How many times have you happened to be outside the University, or, even worse, right in front of your very own Literature Faculty, and seen a blond lad trotting along the pavement opposite, cradling a large roll of paper and a large scale model in his arms? How many times have you seen him as he rushes out of the metro station and picks his way between the parked cars on Strada Edgar Quinet, flustered, tousled? You were just about to go to your seminar or your M.A. course in Linguistics, but your eyes linger for a short while on that blond loach. That hucho, as you would say. You have also seen others like him, have seen their faces, they are not like you, with your seminar and your M.A., and you look at the boy, you look and you look. Probably in previous years you have seen him exactly the same, with a roll of paper and that two-metre-long ruler in his hand. It was probably also on the pavement opposite, the one that runs along the glass wall of the Architecture building.
I am that lad you look at.
I am the one who six years hence, when you are trying to cross Strada Edgar Quinet to have a closer look at the latest releases on display in the window of the Mihai Eminescu Bookshop, will hit you with his car. The one who will wing you with his car door and scratch his paintwork because of the zipper and the buttons and the staples and whatnot on that handbag of yours stuffed with term papers to mark. The one who will break his automatic wing mirror, which now he will only be able to adjust by hand – how else will he be able to adjust it, if it’s broken?
My name is Horia Petrescu and I am an architect. Since unlike most children I liked mathematics and since I was talented at drawing and had all kinds of other talents from an early age, my parents – although initially it wasn’t clear to them where, how and specifically what for – decided that they would be clever for once and not put so many questions to their child, and they worked themselves into the ground, they scrimped and saved to pay for my weekly private lessons in maths and drawing. And that was how I came to be among the top of the class in the entrance examinations for the Architecture Faculty in 1999, and likewise when I graduated in 2005: that’s how long a degree takes, six years, to the joy of your parents. The A1 sheets of paper alone, the cardboard for scale models, the Indian ink, the technical pens, the pencils, the paints and the glue I consumed on a single project used to cost as much as my mother earned in a month, and quite apart from courses and seminars, I used to have two or three big projects a term. And I am not counting the specialist illustrated books, the colour prints, and the linden and balsa wood. Or the latest-generation computer, the graphics cards, processors and monitors, which were a must for sufficiently complex 3D modelling within acceptable time limits. Six years, to which can be added the years for my M.A., if that ever happens. Hard years, during which I had disparate relationships with a large part of the girls over 1.65 metres in height that I met in Fire, Twice and Club A, students studying Literature, Chemistry, Mathematics and Geography (also including two who were studying Geodesics; they shared a room in the Opera hall of residence. One of them, Roxana, was from Buzau. I never asked the other one where she was from, but from her accent we may assume she was from somewhere in Transylvania). There were also a few other pointless ones, the kind who studied Journalism or who were at the Romanian-American private university or the Academy of Economic Sciences, but who are not part of this introduction, inasmuch as I would like to round it off elegantly, referring strictly to the girls from my area, my neighbours, as it were, that is, those girls from the University who eyed up the boys from the Architecture Faculty, poor things.
And that’s just a prelude to the story.
The story begins one Saturday, two weeks before Christmas. It was crowded and I was trying to get in to see a film at the mall with Emma, although it is hard to say what the film was, when it was made, what it was about. I can’t even remember the title, and it now seems perfectly normal that I don’t, given the disaster that followed. In other words: Bucharest, winter 2006. A winter that had thitherto been quite deceptive; the kind of winter that commences without snow, but which can take you by surprise at any moment; one day and night of snow and then the whole city is paralysed. No, I’m not exaggerating, because that is exactly what happened... The frozen slime and the few snowflakes that had gently begun to float down just as I was leaving the house, the darkness, the traffic that all of a sudden became anarchic, the car park, which I had to go round and round for half an hour before I found a free space, and the fact that, having been caught unawares, I didn’t have winter tyres... anyway, Emma, who was late, obviously, given her princess-like behaviour and the tonne of makeup she had to put on, the same as usual. And so I was swearing a lot, convinced that I was going to miss the film. I was leaving in my wake thick exhaust fumes, on Nerva Traian I went into a controlled skid (for the first time in that car), and it was cold (fucking diesel!), it was really cold. Once I had parked, I darted up the steps to the Multiplex. The late hour, the muffled-up people, the lifts monopolised by paupers and vulgarians and the wives – I’m sorry, the missuses – of said vulgarians, with tots and folding or non-folding pushchairs, but anyway, I collected the tickets and after standing in a smelly queue I managed to buy the last of the popcorn. What else is there to be said? I took a deep breath and stood next to a totem pole advertising Snickers bars, to continue my wait for Emma. I’ll give her a maximum of ten minutes, I thought to myself... When she arrived (at the last moment), I tried to kiss her, but she wasn’t having any of it; she was moaning that she didn’t feel well, that she had had to hurry to get there in time, “and now look!” After which she went into the toilets and I was forced to stand waiting for another ten minutes. The film had already started. There was nobody in the lobby. And finally she emerged, holding an eyeliner pencil, while I was struggling to hold two bags of popcorn and the cups of cola to go with them. “At least hold these cups, Emma.” She took her bag and her cup and we both headed towards the cinema auditorium. We groped around for our seats, found them, sat down. We had good seats, reserved in advance, by telephone.
