Novel, "Ego Prose" series, Polirom, 2006, 192 pages
Love Sick is a novel about love and growing up. Kiki, the narrator, is a girl of eighteen, a “professional” seductress, an exuberant depressive with an uncertain past, which she reconstructs from memories and phantasms. Through her voice, in an unreliable discourse, we discover the love story between her and her fellow student Alexandra, a girl from the provinces. The liaison between the two girls, as Kiki relates it, takes place in the Bucharest of the 90s, a dusty city, which at every step reveals the scars of the past, but also the emancipation of a continually changing present. The labyrinthine city eventually merges with their complicated and equivocal relationship. The two girls explore the city and surrender themselves to the will of chance, concealing themselves behind the screen of a motley student world, tolerant by definition. Kiki, although in love with Alex, is unable to keep her by her side. For Kiki, an amorous liaison with Alex represents more of an experiment, while Alex, a well-behaved provincial girl, but at the same time curious and steadfast, has plans for the future, dreams of marriage and a family. Their liaison is interrupted by transient masculine figures, which does not prevent the girls from returning obsessively to one another. Kiki, as time and separations pass, but also as reconciliations become all the more frequent, begins to realise their inability to confess their love and assume it to the very end. This, but also the fact that their liaison becomes ever more malingering, leads both girls to sentimental failure.
Now and then, fed up with Bucharest and the people we used to hang around with, we would go away unannounced, preferably to the mountains, in autumn, when the rain was interminable. We would bustle into some tavern or shelter and, from there, gaze as if stupefied at all the people gripped by panic at the raindrops. Life flowed torpidly, with negligible little strains, but we would be staying in a rented room, in strange sheets (which gave us a secret thrill of promiscuous pleasure), and we would gawp at the passers-by or, quite simply, at the pointlessness of the rainy days. We would peek at far off windows, from behind which families made chiding signs at us. And in my imagination, already afflicted by the countless pages I had read, I would be able to see how, from a room similar to those at which my attention was vaguely directed, a well-behaved world emerged, barely woken from slumber, with kitchen, bedroom and living room furniture, with refrigerators and washing machines, with televisions and sofas… Oh, how I would have loved to grab a stone and smash it into tiny shards, that advertisement for a happy life, which haunted my nights and moments of languor. Alex, on the other hand, believed in her future as a mother and wife and, from time to time, she would even go as far as to buy fashion magazines, full of brides and white dresses from one cover to the other. She used to waft them under my nose to prove to me that, in a woman’s life, this was the only moment populated with princesses and prince-charmings and that, once missed, you could kiss goodbye to any happy ending. I would listen sprawling on my belly, hands wedged against my jaw, idly swaying my head from side to side, intent more on her thick, but very well manicured hands, with her impeccably trimmed cuticles, which left the base of her nails planted in a pinkish blood-red colour, with her taut and shiny skin, nicely smelling of Kaloderma cream, with her wrist that was too fine compared with the size of the fingers. I would follow her slightly forced, demonstrative gestures and try to imagine myself beyond the window. And, to my great dissatisfaction, I would even succeed. It was as if the mountain town congested my mind with its cold air, with its genuinely beautiful images, which I profoundly detested for their enervating perfection. From bed level, I would be able to see the roofs of the houses as they strained to burst into the window frame, half obstructed by Alex’s shock of hair. Preoccupied with varnishing her nails, her chin propped on her knees, the soles of her feet resting on the edge of the chair, her mouth slightly open, she would repeatedly move her body in the direction traced by the nailbrush and back again. It was more of a parody. I would imagine that I was lying stark naked in bed, that I was gently slipping my hand between her half-closed legs and furtively warming it, as if profoundly lost in thought, as all the while a cowering fly flitted here and there over the rustic patterns of the bedspread. Alex gave me a short look and suddenly got up from the chair, heading towards the bathroom. She left the door sufficiently ajar for me to be able to glimpse exactly half of her body, the bent leg and the knickers hanging down, caught at the ankle, the creases of the tee-shirt pulled up around her middle, and her hand resting on the edge of the toilet. I observe with slight disgust that she is sitting with her bare soles on the grimy tiles of the bathroom floor and tell myself to be vigilant in case she decides to get into bed. I hear the muffled sound of the water flushing the urine from the toilet bowl, and my thoughts shift, as if by some hidden command, to the parties of my childhood and to the terrible Brifcor fruit juice that used to sweeten my holidays, in spite of its cough syrup taste. Alex emerges from the bathroom at a run and hurls herself with a single bound onto the dirty grey-coloured sheet, before I have a chance to lecture her on hygiene. I burst into a silly, staccato laugh, which sets her off too. We guffaw, hiccuping and sighing. She swivels herself around and thrusts her cold feet against my back. Then I strangely feel how the toilet is slowly pouring onto my back and trickling over my skin, only just soaped with the finest fragrances. The pleasure prickles my skin. And it is not the pleasure I read about in books, but one that is epidermal, porous, which infiltrates my tissues and takes root. She is not too bothered about my insinuated grimaces and plants her soles even more firmly in my back, already arched in hypocritical contraction. We both get up, after many hours of torpor and intermittent sleep, and we quickly dress in something comfortable : jeans, baggy jumpers, sturdy shoes and bell-shaped hats on our heads. On leaving the room, I suddenly feel like we are inseparable sisters once more, I instantly lose my fear of the future, as if such a thing had never existed. And, indeed, for us such a thing did not exist. Back then, there was no jealously, or irritation, or envy, greed, sinful appetite, there was nothing but a vague weariness.
“Oooooh, how my legs hurt ! What about you ?”
