Sixteen years ago I met a young man who swept me off my feet on the first sight. I was struck like a thirteen year old. Those dark jade eyes full of mystery – or maybe misery – made me melt.
I was twenty at the time, studying English Language and Literature at the University of Constanta, a white building with an open campus close to the deserted beaches of our ghostly town.
I had just gotten out of another relationship, a draining and torturing one, with my ex finally admitting – or simply alleging, as I hoped – that his interest had never been in me, but in the wealth of my father and the advantages that might have resulted from a union with me.
Being the daughter of Tiberius Preda turned out to be quite a stigma.
So I proceeded carefully with my new love interest. The only problem was that I didn’t really possess any other means of standing out beside my father’s name, not among the tart up beauties with silky hair and perfect eyebrows that looked like J. Lo at her best. On my dry face foundation always ended up looking like unevenly distributed flour and my hair galvanized like copper wire no matter what I did. Sidonia helped sometimes and spent hours on my styling, trying to cheer me up.
“You’ll learn, no worries” she would say.
She was wrong. I never did. And she finally gave up with a hopeless shake of her head. “You do have two left hands.”
I first saw him in the cafeteria, surrounded by a group of loud laughing, overconfident boys with iron pumped chests. But it was him who drew the attention of me and of most girls there like a magnet.
He was tall and athletic, with waves of dark hair shorn at the level of broad shoulders.
“Damian Novac” Sidonia whispered in my ear, noticing my jaw had dropped. She tossed a strand of dyed blonde hair off her shoulder with a graceful move. “Civil Engineering, final year”
She was smiling in his direction. I didn’t dare do the same, but looked around like a fox watching for hunters, making up strategies before dodging out of the bushes. The last thing I needed was getting another ‘bullet’ through my head.
He didn’t see me that day, or the day after. I observed him from afar for weeks. He was aloof, yet his eyes always intent, as if his thoughts were fixed on something way beyond those walls and his cares way more serious than the infatuations of wannabe divas. He wasn’t oblivious to their advances, just utterly unimpressed.
His group of friends, nevertheless, was always surrounding him, as if searching for his approval with their every move. Even a manly laugh and a tap on the shoulder were always accompanied by a furtive ‘was that all right’ glance. So an alpha, I thought.
“No wonder we’re all leaving wet traces like snails when he’s around” I once whispered to Sidonia. She laughed her wide, sensual laugh, revealing whitened teeth.
“I just love your dirty mouth, Aura…”
“I speak but the truth” I replied smiling back at my best friend.
“You always do, teacher” she bowed before me theatrically.
We went out of the university that evening laughing heartedly. At that age, we were still able to speak with the naked truth, no matter how ugly or… dirty it was. We couldn’t care less about ‘social acceptability’.
We sat in the confinements of Montana, a nearby wooden pub that served as a haven for furious bikers on Saturday nights, when it reeked of beer and pot. But today it was nice and quiet, we had our peace drinking bad filter coffee, smoking cigarettes and making plans.
Sidonia wanted me to get over the disaster with my ex as soon as possible. So she took her role as image consultant very seriously while I came up with ways of manipulating destiny into ‘casual’ bumping into Damian at another, ‘cleaner’ pub – the Bourbon, deep in the heart of the city – or at parties organized by fellow students.
It was at one of those parties that I finally arranged to stumble into his arms with a glass of wine. His pardoning voice sounded like black velvet, deep, strong. It gave me the goose bumps.
His face was youthful and yet some fine, still almost unnoticeable lines of maturity were slowly drawing across his sculpture-like features. I wondered how come he was still single… I offered to wash his shirt – old trick – but trust me, I sounded credible.
He refused at first, but upon my insistences eventually accepted that I try and take out the stain with some Vanish in the bathroom.
“I’m Damian, by the way” he said, his lips drawing in a reserved smile, while I rubbed the red liquid into the tissue of his white shirt instead of out of it. I do have two left hands…
I looked up at him standing like a young warrior in a small bathroom with dirty tiling and clothes hanging from two ropes above the bathtub.
“Aurelia” I replied. My voice trembled. I saved myself with a joke in a cheap Bond tone. “Preda, Aurelia Preda”
He laughed, genuinely. I tried to sheath my crush on him with the veil of jokes and friendship. He acted like he bought it, opened up to me, laughed more.
He began coming to me in the cafeteria each day. Our fellow students, also many of our friends, labeled us as handsome stud getting rich heiress and my female competition found comfort in that thought, as well as in Damian’s not being financially attractive. I pretended not to mind. Damian genuinely didn’t.
