Once more into the mirror

In a corner of the room is the large screen where Ilie Nastase and Stan Smith are playing to win something big. Father is sitting tense, watching close, giving loud bursts with every ball that Nastase loses. She keeps on colouring her book of drawings, startled when father shouts curses at Nastase for being so reckless or when he cries with relieved admiration. Nastase is their favourite: he can play like a god and fail like an idiot, or so at least says father.

Mother comes in and bends over her, asking if she’s fine. Mother’s eyes are blue and hazy like the sky. It’s a summer night, the window is open and during the quiet ball exchanges, when everyone is holding their breath, she can hear the faint rustle of the breeze in the tall, round linden tree just opposite their house, and the continuous chirp of the crickets. At times she can hear steady, measured steps on the tin roof – who’s walking up there, is it some old witch? – hey, come down whoever you are! – it’s only a cat, father tells her laughing.

The cat goes away and the quiet of the street and of the tennis game is restored. The crickets are the only sound outside, and the ball bouncing to and fro in the TV screen. Now and then there’s a dog barking in the distant shadows of the night, and the long echoes of his boredom come over to the living-room mingling with the tense stillness on the tennis court. She puts her book away and starts exploring, the hundredth time, the long bookcase decking a whole wall. It’s got books in dark colours lined up like soldiers in rows, some dark green, some dark red, others just a queer indefinite grey, all locked behind a glass screen, which only mother can easily push aside. Below the book shelves there are drawers with wooden upside-down eaves gutters for you to clutch and pull open, in each of them endless stocks of exciting things that she doesn’t know where they once belonged.

Mother asks if she’s hungry and she’s not sure, but when mother says she could have again her bread and milk she smiles with a yes in her eyes. Mother fetches her a soup bowl with sweet milk and bread pieces floating in it. The crusts are good if they are mellow, but the soft, fluffy crumb that has become soaked with the milk so that it has to be fished like jelly is perfectly sweet. There’s nothing that beats her milk-and-bread, unless maybe the dry, reddish Sibiu salami, made up of numberless tiny red-and-white dots – but this is more like a treat once in a long while.

The old lady with the round linden tree across the street pulls her wooden roller blinds with a terrible rattle. On her fence there is a climbing bush with bright blue, grape-like blossom that smells so sweet. Mother leaves her sometimes with the old lady when there is nobody home and she marvels at the china trifles and the ancient telephone the old lady has. It is a very small place to live, but she likes it there. Over the armchair where the lady dozes there hangs a huge clock with a vivid cuckoo, which steps out every hour. In the tiny garden there are two large hortensia bushes sometimes hiding cats.

Nastase loses in the last seconds of a match, he’s done it now as he did it last year and will always do. He’s got shoulder-long hair and looks a bit like a cowboy in her favourite Saturday-night series “A Sheriff in New-York”, where McLoud rides laid back into the city never bothering the traffic on the huge avenue. Nastase never bothers anything indeed, he curses or spits when he loses, and yells or flings his racket to the ground, raises his arms and head to the sky and does all sorts of other theatrical tricks as father says. When years go by he will say of other tennis players that they are good but play like robots. Father couldn’t stand Borg the Swede, simply because he never lost. He was a machine. Nastase was a genius loser. The dark summer nights mingled with these shows that had nice names like Flushing Meadows, or Wimbledon, whatever the names meant.

Father would tell her numberless stories. She demanded a story a day and sometimes father was at his wits’ end what he should tell her this time. There were many princes and princesses, many prizes and beasts, many trials to go through and three rounds were almost always guaranteed, seven years of quests and errors sprinkled all the way, but there was always goodness at the end. There was only one tale that strangely fell out of any imaginable pattern. The hero was a prince indeed, and he would leave his parents to undertake a quest all right, but he was not looking for his princess. What he was going to move heaven and earth to find was youth without age and life without death. He was warned before setting out that he must never – never! – loiter through the Vale of Recollection, which would take him to the Glade of Weeping. He passed a happy eternity smelling flowers basking in the gentle sunshine, until one day, unmindful of his horse’s stroll he rode into a weird glade. The sun seemed to be clouded in an instant and a stabbing longing for his parents’ home made him cringe. He rode further bending deeper under the burden of recalling, until he began to weep and he knew he must have trespassed the Glade of Recall and that that had to be the Vale of Weeping. Heading home he lost his strength, his skin turned dry and wrinkled, his horse became weaker and thinner – and when crawling on his knees he came to the ruin of an ancient court, an instant overwhelming recognition of his old home was all it took to turn him into dust.

