Pubblichiamo oggi un racconto in lingua originale della scrittrice, saggista e studiosa Gabriela Dragnea Horvath.
In copertina, Young gypsy girls, di Pierre-Auguste Renoir
di Gabriela Dragnea Horvath
The sudden heat wave had wrapped the garden in a tight veil of liquid air that muffled sounds and slowed down rhythms, to the point of disconnecting things from their purposes. Instead of eating the breadcrumbs prepared for them, the sparrows preferred to refresh themselves in the bird bath. The tomcat who usually chased them, was now lying a few steps away, fixing them passively. Somewhere nearby a harmonica was emitting sounds that refused to gather in a meaningful melody. In that torpor, Aunt Violet’s voice sounded harsh: “So then? Your mothers remember me only when in need, don’t they?”
Her gaze was full of ironic reproach. After having studied the effect of her words on her two nieces, she puffed on her cigarette and went on in a different tone: “But I take no offence! Actually, I say thank God they have problems this summer, otherwise who knows when I could have seen the girls.”
Ina, seated in front of the aunt, did not dare raise her eyes. The aunt was right. Her mother never came to visit this sister-in-law and, when she mentioned her in front of her husband, it was mostly to criticize her. She had been here only once, six years ago, as her parents were busy moving into a new flat. This summer because of the flat restoration they couldn’t go on holidays, so her mother had decided to send her here. At least the air is good, she had conceded, though she feared Aunt Violet’s bad influence on her daughter.
Her cousin Carmen had no sense of guilt: ever since her parents divorced, she had got used to spend weeks with others. She was nervously swinging a leg. Her empty gaze was hiding her discontent: her mother was at the seaside with her new boyfriend and had abandoned her in this small provincial town with this annoying old aunt.
Aunt Violet had finished her cigarette and was now cleaning the silver cigarette holder. The girls had seen objects like this only in old films. Carmen asked: “Where did you get this cigarette holder from?”
“Well,” the aunt replied with a sly smile, “this is a present from a lover! Today nobody uses fine objects like this.” Then she raised her eyes. The ripe cherries were cropping up through the thick foliage. She said joyfully: “Look at my cherries. This year they are really fine. In a few days we’ll pick them and do a good fruit preserve.”
Ina liked the idea. Climbing the tree, filling her basket with the fruit, making herself earrings of twin cherries. Checking the preserve syrup the color of garnet, as her mother had taught her. Carmen’s face distorted in a grimace. She had other expectations from these holidays. Making cherry jam, what a bore!
Carmen found everything here boring. The evening before she had warned her cousin: “If there’s no fun, I’ll leave.”
And she really meant it. She had received money from her father and could travel alone now, as she was 14 and had an identity card. She could go to the seaside to look for her mother. Or go to her father and ask him to buy her a cassette player. Recently she felt disgruntled and restless. And she had a great need to receive presents.-->
“Before long you’ll enter life,” the aunt said.
Her vivid eyes, circled by black eye rings, were expertly scrutinizing them. There was something solemn in those words, which struck Ina. Lately she had begun to understand that she was bearing inside a great expectation as if for the moment she was walking in the entrance hall, waiting for life – the great ballroom – to open for her. She took a quick glance at her cousin: they did not see much of each other; she did not know her really. When Carmen was mentioned in her family, Ina’s mother would add “that poor wretch.” Seeing Carmen so self-confident, Ina could not understand why her mother felt compassion for her. On the contrary, Carmen looked very pretty with her slim legs and her long hair and more fortunate: though they were the same age, Carmen’s breasts had already formed, while hers were only now giving signs of growing. Taking all her disadvantages into account, Ina bit her lip with a discouraged air.
Uncle Honoriu came out of the kitchen, his belly bulging between his suspenders and a good-natured smile over his grey goatee. He placed a little basket full of raspberries on the table. Carmen could barely withhold an ironic grimace. Her mother said sometimes: “I can’t understand how my sister, who had great lovers, ended up with this knucklehead. “
The uncle pointed to the garden and asked Ina, “Do you remember the time you spent with us when you were little?”
