I skipped class at eleven to make it to our first date. Carmen was late. I waited nervously, hands in my jeans’ pockets, barely noticing the nice April weather, the people rushing by, and the old downtown buildings casting shadows across the wide boulevard.
When I saw her, I practically ran towards her. She was wearing a blue dress, short above her knees, no stockings, and sexy high heels. I must have grinned broadly, because she gave me a hug, and said, “What’s the matter, you look so utterly happy, you know!”
“Nothing,” I said. I considered adding, I’m happy to be here with you, but I didn’t.
She took my hand and pulled me in the direction of the underground passage at the corner.
“Where’re we going?” I asked, ready to follow her anywhere.
“They’re showing Barefoot in the Park at the Film Academy. Do you mind if we go?”
A musty smell of rot and cigarette smoke filled the gloomy underground passage. Here and there a thin layer of dirt covered the tiled floor. Gypsies peddled videocassettes and Rexona soap bars at the foot of the broken escalators leading to the street. Holding hands, we cut through the crowd, came out of the underpass, and walked in the shade of the buildings.
I had heard of the movie but I hadn’t seen it. Although there were many things we could be doing instead, the thought of sitting with Carmen in a dark theater was not bad. The Film Academy was near Union Tower, just around the corner from University Square. After the movie we could go to a restaurant on the ground floor of the tower, although my favorite was Café Victoria, near the Athénee Palace Hotel.
The film had started when we got there. A young Jane Fonda had just run up six steep flights of spiraling stairs and entered a quaint and sunny apartment. The theater was half empty, and the darkness in the back row almost absolute. For the next hour and a half, I kissed Carmen, caressed her and whispered to her, trying to ignore the squeaks of the old wooden chairs.
We came out into the daylight disheveled, eyes squinting. If there was anything besides Carmen on my mind, it was how stiff and unsympathetic Robert Redford’s character had been in the movie. I couldn’t comprehend why somebody newly married to beautiful Jane Fonda would be bothered by her mild extravagances. I mumbled something to Carmen about this, but she looked at me as if in a trance, and walked on. That might have been the right time to invite her to my apartment. I thought about it, hesitated, and the moment was gone.
So I kept on about the movie. “Think about it,” I said. “This is the same actor who later plays brilliantly in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
“He was in the role,” Carmen said, and asked if I liked the scene in the Albanian restaurant, with the spicy foods, and the over-the-hill female dancer.
“The Balkans must seem as foreign to America as America is to the Balkans,” I said.
I had decided to take her to my favorite café and was leading her behind the beautiful old Kretzulescu Church, to the front of the former Royal Palace. The neo-classical stone buildings of the General Assembly and the National Library stood somberly on the far side of the square. Several policemen with submachine guns watched over the large plaza, now a parking lot. We were a few hundred feet away, and as we came closer, they turned in our direction.
They always did.
“America,” Carmen whispered. “America is my dream.”
The café had small round tables covered with white tablecloths. We sat by the large bay window and ordered a few pastries and hot tea. Carmen excused herself and went to the ladies’ room. When she came back, her hair was combed, and she looked very girlish and pretty.
I think it was her meticulously regained propriety, her slightly vulnerable air, and her swollen upper lip — from all our kissing, I hoped — that suddenly gave me the courage to bring up, one more time, what had happened a week earlier on our hiking trip to the Southern Carpathians. We were a large group of students, maybe fifty or so. I didn’t know Carmen, but when I met her, I liked the way she looked. She was studying philosophy, and I engineering. Philosophy seemed exotic to me. We started talking, and wound up spending the evening together. We danced, and we kissed. I was sure there was a true vibe between us. But in the morning, she appeared distant. Perhaps I misread her, but it got me very upset. My reaction was immature, I know. My parents say I have to grow up. On impulse, I left the lodge and wandered off into the rugged mountains surrounding us. After a few hours, our guide sent a search party for me. By mid afternoon I was back. I was in hot water with them.
“Tell me,” I asked Carmen now. “Over there, up high in the mountains, were you really worried for me?”
“Of course I was.”
I glanced out the window. Pedestrians looked like glinting silhouettes in the sun-drenched street. “Did you really think I could have turned up dead?”
“Yes,” she said.
“I told you what happened.”
“You were stupid, that’s what happened. And we went crazy looking for you.”
“Sure,” I said, and trying to reconcile my being stupid and her going crazy I reached for a cigarette. “I was stupid, okay? But from there to fearing death is a stretch.”
“Is it? And if I had been the one who had disappeared, wouldn’t you have worried at all?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I might have been upset, or jealous. But I wouldn’t have worried.”
I lit my cigarette and puffed at it for a while. She asked for a drink. They served Romanian brandy in that place, and I ordered two large snifters.
