Six years ago love as powerful as a volcano bloomed up in my soul. I believed that it was raving in Boris’ heart as well, however he had wished that we departed, I did not know why. Since then, with an even greater passion, I pitched myself into the books. Therefore, here I am today, an hour after my return from the institute, sitting in my favourite armchair, a notebook on my knees, the clutter of textbooks on the desk. The doorbell rang. I looked angrily forward, then I dropped down my eyes again and for a moment, I even fell again into that strange state, in which I take in what I have read for real. The doorbell rang once again for longer. I hurried towards the door but when I opened it, I was petrified with surprise: on the borderline between the sunbathed staircase and the dark corridor was standing Boris himself. He smiled at me and greeted me with that same sweet address “Bilyanko” that he had called me when we first met.
That meeting, like any event setting the beginning of something new, had left durable traces in my mind. Even to this day, I clearly remembered not only the street, not only the bottomless sky but also the rays of spring, which kept piercing the fluffy shades of the dandelions that had shot up in the walk across the street. Those unrestricted beams begot in me the feeling that life had no end; they filled me with confidence that my dreams were achievable. For a second I had the feeling that I was flying. Then I saw him! He went out of the block-of-flats rising on the opposite sidewalk and dashed forwards. His body radiated daring. That radiation appealed to me, and even more did the dashing forwards. I set out as if a kite let free and without weighing up what I was doing, stood up in front of the stranger.
“Excuse me! Where can I find the Ministry of Agriculture?” I was smiling at him, as if we had known one another since childhood.
“I’ll show you the way. It’s quite near”, he said, returning my smile.
Later I became aware that he had been aiming at the opposite direction but he strode along, yet readily, towards the destination named by me quite randomly. Obviously, I also had cast a spell on him from the very first instant.
“Are you an agronomist”?
“No, I’m a chemist. And what about you?”
“I’m a mathematician. An assistant-professor at the University.”
I looked at him (probably the stars of show-business evoke the same expression in the eyes of thirteen-year old girls), and across my mind, like a light rosy breeze, passed the thought that that was it, that was the man worthy of falling in love with. Then I tried to lead a conversation and say something cute. I wanted so much to appeal to him, however all words seemed to me worn out, wasted, like the stones of the sidewalk along which we walked, while for Boris this did not seem a problem – he talked almost without stopping.
He had a loud voice and energetic gesticulation; the tiny muscles around his eyes and around his lips kept constantly trembling, changing the expression of his broad white face. He even hopped now and then on his legs, as if he had to make an interminable number of movements in order to tame, to stop the energy that was gushing out of him.
At that meeting, and at the next one, and generally, during our eight months long friendship, he always talked quickly, until he became breathless. Every thought of his sounded to me as if whispered by someone, who had senses opened to Uranus; I listened and had the feeling that that man was an offspring of my dreams, even to such a tiny detail as the bulging vein dividing his forehead into two. I used to absorb in my pupils his shapely figure resembling a young pine-tree. I realized that the reason for my being alone for the time being had not been the fact that I was incommunicative but that, however strange it may seem, in those twenty-six years, no one, but indeed no one, had appealed to me. The reason had not been in me or in some hidden blemish of me, but rather in chance.
In front of the beautiful ministry building, he held out his hand to me.
“My name is Boris Ikonomov”.
“And mine is Bilyana Garelova. But I have no relationship with the political commentator.”
His laughter muffled the tinkling of the tram.
“Would you like to go to a movie tonight?
I am not sure, if I would have been more delighted, if he had said to me: ”You discovered a new chemical element.”
“Oh, yes”, I did not attempt to withhold the joy that had lighted me up.
We agreed to meet at the “Vitosha” cinema. Five minutes before the meeting time I stood up next to the colourful posters – to be frank, I had no wish to travel to other worlds. There was no other more tempting world than my own at that moment, and when Boris suggested that we dropped in at the neighbouring coffee bar, I smilingly nodded to him in agreement. There he began telling me lively that, when he had been a student, he used to go to the cinema every day. Later, in his room, lying on his bed he had used to dream, while for some time of late, he had felt delighted not to see how they lived on the screen but to live himself. I thought in excitement that at that moment, I was feeling the same desire; and did that not mean that we had been exactly suited to each other? My hand unconsciously found itself in his hand and the entire tenderness, restrained for so long in me, dashed forward to him. We made forwards. The moon was showering the buildings with its light and in spite of the noisy, driving everyone almost crazy, waterfall of people, cars and trams, everything seemed unusual to me.
At eleven in the evening, he saw me off at the railway station.
“Will you write to me?” I looked him in the eyes.
I wanted so much to know what was there behind them – to peep into his thoughts and still deeper, into his very soul but his voice stood up like a fence.
“I don’t like to. Here is my telephone number. Every Saturday: at six p. m. I’ll be expecting you.”
His visiting card remained as the only real thing of that experience. The still whiteness of the tiny piece of pasteboard dispelled the feeling that I had had a dream. It seemed to me too long to wait until the end of the week and as early as Monday I dialled the six figures inscribed under his name but instead of the craved for voice, I heard the dialling tone. I listened and imagined Boris walking hand in hand with a girl. It was springtime. How could I fancy that in such an exciting evening he would be alone? “As if sprung out of my dreams!” However, I did not even know him, to judge whether he had anything in common with what I was willing to meet.
The next day I telephoned again, and again the sound “beep-beep-beep” poked my body like a metal blade. Finally, precisely on Saturday and at six sharp, I heard him:
“Ah, is that you, Bilyanko!”
And he began talking loudly and quickly, and in spite of the long distance, I again had the feeling of flushed forth energy. He told me that he had spent the past days working fourteen hours a day, and that he did not like noise, that was why he would switch off the doorbell, and deaden the telephone with pillows. “What was he working on?” It had been his first year lecturing, and he did not want to repeat what had been set out in the professor’s textbook. Besides, his imagination had been obsessed by a terrific idea. He wanted to inspire life into it... Holding my breath, I kept absorbing every sound, whispering to myself: “I have not been wrong, that’s the kind of man by whose side I long to fall asleep at night...”
I went to bed about midnight but my eyes still kept seeing him: standing up either in front of the struck dumb audience or in our home – him, bent over the books, me, doing the laundry or the cooking. It is afternoon; I enter with a cup of tee...
I used to pass by the post-office almost every day but I waited for the Saturday to come. I managed to get through only at half past six. At first his tone was unpleasant and felt as if he was bathing me with spouts of icy water but a minute later that water started bubbling and boiling up: had I looked through the January issue of the “Plamak” magazine? What was my opinion about Boris Christov’s long-poem? I even knew poems by heart?! I were rising in his esteem – I kept listening to all that, while my heart kept throbbing so madly that I feared it might muffle what my Romeo was saying.
During my first trip to Sofia, staring into the endless azure, which lay open behind the illuminator of the airplane, I tried to make a precise assessment of his attitude towards me but my mind kept streaming images, rather than thoughts. I fancied him taking me to his place. I imagined myself kissing his mother’s hand.
He met me at the airport with a bunch of gladioli. Because of the fact that he had come to meet me, because of the fact that he always brought me flowers and, mostly, because of the fact that when he saw me, his face lit up with joy, I was ready to bestow on him not only my body but my soul as well. I threw myself into his arms but he calmed down my emotions with somewhat nervous gestures. He took my travelling sack and we went, well, not to his place, as I had fancied but to his friend’s lodging.
We used that dwelling-place – an attic with a glass roof – during my subsequent visits to Sofia. At night, the stars glowed into our eyes and I gladly gave myself to my desire to be tender. However, strangely enough, given the distance of six past years, my lips, my arms and my hands had forgotten the sensations, which our love used to bestow them with, while the raptures I used to go into from the sudden insights of Boris’ mind were still alive in my soul, and my memory had kept clear the endless conversations.
At the tenth meeting, I found out that he was not a reader. He said he was preparing his readership now and that was the reason why he was working like hell. That little lie, like a magnifying glass, revealed to me his nature. Of course, if only I should care to look through the magnifying glass but I had for so long craved to love somebody, I had for so long craved to be loved, that I instinctively protected myself from everything that might obfuscate or destroy the feeling, which had risen in me. “She had fallen in the marrying mood”, my grandmother used to say about my mother, who had rushed off to marry my father, although a boundary strip had been dividing them for twenty years. During those eight months, I seemingly also got blind, and since I had been willing to have an exceptional man walking by my side, I had decided that Boris was the man and I did not want to see anything else, because the truth was that, he attracted me powerfully. Almost all of my familiars saw just the woman in me and they did not feel like conversing with me, for example about the Rossen acid, a compound, which I had named after the hills around my native town and whose properties I was investigating then. Other familiars of mine, they were very few, valued the cute interlocutor and I fell into their estimation, when they sensed that I was a woman, while Boris listened interestedly about that acid, enthusiastically explained to me the essence of the mathematical law he wanted to discover, fervently dived himself into the play of our bodies – perhaps that was the reason why he attracted me so powerfully, and every Saturday I took the flight to Sofia. However, on November 7, as soon as I entered the brightly lit waiting room and spotted him, my heart sunk within me with anxiety. “Why does he seem so bored...” I thought. Guarding myself from the unpleasant notice, which was showing on his face, I lengthened my usual stride. Boris took my luggage but instead of giving me the traditional kiss, he spoke out nervously:
“My friend has come back and we cannot stay in his place for the night any more. In addition, I couldn’t find a free hotel room. Do you have any relatives, where you can spend the night?