Ina nodded with a good girl smile and looked around. She had a nice memory of that garden, where she had played a lot when she came here. At that time the garden was for her a green castle full of secret corridors formed by the raspberry bushes and the tall trees that looked like huge towers. She recognized in a corner the walnut tree where the uncle had hung a swing for her and glimpsed through the thick grass the path that led to a gate and from there to the riverbank. She stood up and walked a few steps away to get a better view of the hills on the other side of the river. When she had come here the first time, she had stood with her nose attached to the window, watching the clouds run over the top of the hills. Now she discovered that the wavy line of the hill tops was interrupted by a tall grey building that was not there in the past. Uncle Honoriu explained: “This is the new hospital your aunt dislikes so much. Don’t you, Violeta?”
The aunt pouted her lips in disgust: “That’s true. Every morning when I look towards the hills, this ugly thing reminds me that we are getting old and the only things in store for us are pills and poultices.”
Uncle Honoriu laughed: “Yes, but you see I am glad that young doctors do not leave our town anymore. They work in the hospital and do a good job. Useless to grumble about it, I have always told you. I am happy to have a good hospital close by, precisely because we are getting old.”
“Cut it,” frowned the aunt, “don’t stay there and talk about old age, go and make us a coffee!”
Honoriu left swaying his plump body.
Violet started unstitching a dress: “Life is worthwhile only if you live it fully. Can you see this dress? I am modifying it for a woman who worked for thirty years in the post office, she brought up three sons and is now bringing up her grandchildren. A life of hard labor and savings. She never had any entertainment, that’s why she’s aging badly. I feel sick looking at her, she’s sour like a wine gone bad.”
Carmen had the chills at the idea that her years could pass like that, only in hard work; she was looking forward to being eighteen, finishing school, finding a light job, living on her own and doing whatever crossed her mind. Her future had to be a juicy fruit and her eyes betrayed her impatience to take a bite of it. Ina thought of her mother, when, in the evening weary from work, she grumbled, “I never have fun like my sisters-in-law.” Ina decided she would know how to live well, like her aunts, whom she secretly admired in spite of her mother’s criticisms.
Aunt Violet lit up another cigarette. Her dark lips puckered voluptuously around the silver holder. She blew the smoke away and went on: “I was fortunate, I was beautiful. In the morning I worked as a seamstress in the atelier and posed for a fashion journal. In the evening I served in the restaurant of the rich. I encountered important people.”
The previous evening the cousins had perused magazines in which their aunt appeared as a model. She was so beautiful! Ina found it heartbreaking that there was no miracle to preserve beauty. Carmen instead was wondering how, in spite of that fabulous past, her mother often mentioned, Aunt Violet had finished in this small town, working as a seamstress for her neighbors.
“I tell you I was a beauty. My body was so fresh and the skin so fine, that a scratch was enough to let blood spurt. So full of life was I.”
The girls were hanging on her every word.
“Many men lost their minds for me! There was the owner of a factory who was ready to divorce for me, then an officer, poor man, he almost went insane! In order to conquer me he tried to make money gambling and he ruined himself. He then went to a foreign country, and I heard he died in an epidemic… Then the lawyer from this town, he died two years ago. When she sees me, his wife still changes direction as if I were a jinx. Do you know why? He fell in love with me, as soon as I came here, just married. He was walking with his future wife once, he turned his head to look at me, and he hit his face against a streetlamp. He bore a mark on his cheek from that all his life.
The girls were listening with wide open eyes, as if they were trying to see better in their imagination the things recounted by the aunt.
“All my life I have done whatever I wanted to. I have no regret. Well, we women have a lot of power. Even the most intelligent men get lost in front of a pair of beautiful legs.”
She puffed at her cigarette with closed eyes and went on: “It’s an impulse they can’t control. It comes from their blood, not from the brain. You have to learn to use your power over them. Once you have struck them, they are ready to ruin themselves for a kiss,” Aunt Violet added breaking into a shrill mocking laughter.
Ina was upset. Her mother too had started to talk to her about men, but her views were different: for her men took advantage of your virginity and, if they married you, they took advantage of your entire life. Both her mother and Aunt Violet saw men as adverse creatures. In her still uncertain fantasies, Ina was making place more often to Him, the young man to whom she would abandon herself without hate or remorse, without any battle or the fear of error.
