I have a date with an arms dealer. Although I’m morally against the trading of arms, I admit it holds a certain fascination. As far as I can tell, Boris Borisov is his name. He has thick, powerful eyebrows and he’s late.
I’m not quite sure what I’m doing here in Bulgaria, something to do with an impending divorce and a travel agent with bad judgement. Sofia, I was assured, is the next Prague. It hasn’t stopped snowing for forty-eight hours.
The bar I’m waiting in is inside a private club with an unmarked door and an electronic eye. It was only by Boris’s meticulous directions and phone call to the concierge that I was able to locate and enter the club.
After pressing a hidden buzzer and announcing myself, a coldly professional woman appeared and led me down a long narrow hall decorated with old communist propaganda. Boris is an ex-communist. When he arrives, I intend to ask him what it means to be an ex-communist. Did his entire belief system change overnight when communism fell in 1989? Like a fallen Catholic or a renounced republican.
I sit at a square bar in the middle of a rectangular lounge. Tables line the restored brick walls and an enormous post modern mural embellishes the entire wall behind me. The bar itself is dark and made of mahogany wood which must have been imported to give the bar a western ambience. The bartendress moves as if she’s on stage.
I hear his voice before I see him. It’s loud, deep, but not overbearing. Boris smoothly makes his way around the bar, shaking hands and greeting people. He speaks in German, Russian, French before reaching me and speaking in English.
Sarah, he says, taking me by my shoulders and kissing my cheek. He smells of cigars and leather polish. His dark suit fits his shoulders and buttons gracefully at his waist. A man with sunken eyes sits behind us and lights a cigarette without taking off his coat.
Boris orders a vodka and drinks it like water. His hands are long-limbed and hold the glass with precision.
How are you finding Sofia? he asks.
He laughs. Sofia can be cold even in the summer.
Your English is perfect, I say.
I have traveled.
But your family is in Sofia?
He stands up and sweeps his arm toward the dining room. The man behind him stands also. Let’s eat, he says to me. Take off your coat, he says to the man with sunken eyes, stay for a while. Although the dining room is crowded and people are waiting, we are ushered to a private booth and the man with sunken eyes takes a small table to our left.
We sit and Boris takes a gold cigarette case out of his suit coat. He snaps open the case and offers me a cigarillo. Even though I don’t smoke, I nod, yes.
Does that nod mean yes or no? he asks.
A fair question as the Bulgarian affirmative shake of the head is equivalent to the American no. Here, I am never sure if something I say is being agreed upon or disputed.
I refrain from moving my head. Yes, I say.
I used to have family here, Boris says, but after the changes, well things are different.
A beautiful woman on the other side of the room glowers in our direction and furiously smokes a cigarette, her crimson mouth stretched tight. Boris, oblivious to her, leans over and lights my cigarillo, holding onto my hand because it trembles.
Are you missing America? he asks me.
No, I don’t think so.
Good, he says just as a waiter appears with a bottle of wine. The waiter holds it out for inspection and Boris waves it away, saying a few curt words.
Boris is staying at the same hotel as I am. I have deciphered through an American newsletter that I am paying more for my hotel room per night, than the average Bulgarian makes in a month. I want to change hotels, but the idea frightens me. The woman at the service desk has been begrudgingly helpful and I don’t think the recommendation of another hotel to assuage my guilt, is in her job description.
The waiter materializes with another bottle. Ah, Bordeaux, Boris sighs. Nineteen fifty-nine.
What did you know of Bulgaria before you arrived? he asks me.
Umbrella poisoning, pope assasinations and the man who ate the banana.
Banana? he asks politely, one eyebrow rising.
I notice his eyebrows are longer than his eyelashes. Until I visited Sofia, I thought men named Boris existed only in spy novels.
After ’89, I say, A man in the market found a banana for the first time and he ate it, peel and all. When someone asked him what he thought of it, he said it was delicous, he’d never tasted anything like it.
We’ve had bananas. Surely we had bananas.
The wine is being meticulously decanted and then poured with a flourish into our glasses. Boris holds his glass up to the light. He lowers his arm and pierces me with his eyes.
To my new American friend, nazdrave.
Nazdrave, I repeat, stumbling over the V.
We drink and I’m amazed at the rich texture of the wine. I take another sip, floating it over my tongue and letting it drip down my throat.
You like it. Boris is pleased.
Two shopska salads arrive. Cucumber, tomato and shredded goat cheese.
What did you do before? I ask. What type of job? And what do you think of America?
He doesn’t speak, savours the wine. He lines the lighter up neatly on top of his cigarette case.
There are many who blame the US, he says.
No. I shake my head one direction and then the other.
They say the US wants us to fail.
I want to tell him most of the US barely knows Bulgaria exists, but I restrain myself. When my friends in California discovered where I was planning my trip, they either confused it with Siberia or Bolivia.
Democracy was held out to us on a golden platter, he continues, But when we tried to grasp it, it was taken away.
How did we take democracy from Bulgaria?
There was no assistance, no help. How could we know what to do?
And so we are blamed. And you, you believe this?
Boris turns his lighter sideways and lines it up along the cigarette holder in another direction. Our salads are finished, whisked away and replaced by tarator soup, which I have had every night for the past five nights, but I eat it anyway.
Where do you buy your arms? I ask, closing my eyes and taking a sip of wine.
In a store.
My eyes fly open. A store? A gun store?
His shoulders twitch. A hunting store.
He can tell I’m disappointed. We are finished with our wine and another bottle appears, the same year, 1959. It’s a bit disconcerting drinking a bottle of wine older than I am.
You don’t feel any guilt for what you do? I ask.
His eyes crinkle at the corners. He is amused by me.
It’s a business, he says. If I don’t do it, someone else will.
