IN SEARCH OF EMPTIED TIME
An excerpt from Memory Hotel, a novel
I remember her bloody, drained, and happy, her thighs trembling from exertion, spread open to the sides. And I'm holding a piece of living flesh in my hands and trembling with fear. Through my fogged-up glasses I see her torn pelvic floor still spitting blood. I shout, "Another unit! Quick!" and raise the slimy little body above my head – for everyone to see the tiny penis – and the midwife takes it. The entire operating room sighs, like a punctured bus tire. They hand me scissors, I grasp the umbilical cord close to the little tummy, and I cut it. Blood drips from it – his or his mother's? – and falls on my white surgery shoes.
With a professional reflex I hold out my hand for an instrument and sit between Nikolina's legs. I have to sew through the jelly of bloody matter, shit, lymph, and human tissue that has lost its form and function. I take large swabs and start cleaning. I listen carefully. Nothing but the clinking of instruments.
I continue cleaning, and I think about how to use my surgical arts to return the form to that place into which I'll be sinking my fertilizing instrument, my terrible and quite often revolting instrument of pleasure, again and again. Because of this organ, this place has acquired – in the heads of my half of humanity – the image of the shapeless, insurmountable, and unnamable urge toward a dark abyss, toward volcanic heat, sweaty dreams, rape carried out in secrecy, the exercise of power; it simultaneously brings about, if only for short minutes, the voiding of the immoral phallic power, submission to nature and, perhaps only then, in the seconds before the release of the semen, self-proliferation. The urge named by the banal word desire!
I'm cleaning and waiting to hear something, but silence reigns in the operating room. I douse Lina's vulva with antiseptic, take the tweezers, and look at the anesthesiologist. He's put an oxygen mask over her face, and I search his eyes for reassurance that my wife is out of danger, but they look back at me matter-of-factly, professionally, as if inviting me to hurry to save her life, because only the two of us here in this room, on this spring morning, share responsibility for her.
The silence in the room is distracting me. My fear returns. I've lost all sense of time.
At last, he cries! My son has breathed his first breath.
I look at the clock on the wall across from me: it's been only 33 seconds.
But from the moment Lina first clutched her swollen belly, it's been 33 hours.
I don't want to remember it, but I was afraid. The blue sky above Mount Vitosha. My emptied-out bachelor apartment. Our suitcases in the trunk of the minivan. My wife and my daughter in the back seat, and me in the seat beside the driver, who is taking us to the airport. I'm wearing a blazer despite the heat so that I can keep my passport in the inner pocket. I'm squeezing the tickets to Frankfurt in my hand. It doesn't occur to me that they'll become wet from my sweat. I do not yet know that on every 7th of August after that 1982, the sweat on my back will freeze from the memory of The Fear. Most people like us escape through barbed wire or as tourists on the Danube. We have passports with visas for Germany stamped in them, but I'm not sure they're real. I can't believe it. I turn around to see my wife's face. She's holding her swollen belly with both hands. She's in her fifth month. She almost manages to smile at me. The driver is actually my closest friend. Before we turn onto Tsarigradsko Highway, out the side window I see a Gypsy woman sweeping the sidewalk under one of the bronze eagles on the Eagle Bridge. We overtake blue trolleys. Prefabricated concrete apartment blocks, identical, hideous, paint peeling. Finally – the Stalinist architecture of the airport building! Nothing suspicious – men in caps, women in flowered dresses, suitcases, the hustle and bustle of travel. Strange – there are no children. We take the suitcases out of the minivan and arrange them on a cart. They check our tickets; our suitcases leave on the belt. I give my wife her boarding pass and put mine in my inside pocket. I want like crazy to take off my blazer, but I can't. I hug my friend; no one else is seeing us off. No one knew we were leaving, as far as I remember. Besides my former father-in-law. My hands are already trembling with fear when we reach the two plain-clothes officers who are checking passports. No, we're not taking out foreign currency. Besides what's allowed. The official opens mine. He stares at it a long time, as if what is written in it is illegible. He looks at my face searchingly, then reads again. Wellll, they gave it to us at the Ministry of the Interior in Varna. My tongue is scraping my palette. He picks up the phone and talks to someone. He's scowling when he returns my passport and waves me through, as if by his own grace, and finally, my wife, who is holding the child in her arms. We wait at the gate – the only one, incidentally. There are not many passengers, and they're as silent as in church. Leaving for the West is a sacrament. They open the door going out to the bus. I let Rada pass with the child. Two men in navy blue suits and neckties step in front of me. Where are you taking me? They hold me by my elbows on either side and shove me in the opposite direction, away from the other passengers. I can't see whether my wife has looked back.
I remember the green tulle dress over a green taffeta lining, tailored to her body, with shoulder straps and a square neckline. In the black and white photos from that time, growing rusty from sitting in the album, the ethereal tulle barely shows. May 1959, Graduation Prom – The Old Oak, I've written on the back in ink, with my handwriting of that time. In another photo, the two of us are gazing at each other. She, a recent graduate of the German High School. I, a medical school graduate who would be getting a buzzcut in September and sent to do my military service for a year and a half. On the back, in her handwriting, written in ink, is June 18, 1959 Liebe mich wie ich dich liebe, deine kleine Lina. Underneath is my answer, in pencil: Ja, ich liebe dich, P.
How to describe that dance? It seemed to have happened an eternity ago, and out of those of us who attended it, perhaps only a few old women and men remain living. If I were Tolstoy, I would surely begin with the principal who, similar to Countess Scherer, had gathered together the children of the communist elite, and without speaking either French or German, with just her rural Bulgarian, she gave the impression that she was conducting the music of an inviolable well-being.
The German High School in Lovech, by a higher Party order, had been split at the beginning of the academic year that had just concluded. The high school in Varna had accepted its first class of high school students who were studying French, and it was now sending out its first graduating class, those who had moved here from Lovech, into "real life." The Golden Sands resort was just taking its first baby steps. Most of the hotels that later became an inseparable part of my personal biography, filling up and emptying out to mark the seasons the same way my skin did – beautifully bronze at the end of every summer and hideously white during the spring – were still under construction. The Old Oak was the first completed restaurant in the complex and was considered the most prestigious establishment of the new socialist resort intended to brighten the two-week vacations of the workers from the Eastern Bloc.
The parents of the graduates – those who drove Volgas or Pobedas and could come to the resort from Varna or Tolbukhin – nobly observed the youthful vanity from the foot of the ancient oak tree that had given the restaurant its name.
If I were Gabriel García Márquez and my father's native village reminded me in some way, even a tiny bit, of Macondo, I would begin from the branches of this tree, under which, one hundred years ago, the Turkish bey and my great-great-grandfather are sitting at a low table covered with a dazzlingly white embroidered tablecloth, while my great-grandmother is bringing out roasted lamb and salads to the Turks of the bey's retinue and his brothers. They are lined up on the righthand side of my great-great-grandfather, who is topping off his guests' glasses from the sweating bottle of rakia. The sea is roaring some hundred meters away and muffling the conversation, but the Gypsy Gero, the ubiquitous storyteller whom the folk epics turn into Geronimo – to sound European, to look like an archetype, and to unite my father's village with the distant world – manages to notice how, whenever my great-grandmother passes by on the opposite side of the bey, she turns her black eyes toward him. The bey gives her a heavy glance from below, but an affectionate one, and then sparks, invisible to his table companions, fly between them. This happens a second time and a third time. The sun showers sweltering heat, but it is cool in the shade. Weeks of parching drought drag on, during which the bey comes to the sea in the evenings and waits, but at daybreak, he leaves alone, and his footprints are deep in the sand. At last, one star-strewn night, two small, butterfly-delicate female hands intertwine in front of his eyes from behind his back, and from the kiss that follows, the sparks that no one but Geronimo has seen turn into miscegenation, and my grandfather comes into the world, one half of him in the Muslim faith, the other, Orthodox; one half a master, the other, of the rayah. And this grandfather of mine, having sensed the power of the first half, later kills his father and sleeps with his mother, because no one has told him who they are; he has only been taught to hate, because he is a bastard. And from there on, his tragedy becomes a tragedy of his entire people – incestuous and messy, wayward and ready to submit again and again to some master in order to not be wiped out. A people without a river to guide them, nor gold brought from Old Europe to give them the self-confidence that they are the heirs to a great aristocracy – only a sea, which is beautiful, but is a metaphor for the end of the road, because no one from this nation has had the courage to set out on it and to become Odysseus.
Just a month before, it couldn't have crossed my mind that I would also wind up at that graduation prom. I remember her in a black pinafore with a white collar, surrounded by girlfriends, at the outdoor café on the cliff above the small beach beside the Monastery of St. Constantine. Brunette, round-faced, with a mole beside her left nostril, gratuitously cheerful like every high school girl at the seaside in spring. She looked at me as I walked past their table. Her plump lips laughed, but there was a concealed melancholy in her eyes. I was alone, and as I licked my ice cream, she did not stop glancing over at me.
We met in the most banal way: I stopped at the bar to pay my bill, and she came out of the restroom, stared at me with her big green eyes, and as she was walking by, she said, "Are you leaving already?" I stayed and fell in love. We took the bus back to the city together. Only in my later years did I realize that I have fallen in love with every pretty woman who showed me that she liked me.
But during that May, at the prom, no one (least of all me) could have suspected that a random remark, carelessly uttered by a random girl in some random café, would turn out to be the trigger that fired me into the course of my life, for which I was unprepared. There have been people who tried to convince me that nothing is random. But then, why was I unprepared? Why did the one who, according to them, predetermined my fate, not warn me? Why did I make so many mistakes, unforgivable mistakes, and pay for my happiness with not one, but many tragedies? Every tragedy begins carelessly, with the unbearable lightness of being. Every tragedy begins with ignorance.
