I rise to the surface first, take a breath and then go back, pushing her upwards. She is exhausted, her arms like jelly, her movements slow.
My hands on her hips, I keep pushing... for her to breathe, for her to make it...
And she does, she no longer needs me. I could let go, she’s okay, she’s breathing!
I could but I don’t, because I can feel her stomach beneath my lips, clenching desperately with each breath. I kiss it lightly, a single touch, forgetting that I, too, must breath, must rise up and fill my lungs with air if I want to live. But in that moment, I feel more alive than ever and I don’t need air. There is something else giving me life, filling me till my ears ring. My heart is trying to break out of my chest and I can barely breathe from the emotion, the effort, the desire to do something, run somewhere, accomplish anything... to prove that I’m worthy, that I can be everything she needs.
‘I want to be yours...’
BOOK ONE. Lover
‘How long could you love a woman who didn’t love you?’
‘A woman who didn’t love me? Oh, all my life!’
– Oscar Wilde
There are people who don’t know how to be happy. When fate throws expensive gifts their way, they look for the catch. Distrustful, they steer clear. Yet knowing how to accept such gifts with gratitude is more important than anything our parents and teachers instil in us as children. No one is going to tell you why you’re here, what your purpose is, what you’re searching for, and what to do with what you find.
CHAPTER 1. Getting acquainted
I am twenty-three years old, married, and have a four-year-old son. At this point in my life, he is the most important person in the world to me, my nearest and most dearest. I don’t love my husband but have never been one of those who looks elsewhere. He is not the worst partner I could have and is definitely attractive, but since our little family boat set sail, we have drifted off course. It has survived storms and bad weather, but has lost something inexplicable and important, something that could have turned it into a ship. Don’t hurt those you love, because such hurt will never be forgotten. It will grind your feelings into dust and you’ll either spend the rest of your life walking in it or waste what little time you have on earth searching for something else. And there’s no guarantee you’ll find it.
One hot June day, my son and I are on our way back from a trip. We have been at a health spa to help his asthma, but the treatment has aggravated it rather than relieve it, leaving me angry and frustrated. Yet more long trips to the hospital filled with tests and check-ups await, all a complete waste of my extremely precious time, since I am the only breadwinner in our family and make a good living.
The dream that keeps me working hard is to own a large, new house. I am a strong, independent woman brimming with self-esteem, but am being suffocated by the anger I feel towards my husband for his carefree, nonchalant lifestyle, for the fact that I have to deal with everything myself, to be the only adult who makes the decisions and acts responsibility. By this point, our mutual hostility has reached its peak.
I climb the front steps to our old house, open the door and get my son out of his dirty clothes before walking into the living room, where I see the table littered with bottles of expensive alcohol and the remnants of equally expensive food. My head is already swarming with vile suspicions when I crack open the bedroom door, but what I see is far from what I had quickly managed to conjure up in my overly wild imagination: a man I’ve never seen before is lying relaxed on my snow-white linen, fully dressed but having taken his shoes off first, at least.
I am consumed by anger. No, not anger, anger doesn’t come close. It is blind fury.
On top of my already mounting problems, the scene in front of me, set against my beautifully cared for, albeit not particularly fashionable, home, sends me over the edge. There is a complete disregard for my belongings, my privacy. My husband Timothy appears from nowhere. Nodding towards the man, he says there is nothing going on – they are just two friends, chilling – but my brain simply cannot process this information.
There are times when I lose all control of my emotions, they explode without warning, and there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop the flow. It is my cross to bear and my efforts to keep it in check are enviable, but restraint has no desire to be my friend this time.
Grabbing the first thing that comes to hand, I rush over to the bed and start swinging it wildly at my husband and his friend. Especially his friend. The latter bears the brunt of my swearing and flailing. It is as if my mind is splitting in two or even coming unstuck as it purges itself of all the latent anger and resentment consuming me. I beat the man with a level of hysteria unequal to the situation, and the force with which my emotions are ripping me apart surprises even me.
My husband grabs my wrists in an effort to calm me down and a few times I hear him say, ‘Chill out! Stop acting crazy!’, but the fury engulfing me is beyond my control.
I pummel his friend again and again, consumed body and mind with the effort.
I beat him relentlessly.
I give vent to every emotion within me.
But I have no idea that I am punishing this person who has suddenly burst into my life not for what has already happened, but for what is yet to come.
Lost in a frenzy, I finally notice that my son Danny is crying, and seeing his tear-stained face sobers me instantly. I run over and sweep him up, soothing him with kisses, and the man takes the opportunity to get up quickly and go into the living room. Holding his battered head in both hands, he sinks down onto the settee.
