Love on Boogie Street


And O my love, I still recall
The pleasures that we knew
The rivers and the waterfall,
Wherein I bathed with you.
Bewildered by your beauty there,
I’d kneel to dry your feet.
By such instructions you prepare
A man for Boogie Street.


Leonard Cohen, “Boogie Street”


The sun was setting, and Mission Ranch looked deserted. The cars quiet in the parking lot, the sheep grazing on the pasture near the ocean: the idyll was just as before, when I had come here for the first time. But I knew where to find the crowd, and headed there. The bar, where American life usually bustles and goes from silent solitude to bloodbath brawls, was also just as before, as if I had left it only an hour ago. The barman was refilling the glasses of the regulars with Californian wine, the piano player was waking the keys with improvisations on “Misty,” Errol Garner’s classic, and some boogie-woogie evergreens. The tables were already set for dinner, and … Should I believe my eyes? At the bar, before a glass of wine, sat my old acquaintance Sarah Hathaway, former Miss California, and, according to unconfirmed information, a bygone lover of the ladies’ man David Roth. David, of whom I’d heard for the first time from Sarah on a June day two years ago, when she said he was irresistible like John Huston, had kissed her in front of my eyes that memorable afternoon; this was before I had heard his story. Sarah’s American blue eyes, though, weren’t exactly as they had been; they had gone grey, covered with that mist that betrays an old person’s resignation with the passing of time.

“Sarah!” I opened my arms to hug her.

“Zlatko!” she said, and squeezed herself against me.

In America these kinds of hugs are revealing, and you can judge the woman’s true feelings by how strongly she presses her upper body toward yours. Sarah was of the confident and spontaneous type; such women don’t hide their feelings for men, because they alone decide who to go to bed with and who will remain only a friend. I wish I had met Sarah as a young woman. Or that I had been a young man and able to discover whether she would have chosen me. But our lives had gone their separate ways, and what united us now was the sense that we had experienced enough of life to be able to live without illusions.

On this transparent month of June, I came for the third time to Carmel-by-the-Sea, at the Southern corner of which stood Mission Ranch. Two years had been too short a time for getting used to England. Here, I felt at home. My daughter Bistra lived an hour drive from here. The Ranch hypnotized me, not only with the ocean and its visitors, but with its history. Founded by Spanish missionaries during the 19th century, it still had scars of the war against Mexico and, of course, the flavor of the quintessential American legend: the conquest of the Wild West. I had, however, a very intimate reason for my current visit. I had befriended David here. I think I wasn’t wrong in believing that by the end of his life, he had no other friends left but me. And that filled me with a vague remorse, and with the sense that I had some unfinished business at Mission Ranch. I had come back to the crime scene, so to speak, and it was as if I was expecting to receive instructions about how to turn David’s biography into good literature.

My Erotic Memories had already been published in Bulgarian by the publisher Ciela. I continued my work on the English translation of the book’s novellas. The last of them, “Adolescent Erotica,” was about the family happiness achieved by David’s daughter. Before sending the manuscript to the printer, I had made a last-minute decision to change the daughter’s real name, Stella, for one I had made up.

The thing is that David died suddenly, and his story, taped on my recorder, couldn’t be changed anymore. With his habit of consuming women and thinking of them simply as a means to satisfy his sexual needs, David irritated my wife. By the way, I’m a lucky man, because, just like Steven King, I’m married to my ideal reader. My wife and I have listened to David’s recording together several times. Although she gave due credit to the complexity of David’s character, she couldn’t fall for him, and got angry every time I started talking about him. This stopped me from writing a novel about his life, as I had wanted to, and with that decision I’ve betrayed his dearest dream of being a character in a book.

Stella, David’s daughter, along with her husband and son, lived near Carmel. She probably bore the drama of her father, inconsolably in love with his daughter; I was sure she even carried—in her memories about him but also in the most intimate features of her character—the genes of that drama. The truth is, I hadn’t stopped thinking of her since I bid farewell to California two years ago. I had to meet her and her husband to find proof that my guesses were right. The husband turned out to be my compatriot. Could this be the icing on the cake? If yes, then I would possibly have material enough for a novel that was neither feminist nor totally made up in my imagination. Such a novel would hardly please my ideal reader. I’ve always claimed that good writers want their plots to fit as elegantly as possible the monstrous body of life, and at the same time, to be an ideally tailored piece of clothing, in tune both with the caprices of fashion and the ideals of beauty and truth.

Yet, the veracity of each story changes depending on the viewpoint of those participating in it. That’s why I wanted to give each of them the floor. But even then, as if by some unwritten rule that, out of helplessness, people call destiny, something comes out of the blue, something about which no one knew anything, and that something—this testimony of a witness—turns the idea they had about themselves upside down.

As per my novella, Vladimir’s (his true name, mentioned in David’s recording) and Stella’s idea of themselves was that they were a happy family. Each of them had overcome—or forgotten—the growing pains of youth. They had a son who had grown up with both mother and father and seen only love and understanding.

I had sent them my book with a dedication. Vain like all writers, I wanted Vladimir to read a novella in which I had presented him as a positive character. When I sent word to the family that I was planning to come to Mission Ranch, they invited me to be their guest.

I arrived at the Ranch one day before our scheduled meeting in their home at 27984 Cabrillo Highway, South of Carmel. I looked forward to satisfying my curiosity about the degree to which my made-up story about their love matched reality. My wife, who stayed put in London, also encouraged me to bring the story to an end. Moreover, that mysterious cassette with which David had inflamed my curiosity, allegedly containing the confession of some dead woman, was nowhere to be found after his senseless death. Actually, there was a magnificent irony in the way he died over his young maid’s body. Orgasm, the supreme meaning of his life, proved to be the weapon by which she perished. He had lived as if on Boogie Street, in service of his flesh, and this same flesh let him down in spite of his brain’s inexhaustible desire for even more of the same.

I couldn’t go to the funeral; I had just arrived in London. I sent Leticia, his wife, an email asking her if anything had been left for me, but didn’t get a response. Were I a detective and were all of this happening in an American movie, I would have gone to St Martin and searched through his personal belongings. But I was just a writer, allowed to fill in the missing facts with imaginary ones. By the logic of life’s grand design, all pieces of the puzzle were in place but one: the past life of Vladimir Panov, which I had totally made up.

My old acquaintance Sarah Hathaway invited me to sit next to her. She looked emotional, but as if for some reason beyond the surprise of our unscheduled encounter. I ordered from the same wine she was drinking. We clinked our glasses and engaged in the small talk two people use to delay uncomfortable topics while summoning the courage to tackle them. I was looking at a couple at the other end of the bar when Sarah touched my elbow and said:

“I have something for you at home.”

“At home?”

“You remember David Roth, don’t you?”

“Of course I do! He wanted me to write a book about him…”

“Absurd that he died, isn’t it? I thought he would outlive me. He was so healthy and took such care of himself.”

“Yes. I was knocked out. His death totally changed my plans. I’d begun drafting the frame of a novel about his life.”

