The days recurred: from Monday to Saturday, from Christmas to Easter, from Easter to the summer holiday spent in Sinaia, from the summer holiday to Lou’s birthday and then back to Christmas.
She was heading home in no hurry. She was carrying a shopping bag with the bread and the milk bottle for the dinner that night and for Lou’s breakfast tomorrow. Even though Lou will first complain that she couldn’t stand milk any longer she will drink it from the mug heated on the stove which she will leave on the kitchen table. They had continual bickering, as Lou had been unwell lately, could hardly get any sleep at night and had no energy, would read for history and couldn’t remember a thing, she simply couldn’t focus. In her own opinion milk was good for things like that, she knew from her grandparents that a cup of hot milk before going to bed did wonders for a good night sleep, while during the day it helped for concentration. Luckily the little girl was reasonable and in the end she did listen to her and in the morning, after she was gone, Lou would drink the milk on the kitchen table, heated so that it was just right.
She was looking around with the same tired eyes that felt like cardboard, as always after a day’s work with no start and no accomplishment. She was blinking and straining her eyes just to see where she was going, to avoid bumping into anyone. It was very crowded downtown at that time of the day, many were leaving work just like her, others were getting back from their domestic shopping, others were going to meet their dates and others simply had nothing else to do. It was spring and many just wanted to check this out for themselves, namely the fact that daylight lasted longer and the wind had stopped making one feel cold. The sunlight was relaxing, gentle, but for all this the shopping bag was still heavy, making her fingers numb, while her handbag was tilting her right shoulder, banging against her hip and against the arm that was carrying the bread and the milk. She had to change the shopping bag to the other hand, but she had got tired of changing it again and again. For so many years she had learned what it was like to carry the bags on the right, this way banging them against the handbag and what it was like to carry them on the left, getting rid this way of the rhythmical knock against the handbag but feeling uncomfortable all the same.
She started at the thought of what she might be looking like and she straightened her shoulders, tried hard not to walk idly and did her best to relax the muscles of her face. If she blinked she made her wrinkles worse, she shouldn’t keep her face so tense, god knows how many other wrinkles she might get. And then she mustn’t look tired today. She must remember to powder up her face once again when she gets home, before going out. What was she going to say to Marius? Whatever answer she might give him, she must not look old. And all the more so if she was going to say no. She must not look like she was thirty-nine and had no big hope to get married again. In fact, she knew all too well what marriage was like, there was no point making a goal or a wish out of it.
Twenty-four hours seemed an awful tiring thing for one day. She always went to bed exhausted, often with some headache or heartache, slightly giddy and dazed. There were numberless other pains in the tibia or in the wrist, some numbness in the shoulder or a twisted vertebra in the neck. There was always something at the end of a day, which reinforced her feeling, already intense, of exhaustion of her muscles, her senses, her will. She only wanted to sit on the couch in the living room at these times, wrapped in her gown, watching whatever there was on television with her eyebrows arching in empty confusion, with an absent-minded stare. Sometimes Lou or her own mother would also sit with her and then they would talk. The old woman would tell her the latest gossip about the neighbours in the apartment building, as delivered by her lady-friends who had visited her that day. Lou would sometimes complain about how mean her school-mates were, who had laughed at her again, even after she had stood her ground dignified. That’s people, she would tell her in a faint voice, you can’t help it, love. They’re evil. Lou had told her once how the boys had tried to break into the girls’ locker room at the gym. They’re vile, she had commented.
She also had to cook in the evenings. Sometimes, to help her creativity, she would take the cooking book so she might remember what else there was she could cook. Very often the book was no good, however, as she had learned by heart the recipes that she could make – as for those she hadn’t made in years, either for lack of special occasions or simply of ingredients, those were pointless anyway. What was the use of reading through recipes which required butter, fresh cream or pork tenderloin, when she hadn’t been able to buy such things in years? Her mother often helped her with the cooking, she had no idea how she would manage without her help. True, she did mess things up in general. She was an old woman after all. Once she had left some potatoes peeled and sliced, ready to be fried for Lou. She had given clear instructions, but when she got back from work she found a pot full of mashed potatoes and nobody had touched it. She was upset, the potatoes were wasted, no one could eat mashed potatoes without anything else to go with them, but she had to be patient with the old woman, she was her mother after all and now and then she did succeed in being helpful.