By the end of that month we had our first kiss – in his ’94 Golf, in a dark parking lot among big, grey buildings. His lips were hard, their touch reserved. My blood was boiling but I didn’t want to scare him off with my impatience.
Within two months we became a couple. We first made love at his place – just one room, small like a matchbox. It smelled of fresh paint and enamel varnish.
I was the one who made the first move. I put my hands against his chest and pushed him slowly on the divan by the wall. A primal fire lit deep in his eyes as he gave in. I pulled the quilt over us.
Damian was a good craftsman but not particularly skilled as a lover. His hands were strong and purposeful on my hips like on a hammer, his mouth went straight for my lips, my breasts, yet his tongue kept shy of my skin. He slipped between my legs and parted them with his hard thighs, then pushed inside of me. I was wet, yet he filled me.
He moved with more instinct than experience, first slowly, then faster as my palms wandered from ropey arms to his shoulders, knotting in his hair, then down his back. It was a dream to hold him in my arms, his skin against mine, feel so small and fragile under his body that could crush me.
His orgasm was quiet and mine didn’t come.
I hoped for more success the next time. But it wasn’t until two years later, when our body rhythms fully adapted to each other, that I found the crack to this.
It worked if I was on top and he didn’t intervene in my moves. Oddly enough, though I was so in love with him, I had to close my eyes and think of other things… things I hadn’t thought about since the times I was wandering the town’s streets with Sidonia, daydreaming of and portraying our ideal lovers. And when I opened them again, that handsome and so real man was before me, his physical presence awakening me from fantasy. I got to lose myself in his eyes for a few moments before he cut off intimacy and moved on to friendly talk.
Damian succumbed to a comfortable relationship, devoid of problems and emotional outbursts. He rarely made any reference to his family. I met them only once, two people from a nearby village, reserved and unpretentious, they never really became part of our lives. They were cold toward him too, affection wasn’t part of the package – his father was too incoherent to give it and his mother too scared. Damian had had to work for a living ever since he was fourteen. That fueled my love for him.
He was a pragmatic man, though with exquisitely deep and sharp insight. Where I needed ten sentences to express something he put it in two words – and went straight to the core of the issue. It astonished me, I fell harder for him every day.
Even though I was all about books and study while he loved steel and glass, that was all right. We kept connection to an agreeable level and we were truly devoted to each other. We had little time to delve into discussions and pleasures anyway, he was a man of action, work and few words.
He was satisfied with his new job at a constructions company and had big dreams. He sometimes voiced them – his own firm, making beautiful, durable things. Even when he became chief engineer he still got his hands into mortar and pipes. I finally understood he loved that and hated offices – or felt he wasn’t up to them. If passion for one thing or frustration by the other was the trigger, I didn’t know. But since an own company meant a lot of office stuff, we postponed that.
After I finished university I studied day and night for the state exam, real hard, so I could get a good job at a good school. Didn’t work that year, but two years later. I got lucky and ended up at the very high school I had once attended – foreign languages specialization. And I was an English teacher at twenty-six.
News travelled fast and at the beginning of every year students would pray ‘the young one’ would be assigned to them instead of ‘the old witch’, Mrs. Chivu – a bitter old lady with short perm hair, the color of scotch, long red fingernails, whose trademark were the pearls she wore across her double chin. She was best known for her volatile temper and exigency. She pressured me into giving good grades to kids who were taking tuitions with her. If I’d fail her, she’d make sure I got into trouble with parents, older teachers and the principal. I learned not to oppose her.
In summer of the following year Damian and I got married – proposal on the divan, while watching “Bridezilla” on TV. We had to make some financial efforts but we pulled through a small, private party.
Sidonia missed the bouquet by an inch, it landed in Raluca’s hands – who was in a happy relationship already and was indeed the next to marry. As for most of our other attendants, they were divorced by the time I began to write this.
Damian refused my father’s offer of financial help to buy a bigger place and we took out a loan from the bank. We would pay it off in twenty-five years, but it was still better than a loan from my dad, who kept out of our business as long as we didn’t owe him anything.
Our new three-room apartment close to the House of Culture seemed like a palace at first – it was in a communist block of flats, on the seventh floor and with no balconies, the windows were small, but we didn’t care much.
Damian made the furniture and arranged our home with his own, magic hands. Everything that came out of them was wonderful – the walls perfectly neat, the ornaments modern and minimalistic.
