Slatland

For every situation there is a proper distance. Sometimes you need to rise above the earth to gain perspective

I WENT TO PROFESSOR PINK FOR HELP TWICE IN MY life, once as a child and once as an adult. The first time, I was eleven and had fallen into an inexplicable depression. This happened in the spring of 1967, seemingly overnight, and for no reason. Any happiness in me just flew away, like birds up and out of a tree.

Until then I had been a normal, healthy child. My parents had never damaged me in any way. They had given me a dusty, simple childhood on the flatlands of Saskatchewan. I had two best friends—large, unselfish girls who were already gearing up for adolescence, sometimes laughing until they collapsed.

I had a dog named Chest, who late at night brought me half-alive things in his teeth—bats with human faces, fluttering birds, speckled, choking mice.

My parents couldn’t help noticing my sadness. They looked at me as if they were afraid of me. Sometimes at the dinner table the silence would be so deep that I felt compelled to reassure them. But when I tried to say that I was all right, my voice would crack and I would feel my face distorting, caving in. I would close my eyes then, and cry.

One night my parents came into my bedroom and sat down on my bed. “Honey,” my father said, “your mother and I have been thinking about you a lot lately. We were thinking that maybe you would consider talking to somebody—you know, a therapist—about what is the matter.” My father was an earnest, cheerful man, a geologist with a brush cut and a big heart. I couldn’t imagine that a therapist would solve my problems, but my father looked hopeful, his large hand tracing a ruffle around my bedspread.

Three days later we were standing outside an office on the fourth floor of the Humanities Building. My appointment was not with a true therapist but rather with a professor of child psychology at the university where my father taught.

We knocked, and a voice called from behind the door in a bit of a singsong, “Come in you, come in you.” Of course he was expecting us, but this still seemed odd, as if he knew us very well or as if my father and I were both little children—or elves. The man sitting behind the desk when we entered was wearing a denim shirt, his blond hair slicked back like a rodent’s. He looked surprised—a look that turned out to be permanent. He didn’t stand up, just waved at us. From a cage in the corner three birds squawked. My father approached the desk and stuck out his hand. “Peter Bergen,” my father said.

“Professor Roland Boland Pine,” the man said, and then looked at me. “Hello, girlie.”

Despite this, my father left me alone with him. Perhaps he just thought, as I did, that Professor Pine talked like this, in occasional baby words, because he wanted children to respond as if to other children. I sat in a black leather chair. The professor and I just stared at each other for a while. I didn’t know what to say, and he wasn’t speaking either. It was easy to stare at him. As if I were staring at an animal, I felt no embarrassment.

“Well,” he said at last, “your name is Margit?”

I nodded.

“How are you today, Margit?”

“I’m okay.”

“Do you feel okay?”

“Yes. I feel okay.”

“Do you go to school, Margit?”

“Yes.”

“Do you like your teacher?”

“Not really.”

“Do you hate him?”

“It’s a her.”

“Do you hate her?”

“No.”

“Why are you here, Margit?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is everything at home okay?”

“Yes.”

“Do you love your father?”

“Yes.”

“Do you love your mother?” A long tic broke on his face, from the outer corner of his left eye all the way down to his neck.

“Yes.”

“Is she a lumpy mother?”

“Pardon me?”

“Pardon me, Margit. I meant does your mother love you?”

“Yes.”

“Does she love your father?”

I paused. “Yes.”

“And does he love her?”

“I guess so.”

“Margit, what is the matter?”

“Nothing. I just don’t see why we’re talking about my parents so much.”

“Why don’t they love each other?”

“They do—I said they do.”

“Why can’t you talk about this?”

“Because there’s nothing to talk about.”

“You can tell me the truth. Do they hurt each other? Lots of girls’ parents hurt each other.”

“No, they don’t.”

“Is one of them having an affair, maybe?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Maybe?” he repeated.

“Maybe,” I said.

“Which one, Margit?

Which one of the baby faces?”

I stared at him. Another tic passed over his face. “Pardon me, Margit. I meant which one of your parents is having the affair?”

“My dad. But I don’t think he’s actually having it. I just heard him tell my mom a few months ago that he was considering it.”

“And do you think he is?”

“I don’t know. A few weeks ago I picked up the phone and a woman was talking to my dad. She told him that she had to have her breasts removed and asked if that would make a difference.”