“When was it? I can’t remember anymore, but before he took off after his last visit to Carmel, he…”

“David died two years ago, end of May…“

“Yes, it was already warm, now I remember. So, he stopped by on his way to the airport, and left a packet for you. He was in a hurry, and I couldn’t ask him how to find you, I thought he had written the address on the package. It turned out he had only put your name. Since that time, I’ve been hoping that you would reappear. There was nobody to ask about you, nobody knows you here. I have no connection with his widow, and she hardly knows who I am.”

“And you don’t know what’s in this packet?” I could barely restrain my impatience.

“I haven’t opened it. It’s a small package, I would say. Do you have a minute now to come with me?”

Did I have a minute? I was already positive that the packet contained the cassette I had been looking desperately for two years already.

Sarah occupied a coquettish bungalow on Scenic Road, just across from the beach. We entered the living room, where there stood an old-fashioned mahogany desk in front of a wall covered with bookshelves, furniture that was a bit strange for a beach house. The windows opened toward the ocean. Sarah showed me to the chair next to the French window, while she bent heavily at the desk, unlocked the bottom drawer, and took out a small manila envelope.

“Here,” she said. “Who says you can’t receive a letter from a dead man?”

Breathless, she slumped in the chair behind the desk. I asked her to open the envelope. Sarah turned the desk lamp on, the twilight outside turned blue. Through the cracked-open window you could hear the ocean’s measured beat.

“There is a cassette,” she said finally. “And a letter.”

“Sarah, please, would you read the letter aloud?”

“You can hardly imagine how many books I have read in the chair you are sitting in… You know, Zlatko, I’m a better reader than actress. And how strange that now you are sitting in my favorite chair and asking me to read aloud, that is, to perform again. To perform a role not in a play crafted by a playwright but, judging by the look in your eyes, in something that is going to be very dramatic. Please remind me to give you my address to send me some of your books in English.”

Sarah put her eyeglasses on and lay the letter under the light.

“’Dear Zlatko,’ … hmm, it was written on May 29, 2011, just two years ago. ‘Dear Zlatko, the cassette in this mini-recorder contains the story of a woman who is no longer among the living. I got it from a colleague, a reporter with the newspaper, who used to shadow police officers. The woman was identified as a certain Diana Bonev from Varna, Bulgaria. Since I heard the story, I’ve been tormented by one question: whether or not to give it to my daughter Stella. Please listen to the recording and you will understand my dilemma. I kept a copy, and maybe one day, at my deathbed, I’ll make up my mind to give it to her. You’ve been the perfect listener. Keep being so patient with the words of people who confide in you. I know that from now on my entire life is in your hands. Please be careful with it. Take care, Your David.’”

Sarah Hathaway’s voice didn’t shake, despite the fact that her eyes, when I looked up, were misty. Sarah must really have been an excellent actress. But the tears! The tears were a testimony that David’s letter had awoken something personal and long forgotten in her soul.

So I made the sudden decision to invite her to join me in listening to the recording. She agreed, with visible pleasure. I went to the store and bought new batteries. It was dark when I came back. Sarah had set a cold dinner on the old oak table in the kitchen. We opened two bottles of beer and ate in silence. Then, we moved to the living room and I pressed the button of the little machine.

There was noise at the beginning, and then a female voice spoke, and I was astonished by its hoarse timbre; it sounded like the voice of someone who had smoked for many years. It was the voice of a woman used to imposing herself, and whose larynx after menopause usually turns into a mouthpiece of her disdain for world’s vanity.


My name is Diana, I’m fifty-three years old. I’ll take my own life two hours from now. Two hours is enough time for me to tell itmy short, miserable life, needed by no one I don’t care that maybe no one will hear what I’ve gone through. Then again, somebody might. I know you’re here, Vladi, I saw you once on California Street, near the Fairmount Hotel. There was no way I was wrong: it was you, my Vladi. Vladimir Panov. I hadn’t seen you since then… But could I ever mistake your slightly careless gait and that spontaneous virility that you exuded even back in school, when you were barely out of puberty and had immediately become all the girls’ object of desire. I didnt say anything to you. Someone told me that you got married here, in America, to an American. Its funny, isnt it, for a person like me to express any hope, but still, you never know, maybe my story will find its way to you somehow, to remind you of the distant past, which is gone for good. I’ll tell it in the language of this country: I can’t imagine you’ve forgotten Bulgarian, but maybe it will be easier for you not to hear it in your native language: even at this moment, I still want to protect you… as much as I can.”

Sarah made a T with her hands, asking me to pause. With her dark-blue veins beautifully winding under her liver-spotted skin and the red manicure of her long fingers, it looked like the last time-out, a premonition that the end of her game was close. I pressed the pause button.

“Zlatko, I promise no more interruptions, but just wanted to thank you that you decided to share the tape with me. I used to love David, there was even something more between us. I’m glad I introduced you to him and that you became friends. If only you knew how glad I am that this recording is in English! It could have been in this woman’s native language and then I would be unable to understand anything. Please, let’s keep going, this is the most interesting thing that has happened to me in years.”

“No, no, I’m not bitter. I’m just robbed of all hope, betrayed, crushed—harmed, ruined… or rather, a ruin—a woman without a future. And we were so young! We were classmates at the French High School in Varna. You were a communist brat—I had ended up there by accident. I had straight As in junior high and ranked first on the admissions test, without any personal connections. My father had been declared—oof, I don’t know this word in English, but it means a person whom the authorities don’t trust—but still, my mother’s uncle had connections to the communists and somehow no one made the effort to take me off the list of accepted students. They simply increased the number of students admitted so that all of you, the comrades’ kids, would get in.”

“We lived in a dorm, at least for the first two years, if I recall correctly, in an old building on Stefan Karadzha Street, near the Sea Garden. It was great! In the morning we would come down to the classrooms straight from our bedrooms. Afternoons began in the schoolyard, in the early fall those were sweetly carefree hours of chattering about the summer, about the boys, about the teachers—while in the spring and in the early summer, they were filled with the intoxicating expectation that something would happen. But even after it happened, the expectations didnt stop tying my stomach in knots: I would see you from afar, surrounded by girls from my class whom I slept with.”

(I have to say that at this moment the expression on Sarah Hathaway’s face didn’t change at all. I was observing her carefully.)

“Oh yes, girls, I knew how libidinous you were, and I hated every single one of you, so narcissistic, but in fact so completely at the mercy of your own desires. And at the same time, I longed for you girls to be mine: I wanted to dominate you, to control you, to use your weaknesses, to mock you when you put on airs during afternoon classes between three and sevenpretending to be interested in the lessons, when in fact the only thing you were thinking about was what would happen that night, after dinner and especially after the teacher on duty turned out the lights and I would slip into one of your beds and the whimpers of pleasure you received at my hands would evoke the greenest envy in the girls in the nearby beds. Some of them pleasured themselves, so as not to burst. But all of that disappeared with the morning bell, lying hidden until the following night. During the day we were simply girls and boys united by dreams, laughter and tears, innocent for a long time, several years, until the moment we left the boarding school and were on our own “in life.” Or with life. I don’t know which one is the correct preposition in English.”