For other things such as flat screen, notebook and even clothes we took out another loan, pledging our apartment – we call it ‘loan for personal needs’ in Romania. Fail to pay the installments for a laptop and a pair of shoes, lose your place.
So in less than a year we had a cozy living room with a brown leather couch, a mahogany coffee table and improvised shelves built in like stairs along the wall, made by my husband. That’s where I put some of my dearest books – mostly educational psychology since the kids were starting to get the better of me.
Across from it presided the LG flat screen and an all-surround audio system camouflaged by many plants, which were also in the care of my beloved, since I myself knew nothing of such things – or of anything practical for that matter.
He made the kitchen furniture too – imitation of granite and wood.
There was a desk with two office chairs in the smallest room, which I soon managed to clutter with books and papers as well. Damian never complained, he looked rather satisfied that his work was being appreciated and useful.
The bedroom contained a huge bed, which put king-size to shame, and a long wardrobe with sliding mirror doors – which I secretly liked to peep into on our evening quickies. We didn’t get much more than that lately, since we were always beat and Damian had little patience or energy left for my kinky moods.
That time didn’t last long anyway, merely for another few years, since my flesh began to lose its firmness and my own reflection started to disturb me.
Looking at Damian’s youth pictures I realized there wasn’t much left of the young man I used to obsess about either… His hair was now short, earthy and formless. He was thinner, but the huge frame of a once young god, his face melting in the heat of overwork and tiredness, the edges of his eyes were often red, the corners of his mouth drawn downward.
Years flew by like hours and I had no idea where they went… But among my elaborate studies on the psychology of youngsters and attending the courses of Dr. Anton Barbu, the famous and at the same time infamous Dean of the Psychology Department of our city university, I came upon his conclusion that aging causes cognitive processes to slow down and as a consequence we get the feeling that we do much fewer things in one day than we used to as blooming teenagers. Oh, shit…
Money started to flow in for me once I became reputable as an English teacher within those years and more independent from Mrs. Chivu’s opinion of me, which was never quite satisfying. Requests for private tuitions – black money – were pouring in.
In order to get closer to my students I even created a Facebook account, where I nevertheless had to watch for Sidonia’s posting old pictures of us from our years of glory, wearing generous cleavages, cigarettes and decadent expressions like pouting to kiss the camera. I had no idea where she dug all those out from but I was glad she’d kept them. I’d download them and hide them from my timeline – I was, in the end, a teacher who should act as a model for her pupils.
As for Sidonia, she was still trying to make it as an actress and dancer in Bucharest.
On the 15th of October, as I was sitting in the teacher’s lounge with Raluca, who luckily taught French at the same high school, Mrs. Chivu plunged in from the teachers’ staircase across from us. She elbowed her way among the other colleagues who stood around, most probably conversing endlessly about the brashness and complete lack of respect of teenagers nowadays.
She burst into the principal’s office, slamming the door shut. I’d gotten to see her red cheeks and swollen eyes. She’d been crying.
Raluca stirred. As I turned toward her, there was worry in her noble face. It showed deeper understanding than I was now capable of, probably lacking the info Raluca obviously had.
“What’s with her?”
“You didn’t hear? She’s decided to drop 12 C” she replied, a hidden awareness lighting up in her chocolate eyes.
“She’s dropping such a gold mine?” I reacted completely surprised. All the rich seniors were there and she could get at least half of them to come to tuitions.
“There’s this new boy, Ivan Grabianko, who’s driving her mad”
“Really?” I breathed raising my brows “Well what do you know, after over thirty years she thought she’s seen it all…”
“Don’t mock, Aura” Raluca interrupted, a little edgy. “I know she’s a witch, but this boy’s a devil. I teach in his class too and he’s given me some trouble as well”
She bent toward me and whispered with a damped outrage.
“And I’m talking dirty looks, bold remarks and she says in her case… even touching. He’s got no shame and he’s waaaaaaay over the line with her”
I couldn’t hold back a laugh.
“He turns her on…” I whispered amused.
“I don’t see what’s funny” she scolded. “I know you’re an arrogant brat, Aura, analyzing the rest of us and stuff, but you’re really beside the point here” she paused and glanced briefly aside. “This is harassment” she concluded like a judge.
Now I was getting edgy.
“Harassment? This is like saying that the kid seduced the pedophile”
Heads turned toward us, anger had overfueled my voice. I struggled to tame it.
“Raluca, one plus one is always two, whether you’re a teenager or an old ass. She has wet dreams with the boy and she’s trying to place the blame on him like an old communist filth”
“I wonder what you would see if someone held a mirror in front of your own ugly demons” she replied in a grave, disapproving tone, then dismissed me with a wave of her hand “And you should stop reading all that psycho shit.”
