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1983-2015
tearing the rag off the bush again
THE PAST: BUCHAREST: Labyrinth by Florin Ion Firimit PDF E-mail
 It was in the winter of 1982 when I moved to the Bucharest Municipal Hospital at
the recommendation of a friend of the family who happened to be the director of the
facility.



    "I am worried about your grades," said my high-school principal looking straight

into my eyes. "Don't mess it up now, in your senior year. Tell your mother to stop by and

see me. I have to talk to her before it’s too late."

    I was staring at an old, dusty Steinway piano pushed against one of the walls. You

don't get it, do you? I thought. It is already too late. And I am 17, for God's sakes. I don't

need a babysitter.

    "She can't come," I answered, stopping for a few long seconds, following the

dance of the snow flakes behind the office's window. "She is very sick." Leave me alone,

the voice in me challenged. Please, just leave me alone.

    "When she gets better, tell her that we need to talk."

    I almost burst into tears. The principal thought I was lying.  

"She won't get better," I whispered. Then, I got up and left the room, realizing that

I had just accepted something I had been running away from since I moved to the

hospital: the fact that nothing lasts forever. In a few days, even the fresh snow would melt

and turn into a brownish, putrid substance. I accepted the decay of the winter along with

the other, more important fact: my mother’s imminent death.  

    It was in the winter of 1982 when I moved to the Bucharest Municipal Hospital at
 
the recommendation of a friend of the family who happened to be the director of the

facility. (He used to go fishing with my father when they were younger; after my father's

sudden death of a  heart attack in 1981, he remained devoted to his memory.) He said he

was concerned about mine being home all by myself (we had no relatives), so he offered

me a small room on the 12th floor of Oncology wing. I could bring my homework and my

painting supplies and even eat there too if I wanted, he said, smiling. He was still looking

at me as a child. I suspected that he was avoiding the truth, and that something terrible

was about to happen. (Now I know that doctors and lawyers have the same indisputable

style of masking the truth.)

You know she is going to die, I thought, but hiding the truth is part of your job.

You doctors believe you are such good actors, and you want to detach yourselves from

death, smiling and hoping that you could do your grocery shopping, you could pick up

that mystery novel or make love to your wives, and not think about it. Not think that you

have lost another battle with death, and that not you, nor any other human being will

ever win.

    My mother was there for the sixth or seventh time in several months. The doctors

avoided telling me the truth. Only now, by sitting in the principal’s office, her words

dissolving around me, was I painfully realizing it without an official medical

confirmation.

*

    During those months I got to know the hospital like my own house, like the

hundreds of books I kept devouring trying to forget, like my dark paintings reflecting my

depression. I detested the building's factory-like, confusing design, done by some

drunken architect, with its gray rollercoaster of  staircases endlessly climbing and

descending without hope, and tall, steel doors opening toward empty, intricate corridors. I

hated the hushed crowds of daily visitors and their cellophane-wrapped homemade

cookies, the always jovial fat women from the kitchen, the patronizing doctors, the tired

nurses, the bored elevator attendants who seemed to recognize me, but never said a word,

and the security guard who checked my daily free pass without making eye contact.

Sometimes, their rare, furtive gazes let me believe I belonged there, and although I never

wanted to, I could for a while be "one of them."  In a strange contradiction, I was craving

for human companionship while avoiding it at the same time. Many times I would find

myself talking to the nurses, the janitors and the ambulance drivers, telling them my story

regardless of whether they wanted to hear it or not.

My mother's room was small and well heated. It had a narrow, spotless bathroom

and even a balcony. Her bed had a lot of green, red and white buttons inserted in the

headboard. Everything around reeked of a noxious, painful efficiency. My room was

located on the same floor. It had a view of a large park where in the summer, healthy

people pushed strollers around, walked their dogs, or played tennis. Many times while in

my room, I could hear the children’s laughter down below, and often thought about the

rudeness of the sun shining through those gleaming windows. I remembered reading

somewhere how after Waterloo, the battle field, heavily stained by the blood of the dead

and the dying, was bathed into a princely, lascivious light. I wondered how Spring must

have felt at Auschwitz, and why so many cruel and unjust things happened under the

nonchalant passivity and denial of the sun.

On the first night I slept in the hospital, my mother told me the story of one of the

doctors, who after finding he had cancer, jumped out one of the windows several hours

before my arrival. She felt a swift despair in my eyes. She didn’t say it, but I sensed her

thinking it: Don't worry, I won't put you through that kind of a mess.

    So it could happen to them, too, I thought. Those invincible, cocky doctors do

sometimes crack.  For a moment, the discovery of their vulnerability made me feel better.

It was getting dark outside. I turned the small black-and-white TV on, only to hear

the same old official government fairytale reassuring us (how many of us really believe

it?) that we were living in the best of the possible worlds, a free, prosperous country

without major social or economic problems. In Romania, said the commentator, the

mortality was down (people were dying only in the rotten, capitalistic Western Europe),

overall productivity was up, and our beloved president was visiting again some far-off

African country, convincing its leaders about the evils of the free-market economy and

the perennial advantages of socialism.

