My dreams continue, nothing clearly presented or logical—after all they are dreams — but always I wake up confirmed in my belief that he had once great power over me. I vaguely remember snippets: a bloodied toga, a raised foot, a cage in which I am shackled, sometimes a cave with iron bars across the entrance, prisoners hung on crosses, a dog rolling in the dirt on its back, a tunic, a sword, nets and shields, standard bearers, a Roman eagle, rivulets of blood, fine-meshed chains, and a wall of helmets worn by soldiers through the centuries. In my dreams, I see tents shaken by winds, and inside one draped with fabrics from Persia, a young man writes with a stylus, using his left hand. I am left-handed. Skewed perspectives and angles of vision sometimes make it difficult to understand and determine the truth accurately. I recognize enough of…well, of something…to persuade me when I sat on the edge of the bed in the morning that I had not been merely dreaming. In the middle of the night as I slept, I had visited elsewhere. The science fiction stories may well be correct after all.

Our balconies are separated by a high, opaque, Plexiglas screen. I can hear his voice and that of his friend or friends when they happen to be there. Last Sunday just before supper, I saw his body embrace another body, separate, then embrace again like shadowy, entwined spirits on the banks of the river Styx. Their voices were low. As quietly as possible I sat at my little wrought iron table, sipped my white wine, facing the barrier, and watched every movement of his body. I confess that I am jealous. I am jealous of the time, attention, and touch he gives to someone else, while ignoring me almost entirely. This hurts. I hate it. It never used to be that way. I was always present to him, available to serve. Yes, I believe that he has always been a virile, sexually active man taking his pleasures at will. When I hear myself whisper that, I am startled. How can I know such a thing? What do I mean by the word always, which suggests prolonged and certain knowledge of his behaviour and character?

On the following Monday morning, hearing him in the corridor chuckling with his companion, I opened my door. I could follow him because I had a doctor’s appointment, fortunately at the hospital where my neighbour works. The woman walking beside him wore jeans and a ponytail. Pretty enough, I guess, in that indistinct, forgettable way of many young females. She wasn’t wearing a mask, although he did. The mask always gives him a particular aura of power. When he turned to look at me, my knees trembled slightly for inexplicable reasons, and I like to think he moved his arm upward in a friendly waving gesture to acknowledge my presence.

I stepped back to allow them to take the elevator first, in accordance with the social distancing rules of the pandemic, and also my instinct to give him precedence at all times. A few minutes later, I saw them walking towards her car. They got in together and drove towards the train station. I walked quickly. The train station is only two blocks away. He was standing alone in the shelter with his eyes as usual on his cell phone when I got there, so his lady friend must have driven away after dropping him off. I am certain that he didn’t notice me slip behind a group of other commuters, also digitally occupied, as the train chugged into the station. It is never crowded these days, so many people having lost their jobs or working from home, if possible. I stepped up and into the same car as he, and sat two seats behind, my head down.

A half-hour later, we both got off. Keeping well behind, shielded by other commuters, we walked towards the hospital entrance. I saw him behind the glass doors checking in with security, applying the antiseptic to his hands, and removing his black mask to put on the regulation hospital mask distributed free to every one who has a legitimate reason for being there. He sauntered down the main concourse lined with closed boutiques while I answered the guard’s questions, washed my hands, exchanged my mask, and then hurried after him as he turned a corner. My appointment wasn’t for another hour, so I had plenty of time. Because I couldn’t get on the same elevator, I was confronted with a problem. Where was he going, what was he doing, and would I lose track of him for the day?

The doors slid open. Before he entered, he pressed a hand to his lower spine and leaned back as if he was easing a tension in the muscles. The move looked so familiar, something I had seen him perform many times after strenuous exertion, that I almost blurted out a name, his previous name, the name by which I had known him, but my brain folded in itself, his past name vanished, and my voice choked. He turned just before the doors shut and saw me. I was still wearing my sunglasses, my eyes being sensitive to the light, but had pulled my hood down where it nestled like a scarf around my neck, and of course the hospital mask was on my face.

Waiting for my oncologist, two hours later than the appointed time as it turned out, I pretended to read through old issues of Time, Coup de Pouce, and L’Actualité. Paying scant attention to the magazine pages, I imagined myself in a dark house situated on a cliff in the midst of a heavy fog, devoid of electricity, wandering from room to room. I opened doors and drawers, knocked on walls, warily climbed stairs while holding on to a rickety bannister, imbued with both a sense of irrevocable purpose and heart-stopping fear that something terrible would spring out and rip me apart. I had to keep myself fixed to my waiting room chair lest I flee the hospitable, chased by self-induced terror.

My neighbour’s shadow flitted in the dark house in the midst of a fog on the edge of a cliff. How could I recognize him? In my mind’s eye, Horatio, in my mind’s eye, I knew him; I recognized the great hulking shadow, possibly wielding a sword, slipping into secret rooms just ahead of me, a man of aggressive and threatening power. The shadow turned abruptly and started towards me like a malevolent spirit in a ghost story. I think I was about to beg for mercy when my name was called over the loudspeaker. At first I thought I heard an ancient name, not in English, vaguely Latin, but recognizably mine, before I realized where I was. At last, my doctor was free to see me.

In the cafeteria, which sold pre-wrapped sandwiches and coffee, and allowed a restricted number of people to sit, I gathered my thoughts and considered the likelihood of alternate, parallel universes. From my seat in a corner, I saw my neighbour at the cash register pay for a sandwich and coffee with his card. He scanned the cafeteria for a place to sit.  I shrank back into the corner to avoid detection. I didn’t want him to know why I was in the hospital. It would be a good time to follow him to wherever he had to go in this building after lunch, if he didn’t know I was also there. I waited while he quickly ate his sandwich and drank his coffee. He looked around the area and then checked his phone as he sat down.

