Wearing a wrinkled black t-shirt and dark blue jeans ripped at the knees, Michael Herzev stepped off the plane into the soft heat of the Balkan summer. Under a hazy, ambiguous sky—Just for me? he thought—an airport bus waited. Beyond it, a landscape green, flat. The horizon lost in a faintly smoggy mist. Descending to the tarmac in the diffuse sunlight, Michael breathed in the still, peculiarly fragrant air, welcoming it after the climate-controlled closeness of the plane.
At the baggage claim his bag was late to appear. But finally it was spit up by the curtained orifice feeding the steel carousel, and he took it up, carrying the old, frame-stiffened blue backpack (its straps now concealed) by its side handle, like a guitar case.
In the short hallway leading to the exit, several customs officers dressed in the dark loose uniforms of local police stood idly. They took no interest in him as he went by.
Coming out, he found Bella waiting for him, standing a little apart from the small crowd gathered behind the greeting barrier, smiling with excitement and anxiety. His feelings when he saw her were odd, warm, with something of resignation in them. Her hair was shorter than he remembered, cut in a boyish style. She asked him if he liked it as they walked through the terminal. He said yes, naturally. The hairstyle might not have been his personal favorite, but in his mind his answer applied to Bella’s appearance as whole, which was objectively marvelous. Slim, skillfully made up, she wore a long bright skirt of some light material, dense with folds, a form-fitting tanktop, pendent earrings he’d bought her a few months after they met. She’d gotten a light tan and the skin of her arms, shoulders, neck, face, had a smooth, supple look. A pair of platform sandals added to her already impressive height. Atop them she was taller than most men. In the quiet, largely empty terminal, they turned to look after her as she passed.
They did not to speak during the taxi ride. Bella didn’t like for cab drivers to know they were transporting a foreigner, fearing a fare hike, and warned him to keep quiet. Getting in front, she gave directions, while Michael sat quietly in the back, holding on to the front seat (there were no seatbelts in the back; a striped cloth seat-cover hid the buckles) as they maneuvered through the traffic of the capital. Michael was unconvinced of the necessity of Bella’s precautions—the cab was metered, though maybe that didn’t make a difference—but made no protest. Financially, he was in no position to scoff at such prudence.
Despite a ‘No Smoking’ sign on the dash, the cab smelled of cigarettes. Looking out the car window, Michael saw billboards advertising vodka, cellphones, cars, next to and sometimes right on top of communist era apartment buildings, their walls in black patches where the plaster had fallen off. On balconies, laundry hung drying next to upturned satellite dishes. On the back of the driver’s seat hung a credit card ad featuring a native female Olympic gold medalist in pistol marksmanship. She held the credit card as if it were a gun.
Once they were able to talk again, almost the first thing Bella told him, after they got to her apartment and he changed and they went out again, was that she was badly depressed. Part of it was being back in the country, she explained. She had been alone there for over a month and the place got her down. “I guess I’m not used to it anymore,” she said. “Everyone is so negative. I can’t take it.” A few days earlier she had gone to see her father and that made things worse. “Whenever we meet he only wants to talk about his own problems. I understand things are difficult for him right now, but he’s still the parent and I’m the child, not the other way around.”
Bella’s father had once been a stage actor of some renown, but hadn’t worked for years. He lived on the other side of the city with his girlfriend. Bella contended that the girlfriend poisoned his mind and that many of his present opinions were not his own. “When he speaks I hear her speaking through him,” she said. Sometimes she attributed to this her father’s failure to acknowledge her accomplishments. Bella was finishing a sociology doctorate at Brown, and had already been awarded several prestigious grants, but news of these successes didn’t seem to elicit the desired reaction from him.
“Whatever I do right, he just says, ‘Eh, it’s to be expected,’ ” she told Michael in exasperation. “Expected because I’m his daughter, and so of course I must do well. It’s nothing special. But they can’t stop talking about Ninka’s daughter. She’s taking some accounting courses or god knows what. They make it sound like she’s cured cancer. They don’t understand the work I do, and they don’t try to. They dismiss it. It’s not serious to them because they don’t think I’ll make any money with my degree. And they’ve never heard of Brown. All they know here is Harvard. If you’re not at Harvard you must be a dummy. They make me feel like everything I’m doing is worthless. And sometimes I start to believe it!”
She had brought herself close to tears, but held them down: they were in public and there was also her makeup to think about. And now her tone altered. She began to speak of the troubles she was having with practical matters. In particular, her attempts to upgrade her home phone line, which were hampered by the building super, a nutty old Soviet sympathizer who wouldn’t lend her the key to the building’s phone line control board, or some such system, which the phone company needed access to. He claimed he didn’t have the key, but Bella was sure that he was lying. She believed he was making things hard for her out of sheer crazy spite.
Michael listened to all this thoughtfully, sipping his tea. They had gone downtown—a short walk from Bella’s building—and sat at an outdoor café across the street from the former Palace of Culture, a massive structure of sand-colored stone faintly resembling an accordion. Kids on skateboards and BMX and mountain bikes raced about the “central park” that stretched from its entrance, bristling with dead fountains. On the concrete ramps and stairways, they hopped, spun, crashed and leapt up again. There was a billboard on top of the palace now too. Michael at first thought the billboard had been vandalized, but then understood that the advertisement itself was done in graffiti style—to appeal to the youth market, presumably.
Sitting in his stainless steal chair, Michael had not been saying much. His travel fatigue aside, Bella’s grievances were not new to him. Almost all of them he knew about from their phone conversations. Back home, too, complaints of a similar tenor were not infrequent. So he knew what was expected of him. Only, right then he wasn’t sure he could summon the strength for the usual pep talk, the remonstrations and reassurances. The time we’ve spent apart has affected me, he thought. I feel I am starting to resent these continuous demands for sympathy. Also, at that moment he felt he deserved, or at any rate would have liked, to get some sympathy himself. For he was hard up. Could not, in fact, afford this trip. He’d charged the ticket to his credit card and withdrawn his last thousand dollars for expenses. He wasn’t sure it would be enough for the three weeks he was to spend here.
Looking past Bella, he now watched the café waitresses taking and bringing out orders. They wore one-size-fits-all orange dresses, short enough to pass for long shirts. One bigger girl looked like she was barely able to keep decent in the thing. When she leaned over, very little was left to the imagination. Their own waitress was young and rather pretty. The orange uniform sat well on her and showed off her white shapely legs. Michael, who was a sculptor, had the thought that legs like that would look great in marble. When the girl came to tell them her shift was ending, he gave her a generous tip (it still amounted to a miniscule sum).
Day was turning into evening, but the heat was slow to depart. Stray dogs, dirty, comfortable old survivors, lay panting on the dusty pavement and on the grass under broad-canopied trees. Across the street, a line stretched out the door of a currency exchange bureau beneath the single patchiest façade Michael had ever seen: you couldn’t tell if it had more bare concrete or paint.
“Why are you so quiet,” Bella pleaded. “Say something.”
“Oh,” Michael said. “Well. Yes.” And roused himself and said something.
On their walk back, they passed through the central park. All the benches along the promenade were packed tight with old people, observing those going by expressionlessly, out of faces desolated by time. At the park’s far end a giant statue commemorating some socialist triumph was slowly disintegrating. A graffiti-covered fence (Michael noted that here the graffiti was genuine) surrounded it to protect passersby in case any more of it collapsed.
Later, going down tree-shaded side streets, they went by the apartment of one of Bella’s close childhood friends. “We had so much fun here,” Bella said wistfully, looking at the dark windows. “We did such silly stuff. We’d pretend one of us was a foreigner and talk gibberish and the other one was an interpreter and was translating for them. And we’d come up to people and do this bit and think we were very convincing.”
Michael smiled at the story. Hearing such childhood memories greatly moved him. He could see Bella, skinny and boyish, earnestly speaking in her made-up tongue.
Transfixed in the act of recollection, Bella’s face was at that moment full of melancholy yearning. In the shadows of early evening her skin looked wonderfully smooth. The noble cheekbones, nose, chin like those of some imperial likeness done in porphyry. But in a moment her expression changed, as she remembered that the friend, with whom she’d left several messages in the preceding days, still hadn’t called her back.
Passing through an outdoor market set up along a central thoroughfare, they bought cherries and apricots. The ripe, luxurious fruit was measured in kilos inside battered metal bowls on mechanical scales ancient and rusty. The vendors, efficient, sometimes sly, mostly affable, their rough hands dark with grime, counted up the totals using pocket calculators. With the dusk deepening, many were starting to clear out their stands. Red trams rattled by on rails running down the middle of the street, with an occasional German sedan bearing an impatient businessman or Mafioso trailing close behind.
As they walked single file down narrow sidewalks, past clothing and sunglass and cellphone shops, Michael sampled the fruit, rubbing it on his shirt by way of a wash. He offered some to Bella but she had grown distracted over her childhood friend’s silence. In her current demoralized state, it threw their entire friendship into question.
“When I come here I go out of my way to try to see everyone,” she said with emotion, “but no one else wants to put in any effort. Are these called friends? Well, fine. I’m not going to try any more either. If they don’t want to call me, I’m not going to call them.”
