As far as Irina was concerned, there was nothing wrong with reading yellowish moldy magazines, that normally resided in the ugly wooden cabinet on the balcony of her third floor apartment, during her summer break. Her father subscribed to the popular monthly science magazine imaginatively called Science and Life and never threw out the old issues allegedly on account of home improvement advice they carried on the last two pages. Instead, they were banished to the family balcony and locked in their dilapidated prison never to be seen or read again. When Irina discovered this treasure hoard in her constant search of reading material, she felt like Captain Blood who had just found a chest filled with emeralds and rubies in the bowels of the boarded Spanish ship.
She liked to pretend she was rescuing the unfortunate indifferently bound magazines from unimaginable suffering in total darkness and neglect giving them a chance to redeem themselves by proving their worth to her. Once divested of their information, they were released to the local paper recycling center pedantically bound into accurate stacks, to be reprocessed and transformed into the new issues or books. Something about this circle of life appealed to Irina enormously. All school year she was waiting for summer break so she could unearth her hidden trove and unhurriedly read about breakthroughs in the fields of discrete mathematics, medicine, biology or physics while hiding behind the wall of wild ivy on the balcony of her old Polish building, bathed in the warm honey-colored light. Being in her early teens when this conspicuous discovery happened, she didn’t understand most of the articles, but the sense of accomplishment of reading real grown-up stuff was so rewarding she didn’t let that trivial fact upset her. Better to know something than nothing at all.
For her, the best thing about those magazines were the stories and excerpts from the books published in the section called Science in Literature. Each issue was devoted to a particular science topic, so the stories had to reflect it as well. Trembling from excitement, Irina ploughed through The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud (in the Psychology issue), Strong Medicine by Arthur Hailey (in the Pharmacology issue), The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse (unbelievably, in the Mathematics issue) and many others. Irina wondered if her father ever made it to this particular section, knowing his taste in books. He preferred war narratives and mysteries, not bothering with metaphysical connection between the mind and the matter.
Books were Irina’s refuge as long as she could remember herself. She was taught how to read at the age of three by her exhausted grandmother, who couldn’t cook voluminous family dinners and read to her insatiable grandchild at the same time. One day she made an executive decision and started Irina on her letters, and a few months later Irina’s parents proudly demonstrated her precocity to their astonished friends. By the time Irina was thirteen, she’d read almost all the books in the family library and moved on to the local one, where she was on good terms with the two elderly librarians. Both of them swore they’d never seen a mind so inquisitive and a memory so prodigious as in this tiny Jewish girl with sweet green eyes and a monumental nose. Around that time her mother started throwing temper tantrums every time she saw Irina with a book.
“You have to stop this stupid reading and go outside! Look at yourself – you’re losing your eyesight already and one of your eyes is getting smaller than the other from the excessive reading!” she’d scream in frustration.
“Bad eyesight is hereditary, Mom. You and Papa both wear glasses, so there’s a 70% chance I would have bad eyesight as well. As for the smaller eye, it’s because nature abhors symmetry. Nothing is the same size in the human body. One foot is always a little bigger than the other, one hand is a tiny bit longer and even the nostrils are not 100% identical. Don’t worry about it, though. Glasses would totally obscure this small difference.” Irina’d assure her mother reasonably, secretly proud of the fact she’d retained so much information from the Human Body issue. Unfortunately, an answer like that would prompt her grandmother to deliver the stunning coup de grace, which Irina couldn’t contradict in any meaningful fashion:
“You’ll become a bluestocking and nobody’ll want to marry you! Who needs a bookish wife? Do you think you can be a professor or something in this anti-Semitic country of ours? You’re a Russian- speaking Jew living in Lvov, Ukraine, where everybody must speak Ukrainian. This is the place where dreams of stupid girls burn in flames. Here, peel some potatoes for dinner, this will be a much better use for your time.”
Then summer would arrive, wrapped in the smells of warm earth and heated cobblestones, brought by the pointless flight of the lightest transparent spider webs. It would awaken the huge walnut tree right outside the window of Irina’s room, so it can start its yearly ritual of gossiping with the wild ivy and morning glory flowers, which were growing on the balcony in happy fecundity. Irina imagined that the tree, the ivy and the morning glory vines were her guardians, sent by the ancestors from another world, because as long as Irina was under their tenuous protection, her female watchdogs were happy – at least she was reading outside, breathing in fresh air.
