This story was first published in Active Muse as part of their Shishir (Winter) 2021 Short Story Collection.
The summer sun of Cluj-Napoca shone upon the suburb of Gheorgheni. Tall trees stood proudly in the green spaces between apartment blocks while red and white roses adorned the front yards of the few detached houses. Nothing ruined that scene but the sight of three open dumpsters bulging out of the nearby doorless lean-to shed whose outer walls had retained very little of their original white color and were now covered by a layer of dirt and mold.
On that Saturday morning, with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, Radu stood by the railing of his spacious balcony, staring aimlessly into the horizon. He then looked at the cigarette, took his last drag, and crushed it in the ashtray.
“This thing is going to kill me. Even worse, it may put me through terrible suffering before that. Lung cancer must be the worst way to go,” he thought and put the cup on the small, round table in the corner.
Radu had just begun approaching life differently. He had recently read many self-help books and somehow became convinced that man's greatest purpose was to live well and avoid self-destruction. Therefore, he’d started abhorring his heavy smoking, frequent drinking, scarce sleep, and poor diet.
His slim figure; charismatic, thin face; youthful, white skin; thick, luscious black hair; and unexpected vigor made him look as though he were twenty-five instead of thirty-five. This had given him the comforting illusion that he was fine and would always be so. But after his recent discovery, obsessive doubts about living well and avoiding future suffering crept in. The simplest joys he'd often appreciated now brought about feelings of bitter remorse.
Remorse is the disease of our age. There is a leviathan industry of self-improvement that thrives on man's innate guilt—that terrible, inevitable, and unjustified feeling we carry from cradle to grave. The abundance of preaching about the good life has made life itself joyless. For decades, the media have been spoon-feeding us the lie that happiness comes from self-preservation and the resulting absurd denial of death. But what sense is there to be found in this worldview? None!
The fact that many see self-preservation as a guiding principle is a testimony to the stupidity of our species. What if man's true happiness lies beyond such a smug assumption? What if our salvation is simply our nonexistence? Man's greatest purpose is then to attain salvation by positive self-annihilation, a process that should be pleasurable, gradual, and slow.
Radu, still contemplating how to begin living well, surely hadn't realized that. He just stood like a useless statue on that balcony until his wife Cosmina, a shapely woman in her mid-twenties, quietly came out to join him. He turned around, and the first thing he saw was not her face, but those marvelous white toes painted red. He looked up; his eyes fell upon hers. How he loved looking at those deep hazel eyes and peering into the soul of the person he loved the most.
She smiled at him, said nothing, and hugged him. He closed his eyes, sinking into a bottomless state of bliss.
“Ce faci? Cat de prost esti? (What are you doing? How stupid are you?),” barked a woman suddenly, spoiling the moment.
Cosmina and Radu leaned slightly over the railing and looked around, finally tracing the noise back to the garbage shed. They saw an unkempt, big woman in a tattered, colorful, loose dress berating a gaunt man dressed in a worn-out, dirty white T-shirt. The odd-looking visitors surely did not seem to belong to the affluent neighborhood. To Radu and Cosmina, they looked as though they could have been in their twenties or fifties. Time leaves its marks differently upon the faces of the miserable!
“Can't you fish more scraps? What's wrong with you? Dive into the other dumpster and get more. We need money. Alcohol doesn't grow on trees.” The woman smacked her submissive man on the back of the head.
Apart from a stupid, uncomprehending smile that made one want to hit him more, he did not react.
“Your parents shouldn't have called you ‘Aziz.’ They should've called you ‘disease.’” She pushed him towards one of the dumpsters. “Go!”
With the same unnerving smile on his face, Aziz threw himself in headfirst. His legs stuck out and moved in the air like those of a dying cockroach.
“L-look, M-Maria. Look what I found,” he stuttered. His legs disappeared for a second before his thin, long face popped out. “It's a very big frying pan, and in a good shape, too.” He waved it around. “We can sell it for five lei, maybe ten.” His voice radiated with excitement.
“Cursed be the day I married you. Ten lei! We need at least another twenty to call it a day. Get out. Get out. Did I marry a doorknob? You’re a useless idiot.”
“Don't be mad, Maria,” Aziz pleaded and then jumped out. “There's another dumpster shed not so far from here. We can surely find something there.”
“Walk! Walk before me, you idiot.” Again, she hit him on the back of the head once he turned. “Idiot. Idiot.” She followed him, limping.
After they faded out of sight, Cosmina and Radu looked at each other, smiled at the madness they had just witnessed, and went about their day.
Autumn finally arrived. Raging rain and thunder became frequent, unwelcomed guests in the city. Radu hated the rain and often sank deeply into depression when autumn approached, but this time it was even worse. For the past several months, he had been trying to live better. He began walking to work instead of driving, eating more often, drinking less, and cutting down on smoking. He managed to get down to three cigarettes a day—on most days, that is.
