THE STATE OF NORMALITY
By DOINA HORODNICEANU
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© 2002 Doina Horodniceanu
In the fall of the same year the college students had to attend the usual communist work camp in the South. It was one of the roughest working camps in the country. For the first time, I was worried about Marta. I had seen her the day before, for not more than half an hour, when she had actually tried and succeeded to disperse my last days’ anxiety. She made a lot of small, amiable gestures and gave me delightful looks.
It was a sunny September day. I showed up in the Old University Square. There was no way to find her in that place filled with excited, talkative students. Old, fat gypsies and illegal street vendors selling flowers, sweets and sunflower seeds praised them with eloquent speeches while watching with anxious eyes the end of the street, for the undercover police.
I climbed on an abandoned selling-table and examined the square that was so alive. Lots of people, cars, traffic policemen, stores and cafes. Nothing seemed disturbed. And still, very deep inside it, something was totally wrong. Unfortunately nobody undertook any responsibility. We all disagreed, we were all indignant but we were all part of the same guilt: accepting the leadership of a sick mind. I was the “lucky” one. I wasn’t a student, so I didn’t have to go. This was their “privilege”.
"Martaaaa, where are you?" I finally saw her in the middle of a group.
"Petre, here, here. Hi, what are you doing here? Let me introduce you to my new friends! This is Petre, the one I was talking about. I was just about to tell them this summer's story with the moviemakers on the beach and you! You don't mind, do you?"
"So, as I said, there we were, on the island, awfully burnt by the sun, all of us, when his girlfriend, Ioana, started playing the cello. And there he goes: ‘Oh, no, Ioana, please stop that. Look, if you don't stop, I'll tell the story of my life. You know how much I like that. OK, you asked for it: So, I was persecuted my entire life.
‘Ah, come on, what's the matter with you?! I think you got sunstroke or something...’ everybody protested. And in that very moment, guess what: two beautiful boys apparently descending from a Calvin Klein advertisement, with a professional video camera, stopped next to us and said:
‘Hi, guys, we need your help. We have failed our directing exam and the professor said that she would pass us if, in the fall, when school resumes we present a good short movie. So, we saw you, and we thought you were very interesting...’
‘We bet you did, but we are not interested, thank you!’
‘Oh, no, you can't do that, you have to help us!’
‘OK, I will, if you want to hear my life's story, since none of my friends want to.’
‘Yes, right, but can you say it while she is playing, please?’
‘And, you are not going to believe it, but he began:
‘You see, I was persecuted my entire life. When I was four years old my parents sent me to kindergarten. There I was supposed to stay next to a girl that I hated and who made me sick. I told the teacher but she would not allow me to change places. So I started vomiting and I kept vomiting every day of my kindergarten life.
‘Later in school they persecuted me because of my bad mouth and my indecent drawings on the desk. In High School it was all right because I persecuted others. But now I find myself abused again. Because you see I don't like the sun - it makes me sick- but this young, beautiful lady here, playing cello, she dragged me to this island, where I think it's awfully boring. It comes one day, you see, when you realize that even if you don't have horns, you are nothing more than a bull!’”
Everybody was guffawing. Endless cascades of laughter.
"What are you doing here, Petre? In the middle of all this madness?"
"I came to say good-bye and see if I can find out where they are taking you. Maybe we'll come visit. Just wait here. Don't move until I get back. By the way, before I leave, have you heard this joke:
‘A journalist goes to a village to interview the Mayor about the stage of the harvest on the fields. The village looks deserted. Nobody is in the fields or on the streets or in the Mayor's house. Finally in front of a gate he sees an old woman, in her late eighties. He asks her if she has any idea where all the peasants and workers are.’
‘Oh, you don't know?! They are all in the school building studying French.’”
‘OK, who is going to harvest, then?’
‘Je ne sais pas, les etudiants et les soldats, péut être!’*
I didn’t have a chance to see her again, that day. When I came back they were already gone.
After Marta’s departure I recovered a bit of my old tranquility when to meet her, to see or to talk to her, was a real pleasure without complications, sufferings or any difficulties in forgetting her once good-bye had been said. The same afternoon I found myself thinking where she might be; whether she had reached her destination or not.
I was calm for a while. After ten days I started to frequent places we used to go together: coffeehouses she liked or people that knew Marta so I could talk about her. After another ten days I decided to go to the work camp and see what was going on. An abandoned military base, next to a prison, fifty beds in a dorm. Rats running through the rooms. Broken windows, cold and wet, at the end of September. Water leaking on the walls through the roof. Dead roaches in the soup. For washing, some troughs outside, behind the dorms, and public restrooms in a different building. It was late afternoon when I got there. The recruits and the students were just arriving from the grape vines. Their workday was over. I found Marta behind the dorms, stretching out on the grass, all tanned. She jumped up when she noticed my presence, rubbed her eyes and started to laugh. She jumped around my neck, hugging and kissing me.
“Is that you? Is that you?” she yelled between two coughs.
She had lost a lot of weight, looked pale and tired under the tan, with dark circles around the eyes and that cough sounded terrible.
"Hey, it’s so good to see you!" A sad smile lightened her face.