For a time she carried on in this vein, working herself up to state of great excitement. Michael plodded alongside her in silence, carrying the plastic bags laden with fruit. He suddenly felt like he was reaching a breaking point. He didn’t think he could stand being around such eruptions any longer. That meant having to break things off—not now, but possibly upon their return—after nearly a year together, and the prospect cast him into a mood of dark, irritable sorrow. For a time, when Bella spoke to him he could hardly bear to answer. Eventually her friend called and they sounded thick as thieves again, but this did little to cheer him up. It only magnified the unreasonableness of Bella’s earlier hysterics. When they got back to the apartment, he was so wrapped up in his unpleasant musings that he missed the signs of the next impending crisis.
The super was still refusing to give up the key to the phone box. Bella had gone down and knocked on his door, but got no answer, yet was certain she heard movement inside. “That crazy old fart,” she cried, returning. “He won’t even talk to me. I heard him moving around behind the door. Or it could have been his daughter. He keeps her locked up in there. She doesn’t open the door unless he’s home.”
She tried to busy herself with other things—at her insistence they would shortly be going to the sea and there were logistical matters (car, itinerary, cost estimates, and so on) to attend to—but the unobtainable key wouldn’t let her rest. The line upgrade would evidently reduce her phone bill, especially the dial-up internet charges, but it clearly wasn’t the question of money that so got to her. She couldn’t handle being at the mercy of the loony super.
“God, it makes me so angry! So angry!” she panted, pacing around the bedroom.
At last, overcome by her passions, she collapsed weeping on the bed.
Michael, brooding in twilight on the couch in the other room, followed these developments with half an ear. Each time another one of Bella’s exclamations pierced through the wall, he gritted his teeth, feeling absurdly like a child forced to witness a parental meltdown. He was shaken out of his funk only by the sound of Bella’s tears. These moved him to act. Jumping up and striding into the bedroom, he prepared to assume an outwardly brisk, confident tone.
The room was brightly lit by a low-hanging ceiling lamp. Bella lay curled up on the yellow felt covers, her body shaken by sobs. Tears made the long lashes of her tightly shut eyes clump together. Her pink-lipped mouth, distorted by crying, was wet with drool.
“Now what are you torturing yourself for, babe,” Michael said. “This isn’t such a huge disaster.” Which wasn’t a great start, for Bella just cried harder. “Alright, look,” he tried again, “you take it easy and I’ll go and see if I can’t get that key from the old commie.”
“How are you going to do that?” she croaked.
“Threaten him with expulsion from the party. I don’t know. I’ll talk to him and see what the deal is.”
“You don’t even speak the language.”
“If the guy loved the Soviets so much, he’ll probably speak Russian. Anyway, we’ll find some way to understand each other.”
Bella’s sniffling began to subside. She sat up. Michael could see he was making headway. Now all that was left was to get the key. On that score he wasn’t nearly as confident as he’d made himself sound. Still, going down the unlit stairs (he hadn’t the patience to wait for the elevator), he felt some exhilaration. Normally he showed little initiative when called upon to do something, but now felt a curious power within himself. In the concrete-cool, echoing murk his pulse beat strongly in the gut and temples. His Russian, which he’d first absorbed from his parents and then studied fairly diligently in college, was still reasonably good. And he did in fact hope the language would offer some advantage in the negotiations. Perhaps awaken the old communist instinct of deferring in all things to the line coming from Moscow. Briefly, he imagined himself overawing the super in secret police fashion, with an unspoken promise of violence. But he knew well enough he had no skill in bullying. Charm (or at any rate amiability) and persistence were far his stronger suits.
Descending, jumping down to the landings over three, four, five steps, he tried to work out his angle, his story. Who was he to Bella? Why did he come to speak on her behalf?
At the same time, another part of his mind moved in a different direction and he thought, Really, it is in some ways a performance, Bella’s extravagant suffering. A kind of artistic attempt to communicate her pain. And I suppose its intensity is inversely proportional to the size of her audience, which is just me. And her, he realized. Yes, Bella is also a spectator of her own spectacle. And the show she puts on heightens her self-pity and causes the whole thing to spiral to ever greater depths of half-simulated anguish. Still, the basic, underlying emotion isn’t fake or aberrant. Only its outward manifestation ends up seeming excessive. And I’ve got to consider if that’s not due also to my recent tendency to give her inadequate consolation. The more I withhold my pity the more strongly she may feel the need to demand it.
