Writer’s Self-Promotion: Short or Wordy?

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This morning, I came across a letter from a writers’ magazine, to which I am subscribed. It suggested to take a look at ‘a special offer for readers’ from their trusted partner. As I have a habit to read every email I receive, I read it through. The announcement started with a massive energy injection in a form of a greeting:

“Fellow Writer,
What if I told you-”

The greeting was followed by a 1300-word-long biographical description of the author’s way to financial happiness, suggesting me to do the same and promising to tell me how to do it, for this price if I subscribe here, or for that price if I sign up there. In my case, the ‘energy injection’ stopped working after the first passage, so by the middle of the second passage I was beginning to regret loosing my precious morning time on reading something that I probably don’t need.

Still, my female curiosity took over, so I switched to speed-reading and finally, on the last passages of the email, I realized that the announcement was about membership in a writers club! Finally, the P.S. part of the email, which was two passages long itself, contained more practical information on the cost and free bonuses that the club membership offers.

All in all, I spent nearly quarter of an hour reading through and digesting the information; then I caught myself on thinking that, according to the length of the message, the membership might be so overwhelming that I would have no time left for doing my writer’s job in the end!

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Again, I remembered the main requirement dictated to us by present time: brevity. Probably, I am giving it too much attention, but I really believe that today, brevity is a crucial requirement, even for such a specific business as writer’s self-promotion. If I were to write that announcement, I would cut it down to two hundred words, or even less. It is so easy today to simply provide links to pages with more detailed descriptions of any ideas or events!

In the end, self-promotion is all about attracting your audience by a few keywords. When you want to attract visitors to a pub, you only need to write a short sign: “BEER HERE”; it is the same with the virtual world we work in. Create a short slogan, give it a short description on your website, and discuss it in your blog, then, don’t forget to link all those pieces of information to each other! Doesn’t this look easier than writing miles of text trying to convince your audience? Not to mention that time is the most precious thing we have, so we should not take each other’s time by writing lengthy announcements.

Please, tell me if you think this is not right. I will gladly discuss every opinion. In the end, we are all in the same boat: we need to know how to self-promote. Thank you!

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Overcoming Writer’s Block

Writer’s block is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work, or experiences a creative slowdown. The condition ranges in difficulty from coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce a work for years. (Wikipedia)

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It was a surprise for me to discover how much has been written about writer’s block in English. In my culture (Russian), the same thing is called творческий кризис (‘creative crisis’) or творческий затык (‘creative block’), and quite often, authors are shy to discuss this intimate state of mind, because it is associated, in the first place, with weakness of character. Russian authors usually suggest three steps of overcoming the block:

  1. Push away your fear by allowing yourself to write bad. If you ignore others’ remarks about your bad writing and simply go forward, your writing will improve.
  2. Your lack of ideas comes from the lack of knowledge. Learn more about the subject of your writing (the time which you are trying describe, the psychology of people, the place where you build your scenes, etc.) and creative ideas will pour into your head.
  3. No procrastination! Do not allow yourself to think about doing it tomorrow. Sit down and write. Do it now.

These three simple rules really help. Why don’t you try them if you have a writer’s block?

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” — Mark Twain

As a bonus, here is a link to a wonderful collection of quotes by worldly-known writers about overcoming writer’s block from Ken Miyamoto’s blog

“I don’t believe in writer’s block or waiting for inspiration. If you’re a writer, you sit down and write.” — Elmore Leonard

 

The Principle of Brevity in Writing

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Today, in our fast-paced world, time has become the greatest of all values. We, people, still have not fully realized this fact, but it already dictates us the necessity to introduce some changes into our lives – first of all, in the field of time management

The dwellers of large cities (New York, London, Tokyo, etc.) were the first to sense the change: they had to reduce the time spent on walking, cooking, cleaning, driving, socializing, learning, and so on and so forth, including the time spent on reading. Today, smaller cities confidently follow megacities, while the pace of life continues to accelerate, forcing us to revise our professional habits, too.

Have you noticed that more and more people tend to skip reading long texts, even if they are beautifully written and contain brilliant ideas? We seem to give preference to visual, well-organized, simplistically laid-out, or even bullet-structured information. When we revise a book of fiction, we tend to say (more and more often these days), “It’s a good book, but a little too long. It would be better if it was one third thinner…”

The reality makes every author to face an inevitable phenomenon: we don’t only have to write quickly, we also have to adhere to the new principle: the principle of brevity in writing. The rule is simple: the shorter is your post (article, story, novel, etc.) the better, because brevity in writing shows the author’s respect for their readers’ time.

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This fact may upset those authors who love writing long pieces of speculative prose. Certainly, there will always remain people who will love reading very long novels, but the number of such readers will continue to reduce. Well, this is the trend of the new Millennium! I am afraid, we have nothing else to do, but adjust.

I will try to be short here, too, and wrap up this one here. As a postscriptim, to please your eyes, I will finish this post with beautiful words by Aldous Huxley, written in 1958, which have become even more timely today:

However elegant and memorable, brevity can never, in the nature of things, do justice to all the facts of a complex situation… On such a theme one can be brief only by omission and simplification… In practice we are generally forced to choose between an unduly brief exposition and no exposition at all. Abbreviation is a necessary evil and the abbreviator’s business is to make the best of a job which, though intrinsically bad, is still better than nothing. He must learn to simplify, but not to the point of falsification. He must learn to concentrate upon the essentials of a situation, but without ignoring too many of reality’s qualifying side issues. In this way he may be able to tell, not indeed the whole truth (for the whole truth about almost any important subject is incompatible with brevity), but considerably more than the dangerous quarter-truths and half-truths which have always been the current coin of thought.” A.Huxley, Brave New World Revisited.


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A Few Thoughts About Ethics in Writing

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Interestingly, while ethics are huge in technical and academic writing, it is not given the same attention in the world of fiction writing. As an author who belongs to both groups, I have been watching the difference and wondering why? Could it be because scientists have to be more accurate about every word they write? Or maybe, the fiction writers are in any way more (or less) ethical than technical writers, so they don’t need to set up any rules of fiction writing ethics? 😉 I want to believe that both groups equally care about their readers and this difference is nothing more than a tradition, so nobody ever asks the question.