Carmen had an air of strange arrogance, as if she were surrounded by men apologizing humbly for having unnerved her. Yet inwardly Ina’s cousin was anxious: she had started feeling men’s strong magnetism, she watched them with curiosity, but she did not understand the mystery behind choices. Why did her mother marry her father, a man she was not happy with and she divorced in the end?
She asked the aunt: “How did you come to marry Uncle Honoriu?”
“The story is long. The war broke out, the Russians occupied us. No more rich people to marry. The military were different. Then a communist fell in love with me. Today he is an important figure. But I did not like him: he was unpolished.”
Carmen knew that story. Any time that character was on TV, her mother would say, “My sister is really dumb! She could have been a grand lady today.” Carmen was wondering why the aunt had rejected that fabulous chance. Above all, why she had no regret?
Aunt Violet went on: “Then I met Honoriu: good, mild, an orphan, his parents had died during the war. He was very handsome, but unaware of it. Don’t look at him now. Aging he turned fat, he loves sweets. Back then he was slim. I understood quickly that he would give me all his soul. He was still a child. I taught him how to make love. It was the first time that a man belonged only to me… And then I longed for a calm life, I just wanted to cook and go to the cinema with my husband. He came here for his work at the railway. And we decided to stay. I like the hills around.”
Carmen nodded, as if to say, “Mom is right, Auntie, you’re rather slow.”
Ina, who was eating raspberries from the basket, was baffled by the aunt’s words. “Then,” she thought, “if you also desired love, why did you take pleasure in making men suffer?” Her perplexity melted together with the fragrant raspberry she was putting in her mouth as Uncle Honoriu placed the coffee pot right in front of her.
Two days later, the coffee ritual had become a habit for the girls too. Uncle Honoriu was preparing it in the kitchen and took it out, playing the waiter: “The lady and her nieces are served.”
Aunt Violet poured half a cup for each girl. When she received it the first time, Ina blushed. Her mother would not have allowed her to drink coffee. The aunt guessed it all: “Don’t worry! I won’t tell your mother, and you don’t tell her either, otherwise she will get mad at me. Take a sip. It won’t harm you. You are no longer a little child, you have to start tasting the pleasures of life, do you agree Honoriu?”
The uncle nodded and started filling his pipe.
As they were drinking their coffee, Carmen examined the clumsy behavior of her cousin with amusement: she was ridiculous, licking her lips after every sip and putting the cup back on the table so awkwardly, as she if she had a broken wrist. “This one here knows only the taste of milk,” thought Carmen. She used to drink coffee with a classmate, when their mothers were not at home. It was not so much the pleasure of coffee, as the voluptuousness of smoking in the closet, with an open window. And then all the chatter about their classmates and the brief love stories born at the swimming pool.
In the next yard the naked suntanned torso of a young man appeared. The aunt noticed him and called: “Ehi, Victor, why don’t you come to meet my nieces from Bucharest?”
Then she explained quickly in a low voice: “My neighbors’ son. He has just been released from his military service. In these two years he’s become a little wild.”
A minute later the young man entered through the gate. He had put on a light blue shirt which contrasted with his suntanned skin. He was tall and strong, and Ina was paralyzed at the sight of that imposing figure with a smooth face and big black eyes. Aunt Violet introduced her nieces to him. He wanted to show these girls coming from the capital city that he had manners, so he bowed and kissed their hands. Carmen understood his intention on the spot, so she extended her hand in a complacent way, throwing her long hair behind her shoulders with the other hand in a secure gesture. Ina was hesitant, then she reached out a shaking hand and, when he was ready to kiss it, she withdrew her hand in fear. The touch of his lips seemed unbearable to her. He was in his early twenties, and no young man had ever touched her hand with his lips before. Victor was at a loss, and, as he knew everybody was watching him, he passed his fingers through his hair, annoyed that it was still too short. Then he lifted his gaze towards the cherries popping up through the thick foliage.
Aunt Violet winked and asked Victor, “Tell me, Victor, how do you find my nieces? In a short time, they’ll be ripe like these cherries!”
The aunt’s thick laughter was interrupted by uncle Honoriu’s reprimand: “Violeta, what do you mean? How can you say so?”
“What do I mean? I mean that our girls are blooming, and they know it. Ina, can you bring a bowl from the kitchen? We should taste the cherries.”