Several minutes later, he was taking the elevator back up to Bella’s floor, carrying with him a promise from the super to have the key ready for him the next day. This was an accomplishment he was himself not a little surprised by, considering how their interview began. At first the man wouldn’t even open the door, but had Michael state his business through it. When at last he showed himself, it looked as if Michael’s call had gotten him out of bed. Following the snapping of a multitude of locks, he appeared in the entryway dressed in an undershirt made taut by an older man’s paunch. He must have been about sixty, neckless, his short gray hair in disarray. Attached to a square, thickset body, his naked arms and legs looked oddly spindly. Bella’s reactions to mishaps and difficulties may have been disproportionate, but when it came to sizing people up Michael knew her to be fairly perceptive. And in this case he was inclined to agree with her judgment. One close look was enough to confirm that the poor fellow was at least a little mad and not merely disoriented by a late night visit. His wide-open dark eyes, huge-pupiled, below brows of Brezhnev bushiness, stared with anxious, unflagging intensity from a face pallid, loose-jowled, its grizzled stubble evoking the final despair of derelicts. (Michael’s imagination suggested to him that the man had heard of the end communism with that look on his face, and it had remained there since.) His head was pulled permanently into the shoulders as if anticipating a blow. Michael thought he could smell the sourness of the man’s breath, the mustiness of the airless apartment. For a moment he nearly despaired of getting anything out of him, but then it seemed that his repeated mentions of Moscow and the excessive politeness with which he spoke were having a positive effect. He had taken some money with him—two twenties—and now tried to get it across that he was willing to offer compensation for the super’s services.
He was beginning yet again to lay out his case—he was a visitor from Moscow, experiencing trouble with the phone line, and so on—when the old man stopped him with a few placating, slightly irate waves. In imperfect, halting but understandable Russian, he told Michael that he did not have the key, as he had already explained to the young lady from the apartment under discussion. But he knew who did. Gesturing for Michael to stay put, he disappeared inside, leaving the door half open. As he waited on the landing, Michael allowed himself a measure of optimism, though he had sensed some disingenuousness in the man’s act and suspected he was sticking to his story for appearances’ sake. Under the old regime it was not uncommon for the super to be in contact with the state “organs.” Reporting on the sayings and doings of the tenants. So Giorgiev—as the super was called according to a plaque above his door—might not have been a stranger to dissembling. Still, Michael reflected, he must be having a pretty rough time of it in this new order.
At one point, glancing through the door, Michael thought he saw a figure in a long nightgown flit across the dark hallway. Was this the imprisoned daughter hiding her maiden charms? Whatever her true condition, Michael assumed that old Giorgiev didn’t relish the thought of her setting foot outside his building. It must have seemed to him like sending her into Babylon or Gomorrah.
In another moment Giorgiev was back, his outfit unchanged except for old sandals replacing the house slippers on his feet. It made Michael cold to look at him, but later he understood that the undershirt and boxers was all the man ever wore inside the building. The other tenants had probably come to think of it as the official uniform associated with the super’s office. Locking the door carefully behind him, Giorgiev led the way to the dwelling of a certain Afanasyeva, one floor down, but she wasn’t home or wasn’t opening. The super was apologetic, and back in his own doorway told Michael that he would get hold of the key for him by the following day.
Reporting these results to Bella, Michael felt reasonably good about his showing. Bella was not without her doubts, but she agreed to wait to see if the super delivered. With petting and coaxing Michael persuaded her to go to bed, and they slept in each other’s arms, not waking the next day until noon.
In the dark, as they were falling asleep, Bella got both arms and legs wrapped around him. With her face hidden between his neck and shoulder, she whispered, “I’m so happy you’re here. You make me feel calm.”
And Michael said that he was happy also, and at that moment meant it.
The seaside spot that Bella wanted them to go to was near a summer camp she went to as a girl. It was a secluded, peaceful beach that she recalled with fondness. “It was really wonderful there,” she said. “But I’m kind of afraid to see what’s become of it.” Nonetheless, she dug up maps and worked out the driving route. She also found them a rental car, a small, new, bright red Kia, which had little power but plenty of trunk space (needed for Bella’s suitcase). Once the mad free-for-all of the streets of the capital was behind them, the drive to the coast was charming. The countryside, painted over in floral green and gold, was unpopulated, warm, dreamy, seemingly untouched by history. Giant sunflowers, in ranks of thousands in their fields, followed the sun with black and yellow faces. Fist-sized peaches and watermelons like striped cannonballs lay in pyramids beneath the red umbrellas of roadside vendors. From the height of the coastal roads, the sea looked like an immense, clear blue lake.
One time, when making a pit-stop, they sat down at a café overlooking a Roman amphitheater. Michael admired the partially broken down colonnades back of the stage, which resembled a temple entrance or Hellenic cityscape. The ubiquitous fluted column, he thought. That architectural standby of the old empires. In general, the ancients didn’t really seem too concerned with variety. They had their standards and they stuck to them. Zeus, Hercules, Athena, Aphrodite, and the rest of that Olympic cast was all they ever needed. Which was really not a bad way to simplify things. Infinite choice tended to induce paralysis.
