The Larva

It was almost closing time. I guess you all know what a horrible time that is! The waiters are all in a hurry not to miss the last tram that leaves Balcescu Square at ten past one; they are therefore busily collecting the tablecloths while the customers are still eating, they turn the chairs upside down, they frown suspiciously at the customers that haven't yet asked for the bill. The more experienced waiters have already withdrawn to some hidden corners and are inspecting the bills, adding up the figures and trying to make out how much they have made that day while they are making efforts to find a legal cover for their own personal gains. They are busy correcting the slight computational errors they have made in the heat of the moment, they are cleverly modifying the figures on the bills. As soon as they have managed to conceal their pilferage by making it agree with the fiscal regulations, their soul is invaded by an invigorating feeling of lawfulness; they take a cab to get home.I was just preparing to leave, as I particularly dislike restaurants at these late, unwholesome hours when a middle-aged, bald little man attracted my attention. He was drunk as a sailor, his entire body was shaking, but as he had noticed the ironical glance of the other people he was making supernatural efforts to preserve his balance and dignity. "I want to assure the honorable customers that I am definitely not drunk." He finally noticed me and he scrutinized me for a couple of minutes. He had taken to me though I had not meant him to, as he saw me smoking Virginia cigarettes and drinking vermouth, legs crossed, in an aristocratic posture. Trying probably to check his conclusions he drew nearer and asked me in a low voice, as if he was afraid of being overheard by the people around."Do you… do you always smoke Virginia cigarettes?" "Of course…"He was fully satisfied by my answer. He took a chair and sat at my table. "I'd like to talk to you… You are the only person in here who's smoking Virginia cigarettes…"Then he added immediately, trying to justify his excessive sociability:"I'm bored to death being alone…" "When you are bored, think of funny things," I advised him gently. "How do you mean, funny things? You know very well there are no funny things for an unhappy man…" He remembered he hadn't introduced himself: "Please, allow me… a man who expects nothing from life." As I thought he was joking, I answered him in the same tone: "A man who's still expecting something from life…" "We are then completely different, he drew the logical conclusion. Completely different… The north and the south pole, respectively. Two worlds apart, two conceptions… Can you say that?" he hypocritically asked my opinion. "You may…" "I'm going to make a terrible confession to you, if you are saying you are a man who's still expecting something from life… do you have any idea what happened to me this very night, the 12th of November of the current year in this very public house? It was something sudden as a stroke… a psychological stroke. I've had the sudden revelation that I have lived my life like a fool. In a false, untrue, absurd, immoral, unaesthetic manner… see how many radical words I know? I know them from my second wife. She knows a lot of radical, sonorous French and English words, my wife, she sure does… To cut it short, she is an educated woman, my wife is… But let's forget about women, shall we… They always divert us from the essence of things… do you know, you, who are saying that you are still expecting something from life, do you know what it means to reach such a conclusion? I was born during the reign of King Ferdinand the First of Hohenzollern and of his Queen, Marie. Many governments have changed since, revolutions have been made, penicillin has been invented, so many Nobel Prizes have been awarded… and I, I have lived miserably, despicably all the while. Despicably! What a nice word! This one I have learned from a cousin of mine. I'm having a false life, young man. I've been wrong in everything I did, in love, in politics, in business… And why have I been wrong, you may ask... I've been wrong because I listened to other people while I stopped my own mouth… What a fool I've been in love… I like lively women, the spicy kind, more superficial if you want, the kind of women that won't mind if you pinch their bottom… Well then, why on earth – my guest suddenly got angry – did I have to leave a hell of a woman and marry a sensitive, educated, intelligent one? What a terrible mistake… I admit… I loved her…She was beautiful, too, but couldn't I realize that we were not a good match? And what has our marriage been? An endless talk on Bach and on Voltaire…on