The smell was again there and I turned around. It was sweet and it made me smile, and I wondered where it came from. There was no one in sight, the street stretched before me, endless and gray, the buildings were gray, too, the sky looked heavy with lightning, but the smell was there. There was no doubt about that. Then I noticed the car – a most ordinary gray Ford. I suddenly remembered –I saw it yesterday when I went to work and I remembered the smell was there, too. I approached the car, curious and a little frightened. I gray-haired man sat in it.
“Can I help you, Ma’am?” the man asked. I looked at him closely. It turned out his hair was brown, not gray.
“I remember your car,” I said. “I think I noticed it yesterday.”
“Yesterday?” the man said pursing his lips. “It’s impossible, Ma’am. I wasn’t in that town yesterday.”
I thought one could hardly dub “town” the dozen of ramshackle houses and the narrow asphalt road that touched the apathetic buildings and climbed to the black sky in the distance.
“Your car smells sweet,” I said. “I noticed that yesterday.”
The man was silent, staring at the windshield, his sharp profile a slab of white marble cutting the gray air. He seemed to have forgotten all about me. What the hell, I said to myself. My ex boyfriend used to behave in exactly the same way – he stared at the night and forgot all about me. He didn’t even notice when I went out. Men tended to forget me very quickly, I had noticed that a number of times. I think it had to do with my constant talking. What the hell, I left the guy in his sweet smelling car and hurried along the street. My office was a block away. It was a hole of room with a window to a clump of poplar trees that made me allergic almost half of the year. I didn’t know what I hated most: my constant allergies, the translations I did ten hours a day or the thought of my boyfriends who seldom noticed I was there.
I remembered the boring novella I had to translate by the end of the week and shuddered – it was a story about a banal love affair. The word ‘love’ gave me the creeps. It reminded me of my latest boyfriend who said he had had enough of my whims and vagaries. Well, I worked hard and I made efforts to understand if the protagonist hated the world in general, or only his cheating wife and her lover. In my opinion the protagonist was a particularly unintelligent fellow. He delivered long monologues teeming with Latin quotations on the future of the world. I could not stand the guy and his ideas of the future. I thought my ex-boyfriend looked very much him –boring and moralizing.
Then once again the sweet smell was there, it was in my nose. The gray car ground to a halt and the man in it said, “I could give you a lift to your office.”
“How come you know where I work?” I asked suspiciously.
“I’m the author of the novella you are translating,” the man said.
“Your boss said you didn’t like my work,” the author of the damned thing said.
“No, I don’t like it,” I said. There was no use pretending. The novella was no good, and its author did look like my ex-boyfriend.
The minute I said this I knew I had made a serious mistake. I suspected the guy might withdraw his writings and assign the translation to my colleague. She was more amiable than me, she admired the dirges she translated, she called the authors geniuses and their prose concoctions were all masterpieces to her. Malomed, that’s how that woman’s name was, made twice more money than me. She had a poet boyfriend she called Dante instead of Don. His poetry gave me headaches.
“Why does his poetry give you headaches?” the author asked.
“What!” I must have been thinking aloud.
I did think about Don’s doggerels, but I was positive I hadn’t said anything about them. I was short of money and I wanted the translation of that novella and that was what interested me.
“I’ll give you a lift to your office,” he said.
When I got into the car he said, “Why don’t you like my work?”
“It’s not so much I don’t like it…”I knew how I needed the money. The orange ford ground to a halt once again.
“You lied to me,” the guy said. “That’s why the car stopped.”
“O, come off it,” said. “I lie to many people every day, but my car doesn’t stop on account of that.”
“I don’t lie to people,” the man said, looking at me in a way that suddenly made me angry. I felt like shouting at him which I did.
“Your prose is no good,” I said. “It gives me the creeps.”
The minute I stopped talking I noticed the car didn’t move at all. The stranger had killed the motor.
“What are you waiting for?” I told him. “I’ll be late for work and my boss will give me a piece of her mind.”
“It’s not my fault,” the man said. “The car moves only when the passenger is happy.”
I thought about it. I wasn’t happy at all. I thought I didn’t have a single happy day in my life.
“Try to think about the time when you loved your boyfriend,” the author of the boring novella said.
“I didn’t love my boyfriend,” I said. “He dumped me so quickly and I didn’t have the chance to even start loving him.”
It was raining outside, and the gray sky touched the windshield of the car. It was quite dark and the clouds looked as thick as the asphalt. The car suddenly skidded forward.
