“I trust you’re up to date with the Comrade’s latest campaign! The Code of Ethics!”
She shrugs, huffily. “Where did you come up with something as stupid as that?” She can’t be bothered with talking, as always when she is getting ready to leave. She is gathering the willpower to emerge from the moist, sex-scented warmth under the quilt, she delays, delays, the same as when she slowly, gingerly enters the green, biting water, up to the ankles, up to the knees, until, exasperated by her pusillanimity, she plucks up the courage to thrust the quilt aside with her foot. But straight away she hunches her shoulders, shivering. What a preposterous comparison, unusable in a short story: the odour here is not one of rotting seaweed, but rather the sickly scent of damp plaster in a poorly decorated bedsit. And where the hell can she have thrown her bra? Her stockings? Why not crawl back under the quilt and snuggle?
But the quilt has already cooled and she can hear the clink of the belt buckle as Sorin pulls his trousers off the back of the chair with hurried movements, a sure sign that it’s almost time for his friend Florinel to be getting back.
“Don’t say you haven’t heard of the Code of Ethics? Nothing at all? Jog your memory! The Code of Socialist Ethics and Equality? For God’s sake! The newspapers have been full of it these last two months…”
He continues to string out his ironic sentences as he rummages through the clothes heaped on the table, looking for his undershirt. Where is the youth who but four hours ago had puffed awkwardly on cigarettes and kept stubbing them out in the overflowing ashtray, jumping whenever he heard the lift? His impatient hands gliding over her body. How hard it is for the man to wait for you. His face pressed to her hair, and the scent of scorching flesh, and the faint canteen-like odour of his blue sweater. Why can’t it go on being the moment when she pushes the door, with limp hands, terrified that it might be locked? Or, even worse, terrified that instead of the pullover, velveteen pyjamas and the puffy eyes of a man woken from sleep, the eyes of his friend Florinel, might appear in the doorway. “Where did this bird show up from?”
But the door is never locked. Sorin stubs out the cigarette he has barely just lit. He is in a hurry. How hard it is for the man to wait for you. And she relaxes in the blue light of the pullover. Why are all these things of such short duration? And which is the real Sorin? The one who is trembling with desire and impatience, waiting for her, with his eyes on the clock, in this bedsit at the edge of town? Or the one who will greet her with a friendly but reserved hello when they meet by chance in the corridors of the Building?
“Ah, yes. I’d forgotten that you don’t read the papers, not like us mere mortals. Not even the paper you pay for!”
Sorin takes the bottle from the table, stoppers it and thrusts it into his briefcase. It was a good job he took care to put a folded up newspaper underneath it. The brown, sticky stain from the Bitters has spread over the face of the Comrade, younger with each passing day, instead of over the loud embroidery of the tablecloth, probably bought from some market in the country.
“That’s the kind of taste these lads from the country have. What do you expect? My friend Florinel isn’t thick and he’s doing his best to better himself, but he can’t rise above a certain limit! In fact, he’s a lot like your friend Dorina,” laughs Sorin, embarrassed.
Dorina Gabor, her friend? Letitia pulls on her tights, the ones with the black and white rhombus pattern. The corners of her mouth have drooped peevishly. When Dorina turned up in the Building, she was overflowing with the Courrèges style and geometrical patterns, whereas she was wearing a frock with soft gussets and a large floral print. Dorina didn’t look like a typical Bucharest student. Her hair, sparse, soft, permed, was like an inflorescence of thistles. Her sole coquetry was to change the varnish on her bulging nails weekly at the manicurist’s, nails that were like hen’s beaks. But it quickly became plain that she had a sense of humour, she was clever and devoted.
“Excessive devotion is suspect,” sneers Petru, an unconditional admirer of La Rochefoucault, but not of Dorina, whom he answers sourly whenever he hears her energetic voice on the other end of the telephone. “Please do not invite that busybody to our house!”
But is it not Petru’s surliness of late that has thrust Letitia into the arms of a man who, like herself, resembles a belated adolescent? The brother she had wanted ever since her mother and Uncle Ion warned her that in this world you can’t trust anyone, do you understand Letitia? Even your best friend will tell on you to the secret police!
Not anyone, anyone … Not even Petru, who, when he married her, reproached her for being saddled with the blemished file of her family, her father’s years in prison and his unknown brothers, which risked scuppering his appointment to the post of university lecturer.
Letitia has remembered her husband’s reproaches all autumn, in the two buses and one tram that take her from the Building to Florinel’s bedsit and thence back home. The leaves, raked from beneath the bushes by languidly moving street sweepers with besoms, looked like mounds of grimy paper scraps or grubby rags. But in the smoky air gleamed the festive colours of autumn—the red of ripe fruit, the myriad hues of ivy, and the yellow of the robinias, about to borne off on the wind. But something was niggling Letitia, like a twinge of cystitis—could this be remorse? And then, as an analgesic, she quickly administered the argument she had readied for the moment when she would announce to her parents that she had decided to divorce. But this thought heightened the droning of the blood in her temples and her body was instantly filled with the metronome beating of her heart, made louder by the old fear.