She was fourteen when she stumbled on the Blood Disorders issue. Irina was luxuriating on her balcony in the armchair with her legs propped up on the tiny stepstool, savoring a glass of lemonade and leafing through slightly wet pages of the fluttering magazine, when she heard a low susurrus from the Science in Literature section. This was not unheard of. Irina could always hear the voices of books and other published works, if she’d focus her attention on them. These voices were usually guiding her through the library to the books she would ultimately select for reading. The Science and Life’s voice was a low, defeated whisper, but this time for some reason it contained younger, crisper notes of love and other demons.
Puzzled, Irina quickly finished the article on anemia, making a mental note to check her iron and vitamin B12 levels at some point, and flipped to the story of the month. She was mildly annoyed when she realized that the first couple of pages were ripped out, so the name of the writer, the title of the story and the beginning were nowhere to be found. Who knows why her normally accurate father would tear out the pages from the periodical he knew his daughter particularly liked. Maybe he needed a few pieces of paper to light the tiled stove in his room, and the poor magazine fell victim to necessity, since it was a December issue.
Sighing, Irina prepared to resign herself to a few minutes of confusion while trying to figure out the plot and characters, but the first sentence grabbed her attention with such power that she felt her heartbeat quicken. “No one except the two of them understood the real basis or knew the origins of that unforeseeable love.” Irina suddenly felt a light breeze that ruffled her short blond hair and made goosebumps spring on her arms. And a few seconds later she was lost in the snow storm somewhere between Madrid and Paris in the luxury Bentley convertible along with Billy Sanchez de Avila and Nena Daconte.
They were a very young couple, teenagers, really, who married a few days ago somewhere on another continent and were in Europe on their honeymoon. They belonged to the two of the most illustrious families in their unknown town and were rich, beautiful and madly in love, having just met on the beaches of Marbella three months prior to their wedding. When the ambassador of their country met them in the Madrid airport, he bestowed on them the gifts from their parents: a mink coat and a huge bouquet of roses for Nena Daconte, and a key to the car for Billy Sanchez. As Nena Daconte took the flowers, she pricked her finger on the thorn, but handled it with charm and grace. When she realized that her finger had never stopped bleeding, she thought nothing of it at first. Billy Sanchez, enraptured by the new car, drove for eleven hours without noticing that the mild weather of Spain had changed to the much colder winter of France, and snow had started falling around them, blanketing the countryside.
Somewhere close to Bordeaux Nena Daconte threw out the bloody handkerchief and stuck her hand out of the window, hoping that the cold and wind would have a cauterizing effect on her wound. When she realized she was wrong, she made a feeble joke about how anyone who might want to find them would just have to follow the trail of her blood in the snow. By the time they reached suburbs of Paris on Tuesday, her blouse, skirt and mink were covered in blood and her lips acquired a scary blue tint. Billy Sanchez, crazed with worry, drove her to the hospital where a copper-skinned physician admitted her and immediately took her to the ICU. Billy Sanchez held on to Nena Daconte’s hand until he was separated from her by the nurses and was eventually left alone, stupefied by the chain of events.
He didn’t go to the Plaza Athenee, where a honeymoon suite was waiting for him, but took a room in the dingy hotel a few blocks away from the hospital and spent an agonizing week trying to see Nena Daconte. Every day he was firmly rebuffed by the hospital staff because visiting hours were on Tuesday only and France was a civilized country where laws must be obeyed. Not knowing French, Billy Sanchez felt mute, confused and forlorn, so on Friday he decided to make a trip to his country’s embassy. The embassy official wasn’t impressed by his illustrious name and advised him to wait another four days and visit the Louvre in the meantime. On the way back to the hotel, Billy Sanchez got lost, and by the time he figured out that the hotel’s address was printed on the business card in his pocket, he was so emotionally drained that he didn’t leave his frugally appointed room for another three days, busying himself with washing the blood off Nena Daconte’s mink coat and staring at the ceiling.