Ethics codes are present at the workplace: even if they aren’t always enforced, they still exist and we obey them… often mechanically, without thinking. Summing up a dozen of articles which I studied in search for an answer to my question, there are a few basic points to adhere to whenever you are writing a professional document:

  • don’t mislead;
  • don’t manipulate;
  • don’t stereotype; and
  • always check the facts.

Well, I did a thing which I may regret doing: I tried to apply these rules to fiction writing this morning… and found the reason of my writer’s block! I realized that everything fiction writers do is exactly the opposite of the four rules!

Unlike academic writing, which is all about sharing facts to feed the work of mind, fiction writing works with reader’s imagination and emotions; it’s principal idea is to mislead, manipulate, hide (or distort) facts of real life with the only purpose of creating stereotype universes in the readers’ minds and enticing them into reading! 

Does this mean that fiction writers are unethical, immoral, dishonest, improper, corrupt, unrighteous, unjust and… (could not think of more antonyms to the word “ethical”, sorry)?  Uh-huh, I kind of regret I took up the topic already!

To calm myself down, I decided to accept the following explanation: fiction writers have to break those rules of ethics. Like mathematicians, who sometimes look for a proof by contradiction, fiction writers need to show their readers a ‘different’ world, where rules are broken and norms are corrupted; we only have one rule to follow: we must expose the fake in the end. If writers did not do this, the world would never get to know “Alice in Wonderland”, “Winnie-the-Pooh” or Harry Potter books! These books mislead, manipulate, create unusual stereoptypes, and distort our reality, but they do this so awesomely well that no one can resist reading them again and again!

So, what is the answer? Is it ethical for fiction writers to ignore the ethics of academic writing? 😉 The question is still up!

Please, share your thoughts, I am very curious to know your opinions on this.

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Stepping into the Same River

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This time, visiting my home city felt like stepping into the same river. Sevastopol, the notorious Black Sea port at the southern tip of Crimea, where I grew up, has finally and completely turned into an imprint of the Soviet era. As I walked along its streets, I could not resist a funny feeling that I’d been thrown there from the future: all surrounding objects, people, little street conversations, sounds, smells – everything was amazingly familiar, but had undeniable touch of the past- of the time about 30 years ago, when I was a teenager.

After the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, local residents of Sevastopol (more than the other dwellers of Crimea) were re-captured by their own old misconception of being the main southern forpost of Russian military glory that had protected mother Russia in a number of wars, thinking that they would now regain the attention of the Russian government and receive abundant accolades from all Russia’s population. This did not happen, though. After a short emotional moment (also provoked by the Kremlin propaganda) the population of Russia realized that Crimea is no more than another needy region that requires support, and its vaunted seaside resorts are uncomfortable and inaccessible for many Russians. Litle by little, Sevastopol – the Crimea’s dead end – was completely left to fend for itself. The only part of its nearly half-million population that feels more or less protected are the miliary and naval personnel, paid by the Russian government.

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The sanctions, which affected Crimea more than any other region of Russia, have reached their goal: my childhood city looks abandoned, humiliated and deceived; people are troubled and moody, no one smiles back at you if you make eye contact – just like it was in the Soviet time. Their interests are scarce, everybody is busy surviving, and again, like it was in the Soviet time, they tend to be happy with very simple things: a lucky purchase of some fresh food in a store or a drinking party with friends in the kitchen.

Every moment I was there this time, I could not help thinking that in only three years (since the annexation) both conflicting countries – Russia and Ukraine – have estranged from each other to a huge distance, moving exactly in opposite directions: Ukraine to the west, Russia to the east, which means (unfortunately for the city of my childhood) that it has been moving backwards, into the past, and this movement will soon bring it to complete disappointment and depression.

My own mind has changed a lot, too: when I visit Sevastopol now, I see it with the curious eyes of a westerner who has purchased a time-travel tour; the only difference is that my mind still keeps clear memories of the childhood spent in that time.

Interestingly, I just caught myself on thinking that I am not even sad about this fact. All people deserve to have the life they want to have. The population of Sevastopol, at least its older (and prevailing) generation, looks quite satisfied with the movement back in time. Well, if they like it, let them have it. I will simply wave my hand to them and go my way.

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My Protagonist of the Opposite Gender…

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One of the hardest things to do as a writer is to write someone who is not yourself.” – George R.R. Martin

Writing a whole book from the name of a particular person is always a challenging task, but choosing a protagonist of an opposite gender is a real test for every author. I am doing this for the first time now, so I have been trying to adjust to the funny sensation of having a whole new personality – a male one – living inside me. 

The first confirmations of his presence started coming when I was thinking over the plot, and since then my protagonist has been growing through me like a plant that breaks through layers of soil to see the sunlight. Wow, what an interesting sensation! My first thought was that I was going crazy, but then I found similar feedback in the blogs of many authors. I completely agree with this comment by Cristina Hartmann: “I string words together and hope for the best. All characters, regardless of gender, have a part of me in them. No matter how seemingly different a character may be from me, they all have something in common with me. I put a little of myself in every character I write. In that sense, gender is irrelevant.”

When I write a character, I cannot go only with his/her general gender characteristics: I must imagine and draw a whole colorful picture of the character’s personality traits. Besides this, I may give a character an atypical quality: a male character may love planting roses, while a female may entertain herself by solving math problems in evenings. These unusual qualities may look like pesky imperfections at first, but they often lead my character toward some significant and exciting events, and eventually, the character is supposed to win the readers’ sympathy.

It is important to pick out some easily recognizable, but still quite unique character traits, because this helps the reader find connection between their mental image of my character and someone who they already know from real life: such character can keep the reader excited and interested to read the story to the very end. Secondly, the character’s imperfection should be charming; it is always a good idea to turn it into the character’s power at some point in the story (a stutter that suddenly helps them meet their love, or disarming shyness, or clumsy forgetfulness – anything).

It seems to me that the most difficult thing is to do this with a novel protagonist, especially if this is a person of an opposite gender, and even more – if he/she is the narrator of the story.

Kristen Houghton in her article “Writing As Your Opposite Gender Can Be Successful” wrote: “There are some things to remember when writing in your opposite gender voice. Understand that your character is unique and not a metaphor for the entire gender. The same is true when writing about ethnicity, race, religion, or social classes. You’re not generalizing about entire segments of society, you’re being specific about one character. As far as characters go, it pays to remember that not all women think and behave alike, and neither do all men… If my goal as a writer is to help my readers expand their life experiences through my writing, then my success will depend mainly upon my talent and technique, not on my character’s gender.”

