The Sexual Factor


            “What’s left for me now that I’ve lost your father? To find someone to grow old with at age 55?” Violet says.

“It depends on what you’re looking for: a sexual partner or a friend,” Angelina replies.

The two women are sitting on the balcony on the 21st floor of a building on Lakeshore Drive where Angelina rents an apartment, looking at the lake. Violet, in a black skirt and black bra, but barefoot, has arrived the previous day from Amsterdam. Her pomegranate-red, dyed hair glows almost indecently around her grieving face. How badly my mother is aging, Angelina thinks to herself in Bulgarian, she is losing her beauty. Violet has huge dark-brown eyes, which look constantly goggled without make up. Her bulging forehead has become unnaturally high, the front of her hair having thinned from constant chemical abuse. Her lips, used to lipstick, without it resemble the dog-eared cover of a dime-store novel read by many people.

“I’ve been looking for both my whole life,” Violet says.

“And what about me? Have you been looking for me, too?” Angelina looks at her coldly.

“We decided to send you to your aunt in Chicago when you were nine so you wouldn’t rot away under communism like us. Only six months later the regime fell unexpectedly and your father and I immediately moved to Holland. We needed a few years to get settled. While his sister had defected all the way back in September 1979, I had just gotten pregnant with you then.”

“And then you didn’t have any money to come to America… to see me.”

“Pour me more coffee, please.” Violet takes a cigarette out of the pack of Marlboros lying on the table, clicks the lighter and inhales with relish. “There are things you don’t know.”

“The secrets of your life,” Angelina says more with annoyance than sarcasm, pouring coffee into her mother’s porcelain cup. On the glass table in front of them, there are fresh croissants in a bread basket, feta cheese and fig jam in little porcelain bowls, a ceramic coffee pot, Angelina’s laptop, which buzzes from time to time when a new e-mail arrives, and that morning’s pink Financial Times. The Saturday sun grows hot, Angelina gets up and opens the umbrella over the table. Through the open balcony door the moans of a baby who is about to wake up and start crying can be heard.

“Wait for me to go see what Vivian wants, then you’ll tell me your story,” Angelina says and before going inside, she looks her mother over with similar Mediterranean eyes so disconcerting to men, but now set in white, unwrinkled skin. Despite having given birth six months earlier, Violet’s daughter has a firm body with wide hips; beneath her pastel-green blouse, large, perfectly rounded breasts swell – just like mine when I was young, thinks Violet. Angelina is wearing black jeans, which are like an extension of her shiny, raven-black hair, which flows freely almost to her waist. In addition to her main job as a consultant on ecological projects, every Sunday morning Angelina teaches a Pilates class at Flow Studio on Clark Street. But today is Saturday and she has all the time in the world.

“The secrets of my life are also the secrets of yours,” Violet begins after Angelina has changed her daughter’s diaper and fed her and from the living room only happy cooing can be heard. “Actually, it’s only one secret. Your father, may he rest in peace, died without ever finding out. It was the only thing I couldn’t make up my mind to tell him during our thirty-two happily married years… Years full of love. I imagined that before he died we would have some moment alone by his bedside and then the truth would come pouring out. But the heart attack came on suddenly: he fell on the bedroom floor and died. Two weeks after we celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday. Fate spared him the disappointment. He passed away, deluded like every man who imagines that he controls everything in his life. But at least he died happy! And he left me to suffer doubly: from the sin itself and from the fact that I never confessed it to him. If I had revealed it to him, I would have had to repent and he would have faced the dilemma of whether to forgive me or not. Men always win, even when they leave this world for the other one.”

Angelina looks at Violet’s profile, she almost seems to be talking to herself, her face turned towards the green lake, and she tries to connect this woman with the memory of her mother from childhood. It is said that men remember the softness of the flesh they suckled and for that reason they are attracted to women with large breasts their whole lives. But why isn’t it the same for women? Why does hard flesh arouse them? Her unshaven father’s stubble. The strong, bulging muscles of the young men who tumbled around the beach like acrobats. And no memory of her mother’s shapes. Only the beauty of her face, laughter, or a whispering voice above her bed before falling asleep – and the forced coldness in that voice when she made her kneel in the corner as punishment. Until I was nine years old I grew up in a loving nest, Angelina thought to herself in English, nothing worried me and I didn’t want to know anything about the grown-ups’ world. But in the spring of 1989, without me even realizing it, they hurriedly put me on a plane to America, via Frankfurt. My mother sobbed loudly, my father’s eyes were moist as he pressed me to him, I wondered why they were acting like they were at a funeral – we were going to see one another again soon, right? But it really was a small funeral! My mother knew that she was parting with me, that she was tearing me away from my father. Why? Is that her secret? That she had to wait twenty years before seeing me? That for some mysterious reason she didn’t want me to be reunited with my father again? Or she has simply been weak her whole life and when she was suddenly left alone she remembered me. A just-in-case cure for loneliness. And how little I remember of Bulgaria! I don’t really care. I can still speak the language, my aunt and I always spoke Bulgarian together. But the umbilical cord to that place was cut. By them. And now this woman, who for biological reasons is my mother, wants to sew the two ends back together: to staunch the hemorrhaging. But I’m not bleeding. I don’t even have a scar. I don’t belong to anyone and it doesn’t hurt that I’m alone. I only hope she doesn’t lay some sentimental story on me…