Mondays, Tuesday, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and three Saturdays a month she would wake up at quarter to six. It was the time of the day when her solitude was complete. She left Lou still sleeping, she got up slowly and quietly, opened the wardrobe, took out one of her skirts and one of the matching blouses and tiptoed out of the bedroom. Passing by the mirror in the hall she would get a fright seeing herself. She looked terrifying with her immense dark rings round her eyes, hair tousled, face pale, more lifeless than the mannequins in the shops of the good old days, or in the shops on the parade socialist boulevard. She would rush into the bathroom to put some colour on her cheeks with the splash of water, which was always cold at that hour. She would spend a long time washing herself minutely and watching avidly for any new wrinkles of the past twenty-four hours. Then came the hurried coffee and Lou’s breakfast, set on the table along with the milk. At the end she would make the first straining effort of the day, putting on the make-up. It took her long minutes to complete this operation that was every day anxiously set to change in the least bit the so-familiar line of the eyes, the inborn predilection of the complexion for certain hues, or the usual colour of the lips.
She was a railroad engineer in the head office of the ministry of transport. She had first tried economics, but she had failed the university entrance exam because of mathematics and she’d had no guts to try again next year. Although she worked in an office like any other, it seemed to her that a pile of iron was lying on the desks, already smelling of the rails that were going to be made out of it. The office work was acceptable, but sometimes she had to travel to some province, doing a man’s work, because the world had run out of men and the other women “had a family”. She also had a family, but the only thing that counted towards a family was to have a man.
She had met Marius on the field, in a dusty station with a dubiously romantic reputation thanks to a sloppy love song. This of course after she’d managed to escape, just like so many other times in the past, the disgusting advances of the colleagues on the same trip. Because if you were supposed to leave together with male colleagues, it was clear that one or several of them would start making a pass at you. That’s men, you can’t help it. Anyway, Marius had approached her politely and with no luscious flicker in his eyes, to help her get her trunk on the train. Then he had offered her his handkerchief and had kept standing next to her talking to her in a simple manner, human to human, not forgetting to treat her like a lady. He may not be a prince charming, but she was long past the age where she was waiting for one. They met in Bucharest afterwards, took walks in the chic district on a Sunday afternoon, had dinner at the fashionable restaurant on Victoriei Street, went to the National Theatre and to the arts cinema and everything was going smoothly. He would tell her each time that she looked very pretty and she would smile flattered – so it did help to do all the showers, steambaths, hairstyling, make-up, perfume or gymnastics in her living-room. God knew how difficult it was to procure the cosmetics from the black market of Polish merchants.
His behaviour did not commit him to anything, did not create any equivocal situation that she might have to clear up. And still, after six months it occurred to her that it might be time to find out what his intentions were, whether they were serious or not. It was just then that he came with his proposal of marriage.
She had first thought she should marry him. Men first need a profession to match their abilities, then some welfare to acquire and only afterwards a woman to take care of them. While women first and foremost needed a man to orbit around with their whole existence. A woman may be a housewife, may not want situation, but she will always need a man. That’s women, you can’t help it. She would have liked to get married again and if Marius was the right man, she’d better do it with him. With her ex, Lou’s father, she’d been to every pub in Bucharest, had hiked in the mountains, had danced till the lights went out, had had quite a few abortions… Different times. What was the good, though, if only weeks after the wedding she had realised that that man could not understand her. And the divorce had come years later, by his decision. She might have carried on for ever, thinking of Lou and getting used to the rest. Now pubs were screened by the Securitate and closed at ten pm, abortions were banned, mountains had got crowded and dirty – and her life was virtually over anyway.
With Marius things had been going a lot more slowly. True, they were also older, an age when they could see things in more realistic ways. If she did get to marry him, it meant that he was indeed a reliable man and so she had a solid point in her life. She would have a man in the house, who could do the man’s jobs, like mending sockets for example. When the neighbour next door came home drunk she would not be afraid of his yells any more. And all those that now and then were making a pass at her would know better and spare her of their obscene jokes. And she wouldn’t have to travel any longer. In the spring evenings they could go out for half an hour in the park. Maybe they could get a cat or a small dog. They would all have lunch together on Sundays – herself, Marius, Lou, the old woman, maybe even her sister, Ella, who was single too. She wouldn’t need to go through the hassle of getting the christmas tree, for Easter she wouldn’t need to beat the carpets herself and on holidays they might start going elsewhere than Sinaia, which was the only holiday resort where she had a connection. Marius would surely have his own connections somewhere else, without connections no decent holiday was possible, as long as one did not want to queue for tickets six months in advance and get the notorious concentration-camp accommodation and most of all boarding – the food they served would be absolutely horrendous.