“In” said Sarah. “I would say ‘in life.’”

“The memory of that now is so sad. And I’ll die two hours from now. I’ll die just like my love for you—suddenly and for good. Could I have imagined back then that I would end my life prematurely… what could that possibly mean? Has anyone ever determined when death is timely? The difference is that I will put an end to my life by my own hand, while my love was killed by others, by other things, by other people, by “life,” and it is precisely for this reason that it has continued smoldering within me, killing me slowly and gradually… until I finally arrived here.  At true death, caused by the unbearable memory of the most unbearable beauty.”

“The beauty of my love for youthe magnificent, one and only Vladimir Panov. I’m now calling up a memory of that love of mine—of that most beautiful of all beautiful and promising beginnings—to make it easier to put the strychnine in my glass and drink it down.”

“Poor woman! I’ve never had the strength to go that far,” Sarah whispered, and put her fingers in front of her lips.

“If youre not already convinced of it, one day youll have to arrive at that innermost revelation about man: the more beautiful a memory is, the more painful it is and the more strongly it reminds us of death. Because you can’t believe that something even more beautiful could happen after that. It didnt happen to me, in any case

“I first caught sight of you at the beginning of eighth grade, we had just gotten back from the autumn labor brigade, we were supposed to have gym class during second period, I was walking down the hallway in my running pants and T-shirt, and you were coming towards me, taller than I was, with that gait that I would dream about my whole life, the gait of a lion ignoring the puny animals around him, except for those which youd picked out as prey; you had been looking at my thighs, and when you got close to me your gaze shifted to my breasts… I must have felt that, because there was no way I was composed enough to watch your eyes… and for the first time, truly for the first time, I remember because it had never happened to me before then, I felt some wetness between my thighs the moment we passed… I immediately went to the bathrooms and saw the stain on my running pantsan ephemeral wetness, which seemed to precede the shivers beneath my breasts, but surely the order was the other way around, however, back then those things were new to me and Im likely adding subsequent knowledge to this memory, knowledge of the jarring vibrations which your looks, and later, your kisses would throw my body into, a thrill that I could not experience with any woman since I lost you. And since your gaze, even when we first met, made me realize what I possessed, instead of going to gym class I rushed to the bathroom to see… not the wet stain on my pants… but to study my legs and breasts. I realized that I had slender funnel-shaped thighs, that’s how it’s called, I guess, the triangle between them was opened wide, my hips were just barely beginning to curve at the sides. My breasts were more than impressive, braless, covered only by the white cotton material of my gym shirt, they jutted out round and firm from a broad base. I pulled up my shirt and as I looked at them I felt myself growing aroused: my own breasts were like those of a Greek goddess, yet not made of marble, but of warm, pulsating flesh. Even now they look good, they were my pride and joy throughout my whole unhappy and tumultuous sex life.”

“I recall during that September I was seized by the restlessness of anticipation, an absolutely unclear expectation that something had to happen, only because a good-looking guy had caused me to see myself with new eyes. Summer had worn itself out with sun, the drizzling Varna autumn was on its way, yet I felt like a bud beginning to burst open.”

In spite of her promise, Sarah showed again the pause sign. I had no choice but to obey.

“This girl reminds me of those same years of my own life … but it’s not my story we’re listening to now,” she said, and indicated that I could go on.

“We were in the same class even in the preparatory year, but in those years, you boys were on a different academic track. So, I started passing by the door of your classroom often to catch a glimpse of you. In the afternoon you played basketball in the schoolyard, I hadnt paid any attention until then, but ever since I passed you in that hallway I ate lunch quickly and ran outside to watch. You were good, something like the team captain, you made lots of baskets, I could sense that the others were always looking at you, but you didn’t even glance at me… it was as if you weren’t seeing anyone… Finally, in the middle of October, at an evening party you invited me to dance. A tango. One of the upperclassmen was playing accordion… Oh, that tango was like one long kiss. It couldnt end with the end of the music and, without realizing it, I followed you out into the courtyard, into the darkthats how I remember it, pitch black, perhaps there were lit street lamps, but in the schoolyard all the lights were out, the last evening classes were surely already over, you were leaning against some railing, it was as if I could sense you by smell, some other music was wafting out from inside, it wasnt a tango but these Beatles geniuses, the rest of the world disappeared, I slipped into your arms and you slowly raised my face to yours, I closed my eyes and opened my lips and you pressed yours to them… what pleasure washed over me, I can feel it at this moment almost with the same clarity, who knows, perhaps I can feel it even more strongly now than then, things in memories are usually exaggerated, since subsequent experience has been layered on top of them…  but God damn it, how is it possible that after thousands of often ugly fucks, mostly with women, my memory is still in a condition to bring to light my lifes first kiss, that promise of happiness, of eternal life, that innocent and naïve feeling that there is eternal love and that love is everything in this world. And perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me, causing me to make up that which I really wanted to have happened? No, no and no again! That’s exactly how it was, but everything that followed contradicted it and strove to turn it into a lie. If only I could forget it… or if it hadn’t happened… But here I am, in the final hour of my pathetic life, trying to return to its beginning, to rewind the film, albeit devoid of any hope that it could be shot in some other way.  How stupid that youre not here, so I could remind you of that time and you could once again raise my face to yours andand again press your lips to my open, virgin for your kiss lips. And to promise me that you would not do again what you did… you wouldn’t lie to me that you’d be mine forever, you wouldn’t deceive me as you deceived me then. I’m surely being unfair! You simply could not love me as I loved you…” 

“Well, Im not going to sit here and psychoanalyze you in any caseespecially not now, when in order to find the strength to kill myself I want to transport myself back to that time when I was truly, unreservedly happy. You and I were from different classes in that “classless society”—as they drummed it into our heads almost every day. Perhaps that played some part, but I wonder whether it was important? Did someone forbid you from loving me? Did someone wag their finger at you? No, you were just a spoiled little mommas boyand that spoiled sense of entitlement was reinforced by the girls who stuck to you like flies to honeyand nobody gave you a compassa moral compass, what a pompous phrase… yet true!… nor did you seek out a compass in order to see that its needle would point to me, to me and me alone. Your south! Or, if you prefer, your north—ever since you were a child they had taught you to keep working your way up ever higher. It got cold up there, however, while I was warmth, the womb, the loyalty, the sunny mood, the southern light that you needed to withstand the sickening monotony and gutlessness your parents and the fucking party they served kept pushing you towards.”   

“Shit, all of that is layers that built up later. Back then, in eighth grade, we continued kissing and fondling each other, turning each other on and thinking that this excitement was all there was! And neither one of us made a move to go any further, to desire that which is known by the ambiguous word ‘intercourse’… we were still young, inexperienced, shy… and scared that someone would see us and we would get in trouble. They would surely expel us from school—the handbook was in lockstep with official attitudes: no sex whatsoever for school children. Plus, there was no place to do it. Back then, we still didn’t know what it meant to ‘rent an apartment,’ we lived at the boarding school. Come on now, why am I making all these excuses, we simply didn’t have the necessary imagination for such things.”

