Fiction, Vol. 8.2, June 2014
When Nicó plaited her pigtails, she drove a dry sprig of broomcorn sorghum, the kind that’s used to weave brooms, right into the heart of the snaky tresses behind her ears. “For mystery preservation,” she would say, and we all scrambled to grasp the deeper meaning. At sixteen, at the height of her childishness, she complained nobody would call her promiscuous, except my father, Tata, always did, but Nicó did not know that. She desired a blunt treatment: My mind, long shrouded in fog, has finally laid this bare. “Nobody screws at sixteen,” she told us younger protégées. “You hedgehogs should remember this.”
And for many years in the blue-collar Nicolina tenement, this was the truth—dead on, because Nicó knew everything.
About her, they said she knew how to love with her body, strapping body she had shared, for a while, with a Tech College student who lived in one of the clean tower apartment blocks surrounding the tenement. Son of a factory apparatchik, he was chosen to work in a railway car-turned-office for draftsmen. One evening, as he finished a blueprint, the train started moving westward. He got off on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Nicó must have wept. She must have lingered there, between loving his body and loving his soulless defection, for a while, before shutting him out.
When she allowed us, we watched Nicó draw charcoal portraits with both her slender hands, the color of Spanish earthenware. A face started at two extreme points, somewhere at the tip of each ear, and continued around the bony arcade of the high cheeks. Mirror images progressed in a runny rhythm of lines, fused at the midline, to become one and breathe life through the arches of the nose. At times, the lines turned into the portrait of a young man, hairless. Nicó did not allow him to keep this perpetual youth, and kept adding wrinkles, first at the corner of his eyes, then along the lines connecting nostrils with mouth corners. We asked for color in his complexion and irises, but she refused.
I planned to grow old with her. Instead, I became a researcher of decaying moods, buried myself slowly and deliberately under mounds of conflicting scientific data, even created a new family of right-handed hopers, brilliant in their brushwork and use of hues, who would never stroll through my old neighborhood, never live under a totalitarian regime. I inhabit a small office without windows, plants, or displayed artwork. The furniture is modern-utilitarian, all chrome and brightly colored leatherette. (One bottom drawer contains a rolled-up original portrait that I know as I know my own palm creases, and need not air out.) My entire opus, several databases, work and leisure libraries, and recent color photographs are safely contained in one laptop computer. Days and nights spent in feverish study and trial planning used to merge into rogue waves, until I was forced to seek safety on the calm shores of new data collection. Treacherous as they were, sometimes. In a moment of inspiration, I decided my existence should flesh out the basic skeleton of a scientific article. It is a matter of routine, now, that I set a sunrise goal and devour the most recent printed word on mood disorders in the morning, as a background; detail the experimental design around lunchtime; always see results in the afternoon, even if only in my own deteriorating affect; conclude I’m my most faithful patient by sundown; and acknowledge, reluctantly, the sadness I failed to forget, shortly before closing my eyes, before surrendering to the chaos of dreaming. I’ve established, for all my recent and foreseeable living days, the judicious, waveless structure of a publishable document, which means no beginning is disagreeable, and there are no hesitant strokes. This way, moods align and behave, shun ruminations, rarely give in to reverie. I’ve no memorabilia or collections here to upset the virginal space—who am I to lock up artifacts? Save an assortment of smoky, ancient vials I know must lay buried in inconvenient spots inside my skull throughout the grey matter, hidden to imaging scans, they’ve been sensibly stoppered, so that no distant memory dust, fragrance of the blues, ever wafts out to meddle with my work, or worse, leave embarrassing heart notes. And yet.
In dreams, sometimes in dreams within wider dreams, I stand there once more, transfixed, by the deserted apartment building of moonlit cement and iridescent whitewash. All the birdcages in it open through black squares like windows, and the main entrance lets out a darkness that beckons. In my dreams, I never enter this cluster of living spaces, although through one second-floor window I spy the full obscurity of the birdcage where I was raised.
I never glimpse broken toys, stacks of books, the week’s washing out on the line, large plywood window boxes used as pantry-fridges, men who bled when drunk, myself, or my parents, young. I never see her. Nicó. This one absence surprises me the most, while it awakens me to the next dream.
The lightness that floods me for having known her must be why I cannot picture her very well anymore, not even when I allow memory receptacles to breathe wide-open. Too much light hurts the painting. Outshines and obscures the details. Hope comes in the form of enlightening shadow, from an article I read just this morning: “Depression is associated with three distinct alterations in memory functioning: mood-congruent recall, over-generality, and intrusive memories.”
What this means is merely that you, of above-average sadness, join the feast, and go through all the elaborate courses, only to think of them broadly as cheese, and attribute the rotten flavor to all of them. It suits you to do so. You might have been forced to eat cheese as a child. The table might be set for a funeral. To make matters even less pleasant, you often recall the funerary mood and perhaps the taste of mold, rather than your birthday. The memories rush upon you when you don’t wish for company, when you have new tables to set, sheep to herd, or mountains to move. They barge in.
Then I discovered a bit of prickly experimental data in a paper published by Whalley and collaborators (Psychiatry Research, January 2012).
In the present study we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess depressed and control participants during an autobiographical memory task. In their first visit to the laboratory, participants wrote a narrative account of a distressing event. Participants were scanned during the second visit while they viewed old items from their narrative and new words or phrases in a recognition memory task. Activity common to both groups during the successful identification of personal emotional memories was observed in regions previously associated with autobiographical memory retrieval. Reduced activity in the depressed group was observed in three regions of the prefrontal cortex associated with cognitive, emotional, and memory inhibition. These results are consistent with a failure by depressed individuals to inhibit task-irrelevant information during an autobiographical memory task.