“But men make life interesting,” Violet continues. “When I met Stilyan, he was already past forty, with two marriages behind him, no children. I had just been appointed a lab technician in forensic medicine in Varna. He was the head of the Anatomy Department. But I had seen him for the first time at some international conference, I don’t remember what it was about anymore, in Golden Sands. It was late September, the beaches were deserted, the sea was still warm, a golden time. They had called us in to help with registration and translation. In the afternoon of the second day, everyone was in the conference hall listening to the papers, he passed by my table and asked if I wanted to get coffee. For my whole life after that, I saw the same thing happening over and over, but even then it occurred to me that at these public displays in the socialist world, everything, especially the attitude towards science, seemed serious and archaic like in an archeology museum, everyone pretends to be completely absorbed in the talks and discussions, while in reality everyone is secretly trying to get laid. Rumor had it that the head of anatomy would shut himself up in his office with young female assistants and would make sure to get off, even if that meant being late for departmental meetings. But now he was smiling at me with the sexiness of a highly intelligent man: that is hard to resist, as I found out later. Nothing attracts me and excites me like the male mind. Before then, however, I hadn’t yet slept with a truly intelligent man, even though I was already 23 and wasn’t lacking in sexual experience, in high school I had already started choosing whom to sleep with. In ninth grade, at the end of puberty, it became clear that all the boys were eager to sleep with me, and I started taking advantage of their weakness. But until that moment I hadn’t experienced a real orgasm, like the ones described in books.”

Violet stops to light a cigarette. Angelina is stunned by her mother’s frank, almost vulgar language. It’s strange, she thinks, that this woman, who forced me to forget her, doesn’t evoke bad feelings now. I’m ready to listen to her. And not only out of curiosity. To say nothing of the fact that we are both single mothers. But will I ever be able to forgive her for depriving me of a father?

“It’s getting hot,” Violet says. “Do you have orgasms?”

“Yes, I learned how,” Angelina says after a lengthy pause, which she needs in order to decide whether to take up her mother’s tone. And she immediately shoots right back at her: “Did you orgasm with my father?”

“Oof, that’s complicated. You’re getting ahead of yourself. I still haven’t told you whether I accepted the head of the Anatomy Department’s invitation to coffee.”

“Since you’re talking about orgasms before the coffee, that means you were excited just by the invitation itself,” Angelina snaps and Violet stops to look at her.

“To tell you the truth, I can’t remember,” she says apologetically, exhaling smoke from the short Marlboro and returning her gaze towards the horizon. “You’re surely right. Stilyan was a strong man, a man with character. He wasn’t handsome, but he was one of that rare breed of men who are simultaneously intelligent and sensitive, and thus balanced. He always looked calm, even though he was not moderate in anything. I didn’t turn him down. No woman would’ve turned him down. We sat at a table with a white tablecloth in a small restaurant near the beach, which, despite it being the end of the season, still hadn’t closed for the winter. I remember that we each drank a Turkish coffee, although for the life of me I can’t remember what we talked about. In October, he started pursuing me like a schoolboy. We would go out in his car – he told me that because of his second wife, whom he still wasn’t officially divorced from, we shouldn’t go to his place. While I was still living with your grandmother and grandfather. For more than a month he would only kiss me, making me ever more impatient. When we got married I asked him whether he had put it off deliberately, but he told me he had fallen in love at first sight and he was afraid of driving me away. I’ll never forget the first time… The hotels were closed down, the whole resort was hunkering down for winter like a bear for hibernation. For me, there’s no place more desolate than a deserted seaside walkway in November, with wet fallen leaves, because I remember it in its noisy summer nonchalance. One morning he stopped the car in the empty parking lot in front of the Rodina Hotel, that was then the central hotel in Golden Sands, and told me that he had a key to one of the hotel’s side entrances – a classmate of his was the manager of the hotel and had prepared a room. But I had to wait in the car while he went to make sure everything was all right and that no one would see us going in. My stomach was already fluttering like mad when he waved me in from the door. We went up to the second floor, imagine an empty hotel, the cold, the carpets rolled up in the corner, your footsteps echoing, your heart pounding from fear that someone might suddenly show up and that what you are waiting for might disappoint you. Sex is a terrible thing: you want it so badly as an affirmation of love and at the  same time you fear that it might destroy love. I’m trying to say that I still wasn’t sure whether I was just attracted to him or whether I had already been swallowed up by irrevocable love. And I mean love from which there is no escape: with a desire for children, jealousy, sexual submission and all that we know about love from novels and which we then experience in our own lives. But at 23, you’re still thinking solely about your own satisfaction. And if you don’t get it, you’ll be hard-pressed to find other qualities in a man that make it worth it to fall madly in love with him. Anyway – we went into one of the rooms, the curtains were drawn, the bed had been made up with clean sheets, a space heater was glowing on the floor. He embraced me, undressed me, entered me – it was amazing! A sensual experience! The empty space inside me, which had positively ached to be filled, disappeared in his embrace and his ejaculation shook me. But I hadn’t climaxed. I was completely satisfied, however. I was sure that this was it.”

