THE ADRIATIC. DEEP AND A BIT WILD. And totally transparent by the shore. Early summer. The locals could not recall a similar cold snap.
“Welcome,” said the homeowner, greeting her two guests by the gate. She led them up to a house with a balcony covered by a grapevine.
“The weather is not cooperating,” she said, as if apologizing, and quietly shut the gate, leaving them alone.
“How lovely! It’s a pity you can’t see the water from here. Shall we take a walk?” said the young woman, tossing her straw hat onto the ottoman.
“Yes, just let me park the car under the overhang,” said the man.
The woman looked at the roof of the house, covered in terracotta tiles. Clouds filled the sky, and it became quite cool. She threw a knitted scarf over her dress, sat down on the rattan chair, and lit a cigarette. They would meet up once a year, always in some southern country. They never had a proper vacation. Neither of them was free. He always had work to do and combined business with pleasure. She would abandon her husband to accompany her lover on his trips. These short visits followed by long separations were hard on her. The affair had no future, but it had gone on for years. A case of painful codependency.
“I’m here,” he said, putting the keys down on the table.
They took a beach blanket just in case and headed down the hill to the sea. The beach was empty. Some small fishing boats stood at anchor offshore.
The woman took off her sandals and went into the water up to her ankles. Her ankles were thin, and a gold chain shone on one of them. As she turned around, the wind blew her hair into her eyes.
“The water’s cold,” she shouted.
“What?” replied her companion.
“I said, it’s cold.”
She came back and ran her wet hands over his face.
“Lara, my wife and I are getting divorced,” he said.
“Did something happen?” she asked, looking down at the small pebbles and trying to remain calm.
“It has nothing to do with you. We’ve been headed there for a long time. And one other piece of news. I’m going to the Middle East. I’ve been asked to head a project.”
“Permanently?” the woman asked. Red splotches were beginning to break out over her body.
“The contract is for three years. After that, we’ll see.”
She looked down at her palms, trying to discover the line of fate.
“Danny, can you find me a position? I could translate. Persian, French.”
“I won’t be making decisions like that on my own. You know that.” He took her by the chin.
She tried to break away. “Let’s go back.”
“You really are beautiful,” he said, glancing into her eyes.
In the night, Lara was awakened by the moonlight pouring into the bedroom through the partially open shutters. The other side of the bed was empty.
No one answered. She threw on a light dressing gown and went into the next room. He was sitting on the sofa with a book in his hands, his laptop next to him.
“Why did you go?” she asked.
“I couldn’t sleep, and I didn’t want to bother you. Go back in, I’ll come in a second.”
She lay down in the bed, covering her eyes with a dark band. Daniel still didn’t come back in.
When she woke up, Lara found a note on the bedside table.
I’ve gone to meet someone. I’ll be back at around 4. We’ll have dinner in town. You’ll like it. Dan
The note was lying under a stone from the beach, together with a few local banknotes.
She took a shower, got dressed, combed her hair, and went to the nearest café. It was cloudy, and a light rain had begun to fall. She looked out at the sea. Somewhere far off she saw a flash of lightning.
“Your ham omelet and coffee,” said the young Croatian waitress in a dressy apron. The waitress looked out at the sea and shrugged her shoulders.
After finishing her breakfast, Lara gestured for the bill. The waitress nodded and laughingly tapped a young colleague coming out of the kitchen on the stomach. He bent over and laughed. Lara suddenly thought of her husband, who had remained behind in their empty house. He kept calling her and sending photos of the flowers in the garden, touching bouquets on the outdoor table under the summer awning, the table set for two as if his wife had not gone away. Lara kept lying to him every year, thinking up various nonexistent conferences and paying to fly wherever Daniel had work to do. She froze at the thought of what would happen to her husband were she to leave him.
Lara tipped her chair back. The young waitress heard her voice.
“You want something else?” she asked, in her bad English.
“Yes, please. Some wine. Do you have Southern Memories?”
The waitress brought a small pitcher. Lara sensed its warmth coursing through her, and she felt better.
