She was smiling when they slammed into the tree, driving 200 kilometers an hour. Or at least that’s the story she relayed to us. They were driving on the deteriorating road, which runs from the Black Sea to the city of Sofia. This road is a pandemonium of dupki, erratic drivers and wandering goats. For small stretches of pavement there is an unsteady white line down the middle, but more often than not…no line, no reflectors and no laws. Anything can be negotiated for a few thousand leva.
But this has nothing to do with the misfortune, the betrayal and the death.
At the time of the accident, she thought she might have loved the man beside her. She had only been sure once before and she couldn’t remember what it had been like, except that she had been terribly unhappy. We know this because she told us.
Love has lost its meaning here in Bulgaria. Life is temporary. Sofia is a starting point, a resting place, not a building site. We have intense relationships, knowing they will end. We do things we would never do elsewhere. If love attempts to invade our world, we avoid it at all costs, for love has no place in a transient society.
We are not apologetic regarding our lifestyle, just realistic. We acknowledge that some day we will revert to the social norms of our upbringings, we will establish roots, radiate integrity; until then, we live day to day…night to night.
There is only one speed in Bulgaria. Fast. Everything is done at the utmost velocity. Bulgarians don’t move at such a rate. It is we, the ex-patriots who do. Even now, in post-communist society, quickness and spontaneity are suspect. Life in the fast lane is not an appropriate description; life in the middle of the road is more fitting.
Bulgaria is a country riddled with negativity, controlled by Mafia and ruled through corruption. Our lives in Sofia are not moderate or uncomplicated, but for sure, they are lived.
Our ex-patriot group is referred to as a collective we. If you ask one of us, on a given Monday, about our weekend, we will reply, ‘We went skiing at Borovitz’ or ‘sailing around the second finger of Halkidiki’ or ‘watched the Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul.’ Every night of the week there is an event to attend. Post squash dinners or predancing dinners. Welcome dinners, farewell dinners, introduction dinners, business dinners. Inevitably our dinners turn into all-night riots. It’s not eminently important who was present at any given event, the group is still: We.
The collective we is a peculiar ex-pat concept. She fell into we with the same ease as the rest of us, yet there was a major difference; even when she used we, she remained I.
She came to Bulgaria by chance and stayed on. Some say she was escaping unmanageable debts and others say she was running away from an abusive relationship. We really didn’t ask her. People here live in the present. The future never goes further than weekend plans and the past doesn’t matter except as a topic of conversation to be explored time and time again during late boozy nights, only to be forgotten by daylight.
She is a sculptress. Her art frightens us; the position, angle and texture divulges secrets. We can’t stand to have others see her art and we discourage her from showing it. Luckily people tend to be numb-headed and not many grasp the depth or the lucidity.
The ex-pat community here is a tight one, yet people are always looking for someone new and want to be the first to discover him or her. Rigby DeCoolie claimed to have found her first. Lily Black claims the same. What does it matter? The fact is, she embraced this country the moment her feet touched the ground, and no one discovered her, honestly, she discovered them. Her name is Eva and she burst into our group, embraced with the fervor of a junkie receiving his first heroin injection of the day.
My name is Eva.
And I’ve just realized I’ve forgotten to get out of the shower. Here I was philosophizing and analyzing life when suddenly I became aware I’d been standing under this warm stream of water for a long, long time. How long, I don’t know. But I’ll wager the entire block will be peeved when they try to bathe. Even in the heat of May I cannot take cold showers. It’s as if the intense Bulgarian winter has permeated the inner marrow of my bones.
The clock on the wall ticks loudly, reverberating through my skull. I look around the bathroom and slowly recall where I am and who I am. What frightens me is I have to think for a few moments. How do I lose myself like that? Where do I go? The closest I can come to a comparison is waking up with a pulsing hangover in an unknown room next to an unfamiliar person. Although with a hangover everything clears up, everything eventually returns to normal. Here it doesn’t.
I step out of the shower and walk dripping down the hall, into the living room. Through a distorted glass window I see the entirety of Sofia covered in white blossoms. Last night, after a tumultuous spring rain, the topoli buds burst open, cascading over the city in furry chaos.