Michael had himself been casting about for a strong subject for some time. His sculptures weren’t selling, and the attendant money worries made it difficult to recover his inspiration. The trip to the Balkans he had partly justified with the thought that it would do him good to get away, to spend some time in an unfamiliar place and clear his head.
Looking down at the stone stage, Bella said, “My father had performed there. When I was little. In the 90s.”
Then she told Michael she regretted not receiving more guidance from her parents as a child. “My father could have easily gotten me into acting,” she said. “But he refused to do it. I don’t know why. Maybe he didn’t want that kind of life for me. Traveling all the time, etcetera.” Her long fingers were playing with a white sugar packet, which she finally tore and emptied into a cup. “Sometimes I feel completely directionless. I have no idea what kind of job I’ll be able to get. It’s like I can’t believe that anyone will want me. And I have these fears that I’m going to end up on the street.”
Even as he put his arms around her, Michael was aware that Bella’s worst-case visions of the future were hyperbolic, a kind of fantasy masochism. Yet they were not, in the end, an utter impossibility—his own present situation offered painful evidence of the fact—and it must have been his sense of this (our common vulnerability!) that tugged at his heart.
Her cheek against his chest, so that Michael could feel her voice in his lungs as she spoke, Bella said, “It’s funny, but do you remember that movie, with Schwarzenegger, where he carries the little girl in his arms?”
“Sure, Commando. Who could forget.”
“I remember wishing he was my father. Somebody I could count on, who would protect me.”
Michael still hadn’t met Bella’s real father and so had to approximate the contrast. They had been supposed to meet with him before leaving for the sea, but the meeting never took place. Bella put off calling him, and each time she remembered that she had to do it she would grow angry and declare that if he wanted to talk to her it wouldn’t kill him to call first. When he did call, a day before their departure, Bella accused him (to Michael) of wanting everything arranged on his terms and refused to see him, claiming to be busy. “He’s become so selfish!” she cried. “He wants to meet today because he’ll be in the neighborhood to pick up Ninka. He acts like it’s hard for him to make it over here but he’s just lazy and doesn’t want to spend the money on gas. I didn’t even tell him that we are renting a car because I know that’ll make him think I’ve got money. I do have some but only because I save it. And I don’t have very much. I’m sorry but I am not going to feel guilty for spending it on myself and not on him. When has he ever helped me when I needed it? He’s not spent a dime on me since I was a baby.”
Sitting on the bed, a book closed on his finger to mark the page, Michael watched her, thinking of his own parents, who had just celebrated their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. They had paid for his private school, his car, his Ivy League college. And neither was it money given in place of love. The love was there. He knew this though no one in the family except his grandmother made much use of the word. His eyes on Bella as she talked, he wondered if the differences between them were not too great after all. It wasn’t clear how much of her anger Bella’s father actually deserved, though he knew that Bella had spent a good part of her childhood living with her grandparents. In any case, these kinds of tit-for-tat squabbles between family members were incomprehensible to him. All my life family has been an unconditional thing for me, he thought. Inviolable. I have never seen the other side of it. Probably, this is how much of the world lives and I just never knew it.
The mood that had descended on him following the episode with Bella’s unresponsive friend returned. It did not lift until the next afternoon, when they were in the rental car, leaving the capital for the open space of the country.
As they drew closer to it, Bella’s uneasiness over the fate of her favorite beach increased. One of the main reasons for going there was to escape the seaside crowds, but by the look of things along the rest of the coast that might no longer have been possible. There was a tourism and real estate boom on, and everywhere construction projects were in full swing. Every village they went through seemed to have a real estate office and at least a half-dozen houses for sale or in the process of being built. The resort areas were teeming with gaudy new hotels and condos.
Bella would get pretty worked up about it. She deplored the ugliness of the hotels and the destruction of the natural beauty that was supposed to be the reason for their existence. She prayed for an earthquake or a tsunami to sweep them all into the sea.
Their own destination was officially part of a wildlife refuge, yet that apparently meant little in this part of the world when large sums of money were involved. As if to give further proof of this, the European Union was threatening to withhold billions in aid to the country due to embezzlement and corruption concerns.
They arrived at Bella’s secret beach on the second morning of the trip, while the sun was still low. Save for the small blue shield right at the turn-off, there had been no advance signs pointing to the spot, and they had been alone on the road. These indications of continued obscurity were encouraging, but driving down the single-lane road leading to the water, they were able to see, across a field of waist-high brittle gold weeds, the tracts of cleared ground and idle bulldozers sitting around like toys in a sandbox. A billboard had been thrown up advertising the luxury condominiums–Here too they know what to call them, Michael thought–that would be going up there in the very near future. It was a pastoral image of alabaster façades with blazing red roofs enveloped in brilliant green foliage. Bella snorted in disgust at the sight of it.
