October, 7 2009:

For almost a year I’ve been meaning to tell you how I got a crush on Adelia.

Perhaps you remember that during September 2007 I was at a neuropsychology conference in Jackson Hole with Mark. Steve, a criminal defense attorney, had a case in Federal Court in Missoula at the same time and decided to come with us. They are enthusiastic hikers, so they made me catch a flight three days early. We landed in pouring rain; you couldn’t see the mountain. We had reserved a BMW X5 SUV, we put our garment bags with our official suits in the back, and despite the weather, I spurred the beast towards the trailhead to the Grand Tetons.

Once up there, we had barely managed to pitch the tent on the soaking ground when snow started falling. So much of it piled up that instead of hiking up to the Grand Teton, we had to think about how to get back down. I don’t know if you know, but there are three Tetons, so named by French trappers since they reminded them of tits. Only on the second night did we manage to reach the SUV, but we had to sleep inside it. From the radio we found out that the snowplows would reach our location by dawn at the earliest. Mark and Steve were furious. I tried to joke that not every tit we reach for is ready to submit to us. That only made them sulkier. Failure is intolerable to many men, while female presence turns it into a reproach, especially when they lack a sense of humor as well.

As you well know, here in America most of our friends take themselves too seriously. And they don’t drink. Thus, instead of three men knocking back martinis at a Caribbean bar a la Hemingway, we’re talking about two Americans and a Bulgarian immigrant, huddled in their jackets on the uncomfortable seats of a German-made SUV, talking about women. Sober. These discussions have always bored me, but since I’ve been living in America, I can’t stand them. There is something cruel in the infantilism of the men here: they are like children who love torturing animals, but without the innocence.

I would have preferred that my co-worker Mark talk about music, even though he is boring on that topic as well. His thoughts revolved around a clarinet professor who had made his female students show him their breasts to get a good grade. He recalled that much had been written about it in the local paper, an investigation was opened, and a few days later they found him in a park on the outskirts of town, hugging his hunting rifle. He had killed himself only a year before retirement. I asked Mark whether he had heard of female professors making male students show them their cocks. A gust of wind shook the heavy car and I didn’t catch the answer.

Steve was not a university man and was unflinching in his opinion that professors should not have any romantic or sexual relations with their students, not even when they are young. A gambler, he drew the analogy that he never played poker for money with the young lawyers from the office. It got cold and I turned on the engine. At 63 years old, the father of five children, I am far removed from such sexual troubles. Or crimes. Men’s lust is a weakness, not a means for exercising power. And I find them especially laughable at an advanced age, when their lechery grows in inverse proportion to their abilities.

We sat silent in the dark, snow-covered car. We had gas to warm ourselves the whole night, thank God. I had no sense of impending disaster. But the conference was supposed to begin at nine the next morning, and I had been tapped to lead the plenary session. As if reading my mind, Steve, who frequently came to Jackson Hole to shoot deer, said that he knew of a spa-salon on Millward Street where we could get ourselves back into shape, as long as they dug us out in time. The thought of a Turkish bath with a hot room warmed me. Here such places are called Body and Soul, but, as Steve put it, they rarely get around to the soul. Unless you think your soul is in your groin, I continued his thought. The massage and the hot room, and especially the girls who massage you, fill it with blood and egg you on towards liberation. The orgasm is like work: the production of a thrill. The kef is missing!

And at that moment, believe me, cramped in a half-reclined pose in the warming car, it suddenly struck me that since we had moved here, I hadn’t experienced that lazy, Balkan state of dreamy contemplation carried over from Turkish times, that sense of timelessness and presentiment of constant, unprovoked satisfaction that nevertheless gathers inside the soul, which has absolutely nothing to do with effectiveness, but rather with pleasure, languor, haziness, that dissolving into the senses like the chalices of flowers yearning to be pollinated, and whether it will end in orgasm or not doesn’t matter, since the state itself is one long, sensual, practically endless orgasm of nonproductive being. Kef! The kef is not in the liberation – the kef is in the yearning, which has no end. Go try to explain that to Mark and Steve.

Early the next morning – naked, cranky, with a bitter taste in my mouth and prickling from the nightmarish night, as if I had juddered fully clothed in a chilly Bulgarian State Railways car – I really did open the door to the steam room at Body and Soul on Millward Street and dove into its dusk. I stood on the bench for fifteen minutes to feel the heat at its strongest. Then, with lungs bursting with oxygen, I was laid on my stomach on top of the starched, blinding sheet in a room with soft Japanese music. I looked at my watch. Ninety minutes were left until the start of the conference. I had time for a short kef, American-style. I needed to leave myself time for a double espresso, so as to transform myself into the effectual individual from whom everyone would expect a brilliant speech. I started to remind myself of what exactly I would say and my eyes fogged over. My soul wanted to sink into kef, unworried by the clock, to indulge in the indolence into which it was born. I dozed off, but didn’t dream. And then I felt small, velvety fingers slowly sliding over the skin of my back.

