Lavinia Braniște was born in 1983 in Brăila. She studied foreign languages and literatures in Cluj-Napoca and Bucharest and now works as a translator. She published Povești cu mine (poems, 2006), Cinci minute pe zi (short stories, 2011), Escapada (short stories, 2014), Rostogol merge acasă (short novel for children, 2016), Interior zero (novel, 2016).
The present short story was published in 2016 in the magazine Iocan and was translated into English by Andrew K. Davidson.
At the airport, Dad had taken a step up on the moving walkway and I, next to the moving walkway, was having to run up to catch up. I don’t know why I hadn’t also stepped up on it. The hallway was strangely deserted and I was wondering if we were going the right way and were our fellow travelers not also wanting to claim their baggage? I didn’t understand anything the woman announced in the speakers. I stopped to look and no one was coming behind us. Dad was already way ahead of me.
The flight had lasted just fifty minutes. I hadn’t been to Turkey before and only then did I realize how close we are to Istanbul, us Romanians.
On the plane, I had a window seat and Dad had the aisle. The seat between us stayed empty. We’d been flying at a low altitude and I kept my nose pressed to the window the whole way, looking at the earth like at a map on Google. The flight attendant with drinks offered me a cup of water, but the one with breakfast had gotten away from me. She hadn’t asked anything – just given Dad a sandwich and, after he saw me looking at him, he asked:
I shook my head no and Dad swallowed the last half of the bread.
“Or I can tell her to bring you one?”
“It’s ok. If you didn’t tell her when she passed…”
He swallowed it and put his head back finishing the orange juice, squeezing the plastic cup in his fist for the attendant to later collect, a rubber glove around her hand.
On May 3rd, so in about a week, it was going to be his birthday.
On May 18th, the 30 year reunion of his college graduation and he was going to see my mother for the first time in a while.
At fifty years old, he realized that he weighed a hundred kilos (half a century and 0.1 tons I remember him saying then, a joke he kept repeating), and he started to exercise a bit. Then working out. Now, after some years, he looks good with a little beard and a firmer figure. He was swimming almost daily. And he liked it so much that I thought to give him his registration for the annual race across the Dardanelles as a gift. The race was exactly on the 3rd.
It was organized by some collaboration between a Brit born in Australia and the Turkish authorities. You swim 5 kilometers between Europe and Asia and the strait, one of the busiest in the world, would only be closed down for two hours, the duration of the race. If you didn’t finish the race in two hours, they yanked you out from a boat. If they found you. If not, ships would run you over. I was dying of worry and Dad was dying of happiness. In the registration, they also included five days of training in open water, as they say, with experienced trainers. When I heard that it was organized by the British, I had more faith in the event. Even more so that I’d read something romantic in the brochure: the idea was inspired by Lord Byron, the first to be officially commemorated with swimming across the strait, following the lead of a mythological character, swimming it every night, back and forth, to see his beloved.
Before heading to the site of the competition, we stayed in Istanbul for about three days. Three days would be enough for me to hear, long after we returned, the muezzin all over, for all the thin and wide sounds above to seem like an announcement, to seem like a request for us to gather for something.
Dad bargained for everything for me, everything I ate and bought. I got some turmeric in the bazar with spices for a great price. He also took a string holding dried eggplant and proudly wore it through the city as if it were a tropical garland.
I said that I also wanted a rug.
“And who’s going to carry it for you?”
“What do you mean who? You! Or maybe I’ll get on it and fly,” I said laughing and Dad, very seriously:
“And I’ll carry around your luggage? At my age?”
Later on, when we crashed down at the edge of one of the fountains, him letting it sprinkle on his left side, me half turned to wash my hands after a pastry so sweet that my mouth was stuck shut, Dad started:
“It’s actually possible for rugs to fly. At least theoretically. They researched it – a rug ten centimeters long and one tenth of a millimeter thick could float if it oscillates ten times per second. It would be like a rollercoaster.”
Dad was an engineer. He liked round numbers.
“Maybe you’d understand better if you think of how a dry leaf falls in autumn. It’s the same principle. As it approaches the ground, the air creates resistance…”
I got a book of Nasreddin for the illustrations and skimmed through it impatiently. When he saw me, Dad said that we could have had a pomegranate juice for that money and enjoyed it together, although he also bargained for the book.
