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THE STATE OF NORMALITY

Romania, 1989

 

By DOINA HORODNICEANU

 

Synopsis

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2002 Doina Horodniceanu

 

 

CHAPTER 17

 

Walking out off the Metro station, I avert my gaze from a block of apartments. On the opposite side is a big department store. An old red brick house had once held that spot with unassuming dignity. I walk away winding among the groups of people carrying big shopping bags that swing in their hands while they talk to each other; raising their voices above the noise of the street. The last days before Christmas, with their holiday spirit, its rush, its abundance and generosity. Bright windows, stores full of people, white, red and green packages, gifts.

The sidewalks are filled with the goods of unlicensed street vendors. They sell watches and socks, they sell all kinds of pens and pencils, along with shirts, shoes, and soaps that would clean silver brass, copper, furniture and you. Gypsies and beggars, fill any empty spot:" Please spare some change, ma'am!", "Some change, please!", "Come on, ma'am, spare something, it's not for me, it's for my youngest baby!"

Suddenly the square fills with growing noise and panicked people running and screaming. I try to stop a woman and ask her what's going on. Nobody bothers to answer.

"It was one of His meetings." Says a man while running with his shirt unbuttoned. I'm confused! The panic rises when a company of infantry shows up on top of the hill and marches to the square. Everybody turns around and runs, leaving three injured bodies behind. During this panicky moment one doesn't think of anything else but concentrate on maintaining the balance, not to be knocked down. I follow the crowds to the closest Metro entrance. As I step on to the gangway, intending to take a secure position by the wall, the weight of the people pressing from behind makes my foot slip off. And before I can take a backward step, they walk and pass me by. I am screaming when two men take me by the arms and help me to the platform, I just left a few minutes ago.

"Are you better, now?" they ask me while still sustaining in waiting of the train.

"Yes, I'm fine, thank you! What's going on?"

"A riot started during the meeting, this morning. They brought in the army and the police, with tanks and everything. Everybody ran trying to save themselves. But other troops came from the opposite side and caught us in between. We took this metro that's taking us back, now. Hopefully it will not stop."

"Why not?! I want to get off at the next stop. I was supposed to meet someone there."

"No way! You can not meet anybody there. There's such confusion."

"Can you help me get out of here, please!"

"OK, your choice." "Excuse me!" "Please, make some room!" "She wants to get off, first stop", "Thanks..."

I follow him while cutting our way through the compact group of people.

Walking out from the Metro tunnel, thousands of men and women hang around in groups. Only a few hours ago these streets were invaded with people rushing back and forth, shopping. A view that always humiliated me, made me feel poor. These faces, I know them all. I never talked to these people, but I know each of them by heart. They’re me! I can recognize all my images in these thousand mirrors. It's my childhood, my youth, the college years, working camps; students, soldiers and prisoners working together under the burning sun, washing rain, or heavy winds. I can recognize any of these pale, tired faces. I read and love each of them. We are all together, and all the same. He reached his goal. Here were all the memories I love or I hate. We carry all the fatigue accumulated during these twenty-five terrible years, but we are still alive. For how long? There are optimistic and pessimistic rumors. All of them are unreliable, irresponsible. You don’t know where they come from, or what’s their meaning.  People are confused. There is beatitude but reticence too. Some pedestrians look skeptically at the others who try to organize themselves.

            This is the right place for Tudor; he must be here somewhere, taking pictures. I search one group after another. Exhausting discussions, commentaries, suppositions, and interpretations. Everybody tries to understand the consequences. What will be next? Confusion, fear, doubt.

             Men and women drenched by ice-cold water from fire hoses, refuse to submit and begin erecting barricades under the eyes of Western journalists taking pictures and recording on video cameras. I don't know what to think, but it seems so real. On top of a burnt car I see Tudor. He comes down when he notices me. Leaning against the car is a strange woman trembling under Tudor's coat. An airplane flies up in the sky. It shines in the sun living a white trace behind it. Sometimes it looks matte and gray in front of a whitish cloud.

"Who is she?"

"I have no idea; I found her under the arch of an entrance. She was almost naked, trembling in this ballet dress. She looked like a frozen swan in the snow. She doesn't speak. I think she is still in shock. Would you take her to my place? I'm afraid she will get a cold or something here. It's not a safe place for you either."

"I'm looking for Victor, I was supposed to meet him here."

"I haven't seen him yet. Let's try to get together at my place whenever tonight. See what you can do for her. I think she is beautiful, don't you?"

