© Vladimir Kovalenko, 2023
Created with Ridero smart publishing system
The last person left the audience. And it became quiet. At last the nightmare was over. Director was very excited today and, like always, demanded unrealistic tasks, telling off teachers for non-existent mistakes. Robert was not going to leave, or whether he simply didn’t want, or didn’t have the strength to make at least one step in the direction of the house. What was the reason for that? He could not give it to himself. Still, one thought compelled him to gather his papers into his briefcase and get up from the table. His daughter was waiting for him. It must have been twenty minutes since classes had ended, and she was certainly still there. How else could she be? He had to hurry. And he tried to walk quickly, as much as possible without glancing at the fidgeting teachers, the guard, who was discussing something loudly with the superintendent, as usual. The last thing he wanted, surely, was to come across Mrs. Marble, the principal, who was not herself at such moments, setting many tasks, most of which would lose their relevance the next day, but she was always spoiling his mood.
Finally the front door was behind her, and there were no meetings, which Robert was undoubtedly pleased about. Of course, the director would find a moment to call him, but to talk to her on the phone is better than to look into her fat eyes, nervously smeared lipstick, unironed jacket, listen to her husky voice, spoiled by smoking, the fact of which she carefully hid from everyone … But…
Generally, I didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t want to think about anything else at all. So the cold that hit him all over the place right after he left the school was an escape. Robert wrapped into his coat and stopped for a minute. He looked at the light shining dimly, breathed in the fresh November air, and walked to his car.
He knew he would be late, that his daughter’s class was already finished. He imagined her sitting on the couch in the dark lobby of the Social Center, where the vocal lessons were being held. This picture was constantly in front of Robert’s eyes, for he had been late very often.
“Oh, poor girl, she’s used to it,” he thought, remembering how just a week ago he’d been delayed in the same way. Unfortunately, it had been happening very often recently, work took up too much time and, most disgusting of all, took away a lot of energy that could be spent for communication with his daughter. As an educator and as a father, Robert was clearly aware of this, but there was nothing he could do to change it. This time he humbly turned the car key and, to the quiet roar of the engine, turned out of the parking lot and drove down the dark street. It took about half an hour to drive.
My daughter was sitting in the same place where she usually waited for him many, many times. The lobby was completely dark, and all girls had gone out. However, she wasn’t bored: with a dreamy smile, she was looking out the big windows overlooking the road. Robert always discerned her figure in the dim room of the hall, her hat with a pompon, a pink jacket with glitter. Sitting quietly and obediently, she was easy-going. Robert typed in her phone number:
– Alice, I’m here, you can come out. I’m sorry I’m late again, I have to work. Anyway, come out, I’m here,” said Robert in an upset voice.
Even his own voice was terribly irritating. Robert frowned, closed his eyes for a second. “One… two… three… four… five…” he began to count. And, as if through a mist, it came from the speaker:
– Okay, Daddy, I’m coming out…
Robert felt not only a shame, but also anxiety. It was important not to show his emotions, it was important that she should not think anything bad about him. She loves him, of course, and joyfully rushes home, but as an teacher he knew that this love would be eclipsed by disappointment and anger. It shouldn’t last that long, but right now Robert had no strength to change the situation. He was late very often, and he was worried not only about the situation with his daughter, but also about what to expect at home: how his wife would react once again, what his mother-in-law would say, whether there would be another scandal or everything would be settled by the regular lectures.
Robert was lost in these anxious thoughts even as his daughter sat in the back seat of the car and hugged him. The warm little arms around him were the only joy of the day. How could he keep from smiling? Who can’t remember that he is the father of such a wonderful clever daughter, that tomorrow is a new day. Besides, there’s a road ahead and we have to go home.
– How was your day? – he asked, trying to see the girl’s face in the mirror, though it was dark.
– I got an A in spelling. Didn’t do well in the singing today, actually…
– That song about butterflies? – Robert remembered how last night his daughter and his wife were practicing it very loudly and prevented him from filling out electronic forms.
