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Rendezvous in Paris.

The girl at the reception desk looked up from the crime novel she was reading and greeted the out-of-place lady suspiciously. The regulars at hotel La Colombe were Arabs, blacks, Hispanics--the distressed, transient world of real people, not tourists. They would cram together in great numbers in one room, eat there, and even sleep on the floor, leaving a trail of filth and damage behind them. The three employees barely managed to clean up haphazardly and change the bed linens. For such a price, the lowest in Montmartre, the one- or two-night guests couldn't expect too much. The owner, a Christian Lebanese, had given up on ashtrays, glasses and hangers; the towels were provided in exchange for a security deposit. They weren't requested too frequently. The receptionist, a relative of the owner, was a more recent refugee, taking secretarial classes, and she preferred to work the night shift. The crime novels that she was reading to pass the time had sharpened her taste for speculation.

The out-of-place lady stood out like a sore thumb among the burnouses and African colors, among the mucky denim. She smelled clean and she was dressed stylishly; when she took her key, rubies glistened in an old setting on her ring finger. From her passport, the girl at the reception desk learned that her name was Lidia (her surname was difficult to remember or pronounce), that she was forty-four years old, and that she came from Romania. She had paid in advance for ten nights. She rented out a heap of towels. When warned not to leave valuables in her room and to lock it from the inside, she smiled, showing her dimples, as if it were a joke.

The receptionist would have liked to start a conversation, to tell her how moved she had been a few months before by the revolution in Romania that she had seen on television, by Ceausescu's execution, to ask her about the Securitate, but at dawn when she would hand over the key, Lidia always seemed to be running very late and unable to spare even a moment. Before midnight, when she would return, she was even less approachable, looking exhausted, and the smile that she gave after being bid good night was too faint even to reveal those dimples. The pace of her steps on the stairs, alert in the morning, would now become slow; she could barely drag her feet. Music, voices, and snoring could be heard from the other rooms; the draft brought stenches from the common bathrooms, combined with the smell of garlic, deodorant, and dirty feet. Until Lidia showed up, the receptionist had become so accustomed to the place that she didn't notice the embarrassing details. Seeing her, she would suddenly become aware of them, and couldn't help wondering what a refined person was doing in this place. And what the Romanian woman was doing between six in the morning and midnight remained a mystery as well. After a few days, these questions had come to preoccupy the crime-novel reader to such an extent that she was planning on asking her colleague to come in early for his shift so that she could follow the mysterious lady. She could already see herself surrounded by journalists and television cameras, making sensational revelations.

For the first time in her life, she was alone in a foreign city. It was the city of Paris. She had acquaintances there, even relatives, like most Romanians. She didn't rush to look them up. A modest grant allowed her to stay at a no-star hotel in Montmartre that had been recommended by someone on account of the price. The sordid room, the common bathroom, the noisy and smelly vicinage didn't bother her: she was only staying there for a few hours at night, between the first and the last ride on the metro. The only comfort was the hot shower at night, exactly when she needed it. After showering she would get dressed and push the window wide open to clear out the vapors that had covered the walls with a yellowish dampness. She replaced the pillow they'd provided with the stuffed animal that she had brought in her luggage, something which, for her, had narcotic properties. She hadn't been separated from it since childhood. To protect herself from the grimy sheets, she would wear her long-hooded trench coat, sigh with contentedness, and instantly fall asleep.

In the morning, at five o'clock sharp, the joy that she forced herself to set aside in order to get some sleep would return, flooding and overwhelming her. The chill of an April night would lick her cheeks with its harsh breeze. She would make instant coffee with an electric kettle and, while washing up and changing her clothes, the shabby mirror would show such a delighted face that the dimples seemed to be coming together above her mentholated tongue. She sat on the window sill with her cup of hot coffee and the first Snagov (1) cigarette of the day, while the dawn was breaking over the roofs of Montmartre. There was an office building across the street. When the neon lights flickered on, and the black women began cleaning up, Lidia was ready to go. She would climb down the stairs running like a young girl going off on a date.