I hadn’t heard her come in. But my skin couldn’t be wrong: there was a woman in the room. Her fingers ran over my neck, then in the middle of my back, the buttocks, the thighs, finally flowing down towards the soles. Sensitized by the steam, I was loose, ready for the sensation. For the awakening. The fingers had been taught to clear the pathways for physical energy of all unconsciously clenched muscle fibers: they were familiar with the mechanics of spasms, convulsions and tension. If they had been male fingers, I would have felt a surge of internal energy in my complete languidness. And nothing more. The female touch, however, reminded my skin of the sexual thrill. For all of its gentleness, it is like the rumble before an earthquake. I lay slack under her fingers, trying to recover from the physical exhaustion, but the thought that I was being touched by a woman created another kind of tension within me. In its anonymity, in its neutrality, the female touch forewarned me of something that was within me, waiting. It had crouched within me since childhood and would be there as long as I lived, no matter whether I acted on it or left it to my imagination.

Then I heard her voice. She told me to cover myself with the sheet and turn onto my back. Or perhaps she told me to turn onto my back and cover myself with the sheet? The second was easier, the first – more proper. Her voice was thin, resonant, lilting. Not more than 25 years old. Your voice, my love, sounds terribly sexy on the phone, even at fifty, but otherwise it is edifying. This woman’s voice was sexy without being nasal. Or deliberately provocative. Not a hint of pampering. In my opinion, she was using the most ordinary professional courtesy. But there are female windpipes that vibrate in an unbearably arousing way: the overtones they produce act on the skin like fingers heating the blood. I don’t know, perhaps I was prepared to take it that way. But this was a smiling voice: that of a woman who always spoke in a friendly tone. This is how women who do not fear men speak. And they are open – they have no reason to hide behind cold intonation. Yet their openness is often incorrectly interpreted as candor. As if they are ready for any and all intimacy. Truth be told, these are the women who choose for themselves – the most difficult women.

I obeyed the voice and started to turn over on the comfortable table. “Make yourself at home. Relax. Relax as if going to sleep,” the voice was telling me, but I didn’t dare glance towards the place it was coming from. I wanted to look like a good patient, obeying his doctor. I kept my eyes open, but besides the rounded bracket lamps of yellow light in the corners of the room and the pastel-beige walls, I didn’t see a woman. At that moment she placed a towel soaked in hot water over my eyes. Yet another barrier – in addition to all the moral ones – between the foretaste of sexual thrill and my unrealizable thoughts. And again the fingers sliding over my skin. This time accompanied by her voice, calling out which muscle groups had to relax. The chest, the stomach, the quadriceps, the calves. And all of that, from the jaw to the toes, caressed by her, had to sink into completely languid repose. I submitted slowly. Her voice grew softer and quieter, its sexy overtones flowed and reverberated in my stomach. Calm took hold of me, a calm burdened with that expectation from which there was no escape.

I had lain there like that for perhaps five minutes when her voice wished me a pleasant day before I heard the door shut quietly, almost noiselessly. Obviously from the outside. I took the towel off my eyes and sat up. I was alone, dying for a double espresso.

My speech went well that day. The conference flowed past in its banal rhythm. In the evening we had the traditional cocktail party and dinner; we continued on with a few drinks at that cowboy bar on the main street, where the stools are like saddles. Mark and Steve quickly got drunk and kept saying that we needed to open a bar like this in Chicago. But they thought the Lincoln Park intelligentsia was too feminine, the men would sit on their stools side-saddle.

I slept deeply and woke up early. My first-floor hotel room smelled like fog. I had left the window open a crack at the top: in American hotels you can’t open the windows up widely. I pulled aside the curtains and stood naked in front of the glass. The fog was gray, it had enveloped us on all sides, the hotel seemed to be in its thickest spot, only the closest cars in the parking lot could be made out as half-silhouettes. I put on my glasses, but the visibility did not improve. Why am I telling you this in such detail? Because a woman walking a dog swam out of the fog. My memory is surely exaggerating, but the petite young woman was like an apparition; at the same time it seemed that I had seen her somewhere. The dog was a German shorthaired pointer—just like ours: I would recognize a dog like that in the thickest of fogs, even without my glasses. The women and the dog passed by my window and melted into the fog as if they had never existed. All of this happened in a matter of seconds, shortly after dawn had broken, it was a Saturday, it promised to be sluggish and damp, there was still not a soul to be seen on the street. Only the small woman with a dog. I hurried to take a shower, get dressed and go outside. Without realizing it, I wanted to check whether the woman with the dog existed.

On the corner the diner was just opening. I walked north along Glenwood Street and didn’t see anyone, a car passed slowly. I turned right and only when I came out onto the highway towards the lakes – I remember we had entered Jackson Hole here for the first time in your BMW – did the fog smell like coffee. Weak, unpalatable American coffee could not tempt me, but did I have a choice? I pressed on the handle of a door reading Ciocolato, but at that moment I caught the figure of a dog in my peripheral vision. The fog had thinned a bit. It wasn’t a dog, but the dog! When I turned, I saw that same liver-ticked pointer, and she was walking next to it. She was your height, that is, a bit on the short side, with an exquisite ass, slightly broad in the shoulders, in a tight black running suit, with the gait of a woman who cares for her muscles. The dog tracked scents known only to him, while she smiled at me affably as she passed. Green eyes, dark hair, something Mediterranean about her.

