The first time it happened was while she was passing through Knez Mihailova Street. Anja rushed to an underground passage close to Palata Albanija to buy stockings so she wouldn’t have to meet the client with ripped ones. As she turned left at the Faculty of Philosophy, the last things she remembered were a pigeon that flew just over her head, along with the sound of a fountain nearby. It hit her in such a way that Anja froze in the middle of the pedestrian zone to the sound of an unusually loud alarm clock. She was lying in a bed with a view of the half-opened bathroom door of an unknown apartment. The sheets carried the fresh scent of fabric softener, and through the window, lush tree branches rustled in the breeze obscuring the view of neighbors’ windows. When the hustle and bustle from the street again reached her consciousness, she turned frantically, looking at the people around her.
No less confused then as she was now, Anja went down Cika Ljubina Street, bypassing the hordes of tourists who were almost the only ones swarming around downtown in this hot weather. The blistering heat coming off the concrete became unbearable even in the evening hours. Anja jaywalked across the street, hearing an annoyed taxi driver and the sound of his horn in the background. She didn’t look back but continued down the Dorcol streets towards the bistro. She had made a reservation for a specific table, and as she was approaching the place, she saw Danica was already there. Anja looked at the time and felt relief that she wasn’t very late. Before entering, she glanced insecurely at the building across the street, not knowing what to think of all the things racing through her head.
“Something’s going on,” Anja said, kissing her friend on the cheek. She sat on a chair directly overlooking the gray door of the building across the street.
“You haven't called for a while, and you sounded pretty strange over the phone.”
Danica’s tanned, sharp features were a contrast to the pale and light-haired Anja. High school friends, of different life paths, but always there for each other.
“Is it a guy?” Danica winked.
“I wish.” Her laughter was a bit clumsy. “The story is ludicrous. I must be completely crazy.” Anja tucked her hair behind her ear, giving the idea some thought.
The waitress arrived with a glass of red wine for Danica, and Anja gestured that she would like the same. The place had a French vibe, with small round tables made of dark wood and chansons playing.
“Alright, you have my attention.”
“First, I need alcohol,” she said and took Danica’s glass. A few sips ensued. “Actually, I don’t know how to describe what happened. What keeps happening –“ With the nail of her right index finger, she rubbed her thumb more and more roughly. “I have been seeing some images.” It took her few seconds to look Danica in the eye.
“Images, as in clairvoyance?”
“No, not like that. More like short dreams in broad daylight. While being wide awake.”
“Okay,” Danica said carefully. “What kind of dreams?”
“Well, the first time, while I was walking down the street, I found myself in a completely different environment. I was in bed, there was an alarm clock with some weird melody, and I felt sleepy – “
“Wait, you mean to tell me that you ended up in someone’s bed in the middle of a walk?” Danica laughed.
“Yeah, I know how it sounds.”
“Okay, did he at least look good?”
“I was alone in bed.”
“So, you’re telling me you woke up in someone else’s bed, all by your lonesome?” Danica didn’t give up on lightening up the situation.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Anja said, looking across the street and expecting a familiar face to exit the building.
“Well, were there any other dreams?”
“Yes.” Her drink arrived, and Anja politely smiled at the waitress. She gripped the stem of her wine glass. “It happened a few more times. I was in the same apartment, but in a different room.”
“How do you know it was the same apartment?”
“It felt like it, I don’t know. There were some unfinished artworks in the room.”
“You mean like paintings?”
Anja nodded, glancing at the building across from them.
“Which colors were predominant?”
“Red and blue, I think. Why?”
“Just asking. And did something happen?”
“No, it felt as if I literally swapped places with someone else for a moment.”
A father and child left the building, and Anja’s gaze followed them.
“And how many of these occurrences have you experienced?”
“Three. The third one was me entering the building as if I was returning home.”
“And what was the architecture like? Can you recognize it in the real world?”
“Oh yes.” Anja nodded towards the building across the street.
“Seriously?” Danica gawked at the entrance. “How do you know?”
“I’m not a hundred percent sure.” Anja wiggled in her chair. “Two days ago, I came here with Oleg to try their new croissants. I wanted to cheer him up a little. You know how he is these days because of Aunt Natalija. And as soon as I saw the entrance and building number 10, my body reacted. As if I had already been in the building so many times.”
“Well, have you?”
