Maria Elena Popescu’s apartment building might be a faceless grey dump, but it’s her faceless grey dump, and she’s proud of it. It’s small – three floors, and three very poky flats to a floor, except for the bottom floor that was the entrance hall and her own quarters – but that just meant she knew everybody who lived here, and liked them. Nobody was allowed to come in here and make it worse, or disreputable, not even tall dark and good-looking foreigners who reacted with an appropriate amount of fear when Maria eyeballed them. Appropriate reactions or no, he was greasy in a way that meant he probably hadn’t had access to running water for some time, and tense in a way that meant was in Trouble with a capital T. Maria knows what that looks like; she hadn’t missed the way he’d looked over his shoulder on his way in, or the way he’d scanned the room for exits.
“We’re full,” she says obstinately, even though she isn’t, and the extra money would be undeniably nice. Especially with Ion leaving just three days ago, but she knows how to get by.
“Domnisoara, I can pay you,” the man says. Maria wants to bristle at the words, the way he reaches into his backpack so easily to show her the money – she can’t be bribed, and she’s certainly too old to be sweet-talked – but she can’t blame him; it’s what she’d do, if she needed a place to stay. “I won’t cause any trouble,” he continues earnestly. His accent is not quite Romanian but not quite identifiable as belonging to another country, either, and against her own will Maria can feel herself softening at the slight hesitance in his voice. “I just want a quiet place to live. I won’t bother you.”
Maria continues to stare at him for a good few seconds just to make it clear that she won’t be walked over and she won’t be bribed, and then somehow she ends up taking the money and pointing the man up the stairs. “Third floor,” she says, even though there is an empty apartment on the second floor as well. She can’t let this man off scot-free, after all. “It’s hard to miss, it’s the top one. It’s on the right.”
“Mulțumesc foarte mult,” he says, so earnest that it is almost enough to make Maria uncomfortable.
“You’ll have to take the furniture out,” she says, ignoring his thankful eyes. “The last tenant left in a hurry. I can ask some of the others to help you.”
“That won’t be necessary, domnisoara,” the man says. “I can do it.”
That makes Maria sceptical again, makes her wonder if she’s made a mistake and let some overly-arrogant foreigner wander into her apartment to stay for a while. The money still clenched in her hand is enough for him to stay for three months, and she’s found that making people take their money back is a terribly time-consuming operation that goes wrong more often than not. Three months is a long time to put up with someone, she thinks apprehensively.
But, no. Within the hour she comes to realise that she was wrong, the man was not being arrogant; he walks down the stairs with armchairs and shelves slung over his shoulders like they are nothing. He puts them down so very carefully, too, even though they cannot mean anything to him. Maria Elena Popescu is too dignified to stare, but she can appreciate the sight.
The other Maria in the building – Maria Cristina, the twelve-year-old gymnast who also lives on the second floor purportedly with her mother and father but for all intents and purposes alone – is sitting pressed against the stair rail, thin legs sticking through the bars and swinging through open space. Her eyes follow the new tenant almost worshipfully, as he hoists furniture on his shoulders.
“What’s your name?” Maria Elena asks, as the foreigner comes down for the third time with a bedframe on his shoulder. He makes a confused noise as he stares at her and forgets to put the bedframe down. “Your name,” Maria repeats, tapping her pen against her computer screen. “I have records, you know.”
“Of course you do, I’m sorry,” the man says. “Yakov Vasiliev.” The way he says his own name is strange. There’s a twist to his lips as the words come out of his mouth. He acts as though he’s swearing, not saying his own name.
“And do you have identification?” Maria asks, raising an eyebrow. It’s something of a shock to her when Yakov nods and goes to retrieve a Russian passport that does indeed have his name on it. Maria had been ready to swear that anybody who says his own name like Yakov does is not saying his real name. And she supposes it’s possible, but she has no way to prove it, and his passport is enough that she has plausible deniability if the police come around. That is good enough for her.
She’s closing her records when she hears Maria Cristina, at the top of the stairs, ask, “How are you so strong? Can you teach me?”
“I don’t think so,” Yakov says. “You don’t –”
And neither of the Marias will ever know how that sentence was going to end, because he cuts himself off, flustered, and then goes inside his new apartment and shuts the door. Maria Cristina makes a rude noise at it, but it does not budge.
True to his word, Yakov is very quiet, and causes no trouble at all. Some days Maria will not even see him, and it seems as though he spends the entire day cooped up in his apartment. And Maria sees all; she has calibrated a perfect system whereby she is able to leave her doors open and sit and knit in the entrance of her quarters. If she looks to the left, she can see through her living room to the fire escape exits, right to the doors at the front of the building, and slightly upwards to see her apartments’ landings. She never claimed not to be nosy, and she has the perfect apartment building to be nosy in.
What is most curious to her is that he does not seem to have work of any sort, and yet he is never lacking for money; his intretinare and rent is always paid on time, and when he lets Maria in to check the metre readings the small place is functionally furnished and taken care of, for all her misgivings. He either works from his apartment or he is receiving his income some other way, which Maria sincerely does not want to know the details of. Plausible deniability, she has found, will get one far in life.
On some days, Yakov will go out and come back laden with bags of produce. It’s clear he’s going to a market, but Maria cannot figure him out; it seems as though he will go indiscriminately to a market at random, and buy groceries at random. It is another thing that has her watching him curiously: everyone she knows has a favourite market, and occasionally a backup market which can be depended on in case of tragedy but is never as good as the original. Almost everyone she knows will go once a week, or twice a week, like clockwork, albeit accompanied by the occasional emergency trips when something has been forgotten. But she has seen Yakov come back to the apartment block with enough food only for that night’s dinner, and go out the next day only to return laden with enough to last him the next two weeks.
He gets her things, as well. She suspects that has a large part of why she’s merely curious, and not quite suspicious, but she can’t bring herself to mind. Yakov is very careful with this, leaving her flowers, fruits, making sure to always get her small amounts of unnecessary but pleasant things; enough to make it clear that he doesn’t think she needs charity but just enough to be a nice gesture. He’s very subtle. Maria can appreciate that. And when she is sitting out in the hall and passing the time, he will ask if there is anything she wants him to get, and wait patiently for her to consult her list and find some money to give him. Her change – and, she suspects, a little more, although if there is more then it’s not enough for her to be certain – is always neatly at the bottom of the bag.
She appreciates the way he treats Maria Cristina, too. The young girl appears not to have taken his rejection of her proposal too hard, because the very next day she had turned up at his door and given him a plant, which she claimed was a housewarming gift for good luck but which both Marias knew was just the relocation of yet another of Georghe’s gifts. Georghe will give plants to people that he likes as though they are water, but Yakov does not yet know that, and thus appreciates the gift and places it on the landing next to his door. He makes a habit of buying candies and leaving them hidden behind the long, draping leaves of the plant, and Maria Cristina will sneak over and eat some when she feels like her father’s strict, coach-approved diet is getting annoying, which is often.
Sometimes, Maria will hear Yakov being pestered by Maria Cristina to teach her this or that skill he’s made the mistake of showing in front of her. One time, she sees him hold the railing of the third floor as though he is on stage or in a studio, standing in first position and showing Maria Cristina how to do a plié. When he straightens, he briefly rises into en pointe position, for all that he’s not wearing the shoes for it, and then goes back into first. Maria’s not sure that he even realises he does it.
One day – perhaps a month and a half after he’d taken up residence – Maria sees him come in from his market trip in what is clearly a great hurry, and starts thinking oh no, trouble has caught up with him. Then Yakov leaves, still in a great hurry, his groceries resting against the foot of the staircase. Maria opens up her laptop and starts going over her figures again to make sure that if the police arrive she has some sort of defence.
Maria Cristina hops down the stairs on her way to her gymnastics lesson and steals a cherry from one of the bags. Maria Elena clears her throat disapprovingly but lets it go. It’s not as though a single cherry is going to matter much, soon.
She doesn’t expect to catch sight of Yakov again, and when she does she’s ashamed of herself: he’s carrying old Doamna Ciobanu’s – she of the second floor, delicious cooking, and knitting club – groceries, as careful as though he was carrying her newborn child. She’s nattering away at him as she loves to do, and he’s nodding, not saying a word, just nodding along.
