Before they built the apartment blocks across the street, before everything became boxed in and suffocating, I used to spend entire nights looking at Bucharest, from the triple window in my room on Ştefan cel Mare. Ordinarily, the window reflected the cheap furniture—a bedroom set of yellowed wood, a dresser with a mirror, a table with some aloe and asparagus in clay pots. A chandelier with globes of green glass, one of which had been chipped for a long time. The yellow reflected space became even yellower as it deepened into the enormous window, and I, a thin, sickly adolescent, in torn pajamas and a stretched-out vest, spent the entire afternoon perched on the small cabinet in the bedstead, staring, hypnotized, into the reflection of my own eyes in the transparent glass. I would prop my feet on the radiator under the window, and in the winter my soles would burn, giving me a perverse, subconscious mixture of pleasure and suffering. I saw myself in the yellow glass, under the triple blossom of the chandelier’s phantom, my face as thin as a razor, my eyes heavy with violet circles. A stringy moustache emphasized the asymmetry of my mouth, or more precisely, the asymmetry of my entire face. If you took a picture of my face and covered the left half, you would see an open, adventuresome young man, almost beautiful. The other half, however, would shock and frighten you: a dead eye and a tragic mouth, hopelessness spread over the cheek like acne.
Only when I turned out the light did I truly feel like myself. At that moment, phosphorescent blue and green stripes would rotate across the walls, electric sparks from the trams that clattered on the streets five stories below; immediately, I became aware of the terrible din of the traffic, and my loneliness and the sadness without end that was my life. When I pushed the light switch behind the wardrobe, the room turned into a pale aquarium. I moved like an old fish among the furniture that stank like a swamp’s marine residue, over the jute rug, stiff under my feet, to the cabinet in the bedstead, where I sat down again and put my feet on the radiator, and Bucharest exploded outside the lunar blue glass. It was a nocturnal triptych, shining like glass, endless, inexhaustible. Below, I could see a part of the street, where light poles like metal crosses held the tram lines and rosy light bulbs, the poles that in winter nights would attract wave upon wave of furious or gentle snowfalls, sparse like in cartoons or thick like fur. During the summer, however, I thought it was fun to imagine every pole in the endless line held a crucified body with crown of thorns. Boney, hairy, with wet towels tied around their hips, their tearful eyes following the wash of cars over stony streets. Two or three children, out late for who knows what reason, stopped to look up at the nearest Christ, who raised his triangular face toward the moon.
Across the street was the state bakery, a few houses with yards, and a round tobacco kiosk. A shop that filled seltzer bottles. A grocery. Possibly because the first time I ever crossed the street alone was to buy bread, I dreamed about that building the most. In my dreams, it was no longer a dank hovel that smelled like rats, where an old woman in a white work coat kneaded bread, but a space of mystery, resting at the top of a long, steep staircase. The bald light bulb, hanging from two bare wires, became a mystical object, and the woman was now young and beautiful, the stacks of bread racks as big as a cyclops. The woman herself is tall as a tower. I count my coins in the chimerical light, as they glitter in my palm, but I lose track and I start to cry, because I cannot tell if I have enough to by bread. Further on, at the south end of the street, is Nenea Hounddog, a shabby and lazy old man, whose yard looks like a war zone, all dirt and junk. He and his wife wander back and forth like ghosts, in and out of their shack patched over with greased cardboard, tripping over the skeletal dog who gave them their name. Toward Dinamo, further still, I can just see the corner of the grocery store. Toward the circus grounds are the cafeteria and newsstand. There, in my dreams, the caves begin. I wander, holding a wire basket, among the shelves of sherbet and jam, napkins and bags of sugar (some with little green or orange metal mechanisms hidden inside, at least that’s what kids said), I would go through a swinging door into another area of the store, one that never existed, and I would wake up outdoors, under the stars, the basket of boxes and jars still in my hand. I was behind the block, among mounds of boxes, broken boards, and in front of me was a table, painted white, where they would sell cheese. But now there was not just one door, as in reality, but ten, in a row along the building, with windows between each one, brightly lit basement apartments. Through each window you could see a bed, strangely high, and in the beds young girls were sleeping, their hair spread over the pillow, their small breasts uncovered. In one of these dreams, I opened the door closest to me and found a spiral staircase, I descended for a long time and ended in a small alcove with an electric light, where one of these girl-dolls was waiting, curly-haired and timid. Even though I was already a man when I had this dream, it was not given for me to have Silvia, and all my excitement spent itself in woolen abstractions of words and gestures. We left holding hands, crossed the snowy street, and I saw her blue hair in the lights of the pharmacy window and the restaurant, then we both waited for the tram, in a snowfall that covered over our faces, and the tram came, without walls, just a frame with a few wooden chairs, and Silvia got on and was lost to a part of the city that I found only later, in other dreams.