Anja shook her head, bringing the wine glass to her mouth and observing the trace of pale red lipstick on it. “The entrance looks like it, as do the lindens outside. That’s why I wanted to check it out, to see if something would happen.”
“And how do you feel when you’re in the place of that person? Like you're looking through someone else’s eyes, or…?”
“Well, not really. The body I was in didn’t feel foreign to me, and it was as if I literally got transferred from one place to another. But just with that other consciousness.”
“Anja, as a friend, I need to tell you this, you should see a physician. Maybe it’s a brain tumor. God forbid.” Danica caringly leaned across the table. She believed in the honesty of her friend’s story, but at the same time, neither of them believed in the supernatural.
“I’ve visited a family physician, and he said my results were good. He thinks I overburdened myself with work. Just stress. So, I’m running out of logical ideas.”
“Let’s see what the options are.” Danica gave it a thought, playing with a lock of her hair. “Maybe you have a superpower to teleport from one place to another!”
“Now that, I like.” Anja laughed.
“It could’ve been some kind of, what do they call it, astral projection.”
“In broad daylight?”
“Could it be that a tumor might be at a bad angle, and they overlooked it?”
“Maybe you remember a past life?”
“That makes sense too, right along with the teleportation and astral projection.”
“Here’s to that.” Danica raised the glass, and the two made a toast. A bouquet of Vranac filled their mouths.
Anja kept looking across the street, not knowing what exactly she expected to happen. No new dreams occurred; a few people entered and left during that time, but nothing that seemed familiar. Nothing stood out of the ordinary, so much so that next to the warm atmosphere and wine, she almost thought she made it all up, that it was undoubtedly a temporary glitch in her brain caused by stress. She gave herself over to the wine and jokes at her expense, as well as Danica’s evasion of topics that concerned her own life, so that the burden of the unexplained events slipped away, making the evening lighter after one deep breath. Finally, she shared her troubles, and as time flowed on, it all seemed like a coincidence that probably would not repeat itself. They went outside, the heat of the concrete blasting them. Anja got goosebumps from the change in temperature and the sound of Danica’s heel scratching the sidewalk. They hugged each other, and Danica left on foot as she lived a few streets up while Anja called for a taxi.
The two companies she dialed told her there were no available vehicles. She remembered that not far from downtown was some teen pop star concert, at which she rolled her eyes. Anja tugged at her dark linen shorts, which had risen a bit, and adjusted the belt. She looked at the gray entrance again. Edith Piaf with “Non, Je ne regrette rien” and the clinking of the wine glasses came from behind her. Anja put away her mobile in her pocket and crossed the street.
She straightened her back and walked with confidence as if she knew what she would do next, her stomach twisted into a tangle of knots. She went to the entrance and skimmed through the names on the intercom—nothing she could recognize. The lights in the hall switched on, and soon she heard the voices. Two girls exited the building, and Anja used the chance to hold open the door. Black and white stone tiles in a mosaic on the floor welcomed her. The ceiling was high, and the lamp on it was small, so the white tiles under the weak yellowish light looked beige. Dark wooden mailboxes had the same last names as she had already seen. Anja moved toward the staircase and looked up the spiral twist to the top floor. There were five floors, and the light didn’t work on a few. A rush of draft caressed her cheeks. A basement door was ajar. She went down to it, and suddenly the door swung open. Anja stood there in horror.
An old lady came through carrying a plastic bag from the Maxi store. Anja made her legs move closer to the staircase.
“Tanja, dear, you’re back!” A smile spread across the old lady’s face.
“Good evening,” Anja said politely. “How are you?” She added quickly, not knowing how to get out of the situation. She would run but also, she didn’t want her entering the building to be in vain.
“Can’t complain. Went to the yard to leave food for the kitties. The bowls you bought are still there. When I bring those margarine plastic ones, they play with them and drag them across the yard; I guess they’re lighter, but then I have nowhere to pour the food for them. Luckily, yours are heavier, so they stay in place.” The old lady stepped closer to the light so she could have a better look at her. “Your natural hair color suits you beautifully, dear.”
Anja took a step back under the old lady’s gaze. “I’m glad they’re useful to you. Are there any newborns?” She decided to accept the role given to her. The poor thing’s vision was probably impaired, so she had most likely mixed her up with another girl.