Maria closes down her accounting sheet and goes out to help them with the bags, trying not to look shamefaced. Yakov offers her a brief smile and nod, and Doamna Ciobanu bossily demands that all her groceries be carried up to Yakov’s apartments, as she’s going to cook dinner for him after his help, protests be damned.
“And I’ll teach you my recipe for what I cook,” Doamna Ciobanu says, wagging her finger at an appropriately sheepish Yakov, who for once has a smile lurking somewhere around the corners of his mouth. “Don’t think I don’t notice the smells that come from your kitchen. I have a sharp nose, and you young people don’t know what cooking means anymore. What do you do, boil everything? Truly, that’s the only way I could get such dreadfully bland smells out of my kitchen –”
Doamna Ciobanu proceeds to spend the next four hours up in Yakov’s apartment, and the smells that start emanating from the place are distinctly mouth-watering. Maria Elena is no slouch in the kitchen, but she swears that there is only a certain subset of the population – that is, little old ladies – who can produce truly delicious food. Even restaurant owners cannot compete against the culinary might of aunties and grandmothers.
The next time she hears Yakov’s voice it’s well into the evening, and Maria Cristina has just come back from her gymnastics training. “Please,” he is saying to her, “I cannot eat all of this food. It is an impossibility. Doamna Ciobanu knows it, I know it, and she left me with all of it anyway.”
“I don’t need food,” Maria Cristina says, but she is, quite clearly, tempted. Everyone in the building values and treasures Doamna Ciobanu’s food, even small twelve-year-old gymnasts.
“I know you don’t need it, but I very much need to get rid of some of this food,” Yakov says. “I have enough for the next three weeks, and after that they will start going bad.”
“Shame on you!” Doamna Ciobanu shouts from her apartment, surprisingly loud for such a small woman, “My food never goes bad!”
“I have too much,” Yakov says, half shouting because he is speaking partly to Maria Cristina and partly to Doamna Ciobanu. A loud scoff comes from the lower apartment, but Doamna Ciobanu remains otherwise silent, which both Yakov and Maria Cristina take as permission to give away and take her food, respectively.
The problem comes when Maria Cristina tries to enter her room and the door is locked. Frantically, she tries to juggle the food and check her pockets for keys, and Maria Elena can see, as if in slow motion, that she’s going to drop the food, which means cleaning the wood outside the flat, which is just about going to break her back and probably going to only mostly succeed to boot. God knows her wood holds stains like nothing else. There’s still a stain in her living room from where she’d dropped an orange slice that one time.
Maria Elena could swear that Yakov was across the hall, was entering his own flat on the other side of the corridor, but in an instant he’s next to Maria Cristina and holding all her plates while she digs under her welcome mat hoping for a key.
“Maria, you can come in if you want!” Georghe shouts from his apartment between Yakov’s and Maria Cristina’s. Georghe would like to be a starving artist but is instead a starving university student, who had nearly tripped over Maria Cristina at the top of the staircase enough times that he’d gone ahead and invited her to hang around inside his apartment, where he could keep an eye on her and she would pose a smaller risk to his ankles.
“Papa always forgets to put the key under the mat,” Maria Cristina explains to Yakov, a little sheepish. Maria Elena clicks her tongue disapprovingly, but she does it quietly. There’s no point in letting Maria Cristina hear it, after all.
“Are you coming, Maria?” Georghe asks, sticking his head out of his apartment. He looks like a disaster – hair all over the place, dark rings under bloodshot eyes, pen stains all over his hands. Maria Elena clicks her tongue disapprovingly again, and this time she lets it be heard. Georghe glares down at her. “I have a thesis due!” he calls, but Maria has stopped accepting that as an excuse a long time ago. Georghe always has a thesis due. Maria is quite sure that’s not how universities work.
“Yes, I’ll come,” Maria Cristina says, and turns to Yakov. “Thank you again. For the food, and catching it.”
“Food?” Georghe asks, honing in on the word as though he is a particularly obtuse hound. A second later his eyes alight on Yakov, still bearing plates on his arms, and his eyes light up. “Food!”
Without any other words said, he grabs Yakov by the sleeve and pulls him into the apartment. Maria Cristina follows them, and the last thing Maria Elena hears as the door swings shut is Georghe beginning to interrogate Yakov on his university topic: “So what do you know about plant tissue culture?”
Yakov starts to say, “Uhh,” but by that point it’s too late. He’s been subsumed into Georghe’s apartment. And Maria does mean subsumed; she’s been in Georghe’s apartment exactly once and she remains surprised she’d managed to find her way out again. He suffers from a chronic love of plants and lack of space, which is not a good combination.
Maria Elena chuckles down at the sweater she’s knitting at the thought of poor quiet Yakov stuck with a doctoral student trying to educate him about hybridisation and surrounded by enough plants that he can’t leave. Her yarn flaps up at her cheerfully.
Yakov starts to cook for everyone, after that. He will go into Georghe’s apartment holding plates and bowls laden with food and come out with pot plants in his arms, because Georghe’s supply is unending. Georghe starts to fill out, stops looking so desperately, waifishly thin in that way people who do not know how to take care of themselves do. Maria does not know how he has survived in this word for so long, because the only times she has ever seen him eat is when Doamna Ciobanu or Kathrin Diefenbacher gives him food, and the former doesn’t often have leftovers once her family and knitting circle are through with them, and the latter is often too tired to cook after a full working day or – as is the case now – on holiday with her brother. Yakov coming to live in the building is turning out to be a great blessing for Georghe.
Maria Cristina also eats dinner with them in Georghe’s apartment, and quietly disposes of the instant food and soulless pre-made meals her mother leaves her. Doamna Ciobanu laughs but accepts dishes of food that she’d been the one to teach Yakov to cook; Maria Elena, even, becomes recipient to food, and Yakov continues to be careful with her: giving her small amounts of sweet things, desserts, nothing too substantial because she can cook for herself and he knows it. It’s absurdly sweet, the care he takes not to offend, the smile that unfurls on his face when Maria compliments his cooking.
The knowledge drops into her mind like a stone, when she first sees that smile: Yakov likes to take care of people.
When Maria’s creaky washing machine throws a tempter tantrum and breaks down, she knows that she should probably get someone professional in to fix it properly, but the professionals are always so very expensive. She’s not truly expecting anything to come out of it – is already calculating what she can afford to lose to this godforsaken machine – when she calls up the stairwell to see whether anyone knows anything about fixing washing machines.
“I can help,” Yakov says, sticking his head out of his flat and startling Maria so much that she has to sit down. She hadn’t expected anyone to know anything about washing machines.
“You can?” she asks dumbly even as Yakov comes down the stairs. He nods. “Oh.”
“I’ll be fast,” Yakov tries to say, but Maria tsks loudly enough that he cuts himself off, looking mildly surprised.
“You’ll take all the time you need,” she says severely, and ducks into the kitchen to make him some food. She is no Doamna Ciobanu, but she’s not terrible in the food department.
Yakov spends a solid few hours lying on the cold floor of her apartment and taking the washing machine apart. When she goes in to check on him there are parts strewn across the floor and Yakov is digging wet socks out of the pipe in the wall.
“I – oh, your socks,” Yakov says apologetically, as though it’s his fault the machine ate them. “They were sucked into the pipe and blocked the water.” He passes them to her, and even if they were salvageable Maria doesn’t particularly feel like wearing them anymore.
“You’re still wearing gloves,” she says disapprovingly. The fabric stretched across his hands may be black but she can still tell that they’re soaked through. White washing powder is smeared across his knuckles.
“It’s fine,” Yakov says. “I normally – they, uh, I like to keep them on.” Colour rises in his face, possibly for the first time Maria has seen, and he buries himself back in the washing machine.
“Hmm,” Maria says, but she doesn’t push. “Well, I brought food, and I expect you these plates to be empty when you leave.”
Yakov comes out from behind the machine to see what she is talking about, and his eyes widen in comical dismay. “That’s too much food!” he protests immediately.
“That’s not my problem,” Maria sniffs.
“Share it with me, at least,” Yakov says, his eyes unreasonably pleading as he looks up at her.
“I suppose I can do that,” Maria acquiesces, and picks the smallest bread roll of the plate as she levers herself into a sitting position on the ground.
