BY MUSA JAFAR
I stopped breathing yesterday.
I opened the door and stopped breathing.
“Choose ‘A Place in the Sun’. This is truly the paradise on earth that you have been dreaming of for so long. We have provided everything to make you and your loved ones as comfortable as possible. Your children deserve to grow up in an atmosphere of love and safety. We are absolutely sure that you yourself will plunge into a carefree happy childhood in the blessed ‘Place in the Sun’!”
I climbed the front steps and opened the door.
They told us that for many years there hadn’t even been so much as a minor incident on the road, let alone theft. Pets did not go missing, and bicycles were gathering dust on the porch, not fastened with chains, as they were in all other cities. “You drew a lucky ticket,” they said. “You don't need to buy Christmas cards; just take a photo of your house in the morning, after the first snow falls. We give you the simple joys that everyone longs for: a steaming cup of tea on a terrace made of natural Brazil nut wood, overlooking an emerald lawn made of certified quality grass. Exclusive romantic walks with your significant other in the evenings, against the backdrop of the most colourful, vibrant sunsets on earth.”
I walked up the driveway and climbed the front steps.
The first few days, we simply couldn’t believe our luck. An opportunity like this only comes once in a lifetime. By some miracle, we managed to make a great impression on the management. We were selected from a long list of applicants. They were absolutely right: every window had a stunningly beautiful view, as though it was created by a renowned maximalist artist. There was absolutely nothing to pick on or complain about. The only imperfect details on this canvas were probably us. In the beginning, this was our favourite joke.
I got out of the car and walked up the driveway.
We were afraid to rearrange the furniture so as not to upset the balance of this unique composition created by the graduates of the finest design schools: taking into account the cardinal points, energy flows, placing the right accents, and maintaining overall harmony. We tried to speak in a low voice in order to not embarrass the house itself and not drown out the sounds of nature that constantly surrounded us – the gentle singing of a thrush, the iridescent rustle of beeches, the quiet murmur of a neatly laid stream. Everything has been meticulously calculated, thought out, and matched to create one perfectly tuned ensemble. Unbeknownst to ourselves, we began to talk differently, dress, eat, and go to bed. The rhythm of our lives has changed, in unison with the rhythm of the breath of the entire village.
I carefully drove up to the sidewalk, turned off the engine, and got out of the car.
We enjoyed playing the roles of the actors in the series about the perfect family. We have become more diligent than our neighbours in this innocent game. We have received the praise of the elders. It was worth something. And the more we were praised, the more we tried. Even behind closed doors, with the lights off, inside our minds, we began to think the way we should, in the right key. Then we evaluated our thoughts, praised ourselves, and rejoiced at this approval. The day was not spent in vain.
I left the office, crossed the relatively short stretch of road to my house, and carefully drove up to the sidewalk.
We went to bed happy, and we woke up with a smile on our faces. We froze reverently in front of every flower planted in the garden, in front of every bee sitting on a flower. Our phones were overflowing with selfies – as a couple, with children, on the porch, on the terrace, at evening tea. We tried to coordinate. We were amidst the best people in the best village in the country, and quite possibly in the whole world. We parted lovingly and met with tenderness. Passers-by were brought to tears by a rush of affection, and we mentally gave ourselves another excellent mark. We ate by the hour and had the right food on the table, taking into account the calorie content and the compatibility of ingredients. We left each other notes on the refrigerator, next to our cute photos and funny faces drawn with a marker. It took us a long time to learn how to draw them correctly.
I said goodbye to my colleagues and waved charmingly at the secretary before leaving the office.
Birthdays and holidays, home celebrations and barbecues in the yard, homemade cookies for neighbors, innocent gossip and harmless chitchats, normalized jokes and befitting laughter. Our children studied better every day, and our leisure time was prescribed for years to come. It consisted of outdoor activities, family vacations, and romantic weekends. And, of course, photos and videos, which have already gained hundreds of thousands of likes a day on our family channel. Even outside the village, we bore the responsibility of preserving its values. Once you become a member of the club, you must always meet its requirements, wherever you are and whatever you do. Be worthy.