My biggest goal in writing is to draw my characters so realistically that every reader would recognize someone they know in them. I believe that the only right way to do this is to write my characters completely from my own experiences.

I found a similar opinion in an article by Avory Faucette: “…the difficulty comes when describing an experience I haven’t had, which is more about others’ perception of me than about my own gender… I feel comfortable writing characters with similar hopes and aspirations and experiences to my own, and that makes it difficult to write someone who is not college educated, who is much younger or older, who is an immigrant, who is a person of color, etc.”

Sheri Fresonke Harper: “I think people in general have a blend of both feminine and masculine traits and interests… Often we pick up voice, mannerisms, and other characteristics of character from our experience with the world so that when we write from the perspective of another sex, we’ve seen the world through the eyes of people of that gender that have said the same thing, thought the same thing, acted the same way.”

This is true. Men and women aren’t that different, but they face quite different social roles and as so, their behavior is not the same.” Even the very fact of choosing to write the protagonist of the opposite gender shows that the author has made a commitment to explore a new social role and is willing to share that new knowledge with others.

It was a surprise to see that some authors find the task quite entertaining. I loved this comment by Eli Havoc: “It’s really easy. I was told once, by a female friend “we think just like you do, except we’re constantly worrying about how we look.” And that piece of advice had worked very well for me. I wrote a book written in first-person, once, with a female main character, and have gotten several comments from readers that go something like “Jenna’s character is so real! How did you write a high-school girl so believably?”

With all this being said, everything still seems to boil down to the author’s talent and brilliance in writing technique. In fact, the protagonists’s gender becomes nothing more than a tool which the writer decides to use in order to deliver the main idea of the book. Well, let us proceed to writing then! In the end, if I am a good writer, I should feel comfortable writing characters of either gender. Do you agree with me?

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“Cooking” Blog Headlines: My Signature Dish

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Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that a smartly chosen headline can sell even an average article. Headline is the face of every text composition or document, no matter if it is long or short, creative or strictly logical, artistic or business-like. Every word of a headline works to represent the whole composition in search engines, in email, on social media, and can either attract the eye of the reader or do quite the opposite thing, which makes the task of crafting the headline crucially important.

Being a mother and wife with decades of experience in the kitchen, I can’t help but compare this process with cooking. Cooking is a skill, which – when properly used – can turn my daily work of processing food into a very satisfying, creative and surprisingly effective activity. Moreover, it gives me a chance to share my creative work with others… just like with blog writing! See for yourself: to cook a good dinner, we need to take care of four things-

  • to know what we are going to cook (a simple way to talk about goal setting);
  • to develop a method and a sequence of doing it;
  • to have necessary food ingredients and the kitchen equipment at hand; and
  • to decorate the final product and serve it properly, in order to get the best appreciation of the diners.

Well, this daily cooking scheme looks amazingly similar to blogging process, don’t you think? Cooking a blog article seems to follow the same methodology!

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I try to write for my blog quite regularly, so the task of giving names to the articles comes up a few times every week. The method I have developed is a kind of a recipe for cooking blog titles. These are the steps I take:

Step 1. Select 3-4 keywords

While I work on the article content, I write down 3-4 keywords, which describe the main idea of my article. These words usually become the basis for my working titleFor example, when I started writing this article, I picked four key phrases: blog article, create a title, craft a headline, headline writing howto (the idea to compare it with cooking process came to me later). This first step is very important, because it helps me set the direction of my thoughts, and then I check every passage of my article with the key phrases to see if the content corresponds with the working title.

Step 2. Answer the seven questions (below)

When the first draft of my article is ready and I have the working title, I can proceed directly to designing the final title. To do this, I ask myself a few questions-

  • Should I create a witty, inciting title or rather craft an informative headline*?

  • Who may want to read an article with this title/headline?

  • What words should I use or avoid in the title?
  • Is my title/headline catchy enough?
  • How long should my headline be?
  • Does it correspond to the content, structure, and style of my article?
  • Does my headline include the necessary keywords (is it satisfactory to both, my readers and the search robots)?

*There is some difference between the notions “title” and “headline”. To read more about it, go to page: http://blendmagazine.org/blog/2009/02/27/headlines-vs-titles/

Step 2 is the most creative one. I try to imagine my readers and, depending on how I visualize them, I come up with ideas of style, manner and length of my title. I won’t go into lengthy discussions here. You can simply apply these questions to an article that you are writing at the moment, and some ideas will flash in your mind right away.

Step 3. Personalize the title

To make my title attractive to many people, I need to enrich it with an emotional component. Some authors would express it by the phrase “make it sexy”, I would rather call it personalizing the title, which gives my readers a promise that, along with sharing the basic information, I will share a little about my personality. This makes me closer to the reader and simplifies the task of disclosing the subject of my article. Sometimes at this step I come up with an idea (like the one about comparing crafting of blog titles with the process of cooking), which makes me revise the whole article and sometimes rewrite it. But in most cases, revisions make the article better, so I don’t mind…

Step 4. Decorate and serve

At this step the article is finished and the title has been cooked. If I am satisfied with everything, I can proceed to publishing it in my blog. Quite often, I revise my articles days and weeks after they were published, and recently I found out that I am not the only one who does so. Honestly, I never expect the blog articles to be perfect: this is what blogging is about, isn’t it?

A blog article should be fresh and inventive in thought, but it does not have to be coursebook-precise or academically elaborate, it should simply catch the readers’ attention and provoke them to think. This is why I added Step 4 to my recipe. “Decorate and serve” means: make it visually attractive. Do not forget to develop a clear visual structure: break it up into easily identifiable parts, add numbering and bullets, or do whatever is necessary to make your article dish look edible and delicious.

Then, finally, add illustrations and serve.

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Here is a little bonus for you:

To read more on the topic, you are welcome to go to blendmagazine.org, where, inter alia, they provide a classification of article headline types. Enjoy:

7 Types of Headlines

http://blendmagazine.org/blog/2009/02/27/headlines-vs-titles/

1. The Know-it-All: these headlines offer practical advice or tips.

2. The Teacher: these headlines teach you something you didn’t already know.

3. The Gossip: these types of headlines stir up controversy, pique your interest, and often have you asking “and then what happened?”