Yakov has always seemed like the quiet type to her, but he gets her talking easily, and even when he comes out from behind her washing machine and puts a load in they are still chatting, about Bucharest and markets and the Parc, inconsequential things that are nevertheless pleasant to kick around idly as the washing machine hums along in front of them, and delivers a clean load of laundry without so much as a sputter.
“Are you painting the walls?” Yakov asks as he follows her through the living room and into the little yard outside; it’s barely worth the name, and only just larger than any of the small fire escapes they like to call balconies, but it gets enough sunlight to dry her clothes.
“I’m planning to,” Maria says, shooting a backwards look at the coloured tiles of paint and roller she’s had sitting on the table for the past month and a half. “Somehow I never get around to it.”
“Well, I know how to paint a wall,” Yakov says, slanting a sideways look at her and surreptitiously stealing some wet clothes to hang up.
“I may just take you up on that.”
“Please do,” Yakov assures her.
Jan and Kathrin Diefenbacher return from their vacation towards the end of the third month that Yakov has been in the building, both of them sun-tanned and smiling. They’d both of them come to Romania on a working holiday visa and liked it enough that they’d decided to make it their home base; she was a young working professional, he an au pair and occasional contract worker. They were gone almost more often than they lived here because she could work from her computer and he could pick up odd jobs everywhere he went.
“Hello, Maria!” Kathrin says at once, coming forward to kiss Maria’s cheeks. “How have you been?”
“Oh, you know,” Maria says, waving a hand. “Here and there. This and that.”
“Do we have a new tenant, or did Ion decide to stay?” Jan asks. “The lights on the third floor were on.”
“We have a new tenant,” Maria says. “His name is Yakov Vasiliev. He mostly keeps to himself, but I’m sure you’ll get to know him sometime. He’s been adopted by Doamna Ciobanu and Georghe.”
“He has?” Kathrin asks.
“Oh, yes. Doamna Ciobanu has taught him her recipes for all the kinds of ciorbă under the sun.” Their eyebrows go up: there are many different types of ciorbă, but it truly does feel like Maria has been plied with bowls of every type there is to have.
“Is he Russian?” Jan asks. “Can I practice my Russian with him?”
Maria shrugs. “You’ll have to ask him. Tell me, how was Greece?” She likes hearing what the two of them get up to, and she suspects they enjoy telling a willing ear. It’s a good system they have.
“Hot,” Kathrin says happily.
“Do I hear the Diefenbacher twins?” Georghe calls down the stairs, sticking his head out of his door again. Sometimes Maria is convinced that Georghe lives with his ear to the door, he pops in and out so conveniently.
“We’re not twins,” Jan says tiredly, with the tone of a man who has long given up the actual argument.
“Close enough!” Georghe yells over his shoulder as he disappears into his apartment.
“Oh no,” Kathrin mutters, trying her best to act dismayed. And, sure enough, when Georghe emerges again it’s with a pot in each hand.
“Dieffenbachias for the Diefenbachers,” he says.
“That’s really not funny,” Kathrin says, even though there is a smile clearly visible at the corners of her mouth.
“Oh, but it is,” Georghe says. Maria rolls her eyes, and Jan nods in commiseration. Those two have been dancing around each other for far too long. Georghe gifts dieffenbachias exclusively to the Diefenbachers, which is just code to say that he gifts them to Kathrin: to her knowledge, for all the plants Georghe has unloaded onto Yakov, his dieffenbachias are not among them.
“We got you a souvenir,” Kathrin says, bringing a plant cutting out of her bag. It is very carefully wrapped in tissue and stored in plastic, and from the way Georghe falls upon it one would almost think he has never seen a seedling in his entire life.
Yakov chooses that moment to come out of his flat, quiet as always, bags in hand for a trip to the markets.
“Is that him?” Kathrin and Jan whisper, almost at the same time. Poor Georghe looks absolutely heartbroken, to an extent which really is not necessary for the situation at hand; Kathrin hadn’t even sounded that interested, in Maria’s opinion.
“Yes, that’s him,” Maria says. “His market schedule is terrible, you never can tell when he’s going to go out next.”
“He makes good food, though,” Georghe says loyally.
“Yakov, these are the Diefenbachers,” Maria calls over, once Yakov has descended the stairs. “Kathrin and Jan. They live on the second floor, opposite to Doamna Ciobanu. Kathrin, Jan, this is Yakov.”
“Добрый день,” Jan says, very carefully.
“Good to meet you,” Yakov says, offering his hand and smiling a little at the Diefenbachers to soften the apparent rejection of Jan’s Russian. “I try to stay to Romanian, it needs improving.”
“Pff,” Maria says, and concentrates very hard on her knitting when Yakov gives her an exasperated stare. He’s perfectly fluent and he knows it.
“Perhaps you can help me practice my россияне sometime,” Jan says, and Yakov dips his head.
“Of course,” he says quietly before turning back to Maria. “Anything I can get you today, domnisoara?”
“Butter, please,” Maria says, passing him the money for it. “And sugar.”
“Butter and sugar,” Yakov repeats, and gets out an, “It was nice to meet you,” to the Diefenbachers before he treads away on silent feet.
“Tell me all about Greece,” Maria says, turning back to the Diefenbachers. “What did you do? Where did you go?”
“Oia and Mykonos,” Kathrin says promptly.
“I lived in Mykonos!” Maria exclaims, duly pleased, and settles in to hear everything the two have to tell her.
Somehow it does not surprise Maria when, after Yakov has spent so much time with Maria Cristina, whiling away the afternoons, he starts to leave his apartment earlier. He exits quietly at around seven in the morning, and waits at the top of the landing for about five minutes, at which time, equipment bag in hand, Maria Cristina will either bounce or slouch out of her flat, depending on how she is feeling on that particular morning; there never seems to be an in between, with her.
On bouncing mornings, Maria Cristina will chatter away to Yakov about whatever is on her mind; on slouching mornings she remains silent. And either way, Yakov is quiet, either listening or sympathetically quiet. The only words he says are a quiet, “Good morning,” once to Maria Cristina and once to Maria Elena once the two of them reach the bottom of the stairs. They make a strange couple, the large looming man and the small gymnast, but it’s easy to see that they are fond of each other: she will lean towards him, and sometimes he will wrap an arm around her shoulders or stroke her smoothed-back hair as they walk.
He collects her, too: leaves the apartment building at half past seven at night and returns with Maria Cristina in tow, holding her bag for her. Maria Elena still thinks that that is the sort of thing a parent should be doing, but given the situation – Yakov is constantly climbing higher in her esteem, that’s all. And that’s not even mentioning the way he will go in to collect a meal for five from his room before letting Maria Cristina drag him into Georghe’s apartment while she waits for her parents to come home. Not mentioning the way that all the food disappears between the three of them by the time he comes out hours later and politely escorts Maria Cristina to her own apartment even though it’s barely even four steps away. He seems to always have a plant in his hand, at that point. Georghe must truly like him to be unloading so many of his precious plants.
“Domnisoara,” Yakov says to her one day, quietly, just before he ducks out to go out and collect Maria Cristina, “What do I do with all the plants? I have so many.”
He looks so adorably bewildered, for all his impressive muscles, that Maria Elena really can’t help the way she pats his cheeks.
“You either stop going into his apartment or you start refusing them,” she tells him. The corners of Yakov’s mouth turn down, unhappy, and the next afternoon Maria Elena sees him bringing a large pot of glossy leaves into his room. She shakes her head down at the nearly-finished jumper that’s almost ready to be sent on to her niece, unbearably fond.
Doamna Ciobanu had taken quite a shine to their new tenant after their first cooking encounter. She invites him down constantly, insists on teaching him more dishes, things that even she doesn’t make a habit of cooking very regularly. Yakov bears all this with the good grace of someone who has had fussy aunties and grandmothers do exactly this to him from a young age, which makes this something of a match made in heaven: Doamna Ciobanu is excessively good at being a fussy grandmother, and utterly delighted to find someone who will take this in their stride – Georghe has proven too thesis-oriented to mother, with a habit of retreating to his room to “just double-check one sentence, I promise,” and then forgetting to come out for days on end; the Diefenbacher siblings are on holiday too often to be reasonably mothered; and Maria at twelve thinks she is the oldest and most responsible person on the surface of the Earth. That might even be true, Maria Elena thinks sometimes, bitterly. No twelve-year-old should be training for so many hours in a day.
