(A Very Romantic Story)
I was in tenth grade when Peter transferred to our high school. He kept to himself, and didn’t do well academically, but he wasn’t timid or stupid. He simply didn’t care, as if more attractive things were awaiting him someplace else.
He had a beautiful sister, two years his senior.
Bucharest of those years was a wanderer’s paradise, and we walked daily to and from school, sometimes lost for hours on end, haphazardly traversing overgrown parks and mazes of tangled streets covered by cobblestones and cracked asphalt. Small houses hid deeply behind rusted fences. Stray cats and dogs slept in dusty pools of sunshine.
Peter didn’t walk with us, but I saw him often, always neatly dressed, in the company of older girls, probably friends of his sister. He was a skinny boy with a dark complexion, black hair combed straight over a high forehead, and a lean face that seemed in constant need of a shave. His eyes were like shiny chestnuts, and adorned by long and romantic eyelashes. His teeth were white and regular, except for two in the upper front that were slightly crooked, came together at an angle and added a charming irregularity to his otherwise balanced face.
When he asked me to pay him a visit, I was intrigued and I quickly accepted. He gave me his address — a street by the river, not far from my neighborhood.
He lived with his parents, and his room was separated from the rest of the apartment by a long hallway, and a solid oak door. It was a spacious room, tidy, and sparsely furnished. A worn Oriental covered the hardwood floor. Next to the bed on a shelf was a sophisticated hi-fi. Peter selected an LP and carefully lowered the needle, filling the room with American rock music. There was a butcher-block table pushed against a wall, and two chairs. I looked around for books but didn’t see any. An open window allowed the cool breeze to flow in, bringing with it the fragrance of blooming linden trees. The whitewashed walls carried no artwork, except for a poster of Che Guevara. Under his black beret, the face of the rebel seemed hardened by the tufts of his untrimmed beard.
Peter threw himself on the bed and froze on his back, stare fixed at the ceiling. I sat on a chair and waited for him to speak.
“I’m Jewish,” he said suddenly, as if to shock me, or challenge me, and bring us to the brink of a verbal engagement.
“So?” I answered hesitantly. The long silence that followed was softened by music. I felt compelled to continue. “To me all people are equal.” I didn’t perceive the banality of my statement. It was true, but inconsequential. So many people — politicians, teachers, dissidents, and dictators — had said it before me, that its simple reiteration carried with it a dose of indifference, if not the implication of the reverse. I said it and didn’t flinch, and Peter didn’t seem to mind it either; he only looked at me for a second and smiled, his crooked teeth giving his face an innocent aura.
“Just wanted you to be warned,” he said.
Actually, I was more intrigued by the size of his room, and its tidiness, and the source of the sophisticated hi-fi (a relative from the West, no doubt), than about his newly revealed ethnicity.
“Why did you change schools?” I asked.
“It’s a love story.”
A long pause ensued and he allowed it to linger. When he spoke, his voice was raspy. He sat up, and startled me with an order. “Look at the back of the poster. Unpin it.”
I did as he requested.
“Read what’s written on it, aloud.”
The words, in blue ink, were smeared as if washed by tears. ‘We shall pulverize them with our love, Marenka.’
He repeated the words after me.
“She was a Czech exchange student,” he said, again on his back, his gaze glued again to the ceiling. “She lived in the dorm by the power plant. Her father had worked at the Embassy, but when his posting ended they sent him back to Czechoslovakia. She stayed behind to finish the school year. She never did. Marenka.” He said her name, and his voice cracked.
I pinned the poster back to the wall.
“My sister took me to a dance for seniors,” he continued. His voice was softer now, and as he spoke it grew softer yet, like the breeze that came in through the window. “That’s where I saw Marenka. The moment I saw her, I knew. I followed her through the crowd — she was tall, and following her was easy. She started dancing, alone, her eyes closed. I would have died for a glimpse at the world behind her eyelids. When she stopped, I caught her gaze. We moved in between people seeking each other, first at a distance, appearing and disappearing like in a game. We drew closer, and closer, and finally stood face to face. There was a naughty smile on her face, insinuating, alluring. We whispered for a while, and giggled. We danced. She was frail in my arms and cuddly. She wore a silky white blouse with a lacy collar, over a flat chest, like a boy’s. Her hips moved in the rhythm of the music. It felt as if I had known her for ages, but we didn’t even know each other’s name. Her accent surprised me. I had never heard a foreigner speak Romanian before. It was endearing and amusing and sophisticated, all at the same time. I suggested we go someplace else. She looked at her wristwatch and suddenly became very agitated. ‘I have to go right away,’ she said. I was holding her hand. I thought we would walk out together, and started leading her to the door. ‘Leave me alone,’ she yelled, and I felt totally confused. Then she gave me a quick peck, and slipped away. I couldn’t help but follow her from a distance. In the street, I saw a black car pulling to the curb.”
Peter stopped. His face looked angular, nose pointing upwards, large and sharp. The skin on his jawbone had the color of steel. The LP had stopped turning, but we didn’t need any music.
“What next, you must have seen her again?”
He pushed himself up and sat on his bed. “Cigarettes?” he said.
I pulled a small bundle out of my pocket — eight of them held together by a shiny piece of foil paper wrapped around one end.
“The next day, I waited for her at school,” Peter said. He ripped the foil paper and the cigarettes rolled on his bed. They were cheap, stubby, unfiltered Carpați cigarettes (the Carpathians, in Romanian). We lit up and breathed through billows of smoke.
