Two Gold Elephant Pins

We were staying next to a square window. All I remember was the right lower corner of the window. It stroke me how perfect the straight lines of the window corner were. Through the window I could see the swimming pool. It was a large rectangle. Blue, white, and very still. The corner of the pool did not fit into the corner of the window and it created an intersection of geometrical figures. And I was staring at these figures trying to see some hidden magic behind them. But there was none.

When I looked over the pool there was a straight line of cypress trees. The cypresses were perfect. Tall, elegant, not like on Van Gogh paintings, but unnaturally perfect, like plastic Christmas trees. They created a straight line on the further end of the pool.

I looked at him and I knew that he saw the same lines that I saw. His son went running down to the pool. And we stayed next to the window looking at the blue water below and waiting for his son to appear next to the pool and jump into the water.

*     *     *

There were a lot of dark corridors in that house. Finally I found the room I was looking for. The room had no shape, or I could not see the shape in the darkness. And there it was, the old piano in the corner. I could barely see it. The top of the piano was covered with small boxes and chests. Those chests that you put jewelry in. I opened one box carefully and there was a necklace enrolled in a thin handkerchief. I closed the box. I opened another one, this one was a large black box tied with a ribbon. I took the ribbon away, a purple velvet ribbon, and opened the box. There were some coins, a small statue out of malachite, an old watch, and a few precious stones. My grandmother loved malachite. There should be a small malachite box as well. I looked for it but could not find it. May be it was lost. Then there was a wooden box, and I opened it and then I clearly remembered what I was looking for. Two thin gold elephant pins. Those were extremely old, from thin gold with ruby eyes and some more jewelry decorations on their backs. One elephant pin was bigger than the other. I could not remember the story of these two elephants, but I knew there was a story behind them. My grandmother told me the story many times. Somebody brought those elephants from India as a gift to somebody in our family for saving somebody’s life. I was four then, I used to take both elephant pins in my hands, admire them, touch their ruby eyes, and then pin them on my lapel and run around the house imagining I was a princess from India. And I felt hidden magic power when I wore them. All the jewelry my grandmother had was magical. I felt the ruby ring on my finger and continued opening boxes looking for the two gold elephant pins. They might have lost their polish but I knew they must be in one of the boxes on the piano. It was just very dark around.

*     *     *

We were staying outside. The breeze smelt of sea water and we felt it on our faces and bodies. We stood next to each other on a wide lawn, our feet on the grass. It was very soft and warm. As it is in spring in this part of Europe. In front of us there was the road, the sandy beach, and the sea. And the sky was blue and open. I kneeled with one knee on the grass to pick up something and as I was lifting my head I saw a line of small uneven bumps on his skin above his waistline. “What is it?” I asked. “A scar from an old cancer,” he answered. “It is all past now. Do not worry.” I looked at him and I did not worry. I knew it was all fine.

*     *     *

I woke up at dawn. Cold morning air was entering the room through the blinds. I felt scared of my night dream. Two gold elephant pins. I needed to find these two gold elephant pins. They had the magic. And I remembered every detail of them, as if I saw them yesterday.

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When the taxi left

When the taxi left I walked to our apartment building. It started to rain. In the taxi he had turned his head back and waived at me, and I tried to keep my face still. I was crying. I have cried the previous night too.

He arrived home from his trip late at night. It was the first time we saw each other since we separated. He sat on the kitchen and ate the soup I have cooked earlier that day for our son. It had piston pasta and it took forever to boil the pasta for the soup. Both of us stood in the kitchen waiting for the pasta to be cooked. Then he ate. It was well after midnight.

I asked him how his trip to Rome went. And he told me it was fine. He said he was blessed to have met some very kind and beautiful people there. He also said that he knew that the God would help him and that everything would be fine.

I started to tell him about the children, and how our son did something funny last night. And he asked me not to talk about the children. And I stopped.

“Even though I think you are making a huge mistake now, I am thankful to you for breaking this marriage,” he said after a while. He spoke slowly, keeping the words calm. “When you told me that you wanted to separate, I felt liberated. For the first time in my life I suddenly felt free from my fears. Since I got to know you and to love you I feared you would leave me. Since the first day of our marriage everything I did was done out of fear. I tried to guess your smallest wishes and to give you everything you had ever asked for, because I told myself that if I did so you would love me. And then I always feared losing you. I became nervous, I got our family in debt, I had anxiety attacks, I built a life that was guided by my fear of you leaving. I could not sleep, I could not act as a person should, I loved you so much. I still do.”

I was quiet. My body hurt from a cloud of pain. It was everywhere. A cloud much greater than me. I started to cry. First silently, then abruptly, choking with my own breath.

“I think you are committing a huge error in breaking the family. And still I respect your decision. And I admire your strength and your guts. I am thankful. I know you are doing it out of the best intentions for both of us and our children. In Rome, I met some nice people. I had the best time in my life despite the separation. I told them everything and they behaved like people I knew for ages. We became friends. Fourteen years admiring you I forgot how easy it is to get a woman. In Rome every day women would want me. On parties girls would try to make it with me, on a bus station a beautiful Italian started to talk and gave me her phone number. The world is full of women. Of amazing beautiful women who would love to spend their time with me. I am not going to lead a lonely life. The darn thing is that I have seen it all. And there must be no more than two women worth to live or die for. And one of them is you.” He paused, and then added, “And the second one is probably our daughter.”

“I talked to a friend about our separation, and I told her that the life will still be beautiful. It will be a very different kind of beauty though.”

