An optimist by general consent, the cheerful young man, whose patience often skirted the edges of naiveté, turned everything unpleasant into something fertile. After his girlfriend’s sudden disappearance and the injury sustained to his right hamstring shortly before his much-anticipated participation in the finals of the European Games’ two-hundred-metre race, this very man felt the structure of his psychic defences quake hard.
A few days later, when he found out that his brother, fifteen years his senior, lawyer by profession, art collector, his legal guardian, his true parent—his older brother had raised him after a shipwreck claimed their parents’ life—was afflicted with a rare blood disease, he let the feeling of exhaustion overcome him. The same night he learned the distressing news, he walked for hours, aimlessly. He went into various bars, drank, and, a little before daybreak, bone tired, returned to his house. It felt empty, marked by the conspicuous absence of his hospitalised brother.
His attention was drawn to a sculpture that had only recently entered the family collection. It was a relatively large, round, wall-hanging object, and in its metallic sheen everything was reflected. At its centre, a hole. When his gaze reached it, the young man felt dizzy, as though the object were pulling him inside itself, a sudden descent into the abyss, just as one falls, falls into something bottomless and limitless. And it was precisely in that moment that he noticed his reflection in the mirrored surface of the shiny sculpture. He didn’t recognise himself: in his expression, there was disgust and pessimism that bordered on bitterness.
He lost it. “No!” he cried out. “No! I don’t look that ironic and hateful. No. That can’t be me. It must be a bad joke.”
And the only explanation that occurred to him was that the image he perceived of himself was simply the product of days of exhaustion and hardship. The unpleasant events provoked this distortion, he thought. What he needed was rest and it would probably be best if he gave in to sleep.
Something which he would have done right away, had he not heard, to his great astonishment, his distorted image speaking to him. “Don’t look so surprised,” it said. “This is neither a hallucination, nor a perversion of your fantasy… On the contrary… It is the truth. I am your reality, with neither artifice nor beautification. I am your shredded dreams and not the illusion of optimism and enthusiasm… Accept me… Discover me… Stop wasting time…”
The words left him speechless, and only the conviction that what was happening to him was due to the mental and physical fatigue he’d just incurred calmed him. Without another word, relieved, he slipped beneath his sheets.
When he woke the following day, he’d forgotten yesterday’s events. He rose, got dressed, calmly ate his breakfast, went to the hospital to speak with his sick brother. Afterwards, he attended a class at the university and then visited the national team’s physiotherapist to resume his leg rehabilitation.
Now, add to the above his passion for the cinema and for classical ballet—he never missed a performance—and one gets a clear picture of his everyday life in the weeks to follow. Until his brother returned home, that is, at which point he spent hours at his bedside. Voraciously, he absorbed the stories his sick brother told him about their parents—he hadn’t known them well given he’d been only five years old when he’d lost them.
He stared at photographs of them, trying to match them to the memories his brother recounted. In his imagination, he created pictures: being in his mother’s embrace, his father playfully throwing him up into the air then catching him with a laugh, all four of them picnicking in the mountain, skiing at mountain resorts, sitting in the living room with relatives, playing amongst the wild roses, running after their beautiful collie, going to the playground, the sea, the sand on the seashore, the tall waves. In short, wherever they had experienced meaningful family moments. And he was filled with a boundless happiness.
The unexpected improvement of his brother’s health, which coincided, time-wise, with the swift recovery of his own injury, brought him back into training, in a sounder psychological state. Successes and new records on the field were soon to come. Everyone considered him one of the firm favourites for a medal at the upcoming Olympic Games. His own performances only confirmed the predictions: at international meets and championships he was unbeaten. And behind the reserved declarations, you could discern once more the same robust enthusiasm and optimism.
A secret self-assurance pervaded him, while his dreams took on triumphant dimensions: he frequently saw himself on the highest step of the Olympic podium, a gold medal on his chest, waving at the overflowing stadium’s onlookers, who clapped riotously during the medals ceremony. Sometimes he’d dream of the final of the two-hundred-metre race: without difficulty, and ahead of the others by far, he’d be the first to breast the finishing tape.
As time went by, all doubts disappeared: it was as though he were already living among the laurels of Olympic victory and he were merely going through the motions, in preparation for the celebration and the award ceremony that typically accompanied the victor.
In this light, one can imagine his devastation when, just five days before his scheduled departure for the games, in an innocuous moment of training, he sustained a serious injury to his left hamstring. His psychic structure vacillated harder than ever before. And he was literally destroyed when, following his injury, his brother died, baffling even his doctors. The columns of enthusiasm and positivity, those foundations upon which was built the architecture of his personality, were shattered, reduced to shreds. Within him, only shards of matter and dust remained.
The descent into the abyss began anew, and vertigo conquered him. He fell, he fell, he fell ceaselessly, and nothing, no force of gravity or earthly solidity could stop him. Like an astronaut who, no longer tied by rope to his spaceship, begins to drift, slowly, into the infinity of space. Yes, this is what he looked like in those moments.
