French Kissing


            I remember how I was first charmed by her back: a trapezoid, whose sides curved ever so slightly inward, falling from her horizontal shoulders to her waist like a wild vine on the walls of a summer house. It was straight, with pale skin, trembling over the taut musculature, with several moles beneath her slender neck and perhaps above her waist as well, but now hidden by the black leotard with crisscrossing straps. Unlike most thin women, her hips were not wide like a bowl, into which the vase of the ribcage has been placed, but rather protruded back. Perhaps this was the reason her back was sexier than her thighs and exuded the irresistible urge to be embraced. In any case, I could freely use it to excite my imagination: I was behind her and, despite the mirror, there was no way she could notice that I was watching her. Her legs were longer than her torso, a miniature triangle shone at the base of her thighs. But even from my comfortable viewpoint, her black, Arab, seashell-shaped eyes disconcerted me.

That’s how it has been my whole life: the instant I look into beautiful female eyes – even when holding the most serious conversation – an electrified chain of sexual expectations switches on in my consciousness and I grow frightened: of looking ridiculous if the feelings aren’t shared, or of failing if they are. As if the beautiful eyes of a woman are an open window suggesting that I can see her brain as if in the palm of my hand, while in reality the light they emanate turns out to be blinding – just like looking into a stranger’s room from the street during daylight – the space behind the window remains obscured, mysterious, and unforeseeable. I am sure that most men share my innate ignorance, which cannot be overcome with exaggerated manliness or with sexual experience. It makes us unsure, no matter how great our self-confidence. And we hurry to marry, so as to safeguard – to lock up with the key that is the marriage license – our supposed superiority.

With Zaynah my second fear was justified. It turned out that she had also been looking at me in the mirror with sexual expectations. But I failed. We flirted, we had searing sex – she confirmed this more often than seemed necessary, even in front of friends, except that then she would say “I had the most divine orgasm” – but it didn’t add up to love. We didn’t want to have a child. The fire of the flesh gradually and naturally burned out. And I found – or more precisely I attempted to find for my own reassurance – that the intelligence behind the open window of her blinding eyes was neither inspired by curiosity about the world, nor was it equal to her sex appeal. After two years, we parted as good friends.

That’s how I am: my whole life, I have never been able to hate a single one of the beautiful women I have unsuccessfully tried to get close to. I’m talking about complete fusion – long after the initial sexual thrill. So I gave up searching for eternal love. For that reason, I remember all of their eyes. But Zaynah’s eyes I remember best of all.

All of that was a long time ago, long before I retreated from the world to die here on this beach when my time comes. There are no female eyes here to throw me off balance with their ambiguous menace. Day and night, I listen to the ocean, stare at the waves and sometimes I see Zaynah’s eyes. They are like the madeleine dipped in tea steeped by his mother on a chilly autumn day, whose scent unlocks memories about his childhood summers spent in Combray in Marcel Proust’s consciousness. In my memory, Zaynah’s eyes unlock the story of Michael and Georgeanna.


            Henceforth, the reader must have total faith in the narrator’s observations and comments. Only in rare cases do facts from a couple’s life reflect their motives. The facts are the result of decisions – spontaneous or well-considered – for which a person is responsible, even when he cannot explain them. Which happens more often than we would like. The ambivalence of our states and actions perhaps frees us from guilt, but does not free us from responsibility.


I met Georgeanna and Michael in 1983, two years after emigrating to  America. I had just found my first job as an anatomy instructor in a small but wealthy private college in Vernon River, Iowa. I wasn’t sure how long I would stay there, so I didn’t hurry to buy a house; instead, I drove up from Chicago once a week for two days. A colleague offered me a room for the one night I stayed in town. However, academic life is unpredictable and sometimes I had to stay longer because of administrative duties. To kill time on one such evening, I joined the dinner party at Mrs. Mercier’s house. Originally from France, she had ended up in Vernon River, outliving her mentally ill husband, and after long years of teaching French at the college, she had devoted herself to the almost missionary role of raising the cultural level of the local intellectual milieu by offering French cuisine in the dining room of her own home once a week between April and October. I was told that the nine places at her Friday evening dinners were already sold out in early spring. But I got lucky: one of the local professors suddenly got sick that very evening and a spot opened up for me at Mrs. Mercier’s table.

It was a coquettish house, with a farmyard and a vegetable garden with chickens wandering through it, two miles outside of town: to get there you took a dusty road that wound through soft hills covered in cornfields. The corn had already yellowed and in some places the rectangular swaths had been cut and harvested. The late September sun was setting as I parked my car next to a luxurious BMV7; a black-haired, distinctly youthful-looking middle-aged man was just getting out of the driver’s side. “Michael, nice to meet you” – he almost immediately extended his hand towards me, practically over the roof of my car, but without smiling. And as I went around the end of my car to return his greeting, a short, almost miniature woman with a disproportionately large bust appeared next to him. “And this is Georgie,” he nodded at her, with the same impenetrable expression, devoid of any theatricality. The woman was visibly older than the man. Despite her smooth face, which had undergone several rounds of plastic surgery, on her neck there were indelible wrinkles: age-spots rushed headlong towards her neckline. Her hair was naturally blonde. She turned out to be a partner at a local law firm specializing in criminal cases. Mike was a professor in one of the numerous humanitarian disciplines that exist only in American colleges: fabricated combinations of psycho-, socio-, ethno-babble, mutations arising from the social sciences and used as the pseudo-scientific foundations of so-called cultural studies.

I sat next to them at dinner. The intelligence of both of them was indisputable and charming. My immigrant story sincerely intrigued them. By the end of the evening we unanimously agreed that the dishes – five in all – albeit French in style, were still a far cry from the authentic flavor they possessed in France. Georgie declared that in America, where the whole world wanted to immigrate, Americans were doomed to remain ignorant of the original taste of most of the things that fed their snobbery, while the newcomers were doomed to suffer nostalgia for the flavors of their childhood. Twenty years still separated us from the Iraqi adventure, when French fries would be declared unpatriotic, and I still could not fathom that in this enormous country people like Georgie, who had seen the world and knew the true taste of things, were a rarity. On top of everything, she had travelled through the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe with her third husband, a career diplomat. As we left, she invited me to a Russian party she would be hosting at the end of October at their place.

In the small academic towns of the Midwest, autumn is the time for parties. During the summer, everyone scatters throughout America or the world, during the winter they usually head to the Caribbean or Florida, spring break is time to see the kids. However, the streets don’t liven up even in the fall, when four months of classes force the professors to leave off their travels abroad, and they find themselves oppressed by the rainy weather in addition to being surly over their teaching duties. Not that they would otherwise be out strolling around. Yet there is nobody to run into on the streets, and they seem to be dying to see someone. American intellectuals’ ability to communicate superficially, which has been perfected to the point of absurdity, is most apparent during these alcohol-free evening gatherings – wine, for all practical purposes, doesn’t count – which are called parties in English, the same word used for political parties and parties to negotiations. Whether they truly are evening entertainment is questionable, since at these functions everyone stands or wanders around with glass in hand, prattling on about insignificant things, most often introducing oneself to his conversation partner, since few people actually know one another. And no one is shy about attacking the snacks table once the first hungry guest has made his move on it.