The bell rang, we were headed to class.
“Are you in for a Latte later?” she threw over her shoulder, the friendly tone back in her voice as if by magic.
“Yeah, Damian’s working late. See you at six” I replied as I tucked the register for 9 C under my arm.
We went down different hallways, she on the first floor, I on the second.
The next day principal Gheorghe summoned me to his office. I found him in his cozy leather chair, deep in thought, patting his chin with his forefinger. The few strands that he usually combed back to cover his balding head were now tousled, silver in the pale autumn light that flooded the room from a generous window behind him. His face was livid and furrowed with age, stress and definitely too much alcohol.
“Ah, Aura” he greeted in a long practiced soft voice and stood up as I walked in. “Please have a seat”
I gave course to his invitation. He leaned against his mega-desk right in front of me and crossed his legs, eyes down. He chewed on his lower lip as he looked for the words to begin.
“I have some good news” he started. “Mrs. Chivu won’t be able to teach in the 12th C anymore. I think people like her and myself have to admit to one thing: we’re too old to understand them kids in the senior year, let alone connect to them or tame them…”
I let him finish his speech, but folded my arms across my chest, frowning. Whatever was coming, it was a lie. He was disguising the devil into opportunity.
It took a while until he came to the point. He tried to protect Mrs. Chivu, since they’d been friends for decades. I couldn’t know what he covered for, but I could feel curiosity eat me from the inside.
“So I would like you to take over the 12th C” he concluded after a long introduction, expecting enthusiasm and gratitude as if he was offering me his own chair.
“I’ve never taught in senior classes before” I replied with false modesty and pressed for some more answers. “But if I owe my advancement to Mrs. Chivu’s not feeling up to the task of dealing with seniors anymore, then why does she keep 12 A and B?”
He paused, looked at me a little disconcerted.
“Well, Aura, I’ll be honest with you” he finally spoke again, legs parted, arms hanging by his lithe body, crooked under years and experience – both good and bad.
“They’re a wild pack, the 12th C. And I wouldn’t let you walk into that classroom unprepared, I meant to tell you right away” he tried to gloss over his perfidy.
“They’ve lost control Aura, especially since Ivan Grabianko came. His mere presence there is… problematic”
“Then expel him” I put in with a shrug. “He’s over sixteen, you’re not obliged by law to have him here…”
“I wish I could do that, but I can’t” principal Gheorghe sighed.
“First of all he hasn’t done anything. And moreover, his family has offered a greatly generous sponsorship to our high school and could use that against us in the press” his voice was fading and he raised his white eyebrows as he poured his subliminal message into my eyes.
So they bribed you… I suppressed a snort. Every renovation or new equipment brought to our high school was paid for either from the generosity of our outrageously wealthy mayor or financed through European programs. Sponsorship by parents was something that happened on a smaller scale and usually went to the principal’s pocket, who made no open truth out of his corruptibility but didn’t cover it with sand like a cat’s crap either. I didn’t know whether to admire or loathe him for it.
“And now honestly, Aura” he continued hunkering down before me and placing a wrinkled hand on mine.
“You have a way with these kids. They like you, they’re more docile with you. Mrs. Chivu is really too old to get with them”
“Or maybe Mrs. Chivu just doesn’t like them” I replied with a two-faced smile.
“She’s tired, my dear, she’s sixty-three…”
He got up and sat back at his desk. As expected, he didn’t even ask me whether I was willing to take over 12 C or not. And as usual, he’d used his sweet manner to mask his giving me orders.
I took Ivan Grabianko’s file home and leafed through it while Damian watched TV. He was resting his feet on the table by two empty cans of beer, one in his hand.
Ivan was the son of Boris Grabianko, one of the most notorious characters in the city, who’d come to Constanta a couple of years before. I remembered my dad’d had a little to do with him when he’d first appeared on the radar, never personally, but soon chose to cut off all contact, referring to him as ‘bad news’ and finally a ‘crook’.
He owned clubs and hotels in Mamaia – a long stripe of land that can rival with the most beautiful beach resorts in summer, flowing between sea and lake, connecting our city with the neighbored town.
Boris was married to a certain Zwetlana, there was no info on Ivan’s biological mother.
Ivan was eighteen and had come to our high school at the beginning of that academic year, in September. He’d received his previous education at home, with private teachers, but his father eventually decided he should complete his final year in high school because he needed an accredited degree to go to university. He’d chosen ours because of the boy’s inclination for foreign languages.
