THE STATE OF NORMALITY
By DOINA HORODNICEANU
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© 2002 Doina Horodniceanu
As soon as you give up on being alone, everything is lost. Right after my marriage, things got worse and worse. We lived in a studio with the hallway larger than the room, which wasn’t bigger than seven square meters. Both of us, at the same time would hardly fit in that space. In the evenings we pulled down the blinds, locked the door, shut off the phone, it was tapped anyway. I browsed all our friends’ names: Matei, Victor, Marta, Tudor, Emil and Nadia, and what I found was indifferent shadows more or less sympathetic. Nobody visited us; we didn’t go anywhere. We lived in our own solitude like in a glass cell. From there we could see each other, we smiled, we greeted, but that was all. And in this daily comedy I wasn’t any better. I had a strange feeling of danger, insecurity, and ferment. I averted my gaze from myself and from people around me. I didn’t want to know, or to think about where I was going. Trying to imagine us the next day, the next month, in a year, was scary. Two years meant an eternity. Same show every night. Come home, prepare dinner. Ioana refused to cook, or to clean the house. Sometimes she would do the laundry. Her laundry. She didn’t marry me to be my housekeeper! Of course not. She married me so that I could be her housekeeper. In fact I didn’t care much about all this because I enjoyed cooking and I liked clean places, so I would clean it myself. How dear became to me (by comparison) all those abused wives who would come home after ten hours of work in the cold and then cook and clean and wash and take care of kids. How dear my mother was to me, one more time. My mother, so simple, so good, so hard working, and how much I appreciated everything she did, compared to this self-sufficient woman who was my wife. She considered herself a perfectionist – at least this was what she liked to declare. She made me laugh. She had no idea what perfection meant; she never tried to create anything, she was just an interpreter and I don’t think she had only one single doubt during her whole life, about anything. Then she would watch TV. She would just lie on that couch staring at the small black and white screen. It was so depressing… What was there to see, I still don’t understand. We had two and a half hours of TV programs. The first hour was the news, showing the activity of our beloved President, followed by some patriotic chorus and finished with another news program, just in case someone missed the first one.
I thought it was time for men to fight for equal rights with women.
“Let's do something, for God's sake.”
I found it so difficult to stay inside with her. I wandered around, I visited friends. I saw all the museums in town and all the movies. The National Art Gallery I saw ten times in three months. Between hundreds of paintings, some of them signed by unknown artists, were a few interesting works. Lots of Rubens, one Rembrandt, Renoir, Monet, Signac. Several Pallady, Luchian, Grigorescu, and Brâncusi. I love Brâncusi. I used to spend hours in front of his ‘The Earth’s Pray’. The rest, sumptuous bric-à-brac, patriarchal, academic, grimy, most of the time insipid stuff.
"What, what would you like to do?"
"I don't know, let's go out, to a movie, or let's go down to Marta."
"Again? Look, this is the only thing you want to do: go there, meet your friends, and get drunk..."
"Of course. What do you expect me, to die here with you? You don't see the difference between us, do you? You are dead, I'm alive. I'm out."
"Where are you going?"
"To get drunk, as you said."
I was thinking, without desperation that I was a dud. I was twenty-nine years old and I didn’t have a profession, I was doing all kind of jobs, from plumber to selling things on the black market; I didn’t have a true relationship, I didn’t see any exit. I was waiting for my clothes to get rotten, for my old shoes to break to pieces, for my life to pass. I was so miserable, tired, bored, finished, empty. Everything I did turned out to be a mistake. I didn’t have anything to lose.
I saw Marta pretty often during that period of time. I called her and I gratefully accepted her generosity all the time. I had no idea where the whole story was going to take me but I was happy to see her, and to make sure I didn’t lose her.
I remember a cold September morning, a gray-blue fog over the river. A few lost seagulls. We walked along the shores so far I lost my sense of reality. I had the impression of a strange, unknown city. We talked. I said a lot of stupidities, but she said something remarkable:
“It’s true I’m a stubborn person, but I never did anything just out of stubbornness. I think a lost position is a lost position. The renunciations are like a slope; when you start sliding, it is very difficult to stop.” I’m sorry I can’t remember her exact words. She had a better way of saying it. It was a moment of happiness.
