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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 5 chapter 20)

2006-08-22 20:56

  20

  That afternoon, he had another interesting encounter. He was washing the display window of a large shoe shop when a young man came to a halt right next to him, leaned up close to the window, and began scrutinizing the prices.

  Prices are up, said Tomas without interrupting his pursuit of the rivulets trickling down the glass.

  The man looked over at him. He was a hospital colleague of Tomas's, the one I have designated S., the very one who had sneered at Tomas while under the impression that Tomas had written a statement of self-criticism. Tomas was delighted to see him (naively so, as we delight in unexpected events), but what he saw in his former colleague's eyes (before S. had a chance to pull himself together) was a look of none-too-pleasant surprise. How are you? S. asked.

  Before Tomas could respond, he realized that S. was ashamed of having asked. It was patently ridiculous for a doctor practicing his profession to ask a doctor washing windows how he was.

  To clear the air Tomas came out with as sprightly a Fine, just fine! as he could muster, but he immediately felt that no matter how hard he tried (in fact, because he tried so hard), his fine sounded bitterly ironic. And so he quickly added, What's new at the hospital?

  Nothing, S. answered. Same as always. His response, too, though meant to be as neutral as possible, was completely inappropriate, and they both knew it. And they knew they both knew it. How can things be the same as always when one of them is washing windows? How's the chief? asked Tomas. You mean you don't see him? asked S. No, said Tomas.

  It was true. From the day he left, he had not seen the chief surgeon even once. And they had worked so well together; they had even tended to think of themselves as friends. So no matter how he said it, his no had a sad ring, and Tomas suspected that S. was angry with him for bringing up the subject: like the chief surgeon, S. had never dropped by to ask Tomas how he was doing or whether he needed anything.

  All conversation between the two former colleagues had become impossible, even though they both regretted it, Tomas especially. He was not angry with his colleagues for having forgotten him. If only he could make that clear to the young man beside him. What he really wanted to say was There's nothing to be ashamed of! It's perfectly normal for our paths not to cross. There's nothing to get upset about! I'm glad to see you! But he was afraid to say it, because everything he had said so far failed to come out as intended, and these sincere words, too, would sound sarcastic to his colleague.

  I'm sorry, said S. after a long pause, I'm in a real hurry. He held out his hand. I'll give you a buzz.

  During the period when his colleagues turned their noses up at him for his supposed cowardice, they all smiled at him. Now that they could no longer scorn him, now that they were constrained to respect him, they gave him a wide berth.

  Then again, even his old patients had stopped sending for him, to say nothing of greeting him with champagne. The situation of the declasse intellectual was no longer exceptional; it had turned into something permanent and unpleasant to confront.

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