Ina ran to the kitchen in one breath. She felt a strong new emotion. When she returned, she saw her cousin was helping Victor to bend the branches and it seemed that the two had already become friends. She was angry with Carmen and with herself because she was not as clever and pretty as her cousin. She wished she could run away on her own towards the back of the garden and from there to the river to let off those emotions, but, with burning cheeks, she handed the bowl to Victor. When they sat down to taste the cherries, Ina had already forgotten her rancor and was examining the young man’s suntanned face: he had thick eyebrows, a straight nose and full lips. She noticed curiously how he put every fruit between his teeth and heard how that fruit suffered his bite with a little moan.
Carmen was scrutinizing him too: she liked his strong muscular legs. They seemed to have a secret life and resembled the legs of her mother’s boyfriend; she often saw him at home going around in shorts. She perceived an irritating challenge in those legs she would have been ready to scratch with her nails.
Aunt Violet tasted a cherry and said, “Hey, Victor, yesterday we heard you play the harmonica.”
Victor was ashamed in front of these girls, who must have heard better music. He muttered: “Yes, when one is in the army, there are moments you have to fill up with something.”
Ina mustered the courage to ask: “And now after the military service what are you going to do?”
“I will work as an electrician,” he answered. His eyes betrayed his shyness. He knew that the girls would continue their studies and get more important jobs.
Carmen noticed that he was disheartened and asked with an arrogant air, “How can one have fun in this place?” Above all the word “place” was pronounced in contempt.
“One can do things. There’s the stadium, one can play ping-pong or basketball in the high school yard on the next street, one can go to the cinema and Saturday evening there’s a disco in the old ballroom.
Through the smoke of her cigarette, Aunt Violet noticed that her nieces were not listening to Victor. Both of them were staring at him with a dreamy forgetful air. The old woman guessed, with an understanding smile, that the girls were being carried away by his warm voice and that deep down they intensely desired to be melted by that warmth.
After supper, as Uncle Honoriu was watching the TV news, the girls cleared the table under Violet’s sharp gaze. She went on instructing them: “You should learn how to cook well but show it only to the man you want to keep for yourselves. It’s the ace up the sleeve to get married. Don’t tire yourselves out cooking for all the men you meet, otherwise they will stick around.”
As she was talking, Violet crossed Ina’s intense gaze. She scolded her: “I saw today how scared you were when Victor wanted to kiss your hand. My dear child, if men realize you fear them, they’ll eat you up like a little mouse. This is a struggle!”
Ina was baffled by those strange words. She could not understand. Why fight with the men? She was not interested in men in general, she was only waiting for the one who would come up as soon as her bones had elongated and her breasts grown. Today, when she saw Victor coming into the yard, she quivered while a question was forming in her mind, “Is that you?”
In the evening Ina sat on her bed in her flowery pajamas, her knees under her chin and her arms around her bent legs. She watched her cousin turning around in front of the long mirror in a short lacy night gown she had taken from her mother, which slipped down from her shoulders. Carmen was well aware of her cousin’s curiosity and knew very well she was stirring her envy with her beautiful body and carefree movements. That’s why she lingered in front of the mirror. Ina was avidly absorbing the lines of her cousin’s body as if she wished to imprint them on her own. When she thought she had humiliated her cousin enough, Carmen turned off the light with a sudden gesture.
In the dark both of them felt a strange tension. Ina asked with a wavering voice: “Do you have a boyfriend?”
The other replied in a studied casual tone: “Yes, but we broke up before I came here. I’m not going to call him up or send him a card. I want to punish him.”
It was all invented, but Carmen enjoyed her cousin’s silence. After a while Ina asked with the same wavering voice, “Which actors do you like?”
The real question, hidden beneath this infantile one, was “Do you like Victor?”
The following days Victor came often to keep them company. They discovered that he was on his own, as his parents were at the baths with his younger brother, and that he had another free month before starting work. He did not have many friends to pass his time with. His ex-schoolmates either worked or were students and now were on holidays. Passing his time with Ina and Carmen kept him busy. First, they took their coffee with the uncle and aunt, then they played volleyball or cards, and once the girls convinced him to bring his harmonica and play for them.
Victor’s presence changed the girls’ mood. Carmen turned more vivacious, tense and impatient, and at the same time she felt that a sweet inebriating lymph was running in her veins and melted her gestures. Ina was pale, with dry lips and a deep gloomy gaze, that betrayed her suffering. Every day her cousin became more familiar with Victor, she was joking with him, she gave him a push when they played volleyball and once Ina noticed with envy and disgust that Carmen tried to play his harmonica.
