Sozopol

Long Short Story by Ellis Shuman

Sozopol

When she approached me in the hotel lobby, I was reviewing my notes for the presentation I would be giving the next day. My laptop was open on the glass-topped coffee table and twenty-three PowerPoint slides alternated on the screen as I clicked through them repeatedly. I had given this presentation before, many times, but now I was nervous for some inexplicable reason. I was prepared, but on the other hand, I was skeptical of how my talk would be received.

“I am a big fan of your books!”

I looked up to find a young woman standing at my side. She was tall, with a slim figure, and jet-black hair. She had a pleasant face; barely visible eyebrows topped her almond-shaped eyes; and her lips were curled into an inviting smile. Quite attractive, actually. Her English carried an Eastern European accent, a sign that she was a local woman. I had seen her before, somewhere, but no full recognition took hold. After a moment’s hesitation, I responded to her compliment with a simple, “Thank you. Have we met?”

“I attended this morning’s session!” she said excitedly.

Of course, she was an attendee of the seminar! I had spotted her in the mixed audience—Bulgarians and participants from outside the country, like me. “It was quite an interesting discussion,” I said. “And you are...?”

“Desislava,” she said, extending her hand and sitting down uninvited on a lounge chair. “But you can call me Desi.”

“I’m David Yardeni, as you already know,” I said, shaking her soft hand. “So, Desi, have you signed up for the entire program?”

“Oh, no! I’m not officially registered. I’ll be sitting in on a few sessions. I’m especially interested in the workshops given by authors who’ve come from outside Bulgaria. Your talk is tomorrow, right? As I said, I’m a big fan. I’ve read your novels—the Bulgarian editions—and most of your short stories, but I never imagined I would have a chance to talk to you in person. I’ve thought about traveling to Israel, to attend one of your lectures at the university in Tel Aviv, but honestly, I can’t afford the trip. That was why I was so lucky to learn you would be coming to Sozopol.”

“You’re from Sozopol?” I asked. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. All the women I had seen so far in Bulgaria were attractive, but this one—Desi—was so striking that she must be a model. And she was quite talkative.

“Oh no, I’m from Sofia. That’s on the other side of the country. I’m a university student. I study Creative Writing with Professor Zharkov. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? No? He always gives me challenging assignments. It was he who suggested I should come to the seminar. To meet the authors, to attend the sessions. He says the experience will enlighten me. By listening to authors speak, he says, I will come up with my own ideas for stories.”

“Maybe the talks will give you a direction for your writing,” I suggested.

“I hope so! The professor says I should use not only my imagination, which is obviously very important for a writer, but also my experiences. To see life as a story. To see everything that happens as a story, and to write that story. He says, ‘Put yourself in your writing,’ so I try to do just that. But there is something more, David. Can I can call you David? It’s way too formal to say Mr. Yardeni. Anyway, David, I came here to meet you.”

“To meet me?”

“Yes, I love your writing. Your descriptions of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem—I can almost imagine being in Israel. Perhaps you’ll be the one to inspire me!”

Her flattery was a bit much, but I didn’t want to disappoint her by cutting the conversation short. “I highly doubt that,” I said to her. “There are other authors here. Plenty of writers more talented than me.”

“It’s your talks I’ve come to hear. I’m so glad I met you! Hey, you never know. Perhaps you’ll end up in one of my stories!”

“Will you be at my presentation tomorrow?”

“Yes, of course. You are such an excellent writer and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Say, do you want to join me for a drink?” she asked, surprising me with the boldness of her invitation.

“A drink? Sorry, I’m going with others to a fish restaurant in the Old Town. I’ve heard it’s quite picturesque.”

“Yes, the Old Town is very nice,” she said, standing up. She was about to walk away, but then plopped down on her chair again. “If it isn’t too much of a burden, could I ask you for an autograph?”

The request caught me off guard. It had been years since anyone had asked me to sign one of my books. In the early years of my career, readers had waited patiently in line at book signings, but I didn’t enjoy being in the spotlight. Embarrassed, I avoided eye contact and never scribbled more than nonsensical salutations. Now, years later, I somewhat missed the attention.

“Sure,” I said, expecting her to hand me a copy of my book in Bulgarian, but instead, she gave me an orange notepad and a pen. “How do you spell Desi?” I asked.

“Don’t address it to me. Just your name would be great.”

I smiled at her encouraging nod and wrote my name in cursive English.

“Thank you so much!”

It felt good to receive such a warm compliment from a Bulgarian fan, and a gorgeous one at that. If only my readers in Israel still admired my writing like she did. I tried not to stare at her as she walked away. After she left the lobby, I focused again on my laptop screen. I shut down PowerPoint, but there were several emails I wanted to answer before dinner.

***

I had not expected to be accepted to the ‘The Essential Elements of Story Writing’ seminar in Sozopol, Bulgaria. I sent off the email application halfheartedly on a day when I felt my writing career was racing down the drain. The acceptance email took me by surprise and when I shared the news, my wife was ecstatic.

“Another sign of your international success,” Avital said. “They want to hear your words of wisdom on the far shores of Bulgaria.”

“I have no words of wisdom left to give,” I replied with a sigh. “Maybe I did, once, but now I’m a literary has-been.”

“Don’t sell yourself short. Your books are still popular, even today.”

“You mean those novels I wrote long ago? You know better than anyone that I am not making any progress on my new book.”

