Blinding: The Left Wing

excerpt The following days, Mioara took the girls for a walk in Chishmigiu Park and treated them on a boat ride (the driver of the black car had rolled up his sleeves and was rowing across the lake, giving the ladies nice smiles from under his pointed moustache). Later Mioara took them to a shop on Old Shoemakers Street and bought them fashionable dresses and hats, she spoiled their braids herself, handing the girls to a skilful hairdresser, who curled their hair in so many locks and curls they now looked like two stupid poodles. She finally made reservations at Gorgonzola's for a table closer to the stage than the one they had before, so the fresh apprentices enjoyed the champagne they sipped carefully and the magic artistic numbers on the stage for many nights on end. Cedric, the black man playing the drums, escorted Mioara on his arm to the girls' table, greeting them politely by raising his hard hat. The girls stared at him, as if the devil itself was before their wide opened eyes, but after a few eye rolls and good laughs cast from his red wound-like mouth and some funny faces, Cedric succeeded in amusing them. And he did such a good job that the girls couldn't wait for another break of the orchestra to have young Cedric at their table for another 15 minutes. He was elegant and charming, wearing a golden bracelet around his left wrist and pointed shoes. Cedric told them stories about his native New Orleans with its French Quarter, about palm trees and agaves, about the saxes that cried and burnt in thousands of taverns, about Bourbon Street where the Mardi Gras procession would unfold every spring and, especially, about the sinister voodoo rituals held by negroes on the outskirts of the city, shedding blood for their spells, disguised in their parrot-feathered masks. He asked Vasilica to dance with him, trying to teach her the basic steps of the foxtrot. The black young man was dancing heavenly, as if breaking his joints and then putting them together again; he danced around the girl who laughed stupidly in the middle of the dance floor, unable to make one single dance move. Meanwhile, Mioara would hold Maria's hand, giving her a weird smile, caressing the girl's fingers with her own long, bony fingers, ending in long, red polished nails. The singer wore a strange ring on her forefinger that attracted Maria's embarrassed, yet stubborn looks. The ring was not made of metal, but seemed to be plaited from several thick and greasy hairs, held together by a thin, loose silver spiral. That was mammoth bristle, Mioara explained her. She had met some Austrian guy a few years before. He had taken a trip to the far freezing north, to the FranzJosefIslands. He would've starved to death together with his friends who went there to study Siberian shamanism unless they had found a mammoth trapped in ice. They fed on the animal's meat until spring came. During the fantastic polar night, they knitted sweaters and blankets and plait adornments out of its bristle. Mioara's ring also had some sort of stone from that animal's ivory, where the Austrian had scratched the image of a butterfly, wings spread and two symmetrical spiral antennas. The image presented a strange irregularity; if you looked carefully, you'd notice that the right wing was scratched in one continuous line, while the left one was defined by a multitude of dots, darkened by time. Vasilica and Cedric had vanished somewhere (it was long after midnight and pairs were locked in embraces in the thick shadows around the small tables, paying no mind to the conjurer who unfolded a playing cards fan). Mioara took Maria's arm and barely touching her, she drifted her away from their table and stepped into the night patched with faded golden light spots from the secession street lamps.They walked along Lipscani Street, and then, passing by Carada Street, they reached Villacrosse passage. They went through Macca Gallery. The skylight above, with yellowish windows that would cast transparent shades in the day, reflected now the pale rays of a couple of electric lights from their iron ornament. The steps of the two women gained echoes through the hall of white ghostly buildings, with shops at the ground floor, guarded by rolling shutters. Heavy plaster ornaments, masks, gargoyles, garlands and cupids, frames and spirals bordered the first floor windows. Mioara stopped suddenly under a street lamp and turned to Maria. The face of the singer regained its whitish, vitreous, away from this world look under the artificial light of the lamp, the same look she had on stage. Violet spots, green and yellow stripes painted her craving face, her shiny wet eyes. She wore lipstick that made her mouth look almost black, soft and sensual, like a flower. She took Maria's head in her hands, looked her straight into the eyes and smiling, told her she had a nice one room apartment upstairs in that very building. Wouldn't she like to pay her a short visit, on her way back home? Maria accepted gladly. They passed through a black burnished gate, with a copper