“Everything will be fine. I know you will have an amazing career. I know that it is career that you are leaving me for. You will go to USA and have all these amazing things like cars, books, clothing, good schools, all the fluff of the Bay Area, men, everything. This is why I tried to run away from it all. I wanted to live in Sicily, to have a simple life, just you, our children and our life. But you do not want it. I do not blame you. I am thankful to you for giving me the freedom. Freedom from my fear of losing you. You do not know what it is to suddenly live without fear. Until the last month I did not know it either.”

I was not feeling well. I could not breath. I did not argue because there was no point in it. It did not matter if what he said was right or wrong. I went to sleep. It was 3am and I lay in my bed trying to keep my back straight, but it curved, as a sign of protection or weakness. I have never realized how our relationship has been piloted by fear. Fear is the only thing I hated with all my heart now. I rejected it with my body, I fought it with my mind. “Whatever will be, I am not going to live out of fear,” I said to myself. “Never fear anything.”

He was packing his suitcases in the guest-room. His plane to the new place was leaving next morning. I listened to his fingers typing and then I heard our daughter moving in her bed. I did not realize when I felt asleep.

Kids were excited to see him in the morning. We had breakfast as usual and we took the children to school. He kept a little bit apart when I talked to our son’s teacher about a boy in a class that kept beating our son. I asked the teacher to encourage our son to reply, to say “no”, and to hit back if needed. I did not want him to just run away. Then we left.

We went to a grocery store and he got all the things to make a tiramisu. There was a big party at his work that night and he was making tiramisu for forty people. He told me we did not have much money and I should ask my family to help with my and children’s expenses this month. I told him I would.

We went back to our apartment. He packed the tiramisu things in his carry-on, took his two suitcases and we went downstairs. He got a taxi on the street corner, put the suitcases in the trunk, and told the taxi driver to go to the airport. We hugged. When the taxi left I walked to our apartment building. It started to rain.

The Hotel

“It was about 10:30am when the sunlight hit the windows. I looked at the roofs of the houses with patches of snow and at the mountains far away. My face and shoulders got hot from the sunlight and I stood motionless looking outside. My husband had left an hour ago and the kids were jumping on the big hotel beds. We needed to checkout before 11am.

I turned to our bed and finished packing the suitcase. I closed the zipper. I put the suitcase down and moved it to the door. I turned around and realized I still had a lot to pack. I started with the toy cars on the table, then small airplanes, and books. Those filled the backpack. There were stuffed toys all over the bed. I picked those and put them in a plastic tote bag. Bunnies and bears with their brown feet sticking outside. The bag was moved to the door near the suitcase. I went to the bathroom and picked the toothbrushes and hair pins. There were perfume bottles, mine and of my both children. The makeup, the kids’ towels, the bath toys. I stood puzzled wondering how I managed to get so many things into a hotel bathroom. I packed a box with our bath things. I still had to find space for the kids’ plush towels and bathrobes.

I moved to the second bedroom. Books. The books and toys were everywhere. The kids clothes. Brown jackets, black jackets, boots, snow boots, hats, scarfs, jeans. Those were not fitting inside the suitcases. I took some of the bigger items and piled them on the table. I noticed a box with the dolls under the nightstand, a domino game, and a fire-track. I fetched a grocery box and put the toys inside of it. Then, I opened the hotel apartment door and started to move the packed items into the hall. The hotel manager passed by our door and I felt deeply embarrassed by the amount of luggage we had accumulated. I was not tired of packing, I was not stressed, I was not in a hurry. I was profoundly taken aback by the pile of stuff that I have gathered during our stay at the hotel.

It was close to 11am when I finished moving all the snow gear and clothing into the hall. I went back to the room and realized I have forgotten the blankets. Two thick wool blankets that we carried for the kids. Those were very expensive, good quality blankets, the ones that are handmade in small Norwegian villages. My family believed those to be the best ones and insisted on taking them with us on our trips. “So that the kids do not get cold in the hotels at nights,” said my mom. I pulled the blankets from under the sheets. I rolled each of them carefully and fit them inside a big suitcase. On top I piled some of the kids clothing. Then, I noticed tea cups on the table and some plates decorated with green dancing bears. We brought those plates from USA, years ago. I put the plates in between of the blankets.

Three white bookcases stood under the windows. The bookcases were full of books. Our books.

It was our third stay in this hotel this year. Each time we stayed for three or four days and occupied the same rooms. It was supposed to be fun, we skied, had dinners and stayed up late. The kids run in the fresh air, did sports and ate crepes for breakfast. Without noticing it, as we had fun, things grew around us. They occupied our time and space. They grew bigger than us, they bankrupted us. Then came the sudden realization of it.

“How did you go bankrupt?” a Hemingway character is asked in The Sun Also Rises. “Two ways,” comes the answer. “Gradually and then suddenly.” So it was with my personal life bankruptcy.

I stood in the sunlight in the hotel room and looked at the pile of things to pack. I did not move. All the things were mine. But they were not me. I bought those things. Generation upon generation told me that we needed those. We needed those blankets, those jackets, those books, those cups. And I got them all to keep our house warm. The kids enjoyed using them. The things have served their purpose.

Now I was in the middle of the room. Facing the window and the three white bookcases full of books. Behind my back were suitcases, and boxes, and bags. The kids were playing in the main bedroom. “We will just take some books and some toys,” I said to myself. And I stood still.

There was a knock on the door and the hotel manager came in and told me it was noon and we needed to leave the room. I told him that we will in couple of minutes. He looked around and did not say anything. He left the door open.