Only weeks ago, it snowed. Sofia and Siberia were inter-changeable for months; within three days, winter hardened ice and walls of snow faded into the ground. Three days. Merlin waved his magic wand. Midas of the green finger touched the city. Lush leaves camouflage shabby communist structures, parks spurt green growth. Benches are filled, lovers stroll, families picnic. Children jump and yell. Bang, it’s spring.
I stare at thousands of pale blooms blowing up, down and around at odd angles. I feel exactly like a topoli flower.
Part of my disorientation is due to pure exhaustion and part to being a fairly recent émigré to Sofia. A four month old immigrant, to be exact. More happens here, in one day, than a full month in the United States.
The phone jangles, breaking the silence and my heart races. I pick up the receiver.
Alo, a faraway voice says. The word is pronounced ah-low with an emphasis on the ah.
Hello? I say.
Govorite li engliski? I ask.
Can you hear me?
The static increases and I get the impression the caller must be on the moon.
Greshka, I say. Wrong number.
I discern by the clicking and hollow ring that we’ve already been disengaged. Typical of the Bulgarian phone system: crossed lines, disconnections, blank cut-offs.
I set the receiver back in the cradle and sit on my only piece of living room furniture, a straight-backed, gold faux-velvet, Eastern European couch. Rough wooden floors stretch in front of me until they meet bare white walls; I like it this way, no distractions.
My sculptures are congregated in a corner near the window. Dozens of hands. They unnerve me. They reach out, a petrified forest uprooted and imploring. Grey and white, granite and marble; massive fingers attached to contorted hands and wrists. Sometimes I cannot bear to see them.
Good art exposes, tempts, antagonizes and it hurts. Did it frighten Münch to paint The Scream? Was Camus terrified when he wrote The Stranger? On bad days I think creating art is a privilege only a few select should have and I must force myself to throw sheets over my work and leave the apartment before I am inclined to massive destruction. What makes me think I have the right?
It was hands that possessed me to sculpt. My sister’s hands. I remember them as a child, smooth, delicate, so white I could trace every vein inside, and when she got a splinter or a blister, it was I who felt pain. I saw the world, hers and mine, through her hands. Fingers, wrist movement, nails, calluses, moles, warts: they reveal everything.
Sculpting was not a choice for me, it was the only way to purge my mind of her, to separate our senses. My greatest anxiety now is that someone else’s hands will lodge themselves in my head. I don’t sculpt for pleasure, I sculpt out of fear.
My fingers are wrinkled into little shriveled penises. Tonight will be the first night home alone in my apartment. I’m looking forward to it, yet I have this horrible suspicion I’m missing out on something. I know, with a phone call, I can locate cocktails or dinner, but I don’t have the strength to pick up the receiver.
I am in danger when I can no longer sculpt, when I become more of a participant in life than an observer. I am in danger.
I think I’ve been asleep for an hour, maybe two, when I sit upright in my bed. A car alarm is shrilling in my apartment. Seconds later I realize it’s my front door buzzer and someone is holding it down. I get up and peer through the peephole in the door to see two enormous grins pointed toward me with distorted heads and half-closed eyes. It’s the Blacks and they are drunk. I yank open the door and they stumble into my hallway.
We met the most amazing boy for you. Lily, tell her.
A child produc…prodit…pre
Prodigy, I say.
They have their arms around each other, an unusual move, as they’re not generally affectionate with each other. Others yes, but not each other. For a moment I think they are moved by the prospect of finding me a lover, then, as they sway to and fro, I understand they are supporting each other so they don’t collapse on my floor.
We had to tell you right away.
No time to waste.
I glance at my kitchen clock, 4:30am. Jesus. It’s important to listen beyond the words, there is always a hidden agenda and I wonder exactly what the Blacks are up to.
Bulgarian. With money. Very international.
Everyone missed you tonight, Eva darling. Thought maybe you were ill.
In a group like this there is a delicate balance between absence equaling defection and absence for an accepted reason. Thus far I have successfully walked the line of absence without creating any disturbances.
Never before have I immersed myself in an ex-pat community. I’ve lived and sculpted in different countries, always keeping to myself, not acknowledging even my own fellow countrymen. I’d become an expert at avoiding foreigners, feigning ignorance of languages, fading into cities and disappearing from sidewalks.
In a matter of three weeks Bulgaria had destroyed my resistance to ex-pats. It was the brutal winter pattern of polluted snow and concrete skies and no eye contact, because to take my eyes away from the ground preceded a sure tumble on hard ice.