When he came to the hospital on Tuesday, he walked through the snaking corridors until he suddenly saw the copper-skinned doctor, who had admitted Nena Daconte a week ago. What he told Billy Sanchez was unimaginable. Nena Daconte had bled to death on Thursday evening, after sixty hours of failed efforts by the most qualified specialists in France. Everybody was looking for Billy Sanchez: first at the Plaza Athenee, then at the embassy (the official who was talking to him received the cable with Billy Sanchez’s name an hour after he left), then his picture was broadcasted on the TV and his description on the radio. Nena Daconte’s parents flew in and waited for him in the tiny hospital chapel, but eventually called off the search and took the embalmed body of their only daughter back home. On Monday, when Billy Sanchez was overwhelmed with sorrow and love for Nena Daconte a few blocks away from the hospital where she was no more, the burial had already taken place across the ocean in the small cemetery a few meters away from the house where they first discovered their true selves.
Billy Sanchez refused the offer of tranquilizers and left the hospital without thanking the copper- skinned doctor. He needed to find someone and beat his brains out in revenge for his own misfortune. He didn’t notice that the dismal greyish January rain gave way to the beautiful white snow without a trace of blood, and the Parisians around him were celebrating the first big snowfall in ten years.
When Irina finished the story, she realized she was very cold. The balmy summer day couldn’t warm her up anymore, and she was shivering like a wet kitten. The desperation of a great loss bled through the disheveled pages right into her heart. And for the first time in a couple of days, she suddenly didn’t want to be alone. She walked unsteadily into the kitchen where her grandmother was making meatballs and sat heavily on the chair.
“What’s wrong with you?” Her grandmother was a woman of few words, and all of them to the point.
“I just read a very sad story,” said Irina, horrified by the tears that threatened to make their appearance any moment now. “Grandma, do you happen to know the name of a writer who wrote a story about a girl named Nena Daconte who bled to death in a Paris hospital on her honeymoon?”
“God forbid!” Grandmother spat three times over her left shoulder and stared at Irina accusingly. “Why are you reading such terrible stories and then come into my kitchen to scare me like that? Can’t you do something more productive than upsetting your grandmother who is barely standing on her feet today? Clean and cut these carrots right now, and stop your whining. These books are making you crazy!”
She thrust a knife into Irina’s meek hands and imperiously left the kitchen to retrieve some ingredient from the pantry. She always regarded books as a waste of time if they weren’t related to any school subject. Irina began to wash the carrots, quietly berating herself for not offering her help sooner and bringing up the story in her grandmother’s presence. Who wrote it? she wondered as she was methodically tearing off the green tops and caressing the knobby roots. It was written in exquisite language with flowing sentences, poetic descriptions and a hint of supernatural that transcended the fact that it was translated from Spanish, as the tiny script at the end of the page informed the inquisitive readers. Irina absentmindedly peered at a carrot and resolved to go to the library to look for a Spanish writer the moment her ordeal in the kitchen was over.
And so The Great Search has begun. Everyone Irina knew was questioned about The Story. The plot was described, the names of the two main characters revealed, and the only clue she had – the fact that is was translated from Spanish – was mentioned repeatedly. The local librarians didn’t know anything about it, but suggested to start with Don Quixote, since Irina seemed to be interested in Spanish literature. The two thick Don Quixote volumes spoke in the voice of clanking metal and whinnying horses, which did not sound like the mournful, but crisp voice of The Story, but were interesting nevertheless.
She wisely avoided her mother and went straight to her dad, whose contribution was that Nena Daconte probably died from hemophilia; that was the same disease Aleksey, the last Russian prince, would’ve definitely died from if he hadn’t been killed by the revolutionaries at the tender age of six. This piece of information didn’t help at all.
Thus summer passed in futile search of the needle in the haystack. When Irina returned to school in September, she mentioned The Story to her classmates and even to a few teachers, but none of them had read anything similar to it. Then one of the boys, Albert, whose desk was next to Irina’s in Russian Literature class, suddenly offered his help. Albert’s relative, it transpired, was a librarian in the University Library, and had access to the best books in the world. If anyone was able to figure out the mystery of The Story, it had to be him.
Irina and Albert, whom everybody called Al, met one September evening in front of the high school and started toward the University, lively discussing their math homework. Half an hour into their conversation they discovered that both of them were history buffs and their favorite historical period was medieval ages. Consequently, they never made it to the library on that day. They went to the park instead and spent the next few hours debating the wisdom of Philip the Fair’s decisions to expel the Jews from France in 1306 and to annihilate the order of the Knights Templar in 1307. The huge oak trees whispered around them as if they wanted to be included in the discussion. Only when the weak gleaming of the street lamps enveloped Irina’s and Al’s faces in the ethereal liminal light did they come back to 1986 and run to their respective homes.