– Yes, I could not do it… Sally over-sang me…
“Cheer her up?” – the thought flashed. Yes, he could tell that everything was all right, that she was wonderful.
They stood at a traffic light. The last intersection before the turn to the edge of town, there would be no more crossroads. Thirty seconds to go… How slowly time dragged on. Robert looked to the right, a girl in a blow-up jacket, with headphones on her head, was walking along the sidewalk. Slim, fit and fast. She was smiling, and her eyes, even in the dark, seemed to glow with joy. The girl’s face seemed very familiar… Where and when could he have seen her? Where?
He was awakened from his thoughtful mood by his daughter’s voice and the annoying horn coming from the car behind him. He needed to go forward and faster. He pushed on the gas, but didn’t go straight ahead, turning right instead.
– Would you like some pizza? Or ice cream?
– Me? Of course I would. What do we tell Mommy? It’s cold, right?
“Silly girl, you’d better think about exactly how and which one of us your mother will scold first when we get home,” Robert thought sorrowfully. But one thought could not help but warm him up: in about an hour they would be able to be together with Alice, at least for a while, but together. And even though it was Tuesday and the whole week was ahead of them, they would still have a good time.
The phone on the seat buzzed, and in the blink of an eye, the director’s picture popped up on the screen. Mm… that was to be expected. I should answer it, of course, but I didn’t want to, and now they were near the cafe. She had to get out of the car. The phone stopped ringing, and the screen turned off.
“I’m fed up with everything…", thought Robert. And then he opened the door, helped his daughter out of the car, and they entered the spacious hall of the cafe, found a table near the window.
Pleasant music played. There were almost nobody in the hall. The waitress went straight to their table. The waitress came over and smiled. They didn’t have to think too long before choosing something from the menu. Her daughter immediately blurted it out:
– We’d like a chicken pizza and some chocolate ice cream, please.
“Business-like… Just like me,” Robert thought to himself as he paid the waitress. The daughter was smiling. And she was really happy today. He, on the other hand, not so much. In general, the state of joy and happiness was practically unfamiliar to him in recent days.
The pizza was warm, the hot slices reminded me of some beautiful, unknown, as if from childhood, pleasant event. Robert was hungry, because at work in the abyss of endless school cares he sometimes forgot to eat. And today, enjoying a delicious pizza, he was glad he was in a cafe. His daughter sat next to him, greedily devouring the treat. The thought flashed through his mind: “Beautiful picture: father and daughter eating pizza together in a cafe. With each bite he ate, his hunger began to recede, and Robert felt good. He was already able to look at the problems from the outside, they would have to be solved later. For now, he felt satisfied and peaceful.
The phone buzzed: Damn it, it’s her again. The director’s face blinked on the screen again. “You’ll have to answer it, it can’t help it,” Robert thought, answering the phone. The girl put away her unfinished pizza. She knew that unpromising look on her father’s face during the phone conversation with the boss. Director was calling again, to indicate a problem, to talk about plans, and meanwhile to load her vice-principal with some annoying information that would become irrelevant by the next day. But what was most disturbing was how the principal, finding free ears, shared her impressions after the faculty meeting. “I’m dragging work not only to my house, but also to the café where I’m currently enjoying pizza with my daughter. Why? Why can’t I refuse to talk and, referring to family circumstances, say goodbye to her? Why do I, as a slave, have to listen to her bullshit and waste my private time on it?” – These questions were keeping Robert in suspense.
After 15 minutes, the dialogue stopped, the pizza was already cold. My daughter was indifferently was on the phone and playing. Robert was confused and, looking at Alice and the pizza, gathered his thoughts: “What was that? And most importantly, why?” The already disgusting mood got even worse. Like an arrow, the thought pierced him that they had sat too long. It was getting late, and he had to go home. And there is waiting, apparently, a scandal, and Robert, although he didn’t want such a development, but was mentally prepared for it. He was used to it.
