Eastern Station

In those days they used to go to the Eastern Station, visiting some acquaintances: friends, as they might, after all, also have called them. Except that on this point, at least, Olga was right: they were not their friends; indeed, there was no way or time when they could have become friends. They were merely fortuitous acquaintances, who had met during a holiday which, in the meantime (and for reasons that differed for each of them), came to seem more and more fortuitous. (The last of the five they spent together.) Acquaintances due to the odds of a holiday: the almost unique odds of emerging from "our close circle" (as he had, with a sigh, more and more often come to refer to the group of office colleagues with whom they celebrated birthdays and New Year's Eve). Acquaintances with whom they got together on average once every two months, six times a year in other words. Something which, compared to their almost ritualised way of life, with so many hours wasted in trams, meetings and queues, meant that they barely caught a glimpse of each other. It is not to be ruled out that in the beginning they were also drawn to each other by their similarity in civil status: during that holiday spent in Parîng, when they had met, they were two couples just as (fairly well) past the first flush of youth and (still) not legally married. But otherwise, what similarities could you find between Dorin Tudose, whose palms and brow would begin to sweat inexplicably as soon as he put on his second-hand jacket to go out in company, and Geo Dimitriu, who – even when wearing baggy shorts, tending next to the tent the precious Knorr soup, received by mysterious parcel, as it boiled on his primus stove – had the mannerisms of a man dressed to the nines, a man in a suit (cut from English cloth, left by some uncle who had perished in prison or under house arrest, and altered, for better or worse, to fit nephew Geo at the meeting to join the communist party)? The girls at least had more things in common: they fiercely desired marriage and had both graduated from the Academy of Economics, one in accounting and finance, the other in general economics. Both had made whispered allusions to a little snag in their file (an expropriated bourgeois family etc.) without which their lives would have been different, as well as their professions. And, since they both had the same waistline, they would often swap diet recipes, which unfortunately did not seem to have much effect. They had, of course, also promised to exchange patterns (for frocks) because tailoring was their "hobby". (True, Olga was unfamiliar with the word and refused to learn it, with a stubbornness that became all the more categorical the more Doina, who was in the habit of repeating Geo's special words, diligently reiterated it). But they did not get around to exchanging patterns, discovering in the meantime that they wore a different style of clothes: Doina sporty, Olga feminine (pleats, lipstick, bows etc.), both styles increasingly unsuitable, alas, due to their recent plumpness. (Psychologists know that our inner perception is fixed not upon the present but upon the immediate past: we are not prepared to accept how we look now, but only how we have in the meantime reconciled ourselves to looking five or six years ago). Geo's special words were all drawn from the field of cultural/sporting/snobbish entertainment, which provided his sole reason for living after barely endurable meetings and the job that had long since been immersed in bitterness and boredom. On the other hand, there were still jazz, films, tennis and concerts (in the years when even these were to be restricted, the two couples ceased to frequent each other; but for the time being, we are in the 1970s; it is the end of the mini-thaw, and jokes about Nicolae Ceausescu are few, while Elena has not yet become a topic of conversation). Awkwardly, but also with his accustomed perseverance, Dorin would respond monosyllabically to Geo's cultural monologues: information about Armstrong, Monica Vitti, Mozart's Requiem, Bergman and The Beatles could be of practical use to Dorin in other society. This is why Olga's constant ironies and pregnant silences used to irritate him. "I'm an accountant, don't expect me to understand your elevated speeches," she would feel obliged to repeat from time to time, however many scenes she had to endure afterwards at home with Dorin. Scenes all the more frequent and all the more unpleasant, concluding with shouting and tears (you're ashamed of me in company!), days in which they spoke not a single word to each other, apart from tight-lipped greetings at work. The girls might also have had the opportunity to talk about motherhood - after all, it was an unavoidable experience at their age. However, the subject of motherhood was a veritable handicap to communication between them. Obligatorily, it would take on the various guises of Miki, which Olga promptly used to offer to anyone who showed herself polite enough to peruse the photographs Olga forever carried in her handbag, in a rather crumpled envelope, next to her identity card. Looking at Miki in spielhosen at the seaside next to a man (unknown and young, thus probably the father, absent from any discussion); at Miki with a fluttering pioneer's kerchief next to the camp flag at Borsec; at Miki with spectacles, knobbly knees and a sheaf of books under her arm; at Miki with a rucksack on her back, next to Dorin, in the Jepi Valley etc., Doina would be horrified at the thought that she too might have had such progeny, a child with an ever more timorous and insolent expression in her eyes the more she grew up – an unassailable obstacle in the path of marriage to a man as sensitive, egotistical, irascible and obsessive as Geo. As for Olga, she could not refrain on each occasion from making an automatic