Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel (PAL), Serialized. #22 (“We met at the beach . . .”)

Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel, by Mira Tudor

Onward with the twenty-second installment of my serialized novel Poets, Artists, Lovers (PAL). We’re now about eighty percent in.

You have all the previous installments HERE.

And here’s the whole novel, with the various Amazon links and a book description.

Please note that these posts go online on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and I will then take them down a month afterward. Enjoy!

#22: “We met at the beach . . .”

TWELVE

Constanța, July 1993, ten years and three months earlier. Twenty-five-year-old Pamfil met sixteen-year-old Maria as he was waiting by an ice cream stand one evening. With her long sandy hair, colored golden by the sun here and there, her pale-blue eyes, dazzlingly beautiful in her tanned face, and her easygoing attitude, Maria quickly caught his interest, and they naturally fell into small talk.

“So where are you headed this evening?” Pamfil asked as they walked away together. He took a large bite of his vanilla treat.

Maria nibbled at the swirling top of her cone. “I’m supposed to meet a cousin in . . .” She checked her watch. “In ten minutes.”

“Here?”

“Yes, right by that corner store.”

“Well, let’s go there, then.”

“Okay,” said Maria, smiling at the tall, dark stranger. “And where were you headed?”

“Oh, I thought I’d go to the amusement park.”

Maria leaped with joy. “Vacation Village? Good idea!”

Pamfil smiled gently. “Let’s go there, then.” A few minutes later, Maria’s cousin, a fourteen-year-old, showed up, and the three of them were off to the Vacation Village. They treated themselves to the joys of the Ferris wheel and the bumper cars before riding the kikicar—a minitram with half-height doors—through the entire Mamaia resort.

As the kikicar rattled in the night, the fourteen-year-old talked away, animated, and the more she prattled on, the more the space between Maria and Pamfil became charged with energy. When they crossed a poorly lit area of the resort, Pamfil slowly, tentatively, stretched his legs toward Maria’s, touching her calves with his own. She sat frozen, trying to hide the quivers inside.

Maria’s cousin was just as excited. “And this guy I liked, when I asked him what a kiss was,” she said, “he responded, ‘Allow me to do it, so you can find out.’ I was so embarrassed!”

Pamfil darted a quick smile at Maria and then looked intently at her cousin as he casually pulled his legs back. The younger teenager gabbled on. Suddenly she looked straight at Pamfil. “I now write poetry,” she announced proudly.

Pamfil shined a gentle smile at Maria, nodding his head slightly in her cousin’s direction. He then revealed some of his own experiences, thinking they would go over big with the young teenager.

“I, too, used to love poetry at your age.”

“Did you write any poems?” the girl asked eagerly.

“Of course. In four-line stanzas. I still remember one of them. It went something like this.” Winking at Maria, he declaimed: “Brown eyes have a way / To steal all hearts away / Blue eyes like clear skies / Inebriate like wines.”

Maria watched Pamfil interact with her cousin and was touched at the attention he was showering on her. She was also still aflutter over their own stolen moment in the darkness. As it was past midnight, she suggested with a smile that they take her cousin home.

Pamfil smiled back. “We can meet later if you want,” he proposed. Like Maria, he wanted the night’s adventure to continue, not knowing yet where or how.

“Okay. Same ice cream stand?” Maria tried to sound relaxed but couldn’t quite conceal her jubilation.

“Same ice cream stand,” Pamfil repeated, the smile opening up on his face.

They met half an hour later. Maria was wearing the same sixties-style square-neck dress from her mother’s wardrobe, falling down to her knees in rounded folds, and a denim jacket. She waved to Pamfil before she crossed the street to meet him.

When she was at an arm’s length, he reached for her hand and asked her where she wanted to go. Maria suggested they just walk randomly. Eventually they strolled toward Mamaia again, through streets teeming with people, some dressed up for the night and others in bermudas, T-shirts, and beach slippers, many of them enjoying some beers or a meal at one of the restaurants in that section of the city.

Pamfil and Maria stopped at an outdoor fast-food place for a drink and a chance to get to know each other better, but before they could start a lengthier chat, they found themselves listening to the instrumental beginning of a song they both liked—and welcomed. Pamfil held his palm open to Maria, who clasped it gingerly. They started dancing right there, next to the empty tables and a waiter watching them with warm eyes.

During the slow intro, Maria’s heartbeat quickly accelerated. She gazed, lost, over his shoulder, as their bodies faced each other, barely moving. Then, when the singer started the first verse, Pamfil gently gripped Maria’s bent forearms, drawing her a little more toward him and calming her with his closeness before grazing her lips with his and kissing her softly. Their dance felt light and much too short. When it was over, they detached themselves from each other slowly, as if to prolong their tactile conversation a little more.

“Should we pay?” Pamfil asked, shaking Maria from her trance. She quickly pulled herself together and offered to give him her share. Pamfil waved a no, settled the bill, and took her hand. “Let’s go someplace where we can dance.”

“A disco?”

“Or maybe a snack bar by the beach.”

“Sounds good,” Maria said, her eyes downcast. When she looked at him again, a smile bloomed in her heart.

For the next hour or so they walked down the promenade, past small restaurants with TV screens, stopping here and there to glance at a live soccer game and the news in their quest for a place with its TV set to MTV. When they found it, in a side street where they had a late-night—or early-morning—dinner, MTV was playing the video clip of a popular current rock ballad. Pamfil stepped behind Maria, placed his hands on her shoulders, and started swaying from side to side, a little clumsily at first, and then smoothly in larger movements in sync with the music and Maria’s body.

“So what music do you listen to?” she asked when they resumed their stroll.

“I’m more like a sixties and seventies man than anything else. But I appreciate many genres,” he replied.

Maria gave him a good-humored smile. “And have the haircut of none,” she said, tickled, looking at his bountiful mane of dark hair.

Pamfil gave a small laugh. “I did have the bowl-shaped haircut of a depeșar once,” he said, referring to the style favored by Romanian fans of Depeche Mode in the early nineties.

“With your wavy hair? Ha ha. Also wore pointy-toed boots and wide-leg jeans?”

“Now and then,” he said, a little out of his element. “I guess I’m more than just one thing, really. Did you expect me to be firmly in one camp or another? A rocker or a depeșar?” he added, a smile playing on his lips. “So which camp are you in?” he asked earnestly.

“I like to be my own invention,” she answered with a ready smile.

“I like strong girls,” Pamfil pronounced in a level tone before turning his gaze back to her. “And what does this strong girl like? In music, in life?” he ventured as they walked in step, side by side.

“Well, wouldn’t you like to know!” Maria responded, decidedly giggly.

“Yes, well, I’m rather curious about people and things that interest me.”

“Hmmm,” Maria voiced playfully.

They were now walking by the edge of the beach.

“Shall we?” He stretched out his arm, inviting her to step on the sand. Shortly afterward, sandals in their hands, they were attuned to the waves, watching them come in and drown music and noise, feeling them leap around their legs, pushing and pulling at the sand between their toes.

In a moment of exaltation Pamfil turned to face Maria and hugged her tightly. Maria froze again, as she had a habit of doing in Pamfil’s overpowering presence, and then, slowly, softened in his arms, abandoning herself to his embrace. They began to kiss again, finding together a place of aching joy, soulful warmth, and utter relaxation. When they pulled apart after a few long minutes, they looked at each other stunned by how good their bodies felt together. They stood quiet for a moment and then shared another long kiss, both of them surprised, again, at how they were reacting to each other.

They were now energized, so they took another walk along the edge of the water, bursting into sprints—and resting into hugs—here and there, until they came upon a cliff jutting into the sea. They climbed it sprightly, eager to enjoy the sea from a different vantage point.

They sat down there side by side for a while, knees brought up to their chests, as the sounds and smells of the splashing surf and each other’s presence suffused their minds, bodies, and souls with both intensity and rapture. Eventually, Pamfil leaned over to Maria with a serious look on his face and caressed her cheek with the back of his hand. Feeling the energy drain out of her, she kept her hands around her knees and looked at Pamfil hesitantly. He placed his left hand over her right to reassure her, but he managed to appear hurried and bold: Maria could already see his hand on her knee and above. Pamfil, however, didn’t touch her knee. Instead he gently detached her fingers from their grip, took her palm in his, and lay down holding her hand in his, thus coaxing her to lean back next to him. A whole canopy of stars unfolded before their eyes.

Maria was, nevertheless, very tense now. She tried to enjoy Pamfil’s closeness and the beauty of feeling surrounded by a whole vast universe but only felt her fast-beating heart and the cold, so she withdrew her hand and pulled her jacket tight around her, trying to loosen up—which she couldn’t: she only trembled more. Eventually, after a few long, uncomfortable moments, she sat up and ran her hands along her calves, as if to take control of her body. She was about to suggest they leave when Pamfil, intent on warming her up, wrapped his left arm around her shoulders and started rubbing her left arm. She lowered her head toward her knees again, this time relaxing into his touch. Pamfil, however, felt his gesture wasn’t tender enough and presently withdrew his hand, pushed it against the ground, and got to his feet. “Let’s go.”

Maria got up as well. She brushed the dust off the back of her skirt, took off her jacket, shook it with both hands, and then flicked it clean with her right hand. She was mad at herself, thinking she looked like she had yielded too soon, so when they were ready to leave, she casually put her hands in her pockets. It was now four in the morning. Pamfil walked Maria to her aunt’s home, said goodbye with a quick brush of her forearm, and disappeared into the night.

*

Present day. Eleven summers later, at the end of June 2004, Pamfil met Maria again at one of Anca’s parties.

“Maria?” Pamfil asked, his eyes straining, when he stepped into the living room.

“Pamfil?” Maria mimicked. “By the way, I go by Marie now.”

“Marie,” Pamfil said wistfully, wearing a smile as his gaze lingered for another moment on her long, dark blonde hair with honey highlights, styled in large rolling curls, and the snug violet shift dress elegantly accented with a Murano bead necklace. “How do you know Anca?” he asked, looking into Marie’s luminous blue eyes, now set off by kohl and mascara as well as by her lightly tanned face.

“We were very good friends in high school,” Marie said.

“You know each other?” Anca asked, stepping in.

“We met at the beach . . .” they both started.

“In 1993,” Pamfil said.

“The year you discovered Woodstock,” Marie said to Anca, “after teaching those kids English.”

Anca smiled.

“She taught some ten-year-olds English,” Marie explained to Pamfil. “They were really cute. Came every morning at eight bleary-eyed and left with sparkly smiles. Anca had a videotape and cassettes. It was really interesting for them.”