“Nice dog! I have a German shorthaired pointer, too,” I said, once she had already passed. What else could I do to detain the apparition a bit longer? She half turned around for a second, as if to smile, but kept walking. I took off after them, the dog veered to the side and she had to wait for him. I asked whether she walked him every morning. “Yes, they have a lot of energy, these dogs, don’t they?” she said.

The voice from the massage!

So this was her, in the flesh. Quite a while later my eyes would determine that her breasts were the most arousing part of her body. For now, her voice was enough. We chatted about dog-related things, following the beauty trotting before us. “I’m Adelia, by the way,” she extended her hand. I firmly shook the fingers that had relaxed my body the previous morning: “I’m Yovo, nice to meet you.”  I expected the usual question of where I am from, but instead she said she had met men from Eastern Europe. You know that my reactions with strangers are slow, I get flustered. Especially when I can sense that I am addicted to the continuation. At that moment I really didn’t know whether I was addicted. She had recognized me and, since she had stopped to talk, that meant she was intrigued – but the signal still hadn’t reached my brain. When she found out that I live in Chicago, she said in the sexiest possible tone of voice that she would be moving there the next month. She had found a new job in a hair salon on Halsted.


October 17, 2009:

During the whole year that followed, I never once tried to touch Adelia, even though I was falling in love with her – slowly, but ever more deeply. If you don’t count friendly hugs. Only on the night of November 4, 2008, when they announced Obama’s electoral victory and we all started hugging and kissing like crazy, did I lift her in my arms and press her to me for a few seconds. But no one noticed in all the commotion. Not even Adelia. This year, the year when I was in love with another woman besides you, began at the airport in Jackson Hole.

It began with sunshine. The last morning of the conference was bright and unforgettable. I am sure that after our foggy meeting two days earlier, the woman with the dog hadn’t crossed my mind. At noon, Mark, Steve and I checked in and got burgers to kill time until the flight. In Wyoming, everything seems oversized, made of thick, massive wood: the interior of that airport was no different. The difference lay in the glass western wall of the departure hall, through which the Grand Tetons could be seen: perfect, like a model, like a postcard or watercolor by a realist painter – but not banal like the words we use to describe them. I was sitting in a green plush armchair, chewing my burger and feeling exalted only because from that ideal viewpoint – the engineer who came up with the idea of building the Jackson Hole airport on that completely flat plateau was a genius – I could identify with the mountain. My two companions were arguing about whether the conference had been worth the time and money. The view was worth it, however. The alpine sky was as blue as in Italy. The wind had dried the air to an unbelievable transparency. Come on, what breasts?! The Tetons sliced the azure with the hardness of diamond. The mountains were majestic… almost as much so as the sea. Their only flaw was that they rose upwards, the direction in which people mistakenly believe that they can reach the imaginary divine. The majesty of the sea, which you and I grew up next to, its perfection is in the fact that its horizon lies flat: the idea of infinity, but on a human scale.

I instinctively dug in the pocket of my jacket and took out the little green scrap of notepaper with the address of the hair salon in Chicago written on it: …Adelia. So she wanted to meet again? Or was she just drumming up clients? I couldn’t wait to get home.

A week later, if you remember, I told you that my little electric hair clipper had died and I was going to the barber. I started getting haircuts every three weeks, sometimes I even got a shave at the salon. After that, in the late spring, we met Adelia on the street, I introduced you to her and the three of us went to drink tea. On Halsted, near DePaul, a tea house with a wide variety of teas, which they served in porcelain pots, had just opened up. She was preparing for college. She was dressed in tight pants and a black blouse, swelled by her perfectly round breasts. When she leaned forward to emphasize her words, her breasts were visible almost to the nipple – not sagging, but firm, always supported by a bra, which made the crevice between them look deeper. I never saw her wearing only a T-shirt with nothing on underneath: she had grown up in the Midwest, albeit not in a Puritan family.

When I sat in the chair in the salon and she officiated over my head, her breasts sometimes brushed my neck or arm. Isn’t it terrible that I will never find out whether the fleeting thrill I experienced was mutual? Most likely it wasn’t. She served clients all day, and when she started going to classes in September, she would work in the afternoons into the late evening. As I sat waiting my turn, I saw that she was sweet and accommodating with everyone. And most of the men were young and attractive. What advantage could I have over them, with my close-cropped, graying hair and Hemingway beard? Besides reminding her of her father. Sometime during the middle of the year she introduced one of them to me as the man she was living with. I didn’t get the sense that their relationship was serious. But for our children’s generation, the expression of feelings, if it ever even reaches a passion like ours, is much more restrained. In any case, I hadn’t been young in America and didn’t have personal memories as a basis for comparison. I did realize, however, that the foreign sexuality of this woman increased her attractiveness. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen her somewhere before.

But what mattered most to me was whether she set me apart from the others in some way. Once I was her last client of the day and I invited her to dinner. She accepted. Did that mean something or would she have dinner with any of her clients who was intelligent and polite? I told her about us. That we have been married for 23 years, that I have two daughters from my first marriage and two sons and a daughter with you; our girl, now in college, is youngest of them all. That crazy love had brought us together when you were her age and I was twelve years older. About the scandals surrounding my divorce. I told her about immigrating; how we struggled like grown-up children to adapt to the continent on this side of the ocean. About how much I love you, how my respect for you keeps growing. How you changed me. And how your cello and my academic interest in the brain and how it processes music were perhaps the surest means – if not the only factor given to people – to maintain the ongoing interest between a man and a woman in a marriage. I told her that I was finally published in prestigious journals in America – even ideas and data that I had worked on long ago in Bulgaria. But that now I wanted to write a memoir about my life under communism and that I needed to speak with a person who had grown up here. To understand some differences. She promised to help—some other time.