This one tale worked like a never-failing wine press – it crushed something deep in her breast and the pressure yielded tears up in her eyes. Every time she heard the story, later in school, even retold in commentaries and summaries for the literature class, the press did its crushing. Father was ordered to produce other stories that might not crush, or otherwise unsettle, her world. So he came up with stories that she later on discovered were no tales at all; one was an epic poem of a star turning into a prince and falling in love with a beautiful earthly princess; another was the folk legend of a master builder who must build his beloved wife into the walls of his masterpiece-to-be, to make it stand. Some of these stories may not have ended in goodness either and there was a grain of unavoidable fate in them, leaving her in a vaguely baffled helplessness. But there was definitely a lot of novelty in them, less of the repetitive spinning of feats and dragons, of evil crones, of good and bad daughters.

Father’s book shelves were full of stories too. Not only the stories that the books told. She would sit by the books every day at lunch time, as father’s study room was also their – crammed – dining place. Trapped between the walls decked with books she could but browse time and again their names, the colour and the quality of their covers, their size and their authors’ names. She would sometimes be puzzled by strange titles and would ask father what they meant. One was called The thought and thoughtism. She frowned. Having wondered a dozen times over the course of time, she once vented out her resentment towards those cracked intellectual literary people:

“Why do you folks keep inventing stupid words? What’s this supposed to mean – THOUGHTISM??? Are you all nuts? Can’t you just make do with the words that are already around?”

Father burst out laughing, still retaining a kindness that she found all the more puzzling.

The Thought was a trend-setting literary journal in the 1920s. It stirred national feelings and paid homage to the mystical past. Mostly a right-wing group of thinkers. Later mingled with the fascists, but at its beginnings it was quite a good club. The thoughtism is of course the name of their influence on writers or artists. A trend, a fashion if you like. Got it?”

Father would, as time went by and she advanced in school, read out stories directly from one of his numberless books on the shelves. It was on such an occasion that she remembered the tale of the evening star falling in love with the princess, as father was reading to her from E., the most eminent Romanian poet:

And he, in every single night

Will flicker all the brighter

When she would come into his sight

Out of the shady castle.


And hovering behind her steps

He drifts into her chamber

And on the way he spins a blaze

Out of his icy sparkles.

But turning into a handsome prince did not help. The two of them are different worlds and the beautiful princess is bound to remain a captive of her limited circle, while he is doomed to eternal wisdom.

Along your narrow path of life

It’s luck that you are seeking.

Though here within my world I am

Immortal and unfeeling.

Father was not just a story-reader, whether for her sake or in his own world. He lived them. He insisted, for instance, on taking the family up to the north, in Moldavia, to the places where his writers and poets had lived. Once there, there would always be a tour of the painted monasteries; that, he believed, was a land blessed by god. It was a corner of the country that could take them to the invisible heart of what it meant to be Romanian. The monasteries were places of humility in the face of hardship, of belief in spiritual fulfilment, of creativity for the sake of deliverance. Low ceilings, partly damaged paintings or stone-work, ancient wooden spires contrasted with brilliant craftmanship of painting and wood-carving, with deftness of bell-ringing, or with the wit of the guiding nuns. On top of all that, those were often places where some king of old had lost or won a crucial battle, had taken refuge for the next resurrection or had just sought counsel. As if that was not enough, said Father, here they were in the middle of an earthly paradise, travelling up and down steep, wooded mountains which were often swept by low-hanging mists and which would suddenly open the view towards a peaceful scattering of tiny houses around a church.

