[ADVENTURE OF ZERO]
If you are afraid of the wolf, don’t go into the forest, says an old Russian proverb. Dawn repeated this saying many times during the day, feeling as if it gave meaning to her every movement. She whispered it as she deleted yet another phone message from her ex; said it out loud as she tripped on one of the boxes she had not yet managed to unpack after her move to the house on the shore; and louder still as she took from the closet, gaping like an open mouth, a black skirt and blouse – the clothes she chose to wear tonight. If you are afraid of the wolf… Dawn stopped mid-phrase. Passing by the mirror in the entrance hallway, she caught sight of a woman with pallid face and unruly dark hair who seemed to stare back at her suspiciously: “Who is this wolf? Where is this forest? And what was she so afraid of?” She straightened her back, raised her head and voice and tried a new tone: If you are afraid of the wolf, you should go through the forest… At that moment, a different Dawn appeared in the mirror: the crease between her two brown eyes and critical eyebrows became deeper; her glance took on a new decisiveness, softening the malaise that had taken up residence in her face these last few years. She smiled, and a web of wrinkles bunched at the corners of her eyes; her face glowed with inner bliss. She had the urge to share this with someone, but there was no one else at home – no one inside her. . She forced that thought aside and, winking at her reflection, addressed her doubting self: We’ve done it; we’ve made it this far, to point zero. In a few hours, we’ll have gotten past it, and we’ll have all the time in the world to ourselves. She checked the date on the calendar and put three exclamation marks beside it in red pen; she looked at her faintly trembling hands and commanded them to stop. Then, she picked up a notepad that was lying on the table. She tore off the first page, covered with her handwriting, and after scanning it hurriedly,” decided it was useless; she angrily balled it up and tossed it into the already full wastebasket. Pages filled with her tiny letters, all slanting to the right; letters in a fragile balance, stuck to each other as if ready to collapse if left alone. “Your handwriting reveals an introvert with an artistic inclination,” a graphologist had once remarked to her. “Introverted character, artistic, possibly risk-seeking” he had added, laughingly completing his diagnosis, and Dawn, at a loss for words, had awkwardly shrugged her shoulders and laughed too.
She took the notebook in her hands again, tore out another page and tossed it into the wastebasket: yet another failed attempt. Maybe her introversion was to blame. “You need the wolf in order to show your teeth,” she would say to him if he were here now. She emptied the wastebasket into a black garbage bag. Dozens of pages with her daily “Instructions to self”: lists and observations for survival. Everything she had written today was useless. Her mind was elsewhere: In the forest.
It was the end of March, but for Dawn it seemed like August. The absence of noise, the absolute silence of the house, the mute telephone and the deserted rooms: everyone was somewhere else, and she came here to this unfamiliar space in order to confront her fears.
If you are afraid of the wolf, don’t go into the forest – her mother had reminded her of this saying early in the morning in the only phone call she had received today, when Dawn was about to tell her how difficult it was living on her own. In between wishes and bits of advice, mother didn’t forget to add that Dawn was now thirty-six years old and didn’t have any time to lose.
“What are you talking about, Mum? I’m here trying to concentrate,” she protested.
“Well, that’s not the way to do it. Your real life is here. In London. People do not escape everything in order to ‘concentrate’. You were doing fine here,” she insisted, and Dawn detected once again, the voice she adopted whenever she tried to persuade herself, rather than someone else. Her mother had, by nature, a depressive temperament, and after her father’s death, she now made no effort to hide the fact.
Dawn should close up the house, give it to a real estate agency and come back; she shouldn’t stay all alone in such a big place. If she rented it, she would have a tidy little income. Thirty-six years old today she reminded her, as if she could forget: “It’s so sad that you’re alone on your birthday!”
“I’m not alone, Mum,” she protested, but that was a lie – she was profoundly alone, but this time she was determined she would make it work; she would be creative. She would not be afraid. The conditions helped; they were ideal in fact. She took several books from one of the boxes and placed them on an empty shelf; found the photograph of her father and placed it on the mantelpiece. Perhaps the only person who had ever understood her; he would have seen the reason why she was alone in this house today. But now, there was no way for him to know that. He was gone forever, by his own hand. All by himself he had decided how his story would end. Five years had passed, and Dawn still hurt. She still saw him in her dreams, explaining again and again things to her; she saw his lips moving, his hands gesturing along with his words, but she couldn’t hear what he was saying. She couldn’t hear but understood everything; she sensed his secrets – all he had failed to confide in her while he was still alive.
She looked around at all the boxes piled in various corners of the house and thought that she really ought to unpack them in the next few days.