I took the books from the bookcases and put them on the table. A pile of books. Then another one next to it. While I was doing this, the sunlight was on my hands. First I felt the warmth, then it burnt my skin. It also brought the forgotten taste of pleasure. Sun touching uncovered skin. I sensed the sweetness under my tongue. I took a pile of books and placed it inside of a brown box. I put another one in. I lifted the box. It was heavy. Still I could carry it to the car. I heard the kids’ voices from the other room. They were playing a game.

I told them I would load the car and be back. They jumped down to kiss me and continued what they were doing. Outside the air was fresh. The snow crisped under my feet. I opened the car trunk and placed the books there. There was enough space for a suitcase and couple of bags. The white metal of the trunk was cold. I put my hand on it to see the thin layer of snow melt around my fingers.

Then I headed back to the hotel to pick up the kids and couple of more things. “I should ask the kids if they want their blankets during the trip.” At the half past twelve we went down the hall. I handed the keys to the hotel manager, smiled and the three of us left the hotel.”

I woke up. It was still dark. The night was over.

Drawing On the Paper Napkins

“This one,” would say my son pointing to a shiny glass Christmas ornament. “I want this one.”

I would smile back at him and nod. Then he would pickup that big and sparkling Christmas ball and hold it carefully in his hands.

“Can I have two? Both are very small,” would say my daughter and show me two tiny glass birds, one green, one silver.

“Of course.” And then we would stay in line to the register and both kids would hold their christmas ornaments.

Out on the street they would let me carry the package. We would walk through the streets and stop in front of every decorated storefront.

“Shall we have a coffee?” I would ask them.

“Yes, yes!” would shout loudly both of them.

It is cold on the street. We would enter a cafe and kids would order a cake or doughnut and I would get my coffee. Then they would ask to open the bag with the Christmas ornaments. And I would tell them that we should wait till we get home, as they could break them easily here. They both would agree and start singing or drawing something on the paper napkins of the cafe. Drawing small flowers and hearts and themselves dancing. I would look at them, smile and without fully realizing it  I would start drawing with them too.

The Dotted Line

(from a midnight dream)

She saw him first. It was October and she was walking with the other passengers to the aircraft. Her flight to Munich was scheduled to depart at nine twenty five. The flight attendant led them to a small white airplane. It was dark and the yellow lights illuminated the dotted lines on the field. She saw an airplane taxied to its dock. She saw workers unloading luggage into the carts. Then she saw him. He was walking with a group of passengers from a flight that has just landed.

He looked tired and it was dark where he walked. She stopped and at that moment he also saw her. They stood for a second, then walked towards each other.

“Come,” he said standing very close to her.

She moved closer to him. She felt his lips on her hair, then on her forehead. Her hands were touching his face. Her fingers on his skin sensing the weightless print of years that have passed since she last saw him. She slid her fingers under his chin. They looked at each other. Silently, winning over the strong wind, his lips touched hers. Not a glimpse of tiredness. The tenderness of unknown victory. The victory over the past years. Over the short emails, calls, random conversations around midnight. The victory over the weeks of silence when life was too busy or too much to handle.

“I’ve missed you so much,” he whispered in to the night air close to her face.

She looked at him softly pressing her hand to his cheekbone. He kissed it. They stood in silence. One more minute. Vividly aware of the presence of their bodies they omitted the words. Resting her face on his cheek, she thought that words, especially love words, were empty shells. One walked on them on the beach and they made cracking noises. What mattered was that now they stood so close to each other. His hands around her.

She looked at the dark airfield. The beginning of a dotted line. One dot after another and the line did not have an end. “And if this line has an end the wind must take you up into the air before you reach it,” she thought and fixed her eyes on the line.

A minute has passed.

“I have to go,” her lips touched his ear. She made an intent to move away. Her ring got caught in the brown wool of his sweater. She untied it with special care and once more caressed his cheekbone. He kissed her, and the moment she left his lips were brushed by the wind. His face was numb from the cold October air.

She did not turn back until she got to the aircraft door. Then, up on the stairs, she looked in his direction. He knew she was watching him. He wanted to smile, but could not. He waved at her instead. She waved back and went inside the aircraft. He turned and headed to the airport building. The wind blew hard against his face.

Seconds later, pushing the cold glass of the rolling door he entered the empty hall. Everything was quiet. Outside the wind was sweeping over the dotted line.

“Crazy wind,” he said to himself.

The Easter Egg

Easter Egg

It happened a year ago. It was spring and we were boarding an airplane in Trondheim.

“Bzem-bzem!” cried my two-year-old son, as we were the first in line to enter the aircraft. Bzem-bzem was his little Easter egg. He kept carrying it with him everywhere. He got it earlier that spring from his grandmother. When the Easter box from Russia arrived, it was full of nicely wrapped chocolates, stuffed bunnies and small toys. In the midst of that newly arrived Easter brightness my son saw a little wooden egg carefully wrapped in the soft tissue paper. He picked the egg and ran away, holding it tightly in his little hand. He did not know how to talk then, and he called it “bzem-bzem”, as the sound resembled the one that an egg makes when you brake it over the edge of a bowl. In the following weeks he did not let his Easter egg alone, not for a second. He ate with it, slept with it, took it with him on our walks and played with it. The egg lost its original shiny colors and a blue silk bow it came with. It became used to the little hands, little pockets and little boxes, where my son would put it. It received a lot of little kisses at night.

And now we have lost it. We were standing the first in the line to board our plane to Amsterdam, and my son cried “bzem-bzem!” and right away I got this hollow feeling of having lost something. He was playing with it at the airport cafeteria before we checked in, he must have left it there.

