This past weekend I started serializing my first novel, Poets, Artists, Lovers (PAL), here on my blog. I will publish it on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and will then take down the posts a month later. If you wish to read the whole novel before I’m finished posting the installments, I have listed the various Amazon links along with a book description here.
Here’s the first installment: “Nice meeting you, Ela” (July 11, 2021)
And here’s the ending of that first installment, together with today’s bit.
“Remember when I went to Prague for New Year’s Eve in 1999?” Henriette asked.
Pamfil, who’d been browsing a brochure, lifted his gaze to Henriette’s.
“With those friends from high school?” Henriette continued.
“Yes, I remember,” Ela said. “When you broke up with Har.”
“Yes, after a year with Har,” Henriette echoed. She looked at Pamfil. “I went to Prague with those old classmates and a guy, and we fought and went our separate ways, and then we met online in a Bucharest channel—a chat room—on mIRC.”
“And then they had champagne on the Charles Bridge at midnight,” Ela said, smiling at Pamfil.
“Yes, we drank champagne when we met on the Charles Bridge,” Henriette told Pamfil. “We opened the champagne and took a picture of us kissing, in the middle of a crowd that pushed from all sides.”
“Nice story,” Pamfil said. He looked at the people typing on keyboards. “What do they write about?” he asked, his eyes now focused on a screen.
“Ask them,” Henriette replied.
“They look like they’re having fun,” Pamfil said.
“One of the ideas is that online chatting is a form of communication that people engage in to alleviate anxiety,” Henriette explained.
“Interesting,” Ela remarked. “They don’t look anxious.” Her gaze then landed on a boy who kept dragging his teeth over his lips. “Well, maybe some of them.” She turned to Henriette. “Is that what you had in mind when you titled the piece Channeled? The fact that you’re channeling young people’s energies into an activity that helps them psychologically?”
“That, and the fact that chat rooms are called ‘channels’ on mIRC,” Henriette clarified. “Also, I wanted to refer obliquely to the fact that what’s channeled is the impulse and need for real communication, and what they get is a travesty of that. And yet it has its value. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded very well in conveying my conflicted stance on technology,” Henriette said pensively. She fiddled with her neck scarf. “Let’s talk some more over tea,” she invited, switching gears.
They headed to a tea house, revved up by their performances for each other.
#2 (“That was cute, you fighting with me . . .”)
“So how was Prague?” Ela asked once they sat down and ordered tea and petits fours. “You never told me much about it, except for the fact that you didn’t get to visit any museums.”
“Yes, I went with this bunch from high school,” Henriette said, settling into her seat.
“Were they fun?” Pamfil asked, his eyes boring into Henriette’s.
“If you consider early mornings spent drunk in bars fun, they were fun, yes. I may have been too sober to appreciate it.”
“Did your boyfriend like his booze too much?” Pamfil asked, a mischievous tone in his voice.
“Hard to say ‘boyfriend,’” Henriette said, darting a look at Pamfil.
“Was this some sort of revenge on Har?” Ela ventured.
“Not really. I wanted to get away, that’s all. Try something else.”
“That’s a good reason,” Pamfil said. He wanted to appear lighthearted, but his comment came out brooding.
Ela sought out his gaze. “Is it?”
“Once you try it, you may discover it isn’t,” Pamfil said with a forced laugh as he met Ela’s eyes. “But unless you try it, you won’t know. So yes, by any means, getting away is fun.”
“But we can’t stay away,” Ela retorted. “Shouldn’t we try to work on our routine instead?”
“Routine. Interesting notion. I’ve thought of it too. Don’t give it much credit, but yes, I’ve given it a lot of thought,” Pamfil said, his eyes lively.
“And?” Ela asked dryly.
Pamfil gave her a keen look. “And it can be a killjoy.”
“Even the routine with a loved one?” Ela probed, peering through the large windows at passersby to avoid Pamfil’s piercing eyes.
He kept watching her graceful profile. “There is no routine with a loved one. Lovers are supposed to change each other all the time.”
“Really? You can change men?” Henriette blurted, amused.
“Some women can change some men, yes,” Pamfil responded without missing a beat.
The waitress came with cups of tea and minicakes.
Ela smoothed back her hair. “I’m surprised you say that—about men.” She helped herself to a cup of tea and put some sugar in it. “I was reading a magazine the other day,” she went on softly, “and the author explained that men compartmentalize their lives, unlike women, who mentally and emotionally connect all aspects of their existence.”