This is why I was amazed when I caught sight of a truly lively crowd at Georgie and Mike’s home. The Smirnoff vodka had loosened tongues and most people were starting to remember the good old days when drinking was not considered a social defect. The table was piled with snacks in perfect accordance with Russian tradition: blini, pirogis, black and red caviar, jellied meat, a large pot of borscht on a warm gas burner – in short, everything necessary to tie my heart in a nostalgic knot. The kitchen itself was faced with Italian tiles and equipped with the latest technology. A high bar divided it from the dining room with its cherry-wood paneling. I didn’t make friends with any of the people I drank with the whole evening. I met some of them after that at similar gatherings and we introduced ourselves again. But I immediately and irrevocably became attached to the hosts. As a sign of reciprocity, they invited me to be their guest for Thanksgiving, which was only three weeks away. It was an intimate group: me and another couple, lawyers and close family friends. The huge feast of baked turkey with seven side dishes and stuffing prepared following recipes from the Deep South began at four in the afternoon and continued by candlelight until late at night. And it was just as authentic as the Russian evening. They were clearly childless, as they mentioned many other relatives who were not there, but there was no hint of a son or daughter.

I can no longer remember when I began to learn details about Georgie and Michael’s life. Whether they had dropped hints of its intimate aspects that very first evening or whether that happened during the so-called Russian party, or perhaps even later that winter, seems unimportant at first glance. But it is significant, insofar as it is a measure of their readiness to let me get close to them. I only now realize that they never told me any of what I know about them directly. Besides the most naked facts.

They had met in Pittsburgh when, on the cusp of menopause and after three failed marriages, Georgie was studying law at the University of Pittsburgh, while he was doing his PhD at Carnegie Mellon University on homosexuals’ right to serve in the military. At 25, Mike was in practice completely inexperienced with women. They met at a student party and ended the evening at her apartment with wild, repeated sex until morning. The intensity of their passion did not wane in the days and weeks that followed – they hinted at that quite frequently. Since then, for a whole 17 years, Georgie and Mike had never been apart. But they weren’t officially married. They made a terrific couple, but they couldn’t hide the difference in their ages. Nevertheless I’m inclined to admit that they were a good match, both physically and intellectually. I never once saw them kiss in front of other people. I never once heard them whisper sweet nothings to each other. But they also never raised their voices or treated each other disrespectfully. Thus, I only learned what happened when they were alone together when it was already too late. Mike was the intellectual type, much more rational and profound. Georgie was better-read, but her knowledge wasn’t systematized. I had inwardly decided that these people would be together until they died. And I somehow got used to them.

Georgie was born in Alabama – she described herself as a WASP. I got the impression that she had inherited a lot of money. Her four sisters, whom she despised, were active donors for the Republican Party. Mike’s father manufactured low-caliber weapons, his business was somewhere in Pennsylvania. His mother had never worked. He had a sister, who he claimed had psychological problems.

For me, it was extremely significant that neither of them was religious. Whatever the reasons for their neuroticism – or their cynicism – may have been, at least they were not burdened by the troublesome presence of a Catholic or Protestant God in their souls.

They were in love with Italy – just like me.


Why did I think of Zaynah this evening? Oh yes, there was a thunderstorm, the wind was howling like a dog on the roof, the waves crashed chaotically, as if angry that I was still here – that I still had the strength to stare at them even when they were not beautiful. And I grew sad. Not so much about the time that had passed, but about the time that lay ahead. Zaynah was an episode from the past, but according to the laws of memory, she had become an ineradicable part of the future. A quarter-century had passed since her future and mine had begun to run their separate courses. But seen from that point in time, her future and mine, bound by the memory of our chance meeting, had become inseparable. The fact that I had found out what had happened to her during that quarter-century did not wipe away the pain of her absence. In my memory, she and I continued to have a shared future. And from now on, those who will read my story – and this is particularly important with a view to the impending, inevitable death of my memory – will take up Zaynah as a part of their future, along with the storm-scrubbed boards of the patio, which are wringing themselves out in the sudden quiet, the sweaty bottle of Bulgarian rakia that I pour into a small glass, the moon playing over the ocean, and the scent of orchids.

Captivated by this intellectual elegy, I go into my den and page through the old notebooks that I still haven’t transferred to the computer. There it is, on the last page: “opera in Verona…” After coming back from Italy in the summer of 1985, Georgie and Mike had invited me to dinner, at dusk we were sitting on the patio in their yard; in our glasses, ice cubes cooled the 18-year-old dark-amber bourbon – the real thing, from Kentucky – and Mike was telling me how they had paid an outrageous amount to see Verdi’s Il Trovatore at the open-air stage in Verona. They had taken the train from Venice, where they were staying in a small apartment near Piazza San Marco – then still completely dry and filled with pigeons, with no inkling of the water that would wash over it in the 21st century. The entire Italian beau monde had spilled out this evening to show itself off – a spectacle that was every bit as magnificent and dramatic as the one unfolding on stage. But before the opening, thunderclouds had gathered over the old Roman arena. “The overture began,” Mike said, “with thunder and lightning, but the show went on. An amazing set, fantastic voices, a Bulgarian was playing Azucena, but don’t ask me her name [it must have been Gena Dimitrova, I suddenly realize after all these years], all the rest were Italians, including the conductor. And rain came pouring down before the end of the first act. Everyone rushed towards the foyer, opening up umbrellas, the opera stopped. It smelled of wet clothing under the arches, and it was so crowded you couldn’t even make it to the restrooms. And we were all waiting for the rain to pass, drinking cocktails, the sky was thundering, the usual Italian muddle. And what do you think happened? They announced that the performance was being called off. But they didn’t give us our money back, because they had made it through the first act.”

Georgie and Mike were bronzed from the Italian sun. Ecstatic and inspired by their sublime experiences in Italy, they were in no mood to discuss American problems, they hated Reagan and the whole conservative revolution that had swept the country. Some time after the fourth bourbon, Mike went inside to put the pizzas in the oven. The day burned out in an instant and I felt happy, I had found friends with whom I could talk about everything, just as in Bulgaria. We drank red Californian wine with the pizza – Mike’s famous spicy, crispy, succulent specialty! Georgie had taken a bottle of white out of the refrigerator, but Mike and I polished off four of our merlots. For dessert there was chocolate cake and ice cream. During the liqueur – if I remember rightly it was authentic French Chartreuse – we talked about the minds and beauty of the young girls who, in that small town, were inevitably concentrated in the college’s classrooms. I announced that I could not become aroused by an ugly woman, no matter how intelligent she was. [I’ve recently changed my opinion, but I never managed to tell Mike that.] Mike was ready to sleep with any smart woman, no matter what she looked like. Georgie turned to me and, for some unknown reason, said that I had a romantic outlook on beauty and love, surely I must have studied the English romantics. I didn’t ask her how she had arrived at that conclusion. It was one of those nights when everything is perfectly ordinary, nothing happens, nothing could happen, the beauty of life was hovering between us, but we didn’t understand that it is the whole point, because the banality of our own thoughts, no matter how steeped they may have been in classical authors and reduced to exact sciences, filled us with the discontent that our experiences didn’t make for good literature, they were too un-dramatic, or melodramatic, or too implausibly speculative, or clichéd by our humanitarian education to the point that we looked like caricatures of ourselves. I left with the usual promises that we’d call and get together again soon.