    I stepped out on the narrow balcony. From the darkness, I carved the image of the

city under me, a sad pattern from a cement-colored Mondrian painting. I could feel the

cheerless pulse of its agitation, its thousands of endless streets, tired people and lights. I

went to bed early listening to the hospital doors softly closing and opening, a white,

dreary, cold place where all signs of life seemed illegitimate. I felt caught right in the

middle of two illnesses: Communism, my country's terminal disease, was overlapping my

mother's cancer.

That night I had a dream in which the dead doctor was gently flying around the

hospital as in a Chagall painting, his large wings carrying him with easiness around the

corridors. In contrast with the revolving soft, wide spirals of his movements, his face was

quite agitated, and his lips were moving. I assumed he wanted to land, but as in a silent

film with missing captions, he could not be understood. He seemed fated to never be able

to touch the ground again.

*

    In the morning, I took one of the rare public busses to school. (There was a

gasoline shortage, and the city busses were reduced to half.) At the bus stop, I would

always encounter gray, worried silhouettes carrying worn briefcases and small handbags,

facing their  9 to 5 routine. When it snowed everyone waited at a considerable distance

from the place where the bus stopped because the driver never paid attention to the large

potholes filled with a mix of muddy water and dirty salt. It was funny to see how people

cared so much about looking fresh at work; it gave them the illusion that everything was

fine.

Against unruly winds the men read the sports section of their newspapers (the

only section spared from the censors’ hatchet), while the women hid their faces behind

thick layers of inexpensive make-up. What was the purpose of putting on good make-up

in a world already buried under so many lies?  What a sad circus that was, having to

spend your meager weekly wages on a bottle of perfume or a Bulgarian-made rouge!

When the bus finally arrived, I joined the weary, domesticated scent of their

bodies, becoming one of them.

Most Romanians hated winter because it meant waiting in line for food in front of

empty grocery stores, waiting for the daily two hours of hot water, and sleeping in their

clothes while using their kitchen ovens to heat their homes. Everybody hated the snow

because it made everything look dirty.

I liked snow because everything was suddenly quiet, and when it stopped

snowing, time seemed to stop as well for a little while. The whiteness had a pulsating

spontaneity that you couldn’t find on the nurses' uniforms or in my mother's immaculate

hospital room. I thought about white as a fortunate absence of colors, a happy tabula rasa

that gave me short-lived illusions of new beginnings. It was then when I was eager to go

to the high school's studio, set up my easel and work on my assignments, while Chopin or

Grieg’s music poured from a paint-stained silver cassette player. This was one of the few,

rare moments when I did not think about my mother. I wish I had a home or a church to

go to, but only painting and the snow were my confessional.

Many times, mostly during spring, I would skip school altogether. I would ride in

old buses with dirty windows, get off at the end of the line, and walk around for hours.

Downtown was another country. I would spend many hours exploring the long stretch of

large boulevards flowing into each other from  Piaţa Unirii to Piaţa Aviatorilor. I

practiced belonging: I mingled with the afternoon crowds, the elegant women, the art

galleries, the bookstores, the diplomatic corps cars speeding by. Only rarely would I

return to the gray cocoon of the blue-collar neighborhood where my mother and I lived,

mostly just to get some fresh clothes, happily trading in the musty smell, the gray

linoleum of our dim-looking apartment, and the stuffed cabbage scents of my mother’s

kitchen for the shiny window displays full of records, glass and plastic trinkets, and the

colorful travel posters in the indecently modern, European-looking foreign travel

agencies on Bulevardul Magheru. Downtown, the city had other women, less maternal, a

bit surreal, yet truly desirable, always busy, always on their way toward something really

important, seeming to descend right from the glossy pages of the Burda magazines so

often mistakenly abandoned by my classmates in our high school’s boys’ bathroom. I

hoped to fall in love, but I was too shy, and could not possibly relate to any of them.

During my childhood, I had always been surrounded by protective women. By the

time I was about to finish high-school, all of them, except for my mother, died. Maybe

it’s the veil of time turning those women (my mother, an aunt, my maternal grandmother,

a few of my elementary and middle school teachers) into mythical figures, but I have

always felt safe and whole in their  presence. They were asexual beings who moved

silently in and out of clean, well-kept rooms, and who, unfortunately, exited the stage too

early, before I was able to acknowledge their reality  and could attempt to figure out their

roles in my existence. Before figuring out what questions to ask them or what doors they

should have helped me open, they disappeared, taking all the keys along. Even as a

teenager I sensed that in the murky bleakness between waking up and going to sleep,

their womanhood was constantly at stake. They had to fight every inch for the survival of

their charms, for their simple right of being women. The only reason for applying

makeup before punching in their time cards, was to keep the show going one day at the

time. In a country plagued by rust and pain, what a struggle to preserve and augment all

that beauty!  

Strangely, as Bucharest became more and more uncongenial, its streets dirtier, its

lights fading, I felt that it became mine more. I started feeling a stronger sense of

ownership of it, as if I were taking stock in its decay and sorrows. It took Bucharest many

decades to gradually turn from an Eastern-European Paris into a Stalinist Disneyland, but

I could argue that in the 1980’s the city’s downfall started, not with the demolished

churches or the razing of entire neighborhoods in the name of progress, but rather with

the demise of the beauty of its women.