“Yes, my aunt. She lives opposite the sport palace.
“Fine. Let’s go and have coffee somewhere. Then I’ll see you off to take the tram.
In “Berlin”, the restaurant we both liked, it was enticingly warm. I was glad that the table, at which we had found ourselves side by side for the first time, was free. As soon as I sat down, I started telling how funny my mother’s new chief was. I new that he liked to listen to stories about chiefs falling into comic situations, yet with all my heart I wanted to wipe off the bad mood, which kept blurring his face like an autumn cloud, and I did manage to: within half an hour he brisked up like a football fan, who had watched a match, which had been won by his favourite team.
“Bilyanko, do you know what my life is like when you aren’t here? From my home to the University. From the University – to my home.
“Shall I believe it?”
“Believe it! For already five years now, I’ve been working on that mathematical law. There are days in which I don’t see the people around me; I don’t feel the taste of food – that’s how the idea has taken possession of me. However, there are days of falling down with a crash on the ground. Like this morning! I met by chance a student-fellow of mine. He was considered a fool at the time. But his father in law is some big shot in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has fixed him up with a fine office, bought him a large flat. And what about me! At the age of thirty-six, I don’t even have a self-contained lodging, not to speak about a flat of my own. Look into my eyes! I wish you with all my heart to find a rich husband, because to start from the beginning is hard and it leads to nowhere.”
“Oh! I have already chosen the man with whom I want to be unto death. And you are the man.”
An unpleasant grimace ran across his face – obviously, he did not like the seriousness of the conversation and hurried to drive it towards the shallow waters of joking.
“You know, marriage looks like a lottery to me. Everyone believes that he has bought the winning ticket. But almost no one wins. And maybe that’s the reason why there is no use of getting married.”
I laughed out but he did not join my laughter and continued in the same torpid tone:
“It’s more reasonable to devote oneself to one’s career. But it’s again a hell of a lottery there. A cousin of mine, for instance, is on a business trip abroad every other month. While me...”
“But maybe his work doesn’t give him the delights yours gives you. Tell me, don’t you agree that the satisfaction given by the favourite work cannot be measured either in money or in business trips, even if they were to the Hawaii.”
At last, he smiled.
“Look at my idealist! I’m awfully annoyed at the fact that we are going to be apart tonight. But there’s no chance to take you home. Mom has quite old-fashioned convictions.”
When we went out in the rain-washed street, his face became again distant and sad. He told me that he was feeling constantly tired of late. He had gone for examinations. His leucocytes had been above the norm.
We stopped for a while in front of my aunt’s house. I had the feeling that he was willing to share with me something more. I invited him to come up with me. He bluntly denied, then he inclined to my lips but he did not kiss me, and suddenly walked off in the opposite direction.
I could not go to sleep for a long time during the night. Only close to dawn, sleep invaded me slowly in drifts. I was wading and swimming at the same time somewhere forwards, where everything was loosing its outlines but then it suddenly became clear. I found myself in a hospital room. It was the same narrow room that I had entered a year before with a heavy heart; however, the man lying languid in the bed was not my father but Boris. I was sitting by his side. From my arm, through a transparent tube was flowing my blood. His cheeks were turning pinker and pinker; he even moved his eyelids but at that moment a man in a white overall holding a long sheet of paper in his long lean fingers, emerged in front of me:
“Girl! Enough! This is harmful!”
“Why, just a little more. A little bit more. And he’ll be fine.”
“Then sign down here that we bare no responsibility for your life...”
The next day I telephoned him. I wanted to tell him not to be afraid. I wanted to tell him that I would always be by his side. I wanted to tell him some very warm words. I kept reproaching myself for having not done so the previous day. I kept bitterly reproaching myself that I did not love enough, and I was eager to hear his voice but the telephone kept giving the dialling tone. On the next day, I went again to the post-office. His mother told me that he had gone on vacation.
“To a sanatorium?” I asked.
Her surprise knocked me down as a returning kite tied to the string. Then, slow and sticky, the insult crept into me. “Why without me!” – That question, excluding any other thoughts, would not leave my mind.
For a long time, the heartless communication device kept announcing that he was not at home. Until one day, more than two months later, I managed to get through. He told me that he had been to Pamporovo. He had had an interesting time there. Then he had managed to arrange to go on a business trip to Budapest. He had come back three days before. He said he was feeling tired and asked me not to call him.
“Perhaps you’ve already met the miss with the influential daddy,” I said, trying to sound facetiously.
”No, no. I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“Fine. Once you don’t like it.”
I said it so calmly, as if someone else was speaking instead of me. Then I hanged up. Not seeing anything, I crossed the pavement and slumped onto the first bench in the small public garden behind the post-office. I had been there thousands of times before but at that moment, I felt as if I were on an unknown planet. The wind was getting stronger. Almost no one could be seen in the streets, yet I did not move, as if that was the only place where I could answer myself why it had happened so... Finally, I concluded: because I was an ordinary chemist, while he was, not a reader, as he had presented himself at first but nevertheless, an assistant.
That same winter, I passed successfully the competition examination and went to work for the institute at the big works near the town. The following year I enrolled as a post-graduate worker by correspondence. The research work attracted me increasingly imperiously. I had less and less time for flirtations. Nevertheless, quite a number of colleagues dangled about me. One of the most persevering was Emil. He took me to the cinema, to the theatre, came to my place to watch video. My mother used to open the door to him smiling. Tall and invariably upright, as if she had swallowed a distillation column, she would start shifting about the living room kind of more supply. Her hands would tremble when she would take out the gilded saucers she had been welcomed with, when she was betrothed. She would put in them slices of homemade cake. Then she would serve figs jam, smiling even more generously. At about nine o’clock, she would go to bed and on the next morning, her movements would become again slow and numb, and she would not look that tall.
“Take the chance while I am still able and doing. Get married. Have children. I’ll be helping you. Things will be easier for you.”
The pain in her voice hurt me. I closed my eyes. I tried to imagine Emil in slippers and a dressing gown but instead, my imagination brought to my mind the condescending smile, with which our section manager used to rate his work. I saw the disparaging attitude of my colleagues and my willingness to join Emil under the sounds of the Mendelssohn March withered away...
It withered away, probably, because having been watching the families of my friends, student-fellows and colleagues, I had long ago been clear about the fact that, no matter how much in love a husband was, one could not rely on not just sharing the burden of the family obligations with him but even having him buy a loaf of bread. Well, when he would happen to be in a good mood, he might take a walk to the supermarket or even play a little with the washing machine but when he was in the mood – few are those, who take it as an obligation. That was why I would like to marry someone who was cleverer and more intelligent than I was. Only, in that case, I would consider it fair that my prince worked over his self-improvement at home, while I did the ironing, the cooking and the washing.
After Emil, came Manol. He was an economist by profession. When I happened to call on him, he would feel as happy as a child would.
“C’mon in, c’mon in”, and his eyes urged me to take off my shoes.
I could not get used to that “C’mon in”. I could not get used to his lacking individuality lodging, resembling a hotel-room. I did not manage to force myself stop being annoyed by his elementary views of life, and maybe there was something more to it... Maybe I did not take the risks to marry Emil or Manol, because something inside me rumbled at the thought that I would have to comply with their opinions. It seemed to me that it was as if their petty souls would enter my own one, and, frankly speaking, I was horrified when I thought of that. An unfathomable horror, because I felt how my co-habitation with such narrow-minded people hurt and maimed my inner world. Yet, is one’s most important endeavour not to create conditions for the flourishing of that divine world? Is that not more important than giving birth to children! In addition, should we not start a family only with a person, with whom we can combine those two climaxes!
For about a year I was alone. Then I started dating with Vassil. He was teaching French in the Building and Construction Vocational School. His colleagues used to say that he was a man one could set up a house with; but why did the hours we spent together seem to me like years and a voice kept constantly shouting inside me: “Don’t hurry!” Why, while being with Boris, I was overflowing with a desire to kiss and to give delight, and when I walked by Vassil’s side I felt like a log.
“Make up your mind! What are you waiting for!” my mother kept telling me with a heavy heart. “Princes exist in fairy-tales alone.”
“You are wrong! They exist around us as well. Well, not in terms of riches but in terms of spirit”, I used to answer her in a brisk tone.
And I very much wanted to calm her down, to inspire confidence in her that one beautiful day I would meet the one, predestined for me.
