excerpt The second time I went to Alina's parents', the neighborhood seemed too familiar not to imagine that my memory was playing a prank on me, and not a nice one. I had got off the tram a few steps away from the barber's called The Merry Whiskers, which I recognized, but which should not have been there. Next to it, the grates of the bakery, so very alike those around the train station. Matache, the hairdresser who looked like a butcher, was said to have a telepathic relationship with his clients from the neighborhood: he hypnotized them before having them collapsed in his chair, and afterwards he convinced them that he had shaved them and cut their hair, and the people would pay and left happy for their home where they eventually realized the truth. They came back the next day to argue with the hairdresser and the story would start over again. Some thought that Matache did nothing but make his work easier because he would serve them anyway, and wasn't it better if he put the drunkards and ruffians to sleep before using his razor? Others gossiped that he had been collaborating with the secret police, and once he was out of the door, he hurried to report to the section everything he had found out from the peoples' heads during the day.On each side of the wool factory, beyond the twin blocks, I rediscovered the playground of my childhood: mounds scattered with sawdust, holes in which we used to dig for tins and beer caps, two or three bushes whose twigs we tore in summer in order to turn them into the swords of Steven the Great and Michel the Brave. Further on, above the fence, I could see the walled windows of the tile warehouse, which we dreaded to approach because, in our minds, the tiles turned into a snake covered in scales in the evening, ready to crash the gate and to swallow the town at the guardian's sign.Could I still care for this Bucharest which had gradually deprived me of my native house, my parents and friends, the "Turbana" bananas and the "Piticot" chocolate, replacing them with a terrible emotional void, sleazy neighbors and a pack of biscuits? Carrying my loves between censorship and libertinage, getting tipsy in the taverns of nostalgia (which showed up at each crossroads), the town had prevented me from living a true life: it had stifled me with its sponge-like alveoli, had corkscrewed my vertebras and ossified me slowly between concrete and bricks. Distracted by its debauched wonders, I had forgotten that love entails a sort of a discrepancy, a lag between reality and the ideal portrait that we unconsciously build up in our mind, and in the mould of which the beloved one has to fit perfectly! An eerie, delicate, telekinetic Diana? Of course, but only in other people's stories, in that perversely soapy fiction which we wouldn't part with. Seven stories on death would have been an appropriate title to describe our love: with each of them something else would have collapsed and the initial idyllic color would have faded under the crust of indifference; but how to paint the dimensions of such a failure on a poor canvas, seven times in row?I finally rang the bell, but no one answered. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that I had heard my mother's voice somewhere close, urging me to enter peacefully the dining room; not very convinced, I pushed the door open and then I recognized Alina's cheerful voice:"Come in, teacher! I'll be with you directly…"I sat myself to the table, facing the door. In a couple of minutes, Alina's head appeared in the doorway, smiling awkwardly under the foam:"Will you excuse me for a moment?" Then I heard her squelching to the bathroom, humming a tune. For two hours I drew volumes for her, trying to explain how objects get framed and what the laws of perspective are about."On paper or in real life, when you take an object and put it somewhere else, you have already changed the order and the appearance of that particular place, you have filled the space with something that didn't use to exist before and which modifies not only its configuration but also the perspective you have on it! Do you understand? You furnish a void, you become a sort of an architect of the air, which you can mould of your own will."She pulled the paper away from me and started to draw a church steeple, within which she placed a prism."Like that?""That could do," I agreed. "But there's another matter to be taken into consideration: we call it the principle of resonance. In a drawing, nothing is to be left to chance; whatever you put down in a place, must resound in another, that is it has to be proportionally balanced. The same goes for painting, when you want to focus on something; you start painting the frames in clear, simple colors and that's how you finish them; the middle remains denser, it smolders in heavy, oily paste, to catch the eye."She leaned above the paper again and she started sketching a house right below the prism; she added the awning, the rain channels