Especially right after his brother’s funeral and burial, when he didn’t partake in the post-funeral coffee with friends and relatives (which is customary in such circumstances). Instead, he preferred to walk for hours through the city, aimlessly. It must have been well after midnight when, worn out, he paused on the side of the hillock, allowing his gaze to drift among the myriad stars that dappled the sky like fireflies in the night.
And, completely lost in his stargazing, who should he suddenly see, a few steps away? The old, familiar shape of his own distorted and undesired self coming toward him. There was no doubt about it. Yes… Yes… It was him… that wretched form, the reflection of his image with the bitter, oppressive expression, the irony and the cynicism. Close enough to touch him. Before he could even move, his hateful image punched him hard in the face. He collapsed, half unconscious, blood-soaked. And he was forced to follow his other self, like its shadow, as it dragged him home. What impudence! It transported him to his own bedroom, next to his brother’s, tied his arms and legs to a chair, gagged him and splashed water at his face to revive him.
“Since you refuse to admit it,” it said, “I will make you do it my way, as I told you before… I am your shredded dreams, the pessimism and the disgust, your only truth. And to triumph over your stubbornness and blindness, you shall be thus imprisoned for as long as I see fit. I will free you only twice a day for food, sleep and unavoidable personal needs. The rest of the time, you will watch my every move and my daily behaviour on this monitor. I shall go to places where you went for so many years, and where they know you. I shall meet your friends. But now they won’t see you anymore. They’ll see someone else. The person you truly are… and how you should always have been known.”
And, when it had placed the state-of-the-art television set in front of him, it departed, leaving the powerless young man to watch his intolerable self offend his familiar environment. Look how impolite it behaves with the old and courteous neighbour for no good reason, how tastelessly it taunts an invalid or laughs at someone who falls and breaks his leg. How impertinently it speaks to his old teacher, how it swears at and smacks children, how it kicks the dogs, how it is unnecessarily aggressive. And the list goes on.
In the beginning, his acquaintances looked upon it with astonishment, but as time went by, and his “intolerable” image, as they characterised it, remained, they began to think him a psychopath and, in short, a dangerous case. Little by little, they started to avoid him, they no longer invited him to join in, his former co-athletes and coaches no longer asked him to return to the track, and they were all generally happier when he wasn’t nearby. They took pains to badmouth him as often as possible. He wanted to call out to them, to walk over to them and to explain that he wasn’t the one with the horrid behaviour. It was the Other, that disgusting, worthless being. But he couldn’t: his firm gag and the binds that tied his arms and legs to the chair prevented him. And not only did this distress him, but he also cried and became angry, an unexpressed rage that plunged him into the depths of melancholy and despair.
And it was this same emotion that pushed him to seek freedom, that afternoon, by throwing himself with the chair, which was by now an extension of his body, against the window of his bedroom. With shards of glass studding his face and body, covered in blood, he plummeted from the second floor to the street below, and sustained multiple fractures to his arms and legs. Passers-by rushed to his side, freed him from his binds, helped him by cleaning his wounds, and immediately called an ambulance and the police. The former drove him to the hospital, while, a few days later, the latter sent an investigator to speak with him and find out the details of his accident.
The officer listened as the wounded man told him that his other self had hit him, gagged him and tied him. At some point, after scratching his head uncomfortably, he stopped taking notes and asked the young man to write it all down on a few sheets of paper and to hand it in to him when he was finished.
The patient obeyed: he immediately set to recording all that had happened to him, in chronological order and with details of each incident. And he worked with such passion and concentration that he caught the attention of a patient who shared the same hospital room. The chestnut-haired young woman, with the sweet face and the grey eyes, asked what he was writing. When he’d explained, she asked, with polite audacity, to read the first thirty pages. He agreed.
She was overcome with such enthusiasm at what she read that she not only advised him to expound the images in both length and description, but also snatched the pages as he finished them, made corrections and commented upon the text. Until that Thursday afternoon, when a tightly bound pile, about one-hundred-and-forty-pages long, took on its final form. She photocopied the pages, they exchanged addresses, and they left the hospital at almost the same time, having both completed their treatments.
He handed his writings over to the police investigator, as requested, and went home, which felt empty. His day-to-day life had changed: he no longer trained at the track, he avoided large groups of friends. He lowered his expectations and got a job as a physical education teacher at a school, while he’d spend the rest of the time on his own, at the cinema or the ballet, and going for long walks.
Whenever something, anything, made him gloomy or depression squeezed his chest, he immediately felt the presence of the Other: he didn’t see it in front of him, the way he used to, he didn’t perceive it in flesh and bones, yet, instinctively, he caught its presence. It was there, ready to wrap him in disgust and negativity, in a lack of joy and hope. He sensed its footsteps, its breath, its hard stare upon him; in general, he knew that it was always next to him, his shadow, a shadow that didn’t look like a shape or like a dark moving picture. Rather, an unseen shadow, ready at any moment, at any disturbing incident in his life, to drown him in the asphyxia of melancholy and despair.
He prepared himself for the end. And, by now, this thought was a conviction, driving him to an even greater weariness: the first white hairs at his temples accompanied his state of mind, and, together, they made him look like an old child. And nothing seemed to change this situation.