“I am not happy at all,” I said to the driver. “Why did the car move?”
“I was happy,” the man said. “I think I like you.”
I studied the man’s face. I wouldn’t say it was attractive, just an ordinary man’s face the type I wouldn’t bother to look at twice. It was raining and I was angry.
“Look here,” I said. “You thought up the whole thing, didn’t you?”
“I thought up what?” he asked.
“The automobile thing. You’re lying to me. You stop the car and you make it go whenever it suits you.”
“I didn’t think anything up. What I’ve told you about the car is true. I like you and the car moves forward.”
“Then your car must stop right away, because I can’t say I like you,” I said bluntly. Then I noticed I held an ashtray in my hands. I had taken it from the panel in front of me. It was an ugly thing, yet most unexpectedly it smelled sweet, too. “Are you a smoker?” I asked the man. “I hate smokers, let me tell you that.” The sweet smelling car stopped. It rained harder, the clouds turning the street into a lake of churning water. The driver by my side bristled up.
“Are you sure you don’t like me?” he asked.
“I am,” I answered.
First the sweet smell vanished then suddenly I was in the middle of a puddle in the street. There was no car, and no man by my side. Now that’s bad, I said to myself. I’m hearing voices and I’m seeing things. My latest boyfriend had warned me I’d be out of my mind in no time at all; he said no one could stand me, so evidently I was starting to invent a man who could put up with all my tricks. My shoes were dripping wet, my hair and my clothes were an avalanche of cold shivers crawling down my spine. My fingers were cold too. I thought I’d better rub them to get warm then I noticed I still held the ashtray in my hands: an ugly thing that held the sweet smell of the car which had vanished in the rain.
“Hey!” I shouted. “Where are you?”
There was no one in the street, and I was completely sodden, shivering with cold.
My boss glared at me the minute I entered the office.
“Your deadline is 30th March,” she said. “I want the translation of the first 15 pages now.”
I didn’t have the fifteen pages ready.
“I am afraid it would be impossible, Mrs. Whitaker,” I said feeling her eyes bite me. “I have a rough draft of the translation and I need time to polish it.”
The azaleas in the street blossomed palely in the rain. There was cold rain in Mrs. Whitaker’s eyes, too. I wanted to go on a short holiday to Ostende, at the Nord See. I had been there once and the wind was so strong I could lie on it. The see was the color of asphalt and there were no people along the beach. I had listened to the waves for hours, and I had eaten a pizza in the Neapolitana Café.
“By the way, there is a letter for you,” Mrs. Whitaker grumbled. Everyone knew how much she disliked forwarding messages to her employees. “I am not a post office, mind you,” she reminded me chucking the envelope onto my desk.
It was the only letter I had received for years. I mean an ordinary letter, one typed on a sheet of paper. It said “Neapolitana Café, 7 pm, today”. There was all there was to it. I put it in my desk drawer. I thought I could talk to that letter, or I talk to the drawer in which I kept it, which didn’t make much difference.
“By the way,” Mrs. Whitaker said smiling. Her smiles were a bad sign. Her tall body leaned forward, her eyes hard. “I intended to assign the translation of the novella to Miss Malomed.”
This didn’t come as a surprise. Miss. Malomed, my amiable colleague, stated all pieces of fiction she happened to translate were masterpieces. The authors were always happy to meet her. They were not happy to meet me.
I looked at Mrs. Whitaker imagining the empty cold kitchen in my apartment and the heap of bills I still had not paid. I saw the heap of shirts and jackets which belonged to my ex-boyfriend. I still had not thrown them in the dustbin. Sometimes in the evenings, instead of translating I gave his dirty shirts a piece of my mind. It did me good.
I imagined I could go to Ostenede again. I didn’t remember the name of the wine I had drunk there.
“Well, I won’t assign the translation to Miss Malomed,” my boss went on, pausing significantly, watching my face.
When I woke in that shabby hotel room in Ostenede I found I didn’t have enough money for a good breakfast. It was a rainy spring day, and there was no wind to listen to.
“The author of the novella phoned today,” my boss made another of her important pauses, her upper lip a threatening piece of ice. Her face usually froze when she had a bad news to break. As a rule, her news was bad. She started by pointing out she had heard me talk to a handkerchief. That was true. It was my ex boyfriend’s handkerchief. I was telling it I was a pretty woman. I had spoken to the handkerchief using rare morally offensive words in Bulgarian I was sure no one understood. My ex-boyfriend never did, so saying long nasty words to his shirts gave me exactly the same pleasure as if he was listening to me.