and a couple of friezes and then she surrounded it with some sort of tubes, or banisters. "What is this?" I asked."This is my house, in which I want to live alone. The cords protect me from those outside who can't enter unless I allow them in.""All right, we'll resume our discussion next time," I said.On my way out she showed me a spot in the hallway in the middle of which an ant was swimming. She took out a magnifying glass and I imagined what the insect might be feeling like, prisoner as it was in a soap bubble and voluptuously contemplated by someone bigger and ruthless."Look, can you see its tongs? They resemble some fragile little knives."All of a sudden, she got tensed and crushed it under her slipper."I've hated these beasties since we moved in here!"I said goodbye and I headed for the metro station. On my way, I remembered the tarred pipes of the Station wasteland and saw in front of my eyes the pair of welding gloves taking out the plate with "The Giant's Entrance".Back home, Diana was lining up the laundry to dry. I put my arm around her shoulders, but she pushed me off, so all I could hug was a dripping T-shirt. "I have to get going.""Where?" I asked.I heard her fumbling in the bedroom, undoubtedly looking for those tiny, useless feminine accessories on which every woman's happiness depends: lipsticks, purse and the magic little mirror in which they can reflect their narcissism at will. She came back all beautified and kissed me on the nose:"Don't worry! I shall look for you tonight…"And out she went.In the afternoon I wandered around in the dining room. Out of my window, I could see that the little tree had grown up to the handles, yet it was not this fact, or the desire to get rid of Diana's cheerful impertinence that urged me to examine it carefully, but a sort of a strange envy for its carefree, simple existence: I felt it stared back at me, unsympathetically. After all, what did it care? Set up in its pot which served it as mother, father and girlfriend, locked up in a dream, it could breathe at ease and even give me a silent lesson.I thought of bringing back from the kitchen the wrapping paper, the cardboard and the ropes, but even if I threatened it with a second packing, if even if I imagined I was a second Christo (which the world would remember in awe), both the tree and the city would go on enjoying a surplus of freedom, which I was aware I would never benefit from. Slowly, I got accustomed to Alina's "pranks" and I often accepted them not only as simple whims, but as part and parcel of an innocent "game age", in which both of us lost their identity at least for a while. Sometimes she would show up in her dressing gown and then apologize, saying that she had to change; some other times she would hatch a paper on which I strove to explain to her a new theory of proportions. Finally, she would never forget to tease me before I left:"What if I don't give you the envelope? Actually, you don't need this money…"Today, from the very beginning, I had noticed the change (which was brutal and too obvious not to tell me that the rules of the game were about to be infringed): Alina had put on a see-through blouse and a pair of torn jeans; she had clumsily done her hair, and on the table, near her pencils and papers, I could see the broken hair fastener. As I mixed the colors and the coal on the paper, I felt she was getting less and less focused. I glanced at the watch: we had another hour of work ahead of us and I had hardly elicited any word from her. I snatched her paper and closed the drawing notebook."What's wrong with you?"She lifted her head slightly, so that I could see she was holding back her tears. She pushed the chair and started to sob:"I am ugly, aren't I? Look at me, I am so ugly… and I am also too young, that's it, right? Why haven't you the courage to admit it? Come on, shout it in my face!" She had drawn so close that I could breathe her dangerous perfume and I could see her stamping her little boots. The torn jeans showed her soft skin, glittering like a hidden diamond. Unwillingly (or maybe much aware of this gesture which had loomed around my brain for ages) I opened my arms and Alina sat in my lap; she threw away her ear-rings and I felt her lips searching mine. Her body was trembling, her fingernails were leaving fire traces on my back, she had squinted: our lips touched and, along with the incessant moan, we got lost into each other – the clothes were torn apart, the skin got welded into the flaming fabric, the brain had become a dough that got thinner and thinner, the skull boiled under the glare."My God," I thought, "what shall I do? What shall I do?""You are disgusting!" I heard a voice from within. "You've started looking for God, as if it were a phone directory…"I came to my senses and it seemed to me I was holding a book that belonged neither to the moment nor the place in which I was: Alina was caressing my cheeks, tears in her eyes. I pushed her away gently and