I looked for excuses to see her more often. We couldn’t be alone in the hair salon. And I couldn’t see her eyes while she was cutting my hair. A table in a restaurant offers the advantage of allowing you to look straight into a person’s eyes—as only a movie camera can expose them. But my memory is not a film reel. Now, when I must translate into words those eyes which I seem to remember so clearly—dark green, smiling, Italian eyes, now giving away, now hiding her part in the eternal game between man and woman, beautiful to the point of intolerance and intolerable to the point of despair, because they created the illusion that I was looking through them directly into her soul, that I had caught all the flickerings and turns and reactions to my words, but afterwards, when I tried to put all of that together into a coherent conclusion about her true feelings, it turned out that the ambiguities outnumbered the clear signals, and that’s likely not because she purposely wanted to sink into confusion, but because in Adelia herself the feelings were unsettled, refusing to submit to control – now when I want to put those eyes into words, the eyes in my words slip away and are no longer the same as they were when I looked into them. Her sexy voice had nothing to do with me – it was an innate gift. Her fingers were professionally skilled. All of these attributes aroused my interest in her, but hardly testified to some conscious desire within her to arouse my interest: she simply had them to use against every man she met.

Unexpectedly, at the end of the dinner, she told me that her boyfriend played upright bass in a jazz trio and invited us to jam night at Andy’s. As you remember, we went together; given your love of that style of music, any opportunity to hear live jazz was welcome, it was a warm night in the early summer, she met us at the door and gave us each a hug – that was her habit when greeting or saying goodbye to friends – later, almost at midnight, we drank a few martinis and you invited them to dinner some time at our place. It took a few tries before the dinner finally happened. Bulgarian dishes are always impressive, so the dinner passed in praise of our culinary mastery, entirely in a joking, friendly tone. You know all this, by the way, but I’m reminding you so you can get a full picture of my inexplicable feelings.

The truth, my dearest Elena, is that I, too, want to get a clear picture of what happened to me. I think that it was precisely when I was listening to jazz at Andy’s that I thought for the first time that I might have a crush on Adelia. The strange thing is that in that crush something fatherly not only slipped in, but downright dominated. It flared up as if I had just struck a match every time I saw her, and died away as if blown out by the wind in the interims – and they were prolonged. When we went on vacation, I didn’t think about her. I went to two conferences and nothing connected to her tormented my consciousness. When I saw her at the hair salon, however, I caught myself looking for evidence that her feelings for me were more than friendly. There could be no doubt that we both had declared ourselves friends before society and our own consciences. But even friendship seeks mainstays in shared memories, which gradually transform it into a true bridge. But besides me praising her for how good she was at her work and what an astonishing sense she had for European culture, we had very little in common and no shared memories that I could bring up. I was infatuated. Whatever I might say about the breaks, every visit to her excited me. For a long time afterwards, I would analyze her every word that hinted at interest in or even praise of me, looking for proof that if some chance event revealed to her what I was feeling, the presence of reciprocity would spare me the discomfort of being ashamed of myself.

My age was at once an obstacle and an advantage. Because I could have been her father, there was no way I could hit on her in the hackneyed way; what’s more, from the very beginning some subconscious taboo even forbade me from thinking that I could have sex with her at all. Yet for the same reason, we could see each other without it arousing anyone’s suspicion. Not even yours. But I wasn’t thinking about that, either. First, I wasn’t clear on where things were headed. Second, I continued to love you madly and devotedly, as I had through all of our years together.

Election night in 2008 was the second time Adelia and her jazz-player boyfriend came to our house. We had also invited other close friends for drinks and sandwiches in front of the TV. I was absorbed in the vote count and don’t recall being excited by the fact that she was sitting next to me. We drank champagne. Two days later she told me that she had broken up with her boyfriend.


October 27, 2009:

It was a lovely, melancholy November day. Steve and I were sitting in Crust eating pizza when I suddenly told him about Adelia. That for the third time in my life I was more in love than I should be. Should I admit it to her? Or should I tell both of you? Steve thought I should forbid myself from thinking about all that. And that I shouldn’t say anything. He, too, would forget about it. He couldn’t imagine a marriage like ours falling victim to accidental emotions. He was in a hurry and left me to pick up the bill, deeply convinced that I was face to face with grave danger. Outside the window, the rain kept soaking the maple leaves on the bare tables. Rain in November is never accidental.

If I admitted my feelings, I would send shockwaves through the lives of two women simultaneously. I wanted to live with you until I died. Adelia was a romantic vision, in whose real life I had no moral right to meddle. You were my past, and I was yours; Adelia and I could not have a future. More precisely, I could not join her future. Every love depends on the idea we have of the future. Falling in love is only the beginning: a bud that could blossom, but could also be crushed – by carelessness, by ignorance or by choice. For young people, the future goes without saying, but what about me? Do I have a future, now that death is in sight?

