The Procrustean Bed

excerpt Between 9.30 and 10.30 in the evening, all the other restaurants were empty, but the Popovici Garden was packed, they put more tables in every corner, and when even that was no longer possible, friends asked those who had arrived earlier to let them sit at their tables. Some even looked in from the outside, over the hedge. Especially because this summer Prince Nicolae sometimes came from Constanta to spend evenings there, dining and dancing occasionally. Saturdays and Sundays as well, some new changes would be made. All those who had cars left for various one- or two-day trips, and villagers showed up democratically, so actresses – there were five or six of them there – would contemptuously refer to them as the "Saturday and Sunday audience," which seemed to have been the same in theaters. This Saturday we left with a big group, all crowding in my Austro-Daimler, that "old car" as the boys and girls who liked antitheses had nicknamed it, because in fact, with its eight cylinders, it looked like a huge fat torpedo made of white-bluish nickel and having brown-leather benches. Next to me was seated the daughter of an American oilman, very sweet and very crazy, who drank more Cointreau and whisky in one evening than all the crew members together. (For a long time we thought she was a foolish 21-22-year-old little woman, a passionate swimmer who went to the beach nude, because she told us that was her age, but later we found out from a servant that she was only 15). Also riding in front near Mouthy, the Greek brown-haired actress that Emilia hated so deeply. In the back, three of the five members of our "gang" were crowded, the "garcons terribles" of Movila. Some kind of Frenchmen, the best dancers, with elastic bodies of light athletes, who drank heavily and made enough noise. (But I see that I am taking things seriously. You know, I am beginning to fancy writing these days! Perhaps I am sinning against grammar, perhaps I use some words over and over again, the way they say I do when I speak, but otherwise it is not difficult. Now I want you to know everything. By writing the story, you re-experience the same events and joys just the way they were, but somehow you feel them differently, now they appear lit up by a new meaning, which makes them even livelier, because you know what happened afterwards). We had left by 6 in the morning, after having been on the beach in the morning, and in the afternoon we all flirted, all the six of us together. Mouthy wanted to see camels, because she had heard that in some village peasants used camels rather than horses or oxen to plow their lands. We had also taken some whisky bottles, because we could find soda in booze joints along the way, a few packs of Caporal cigarettes, because all of us smoked nothing but those, and we started out crazily, madly, making so much noise that we frightened the soft, wide valleys, and most of all we bothered the bourgeois' siestas because this is what Mouthy wanted. We did not find that camel village, but in fact we did not even know where we were going, and we had not known that for some time now. We sped at about 100 kilometers per hour, we drove by boisterously, roaring, cursed by people in wagons, who barely had time to pull over. We only stopped in shady places and booze joints to ask for soda. The crowding made us pleasantly warm, because we were all wearing light clothes. I would have preferred to have the brown-haired actress, who was very beautiful, beside me, although Mouthy was pretty too, but I knew her too well, we had even slept together a couple of times. I think I might have loved her if she had not been that crazy, if being loved had not bored her – or so I think – and if that event had not happened in my life. Perhaps just to be polite to Mouthy, perhaps out of shyness, or perhaps because she wanted to avoid the familiarity of crowding, because we had only known each other for a couple of days, Lena Coremati had gotten in the car late, and the American girl, who wanted to ride in front, had hurried to sit beside me, making room for the actress on her right. On the road, especially after having drunk some more, Mouthy was madly instigating us. She had a plump body of a little Bacchante, her thighs were a little thicker but her ankles were very thin, which is what made them look voluptuous, along with her long waist and small breasts. She leaned on my elbow in such a way that every time I turned the wheel I would hit her lively, bare breast, which, however, elastically escaped by jerking upwards and entered into some kind of a vibrating motion. When I turned the wheel back, I again hit the lively, bare breast under the light purple dress, from down upwards this time, and the breast vibrated again. Her body was slightly bowed and kept at bay in a calculated posture, so that the entire sensation would have a center point. I continued to speed and I waited for the opportunities to turn the wheel in something like panic. When she felt that her barmy deed thrilled me, she put her bare, sun-burnt arm around my neck, that arm that had gathered so much darkness and gold that it looked like bronze, like a golden lamp Caryatid, and that is the way her body looked all over. I felt warm differences, because her arm covered my nape, I felt the place where the dress ended and her hot skin began. I was kind of high on the speed, on the rhythmical, restless trepidations of the car, and most of all on that fluid that gathered in the woman's left breast after having run through