When you're twenty years old, everyone accepts – and you experience – your ignorance as innocence. But it is actually a kind of blindness. I knew that I was born into a family of the communist elite. I knew that my father was expecting me to set out on his path. Exactly one year before that prom that was glowing before my eyes, Nikita Khrushchev himself, the "liberator" of the cult of Stalin, had come to Bulgaria, and in his speech in front of the Seventh Congress of the Bulgarian Communist Party – in the photos, my father is sitting on the stage, in the third row – he had given the green light to that man from Pravets, my father's brother-in-arms from the clandestine years, to lead the state. In a new, democratic way. A little later I would learn that Nikolina's parents, who at that moment were raising a toast with Vratsa muscatel at their table in the back of the hall, and who did not yet know that I was their future son-in-law, were among Zhivkov's silent opponents. Her mother's brother had been executed without a trial at the beginning of the 1950s, and the involvement of Nikola's illegitimate brother from the partisan times, Ivan Karabelov, in the 1964 plot to depose Zhivkov still lay ahead. I, however, behaved as if none of this concerned me.
I sat at an outside table, with some young people I didn't know, and from time to time I would enter the hall, where dance music was booming. My heart was overflowing with joy that I could see her, and that regardless of whom she might dance with this evening, in the morning she would come home with me, and we would kiss.
If I were Vladimir Zarev, I would begin with the description of this dance – described against the majestic background of the Danube beside Vidin, on the deck of an old barge, anchored for years and transformed into a traditional restaurant – from the rumba and the foxtrot that heated up the bodies, to the smell of human sweat, grilled meats, cheap perfume, and thick, long-standing sludge that wafted over the restaurant barge. The children of the former bourgeoisie from the provincial town were mixing – no, were pressed body to body in the heat of the Argentine tango – with the children of the new rulers, who had come from the villages or from the former poor shacks in the outskirts. Dizzy with the unsatisfied longings of their virginal bodies, they did not see the white ship that was passing by like a ghost, to the sounds of a Viennese waltz wafting in waves on the evening wind, on its way to lands distant, unknown, even undreamed of. With the forgivable blindness of their age, the graduating pupils, obsessed by their bodies, overlooked their parents' pasts and those still indiscernible signs of the present – mainly the deeds and decisions of their parents – that augured the tragedy of a nation subject to a foreign master. This nation eliminated itself from history, doomed itself to an impersonal existence, to an insignificance in the larger picture of the world, which bred low self-esteem and instigated a chronic search for a culprit for the tragedy in the strong of the day or in the allegorical prophesying of the blind fortune teller Vanga.
But I was not a writer. I was only an observer who resisted being a participant.
I have never seen anything sadder than a restaurant after the end of a prom. Overturned chairs, tablecloths spilled with red wine, dirty glasses and plates, crumbled bread, remains of perfume in the air, and above all, that hush of a place which, after being used, has been abandoned by the noisy crowd and instantly forgotten. Just like the moment that we get off a bus, we forget about it and its driver, about the smells of the seats and the conversations of the other passengers.
I don't remember the reasons why I had stayed until the very end. The dawn, described and photographed by people millions of times, but seen by me as if for the first time, glowed pink above the old oak ensnared in the terrace tiles. Nikolina returned barefoot, with make-up just then applied in the restroom. We held hands and set out down the seaside lane.
Her virginity and my late innocence at that moment, drenched in the scent of the Varna sea – the same sea scent that surrounds me here, too, on this rocky Atlantic coast – were happiness. We didn't know what awaited us. We didn't want to know. We didn't think to ask. We were alone with each other. Could I have supposed then that happiness was only possible when we experience it alone?
Nikolina remained a virgin for almost two more years after that prom. We would see each other on the rare times I was on leave from the army. We wrote each other letters: I, every day; she, when she was in the mood. I've saved the last one from her. "I'm pregnant," she wrote in rounded letters. "I never imagined it could happen from the first time. Pavlichek," – she used this pet name for me here for the first time – "my darling, don't be angry. It happened during your last leave in March. You arrived in Sofia by plane, remember? It was so sunny, unusually early this year. After our walk in the fields beside the airport… Why am I writing this, when we experienced it together… An irresistible desire overcame me. There was no one home at my house, and I'll never forget how your eyes popped out when I let you undress me all the way. Now what are we going to do?"
I received the letter in Smolyan, where I'd started working in a maternity ward after the army. It was the beginning of May, 1961; I remember that because a month before, the first manned Soviet rocket had been launched, and the event was still being discussed. I also remember our excitement. Even the gloomy depths of our souls were flooded with sunshine.
Instead of writing an answer, I hopped on a train and went to Varna. The station, the seagulls, the donut vendor on the platform, the tripe soup in the station restaurant early in the morning, the sooty bus ride to her house, her mother at the door not thinking to invite me in, then her father, Stoyan Karabelov, who maintained propriety, with whom I sipped Turkish coffee, and who refused me his daughter's hand. A dear memory? Pages from a cheap novel? Or a banal scene from a reality that lived by its own fossilized rules? A reality whose real conflicts were never played out in the open. Only the final result could be seen in the light of day and was accepted by everyone – the judges and the judged, the accusers and the accused, the guilty and the innocent, the rapists and the raped.
That's the way the end result of Lina's deflowering was accepted, too. She continued her studies, I continued my residency in gynecology, and ironically, the abortion was performed in Smolyan, by an elderly colleague, a friend of Karabelov's, and no one except for him and me, not even her parents, ever found out. I wasn't present.