If I continued to hide my feelings, I would never find out whether this – final – time, my crush had also kindled reciprocity, as it always had in the past. My egotistical drive was spurred by curiosity, not conquest. I was standing before the chasm, seemingly blind to the danger. Taking the fatal step from a crush towards love was not a question of bravery or foolhardiness, nor of moral blindness. Nor was it even unsatisfied need, least of all sexual. It was a question of male vanity.

Deep inside myself I was sure that you would forgive me – I didn’t realize that I would hurt you. Our friendship, tested by life itself, was a guarantee that we would continue on as before. Clearly, I was thinking more about myself than about you.

But there is something else. I am entranced by the power of love and believe that in all cases, regardless of who might be wounded and offended, it necessarily forces us to admire it. Even tragic love. Remember Terri’s first husband in Raymond Carver’s famous story where two couples talk about love over a bottle of gin: Mel, her current husband, tells about how the guy she had been with before him had planned to kill her, had waved his gun in front of her eyes, and in the end had put it in his own mouth and pulled the trigger, but Terri kept arguing that he had done it out of love – something good, which she claimed excused his cruelty. His craziness, actually. Every love becomes tragic after the fact, incidentally. In the beginning it is always pure hope. The problem is that none of us can register and remember the moment when we took the irreversible step from a crush towards love. Someone who just has a crush can always pull away, but love sucks us in for good. We start to defend it. In rare cases like ours, when both of us tend to the other’s love – drawing it out daily – and not to our own, we transform it into a happy life. But we both know that danger still lurks everywhere, most of all within us. I was dangerous because of my romantic illusion that the beautiful feelings I had begun to experience towards Adelia could live side by side with our time-tested love. What a fool! As if you were also obliged to fall in love with her, sharing my passion just as you had shared in all the major projects that had taken shape in my mind over the years.

I went back home, sat down at the computer and wrote a letter to Adelia. It was almost Thanksgiving, so I had an appropriate topic – thankfulness that I had met her and that she existed. Now, when I read over my letter – I am not ashamed of it, it isn’t maudlin – I can see that I told her of my love without realizing it. I had taken that leap, which cannot be rewound like a film reel or erased like a computer file. “I don’t expect anything to change in your life or mine,” I had written, “and don’t worry that I might do something that might cause anything to change. I don’t want to hurt anybody. If you knew how much I cared for you, you would forgive me for the irresistible impulse to turn this secret from mine to ours. Seeing you is all I can hope for. Nothing need upset the course of your life – least of all the love of a foolish, aging man. Seeing you, knowing you exist in the world, and being sure that you are happy and that I can help you if you find yourself in trouble, that is all I expect from this unrequited love. Not reward, nor possession, nor satisfaction. My love itself is a pleasure.”

Did I really feel exactly what I wrote? Or, as often happens, did words transform something which exists in the nebulosity of the soul into a reality which inescapably hounds us afterwards? But now Adelia would run up against this reality. And later you would as well. My finger lay on the “Send” button, but I, as if transported by my own eloquence, kept rereading what was written. Every word was in its proper place. Beautiful. Clear. Noble. Selfless, even. They would certainly move her. Who could fail to relish so much love, poured out in a few sentences! But was it me? Was I really as selfless as I appeared, thanks to my talent for crafting words? Her breasts, her voice, her dark-green eyes were sexual attributes I was not indifferent to, but when I think back on it now, I had hidden my passion so as not to frighten her. She was not present in the letter. My love for you was also absent – but it was there inside me. I jumped: so I was lying to both of you at the same time. I was lying to myself. I knew you down to the deepest essence of your soul. I had begun contemplating her quite recently and only from the outside. And why do I buy into the incorrigible illusion that because a woman is beautiful, her soul must also be as infinite? When I started writing the letter, I believed that I wanted to confess to her a love that was still only infatuation, to make her feel desired. Beautiful women deserve to realize that their beauty has aroused something more than sexual thoughts. But wasn’t this more likely an impulse to satisfy my own vanity? To add her to the circle of women who admire me?

I could not stand being alone any longer: I put on my coat and hat and went out.

I headed towards Halsted instinctively. I knew she was at work. Dusk was falling. Through the lit-up window of the salon with the strange name Art & Science, I saw her send off a client and start to put on her coat. It was as if she had been expecting me. She wasn’t even surprised to see me, she hugged me and led me towards the Irish pub on the corner for a beer. The vision from the Jackson Hole fog, with fully concrete outlines, had become a part of my life. She started telling me about the men she had had, about the last one, whom she had only temporarily broken up with. I reminded her of her father, she should introduce me to him, he was going through a rough time and needed a friend like me. The beer flushed her cheeks, her breasts rested on the dark-green bar, she was magnificent. I was starting to regret not sending the letter – she was acting as if she had read it. She was acting exactly as I would have wanted her to. This moment was everything. I almost believed it was possible to live only in the present. But until the last I still couldn’t decide whether to tell her “I love you” out loud.

We left after an hour or so and she hugged me. I kissed her and internally uttered the words. She didn’t hear them, even though they were meant for her.