“Tend to be, but the youngsters usually take them. It’s better that way. They feel nicer in homes than on the street. Some at least find a little oasis with us, but they must feel better with people. Cats are adaptable; they’ll be happy both on the street and inside an apartment if the owner is good. That big cat appears from time to time; I often see him scratched and bruised, as if he’s their guardian.” The lady twirled the plastic bag between her wrinkled fingers.
“Eh, Tanja, it was nice when you used to live here. Now the new tenants make such a noise, sometimes it gets unbearable.”
“The tenants in the same apartment?”
“Oh, yes. The ones currently living there play loud music, stay out ’til late, come back in the morning. Also, their friends can sometimes be louder than the music. Oh well, luckily, the hearing deteriorates with age.” The woman’s bleached blue eyes curled up from smiling. “And did you sell the apartment to them, or are you renting?”
Anja didn’t know what to say, and in that moment of hesitation, the old lady waved her hand as if it was not of much importance. “Anyway, I’m glad I saw you, dear. Good night.”
“Good night,” she said, watching the old woman walking away.
Anja went towards the door but could not make herself leave. How could it have been a coincidence that she got mixed up with a previous tenant in the building from her hallucinations? Who was Tanja?
She waited, listening to see which floor the old lady's apartment was. If she minded the tenant’s noise, they must be either next to her apartment or above it. She started walking up the stairs carefully. There were three apartments on each floor. Anja eavesdropped on the other two doors on the same floor but could not hear any noise. Maybe the TV was louder in one of them, but it was probably just another retiree living there.
As she came close to an apartment above the old lady’s, voices sounded from inside: a guy and a girl and the rustling of keys. Anja hurried up one floor higher to hide in a shadow and get a better vantage point. The EDM beat became louder as they opened the door, talking about a mutual friend and how they wanted to hook up one of her female friends with him tonight. That must have been Tanja’s apartment.
Anja walked behind them as they left the building, maintaining distance. She turned around a few times in fear of someone else following her. Two streets away, they queued up to enter Tube Garden Club. The girl never stopped talking, spreading the odor of quince rakia. Right behind them, Anja frowned at the smell, listening to their incoherent stories, one moment about a girlfriend, the other about her brother, about the exams they’re supposed to take next month, the jeans she wanted to buy, and similar nonsense. At the same time, the young man just nodded along and gawked around. Anja couldn’t figure out if they were a couple or roommates. The girl tucked her hand down her back pocket, searching for entrance money. As she pulled out a 500-dinar bill, her keys peeked out. Anja’s gaze fixed on them.
The line outside the club got bigger. As soon as they let someone in, the people queuing would mosh and hurl forward. Anja spotted a group of people nearing the exit and waited for the crowd to push her. Carried a step further by the other bodies, she boldly put her hand down the girl’s pocket; she was nearly up against her, but the girl didn’t turn around. As the security guard let new people in, the line retook its standard shape, and Anja slowly left the crowd. She walked to the other side of the street, turning to check if anyone had followed her, and she continued down the street holding the keys in a firm grip.
Along the way, she listened to see if someone would shout or run after her, but only a few drunken voices from the nearby bars cut through the air filled with her anxiety. She lengthened her stride as much as she could. A light brown stray dog sniffed intensively around a red Volkswagen Golf parked next to her. Someone lowered their shutters hard. In front of the gray door, Anja could barely open her clenched fist to try one of the keys. Her knuckles were all white. Three keys hung on the keyring with some anime-looking character, and when one key managed to open the door, Anja released the air stuck in her lungs. She turned once more to check for witnesses, and then she entered the building.
Quietly tip-toing to the second floor, she approached the door, and stopped for a moment. What the hell was she doing? No reasonable thought could reach her brain through the violent throbbing of her heart. She put a key in the lock. It wasn’t the right one. Anja tried with the next one, barely hitting the keyhole. The lock mechanism moved, and the door opened with a click.
A light was coming from the bedroom. Anja paused, thinking that someone might be in the apartment. She listened carefully. The stale smell of tobacco itched her nose. There was no sound nor movement in the room with the lights on. Anja entered, leaving the door ajar. A couch was in front of the TV, a glass table in between, with a full ashtray and papers with colorful markers spread on top of it. Bare white walls and high ceilings loomed as if they’ve eaten every piece of the furniture that was superfluous. She tuned in, carefully checking if any new sound disturbed the silence inside the building.