both bodies as if doing a circuit. Although dizzy, the boys were alarmed, and they began to protest. Didi Ghenovicescu, who was very daring in his speech but amazingly cautious in deeds, began to yell gnarling, pulling the light jacket he wore on his shoulders with one finger: "Do not talk to the driver. Touching the driver strictly forbidden." Then it got really crazy: "Mouthy, are you nuts? Leave the boy alone!" And she pulled her white hat, which made her Bacchante body look like a 6-year-old geisha. Actress Leny Caler was pale and smiled angrily, to show she was not afraid, but her lips had grown thin. She looked like a lively puppy in her white dress, her hair cut like a boy's, her hazel eyes, and hard, white cheeks. Half of her narrow face was slightly protuberant, and she had a sharp nose, like an aristocratic muzzle. Her beauty was fresh and shy, contrasting with her schoolboy haircut, especially when she smiled sweetly, because she had a large mouth. Now she was only looking straight ahead. Ardent, burning, Mouthy was clinging even more forcefully onto my neck, although Ghenovicescu was trying to move her arm away. (…) We entered the spa through the Town Hall, bypassing the Movila Hotel on the left, acting crazy. Suddenly, I lit the alleys up and down with the headlights to expose the lovers who took advantage of the power saving imposed by the Town Hall or the couples hiding in cars. At Popovici's the strangers had left and mostly the regulars were now filling the garden, so we were all like a family, and they all thought we were late. A beautiful lady was seated at a table, the wife of an old, nice lawyer in Bucharest. At first, she had been alone most of the time, but since here loneliness was viewed as proving a lack of seduction abilities (so a woman on her own was thought to be ill and avoided by the others), she ended up by having a spa relationship with three Englishmen from an oil company in Moreni. They were young, sturdy men with all kinds of manias: the most surprising one was that they wore bath robes all day and in the evening they danced in white shirts, their sleeves pulled up over their elbows; no matter how hot it was, in the evening they wore tuxedos, so Mrs. R. also wore evening gowns. At another table there were two-odd families with beautiful daughters, dressed modestly on purpose, wearing jackets and colored scarves, one of them wearing almost boyish clothes; however, due to their youth, they were known on the beach and here as well. Some of them found the means to be elegant both on the beach and at the restaurant. They were probably the only ones who knew that a bathing suit should not be bought at random from the first store, rather it should be studied for a while like a dress, in style magazines. Equally, they did not buy ready-made manly bath robes, they chose the color and cut two or three months before. In fact, those women who made up some kind of a Free Masonry of elegance were known because that year they were the only ones wearing colorful capes instead of robes (for example Mouthy, L.C., and the very lady watching me), with large collars like in Flemish paintings, which held their heads up like in lacquered vases; they let those capes wave freely along their bodies, so that the thin, robust forms of their young bodies would be emphasized even further. Now, as soon as we arrived, those girls went upstairs to change their dresses.I, despite all the boys' protests, went up and put on a gray jacket, which I wore with a red or black tie, combing my hair carefully, because I hated unruly hair.When I came back, the boys had chosen a table in the entrance corner and placed a huge whisky bottle and some soda on it. Then they started to dance, because their entrance had been hailed by the glittering eyes of all the girls, followed by inviting signs. In an armchair as big as a phone booth, one of the five or six around, Mouthy, who had been the first to come down, was smoking in hiding, so all you saw was her rousing plump feet without stockings, and most of all her naked, soft knees, like the bend of a thick, golden snake, which had a darker back like a snake and were golden and softer on the inside.She had made me promise I would only dance with her the whole evening, and now she was waiting for me. It is true that we were very good together. In fact, here, too, they said I was an especially good dancer. I danced very smoothly, a little absent-minded, but slightly bending over the woman, without making any useless movement, and without any gigolo grimace.She watched my face very carefully, on her toes: I pushed her right arm upwards a little, so that her elbow would rise and lean back, and so her naked shoulder came to me, looking for me, full of still life. Women look good if they adopt a slightly unnatural posture during dancing, because that seems to make a directed sensitivity fluid circulate through them. We both glided like that, without movements but rhythmically, because Mouthy, although her geisha head was deliciously made up, was concentrated and tranquil in her passion.We never talked, of course, when we danced, not even Mouthy, who was talkative enough usually; but sometimes she was silent like a snake for hours on end on the beach, without looking at anybody, burning in the hot afternoon sun, she was silent. However, this time she whispered, kidding on a false tone, which was diabolically theatrical:"Your Platonic lover is cheating on you, look at her, she is dancing with that guy." 1933

by Camil Petrescu (1894-1957)