“…a failure by depressed individuals to inhibit task-irrelevant information during an autobiographical memory task.”What they don’t mention, perhaps refusing to acknowledge an experimental design flaw, is that on certain days, at certain ages, subjects like me might simply cease to confine task-irrelevant information. And truly mean, anxiously welcome, their vagabond memories. Maybe, after a while, the smoke glass is willfully shattered for the recollection to drift out: vulnerable, volatile, oddly satisfying, pining for its own extinction.
1. Raw materials
Were my early teenage years happy, in Nicolina? Could I have become an old woman there? For all this depression, I might as well have been drunk for decades, and found the truth, the veritas of remembrance, at the bottom of a glass of perpetually new wine. You will notice that it’s not easy to resurrect the tenement, with its two concrete prefab blocks chock full of minuscule efficiencies, or to recount the lives of its inhabitants. Recollections swell, ebb, swell. Out of the deepest layers, drenched in acrid wonder, an image of bronze insect armies rises at odd times, inch-long cockroaches who shared our rooms. Intelligent cohabitants, they dug their own tenements in the crevices of our family bed, and liked to crawl on my sleeping face. Mama used my Play-Doh to patch the holes where she guessed they nested. They surfaced again in no time. I do not work to patch these memories, and they rise out of the depths and hover like roaches, or fruit flies, or like Nessie on a clear day when nobody’s around, but yours truly, ever the eager tourist, rushes to snap artistic photographs and show them off. It’s the best I can do, in keeping with my lack of drawing skills and inability to tolerate the confinement, the magnetic stillness of brain scanners.
I summon thoughts long dismissed as gate-crashers, and they calmly gather around me, without reproach. One of them says that our neighborhood’s name must come from an ancient, flighty, flirty female peasant, a Nicolina or Niculina, and now the place name has become a woman’s name once again. Nicó, the girl, is thus re-baptized after the Nicolina neighborhood, since her given name escapes me. I do believe hers was a plain, cheerful name, of no significance to me now. It’s why it pains me a little to recall her as “Blue Nicó.” In the summer, she wore an azure batiste dress with a buttercup pattern; she wore it in the autumn, too, under a knitted cardigan. She was a tenant at 42A Boulevard of the Republic, and a neighbor of mine, so I apologize to her for not growing up excited and crooked, but apologetic. How else? In the end, I left the proletarian neighborhood where individuals were equal, led by the victorious working class fraternizing with the peasant class, both relying secretly on intellectuals for muffled guidance, and all of them, all, suffused in the capitalist sounds of Boney M’s “Sunny” and “Rasputin,” which took the seven hills by storm in the spring of 1980.
Like Rome, our city is built on hills and ridges, but in truth, it’s nothing like Rome. That unfortunate city, we were informed, died slowly of the capitalist plague, just like Berlin, Paris, London, and countless others. Sunk in opulence. But our city was thriving! With one of Eastern Europe’s oldest universities, it bore the nickname “Little Rome” before the War. Everybody knew few traces of that civilization survived heavy bombardment and changes in social order, but no one ever had the guts to talk about it. Except the dissident who lived on the second floor.
We kids felt fortunate, nonetheless, because there, in the heavy industry suburb rebuilt at the bottom of one hill, the moon got trapped once in a while. When this happened, she traveled with me and my younger brother. The lucky rascal lived with Grandma, because the low-comfort efficiencies in Nicolina could not house two children conceived by two mistakes in short sequence. I missed him when he wasn’t there, but when he visited, we punched each other savagely until neighbors knocked on mama’s door and said, “Comrade, your boys are fighting again.” (They assumed I was a boy, too, by reason of the short hair, pants, and temper.) Only at night, when it got trapped in the tenement, Moon had no choice but to stroll with us children, and when I squinted, she came even closer and patted our faces.
During the days that, by sheer willpower and secret, self-loathing chemistry, I now try and fail to recall chapter and verse, when I still might have counted as a normal experimental control, the trees in front of our block were slender and new, the concrete around them fresh, flowing from whitewashed walls (apple green, smoky yellow) into smooth pavement. I became aware of Blue Nicó’s existence when two men came scouting, and the narrow hallways of our quarters filled with their calls:
“Girl who draw with two hands? Girl who draw? Anybody know her?”
They were cast to flush out talent for the Praise to Romania National Festival, someone to represent with pride our city’s gifted Young Communists Union members. They panted in pursuit and cornered me, and asked if I knew such a young communist. I raised my shoulders. Their accent was strong and their faces ruddy. They wore black leather jackets against the chilly mid-spring. They knocked on all doors, one by one (birdcages had no doorbells), but nobody answered. People were out at work. Those men had not planned their visit wisely. Nobody ever returned before 2 p.m., unless they did some odd shift at the workshops.
An intrusive thought here tells me only one neighbor seemed to be home more often, though he never opened his door. “The Dissident,” we called him. He shaved his still-youthful head. His entire window was painted thick: green, brown, and yellow, to look like sun rays bursting through branches and leaves, to hide him from the Secret Service, or from rumors that he spat on apparatchiks, gobbed them well, called himself a fan of the suffering they could inflict with a simple signature, a scrawl at the bottom of a type-written sheet. The scouts did knock on his door, and I wondered if I’d witness The Dissident spitting on them. He didn’t show up, and they went up the stairs to the next floor.
I took refuge outside where, on a patch of grass, my friend DD—daughter of Dudulea the gypsy—lay with her long curly hair spread across a felted wool blanket, ready to play house, or maybe chop earthworms to see if they would multiply.
The men returned much later, all quiet, black jackets hanging from fingers curled behind their congested necks. A tall, olive-skinned girl followed, wearing just a thin blue dress that hit above her knees. She carried a drawing pad, one I would soon come to know well. She leaned against the metal door frame and winked at us. The windows rattled when a truck made its way along the narrow main alley, and we could not hear what she said to the men. They trotted to the bus stop.
“What did they do to you?” DD said to the blue girl, eyes narrowed.
