By the time I got to the National Assembly building there were many people, all around it. I could hear shrill whistles and people shouting 'Red trash' and 'Murderers'. Some were hurling snowballs at the police. On the Parliament side of the 'Alexander Nevsky' cathedral there were loudspeakers transmitting Radio 'Darik'. They had reporters both inside and outside the National Assembly. I asked a man the time. It was 4.30 p.m. I decided to go and get a sandwich. I stopped at the kiosk in front of the Italian embassy but there was a huge queue. And Radio 'Darik' again. I didn't feel like waiting and wondered where else I could go. I wasn't all that hungry but I wanted a bite of something. And then I saw two Mercedes cars coming from the direction of the Officer's Club. One black, one navy. They stopped right in front of me and Petar Stoyanov, our future President, jumped out of the blue one. He hurried along 'Tzar Osvoboditel' Boulevard, right down the middle of it, towards the National Assembly, his bodyguards trying hard to keep up with him. I gave up the idea of trying to get a sandwich and followed them. At first no one seemed to notice Petar Stoyanov but when he reached the Austrian Embassy people started pointing at him, and those who were close enough stopped to shake hands with him. He kept going but soon there was a solid cordon of people around him, shouting his name and applauding. I saw my former colleague from the time I worked at 'Nova' TV, Tomislav Roussev (whom I'd fallen out with over a report he'd done instead of me): he wormed his way up to Petar Stoyanov through the throng and started asking him questions, his mobile phone in his hand. He was working for 'Darik' now. Then Petar Stoyanov moved on and entered the Parliament building. I kept moving through the crowd and in front of the main entrance, by the statue of Alexander II I saw Ellen who was smiling at me.
' How long have you been here?' I asked.
' Not long,' she said. 'I went in to check my e-mail and I heard the shouts.'
'It's getting interesting,' I said, 'Petar Stoyanov just arrived.'
'Yes. He's just gone in.'
All around us people started shouting 'Down with the BSP'.
'So what now?' Ellen asked.
'The communists are inside,' I said. 'People want them to agree to early elections - or they won't let them out of the building. Years ago the same thing happened but then Zhelyu Zhelev asked all of us outside to disperse. I don't think Petar Stoyanov's going to do the same.'
'And why did Zhelev do it?'
'I don't know, really. Maybe he got frightened. If people had stormed the building there would have been bloodshed. But then, if that had happened, we might not have been here now.'
Ellen gave me a slightly mistrustful look.
'What are they all shouting?' she asked.
'Red trash,' I said in Bulgarian.
I translated it for her.
'Red trash,' she repeated. 'Meaning the socialists?'
'Isn't that a bit extreme?'
'It is,' I said, 'but then, people are desperate.'
'My American friends say they don't understand Bulgarians. They can't understand how people can survive on twenty dollars a month, and why they don't do something about it.'
'For a while people were like dazed,' I said. 'Bulgarians are a patient people but once they get angry there's no stopping them.'
'Very sexy,' Ellen said, laughing.
People kept on shouting and throwing snowballs at the building. More and more people kept coming and the number of policemen kept growing, too.
'I'm hungry,' Ellen said. 'Let's get a bite of something.'
'Okay,' I said.
We went to a cafe in 'Shipka' Street. It was warm inside, and quite full, but we found a table. There was a radio on, broadcasting from Parliament Square.
'What'll you have?' I asked her.
'A toasted ham sandwich and a lemon Fanta.'
'Two toasted ham sandwiches, please,' I said to the girl at the bar, 'and two lemon Fantas.'
'Take a seat - I'll bring them in a few minutes.'
'Okay. Let's sit down,' I said to Ellen, 'they'll bring the sandwiches when they're ready.'
I paid and took the Fantas, and we sat down at a table by the window. It was getting dark outside.
'Bulgaria's becoming more and more exotic,' Ellen said. 'But I wish I knew what to do with my life.'
'What do you mean?' I asked.
'Well, I've been here for six months now and I still haven't found a job.'
'Yes,' I said.
'I still have some money left,' she went on, 'but I can't live on my credit cards forever, can I?'
The conversation was beginning to annoy me.
'Listen,' I said, 'why don't we go to the States? I'll get a job and you can go back to college.'
'But I thought you didn't want to go to the States?' Ellen asked, puzzled.
'Well, no, I didn't. But so what? After all, it's not such a big deal: it's only seven hours on the plane.'
'But what about your family? Your son? And what about money?'
'What about my family?' I said, edgy. 'My wife'll manage without me. And anyway, I can always come back.'
