I was in Bucharest then, but only briefly. My grandmother’s apartment was not far from the river, and in the evening, when the air inside grew hot and stuffy, I took the alley walk to a place I had not visited since I was a child. I was surprised when I first returned. Just past the marketplace, down the hill scuffed by tires, you could descend from the street into a forest. The willows hung, thick and wet, and smaller trees with large, waxy leaves edged the path. I found that there weren’t many people there—several fishers, a runner, and two smokers—and so there was something like peace hidden here within the city. You could look back towards the apartments and see nothing but their heads peeking over the tops of the trees.
As I said, I came here often. The walk became familiar to me, the timing consistent: I would set off when the outside air was deep blue. One night, I saw someone whom I had known for just a short time, an acquaintance I’d met in an old bookstore years ago. I greeted her, and we talked for an hour, sitting on a bench overlooking the river as it became a lake. The houses, which seemed to float on the other side of water, reflected yellow lights, along with clouds and the first hints of stars.
She was older than I remembered, but just as quiet. She was now at the University that my father had attended, and was studying to be an engineer. She admitted, with a slight smile, that her true love was still for books. She told me a story.
“It was the third week of term. Our first exam was approaching, and it was raining. Me and two others had left the faculty. We were staying close to the edge of the masonry, and rushing so that we could make it without getting soaked in the rain. We were laughing. I think that we were very happy.
“I didn’t know the others well. Both were in my year, in my faculty, and so they were new to the place and to one another. One, Adrian, was tall and thin with a smile like a sharpened knife. He was clever and as I would find out later prone to fits of melancholy, especially during the rain. The other, Cassia, was bright as a lamp. She laughed often, with a sound like the bells past Victoriei. I tell you, because later on, I think it will be important.
“Cassia didn’t know the way, so Adrian took us through the school of the Architects, and past the large church on the corner with the twin statues looking outwards. He told us that he was taking us to a place he knew well; he had grown up in the area, and there was a cafe, on the second floor of a building, above a bookstore, to get out of the rain.”
By then, it was growing dark. The sun was setting, and the water of the lake in front of us was tinged with pink. Night encroached. The few children in the playground by the river departed, and the streetlights went up in the forest, making pools of soft white light. They had always reminded me of faeries, from the stories I had been told when I was a child. My friend was looking out over the water, to the houses beyond, perhaps. She noticed me, shook her head, and continued speaking.
“He couldn’t find it. He looked distraught and angry and began to make little sense. It had been here, it had been here just the other night. Cassia looked worried. She did not know the city well; I think she had begun to rely on him. Eventually, he calmed, and said that it was meant by the gods. Maybe he was joking. I wasn’t sure what he meant.
“We did find a cafe on a side street, the kind that tourists would love to find, but could only by accident. It was lit with small, glowing light bulbs, half hidden under lush plastic greenery. We ordered coffees, and talked about the evening, the weeks, and our lives.
“I won’t get into the details. Adrian had calmed and was happy. He had been happy. He grew up in the outskirts and he was only now able to spend time in the city on his own. Without his parents. It had been boring at home. He had few friends but very close ones, and they would drive around at night like they were Americans, then drink in their basements and imagine their futures. I think he found it stifling. It was easier, then, to live a future than to imagine it. That’s what he said—each moment, he said he could feel that he was in the future, and he was living it just as he had hoped he would.
“Cassia looked down. She was not from here—she had come on a whim, and she now felt like her life was wasted. She missed home every day. Time moved too quickly, and it stood still; she could imagine it stretching out in front of her. In the moment, there was nothing she could do but to study, and hope to find consolation, if not happiness. The things she had loved at home were not possible here, and at home they would be normal, neglected. They would fade with the passing years. She said this daringly, almost angrily, and the lightbulbs cast a glow on her face and on her hair, which trailed down in golden ringlets to her neck . . .
“We had all spoken. I left for a moment to see whether it continued to rain, and when I returned they were gone. I walked back home to my mother’s—not far from here, without an umbrella. I wouldn’t see them until after the exam. Each acted just like themselves, though I don’t think I saw them together again.”
It was dark. The lights in the houses in the distance were fading, one by one. Most of the light on the surface of the lake was from the moon on the clouds. The air, finally, was cool. My friend said goodbye, her long skirt twisting as she left.
This was the last time that I walked back home from the park. I was leaving Bucharest the next day. I tried to remember every detail from my surroundings: the streets, the pieces of scrap metal, the way the sidewalk turned, how music faded down from this or that balcony on the seventh floor. Before I knew it, I was home. My grandmother had gone to sleep, though the apartment still smelled of her cooking. Soon, I fell asleep.
I think often about this evening, and what my friend was trying to tell me. Something about appearances, how things seldom are how they seem? But this is too banal, and she is clever. Perhaps she was just speaking, and not trying to tell me something at all. No matter. Since this, we haven’t spoken. I don’t think I told her I was leaving.
Or maybe the event didn’t matter, just the sense of the evening. I was heartbroken that summer, and besides I was leaving. This was the last time I sat on that bench by the river, watching the change in the light. Maybe I knew that this would be the end of something, and I didn’t want to let it go.