“How difficult for you. How sad for the girlie-whirl.” Another tic, like a fault line shifting. “Margit, may I tell you something from my own childhood?”

This worried me, but I said yes.

“When I was young, I loved my mother. She was a real lumper. Then one day, kerpow, she was dead.” He held his forefinger to his head as if it were the barrel of a gun and stared at me for a few seconds without speaking. “It wasn’t actually her, you see, but a woman of about her age who happened to be walking toward me on the sidewalk. A man came running and shot her. I was so devastated that I fell right on top of her. I didn’t care if he shot me, too. I was only ten at the time, and my mother’s death could have scarred me for life. But it didn’t. And do you know how I got from that moment to this one—how I got from there to here, to sitting behind this desk now, talking to you?”

I shook my head. “How?”

“I rose above the situation. Literally I did. I felt my mind lift slightly out of my body, and I stared down at myself leaning over the bleeding woman. I said to myself, very calmly, there is little Roland from New Orleans, the little erky-terk, realizing that someday his mother will die.”

He was looking at me so intently, and his birds were flapping in their cage with such fervor, that I felt I had to say something. “Wow,” I said.

“I suggest you try it, Margit. For every situation there is a proper distance. Growing up is just a matter of gaining perspective. Sometimes you just need to jump up for a moment, a foot above the earth. And sometimes you need to jump very far. It is as if there are thin slats, footholds, from here to the sun, Margit, for the baby faces to step on. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Slatland, flatland, mapland.”

“Pardon me?”

“Pardon me, Margit. I know so many languages that sometimes I say words out of place.”

At the end of the session I asked him when I should return. He told me that another visit wouldn’t be necessary, that usually his therapy worked the first time.

I didn’t in fact understand what he had said to me, but his theory seemed to help anyway, as if it were a medication that worked whether you understood it or not. That very evening I was having dinner with my parents. It started as the usual dinner—me staring at my plate, my parents staring at me as if I were about to break in two. But about halfway through the meal I started feeling light-headed. Nothing frightening happened, but I did manage to lift slightly out of myself. I looked down at our tiny family. I saw my father from above, the deep map of his face. I understood in an instant that of course he was having an affair, and that he was torn between my mother and this other, distant woman. I saw my beautiful mother from above, and I could see how she must hate this other woman, yet sympathize as well, because this other woman was very ill. I understood how complicated it was to be an adult, and how haunting, and how lovely. I longed to be back in my body then, to be breathing and eating, straining toward maturity. And when I returned, one split second later, I hugged my parents, one after the other, with a spontaneity that a depressed person could never muster.

N THE TWENTY YEARS THAT PASSED BETWEEN MY first visit to Professor Pine and my second, from 1967 to 1987, I remained in the same city. I graduated from Massey and then from LeBoldus High and then from the University of Saskatchewan, with a degree in biology. As an adult, I worked as a soil consultant, traveling around the province to small satellite towns in a flathed truck that I could sleep in, if necessary, on warm nights.

Bouts of the depression did return, but they never overwhelmed me. Perhaps my life was not the most rigorous testing ground for Professor Pine’s technique, because my life was relatively free of tragedy. Most of my depression erupted out of nowhere. I’d be in the fields in the midst of a bright day, and a dreariness would mysteriously descend. I’d sink into it for a few minutes, but the lift would always come. I would take a step up, or two or three, and recognize how good life in fact was. From above, my job appeared to me excellent and strange. There I was, under a blazing sun, kneeling in a yellow expanse, weighing samples of earth. And later, with instruments as tiny and beautiful as jewelry, testing the dirt for traces of nitrogen and phosphorus, the gleam of potash.

NE NIGHT, IN THE MIDDLE OF THE YEAR 1985, I made the mistake of describing this technique to my fiancé, Rezvan Balescu, the Romanian liar. We had known each other for only two months at this point, but we were already engaged. We were standing on a small balcony outside our apartment. He was smoking, wearing pajamas under a down-filled jacket, and he was in the midst of one of his tirades on North America, which he loved and hated. “This place is so strange to me, so childish. You have so many problems that are not real, and you are so careful and serious about them. People discuss their feelings as if they were great works of art or literature that need to be analyzed and examined and passed on and on. In my country people love or they hate. They know that a human being is mysterious, and they live with that. The problems they have are real problems. If you do not eat, that’s a problem. If you have no leg, that’s a problem. If you are unhappy, that is not a problem to talk about.”