Behind this first row of buildings were others, and above them, stars. There was a massive house with red shutters, and a pink house like a small castle, there were short apartment blocks braided with ivy, built between the wars, that had round windows with square panes, Jugendstil ornaments on the stairways, and grotesque towers. Everything lost in the leaves, now black, of poplars and beech trees, which made the sky seem deeper, darker and darker toward the stars. The lit windows held a life I caught only in fragments: a woman ironed laundry, a man in a white shirt did summersaults on the third floor, two women sat in chairs and talked without end. Only three or four windows were ever interesting. In my nights of erotic fever, I would sit in the dark at my window, until every light was out and there was nothing to see, hoping to glimpse uncovered breasts and cheeks and pubic triangles, those men tumbling women into bed or leading them to the window and taking them from behind. Often the drapes were drawn, and then I strove, squinting, to interpret the abstract and fragmentary movements that flashed in the wedge of unobstructed light. I would see hips and calves in everything, until I had made myself dizzy and my sex dripped in my pajamas. Only then did I go to bed, to dream that I entered those foreign rooms and participated in complicated erotic maneuvers in their depths….
Beyond this second row of buildings, the city stretched to the horizon, covering half of the window with a more and more diminished, confused, blurry, haphazard mixture of the vegetable and the architectural, the steeples of the trees shooting up here and there and strange cupolas arcing among the clouds. I could just make out (once, when I was a child, my mother pointed it out to me, on the skies after a storm) the zigzagging shadow of the mall on Victoria, and some more tall buildings in the center, decades old and built like ziggurats, burdened with pink, green and blue fluorescent billboards that blinked on and off in opposing rhythms, and further on there was only the ever-greater density of stars at the horizon , which, in the distance, became a blade of tarnished gold. Held like a gemstone in the ring of stars, night-time Bucharest filled my window, poured inside and reached into my body and my mind so deeply, that even as a young man I imagined I was a mélange of flesh, stone, cephalo-spinal fluid, I-beams and urine, which, supported by vertebrae and concrete posts, animated by statues and obsessions, digested through intestines and steam pipes, made the city and I one being. The truth is, while I sat all night on the bedstead with my feet on the radiator, not only did I watch the city, but it also spied on me, also dreamed me, also became excited, as it was only the substitute for the yellow phantoms that stared at me from the window when the light was on. I was more than twenty years-old before I lost this impression. By then, they had lain the foundations of the building across the street, had decided to widen the street, to re-pave it, to demolish the bread factory, seltzer shop, and kiosks, and to put, on the other side of the street, a wall of apartment buildings, taller than ours. The winter was windy, the sky white and clear after a heavy snow. I could look out of the window only once in a while. A bulldozer knocked down, with its toothed cup, the building where a fulsome woman lived, who had never shown herself to me naked. The interior of her rooms was bare and more visible now as ruins, and more sentimental covered in snow. Bucharest was missing a kidney, was having a gland removed, perhaps something vital. Maybe under the skin of the city, like under a wound, there really were caves, and maybe this extremely libidinous housewife who (out of spite?) never showed herself to me naked was somehow a node, a vortex for this underground life. Now her gums crumbled like plaster. Soon, that side of the street looked like a mouth of ruined teeth, with yellowed stumps and gaps and rotting metal caps. The snow smelled wonderful, as I opened a mammoth third of the thin, wet window, putting my shaven head outside, to freeze my neck and ears and watch the clouds puffing out of the room, but beyond its clear, clean smell of clothes frozen on the line, I could sense the stench of destruction. And if it was true that the cerebral hemispheres developed from the ancient olfactory bulb, the stench, the metaphysical drunken breath, the smell of the armpits of time, the cardboard acridity of vases of coming ecstasy, the airs of watercress insanity are, possibly, our most profound thoughts.