Yes! However strange it may seem, my departure with Boris not only filled me with no despair but also seemed to make me even stronger believe that once I had met a man, who had appealed to me, I was going to meet another one again. However, I had never fancied, not even in my bravest dreams that Boris would try to find me. And look! He was here, standing in front of me. I had seen him in my dreams so many times. Was it not again one of my dreams..? I was standing in the middle of the corridor, not knowing what to do. Again, my mother helped me out of the situation. Smiling, with graceful and youthful agile gestures she open the door of the living room. She reminded me to offer a bottle of cognac. Meanwhile she placed on the table peanuts and cheese crackers. She asked him for how long he had been in the town; whether he had managed to find a bed in some of the better hotels, what his present job was. The visitor seemed to have not heard the last question. He sipped from the glass, and then took a nut. I decided that he kept silent out of modesty, and answered instead of him.
“He is a mathematician, an assistant-professor at the University!”
My tone was as enthusiastic as if I was pronouncing a role at a dress rehearsal. Meanwhile I was telling my mom with my eyes: “You see what acquaintances I’ve got!” That pride was the first real feeling after the surprise of our unexpected encounter. A moment later, I said to Boris:
“Or perhaps you have already become a professor!”
“No, I’ve not. The only step I made forward was that from a regular private I was elected party secretary.”
“And what happened to the mathematical law?”
“Oh, I have cured myself of the mania to make discoveries. Now I follow my colleagues’ tactics. I copy from forgotten authors. Do you know how well I feel! I have no headache. I don’t even get tired.”
Mom boiled some coffee for us. Then she went into her room, and Boris moved over to the sofa and tenderly squeezed my hand.
“I’m glad you are still the same.”
I looked at him for the first time. He had changed. His figure had become somewhat larger. His hair had turned grey here and there but he was wearing a suit of expensive cloth, as before. His speech was still loud and noisy. Our first encounter had taken place on a similar spring afternoon and at this moment I had the feeling that it was not six years later but as though today was another day of that same year.
“Why did you do it?”
”You found me in a bad time. You know that then I was absorbed in the idea about that law. A distressing situation! Your brain keeps swarming with images. While when you start writing down, it all comes out colourless. You can’t drain your brain to the last drop. In addition, everything makes you angry. You start fancying that even an ordinary telephone conversation distracts you. While, in fact, I was glad when you happened to call me... Don’t be mad at me.”
I listened to him breathless and thought how strange everything that happened today was, just like in a movie. Even the sky, an endless azure that had filled up the open window, looked mysterious to me.
I saw Boris out about midnight and then I stayed for long in dark room, overwhelmed with memories. They kept coming to me live. I held them in my mind. I wanted to take delight in them once again, to make sense of them. I estimated soberly that there had been a time, when I had doubted his feelings, but now I was confident: the fact that he had tried to find me, meant that he was not indifferent to me, and as far as the fact that we had stopped seeing each other was concerned, it had been my fault. I should have tried to be more interesting...
The next evening, five minutes before the fixed time (though I had promised myself to learn to be late), I entered the refreshment-room of the new hotel. I was already about to ease myself in the armchair, when I saw Vassil’s shining baldhead. He was speaking noisily, while the girl sitting next to him was looking through the window. Obviously, she had also bored with his jabber. I took a seat that prevented me from seeing them and contemplated on that pink-blue radiation of Boris’ nature, which was in unison with my soul. Yes, that had been exactly the synchronization, which eradicated the weeds of oblivion and I did not at all have the feeling that we had not met for many years, and that even the ring of his voice had not touched me for so long.
As if to strengthen the feeling of time being stopped, my love, just as before, appeared just in time. He was wearing the same dark-blue beret cocked in an artistic manner. His face was tense, even angry but when he saw me, his expression relaxed and beamed as if reflecting the lights of the enormous chandeliers.
“How beautiful you are!”
“Shall I believe it?”
“Believe it! I was very much afraid of you having put on weight. Or become wrinkled. While you! You have become more beautiful!”
He laughed out.
“Bilyanko, how can I convince you that you look more like a film actress than a research worker? What are you working on?”
Therefore, we started talking about the chemicals with strange properties, which I investigated then; about the differential equations, which tormented his life with their intractability; and, funny enough, we never said a word about our departure, as if it had been quite a matter of course. As if Boris had had to be absent from my life for some most pressing reasons. And, however strange it may be, there was not a shadow of reproach in my heart: again I felt excited by every touch of his; my imagination had started drawing our home again - my writing-desk and my bookshelf in one of the rooms and in the other one – his writing-desk and his bookshelf. I imagined him throwing pillows on the telephone; approaching me and talking to me in a tender voice.
“Boris, what do you read to the students?”
“I don’t give lectures anymore.”
“Yeah. And so much the better. I started a construction. I’ll need free time.”
I looked at him. The difference between that look and the look from our first meeting was as big as the difference between the sea and the Mount of Mousala. He felt the deprecating tide rising in me and started excusing himself.
“It’s all right for you. There are no nasty people in the countryside. While it’s a nest of vipers in the capital city. That one, who is trying his best to oust me, made friends with the professor, taking chance of his owning a country house in Borovetz. He gives away to the professor the results from his developments. And the boss returns the favour by pushing him forward.”
“Bob, there are bootlickers everywhere. Do you know by what sort of licking the dust, the chief of our section got to that position? However, I am convinced that the Great Discovery doesn’t dawn on the one who is holding a high office but on the one who works selflessly.”
“Look at my idealist! Obviously, you fancy that you are going to make some great discovery. That’s why you meet the dawn and the dark over the books.”
“It’s enough for me that in the morning I set out gladly for the institute.”
He laughed, however that was not a cheery, warm-hearted laughter but a sound, which gave you the creeps. I kept silent, while he went on laughing, though not so maliciously any more.
“Bilyana, I get angry with people very often but as soon as I think of you, my anger is over. You are so sunny; perhaps that’s why I couldn’t forget you... You’ll call on me again, when you come to Sofia, won’t you? And you’ll telephone me. Every Saturday, like before. You will, won't you?”
I was lucky that, as early as the following week I was going on a business trip to the Ministry of Chemistry.
As soon as I got off the train, Boris, demonstratively carrying a bunch of roses, hurried towards me. Even earlier, he had used to buy me gladioli, violets, narcissi but they had often been a little withered, evidently bought at the last moment, without choice, just for the sake of formality. While those roses! I had the feeling that they had been chosen among millions.
“Here I am!”
I rose on my toes and kissed him. He hugged me impetuously and spoke up in a tone overflowing with anxiety:
“I booked a room for you in the hotel nearest to my place. I’ll take you there right now to warm yourself up. While tonight I’ll be waiting you at my home. I want you to meet my mother.”
I lost my breath. I could not believe that the invitation, which I had longed for so much in the past, had flown up so easily and in no time to me. However, why had I not deserved it then? So what about now, why had he judged that I had deserved it?
I looked at Boris’ tall, burly figure, then at his face, and I tried to become used with the thought that that would be my husband. “And would he befriend me?! Would our understandings of good and evil be the same?!” I felt my head empty, and my heart thumped restlessly. That was exactly how I used to feel when I was at the university, before examination on a subject, which I had not had enough time to prepare myself for. In such cases I would close the textbook and tell myself: “Come what may!” Therefore, now I forced myself to stop thinking about anything.
After the meeting, I got back to the hotel. I ironed assiduously the blouse I was going to wear that night and hurried in the direction of Boris’ home. I did not feel the cool rain. I did not see the water pools glistening here and there along the sidewalk... Only the mirror-like surface of the shop-windows attracted my eyes. “Was his mother going to like me?” I would stop now and then for a while, amazed to discover that my eyes had never been so large and sparkling, and my complexion – so smooth; and my shoe-heels would start knocking more self-confidently. I would draw level with another shop-window and would look up again. Here is the restaurant, where we last met six years ago. Then came that telephone conversation. For months after that I had felt, as if I was sick or maybe that had been for the better. I had finished a post-graduate course. My salary had become twice as big; I would feel more self-confident, entering my new home.
A little before my ringing the doorbell, Boris flung the door wide open.
“I heard your steps, while you were climbing up the stairs. Come in, please!”
He was taking a breath after every word. Obviously, he was indifferent to what was going to happen now, to what was going to happen in the future, and for the first time I saw in his face the one close to me, the friend; however, that did not make my head spin, I did not fall in that peculiar high mood, which I used to fall in years ago. That new feeling made me feel warmer and more at ease...
“Come what may!” I said to myself and stepped over the threshold.
“It’s a little untended here, because mom has been keeping the bed for half a year now. But when you come, I believe our home will light up.”
I gave him a smile and repeated his gesture, indefinitely waving my hand in the air. He hugged me; kissed my lips. Then we entered a half-lit room, soaked with the heavy air of some unknown medicine. A woman was lying on the bedroom suite; her hair was spread over a dirty pillow.
I held out my hand to her.
“I know, I know.”
She bestirred herself, moved her fingers, her features became drawn; drops of sweat came up on her forehead.
My eyes ran away in the vacant space above the bed. I was running away, trying to drive off the thought that earlier, when his mother was healthy, he had had no need of me, while now. Perhaps none of his Sofianite girlfriends had agreed to nurse that paralysed woman or he had intuitively judged that they would not be nursing her so well. He himself used to tell me “You are born to be a nurse!” That was why he had remembered about the distant lover, while I had been fancying that he was approaching me with red roses in his soul.
I approached her but she shrieked nervously.
“No. You won’t be able to. Bob!”
“Mom. There’s no need for you to sit up. We are going out in a while.”
“You’ll stay here!”
He carefully drew up her dead body.
“Is that fine””
“Would you like me to boil some coffee?”
“Why you? She’ll do it but later on. Now I want to here where she works.”
“In a research institute.”
“Once upon a time, when they introduced me to my future mother-in-law, we talked for five hours.”
“I am a research associate in the institute at the chemical works near my native town.”
“A research associate?! And when you bear a child, do you still plan to be a research associate?”
“And, in my opinion, the best profession for a woman is the teacher’s. I have been teaching history for a quarter of a century. All the chiefs of departments from the Ministry of Education are my friends. If you come here, I’ll immediately find you a job as a teacher.”
I looked at Boris. I wanted so much to tell her that I had three acknowledged patents and four innovations for the past five years, therefore I was marked with the gift of a researcher and my only place was there, among the flasks. Lounged comfortably in the armchair, he was doing a crossword. My eyes were looking at him, calling for help, and I sensed how that new feeling was fading away. I turned my face to the sick woman. She, having spread open the umbrella of curiosity, was watching me openly.
“And what are your parent’s jobs?”
I told her about my family. I made coffee. Then Boris and I had dinner at the hotel restaurant, however, everything was in a fog. I came to my senses only when I opened the door of my home. My mother met me with her eyes full of hope.
“How is the kinswoman by marriage?”
“Once having learned that a daughter in law was on the way, she should’ve given up the ghost.”
I tried to say it by way of a joke but a hot surge choked my throat and, sobbing, I described my visit. My mother’s face grew calmer and calmer.
“Billy, yield to the wish of that woman, and then gradually but persistently, convince Boris that it is better for you to work in an institute. You’ll see how he himself will help you. He is an associate professor, isn’t he? He certainly has connections.”
I was unable to think at that moment, therefore I felt relief that someone else was taking upon himself to decide for me. I drew a sheet out of my desk-drawer and barely forced myself to calm down my hand - I was so anxious while I was writing down the sentence: “I kindly ask to be discharged from ...” However I went on to the end, because, to say the truth, mother was right – Boris not only did not support Mrs. Ikonomova but had even promised me to keep track of the forthcoming competition in my line. In addition, another thing had impressed me – when he happened to introduce me to his friends, he would invariably mention that I was not an ordinary engineer but a Master of Technical Sciences. The rings of vanity in his voice reassured me that he would help me to go ahead and I had almost got used to the idea of new horizons; however, this morning, as soon as I entered the laboratory, my heart started bleeding with pain at the thought that I would have to part with my favourite occupation. I dropped slowly onto the stool and for the first time, the way we can safely examine the fiery disk of the sun on a cloudy day, without unnecessary emotions, I scrutinized Boris’ attitude to me. Six year ago, and even now, when I happened to be dialling his telephone number, notwithstanding our agreement, I was not sure whether he was at home or not, whether he was expecting me or not. Even when I was by his side, I was still not sure if the next day he would wish that we were together, while my laboratory was always happy to meet me. The work here always gave me pleasure. I had happened to be at a dead-end but even then I had not lost my faith that I would fight it out. While it was not like that with Boris: I was never clear about, why he was gentle or rude, I could never tell when he would sneak out...
I swept with my sight the white tabletops, the glass faces of flasks and test tubes, and I felt affection even with the noisy chimney-place. Everything here was infinitely dear to me. Yes, that was the truth. However, when on Saturday night Boris’ voice, full of joyful tension, filled the receiver with its vibrations, I realised that that man also had struck roots into my heart and that if I drove him off my way, in spite of the interesting job, in spite of the cosy abode, my life would loose from its glitter. No, we should not depart. I took a breath and spoke up.
“Bob, I’d very much like that not I come to Sofia. Instead, you and your mother move here.”
“I’d like you to move here. Our apartment is larger than yours. Save a hall and a kitchen, there is a separate room for everyone.”
The receiver was bursting with his laughter.
“How could it come across your mind!”
“Stop laughing! I have something more important to tell you. A competition for a professor of mathematics to the chemical and technological institute is to be announced.”
“Well, in that case I think you shouldn’t be in two minds about it.”
“And did you know why Gagarin took the plunge to fly up in space?”
“Because he lived in the house of his parents-in-law.”
“Bob, I am not in a mood to listen to silly jokes.”
“But how could such madness enter your mind?”
“No, it’s not madness! Moreover, I beg you! Think about it. And write to me. You hear me?”
“I hear but I’m not listening.”
“I beg you, please. You have never written to me. Break your principle.”
I did not believe that he would fulfil my request; perhaps that was the reason why I was so glad when on the third day after the conversation I was holding in my hands a letter from Boris. I was trembling like a shoot of grass blown by the wind, and I looked for a long time at the densely filled sheet of paper, without seeing the letters, however, little by little, they made their way to my eyes themselves.
Though I feel sad, even hurt that you have not yet flown in to me, I am not mad at you, because I understand you. I understand that the subject you are working on has obsessed you. You already see the laurels, which you are going to gain, and you are convinced that the greatest happiness on earth has dropped in on you. Years ago, I was like that. So what? I published a book. I became an assistant professor. You are following my path! I want to help you, to deflect you from it, because it is not the rosiest one, especially for a woman. Or maybe you still cannot forgive me. Or everything that I used to read in your eyes has vanished. It is my fault but please, understand! I was afraid of a marriage. I feared that it would upset my plans. Moreover, you too were not sufficiently persistent... Although, perhaps I was wrong, fancying that our relation was a true one. Billy, during those six years I have been constantly thinking of you. I my view, this is something more than if we continued talking on the phone. It is even a great deal much of a thing. And it does happen only to people, who are exactly suited to each other...”
I did not sleep that night. The way various sounds mingle in a storm, heterogeneous voices had risen inside me, and I did not know which one to listen to. The next morning, surrounded by the peaceful whiteness of the laboratory, I started writing down again the words: “I kindly ask to be discharged from...” This time my hand was not shaking but I did not finish, because the telephone rang.
“Garelova, the secretary speaking. The director ordered that you report at the briefing today.”
“Is the boss ill, or what?”
“He’s okay. But he took his annual leave.”
“Took his annual leave?”
“You are no whistle-blower, that’s why I’ll yell you. He is said to have forged some travelling papers. The chief-accountant has been having an edge on him for a long time now. And now he’s had a chance opened up to jump on him, and perhaps he’ll force him to leave.”
I crunched slowly the white sheet of paper, on which I had started writing down my application of discharge. At the age of thirty-three – a head of section! – I imagined the expression of my mother’s face and felt stupefying joy filling my self and reassuring me that with or without a husband, my life would be happy. Then I started making plans to organize my new activity. Those thoughts were clearer, and I felt that they obsessed me more powerfully than my fancies about my future life with Boris. I realised that I was not alone in love of my job but that it reciprocated with the same passion.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday - had I not happened to fall asleep at the writing desk in the evenings, I would have probably turned the nights into days – that was how the week passed, and on Saturday I telephoned Boris as usually, and told him that I had to take the place of my boss for an indefinite period of time and that it was most likely to promote me to his position. My voice was warm. I myself was astonished at the filled with rosy aroma words that I was uttering. Boris also was unexpectedly kind. He offered that we continued seeing each other, talking on the telephone... And in case some day, I made up my mind to live with him, to fly immediately to Sofia. I kissed the receiver and told him that I loved him, that he was the greatest man I had ever met...
In August, I was appointed head of the section. Years on end my colleagues and I had silently murmured against the inability of our former head to fight for significant subjects of research, against his inefficiency to fix adequate terms, and against his unwillingness to assign the tasks according to the abilities of the people. I had promised myself not to be like him. To say the truth, I had fancied that that was not difficult but only now did I realise what a complex symphony of knowledge that position required. The work at the institute had held me spellbound to such an extent, to such an extent had I dedicated all my forces to it that had my mother not changed my winter clothes with the spring ones, and later with the summer ones, I would have probably walked in sandals even in December.
Four seasons slipped by, before I realised it. At the fifth, Boris won a specialisation in Hungary and after that, with each passing month, our telephone conversations became increasingly monotonous and our meetings – shorter. Yes, the tender flower had started fading; we had failed planting it in an immortal garden...
Today, having loved a man, while others have demonstrated by looks and words their affections, I think, that at the bottom of love lies the age-old strive of man for perfection. That is why a spring of most fascinating feelings keeps flowing only towards the person, who is superior to us. It keeps flowing until the moment he really is superior or until we find out that, we have been deceiving ourselves. Six years ago, Boris was not just an ideal of man to me. He was the summit, which I had been aiming at. However, day after day, my future life with that research associate, who had abandoned the sacred temple of selflessness, started loosing its attractiveness, so when one July evening his telephone replied with a shrill “free” signal, I did not feel downcast; instead I indifferently hung down and hurried towards the recently opened Chemists’ Club. Lately, I had got used to stay there for hours. The place looked more like a corridor, than a hall and was always full of colleagues stooping over a glass of spirits. They talked about new chemical methods, about football and about foreign installations. They would listen with respect to my reasoning concerning some interesting article and would either agree or disagree.