A month later, classes had already started, that means it must have been the middle of September, Mike called me. “I’ve moved out,” he said drily. “I’ve rented an apartment in the new building where the hotel is. I still need to go pick up a few things. But it’s all over between Georgie and me.” I managed to tell him that we needed to see each other as soon as possible, but he replied that he wasn’t ready to talk to anybody yet. “I’ll call you when the time comes,” he said and hung up.

Georgie’s phone call came two days later. “I have some very bad news for you,” she began, then stopped. She seemed to be swallowing back tears before going on. “Maybe Mike has already called you.” I kept quiet, but she was clearly waiting for confirmation. After that I heard her sobbing into the phone for a long time before hanging up. I called her back five minutes later and told her in a calm voice that Mike had indeed called me, that I was no less shocked than she was and that I was ready to do whatever was necessary to get Mike to return home. At that moment, I couldn’t make sense of my friend’s sudden impulse to leave his wife and the statement that came out of my mouth was more a result of my desire to comfort Georgie than a clumsy attempt to lend some sort of rationality to the situation. Sounding fake didn’t suit me well at all – the thought flashed through my mind. So I added that I was prepared to talk to her and Mike separately to try to calm things down. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m not myself right now, but let’s get together next week.”

Two weeks of a perfectly golden autumn passed, but my phones – that in my office and my apartment in Chicago on a little street near Lincoln Park – kept silent. When I arrived for my classes in Vernon River during the third week, an odious rain was falling. There was a note on the door of my office: “I’ll be in Chicago this weekend, I’ll come to see you at noon on Saturday, Mike.”  Finally, I thought, not bothering to hide from myself my joy that my curiosity – whether sexual or intellectual or both, who could say? – would be satisfied. Precisely during this period in my life, I was making my first attempts at writing and decided to record his story on tape. I have kept my old tape recorder solely because of this recording, which I don’t want to transfer to a sound file due to some strange nostalgia, and I press the button. And in the quiet tropical night, Mike’s nondescript tenor voice sounds over the melody of the tide.


I have left Georgie for good. Lately I’ve been feeling suffocated. I tried everything to put it off: I played poker almost every evening, I watched TV until late at night, I thought up trips to Philadelphia [where his father and mother lived with his mentally ill sister]. Maybe I should’ve taken this step much earlier. I’ve thought about doing it, but things had never gotten as bad as they are now. The problem isn’t that she is so much older than I am. The problem is that I feel like I’ve been backed into a corner. By her. I know she doesn’t mean to do it. But that doesn’t make the feeling that I’m caged up disappear. And why am I caged up? Because ever since we’ve been together, I’ve never once thought of another woman, I haven’t looked at other women and to be honest, I’ve kept up our unwritten agreement from the beginning: that I’ll take care of her, no matter what happens. Materially, I mean. Her family is actually quite poor. She got into law late and never managed to build up a rich clientele, while the firm she works for isn’t one of the best. Instead of appreciating and taking advantage of my loyalty, she started getting jealous. If twelve years ago her fits of jealousy happened once a year, lately they’ve been once a month.

It all started that night in Pittsburgh, when I saw her for the first time and it was like I had been stung. Whether it was the alcohol, the weed, or an act of God, I can’t say for sure. I have always been shy around women, too shy. So that’s why, besides a few short relationships when I was in high school, I hadn’t had a serious girlfriend, nor did I go to prostitutes, nor was I interested in one-night-stands with college girls. And later, once I’d become immersed in my dissertation, I gave myself over to self-satisfaction. Call it a lack of sexual energy. As a teenager I jerked off every morning in the shower and that had become a habit. In any case, when I met Georgie that fatal night, I was young, for Christ’s sake, only 26, I wasn’t a hippie, I wasn’t even into The Beatles, I knew that my father would somehow help me avoid the draft and Vietnam would pass me by. Everything occurred in my head: rationally, intellectually, and speculatively in most cases, including how I looked at women. Yes, but this blonde beauty with her fabulous tits and motherly smile snapped me out of my stupor. I immediately started drooling, as a friend of feminist persuasion liked to put it. She was surely drooling, too, as soon as she saw me, because even before midnight she told me she wanted me to walk her home, she had a colloquium the next day. And as soon as we were alone, she announced point-blank that she hadn’t slept with a man since separating from her husband. Later it turned out that they had only been separated for a month. We went into her room and… and all inhibitions fell away.

When I awoke at noon the next day I knew that I wouldn’t be able to tear myself away from her. I don’t know which of us was the leech, but she told me the same thing. I’ll tell you one detail, however, that I’d like you to keep to yourself. Please don’t ever let on to Georgie that you know what I’m about to tell you. Georgie was wild in bed, but oral sex drove her to real, downright unparalleled orgasms. I realized this when, before I left in the early afternoon, she urged me to go down on her. Since then, what we liked to call “French kissing” has become our specialty. Even when I couldn’t get hard, my tongue worked flawlessly and brought both of us to a true cataclysm. Once you’ve experienced it, you can’t forget it. Those moments were constant confirmation that I had fulfilled my job as a man: to fully satisfy my wife.

The years passed and “French kissing” always worked for us. But I was no longer 26 and began to realize that even though we were together in oral sex, and even though we came simultaneously, each of us was going wild with satisfaction inside, without knowing exactly what was going on with the other person. Her cries and breathing, the spasms in her neck and back seemed like sure signs that she was in ecstasy. But was this ecstasy the same as mine? Was it a fusion with mine, a fusing with me? Or was it yet another case of everyday distancing? Insofar as I could observe myself, the answer seemed to change: sometimes it seemed that we could not get any closer than this, other times I felt I could hate her as strongly as I desired her. Now I doubt that it was love. But if it wasn’t, does that mean I’m incapable of love? Can we even have a single opinion about what “real” love is? Is it intimacy or caring for the person whom you have sex with? Whatever it is, Georgie and I failed on both counts.

We both graduated almost at the same time and I got a job offer from Trinity College in Vernon River. But before that, something happened that neither Georgie nor I have ever told anybody. Those around us in Pittsburgh who knew about it have scattered; besides, few people care about what happens to others. We didn’t have any friends. At the university, everyone took care of himself and if we felt like part of some community, that was only when it came to political activities. I don’t know how to start. I wonder if I should even tell you at all? For twenty years I’ve kept it stuffed away down in the darkest corner of my memory. Georgie has, too. But lately, I’ve started remembering it. Not that that explains why I left her. The last thing I want now is for it to seem like I’m blaming her for something. But you want to know everything and I – I’m ready to trust you with it.