'But neither of us has any money,' Ellen said, shaking her head.
She was suddenly becoming distant and I didn't like that at all.
'I have fifteen hundred dollars,' I said (my wife had paid it back). 'I have an apartment - I could sell it. It would fetch at least fifteen thousand dollars. Just imagine us arriving in New York. Our first night there. Come on, Ellen, don't be such a chicken. Damn it, let's just forget about everything and get the hell out of here.'
'You're crazy,' she said. Very seriously.
The waitress brought us our sandwiches and we started eating in silence. We heard on the radio that people had broken through the police cordon and had stormed the Parliament building. I translated this for Ellen.
'Really?' She couldn't believe it.
'That's what they said. Let's go and see what's happening.'
We finished our sandwiches and left. We could hear people shouting and when we got to the university the crowd was pretty huge. There were people in the little park by the National Assembly and the closer you got, the denser the crowd grew. It reached all the way to the building itself and people were going in through broken windows and through the back door, too. One man was smashing its glass panel with his elbow. Others had climbed up on top of some cars and were jumping up and down. The police had all gathered on the other side of the building; they were wearing bullet-proof vests and helmets. There were journalists there, too, with their cameras. Suddenly they released some sort of tear gas from inside the building and Ellen and I went on towards the monument of the Liberator King. Someone had lit a fire and Ellen stopped by it. There was a guy playing the guitar; he was wrapped in the American flag. A few people were singing along.
'I'll go over to the Internet point,' Ellen said, 'to see if there's any mail for me.'
'Won't it be closed?' I asked.
'They work till seven but there's usually someone there even later than that, and they always let me check my mail. They're really nice.'
'I'll wait here,' I said, 'by the fire.'
'I won't be more than ten or fifteen minutes.'
The Internet place wasn't far.
'Okay,' I said.
She went off and I saw her disappear in the crowd down 'Shishman' Street. All around me people were singing, warming themselves at the fire. Others were still besieging the Parliament building, shouting and throwing stones and snowballs at the windows. From time to time you could hear the sound of shattering glass. At one point soldiers appeared from somewhere and formed a cordon in front of the main entrance. And this, in addition to the police cordon which was keeping the crowd away from the building. Tear gas (at least I think that's what it was) was still seeping out of the back entrance and the wind dispersed it around. Radio 'Darik' was still reporting from the square and also playing rock music. It all seemed to me like a show. Ellen came back about half an hour later. We hung about for a little while longer and then, around eight o'clock we decided to go and have some supper. Passing by the cathedral we noticed that ambulances had arrived, too - all sorts of ambulances: from the old Soviet type, to new mini-vans. Some of the people were trying to block their way.
'Over my dead body,' an old man was shouting at one of the ambulance drivers.
'Why are you here? Who called you?' a middle-aged woman asked. I couldn't hear what the driver replied. The whole square was filled with ambulances, their red lights flashing in the dark, the loudspeakers blaring. Ellen and I went to a pizza place and, as usual, ordered plain tomato-and-cheese pizzas and a carafe of wine. And then Ellen said:
'There's something I have to talk to you about.'
'Go ahead,' I said, staring at our waitress. She had a good behind.
'It's important,' Ellen said, frowning at me.
'Okay,' I said. 'Go ahead.'
'I have to go back to America,' she said with finality.
'You're always off to places,' I said, 'first Hungary, then Russia, you were just in Norway. You want to go to the States - fine. I mean, after all - you're American'
She shook her head.
'You don't understand. This is different.'
'How is it different,' I asked, still grinning. 'You don't mean you're going back for good, do you?'
'I don't know. But I won't be back for a while.'
'As in - how long?'
'I don't know', she said.
And then she burst into tears.
'Right,' I forced myself to smile and looked at the waitress again. She was leaning against the bar, chatting with some guy. 'Poor Ellen. Off to the States, leaving me here among all those pretty waitresses.'
She went on sobbing, even louder.
'Oh come on, I was only kidding,' I said. 'I'm sorry. I can't take it in, that's all. I thought you were planning to stay for at least a year, find a job - .
'Yes, but I didn't find a job.'
'No, you didn't.' (And I did nothing, I added to myself.) 'When are you leaving?'
'I'm flying to New York in four days. Via Vienna. It's cheapest that way.'
'Four days? And when do you go to Vienna?'
'The day after tomorrow.'
'The day after tomorrow?'
Suddenly I just collapsed. Everything was collapsing all around me - the country I was living in was falling apart, the woman I loved was leaving.
'I see,' I said.