The days passed slowly. A year ago, two years ago how far they seemed to be. Another life. The future was even farther, unreal, opaque, impossible to imagine. We spent New Year’s Eve with Ioana’ family. A group of noisy, vulgar people, without manners or any sense of humor.
After midnight we went to Matei’s small apartment. His party was fun. A group of crazy, young, girls hysterical, eccentric, cynical - but not exaggerated, scared me at first. Then I felt old and started to drink. We got home at six in the morning. Ioana didn’t speak to me the whole day. It was our first New Year’s Eve as a married couple.
I couldn't breath anymore. Ioana changed so much after the wedding; or maybe I did, but I doubt it – I was always the same. She made all these scenes. Any time I would want to leave the house I had to tell her the exact time I would return, then there were tears and scenes. The usual answer: “I will be home when I damn well feel like it,” didn't seem to work anymore. I started to drink more and more.
"Why do you drink so much?"
"That I have to go home!"… I had so many things to forget.
Actually I stopped doing it. I slept in friends’ houses, or at new acquaintances’ places. I would do anything just to avoid going home. I hated her for pinning me down.
I used to go and change my clothes late in the morning, when she would be at the Opera House for her rehearsals.
Then the kids came.
One morning, coming home as usual, I found Ioana in the kitchen, waiting for me.
"I want to talk to you!"
"OK, I'm leaving!"
"I'm serious, stop it! I'm pregnant!"
"What? What are you saying?"
"I am pregnant!"
This was a shock! She was three months pregnant and I didn't even notice it. We moved to a larger apartment with one bedroom of ten square meters and a living room of twelve. It was a desperate struggle to make our life, if not pleasant, at least decent. We were very poor. So poor we didn’t have enough furniture to fill up two rooms that small. One at a time, with a lot of patience, we managed to gather first a bed and a desk, a table with four chairs then a drawer, later a rug and a chandelier. Some bookshelves followed and a bed for the baby. I was happy for a while. I like kids. They are always ready to play. Then I hoped this would help our relationship. We would finally have something in common. The first one was a girl. I was so happy. A girl, a girl of my own! I will be able to raise her into a great woman. The woman of my dreams...
But any miracle lasts three days; after that everything returned to normal and my arguments with Ioana started over again. I hit the bottle once more.
Three years passed, with long lines in dark and cold in front of the grocery stores. At four o’clock in the morning the streets were nervous, animated by rushing silhouettes with pale, meditative faces. Eyes asking mute questions, silent greetings became our desperate salute. We followed each other in long, slowly moving lines of unexpressed worries. Time went incredibly slowly. Minute by minute, hour by hour. I dragged it with me. I dragged myself through it. I counted the hours, the days, one by one, by one. It was exhausting.
Another New Year started with our old questions and fears. The dictatorship was never going to end. Or if it would ever happen, it seemed so faraway, unclear, impossible to imagine, the fate. To where, until when?
If it were just for myself, I would never get up at three o'clock in the morning to spend four hours in a line waiting for something that nobody had a clue what it would be. My house was a cell in that huge prison. A massive prison. I wanted to be forgotten for one moment, one moment of indifference. One week of simple, clean life without obsessions or complications.
One night I saw Portitza in a dream. Just for a second. It was a wonderful island full of light and color. I was on the beach and in front of me the water was green-blue. But I woke up suddenly and everything disappeared.
Even by waking up early in the morning and spending more than two hours in a line, it was very difficult to get more than one loaf of bread. Everything was rationed: the bread, the sugar, the oil; meat was almost impossible to get. The heavy atmosphere was filled with bad premonitions, fears and worries you would not dare to express. A nightmare darker and darker every day, crazier and crazier every day. Would we ever wake up?