In the bedroom, instead of a bed, was a folded-out sofa placed near the window. The furniture arrangement confused her, and the idea that she illegally entered the wrong apartment was not even an option. Anja stood so the windows were on her right like from her memory. Her gaze fell on a door that she opened to find a bathroom. It matched the space she knew, but instead of a shower cabin was an old bathtub with a shower curtain. The tiles on the wall were elegant and stood out from the towels thrown all over, the open washing machine, and the dirty sink. The tiles gave the impression that the apartment used to look nice in the past.
Anja entered the next room where she saw the paintings. Now, it was a storage room, crammed with both packed and unpacked cardboard boxes, stacked on top of each other, along with cleaning supplies. Anja closed the door and went through the rest of the place; however, nothing came to her that could help her unravel those insane sleepwalking scenes. Everything was baffling. The place looked like the one she had seen but as if it belonged to a different time.
She was in a stranger’s apartment, whose keys she had stolen, and she didn’t find anything that could help her. Anja’s enthusiasm dwindled, and the madness of her behavior crept in as the alcohol and adrenaline were leaving her body. She looked around to make sure she had returned everything to its previous state. Not that she had touched many things but just to confirm that she didn’t leave anything of her own. Anja closed the door and dropped the keys under the doorknob. Walking down the stairs in the dark, she realized that she had forgotten something. She returned to the keys and erased her fingerprints with a paper tissue, just in case.
At home, Anja drank another glass of wine so she could fall asleep better. But it didn’t help her much because she couldn’t stop thinking of the stealing and break-in, and wondering who Tanja was. Finally, when dawn came, she was half-awake and had to roll down the blinds to catch an hour or two of sleep. Luckily, it was the weekend, so she didn’t have to get up for work.
When it got too hot to stay in bed, she took a shower. Anja’s reflection in the mirror seemed unchanged even though she was sleepless. She had pretty, smooth skin, light brown hair up to her shoulders tucked behind her ears, and big eyes, sometimes blue and sometimes gray, depending on the time of the day and the shadow that fell on them. She was thinking about the old lady. How much did she actually look like Tanja?
There was someone who might be able to help her. Anja took out her phone, and when she found him among the contacts, she hesitated. In the end, she pressed the call button.
“Anja, what a surprise!”
“Hi, Vlado, what’s up?”
“Morning coffee. Want to join me?”
“Still being a juice collector?”
“Depends on the client.” He laughed.
“Send me your location. I’ll be there.”
Anja recognized the place in the Kosancicev venac neighborhood and forced herself to eat some jam toast before leaving the apartment. The morning had long passed, and the sun had already stretched out its hot tentacles. She had put on a high factor sunscreen and the darkest sunglasses she had. The ride on public transportation at that temperature was horrid. In trolley bus number 41, above the small windows hung the signs saying: “Don’t open the windows. Air-conditioning is on.” This time it was a good thing someone didn’t listen to the sign since the aircon didn’t work at all. Anja couldn’t wait for those several stops to pass to get away from that can. Her ironed blouse stuck to her sweaty back, and silently she cursed the shitty country, people, and all that didn’t function as it should.
“Where’ve you been, doll?” Vlada smiled and cordially stood up as he saw her.
“I’m sorry, traffic jam. Well, it’s been a while.” Anja put on her charming smile and kissed him on the cheek.
Vlada was tall and smelled of fresh aftershave. He had chosen a pleasant spot in the shade under a big oak tree. Anja placed the pillow on the chair she sat on, hung her bag on the chair, and reluctantly took off her sunglasses. The waitress cut through the moment of her hesitation, and Anja ordered an espresso lungo with milk and blueberry juice.
“How’s life?” Vlada watched her with interest.
Anja shrugged. “It’s okay.” She smiled.
“What’s on your mind?” He leaned back in his chair.
“A weird story. I want to find a person, or at least find out more about her.”
“So, you remembered your debt collector ex.”
“Well, it’s either you or googling PI’s.” She winked at him.
“Let me hear this weird story.”
“It seems that I have a doppelganger. A girl that looks exactly like me.” Anja chose her words carefully. “And I’d like to know more about her.”
“What’s her name?”
“And her last name?”
