Replacement of Woes

by Tatyana Dobreva

A soft rumble broke loose from the overhead clouds, giving way to bristles of rain. Each drop, a remnant of a primordial soup. 

Confident in stride, a young raven-haired woman approached the entrance of an obsolete brick building. She kept her hands behind her back, concealing the trembling of her hands.

"I am here to speak with Boris Ludwig," stated the woman, post-knock.

"Elena Lial," greeted a calm voice. An old, tall man emerged at the entrance. He gently nodded his head, welcoming her inside. 

Elena sat in the chair furthest from the door. Boris sat across her on the couch and positioned a small notepad on his lap.

"Elena, in your brief letter you remarked that standard, non-invasive therapy has failed you. Why is that?" 

"I am impatient. I believe if I embrace my impatience instead of withering away in complacency, I am more likely to find a solution. Even if I fail, it will at least be interesting," boldly replied Elena, avoiding Boris’s gaze. 

A dimly lit lamp illuminated her soft facial features, further unveiling the disquieted and stormy expression.

"Are you aware that this is an irreversible and life-altering treatment, Elena?" asked Boris, attempting to hold her gaze.

"Everything is a life altering decision. Just a matter of magnitude. I left documents waiving your responsibility over my well-being at the door. Let us get to it," responded Elena.

"What are you looking for?" asked Boris calmly. 

"I believe human suffering is essential, as you have also said in our previous exchanges. However, we do not choose how we suffer. I suffer from an insecurity which blinds me from seeing beyond my petty problems. I feel myself drowning in my addiction for self-validation from others. I feel blind to the world around me," explained Elena with tension in her voice. Her facial muscles tightened and she sniffed.

"What do you wish to suffer from, instead?" Boris inquired.

"An ache that has an otherworldly sense to it. A pain which only a few could comprehend. Something that gives me a sense of perspective," answered Elena vaguely, as miniscule drops of sweat broke out on her forehead.

"If I told you that I cannot provide you with this treatment, what would you do then?" pressed Boris. 

Elena began to lose her composure. She was a master at emotional shields in her social circle, yet Boris was not someone she could easily deceive. He was the surgeon of the psyche and in order to deliver results, he had to understand the core of her agony better. 

"I did not plan for that. This is my last desperate measure," she replied with a regretful expression.

Boris sat in silence for a minute, his fingers resting on each other near his chin. He closed his eyes.

“Do you have a significant other?” continued Boris, breaking out of his calm.

Elena sighed, shuffling in her seat. Her discomfort grew. 

“Roman. He is not aware I am doing this. I prefer you keep it that way.” 

“How is he related to your suffering?” Boris pressed on, aware of the significant uptick in Elena’s anxiety.

She leaned forward and focused on her feet. 

“Without saying a word or doing anything wrong by me, he amplifies my suffering. Roman is serene, accomplished, and patient. He encourages me to seek treatment, to fix myself. He reminds me of my empty achievements to validate my sense of worth. He reminds me how incredibly clever I am and how my failure to control my complex will lead to a road of unfulfilled potential. He is not wrong, yet in my eyes he lives his life too much by the book. I have never really seen him struggle with anything. The gentle eloquence in his voice that once had me spellbound has turned into the sound of nails on the chalkboard,” explained Elena, exhaling her frustration. 

“And what of others?”

“Boris--I could blame others for the many ways I wish I was not. I do not seek to change those around me. Believe me, I have tried. If I can see my world from another perspective, they too would have a different influence on me. I cannot, nor do I desire to, change the people around me. Just myself,” replied Elena defensively. 

Elena closed her eyes and slid down in her chair slightly. Boris watched her, architecting a fitting sorrow for his patient.

"What do you suffer from, Boris?" Elena asked, to prevent herself from slipping further into her mind.

“I enjoy watching things fall into chaos. From the simplest things like a cup of tea shattering on the floor, to people’s lives being torn into pieces. I, however, can never cause such chaos and enjoy it simultaneously. It has to be another that breaks the cup. Knowing I architected the chaos brings me a sense of restlessness. I can only put things together, perfectly and delicately,” replied Boris.

Elena nodded, feeling grateful that she could cause chaos without it being a haunting burden for her. 

"Is that the burden you were born with or a burden you engineered for yourself?” she inquired.