The waitress brought us the pizzas. Ellen was looking at me. She had stopped crying.
'Please say something,' she begged me, 'don't go all cold on me.'
But I kept silent, trying to think.
'Please,' she repeated.
'When did you decide this?' I asked. I was getting mad at her.
'Well, I can't find a job so I might as well go back to college. I have to think about my future, don't I?'
'I thought you liked it here.'
'I do. Bulgaria's such an exotic place. But if I can't get a job how am I supposed to live?'
'You might have been able to get a job at the American University in Blagoevgrad,' I said, realizing how unlikely this was.
'I've made up my mind,' she cut me short, reading my thoughts, 'don't try to dissuade me.'
'No, I won't. And what about me?'
'You can stay here, or you can come to the States if you like.'
'Except no one's going to give me a visa - you know that.'
'They might. And anyway, I won't forget you.'
That really drove me up the wall.
'Fine,' I said, 'but as far as I'm concerned, from this point on you're just a friend.'
'A friend?' She stared at me, wide-eyed.
'Yup. That's what you always wanted isn't it?'
'Yes, it is,' she nodded.
We started eating. When we finished we headed for her flat. At the corner of 'Rakovski' and 'Dondukov' police cars had blocked off the two streets. We could hear shouts still coming from the direction of the cathedral. When we got to her flat I turned on the TV. There was a news report from the square in front of the parliament; then we listened to the BBC World Service which also carried news of 'events in Sofia'.
'Bulgaria's top-story news,' Ellen said.
'More so than Serbia, even' she laughed. She was thinking of the demonstrations in Serbia.
'We've always gone one better,' I said.
She stripped off and lay down on the bed.
'I'm so tired,' she said and smiled.
'So am I,' I said.
I didn't say anything.
'Come here,' she repeated.
'No,' I said, 'I told you - we're friends now. No sex.'
'I don't know.' I was lying through my teeth. 'I think it would be best if we broke up right now. In any case - I don't want any sex.'
God how I loved her.
'But this is silly,' she said indignantly. 'Still, if that's what you want. You can go, if you like.'
'Do you want me to?'
'No - but you can if you want to.'
'It's late. I think I'd rather stay - but I'll take the other bed. If that's okay with you, of course. We're friends, aren't we - now....'
'Friends, yes. Stay if you like.'
I lay down on the other bed and she turned out the light. I was trembling inside. I wanted her, the thought that she'd be leaving in two days' time was driving me crazy. I knew I should leave but I was powerless to move a muscle. I couldn't sleep either, not for a minute. There was only one thing that kept going round and round in my head: 'Ellen's leaving'. A few hours passed and I must have dropped off to sleep. When I woke up Ellen was in bed with me.
'Get out' I shouted at her. 'I don't want to make love.'
'Please,' she burst into tears, 'don't do this to me. It's silly to sleep in separate beds. I want you. I want you!'
'I want you too,' I said, 'but I told you I want us to be friends. Can't you understand that?'
'Yes, I can,' she sobbed, 'I understand it all - but I want you. We're parting tomorrow and you're being cold and difficult. Why are you doing this to me? Can't you understand how much it hurts? Please, don't hurt me like this.'
'No,' I said and got out of bed, 'if you won't get out of my bed then I will. And I'm leaving.'
'Please don't.' She collapsed at my feet: naked, weeping, tiny in the dark room. I didn't say anything and just listened to her crying. Then she got to her feet and started kissing me - on the cheeks, on the lips, on the neck. I knew I shouldn't stay any longer, I should leave immediately, and in the end I decided I would. I turned on the light and got dressed. Ellen was standing there, naked, looking at me horrified.
'Are you really going?' she asked as I reached the door.
'I can't stay,' I said, 'I explained that to you.'
'Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!' she started shouting and hitting me with her little fists - hitting my face, my body, my arms, as I was trying to protect myself - wild with fury and desire, naked, desperate, my beloved, my Ellen, the woman I loved more than anything else in the world and whom I was prepared to die for. I couldn't stand it any longer.
'Stop,' I blurted out, sobbing too now, 'stop!'
I got hold of her, I put my arms around her and kissed her, I couldn't stop myself now; everything was lost, our tears mingled, yes, she was leaving, she was leaving, but her lips burned into me, the lips which two days from now would be so far away, her warmth was enveloping me, the warmth she was going to deprive me of. She began to scream and then sobbed quietly 'I love you - I love you - I love you....' The most precious words in the world, words I was hearing for the last time…
'I love you too,' I whispered into her face. 'I love you too…'