“Yes, that’s true of most men,” Pamfil said, biting half of a chocolate-frosted minicake. “Compartmentalization also explains why men, more than women, can lead highly unbalanced lives,” he continued as Ela sipped her tea and Henriette dove into the platter of sweet treats. “Women not only experience more of a unity between the areas of their lives, but they also tend to evaluate them against each other and suffer when they fall behind on the career or family track, for instance. Whereas we men—and some women—are different. We can get obsessed with something, and if we do well there, our positive energy carries over to other parts of our lives, and we fail to see that they, too, may need some improvement.”
“Interesting,” Ela said, looking at the platter and picking up a tiny piece of cake with ganache and tart cherries in the middle. “But I thought you just said that men compartmentalize their lives,” she added, raising her gaze to meet Pamfil’s.
“Yes, but mostly in the sense that we can tune out thoughts when we change activities,” Pamfil said. “But hormonal energy is different. For instance, when we play video games, we get a release of testosterone after each success that involves competition with random players online, much like when we fight for a woman—in this respect our brains don’t distinguish between a real-life accomplishment and a virtual one. So we get hooked on the virtual world. Of course neurotransmitters play a part too. But the idea is that after a win in a multiplayer video game, our testosterone spikes, and then it stays in our systems for a while, making us overconfident in other areas of our lives as well. And so we don’t develop enough skills we may need in relationships, for instance, because we overestimate our abilities!” He emptied his cup. “Ready to go?” he then asked his table companions, seeing they had finished both their minicakes and tea.
“So you don’t believe in technology, after all?” Henriette asked Pamfil after they left the tea house and said goodbye to Ela.
“You know I do, but what I’m trying to say is that we shouldn’t treat technology mindlessly. When you’re an adult and have responsibilities, you don’t have much time left, but these kids, they seem to have all the time in the world to stay online,” Pamfil said. “So your exhibition, what is it really about?”
Henriette gave a small laugh. “I wrote that bit about the alleviation of anxiety for the press, but you know what it’s about,” she said.
“About us in Prague.”
“That was cute, you fighting with me and walking into the darkness on New Year’s Eve,” Pamfil said.
“We were so in love,” Henriette said with a big smile, fixing him with her gaze.
Pamfil wondered for a moment whether to respond to her comment. “Do your kids enter real chat rooms, or just fake ones among themselves?” he asked. A whiff of Henriette’s floral perfume, carried by a breeze, teased his senses.
“I set up a chat room for all of them, and there’s also private messaging, of course,” Henriette said. “But they can’t talk to each other in person. Until the wrap-up party, that is.” She pulled out her neck scarf and used it to tie her wavy, restless hair.
“Shouldn’t you teach them that the thrill is better if they do it the other way around?” Pamfil asked, seeking confirmation in Henriette’s eyes. “If they start the communication in real life and then flirt online?”
“I think it can work either way. The stories we tell people when we get to know them online are often different from the ones we tell each other in person.”
“And that’s good?” Pamfil asked, mesmerized by the way the turquoise and green tones in her scarf complemented her fair complexion, her dappled sea-green irises, dark auburn hair, and full, deep-red lips.
“As with all things, it depends from one situation to another,” Henriette said, her fingertips seeking, tantalizingly, the back of his hand. “It certainly says a lot about the power of words to create worlds. And people.”
They fell silent after that, both of them thinking about Haralambie, who believed that words help create people more than people do. They’d had that discussion before, and there was no use rehashing it. Not because they had explored every facet of it—they hadn’t—but because it involved Haralambie, and while any other topic blossomed with every new discussion they had about it, when it came to Haralambie, Pamfil had the feeling that there was little to add, little to change in their impression of him. And anything that involved Haralambie unnerved Pamfil—Henriette knew that, and she tried to keep her two relationships separate.
She would have liked to keep Ela separate too, but Ela had become quite a barnacle after her two meetings with Pamfil, insisting that she sensed something about the man, that he was “a breath of fresh air.” However tired the metaphor, Henriette couldn’t help but agree. Pamfil was, indeed, fresh. Not artless, though, but young and alive—quite to Henriette’s liking, until Ela entered the scene, all eager to know better a man who, however gregarious, essentially kept to himself. A man who could offer heartrending tenderness without offering his heart. A man who was in no hurry to give that heart to someone because, as he once said to one of his buddies, unaware that Henriette overheard him, he had only one heart and couldn’t trust a woman, any woman, with it.
To be continued . . .