“Southern Memories,” she said, placing a few banknotes in the plastic cup. She went back to her room, lay down on the bed, and fell into a deep sleep.
At around three o’clock someone knocked on the door. It was the owner with a pile of sweet-smelling towels. When she left, Lara breathed in their fresh aroma, dropped her clothes to the floor, and stood in front of the mirror for a long time, looking at her body. Then she took a shower, put on a tight-fitting cream-colored dress, and went out onto the terrace to light a cigarette.
“Danny? I didn’t hear you come in,” she said.
“Really?” He lifted the hem of her dress.
“What have you been doing?”
“We’re heading into town,” he said.
The room was cold and smelled of lavender soap. Leaning back in her chair, Lara pushed the pile of towels to the floor. Then she heard the sound of shoes being dropped.
“Danny, I want it to hurt.”
Lara held his head between her legs. She didn’t recognize her own voice, and it seemed to her that she could hear the sound of seagulls cawing by the shore. She saw his face with his wide-open eyes close to her. It had aged, and the spasmodic movement of his mouth was unattractive. And she started to sob, as often happened just before she came. Suddenly the phone rang.
“Your wife,” she said, taking the phone from the bedside table.
“Just leave it.”
The phone kept ringing for a while. Lara tried to imagine what it felt like to be a woman whose calls were ignored. Silence fell, and they lay there as if separated by a wall. A wall that had appeared suddenly, out of nowhere. Then it collapsed as quickly as it had appeared. There was something inhuman about their relationship. He got up from the bed and kissed her on the lips.
“Let’s get going.”
They drove along the seashore. Toward evening the clouds had dispersed, and the sun’s rays falling by the cliffs gave the water an emerald tint.
“I’d love to buy a house here when I retire,” he said.
“Put on my sunglasses. You can’t see the road.”
“I hate sunglasses.”
She squinted in the bright sun. In a hollow up ahead she could see raspberry-colored roofs.
The next morning the weather improved.
“Which bathing suit do you want? The gold one?” he asked.
“Yes, take it.”
They had breakfast in the café by the sea, where the young Croatian girl worked.
The girl said something in her language and winked.
There were a lot of sailboats out on the water, and the breeze was brisk. Daniel laid the woven mats out on the stones, which radiated heat.
“I don’t want to go back,” said Lara.
She turned toward him, reached down among the stones for a blade of dried grass, and rubbed it across her face. He did not answer. From the first days of their acquaintance, her emotions had swung from extreme to extreme. Lara laid her head on her crossed arms.
“Let’s go for a swim,” he said.
The water still had not warmed up as it usually would in June. Daniel ran to the edge of the sea and dove in, swimming the crawl. She stood on the shore, then quickly jumped in and screamed.
He waved to her from a buoy. Lara was an excellent swimmer and soon caught up to him. Holding on to the buoy with one hand, he embraced her with the other under the water.
“Don’t. There are people on the shore.”
“You look great with wet hair. And in a gold bathing suit,” he answered, not letting her go.
She took a deep breath and held it under the water for a long time.
Later, looking at his partially closed eyes, she suddenly remembered a creole word from the country where she had spent her childhood. Sodade. A mixture of nostalgia, tenderness, and yearning, a sense of the fragility of happiness. A feeling of the loss of the present. Love, which anticipates its end and is already nostalgic for the present. Bitterness and tenderness flowed over her. She understood that this moment would never be repeated. That it had already retreated into the past. The past, as if excerpted from a film, was fragmentary.
A bright flash lit up her consciousness. She saw her mother as a young woman on a similar beach. It was a warm southern evening. Her father had not yet lost his job, and they were spending the weekend at the seashore. Lara saw how beautiful her mother was with her thick curly hair, lying in the warm water. She was still so young and strong, and her father, who had not yet fallen into that endless black melancholy, lit a bonfire on the beach to cook a picnic dinner. And the little girl suddenly began to cry. From the feeling that this could never return. She felt sorry for her happy and energetic mother, for her father, and for their love, which would inevitably disappear together with them. She wiped her face with the bitter saltwater so no one would see her tears.
“What’s wrong, little one?” her father asked.