Standing in front of the desk, she took the paper-cutter in her hands. The touch of the cold metal startled her.
A human hand, a touch, the warmth of flesh, she thought and became even more flustered. From the time she had arrived here, her thoughts never stopped upsetting her. As did her reflection every time she saw herself in the mirror.
A few days ago, she had taken the car for a drive, and a Pakistani at the traffic lights started to wash her windshield. When she stretched out her hand to give him a coin, he touched her by mistake. Dawn withdrew her hand abruptly. The touch upset her as if it had been the paper-cutter, and suddenly she understood the nature of human flesh: soft, weak, vulnerable.
She passed again in front of the gaping closet and looked at her dresses hanging there as if different versions of herself. Everything in readiness, waiting to envelop her flesh. One of these versions would accompany her to where she planned to go this evening.
Today marked the official beginning of Spring. On just such a festive day thirty-six years ago, she, herself had come into the world. This number was engraved on her mind, and it involved a prophecy. Thirty-six. At one time, such prophecies had provoked a sense of awe, but now she felt only curiosity, and because of the touch – terror. The intrusion of another realm. Touches, prophecies that had always intrigued her.
A day before the episode with the Pakistani, she found herself outside McDonald’s in Glyfada. She was about to put some coins into the outstretched hand of a Gypsy woman holding a child, when she grabbed her hand. Again, the touch startled her.
“Give me a little something more, and I will read your palm!”
She didn’t like people predicting her future. She didn’t believe in such things. She yanked her hand away, paused for a moment in front of the woman, and then took to her heels.
Years ago, someone had read her palm.
But the lines change.
Fate changes as well.
It changes if we change.
But you never know… Nothing can be proven.
Tonight, however, she would prove, or disprove, that particular prophesy.
When the phone rang late in the afternoon, in the quiet of her house, she thought she heard the roar of a wild beast, and when her ex started to leave another message on her answering machine she felt a sense of relief at having left that particular wolf in the past…
She deleted his message, repeated the proverb out loud, as if in reply to his wishes, and tripped on one of the boxes scattered about the floor. In less than an hour, she received another call. It was her sister Eleanna; she remarked that women over thirty-five who live alone become strange – and that today she really ought to get out and celebrate. She told her how Stefanos, her ex, had been asking about her, and Dawn avoided telling her that he had just called.
“We’re worried about you; are you going to manage all by yourself?”
“I’m fine. I’ll do just fine.”
“Really? And what do you know about…” Eleanna left the sentence hanging. “Anyway, happy birthday, and please take care,” she added before hanging up.
What did she know about… She didn’t really; but neither did the others. They had simply learned how to hide it. But all alone, you can’t hide. Your weaknesses all come to the surface. And your strengths too.
She looked at her fingers again, stretched them with force and then clenched them into two fists as if warming them up, getting them ready. Now they weren’t trembling. She put the paper-cutter in its place and the notebook in the drawer of her writing desk.
She stood in front of the mirror, highlighted her lips in red, put on eye-liner and mascara and pinned up her disobedient hair. She put on black pumps and her black leather jacket. Then, she took some cash, tucked it in the inner pocket of her purse and locked the front door, leaving behind fears and superstitions.
Tonight was her birthday, and she was going to the seaside casino at Loutraki.
I am not afraid of the wolf, and I will walk in the forest, declared Dawn’s determined gait as she stepped over the threshold, in the “Temple of Fortune” with the conviction that, yes, she herself might become the wolf and drown the fear which lay coiled inside her for years. This fear had taken root long ago following a prediction that tonight, the day of her thirty-sixth birthday – on the 21st of March and the Spring Solstice – would be her last. Unofficially, she was going to celebrate her survival and refutation of an arbitrary prediction which had slipped easily from the thin dark lips of an Indian stationmaster in London, when she was just nineteen years old.
For several years now, on her birthday, she had the ritual of going to a casino, wherever she happened to be. Before she would start placing, however, she would look at the hands of the players and make her predictions, without even looking at their faces. Usually, her guesses were accurate; hands tend to betray us.
Tonight, she sat at the edge of a relatively empty table. Watching, seemingly aloof, the players’ addiction, passions that were alien to her. An indifferent bystander, sometimes she would look at the numbers, sometimes at the hands, and concentrated before deciding to place her own bet.
If you are afraid of the wolf, don’t go into the forest, because if you go down that road you also become a wolf, prey to your own self with the perversion of a predator that hungers for its own flesh – “a voluntary drowning”. She halfway voiced this thought and was probably overheard, since the croupier turned and shot her a probing look. The temperature of the room was constant: the digital thermometer on the back wall read 74°F. She undid the top button of her blouse and lightly rubbed the muscles at the nape of her neck, as if she wanted to recall something which eluded her. Control. Self-control? Dawn was a woman who, in the absence of someone else, had taken on the task of controlling herself.