*

    Around April the city’s mood would temporarily change.  From my high school

art studio's large windows I could see across the street a pre-war yellow villa with a

deserted courtyard, and on one of the back walls grapevines and red roses lazily climbing

their way to the roof.  Next to the villa there was a Renaissance style house with a deep

beige portico. On its black wrought iron balcony, wet brassieres, pants and dozens of

pairs of colorful underwear were constantly on parade on a suspended metal wire. On the

right side of the school's brick fence, a young soldier and his German Shepherd  were

guarding one of the entrances to the city's radio broadcasting center.

    To reach the studio you had to climb a gloomy wooden staircase that seemed to

end nowhere and made a creaky noise every time you would make an attempt to reach

the door at the end of it. Inside, old, rusted nails prevented the tall windows of the studio

from opening. On every square centimeter of the glass, in the stains of oil and tempera

paint, you could detect hundreds of colors preventing the light from coming in—instant

stained glass windows. Oddly, I don't recall anybody ever complaining about those

windows being dirty, yet, once in a while, someone would try to clean up small portions

with a razor blade and give up shortly. It wasn't worth it; it was an art school, not a

pharmacy.

    The building was around one hundred years old, and it was rumored to be the

former residence of a well-known Romanian composer who left everything behind after

the last world war and settled in Paris. The government appropriated his home and turned

it into a high-school. In the main salon there was a large, windy staircase with a baroque

balustrade painted shiny black. Every time someone stepped on it, it gave the sensation

of collapsing. Before going to their assigned studios, the school's aged models often sat

down on the steps and smoked. They wore a lot of make up and not much else; they

looked like they had just fallen from a James Ensor painting. We, the boys, would never

miss a chance of slowly passing them, catching from above a quick glimpse of their

sagging breasts.

    There were a few abstract paintings on the walls and a large frosted glass ceiling

high above through which the fresh outside light was filtered without much hope. At the

bottom of the staircase, a smaller plaster version of Michelangelo's David presided over

the room, his penis chopped by some prankster’s hand.  The place had an eerie, static,

atmosphere like an abandoned stage set or an asylum in which all the patients and doctors

had died.

    I vividly remember several other things during my high school winters, maybe

because they were the only things that seemed alive: when it snowed, the strong sensation

that the snow would never end (it kept me indoors, so I didn't have to face the world), and

most important—a ray of hope above the melancholy music of Chopin and the dormant

city—the perfume (an expensive Givenchy, I later found out), and the lively laughter, like

a string of pearls scattered on a marble floor, of the girl I fell in love with during my

junior year.

*

    We came across each other at one of the scarce Saturday parties held in the large

courtyard of the high school, about a week after my mother entered the hospital for the

first time. (Nothing unusual, said the doctors, women had to deal with that type of

problem at her age. I didn't find out until later, but she managed to take a closer look at

her medical records and at the diagnosis, getting the bad news before the doctors actually

told her.)

    A local rock band was giving a free outdoor concert, one of the rare moments

when the school became animated. They had big speakers and they were making a lot of

noise. At some point they had to stop; from one of the frontons, small pieces of old

plaster started to fall on the electrified crowd.

    "They put up quite a show, don't they?" I heard her saying.
    
I smiled, approvingly, though I didn't care too much about Romanian rock’n roll.

I had always found more comfort in my classical music records, but suffering always

from a deep, chronic loneliness, I rejoiced in being among my classmates every time I

had the occasion. My mother’s illness deepened that feeling. I was there to forget, not to

enjoy.

    With her eyes sparkling from behind a pair of delicate glasses, she offered me a

graceful, yet firm hand: "I am Cristina."

    She wore no makeup and no jewelry, nothing to add to her natural beauty, except

for a delicate perfume into whose malleable trap I dived without hesitating: "Nice to meet

you."  Surprising myself, I then attempted to ask her a few questions. Was she new there?

How come I did not notice her? She was tall and slender (almost as tall as me) and she

had large, green eyes, and short charcoal black hair. Hard to miss.

    Yes, she was new there, just transferred from another school. She mentioned her

father, one of the top architects of the country whom I had repeatedly read about in the

local press and in the Artists' Union monthly magazine.

    "He worked abroad for several years, and he took us along with him; I mean me

and my mom. Berlin, Rome, Madrid. Now we're all back."

    Radiant green eyes; really puzzling, deep, esoteric eyes.

    "It must be so nice to travel," I said. "I have never been abroad, except to Bulgaria

once, a class trip in elementary school, if that could be counted as abroad."

    She chuckled. Everyone knew that Romania had its borders closed, and only a

few privileged, mostly Communist party members were allowed to carry passports. As an

ordinary citizen it was almost impossible to travel, except for short, "safe" trips to other

socialist countries bordering us, but even in those cases, you had to have "connections."

    "It's not bad," she continued, "but after a while you start missing your home and

everything that comes with it."

    "Yes," I agreed, "they haven’t found a cure for homesickness yet."