“That day we walked for hours,” Peter said. “It was in the fall. The leaves were turning and the evenings were setting in early. Marenka looked over her shoulder to make sure nobody followed us. Then we got lost in the park. We sat on a bench, admired the colors, recited poetry, and talked. She told me about her father, and the strict rules he had laid down for her when he left. She had to follow them, and the Embassy thugs were always watching her. ‘Don’t want to cross them,’ she said. I grabbed her hands and pulled them to my lips. Then I kissed her face, her eyes, her neck, and her golden hair. I hugged her so hard our love seeped through our bodies like the heat of the summer seeping into the fall. I kissed her on the lips. Later we walked to the chapel at the edge of the park and she lit a candle for her mother, who had died when she was a little girl. At the Farmer’s Market behind the Opera House, we bought two ripe pears and ate them sitting down on the curb. A passing taxi driver beeped at us.
“We crossed the bridge and looked at the dirty river. The black water reflected the dark underbelly of the bridge. We walked along the steep bank, holding on to the railing, and when we got to the Statue of Independence we stopped and we kissed again. Her lower lip was still sweet from the pear. I read the inscription at the base of the statue. The woman of stone, with her hand raised to the sky was the symbol of eternal hope, while the small creatures crushing each other and grabbing at the folds of her robe were the masses, the gnomes, the unknown victims of war. I spoke to her of the elusive significance of our independence from the Russians, the Germans, and the Turks. She understood our fear of Russians. We talked about wars.”
Peter took a last puff of his cigarette and put it out.
“We continued our walk up the river,” he said. “And then we came to the fountain.”
“The fountain?” I put out my cigarette also. All the places he had described so far were familiar to me. I had grown up nearby and I thought I knew every square inch of the area, every street corner, every store, market, chapel, statue, and backyard. I thought I knew the riverbanks like the back of my hand.
“Not many people know of it,” Peter continued. “In fact, it’s a spring, hidden deep in a thicket. You have to follow a gravel path that disappears. The Gypsies had shown it to me. It’s in a flat grassy patch, surrounded by trees. The fountain is a white marble cube with a drinking spout. It contains the spring, and funnels the water underground to the river. But if you push a certain plate on the side, the water squirts up, clean and cold, like nowhere else in the city. The Gypsies said the outlaws had built it at the end of the last century, and the authorities had torn it down to get a handle on crime, when they dredged the river. But the Legionari had secretly restored it. In there, you cannot be seen from the street. You’re safe.”
“You didn’t show it to Marenka, did you?”
“That very same evening. We drank the water, and made love in the grass. We used our backpacks as pillows.”
I reached for my cigarettes. The breeze from the window grew cold.
“Why did you move to our high school?” I asked.
“They forced me. After they caught us, I was given no choice. They made this huge stink out of it. Poor Marenka.”
I distinguished warmth in his features, and a melancholy smile.
“When it got cold outside she started coming here.” he said. “She came often. This place. This bed. We made love in this bed, and then studied into the night. We were happy. We listened to music, smoked, and talked about freedom. We talked about revolutions. Marenka lowered her guard. She became careless. Somebody must have seen her, the thugs at her Embassy, or maybe our own thugs. I remember when they came. It was late evening. The lights were off and a glow was coming through that window from the fresh snow. We were playing in bed. Marenka was on top of me, her knees straddling my chest. She straightened her arms and caressed my face. I told her how much I loved her. She inhaled deeply, sighing. Her breasts moved up and down her ribcage — two swollen rosebuds. I saw the lights flashing through her hair and heard the car engines. They kicked the door with their boots. They beeped the horns and yelled in dark, brutal voices. Our neighbors came out. My parents came out. We dressed as fast as we could, but it was too late to hide or disappear. An embassy sedan was waiting outside, along with two police cars.
“They came to school the next morning and talked to the principal. Marenka’s father was called in from Prague. The school didn’t want anything to do with a diplomat’s daughter, so they decided to blame me. I was the younger one, but it didn’t matter. They suspended me, and after my parents were notified, they allowed me to re-enroll in another school. I didn’t care. All I wanted was to protect Marenka. That’s when she gave me the poster with Che. She sneaked out one night and met me at the fountain. The frozen stars flickered on the river surface. We sat on the ground and rested our backs against the marble. Her hands felt like icicles. I bent over her and kissed her little breasts through the woolen sweater. She told me she was returning to Czechoslovakia. We wept.”
As I left Peter’s apartment, my steps carried me straight to the river. I started at the Farmer’s Market and went over the bridge, by the Statue of Independence, and further, as far as I could walk, towards the dorms near the power plant. I checked out every bush, every cluster of trees, and every thicket. I explored the shadows, leaned behind posts, and walked onto all the patches of grass that looked as if stepped upon by other humans. An older girl crossed my way, and I watched her disappear into the dusk. She was tall. She had a boyish silhouette, and a blond crop of hair. I wanted to follow her, but instead I fished the last Carpați out of my pocket, and smoked it until it burned my fingertips. I felt possessed by my urge, and repelled by it — the attraction of older girls, the access they apparently gave you, and the deliverance. Marenka, a senior in high school, must have been eighteen. Peter and I were fifteen and a half. The romantic fascination of his story was stained by my crude thirst for details — my imagination filled in the gaps. I felt exhilarated. Disgusted with myself. Frustrated. Betrayed.
I was a virgin, unable to discover the fountain by the river.
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