In the Beginning There Was Sound
In the beginning the sound incorporated the meaning of silence, too. Humming remembrance of the past. Of what happened, was imagined, or profoundly desired. Like an unventilated waiting room in a train station buzzing with flies. The door opens without a creak and the click-clack of heels announces an intriguing presence. Those high heels neither elongate nor hide her healthy short frame. They propel her. A well-tailored gabardine suit flatters her waist and her eye’s shade of green. Its skirt is cut above her knees – a sign she follows the new fashion. Individual freedom of expression trails the 1960s as they pierce through the Iron Curtain and take over the mind of Romanian women up to Romeşti, a Subcarpathian village along the Argeş river counting a few hundred as residents. Her black shoes – one less dusty than the other – match the small purse hanging over her shoulder.
She paces up and down the wooden floor as if challenging the time to move faster. The wall clock adorning the room remains unimpressed, moving its minute hand at the same speed it did before she came in. Now and then she shakes off a fly lost in her brushed up hair. It lands on a child half-asleep on a large piece of broken luggage showing its content: turnips to be sold on the city market.
From the clutch she retrieves a small round mirror and checks the room and her makeup. Impeccably smooth on her ripen peach face. Especially the red lipstick. Pretending to play some beautifying role on her slightly open lips divulging a string of perfectly sized, white teeth. The only flaw on this face of Titian’s penitent Magdalene is her nose, evidence of a past tense.
A man smoking a cigarette until it burns his fingers starts coughing and spits on the floor when the phlegm is too much to swallow. Three women with their heads covered in colorful scarfs engage in activities suiting their social station: the one alone reads a library book. The mother is busy clipping her kid’s nails. The youngest gazes far away with her head bouncing off her coughing man’s shoulder.
In his office, separated by a thin wall with an opening to watch over his flock, the station master, with his coat half-dressed, boxes in vain with the back fist the cursed hole in the other sleeve. His heavy sweat dwindling down his prematurely bald head and dripping down his nose impacts his determination. Finally, after a few failed trials, breaking through the sleeve, his hand rushes to a rolled newspaper lying on his desk and starts killing the flies. Through the opening, he finally takes in those waiting for his whistle. He spots his former elementary school crash and his heart attempts to beat harder. With a fat man’s heroic bent and a servile nod of his head, says a loud:
“Kiss’ur hand, Veronica,” the Romanian stand in for hello, săru’ mâna, Veronica,” through the wall opening.
Like everyone else in Romeşti, he’s in love with her, or confuses erotic dreams with love. He has followed her trajectory, away to Şcoala Normală de Învăţători, a specialized boarding high school producing elementary school teachers, and back as he was just starting as an apprentice. Twelve years ago. An unexpected retrogression for her family, though signs existed as tea leaves in the bottom of a cup. Her father, the pre-war mayor joined the Eastern Front effort a cheeky fellow only to return untimely with spells of violence alternating silence. Right on time to avert suspicion from his wife of having used a pitchfork to keep the German officer camped in their villa, Casa de la Şosea, away from their connubial bed. The past foretelling the future with the precision of the train-schedule. He dries up his forehead. It’s hot. And the station has neither running water nor a well. What is Veronica doing in his waiting room? Inadvertently, he blinks and catches remembrances of her legs in silk stalkings climbing the few stairs into second class compartments taking her to the city. She could have commuted. Not her. Never one for waiting around for life to happen. What is she doing on a Sunday in his train station? More importantly, when did she arrive without him noticing it?
A good conversation starter. He starts patting off the dust on his station master coat. Maybe today’s his lucky day. His wife, another primary school classmate, but she chose to stick around, is away at a Black Sea resort with their two children. Like her family, since 1962, she works in the local cooperative’s dairy farm. Each summer the cooperative gives his family two tickets to spend 10 days at the Black Sea. In a hotel for agricultural workers from all over the country. Two kids, their mother, and grandparents get to share a beautiful hotel room with two twin beds, a dresser, and a table, adorned with a small terrace from where they could see the Black Sea. The terrace door is locked if the room is on a higher floor, though. On the wall he pinned down all five postcards they mailed each summer featuring Perla, the hotel, a jewel of soviet architecture making each individual feel like a boss for ten days. Undeniable proof that Romania was a dictatorship of the industrial proletariat and their allies, the peasant workers.
The station master has a coughing fit. The dust he’s unsettled and the cigarette smoke from the waiting room take over his lungs. Dry. Defeated he watches Veronica opening the door and vanishing into the bright morning light. His gaze follows her outside through his regular window.