“How many were they?” Pamfil asked.

“Ten. Half of them came at eight, and the other half at ten. Anca was a great teacher,” Marie said. “I sat in on their classes. I can’t believe she spent so much time away from teaching.”

“So you’ve been entrepreneurial ever since you were a little girl,” Pamfil said, smiling at Anca.

“Hardly that,” Anca said.

“She’s designing postcards now, among other things,” Pamfil said.

“You are?” Marie inquired politely.

“Yes, I’m doing postcards of Romania with several photos from different places on each card.”

“And where are you selling them?” Marie asked.

“Only in Bucharest for now, but I plan to distribute them elsewhere as well.”

“Sounds good,” Marie said with a smile.      

“And you, what are you doing these days?” Pamfil asked with an unsuppressed grin.

“I’m a market researcher,” Marie responded. “I work long hours, but it’s a good job,” she commented. “You?”

“I still play violin,” Pamfil responded. “It’s a good job,” he added wryly.

“Do you get to travel a lot?” Marie asked.

“I do. What about you?”

“I go to Austria to ski in the winter, and to the beach here, in Bulgaria, and in Greece in the summer. And I squeeze in some city breaks when I can. Two, three days at a time. It’s all my schedule allows for. I often work on the weekends as well.”

“And you live in Bucharest?” Pamfil asked.

“No, in Cluj.”

Just then Daria played a Celine Dion song.

“May I have this dance?” Pamfil asked, extending a hand to Marie. He pulled her gently to the center of the room.

Daria lifted her eyes from the computer screen and winked at Pamfil. Midway through the song Vlad walked up to her. “Care to dance?” he asked, his face all serious.

“Give me one second,” Daria said, cueing up another song. Then she gave Vlad her hand.

“Remember the video?” Marie asked Pamfil after she had danced in silence with him the previous song, the two of them smiling and looking in each other’s eyes.

“Who doesn’t?” Pamfil said, smiling at the memories. “The nineties. The era of the supermodels: Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford. They’re all about my age.”

“When were you born?” Marie asked, tucking strands of hair behind her ears as Pamfil held her by the small of her back.

“In ‘67,” Pamfil answered with a smile. “I’m thirty-six. Will be thirty-seven in August. And you?”

“I’m twenty-seven,” Marie responded. “Same age as Anca. We were both born in ‘77.” She looked toward the computer, where Vlad was fiddling with the playlist. “Whom did you like best?” she then asked Pamfil. “Of the supermodels.”

“Oh, Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell.” He searched her eyes. “When in ‘77 were you born? What month?”

“April,” Marie said. “The month of Venus, when everything blossoms,” she added with a smile.

Pamfil smiled back.

Vlad started a Lara Fabian song.

“I will die in your arms of dehydration if they continue with slow songs,” Marie said, keeping a straight face.

Pamfil chuckled and took her by the hand. “Let’s see what Anca has in the kitchen.”

They found some elderflower cordial in the fridge. Pamfil poured each of them a glass.

“Mmm, good,” Marie said, after pulling up a chair and sitting down to enjoy her drink. “But how come they still had elderflowers to make it? It’s July!”

“Anca keeps them in the freezer in vacuum bags and makes cordial all year long.”

“I guess she must really like it,” Marie said, amused.

“Yes, and we do too,” Pamfil said, searching her blue gaze again. “Want something to eat as well?” he then asked, looking into the fridge.

“What does she have?”

“Not much. But there’s monk’s stew. Have you had it? It’s very good.”

“Yes, I know. Lots of veggies. Let me try it,” she said, looking at Pamfil’s tall figure bent double as he rummaged through the fridge.

He got out the stew, ladled some for Marie into a deep plate, and heated it in the microwave. “I also have melon and watermelon,” he said, sitting down. “Are you still thirsty?” he asked with his lopsided smile when she finished her drink.

Marie chuckled.

“You can have my cordial if you wish,” Pamfil said with a playful look in his eyes.

“You mean Anca’s,” Marie said.

Pamfil laughed. The microwave clinked, and he gave Marie the stew.

Marie took a small spoonful.

“How is it?” Pamfil asked.

“Divine! I can taste the eggplant. I love to use it in stews,” Marie said. “It’s salty, though. Can I really have the cordial?”

“Go ahead,” Pamfil said.

“Okay.” Marie drank half the glass.

“So how come you’ve never visited Anca before?” Pamfil asked as Marie tucked into her food.

“Oh, I have visited her before,” Marie said. “Not very often, but I have. Sometimes we collaborate with market research companies here.”

Pamfil studied her Murano glass necklace. “You’ve been to Murano?”

Marie touched her necklace. “Yes. And loved it. Venice is so sad and yet so beautiful.”

Pamfil put a bottle of chilled Prosecco on the table. He then looked into a cupboard and promptly produced a bottle of crème de cassis, blackcurrant liqueur.

“Are you making Kir Royale?” Marie asked in between mouthfuls.

“Yes!” Pamfil exclaimed with enthusiasm. “Your talk of Venice had me thinking of Prosecco, and then of Kir Royale.”

“I love it, but somehow after I drink it, I get very tired. Different from when I drink wine.”

“Really? All alcohol has the same effect on me,” Pamfil said. “Taste is all that’s different.”

“Maybe you don’t know yourself well enough,” Marie said.

“How so?”     

“Maybe you’re not paying enough attention to how you’re feeling,” Marie offered. “But we’ll leave the philosophical discussions for another time.”

“Yes, better,” Pamfil said. “So, do you want some Kir Royale?”

“Yes, please.”

Pamfil made the cocktails.

“What are we drinking to?” Marie asked as they clinked glasses.

“Venice,” Pamfil said.

To be continued . . .

Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel (PAL), Serialized. #21 (“. . . she, too, was very confused about how to handle getting older”)

Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel, by Mira Tudor

Onward with the twenty-first installment of my serialized novel Poets, Artists, Lovers (PAL).

You have all the previous installments HERE.

And here’s the whole novel, with the various Amazon links and a book description.

Please note that these posts go online on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and I will then take them down a month afterward. Enjoy!

#21 (“. . . she, too, was very confused about how to handle getting older”)

ELEVEN

“I can’t believe summer’s gone,” Alice said to Ela. They were sharing a cozy lunch in the city following a matinée concert.

“I like this weather better,” Ela said after a sip from her milkshake. “The gentle warmth of October,” she mused, her gaze running over the bell sleeves of her friend’s light knit top. She thought Alice looked attractive and told her so, pointing out that long, flared cardigans looked really good on her.

Alice laughed. “I guess I have to adapt my sense of style to ‘Alice at forty’—almost there! My age, that is, not my sense of style.” She laughed again.

Ela smiled back, hiding the fact that she, too, was very confused about how to handle getting older.

They dove into their meals and chatted about their heart rates and the need to exercise more, laughing about how you can’t get bored on a stationary bike, because you can read magazines and newspapers as you work out.

“Still, you should forget about writing and reading now and then,” Ela said with a smile.

“I should, but writing doesn’t get done by itself,” Alice retorted, fiddling with the large beads of her necklace.

“I know. But it gets done better if you change the scenery a bit. I’ve started taking daily walks myself,” Ela said.

“By the way, do you have any plans of going back to your old job?” Alice asked.

“I don’t. Not for now, anyway. The problem is, I don’t think I have the patience I used to have. On the other hand, I want to do something worthwhile.” She sat back and pushed her fingers into her hair.

Alice straightened in her seat. “And writing isn’t worthwhile?”

“It is, but I need the interaction with other people to feel that my work counts,” Ela responded.

“I, too, need people,” Alice mused.

The waiter brought their desserts.

“Are you going to Phil’s recital?” Alice asked. “The one with Enescu?”

“Yes. You?”

“Yes, of course I am.”

“Ettie’s not tempted?” Ela asked.

“I think she is, very. But she’s stubborn.”

A few months earlier that year, one gallery in Bucharest had come up with the idea of commissioning an installation inspired by Enescu’s Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano in view of the forthcoming edition of a music festival. The director of the gallery, who had attended some of Pamfil’s recitals in the past, approached him—and Clara—to come play Enescu’s piece for the October vernissage. Pamfil was more than happy to get involved with the project, as he loved this 1926 sonata and favored the idea of creating an installation to celebrate it and further contribute to the appreciation of modern classical music.

As he walked to the gallery one windy day to work out the final details of his performance, Pamfil thought of Henriette, how he would like to invite her to that exhibition. But he knew he had told her that she could return to him anytime, and he didn’t think there was more he could add to that. Still, he wished he could see the show with her. He missed their back-and-forth and had a feeling she would have loved the installation, so he pondered sharing his impressions and some photos of it with her in a ruse to tempt her to consider coming to the vernissage, and, perhaps, after that, back to him; but she’d been clear back in the fall of 2001 that she wanted to discontinue all their interactions, and he intended to wait for the moment, one he was eagerly anticipating, when she would feel compelled to break her own word. He hoped this moment would come sooner rather than later, as ever since Henriette had left his life, no woman could keep his interest for more than two months.

Given all these reflections, Pamfil was rather melancholy when he stepped into the gallery. His mood soon picked up, however, as he walked through the installation, a many-faceted affair comprising a large number of videos, including one of a rhythmic gymnast performing a ribbon routine; another one of a woman with her knees to her chest who moved her prostrate head, with long straight black hair, left and right in sadness, until she eventually stretched her legs and bent her body over them fully, making jazz hands in slow motion next to her ankles; and a montage of a man holding a skirt-clad woman by the waist and twisting her left and right several times, then of the woman dancing a modern dance with expressive gestures as the man circled her with small steps, and finally of the two changing roles and the woman dancing with mincing steps while the man cavorted around her, extending his arms every so often as if to seek her embrace. In addition to the videos, there were also audio exhibits, among them the 1951 recording of Enescu’s Souvenirs with the French music critic Bernard Gavoty.

Pamfil gave his recital with Clara at the piano three days later. Their cellist partner, Silvia, as well as Alice, Anca, Alain, and several other friends and acquaintances of Pamfil’s were in the audience. Also present were many art and music critics.

The reviews were mixed. While some commentators penned encouraging pieces pointing out that this initiative continued a series that began with artistic explorations of music in painting, others wondered about the suitability of “regressing” from instrumental music, the highest art form, one which invites the mind to wander elsewhere with each hearing, to “lesser” artistic expressions.

Leaving the vernissage together, Alice told Pamfil that the dancing couple in the video inspired her to think some more about art experienced with the body. She went on to talk of children climbing sculptures in parks and about how sculptors should create more playgrounds.