Perhaps the fear comes from a distant memory, like an over-exposed photograph. Letitia is standing on the threshold of a large room full of people. The satchel on her back weighs heavily, but no one comes to help her disencumber herself, no one looks at her apart from the huge Alsatian, which gazes at her fixedly with its yellowish-brown eyes. From the threshold she listens to the gruff voices of the men with hats on their heads and black leather coats, who are flinging books and personal items everywhere.
“Stop bawling, you!” shouts one of them at mother, who, dishevelled and red in the face, her blouse buttoned up awry, a liseuse draped over her shoulders, is weeping.
The doors of the cupboards are wide open and all the drawers have been emptied onto to the floor and flung aside, and Letitia is so frightened that she sinks to all fours, the satchel still on her back, and crawls beneath the table. She can feel her heart thudding against her knees. She sees the books, torn open, their pages crumpled and ripped, hurled one on top of the other, in the middle of the room, next to the lace, the cashmere, the pleated, the flared dresses, all of them with mother’s scent. Now they are trodden under the boots of the yelling men, and mother is weeping.
For a long time now she can no longer hear the men’s voices, but she is still huddled up in a ball. She does not move even when mother reaches her hand towards her to pull her out, a hand that trembles queerly.
“Never mind, it doesn’t matter,” whispers mother hoarsely. “Don’t fret, Letitia, nothing’s happened! We’ll go away from here, we’ll stay with your uncle Ion, he’ll be your father! He’ll take care of you. Never mind!”
She shouldn’t fret about it. Yes! In the provincial cemetery whither, in despair, she and her mother brought him ten years ago, Uncle Ion no longer has any way of opposing Letitia’s divorce. In any case, nor did he have occasion to approve her marriage, which, if he had not died so unexpectedly and if his niece, having become his adopted daughter, had not been gripped by such a fear of the future, probably would never have taken place. Her father’s opinion doesn’t count, and mother can’t stand Petru anyway.
But where is Letitia going to go after she takes her coat off the rack and closes the door to the flat at no. 10 Uranus Street forever? The rent on a room will swallow up all her wages. What is she going to eat? What is she going to wear? And how will she be able to take Petru to court when she feels as guilty as him? The thought that he might accuse her of adultery and drag Sorin into the scandal makes her shudder, in the evening, when she is incapable of doing anything except smoke cigarette after cigarette at the window. When they are not together, she thinks about Petru with a strange pity, even if he has been nasty to her the day before. But when she hears his steps in the vestibule, she is afraid lest he appear to her with a chastened face, begging her love, a love she is no longer able to give him.
It is a good job that Petru has been as morose as he was when he came back from China.
But it is different when he comes home very late at night, bumping into chairs in the dark, because he does not turn on the light: a remnant of his former care for Letitia, who has to leave for work four or five hours before him. She pretends to be sleeping, as the bed creaks under his weight and his hand fumbles between the sheets. What day is it? He never omits to whistle as he feels her buttocks. And he waits for the reply, before capsizing on top of her. A sour reek of wine envelops her. Her face puckering, her teeth clenched, she endures the caressing hand that parts the leaves of her flesh. He is strangely patient for a man who has been drinking. His sex is velvety and precisely as large as she has been expecting. Gradually, her treacherous body relaxes to the familiar movement and she enjoys the large, bony body that covers hers. Letitia emits faint sounds, as if she were ashamed of something, ah, ah, sounds that Sorin will never hear, not just because of the embarrassment towards unknown neighbours, not just because of the awkwardness of being in the alien bed of his friend Florinel. Then why?
She does not ask herself why, but, as soon as Petru lifts himself up, all of a sudden she sees behind her closed eyelids the other room, the other bed, and in her nostrils she senses the scent of Sorin’s fine skin. She turns over on her side and lies huddled up, her legs pressed together, her eyelids tightly closed, a foetus, sheltered in her mother’s womb. She is unable to glimpse Petru’s fingers, which are approaching to stroke her hair spread over the pillow, or how his hand stops mid-way. She is thinking only of Sorin’s pellucid eyes and his whisper. How hard it is for the man to wait for you! Whence this sadness and the disgust at her sticky body, its shameful crust?
Her quickened breathing betrays that she is not sleeping, while Petru, returning from the bathroom, cleansed, in the light of the street lamp outside, with a wet towel, the sheet, has ejaculated outside her. And only when she hears his even breathing does she open her eyes and remain staring long into the dark.
Excerpt translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
Sorana had taken to showing up evenings at her cousin Nelly’s, have you come for your confessor? Virgil would tease, Nelly is in the parlor with the milliner! Then I ought to come back tomorrow, Sorana blushed easily, red spots coming down to her small-boned neckline. You really can’t take a joke? Virgil ran after her and, to persuade her, took hold of her slim shoulders. One could make out her small breasts through the gauzy corset, the little spunk wasn’t wearing a bra, and later he would discover that she wasn’t wearing panties either. He had to take her in his arms to make her come back, push her into the gazebo where the scent of honeysuckle would linger in his nostrils, mixed in with hints of lavender from the teenage-girl.
