So the room at the top, where Dorin’s friend lived, smelled of mould and dankness, looked greyish on the walls, and the sink spat and coughed when you turned the tap. Top-floor flats are not in demand in Romania, Dorin explained. On top of it, as it were, the flat was also placed in the corner of the building, which made it even colder and draughtier in winter. Dorin used a backup key that was shrewdly placed under the door mat, though the door wasn’t locked anyway. From the doorstep we almost stumbled into the square of a room, where a dwarfy kid was sitting on his potty in the middle of the room, cheeks like peaches, wide blue eyes, sucking his thumb with determination. He gazed at us, intruding giants, in complete terror, and made me feel even more disproportionate to the sizes around us – kid and room together.
“My goodness,” I gave out, “can he use the potty by himself with fourteen months?”
Dorin answered while checking the boy with quick, deft movements:
“I guess his mom must have put him on and then left to work. My friend was supposed to get in only ten or fifteen minutes later.”
“So how long has he been sitting there?”
“Half an hour maybe.”
I let out a guffaw. Dorin turned his head to me watching my face, presumably to see what exactly I’d meant by the guffaw.
“They can’t help it. They barely make ends meet as it is, so she had to go, and he had to stay where he was held up.”
“What jobs do they do?”
Dorin had by now fully re-equipped the kid and grabbed the potty to take it away. His way to the bathroom wasn’t long, in fact it took him three or four words of his reply and he was already there, just to give you an idea of the size of the flat.
“He’s a mechanic in a garage, and she’s a shop assistant in a bakery. Both are struggling to do a part-time university programme too. This here is not really their world.”
“Whose world could it be, I wonder.”
“Well, not that someone wished for such a world, but I mean, this is not really the kind of life where they belong. They’re very young, barely twenty. My friend, Andy his name, he’s in fact the son of a childhood pal. We grew up together on the same street, up in Western Transylvania, and Andy was born about the time when I left Romania, early nineties.”
Dorin had stopped talking, as if he’d said everything. My eyebrows were raised and I’d held back quite a few questions during his brief explanation. Now I waited a few seconds, hoping he’d go on, but he didn’t look like he had any intention to.
“And how did you and Andy make friends?”
He seemed for a few moments to ignore my question, his hands and attention busy putting the potty back under the ancient sofa in the living, tucking the kid’s sweater into his trousers, looking around for the kid’s toys, in one word, a professional, diligent nanny. Then, without even glancing at me, he resumed.
“We met at his daddy’s funeral, three years ago.”
My mouth shaped an “Oh” but I felt somehow uneasy, as if my interventions might put him off speaking, or divert him from the story that he might let out by himself if undisturbed. He was quite tight with his stories, which he tended in fact to tell when he was left to his own devices. This gave me a funny feeling that I should get invisible, so he might open up free from the pressure of any alien attempt to draw him out. Hard as a stone that guy was!
It was most ill-inspired that at that moment we heard the lift door bang and rash steps. A second later Andy burst in. He was definitely surprised to see us both, in particular me, standing around in his flat, but he kept any exclamation or remark to himself. Dorin quickly enlightened him, in a sentence that only sounded like three or four words long, then Andy nodded with an “aha” and the next moment he bent to his son. A quick exchange followed, Dorin must have debriefed him and assured him things were under control about the mite, then Andy stood up again and half smiling he rolled his eyes with something like ‘God with all this mess around here!’, but Dorin assured him that his mess was just what that crazy foreigner wanted to see. The everyday mess of a mediatizeable Romanian, third world in Europe.
Andy came to terms with it quite quickly, indeed he was just an adorable guy, with a broad smile on his face, big blue watery eyes with slanting eyebrows expressing joviality but maybe submission too – A very gentle and warm manner, someone so easy to connect with, loveable and single-minded.
“I’ll get you some chairs”, he said, and on saying these words he was already on his way to fetch the valuable furniture items. We heard a few thuds and then Andy was back with us, carrying two camping stools, which he deftly unfolded and set up in a neat symmetric pattern for us.
“Thanks, Andy, don’t bother,” I had the chance to say, if too late. “We won’t be holding you much longer.”
“Peter’s keen on meeting people and hearing stories”, Dorin spoke slowly for Andy to follow, and in saying this he kept his eyes set on me. “Why don’t you tell him a bit about yourself?”
Andy’s face blushed for a moment and he smiled like a shy schoolboy.
“I’m not very interesting – I’m twenty, I’m married and I have Vlad, my son. He’s now one year old. I live with my wife in this flat. We inherited it from one of her aunts. We got married without her parents’ consent. When we got married, she was pregnant. This is the last flat on the last floor, in the last block of flats on this boulevard. From the window up here you can see shanties and fields. But I like it. I have to.”