So: Yakov it is. And Maria might understand the logic behind it, but she still has to giggle when she arrives at Doamna Ciobanu’s room on Tuesday evening for their knitting circle and finds Yakov there. Or, she giggles until she realises what his gloved hands are doing, which is obediently following Doamna Ciobanu’s smooth movements to create a patterned scarf, and then she gapes, just a little.
“Yakov, I didn’t know you could knit!” Maria exclaims. That seems like the sort of thing one should know of a tenant who has lived in one’s building for several months.
“Neither did his own fingers, at first, but just look at him now! He’s very good at it,” Doamna Ciobanu says, every inch the proud grandmother.
“I used to do this for a friend of mine,” Yakov explains, slightly sheepish and surrounded by expectant silence. “The winters are cold in – in Russia, and even the good yarn is cheaper than sweaters.”
“Ah, your friend was lucky,” Doamna Ciobanu says. Yakov shrugs, but does not say any more on the subject, and as the other knitting club ladies start to filter into the room Maria knows that any chance they had of learning more has evaporated.
Unsurprisingly, Yakov goes over extremely well with the other knitting club ladies, the seven of them who turn up. He’s quiet, he’s polite, he’s very easy on the eyes, and he knits. There’s nothing not to like, Maria knows this. Once again the comparison between him and his companions his hilarious: the hulking Yakov sticks out terribly in between all the small older ladies – some of them white-haired, most of them lined and wrinkled, and all shorter and smaller than him, even the stolid Domnisoara Moraru who had carried around blocks of cement for a living until a few years ago. Nobody seems to mind the discrepancy, though, only fall into their regular pattern of knitting and gossiping and heckling each other with the occasional aside to explain who and what they are talking about to a silent but smiling Yakov.
“Hello,” Maria Cristina says from the door, about halfway through the session. She does not enjoy knitting or sewing in the least, but she’s halfway to being a regular visitor what with all the times that she’s popped her head in to see what the knitting club ladies could do with her torn tights, or scratched leotard, or obscenely well-used grips.
“Let me guess,” says Ana Mazurek of the excellent borscht and rowdy grandchildren. “Tights.”
Maria Cristina shakes her head. “Leotard,” she says.
“Just let me finish this row,” Maria says, regretting that she’d picked such a complex pattern. It was going to look divine when it was done, but if she puts her knitting down now she’s going to lose her place and probably have to start the row from scratch.
“I – I think I can do it,” Yakov says, putting down his knitting and picking up a needle and thread, beckoning Maria Cristina over.
“Ah, young eyes,” Mihaela Novak sighs as Yakov threads his needle with no visible difficulty.
“Will you teach me?” Maria Cristina asks. It is her go-to question for Yakov now: when he absent-mindedly finds himself in a ballet position, when he lifts a heavy load, when he cooks one of Doamna Ciobanu’s recipes, even though the wiser course of action would probably be to ask Doamna Ciobanu herself. She has never shown any interest in sewing before, but her wide eyes are fixed on Yakov’s smooth movements now.
“If you want,” Yakov says mildly, and at Maria Cristina’s enthusiastic nod proceeds to show her how to darn her leotard. His movements had been all quick efficiency while he was knitting, but for Maria Cristina he slows himself down, takes the time to explain the steps and how and why they work. Maria Cristina nods along with wide eyes.
“Ah, your friend was one of those types, too?” Ana asks, sharp eyes on Yakov’s neat stitches, once he has snapped the thread and handed the leotard back to Maria Cristina. “Always getting into trouble,” she specifies, when Yakov looks up at her inquiringly. “Always with holes in his socks and pants and shirt.”
Yakov actually laughs, at that, a true laugh that wells up from his chest, the kind that Maria hadn’t realised was missing until it fell into place. “You don’t know the half of it,” he tells her.
“Yakov?” Maria asks, knocking on the doorframe. This is one of those rare times that he’s left it open, which is the reason she’s up here now instead of lying in wait as she tends to do down at the bottom of the stairs.
“Domnisoara,” Yakov says, with every sign of relief. “I was just about to come down.”
“My, uh, balcony,” Yakov says. “It. Um.” Apparently lost for words, he gestures for Maria to follow him to the small balcony and fire escape.
When she exits the flat, she truly can’t help the startled laugh that bursts out of her. Yakov has evidently begun storing the plants that Georghe unloads on him here, and pots almost completely cover the ground area. What with the months he has spent here, the ground space had run out, and at that point Yakov had evidently constructed some small tables with spindly legs that reach only tentatively to the ground, and they support yet more plants.
The balcony is overflowing with greenery. It is really no surprise, then, that the birds have found it.
“I don’t know what to do with them,” Yakov says, the absolute picture of well-meaning confusion as little feathered bodies hop around him and murmur between themselves, supremely unconcerned by his appearance in a way that suggests they are used to him. One of the birds trills at Maria. She has little experience with bird faces but she could swear that this one is smug.
There is a tiny noise from Yakov’s feet. When Maria looks down, Yakov is trying his best to gently nudge away a tiny ball of tabby fluff which seems to be attached to his foot. Under his breath he is muttering, “No, no, I told you to not come back –”
“You are one of those Disney princesses, yes?” Maria asks. “That is the only explanation for this. Honestly.”
“…It’s the plants,” Yakov says, like he’s not clearly magic with old ladies and birds and cats and now plants. “I could move them?” The bird cries get louder at this, as if in protest. Maria thinks that if this was any other tenant she would be getting a very bad headache, right now, but as it is all she can feel is bafflement and a soft kind of affection.
“Just – just clean the balcony every once in a while,” she compromises. It’s ridiculous of her to feel as though it’d be cruel to part Yakov and his animals, but there it is, anyway. Now that he’s fairly sure she’s not going to evict his kitten he has scooped it up, and it lies on his gloved fingers, so tiny in his big, gentle hands. Maria pokes a finger forward curiously, and the kitten promptly bites it. Maria withdraws.
“Of course I’ll clean the balcony,” Yakov says, as though he is insulted she thinks she needs to tell him this. “And the side of the building. If that gets damaged.”
Maria pats his arm, making sure to keep her hand away from the kitten, who is watching her with narrow eyes. “Yes, you can stay,” she tells it, wagging a finger. The kitten swipes at it.
“Thank you,” Yakov says, and Maria waves it away.
“You have been here long enough for me to know that I can trust you,” she says, meaning it. Yakov’s whole expression flickers and shifts at that, disbelieving for an instant before he melts. Maris very much wants to pat his cheek.
“Anyway,” Yakov says, clearing his throat. “You came up here for a reason?”
“Oh – oh, yes,” Maria says. “It’s my walls. I’m finally doing something about them.” She gestures, unsure how to convey a wall, or the process of painting it. “Which is to say, I was wondering if your offer to paint still stands.”
“Of course it does,” Yakov says. “I can do it. Now?” He starts to head out the door, only to realise that he has a kitten in his hand, attempt to put the kitten down, and get bitten for his trouble. For a second, he doesn’t react, only blinks down at the kitten. Then he says, “Ow?” in the tone of a person who most definitely is not in any sort of pain.
The kitten blinks up at him, the epitome of innocence.
“She is going to be trouble,” Maria says. Yakov looks back at her.
“Well, I thought so,” Maria says. “If you’ll just keep holding her, I can –” The kitten has no objections to being held by Yakov, clearly, and goes so far as to magnanimously allow her tail to be lifted and – Maria was right. “Yes, a little lady,” Maria relays back to Yakov, who looks slightly poleaxed by this news. Not, Maria thinks, infinitely amused, unlike a new father. “I don’t suppose you’ve named her, then?”
“Um…no,” Yakov admits. “I’ve just been calling her, I don’t know, Pisică, Pisoi.”
“Well, you have until you walk out that door to think of something better, or I guarantee you someone will take it upon themselves to give her a positively horrendous name,” Maria says, and swears that her heart melts a little when Yakov shifts his kitten a little closer to the bulk of his chest, as though to protect her from the horrors of being attached to an unfortunate name.
“Ste – Sveta,” he decides. “Svetlana.”
“Pretty,” Maria says agreeably, and tries her luck again at petting the newly-named Svetlana. This time the little kitten allows it, even leaning slightly in to the single finger that Maria is using. “For such a pretty cat.”