Anja shrugged. She caught a tiny piece of the sun in her eye and blinked. That gave her an excuse to put her sunglasses back on.
“Did you meet her?”
“And who exactly told you that you look alike?”
“Well, a neighbor–“
“How ’bout you tell me the real story now?” Vlada leaned closer.
Anja ran her hands over her shorts as if straightening some invisible folds. She felt his piercing gaze, and it made her even more insecure. Why did she think she could fool him? He waited for her to gather courage before she told him everything, well, almost everything. She skipped the previous night’s events. It took her several minutes to look up; she knew she sounded like a madman. Vlada was listening carefully, with the face of a professional who had heard a bunch of cases, and the only thing that separated him from a detective she would hire was the devilish smile at the end.
“I’m not crazy,” she added quietly.
“No one questions that, doll. Even if I didn’t know you, I’d trust you as it’s my professional duty.” He let out a little laugh.
“Right, I feel so much better now. So, what’s next?”
“You want to find out who Tanja is so you can make some sense of your happenings?” Vlada didn’t wait for her answer. “Send me the address and the number of the apartment you snooped around. We should check the previous owners; your mysterious Tanja could be one of them.”
Anja immediately typed the message.
“The name similarity is interesting, also the fact that neighbor confused you for her. So beside you seeing her place, you also look alike.” Vlada looked into the distance. “Tell me, from your perspective, what do you think it is?”
“And not a brain tumor? Honestly, I don’t know. The other options seem too unbelievable.”
“There’s another thing I’d keep my eye on at the beginning. It involves you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Has it occurred to you that it might be your twin sister?”
No, it had not occurred to her. “But I have no twin.”
“Twins can frequently sense each other, which may explain your episodes.”
The "episodes" – nicely put. Anja tuned in to check how her inner being was reacting to the idea of a twin, but there were no surprising feelings there. Why was it more comfortable to believe in teleportation or astral projection? Tanja, Anja.
“How realistic is it that I have a twin? I mean, okay, twins sense each other sometimes, but why now and why through these, these episodes?”
“Where were you born?” Vlada was typing something into his digital notebook.
“Yes.” She didn’t ignore the fact that he remembered her birthday. “You’ll check out the maternity wards records?”
“I know a guy who works in software system maintenance of health centers. He can help with the database.”
Anja felt as if a crucial fluid from her brain, necessary for her thought processes, was leaking out. Everything felt empty. She made an effort to come up with some brilliant idea, but unsuccessfully.
“Those paintings you saw, did they seem as if she had painted them?”
“I think so; they were unfinished.”
“How many of them were there?”
“Not sure, a few pieces. Maybe three or four.”
“And did you see any utensils, like brushes, colors, easels?”
“I don’t know. The room was facing the sunny side of the apartment. Two paintings were leaning on the wall, one on top of the other, and then one was leaning on the wall facing me, below the window. And one just stood there in front of me. Maybe I was even holding it, I’m not sure. But I didn’t see any painting accessories.”
“What kind of painting was it?”
“I think it was oil on canvas.”
“Did you smell the scent of turpentine? Oil paints?”
She thought about it. “I think so. I didn’t see any, but I think I smelled paint thinner.”
“So, she might be an artist.” Vlada jotted down a few words.
“Perhaps.” Whoever she was.
“We don’t need to talk about it.” She grabbed her cup of espresso.
He observed her under his raised left eyebrow. Anja finished her coffee. Then she grabbed the juice glass with both hands and held it that way as he asked a few more questions. She didn’t even taste it. They spoke for about half an hour more, and Anja didn’t know what to think of the whole twin idea, but she had to admit it was much saner than hers and Danica’s jokes. However, she had a strong feeling that things had gone too far. Last night, she broke into someone else’s apartment, and today she found out that she might have a twin. Somehow everything seemed more enjoyable while it was in the realm of the surreal.
Vlada told her he would call later with new information, so she was in no rush to return home. Anja went to Balkanska Street for Ferdinand’s dumplings. She chased the shade between buildings but her thoughts locked in on her doings and wrongdoings acting like a shield against the heat. Anja thought about calling someone, but loneliness did her good. In the small restaurant, she looked at the selection of fresh sweet and sour dumplings. Usually, she would take ones with pistachio and raffaello flavor, but now Anja looked at her other options. She didn’t hear the polite How may I help you of the nice saleslady. Nor did she the second time she said it. Anja was staring at the plum and peach ones, just like her mother used to make. The thought surprised her, and she briskly ordered her usual.