number at the height of their eyes. Mioara led the way, moving her delicious round butt up the stairs, followed by her young apprentice. A very tight hall gathered a couch, a coffee table with a copper tray on top and it ended in a locked door, with an oval window, adorned on the other side by a pink curtain. Mioara unlocked the door and the women entered an alcove that took Maria's breath.It looked like a luxury berth on a ship, with a small window and a nickel handle, shining behind the curtain embroidered with white birds. The scent in the air made the curtains and bedclothes wither to the color of dark cherries. The singer made her way through the jelly like air and closed the drapes over the pale image of the houses outside. A lamp clicked in the shadow and the darkness turned purple. Warm light bathed the tiny Chinese vases and coffee pots in a crystal cassette, which was enclosed in a piece of walnut tree furniture adorned by lily ornaments. Mioara lifted the lid of a gramophone and played a record. The gramophone's needle at the end of a chrome arm grated the record until Maria heard a tango she knew: At night, your deep eyes I missI bathe then into their serenityStars whisper my name in blissAnd I hunger for your love, it's heavenly… There were no chairs in the room, so after Mioara had taken off her shoes and lay on one side of the bed, her naked arm under the head, Maria sat on the bed too. "You have such a nice place here!" she said, mesmerized. A black velvet mask was looking down on her from the wall, casting hatred from the oblique cut eyes. The singer lit herself a cigarette and blew the smoke out, which coiled in transparent garlands around the arms of the ceiling lamp. Then, she stood up on one elbow, closing her eyes halfway just as she had done earlier, under the street lamp. The girl was caught up in the feeling that the world outside had vanished and that there was nothing left but that room where they were hunting each other. Without knowing why, her heart suddenly sank, and when Mioara had stretched her arm like a pale snake, she avoided her; her hand was covered in sweat at the touch of the other woman. They remained silent until the song was over. And when the needle had rattled on the neat ebonite, the singer stood up to turn the gramophone off. Then she uncovered the mirror (it had been hidden under a cashmere shawl) and the two women saw each other in whitish shades, with bright eyes in the mirror's greenish reflections. "Help me with my dress, will you?" Mioara said, and Maria, obedient like a servant, rushed behind her and began to unbutton the dress, unveiling the artist's back and the neck, while she took off her earrings and bracelets which had left red marks on her skin above her elbow. Mioara freed herself from her dress and was standing there only in her girdle, stockings and underskirt, all shiny black, just like her short hair. "Oh, this is much better," she whispered and lay back on the bed again. In spite of her thin figure, the artist had big round breasts and a firm ass, which made her look sweet and feminine while undressing. Maria glanced shyly at the wet skin of her protector's thighs, between the fringes of the underskirt and the garter. All the girls she had ever seen naked at Tantava, while bathing, had hairy legs, like hers, her mother's and her sister's, but this woman's legs looked like they were made of mother-of-pearl. And when the singer rolled her stockings down on her ankles, in smoky shades, she could see the white clean leg, with polished nails. "Take off your dress, too," she said while giving up her underwear. Maria grew scared and confused. Why did the artist take all her clothes off? Why wasn't she embarrassed to show her everything, everything? She had hair down there, she was like all the other girls and women from this point of view. Maria had never seen a more beautiful woman in her life. She seemed to bring light into the room and even her darker places on the body, the purple coins of her breast or the black triangle between her thighs burnt in the syrupy air. She felt awkward, not knowing what to believe, feel or do. Maria said: "But I don't feel hot, it's not that hot in here." "You're right, but you'll feel more comfortable this way." Maria was still undecided, and Mioara stood up and made for a little walnut cabinet and took out two glasses and a bottle. She poured black liquor and invited the girl to drink. Then, she flipped the record on the other side and they listened to Zaraza. When you come to the park in the nightLily petals flow around youYour eyes betray sweet passions and sinful lustAnd your body is a feline snake. The taste of the liquor was deceiving, sweet and rich, hiding the alcohol's flame, which crept unaware and rapidly into Maria's veins, changing her frame of mind, quenching her anxiety and increasing her pleasure of being there, in that scented alcove, beside that incredible diva. When she bent over for the bottle, the soft skin on her belly turned into two deep folds, the spine emerged like islands on the shiny