“That’s a good idea,” Pamfil said, smiling politely. He was thinking of Henriette again.

*

“George!” Pamfil said when he found Ela’s boyfriend on his doorstep.

“We know each other?” George asked.

“I’ve seen photos of you,” Pamfil responded.

George raised his eyebrows. “Interesting. I haven’t seen any of you.”

“Please come inside,” Pamfil said. George stepped in, a little unsure now of why he was there. “I was just making some tea. Do you want some?”

“Yes, I do, thank you.”

“Have a seat.”

George put his satchel on the table and sat down. “I hear Ela gave you her poems,” he said as he opened his jacket.

Pamfil wanted to be a good host and take the incoming flak, but somehow he didn’t want to make his guest feel too comfortable. He hesitated before mumbling, “Yes. Yes, she did.”

“And?” George scanned Pamfil’s dark eyes and his angular face.

“And . . . I didn’t mean to cause so much harm. How is she?”

“Have you read her poems?”

“I have.”

“Then you know how she is.”

Pamfil doubted poems could ever be that revelatory. “She sounds like a completely different person,” he said after a beat.

“She has changed, yes,” George said. “But she’s still the person I fell in love with five years ago—if that makes any sense.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?” Pamfil said, unsettled by his guest’s bluntly forthright manner. He pasted on a smile.

George gave him a warm smile back.

Pamfil turned toward the stove and poured some hot water into two mugs over vanilla Darjeeling tea. Then he spun back to the table with a mug for George and one for himself.

“Yes, I have read her poems and really enjoyed them, even though it’s clear that she’s been through some serious pain. I feel bad about that.”

“You were just the trigger; her pain didn’t have to do just with you,” George said.

“That’s what I thought too, yes,” Pamfil said. He leaned against the kitchen cabinets.         

George stood up and buttoned his jacket, getting ready to leave. His tea sat untouched on the table.

*

When she began to feel more like herself again in October 2003, Ela took up playing the piano again at the music school where she used to teach. Around this same time, she also started responding on email to pals and acquaintances who wrote about their mishaps, about a twisted ankle or a child with an upset stomach who kept her mother awake all night, the communication feeling long overdue.

She knew George wanted a kid. They had tried for one in the first three years of their relationship, and now she started to get that feeling again, that part of her purpose in life was to be a mother. She wanted to believe that she could recuperate well enough, become strong enough to have what it takes to care for a child. But her disillusionment with her old self had cost her two years before she returned to her friends and life in the city again. She hoped she wouldn’t find herself missing too much time from her child’s life.

She decided to take better care of herself, so she started physical therapy for her rather rigid back, a series of ten days of diadynamic currents, ultrasounds, massage, and physical exercise, but that did her more harm than good, rupturing one of her lumbar discs—a development she felt right after her treatment: when she got up from bed quickly on the eleventh day to answer the door, she got stuck like never before. She spent four weeks in bed and another two weeks mostly in bed, waiting out the spell with a stack of books.

“I’m glad you’re feeling better,” George said as he stirred a pot of goulash, once Ela could join him in the kitchen again. He moved away from the stove and hugged her around the waist.

“Yes, hopefully soon I’ll see more of our friends again. I haven’t seen Har in two years,” Ela said, her hands on George’s upper arms.

George planted a peck on her lips and went back to his goulash. “He’s okay. Busy.”

“What is he working on now?” Ela asked.

“A show about Van Gogh’s drawings and how his paintings and drawings show a Japanese influence. They were all influenced by Japanese prints: Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso. . . . Van Gogh collected hundreds of them, and Picasso collected shunga prints. Erotic,” George said, turning his head for a moment to look into Ela’s chestnut-brown eyes.

“You’ve been to so many art exhibitions without me,” Ela said, propping herself against the doorframe.

George turned back from the stove wearing a kind smile. “I can’t deny that I have. Har invited me.” He didn’t mention that he was also at the Enescu exhibition, the day after Pamfil’s performance, or that he sought out Pamfil at his home. He wondered why he refrained from talking about all that. Did he still fear Pamfil? Did Ela still fear being sidetracked by Pamfil or someone like him?

To be continued . . .

Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel (PAL), Serialized. #20 (“Not a moderate man, are you, Vlad?”)

Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel, by Mira Tudor

Today’s post is the twentieth installment of my serialized novel Poets, Artists, Lovers (PAL).

You have all the previous installments HERE.

And here’s the whole novel, with the various Amazon links and a book description.

Please note that these posts go online on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and I will then take them down a month afterward. Enjoy!

#20: “Not a moderate man, are you, Vlad?”

As the fall of 2003 was nice and balmy, Anca decided to relax her schedule and enjoy the charms of afternoons in the city in the company of Marcel and some of their friends. One day in October they invited Daria and Vlad to join them at the Engines bar, one of Daria’s favorites.

When they arrived, an unknown band was playing peppy jazz. They stood for a few moments next to the stage and then got some beers and found a place to sit.

Vlad jabbed at Daria about her drinking beer, and Daria poked him back, saying she went to a gym and so she was allowed.

“We, too, worked out today,” Anca said, amused.

“Yeah? What did you do?” Vlad asked.

Daria gave a soft laugh. “They spent hours in Herăstrău on a hydrobike,” she told Vlad.

“It was terrible,” Marcel said. “It’s supposed to amplify your force, but this one was going at something like five kilometers an hour, even though I was pedaling really fast.”

“I liked it,” Anca said, determined to enjoy Marcel’s lingering frustration. “But I did get a red nose,” she added, smiling at Daria.

“Yes, I can see that,” Vlad chimed in.

“If the bike had worked better, you wouldn’t have, because we would have spent less time on that lake,” Marcel said with bitterness.

“You could have abandoned the whole thing, but you wanted to calculate how fast you were going,” Anca said, amused.

“And I did: five kilometers an hour,” Marcel said. He took a swig of his beer.

“At least you had fun,” Daria offered appeasingly.

“Yes, she had fun at my expense,” Marcel said with a cursory glance at her.

“I laughed because you were pushing that bike harder and harder, which didn’t make any sense, as it wasn’t going to work any faster,” Anca said, her eyes glinting in mischievous triumph.

Marcel humphed and looked away into the distance to cool off. A few beats later he got up and went to the bar for some peanuts.

“This reminds me of people who push themselves to lose a lot of weight fast without making the weight-loss mechanisms work for them,” Vlad put in, taking another mouthful of his beer. “They starve themselves of calories and nutrients, don’t exercise, and then wonder why they get the yo-yo effect.” He put his bottle down and resumed his impromptu lecture. “As we walked over here, I was telling Daria about ab exercises. The way she does them is wrong. Bending over your legs can strain your back. And it’s not even that effective. You should curl only halfway, with bent knees,” he said, looking at Anca.

Daria turned to Anca. “He gave me a whole speech on how to work out. Says I should buy a bike and start swimming and running as well.”

Anca laughed. “Not a moderate man, are you, Vlad?”

“Your goal should be to work all your muscles,” Vlad went on, his eyes riveted on Daria. “Keep in mind that each part of your body benefits from an overall toning. Part of it is mechanics, but you also increase your basal metabolism, which helps you lose fat throughout your whole body.”

Marcel came back with four small packets of peanuts. Daria tore into hers as they listened to a particularly nice jazz riff. “He wants me to do four or five hours of exercise a day, four days a week,” she said in Anca’s direction after having immersed herself in the music for a while. Then she turned to Vlad. “But maybe I want to live 120 years. Don’t you know that theory: the higher your metabolism, the less you’ll live? Like the one about heartbeats and lifespan. Hamsters have a heart rate of between about 300 and 500 beats per minute and live only two to four years, whereas giant Galapagos tortoises can live over 150 years with a heart rate of six beats per minute.”

“Yes, but working out, while increasing your basal metabolic rate, does in fact decrease your resting heart rate,” Vlad responded. “Do you work out regularly?” he asked, turning to Anca, who was eating peanuts placidly.

“I play tennis or basketball with some colleagues on some weekends. But I can’t say I play basketball very well,” Anca answered as her thoughts drifted to a guy from her high school, one whose hands and upper body followed her arms and her back a little too closely as he taught her that aiming to hit the backboard had a better chance of getting the ball in. She wasn’t too fond of his excessive attention and deflected it often by abruptly running to take shots from the midcourt—which she got really good at.

“Once or twice a week is not working out regularly,” Vlad said.

“I do what I can,” Anca said with a pasted smile. Her good spirits were sagging. Vlad could be such a killjoy. She couldn’t understand what Pamfil and Daria saw in him. She got up and walked up to the bar for a Schweppes. As much as she wanted to stay away from carbonated drinks, she decided one small bottle every now and then couldn’t hurt.

With Anca gone, Vlad turned to Marcel. “I was telling Daria that only weight training can tone your muscles properly.”

Daria found herself looking at Vlad’s sculpted upper arm, despite her better intentions. “But I don’t want bulky muscles. I don’t think they look good on a woman.”

Vlad, however, felt he knew better. “You need more muscle definition. With proper weights and stretching, you can get the lean look.” His minilecture completed, he rose to get himself another beer. “Want anything stronger than that?” he asked Marcel, pointing to the latter’s glass. Marcel shook his head no.

Daria looked from one to the other, noting Vlad failed to ask her if she, too, needed anything from the bar.

Two days later, the two of them were walking in Herăstrău Park when Daria suggested they rent a hydrobike—to which Vlad responded he wasn’t inclined to repeat Anca and Marcel’s unhappy ride on the lake.

“Maybe they were just unlucky,” Daria said with a puckish grin that exposed her toothpaste-commercial teeth.

Vlad relented and they paid for a ride. It wasn’t luck; this bike wasn’t moving fast either.

“What’s the rush, anyway?” Daria said, her stretched-out legs pushing the pedals. “Besides, you have the chance to work your muscles some more,” she added impishly. She was enjoying the Indian summer, the sunshine gently caressing her face, arms, and partly bare legs. She was also happy for Vlad’s company. True, he was rather gauche, but he could be quite endearing with his way of taking it upon himself to change her into a healthier woman. It was endearing because, however heavy-handed he was sometimes at sharing advice, his interest showed he cared; and she had noticed he was way more reserved with other people. Except for Pamfil, he only truly opened up with her, Anca, and Marcel. Maybe it was because he had tried giving free counseling to others in Pamfil’s crowd, and those people, in one manner or another, snubbed him. Or maybe it was because he really liked her and her friends. Whatever the reason, she enjoyed having him around, and she wasn’t about to accept his attentions without reciprocating some lessons herself. Slowly, patiently. After all, part of her job as a journalist at Alina was to teach women how to change men.

