Just under a year ago Alex, a former student and close friend, called me with the news that Anna Parachkevova had been murdered by her husband while she slept in their apartment in Brussels. It was never a message I expected to receive about anyone I knew and loved, at least not from that part of my life. Certainly not Anna. It was the first of many disjointed, dissociated conversations I would have over the coming days as friends reconnected and tried to understand the metaphysics of what had happened. Alex, in that moment, was preparing to buy a plane ticket from New York to be with Anna’s twin brother who had already made the flight to Belgium. The most recent news, which was tracked and traded down the telephone line as if it actually mattered, was that Anna’s husband, after fleeing to Luxembourg, had turned himself in to the police. The Luxembourg police then notified Belgian authorities. Those authorities in turn sent officers to Anna’s apartment, where she was discovered lying in her blood-soaked bed, with not a single defensive cut on her hands and arms to balance out the twenty stab wounds they found in her neck and torso. Anna’s husband remains in a Belgian jail, awaiting trial. I have no idea what triggered such violence. I have not been able to discover anything about his intended defense or the sentence he is facing. After those first few frantic days it dawned on me that I just don’t care about him in the least.
I never visited Anna in Brussels. And, of course, I never witnessed the scene of the crime, but I’ve been haunted by a bewildering desire to know how the room appeared when the police arrived — as if understanding exactly what happened would allow me to fix it, to track it all backwards. As if I could categorize the scene with precision, then I could play the tape in reverse. Protect her somehow. That such a thing is irrational doesn’t matter. I want to bring her back home, and so I’m drawn there. But when I picture the scene, Anna always slips away. In my imagination I can walk into the room, see the pool of blood on the floor, the gory linens, the bathroom door ajar. If I’d like, I could sample the bottle of wine, half empty, that I imagine is on her kitchen table next to her laptop and ashtray. I can see the murder weapon thrown in the corner. I can browse her bookshelf and wonder what poetry she’s been reading most recently — but try as I will I cannot bring the image of Anna into that room. I’m always alone seeing a nameless tragedy. I cycle my vision from walls to bed to floor to window several times, but the scene is red and black — and there is no body.
Yet, every time I leave that room and go back into the hallway, there she is, leaning against the wall: her smile, her hazel eyes, her black hair, her fair skin. I can hear her voice clearly with its liquid Eastern European accent as she takes my arm and says, “Lit’s get out ov here, T.” I can hear her laugh, an unusually abrupt shotgun blast of both joy and derision. I can feel her leading me away from that abyss.
She won’t allow me to see her as she appeared in that room. And as I try to fight my way in to find her, I’m thankful for her vigilance, even as it carries with it an infinite sadness. It’s part of how I know she’s still here. I push at the edges, Anna pushes back.
You may not see it, but there is grace in that dance.
A few months back I started spending time with a Spanish woman from Extremadura, a province near the Portuguese border. On our first date we talked well past dessert and a second bottle of wine — one hell of a feat, given my limited proficiency in Spanish and her equally suspect skills in English, but we found a way. It took concentration and creativity and patience, but we were able to feel our way towards one another. The heart of the night came when I asked about her arrival in Guatemala a year before. A look came to her face that was both indefinable and self-evident. It was the look of someone who, just for a flash, left herself for somewhere far away.
She sat quietly for a moment, and then told me the story. Two days before she left Extremadura, Victoria was with her best friend, her non-biological sister Yoyita. There was singing, drinking, dancing and toasting the coming year of Victoria’s adventure on the other side of the world. Two days later Victoria was on a plane, the next night she was in Antigua. The following morning she checked her email and discovered that Yoyita had died, having somehow contracted an exceptionally aggressive form of cerebral meningitis that spiked her fever and killed her within 24 hours. She was 27 years old. Victoria didn’t have the money to turn around and go home. She never saw the body, never attended the funeral. On the inside of her wrist was a tattoo of both of their names.
Victoria’s hands turned upwards, her fingers flowered outward and then fell to the table. She looked at her wrist and touched the names.
“Gone, but not all gone,” she said in English.
I took her hands and we sat quietly for a while. I then told Victoria about Anna. It was the first time I’d unearthed the story since the previous summer sitting around a table at an Italian café in Greenwich Village with Alex, Anna’s brother and a few other central members of the tribe. Even then I’d never told anyone about my picturing of the crime scene. I tried to express to Victoria how not being able to see Anna in the room, but always meeting her in the hallway, meant that she was “gone, but not all gone.” I told her how two distinct worlds exist on either side of Anna’s apartment door, and how that leaves an uncertainty, a lack of finality and a nagging, yet reassuring faith that there is still something of her left in this world. I told her how trying to picture Anna dead is exquisitely painful, and yet how not being able to see her as dead is achingly beautiful. She nodded her head.