“A nice cat,” Yakov agrees, and then a grin breaks out on his face. “It took me days to get her to come to me. She would sit under the bindweed, you know, the purple one, and pretend that I couldn’t see her. And then when she finally did come out it was to pounce on my foot. She’s a fierce cat.” There’s naked affection in his face as he looks down at the kitten he’s got cupped in his palm. As if to prove his point, she bats at his little finger so hard that she nearly tumbles right off of her perch.
“Fierce indeed,” Maria observes.
“Anyway,” Yakov says. “I’ll just –” he flails around for a second, and resolves the issue at hand by placing Svetlana on his shoulder. Maria has to smile again, at this big man with a tiny kitten kneading determined little patterns on his shoulder. “Okay. Wall, you said?”
“Downstairs,” Maria says, unhelpfully. “But you don’t have to do it now!” Yakov waves a careless hand, and then checks his watch.
“Not the actual painting, no,” he agrees. “That is probably a day’s work, or a weekend’s work. But I can tape up the ceiling and the floor in preparation,” he says, and promptly does so, laying tape across the acutest part of the floor’s edge and newspaper further outwards, and then climbing onto Maria’s rickety table and doing the same for the ceiling. Svetlana sits on his shoulder all the while, back straight like a queen, surveying her kingdom of paper floors and fairly disgusting – soon, hopefully, to be more pleasant – walls.
Unsurprisingly, Yakov is ambushed almost immediately after coming out of Maria’s apartment; the bigger surprise was that they’d gotten down the stairs unhindered. It’s simply bad – or perhaps very good – timing, because for all that Doamna Ciobanu goes out to the markets every week, nowadays accompanied by Yakov, she also sometimes makes impromptu trips for specific, more demanding meals.
“Yakov!” she exclaims, as soon as her eyes alight on the man, and the small shape on his shoulder. “Kitten! You have a kitten!”
“I don’t know –” Yakov starts, but Doamna Ciobanu is already digging around in her bag.
“I knew I had to buy tuna today, I passed by the stall and I just knew, my intuition never fails me, come closer, sweet thing, I have tuna for you.”
Yakov holds Svetlana out obligingly, managing to foil all her attempts to climb back up his arm. Doamna Ciobanu finally locates her tuna and offers it to the kitten as though she truly is a queen, and Maria already knows that this cat is going to grow up immensely spoiled.
Svetlana deigns to try the tuna, and when it becomes apparent that the fish is very much to her taste she scarfs the rest of it down so fast that it’s gone in a blink: one second there, the next second gone. Doamna Ciobanu seems delighted with this, cooing over the cat as though Svetlana were her next grandchild.
“– such a pretty cat, yes, and she knows it, too! Little queen, that’s her. I’m so glad we have a cat in the building,” she says. “I’ve always wanted one, it’s such a shame I’m allergic –”
The reaction from Yakov is instant and jarring: he reels away, yanking Svetlana backwards almost roughly so that there is about three metres of room between the cat and Doamna Ciobanu, who has an expression on her face that could probably be best summed up by a row of question marks.
“You’re allergic?” Yakov repeats. “You shouldn’t – you shouldn’t go near her, then, it’s not good for you –”
“Don’t be silly,” Doamna Ciobanu says, grumpy and frowning now. “I’ll just take an antihistamine when I get back to my flat. I might be old but I remember perfectly well what I’m capable of, and petting a cat is one of those things.”
“An antihistamine?” Yakov repeats, and Doamna Ciobanu shrugs.
“Yes, didn’t you have them in Russia?” she asks, and at Yakov’s slightly blank stare she shakes her head a little and continues. “They stop the allergic reactions. Which means,” she adds pointedly, “that I’m perfectly capable of petting a cat for a while, bring her back over here.”
“Oh,” Yakov says, and very slowly offers Svetlana to Doamna Ciobanu again. “You’re sure –?” he starts to ask, and then shuts his mouth at the stern look Doamnu Ciobanu gives him.
“Perfectly sure,” the older woman says, fishing out more tuna from her bag and proffering it to a purring Svetlana.
“I’m sorry, then,” Yakov says, ducking his head a little.
Doamna Ciobanu clucks sympathetically and waves her hand, apparently indicating that all is forgiven.
“I have a good idea,” she says, and gently appropriates Svetlana from Yakov’s hands and gives him her market bags to carry up the stairs, accompanied by a winning smile. “Good, no?”
“Oh, very,” Yakov replies, keen eyes on Svetlana and the way she purrs in Doamna Ciobanu’s grasp. “Shall we?”
By the time they have reached Doamna Ciobanu’s apartment and Svetlana is being exchanged once again for groceries, Georghe has stuck his head out of his apartment.
“I swear I keep hearing about cats,” he complains down the stairs. “Is there a cat?”
“Yakov found one,” Maria calls up, and Georghe brightens immediately.
“Really?” he asks excitedly, in the same moment that Yakov grumbles, “I didn’t find her, she found me.”
“Cat!” Georghe yells, heedless of the logistics involved in obtaining it, and almost trips over himself in his haste to get down the stairs. “Oh, cat.”
“Svetlana,” Yakov says.
“Sveta, Svetla, Svetulya,” Georghe immediately begins, effusively. “Lana –”
“You’re going to confuse her,” Yakov says. Svetlana bites Georghe’s palm, as if to underscore the point.
“Cats are very smart, they are never confused,” Georghe asserts, and then adds, “but don’t let her into my apartment, I have plants, my plants.”
Maria doesn’t get to see how Maria Cristina reacts to Svetlana, because Yakov takes the little kitten along with him when he picks Maria Cristina up from her gymnastics. When she does see, though, is an absolutely delighted Maria Cristina practically bouncing off the ceiling by the time she walks back into the building, looking ready to burst with sheer happiness every time Svetlana so much as looks at her.
The story is the same every time: Georghe will come down in the evening and tell Maria that he needs to go on an errand, usually to the library or his lab. Then he will hang around in the entrance until Kathrin either gets back from work or he is forced to depart due to time constraints. Today Kathrin had gotten home in time for them to bump into each other, and promptly spend the better part of an hour chatting, even though she is apparently desperately tired after a horrid day at work and he still needs to run to the library and pick up a typically obscure book that Maria has never heard of.
The cycle is interrupted today because Georghe and Kathrin’s non-accidental accidental meeting started slightly later than usual and lasted for slightly longer than usual, which means it is seven thirty and time for Yakov to go and pick Maria Cristina up from her gymnastics. He exits his room as usual, with Sveta kneading one shoulder, but with him this time is Jan, who is talking somewhat hesitantly in Russian. He speeds up slightly every time Yakov nods, and then falls back a slower, more hesitant flow of words. Maria doesn’t have much knowledge of Russian but she thinks she catches something about books and something about knives.
“Oh!” Kathrin gasps as soon as she sees the two of them. “Cute!” Georghe looks about ready to lock himself up in his flat with his plants for the next hundred years until Kathrin continues. “Is that his cat? Can I pet it?”
“Yes and yes,” Maria says.
“She’s Svetlana and she’s beautiful,” Georghe says, regaining all his old enthusiasm. He’s even started letting her into his flat, under strict supervision, because she behaves impeccably when anyone is watching and it’s very hard to resist her when she wants something. Maria’s now constantly half-empty fridge can attest to that –her mama would turn over in her grave and shriek if she could see the state of Maria’s fridge. Maria can almost hear her now, ce-i cu tine, mama ta nu te-a educat așa!
“She’s a little shy,” Yakov cautions, but he holds out an arm anyway. Under the gaze of everyone in the room, Svetlana meows and stretches luxuriously from her position on Yakov’s shoulder; Yakov continues holding his entire arm very still and Sveta walks down it, utterly at ease, to sniff at the hand Kathrin is holding out.
“I was hoping to catch you as you went out, anyway,” Maria says, deftly snipping off her yarn and passing the now-completed gloves to Yakov. “Give them to Maria Cristina, I know for a fact that she hasn’t gotten replacements for the ones she tore last year and it’s getting colder.”
