THE STATE OF NORMALITY
By DOINA HORODNICEANU
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© 2002 Doina Horodniceanu
A strong stink of Clorox, smoke and forgotten ashtrays, fills the room, each contributing its own particular smell.
I pour myself some coffee from the thermos. Everybody knows how picky I am about my coffee. It has to be done according to a whole ritual and this is why I prefer to make it myself at home and carry it in this thermos. I look through the window again. They cleaned the glass yesterday but it didn’t do much good; the detergent transformed it into a prism with different tints of green and blue. If I hit it a little bit harder it will break in very small pieces: blue and green pieces.
The streets are almost empty now, even in the middle of such an indecently beautiful day. It is really sunny. A very hot spring day that has started to smell like summer. I don’t care about the seasons. They don’t have any influence on me. I don’t care about any change in the weather. The heat, the storm, or the Siberian cold, I perceive them only from the clothing point of view.
Few people are on the streets - the city has the provincial aspect of a Sunday. This would happen even in places like Paris, London, or Los Angeles. It's the weekend syndrome. But today is not a holiday at all. In fact it is a day that we will remember forever as one of the most shameful days of post-war Romania. It’s just an observation.
Usually the downtown would be filled with people. Beautiful women with great legs in high-heeled shoes, wearing soft, spring dresses. All the restaurant terraces would be full. The waiters with their shirts unbuttoned more than necessary, unable to keep the rhythm with the flow of clients. Wine and cheese, the smell of smoked fish. Today everything looks abandoned. Only these lunatic miners, with their thick chains and sticks, driving those trucks, shouting and swearing at people. Blood, pieces of brain mixed with fragments of cranial bones and hair.
I decide to confront life and ignore the crowd of journalists who have been waiting outside my room for hours now. I leave the Security Headquarters Building and go to a familiar bar over on the corner where they know how to make good coffee. The edifice is impressive, the way all of them are in this neighborhood. Downtown - what do you think? The kind of houses our parliamentarians fight for. Let me know when any of the old owners (the “bourgeois”) will place their feet in any of these houses again. The garden is gorgeous. It doesn’t belong to the modern era. In my opinion the trees were here before the medieval black plague. These trees are very lucky. The older they get the more beautiful they become. Do you know a similar example in nature? I don’t. At the entrance two doormen and two bodyguards in suits with ties. Well-built and very still. They have knives in their eyes and guns by their hips according to the style. There are also three fierce dogs; if they stand on their back legs they are as tall as I am. They just ignore me while the men straighten their positions even more, greeting me. I buy an entrance ticket from a blonde that nobody believes and I take the marble steps covered with red carpet. I feel like Yeltsin or Bill Clinton in the White House. I notice the change in the regular atmosphere. The bar is full of miners, taking their free refreshments. Thick sticks and chains thrown in a pile by the wall.
I go directly to the bar, without looking around. A bartender who looks like a movie star takes my order. She wears a good perfume. She smiles and gets my drinks.
"A large Whisky on rocks, and a triple espresso."
I watch her butt. It looks good. Most women don’t have it. It’s either too low, or too flat, or too wide. Hers is round, and arched like Naomi Campbell’s. Her breasts are one more beautiful than the other.
From a corner a big silhouette approaches. He jumps towards me and stretches his arm, smiling:
"Sir, hello, Sir. Do you remember me?"
I shake his hand, smiling too, while trying to identify him. I study the strong, tough face, with straight lines on the dark, outdoorsy skin. His deep black eyes look intelligent. What is he doing here with all these nuts? And who the hell is he anyway?!
"Sir, my name is Ion, don't you remember; the shepherd... I served in that military base next to your friend's house... "
I take a better look at the guy.
"Oh, yeah, I remember now. How are you? What are you doing here?"
"Well, Sir, you know, I'm with these good men, the miners. We came here to put things in order. Looks like you lost it here, I'm sorry, Sir. Anyway looks like we are done by now. Everybody seems to be in place, nice and quiet."
I let him talk and I enjoy listening to the way he gets lost in too many platitudes, stupidities and amiability.
"Yes, right, you, good people, you have beaten enough; you should feel much better now, and you can go home! Great idea."
He turns pale and started to stammer.
"Sir, why are you talking like this? We came here, because our beloved President called us, because he needed us. He even thanked us in front of the whole world. Everybody is grateful for the good job we've done... "
"Yes, right, just leave me alone, now, all right? I had a hard day, too. Have a nice trip. Back.”
“OK, Sir, nice seeing you, Sir!”
It happened twelve years ago. It was a sunny Friday, at the beginning of September. The following weekend, Ioana and I were supposed to get married. I was still unsure this was a good step. (It turned out it wasn’t.) But, we'd been together for years now. Even if she didn't understand anything of me, she was so warm and comfortable. Everybody expected this marriage. Friends, parents and Marta. She encouraged me all the time: “She is the right woman for you, can't you see? She is so mature; we need people like this, to look after us...”
Yet, I was very nervous about all this. I decided to go for a hike in the mountains. I called Emil.
“Make yourself available tomorrow morning. We’ll go hiking.
Marta comes along too.”