I don't want to remember it, but it was an operative apartment. I had heard that such apartments existed for meetings between spies. Or for meetings with informers. The jeep stopped where Neofit Rilski Street intersected with Tsar Assen. As we were traveling there, I had not exchanged a single word with the two agents. No, I wasn't mute with fear. On the contrary, I was overcome by that equanimity that we then called Olympian. It wasn't apathy, either. More of an instinct for self-preservation. My words from that moment on would help me survive. I don't remember how this occurred to me. But even as we were descending the stairs at the airport, I realized that this was not a routine check. The plane would leave without me. I don't remember whether I had any feelings about this. I also don't remember the number of the apartment block. The faces of the men on either side of me were expressionless. Whether it was because I wasn't resisting or because their orders were such, both of them acted with an assurance that I would follow them. That there was no need for physical force. In spite of their suits and ties, they weren't sweating. We climbed the stairs to the third floor, one of them in front of me, one at my back.
My memory of the apartment: bureaucratic socialist furniture and street-facing windows that didn't open. I was warned not to open the heavy drapes. The faucet in the lavatory was running. Shelves without books, a desk without pens, only one dusty little bust of Wagner, the sort they sold as souvenirs in Bayreuth and Vienna back before World War I. Two armchairs with the stuffing coming out. A broken chandelier with one bulb hanging from the decorative plaster ceiling in the living room; at one time, inconceivably distant – did it ever even exist? – this chandelier had lent a bourgeois chic to the apartment. In the kitchen was a flaking Mraz refrigerator with rusted shelves, an empty yogurt jar on the highest one giving them a sad appearance. What was unbearable in this set-up was the lighting – pale yellow, like urine.
When I entered for the first time, it smelled musty. Dust had accumulated everywhere, layer upon layer. The bathroom was dried up, but mildew crept along the cracks in the bathtub. In the room that had once been a bedroom, there was a bed with a mattress. In the kitchen – oily stains on the counter and cabinet doors broken off. I had to piss, so I shut the bathroom door. One of the two called out that someone would be coming to talk to me. Then I heard the apartment door slam shut and the key turn twice in the lock.
My head was hollow. Instead of my being 6,000 meters above the earth, in bright blue sunshine, they had brought me to this hole. Without my having planned it. It was like my time had been scooped out by an excavator. An abyss gaped open beneath me and I stood on its brink, on the side of the past. In the abyss of the future, I couldn't see anything. In it, my wife and my two children were moving away from me at almost 600 kilometers an hour.
I lay on the bare mattress and waited. Nothing has ever made me so unhappy as waiting without knowing what for.
I remember her dazzling presence. How can I forget her dress of silvery satin with large daisies, tailored in a mermaid silhouette, the skirt trimmed in white lace, her black hair pulled back in a snow-white tulle veil, which fell luxuriantly over her shoulders. The dress had tucks under the bust that descended in silver ruffles. In the fashion of the time, but also because of her breasts, still small then, the neckline was straight and revealed only her slender, tawny neck.
I remember her green eyes, sunken in their deep sockets, shining with the yearning of a woman in love, one who had turned twenty-one a few days before. A virginal girl in the eyes of everyone present, she had secured a husband with Party lineage, a profession, and the reputation of being an intelligent and charming man.
The rain, which had been wetting the sea and the city all week now, had drained away overnight, and the belated November sun lent the autumn light an unexpected luster. A day suitable for a wedding had dawned.
In the small, encapsulated world we lived in then, every holiday, and especially the celebration of a marriage ceremony, took on fateful meaning. Everyone got up that morning as if reborn, fueled with promise. All misery, poverty, boredom, Party assemblies, and the monotony of workaday life were forgotten. Bodies were bathed assiduously, as if they would always remain that clean; their least worn-out underwear was put on, they dressed in their newest clothing, spritzed themselves with their nicest perfumes, and bore down on the festivities without giving a thought to the fact that, at the end of the holiday, with the dying of the day, their expectations would be buried either in the glasses of alcohol drunk or the empty greasy dishes on the still uncleared tables, or in a torn hymen, or a feeble ejaculation beside the shapeless body of one's wife of many years.
Every holiday was a small birth and a small death. The dinner, planned and calculated long days on end, served at a perfected arranged table with crystal glasses and silver utensils on starched tablecloths – dinner as an extended culinary marathon – was the apogee of the holiday. The first rakia, the second toast, the endless appetizers, the sizzling grilled meats with the fifth bottle of muscatel, and finally, the heavy chocolate cakes – all of this gradually reddened faces, set the vision swaying, clouded the brain, and imperceptibly distanced people from the rosy brittleness of birth, filling the subcutaneous fat and muscles with an oily immobility. Stomachs grew heavy, pressing the heart up toward the mouth, which continued stuffing itself insatiably, because the flavor orgasms were unending and didn't have that exhausting finish characteristic of sexual ones. The beauty of this apogee was lived out in wild dances between the mixed grill and dessert; the people, spun around in that anesthetizing whirlwind, forgot everything else – they did not remember, or dream, or feel disheartened, nor did they think of their hearts or their rheumatism. They competed to see who could last the longest, leap the fastest, prevail through sweat and quickened breathing – just because that was the ritual, and everyone was expected to be joyous and optimistic. But gradually, the body's merciless physiology tipped them toward that hour of the day when their fatigue reminded them that the holiday was heading toward its end, that every one of them had once more to go home to their own houses, everyone to their own troubles, unsolved problems, buried hopes and expectations – in a word, to a state of a little, repetitious, and drawn-out death.