“Oh, they flapped their gums,” she answered.
And before she grew silent: “I’m not curious about people.”
It rang true and we, DD and I, soon found it to be as remarkable as all the truths Nicó pronounced.
Our four-story block, although built on flat, former swamp land, seemed to lie at the bottom of a pit, because it was surrounded by tower buildings. It had two perpendicular wings, A and B, which made it look fractured in the middle. After the recent big earthquake, a crack did separate the cement walls of A and B, wide enough to stick your hand in. If you asked for more memories of the senses, I could tell you that Nicolina never smelled of spring flowers or grass. Dandelions do not smell, and they grew plenteous around our block. The overwhelming scent in the warming air mixed new garlic sprigs, scallions, and fresh cas cheese from the open market behind our building. Borrowed the odor of fish and frogs, hauled in trucks once a week and dumped in a large cement pool, and oftentimes, a hint of beer or urine from the corner beer garden, or of straw-dung scattered around market vendors’ horse carts.
These vendors, peasants and gypsies, stood all day long under peaked tin roofs, and with zealous calls, advertised the produce: flesh, pots, fluorescent plastic bead necklaces, “I don’t wanna stay down” dolls, handmade pointy bras for the entire colony of Nicolina Workshops to wear. They never discriminated between the ruling workers and tolerated intruders (the disoriented class of young faculty and staff, mostly out-of-sorts bachelors and new families). They never cared how dirty were the fingers that dropped the coin. At night, they stretched in their carts, under the counters, under the stars, and told stories and ate remnants of their wares. We, who rented efficiencies officially called garconnieres, just like the bourgeois bachelor pads of old, envied them. We lived in birdcages. It’s what a perplexed electricity reader called them once, upon witnessing our struggle to maneuver a chair through the furniture maze, so she could climb on it and check the wattage counter above the door. “How do you manage?” she whispered. Many questions were asked, as a rule, in these small rooms with no place to hide. It was perhaps the one true inconvenience, to a child.
“Who’s the man that loon Nicó keeps drawing?” my Tata asked, and quickly moved on. “I want you to avoid her. If I catch you talking to her, I’ll make your ass a checkerboard for the fleas to dance on, the bugs you get by sitting on Dudulea’s blankets. By the way, I don’t want you to hang out with the gypsy’s daughter either. Jail kid, jailbait herself in a few short years.”
“But Nicó… Why?” I moved two feet away from him. He snorted.
“I’ll tell you why. That girl’s nuts, ready to be bound and committed to Socola. She did bad things with the one from across the street, the student in Civil Engineering and Hydrosomething, the one who defected. Things a good girl should never do. They say she started drawing faces afterwards, with both hands. Ambidextrous, my ass—double-handed indeed. Nothing but a little whore, a prostitute, is what she’ll be soon. Like mother, like daughter, the splinter flies close to the trunk. Bloody Messalines, bloody gypsies, ghetto bitches…”
He foamed at the mouth. This slimy fascination for little whores and their moms, all of them trees he would like to fell, made my stomach turn. He ended with the usual tirade about his life and career wasting away in this ghetto, this mahala slum, where the university unwisely decided to place its cheap housing to save money and stoke the flames of class friendship. Here, his children and wife sucked away at his energy, smothered it, so that his opus would remain forever unwritten. (It crossed my mind on occasion that, should he become a world-renowned scholar, we, his family, would go down in history as major hindrances and disablers, so we’d better strive to comply and be remembered as enablers of a genius. As it turned out, he did not achieve universal recognition, and we never went down in history in any manner.)
“Still, I’d very much like to continue talking to her, Tata. Please, let me.” The room spun. I had said it. I waited for a blow that did not come.
“Why? What did she ever do for you? Did she ever do anything of benefit to you?”
A rift opened in front of me, more thunderous and full of echo than the crack of a slap on my ears.
“Tales. She tells tales, like the one about youth everlasting and never-ending life. Ah, yeah, you like crying, don’t you? Just like your mother.”
It suited him to think of me as humble. It suited me even better to make him laugh. But his favorite saying remained: Watch out and remember: Crying always follows in the footsteps of laughter. Whether or not the reflection belonged to him, I don’t know. It resembled the Marxist doctrine of increasing misery, yet back then, I thought of it as coming straight from the saddest, most melancholy, and truest fairy tale in the world. I wondered what followed in the footsteps of crying. Laughter again? The answer was right there, at my fingertips, in the fairy tale Nicó told over and over again.
It’s like this: A brave and restless prince goes in search of youth without age and life without end, and after defeating many evils, he finds them. For a few days, in a land of unspeakable beauty, he is granted a pleasing family, endless youth, and riches upon riches, and I think he laughs a lot. But one day, while hunting, he ignores, is almost forced to ignore, the one command: not to step into the neighboring Valley of Lamentation. In doing so, he is instantly seized with a burning desire to see his kingdom and parents. His longing consumes him. He journeys back and ages with every step as he sees the familiar places changed, sees new people and towns, woods becoming fields, creatures he knows who have become myths. He finds the ruins of the castle where he grew up, overgrown with weeds and briar. You see, his parents had been dead for hundreds of years. He spends too much time there, revisiting each room, until his horse asks for permission to depart and gallops away, so there is no way back for our prince. His snowy beard now falls to his knees, and he can barely walk, but still, he descends into the cellar. There, holding his eyelids open with gnarled fingers, he finds but piles of rubbish. Suddenly, he makes out, in a far corner, a rickety chest. It sounds hollow, but as he raises the lid, a voice from the bottom greets him: “Welcome! If you had kept me waiting much longer, I too would have gone extinct.” His death, shriveled in the old chest, grips him. One slap his death gives him, and the prince falls to the ground, crumbling into dust.