When she got there she was determined to resist the notorious seduction of Paris. She wanted to see as much of it as possible, with no preconceived notions or self-imposed enthusiasm. She had the opportunity now to prove to herself that the city where she'd had to live for forty-four years was the only place she could call home, regardless of her insipid and difficult life--even though she sometimes hated it and blamed herself for lacking the courage to leave, like others did. She actually came to accept the idea that she would have felt like a stranger, lost and useless anywhere outside of Bucharest.

From back home, on her bed, she'd imagined her stay as quite different: her Parisian acquaintances and relatives were having her over, walking with her, inviting her to restaurants, and, for entire evenings, asking her questions about the revolution, the Securitate, Ceausescu; she was listening to reminiscences, they were talking about politics, she was given hand-me-down clothes, stuff from the Tati (2) stores, cheap perfumes; she was spending a lot of time at tables with a variety of cheeses and fruits previously unknown to her, boxes of Chinese food and pizza, watching her hosts' favorite television programs.

But the moment she set foot on the Parisian asphalt, all those things appeared as a burden to her, a useless waste of time, so she had searched for the address of the cheap hotel in her notebook. She hadn't even bought a phone card, as advised, but only the priceless carte orange for all the means of transport. Being quite frugal, her grant was sufficient for a minimum supply of food as well as for a coffee at the sidewalk tables. She had a map of the brilliant network of subways, a free-entrance pass for the museums--she didn't lack for anything. Or anyone. She couldn't quite understand what exactly was giving her this overwhelming, joyous feeling, as when, after getting lost, finding obstacle after obstacle in your way, things somehow work out. She was even frugal with words, as if every phrase spoken would only have wasted the essence that needed to be kept safely sealed away.

She was well aware that the Middle Eastern girl at the reception desk wanted to chat, and she was avoiding her by exaggerating her hurriedness in the morning and her exhaustion at night. In Bucharest she naturally engaged in conversations with strangers when waiting in line, in waiting rooms, on the train; she would talk with her friends for hours on end, they would meet up with the precise purpose of simply chatting and when they couldn't get together her hand would go numb from holding the phone through so much gabbing and back and forth.

Now she was speechless, though, primarily because she was surprised that the unfamiliar abroad where she had finally arrived wasn't at all unfamiliar to her. The subway passages, the old gray and blue facades at dawn, the changing skies on the over-gilded domes, the automated kindliness of the people who excused themselves with a smile if they accidentally touched her passing by, the smell of hot bread that lingered around a small bakery, a green artesian fountain seen through iron arabesques--they all reminded her indistinctly of something: touching, like a memory, the experiences of childhood. The bridges, the quays, the boulevards, the narrow medieval streets recognized her as one of their own. Even her clothes, which she had feared would conjure a poor country-girl look, melded in with the crowd. The cashmere shawl that covered her withered collar seemed part of a sort of uniform, like the long skirt and her comfortable moccasins. Comfortably in style.

Her friends, those that were well-traveled, had marked on a map the stations close to the museums and monuments that she ought to visit. She wasn't going to consider them. The clang of a clock tower, the smell of the seafood laid out on trays of ice, the physiognomies of elderly people behind curtains, the harmonica of a fat woman wearing a loose jacket, the intersections and so many other things were transporting her to a realm full of familiar images. The abstract traces in her memory were filling up, brimming over and uniting with other memories, increasing with each successive walk through the city. The effervescent flood had her smiling from ear to ear in the courtyard of a synagogue in Marais, in Gare de Lyon, on the rue Saint-Louis-en-Ile. Tiredness rather than hunger brought her to eventually sit down at a table on the sidewalk. The ridiculously large sandwich, the tender soles of her feet, and the music of the Lambada took her out of her dreamy state of mind. She wanted an explanation. She was looking through the Russian dolls of her memories for anything that could have been related to Paris. And that's how she found out about Bianca Solomon.