Our main courses arrive. He has ordered kavarma for me and gjuvec for himself. I know this because I’ve memorized the names in case I want to order them again. Because of the Cyrillic alphabet, this is the only way I can order from menus. Both of our dishes are served in clay pots. I accidently burn my finger when I touch the side of my pot and a blister begins to swell. We are drinking red wine and there is no ice in my water, so I slyly put my finger in my mouth, the side Boris cannot see.
This man in the corner…
I remove my finger from my mouth and look to where his eyes are directed. Yes.
He runs a casino here. Orthodox Jews are flown in once a month to gamble. They are some of his best customers. But gambling is not allowed in their religion, gambling in the sense of the exchange of money. So, they purchase plastic chips with credit cards. In a sense money, real money, is never exchanged and their gambling is done with only plastic chips and plastic cards, not real money. You see?
I manage to nod in the right direction.
They also cannot be with a prostitute. So they sit in the same room with them and watch, no touching, just watching.
Boris eats European style, fork in the left hand and turned upside down. I am acutely aware of my American etiquitte, the quick switch of the knife and fork after every three bites.
There are ways to rationalize everything, he says.
Are you religious?
You ask so many questions.
I was an acrobat.
Acrobat. Circus acrobat?
For a long time?
Generations. Trained in Moscow as a boy. When you’re on the wire every day, religion is sometimes unavoidable.
Can you still perform?
He looks up toward the ceiling. I don’t know.
For dessert, we each have a baked pastry with sweet syrup dripped over the top.
This tastes like baklava, I say.
But baklava is Turkish.
This baklava is Bulgarian.
He frowns and waves to the waiter for his tab. He signs the tab with a flourish and by the time we stand up, the man with sunken eyes is standing by the doorway with our coats.
Boris introduces the man as his friend Vladislav and then adds, he used to be our champion Olympic wrestler. Vladislav takes my hand gently and I’m aware he could press it into a useless limb of crushed flesh and bones.
When I take Boris’s arm, I stroke the softness of his cashmere coat. The beautiful woman is standing by the exit. Her red lacquered fingernails press into her mink coat as we pass.
A black car with dark windows waits for us and we drive off, the engine humming into the night. A gypsy plods next to us, hunched against the cold, pulling a downtrodden sled stacked with cardboard. A crowd of people stomp their boots and blow down their gloves in front of a bus stop.
My guide book, I say, calls this Lenin Square. Where’s Lenin?
Boris raps on the window and the car glides to a stop. He gets out and offers me his hand. I take it and we stroll up an icy path to a massive stone building. His hand is solid and warm despite the cold.
Lights from nearby structures throw stark silhouettes on the snow. Streetlights are different here, dim and unsturdy, swaying with the wind so shadows rustle and move. The crunch of our footsteps sound as loud as gunshots. Rounding a corner, we come upon several tall marble statues of workers with sacks thrown over their backs and scythes held over their heads. He draws me in close to a circular courtyard and I’m aware of our isolation.
Here, he says, balancing on one foot and kicking the snow off a log with a quick thrust. This is a Lenin graveyard. And this is Lenin.
Underneath a pile of snow, the horizontal bronze face of Lenin appears, authoritative and solemn. I look at the surrounding logs and Boris kicks the snow off another Lenin head, twice the size of our own. We walk around the courtyard, uncovering statue after statue. Soon there are a dozen Lenin figure heads with hollow eyes staring into the darkness. One of them, a carved stone bust, looks directly at me with such dogged determination that I am moved to pack two snowballs in my hands and place them in the eye sockets. Boris nods approvingly.
In the car, I notice his sleek Italian shoes are soaked. When I point this out, he shrugs and stares at me.
Boris is staying in a suite on the top floor of the hotel. The penthouse. Flowers, daffodils and irises adorn almost every surface. A crystal bowl of fresh fruit is set in the middle of a lacquered table in front of the fireplace. Small flames leap out of the logs, giving the otherwise remote room a spark of warmth.
An inlaid glass cabinet is full of every liquor. He makes me a vodka and soda without asking. We lift our glasses to each other and say, Nastrave.
Sofia, he says, is a different city now. And the people are different people.
His fingers pluck a red hibiscus out of the flower arrangement next to him. Twirling the stem, he gazes at me.
Different. They have more freedom, but no money.
Boris’s hair, which until our walk in the Lenin graveyard has been combed against his head, sticks out like a naughty child’s. My hand starts upward, but I bring it back down resisting the urge to reach out and rumple his hair further.
I stand in front of the fireplace and take off my shoes. The marble floor is heated. Boris walks to the fire and throws the hibiscus into the center where it ignites, a momentary burning star. He takes a handful of my hair into his fist. He tugs on it gently, bringing our faces together.
We do what we have to, he says.
He has surprisingly soft skin. His lips are polite, yet intense and we segue into the bedroom. A bottle of Dom sits in a silver bucket next to the bed. I raise my eyebrows.
He says, sometimes I like to have a glass before bed.
The sheets are soft, Egyptian cotton I think, with blue stripes. We knock over the champagne holder, but it doesn’t matter because the champagne’s gone by now. He holds onto my shoulders and looks directly into my eyes. When I come I call out, Nazdrave. He laughs, tracing the silhouette of my face.
Later, after Boris has sunk into a sleep, I watch his face. Even in rest, his features do not relax.
I slide out of bed and get dressed. When I leave the room, Vladislav is sitting just outside, smoking. He doesn’t meet my eyes when I say, goodnight.
The elevator descends quietly and I put my finger in my mouth because the blister has grown quite large. My footsteps are quiet now, sinking into the plush carpet. I realize I forgot to ask Boris about being an ex-communist. I hear a noise behind me. When I turn to look, there’s only the long, dim hallway.