“I know…” And suddenly I found myself snivelling, “I really do feel like having something to eat, a bagel or something, I mean, let’s at least sit down somewhere.”
And then, wrapping myself up more tightly : “I’m sick of walking around like this, aimlessly. I’m sick of us wasting our sodding time with all this nonsense, I just want us to sit the hell down, somewhere decent, and to give our damned legs a rest…”
“Why can’t you ever be satisfied ? You’re always on duty. What’s the matter with you now ?”
I grabbed Alex by the hand and scurried her straight through the rain, straight through all the puddles in our way, as though it was an obstacle course, and we didn’t stop until we had reached the doorway to a tavern. We went down the few steps, precipitously and angrily, and found ourselves in the middle of a dimly lit room, in which three men, the only customers, were stooped over three empty glasses. After studying us at length, they continued their conversation as if we weren’t there. We shook the rainwater from our clothes, took off our waterproofs and jumpers. We were left in our tee-shirts and began to study each other’s slender arms, with their traces of suntan from the summer that had just passed. We ordered some boiled wine and piled onto the table our provisions of sesame-seed bagels, which we devoured in moments, even before the mugs of wine were reverently set before us. The waitress was a middle-aged woman, quite fat, with a flushed face upon which an amiable, Transylvanian demeanour held sway. We downed the first mugs in one. The rest went lightly, with no day or night, no bedtime or going home time, no timetable or circumspect thoughts. I had stretched out my legs on the chair in front. I let my arms dangle limply from the back of the chair like two unravelled ribbons. Alex was running her hand over my ankles, under my trousers, and I was receiving little amorous signals from her fingertips, which I was picking up right in my stomach and down my thighs, as if the words were trickling through my body, forming a living colony there. I could feel my brain was being completely unwired, and so I kept riveting my eyes on beams in the ceiling, on crookedly placed chairs, on the turned-up corner of a carpet, on my jumper flung higgledy-piggledy over a nearby stool, on the waitress lolling on a chair, listening intently to what the barman was saying, probably about some kind of management matter, whom she kept answering with :
“Come off it, don’t drive me up the wall !”
“What’s that you say, darling !”
“Hmm, just to see it you wouldn’t believe it !”
Apart from the noise of the others, we too emitted a few articulate sounds, which sometimes ended up in interminable discussions, although the supreme pleasure still remained our silence, which smelled of boiled wine and cinnamon. In her stripy tee-shirt, which is how she has remained in my mind, Alex was blowing smoke rings and would sometimes get talking to the matronly waitress, with whom she exchanged some of the most stupid lines I’ve ever heard in my life.
“You don’t half smoke a lot !”
“Well, what the hell, it is a bit stupid of me.” (Why did she feel the need to add that sweetener “a bit” ?) “But the truth is that, without booze and cigarettes, life would be pointless. You know, we’ve come all the way from Bucharest to stay here a couple days, to have some fun, and then to leg it back to where we came from. We’re not too keen on chatting, we think it’s a waste of time, you do know what I mean, don’t you ?”
The waitress nodded her head in agreement, and then went away deep in thought. At last, we decided to leave and either to go on to another bar or to roam around town, that is if the rain had eased off and it was possible to wander the winding streets. For a good while, we took pictures, a whole heap of pictures which, whether haphazardly or by skill, captured the spirit of our moods : fleeting, fluctuating, whimsical.
“What could possibly be more terrific now than a hot sandwich and a cup of tea with rum ? Mmm, I can feel the smell slipping into my nostrils and tumbling like a boulder down into my stomach.”
I was surviving without food, however. My mind was on the goodies waiting for me at home and, already salivating, I kept having to convince my body to resist the temptation of food, not to yield to the insistent and tearful pleas of the little monsters that would snivel away during my quieter moments. Sometimes we would part ways in the middle of the road, with her heading towards the copious meals she dreamt of aloud, while I continued to roam aimlessly, roving with half-closed eyes through the half-deserted town. I did not at all feel alone, because I knew that at home (our borrowed home) Alex was waiting for me, with her face pressed up against the window, squashing her nose against the dirty pane, her mug pouting from boredom and too much food. I knew her secret, probably better than she knew it herself, she who, with ridiculous insistence, tortured herself to demonstrate to me that her body didn’t betray her and that they cohabited together by virtue of common understanding and shared needs. But I could quite clearly hear the retching noise, which she tried in vain to muffle, whenever she vomited after a “copious” meal, as she herself used to say, deluding herself. I could hear her attempting to eliminate all the impurities that might have attacked her body, unfurled inside like a carnivorous flower. She used to wash so carefully that, when she came out of the bathroom, I could see only a luminous face, her eyes watering slightly from the strain, but otherwise with such an air of serenity that even a saint would have envied her.
“Did you hear me singing ? When I lived at home, out of embarrassment, to disguise the noise the pee made inside the toilet bowl, I used to make sounds like that, so that my brother would start humming along on the other side of the door. Can you imagine what a concert ?”
I looked at her horrified. I was afraid that one day she might disappear down that stinking hole of a toilet, that she might somehow slide away into the limitless kingdom of miasmata and ordure. I knew, however, that our parting would have nothing dramatic about it, because that was not the way we lived. Rather, we had the giddy air of girls who knew they were spending their lives on borrowed time, and for that reason were ferociously profiting from all the time that remained. Our parting would resemble, I knew it even then, the afternoon naps of childhood : you sleep deeply, you dream, you wriggle about a few times and, when you awake, you ascertain that everything has remained the same during your absence ; perhaps, it is a bit more tidy, but, apart from that, you are still the same heap of walking flesh.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth