Most Romanians hated winter, because it meant waiting in line for food in front of empty grocery stores, waiting for the daily two hours of hot water, and sleeping in their clothes while using their kitchen ovens to heat their homes. And most hated the snow, because it made the city look dirty. I liked the snow, because when it fell, everything was suddenly quiet, and when it stopped, time seemed to stop as well. The whiteness of the snow had a pulsating quality not found in the nurses’ white uniforms nor in my dying mother’s immaculate white hospital room. The snow made me think about white as a fortunate absence of color, a happy tabula rasa that inspired short-lived illusions of new beginnings. After a snowstorm I was eager to go to the high school’s art studio, set up my easel, and work on my assignments while Chopin or Grieg poured from a paint-stained cassette player. Those were some of the few, rare moments that winter when I did not think about my mother.

It was in December 1982, when I was a senior in high school, that I moved into the Bucharest Municipal Hospital at the recommendation of a family friend who was also the director of the facility. My father had died suddenly of a heart attack the year before, and, concerned that I’d been living at home all by myself, the director offered me a room on the twelfth floor of the oncology wing. I could bring my homework and my painting supplies and even eat there if I wanted, he said, smiling. He still looked at me as a child. I suspected he was avoiding telling me the truth about my mother’s condition.

Her room was small and well heated and had a spotless bathroom and a narrow balcony. Everything reeked of a noxious efficiency. My room, located on the same floor, had a view of a large park. Many times I could hear children’s laughter down below, and I often thought about the rudeness of the sun shining through those gleaming windows. I remembered reading somewhere how, after the Battle of Waterloo, the field, stained by the blood of the dead and the dying, was bathed in a princely light. I wondered why so many cruel and unjust things happened under the nonchalant gaze of the sun.

On the first night I slept in the hospital, my mother told me a story about one of the doctors: he’d found out he had cancer and had jumped from a window that day. She detected a hint of despair in my eyes, and, though she didn’t say it, I saw in her expression the message Don’t worry. I won’t put you through that.

It was getting dark outside. I turned on the small black-and-white TV in my room only to hear the same old government fairy tale (how many really believed it?) reassuring us that we were living in the best of all possible worlds: a free, prosperous country without major social or economic problems. Mortality was down (people were dying only in rotten, capitalistic Western Europe), productivity was up, and our beloved president was visiting some far-off African country, convincing its leaders of the evils of the free-market economy and the advantages of socialism.

I stepped out on the balcony. From the darkness my eyes carved the image of the city beneath me, its sad, cement-colored geometry, like a black-and-white Mondrian painting. I could feel its cheerless pulse, its thousands of streets, its tired people. I went to bed early, listening to doors softly opening and closing in the hospital, a place where all signs of life seemed illegitimate. I felt caught in the middle of two illnesses: my mother’s cancer, and communism — my country’s terminal disease.

I have two more vivid memories from that winter: the strong feeling that the snow would never end (which was good; it kept me indoors, so I didn’t have to face the world); and the perfume (an expensive Givenchy, I later found out) of the girl I’d fallen in love with the previous spring, at the end of my junior year.


We came across each other at one of the rare Saturday parties the school held in its large courtyard. This was about a week after my mother had entered the hospital for the first time: nothing unusual, said the doctors; women had to deal with certain problems at her age. (I found out later that she’d managed to take a closer look at her medical records and had learned the bad news before the doctors actually told her.) A local rock band was giving a free outdoor concert at the school, and the place was uncharacteristically animated. They had big speakers and were making a lot of noise. I didn’t care too much for Romanian rock-and-roll — I found more comfort in my classical records — but I rejoiced in being among my classmates and escaping my chronic loneliness, which my mother’s illness had deepened. I was there to forget, not to have fun.

At some point the band had to take a break because small pieces of brick had started to fall from one of the old buildings.

“They put on quite a show, don’t they?” I heard a female voice say, and I turned in its direction. Her eyes sparkled behind a pair of delicate glasses, and she offered me a graceful yet firm hand: “I’m Cristina.” She wore no makeup or jewelry, only that delicate perfume, into whose trap I fell without hesitation.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, and I asked if she was new there; I hadn’t noticed her before. She was slender and tall (almost as tall as I was), and she had large green eyes and short charcoal black hair. Hard to miss.