Was this a warning against the dislocating power of memory? Perhaps, but I never felt sorrow at his fate, if it was fate, or at his dilated life, which floated above centuries, outside them, as if in a long dream. I wished him laughter with as little lament as possible, if he was to go against time’s relentless linearity. It seemed all that mattered. What’s more, after a while I became convinced that lament is a necessary presence in the footsteps of joy, for life to unfold according to the pattern used when it was folded, tightly wrapped like petals in a rosebud, around the beginning of everything.
I pulled the encyclopedic dictionary with burgundy covers from the bottom shelf of the ceiling-high bookcase that took up half of the birdcage. Before I could look up what I thought sounded like “prostute,” Tata’s hairy arm grabbed the voluminous treasure and banished it to the highest shelf. A few chestnuts rained on my skull in the form of quick, well-placed knocks from my father’s knuckles.
“Whore,” I knew already. Whore was Leontine, the seamstress, who lived right between the two building wings, in an upper corner birdcage. Leontine had two children: Blue Nicó and her younger brother. Another whore was Mrs. Marko—I had heard Tata say so. He also said she had slept her way through the academic hierarchy, which was puzzling. To get ahead in academia, the least you can do is stay awake and be brainy. For the longest time, I wondered why I never saw Mrs. Marko and Leontine talk to each other, seeing as they worked in the same field. My parents always talked shop at home. I could not imagine us, or indeed any household, without workplace conversation. Now I know it might have been because the 10-by-10-foot birdcages made conversing inevitable.
“What’s a pros-prostute,” I asked. It sounded like “astute” to me. Mama was reading for her teacher’s qualification exams, and her eyes skipped a few lines. She never answered, and my disappointment sank to suffocating depths. The next morning, I went up two flights of stairs, walked the austere hallway with so many doors on both sides, tripped over a rogue corner of linoleum, and knocked on the door at number 405. Nicó snuck out without allowing me the slightest glimpse of her birdcage.
“What’s a prostute?” I said and waited, without blinking or breathing. Nicó straightened up.
“Why would you wish to know that?”
I quickly handed her a piece of amber Cuban hard candy, brought by Tata from Bucharest.
“Well, why not?” Nicó said, taking the candy and holding it up against the light.
And she explained everything to me.
Dudulea was not around for the warm weather; he was in jail again. Why not associate with his daughter? I asked myself. I reckoned that he was not a danger to any of us, or to society, anymore. Besides, I had learned a lot from DD, almost as much as from Nicó.
When peasant women, red in the face, shuffled across our grass patch carrying enormous plastic bags filled to the brim with sourdough bread loaves, DD noted, “Must be for a civil marriage ceremony, or a christening celebration.” Despite her local gumption, though, DD showed a baffling ignorance of larger biological processes associated with such ceremonies. I filled her in.
“They lie on the bed, or stretcher or whatever, in front of the doctor.”
“Jus’ like that? Nekked?” she asked.
“You kidding? Naked!” I said with a strained sigh. “Like a prostitute,” I added, ready to explain much further.
DD scoffed. “There are no prostitutes in our Socialist Republic.”
“Ra Ra Rasputin, lover of the Russian Queen,” Boney M sang from a first-floor birdcage.
Most of us university brats seldom mixed with workers’ offspring. We became aware of them on the common playground, and when the end-shift siren at Nicolina Workshops wailed 10 p.m. We owned lovely Chinese toys: dolls with warm expressions (the local ones had severe, glacial faces), stuffed critters, and shiny pull-back trucks; the workers’ children carried sticks and bike tires. They reigned in Nicolina—as expected, by virtue of the basic tenets of the Socialist Republic of Romania—and I admired them. Six-year-olds, when playing rhyme games, surprised us with their words of wisdom and idiomatic prowess. I picked up a few gems (“dick,” “cunt,” even “wanker”) but never delivered them quite right. I heard that whoever works diligently is either stupid, or doesn’t think. I wondered if children and drunkards always told the truth, and could it be that not all flying things can be eaten? And teeth are closer to you than parents, so I kept all these riches to myself, to chew on. In consequence, I didn’t seek out bland intelligentsia kids. I clashed with them on some occasions, but the images are hard to conjure up, which shows how deeply satisfying these arguments must’ve been. When an older boy threw my pitch pipe in a puddle and jeered, “Go ahead, fish it out, there are tadpoles in there, you know,” Nicó found it. She pulled his ear savagely. “Tadpoles are tone-deaf,” she shrieked.
“Swear you won’t do this again,” I urged later. “They’ll remember and hate you. Swear on Red.”
It was the strongest oath, “on Red.” Nicó grimaced. A peculiar student of Justice, she insisted on keeping her eyes wide open, and took no oaths.
But I digress. The above isn’t an outcome. My attempt to whip the facts into a scholarly article shape could fail. This roundabout path my memories insist on following has to be another sign of brain circuitry rotting, in the biological afterparty of mood swings. I’m spiraling down through an aleatory quag, where murky images await. One is of Tata spitting at me, a spray between clenched teeth, because I embarrassed him by not consorting with the well-bred youngsters, or because I laughed along when others laughed at me. Which is not to say he spurned workers’ kids, not as long as they kept a respectful distance. In fact, one rainy evening he took pity on an unknown urchin, who had just dropped the vinegar bottle he was sent to buy at Bright Diana, the corner state grocery store. The child sat in the middle of the pungent puddle, wailing. Tata gifted him enough leu coins to buy two new bottles.
Strangers’ tears melted Tata. He felt acutely for the luckless. He would stop punching whomever started to cry. Mama, usually. And Mama was the one who scolded him, in one of her rare moments of disobedience: Why wouldn’t he rather give the money to his own progeny? And what, does this make him feel God-like? She shed some tears, too, and opened the window, to dig into the pantry box with room for dairy, mustard, vegetables, and yesterday’s cabbage sarmale.
