Novel, "Ego Prose" series, Polirom, 2010, 224 pages
I remember the course of the evening in question perfectly. I have retraced it in my mind at least a hundred times.
At one point, I leapt over a puddle and a light switched on overhead. The sudden movement activated a sensor, and the light gave me a jolt just as my leg was in mid-air. I landed on the other edge of the puddle and soaked the toe of my shoe, leaving a minuscule spurt of water in my wake. I was expecting those dust- and engine-oil-befouled droplets to soak through my socks. They came to a stop at the tip of my big-toenail. I knew that before long they would flood my other toes. I wriggled them as much as you can when your feet are sheathed in a pair of sneakers, and thereby diminished the shock. On the alarm-system-barricaded building I had just passed, a large number of lights were still lit up. They annoyed me and I lengthened my stride, because I don’t go out at that time of night to get dazzled by flashlights.
Straightaway I reached the pastry shop on the corner. I don’t think they ever change the cakes in the window display; they look like they’re made of plaster, over which someone has then poured a load of concentrated watercolour pigment. Sometimes I look at them and think that it would be great to discover one night that they are real and capture the exact moment they start to liquefy and flood the city.
The pharmacy was glinting from every nook, and it was not the for first time I had passed the shop with the sunglasses only to find that they had not left out a single pair on display, for fear of someone breaking the window and pinching them. Stupid, obviously. Another evening, I went out onto the boulevard and looked at the jewellery and the watches. I’d never buy one, but I wouldn’t mind talking to someone about a sophisticated limited-edition model.
I think this is how I might impress a girl into staying with me more than a few weeks, in other words the trial period in which all my girlfriends set out to change me and usher me into the ranks of good, decent, orderly, family-minded folk. I wanted to keep in their good books, and so I would turn down the lads for a day, or two. I admit that I’m weak kind of guy, and I couldn’t resist ad infinitum. Wasn’t the most elevating feeling in the world once friendship? What the hell, I’ve known Dudu and Mircică since I was at high school: haven’t we fought together, haven’t we played football for tens of thousands of hours, didn’t we start up a rock group, aren’t we what is known as brothers? Can anyone say I’m wrong?
Sometimes I feel the need to check this whole theory of mine. I get caught up in a whirl and find myself calling one of them at the dead of night. I grow afraid, probably, and that’s what happened then too. I gripped the telephone in the palm of my hand and, from the list of dialled numbers, I selected Dudu’s name.
On a deserted street, the buzzing of a telephone is tantamount to a blaring siren summoning the nation to battle. Every now and then, I need assurance: I haven’t got lost on the street, I have a clear path, I’m heading towards my house on Magheru Boulevard. It does me good to think that in this city there are people dear to me, people I can phone at any hour of the day or, above all, night.
I stood with the phone to my ear and I couldn’t bear to put it back in my pocket even after the recorded message informed me that, “the GSM subscriber is not available”. He didn’t answer, the bastard.
I cursed the fucking both of them and it was as if I just couldn’t be bothered to try phoning Mircică merely to discover the bitter truth: that while I had been roving the streets and thinking about the immortality of the soul, about friendship and about its sweet taste, that lot had got back home and quickly tucked themselves up. They were sound asleep, and they couldn’t have given a shit about me.
Absolutely anything might have happened to me, and they wouldn’t have found out until the next day, like the other fifty to eighty people I know. And there will no longer be any need for them to do absolutely anything.
I quickened my pace and moved through a Bucharest in which only the rooftops had been salvaged from darkness. I entered the boulevard. After the zone with the girls, stationed in front of the Diverta stationary shop, the way home is a straight line. That short, fat girl, like a bell pepper, with her white knee-length boots, must have got lucky that evening. She was no longer at her post. I had happened upon her a number of times as she was taking a drag on a cigarette, and the smoke she blew out was compact. She had lobbed a brick over the city, but no one could have cared less. But she had given me an insane longing to smoke a filterless cigarette.