I drew closer to the door. She reproached me:"You are scared!" then, as if amazed by her own finding, she went round the table and approached me with a cat-like walking:"This can't be happening! You are scared, you bastard! What have you done to me?"Terrified by these last words, I dashed towards the door. I was ashamed of running, afraid that she might notice my attempt."Wait! Don't go! Wait!" I heard her screaming, as I was hurrying to unlock the door. I hardly had the time to imagine her chasing after me, then I crossed the yard in a couple of seconds. When I had reached the first corner, I started to run until I found myself separated from Mrs. Turjansky's house by dozens of other blocks of flats, houses and passers-by. While Alexandru tries to calm down, Alina locks herself in the bathroom, sealing thus a moment of intimacy which the man had refused to her, and which she feels obliged to protect from any trespassing of the memories. She opens the bottles of shampoos, the creams and soaps and smears her body with each of them in turn: apple and strawberries, musk and lemon, jojoba and gooseberries; a sad, perfumed dress whose foam lace Alexandru will never touch! She looks in the mirror and she paints her eyelids with one of the pencils brought from the dining room. When she has finished, she caresses it gently and then she stabs it in her palm until the pain overlaps the scream that nobody hears. A long time afterwards, Alina's image kept obsessing me; I would fall asleep and dream a coin tossed towards me: on one of the sides, there were two scarlet lips, firmly contoured; on the other side, Alina made sickeningly wry faces, and her mouth was missing. The coin turned faster and faster and I expected it to hit me at any time; I would wake up soaking wet with the words "You are scared!" still buzzing in my ears.Yes, I was scared indeed; scared of going back to that damn house, scared of giving a call, scared of not running into her in the street! The more I strove to keep her away, the more her image haunted my nights, and my fear turned into a helpless reflex. In vain did I tell myself that I overreacted, that she had probably forgotten everything by now and she was having fun with the other kids; I simply couldn't imagine her in such a situation. I could see her turning the neighborhoods upside down, searching each street, each block of flats in turn, eventually arriving in front of my house! Consistent and relentless, she would have undergone any adventure, she would have disarranged the robust anatomy of the city, preparing for the most ambitious operation of cornering a runaway that mankind had ever known! There was no hope left for me: I leaned against the door and peeped through the keyhole, as if expecting to see her there, with a blank look and fingernails ready to tear the wood apart…Otherwise, things had come back to normal, although they turned to be more and more sinuous every day that went by: I had resumed my studies, I would go here and there to teach a private lesson, and would meet Diana more and more seldom. One morning we stopped at the Bucharest Hotel and we asked for an ice-cream. While the waiters chased off the beggars, she told me:"Your lips are bitten!"I felt them, but they were soft. Diana took out of her purse that mirror which I couldn't stand. I had a look: no trace whatsoever! I put the mirror away and I realized that she had been smiling all this time."They could have been, though…" she concluded, almost absent-minded. I did not answer and she seemed to be thinking of something else all the way home.On Easter night I went to church with Vlad but we soon got lost in the crowds. Antim was lit by spotlights and people had come out in the balconies, casually dressed. Because of the commotion, I felt sick and had to leave.In the kitchen I had painted a few eggs that Diana hadn't bothered to take, so I had to call the old lady living upstairs to clink them. "May you live long, my boy!" she said, or maybe she had said "Christ has risen from the dead!" and I hadn't heard well. She broke my egg with one single move. We ate together cheese, onion, radishes. Cheese, onion, radishes, can you hear the sound of this, Alexandru? After the old lady had left, you crept under the duvet and fell asleep. In your dream, Vlad rang you up to apologize. "It's alright," you said. And it was alright, indeed. "An original project in a literature said to be in ever-tougher competition with the phantasms of the internet, the novel Alexandru (Univers, 1998) by Ion Manolescu (b. 1968) is a postmodern biographical fiction constructed in 'Alexandrine' fashion, after a computer game model; it is a likeable, ingenious 'total' novel with the motley aspect of a combined flea- and supermarket where one can find almost anything: communist secret policemen, gypsies, barrack scams, modern art and Balkan mores, sweet girls, waste matter, cyborgs, ghosts and pop stars." (Paul Cernat)

by Ion Manolescu (b. 1968)