Marilena Titi's union with Sorin Carpathia was based
on anything but physical passion. Yes, they had had
what the vulgar in the West would call a fling. But as his
student and eventually his assistant at the University of
Romania at Bucharest, Marilena had been drawn to
The truth, she knew, was that there was little prepossessing
about either of them. He was short and thin and
wiry with a shock of curly red hair that, despite its thickness
and his aversion to haircuts, could not camouflage
the growing bald spot at his crown.
She was thick and plain and eschewed makeup, nail
polish, and styling her black hair. Colleagues, who she
was convinced had been wholly enculturated by outside
influences, teased that her frumpy clothing and sensible
shoes harkened to previous centuries. They had long
since abandoned trying to make her into something she
could never be. Marilena was not blind. The mirror did
not lie. No amount of paint or spritz would change her,
inside or out.
And inside was where she lived, physically and mentally.
She would not have traded that for all the patrician
the butcher could stuff. In recent decades, a tsunami of
progress had transformed her quaint motherland from
that with the lowest standard of living in Europe to a
technological marvel. Marilena could have done without
it all. She resided in the horn of plenty of her own prodigious
mind, fertilized by an inexhaustible curiosity.
Perhaps she had been born a century late. She loved
that no other Eastern European nations traced their
lineage to the ancient Romans. And while she knew
that modern Romanian women looked, dressed, spoke,
danced, and acted like their Western icons, Marilena had
resisted even the fitness craze that sent her peers biking,
hiking, jogging, and climbing all over her native soil.
Marilena knew what was out there, outside the book-lined,
computer-laden, two-room flat she shared with her
husband of six years. But save for the occasional foray by
bus, for reasons she could not now remember, she rarely
felt compelled to travel farther than the university, where
she too was now a professor of literature. That was a
four-block walk to a ten-minute bus ride.
Sorin preferred his ancient bicycle, which he carried to
his office upon arriving each day and four floors up to their
apartment upon his return. As if they had room for that.
But hiding the bike reflected his mistrust of mankind,
and Marilena could not argue. For all their decrying of
religion, particularly branches that espoused innate sinfulness,
everyone Marilena knew would have taken
advantage of their best friends given the slightest chance.
Everyone, perhaps, but the mysterious Russian émigré
who ran the Tuesday night meetings in the anteroom at
a local library. After several months of attending, Marilena
had not yet formed an opinion of the thirty or so
others who attended, but something deep within her resonated
with Viviana Ivinisova.
Ms. Ivinisova, a handsome, tailored woman in her midthirties,
seemed to take to Marilena too. Short with salt-and-pepper
hair, Viviana seemed to be speaking directly
to Marilena while gazing at the others just enough to
keep their attention. And sure enough, when the younger
woman stayed after her twelfth meeting to ask a question,
the leader asked if she cared to get a drink.
With her load of books and folders gathered to her
chest as she walked, Ms. Ivinisova reminded Marilena of
her university colleagues. But Viviana was no professor,
bright as she was. "This," she said, nodding to her pile
of resources, "is my full-time job."
How delicious, Marilena thought. She herself had
never imagined a cause more worthy than expanding
They found a nearly deserted bistro a block from
Marilena's bus stop, were seated at a tiny, round table,
and Viviana wasted no time starting the conversation.
"Do you know the etymology of your name?"
Marilena felt herself redden. "Bitter light," she said.
Viviana nodded, holding her gaze.
Marilena shrugged. "I don't put any stock in-"
"Oh, I do!" Viviana said. "I do indeed. Bitter," she
said slowly. "It doesn't have to be as negative as it
sounds. Sadness perchance, a bit of loneliness? emptiness?
a hole? something incomplete?"
Marilena reached too quickly for her glass and sloshed
the wine before drawing it to her lips. Swallowing too
much, she coughed and dabbed her mouth with a napkin.
She shook her head. "I feel complete," she said.
Marilena could not meet the older woman's eyes.
Viviana had cocked her head and was studying Marilena
with a closed-mouth smile. "There is the matter of light,"
she said. "The bitterness, whatever that entails, is counterbalanced."
"Or my late mother just liked the name," Marilena
said. "She was not the type to have thought through its
"But you are."