skin and her fanny was black like the mares', under the heavy butt, inside that cobweb of curly hair. The girl felt like melting in the heavy air of the room when she saw Mioara getting closer, embracing her and kissing her neck passionately, sinking her mouth and chin into the pool at the base of the collar bone, just as she had seen in the movies, what men do to the women they love. "Don't be afraid, sweetie, oh, I'm so hungry, hungry for you," the actress whispered, covering Maria's body with her own and grabbing her buttocks with one of her hands. The girl pushed her only when she tried to give her a kiss on the mouth. Right then, the singer jumped up and started to rip off the girl's clothes, revealing her small breasts, almost lacking nipples, stretched the blouse until the buttons exploded in the room, pulling down the wrinkled skirt. She was now facing the girl's hips and rushed down there avidly. Maria had given up fighting. Something sweet and tender flooded her body, like in the stories about love she heard from some naughty apprentice, about how it felt when you let yourself undressed. Well, the stories always had a man doing the job. After he had taken off all your clothes, he opened your legs wide and stuck something in you, something that only men have where you have nothing. What was going to happen now? Was that possible with a woman, too? Holding tight the girl's hips in her hands, Mioara gazed with desire at the round pubis before her, hidden by the plain, bashful underwear. She bit the pubis gently, and then began to pull the underwear down until she could see the dark line of the hair.Dizzy with liquor and suddenly abandoned, Maria felt the actress contracting her body, stopping breathing. The horny panting ceased, leaving space only for the squeak of the gramophone's needle on the record. Disfigured, the actress looked at the girl with lunatic eyes, her hair messed up around the ears. Mioara jerked and stuck her back against the wall with the black velvet mask, which grinned horrible beside her face. "Forgive me!" she shouted out of the blue. "Forgive me! Forgive me!" She wasn't actually shouting; she gave away only terrified shrieks, from the top of her lungs, as if a giant spider in her bed had replaced the young apprentice. The girl sat up; she was scared. "No!" Mioara shouted again "Stay there! Forgive me!" She crouched into one corner and protected her face with her arms, like a child. Then she fell on one side and stood there on the carpet, still and stiff. Staggering, Maria went to her, leaned over her to wake her up from the faint. Mioara's muscles were tense, her face was grey, and her eyes deadly open. Only the veins in her neck pulsed with life under the soft skin.The girl suddenly returned to reality, only to find herself in her underwear in an unfamiliar room. Only then did she understand what was going on and fear, repellence, self-hatred and mystery painfully filled her to the brim of her soul, replacing her lucidity and thinking, but forcing her to flee. Her clothes looked disastrous, yet she slipped herself inside them, overwhelmed by some sort of frenzy, and opened the wardrobe to look for a shawl or anything else that could cover her missing blouse buttons. There were only uniforms inside the wardrobe! Black, SS officer uniforms, as the ones she saw daily in pubs and bars across Bucharest or driving around in black cars. There were five or six tall peaked caps on the top shelf, with a grinning skull as emblem and shiny boots on the bottom one. She found few women's clothes behind the boots, masquerade outfits and masks. Maria wrapped herself in a yellow mantle that could easily pass for a shawl in the night. She took one last look at the woman on the carpet and left the room while the needle of the gramophone was squeaking.She passed through the passage in the loud sounds of her steps, took a plunge into the horrid dark streets under the stars that sent a freezing draught. It took her an hour to get home, a terrifying hour while stray dogs barked at her, drunkards picked on her, men mistook her for one of the whores that would prop the walls in front of bars or the street lamps and on top of everything, her mind was pulsing with a dense dirty clay of thoughts. Vasilica was not home yet. She put on the nightgown and lay back under the bed sheets. She strived to fall asleep but fell into painful numbness. The alcohol had vanished and she felt her stomach loaded with a chemical disintegrated stench. Her body was covered in sweat, she rejected the touch of the bed sheets, and she tossed and turned, wetting them. Vasilica woke her from that nightmare at the break of day. She was tipsy too and giggled like crazy. Inside the room filled with light, the girls were holding hands while telling each other the strange, ravishing events of the night before. The birds started singing outside and they could hear men announcing their merchandise in the street. Laughing heartedly, Vasilica whispered in Maria's ears the history of the night, when she went with Cedric to a couple