Cheese Country

SeptemberexcerptsIlie only looked me up in early September, a few weeks before the harvesting of the vineyards. He had come back alone, by train. He had told some lie to his wife and run over to see me. He was coming towards me with an enamored look in his eyes, ready to resume something that hadn't even started. His eyes were looking for Daniel, but at that hour of the afternoon the child was nowhere to be found. He was either asleep or playing, somewhere in the house or in the garden. He made to hug me, but I stopped him, somewhat abashed at his height, too. Now that what I had wished for was within my grasp, I was apprehensive.He took me home with him. The door to the house, where I had seen the big padlock, was wide open. A pleasant coolness greeted us, blended with a moldy fragrance. On the wooden bench covered in green cloth Ilie had opened several bags of sweets and fruit. He knew exactly what I had been missing, for the place had not changed a bit since we were children. My body was longing for the poison of caramel sugar, of syrup-soaked cakes covered in artificial whipped cream, of fat margarine creams. I had forgotten what chocolate and sweets tasted like. In this world there was only bread and tomatoes, but now I could greedily breathe in the smell of an orange. He then opened a bottle of vodka and I gulped down the first glass he poured for me. I suspected myself of nourishing a still unbridled love for alcohol. I suspected that circumstance alone had helped me contain this passion written in my DNA. The light dizziness we both felt smoothed the foreplay. It all became extremely simple and very much unlike the scenario I had directed in my head during so many nights and days. Ilie took me by the hand and led me to the room where his parents slept in winter. It was only when we took off our clothes that I felt a moment's embarrassment because of my physical uncleanness. I had not imagined our encounter would get to that so quickly.As I had feared, Ilie's height hindered a natural coupling. I was clumsily trying to adjust myself to him, while he was hurrying to reach his destination. For a brief moment I had caught a glimpse of his flabby but huge member just before erection. We were rolling about in the bed closest to the door, the same bed where Aunt Cecilia, consumed with asthma, used to pass sleepless nights. Her silhouette, huddled up among the pillows in the dark, flashed through my mind a couple of times while he was biting my ears and my chin. By the passion with which he soon penetrated me I could tell he was far from such recollections. I believe he never remembered his mother. He had probably felt relieved at her death, despite having loved her so much in life. He was the kind of man who never had any memories or regrets. To him the village was still the same, he found nothing strange about the silence around. So people had died and no one lived in these houses any longer. So what? He had a vineyard to tend and he was going to do it even when there was no longer anyone around. I was content that our love was unfolding so quickly, so straightforwardly. I was not offended at the thought that he would have made love just as well to anyone else. To me, one of my childhood desires, perhaps the only one, had come true. He lay next to me, his heart throbbing after the intense orgasm. He laid a long, hairy arm over my breasts and closed his eyes. The room we were in was as crammed with useless adornments as my own house. How futile our mothers' endeavors, how pointless to us their labors. We had no use for the inheritance they had left us. Ilie's wife had taken nothing with her. She had left everything here to rot, to be eaten away by moths and mice. She was only striving to keep some flower pots alive.A few minutes later, Ilie opened his eyes. He began to caress with his fingers a geranium leaf from the vase on the window sill, then brought the tip of his forefinger to my nose. It was growing dark outside. I told him I had to go, to look after Daniel. He tried to detain me because he had nothing better to do. Making love to me had been scheduled. He had come especially for me, for my body and everything it promised in his immense solitude. I found Daniel perched on the big metal gate. Since he had once got lost, and spent a night in an abandoned house, he had lost courage to go out into the street. He was glad to see me after such a long absence. His cry made me feel happy, too. Happy that I had just made love, and that I had a child. I took him in my arms and kissed him. At night, after he fell asleep, I got dressed and sneaked out into the yard. It was pitch dark. From the direction of my godmother's abandoned house I heard an owl hoot. I didn't have the nerve to go out into the alley. I sat down on a chair in front of the veranda. I don't know how long I waited. Finally I heard the great gate screech and I made out Ilie's figure when he was already by the well. He had figured I wouldn't come on my own because of the darkness. We headed for his house, holding hands and stepping into all the potholes. On the kitchen table Ilie had left the bottle of vodka ready and a plate full of bread and slices of cheese which I had him remove at once. Even so the spicy stench lingered between us. On a smeared cardboard plate there were some cream cakes left. He unwrapped another chocolate bar and opened a bag of fondants. Even after we kissed I still couldn't take my eyes from the sweets. It was like a mirage. I had longed for them all my childhood. I understood now how little I had taken advantage of my stay in the city, and how deeply rooted my peasant education was. The habit of going to the confectioner's or buying cakes to take home was completely alien to me. I simply ate sweets when the chance presented itself, when someone offered me some or at birthday parties. They did not exist for me, even though I liked them so much. In my childhood the craving for sweets used to creep up on me especially in spring, when my mother no longer knew how to deal with me. Days on end I barely touched any food. I didn't know how to tell her what I was craving for. I could see now that I longed for the perverse combination of aromas, of sweet and bitter taste which tried to make up for the sour and salty tastes of the winter.Ilie told me about his job and his marriage. He was still working at the same flower greenhouse and he did not try to keep from me the fact that he was cheating on his wife. Not infrequently. He was still peasant enough at heart to think it was a natural thing to do for a man. As for me, he advised