Authors: Zoran Zivkovic
Translated from the Serbian
by Alice Copple-Tošić
To Ljiljana Pe
because she understands.
I met myself at the entrance to the building where I live. I was just about to go inside after my afternoon walk, when someone pulled the door open from the inside. I stepped back to make room for the person coming out—and stared at my own self.
I recognized myself at once. Not so much by my physical appearance. It’s possible to have a double or a twin brother you don’t know exists. They might even look more like you than you do yourself. Here, however, the clothes removed all doubt. A double or twin brother would not be wearing my dark green raincoat. It was a recent purchase that I had yet to wear because the days were warm, even though it was already autumn.
The raincoat was singular owing to the fact that its lapels were inconsistent: one was narrow, the other wide. This insignificant flaw was why it had been on sale. No one wanted it, even though it was first class in every other respect. The defect didn’t bother me. It was only noticeable if you stared really hard, and I had no reason to expect anyone to give me the once-over.
The recognition had to be mutual, because I looked at me intently
for a moment. True, it might not have been quite like standing in front of a mirror, but it would be odd not to recognize yourself on a recently taken photograph, wouldn’t it? And that’s how I acted—as though a stranger was standing in front of the door. I didn’t even nod to myself as a sign of gratitude for standing aside to let me leave, which would have been polite even under these unusual circumstances. I just walked past me and headed down the street.
Bewildered, I stood there for a few moments watching myself walk away and then headed after me. What else could I do? Certainly not go home calmly and pretend that this was nothing out of the ordinary. If for no other reason, I was dying to know where I was going.
I strode along determinedly, like a man on a mission. I was not just out for a stroll. I kept a certain distance from myself, not wanting me to notice I was following, although I didn’t look back. I picked up my pace when I turned right at an intersection onto a side street. Reaching the corner, I peered around it. I was still making steady progress. I waited several moments for me to put some distance between us and then turned the corner myself.
We went along like that for around 150 meters and then I stopped and went in somewhere. Since I was about thirty paces behind me, it wasn’t immediately clear which shop it was, but I didn’t need to get right up close to find out. I am well acquainted with the neighborhood where I live, and I also know myself. I certainly would have no reason to go into shops selling ladies’ hats, lawnmowers or pet food. The only place that would interest me in this part of the street was the barbershop. The one I regularly visit.
But what would I be doing at the barbershop? Less than two weeks had passed since I’d had my hair cut, and I always shave at home. What would my barber think when he saw me much earlier than expected? It might lead to a misunderstanding. Spurred by the desire to prevent this, I rushed towards the shop, but stopped dead in my tracks just before I reached the glass door.
I couldn’t go in there now. I was already inside. What kind of chaos would ensue if another one of me appeared! It would require an explanation, and what kind of explanation was there to give? The barber might even resort to calling the police to straighten things out, and then there really would be trouble.
I wondered for a moment what to do. I wanted to see what was happening in the barbershop, but couldn’t from my position in front of the hat shop. I couldn’t just stick out my head from time to time and look through the glass door. Someone inside would notice my peculiar behavior and come out to see what was going on. The best thing would be to go across the street and watch from there.
I found a place next to the trunk of a bushy linden tree whose leaves were already yellow, but soon concluded that I couldn’t just stand there and stare at the barbershop. Passers-by would become curious. One might even join me as I watched, convinced that something was about to happen on the other side of the street. People tend to imitate one another. A crowd might form.
I had to be less conspicuous. I went to a nearby newsstand and bought a newspaper in the largest format available. I folded it in two, then tore out part of the inside edge. When I opened it there was a small hole in the middle. I went back to the linden. Now passers-by would find nothing unusual in seeing a shortsighted man with his head stuck in a newspaper, and I had a good view of the barbershop through the hole.
There were no other customers. I saw myself sitting there, and next to me was the barber who’d been cutting my hair for years. He had yet to reach for his comb and scissors. We were talking, and the barber was gesticulating vigorously, which he was not in the habit of doing. He was always reserved. Normally we would merely exchange a word or two about the weather, and here he was waving expansively. I was curious to discover what we were talking about, but even if I’d been a lip reader the distance made it impossible.
The barber finally opened his arms wide, as though abandoning any further discussion, and then moved away for a moment. He came back with a washbasin. He placed it at the back of my neck and I leaned my head backwards. So, that was it. He was going to wash my hair. Well, he’d never washed my hair before, but why get so upset about it? It was nothing unusual. On the other hand, there was really no need to wash my hair. I closed the newspaper for a moment and ran my fingers through my hair. It was still quite clean. I’d washed it the day before yesterday.
When I looked through the hole again, the barber was already at work. He was standing with his back to me, blocking my view of his customer. Judging by the brisk movements, he was scrubbing vigorously. I didn’t know how long it took to wash hair in a barbershop. At home I do it in a few minutes. Here, however, it was taking some time.
Some ten minutes later I got tired of looking at the barber’s back, so I shifted my focus from the hole to the newspaper itself. On the left-hand side was the city’s tabloid news. I started to read the articles, peering every now and then at the barbershop.
What first caught my eye was the story of a woman who had gone into a jewelry store and asked to be shown some diamonds. When they were placed before her, she grabbed a handful, stuffed them into her mouth and patiently swallowed every one in front of the dumbfounded salesmen. She made no attempt to escape. The police took her to the hospital where her stomach was pumped, but this did not return all the precious stones. Three failed to turn up for some inexplicable reason, and not even an x-ray of her innards could locate them.
Then there was an article about a thief who lurked around parks and stole white poodles. He’d already laid his hands on fifty-six dogs, whose fate remained unknown. The police had still found no trace of the man. Even though all the poodles were stolen in broad daylight, no one had noticed the thief, who seemed to be invisible.