4. The Instigator: these headlines make bold statements, which may or may not be true, but they make you want to click to find out.

5. The Nay-Sayer: these headlines convince you that what you don’t know will hurt you.

6. The Campaigner: these headlines provoke people who have similar problems or issues to click on the articles and connect with other like-minded people.

7. The Connector: these articles show the connection between two seemingly unrelated things.

All Those Omens On My Way (A Short Story)

A couple of days ago I suddenly started getting signs of being in luck. Well, unlike many others, I am not superstitious; I mean, finding a thing like a four leaf clover would hardly make me excited. Still, I could not help noticing signs of good fortune, they poured onto me intensely and bluntly, like a powerful stream that rolls down a hill, smashing obstacles on its way.

It began with a bus ticket, a so-called lucky one. While the bus was carrying me to my destination, a few scenes from my middle school years kept floating in my mind. If the sum of the first three digits on your ticket equals the sum of the last three digits, this ticket will certainly bring you good luck, my school friends used to say. If you get a lucky ticket, you should eat it at once… I was summing up little figures printed on the gray scrap of paper when my bus nearly hit a huge truck, making me forget about that ticket at once, of course.

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I did not take a picture of my lucky ticket, but here is one I found on the Internet as an illustration

Later during the day, a bird pooped on my shoulder – a small bird like a tit or a sparrow – it flew away before I could see it, but the fact remains that it spoiled my blouse! Knowing that all of my friends would blindly believe in the good outcome of such accident, I had a good reason to grin, “What a nonsense! Never heard of a more stupid omen than this!” I ignored that omen, too, because at that very moment I found a long awaited letter in my mailbox: it said that my book had been published!

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This guy does not look quite happy being pooped at! 🙂

Soon, a new “sign of fotrune” arrived as a proof that it was not the end of my journey of luck: I broke my favorite plate by dropping a glass that fell right on it and shattered into small pieces, too. In every Russian home this would be considered a sign of double luck, but, well, not to me. I was growing tired of my little mishaps, so I spit three times over my shoulder and knocked three times on a wooden table – the surest Russian way of keeping lucky till the end of the day.

And then my hand started itching: a sign of an imminent inflow of earnings, welcomed by every Russian, of course! “Not my style, there’s no logic in this,” I thought to myself as I rushed to pick up my buzzing phone: it was a colleague calling to say that our boss had increased my salary by fifty percent! She sounded so excited that I did not recognize her voice at first… another Russian belief, by the way. She screamed into my ear, “You see? This is it! You did not recognize me, and so I am also in luck! I just got a confirmation message about my raise, too!”

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I hang up and returned to the kitchen to feed my cat. He was washing his face, and a casual thought slipped through my mind: this means I am going to have a guest in my home.

No, this was too much for one day! I was fed up with those signs, as I was fed up resisting my “fate”. I did not want any more of this stuff in my life, but my mind still kept pestering me by intrusive guesses:

What if I show a coin to the young Moon, which is this night, by the way? Will I become any richer?

If I hit my elbow on a doorway, will my boyfriend finally dare to tell me he loves me?

Is it true that this pigeon looking through my window is going to bring me a romantic adventure?

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A horseshoe and clover are considered to be signs of good luck, internationally

I felt tired and went to bed early that day. I began to believe that there might be some subtle dependence between all those popular omens and real events… at least, they had been forming for ages! “If you believe in something, it will come true,” our ancestors used to say. Who knows? They could be perfectly right, I thought. The pace of my thoughts slowed down and I slept… and I saw a ring in my dream.

Something made me wake up. As I lay there thinking that the ring, by the way, was also a silly omen promising me a whirlwind romance over the night, the sound of the door bell cut into the quietness of my home.

Oh goodness, I thought, who can it be?

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“He stood in the doorway – my boyfriend – all wet from the showering rain.”

He stood in the doorway – my boyfriend – all wet from the showering rain. A few drops reached my face as I touched the rose he was holding between us. Fresh fragrance of the flower made me wake up from my drowsy oblivion, so I opened my mouth to greet him, but he interrupted me by a passionate kiss.

Then he said, “Please, let me in. I happened to have a terrible day: I broke a large mirror, I stupidly walked under a ladder, then a black cat crossed my way… twice, and a friend started whistling right in my home… so many bad luck signs just in one day that I nearly started to believe in this nonsense!” He took my hands in his and looked right into my eyes. “Darling, let me stay here with you tonight. You are my only good luck charm, and let me be yours. It is so much easier to resist evil omens, when love keeps us both, don’t you think?”

I excitedly clutched the stem and a thorn dug deep into my finger (meaning I would marry the guy who gave me the rose). I gasped, then I shook my head.

“This isn’t even an omen,” I said, looking into his eyes and moving my face closer. “Even before this moment I kind of believed that we are about to marry this year.”

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The Soldier

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At the crack of dawn, when the park was slowly waking up after a long frosty night, Pavel was already sitting in his usual place under a large chestnut tree, on the third bench to the left from the main entrance colonnade. Right above his head, two magpies were chirping, in front of him, a busy rook was examining an island of dirty snow, chilly air smelled of melted water, and in it, busy tits were scurrying to and fro in search of a breakfast bite. Pavel shivered, glanced at his watch, and buried his freezing chin into the camo jacket collar. His eyes fell on the unfinished bottle of beer, he picked it up from the bench with numb, sluggish fingers, and remembered that he was hungry. He sighed, took a sip of bitter liquid, grimaced in disgust, then ruffled up like a sparrow, and prepared to wait on, when at a distance, behind the bars of the park’s forged fence, yellow and blue spots of the familiar tracksuit loomed joyfully against gloomy grayness of the murky morning. Pavel stretched out his neck. A moment later, she turned up between the columns of the main entrance and immediately, joyful spots of yellow and blue livened up the colonnade, colored the semicircle of a bare flowerbed, invigorated the whole park, mocking the black, rimy spring for its lack of colors.