The day on which Lina experienced her first little death, as I remember it, really did begin with sunshine. But when we arrived at the celebratory dinner at the Casino restaurant in the early afternoon, the cirrus clouds that were drifting towards it augured another prolonged autumn drizzle. It was still unseasonably warm, but the light was moving toward grayness.
At that time there was a lot of construction at Golden Sands, and the Casino had become, if only for a short time, a measure of prestige, overshadowing the glory of The Old Oak. In the old photographs you can see that it's in the center of the resort. A staircase of Balchik stone leads from the grassy lawn beneath it down to the beach and continues through the golden sand to a little pier jutting out into the sea. On both sides of it, between the strip of sand and the asphalted seaside lane, are dressing rooms with showers. Only two months before the day of our wedding, the renowned Bobby Fischer, leader of the American team at the 15th Chess Olympiad, played chess at the Casino against the world champions from the USSR – Botvinnik, Spassky, and Tal. This was a suitable reason for the communist newspapers to praise the advantages of the system, and because of these boasts, the Casino at Golden Sands was alluded to as the luxurious mat on which these advantages had been demonstrated.
The Casino and the three-story summer hotels constructed around it betrayed the architect's intention to create a symmetrical environment, to subjugate nature to an imaginary human order – but in fact, he was serving the Party line of confirming the communist norms. True human order, if human disorder can be likened to order at all – that is, to a state with unwritten rules that we learn until we die – is always beneath the surface. Maybe this is also why holidays are so captivating for us! On the day of a wedding, everything appears ordered – by someone else – and beautiful. This creates for us the illusion that order also reigns inside us. But every wedding like ours conceals its own dramas beneath its ritual order.
It is forever imprinted on my memory how, in the middle of this symmetry, as uninhabited as the lonely autumn sea, my Nikolina appeared. Although I was leading her by the hand, in my memory, my vantage point was from somewhere below, from the level of the tables – actually, somewhere in the middle of what I knew about her better than the others did, and what the others saw: a young, immaculate woman with a future, looking forward to her ritual dinner, to the rhythm of the impeccably ceremonious Mendelssohn march. The tables on the terrace around the circular dance floor were spread with white tablecloths, without vases of flowers. Around the tables were folding chairs, made of wooden slats, the seats painted black and the backs, red, or maybe the other way around. The guests, whose composition was significant more for those who were absent than those who were present, applauded with sincere enthusiasm for the stylish bride, who had just gotten out of the Volga belonging to the First Secretary of the Party's Regional Committee, having been brought here after signing the marriage certificate.
We signed at City Hall, only three hundred meters away from the old cathedral. It did not cross anyone's mind that our wedding might be held in a church. Our best man and woman were my best friend from the army, Svetoslav Lipchev, and a childhood friend of Nikolina's. We put the golden wedding bands on each other, listened through the soulless clichés composed for the occasion by some Party bureaucrat, drank Soviet champagne from glasses with ribbons tied around them, and kissed in a public place for the first time. Her mother sobbed in tears, and her father's eyes became moist. Only my grandmother, who had been recently widowed, watched her favorite grandson kindly and with love. The official photographer's camera flashed rhythmically and annoyingly. My parents didn't come, even though we were expecting them. My father sent his official Volga nonetheless. They weren't there later at the Casino, either. In the middle of the dinner, my father's closest friend appeared in their place, a diplomat who secretly listened to The Beatles, as if with the mission of trying to prevent damage in the long run. He was someone dear to me and I loved him, but it wasn't his fault that on this day, the rift between me and my father, which had begun with small cracks back when I was still studying medicine, had turned into an insurmountable chasm.
Our local Countess Scherer, the principal of the French High School, whom I had met at Lina's graduation prom, reigned over the wedding. Dressed befittingly in a navy blue suit with a flared skirt, her dark blond hair swept up into a high bun, she seated the most important guests inside the hall, where the chairs were soft and upholstered in beige, the tables were decorated with roses and carnations, and the orchestra had already started up with some medleys that inexplicably evoked sadness in me. The more distant relatives and friends seated themselves on the terrace.
At some point, when we had already begun the toasts with chilled Troyan plum rakia and the first exclamations of "kiss" could be heard, our countess tapped on her glass with her fork and stood up. She had taken a seat for herself at the table across from ours; thus, we could see how, microphone in hand, she kept glancing at a sheet of paper placed on the plate in front of her. I remember the beginning and the end of her speech. She began like this: "Comrades, dear guests, and dearest Nikolina and Pavel, allow me to say a few words to begin with, before, umm, so to say, passions are kindled. On this solemn day today, two people dear to all of us joined their futures together forever." Here she took a long pause, blowing her nose in her handkerchief. "They are also dear to me personally. Nikolina was our best pupil. And Pavel! Pavel is a young practitioner who has dedicated his knowledge and abilities to that most humane of professions, medicine." And so on, all in this spirit, half-Party, half-human, she said things that there is no way to remember, because they blended in with dozens of similar words and speeches from those days. But she was not stupid, and in the end, she said something that turned out to be prophetic, and probably because of his, my memory chose to preserve it: "May your life be blessed with many children, dear Nikolina and Pavel," she said, almost shrilly, in order to outshout the increasing chatter in the hall, "and may you raise them till old age, because your children will be the strongest proof of whether you loved each other. Cheers!"