    While the band took a short break, the school's janitor, helped by several students,

started picking up the broken brick pieces. He was a short man probably in his late fifties;

he reminded me of my father. I heard seniors claiming that he held an advanced degree in

medieval history, but because he irritated some top Communist party officials, he briefly

went to prison, then ended up in that dead-end job. Everyone empathized with him,

secretly reproving the injustice and cruelty of the  contemporary history which had ruined

his life. But that didn't stop him getting revenge in his own way, by getting drunk just

about every day, whistling tunes from "The Marriage of Figaro" in the school's hallways

while sweeping the floors, dressed always in a faded brown suit, a colorless shirt, and a

narrow black tie, a bright red carnation always on his lapel.  Surprisingly, that day he

seemed sober.

    We picked up two sodas from a vendor inside, came back and sat down on one of

the benches under the shadow of a gigantic walnut tree. What did I say next? How did I

overcome my shyness? My father's absence felt like an infirmity, a permanently chiseled

sentence on my forehead. Since his death, I couldn't find myself comfortable among other

people. I was locking myself behind my bedroom's door, reading for interminable hours

or listening to my records in search of answers. Books and music replaced reality, but

increasingly, not even they offered me a safe heaven anymore. Ceasing to be only an

abstraction, death descended from the pages of my favorite books right into my father’s

empty eyes.

    While our savings were rapidly shrinking, my mother struggled to keep me in

school. Living in a large house was getting expensive, so we moved into a smaller, one

bedroom apartment. It wasn't great, but I welcomed the change. Then, all of sudden, she

got sick, and the concept of a place that I could call "home" collapsed like a sand castle.

    Helplessly, I looked towards the janitor. He gazed back at me, then at Cristina,

and winked all-knowingly.

How come no one teaches you these things in time? I thought, then said

something just to fill in the burden of the void:
    
"So, what are you majoring in?"

    "Painting."

    I could hardly hide my excitement: "Me too!" We were going to take the same

classes in the fall. The thought made me comfortable enough to ask her for a dance. We

walked toward the main building where a different music was being played, and where

my schoolmates were mingling in what was once said to be the mansion's grand salon.

The plaster "David" had a piece of cloth over his missing penis. I stopped next to its

pedestal, waiting for the bright lights to dim and for the next song to start.

    I didn't like being in the spotlight, I told her, suddenly feeling uncomfortable in

my new black corduroy pants, remembering a minor disaster experienced only several

years before.

    I was about 12 when my mother received an invitation to her twenty-fifth

anniversary college graduation party. My father couldn't go, so she took me with her. The

restaurant had a decent band and a large, luscious garden, and due to the bow tie and the

patent leather shoes perfectly matching my suit, I felt like a winner. For the first time it

seemed that I was about to prevail over my chronic shyness. Later in the evening, while

trying to make conversation with a charming 13- year old and was about to invite her to

dance, I heard an irritated voice rising from somewhere behind me, a short, stocky man,

urging me to get off my butt and bring him his Chicken Cordon Bleu which was probably

cold by now. I looked over my shoulder—the man was indeed talking to me. People

looked amused at the scene, but it took a few moments before it suddenly hit me: my

new expensive first suit resembled almost in detail the standard outfit of the waiters

roaming around the room. My universe collapsed. What a blow to my self-confidence!

My transition to adolescence was far from being smooth. I liked to believe I was

becoming a man, but I found myself still a prisoner of my childhood. I could hardly hide

my tears, and told my mother I wanted to get out of there.     

    After finishing my story, I heard Cristina whispering in my ear: "You have no

reasons to worry. You look pretty grown-up to me."

    As if by mistake, she then touched my cheek, and we started dancing slowly

under the fading lights along with the other pairs. I was content holding her in my arms,

feeling the lightness of her body, the softness of her skin under the purple dress, resting

my head close to hers, absorbing the invading fragrance of her well-groomed hair. It was

the velvety perfume she was wearing that made me close my eyes, surrendering to its soft

pledge, the shadow of an invisible bird flying into the night, a perfume you could surely

not find in our socialist supermarkets.

We talked the entire evening about books and movies and other essential topics

Romanian teenagers frequently explored in the 1980s’ in order to discover and lure each

other. I, particularly, talked most of the time. Fortunately, she was a patient listener. An

attentive observer could have clearly seen how ostentatiously I was displaying my frail,

fragmented knowledge acquired mostly from long hours of reading (anything I could get

my hands on, from Romanian literature to Kafka and Hemingway), but she didn't seem to

notice. I was glad to discover that she admired some of the writers that I liked. Did she

agree with Malraux’s belief that we are what we hide, an idea I found fascinating at the

time?

    Maybe. But shouldn’t we replace "hide" with other concepts, perhaps hope, or

even love?  Too bad the guy was a such a Marxist, she argued; all the Marxists thought

they could save the world, and look at the mess we're in today because of them.

    "Politics is something temporary," I said. "Why talk about it? Art, art is

permanent."

    She took my hand and lead me upstairs, faking a grim look: "Hmmm! Permanent?

I've got bad news for you, sweetheart. Nothing is permanent." Then she started laughing.
    
    Across the top of the staircase, in the principal's office, the old Steinway piano, a

mute surviving witness of the old regime rested. She closed the door behind us, and after

adjusting the height of the circular stool, the peaceful Adagio from Grieg's piano concerto

spread throughout the room. She played it without a flaw while I sat down next to her

with my eyes closed, thinking about kissing her fingers.