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Pavel had known her route like the back of his hand. At first, she was going to run straight at him: she would skirt around the flowerbed, pass the island of snow, and head into the alley toward his bench. For only a few seconds would he watch how she approached, rhythmically and gently pushing her sneakers into the rough asphalt. As always, she would be looking under her feet quite intently, trying to avoid the insidious ice crust under her feet, her eyelashes would be lowered, so Pavel, as usual, would frown to a thought that after a month of watching her, he was still unable to say what was the color of her eyes.

There. She approached him – serious, focused, austere. Her lips, trembling slightly with each silent breath, released tiny clouds of steam that dissolved right behind her in the crisp bluish air.

Wow, she is awesome,” he whispered, and forced himself not to stare.

She had no hat on that morning, so Pavel could finally see her hair; it was long and surprisingly fair for her tanned complexion, it fell on her shoulders and dashed to the sides at each step – playfully, tirelessly, somehow childishly…

Enchanted by beauty, Pavel sank into blissful oblivion, so it was not until she had run past him that he realized what had happened – that morning, for the very first time, she had given him a glance! Two incredibly bright chestnut eyes had studied him head to toe, looked at Pavel’s pink, sluggish fingers, glanced at his bottle of beer, met his eyes, and returned to the road, to focus on running again.

Oh, that was an event! He was happy: she’d noticed him, she’d acknowledged his aimless existence, she’d been thinking about him for a second or so, albeit not very flattering, yet she had! Finally, for the very first time in a month he was able to touch her life, too!

Bit by bit, timid sun rays spread down and covered the alley. Bluish shadows of branches, chased by the wind, danced on the ground. Ignoring the chill, Pavel finished his beer and squared his shoulders. Hunger gripped Pavel’s stomach, but his mind fenced it off. Lack of money, abjection, bitter cold, wind and hunger were of no importance, neither the general hopelessness of his grim situation. Nothing mattered that morning, compared to his major, exciting, insatiable desire to see her again and again.

He knew almost nothing about the girl: just the fact that she was incredibly pretty. She must be a model, he thought, or an actress, or maybe a television announcer…one of those who pin their fortune since cradle: rich, beautiful, lucky, and smart…Just look at those clothes, that skin, that thick shining hair…no doubt she’s been feeding on someone’s continuous care.

man-on-bench-alone

Pavel glanced at his own hands and pants and frowned.Look at you, dirty beggar,” he said out loud, “got to clean up and shave by tomorrow.” He studied his short, skinny legs in shabby, tucked up camouflage pants, and his heart turned over inside, spilling anguish and making him scowl.

Shave!” he mimicked himself. “What for? Why would you, dirty idiot, need to clean up? You don’t go to work, you don’t go anywhere! You can’t walk like the others, you have no feet!”

Bitter anger rolled up to his throat, hurting it, squeezing it so that he wanted to scream. Never, never again will he spring to his feet to chase a girl across a meadow, never again will he catch her or hold in his arms, never again will he carry her to a hayloft and…

Stop it! Enough! Shut up. Idiot!” To calm himself down, Pavel closed his eyes and started daydreaming. “Suppose, we will finally talk one day,” he resumed the monolog with himself. “Sure, why not? She just looked at me, didn’t she? Which means, I have hope. I would compliment her, I would tell her how much I enjoy watching her run every day. Of course, I could easily catch her when I had legs, but… All right, what will I tell her then? I mean nothing to her: just a crook from a park, a desperate, bold, silly lad, a perfect material for the war, a classical cannon fodder, so masterfully used by politicians, wasted, and thrown out of life… Aww, I’d better died on that mine! There would’ve been no anguish, no looking at her lovely legs, no bench, o park, no her… nothing!

Pavel sat for a while, studying his empty beer bottle and throwing slow glances at the turn in the end of the alley, where she had disappeared from sight a few minutes before. Why do I keep coming here every morning? I know I am not going to get her. She is a fine, elegant breed, so graceful, so perfect, so flawless, and I-

Come on, brother, admit it,” he addressed himself in full voice, “you enjoy torturing yourself by watching how she runs past you every morning, tapping on asphalt with the ease of a tennis ball, teasing you with her healthy body, killing you by the rhythm of her steps… Of course! Sitting here and pitying yourself is so easy! So much easier than pulling yourself together and making your way in the world.”

Obsessed with his monolog, he nearly missed her on her way back. When she caught up with him, he fell silent abruptly, and she suddenly slowed her pace, looked him over from head to toe, shook her head, frowned a little, and ran on without saying a word. Again, a pair of dazzling brown eyes pierced Pavel’s heart like an arrow, blocking his breath, stinging him right in the chest, making something inside him break and spill like a bottle of beer.

Pavel sighed. When the bright yellow spots of her tracksuit disappeared behind the park fence, Pavel pulled himself forward, slid off to his homemade cart, and pushed himself forward, away from the park. His ugly handmade cart, converted from an old rusty stroller, creaked and rattled at each revolution of its wry plastic wheels. Unshaven and thin, in unwashed army uniform, sweaty like hell from continuous effort, Pavel rolled down the street. He could sense how people disdained him. Guys would glance at his uniform jacket and lower their eyes as they passed, mothers held their kids, children tried to avoid running up to his cart. Alas! In the times of wars people grow self-centered. If you managed to lose your legs, this is nobody’s business, but yours! Do your best to survive, Pal. Who cares?

The cart rattled down the pavement, shaking and jumping on each asphalt crack. At the end of the block, as always, Pavel stopped to buy a new bottle of beer from a red-faced tobacco kiosk vendor. He liked this simple daily ritual, it brought trivial round into Pavel’s life. Human life is a trivial round, he was thinking as he pushed himself forward along grainy asphalt. A rich man begins his day with massage, delicious foods and ablutions, while this fat kiosk vendor is occupied with his own little chores, doing maths, summing up daily earnings, counting boxes with goods and the goods in the boxes, estimatin his monthly sales, doing tax calculations…just daily routine, repetition of actions. Everyone’s life is an endless chain of repeated actions.

What is she doing right now?” Pavel mumbled, pushing himself around a car parked on the sidewalk, “I wonder, does she have daily baths or just takes a quick shower after her run? Aww, stop it, shouldn’t think about this now.”