“As if I could sneak past you,” Yakov says fondly, taking the gloves obligingly. Maria would make some for him, too, but he always has gloves on anyway. Then again – she casts a disapproving glace at his hands – his gloves are dreadfully businesslike, black and plain. What he needs, she decides, looking through her basket of wool, is something bright and soft. She starts rummaging through her basket of yarn, and as soon as her fingers brush bright yellow Sveta catches her eye and meows imperiously. Maria grins and pulls out the yellow yarn.
Sveta and Yakov go over incredibly well at the knitting club, of course they do. Maria had thought Yakov was received well, but it was nothing like the way the ladies rave over Sveta. She enjoys all the attention thoroughly, as is her wont, and meows in protest as soon as anybody tries to go back to their knitting. At least, that is, until she discovers the basket of yarn that Ana has brought along.
It’s bad timing, because the discussion about what colour Maria’s new wall should be has just gotten well underway, and as a result she spends ten minutes vigorously defending the virtues of blue to Sofia Esposito with half an ear tuned into the debate of how independent cream is from yellow, and just as she’s somewhat convinced Sofiathat blue may perhaps not be the devil’s colour after all she has to switch gears abruptly to absolutely refuse the prospect of painting her room burgundy no matter how much Magda’s ex-husband’s new boyfriend might think it was cute.
Yakov has remained silent up until now, but then he says, “I think we’re going about this incorrectly. One colour isn’t enough; our Maria needs two. A scheme like purple and orange, perhaps.”
The room explodes once more into furious discussion, and judging from Yakov’s small, smug smile, he knows exactly what he’s done. Maria glares at him, and he tips her a wink.
Finally, after it has been decided that while two colours might be acceptable they would also be more trouble than they would be worth, and additionally that Yakov had the most terrible suggestions and was no longer allowed to contribute to the discussion – although that hadn’t stopped him from occasionally interjecting with suggestions like, “Pink and yellow,” or “Navy and lime,” that had the room positively shrieking with indignation – they settled back down to their tragically abandoned knitting and realised the room was suspiciously quiet.
“Where did Sveta go?” Mihaela ventures, and as though responding to her name Sveta squirms out of the basket absolutely tangled in yarn and mewing piteously, as though nothing has ever been or ever will be her fault and certainly the yarn was malevolently tangling her, not the other way around.
“You’re a troublemaker,” Maria says, picking her up and peeling bits of wool off her fur. Sveta purrs. Maria frowns. “This is not a hug. It’s not.”
Sveta purrs even more loudly, and the knitting group titters. Maria strokes Sveta gently, even as she realises this is not the message she wants to get across to the little cat.
One day, when Yakov comes back from collecting Maria Cristina, the girl is slumped in his arms, her head lolling against his shoulder and her legs around his waist. Sveta has been dislodged from her customary position on Yakov’s shoulder and is trailing them, occasionally letting out a worried mewo. Maria Elena gets up immediately, rushes forward.
“Is she –”
“Just tired,” Yakov says, immediate and reassuring. His voice is so certain that it stops Maria’s worry in its tracks, calms her almost in an instant.
“You’re sure?” she asks anyway.
“I’m sure,” Yakov confirms. “Her training today – well, all week, but mostly today – it was too hard for her. She’s only twelve.”
Maria can’t help the clicking of her tongue, then. “Her mother is absurd,” she says, and reaches forward to stroke Maria Cristina’s soft hair. Yakov must have pulled it out of Maria Cristina’s normal smoothed-back bun because it falls over her shoulders in waves. “No child needs to be the next Nadia Comănesci. She just needs to be a child.”
“I talked to her instructors,” Yakov says, something slightly dark in his eyes. “They will make her schedule less demanding.”
“Good,” Maria says, firm. “Good.” Then she looks up at Yakov, concerned. “You will not get in trouble for it?”
Yakov merely shrugs. “They thought that I was Domnul Oprea, so I do not think anyone will find out soon.”
Maria scoffs again, at the thought that Maria Cristina’s own father is so unknown to the staff at the gymnastics training centre that Yakov is simply assumed to be Domnul Oprea.
“Let me take that,” she says, gesturing at the bag dangling from one of Yakov’s hands instead of airing any bitter thoughts in front of a child, even a sleeping one. She knows the bag is absurdly light compared to a twelve-year-old, but Yakov hands over the bag with a quiet thanks, as though it is a help.
“Where are her parents?” Yakov asks as they navigate the stairs. “I feel like I have barely seen them in all the months I have lived here.”
“I doubt you have,” Maria says. “Her mother goes on business trips, and her father works five to nine.”
Yakov raises an eyebrow. “Not nine to five?”
Maria shakes her head. “They say it is for her coaches. For her gymnastics,” she says. “The best coaches in the country are very expensive. They want her to go to the Olympics.”
“The Olympics,” Yakov scoffs, and then, so quietly that Maria isn’t even sure that she’s supposed to hear it, “At least it’s only the Olympics.”
“Only?” Maria asks, a little incredulous. Now Yakov is scoffing at the Olympics? Sometimes he truly does baffle her.
“Oh, I, uh –” Yakov says sheepishly. “I was in a program. It was worse – I mean, it was proud of being better even than the Olympics. It wasn’t – I didn’t enjoy it.”
Maria looks at him appraisingly, notes the way he holds Maria Cristina close, the way his arm is wrapped entirely around her small body. She doesn’t overlook, either, the slightly guilty look on his face, but that is not entirely surprising: she knows – has known almost from the beginning – that he is a man with things to hide.
“No,” she says. “I imagine you didn’t.”
Yakov gives Maria Cristina a small bounce. “Your room or Georghe’s or mine?” he asks, very soft.
“Hmm…mine,” Maria murmurs sleepily. “Oh, but,” she says, when Yakov crouches down. “It’s locked.”
“Doesn’t have to be,” Yakov says, sticking – something – in the lock and twisting. Maria watches in astonishment as the door swings open, obedient, and then she realises wha she’s seen and promptly decides she hadn’t seen it. Maria Cristina’s sleepy eyes go wide.
“Will you teach me that?” she asks.
“If you want,” Yakov says, and hastily adds, when Maria Cristina nods far too energetically, “and if you go to sleep right now.”
Maria Cristina nods again, more slowly as the sleepiness catches up to her again. When she leans down to wish Svetlana a good night she nearly topples over at the effort of bending. Yakov lifts her almost bodily and sets her in the right direction, so she can pad off to find her bed and, presumably, collapse in it. Maria Elena puts her gymnastics bag down on the first table she sees and sighs.
There are low murmurs from Maria Cristina’s room, and for a moment Maria Elena inches a little closer, wondering what Yakov is saying to the girl. But when she comes close enough to hear only indistinct murmurs, the warmth in Yakov’s tone says enough. She backs away.
Maria Cristina, at least, does not seem terribly upset at the incident. She bounds out of her room the next morning and hurtles into Yakov’s apartment even though it is earlier than her usual waking time, and even from the ground floor Maria Elena can hear the girl’s happy shrieking at having a day off to do whatever she wanted.
When she next looks up, Yakov is making his way down the stairs with a giggling Maria Cristina attempting to climb him and Sveta winding around his ankles. He is pretending to be unaffected, but now and then he will pretend to sway on a stair or trip over his cat to provoke an earsplitting shriek from his passenger.
“Domnisoara,” he calls down as he approaches, “I was wondering whether your walls feel ready to be painted today. And whether they could use a small but loud helper.”
“They do, and small but loud helpers are always welcome,” Maria says solemnly, opening her door and ushering them inside. Yakov raises himself onto his toes as he passes through the doorway so that Maria Cristina gently bumps into the doorframe and giggles again.
Unsurprisingly, Yakov is intensely efficient once he gets down to it, smoothing the roller across the wall in practiced motions. When he notices Maria Cristina trying to copy him, he slows his movements right down – dip, roll off the excess, raise to the wall and push out long smooth strokes – until she has gotten the hang of it and stopped slinging paint all over herself. Maria Elena, having once attempted to paint a wall several years ago and found herself utterly covered in paint, stays well clear of the two of them and makes herself useful preparing food instead. Svetlana shows clear good taste and stays safely in the kitchen with Maria Elena, aside from the occasional foray out to let Yakov know exactly how much he is liked and also exactly how very dramatically she will perish if she is not immediately given attention or food, preferably both.