    "See," she said in the end, waking me up from my thoughts, when the music

stopped and we could only hear the collective dull murmur outside the office's door, "it's

all gone. What happens with music after it turns into silence? Where does it go?”

    I kept staring at her hands: "There must be a place somewhere," I said. "Some

type of afterlife high-end storage for it; we could never be sure, but at least, we could

hope."

"You know something?" she said. "Forget about painting. You should start

writing. You have a way with words."

***

Later that night I offered to walk her to the bus station, but she didn't need to take

one; she lived nearby on Dacia Boulevard, a land of patrol dogs and NO

TRESSPASSING signs, where most of the foreign embassies and high-ranking Party

officials resided. I knew the place well because a friend of mine was living there with her

parents, and as a student, my mother rented the first floor of a villa just a few blocks

away. It was no more than a half-an-hour walk, but I secretly prayed that it would never

end.

    For a while we walked in silence on a small, tranquil street with old, beautiful

turn-of-the-century houses. The night was about to come to its end when, rising from my

stomach to my head, I suddenly felt vulnerable, scared, and puzzled by a new mixture of

feelings. I had to stop and lean on the tall wrought-iron gate of one of the houses. A dog

started barking behind me while I kept standing there, embarrassed and confused.  

Acknowledging that for the first time I was in love invaded me like a melting illness.

    She rested her palm over my forehead, noticeably worried:

    "Are you allright?"

"I don't know," I said.

     I don't remember how I brought her towards me, but I could still feel the loose

movement of her warm breasts against me and the embarrassing sweat running down the

back of my shirt the moment that I kissed her. Her mouth felt like warm snow, soft

music, fresh paint, like Berlin, Rome, and Madrid. Her mouth felt both like home and a

far-away country.

    There wasn't anyone around except a cop and his dog patrolling on the other side

of the street, so we stayed in the middle of the sidewalk, under the white light of a tall

neon street lamp, kissing each other with our eyes closed, reinventing through our lips

and hands a new alphabet of senses.

***

I spent the entire following summer vacation in the country, at my parents’

cottage, with my mother, who was feeling better. I spent my days fishing, hiking, picking

up fruit, and reading in the tall grass by the river. Although I brought with me my oils and

a few primed boards, I didn’t do any paintings. I kept thinking about Cristina. I began

writing. It wasn't much. While tormenting myself (the cottage had no telephone), I started

a journal and composed about a dozen poems. Was she in love with me as much as I

loved her? Was she thinking about me as often as I was of her? She didn't seem surprised

and didn't object at all when I kissed her, but how relevant was that? I filled up tens of

pages in a black cover notebook, asking myself those questions. I also wrote her several

long letters, which I knew I would never have the courage to mail.

    While in the country I loathed Bucharest, but strangely, during that summer, after

a week or two, I  found myself longing for its (in my mind) renewed vibrancy. Overnight,

the ordinary area of the city where for the first time I felt the taste of a woman's lips

gained a magical dimension. I kept dreaming and wanting to return to the otherwise dull

Intersection of My First Kiss turned private Taj Mahal, in which My First Love had been

sealed forever. I imagined the street being renamed after my girlfriend’s musical name,

the spot ending on the city’s tourist maps as a frequent stop for (the rare) foreign tourist

bus tours. After all, why shouldn't a kiss become part of history?

***

    Two weeks before the beginning of the fall semester, I returned to the city. We

met several times in Grãdina Icoanei, a small park next to her house, in the circular alley

where in the afternoon, provincial, red-cheeked baby-sitters kept one eye on thick

romance novels and the other on the diplomats' healthy-looking, noisy children. You

could tell right away were the nannies came  from by the way the fabric of their dresses

looked,  even from the distance—a little bit too starchy, a little bit too flowery, their

pumps briefly abandoned in the dust, among small, colorful plastic cake molds and

miniature rakes.

The park had a few old-fashioned iron-wrought benches, thick, respectable oak

trees and a large, well kept, birch gazebo in the middle. Around its, edges, guarded by

soldiers, laid opulent residences with immaculate foreign luxury cars parked in front of

large marble staircases, their bored chauffeurs smoking nearby.

At night, on my travels back and forth to the hospital, I often looked inside those

houses, allowing that innocent voyeurism to grant me a temporary, much needed comfort.

There were large Venetian mirrors above white marble fireplaces, crystal chandeliers and

old paintings in heavy, golden frames. Occasionally, I would spot the dark, rushed

silhouette of a cleaning maid, but I could seldom notice anybody else. They seemed to be

perfect homes, perfect like museums, so perfect that it looked like nobody lived in them.
 
    Even the snow, always neatly plowed, had an unique, glowing whiteness on Dacia

Boulevard. Not even then, when the white had no choice but to surrender to the dark

armies of  tires, salt and noisy plows, would the boulevard lose its appeal. It was

impossible to take its magic away. Its inhabitants wore elegant suits and dresses, and

never waited in line for food. Doormen opened their doors. I imagined them smiling all

day long, and even in their sleep. They did not have to camp overnight in front of the

city's empty gas stations, waiting for the fuel trucks to show up, or for the weekly ration

of eggs, olive oil  and butter to be distributed. They didn't have to bribe anyone. Their

wealth and their red-cover Party membership cards set them free, shielding them against

shortages, depression, cold  and illnesses.  On Christmas Eve, their children cheerfully

gathered around real Christmas trees (another rare find in Romania, unlike the cheap

plastic ones usually resembling awkward pelicans with major physical disabilities), I

imagined those families probably still calling them "Christmas trees," although in the

party's official atheistic vocabulary, they were stripped of any religious meaning and

promptly renamed "New-Year's trees."