Sorana would wait patiently for the moment when Nelly was free. Her cousin related what she had gleaned concerning Stamatiu from Virgil, you need to shake this one, otherwise you will never be at peace! I cannot believe such a thing about Vasi! Sorana used to wail, head buried in palms.
Virgil didn’t care much for their whispering, come, Sorana, let me walk you home, he’d say when he grew tired of waiting. They walked down the boulevard at a distance from each other, under chestnut canopies that loomed larger at night, talking about books, no, he doesn’t read D’Annunzio, she’s not really into him either, she’s thinking of pursuing a doctorate in art history in Rome, but Vasi…
Enough already with Sorana and Vasi! A well-educated girl who takes up with a good-for-nothing, that’s not love, it’s sheer hysteria! Virgil would gesticulate nervously when Nelly told him about their chat in the gazebo, what do we care about them? He would lift the embroidered nightgown up to her breasts, she would go limp as he turned her over, he liked to see her white buttocks, and, beyond them, the hollow covered in golden fuzz, come now, on your knees, bend over, he’d say, that’s it, a little more, and more…
After the Iron Guard Rebellion, the Wehrmacht deployed in Romania numbered close to half a million. In the evening German lieder and Lili Marlene played on the radio, and the elegant German officers made conquests of the former female sympathizers of the Iron Guard. All with one exception: Sorana Iovănescu. After her lover Vasi Stamatiu vanished, Sorana went about the house crying and wringing her hands. The doctor, called on by Nelly, had prescribed light sedatives and familial warmth. The nurturing Nelly convinced her husband to take Sorana in with them for a while, until she could get back on her feet.
— Be done with your chitchatting by the time I come back! Virgil shouted toward her from the train-wagon when he went away on business.
Nelly was blowing him kisses with her gloved-hand, and Virgil, standing at the window, watched her figure as it got smaller, the little hat whose brim inched over her rich blond hair, the short bangs coming down to her thinned eyebrows, the well-lined lips and the feet with delicate ankles in soft shoes; a freshly minted young lady, whom he was always proud to parade to the world.
He had not given her many gifts, and in the time to come, though he could not know it, he would give her even fewer.
After August 23rd, 1944 the Germans went out and the Russians came in, but, with help from Iulian Iovănescu, Nelly’s cousin recently installed as chair of the Popular Council, Virgil Olaru was hired by Sovrompetrol, an ostensibly Romanian-Soviet company. Meanwhile, Virgil learned that his former colleagues at Standard Oil/Stern had their soles beaten with a crowbar, were chased around on wet cement floors for hours, had their heads banged against walls and were chained naked, isolated in a prison cell deprived of light and heat, in order to make them sign a declaration that identified them as Anglo-American spies. As for Traian Branea, his dear friend, rumor had it that he had died during interrogation. Virgil had not succeeded in persuading Nelly to put in a good word with her cousin:
— A well-placed phone call would have been enough to get poor Traian out of those beasts’ claws! But your dear Iulian let them butcher him so that he wouldn’t jeopardize his own position!
— Shake off the impression that Iulian can do just about anything! Nelly would come to her cousin’s defense. How could you expect him to do this for a stranger, when he couldn’t do it for Sorana, who was his own cousin, even if they were at each other’s throats over political nonsense?! Sorana! Who made her prattle that Vasi Stamatiu would soon return from the mountains in order to legally recognize his son?!
Sorana’s pregnancy was shrouded in great secrecy, she and Nelly looked alike, some would have said sisters, and little Sorin inherited the special blue tint of the eyes—a Iovanescu brand. Sorana wasn’t able to decide to run for her life when Nelly, sent by Iulian, warned her that she was to be arrested. In a state of commotion, she put the little one in Nelly’s arms and made her swear on the Bible that she would look after him, since her own fate was clearly martyrdom rather than motherhood. Nelly went back home on foot, shivering, exhausted, with the child all congested from crying.
Whenever he had one drink too many, Virgil would start to ask himself if Sorana had been completely oblivious of what awaited her and had simply left her child in Nelly’s care for a few hours, as she often did. Yet, he would immediately cross himself, praying that he alone might bear the sin of which he suspected his wife: sending her own cousin to jail just so that she could keep the baby, for whom she had developed a real passion.
Virgil was so filled with terror and remorse thinking of what Sorana was going through that he lacked the strength to rejoice in knowing that, in the midst of this misfortune, the child had ended up in a normal family. He had been aware of Sorana’s imminent arrest, but, as always, he left it up to his wife to handle the heavy stuff. She had been born to be a mother, although her womb was barren; Virgil felt this each time he nestled up to her breasts that retained their shape for a long time, since she never had to nurse.
Excerpt translated by Raluca Manea.