Not ill, I say, Just despondent.
Burke Black is staring at me with a compassionate expression on his face. Then I realize he’s eyeing the bottle of Johnny Walker Red next to my shoulder.
Drink? I ask.
Right. Not a bad bloody idea. Neat over rocks, darling?
Right smart idea.
I pour three drinks, gather them into my hands and move the Blacks to the living room. The Blacks believe I am having an affair, a good old fashioned liaison, and are always trying to trick me into revealing my secret. Once again I see through their thinly disguised ploy of finding a partner for me and remain evasive.
Do I look like I need to meet someone?
I hand Lily her drink, her rings clink against the glass. Burke Black grabs his drink with both hands.
Oh, of course not, but…why not?
He’s probably married with five children, I say.
Now, I know that’s not true because of the negative birth rate in Bulgaria. It would be difficult to even find someone with two children. Although, there are no morals here. Married means nothing. Married with children means nothing. Girlfriend? Boyfriend? Who? Spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends meet lovers, without a clue.
There has been a disturbing osmosis over the past few months, I can feel my own morals shifting, changing. Morals are cast off due to the impermanent life here. It will all end eventually.
No, no. No marriage, no children.
We questioned him and we believed him.
How about his teeth? I ask.
Burke and Lily look at each other.
They must be good.
We would have noticed otherwise, darling wouldn’t we?
Yes, I’m sure of it, good teeth.
You notice things like that here. Good teeth are so important.
Not too much is important here.
Well, we’ve learned to live without…small things.
True, so true.
Lily holds up her glass and shakes it, tinkling the ice cubes together. Her fingernails are done in brown polish. I’ve never seen her with chipped polish or a ragged edge on her nails. Her hands are a dainty conic shape which taper to a poised wrist. She is restless, energetic, hyper and needs masses of attention or she wanders.
Tonight, she says, The Club ran out of ice.
Good God, I say.
Yes. A reality check.
I take a deep drink of whiskey. Friends and family tell me I am not living in reality. What is reality? Functioning phones, consistent hot water, payment with credit cards, stocked stories, secured bank accounts, repaired roads and traffic jams, service with a smile?
Or is this reality? Random phone lines, sporadic hot water, petrol lines and bread shortages, hyperinflation and depreciation,
donkey carts on ruined highways, officious bureaucrats?
The underdog countries have always been my favorites: Mexico, Vietnam, Portugal. Wealthier countries are full of enthusiasts and devotees. They don’t need my affection. Bulgaria, the forgotten right arm of Russia, has become my new darling.
Thing is, Burke Black continues, his hands encasing the glass, Didn’t bother us. Some others, those government people, you know, still think it’s London.
Yes, raised quite a fuss.
Burke lifts his glass to his mouth and some of the whiskey spills onto his lap before it reaches his lips. This is not a world surrounded by Heinz catsup, he says.
Burke’s hands are the opposite of Lily’s. Literally. With a massive palm narrowing into bulky fingers.
Other day we had white wine with lunch and electricity was off, so wine was not chilled properly. But no complaints.
Speaking of ‘lectricity…have this clock and it’s run slow for two years and all of a sudden, whacko, it runs on time. Now I wouldn’t a thought a thing, but Rigby said same thing happened to him. It’s as if they upped the voltage or something.
Darling, you’re perfectly potty.
Say, Eva, are we keeping you up?
The ex-pats here in Sofia. What can I say about them? An odd assortment of humans who want something different, who are willing to take a chance, who are each deranged in their own way. The Black’s lunacy bonds them together and their dementia feeds off one another.
In an amusing sort of way, I say. Another whiskey?
The Bulgarians said it was the coldest winter since 1964 and we had no problem believing them. It was back in February when Eva arrived, still dead winter. Layers of snow covered the roads and dagger-icicles dangled from the outstretched arms of grim communist statues.
Most of us were in town that weekend: Rigby, DeeDee, Marcelo-the-Greek, Burke and Lily Black, and Rupert. We were gathered around a small table at Bar 703 sipping red wine, waiting for an evening plan to emerge.
Rupert refilled everyone’s glasses, pouring his to the top.
Selfish bastard, said DeeDee. You know this is the last bottle of nuclear wine in Sofia.