"Yeah, I’m glad I found you, too. It wasn’t easy, you know. We didn't receive any letter or anything from you… This seems to be the middle of nowhere. I was lucky to find this truck coming here to load the grapes. He gave me a ride. Anyway what's going on here? How are you guys doing?"
“Oh, it’s OK. Actually it's very interesting, you know.” We both sat back in the grass. I pulled out a chocolate bar a friend of mine gave me. “I brought you this. And some cigarettes.”
“Wow, where did you get the candy? I haven’t seen something like this in years…” She unwrapped the small pack and we slowly enjoyed the taste of melting chocolate in our mouths. She went on.
“Everything becomes routine, habit, and regular procedure. Yesterday I filled several baskets right away. A week ago I couldn’t do that. Without noticing I became a real farmer. Only one day I saw a train and thought that a month ago I could have been one of those passengers. I could have stared indifferently through the window at the people working the hills - faces without names or identities. “
The sun was big and orange.
“Everyday,” she continued, “between six o'clock in the morning and six in the afternoon we pick grapes off the vine. This is the most interesting part of the day because next to me is a group of working prisoners. The first time I saw their faces between the grape leaves I got very scared. Later I met them at the end of the row, during the lunch break and we started a "steady relationship." Now we share food and they tell me terrible stories. But they are very relaxed. They don't care about anything.
“So many things I found unbearable in the beginning and now I don’t even notice them. Nothing matters much and the less it matters then the less it matters.
“They’ve got life in prison and they are pretty old. They are happy to be with us because we are young. I don't think they are dangerous any more.
A story they told me was about one of their inmates. At the time they were on the Serpent's Island. They were still young and didn't see any human face in years, except their own, the guards and the lepers. One day this guy found a cigarette filter with red lipstick on it. Who knows how it got there? Anyway, he picked it up and stood holding it in both his hands. It felt precious, like a heavy treasure. He lifted it up and smelled it. It had an odor of outdoors and woman on it. He started to cry. He imagined stories about the woman who smoked the cigarette. He used to play poker and cheated to win. Everybody knew that and they didn't try to take it away from him. One day a guard caught them playing cards and confiscated the cigarette filter, just to be mean. The guy died at the infirmary a few days later after he swallowed forty spoon handles.”
"Yes, nice story, but hey, listen, how long are they going to keep you here?"
"One more month, I guess."
"One more month? That's impossible. You can’t stay here anymore. I'll take you home."
"No way, I can't leave, they’ll expel me from school. And in fact you know what? I figured that millions of people, tens, hundreds of millions live their normal lives in these conditions that I find unacceptable. Filthy, promiscuous, pour, miserable, overextended and hungry. I also think it’s not such a bad idea to experience, at least for a short period of time, this kind of life. In the end you might not be better but at least you would be more skeptical, more modest and less confident." She searched for something invisible in the grass.
"Forget it. You can’t stay here any longer. They will not expel you. We can arrange this. On my way here I saw a village, forty miles away. They have to have a doctor there. Your cough sounds pretty bad. We'll go there, bribe him and he will give you a medical excuse, so that you can leave the work camp.
"Today is Sunday and nobody works. We need to wait until tomorrow. Do you think I could sleep here?"
“Sure, why not? The boys will find you a bed. It’s true, there are some rats running in the rooms during the night, but you’ll get used to it.
“ Nobody comes here out of his own will… They don’t keep any record.”
That doctor... He had some nerve... He didn't want to accept anything from us. He gave Marta the papers right away. Man, he was mad: "These damned bastards, communists, killing our kids... Oh, how I hate them. To hell with them. Jesus, how I hate them. Go home young lady, take care of your health, and forget these lazy, stupid beasts... I know a truck driver, he will leave for Bucharest tonight. I'll talk to him and he will take you there. Be here by six."
Our last walk through the vines and in the woods alone in the evening was one of the most beautiful moments together. I sensed the fall spirit coming from far away, through the grass and trees, surrounding me, passing through me. It was an unknown, painful sadness that I had never felt before – because I had never faced the fall before, I had never looked into its eyes.
On our way back in the truck, that night, she told me:
“Every night, returning the scissors and the basket for holding the grapes I wondered how many people are making the same gesture as mine at the same time, around the world? How many people are giving back the tools of their exploitation, to be used again next day?
“Now I’m going home, I’ll clean myself, I’ll eat and sleep. How many of them don’t have a place to go?
“I’m very tired, but I have in my pocket that medical excuse, with a lot of stamps on it.” And she fell asleep instantly.
Back in Bucharest, our nights were short and we spent them among friends. Planning the future of the world, sharing our uncertainty and fears we used to drink a lot to get enough courage to ask more questions. A good companion throughout this time was Tudor. And, during the following years, others like Victor, Emil or Matei. Some of them became their real selves, while others took different roads, smoother and more comfortable.
The mornings were late and sour, shadowed by remorse and second thoughts.
Everything was unchanged, except maybe for Marta who was tanned, thinner, displaying her vacation air. The cough went away too.
The life went on with its constant danger we were aware of. We knew that the next day could bring worse suffering than those that had just passed. We grew up in fear, with sorrow, scars, and terrors. And, ironically, in spite of the danger, we were still bound together by some kind of young, courageous form of strong vitality.
* I don’t know, maybe the students!