Angelina thinks about the empty walkway in November. Her mother’s sexual experiences do not excite her: she isn’t even impressed. Somehow suddenly and unexpectedly she remembers her grandmother’s yard during the summer, baked by the noonday sun, with only the fig tree casting a short shadow in front of the arbor, they are just returning from the beach, through the window she can hear her grandmother on the ground floor frying eggplant for lunch, it smells of cold yoghurt-and-cucumber soup, of fig leaves and of the heat, which will soon concede its power to the shadows growing from the length of the afternoon, through which everyone retreats, well fed, to nap, in order to be able to later clear their heads with afternoon coffee sweetened with cookies and cherry jam. Angelina knows only two places – Varna and Burgas – where it smells like that and where people fry zucchini or eggplants, drink their afternoon coffee at home and get ready to go out for a walk along the sea before sundown. Of course, there are thousands of such places, but since she has been living in Chicago, she hasn’t gone anywhere and for her it is difficult to add the delirious need for sexual fulfillment to her childhood idea of Varna.

“I soon was sure that this was love,” Violet continues without turning towards Angelina. She is looking towards the lake, as if from it – from the horizon of some beautiful past – that which moved her in her memories would appear again. “The love of my life.” Violet stubs out her cigarette butt in the ashtray in front of her and reaches out to light another. “He got divorced and we got married immediately. In May of ’77. At the rock bottom of the regime, when we thought communism was eternal and that we would live under it until we died. We drew our salaries, students came and went, a stream of corpses flowed steadily into the morgue, the seasons changed in one and the same way, Stilyan knew what he was doing, he kept his inferiors on a short leash, so the party comrades wouldn’t meddle in his work, but still they wouldn’t allow him to travel the world: he wasn’t of communist stock, plus he had two divorces to his name and a sister who had defected. So he spent his energy satisfying my voracious appetite for sex. He did it because he loved me. I was in love with him, but I surely wouldn’t have become so attached to him if he had been some typical Balkan macho man. I was a lab tech with no college degree, but he treated me like a princess. Quite a while later I understood why I was falling ever deeper in love with him: Stilyan was the only man in that godforsaken hinterland who respected me not for what was between my legs, but for what was in my head. Unfortunately, in Bulgaria my mind couldn’t find suitable material compensation: only in Holland did I feel equal to men. At 36, I started studying biochemistry, and at 42, I defended my dissertation. But at 23, the only thing I wanted was to have his child. But he didn’t want to – why should we have children for those communists, wouldn’t the kid be unhappy? I suspected that the real reason was his fear of looking like a grandfather to his daughter, but he never admitted this.”

Violet sighs deeply and taps the ashes from her cigarette into the ashtray in front of her. The sand down below has come alive, people are running and biking on the path along the coast, on Lakeshore Drive the traffic is heavy, but it flows smoothly, from a distance the picture reminds her of the warm beaches along the Mediterranean, but since the din of summer can’t be heard from so high up, she is seized by the alarming sensation that her consciousness has been split. Angelina is looking at her anxiously: as if she really expects to hear something like a secret.

“But still, you were born. Three years after our wedding,” Violet finally says. “But I didn’t get pregnant from Stilyan. He…”

Violet stops herself, as if frightened at having spoken aloud the secret that she had hidden from her husband and daughter for so many years. The two women turn their eyes towards the horizon. Violet doesn’t know how to go on; every explanation could sound like an attempt at justification. Angelina needs time to realize that she has suddenly been left fatherless. In a single, solitary second, life – some invisible force – has taken the idea of a fatherly presence in the world away from her: only a moment ago he alone had been here, albeit already dead, despite the fact that she hadn’t seen him in years, only recently had they started emailing and seeing each other from time to time on their computer screens via Skype.

“Did my father know that I wasn’t his child?” she asks, when the silence begins to seem unbearable.

“If I had told him, it would’ve crushed his pride,” Violet says, keeping her eyes on Angelina, who is staring at her. “And that would have destroyed the love between us. That love was the only thing I had… that we had! A little lie saved me from losing that great love. At least that’s what I thought then. I’m so happy, I thought to myself, that soon I’ll forget any pangs of conscience. Besides, I was sure that Stilyan would never find out. Which he never did.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Your real father disappeared for good.”

“What? So I’m left without a father again?” Angelina, on the verge of sensing curiosity about her real father welling up inside her, is startled by the flash that he is already gone, too. What is this monster here in front of me, which, according to the laws of biology is my birth mother, but who in the course of a single minute has deprived me of a fatherly presence twice? She has deprived me of the safe haven of my natural tie to the continuity of the world, the biological world.

“Angy, sweetheart, I came to ask your forgiveness. The moment your father died, I realized that I had no tie to the man with whom I conceived you. If you have patience, I’ll tell you the whole story in detail. First, I want to tell you that Stilyan couldn’t have children. But he didn’t know it.”

Angelina is aghast and almost ready to cry – no, she feels like bawling at the top of her lungs. Not because her life has collapsed: it will continue flowing like the cars down on Lakeshore Drive. But because she has realized that the central drama of her life is founded on a lie and ignorance. Her father, who had never done anything to hurt her, besides not being with her, suddenly seems like a tragic figure to her. And he has taken that tragedy to his grave. But her mother has turned out to be a manipulative schemer, despite the strong words she used to describe her love. Now she, disguised in the black of an aging professor, apparently possesses all the attributes of tragedy: she has lost her husband, she doesn’t know where the father of her child is, while the child herself – a career woman, a feminist, distant from her mother, deprived of the binding burden of memories and bravely independent at that – hesitates as to what to feel about her mother, most likely she doesn’t really care. Angelina, however, does not see a tragic halo around her face. On the contrary! She sees a woman who has given her own life spiritual meaning by playing a role in the tragedy of others.

