Buna knew this feeling. It always came after a few days. And she had it when she awoke after spending her third night in the hospital. The crushing demoralization of the day before had passed. Her hands were still shaky, but her legs were steady enough to walk. Buna had even been able to eat yesterday evening, and the previous night she slept for at least four hours, albeit still bathed in sweat. Now, she experienced the feeling of oppressive boredom and an itchy irritability. This feeling permeated every cell. She knew the cure for this feeling.
Buna also knew, of course, that Dr. Semonova would not agree to discharge her. She might even threaten to turn her over to the police, who after all had arrested her following that stupid fight with that stupid woman in the bar. But there was no reason for Dr. Semonova to know that she was leaving.
Buna quietly changed into her dress that had been stored in a cardboard box under her bed. She slipped on her shoes and made it all the way to the rear entrance, only to see the night nurse sitting on a chair by door, watching her every move.
“Where are you going, sister?” the woman asked.
“Going for a smoke.”
“You can smoke down the hall.”
Buna fingered the long, blue scarf she had tied around her neck. The scarf had been a present from Emin last year. They argued terribly on the night he gave it to her, the night when he got his new job. She thought the scarf, of real silk, was much too extravagant. And she didn’t think she deserved it. Now, she untied the knot at her neck.
The woman fingered the scarf slowly, holding it up in the dim light before stuffing it into her pocket. She walked away while Buna quietly opened the door and walked softly down the stairway. Buna opened the door, and felt the cool morning breeze blowing. The streets were empty, except for the street cleaners sweeping. She needed just a moment to orient herself, but then realized that she knew someone who ran a small café, not too far away. She began walking in that direction.
As Buna had expected, Dr. Semonova was angry to find that she had left, although not surprised in any way. She was not angry at Buna, but annoyed at herself for thinking that perhaps the alcoholic could change and save herself. Dr. Semonova questioned the night nurse about her departure, but the night nurse rightfully claimed that she couldn’t supervise all the patients all the time. Buna must have slipped out when the nurse went to the toilet. Dr. Semonova didn’t pursue the matter. She had more important things to worry about than alcoholics determined to drink themselves to death. The final preparations were being made in the hospital for the visit by the First Lady. A headache-inducing smell of fresh paint still hung in the air. Even some of the old chairs in her ward had been replaced. Workers were bringing a new portrait of Heymar Alidev, the final touch to complete the renovation of the ward, in the afternoon.
When Emin arrived with the portrait, Dr. Semonova was surprised that only one man handled these tasks. Emin told her that he worked alone. He was used to it, and he appeared to know his job quite well. When she pointed out the proposed location for the poster, he looked to her with the smallest of smiles.
“I understand,” he said. “It’s a good place.”
Dr. Semonova watched him as he climbed the ladder, hammering in some hooks to hang the portrait. She liked his quiet simplicity. How could such a nice man be working for such evil? After he had hung the large portrait and Heymar Alidev smiled benevolently upon the ward, she offered Emin a cup of tea.
“Just come to my office when you are done,” she told him.
He had no other tasks for the afternoon, so he agreed. When he knocked, she was filling out the daily report for the day: one patient missing, two discharged, one transferred.
“I don’t want to disturb you,” he said as he entered.
“No, please. Sit down,” she motioned to the chair by the desk.
She picked up the phone and spoke to one of the nurses, asking for some tea. Within moments, the nurse was at the door, bearing a tray with a teapot, small glasses, and a small bowl of candy. Dr. Semonova poured him a glass.
“So are you pleased with the portrait?” she asked.
“Thank you. Yes. It’s one of the better portraits. You know, Heymar has different moods. He’s in a peaceful mood in this picture. This mood is good for this place.”
“I think you’re right. Our patients do need much rest and peace,” she said. “You probably know all his moods.”
“The hospital director tells me that this portrait will help people get better. Do you think this is right?”
Emin took one of the candies from the dish, and unwrapped it carefully. He folded up the sticky candy wrapper and placed it in his saucer. The candy was a hard lemon drop. He sucked he for a minute before he answered.
“The hospital director told you that?”
“Well, if he is the director, then he is probably right. I am not a doctor. My job is just to hang the posters.”
“I’m sorry. It was a silly question. I’m grateful for the picture.”
“Thank you. I am glad to help. I think your patients will like it.”
Dr. Semonova noticed the ring on his finger.
“You’re married. How nice!”
“Yes, three. Two boys and a girl.”
Emin fingered his wedding band. He had forgotten that he wore it. How long should he wear it? He probably should have taken it off already. Was she gone for good this time? Probably.
“She must be very lucky,” said Dr. Semonova.
“Wonderful. I love children.”
They sipped their tea in silence.
Emin was startled by this thought, and suddenly uncomfortable with this woman.
“No, I am very lucky to have her.”
He put his tea and saucer on the tray.
“Thank you very much for the tea. I should get back to my family. My wife doesn’t like it when I come home late for dinner.”
“Yes, of course. Thank you again for your work. I was very happy to meet you.”
She shook his hand with a firm grip and opened the door for him. The nursing staff was changing shifts as he left, and he walked out with the two nurses who worked on the ward during the day. They chatted about their plans for the evening, the parade and the fireworks that were planned. Today was the first of three days of celebration to mark Heymar Alidev’s birthday. Already people were gathering on the street, lining the parade route. Fighter jets swooshed through the air, tracing fantastic patterns with colored smoke. But Emin was not in a mood for a parade or fireworks. He knew of a café not too far from this place, so he began to walk in that direction.
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