We took the train to the last possible station and started a twelve hours hike to an old cabin that Emil used to know. Under the burning noonday sun, the mountain's curves looked as smooth as a woman's body. It was so quiet... I almost couldn't stand that deep silence. We entered a forest. It was the biggest, the deepest and the wildest among all the forests that covered the too much-tormented cheek of the Earth, during that time and always after. I hear it’s still there, but I don’t believe it. The trees stood upright and rivaled each other to get sight of the sun. They wanted to overcome the mountains that had imprisoned them and seemed to hold the blue sky on their heads. A humid heat and a bitter smell, exciting and sad, were reigning. The old Earth’s breath was anomalous, like a big and soft creature ready to dye. As we moved on through the woods scented with the fresh smell of pine and moss hanging from the branches like the snarled hair of a bad witch, I felt a strange detachment. Never later, I experienced a greater fear, the uncertainties without reasons coming up from the deepest part of me, like during that dry and hot day of fall, when after marching for hours in the woods I heard the cold, monotonous sound of a waterfall. It was better there. In the shadow, a young and very beautiful woman was filling two big containers with the clear water of a spring. When she had finished, she hung them on both sides of the back of a horse.
"Good day, you people," she said in the old traditional style.
"Where are you going?"
"To the Cottage"
"The old one? Well, it's not here anymore. They shut it down."
"Are you serious? I can’t believe it."
"Yes, it's not here anymore. I don't know what you are going to do. It will be dark in less than three hours. You don't have enough time to get anywhere."
I will never understand why the rural women or those from suburbs think it’s nice to hide their laugh behind their hand. I can understand the elders because they might have missing teeth, but the younger ones?!
"If you want to follow me, my husband is a shepherd and we have a tiny cabin, not far from here. You can overnight there, if you want to. We will be happy to have you as guests."
"Oh, thank you so much, of course we do."
I was walking feeling my heart pounding beneath the low vault of the leaves. The green foliage, the vibrations of the trees were everything I imagined them being: sycamores, baobabs, or sequoias. The shaking cry of the earth dieing and rebirthing over and over accepted me in its arms. Anytime we would want to rest, the ants would chase us away. Anytime we would want to stop, the green flies would bite us.
We followed her to the little cabin in the middle of a mountain meadow where a three-year old boy was playing naked under the sun.
"Ion, hey, Ion, I found these people in the forest, they will overnight here with us. They are lost."
"Welcome, welcome, we are always happy to have guests."
"You must be hungry. Dinner will be ready in a little while.
“You, wife, just take care of that corn bread."
We sat down in the smoky sheep farm and watched the preparation of the subtle dish called roasted lamb, with hungry eyes. A dish that, like any other simple thing required some refinement. We passed the bottle of Vodka among us listening to the sporadic clatter of the sheep in their stable. The chained dogs were barking short from time to time and I was jerking.
Meanwhile Ion slaughtered the lamb and prepared it for cooking. After cleaning he roasted it over the open fire. He brought fresh milk and aged cheese. When everything was ready we took our places around the fire. The stars were shining. It was one of the best meals I ever had.
"Please, please, help yourself."
We were so busy chewing, we forgot to talk. Ion watched Marta in silence. He smiled slanting to the fire. He waited for us to finish eating and then he said:
"Excuse me Miss, but if you don't mind, I know you. You don't know me, but I know you."
Marta stopped swallowing.
"Yeah, I know you. You and your grandma', you live by a military base, on the lake shore?"
"Yes, that's right, how do you know that?"
We all stopped eating and watched him.
"I know. I served there, in that base. I used to watch you every day. A big white house with old roses in front of it, and a sour cherry orchard in the back. Marble tiles from the metal gate to the front steps. Beautiful house. And your grandma', wonderful woman. Is she still alive, how is she?"
"She is fine, thank you. You surprised me. I didn't expect to meet someone I know, or who knows me, here."
"Yeah, I'm glad you are my guests. I remember your friends too. You used to have some fun, all together, during those garden parties. We were so envious of you.”
Only the wife held in her crouched being a kind skepticism.
“You know, every morning your grandmother coming back from shopping would stop by the fence and give us a bottle of milk and bread. What a good heart she has! And for the holidays, oh how I miss her walnut cookies. And then, each summer she would give us a basket full of sour cherries. I have very nice memories of those times."
“I would like to find out how this was even possible,” I said opening another bottle of Vodka.
"Well, I'm glad to hear that, too,” Marta said. “Men usually don't even want to remember the army time."
"I know, but you see, I was an orphan and this was the first time in my life when I felt that I belonged to something, people knowing my name, caring about me. Even those gray suits, raincoats, and hats they used to give us each time they would take us out on the streets for surveillance… They were the best clothes I ever had. I always felt sorry when I had to return them at the end of the day."
“And now? Are you happy?” I asked.
am, kind of.”
“Why?” I asked, waiting to hear a declaration about the advantages of living in the middle of nature, without TV and other polluting commodities.
“Because I go hunting.”
“What? Do you have a gun?”
“Yes, I do. I know it’s illegal, but one night I shut a bear. She knows,” he said pointing to his wife. “She saw it.”
“I also have this.” And he pulled out a knife “Puma-White Hunter”.
“I think some foreign hunter must of lost it in the woods. I found it.”
“Well, then I guess we are safe here, with you.”
For the rest of the night we shared memories from our army experiences.
In the morning after he prepared the breakfast himself, he said:
"Here you have some cheese to eat on your way back; but these two pieces, are for the old lady. Take them to her and tell that I thank her for everything she did for me. Have a nice trip now, and take good care."
I thought the guy was weird.
Back in town, for the next two days I visited with all the friends I used to see: Matei, Emil, Victor, Marta, Tudor, and their friends. We criticized the regime and the economic crisis. Everything seemed even more depressing, more absurd and more futile than ever.