Yes, she had just transferred from another school. She mentioned her father, one of the top architects in the country, whom I had read about in the local press and in the artists’ union’s monthly magazine. “He worked abroad for several years, and he took us along with him — me and my mom. Berlin, Rome, Madrid. Now we’re back.” Her green eyes were almost puzzling, they were so radiant.

“It must be so nice to travel,” I said. “I have never been abroad, except to Bulgaria once, on a class trip in elementary school, if you can count that as ‘abroad.’ ”

She chuckled. Romania’s borders were closed, and only a privileged few, mostly Communist Party members, were allowed to carry passports. It was almost impossible for an ordinary citizen to travel, except for short trips to neighboring socialist countries, and even in those cases you had to have connections.

While the band took its break, the school’s janitor picked up the broken brick pieces. He was a short man, probably in his late fifties, and reminded me of my father. I’d heard that the janitor held an advanced degree in medieval history, but he’d irritated some top party officials and briefly gone to prison. Now he had to work this dead-end job, where he stayed drunk every day and whistled tunes from The Marriage of Figaro while sweeping the floors. He always dressed in a faded brown suit with a bright red carnation on the lapel.

Cristina and I picked up two sodas from a vendor and sat down on a bench in the shadow of a gigantic walnut tree. What should I say next? How could I overcome my shyness? My father’s recent death felt like an infirmity, a permanently chiseled mark on my forehead. Since he’d been gone, I’d been uncomfortable among people. My mother was struggling to keep me in school as our savings rapidly shrank. Earlier that spring we’d been forced by the government to move from the large house I’d grown up in to a one-bedroom, bunkerlike apartment in the working-class quarter of Bucharest. Then all of a sudden she’d gotten sick, and the concept of “home” had collapsed like a sand castle.

Helplessly I looked to the janitor. He gazed back at me, then at Cristina, and winked knowingly.

“So,” I said just to fill the void, “what are you majoring in?”


I could hardly hide my excitement: so was I. We were going to be taking the same classes in the fall. The thought made me confident enough to ask her for a dance. We walked toward the main building, where quieter music was being played on a phonograph. The building was about a hundred years old and was rumored to have been the former residence of a well-known Romanian composer who’d escaped to Paris. The government had appropriated his abandoned mansion and turned it into the school. Our schoolmates were mingling in the grand salon, where a winding staircase with a baroque balustrade led to the upstairs art studios. The school’s aging artists’ models often sat on the steps before classes and smoked. They wore a lot of makeup and not much else. We boys would pass them slowly, catching from above a quick glimpse of their sagging breasts. At the bottom of the staircase a plaster version of Michelangelo’s David presided over the room, his penis chopped off by some prankster. The place had an eerie atmosphere, like an abandoned stage set or an asylum in which all the patients have died.

Standing next to David’s pedestal, waiting for the lights to dim and a slow song to start, I suddenly felt uncomfortable in my new black corduroy pants. I remembered a minor disaster I’d experienced because of an outfit five years before, and I told Cristina about it:

When I was twelve, my mother received an invitation to her twenty-fifth college reunion. My father couldn’t go, so she took me with her. The restaurant had a decent band and a large garden, and I felt sharp in my bow tie, patent-leather shoes, and brand-new suit. I made conversation with a charming thirteen-year-old girl and was even considering inviting her to dance when I heard an irritated voice behind me, urging me to get off my butt and bring the speaker his chicken cordon bleu, which was probably cold by now. I looked over my shoulder and saw a short, stocky man who was indeed talking to me. People appeared amused, and then it hit me: my expensive new suit resembled the uniform worn by the waiters roaming the room.

After I’d finished my story, Cristina whispered in my ear, “You have no reason to worry. You look pretty grown-up to me.”

As if by mistake, she touched my cheek, and we started dancing slowly under the now-dimmed lights. I felt the softness of her skin beneath the purple dress. Resting my head close to hers, I inhaled her hair’s fragrance, that velvety perfume that one surely could not find in socialist supermarkets.

We talked the entire evening about books and movies and other topics essential to Romanian teenagers. I did most of the talking, but fortunately Cristina was a patient listener. Any casual observer would have seen how ostentatiously I displayed my fragmented knowledge, acquired mostly from reading anything I could get my hands on, from Romanian literature to Kafka to Hemingway, but she didn’t seem to notice. I was glad to discover that she admired some of the same writers I did. I asked if she agreed with André Malraux’s belief that “we are what we hide.”

Maybe, she said. But shouldn’t we replace “hide” with another concept — perhaps hope, or even love? Too bad Malraux was such a Marxist, she said; the Marxists had thought they could save the world, and look at the mess we were in because of them.

“Politics is temporary,” I said. “Art is permanent.”

She gave me a playfully grim look: “Permanent? I’ve got news for you: nothing is permanent.” Then she led me upstairs.

At the top of the staircase, in the principal’s office, was an old Steinway piano, a relic of the former regime. She closed the door behind us, adjusted the height of the circular stool, and sat down. The peaceful Adagio from Grieg’s Piano Concerto filled the room. She played it without flaw while I sat next to her, my eyes closed, and thought about kissing her fingers.

“See?” she said after she’d stopped and we could again hear the collective dull murmur from downstairs. “It’s all gone. What happens to music after it turns back to silence? Where does it go?”

“There must be a place somewhere,” I said. “Some type of afterlife for it; we can never be sure, but at least we can hope.”

“You know something?” she said. “Forget about painting. You should be a writer. You have a way with words.”

At the end of the night I offered to walk her to the bus station, but she didn’t need to take one; she lived nearby on Dacia Boulevard, in a neighborhood of guard dogs and NO TRESPASSING signs, where most of the foreign ambassadors and high-ranking party officials resided. It was no more than a half-hour walk, but I prayed it would never end. We strolled in silence along a tranquil street of beautiful turn-of-the-century houses. The night was going perfectly when an anxious, vulnerable feeling suddenly rose from my stomach to my head. I had to stop and lean against a wrought-iron gate. A dog inside the fence barked at me while I stood there, embarrassed and confused. Love had invaded me like an illness.

Cristina rested her palm on my forehead: “Are you all right?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

I don’t remember how I brought her to me, but I can still feel the gentle movement of her breasts against my chest and the embarrassing sweat running down the back of my shirt as I kissed her. There wasn’t anyone else around except a cop and his dog patrolling the other side of the street. Cristina and I stayed there in the middle of the sidewalk, under a tall streetlamp, kissing. Her mouth felt like warm snow. Like Berlin, Rome, Madrid. Like home and a faraway country both at once.


School ended, and I spent the summer vacationing at my parents’ country cottage with my mother, who was feeling better. I fished, hiked, picked fruit, and read in the tall grass by the river. Although I’d brought with me my oils and a few primed boards, I didn’t do any painting. I kept thinking about Cristina and her lively laughter, like a string of pearls scattered on a marble floor. I began writing in a journal. Did she love me as much as I loved her? Did she think about me as often as I did her? She hadn’t objected when I’d kissed her, but how much did that mean? I filled the pages with such questions. I also wrote her poems and several long letters (the cottage had no telephone) that I would never have the courage to mail.

Usually, while in the country, I loathed the thought of returning to Bucharest, but that summer I found myself longing for its (in my mind) renewed vibrancy. The area of the city where for the first time I’d tasted Cristina’s lips had gained a magical dimension overnight. I wanted to return to the otherwise-dull intersection of my first kiss. I imagined the street being renamed after Cristina, the spot becoming a frequent stop for the (rare) foreign bus tours. After all, why shouldn’t a kiss become a part of history?

Two weeks before the beginning of the fall semester, my mother and I returned to the city, and her frequent stays in the hospital began. We’d never even fully unpacked from the move from our family home to our one-bedroom apartment — the largest living space the government allowed a family of two. The place was dim, cold, and almost empty except for our boxes and several pieces of furniture. I lived there mostly by myself, with my books and records for company.

Cristina and I met several times in Grãdina Icoanei, a small park next to her house, where red-cheeked baby sitters kept one eye on thick romance novels and the other on the diplomats’ healthy children. Around the park’s edges, guarded by soldiers, were opulent residences with foreign luxury cars parked in front and bored chauffeurs smoking nearby. At night, on my travels back and forth to the hospital, I often looked inside those houses, finding comfort in the sight of crystal chandeliers, large Venetian mirrors above marble fireplaces, and paintings in heavy gilt frames. Occasionally I would spot the dark, rushed silhouette of a maid, but I seldom saw anyone else. The homes were like museums, so perfect that nobody seemed to live in them.

This was a different world from the one I inhabited with my mother, at the other end of the city. Over there the cars were old and rusty, the streets were not lit at night, nobody plowed the snow, and the children spent their afternoons breaking the old factories’ windows with homemade slingshots. I did my homework at the kitchen table by the feeble yellow light of candles. Where was that much-advertised egalitarian society? What excuses did the government have now? This was not Stalingrad in 1942 under the fierce assault of the German armies, but Bucharest some forty years later, under the silent siege of the Communist bureaucracy.

Tangling her hands around mine in a complicated weave, Cristina managed to pull me away from such thoughts: “Tell me about your vacation.”

I worshiped those elegant, aristocratic fingers, and the answer had to wait, because I started kissing them, paying to each the felicitous attention of an art collector appreciating the most valuable pieces in his collection. “I had a good time,” I finally said. “I spent most of the summer thinking of you and the remaining time writing about you.”

“I didn’t know you write!” she said.

“I didn’t know either.” It was mostly poetry, I told her (really bad poetry, which at the time seemed really good to me). “I couldn’t sleep,” I said. “I had to fill up the nights, so I started filling up a notebook.”

I searched my jacket pockets and produced the small black journal of carefully written poems. Cristina browsed through it. She seemed to like the poems (“Didn’t I say you have a way with words?”) and asked if she could keep them.

“They’re yours,” I said.

In the following weeks I saw Cristina almost every day in school. She was becoming a good painter, and I was starting to believe that I was, too. We worked side by side in the art studio, where old, rusted nails kept the tall windows from opening and every square centimeter of the glass was splattered with oil and tempera paint, veiling the light that came in. Once in a while someone would try to clean a small portion of a window with a razor blade but would shortly give up. It wasn’t worth it.

During our studio hours Cristina and I would exchange quick, conspiratorial glances, but we would rarely show our affection, wanting to keep it a secret from the other students. I was in love, or maybe I just wanted to forget about my mother. After all, isn’t all romantic love just a crusade against reality?

In Grãdina Icoanei, Cristina and I declared one of the benches “ours,” and every time strangers sat on it unawares, we would plan their instant and merciless elimination. We spent many long evenings there, kissing under the envious but benevolent gaze of the soldiers. I thanked God that, though most foreign films were banned and many books were censored, kissing was still legal in Romania.

One evening in November, after we’d been to see a production of Hamlet in which the actors had improvised allusions to our country’s social ills, I went home with a severe cold. Cristina wanted to come over, and I thanked her but declined. It was safer to keep our worlds separate. She didn’t belong in that cement cage, among the unpacked boxes, dying plants, and dirty dishes.


To earn money during my mother’s illness, I found a job working third shift as a welder in a factory. When I showed up wearing a brand-new pair of jeans and one of my best shirts, the older workers laughed at me. By the end of my first shift my frozen hands were bleeding from pulling many meters of rusted metal cable. To avoid my co-workers’ comments, I spent all my breaks and lunchtimes hiding in a men’s-room stall, reading. This is how I first encountered Crime and Punishment: sitting on a toilet, surrounded by obscene graffiti, with the occasional background noise of urination and dirty jokes. Finally I asked to be transferred to another department, thinking I would get an office job, but I ended up unloading railroad cars of aluminum powder. The sacks were heavy, and the silvery dust invaded my lungs. I spent hours in the shower, trying to clean it off my hair and hands.

Christmas approached without much celebration at my house. In the apartment’s living room a stunted, bare tree drooped under the burden of its emptiness. There wasn’t much to eat in the refrigerator. There were severe food shortages in the city, and you could see ashen people waiting in long lines everywhere. With money from my job I bought two presents to give Cristina: Alejo Carpentier’s novel Baroque Concerto and a translation of Luis de Góngora’s Solitudes. Both books were hard to find, and I had to bribe a clerk, paying several times the regular price to get them. My mother was still in the hospital, and I’d lost a lot of weight and never slept more than three or four hours a night. In school I was attending only half my courses, and my grades dropped rapidly.

Shortly after I moved into the room at the hospital to be near my mother, the high-school principal called me into his office to talk about my poor work and attendance. “Don’t mess everything up now, in your senior year,” he said. “Tell your mother to stop by and see me. I have to talk to her before it’s too late.”

I stared at the old, dusty Steinway piano pushed against one of the walls, remembering the day Cristina had played it for me. You don’t get it, do you? I thought. It is already too late. Please, just leave me alone.

“She can’t come,” I answered. “She is very sick.”

The principal clearly thought I was lying. “When she gets better, tell her that we need to talk.”