Bianca Solomon was a framed photograph on the bureau, a signature, "Blanche" on the first page of some of the old books in the library, and also her ring's previous owner: Lidia had received it from her parents on her eighteenth birthday. She was told that they were honoring one of Bianca's wishes. Since the day had been an happy one, the girl had faith that the rubies were good luck for her. As a matter of fact, the zodiac indicated the same. She had never again taken the ring off her finger, without wondering why the lady in the sepia picture had wanted the jewel to find its way to her. She knew she was some sort of relative. The face with curls arranged on the head, the drawn eyebrows, the heart-shaped mouth and the rusty silver in the background placed her in days long past. She used to dust it. The fact that, clearly at the bottom, the portrait had the mark of a photo shop from Paris, made it appear even more like a consignment item. Like the Daum vase with marqueterie-sur-verre, Bianca Solomon was only part of the decor. She didn't really notice her anymore.

Lidia loved her parents, but since they were already old when they'd had her, she considered them, like the decor, to be obsolete. They weren't getting along too well. In fact, her father spent very little time at home: med school, the hospital, and his card games were taking up the whole day. During the little time spent with his family, the Professor was sleeping when he wasn't doing abstract paintings in urine shades or writing scientific presentations in German for international urology congresses he wasn't allowed to attend. Motherly Tina seemed happy to serve him and spare him any bother, and she would spoil the girl with goodies, sew and knit clothes for her, wash her hair with chamomile and untangle her curls, check her temperature by touching her forehead with her lips. She would secretly go to the Professor's room to share the abundance of bouquets and drinks brought home by grateful patients. His earnings should have allowed Tina to get some kitchen help, a good tailor, regular visits to the hairdresser's, but the woman had the spirit of sacrifice in her. The things that made her happy: look how nicely the parquet shines, no one can bake a cake as good as I can, come see a miracle--the cactus is blossoming ... Lidia had often heard that her father was an esteemed man but the unanimous opinion about her mother was: a nice or a dutiful woman ... What role had Bianca played in the life of the esteemed man and the dutiful woman, since she was framed on the desk and not in the album with all the other pictures? Lidia asked herself this for the first time while smoking her third Snagov cigarette under the awning of a Parisian cafe, while next to her, on the sidewalk, an ethnic farrago was parading by. There was nobody who could provide her with the answer. Her folks hadn't lived to see Ceausescu's fall; they had passed away believing that the bottle of French champagne that they had been keeping for just that occasion would forever stay sealed.

In the morning, after leaving the hotel on rue de Clignancourt, she liked to stare at the green army that ruled the still-deserted streets. Carefully dressed, handling brushes and finely colored broomsticks, the street cleaners seemed like aliens, or an international ensemble of themed dancers, that's how different they were from the Gypsy women with the trash bins from back home. At the Chateau-Rouge metro station, other green people were cleaning the walkways and the platforms with a scented detergent, getting rid of the garbage from the day before to make room for more.

When getting on the metro, she didn't know where on the surface she would come back out again, or what connection her steps might lead her to, or if, once in a famous neighborhood, she might get on the first bus and ride until the end of its route. After decades of traveling on the same routes in Bucharest, the "promenade" had disappeared from her life--all the rides had a clear destination and were carried out against time. Wandering through an immense city gave her a drug-like euphoria. She had been trained by rules and order, she always knew she "ought to do this and that," but now, all of a sudden, after a simple two-and-a-half hour flight, there was nothing she ought to do anymore. She was thinking differently. Perhaps it was this commute that had taken Bianca Solomon out of storage: still phantasmal and yet oddly present in the revelatory Parisian air. Sometimes Bianca would draw her attention: her ring would get a little tighter, without bothering her, just so she could feel it at the base of her ring finger. And then she would notice the splendor of some stained glass that she'd almost passed by, absentmindedly; or the refined arrangements behind a shop window displaying evening dresses; or she would discover the entrance to Musee des Thermes et de rHotel de Cluny and not be able to take her eyes off one of the five tapestries of Lady and the Unicorn, the one known as A mon seul desir. To my only desire--a message then carried like a blue tent over her head, all day long, sheltering her from the sprinkling rain, until the encroaching nightfall would push her under the arcades in Place des Vosges. The ring got looser and moved on her finger, the sparkles of the rubies opened a tunnel back in time, where they still had the woodstove and the teacher that was home-schooling her in French would keep her feet next to the fire until her boots began to singe, to smell. She used to arrive frozen solid, her headdress covered in snow. Tina would show her to the kitchen for a hot soup and when she left, she would put jars, bags, and pots of food in her satchel. Perhaps in exchange for all that, the boot-wearing lady felt obliged to praise the little girl, to be so pleased with her accent and so thrilled by the ease with which she memorized the conjugations. Once, when the kitchen door was open, Lidia heard her say that since she had to teach children from different backgrounds she had come to the conclusion that those whose parents spoke French learned faster and had better pronunciation. Lidia--the lady said, taking pauses to blow on her spoon and sip her soup--confirmed her theory, it was very clear that she had a hereditary predisposition for French. Tina approved: "In her case, you're perfectly right."