mental calculation of the other woman's age, proceeding from her assumed age at graduation, from the wrinkles in the corner of her eyes and from the distended pores of her face, in order to arrive, every time, at the same conclusion: that Doina had a 7.3% chance of becoming a mother in this life. This being the only reason for which the life of a woman would be worth living – according to the experiences Olga had had and was yet to have. * The Saturday meetings of the foursome always took place in Doina's flat, as she was the only one who had the facilities necessary for a reception. Her invisible family did the preparations, somewhere below, on the same staircase. At Geo's wish, they always limited themselves to sandwiches and a fruit salad; on rare occasions, a provincial cake would appear, overly sweet and overly syrupy, which he boycotted. Likewise, he boycotted marriage (as Doina complained, in the clean and pointless kitchen), finding it more convenient "to stay like this" given that they were always together: at the cinema, tennis, exhibitions at the Dalles Room, and, above all, at the institute where they were colleagues. Out of understandable pudeur and because only perverse minds insist on imagining couples past a certain age in such a position, their hours of amour were obviously not enumerated. Not even on this topic were there confidences between the girls, although the exchange of experience would have been useful to Doina. Because Olga had an exceptional erotic aptitude (the all-seeing narrator alone knows this and considers herself obliged to communicate it to the reader from the very beginning), an aptitude squandered, however, out of ignorance caused by her environment and from her innate ill will. When, a few years after the aforementioned holiday in Parîng, Geo agreed to make his liaison with his office colleague official, the meetings of the two couples had already become fewer and soon would cease. "It was a very quiet affair, just a few colleagues who in any case would have passed as family," the newlyweds apologised. Doina also added that her father was a priest; her triumphant silence clearly spoke of how far the atheist Geo had had to compromise. On the other hand, not even now was the devoted family brought out from behind the scenes, and the Saturday visits remained exclusively dedicated to the same circle of four. Poor communication between son-in-law and parents-in-law remained the favourite subject of Doina's whispers, while the girls laid out plates of sandwiches executed "downstairs" on the priest's wife's doilies, more starched than ever. The devoted family had paid for their daughter's spacious flat, and the "Bonanza" furniture (with nerves, connexions, a bribe), and provided for its impeccable upkeep, relieving the young couple of any domestic obligation. Without doubt, the devoted family had also spent years praying that free love and atheism would be vanquished, and that Doina would settle down before reaching the age at which all hopes diminish to almost "not a chance". But in the end, the Lord Above had taken pity on their daily plaint. Doina had crossed the threshold of forty in discreet silence when upon her broad hand with its stumpy fingers, but always meticulous manicure, a broad wedding band with little stars had appeared. Geo was left facing an endless procession of boring Sundays with a family in whose conversation there was no chance of either Fellini, or Mahalia Jackson, or Buñuel ever cropping up; nor even Ray Charles. * It was of course pure coincidence that subsequently the visits to the Eastern Station grew fewer, while Doina's headaches seemed to multiply. At shorter and shorter intervals, black rings would appear on her bluish, withered cheek, and for ten days at a time she would look ten years older. Her hand was no longer adorned with her old ring, which Doina, with her faux or awkward politeness, had always been eager to admire. "I don't know where I can have lost the diamond," Olga would explain, frowning. (It was obvious that she was not reconciled to the loss; she still grew piqued remembering it.) However, there was another reason, which increasingly annoyed her (although she did not admit it), why she refused to wear the ring any more: her fingers had grown too fat. As for the manicures, she had given them up for good when they started making harsh economies to pay for Micky's private lessons. Micky was nearing the examinations to enter lycée school. * From Olga's house it was a long way to the Eastern Station, which to her seemed even longer because she was going to a place that was starting to bore her to death. Although now she often told Dorin that it had not been otherwise any other evening, in other words it had never been the case that she had not been bored. But she also had an ill will that never ceased to amaze him. How could it be possible, for example, that at the time agreed for him to pick her up from home, she would be on all fours washing the cement floor in the kitchen?!? "For God's sake," he would exclaim, panting. (Moreover, slightly alarmed that he had begun to pant when climbing the stairs.) "For God's sake, haven't you even started to get ready?! Haven't you at least started to get dressed?! "What do you expect, I can't just go out any old how. I can't just go out any old how and leave everything in a mess behind me," she would answer back, clutching to her chest her calico dressing gown, with its cooking-oil stains still ingrained even after so many washes. "I can't just go out and leave everything in a mess behind me," she would repeat. Rather too emphatically. Rather too loudly. He would make mute signs for her to shut up, his eyebrows bunched, neck straining, listening to whether any sound was audible on the other side of the partition door. But he soon understood what a handicap such a