From the episode until the meeting with Vlada, Tanja seemed to gain more flesh. As if Anja couldn’t negate her not-so-ephemeral existence anymore. Was there a period in her life when she could have recognized a feeling that there was another person who came with her out from her mother’s womb? Some misfortune that instilled an emotional chill in her family. Or maybe the mysterious case of a stolen baby from the hospital had happened back then. How much could she trust her gut now?
On her way back, Anja bought some acrylic paint and a small canvas already stretched out on a frame. She thought about oil paint but decided against it as it needed a longer drying time and was pricier, and all she wanted to know was if she had any talent. However, once she sat down at home with a brush in her hand, Anja found the canvas’s whiteness silently staring back at her. She tried a few light strokes which avoided the center of the canvas. Closing her eyes, Anja tried to invoke some inspiration. The phone vibrated with a notification: "Found out a few things, coming over tonight."
Anja wanted even more for the canvas to breed something meaningful, a lost gene which she could bring back by memory. A few strokes. Nothing. It seemed like the canvas became whiter the more brush strokes she tried to make. She applied a greater amount of purple paint, but the whiteness kept coming back, staring and devouring everything around it. Strike one, strike two. Strike one.
The doorbell rang.
Anja blinked. The street lights threw dark orange stripes on the wall. She looked at her hand that was raised in the air at the height of her eyes. Hardened acrylic was on the brush. The darkness confused her. Another doorbell ring startled her, and she rose abruptly.
“I thought you’d wear something sexy. I even wanted to buy some wine.” Vlada put on his flirty smile. “Anja? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know.” She heard her voice say the words. She turned, looking for the light switch. The ceiling lamp exposed the familiar terrain.
Vlada came closer, touching her shoulder. “Did you maybe have another episode?”
“This was something different.” She looked straight into his eyes.
“Different how?” Vlada embraced her and took her over to the couch.
“I think I lost half of the day.” Anja looked through the windows.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“What were you doing then?”
“I tried to paint.”
Vlada studied the canvas smeared with her art attempts. The painting and colors were hardened and dry. “I messaged you about five hours ago.”
“I think I need alcohol.” Anja went to the kitchen and came back with a bottle of red wine. She let Vlada open it.
“Maybe I fell asleep.” She didn’t buy it. “Tell me, what did you find out?”
“Nothing big. I checked, but there are no records of another girl being born. I don’t know if you know this, but you were born at 10:15 AM, and judging by the papers, you were the only child.”
“Have you checked the stillborn records, maybe?” He nodded. “So, the twin sister theory is debunked.” Anja felt nothing regarding the issue; she even felt a bit glad not to discover some long-lost sister.
“Seems like it. Next, the apartment now belongs to a real-estate agency that rents it unfurnished. They bought it a year ago and up until then it was the property of Evelina Jovanovic, for some forty years or so.”
“Maybe she rented the apartment to Tanja.”
“I asked the neighbor who feeds the cats when Tanja exactly lived there, and she said that it was about two or three years ago. Ugh, now, this is where things start to become complicated.”
“What do you mean?”
“Mrs. Evelina, or should I say Miss, as she never got married, passed away seven years ago with no children.”
“Then who rented the apartment to Tanja?”
“I don’t know. The apartment was in the ownership of Evelina’s lawyer, and as far as I’ve found out, it wasn’t rented at all.”
“What, the mysterious Tanja is a squatter?” Anja laughed and took a larger sip of the wine.
“If I hadn’t witnessed the lack of your painting skill on this canvas, I’d think that you were Tanja.” Vlada raised the glass as if for a toast, grinning.
“And the lawyer, is he still alive?”
“No. His heirs sold the apartment to the current owner, the agency.”
“And who owns the agency?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary there. The agency owns several apartments in different neighborhoods.”
“Is that the end of the investigation?”
“Nope.” Vlada looked at her as she scratched some pieces of paint from her finger. “We need to find out who Tanja is. I’ll have more info tomorrow.”
The wine tasted differently after their conversation. Vlada didn’t stay for too long, as he had some work, and he seriously told her to call him if anything strange should happen. She imagined him threatening or beating up some deadbeats for his boss. He kissed her gently on the cheek in farewell. It wasn’t hard to notice those details: looks, smiles, tone. It all brought back their short but sweet memories.