Lou. What will she do? Will she accept, first the idea, then Marius himself? What will she think of her? She was such a sensitive child and she had such a strong personality with her only ten years of age. She had to think it through so she might not hurt her feelings. Such an experience might leave traces for the rest of her life. Especially as the little one already had a hard time finding her place in this world, just like herself. It was a world full of stereotypes, full of emptiness, where mother and daughter were chasing their longing to belong somewhere, whether it was a home, a man, some friends, a career. One of these would have been enough to mean deliverance.
Oh, and Lou was so fragile too, especially lately, maybe what with the spring and all.. those headaches and the weakness, for all the medicines she was taking. She was literally living on sleeping pills and on Chinese vitamins. Her constitution was so vulnerable! That’s Lou, she can’t help it.
Today was the last day, when she had to give Marius a definite answer, she remembered again opening the door to her apartment. She’ll see. It was still an hour to go before meeting him.
“My goodness, but I told you not to touch those flowers, they’re not ours!” Lou’s voice threatened to break to pieces.
“What’s happened?” she asked.
Lou was red in the face and her lips were sulking.
“The hell’s happened! I bought flowers this morning, tomorrow’s head teacher’s birthday, I put them in a vase in the bathroom, wrapped in their paper so it’s clear they’re a gift. I told her too, take care, leave the flowers where they are – and now? Now I find them unwrapped, the paper in the bin, the vase in full sunlight, they’re wide open and drooping, with the stalks barbariously cut off to a quarter of their length! What am I going to give the head teacher tomorrow?”
The old woman pursed her lips as she always did when she felt offended.
“You can’t wait to see me dead”, she murmured going to the kitchen. She stood still, not knowing what to say.
“Don’t worry, Lou, I’ll get you other flowers tomorrow, darling!”
Then she fetched a deep sigh in the quiet that had settled in. She put down the heavy shopping bag and threw her handbag over on the couch. She turned back to the hall and took off her jacket, suddenly determined to hurry up. She didn’t have much time, and in this way she would not have to listen to the old woman’s complaints and could not take care of Lou’s frustration. To get to Marius as soon as possible, where the conversation would only be centred on herself! Who knows what Marius would have had to say on such a day, on her coming home! Of course, of course, she could not expect that everything would be rosy if she got married. Of course, but what would Marius look like next to Lou and to the old woman? She looked around involuntarily, as if trying to identify a place in the hall, in the kitchen or in the living, where she could picture Marius before her eyes. No, now was not the time for silly things!
“Has Ella called?” she shouted for Lou to hear.
“Yes, she has” the girl shouted back from the bathroom. “She’s gone completely crazy.”
She went over to the bathroom.
“Why? What did she say, why didn’t she come for dinner yesterday, as she said she would?”
“For the bugs in her head, that’s why! She went on complaining why we didn’t go to her place, as she’s afraid to walk in her neighbourhood after it’s dark. But woman, I told her, we waited for you, that’s what we’d agreed, we couldn’t have dreamt that you’d precisely now be afraid to leave your house! No no no, she says, at least you are together the two of you, you could have thought you’d be safer!”
Lou paused for a dramatic effect, looking her mother in the eyes. She then shrugged and shook her head in stupefaction, then went on.
“But why didn’t you give us a call, I tell her, just to tell us to come over to your place, maybe we would have! No need to tell her again she knows all too well that granma won’t have a bite for days if you’re not sitting with her to eat, so us going to her would have been out of the question… But that’s it, can’t help it, that’s Ella!”
She smiled faintly watching Lou so wrought up in her account, like a grown-up.
“So bottomline, we sat waiting for each other, like three insane women. This could only happen to us!”
She laughed gently, in a shy attempt to object.
She left from the bathroom door and took out of the wardrboe the clothes she had selected carefully the night before.
“I’ll call her in a minute, to clear things up”, she shouted to Lou.
“I wouldn’t do it if I were you. You know how gregarious she is”.
She laughed again.
“Gregarious! Well well, what big words we’re using!”
“Of course, it’s the only word that describes Ella!”
She wished Lou would not talk about Ella like that, if for no other reason at least because Ella was her aunt. But, she told herself, Ella was to blame too, she’d got the little one to call her by her first name and to treat her like a pal. It was incredible how such a weenie girl like Lou could so quickly detect Ella’s small faults and manias. Ella was, indeed, rather muddle-headed, she had to admit although she was her sister. She could also be a bit weird sometimes, like anyone in fact. Especially as she was getting old too and still unable to find a man. Why was it that the two of them had such bad luck when it came to men… And Ella had been courted by one of her teachers, a brilliant guy, madly in love with her, but that’s girls, silly. They can’t choose properly. And after they screw it the first time they keep fretting for the rest of their lives to find another man, to piece their lives up again, as if to prove themselves that being wrong once did not count. And was it really worth chasing a man now, at this age, when there’s no question of romantic love as it used to be?Worth struggling to get a man so you can have one more person to look after, to put up with, possibly cheating on you too while you do their laundry, all this basically so as to join the crowd as a married woman? Sure, meeting Marius was now very enjoyable, but that was so because it lasted one or two hours. What’s going to happen after a few months of marriage? Will she be better off than before she met him at all? Will Marius solve any of her problems really?
Good that she was going now, the air was so gentle outside, tempting you to take a stroll, like everybody, with your partner, and besides, granma would be cooking and when she came back maybe Lou would have made it up with her and at least she would have calmed down again. Now she was so upset, the little one!
“How did you sleep last night, Lou dear?” she asked her sitting down before the mirror.
Lou made a wry face and answered in a lamenting voice:
“Terrible, I was so sick I wanted at some point to get up and ask you to call the ambulance!”
“Why?” she asked alarmed.
“Oh, I felt a hot fluid running through my whole body, and the heart was beating fast and something was pulsating in the ear. Terrible! And, how should I call it, I felt like an ache in all the muscles and the bones…”
“It must be a virus, have you taken a pill?”
“I have! O goodness, it’s the third time since winter that I’ve had the flu, I wonder if I have no antibodies left, what’s going on? Don’t laugh, something’s definitely wrong with my immunity.”
“What can you do, honey, that’s your constitution, you’re fragile, you can’t help it, don’t you know that already?”
“Yes, OK, but really, that’s too much it seems…”
“It’s a crazy spring, don’t you see how warm it is?, completely unnatural!”
“Yeah… you know, granma couldn’t sleep either, she got her high blood pressure again, and Ella had been sleeping poorly too, but then again, Ella’s never quite by herself anyway!”
She smiled and watched herself again in the mirror. As if any one of them was ever completely by herself! There was always something wrong with them. Luckily they forgot to mind it and days would simply pass by. She felt the cool trace of the face cleaning milk on the eyelids, on the cheeks, then she opened her eyes again and saw her skin glossy as in the cosmetic spots, but unfortunately the resemblance to the ladies in the spots stopped just with the glossiness of the skin. She wiped the cream away and began to put on new make-up, the evening make-up, which Marius liked so much, her eyes almond-shaped. The mascara was nearly out, she must talk to her connection to get her a new one, it may take two to three weeks. All these trifles, so much strain!
“Buy me a small notebook, please, but don’t forget, will you?” Lou shouted from her room.
She didn’t answer, as any motion might smear her face, but from the big University clock, she made a mental note, where she was to meet Marius, she must go the few couple of yards to the bookstore for the notebook. She would wear the large dark handbag, so she could cram the notebook in, so she must put on the dark patent leather shoes, which were a bit old-fashioned, but…
“And remember we’re out of laundry soap too!”
“Yes, I know. I’ll get it tomorrow, shops are closed by now.”
“Will you make it to the film tonight?”
She will be sitting at the table, facing Marius, as in a film, she will be seeing people, she will be out.
“I don’t know, really, but why, is it a good one?” but no, she thought, they didn’t close at Capsa before nine thirty. Dinner was still digestible there, thank God.
“Yes, it’s an American one for a change, thank God!” So they were spared the whole Russian crap – or the Romanian crap for that matter, about grey-bearded whacky kings fighting the eternal Ottoman threat and the rest of the propaganda… She laughed at Lou’s rhetoric and picked up the lipstick. “Then I’ll be sorry to miss it”, she said putting on her smile to check the way it looked in the mirror. She peered at the brown on her eyelids closely, to see if it was even on both sides. Yes, it looked like it was. But on the left cheek the rouge was a bit smeared and she spread it with her fingers over the soft skin. She turned her head a little, yes, that would do now.