In the cafe, as bad luck, there was not a single waiter, although it was time to get ready and pay for the half-eaten and cold dinner. The bar desk, behind which was looming the head of either a barman or a waiter, was far away, and there was neither the strength nor the desire to shout and call him to the table.
– Я сейчас оплачу пиццу, и поедем домой, солнышко, – сказал Андрей, вставая из-за стола
– Hmm, – Alice mumbled and yawned.
He quickly made his way to the cash register, where there was a woman reading something.
– Can I pay for dinner? We were sitting over there, at the table, where the girl is.
– Okay, one minute, – said the waitress, pushing a button on her tablet. – By card or cash?
– Robert, hey! – A loud and resounding satisfied voice sounded from the back of my head. Robert turned around and saw George. It was a friend, or more exactly, a drinking companion of Robert, who supported him at the most difficult moments of his life. It’s a small world! Robert clearly didn’t expect to see his friend in such a nice place.
– Hello, – Robert smiled, trying to imitate at least a little cheerfulness on his face. But he knew that he could never hide anything from George. – What brings you here?
– Same question, – the guy smiled, as he always did, nervously going through something in his hands. This time it was a small notebook with a matte cover. – I just stopped by to grab some pizza, I’m going to work the night shift, and this is the closest cafe. Mmm… By the way, why are you and your daughter here so late on a weekday? Are you on vacation?
George glimpsed the girl sitting at the table, and looked intently at Robert. He, as always, incredibly quickly put all the facts together and immediately gave out:
– It wiped you out? – George’s eyes light up with pleasure, mixed with barely perceptible bitterness. – What is it this time?
– Yes, as always… At work overload after the fall break, things to do, as usual, the wife with her complaints … Come on, I don’t want to… I don’t want to whine.
– Well… – George missed a strong word, – Come on. I’ve known you for years. You can talk about whatever’s on your mind. Besides, we don’t see each other that often lately. Although I can see… I can’t talk now, Alice is almost asleep there.
Both turned to the table. And really, the girl was sitting with her arms around her backpack, smacking her lips, blinking her eyes sleepily.
– Yes, – Robert stretched out, – it’s time, the beginning of ten on the clock.
– Well, good luck to you guys, – said George, but suddenly he stopped himself and took out a blue card. – Here, take it.
– It’s rare to meet people like that in our town. And I was lucky enough to get a couple of seats for a group session. They’ll be going on until the end of the month, – my friend twinkled and smiled again. Quite encouraging this time.
Robert held up a business card. Hard blue paper, various contacts, and large letters were written: “JESSICA HIGHLANDER – psychotherapist, motivational psychologist”.
There was an impatient exclamation:
– Have you ever heard about Jessica Highlander? A fat cat. In our city for only a month. She was born here, studied here, and now, as they say, we were lucky to see her.
George lifted his eyes up dreamily, and then looked intently into Robert’s eyes.
– Well… I don’t think I’m one of those.
– Which one? Don’t make it up, and don’t even dare disagree, – George smiled. – It’s all prejudice. Therapy, and innovative ones at that, are needed not by those who have mental problems, but by those who want to change their lives, to look at problems from a different angle.
– Already you talked as a psychologist, – Robert also smiled, but didn’t return the business card, and clutched it tighter in his hand and together with the credit card and the check slipped it into his wallet. – Well, maybe I’ll have a look at her.
He patted George on the shoulder and got up from his chair.
– Well, good luck on your work shift, and say hello to Sam. I’ll call you later.
– And don’t disappear, because I know you’ll get caught up in all these meetings, gatherings, appointments. It was like a business center, not a school…
Soon Robert and Alice were back in the warm interior of the car. Alice was silent and, to all appearances, very sleepy. They were driving home. It was fifteen to ten on the clock. Robert turned off the engine and stopped the car near the entrance of a five-story apartment building. The cozy courtyard, once green, now looked as gray and unsightly as everything else in this, though located in the resort foothills, but still a small and backwater town.