On the platform all the benches are taken by makeshift luggage. The few men and women around stand up next to their bags of vegetables and chat. The men lift their hats when she passes by them oblivious to their existence. Waiting are also a bunch of tied up clucking geese, a startled goat kid, and the summer morning behind the chestnut trees.
“Mama,” Veronica hears behind her and turns.
“Carl,” she sounds stunned, “what are you doing here?”
A skinny tall boy, knocking at the door of adolescence, but wearing sandals suited for a much younger lad, with worn-out socks hung by the lips, revealing ankles the same color as his thighs visible in his shorts, approaches her.
With Carl in front of her like a tall-building architectural problem, Carl is Veronica’s height, she leans against the station’s wall checking him out. His big blue eyes quietly tell the story of his devotion for his mother. She fixes his hair, sandy and straight reaching the root of his neck. Then she moves to the collar of his shirt wondering why he’s wearing that better T-shirt, instead of the collarless ones he wears to work. On her parents’ farm daily workers and family members exert themselves as hard as the owners, or they don’t have a chance of sticking around. If that’s what they’re after.
“Only the bride is missing!” The head of the station approaches them tenderly, showing a red face above the folds of his handkerchief. Veronica looks imperially at him forcing this acknowledgment:
“It’s coming.” She turns her head away looking at a moving black point making itself heard.
“It’s coming,” Carl agrees rushing to the edge of the platform.
“Carl, come back,” Veronica involuntarily shows her feelings.
Obediently and pleased at the attention received, Carl pulls himself back. A black point on the vertiginous horizon of the tracks approaches the station with hostility. They all wait, looking at the nervous tracks until Carl blurts it out.
“You’ve received a telegram.” He hands his mother a piece of paper which looks read a few times over.
The black point becomes a terribly angry train which goes ahead without stopping.
“Cargo.” The station master tells them. “The train will come any minute now.” He cannot take the direct heat. He looks for the trees’ shade. Over the rails. He returns to his office. Veronica’s attention is all squandered away.
“Can’t help.” That’s all it says. Why. No clue. With what. No explanation. The name sending the telegram: Paul. The only Paul she knows right now is Paul Galopenţa. She closes her eyes briefly under the weight of her longing. Surprised, she recaptures the present by folding the piece of paper with his impersonally typed name. Neatly. Done, she opens her bag and takes out a train ticket. She instructs her son to talk to the station master and see if he can take it back and refund her.
“Oh, would you throw the telegram in the trashcan?” She adds as an afterthought.
Carl obeys and goes in as the train slows down approaching the station.
At the window of one compartment, a man, overdressed in a similar manner like Veronica, stands out. His hair is combed backwards with care giving him an aura of non-proletarian sophistication. His view is quickly obliterated by the sun making them all blink. When the train comes to full stop, he gets out and comes directly towards her, as if he has expected this meeting. His suit is gabardine, too. His beautiful black hair matches his luscious mustache. His skin tone is tanned. So tanned that it looks charcoal. Veronica is hopeful. He has time to tan. But where? At the Black Sea? His shoes are shabby, indicating that all his money’s in the suit. She’s taken aback.
“Săru’ mâna, Veronica, or shall I say, V?” He says taking her hand as if to weigh it or following a script he doesn’t really agree with. Without kissing it and not really in a gesture of friendship moments later her lets it carefully go.
Veronica gives him a quizzical look. Something she’s not in the habit of engaging. She remembers everyone deserving to be remembered. Who is he? They have not met, obviously, and she cannot recollect having written to him. She does write a lot though. She teaches writing. She smiles. Stay focused V. She usually recalls names. Not his, nor why he’s there, in her worst nightmare. Paul was supposed to help her find a doctor to do it, or at least a nurse. Anyone. It’s early September 1966 and one of her taken for granted freedoms, the choice to decide whose child to bear and for how many weeks, dissipated with great pomp only days ago. The Romanian television broadcast the news elevating women to the better soviet product: they could bear all pregnancies to full term while working as hard as their men. Soviet heroines! Two months pregnant, Veronica has to find a solution. Fast. Who is this man afraid of touching her? Is she losing her magnetism? She’s can’t remember anyone dropping her hand without a languorous kiss. Paul, how she misses him. And his elaborate stories about his inability to marry her. Definitely not those.
“I can’t tell you how relieved I am you are waiting for me at the train station.” The sun doesn’t seem to bother him. “After that unforgettable night,” he stops to recollect himself, “I kept in touch with Paul.” Veronica has her answer. “When I told him I was ready and restless to start a family, he gave me your address.” He takes a piece of paper from his pocket. “Ticuţă, take the 7:00 AM, Monday train to Romeşti. Veronica will be waiting for you.”