“This is the only place, which makes me feel good!” Violeta, a neighbour of mine, and a chemist by profession, who had found it very smart to drop in there one day, would say now and then. We met usually on Fridays and she would start unbosoming herself to me even before she had taken a seat.
“Can you imagine, yesterday my good-for-nothing one asked me to polish his shoes. Not to mention, that I do the all the household cores by myself. I even beat the dust out of the rags. On top of it all, he expected me to polish his shoes. Sponger! A lousy sponger! You need not get married.”
Her thick lips would twist terribly. The wrinkles on her forehead would become more numerous that usual.
When I listened to her, I really got the feeling that the island of solitude is preferable to the desolate garden of a marriage like that. That sort of mood would come to me not only in Violeta’s but also in the company of all of my married friends. Take for instance Manya: before she got married, we could not stop talking about books, dreams and projects, while now, I usually listen to her complaining, mainly from her son. Little children have always filled me with the passionate desire to have myself such a piece of treasure but if it happened to be like Manya’s Ivo with his inexplicable fantasies and constant languidness, would I not feel even more unhappy than I did now?
Yes, such thoughts did call on me but I longed for children and a husband, probably because I hoped that they would be better than the rest or maybe extraterrestrial forces induce that desire. Well. I do not know what the truth is, however, the whole humankind does not know that and, judging from the people around me, it does not even put its mind to it. My familiars follow mockingly such questions. In their view, pondering on truths, which exist for centuries, was a waste of time. Unfortunately, much too many people live by force of habit, mechanically, that is why despots in all forms of governing pull the wires undisturbed. I, in my turn, was accustomed to be aware of my gesture, even when taking out my handkerchief. I have learnt that lesson from my father and I think that, thanks to it, today I have by ten times more applied patens and innovations, in comparison to my colleagues. This state of wakefulness gives me enormous pleasure from the work I do. Thanks to it, I became increasingly dedicated to the thought to devote myself entirely to the rich garden of ideas born by my imagination. At the same time, when I happened to be in the company of non-married men, I never stopped asking myself whether I could build up a cheerful home with one of them. I examined vigilantly those of them around me, full of anxious expectation. And one evening I met him! I was at the club with Violeta. She, as usually, was licking her sores and I was listening to her absently, but when I saw him, I cur her short.
“The gentleman on the left. Look how attractive he is. Dark hair. Dark Face. And that sudden sparkle of a pair of blue eyes.”
“Don’t you know him? Lazar Demirev – the chief technologist of the old production.”
“He is attractive by nature, too. Spends ten, twelve hours in a row at the works and wastes his energy so recklessly that he sometimes reminds me of a youth disguised as a forty-year old romanticist.”
“Is he married?”
“I’m not sure if he’s divorced. But he doesn’t live with his wife.”
The fact that he gave his body and sole to the work impressed me exceptionally. “Here is a man, who is superior to everyone else”, I thought listening to Violeta, and later that evening, lying in my bed, I began fancying my acquaintance with Lazar. My imagination kept arranging singular settings, but in reality, it all happed most trivially – the following week we happened to be sitting at the same table, at that same club and I engaged him in a conversation. Once having established that most important is not how much you love but how you love, I have been using more and more skilfully my face, my eyes, my hands and I gain still greater success among men, however in the case with Lazar there was no need for me to cast sparkling glances or to pour out showers of smiles. We had read largely the same books and the words streamed out: easy, interesting, as if we had known each other for years. I have noticed that nothing binds people together as strongly, as common knowledge does, and when the barkeeper wearily started cleaning the place, we reluctantly made for the exit.
“Let’s continue the evening at my place. I live close by.”
I nodded in agreement. He gave me his jacket.
In his room, amidst the magazines, textbooks and notebooks piled up on the table, I spotted an illegibly scribbled page from a notebook: “Index of literature on a possible catalyst for our production”.
“What are you reading?” He jerked dictatorially the sheet out of my hand. “I don’t like other people poking their nose in my things.”
“Sorry. But I’m interested in this list.”
“It’s an old story... Years ago, at a meeting with some Belgian colleagues, I learnt that works with a capacity like your could realise trice as high results.”
“I’ve got the same information. We automated the processes. But... we did not get the desired effect.”
“The only way is to change the catalyst.”
“That’s right. However, all the time other problems, allegedly more important, push this issue into the background. It hasn’t been included even along the line of the scientific and technical union’s programme.”
“I know. That’s why I’ve taken up to make tests after my working hours. I’ve already checked five eventual compounds.”
“You mean, you are making tests?”
His look passed through me like electricity, filled with rapture, astonishment and warmth, and I shuddered.
“That’s interesting!” Then he added quietly “I am also looking for something suitable.”
“Would you like to join our efforts?”
From the following week, about the end of the working hours, Lazar would dash into the laboratory, always wearing a poorly ironed shirt. He carried a bag flung over his shoulder. He would carefully take out cigarettes and bottles and would fill up two slender test tubes. Then he would start pacing to-and-fro discussing in which direction we should set out. Then we would set up the installations, switch on the heating devices, watch, discuss, never feeling any fatigue at all. Yes, a miracle had happened with me again: I was overflowing with energy, which helped me to be more selfless.
On April 6, my birthday, I gave a party. Lazar, this time dolled-up in a white shirt, which my mother had ironed for him, took the role of the host. Smiling cheerfully, he was attending to the music, never leaving the glasses go empty, telling jokes. My lady-friends kept roaring with laughter, while I was looking at him with Juliet’s eyes, thinking that I had of late neglected a little my obligations at the institute. Nevertheless, life could run so just as well - without the golden throne of some chief position, without burning ambitions - and be just as pleasant. Or perhaps something else was more important – if you are close by someone you love, life can run every way and be wonderful much the same.
That evening I had the feeling that I had wings and even after the guests had left, I continued dancing by myself entirely given up to the state of bliss I had fallen into but my mother came in and her serious face brought me down on the earth. I stopped and looked uneasily at her.
“Did I wake you up?”
Instead of giving me an answer, she began picking up the bottles standing up next to Lazar’s chair.
“He drank them up all by himself...” Her eyes crucified me.
The alcohol breath of men has always appalled me, yet it was interesting that I forgave Lazar’s...
“There are no perfect people. So many years you have been inculcating into my mind that there are no perfect people. And now...”
I laughed but the tense expression on my mother’s face did not vanish.
“I want us to talk on a more important issue too! Are you clear about how estranged from his ex-wife he is?”
“Not since yesterday. They have been divorced for three years now.”
“Your cleaning woman told me that he lives with his family.”
“You listen to gossipers... They are using a common apartment but they don’t live together.”
“You can hardly convince me, once you are alone in the weekends.”
True, Lazar had never invited me to his place or to go to the cinema during holidays. However, why did I always wait for him to take the lead, why was I not more advancing? Therefore, as early as the next day, staring at the moon disk I offered him enthusiastically.
“Let’s go on a trip!”
“Why? Are you engaged with another lady?”
“Not a lady, it’s my son.”
Of course, I had heard about his beloved Nickolay; nevertheless, after those words, said probably in a more rude tone, my heart sank. I tried to catch my breath but I felt as if I was in a vacuum. I tried to open the window but it looked as if it were nailed up.
Lazar was chain-smoking. At one time, he seemed to guess that there was something the matter with me; he approached me and nervously buried his fingers in my hair.
“Did I hurt you”?”
The air filled in my nostrils on its own; I even smiled.
“Please... tell me about your family.”
“What shall I tell you... It’s a sad story... We could not come to terms with my wife... To such an extent that, sometimes I hardly restrained myself from grasping her thin little neck. And squeezing. Squeezing... Finally, I left her. However... Something even more awful happened then. My son began to estrange himself... Not that she was estranging him from me. No! Nickolay accepted me as an alien only because we rarely saw each other... Therefore, I rented that independent lodging with the idea to work more undisturbed. Instead, those thoughts grabbed me: why should my child grow alone? Why should he fight life by himself? I have toiled and moiled so much. I must have learnt something. Therefore, I can be of help to him. Why should I leave him alone? Why should he suffer... I had become so nervous that I lost my sleep... Therefore, I started calling on them increasingly often. Finally, we agreed that everyone would live during the week as one liked, and be together on Saturday and Sunday. When I say together, don’t think that I include my wife. Usually she goes visiting or closes herself up in the living room. Moreover, I spend two whole days with Nickolay...
“But why not go all together?”
“Maybe, some time. But don’t insist for tomorrow.”
Only on the third week after that conversation, Lazar asked me in a quiet tone:
“Are you free on Sunday?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Let’s fulfil your wish. I’ve figured out a wonderful route. You’ll meet Nickolay, too.”