I asked the flight attendant, who was about to let us in to the plane, if I would have time to go to the cafeteria with my son to look for his toy. No, we did not have enough time. The plane was leaving in ten minutes and we were boarding. She was very sorry, she asked what kind of a toy it was.

“It is a small wooden egg, with its paint almost off. Not bigger than a real egg,” I told the lady in blue. I also told it to myself, to make sure I understand that it would be impossible to recover it.

“Where did he left it?”

“I think in the cafeteria before the check-in. Or may be in the play corner right after the check-in,” there were about forty tables in that cafeteria, full of people and carts and food. I handed our boarding passes to the lady and we walked to the plane.

We both liked flying. We looked through the small window at the people entering the plane, at the cars servicing other airplanes, and at the airport workers in their bright security vests. It was windy. The bluish mountains on the background and the wind. It was cold in Trondheim in May.

After a ten minutes delay the craft’s door was closed and the motors started to roar. The plane set into motion right away.

“I believe this is yours?” the flight attendant approached my son and handed him his Easter egg. “We called the cafeteria and they were able to find it. They sent a person directly to the plane to make sure it flies with you,” and she smiled at my son. I thanked her.

I pressed myself a little bit harder into the seat to keep calm. Somebody out there cared so much about something so small and unimportant. The painful seconds of silence, and a smile. I thanked the flight attendant again. The plane took off. My son was looking at the houses and cars, as those were becoming smaller and smaller under us. Then the mountains became small too. His little fingers holding tightly his wooden bzem-bzem.

A Small Blue Robot Backpack

“We stood with Sally in front of the corner arts store and then my 2 year old threw his half eaten cookie to the pigeon. For a while after that, every time we passed that street corner, my son would point his finger and say, “Pigeon”. And I would think of Sally,” he finished the sentence and looked across the room where Steve was sitting.

“And you have not seen her since then?”

“Almost not,” he waited for a while then continued. “Well, I saw her one more time, at a fair. It was crowded and we almost did not get time to talk. She was thirsty and I accompanied her outside to get a bottle of water. She got two. We stood for a minute at the building entrance not knowing what to do, then somebody from her team saw her and she got pulled inside. I waited a little bit and walked to the parking lot. It would not make any sense to go in again,” he felt silent.

“I know,” said Steve. “Well, that was a while ago. Tell me what’s going in your life now.”

“I do not know. Everything is fine. You know,” and he pointed his chin towards the kids’ room. “Nick is healthy and growing, all of us are fine, and I think that at the end this is all that matters. Right?”

“Well, yes. A lot of times I think the same. How is work?”

“It is good. Very good, actually. I like our team and, also I have been meeting some amazing people lately. Really, met couple of other guys involved in what we do and they turned out to be smart. We became kind of friends. What else? I guess I am really into the projects we are running. Keeps me busy. Keeps me thinking about things that matter,” he felt silent.

“Well, this is really cool,” Steve nodded and stretched on the sofa.

It was raining and every time there was silence in the room they could hear the raindrops hit the windows and the cars on the street. It was late. After a while Steve took his sweater and walked to the guest-room. He was staying over. He was his best friend and they have not seen each other for a while.

Next morning Steve left. He had to catch his plane back home. They had breakfast together, he watched him pack. He stood in the middle of the doorway and tried to be helpful. Then he opened the door, hugged Steve, they both said how great it was to see each other after all this time. Steve left. He closed the door and turned the key twice.

He walked across  the hall, stopped at the window. He looked at the rain for a while not hearing anything, just watching. Then he shook his head and tried to put his mind back to work. Talking about Sally the day before did not do him any good. “Never share anything with anybody,” he thought to himself. Steve asked and he talked. That was it. Steve was his best friend and he wanted to talk. He did not know it would be painful. Not until now. “This is life. And there is nothing else to it.” No. He did not smile this time. He said it very quietly, watching the raindrops fall.

This was on Sunday. And now it was Thursday and it was raining again. Almost a week has passed. Lot’s of work got done, meetings, planning, talking, writing. And now it was Thursday night and he was tired. He walked to the dining table in the middle of the room and looked at the paperwork that was piled on it. His son’s enrollment to the preschool on the top. He signed the forms and put them inside a brand-new envelope. He placed the envelope on the kitchen table. He should not forget to mail it tomorrow. Then he opened his laptop and looked at the sites he used to read. He went through a new article about compassion and judgment and then switched to the conversion rates review. Then, he looked for the store where he and his wife bought all the things for Nick, and searched for backpacks. Nick will need a backpack for preschool. He liked the one with the orange robots on it, but the small size was out of stock. He called the customer service and they gave him the number of the store that still had it. He called the store and placed an order for the backpack. A small blue robot backpack. All in all it took about 15 minutes. He kept looking at the image of the backpack on his computer screen hoping for a vague feeling of satisfaction. He tried to imagine the excitement that Nick would feel when he sees the backpack. And he felt silent.

The rain was falling heavily outside of the window panes. Its noise distracted him. He looked outside, peacefully, and after a while thought to himself, “This can’t be all there is to life. I know life is much more than that. It really is.”

He moved closer to the window and lightly pressed his forehead against the cold glass. “Do not ever share anything with anybody or you will end up buying a small blue robot backpack on a Thursday night.”

Barcelona, February 28th 2013

The Privilege of a Fish

The privilege to write about anything. Absolutely anything. It is a privilege of a fish.