“Modern-day gold-diggers go to casinos,” a middle-aged gambler in a European metropolis had once told her. “Only there can you mine for gold, no longer on new continents!” And tonight, among the pulsing lights and high-pitched sounds, as she was looking at the “one-armed bandits,” Dawn recalled this comment while looking at the flashing panels: to the rear, “The Treasures of Atlantis”– treasures which are never discovered, well hidden behind mathematical axioms – and on the right “The Spoils of the World” in full swing. The world has been conquered, looted and handed over to the fortunate. To the modern day gold-diggers of inner spaces. To the modern-day, amateur gold-diggers. The lucky ones win and then throw away their profits, gambling uncontrollably. Greed is a deadly sin. Gold-diggers have paid for it. Even today, anyone seeking adventure in inner spaces pays dearly. “Adventures in Inner Spaces.” A fine title for a book, maybe even for her own. Besides, this is why she had come to Greece. She laughed at her own acrobatic thoughts, and the croupier once again turned and looked at her. If she could ignore the line separating the generally acceptable and the generally unacceptable, she would say to him: “I am a gold-digger of enclosed and inner spaces; I’m spying on other people’s risk!”
She undid another button, steadied her leg, which jumped nervously every time the roulette ball came to rest, and focused on the numbers. Her glance was riveted on number thirty-six. To bet or not to bet? She clenched the markers in her hand. That fatal number. Her own ground-zero. She had already reached it and she would shortly be over it.
The prospect of proving the prophecy false excited her. Her cheeks blushed, and she felt her hair tingling with electricity. She took a bobby pin out of her bag and fastened several errant strands. And yet here inside, in this place of extreme risk, she felt safe. She had survived. She had made it this far. She recalled the incident, but now the image had lost its power; had faded.
She was just nineteen when an Indian stationmaster in London, at the moment of handing him her ticket, fixed his gaze on her hand, bent forward slightly and whispered in her ear, while the aroma he gave off – curry and aftershave – disarmed her: “Wait! Do you have five minutes? I want to see your life lines.”
Before Dawn could protest, he took her aside, looking around like a spy, and led her beside the nearby pay phones and photo booth, which was full of garbage, used condoms, torn and rejected photographs. He had her sit inside the booth, with its deactivated camera, while he stood just outside. Bending down over her hand and with his two dark eyebrows, knit together in solemn concentration, he announced, as if making a prophecy, among other unbearable future events that Dawn couldn’t remember, how on her thirty-sixth birthday she would undergo a lesson of life, something “like” death. “Death” he repeated, fixing her with an ominous stare – and the “like” faded with the years from her memory, and the final number thirty-six was engraved in her mind like a black milestone; “I’m going to die young,” she would say when overwhelmed by life, and “No, I will resist,” whenever her spirits were high. “What right did a random stationmaster have; what gave that idiot the right to put such ideas in my head? He just wanted an audience; he wanted volunteers to help him restore his self-confidence, which had been stolen and humiliated by the colonizers!” Why was it Dawn’s fault that his country had been colonized? Why was it her fault that his people had grown accustomed to bowing and scraping and saying “yes, madam” in such servile manner? The wretch had found Dawn to terrorize, to take revenge in his underhanded way; because that is how the terrorized and downtrodden get their revenge. By guile, by telling her that on her thirty-sixth birthday she would meet with something “like death.” The years passed, and since thirty-six seemed so far away from nineteen, for the first decade at least, she wasn’t preoccupied with the prophecy but saw it as a kind of distant limit. Like a point lost in the depths of time, which concerned her, but which she preferred to forget; as she had forgotten that “like,” thus giving death a literal meaning. . And now she had actually reached that limit. Freshly arrived from Britain, filled with other kinds of superstitions and prejudices, along with several small but carefully concealed expectations.
Time does that too; it continually gives birth to new delusions, new hopeful “likes” – the only way we can bear it.
“There is a lot of material for you here.” With her markers still clenched in her hand and slightly dizzy from the constant alternation of hands, faces and numbers, Dawn turned and found standing behind her a strange woman of indeterminate age wrapped in a large black cape in a place where the temperature was a steady 74°F. The woman was looking at her with moist eyes and unsmiling face – “like” a theatrical mask.