One afternoon Carmen asked Victor in a familiar tone, as if they were a couple, “Do we go for a dance this Saturday?”
He answered, “If your aunt approves.”
Aunt Violet got angry: “Listen, it’s better if they don’t go around too much. It’s too much responsibility for me. Why don’t you bring your cassette player here and dance as much as you want?”
Carmen thought angrily: “How boring!” and spent the rest of the day in a sulky mood. In the evening Aunt Violet addressed her severely: “Listen, Carmen, you have hot blood and think you are a grown up. You should not chase men.”
“Come on, Auntie, he is a coarse guy.”
“This coarse guy has everything other men have. I don’t want to send you back with a gift in your belly!”
Carmen was feeling her blood boil. The aunt was so annoying! Violet was determined to say it all: “She calls him a coarse guy, and she’s ready to jump on him! You don’t encourage even the man you want to marry.”
When they were preparing to go to bed, Ina asked her cousin: “Aren’t you going to leave for the seaside?”
Carmen replied with a harsh tone: “What do you care what I am going to do? Do you want to have him all for yourself? Forget it, you have no chance!”
Ina was ready to cry, but she did not want Carmen to see. Her head on the pillow, she let her tears silently flow on her cheeks. The two girls ceased taking.
Carmen tossed nervously in her bed, thinking that she would like to spend her time with Victor alone without this silly cousin who was ruining her holidays.
As she wept silently, Ina decided to call up her parents and tell them she wanted to go home. How could she explain this decision? Simply, she did not get on well with her cousin who was too free for a good girl like her. She knew her mother would be worried and would come immediately to take her home. But how would she explain it to Aunt Violet? She had no answer. From the other room she could hear Honoriu’s gentle snoring. She decided to wait for another day. Maybe Victor would grasp her feelings for him when he met her again and would realize what type of girl Carmen was. Then she closed her eyes and started imagining things. She and Victor found themselves alone in a distant wood where nobody could reach them, she touched his short straight hair and caressed his suntanned face, while he was touching her lips with kisses as light as butterflies. Late that night, after having seen that scene dozens of times in her fantasy she let out a sigh of relief and abandoned herself to sleep.
Next morning Aunt Violet woke them up early: “We are going to pick the cherries today! They are ripe to perfection!”
Carmen jumped out of the bed, put on her shorts and bound her hair in a ponytail: she was imagining Victor’s smile, half shy, half wily, as he helped her clutch a branch. She would touch his hands among the thick foliage. Ina too put her shorts on and stayed behind to have a look at herself in the mirror.
Uncle Honoriu pulled out a tall ladder and two small wicker baskets and a big one.
“Mind the frail branches,” he advised them, but they stood there motionless. Both of them were in expectation. Carmen asked, “Auntie, why don’t you call Victor? He could lend us a hand!”
“Yes, he could,” Violet agreed. She called him various times, but nobody answered. The girls were waiting with an anxious look. Where could he have gone? The windows and doors of his house were shut.
“He may still be sleeping,” said Ina and, for the first time since they were there, her cousin found her almost smart.
“He may have gone to the baths to see his parents,” said Uncle Honoriu, and both girls were seized with panic.
There was nothing else to do but start working. Uncle Honoriu waited for them to fill the little baskets, emptied them into the big basket and returned them to the girls, without daring to look up, where the girls’ legs intertwined with the strong tree branches. They worked in silence and every now and then launched a gaze towards Victor’s house. Victor did not come in the afternoon, nor in the evening. At dinner, weary and with faces sharpened by the expectation and the disappointment, the two cousins ate fresh bread, butter and cherry preserve with irrepressible appetite. The aunt warned them: “Go slow, oh my, you might get nausea!”
The girls wouldn’t take the advice. They were chewing avidly in rhythm, while their gazes met in the same revelation: the male, this strange creature, had his own territory that could not be trespassed upon as easily as the aunt’s stories had suggested.
Next day Victor appeared again with a joyful sporty air. Carmen asked, “Where were you yesterday? We picked the cherries!”
“I was at the seaside with a friend. His father let him use the car.”