I had once been Israel’s most promising author under age thirty. Now, my laptop was filled with unfinished manuscripts, abandoned as my creativity lost momentum. What could I contribute to an international literary conference with so many prominent authors in attendance? The speakers listed in the seminar’s program included Eleanor Wilson—the bestselling British author of romance novels; Frederik Haufmann—the acclaimed German short story writer; Colin McDougal—the Irish Booker Prize-nominated novelist; and many others whose books I had read over the years. The Bulgarian literary scene would be well-represented, with local authors Kiril Andriev and Viktor Bolshov due to attend. After reviewing the entire list, I was convinced I was not in the same league as any of these esteemed authors.

The conference was being organized by Max Braun, an award-winning Austrian author who taught European Literature at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, the oldest higher education institution in Bulgaria. ‘The Essential Elements of Story Writing’ would be presented as a series of workshops and panels, with sessions dedicated to Setting, Plot, Characters, Dialogue, Conflict, and Resolution. Subtopics such as Point of View, Genre, and Theme were also in the program. The email I received came with a request for me to make a presentation on the role of Setting in fiction.

I frequently gave lectures on Setting in the Literature classes I taught—primarily in Hebrew but on occasion in English when teaching foreign exchange students—but at the conference in Sozopol, those in attendance would be my peers. Authors and writers, and in most cases, their talents exceeded mine. What could I say that Haufmann and McDougal didn’t already know? I feared my presentation would fail to live up to the expectations of an international audience.

“It’s an honor you’ve been recognized for your literary talents,” Avital said. “Attending this workshop in Bulgaria may be just what the doctor called for. Meeting other authors will jumpstart your creativity.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“David, with so many authors from all over the world, imagine all the creative juices flowing in the room! I think you should go.”

Sozopol, Bulgaria. I had never heard of the place. Now that I had been accepted, and there was a real possibility of attending, I searched online for information about the place.

‘Sozopol is an ancient seaside town on the southern Bulgarian Black Sea coast,’ I read on Wikipedia. ‘Today it is one of the major seaside resorts in the country and tourists from around the world come to enjoy its weather, sandy beaches, history and culture, fusion cuisine, and atmosphere.’

Okay, so I would go, I told himself with growing conviction. I would give a presentation on Setting; it wouldn’t be difficult to prepare my talk. Maybe, as Avital suggested, participating in the conference would be exactly what I needed to get my career back on track.

***

“When we drink rakiya, we look each other in the eyes and say ‘Nazdrave’,” Kiril explained to me the first evening of the seminar when we dined at the fish restaurant.

“So, it’s similar to our saying ‘Lechaim,” I said.

“Yes, exactly!”

I raised my glass to the two Bulgarian authors and responded to their toasts with “Nazradve!” They laughed at my mispronunciation of the toast. The drink was powerful, burning my throat with its strong alcoholic punch. I made a face, and my Bulgarian hosts again broke out in laughter.

“It’s an acquired taste,” Viktor said.

Kiril was about my age or slightly older and in his mid-forties. Viktor was much younger and although he had the looks of an undergraduate student, he was already an accomplished author. I had enjoyed reading their books—novels in which protagonists were often confronted with conflicted feelings about Bulgaria’s communist past—and had formed virtual friendships with them through email correspondence. It was great to have this chance to meet them in person.

We were seated near the window, with a panoramic view of the sea. The beacon of a lighthouse on a distant island made its course across the water, spotlighting for the briefest moment the many boats circling the town on their way to the marina. The waves crashed onto the rocks below the restaurant again and again, lifting a fine wet spray that nearly reached the window. I was getting hungry. I had ordered baked sea bass, a house specialty, and my mouth was already watering in anticipation of a well-cooked meal. I downed the last of my drink and set the glass down on the wooden table.

“It’s best when it’s homemade,” Kiril informed me. “The kind they serve here is not as good as what my father makes in his village. He has an orchard with plum trees and rakiya is best when made from plums. I should have brought a bottle to give to you to take home. Rakiya, a souvenir of Bulgaria.”

“There’s no need for that,” I said, holding up my hands. “I am not really a drinker. Alcohol goes to my head.”

My companions were very friendly, eager to introduce me to everything Bulgarian. When the waiter appeared at our table and set down a spread of salads in colorful ceramic dishes, Kiril insisted I try a salad composed of chopped tomatoes and cucumber and topped with a generous amount of grated white cheese.

Shopska salad is our most famous and national dish,” he explained.

“Just as hummus and falafel is the national dish of Israel,” Viktor said.

“You’ve been to Israel, I remember, but that was before we began corresponding.”

“I hope to visit one day soon!” Kiril said. “Taste the snezhanka salad. I think you’ll like it very much.”

“There’s so much food!” I protested. “I should save room for the main course.”

I felt lightheaded from the rakiya and it was hard to concentrate on the conversation. Before I knew what I was doing, I had accepted a second glass. I raised it and gazed into the eyes of my Bulgarian counterparts.

Nazdrave!”

***

When we returned to the hotel, I was wobbly on my feet. Kiril and Viktor went to the front desk to collect their room keys, but I had mine in my pocket. I headed for the stairs leading up to my second-floor room. Was this the way? It was confusing. I turned the corner and found myself in the hotel’s dimly lit bar.

“Hello, David!”

I smiled at the woman standing up to greet me but couldn’t recall her name.

“I’m Desi.”

“Right. I know that.”

“How was your dinner?”

“Very nice. The food was delicious. And the rakiya...”

“The rakiya?”

“Too much rakiya.” I laughed nervously.