She wants my forgiveness, Angelina continues thinking in English, but for what? For having lied? Or for having made me feel forever inadequate by depriving me of a father – in childhood and later, when I didn’t need him, but rather when he needed me? Can the sins of love even be forgiven at all? And how can we tell the sins of true love from the unforeseen, yet often fatal consequences of uncontrolled sexuality?

“Mom! I’m prepared to forgive you. I’m wondering, however, whether you’ll ever be able to forgive yourself! Since you loved my father … your husband … so madly, how will you live out your old age: alone with your memories or by finding some other man to look after you? But what about me! I want to have a father in this world. You’re obliged to help me find him.”

“Your father is an American,” Violet says slowly, almost dreamily. “Three years after I started living with Stilyan, I knew that we couldn’t have children. He was the reason. When I didn’t get pregnant for almost a year after we were married, we decided to test his sperm without telling anyone: I did spermograms as part of my forensics tests. As soon as I counted the sperm in his sample, I was stunned: it was quite a bit below the norm. I looked under the microscope and was gripped by horror: no movement at all! My heart sank: how could I tell him? By the end of the work day I had made my decision. I would not tell him the truth. It was snowing outside, I came home and over dinner I told him that everything was fine and God willing, we would have a child. Stilyan had no reason to doubt me, he trusted me blindly. But when the second year of our married life passed and I still didn’t get pregnant, he started urging me to get tested. I came up with excuses to put it off, claiming that I was still young and that there was time, that kind of thing… The summer of 1979 passed, it was hot and fabulous, we were at the beach from morning to night, I was as brown as a mulatto. I remember that it was the last day of August when Stilyan brought a young American professor who had come to lead some symposium to the beach. A hunk and a half, any girl would start drooling just at the sight of him. Something in my womb stirred when I met him. Two days later – oh, Angy, my girl, even now when I’m telling you this, somewhere down below I feel that doughy mixture of fear and wild sexual desire gathering, they seem to be one and the same feeling, yet I experience them as two that complement each other, and so they seem twice as overwhelming as when they appear separately … Two nights later, to be exact – nights during which I couldn’t sleep from fear and excitement – on the third, almost in my sleep, I slipped out of bed, got dressed, and caught the last night bus to Golden Sands where his hotel was. His flight was leaving at noon the next day. And what do you think the name of the hotel was? Rodina, of course. How can you not believe that everything in life is predestined! September, my favorite month, a moonlit night, and like a thief I slipped pass the reception desk and went up to his room on the third floor. Of course, during the symposium we had exchanged jokes and glances, he had understood perfectly how much I loved Stilyan, but I think Americans are obsessed with the idea of having sex at any cost, whenever and wherever the opportunity arises – I may be wrong, but I can sense with my skin that their culture teaches them that. So it never even crossed my mind that he might turn me away. Imagine it as in a movie. A beautiful, suntanned woman knocks at the door, he opens it sleepily, he is utterly surprised, but the woman steps across the threshold and literally flings herself at him. Are there any moral scruples strong enough to cause a man to refuse that which comes to him straight from heaven – that is, to put it more realistically, from the beach? I know what you’re asking yourself: did I really do it to have a child or for the sex? The answer is: both. I had no idea when I was ovulating, I knew that perhaps nothing would come of just one time… but at least we did it three times that night before I decided that I needed to catch a cab and get back to Stilyan before the seagulls began cawing. He slept like I rock, I should note. And the sex was the reward for the risk I had taken.”

How interesting, Angelina thinks to herself. Vivian’s father is also an American. Maybe I should tell her. But she is too wrapped up in herself and hasn’t even asked me yet. It’s as if coincidences in life really aren’t accidental.

“When you were born,” Violet said, “Stilyan was the happiest man in the world. And I thought it was really strange that he almost immediately agreed when I told him I didn’t want to have another child. We didn’t believe in God, we were disgusted by communism, you became the sole purpose of our lives and all of our egoism was focused on your future.”

What egoism is this woman talking about? Angelina says to herself. They never imagined that communism would fall and they wanted to save me at least. But if my mother had sacrificed herself instinctively, as well as probably due to her sense of guilt, why did my father do so, too? Why didn’t he come to see me after they went to live in Holland? Sexual love is indivisible from a sense of possession, I am sure of that, at least. Marvin belongs to me and I can’t stand the thought that another woman might also imagine that he belongs to her. It’s terrible to think this, but very soon Marv will die and will remain mine alone; and I will be freed once and for all from the fear that another woman might love him and have him as her possession. My mother slept with some man at some point, everything happened at such lightning speed that it didn’t even reach the point of possession: she wasn’t interested in possession, because it wasn’t love, while sex is deeply egotistical without love. In that sense she didn’t betray my father … Oh God, I keep thinking of him as my father … And I’ll forgive her because of that. But how can I forgive her for depriving me of a father? Love of a child is not tied to possession – it is entirely about giving, self-denial. Now look, I have Vivian and I know that she is dependent on me and that I have to give her everything so she will be happy, even without a father. The difference between me and my mother is that my father was still alive when she separated me from him, and from herself, too, as if she preferred her love for him over her motherly love, while I want Vivian to have a father, but that terrible illness is on its way to taking him away from her without her even realizing it. Taking him away? So doesn’t that mean that parents belong to their children? Or at least children live with that feeling. How many parents are there who understand that and who are ready to always be there, to be possessed? When I say “my father” I mean something different than that which my father meant when he said – or thought – “my daughter.” I am his, insofar as he created me. And I remain his only if he is with me the whole time I am growing up and if he has caused me to love him. But he is mine forever, because I need him, even if I don’t love him. Completely and unconditionally. Without a father, without a memory of a father, I have to spend my whole life making up for something, filling up the emptiness …