“Eso es saudade,” she said.
Saudade, she explained, is a Portuguese word that has no direct translation to any other language. It is a deep and resonant idea that a non-native speaker will likely never fully comprehend, but it is giving even at the edges. As Victoria explained that night, one manifestation of saudade is a longing for someone who is lost with the absolute assurance that that person is gone forever. Yet living in the heart of that finality is the smallest seed of hope for a return. Saudade is a keyhole in the door down a long, dark hallway through which you can see a small, distant light. Saudade is what the captain’s wife feels as she looks at the sea years after her husband was to return. Saudade is the hope that makes hopelessness so unbearable and yet so galvanic, so alive. “It is the most real feeling, the most real thing I know, but it can’t be touched,” she said.
I have saudade for Anna. Victoria has saudade for Yoyita. The last glass of wine was shared silently, her right hand resting in my left.
I’d known Anna for 13 years at the time of her murder, which was just a few weeks past her 29th birthday. When we first met, Anna was a sophomore at FDR High School in Brooklyn where I was a teacher in the Social Studies department. Through those years and for the decade beyond, Anna and I would build a personal and professional relationship of great depth and meaning, but back then she was just one of the many new immigrants in a school where half our population had either just swum a river or stepped off a plane. Anna and her family had emigrated from Bulgaria a year before. At the time they spoke only rudimentary English, but within one term she and her brother had progressed to the honors track, and by their junior year I’d recruited them both into my Advanced Placement American History course. Each one carried full Advanced Placement course loads their final two years in school, her brother graduating as the class valedictorian with Anna a few hundredths of a point behind and ranked third. After graduation they received full rides to Harvard and Dartmouth, respectively. Though they were twins, each of them was entirely unique. He was, and is, focused, driven, self-demanding and self-reliant, whereas Anna was far more likely to allow her attention to float out the classroom window, down Ocean Parkway to Coney Island, the universe and beyond — unless I reeled her back in. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I knew that Anna just had to wander far afield from where she was. And it didn’t really matter. Either way she’d ace the tests. When we got to the middle 19th Century Transcendentalists, I wasn’t at all surprised that her brother tacked decidedly towards Emerson, while Anna would drift into my office to discuss Whitman at the end of the day.
That year my office was the meeting ground for students from my A.P. class. The office was a safe place where the kids knew they could get away with just about anything, provided it wasn’t illegal and didn’t hurt themselves or anyone else. Before classes, during lunch and after school there often wasn’t a place to sit, and kids would spill out the door. At other times a student would come in and need to talk privately. In one of those quieter times, while Anna and I were working on her college admissions essay, I probed for details about her life. I asked Anna to tell me what it was like growing up in Bulgaria during the fall of the communist state. Having had students from most every country behind the Iron Curtain over my career I’d heard some terrible tales. Still, Anna’s story was particularly gray and stark. She grew up in Silistra, a small, industrial town in north eastern Bulgaria. Nearly everyone was poor, with the exception of some party bosses and criminals. There were ethnic tensions, anti-Semitism and racism. There was drug abuse and alcoholism. There was a general feeling of pointlessness and malaise. She recalled that their school building had no windows and in the winter they had to study wearing layers and layers of clothing. Writing and doing math wasn’t easy in thick wool mittens, she joked.
As she continued to tell the story, describing the mundane details of hopelessness, she seemed to shrink into the chair, and then into herself. She became very quiet, her eyes searching up and to the left, and then up and to the right, clearly wondering if she should tell that story. I waited and, eventually, she did.
When she was a child, Anna met a girl whose name I’ve since forgotten. They became best friends. The girl was Tsigani, a Gypsy. The Tsigani in Silistra lived in an encampment by the Danube, away from the larger Bulgarian community. For years Anna secretly visited her friend at her home where she learned to speak some Romani and to participate in traditional dances, dinners and all the other daily activities that cement a sisterhood. I remember thinking just “how Anna” that seemed: the lack of concern for rules, the utter disregard for something as stupid as bigotry or as important as her own health and safety. Though they were just kids, Anna and her friend both knew, she told me, that there were explosive tensions between the Bulgarian majority and the Tsigani, and they knew enough to keep their friendship largely out of sight from the authorities.
