THE SIXTY-YEAR-OLD WOMAN AND THE YOUNG MAN
I don’t like cropped hair, I don’t like clean-shaven arm pits, I don’t like mown grass. I carry some instinct for resisting civilization inside me, I guess. Maybe that’s why I fear public phones even today, and lifts. Don’t mention computers. Tucking up her legs, the woman covers her ankles with her hem and narrows her eyes to feral slits. Across from her, the man hunches on a low stool. It’s an uncomfortable position. His long legs force his bent knees almost to his chin. He wears a coarse, white shirt, sleeves rolled above the elbow; he has sun-burnt muscular arms, hair cropped close to the skull, a thin growth of reddish beard—he’s unshaved, or, rather, looks to be: the picture of a good lay, as they say. He must be 25 years younger than the woman, and she’s well into her sixties.
Beyond the bridge poplars grew, and the shacks were strung—I can almost see them—across the vacant lots like coffins in the desert. They’d flock together after sundown on the banks of the Siret, the day laborers, in three tight groups, to party according to their customs. The evening echoed with the Serbians’ choirs. They rent the air with their forlorn, sluggish Tamo daleko. And a little further off to the right, behind the canteen, where the dirt was packed solid, the ethnic Swabian-Germans would dance their regular ländler to the accordion of a flaxen-haired giant, cap tilted up at the front. And still further down, around the lowest reach of the river, huddled the reed-lined dugouts where the Gypsies held their Sunday balls.
We’d just graduated from university. We had Wilhelm Meister and Kindred by Choice coming out of our ears with all the Goethe we’d been exposed to. We were young girls and firm-fleshed, our eyes hunting for men. We had no money to go to the mountains or seaside. After doing a one-month stint at the Flora cannery sorting out vegetables at the height of summer, we hit the Zagna Vǎdeni state-operated cooperative farm with a truckload of waifs. A snotty, toothless lot they were. North and south lay the cities of Galaţi and Brǎila. Terry had a brace of grandparents in each. She’d never visited them, though, as much as she’d have liked to go promenading in the evenings and run to the harbor to see the steamships, mornings. Terry entertained high hopes about her future. Anna had no one, either in Galaţi or Brǎila, and entertained no hopes whatsoever. When she was three, someone had asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she had answered “water”, or, at least, that’s what her mother said. Terry was a freckled redhead, long-legged and full-bosomed. We were lying on the bulrush mat at the door, stretched out on the sloping ground. I’ll never forget that position, as if we’d been cut in two, bodies in the dugout, heads in the open. We were watching the sky, and Terry was spinning the yarn of her amorous life at fifteen with a Hungarian baron’s grandson, who, during the holidays, would bring her offerings of tuberose and champagne all the way to Gǎtaia. Her parents had a homestead of sorts out there. The baron had fiddled with his autobiography to become a CP member, of course, and Terry would receive him in a pink kimono printed with ashen birds. Kneeling by the bed, she’d undo his laces, a vignette that made me visualize a scene from Kawabata, adapted for the screen. I didn’t believe a word Terry said, but I liked listening to her. She had a way with words, and I kept thinking to myself it would be a pity for her if she didn’t wind up a writer, and she did wind up a writer, after all.
In January, before the Christmas tree was untrimmed and chucked over the balcony, Anna had turned 65. At 50 or so I’d started to lose interest in celebrating the occasion. It felt just as absurd as changing the water for stale flowers. Early in the morning I’d close the door to my living room so that from outside they couldn’t hear my TV was on. I’d take the phone off the hook so that potential well-wishers would figure my phone was busy. I’d sink into the armchair waiting for something, then.
The man kept fidgeting on the uncomfortably small stool. He would have liked to stand, but he was embarrassed to rise so long as the woman went on speaking. For the sake of interruption, he asked her permission to light a cigarette. Go ahead. Smoke. I don’t mind, though I quit four years ago. I have this heart condition, you know. She spoke the last sentence in the playful, flirtatious tone in which elderly people justify momentary lapses or memory gaps. The man smoked in a basic, no-frills sort of way, without blowing smoke rings or exhaling smoke through his nose. He smoked like a peasant, pinching the cigarette with his thumb, index, and middle finger brought to a point as if in preparation for making the Orthodox, three-fingered sign of the cross. Staring her unswervingly in the eye, he must have been free to pursue his own thoughts, his vacant, green stare afloat as if in an empty jar.
The guy’s not even listening to me…ah well, I’ll just go on speaking, regardless, because it beats talking to the photo or the cat, any day. Anna went on thinking about the photo of her husband, Nino, who’d died three years before, and the cat, Dracula, with whom she was now sharing her bologna. Just to make sure, she repeated the same sentence several times. The man in the white shirt went on not reacting.
I like it this way. I’m listening as I talk to myself the way I listen to the trickle of water that leaks constantly from the faucet. Anna had never been a beautiful woman, but she was proud of her body, which would have looked as it did in her 30’s, even today, if it weren’t for the damned belly. I’m taking after Mother, only her ailments have reached me ten years earlier, which is why I reckon I can make it to 70. Mom’s going on 82, now.
I met Tereza Kövary during my second year at university. We were colleagues in the German department – sounds like a letter of recommendation from so long ago, back in the 50’s – and that’s when we got to be friends. “Kövary, Tereza” they announced Terry’s real name at roll call. She was an ethnic Hungarian. I suppose my paternal Ugro-Altaic gene drew me to her, right away. We’d swap dresses for dates, and during exams we’d wear each other’s rings for luck.