“I think it is,” I said.

“Exactly. That is because you are an American. For you, big things are small, and small things are big.” Rezvan was always making these large declarations on America in a loud voice from our balcony.

“I bet you one million in money,” Rezvan said as he blew out smoke, “that the number of hours Americans spend per week in these—what do you call them?—therapy offices is exactly the same number of hours Romanians spend in line for bread. And for what? Nothing. To make their problems bigger. T hey talk about them all day so at night they are even bigger.”

“I don’t agree. The reason why people talk about their problems is to get over them, get rid of them. I went to a therapist once and he was very helpful.”

“You?” He lifted an eyebrow, took a drag.

“Yes, when I was eleven.”

“Eleven? What could be the problem at eleven?”

“I was just sad. My parents were getting divorced, and I guess I could tell that my dad was about to leave.”

“But isn’t that the correct emotion—sadness when a father leaves? Can a therapist do anything to bring your father home?”

“No, but he gave me a way to deal with it.”

“And what is that way? I would like to know.”

“Well, just a way to separate from the situation.”

“How do you separate from your own life?”

“Well, you rise above it. You gain some objectivity and perspective.”

“But is this proper? If you have a real problem, should you rise above it? When a father leaves a child, the child feels sad. This seems right to me. This rising above, that is the problem. In fact, that is the problem of America. I cannot tell my family back home that if they are hungry or cold, they should just rise above it. I cannot say, ‘Don’t worry, go to the movies, go shop, here is ten dollars in money, go buy some candy. Rise above your situation.'”

“That’s not what I mean. I mean you literally rise above it. Your mind hovers over your body, and you understand the situation from a higher perspective.” I knew that if he pushed me far enough, this would end up sounding insane.

“So this is what your man, your eleven-year-old therapist, teaches you: to separate your mind from your body, to become unhinged. This does not teach you to solve the problem; this teaches you to be a crazy person.”

But already I was drifting up until I was watching us from the level of the roof. There she is, I thought, Margit Bergen, twenty-nine years old, in love with Rezvan of Romania, a defector who escaped political hardship to arrive first in a refugee camp in Austria and a year later in Regina, Saskatchewan, where he now stands on a balcony in the moonlight, hassling her about America, as if she contained all of it inside her.

I HAD MET REZVAN IN MY FATHER’S LAB AT THE UNIversity. Rezvan was a geologist, like my father. Technically, for grant reasons, he was a graduate student, but my father considered him a peer, because Rezvan had already worked for years as a geologist for the Romanian government.

Originally he had been a supporter of Ceausescu. In fact, his father, Andrei, had been a friend of Ceausescu’s right up until the time Andrei died, in 1985. Rezvan, by his own account, stood by his father’s deathbed as he died and held his father’s hand, but both father and son refused to speak, because Rezvan had by then ceased to be loyal to Ceausescu.

In the two years that Rezvan and I lived together, I would often rise from sleep to find him hunched over his desk, the arm of his lamp reaching over him. He wrote long letters into the night, some in English and some in Romanian. The English ones, he said, were to various government officials, asking for help in getting his family over to Canada. The ones in Romanian were to his family, an assortment of aunts and uncles and cousins. He wrote quickly, as in a fever, and if I crept up on him and touched his back, he would jump and turn over his letters immediately before looking up at me in astonishment. At the time, I thought this was simply an old habit of fear, left over from living for so long in a police state.

Sometimes he said he could not forgive his country for keeping his family captive. He told what he called jokes — dark, labyrinthine stories that always ended with some cartoonish, undignified death for Ceausescu: his head in a toilet, his body flattened by a steamroller. Other times he spoke about his country with such longing—the wet mist of Transylvania, the dark tunnels beneath the streets of his town, the bookstores lined with propaganda that opened into small, dusty rooms in back filled with real books.