“He must be a sensitive soul” I commented to Damian, who threw a short, bored glance into the file.
“I’d say pussy” he dismissed with complete lack of interest and took a gulp of beer.
I realized he wasn’t referring to the boy’s alleged linguistic talents but to his picture. It showed a face smooth as if edited in photo-shop, white like ivory. The eyes were big and dark like his hair, his lips sweet. I imagined a tall, slender elf-like creature. Poor Mrs. Chivu. I laughed.
“Laughing at things you imagine again?” Damian inquired with a friendly smile.
“I suppose you can say that. Mrs. Chivu dropped a class and I suspect it’s because she fell for a student…”
“All right” he interrupted and took another gulp of beer. He used to cut me off each time I was delving into ‘psycho shit’ and I’d learned to suppress the awkwardness. I just held my tongue and went on with the file. There wasn’t much more to draw background info from, so I read it over and over again.
“And why is that your problem?” Damian asked after a while, trying to make up for his brusqueness.
“He’s problematic and I’m supposed to replace Mrs. Chivu. He’s got an… eccentric personality, I guess”
“And what are you trying to do, come up with some theory of why the boy’s trouble?” he inquired again, his tone mocking.
“Yes” I said, eyes still on the pages in my hands.
“Then stop squeezing your brain. He’s young and likes to make the old disdain themselves. He’s a pervert”
“That’s it? No roots or reasons for this?” I reacted angrily, shutting the file.
“Yeah, that’s it. It’s who he is. Roots and reasons don’t matter”
He stood up and went to get another beer, while I remained frustrated on the couch, sitting like a small Turk with my feet under my buttocks.
Damian came back and changed the subject to casual gossip on the latest news: the new prime minister, his fight with the president, corruption. It drove me mad, my cheeks burned.
“What is it?” he finally asked, eyes still on the TV.
I took the opportunity to express my frustration.
“I wish you showed more understanding or at least more interest in the issues of human beings”
“I understand enough” he blocked harshly. Gulp of beer. Pause, eyes lost.
“I wish we’d get out of here, Aura. Just leave. Another country, another air, other people. I’m sick and tired…”
All of a sudden, the muscles in my throat started to pulse, choking me. It was a swift and even violent sensation. The eyes seemed to push out of my head with some weird pressure that came from my throat.
“Of what?” I managed to mumble, hoping my state would restrict to a passing moment.
“Of everything. The pointless work, the debts, the… shackles”
Shackles… Shackles of marriage. My pulse quickened. I jumped up from Damian’s side and went to make myself some tea, proving a terrible listener for the first time in our years together.
I sneaked a peek at my own reflection in the vestibule mirror. A small, ashen skinned woman was looking furtively at me, with swollen hazel eyes and thick eyebrows. The lines on her meager face were deepening. It’s the cigarettes. Hair wiry, the color of rust. The lips were getting thinner. What did he see in me in the first place?
That was a question Damian had refused to answer in the sixteen years we’d been together. Only one evening a long time ago, under the influence of his first beers, he’d told me I ‘felt right’. My hands got sweaty – cold sweat.
I got restless on the couch. Tried to come back to the subject but found the gates to his heart closed and sealed, like his lips.
Late in our bed I tossed and turned, my heart was pounding frantically even though I was lying down. Made myself another jasmine tea, finally fell into half-sleep around four in the morning.
Damian insisted that I saw the doctor the next day, who diagnosed hyperventilation and maybe deficit of vitamins. Prescribed calcium, magnesium and D’s. Prophesized I might continue feeling like that for a couple of days, my tanks needed time to refill. But the nights got worse, doctor finally put me on beta blockers. Those seemed to work faster, so by the time I had my first class with the 12th C I felt a little more comfortable in my body.
I walked to class wearing my first-impression-outfit – black one button jacket and skirt slightly over knees, classy leather high heels. Under the jacket a white cotton top, no cleavage, long black beads hanging over it. I’d pinned my fleecy hair in a strict bun. Confidence came from the echo of my own steps across the hallway.
Loud bundles of students rushed into their classrooms, clearing the way like rebels would before a panzer. It was indeed not the same as I walked around the corner toward the secluded 12 C.
Some boys hung on the corridor, enjoying the shrill laughs of their female colleagues. Their voices lowered as I approached, gazes aggressive from under their eyebrows. I halted in front of them, back straight, eyes sweeping across their faces. No words. About thirty seconds. No reaction – defiant seniors. They already knew we had no power over them and they had nothing to be afraid of, except maybe a rough attitude and bad grades, which the worst of them couldn’t care less about.