Tata favored stuffed cabbage rolls the size of a working man’s fist, and large portions of most everything. It was, I assume, because of him holding all this power, without status. Status would signify conflict. He said he didn’t desire conflict, but often picked on one of us, one at a time. We submitted, and for the longest time suspected there was no need to encourage conflict between the powerful and the subjugated. This very contradiction unnerved me. I evaded it by immersing myself in fairy tales and Greek myths retold for children, where the good never turns bad, the dark never swallows the light, and the end of struggle gives satisfaction and heals. Soon, it became obvious that the ancients had fabricated Lethe for the sad and the oppressed.
My Nicolina friends never ceased to invent; by far, the most spectacular novelty was the soldering carbide game that exploded and sent a teenager, Simon, to the hospital for months. When he came back, his golden face had smooth, pink patches of baby skin with jagged contours, like a political map. They said doctors mended his burnt face and hands with pig skin, so we started calling him “Half-Pig Simon.” In the end, nobody could remember which skin he was born with—if it was the golden, or the rosy. I found myself searching for a calico face and opaline-blond mane on the swarming playground almost every day.
Simon had taken me to Ferentz Cross once, when my parents traveled outside the tenement limits, leaving me in charge of my own acts and errors for almost two days. He carried a flask of juice made of wild frost grapes he had crushed himself, that morning, with the mini-press in their birdcage bathroom. People were sunbathing at the cross, and those fortunate enough to find red meat cooked it on makeshift grills. Chickens paced in their wire enclosures; stray bitches rolled in the sunburnt grass with their squirmy litters close by, their teats pointing to the ripe, ochre sky. A toddler barely kept his balance, holding an upturned beer bottle, to sip the last foamy drops. The smoke made our mouths and eyes water. We stood on the mound filled with bones, our backs against the sacred stone, jabbed by its sprouting fossils, and thought of the inscription on the cross, the story of Austrian soldiers led by the Belgian captain, François (Ferentz) Ernaut, who tried to capture the Moldavian ruler on a bitterly cold day in the winter of 1717. Tartar hordes crossed the river to help, for a change, and fought savagely. Captain Ferentz and hundreds of soldiers (some fallen in battle, some frozen at night in the woods) were buried the next morning under a giant mound by a fountain. The mound was now covered in dust and weeds. “Frintz the captain is in there, with other bodies,” the chronicles read. At the mutilated, one-armed cross, bones under your bare feet, you knew you were alive outside history and whoever sought to rule over you was destined to perish. You felt a willing chill here, but sweated all over and became thirsty. It must be why Simon tried to kiss me, then stopped a moment before kissing me in earnest, and I started to like it, but had to laugh because it was like drinking from cups of wild grape skin that you needed to separate with your tongue to chew, and never quite could. We had achieved historical peace and class friendship, Simon and I.
Is this piece of recalled longing task-irrelevant? Is it? Get off my back. I’ll stand still and stiff, because the older I get, the more fragmented and less supple these recollections become, as if forced through a petrifying strain. Honestly, I’m only trying to carve out of unyielding concrete what happened to Nicó, that evening, that summer.
Mama soon found out about my Ferentz Cross trip. Unlike her husband, she never chided right after I misbehaved, but waited weeks, maybe more, to make her point. This time, about a month later, while we shopped for sandals in the nearby Red Bridge district, she told me of a neighbor’s niece:
“I observed her dodging those boys again today. What a good girl she is. Nothing like Leontine’s daughter,” Mama concluded, mentally wiping the sturdy mallet, a cross between a judge’s mallet and a reflex hammer, which she used to pound proper habits into my brain.
I must’ve appeared unimpressed, because she proceeded to tell the story of a high school colleague of hers who fell in love and got knocked up, and how shameful and devastating that was for everyone involved. I lowered my eyes. It worked.
“Maybe we should talk about this now. We might as well,” Mama continued with a gulp, ready to carve out another useful slice of life and serve it to me. “You know, there’s this woman in our department, a colleague, and her daughter is only about twelve. And guess what? She got her first period just back in February. She’s a good girl, never goes out with boys.”
It must be why, to me, the exalted functions of the female body seem as opaque and insurmountable as stone crosses and bridges the color of fossils in rock. The bridge in the Red Bridge district was indeed a mystery. Not the least red, but some said it was called this because 300 years ago, it had served to direct clients to pubs and bordellos scattered on the river banks. Most cat houses had crimson curtains; you couldn’t see inside. Red lanterns swayed outside. Others swore the name came from the blood spilled on the bridge and into the waters after decapitations, but these weren’t even that frequent. Only the rich had their heads severed then. The poor hung.
Now, we were all poor. For hygienic purposes during sacred feminine situations, I knew I was supposed to use wads of cotton wool, ripped from big loaves of wavy fluff compressed in plastic bags. I somehow doubted I’d ever become truly proficient at this. How this could work was beyond me, and I would not ask mother, because she did not even call the fiber by its local name, but rather “coton,” so as to avoid being understood by the masses.
When the time came, I relied on Nicó to show me.
Sometimes, Nicó drew portraits of a man, using both hands, in a quiet and strange way: Her left hand retraced lines the right accomplished, but with more spring, blurring here, intensifying there. A man with his eyes closed. We asked who the man was. “My father, God rest his soul—when he finally passes, that is,” came the answer.
In a world securely moored by the comfortable extreme left, my blue comrade was truly ambidextrous, and that meant undoing and drifting, flailing of arms in a merciless riptide. It meant frank duplicity, yet another path the gifted might take in a society of equals. Did she ever make it to the National Festival? Probably not; she was tainted by association with her former lover, the defector. I feared one day she would meet with a traffic accident, the kind our secret service staged for undesirables, or that one day she would disappear without a trace. I begged her to watch her back.
“I’m not the least bit curious about people,” she would say. “I think the best of them.”