Breathing with effort, he entered a rough spot of gravel near the kiosk. The cart started bouncing like a young unbacked stallion. This made Pavel remember two years before, on the day he turned eighteen, when he came to the kiosk for his first legal bottle of beer. The unpaved gravel spot had already been there, he’d been wearing slippers, and his feet could clearly feel every sharp gravel edge.

Hmm, that’s funny. No feet anymore, but I still remember how it felt.”

His street had not changed very much since then. Thankfully, real war had not reached the city; it was now about a hundred miles to the east, where Pavel had seen real hell, learned about pain, loss and fear, and where his feet dressed in black army boots had remained lying in the thick grass forever. Everything had been different there, at the front line. Smells were heavy, the air was viscous and kind of dusty, full of fine metal suspension, like a different planet’s atmosphere. Now, when that hell was over for Pavel, it seemed no more than a hideous dream. The worst there was the absence of trivial round, everyone had attested for that. People tried to create the trivial round for themselves; they would find a shelter in a broken-down house, at least for a short time, they would make the place livable, find a nail in a wall, hang a towel on it: they intended to use it routinely the next morning by splashing cold water on a wind-bitten face, reaching out for the towel, like at home, putting the face into it, feeling the soft, tender cloth, and inhaling the air through the towel…If they found a bedroom, they would fall on the bed right at once, to relive awesome moments of pleasure, when your ass gently touches the featherbed, sinks into it and bounces up, thickly enveloped with its softness.

But alas! There was anything but routine at war. Once you got used to keeping your towel on that damned rusty nail, a shelling would start, so you’d run like a rabbit, saving your ass, screaming obscenities, praying for life, while something got cracked and fell right behind you, something burned, stank and smoked, flashed and pushed you to hell; something soared with blast waves and scattered in hail of ruinous fragments, something collapsed and shifted, blowing up your trivial round…and the wall, where your towel had been, would transform into jumble of stones. Then again, in a new place, in the moments of calm people found a wall with a nail, and a towel, and a bed, and restored their trivial round…at least for an hour or so.

Hu-huh, our life is a trivial round, Pavel sighed. Breaking trivial round leads only to death.

At last, Pavel’s cart reached the kiosk’s back door. He rolled up to the vendor, who was smoking right outside of his small, cluttered store. The guy’s fleshy face was morose. Pavel coughed to attract his attention, but the latter glanced up rather coldly.

Kinda windy today,” Pavel said, meaning, “Hey, be a friend, just respond for the sake of routine.”

I just lost weekly income because of this wind,” said the guy through his teeth and spat.

Why? What’s up?” Pavel asked with sincere curiosity.

See that branch? It fell down on my roof, smashed it up. Bitch.”

Really? Wow.”

Deep in his mind Pavel was happy: the dialogue worked, the vendor talked to him! A simple human talk, the thing that can overwhelm you when you have normal legs, but that is so deficient when you are a cripple.

Happen to know anybody to repair it for me?” asked the vendor.

Pavel’s eyes caught the face of his watch. Eight fifteen. She is probably having her breakfast right now, in a beautiful dining room with fantastic china and magnificent food…she also could be dressing in front of a mirror…or combing her hair…

What? Ah, wait! I can do it!” he cried, waking up. “I can fix it! You just help me to get on the roof and I’ll fix it. I did roofs in my village before the war.”

You?” The vendor glanced at him as one looks at an insect. “Come on! You’ll fall down from there. No way.”

Pavel moved himself forward. “Listen, I can do it for minimal price. Look at me, I have arms and my head is all right.” He chuckled. “Legs are of no use on the roof, anyway.”

He really needed money, but more importantly, he needed the job! It was something to make him feel useful, something to help him return to life!

Leave me alone.” The vendor waved him away. “Lame duck.”

Pavel was stunned. Come on, you think I am good for nothing? You think if I lost my feet, I can’t work with my hands?”

Listen,” the vendor’s voice became heavy. “Go away! Cripple.” He bent over some boxes with merchandise, preparing to resume his calculations.

Dumbfounded, Pavel pulled the lever, the cart dashed forward.

Cripple? You, bastard! I’ll kill you! I lost my legs protecting your fat ass there, and you–”

Pavel did not finish his sentence. Blinded by rage, he lurched forward. A beer bottle appeared in his hand, he crashed it against the door jamb, and it turned into a terrible weapon. The quick-witted vendor immediately leaped into the shelter of the kiosk, but it was too late to slam the door: Pavel had already blocked it with his cart. The cart hit the threshold, Pavel lost balance, his weapon slipped out, made a wide semicircle in the air and fell on the floor.

You crazy?” yelled the vendor, but the cart was already inside the kiosk, it hit carton boxes and pushed Pavel forward on them. Someone’s shadow soared over his head, two big hands gripped his elbows and clenched them from behind. Myriads of black dots flashed in front of Pavel’s eyes, something fell on his head, and time started creeping slowly like honey that leaks from a pot. The kiosk turned over, showing Pavel its ceiling with a big hole in it. The second blow hit Pavel’s neck, something cracked in his ears, everything became quiet, Pavel sagged, and immediately calmed down. The last thing he could hear before he fainted was the vendor’s muffled voice, “Idiot! You want to go to prison?”

* * *

The morning was gloomy. Early spring advanced on the city gradually, like a field kitchen, producing each day just a tiny portion of sunlight, yet generously giving out loads of mud, fogs, and freezing rains. The bench was wet. Pavel shivered in violent wind gusts, his fingers became swollen and red, but no force could drive him away from his observation post, because that morning, another incredible thing had happened: she’d smiled and winked at Pavel that morning!

jogger

No, she did not stop to talk to him, she ran by like she had always done, but this time she intentionally greeted him like a friend. Oh, Pavel was jubilant! He looked after her, smiling sheepishly, thinking that she was flawless, as always. Pavel’s old friend – the blue and yellow tracksuit – was gracefully twining her slender body, as if it had been tailored specifically to fondle her. With each step, smooth fabric resiliently tightened up on the one breast, then on the other, then bounced lightly together with them, and instantly flowed down and backwards to tighten again on her thighs – one, two, one, two…Oh, what a terrible effort it was not to stare at her as she ran! Pavel wished he could turn into fabric himself, to absorb the warmth of her breasts, stroke her thighs, let them go for a while and gather in folds on her waist…