Under the arcades of Place des Vosges, turned toward the liquid lights of the pavement, Lidia was surprised by the lie: the Professor only spoke German well and Tina only had some basic knowledge from school, and no matter how she pointed her lips, her vowels always came out iu. But even without hereditary predispositions, French was the only subject that Lidia always did well at, and she had won town honors, which led her to apply to the College of Liberal Arts. However much the Professor had strived, with more and more aggravation, to convince his daughter otherwise, to make her apply for medical school--a universal profession, putting one in demand everywhere--he couldn't get her to change her mind. "Stubborn and irresponsible, she does only what she pleases ..." She was yelling too now, fed up with being told what to do, so she didn't hear who she was being compared to and didn't care. Her parents' words had already been going in one ear and out the other for some time now.

She naturally sat next to others in the sun, on the steps of the Opera. In Bucharest it would have been inconceivable for a lady her age to sit on stairs or on a curb if she was of sound mind. Here she took off her shoes and massaged her swollen feet. She smoked on the street. She casually entered a restaurant just to ask where the bathroom was. She ate her sandwich on a bench, in parks, sometimes dozing off there too. Humming with her forehead pressed against the bus window she looked inside people's homes through open windows. All of these indiscretions weren't drawing anyone's attention and were providing her with the euphoria of freedom. Every day meant new discoveries. She would sometimes stand in awe on the sidewalk (those who would bump into her would apologize) as a cloud would cover the sun and a house on rue Saint-Claude would shift from yellowish to dark gray. Then the memorial plaque that said Count Cagliostro had lived there became clearly visible. The adventurer's biography was one of the books with Bianca's signature in it. She had read it. She would sometimes stall in front of a small pastry shop, not because she was craving the finely decorated sweets on exhibit, but because the candied fruits, the pralines, the chocolate candies were bringing a distant sense towards her, a sort of nostalgia, like when she listened to "Summertime" in the middle of winter.

At night, an abandoned notebook swishing its pages as if flicked through by the invisible man, big dogs walking their sleepy owners, the water rushing grime from the gutters to the canal, festive tables with candles and flowers from the expensive restaurants, the perfectly aligned backs of the people in bistros--at night, all these sights caused her to pause with the same sense of nostalgia, on her way to the closest metro station. Eventually, she had to force herself back to the subway. Only there, while waiting for the last metro, would she start functioning on automatic pilot again, like in Bucharest.

The poking and prying of the Lebanese girl was what welcomed her back at La Colombe, then the percussions filtering through the walls, harsh voices speaking Arabic, perpetually flushing toilets.

The shower, the trench coat, the open window, the little cushion. She whispered--a prayer and a lullaby--the names of stations and streets that remained in her mind: Porte de Clignancourt, Barbes-Rochechouart, Etienne Marcel, Picpus, Bel-Air, Etoile, and as if under the influence of a drug, she would fall into a sound sleep.