“What are you thinking about?” Violet’s voice startles her. “Do you hate me?”

“I’m thinking about biology. That my daughter has more American blood than I imagined. That she will also grow up without a father or maybe with a stepfather, but I’ll do everything possible for there to be a fatherly presence in her soul.”

“What are you talking about?” Violet asks, frightened. “Who is Vivian’s father?”

“I’ll tell you. I’m asking myself: who is my father? Who is the father who created me? Who is the father who belongs to me? I can’t hate you, because I’ve never loved you – consciously and deeply. But you must hate yourself, because you love yourself, because you have created our tragedy, you participated in it and didn’t have the courage to choose the truth over your own pride.” At that moment Angelina’s iPhone starts ringing and the baby inside begins to cry. Angelina presses the button and gestures to her mother to go inside with Vivian.

“Hello?” Angelina says.

“Ms. Popova?”


“Ms. Popova, Professor Marvin Wolden’s condition has suddenly taken a turn for the worse. In his paperwork, he gave your name as the person who should decide whether to suspend life support when he is critically ill and unable to make that decision for himself. Would you be able to come to the hospital immediately?”

“I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” Angelina says and presses the button to end the conversation. After a few seconds’ thought, she presses it again. “Marcie,” she says breathlessly, “please come watch Vivian immediately; I have to go see Marv. He’s dying. I’ll prepare milk for at least two feedings and will keep in touch by iPhone.”

Angelina goes into the living room. After the bright sunlight, her apartment seems gloomy. The baby is howling away, Violet is looking at her helplessly, but she goes into the kitchen to prepare the milk. From there she calls to Violet: “You’ll have to come with me to the hospital. Vivian’s father is on his deathbed. I want you to see him before he dies. I’ll tell you the details on the way there.”

“But I’m not dressed or made up or anything,” Violet says.

“Don’t worry, he won’t be looking at you,” Angelina says without irony. “Marcie lives five minutes from here, you’ve got time to get ready.”

Violet goes into the bedroom and soon comes back wearing her mourning clothes, her lips reddened and her hair brushed back. She sits down by the baby’s crib, stares at Vivian without seeing her, and mechanically wipes the sweat from her neck with a linen handkerchief. Angelina comes out of the kitchen, picks Vivian up, changes her diapers, the child calms down, in the silence that falls the two women sit at the table and wait for the babysitter to ring the doorbell.

“Angy, I can’t believe I’ve just come from one funeral, only to go to another,” Violet says. “What’s going on around us?”

“Nothing, mom. Life as usual. Marvin is dying of pancreatic cancer.”

“Yes, that’s the dying man’s name,” Angelina replies.

In the underground parking garage, the two of them get into a dark-green, sporty BMW, Angelina hits the gas and the car zooms through the rising door, passing only inches beneath it. To reach the university hospital in Evanston, Angelina takes the exit north along Lakeshore and almost immediately moves into the left lane. Traffic is light, thank God.

“How old is this man?” Violet asks, as if seized with suspicion.

“Eight years older than you: 63,” Angelina replies. “But let’s start at the beginning. In college I started sleeping with guys my own age whom I didn’t love and I thought that I didn’t need a man by my side. That I could deal with life on my own. Plus, my college mates were such kids: immature and incapable of really committing to a love affair, let alone a more serious relationship. I was superior to them not only sexually, but intellectually as well. When I graduated, I found a good job; I needed time to establish myself, to acquire self-confidence as a professional who can sell herself and be independent. My career became the meaning of my life. By 25, I was making a good salary, my name was already starting to turn up in the press: I published articles and essays about the connection between climate change and the dearth of women in leadership positions in industry.” Angelina changes lanes with ease, always seeking the one, which will allow her to drive the fastest. The Beemer obeys her and they quickly reach the end of the freeway, calmed by the powerful car’s noiseless gliding. But before they turn onto Sheridan Avenue, traffic suddenly snarls up. “But little by little, I began to realize that I wouldn’t be able to survive without a man. Not a husband, no! But a partner. Men are necessary, as much as I rail against them. Male companionship is interesting when the men are intelligent. I love men, but it’s so rare to meet a man who isn’t weak-willed and self-centered. Shit, we’re late! This stop-and-go is driving me crazy. But what the hell does it matter? He’ll die, with or without me: they’ve called me to allow them to bring it on. To save him the pain. But actually to save money for the insurance company that’s paying for his hospital bed. No one has ever recovered from his state to say whether or not he really experienced excruciating pain. And what is physical pain in the face of fear of death? The faster it comes…”

“Your father died suddenly,” Violet says. “He clearly didn’t have time to fear death.”