Then there were trips to the house where the immortal Romanian story-teller had spent his childhood, a house which was featured in his stories. Every child knew his pranks, the river he’d gone swimming in, the neighbours he’d got in trouble with, the village with its school, its priest, or with the priest’s pretty girl. There was also a trip past the “silver forest” that was the setting in a famous epic. There was sightseeing in the towns where E., the poet, had waited for his lover under linden trees. Wherever she looked on the map, checking Father’s itinerary, there was the name of a place that stood for something else. Father seemed to be walking about texts, not places. Wherever he took them, he encountered ghosts of characters, relics of biographies, settings of stories.

Strangely, he also seemed to resemble the characters, in unobtrusive ways. He was tall and well-built, his broad shoulders and arms were tanned in summer from the work in the garden, while in winter he would come into her room in a sweatshirt carrying a pile of wood for the fire. He was the only one in the house who could make the fire, dismantle the radio set and put it back together again, plant a tree and dig the vegetable beds. But most of all, he could make sweet rice or semolina pudding, which he brought steaming on a plate; and doughnuts, fried in oil, to eat just out of the pan, or the next day with a mug of milk. When he was not at home she would wait for him feverishly peeping out the window over the fence, where she would eventually see his hat and his glasses, bouncing with his speedy strides.

And yet she noticed later that he could be so clumsy in other ways, as there were sides of him that he kept away from her, as if he could not summon up his strength to put it into words and face her. He often had young people coming into his study room and taking notes while he was speaking. That was called tutoring, they said, and father did that so that the young people might get admitted to university, which was where father was teaching other young people about books and stories. There were many tutoring rounds, sometimes two or three in one day. She could see through the small glass pane built into the door to the study room that father was just talking and that it was the young people who were busy covering dozens of pages, yet at the end of the day it was father who was tired, or, according to mother, had a headache. She could not exactly understand what the tutoring was good for then, or why it was so hard.

One day the old lady across the street asked her if father was home and she cried out from her window “yes, he is, but he’s got tutoring!”, and the neighbour hushed her and went away quickly. She should not talk about father’s tutoring, mother explained, as it was against the law. She found it strange that sitting with young people and teaching them outside school should be against any rule, but did not consider that any further; in time, however, she noticed that father was keeping aloof from her when it came to telling her how not to break rules, or when it came to mentioning his headaches to her. Whatever gave him headaches was revealed by mother and whatever she was supposed to be prudent about was also whispered earnestly by mother. Mother’s deep blue eyes would be set on her when she was explaining how risky it was to tell other people that father was listening to the Voice of America, and she would also teach her what exactly to say so as to give rise to no suspicion.

They sometimes had dinner parties, when they mostly invited people from the university. On one such occasion mother took her aside, showed her a book and asked her:

“Now go ahead, take that book, keep it open at the first page and go to Mr. xxx and ask him to give you an autograph.”

She was a teenager by then and abhorred acting. Having just read Winnetou and other romanticized stories, she would put her whole heart into being true to herself. How was she supposed to act now like a fawning champion of social coquetry, when she valued solitary, uncompromising heroes? She refused categorically and as mother insisted she sulked bitterer and bitterer. The problem was also that mother was not bullying her, but kept explaining how she would in this way help father with his promotion, as Mr. xxx was his boss, and it was mainly up to him to give a green light, after long years, to father’s new position. As she explained all this, mother was keeping again her blue eyes set on her, talking in a low but convicted tone, which somehow implied a sort of “I know you don’t like it and I know it’s humiliating but you’ve just got to do it”. She could only look down avoiding mother’s eyes, but her whole body was revolting. It felt like the more mother was saying, the worse the humiliation emerged because mother’s words were leaving her no way out. She burst out crying and waved with her arms around uncontrolled, as if disgusting caterpillars were slowly crawling on her skin. No, she wouldn’t do such a base thing!, this won’t help father either, this is just absurd and dishonourable!

But there was no escaping mother’s quiet though relentless persuasion. With swollen eyes, averting any visual contact, she staggered into the living room with the book in the hand and went up to the monstrous gentleman whose face she could not see. She held out the book and mumbled what mother had instructed her to say – and then it was done. But no word came from father on that incident, not that night nor ever.