“Wouldn’t you have wanted to find out where I was, before getting jealous?” she asked. “Wouldn’t you have wanted to know, first of all, that I was safe?”
“I guess not. I guess I wouldn’t think about safety. Maybe it’s because I’m a guy. We think differently. We don’t worry. I mean we do, but for different reasons, you see?”
She took a sip of her drink and lit a cigarette. She didn’t look too content.
“Maybe you think it’s wrong,” I offered. “But for me, death is not a part of the equation. Death does not happen, not now. They say death is a part of life; perhaps, but I rarely think of it, and I cannot do it in an immediate, physical sense. I think about death the way one thinks about the origin of life, or eternity, or something very abstract like that.”
“Okay, Mr. Philosopher,” Carmen said. “Eternity is not related to death. According to Descartes, eternity is not time without end, as you might think. Instead, it’s an elevated qualitative state of a different essence, if you know what I mean.”
I didn’t. And this business about Descartes had nothing to do with anything. Perhaps the guy said what she said, and perhaps not. I still thought that my little diatribe about death was pretty good.
I ordered a second brandy, and drank it quickly.
A few elderly men sat at the tables around us, most wearing tidy but shabby business suits. I knew they weren’t business people. They whispered to each other, frail in their movements and sparse in their selection of food and drink. They were the old aristocracy of Bucharest that had survived World War II.
“It would be interesting,” Carmen said, “to understand how America has changed in the last fifteen years, since the movie first came out.”
She was changing the topic, of course.
“We’re ready to accept the movie as reality,” she continued, “but I guess that Americans watching it today must see it in a different light. Along with the love story, they get a time capsule perspective of New York and its culture. Don’t you think?”
I should have taken her to my apartment, that’s what I thought. I should have ripped her clothes off. A city was a city to me, and always in the present tense. I didn’t know New York, and I didn’t care to. Perhaps it evolved, or perhaps it stayed stagnant and stale. I didn’t go to the movies to find out about history, or Descartes. So what if I didn’t know squat about him? Would she know anything about an induction field coil or a microchip?
“Look,” I said, “I don’t know where you’re going with this.” I waved to the waiter and asked for another brandy. The silhouettes walking past the windows were getting blurry and gray. “For me, Bucharest is the place. Not New York, not Paris, not Moscow. Bucharest. I was born here, raised here, and I care about it a lot. If you want to see evolution, I’ll show you evolution.”
I pulled my chair closer to her and kissed her. The legs of the chair screeched on the tiled floor, and the remnants of the Romanian aristocracy turned to watch us.
I kissed her again.
“I’ll show you an evolution you haven’t experienced before,” I whispered into her ear and laughed.
She didn’t respond.
I nibbled on the lobe of her ear while pulling at her dress sleeve. I moved my lips downwards to kiss her neck.
“Andy!” Carmen pushed me away and rearranged her dress. She was flustered, and the delicate skin under her eyes was baggy again.
The waiter came by. She cancelled my brandy, and asked him to bring me a cup of coffee and a croissant. I didn’t object. I cooled down while we waited, then I drank from the white porcelain cup with the navy blue logo of the restaurant. It was Turkish coffee, thick as mud, and black.
“Andy,” she said, “I do like you a lot.”
“You came here to study,” I said. “You came here from a small town and don’t know this city at all. If you allow me, I’ll show you around. I’ll take you to beautiful places. We could go row a boat on the lakes north of here or see where the Gypsies live. I could take you to the tree-lined street where my mother was born. I could take you to parties and introduce you to friends. Or, you could come to my place, my parents’ apartment, now, when they aren’t home.” I paused for a second and added, “I assure you, unlike in the movie, there’re no six flights of spiraling stairs to climb.”
Our two-bedroom apartment was on the second floor of an old villa, covered in ivy on a quiet street. I took Carmen to my room and locked the door. Usually, my father came home first, then my mother. If they found my door locked, they silently walked away.
My father took my encounters as a simple matter of sexual hygiene. It was different for my mother. She cared about my feelings and those of my girlfriends, but more than anything else she feared I would get somebody pregnant. There were no contraceptives on the market, abortions were illegal, and pregnancies were to be taken seriously, my mother said. I agreed, but my mating instincts were stronger than my brain, and, like countless others before me, I was willing to tempt fate and taste the momentary generosity of any woman who would agree to join me in the privacy of my room.
Carmen threw off her shoes and undid the zipper at the back of her dress. The sleeves fell off her shoulders, her blue dress sliding down her body and gathering on the floor in a circle around her feet. Her small breasts, covered by the half-empty cups of the brassiere, reminded me of those of a teenage girl.
Still dressed, I sat on the bed. That morning I had made it fresh with snow-white linens my mother had picked up from the dry cleaners the night before.
“Come,” I said taking her hand.