“You’re not making much sense. I told you, you have to exercise smartly,” Vlad said an hour later as they walked away from the dock. “But you’re not exercising much anyway,” he added grouchily.

Daria gave an exaggerated snort at his frustration.

“I wouldn’t laugh if I were you. I think you have the body mass index of an overweight person,” Vlad riposted.

“Here comes the help of science,” Daria quipped. “Remind me what a body mass index is exactly,” she added, before heading undaunted toward a fast-food restaurant to their right on the promenade. She was pretty set on keeping a healthy diet, but she wanted to hassle her new friend.

They sat down face-to-face on long benches. Vlad waited until they got comfortable, backpacks next to them on the benches, and addressed her latest question. “Kilograms divided by the square of your height in meters. If it’s over twenty-five, you’re overweight.”

“And can this body mass index tell the difference between fat and muscle?” Daria asked, enjoying the sight of Vlad’s taut chest.

“No, it can’t,” Vlad responded, disconcerted. Somehow he had never thought about it that way. He pulled at the collar of his tight T-shirt.

“So then, it’s useless, isn’t it?” Daria went on, smiling mischievously.

“Anyway, what I wanted to say is that you should also try not eating in the evening,” Vlad said, skirting the question.

Daria looked over the menu. “Why?”

“It gives the body a chance to focus on other processes besides digestion. It benefits your health. Allows the body to detoxify.”

“I know the theory, but is that what you do?” Daria asked, laying her menu on the table.

“Some days,” Vlad said. He adjusted the position of his backpack next to him on the bench. “I should really do it all the time.”

Daria looked absentmindedly toward the lake for a moment before returning her gaze to Vlad with a ready smile. “I’ve been doing it now and then ever since I was a teenager,” she said, fidgeting with the menu. “But at the time I didn’t even drink water, as I didn’t know any better,” she added, concluding her straight talk before Vlad got too used to it. She peered over the choices of food as she continued her argument in mock seriousness. “But now we go out in the evenings with Anca and Marcel, and Anca eats her peanuts.” She threw her hands up in feigned exasperation, speaking the last words louder as she let the laminated menu fall on the table. “It’s hard to see her eat and refrain from doing it myself.”

“You need to make an effort of the will,” Vlad said.

“But Anca is skinny even though she eats peanuts,” Daria insisted with a smirk.

While they spoke, the breeze off the lake made Daria’s longer pixie cut even messier. Her body may not have been Vlad’s idea of attractive, but her heart-shaped face, enlivened by her large, kohl-lined, deep-blue eyes and a light spray of freckles, really captivated him, especially with her brown hair dyed platinum blonde.

“We all have different metabolisms,” Vlad said, on the verge of embarking upon another minilecture. “But fasting in the evenings is good for most people. Except people with certain chronic illnesses and conditions. But you’re doing well yourself. You just don’t make enough of an effort to prolong your health. You know what they say: once you reach your thirties, you start getting health problems. Don’t wait until you’re thirty. Form good habits now.” His brown eyes lingered on Daria’s V-neck shirt, registering how nicely it showed off her ample chest.

“I see you’re putting a lot of passion in all this,” Daria said, smiling with a sense of detachment. “And very few smiles,” she added in a quiet voice, willing herself to look over the lake.

A waiter appeared at their side. They ordered grilled meat with French fries and pickles.

“Love your body, and it will love you back,” Vlad said when they had their privacy again.

“How about I love my mind instead?” Daria quipped. She was finding greater and greater pleasure in diverting his mind from its beaten paths.

“Your mind is a different matter. Better not enter into love affairs with it,” Vlad said earnestly.

Daria gave him a wide smile. “Was that humor?”

“You don’t take me seriously,” Vlad said, deflated.

“It’s because I do take you seriously that I want you to learn to smile and laugh now and then,” Daria said, giving him a long look. “Didn’t you hear that laughter is the best medicine?”

“But I’m not sick,” Vlad said with an attempt at a smirk.

“Leave the humor to the rest of us, then,” Daria said with a chuckle. She was determined not to let him off the hook easily.

The waiter came with plates, cutlery, napkins, and glasses and filled their glasses with water.

“The man without a laugh,” Daria mused when the waiter left. “You’re serious even when you’re drunk.” She took a sip of her water.

“You don’t have to tell me I’m a gloomy drunk. I know that. You’re lucky you’re a happy drunk yourself,” Vlad said, avoiding Daria’s eyes. A moment later, he faced her resolutely. “In fact, we should both drink less.”

*

“Who here plays tennis besides you?” Daria asked Anca at one of the latter’s parties later that month.

“Marcel. And Vlad,” Anca responded. It was a warm evening, so they went to the balcony.

“Vlad plays tennis?” Daria asked, shutting the balcony door.

“Yes, ever since he was a kid. And swims too.”

“What about team sports?” Daria asked, lifting her eyebrows.

“He runs in the company of other people,” Anca said, amused. “That’s how far into team sports he’s gotten. But he also plays tennis doubles, so I shouldn’t be so mean.” She pulled up one strap of her black bohemian lace dress. “Why do you ask?”

“I got twenty hours free on a tennis court in Herăstrău.”

“How so?”

“I know someone there, and I did their website,” Daria said, admiring a bangle bracelet that complimented her friend’s firm, toned arm. She raised her eyes to Anca’s lively hazel-green ones. “Would you like to come next weekend for an hour or two? With Marcel?”

Anca looked at her friend with renewed respect for how she got on in life. “I think so, yes. I’ll ask him now.” She walked back into the living room to Marcel. When she returned a while later, she asked Daria to take a seat on the sofa next to her.

“You okay with Vlad?” Anca inquired rather too directly—but she and Daria were good friends now, and she allowed herself to be straightforward with her good friends every once in a while.

“In what way?” Daria asked with a smirk.

“You like him?”

“I like him, yes. He’s kind of kooky, but he means well,” Daria said. “He’s taken mental possession of my body now,” she added with a laugh.

“What do you mean?”

“He’s thinking of myriad ways to change my body. My workouts, my eating regimen. . . . Which is odd. I’m already taking ownership of my body. I don’t need him to make it his own project.”

“I see,” Anca said, amused at Daria’s feminist way of describing things. “Knowing you, I imagine you have tried to tell him that.”

“No, I haven’t actually. I think I have a love-hate relationship with the way he doles out advice to me.”

“It’s what he does, after all, as a trainer,” Anca said.

A comfortable silence passed between them as they regarded others in the room. Anca broke the spell with a meaningful nudge. “So you like him!”

“I think he has potential, yes,” Daria said with a straight face. She got up from the sofa. “Let me go ask him about this weekend.”

The following Saturday, all four of them—Daria, Vlad, Anca, and Marcel—met on an open-air tennis court in Herăstrău Park. It was a beautiful October day, sunny but not too hot, which made for perfect weather for their exertions on the red clay.

To be continued . . .

Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel (PAL), Serialized. #19 (“Oh, Phil and his ‘I’m so young’ performances”)

Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel, by Mira Tudor

Today’s post is the nineteenth installment of my serialized novel Poets, Artists, Lovers (PAL).

You have all the previous installments HERE.

And here’s the whole novel, with the various Amazon links and a book description.

Please note that these posts go online on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and I will then take them down a month afterward. Enjoy!

#19: “Oh, Phil and his ‘I’m so young’ performances”

“Alice, welcome, come inside,” Pamfil said. Alice had showed up at his September 2003 party with vanilla ice cream, her sister’s apple pie, and some boeuf salad she had made herself.

Alice headed to the kitchen table and laid out her offerings. “I came too early,” she said, “but Ettie was in her own world at the piano with her headphones, and I needed to get away.”

Pamfil gave her a hug.

“Who else has come?” Alice asked, stepping away to peek into the living room.

“The two beloved female thirds of Trio Anima,” Pamfil said, his gaze lingering on Alice until she disappeared from view, wondering why she wore black pants when a dress would have hugged her curves so much better.

Alice walked up to Silvia, happy to see her again. They kissed on both cheeks, and then Silvia started some Lara Fabian on the computer and turned to Clara, who was lying on her back on Pamfil’s couch enjoying the music. “Can you improvise something?” Silvia asked her friend and music partner. “I want to sing this.”

Clara stood up and headed to the piano. “I think I can do something.” She started playing an ad lib arrangement.

“Wait,” Silvia called. “I mean, go on, do your thing. I’ll look for the lyrics.”

A few moments later she was by Clara’s side, printed sheet in hand, singing a Lara Fabian song to the latter’s makeshift harmonies. Alice watched from the couch, her torso and head swiveled toward the two women. They both wore tight shirts and knee-length skirts, albeit in different colors, and they played as one, each of them easily adjusting to the other’s performance.

Pamfil came into the room moments after the song began, sat down next to Alice, and put his arm around her. Alice turned her head, smiling both on account of Pamfil’s gesture and as a way to show her delight at seeing Silvia and Clara making music together.

When the song was over, Clara invited Pamfil next to her for a rendition of Otis Redding. Pamfil didn’t have the greatest pipes, but he had a nice baritone timbre, and Otis Redding’s songs, which he always sang lower, suited him well. As he crooned to Clara’s accompaniment, Silvia beat the rhythm on Pamfil’s desk. Trio Anima had seemingly forgotten about Alice, but Alice was beside herself with joy, as she didn’t have much of a voice but loved it when Pamfil’s trio cut loose and sang and played pop songs. And they had lots of fun with it, as Pamfil loved to improvise when he dabbled as a singer.

After their little recital the other guests started pouring in. First came Marcel and Anca, and then Anca’s friend Daria, Vlad, and five others. They all came laden with food and drinks—beer, wine, whiskey, Baileys, carbonated soft drinks, and iced tea; some brought music as well.

As Daria, Anca’s journalist friend, was new to Pamfil’s parties and had somehow missed Vlad at Anca’s parties as well, Pamfil made the introductions.

“You’re friends with Anca?” Vlad asked as they moved away from Pamfil.

“Yes, we took a course in graphic design together. Before Anca got her job as a teacher at Arte,” Daria said. She went into the kitchen to pour herself a glass of wine, Vlad in tow.

“Teaching French?” Vlad asked.

Daria gave him a guttural assent as she helped herself from a platter crammed with veggie rice pilaf, green and black olives, and baked fish fillets.

“So you’re Anca’s age?” Vlad inquired.