“Why do foreigners get so excited about our rakiya, as if it’s the only thing we drink in Bulgaria? You know what you need?”

“What?”

“You need a nightcap.”

“No, I need to sleep.”

“Come with me,” she said, leading me to a barstool. “Just one. It’s my treat.”

“Well, just one then.”

I struggled to get comfortable as the bartender poured us each a shot.

She raised her glass and smiled at me. “You can say ‘Nazdrave’ on vodka as well.”

Nazradve,” I replied, again mispronouncing the word.

She laughed and then downed her drink. She waited, urging me with a nod to join her. “Wow, that’s a nice watch,” she said, regarding my Rolex. She touched the engraved gold band, her fingers lingering on my wrist and sending a chill up my spine.

“My wife,” I started, unable to find the words to explain that the expensive wristwatch was an anniversary gift. I loved the watch. Whenever I looked at it, I thought of Avital. “I’m married,” I said, my words slurred.

“I know that,” she said. “I know everything about you. Well, almost everything. I’ve read your books, your stories. I know your biography. You live in Tel Aviv; you have two daughters. Still, I’m not sure I know who David Yardeni really is.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you like to travel? Walk in the forest?”

“We don’t have forests in Tel Aviv.”

“I’m serious. Do you have any hobbies?”

“I enjoy reading.”

“Of course, you do. You’re an author. But, what else?”

“My wife and I like to travel, but we want to go different places. She wants London, Paris. I would prefer going on a hike.”

“Then you will love Bulgaria! We have mountains, plenty of mountains. There’s a lot of hiking you can do. We could go on a hike together. Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow? I am giving a presentation.”

“I was joking,” she said, her hand resting on my shoulder for a moment.

“Great,” I said with a yawn. I put down my glass and rubbed my eyes.

“You know what I’ve always admired about your books?”

“What?”

“How sensual they are. The words you choose, your descriptions of places in Israel, everything you write awakens the senses. I can picture the scenery very vividly.”

My vision was blurry, and I felt a tingle in my fingers. The floor seemed to rise and fall far below me. She leaned forward and stroked my leg. I drew back, nearly falling off the barstool.

“How about another drink?”

“No, I should turn in.”

“Just one more,” she said, signaling to the bartender.

***

I woke the next morning with a pounding headache. All that rakiya! All that vodka! The excessive drinking was going to make me sick. I started to get up, only to discover that I was naked beneath the sheets. I leaned back against the headrest to find the bedroom a mess. Pillows and blankets thrown to the floor; clothes scattered everywhere. My beige slacks, the navy polo shirt I had been wearing. One Nike sports shoe visible, my boxers near the bathroom. I held my hand to my forehead and tried to remember what had happened the night before.

The excellent fish dinner in the Old Town and then back to the hotel. I had separated from Kiril and Viktor and stumbled into the bar to find that attractive woman waiting for me. Desi. A shot of vodka, maybe two. But after that? My mind was blank, but the evidence was all around me.

I had never cheated on Avital before. Never. Sure, I was attracted to other women, but I wouldn’t dare step beyond the boundaries of our marriage. At an early stage of my career, when I was younger and not as overweight as I was now, there were many opportunities to make a move, or to follow a woman’s lead. But I had turned them all down and remained faithful.

And now this.

I should come clean with Avital, tell her everything. There were no secrets between us. This wasn’t my fault, I would say to her. I had been drunk; I hadn’t been thinking. Desi seduced me! I didn’t want to keep drinking and in fact, I had asked to stop. What happened afterward? I didn’t remember any of it. Didn’t that count for something?

I would call Avital now and apologize. She should know as soon as possible. But when I picked up my phone, I was surprised to see that my Rolex was not on my wrist. I must have left it in the bathroom.

As I scrolled to Avital’s listing in contact favorites, I noticed that the little lines indicating mobile reception were missing. No phone service. It was getting late, and I would need to hurry if I wanted to have breakfast before the morning sessions. Breakfast? I couldn’t stomach the thought of food, but I needed coffee. A lot of black coffee.

I stood up slowly, balancing on the small dresser under the room’s mirror. And that is where I found her note.

‘Thank you for a wonderful time! I will see you at your presentation.’

Seeing the note made me realize that what I suspected from the night before had actually happened. I felt lightheaded, almost to the point of passing out. I staggered to the bathroom, reached for aspirin, and swallowed two pills. I held onto the sink to catch my balance and glanced at my disheveled appearance in the mirror. Bloodshot eyes. Wild, unruly hair. I took a deep breath, resolving to call Avital immediately. That would set this right. But first, coffee in the lobby.

***

“Do any of you have Wi-Fi?” I asked when I walked into the lecture hall.

“Not me,” an elderly American author replied.

“They say the Internet is down in the entire area, including Burgas,” one of the others said.

“I need to make a call,” I said. “Do you think they have a phone at the front desk I could use?”

“Their line isn’t working. I checked,” Mrs. Wilson said. “I wanted to call my husband to make sure he watered the garden. We live in Surrey, you see. Do you know where that is? Southwest of London.”

“You must excuse me,” I said, turning away. Luckily, the aspirin and the coffee had done their job. The worst of the hangover was behind me, although I still felt a bit sick to my stomach. I checked my phone again. No mobile service. I would call Avital after my presentation.