I did not see her again. Because of you. That same evening, still under the influence of the adrenaline rush in my blood, I confessed to you that I was infatuated. I showed you what I had written to Adelia. You shut yourself up in your studio to play. The striking thing in the conversations that followed was that you were jealous because I had fallen in love. If it had been only a sexual attraction, a crush, you said, it would have been much easier to forgive me. I was also stunned that due to my own vanity – how naively I had believed that my crush was compatible with our deep connection – I had shattered the certainty you had lived with for so many years. Another thing I had not foreseen was that once I had revealed myself to you, I had to forbid myself from seeing Adelia.


October 31, 2009:

And so it ended. You and I came out of the crisis more connected than ever. Albeit with a wound – who knows when it will heal? Adelia did not contact me. But I would sometimes walk past Art & Science, on the sidewalk across the street. Once, it was that spring and the wind was blowing, I caught a glimpse of her silhouette amidst the pedestrians on Armitage up near the L, the liver-ticked dog trotting by her side, but I did not quicken my pace to catch up to them and they melted away like an apparition, like the first time in the fog of Jackson Hole.

What would have happened if she had read my letter? Perhaps she would have shown female solidarity, something along the lines of: “I can be your friend, but I respect you both as a couple and don’t see any grounds for having a separate relationship with you.” Or the usual American clichés such as “you overstepped a boundary that I thought was clear,” “you invaded my personal space,” and other such nonsense. The most insulting would have been for her to tell me that I had abused the trust I had earned as her friend. That she couldn’t care less about my feelings, since they were more about my self-confidence than her happiness. She would have been right about that last bit. I had forced myself to replace my egotistical infatuation with the altruistic image of an idealized love. Yes, precisely for that reason she would have had every right to reject me, to forget me, even to hate me. If she had known. But wait, Elena, wait! She did know. She did reject me, because with that unfailing female intuition that cannot be put into words, she had sensed what I planned to do. She had said goodbye to me in that Irish pub.

I can’t blame her. Nor can I blame you for trying to defend your certainty. But should I blame myself? Could I (could any man at all?) have controlled my imagination and even my sexual nature, as you both would have liked? Must I?


Elena, today is November 10, I’m writing to you from the airport. Something has happened. Something which I can’t decide whether to tell you by phone, but which affects our entire life. It is irreversible, but whether it is a disaster or a stroke of luck, only the future can say. Please be strong and indulgent.

I’m writing to gather my thoughts; to be able to tell you when I see you at the airport – I’m preparing as if for a lecture, with notes written in advance. Perhaps when we land, I’ll send it to you from my laptop.

Last night, my final evening in Montreal, I decided to dine alone and pored over the culinary pages of the Francophone newspaper for some interesting suggestion. The restaurant their critic recommended bore the allegorical name Bistronomia. It was in Verdun and I took a cab. Brightly lit Wellington Avenue was deserted, the puddles on the sidewalk had frozen over. The wind drove me toward the door of the restaurant, which from the outside was not distinguishable at all from the neighboring stores. The Naked Lunch was written above the number 4816, the address I had gotten from the paper. I hesitated, because I didn’t see the full name that had been printed in the newspaper – Bistronomia Solid Ground – but it was so cold that I had no choice but to enter. The space held a dozen or so tables, the kitchen was visible at the back behind the bar. Typical of a fledgling business, but undertaken by someone with imagination. The young man waiting tables offered me a small table with two chairs to the side of the bar. From the blackboard on the wall, where the menu was written in chalk, I confirmed that this was the place I had been looking for. The Naked Lunch … Wasn’t the title suggested to Burroughs by Jack Kerouac? I was in Canada, in its most liberal city. In a French restaurant. I hadn’t read the novel, but I knew that it was an anti-American panegyric by the generation of Ginsberg and other apologists for marijuana and free love. The intellectual rebels of the ‘60s … now only gray hair or simply a sweet memory of youth. The sexual upstarts who back then could not have realized – or didn’t want to realize – that in their old age their hormonal levels would sink to humiliating lows. The light was dark yellow, it went terribly well with the walnut tables and chairs. Only one table by the windows was free. The menu was written out beautifully. They had caramelized foie gras, lobster bisque, beef cheek, oxtail, smoked duck, Provencal sausage and unbelievable desserts. I ordered French rosé – it wasn’t from Tavel, but turned out to be eminently drinkable – and foie gras and classic French onion soup for starters. Perhaps they sold marijuana, too? Naked Lunch is peppered with filthy language; I think it was banned in America during the time when America’s famous Puritanism was defended through censorship. The people around me were well-dressed, upper-middle class Montrealers, most were speaking French. I didn’t notice when two women and a man took the table by the window. The young man was literally running to serve us, everyone had arrived hungry for fine French cuisine.

After I finished my soup, I stopped him to order the smoked duck. He asked me several polite questions and recommended their special sauce. I poured myself more wine and began spreading the foie gras on toast. As I took a bite, my gaze fell on the older woman at the table near the window, who was sitting facing me. The man and the younger woman had their backs to me. That face! I had seen it somewhere – surrounded by thick hair, likely bleached, a snub nose above prettily lined lips, eyes sunk in make-up, whose color I couldn’t make out from a distance in the muted yellow light. She seemed to be looking at me, without leaving off their conversation. The young woman’s back also looked familiar to me. Surely it was the bad lighting. I had almost no old acquaintances in Montreal.