On the phone again, I could tell that he was talking to someone, trying to keep his voice low. He stood up, collected the remains of his meal, threw them in the trash, pocketed his cell and walked right past me, although he glanced in my direction. I raised my hood, kept my head down, and noticed his brown construction boots. Waiting a few seconds, I got up and followed him, not to the elevator this time, but to a locked door in the main corridor with a blue sign: Défense d’Entrée. He applied a card key and entered. So, it seems that his work in whatever capacity allows him to go places forbidden to the general public.

While following his steps, I placed the outline of his body against the images in my dreams, and they matched perfectly. I had to admit his arm was capable of wielding a sword. A Roman sword: the idea immediately occurred to me, and the word gladius blurted forth. Yes, I whispered to myself, he must have used a Roman sword in battle like a gladiator in the arena, or a leader in battle, a Roman general. But what had I been? Had he killed me in hand-to-hand combat, say, to the amusement and cheers of thousands of plebeians in the coliseum, or captured me in the forests of Gaul? I might have served him in some other capacity and known him well enough to recognize his familiar gesture of pressing his hand against his lower back.

A couple of days after my hospital appointment, I sport a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses of phosphorescent blue. He is wearing Gortex boots this time. Following him to the plaza of giant box stores, a few essential businesses having been allowed to remain open during the pandemic, I think it odd that he doesn’t own a car, unusual for such a man, but perhaps he is environmentally conscious. The condo is ideally located: close to public transportation, stores, fast food outlets, gym, and even a public park covering many acres, including a small forest, only a fifteen-minute walk away.

It’s Saturday morning and I have learned that he shops before noon hour. I drive slowly, keeping him in sight, and park just as he enters the warehouse of tools and lumber. What does he need? Wearing the obligatory mask, I follow him at a distance from one aisle to the next. He pauses in front of a shelf load of light bulbs, my back to him on the other side, and then he wanders from aisle to aisle. I keep him in full view, sometimes separated by another customer or two. Before giant spools of chains of various dimensions, he unwinds a length and fondles it as if he has a plan in mind, but drops it and saunters to the painting sections. He looks back now and then. I keep turn my head aside, pretending to  scan the nuts and bolts on the shelves.

At one end of Aisle 13, he stands with his hands on hips like a soldier posing in battle gear, and I pause at the other end. For a few seconds we are locked, or seem to be locked, in each other’s gaze: hunter and prey, assailant and victim, two combatants about to engage. His recognition of me seems to be of such overwhelming force that he has no choice but to approach, and I none but to keep my position. He lifts an arm and steps towards me. It may have been a trick of the lighting and shadows, but his figure merges with another as if a shadow from my dreams flows into his imposing physique.

I hear the clang of chain mail or steel armour, and try to remember a Roman general’s uniform. There’s a red crest arching over his helmet, for I am certain a helmet covers his head with curving plates of metal against his cheeks, and his arm thrusts as if wielding a gladius. Even from that distance, I know that he knows me. He moves towards me with a determined step. I think he means to plunge his sword into my weak body, or to ensnare me in a net of chains. I panic, turn, and hurry out of the door. In the car I smell my own fear…fear and fascination…I shake my head clear of fantasies and try to laugh at my silly imaginings, delusions caused by anxiety, hunger and fatigue, and yet I know that I now live in the iron grip of unassailable truth.

From the security of my car, I see him exit, carrying two cans of paint with red labels. Is he painting his walls? I could offer to help but decide that would be presumptuous. He looks as he always does. A strong man with a purpose who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. We are not friends, and he has rebuffed my friendly gestures, as if they are inappropriate. I do feel it in my blood and bones, however, that I should be assisting him somehow, doing work for him according to his needs and wishes. Also, I think, if I push too far too quickly, he could turn against and destroy me like the figure in the hardware store.

I drive past him and reach the condo parking lot before he walks to the front door. Quickly following, I meet him at the elevator. I comment on the cans of paint as the doors open, and step back to allow him to enter first. Inside I keep my head bowed. It seems the proper thing to do. The two of us are alone and masked in the mirror-lined elevator. I stare at his boots and legs, and raising my eyes I quickly glance at his arms, neck, and his Roman-styled hair. I see myself in the mirrors watching him. He doesn’t look at me, scarcely acknowledges my presence, and I step back into a corner.

The impulse to beg for his attention is so shuddering that tears form, and I don’t know what to do except exclaim that I know him, that I knew him long ago, that he was a soldier, that I had served him in some way. Moved by an urge to kneel before and touch his military boots as a form of adoration and respect, my knees begin to bend. I am saved from this tempting humiliation by the opening elevator doors. I don’t want to be saved. My heart is loud and I am about to scream as he slowly walks down the corridor to his condo. As if pulled by a leash or chain, I follow dutifully behind him, my words threaten to erupt like maniacal creatures breaking free from a cage.

He notices me as he unlocks his door. I wish to enter his place, to ask to see it, to be allowed into the private domain, to be accepted as an integral part of his life. Let me paint your walls the colour of blood, I want to say, let me do the work for you. Punish me, if I don’t please. Only let me, let me live as I once lived in your service. He clicks the door shut without so much as a word. I stand outside, speechless, cut off, deprived. Once inside my own door, I lean against it, crying, and determined to make him recognize, accept, and do what should be done.


For all installments of “The Commander,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1