Georgie got pregnant. It wasn’t planned. But as you can guess, “French kissing” was only one part in our sex life. I thought she was too old to have children and wasn’t careful. She didn’t tell me whether she was taking precautions. And before we knew it… before we had even settled into the usual routine that I later realized almost all couples fall into, who, due to loyalty or over-intellectualization, to say nothing of waning sexual attraction, remain committed to each other… she had already conceived. When she told me, I felt proud and happy. We moved in together. We were concerned because of her age, but the pregnancy was going perfectly. All checkups of the mother and fetus were excellent and we started preparing for the birth. Georgie wanted to have a natural homebirth. We didn’t know the baby’s sex, but we had the feeling it would be a boy. We had chosen a name, Abraham, women held the usual baby showers. A few days before her due date, Georgie started having labor pains and got ready to give birth. The midwife gave her a checkup around 10 at night and said that her cervix wasn’t yet dilated enough and told us to call her again in three or four hours, she lived nearby. Just look how all the details are springing up in my memory – isn’t that astonishing? I was with her when around midnight, she was suddenly in terrible pain, saying that she had begun bleeding heavily. I immediately called 911 and the ambulance arrived. I got in it with her. At the maternity ward the doctor realized that the child had no pulse. They immediately performed a C-section, but they pulled out a dead little boy. They said the placenta had ruptured.

Georgie wanted to hold a funeral. We invited the few close friends we had – her sisters didn’t come, of course. My mother was there… and my father. One or two friends from the college. At the funeral home they said wonderful things about the future of a child who had never been born. It was simultaneously touching and grotesque. Georgie was crushed by exhaustion and despair and fell into a deep depression. She had convinced herself that she could give birth at home, with only the midwife there. Several times I had tried to get her to change her mind, I asked her OB/GYN to talk to her, but he merely reassured me that everything was fine, even though she was 46, she could give birth at home, no problem. In the days following the funeral, two or three of her fellow students took turns staying with her, they were clearly worried she might try to take her own life. I heard her telling them about it like something that hadn’t depended on her will or on her intelligence – it was simply fate. Her main theme was that even if she had been in the hospital, the same thing would have happened. I thought the same back then. But later I asked some friends in the medical profession and they told me it was absolutely contrary to practice to allow a 46-year-old woman to give birth at home without constant medical supervision. She should have had a C-section and everything would’ve been fine. I never told her that. We bought a burial plot and held a funeral. Then we brought flowers to the grave. When we left Pittsburgh, we abandoned him. I haven’t been back there since.

For Georgie, that was her last chance to have a child. I didn’t care either way. We made do – and we made peace, insofar as the whole story of the stillborn child resembled a war. I immersed myself in my work. You know I’ve already published three books, I have students and disciples. But for me, our “French kissing” remains the most intense emotion in my life. Don’t laugh. For an emotion to be strong, it has to not be like any other experience, don’t you think? With what other person – with what other woman – could I experience the same moments of ecstasy, of another person’s ecstasy, which you are allowed to watch in a sign of supreme intimacy, supreme closeness to someone, and which turns your insides upside-down, even though it remains unattainable? I had reached the highest form of voyeurism. And that was the limit of our emotional capabilities.

I’ve asked myself if we had been religious, or if at least one of us were, whether our life wouldn’t have taken a different turn. For believers, the problem of human imperfection is easily solved. God watches them and controls them. God forgives their sins – but what’s more, he tells them what is a sin and what isn’t. God is inside them. What does it mean for God to be inside me? You told me that Proust, outstripping all cognitive science, suggested in the most elegant way that that which is inside us results from the states of our brain. Such states, however, are exhausted by memories of past experiences. Not memories of others’ experiences, but of our own. There are no others inside me. Georgie never became so close to me that I experienced her inside me. But I wanted to. In the minutes when she fell into her ecstasy, which I had brought about, I, too, wanted to fall into the very same ecstasy. To fuse with her. Those were the only moments in which I fully switched off my egoism and opened myself up – opened myself completely – to take her in. But she did not enter me. It was as if there was no mechanism in my brain to accept her. My brain couldn’t reach the state of experiencing two personalities simultaneously. Georgie remained a beautiful, naked female body, separate from mine, vibrating in her own juices – a separate body I had not experienced. Not foreign, but separate. A body, which I observed from the outside, but which I could not slip into. That body, I thought to myself sometimes, had been brought to the same ecstasy by other men as well, perhaps it was even brought on by other women, or by Georgie herself. The fact that she had decided to accept me temporarily as an agent of arousal did not mean that I possessed her, nor did it mean that she wanted me to possess her. The fact that I possessed myself – that I was under my own control – did not transform into possession of the woman I lived with. She was under her own control. She was an individual, separate from me. The question is that in my maniacal desire to bring her so close to me that we would fuse, I made myself dependent on her and by the same logic made her dependent on me. But our egoism cannot and will not accept such dependence. We must remain separate individuals. Do you know any person… no, I should say do you know any couple who has mastered the art of being simultaneously separate, independent of other individuals, and entirely bound by a total intimacy devoid of egoism?

We are bound by marriage licenses, by the conventions of everyday interaction and by our moral prejudices. In the hours we didn’t dedicate to sex – and those are significantly more hours of any life – Georgie and I used words and gestures of caring so as to bear witness to our intimacy. But I’m not sure that this intimacy stemmed from anything more than convenience and shared memories. Without being sufficiently close, we gradually got used to one another. People got used to us. Money helped these habits seem luxurious, seductive. I started buying original photographic prints – you’ve seen them at our house. She bought clothes and expensive china. We treated ourselves to expensive hotels in Florida, Italy, Hawaii.

According to the normal laws of human life, both of us were changing. But each of us was changing independent of the other. That she was aging physically wasn’t a problem for me. True, the frequency of our “French kissing” decreased over the years, but when you’re immersed in work that starts to seem perfectly normal. Like good riddance, I might say. The truly frightening thing was that somewhere around our fifth or sixth year of living together, I had gotten to know her so well that I stopped expecting to see or hear anything new from her. On top of everything, she was falling into ever more hysterical fits of jealousy for no reason. The paradox is that jealousy is an expression of a feeling of possession. It turns out that she had wanted to possess me. Or at least she imagined that she possessed me. At the same time, possession of any valuable object makes us dependent on it: Georgie had become dependent on me. I couldn’t do anything about it. The dependency was in her imagination. And that, of course, is the absolutist logic guiding the imagination of a woman who is growing old just as her husband is entering the prime of his life. I swear to you that in all my nineteen years with Georgie, I never thought of another woman. I acted completely anti-sexual with the world beyond our couple. And this didn’t cost me anything. I found it natural. Yet despite this, every time we were in the presence of young women, once we got home she would begin tormenting me with questions. For a while I turned everything into a joke and things calmed down. Over the next five years, however, she raised a fuss in public several times. This began to interfere with my natural interactions with people and twice turned out to be fatal, since I had to quit working on my latest book with two publishing houses in a row. The editors were beautiful young women, the negotiations for publishing the book were going well in both cases – but that isn’t something that can happen over the phone or by letter. I had to meet with them and Georgie insisted on coming with me. She began mixing the rules of business with her sexual fantasies. Three years ago we rented a villa in Tuscany. Once we had arrived, we found out that the daughter of our closest friends had also rented a villa two miles away from us with some other young Americans. This drove Georgie crazy – she accused me of renting the villa deliberately so I could be near the girl and flirt with her. Can you imagine – our good friends’ daughter! We had to come home a week early.