Walking onto the beach itself, she at first wasn’t sure if she wanted to stay. The thatch roof snack hut by the entrance made her groan, and then they saw the umbrellas. Four long rows of them dug into the sand, shading plastic lounge chairs, their straw tops like the hats of Asian peasants. In the best of times, Bella was against such manmade “conveniences,” and boycotted them. Now, their presence seemed to be more than she could stand. She said to Michael, “Someone should burn them. As a statement.” Adding with a laugh, “We could even do it. No one would have a reason to suspect us. And we’d be going back to the States soon anyway.”
Michael chuckled, though he felt tense. Having to continually anticipate Bella’s mood swings was hard on the nerves. Nevertheless, her idea caught his imagination. There was a kind of Robin Hood flair to it. He had a clear vision of the fire blazing hugely up against the night’s blackness, instantaneous and complete as a gas flame. Bella was convinced, and it was not improbable, that many of the seaside construction projects were mafia-financed. Against the men behind them, neither public protests nor government regulations did much good. And so different methods were perhaps called for.
There was a lighter in his backpack. Mentally, Michael tested Bella’s assertion that they’d easily get away with it. The cops here weren’t paid enough to give a damn—a stereotype, he admitted, and probably wrong. Still, they might blame it on some local kids, the usual troublemakers, before they thought of looking at the tourists.
With a sudden stab of fearful excitement, he perceived that it could actually be done. . .
They had to go a good distance past the umbrellas before Bella would lay down her towel. But once she’d felt the seawater again she began to cheer up, and was soon talking of having boiled corn of the kind they used to sell on the streets when she was a girl, and discussing with Michael the lodging situation by the beach. She was hoping they’d be able to stay at one of the old summer camp cabins, which she thought might now be for rent. In an effort keep up her spirits, Michael went to take a look at them later that afternoon, despite some misgivings about how he’d communicate with the cabin owners if he found them. In such an out-of-the-way place, they might not have spoken English. And since it was no longer mandatory, few people bothered to study Russian. Michael didn’t blame them, either. The sooner they put their Eastern Bloc days behind them the better.
The thought brought back to him his encounter with Giorgiev. Michael was still a little proud of how he’d handled him. The super spoke Russian of course, but that had anyhow been an emergency situation, where such concerns as language barriers had to be brushed aside. Though in the end the entire struggle turned out to have been unnecessary. Giorgiev had produced the key as promised, sanctimoniously refusing the money Michael offered him in thanks. He even invited Michael into his apartment, which, with its furniture—the dark wood sideboards and dusty shapeless couches and Soviet make television—was a sort of time capsule from around 1975. But when Bella called the phone company to get the line upgrade, they did the whole thing remotely. The phone box didn’t have to be touched. The super’s key lay unused on a shelf by Bella’s front door. Michael returned it to him after what he thought was an adequate interval.
According to Bella, the summer camp cabins weren’t far from where they left the car. The last time she had stayed in there, the camp was still known as a pioneer camp, after the Soviet fashion. Though likely the naming convention didn’t much bother her then. Happy to be out of school, she’d hiked along the shoulderless roads and stayed in the water all day like a fish. She had told Michael how at thirteen she was kissed by an eighteen-year-old lifeguard whom she thought terribly handsome, and ran away, mortified. She’d not stopped regretting it since. As for the lifeguard, he’d probably thought she was sixteen. A tall, striking, confident-seeming girl, Bella said she had always given the impression of being a few years older than she was. Pictures of her as a teenager confirmed this. Seeing them, seeing the lovely clean lines of her face—which indeed appeared little changed—Michael wished he had known her then.
He was able to locate the old cabins without much trouble. Discovering whether they were for rent proved more difficult, however. Tramping back and forth in front of them a few times, he saw no sign of a rental office and no one he could ask to point him to it. Oppressed by the heat and silence, he soon gave up the search and went back down to the beach. On the way, he got himself a bottle of cherry juice and a cup of tea for Bella.
When he got back, Bella was napping, a straw cowboy hat which she’s brought with her from the US covering her face. For a moment he stood still, watching her.
Her long body.
Her city tan didn’t show and her skin still looked light, defenseless. Michael followed the smooth, sea floor descent from the height of the ribcage to the depths of the belly. A beautiful form. But anonymous. He lifted up the hat to see her face, and woke her.
Debriefing him on the cabin assignment, Bella was not satisfied.
“What use are you?” she asked when it became clear he knew nothing definite save the cabins’ color and location.
He partially redeemed himself with the tea, however.
“I take it back,” Bella said, grinning. “You’re not just useful. You’re the best boyfriend ever.” Sighing as she lay back down, “I am really glad you are with me.”