Anna became animated while speaking about her friend, but then she got quiet again. It was like she was telling a story about someone else, somehow distanced. One day before school, Anna told me, she was bringing roses to her friend for her birthday. It was a little out of the way, but worth it for the surprise. She knew something was wrong a mile before she arrived at the Tsigani encampment. There was far too much commotion in the streets. Then she smelled the smoke and the petroleum. She heard the noises of the chaos, the sirens. Before dawn some local monsters had sneaked into the camp and set the Tsigani homes and caravans on fire. Anna’s friend and her entire family were burned to death.
Anna left the roses in their yard and went to school.
After that conversation I had a better idea of where Anna disappeared when she floated out the window during class. I go there now, too. Billy Collins, in his poem The First Dream, writes about falling in love “with the sadness of another” and I did love Anna, and partially for her sadness. If you find it untoward to say that, then you misunderstand what I mean. I feel as bound by love to her brother, and Alex and a number of their classmates just as strongly — and now that chain is one link shorter.
The year we met, Anna was a sophomore in Mr. Sullivan’s Honors Global Studies course. Brendan was my best friend at the school and an excellent teacher. He got it. He understood the students and all their broken beauty. Each year in his classroom he reserved one wall for his kids to decorate. Within reason the students could tack up anything they wanted. It was a small way to allow them to reclaim their space inside a system that generally treated them as dangerous substances that needed to be scheduled and controlled. As you’d guess the board mostly paid homage to local sports franchises and the heroes of hip-hop, but there were always the odd photos of Harriet Tubman or Mahatma Gandhi. Early in the semester I wandered into Brendan’s room to shoot the breeze. While we traded stories about our students and what we were up to in class, I pored over “the wall.” Lots of Mets and Knicks photos. Glossy magazine shots of Tupac and Biggie. Someone had posted the famous photo of Malcolm X and M.L.K. shaking hands and smiling for all the world. There was an Einstein. There was Geronimo staring defiantly into the camera, gripping his rifle. There was the cover of that year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.
And there was one photograph, clearly taken by a student and mounted on a piece of colored paper. It was a picture of a field with some wildflowers in the mid-ground and a stand of trees in the distance. The foreground was blurred in places and it took a moment to resolve what I was seeing. Then it all clicked into place: the photograph was taken through a chain-link fence, intentionally out of focus. Beneath was handwritten: “The Only Prison From Which You Cannot Escape Is The One You Don’t Know You Are In.”
I turned to Brendan and said, “Bren, who . . .”
He cut me off and said, “You haven’t met Anna, yet? Dude, you’re gonna love this kid.”
And I did. And I do.
I’ll not conclude with the saccharine delusion that “Anna escaped her prison.” That would be hopelessly wrong. This world wasn’t a prison for her and she didn’t escape; she was violently murdered by her son-of-a-bitch husband. But I have internalized what I learned over our 13 years of friendship and this one year of loss. Hopefully I’m carrying enough of her with me, as are her family and the rest of our tribe, that while she is gone, she is not all gone. And now you have a little bit of her, too.
But to push the metaphor, Anna’s absence from my life has, in a way, created a prison cell. It’s the room of the gory linens where I’ve wandered, searching for a way to save her from what has already happened. I know its ghosts and its half-finished bottle of wine. I know its poetry and the ashtray by the laptop on the kitchen table. I’ve been searching for a way to get Anna out of that room for almost a year now, but then I realize she’s never been in it, has she? Her existence, whatever it may be at this point, is not rooted in her death. She’s not the one who has been trapped in there.
I’m starting to understand that, slowly.
It has been a long process, and I’ve still got a ways to go, I suppose. Part of it is coming to understand, in my own way, the deeper essence of the saudade I feel for Anna. It is not only melancholy; it is not only sadness. It is the still radiant heat left behind by a great loss. Of late, I’ve had an inkling that saudade may be an actual, physical reaction to being in the presence of a loved one’s soul. The somber, longing of saudade is what I feel when I go searching for something to hold onto in Anna’s room but its lightness is there when I slip back through that keyhole at the end of the long, dark hallway. Saudade is what I feel on both sides of that door. It is the crushing weight of knowing I will never see her again, and yet it is also what I feel when I imagine her leaning against the wall outside her apartment waiting for me. Waiting for me with her hazel eyes, her shotgun laugh. Waiting for me with her long black hair and her fair white skin. Waiting to take me by the arm. Waiting to say in her beautiful Bulgarian accent, “Lit’s get out ov here, T.”