of restaurants where they had danced and ate huge lobsters and drank some liquor on fire while Cedric was throwing money all around. Cedric had taken a sip and blew an enormous flame through his mouth, smoking the arms of the ceiling lamp. Cedric danced in the street all the way to his house, rattling his shoes against the paved street, "you know, Mioara, like the bell board at church." She laughed when he suddenly fell down on his knees, arms wide open as if on stage, looking at her and revealing his ivory teeth, only to get up quickly and continue his hopping and English songs. He could easily imitate the sound of trumpet, saxophone, drum and clapped his ridiculously white hands on the inside… the girl was caught unaware in front of his home, a room in Lahovari Square. What a room! The walls were covered in matting that served as a background for Cedric's masks "like our Goat, you know, but uglier, real demons of the black people"; there was an idol in one corner, "his thing was hanging down up to his knee." Something dark and hideous lurked in one china cabinet, crowded with glasses and coffee cups. Cedric saw Vasilica's scared look and opened the small door of the cabinet, showing her a human head, as large as a fist, all dried but with lively expressions. "This man was once alive," the black man had explained her, "but now I've got his power." It really was a human head and Cedric played with it like it was a ball. A pair of livid crocodile jaws, bordered by needle-sharp teeth accompanied the skull in the cabinet. The minute she had stepped into his room, Vasilica knew she would sleep with Cedric that night. She wasn't a virgin anymore, unlike her sister; she had a sweetheart back home, in her native village, and since they had arrived in Bucharest, she had slept with another two men: a clerk from the Alcohol Department and a med student. But she didn't call them "sweetheart" anymore, now they were fuck buddies, a word that she picked up in town those days. She didn't reject any private adventure for her pleasure, especially with such a nice lover like Cedric. But, oh my God, what a night that was! Vasilica burst into laughter until her eyes became wet. The whole thing was such a funny happening! The black man had poured some liquor into the glasses and started to sing strange songs in a devilish language. He didn't even look at her. He'd clap his hands and muttered. His forehead and jaws were covered in sweat. His shirt instantly sucked that sweat, unveiling his nice strong muscles. He ripped off his shirt and then his striped trousers. He was naked as a beast, smelling like lions in circus arenas. His eyes became round; his cornea was as yellow as the saffron. When he got up, Vasilica was afraid he might attack her, but he opened the wardrobe and took out a German uniform, "a nazie one", that he threw on the bed. Giving her fierce looks, he ordered Vasilica to wear it. "So, I put on those tight trousers and I buttoned the iron cross vest up to my neck, then the boots and the cap. I fastened the leather belt and took a look at myself in the mirror. I looked good, you know? Well, the clothes were rather loose, they were for men, of course…" then Cedric gave her a thick leather whip and commanded her to kick his ass and call him names: dirty nigger, male whore, son of a bitch… She whipped him all night long and that was it. Cedric spilt his sperm on the bed a couple of times during that night, but never laid a finger on her. Maria had lifted her arm and was contemplating its shadow against the wall. She told her own story of the night, the story with the singer. They strove to find out what frightened Mioara that way. They finally decided that it was the reddish butterfly on Maria's hip, which she had only seen while trying to get Maria out of her underwear. But what was the meaning of all that? What did that spot tell the singer? They remembered she was wearing a ring with a butterfly sculptured in ivory. The two sisters tried to come up with a plan that could reveal them the rest of the story, but Bucharest was bombed heavily the very next day and that night of witches went into oblivion. Sold in tens of thousands of copies (in addition to many more pirated ones, reported by the publishers), The Whys and Wherefores of our Love for Women (Humanitas, 2004) – "a melancholy farce, sly and loose, mingling a recently attained self-complacency, with a dab of skepticism, a tender aura of maturity, and all the carats of the name brand" (Tania Radu) – was a smashing hit on the Romanian market, unlike the more sophisticated Blinding (Humanitas, 1996, 2002), containing two invariants of Mircea Cărtărescu's (b. 1956) writing: "pure amoralism, draped in the shining brocade of the Esthetic (as in Dali's Diary or Nabokov's Lolita), and his vision of an essentially organic Universe as through a 'flesh lens'." (Daniel Cristea-Enache). Of all the authors living in Romania, Cărtărescu is the most successful abroad, and perhaps holds the best chances to receive the Nobel prize in future.

by Mircea Cărtărescu (b. 1956)