“The summer came, school let out, we each went off on various vacations… and when school brought us back together in September, you greeted me coldly and I could sense that our kisses needed either to wait for better times or to simply be forgotten. We would talk from time to time, but neither of us touched on the smoldering subject, I would see you around the schoolyard with various girls, I started hearing that you were going with a stunner from the neighboring class, but later that died down, too, but among the girls in the dorm your reputation as a good lover was spreading. What exactly that meant, nobody couldor wanted toexplain, but for me the shocking thing was that you had started actually sleeping with girls. So there was somewhere to go after all, there were girls who grabbed at that thing which had hardened between your belly and mine while we were kissing, and they had spread their legs to accept it lovelessly, for pleasure alone. One of us girls became famous, especially at the beginning of ninth grade, for giving head to any guy who asked. I think you slept with her, too. Then, in tenth grade, I started slipping into the girls’ beds in the evening to get revenge on you—full-on masturbation, as if I were competing with you…”

“Tenth grade at the French High School… At the other high schools, people would have already graduated at 18, but we still had one final year ahead of us. I was born in April. And exactly some time around my birthday, a hormonal frenzy gripped me so wildly that I decided to confess my love to you and sleep with you. While my love had been building up like a festering pimple during those two years, not a day went by when I didn’t think about you and remember the days of our kisses, of our unfinished sexual arousal, which washed over my body and kept my nervous system in a state of constant tension, which I took as love. Oh, Vladi, after so many years of sexual excess and ruined feelings, I can say that yes, I do know what love is… Love is an eternal feeling of deep connectedness to one single man, whose happiness is the most important thing you have to look after throughout your whole life. And if he in turn looks after your happiness in the same way, then love is requited.”

(Sarah smiled, as if at some recollection.)

“Vladi, you surely dont even remember me, but I never stopped looking after you my whole lifeeven though you weren’t there to take advantage of it. Im not certain whether unrequited love is necessarily unhappy loveOkay, so my love for you didnt give me wings, but in any case it helped me avoid becoming definitively embittered towards everything and everyone. At the end of the day, I turned its corrosive poison against myself and here I am, in the hour before I self-destruct once and for all. In this hour, I’m thinking about you, my love. And I drank the nectar of my love secretly, in the most hidden depths of my soul—hope never abandons even the most fallen person.”

“But back then, when I had just turned 18, I already was a slave to my sexual juices. Given my unconscious ignorance about the true dimensions of love, they kept me in an exulted state of tension, which I took for love. But that was only the beginning of love. So as not to freeze there, love needs two people—it needs the other, who also feels the tension of the juices washing over his body and who also thinks that this is it, love! And whats more: back then we didnt know what awaited us in so-called life, our brains were free from social engagements, our lives seemed ordered by our parentsor disordered, depending on how the Party looked upon your parentsand we could focus all of our energy on that attraction, which remained unclear until the very end: is it love or just sex, or do the two go together, is it a fleeting attraction or something lasting, forever and ever—an attraction immunized against external influences. But still, God, how naïve I was! But I’ve stayed naïve to this very day… I’m ashamed to admit it, but because I loved you, I was saving my virginity for you. I was saving myself for you! And when I was finally suffocating with desire, I went to you and offered myself up to you.”

“That sounds awful somehow, even to me after so many years of sexual experiencesome people might think my life has been a depraved life, loose, perverted, they pile on dozens and dozens of labels just to distinguish their bourgeois ideas about morality from my obvious immoderation I don’t want to say “liberation,” because only here, in America, I realized what it means to be truly liberated… But examined without prejudices, the truth cannot be otherwise: I challenged you to come meet me alone and mindlessly, intuitively I started playing all my feminine tricks to get you to really look at me, even with the very corners of my brain I realized that you might see me as just another schoolgirl dying to spread her legs for you. Big deal, I told myself, let things start off that way, and we’ll see where they go from there. Once it falls into my net, the fish will be mineand I’ll cook it up however I want.”

“No, no, back then I wasn’t so cynical. At this moment my brain is so overheated that I’m getting confused. My deepest desire is to be honest with respect to you and our past, Vladi. But my memory is uncertain. What happened in tenth grade seems beautiful and divine to me at some moments; a promising start, when both you and I were pure, innocent, entranced, deeply feeling adolescents. At other moments, however, it seems to me like a power struggle, for the sake of satisfying our sexual desires. And it was a struggle, in which you always played the role of the deceiver, and I—the victim, no less. Thirty-five years later, that has to be the most likely version. At the end of the day, I will die without you knowing about me, without you caring what happened to me in the years after you took my virginity. However, my honesty demands that I be fair. I never managed to come to hate you. I never succeeded in seeing you merely as a callous, cynical player. Never! I am convinced that there were reasons that were stronger than you were, which guided your behavior back then. For that reason I don’t want to… and I can’t… stick you with all the blame for my ruined life. But no, I don’t want to free you from guilt in order to appear noble in my own eyes. I’m sure that you are a wonderful person who in the period of your adolescent erotica acted badly out of ignorance, out of inertia, due to a confused moral system—or the lack of a moral system, due to some kind of arrested development. And I have maintained this conviction my whole life. So I was looking after you, Vladi: by nurturing your image in my soul and developing it as if I were living with you… And somewhere amidst its most mysterious deeds, my soul believes that you have evolved in the same way in your life. I prefer to die with this belief, so that nothing can kill it in reality. All of this is a sure sign that what I felt for you, Vladi, was love. Love!             But back then, when I invited you out on a date to that café by the seaside, I didn’t know it. Then I was dying for you to be mine. To possess you. Me alone. But I could only possess you by showing you how feminine I was, only by convincing you that I was better in bed than the other… whores. They really did act like whores, while I didn’t sleep with guys, I was saving myself for you. You just needed to find that out, I thought to myself, and that would make you love me. On top of everything, we had been together in eighth grade, you couldn’t have forgotten our kisses.”

            “Strain your memory, lift me out of oblivion, see me sitting at the table in that café, which had just opened for the season—it was still early in the year, but the weather was unusually warm—the sea was a pale green, a spring chill was in the air, the trees had barely begun to bud, the simplest, most ordinary landscape in our most ordinary little homeland. I’m sitting there staring intently at you, I am completely open to you and, what else can I talk about, besides reminding you that my first kisses had been with you and that I hadn’t forgotten them and that now I’ve grown up and I want you to come back to me for good. No ambiguities, I grabbed the bull right by the horns. You, insofar as I can trust my memory, didnt frown, you didnt push me away, on the contrary, you told me that you would never forget how we had kissed—for you, too, they had been your first real kisses—in the Sea Garden or in far-off corners up against the school fence, before the bell rang to call us to bed. The waitress interrupted us, we ordered cake and Schweppes, you took my hand, set it on the table and began stroking my fingers. We sat there in silence for a long time. Until they brought our cake.”

