Sal, the protagonist of ‘Sun Alley’, is an exceptionally intelligent twelve-year-old boy, experiencing his first love. One summer afternoon, on his way to see his girlfriend Emi, he is caught in a rain shower and shelters in the hallway of a block of flats. Led by a strong odour, he goes down into the basement, where he comes upon the corpse of a young and very beautiful woman. Little by little, Sal will attempt to discover the mystery of this body and, at the same time, will pursue in his amorous relationship with Emi; a strange liaison which unfolds in parallel with the adulterous affair of an adult couple whose path Sal repeatedly crosses. The connections between adults and the two children, on the one hand, and the dead body discovered by Sal on the other, are far deeper and more complicated than they may at first seem. ‘Sun Alley’ is a novel about the roots of adultery and the destiny of an exceptional young boy who, thanks to his gifts, has the power to see his own future in his mind’s eye.
Sal was fascinated by bugs. At home, in the living room, he had framed an insectary in which all sort of specimens, from cockroaches to Mantis religiosa, lay pinned and which he had aligned like soldiers, scribbling below them the date when each had been captured. ‘Funeral stones,’ Sal explained to those staring in disgust at the still life hanging on the white wall of the room.
He thought a while and then lightly touched the cockroach’s hump with his nail. It stopped, curled up and slowly moved its legs, seemingly begging to be left alive. Sal lifted his finger and sat down on the kerb next to the cockroach. On his knee he had a freshly cicatrised wound he had received after falling off his bike. He lowered his nail onto the thick, brown crust that covered the old wound and started to scratch it. As he poked at the crust on his knee, a thin thread of blood began to trickle under his index nail. He moaned. A piece of the crust was coming off, revealing raw flesh. Raw flesh, as if, he thought, the flesh were raw only under this thin cover, so pleasant to the touch, called skin. While it was under the cover, the flesh lived independently.
The cockroach was gone. Birds were fluttering noisily above, and clouds had covered the sky. He could smell the rain; the air around him was electrified and he could almost hear it buzz, prompting him to get up and walk farther. Before long, raindrops started to whip his cheeks and arms. Suddenly, the rain started to patter: a summer whim, as his grandmother used to say while bustling him inside, sheltering him as well she could from the short, rich gusts with all her body, with her large, soft breasts and with her armpits. He instinctively lifted his arms up, pulling his T-shirt over his head, and looked around at the slender trees and the plastic roof supported by four posts before deciding to seek refuge in the lobby of Harry’s apartment building to wait there for the rain to calm down.
Once inside, he shook the water off like a dog and then remained still, listening for noises in the building. Although he heard murmurs and squeaks, short cracks followed by a slow friction, a rugged rustle coming from the elevator shaft and brief trampling, the silence was still overwhelming. All these noises meant nothing compared to the absence of people and of the sounds made by them.
He breathed in several times, filling his lungs with air. A stench, at first faint as a breeze, then increasing as his sense of smell got accustomed to the interior, remained clinging to his nostrils like icicles in winter. It became stronger, stinging his nose and reminding him of the nail polish remover that diffused throughout the bathroom after his mother wiped the polish off her nails and left the soaked and reddened cotton swabs on the sink. He looked up through the tunnel made by the staircase handrail, making sure there was no one there. The flow of air made the smell grow stronger and then fade in waves. From upstairs he could hear a window banging rhythmically against the wall. After slamming like that for several minutes, while Sal pricked up his ears to hear the other noises inside, the noise of its shattered glass falling on the floor followed.
Sal expected someone would come out in the hallway to see what had happened, but nobody did. He decided to go upstairs despite the nausea already filling his chest and forcing up all his lunch: chicken soup with noodles, roast meat with boiled potatoes and tomato salad, followed by a jam and meringue cake topped with grated chocolate especially sent by Grandmother in a greased, paper-lined suitcase. Upon reaching each new floor, he leant with his hands upon his knees and tried to take a deep breath to push the food back down, but the inhaled air only managed to disturb his bowels more and bend him under the weight of his rebelling body.
On the second floor, from behind a massive wooden door with a carved golden handle, he could hear a recurrent rustle. Putting his ear to the varnished surface, Sal tried to make out what was on the other side. The rustle was pretty close, but its regularity betrayed a spring-loaded device.