“Yes,” Angelina says, lost in some kind of reverie. “Waiting for death must surely be more painful than anything else. Marvin is a strong person. But still, the strongest ones are the most horrified by death – because they are powerless in the face of it. I met him three years ago, I was 26, I needed a biological consultant for a project I was working on; they recommended a professor from Stanford who spent most of the year in Chicago and who lectured at Northwestern. When we met for the first time at a café on Clark, he was in the prime of his life. Just look at that idiot cutting into my lane without signaling! I could immediately tell I was attracted to him, but I behaved absolutely professionally. Only when the project was over did he invite me to dinner. It was the best dinner of my life, at Mon Ami Gabi, a French restaurant close to my building. He told me he was divorced with three children – two sons in college and a daughter in high school who was living with her mother. At the end of the dinner, he invited me for a whiskey at the hotel bar, but didn’t ask me to come home with him after that. Taking him to my place was out of the question: for the first time I sensed that I shouldn’t take the initiative. I was ready to agree to whatever he suggested – until then I had decided whom to sleep with, when and where – but this man emanated a weightiness that inspired respect and I had to wait for him to decide. But if he had given even the slightest hint, I would have gone to bed with him on the spot. Anyway, we went out a couple more times to restaurants, to a concert of a friend of his, a violin teacher at DePaul, one night we went to listen to some jazz at Andy’s… That night he came in his car – a BMW 7 – and after the last drink we got into it and he kissed me. I couldn’t hide my excitement. He started driving, I embraced him and kissed his neck. I was totally ready. I didn’t feel any fear. Only intense excitement. We went to his house, a two-storey on Weber Street. The sex was mind-blowing. And since then I haven’t been able to answer the question of what role the sexual factor has played in my falling in love with Marvin. I fell in love like a teenager. Incidentally, I’m not sure that’s the best metaphor: why should teenagers be the only ones to experience spontaneous, crazy, selfless love? It’s as if for those of us who already know what sex is about, love is no longer so pure, nor as crazy and selfless?”

Angelina turns into the driveway of the hospital and parks. She turns off the engine, but doesn’t hurry to get out. Violet doesn’t have the strength to move. Violet doesn’t want her daughter’s story to end.

“Mom, I surrendered to this man after that night,” Angelina says, turning towards her mother’s profile. “But just think: we all live alone and want to get close to somebody. There is no closeness between two people more intimate than sexual penetration. He enters you, you take him in, your skins and tissues are pressed together, you exchange fluids. However, millions of people do this thousands of times without ever growing any closer. Each one experiences his orgasm alone, pulls out and rolls over. Where is the intimacy? Where is the closeness, the spiritual penetration? People use sex for egotistical satisfaction, when they are alone – to give greater validity to their alienation from one another. Sex doesn’t lead to love. Love almost can’t exist without sex, but how often sex destroys love! Yet I am almost certain that my love for Marvin blazed up after that first night. He became the person closest to me. And do you know what the strongest evidence of his masculinity is? Not that he is good in bed. I know this will sound paradoxical, after saying that his first penetration provoked my spiritual attachment to him and everything that happened after that. All men – good or bad, weak or strong, smart or stupid – want to protect me. It is simply some historical urge that every man feels obliged to show: to play the protector for the weak woman. This repulses me, but not because of the protection itself, which is nice and in some cases necessary, but because I can sense them pushing to protect me only so they can look more manly in their own eyes. To win recognition. Marvin is the only one who protected me because of who I am, because he cared about me and didn’t expect any recognition for that.”

“I envy you,” Violet says. “Angy, is there any sense in seeing him drained of his strength? You have described him as so good that the contrast will be ugly.”

“Yes, I want you to see him,” Angelina says in a tone brooking no objection. The two women get out of the car and head towards the elevator in the hospital lobby. “There’s something else you don’t know. Marvin didn’t want us to have a child.”

“Then how? How did Vivian come about?” The two of them stop and Angelina continues as they wait for the elevator: “We had one fantastic year together, without making plans for the future. He had his reasons, which I accepted: he was 34 years older than me, and besides he didn’t want the child to take him as an old man. He told me that if he were to die in five or even ten years, the child wouldn’t be grown enough to escape the trauma of a missing father.” The elevator starts rising, it is stuffy inside, but Angelina continues: she knows there is no risk of anyone around them knowing Bulgarian. “But two years ago he was diagnosed with cancer. At first, they gave him hope, it was still in the early stages. He started treatment, but the tumor wouldn’t succumb. We stopped believing that he would make it – but we still didn’t know how much time he had left. He had surgery, but a few weeks later they discovered that the cancer had spread. Then, my desire to have his child suddenly returned. But this time it was a grim, inextinguishable desire! I believed that even after his death, Marvin would live on through our child. He would be reborn as the baby even while still alive. Especially if it was a boy.”