My mistake was not leaving her much earlier. I was on the verge of doing it several times. But even at the height of our most tumultuous squabbles I refrained from threatening to leave her. So perhaps she wasn’t prepared for something that in her eyes looked as if it had happened suddenly and recklessly. She is already 65, and women in her family live a long time. I don’t know if she’ll have the strength to pull herself together and build a new life in the years she has left.

But I can’t take it anymore. I’m suffocating with her. My mother died last year, my father is on his way to complete dementia. You can rest assured that there is no other woman. I’ve abandoned my latest book draft, I pay just enough attention to my doctoral students to justify the money they’re paying me. But I’ve got to go through this period. I’ve got to get used to living alone. I’ll take care of Georgie financially. That is the only thing I am able – and obliged – to do for her.

I’m ready for a change. It’s never too late to start over. I don’t know what I want to start, but it won’t be a repeat of the past. I’ve come to hate giving oral sex. I’m not sure this type of love, so praised by the French, is the ideal I should be striving towards. I’m no longer striving towards anything, my friend. I want to be left in peace. Every action contains the risk of failure – it’s better not to undertake anything.


I recall that I was filled with sympathy for Mike and told him that I would always support him and that our friendship was a form of intimacy that he hadn’t failed at. I didn’t tell him that I expected some young woman to fall in love with him. I didn’t tell him that according to his own story, he had failed not at intimacy, but at love, which he was not in a condition to call forth. I waited to see Georgie and to hear her version, so as to confirm or reject this impression of mine. He turned his back in his overcoat and went out into the rain.

Georgie called perhaps ten days later and we agreed to meet at a small café on Southport Avenue. Recently a coffee house with Viennese pastries, Julius Meinl, has opened up in the same old building, and when I’m in Chicago – which is ever more rarely these days – I never miss a chance to eat authentic Dobos cake there with bitter coffee. But during those years Chicago was a gloomy city and in the small, almost shabby cafés, they served traditional American cookies with watery American coffee. But that place, which I’ve forgotten the name of, played soft classical music and the tables were rarely all taken. It was strange that I met Zaynah as I walked towards Southport Avenue. I hadn’t seen her in a long time and was very happy to run into her. She hugged me, pressing herself to my chest. We agreed to get together once winter was over; she was thinking of going to take some classes in Texas, then she had to finish her thesis before spring. My friends’ break-up mingled in my heart with the beautiful vitality the young woman exuded. She didn’t have a boyfriend and to me, that was inexplicable. I thought that every young woman must have a crowd of admirers lined up at her door and she need only wiggle her little finger to have any one of them. But that’s not how it is – and Zaynah was one piece of evidence of this.

I never moved in with Zaynah because I never fell in love with her. She didn’t challenge me enough. But I’m sure that if I had fallen in love, some day we would have broken up – not a break-up like the one I was going to hear about again, but perhaps just as unfortunate. My sexual interest in her would have waned without my intellectual interest growing; Zaynah would not change along with me, at least that’s what I suspected. My defense mechanisms worked better than Mike’s. This was surely the reason that other people’s tragedies seemed ever more inexplicable, the more I managed to avoid such tragedies in my own life. I also think I managed to do this, even while allowing myself to have sex without love, because it was only temporary: I didn’t separate sex from love and believed in my ability to experience love – true love. The fact that this ability of mine remained unused is a whole other question.

I sat at one of the tables near the window and ordered a coke. Brahms was playing. I was 40 years old, alone in a country I hadn’t grown up in, and experienced enough with women not to fear the thought that I would continue to be alone, not committed to any one of them. My only true fear was that I wouldn’t find friends or that the ones I had found would change their lives to the point that they were unrecognizable. And that meant that perhaps there would be no room for me anymore in those lives. The conveniences and opportunities in this country were inversely proportional to people’s need for closeness. The waitress smiled kindly at me, the first flurries of snow fluttered outside, there were unfinished cups of coffee on the empty table next to me.

Georgie entered silently, but her blonde hair seemed to light up the interior of the café, which had begun to sadden me. She looked younger than her years, but she immediately brushed aside my compliment, admitting that she regularly had plastic surgery on her face. Even now, twenty-five years after our meeting, her pleasantly husky voice in my memory overpowers the monotonous lapping of the waves on the sand, and I, since it would’ve been impolite to take notes, am recreating her story from memory and from the notes I jotted down that evening after our conversation, along with everything she had openly revealed and hidden without expecting sympathy and without fearing that I might accuse her of snobbery. Here is what she said.


Oh, I’m so glad to see you! No man is an island, that’s what the great English poet John Donne said. You do know, don’t you, that the title of Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is taken from the same poetic meditation? It ends with “my God, who is our only security.” I don’t have a God and my security depends solely on the man I am tied to. Three centuries after Donne, mankind has grown so numerous that those of us here, in America, have stopped hearing when the bell tolls for the dead in Europe. Or in the Soviet Union. My mankind is limited to myself and the men I’ve been with… and perhaps a few friends. You have suddenly turned out to be one of them and I would like to believe that there is no sea between you and me and that if even our islands are just two, when connected, they’re like a continent.

I assume that you’re surprised about what has happened between Michael and me. I don’t know whether you’ll believe me, but I’m surprised, too. Not that we didn’t have our fights, but I never suspected that he could turn out to be so irresponsible in the end as to transform these fights into a reason to leave me.  He was the best of all the men I’ve lived with. And the smartest. I should also add: and the most honorable. I was in terrible shape when I met him. I was in the middle of divorcing my third husband and was despairing of ever finding happiness in a relationship. But I think I need to start from a lot further back…

I got married for the first time to my high school sweetheart, but that was more a means to escape from my parents than an attempt to really settle down with someone and have kids. We split up after three years, at the height of World War Two. I had a convenient excuse: he was supposed to go fight on the European front. He came back safe and sound, but I didn’t bother looking him up, while he, too, had gone his own way.

At the end of the war I had not only graduated from college, but had gotten my PhD in English literature. Yet I wondered what to do with myself, nothing seemed interesting to me, least of all a university career. I’d had short affairs with nondescript men, whom I used for convenience, but the prospect of getting married again didn’t even cross my mind until I met my second husband. I was actually interested in politics, where our country was heading, I would rather have died before going back to my family in Alabama: the South’s deep-rooted male chauvinism repulsed me, the unscrupulous segregation of blacks made me ashamed to be an American, I was almost sure I belonged in intellectual circles – but where were they? New York and San Francisco. My father was still sending me an allowance, but it wouldn’t have been enough for New York, so I left for Frisco. What a contrast to the Deep South! You can’t imagine it unless you’ve lived in California. The liberal spirit fit me so well that I fell for practically the first interesting man I came across. He was moderately wealthy, he could afford a wife. We got married, but under one condition, which he insisted on: that I not work. But he turned out to be a weak person, suffering from complexes, neurotic, he started driving me crazy… Oof, there’s something else… I don’t know if I should… OK, fine, I’ll tell you something I never admitted to Mike. I have a daughter from that marriage… [I remember a long pause here, I remember how she looked out the window – not sadly, not dreamily, but more expressively – but I couldn’t find the strength to interrupt her or to express some feeling, least of all sympathy.]… yes, I have a daughter… Does that astonish you? But I’m not in contact with her. When we got divorced, I left her with one of my sisters, who was married but had no children. I didn’t have my own income yet, while the alimony from my husband after the divorce wouldn’t have been enough for both of us. You have no idea how chauvinistic our society was during the 50s: living as a single mother meant being considered a whore. Precisely then, in then post-war boom, the pious American family where the father goes to work and earns money while the mother stays home and raises the children was still the universal model that was praised to the heavens. And even though I didn’t care what the neighbors thought of me, living alone with my daughter would have meant giving up my chance to work and have a career. It was a terrible situation, but I wanted to get away from that loser so badly that I hadn’t even thought through all those details before I was faced with them head-on. A true feeling of guilt struck me much later, however, when I was living abroad with my third husband and we came back to America only for vacations.

