Copyright is held by the author.
THE KEY gets stuck in the door lock.
Oh, no! Not again! I’ve got to change that lock. I can’t spend my whole life on the front porch.
“Annabelle! Annabelle, honey!”
After a few minutes of waiting, I decide to climb on the kitchen window. My wife has forgotten it open. It’s a safe neighbourhood, but one never knows.
I go into the living room and I see a shiny black piano standing where my history book collection used to be.
A piano? What the heck?
My wife is lying on the sofa, an Agatha Christie novel in her hands. I sweep aside her ebony hair and kiss her on the forehead.
“Hello, honey. I’m home,” I say. “What’s with the piano? Where are my books?”
“What piano?” Annabelle asks, without raising her eyes from her novel. It’s not her first Agatha Christie. She’s devoured all her 66 novels twice, some even three or four times. I’m not a big fan of detective novels. I’m more into historical fiction. I have a huge collection in this genre. Well, I had one.
“Tadaa!” I say, waving at the impressive Steinway & Sons. “This piano.” I can’t believe she can be so indifferent. She looks up at me, then at the piano, then at me again.
“Markus, what’s wrong with you? That piano has been here for two decades now. You bought it when you started to give piano lessons from home, remember?”
She goes back to her book.
There never was a piano in the living room. I’m sure of it. I let her believe she’s right, so I avoid another fight.
I wonder what piano lessons is she talking about? Not everyone with long fingers is a piano player.
My wife always dreamed to marry an artist, but then she met me. I guess I did a good job as a husband, though. Twenty-four years together and we’re still fond of each other. Our sexual life isn’t what it used to be, we pick our fights, we have our crises, but we’re still together. We respect each other. The arrival of children breaks some couples but our boys brought us closer together.
“How was your day, honey?” My wife asks in a blunt voice while turning the page of The Unexpected Guest.
“Same old same old,” I answer.
I look for my book, as I need some time to relax by myself.
In our family, we respect each other’s’ tastes and passions. We’ve learned not to interfere; not even in our children’s lives. We’ve supported Thomas’ dreams since he was three and wanted to become a professional butterfly catcher, until he turned 23 and became a professional ethical hacker.
We supported all his career choices in between, too: professional water drinker, professional paint drying watcher, professional veterinary acupuncturist, professional bed warmer, and the list goes on. In short, any professional job makes him happy. My favourite one was professional snuggler when he was seven. He used to hug everyone. Annabelle and I didn’t mind, but he was driving his brother, Milan, crazy.
My book is nowhere to be found.
“Honey, have you seen the book I was reading yesterday — Marie Antoinette. A Journey? I left it on the bedside table.”
“Marie Antoinette?” My wife frowns. “You were reading some Terry Pratchett book.”
On the bedside table, I find “The Shepherd’s Crown” with a bookmark in the middle. I’m not a Terry Pratchett fan and I have no recollection of reading this book.
My wife loves playing mind games. Sure, I’ll play along with her. I can do this. I pretend to recognize the book and read it, starting from the bookmark in the middle.
The next day, it happens again. Instead of my cozy Louis XIV-teen armchair, I found an Easter cactus pot.
The next weeks, other pieces of furniture disappear and are being replaced with different ones. My items get replaced as well as those of my wife’s. It’s a tough game she’s playing. But why? Why?
Her sewing machine was replaced by a plasma TV. This doesn’t make sense. We both hate watching TV.
“Honey, you loved your sewing machine; you sewed the children’s clothes with it. Why did you sell it?”
Anabelle stares at me and I read surprise in her peppermint eyes.
“Markus, what are you talking about? I haven’t touched a sewing machine in my whole life. I’d definitely sew my fingers together before sewing an outfit.” She giggles.
This is only the beginning of my nightmare. Day after day, the closets disappear, the beds, the kitchen furniture, even our clothes. Other shapes, smells, textures and colours replace them. Every time when I arrive back home, my heart pumps fast in my chest.
Some days, small, insignificant changes take place, like my favourite toothpaste, from mint to cherry flavour. Other days, big changes occur, like the shape of the windows, from square to rectangular.
The changes are mostly frustrating. With every transformation around me, I feel I lose something of the person I used to be. If everything that I love and cherish is taken away from me, replaced with something else, can I keep being myself? Are our selves individually defined and independently shaped? Or are we the consequences of the people, things and events that we’re interacting with?
As hard as it is, I try to ignore the changes. My wife will surely get tired of her atrocious game. It must be a phase. The forty years old crisis or something. Hopefully, she’ll get sick of it soon enough and our lives will get back to normal.
But some days it’s just too much.
“Why are you doing this?” I ask Annabelle on a Friday morning.
“Why am I doing what, honey?” she asks back, raising her eyes from a notebook she was scribbling in.
“This!” I wave my arms to include the whole house, which dramatically changed the last six months. It’s unrecognizable.
Her eyes widen.
