrepancy, staying in his oblivious shell of self-importance composed of himself and his family who’d occasionally come to meet him after work, deluding himself about living in a world where others are as inscrutable as he is, not realizing they just can’t see the obvious patterns. Deep down he knows that’s not true, but if he gave up on the belief they’re individuals, he’d have to face he’s no better himself, only a machine overwhelmed by the amount of data it can’t process, not something unique, but a rodent among rodents.
My cell phone then rang. It was my mother. I picked it up.
“Hello?” I said.
“Michael, where are you? Mr Morris just came to our house and he says you’re not home.”
“Oh, I went out,” I replied.
The tone of her voice turned darker. “Are you alone?” I didn’t say anything, so she pushed the issue. “Is Tina with you?”
“And what if she is?”
“Michael, you know she’s bad for you. Don’t listen to anything she says. Tell me where you are and me and doctor Singh’ll come get you.”
“That’ll be the day,” Tina laughed.
“I’m not letting that quack get near me again,” I said sternly.
“Fine, fine,” she relented. “Just tell me where you are, I’ll come alone.”
“She’s lying,” whispered Tina. “You know she wants to separate us again.”
“Don’t worry about us, mom, we’ll be fine,” I said.
“Michael, wait! Don’t hang up, I can help you, you know she’s ...” I hung up.
“You should never have gone home the last time,” Tina said.
“I felt sorry for my mom,” I told her. “She was so worried about me and I just wanted to reassure her. How could I have known she’d set up an ambush with that damned doctor?”
“I know, Mikey. He’s just jealous of you, of your insight into the human condition. He thinks he understands the soul, but really he’s just an insignificant fool. You had him figured out the moment he started talking to you, his subversive nature, but he used his charm and eloquence to convince you we shouldn’t be together. He’s a sly one, I’ll give him that.”
“He is,” I agreed. “It’s funny, you know. My mom’s the only person who’s still a mystery to me. Of all the people, she should be the one to realise my potential. Instead she’s hell-bent on pushing you out of my life, the only person who’s ever acknowledged me for what I am.”
“I know, Mikey. You’ll figure her out eventually, but we can’t make the same mistake again. You know that if we want to stay together in this ivory tower of ours, separated from all those bacteria, you can’t go home. That’s witch doctor’ll just brainwash you again, the bastard.”
She was right, I knew that. But still, the idea of never going home again didn’t sit well with me. If only mom hadn’t turned against me, if only she could see me for what I truly am, the infinitely complex archetype of what a human being should be, the infallible reader of fates, it would all be so much easier. I never told Tina what I thought of her – she was horribly one-dimensional, even more so than anyone else I’d ever come across. She seemed to thrive on my insights, but couldn’t produce anything herself. She was one of the insects we both loathed and, true to form, didn’t even realise it. I needed someone like me, who both embraced me and was as inscrutable as me. My mother was the only other inscrutable person I knew and Tina was the only person who embraced me. It was a bad bargain, but I need acceptance more than a human counterpart, so up until then I had to go with Tina.
“But I do embrace you for what you are, Michael,” I heard mom’s voice behind me. Me and Tina both turned around, shocked at her appearance. “It took me a while and I thought you were like everyone else, but I understand now. We are the same.”
Tina gasped. “Don’t listen to her, Mikey, it’s just a trick. She’s trying to get you to that butcher of the mind.”
I could see the resolve in mom’s eyes. “I think we both know she’s just grasping at straws. She’s like everyone else and hopes to get some of your insight. We know she can’t. You don’t need a follower, you need a counterpart.”
Indeed, mom was right, but I knew I couldn’t read her like everyone else so it could still be a trick. But what I had to gain by sharing my insights with someone who understood outweighed the risk. Tina was obsolete now.
“Mikey, no, don’t, please,” Tina pleaded, just as I knew she would.
“That’s why I married your father,” mom said. “He’s just like her. So predictable. Impotent. Insignificant.”
“Mikey ...” Tina shed her first tear, but I already knew what had to be done.
“Tina, please leave us. Your presence is no longer required,” I said as coldly as possible, knowing precisely what reaction that will get out of her. Indeed, she sucked up her tears and went towards the exit while I followed her. I unlocked the door and let her outside, then locked the door again and went back to my mother who was sitting by the window.
“First of all,” she said, “we’re going to have to go somewhere else so she can’t follow us. Also, throw away your phone so that mind-butcher can’t track us. Then we can explore our insights together. But bear in mind you’re more human than I am, so don’t be surprised if even I start to seem as predictable as everyone else to you. You are the most advanced being in the world, after all, and even I can’t compete with that.”
I finally got what I wanted, recognition from someone who knew what it was like to be me that I truly am magnificent. I shed a tear for Tina – we were such a fine team – but mom consoled me.
“You wouldn’t feel bad for stepping on a blade of grass, would you? Let it go. Now, why don’t you tell me about that man reading the newspaper at the café ...”
Rk. Aljoša Šorgo, 13. 7. 2012