Anja took a deep breath and stood in front of the canvas. Holding the brush in one hand and her mobile’s stopwatch in the other, she evoked the last memories she had before the black hole had devoured hours of her life. Was it possible she fell asleep? Then she remembered her hand hanging in mid-air – it hadn’t gone numb, even though it was raised. It was as if a moment had passed, and not five freaking hours. Anja stared at the canvas, but nothing happened. At some point, she got bored and fell asleep.
Sunday morning dragged on. Anja laid in bed and browsed through social media. The old woman’s gaze and words kept coming back to her: Your natural hair color looks nice on you. Maybe she suffered from some psychosis where she had created an alter ego. A different version of Anja adding the letter “T.”
Two years ago, she lived in this same apartment. Before that, she had lived for a short while near Vuk Karadzic’s monument, and before that, she had rented a place at Tasmajdan. She had never lived in the Dorcol neighborhood, let alone in Tanja’s apartment. One of her friends or colleagues would probably notice a difference in her behavior if she went bananas. But she remembered the crazy ones were usually not aware that they were mad. Was she crazy? Anja shook her head. If she wasn’t, there was a significant probability she would be if she continued with these thoughts.
“I’m not Tanja.” She felt the need to say it aloud.
Anja was in HR for a company that recently started conquering the local market of household appliances. In the last three years she had worked there, she changed positions in two different sectors. Before that, she had worked as a recruiter for private bankers, a job she didn’t like. But as a work experience, it guided her to the life she had now, happy with her job and her colleagues. There was no place for painting in Dorcol. She was reciting her successes to avoid the thoughts that swarmed and hurt her with their long stings. It seemed to her that every known part of space had shifted by a few degrees, just a little bit but enough for nothing to be as it used to be.
Anja played an indie-pop band on her phone to stir her up. That day was Oleg’s aunt Natalija's wake. He was throwing a party to commemorate her spirit and life. Anja knew her well, a woman who led a free life knowing how to enjoy it. A different farewell wouldn’t have suited her.
She browsed through her wardrobe; most of her clothes were dark, and she knew Oleg would mind if she came in black. So the purple dress won out. Anja opened her liquor cabinet searching for an unopened bottle, and then went out bringing honey rakia along. Danica had already sent messages informing her she was on her way.
“She was a remarkable person, and I will always remember her dearly,” Anja said when Oleg opened the door.
“Thanks.” They hugged, and he gave her a joint he held.
“This is honey rakia from a colleague of mine. Homemade.” She showed him the bottle and the two of them went to the living room to leave it on the table.
“What’s your poison?” Oleg looked at the dozen opened bottles.
“Same as you.” Anja smiled, taking another puff, while he nodded and went for rakia glasses.
“Same as you,” she said, feeling the lingering smile in the corner of her mouth. It confused her that Oleg was not next to her. She nodded kindly to a couple standing not far from her. She assumed they were Oleg’s colleagues.
A murmur was spreading through the room; people drank, ate pastry rolls and salad, smoking weed. The apartment was big and nicely illuminated with numerous of Natalia’s handicrafts. Nearing old age, she had gotten into making lampshades out of stained glass, so the apartment was very lively and joyous when the light refracted through them.
Oleg came back with Danica and the glasses in which he poured the rakia.
“For the woman who raised me.” He raised his glass, and all three of them toasted. “So, how’s my Supergirl?” Oleg hugged Anja.
“You told him.”
“Oh what, like you wouldn’t?” Danica protested.
“Ah, who knows what I was tripping on.”
Oleg tapped his glass to hers and then saw someone and waved. A tall good-looking guy and a short chubby girl joined them.
“This is Srki, my colleague. And Rita, I think you’ve met her.” Oleg slurred, hugging them all and pushing onto the oversized couch in the middle of the living room.
The five of them settled down, with arms and legs interweaved. Oleg raised his glass, and Stefan, a friend, came over with the honey rakia topping everyone off. The joint was making its rounds, and ashes sometimes fell either on them or on the carpet with Persian motifs.
“And so, you’re left without a twin sister. Too bad, it would have been a trip to have another Anja.” Oleg exhaled the leftover smoke out of his lungs.