Since that first date they became inseparable. They did eventually visit the University Library, but Al’s relative was as unhelpful as the rest of the people confronted by the mystery of The Story. However, by that time Irina was under the spell of love so The Story took a place on the back burner for a while. Secretly, she compared Al and herself to Billy Sanchez and Nena Daconte and came to the conclusion their situations had nothing in common, for better or for worse. For starters, she was pretty sure neither she nor Al had hemophilia, which was the most important thing. Also, they weren’t rich, beautiful and ready to get married, but that was beside the point.
Irina’s grandmother promptly stopped worrying about Irina becoming a blue stocking and started worrying about her getting pregnant. Irina tried to alleviate this particular concern by explaining that she didn’t plan to lose her virginity any time soon and was waiting for a special moment, which she would recognize instantly if it happened, but didn’t know how to describe it. Her grandmother wasn’t amused by this logic and pointed out that Al might hold a different opinion on the definition of the special moment. Irina let it pass. She was wondering about it herself quite a bit.
As it happened, the conspicuous topic did come up in their discussions from time to time when furtive kisses would exhaust Al’s restraint and drive Irina to the state of supreme confusion. However, he never made a big deal out of Irina’s refusal to take their relationship to the next level. She thought he understood she just wasn’t ready for the next step. Privately, she decided to wait until her sixteenth birthday in September, and then hope that the stars would guide her to an appropriate decision.
This summer wasn’t entirely devoted to reading. Irina and Al spent a lot of time together rather innocently: going to the movies, hiking and talking, always talking. They had an unlimited supply of different topics and were never bored in each other’s company. Of course, both of them still read a lot. Al preferred philosophical works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jose Ortega y Gasset and Nikolay Berdyaev, while Irina was doggedly looking for the mysterious Spanish writer, jumping from Spain proper to Latin America. That was how she discovered Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Of these three writers Marquez was the one she liked the most, having absorbed One Hundred Years of Solitude within a week. This book sang to her, accompanied by a dynamic Latin drum. The combination of realistic narrative and surrealistic events was irresistible to Irina, and she and Al spend many days discussing the unusual residents of the mythical Macondo.
When September came, though, Irina discovered, with a little help from her friends, of course, that Al cheated on her with the school slut, Alice. She was deeply wounded not just by the fact of cheating, but mostly by his choice of girl.
“How could you do this to me?” she demanded the moment she was able to get Al alone. “I thought what we had was special. What the hell does she have that I don’t?” Irina swore to herself she wouldn’t cry in front of him, because the situation was humiliating enough already. Red eyes and a puffy nose were not going to improve anything.
“Are you sure you want to know the answer?” replied Al. He looked very uncomfortable and annoyed, but Irina knew he wouldn’t walk away without speaking his peace.
“You know I do” Irina was the wronged party, after all. She felt she deserved an explanation.
“I am a man of flesh and blood,” finally said Al. “You weren’t interested, and she was. That’s all. Did you think I’d wait for you forever?” He was looking at Irina defiantly, sure of himself and his position.
Traitorous tears were trying to get out from Irina’s steely grip, blurring her vision and thickening her voice. It didn’t matter what she’d say, she realized. It was all over. What was love for her was something else for him. The special moment never arrived and, it appeared, for a good reason. He really wasn’t Billy Sanchez, and their love never happened. This thought strangely pacified Irina. She wiped an itinerant tear and asked a question that had bothered her for some time.
“What are you even talking to her about? I bet the last book she read was a collection of fairy tales, and that was quite a long time ago.”
Al turned to leave. “We don’t talk much,” he said. “I find it unnecessary. Plus I don’t think you’d stop talking to me just because of this, right? After all, it’s not like you have many friends.”
This was a low blow, and Irina felt it in her gut. “You know my favorite quote from Omar Khayyam?” she said, trying to smile with trembling lips. “You better starve, than eat whatever/And better be alone, than with whoever.”
She had a momentary satisfaction of seeing his cocksure expression waver a little. “I’ll survive without you, Al. Good luck with Alice.”