I had been getting paranoid for nothing. In the first quarter of an hour the advertisements were still playing, then it would be the film. Probably an action film. Or more likely a romantic comedy. I don’t know. What is for sure is that Emma was mad for romantic comedies and went to see all the ones that were showing in town. She sometimes used to invite me, and if I had the time, I went with her. If not, she would persuade a girlfriend or one of the women she worked with. In any event, she didn’t go alone. I don’t think Emma has ever been to the cinema on her own.
In one form or another, those days had finally been a bit more normal. I had just got rid of my yearly bout of pulmonary viral infection, and I had also got rid of Roberto, who had left the country and was not due back until after the holidays. God knows where he was. I like to believe that he never went home to Italy, to guzzle roast eel in red sauce as part of a festive Christmas meal with all the other people enthused like it was the first time in their life, but rather to some sunny place in the other hemisphere. Perhaps to a five-star-plus rehab clinic, where he would lie on a chaise longue, a respectable, elegant maggot.
Without Roberto on my back, I was having an easier time. I didn’t have to run around from morning to late in the evening, going from his office to the State Building Inspectorate and the Primeria del Settore, from the fire safety inspector’s back to his office. “But wait, architetto, it is ora del pranzo, you come with me al pranzo? Pasta? Risotto?” I was feeling calm and when Emma called me to invite me to a film, I said, okay, thy will be done, baby. Yet another romantic comedy won’t do any harm. Especially given that for almost a month we hadn’t had any reciprocal bodily satisfaction; as a result, we would be able to tune into Radio Romantic quite easily later that evening. Obviously, only if the little boat of passion had glided farther along the same ravishingly limpid waters and I hadn’t got mixed up in all kinds of absurd scenarios, as will become plain from the following.
Usually I am very attentive to what is going on around me. I’m not the kind who deliberately ignores somebody if he asks me a question, I answer when people say hello, I answer e-mails and telephone calls. If I have a missed call, I telephone back as soon as possible. If I am caught up in a discussion and I can’t talk right then, I send a brief e-mail or text message. More often than not, I send both an e-mail and a text message, after which I telephone back without fail. I can’t stand excuse of the “I didn’t have any ‘phone credit, I couldn’t call you” variety, or even worse, “I didn’t see that you called.” And I’m not saying all this to exculpate myself in any way, but when I received the first text message the film had already started, and I couldn’t answer promptly because I’d set my telephone to silent. Nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, that is the right thing to do when you are in the cinema. And in the end, what do you expect of people on a Saturday night?
Emma had almost fallen asleep, or, who knows, maybe we’d chanced on a film she found boring. She was resting her head on my shoulder, as she usually does, and had asked me to stroke her hair. “Horia...” she had whispered, but I made a sign for her to be quiet, Emma, we’re in the cinema... She didn’t pay any attention. “Horia, I want you to run your fingers through my hair,” she said. “Go on... please...” That I remember very clearly, that I was gently running my fingers through her hair, and she had gone limp, she had huddled up, pressing herself against me. That’s why when the second text message came I was sure she had fallen asleep.
“Are you asleep?” I asked, but she made no answer.
She had pulled her knees to one side and was leaning against me with her full weight. It was wonderful, I felt the equilibrium and elementary beauty of that moment; I don’t know whether I liked the film (obviously, it didn’t matter) and I was still thinking what might happen if I didn’t read the two text messages right then. What might happen if I quite simply overcame my curiosity for once? What if I watched the film in peace or at least sat comfortably next to Emma, running my fingers through her hair, while she leaned against my shoulder, dozing, and I didn’t look at my telephone until after I left, which was anyway the right thing to do?
“serious accident come right away. it’s serious”: that was the first text message, from an unfamiliar number. The second, from the same number: “vasile has fallen off a ladder. this is adi, mr florin’s son, from the building site.” I’ve kept both messages; I still have them.
Without stopping to think, I woke up Emma and rushed out of the cinema.
It was still snowing. She climbed into her car like a plump ladybird and drove off, sobbing, while I, in a panic and not having any winter tyres, found myself forced to abandon my car in the mall car park and jump into a taxi.
I explained to the driver as efficiently as possible where he had to go: Strada Popa Soare, the building site.
It was Saturday night and our happiness had lasted approximately twenty minutes; although confused and harried (as usual in such moments) by a platoon of small and restive devils, I was still lucid enough to realise that something very wrong was happening to me and that I had to get out of the whole business as quickly as I could.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth