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The Collectors

by Mileva Anastasiadou

I was only thirteen years old when I first heard of David. I was looking forward to meeting him on the night of the awards ceremony. His was the only painting that had beaten mine at the national young painters contest. In my teenage mind, he was not only a competitor but also my other half.

I never doubted that he deserved the first-place award. On the theme of a “dream house,” I had painted a simple little cottage by the sea. His dream house was completely different: a castle so high that the roof was shadowed by the clouds, rich in colors and context. I was sure, back then, we would somehow complete each other. My low self-esteem would be ignited by his ambitious nature.

To my disappointment, he did not attend the awards ceremony. His mother showed up instead, to get the award. Was he too shy to make an appearance? Was he protecting his talent from exposure?

His mother completely ignored me when I introduced myself. I felt devastated. I didn’t know it yet, but she was a collector, too busy searching around for valuable trophies to notice me when I approached her.

“Don’t get upset, Mary,” I remember my father telling me. “Next time, the award will be yours.” To my father’s eyes, I should end up as a collector, as well.

I became obsessed with David. I even ran away from home for a couple of days to visit his home town, the place where his mother claimed they lived. Nobody had ever heard of him. Unfortunately, the police traced me before I had the chance to investigate further.

I searched for him on the Internet, to no avail. When my parents found out about my obsession, they became worried. They even took me to a therapist, who concluded I was too competitive to let go. He could not have been further from the truth.

If he could have seen beyond my accomplishment, he would have discovered my unambitious personality. He would have understood that it was only acceptance that I was looking for, or maybe a sense of belonging that I had never yet experienced.

Instead, he only looked through me, at the knowledge he had been collecting for years, fitting my behavior into the box that matched. He was nothing but another collector.

At the time, I was good at recognizing his kind, the collectors: empty people always search something to fill the void inside. He collected knowledge. Collectors could collect anything, though: cars, clothes, experience, accomplishments; anything that could be bought or achieved, depending on their personal taste and talent. I can show you how the interview went.

* * *

“Who’s your favorite artist, Mary?” the doctor asked.

“That’s easy. It’s Angela Hood,” Mary answered in excitement.

The doctor scratched his head for a few seconds, taking a few notes: “Find out more about that Angela Hood. Insight into the patient’s soul through indirect questions.”

“Why did you run away, Mary?” he then asked, in the most gentle tone, determined to not let his voice unveil his frustration.

Mary sat in silence. She was determined to hide from the doctor what her true feelings were for David. He wouldn’t understand. She already considered him the doctor of the enemies anyway.

There they sat, both of them, silently, as if a power struggle was going on. Who would prove the strongest depended on their endurance to silence.

“I felt overwhelmed,” Mary finally said.

The doctor felt secretly satisfied by his patient’s defeat. She was a good opponent, though. He instinctively felt that she had an inner strength, if he could call it that way, that fueled her mind with resistance to his usual methods.

As if a voice in her head was taking over in an emergency, an inner voice called to her: Pain alert! Dissociate now!

The doctor took some notes: “Unstable kid. Vulnerable to reality’s demands. Low self-esteem. Refuses to open up.”

* * *

I kept looking for David in secret, but it was only after my eighteenth birthday that I finally had the freedom to leave the house without the police on my back. It took me almost a month at his home town, to trace his mother.

Although I had found out that the name I was looking for was non-existent, thanks to my persistence, our paths crossed during my daily walk in the park. I recognized her face immediately. She did not notice me this time, either. She seemed too dedicated to her painting to look at me. It was obvious to me, she was a collector, too.

In the meantime, I had to find a job to make ends meet. My parents covered most of my expenses, yet I wanted to make myself useful while searching. Thankfully, I found something matching my idealistic temperament. I handed out leaflets for a cause that I actually cared about: against the demolition of an animal shelter on the edge of the town, which would give way to a factory. The job did not pay much, but the money was good enough for my needs.

The next day, I approached her. I offered her a leaflet and kindly explained the cause. She asked lots of questions, expressed doubts, and did her best to find a fault in my reasoning. That’s what collectors do. They are willing to go to great lengths to devalue anything that might interfere with their cynical way.

“We can’t really achieve anything with protesting. The decision has already been made,” she told me, when she ran out of arguments. Pointing out the futility of any action is their last resort.

“Enjoy life while you can, young woman,” she advised me. “Stop wasting time with lost causes.” There was no way I could explain to her that this was my way of enjoying life.

Oddly enough, her true name was Angela Hood. The sound of it reminded me of something vague. I might have seen some of her paintings in the past. Hood was not David’s surname, though. I remember thinking that she might be divorced, that David must have kept his father’s last name.

“Are you married, Ms. Hood?”

“I don’t believe in marriage,” she answered. “You shouldn’t either, young lady, you seem way too smart for it.” Unintentionally, I offered her an alternative to her boring life for a while. Advising a youngster seemed like a pleasant pastime. She looked thrilled at the prospect of instilling some of her wisdom in me. That’s how it goes with collectors. They are looking for opportunities to spit their pessimism onto the next generation.

“How old is your son?” I asked in all naivety, when she completed her lecture on the perils of marriage.

“My son? I don’t have a son,” she said, surprise reflected in her wide open eyes, while staring at me.

I discreetly followed her home later on. I froze at the sight of the house for a while. It looked as if it had escaped from David’s old painting, a big house, like a castle, that almost reached the sky.

In the six years I had spent tracking David, his mother must have built his dream house for him, or else David must have been lucky enough to have been born in his own personal paradise. I then remembered her words: “I don’t have a son,” she had told me.