I always crossed over to the side, where the girls loitered and waved at passing cars. Once I got so close that the bell-pepper girl asked me:
“Hey, mister, want me to come home with you?”
I didn’t want. I asked her very politely for a cigarette. And I was somehow expecting her to pull out a soft-pack and offer me a filterless cigarette. That’s not how it was, but it seemed to me that, in that fraction of a second, for as long as she rummaged in her purse and held out the packet, she was transfigured and could have been anyone. By the time she gave me a light, she had already resumed her previous countenance: the thin lips thickly smeared with lipstick way past their outline made me hurry. I bade her farewell and went on my way. I couldn’t think about sex at all. I was merely very cold.
Sometimes I dream I’m wearing an overcoat that makes my shoulders ache. It was made long ago, from genuine wool, but of considerable weight. Underneath I’m not wearing anything and someone rips off the buttons and I’m left like that, like an idiot, barefoot and naked and wearing that huge overcoat. It’s an absolutely horrible dream, but when I recognise the feeling from the dream in reality it’s twice as shitty. I get a jolt as if from an electric shock and instinctively hunch over, in the hope of preserving as much body heat as I can, until the rough cloth chafes my chin.
I sensed that this would be more or less the last attempt to reach the seaside that summer. After the end of September the whole business goes rotten and there’s not much point hanging around there. I was walking around town like a madman and I kept saying to myself that I really had to get away the next day. On the beach, that thick, honeyed autumn light is more beautiful than anywhere else. My desire to go to the seaside was closely bound up with the fact that there wasn’t any new girl to blow my mind. It’s as if all the cool girls in this city were hooked up already, none of them was looking at me; they hadn’t got back from their holidays. Maximum sadness…
Just when all my boats had started to sink, I thought I saw someone, about ten paces away, hitting up against a wall with her shoulder. I told myself that she was probably locked out and was desperately trying to open a door. I didn’t hurry, but when I came alongside the wee creature there was no trace of any entrance, just a wall with peeling plaster.
The person in question stood there for a few seconds, looked at me, then sank to the ground and stayed there squatting. She was crying or hiccoughing, I couldn’t really tell. I went up to her, and the first thing that came into my head was to ask her:
“Aren’t you feeling well? Did someone hit you, or what?”
She made no answer, but rather got up and continued bumping against the wall behind. Her rhythmic swaying annoyed me a little, because I didn’t know whether she had seen me, whether she had heard me, or whether she just didn’t care.
She was wearing a light-coloured denim jacket and linen trousers. I also glimpsed her t-shirt, on which something was written, but unfortunately it was indistinct. A thick lock of hair had come loose from her ponytail and was sticking to her face. It was a very light chestnut brown, as I somehow managed to notice.
Because she was crying and breathing at the same time, her two front teeth were showing. Then I decided that I wanted to find out at any cost what I could do to help her.
She was disarmingly alone and lost in that nocturnal Bucharest, the city in which, but a few minutes before, I had been feeling like a fish in water.
I continued to try to get something out of her – anything. Dudu has a saying, in fact it’s some bloke in a Chekhov story who says it: “Upon my life, I never know how to behave toward weeping women.” It seemed very true right then. I was standing next to that dishevelled and frightened girl and I had no idea how to soothe her or, above all, how to persuade to speak.
I took her hand in mine, and her quivering transmitted itself more strongly than if I’d touched someone who had just got an electric shock. Her heart was pounding, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had ended up with that lump of muscle leaping out of her chest straight into my arms. I still didn’t know what to do. Maybe it was enough not to leave her alone on the street.
But I stubbornly tried to get something out of her. I asked her once more:
“Can’t you tell me what happened to you?”
Not even the second time did I get any answer out of her. I too leant up against the wall, and I could hear her sobbing. For the sake of doing something, I rummaged in my pocket for some cigarettes. By a miracle, I had a lighter too. Once I had lit myself one, I asked the girl beside me:
“Want a puff? Or a whole cigarette?”
She nodded her head and because I didn’t catch exactly what she meant, I held out my cigarette to her, but she made no movement.