When Lidia graduated from college, the Professor was over seventy years old. He wasn't teaching anymore, they rarely called him to the hospital to perform a medical exam, his card games didn't have a full foursome anymore. He still had classes at a clinic; he would spend the rest of his time at home. His yellowish paintings were more expressive since his hands were shaking, but he wasn't in the mood to paint anymore, or to even write German presentations for congresses he wasn't allowed to attend. He would listen to the Free Europe radio station, or the Voice of America, Deutsche Welle and he would nag Tina with demands and chide her erratically. The esteemed man had become an irritating little old crank, greedy with food, hard to please. Her tolerance exhausted, kind Tina had started to defy him, to insult him. They would fight over anything, with tensions always at the boiling point. Lidia no longer felt comfortable at home, or even at work. The job she had gotten at a research institute--with the help of a few favors--had thrown her into a net of gossip, of vanity and cattiness. She had to spend eight hours a day among menopausal women and men obsessed with the lottery and sexual performance. Their lecherous jokes were upsetting to her and translating the vocabulary of caustic substances into Romanian was boring her to death. She only felt good with her friends from high school and college. She couldn't invite them over, as before--the Professor was bothered by any strange presence and never hesitated to show it. After work and on Sundays Lidia would meet her friends at their apartments, in rented-out attics, at a cafe They went to the mountains together on May Day--jokes, dances, romances, intimate conversations; they went to theaters and the cinema, they swapped books procured secretively or brought cautiously from abroad, they drank vodka and Cuban rum, smoke Snagov cigarettes listening to Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Jacques Brel, and Leonard Cohen on a cassette player. They tried to ignore the pressure that grew, as from a piston, descending upon them, filling more and more of their air shafts: the tragedies caused by the increasing severity of the abortion laws, communication corrupted by suspicion, Ceausescu's personality and influence covering ever larger areas with absurd lies, with slogans, inconsistencies that were now being mocked, but their laughter had begun to sound exasperated, even hysterical. More and more often she would hear that her acquaintances had fled across the border, that they were staying there and never coming back. The most handsome guy, the heartbreaker of the group, found a Swedish crone at the seaside, a choir girl lost the rest of her ensemble while on tour abroad, and a Sas (3) had rediscovered his cousins in Germany. The Professor's wayward nurse at the clinic didn't quit until giving birth to the child of a Jewish dentist with foreign papers--she converted to Judaism and took up Yiddish, waiting for her and her child to be bought. When she finally went to say good-bye to her boss, he completely forgot about his usual formality and humbly asked if where she was going, she could find a suitable man for his daughter as well. He would have given anything to know his daughter was abroad and with decent prospects for her future. Tina had probably been told about this discussion, unless it had been her idea, because two years later, when an Israeli man called on behalf of the nurse saying he was in Bucharest and he had something for them, she quickly invited him over for dinner. She had been a widow for a few months: she had gone into the bathroom to wash her husband's back as usual, but the Professor was lying in the bathtub covered in foam and didn't need her help anymore. His surly expression had disappeared and he seemed content.

When her mother asked her not to make any plans, since they were having a guest over for dinner, Lidia accepted without comment. Weakened, wearing black, and with her eyelids always red, Tina was making Lidia feel so guilty that she couldn't refuse anything. She went to the graveyard with her every week and brought home a cat so that the house wouldn't feel so lifeless.

The great thrill that her mother had felt at the arrival of the stranger turned into just as great a disappointment: from the first moment she realized that the jovial chubby man with the flowered shirt had nothing in common with her daughter. He was speaking with a strong Moldavian accent--his family was from Bacau, he was addressing them with an inappropriate familiarity, telling them about all sorts of rates, accounts, credit cards--complicated and boring things that revealed a potential lifetime of paying off debts, although he was working like a dog at a trading company; he wasn't too healthy anymore either, due to all the stress. He always had to monitor his cholesterol and blood sugar. But that didn't stop him from gobbling up the pork chops and the sour cherry cake. During a pause in the conversation he asked them, looking around through the living room, if they were interested in selling the Daum vase. Atop the vase sat a large molten candle. He said he'd pay a good price for it. Tina snapped at him, saying it was a family heirloom and, after serving the coffee in the office, she got busy cleaning the table, in a mood that matched her dress.