My father was still alive when I met Nick. Nick Day, son of a congressman from Maryland, was an exceptionally charming man. He was husky, with a broad, forgiving smile and when I met him completely randomly at a reception in Washington that my father had brought me to, I really wanted him – I remember this clearly to this very day – to set me on his lap, just like my dad did when he came back from hunting on Sundays. Wait, wait! Why am I even telling you my past in such detail? Do you think I’m trying to find the reasons for my failed marriages within myself? [I remember how at that moment she grasped my hand on the table and peered at me, as if she would find in my eyes the answer that had been eluding her.] Surely the reason partially has to do with me, but not completely. Anyway, if there’s anybody I could compare Mike to, it’s Nick. Nick was very intelligent. He could smooth over even the most heated argument, he could talk to people from all walks of life, he would listen to them and somehow manage to get what he wanted in the most elegant way, without leaving the others feeling as if he had conquered them. He left me the same way: without humiliating me – we’ve kept in touch over all these years. Mike says that Nick is a sociopath, because he couldn’t keep it in his pants whenever he saw a beautiful woman. The most unbelievable thing you’ll hear from me, I’m sure, is that I put up with his womanizing. Yes, he was truly irresistible. I recently saw him in Atlanta and asked whether he had finally had his fill – he’s 65, we’re the same age – and he just threw up his hands and said with the gentlest of smiles: “The thrill is in the chase, Georgie! If I don’t experience that thrill, what would I live for?” The diplomatic life suited him. Thanks to him I got to know Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, the Arab world, I learned to value foreign cultures – not that I learned any foreign languages, in that respect I remained a true American. We spent how many… a whole fifteen years together… and those were the most interesting years of my life. I moved in distinguished circles, yet at the same time I also saw the worst sides of life in poor countries. But those years distanced me from the intellectual circles I was striving towards, which I, in fact, belonged to. For that reason, I finally made him give up traveling and he founded a political lobbying firm in D.C., while I enrolled in law school in Pittsburgh.

It was like a bolt from the blue when he announced he could no longer live with me. He had clearly gotten tired of me, despite my tolerance. It was only then, on the verge of menopause, that I started looking within myself. Not because I was afraid of getting old; the women in my family live forever. I was struck with remorse that I had failed both as a mother and as a wife. The former was my fault – that was a moral failure. But why had the latter now happened for the third time? Had I made mistakes in getting married, that is – was I incapable of making good choices? Or had I not mastered the art of caring?

And at that moment, that young angel appeared as if sent by destiny – as banal as that may sound. All of my juices boiled. I tossed aside my remorse, my soul-searching, my feeling of guilt. It would be an exaggeration to say I threw myself into the adventure blindly, because after hitting thirty there is a certain dose of caution in every such adventure. And I was 46. [Again a long pause, I remember very well, because the waitress stopped and asked us if we’d like anything else and Georgie asked whether they happened to serve alcohol. She had forgotten that we were in the Midwest, where drinking was considered deprave, and restaurants that served alcohol, even in Chicago, were few and far between. As the waitress brought her another coffee, Georgie stared at me, as if expecting me to protect her from her own confusion.] Strange, isn’t it, but at 46 I still hadn’t lost hope that I could start my life over. Maybe in that sense it really was an adventure, because I wasn’t cautious enough. I was changing my profession, I was going to change husbands again, I felt exalted and inimitable. I rushed to save the scraps from my past shipwrecks and, something which is very important in this case, I intuitively sensed that this young man was pure and that he needed me: he would have aroused the mothering urge in every woman. It was completely unbelievable that he was still single.

After a year or two of getting used to each other – the usual difficulties in every transition – he demonstrated his loyalty to me – he all but swore he was destined to be mine – and that calmed me down. I would say that we started living in an intellectual harmony that was new to me. We had enough money – which came from his family, but also from his good university salary; they had a big house in Arizona, two luxury apartments, one in Key West, the other in Miami Beach, and his father’s business was clearly going well, because there was talk of Mike inheriting a significant amount and property. When a person is financially secure, he finds himself facing life with all of his imperfections and, by the time he realizes that he hasn’t learned to use that freedom responsibly, his life ends with the melancholy conclusion that he has failed. But I wonder which failure is worse: to fail in your own hopes of having been useful and remembered, or having caused suffering to the people you’re close to, deluded by your own egoism?  But the worst of all is that very few people are brave enough to critically analyze themselves – or most have already lost their minds when they get to the age when they have time to turn their gaze towards themselves. [What prophetic words, I think to myself now, because Georgie herself never managed to reach the introspection she expected from others.]

And I’ll tell you something else: Mike is exactly one of those people who freeze up in the face of their freedom and, so as to justify their refusal to apply themselves, they act like cynics. True, he’s a productive person and in that respect his egoism appears as conceit. He wants his books to be liked and praised, he doesn’t shy away from confronting the ideas of others like him. But in his personal life, he doesn’t try to adapt to the people close to him.

[Good God, I thought to myself then, did you yourself do what you could to adapt to Mike? On this tropical night, this causes me to search my computer for the file I had copied from my old notebook. Yes, here it is. Then I had written: “Georgie didn’t mention the stillborn baby boy, but told me about her daughter from her second marriage. Was that because she had suppressed it so deeply that she really couldn’t remember, or because she didn’t want to leave me with the impression that at that moment in their life she had felt a crack opening up between her and Mike which neither of them had made an effort to fill? And it had quietly grown, without showing any signs – or else the two of them closed their eyes to the signs – until at one unforeseeable moment in their story (which is not a love story, at least it doesn’t sound like one to me, but it’s still a story about passion, sexual harmony, a desperate attempt to escape loneliness – a tragic story, when considered deeply) the long-suppressed drive for personal independence that is deep-seated in the male essence suddenly reared its head and opened Michael’s eyes. And he refused to uphold the status quo any longer, a status quo which didn’t bring him any new emotions, any youthful emotions. Without caring what would happen to Georgeanna. But if that’s the case, why doesn’t Mike repel me – on the contrary, I feel all the more connected to him.” That seemed to be all Georgie said in that café at Southport Avenue. No, wait, there was a finale – drawn-out and unexpected in its content, like a musical composition from the Romantic era.]

