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Autumn has come and the trees are turning yellow, red, brown; the small spa town in its pretty valley seems to be surrounded by flames. Under the colonnades women are coming and going to lean over the mineral springs. These are women unable to bear children, and they are hoping to gain fertility from the thermal waters.
Men are far fewer among those taking the waters here, though some are to be seen, for beyond their gynecological virtues the waters are apparently good for the heart. Even so, for every male there are nine female patients, and this infuriates the unmarried young nurse who is in charge of the pool used by the women being treated for infertility.
Ruzena was born in the town, and her father and mother still live there. Would she ever escape from this place, from this dreadful multitude of women?
It is Monday, toward the end of her work shift. Only a few more overweight women to wrap in sheets, put to bed, dry the faces of, and smile at.
"Are you going to make that phone call or not?" two of her colleagues keep asking her; one is fortyish and buxom, the other younger and thin.
"Why wouldn't I?" says Ruzena.
"Then do it! Don't be afraid!" the fortyish one responds, leading her behind the changing-room cubicles to where the nurses have their wardrobe, table, and telephone.
"You should call him at home," the thin one remarks wickedly, and all three giggle.
"The theater number is the one I know," says Ruzena when the laughter has subsided.
It was an awful conversation. As soon as he heard Ruzena's voice on the phone he was terrified.
Women had always frightened him, even if none of them had ever believed him whenhe announced this, considering it a flirtatious joke.
"How are you?" he asked.
"Not very well," she replied.
"What's the matter?"
"I have to talk to you," she said pathetically.
It was exactly the pathetic tone he had been anticipating with terror for years.
"What?" he said in a choked voice.
She repeated: "I absolutely have to talk to you."
"What's the matter?"
"Something that affects both of us."
He was unable to speak. After a moment he repeated: "What's the matter?"
"I'm six weeks late."
Trying hard to control himself, he said: "It's probably nothing. That sometimes happens, and it doesn't mean anything."
"No, this time it's definite."
"It's not possible. It's absolutely impossible. Anyway, it can't be my fault."
She was upset. "What do you take me for, if you please!"
He was afraid of offending her because he was suddenly afraid of everything: "No, I'm not trying to insult you, that's stupid, why would I want to insult you, I'm only saying that it couldn't have happened with me, that you've got nothing to worry about, that it's absolutely impossible, physiologically impossible."
"In that case it's no use talking," she said, increasingly upset. "Pardon me for disturbing you."
He worried she might hang up on him. "No, no, not at all. You were quite right to phone me! I'll be glad to help you, that's certain. Everything can certainly be arranged."
"What do you mean, 'arranged'?"
He was flustered. He didn't dare call the thing by its real name: "Well . . . you know . . . arranged."
"I know what you're trying to say, but don't count on it! Forget that idea. I'd never do it, even if I have to ruin my life."
Again he was paralyzed by fear, but this time he timidly took the offensive: "Why did you phone me, if you don't want me to talk? Do you want to discuss it with me or have you already made up your mind?"
"I want to discuss it with you."
"I'll come to see you."
"I'll let you know."
"Well, see you soon."
"See you soon."
He hung up and returned to his band in the small auditorium.
"Gentlemen, the rehearsal's over," he said. "I can't do any more right now."