The elevator stops on their floor. They set off down the hallway, but Angelina grasps her mother’s hand and stops by the first window. Her mind is spinning, she is lost in memories and speaks like a person who will die if she doesn’t reach the end:

“I went to his office at the university, he had gone back to work after having his stitches from the surgery removed. I told him what I wanted, using almost the exact same words as now, I wanted him to feel deeply, in his blood, that for me this was a question of fate. And since he was my fate, he had no right to deny me its natural continuation. He was silent for a long time, at least five minutes: he stood up near the window and … agreed. He had no idea how sad yet hopeful his gaze was, as if he had managed to glimpse what he would leave behind him when he was no longer here. He didn’t believe in reincarnation. He told me that no one else had ever loved him so much.” Angelina leans against the windowsill and looks out at the blue sky. Violet does not dare interrupt her. “He took his bag and led me to my apartment. Immediately! As if he had suddenly decided to outrun his approaching death. We hadn’t had sex in a long time: both of us had surrendered to the illness. He was jaundiced, thin, poisoned by the medicine – any kind of physical exercise quickly exhausted him. But on our way up to the apartment, the blood seemed to return to his face. I felt guilty that perhaps this effort was hastening his end. In the sexual power with which Marvin penetrated me, however, there was no trace of desperation. Nor of frailty. On the contrary, he did it with such life that I enjoyed it even more than the first time. Marvin, my dearest Marvin, kept having sex with me – until the doctors found out and forbid him anything of the sort. A month later I bought a pregnancy test from the drugstore. I went to the bathroom. Both little circles turned red. I called him right away. He burst into tears over the phone. I was pregnant! When Vivian was born, he was already on morphine. But look, he’s hung on for six whole months. He has seen his daughter and can pass away peacefully, knowing that he has left order and love behind him.”

Angelina and Violet enter Marvin’s room, accompanied by the head of oncology and one of the nurses, who is carrying a folder of paperwork. The hospital bed is by the window, the curtains are half-drawn, a dozen tubes and monitors can be seen, but not the patient’s face. Out of professional deference, the people in white stop at the door to give the loved ones priority in seeing the dying man. The silence and the stillness of the air solemnly contrast with the stream of cars on Lakeshore Drive, which has led them here. Angelina is walking a step ahead of Violet and leans down to kiss Marvin’s brow. Then she sits on the edge of the bed. This allows Violet to see the tubes coming out of the man’s nose and mouth, his unshaven cheeks, his deathly pale forehead, the matted gray hair and his lowered eyelids. Marvin seems to awaken from the kiss and slowly opens his eyes. Violet is stunned by the clear blue irises, which stare at her, at first wandering, arriving from far away – we imagine that they are returning for a moment from the journey to the world of the dead – but little by little she reads in them a flash of recognition, a memory of something experienced. The man’s eyes are suddenly here: as if they have returned to the room with the power, with which only the appearance of the past in our memory can make us experience the intensity of existence.

Violet is filled with the same knowledge as the dying man, the same memory, the same fear of the past, which has haunted her, and, overwhelmed by human astonishment in the face of the tragedy, which she at that moment realizes she has caused, she faints.

When she wakes up in another room, in a hospital bed covered with a starched sheet, next to her are Angelina and a nurse injecting a syringe into a vein in her left arm. Violet waits for the nurse to finish and asks her with her eyes to leave them alone. When the door to the room closes, she says:

“Angy, do you have a picture of that man when he was young? Or at least from before his illness?”

“I do.” Angelina digs into her bag and pulls two pictures out of her wallet.

Violet looks at them and nods. Angelina’s eyes are fixed on her, but her mother doesn’t answer the question hidden in them. She is paralyzed by the discovery that it is the same man who once upon a time, in the warm Varna summer, had unwittingly become the father of her daughter. She slowly sinks into unconsciousness again and sees herself from above standing at a crossroads where two cars are racing towards each other at a right angle, a collision is inevitable, and she becomes witness to something which no one can head off any longer. All of us are the fools of fortune, she thinks to herself, and the only thing that can preserve our dignity is, instead of reveling in our helplessness, trying to discover why it is so. This thought sounds fateful to her, as if she had read it in some novel.


            The day is slowly dying over Lake Michigan, taking no interest in the two women who are once again sitting on the balcony of the tall apartment building. Exhausted by what she has been through that day and by jetlag, her brain blazing from lack of sleep, Violet has just decided not to tell her daughter that the late professor is not only the father of her child, but also her (Angelina’s) own father. An unbelievable, terrible coincidence, for which Angy holds no blame. Nor Marvin. But she senses very well that from that day on this will become yet another secret, which will weigh on her until her dying day.

Angelina looks at the lights of the airplanes heading towards O’Hare one after the other and tries to imagine how she will wake up the next morning without Marvin. Forever! Vivian, who is far from the moment when she will find out who her real father is – and perhaps she will never find out – is cooing in her crib, stuffed and filled with babyish happiness. I have never been helpless, Angelina tells herself. But will a whole life be enough to make sense of the meaning of my destiny, which left me fatherless twice and which has now taken the man I love away from me? She looks at her mother, whose face is puffy from crying. And for the first time in her life, she feels lonely. The feeling is still unfamiliar, but it frightens her.

Violet remembers that in the afternoon, at the moment when the tubes and monitors were removed from Marvin and his chest rose for the last time, she felt as if from that day forward her only role was to be a mother to Angelina and a grandmother to Vivian. Is she ready for this role? The role she has played until now, Violet finally realizes, has changed the destiny of her dearest ones in an unforeseeable way. Guilt, for which there is no atonement. Now what remains is for her to fulfill her dear husband’s final wish, as if this gesture could redeem at least a small part of her guilt over the fact that once, in her young years, acting on an impulse that was at once frivolous and deeply innate, she had cheated on him. Violet goes into the apartment and returns with an envelope, which she sets on the table near Angelina.