“We started eating and chatting—about school, of course. Do you remember now? The day was fading, our plates were empty, you looked me in the eye and stroked my fingers, I think you felt awkward, but I had sprouted wings, the tables around us had started filling up with people, most of them older, it was time for us to get up and go somewhere into the darkness to kiss. We went down to the beach. The sea wasnt visible, but the sound of every wave hitting the sand echoed in my heart like a slow second hand, measuring out time in a new way: stretched out, sweet, endlessly promising, as if it would never end. I didn’t know then that there were memories, that things stood before me and I also didn’t realize that one day they would be behind me… I was a blank page, a pure soul, an as-of-yet unopened treasure chest, an untouched virgin. I was the richest woman [in the world]—rich with promise—but I didn’t know it. What I did know, what I could only feel, were the erotic impulses that were pushing me wildly towards you, a future man, also rich with promise.”

“I was a little afraid of the dark, but you took me by the hand and said that there was no one on the beach at this hour, that we were alone under the starsand bright stars had indeed risen in the sky above us, I have never seen them that bright again, I have always lived in cities, in rooms, hidden away, I searched for stars on the skin of the thousands of female lovers who gave themselves over to me with unexpected, perverse voluptuousness. And perhaps I was afraid of the impending tearing, of that unknown, yet so eagerly anticipated penetration. We started kissing like crazy, I unclasped my bra under my blouse and slid your hands beneath it, I wanted you to touch my breasts, my head was spinning… and at the moment when I would have lost consciousness, a searchlight began feeling its way over the beach, it passed over us and retreated out to sea; the coast guard was doing its job. Startled, I realized that I didnt want it to happen on the sand, it was too risky to put our most intimate moment out on display: even the most starry darkness was not sufficient cover for a couple in love. That’s exactly how I thought of us, as a couple: for the first time I also included you in something that we would do together. Or that we shouldn’t to, as it would expose us to danger.”

“Despite all the spontaneity of my love, Vladi, the fear of punishment was always there inside melater, far too soon, actually, I realized that the darkness in which we wanted to hide was actually a metaphor for the evil that controlled everything, even our bodies. It had stalked us, that darkness, rather than protecting us. But we, blinded by the light of our adolescent bodies and dreams, did not yet have defense mechanisms… those came later… Back then I could never have believed that I needed to protect myself even from you… to create a defense mechanism for myself. In moments of arousal, in those instants when you as a person were enraptured by my love for youwhen you drank from ityou were separate from that public morality, which was viciously waiting to catch us red-handed in love and to punish usyou were innocent, from my point of view. But most of the time I wasn’t there by your side, you had forgotten me and then you had once again fused with that which slowly, but surely destroyed me… and led me to this point, to this poison. But I free you from blame. I, who never ceased to feel love for you throughout my whole life, I have the right to free you from blame I’m not sure whether it’s a question of forgiveness, since your sinfulness has not been proven. But insofar as I suspect that you are part of the guilt—something like a personal incarnation of public guilt—I want to exonerate you.”

“The tape is running out—I need to flip it over. As a good reporter, I know that this little gadget always needs to be set and ready to go from the very beginning… but my report has turned out to be longer than the time allocated to me…”

[While I was flipping the cassette over, Sarah didn’t move her eyes from the ocean, but she was actually gazing somehere farther away, deep down into herself.]

“Look, I pressed the button on my lifes final lengths of tape. Remember those huge magnetophones of our youth? I want to make sure I have the strength… Where was I? Oh yes

“Try to remember what happened as precisely as you can! You let go of my breasts, I nervously refastened my bra and buttoned up my shirt, we left the beach and headed down a walkway lit up by street lights, I stopped you and kissed you to overcome the awkwardness of the situation. We promised we would see each other every day, even though we were in different tracks at school, and that you would look for a place where we could where we could what? Well, it went without saying that it was no longer an option for us to just make out on the streets and for you to come in your pants, as happened two years ago. I didnt stop to wonder then where you had slept with all those other girls, but it turns out that most of them had taken you to their houses when their parents were gone. You had sometimes taken advantage of your own parents’ absences. But I got it into my head that you wanted it to be more special with me. And you gave in. At least you showed that you, too, wanted it to be more special. May passed, with its proms, its peonies and summer plans, but we still hadn’t found our place. Everyone had already guessed that we were a couple. This earned us unofficial jealousy from the girls and official reprimands from teachers as well as your and my parents. But we were blinded by each other… I was blinded, I can’t speak for you with certainty… and we each were both constantly aroused by the other—in our imaginations and almost every day, when we went out together—and we didnt pay attention to anything except our desire for that arousal to be made real in something which for me was still unimaginable. I have never craved sex as much as I did during that spring.”

“And so finally one afternoon in June you took me to your place. You told me that your parents had gone on vacation and taken your younger sister with them. Shivers ran down my spine. Even now I can remember how my nipples hardened, how I was trembling as I walked with you towards your home—it was on that beautiful boulevard along the Sea Garden—how we went into your house and how we crazily… no, I don’t want to remember anymore, I want to put the memory off, because I know that after it, death will come. Back then I didnt know that when something you have wanted so badly finally comes to pass, regret sets in and you wish it hadn’t happened so you could keep looking forward to it. Is there any thrill greater than that of anticipation?

“But time is merciless, it finally happened. You were not surprised that I was a virgin, you had expected it, you were very gentle with me. And that was that! My sex life had begun. It began at the very crux of my pure love, in the beginning it simply fed that love, it sucked you into it as well, it turned out that after that first time it wasn’t so hard for us to find places for sex: we did it anywhere it seemed sufficiently certain that no one was going to barge in on us, we even did it outdoors, we already knew how to give each other pleasure, in one of the following times I consciously experienced a real orgasm for the first time, I learned how to help you refrain from coming until I had come.”

“But once begun, all good things start coming to an end. That end can be a new beginning, but it can also be boredom, decline, despair, separation, death. We can head towards that end slowly or gradually, putting off as far as we can in time… nothing human can go on forever… but something can also bring about the end suddenly, brutally, with the cruelty of innocence or of morality.”

“Our sexual feast continued into the middle of August. We were the second shift on the work brigade, sunburned from the beach, with vague dreams for our final autumn at school and what awaited us after that. While on the brigade, we slept at the local village school: the boys on mattresses in the gymnasium, the girls on cots in a couple of classrooms. At night there was only one teacher on duty, who slept on the first floor, so you often came and slept next to me in my bed. We didn’t have sex, because we weren’t sure whether the girls around us were asleep. Besides, that initial thirst, which had kept my throat constantly dry and feverish, had been quenched a bit. We could lie side by side more calmly, and when you grew too excited, I would help you dissolve the pressure with my hand.” 

“I was sick and running a fever that day; in the evening you came to give me medicine and then lay down next to me. We both unwittingly fell asleep. Some time around midnight I woke up from the blazing lights and saw the teacher on duty next to the bed shoving you and chasing you off like a dog. You left sleepily, you didn’t even manage to kiss me, while the teacher, of course, set upon me with insults and threats of serious consequences. You didn’t dare flout the rules again for the whole rest of the brigade. You didn’t avoid me, during the day we still went out to work together and held hands in the evenings. But something had changed between us. You didn’t come looking for me when we got back to Varna.”