In this same way Rezvan loved and hated America. He would rant about it from the balcony, but then we would return to our bed and sit side by side, our backs to the wall, and watch the local and then the national news, where almost every night somebody would criticize the Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney. Rezvan could never get over this: men appearing on television to insult their leader night after night, and never getting pulled off the air. Sometimes we would turn to the news from the United States, which we received through a cable channel from Detroit. This was a real treat for Rezvan during the period of Reaganbashing. “I love that man,” he said to me one night.

“Reagan? You don’t like Reagan.”

“I know, but look at him now.” They were showing a clip of Reagan waving. His face did look kind. His eyes were veering off, looking skyward. He looked like somebody’s benevolent, faintly crazy grandfather.

“All day long people insult him and he doesn’t kill any of them.”

Rezvan sometimes skipped work and came with me to the fields. He’d ride in the back of the truck, standing up, so that his head was above the cab, the wind pouring over him. He wanted to know all the details of my job. He became better than I was at some things. He could spot poor field drainage from far away. He loved to point out the signs of it—the mint, the rushes, the wire grass, the willows.

For lunch we stopped in the towns along the way at small, fragrant home-style diners. Almost all of them were run by Ukrainian women. Each one adored Rezvan. He would kiss their hands and speak in his strange accent— part British, part Romanian—and they would serve him free platefuls of food, one after another, hovering over him as if he were a long-lost son from the old country.

One afternoon, while we were driving back to the city from a little town called Yellow Grass, I fell asleep at the wheel. I woke up after the crash to see Rezvan crumpled against the passenger door. I felt myself rising then, far above the car, far above even the treeline. From there I watched myself crawl out of the wreck and drag Rezvan out onto the grassy shoulder. And then, instead of watching my own body run down the long charcoal highway, I stayed above Rezvan. I watched the trees bow in the wind toward his body, listening for his heartheat.

Later that night, when I entered his hospital room for the first time, I expected him to refuse to speak to me. Rezvan smiled, though. “In my country,” he said, “you could work for Ceausescu. He has been trying to do this to me for years.” I started apologizing then, over and over. Rezvan just motioned me toward the bed, and then put his arms around me. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he said. “Don’t cry. This is America. This is what is supposed to happen. I will sue you, and your insurance will give us money, and we will go on a trip. To California, a vacation. I am so happy.”

I wiped my eyes and looked at him. His head was cocked to the side. A thin white bandage was wrapped around his forehead, and blood was still matted in the black curls of his hair. One side of his face was torn apart. His leg was suspended in a sling. Still, he looked at me incredulously, wondering how I could be crying when this was such a stroke of luck.

For the next few months he had a cane, which he loved. He liked to point at things with it. The scars settled into faint but permanent tracks down the left side of his face. He liked that, too. We saw the movie Scarface over and over again. When he discarded the cane, he still walked with a slight limp, which gave his gait an easy rocking motion that seemed strangely to suit him. He never once blamed me; I don’t think it ever crossed his mind.

REZVAN AND I STAYED ENGAGED FOR TWO YEARS. He seemed to think of engagement as an alternative to marriage rather than as a lead-up to it. I didn’t mind, actually. I just wanted to be with him. Life with Rezvan had a sort of gloss to it always. He passed quickly from emotion to emotion, from sadness to gratitude to arrogance, but he never fell into depression, ever.

Perhaps because I was so happy with Rezvan, I did not notice what may have been obvious signs. But, oddly enough, the signs indicating that a man is in love with another woman are often similar to the signs of an immigrant in a new country, his heart torn in two. He wrote long letters home; he hesitated to talk about the future; during lonely nights he seemed to be murmuring as he fell asleep, but not to me.

Nearly a year passed before I even noticed anything, or admitted to myself that I noticed anything. Then one day Rezvan received a phone call at four in the morning. I didn’t understand a word of it, since it was in Romanian, but in my half sleep I could hear him mutter the word rila again and again, sometimes insistently. And when he hung up. after about an hour and a half, he just sat there in the living room like a paralyzed man, the light slowly rising across his body. I asked him, “Rezvan, what does rila mean?” He told me that it meant “well-lit,” as in a room.

Two days later, as I walked up our driveway in my housecoat, the mail in my hand, I glanced through the letters and noticed a thick letter from Rilia Balescu. Rila was Rilia, a person, a relative. When I walked in the door, Rezvan was standing in his striped pajamas drinking coffee, smoking, scratching his head. As I handed him the letter, I tried to read his face, but saw nothing. So I said, “Who is Rilia?”