The smoked duck was a combination of French classicism and Montrealer imagination. The rosé went wonderfully with it. From time to time, I glanced at the trio near the window, they were to my left, but their table was far away and I had no idea who they were and what they were talking about. At one point, the waiter stopped next to me with a freshly opened bottle of rosé and in reply to my astonished look said: “The lady from the table by the window sends you this wine.” He poured me some in a clean glass and I raised it to get the woman’s attention. I saw her take her own glass from the table in front of her and instead of just smiling, she got up and came towards me.

“You don’t seem to recognize me,” she said in English with a heavy European accent.

“I don’t, actually,” I said and gestured to the chair by my table.

Things were getting interesting. The woman sat down. She was no younger than me, yet still beautiful. She looked at me quizzically, at first with a smile, but her face showed no hint of uncertainty that the person she wanted to talk to was me and no other. The wine in her glass was red.

“Budapest, the Anatomy Department, ’84…”


“Yolanta.” The taste of sidewalk kisses, the mawkish smell of a Central European sleeping car, the Hungarian Border Police at a poorly lit station and a woman I had warmed waving at me from the platform. That’s what the name Yolanta unearthed from my memory.

“I would never have recognized you. Thank you for saying something to me. What are you doing here?” I said, barely finding the strength to tear myself away from the memory and to appear merely as a curious gentleman.

“I’m here with my daughter and husband,” she said. “I retired last year and we decided to come to America. My daughter lives in Chicago, but we preferred Montreal, she’s been wanting to see it for a long time.”

Yolanta – the pretty lab assistant at the department in Budapest where I had spent my week-long internship, I was a young scholar and was just getting interested in the musical functions of the brain – set her glass on the table and stared at me, as if something inside were stopping her, something she wasn’t sure whether she should tell me.

“Yolanta, isn’t it a miracle? Twenty-seven years. And now we run into each other in Montreal! Won’t you introduce me to your family?” I, for my part, said quickly, as if afraid she might interrupt. I wanted to get my thoughts and feelings back in order, but the woman before me, a memory come to life, jumbled them effortlessly, without even realizing how much she was disconcerting me and how she was returning me so sweetly to my forgotten past.

“I’ll introduce you to your daughter.”

“My daughter?”

“Yes, your daughter,” she replied emphatically. “I’ve told her a lot about you, but I didn’t know where to find you. You left Bulgaria when she was ten years old, but at that time I thought she was still too young to find out that the man I was living with was not her real father.”

“But how?”

“Just like that, life. Don’t you remember how I slipped into your sleeping car to Prague? You were alone in the compartment. Two months later, I realized that I was pregnant.”

“How can you be sure she is mine?”

“It’s quite simple. Back then, I didn’t sleep with men. You were an exception.”

“Yolanta, you’re kidding, right? Give me some time to get a hold of myself.”   “Ivo, I liked you, but I was living in the dorms and couldn’t invite you home. You were from Bulgaria, the sunny country. You struck me as a sunny person. Intelligent. Male intelligence has always turned me on more than anything …”

In the cold streets along the Danube I had told her that I was about to get divorced, that I had two daughters whom I wanted to keep with me. She took it as a sign that I felt free. She took me to Gerbeaud, the only chic joint in communist Budapest, don’t I remember? We held hands and I even got up the courage to kiss her. That distant flirtation in the cold socialist capital began to float up out of my memory. There was something classy about me, Yolanta continued; I didn’t suggest going to some cheap hotel. I listened to her and wondered how I would meet my daughter, how I would find the guts to introduce her to you and the kids. At the train station she had left before my train pulled away. Yet she had so desperately wanted to sleep with me that she came back across the neighboring platform and bribed the conductor at the last minute to let her slip through the last car without anyone seeing her. While I was staring glumly through the window at the train station. When I entered my compartment, arms and thighs enveloped me. It was an amazing penetration on the train berth, to the accelerating clacking of the wheels. An hour or so later, she got off the train at the border.

“I’m surprising you now as I did then. When I saw you sitting alone in the restaurant, I suddenly decided that I wouldn’t have another chance to introduce you to your daughter.”

“Are you sure she’ll be able to handle it?” I unwittingly glanced toward the table near the window, but there the man and the young woman – my daughter – continued talking with their backs to me. I hadn’t yet decided whether I couldn’t wait to see her or whether I was scared.

“Ivo, all of that is in the past, she has her own life.”


“You’re Ivo to me.”

“Why didn’t you get an abortion?”

“I can’t explain it to you. Fear. Uncertainty. Instinct. Romantic dreams: I would have a child from my secret love affair. I’m impulsive. But even if it was a mistake, now I’ve been rewarded. Just wait until you see what a woman she’s become!”

“Is she married?”

“Not yet. But she has a wonderful connection with my husband. He treats her like his own daughter.”