I wish him only the best from now on. Mike has never been close to his father, but he worshipped his mother. And now look, she died and his world seems empty. After the funeral, his sister had to be placed in a psychiatric clinic. I have the feeling that Mike took these events as a break with his childhood and that’s why he decided to break with me as well: so I wouldn’t remind him that he remained a child even as a grown man. He doesn’t like children, he doesn’t want his own children, that’s why I hid the fact that I had a daughter from him. And you know what? My daughter had found out about my separation from Mike and called me. She has two boys, but I have no idea who the father is. I haven’t seen her yet, but I’m thinking of spending Christmas with them in Florida. I hope I’ll be off anti-depressants by then. If you think I’ll look for another man in my old age, you’re sorely mistaken. Women are much better company. If my daughter hasn’t come to hate me irrevocably, I’m ready to become the best grandma in the world.

We left the café and hugged by her car, which was parked on a side street. I wasn’t sure I would see her again, even though I promised to call soon. The snow had covered the car and the sidewalks, the winter promised to be cold.


And now here’s Zaynah again. It’s summer, we’re together at the beach – that long, luxurious strip of Miami Beach so iconic of Florida, known throughout the whole world from postcards, and in the modern Internet age – from millions of digital photos in cyberspace. We’re waiting for Mike. Zaynah has finished her classes and found a job. It is the summer of 1986 and for the first time I’m seeing the ocean, the Babel of people in bathing suits, the  characteristic towering hotels and condominiums, the sailboats and the surfers, and I am astonished at how much more human everything looks when you’re sitting on the warm sand in comparison to the pomposity of tourist brochures and the shiny, elongated landscape on postcards. All of this thanks to Zaynah’s idea for us to spend a week in the south, in the warm part of America. Mike is here to sell the apartment – his father’s business is in trouble and he needs the money. And I’ve come up with the crazy idea of introducing him to Zaynah. If she likes him, I think to myself, then they’ll get together – and I have no doubt whatsoever that he’ll be crazy about her.

Zaynah and I have rented an apartment near the beach, but we sleep in separate rooms. It’s strange, isn’t it, how even the most beautiful woman can become just part of the furnishing once the time passes, in which the unfamiliarity of her body has multiplied the pleasure of sex tenfold? This is not an insult to the woman, nor is it some form of male impotence. This is the flowing of the momentary thrill of orgasms – frequent, stormy, exhausting, no one can fail to remember them and not want to relive them – into the ongoing delight in the woman’s presence. Due to love or as an intellectual friendship or both at the same time, the presence of a woman who wants to stay with you forever and rejects the temptations offered by so many predatory men is acknowledgement of something more than your masculine potency.

The fact that we had decided to sleep in separate rooms didn’t stop us from rushing at each other the very first afternoon, when, arriving directly from the airport, sweaty, we entered the hotel room with its drawn curtains, smell of thousands of sandy bodies, dusty furniture, and unfinished summer and dropped out suitcases on the floor. But it wasn’t because we were so hungry for each other, but rather because neither she or I had had sex in a long time. We needed to come. We were such good friends that we didn’t feel awkward with each other. During the flight I had imagined her sexy back and now, in the cool murk of the room, I took off her T-shirt, she wasn’t wearing a bra underneath, and hugged her from behind, I didn’t need her lips, but her back, around which I grasped her breasts and thus, pressed to her, I had everything at once, her whole excited, smooth, olive body – and she received all of me, rhythmic and prolonged, until we both fell onto the floor, drowned in our own juices. Our friendship was a guarantee that this release wouldn’t be taken as flirting, nor as the beginning of a love affair, least of all as an attempt to restore that, which could have begun more than three years ago. And indeed, with that our sexual relations ended once and for all. We took showers and headed to the beach, happy and purified. We had removed the final barrier to friendship.

Now I again feel nostalgic for her body, but it’s the nostalgia of an old man, who can now only remember such things, but can no longer bring them about. Given the events that followed and from the point of view of the cosmic order, it turned out to be a very good thing that Zaynah and I had established – as if by intuition – an honest and trusting friendship. When I am gone, my memory of Zaynah will disappear as well: only then will she truly die, if we don’t count the people who will remember her briefly after reading my story. In this memory of mine, however, we’re together on the beach, she gets up from her sun bed and heads towards the ocean and I watch as her fantastic back grows distant, rocking on top of her long legs, she’s put on a swimming cap and for a moment she turns to me and waves, then runs towards the green water and fuses with it, swimming far out, the thought of sharks crosses my mind, but I banish it, the sun drenches me with warmth and I wait for Mike to appear out of somewhere…

And he appeared: punctual, impenetrable, with skin white as milk. And when Zaynah came out of the water shortly thereafter, wet and bronzed, by the water, there was what the French call a coup de foudre and what in my youth we called “love at first sight,” but today – and especially in America – certainly must sound like sex at first sight. I watched them and was sure they would get married and that Zaynah was doomed never to experience true, deep, romantic love her whole life.

Zaynah and Mike got married the next summer. I was one of the two witnesses to their wedding, which took place at the town hall in Camden, New Jersey, a small city not far from Philadelphia. Mike didn’t like noisy celebrations, so we just had dinner at a French restaurant, whose name I forgot to write down. Actually, there were five of us: besides the newlyweds and the two witnesses, Mike’s father was also at the dinner. Zaynah hadn’t invited anyone. She never said anything about her parents and I hadn’t considered it appropriate to ask. In the year between Miami Beach and the wedding in Camden, Georgeanna had retired and left Vernon River. She didn’t call me and I didn’t seek her out either: and so I lost track of her. A year after that, Mike found a job at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania and they moved to Philadelphia. In 1990, I got a job at Northwestern and began living in Chicago, on Lakeshore Drive; from my apartment I could look out over Lake Michigan every day, which reduced my nostalgia for the sea somewhat.

We kept in touch ever less frequently. Even email, which had appeared around that time, did not cause either one of us to write more often. I suspect that Zaynah had told Mike about our sexual intimacy and he was jealous of me retrospectively, all signs indicated that he had been infected by the former jealousy of his former wife. Alas, I was never able to find out for sure.


Ten years later, actually, here it is, I’ve written down the date, December 31, 1999, a few hours before we celebrated the new millennium, I got an email from Zaynah. I remember I had already put my suit on and had tied my bowtie and was about to go out to celebrate with some friends from the English department when I checked my computer just in case. It informed me that for a year, Mike had been starting to forget things and to behave strangely and in the end they had diagnosed him with early-onset Alzheimer’s. “I don’t want you to call me,” she wrote. “I don’t need help or sympathy. I just want you to know. You were Michael’s only friend from Vernon River, and his only friend, period. Mike never stopped mentioning you fondly, recalling your warmth and humanity.”

The next email with similarly fatal information appeared on the screen of my computer at the height of one of the blizzards that wrap Chicago in wind and snow and force the huge airport to close down. It was from Georgeanna’s daughter. “My mother passed away at age 81 after a long illness. The funeral will be held at 2 p.m. on January 21, at the funeral home at 1076 Madison Avenue, at 81st Street, in New York. Georgie never forgot you as long as she lived. Before she died, she told me to find you so you could come to the funeral.”