Glasses were raised, and the collective sound of crystal could be heard, along with the inevitable cries of "cheers" and "kiss." Nikolina and I stood up so everyone could see our sweet kiss, that of a bride and groom in love. But something in the principal's last words left a bitter taste in my mouth: she didn't say "that you loved each other," but let in this uncertain whether. Accidentally or on purpose, she left us with a choice.
The jazz orchestra – that's what we used to call those big-band-type ensembles that played in restaurants – struck up a waltz and the dancing was uncorked. People were having a good time, and it got noisy, like a wedding. Nikolina and I kept from getting drunk, but we had to make the rounds to see everyone and to toast with everyone. Many of the men had a heartfelt reason to regret that Lina was getting married, but there were also two broken hearts among the women. Svetlyo had warned me not to dance with them.
My memory of that day is so consumed by Nikolina's radiance that I do not doubt for a moment that both then and afterwards, I loved her ardently and purely. With a youthful arrogance, I thought it would be eternal, because I wanted it to be. But I didn't know then that everyone changes. I didn't know that life exhausts you. And if two people who have sworn to live together – because of their faith in the power of love and because of the children born of this love – cannot manage to reconcile their changes and to forgive each other their lassitude, it becomes terrible. And the world around us was terrible: it did not leave us any opportunity for choice, for maneuvering. The proof that Lina and I loved each other purely is that now, in my advanced years, alone beside the Atlantic Ocean, I remember her as dazzling and exciting. And I deeply regret that she is no longer in this world for me to tell her. In my memories, she's alive.
Unlike the prom, this time we left before the end – it was not a pink sunrise, but an autumn twilight, drenched with a fine rain in the automobile headlights, that enveloped us like a black darkness. Inside the car it smelled of warm plush upholstery, cheap cigarettes, gasoline, and Nina Ricci perfume. Lina's sweat had no odor; she was a pure, supple young woman, who a few hours earlier had turned into my wife – I swear I didn't think of her as my property – and, overflowing with inconsumable energy in a society whose goals I did not share, I had no choice but to make children, more children!
At home, she took off her dress. I, without particular enthusiasm, unbuttoned my pants and removed her slip. And we started making children.
"How many kids you have?" I don't want to remember it, but this was the voice I was talking to then. He knew the answer but was observing the ritual. "Two," I answered, "a son from my first marriage and a daughter from my second. And a third is on the way."
"Not many…" he remarked maliciously. "From two marriages! And how many extramarital? Probably too many to count…" I had no answer.
When the waiting on the bare mattress began, it was around noon on Saturday. I spent the night hungry; no one had shown up. There was no way they would come on Sunday. I started wondering whether this was some kind of torture: hunger and solitude. Monday passed, and all I did was drink water from the tap and dream of grilled meat. I was so used to living normally, with my privileges, that I scoffed at the possibility of being tortured. On Tuesday, around 11, I heard the clicking of a key in the apartment door. A man in a suit and a navy blue necktie appeared. Their uniform. "My name is Emil," he said, extending his hand. He was a real hunk. Not just handsome, but a hunk. In the West, he probably would have been a model because of his height and his chiseled jaw. Behind him, a woman in a housecleaner's smock entered the apartment. She put groceries in the refrigerator. She arranged a change of underwear and a few shirts in the wardrobe. She ran the vacuum cleaner that she carried with her and made the bed. Emil paid her no attention. He brought a chair from the kitchen and sat behind the desk. I had to take the armchair. He pulled a tape recorder out of his bag and switched it on. "We know everything about you, doctor, so don't try and lie to me."
"Why are you even questioning me, then?" I countered.
"For the statement, that's why." And after a pause, "It's of legal significance to your future if you'll report the exact facts gathered by our informants. You're not indifferent to your future, are you?"
I nodded vaguely. "Am I considered under arrest, or is this conversation classified as voluntary?"
"It depends on the outcome. Resistance to the authority of the state is a crime. Cooperation with the state is a civic duty."