“It is a woe my dear friend designed for me. I accepted the surgery for it ecstatically. I remain satisfied with it to this day,” smiled Boris, reminiscing of a cherished memory.  “Do you wish to know what I have in mind for you?” asked Boris.

“Will I know it worked if I say no?” 

“Yes. It is akin to hating strawberries in childhood and loving them in your adulthood. You no longer experience the hatred, yet you remember you had it. This will be a similar experience,” answered Boris while getting up and opening a locked cabinet. 

“Then I do not wish to know., stated Elena as she watched Boris pull out a small rectangular box. She closed her eyes and waited in anticipation, flashing unpleasant memories of her burden to assure her decision. 

A pinch on her neck prompted Elena to open her eyes. Her vision began swimming and she saw the distant candle on Boris’s table turned into a vortex of orange and blue swirls. 

Elena dreamt that she was following Boris through a succession of doors. She could not keep track of which door she had originally entered through. It was as though she was traveling through an Escher painting. At some point, she lost track and succumbed to the weakness in her knees. She wasn't certain whether Boris was there anymore. Exhaustion blanketed her as she watched tiny droplets of blood evaporating through the pores of her skin. 

#

 

Elena felt a tap on her shoulder. Upon waking, she found herself on the same couch that Boris had sat on when they’d chatted earlier. Probing for physical signs of the intervention, she felt a small, stitchless lesion at the back of her head. 

"How do you feel, Ms. Lial?" asked Boris.

"Fine. How long has it been, Boris?" 

"A day has passed. The rain ceased." He looked out the window while lighting a cigar. A thin, crescent reflection of the moon was visible on Boris’s glasses. 

Elena watched swirls of smoke coming off the burning tip of Boris’s cigar. She followed a ribbon of air particles into his mouth and imagined the incendiary puff warming his aged lungs.

“Elena, you are fit to depart. If you do experience any of the physical side-effects outlined on my pamphlet here, please give me a call.” Boris handed her a small folded paper. She tucked it into a pocket of her gothic coat. 

Elena gathered her belongings and headed out, leaving an envelope at the entrance. 

#

 

On her way to the train, Elena overheard the distorted sound of a creek flowing nearby. Though she did recognize features reminiscent of water, what she heard conjured up an image of rusty, metallic threads rubbing against each other. A pressure band formed around her head and the cacophony made her limbs restless. Only a few lights illuminated the streets, forcing her to rely mostly on hearing to make it to the source of the sound. Despite the discomfort, she wanted to experience the dissonance that she suspected to be Boris’s design.

The stars had not yet been hidden by the sun. Elena concentrated on the Northern star as she sat down on the hard, chilly mud of the stream bank. She recalled summer nights of her teenage years, lying out on a grassy field, a fresh breeze flowing over her face, mind lost to senses of the moment. This time, the stars twinkled in what appeared to be a coordinated dance. Her eyes darted from one point of light to the next, attempting to discern the hidden message within the dance, precluding her from experiencing the tranquility of the moment. Her stomach began to ache. To escape the discomfort, Elena pulled out a notebook from her bag and marked a dot each time she saw a star twinkle. Roughly three pages of her notebook were filled before she stopped. She looked down at her paper. Each marked an occlusion of light. The signal shifted in and out of rhythm. Twinkle. She imagined Earth's moving atmosphere. Twinkle. A stream of air currents paved a new path. Twinkle. Something dispersed the clouds. Pause. The steering winds wrapped and twisted around a rotating sphere. Shift. A spinning sphere wobbled slightly, back and forth, on a moving disk. Spin. Hurtling eddies of celestial objects...

Her train of thought was interrupted by the rising sun as it penetrated the sky with its photonic arms. They touched Elena and left vanishing shadows of warmth on her skin. 

At her feet she watched a little frog hop its way into the creek water. Elena removed her shoes and stepped barefoot into the cold stream. She watched the water flow around her foot, taking mental snapshots from above. It was all the same body of water, yet the pattern of flow around her foot changed slightly with every passing moment. She imagined she was in a crowded city, among its many citizens running past her towards something exciting. She wondered where they came from and why each one of them took a different path. She made her way upstream. The river got wider until she reached a tall waterfall. She felt frustrated that she could not go above the waterfall. 