She rummaged through the litter of cosmetics searching for the comb but was unable to find it. She stood up in growing hurry and panic, turned the handbag inside out, spread out all the feminine paraphernalia on the bed so she could quickly find what she was looking for, but in vain.
“Haven’t you seen my comb?”
“No, where was I supposed to see it?” Lou shouted back from her room.
She stood still in the small hall between the two bedrooms and the bathroom, not knowing which way she should go to keep searching. It was late and the comb was nowhere. She rushed to the bathroom, but there were only the toothbrushes and the tooth-paste, she came back to the toilet board, pulled the drawer out completely and threw it on the couch upside down just as she had done with the handbag, but the objects she found were the same that she had found the first time she had been searching. The last thing she could do was to dash Lou’s door open.
“For goodness’ sake, Lou, I can’t find it anywhere!”
The girl’s dumbfounded look made her get out as abruptly as she had burst in, and she went to and fro in the living room, struggling not to cry for fear of ruining the make-up. She sat down on the couch for a moment, held her head in her hands and helpless, in a choking wailing voice she gave out:
“Where is my comb?”
She suddenly remembered putting it in the inside, zipped pocket of her handbag, so she grabbed the handbag and indeed she found it, she went back to the mirror but kept standing as she was already very late, she put it through her hair two or three times then threw it on the table. It was not late in fact, on second thoughts she was even a bit early, but she had nothing left to do at home, why should she linger on and take her time in slow motion? – she could not do that anyway, it felt as if she had got into a speed that would not let go of her, even if she had no reason to rush she was rushing rushing rushing. Never mind. Don’t forget about the notebook, the notebook in University square! And when she smiled, she should only smile that wide, see?, that wide, not more as it doesn’t suit her. Marius’s favourite perfume, there, so he likes it, so he likes her, so he gets crazy about her tonight, ha ha, tonight she was going to be a very special woman.
“I’m off then, Lou, honey, see ya later” yes, “tonight or never” she felt like singing, of course because of the excitement and the nervousness, whenever she was nervous she felt like singing and like many other silly things. She put the key into the lock and pulled the door open so abruptly that the kitchen window banged against the pane… But was she getting married to Marius after all, or not? She stood still staring at the rug beyond the threshold. She still had a quarter of an hour to make up her mind. What, of so many weeks and days, only a quarter of an hour left?
What could she do in fifteen minutes so she could make a final decision? A decision.
She closed the door again, went through the living, crossed the small hall between the bedrooms and opened the door in front. Lou raised her eyes questioningly. Lou must decide, she knows better what there is to do.
“What should I tell Marius?”
The girl gazed at her. The frame of her glasses hung over the grey eyes.
“If you want me to hate you, do it!”
She was walking at leisure. She was going to be a few minutes late, but never mind. The street had got rid of the bustle of the day traffic, but the couples or just solitary passers-by were taking their evening strolls. She had walked past the first two blocks, only four to go to the supermarket corner, then the pedestrian crossing with the traffic lights and then the underground stop. The park across the boulevard was crowded with the teenagers streaming out of school, with the football or tennis teams and with the prams pushed on by mothers or married couples. Around the bench in the curve there was the backgammon club, as always. Don’t forget the notebook. Had she taken her mirror and the powder with her? That she should search for a silly comb for so long… Never mind, she would buy her other flowers tomorrow, no problem… She had talked to Lou’s father the day before, he had managed to get tickets for Lou to the seaside again, like last year, with himself and his wife. Of course, it was March and the tickets were already almost out, one had to take care of this in due time. She would go to Sinaia again, where her connection was, and the rest of her holidays she would paint the flat. Or maybe if she did not feel like going to Sinaia as every year, she could take only a week holiday to paint the flat and keep the rest of the leave for next year, maybe she will need it more then – what a stupid thought, next year will be the same! Tomorrow she must go and see Ella, maybe she has managed to get her some stockings, and if not… She hurried a bit to catch the green light, that meant that the underground was also going to get in just on time. She had noticed that long ago. The notebook, the notebook.
In six months she would be forty. Or forty times three hundred and sixty-five, plus one day for each of the odd years.