I missed the fragrance of the strange car though. I missed the man’s voice who had said he liked me.
I missed the intimate contacts with a boyfriend.
“The author of the novella said he liked your translation,” my boss declared, the words dropping from her lips in a dead heap in front of me.
“I knew he would,” I said although I had not started translating the thing yet. It had been the most disappointing piece of writing I had come across for five years and two ex-boy friends so far.
“By the way, you know I disapprove of negotiations between the authors and my translators,” Mrs. Whitaker croaked.
“I know,” I said.
“I strongly disapprove my translators’ talking to inanimate objects,” she went on.
“I talk to objects to concentrate,” I explained.
It rained hard outside.
“I wouldn’t like to know anything about anybody’s personal life, but…” she said. I didn’t tell her I had no personal life, barring my long conversations with my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. My getting drunk alone in the Neapolitana Café couldn’t qualify as personal life either.
“That author said he’d like to give you a new part of the novella he had just written. That’s the part that seems wrong,” my boss said at last.
“Why should it?” I asked
“You wouldn’t want to know,” her voice stretched too thin to cover all nuances of sarcasm and contempt she felt for me at the moment.
I’d have given two years of my life if only I could bark one of my morally offensive Bulgarian words in her face. Then there was that Malomed person, my colleague, enthusiastic and ready to oblige.
“In fact I told the boss I would be there for you… I mean I could translate the damned piece if you,” she chirruped. “I mean if you turned it down… Ms Whitaker thought you’d positively turn it down so…”
“I’ll do it,” I told her. She stared, her smile slowly sinking into her good shining teeth.
“O, I understand.”
It was not too clear what she’d understood.
Then it was there again, the pleasant aroma that I liked so much, the fragrance of the red automobile. I looked through the window and I didn’t see the car. A minute later I caught a glimpse of the man who owned it, the writer of poor novellas. He was shaking Mrs. Whitaker’s hand. I had not noticed when he’d entered the office. The man looked good, I had to admit that.
“It’s there again, that smell,” I told him.
“That smell?” he asked.
“Of the automobile,” I answered, looking at him. My boss stared at me. Malomed heaved another of her deep meaningful sighs.
“I can give you a ride to Neapolitana café,” the writer of poor novellas said quickly.
The town was full of rain and azalea blossoms that made me horribly allergic. The car was there, though, in the street in front of our office, the sweet smelling automobile.
“Your colleague… Miss Malomed,” the author whose work I was translating said after we got into the car.
“Yes?” I muttered. I had a gut feeling the turn our conversation took would be no good. “I think we are wasting time.”
“The car moves only when the passengers are happy,” the man said. “I’ve told you that.” He took a deep breath. “I think you are a good translator, but…Maybe Miss Malomed …”
“You can go ahead and talk to Miss Malomed,” I snapped. There was no point in going to Neapolitana café now, was there? The car had remained immobile in front of my office window, the azalea tree heaping its blooms in the wind just to exacerbate my allergy.
“Miss Malomed is a fine lady…” the man started. I was reaching to open the door when he said in Bulgarian. “I don’t care for Miss Malomed. I want you. I came here to see you. You are all I’ve been dreaming about…”
I could not believe what I heard.
“You are everything to me. You are the air I breathe in, you are the wind I listen to, you are my happy evening and you are in all my words. Please, please don’t go.”
Suddenly I felt the sweet smelling automobile was moving. It was racing along the sleepy street of the town, it was hurtling and buzzing and singing and shouting with joy.
“You speak Bulgarian!” the man whispered. “You understood!”
“I am Bulgarian,” I said.
Then I was suspicious. Was that another man who played with me, another mean trick? And I was stupid to rise to the bait. I was the dumbest thing in town. The car was about to grind to a halt.
“But it is true!” the man shouted in English. “I mean every word of it.”
The car roared and rushed forward stronger and swifter than the waves in Ostende, a cloud of fragrance trailing in its wake.
“Who are you?” I asked amazed.
“I am the man who likes Bulgarian language,” he said.
I believed what he said. He was the man I had been dreaming about all my life.
***** ***** *****
I was wrong one more time.
He didn’t like Bulgarian language. He spoke Bulgarian only when he was happy.