“Let’s sit down, everyone,” Max said, motioning for the attendees to take their places. The seminar’s organizer stood at the front of the hall, waiting patiently. I took my seat at the table next to him and checked my notes. “We have a very interesting schedule today, so let’s get started,” he said, before inviting me to the podium. I connected the HDMI cable to my laptop, double-checked that my presentation was displayed on the large wall screen behind me, and began.

“Good morning,” I said, as I adjusted the microphone. “I’ll give a short talk and then we’ll have an open discussion as I’m sure you have much to contribute. My topic is the role of Setting in fiction.”

I projected the first of twenty-three slides onto the screen. ‘What is Setting?’ its title asked in thick bold letters. Under this was a bulleted list of the subtopics I would be addressing. Physical Location. Time Period. Social Environment. The next slide asked a provocative question. ‘What if a story’s setting was different?’

“Would The Wizard of Oz have become the same classic tale if Dorothy had been whisked away to New York City instead of Oz?” I asked. “Would Lord of the Rings have become a cult fantasy series if the story was set anywhere other than Middle-earth? These novels, and many others, enjoyed enormous success because the author chose the appropriate physical location, time period, and social environment for their story.”

I paused, raising my eyes to look around the room. Kiril was in the front row, concentrating on my talk. Seated next to him was Mrs. Wilson, starry-eyed as if I was speaking the gospel. I saw Colin and another Irish author in the second row, their haughty disdain for my talk visibly apparent. I scanned the hall but couldn’t find the person I was expecting to see.

I wanted to see her in the audience, to observe her from the safety of the podium. It had been a mistake to be with her, a terrible mistake, but I couldn’t get her out of my mind. Her jet-black hair; her beautiful, deep eyes; her luscious lips. I believed that by seeing her from afar, with a safe distance between us, I would be capable of putting what happened behind me. And if I could do that, I would be forgiven for last night’s transgressions.

But Desi wasn’t there.

I continued with my presentation. Was Setting truly necessary in a story? I asked. Winnie-the-Pooh could take place anywhere, whereas Joseph Heller's Catch-22 became a cult classic solely because it was set during World War II. I mentioned the Great Depression landscapes of John Steinbeck’s novels and the Tokyo jazz clubs of Haruki Murakami’s fiction. I even cited the Russian Revolution backdrop of Dr. Zhivago. I knew this topic well, but so did my attentive audience.

From my fifteenth slide, I gave examples from my own writing, how I had used Setting in my books. I quoted from my first novel, where I described the beaches of Tel Aviv as the tanned, slender legs of a reclining woman, caressed again and again by amorous Mediterranean waves. I spoke of my second novel, where I portrayed Jerusalem’s Old City walls as a stone-faced sentry blockading entry to secret medieval passageways. While the words my characters spoke were hardly memorable, I believed my descriptive settings were worthy of mention. But did those in the audience feel the same?

“Everything you write awakens the senses.”

I dismissed Desi’s words from my thoughts and persevered through the presentation. When I reached the last slide, I launched into my concluding remarks. “Setting is much more than a story’s physical location. It is the surrounding environment as well. The culture, the traditions. The food and drink, even the time period—all of that and more form part of a story’s setting. An author may write about the place where they live, or the location where they want their characters to live. When an author does their job well, the setting is so richly described and so full of life, that it serves as a character, itself, in the story.”

“Are there any questions?” Max said, taking my place at the podium.

“Is an author capable of writing about a place they’ve never been?” It was one of the young French authors. I didn’t know her name.

“I think authors should write about what they know, places they’re familiar with,” I answered.

“That doesn’t work for science fiction,” someone interjected, and everyone laughed.

“I write where my imagination takes me,” Mrs. Wilson said.

“I’m serious,” the French author continued. “Where does one draw the line between a description of realistic places and those that exist solely in the writer’s mind?”

This comment was met with spirited responses, and I found it hard to pay attention. As Max organized the discussion, I looked around the room again. She was not there! I dreaded seeing her, but I was desperate to see her. No! Stop thinking about her!

“Your presentation was well received,” Max said to me, after the session ended with a small burst of polite applause.

“I was looking for someone in the audience,” I blurted out without thinking.

“All of our distinguished guests were in attendance,” Max said. “Who were you looking for?”

“A young Bulgarian woman named Desi. A student from Sofia. She is an observer, not someone registered for the conference.”

Not recognizing the name, Max shook his head and walked away.

I disconnected the HDMI cable and put my laptop in its bag, my mind on the previous night’s tryst with Desi. Had I offended her? Had I been cruel to her when she visited my room? Did sex chase her away? The note on the dresser suggested otherwise.

“Thank you for a wonderful time! I will see you at your presentation.”

Why was it all a blank for me?

As I shouldered my laptop bag, I remembered I had left my watch in the room. I would go up later to retrieve it. I glanced at my phone and was relieved to see that mobile service had been restored.

***

“How did it go?” Avital asked me.

“It went well, I think.”

“How could it not go well? You give good lectures; your presentations are great.”

“Thanks.”

“Are you enjoying yourself? Are you glad you went?”

“Yes,” I replied without thinking. I should tell her now, while I had the chance. She should know about my infidelity right away, before it became a burning wound that would not heal. Before I returned to Israel.

“You know what Nili said today?” Avital said, referring to our rambunctious younger daughter. “She said that when she grows up, she wants to write books just like you.”

“She said that?”

“Yes, but in her own five-year-old words. She said she wants to color books like you. She even held up her crayons when she said that! Isn’t that sweet?”

I laughed nervously, realizing the moment for my confession had passed. I couldn’t say what I needed to say. This would have to wait until my return to Israel.