"What is this noise, anyway?"

The soldiers open fire en mass and bodies start falling in crimson puddles. People spread around, the most daring groups trying to make it back. Others run to lose themselves in darker corners or under the ruins. Men and women running and screaming: "Run, run, they brought tanks to smash the barricades." Being taken by the human wave, we find ourselves out of the encirclement, running to Tudor's house. The clatters and shots become softer and lower until they disappear completely. Tudor, we lost him somewhere. His house is a red brick one. The windows are narrow, Spanish style. The sun gets in with its shoulder. But he doesn’t need light. He is a photographer.

On the entrance terrace is rubble and brick powder. A bullet hit the wall right next to the door. You can see the perfect round hole in the wall.

 The interior is standard. Bar, fridge. In the medicine cabinet in the bathroom an impressive provision of condoms, and around one hundred bath-towels. About the same number of videotapes. Movies and music. People are full of surprises though. On the bookshelves I read titles like Descartes, Metaphysic Meditations, Camus, Mircea Eliade, Petre Tutea, and The Magician. I have a terrible headache. I enter the kitchen. Typical too. The cabinets by the sink have been transformed into a desk. I open the drawers: papers, envelopes, pencils, a thin folder with personal papers. No kitchen utensils. No mail of any kind. He doesn’t get any or he doesn’t keep it here. Finally I find some tea. We are in a single man’s apartment! You don’t need the right to vote to figure that out.

I take a better look at the shaking silhouette while she moves towards the kitchen in her transparent dress. She has a very thin and straight nose, black hair and dark eyes, you could lose yourself in, surrounded by dark circles. So thin and transparent, I have the feeling that if I would try to touch her, my hand would go through.

Without any warning, she starts talking.

"We were having the final rehearsal for tonight's show, in His honor; when the shootings started. The police in dark blue uniforms and soldiers in khakis fired warning shots and then used gunfire and armored cars to crush the demonstration. The first victims were brought down. Eight houses parched by fire. Among them: the Central Library and then the Theater buildings. Everybody ran out to see what was going on. The reinforcements of special police with clubs and shields arrived down the boulevard and plain-clothes police began making arrests. As more police and armored cars arrived, more and more people joined there. The Theater looks like hell, a bomb hit it."

"So, you talk... I am Marta, what's your name?"

"Anna, my name is Anna. I'm a ballet dancer. I live next door. I moved in yesterday."

"I see. Well, this is quite a coincidence. Welcome among us. For the moment why don't you make yourself comfortable, here. Have some tea, try to sleep. I need to leave now. If somebody shows up say you are a friend of Tudor (you know) the guy who found you. I will be back tomorrow. If you leave, just write a note for him. I'll see you later."                                                                                           

The night's dark coat covered everything. The street dogs barking and running all over. Police cars rush back and forth carrying more soldiers and policemen. Crowded buses keep going, without any specific direction or schedule. Nobody cares to argue with the driver. No need to punch a bus ticket either, since you don't have any clue where you are going. I have a few moments of hesitancy; to go or not to grandma’s?! A little bit farther on the Main Boulevard, the traffic is blocked by the troops. I wander alone on the streets, around the Market Square, lost in the crowds, stopping to talk to one or another until two in the morning. Asking, forwarding questions, information, rumors. Confident when I meet a too insecure person or unsure when I talk to a convinced one. I am so confused, I am looking for information, or opinions everywhere. I’m not able to go home. I would stroll the whole night. The street spectacle is febrile, stimulating, filled with hopes, doubts, and suppositions. I can still hear the firearms, machine guns and cannon’ rumbles. Sometimes the sound comes from far away, from the suburbs, but it becomes stronger and stronger while approaching, very soon will be downtown. The streets are still alive, almost normal. In a small square a few soldier patrols take their positions. On the main streets the police cordons block the apartment building entrances. After changing some buses, and a lot of walking, I see the lights from the military camp by grandma's house. I take a quick peek inside. No unusual activity here. Maybe everything is a dream, and the next morning will be just a usual one in the long chain. I'll think tomorrow about all this. I want to sleep. The well known happy bark.

"Hi, Tora, hi sweetie, nice to see you!" The lights are on, they are not asleep, yet.

"Good evening, grandma'."

"Thank god you are back. Are you all right? We've been so worried! Oh, dear, dear."

"It's OK, I'm fine, stop crying, please, you'll wake him up."