By the end of the afternoon the wall is complete, a lovely light blue colour that is infinitely nicer than the stained white that had been there before. Maria Cristina’s section of the wall is a little lumpy, a little strange-looking once it is scrutinised. When he sees Maria Elena looking at it, Yakov quietly asks her if she wants him to redo it. Just as quietly, she refuses. When the paint dries, she runs her fingers over its cracks and ridges and can’t help the smile that rises to her face.
Maria finishes her new project of gloves-for-Yakov quickly, of course she does, but then finds herself after that somehow – accidentally – starting to work on a sweater. Yakov doesn’t wear enough colours, she’s decided, and so this sweater is her once-a-year project where she gathers all her loose bits of yarn from other projects and throws them all together into one horrifyingly colourful item. She is fairly sure that Yakov will find it funny, or at the least not take offence; he has worked on his fair share of colour-clashing projects during the knitting club, and had suggested some truly heinous combinations for her wall before they’d settled on a nice light blue, and she’s not sure she has seen him take offence at anything, save perhaps the habits of Maria Cristina’s parents. It takes a little longer than usual for her to complete because she doesn’t want to work on it when Yakov is around, but it gets done soon enough.
“Yakov,” she says one evening when he has just re-entered the building with Maria Cristina clutching at his hand. Yakov raises his eyebrows at her, polite. She takes the mass of fabric off her lap and shakes it out, offers it to him. It truly is an eyesore of a thing, thin stripes of utterly clashing colours all lined up, with blue next to yellow next to purple, most of the colours switching mid-row. “It’s for you,” she adds, when Yakov only stares.
“For me,” Yakov repeats, his voice a little blank. Maria gives the sweater a little shake, and that seems to startle Yakov enough for him to take it, at least.
“Yes, for you,” she says, growing a little anxious when he only stares down at the knitted yarn in his hand. “I can make one with a better colour scheme –”
She is enveloped in Yakov, suddenly. His body is absurdly warm and his hands are tight against her back. “Thank you, Maria,” he says to the air behind her head. She reaches up and pats his back, and that only seems to make him hold on tighter. Maria Cristina leans slightly against both their knees. When Yakov’s hand goes down to press into her back she gives up all pretence of being grown-up and flings are arms around their waists.
Finally, he pulls away. If his eyes look suspiciously shiny neither of the Marias mention it.
“Thank you,” he says, and for a moment with his mouth open it looks as though he is going to say something else, too, and then the moment passes and he only says, thinly, “Thank you,” again, so absurdly touched by this one thing that Maria resolves quietly to do many other things like it.
“You’re welcome,” she says. Yakov looks hesitant again, but nothing comes of it. The look sends prickles down Maria’s spine: it means that he has something to say to her, and no idea of how to say it. That look has not tended to mean good things for Maria, but she is foolish enough to like Yakov, and so she will not push, and let him stay.
Yakov comes to her soon enough, in any case. It’s perhaps a week after she has gifted him a sweater that he comes down and says, “I need to talk to you, Maria,” with a solemnity in the lines of his face that does not bode well for what he is about to say.
“Perhaps you should not,” Maria says warily. Yakov’s face breaks, just for a moment, and he tries to disguise the fact by shaking his head while he composes himself.
“No,” he says. “This is important.”
Maria stands up and beckons him into her apartment, closing the door behind them.
“It’s,” Yakov says, and twists his hands together in a rare show of nervousness. “Did you hear about HYDRA in America?”
HYDRA in America. It was such a strangely grotesque idea for Maria, such a strange one to come to terms to. America’s capitalism had been villainised for so long, and then held up as such an ideal. A Nazi cult seemed so incompatible with all the already jumbled and confused impressions of America that Maria had, but she doesn’t vocalise any of this. “Of course,” she says instead.
“Did you hear – about the winter soldier?” Yakov asks. “The man who fought Captain America on the bridge and again in Washington. I know it was reported on. I think they talked about him in the – the aftermath. I think they called him razboinicul iernii here.”
“I think so,” Maria says, the pit of her stomach dropping lower as she starts to comprehend what Yakov is telling her.
“I –” Yakov says, and drops his gaze to the ground. Then he lifts up his long sleeve and pushes down his glove for the first time since he has started living here, and where his arm should be there is the glint of metal instead. “I am him, Maria.”
Maria’s mind is blank with panic. Somehow she reaches forward to touch at the arm-thing in front of her. When her fingernails tap against it there is a metallic noise; when she presses down it is unyielding.
“I’m sorry,” Yakov murmurs. “I should have told you before.”
“Why didn’t you?” Maria asks, not so much cold as curious.
“I thought I would leave,” Yakov confesses, head down. “I thought – three months. Maybe five. I always – everywhere else I stayed, I could leave easily. I thought I could leave after three months. But –” he chokes himself off, breathing ragged.
It’s been nearly ten months. “You couldn’t,” Maria says, taking her hand back.
“I couldn’t,” Yakov agrees.
“Is anyone looking for you?” Maria asks. Her body and expression are calm and collected because her mind is still whited out.
Yakov’s head doesn’t raise. “Yes,” he says. “So far I – I’ve misled them. I think right now they think I’m in Vienna. If they can even track me to București, they will only find me in the bigger apartment neighbourhood three streets away.”
Maria knows where he is talking about, and it is a good place to lose someone: there are a number of Communist-built apartment blocks there, ten stories high and utterly featureless, many of them loose with their record-keeping. It would be hard to find anyone hiding there.
“There is nothing tying me back to this building,” Yakov says. “I promise you that.”
“Nothing except you,” Maria observes dryly. “Why did you come tell me this? Why now?”
“Because I – because I don’t want to leave,” Yakov admits, as though this is a great flaw on his part. “I couldn’t fool myself anymore, that I would leave in two weeks, in a month, in two months. But you should know who you have under your roof.”
Maria purses her lips, and the way that Yakov holds himself so utterly still is heartbreaking. She knows he’s just waiting for her to throw him out.
“You should go,” Maria says, and Yakov’s face doesn’t even have time to fall properly before she’s rushing on, “to your room and stay there. And know that we didn’t have this conversation.” Her heart is thundering in her ears. She should make him leave, if he’s as dangerous as he says. If he’s as hunted as he says. She should make him leave, and instead she is here, turning away and trying to purge the last few minutes of conversation from her mind.
Yakov’s hand clasps her wrist, his grip bordering on too tight as he turns her around. “You should make me leave,” he says through gritted teeth and a tight jaw.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about –”
“I’m a danger and a liability –”
“You’re a good man –” Maria tries to start, but Yakov cuts her off with a laugh that isn’t a laugh at all, cutting and angry.
“Domnisoara, I am anything but,” he says, in a tone that makes Maria want to shake this apparently very dangerous man.
“I don’t believe you,” she hisses instead, and tries to be content with it. “You cook for Georghe and you keep Doamna Ciobanu company and you care for Maria Cristina as though she were your own child. You fix things for me and let Kathrin pet Sveta when she needs to relax and practice Russian with Jan. Those are not the actions of a monster.”
She punctuates her point with a hard poke at Yakov’s chest, and it’s hard to tell whether he flinches at the word or the contact. “You take care of the people in this building,” Maria snaps when he opens his mouth, and her tone is sharp enough that it has Yakov falling silent again, his shoulder settling into a resigned slope. “If you leave, you leave because you want to, and you leave knowing that none of us want you to. And that’s all I have to say on the matter.” She turns away and stalks into the garden. The door swings shut behind her, and for one brief, wild moment Maria’s entire body is tense in anticipation of silence, of the movement to be interrupted by a hand.
The door bangs as it closes, and the latch slides into the lock. Maria refuses to be disappointed.
For several days, Yakov disappears. Maria thinks back to all those times, back at the beginning of his residence, that his flat would go still and silent and she would not hear from him for days. She’d assumed, perhaps naively, that she would see if he tried to leave, but now she is sure that he had not stayed. When she finally gives in to the temptation to check, all she finds is Sveta curled up inside the dirt of a potted plant. She turns and blinks up at Maria, unconcerned. She has food and water in one corner of the room.
None of Yakov’s things are gone, either. His balcony is still stuffed too full of plants and alive with the chirping of birds, his kitchen is still stocked with the spices Doamna Ciobanu has forced into becoming staples in is diet. There is a bag of half-full cat food underneath the sink, and a bookmarked copy of some old American book on the table.