personality represented. He had a horror of arguments and he had a horror of any potential resemblance with his father, after the countless thrashings he and his brothers had been dealt in childhood. If she spoke so freely, he could be convinced that they were alone in the flat, her sullen face answered him silently. Increasingly sullen lately, since she had given up making clumsy allusions so that he would "make his mind up". And, without uttering another word, Olga would go into the bathroom. And he would begin patrolling through their half of the flat, looking more and more infrequently at the partition, because, indeed, Olga's fellow tenants, Mr and Mrs Raileanu, couldn't be at home. He would pace up and down in order to drive away the disquiet any lateness aroused in him. The few years he had attended military college had made him very punctual – he was even famous for it at the institution. He would try to banish his irritation, no longer attempting to understand the illogicality of her behaviour: given that she is so unhappy at not having a normal, social life, why, whenever she has such an opportunity, does she consistently boycott it? There were also other reasons for him to want to banish these thoughts (the insistent questions of his sisters-in-law about marriage, the tax on the "child" that increased with every pay rise, the list of trips to Austria where marital status had not been specified because he had promised to resolve it in a month or two). And so he would open the door of the "Polar Bear" refrigerator in the vestibule and peer absent-mindedly inside, he would stand on tiptoes and, above the faded dusty pink-beige curtain, attempt to glimpse something beyond the glass partition door, he would leaf through the tatty books on the shelf in the hall – Cement, The Girl from Zlataust, The Young Guard, Frenchman's Bay... Although he had flicked through them so many times, he still didn't know whose they were: Olga's or the Raileanus'? Beyond, in Olga and Miki's half, the half-open wardrobe door was clattering. To open it wide you would first have to move the bedside table to the right. His gaze deliberately glided over Miki's notebooks and textbooks, which had taken up almost half of the window (the more she grew the more her books, clothes and demands multiplied, the more the room shrunk). He avoided looking at the ash pan, at the bucket of coals Olga daily lugged from the cellar. For all her daily toils there had been a time when he had admired her, then he had been touched, and finally he had publicly acknowledged that a more delicate woman would not have been capable of coping all these years. But we all build the life we wish for, in fact, as he used to say when he wanted to bait her (although he didn't really believe in what he was saying). Look at Olga, who is forever finding something to be done, who is forever getting up, sitting down, carrying, bustling: she paints the woodwork, fixes the electric stove and the fuses, grumblingly scrubs the bathroom after the Raileanus, hangs wallpaper, weeds the garden. Lately, when he thought of her, he no longer recalled her as formerly, in bed, but only carrying a basin of washing to hang up outside in the cold, her arms white, fleshy, bare, with summer socks on her feet. And in all the years they had known each other, she had never been ill. She had never been ill, but her nerves seemed to have become frayed, he thought, espying the dissatisfied gaze with which, already dressed, Olga was measuring herself in the mirror. She was dissatisfied because, the same as on other occasions, it was only at the last moment that she had realised how weary she was. Since the alarm clock had rung, she had not managed to sit down even for five minutes: she had come home from work in a rush at lunchtime, having done the shopping. She had made the meal, taken Miki to a girlfriend's in New Bucharest (she hadn't had the heart to leave her on her own, on the way a colleague – whose husband was in the militia – had told her that Bucharest was being stalked by a murderer, a sadist specialising in women). She had gone back home, made herself a strong cup of coffee, worked on a balance sheet, because it was almost the end of the month, and then done some tidying up. Now she was getting ready to go out. She was dissatisfied because, inspecting herself in the mirror next to the coat rack, she had set eyes on her best shoes and been forced to see what a state they were in: how long had she had them? Five years? Seven? She was dissatisfied because she had to go all the way to the Eastern Station – why? True, to have stayed at home wouldn't have suited her much either. She hadn't managed to persuade Dorin to respect her menstrual periods, which lately had been getting longer and longer. Maybe it wouldn't do any harm to see a doctor, but that was somewhere you obviously couldn't get to easily, you never had the time. Dorin ought to have realised how tired she was, but as usual he saw nothing. He ought to have behaved completely differently towards her. But how was he to know, after the life he had had as a child, how you ought to behave towards a woman? She ought to have taught him herself, at the beginning, when she could have made anything out of him. Maybe today's Dorin would have been different if she had taught him some respect back then. One dissatisfaction set off another, starting a chain reaction of dissatisfactions. But he didn't want to see it, didn't want to feel it, and, in order to go on being calm, indifferent, he paid no attention to the gaze with which she was measuring herself in the mirror. The more Olga's strivings, reproaches, tears and nervous outbursts multiplied, the more he was convinced that she was a member of the category of those dissatisfied by their own image. Those who avoid photographs – group, family – as much as they