Uncharacteristically, Michael didn’t utter a word. He just stood there, enthralled. The sight of the young woman made his heart skip a few beats. His throat constricted, making it difficult to breathe. Apnea, a physician might have called it. But as he attempted to regulate his breathing and strike up a conversation, Michael recognized a coup de foudre when he felt it. He was drawn to her not because of her modest attire and feminine grace, but because there was something so tender and expressive in her features. He was struck by the straight, thick line of her bangs, by the paleness of her cheeks against the background of those waves of dark hair and by the rigidity with which she stood holding the candle in her hand, contradicted by the uncontainable drama of her eyes. She reminds me of a Georges De La Tour painting, he thought, captivated by the angelic innocence of her face, illuminated from below by the soft candlelight. It occurred to him to say, “I’ve never seen you in this church before,” but that sounded too much like one of his cheesy pick-up lines. It would be practically a sacrilege to use it in church, Michael thought, momentarily forgetting that he had engaged in far more sinful behavior in that very context only a few moments earlier.
“Are you looking for someone?” the young woman asked him with a slight foreign accent.
Under ordinary circumstances, Michael would have volleyed back a clever reply to the effect of, “I sure am. I’ve been looking for you all of my life, Babe.” Yet this time he responded, quite honestly, “No. It’s just that the way your face was lit up by that candle reminded me of a painting by Georges de La Tour I once saw.”
The young woman felt flattered yet also disconcerted by his powerful gaze, which was so piercing and intense that it made her wonder if anyone had ever really looked at her before. “You’re very kind. I’m relieved you didn’t compare me to a ghost. That might have been more accurate, but far less flattering.” Seeing that his face reflected a mixture of amusement and puzzlement at her reply, she added: “Are you an art lover?”
Michael was surprised that he didn’t even feel tempted to shoot out his usual response to such an easy overture, “No, but I’ve been told that I’m a pretty good lover.” He said instead, “Not really. I dabble in everything. Art, poetry, literature. I guess you could say I admire all forms of beauty, which makes me a dilettante.”
“That’s what I am too, I suppose,” she quietly replied.
“I imagine that one has to love art to create it.”
“You’re an artist?”
“Or trying to be.”
“What do you mean, trying?”
“Just because you call yourself an artist doesn’t mean that people actually buy your paintings,” she replied with an amused smile.
“What do you like to paint?” Michael pursued.
“Scenes that are filled with sadness.”
She carefully placed the candle on the table and put her hand upon her heart with a gesture that, despite its theatricality, seemed completely sincere: “Because there’s still so much sorrow in my heart.”
“Why so?” Michael asked, approaching her slowly. He became once again attuned to the trace of an accent in her voice, which he couldn’t quite place. “Where are you from, originally?” Then it occurred to him that he might look like he was prying into her personal life, which he most certainly was, but there was no point in doing it clumsily. “If you don’t mind my asking,” he added.
“We all carry with us the weight of our past,” the young woman replied somewhat enigmatically to his first inquiry. “I’m originally from Romania,” she answered directly the easier question.
“I thought I detected a Slavic accent,” Michael observed.
“That’s strange, given that Romanian is a Romance language. It’s similar to Italian and Spanish.”
Ana had corrected him politely. But Michael wanted to make sure she understood that he was a man of the world: “Sure. But, as far as I know, it has some Slavic vocabulary and inflections.”
The young woman seemed amused by his reply. “Da? Si cine te-a facut expert, domnule?” she challenged him.
“I said, oh yeah? And who made you an expert, mister?” she translated.
“I’m no expert in Romanian, but I like to dabble in the Romance languages. I’m fluent in Spanish, Italian and French,” he boasted modestly.
“Hmmm… You seem to dabble in a lot of things.”
Normally, Michael would have replied “Especially beautiful women.” But clearly, these weren’t ordinary circumstances. The Romanian intrigued him. “I used to. When I was younger, I wanted to become a Renaissance man. But now I just content myself with teaching French,” he shrugged with the air of resignation of a man who has abandoned his own dreams.
Silences can be awkward when two people seem to have run out of things to say, after the initial burst of conversation in becoming acquainted. But as the young woman and Michael peered into each other’s eyes, the silence that settled between them was peaceful and pleasant.
“Where are my manners? My name is Ana,” she said after a few seconds, extending her hand to him.