“Some saltwater got in my eye, Daddy.”
Lara embraced her lover’s head and quietly said: “Sodade.”
Her plane was leaving the next morning at six. Daniel still had some things to finish up in the city. They went to have dinner at a place on the clifftop, with a view out onto the bay and the bridge, which seemed to head off into the sky. The cars on it seemed the size of ants.
Table fifty-two awaited them outdoors.
“What a coincidence,” Daniel said, turning the number over in his hand. In a month he would turn exactly that age. “What should we order?”
“The seafood platter?” Lara asked, catching his glance.
A group of elegantly dressed people sat under an outdoor umbrella around a group of tables that had been pushed together. Among them was a woman in a white sailor shirt with a blue collar that brought out her deep tan.
“Americans,” Daniel said. “Probably diplomats.”
“Look at that woman in the sailor shirt. She’s gorgeous.”
In any case he couldn’t stop looking at her. An exceptional sensuousness wafted from her. She wasn’t overt about it. Not a hint of artifice or playacting. But it was as if, other than her, no one else existed. Her gestures were totally natural but obviously thought through. There was no doubt that she was well aware of the power of her beauty.
“Partying on our tax dollars,” said Daniel.
“Maybe you’d like to join their group?”
“Well, if you insist.”
Lara turned away and took a sip of wine. “Don’t go to the Middle East. I have a bad premonition.”
“I’ll sleep with a pistol under my pillow.”
“What will happen to me, Danny? Did you think about that?”
“You’ll push me around in a wheelchair when I get old.”
“If we are being serious, then I’d say you’re so beautiful that I’m afraid someone will kidnap you.”
They drove back home over a mountain road through empty villages. Almost all the houses were locked up tight. A cow with swollen sides ambled along the side of the road, lazily munching tufts of grass. An old man holding a shepherd’s staff sat on a rock by the side of the road. His crumpled hat sat beside him. He was selling eggs, God knows to whom.
“Let’s buy a dozen,” she said.
“What will we do with them?”
“I don’t know. We’ll give them to the cook. I feel bad for the old man.”
Daniel gestured to the man that he would take all the eggs.
The old man took a plastic bag out of his jacket and put the eggs in it. He took the money in his arthritic fingers with their black nails, looked through his cloudy eyes at his clients, and nodded his head.
“Panteon? Where is the road to Panteon?” Lara called back as they drove away.
The man didn’t hear her.
The sun was setting. It was time to descend from the mountains.
“Do you see the windmill? It’s right over there. We’ll make it down in time,” she said.
“It’s late, and there’s no electricity up here. Don’t forget.”
“Danny, please. We’ll never be here again.”
On the old windmill was a wooden plaque with an arrow. The road climbed steeply. It was not paved, and the wheels spun on the gravel. Ahead of them was an awning with two cars parked under it. There was a lonely house and a turn in the road, which clearly led to a dead end. The sun was setting, and the sky had turned a thick blue.
“Sorry, dear, but our engine won’t take us any farther. We have to turn around,” Daniel said.
He tried to turn, but there wasn’t enough room. Lara dug her nails into the seat. Her face turned ashen. Daniel wanted to put the car in reverse, but he popped it into first gear by mistake. They lurched toward the edge of the precipice.
“Calm. Not a word, Okay?”
She nodded. He started to back very slowly into the little alley in front of the house. He looked in the direction of the precipice and got back on the road as if intending to go still higher. Lara heard the gravel crunch under the wheels. Then he put the car in reverse again and they started to descend in zigzags. Neither of them could have said how much time passed. By the time they reached the main road, it was completely dark. They could hear music wafting up from a nearby village. A streetlight’s soft glow illuminated the road. Daniel turned off the engine and wiped the sweat from his forehead, and they sat for a few moments without moving. When they got home, their hostess was waiting for them with a platter of cheese, ripe tomatoes, sweet rings of raw onions, and a bottle of local wine. They drank a glass of wine, told her they were very tired, and went to their room.
“Will you come with me to the airport?” Lara asked, packing her things.
“Of course, my love. We’ll need to get up at four a.m., which you don’t like very much.”
She threw her dress across the bed and walked over to him. “I think I’m coming down with something,” she said.
“Lie down. I’ll bring you some tea and set the alarm.”
She was laid up with pneumonia for the next couple of months. It was August, and she could hear apples falling from the tree in the garden, especially in the evening. Lara shuddered whenever she heard the whistle of a passing train. The sound cut through the air especially loudly in the late summer. Daniel’s messages became rarer. At first he wrote that he missed her, then he started to tell her about how great the job was and about the local color. By fall he had stopped writing completely. Lara couldn’t seem to get better. One cold night she was feverish, and she dreamed that her father was standing over her bed. His face was gray, with mussed hair and blood on his temple. The way he looked the day before he died.
“Why did you abandon me?” Lara asked.
“I couldn’t take it anymore. Forgive me.”
“I needed you. I still need you. Do you understand?”
Her father lowered his gaze and did not respond.
“I don’t know how to go on,” she said. “Everything’s a blank, a dead end. Why did you leave me here?”
His lips moved, but no words came out.
“No one asked you to drag me into this world!”
“Lara, Lara, wake up.”
She opened her eyes.
Her husband leaned over her.
“Here, drink some water. You’re all sweaty.”
He handed her a glass and tried to wipe her forehead.
“Get away! I hate you! Hate you!” she screamed. “You’ve disgusted me from the very first day. Everything about you is disgusting!”
Ilya stepped back and closed the door to the bedroom.
“God, please get me out of here,” she said. She turned her head toward the wall and fell silent.
The trip to the Adriatic was three years ago. Their things were packed. The house was practically sold, and they had bought their tickets to Israel. Just a few small details remained to be taken care of. Ilya had gotten a job with a laboratory in Tel Aviv. Daniel had married a local woman half his age and was teaching in the archaeology department in Cairo. His new wife subscribed to fashion magazines, dyed her hair blond, and thought of herself as a European. Lara learned about this from mutual friends, who laughed as they told her.
Life was over. What difference did it make: Moscow, Tel Aviv, a pine box? At least Tel Aviv could offer sun and the sea.
“Why don’t you go to conferences anymore?” Ilya asked.
“Because they’ve stopped inviting me,” Lara answered.
They stood on the porch and watched the squirrels playing in the old apple trees.
“It’s sad to think that someone is going to come and chop them all down,” she said.
“Let’s not talk about it. We already agreed.”
Just before their departure, one evening when they had already gone to bed, the phone rang. A call from an unknown number.
“I’ll be right back,” she whispered to her husband.
Lara went into the bathroom and turned on the tap.
“How did you find my number?”
“Lara, you can hang up on me if you want, but I’m passing through the city. Maybe we can meet tomorrow? I have almost a full day between planes. I’m staying in the airport hotel.”
“Do you want me to meet your wife?” she smirked.
“Amira left me and took our child. I have nothing. It was a horrible divorce. I’m just asking for a couple of hours. I’ll meet you in the restaurant.”
“I’m moving to Israel, Daniel. What do you want from me?”
“I want to see you. I’m very unhappy.”
“You were never happy.”
“I know. I need to talk to you.”
“Okay, I’ll meet you. Send me the address.”
She turned off the water, put the telephone on the counter, and returned to the bedroom.
“Did something happen?” Ilya asked.
“I need to help with some translation. A group of energy specialists from France.”
“That’s great!” said Ilya and turned off the light.
The next day, Lara got into her car and rolled down the window as she drove away.
“I’ll be back for dinner. Buy some good wine, okay?”
Ilya told her to have a nice day, and the car drove out of sight. Lara did not return, neither for dinner nor the next day.
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Wachtel
Anzhelina Polonskaya was born in Malakhovka, Russia. She is the author of five books of poetry in Russian, including To the Ashes (published in English translation by Zephyr). Her translated work has appeared in American Poetry Review, AGNI, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Narrative, New England Review, and elsewhere.
Andrew Wachtel is cofounder and director of Compass College of Art and Design in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, his interests range from Russian literature and culture to East European and Balkan culture, history, and politics to contemporary central Asia.