Malraux was then right, I thought. People were indeed what they hid—they wore

masks, had secret habits and worshiped capitalism despite official ideologies. A very

different world from the one in which I was living with my mother, in one of the bunker-

like cement block houses in a small working class quarter at the other end of the city.

Over there, the cars were old and rusty, the streets were not lit at night, nobody plowed

the snow, and the children spent their afternoons breaking the old factories' windows with

homemade rubber slings. So many times we had to wait hours for hot water, and so many

times I did my homework at the kitchen table, by the feeble light of yellow wax candles.

So then, where was all that much advertised egalitarian society? What excuses did

they have? This was not Stalingrad in 1942 under the fierce assault of the German armies,

but Bucharest, some forty years later, under the silent siege of the Communist

bureaucracy.

***

    Tangling her hands around mine in a complicated weave, Cristina managed to

drive away the immediate reality: "Tell me about your vacation."

    I worshiped those elegant, long, aristocratic fingers, and my answer came late

because I started kissing them, paying to each of them the same felicitous attention of a

collector caressing the most valuable pieces of his collection: "I had a good time. I spent

most of the time thinking of you and the remaining time writing about you."

    "I didn't know you write!" she exclaimed.

    "I didn't know either," I joked. It was mostly poetry, really bad poetry (which at

the time seemed really good to me.) "I couldn’t sleep," I continued. "Sleep is such a

waste of time. I had to fill up the time, so I started filling up a notebook." I then searched

my jacket's large pockets and produced  my poems, carefully written in the small black

cover notebook.

    She browsed through its pages. She seemed to like them ("Didn’t I say you have a

way with words?") and asked me if she could keep them.
 
"Sure," I said, "they're all yours." (If you don't attempt to take the verses away

from their original context—I am pleading innocent, Your Honor, I was only a

teenager—there is always something moving to be found in bad poetry, and this is what

one could say about those poems.)

    The following weeks I saw her almost every day in school. She was becoming a

good painter, and I started to believe that I was, too. During our long studio hours we

would exchange quick, conspiratorial  glances, but I would rarely show affection in

public, because I  felt that my secret world was much too precious to be displayed or

shared with others. I was in love, or maybe I just wanted to forget about my mother. After

all, love is such a self-centered crusade against reality!

    In Grãdina Icoanei, we “reserved” one of the benches, and every time unaware

strangers sat on it, we would immediately plan their instant and merciless elimination.

We spent many long evenings there, kissing under the benevolent but envying looks of

the soldiers. While most foreign films were banned, and many books were censored, I

thanked God that kissing was still legal in Romania.

    During the winter, when the city became trapped in mud and unsolvable traffic

problems, and when the snow didn't stay white long enough to make people believe that

there was something worth celebrating, we attended classical music concerts at the

Athenaeum or went to the theatre, both very affordable.

    One evening in November, I remember getting tickets to see a new production

of "Hamlet." The unheated theatre lent the performance a strange credibility, and the

actors a reason to improvise and make allusions to the more contemporary political and

social ills. Shakespeare became a stormy critic of Communist Romania. Elsinore was

right there in front of our eyes, while the iciness, part of the props, invaded our bones. I

went home with a severe cold. Cristina wanted to come over, but I thanked her and

declined. It was safer to keep our worlds separate. I knew she didn't belong there, in the

cement cage I couldn't call home, among unpacked boxes, books, records, dying tropical

plants and dirty dishes.

That year, the approach of Christmas went on without much celebration. The

apartment my mother and I moved into right before she was diagnosed with cancer was

small, cold, and almost empty, except for the piles of books and several pieces of

furniture. In the living-room, a stunted, bare Christmas tree looked even sadder under the

burden of its emptiness. There wasn’t much food in the refrigerator. While my mother

went in and out of the hospital, I lost a lot of weight and never slept more than three or

four hours a night. In school, I was attending only half of the courses. My grades dropped

rapidly.

    At the beginning of December, I found a job in the suburbs, working third shift as

a welder in an aluminum factory. It was my first “real” job and of course didn't pay

much. I spent most of the money on books and food for my mother. On my first day, after

showing up wearing a brand new pair of  jeans and one of my best shirts, the workers

laughed at me. At the end of the day, my frozen hands were bleeding from pulling meters

and meters of rusted metal cable. To avoid their comments, I spent all my breaks and

lunch time hiding in the men's room, reading. This is how I got acquainted with The

Magic Mountain, Crime and Punishment, The Odyssey, and Faust, sitting on a toilet,

surrounded by obscene graffiti, the occasional background noise of falling urine and

dirty jokes about women.

After a week, I asked to be transferred to another department. I thought I would

get some sort of an office job, but ended up unloading railroad cars filled with aluminum

powder. The sacks were heavy, the silvery substance was invading my lungs. I spent

hours in the shower, trying to clean it off my hair and hands.

