The Tenderness And Betrayal Of Magdalene

I couldn't say I was properly introduced to Magdalene, the wording would be equally pretentious and inexact; as a matter of fact, she actually rushed into my studio… She was tired, exhausted, shabby, as if she had come out of the hundred year war. I had worked all night – the biennial was drawing near and I had other orders as well, so I was still drowsy and I could not wholly realize what exactly had happened. I wasn't too curious either…In fact, surprise visits to a painter's studio are routine, even at two in the morning I had to open the door and put up willingly with a noisy and high spirited gang and make them coffee. Those visits didn't embarrass me at all, and if I was too tired I used to show to my guests where they could find wine, coffee and something to eat and then I went to bed and continued my sleep. I dozed off and they dreamt of great art…"I am Magdalene," she informed me right from the start. "Hasn't Oscar told you about me?"No. Oscar had talked to me about all his mistresses but had not mentioned a word about Magdalene. I knew for sure though, and that was most interesting to me, that Oscar had gone to Budapest and had solemnly promised to bring me some photographic paper. Hungarians make excellent such paper. From that moment on the girl's presence in my studio appeared highly logical to me. I imagined that Oscar had kept his word, there was no reason why he shouldn't have, the thing cost nothing at all, and so, to do him a favor in his absence I looked more closely at his friend, who persisted in calling herself Magdalene. My very attentive scrutiny could in no way do her grace. She was rather ugly than beautiful and only the surmise of vice saved her from total disaster. She seemed slovenly, old-maidish; she belonged to the extremely rare category of women that wake up, that light up and become beautiful only in bed. Magdalene's existence outside the bed seemed absurd, an abnormality, an unrootedness like that of a peasant torn away from his native soil. I took a long glance at her and smiled a remote smile as if to a memory. I wanted to give her the impression that my smile was the result of a rigorous mathematical calculation or a matter of logic."So you are Magdalene.""Obviously. I am Magdalene."She didn't stare. It would have been vain of myself to say that Magdalene was staring at me, she never did me that honor, and I don't think she has ever looked a man in the eye. With her things happened in an entirely different manner. She did not look at you, she inhaled you, assimilated you, devoured you, hid you in her body, as if protecting you from who know what terrible, imaginary danger. After having carried out her complicated endeavor, she told me in the calm voice of a man fatigued by the digestive process."I have an errand for you…Can I call you by your name?"I shrugged my shoulders, actually intimidated. She tried to reassure me."When I call men by their names it's a good sign…"Then she put her stumpy hands of a labored person into a sort of miserable sack that could in no way be mistaken for a purse. She was very proud though of her sartorial misery and that I liked."What, you don't like my duffel bag? It's very comfortable…Haven't you noticed? It's winter and I wear sneakers…"Indeed, I hadn't noticed. It was winter and she was wearing a flimsy pair of blue sneakers. In matters of elegance being comfortable was her supreme criterion."They're so light. And very discreet. Nobody hears me coming."She rummaged for a while in her miserable bag."What do you give me if I give you something nice?"I didn't reply anything. I didn't know what. I had not yet figured out everything. And then I was too sleepy to be a hypocrite."I brought you photographic paper. Oscar asked me to pass by and bring it to you."The errand I was talking about from the very beginning!She put the envelopes of photographic paper on the edge of the bed."Oscar is a smashing guy. I adore him!"I was supposed to illustrate a Cervantes edition and I desperately needed that paper. She couldn't possibly realize how happy she had made me. I had slept in my clothes, as I had been too tired to remove them so I found it relatively easy to get up and try to be a decent host. Only that I craved after no visits or no new faces that morning but would have preferred to be alone. My shabby guest sensed very quickly the impasse I was in."I am in your way?""No. Not at all! Why should you? You want some coffee?"Dignity is a temptation few can resist; so Magdalene did not resist either; she went on desperately."If it's too much trouble I can leave. I don't want to mess up your schedule…"An excess of principles as it happens with all women."I don't like to inconvenience men."Making a heroic effort this time I tried to make my host duties appear more convincing and organized."I'll rustle up some coffee right away…""No. I'd rather have a drink."I never drink in the morning. I am a painter and I care too much about the light of morning to betray if for the dark fumes of alcohol. Magdalene's desire to have a drink inhibited me. I could already see my work day ruined. I was in no mood for conversation, women, confessions or drinking either.One more time she smoked me out:"You think I'm stupid?"No. I didn't think she was stupid…"You want some red Alba Iulia wine?"She pursed her lips in disgust."I hate soft drinks…"I didn't say anything, I just gave up and slammed on the table a bottle of extra strong plum brandy that I had from an admirer from Oradea.When she saw the bottle her eyes shone happily, a sort of exaggerated happiness for an eighteen-year old girl. She gulped a glass effortlessly… That minute she resembled a thug or a madam in a brothel, there was something oppressive, morose and harsh about her."You don't drink? You let me drink all by myself? I hate men who don't drink."I already knew the lesson. Magdalene expressed herself only in categorical terms. She hated something or another all the time…"I'll drink later…"It couldn't be helped. I poured a glass of plum