me to go back to Bucharest as soon as could be, and not venture to pass the winter here. After all, I knew what I was in for. The issue of my husband's mistress was behind us. This was just the beginning, so he said. Ilie told me straight out that he fancied me. He regretted so much time had passed before we met. It could all have been so much simpler. He would have liked to be the one to deflower me. But I was so wild. Or so he once thought of me, a little stupid and frigid, exactly the kind of girl one had better steer clear of. He was one for making love whenever and wherever. He had been doing it since he was fifteen, with stout, straightforward girls who met a man's expectations with a smile. He liked women who looked him in the eye, shoved their full bosom under his nose, rocked from one foot to the other and answered his dirty words with equally dirty words. The place was so generous, offered so much room and so many hiding places for the amorous rituals. Wasn't it downright stupid of me not to have taken advantage of it?He liked me and he liked particularly the hunger with which I had thrown myself on him. He was flattered by the thought of my abstinence, and by the redemptory part he had played in it. He had the feeling he had saved me, he had been altruistic. I was crazy about the way he offered himself to me, like a feast. I could help myself to everything I wanted, without restraint, all the more so since I was hungry. And as a worthy heir of his father's, he was able to appreciate it. I abandoned myself to the love therapy he was subjecting me to, especially since the specter of my aunt among the pillows had ceased to visit me. When we ended up in bed again, after all the revelations, I made sure I behaved accordingly. I tried to be neither too rash, nor too slow. I accepted his vulgarities and his little perversities without responding to them. I understood where hunger stopped and education, mentalities stepped in. Women could never let go completely. They were not allowed to be free beyond just any limit. I liked and deeply felt his every touch. I received them gratefully deep inside. What I liked best was that his body never moved away from mine. I never felt comfortable with men who supported their weight on their arms as if doing push-ups. I could see them looking for signs of pleasure on my face, in my eyes. That's when lies begin, when the other looks at you as if you were a shop window. Because Ilie's body was so close to mine, I could pass my hands along his back down to his buttocks, helping him understand me. We were horse and rider, together on a long journey in the night.I came back home before the crack of dawn. It was cold. Fog was drifting in the air and with it the peppery smell of autumn. I crept in between the sheets next to Daniel and took him in my arms. He was hot and still smelling of milk. I slept late. The child woke up, took a morsel of bread from the cupboard, and went outside to play. Ilie was sleeping next to me with his arms above his head. I pulled the blanked over both of us. Some bug had bit me on the arm and the bite had swollen. It was a flea, one of those resilient creatures that had made my life a living nightmare since I was a child. I was scratching the itching bump on my arm. Then I discovered another one just above my knee. And another one on my shoulder. I got out of bed, put on my shirt and went into the other room, in the big house. Daniel, as usual, was sleeping with no blanket on. His hands and feet were cold. I lay down next to him and fell asleep in a second.Ilie did not wake me up when he left. He came for me around noon the following day. He had come to take me for a ride in his car, but this time Daniel stayed home. We stopped somewhere, far away, on the edge of a corn field. Ilie leant back the chairs and took off his trousers. I just pulled up my skirt for I had no underwear on. He tried to get on top of me, but his legs couldn't fit even if I propped mine up against the windshield. The gear-stick was digging into my left hip. We were laughing and kissing. Then I got on top of him and straddled his waist. We drove on. I had only to glance at him and he would stop the car in the middle of the road. We needed to take no precautions because no one could pass unnoticed less than a kilometer away from where we were. All those who could stand in our way were dead. The silence around was especially orchestrated for us to be able to hear our moans and heavy breathing. We couldn't make love except in one position. Ilie lying in the right front seat and I on top of him, my right foot pressed against the gear-box. But the second, the third and the fourth time we discovered that we had only to move one bit for it all to become a different thing altogether. Because of the stifling heat we had opened all four windows of the car. We looked like two toys in a perforated box. Every now and again a gust of wind wrapped us in a cloud of dust mixed with straws and corn leaves. But nothing could stop us.In the evening, Ilie took me to his house. His brother-in-law was waiting for us with dinner on the table. He had been drinking by himself, but he was not drunk enough yet so he couldn't make jokes at our expense. A discrete sign was enough for him to leave and I jumped into Ilie's arms and started kissing him. The other's presence had brought my patience to the edge. I would pass the winter alone, with no sun and no Ilie. I would miss him like crazy and there would be nothing to be done. Ilie couldn't understand that. He was made for love making, not for understanding what was going on beyond that. We made love long, with our clothes on, on the edge of the bed. From time to time Ilie stopped me one thousandth of a second before the end. I would stay still in his arms, waiting for the thick liquid to be absorbed back into the tissues. Before he left, Ilie gave me the key to the cellar. He had no idea when he would be able to come to see me again. Probably his wife would never leave him alone after that. I could take all the wine I wanted and anything else I wanted from the house.This is how we parted and September drew to an end. Felicia Mihali (b. 1967) first published Cheese Country in Romania (Image, 1999), then, after her emigration to Canada, in Montreal (Le pays du fromage, XYZ, 2002). In an interview she declared that the Quebecois public had accurately noticed the contrast on which the character of the heroine, who aspires to the sublime in a poor, humble world, is based, and that even in the darkest destitution, man never returns to an animal state.

by Felicia Mihali