You wake up in the morning. You go down the stairs and once on the street you realize that you are a fish. There is nothing weird about it. You feel the movement of the water around your body and its pressure. And your body moves very slowly, following the water. And the street noises and the voices are not there any more. Your ears hear some inner sounds and light taps of the water against your face. You do not move forward fast, you mostly move down. A little bit in diagonal. Your body is still prone to gravity that your mind has not entirely forgotten. You assume that everybody had became a fish and you expect to see other fishes soon. But you do not. You are alone. You do not try to talk, instead you use all your strength to sustain the pressure of the water on your body. There is no pain, just the heaviness of each molecule that surrounds you. This heaviness in glued to your skin now.

You intend to breath, but your lungs do not need air. You waste the intent. You release the weight that your body still holds. Then you reach the bottom. You have no feet to walk or push yourself up towards the surface. You are a fish, but you keep forgetting it. Your mind still wonders why did you ever tried to reach the bottom and looks for the reasons, but your body is already taking you up. You need to find this space in the water where the pressure is equal from all the sides. Then you can surrender. Water becomes part of you and you obey it. You can close your eyes and rest. As a fish you do not have any dreams. You just feel that every part of your body is part of the water too. You are part of it all and you move with it. Slowly, precisely; Sliding among the noises of the dreams.

Barcelona, February 8th 2013

Twelve Roasted Chestnuts

La Castanyera is here. It is fall,” said Anton.

Gregori nodded and looked towards where Anton pointed with his chin. When he first heard La Castanyera, for some reason, he thought of a dancer with castanets. But following Anton’s look he quickly realized that the other referred to the woman who was roasting and selling chestnuts on the street. “So, this is how they call them here,” he thought to himself. And he looked at La Castanyera for a while, following her hands, not losing any detail on how she kept the coals burning and how she made the paper cones out of an old newspaper, and how she stacked them one inside the other on one side of the booth, waiting for the rare customers. “Must be a lonely job to be staying like that all day long,” thought Gregori. Couple of school-age boys stopped in front of the coal burner and got a bag of chestnuts. Laughing, they run away.

It was late night and Gregori was sitting in his living room and writing emails. Then it started to rain. First a few heavy drops, and then the rain formed a wall between his window and the rest of the world and absorbed all the sounds that ever existed outside of his living room. He paused his typing and listened. Then he thought about the woman who was selling chestnuts on the plaza. “What did she do when it started to rain like that?” he looked outside of the window, but he could not see the corner of the plaza where he knew the woman would be staying. “La Castanyera,” he slowly pronounced the new word.

Gregori took his umbrella and went down the stairs. It was not cold outside. Just dark and rainy. The raindrops glistered under the traffic lights. He crossed the street and walked around the plaza. La Castanyera was not there. He felt some kind of relief knowing that the old woman was not getting wet under the rain. The clock on the church struck quarter past eleven. “It is probably too late for her,” it occurred to him. Gregori had not realized the hour it was till the moment he heard the church clock strike. He stood for couple of more minutes on the plaza, spinning slowly on one foot for no reason.  He was alone. He touched the puddle with the tip of his shoe and smiled at the ripples his shoe made. Then he slowly went home. Moving his feet carefully, from the heel to the tip, as if he was walking on a wave. It was raining.

And then he knew what he really wanted: to be sitting with Amanda back-to-back and eating roasted chestnuts. They would just sit like that and laugh and eat chestnuts. And the chestnuts, the dark, almost black chestnuts with the cut in the center, would be slightly burning their fingertips.  He imagined that they would sit in some autumn field, with the high wheat around them and it would be about to rain and the sky would be dark blue and the wheat very yellow. And they would sit in the middle of this field and just eat chestnuts, talk and laugh.  Amanda would probably wear one of her long-sleeved wool sweaters and she would hide her fingers in the sleeves and take the chestnuts through the thick wool, so as to not burn herself. And they would make jokes about it. And the words would have no weight at all and the sounds would fly, caught in the wind, as soon as they would pronounce them. The words would barely have enough time to touch their ears and disappear, like the bells disappear from the laughter way before the person stops laughing. And he knew that this would make him happy. And he went to bed. He was laying on his pillow and imagining chestnuts and Amanda, and listening to the raindrops’ heaviness.

When he woke up the next morning it was still raining. At short intervals the rain would stop and the sun would come out. And all the streets would look new and inviting in the sunlight of the morning rush. Walking to his office, Gregori gazed at the elegant silver pattern on the pavements. And with the rhythm of his own steps, through that morning mist, came the memory of his dreams about the roasted chestnuts and Amanda.

Then later on he called her from the office and asked if she wanted to get out for dinner that evening. But she was busy at work, and besides her family had some kids’ birthday party in the afternoon that they needed to go to and then it would be too late anyway. May be some other time.  Gregori was fine with that.  “If she could get out, she would,” he thought to himself.  His back rested on his chair. He bit his lip and threw his head back. He did not think of anything. It was raining heavily and he listened.  Then he smiled with the corner of his lips, and started to bite on his fingernail. Then he stopped. A nasty habit he was getting rid of.  “Ok, she is busy. I need to move on with my work too,” he glanced at the window one more time and turned his head towards his laptop.

His fingers started typing slowly. He wrote one more sentence. It was the new client’s contract that he was working on when he called Amanda. Gregori stopped, deleted the last line he wrote. Then reread what he had so far and deleted it all. “I will start it all anew, it will be better that way,” and Gregori started typing the contract details again.

Later that evening, when he was walking home, Gregori caught the sight of La Castanyera, who was selling the roasted chestnuts on the plaza. He paused his steps for a moment, and then playing with a couple of heavy coins in his pocket approached the coal burner.