He drew back and climbed to the next floor. There, overwhelmed by the heavy air, by the decomposed mixture of sweet and sour smells, he stepped on the floor covered with shattered glass, lifted his body with a powerful push by grasping the window sill and, with all his weight resting upon his thin wrists, leaned on the edge, then bent out and let the drops of rain fall on his face.
The feeling of relief only lasted for a few seconds, because as soon as he trickled back in, careful not to make any sounds, the nausea reappeared. He bent his head between his legs, curled up at his joints and threw up until only a thread of saliva trickled from between his red and swollen lips, trembling lightly like a murmur echoing the spasms of the flesh. He remained bent with his eyes covered by the fog of effort and nausea, his mind empty and his temples beating like a heart. With a last struggle, he straightened his back and limped up the remaining stairs to Harry’s apartment in what looked more like a crawl.
Outside, the heavy rain kept falling, while the smell made it harder and harder for him to stay inside. Thinking about the moment he would breathe in, filling his lungs with the stuffy air in his friend’s rarely aired house, hidden from light behind the thick, velvet, tasseled curtains, he dashed up the stairs to the last floor, moaning and cursing. Once there, he pushed his finger into the bulging electric bell and made it ring in a short spurt; when he saw that no one was coming to open the door, he rang a second time, this time for longer.
In front of the closed door, he began to ponder. It wasn’t the best idea to enter Harry’s house, for Harry would insist that he stay and, if he showed eagerness to leave once the rain had stopped, Harry would certainly sound him out, curious as he was. He crouched, rummaged through his pocket and took out a piece of chocolate wrapped in tinfoil. It had melted and its shape had changed, but Sal used his nail to remove the wrapping that was stuck to the brownish mass.
He had felt a softness in his legs, some kind of tremor hidden in the flesh, and had lost contact for a moment. However tempted he may have felt to lie down on the doormat and allow himself to be carried by his thoughts, he still thought that somewhere above him drifted Emi’s tousled and impatient head, with a well-defined wrinkle already visible between her eyebrows and a sparkle in her eyes that could have ignited the whole neighbourhood. Perhaps he could wait until Mrs Demetrescu found him and, in terrible alarm, lifted him and carried him under her arm as if he were a bundle of woodchips, bringing him inside the house and calling his already-worried parents in a firm voice with little trace of excitement. Sal heaved a long sigh and leaned against the doorjamb, calmly munching the piece of chocolate. He thought he heard, on the other side of the door, a stifled noise followed by a thud, and he stopped and listened.
‘Harry…’ he whispered, concentrating. ‘Harry, is that you, man?’
No answer. He knocked softly, carefully. It was only his breath in the hall, no other noise; his breath that had frosted the wood varnish on the door.
‘Harry, say something if you’re there.’
He drew back, looking up at the dark eye in the peephole. Rising on his toes, he thought he noticed motion behind the concave lens.
‘You must be very stupid not to open the door, Harry. Just stay there and giggle,’ he said, and from inside he could hear clearly now, as if it were very close, a stifled giggle.
He went downstairs two steps at a time, trying to breathe as little as possible. As he got closer to the ground floor and the smell became stronger, diversifying its nuances and penetrating his clothes and his skin, it inebriated him to such an extent that he nearly fainted. This was a building without pets and old people. He knew almost all of them, for together with the boys in his gang, he had harassed them all in various ways. It was not from the cleaned and scrubbed apartments that the smell came, nor from the stairs that were swept daily and then washed with a rag curled around a wooden stick.
By the time he reached the ground floor, he had figured out where the smell was coming from. Outside, the rain would have hidden the putrid smell, annihilating it. There was only one place left that he would have to inspect, although he wasn’t looking forward to doing so and had little courage left: the basement. On the ground floor, there were two apartments and the door that led to the basement, where the storage rooms were located. It wasn’t a very pleasant place to visit, especially when alone. But it was still raining outside, ceaselessly; it was raining cats and dogs, as Grandmother used to say while looking absentmindedly out the window, and Emi would undoubtedly have to wait. He opened the last door, while at the same moment a horrid stench hit him so violently he staggered and moved a step backward.
‘I’ll be damned…’
An infinite disgust impressed itself upon Sal’s face. He slammed the door wildly, as if someone were rushing at him from beyond the threshold, and remained with his hand on the door handle, seemingly trying to figure out what was to be done. A few long seconds passed.
‘I’ll be damned,’ Sal repeated in a stifled voice. ‘What the hell is this smell?’
He stood with his arms akimbo like a bewildered old man, assessing the danger. Opening the door again, he looked inside to the darkness that lay at his feet. He tried his best to be brave, but the pitch-black inferno of the building had opened its huge mouth and was preparing to swallow him, the way children swallowed pickled autumn tomatoes brought from basement storage rooms by the housewifely mothers who had been careful enough to store supplies for winter.
Sal’s fingers had gone white and he could no longer feel his limbs, but he didn’t understand very clearly if this was because of his sickness or because of the cold that had caught him unaware. The door was open, and the dark was already licking the tips of his shoes. Sal felt dizzy with nausea; his body was numb and his head kept spinning.
He took a step inside. There, with the dark swallowing half of his body, the air no longer seemed so unbearable. He took another step. The dark clung to his face. He should go on, he thought, emboldening himself; he should take another step. So he took another. Suddenly, he rolled down the stairs without feeling any pain. His body seemed wrapped in a sponge and, through the soft fabric, thousands of eyes had popped out. For the first time, he saw everything as if in a huge glass panorama. The horizon lay both in front of him and behind him, bewildering him.
He landed on the cement at the bottom of the stairs. Shaking the dust out of his clothes and checking himself for sore spots, he could feel absolutely no pain. He felt neither the nausea that had strangled him upstairs nor the dizziness; he could breathe at will. For a split second, he thought he was dreaming. He stayed still, trying to come back to his senses.
A small, narrow corridor lay ahead of him, with doors to the storage rooms aligned on each side. Sal stood up and, leaning against the wall, advanced one step at a time. With the tips of his fingers, he felt some kind of strange dampness that caused him to draw back his hand hastily. He rubbed his index finger against his thumb, remaining still. A faint, barely perceptible hum floated now in the darkness.
After a few seconds, Sal’s eyes got used to the lack of light, and he began to discern the space around him. The foul smell was gone, and now he began to smell the odour of plants in the air.
‘Oh, God!’ he said to himself. ‘I think I’ve gone crazy.’ Emi was waiting for him in her cheerful room, clad in her transparent dress through which you could see her thighs and her underpants and, sometimes, when you looked closer, even her nipples, but only when it was cold and Emi was all in a shiver. What on earth was he doing here? Why wasn’t he resting in peace, his head in her lap? Maybe he could even have taken a little nap before seeing the boys.
He came to a door that was ajar, pulled away the broken padlock that hung from two metal loops and pushed the door to the wall. The darkness inside was even thicker than it had been in the corridor, and Sal groped slowly along the wall, searching for a light switch, but couldn’t find one. He stepped into the room cautiously, following the slow, deafening rhythm of his heartbeat, and had the strange feeling that everything had frozen still – no heartbeat, no hum in the air, no muffled sounds from outside, nothing at all. And then the stench rushed upon him in even greater intensity, with a hint of jasmine and anise.
‘Is there anyone here?’ Sal whispered, overcome with excitement.
He took another two steps, and time began to rush. He began repeating in his mind, mechanically: ‘Emi, Emi, Emi.’ Then, when he had somewhat recovered from his fear, when he had measured the distance in the dark with his eyes, when his hands had stopped trembling, only then did he think that everything was a big pile of nonsense. How could a smell scare him?
The voice within him gave a high-pitched shriek, like a hysterical woman. Sal advanced blindly through the room, trying to grab onto something. The smell would come and go as if a draught crossed the room, somehow eluding him. Suddenly, there was the metallic edge of something hip-high. Sal cheered up and measured the cold expanse with the tips of his fingers: it was something that seemed to be a table. He closed his eyes and continued to feel the edges with more caution, advancing along a surface that had changed in consistency now; his fingers slid on an unpolished surface less electrifying than the metal on the sides. And then, suddenly, the terrible softness set off the putrid smell again.
Sal! he heard Emi call with a broken voice. Sal! his mother shrieked at the top of her lungs. Sal! the seemingly friendly basement echoed, bathed in a grey light. He turned his head, a scream stuck in his throat. He made a move to go, to run as far from that terrible place as he could, but the buzz clogged his eardrums and the machinery inside him had lost its will to move. He stood there, with his fingers prodding the soft surface, trying to understand what was under the thin membrane of his terror-rippled skin. But because his eyes couldn’t help him see and his nose couldn’t smell a thing, he pinched the softness under his fingers and felt clearly now that under the skin on his fingers lay another skin.
He cringed in terror. He knew quite well what was on that table. It was someone. A human being, a body, a creature. Maybe Harry himself, wanting to scare him. That would have changed things.
