Ioana Nicolaie (b. 1974) graduated from the Literature Faculty of Bucharest University in 1997, where she also took a Master of Arts Degree in 1998. Her debut collection of poems, Retouched Photograph (Cartea Românească, 2000), was published following a competition. Her published work includes: The North (2005, nominated for the ASPRO Prize), Faith (2003, nominated for the Prize of the Bucharest Writers’ Association), Belly Heaven (2005), Cenotaph (2006), and The Adventures of Arik (2008). In addition, she has written the text for an illustrated book about Bucharest. Her poetry has appeared in a number of anthologies in France, Britain, Canada, Bulgaria, the USA, Austria, and Sweden, including Poésie 2003: Roumanie, territoire d’Orphée (Théâtre Molière/Maison de la Poésie, 2003) and New European Poets (Graywolf Press, 2008). In 2008, Pop Verlag of Stuttgart published her collection The North in German translation. Also in 2008, she is taking part in the Metropoezia event in Warsaw, aimed at promoting European literature. She is a member of the Romanian Writers’ Union and PEN.
One of my eyes is blue, the other brown. I’m the fourth of the twelve children my mother had. When I was ten I wished I’d been an astronaut. At thirty-four I know that the upper part of the sky is not for people. Sometimes I tell to myself that history is that particular kind of dust out of which nobody can build anything. In order to remind myself of the thousands of years in which we learned too little about us. I walk forward into the labyrinth and through the wall I hold hands with my child. I cannot bestow on him that huge second which will hold us all together.
A Bird on a Wire
Now that the thieves had stolen her first bursary, Sabina would have to earn some other money by any means. How she didn’t know. No other options presented themselves. It crossed her mind that she might work in a bar, but that would hinder her from going to classes. And it would demolish her afternoons in the reading room. Where she felt like she was the cover of a never-before-opened book. One she had requested herself, with the librarian having to journey down interminable shelves to fetch it. On page nineteen, Sabina had become a student, and that was where she wanted to stay until page twenty-three. Four years, with five examinations in one term and seven or eight in the other, with no money from back home, with Roxana, and, though she didn’t know it yet, with everything that the students’ hall of residence would come to mean. With joy, fear, and, for almost three pages, Eman.
She had heard from a girl who once turned up with a bag full of make-up that you could get cheap goods from the warehouses that had sprouted up at the edge of town, and then flog them in the halls of residence or even in the lecture theatres. She wasn’t embarrassed. She’d tried it with any number of things, from lingerie to towels, and now she was trying out cosmetics, relying on the weaknesses of the weaker and fairer sex. She had no idea yet how it would turn out, but she was hoping that she would get by. Anyway, in case she’s interested in something like that, she’ll leave her a phone number. Once again, Sabina felt that stupid blush of hers, but she took the piece of paper handed to her. She mislaid it among her notes, because she had only taken it out of politeness. Nevertheless, a few days later, she carefully transcribed it into her organiser.
Now, if she were interested in the whole business, she would have to make a phone call. She wouldn’t have been able to manage on her own. She had no idea where that warehouse, the “Europa,” was. She’d barely heard of it. And that was a long time back, in the newspaper, when there was that story about the Chinaman stuffed into a suitcase and thrown into the lake in Herãstrãu Park. It was a settling of accounts among the “triads,” according to the paper, and no one knew anything about what was going on with those Asian immigrants. They brought cheap stuff and sold it at that warehouse at the edge of Bucharest. They rented flats in the Colentina district. They didn’t register with the Police. They just stayed there.
Sabina remembered that that girl too was renting a room. With a former actress, a real nutcase, who, at the age of sixty-something, would wander around the house stark naked. And that would have been nothing, if she hadn’t demanded that her lodger also abandon all pudeur. Man would feel much better, the lady whispered to her, without his dreary, artificial coverings. In summer, at least, she couldn’t see why she should wear so much as a stitch of clothing. And now that central heating had, since the fall of communism, come back on, she didn’t stand on formalities even in winter. When the plumber came, she would get him to strip him down to his vest. When some other workman came, she would manage to divest him of his shirt. In the past, only nudists were allowed to come to her parties. “Naturists” as she called them. Now she no longer had guests, but she was devoted to the comfort of her lodger. She could not accept that a girl, a beautiful girl, should be ashamed of her most precious possession : her femininity…
Sabina decided to call her on the phone later. Maybe that evening. But in the break Roxana came up wanting to tell her something.
“But not in the corridor. Let’s go upstairs !”
