So, at the International Conference on Elephants, the British present a three-volume encyclopedia, “All about Elephants.” Next, the French present a single volume, but with a provocative title, “The Secret Life of Elephants.” Finally, the Hungarian delegates take the stage with their pamphlet entitled “Elephants and the Treaty of Trianon.” This was the joke she told me as she barreled past the train station.
“Oops, I didn’t stop. I’ll stop on my way back.”
The national nightmare: an image of failure, injustice, loss of coordination, misalignment of geography, and dissolution of self-confidence. I still had bad dreams, but they were less frequent now. He wrote anyway: It hurts, but you must go on. I wasn’t sure where exactly his on led. Where was this place I should have been going? Hadn’t I spent enough time on the move? Wasn’t that the real problem?
I got on a plane. She picked me up at the airport and put me in a cab. From Bucharest she drove to the last port on the Danube, beyond which we had to take a boat. A river express on the way there, and a steamship on the way back. In Sfântu Gheorghe, a minibus went back and forth to the beach at unpredictable intervals. It was really just a covered trailer pulled by a tractor or a jeep; the rest was on foot. All the way to the end of the continent. In the sand, every step required extra effort.
“This is the newest country in Europe,” she said.
We sat down at the tip of a beach which had one finger extending into the sea and another into the Danube. The branches, the seaweed, the shells, even the damp sand—everything was fresh. We were sitting on fresh-baked Europe. It’s ironic that Europe was expanding in Romania. A short distance from the beach was a campground, and on the opposite side was a military base guarding the new Europe. You couldn’t go any further. Beyond was just water, nothing else.
Again she asked me what I thought of it, how it made me feel.
“Say something, use some modifiers! Express your feelings! How do you like it here?”
The Danube Delta was the most impressive place I had ever seen. It is where the three channels of the Danube empty into the sea, and consequently, the sea is barely salty there. Seagulls fly over the river, and freshwater birds fly over the sea. Instead of asphalt, the roads are made of powdery sand, and they lead to the beach. We were in paradise. I wanted to be madly in love there. Maybe she wanted the same thing. But we just lay next to each other and talked. We swam and we ate fish. We were having a good time. Not a bit better. But that was enough.
I gave myself the summer as a present for my birthday, which I had completely forgotten during the winter. I was in the little big town, at my parents’; when I came back, they said: You’re home. I ended up between a tower of boxes filled with my things, and the things my parents had moved there during my absence. My grandmother put me on her one-warm-meal-a-day plan. Exercise had lost its former urgency. Old girlfriends kept popping up, I made plans with each of them, but no time for any of it. I was home. More so than ever before, because this time, I really was just passing through. Neighbors addressed me in the informal whenever I took out the trash. Some of them still remembered my name. Some were no longer there. I was afraid to ask. I wished to always find things the way I had left them. The stars in the night sky looked as though they had found peace, and they paused. The clouds nuzzled up to featherbeds hung over the railing. I stood on the balcony, romanticizing.
“I’m afraid to leave the house. It’s not my home anymore. I don’t want to bump into anyone,” she wrote. She didn’t see eye to eye with the people she had grown up with, gone to school, or been friends with. Some of them accused her of taking the easy way out by leaving. Others grumbled about everything, but they said she had done the right thing to have left. Yet neither of us had left. We hadn’t packed up our suitcases in the middle of the night, we hadn’t swum across the Danube, nor had we climbed over barbed wire. We were simply doing what everyone else was talking about: Nowadays you can travel, go to good schools, meet people, and speak with them in a foreign language . . . We wanted to be a part of it, to be engaged in the world. To take it in with a big spoon. To break our teeth on it. We weren’t abandoning anyone or anything. If we had, then it was only symbolically. The Romanian Marxist had supposedly abandoned his bourgeois ways. Now he indulged in social critique and Marlboro Reds. She had abandoned the obligatory heterosexual notion of romance, and took off in search of her ideal woman. She’d get oh-so-close to finding her in this or that summer program, but she had yet to meet the wealthy Italian with a villa, who could afford her a life of leisure with academia as a hobby. She’d be like a Gypsy in hog heaven.
“What about you? What do you want? Where do you see yourself in a few years?” she asked me. We were lying in the powdery sand, and with our eyes we pushed clouds across the blue sky. She had the books for her summer program in Andalusia under her head. I had Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying under mine. Feminist light reading. I had picked it out from her floor-to-ceiling library.