Apsheronsk… He didn’t choose this town by chance immediately after graduating from university in Moscow. Once upon a time long ago, as a schoolboy, he visited this town, rested in a comfortable sanatorium with mineral springs in the summer. The memories have remained very warm. And so, as soon as they began to actively promote programs for the development of education in small settlements, it was Apsheronsk that came to his mind as one of the enthusiasts. Then everything somehow worked out by itself. Looked through the vacancies, they were, of course. I signed all the documents, in spite of my mother’s protests, packed his bags and left to meet his professional dream. Everything started out so well. And he met Mary eight years ago. Now a family, a daughter, a cozy two-room apartment…
But my thoughts were not cheerful, but increasingly sad, and even angry. Because from the work Robert ceased to expect what he once strived for. The bureaucratic machine of education, luring him with the ideal of saving children under the slogan “Who else but me?”, in many ways had disappointed him and gradually began to break and change his mindset. Now he didn’t understand as clearly as before why he was here and what he was wasting his precious time for. Eight years had been devoted to education, but it was useless. The annoying thoughts he had had over the years remained thoughts without any action to change his life for the better. Robert, however, still had a path he had once elected, which was no longer a source of enthusiasm. And now the road was leading him to home, to his wife, and to a logical scandal. “I wish my mother-in-law wasn’t here,” – he thought.
More and more clearly the algorithm of excuses formed in his mind. First of all, he was late at work, and secondly, he was late picking Alice up from her vocal lesson. However, such excuses would irritate even more, not so much his wife, but her mother, a cranky and unfair old woman, who was always looking for an excuse to blame Robert. Third, instead of going home, they stopped at a cafe and ate pizza when dinner was probably waiting for them at home. Robert was already aware that unpleasant conversations could not be avoided. What else could he expect from his family?
In front of the door, Alice grimaced and wiped her sniffles with her sleeve. It wasn’t winter outside, but it was windy, and they must have been blown out of the car by a draught. “Here we go again, the fourth joint, as long as the girl doesn’t get sick,” Robert thought, catching himself thinking that he was more concerned about how his family would react than about his daughter’s health.
Meanwhile, the door slowly opened. Conversations could be heard in the apartment. The word “came”, spoken in a husky voice from the kitchen, let Robert know that another woman traditionally lived in his house – his wife’s mother, the agile and offensive Elizabeth. She often criticizes him, interferes in their family affairs and treats Robert unfairly. And everything is understandable. His mother-in-law is the kind of woman who had tasted all of his economic characteristics and moral values back in the Soviet Union, carefully transferring them into the family life. For example, now Robert was sure that Elizabeth again rubbed her daughter the wrong way, teaching her to save money and cook more homemade food, to feed her husband and child. Alice became the main object of the so-called “pedagogical” disputes between his wife and mother-in-law. This was invariably annoying.
And Elizabeth’s favorite subject was Robert. Conversations in the way like “…what a strange husband you have, my daughter… Where did you even find him?” had become a tradition.
“No one meets him. A bad sign,” thought Robert, hanging up his coat.
The house slippers, like speedboats, carried him along the standard route – to the kitchen. There were two women sitting around the table. One was a young woman, though she didn’t look too young, but a beautiful and pleasant woman – his wife Mary. And directly opposite her, looking directly at Robert, sat an older woman – her mother, his” beloved” mother-in-law, Elizabeth. The gazes piercing, the displeased faces. In their faces I could read condemnation, rather than the usual indifference. It was clear from their faces that they were both extremely disappointed in the situation.
– Good evening. We are here! – confidently said Robert.
– We can see, – muttered the mother-in-law haughtily. – Why are you so late? It is already dark outside, my granddaughter has to eat, to do homework, and to rest after school. You are a teacher, and you should know that.
His wife was quite, as usual. You could assume that she was afraid of her mother. But having lived with her, Robert could clearly see that she was only using her to keep herself from saying what she was thinking. And now they were probably thinking the same thing.
