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