“Material?” Dawn asked, and turned her whole body to face her. She didn’t seem entirely unfamiliar; she had surely seen her somewhere before…
The mask suddenly broke like an eggshell, and a knowing smile spread across her face. “This is where you will find what you’re looking for… I’ve told you this; the things you’re looking for are in stations, clubs and casinos. I’ve told you this before… now you have to take action. Your time has come!” – and before Dawn had a chance to ask her what she meant and to find out when and where they had met before, the woman turned away and was quickly lost in the crowd. A lot of strange people come here, she thought, each for different, strictly personal reasons. And I am one of them.
This thought was interrupted by the smell of cheap cologne, which obliged her to move her chair a little. An elderly couple came and stood next to her; together they bent over the numbers. Their heads seemed identical; the man and woman each had exactly the same haircut and obviously shared the same color shampoo… Economy? Identification? Who knows? They bet their few markers, lost them in two turns of the roulette wheel, and the woman announced bossily, as if talking to her son, “Takis, let’s go! We’ll miss the bus.” They left the table together, their steps synchronized.
Dawn shifted a little now that she had more space, signaled the waiter to bring her something to drink and this time tried to concentrate on the game, which had started to heat up. The repeated crackling of the ball, the slapping of markers on wood, the incoherent tumult of the crowd, the incomprehensible whispers mixed with protests, the clinking of drinks carried by silent waiters and the “No more bets” of the croupier – a universal expression – brought her back to the present.
Now and then, she tugged on her black skirt which opened in the front and left uncovered her long, slender legs – “scrawny” as a passing lover had once called them. They appeared even thinner and unnaturally pale through her tights, and Dawn wondered why on such a day she had chosen to wear black, why she had dressed “like” a widow.
In a little while, the intensity of the game turned faces to stone and hunched the bodies, while the continuous exclamations of joy and disappointment drew her out of her reverie. Casting her eye around the table, sometimes she let it rest on the fixed gazes, sometimes on the manicured nails and on the markers clutched between fingers; it was as if she suddenly found herself in front of a tableau vivant by a painter of unknown identity and demonic inspiration. In this gallery, the subject of the paintings was constantly changing…
Afterwards, her gaze fastened on the “fatal board” with its numbers, final and irrevocable, which showed the numbers that had already won and which several customers hurriedly wrote down on pieces of paper, desperately hoping for their reappearance. Nature was completely absent; there were no windows, no clocks; it was a world totally enclosed, artificial, a world specifically made for getting lost. A still-life, with poisonous adrenalin. Adrenalin. Yes, she knew that drug very well; she was used to it; it was her poison. .
Dawn took her time before betting, keeping an eye on number thirty-six, which hadn’t come up for as long as she had been sitting at the end of the table, also keeping an eye on the impatient croupier, who occasionally turned and looked at her with a disapproving expression. Since she wasn’t betting, why did she stay there? What was she waiting for?
She didn’t know what she was waiting for. The dance of the hands on the green table with its numbers completely absorbed her attention. The hands must be affected by what they touched before they came here, thought Dawn, observing the gnarled hands, deformed by arthritis, belonging to a regal looking old woman – who came and sat beside her, who began to bet shamelessly and then lost calmly – but also by what they touch afterwards. The way these hands raked the table, spreading markers over its entire surface, reminded her of octopuses with rings. Have there been studies, Dawn wondered, on the reaction of hands with relation to the objects they touch? Human hands have to touch everything: that’s their mission and apprenticeship in life. It’s one thing to touch babies, another to touch money or garbage.
Her own hands in front of the roulette wheel started to tremble again, and for that reason she kept them crossed. Between them her markers were placed, markers of one hundred, as always – she never wore rings in the casino in order not to appear superstitious. That’s how it was tonight as well: she discreetly removed from her purse a portion of her cash and exchanged it for black markers of one hundred. Exchanging money for plastic markers is like exchanging reality for a fantasy, she had read somewhere. Isn’t that what people do all the time? Pay for a fantasy? They pay for a performance; and give whatever they have. Markers, entrance fee. She held them tightly in her naked hands. A little while earlier, when she had left them uncovered on the green felt, a man approached and asked her teasingly: “You’re playing with markers of a hundred?” while the ball was circling and its urgent, imperious rattling filled her ears.
“What?” she asked distractedly, raising her head from the table.
“The years of your solitude will be more.”
She caught the Garcia Marquez reference and turned to smile at him. The man had leaned over, bringing his face so close to her own that it almost filled her vision.
He then drew back suddenly, and before Dawn could record his features, he commanded her: “Put your markers on red, and avoid the black. It doesn’t suit you!”
With that, he quickly returned to a table nearby.