For her sake, I hoped she lied, to mask a keen awareness of all comings and goings in the tenement, or some all-consuming hunger for details from the lives of others, bits of humanity that could feed her avid sketching of faces. And maybe to forget what she had lost or couldn’t reach. After all, we often sat together silently, on the grass, back against back, and just took notice. Oftentimes, we observed trucks and half-naked drivers bringing fish and frogs to the market basin every week. A few half-alive creatures always fell on the pavement, and our friends rushed to gather them, leaving slimy black traces on the sunny cement. Some grabbed the fish right off the truck and sliced it on the spot, looking for roe. Nicolina caviar, we called it. On such a peaceful afternoon, the drunken call by the building entrance startled us.
“Leontine! Leontine, you slut! Come out, I dare you! Come out, see how we live in the glorious eighties—the Golden Era, for fuck’s sake!”
“Is she your mother, this Leontine?” I asked with a dry throat.
“She’s the seamstress who lives upstairs on the fourth floor, who has a brawling son with no father, and a daughter who takes after her,” Nicó said and brushed me aside, heading down the dry mud path to the open market. The seafood truck was still there, and neighbors fought for a couple of golden carp gasping on the pavement.
By the front door of the building, the drunk staggered, stumbled, and broke his fall with a hand on the window. His hand went through glass and came out liquid red.
I recognized him. He was so young. So was his wife, in her late teens, who wore colorful kerchiefs, just like her baby daughters did. All so blonde, they looked like peasants from the North. What were they doing there? I wondered, living by the damp corner of the building, three floors under Leontine, right on the ground, the parterre where nobody wanted to live because of the silver rats. How they managed with only one birdcage, I never understood. We had two, side by side, and they were so crowded.
The whole neighborhood watched and whispered when the drunk disappeared inside the ambulance. He reeked of crushed plums. A polyclinic nurse wiped blood rivulets off the doors, red puddles off the cement floor, mumbling, “Serves him right for chasing loose women.” Nicó, a blade of grass between her teeth, set out to find the administrator and milk him of a new glass pane. A trail of bright blood snuck under my white sandal, forgotten.
At the time, I harbored some pride at my father’s seeming unwillingness to drink anything other than water and boiled Turkish coffee. Only once he got a gift of five or six bottles of red wine, “bear’s stamina.” He drank them, slowly, and it brightened his mood. My youngest brother was born that year.
I never heard the young drunk’s voice again, but saw him many times sitting with others on blankets on the grass, playing backgammon, sipping beer laced with salt. Glinting in the sun, I spied what looked like a lacquered mahogany hand, sometimes used to roll the dice, then hidden again in the pocket. Maybe I just dreamed about it. The image looks wakeful and sharp—but who knows, memory often squints, the better to see. Nobody mocked the glorious socialist years like that and went unpunished. Perhaps it was permitted if you were inebriated. Or an official dissident.
“Six-six, gate in the house.” The dice clacked.
Leontine knocked on our door one evening, shivering, looking better than Sophia Loren in Sunflower, with fuller lips. She held her pink polyester housecoat firmly closed over her breasts, and her dark, shiny locks hung loose. In a hoarse voice, she told my parents, “Got one. Made it through the plywood in the bathroom. It’s in the toilet bowl now. Sorry to bother you, seeing as you’re pregnant, ma’am.”
My sore throat should have kept me in bed, but I followed the procession—Tata, Mama, and Leontine—up the stairs. Leontine’s birdcage looked almost tidy: no books or knick-knacks that I could see, just hand-loomed rugs hanging on the walls, leafy cabbage roses on a black background, to dampen the sounds and warm up the atmosphere. And make-up jars everywhere. Although it was late, there were no traces of her children. She pushed back the chair that separated the main room from the bathroom. That cell, much like ours, also served as a kitchenette: There were plates on shelves against the wall opposite the toilet, an electric heater for cooking. My father wielded a wooden beam, lifting it above his head, and with a majestic gasp, lowered it quickly into the toilet while simultaneously raising the seat cover. He lowered the beam again, tap-tap, as pink water splashed all over Leontine’s pink housecoat, which was now gaping at the cleavage. Tata pounded again and again, grunting. Mama quickly shoved me out. I heard the wooden toilet lid drop, and the triumphant flush, and then again another flush. The silver rat went to sea.
“Thank you, sir. Would you like a little coffee? Some black cherry preserve, maybe?” Leontine asked.
Back at our place, Tata mumbled “I wasn’t going to have coffee with the likes of her. Who does she think I am?”
I burst out laughing, and he grabbed me by the nape and lowered his mouth to my ear. “Remember, crying always follows in the footsteps of laughter.” He always said that, my Tata, when we got too feisty. I wished Nicó were there, to grab him by the ear.
By now, you must be used to the shifting whims of my wistful recollections. Perhaps more inclined to experiment with forgetting at will, or to decide what memories you wouldn’t mind flooding you, unexpectedly? Do not fear contamination by recalled debris; you’ll find this account has a happy ending. The communist regime collapsed a few long years later.
I returned to the tenement as a foreign tourist a decade after that. The blocks of birdcages still stood, albeit colorless and gone to the dogs. The playground retained two swings and the monkey bars, once painted red and yellow. I was told the rest of the swings and most of the chain link fence had been stolen and sold for scrap metal by the new poor. There were traces of muddy sand under my feet. Behind the remaining fence, a few children in well-worn clothes stood in a circle, watching a tan little girl, no older than five, kick a stray puppy in its belly.
The trees by the block entrance cast long, deep shadows. The grass was no more. An open window would have made it easy enough for a bird of courage and experience to dive into our former cage. It was still early for me. It seems easy enough now; perhaps it’s time, in this office room of the next century, for me to grant myself the luxury of remembrance. I wonder if I ever wished myself away from Nicolina.