brandy for myself too. Magdalene started feeling all right. She seemed to see me for the first time."You have a nice place…Why do people say you're disagreeable?"I kept quiet. There was nothing I could answer."Yes. That's what they say about you. I don't think you're disagreeable at all. Anyway, you're precious. I find you adorable…You think I'm lying?"The more she drank the more tragic she became and I hated that."You are so naïve…You believe in people."And she began to laugh, a hysterical laughter that terrified me."Sure…You see only what is beautiful in people. Generosity, love and the lot. F…this vision!"I deemed it my duty to cast at her an icy glance."Yes…You thing I'm coarse…like vermin…You get mad when you get a moral slap…I know how life is…""How old are you?""What does it matter? I'll be nineteen in August. Make me a gift of a pair of socks for these are full of holes…""Don't be so tragic at this age! It's very boring…"My accusation revolted her."Nope…I'm not boring. Wherever I go I make a sensation. Men are crazy about me. An Italian committed suicide because of me…"To my despair she poured herself a third glass of brandy."You think Oscar gave you the photographic paper, don't you? That's what you think?""Yes. I asked him…""He doesn't give a damn about your asking him…He forgot about it. I brought it to you! I was in Budapest with a Tourist Agency. In fact, he didn't even forget. He found it too expensive…How about that?"Magdalene's tragic streak threatened to take an unpleasant turn."Yes. You look at me as if I were some vermin, right? You despise me…"Then she suddenly got up and left."You are a terrible person…Can I take the bottle with me?" She was right about Oscar. My good friend phoned and apologized, saying it went clean out of his mind, but he'd make other trips, there was no problem, in two months he would go to Austria and there the paper was even better, surely…Magdalene had vanished. She announced her presence through most variegated tender gestures – ranging from bunches of flowers to pans with stuffed vine leaves – an infinite choice. At times, she would mark her tenderness in big threatening letters, as bandits signing their crimes or hold-ups.To tell the truth, in all her attentions she showed a perfect knowledge of my preferences and routines. She had intuited I loved flowers – indeed I found it impossible to work without having flowers around me – so she took care to supply me with flowers every third day. The individuals who brought me the flowers, for they were mere errand boys, didn't look trustworthy and their dumb cheeky mugs somewhat deprived the gesture of delicacy. At times, I got the feeling those bizarre commissioners were actually Magdalene's lovers.Once in front of my modest studio at Otopeni there pulled up a white Mercedes and an elegant, distinguished young man got out of it. He didn't dare open the gate or found it demeaning to open it, I don't know…He beckoned me to come closer."From Miss Magdalene. A pan of stuffed cabbage leaves…"He put it in my lap, smiled mysteriously and vanished. I liked it better when I found such attentions in my studio. Then I knew that Magdalene and only Magdalene had brought them herself. One night when I returned home at four – it was summer and dawning already – I found Magdalene waiting for me in the studio. The windows of my studio were always open so it was not a problem getting in."I brought you a watermelon. I hear you like watermelons. Let's eat it."She always restrained herself to the point of fatigue."You find my gesture unsuited? I'll leave then. I wanted to please you…"She actually had, why should I lie? I loved watermelons."Bring a knife…I'll cut it. That's what I did when I was a little girl, too."I didn't exactly realize who Magdalene was, after all, if she was lying or not, if she was putting on a show that she had already staged before. The truth is that didn't seem important, and even more, the truth appeared to me like a vulgar defamation of a miracle…The reality was so overwhelming that the poor truth did not find any room.She wanted to reap – childishly, in passage – the fruit of her attention for me."See? I even brought you some pep pills…"In fact, between Magdalene and myself there was no communication. She experienced by herself all these states of ecstasy and doubt. All I did was watch carefully her abrupt movements."As a matter of fact, do you know what love is? Let's make love in the yard, under the canopy. It's very pleasant to make love and look at the stars. It must be extraordinary...I've never done it..." And she pulled me energetically by the hand, made me lie in the grass and she sneaked near me, respectfully, tenderly and cunningly."It's swell, right? To be naked and see the stars…It's great!"She always asked me to corroborate her enthusiasm."Isn't it great? It's cool."It was, indeed a heavenly summer night, with the moon's pale light instilling a strange charm into Magdalene, a sort of aristocratic estrangement. She was very remote and very close at the same time. She was remote but only as long as I tasted the privilege of the absurd and unhoped-for closeness. The road to her breast seemed to take thousand of light years and yet the same impossible road seemed to be covered in a moment. The unreal sensation proved atrocious though, burdensome, terrifyingly real, almost unbearable; crushed with so much happiness, Magdalene rose suddenly, afraid, as if often happens with people lest her ecstasy could trouble who knows what practical obsessions."Enough!" she decided abruptly and out of respect for the moment of happiness she stood up naked in the moonlight. "It's enough."Naked in the morning dew she started a lucid and methodical analysis of the situation. Frankly speaking, that moment of lucidity appeared downright sacrilegious to me. Magdalene, the summer morning, the grass, the stars were enough for me, I did not feel the need to analyze the situation, to interpret it, I wasn't obsessed with the future, I wasn't interested whether she loved me or not, whether she was sincere or acting up…What did all that matter? That dilemma seemed ridiculous to me. It was so beautiful that there was no need to discover the truth.