And at this moment, as I’m writing, dearest Elena, I am afraid and don’t know how to continue. The same fear that bolted me to the chair in the restaurant. I had no idea how that conversation would end. Nor how I would approach the girl. I was afraid even to glance over there. Yolanta fell silent. She surely saw the fear in my face. In her desire to make me a father after secretly falling in love more than two decades earlier, she was taking her revenge without meaning to, as if in the name of all women. The guilt I felt was complex, unforgivable. How would I connect with the young woman, who was my flesh and blood without knowing it? Would I become significant in her life? Or would she be yet another witness to my male carelessness?

Yolanta got up. I couldn’t put it off any longer. I followed her, shaking, unseeing. The man and the woman at the table turned toward us.

“I want to introduce you to an important person,” Yolanta said, stepping aside.

“Nice to meet you,” I heard the man say, but I couldn’t take my eyes off…

Adelia was sitting on the chair in front of me. My daughter.

“Adelia, sweetie, this is Ivo,” Yolanta said. “I was in love with this man nine months before you were born… Understand? Ivo is your real father.”

“But his name is Yovo,” Adelia said, giving me her hand. “We haven’t seen each other for a whole year.”

Yolanta looked at me, dumbfounded.

“Uh… yes, we’ve met in Chicago,” I managed to mumble, on the verge of passing out.

If it weren’t for the bottles of wine we drank, the rest of the evening surely would have been nightmarishly tense. But we were all well-bred and nobody said anything that might open wounds or offend anyone. We told the stories of our lives, through which we were related, without having known each other. Yet the poisonous feeling of having committed a crime crept up within me. I had not only been on my way to upsetting the harmony of our love. I had also been on my way to sleeping with my own daughter! I looked at her lovely face just a few feet away from me and no longer knew what kind of love I felt for that face. A sinful love, no matter how you look at it. Unreciprocated in its sexual variant, but perhaps – a furtive hope – it will be shared in its daughterly incarnation. But the shame! That terrible shame over all the thoughts which I could not erase from my memory began to grip me like the fear of death. It is creeping through my belly even now. How can I look my children in the eye? How will you take it when I tell you “I love you” from now on? How will we start a new life as a family with Adelia and Yolanta? And is there time – and will they want to? – for these two women, whom I brought into our world against my will, but thanks to my uncontrolled drives, to become part of that world without destroying it? I deserve to die, to disappear, so as not to need shame or pain or even forgiveness. Because you and the children – even Adelia, my child – will perhaps forgive me.

I will never forgive myself.

I got back to the hotel after midnight. We had exchanged addresses and telephone numbers, we had promised to see one another often. Adelia had come back into my life. Yolanta had appeared unexpectedly out of the distant past. Shame, fear, male vanity, all of it was mixed into loathing for my very self, because I had realized how unceremoniously these two new women, with destinies separate from ours, would come crashing down on us. I am to blame. I hope you can forgive me. I hope Yolanta never finds out what had happened between Adelia and me – or rather, between me and my image of Adelia. I hope that Adelia will get used to my role and grow close to our children. My letter to Adelia is on my laptop, I’ll copy it here for you, Elena. I have only changed one word. “I don’t expect anything to change in your life or mine,” I had written, “and don’t worry that I might do something that might cause anything to change. I don’t want to hurt anybody. If you knew how much I cared for you, you would forgive me for the irresistible impulse to turn this secret from mine to ours. Seeing you is all I can hope for. Nothing need upset the course of your life – least of all the love of a foolish, aging father. Seeing you, knowing you exist in the world, and being sure that you are happy and that I can help you if you find yourself in trouble, that is all I expect from this unrequited love. Not reward, nor possession, nor satisfaction. My love itself is a pleasure.”

Tell me, Elena, isn’t love the most tragic result of our crushes?


Through her tears, Elena stares at the polished mahogany urn on her nightstand, placed on a cherry-red cloth. She stares without seeing it. Yovo is still here, even though he is gone forever. Yovo is in that urn full of ashes: they had found some parts of him – an arm, a leg, half a ribcage – and, with American efficiency, the crematorium had turned them to ashes.

Only five days ago, on Tuesday night, she had been driving towards O’Hare to meet him, when a plane crash was reported on the radio. One of United Express’s small planes had gone down somewhere near Kalamazoo, in that part of Michigan that resembled the palm of the mitten. They suspected that the wings had iced over and the pilot had suddenly lost control. Elena crumpled over the steering wheel, convulsed with a hot fear that flooded her belly. She managed to reach the parking lot of the giant airport and ran towards the United check-in in Terminal 1. The message on the board was lit up in white: Flight UA 7597 from Montreal was suddenly disrupted. The search for survivors is underway.

Two days later, they brought her a plastic bag with Yovo’s identified remains. After she came back from the funeral home, she opened her computer. And there it was, an email with two attachments sent from the Pierre Trudeau airport minutes before Yovo had boarded on the aircraft for his fatal flight.

Elena wipes her eyes and heads towards the living room. She has to tell the children. They have come from far away for the funeral, without their partners, just as for their traditional annual get-together with their dad. They are sitting around the table, which is loaded with food, waiting for her. The chair where Yovo always sat at the head of the table stands empty, with a plate and silverware on the table in front of it. His six children are sitting there, three on each side of the table, they have left her the only chair with armrests, at the foot across from Yovo. She sits down and Adelia puts her hand on Elena’s.

Everyone suddenly feels an uncontrollable hunger.

Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

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