The woman’s legs go numb and she stretches them out, uncovering her ankles. The green stare goes on boring into her pupils, failing to either thrill or hurt me. Anna grows silent. The man is silent. For a few minutes the room shrinks around them; it darkens, becomes oppressive. There must be an angel here, whose shadow falls between us. I’m waiting, I’m counting, minutes burn like someone’s funneling impatience into my blood. I’m waiting without knowing exactly what for. I sense impossibility, monstrosity even, something I even dread. I look ridiculous in my own eyes. I don’t know how others see me, but there’s no way for them to figure out who turns off the light, who’s tossing the bed in my thoughts.
Zagna Vǎdeni was a vegetable farm supplying the Flora cannery. The Siret gently meandered past drought-cracked patches and plots planted with tomatoes and carrots. Thistles spilled into the crops. The sprinklers never stopped, day or night. We’d plod through the brush like legless scarecrows, newspaper hats on our heads. The Gypsies would take a break from weeding and—complete with pencil-thin moustache and black hat—the odd smartass would turn his head to ogle our prominences, understandably, and he’d spit out two magic words “şucar cei”, as inciting to us as “Open Sesame”. It happened each morning as we walked past the Gypsies’ plot, the invariable greeting, “şucar cei”. We were dying to find out what it meant. When we asked, an old Gypsy woman said it meant “Big-eyed beauty”. And in their duck cloth shifts that showed their freckled, sun-burnt shoulders, the girls of then must have been head turners, a fact not wasted on Berbecaru, the engineer, and the district-inspector, comrade Buruianǎ – which is, by way of interpretation, a weed.
One evening, having checked the laborers’ attendance sheets, the men stayed on in the engineer’s hut over a glass of the green until eleven, when it was pitch dark and the moon hung in the sky like a huge vaudeville pumpkin with a lighted candle stuck in its hollow inside. Then, being too tall to walk through the entrance of a dugout, the two guys with a snootful crawled into the girls’ boudoir. The engineer went for the brunette, the inspector – for the redhead. They passed the bottle of green spirits around. The girls attempted conversation in a more intellectual vein. Rummaging through the dramas of Schiller and Grillparzer, they dwelt on modern construction in Hebbel’s theatre—hoping in the innocence of well-behaved girls that the men, who were getting free with their hands, would succumb to culture and end up preferring the spirit to the enticement of shapely thighs. Little did the Zagna Vǎdeni intellectuals care about the mysteries harbored deep within the brains of two German-language scholars; so they went about their business, unabatedly, desperately trying to hump the slender, wily bodies that kept slipping away from their advances on the bulrushes, flooded with moonlight. Of course, I became aware that things were getting serious. The engineer had managed to corner me against the straw-stuffed pillow, while Terry could barely breathe under the inspector’s bony frame.
The green stare leaps to attention. There’s a dog across from me, pricking up its ears.
And suddenly I saw comrade Weed get up fast in the moonlight, and I heard a Jesus-fuckin’-Christ immediately muffled by the mat-lined earthen walls. That’s when I made out my friend’s greenish, frozen face, her eyelids lowered, her mouth gasping for air like a fish in an aquarium without water. Terry was going through the perfect simulation of a heart attack. I was grateful to her for having curbed the guys’ panache. Crawling unceremoniously, they beat it out of the dugout that gaped in the midst of the field like a giant woman with her legs apart. That was when Anna discovered for the first time what an exquisite actress Terry was, on top of being an accomplished liar. She started entertaining a sort of mute admiration for her then, but at the same time a sort of groundless embarrassment marked her face whenever their eyes met. From then on, I was always aware of that mask betraying me in Terry’s presence.
NORA IUGA(1931) is a poet, prose writer and translator born and raised in Bucharest, who also grew up in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands as well as the Transylvanian city of Sibiu. She is the author of a number of collections of poetry, prose works and a novel in verse. Having studied German language and literature, and then worked as a German teacher and journalist for German language news media in Romania, Iuga has gone on to have a distinguished career as a translator. She has translated E.T.A. Hoffman, Nietzsche, Knut Hamsun, August Strindberg as well as contemporary authors such as Herta Müller, Elfriede Jelinek and Günter Grass. In 2007, she received the Friedrich-Gundolf Prize from the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung for the promotion of German literature. Iuga’s debut novel, The Sixty-Year-Old Woman and the Young Man (Sexagenara si tinarul, 2000; Prize of the Union of Romanian Writers) has been translated into German, Spanish and Italian.
About the Translator:
FLORAN BICAN sees translation as an act of kindness towards readers who are not fortunate enough to have a working knowledge of Romanian. He has translated the work of numerous Romanian writers into English, including that of Mircea Cărtărescu, Gellu Naum and Leonid Dimov among many others. Among his Romanian translations from English, Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark and T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats are worth mentioning. His first volume of poetry, Cântice mârlăneşti (A Slob’s Treasury of Verse, 2007), is a collection of politically incorrect cautionary rhymes addressed to children and grown-ups alike.
Read more by Nora Iuga:
Read an excerpt from her novel Let’s Steal Watermelons (Hai să furăm pepeni, 2009) at her Contemporary Romanian Writers Author Page