Dreamily, I pulled her closer to me and turned her around. She remained standing while I unhooked her brassiere and dropped it on the floor near the dress. Her hips were full and now a little lower without her heels. I turned her around one more time, placed my fingers on the elastic band of her panties, and pulled them down to her knees.
She watched me, and didn’t object.
Her docility surprised me. I had anticipated some resistance, at least the customary amount, or some explanation and agreement between us, which, once negotiated, would make our next step a shared responsibility. I was dominated by desire, while my mind was still in a fog from the brandy. What I didn’t know, and didn’t even try to understand, was what she wanted. It didn’t occur to me that in her tacit surrender she needed my encouragement less than she needed to gauge my reaction. That moment was the unrepeatable instant of us discovering each other, and that mattered to her. She didn’t want to resist. She wanted to understand me. She wanted to sense me, and respond to me.
“Come,” I said again.
She leaned into me. I fell backwards, pulling her after me, then rolling over her, across the width of the bed. Somehow I managed to get undressed, and we made love, a little hastily perhaps and a little awkwardly.
When we finished, I lay next to her with my eyes closed and didn’t think about much. Later, as dusk threaded through the ivy hanging around the window, I noticed that it had the same dull metal glow as the day I saw Carmen for the first time by the dusty window at the lodge. Just like then, her skin had now taken on a ceramic luster, and her hair the fine tint of twisted copper.
“When I was ten,” Carmen said, “my dad had a pair of red shoes made for me.” She was on her back next to me and she raised one foot into the air, straightening her ankle and pointing her toes, as if to help me visualize the red shoes she had once possessed. “You couldn’t buy beautiful shoes in the stores. Dad was a big shot then — he still is — and had this shoemaker make them for me, special order. They were as little as this.” She indicated the size of the shoe by spreading her thumb and index finger and bending them to form the letter C. Her fingers were long and slim, the nails were cut short, and she used no nail polish. The skin on her hands was dry and reddish around each knuckle. “I was so proud of those shoes. I had a red and white dress that matched them, and I liked wearing white ribbons tied in my hair. One Sunday, on my way back from school after choir practice, I stopped by the creek in the park. My head was filled with dreams and music. Boys from my neighborhood always spent time by the creek and sometimes I watched them play. If they saw me, they’d stop their game and invite me to join in. I liked playing with them. They were tender and shy, and they smelled of rain, and of leaves and dust.” Carmen turned to the wall and continued talking in a melancholy voice. “That Sunday, one older boy wasn’t tender at all. He tripped me, and when I fell, he stretched his hand out to me. I thought he was sorry and wanted to help, so I grabbed it but he pushed me again, this time into the creek. My shoes and my dress were ruined. I got so mad that all I wanted was to pummel his body with my fists. He was larger and stronger than me, but I started at him, and he backed off laughing and ran away. I ran after him, but he was faster, and the other boys stood there, watching us, and laughing. Dad was upset because I ruined my shoes, and he reacted the way he usually did: he told his chauffeur to start the car, and, before leaving the house, he yelled at my mother.”
The brandy still clouded my mind, but it wasn’t the alcohol. I found pain in her story, as if there was more to it, much more.
Rather than speak, I took her in my arms, held her, and caressed her hair. It was softer to the touch than it looked, and I parted it on one side of her head and kissed her. She turned and I kissed her again, and then rolled under her while she straddled my middle.
We began moving slowly, and, as on the night we had danced at the chalet and I had held her in my arms, I sensed she was perfect for me. As we moved in that synchronized embrace I noticed the way she turned her head, the pulse on her neck, the fact that she kept her eyes open, a red mark on the side of one breast where I must have rubbed a little too hard or kissed her too passionately. I listened to the rhythm of her breathing and tried to get my clues from it. Soon the whole world would feel sharply painful, not because it hurt, but because it would be so right and fleeting.
The life and death inside me were coming together when she slapped me. It was a small slap, right across the side of my face, provoking.
“What?” I exclaimed.
She didn’t answer. Soon, our undulations died off, and I watched her head turn to the left and the right. Our breathing slowed down. When hers became regular, she pulled herself slowly close to me. Her skin felt cool like a river.
“Why did you slap me?”
“I don’t know.” She dried herself with the sheets, propped her cheek on her fist, and looked at me, her eyes playful. “Love is a rebellious bird,” she sang, and she burst into laughter.
“Please tell me,” I insisted, unsure if she was mocking me or hiding from me. “I want to understand.”
“And you don’t? This is odd. Sometimes I think the world of you, Andy, and sometimes you’re as dull as the guy in the movie.”
“You mean Robert Redford?”
“Yes,” she said. “Him.”
After walking her to the dorm, I went back to my room, made the bed and fluffed up the pillows. Suddenly, I had this strange urge to look for three droplets of blood in a small perfect clover. But there were none. Carmen had her own past, and I wasn’t the center of everything.