…And to me it seemed strange, unfair, monstrous to see a bare-footed girl crushing under her feet the morning dew and analyzing in cold blood what had happened."I am very happy…I will never be able to live with another man. I know it. Don't say anything. I am just a passing affair in your life. You'll forget me."Then – damn it! – she started to speak to herself."Magdalene, why did you do it? Do you love him, I wonder?"Man is ready to make a problem out of any kind of joy. But the conclusion of that desperation proved entirely unexpected."I have to go…Right away!"She was very resolute. So resolute that she no longer seemed naked. That bizarre, violent, unjustified intransigence had covered her body."That's how things are. The fun is over, ladies and gentlemen…It's time I got going…"She added in her hoarse voice:"You come with me?""Me?"I was sincerely terrified at the idea."Yes," Magdalene persisted. "My brother is waiting for me at the station. He is coming from Bacau. You must meet him. He worships you…"My hesitation brought back her nakedness. She kneeled and tenderly clung to me."You must meet someone from my family. It's very important for me…I want my folks to see I move among celebs. Pretty please!"I couldn't resist. I called a taxi to take us to the station.On the road to the station, in the taxi, she kept on praising her brother:"You'll like him a lot…The boy reads hugely…"In front of the railway station I felt doubt besiege me. I didn't feel like meeting anyone from her family. That discredited the miracle, gave it a bourgeois, settled, premeditated air. I was too happy in the present to be terrified by future fears.Magdalene insisted though."If you don't come I'll get crossed…It's not much that I ask you…"I knew what Magdalene knew too, that it wasn't her brother waiting for her at the station but a former lover. Aware of this I intended to preserve intact the beauty of our love night, but Magdalene, I don't imagine what was going on in her head, wouldn't hear."I'll get mad if you don't come…My brother wants to meet you. You're an idol for him…"She was really mad…What interest could she have to put herself in such an awkward position? A sort of voluptuousness of self-destruction had got into her, an inebriation of self-exposure. I had to learn who exactly I was dealing with, but she, the naive, didn't understand that didn't matter at all. I had not attached any ethical meaning to our love night… and I had enjoyed myself and that was all, for the rest, God have mercy on us! But she wanted to persuade me that the whole thing was but deceit. So she held my hand firmly, desperately."You must come. I told my brother you will come to the station, too."So I went. We only waited for a few seconds until the Bacau fast train was announced. After a minute a young man, some twenty-three years old, twenty-five at the most, tall, handsome, sportive, got out of a second-class car.Magdalene was besides herself with joy at seeing him. She kissed his mouth long and passionately without caring about me. Her brother accepted these proofs of love with great dignity.We went in silence the three of us to the restaurant of the railway station, like prisoners to the death row. We asked for three large brandies and three large coffees. The so-called brother did not look at me but in exchange he assuredly fumbled for the legs of the adored woman. I wasn't mad or tortured by jealousy. I could no longer bear the situation for aesthetic reasons so I excused myself and went out on the platform. When I returned the brother had disappeared.Magdalene seemed in a good mood though."What do you say about my brother? Isn't he a brilliant man? Pity you didn't talk to him…""That's not your brother."She seemed surprised by my words. Indeed, she too appeared to have certain doubts...She did not know how things stood exactly, and therefore, modest, and understanding she asked for my opinion."Yes? You think it's not my brother?"Having a brother or not did not seem to Magdalene an irreversible problem but a confused, ambiguous affair that could be debated."Your really think he's not my brother?" Magdalene asked me seriously, looking me straight in the eye.I think it was the first time she looked a man straight in the eye."Yes. That's what I think. He looks more like a lover, one of your lovers…"Her doubt persisted."Yes? You think he's my lover? You think I slept with him?""Yes. I am convinced…And I don't understand why I got involved in all this awkward affair.""It was awkward? I didn't realize!""Most awkward…He touched you all the time right in front of my eyes…"She didn't remember that either. She wasn't sure about that either."Yes? Don't say! Then he's gross!""Why did you make me come to the station?" I shouted, feeling the miracle of that summer night vanish.Magdalene sighed. She touched my hand lightly, then withdrew it, ashamed, guilty."I hoped…""What did you hope?""I hoped he'd be my brother, after all…I hoped that he resembled me a little…" We went together to my Otopeni studio. At noon a white Fiat 1300 pulled in front of the yard. A young man with a severe commissioner uniform descended. He crossed the yard and without knocking he entered the studio. Magdalene was naked but she did not even cover her breasts as women do in such situations. The commissioner had only two expressions on his chubby face which he translated and divided most judiciously, one for one, one for Magdalene. "Sir, a bunch of flowers for Miss Magdalene."And then to Magdalene."Get dressed, baby…"Magdalene dressed up in a hurry, feeling no embarrassment. The distribution was final. I kept the flowers – seven white carnations – and the commissioner got Magdalene.I saw them off to the gate, tenderly, ceremoniously, like you do with guests coming on a visit, who, after having spent a nice evening, talking about things and feeling good, return to their homes. 

by Teodor Mazilu (1930-1980)