A week earlier, they had discovered the entrance to the attic. In an apparently pointless niche in the wall, there were some steps and a yellowish little door. When they had lectures in room 408, they could smoke a cigarette there undisturbed. No one could have imagined that that insignificant entrance actually led somewhere. All three of them were amazed – the trainer was with them too – when Roxana found it was unlocked. The rafters looked like ethereal streaks of whitewash. Through the cracks seeped an orange light, which softened each piece of sheet metal, each chair dumped there who knows when, each crate stacked in the closed-off part of the attic.
The trainer rushed back down to get his Nikon, which he took with him wherever he went, and began taking shots of wooden planks, spider webs as big as cartwheels, petrified heaps of mortar. They didn’t go back to the lecture until the end, to get their files. They had the feeling that this aventura could only happen to them once, that the next day they would not be able to relive their faces gleaming whitely, the motes of dust floating overhead, the silence of a frozen mirror into which, for a short while, they had strayed.
Since that afternoon, Sabina had had a photograph of herself sitting on a suspended plank. In it her legs dangle aloft, seeming much longer in her dark, silk stockings. Her hair has a fringe of light, framing her vaguely smiling face. She is dressed in a rather large man’s jacket. Around her there are circular, coloured patches, which no longer preserve anything of the figures from which they were torn away to be imprinted on a rectangle of photographic paper. The trainer had put the camera on a tripod, set it for a long exposure, and then with Roxana began to dance around Sabina. But she is sitting motionless, looking straight into the camera, and trying not to blink. This was the only way her image would remain unblurred. Her eyelids hurt. The lens scans her for two minutes. Her hands are resting on her knees. Had she risen suddenly, four or five strange spectres of Sabina would have come out in the developing room. Like this, her face will be limpid.
“Look, I have a proposal,” Roxana told her, having lit her habitual cigarette. “You know those swanky shops, Stefanel, Naf-Naf, Sisley, all the ones in the centre of town ? One of them – Delia told me – wants to display its clothes differently, in an unconventional way. They’re after girls who look good. They’re going to dress them up in their wares, and then put them in the window. You have to be a model for a few hours. It’s no big deal. To stand stock-still, like a statue, naturally. We could try it out together…”
Well of course, she couldn’t turn down such an offer. She merely had to meet the boss’s requirements, because maybe some girls wouldn’t be thin enough or tall enough… But why was Roxana getting mixed up in all this ? She never seemed to be in want of money. She used to go to clubs every night, stay in the disco until late… She would dance with those longhaired types. One – an architecture student – used to wait for her outside the university. She would frequent the actors’ café, and go to the movies with Delia. She would invent joys for herself with all her might. But every morning, she would put all the hours of laughter, the heady whirl, under a hot shower, so that, scrubbed by an abrasive sponge, they would drain away with the water in the bathtub. She was always looking for something different. Her problem weighed on her relentlessly, but she would never have accepted a wrong solution. Now, for example, she had decided to go to the theatre. Not just to one play, but all the time : The Three Sisters, The Danaids, The Flea, The Government Inspector… The tickets were not expensive, but it amused her to get hold of the money by her own devices.
Two days later they were to get the job. In vain did they tremble before entering the shop manager’s office – a man of about fifty, greying, friendly – in vain did Sabina think that it was out of the question for him to accept someone like her – five feet five, with navy-blue flares and boots – in vain were they silent all the way there, passing the still bullet-riddled University Library and the balcony where CeauÅŸescu had made his last speech. She would have wanted to make a detour of the street they were heading towards, or at least to find the shop was closed. But the shop girls sussed them right away.
Yes, of course, Mr Herbert is expecting you ! And then Sabina pressed the door handle.
“Bunã ziua,” Mr Herbert had said, in perfect Romanian. “Tea, coffee ?”
No, they didn’t want tea or coffee. In fact, they had come about the advert for live mannequins. They realised they had been accepted only after the man began to fill them in. They could choose from the whole shop whatever they thought looked chic. But they would have to change their outfit every two hours. They were to stand in the shop window as convincingly as possible. At stake were their top lines of merchandise, and, by means of this kind of promotion, they were expecting a leap in profits. A month of special offers was about to commence, and everyone would be wanting to take home something special. And not just regular customers, who in any case always bought the most expensive items. They had decided to resort to live mannequins precisely so that they could convince the ditherers. And they – one blonde and one brunette, young and attractive – would attract anyone’s attention. They could try out for a week, maybe even two.
“Eight hours in the window. As elegant and attractive as possible. You can talk among yourselves, but keep it to a minimum. You can change your posture from time to time, but the clothes should always be seductively displayed. And if the customers ask you anything, you should be friendly and forthcoming. What do you say ?”