“While cleaning out Stilyan’s office after his death, I found this letter addressed to you in one of the drawers,” she says and retreats into herself.

Angelina goes into the living room, opens the envelope and silently reads (the letter is undated and does not say where it was written):


Dear Angelina,

            I’m writing you a few short lines to be read after my death. Whenever that happens, your mother will surely inform you that I am not your biological father. But she doesn’t know that I know. She hid the truth of my sterility from me, as well as the fact that she was unfaithful to me with a colleague of mine from America. I think my conscience will be soothed for you to know that throughout our whole happy, loving life, I managed to hide the fact that I knew this from her. I had found out about my sterility already in my second marriage, when I tested myselfback then we were studying sperm enzymes and our laboratory was equipped for all sorts of tests on male reproductive cellsand I discovered I was fatally flawed. As for the person from America, I sensed your mother’s attraction to him in Varna, and shortly before you were born, I asked him in a letter whether he had slept with her. He was frank with me, under one condition: that I never again contact him for professional or any other reasons. From journals I learned that he later moved to California from New York. But he ceased to be present in our lives, except in my memory. I didn’t tell him that a daughter was born from his night of sex with my wife in Golden Sands.

            I leave totally to you the decision of whether to inform your mother of the contents of this letter. For Violet and me, your wellbeing was always more important than our own. This was our reason for sending you to America while still in elementary school. I understand that you have no satisfactory answer to the question of why we were not reunited after things in Bulgaria had changed and we had emigrated to Holland.

            I am the reason for this. Before I agreed to leave Bulgaria, and thus put an end to my career as a professor and scholar, I made your mother accept one condition: that we would not take you back to live with us in Europe. Violet was still young and saw emigration as her only chance to start over from scratch and to have a successful professional life. At my age, then 55, I had neither the desire nor the opportunity to start over. I agreed to go with her, so as not to lose her. Yet at the same time I was convinced that if you were to live with us, sooner or later the secret which she was hiding from me and which I was hiding from her would come out. If that happened, our love wouldn’t survive, even though it had already transformed into a deep friendship. I admit that I was afraid, I was uncertain, I was fearful of the new society that we were going to live in. I will also admit that I was afraid of you as a sexual factor: you would grow up into a young woman before my eyes, while inside I did not feel the taboo of a biological father. Your mother would grow old, and an aging woman has no chance against the taut flesh of young girls. I wish this were not the case, but biology is unrelenting.

            Your mother accepted my condition. I think that at that moment she preferred her career over you. Perhaps she could give you another explanation. Perhaps she regretted this later. She never mentioned anything more to me on this topic. But it’s one thing to want a child to give your gray life under communism meaning, and quite another to realize completely out of the blue that you have gotten freedom that you can use to satisfy your own ambitions. Besides, we had no doubt that you would do well in America.

            It may seem to you that I wanted to punish her for her unfaithfulness, but I am sure that I was not driven by such motivation. I simply saw that my decision held advantages for all three of us: you would not be burdened with the discovery that I am not your real father, she would succeed in her career, while I would continue receiving her love and giving her my friendship, enjoying the tranquility that every aging man needs so badly. The price she would have to pay was separation from her only child. The price you would have to pay was growing up without parents – but you would be sufficiently compensated for that. And that’s precisely what happened: you are a self-confident, independent and successful young professional. You already have a child of your own. The only thing I dont know is whether you have found love. As for me, I had already paid my dues by suffering Violet’s unfaithfulness without turning it into a drama.

            If my explanations seem satisfactory to you, perhaps you will forgive me. I am not brave enough to look you in the eye. But I am not trying to make excuses. This is how I see things, I am my own master and I don’t pretend that my decisions were blameless. As of now, things have unfolded as I expected. But we all pay for our happiness with sins and disappointments.

            With love, your would-be father 


After a long pause, Angelina lifts her face towards her mother and says:

“Mom, have you read Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair? In college I wrote an essay on it for an English lit class. The main character Sarah kills herself, because she is married to a man she doesn’t love, yet her love for her Catholic God does not allow her to leave him and live with the writer Maurice Bendrix, who is the love of her life. Back then my basic argument was that the woman was a toy in the hands of vain and irreparably weak men, and even God was a man. Now it occurs to me that the opposite situation would mean that men are toys in women’s hands. Because there can be no absolute balance. Even if God were imagined as a woman, she would attempt to sow fear in the men who believed in her. Still, we don’t go to bed with God, but with living people. And because of this the most elevated of our emotions, love, turns out to be a captive of our sexual needs. Love and sex go hand-in-hand, just like love and hate. Just look: you and I no longer hate each other, because the men we loved, the men we used sexually and jealously guarded, are no longer with us.” Angelina stops, as if frightened by her own rationality. Then she asks unexpectedly: “Did you ever fear that your husband might be interested in me sexually?”

Violet nods.

Seemingly satisfied that she has found out everything about her mother, Angelina says in a businesslike tone: “Tomorrow I have to arrange Marv’s funeral. And if everything goes well, I will love Vivian twice as much, and maybe I’ll even find her a stepfather. The price I’ll have to pay for that is living with the memory of her father without sharing it with anyone until I die. Not even with her.”

  Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

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