“I’m very glad. And I want it to be this way for life!”
“Work during the week. And wander about the hills near the town on Saturday and Sunday.”
He stood in front of me and looked into my eyes smiling.
“If you want...”
I pressed close against him, filled with a feeling that I had finally met the man I had been dreaming of since the time I played with dolls, never minding that it was a little late and I had to share his heart with a child from another woman, never minding that, if he did not have a glass of vodka, he was unable to fall asleep. I loved him for what he was, I was ready to love Nickolay too, and everyone whom his happiness depended on and, frankly speaking, I was not sorry that my heart had been wounded by so many departures. “There are gains for all our losses” the proverb says and, indeed, like stone - the longer it has been caressed by water, the smoother it becomes - me too – every adorer had made me think of my nature. The disappointments I had suffered from their shortcomings had kept injecting me with energy to pull the weeds out of my soul. The confirming conviction about the imperfection of people had day after day trained in me tolerance and reconciliation. And here my toil was crowned with love!
The next morning, my heart swelling over with joy that I was going to be with Lazar even on Sunday, I started preparing my new rucksack. I was humming merry tunes. I was talking with the saucers and the bowls. I was wandering about the rooms smiling. As in interconnected vessels, my mood transferred to my mother. Her face brightened up. Her eyes filled with comfort. The change in her added new streams to my carefree joy and I had the feeling that the end of solitude had come. Life seemed a feast to me. Probably that was the reason why, when I stood up in front of my companions equipped as a tourist, the child’s look, full of pain, struck me unpleasantly. However, I was happy; I was ready to give him a part of my happiness, so I confidently stretched out my hand.
“Hello. My name is Bilyana.”
The boy was standing like a stone statue, only his face was growing paler and paler. Only by that face, which kept changing its colour, I understood that in front of me was standing a live human being.
“Nicky! Please, be polite!”
“I also pleaded with you to take mum...”
I do not know, if in time the memories from the days spent with Lazar will manage to wipe out the pain, which I felt in that second. Looking, without seeing, I thought: Bilyana, you, who know what growing up without a father means, what right have you of all to stand up in between this child’s parents? Have you become so heartless that, since the first meeting with Lazar, until this moment, you did not even for once yes, not even for once think of his son? I was clenching my teeth, because I was afraid that I would start moaning, helpless to follow the dictates of my conscience. Finally, I managed to pull myself together and said in an almost even tone:
“I don’t feel well. And I won’t be able to join you.”
Then I slipped into the bus, which was going downtown. I crossed the high street without stopping for breath and shoved into the first cinema-hall. In the afternoon, I escaped in the world of two more films. When I got back home, I was feeling like a rag and I fell asleep before I knew where I was but as early as midnight I woke up. Everything around me was bathing in a soft, quiet light. It moved me. It revived the moments granted me by Lazar. I imagined how he blows in my ear, how he presses close to me. With the coming of the new day, my passion became still more overmastering and gradually the remorse of the previous day for separating him from his family faded away, vanished. I started thinking that once he did not get on with his wife, whether I would be his second wife or someone else, his son would, anyway, grow up away from his father, and perhaps it would probably be better if it was me, because I felt strong enough to accept Nickolay, not only as a visitor, but also as a part of our family. Therefore, having justified my action in this way, I once again and even more overwhelmingly, with clear conscience and open heart, craved for Lazar. On Monday, I dialled several times the telephone number at his work but it was free all the time. Like my beloved one, I chain-smoked and waited impatiently, and even with a little fear, the end of the working hours, and when at five sharp in the afternoon he opened the door of the lab, I dove into his arms like a seagull.
“I apologize to you for yesterday.”
“I must apologize to you.”
He kissed me tenderly on the forehead, on the eyes, on the lips. Then he drew me onto the tabletop.
The next week we devoted ourselves to reckless work. We were fervently drawing up the results from the researches. We were confident that we had discovered the optimum catalyst. We intended to take actions for obtaining a patent or at least for acknowledgement of an innovation. When Lazar walked me home, he would not put his arm around my shoulders anymore but would take my arm. Once I saw our figures mirrored in a shop-window and I laughed out sonorously.
“Just like a married couple!”
“No, no. Like a couple exactly suited to each other.”
“Well, isn’t it the same thing?”
“No, it’s not. Have you noticed how flowers, when you pick them off, even watered in the most expensive vase, lose their beauty, how they fade away. It’s the same with girls. Once they start wearing the chain of the family obligations, their attractiveness, their appeal vanishes. Aren’t you afraid of that change?”
“No, if I’ll be close by you. I’m not afraid of anything.”
“I’m afraid, though.” His look became unexpectedly serious. “I’m afraid that my new family will turn out the same torment...”
“But you have told me that even before you got married you used to quarrel a lot with your ex-wife.”
“And look at us. It’s been about ten months now. We are together every day; and no one has ever raised his voice.”
Lazar laughed out.
“I want to enrol for a free research fellowship. You won’t stand in my way, if we get married, will you?”
“Not only shall I not stand in your way, but I’ll also help you. Even from this very moment I’m ready to start helping you.”
He laughed even more happily and hugged me.
“Okay. Will you come and show me how to clean my den?
I had meant something quite different by help. Nevertheless, I smiled at him.
“I’ll gladly do it!”
And on the very first Saturday I got to washing the windowpane, beating the dust out of clothes and rugs, tidying up, while Lazar was pacing to-and-fro, telling me enthusiastically about the ideas, he had and it never came across his mind to even catch hold of the table, which I was trying to move groaning with effort. On Sunday, I washed and pressed his shirts, while he went out to meet his son.
The following Saturday, without asking, without even talking over it in advance, I set out for his place with the intention to tidy up a little again and then to go out to see some film or to have a stroll along the seaside. I had the feeling that I was not visiting someone but going to my own home. Smiling cheerfully, I landed in his room but when I saw the numerous steps on the linoleum, I dropped confused on the sofa: there was not even a slightest sign of my work.
“That’s the way I am. I can’t keep clean,” he said, nervously shrugging his shoulders.
The expression of his face made me laugh – he looked like a child, who was afraid that his mother might spank him.
We had a few words, and then I started again tidying up, washing... I got back home only on Sunday night. I snatched a meal and sat at my desk – I wanted to make a plan for the forthcoming week – but my brain would not obey my orders, I was so dog-tired. Frankly speaking, I had no idea so far what a cruel leech the household chores were. My mother did almost everything by herself. I would join in from time to time, mostly to unburden my mind and I looked on them the way men do: with the feeling that they are easy, insignificant, moreover my mother had never shown how tired she was.
I looked around for her. She was rubbing the tiles above the washtub. Her tall figure radiated calmness. Her face was lit up by that soft light, which the faces of people, who are absorbed in their favourite work, illuminate, while yesterday I was so bored and felt so hurt that Lazar did not help me at all.
I stopped in front of the washtub.
“Mom..., let me finish washing them.”
“Why, Billy!” Our eyes met in the mirror. “I’m doing nothing all day long. And you know how sad I feel that you don’t come back home to keep me busy.”
“No, it is not fair on my side to just read all the time, while you do all the house chores at home.”
“Take your chance now. Once you put on the gold ring, you’ll have enough housework.”
I felt a desire to caress her but my hand stood as alien (we were not used to endearments). I returned slowly to my books but they stayed dead for a long time, because various thoughts, like passengers in a train, kept either dashing in or running away from my mind. At first, I dashed into my aunts’ lives. Then - into Lazar’s apartment. Finally, I found myself floating through my mother’s everyday life: always smiling, utterly dedicated to daddy and to me, she considered herself called upon to take care of the family home; probably that was the reason why she never got tired, while I, not with all my soul but even with the tips of my finger-nails, longed for the mountains that had so far been inhabited by the sons of Adam. In the years to come, the television, the radio and the newspapers will probably abandon that song but in the sixties, they kept constantly blaring forth: “Men and women are equal!” In addition, they managed to convince us – my female classmates, and me but did they convince our male coevals? Moreover, are we really equal? At the time when I was at the university, the places for young men in the educational establishments were much more. As far as employment is concerned, the male applicants had had priority over the female ones. By some miracle, I was entrusted with this position. The miracle happened, probably because our family was familiar with nearly all of the factory big shots. Of course, the amazingly great number of publications, as well as the necessity to promote here and there, now and then, some Eve advance in life, so that the allegation that “men and women in Bulgaria are equal” did not seem so illusive, also helped. Perhaps, by the end of the century, Bulgarian women will be excited by other horizons, however, in my green years, we were keen on going up the official ladder and in case of equal qualities, we could make that striving of ours come true by doing ten times harder work, compared to our male colleagues. That was the truth and, in spite of the flagrant injustice, we were ready to accept the facts and perhaps it would not hurt so much, if at least the men we loved treated us as their equal. Instead, they usually thought that their dear girls were born to provide them with conditions for expression, i. e. were obliged to only pull at the family yoke. Of course, the representatives of the sex anointed by the state had nothing against their dear wives’ getting on in life too, and would have even been proud of their success, but that was allowed them only in case after the infinite cares for bringing up the children and after the monotonous household chores, they had enough breath left to climb the steep hills of great science. Such were the understandings of the larger part of my contemporaries. Even Lazar, whom I was placing above all, even he...
