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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Story (2)

Sitting on the couch, Barney did not hear me as I entered the apartment. He was doodling on his tablet PC with both ears plugged. He was always doing at least three things at the same time, and his compulsion for multitasking was getting worse lately.

I patted him on the shoulder, he turned around and smiled at me.

"Wow, the whole building is dark except my apartment," I pointed to a glowing rod on the desk. "I'm the envy of the whole neighborhood."

Because of a violent thunderstorm, power outage had hit many residential areas since a couple of hours ago. "Your torch is so much brighter than mine," I said.

"It has super LCD units," he shrugged. No doubt another cool toy he swiped from work or his colleagues. "It lasts for days on a couple of regular batteries."

"I hope the power outage doesn't lasts that long because I am dying for a hot shower..." I plopped myself on the couch and stretched with a deep long sigh.

"How was your date with what's his name?" He threw me a glance while continuing to tap the screen on his lap. Without electricity, he could not run his tablet and my PC at the same time.

"Robbie," I said and paused. Something in my voice alarmed him. He raised his gaze at me inquiringly. I ran both hands through my freshly permed curls and scratched vigorously and thought hard for a moment. Barney waited patiently.

"Man, you won't believe this," I said with an unconvincing chuckle. "This was the weirdest date I've ever been on." Then I told him about it.

I met Robbie at a semi-social event three months ago and went on a few dates with him. It was lukewarm at first, but we gradually warmed up to each other and began to meet more often. We had not planned to see each other tonight, but he called out of the blue and asked me to dinner. He picked me up after work and we had a quick bite at a falafel shop nearby. I suggested that I pay a visit to his office. "I have never been to a psychiatrist's office," I said. "I'm curious."

"It's pretty boring..." he hesitated for a moment, but relented at my insistence. We took metro to the downtown business district. The office buildings and streets were emptying out rapidly with the waning rush hour. Robbie took me into a boxy, featureless low-rise building. His office on the fifth floor was like one of an accountant's. The small waiting room had no receptionist, with cheap gray carpet, a couple of second-hand office chairs, and a pot of limp plant with waxy leaves in the corner. I tried not to look disappointed.

"I share it with another psychiatrist. He comes in two days a week and I three days a week." He said. He had told me before that he worked half-time and sometimes on call at a local medical center. "We are both new and don't have too many patients."

He led me through an inner door into the office and turned on the light. The room was quite large and a bit cavernous. Two of the walls were lined with wooden bookcases. A couple of framed photos, one of tropical island and another of green forest, hung on the third wall. A plush leather sofa sat in the middle of the room.

"So, your patients lie down on this and tell you everything about their madness?" I asked.

"Nah, usually they just sit here," he shook his head. "It's comfortable, and if the patient insist he can lie down, but we don't practice the Freudian analysis any more." He sat down on an office chair directly facing the sofa, a low coffee table between the sofa and the chair. "It's just like any other office. We try to encourage open dialogs."

"You need more furniture for this room. You can almost hear echoes ..." Before I finished the sentence, a lightening suddenly tore open the night sky outside the window and a thunder exploded above our heads. I jumped and reflexively threw myself into Robbie's arms. He was a large-framed and slightly chubby man and, truth be told, had a very nice embrace. Just the kind I liked.

The lights flickered and died. We were plunged into total darkness. "Looks like the whole neighborhood has lost power," I said. He did not answer. I faked being frightened and continued to hold on to him. He held on to me as well.

While contemplating a kiss and perhaps something more intimate right there on the sofa, I heard Robbie mumbling something inaudible.

"Pardon?" I looked up and, by the faint light from outside the window, I saw that he was very pale. Only then did I realize that he was slightly trembling.

"I hate the dark. I've always hated the dark." His eyes were fixed on an invisible point in the air. His voice took on a strange tone, as if he was talking to himself. He seemed to have forgotten my existence. I put my arms down and released him. He completely ignored me. Suddenly, he stood up and rushed out of the room. I stared at his shadow with disbelief.

After a moment, I groped out of the office and, with more difficulty, the windowless waiting room. Feeling my way down the hallway with one hand on the wall, I could hear Robbie's heavy and frantic steps, then a door being opened and closed. Must be the stairs, I thought, and followed the sound to find it myself. At this point I was too shocked to be angry.

Thankfully, the stairwell was not entirely dark, but rather lit by faint red "EXIT" signs on every level. When I stumbled out of the last flight of stairs and pushed the rusty door to the lobby, the first thing I saw was Robbie's broad back against the glass front door. Even from the back I could see he was shaking violently. Outside, the black sky opened a river onto the earth, spraying the pavement and the windows and doors like a thousand machine guns.

"Robbie!" I cried out to him. He turned around and gave me a strange look, as if he did not recognize me. Then he turned back, pushed open the door, and disappeared into pouring rain.

I stood with an open mouth for a long time, until the rain lessened its intensity. The power was still off, but the road lamps came back on. Now I could see the streets around the building were completely deserted. There was not a ghost within sight. I called telephone directory for the number of a taxi company, and waited for 15 minutes until a taxi came back to pick me up. By then the rain had slowed down to little more than a drizzle.

As I finished my narrative, Barney had stopped doodling on the tablet PC and was listening to me intently, his legs folded up on the couch like a monk.

"Just don't say 'I told you so'." I said gravely. "Because I'm not in the mood to beat you up." This was only half a joke, as Barney had always been a small and skinny kid. In elementary school, I had rescued him a few times from bullies, for which he would forever owe me a debt.

"No, that's not what I was thinking," he said thoughtfully. "This sounds strange, very strange. You never suspected he was ... uh, a little off?"

"No! And you know how sensitive I am to fruitcakes," I grunted. "For three full months he seemed perfectly normal. Never said or did anything odd ..."

"One could hypothesize, for example, that he might have had a traumatic childhood memory or something about darkness," Barney winked and joked, "but I'm no psychiatrist." His tone turned serious. "If you see him again, I'd like to meet him as well."

"Hmph, fat chance for that," I snorted, suppressing a shudder as I remembered watching him being swallowed by the gigantic sheets of rain, which glowed in the blackness of the night. For an instance I thought that I would never see him again, that he had walked into another dimension.

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