– I have a lot of things to do at work, today was the faculty meeting. I picked Alice up, and we went to a pizza place. I wanted to relax with my daughter, – Robert made excuses.
He knew that this passage would add additional fuel to the fire. Going to cafes and other leisure activities had an effect on the mother-in-law, like a red flag to a bull. That’s why he said it, to drive her out of her mind. Robert didn’t care anymore. However, his behavior was contradictory. He was not ready for a scandal, he didn’t want it, but the anticipation of a future quarrel, which was inevitable, gave him strength, and, despite his fatigue, he was ready to attack first.
– He fed the child outside again, – my mother-in-law said in her usual indignant voice.
That phrase was already standard in this situation. “He fed the child outside…". Even if he took the whole family to a restaurant and served a fancy dish, she would still consider it the street.
– I made you borsch, there is goulash, mashed potatoes, meatballs. Here’s the salad I chopped, and you have interrupted the child’s appetite. We have been telling you all along that she should eat at home, not outside. Why are you doing this?
A scandal was inevitable. Sometimes words and the energy they carry overflow the cup of patience, and even the kindest and relatively calm person who does not like to quarrel and always tries to compromise, can explode and respond. Robert felt that now or never, he had to show these women who was the boss here. And it was too late to compromise, or he just didn’t want to, or he didn’t know any other more effective way.
– I’m doing what I think is right, – I said, my throat feeling treacherously dry. There was a pause.
– Do you think we don’t know anything? – my mother-in-law shrieked unnaturally loudly.
– Robert, again you … You’re doing it again, – said the wife as she rolled her eyes and leaned her right hand on the tabletop.
“Playing the show again…", Robert’s mind raced. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his daughter close the door to her room tighter. Here we go.
In the same breath his wife blurted out, still covering her eyes and trembling finely:
– You’re always away at work, you don’t answer my messages or phone calls, you don’t listen to our advice, it’s like you’re in your own world. And here we are asking you twice a week to pick up Alice from the studio, and you can’t even do that… there are those words again… You’re being arbitrary again, unforgivable, – she suddenly broke into a high-pitched falsetto, but she has not yet burst into tears, which was to be expected.
This hail of completely undeserved accusations made Robert shudder: “I must, I must, I must… Once again, I… I… I…”
The mother-in-law didn’t interfere so far, looking now and then at him and at her daughter with a troubled look and a disgruntled frown. Meanwhile, Mary, continuing to get more and more wound up, said:
– I have a lot of work every day, and you can’t rely on anything at all. I have no strength anymore,” tears came to her eyes.
Mary looked at her mother demandingly. The mother-in-law all tensed up and prepared for a decisive “throw”.
– Mother… why don’t you say something! – cried at last.
“A forbidden trick,” – thought Robert sadly, but there was nothing he could do about it. Almost always all scandals ended this way, especially with the participation of the “esteemed” Elizabeth. His wife would wail and accuse him without letting him speak, then she would turn to her mother and begin to cry, and then…
– What a poor man he is now, – immediately and harshly, as if at the command, gave out his mother-in-law. – Thee isn’t any support in the family, but only a burden. And Mary cries again, Alice’s lessons aren’t studied again, and it’s very late, and soon it will be bedtime. But what, I … I will not interfere, but you, Robert, think about what you do!
She shook her hands in frustration and, pretending not to interfere, backed away, but very slowly, toward the exit of the kitchen. Nevertheless, Robert knew that she was anxious to continue, and if either of them said one more word, the scandal would surely drag on. But on this occasion, apart from a sense of guilt, there was no harm done to him. Robert, whether from fatigue or frustration didn’t want to say anything, and Mary, suddenly sobbing convulsively, slipped out of the kitchen, even slightly pushing her mother. What happened stopped the “fury” and really made her go home at last. But she didn’t fail to zip up her coat and sting one last time:
– All families are like families, living palsy-walsy… Ah, and yours… I didn’t expect that yours – who goes to the woods, who gets the wood, everyone is on his own.