"Yes," Marilena wanted to say. "Yes, I am. I think
through everything." But agreeing would appear boastful.
Where was the European reserve? Why were Russians
so direct? Not as crass as Americans, of course, but there
was little diplomacy here. In spite of herself, Marilena
could not hold this against Ms. Ivinisova. Something
within the woman seemed to care for Marilena in a way
that both attracted and repelled her. She might not abet
the Russian in her attempt to violate personal borders,
but she could not deny the dichotomy that the attention
also strangely warmed her.
"Your husband does not attend with you anymore,"
It was meant, Marilena decided, to sound like a change
of subject. But she knew better. It was an attack on her
flank, a probe, an attempt to get to the bitter part of her.
Clearly Ms. Ivinisova believed in the portent of one's
name. It seemed anti-intellectual to Marilena, but then
that was what kept Sorin from the weekly meetings.
Marilena shook her head. "He's not a believer."
Viviana smiled. "Not a believer." She lit a cigarette.
"Are you happy with him?"
The older woman raised her eyebrows, and Marilena
fought to keep from letting down more of her guard.
"He's brilliant," Marilena added. "One of the most
widely read men I have ever known."
"Which makes you 'reasonably happy' with him."
Marilena nodded warily. "We've been together eight
Viviana slid her chair back and crossed her legs. "Tell
me how you met."
What was it about this persistence that had such a dual
impact on Marilena? To anyone else she would have said,
"I don't know you well enough to tell you about my personal
life." Yet despite the direct approach, Marilena felt
bathed in some sort of care, compassion, interest. She was
put off and intoxicated at the same time.
She allowed a smile. "We had an affair of sorts."
"Oh!" Viviana said, leaning forward and crushing out
her smoke. "I must hear it all. Was he married?"
"He was. But not happily. He did not even wear his
ring, though the whiteness near his knuckle was still
Nostalgia washed over Marilena as she recalled her
days as a doctoral student under the quiet flamboyance
of the strange-looking professor so enamored of classical
literature. By her questions, her participation, her papers,
he had been able to tell that she was not there to merely
fulfill a requirement. He engaged her in class, and the
other students seemed content to act as spectators to
their daily dialogue.
"He was a god to me," Marilena said. "It was as if
he knew everything. I could not raise an issue, a point,
a subject he had not studied and thought through. I suddenly
knew what love was-not that I believed I loved
him. But I could not wait to get back to his class. I threw
myself into the work so I would be prepared. I had
always lived for learning, but then I burned to impress
him, to be considered his equal-not as an intellectual,
of course, but as a fellow seeker of knowledge."
It was the wine, Marilena decided. How long had it
been since she had been this effusive, this transparent?
And with a virtual stranger, no less. Of course, Viviana
Ivinisova reminded her of Sorin in Marilena's impressionable
days. She was just as drawn to this woman who
seemed to know so much, to care so deeply, and who
was so willing to open an entirely new world to initiates.
How could Viviana know who would respond to things
beyond themselves, truths most would consider coarse
and mystical, outside conventional academia? What
would Marilena's colleagues think? Well, she knew.
They would think of her what Sorin now thought of her.
His indifference spoke loudly, as did his absence from
the meetings after a mere two weeks nearly three months
"Did you pursue him?" Viviana Ivinisova said.
"I never even considered it. I pursued his mind, yes.
I wanted to be near him, with him, in his class or otherwise.
But I believe it was he who pursued me."
"He did. He asked if I would consider serving as his
assistant. I suspected nothing more than that he respected
my mind. He had to consider me his inferior, yet I
allowed myself to imagine that he at least respected my
intellectual curiosity and dedication to learning."
Viviana seemed not to have blinked. "You were not
used to being pursued."
No debate there. Marilena barely spoke to males, and
not only had she never flirted with or pursued one, but
neither had she ever considered such interest coming the
other way. Certainly not with Dr. Carpathia. Not even
when he insisted she call him Sorin. And have a meal with
him. And spend time with him aside from office hours.
Even when he became familiar, touching her shoulder,
squeezing her hand, throwing an arm around her, she
considered him brotherly, or more precisely, avuncular,
for he was ten years her senior.