    In the city there were severe food shortages, and you could see people waiting in

long, ashen lines everywhere. For Christmas, I bought Cristina Alejo's Carpentier's

Baroque Concerto and a translation of Gongora's Solitudes. They were both released

in a limited edition, so I had to bribe a clerk paying several times the regular price in

order to get them.

    The day before Christmas, unexpectedly, she invited me to her place. Her parents

were away for a few days (they were coming back the next morning), and the entire

house belonged to her. I had always wanted to meet them, but somehow, they managed to

keep a low profile. Of course, the prospect of not having them around that evening

sounded even better.

     I was thinking about that when I left the hospital that evening, leaving my mother

like a white surreal spider tangled in dozens of tubes and wires aimed to keep her alive. I

waited at the end of Dacia Boulevard, uneasy, hungry and tired, with the two books under

my arm neatly wrapped in colored paper, and a bouquet of nearly frozen red roses,

watching the customary parade of diplomatic cars cruising toward downtown through the

deep snow.

    She wore a pair of tight blue-jeans and a red ski jacket, and she welcomed me

with a radiant smile. The December night was dark and safe, but I did not attempt to kiss

her. Only an hour before, I was touching my mother's face, appalled by her almost

inorganic skin which under my fingers, made a rough, paper-like noise. She was

disappearing under that shrinking mask, buried like a live mummy. We were all going to

end like that, I thought, like once-fresh, juicy apples left in the sun to rot, and for a

moment, the thought made all the kisses in the world unbearable. For a moment, I didn't

envy the couples who were probably still making love behind those lowered wooden

blinds on Dacia Boulevard, ignoring the tick of their inner slow decay that would

inevitably make them hate each other one day. I didn't envy their cute children, perfect

homes, their overall pickled happiness, because I suddenly knew all of that wasn’t real.

    Cristina said she couldn't take the gift right there, in the middle of the street. She

did not want me to hold her hand either. "The neighbors could see us," she warned me,

bringing a gloved index finger to her lips, like a child caught with his hand in the cookie

jar. It was not too cold, so we took our time walking slowly through the brisk air. Across

the street, a soldier turned his head, following the meandering movement of her thighs.

At the other end of the street, we stopped in front of the large glass door of a modern, six

story, quiet building (the sort of quietness implying a certain type of refined wealth that

despises ostentation), only a few large modern apartments implanted in the middle of

the 19th Century mansions. An immaculate elevator dropped us on the second floor of a

large blue-green hallway  discreetly lit by several brass wall fixtures. Her door had

several heavy locks she opened without hurry. Before taking my coat and turning on the

lights, she brushed the corner of my mouth with a quick kiss: "Merry Christmas!"  

I left the gifts on a small coffee table in the large living-room, next to a pile of  

books with an original, French version of Malraux's Anti-Memoirs on top of them and

a pile of bills and unopened letters. A few unwrapped gifts were resting under an

enormous, heavily decorated fir tree.

    "Sorry about the mess," she said. "I should clean up before they come back."

    There wasn't any mess. On the contrary, the apartment, designed by her father,

had a clear, elegant layout, and everything seemed to be in its place. It followed a spiral

pattern of six or seven large rooms, like a large snake or a coiled shell interconnected

through large French doors. You could ride a bicycle through that place, or a small car.

    After she took the flowers and put them in a small vase on a grand piano in a

corner of the living room, she plugged in a long chain of colored lights. On the pale-white

walls, there was a collection of contemporary Romanian paintings mixed with samples of

quality folk art and a few beautiful, original African masks.

Her room was at the other end of the house, at the end of the spiral. It was not

small, but it probably looked that way because of a massive, black-cherry German

baroque armoire with crystal doors, full of books and records: Croce and Mozart, Hesse

and Tchaikovsky. On the opposite side, a heavy oak easel was guarding one of the

windows, next to a simple oak peasant bed with an unframed Beatles poster pinned above

its headrest.

    It started to snow again, and through one of the windows I could see a lone

municipal snowplow clearing the brightly lighted road, and a guard warming up his hands

while walking briskly back and forth by the main gate of one of the embassies. It was

good to be inside with my  feet pleasantly sinking into the thick Persian rug. It was warm

and safe in that room where the smell of another smaller Christmas tree mingled with her

perfume and with the slow dance of the snowflakes outside.

    She confiscated the book I was looking at, took it out of my hand and put it back

on one of the shelves: "You read too much. Books are not everything, you know."

    There was a record player on top of her writing desk, and Diana Ross's voice

came out from a Russian made forty-five singing "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" She  

brought two cups of warm red Cabernet from the kitchen, with several sticks of cinnamon

and a touch of sugar in them. We then sat on the sofa in the living-room, had more wine

and talked more, and danced for a while. The December night was getting warmer. After

a while, the record stopped playing, but she did not get up to change it. I do not

remember too much after that, except that I asked her to open the presents, but she said

"Later," and led my hands over hers to help unbutton her silk blouse: "We should

probably open this first."