‘Harry,’ he whispered, his voice strangled with excitement. ‘Harry, answer, you son of a bitch…’
He waited for a sign. It wasn’t only his imagination; the tips of his fingers still bore that unexpected touch. He was shaken by a strong shiver. Then he made a decision: to touch again, to see what it was and, if it proved to be Harry, to make that bugger sweat for it. So, with a sudden jerk, he jumped forward as if playing rugby and landed upon the heap of flesh. He flew across the dark room, accompanied by the voices of his mother and Emi as if by two nagging angels; his hands were the first to touch the pane of the table, then his skinny body, his bare knees bruised on the football field, his red and calloused elbows and, with his heart pounding in his flat chest, he ended his flight and landed on a stone-still body. He made a last attempt, gasping in pain and fright: ‘Harry, you fucking wanker, if you don’t answer I’ll beat the shit out of you… fuck…’
No answer; no motion. Sal was shaking all over. He braced himself, and without climbing down, clenching his teeth, he started again to grope, this time consistently: here was something resembling a shoulder, higher up something that felt like a neck, there was an Adam’s apple, the chin, the face… As he proceeded, Sal began to recompose, blindly, the human being – there was no doubt now – beneath him.
He jumped off the table, but didn’t move away. Drawing a deep breath, only then did he feel the heavy plant smell whiffling in his nostrils again. This time it was faint, as if a draught moved the air from one side of the building to the other. It was strange, because he could swear it was from down here that the smells had risen.
Sal was more concerned with that presence now, with the body lying still on the table – he imagined it as a dissection table in order to better envisage the dark reality he was just probing. He was dying to find out what was there. It couldn’t have been Harry or another one of the boys. It was in fact, he finally admitted to himself, a woman, and that was the only thing he could say about the body he had plunged upon. He had felt, through his sweaty T-shirt, her breasts; he had clearly sensed their shape, he had anticipated them even before having touched them. He lifted a hand slowly, fumbled in the dark and then lowered it gently. Again, the skin with a silken feeling to it, a bit damp, like Emi’s skin was after she had run a whole afternoon on the streets in their neighbourhood and she fell in his arms, dead tired.
It was then that Sal managed to touch her at his ease, to grip her flesh without the fear of being questioned, without revealing the pleasure that made him tingle all over. But the body of the woman lying on the table was supposed to resist, was supposed to move, to struggle; the woman perched upon the dissection table was supposed to protest and to scold him…
The finger had come to a bend. It was heading upward now, in a slow, almost dreamlike ascension, to the peak, the nipple – he tensed, for he discovered an iceberg on top: the breast was cold, frozen, stiffly jabbing the boy’s palm as it explored larger and larger surfaces. A hand migrated to the abdomen; the other was on its way to the other iceberg. But the encounter with the left breast was even worse. The coldness, the skin wrinkled over the flesh, made him shiver. And time stopped still again, as if the coldness of the body he was groping had overflowed into the surrounding world, freezing it.
CECILIA ŞTEFĂNESCU made her debut with the novel Love Sick, which has been published in two editions and published in France by Éditions Phébus in 2006. The novel has also been made into a film, directed by Tudor Giurgiu, which has been shown at the Berlin Film Festival, Karlovy Vary, Chicago, and in more than twenty countries. In 2005, alongside eleven other Romanian writers, she took part in the annual Les Belles Étrangères event, organised by the Centre National du Livre and the French Ministry of Culture, which was dedicated to Romania that year. She has given public readings in France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and Poland; in 2007, she was the recipient of a writer’s residency offered by the City Hall of Paris. She has also been published in the group anthology Windows 98 and, along with other Romanian authors, contributed to the experimental book Tescani 40238. She contributes monthly editorials to the Romanian-language edition of Elle magazine and writes for the weekly Romanian-language edition of Le Monde Diplomatique.
ALEXANDRA COLIBAN is a translator from and to Romanian-English. She was bought up as a bilingual speaker of English and Romanian by her family in Bucharest. Her grandfather was Professor Dan Dutescu, the respected Romanian translator of Shakespeare and Chaucer. Alexandra has followed in his footsteps, and is the Romanian translator of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex as well as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. She also translated into English the stories in the collection Love 13 – a bilingual selection of love stories (Editura Arte, 2010).
Read more work by Cecilia Ştefănescu:
An excerpt from Love Sick at Contemporary Romanian Writers Author Page