“How is Lia?” I asked.

“She’s fine,” Avital said before launching into a five-minute description of our daughter’s homework assignment. And then, when I had lost track of what Lia was required to prepare for school, my wife asked me, “Well, did it work?”

“What do you mean?”

“The trip. Did it cure your writer’s block?”

“Can we talk about that later? When I get home?”

“Sure. Enjoy the rest of the program and I’ll see you in two days. I love you!”

“I love you, too.”

***

Frederik, the German author, presented the next session. ‘The Role of Genre in a Short Story’. I had read two of Frederik’s self-serving novels many years ago. Full of crap, but I would never say that to anyone. The critics, though, loved his writing, saw hidden meaning in his narrative. I only saw bullshit.

“There are those who say Genre is an essential element of fiction, but I disagree,” Frederik told the audience. “I say Genre is a summation of the other elements of fiction. I say storytelling is a mathematical equation. You take the plot, the characters, the story, and the setting—and by adding them together you determine the genre. For example, ...”

I couldn’t concentrate on his talk, nor on the question-and-answer discussion that followed. I kept looking around the room, expecting to see Desi, but she wasn’t there. Had she left Sozopol? Had she gone back to Sofia? I realized how little I knew about her. She said she was a student, that she studied creative writing with a well-known professor I had never heard of. I kept dwelling on her gratuitous praise of my writing. And on what had purportedly happened between us in the night. How could I have allowed myself to become ensnared by her flattery and good looks?

“David, what do you think?”

“What?” The others were looking at me, waiting for me to respond.

“Do you think authors can write across genre?” Colin asked in his thick Irish accent, his tone of voice an attempt to demonstrate his superiority. “Is a historical author capable of writing science fiction? Might a romance author write comedy?”

“Hmm, I have to think about that,” I said, shifting uncomfortably.

Colin smirked, as if expecting I would stumble with my response. He then posed the same question to Mrs. Wilson.

“Well, as a romance author, I see romance everywhere. Even in science fiction,” she said, and the others laughed.

“I, for one, could never write anything the least bit romantic,” Frederik stated from behind the podium, before calling for the next question.

It was getting very stuffy in the hall, I thought, and I was beginning to perspire. I stood up and nodded at Kiril and Viktor as I eased my way to the end of the row. I paid no attention to the snobbish Colin or to the note-taking young writers intent on procuring morsels of wisdom from the seminar speakers, and hurried out of the conference hall. I would miss the sessions on Plot and Conflict, I knew, but I needed fresh air. I left the hotel and walked toward the Old Town. When I accompanied Kiril and Viktor to the fish restaurant, I hadn’t paid attention to the surroundings. Now on my own, I felt entranced by the narrow cobble-stoned lanes; the two-story wooden houses built in what Kiril had described as the traditional Bulgarian-style architecture; and the tricolor Bulgarian flags hanging from the balconies.

Turning a corner, I came to the Old Town’s wharf. The sea breeze was salty, but cool and refreshing. Fishing boats of all shapes and sizes bounced in the water; several seemed barely seaworthy. Names were painted on their sides, undecipherable in their Cyrillic letters. Three fishermen sat in an open shack, smoking and chugging beers. Nearby, a single tired-looking man rested on a low stool, threading his fishing net. Gulls filled the air, squawking as they flew overhead. Everything was so colorful, so authentic.

I came across a souvenir shop with trinkets swaying from the building’s beams. I looked inside to see what was on sale. What could I get Avital and the girls? There were magnets, religious icons, and ceramic dishes, similar to those served to our table at dinner. I pulled a small box of rose perfume from the shelf. With a mixture of mime and gesture, I was able to negotiate the price with the shopkeeper. I fished in my pocket for a few Bulgarian coins and handed them over. She picked out the ones she wanted and closed my hand around the rest. When I left, she flashed a toothless smile.

I continued along the wharf, following the winding road around the town. I arrived at the entrance of the fish restaurant where we had dined the previous night. At this early hour the door was locked; two other restaurants were shuttered further down the road. I looked in the window of an establishment advertising itself as a bed-and-breakfast, wondering if Avital would enjoy visiting Sozopol.

When the road circled round again, I noticed a small crowd gathered on the wharf, near one of the fishing skiffs. The flashing blue lights of a police car caught my attention. An area of the pavement had been cordoned off. I approached cautiously, curious to see what was happening. A police officer held back the passersby attracted to whatever was going on.

The loud Bulgarian conversation didn’t give me a clue, but I assumed it was an accident of some type. Should I ask someone? Did any of them speak English? As a foreigner, I should stay away from trouble and not get involved in anything that didn’t concern me. I turned around and went back the way I had come.

***

I returned to the hotel just as lunch was being served and joined the others in the dining room. The meal was served—grilled meat and fresh salads—and with my hangover gone, I could enjoy the food. But when bottles of ice-cold Bulgarian beer were passed around the table, I held back. No more alcohol for me!

Kiril and Viktor filled me in on the sessions I had missed. They tried to engage me in conversation, but other than a brief mention of my walk in the Old Town, I remained quiet. As we were now on an afternoon break, I told them I was tired and excused myself.

I unlocked the door to find my room still a mess. Bedsheets in disarray as I had left them and my clothes scattered on the floor as before. Stains of toothpaste marked the bathroom sink, and a spot of shaving lotion smudged the mirror. No Housekeeping? I was not staying at a luxury hotel, I knew, but I was shocked at the lack of basic services.