Michael took it between his hands, pressing it lightly rather than shaking it. Ana’s hand felt soft and fragile. “Nice to meet you. I’m Michael.”
“Do you belong to this church? I’ve never seen you here before,” she commented.
“I only come here occasionally,” Michael replied vaguely, not wishing to delve into details about the meeting he had just attended, which, he surmised, was not likely to impress his new acquaintance.
“Me too,” Ana replied. “I only come here to pray for my parents. They were both Catholic.”
Ana looked pensively into the flickering flame. “They passed away a long time ago. During the revolution of ’89.”
“In Bucharest?” Michael asked, to show that he knew a thing or two about Eastern European history.
Ana shook her head. “No, in Timisoara. The spark that started the Romanian revolution. My mother’s of Hungarian origin,” she said elliptically, as if Michael could understand why that fact was of particular importance. “Few people know this, but it’s the ethnic Hungarians who revolted against the Ceausescu regime first,” she elaborated. “You know how it goes. The most oppressed tend to be the most courageous. Maybe because they also have the least to lose.”
“It doesn’t seem like it was so little for you,” he commented, responding to the sadness in her voice.
“I was ten, still only a child when I lost my parents. They were my whole world.”
Michael looked away, feeling slightly awkward under the pressure of this sudden intimacy. “Do you go back to visit Romania?” he shifted the conversation from emotions to events.
She shook her head. “Returning there would bring back too many painful memories.”
“Do you still have family there?”
“Yes, but not close relatives. My real family lives here, in Michigan.” When she said this, her tone seemed lighter.
“What do you mean your real family?”
“My husband and two kids,” Ana clarified.
Michael took a step back, as if he had not expected this response. It had never occurred to him that Ana, who looked so young, might be a married woman with kids. “Oh, I see…”
Ana noticed his disappointment. She thought that she might have unwittingly given him the wrong impression. “Anyways, I should go now. It’s getting late. It was very nice to meet you, Michael,” she politely concluded their conversation.
But he didn’t want to let her go on such a final note. “Before you leave, there’s something I meant to ask you. You’ve made me kind of curious about your art. May I take a look at your paintings sometime?” Michael congratulated himself for this burst of inspiration, only to wonder, a moment later, whether he was being too forward. He felt strange about caring about his overtures. Brazenness, along with corny pick-up lines, had never bothered him in his interactions with women before. Failure and success are basically one and the same when the stakes are so low, he thought, retrospectively. But in meeting Ana, Michael became reacquainted with his own timidity, which had been buried so deeply in the cynicism of years of libertine encounters that he had almost forgotten how wonderful it felt to get to know a woman. Few human experiences could compete with that mixture of uncertainty and hope that, when you least expect it, sneaks up on you and takes your breath away. The thought that he might never see Ana again released dozens of butterflies in his stomach. Would she politely excuse herself from seeing him again, the way he, himself, had proceeded with so many women before?
“Sure,” she replied, without any trace of subterfuge. “Here’s my card,” she handed him a business card, with the address of her art studio and a telephone number.
Looking at it, Michael noticed that Ana’s last name, Popescu, sounded Romanian: “Your husband’s also Romanian?”
“No, he’s American. I kept my last name,” she said, then added, by way of explanation, “In memory of my parents.”
Michael placed the card carefully into his wallet. “Would you like my number also? Just in case you wish to let me know when it would be convenient to drop by your studio?”
“Yes, of course.”
Michael wrote down his name and number on the other side of the scrap of paper Maria had given him earlier. “Sorry, I don’t have a business card yet,” he extended her the note.
“Thanks,” she slipped it into her coat pocket.
This is a bad sign, he nervously followed her movements. That’s where I usually put the numbers I want to get rid of…
“But I must warn you in advance that my art’s not to everyone’s taste. My paintings aren’t exactly pretty.”
“Since when does art have to be beautiful?” Michael hoped to show through this rhetorical question that he was automatically on her side and, more importantly, that he intuitively understood her.
“Oh, but there’s such tragic beauty in human suffering,” Ana replied with a barely detectable tremor in her voice. It was her tone more so than her words, wavering on the permeable boundary between abandon and restraint, which stayed with him for the rest of the evening. It haunted him with the promise of pleasures more subtle, richer and more intense than he had ever tasted in his life before.
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