    Her healthy, unfettered body smelled like dried summer flowers, baked apples

and foreign lands, like home and abroad, music and silence, freshly mown grass  and

timidly salted seas. Her small breasts got warmer as I covered them with my hands. I

felt their strange inner pulse like a heart of their own, startled pigeons ready to fly away.

Under the blanket of the night our kisses followed both the tranquil rhythm of the slow-

falling snow flakes and the frenetic joy of the Christmas lights.

***

    In the morning, the long, metallic noise of a snowplow rescued me from a bizarre

dream: I was in the municipal hospital, about to take the elevator to my mother’s room,

when the school's nude models showed up all of a sudden, sitting and smoking on the

cement stairs, grinning under the emergency red EXIT  light. While encouraging me to

come closer and take a look at a very large gift box, they continued smoking, visibly

bored. In the beginning I hesitated, but their giggles finally convinced me. "You should

probably open this first," one of them said smiling, helping me to untie the unusually

large festive ribbons.

Finally, I thought, while I was taking the lid off, there is someone I could trust.  

“Go ahead,” another model encouraged me, “it’s going to be okay.” I felt safe and joyful

while proceeding, full of sudden hope. But inside the box, my dead mother was starring

at me, foreign and repulsive like a vintage paper doll with a bluish canvas face. I backed

up in horror, while they all started laughing.

***

    I did not see Cristina until a few weeks later, after the winter vacation, on the first

day of the new semester. She was standing in her new black real-fur coat across from the

studio's door, looking down the corridor, waiting for the janitor to bring the keys and let

her in. He came, opened the door, turned on the heat and left. Beyond the large windows

of the studio, the soiled background of snow was mixing with the old stains of oil and

tempera paint. She set up her easel and put a small stretched canvas on it. She ignored

me completely; she was upset and had every right of to be. For several weeks, I had

vanished without a trace

    In the artificial, discouraging, premeditated silence created between us, in the

absence of the familiar sound of the wind struggling to get inside through the small

cracks in the windows, I could almost hear my anger and reluctance, disturbing the

silence of the courtyard and the stillness of the lifeless climbing plants, everything

engulfed by the mournful gray tentacles of the approaching evening.

    As I was standing by those windows, trying to think of a way to explain my

silence, I started to understand. Inside me, unspoken, almost material, the words were

piling up, ready to explode. But like the old nails preventing the windows from opening,

the words remained rusting in me. Where should I start? How could I tell you that I am

barely eating and sleeping at night, that I have an exhausting job in an old, miserable

factory, and this is why I am hiding from you my hard-worked hands with deep cuts and

bruises on them. How should I tell you that I have a mother who is dying and my home is

a room on the 12th floor in the Oncology wing of the Municipal Hospital? How should I

explain to you that I feel guilty and ashamed about it? You don't need a slice of my

misery. But despite all these, you are the only certain thing in my life. It was through a

dirty window that I have been looking at the world, and it is probably too late to attempt

cleaning it, but could you please, please help me break it?

    "Is there someone else?" she attempted a question, her hands trembling a little

while arranging several tubes of paint on a plastic palette.

    "Yes, there is," I said, making a small breach in my fortified privacy. "But it's not

what you think."

***

    I had stopped at the apartment the next morning to pick up some books when the

hospital called to tell me that my mother had entered a coma. I told the nurse at the other

end of the phone to repeat that, and she did, adding that she was sorry, and maybe she

was. As I entered the hospital for the last time, I understood why some worlds were

irreconcilable. Books and music could not save me from reality, at least not when used as

bricks to build walls around me. All that intellectual machismo dissolved along with my

mother's bones. And the Dacia Boulevard? It probably never existed. Maybe I had read

somewhere about it, or maybe I had invented it. On the other hand, death was to be

accepted, not to be understood. And it was probably too late to crave for a trace of

Cristina's perfume to lead me out of the labyrinth. Love was not a solitary journey into a

fantasy world. Maybe we had different roads to take. I did not envy hers, I did not pity

mine. I tried weighing them both, but who could tell which one was the best? Of one

thing I was sure though: that neither of us could get out of our tangled, locked destinies.

Malraux was right and wrong in the same time: Yes, dying was probably a lone business,

but living, living was a group project.

***

    I arrived at the hospital before the normal visiting hours. There was a young

doctor in my mother's room, scribbling something on a note pad next to her bed. My

mother had her mouth open, like a marionette waiting for water.

    "I've been waiting for you. We wanted to ask you if it's okay to call a priest." he

said.

    "Sure," I replied, vaguely. "Go ahead."

    It was very sunny outside, and I opened one of the windows to let the brisk air

come in. In the streets, life went on as usual. Children were playing in the park below,

and people walked their dogs in the fresh snow. I held my mother's hand, kissed her on

the forehead and wiped a frozen, lost tear from the corner of her eye.  

    I packed my things and left the hospital late in the evening. I wanted to go home,

wherever that was, cook myself a real meal, and maybe start unpacking those boxes.

    Still, as I was riding alone in the elevator, nothing felt permanent but my pain. I

wanted to call Cristina. Maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe it was. I closed my eyes. I could

not bare to see myself endlessly reflected in the stainless steel walls around me, still

trapped at the exit gates of my adolescence, between hope and sorrow, as if in between

parallel mirrors.
 
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