“I still like the superpower theory better.” Danica chimed in, and Anja agreed by snapping her fingers.
“Touché,” she said, and Oleg introduced the others to the topic using as few sentences as possible.
“What if your visions are actually déjà vu?” Rita pondered. “A recollection of a previous lifetime?” Her eyes followed the tiny cracks high on the ceiling.
Anja threw her head over Srki’s arm. “Makes as much sense to me as an astral projection.” The remark made them laugh.
“And what if the déjà vu is a glitch in your memory?” Oleg took another sip of the spirit. “An error of a leftover cache memory?”
“Only if you think we’re all cyborgs or androids.” Srki passed on the joint.
“I’m guessing someone would have fixed us. We wouldn’t die.” Anja took a hit and let her leg slip toward the floor.
“Maybe there’s no one around to fix us anymore,” said Oleg, following the play of light from the colorful pieces of glass on a lampshade.
“Where is the Mechanic? I’ll tell you - we killed him!” Rita said, imitating an older guy’s voice and causing a new wave of laughter.
“The hammer philosophy,” Stefan added, and Rita turned to knock him slightly on his head for the reference to Nietzsche, while Srki whistled, mimicking the draft.
“I’m totally fake.” Stefan smiled, taking the sip of rakia.
Oleg was making circles in the air with his fingers. “Or all of this is just a badly written code looping into infinity. Damn for loops.” Oleg raised his half-empty glass. “To indelibility!” Everyone toasted.
“Nothing better than death and weed to reflect upon one’s life with,” Danica added.
Anja’s gaze fell on Srki. She hadn't been with anyone for a while now. She caught his glance and smiled. She was aware that her little dress was pulled up a bit higher than it should have been. It wasn’t the moment for a hookup, she was pretty wasted, but she planned on calling him one of these days for a drink.
The afternoon overflowed into a hot evening, and everyone was slumped on the couch or on big pillows on the floor. Anja took a nap at one point, so later, she was sober enough to call a taxi. She kissed Oleg and Danica, who still levitated between dream states, and she went out.
In the hallway, Anja held onto the railing so as not to collapse in her heels. The next day was a workday, and she had to drink a gallon of water with aspirin to beat the hangover. Suddenly, she gawked at her hand on the railing, and removing it, she thought one bacillophobic ew. She took a step forward and immediately flew down a few stairs, barely catching the bar to avoid crashing completely. Shocked, she looked at her high heels. Her phone vibration startled her.
“Bad news, doll.” A male voice.
She moved the mobile to check the caller and it said Vlada cell. “Yes?” She asked indistinctly, not recognizing the voice.
“I can’t find Tanja anywhere. No one remembers her apart from you and the old neighbor. I spoke with the other tenants, and most of them have no recollection of her. There was also an old man there, but he didn’t want to talk, said he doesn’t socialize and doesn’t know of any Tanja.” He paused. “I hope you don’t mind me showing your photo to a few people, but no one recognized it.” Pause again.
“Anja, you there?”
She mumbled a Mhm, not knowing what to say.
“Next, I checked through all the art colleges to see if they had a Tanja of your age but found none to match the description. Also, I went back to the lawyer’s children to find out who lived in the apartment after Evelina, but that’s also a dead-end. Doll, everything points to the fact that Tanja doesn’t exist. What do you think?”
Didn’t exist? His voice echoed through her mind. What did she think? She thought she had no idea who you were and what you wanted. She disconnected the call and rested the phone on her lap. When he called her again, she turned the phone off. She could barely keep her eyes open while she carefully watched the taximeter to avoid getting ripped off by the taxi driver. The streetlights refracted as if she was looking through a whiskey glass.
Her head dropped for a minute, but she managed to compose herself. As soon as Anja entered her apartment, she dawdled to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. She looked at the time; she had to be at work in five hours. Her reflection in the mirror had smeared makeup under her eyes.
She washed up; the cold water felt nice.
She washed up again, and she stared into her reflection in the mirror.
Then she looked at the time. Looked back in the mirror, then at the time. Then at the mirror again. Time. Mirror.
She stood in the bathroom with her face and hands utterly wet as her actions repeated themselves. Every time she would look at her reflection, it felt like it was the first time. She would stop and turn to the clock as if she was supposed to measure something. This time Anja’s code threw an exception error.