“I don’t see the logical connection, but yes, we’re the same age. I’m twenty-six,” Daria said.

“I’m twenty-eight,” Vlad said, looking at the back of her fifties-style A-line dress, where she had a heart-shaped cutout.

Daria turned to look at him. “Yes, you look twenty-eight.”

Vlad’s face fell.

“What’s the matter?” Daria asked, noting the change in Vlad’s mien.

“I was hoping to look older,” Vlad said seriously, his eyes downcast.

“You for real?”

“Very,” Vlad responded with a smile, glancing back at her.

“Go on, get something to eat!” Daria urged him.

“I’m not hungry. I’m only thirsty,” Vlad said. He held his beer bottle higher for emphasis.

“Let’s sit down,” Daria said. She made herself comfortable on the couch and tucked into her food.

Vlad sat down in an armchair, looking at her.          

“Are you sure you don’t want to eat anything?” Daria asked. “There’s plenty of food for everyone.”

“Yeah, but it’s late.”

“Yes, it is. But I barely ate anything today,” Daria said in between mouthfuls.

“Why? What did you do today?” Vlad asked, eager for the conversation.

“I wrote. And wrote. And wrote,” Daria responded. “Here, have an olive,” she invited, pushing the plate Vlad’s way.

Vlad picked a green olive and then a black one. “They’re very good,” he said. “I should eat more olives.” He took a long swig from his bottle. “They taste great with beer, by the way!”

“I know,” Daria said, her lips curled in a grin.

“So what did you write?” Vlad asked, helping himself to another olive.

“What did I write?” Daria echoed.

“You said you wrote and wrote and wrote today,” Vlad said with a rather dour mien.

“Ah, that,” Daria said, loading her fork. “I wrote two articles.”

“What about?” Vlad asked.

Right then Silvia and Pamfil walked to the piano.

“New song!” Silvia announced.

“Silvia and I will sing ‘Plaisir d’amour’ for you,” Pamfil said.

Everybody cheered and clapped.

Silvia moved to the side of the piano, placing a hand on its top and waiting for Pamfil to get comfortable with his guitar on the piano stool.

As Silvia and Pamfil began to sing about love, with its fleeting joys and the pain that lasts a lifetime, everyone stopped the scraping of plates and their discussions and turned to the piano to enjoy the evening’s surprise.

Vlad quietly commented to Daria that you wouldn’t guess that Silvia was actually a cellist.

When the short musical interlude was over, Pamfil applauded Silvia, and she bent to kiss him on the cheeks.

“They should change their act,” Alice said, speaking to Anca as they enjoyed some apple pie on Pamfil’s bed. “Have you noticed that Silvia never plays her cello here?”

“How are you doing, girls?” Pamfil said, approaching them.

“We were saying that you should maybe change direction,” Alice said, her plate in her lap.

“How so?”

“I don’t know, start something more modern? With your guitar, you and Silvia singing,” Alice said.

“My guitar? You must be kidding,” Pamfil said, locking gazes first with Alice and then with Anca. Anca smiled.

“Your voice, then. Hire someone else for the guitar,” Alice insisted.

“And get rid of my violin playing, just like that?” Pamfil asked with a smirk. “Have you eaten yet? Make sure you do while there’s still time.”

“Some people really like to cling to their old ways,” Alice said to Anca when Pamfil left.

Anca looked at her friend and said nothing. “Would you like some wine? Or Baileys? I’m going to get some for myself too,” she offered after a few moments. She headed into the kitchen to pick up some drinks for both of them and there ran into Silvia, who was ending a conversation with Vlad and Daria and wearing a large grin. Anca gave her a hug and complimented her.

Silvia smiled brightly by way of thanks and headed to the computer to rearrange the playlist. “Vlad agreed to strip for us tonight,” she told Clara, brimming with excitement. Vlad may not have been the smartest man in Silvia’s book, but she was quite enthralled by his physique.

“Really?” Clara responded, unfazed, looking from Pamfil’s desk to where Vlad and Daria were talking and clinking wine glasses.

“He’s the only one who hasn’t done it yet,” Silvia said, her eyes twinkling.

*

“So how was the party?” Henriette asked her sister the next morning.

“Good. You should come to the next one,” Alice said. “I mean, how long are you going to avoid Phil?” she added as she fixed her coffee.

“I think I’m at that point where I’d rather have new experiences than hold on to this masquerade,” Henriette said.

“What masquerade?”

“Oh, Phil and his ‘I’m so young’ performances,” Henriette said, pouring herself coffee from the moka pot into her Chagall-windows mug. “He’s old enough to know better.”

Alice stayed silent for a few seconds. “He’s hosting great parties, I must say.”

Henriette sat down at the kitchen table opposite her sister. “Yeah?”

“I think he’s trying to hook up Vlad and Daria,” Alice said with a smile.

Henriette added some milk and honey to her coffee. “What does Daria do? I forget.” She swirled a teaspoon in her mug.

“She writes for Alina and designs websites,” Alice said.

“I know she’s younger than us, but how old is she?” Henriette inquired.

“Why do you ask?”

“She writes for Alina. And designs websites.”

“She has older colleagues at Alina,” Alice said.

“But she also designs websites. All young people do that these days.”

“She’s twenty-six, Ettie,” Alice said, hoping to end this sudden disagreement. She took a sip of her coffee.

“She’s young,” Henriette repeated, piqued.

“And you, at thirty-six, are old,” her sister retorted.

“Too old to live with you,” Henriette shot back. “We should sell this place and buy new apartments on credit.”

“We don’t have enough money to pay mortgages, Henriette.”

“Then we should make more money.”

“I like my life,” Alice said. “My choices, I mean.”

“I don’t get you!” Henriette exploded. “You push me to work harder and harder, and you ‘like your life.’ But of course! All you do is write and travel. It’s not like you’re pulled in all these directions at the same time, without time or money to recharge your batteries.”

Alice looked at her sister in silence, taking the latter’s acrimony in stride. “Sorry, Henriette, that I’m not more talented,” she spoke after a few beats. Her calm was that of someone who has felt and said that many times.

“I hate it when you say that,” Henriette snapped. “It’s simply not true. And as I told you so many times, comparisons are odious.” She set her Mainz mug down with a bang and got up. “I need to make some changes,” she grumbled, grabbing her coffee mug and putting it in the sink. “I’ve been stagnant too long. I need to travel more to feed my soul.” She made to leave but then turned back and started washing the dishes.

“Then do that, travel,” Alice said after a while, getting up from the table herself.

“It’s no fun traveling alone,” Henriette said. She gave Alice a sad look, hugged her, and then left the kitchen and went into her room.

To be continued . . .

Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel (PAL), Serialized. #18 (“Happiness and health. Almost as hard to find as happiness and virtue”)

Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel, by Mira Tudor

Today’s post is the eighteenth installment of my serialized novel Poets, Artists, Lovers (PAL).

You have all the previous installments HERE.

And here’s the whole novel, with the various Amazon links and a book description.

Please note that these posts go online on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and I will then take them down a month afterward. Enjoy!

#18: “Happiness and health. Almost as hard to find as happiness and virtue”

The following week Henriette visited Ela again. “So how do you understand this love through reason?” she asked her friend as they discussed Plato’s rational love of beauty. “Doesn’t love come from the heart?” She refilled her plate with cooled Galia melon cubes from a bowl in the middle of the large round table of Ela’s bedroom.

“In my view, it can also start with a three-pronged awareness,” Ela began, once again in lecture mode, a stance she had honed through many book reviews. “You take mental notes of what makes you happy: the smells of nature, the beauty of flowers, a hug, a good book, a painting, and so on. Then you feed your sensitivity to beauty by learning more about these things: about flowers, literature, paintings, hugs, and so on. Thirdly, you learn about the hormones and neurotransmitters that make us feel happy and/or in love, and you figure out ways to produce more of those as well. You may not want a lot of norepinephrine or estrogen and testosterone, but you may want more dopamine and oxytocin, a.k.a. the ‘hug hormone,’ or serotonin and endorphins,” Ela said.

“What a cold way of looking at things,” Henriette said, putting her fork down.

“But it makes sense,” Ela replied with a smile. “The small discoveries in beautiful things trigger dopamine, and dopamine makes you more alert to details. It all works.”

“That’s wild, though,” Henriette said, shaking her head in dismay.

“Why?”

“Because apart from the oxytocin, you can increase the levels of all the other chemicals by yourself.”

“But that’s the idea,” Ela insisted, helping herself to more melon. “To live in love and happiness in a way that benefits other people rather than expect them to make you happy.”

Henriette smiled, perplexed, and pondered out loud her own notions of love and happiness. Love, in her view, was about sharing your journey to self-fulfillment and purpose with someone else and growing stronger together in the face of life’s pain. Happiness seemed to her more complicated. While it was often fueled by different varieties of love, it was also in great measure about finding beauty in things—as Ela was saying. But there was more to happiness than that. What Ela failed to consider was the beauty of happiness that defeats our mental strategies: happiness that just happens upon us, in ways we barely understand, when we achieve a good balance of body, mind, and soul.

“But how do you see this love through reason benefit other people?” Henriette then asked.

“You discover more beauty around you and become more responsible to nature, to the beauty in other people. Your eyes open. And your heart,” Ela said, her lips curled into a small smile.

“It’s an intriguing theory,” Henriette relented, taking a deep breath as she leaned back in her chair. “Even though it sounds like a rationalization of what the hippies were trying to do, minus the drugs. The caveat, of course, is that someone has to deal with the least savory aspects of existence, or else we wouldn’t have lawyers and government officials.”

“Yes, but they need to care more for nature and beauty too,” Ela said, fired up.

“Yeah, well . . . maybe they don’t need that as much,” Henriette said sarcastically.

“But everybody does,” Ela countered. She was on a roll now. “You can’t have happiness without it. And is happiness that useless nowadays, with all the diseases we’re facing? Because happiness is not just that, a measure of how joyful and contented we feel in our skin and mind; it also correlates to how healthy and good we are. And if we’re not very healthy and good, we can’t do that much good, can we, no matter how talented we are.”

“But you’re being idealistic again. You’re assuming that happier people do more good than less happy people,” Henriette argued.

“But it’s true. I read it somewhere. They’ve done psychological studies on it. Happier people are more altruistic,” Ela asserted. She served Henriette more melon and then took the last few pieces herself.

“Maybe those who are more altruistic are kinder to begin with,” Henriette put in.