“Markus, is there something you want to tell me? You know we were always open and honest with each other. What’s wrong?”
What’s wrong? What’s wrong? Sweat glides on my backbone. I tremble with fury. My wife is pulling my leg. She must be out of love. Maybe she has a lover. An artist. A musician. She can’t resist them. Maybe a guitar player. They’re definitely having fun on my account.
“Are you having an affair?” I ask. My voice is deep yet shaking.
Her eyes turn dark for a moment, then she bursts into laughter.
“Now, that’s an idea!” She wipes a lock of hair from her forehead. “With my exhausting nurse hours, my painting classes, taking care of the kids and the house, do you think I have time for a lover?” I try to detect if there’s any irony in her voice. She touches my arm and on a soft tone she continues, “Honey, I love you. You know I do. What’s all this about? Maybe you need a break from work. You seem tense, lately. I know you’re the best piano player in the city, but even the best ones need a break.”
It’s my turn to look at her as if a camel had just walked into the room with a marriage proposal. Her tone was warm and reassuring, her words rang true, like crystal bells in a winter fir tree. But what is she talking about? Nothing makes sense. Annabelle’s not a nurse, she’s a lawyer. She’s not interested in painting; she couldn’t draw a dead cat if she had an intensive sketching course with Pablo Picasso. Her life passion, after myself and the kids, of course, is her sewing machine and her Agatha Christie novels. And, above all, I’m not playing the piano. I’m a carpenter, for God’s sake!
Annabelle kisses me then gets dressed, obviously in a hurry.
“I have to go now, or I’ll be late. I left you some meatballs in the fridge.” She winks. “Your favourite.”
When will this comedy finish? My favourite dish is moussaka. Annabelle knows it; she always prepares a delicious moussaka on my birthday.
Thank God tomorrow the boys come home from university. I really miss them. I need some familiar faces in all this madness.
The next day, as I’m about to watch the Mongols’ invasion on the History channel of our fancy TV, I hear laughter and children voices in the kitchen. Finally!
I go to welcome my boys, but I see two girls instead, about 10 and 12 years old. They have curly blonde hair and blue eyes. As soon as they see me, they jump on me and hug me, crying and jiggling.
“Papa! Papa! We’re on holiday! The first day today!”
I’m too shocked to utter a sound.
“Papa, let’s go to Disneyland. You promised,” the tallest one says, pulling on my sleeve. I’m dizzy, my heart rate is accelerating. I’m about to faint.
“Papa, you promised to take us to the zoo,” the smallest one says. “You promised, Daddy.” She must have noticed the flabbergasted look printed on my face. They frown, waiting for an answer.
“Let Daddy rest,” Annabelle says. “He has had a hard day at work. Of course, we’ll go to Disney and to the zoo. But I thought you don’t like to see locked animals, do you, Laurie?”
Laurie pulls a face. “I don’t.” She sighs. “But someday I’ll be a veterinary doctor, so I must prepare.”
“You have time to prepare for your doctor’s career, sweetie.” Annabelle smiles, kissing the girl on the forehead.
“Papa started to play the piano when he was five years old,” Laurie says.
“Papa is a genius,” the tallest girl says, looking at me with big eyes full of admiration.
“Laurie, Clara, let’s go prepare lunch. I’m sure Daddy has some work to do.”
A thousand questions coil and swirl in my head like intertwined snakes in a bird nest. What’s going on? Who are these children? Why do they call me Daddy? Is this a setup? Did Annabelle pay some kids to call me Papa? How far would she go to drive me nuts?
Days passed, then weeks, but things don’t get better.
I can tell the girls really love me and look up to me. But the joke has gone too far. Nevertheless, I don’t dare to expose it. A question keeps buzzing in my head, like a tired honeybee, with no flower to rest on.
What if I’m crazy?
At first, the question teases me, but I chase it away with the back of my hand. But then it keeps bothering me, stinging me over and over again. What if I’m really nuts? It can’t be. But what if?
There’s only one way to find out. I make an appointment at the psychiatric hospital. Doctors ran tests for three weeks. They want to be sure they won’t let a potential loony escape between their fingers. In the end, their verdict explodes in my ears like a thunderclap: I am in my right mind. I’m not a wacko, nor a psycho, nor a freak. Just to be sure, I ask the specialists to write down my reassuring diagnosis: ‘psychologically sane,’ followed by seven different stamps and signatures.
But just before I’m about to leave the hospital, someone suggests I might have memory loss. I laugh very thickly.
“Come on, doctor, I’d remember my own kids, don’t you think so?”
For another two weeks, the hospital runs memory tests. I take this opportunity to recite long passages of the Iliad and Odyssey epics. The specialists conclude my memory is brilliant. They’re so impressed, they even ask me for some nutrition tips. Eventually, they pat me on the shoulder and send me home, jealous of my excellent health.
Once reassured about the perfect functionality of my brain, another honeybee buzzes around. If I’m not nuts, what’s going on? What’s going on, for Christ’s sake?