At that, she turned and left, trying to walk at a leisurely pace so as not to spoil the effect by running to the bathroom and bawling her heart out. At least her grandmother will sleep soundly tonight, Irina thought with bitter humor. No need to worry about unwanted pregnancy anymore.
Heavy tears were slowly falling from her eyes, making tiny splashes on the tiled floor. If somebody would want to find me, Irina reflected suddenly, they just have to follow the trail of my tears. The Story was ruling her life, whether she liked it or not.
The rest of the year passed eventfully, this being the last year of high school. Everybody was getting ready for the college entrance exams and looking forward to self-actualization and adult life. Al tried to patch things up with Irina several times, following her home after school and swearing that the fling with Alice was over and done; but she never accepted the olive branch of peace. She couldn’t forgive his betrayal and was flabbergasted by the ease with which he threw Alice away when she lost the air of novelty for him. But try as she might, she couldn’t forget him.
Luckily, Irina’s parents soon provided her with the ultimate distraction in the form of immigration to the United States. In the beginning she felt like words were stolen from her mouth and whatever was coming out was colorless, like underwear washed too many times. She enrolled in the ESL program in a local community college and was secretly mortified by the fear that she would never be able to speak English fluently. In about three months, though, Irina shyly asked her teacher to recommend a book she could read. The teacher suggested to start with anything written by the redoubtable Danielle Steel.
“You’ll see,” he said with a dry smile. “She only uses about three hundred words in all of her books so if you read one, the rest of them will be a piece of cake.”
Having finished Family Album and No Greater Love, Irina graduated to Sydney Sheldon and read The Other Side of Midnight and Rage of Angels with the increasing degree of comfort with the English language. These books didn’t whisper to her; they screamed in loud boastful voices, bursting with primordial energy. She felt her reading senses assaulted by the glossy style and charming platitudes and bravely embarked on The World According to Garp by John Irving, which she bought for one dollar at a library sale, attracted by its sophisticated prep school drawl. It took her two months to get through Garp’s intricate life story because of the complexity of the style and the abundance of the new words. The pocket Russian-English dictionary Irina was always carrying in her capacious bag didn’t survive the long subway rides and midnight reading sessions and came apart at seams. By the time she finished the book, however, she only needed to consult it in special cases.
In about a year Irina realized reading in English language was as enjoyable for her as reading in Russian. The images conjured by the words on the paper were coming naturally to her once more. Al was a distant memory, which didn’t pain her anymore, because she was preoccupied with the immediacy of her new life. She was finally ready to continue with The Great Search.
One dismal winter day, when the sky was full of pregnant heavy clouds, Irina left the office where she was working as a Data Entry Clerk and took a stroll up the Fifth Avenue. She entered the gigantic Barnes and Noble store and was immediately absorbed by its relaxing atmosphere and the multitude of soft voices coming from the sturdy shelves. She had a curious premonition that something important was bound to happen that day. Irina waited in line at the information desk, and when the hippie-looking sales assistant asked how he can help her, she tried to explain what exactly she was looking for: a story written in Spanish by someone who spoke of death and love as if they were two sides of the same coin.
The sales assistant was the first person in Irina’s life who didn’t become perplexed with her question. In his opinion, he said, Marquez would be the best bet. Irina readily agreed with this assessment, admitting that she had only read one book by this writer but was definitely open for more.
She traveled through the maze of book shelves to the letter M in the Fiction section, and soon became immersed into the world of mysterious people who lived on the edge of a dangerous abyss protected only by their connection to the things that were impossible to describe and could only be felt. The characters from Marquez’s books were so full of life, yet so aware of death: it was disconcerting and exhilarating at the same time. It was like falling in love.
Many years later, when she was telling her own children about this experience, Irina was still able to recall the atmosphere of the store, the low whisper of the books on the shelves and the moment of piercing happiness when she opened a collection of stories on the Table of Contents and read the title of the last story: The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow. Not believing her luck, Irina fumbled with the pages until she found the first sentence: “At nightfall, when they reached the frontier, Nena Daconte realized that her finger with the wedding band on it was still bleeding.”
And just like that The Great Search was finally over. Irina stood with the book in her trembling hand, not realizing that people around her were running toward the windows to look at the ethereally beautiful snow that blanketed Manhattan completely within an hour.