I should call Avital again, I thought, but I realized she would be busy at this hour picking up Nili from nursery school and getting lunch for Lia. I would call her later, after a brief nap. Or in the evening. I straightened out the bedsheets as best as I could, lay back, and fell asleep.

When I came down to the lobby in the late afternoon, there was some commotion near the front desk. Two men dressed in black were speaking loudly with the clerk. I stood for a moment, trying to understand their conversation before realizing with a jolt that they were speaking Bulgarian. As I moved away, Viktor touched me on the shoulder.

“How are you?” he asked. “You were very quiet at lunch.”

“I’m okay,” I replied. “What’s that all about?”

“It’s the police. Apparently, there was an incident in the Old Town.”

“What sort of incident?”

“It’s not yet for public knowledge, but I heard they found a body.”

“A body?”

“Yes, a young woman. They are saying she was murdered.”

“It feels as if we are witnessing a murder mystery,” Kiril said as he joined us. “A plot is unfolding around us in real time and we, as authors, should be taking notes. This could be your next novel, David! What do you think?”

My knees felt weak. Was it Desi? Perhaps she had left my room with every intention of attending the workshop, but had been murdered instead!

“By the way, there is something I have been meaning to ask you,” Viktor said, changing the subject. He pulled me into the lounge, toward a coffee table. “When are you most creative? Are you a morning writer, or a night writer?”

Distracted by what I had just heard, I offered a lame response that encouraged Viktor to detail his daily routine.

“I am an early morning writer myself,” he said, inviting me to sit down next to him. “I set my alarm clock for five o’clock, go for a 5-kilometer run, and then come back home to write. I get a lot of writing done before I even eat breakfast.”

“The woman who was murdered,” I interrupted. “In the Old Town. Did the police say who she was?”

“They’re still investigating the incident,” he whispered. “But I overheard their conversation with the front desk clerk. They mentioned a name. They must have found her identification at the scene. I shouldn’t be saying this, but the police asked the clerk if there was a guest named Marina Petrova staying at the hotel.”

“Marina Petrova?”

“You seem surprised. Do you know her?”

“No, of course not,” I replied, relief sweeping through me. It was not Desi, after all! What had I been thinking? Why had I jumped to the conclusion that she had been murdered? Desi had left the seminar abruptly, but she was still very much alive!

“I should call my wife,” I told Viktor as I got up to leave.

“I must call home as well,” he said. “This conference is going by so quickly. Look at the time!”

Instinctively I looked at my wrist, expecting to see my wristwatch. I excused myself and returned to my room to conduct a serious search for the Rolex.

I checked the bathroom shelves and the sink counter. I looked into the shower stall and behind the toilet. I came back into the bedroom and ran my hands through the various pockets of my suitcase. I shook the bedsheets and lifted my clothes from the floor. Had my watch fallen under the bed? I got down on my knees, but what I found on the carpet was not my Rolex. It was a small maroon-colored booklet with Republic of Bulgaria stamped at the top. A passport.

I got to my feet and turned the passport over several times without opening it. It must be Desi’s, but why had she brought a passport with her to Sozopol? Was she planning on traveling overseas? Did she realize it was missing now? I wondered if Bulgarians were required to carry their passports with them everywhere they went.

Out of curiosity, I opened the passport. The first page showed her mugshot. Desi! Her name was printed in both Cyrillic letters and English, but it was not the one I expected to see.

Marina Petrova.

I was filled with a sense of growing terror. That was the name of the woman who had been murdered, the one whose body had been discovered on the wharf in the Old Town!

What should I do? Approach the Bulgarian police and tell them—tell them what? That I had sex with a woman who introduced herself as Desi? The passport proved that Desi and Marina were the same person, and that person was dead! It would be best to talk to the police right away, I knew, but could I disclose my infidelity to them? Anything I said would tie me to Desi, to her last hours prior to her murder. I would become a suspect! I was a foreigner in Bulgaria and it was best to avoid trouble.

Stay calm, I told myself, taking a deep breath. I had done nothing wrong, so there was nothing to worry about. And I didn’t know anything. It was probably best not to speak with the police at all.

I took a long shower, standing under the water until it went cold. I toweled myself off and prepared for dinner.

***

The last day of the seminar came as a tremendous relief. I packed my suitcase and brought it to the luggage room for storage. At the end of the program, in a few hours, I would board a bus for the short journey to the Burgas airport and my departure from Bulgaria. By dinner time I would be back in Tel Aviv. I would be home, with Avital and the girls, and faced with what I needed to say to my wife.

Instead of freeing myself from my writer’s block, I had fallen into a trap, I would tell her. Instead of gaining inspiration from discussions of plot, characters, and dialogue, I had succumbed to the temptation of having drinks with a stunning Bulgarian woman and unwittingly allowed the illicit liaison that followed. Instead of regaining the creative momentum needed to finish writing my novel, I had been unfaithful. As a result of the encounter with Desi, my participation in the seminar had been a total failure.

All of this I would say to Avital as soon as I got home. I was not looking forward to it.

I took my seat in the conference hall between Viktor and Kiril. Max introduced the topic and the arrogant Irish author stepped up to the podium.

“Dialogue is an essential element of fiction,” Colin told the audience. “Why is dialogue so important? There are four reasons. First, it provides insight into the nature of the characters speaking. You might describe their feelings and thoughts in paragraph after paragraph of wordy commentary, but instead, you can do this very effectively through dialogue. The words characters say reveal their emotions, tell us much about their personalities and inner thoughts.”