Going to the seaside, ignoring their feelings! Carmen was mad: “We won’t let you taste the cherry preserve! You don’t deserve it!”
Victor smiled and swayed his head. He had understood that he had become important for those girls, but he had his life. Aunt Violet had an idea that cheered the girls up: she wanted to take them to the biggest shop in town. It was her ambition to make them dresses, and they had to choose the fabrics.
“The dresses will be a reminder of these holidays. And then your mothers can see how much I care for my nieces.”
She pulled out of the wardrobe a green dress, put on face powder and a dark lipstick, and arranged her hair, worn-out by perms, with a ribbon. Then she went to check if the girls were ready. Carmen whistled like a boy in admiration. The aunt retorted promptly: “Listen, you don’t have to give in, not even at my age!”
After launching a critical gaze at Ina, Violet blurted: “Change your clothes, please! I am well known in town. I am sure you have something nicer. Your mother takes care of these things.” It was true that she had in her suitcase the Sunday dress, with a bow and embroidered daisies on the hem, but she found it too childlike. She went out of the room and changed without enthusiasm.
The aunt scrutinized Carmen: “And you? A short skirt with sports shoes? Men like to see the girls’ feet. What, are you a boy? How these American films are ruining you! And then you are continually chewing gum, which deforms your face! Which young man will have the patience to guess the shape of your lips behind all these grimaces?”
Carmen blushed and ran to the kitchen to throw away the gum. Then she put her sandals on, upset. She did not like to be scolded by this old aunt; her mother did not care how she dressed.
They took the main street. The aunt was very excited, and, as soon as she met an acquaintance, she hurried to introduce the girls: “Look what pretty young ladies from Bucharest are keeping me company! Ina is my brother’s daughter and Carmen my sister’s.”
There were few people in the shop that warm summer afternoon. The shop assistants were dozing behind the desks. With an energetic gesture Aunt Violet summoned a young salesgirl that was idling about. She addressed her emphatically: “My dear, come here please. I want to make two summer dresses for my nieces. Let me see the best fabrics.”
The salesgirl started moving reluctantly. She found no pleasure in serving that whimsical and overbearing old woman she knew very well. When she came near, she cast a curious gaze at the girls. They were examining her too. They noticed her disheveled badly colored hair, a sort of orange, and her chipped nail polish. The salesgirl started pulling fabrics off the shelves with fatigue. The aunt took the fabric rolls one by one to the changing room and wrapped the girls in them. Her firm hand made them turn in front of the mirror to find the contours of their shoulders and of their waists, while she kept explaining: “You know Ina, this green is too pale, you need a stronger color, you have your mother’s skin. Good that you have our big almond shaped eyes. When you grow up, you’ll have to make up a little, take care of your hair style and mind you do not put too much weight on the hips.”
Ina was blushing: the aunt’s voice sounded loud in the shop’s silence. She knew her own face; recently she had started studying it with interest in the mirror, but this time it seemed the aunt was drawing decisively her features: this is you, your looks have a name, a history. It depends on you to give them a value.
“You see Carmen,” said the aunt, “you are beautiful, your mother dresses well but doesn’t teach you anything!”
Carmen shrugged her shoulders. She had never asked herself what her mother’s plans for her were. On the contrary she was happy when she was free and could do what she liked. The aunt was sticking her nose too much in her life. And she had such obsolete taste! Her school friends, all dressed in jeans, would have laughed at her if they could see her now.
In the end they decided on a blue fabric and a purple one.
“Here we are,” said the aunt. “Now you can learn how to make the most of yourselves. It is very important for a woman to feel herself beautiful.”
Even if they were not so enthusiastic about the fabrics, the girls felt very well, more beautiful and more important than the salesgirl they could glimpse in the mirror, ugly and lost, with a poor unfortunate air. One week later, after many fittings, the dresses inspired by foreign fashion magazines of the previous years were ready. Even the skeptic Carmen was conquered by Aunt Violet’s mastery. Both girls were impatient to show their new dresses to Victor. The aunt had thought of that, so she called him: “Listen, my girls want to throw a party. Bring your cassette recorder and a friend; I will prepare some snacks. You can dance here in the garden.”