‘Get out of here! Get the hell out!’ I scream. But my voice is already three tones lower than before.
The man lifts his head, dropping his hands into his lap, and finally looks at me. The grievance in his eyes is quickly replaced by something inexplicable, something more akin to surprise than indignation, but the intensity of his gaze makes me falter. I can feel it paralysing me, like a boa constrictor mesmerises a rabbit before it strikes.
‘Alex is my friend, you idiot! Shut up and listen to me!’ My husband’s shouting finally begins filtering in.
The man breaks off our unnerving eye contact and, glancing at my husband, says something that shocks us both.
‘Let’s suppose she’s not the idiot, and the actual idiot is the one who allowed this situation to happen!’
My husband and I are desperately trying to understand what is going on as the guy continues with his train of thought.
‘I don’t think I would be too happy about discovering a stranger in my bed. I think that you, Tim, should have warned your wife or me at the very least!’
‘But I didn’t know she was going to show up today! She’s not supposed to be back for another three days!’ objects my husband resentfully.
The man’s sound reasoning finally extinguishes the rage within me and, being a weak and foolish woman, I start to appraise him more objectively. About twenty-five years of age, he has brown eyes and slightly messy black hair, but is smartly dressed. You certainly couldn’t call him ordinary; he is extraordinarily, unbelievably, almost indescribably handsome. So much so that all my anger, ferocity and pragmatism dissolves like sugar in hot tea along with my self-confidence.
‘Let’s calm down and try to sort this out peacefully,’ he says to me. ‘First, I would like to offer you my apologies. I shouldn’t be here. Second, I will bring you some new bedsheets tomorrow. Do you forgive me?’
And again, that look – to my very core. His stare is open, a mixture of irony and sincerity, and his barely noticeable smile is disarming. Very disarming. The guy has a natural charm and this is exactly the kind of situation when it is running at full power.
‘There’s no need for new bedsheets,’ I reply calmly, trying to restore my dignity.
The composure and mild manner of the scene’s central character are making my emotions do a U-turn. I feel ashamed and then blush, my face filling with colour in thick red blotches that make me burn with shame even more. A kind of double whammy.
‘Please leave,’ I say softly. Calmly.
‘Okay,’ he agrees suddenly, then stands up, affording me a better look.
He is stylishly and expensively dressed in white, with light-coloured fine leather shoes and the kind of elegant watch on his wrist that not only shows his wealth, but puts him on a completely different level. Even the cut of his dark wavy hair is so messily beautiful that it could only mean money, and its length gives his face a particular charm. I do not know any men with hair that length and the guy is clearly from elsewhere.
I follow him with my eyes; it is difficult not to. The young man moves gracefully and says goodbye articulately, then climbs into a brand-new black Porsche Cayenne – my absolute favourite model of car. I dream of someday saving up enough to buy a second-hand one. Someday.
Standing with my hands on the windowsill next to a vase of violets, I watch the car as it disappears into the distance. My throat fills with the foul taste of shame; I allowed myself to attack someone with a social status far above my own. The classification of people according to their wealth and education is degrading in itself and my vulgar outburst has lowered my status even further. I feel upset, ashamed, and hurt for some reason.
It just so happened that my coming of age coincided with the collapse of the USSR, the re-evaluation of social and public values, economic destruction, and horrific human impoverishment. All reference points were lost. Everything had collapsed and fallen into the abyss. Our parents had no idea how to keep themselves afloat, never mind how to instil the right messages in their children and set us off in the right direction. The poverty we found ourselves in depressed and frightened my still childish mind and, like the gravitational pull of a black hole, distorted my strict, true and correct bearings. People who have achieved success command respect and reverential awe, but one’s own inability to do the same subverts any sense of personal merit by triggering a spiral of self-recrimination.
Timothy and I spend a long time talking in raised tones. I try to stick to my version of ‘How could you bring just anybody into our home?!’, but quickly succumb under the weight of his argument.
‘Alex is American. He’s just living in Chișinău temporarily for work.’ The guy is not poor and, if my husband’s drink-addled brain has remembered correctly, he comes from a Russian family of either industrialists or aristocrats that emigrated to the US before the Revolution.
What matters to Timothy is that his new friend might somehow be able to help us move to ‘the country where dreams are made’. That’s why he thinks we should make friends with him, because my husband has been dreaming of America for as long as I can remember. Well, okay. On that point, we are in agreement: Alex would be a good and useful person to know.