A short story romance
For Paul’s Wife
Before he left he had a smoke on the roof because he always liked to watch the skyline early in the morning. He felt free and unburdened — a floating silence he stood on sheet metal slats the color of rotten orange peels. He felt like he owned the crumbly old socialist building when he stood there alone. A cold slight wind cutting across his freshly shaved pale cheek — and he delighted that he could hear his thoughts: deep and without the cries of children. Before him lay the coral skyline set behind the great domed Cathedral where smoggy-blue clouds hung above. The morning greatly refreshed him despite the all-pervasive smell of firewood. That was enough for now. He had better go or miss the company bus. He began his descent.
Treading lightly down the stairwell, plasters peeling like shredded fungus, he heard his children crying. His face tightened. Once down, he discovered the taxi as he had expected. This much would he praise in his wife’s good foresight. Now, he used to suffer a small pang at the prospect of being somewhat social with his cabbies — but he at least knew enough Serbian to clearly convey his direction — or form a few polite opinions, should his cabbies ever have anything amusing on their minds not in English.
“Good morning,” the cabbie said to Paul.
“Morning,” Paul said as he sat down. “To the international school up the hill, the address is — “ And with that, the driver drove down the slope towards the roundabout.
Before Paul could even collect himself, he saw cards printed with icons standing erect on the dashboard. There was the Virgin Mother; scraggly-haired John the Baptist; and another saint, possibly a Serbian patriarch from a past as distant as it was foreign to Paul. Then Paul began to hear Orthodox chants, deep and sonorous, dreamily playing away on the car radio. Paul would have been able to smell incense in the closed car if he had convinced himself otherwise. It was a nice thought.
“What do you do?” asked the cabbie.
“I’m a teacher,” said Paul with a polite smile.
Paul studied the driver a little better and saw a robust grey-black beard creeping down the stocky man’s chest. Like a priest, he thought. His face was bright and cheerful and easy to look at. But somehow the driver’s rich leather interior seemed incongruous with even the suggestion of solemn church interiors. Still, good for him, Paul thought. The cabbie has probably earned it; he offers a pleasant ride.
“You said you were a teacher, yes?” inquired the cabbie, his words gently breaking away the vague train of Paul’s thoughts.
“Yes, I did.”
“What subject?” Paul told him. The driver genuinely smiled.
“My son is in school — a student of mathematics,” he said in broken English. Paul switched over to Serbian and the driver seemed grateful and much relieved to speak more liberally:
“He’s the second-best mathematician in all of Serbia. I don’t claim to understand anything that he does — it’s all Chinese to me — but Cambridge and MIT have put stock in my boy,” the cabbie said, positively beaming.
“But this much I understand: whether it is pure probability or destiny at hand — I cannot say. But the boy is all discipline. Understand?”
When the cabbie turned to him, Paul sensed these words were meant for him. The driver gave Paul a tranquil glance, his dark eyes shining knowingly. Either that or there is something dormant here that escapes my senses, Paul told himself.
“With discipline, it doesn’t matter where you are. Even this can be a good country,” concluded the cabbie softly.
When they had arrived, Paul let the cabbie keep the change. He boarded his bus ecstatic.
Inside, the bus was abuzz with teachers from all levels (from primary to secondary) chatting it up — pairs naturally coalescing for everyone except Paul. In truth, Paul always felt a little awkward in these scenarios. Nonetheless, Paul chose a seat next to the window, very conscious to not make the slightest fuss looking around for a seat partner. Plus, his mind was too busy stirring with whatever personal revelation the cabbie had proven to be.
As he was musing over rows of Serbian, American, British and Aussie heads — he caught the figure of a girl, slightly framed, sandy-colored hair, about his age — and then her eyes! He was instantly swallowed up by her inscrutable, searching gaze. Something deeply melancholic was distilled down to the color of her eyes — large, and enchanting like lazulite. Oh, her gaze struck lightning in Paul. Who was she waiting for? he asked himself. As if the tides of his loose thoughts ebbed back to his conscious shores — it occurred to him time had become still. In the space of a few moments, his eyes had witnessed such beauty that his brain struggled to apprehend.
He was about to scold himself for entertaining foolish thoughts, when Gerald, his boss, took a seat. She must have sat down, Paul noted to himself.
“Read anything interesting lately?” asked his boss. Am I so easy to read, Gerald?
“I’ve been reading into the old mythologies,” Paul said drily.
“Seriously? Well, you know where we’re headed to was first erected by the Romans as a spa town,” said his boss in nasally Chicago tones.
But Paul’s mind was elsewhere. He was still ruffled. Despite this, he carried himself gracefully in their conversation as they approached their destination. Gerald managed to impress Paul with ideas from his Lutheran theology days. They discussed whether Augustine truly condemned womankind (the hypocrite!); whether the Roman church adds the Virgin, cloaked with the stars, with the moon beneath her feet, as the Fourth Person of the Trinity?; and how do you feel about deaconesses? As Gerald’s rambling drifted with the landscapes, so too did Paul’s mind finally succumb to the hypnotic rolling meadows of Central Serbia. He dozed off into sleep.
The young woman walked noiselessly down the aisle and saw Paul’s long, pale face — eyelids exquisitely purple — the mark of a father’s exhaustion. Upon seeing him more closely, she dropped the pretense of visiting the WC and sat next to Paul. She held him in her long, intense gaze for as long as Gerald was gabbering away with another teacher.