Uncle Honoriu painted light bulbs in green and red and hung them in the vine pergola, to reproduce what he thought a disco would look like. Then he took out of the cellar an elder juice for the girls and a bottle of wine for the young men. The girls put on their new dresses, the aunt opened a box full of lipsticks and put a shade of color on their lips, pointing out, “A little bit of color won’t do any harm, even if you are pretty and fresh. Make up is like dew on the flower. It makes it more charming, more desirable. Don’t tell your mothers I taught you to make up, above all you Ina.”
Victor turned up in the evening smelling of lavender with a friend of his, tall and slim, smiley, whom he introduced as his former schoolmate Doru.
The young people ate the sandwiches and cakes with gusto, then they started dancing in a circle. At the first slow dance, Aunt Violet put out her cigarette, took her husband by hand and they danced a tango in the middle of the circle, accompanied by applause. With the slow music, the circle broke off. Victor chose Carmen as a partner and Ina had to accept the other man. Doru was aware Ina was uneasy and absent-minded, and he tried to cheer her up by telling jokes. But Ina could not follow his words, and his husky voice annoyed her. She was noticing with ever bigger eyes, how the other two were dancing tightly and were searching for the darker corners in the garden. Once she saw that Victor had buried his lips in Carmen’s hair and was kissing her on the forehead.
The uncle and the aunt did not let them alone for one instant. After midnight the young men kissed the girls’ hands, greeted everybody and left.
Next morning Ina woke up before Carmen, put on her trousers and a T-shirt and went out. She had a heavy heart and wanted to talk to the aunt. She couldn’t find her anywhere, and the car was missing. She remembered her saying they would go to collect an eiderdown they had ordered some time ago. The tomcat was waiting in front of the kitchen. She took him in her arms and headed for the back of the garden. The sun had risen above the hills and was lighting up the new hospital. She walked around the garden with the cat in her arms, tormented by questions: why wasn’t she able to cancel that obsessive thought of Victor? And why was thinking of him so sweet and painful? If this was love, why did he not grasp it? How could she acquire the power over men aunt Violet talked about? How simple and clear the life of adults was!
When she woke up, Carmen found out she was alone and thought the aunt and the uncle had taken Ina with them. Finally, she was alone, so she could go to Victor’s house and let herself be kissed. She had tried a kiss with a boy only twice, once at a party with her classmates, and the second time when she came back from the skating rink with a friend. Victor was probably much more expert. She cleaned her teeth, put on a mini skirt and, in an instant, she was in front of the gate of Victor’s house. She was going to call him, but she changed her mind. Better if she kept silent. She pushed the gate, stepped into the yard and went to knock on the front door. She went around the house and discovered the back door. It was locked. She called Victor but got no answer. She kept knocking on the door ever angrier and without any result. She turned back to the aunt’s house dejected and slammed the gate with a nervous kick. Ina was coming from the back of the garden with a handful of raspberries.
“Where is Victor?” Carmen asked with a threatening gaze.
“I have no idea! Why do you ask me?”
Neither of them felt like having breakfast, even if the aunt had left a note with everything they could find in the fridge. They decided to sunbathe on the riverbank. They prepared in silence, then crossed the garden and reached the gate at the back.
“Today is going to be hotter than yesterday,” Ina said, but Carmen did not care to answer. She pushed the gate with her shoulder and found herself on the gravel that extended towards the river. She was shuffling her feet with an insolent air, which was her way to show her discontent. Her mother had a great idea to send her here! She couldn’t even find a decent place to sunbathe. The narrow river had lazy uninviting waters and the banks were covered by willow bushes, interrupted only by clearings of sand and white gravel.
They walked away, passed under the bridge and finally spotted a sheltered place surrounded by willow bushes that had only a narrow opening which allowed a glimpse of the other bank. They lay down on the blanket. Ina opened one of the books in her holiday reading list. Carmen never took books with her, but she had picked up one of the aunt’s fashion magazines, which also contained sentimental counselling.
Listless and quiet they started reading. Ina looked around every so often, as she thought she should be on guard: her mother had warned against going with her cousin to deserted places. Yet she felt there was no danger in sight, they were hidden by the bushes, one could see the bridge crossed by cars and bikers. There were only swarms of gnats buzzing around here. She wondered what Carmen thought. She watched her: she was already suntanned, as she had already gone to the swimming pool in Bucharest, and her body was so slim. Ina suddenly felt ugly by comparison: her skin was too white and her hips too wide. How could she focus on reading with such worries?
