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Although located in the old city center and connecting two major city squares, Iuliu Maniu was an extraordinarily quiet street. It seemed isolated from the rest of the center, and on bright days the sunlight reached its narrow surface for only one or two hours. Few reasons existed to pass through it, as two wider streets lined with businesses ran parallel on either side. Iuliu Maniu had no stores or bars or restaurants, only centuries-old apartments and an abandoned building. John Arden knew this would not last; retail would one day discover the street and take over, but he relished in its serenity while knowing the population rambled about just several hundred feet away.
He climbed the worn limestone stairs to his apartment on the top floor, the third floor, of a building in the center of Iuliu Maniu. His heavy keys, elongated and iron, were the type John imagined one would use to enter chambers in a medieval monastery, and he was fascinated each time he employed them. He had not believed such keys still existed. They were not efficient; he needed to jostle them in the lock for several seconds before they aligned, but when they finally caught, they rewarded him for his travails with a sharp clack as the lock opened.
He poured the wine immediately. At all times he kept a minimum of seven bottles of red in his pantry, since, of course, one must always be prepared for exigencies. Wine in Romania was inexpensive at this time; the hardest part was toting the cases through the city streets and up to his apartment. He gulped the purple, bitter fluid and refilled his glass He then snapped on the lights, as it was already dark outside.
In the living room he was greeted by the substantial chill present in all six of the mostly unfurnished rooms of the apartment. The walls were stone and the ceilings were high, and though it had been a warm October day, the building failed to absorb the heat. So he lit the tall soba knowing at least an hour would pass before warmth began to emanate from its maroon ceramic tiles.
Not surprisingly, Cosmin wanted to visit. He had left three phone messages stating his desire to meet around seven. John had not responded to any of these, but this would not serve as a deterrent. Soon a knock would resound from the heavy front door. If, or more precisely, when, he ignored it, Cosmin would simply knock progressively harder until John responded out of concern for neighbors, whom, of course, he had not bothered to meet.
When John actually did open the door nine minutes later, Cosmin's eyes flickered and he grinned widely, his signature reaction upon seeing John. A leather satchel hung on his shoulder and he raised a bottle of red wine in a pitiable attempt to gain access through the blocked doorway. It worked; John received the offering and Cosmin darted into the apartment, grin intact.
Cosmin was already seated in the living room when John entered with two glasses. He poured the wine and sat back and nodded arbitrarily at Cosmin's comments. Cosmin lauded another suspect bar located in some immemorial cavern and recommended they arrive early. John would protest, but after a few more glasses he would vaguely accede, debasing a delighted Cosmin in the process, and they would depart.
"This is not a bad wine," Cosmin said, touching the top of his shaved head.
"No it's not. It is an awful wine."
"Let's not exaggerate, it's OK," Cosmin pleaded.
"I might attach more weight to your assessment if I had ever heard you say otherwise concerning any of the poisons we have imbibed,"
"And yet you drink it, and accept foulness?
"I allowed you in here, did I not?"
Cosmin spit wine back in laughter as he patted John on the shoulder and refilled their glasses.
"Taverna," Cosmin said. He grabbed his glass and sipped. "I have heard Taverna is supposed to have good drinks at low prices, and it's always full. It's over in Grigorescu, so taxi."
A lone bulb hung from the ceiling. The harsh brightness concentrated in a tight circle around the bulb, and the rest of the ceiling was darkness. He had not bothered to refasten the translucent glass covering, which rested, covered by a thin layer of dust, on the floor beside him, since he had replaced the bulb three weeks ago.
Cosmin left for the pantry. John closed his eyes and felt the softness of the immense cushioned chair on the back of his head and breathed the faint mildew odor. It must have once been an elegant piece of furniture. He reached and stroked the leather cover of a book atop one of the stacks he harbored in his apartment; books of varying types and genres that he had collected in the last months and spent hours a day reading. They were amassed in teetering piles alongside his bed and in the living room. A cork popped and he opened his eyes.
"These damn plastic corks," Cosmin said, tossing the beige knob onto the table before them. "It's not the real Portuguese cork. That's what keeps a wine proper." He refilled their glasses.
"I don't believe a single wine bottle has ever survived here for more than a day, so let us not overly concern ourselves with its �keeping'."
Cosmin smiled, rubbing the dark stubble on his cheeks. "So Taverna. Supposed to be always full."
The wine was bitter but John rolled it in his mouth, the acridness clinging to his palate while Cosmin theorized about why Taverna was so successful and why an immediate departure was requisite. John checked the bulb again and tried to convince himself that tomorrow he would fasten the glass covering; it would spread the light evenly.
Two hours later they headed towards the center piata to hail a taxi. In Cluj, in the city center, taxis were commonplace. For a driver's neck to constrict upon hearing John recite an address was not exceptional, for the driver assumed that John was foreign, perhaps American, and had money and might tip well. Few foreigners were in Cluj. Yet the drivers also inferred, from his tone, that he was not new to the city, so distending the fare by driving in circles was not an option.