I invited them inside more like a gentleman would a bunch of ladies, with a gesture of my arm. Unwillingly, they walked in. I followed.
The classroom looked like all the others but was a little smaller, shaded by grey blocks of flats that engulfed the barren schoolyard like towers of mold-infested concrete.
There were three rows of two people desks, one by the windows – three of them, big and barred – one in the middle and one by the wall.
I threw the register on the desk and took a stiff standing position, the chalk scribbled blackboard behind me.
“Aurelia Novac, your new English teacher” I began in a dull tone, yet with the roughness cigarettes had endowed it with over the last twenty years – an underrated advantage when you’re a high school teacher with intimidation as your only weapon.
Stinging looks. Giggles from a girl. My eyes darted in her direction. A blond Barbie sitting in the last desk by the window. She had big blue eyes, dolly nose and – I would say – an abnormally large head. Her eyebrows were perfectly plucked into bad-girl arches, dark brown shadow drawn artistically over them. Many layers of foundation, perfectly distributed, glossy though thin lips. Beige top and a lot of bling bling, large, silver earrings protruding forward from silky strands of rich hair. An exquisite imitation of a Luis Vuitton hung by the rest of her chair.
“Your name?” I inquired, fixing her sternly.
“Loredana” she answered. Her voice trembled a little, despite her mocking smile.
I opened the register, found her name, looked at her grades. Decent ones. Really good grades in English.
I had her stand up. She was taller than me despite my high heels. Jeans were tight on long, yet thick legs.
“What are you doing this week end, Loredana?” I asked leaning against my desk, so that the whole class could see me.
She refused me a report insolently, making it none of my business.
“English please” I interrupted before her last word fell. “And feel free to fantasize if you don’t wish to share your plans with me”
She babbled a little, lowered her head, searched for words. Her English was gruesome. So one of Mrs. Chivu’s protégés, well paying tuition client.
The others looked at her and each other with wicked smiles, some pulled out their smart phones, some whispered in their desks, chatter increased, one threw a ball of paper across the room, obviously aiming at another Barbie – curly headed, long and lithe, sitting in the first desk by the window.
“Loredana, sit down. You, get up” I intervened, pointing with my chin to the paper sniper – a bulky boy with stylishly rumpled hair, wearing prewashed denim, a black T-shirt that wrote ‘Hardcore’ and a thick golden chain. His English was good enough to tell me that he was doing ‘something dirty’ with his ‘bitch’ that weekend, pointing to the curly-headed. Her cheeks turned all red, she sank her head and pressed her lips together in… shame.
Worthless smug. My blood boiled, there was a sharp tingling in my fingers. My neck stiffened, my fists balled behind my back.
“You know what?” I interrupted, my voice as neutral as I could keep it.
“You’re free to use what kind of language you wish, yet only with whomever is willing to accept it” I said, walking slowly toward him “Maybe there where you learned it: at home, with your mamma for example, but not in my class”
I pierced into his eyes and he pierced back into mine, his jaw clenched, anger read all over his olive-skinned face. It was an expression that seemed to fit his features, he must have had it on pretty often.
“Whom by the way I would like to see on Thursday evening. You let her know or its bye bye university for you next year, ‘cause you won’t pass English” I concluded, my tone even.
“Perhaps you’d allow me to tell you about my weekend plans” a soft, manly voice caressed my ears. I turned. A very tall, slender figure rose from beside Loredana.
My eyes fell on a face clear and smooth like porcelain, with prominent but fine bone structure. His skin made such a striking contrast to his pitch black eyes that a chill went down my spine.
In the process of sinking my head in order to avoid looking stupid I couldn’t help my gaze brush over a definite, marble chest revealed by the loosened upper buttons of an indigo shirt. His thighs were long and strong under dark jeans.
It was true, he made an astonishing impression. My tongue went numb and refused to move for an instant. Oh poor, poor Mrs. Chivu… I tried to suppress a smile.
“May I?” I heard his luring voice again.
“Please” I replied, shaking off the shock – it’s not every day that you get to lay eyes on such a uniquely handsome creature.
He spoke in a beautiful, britishly styled English that flew naturally like a mountain spring. I don’t know exactly what he said, but I remember something about a rafting trip and friends around a big campfire. By the time he was finished, I was sitting at the desk, chin in my palm, thinking of Mrs. Chivu and what she must have felt as she watched that boy’s lips move. She was probably looking as dumb as his colleagues, the Barbies… and me.