She grew up working out the next story that she would act out. In the endless, ocean-like summer holidays, when she had so much time to spend on her own, or in later school years, in the mornings spent at home before going to classes at midday, she would always plunge into her latest story and speak to her imaginary interlocutor. Sometimes it was music that prompted the act; most of the time it was just the solitude, which was giving her a cosy feeling of shelter, of just being tete-a-tete with her best self. At first she was simply the actress in the film she’d watched the night before, or a singer or a ballerina on the stage. With time, however, the stories became a motley of contrasts; now she was a self-confident, radiant star, now she was a dreaming, ingenuous girl; the boy in her romances was either introverted and clever or witty and a bit flippant; later it was a relentless man who gradually removed his shell and gave his love unabashed. Around mid-teenage she settled on John Lennon as the type of complex guy whose tongue could bite sardonically but also say the most touching words of love; who was proud and self-controlled, but could kneel down and ask for forgiveness. The story of those years was mostly about time travel and how she would manage to go back, save John’s life and then stay with him. She would act this story out so vividly that she would often end up weeping bitterly in her solitude. Why wasn’t she born to be young in the sixties? How come she felt she was so deeply tied to a man she had never met, who was dead, who had loved another woman?

England was part of the scenario too. The grey, meagre setting of where she lived would not do. English was after all the way to be inside; who cared about what someone had to say in an obscure language spoken in a corner of the world that gave one a chill with its wind-swept avenues? English was like a magic password that enabled one to step in and settle down. John’s inner life too was available in English only. She had no clear image of England itself; but her own picture of an elegant, discreetly but unmistakeably successful lady only matched the other side of the universe than where she was now. Successful at what, was not clear either. This was for the years to show.

She thought quite intensely about time. She would picture herself years later remembering herself as she was now. That was why, for example, she was the only one who could not help crying during the festivities at the end of high school. She had counted the months and the weeks until school was over – with the class mates she would have wanted to belong with but did not, with the crazy farces she had wanted to play but had not, with the trunkful of beautiful memories she had wanted to gather but for some reason had not. Instead she had collected a great deal of failure – failure in maths, failure to show the others that she was OK, failure to belong. School years had been another beautiful story, unfortunately not fulfilled. There was a sort of inadequacy and queerness about herself that kept singling her out instead of enabling her to mingle. And still, when the whole was over it was she that was weeping uncontrolled. There was an unpalpable yet imminent sense of having reached one of those junctions past which one’s life would never be the same again. She would cringe at the thought that years later this moment will be “the times of our lives”, history, something big, too big to be borne so young as she was now.

The air was once again filled with the scent of the linden blossom, stirring anticipation of the long, mysterious summer ahead. This is what it had been all along so far, every June, with every season of the linden blossom: the school yard with the long, thick shadows of the trees, school uniform worn casually with sleeves rolled up and coloured ballerinas, school bag almost empty, half of the classes not taking place and bonus walks in the park across the street instead, the terrors of the chemistry classes gone, a feeling of stepping out into a breezy, wall-less space, the school itself unnaturally but soothingly airy, the crowds of pupils and of teachers vanished. Conversations about the last birthday parties coming up, about the summer trips to come, about the final grades, a zigzag between the closing year and the forthcoming summer season of suspension between past and the unknown. The dreams and the urges of that age, so pure by being so indefinite – the sheer longing for exploration and for things happening, the longing for life before turning into pointed goals, needs and wants.

And what did time have in store for her? Before herself there spread a shapeless, colourless matter called future. Of all the roles she had acted in her solitude of her room, which would become reality? Will she have the chance to make the pirouettes that she had practised mornings before going to school, dancing to Queen’s vinyl record, which Ovidius had lent her? Will she ever iradiate magic? Will she get to live in English, amid England’s grassy hills? Will she show father in his grave that she had emulated him, by not repressing failures, by not struggling as a misfit with an adverse habitat? Will she find another John of her times?

In the late hours when she lay awake scheming, windows open into the summer night, the distant noise of dogs barking idle would come over drawn out with the echoes of the sleepy streets. The wisteria opposite her windows was giving out again its intoxicating fragrance. But the old lady had passed away two months before. The Wimbledon nights, father’s semolina pudding, the indulgence with E’s poems – it was all gone. And she could hardly wait for the future. The present, and the past even more so, was an obscure, draughty waiting room cut off from the place where the rest of life was.