By Spring, the foundations were excavated, sewer pipes flowed like rivers through clay, pink and black cables unrolled from enormous wooden spools, each taller than a person, and steel skeletons rose up, obscuring one strip of Bucharest after another, choking off the rustling vegetation and blocking up the entryways, gargoyles, cupolas, and stacked terraces of the city. The disorderly and unsteady forms of wood and cast iron, the scaffolds that the workers climbed, the cement mixers that emitted waves of smoke, the piles of new steel electrical poles that replaced the rusted crucifixes, all seemed like the visible parts of a conspiracy, intended to make me say goodbye to Bucharest, and to myself, my fifteen years spent sitting on the bedstead with my feet on the radiator, pulling the curtain back and watching the vast skies of the city. A wall goes up, a section of my mind closes, and from now on, the wall keeps me from accessing all I projected into every cube and square, the black green and the yellow green and the moon thin as a fingernail reflecting in every window. When I was seven or eight, my parents made me nap every afternoon. The dresser was across from the bed, and I would watch the light shine on its surface, minute after minute, a child with dark eyes sweating under his sheet and unable to sleep for a second. When the sun reflected in the veneer blinded me, made me see purple spots, I turned my face to the wall, to follow every little rust colored blossom and leaf in the upholstery on the side of the bedstead. In this floral labyrinth, I discovered small symmetries, unexpected patterns, animal heads and men’s silhouettes, with which I created stories I meant to continue in my dreams. But sleep never came, there was too much light, and one October, precisely this white light convinced me to play with fire: I listened first for any sounds from my parents’ room, and then I quietly got out of bed and tip-toed to the window. The image of the city was dusty and far away. The street curved off toward the left, so I could see the apartments on our side, toward Lezeanu and Obor. In the distance, I could see the old fire watchtower, and behind it, a city heating unit with its paraboloid boxes ejecting petrified smoke. The trees looked straight, or like Gothic arches, but the closest ones betrayed their provenance: the branches, filled with trembling, sprouting leaves, were not straight but twisted like an unfastened braid. I leaned my forehead against the window and, dizzy with insomnia, waited for five o’clock, but time seemed to have stopped flowing, and the terrifying image of my father bursting through the door, his dark hair knotted in a stocking on top of his head like a fez, and falling in a thick brown line like a crow’s tail, kept coming to my mind. Once during these minutes stolen from obligatory sleep, I witnessed the most beautiful scene in the world. It was after a summer storm, with lighting branching through the suddenly dark sky, so dark that I would not have said if it was darker in my room or outside, with gusts of rain, rapid parallel streams surrounded by a mist of fine drops lazily bouncing in every direction. When the rain stopped, between the black sky and the wet, grey city, daylight suddenly appeared. It was as though two infinitely gentle hands were protecting the yellow, fresh, transparent light that lay across these surfaces, coloring them saffron and orange, and turning the air gold, making it a shine like a prism. Slowly the clouds broke apart, and other stripes of the same rarified gold fell obliquely, crossing the initial light, making it even more intense, clearer and cooler. Spread over the hills, with the Mitropol towers the color of mercury, with all the windows burning like a salt flame, crowned with a rainbow, Bucharest painted itself onto my triple window, the sash of which my collar bone just touched.
My illumination would now be scraped off, and above them, written in neat, closely spaced letters, would be a command, heavy as a curtain. But today, at the midpoint of my life’s arc, when I have read every book, even those tattooed on the moon and my skin, even those written with the point of a pin on the corners of my eyes, when I have seen enough and had enough, when I have systematically dismantled my five senses, when I have loved and hated, when I have raised immortal monuments in copper, when my ears have grown long awaiting tiny God, long before I understood I am just a mite burrowing through his skin of old light, when angels have populated my head like spiro-bacteria, when all the sweetness of the world had been consumed and when April and May and June are gone—today, when my skin flakes beneath my ring like thousands of layers of onion paper, today, this vivacious and absurd today, I try to put my disorder into thought, to read the runes of windows and apartments with balconies full of wet laundry, the apartments across the street that broke my life in two, just like the nautilus that walls over each outgrown compartment and moves into a larger one, inching through the ivory spiral that forms the précis of its life. But this text is not human and I cannot understand anything more. What remains in there, my birth, childhood, and adolescence, seeps through the pores of the enormous wall, in long, enigmatic strands, deformed, anamorphic and foreshortened, nebulized and diffracted, numberless, through which I can reach the small room where I sometimes return. Ivory over ivory over ivory, blue over blue over blue, every age and every house where I have lived (if it all was not a hallucination of nothingness) filters all that came before, combining with them, making the bands narrower and more heterogeneous. You do not describe the past by writing about old things, but about the haze that exists between yourself and the past. The way in which my present brain wraps around my brains of smaller and smaller crania, of bones and cartilage and membrane. The tension and disagreement between my present mind and that of a moment ago, and ten years ago. Their interactions, their amalgamation with the images and emotions of the other. So much necrophilia in memory! So much fascination for ruin and rot! So much analysis like the court physician peering through liquefied organs! To imagine of myself at different ages, so many previous lives completed, is like talking about a long, uninterrupted line of dead bodies, a tunnel of bodies dying one into the next. A moment ago, the one that was here writing, in the reflection of the dark pool of a coffee cup, the words “dying one into the next” fell off the stool, his skin crumbled away revealing the bones of his face, his eyes rolled out weeping black blood. A moment from now, the one who will write “who will write” will be the next to fall into the dust of the one before. How can you enter this mausoleum? And why would you? And what mask of tiffany cloth, what surgical glove, will protect you from the infection of remembrance?