can. "Not today, not when I'm looking so bad," they hasten to say, in panic, glimpsing the camera. "Some other time, when I'll be wearing something nicer. Some other time, when I'll have had my hair done." You look at them in amazement, you protest, they're neither uglier nor more badly dressed than you. Otherwise, by force, by jokes, friends, family drag them in front of the camera. They barely manage to sneak into the back row and hide their rumpled faces. "Look how photogenic you are," they usually tell you, with regret, when they receive the photograph. Or else they make no further comment. They merely wait to be left alone, so that they can quickly scrunch up the photograph or cut themselves out and keep the rest. A reaction hard to understand, because in the photograph they came out exactly the same as they look. But they probably wanted their smile to be different. Their nose. Their height. Their life. And, because as regards Olga he had begun to be convinced that this was how things stood, much later he walked to the tram stop beside her without uttering a word. * It sometimes happened that they would find free seats as soon as they boarded. They sat down one behind the other. Olga holding some carnations wrapped in Codlea paper in her lap, he a bottle of Russian champagne or Bulgarian/Albanian wine, and they would look out of the window the entire way. And the tram slowly pierced the city. He, in particular, looked out of the window because he still loved Bucharest with the heart of a provincial. He would gaze out of the window and, all of a sudden, discover within him that unwarranted feeling of satisfaction which, for some time, had been gripping him at the most unexpected moments. As though something pleasant had happened to him – although nothing especially pleasant had happened to him. As though he were expecting something out of the ordinary – but all he was expecting was a rather boring visit to some chance acquaintances. How strange, he would wonder to himself. He discovered satisfaction merely by looking at the houses by which the tram was passing: at the lilac bushes by the gates, at the windowed porches that advanced into the middle of the yard, at the staghorns and mulberry trees that shaded the tarmac, swelling here and there, like the puffy veins on an aged arm. And here is a grey, cubist block of flats from the '30s, and here is a long white cemetery wall – a dusty black drapery hangs crookedly by the gate. He looked patiently at each thing and his secret satisfaction throbbed – maybe in his soul, maybe in his veins: because everything he saw was in its place and looked exactly as it should. So this was merely a cemetery gate by which was passing a tram laden with people who, just like him, were looking calmly, indifferently out of the window. And each was satisfied that his gaze would encounter exactly what he had imagined in advance that it would encounter. So, a street thronged with people and motorcars which were flowing in the peaceful thrum of a summer evening. And the flower ladies crouching by motley baskets from which red and yellow tulips were thrusting their closed muzzles, gleaming with water. And greenish-white, milky bunches of lilac. The world was full, even, it was pulsing as usual, and he was coming, relaxed, from one place and heading towards another, joyful that he had arrived there and that it looked the same as he had long imagined it should. He knew that there was still something to be done that evening – a visit from which he would learn so many things: from how to eat and talk in company to what music it was best to listen to. He knew that the next day he had to write up an activity report for the previous month, current work affairs, the note about the week-long trip to Bulgaria – his first time abroad – and many other minor details besides. And the same the next week. And the same the next month. So many things were waiting to be done, and he had to do them all, in turn – because, at last, he had a free hand. Five months ago he had, at last, been appointed head of department at work. He had begun to advance all along the line: he had sat his doctoral examinations immediately after joining the party (even he couldn't understand why he had left it so long to join when he had such a clean file). He was determined to present his thesis within the year – so that the professor would not retire and not to have any surprises with his successor. He had already been elected by the party in the office – starting with the elections this year personal files would once more start to count, said the new instructions. He had two definite trips by the end of the year (ten days in Poland, a week in West Germany). For Austria, the condition was clear – marriage. The director had put him down on the proposals sheet, but on condition that "within three months it will be resolved". However, it had never yet happened for Dorin Tudose not to carry out a duty that had been laid down for him. "It will be resolved in three months," he had promised, genuinely wishing that his long and futureless liaison with Olga would end in one way or another, by this deadline, and that they would settle down to a comfortable marriage. From now on he could only do Olga harm by staying with her without them marrying. But would he really be capable of breaking up with Olga? The woman he lodged with had introduced him to her niece, a medical school graduate, who had finished her internship, but who couldn't take up the position she had found in Bucharest because she didn't have a passport to live in the capital. Anda was surprisingly prim for such a pretty commuter: on her well-cared-for fingers, the nails always painted with pink nacre (she did her own manicure, she had confessed to him), glittered two rings, cheap but of modern design. An eight-year difference of age between him and Anda; it's not much, is it? he had asked himself with a certain disquiet, undoubtedly bewildered by the chance figure. Eight years was also the difference between him and Olga. Except in the opposite direction. When his thoughts reached this point, he was so uneasy at Olga's potential reaction (although she herself had lately been talking more and more often about their coming break-up) that he would be glad to see the grey building of the Iulia Hasdeu Lycée. It was here that Olga had gone to school, something impossible to imagine unless you lent her Miki's countenance, although she did not at all resemble her. And it was from here they took the trolley bus. And so they waited at the stop, next to each other, both deep in their own thoughts, still not uttering a word. When they got off, she was limping slightly, grimacing at almost every step: her best shoes, with the high heels, which she wore only rarely, were pinching. From all that standing up (as well as because lately she more and more obviously had dropsy), the soles of her feet had begun to swell: by the end of the evening they would look like cushions. But, because Olga was not complaining, merely gritting her teeth, with a nervous rictus, invisible in the dark, Dorin had no way of knowing and kept quickening his pace. In the meantime darkness had fallen. He was not looking at his watch; he didn't have the courage to see how late it was. A slight vibration kept him tensed – the feeling he always had when he could no longer deny to himself he was late. His satisfaction of a short time ago had also dissipated. His life seemed to him chaotic and embarrassing. The same as in childhood, he felt cast into an impracticable, muddy periphery of the world where there was no paved and illumined road to the centre. However much he might toil at work. However prompt he might be in carrying out his bosses' instructions. However docilely he might say/write whatever the man in civvies who appeared once a month asked him, never had his life looked just as he would have wanted – a respectable and calm well-being. Of course, the thing that was nurturing this dissatisfaction was the overly long, futile liaison with Olga and the weakness that for years everyone had remarked in him: that he was incapable of either leaving her or taking her as his wife. Because of Olga (it seemed to him, at such moments), it would have been hard to say whether his life was heading in a bad or a good direction. "She's a person who's difficult by nature and has a deplorable file," the man in civvies, dressed in a dark blue suit, so similar to a uniform, had once growled. And Dorin, his face automatically puckering up, the same as every time he heard Olga's name mentioned (moments of intimacy abruptly mingling with her stiff official image), had missed the opportunity to ask about her. About how and since when the man knew her. Although the question would almost have been futile: how else could he know her except from the routine information he received about the employees of the institution "in his care". Of course, also from face to face meetings – obligatory between the former wife of a cross-border refugee and the institution's Securitate man. But how had Olga behaved at these meetings? The only thing of which Dorin could be certain was that she had been irritable and tactless. And the only person with whom Olga could be blackmailed in this life was, without doubt, Miki. Each time he met the officer in civvies, Dorin would have wanted to bring the discussion around to Olga, but not even up until the end did he dare. Obviously, he hadn't asked her about him directly either: had the Securitate man summoned her after her former husband had been shot at the border, as was rumoured? Why ask her? He could be sure in advance that Olga would have looked at him in hostile silence. It was dark, darker than usual in a new district of housing blocks. Who knows what yobs must have smashed the last remaining light bulbs. Raising his head in the pitch darkness, he felt, every time he came here, a brief shudder. The tall lampposts brightly illumined the whitish-grey facade, the petrified platform of the station. A station he had only seen on Saturday evenings, after nine o'clock, after the passers-by thinned out. What was it doing here, among the blocks, this station, with closed doors, with darkened windows – empty and futile? In his still provincial mind, the station was the illumined, always swarming place at the end of town. With a thronging platform. With air filled with soot and train whistles. With Gypsies crammed into the reek of the waiting rooms, among demijohns of plum brandy and coops with clucking chickens. With couples kissing in the shadow of the wooden hanging baskets, painted green. With whole families solemnly seeing off a single member. At the hour when they arrived at the Eastern Station, darkness had fallen on the empty square, which resounded to the echo of her high heels – a strident clacking, which rattled in his brain. And on their left, the unreal Station: the lampposts illumined the bleached steps no one climbed, the little wooden baskets hung by their chains above between the posts. Nothing was missing, not even the large round clock, at whose hands he never looked, convinced that they had frozen. Nothing was missing, it was identical, it was just like the station in the town of his childhood. Except that at the hour when they arrived, no train departed hence, no train came hither. No one seemed to pass here. Every time, he walked here in slight bewilderment, with the same fear of having lost his way. Perhaps he even would have lost his way had he not clutched Olga tightly by her arm, had he not felt her confident steps beside him. He had no sense of direction and nor any memory of the places through which he passed; he was capable of wanderi