“One bag of chestnuts, please” said Gregori and peeked inside the booth with almost a childish curiosity.

The lady smiled at him and started making a new paper bag.

“You have lots of them pre-made,” noted Gregori without thinking.

“I know,” answered La Castanyera, “there are not much people now, thus I will save those for later when the children come.”

“Is that mostly children who buy the chestnuts here?” asked Gregori

“Well, you never know. But yes, mostly, children. Sometimes tourists. Sometimes couples. Sometimes just people like you. Hay de todo,” said La Castanyera

Gregori wanted to ask her what would she do if it started to rain again like the last night, and if the coal would keep burning under the rain or if she had to cover it with a lid, but instead, to his own surprise he suddenly said, “Do you want me to get you a cup of coffee? You must be cold standing here all day long.”

“Thank you. No. I am fine. I am used to it, besides, the coals keep me warm,” and the lady pointed to the coal burner.

Gregori did not know what else to say but he wanted to say something nice. He looked around, at the church behind them, at the people passing by and then said, “I like how the chestnuts smell.”

“Me too,” nodded La Castanyera, ”it is the fire that makes them smell so well,” and she smiled and there was nothing else to say and this was the end of the conversation. Gregori took his paper cone with warm chestnuts, paid the lady three euros, thanked her and slowly walked away.

He did not go home. He just strolled down the street with the warm paper cone in his hands and the smell of roasted chestnuts on his skin. He breathed the smell. It occurred to him that this smell had not changed at all with years. These chestnuts smelled exactly the same as the ones his dad used to buy him in fall in Paris.  “How come the smell does not change at all,” he mindlessly asked himself without really asking. “So in twenty years from now the people will buy a dozen of chestnuts and the smell will be exactly the same as the one that enchants me now. And the same that enchanted me as a kid on the streets of Paris. And they will like it the same way and think about the moments from their childhood, and how they were in love and how they were laughing and kissing when it was raining. And then, later on, they will remember all that and just smile and stroll down the street with the paper cone filled with the twelve chestnuts. And the smell will be always the same. Every year buying the same roasted chestnuts and thinking of all the good memories they bring. And then it does not make any sense that the roasted chestnuts smell the same when you are in love and when you are just walking silently on your own. Even if you smile or sing,“ Gregori was thinking to himself, “and so, this is all there is to it.”

Once at home Gregori opened a bottle of red and ate the chestnuts on the small coffee table in the living room. He worked carefully on the first one to make sure that he peels it right, he bit into it and chewed a small piece and drank some wine. “Well, it is just a chestnut. It is a good one though,” and he finished it. Then he opened his laptop and automatically checked his mail and started writing his agenda for the next day.  He peeled and ate some more chestnuts, not paying any more attention to them, as he was already absorbed by a conversation with somebody from Nebraska, somebody who could give him a few good tips on his business.

Amanda called on Sunday and said they could meet on Monday if he did not have any other plans for that day. Gregori said that he did not have any and asked where they should meet. Finally they agreed that he would pick her up on the corner of her office in the downtown at six. That worked fine for both of them and they talked for a little while about life and small things that were going on. They joked in between of the daily routine questions and light smiles tapped on his cheeks. It was good talking to her. As good as when they just started seeing each other. Gregori was in a very good mood and he sat down on his sofa and typed the metrics report that was long overdue.  This time the work went smooth and easy and his fingers moved on the keyboard like that of a pianist preforming his favorite piece.  “What an amazing woman Amanda is. It will be nice to see her tomorrow,” Gregori thought to himself once the work has been done and he was able to relax. But then it was too late and he was too tired to think of anything else, and he felt the urge to lay down and sleep right there on the leather sofa in his living room. He opened the window, turned off the lights, took his clothes off and lay on the sofa pulling the plaid to his chest. He heard the vespas roaring on the street, and people talking on one of the balconies. Somebody was having a late barbeque on a Sunday night, and then the window flapped, and the voices of two young men were discussing something arduously. Somebody opened a cava bottle and all the exclamations were shisshed and everybody said “brindis” and there was silence. Amanda’s smile flew in front of his eyes and he could not remember how the chestnuts smell. He tired hard to imagine the smell, to recall it from his childhood, but he could not. Amanda smiled to him, the window flapped once again and he dreamt of the waves his fingers produced when he typed. He was sleeping.

He picked up Amanda at six, as they have agreed. He was couple of minutes late and she was already waiting for him on the corner. He apologized and she said it was fine. She never made any trouble out of anything.  It was that easy with her. He touched her hand and she did not pull it away. And they walked like that, holding hands a little bit and talking nonsense and laughing lightly.

“How was your day?” he asked

“Mine was good. Yours?” asked Amanda

“Mine was good too. Was looking forward to see you today.”

“This is nice. It is fun to see each other sometimes, is not it?” said Amanda

And he said that it was and they walked side by side down the street.

“Where are we going?” Amanda asked finally

“I do not know, any place you like. Are you hungry?”

“I am starving,” said Amanda. “Let’s eat anywhere you like and then we will go have coffee.”

“Good,” nodded Gregori.

They went to a small restaurant on one of the side streets and ordered their food and ate. They talked all the time, and his knee touched hers and they laughed and said all the unimportant words, and her crossed legs under the table were along his and it was good to be just sitting like that with her.

“You know what I was dreaming the other day?” said Gregori

“What?”

“Chestnuts. Roasted chestnuts and you. And I thought we just got some roasted chestnuts and we ate them together and laughed. And you were very pretty eating chestnuts.”

