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.”
“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 . . .