By Mark Leyner
I arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the brightest midday sunlight I’ve ever experienced. I was there for an extended working sojourn—I had cowritten (along with Jeremy Pikser and John Cusack) a movie called War, Inc., and we were about to begin shooting.
In the Blu-ray high definition of the Sofia sunlight, everything seemed extraordinarily vivid: the refulgent gold onion-shaped domes of the Orthodox churches, the sex shops with Cyrillic and English neon signage, the Communist monuments, the bright yellow peppers stacked into towering pyramids at open markets, and—what would be my home for the next two months—the glass-and-granite Grand Hotel Sofia.
I was, for those ensuing weeks, a kind of privileged guest worker. The days were long and exhausting. I’d usually get back to the hotel at about eight or nine at night and shuffle into the marble lobby, the genteel manners of the liveried doormen and bellhops sometimes disconcertingly contrasted with the truculence and baleful glowers of the muscle-bound, buzz-cut bodyguards who’d colonize the hotel bar in advance of some celebrated Balkan mobster.
After cleaning up a bit, a bunch of us would usually reconvene for dinner in the elegant dining room of the hotel. This group would consist of some combination of the cast (Cusack, his sister Joan, Hilary Duff, Marisa Tomei, and Ben Kingsley, among others) and various producers. Each night, I’d order exactly the same thing. First, a scotch. Then I’d get a shopska salad (fresh tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers, sweet peppers, and grated white cheese) and a plate of lamb stew.
This was the ritual meal that sustained me through the next two wildly entertaining months here. But as the weeks passed, I began missing home, and really longing to be back with my wife and daughter.
The night before I was scheduled to finally return, I lost a bet and got stuck with the dinner check for the entire table. I lingered alone a bit, transposing my loss from levs (the pre-EU Bulgarian unit of currency) to dollars. An odd figure floated into the periphery of my vision—a raven-haired guy, mid-thirties, dark eyeliner and mascara, Gypsy features, a lavender polyester disco shirt unbuttoned down to the navel, and a long canary-yellow scarf. He paused to survey the table’s accumulated detritus. With a theatrically effeminate sweep of his arm and a gleaming, ingratiating smile, he said: “Maybe none of you vant to leave Sofia…” And then more ominously, “Ever.” With that, he disappeared.
I returned to my room and packed.
The next morning, I awoke to find that an impossibly thick, supernaturally dense fog had enshrouded the city. Someone phoned from the front desk to inform me that all flights out of Sofia had been canceled.
I refused to believe it. I went downstairs, threw my bags into the studio’s hired car, and Pavel (the patient young Bulgarian driver) dutifully drove me to the airport. I don’t know how he was able to drive. It was literally impossible to see anything in front of the car. Once we got to the airport, Pavel waited with me for the next five hours until I resigned myself to the fact that no flights were leaving. And then we drove back to the hotel.
This exact sequence of events would repeat itself for the next five days.
And each time, we’d return to the hotel and I’d withdraw to my room, leaving my packed bags in front of the door. There’d be no more dinners with everyone. I’d already said my good-byes and I was too disgruntled to socialize. For five days, I wore a thick terry-cloth Grand Hotel robe and drank scotch and ate shopska salad and lamb stew alone in my room.
It’s a testament to the comforts of that room and the unstinting amiability of the hotel employees who’d bring me food and drink and towels, and stand around commiserating with me, that I remember even those days with such fondness and nostalgia.
The morning I was ultimately successful in leaving Sofia began as inauspiciously as all the others had. I opened the curtains and there was The Fog. I doffed my robe, got dressed, took the elevator downstairs, and tossed my bags into the waiting car. On the way to the airport, I confided to Pavel that I thought a disco Gypsy might have put some sort of spell on me. Pavel was skeptical. “Sometimes we have fog,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
At my gate, as I said my final good-bye to Pavel, I realized something: As much as other people and places beckoned, it was naïve of me to assume that I could simply pack up and decamp without enormous regret and resistance. The Grand had been home. I’d found my comfort foods. I’d become happily habituated to a set of quotidian rituals—to laundry schedules, to particular routes and hallways and elevators. I’d found solace in the indecipherable conversations of maids and bellboys as they passed my room—a muffled obbligato, a white noise soothingly disengaged from meaning.
In the end, it was a sort of reciprocal haunting. I haunted the hotel and it haunted me back. What else can explain the spectral appearance one night of the disco Gypsy in mascara, and the thickening fog of memory and nostalgia?