No one let out a mere whisper while he talked.
“What’s your name, young man?” I asked as he finished, pretending I didn’t know. I couldn’t believe the softness and musicality in my own voice, which were all but natural to me. It’s incredible what our instincts do with us sometimes.
“Ivan Grabianko” he replied politely.
I opened the register, checked his grades. All great.
“You may sit” I said.
I cleared my voice, scratched my forehead and had some others tell me about their Christmas plans, to get an idea of where they stood with English. I avoided looking at Ivan again.
I listened to the curly-headed too. Her name was Salma Sevim, she was half Turkish. She stood up, her arms slightly shaking, her cheeks still red with embarrassment, which she soon hid as she let dark curls fall over her face. Her voice was small. I asked her to look at me. She had the gaze of a thief tormented by guilt, thin eyebrows shaping the expression of a begging stray dog. Tears fell silently down a long face.
“Well, Salma” I said softly as she finished “I would like to see you in one of the breaks. Come to the teachers’ lounge when you can find the time. Today.”
The bell rang. I got up, gathered my things and glared sternly at each of them once more. My gaze rested on Ivan’s exquisite face for a second longer than on any other. He looked straight back into my eyes, with nothing more than benevolence. Instinctively, I straightened my back and stalked out.
Evening came, Raluca had her consultation hour Mondays.
Damian wasn’t coming home until ten and I didn’t want to be alone – loneliness permeated through my skin like some chemical weapon lately. So I waited for her, smoking. We’d agreed to drink a Latte at the corner bar.
Thinking of ways to get Trevor’s mother and Salma to come see me served as means to fight away intrusive thoughts of Ivan: sending e-mails alleging urgent matters, threaten with failing, maybe something more sweet-natured like expressing my intention of writing recommendations for universities abroad.
When Raluca was done, around seven, she found me in the position of a ‘pondering Freud’, veiled in white smoke, with my legs crossed and ‘an expression of wisdom’ on my face, as she put it. She was clearly amused.
We walked down the dark, hollow corridor to the students’ exit. The janitor had already locked ours from the lounge.
Our steps echoed along the obscure tunnel. It was a chilly, desolate place when stripped of the hundreds voices that filled it during the day and darkness crept in. Only the dim, yellowish light of distant street lamps leaked through the windows and fell on the eerie black-and-white pictures of illustrious teachers of the past, pride of our renowned school, framed and hanging on the walls. With every step, my bladder gurgled.
Just as Raluca pushed the door open, I stopped. Mind over matter wouldn’t work and it was a ten-minute walk to the Asterix. So I hurried to the students’ toilet just by the janitor’s storeroom, around the corner – it was closest.
I hit the lights and, out of reflex, first glanced into the mirror. My limbs froze.
It was that same mirror from my dream, frameless and old, fuzzy with the traces of water splashes. Instinctively, I approached it and searched into my own face. A voice crept into my head again. Not the same voice. This time it was hoarse, heavy. I leant my head to the side, as if to catch it better.
Slowly, carefully, I followed the scarce sounds to the jagged door of the last closet. It was scribbled with ‘X is a whore’ and other similar statements. Ironically, some had drawn hearts around two initials with a plus between them.
There was a groan again. Then another. Though weak, they clearly came from in there.
My senses sharpened the second I pushed the door. It didn’t open. I jolted harder and harder, finally launching with my whole body against it.
It ceded brusquely and I stumbled in, my legs instinctively hopping over some unseen obstacles. I finally blocked a frontal collision with the wall, my palms hitting flat against the cracked tiles.
I looked down. My heart stopped. My mind went blank in terror.
Mrs. Chivu was lying on the floor, grunting like a dying pig. Deep slices suppurated along her forearms, her flesh folded outward like butchered meat. They were bleeding into metal buckets on either side. Her mouth was open, her face horrifically twisted in an inhuman expression, as if she was possessed.
Her skirt was rolled up, beefy legs spread and sliced. Her hairy intimate parts were revealed, splattered with blood. That image of festering, mutilated flesh burned into my brain.
I breathed in the stench of torture and let out vibrant, loud screams, again and again, eyes fixed on her fading, numb gaze. I kept inhaling and screaming even as soft arms struggled to pull me out. They failed. With the strength of shock, like red irons running through my limbs, I stood anchored in the floor.