“She is my sister, my baby sister. Gavrilia.”

Does an extra beat pass before one tells a lie? This is what I had always believed, but Rezvan answered immediately. Perhaps he had been waiting for the question.

“I didn’t know you had a sister.

“I don’t like to talk about her. We disowned each other long ago. She follows Ceausescu still; she has pictures of him and his son on her wall as if they were rock stars. I am trying to bring her over, but she is stubborn. She would rather go to the Black Sea and vacation with her boys than come here and live with me.”

“So why have you never told me about her?”

“Because it is not wise to speak aloud the one thing you want more than anything. You know that.”

“No, I don’t know that.”

“It’s true. Romanians have a word for it: ghinion. It means don’t speak aloud what you want most. Otherwise it will not happen. You must have a word for this in English?”

“Jinx.”

“Okay. I did not tell you about my sister because of jinx.

“Why did you tell me her name meant ‘welllit’?”

“Pardon?”

“The other day I asked you, and you said that ‘Rila’ was the word for ‘well-lit.’

“No, no. Rif a is the word for ‘well-lit.’ Rilia is my sister. He smiled and kissed my face. “We will have to work on your accent.”

Over the next month we settled into a routine.

When Rezvan finished writing his letters in the night, he padded down the driveway, set the letters in the mailbox, and lifted the tiny, stiff red flag so that our mailman would stop in the morning. And then, after Rezvan was asleep, I would rise out of bed and go to the mailbox myself, pick out the ones to Rilia, and slip them into the pocket of my housecoat.

I did the same thing with the letters she sent him. I collected those in the morning.

At first it didn’t feel like a strategy. But I was desperate to know if Rilia really was his sister or his wife—as if her handwriting would tell me.

Rezvan left for work an hour before I did, and I opened the letters then.

I sat on our bed, laying the pages in front of me, cross-referencing. Some of her passages were blacked out by censors. I found many names, but mostly two, Gheorghe and Florian, again and again. Gheorghe and Florian, Gheorghe and Florian, Gheorghe and Florian. I began to realize, very slowly, that these were probably their children.

On one of these mornings my mother showed up at my door to drop off a skirt she had sewed for me. “Good,” she said, bustling in, “you’re home. I wanted to drop this off.

Already, as she said this, she was rapidly moving through the rooms of our apartment. My mother liked to do this, to catch me off guard and check all my rooms immediately for anything I might hide if given the time. “What is this?” she said, reaching the bedroom, where all the pages were strewn across the bed.

“Oh, that’s just some stuff I’m reading for Rezvan. Proofreading.”

She picked up a sheet. “Oh, so now you proofread in Romanian?”

I smiled weakly. She didn’t pry, but for once I wished she would. What I wanted to do was tell her that this was my life spread across the bed, thin as paper, written in a language I could not understand, dotted with four names—Rezvan, Gavrilia, Gheorghe, Florian—but never my own. I wanted to ask her how she felt when my father was having an affair. And I wanted to ask what happened to the other woman. My father never married her, even after he and my mother split. Where bad she drifted off to? Did she ever lose her breasts? Did she get well again? Was she happy somewhere now?

I didn’t tell my mother anything, but when she left that day, she gestured toward the bedroom. “You know that you can find people at the university who will translate that for you.”

I nodded, and stared at my feet.

“Maybe you don’t really need them translated? Maybe you already know what they say?” She ducked her face under, so that she could look at my face. “It’ll be okay,” she said, “either way.”

I stockpiled the letters for two months. I didn’t intend to be malicious; I was just sitting on them until I could figure out what to do. Every night as I drove home from the fields, I thought, I will tell Rezvan tonight; 1 will say I know everything and I am leaving. But when dinner came, I could hardly speak. It was as if I were eleven all over again.

Even Rezvan was getting depressed. He said that his letters were turning out to be all in vain. Perhaps, he said, he would quit writing them altogether. One night he said, Nothing gets through those bastards. Perhaps I will never see Rilia again. Then he limped to the sink, rocking back and forth, and filled his glass with water. He turned to me and said, Why would they want to keep us apart, anyway?” His head was tilted to the side, and he looked like a child. He stared at me as if he really expected me to answer.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know about that stuff.