“It’ll go out, you know…”
It was only then that she decided to have a puff. She tucked the lock of hair, sticky with tears, behind her ear, and at last looked at me. Better if she hadn’t. All of a sudden it seemed much colder and I couldn’t get over the feeling that, although she had large eyes, maybe even long eyelashes, she had looked at me through two holes, straight from the depths of the earth.
Without much enthusiasm, I tried once more:
“Can’t you at least tell me what your name is?”
“Ramona,” she said.
It was the first word she had uttered and it scared me a little. I hadn’t been expecting her to answer this time either. The word, spoken in a whisper, placed itself between us and I thought that I would have to be very careful not to let it drop. It was precious and I mustn’t lose it.
I counted up in my mind, to get an idea of how much time we had been standing there next to each other. A few hours earlier I had seen a clip on youtube. Some nutcase had spliced end to end various scenes from films in which the dialogue contained a number from one to one hundred. The result was a countdown and no mistake, but the bloke must have been a complete maniac to have the patience to make it.
After the moment of silence and calm in which we had become friends somewhat, Ramona twisted round and started punching the wall. Flakes of plaster were falling like confetti and I couldn’t manage to collect myself and stop her.
She was crying fit to break my heart and for the first time it crossed my mind that something bad had happened to her. I got up and clasped her by the shoulders, from behind. It wasn’t hard to hold her in my arms, she was quite petite and fragile, but she continued to punch and kick. A group of people passed by. I was expecting to hear them call out something dirty or tell me to leave her be.
My situation could worsen at any moment. If someone questioned me, how could I have proved that I had just stopped to see what was wrong with the girl and that all I wanted to do was help?
It was obvious that I wouldn’t have been able to. But I didn’t manage to follow this thought very far when I heard her ask:
“She’s dead, in the house, you know, don’t you? How far away are we now?”
I admit: I was stumped. What the hell was that supposed to mean? Maybe this girl Ramona was mad, or maybe she was making fun of me. Maybe she had laid a bet with some friends that she could find some loon on the street that evening and make mincemeat of him in a matter of minutes. If that was the case, then she had done a wonderful job, and I could go back home quietly and then to the seaside the next day, and so on…
“Who died? Where?” I asked her in a whisper.
I had twisted around so that now my back was to the wall. I was still holding her in my arms, even if she went on struggling to free herself. A car passed, and I saw her flayed hands. A few tatters of her skin were stuck to the wall, leaving behind a peeking pinkish wound. Instinctively, I loosened my grip, one of her arms was now free, and, if you had seen us, you might have thought that we had stopped there to have a little rest.
That’s as much as I could get out of her. But at least it was connected to what she had told me a few minutes ago.
“Somewhere else? Where?”
I was expecting her to say something else, so that I could make out what the hell was with all her raving. I’d already started to build up a picture in my mind: the girl had maybe witnessed an accident, suffered an emotional shock, and I would have to look after her until she came to herself. Our encounter had made me feel responsible for her, and it didn’t even cross my mind to leave her there in the street and go home.
I started speaking to her: things that couldn’t make her feel bad:
“Please, try to calm down! I’m here with you and I’m not going to leave you by yourself. Whatever happened, it’ll turn out alright in the end, you’ll see. If you like, we can go to my place, I live close by, not even fifty yards from here, a few steps and we’re there. I could bandage you up and we’ll drink a tot of whiskey. I’ll make you a tea, it’ll do you good. I’ve got fruits of the forest and lime flower. Or if you like we can go to the hospital. All you have to do is say…”
“... to your place.”
I had already told her everything that came into my head without even pausing for breath. I didn’t care whether she was listening, I had chanced to be there and I felt good that this strange girl was sharing her story with me. And now she wanted us to leave together. The evening had abruptly taken a very different turn.
I didn’t feel very comfortable about that dead person Ramona had told me about, but maybe things had got mixed up in her mind and, in fact, I didn’t have anything to worry about.
Traslated by Alistair Ian Blyth