A plump face, an old suit with a too-long skirt, her hair permed. Nana looked like that when she’d met us, at the beginning of the first year at the university. Older than she would seem ten years later, when, thanks to me, she’d meet her future husband. Was he the first? The second? I’ll never know.
When she still put her hair in rag curlers she brought from home, those evenings in the cramped room stinking of crowded bodies, of Nivea cream and leftovers. Later, she swapped the curlers for paper ones, from pages ripped from old class notebooks. But how much she’d changed since then! She’d slimmed down; short dresses and high-heeled shoes revealed the elegant lines of her legs, and her always-made-up eyes were large in her thinner face.
Nana rarely let herself engage in gossip and small talk and you could be sure, when you left the room, that she wouldn’t say anything bad about you. Did she do it out of loyalty? Out of conventionality? From a lack of imagination? Because of hypocrisy? But what energy she could consume in that room rather than have to defend our accusations against that pimply baby Silviu, a year younger than her, harvested I don’t know how at a tea in the City. She even defended his parents, vain two-lei diplomats, difficult as it was for someone in her situation to see them in a good light: “No, girls, I know you’re on my side, but you’re not right. Silviu’s parents aren’t to blame. They’re right, in their way, it’s too early for me to have a child, let alone in my third year! But Silviu has barely entered university! Maybe they’ll agree for us to be married later on, if we manage to resolve it now . . .”
“They’ll agree with Saint Never! With Nana’s file, the Buja family won’t ever see a mission again. They’ll be kicked out one after another. I hope, for her sake, that she hasn’t made herself believe that if she has this kid, Grandfather Frost will also bring her a residence card for Bucharest, with an address on Argentina Street!” Domnica whispered to us when Nana was out of the room.
Was all-knowing Domnica right? Really, what did Nana have in her parents’ political file? And why didn’t Nana open her mouth in the first place to tell us that she was pregnant? She’d tried to midwife her own abortion, with hot baths and quinine, and jumping off the table until the girl from the room below called the administrator on us. But it had no more effect than scratching a wooden leg, her period didn’t come and just like that, she was caught by the Decree at three months. The newspapers were full of signed articles by lawyers and doctors explaining how healthy, how correct it was to be a mother of four children. Other articles branded the doctors and midwives arrested for clandestine curettages as criminals.
Maybe Nana had preferred not to say just how far she’d gone with Silviu, just as I, too, had hidden my relationship with Petru from the girls, because “they aren’t from our world,” as Marilena said? Somehow, one moment we’d watched Nana whispering with Silviu leaning on the front door, and then the very next day the porter announced she should go down in front of the dorm, that someone in an official car was looking for her.
We all got up and raced to the window, ready to fall over. We giggled; we punched each other. Poor Nana took off for the stairs at a gallop; she couldn’t see us. We deduced that this must be Comrade Buja, Silviu’s mother, the type who climbed down from a gigantic car with MAE written on it. Her high-heeled rose pumps clicked, and emphasized her muscular calves. Her hair was platinum, her skirt somewhat short, tight about her thighs. A silk blouse, embroidered with rose frills fluttering on an opulent bust. In the light, the glimmer of gold at her hands and throat reached us on the fourth floor.
Although we lent her everything that we could find that belonged to people of that world in our communal wardrobe (Marilena’s raincoat, Domnica’s green jersey two-piece, and my high-heeled pumps), Nana, next to Comrade Buja, looked like a servant caught with the silver stashed in her bosom.
“What a caricature of a mother-in-law—all she’s missing is a golden nose ring,” Marilena cracked as we gossiped two hours later.
Nana, who’d just come back from the shower, a towel on her head, looked at her without a word. She went silently to her bed, arranged her little mirror on the nightstand, and began to brush her hair. She didn’t say a word until she began to wrap it, strand by strand, in her paper curlers. She was probably thinking of something to shut us up. “You sound like damn hags! What, do you want her to go around with a thatch of straw on her head like you do? Her work requires her to look good,” she said in a soft, inexpressive voice.