January 21, 2001, was a clear and typically cold New York day, 25°F. I had driven all night and was late reaching the funeral home, so I went straight to the cemetery. The blue sky and the white snow contrasted like in the insignia of the BMW I got out of bundled in a coat and hat. It crossed my mind that the only person I knew at that gathering was lying in the coffin, which had just been taken out of the hearse. I didn’t expect Mike to be there, given his advanced dementia. And I can’t imagine Georgie would want him to accompany her on her final journey. Had she known what had happened to him?

People in black were gathered around the freshly dug grave. I approached just as in the mafia movies – a stranger, distant, but secretly tied to the deceased, perhaps even more intimately informed about her life than her loved ones, in any case more than they could ever suspect. But none of us knows everything about anyone!

In the front row, practically right next to the coffin – could I believe my eyes? – stood Zaynah, her head covered with a black veil. Sent by Michael? Impossible, given his condition. Had she come on her own so as to show that she knew and to seek forgiveness? But she wasn’t religious and had no one to ask for forgiveness. Had she come to show Georgeanna’s sisters that she had outlived Mike’s previous wife? How absurd! All of this was running through my mind, as I waited out the ceremony, growing ever more restless. At one point, I nevertheless managed to catch Zaynah’s eye and gestured to her to wait for me afterwards.

After the speech and once dirt had been thrown on the coffin, people began leaving. I really didn’t see a single familiar face. I got into my car and waited. Zaynah was the last to leave the flower-covered grave and she headed towards my car, which had been left alone in the snowy parking lot. Once she got in next to me, I began driving towards her hotel on Broadway and Houston. She was silent for a long time, while, I, too, had no idea what to say once I had expressed my condolences. I slowly drove south along Second Avenue, there wasn’t much traffic. Dusk was falling. Breaking the silence, Zaynah told me that she was Georgeanna’s daughter.

I had to pull over to hear her out without risking a crash. While married to Nick, during one of their brief stays in New York, Georgie had had a short affair with an Arab diplomat from the UN. In her carelessness, she had gotten pregnant and had to tell her husband. He made her keep the child, under the condition that once it was born, she would give it up for adoption and never see it or mention it. During her pregnancy, he was ambassador in Kazakhstan. Thanks to his connections, Nick arranged for her to give birth at a clinic in Washington and for the baby to immediately be given to a wealthy, childless family. Georgie caught a flight back to Kazakhstan two days after giving birth. This was how Nick had forced her to put up with his extramarital affairs. “Isn’t that crueler than beating her?” Zaynah said. “And then to leave her after all that.”

When she was eight years old, Zaynah accidentally discovered she was not the biological child of her adoptive parents. She didn’t take it too hard – they had taken good care of her and didn’t make her feel as if she owed them anything. They had decided to go their separate ways once she graduated from high school. Georgie had finally looked her up only after she was living with Mike in Vernon River. But she had wanted to keep their relationship a secret. Georgie categorically evaded all questions about her father. Thus that person, a random and unknowing sperm donor to a beautiful woman, remained unknown to Zaynah. He sank into the stream of her life without a trace. Neither he nor Zaynah could ever learn that they were related by blood.

I couldn’t wait to hear about Mike, so I asked her. It turned out that she had never known Mike as her mother’s husband. Georgie had told her that she was living with a man and that she was happy and not to ask any more questions. So Zaynah didn’t ask. On that day, when we had met on Southport Avenue, she had just come from seeing Georgie, who had called her to say that the man she had been living with for a whole nineteen years had left her. That was why Zaynah had been in such a good mood and had hugged me on the street. Deep inside, she had hoped that her mother would get closer to her at some point. But she had soon been disappointed. Georgie had gone to live with her other daughter and had called her only rarely. Zaynah already had Mike and took things as she had always taken them – without resisting them, but also without particularly trying to bring them on.

At that moment in her story, my friendly feelings for Zaynah, which had lain dormant for ten years, swam up in my soul as sympathy, tenderness, as well as insurmountable curiosity. I could sense that she didn’t want to talk about her life with Mike, but I tossed aside all inhibitions and asked her directly whether Mike had been a good husband. To tell me in the name of our old friendship. Zaynah swallowed the tears which had sprung into her black eyes – I was once again captive to the arousing fear that a beautiful woman is something at once accessible and evasive – and seeming to recover from the uncertainty that had gripped her, she told me that Mike had been a very caring and loyal husband. But he hadn’t wanted to hear even a word about children. The only thing… “oof,” she said, “the only thing, believe me, but it was important to him”… Michael’s only failing had been his impotence. For the first two years, everything had been going fine, but after that he had lost his abilities and had made her… I didn’t let her utter the words, which would have brought her unnecessary discomfort, and finished the sentence myself: “oh, the French kissing!” The hint of smile flashed in her eyes for a moment, but, defeated by the solemnity of her whole story, she regained her serious expression and nodded. Then she looked at me quizzically. I had nothing to hide; I told her that Mike and her mother had been into “French kissing” and that I knew this from him firsthand.

Evening had already fallen and we were talking amidst brilliant, nighttime New York. I had nothing more to learn. Michael, who had forgotten about the world, yet still existed in it, was sitting in their home in Philadelphia at that moment, not knowing that Georgie was no longer among the living. But this meant nothing to him. Just as it meant nothing that the woman who would take care of him until he, too, passed away was a repeat of sorts of that Georgie whom he had abandoned, because she had backed him into a corner. With her jealousy. But actually, if he had asked me, she had cornered him with the fact that she didn’t know how to express her love for him. No one can say with certainty, however, whether she had loved him, how she had loved him and how much she had loved him.

I re-entered the stream of cars on Second Avenue. The woman next to me was exactly the same age her mother had been when love had visited her soul, but she had not recognized it. We reached the hotel in silence. I pulled up to the sidewalk and got out to say goodbye. She got out of her side and for the first time that afternoon she smiled at me almost flirtatiously. “I learned about my mother’s death accidentally,” she said, “just like almost everything that has happened in my life. Ever since Michael stopped taking interest in the world, I’ve been reading his email, which he receives ever more rarely. Three days ago I got an email from an unfamiliar address: ‘My mother passed away at age 81 after a long illness. The funeral will be held at 2 p.m. on January 21, at the funeral home at 1076 Madison Avenue, at 81st Street, in New York. Georgie never forgot you as long as she lived. Before she died, she told me to find you so you could come to the funeral.’ My mother didn’t know that Mike had Alzheimer’s.” We hugged, she pressed herself to me for a long time, then let me go and headed towards the door of the hotel.


Michael died in 2002. Zaynah and I buried him together. She and I continued trading emails, then she suddenly stopped. Her phone was disconnected. All of my efforts to find her were in vain. I don’t know whether she is still alive, but I have no reason to believe that something bad has happened to her. Zaynah means “beautiful.” I wonder whether when she gave her that name, which hints at her Arab blood, Georgie nevertheless wanted to get the better of Nick – deep inside, for her own sense of self-respect?

Day and night I listen to the sound of the ocean, I stare at the waves and with each passing day the suspicion that Zaynah is a figment of my imagination grows.


Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel 

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