Lidia was smoking the American cigarettes offered by the guest and curtly answered his questions about her job, about entertainment and prices in Bucharest. At a certain point, after a moment of silence when he gazed at her lovingly, the guest looked away toward the desk and said, "You really look alike, but you're sweeter with those dimples of yours:' Lidia didn't understand how she could look like a desk, but she figured he was hitting on her and that was that. Determined, she stood up and crushed her cigarette out in the ashtray, making it clear that the visit was over.

Perhaps it was the noisy family of Israeli tourists next to the funicular at Sacre-Coeur, or the dim presence of Bianca Solomon that made her recall that old story: she now suspected that the chubby guy was actually talking about the picture on the desk. Climbing the stairs towards the imposing basilica, Lidia was trying to put together all the elements of the picture and find a resemblance to herself, but that face was younger than she was now and more precisely drawn--printed curls, shaped eyebrows, touched up eyes, heart-shaped mouth--while her self-image was muddled, unclear. She should compare two photos when she got back, just to check and see. That's if she still had the old picture that she had taken out of the frame and replaced with a friendlier snapshot, after Tina had passed away. The Professor, wearing a thick bathrobe and a wool cap; Tina, wearing a little jacket and a scarf on her head; they were both laughing and trying to keep Lidia from taking the picture--they were only wearing their "around-the-house outfits." In the background was the Christmas tree where the daughter had found the camera that she started using right away. It was their last Christmas together. The Daum vase, previously filled with flowers brought by patients, now contained one of those candles they use at baptisms, prepared in case of a blackout. Her parents, all bundled up, couldn't have suspected how useful that candle would be when the light of their world disappeared for good.

On her last day in Paris, the weather had suddenly chilled. The lilac bush next to Notre-Dame was spreading a violet scent through the rain. The traffic was moving slowly, bumper to bumper; the windshield wipers were bidding her good-bye. Shivering, she entered the churches and shops, took the metro to warm up a bit, feeling that something was waiting for her outside, that she might miss something important. In a perfume shop, a sales woman took her hand and put a drop of Femme on her wrist, on the place where you check for a pulse, then told her to take a whiff. Bianca Solomon then appeared nude before her, writhing voluptuously and, letting out a gasp. Lidia curled her nose in contempt and rushed out. Later on, in the subway, a trumpeter was playing "That's My Desire" (she recognized the song, having listened to Armstrong's version so many times as a girl) and she was in the mood to pay one more visit to the Lady and the Unicorn and its A mon seul desir, where, straying among the tapestry of senses, remote and present, like the fifteenth century, was Bianca. But l'Hotel de Cluny did not want to show itself to her again, she could no longer find her way there. She did find, however, a Daum vase in a show window; with its marqueterie-sur-verre, identical to the one turned into a vigil candlestick. It was a good thing her parents didn't live to see the mischievous cat knock it into a thousand pieces on the parquet. Lidia had gathered up the shards with bits of hardened wax in a shovel and thrown them away. She didn't care much for material things. She even felt relieved, since the vase would remind her of the wake, of death.

Next to a high school, when the teenagers were getting out of class, a young motorcyclist called "Blanche, Blanche!" but nobody from the group went toward him. He revved up his motorcycle, the roar louder and louder.

On her last night in Paris, the chilly weather led her to Montmartre a bit earlier.

Her grimy room wasn't attracting her: the clamor and the stench in the hotel was probably peaking at that hour. Moreover, she felt like having a stiff drink. In her world back home, a woman who would go to a bar unaccompanied and order a drink was either a drunkard or a whore looking for clients. To my only desire. She only had to find a place; she found it around the corner. The coffee house had a patinated allure: wood, worn velvet, lamps that looked like lilies, a tapestry depicting heavenly trees, white animals, birds. Inside, it smelled like pipe tobacco and it was empty, with only the bartender wearing a striped vest, wiping glasses--the classic scene. He looked like Jean Gabin. Lidia climbed onto a stool at the bar and looked over the labeled bottles. She had no idea what most of them were. Seeing her so lost, Jean Gabin stopped wiping glasses and said, "Unless you have another preference, ma'am, allow me to suggest this highest quality Port wine." "Port--that sounds good" she replied with the determination of a connoisseur. She made herself comfortable, taking off her gloves, the wet shawl, and the frock coat and placing them on the counter, next to her purse. Toe ruby liquor stung her chapped lips. It tasted like "Summertime" in the middle of winter, the flavor of fond memories. When she took the glass to her mouth, the smell of Femme from her wrist wafted against the coquettish dimples on her cheeks. That was probably why the bartender jumped to light her Snagov cigarette when she took it out of the pack and held it up. He also rushed to refill her little glass. Through the crystal, the liquid was like a ruby veil, more alive than ever. Jean Gabin was watching her kindly, as if she were the prodigal daughter.