She gave us the same lines all the time, but she asked us to pull her in with a girdle when we went class, so that no one could see her belly. When none of us wanted to any more, because we thought the baby might be starting to move, and were afraid of hurting it, she pulled herself in alone.
“We can go, ready, did you put your harness on?” Marilena kept trying to joke.
But it was too serious for us to laugh any more. At least now she didn’t throw up as she did at the start. For better or worse, she took all her exams up to the end. She slept poorly. We heard how she tossed and turned all night. Sometimes she left, swishing out of the room, her robe thrown over her nightshirt, and came back in about an hour. Once when I couldn’t sleep myself, I went after her. We chatted stiffly by the radiator at the end of the hallway. There was a moment when she couldn’t take it any more and burst into tears, but what she was telling me about was no big deal.
When we left for vacation, Nana distributed all the clothes she couldn’t fit into any longer. She didn’t give them to us forever—if we liked something, we should wear it, but take care of it and keep it from getting stained. Avoiding our glances, she whispered to us that Silviu’s parents had found them a host family, so that they could stay in Bucharest through the summer and get married after the birth of the baby. No matter what happened, they would return to the university. But we needed to keep it a secret, because her stepfather, furious that he might become a laughingstock in the village, had forbidden her to appear with a bunny in tow that she’d had with a snot like Silviu. She would still call us or Silviu would, when she could, however she could, because the host family didn’t have a phone, but whatever happened, we shouldn’t ever bother the Buja family.
But, as Domnica had predicted, we didn’t hear a word from Nana all vacation. If her best friend Marilena still saw her, hats off to her, she didn’t betray a thing.
Not a single professor seemed to know why Nana began the year a month later than we did, well into November. And I can’t imagine how she got around the harpies in the secretary’s office, but her name didn’t appear among those who were expelled due to unexcused absences. Was it maybe the hand of Comrade Buja? In our group register, we put her down as on medical leave, and if someone asked about her, Marilena rushed to say she was in a sanitarium for lung disease and would return in a month. But after the looks exchanged at the explanation, between themselves, Marilena saw that the secret was out.
If Nana’s name didn’t appear on the announcement board in the hall among those expelled in the fall, in exchange it stayed on the yellowing list of those twenty from the college dorms kicked out of the university because they were being prostituted. Some two to three weeks before they put up the list, we had all heard rumors about an album of naked girls, from which guests invited to a tea in the City could choose the ones they liked. I don’t know who baptized the session of the Rectorate “The Monkey Trial” after the Romanian title of the film Inherit the Wind that was playing then at the Scala, but the name stuck.
I know that “The Monkey Trial” was held in October, because when we left the Scala, dazzled by the soft light of an Indian summer, Marilena put together a collection to buy three white chrysanthemums, the petals undulating. We hid them in a folder later, because only an idiot would bring flowers to that session.
Toward evening, when we escaped at last, the chrysanthemums were as wilted as we were. I tossed mine into the trash can on March 6th Boulevard and Marilena and Domnica both jumped on me: “Why did you toss it out? We could have put it in a jar until tomorrow and it would have come back! What kind of woman are you if you don’t like flowers?”
I told them that they cared less about the flowers than the money they’d spent on them, especially since if they waited until Saturday someone for sure would appear with a cabbage of a bouquet, for free. I wasn’t even sure I was right, but the stress of the session hadn’t dissipated and I didn’t have someone to defuse my jitters.
I laughed for no reason all the way to the dorm, happy that I’d escaped the auditorium we’d entered so anxiously. Though none of us were involved in “The Monkey Trial,” we’s pushed Marilena to sit as far back as we could. We’d heard that anyone who risked defending someone could herself be accused. In years past, this is where they would have judged those who had been caught falsifying their biographies when filling out their cadre cards after being admitted, hiding their imprisoned or under-home-arrest fathers, expropriated property, relatives living abroad, and so on.
The taste of fear that filled my mouth that whole session of the Rectorate was one I’d learned at home when I was little. I couldn’t swallow because of the knot in my throat.