To escape from those thoughts, I opened the “Chemistry and Metallurgy” magazine and started reading one of the articles. I was surprised to find out that it treated the issue about the modification of the catalyst, at that nowhere else but in our factory. The next morning I hurried towards the old production. I found Lazar at his work and since he was alone, I immediately began speaking about the article I had read. Instead of dashing forward to negate or fervently defend himself, as he usually did, this time he kept silent with embarrassment, while his face had the impression of someone who felt proud but was aware that he did not have the right of that feeling and was in a hurry to conceal it behind the first mask tossed to him by his imagination. God knows where the thought that the authoress was a long-time friend of him came to my mind from, and I asked him teasingly.
“Do you know her?”
“She’s the mother of my son.”
“The mother of your son!”
Probably I would not have been that much surprised, if he had said that he had been flying to Mars the previous day ...
My would be dirty mind, had imagined Lazar’s ex-wife either as a lady using heavy make-up, concerned only about the colour of her curls or as a faded housewife, given up to cakes and mayonnaise sauces but I had never even thought that she was a colleague of ours. Besides, not a chemist, formally fulfilling her official duties, but a creator! I had formed the first two images, because they alone justified the man I loved, while now, all of a sudden, I had the feeling that I was sinking into a swamp. Alarm gushed forth from my voice.
“To have such a wife and to get divorced! My, why couldn’t you get on with her?!”
“You ask why! Because, instead of taking care of our family, she would leave the laboratory at seven, eight, nine in the evening. And when we started quarrelling who was to take the child from the nursery...”
“But do you think that you should not do a stroke of work at home?!”
“I’m not that much of an egoist and I have been offering her to start working part-time. I had even agreed that she stopped working for some time, for no other reason, than to stop thrusting shopping bags in my hands. Dustbins. Unpaid electricity bills.”
“But a person capable of something greater! How come, to humiliate her to play the role of a house cleaner. Even if you paid her ten times as much, it would be exploitation, besides, a most cruel one. Most inhuman exploitation.”
“And what about you, don’t you exploit your mother?”
“No, I don’t! Because my mother thinks that she was born to do that.”
“Well, I’d also like my wife to have that sort of understandings, because, think how little time one has at his disposal, and if one doesn’t use it to read, to think over, to make experiments... Then when, tell me, when would one realise his ideas?”
“But why didn’t you read together, both of you? Why didn’t you think together? Take care together...”
“Because it doesn’t happen like that. If you happen to have a child one day, you’ll see that it doesn’t happen like that.”
“And what about Marie and Pierre Curie. How did they manage to look after their family and create at the same time?”
“People like Marie and Pierre Currie are born once in a thousand years, while we are common mortals. And we must have mortal goals.”
“Darling, shouldn’t we try to be like them? At least try. Wouldn’t that be more befitting than becoming reconciled with the fact that we are nothing?”
Lazar lit a cigarette, then another one. However, I did not even look at him, let alone feast my eyes on him...
Have you happened to see in the distance a vague object and to start dreaming that it is a fountain, if you happen to be thirsty or a green tree, if you are looking for a shadow; however, you go nearer and the clear outlines destroy your dreams? After that conversation, and still more vigorously at night, when I ran over the article once again and our idea seemed to me insignificant compared to the original thought woven into the text, after all that, I started seeing him in a new light, which gradually dried out the deep waters of admiration. In love, one’s rapture about the person who is by his or her side is as necessary as the lubricant to make the cogwheels move. It is so, indeed, and we continued working together. Now and then we went to the cinema together, went out visiting but his presence gave me less and less joy and his speech and actions annoyed me more and more often.
“You cannot change him,” mom would say.
“You are right. That is why I have made up my mind to sing him the song “Farewell, farewell, a chasm divides us – profound as hell”, – I told her on the following April 6.
A tear rolled down her face. I have seen her weep one single time – on the day of daddy’s funeral. There was an infinite grief in her lamentations then but it was the grief of a strong person, while what struck me now was not so much the tear, as the helplessness in which she had dropped her hands and for the first time I realised that leaving her alone, I was punishing not only myself but her as well. I was punishing her by depriving her of the love of grandchildren. However, where and how should I look for my Adam! And, I wondered, how can one find out the half made for him, and is there at all such a half or what is more important is to be able to become reconciled with reality...
Those questions took possession of my mind more and more authoritatively; the closer I approached to my zenith, the more passionately I desired to have children, to have a family but not one like that of my parents. In fact, the glances exchanged between them were always beaming with respect and warmth but that was thanks to my mother’s servile nature. Being a laboratory assistant at the works, she would leave home at seven in the morning and come back at six in the evening, and without taking a minute rest, would start her new labour marathon: cooking, washing, helping me to cope with the mathematical problem, which I was unable to solve, making dictations in English. Meanwhile my father would be playing cards at the town café or drinking brandy with his colleagues. He would come back at about eight thirty, have supper with us and then would lie down on bedroom suite and fall asleep reading the newspaper, while his precious Eve would give herself up to the dirty pots and pans. According to my beloved parents’ understandings, that was a matter of course but I was horrified at the thought that my gifts, my energy and my brain would be wasted in menial chores. I was scared and felt sick at the thought of such a future.
After my departure with Lazar, the days started flowing quicker. During the eight working hours the duties at the institute entrapped me in their chains: there was always someone muttering against something, another one went on leave, a third one was insisting on being sent on a specialisation. I used to spend sixty to eighty minutes on briefings and meetings, while in the evening – with buzzing ears and red eyes, I would sit reading the subsequent information bulletin, thinking over forthcoming tasks, viewing new articles. That service cocktail sucked out my strength to such an extent that even on Saturdays, I did not have any wish to go to the cinema or to have a coffee with a woman friend, moreover, most of them, had actually got married. My embarrassments that I was unable to find an experienced glass blower seemed ridiculous to them. Their constant complaints from mothers-in-law, children and husbands bored me. The thought that I had missed the time when I could also start wearing a gold ring, kept eating me up. In the circles where I moved, there was not a single man that excited me. Meanwhile the years kept flying by, and as if to oppose myself to their lightning flight, I looked increasingly often back towards the visions, contemplations and sensations that accumulated in my soul. To me they were not a passive past but a specific form of my life. I used to burry myself in them and experienced them repeatedly. Their clarity enabled me to make judgements and comparisons, and amazingly, my journeys along those paths restored that tender and rapturous feeling I had for Boris. With tender emotion, I used to recollect the first year of our love. Then a miracle happened to me: although I was working ten, twelve hours, I was feeling a peace of mind and an unceasing wish to read, to think and not spare myself. Unfortunately, today even the strong coffees, the morning gym and the trips to the mountain were unable to drive me to that winged state. My restless heart also contributed to my getting so tired: a sensitive manager is like one walking on crutches – he can stagger any moment, pushed by the intrigues, the negligence or the excessive ambitions of his subordinates. My mother’s concerned look gave me support, helped me keep walking ahead. However, on the third summer after my departure with Lazar, she passed away. When I was leaving the graveyard, surrounded by her friends and our neighbours, I had the feeling that I was being taken back in a wheelchair.
Time started flying again. I tried to force myself to stop thinking about my beloved mother. I managed in the daytime but at night, I could not sleep for long, burning with the pain that I had not managed to present her with a grandson. Another time I would be seized by the wild desire to have somebody embrace me and tell me a tender word. Cold started giving me a hard time. I bought myself a fir-coat. I replaced the electric heater, which I had been using even when I was a student at the university, with an oil-stove but nothing would give me the true warmth, which I needed. In the lonely evenings, with my legs wrapped in a blanket I kept asking myself why I could not manage, why it was so, as if something stopped me to devote myself entirely to my preoccupations at the institute. Why they could not satisfy completely my spirit. I would close my eyes and start trying to penetrate into myself and find out, whether that desire for home and family was a creation of my mind, modelled either consciously or unconsciously by my beloved parents, by teachers and friends, by the entire society in the face of radio, television, cinemas and theatres; whether my body was dragging me towards that highway; whether it was a call of the soul or an ancient need of the spirit. My granny, who had devoted sixty years to children, grandchildren and grand-grand-children, was firmly convinced that the only path for a woman was matrimony and motherhood, however, none of my coevals would agree with her. They consider it old-fashioned, and even think that the issue itself is unimportant, since the answer was known long time ago: one needs both a favourite occupation and a family. Their daughters replaced the favourite occupation with the longing for a rich husband, who would surprise them with such presents as tours round the world and luxurious resorts. However, I keep trying to find the answer to that question, because I will not be able to breath, if I close myself at home; the sunshine will not make me happy, if I give myself up to spoilt idleness. Meanwhile, I was unable to spin and reel at the same time, because I lacked the strength to do it... That is why I want to be clear about what is more important and I want that this answer is not dropped to me by parachute but to have reached to it by myself, with the neutrons of my own EGO. Then the energy would probably gush forth... However, it was not just running like a foamy stream but I even met a new, bigger trouble – on March 6 I had an allergic fit.
