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THE STATE OF NORMALITY

Romania, 1989

 

By DOINA HORODNICEANU

 

Synopsis

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2002 Doina Horodniceanu

 

 

CHAPTER 22

 

            Tudor’s photos were better than ever. Mutilated faces, hands rising between dead bodies, young children on top of tanks. The most impressive case I learned about was a sixteen years old boy who got shot in the back during the night and was left on the street considered dead. The next morning the cold woke him up and he found himself covered by hundreds of cadavers among which only he and three others were not completely dead, in a mass grave.

And Anna was always there. A calm and positive energy coming from another world.

I can not remember her talking except for a strange story she shared with us one night. I bought half a pound of truffles from the most expensive and the fanciest bakery in town. It was around eight o'clock when I knocked on Tudor's door. He opened it himself. His entire being was emanating warmth. I was stupefied in front of such spontaneous and expressed cordiality. Behind him Anna was playing the little housewife. She was dressed in a cream silk kimono. I couldn't restrain myself from asking:

"So, you two, did you get married, or engaged?" I was joking but Tudor brought up a bottle of Moet & Chandon Champagne and announced that the wedding would take place next week. Again at the church, with rings and the whole show. As usual Tudor assured us that this was going to be forever, that he finally found the woman of his dreams. He was restless filling the glasses, bringing ice and little plates full with expansive saltines and other aperitifs. He talked non-stop while Anna sprightly was bringing in even more food from the kitchen. Tudor opened the champagne and we drank the first glass.

“A glass of champagne for the most beautiful lady and for her happiness!” He bent as low as he could and kissed the hand of his future wife.

Then we hugged each other and wished all the best.

Besides me there was Marta, as beautiful as ever, and a couple coming from Moldova: Marin and Corina. They told us how during the revolution’s days their town was so quiet and calm they would not have noticed something had changed if they had not seen it on TV.

They had a scary capacity of absorption but as a drinker, Tudor was even more dangerous. He had a fantastic potential for consumption that didn't leave any trace on him. Another one drinking only tea in this quantity would get dizzy. His resistance plus practice made him one of the toughest drinkers. When you think he is finally finished, drunk, he is as clear, fresh and sparkling as a bottle of icy mineral water. So, we started to talk. Nothing new in what we were saying. We were all simpler than ever, not as sophisticated as usual. Marta with her talent in guiding a conversation; changing attitudes, trying one subject, two, three, until she finally found the right one. It was amazing how fast she created the atmosphere. Nothing like the oddness of the first moments following new acquaintances. The conversation flowed animated. Nobody made weather considerations.

Sorrows of late hours with overfilled ashtrays, piles of empty bottles and tones of strong coffee. All of a sudden Anna started to tell us stories about her childhood. She talked a lot about herself, like one who didn’t have anything to hide. She looked happy, but I don’t think she was like that all her life. In fact she confirmed it:

"When I turned four my parents sent me to this famous kindergarten where I didn't like the food but they made me eat it anyway. They used to threaten us that if we didn't eat they would lock us up in the basement for the rats to eat us. Apparently this happened once when they forgot a kid there and found him dead the next day. I imagined myself forgotten in that basement. The way I would starve in the beginning, then I would shrivel and then my skin would dry out like Egyptian mummies. I would turn into a skeleton and I would be found months, years, centuries later. And they would ask: 'who is this? She must not have eaten her lunch. Just throw away all these bones, but save the boots. We can use them for a better kid.' A school bus picked me up every day along with my fears, tears and struggles. One morning I was supposed to tell the driver to take me to grandpa's because we were moving out of the apartment. But I forgot and in the evening the bus brought me back to the old address. I found myself in a completely empty house, convinced that my parents abandoned me. I started to cry. Neighbors came in trying to console me. Later on my father came to pick me up. After that I got very sick. I couldn't eat anything and I used to wake up in the middle of the night screaming that I'm dying. They took me to the doctors, tried different cures, and vitamins nothing worked. One day my grandma' called the village sorceress. She made me little toys in the wood stove, saying strange words that I didn't understand. They were metal toys. I was supposed to sleep with them under my pillow. After a while I got better. I have no idea what happened to the toys, later on."