I sneaked in through an open window in the basement, while she was busy preparing dinner. I stood and watched her for a while, moving gracefully around the kitchen, looking like a fairy queen in her long white dress. Then I moved on. I climbed the stairs to the first floor and then the second floor and then I couldn’t stop myself. I climbed compulsively, until there were no more stairs to climb.

I found myself on a terrace. Before I had the chance to catch my breath, I saw her standing in front of me, which made perfect sense at the moment, as it meant she had been chasing after me. To my relief, her presence explained why I had been wildly climbing the stairs. Before she had a chance to speak, I noticed the painting of David, hanging on the wall behind her back. I pushed her over and approached the painting. I saw her own signature on it.

She was ready to punch me in the face the moment I turned around to face her. I can’t explain why, but her arm stopped abruptly in the middle of the movement. Defenseless as I was at that moment, in the middle of breaking down, while realizing the truth about my non-existent true love, I was lucky she changed her mind. Perhaps it was the tears that filled my eyes that scared her away, as I knelt down, unable to keep my composure and cried until my eyes ran out of tears.

“I now remember you,” she told me kneeling down beside me, observing my face carefully.

“You have grown up so much that I hardly recognized you. You are the little girl that came second at the contest. After me.”

“It was supposed to be a contest for young people only,” I mumbled.

“You are right,” she said, an absentminded tone in her voice, as she took a look at the half-constructed roof above us. “That’s why I had to invent a son to acquire the award.”

“That’s not fair,” I exclaimed, standing up on my feet.

She stood up slowly, taking her time, before forming a proper answer.

“Life’s not fair,” she finally said. “Come to think of it, it was nothing special to me. Just another award I had to gain. That’s why I have built this big house,” she continued, radiating energy, almost dancing at this point, as if she had been waiting for years to explain her reasons to me. “Why do you think I need this big house, if I live here all by myself?”

I shrugged.

“To have room for my awards, silly. For all my accomplishments.”

It all began with a small closet, she explained. It was kept hidden in the warehouse. With time, more closets were needed. The warehouse was not enough. Then came the need for more space. Floor after floor, the house evolved through the years almost into a castle, in order to fit in all of her paintings and achievements. In fact that day, she had just started building another floor.

“There is never enough room for me to hide my little treasures,” she claimed, joy and pride in her eyes.

“You are a collector,” I cried with all of my strength.

“Of course, I am. What else can one do in life, except be a successful collector?”

“You are a great painter. You have all the talent of the world. You should find yourself a proper purpose, instead of collecting meaningless awards,” I replied, already knowing the answer coming my way.

“Collecting is a purpose, too. A safe one, I must confess. Getting attached to one person, or one specific purpose only leads to lost battles and disappointment. Focusing on quantity instead of quality cannot lead to disillusionment. That is why most people are collectors.

“Consciously or unconsciously. Once I started, I could not stop. It was hard work, yet easy at the same time. All it took was time and effort. The result was ensured. You can see it all around.”

She expected my admiration. There I stood frozen, disgust drawn on my face, unable to answer.

She approached me slowly, whispering gently, enjoying every single world she uttered. “Your precious little animal shelter will be demolished this afternoon. How do you feel now, young lady? Don’t you feel crushed? Your one and only purpose, the one you dedicated all your time and effort to, falling apart? Wouldn’t you prefer being a collector? This would never happen to a collector.”

“You are heartless,” I told her, admitting my defeat. I could almost hear my heart beating faster and faster, my hands trembling, my legs shaking as they became weak, unable to hold me upright. The world started spinning around me. I felt dizzy and nauseated. That’s what collectors do. They enjoy seeing disappointment in other people’s eyes. Their theory is verified. Their choice justified.

I’m back home now and still in the process of grieving. I have always considered myself an optimist, impervious to despair, yet I cannot get over the loss of my non-existent true love. My therapist insists it’s only natural, that time will heal me, along with the proper medication. He is self-righteous, as a proper collector should be. He seems caring and all, but if you can see under the mask, his eyes radiate indifference. He’s only interested in his impersonal goal: to deal successfully with one more patient.

Just like my parents, he never actually looks at me. He looks through me, as if I’m just a means to an end. He says I will find true love in the future, and my current grief will then seem like a bad dream. As I see it, he’s trying to convert me into the collector he is. David might have existed only in my dreams. Nevertheless, he is irreplaceable.

My therapist claims that time is a healer. I used to think so, yet there comes a time when something irreparable happens and changes everything. It’s my fault that I dove impulsively into false hope. I should have chosen my purpose more wisely. That’s how people transform into collectors. It’s the easy way out of despair.

Life is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic anyway. It all ends with a huge dive into oblivion. I refuse to accept this fate. I refuse to use my failed choices as an alibi. The way I see it, if I do, I will only justify the cruelty of what I’m taught to call reality.

* * *

Mary seemed agitated and confused. The doctor stood by her, as the nurse performed the injection.

“Stay calm, Mary. I can understand your pain. I will do my best to take it away,” he said in the most reassuring tone.

“A collector! Just another collector. You wouldn’t understand,” she yelled, pushing him away.

He took some notes: “Patient ran away. Again! Wonder when she lost touch with reality. Found unconscious in the house of a well-known artist. Supposedly the mother of her imaginary friend, her true love and the winner of the competition she had lost the first award to. Strangely enough, her parents assured me the winner had been one of her classmates. Calls me a collector. No trust. I have failed. Be more careful with next patient.”

“I will have to refer you to another doctor,” he said, regaining his composure.

That’s what collectors do. They move on, Mary thought, as the tranquilizer took over, calming her down. She heard a voice in her head: Pain alert! Dissociate now!

Soon, she fell asleep.

Copyright © 2016 by Mileva Anastasiadou

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