Until that Friday morning, when the girl who’d shared his hospital room telephoned to ask to see him. They met at a new neighbourhood café, spacious like those in New York, and fashionable, a popular hangout for young people. Without delay, she told him she’d shown his story to her father, a well-known publisher, who’d been impressed. He wanted to publish it and asked to meet him.
This was a surprise: he’d never imagined himself an author. But, why not? The need for changes in his life was great. And she convinced him to accept the proposition.
In addition to his need for change and survival, there was another reason he agreed: for the first time since he’d met the chestnut-haired girl, he gazed at her as she spoke and was bewitched by her manners; the way she moved; the way she thought; her mysterious eyes; her shapely, supple body; and her overall presence.
It was a sudden, powerful attraction, an allure that delivered him unto a joy that had, until then, been unknown to him. At every opportunity, even the most menial, he endeavoured to be near her, to speak with her over the phone, to let himself get wrapped up in her warmth. From a certain point on, he showed her his affection in every possible way. How unexpected was his joy when she accepted his advances and abandoned herself to his embrace.
This must be happiness, he contemplated. The thought was confirmed by the following events: with her encouragement, not only did he resume training at the track with an unprecedented appetite, not only did he change the clothes he wore, but he became more polite, and the melancholy, the depression, and any unpleasant state of mind vanished. Mainly, though, his horrid other self disappeared once and for all. He no longer saw it before him, nor did he ever feel its presence or its unseen tyrannical shadow again.
Enthusiasm and optimism returned for good in his everyday life. Race records and medals came back to him at enviable speed, while, at the same time, his book’s publication won over critics and the public opinion alike. The sales were constant and, in articles and panel discussions, they emphasised the immediacy of his writing, the magical realism shifting between truth and fantasy, and the feeling the readers had that, while reading his words, they lived the intoxication of the daydream. Either they were daydreamers of life or life was simply a dream.
The recognition was universal. And in this, she had played perhaps the most decisive role of all, as he often believed. He considered her his guardian angel who, at an unspeakable moment, appeared to him and remained indefinitely by his side. In exalted moments of appreciation for her, he thought that he would do whatever she’d ask. Yes, even if the demand sounded excessive, he truly would. And all the more so when she announced that, by accident, she’d become pregnant. Without hesitation, he asked for her hand and, after the initial surprise, she accepted.
Now, they both lived in preparation of the chosen date. Visits to shops for wedding dresses, for the child’s crib (an ultrasound revealed it was a boy), discussions about his name, the house where they’d live, the honeymoon, the projects they’d undertake together, a possible second book that would discuss his experiences as an athlete: so many, endless ideas to which the dream and fantasy of two lovers can give birth.
By what name shall we call that power that envies happiness and wishes to annihilate it? Perhaps the sheer scope of its malevolence cannot fit inside a name. However, it burdens actions irreversibly. A few days before the much-anticipated wedding that would take place at a Christian Orthodox church, his future wife, their unborn son, and her parents were all killed in a car crash.
However many condolences and words of consolation our hero heard, he did not react. Vacant, as though no outside sound reached him. A man of stone on the day of the funeral, and later at the cemetery, during the burial. And just after, without anyone noticing, as though he were cloaked in a gust of wind, he detached himself from the crowds and, out of habit, walked for hours. When he reached the hillock that separated the two avenues, right behind the small thicket, he saw his other self walk toward him, with steps surer than before. The way it moved suggested a settlement of scores, which was soon confirmed.
“You thought you could get rid of me,” the Other said. “No… No… You never understood your life. It is time to end it. You’ve been defeated for good… And I’ll help you carry it out by yourself. Listen to me. You will take your own life. Yes. Commit suicide… And right now, too. I have the knife here. This way, I shall continue to exist without you.”
As it neared him, the young writer awkwardly reached into his pocket, perhaps in search of a weapon. His fingers found the pen and a notepad. Oh, what power surged through him. The pen became a gun. An extension of his palm. Yes… Yes… His words would be bullets on the pages. The fight would be recorded live upon the white paper. He would not surrender, nor would he easily be beaten.
Demosthenes Davvetas was born in Athens and lives between Athens and Paris. He studied Law in Thessaloniki and went on to get his Masters in Philosophy (Aesthetics) at Paris 8. Professor of Philosophy at IESA-Paris, he was an art critic for the newspaper Libération, from 1982 to 1992, and still writes for a number of newspapers and art magazines. He also acted as a counselor to the ex-Prime Minister of Greece, Antonis Samaras. Over the years, he collaborated with many important artists, including Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Tony Cragg, and wrote theoretical texts that were translated into many languages. He has published six poetry collections, four novels, and numerous short stories. He is also a visual and performance artist.
Vanessa Wildenstein has been shortlisted in the 2015 Bedford International Writing Competition, and was selected as the February finalist for the first round of the Field of Words 2016 Short Story Competition. Her writing has appeared inArtSlant.com, Athens Insider and Reader’s Digest. She received her bachelor’s degree in Italian studies and art history from Brown University. She is currently based in Athens, Greece, and works as a freelance writer, copy editor, proofreader, and translator.