“On the first day of school, the principal called me in to inform me that the teachers’ council had expelled me and that I was being transferred to a normal high school. They kicked me out, but they didn’t even lower your grade for behavior. How could I have known that the image of the most painful, fatal parting of my life would be a dusty bus on a sweltering August afternoon, which had just driven the brigadiers back to town from the village, and your back with a backpack moving farther and farther away from me down a street with flowering linden trees? You had gotten off the bus before me and that whole picture was burned onto my eyes from the steps of the bus. A breeze blew from somewhere and the leaves on the linden trees turned their backs, like girls ashamed of the wind blowing up their skirts.”

“You abandoned me and slowly, but surely forgot me. I can’t say ‘we forgot each other,’ because I, in direct opposition to you, kept remembering you ever more clearly. But I immediately began struggling against that ever-increasing memory. At my new high school, I rushed to seduce my fellow schoolgirls: aggressively, unscrupulously, and hopelessly. I used that final year of high school to perfect the art of sex with women, which later came in very handy in overcoming my loneliness. I can’t say why I chose to fight in precisely this way. The most elementary explanation is that after you, I didn’t want to have any relationships—least of all sexual ones—with other men. But the desire to get revenge on all men also played a role. I didnt care what you would think of me, since you had dumped me so cruelly.”

“And here is how I ended up on boogie street!”

“I don’t know if you have ever listened to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Boogie Street,’ which he performs with Sharon Robinson? But since I’ve heard it, I listen to the tune non-stop. It’s as if it were written about me. I was the woman kicked out of love. You instructed me how to reach boogie street—‘by such instructions you prepare [me] for boogie street,’ says it—and I burned out in the fire set up every night by hot men-dressed-like-women; a fire at once sultrier than the hottest missionary sex and colder than the extinct heart’s ashes.”

“Wait, wait a second!” said Sarah, without even bothering to show me the sign for a pause. “Is she talking about that Boogie Street? And had Leonard Cohen written about it? I don’t remember having heard it in my day.”

“He wrote it while still in Montreal,” I said and pressed the pause button. “Boogie Street is indeed the Boogie Street in Singapore. It was a famous place for liberated sex at the time of your youth.”

“Oh I remember, some of my friends used to go there,” said Sarah. “It seemed as if these Asian transvestites were the harbingers of the sexual revolution. But then I … I was just over 30.” Sarah stopped as if hesitant to go on and sighed heavily. Then she turned her face toward me, a magnificent face of ultimate, ageless beauty, and blurted her confession: “David cut me out the same way Diana‘s love was slashed by that boy. Zlatko, I’m infinitely grateful that you let me hear the story of this woman, with whom I have so much in common. The curse of being a female! But she was braver than me. I didn’t spend my life on boogie street. I was a conformist. I considered ideal love an illusion. I married. Had a child. I performed the lives of others, played roles in made-up stories.  And here I am, thanks to you I’m hearing a real story that makes me feel ashamed of myself.”

“Be patient, Sarah, let’s listen till the end,” I said, and pressed the button to roll back the band so that we could hear the missed passage.

“You men are all base egoists, but back then you deluded me, because while we were together you had always been so gentle and devoted and I had imagined that you were the embodiment of the male nature. Conversely, women were ready to die for me. I was very good in bed and my fame spread throughout Varna over the years. It is surely a natural gift. Women, especially women in that closed society, were shy, as if they were uneasy about expecting to have an orgasm without being violated by a man. After you, Vladi, no one else has penetrated me. I never allowed anyone to violate me, not even with my consent. I was no stunner, but I had a certain charm—today they call it “charisma”—and lots of men tried to seduce me, even if they knew which way I swung. The fact that I batted for the other team wasn’t a problem for them, they were omnivores, as long as they had something to come into. At that time, however, I didn’t know a single woman who wanted to sleep with a homosexual man; besides, no homosexual man would dare come out of the closet! But women, above all, don’t brag. This made my discrete sex life possible, which was in total contradiction to the morality of the day… not only that, it was punishable by public censure, and could even get me sent to a labor camp… yes, it became possible for my homosexual life to continue until the moment I left the country—I flew off to America on exactly the same day in August when I had seen your disappearing back for the last time 25 years earlier—and in this way lending a sense of completeness to my existence. Every person earns self respect by having a reputation for being the best at something, for doing it professionally, so to speak. Being the best lesbian was a question of professional honor for me. And it earned me respect.”

“The cruel irony in all this does not escape me, Vladi. The women I slept with were deeply unhappy. There was nothing deprave about them—they simply didn’t know what to do with their lives… with their free time, if you will. After I graduated from high school and we all scattered in various directions, I turned my attention towards the young ballerinas at the opera. I had decided not to have long-term relationships. And this was not hard for me at all, because at that time I still couldn’t fall in love with a woman. They are too characterless, they wait for you to control them, they keep cooking up intrigues: it’s terrible to be alone among women, where the opposite is lacking, you fall into unbelievable pettiness; jealousy and treachery take over even the most timid women; their only good quality is that they fall in love deeply and lastingly and suffer afterwards. But I would leave every lover as soon as I sensed that she had fallen in love with me. I was ruthless. And that just made me all the more desirable. The ballerinas fluttered around me, they tried to overcome their collective impotence through solo performances in bed. Then they flew off and grew old. I started getting tired of them and somehow I accidentally discovered that married women are far more interesting sex-objects. And objects of observation. One of my marvelous ballerinas introduced me to a beautiful middle-aged woman at a restaurant once, presenting her as the wife of one of the citys communist bosses; you surely remember him, he was a friend of your fathers. This woman called me a week or so later and invited me over for coffee. She had looked me up in the phone book and wanted someone to talk to. She didn’t work and I later decided she would have been a good prototype for a Milan Kundera novel, whose female characters also sleep with dissident intellectuals who earn their living by day as housepainters. I only read Kundera once I was here, in the States, but he made me strongly recall my bored communists Madonnas.”

Once again, Sarah showed me the stop-the-game sign, but I ignored it. Perhaps she wanted to tell me that she had read Kundera. Or ask me if I had met him and what I think of him.

“This ‘comrade’s’ pretext was transparent and I readied myself for my next easy catch. We had barely finished our coffee before we threw ourselves on her double bed, behind heavy curtains, we made love at length and voluptuously, not like with the ballerinas, who came quickly and jumped up out of bed to go to rehearsal. And I’ll admit something else to you: this woman excited me so much that I wanted her to bring me to orgasm. There was more fat beneath her skin than her body needed, but she managed to use it unbelievably erotically: she would pant as if on the cusp of coming, then she would pull away and start in again, showing me she wanted to switch roles. At first I didn’t give in, but at one moment I gave myself over to her hands, my nipples were simply bursting with hardness, my innards beneath my belly were in spasms that demanded relief. And in one cataclysmic moment, we both screamed in ecstasy and flopped down, breathless, on either side of that enormous bed.”