Sensing in this another half-conscious attempt at blackmail, Michael said nothing. He was thinking of a couple he had noticed sunbathing by the beach entrance. The man, big as a whale, lay spread-eagle on his back as if he just threw himself down onto a feather bed. His outer thighs red with sunburn, the belly rising up like one of the Thracian burial mounds that still dotted the country’s plains. Next to him, his much thinner companion lay on her stomach. An attractive wide face, long hair bleached blond, huge all-black sunglasses. She was looking off into the distance, her expression unreadable behind the big shades. This sort of pairing was far from unusual here. Bella thought the phenomenon disgusting, yet she admitted that she sometimes wished she could bring herself to go for a sugar daddy. It would have made life easier. “Why aren’t you rich?” she sometimes demanded of Michael, poking him in the ribs. She said it as a joke, and he usually just smiled ruefully in reply. If she only knew just how un-rich I am right now, he thought. Certainly Bella understood that he was in something of a tight spot, but the full extent of his financial troubles Michael had kept from her. Knowing it would have only frightened her and made life more difficult for both of them. Though if she had known, she might not have been so insistent on him coming to see her. He had once tried to hint that it might not be possible, but saw that it would hurt her feelings if he didn’t come. Without the excuse of insolvency, it would have provided her with further proof that, as she often asserted with a tragicomic air, he didn’t miss her as much as she missed him. Whether or not this was so, Michael himself could not say. He did seem to bear their separations with greater equanimity. But maybe that’s because I’m confident the separation is only temporary, he considered. If it wasn’t, in the long run I am not sure which one of us would have it worse.
Bella was still curious about the cabins, and eventually they went back together, plodding past the straw-topped umbrellas and the untroubled beachgoers reposing in their shade. Bella was able to track down the manager, a tough-looking woman who lived with her family in a long low structure behind the cabin compound. Showing them their room, which was now as neat and full of amenities as a standard American motel room (with, however, a peculiar, brackish smell in the restroom), the manager claimed it was the last one she had left.
Invigorated by their success, Bella then wanted to go to town for boiled corn. Michael went along with this in the interest of preserving her fine mood, though his heart had been set on consuming the giant watermelon they’d bought that morning from one of the side-of-the-road fruit vendors. Thinking of his reluctance later on, and forgetting its connection with the watermelon, he would be struck by its prophetic quality.
In town, which was overrun by German and Russian tourists, he struggled to keep up as Bella wove rapidly through the sunburned crowd. For a while they didn’t see any corn, and she began to show signs of exasperation. Michael feared an explosion, for Bella often took it hard when her prandial expectations were disappointed. But her good humor held up long enough for the corn to be found. A woman with a mournful face was selling it near the town square out of a large pot set on a small foldable table. Michael noted that the woman must once have been quite attractive, but now kinky white hairs grew conspicuously on her chin. With mournful eyes she watched Bella, handsome, tall and smooth-skinned, and already a shade darker than she was that morning, salting the ears generously out of a plastic shaker.
They ate sitting on a bench facing a church, a modest stone house with a pitched roof. A plump, enterprising fellow had set up a little business renting out miniature SUVs and sports cars in the church courtyard, and small children trundled about in these on the dusty flagstones. Sitting somewhat hunched, her attention on the meal, Bella cleaned her corn with great thoroughness, sucking the juice from the closely sheared cob. Though normally quick to get irritated by eating noises, Michael found the scene endearing. He imagined that for Bella this eating method dated back to when corn was a treat no bit of which could be wasted. When she began to eye his own half-gnawed corncob, he gave it up willingly. While she ate, he watched the throngs of red-tinted tourists wandering with kids in tow past the souvenir stands lining the sidewalks. Local teenage girls with dyed hair and bare bellies were selling magazines, postcards, CDs, sunglasses. Michael sized up their leggy curveless shapes with interest.
They had some difficulties getting back out of town. The narrow streets were packed, and they had to crawl cautiously through the flowing crowd, watching for errant children and motor scooters. At the edge of town a black Mercedes SUV pulled up behind them and stayed on their tail, its high grille filling the rearview and its motor revving impatiently. Here, perhaps, was one of the brutal masterminds of all the seaside development they had witnessed. Michael, for his part, had more or less gotten used to this sort of thing in the short time he’d been driving on the country’s roads. Bella, though, was unnerved.
“What does he want,” she muttered plaintively, twisting around in her seat. “Get away from us, you cretin!”
Happy to oblige, the Mercedes tore past them once they got out on the coastal highway.
“Can’t you take it easy?” Michael said, himself a little shaky.
