Adriana Bittel (b. 1946) is one of the most powerful voices in the contemporary Romanian literature. From 1972 to 2010 she worked for the literary magazine România literară. In the last 20 years, Bittel published weekly book reviews in Formula AS. She made her literary debut with the short story collection Things in a blue attic (Cartea Românească Publishing House, 1980). She also published: The sleep after giving birth (Cartea Românească Publishing House, 1984), Julie in July (Ed. Eminescu, 1986), Meeting in Paris. Eleven short stories (Ed. Compania, 2001), The Way a Blonde Goes Grey (Humanitas, 2015).
Visiting a Man in the Absence of His Wife
A few years had elapsed since her discovery, and no matter how hard she was trying to carry on as if nothing had happened (and, indeed, nothing had happened – she’d fallen in love, was all), she was still obsessed with her officemate’s face, gestures and voice. She could sense that he was himself struggling against the attraction, she could sense a subtle chemistry was already at work in both of them. They were handling explosives with utmost care. Their most innocuous exchanges – words, looks – would amount to a clash of despicable yearnings. Like two reasonable people, no longer in their prime and both under certain “obligations”, they prized above their own feelings the common sense decrying adulterous passions. After all, the complications, the cheating, the remorse, the mental discomfort were not really worth that half hour of total oblivion. If, indeed, oblivion was possible. So, they reined themselves in nice and proper, and those around didn’t suspect a thing. It was only during the moments before sleep that the valve would relax, giving way to appalling scenarios of consummation, and the two otherwise decent family people longed to be young and sensually uninhibited. When he told her that for the balance sheet they were working on together they’d have to meet on Sunday, at his place – his wife was away, they’d be able to work undisturbed – she crouched as if punched in the midriff. Right, let’s get it over with, then, she murmured pensively as he nodded faintly in agreement. For the rest of the day, they avoided being left alone with each other. It was Friday. She cooked for each family member, enough food to last for two days – each one’s favourite dish, cherry pie included, and bought beer cans for them all. She got up in the dead of night, shaved her legs, varnished her toe nails, which she only did once a year when they went to the seaside. She couldn’t go back to sleep as she struggled to imagine how the encounter might unfold. She kept getting sidetracked by embarrassing details. She could sense what she’d feel like afterwards. Soiled. Better call him at daybreak to cancel the whole thing.
However, at the appointed time, nervous to the point of suffocation, she was ringing her doorbell. He opened straight away, as if he’d been waiting behind the door. Could be he was wary lest neighbours see her. He looked quite different, wearing shorts, a tee-shirt and sleepers. Spindly legs, all hairy. The tee-shirt revealed a hint of a paunch, so far obscured by his suits. She wished she hadn’t noticed those physical shortcomings. She’d always found him perfect. The flat was pleasantly redolent of limes. From the entrance hall, she spied, through the kitchen door left ajar, the spotless tiles and the potted hydrangea on the fridge.
She eagerly allowed him to steer her, hand squeezed between elbow and hip, into the living room, where the drawn drapes were filtering the light yellow, and an escaped shaft of sunlight was rippling upon the tobacco-brown carpet, the knickknacks on the bookshelves and the green spread on the couch, matching the armchairs upholstery. A female presence was lingering in the room – the knitting basket, needles stuck in a ball of wool, the hibiscus on the coffee table chock-full of flowers and buds (they only blossom if tended affectionately, she used to have one herself, but it had only managed a few feeble, washed-out flowers), a wooden casket overflowing with beads and brooches, under the TV set.
His breath was rasping in hot gusts against her nape, while his hand started ascending from her hip towards her breast. She turned to watch him. Flushed face, beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead. We have all the time in the world, jus’ lemme catch my breath. Right, I’m brewing us some coffee. Can I go wash my face? Sure thing, bathroom’s down the corridor, right at the end. Take your time, you can have a shower till the coffee brews. On the shelf above the washbasin, an almost empty bottle of L’air du temps, face creams, a bottle of Xanax next to the shaving kit. On top of the washing machine, alongside detergent boxes, a bag of curlers and a hair brush with a few long grey hairs stuck in it.
She let the water run and washed her face at length, feeling watched while doing something inappropriate. A hooded greenish-blue bathrobe was hanging from a hook on the door. Next to the bathtub, two pairs of beach sandals were neatly aligned on a mat – a bigger size and a smaller one. The water, mingled with sweat, had run into her eyes and was beginning to smart. I’m not going to do this to you – she whispered to the bathrobe and to the small-size sandals. I simply don’t feel up to it. I’d also hate the idea of a strange woman in my bathroom, among my things. The water was trickling from her neck between her breasts, and tickled her. A disgusted face was looking back at her from the mirror.
He was still in the kitchen. She could hear the clinking of teaspoons and glasses wafting in from there. The fragrance of coffee had overcome the limes. Make yourself at home, he called out to her, I’ll be with you in a moment. There was a bottle of Martini somewhere, I have to find it…
One more time, she took in the whole room, the cushions decorating the sofa – a towel spilled from behind one of them – then hoisted her bag over her shoulder and tiptoed to the door. He was rummaging through the fridge, with his back turned on her.
She clicked the door shut ever so gently, as if worried not to wake someone. Out in the street, a stray dog followed her, sniffing at her tentatively. There’s nothing I can give you, honestly, and she felt sorry for the perplexed man, all alone, with two cups of coffee and two glasses of Martini.
Translated by Florin Bican