Carmen perused the magazine to the end and started looking around. In the background she could see the hospital, then the bridge and right in front of them on the other bank there was a sandy clearing surrounded by bushes. If only they had been smart enough to find such a place, instead of sitting on these pointy stones. But now they had to stay here. There was no great difference and no fun in sight, neither here nor there. The gnats were haunting her. She tried to chase them away without success. “What hysterical insects!” she said in anger and threw herself face down on the blanket covering her head with the open magazine.
Several minutes later they heard voices on the other bank. They raised their heads and could glimpse a young man and a girl in the clearing. The couple sat down at the margin of the water. To their surprise it was Victor with the salesgirl who had served them in the shop. He was holding her tight and was whispering something in her ear, which made her burst out laughing. Then he started to throw pebbles on the water surface. She took off her sandals and dipped her feet into the water, dangling her legs and laughing in a silly high-pitched voice.
In a tacit agreement the two girls decided to hide behind the bushes and watch the clearing. With a quick gesture, Victor pulled the girl towards him and started to kiss her neck. She was trying to push him away among laughter and excited little screams. He blocked her hands behind her back and with the other hand started to touch her breasts. Ina shut her eyes terrorized that she could see so close in full sunlight an embrace between a man and a woman. Carmen instead wanted to see it all and, biting her lip till she felt the salty taste of blood, gazed for long minutes at the love play of those two bodies, till they decided to stand up and vanished behind the tall bushes. Ina opened her eyes only when she heard her cousin’s disappointed comment: “Nothing big happened. They went behind the bushes.”
Soon afterwards, the two cousins dressed and turned back home in silence. Aunt Violet noticed immediately that they were troubled. Ina was speechless, with a fixed gaze, while Carmen could not keep in check her agitation and anger. She told the aunt what they had seen on the riverbank. Violet started laughing: “What’s the big fuss? He’s a grown man who needs a woman.”
Ina opened her mouth for the first time, blushing: “Yes, but did he have to pick just that girl?”
The aunt protested: “Who do you think Victor is? An angel fallen from the sky? That girl is the perfect match for him.”
In the evening, after having turned off the light in their room, Ina and Carmen talked seriously about men and decided they deserved only their contempt. As for Victor, they would not greet him anymore, they could not befriend a young man who dated that kind of girl. And then he was uncouth and arrogant. After closing their eyes, each of them imagined slapping that conceited boor. He would naturally ask forgiveness, they would make peace and everything would end in an embrace similar to the one they had seen that morning on the river bank. In the silence of the night, they felt their bodies restless: their breathing turned rapid, their breasts were warming up and their blood was chaotically running, impatient to find a rhythm.
The day after, the heat became more oppressive. After lunch, Uncle Honoriu, dulled by the hot air, went to the bedroom to take a rest. The girls made the coffee together and took it out. Aunt Violet was waiting for them at the table under the pergola, fanning herself with an old black lace fan: “Take a look at the tomcat, he is worn out like Honoriu. These males can’t take it!”
The cat was lying exhausted in the shade, indifferent to the sparrows that were hopping around him. The contours of the new hospital seemed to dissolve in the hot air. In that absolute calm, they could hear the harmonica in the neighbors’ yard. The girls looked at each other, but neither of them turned towards Victor’s house. Only the aunt wondered: “How can he have breath on such a day!”
Something of the consuming heat could be perceived in that slow senseless melody, an improvisation maybe, an impersonal call in the desert. The girls endured that obsessive sound in silence; it vanished as idly as it had begun. Shortly afterwards the inert atmosphere was shaken by a scream: a sharp scream that echoed in the valley. The scream was followed by another. Aunt Violet lit up a cigarette, took a puff, and motioned in the direction of the hospital: “Another wretch is giving birth! In summer they keep the windows of the delivery room open. I hear them scream their lives out. Poor women, how much pain!”
Another scream followed, stronger, more acute, a dagger stuck in the boiling air. Rigid on their chairs, the girls looked at each other: their eyes betrayed anxiety, as if both of them knew that scream had remained suspended in the air waiting for them.
Beyond the fence, the harmonica resumed unperturbed its solitary music.