The ID part of the questioning was easy and boring. He worked from eleven to one, and on the following weekdays he would turn off his tape recorder at exactly five till one, put it in his bag, and leave. On Saturday and Sunday I stayed there alone. He didn't interrogate me, just asked me seemingly innocent questions – about my job as a gynecologist: "Women, huh? You obviously like them, since you touch them all day, heh heh"; about what I read in the newspapers, my only reading material, by the way, which repeated ad nauseum, the news in them being filtered by the editor agents from State Security; about soccer: he was a Levski fan, and I wasn't interested; he mentioned Zhivkov and Brezhnev, calling them by the falsely familiar "Bai Tosho" and "Leonid Ilyich," ostensibly by accident, with the goal of prodding me to feel like part of the family, the family that the little Bulgarian father and his Soviet mentor watched over from Sofia and Moscow; he didn't once mention Reagan and America, as if for him the world were reduced to some kind of here and now, beyond which nothing else had any meaning. I had no choice but to pretend to participate. It would be absurd to ask him for the reasons I was being detained; it wasn't in my nature to go on a hunger strike, and there was no point in torturing him with silence. And as for escape, where could I hide in this miniature state, where so many people knew me? I had no strategy. I was waiting for something to happen all by itself.
I remember how I left her. She was lying on the table with her legs spread open, her vagina full of my sperm, her previous beauty distorted by the humiliation she'd suffered. Dirty. Bloodied. The knife in her hand, gripped like a quill pen…
As I was leaving her, before closing the door forever, I looked at her legs, which were hanging off the kitchen table from the knees down, feeble and defenseless. But Lina had nothing left to defend. She looked to me forever opened wide: punished, without being torn apart by force. Ugly.
I tried to remember her that way, so that I wouldn't feel any pity, even in my memories. Her stomach, from the angle I saw it as I was leaving, was soiled with her secretions, my slimy ejaculate, and the butter I'd had to rub myself with in order to penetrate her vagina, dried up of desire; it was flat and off-putting. Awakened by the unexpected warmth, a fat fly circled above her nipples, which were seemingly still swollen with arousal. Drops of honey ran down them – profane remains of my forced passion.
We had come here at her insistence. When I informed her I wanted a divorce, and after her first hysterics had passed, she wanted to talk. She said that the village of Skortsite was the best place: we had a house there, inherited from her grandfather, the elder Karabelov.
It was December, 1972. The Balkan Mountains around Gabrovo were covered in freshly fallen snow, and the Lada could barely make it up the ascent. When I turned off the engine, a blue silence descended. The sky would become crystalline overnight, I thought to myself. It smelled of cold in the house. Two shriveled pears were stuck to the kitchen table, forgotten from summer.
I managed to chop wood and light the fireplace in the living room before it got dark. The electricity was out. Wrapped in her fur coat, the woman I no longer loved was shivering in the half-dark bedroom upstairs. She had sat on the edge of the chair and kept silent. I arranged wood in the kitchen stove and struck the match. I went to look for candles in the basement, and when I came back, I found her standing in front of the fireplace, still in her fur coat.
I went out to bring our two bags from the car and I remember how, as I plodded through the deep snow, such a wild longing for Lina overtook me that it actually hurt.
That's how that night began, one that's carved itself into my memory like a motorcycle that has crashed into the ground floor of a ramshackle house at high speed. I saw an accident like this once, before they pulled the driver and his motorcycle out of the demolished wall; his head, still in the helmet, had to be forcibly separated from the kitchen cupboard. My recollection is like a wedge that cannot be removed – I don't want it to be, there's no way it could be – and only passing time helps me to not drive it further in and thus to keep the two halves of my life glued together: before and after that night.
The first time happened on top of her fur coat, in front of the fireplace, while we were still in our clothes. She wasn't ready, and I had to finish in her mouth. It wasn't rape, since we had been sleeping together for ten years. She had given birth to Orlin eight years ago, and to keep from being unfaithful to each other, we had tried all kinds of positions. But this time, Lina threw up. She barely avoided laying her head down on the coals.
I laid her down and went to get a towel; the right side of my body was burning, and the left was like ice. In the kitchen, the stove was roaring. I loaded it with more wood and lit three candles. I took one of them and went back into the living room. I threw some dry logs into the fire, and then she snuggled up to me.
I don't remember how much time passed before she whispered to me that I was her one and only and that she would kill herself if I didn't stay with her. I let her tell me everything she wanted about her love. At the end of her story, the fire was bleeding out and her face, a reflection of the dying embers, drew close to mine. I received the sweetest kiss I could imagine, and I returned it with all the tenderness I was capable of. But I remember that this was not tenderness for her, brought about only by her. It was my innate love for women. Lina, maximally aroused, just happened to be occupying this place.
In the long sexual scene that followed, in the most classical missionary position, the caresses she got from me were intended for many women. Only at the end, at the peak of her orgasm, did my own self-preservation remind me that she may have removed her IUD without telling me, so I shot my reproductive fluid on her belly. Before drifting off into her nightmares, my still-legal spouse kissed me with, I would say, desperate passion. But my lips had already hardened. Until this day I'm not sure whether she was aware of the strange asymmetry concealed in this act. She had clasped all of her love within it, in order to save me for herself, and she took me in as if I belonged to her alone. I did it for the pleasure. Without feelings and without devotion. She was imagining my tenderness to mean love and return. For me, it was pure physiology. But since I've never been cynical, I experienced it as a goodbye.
Somewhere between midnight and the next morning, I woke up from the cold and got up to put wood on the fire. The electricity had come back on, and even if there had been something sadly romantic in our love-making, caused by the dancing firelight the previous evening, the electric lights extinguished all possible illusions. The stove quickly warmed the small kitchen. I pissed in the sink and sat down to think about what my next step would be.