When her slim, chiseled figure disappeared behind a turn, Pavel leaned back, closed his eyes, and froze in blissful oblivion, smiling to his secret thoughts, hoping to see her again on her way back in about half of an hour. This time he had nothing to do, no beer or cigarettes anymore. So he sat for a while, massaging a bump on the back of his head – a memory of the disgusting incident in the kiosk. His thoughts streamed on randomly, first reproaching him of stupidity, then accusing him of stubbornness, suggesting late answers to trivial questions, bringing up scenes from childhood, scattered visions of war, and on top of all those was her gaze: quiet, confident, even bold. It imprinted in Pavel’s memory and kept testing his mind. It bore no compassion, yet it had no reproach. He could sense no pity, no rue in her gaze, and for that – just only for that – he was grateful almost to tears. She was one of the few, who treated him as a normal man. She wasn’t the one to clatter her tongue saying, “Oh, poor boy! So young and already a cripple!” No, her gaze had the energy which Pavel lacked – the power sufficient to knock Pavel’s spleen, kick his butt, inspire him with healthy anger, and get him engaged into something worthy at last!

Just look at it plainly,” he pondered. “They chopped off one fifth of your mass. So what? You still have your head on, haven’t lost a gram of your brains. Look at your healthy hands, at your chest, at the thing in your pants – you are strong like a bull! You can’t fight anymore, that’s a fact, but you can do an abyss of jobs! You can draw, you can sell, you can learn something new. Only try!”

Pavel glanced at the end of the alley, it was time for her to run back.

Yes, I’ll do it,” he whispered, “I’ll show her! I am going to get a new life. She will see: I am strong. Yes. I can.”

He sat thinking it over for another ten minutes, and amazing new life started looking quite real. As he waited, a cold, clammy rain started drizzling, people hurried away from the park. Pavel shivered, but stayed. He leaned forward, pressed down to the bench and kept waiting, waiting stubbornly, like a lover on a small station platform, waiting faithfully, like a hungry, abandoned dog, but alas! She did not turn up on the alley that day.

* * *

She did not turn up the next morning either, and the next, and the next. Days dragged on one after another. The spring grew mature, the trees and the grass became painfully green, busy bugs started running on heated asphalt, college girls started showing their pink juicy legs, as they hurried across the park to their school, but Pavel, pathetic and lonely, kept sitting and waiting for God knows what on his bench. After two empty weeks, hope died out: he no longer believed he was going to see her again. She could’ve moved to a different place, could’ve left the city entirely. She could’ve changed her routine and be running in different places, and some other guy was probably secretly watching her as she did. Still, Pavel kept coming back to the park every morning, by habit. His days were empty and dull. No job had come up, no friends, no plans, no routine, no hope, no life.

Abandoned!” he mumbled, biting his lips. “Like a sick, scabby dog. Just a worthless, pathetic, wretched piece of– nothing. Just trash.”

Well, the end was quite close, he knew it. His money was running out, disability payments were scanty, and getting a veterans pension required lots of standing in lines, which – how funny! – required having legs. Pavel grinned as he pondered on that. Well, suppose I will get the veterans pension, then I’ll stand in a line to prove that I need and deserve a new cart – a wheelchair instead of this shameful rattle on wheels, then a new set of lines to get disability benefits as a war vet, and then…ah, to hell with that crap! It was easier simply to die. He remembered the words, “Death solves all problems – no man, no problem.” I wonder, who said that? Never mind, but boy, he was right! If I die, society will sigh with relief.

park_alley

The sun warmed his back, and he felt a bit sleepy. His stomach growled for a while, but soon stuck to the backbone and pacified, enjoying the calories of the sun. Knowing that hunger would not return until he moved, Pavel hunched, shut his eyes, and dozed off.

How old are you?”

It came from behind Pavel’s ear. He wanted to turn around and look, but didn’t. An ember of hope loomed and faded at once in his mind, replaced with sarcastic, “Calm down, you, fool! Miracles never happen!”

Still, he responded without turning around, “Twenty. Turned twenty last Monday.”

Why would he need to know who was asking? What good could come out of that conversation? Hope had misled him hundreds of times! No, I’ve had enough, he thought to himself, no more pain of false hope! People never do good to each other. If you’re crippled and still alive, it’s your problem. Count on yourself, stay alone till you die.

The question was very unusual, though. Who would care to know my age? Pavel thought, guessing whose voice it could be. It was young, very sharp, female voice. A teacher? Ah, sure, a teacher! He had seen how a group of fifth graders proceeded toward the playground. She must have returned to torture him with questions. Now, she will ask me about the war, shake her head, then call up all her class and say, “Children, look! This man is a veteran, injured at war.” Then she’ll take them away to tell them the rest of my story, because hungry, crooked, squalid soldiers can’t tell little kids about war with sufficient patriotism…

You have no right!” Pavel heard from behind.

Wow! This bitch is about to teach me here!

A fire of rage started glowing in peeved empty stomach. Pavel turned to look up.

* * *

It was her. She was standing behind his shoulder. Two bright chestnut eyes were staring directly at Pavel’s, her ravishing lips elastic and tense; they also looked angry like hell. He saw a dazzling red dress, shapely and graceful, gentle and tender, so tender that Pavel felt dizzy at once. Her perfect long legs in black shoes were graceful like hell, and her hands were covered with gloves – very thin summer gloves of a cloth, the name to which Pavel had never known.

She walked around the bench to face him…and changed all at once. She did not look tall anymore; the velvety chestnut eyes were only a little higher than Pavel’s.

Gutta-percha baby, flashed through his mind. Not an aristocrat, not at all! Looks like a gymnast, or maybe a dancer.

You have no right,” she repeated, “to sit here all days, killing your time.”

Wow, what a statement! No, not an aristocrat, I was mistaken. Rather, a teacher or…well, I don’t know, but boy, she is bossy!

Am I bothering someone here?” he asked, smiling stubbornly in her face.

Yes, you are. You are bothering me, other people, your friends, and yourself.”

Here it comes: The one who I quietly dreamed of, who I loved like the world’s biggest treasure, is standing in front of me – beautiful, perfect – and trying to tell me what I should do! Not an aristocrat, Pavel thought, not at all. There is no shadow of arrogance in her look, even more, she is trying to hide her grace, it embarrasses her…And she’s young, not older than me. A student? Yeah, maybe.