The Museum of Modern Art had been targeted once again. Nothing was stolen, but during the night another two paintings had mysteriously changed places. As on the previous occasions, the switch had been announced in a letter to the curator. He’d done everything he could to stop the crank: he’d doubled the guard, set up infrared cameras, and even spent the night in the museum, but nothing helped. In the morning the two paintings were found in each other’s places.
One of the headlines reported an unusual suicide on a bridge, but I was unable to read more about it because the rest of the article had been torn out to make the hole. My eyes shifted focus in frustration and I looked through the hole in the newspaper towards the barber-shop—and what I saw almost made me faint. I was just coming out of the shop and my hair hadn’t been washed but dyed!
No wonder it had taken so long and upset the barber. He clearly had made an heroic effort to dissuade me from this crazy idea. Indeed, how could something like that have crossed my mind? Well, some people dye their hair at my age to hide the gray, but gray doesn’t bother me at all and besides there isn’t much of it. And what normal person would choose such a bright red color?
I folded the newspaper and dropped it into a nearby trashcan, and then started to follow myself again, this time on the opposite side of the street. There was no danger of losing sight of me: this garish red made me distinctly visible. A multitude of questions swarmed through my head. Above all, why had I dyed my hair? And then, why had I chosen that color? Finally, how had I dared do it on my own whim? Didn’t I have a say in the matter?
How was I going to face the barber when the time came for my next haircut? I couldn’t appear in the barbershop with my normal hair. Would I have to dye my hair too beforehand at some other place? Furthermore, what if I ran into one of my friends or acquaintances with this red hair? They would be astounded when they saw me, and this would inevitably lead to gossip.
I didn’t know where I was heading now, but I hoped I wouldn’t stay outside very long. The sooner I went inside, the smaller the chance of an unwanted encounter. I stopped some fifty paces later in front of a wine shop. I took a look at the display window and went in.
This didn’t bode well either. I have never drunk wine or strong alcohol. I have a glass of beer only on rare occasions. So what was I looking for in a wine shop? Was I intending to do something irresponsible again? After what had happened in the barbershop, I could expect the unthinkable from me.
I was both relieved and worried when I came out soon after. I was carrying three bottles of red wine in a transparent plastic bag. I hadn’t done anything unseemly, but what was I going to do with so much wine? I wasn’t going to drink it all by myself, was I? One bottle was enough to put me in the hospital. Had I bought it for someone, perhaps? After some hard thought I couldn’t come up with anyone I would give three bottles of wine.
We continued along both sides of the street. Now I was even more fearful that someone would recognize me. I would leave a truly wonderful impression with this horrible dyed hair, obviously set for a binge. Such toying with my reputation was intolerable.
I stopped at the next intersection, waited for the green “walk” sign and then crossed the street. I scurried behind the nearest linden tree and peeked around it. After crossing the street I continued straight ahead. I waited a moment and then went after myself.
Once again I went into a shop I didn’t frequent. I’d never liked sports, so I’d never needed sports equipment. I went up to the edge of the large display window and looked inside. There were lots of customers. I caught sight of red hair at the other end of the store, but couldn’t see which section I was in because of the crowd.
As I waited impatiently for me to come out, I tried to figure out what might interest me there. My eyes went over the objects in the window. Boxing gloves? No, I shuddered at violence. Hockey stick? I couldn’t even stand up on ice skates. Basketball? That didn’t go at all with my height. Tennis racquet? Once I’d tried to grasp the rules of tennis, to no avail.
When I finally appeared at the door of the shop, what I was carrying was as foreign to me as everything else I’d seen in the window, although I had a little experience with it. I’d tried to bowl once, but given up after the first throw. I’d thrown the ball with such skill that it rolled diagonally, ending up in the fourth lane to the left.
My hair was no longer the most conspicuous thing about me. Now the bowling ball attracted attention. If they’d wrapped it in the store this might not have happened, but as it was the iridescent red color was painful to the eye. In addition, I was swinging it back and forth by my side, as though just about ready to throw it. People moved out of the way, then turned back to look at me. They either shook their heads reprovingly or snickered.
As I thought feverishly about how to prevent this disgrace, I suddenly halted at a tram stop. Passers-by were still staring at me, but not as much anymore because I’d stopped swinging the bowling ball so crazily. I had no idea where I wanted to take the tram, but it made no difference to me. Just so long as it came as soon as possible and took me away from this crowded street where I’d become a public spectacle.
Luckily, the tram had a second car, so we didn’t have to be in the same one. There weren’t a lot of passengers and we would have been easy to spot. They would certainly conclude that we were twins, and when you have a twin brother who is clearly crazy, what would be more natural than for them to question your sanity too?
I waited for me to enter the first car then rushed into the second. Overcome with dark forebodings, I went to the front of the second car to keep an eye on myself through the two windows. My fears were unfounded, however. I was no longer acting immoderately. I was sitting on an empty seat and had put the bag with the wine and the bowling ball on the seat in front of me. If you didn’t count the hair, I no longer stood out. No one even looked at me.
The stops passed by one after the other, and I sat there calmly in the front car, looking out the window. Finally I could take a little breather in the rear car. I even sat down, although I didn’t have a good view of myself that way. I hoped I had come to my senses. We were already quite far from the neighborhood where I live, and this helped put me at ease. If any more foolishness crossed my mind, at least we wouldn’t be around anyone I knew.
As soon as I stood up in the front car, I did the same in the rear car. Then another problem arose. No one apart from the two of us intended to get off at the next stop. If I headed back after getting off, we would meet for sure. And then what? I had no answer to that question nor any choice. I couldn’t stay on the tram. How would I find myself if I got off at the next stop, without any idea which direction I’d taken?