People gathered, it took four arms to pull me away. They dragged me out, back to the lounge, put me on a sofa. I recognized two faces: Raluca – worried, taking my head in her hands – and the janitor. The other two people were known to me as well, but the names or any reference at all didn’t come to my mind. There was only the sight of her, present and vivid for minutes, maybe hours, until it began to damp down.
Perception came back slowly. Sirens cried sharply nearby. My body shook violently, wrapped in a blanket. All lights were on, hurting my eyes as if I’d been sitting in the dark for days. The place was swarming with people.
One face emerged from the foggy crowd, drawing nearer like a picture someone brings real close to your nose. His cheeks hung like a bulldog’s, lips pouty and wet, as if used to spitting. Thick bags under small, penetrating eyes. He frowned in suspicion and put his hand on my forehead.
“You all right, ma’am?” he asked in a detached tone which sounded not only tired but also unmoved, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
My eyes fell to his dark raincoat, its edges spreading on the floor as he stood down on one knee before me. His figure was big, round.
“I’m inspector Constantin Vlahe”
My lips still refused to move. I just stared at him. Blankly. He continued, a little impatiently.
“Listen, Mrs. Novac, I know you went through a terrible shock, but you’re not helping anyone by keeping your mouth shut”
Anger choked me. I gulped.
He rolled his eyes, stood up heavily and strolled back to a cluster of young men in black uniforms. My sight cleared to read ‘Police’ on their backs and see inspector Vlahe light a cigarette. I opened my mouth to call his name, but no sounds came out. You’re not helping. Yes, help. Could I still help her? Was she still alive?
Something stirred beside me. It was Raluca, crouched like a thief in hiding and playing the keys of her phone with feverish fingers. I patted her arm. She turned to me, a smile stretching on her face in relief.
“Oh, honey, are you all right?”
“I called the principal and now I’m writing to our colleagues” she said sweetly and wiped my cheeks with her thumbs. It was then that I realized I was crying.
“I also wrote…”
“Mrs. Voinea” the inspector’s call interrupted.
Raluca gave me a compassionate look, whispered she’d be right back and rushed to him.
The top of the phone stood out of her purse. One thought pierced through to the front of my mind. Damian.
My bag wasn’t anywhere around me. It had probably stayed in the toilet… with her. I gasped for air and closed my eyes tightly, fighting to keep that image away. I’m not going back there. My legs wouldn’t have carried me anyway.
With trembling fingers I reached for the phone. Strength seemed to have completely drained from my body, since I had to press the button twice to light up the display.
It showed a picture of a young family, a smiling man and a woman, holding up a sweet baby with a pink bonnet. I recognized the man: Alec Chivu, Mrs. Chivu’s son. I blinked a couple of times, to get my brain back running. What was Raluca doing with Mrs. Chivu’s cell?
I ran my finger over the display and unlocked it. It showed Sent Messages. Instinctively, I touched the icon.
The first message was directed to Raluca. The following two as well.
Without a thought, I opened the first one, sent at 6 AM sharp. It was written in capitals. ‘HE’LL KILL THEM ALL, INCLUDING YOU, IF YOU TURN INTO THE WHORE OF BABYLON!’
I jerked. Cold sweat. I opened the next one, sent at 5:56 AM.
‘THAT’S ALL HE WANTS, ONCE THEY GET HIM, IT’S OVER’
And then I opened the last message on the list directed to Raluca, the first Mrs. Chivu had sent her at 5:42.
A shadow came over me, blotting out the light. I raised my head to a shocked Raluca, her arms slightly shaking. She bent and snatched the phone.
“What is this?” I babbled weakly.
“Please, Aura” she pleaded, stuffing the cell back into her purse.
“If they see the messages they’ll think I had something to do with it”
She spoke quietly, but anxiety emanated from her whole body.
“Where did you get it?”
“Her purse was beside her. Along with a rusted knife. The janitor already identified it as one of his tools”
I stared into her face, my mind still blank.
“Please, understand me, Aura. I have to erase them all”
“She’s written more?” I inquired, puzzled.
She fixed her eyes on mine.
“Yes” she confessed.
“Why was she writing to you?”
“Because…” she paused and scouted for prying ears before she continued, bringing her face close to mine.
“Because of Ivan. She knew he had a… weakness for me”
My throat tightened again, strangling my voice and my heart. Flashes of Mrs. Chivu’s deep wounds struck me again and again, swift like an attacking cobra.
“Aura, Aura, are you all right?”
She caught my head between her hands again. I realized I was jerking back and forth, heard sighs and moans – my own. An officer rushed to me.
“First aid, fast!” I heard him call. Then all went black.
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