But of course I did. At the other end, across the ocean, men in uniforms were collecting letters and censoring them, blacking out whatever threatened them, and at this end I in my housecoat was doing the same thing.

I tried to rise above the situation, but that strategy didn’t work at all. I was increasingly distressed at what I saw. I’d fly up and look down. There she is. I’d say, Margit Bergen of Saskatchewan. Who would have thought she’d grow up so crooked, crouched on her bed, obstructing love, hoarding it, tearing it apart with her own hands.

Until this point in my life I had always thought of myself as an open-minded person, able to step into another’s shoes. But I could not picture this Rilia. Her face, and the faces of her children, were blank for me. I hoped that this inability, or unwillingness, to imagine another’s face was not hatred, but I was deeply ashamed that it might be.

Finally, one windy night in November, as I cut into a roast, I said, “Rezvan, is Rilia your wife?”

“What do you know of Rilia? Has she called? Has she sent a letter?”

“No, not at all. I was just wondering.”

“Tell me what you know.”

“I don’t know anything. I was just asking.”

“Have you spoken to her on the phone?”

“No, I have not.” I enunciated this very clearly. “Is she your wife, Rezvan?”

“I am not a liar,” he said. “I will marry you to prove this. We will go to British Columbia and get married in the trees. Whenever you want. Tomorrow, if you want.”

THE NEXT MORNING PUT THE LETTTERS IN A BAG and drove straight to the administrative offices at the university. A woman disappeared and reappeared with a list of professors who could translate Romanian for me. I had my choice of four. I glanced down the list and there, at number three, was Professor Roland Pine.

I found him in the same office. He had aged well, his hair now ash instead of blond, a few extra lines across his face. When he stood up to greet me, I saw that I had grown to be about half a foot taller than he was. His tic was still there, flashing across his face every fifteen seconds or so. As I shook his hand, I marveled that it had continued like this since the last time I’d seen him, keeping time as faithfully as a clock.

“My name is Margit Bergen. I came to you once as a child.”

“Hello, Margit. It’s nice to see you again. Was I helpful?”

“Yes, very. I’ve always been grateful.”

“What was the problem in those days?”

“Just childhood depression, I guess. My parents were splitting up.”

He squinted at me, and turned his face slightly to the side. “Oh, yes,” he said. “That’s right. Of course. Little Margit. You were such a girlie-whirl. So sad. What did you become?”

“You mean in my life?”

“In your life. What did you become?”

“A soil consultant.”

“What a good job for you. He gestured toward the black leather chair. His birds fought in their high cages, their wings tearing at each other. “Mortalhcad. You be nice to Eagerheart.” He turned to me. “The kids love funny names, you know. MortalhEad, Eagerheart, Quickeye.”

I smiled and sat down in the chair, pulling a stack of letters from my bag. “Professor Pine . . . ,” i said.

“Call me Roland,” he said. He leaned back. His face cracked in a tic. “Roland Boland. Just think: little Roland and little Margit, the professor and the soil consultant, back again, sitting in a warm office surrounded by bird-people.” He rolled his eyes and grinned, almost girlishly.

I didn’t know what to say. Yes, it’s nice,” I eventually said. “Actually, Roland, I was wondering if you could help me out with a problem I have.”

“I thought I solved all your problems.” He looked disappointed.

“You did. I mean, for twenty years you did.”

“What could be the problem now?”

“I need you to translate these letters for me, from Romanian.”

“Romanian?” He took the stack of letters from me, and began to leaf through them, “Is your name Rezvan?” he said.

“He’s a friend of mine.”

“Then you should not read his letters.” He smiled.

“Professor Pine, I really need you to do this for me.”

“Who is Rilia?”

“I don’t know. Look, you don’t even need to read them to me. Just read them to yourself and tell me if the people writing them are married.”

“Why do you want to know?”

“That doesn’t matter. I just do.”

“Why?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Are you being a dirty-girlie?” He smiled—and then a tic, as forked as lightning.

I sighed and looked over at his birds, who were cawing loudly. One was green with black wings, and it was flapping furiously, staring at the letters fluttering in Professor Pine’s hand.

“Fine, Professor Pine. If you don’t want to read them, I’ll take them to somebody else.” I reached for the letters.