I try to lead my life in the most ordinary way, as nothing unusual has happened. I keep going to my carpentry workshop and carve furniture items. When I arrive home, my wife keeps asking me how my concert went. Yesterday, for the first time in twenty-four years, we had a big fight.
When she threatens me with a divorce, I back off. Annabelle is the only constant figure in my life. All my friends disappeared, one by one, replaced by strangers who pretend to be my friends, who pretend to know me and my tastes, my sorrows, my dreams. I put up with everyone for Annabelle’s sake. I couldn’t live without her. She’s my reason for living. She’s my pole star. She’s my goddess.
I even agreed to put up with a new pair of parents for her. I’ve lost my parents in a car accident when I was 35. Angela and Bryan, my new parents, are very fond of me and like to tell me stories from when I was a little boy. Of course, I have no recollection of these adventures. How could I? They make them up. Their love for me looks sincere, though.
In time, I learned to respect them, and I even have become attached to them. They are sweet, decent people.
I adapt to my new life. It’s neither worse, nor better than before. It’s just different. I could stand it just fine, except for the pain I feel in my heart for the loss of my boys. In secret, I’ve hired a private detective. Despite the incredible amounts of money I had to pay, my boys were nowhere to be found. It’s like they vanished without a trace from the Earth’s surface.
The private detective asked for any clue or piece of information I could offer. All the pictures I took with them have miraculously disappeared as well. They’ve been replaced with pictures where I smile happily with my new daughters. Any friend that could testify is impossible to be found. Their schools and universities never registered their names. Besides my wife, I am the only witness to their lives. But no one believes my story. Some days, exhausted from my delusions, I doubt it myself. Nonetheless, I know deep inside my heart that my story is real.
The relationship with my new kids develops just fine. In a couple of months, I’ve grown to love Laurie and Clara as if they were my own. But I can’t pretend that Thomas and Milan never existed and that I won’t see them ever again. I close myself in my workshop and cry for hours. The suffering is unbearable.
But life continues nonetheless. I survive my pain.
Until one evening, when returning from work, I see another woman lying in my matrimonial bed, the same bed I shared for 25 years with Annabelle. The woman has curly scarlet hair, long, curved lashes and lapis lazuli eyes. Her perfect profile, while asleep, reminds me of an Egyptian statue. I don’t wake her up. I watch her breathing the whole night. Her breasts lift softly in a rhythmic cadence under the transparent night gown. She looks ten years younger than my wife.
Who is this woman? I don’t dare to come up with an answer. I know my deepest fear could materialize today.
When she wakes up in the morning, she stretches, yawns, then smiles at me, showing perfect, white teeth.
“Good morning, sunshine,” she says. “When did you come back last night? I didn’t hear you.”
I don’t know if it’s the soft inflections of her voice, the warmth of her smile or the spark in her eyes, but I know that I’m falling in love with this woman: my new wife. I know that I’ll never see Annabelle again, I know that this will be my new family from now on and that the sooner I accept it, the better.
The woman leans forward and kisses me with velour lips. My blood gets warmer, flowing faster in my veins. I kiss her back. The more we kiss, the more I desire her. We make love with a passion I didn’t know I possessed.
Next morning, as I wash my face I have a glimpse in the mirror. I jump back. There’s a stranger staring back at me from the mirror. He’s slightly older than me, blond hair, blue eyes. What happened to my dark hair and my black eyes? He looks as surprised to see me as I am. He’s thinner than I am and in better shape.
I gaze at his eyes, trying to read his mind. There’s fear bubbling in them. He looks so terrified, that I lean forward and whisper. “Don’t worry, buddy. We’ll be okay. Everything is going to be okay.”
Weeks pass, then months, and whoever sees us must think we’re a regular, happy family. Sometimes I manage to forget my past, my real life, my real wife and children. Some days are hard, as I’m living in my personal hell. On those days, I try to put an end to my life. I miss Annabelle and my real children so much, that I would like to vanish forever, like the sound of a song. Traceless. Just like they vanished. But some days I’m the happiest person ever. Life showed me that happiness is just a matter of perspective. It’s up to me to stick to the bright side.
One year has passed since the black piano replaced my history book collection. I’ve never touched the thing. Why should I? I never learned to play an instrument. Annabelle has asked me a few times to play a Beethoven sonata, my favourite, she said. Even Clarisse, my new wife, has asked. I always turned them down.
But today I feel like playing. I sit down in front of the black piano, I close my eyes, and I let my fingers do their job. A wonderful melody comes from the black box. “Apassionata,” Beethoven’s Sonata N° 23. I just know it. The notes obey me like Roman slaves their masters.
When I finish the piece, beads of sweat glide down my forehead. What an exquisite interpretation! I’m proud of myself. I embrace the new me with a smile.
I’m ready to explore my new self, to fully enjoy my new life.
Not everyone is granted a second chance.