Although expected to offer a session of unmasking “the enemies who have slipped into our ranks,” “The Monkey Trial” began with a long and boring report, read stumblingly by Bucur, condemning the unclassed elements, venal, with the mentality and manners of the petty bourgeoisie. The taking of prepared statements followed, all the more boring, because they repeated word for word the report. Among the speakers, naturally, was our Domnica.
None of the accused, eyes swollen with tears, got up from the auditorium to perform “self-criticism.” Those twenty “dorm monkeys” who would have sex for money were judged in absentia. They’d gone home already, to their parents, disappeared into their native provinces or, worse, it was rumored, thrown into women’s prisons.
In the end, after six hours, we hadn’t discovered anything else about how the deluxe bordello masked by the Saturday evening parties, the one that had been murmured about in the dorm for a month, operated.
As we left the amphitheater of the Rectorate in the crowd, Domnica pulled me over to the side so she could whisper just to me, “Nana was so lucky that Buja took her off the list! Why are your eyes getting so wide? Where do you think it would be possible for a worthless twig like Silviu to get someone like Nana?”
Because I kept looking at her, amazed, she made a gesture of disgust with her hand, as if to say, look who I’ve had to tell the facts of life! Quickly, because Marilena was getting closer, she snarled, “Nana plays innocent in front of us, but she’s a big whore.”
If she said it to me in order for me to tell the others, she was disappointed, because I never repeated what she said to me then, even though the memory of her whisper has come back to me my entire life. I was quiet at first more from loyalty to Nana, but also because I distrusted Domnica sometimes—class hatred, what do you want! From the first year of university, when none of us knew each other, Domnica was elected to the UTC office, chosen on the basis of prior recommendations. When they called me to the Cadre after my father decided in the end to return to my mother, I got the sense that Domnica was familiar not just with my file, but with my family life, which—as I’d learned well when I was little—I never talked about.
I was loyal to Nana maybe because of my waning autism, which wasn’t just always a case of indifference toward others, I told myself, when I was more indulgent with myself, and delicate, too.
After spring vacation, Nana reappeared, skinny with dark circles under her eyes, wide-eyed, with the same last name but with a ring on her finger. She was more remote than before. She took Extraveral and Distonocalm so she could sleep, and she didn’t want to go to the Saturday-evening dances for a while. Silviu was with his parents, posted to our embassy in Iraq, enrolled as a student there at the university in the department of Petrol and Gas. The baby, Nana told us, was staying with a cousin of his, from Alexandria, who wanted to adopt him but with the condition that Nana couldn’t see him any more, so that the little one wouldn’t suffer.
“Nonsense,” Domnica said to us once, when it was just me and Marilena in the room with her, “she gave the baby to the orphanage when she was still in the hospital and signed the papers, and then—finished! He didn’t give her either the ring or his name, and whenever she receives a letter from Silviu, she tosses it on her nightstand and when she’s alone, she rips it into little pieces and throws it in the closet, one day she’ll denounce him!”
“She’s lucky she has you to mind her business,” laughed Marilena.
“Who is Letitia Branea? Somebody’s waiting for her downstairs.”
I was sitting on my bed with my eyes half-open and a notebook across my knees. Startled, I thought at first that it must be Petru, as I thought every time someone was looking for me, even though two weeks had already passed since the evening when we’d returned from the sea and he’d left me with my suitcase on the sidewalk.
“What does he look like?” called Didi, her mouth open. She was eating alone at the table, bent over a shoebox full of pig stomach stuffed with lard.
“A tall man. I think I recognize him,” shouted the girl who had announced him, from behind the door.
I tore off my robe and began to dress, shivering in the cold. And then I couldn’t stand it any more. I flung open the door under the astonished stares of the girls, and I ran like that, barefoot, across the corridor and opened up the window facing the foggy courtyard. I didn’t notice him at first, although I should have, because he was the only one standing in the middle of the alley, not propping up the walls by the stairs like the others. I imagined his face, since he wasn’t any clearer than a silhouette with its hands stuck in its pockets. I stayed at the window and watched him. I couldn’t bring myself to believe it, and I was barely able to restrain myself from calling down to him. I was afraid that he would suddenly change his mind and leave before I had a chance to get down. But he needed to wait for me, just as I needed to remain quiet.