Carl returns with the money with a savior’s smile.
“I did it, mom.” He hands her a banknote and a few coins. Veronica puts both the second telegram from Paul she reads that morning and Carl’s money in her clutch.
“And you must be Carl.” The man says smilingly showing his unpleasantly yellow and crooked teeth.
“I am Ticuţă, but I hope you will soon call me Tata.” He pinches Carl’s skinny cheek. That rather presumptuous introduction brings smiles on both the mother and son’s faces. Carl has never met his father (tata), and Veronica is desperate to cast this gift from Paul for the role of dad.
“Carl what do you say?” and taking Carl’s hand, she adds, “before I introduce you to my parents, can you tell me a bit more about you?” He looks older than her. Perhaps, he’s not 35, but not much older than 40-42, either. The small leather tote indicates he’s at least a factory clerk. Veronica’s face lights up. It’s Monday. How many days can he take off? One? Two? They start moving away slowly. How long does it take to get a marriage license in Romeşti?
The head master approaches them while signaling the train’s mechanic it’s time to go. The train whistles its departure absorbing all attention.
“So, what’s the occasion?” Veronica’s former classmate approaches the group breathing heavily with his handkerchief like a sweat sponge in his hand.
“Hi, I am Ticuţă,” he stops and the rest of his party with him. Ticuţă holds out his hand to shake the master’s. They do.
“We will see you again soon, if I can convince these two to come with me to Pruna,” the stranger doesn’t want to stop talking as if giving himself courage. “Carl would go to a city school. Wouldn’t you like that?” Carl ducks the second cheek-pinch nodding his head acquiescing. “Fifteen thousand people live in my city, Pruna, and most of them work at the factory where I am the HR chief assistant.”
The head master is quietly watching Veronica. She looks dreamy. Twelve years ago, Maria, her mother, didn’t give her a wedding. Too big a tummy. Too much gossip to contain. Veronica was dispatched and sent away by the night-time train to find a solution. She did, returning with a marriage certificate to show for the little boy and a divorce decree to explain her broken nose. Now she looks fit. Still young to have another child though. With Ticuţă? They seem to have just met. Did he kiss her hand? Ticuţă is holding his little bag with both hands.
Veronica slowly remembers how she met this intriguing man. Definitely not a catch, but he could stand in for one. Closing her eyes, she relives her last night on the beach. Returning to the hotel room as the sun was rising and the cool air was dissipating, hanging on Paul’s arm as a feather in love, this scared man approached them looking frightened. He looked comical, but no one was laughing. Ticuţă, full of sand, in some tattered boxers, was wearing the same shabby shoes. He mumbled about having gone for a swim and spending the whole night searching for his clothes. Paul jokingly said that he could tell a scorned lover when he saw one. Paul took off his pant suit and gave it to him. Veronica can’t take her eyes off Ticuţă. He’s wearing Paul’s suit. She comes closer to smell the sea lurking in the fabric. What a joker, Paul was. She looks at Ticuţă’s face. He seems genuinely immersed in this situation. Paul’s direction, but it is his own creation. A feeling of fondness comes over her. What pushed him to become outrageous? Could he be morphing into a marginal element? She can’t imagine how, but no one wants to be called that in party meetings. “Self-marginalized” as the meeting leaders would say, “because the new soviet men and women are powerful individuals able to decide their own destiny.” Or, acquiesce to it
Saying their goodbyes, they walk away to Casa de la Şosea. Veronica’s heels make a rhythmic noise, click-cluck, click-cluck on the platform, and then on the highway. Absent a sidewalk, they go one behind the other. Carl first. With the sun at the very end.
Veronica’s heels are the only soundtrack. With a passing car adding background noise. Ticuţă is suddenly quiet. Is he worried about what he is going to do? Or, like Veronica and Carl, does he have no luxury to worry about unexpected consequences, all too aware about what would happen to him, if he chose to wait and see? Click-cluck, click-cluck, Veronica’s heels offer the group direction. Comfortingly.
Dana Neacşu, a New Yorker expat, currently living in Pittsburgh has translated works of fiction from Romanian into English and non-fiction from English into Romanian. She is hard at work on a collection of stories about the 1970s Romania, the first decade in the life of her young protagonist, Trey. Her nickname extols the magical number three (trei) days one needed to survive in order to be. Their name was then listed into the public birth records.
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