“This is a nice dream,” Amanda smiled. “Let’s get some chestnuts once we are done with the dinner. Shall we?”

“Sure,” Gregori nodded

They walked for a while till they saw the chestnut stand on the street. It was getting cold and windy. He could see that Amanda was cold, even though she said she was fine. He put his jacket over her shoulders and passed his arm under the jacket.

“We would like some chestnuts,” Gregori said to an almost angry looking chestnut vendor.

“Three euros a dozen,” said the woman and turned her back towards them, checking something in her booth.

“Ok, we will get one,” and Gregori gave her the coins.

The woman put twelve chestnuts into a paper cone and handed it to Gregori.

“Thank you,” said Gregori. The woman did not reply or smile back. She turned her back to them again and concentrated on something inside the booth.

“Well, this lady was not nice,” Gregori told Amanda when they turned the street corner.

“She might be tired or upset. You never know what is going on in her life,” replied Amanda.

“Yeah, I know.”

“By the way, they are called La Castanyera, did you know?” asked Amanda

“Yes, just was told so couple of days ago. But this was not even La Castanyera, it was just an upset woman selling chestnuts. She did not have La Castanyera spirit. Anyway.”

Amanda smiled. And they stopped to open the paper cone package and Amanda touched his face and kissed him. Gently and almost intangibly, like only she knew how. They stood for couple of minutes on the street kissing, with the warm chestnut package in his hand. Sometimes the wind would blow her hair over his face and he would hold it back with his free hand. Quietly. He liked its touch.

They walked a little bit more, eating warm chestnuts, one by one, together. Talking lightly about what was going on in their lives. Sometimes they laughed, sometimes he kissed her on the forehead, and all the words were weightless and not prone to gravity.  And the wind occasionally blew her hair over his chin and he did not think of anything at all, except that he knew he was happy.

He left Amanda close to her house and took a taxi to his place. It started to rain lightly. His hands were still holding the paper cone with the leftover chestnuts, his face was smiling emotionlessly, and his eyes were not noticing the streets they drove through.  The driver made a comment about the weather, but Gregori only nodded and said, “yeah”. For a while he sat quietly on the back seat of the yellow and black taxicab, his tired back resting on the brown leather of the cushion, his hand touching his chin. Then he slowly closed his eyes and took a deep breath. With the breath came the smell of the roasted chestnuts.

Barcelona, October 11th 2012

Walnut Trees For Christmas, Darling

(a short story)

The plane was landing in the Amsterdam airport. It was dark and rainy outside. Almost Christmas. A line of wet trees surrounded by the yellow lights grinned somewhere below. Rain was falling in solid glistering lines, creating an unnecessary link between the clouds and the lights of the airport.

Lara sat with her husband and their two kids in the last row. Lightly pressing her forehead against the small oval window she watched the nonchalant love dialog between the rain and the trees. The flight attendant was saying something in Dutch, which sounded sharp and fresh like the night itself. Lara could not understand a word. A string of unknown sounds flowed joyfully from the young and elegant woman, dressed all in blue and with a professional welcoming smile. Resting on this pillow of foreign words,  Lara drifted in her own thoughts when she was surprised by the phrase “Walnut trees for Christmas” and then after some more Dutch, “darling”. The flight attendant continued speaking Dutch, and Lara realized that the English words she heard were just a string of similarly sounding Dutch words. And that most probably those words meant something completely different.

“Walnut trees for Christmas, darling,” Lara repeated to herself. “It sounds beautiful”. The plane landed. Lara and her family proceeded to the airport building crossing a small triangle of wet asphalt. They still had almost an hour to catch their connecting flight to Barcelona. And while they walked, the cold Amsterdam air, the rain and those five magical words engaged into an obscure and passionate dance, startling to strangers and at the same time so akin to the festive Christmas spirit.

On the New Year’s Eve it was well after midnight when Lara and John got to the downtown. They started walking from the top of Passeig de Gracia and down towards Las Ramblas. They were almost silent. People around were celebrating, dancing, shouting and drinking wine on the streets. People walking. And more people sitting on the benches, on the steps of the buildings, on the terrazza’s, all happy and ecstatic. A man passed by with a cardboard box full of freshly baked croissants. His party was waiting him around the corner, waving, laughing and making faces. Lara remembered how with her friends, while still in college, they used to get those boxes of croissants on Saturday nights, after all dancing places closed at 5am and there was nothing else to do on the recently cleaned streets. On those mornings Barcelona was about the smell of flowers from the street vendors who were opening their booths. It was about the smell of the wet pavements, the cool breeze from the sea and the box of freshly baked croissants. They would sit on the steps of some old building and laugh and eat them before the first coffee places would open at 6am. This was many years ago.

And now she was walking with John through this festive city. Both, her husband and her very silent. Sometimes making remarks of people they saw, of what people said or how they looked. People talking French around them. Lara had never seen so many French people in Barcelona. “This year must be unique, it was never like that before”, she thought. She was already asked twice to give directions in French and she manage it decently with the help of gestures, maps and smiles. She loved France and French, however, at that moment so many French people around the downtown annoyed her. She was feeling tense. Almost like walking through an unknown city. “Besame, besame mucho, como si fuera aquella la ultima vez”. Somebody was singing. Clearly. Wonderfully. Each word perfect and transparent and full of strength of a passionate voice. The group of three people, one of whom was singing, passed  by and walked in front of them for some time. Lara and John, without noticing it, followed the trio, wanting to hear more of the song. And there was no end to it, the man started singing the same song again. Passionately, purposefully, wonderfully. And then they lost the trio in the crowd in front of the opera house and kept on wandering through the streets of the city. Celebrating. Walking.