“You have a workshop and I will be there, listening to you.”

“And then there is the role dialogue plays in advancing the plot. We discussed Plot yesterday and its role in short fiction, but it isn’t necessary for a writer to relate the action step by step. The characters’ dialogue can reveal the story’s direction, providing momentum and suspense. Dialogue gives us information, lets us know what is happening and possibly what is going to happen. Dialogue propels the action.”

“You are such an excellent writer and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“Dialogue can also bring a story’s setting to life. The words the characters use, their jargon and their slang. All of this can convey the reader to the location where the story takes place. Conflict? That too can be expressed in the discussion, or rather the arguments, between the characters. Resolution? Yes, the story can reach its inevitable conclusion entirely through the words spoken. I contend that of all the elements of storytelling, dialogue is the most important.”

Two serious-looking men came into the hall and approached the table at the front. One of them spoke quietly to Max, their heads bowed for several moments. Max looked up and scanned the room. His eyes narrowed when they landed on me.

The room fell silent when Max rose from his seat and walked into the audience. He came to my row and whispered in my ear.

“These men would like to talk to you.”

“Me?”

“Yes. Can you come outside now?”

“It must be about my flight back to Israel,” I said to Kiril. “I will be right back.”

“Please excuse us,” Max said, addressing the audience. “Let’s take a break and we’ll recommence shortly for the concluding session of our seminar. Resolution—how a story ends.”

I followed Max out of the hall and into a small room off the lobby where the two men were waiting. The older one addressed me in rapid Bulgarian and pointed at a deep cushioned chair. I sat down, but he remained standing. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes, lit one, offered one to his partner, and then put his lighter away. He took a strong puff and stared at me for several seconds.

“I’ll stay and translate,” Max volunteered.

“What’s this all about?” I asked. “Should I ask for a lawyer?” I was attempting to joke, but I got the impression this would be a very serious interview.

Max spoke at length with the first man and then turned to face me. “These men are from the Regional Police,” he explained. “They wish to question you about some events that occurred recently in Sozopol.”

“What events?” I asked, but I already suspected which direction this discussion was heading.

“They are asking where you were the night before last.”

“I was here, at the hotel.”

“Did you go to the Old Town?” Max asked on the police officer’s behalf.

“Yes. I went with Kiril and Viktor. We ate at a fish restaurant—sorry, but I don’t know its name. Listen, I would be more comfortable if you would sit down,” I said, addressing the standing detective. He listened to Max’s translation of my request and then dropped to the chair across from me. He asked his next question.

“After dinner, where did you go?”

“I came back to the hotel, went up to my room, and went to sleep.”

“Were you alone?”

“When I went to sleep? Yes.” Well, that was partially true, I thought. After all, I had woken up alone.

“Do you know a woman by the name of Marina Petrova?”

“No.” An honest answer, I believed.

“Did you go to the hotel bar before going to your room?”

I paused, wondering if this was a trick question. Did the police know something they weren’t telling me?

The detective stubbed out his cigarette and lit another. He offered his pack to his partner, standing nearby, but the other officer shook his head. The detective turned back to face me and Max translated his words. “We have spoken to the bartender. He says you came for drinks with a dark-haired woman.”

It wasn’t a question, but I felt compelled to answer. “I wasn’t alone,” I admitted. “I was with a woman named Desi.”

“Desi?”

“Yes.”

“Did this Desi woman stay the night with you?”

“No,” I said, my voice trembling.

“We have testimony from the front desk clerk saying that a dark-haired woman was seen leaving the hotel early in the morning.”

I was about to object when the detective presented me with a small evidence bag. There was something shiny inside and my eyes widened.

“Do you recognize this?”

“Yes.”

“It’s a fancy Rolex. Is it yours?”

“Yes.”

“How did this watch happen to be in the possession of a woman named Marina Petrova?”

“I don’t know. Maybe she pickpocketed me? Maybe she took it from my room?”

“From your room. I see.” The detective frowned and handed the evidence bag to his partner. Again, he reached into his pocket. He pulled out another bag and inside was a small orange notepad. I was confused until the detective opened the pad.

“This appears to be your name. Your signature. Is it an autograph, by chance? After all, you are a famous Israeli author visiting our country.”

I didn’t reply. I felt the blood drain from my face, as if I was going to faint. I was beginning to doubt myself, uncertain as to what exactly had transpired following my encounter with Desi in the bar. If I couldn’t recall her accompanying me to my room, maybe there were other things I couldn’t remember. Had the excessive alcohol clouded my memory so much that I’d had an amnesiac episode? Had there been an altercation with Desi that I couldn’t recall? Had I done something wrong? Something very, very wrong?

No! The note she left for me on the dresser proved I was innocent. Still, I had a growing sensation that I was being framed for a horrific crime. This whole situation was becoming more Kafkaesque by the moment.

The detective handed the notepad to his partner. I looked at Max, but the conference organizer avoided my eyes. Following a prolonged, uncomfortable silence, I turned to the detective and asked him, “Am I free to go?”

“We’re finished here, but we need your passport.”

“My passport? I have a flight to Israel this afternoon!”

“You won’t be going on any flights.”

“I want to speak to the Israeli consul!” I should have insisted on this at the beginning of the interrogation.

The detective didn’t reply, and Max shrugged his shoulders.