Robert was frozen in perplexity, not knowing what to answer. Anger was boiling in him and he could not find anything better to say:
– You’d better go to rest, Mom.
And, of course, that phrase was a mistake. Elizabeth, theatrically sighed: “Ah!” And, slamming the door loudly, left. She would not speak to him now for a few days, but would come, of course.
It was quiet in the apartment. He stood in the middle of the corridor, listening to the silence. It was as if time had stopped. A few minutes passed like that before Robert regained his composure and the realization that he needed to end this day somehow and finally cut off the tangle of problems.
He slowly walked to the bathroom, undressed, and stood on the cold plates of the bath, pulled the curtain, and turned on the water. It was cold, and now and then Robert shuddered, but he had no desire to change the temperature, he didn’t want to relax. On the contrary, the cold shower brought him back to reality. And as he dressed again, stepped out of the bathroom, and proceeded to his usual spot, the chair on the balcony overlooking the kitchen, everything that had happened during the day flashed through his mind. An exhausting meeting, dinner with his daughter, a conversation with a friend, an altercation with his wife and mother-in-law, hurtful words spoken during an argument, his usual fatigue, anger, and impotence.
It’s the first quarter past twelve on the clock. The time flew by so quickly, and tomorrow is a new day. And again everything is the same, the familiar script, everything is tasteless and boring, incomprehensible and, characteristically, unsolvable. Outwardly, everything seems fine: there is an apartment with an almost paid mortgage, a wife, a healthy and intelligent daughter, and in general terms, a stable job. But there were gaps in this puzzle: the lack of progress in his career, annoying and stupid management, endless quarrels at home, lack of time for the child, his wife’s problems at work and constant fatigue. Suddenly Robert caught himself thinking that for about ten minutes he had been mindlessly reviewing the list of contacts in his phone. Yes… It was obvious that he wanted to speak out, to tell about all his worries and dedicate someone to his thoughts, maybe together in a conversation to find a way out. But who would he talk to? George – he is, of course, very perceptive, but still a man isn’t family and is unlikely to understand his problems. Mrs. Laura is one of the head teachers at school, the only one of his colleagues with whom he had a warm, trusting relationship, always advised him the same thing: divorce, take your daughter and go to Moscow. But he knew that was not the answer. Mom… No, calling his mother in the middle of the night and talking to her about what was on his mind was out of the question. Margaret, who from the very beginning had been against his going to the countryside and had only visited her twice in all the years he had lived here (the rest of the time he visited her in the capital himself), naturally would have reacted emotionally. And so Robert didn’t want to disturb her.
He fumbled for the lock button, turned off the phone screen, and thought again, “It really was a good idea to talk. Suddenly it hit him”. Turning on the phone screen again, he typed in the search box the name that he remembered well after the conversation in the cafe: " Jessica Highlander. Yes, she was a well-known psychotherapist, motivational psychologist, practicing Gestalt techniques, five years of experience, author of scientific articles and the acclaimed book “Through Life with a Smile” with a circulation of more than a million copies. The book was presented a year earlier, and the book was sold out.
Rising from his chair, Robert, without turning on the light, proceeded to the hallway, fumbled for his briefcase, took out his wallet and business card with an invitation, and then hastily put it behind the phone cover, so as not to lose it. And smiled to himself. He reminded himself of a schoolboy, who is hiding some secret from everyone in the dark. He felt better. Robert looked into his daughter’s room, she was already asleep. Mary, despite the rift that had occurred, still took care of her daughter, as usual. Kissing Alice on the forehead goodnight, Robert thought of his wife: “She’s a good girl, after all, I’m just confused and don’t know what to do, don’t know how to fix the situation.”
It was quiet and dark in the matrimonial bedroom. Mary was already asleep, and that pleased him. Maybe he had done wrong by not talking to her, but now he didn’t want to see her tears and hear her reproaches again. Robert lay quietly beside her and fell into a deep sleep almost instantly.