"Taverna. Grigorescu. On Strada Napoca," Cosmin said. The car jerked forward. Many of the streets in the city center were narrow and laden with potholes, so they jostled about the back seat. Cosmin's enlivened voice was expatiating on American politics and foreign policy and how he possessed an objective perspective on these subjects since he was a Romanian, and he emphasized just how much more he knew than his graduate professors. John listened to segments, or, to be more precise, portions of segments.
It began to rain, pattering an irregular cadence upon the car's rusted roof. John watched the water collecting on the windows and the drops journeying down glass. The streets were poorly lit but when they passed a light the drops would momentarily glow. He pressed his fingertips to the pane hoping to feel the drops in their moment of warmth. The taxi crossed a tiny bridge over the Somes River, and they drove parallel the Parcul Central. The buildings were no longer of the lovely ornate and crumbling stone architecture comprising the old city center, but had transformed into the concrete block structures hastily erected by the communist regime after the Second World War and prevalent in the outer areas of Cluj.
The driver rolled down his dripping window, augmenting the moisture level by expectorating into the rain, and searching until he found somewhere proximate to the address. As he drove away John listened to the sound of the taxi's tires skidding on water and he looked up at an apartment building's black windows. The buildings on this particular street were still turn of the century domiciles. Little could be seen: the streetlamp at the end of the block provided the sole illumination, and lacked munificence with its offering. Thumping noise from bass music escaped from somewhere below, but no visible signs of a bar were evident. This was not uncommon in Cluj; one had to possess the address or the bar did not exist. Chilly rain unremittingly fell but John did not notice his clothes dampening. Cosmin ventured down a barely visible staircase, returning quickly and breathing rapidly as he informed John that this was indeed the Taverna.
The music increased tenfold with the opening of the door. Another flight of stairs awaited in the darkness. As John climbed down, watching his feet contact each stair, he breathed the moist air heavy with the pong of rotten alcohol. A dim bar crouched in the far end of the room. The stone arches lining the ceiling were scarcely discernible, but it was apparent this tomb was here long before the building above. Round tables, filled with drinkers, were obstacles on the sodden floor as they ventured toward the bar. What light existed escaped from low wattage bulbs swaying from the ceiling.
"Two vodkas," John told the bartender. The first gulp burned his tongue, but this was mollified with a second. The spirits behind the bar were predominantly vodkas from Romania or Hungary, and the few bottles from Italy or Spain were unopened. And numerous bottles, label free of course, were filled with local palincas, and lurked on the lowest shelf and beneath the bar.
"Do you want to sit?" Cosmin asked, waiting for John's approval.
They sat in silence at a nearby table. "This isn't a bad bar," Cosmin said, his eyes focused intensively on John.
Cosmin swallowed vodka. "Not so bad," he said, still monitoring John. Fits of fierce coughing escaped from a tenebrous corner.
"Yes," John said, "your taste is sublime."
Cosmin erupted in laughter.
"Another drink?" John asked.
At the bar John ordered more of the same. He avoided resting his elbows on the thick plank, as its surface was murky liquid.
"Do you like it here?"
John turned and a slender woman was beside him. Her dark hair and piercing features were barely discernable, as they melted into the dimness. The bartender filled the glasses.
"I don't know."
"What does that mean?" she asked, smiling. "One either likes a place or not. There is no middle."
John raised his drinks off the bar, and their damp bases wept into the putrid puddles beneath. "Perhaps, but I made no reference to a middle. I said I don't know." He returned to the table and a grateful Cosmin.
"What was she asking?" he said, eagerly. "What did she say?"
"To hell with you. An attractive woman says hello at a bar and you ignore her." John didn't respond. "You're fortunate and ridiculous," Cosmin continued. "With your looks that happens all the time. Now me, what do I get? My last girlfriend throws me out and I can't find anything since." With three strokes of his lighter, each increasingly spasmodic, he lit his cigarette and went searching for a bathroom.
John smelled his vodka and thought of bandages. Something crunched under his foot, but he refrained from checking the sound's origin. The chair beside him shuddered, and the woman from the bar sat down.
"Do you mind?" she asked, staring at John. "I'm actually not fond of this place."
"You are forced to come here?"
She paused. "I'm just making conversation."
"You are from America?"
"Does it matter?"
"Yes." Another object crunched beneath his foot.
"What are you doing here?"
John's vodka vanished with a full tilt of his glass. He did not see Cosmin.
"Well?" she asked.
"I'm savoring the atmosphere."
After a silent pause, she exploded into raucous laughter. "No, why did you ever leave there?"
John positioned his glass vertically, hoping to reap a few itinerant droplets, but all was barren. He stood and walked through the dimness. He found the stairs. He did not look back. Outside the raindrops whipped randomly in the wind. By the end of the street he was heavy with water and he wiped his eyes with the back of his right hand. The water tasted briny. Two poorly lit streets were before him. A can clattered against the pavement. He did not know if the street to his left led in the proper direction, but he chose it and pressed forth.
AUTHORBIO: Justin Kurian was born and raised in New York and has a degree in American Studies and Literature from Wesleyan University. After graduating Brooklyn Law School, he worked as a public defender in Manhattan. He lived in Europe for 7 years, primarily Romania and England, and has written and directed short films. The Sunlight Lies Beyond is his first novel.