“My biggest flaw,” Tata used to say, “is that I’m too good.” When I was very young, he brought home a fledgling sparrow who couldn’t return to her feeble nest at the top of our building. She had been jumping to and fro in the grass. One of the many stray cats, fat from all the fish entrails it gulped at the market, waited in the shadows, poised to attack her within seconds. He had saved her. In our room, he tried to pry open the minuscule yellow beak with a knife for us to feed her, but with no luck. The bird spent the night under a napkin in my wicker Easter basket on top of the window box pantry.
It rained that night. The bird had to wait there for her mother to come for her. In the morning, she did not look distressed, just wet. She chirped faintly.
Tata searched for breakfast food in the window pantry. I heard a stinging call, maybe a flutter, too, and ran to the basket. It was empty. “Mama bird came! And got her!” I exclaimed, clapping in delight. “Of course she did,” said Tata, and closed the window.
After I grew up, I knew: One slap on her feathery cheek had been all that was needed to throw her over the edge of the basket.
Sorrow follows lightly in the footsteps of laughter, until it reaches remembrance, the surviving web of a long-dead spider.
Nicó’s head rested in my lap. The transistor radio in Leontine’s birdcage broadcast radio theater on Thursday evenings, our mirthful faces masks of carnival, masks of iron. I held Nicó’s head in the crook of my arm, waiting for Sartre’s The Condemned of Altona to begin. We thought we had silenced the night, when the National Radio Archives suddenly spoke: “The wild tyranny of ruthless capitalism collapsed under its own weight. Villains disappeared under the stage of history, drowning in despair for their inability to endure humiliation and poverty. Finally, the children of this country do not need to take the arduous road of exile. The bleeding of this country has ceased. People refuse to be mindless servants of international capitalism, reject its ruthless exploitation. They stormed the citadel of rotten capitalism, stained with the innocent blood of fighters for social justice and national independence. Away with the servants of foreign imperialists! Away with so-called intellectuals, barely tolerated by the working class, collectivist peasantry brotherhood! The hour of justice has arrived! The working class and poor peasantry in partnership with progressive intellectuals will oust them forever.”
We fell asleep waiting for Sartre.
One evening, Half-Pig Simon knocked on my door: “Come, they’re beating up Nicó.”
“Tatyana’s gang, from the tower blocks.” His voice sounded like a man’s.
Tatyana went to high school and had wire-brush hair dyed blonde. The only one I’d ever seen who wore denim pants, tight, of which nobody dared to dream. Her mom got divorced, which nobody ever did. Her dad, a truck driver, plied her with perfumed erasers, stickers, and colorful clothing from foreign countries. Tatyana lead a gang of clean kids, whose parents were neither intelligentsia nor workers, but honest-to-regime public servants. They hung around most evenings and sat on the metal pipe fence, smoked, strummed their guitars. Some had slingshots dangling from their belts, fashioned of coated steel and tire cutouts, and their pockets burst with U-shaped ammo—bent nails and bits of heavy metal wire. These stung like hell and drew a good few drops of blood when they got you. Sometimes they hung from your skin.
From a distance, it looked like a group of teens were playing Statues. Statues was when you grabbed hold of a playmate’s arm, swung her like mad, and released her to see what she sculpted of her body within seconds, before freezing in place. The most dramatic, graceful, or quirky pose won, and got to spin next. Sometimes, the entire statuary group became a masterpiece and got the prize.
As we neared the tableau, you could see that it squirmed. Surrounded, my friend pushed, clawed, and received blows, mostly in her back and breasts. “Here, representative t-t-talent,” I heard Tatyana croak between jabs.
I wondered if they were drunk. You didn’t say things like that unless you were drunk. Or a dissident.
They growled when I grabbed at their shirts to yank them off their feet. “What, do you want a piece of student ass, too? Are you gifted with both your hands too, huh, gypsy cub?”
Why defend the ones who could assert themselves with grace? I do not remember why. The real reason must have reached the bottomless pit that defies recollection, even in depression. It’s not a task-irrelevant episode. The slingshots bit at Nicó’s neck and legs. I did not want nails to hang from her skin. You could see the blue veins through it so easily. I flew to our room and found my lantern, carved from one ripe watermelon twice the size of a young skull. I stuck a short candle on the bottom, which Simon lit up. (He still carried matches wherever he went, for science experiments and to light cigarette butts.) I waved the lantern as if signaling to a faraway ship, and its insides glistened flesh-red. Its mouth, full of sharp, conical teeth, projected on the prefab walls, alive, threw all of us in dancing shadows, ground everyone’s gestures, and spat them out in slow motion.
The pack froze with eyes wet and gleaming, much like Tata’s after an outburst. Was it the lantern? Or the fish-stirring bats DD and Simon used to hit the ground rhythmically, like a monastery call, like the toaca of monks?
Mama found me late that night in one of the clean tower apartment buildings. Her hair was a mess, but she wore her best dress, the only seamstress-made one, modern with large orange and black dots. A large dot like a smooth clementine covered her nipple area, and this, in the end, drove Tata to forbid her wearing that dress. I had not succeeded in talking to Tatyana, or her one parent, although somebody spied through the looking hole. They had looking holes and doorbells in this building; I bet they had telephones, too. On our way down the dark staircase, Mama told me some enraged tower block parents had just forced open our birdcage door, looking for her, seeking explanation. Fortunately, it was bath time for my infant brother in the other room, and that’s where Mama hid. Those angry parents left, eventually, and it was unclear if they took anything with them. We only had books there, anyway.
Where is the rest of that evening? I wonder. It must have reached the bottomless pit of the bluest moods, the one that defies true recollection. Too much artificial light from a window without drapes, above, now hurts the details, and it’s hard to recall; harder yet to imagine these otherwise task-relevant memories intruding, someday. Let them drift there, in the no-man’s-land of reliving; I’m acting as if they don’t exist. Not even the statue crumpled on the front steps, or her sobs. Just the ancient, monotonous chant of the crimson bull that people say heals all when intoned over and over again. I cannot help but hear the sound of a raspy voice:
I walked the way of the path at daybreak
and came across a strong crimson bull.