To Maria’s surprise, it’s Georghe who takes Yakov’s absence the worst – he jitters, worried and anxious, and Maria doesn’t know how much he has been told so she keeps her mouth shut and tries to ply him with food in the same way Yakov had. She’d assumed Maria Cristina would be the one to grow upset at Yakov’s absence, but when she asks the girl simply nods solemnly.
“He said he might have to go away for a while,” she says. “But he’ll come back.” Then she brightens. “He taught me how to use a knife while I walked home by myself!” Maria stares down in horror. “He didn’t let me have one of my own, though,” Maria Cristina adds.
“Well…good,” Maria says.
“That’s why he taught me to punch really hard, too,” Maria Cristina decides to reveal. Maria Elena can only nod.
“Well, naturally,” she manages to say to Maria Cristina’s upturned face. “That’s a good skill to have.”
The building is lonely without Yakov. He has not even been living here a year, and Maria has found herself living around him as one does a very old friend: she will put shopping off because she forgets that Yakov is not constantly ready to go out and fetch her an ingredient, she will find herself staring up at the top landing in the morning, she will tell Sveta to wait for her meal before remembering that Yakov is not feeding her any longer. It is as though she exists in a queer state of limbo, constantly inconvenienced, knowing she should and yet unwilling to break the habits that she has formed. Georghe is virtually a shut-in now, only coming out of his flat to blink owlishly at the sunlight and Kathrin before wandering back into his room. Doamna Ciobanu cooks far too much and takes on the task of forcefully feeding an entire building.
Once, an envelope is passed underneath his own doorway and into the landing. It contains money for the next several months of rent, and money to buy food for Sveta. It also contains the words I’m sorry in looping, incongruously pretty handwriting. Maria Cristina stares down at the words and presses her lips together and doesn’t ask why Yakov is apologising. Maria smooths Maria Cristina’s hair back from her forehead in a gesture that she hopes is comforting.
And then, some weeks later, it all comes to a head. Yakov is in the news, his picture splashed over every paper in the city, all of them screaming for his head. He had rampaged through town, had left a trail of wounded and dead in his wake. He was named James Buchanan Barnes and Razboinicul Iernii and a monster and one of the HYDRA’s deadliest heads.
Georghe retreats utterly into his own room at the news, doesn’t even come out when Kathrin calls. Maria recognises exactly none of the quiet, kind man who’d stayed in her building for so long in the stories. Someone had to be lying, she knew it, but there was no way for her to find out who. No way that she could be of any help to a man she’d come to think of as a friend. She spreads the papers out in front of her chair, the better to stare down at the violently stark news print. It makes her want to cry. She has not wanted to cry for an extremely long time.
Maria Cristina comes home at exactly the wrong moment. Maria had planned on having all the newspapers tidied away by the time the child came home, and somehow –
“Maria,” she says, a little shocked, a little breathless, trying to gather up everything before Maria Cristina can see it. “I thought you were at gymnastics?”
“Coach Ivanov sent me home,” Maria Cristina mumbles, her face twisting. “He said I was useless today. And all the other days this week. And –” She stops herself, hiccups.
“Oh, you poor thing,” Maria can’t help but murmur, and reaches out. Maria Cristina stumbles into the embrace and into Maria’s rocking chair, and sobs very very quietly.
“Are they going to kill him?” she asks Maria’s shoulder tremulously.
“Well, that would be illegal,” Maria says, which is not exactly reassuring. She has all too much experience with regimes which will freely do all the illegal things it forbade everyone else from doing. “Besides, the newspapers say he has Captain America on his side, hmm? I’m sure he would be a good man to have by you in a fight.”
Maria Cristina sniffles. “I guess,” she admits grudgingly. She stays in Maria’s arms a while longer after that, and then drags herself upstairs. When news of a fight at an airport breaks soon afterwards, Maria Cristina retreats to the opposite ends of the spectrum: she throws herself into her training so thoroughly that her father has the time to go and pick her up. Domnul Oprea, of course, sees nothing wrong with this, gushes about how his daughter seems to have found a new level of work ethic. Maria Elena grits her teeth and tries not to smack him in the face.
Then, suddenly, everything is quiet. There is nothing more in the papers about superheroes; one small piece in a large newspaper that says that all parties involved have made up. Maria finds herself staring at it, as though with enough concentration she can divine what that means: her mind has gone, automatically, to the worst of all the possibilities and the one she is most familiar with, to a larger regime that has done far worse than cover up the deaths of dissenting voices.
Maria Cristina is too young to have the same immediate reaction, Maria Elena knows it. Still, she keeps the paper away from the girl.
“Maria,” Georghe says at the end of the month, when he has come down to pay his rent. His hair is a bird’s nest and his fingers twitch nervously. “Do you think he’s dead?” He, too, is not old enough to remember the regime in any clear sense, but unlike Maria Cristina he is old enough to have heard the stories of it, to have his own knowledge.
“I don’t know,” Maria says. Georghe stares at her, long and sad enough that she almost regrets telling him the truth. Then he turns and leaves, and from behind he is slumped enough to look years past his age.
When the door opens and two loud pairs of footsteps echo through the entrance, Maria thinks nothing of it. When two American voices start talking over one another, boisterous and fast enough to be incomprehensible to her, Maria scowls down at her knitting for several long seconds, hoping they will just go away of their own accord once they realise that this is not their building.
Finally, once it is clear they will not leave, Maria looks up, scowl fixed firmly in place, ready to natter at them in Romanian until they leave, and drops everything.
“Yakov?” she gasps, somehow, even though it feels like all the air has left her lungs. Yakov grins at her, as happy as she has ever seen him. There is a healthy flush in his cheeks and muscle still on his body.
“Domnisoara,” he says, voice warm, “this is Steve.”
Steve, she thinks, and when she finally manages to take her gaze off Yakov’s smiling face she finds none other than Captain America standing next to him. “Steve,” she says, standing and offering a hand. “It’s nice to meet you,” she tells him in English. Yakov nudges him, and he blushes. It is a very endearing sight.
“I have to thank you,” he says earnestly, blue eyes wide, and she thinks, fixed under that gaze, that she knows why this man is so powerful a superhero. “For helping Bucky. For taking care of him.”
Maria makes a disparaging noise. “Is that what he tells you? He took care of us, truthfully.”
Steve grins at her. “He does that,” he agrees, and Maria gapes, points at him and then Yakov as realisation strikes.
“You! Him!” she exclaims, turning to Yakov. “He’s the one you took care of! In – in not Russia!”
“He mothers really well,” Steve adds, grinning at his grumbling friend.
“He does,” Maria agrees. “We’ve all missed him.” Yakov softens, at that, as though he’d actually believed that might not be the case, and then he approaches her with arms tentatively held up. Maria hugs him gratefully, taking in the warmth and solidness of his body, reassuring herself. “Your rooms are the same,” she tells him when they separate. “Everyone will be so glad to see you.”
“Thank you for keeping them, Maria,” Yakov says, and it does not take a genius to know that there is more behind the thanks: thank you for welcoming me back, thank you for not renouncing me, thank you for not sending me away.
When Maria says, “You’re welcome,” she looks him right in the eyes as she says it, makes her tone so firm that he cannot even think about raising the matter again. “Will Steve be wanting another flat?” she offers. “There’s one on the second floor that’s been empty for a while.”
Steve ducks his head. “No, thank you, ma’am,” he says. “That won’t be necessary.”
Maria looks at him, and at Yakov. Slowly, Yakov’s hand crawls sideways and takes Steve’s. When Maria looks up again, there is shy happiness radiating from both of them. It is impossible to miss how they are together.
“Well,” she says, trying to gather her thoughts. “It looks like the second floor flat will continue collecting dust for a while.” She pats Yakov’s arm. “Truly, Yakov, go up. Maria Cristina will be ecstatic when she gets home, and Georghe and Doamna Ciobanu will probably cry. Sveta might be a little angry, though.”
Yakov grins at her, bright and incandescent, and leans forward to kiss her cheek. “I’ll win her over,” he says confidently. “And you can call me Bucky, now,” he adds as he begins to tug Steve upwards.
“That is a ridiculous name,” Maria lets herself grumble.
“Yes,” Yakov – Bucky – agrees, “but it’s mine.” Maria has no retort to that - only a smile she does not bother to suppress.