            She was diffusing the mysterious air of someone who would stay among us just because this was her duty or because she was being polite. Hearing her speaking I discovered she had a gift of telling stories, but then she abandoned us again and flew back to other sunny horizons and I didn't understand anything again.

            I was stupefied, astonished, in shock. Tudor, for a change was absolutely enchanted. I felt handicapped. It was a clear night. Not too cold. The sky was full of stars, but the city looked more hideous than ever.

The days went on and on. Everything seemed to return to more or less normal life.

Prices went up, salaries went down, and people fell into misery. I entered a grocery store to do some shopping and I got scared. I hadn’t bought anything since January and I had no idea about the prices. They were seven, eight, sometimes ten times higher. It was really scary and we were only in the beginning. On top of the old label showing yesterday’s price of 160 was a new label displaying the new price of 1000. The ink hadn’t dried yet.

 

I saw Marta less and less. We were all very busy making money. Before that December nobody cared about cash since there wasn't much to buy with it anyway. With all those stores completely empty, you needed some imagination to spend money even if your monthly income was the equivalent of ten American dollars. Now with the new market economy our "spiritual hunger of the mind" was gone with the wind. Nobody bought books anymore, the museums and the theaters were empty even if a theater ticket cost as much as bus’ fare. During our meetings we didn't talk about anything except prices and wages:

“More than that I teach too much: twenty-five classes a week is too much for my physical stamina. I come home dizzy, without voice, I can’t put two thoughts together. I need a vacation.” Marta used to complain.

Everything seemed to have a price, including or maybe more than anything else, liberty. We are free now, in a free country and this was the price we had to pay for it.

We took a trip to the mountains: Ioana, the kids, Marta, Tudor, Anna and I. A whole week, we didn’t have any snow for skiing but it was a nice vacation. The mountains, seen again after so long were impressive. A clear light, white, cold. Sometimes I stopped to enjoy the view. I wanted to remember the lines, the shapes and colors. I didn’t find my usual vacation exuberance. Rather it was some kind of melancholia, sadness. I was probably very old. I carried my exhaustion and my solitude. I returned tanned, rested, relaxed but I lost this shape very quickly once I arrived in Bucharest. During the first two days everyone I met wondered how good I looked; after that I became more and more recognizable: dark circles under my eyes, puffs, pale, headaches, insomnia. It was like I slept for seven days in a row, I woke up and I found out that nothing had changed. Nothing was new.

Half a pound of butter is two thousand bucks. Everyday it gets more and more expensive. It’s not the black market, it’s speculation, confusion. It’s the desperation of those who tried to save some money their whole life and now they see it vanishing, becoming recycling paper, ashes.

“This inflation kills us!” – my mother told me, afraid that very soon her monthly retirement wage will not be enough to buy bread.

“I don’t worry, I don’t have money anyway!” I said. I was living from one day to another. I didn’t spend any money on myself. I even tried to quit smoking for two days – a too expensive habit. My salary was pretty good but with that high inflation rate it wasn’t enough from one payday to the next.

She shrugged her shoulders:             
            “I don’t know what to say.”

True, what could she say?

Three months passed from the December revolution and I hadn’t returned to normal life. I still didn’t have a regular schedule. I lived from one day to another. I was wasting my time making visits, accepting invitations, wondering around. I was floating to the right or to the left wherever the current took me. Everybody hurried to occupy positions, to validate titles, to start businesses, to establish rights. There was a moral rush all over. I wasn’t able to do it. I didn’t want to do anything; I wasn’t interested. I didn’t want meetings, committees, and congresses anymore. A lot of comedies, impostures, miseries were still playing. There were thousands of incidents and offending events. It was a scary conformism – with a new orientation but with the same psychological structure as in the past. I refused to be disappointed, I didn’t have the right to be disappointed. Ceausescu and his family were dead and this should be enough.

So many people died without even seeing the fall of the beast. We were alive. We had this unbelievable chance. Farther on life starts - the kind of life that had to be lived. The only thing I ever wanted was freedom, not a new definition of liberty. After so many years of terror, we didn’t need an explanation of what it means to be free. We knew that. And we knew also there’s no substitute for this. It was the only thing that mattered.

 

       

To be Continued...

 

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Needs major revision
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Excellent writing!