I was taken to the hospital. In the first days my body wandered in the misty space of a weightless faintness, however my vitality began to recover and I started walking out in the yard increasingly often. One of the patients, a well-built man, would approach me smiling, as soon as he saw me. I would meet him full of hope but after a minute, the conversation would fade away, because he had never heard of Nietzsche and Kafka, and he new about chemistry, as much as he did about Martians. I wondered how it had happened so that Boris and I used to meet the dawn with the same books and we had spontaneously found ourselves in the magic world of common contemplations; perhaps that was why every our he gave me brightened me with a festive happiness. Yes, I had been most happy with Boris, yet I had been so silly to fall away from him, to grow cold – that sort of thoughts kept constantly coming to my mind. I started swimming longer and longer in the skies of dreams: I imagined how we meet again, how we have children, at least two (I was an only child that is why I did not want to leave my child without a brother or a sister); I tried to imagine how his life had run during those eight springs; I wondered whether his mother was alive, I was stung with remorse for having left him at such a hard moment. I, that had never been ill, only now started realizing the deadlock in which he had been. I would loose my breath at the thought whether he had got married and I hurried to answer myself: “No!” I would often repeat his confession: “To establish oneself among the scientist with a considerable contribution, one should devote oneself completely to science. However, a family also requires time, strengths. I think it unfair to put that entire burden on one’s wife. That is why I have made up my mind to stay single...”
Such reasoning annoyed me, I would not agree that once you had set forth towards the temple of science, you had to resign from having your own home and we even quarrelled once. However, the way wine changes its taste, when it ceases fermenting, so did I not only like that revelation of his but it even stirred my enthusiasm, placing Boris above Lazar, making me think not of Lazar but of Boris. Therefore, one Saturday, at six in the evening, I asked the nurse on duty to allow me to use the telephone. Dialling the figures, I had the feeling that it was all the same to me, whether he would answer or not. Like in playing Toto... You are almost sure that you won’t win or that the reward will be an insignificant three, without which you could pass all right but in spite of it you fill in the bill, the same way now, when his voice flew to me over the telephone, the electric bulbs in the room started shining more brightly.
“Hello, Bilyana speaking.”
“What a surprise!”
The warm notes, which filled those three words, kept resounding for long in my ears. That night I slept deeply for the first time since I had been at the ward. For the first time I woke up brisk and the injection, which they made me, did not seem so painful. The next evening I telephoned him again. We talked a lot and about various things. Well, he was boring me with the constant complaint that the shops were empty and there was nothing to eat but the concerned tenderness with which he received the news about my illness not only wiped away the unpleasant feeling but also had a miraculous effect on me. As early as Monday, the rashes began to grow smaller. On the day when they discharged me, I flew for the capital city. Full of anxious expectations, I got off the plain and shoved into the first telephone booth.
”Guess where I am calling you from!”
“Perhaps you are already home.”
“No, no. Much closer.”
“From the institute?”
“No, no, no. Guess at least the town.”
“Do you happen to be in Sofia?!
However, why there was no joy in his voice?
“When did you arrive?”
“Five minutes ago.”
“You should have warned me!”
He was speaking nervously. Perhaps he had a girlfriend and I had come at an inappropriate moment. Of course, he must have one. He was not supposed to wait for me...
“Are you going to be in Sofia tomorrow?”
“If you wish it.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m busy today. Tomorrow, six in the afternoon. In our confectionary.”
I nodded, as if he was seeing me and walked slowly forward. The horror of solitude drove away my good mood again. Real joy was going away before it had even touched me. I wondered why I had not managed to meet a man, with whom I would be happy.
The next day, I was at the meeting point in time, as usual. The café was bubbling with the hilarious voices of dozens of people like a harbour expecting a ship coming from a long journey. I took a seat at the table by the window and then I saw him. I was surprised by the numerous wrinkles creeping all over his face. I turned in the direction of the critical eye of the mirror and then I searched again for him. He was wearing the dark-blue beret from the first time we met. Years ago it suited him wonderfully, while now it seemed to me, as if it had been taken out of his grandmother’s dresser. I gave him a smile. He finally spotted me and quickened his step, not smiling but slightly confused. He handed me a bunch of carnations and spoke up in a forcedly joking tone.
“How did you manage to keep yourself the same?”
“It’s a secret.”
“You certainly haven’t got married, have you?”
“Of course, not.”
“But I have.”
“He is not free”, I thought. Therefore, now everything came on its place: both his address “Colleague” that he had used twice, when I called him from the hospital, and his confusion from the previous day.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because it doesn’t matter. You know what? I keep thinking about you all the time.”
He was squeezing a nylon string-bag in his hands (perhaps he had lied on his wife that he was going out to buy some onion) and was looking at me but there was no warmth in his eyes, just curiosity. This look and the glitter of the marriage-ring snapped the red rose that was about to burst into blossom and I changed the subject with the swiftness of unscrewing a damaged faucet.
“How’s the work going on?”
“Don’t ask me...”
“But aren’t you delighted in doing it?”
“Not at all... When I had devoted myself entirely to it, I used to feel awfully annoyed that other ones with connections, would hold high-paid posts without any efforts. Now I am slap-dashing it.”
Then he started complaining of his wife’s strange habits, the hours long queues, and kept repeating all the time:
“Those monsters, the communists brought us to this state.”
“But you have been a party member for twenty years and a party secretary for ten. Therefore, you should not say “those” but “we”.
I felt that I was beginning to get malicious but I had no wish to be better.
“Such was the age. Once you wanted to move forward, you had to join in their dance.”
“Oh, yeah. Pity that we all used to try our best to join in their dance.”
“And what were we supposed to do, in your view?”
“Oppose. Then we wouldn’t have come to this pit.”
“And what about the camps? What about sidetracking?” he flooded me with a stream of words.
Their meaning dragged me into the sea disappointment. I tried to resist. The only way out of the situation was to justify him but I could not. Every next sentence drifted us kilometres away from one another. Little by little, that radiant feeling I had been having for him began to seem as if it had been caused by opium. My heart kept wriggling helplessly. Meanwhile, blind for my state of mind, he surprised me with the question:
“If I get divorced... Would you come to live with me...
I looked at him. Instead of the tender rosy radiance”, dirty grey waters were flowing towards my soul that made me feel distinctly how far away we were from one another. However, at that moment, the thought that I was forty pierced me. The streets were overflowing with beautiful girls and boys; adult couples were slowly walking by, while me... Naturally, I did not expect Boris to be as vital as he had been at our first meeting but that at least the youthful ardour in his eyes would have become a gentle, sensible fire – that sort of live coals I hoped to warm me up. However, alas! In front of me was standing an embittered aging man with a dull look. While at his age Lenin had kindled a revolution! It is a very different matter what the results of it were, yet why, once we have been aware that we were lied upon, why none of us protested. Yes, if he had grasped a gun and become an outlaw, I would have immediately eloped with him. Why, look at him – he keeps complaining all the time. No, I did not want to have children from such a weakling. Earlier I used to see in him my Pierre and longed to be Maria, while now, if I leave aside the fear of solitude, if I leave away the wish to be like everybody else, would there be at least one single string connecting us?
I silently shook my head, as if, if I had said “NO” that would have meant saying “NO” to my hope to meet some day the one more elevated that me, whom I would breathe freely and would be happy to share my life with.
A second later, I felt uneasy. He hurried away, perhaps home, while I walked aimless ahead. The huge mirroring surface of the first shop-window caught my sight. I stopped and thought with a heavy heart that my youth had gone an I seemed to have no hope left... However, besides that truth I had another – my own one: I did not believe it had gone; I did not have the feeling it had gone.
My legs slowly made forwards. My pupils carefully peered into the passers-by, while my heart made harrowing attempts at tearing the knot made by the questions why I could not, why I seemed like being afraid to give myself up to my ideas in full. Suddenly, the mist of observations, memories and premonitions took shape in the thought that maybe contacts with people enrich, speed up the elevation of spirit, so that is the reason why the divine particle sawn into us holds persistently closed the valve barring the stream of wishes to devote ourselves ascetically to one objective. The high tension of this insight made me seeing and as if through 20-dioptre lenses, I saw how the bunch of feelings, which Boris and Lazar used to raise in me, had gifted me with greater gentleness, goodness and selflessness. I hurried my pace, my look became more intent and right then I met the eyes of an unfamiliar man. His hair was grey but his gestures were full of energy, and what I liked most, were the brown sparkles in his eyes. Their uncommon velvety aura stopped my breath. I felt a burning desire to prevent the possibility of passing each other. My consciousness helpfully hinted at the remembrance of a nearby crossing, situated in the opposite direction. I slowed down my pace and when we drew level, with the tenderest tone I was capable of, I hurled out the lasso.
"Excuse me, where can I find “Detelina” Street?”
© Penka Bangova