“That communist wife turned me on to a new type, far more interesting than the previous one had been. So I began searching. And it turned out to be no problem at all: there were plenty of bored, sex-starved housewives. But I have to be honest, in this final hour of my life theres no reason to put on an act: these women challenged me not just to forget myself along with them in this sexual liberation. I also started falling in love. I went through two serious relationships—both of them ended heart-wrenchingly, yet at the same time they slowly and surely filled me with deep loathing towards my very self. No, it was more like self-pity. The older I got, the more addicted I became to needing someone to love me. I turned into a selfish bitch, who didn’t want to give love, but only to take—I resembled most of the men around me. But while men have other qualities that make up for their egoism, I saw myself from the outside as a repulsive, vindictive, callous user. I had sunk so far that there was no swimming back to the surface from that abyss: my sins were unforgiveable. For a whole twenty-five years, I lived on the edge between sex and love, in half-sex and half-love, exulted and debased, victor and vanquished, predator and prey. Actually, in the interest of accuracy, it was a whole twenty-five years! How strange coincidences in life are sometimes, it is as if someone is masterminding them!”

“At the end of 1998, when democracy started to gain speed, I suddenly stopped getting my period. I was only 43 years old and the realization that I was entering menopause hit me like a slap across the face. People around me were full of hope, they were excited that something would change, while my life grew somber, because I realized that along with my hormones, the only weapon that had propped up my self-respect to some extent had also disappeared: my voracious sexual appetite. After deep soul-searching, I found with enormous regret that I had actually been secretly hoping to meet you again somedayand perhaps even to meet someone else, a man—and to start everything over. I had been living as if in a dream, I had pretended not to see time flying past and with criminal negligence I had looked upon myself as eternally young. It was a shattering blow. The years ahead of me grew short. There was no time. Men gave me the eye less and less often; the number of women willing to sleep with me declined menacingly. I didn’t have a serious career, either—I never did get a college degree, I kept putting it off, imagining that my youth would never pass, in the bog of so-called transition it was easy to switch from job to job as secretary. I kept pulling in a salary sufficient for my bacheloresque existence. Suddenly, however, the secretarial branch was flooded by young chicks in provocatively short skirts, bursting with flesh and caked with make-uphow could I compete with them? There was nothing more for me to do here!” 

“I gathered together the last shreds of my energy and ran away. How I finally reached the States is a long story. But I can’t lie to myself: I was drawn to where you were. Over the years, I had heard about you here and there, I knew that you’d gotten married, that you didn’t have children, that your marriage wasn’t happy.   Surely it was destiny that I never once ran into you randomly on the street or on some bus or anywhere else. You and I were simply walking down completely different paths, despite how much I may have wanted them to cross again some day. How could I have been so contemptuous that I never once swallowed my pride and called you, or sent you a card for your birthday or at least found your phone number and called as if I had accidentally dialed the wrong number. I never once went to our high school reunionsso you wouldn’t see me, although surely they told you about me. Were you repulsed or did you feel sorry for me? You’re a Gemini and you always have an alternative in every case. I’m an Aries and I don’t like to lose, that’s why I’m so sure that I actually won you over—with my constancy, with some sort of stubbornness, which gave me the strength to love you in absentia, to look after you in my thoughts and dreams, to protect you from evil from afar. Now that I’ve found out that you are finally happy, married to a woman who looks after you and that you have freed yourself from your egoism and are deeply attached to her, that you do everything you can to make her happy, that you have a son [Diana’s voice breaks down into tears]… now I can go. You no longer need me. I have completed my mission. I blame myself for the hurt I caused to many women—but they also got joy from me, too. But I forgive myself for my immoral life, which was the price I paid for the constancy to love you. There is something heroic… I say this without irony… and something selfless, something resigned in a woman loving one man her whole life. Except that my beloved man is also happy without me. I have nothing more to live for

“Okay, now I’m pouring the strychnine into the glass. But before I drink it, I want to remind you of something wonderful. The most beautiful thing that happened to us. It happened a very, very long time ago, but it seems like only yesterday, I remember it in unbelievable detail. I’m completely convinced that you will hear it on this recording and that you will remember, too. The tape is running… but there is enough room to fit in this first and final memory. And if some day you hear it, it will reawaken in your memory and will continue to live on, as long as you are alive.”

“June in Varna you take me to your house it’s early afternoon the streets are almost empty must have been a Sunday… the lindens are green so green but the first blossoms are yellowing here and there and from time to time the scent of linden wafts in on the breeze the scent of fried zucchini or meatballs drifts from some houses and somehow mixes intoxicatingly with the scent of the warm sidewalksin Varna they are made of gray concrete slabs with parallel furrows on the surface back then there still wasnt much asphalt and the streets were dusty but the sidewalks in front of the houses were always swept clean or even washed with water it was clean in front of your gate too the yard was covered by vines climbing on a metal trellis we went up the cement steps to the upper floor I wasn’t out of breath yet my heart was banging so fast it felt like it would explode my breasts were as hard as the marble of Greek statues while moisture dripped from between my thighs sickening me with the scent of woman you opened the door with your key and stepped back to let me pass I didnt think of it then but now its clear to me I am not yet a woman only a sexual ball pumped up with desire dying to become a woman and there is only one man the man chosen by the future woman who will receive the privilege of opening the door to my womanly potential my own eroticism gives him the key and since in that carefree arousal in that adolescent erotica there is no consciousness of the future the privilege is usually bestowed on some random man I am doomed to give it straight to the one who deserves it forever and that will make me unhappy but I don’t know that I step into the entryway and turn around, you close the door behind you and I cling to you with my whole body I press my lips to yours wrap my legs around you you lift me up and carry me through two doorways we are breathing rapidly or rather I’m breathing rapidly unlike such scenes which I have seen hundreds of times in movies you don’t tear my clothes off you don’t take off your pants with your left hand while pulling your member out with your right and aiming it between my legs so that I pressed against the wall will be violated with agonizing frantic thrusts you set me down on the bed your parent’s bed extricate yourself from my legs put your arm around my shoulders and lie down next to me you start kissing me again such long long kisses you finally carefully unbutton my shirt take off my bra and start kissing my nipples first one breast then the other I quiet down everything within me is melted like resin in the sun and is flowingtears sweat dampness below.. I am yours in a melancholy ecstasy which I have no control over…  I lose all sense of time but it is long endless or has it stopped… you take off my skirt without taking your lips from my breasts you kiss my stomach you only need remove the final cotton barrier to that towards which you are striving and which has long since been yours already and when it too falls beneath your gentle fingers you turn aside for a moment and take off your shirt then your pants then your underwear and thenour two skins are pressed together along the full length of our bodies your face is above mine your weapon is in my scabbard a sheath made for you alone I did not feel pain when you entered there you are moving it rhythmically my throat trembles with a pleasure heretofore unknown my whole body clenches against the lava swelling from my insides until I finally explode and you hold me bent like a bow in your handsfor a long long timeuntil I finally realize that I can relax onto the sheet stained with my blood you also relax on top of me but you are not heavy you are still gentle I am so focused on my own body that I dont know whether youve come what you experienced but you tell me that you feel incredible and I sit up on my elbows and ask you to lie down next to me.”