Dusk was settling on the sea as they followed the undulant road back to the beach. At a distance, the blue-black surface of the water looked perfectly still, and the sea and sky were close to becoming indistinguishable. On the radio they heard it confirmed that the EU would be freezing its transfer of aid money to the country, its warnings of corrupt dealings having fallen on deaf ears. Saying she couldn’t bear to listen, Bella changed the station to pop music. But that too was interrupted by news reports and she switched the radio off. Michael, feeling that something had to be said, tried to put the situation in perspective. He spoke of the afflictions the country had endured—purges, autocracy, political and economic upheavals, mass emigration—but of the inevitable if gradual improvements that would come with time. “Perhaps in a generation—” he was saying, when Bella cut him off.
“I know everything you’re telling me,” she said. “But I don’t want to talk about this any more. It’s giving me a headache. Please. I can’t stand it.”
A few minutes later Michael realized that she was crying.
“This country,” she sobbed. “This country. Every time I come back it gets worse.”
When they got to the cabin she went quickly inside. Michael sat at the picnic table out front, trying to read under the weak orange light of a lamp attached to an awning post, the night deepening around him. Once, he thought he heard Bella crying again. Closing the book, he sat still for a time, listening to the darkness. Crickets were fiddling. The ceaseless, distant whispery rumble of the sea was there. Now and then a coyote howled in the hills.
Standing abruptly, he stepped through the bead curtain into the room, intending to say something, but saw that Bella was asleep. She lay face down on top of the covers, still wearing her fleece vest and white capris.
Michael observed her briefly. Then he went to where his backpack lay on the floor, bent down to rummage in it, and went out again, closing the door quietly behind him.
It was a short walk down to the beach. Michael felt his mind to be calm and clear, but his heart beat rapidly. Automatically stepping out of his sandals on reaching the sand, he was mildly shocked by its coolness. It had burned his feet in the afternoon.
The sound of the sea seemed louder now than during the day. The tide coming in? Michael was vague on how the process manifested itself aside from the water rising. He wasn’t really a man of the sea. Though its strange power was not entirely lost on him. Those endless, regular, indolent, insentient, futile yet unstoppable blows.
He could see where, after the breakers hit, the black water slid along the smooth slope of wet sand like warm oil on a pan. Nearer, the shapes of the umbrellas in their geometric arrangement were drawn in chiaroscuro. Their tops resembled witches’ hats also, Michael realized, with their elongated, curving, pointed tips.
From the far end of the beach came the yellow twinkle of a campers’ bonfire. It meant they too would be able to see a flame at this distance.
Michael’s mind was working with great speed and lucidity. We all look for what we need most, he thought. Bella’s need wasn’t money, that’s why she chose me.
Then he thought, When another’s suffering so far exceeds your own you are under an obligation to help share the load. I know the help I offer will cost me something too, but I am certain the net change will be toward happiness.
He held up the lighter. It felt flimsy yet potent in his hand. The helpless, he put it to himself, sometimes had to resort to desperate means. Spinning the wheel a few times with his thumb, he watched the flinty sparks spring forth like tiny fireworks until the flame arose at the steel aperture: an orange spear point with a blue base, then a bright streamer desperately fighting extinguishment, then nothing—his thumb off the plastic pedal, the fire-giving liquid sloshing harmlessly in the translucent tank.
He did it again, letting the flame burn longer, feeling its heat, watching it flow pulsing upward, making him blind to all else around him while his heart beat profoundly, deeply, quickly, hollowly in his chest.
Back at the cabin, Bella still slept. Michael sat on the closer of the empty beds, watching her. The lighter he laid on the nightstand. For a minute, back at the beach, he had considered tossing it into the sea, but then thought of how upset Bella got over beach litter and put it back in his pocket. Anyway, you never knew when a lighter might come in handy.
He had started no fires in the end. On the beach, the umbrellas stood unharmed. Pulling off his sweat-dampened shirt, Michael thought, I’m not the guy to revive the People’s Will. I lack the proper revolutionary zeal. I’ve seen my share of Rambo movies, but when it comes to the point I just don’t have it in me to destroy.
In the dim light of the ceiling fixture he looked at Bella across the few feet of tile floor that separated them. The posture of her repose was childlike, the head turned to the side and arms up. At the temple, some unruly, wavy wisps of hair stuck up. The exposed cheek was a little puffy with sleep. All this stirred him. Awoke a familiar tenderness.
Moved by a sudden impulse, he reached for his notebook and began to quickly sketch her form.
Bella lifted her head. Her other cheek was marked pink by the folds of the blanket. Her lids fluttered, struggling against the confusion of dreams.
“Did you go somewhere?” she asked, her voice thick with sleep. She was already lying back down.
“Just stepped outside for a minute to get some fresh air,” he said. “But now I’m back. Don’t worry. Go back to sleep, babe.”
Ilya is a PhD student in Cognitive Studies at Columbia Teachers College and a writer working with Electric Literature’s “Recommended Reading”.