My day at work was carefully balanced, as efficient as possible, and saturated with positive thoughts and actions, from the very morning until the moment I said goodbye to my colleagues.
Christmas gifts, clothes, dresses and hairstyles, shoes and ties, jewelry and makeup, shops, vacation spots, the tiniest details, the little things, all have been carefully considered, examined countless times before being accepted, approved, confirmed by the most captious and biased court – by ourselves. We selected and laid them down one by one, like pieces of a large puzzle that were sure to take their intended place. Regular sex, beautiful positions, tanned bodies, white-toothed smiles, neat and polite children. Another highest grade in the brain, another day not spent in vain, and one more smile before a peaceful, untroubled sleep.
I got to work, as usual, exactly one minute before it started, to spend the day in a balanced, efficient, and positive way.
They told us it was the best place on earth. A place where we will be happy, and our children will grow up and delight us with their successes. They said that not a single trouble, nay, not a breath of a cold breeze, would penetrate the guarded perimeter. This is a guarantee of a calm and serene existence. And we, in fact, were happy and carefree. We believed that we were worthy of this happiness, that we were born for it. And our past should also be flawless and perfectly tailored to our happy present. We looked into the past, and it changed before our eyes. We told our neighbors about it and it got better and better. The bad faded, and the good multiplied, like a bright light in which all shadows vanished without a thought.
I got into the car to get to work, as usual, exactly one minute before it started.
They joked that we would get tired of the fact that absolutely nothing happens here. Well, maybe pleasant chores and happy moments, and even then, they all happen exactly when it is necessary and when they are expected, not later or earlier. They said that we’ll be surrounded by kindness and joy from the very first day and for all eternity. They told us that where there is no evil, problems, or insults, the lucky ones are not even able to comprehend the depth and magnitude of the blessing that fell to their lot. And they were absolutely right. We took our blissful existence for granted. We have learned to believe in our belonging to it. It was in our every deed and word, and our every deed and word was true and correct. How could it be otherwise? And what is otherwise, really?
I left the house, quietly closing the door behind me to get into the car.
Storms, winds, and hardships, which, according to them, we should have forgotten here – but have they ever even existed? Were we not created for comfort, security, and family peace? Weren't our faces framed in the photographs the best proof of that? Could our memories cause anything but tenderness and admiration? An ideal family, a role model, sublime relationships, and all the right hobbies. A true “Place in the Sun”. No shadows.
I wiped my hands with a kitchen towel and left the house.
They gasped and cheered. With families like ours, there is hope for everyone's salvation. Faith appears, leaving no room for doubt. All troubles recede somewhere far away and modestly descend into the shadows. Their efforts to create a piece of paradise called “A Place in the Sun” were crowned with success they couldn’t even dream of. A symbol, a standard, a brochure that suddenly became reality. “We will do everything to make you and your loved ones live in comfort and cosiness. With us, your safety and peace of mind are guaranteed. We protect it while you enjoy the simple pleasures of life.”
But who will save us from ourselves?
What if all the shadows hide within us?
What to do then?
I carefully washed the knife and wiped my hands with a kitchen towel.
© I Stopped Breathing Yesterday, 2023, Musa Jafar
Musa Jafar was born and raised in Baku, Azerbaijan. Since childhood, he had developed an affinity for reading, devouring words, and getting lost in literature. While studying at school, he began to compose short stories, but his true passion and revelation, as he would soon come to discover, was poetry. He wrote his first poems at the age of 12 and continued to perfect his writing style for ten years. When Musa was 18, he was noticed by the society of poets of Azerbaijan, as well as poetry.com, where his poem Crows won first place. During this time, he taught himself to play the piano and was invited to the local conservatory. Nevertheless, it was only relatively recently that he was able to fully explore and devote himself to his craft. As of right now, Musa has published two collections of short stories in the genre of magical realism, fantasy, and gothic horror. His first translated collection of short stories and poems will be published by the end of the year.