“And so the two of us lie there in that June afternoon near the sea in Varna, satisfied and happy, young and carefree. Innocent in our ignorance. In love because of our eroticness. And we talk about the future. We talk that about which we know the least, practically nothing. The afternoon flows away, the day dies down, but we don’t pay them any attention. From our erotic peak we can see everything, everything looks beautiful, because we don’t have binoculars to examine the details. Now that I’ve learned about the details, despite the suffering they’ve brought me, I return there, to our peak. And I will depart with my memory of it. The most beautiful memory: the memory of the future.”


All in shock, Sarah and I sat speechless in the hall’s twilight, each preoccupied with our own thoughts. Finally, it was I who broke the silence:

“Tomorrow I’m meeting Stella and her husband at their home at Cabrillo Highway. I’m faced with a very difficult choice. To let the overwhelming burden of this foreigner’s unhappiness, which Vladimir lacked the courage to confess to his wife, fall upon them, or to take the burden of hiding the truth of Vladimir’s past on myself? What should I do, Sarah?”

“I sympathize with you, Zlatko. It seems easy to write a story about characters who face a moral choice and commit a grave mistake that turns them into tragic heroes. But it’s close to unbearable to face a moral choice, on which the happiness or unhappiness of other people depends, in your own life. Do as your conscience tells you.”

My conscience! But why had I been chosen? Suddenly, at this evening hour, my whole being was gripped by the feeling of how reality and fiction now come together and now move apart, intertwine and then separate—just like DNA’s double helix unfolds to allow for two identical copies to be made—but in the human realm, a copy is never the exact match of the original.

“Zlatko,” Sarah cut through my thoughts, “Diana’s confession reminded me of my own experience with love. After John Huston rejected me for a role in the movies, I committed myself to the theatre. My second husband was a theatre director. In one season, he staged a show after James Joyce’s Ulysses. He asked me to play Molly Bloom. Her candid, almost obscene “stream of consciousness,” as it was dubbed by the critics, defeated me. He gave the role to a woman of Irish descent.”

“So what? You find similarities between Diana and Molly?”

“Don’t you? The same stark emotions, as well as the same language. More importantly, the same fate. The same cross-purposes between men’s desires and women’s longings. Any man can be a disgusting Leopold Bloom. The writer of genius feels and describes life as it is. He wrote Molly’s soliloquy at the beginning of the last century, and Diana’s monologue is recorded at the beginning of this century. What perspicacity! What sense of reality! You know, you can be sure Diana hasn’t read Joyce.”

“Oh yeah, the writer of genius …” I attempted to cut her off.

“ … can be you.” She finished the sentence in a direction that I hadn’t expected at all. “You got this cassette from David. But you also could have made it up! Who would know, especially after my death, that the cassette had been in the hands of the woman who committed suicide?”

Our conversation stopped here. Flabbergasted by the power of this sudden possibility, which brought us even closer to each other, Sarah and I kissed goodbye at the front door. She had been abandoned twice in her life, an eternal Molly Bloom, save for the vulgarity of the latter’s soliloquy in the last episode of Joyce’s novel… I was taking away the confession of another abandoned woman who had kept her love, because she had spent her romantic life on boogie street. I still had a future in front of me.

On the next day, I took a cab and arrived at Stella and Vladimir’s house at four in the afternoon. The cassette was in the small pocket of my shirt. The hosts were waiting for me at the entrance. They did not hide their joy that a writer would share their company for a few hours, moreover, a writer who had been a friend of their father and father-in-law. They showed me around the house, then suggested we sit in the yard. On the patio’s table, with a superb ocean view, was set a china tea service.

“I have a variety of China teas, but if you’d prefer an Indian one, we could drink Darjeeling” said Vladimir.

“Let have Darjeeling,” I said, “I like a lighter afternoon tea.”

He went inside to make the tea, while Stella and I settled in the wicker chairs, and she began right away with the topic that interested me most.

“Vladi translated the novella for me, in which he and I are the main characters. Almost everything in it corresponds to the truth. I’m amazed by how well you’ve captured him, his attitude toward women, the changes he had achieved. He really did have relationships with women in America before he met me. Well, the hotel where Irene and I trapped him was the West-in; instead of tea he had to drink a cup of hot chocolate. Also, we wouldn’t talk about our love experiences before an audience, no matter how well-wishing it might appear.”

Vladimir brought in the tea, poured the cups, and put a small bowl with milk and a honey jar in front of me. At this moment, their son came back from the beach in his trunks, a towel over his shoulder, his legs covered with sand. He kissed his parents and entered the house to shower. The sun caressed us with its dying Western light. I had guessed even the physical resemblance between father and son right: black hair, elongated bodies, aquiline noses and an unusual tick with the lips—both of them made a smooching twist when they prepared to intervene in the conversation.

“I’m lucky that Vladi turned out to be the man able to understand me best,” Stella went on after the boy disappeared into the house. “I have to admit, Zlatko, that if he hadn’t behave in the Tiburon lodge as you described him—and it’s fair to say that your description matches reality to the tiniest details—if he hadn’t been so careful, so quiet, and with genuine guilt that he was raping a lesbian written on his face, we would never have gotten here. We told Weston the whole story of our get-together. Our story may be unique, but I don’t see why we should hide it from our child.”

“Yes,” Vladimir added, as if to extend some thought of his own. “One changes throughout the course of one’s life. But one can bring to light only what has been hidden inside him. It can be good or bad, and whether you become better or worse depends on the person with whom you join your life. I was lucky enough to be loved by a woman who brought out the best in me.”

Weston joined us. We conversed for a long time, until it was almost dark and I had to leave. Stella was brought to tears every time we mentioned her father, but she never revealed whether she were in love with him the way David had described it to me, with a sensual desire in the backdrop. I didn’t dare ask. And did it matter? She keeps the memory of his good side. Vladimir mentioned that his first wife’s melancholy depressed him, so I had correctly said in my story that her death was his salvation.

They saw me off at the cab door, where we kissed each other goodbye and promised to look for more chances to meet. Saying goodbye to a happy family always makes me feel sad. Will I see them again? Will I meet another such family somewhere around the world during my travels?

The cassette with the dead woman’s confession remained in my shirt’s small pocket.

Could there be any reason to take away even a little of the happiness achieved with so much trepidation and effort? Maybe I would have abided by the dramatic canons of literature, forcing life to yield to them? However, I thought, most likely for the sake of my own justification, every man changes over the course of his life, and it wouldn’t be fair to allow the past wrongdoings of Vladimir Panov to destroy the faith in happiness of two innocent beings who loved him and considered him a good man.

Even if I’m convinced that the happiness of two people is built upon the unhappiness of at least one other, why should it be necessary for them to know that this third person ever existed? 

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