Although such changes improved his physical health, his mental well-being took the hit. He smiled less frequently and was in an unabating existential crisis. Cosmina strained every nerve to make him feel better, but when one is spiraling into a dark chasm within, comfort can only come from within, too.
“Are you OK, iubirea (my love)?”
“Da, sigur. (Yes, sure). I’m fine. Don’t worry.” His words would often sound empty and lifeless.
When he would occasionally break free and act more like his old self, Cosmina became ecstatic. They'd go out, dancing, drinking, and kissing in public like smitten teenagers. Sadly, such episodes were short and followed by periods of renewed emotional distance. Every time he enjoyed, he felt as though he must punish himself in the name of the good life. It was very simple: Guilt had become the prime mover of his actions.
Whenever he drank or smoked too much, he'd berate himself. “What the hell is wrong with me? I overdid it last night. Smoking will give me cancer. Like an idiot, I kept on lighting one after the other! Why can't I act rationally and do what is best for my health? Shouldn't I live as long and as healthy as I can? Why can't I do the right thing? Idiot! I can be such an idiot.”
He would then spend the next few hours measuring his heart rate and checking his other vital signs on his smartwatch. “80! My resting heart rate should be lower,” he would say to himself, sighing and shaking his head. He'd wait for a few minutes before trying again. “78! That's still a lot.” He'd swipe left and right on the watch. “A-ha, found it. 110 over 75. Okay, my blood pressure is not bad at all.” He'd smirk in contentment before checking his heart rate again.
To make up for his slips, he also took longer routes back home after work, making sure to walk for about five minutes for each extra cigarette he smoked. He especially enjoyed passing through the nearby park and looking at the majestic tall trees. To him, those giants seemed eternal and beyond the tragedy of life and death. They just existed.
Sleeping well, however, was something he could never bring under control, not even remotely. Radu would throw himself on the bed next to Cosmina shortly after ten o'clock. His battle would then begin. He'd toss and turn and remember, for no apparent reason, some of the most embarrassing mistakes he made years ago. “Why did I run a red light six years ago? How come I didn't see it?” he'd reminisce one night, catastrophizing. “Why did I say that awful joke in high school? No wonder no one laughed,” he'd say some other, consumed by embarrassment. The hot flashes that came with such awkward memories drove him to the edge of insanity until he finally sought professional help.
The young doctor, with his blond hair shining under the pale white light of the office, nodded in compassion, as Radu complained with a voice saturated by misery.
“I hear you, Radu,” he finally said, “You need to regulate your sleep. I'm going to write you a prescription for Zolpidem. You take one pill half an hour before bedtime for a week. Then half a pill for another, then half every other day for another week, then you stop. Make sure to go to bed at approximately the same time every night. This is important for establishing a bedtime routine.”
Radu followed the orders, but immediately after the treatment ended, his insomnia came back with a vengeance. He'd look at Cosmina, as she lay sound asleep next to him, and feel a mixture of love and jealousy. “Oh, my beautiful Cosmina, why can't I fall asleep easily like you?”
When he finally went down under, terrifying dreams entrapped him. He'd frequently see himself in front of a mirror, watching his skin age rapidly and his teeth fall out one after the other. His obsession with living well made his unconscious mind concoct disturbing visions.
The only thing that gave Radu a semblance of relief during that time was Aziz. Whenever he heard the gruff voice of Maria shouting, “Aziz! Come here, you idiot!” Radu would run to the balcony and watch intently. Often, he'd see the poor man getting belittled and berated. Aziz would get smacked, slapped, and pushed but would never complain. Always with the same irritating smile, he'd keenly obey his wife's demands and dive into the next dumpster as though there were no greater purpose in life than collecting garbage.
After a rainy day, the spectacle got even more entertaining. Radu would thoroughly enjoy the sight of the wan man putting one foot on the edge of a large water puddle and extending the other towards the other end to leap forward. Aziz often failed and ended up stepping into the muddy water, splashing his peevish wife. “Damn you to hell, Aziz! Cursed be the day I met you! Idiot!” she'd blurt before beating him.
With his eyes still fixed on the scene, Radu would initially laugh. Then gradually his chuckles would subside and get overshadowed by a strong sense of intrigue. “Jesus Christ! What's wrong with this guy? It's like his smile is painted on. How could he be that happy? He's poor, miserable, and married to an emasculating woman. Yet, he’s happy! I bet he sleeps like a log,” Radu would think.
On a fateful Saturday night, Radu went out with Cosmina and some of their friends. It was one of those few happy times. They ate, drank, danced, and smoked. He overdid it with all. Once the cab pulled over next to their apartment block at around 12:30 a.m., the couple got out. Radu looked up to the cloudy sky and knew that a thunderstorm was brewing.