It was around 2am and the mass was going on in one of the churches, and John wanted to enter the church. So they did. A choir of monks were singing the mass. Lara and John stood at the entrance for some minutes and then John impulsively took Lara’s hand and pulled her out of the church. “Those people really do it because they believe in God, we should not spoil their service by our presence,” he said abruptly and they proceeded through the crowded street. Lara knew what he meant, but she would have preferred to stay in the church for couple of more minutes. May be for the whole mass. Just to stay there and listen. She did not understood the majority of the songs, but the sounds of the chant cleaned some inner routes in her chest and made her feel fresh and unbroken. But they were already on the street and John was making his way to the plaza.

“What do you want to do?” he asked

“Dance. Do you think we can find any of the old dancing places?”

“Well, you have seen it yourself. Whatever we knew is closed. The new places are crowded with French. Do you want to go there?”

“No. Let’s have a coffee somewhere,” said Lara

“Coffee? It is almost 3am. Oh well. Let’s have a coffee. Cafe de La Opera must be open”.

They both knew this cafe very well. They have went there numerous times after the opera or ballet performances. From what they could recall it was always open. It was right in front of the opera house. Sometimes Lara wondered if it ever closed at all.

Now they were walking back. Through the crowd, passed the church, right turn into Las Ramblas and right into the cafe.  They sat at their usual spot, not in the big baroque room deep inside, but closer to the bar. All the tables around were empty. Lara wondered why the place was so unusually silent. “Well, it is passed 3am,” said John, “Besides, people are drinking and dancing now. Or may be going home already.”

He ordered coffee and wine and some olives. They sat next to each other looking at the street through the decorated cafe windows and at their own reflection in the mirror on the opposite wall. Then, before they knew it another couple was sitting at the table in front of them. They were having some coffee and cake. Sitting silently next to each other and looking at the street and around them.

The woman, Lara could tell she was Spanish, looked beautiful. In her forties, dressed in an expensive black suit, with some elegant jewelry and a nice watch. Her hair was black and smooth, her makeup was almost invisible, her pose relaxed and contemplative. The intangible sadness of her eyes only added an exquisite touch to her beauty. A faint smile did not curve her lips, but sparkled in the pupils of her eyes. A moment later Lara thought that this was one of the most beautiful women she ever saw. The woman looked at Lara. She did not smile, she did not acknowledge Lara’s presence. She simply did not notice her. She was drinking her coffee and contemplating the life around the cafe. Life where Lara and John did not exist. The counter. The walls. The mirror. Lara could not take her eyes off that woman. “This is what I will be like in ten years from now,” it suddenly occurred to her. The thought was not appealing. With all the beauty that woman possessed, there was something awkward about her. “Her pupils reflected no spirit. No purpose. You could not hear laughs inside this woman’s eyes,” Lara thought. “This woman would not be able to sing that Besame Mucho song, she had no voice, no rhythm, no passion.”

Then Lara looked at the man who was accompanying the woman. Her husband. They both had wedding rings on their fingers. The man was elegant. Also dressed in a dark suit, with a nice gabardine spread across an empty chair. In his mid forties. Some grey hair added nobleness to his forehead. His hands were delicate and polished. “The hands of a highly sensitive man. An artist, maybe,” Lara thought. He is stunningly beautiful too. Very polite and gentlemanlike. “They are a beautiful couple.”

The man was eating the cake and drinking the coffee. He was mostly silent. Sometimes making some inaudible remarks to his wife. To the beautiful woman with the black hair sitting next to him. And then silence again. You could hear voices of the people on the street, and the ringing sounds of the cash register and the steps of the waiters going up the stairs. Empty coffee cups and wine glasses made noise when the waiter placed them on the counter. Somebody was serving a drink. The door upstairs closed and a woman with a large umbrella walked through the door. And the decorative Christmas bells on the walls danced and clicked every time somebody rushed down the stairs. Click, click, click. Almost like a heartbeat. People were always going up and down the stairs. And the coffee was burnt and it left a bitter taste under the tongue after you swallowed it. “Why do the people always go up and down the stairs”, Lara wondered. Click. She placed her cup back on the saucer and touched the dried coffee foam with her finger. The foam had a beautiful walnut color. “Walnut trees,” Lara thought, “where did I hear this lately?” And a faint smile spread on her lips.

“Have you noticed this couple sitting in front of us all this time. Very beautiful couple,” John said to Lara once they were back on the street. “I think they were like us,” John continued. “I was thinking this all the time we were there. Have not you noticed it?”

“What?” Lara said. She did not hear the exact words, but she knew what he was asking. “Well. May be. I do not know.”

“You are so beautiful. Hundred times more beautiful than the woman at the cafe. You know you are. You just were dressed very similarly to her, this is why I thought you were like her,” and John stopped in the middle of the street, put his arm around her waist and kissed her. “All will be just fine, darling.”

And they walked silently side by side on the busy street of this Mediterranean city. The festivities were still going on, but the first cleaning trucks had already arrived. Wet pavements and the cool sea breeze. The fresh smell of the cold water on the first morning of the year.

“I guess I just do not understand something. And John is right, everything will be just fine,” Lara thought to herself when they were getting into a taxi cab. And she thought of the walnut trees and what could it mean “Walnut trees for Christmas,” that is, if it meant anything at all.

Barcelona, August 17th 2012