They said yes, but they didn’t venture to bring up the matter of money. It was too big a company to go around gulling people. And so they began the very next day. Changing clothes every two hours was not very appealing, but they would have to get used to it. Then again, it couldn’t be all that bad to dress up in super clothes four times a day. As to how, concretely, they were going to cope, they didn’t think of that until the prices were stuck onto the clothes and they had been ensconced in the window under the fluorescent neon light. As to how time can dilate, so that a mere minute can become a miniature mountain, they didn’t think of that until after a few hours of standing behind the glass.
Whereas in the morning, it had seemed amusing to look at the faces passing by somewhere at the level of their hips, whereas they would make discreet signals to each other if they saw an attractive-looking guy, whereas they could hardly wait to gossip about some “lady” rolling in money, who had just bought herself the most outlandish outfit, whereas they would be on the look-out for the disconcertment of those who, having stopped to look in the window, would suddenly realise that the two of them were not made of plastic, by the afternoon everything had diluted, their spines had become a searing poker and the soles of their feet were aching. But it was only after yet another day of this that it began to seem the most unbearable drudgery. They would arrive at ten and quickly throw on the clothes, to which they now barely paid any attention, exerting all their might not to let themselves be crushed by the length of the minutes. During the break they wolfed down the sandwiches they had scraped together, and then they quickly climbed back onto the podium, so that it wouldn’t be left unoccupied for too long. Not even the girls who worked in the shop had time to chat with them for a couple of minutes.
After calling to mind a whole host of trivialities, from maths formulas to patriotic poems learned in junior school, after reminiscing about the first days of school or college boyfriends, just to make the time pass more quickly, Sabina came up with the solution of strange postures. They no longer stood stock-still in the classic pose, with eyes towards the street, or at least in profile, but rather they would hold their heads at an angle, with their hair falling dishevelled over their faces, they would press their foreheads to their knees, they would cover their cheeks with their palms. Sheltered under their hair, at last they were able to talk. The hours regained their familiar consistency and, even if they were exhausted by the end of the working day, they no longer saw themselves as oversized dolls, manipulated by hands like those that opened and closed the till.
And it would all have turned out reasonably had it not been for the incident with the young man who chanced to enter on the penultimate day. He was no longer just a kid. He had stood there on the pavement transfixed, looking at them in a certain way, with the meticulousness of a botanist or an entomologist. Sabina would not have remembered him in such detail if he hadn’t seemed odd from the very start, maybe because of his height, or his ginger hair, gleaming with gel. He was wearing a navy-blue overcoat. He came into the shop and started to flick through the racks of blouses and dresses. Sabina did not turn around towards him, but she could hear clinking where the deux pieces, t-shirts, and scarves were displayed. It was obvious he was looking for something. He was too much in his element not to buy something in the end. The long-sleeved shirts, the skirts for special occasions, and the satin jackets nevertheless did not concern him. He had taken stock of the two girls in a blasé kind of way. And, after feeling the velvet of a raincoat, he came directly over to them. He walked evenly, like a regular customer. In passing, he flicked through the silk scarves arranged in a fan. He came to a stop in front of Sabina.
“Excuse me, miss, I would like… to have a closer look at that blouse you’re wearing under the tailor-made suit… Or is it a silk chemise ?”
No, it wasn’t, although it had sleeves and was so low-cut that it made the eyes boggle. It wasn’t mesh, but the very fine material was almost translucent.
“It’s an undergarment,” the girl would have wanted to say, but her words were gripped in a kind of clamp. She merely found herself smiling confused.
“Just a moment.”
Instead of defending herself, that insufferable blush broke out again, spreading directly from her jaw. She knew very well that she wasn’t wearing anything under the transparent material, but all the same she undressed calmly, like at a fashion show. She rarely used bras. It had been hard for her to get used that change which, at the age of eleven or twelve, had made her look different, unwonted, unsuited to her image of herself. She had not felt any need to buy such accessories, and this was the first time she had been embarrassed by the fact. She unbuttoned the suit jacket, standing straight, as though she were having her lungs X-rayed. The guy studied her for a few seconds, with a satisfaction masked by the unflinching muscles of his face, by the slightly knitted corners of his eyebrows. Then he felt the rarefied material, as though this would enlighten him.
“I’m sorry, but I’m not quite sure whether this is… exactly what I’m looking for,” he eventually said.
And just as calmly, he turned on his heel and headed for the exit. But Roxana glimpsed his satisfaction. After the door closed, Sabina let out an idiot through clenched teeth. She was already buttoning up the suit jacket, as though he had had it off with her through his fingertips. A new burden weighed down on her in the shop window by the pavement full of passers-by. She would have given anything to tell that individual to get lost. She kept repeating this to herself on the last day, when, in the evening, they received an envelope with some money. The sum inside was satisfactory.