Ela took a deep breath, sat back in her chair, and then leaned forward again. “Maybe. I forgot about it, but I’d thought of that too. But to go back to what I was saying, there’s now this whole new field in psychology showing the positive impact happiness has at the workplace and in society. Happier people are not only more generous with their money, time, and energy but also better at relationships—which makes for happier workplaces, social networks, families, children. And happier people are also better leaders, more eager to take on challenges, more creative at solving problems, and more resilient in the face of adversity. What does all this say to you?”

“That happiness has been underrated?” Henriette quipped.

Ela smiled. “That happiness can be a means to so many other good things at the workplace, community, and society level.”

“And why is that so interesting?”

“It’s interesting because Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics saw happiness as the ultimate goal. But now psychologists say that happiness is desirable for the sake of other things as well,” Ela reiterated.

“I think you lost sight of what Aristotle means by happiness,” Henriette said, her eyes alight with amusement. “He uses the term eudaimonia, which means having a good daimon, or guiding spirit. And he uses it to refer not only to this approximation of what we call happiness but also to the thoughts and actions that derive from it—from a place of good spirit and virtue.”

“Oh. Well then, forget Aristotle,” Ela said, dismissing her previous argument with conviction. “I’ll have to rewrite that review, by the way.” She halted and explained, “I used that argument in a review.” She then looked intently at Henriette. “But since when are you so conversant with Aristotle?”

“Oh, I’m not. But you know how Alice says that philosophy enriches her art history. She keeps giving me books to read now, saying I should be more like Har. Apparently she really liked Har.” She gave Alice one of her ready grins.

“How is Har?” Ela asked, interested.

“He’s good,” Henriette said distractedly, glancing out the window at the tart cherry tree in fruit in the small front yard. “But to return to happiness and better creativity and resilience and leadership and all that, I imagine few people think about it this way. It’s more companies trying to boost productivity, that sort of thing,” Henriette said, forking another piece of melon.

“You’re right. Another difficulty is that people are often stuck in a rut and don’t think much of what could make them both happier and healthier, and how that could benefit other people.”

“Happiness and health. Almost as hard to find as happiness and virtue,” Henriette quipped.

“I think it can be found,” Ela said with resolution.

“By the way, how are your French classes going?” Henriette asked.

“They’re going okay,” Ela responded. “I was hoping to get to study with a native speaker, the way Anca did with Alain back in the nineties. But I’d rather not study with Alain. He seems rather wild.”

Henriette chuckled.

“Anca says there’s a French guy at Arte as well, but he doesn’t teach beginners. I figured I’d study with Anca for a while.”

TEN

Anca had been teaching at the Arte Educational Center for a year when Ela asked her to tutor her in French, and as she was back on her game as a teacher, she agreed.

Then Marcel found out about it. “You want to give Ela French lessons?” he asked one morning as Anca was getting ready to go to work.

“Yes,” Anca responded, looking out the kitchen window.

“Aren’t you trying to do too much?” Marcel went on, feeling a bit heated. “You’ve taken on translating again, and now this. Why do you do it?” He took a drag off his cigarette. “To annoy me?”     

“You kill me with your smoking,” Anca said, waving away the tobacco fumes.

Marcel put out his cigarette. “You haven’t answered my question.”

Anca found it hard to look at her boyfriend. “You know why I do it,” she said after a long moment. “You know me.”

He lit up another cigarette absentmindedly.

“And I know you too,” Anca went on. “You’re so much more than this.”

*

“He’s so twisted,” Anca told Alice when they met in the city for coffee that day at lunch. “He resents me for living with him in a house I had no merit in building, but he also doesn’t want me to give him back the money. I told him once that I’d like to be able to pay him back, in time, for each day of living there, and he said it wouldn’t count, because without him I would still be paying rent. I don’t know what he wants from me! How I could make it right, I mean. And it’s not even his money. His parents sold their downtown apartment and some artwork and built this house. And bought an apartment for themselves and his grandma.” She ran a hand through her short hair. “There’s no way out of this, and it’s ruining our whole relationship.”

“It also seems to be ruining your life. I noticed you’re always thinking of ways to make more money,” Alice said.

“Yes, but I’ve always been that way,” Anca said, sighing. “We were so much happier before. He didn’t question my feelings for him. Now he’s picking on Phil. He’s so insecure. I don’t even know how to behave anymore. And the more I try to make money, the more I resent him for being so complacent.” She lay back in her chair.

“How is he being complacent?” Alice asked.

“He’s content to be just a high school teacher. He doesn’t give private lessons, he doesn’t translate, even though he’s more talented at languages than I am. . . . And he doesn’t cook, either. He’s too much of a man. And when we split the receipts, he pays me only for produce and other foodstuffs. My time and effort don’t count.”

“Then don’t cook,” Alice said, slowly breaking a piece off her croissant. “For a while, at least, until he sees what it feels like to go through a week or two without real food.” She tasted her croissant, crispy on the outside and smooth, stretchy, buttery on the inside. “You could eat in town. You have the money.”

“I could . . .”

“If all else fails, you can leave him,” Alice said, looking sternly at her friend. “Speaking of which, why don’t you leave him? For a trial period.”

“Because it could turn out to be for good,” Anca said. “And I’ve invested too much in this relationship.”

“Really?” Alice said, in mock surprise. “That’s your argument?”

“I love him,” Anca said powerfully. “Not for what he is now, but for what he was and what I think he can be again. He’s not being himself these days. He’s either trying too hard or sabotaging any chance at happiness.”

“If you say so,” Alice put in, skeptical.

To be continued . . .

Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel (PAL), Serialized. #17 (“I missed my beautiful friend”)

Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel, by Mira Tudor

We’ve now gotten to the seventeenth installment of my serialized novel Poets, Artists, Lovers (PAL).

You have all the previous installments HERE.

And here’s the whole novel, with the various Amazon links and a book description.

Please note that these posts go online on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and I will then take them down a month afterward. Enjoy!

#17: “I missed my beautiful friend”

As spring rolled into summer, Ela began to come back to life, going out for more and more walks with George and alone, and losing some of her new weight. As she strolled through the city enjoying the sunshine and the presence of other people, she felt the need to thank God for the beauty in her life and to share her thoughts and feelings with God in the churches she encountered on her way. She approached them with awe, as if those saints in their frescoes were alive and could hear her thoughts. Indeed, the eyes and smiles of saints in certain church paintings seemed to her more magnetic than Mona Lisa’s.

She would pray that her parents, relatives, friends, and teachers be well, and then pray for herself.

“It’s a form of meditation,” she told Alice one day over coffee in a corner of a café. “I envision a tree with the names of dear ones and then travel its lengths and call to mind each person, enveloping that person’s name with a few brain waves,” she added, a good feeling tugging up her lips.

“I like that smile,” Alice said, delving into her sandwich.

“It’s the fact that I get out again,” Ela said, sipping her hot mocha. “George convinced me to follow my dream of learning some French, and that was a good kick in the butt. I met new people and started caring about how I present myself to the world. Which, of course, meant that I had to evaluate the situation I was in from the point of view of other people, people who don’t necessarily care how I developed as a poet.”

“And where are you at now?” Alice asked, tasting her latte.

“Trying to lose weight so I don’t look like someone who has a problem,” Ela answered with a bitter smile.

Alice gave her a questioning look.

“My mother says that young healthy women with strong willpower should make sure they’re slim, or else they send the message that they don’t have enough willpower, or that they’re not healthy.”

Alice, who was quite a few kilos above her desired weight, felt at a loss for words.

“By which she means that they’re not doing what they should be doing about their health,” Ela explained.

“So it’s back to willpower,” Alice put in sarcastically. “You know, it’s more complicated than that. People have all sorts of problems. And sometimes they’re so overwhelmed that they simply cannot find that willpower. Or they have other priorities.” She took another bite of her sandwich.

“I know, I know,” Ela said.

“I think your mother has an obsession with slim bodies,” Alice went on. “She wouldn’t be the only one, anyway. But you should be focused on being healthy. Healthier. Sometimes slim people are not healthy at all. Mass media is messing with our heads.”

“I agree. But the good news is that I’m feeling better,” Ela said, searching for the gentleness she craved from Alice’s brown eyes. “Or beginning to.”

“That’s good.”

“I have developed a very sweet tooth, though, these couple of years,” Ela complained, suddenly dispirited.

“Nothing wrong with a sweet tooth,” Alice said pacifyingly.

“No, but life is about priorities. I prefer to eat fewer sweets and look better,” Ela said, sipping some of her mocha coffee—which, incidentally, had the calories of two chocolate bars.    

“Speaking of willpower, it’s good to see that yours is making a comeback,” Alice said with a smile.

“Yes, it took a while to present itself again,” Ela quipped, a smile playing on her face.

Alice’s lips curled into a grin. “It’s good to have the old Ela back,” she said.

“I’m not the old Ela.” She looked ruefully into the distance.

“I look forward to getting to know the new Ela, then,” Alice said.

Ela chuckled, but inside she was uncomfortable about this new Ela. It pulled her too much into a place where she felt passion for her books—which she had begun to read more closely—and her writing, and despondency about everything else. She tried to dress this despondency in ideas and make it change under their action, but much too often she simply felt weighed down. But then she picked herself up again—or, better said, she found more ideas to pick her up—and continued her efforts to change herself.

Her face became serious. “I never thanked you and Ettie for being there for me all this time.”

“No need to thank us,” Alice responded quickly, waving off her friend’s concern. “But you know that Ettie’s waiting for the green light, don’t you?”

“And you know I’ve forgiven her,” Ela said. “And it wasn’t even that much to forgive. My problem was not with the fact that she hid her relationship with Phil from me, but with me realizing that I completely misunderstood Phil and myself.”

“So if your problem is not with her, then meet her,” Alice coaxed.

“I don’t think I’m ready yet. She’s so joyful, and I still haven’t found something to live for. Something to fight for.”

“Often what we need to fight for is right next to us,” Alice said with a warm smile.

Ela smiled back. “What I’d like to do now is to continue writing.” She took another drink of her coffee. “Experiment with short stories, write that novel, and then another one.”

“Then do that,” Alice said. “Keep your current job—or change it—and try that.”

“Yes, I’ll try that. Problem is, I also miss playing and teaching the piano. Really miss it.”

“I can imagine,” Alice said. “Ettie’s like that too. She needs both her sculpture and her piano.”

“Tell Ettie that I’m getting there. I just need her to have a little more patience,” Ela said.

The next day, Ela emailed Henriette two poems. One of them, titled “Undecided, You Come Back to Me,” told the story of a woman who waits at the train station for her lover, eager to offer him small stories about her inner journey. He gives her wildflowers and then goes inside to rest a while, while she travels the city, happy, her eyes on her wildflowers, letting her joy take her where it will, knowing that when she returns, he will have left her again. Another poem spoke of her touching him with sterile fingers, pouring her saliva over his wounds as a salve, making him suffer more with her salt, with her tongue.

NINE

“Hi, Ela,” Henriette said, happy to finally receive a phone call from her reclusive friend.

“Hi, Ettie.”

“How’ve you been?”

“Oh, mostly stewing in my own juice,” Ela replied, dragging the cord of the phone so she could sit on a chair, “although I have begun to get out again.”

Henriette walked about in her closed balcony. “That’s good.”

Ela fiddled with her curls. “So how are you, Ettie?”

“Busy. And wondering what to do with my life,” Henriette said, picking up one of her sagging-breasts sculptures.

Ela chuckled. “Tell me about it.”

Henriette put her sculpture down. “I would. And in person,” she said, smiling somewhat giddily into the receiver as she stepped back into her room.

“Okay then. Why don’t you come over?” Ela said.

“Before I do, can I read the poems you gave Lis? The ones for Phil?” she asked eagerly.

“If you want. But they make it all sound so simple. It’s all much more complicated,” Ela said, her voice carrying a smile despite the stern pronouncement.

Henriette sat down on her desk chair. “I have all the time in the world.”

“That’s what George seems to say too. And I get mad at him.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s so patient, and he’s trying to move things along gently, with good meals, nice walks . . .”

“And what’s wrong with that?” Henriette asked, a tinge of amusement seeping into her voice.

“He’s so . . . dedicated,” Ela said earnestly. “He’s making me wonder if I can ever be that good to someone.”

Henriette was silent for a moment.

“Come any day,” Ela said. “I’m here, reading, writing my reviews, my poems. . . . But I’m beginning to change my routine. I take long walks with George, and I go to French lessons.”

“Sounds good,” Henriette said, smiling. “So, when do I see you?”

*

Henriette rang Ela’s doorbell the following Saturday. She was received with two kisses and a long hug.

“I missed my beautiful friend,” Ela said on pulling away from their embrace.

“Oh yeah? You didn’t show it very much,” Henriette retorted, a playful touch of indignation in her voice.

“Come in,” Ela said warmly as Henriette took off her shoes. “I made some marble cake.” They sat down at the round table in the middle of her room. “I hope you still eat sugar.”

“I’m pretty healthy, so yes, I do,” Henriette said as she picked up a slice of the fluffy vanilla- and cocoa-flavored confection.

Ela, too, helped herself to a piece of the sweet treat and poured vanilla black tea, topped with milk, for the two of them.

It was ten in the morning, and the summer light shimmered beautifully over the stainless steel platter with the glass teapot and the small white ceramic milk-filled cream pitcher.

“I thought I could stay away from sweets, but the battle is raging on. I don’t think I’ll ever give them up completely,” Henriette said.

“Sweets and simple carbs give you cellulite,” Ela said.

“And oily skin, and clogged pores, I know,” Henriette added, sipping her tea. Her face then took on a wistful expression. “I find that exercise gives you such a good feeling that you don’t crave sweets as much. Or any other foods. Every time I work out on my bike, I feel I don’t need to eat for two or three hours afterward.”

“I’ve noticed that with walking too, if I walk a lot,” Ela said, noticing her friend’s luminous sea-green eyes as if for the first time. “But did you also try to eat less?”

Henriette took another slice of cake from the serving platter and broke off a piece. “This is good! I haven’t eaten marble cake in a long time . . .” She drank some more of her tea. “The tea is good too.”

“Thank you,” Ela said.

“But you asked me about eating less,” Henriette said. “I eat as much as I feel my body needs. Reducing calories is a mistake. If you need 2,500 calories, and you reduce your intake to 2,000 calories, your body will first use your fat reserves, and then it will start to use only 2,000 because it learns that you give it only that much. So you will stop losing weight. But then your body will want to make reserves of energy again and will start to function on even fewer calories. As a result, you will start gaining weight.”

“But I read that people who eat less live longer,” Ela said.

“Could be,” Henriette said as she helped herself to another slice of cake. “Now you’re ruining my pleasure,” she added jocularly—before she caught herself. The Freudian slip made her think sourly of the day Ela discovered her affair with Pamfil, and how in a strange, irrational way she held Ela responsible for ruining her happiness.

Ela picked up on the change in her friend’s mood and knew intuitively what it was about. “You changed your hair color,” she said, aiming to channel the conversation onto a more comfortable course.

“Yes, do you like it?” Henriette asked.

Ela got partway up to run her hand through her friend’s billowing coppery-red mane. She sat back with a smile. “It’s really nice.”

Henriette smiled back. “Lis now says she wants it too, that she’s tired of her sandy hair. She’d like it reddish like mine is now. Somehow she likes this color the best of all the medium-dark reddish hues she’s looked at. I suggested she go reddish golden instead.”

Ela refilled her friend’s mug and then her own.

“Reddish golden? Wow. I think it would look good on her,” Ela said.

“It would look better with green or blue eyes,” Henriette interjected, “but I don’t see why someone with brown eyes couldn’t wear it.” She nursed her tea. “By the way, Lis is now on a weight-loss diet. She doesn’t eat in the evenings.”

“But I just saw her,” Ela said. “She has gained some weight, yes, but she looks fine.”

“She’s gained fifteen kilos since high school,” Henriette said, eyeing her friend sharply, as if her sister’s weight gain was not to be dismissed so easily.

“But that’s natural. She’s thirty-eight, isn’t she? Six years older than I am,” Ela said. “Well, five and a half, since she was born in June and I in January.”

“Yeah, but she’s not happy. She went to her twenty-year high school reunion and said some girls were skinnier than they were in high school. Besides, Daria, this girl Alice knows through Anca, almost became diabetic,” Henriette said. “She did some routine tests, and her blood sugar was 110.”

“Is Daria plump?” Ela asked, seeing what Henriette was getting at.

“Like Alice is now. But she was heavier,” Henriette responded. She drank some more of her tea.

“So did Daria do anything about her blood sugar?” Ela asked after a few moments.

“Yes, she changed her diet and lifestyle,” Henriette responded, visibly pleased to be able to impart life advice. “She switched to healthy carbs, like whole-wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal, things like that. But she’s not eating a lot of grain-based foods overall, because she wants to lose a total of twenty kilos. Now, I wonder if it’s okay to eat grains much if you’re prediabetic. Anyway, she doesn’t, and it helps her lose weight. Apparently, weight loss and exercise are paramount in lowering blood sugar.”

“So she’s eating more fruit and vegetables?” Ela asked.

“Yes,” Henriette responded. “With an emphasis on vegetables. And she’s become a staunch fan of olive oil, salmon, and flax seeds.”

Ela ran her gaze over Henriette’s shapely yet slim figure. She then poured her friend and herself more tea.

“Oh, and after she got her prediabetes scare,” Henriette went on animatedly, “she started going trekking with Anca and Marcel. She’s always liked hiking, but she didn’t like camping.”

“I don’t like tents, either,” Ela said.

“They can be fun,” Henriette retorted.

“Yes, on the beach,” Ela said dismissively. “But in the cold? With all that humidity?”

“I remember when I was a kid and went hiking in the Apuseni Mountains,” Henriette reminisced, quieting down. “We stayed in small huts. It was cold. Very cold. And it rained a lot. But nobody got sick.” She sipped some more of her tea. “I miss hiking. I’m so busy with work these days.” She hung her head down theatrically.

“I love the sweet oblivion of the night’s sleep following a long day in nature,” Ela said, running both hands through her hair and leaning back in her chair. “And feeling sore the next day as you tackle another hike.”

Henriette nodded and sighed.

“I read that dopamine, the pleasurable rewards neurotransmitter,” Ela went on in a professorial vein, “has much to do with the element of surprise, which explains why gambling is so addictive. But dopamine also plays an important role in cognition. So when we learn new things or look up something online, our brain releases dopamine. And here’s the best part. When you hike, you feel good not only because of the serotonin and endorphins released on account of your physical exercise, but also because the landscape is unfamiliar and you discover plants, birds, the morphology and textures of the terrain, freshness in so many forms . . .” As she spoke, a smile suffused her face. “As soon as I get in better shape physically, we’re going hiking. Me and George.”

“That’s good,” Henriette said, her mind elsewhere, on how she would like to sculpt Ela’s face and curls someday, with gemstones not only for her eyes but also for her rich, shiny curls.

To be continued . . .

Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel (PAL), Serialized. #16 (“And what exactly do you love now?”)

Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel, by Mira Tudor

Onward with the sixteenth installment of my serialized novel Poets, Artists, Lovers (PAL).

You have all the previous installments HERE.

And here’s the whole novel, with the various Amazon links and a book description.

Please note that these posts go online on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and I will then take them down a month afterward. Enjoy!

#16: “And what exactly do you love now?”

EIGHT

Upon retreating from the world in the one-bedroom apartment she rented with George, Ela languished, mostly, for a good number of months. Her reviews passed muster but she didn’t imbue them with personal epiphanies and the light of life lived, and she often skim-read the books, treating them as a chore she couldn’t pass on to George. But then she started to respond differently to music. She developed a passion for the fado, that Portuguese expression of loss, longing, and dashed hopes. She listened repeatedly to Amália Rodrigues sing about hard solitude and a tender heart, and she discovered another fado singer she liked, Mariza. She delved into Leonard Cohen’s songs and poetry. And then she wrote her assuredly modulated free-verse stanzas.

They were all inspiring things, and yet emotionally she still felt quasi-depleted, with little to offer. For better or worse, she thought the only thing she could do more or less right for the time being was her confessional poetry, a creative pursuit she’d used as a playground since her teenage years and which now maintained her self-confidence. Her poems, she told George, were the only thing about herself that didn’t feel old and tired.

Between August 2001, when she found Pamfil and Henriette together, and the spring of 2003, she spent her time away from both friends and family. Weeks blended together into months, and months into seasons, until she forgot what it was to rejoice at the first snow of winter or the snowdrops of spring.

Henriette and Alice, knowing they weren’t wanted in person, didn’t visit, but they called on the phone every weekend and sent her emails. In the beginning Ela didn’t check her personal emails for weeks at a time, losing track of time and her social circle. Then, slowly, she reentered her friends’ lives, and as she did so she scribbled some of her last poems about Pamfil. She remembered him barreling through people’s lives, forever young, a raffish combatant. More importantly, she wrote about herself, the woman who, she told herself, trying to encapsulate feelings she wanted contained, had the heft to spurn and forget, until she set off flying in a hot-air balloon away from Pamfil and her friends, traveling to a place of emptiness where the present was blown away, like a dandelion with a head of snow—a place where nothing happened but memories, whirling between all the highs that came to pass and everything that turned to dust.