As the couple got into their apartment, it started raining profusely. Within a minute or two, thunder followed, and the sky birthed numerous lightning bolts. They heard some sporadic crashing noises before several car alarms went off. The storm raged, and so did the terrified neighbors’ dog, barking madly until its cries were drowned out by the sound of the hailstones pelting the windows.
Cosmina and Radu made sure that the windows were locked and waited for the storm to pass. After about fifteen minutes, the commotion ceased. The two lay down to sleep: Cosmina smoothly drifted into a world of dreams, while Radu’s usual struggle began once again. The copious amount of alcohol he drank that night couldn’t quiet his mind. He agonized over his overindulgence for around two hours until he followed his beloved wife.
The first thing he remembered upon waking up was that horrifying struggle from the night before. He looked to his side and saw Cosmina already awake with a beautiful smile on her face. “Good morning,” he said, reciprocating with a forced smile.
“Thank you for the night out. I had lots of fun.” She paused. “Are you okay?”
“Yes. I’m fine. I'll go for a long walk.” He kissed her on the forehead, got up, prepared himself, and left.
When he set foot outside, he saw the aftermath of the storm: destroyed fences, smashed car windshields, fallen trees, and large puddles of water scattered around. He headed towards the nearby park, and the sight frightened him. Many of the tall trees he’d once admired were now slaughtered on the sides of the cobblestone path like the remnants of a defeated army.
He moved on until he came upon a giant fallen tree blocking the path. The tree lay with its remaining attached branches extending towards heaven. He gazed at it and felt the presence of a dying soul.
Upon returning to his neighborhood, he saw Aziz by himself for the first time. He was standing by Radu’s building, parading that vacant smile. Something went off in Radu’s head. A bitter realization dawned on him that despite the occasional pity, the strongest sentiment he harbored towards Aziz was jealousy.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he shouted as he approached him.
Aziz did not say a word.
“What’s your problem? Wipe that smile off your ugly face!” Radu’s nose was now almost touching that of the irritating man. The nauseating body odor did not faze him.
Aziz’s smile did not resign. He seemed as though he wanted to talk but couldn’t. Instead, “POOT,” he farted.
“You idiot!” Radu’s voice fluttered with anger. He grabbed Aziz by the collar, threw him on the ground, sat on his chest, and an instant before his fist hit the man’s face, he stopped.
Aziz was still smiling.
“What’s wrong with you?” Radu got off him and extended his hand as though to help him up.
Aziz accepted the offer and was on his feet again.
“What’s wrong with you?” Radu repeated, this time with a tone doused in misery. “What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with all of us? What’s wrong with the world?” He sat on the ground, covered his face with both hands, and wept.
“H-H-Here.” Aziz offered his hand.
Radu looked at it, slapped it away, and stood up, finally composing himself. “Tell me, I’m begging you. Just tell me why you keep on smiling?”
“I’m happy.” His smile got even bigger.
“Happy! Happy! You’re poor, dirty, miserable, ugly, and married to a goddam terrible woman. What’s there for you to be happy about?”
“I don’t need a reason.”
“You don’t!” Radu’s eyes widened.
“Yes, as long as I’m alive. There’s nothing I could do about anything but smile. Whatever I see amuses me. Even the worst about life is sometimes amusing. The fact that nothing means anything is just amusing. It’s funny.”
Suddenly, a police cruiser pulled over, and a tall, fully equipped policeman got out. “What seems to be the problem, Sir?” he addressed Radu. “We’ve got a call about an altercation. Is this man bothering you, Sir?” He pointed at Aziz.
“No! All good, Officer. He’s just asking for directions.”
The policeman nodded, then began interrogating Aziz. “Do you live here?”
Aziz did not reply. He just smiled, looking at the man with the imposing figure.
“I’m talking to you, idiot. Do you live here?”
No answer came.
“No, he’s just a drifter who collects recyclables from the dumpsters here,” Radu interjected.
“I see,” said the policeman and looked at Aziz with a pair of intimidating eyes. “Leave!” he ordered him.
Aziz blinked twice and continued smiling.
“Are you mocking me? Idiot! Wipe that smile off your face and get the hell out of here. Idiot!” The policeman began pushing and shoving Aziz, who reluctantly left.
Until he faded out of their sight, Aziz kept on turning his head after each couple of steps, smiling at the two men who felt as though they were above him.
The policeman wished Radu a good day and left.
Radu went up to his balcony, lit a cigarette, breathed in, and blew the smoke slowly. For the first time in months, he did not feel guilty. He just decided to live more, think less, and seek the good life in the balance between preservation and annihilation. Aziz, whom many called an idiot, became Radu’s best teacher, for in human stupidity, uncanny wisdom thrives. Without the former, no one can handle the trouble called life.