Suhidol Cabernet, 1987, is our favorite, and we had scoured every bar in Sofia to find this remaining bottle. We attribute its superior flavor to the Chernobyl disaster. Our lips, teeth were stained deep plum, as always.
He sighed heavily and looked out the window. I see the winter cycle is here. Snow falling, snow freezing, snow melting into mud puddles…then snow refreezing into sheets of nasty, horrible brown ice.
We all looked out the window and sighed. Then we saw Eva for the first time, hurrying along, her head down, boots slipping on frozen cobblestones. She glanced up, noticed the cafe, the windows steamed from heat and cigarette smoke. Warmth tempted her and for a moment we saw her waver between continuing on or entering the cafe. A shiver ran through her; she opened the door, letting in an explosion of cold air.
A long braid of ash-brown hair fell down her back, melting snowflakes caught in the twists. Tiny wire-rimmed spectacles fogged over until she rubbed at them with a fingertip. Spots of mud spattered her from head to toe, mud was unavoidable. The government had run out of salt to break up the icy roads and began using truckloads of dirt. Her pale eyes were red rimmed and the sudden heat of the cafe brought a surge of blood to her cheeks.
She walked to the bar, attempted to order a coffee from the unsmiling Bulgarian waitress behind the counter. Rigby couldn’t watch her struggle any longer. He pushed himself away from our table, approached the counter.
Edno cafe sus smetana, molya, he said to the waitress.
She turned and frowned. Do I look like I need help? she asked him.
Actually, yes. You do.
Sheets of snow hurled against the window rattling the frames. A couple walked by bending their arms around their faces to shield off the freezing wind. Her eyes followed their slow progress.
Well, she shrugged.
The waitress pushed her coffee over the counter top. She spooned in a pyramid of sugar cubes, took a tiny sip. A table of young men watched her, talking among themselves. Beneath her winter jacket, flecks of bright white spotted her shirt and jeans. We realized the spots on her clothes were not mud, but paint. Her fingers were long and thin, with different colors stuck under the nails and smears of plaster lining her cuticles. She chewed on a hangnail, leaving a streak of cobalt blue on the side of her face.
It was obvious that she would rather not talk to him. He glanced back at us and took a step closer to her.
How long have you been in Sofia? he asked.
She turned slowly, shifting from one foot to the other. He stared, intrigued by the slash of blue and decided it couldn’t have been placed in a better spot. It looked as if it were purposely placed there against her pale skin arching up along her cheekbone.
Don’t have a calendar.
She shrugged again.
Well, what do you think of it, of Sofia?
Rigby stared out the window, saw blades of icicles hanging from the doorframe; trees raped of foliage; ice mounds covered with grime; rubbish lining the sidewalks.
Beautiful? he asked.
It has its own beauty.
He looked again.
You don’t see it? She shivered and tapped the toe of her boot on the floor. It splashed in the puddle of melted ice she stood in.
To be truthful, no.
She lifted the cup to her lips and took a long sip. A purple vein beat in her neck. Her hands shook, moving the cup in spasms, spilling dark sticky coffee over her fingers.
Rigby, he said and tapped his fingers on his chest.
She stared at his hand, which drifted uncertainly in front of him before falling and worming into his pocket.
Finally she replied, Eva.
What do you do? he asked.
She held up a hand in front of his face.
He looked closely at the palm of her hand. You’re a fortune teller?
She smiled, her lips didn’t turn up, but her eyes crinkled. Listen, I have to go.
No, no. You’re an artist, I can tell by the paint.
She turned toward the door.
Wait. I could show you some of Sofia. Give me your number.
She hesitated. No phone.
Here, take one of my cards, ring me some time.
She didn’t even glance at the card before sliding it into her pocket. We grinned at her, showed her our discolored smiles. She flapped her hand in our direction, strode out the door, coat billowing open, rubber boot soles gripping the frozen sidewalk.
We had not seen the likes of her in Sofia before. We are business people. Life is too harsh for artistic inclinations. Art is a luxury. Freedom of thought is a new concept since 1989 and there is not enough time for ingenuity when basic survival is threatened. At any rate, Sofia is not a city where artists sit in cafes, smoking cigarettes, discussing Rodin or Michelangelo, arguing artistic greatness and lifetime milestones.
We told Rigby she would not contact him. We teased him that she would avoid his restaurant; she would not even look at his card; she would spill coffee on it, cover it in paint.