“She won’t get better,” I whispered. Then I left, realizing that I had just accepted something I had been running from: my mother’s imminent death.

The day before Christmas, Cristina unexpectedly invited me to her place. Her parents were away (they were coming back the next morning), and she had the entire house to herself. I had always wanted to meet her parents, but the prospect of not having them around sounded even better.

I departed the hospital that evening, leaving my mother tangled in tubes and wires like a surreal spider. At the end of Dacia Boulevard I waited, hungry and tired, with the two books I’d bought Cristina under my arm, both neatly wrapped in colored paper, and a bouquet of nearly frozen red roses in hand. I watched the usual parade of diplomatic cars cruise toward downtown along the neatly plowed streets. The snow had a unique glow on the boulevard. Not even when the pristine white surrendered to the dark armies of tires, salt, and plows did the street lose its appeal. It was impossible to take the magic away. Its inhabitants wore elegant suits and dresses, and I imagined them smiling all day long, even in their sleep. They did not have to camp overnight in front of the city’s empty gas stations, waiting for the fuel trucks to show up. They did not wait in line for the weekly ration of eggs, olive oil, and butter. They didn’t have to bribe anyone. Their wealth and their red party-membership cards shielded them against shortages, cold, and illness. Tonight, on Christmas Eve, their children cheerfully gathered around large, healthy Christmas trees. (I imagined those families probably still called them “Christmas trees” too, even though, in the party’s official, atheistic vocabulary, they were “New Year’s trees.”)

Cristina appeared in a pair of tight bluejeans and a red ski jacket. I did not attempt to kiss her. Only an hour before, I’d been touching my mother’s face, appalled by her almost inorganic skin, like rough paper under my fingers. She was disappearing behind that shrinking mask of flesh. We were all going to end that way, I thought, like once-juicy apples left in the sun to rot, and the thought made kisses seem unbearable. For a moment I didn’t envy the couples who were probably making love behind the lowered wooden blinds on Dacia Boulevard, ignoring the slow decay that would inevitably overcome them. I didn’t envy their cute children, their perfect homes, their pickled happiness, because I suddenly knew that none of it was permanent.

Cristina said she couldn’t take the flowers from me right there, in the middle of the street. She did not want me to hold her hand either. “The neighbors could see us,” she warned, bringing a gloved index finger to her lips. Though we kissed openly in the park, the fact that she was bringing me home with her had made her secretive, like a child sneaking cookies.

It wasn’t too cold, so we took our time walking. Across the way a soldier turned his head, following the movement of Cristina’s legs. At the end of the street we stopped before the large glass door of a modern, six-story building, one of only a few like it on the block of nineteenth-century mansions. The quiet lobby conveyed a refined, unostentatious wealth. An elevator let us out on a second-floor hallway discreetly lit by brass wall fixtures. Cristina’s door had several heavy locks, which she opened without hurry. Before taking my coat and turning on the lights, she brushed the corner of my mouth with a quick kiss and said, “Merry Christmas!”

I left the gifts on the coffee table in the large living room, next to a pile of books with an original French version of Malraux’s Anti-Memoirs on top. A few unwrapped gifts rested under an enormous, heavily decorated fir tree. My presents, which had cost me so much, suddenly seemed insignificant.

“Sorry about the mess,” she said. “I should clean up before they come back.”

There wasn’t any mess. On the contrary, the apartment was spacious and clean, everything in its place. You could have ridden a bicycle through it, or a small car.

Cristina took the flowers and put them in a vase on a grand piano in the living room, then plugged in a long chain of colored lights. On the walls were a collection of contemporary Romanian paintings mixed with folk art and a few beautiful African masks. Her room, at the other end of the apartment, was not small, but it looked cozy because of a massive black-cherry armoire full of books and records. A heavy easel stood at the windows next to a simple oak bed with a Beatles poster pinned above the headboard. Through the windows I could see it had started to snow again, and a lone plow was clearing the brightly lit road. A guard rubbed his hands together while walking briskly back and forth in front of one of the embassies. It was good to be inside with my feet sinking pleasantly into a thick Persian rug, the smell of another, smaller Christmas tree mingling with Cristina’s perfume as we watched the slow dance of the snowflakes outside.

I picked up a book, but Cristina took it out of my hand and put it back on the shelf: “You read too much. Books are not everything, you know.”