I extracted the passport from my pocket and handed it over. My head started spinning when I realized the passport was maroon-colored, with Cyrillic print on its cover.

The detective flipped through the passport and then held it up so that I could see the mugshot inside. Marina Petrova. He muttered something in Bulgarian which Max didn’t translate and then stood up to leave.

“They say you must go with them,” Max said to me.

“I didn’t do anything! Are the handcuffs necessary?”

My hands cuffed, I followed the detectives across the lobby. As we passed the open door of the conference hall, I could hear Frederik presenting the final talk of the seminar.

“A story’s resolution is its end. It is the point where the major problems raised in the plot are resolved. When all action comes to a conclusion,” Frederik told the audience. “All stories need a resolution, but sometimes that resolution is inconclusive. In the narrative’s denouement we usually see that strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved, but this is not always so. In a story’s conclusion, not all crimes are solved. Sometimes a story may leave lingering questions in the reader’s mind, as they ask themselves, ‘What will happen next?’ This lends itself to the authenticity of the story, as not everything in life has a happy ending.”

Frederik’s voice faded to a whisper when he noticed me walk by. Inside the hall, Victor and Kiril—my Bulgarian friends—rose from their seats, shocked at what they were witnessing. Mrs. Wilson’s eyes widened as she took in a plot twist she wasn’t expecting. At the far end of the first row Colin—the conceited, self-important Irish author—leered at me as if taking credit for my predicament. I had let my fellow authors and writers down. I had let Avital and the girls down and I would soon have to explain everything to them, even though I did not fully understand the circumstances leading to my arrest. My literary career was vanishing into thin air, and there was nothing that could save me.

The detectives led me out of the hotel while Max remained at the entrance doors, shaking his head sadly.

***

“So, what do you think?”

The professor puts down the last of the typewritten pages, adjusts his glasses, and takes a long a sip of water. He picks up his pipe and sits back in his leather chair, staring at her for several moments before replying.

“Well, I will tell you what I think. On the surface, this story has been told before. A man goes to sleep with a beautiful woman, wakes up to find her gone, and is later arrested for her murder. Retelling this plot is not that creative.

“As for the story itself, there are things that bother me. There were unanswered questions, holes in the plot, inconsistencies. For example, did the hotel, which caters to international tourism, have Housekeeping or not? Why did the mysterious woman character have two names? Was she really a fan of the author’s books, or did she form a connection with him solely for nefarious purposes? Why did she steal his Rolex? And, of course, the biggest unanswered questions of all—why was she murdered and who committed the crime? Many loose ends, many loose ends.”

Hearing his review of what she had written, her shoulders sag and her spirits sink, but then he continues.

“That said, your submission meets the assignment’s requirements, which were to compose a short work of fiction encompassing the essential elements of a story. You chose Sozopol as your colorful setting, basing your fictional international seminar on the Sozopol Fiction Seminar, an annual literary event. Quite clever. You addressed the elements of theme and conflict well. There is an unexplained disappearance and an unsolved murder. The plot moved ahead at a steady pace; and the dialogue—which I assume was conducted in English, although your story was written in Bulgarian—is very realistic, without superfluous flourishes.

“As for the characters in your story—first, let me address your protagonist. You portrayed a troubled Israeli author struggling to deal with his infidelity and the disappearance of the woman he slept with. In your words and your descriptions, you made this man come alive. I wonder where you got the inspiration for him?”

She is about to reply, but he gestures for her to be patient.

“The female character in the story. Desi or Marina, or whatever her real name was. Is this character based on you? Have you placed yourself in Sozopol at this writing seminar?”

“This is what I learned in your class, Professor Zharkov. That I should consider my life, and everything I experience, as a story. You taught me to put myself in my writing. That was my intention, anyway.”

“You certainly let your imagination run free,” the professor notes. “You created for yourself a mysterious alter ego bound for its inevitable tragic ending. You’ve become an actor in your own play. Yes, definitely so. And one final question. Resolution? Does your story have a proper ending?”

“It does,” she states emphatically, wondering if her professor is testing her. “We see the Israeli author being led away by the police. It’s not a happy ending, I admit, and it leaves a lot open to the imagination. What will happen to him? What will his wife say? Will he be convicted of the murder? There are many questions and I purposely didn’t answer them.”

“I see that,” the professor says. He relights his pipe, and then delivers his verdict. “You’ve done very well,” he concludes.

She stands up and thanks him, pleased with his assessment of her assignment. She is confident her writing will improve with practice. Less plot holes, fewer inconsistencies. She leaves the stuffy Sofia university office, walks down the long, dark corridors where she has studied for the past three years, and smiles to herself. ‘Put yourself in your writing,’ she thinks, knowing this motto will serve her well as she develops her literary skills. She has always fantasized about being the persona of mystery and intrigue her professor has seen in her writing. She has pictured herself seducing dark-haired strangers into wild affairs. A regular femme fatale. What character should she play in her next story?

She looks at the time and sees she is running late. Her boyfriend will be flying in from Tel Aviv within an hour and she wants to surprise him with a home-cooked dinner of baked sea bass and a spread of the Bulgarian salads he loves so much. And there is the bottle of rakiya she has saved since her last visit to her parents’ village. She knows her boyfriend can only handle a sip or two of the strong drink. Who knows what will happen after that?

About the Author

Ellis Shuman

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Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The Oslo Times, and The Huffington Post. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, and The Burgas Affair. Ellis lives with his wife, children, and grandchildren on Moshav Neve Ilan, outside Jerusalem.