"He is not asleep, he is waiting for you." She dries her tears.

"OK, let's go inside. I'm very tired and I want to sleep."

"You won't eat anything?"

"No, I'm not hungry, thank you."

"Marta, is that you?" Grandpa's voice. "Where have you been? I was worried. There were soldiers, and policemen shooting, with tanks and bombs on TV. Crazy people out there. I hope you were not among them. It's very dangerous. You need to stay away from all this mess."

"I know grandpa', let's sleep now. I'm tired."

#

Machine guns, the sinister silence of the house, the phone’ rings, my horrible loneliness. Everything is possible and nothing is easy… The darkness.

#

Next day, December

            Marta, I, Marta, in a complete state of normality; I slept badly with sudden wake-ups, short very complicated dreams. Our house wasn’t as quiet as other nights. Any time I woke up I heard the same noise of firearms. The whole night and morning the phone rang. People worried if we were all right, if anything happened to our place, if the worst was over. Matei called to tell me something ‘terrible’:

            “Marta, I need to tell you something very important: I heard Petre is a secret agent! Someone brought it to my attention. He is very powerful. He is very rich too!”

I couldn’t restrain myself from laughing. Of course he is. I didn’t think it was secret for anybody.

In the military camp, a trumpet blows. It's my childhood's sound. Day after day the trumpets call feet to tromp identical formations. From over the ice on the lake the wind homes in. It's so damn cold in the room that I get dressed under the comforter. I even need to keep the clothes underneath for few minutes to warm them a bit. While dressing I look over the military. A roared command interrupts the singing of a bird. Nothing unusual. I stare at the snow.

I recognize this light. It’s the winter morning sun, a white sun. It is December 22, 1989; it’s seven o’clock ante meridian and this day, this hour, this second will never be again.

The kitchen is warm and smells of fresh baked bread blend with brewed coffee. A smell of good, authentic coffee, very difficult to find during the last fifteen years. Available only on the black market, at very high prices. Grandma folds her hands in front of her cup.

"The revolution burst already."

            In fact it started in the mountains a month ago. Martial law was already in effect.

On the Radio the usual speaker announces the 'suicide' of the 'traitor' General - the defense minister and the proclamation of the state of emergency. Curfew starts at ten o’clock. After that hour nobody is allowed on the streets. Any group of more than three will be arrested. The restaurants will be closed. All the performances are suspended. Every there will be an official announcement. Everybody is urged to defend him or herself if they are attacked in the houses. She turns to me, her forehead in sharp folds.

"Please, just be careful! Rumors circulate that there are a lot of victims. The number of deaths is unknown. I don’t know how the atmosphere in town is. Consternation, confusion, misapprehension, fright. The newspapers are gray and silent - expressionless. Maybe only now we’ll learn what censorship means."

On the streets people are jubilant, talkative, curious, and after all relieved. The weather is favorable too, at the end of December it looks like middle of March. The crowds on the streets make you think it’s a holiday. People hug, greet each other enthusiastically, looking for more information. The lines in front of the food stores are longer than ever. Men and women share impressions about last night, approve, wonder, and exclaim. Somebody says: “The army is with us!” But nobody pays any attention.

Some candles are burning on the spot where yesterday laid a dead woman’s body. The passersby stop and ask for more information. Small, deliberating groups raise their gaze along the ten floors to the roof of the building. I approach one of them myself. In the middle of five or six pedestrians, is a madman, one of the homeless. The one that had the habit of wandering around the coffee houses looking for someone to buy him an espresso. He had a whistle and used to recite Shakespeare. Sometimes he would ask for money to watch your car while parked. Stammering, he tells everyone how a terrorist from the roof shot a woman last night. He has the empty cartridge of the bullet that fell off the roof.

“Are you sure, it was a terrorist?” people ask.

“Yes sir, I saw him with my own eyes. I saw paratroopers and snipers.”

People leave shrugging. It is an explanation as good as any other but I would like to know the real answer.

The downtown area looks lamentable. The boulevards are blocked. A lot of buildings are destroyed. What was the target? I don’t know. Maybe the Telephone Palace, or the National Library? The University and the College of Architecture were incinerated. They still smoke. The rumor about Ceausescu’s fall is the reason for all the excitement, anxiety, dramatic accent, optimistic confusion and nervous joy.

It is so encouraging to see a big imposture cracking.

       

To be Continued...

 

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Needs major revision
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Excellent writing!