“I don’t want anything. I feel so good that if I posted it as my status I’d immediately lose all of my friends.”
Perhaps I wanted to be the Italian with a villa and a lover. For now, I was just a shy substance, out of which she was forming her ideal woman.
“Take it all off! Swimming naked feels incredible!”
I took off my top, but I was a bit disappointed when I realized it hadn’t caused a world revolution. She laughed and calmly walked naked to the end of Europe, where she submerged herself in the border waters and swam to the horizon. I took a sip of my beer, but it only gave me the courage to flop from my belly onto my back.
“So you’re in love?” she asked.
Passion showed up in the most unexpected place. I was telling her about a guy I met at the wedding of my best friend from elementary school. The friend had lost all patience with me.
“Do you even like him?” she asked, exasperated.
She had a little boy in her arms and a little girl in her belly. I kissed the best man, and then I chased him until he asked me a completely inappropriate question: “Want to make a baby?” I stroked his hair. He finally chuckled. When I told him how I had voted, he took me to the Museum of Roma Culture. We laughed at the saying Murš murš, džuvľi džuvľi. A man is a man, a woman is a woman. In the morning I had to get up to catch a train. It was time to move on. To go after her. To the end of the world, all the way to where Europe wraps its way around, turning its back on the East.
“I do like him, but we wouldn’t get along,” I told her, as I’d told my best friend. “He thought breakfast was a code word for menstruation.”
It was all her fault. After I left for the wedding, she wrote me: “I want you to enjoy yourself. Eat, dance, flirt!” So I ate hot peppers, danced the waltz, and kissed the best man. She had to hand it to me. When we saw each other in Bucharest and she heard me talking about him, laughing after each sentence and blushing, she asked: “So you’re in love?” I fell asleep before she got back from the bathroom and lay down next to me. I slept on the beach, after meals, in the car, even on a couch at the Natural History Museum.
I was finally able to sleep, especially at dawn. I have no idea what sunrise looks like in the Delta. When I woke up, the sun was already high and the room was filled with heavy, salty air. I asked her in a daze: “Should we get up or keep sleeping?” She didn’t answer. Instead she reached for the alarm. I closed my eyes and drifted over the horizon, naked under the covers. I had just enough wherewithal to realize I had uttered the last sentence in Slovak.
It was payback for her sleepwalking tendency. She was the one who had asked me What time is it? in Romanian when we woke up in her light-filled apartment that first night, in her bed barely big enough for two. As if her boyfriend had been the one next to her. Suddenly it didn’t matter who was there, whose soft, friendly body it was. We’re so replaceable it hurts!
“I spied on your ex. I think his new girlfriend looks a lot like you,” said my best friend from elementary school. It was just what I wanted to hear from a friend.
“We’re close, which is why we want to speak in our native languages,” she explained. At night and in the wee hours of the morning we’d keep coming home from a foreign language. I’m home, what time is it? In the Delta, my watch died and my cell phone stopped working. At the end of the continent, one time zone east of Central Europe, it was as if all measurements were falling off the end of the earth, which was flat. She leaned over me to study my forehead. We were past words in our native languages. All we had were gestures. She gestured, I want you. I leaned over her back: I want you.
The locals stood around on their neighboring towel island and stared at us. One island beyond them was a naked guy whose gaze was fixed on the sky: a gaggle of geese was sending him the message that he’s an ace. At the fast food stands, stray dogs kept staring at our plates.
“You just have to push past it. It’s like making love in a room with a crucifix,” she said. I laughed; we walked down the unpaved street together in the dark, with bugs crunching and frogs squishing beneath our feet. We leaned against each other in bed, and decided not to care anymore about the landlady in the next room. “This is my very good friend,” she introduced me to the landlady. The icons gazed into the darkness with their large hazelnut eyes. She has eyes like that. In the morning we’re getting up early to catch the steamship.
I finally got to see a sunrise in the Delta. Words turn off like cell phones there, and the mind stops like a watch. Finally, she wasn’t asking me how I felt or what I thought of it. She pressed her head into my shoulder and dozed. The ship set sail; the passengers were still. Half asleep, they whispered to each other in a jumble of native languages: What time is it?
“Trianon,” from Buchty švabachom. © Zuzana Kepplová. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Magdalena Mullek. All rights reserved.