There was a record player on top of her writing desk, and she put on a Russian-made 45. Diana Ross’s voice came out, singing “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” From the kitchen Cristina fetched two cups of warm cabernet with several sticks of cinnamon and a touch of sugar in them, and we sat on the sofa in the living room and drank the wine, then danced. When the record stopped playing, Cristina did not get up to change it. I asked if she wanted to open her presents, but she said, “Later,” and led my hands up to the buttons of her silk blouse: “We should probably open this first.”

Her body smelled of dried flowers, baked apples, and salt. I covered her small breasts with my hands and felt them tremble, like pigeons ready to fly away. We kissed before the slow-falling snowflakes and the Christmas lights.


In the morning, on Christmas Day, the metallic noise of a snowplow rescued me from a bizarre dream: I was in the municipal hospital, about to take the elevator to my mother’s room, when I spotted the school’s nude models smoking and looking bored on the cement stairs under the red EXIT sign. They encouraged me to come closer and take a look inside a large gift box: “Come on. It’s going to be OK.” I hesitated, but their giggles finally convinced me. “You should probably open this first,” one of them said, helping me to untie the festive ribbons. I felt a sudden hope. Finally, I thought, taking the lid off, here is someone I can trust. But inside the box was my dead mother’s face, staring up at me, like a blue-hued vintage paper doll. I backed up in horror while the models started laughing. Then I woke up.

Trying not to appear shaken by the dream, I hurriedly kissed Cristina goodbye and left before her parents returned. On the way to the hospital I stopped at our apartment to pick up some books, and I was surprised to hear the phone ring. It was a nurse calling to tell me that my mother had entered a coma. I asked her to repeat that, and she did, adding that she was sorry, and I thought maybe she really was.

As I entered the hospital, it seemed that Dacia Boulevard had never existed. Maybe I had read somewhere about it, or maybe I had invented it. Death, on the other hand, was a reality to be accepted. It was too late even for the trace of Cristina’s perfume on my clothes to lead me back into that fantasy world. Maybe she and I had different roads to take in life. I did not envy hers; I did not pity mine. Who could tell which one was better?

There was a young doctor in my mother’s room, scribbling something on a notepad next to her bed. My mother’s mouth hung open like a baby bird’s.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said. “We wanted to ask you if it’s OK to call a priest.”

“Sure,” I replied vaguely. “Go ahead.”

It was sunny outside, and I opened one of the windows to let the brisk air in. On the streets life went on as usual. Children played in the park below, and people walked their dogs in the fresh snow. I held my mother’s hand, kissed her forehead, and wiped the residue of a tear from the corner of her eye.

My mother wouldn’t die right away but would remain in a coma for several months, and I’d help the nurses care for her. Right then, though, I didn’t know this, and I wanted to go home, wherever that was, cook myself a real meal, and maybe start unpacking those boxes. I wanted a permanent place in the world. I packed my things and left the hospital.

As I was riding alone in the elevator, I thought about calling Cristina. Maybe it wasn’t too late. But maybe it was. I closed my eyes because I could not bear to see myself endlessly reflected in the elevator’s stainless-steel walls.

I did not call Cristina or even see her until a few weeks later, after winter vacation had ended, on the first day of the spring semester. She was standing in a black fur coat across from the studio’s door, waiting with the others for the drunk janitor in his brown suit to let them in with his key. He came, opened the door, and turned on the heat. Through the large windows of the studio, the soiled snow was dimly visible behind the old splatters of paint. Cristina set up her easel and put a small stretched canvas on it, ignoring me completely. She had every right to be upset; I had vanished without a trace.

The familiar sound of the wind struggling to get through the small cracks in the glass was absent that day, and in the artificial-seeming silence I tried to think of a way to explain my disappearance to Cristina. How could I tell her that I was barely eating and sleeping; that I had an exhausting job in a miserable factory and was hiding from her the cuts and calluses on my hands? How could I tell her that my home was a room on the twelfth floor of the hospital’s oncology wing; that my dying mother was in a coma and I gave her baths and morphine shots, but she never recognized me? How could I explain the guilt and shame that I felt about all of this? Cristina didn’t need my misery. But she was also the only certain thing in my life. I had been looking at the world through a dirty window held shut by rusted, old nails. It was too much to attempt to clean it, but with her help, maybe I could break the glass.

Cristina finally ended the silence. “Is there someone else?” she asked, her hands trembling a little while she arranged paints on a plastic palette.

“Yes, there is,” I said. “But it’s not what you think.”