Elena’s thoughts drifted from the waterfall to the melting caps of snowy mountains from which the water had come. From the mountains to the sun that melts its white caps. She imagined the solar system as a frisbee, flung by the spiraling arms of the Milky Way. She was frustrated by her inability to examine the lifecycle of galaxies, feeling constrained by the temporal scale of her organic body.

On her way home, Elena stopped at the grocery store, drawn in by the scents of freshly baked goods. She also felt a strange urge to be around people, attributing it to her curiosity to test her new woe. 

#

She grabbed a muffin and headed straight for the check-out line. Just ahead of her stood an elderly woman, long gray hair tucked into a bun and wearing a cozy scarf, holding a bundle of lottery tickets. 

“Excuse me, ma’am,” Elena inquired of the stranger. “A bit of an odd question, I suppose, but you seem to be an avid player. Do you have any idea how they determine who wins these things?” 

The wrinkles on the woman’s face became more pronounced as she processed Elena’s question.

“Well, they are random. No one really determines them. Just a matter of luck whether you get the winning number or not. Now, where they get you, is that buying more of these increases your luck,” chuckled the elderly woman, entertaining Elena’s playfulness.

“But something generates that random number and that process is not random,” responded Elena. 

“Well, they probably just use some sort of machine to do it…”

“Yes, but how do they ensure that something engineered is really generating something random?”

“I am not sure, m’am. I haven’t really thought...”

“Do you think the lottery designers link up the machines to some process that is not well understood to humans and feed some observed metric from that process as a seed to generate the so-called random numbers? But when we do understand the mysteries of that process - it will no longer be a random thing and we cannot use it to seed these random number generating machines. And this will continue endlessly,” Elena said, raising her voice with each thread of realization. 

“I will probably be dead by then, dear,” replied the woman indifferently. 

“Does it not bother you that someone is engineering an illusion of luck for you? That at every step a perpetrator constructs the fate of the subsequent perpetrator,” Elena pressed on.

“As long as I am not willing to go down that rabbit hole, no. It’s all the same practically speaking and I am quite fine with that,” she replied. 

“I cannot fathom feeling that now,” said Elena, looking down at the floor, a distant expression blanketing her face.

“I am sorry,” the woman replied kindly, turning her attention to the cashier. 

Elena smiled.

She took a long and silent train ride home, happily plagued by her obsession with resolving the multitude of patterns on the tapestry of her handkerchief. 

#

 

As Elena approached her apartment, she saw Roman in a dark brown coat sitting on the front steps t, his ashen-haired head turned toward the ground. 

She paused and noticed that she felt no anxiety or irritation about him being there. She hadn’t really thought about him since the surgery, and now felt a tingle of excitement at the idea of speaking with him. 

Upon noticing her, Roman stood up, his eyes wide at first, then squinting. 

“Elena--how is your friend? Is he feeling better?” asked Roman, observing her intently.

Elena watched Roman’s eyes--restless pupils searching for a clear sign of change in his beloved. She looked up at the sky, empty of clouds. Devoid of deterministic patterns begging to be decrypted. Empty of a distraction. She walked over to the steps and took a seat, and Roman sat beside her.

“I did not visit an ill friend. I do not even have a friend that is currently ill,” she said, enjoying the freedom of speaking the plain truth.

Elena watched Roman’s face. He held her gaze for just a moment before turning away to cling to the safety of something mundane in the distance. She imagined for a second what must be going through his mind, and felt a rising desire to dissect his inner workings. She swept it aside before it overtook her, fearing the emotionless state that came with her new mindset.

“You must have your reasons for not telling me where you went. There is something different about you, though. I feel it. It saddens me that I did not earn your transparency,” said Roman, turning to her, eyes melancholic. 

Elena pulled out a folded paper from her pocket and put it in Roman’s hand, closing his fingers gently around it. 

She watched Roman read Boris’s pamphlet describing the services he offered. When he had finished reading it, Roman stared at the pamphlet’s cover . 

Elena was prepared for him to express anger, to analyze her decision and walk her through the consequences, even to leave. Yet, he continued to sit there, forcing her to hold back her urge to dissect him a little longer.

“Will you give me a chance to get to know the new Elena?” asked Boris, voice quivering.

Despite feeling a constant dread brought on by obsessive observations of determinism, Elena was pleasantly surprised by his question. It was her chance to experience someone in a whole new light.

“I would like that.”