As the past faded away as a subject and she focused on the present, she began to draw heavily on the spiritually inflected style of Leonard Cohen, the poet and man who moved her to no end. She wrote about herself threadbare here and there, sere of skin where the ghost of him touched her shield, stuck a stencil for him to sear through his mark.

*

“It’s gone. Done. There were only so many arrows in my quiver,” Ela told Alice in April 2003, four months short of two years since Pamfil disappeared from her life. “But it left behind a lot of good stuff.”

Alice smiled. “I can see that.”

“Oh. I meant my outlook on life, not the poems,” Ela said, her face lighting up. She gave Alice a mug of piña colada black tea and poured some more cold water in hers to cool off the brew. A stack of sheets with Ela’s recently completed volume of poetry, Multiple Presents, waited on the table. “Will you give them to him?” Ela asked.

It was the first time since August 2001 that they were talking in person.

“I will if that’s what you want,” Alice said. She got a brownie from a large serving platter in the middle of the kitchen table.

Ela helped herself to a brownie as well. “I want him to know that he has meant so much to me. And that I’m better. That I’ve worked through my feelings and moved on.”

“He’s asked about you, you know,” Alice said, biting into her fudge cake.

Ela sipped her tea. “I know. You told me.” She put her mug down. “I’d like to see him after he reads my poems,” she said, gazing intently at her friend.

“Why? You may be disappointed. He may see nothing of your transformation, or of his role in it,” Alice said. She brushed the crumbs off her hands.

Ela took another bite of her brownie. “Do you think so little of him?”

Alice opened her lips to say something but then changed her mind. She stared into her friend’s hopeful eyes for a few moments.

Ela locked her gaze onto her friend’s. “It’s Ettie, isn’t it?”

“Ettie, you . . . strong women, and yet you were so affected by him. He had such power over you,” Alice responded, her eyes downcast.

“He did! And that was for the best, Lis,” Ela said, putting down the last bit of her brownie. “He made me feel passion, with all its beauty and dangers. I want him to see me now as a lover.”

“As a lover,” Alice repeated incredulously.

“Christians can be lovers,” Ela said earnestly as she cradled her mug. “They well should be. On many levels.”

“That’s true. But why do you care what Phil thinks?”

“He helped awaken me, in a sense. Helped me see what it means to have a passion for life. I want to be a lover from now on, a lover who has been vanquished and then rises up to love with even more passion.” Ela reached for another brownie. “Do you like these?” she asked her friend. “It’s a new recipe for me.”

“Yes, they’re good. I like that you made them moist and chewy this time.”

“It’s Ettie’s recipe. Poor girl still feels she was the reason I ‘broke up with Phil,’ as she keeps saying. As if we’d been together,” Ela said, bemused.

“So, then, why is Phil so important to you?” Alice asked, searching Ela’s eyes for an answer. “I still don’t understand.” She put her mug down. “Especially as he hurt you so much.”

“He crushed me, all right, but then he made me discover passion, and through passion I have come to feel more love,” Ela said.

“But you barely knew him,” Alice said, staring at Ela in disbelief.

“We met at exhibitions, we met in the city . . .” Ela said placatingly.

“But passion is blinding, Ela,” Alice stated bluntly. “You didn’t notice he had something going with Ettie. You didn’t really know him.” She laid her hands around her plate.

“That may be true, but he made me feel passion nonetheless. And then, in time, came the love.”

“For him as well?” Alice asked.

“For him as well,” Ela responded.

“It’s the first time you’re saying this, that it was more than a powerful attraction,” Alice said.

“It took me a while to accept it,” Ela said. “In fact, I was mad at him for a long time without knowing why,” she added. “More tea?” she asked Alice.

Alice nodded yes, and Ela topped up her mug. Then she poured herself more tea as well.

“Mad because he led you on while he was dating Ettie?” Alice put in, feeling the answer was obvious.

“Yes, at first I thought that was it, but in reality I was in shock,” Ela said, taking a gulp from her mug. “He turned my whole world upside down, and I was asking myself all these questions: what it means to live life with a passion, or with love, or with a mixture of the two, what it means to feel both passion and love for the same person, what it means to love someone and life and God, what kind of passion and love you need for that . . .” She picked up another brownie and bit into it. “These brownies are really different from how I usually make them. They’re very good, aren’t they? And the recipe was very similar to mine. Same ingredients, just different quantities.” She drank some more of her tea. “I don’t think he was in love with Ettie,” she said, her gaze meeting Alice’s.

Alice shook her head in disbelief. “And you think he was in love with you?” she asked.

“No, I don’t,” Ela responded with a small smile.

“What then?”

“I think he’d never learned to love,” Ela said. “Love with a passion and tenderly and on a higher level. Just like me. I mean I hadn’t either. I only began to love this way after I met him. Only after he shook my whole way of looking at things.”

“That doesn’t make much sense, his teaching you a kind of love he hasn’t grasped himself,” Alice said.

“I know.”

“And what exactly do you love now?” Alice asked.

“Beauty,” Ela said. “Isn’t Eros the faithful companion of Aphrodite?”

“Now you sound like Plato,” Alice said with a smirk.

Ela chuckled, amused. “In what way?” she asked, putting her mug down.

“In a famous passage in the Symposium, known as the Ladder of Love,” Alice began, “Plato has Socrates tell of his dialogues with a woman named Diotima. According to her, the pursuit of Beauty starts with being attracted to the beauty in a body, then in all bodies, then in a soul and in all souls, till finally you glimpse the beauty of laws, institutions, sciences, and philosophy. Then you contemplate the Idea of Beauty and come to give birth to virtue and wisdom, creating beauty yourself.”

“What about the arts? You mentioned only the sciences.”   

“He leaves them out on purpose. Plato understood artists to operate in the world of appearances, producing imitations of copies of Ideas, and as such twice removed from the latter. Ideas such as Beauty, Justice, the Good, and others. But that’s just a dry way to explain quickly how the arts fit into his Theory of Ideas, and he didn’t reject all works of art either. In fact, the explanation is longer and has to do with the difference between opinions and knowledge, with writers and visual artists who are only aiming at Ideas rather than able to apperceive them (when he talks of poets’ inspiration, he argues that it doesn’t give them access to truths), with the fact that representations of tragic plays stir the passions, and so on. You have to understand that Plato’s love of beauty is rational rather than emotional—he talks through the character of Diotima of a love of the body and one of the soul, one for begetting children and another for begetting virtue and wisdom. Which, incidentally, doesn’t mean that this so-called Platonic love, while aiming at a love of the soul, couldn’t involve sex too.”

“I know,” Ela said with a smile as she got up to make more tea. “Peppermint tea okay?”

“Yes, fine,” Alice responded.

“I’m growing peppermint on my balcony,” Ela said.

“Nice! I can’t wait to taste the tea.”

Ela set an ibrik with water on the stove. The late-afternoon sun sent orange light into her kitchen. They stood silent for a moment, looking out the window.

“I’m thinking of writing a novel,” Ela said, drinking the last of her piña colada tea.

“What about?”

“About beauty in sadness and sadness in beauty. My two favorite ideas these days.”

“But that’s life—more or less,” Alice said, flashing her friend a big smile.

“Yes, but my novel will be mostly about artist lovers,” Ela said, getting up to add some dried peppermint leaves to the water in her ibrik.

“Still too vague,” Alice said with a chuckle.

“I’ll think some more about it,” Ela said, a little unnerved.

“Have you written any of it?” Alice asked.

“No, but I have quite a few poems I want to intersperse in the narrative,” Ela said.

“Will it be inspirational?” Alice asked pointedly.

Ela found herself laughing. “Are you asking me if it’ll be depressing?”

Alice’s smile broadened. “A little.”

Ela chuckled. “No, it won’t,” she said, and proceeded to explain how she planned to make it beautiful. “It starts with wandering around like Alice—not you,” she said with a smile as she read from a piece of paper with put-on panache, “living a life of superimposed uncertainties—you know, uncertain about my purposes in life but no underlying tectonic plate motion to make me really seek a higher love—until they’re suddenly flung out . . . finding myself chained to barren solitude, and then slowly taking revolving steps to grind away my memories, feeling my way around them devoid of meaning, bereft of a soul, till, slowly, a zephyr drifts in, and I hear its call to make it beautiful, to make emptiness sing as I push it out, to wind through words as if it matters.” She took a deep breath. “And then I start the story. That was just the prologue.”

“Will your poems be verse, or part of the narrative?” Alice asked.

“I’ll probably write them as prose, after all.”

“Yes, better. That way you may just get away with it,” Alice said wryly. “Confessional poetry of this kind is not much in vogue these days, but strangely it makes quite an appearance in some novels.”

They joked about it for a while, Ela reciting lines of poetry from her readings and Alice jotting down a few of them, as she, too, had written verse once and now liked to use bits of her favorite public-domain poems in her travel pieces and her short stories. Then they returned to the idea of a novel, and Alice shared that she’d always wanted to write one about her teenage years but couldn’t make it come together.

Finally, they commiserated over having gained weight. It had affected Alice gradually and Ela within the last year and a half, after first having lost eight kilos, and now they were both trying to find the determination to do something about it. Ela decided to start taking long walks with George again, but as the weather got warmer, she felt more and more uncomfortable showing her body to the world.

“So much of life is presentation,” she said one day in May as she and George were strolling in Titan Park. “When I was slim, I didn’t give it much thought, because it was easy to feel presentable,” she added as her gaze glided over the many acacia trees around them, their pendulous racemes of white blossoms radiating a powerful sweet scent.

“Now you understand women who have always had trouble keeping down their weight,” George said. “Maybe some of them never got to be self-confident because they were plagued with excess kilos since their childhood or teenage days.” He stopped to smell an acacia inflorescence.

“True. I thought about it,” Ela said, meeting his harsh thinking on weight matters without a wince. “And it seems that in this respect age is a leveling factor. For one reason or another, most women over thirty-five are prone to gain weight.”

“Well, you’re not there yet. But yeah, slower metabolism,” George put in.

“Also stress,” Ela pointed out. “Stress, more responsibilities, less time to make better dietary choices, less inclination.” She took in a few deep breaths of the scented air.

“That and lack of exercise,” George added.

To be continued . . .