He laughed on his last words, and his blue eyes somehow gave colour to the picture he was sketching.
“But tell me, Andy, how do you manage with the kid, who’s staying with him while both of you are out at work?”
I launched the question and looked at him, he looked back at me and started talking, and then Dorin’s voice came in, translating, and the answer started to become meaningful.
“He’s fine. I work in a garage. I’m a mechanic and I come home at three thirty. My wife Andrea works in a bakery across the street from here and starts work at three. Sometimes I leave earlier and get home only a few minutes after she left. Usually Vlad spends about half an hour alone. He’s good. He has learned to use the potty. Nothing happens.”
I gazed at his serene face, his slanted eyebrows showing all the patience he was willing to put into the whole affair. I was baffled by the way he told the story and the words he used, because what he was saying was beginning to add to my initial discomfort at the bleak sight of the neighbourhood, of the building and of the constricting place that Andy called ‘home’. And yet he looked all kindness and didn’t let me find in his answers any trace of what his life really was. Where the hell was the grim significance of his living on the last floor, in the last building on the outskirts of a grey city, leaving his baby-son alone every day on the brim of the whole, even if for just half an hour?
“My wife and I try hard to make a decent living”, he resumed. “Living is to us a clever policy to make. Planning, sparing, saving, taking one bit from here to put it there. But Vlad will live in a better world,” he added.
He stood up to fetch the kid a napkin and some paper and pencils for him to get busy while we were chatting.
“Do you get to do anything else with your time other than baby-sitting or domestic work?”
“We only watch TV in the evening. Our life is very much like – I don’t know, a ritual? – I get up at five thirty. I go to the garage, I get busy but do nothing. I go back home. Do not leave Vlad alone for too long. I feed him and I play with him. It’s evening. My wife comes home. We are all tired although, or because, the day has been empty. We watch the same news and films. We go to bed after bathing Vlad. Next morning it is the walk to the underground, the long hours. – I sometimes wonder if this is something real; because I don’t feel anything and I don’t get anywhere though it has been another week or month. I don’t think you can understand that, but it feels very real – I mean, this impression that it isn’t real, as if I’m watching a movie. Sometimes I get off the underground and stop short to check if it’s the right station. But it always is, I do it without thinking, like a good robot.”
At last his appearance had come to match the sense of his words, for he had lost his smile and his slanted eyebrows were now expressing helplessness. Or puzzle at his own speech, which seemed to say only half of what he meant, because he was hesitating a lot now, picking his words, but rather unhappy with the way it all came out. It occurred to me for a moment that he was indeed a person that language did not express adequately; he had till then been smiling while telling awful things and now that he was coming nearer to his message, the message seemed to recede further beyond his grip. Maybe the guy meant not just what he said, but simply the reality of his life, which was throbbing too achingly to be flattened out so as to fit into words.
“I know this is a very personal question, and it does sound melodramatic in a way”, I mitigated with a smile, “but do you feel sorry about any decision you’ve made?”
“No. I only feel sorry that I can’t offer Vlad more. And my wife. I told her that if she finds someone else who can do more for her, she is free to go. I’ll understand. But speaking of Vlad, I have a plan. I think I’ll apply for a loan to buy a flat. If I get the loan, we’ll only afford two rooms. I’ll ask my mother to move in there, we’ll move into my parents’ flat, which is larger, and we’ll put this one here on lease. Then, when Vlad grows up, he will at least have a flat from me, that’s all I can give him. But I think that is something, isn’t it? You don’t want to know anything more about our lives, do you?”, he added jokingly.
No, I was almost sure I didn’t. His bright, honest face bid us to stay and have some coffee or something, but I was too eager to get out. The guy was just loveable, only I felt I’d all too soon choke in there. Vlad’s greyish tiny clothes, made of some rough fabric, the spitting sink and the cold, drab flat were getting too much. It was not poverty. I’d seen poverty in its own element, I wasn’t so sensitive to it any more. It was more the absence of colour, the pretence of decent yet dreary lifestyle, in which you have a TV but nothing to enjoy watching, you have a kitchen but no water running, you have kids but nothing to give them, so that the contrasts melted, mixed, if such a thing could be thought of, and produced that enduring impression of grey. Or the pitiful discrepancy between Andy’s sunny smile and the shabby, gloomy place where he lived, while I couldn’t escape the feeling that he didn’t belong there.
I don’t remember how we got downstairs. I only know I was silent and was almost happy to find myself in the open. We took a cab this time, back downtown. To my cosy, reassuring den in the Intercontinental. It was too late for the Parliament that day, Dorin told me. He tried to apologize formally, in a way that made me feel he wasn’t really sorry, but he was just apologizing. I wasn’t sorry either, so it was a mutual relief.