I must have drifted off from the warmth, because I suddenly felt Lina's arm around my neck. Her bare breasts were pressing against my back, warm and soft. Before I could turn around, she grabbed my penis and began breathing loudly. Her hands smelled of fish, and this scent blended with the smell of turpentine from the now heated-up stove. My head started spinning. Lina moved in front of me and sat on my knees, straddling me. Her stomach was still sticky. Without saying a word, she took my right hand and guided it toward the table, where she had shrewdly placed a little jar of honey put up in the summer. She dipped my fingers in it and then moved them over one of her nipples. The warmth made me dizzy, but I was inevitably getting hard. There was no time to turn out the light. I grabbed her around the waist, lay her on the table, and headed for the place that was waiting for me.
It was dry. I pressed with all my might, but a pain shot through me. I should have gotten away. Immediately. But instead, some heretofore unknown malice – male physiology? the drive not to be defeated? – made me stand up, go to the unpacked bag, take out the butter, come back, turn her onto her belly on the table, and rub her with it in the throes of an unquenchable erection; it drove me to thrust that erection into this vagina, raspy as sandpaper, from behind, and to start plunging into it with the rhythm of a jackhammer. To punish her. To punish her for not understanding my goodbye. Like she had failed to understand so many things over the years.
At some point, without knowing whether I had gone mad from the pain or pleasure, and without thinking about the consequences, I filled her with my sperm. In the second that happened, I was disgusted with myself. I realized what an animal I was. But there was no turning back. I went to the sideboard where I had left the pitcher and drank thirstily from the melted snow water. The weapon of my carnality was hanging, now dull; no, not hanging – it had hidden in its skin in fear.
It didn't matter to me what she was going through. But this turned out to be a mistake. In the silence that followed, her screams from a few minutes before emerged in my sleep-deprived, clouded conscious. To escape them – and the memory that they had been caused by me – I went into the living room, so I wouldn't see her. I lay down by the fire, but I was trembling. And she must have approached me silently, because I sensed her only when she lay at my back, pressed her body against me, and entwined her legs in mine. I remember that she didn't hug me. She just lay lengthwise on her left side and kissed my hair. I took it as a gesture of forgiveness.
Right then, something sharp plunged into my shoulder blade. I let out a howl of pain and jumped up to face her. The kitchen knife I had sharpened in the fall, before closing up the house for the winter, glistened, bloody, in Lina's hand. She threw herself forward with the knife; I caught her by the wrist and twisted her arm. The knife fell. Here my memory is cloudy, but I think I hit her in the face with my head, though it could have been my fist, because she dropped at my feet.
Without paying any attention to her, I ran to the kitchen, opened the door to the yard, and threw myself on my back in the snow. I was howling in pain, cold, and the terror that my heart wouldn't hold out. I pressed myself into the snowdrift with all my remaining strength. The moon shone in my face and pulled me out of my trance. With an inhuman strength, I stood up, slammed the door behind me, and ran to the bedroom upstairs. I took out the first sweater I came across in the dresser and pulled it over my naked body.
I remembered Lina just then. And just as I was, wearing only a sweater – when I saw myself in the mirror for a fraction of a second, my penis resembled a dulled pencil – I went into the living room, took her in my arms, and lay her on her back on the kitchen table. She was still unconscious. I tugged at her so that her legs were hanging over the edge of the table, and I opened them wide. I put the knife in her hand. I probably wanted to plant evidence that she had threatened my life. But for whom? In this country, no one would bother investigating whose blood was on her body. Things would be covered up within the family.
But at the end of this half-dreamed night, the sharp pain in my shoulder, and maybe more than anything else, the terror that I might see her again, spurred me to the reckless desire to kill her. For her not to be there! I wanted her out of my life. Not to bother me. Everything between us was finished. From now on, we could only cause each other pain and increase our abhorrence of each other.
I took a pillow from the living room couch, and with both hands, I pressed it over her face. There was no need to use much force. It wasn't long before her body straightened out, as if in a convulsion, and I took away the pillow. She didn't seem to be breathing. At first I was afraid, but indifference overcame me almost immediately.
And I left her. Naked as at a gynecological examination, raped by her doctor, humiliated by the very person who had given her the pleasures of life and love. When the stove went out, she would go stiff.
ZLATKO ANGUELOV (1946) is a Bulgarian writer who lives in Planas del Rey, Catalunya, Spain. He has graduated the Medical School of Varna where he later taught anatomy, histology, and cell biology. In 1992 he and his family moved to Canada, and subsequently to the US and the UK. Since 2016, the famlily home has been in Catalunya. Zlatko beganwriting fiction in 2009. His first fiction book in Bulgarian, Erotic Memories, was published in 2012, followed by Love on Boogie Street in 2013, the collection of travel essays My America in 2015, and the collection of literary essays Literature at the End of the World in 2017. An extension of this book, I Despise the Graphomaniacs, was published in 2021. Zlatko started writing the novel The Memory Hotel while residing for a year in San Sebastian, Basque Country, Spain, and finished it in 2018, in Catalunya.
Commenting on www.vagabond.bg