what life is, on whether the soul is material, on who discovered America, on Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, on what the purpose of man is, on what truth is, and the good, and love, and the beautiful, on Plato, Diogenes, Mahatma Gandhi… I am an unsophisticated bloke. I've got the soul of a merchant, not of an artist. My soul was fettered. What did I long for? I longed for a brunette, can you her me, you, who are saying you're still expecting something from life. A brunette, an adulterous relationship, an adventurous jaunt to Sinaia, a drinking bout in a fashionable spot… And I was wasting my life like an idiot…discussing about the dream of doctor Astrov. About Paganini, Luther, Francois Marie Arouet… The brunette – can the whole irony of Voltaire ever compare to a brunette? – she left me. She had been deceived… she thought, poor her, that I had dedicated myself to the depths of ethics… And I was left alone…alone with my wife, with the moral perfection…I was getting crazy, man, I was literally getting crazy. Literally… what a nice word. It was again my wife who taught me this word, too. I felt like howling. And I didn't have the guts to divorce her… Gosh, how her kindness, her intelligence bored me, stifled me, strangled my soul…. She wouldn't let me be dishonest about business….'Man must be honest,' she would say… and that's how I got to be honest and sensitive now at this old age, an admirer of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov…"As he felt guilty about that, he tried to apologize, to find a justification: "It happened against my will, in spite of myself… I was forced by the environment, by my wife, by the regime, by my friends. But you've got to believe me, I swear, cross my heart, I'm not honest… it was my wife who ruined my life… she told me: 'I don't like the way you are thinking… it's the communists who are right. You've got to work, too…' and I did work… I went to work, I joined the union… They thought I was honest, serious, devoted, they forgot my origin… I was assigned different tasks, I had a seat in the presidium, a more decent job… and then followed other responsibilities, other tragedies… To be honest, disciplined, a front worker, not to drink too much, not to philander… and I had to be all that, man, I sure was. The things you do when you are forced to by the circumstances!… And I did no harm… But I did violence to my own soul… I lived an honest man's life and I regret it terribly." One could read an enormous and sincere sadness on his face devastated by drinking. "I've ruined my life, man, that's the truth… I was faithful in love, disciplined, a moral man… and…"He fell his face down on the table: "And I regret that… sincerely… My grandpa had taught me to live otherwise… But then came my second wife, the 23rd of August and the communist regime… I have no lover on my conscience, nothing illegal, no fraud, no adultery… A man without memories is a dead man… Everything is crystal clear… white and terrible… I've screwed up my life… C'est finie la comedie. What can I do now? Nothing. Nothing is left for me than sweet resignation. I'm going to tell my wife that I love her, to resume my seat in the presidium, to read Anton Pavlovich Chekhov – by the way, I've heard a new edition has been published – I'm going to listen to Beethoven's Eroica in enthrallment. Gosh, how I hate this Beethoven who has ruined my life…I'd do anything, man, to be able to sleep like a log once during the concert, to take revenge… To take revenge for the tears I've shed…forced by the circumstances…" Having the impression I was not listening any more, he caught me by the sleeve: "I'll buy two tickets for the Eroica… We'll get some sleep together, we'll snore…I'm not a fool, man. I know exactly why I hate the regime… It made honesty and love and depth and virtue something compulsory, paragraphs of a law, an Act of Parliament… Depth stifles me… I'm not giving in, I'm not laying down arms… I'm going to start a new life. Tomorrow morning I am… I am divorcing my wife, I'm quitting the trade union. I'll yell in the street: 'Down with the regime!' I'll throw Anton Pavlovich Chekhov into the fire." As a staunch admirer of Chekhov I slapped him twice over the face. He felt nothing, he fell down under the table. The waiter asked me to pay his bill. I fumble into his pockets, I find his address, I push him into a taxi. He lived somewhere in Batiste Street. I ring and a beautiful woman about forty opens the door. I explain the lady what has happened; she seems to be very surprised: "I can't believe it. Who knows what has come over him… he always speaks so nicely about Anton Pavlovich Chekhov…"

by Teodor Mazilu (1930-1980)