Years later, while reading poetry or listening to music, I would feel ecstasy, the abrupt and focused clot in the brain, the sudden swelling of a volatile and blistering liquid, the sudden opening of a windowpane, but not to anything outside me, but toward someplace surrounded by brain, something deep and unbearable, a welling-up of beatitude. I had access, I gained access to the forbidden room, through poetry or music (or a single thought, or an image that appeared in my mind, or—much later, coming home by myself from high school, stomping in puddles along the streetcar tracks—a window flash, the scent of a woman). I entered the epithalamus, I soaked in the adenoids, I balled myself up in the abstract extension of the gold ring in the center of the mind. The revelation was like a cry of silent happiness, it had nothing in common with an orgasm except its epileptic brutality, but it expressed tranquility, love, submission, surrender, adoration. These were breakthroughs, rendings swirling in the interior limit of thought, turning it into a starry heaven, since we all have this starry heaven in the skull and, over it, our conscience. Often, though, this interior ejaculation would not reach its consummation but stop in the antechamber, and the antechambers of antechambers, where it brought up flickering images that were snuffed out in a second, leaving behind a regret and nostalgia that would follow me the rest of the day. Poems, these illumination machines, debauched me, I used them like drugs until it was impossible for me to live without them. I had begun, some time before, to even write poems, in which, among so many graceful lines, fairy-like and aggressive, I would find myself stringing together, for no reason, passages of nonsense, dictated, it seemed, by someone and which, when I read them, terrified me like a prophecy fulfilled. In these I spoke of my mother, God, childhood, just as if, in the course of a conversation over a beer, I suddenly started to speak in tongues, with the thin voice of a child, a castrato, or an angel. My mother appeared in my poems walking down Ştefan cel Mare, taller than the apartment buildings, kicking over the trucks and streetcars, crushing the sheet-metal kiosks beneath her enormous heels, sweeping up passersby with her cheap, quilted skirts. She stopped in front of the triple window of my room, crouched down and looked inside. Her enormous blue eye and her frowning eyebrow filled the window and filled me with terror. Then she stood and went off toward the west, her wiry, phosphorescent hair destroying postal airplanes and satellites in the sky full of blood…. What was this mythologizing of my mother? Nothing, ever, made me feel close to her, nothing in her interested me. She was the woman who washed my clothes, that fried me potatoes, that made me go to my college classes even when I wanted to skip. She was Mom, a neutral being who looked neutral, who lived a modest life full of chores, who lived in our house, where I was always a stranger. What accounted for this dearth of feeling in our family? My father always traveling, and when he came home, red-faced, stinking of sweat, and tying up his hair, thick as a horse’s tail, on top of his head with pantyhose, the top sagging open and a dark foot hanging between his shoulder blades. My mother making him dinner and watching television with him, pointing out their crushes on the folk music singers or variety show actors, gossiping about them endlessly. Me eating quickly and going to the room on the street side of the apartment (the other two rooms let onto the back of the building, toward the melancholy red brick building of the Dîmboviţa flour mill) to watch the polyhedral drone of Bucharest in the window, or to write disconnected poems in graph paper notebooks, or to curl up under the blanket, pulling it over my head as though I could not stand the humiliation and shame of being an adolescent…. We were, my family, three insects, each only interested in our own chemical trails, occasionally touching antennae and moving on. “How was school today?” “Fine.” “Dinamo got creamed, on their own turf.” “So what, Polytech’s alright.” And then into the shell, to write more lines from nowhere:
mother, the power of dreams was your gift to me
I would spend entire nights with you eye to eye
and hand in hand I would believe I was beginning to know.
and your heart would beat again for both of us
and between our crania translucent as the shells of shrimp
an imaginary umbilical cord would emerge
and hypnosis and levitation and telepathy and love
would be the different colors of the flowers in our arms.
we would play an eternal game of cards with two sides: life, death
until the clouds would flash in the fall of day, far off.