You – must be a teacher, right?” Pavel asked, to gain a few seconds of time. He was still very stressed.

No,” she said, “doesn’t matter. What matters is what will happen to you if you don’t stop sipping your beer and pitying yourself all days long.”

Her eyes continued to drill him like hell.

I haven’t had beer in weeks,” Pavel said with offense and immediately bit his lip, growing ashamed of having to justify himself.

Were you drafted into the army right after the high school?”

Pavel nodded. He was completely lost now. He could not understand why she was asking those questions, and even more – why the hell was he answering her?

Listen, what do you want?” he asked.

Have you been to the front line?” she demanded without a break.

He nodded again and sagged, feeling totally ruined; his magnificent dream, which he’d nurtured for months and for which he’d been sitting on this hateful bench, broke in no time, like a crystal cup thrown to the floor by her restive, ungrateful hand.

You were wounded, right?” she enquired, as if trying to check his answers with some information she had.

Pavel nodded again. “I stepped on a mine.”

She sat down next to him on the edge of the bench. So, what are you going to do?”

He grimaced. Here it comes again! Stupid sermons!

Nothing,” he said and fell silent. He wanted to leave.

She sat studying him for a while. Then she reached for her case and flopped it, quite awkwardly, on Pavel’s lap.I brought this for you, my old laptop. You will need it to prepare for the entrance exams. But remember, you only have time till the middle of June, so you’d better try hard. Hey, do you know how to use computer?”

Her words left Pavel stunned again.I know how to use computer, but…what makes you think you have the right to tell me what I should do?”

This is your chance. Maybe, the last one. Do you understand?”

Pavel experienced a desire to burst out and yell, but his throat got dry, he could not utter a word.

So she spoke first again.Our university has started a program for people like you and me. We’ve got to apply before May 15. I have already applied.”

Pavel grinned. For people like you and me, repeated his mind. You and me! Are you joking? What can we have in common? This bench? He turned to her sharply. “Listen, who are you? What do you want from me?”

She stood up. He sensed that he’d offended her. Her lips became thin as she said, “It seems you have difficulty understanding things today. Still, think about my offer, stir your brains. Maybe, you’ll finally grow smarter.”

Now, Pavel felt ashamed. He was nearly sick. For God’s sake, who are you?” he hissed in a threatening whisper.

The tiny black shoes shuffled over the asphalt. I recognized you at once, the very first day,” she said. “Argh, I was so enraged by your glassy eyes and your nasty beer!”

Do we know each other?”

They brought you to our hospital right after the injury, you were unconscious. I treated your wound. I’m a nurse. The next morning the hospital got shelled, and I got my portion, too.”

Pavel was still processing her words, when she moved to leave.

Okay, you may sit here and think,” she said. “You have lots of free time, but I need to work. Take a look at the laptop when you are at home. If you have any questions, give me a call, my number is there.” She nodded at the suitcase. “But please, do not sit here anymore, okay? I hate when you stare at me like a…” She paused. “Give me my umbrella.”

Not daring to disobey, Pavel handed her the umbrella, but she turned a bit awkwardly sideways and took it with her other hand. Pavel saw that her right hand was oddly motionless.

Okay, bye,” she said simply and the tiny black shoes pattered toward the colonnade. There, she turned to the right, moved her arm, the glove on her right hand slid down, and for one single moment Pavel could see the unnatural glitter of the motionless, daunting, prosthetic arm.

soldier_girl

A Break Up That Failed

he-and-she-2

Women mature sooner than men, that’s a fact! I was twenty two when I learned it. I was a silly, ambitious lad, so I think I deserved to get into the story which I am going to tell you today.

My girlfriend and I were madly in love with each other, so we decided to try living together and moved in to a tiny apartment with nothing but a table, two chairs and a huge bed, which occupied nearly all the space of the room.

After a month or two, we realized that neither of us had been prepared – all the responsibility, chores, and sacrifice, and the work made each of us focus on different things, so our romance, flirting and passion began to fade down. I could not help noticing that my girl did not love me as much as before anymore.

This troubled my mind for a couple of weeks. I walked around collecting little signs of her growing indifference. This made me quite restless, I tortured myself with suspicions and doubts, but I had no idea what to do. One evening she came home really late and said she had taken an extra job at a men’s hair salon. That was the last drop. I had to find out about her feelings for me.

The most upsetting thing was her attitude: she remained calm and confident, as if nothing had changed at all. She had always been kind of reserved and avoided talking about her feelings, but now… how the hell could I guess what she was feeling?

Well, I needed to test her, so I wrote her a letter. I wrote I was tired of living together and suggested a break. It was bullshit, of course, I never wanted a break, but how else could I check if she still loved me or not?

Well, after a day of bad doubts, I finally left that letter on her pillow, so she could easily find it as soon as she entered the room. I wanted to hear her reaction, so as soon as I heard a click at the door, I hid under the bed and started to listen.

I was hoping to hear her gasp, or probably moan, or sob, but she sat on the bed and read it in silence. There were two or three endless minutes of silence, then she reached for a pen and started to write.

She stood up, changed her clothes, brushed her hair and… murmured a song to herself! She sounded happy rather than sad or upset! I was shocked. I lay in my shelter and nearly moaned myself. I was grieving in helplessness, I cursed the idea of writing that letter, and I hated my life, where the woman I loved did not care a bit about me!

That was not the end of my torture, however. I heard how she dialed a number and all of a sudden her cheerful, excited voice said into the receiver: “Hi, darling, I’m almost ready… My stupid boyfriend? He left me, it’s over… at last! I’m coming right now. See you, darling. Bye.”

Then  she hгng up and left the apartment.

I don’t remember how I got up to my feet. I was shocked, confused, bewildered, and smashed. I walked around the bed, and there was her note on my pillow. It said:

I can see your long feet sticking out from under the bed. Please, get out. I am off to a bakery store for a moment, I will bring you your favorite pie. Boil some eggs, I am starving. Love you. Wife.

Jerry Jay Carroll

New York Times bestselling author

Words on Empty Ears

Understanding someone’s way with words isn’t as simple as you think.

The Laude Lady

My Summa Cum Lousy Life

LostSymbols

Are we broken or just exhausted?