Up on his horns he lifted me,
down he laid me.
Mary from heaven listened.
On a golden ladder, she came down.
“What are you doing, wee Nicó?
Why do you wail? Why do you sob?”
Why wouldn’t I wail?
Why wouldn’t I sob?
When I walked the way
of the path at daybreak
and came across a strong crimson bull
and up on his horns he lifted me.
There was no squeaky-clean pain in those sobs; no still, lanky arm mottled in shades of sunset and amber, molded around Nicó there, on the steps; no long-haired head, resting on the young man’s shoulder, in the way a beloved’s, or a Magdalen’s, would. They could not have happened.
I looked for my blue friend everywhere. I had seen no light coming through The Dissident’s opaque, thick-painted window, but from the hallway outside his door, I heard voices: his deep one, punctuated at rare intervals with Nicó’s.
“You forget now. What a beautiful, beautiful world, and what a great many stories that come true… You only need a clean conscience, my little one, and you can achieve bliss. You only need someone wiser than you. We’re lucky we cannot see outside these windows, but don’t think I’ve created them for anyone other than myself; it would be foolish, and don’t think I don’t run to the window in the morning because the reflex to seek the view disappears so slowly. You’ve got such clean skin…thin skin. Don’t touch there. What if society was ruled by intellectuals? Imagine that. Roll over now, sanguine apple of my heart.”
The moans I heard at times did not sound like pained ones, so I did not knock on the door to come to Nicó’s rescue.
A fridge soon started buzzing and covered the voices. (Some lucky neighbors had fridges, but no room for them, so they kept them outside, in the common area, by their birdcage doors.) The corridor smelled of rat poison and disinfectant. The odor was heavy, and the window at the far end of it painted shut. I got dizzy, so I sat on the linoleum, leaned against a fridge. It was locked with a large, brass padlock to prevent the stealing of precious food. I thought of cold fruit, of wet, red insides. I thought about that for a long time. Until a woman’s voice called, “Roots,” indicating the TV series that censors approved because it showed the cruelty of the West.
The Dissident stood very close to Nicó, I imagined. He was cultivated and bitter. And she, just sanguine.
Daylight still flickered in the sole window at the end of the long hallway, rows of identical particle board doors on both sides. One bulb hung low from a twisted wire.
When Nicó tiptoed out of the birdcage, the man’s sturdy, hairless arms clung, circled, lingered around her waist. I slipped away to watch Kunta Kinte escape his captors again.
Outside, the working class supremacy continued unabashed.
Nicó settled upon my mind like a mist, as one of my deepest, breathing, intrusive memories.
Reduced activity in the depressed group was observed in three regions of the prefrontal cortex associated with cognitive, emotional, and memory inhibition. These results are consistent with a failure by depressed individuals to inhibit task-irrelevant information during an autobiographical memory task.
It would be worth elaborating on this (or, as scientific papers often put it when they jump to conclusions, “it is tempting to speculate”), but first I need to read my notes and review the article I’ve just written. No doubt, the main question remains unanswered. Why is it that so much gets displaced or ill-interpreted in a depressed subject’s narrative? Who knows if it’s not the most crucial episodes, the ones that should never be abandoned to the moodiness of time, but coaxed along a smoother, safer course? Catalogued carefully, deliberately, in chronological bliss? When evening comes, at least, no recollection should be confined to recesses unlabeled. It is my belief now that, even though it begins as inadvertently as hastily freed dust, eventually, each memory will condense into its own planet, turning and exposing itself at times, tense between its poles, revolving in smaller and smaller circles until it falls onto the scorching surface of sadness.
This is where I would like to thank Blue Nicó. “Welcome,” she would answer. “I could not wait any longer,” she would add. And perhaps caress my aging cheek. Like she did one frosty morning, before she received the small white package. We thought it was from abroad, from the student defector she had once loved. It had the orange, embossed bar code of foreign correspondence. People thought it meant the secret service had inspected that particular piece of mail, and I surmised that the Department of Rumors had something to do with this belief.
Nicó rested the parcel on her lap, unopened, and smiled wide. “Is it from the student? What is it?” DD asked. “Is it Chinese? Spray deodorant?”
Nicó swept the dust on a low shelf with a caressing hand, set the tiny parcel on it, far back behind the make-up jars, and raised her voice: “Who wants to jump rope or play Thread or sit for a meditative portrait?” (Did she say “meditative”? I will recall the precise word someday. It is important.)
Me. “I wanna sit. Can you do a self-portrait, if I sit very still?”
“Sure can, hedgehog.”
Nicó had a purple spot on her jaw, the size of a 1 leu coin. DD elbowed me, and I knew she wondered about the same thing. If roaches crawled on Nicó’s face, too, leaving colorful traces.
The rain of rare, frozen volleys fell like retreating footsteps.
“There was an old woman…”
“In the Valley of Lamentation?”
“Sshhhh. Yes, perhaps in the Valley. Don’t interrupt, hedgehog.”
There was an old woman had three daughters: one was bad, one was good. And one was a prostitute.
While Nicó spun the tale, I sat for the portrait below: not of my face, but of hers. Her voice remained as clear and unshaking as hard graphite pencil strokes. Over the years, the image increasingly blurry, I started adding shy color washes to this sketch, at one time even smudged shadows of menace, because for decades I couldn’t inhibit the desire to squelch anything monochrome. I added them from left to right, as most right-handed amateurs do, to avoid smearing the image. I will probably add more. Nothing two-colored is ever of any use to me.
The portrait has never been on display, and if you knew me, you would not believe I played with graphite or brush strokes.