Our hotel reservation was made last minute and we couldn’t find a double room, so I asked for a triple but the room was actually two single beds, one double and a sofa.
It was the first time I went somewhere with Dad for multiple days. I discovered that he snores. But he doesn’t admit it.
I chose the bed against the wall and sent him to the one at the window, the double. Every morning, he’d wake up after me, rise on his elbows and, instead of a greeting, he’d ask:
“Did I snore?”
Disappointed, he’d fall back down and put a pillow over his face.
“I was tired.”
And the next morning:
“I drank. That’s why.”
And the next morning:
“Could you still hear me?”
He went down with me to breakfast just once and was disappointed that it was food from the supermarket. He ate muesli with yogurt. I refrained from getting myself a cake, though we agreed to allow ourselves anything on this vacation, glossy magazines and pastries, but I knew it would burden him to see I wasn’t watching after my health. He’d become a maniac for proper nutrition.
My parents split early on. I was really little. At 18, Dad stopped paying child support, but at 20, after divorcing his second wife, he started calling me. At first, only for special occasions. Then he’d ask me how I’m doing, then tell stories, then take me out to coffee when he was passing through Bucharest.
I told Mom about it and she’d think hard about it, seeming sad. She never told me why exactly and I didn’t ask so, in time, I took on a feeling of guilt. Shame. I’d felt that she feels betrayed somehow. I sacrificed so much for you and he reaps the benefits, this kind of thing. She would pronounce his name with spite. At first, I felt obliged to tell her everything, he was more hers than he was mine, but something disturbed this when I got the feeling that Dad is cool. I aimed to keep that thought to myself. I liked Dad in secret.
In the dining hall, at breakfast, there was the most varied fauna I’d seen in my life and I was closer to the middle of the world map, people dressed in the strangest veils, sitting with their kids and women, large-breasted goddesses of fertility, at some tables with oilcloths similar to ours.
Mom charged me with finding out if he’s bringing someone to the college reunion.
“Oh please, let me give you money for the ticket,” he said with three fingers on the little cup of tea.
“It’s a gift for your birthday, you don’t give me anything. I told you that.”
“You’re my kid, how are you going to give me money?”
Mom said that to not take a man’s money is the greatest insult to him. He had never told me that I was his kid.
“I have a job, too. I get a paycheck.”
“The gift is that you thought about it,” he said. “You’re my kid, how can I take it…”
And between four and twenty years old what was I? Should it just be forgotten? And still: I want to play fair for all three of us.
Peace, but not justice, written on the Facebook version of a postcard. In another language.
“This tea is really bad,” I said. “I think I’ll just put in a lot of sugar.”
“It’s very concentrated. But there’s also coffee,” he said. “Want one?”
“I’m too lazy to go.”
He went and got me one.
“Have you been talking with Carmen?”
The wife. The ex.
He looked at me bewildered.
“Why did you bring up Carmen?”
“Yeah, we’ve been talking. We keep in touch. It’s hard with her mother being sick.”
“Are you coming with her to the college reunion?”
“I don’t know if I’ll go. I didn’t go to the other ones. I don’t think I’ll know anyone anymore.”
“You’ll know Mom.”
He smiled and put his head back. It looked like he was thinking hard about giving me the next confession:
“I’ve always been scared of her…”
“Want me to come with you?” I quickly asked and we both laughed and, immediately afterwards, my mind was crazed with the thought of seeing them next to each other.
I’d probably dreamt it sometime when I was little, but I’d forgotten this dream.
“That’d be weird,” I said.
“For all three of us to meet.”
“Would you like that?” he thoughtfully asked.
“If we’re afraid, what’s the point?”
Mom was also terrified of the reunion. Terrified because she was single. Everyone was coming in pairs and, probably, he would too. I’ll stay and look for someone to dance with me? she said, but I asked her the same question: want me to come with you?
Noo, I’d better not go. I’m not looking so good anyways.
Of course she looked good, I’d always dreamt of being like her.
I was nothing like either of them, taking after who knows which forgotten ancestor.
Around 140 competitors, mostly English and American, had gathered at the shore in Eceabat. The record for crossing this five kilometer stretch was 48 minutes, but the weather was turning unfriendly this year and the water temperature, which was usually about 18 degrees, was 13 now. And the sea was really agitated. No one imagined the record would be beaten in these conditions.
Dad had put on his long swim suit and orange cap he’d been given, with the number 103 on it, according to how he’d registered for the race. It seemed insane to me that he was participating. It was cold. I was bundled up and already starting to shake.
What if he dies of hypothermia in the water?
He was less thrilled than at the beginning of our trip, something had started going wrong. Maybe it was too much to be together for more than a day, more than a conversation on the phone. Anyways, he made friends with someone named Dominic, a professor of English literature from Aberdeen, the place of Byron’s childhood, who’d come next to us to stealthily show us Charlie, a 19 year old kid who will become the fourteenth Lord Byron. Charlie had a film crew with him.
“If you aren’t able to go on, signal to the boat to come get you, yeah? Please.”
“Hey, of course I’ll be able,” he said.
“I didn’t know it’d be this cold.”
“It’s perfect,” he said. “Other, more difficult things are waiting for us,” he told me and winked.
My hands were already freezing. I was staying close to the pontoon. A leg of my pants was wet from the waves slamming into the rocks. The race would start in about half an hour, at about three o’clock, and the supporters would be transported by ferry to the other shore, to the Port of Çanakkale where the finish line was.
I left him with a grip on my heart.
What didn’t worked between them? Do I overlook so easily the fifteen-sixteen years when he was completely absent? Mom was saying it was his wife. That his wife drove them apart and had forbidden him from seeing the child.
I paced around the port at Çanakkale and took a fish sandwich and pickle broth but they made me sick. I took really sweet pastries and they made me even worse. I took newspapers in Turkish that I asked for at the newsstand by putting my finger on them. I took yellow freesias, my favorites.
Tens of bouquets were crowded into a basin and it was enough just to get near them, to look, for the woman selling them to quickly offer them to me. I asked how much and she said on lira, putting up all ten fingers. Ten divided by two – five. Euros. I started to laugh. Well, three, the woman was quick again, putting up three fingers. Ok, I said, taking my first ever victory in bargaining. I took the flowers, holding them with both hands, nearly glued to my chest so the seagulls wouldn’t steal them from me. There were tens of them and they didn’t miss anything; they could snatch a crust of bread out of mid-air and gnaw on your head.
The last buoy was visible from the port, the course the swimmers had to take was marked by a series of red buoys, to know which way to go. After an hour or so I still hadn’t seen anyone. The people on the shore were talking about this being a tough year for the race and the record was totally out of the question. I kept my nose in the flowers and squeezed their stems and leaves, stinking and decomposing from stale water.
The first racer got out of the water after an hour and twenty seven minutes. He was greeted with applause and flowers, and he raised his hands in fists towards the sky, still giving out thanks when a medic from the ambulance neared him to ask, probably, if everything is ok. One by one the others also began to appear. I also saw Charlie with a camera on him, beaming with joy. He’d made his noble ancestor proud, although that one had apparently failed the first attempt.
A bullhorn announced that in fifteen minutes the waterway will again be open for ship traffic as the organizers had only purchased that stretch for two hours. The rescue boats started taking competitors who were forfeiting to the shore. I came right up to the pontoon and Dad wasn’t anywhere. I was desperately looking out to the sea and on the shore, the seagulls spinning overhead. God, tell me he signaled. God, tell me they saw him.
I was sick to my stomach. I leaned against a railing. I looked wildly into the crowds and to the right somewhere, farther off, and I saw a woman standing motionless, looking to the sea. An angel. Wrapped in a shawl, dressed in light-colored clothes, standing there as if she were concentrating to utter a chant, to bring someone back, to repair a failed connection in her thoughts. I quickly turned my head back so she wouldn’t see me, so I wouldn’t see her, so I wouldn’t disturb her. In general, fairies appear in twilights, in walkways, in rustling, in fear and in sniggering. I didn’t turn back to her so she wouldn’t disappear. My mind should keep her there.
Then I saw on a ship, which seemed to be the very last, a man wearing a swim cap with 103 written on it. I had to see this, it couldn’t have been something other than 103. Then it seemed to me that the price paid for overcoming fear is too high, that the challenges threatening what you have are insanity. We have nothing to prove to ourselves and we don’t need to meet if our energy fields don’t allow it.
Dad hadn’t finished the race, but he was on the ship, it was his birthday and in that moment, he was the only person in the world. I threw the flowers in the garbage and went to greet him.