He began to walk with languid steps. He reached the cafeteria door, closed at this hour, and peeked through the blue blinds, trying to disguise his impatience as curiosity. How simple was this thing, which seemed to me unimaginable, how simple it was that he would wait for me, but I wasn’t yet accustomed to believing that it was true, let alone to understanding it. The triumph warmed me with a strange tenderness, a sad joy.
“Petru Arcan,” I told the girls without turning my face toward them, brushing my hair in a hurry in the mirror on the table.
I felt their astonished silence and I didn’t move, I didn’t try to watch myself in the mirror. I’d built myself up during all of those days, like building a sand castle—where was I, squandered in a few colorless hours? Every day I waited for the ultimate and definitive outline to emerge from all of this, waited only for the girls who would bring me together now, but I was afraid of their looks, of their thoughts that froze me, of everything about them that I could see in me now. It had seemed to me very much at that time that nothing unusual ever would happen to me, ever, that maybe the same day would always repeat itself. And even so, so many things had happened that I wondered at, reaching toward the hook to take my coat. Uncle Ion had died, my father had left his dark life that he didn’t seem willing to talk about and had come back to my mother, yet Petru waited for me. And a visa on that residence card that would transform me into someone with the right to live in the City . . . As in a sudden awakening, I’d seen the room, distorted by night, the girls who had just been talking about something else, the corridors along which I advanced. It was the present, when the future had not yet been fixed, but I would only know it later, in hindsight.
I went down step by step, slowly. The smell of the linoleum, of fried potatoes, mortar, steam. Doors slammed. Cars honked down below. At the windows on the interior courtyard, girls threw out empty bottles and jars, calling out something I couldn’t catch clearly on the stairs. Everything was deep within me, and at the same time I felt distant from it, and I understood that very soon I would leave. The memory of these years that returned to me would preserve Petru’s silhouette; all the more confusing, it would be mixed up with the memory of other silhouettes. Other girls would pass along the deserted hallways, under the sallow, dull light of the overhead lamps, hindered by the flaps of their robes, waiting for something with the same shudder as me. Outside, the city that I was closing in on was another one, and Petru, who waited for me outside at the glass door, was someone other than what I’d thought, but it would take me a long time to realize that.
I went down step by step, slowly. I’d gotten closer to the door, so much so that the neverending city stilled within me. The houses had taken root deeper than the trees, the day’s colors had become one, but I didn’t know this. All I knew was to go toward what I had waited for. I’d lost something in all this time; I’d learned to have patience. With whatever remained, I would continue, an automatic smile on my face, suspicious of happiness.
I was on the sidewalk now, stepping upon the piles of wet papers, and I felt as if all that was happening to me was reflected in an unbroken series of mirrors, in the astonished eyes of those who, I hoped, watched me. Nothing unusual had happened to me and yet, at least for a short time, I’d be the talk of the hall. They’d gossip about me in their rooms in the evenings. It seemed good that I should go, but I would take for always the provisional air of this place with me, and now I knew that I’d become accustomed to waiting to give it up, and I held on to it like I held on to my own body, with familiarity, with repulsion, out of habit.
“You took your time coming down,” he whispered to me, wry and ironic.
I felt the warm pressure of hands on mine, so gentle, so unreal, so much so that I asked myself, what if this is real?
“Let’s go,” I told him, slowing my steps.
In the last window we passed by I saw the reflections of our faces. I tried to distinguish mine, but it was too late. His life poured into my face and froze it in place, my lips stretched by time, like the circles under eyes that are alike, as happens with those who are thought of together.
From Drumul egal al fiecarei zile, 5th revised edition, 2008. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Carrie Messenger. All rights reserved.