Nestled among the sloping foothills of the Goč Mountains is a wondrous country undefiled by the sooty, old concrete hands of brutalist Yugoslav architecture. In this region lay their destination — Vrnjačka Banja, an old spa-town celebrated in the Balkans for its healing waters. Bisecting the town, yet larger than a village — a fresh stream flows past orderly streets, steamy hammams, and charming tiled buildings built in the traditional, rustic Serbian style. Gerald told Paul that Vrnjačka Banja owes much of its beauty to the colorful Czech resort, Karlovy Vari. But how could that be? Paul thought. This enchanting town, whose lawns are interlaced with wildflowers, zapis or Serbian oak — once held sacred by the ancient Slavs — whose winding paths trail endlessly away — all spoke for themselves!
Paul unloaded his suitcase in hand, following his colleagues into their hotel. Across it lay a circular park and beyond, the town’s cool, murmuring stream — which he later believed he could hear outside the conference hall window. The lecture room soon proved stuffy and Paul found it difficult to concentrate. The lecturer, a woman from Manchester, spoke so quickly that some of the Serbs chuckled over her accent and cadence which they perceived as nearly incomprehensible to the ears (“Fa-fa-fa fa! Fafafa!” retorted a teacher in the back). The lecture dragged on a bit but Paul tried to be a good sport about it, taking notes. At the end of three hours, Paul’s head became heavy with it all. However, when it came time for a “team-building” exercise, he was both startled and thrilled by dormant possibilities. All evening, Paul stole intermittent glances from the woman. Once or twice she turned slightly over her shoulder to Paul.
Selene introduced herself to Paul during their reprieve. They talked at length, but neither could remember much of what the other was saying after their first introductions. Their conversation had a flighty, disjointed quality to it. He was taken aback when Selene asked, “How old are you?” Why do women ask that? Paul found himself close enough to catch the sweet scent of cappuccino on her breath. He might have talked to her coherently, but there were subtle lapses into unconsciousness when he felt himself slipping away into a drowsy stupor.
Selene, however, quietly devoured those small moments when he blinked long enough — heavily enough! unaware that he was teasing her with the unconscious face of sleep.
Now, it is said that Beauty may bring stillness to restless spirits, but when Paul was at his most conscious, he found that Beauty, incarnate in about a five-foot-eight Croatian girl, with searching, lazulite eyes — only roused a delicious anxiety within him!
“Do I make you nervous, Mr. Ducalian?” Selene asked.
“I’m always nervous, Miss Selene,” said Paul ironically.
“Why is that?”
“The reasons may well be mysterious,” he said. Uninspired fool!
The throng of teachers funneled back into the lecture hall as Paul and Selene lingered in the mirrored vestibule.
“Uff,” said Paul, “all this teacherly talk and ‘metacognition’ — what the hell is that! Here — watch me ‘metacognate’ this — !” Paul took his coffee mug and held it as far as he could from his face as if to parody a tenth-rate Hamlet.
“Do you see it?”
Selene laughed, eyebrows raised. Paul knew not what came over himself.
“Yes, I see! — I can see a ridiculous thirty-year-old man!” she cried. “But I can also see,” her voice became low, “ — that he has the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen on a man — especially when his eyes are closed.”
Paul was absolutely beside himself.
“Would you like to go for a walk outside?”
“Yes, we’ve been out here for an eternity — and if we return, we’re surely screwed. We might as well.”
“Alright, Paul,” she said. “Let’s go for a walk outside.”
As he made his way to the toilet, Gerald, befuddled over Paul’s absence, spotted him and Selene exit the hotel.
A full moon, as if wearily stretched over a downy heap of rugs, yawned her weak moonlight over the spa town. The town was unusually silent — with very few spa-goers outside. And there even seemed to be an absence of that drowsy, rakija-soaked music that usually carried from the kafanas, deep into the night.
Outside, they found themselves utterly taken by the evening, finding no need to speak to each other. They drifted beyond the ancient, Ottomon-built embankments, as far as their nocturnal fancies took them. At last, Selene and Paul made their way along a winding path, through a fragrant grove of Gingkos and Gardenia patches, pausing at the enchanted, legendary bridge known as the Most Ljubavi. From this distance, the bridge, studded a thousand times over by brass padlocks, somehow gleamed golden under the moonlight.
“Paul, are you feeling well?” Selene asked as they finally stood over the middle of the bridge, the stream babbling below.
“It’s all so magnificent, isn’t it?” said Paul more to himself than to Selene under the bewitching moonglow. He faltered a bit shifting feet, clinking a few padlocks in the process. She perceived his words heavy and breathless. He thought better than to reach for a cigarette — in fact, he found he could not satisfy his craving. For the first time, Paul truly beheld Selene’s face — his dwindling thoughts flickering, wondering where was she drawing such intensity in a face that shone so luminously now? In that rarefied air, Paul’s head was spinning, spinning, spinning with the pulsating stars. He felt sleep invade his soul.
“Sleep, dear Paul. Sleep a long sleep, at last.”
In the blink of an eye, Selene could not resist the man’s painfully exhausted face. She pressed his hand and took his lips — and as she did, a thousand padlocks, like agitated, brass beetles springing their wings open, undid themselves, plummeting into the stream with a great clamor.
The next morning, Gerald awoke to a score of text messages from Paul’s wife. It was a rude awakening for Gerald and as he sobered up, reading, re-reading her texts. He thought she sounded less and less inarticulate — now more delirious with every read. Paul’s wife demanded to know if her husband was OK? He had not texted her last night. She confessed to Gerald that Paul suffered from narcoleptic attacks.
Just then Gerald heard a knock at his door and answered. A porter asked if Paul was staying here? Yes, he was, replied Gerald. Why?
“ — because around four this morning,” said the porter, “a man which we traced back to your hotel, was discovered at the Lover’s Bridge, completely insensible. It appeared he fell asleep in the stream all night. By the mercy of God — he’s still alive! He’s resting now but still unconscious in the town hospital.”