Lidia hadn't spoken to anyone for ten days and now, all of a sudden, she found herself soaking her worries, chattering away, already drunk with "Summertime"; she was amazed at the fluency of the French phrases that were coming out of her mouth like a magician's lace. She told him that she was from Romania, that it was her first time abroad but she felt like she was returning to Paris, as if she were returning to a place of her childhood; that she had been wandering from dawn to midnight and that unfortunately her stay was over and by this time the following day, she would be home in Bucharest. She wasn't sorry, things had changed there as well, though it was still in an uproar, dazed, freedom having caught everyone off guard.

To her relief, Jean Gabin didn't mention Ceausescu, or the Securitate or the coup d'etat. He said "Let's hope life will be better in Romania from now on." They hoped together for a little while, then he filled her glass again, poured one for himself and made a toast, raising the glass in front of his nose "A la votre, madame ... ?" "Bianca Solomon" she added, without hesitation.

More people came to the coffee house, the movie was probably over at the nearby cinema, the velvet seats were taken up by noisy people and Lidia started bundling up. While putting her gloves on, sliding every finger inside, she felt how the hidden ring radiated. Jean Gabin came out from behind the counter and then, with a playfully chivalrous gesture, he helped her get down from the tall stool and escorted her to the door.

The receptionist clacked along on her thin heels, headed toward her usual spot in front of the key cabinet. In her purse, the coffee-filled thermos, the crime novel, and her makeup were clattering together at the pace of her steps. She left her umbrella open although the rain had stopped. When she halted to fold up the umbrella, she saw the Romanian woman across the street, through the luminous door of La Licorne coffee house, hugging and kissing the bartender with the striped vest. "Bon voyage et bon courage, Bianca Solomon!" he shouted and she turned, waving her purse over her head and answering with a shout.

The detective plots were swimming around in the mind of the receptionist and she was regretting not having followed up with her plan to pursue the Romanian woman; there was definitely something fishy going on: false identity, espionage, maybe murder; she should have told her boss, the police, the press ... but in end it wasn't her business; she was an emigrant, why make her life more difficult with accusations, courts, and who knows what else ... She crossed the street and caught up with the suspect, greeting her. The little lady answered her greeting, a bit startled; even the dim light of the lamppost was enough to show her blushing cheeks. Of course she was uncomfortable being taken by surprise and tried to deceive her with a happy smile, and not only that, she took her arm, completely puzzling the receptionist with her familiarity. They spoke about Ceausescu and the Securitate all the way to the hotel. What do you think of Paris? It's amazing. Have you met anyone you know? Oh but of course, that's precisely why I came.

The receptionist's colleague at the desk was waiting for her impatiently. While they switched places, Lidia snatched her key from the cabinet and ran up two stairs at a time.

At dawn she went downstairs with her luggage and the towels and asked the Lebanese girl to call her a cab for the airport. When the car parked along the sidewalk she told the girl to keep the towel deposit for herself. Looking straight into her eyes, the receptionist said defiantly, "Merci et adieu, Madame Bianca Solomon."

Lidia thought that was perfectly normal.

NOTES

(1) Romanian brand of cigarettes, common during the communist era.

(2) Chain of low-priced stores in France.

(3) Ethnic minority in Romania; a German Romanian.

<Translated by Alex Plai and Ehren Schimmel>
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Author:Bittel, Adriana
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Short story
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Mar 22, 2010
Words:6433
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