Dawn did what he told her, and shortly before the croupier announced his “No more bets,” she placed all of her markers on red – and it came up red. Then, she put all of her money on number thirty-six. This also came up on the board, but only after a spectacular repeat. The first time, the ball leapt out of the wheel, jumped high into the air, circled the table and stopped on her number. Everyone laughed. But she remained calm, again placed her markers on thirty-six and closed her eyes. In a little while, she heard the croupier whisper; the intensity of his voice evaporated. Even the most cold-blooded executioners fear such twists of fortune. She opened her eyes, saw thirty-six blinking on the black board and let out a sigh of relief.
The Indian stationmaster was wrong, his prediction false. Fortune smiled on her tonight. There was life; there was time.
His name was Argyris – that’s how he introduced himself when he approached her again. His name in Greek, “silver”. He didn’t ask her name. No questions. He just looked at the stacks of markers arranged in front of her, and, bending slightly, told her – as if giving information to a colleague – that he was playing at the adjoining roulette table. If she wanted, perhaps later they could have a drink, he would wait for her at the bar, he said, gesturing somewhere toward the back of the room. Dawn, re-buttoning her blouse, shook her head; she wasn’t interested in making acquaintances in such places; in places where every encounter has a gambling aura about it.
She cast a fleeting glance at him from a distance. A herald. Isn’t that what they call those who bear messages and prophecies? Prophecies which, if you were in a position to interpret, could change your life. Why was this happening to her tonight? Why were strangers approaching her with incoherent messages and warnings? First, there was that woman with the mask-like face who advised her to frequent stations, clubs and casinos – and now this guy. Could it be something to do with how she was dressed, her posture – or was it something else? Could it be her body language? She had controlled the trembling of her hands, and she had managed to tame her wild hair; with a second bobby pin she had restrained the electricity emanating from her head, but not so with her right foot, which jumped occasionally and lightly struck the fragile leg of the old woman next to her; the one with the blue-dyed bun of hair, with eyes dancing angrily behind wire-rimmed glasses, and her octopus-fingers. Surely, she must be close to a hundred.
Dawn looked around for the guy who had brought luck to her table, and then turned to the woman next to her. “Thirty-six hadn’t come up in such a long time…” The old woman didn’t appear to have heard her. She had “painted” the table with her pink chips, betting on almost all the numbers. Her face was furrowed like a map crammed with roads and contour lines. There was no more room in this landscape for additional roads; not a single spot remained unmarked. Dawn heard her murmuring and saw her moving the unnatural red smudge covering her nonexistent lips – something about calling her driver to come and bring her the money she had entrusted to him. No, she never brought it all with her. She trusted the driver – herself, no, she whispered with exaggerated secretiveness, leaning over toward her as if she was confessing to having arranged a sex date. Dawn held her foot in check so it wouldn’t leap up and strike her again. “You did exactly the right thing…”
She craned her neck again, looking for the other stranger. As soon as she spotted him, her eyes fixed on his forehead, on a dark mark exactly in the center. “He has the third eye,” she noted to herself, and afterwards, despite the distance, saw his eyes returning her attention with a riveting look. Penetrating eyes, they look at you as if viewing a summary of your entire life; he read you in a glance, a glance which said: “I know you; I know you and your kind, I know your next move and the one after that, and if I bet on you. I’m bound to win. You are easy, so predictable.”
Dawn hadn’t had time to figure out his game or study his hands for clues, to learn something about him from his mechanical moves and gestures – not that it mattered, he was an unknown, and an unknown he would remain. Dawn didn’t want to get involved with strangers tonight. She had made it this far in avoiding old and ominous predictions.
Dawn had been driven to this casino on her thirty-sixth birthday by an old superstition and had met a man who introduced himself as Argyris, even though the very next day he was going to take it back; to take back his name.
Tonight, however, she stayed and played. All evening in the same place, next to the roulette wheel, until her birthday belonged to the past. In a short period of time, she had increased her winnings, her self-confidence and her conviction that superstitions exist merely to be disproved. The “like death” was disproved. Her victory was clear, absolutely clear. At exactly a quarter past one, according to her own watch, she headed toward the exit, having won a considerable amount of money with little effort, with no thought at all, convinced that, from this point forward, she was making a new beginning, starting a new cycle. She felt a warm wave spreading inside her – joy is a warm feeling. She had to find a way to hang on to this feeling. Before her, a new year. Thirty-six: the last number on the roulette wheel. She shook her head, pushing aside the thought that thirty-seven doesn’t exist. There is, however, the fateful zero – wherever you may bet, there is a chance it might appear and nullify you in a split second.