He pulled them back, toward his chest. “Okay, okay, girlie,” he said. “You are so stubborn, Margit.”

He read softly, in a lilting voice, as if he were reading me a bedtime story. “Rilia says, Remember how tiny Florian was at his birth? Now he is forty-five kilos, the same as his brother. Rilia says, Remember the Black Sea, it is as blue as the first time we went to it. Rilia says that Rezvan must be lying when he says there is so much food that sometimes he tosses rotten fruit from the window.”

I interrupted. “Do you think they are married?”

“Well, they are both Balescus.”

“They could be brother and sister?”

He frowned, and leafed through the letters again. “But here she calls him darling. Darling, barling, starling.”

He looked up then. “Oh, no,” he said, “don’t cry. Please don’t cry.” He jumped up, came around the side of the desk, and crouched beside my chair. He looked up at me. His face was close, and the next tic was like slow motion. I saw the path that it followed, curving and winding like a river down his face.

He sat back on the edge of his desk. “It’s going to be okay,” he said. “We just have to figure out what the girlie wants. If you want Rezvan, the liar face, you can have him. Is that what you want?”

“No, I don’t think so. I mean, I do, but I can’t. He has kids and everything.”

“Then it sounds like you’ve made up your mind already.”

“Not really,” I said.

“Margit, you need some perspective.”

“Perspective?”

“You know”—he rolled his eyes upward—“Slatland.”

Slatland—I remembered that that was what he’d called it, the drifting up and looking down.

“I’ve tried Slatland. It didn’t work,” I said.

“Slatland always works. Just close your eyes, all right, girlie?”

I started to stand up. “Thanks for your help, Professor Pine. I really have to go now.” But then I felt it, the lift, and my mind started rising, until the caws of Mortalhead and Eagerheart and Quickeye were far below me. I could see the yellow fields surrounding my town, and then even those went out of focus. I hurtled faster and faster

until I finally stopped, what seemed like minutes later.

So this is Slatland, I thought. I looked down, and to my left I saw North America, large and jagged, flanked by oceans. Its face was beautiful—craggy, broken, lined with rivers. I found my part of the continent, a flat gold rectangle in the upper middle. I saw what my daily life looked like from this distance: my truck beetling through the prairies, dust rising off its wheels the way desire must rise, thousands of fragments of stone lifting off the earth. And when the truck stopped and I stepped out into the bright, empty fields, my loneliness looked extreme. I could almost see it, my longing and desire for Rezvan rising out of me the way a tree rises out of its trunk. I perceived, in an instant, exactly what I should do to keep him. I saw how simple it all would be, just to keep collecting the letters every morning, one by one, in order that what was between Rezvan and his wife would die slowly and easily and naturally, and what was between him and me would grow in exactly the same proportion.

If I had been able to climb down then, to drop out of Slatland at that moment, everything would have remained simple, and probably Rezvan and I would still be together. But Slatland seemed to have a will of its own. It would not let me go until I looked down to my right. If I was willing to see the simplicity, the purity, of my own desire, then I also had to see the entire landscape—the way desire rises from every corner and intersects, creates a wilderness over the earth.

I stood on Slatland a long time before I looked down to my right. There it was, Eastern Europe, floating above the Mediterranean. I traced with my finger the outline of Romania. I squinted, down through the mist and mountains, down through the thick moss of trees, until I found her. She stood in a long line of people, her forty-five-kilo children hanging on her skirts. She bent to them and broke for them some bread as hard as stone. I hovered a few feet above her and watched. Even so, I might still have been able to return to my own life, my own province, unchanged if she hadn’t turned her face upward right then, as if she had felt some rain, and looked directly at me.

This all happened very fast, in a blink of my eyes. When I opened them, Professor Pine was sitting on his desk, watching me. “You’re a real erky-terk,” he said, with a tic so extreme that it looked like it might swallow his face. He walked me to the door and handed me the letters, which later that night I would give to Rezvan. We would be standing on the balcony in the semidarkness of the moon, and I would be surprised at how easily they passed through my hands, as easily as water.

The birds shrieked. “Birdmen!” Professor Pine said. “Sometimes I feel like saluting them,” he said to me. He shook my hand. “Good luck, girlie-whirl.” Then he went up on his tiptoes and kissed me good-bye.