Emil, whom I met one day, told me he was trying to leave the country. The same panic, the same rush to escape, to run as soon as possible, to find refuge in a safer place, as Matei or many others. In the evenings at home I was tense without knowing why. I felt threatened by evil and unseen enemies. I double-checked the door’s lock; we pulled the blinds down. The lower level neighbor met one day in the hallway asked me:
“Why are you so tormented while you sleep? You wake up my kids. Their room is under yours.”
And suddenly everything became heavy, unbearable, and imminent. I wanted to cry for help; with what voice, with what words? From whom?
It was fall, rainy and cold. The sad end of September. At seven o’clock it was already dark, and the traffic was difficult. The buses ran slowly with people hanging out the doors. I came home about eight o’clock, pretty annoyed by the fact that I had already promised Ioana to take her out. We went to a movie; "The Pumpkin Eaters" was playing, about that crazy woman that kept making kids. She didn't even like kids; all she liked was to be pregnant. After that we went for coffee and Ioana didn't want any; she took lemonade and then she told me she was pregnant again. I didn't believe her. I thought it was a game to trap me. But no, she was serious and she was pregnant for real. That was a mistake! She shouldn't have done that. Now I was really trapped. The only way out was to run. Run, run, run, as far as possible.
"So," I said, "That's good, very good, great, it's wonderful... Let's go home!"
In the cold, rain and dark the streets looked sinister. Everything smelled like September. In the bus I read the newspaper: the rations of sugar and flour had been reduced,… starting the following week all the performances must start at seven o’clock and end by ten. The stores would close at five in the evening, the restaurants at ten. The public transportation would stop running at eleven. All these measures created the image of a dangerous place. Or better an in-danger city. We came a long way from the Little Paris to the Little Beirut.
Those years were nothing else than a continuous effort to maintain us floating through times when over each corner, new dangers awaited.
I think I was losing my mind. I didn’t have any money, not even for everyday life. I borrowed money each month to buy food for the kid. I didn’t know who to ask for any more and how, I was so ashamed. To me, poverty was a problem of pride in the first place. Was that a good time for her to get pregnant again?! At the time I was one hundred bucks short, I didn’t have money for a tram ticket, or a stamp.
One day I stepped into a Travel Agency. I looked at the brochures, I took a few of them with me. All kinds of Italian names, cities, beaches. Blue seas, white shores, happy faces. I was determined to go there. My craziness didn’t look that bad as soon as I started to make little plans. I was going to cross the Danube swimming to Yugoslavia, and from there via Trieste. I decided to save money for the guide that would take me over the border.
The next evening, at Marta's place I made the big announcement:
"OK, guys, here is the most important decision of my life - I can't stand it anymore. I'm cutting out. I’m leaving the country."
A deep, heavy silence filled the room. Nobody looked at me.
"What's the matter with you? Why won't you look at me?"
"It's OK, just take care and stop talking about it. We don't need to know more."
"Yes, I know, it's just a way of saying good-bye before I disappear. By the way, Ioana doesn't know anything about this."
Everybody turned to their philosophical and artistic discussions, ignoring me.
In less than a month I made contact with that son of a bitch that took my money and turned me in, the guide.
When I arrested him a few years later, I learned he already had a past. That was his fourth detention. The first one was for an illegal attempt to cross the border. He got ten years in prison. Obviously he had to sign a pact with the Devil to get out of there. Today it doesn’t look too bad. A lot of people, during that period of time, went to jail for acts that would be normal in any democratic state like: possession of money, or crossing the border, or listening to foreign radio channels. These were illegal acts only for that sick society we used to live in. In fact, anyone who tried to get you out of the enormous prison that was our country was committing an act of courage and humanity.
Unfortunately things didn’t always work like that. A lot of people died, victims of these guides. They were robbed and killed or turned in to the police and nobody heard anything about them ever after. Their families would wait for a sign from them, their heart would tremble each time the phone rang and at every letter they would receive, until time would cover all the memories with its dust and they would be completely forgotten.
To be Continued...
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