"But at some point you had to have known," Viviana
said. "You married the man."
"When I first accepted his invitation to the apartment
we now share," Marilena said, "we spent most of the
night discussing great literature. He made dinner-very
badly-but I was too intimidated to agree when he said
so. We watched two movies, the first a dark, thought-provoking
picture. He sat close to me, again in a familial
fashion, leaning against me. I was so naïve."
Viviana's eyes were dancing. "Then came a romantic
picture, am I right?"
Were such things so predictable, or was this part of
Viviana's gift? In the meetings she had oft proved her
ability to foretell, but now she knew the past as well?
"And not a comedy," Marilena said. "A thorough-going
love story, full of pathos."
"And true love."
"Tell me how he seduced you."
"I didn't say that-"
"But he did, Marilena, didn't he? I know he did."
"He put his arm around me and left it there, and during
the most emotional scenes, he pulled me close."
"You spent the night, didn't you?"
Astonishing. Sorin had, in fact, sent her home for her
things after they had made love.
"Not very chivalrous of him," Viviana said. "No wonder
it hasn't lasted."
"It has lasted."
Viviana shook her head with obvious pity. "You
coexist," she said. "And you know it. You're more like
brother and sister than husband and wife. And you don't
sleep together anymore."
"We have only one bed."
"You know what I mean."
"But I never wanted that anyway. Really, I didn't. I
was smitten by Sorin's mind. Truthfully, I still am. There
is no one I'd rather converse with, argue with, discuss
"You never loved him?"
"I never thought about it. His seduction, as you call it,
gave me an inside track on what I really wanted: to stay
in proximity to that mind. He never loved me either."
"How do you know?"
"He told me by never telling me."
"That he loved you."
Marilena nodded and a foreign emotion rose in her.
What was this? Had that been what she wanted? Had
she wanted Sorin to love her and to say so? She honestly
believed she had never longed for that. "I must have been
an awkward lover."
"He lost interest?"
"In that. We still spent hours together talking and
reading and studying. We still do."
"But the romance died."
"Within months of his divorce and our marriage
two years later," Marilena said. "Except for his occasionalnecessities." She emphasized it the way he had.
"And who knows where or to whom he goes now whennecessary?"
"You don't care?"
"I don't dwell on it. I didn't marry him for that. I am
a born student, and I live with a born teacher. I am not
a physically passionate person. I have all I need or want."
When they were on the street, Viviana walking
Marilena to the bus, the older woman took her arm.
"You're lying," she said, and Marilena felt her first rush
of guilt since childhood. "We're getting close to your bitterness,
aren't we? Your loneliness. Your emptiness. The
hole in your soul."
Marilena was glad she had to keep her eyes forward to
avoid tripping in the darkness. She could not have faced
her new mentor. My soul, she thought. Until a few months
before, she had not believed she even had a soul. Souls
were for religious people. She was anything but that.
Marilena wished the bus would come and whisk her
away. Even facing Sorin's bemusement at her newfound
interest in what he-"and any thinking person, including
you"-considered anti-intellectualism would be respite
from the relentless searchlight of Viviana's prescience.
They sat on the bench at the bus stop, Marilena hoping
a stranger would join them, anything to interrupt this.
"You have discovered something within yourself beyond
what I have been teaching," Viviana said.
It was true. So true.
"You pushed it from your mind the first several times
the stirring came over you. You reminded yourself that
you and Sorin had discussed this, had dismissed it. He'd
already had a family. Besides, the apartment was too
small. Your work could not be interrupted. It was out
of the question."
Marilena's jaw tightened, and she would not have
been able to object had she chosen to. She pulled herself
free of Viviana's arm and pressed her palms to her face.
How long had it been since she had wept? This longing,
this stirring, as the older woman referred to it, had
nagged at her until she forced herself to push it away.
Out of the question was an understatement. She did not
want Sorin's child, especially one he would not want.
And neither did she want to deceive him into producing
a child within her. All of a sudden, after years of looking
the other way when he took his "necessities" elsewhere,
she would-what?-begin to be his lover again until hitting
upon perfect timing?
The whine of the bus in the distance was a relief
Marilena could barely embrace. She stood and fished in
her shoulder bag for her transit card.