You are dead, my dear sister, but the nightmare is not over. On Monday evening you died. I was going home on the metro. I was with Manuela. In the Piata Romana station auntie Vera ‘phoned me. She told me that you were barely breathing any more. Her voice was choked with fear. I told her that I would lose my ‘phone signal when the train entered the tunnel and that I would call her in five minutes. Manuela looked at my hand as I put the mobile ‘phone in my coat pocket. For a few moments I was unable to speak. Then, I asked her if we could see each other the next day, in the evening, at Vintage again. She answered without hesitation: “Yes, Leonid, we’ll meet tomorrow evening.” Manuela also knew that you were going to die, and I knew that I would never see you again. The train was approaching the Piata Universitatii metro station when the ‘phone rang again. I took it out of my pocket and answered without looking to see who was calling. I heard our aunt sobbing. The screeching train entered the station and the passengers crowded to the doors. “I’ll come on the first train!” I shouted as loudly as I could and turned off the ‘phone. The agitated bodies thrust me onto the platform. Manuela had retreated to the middle of the carriage. I looked at the time displayed on the screen of my mobile: 20:24. A wave of anger washed through my mind. I had been left alone.
I don’t know what I did in the station: maybe I waited for my anger to pass, maybe I started to tremble, terrified that I would see you stretched out on the bed in the room where Mother also passed away, maybe I prayed to God for your soul or maybe I railed at Him, yes, yes, little do I care that I swore at Him, it wasn’t His will! to take you from this earth, away from me, because it was written in your fate! but I came around, my eyes still on the luminous blue screen with its white clouds, and I thought how you had already ascended above the clouds and left me here, on earth, in the Piata Universitatii metro station, looking at the background image of the display on a mobile ‘phone, which showed the hour 20:41. I think it was then that I wept.
I gripped my nose between finger and thumb and blew it straight into a rubbish bin, because I didn’t have any paper handkerchiefs, and I remembered your e-mail, the one you sent me in November, after the second operation. It had a Word attachment, which you had titled DECEASE. You wrote to me in the e-mail: “Print it and read it!” That exclamation mark resounded like a commandment. Your only commandment. But I read it without seeing the words, my vision blurred by tears, and I closed it in fright, leaving it there, in Yahoo, for two months. I hoped that you would not die so soon. I thought of getting back on the metro, going home and printing it out. I had to tell Simona that you were dead, to ask her to put two shirts and a sweater in a suitcase for me, I had to light a candle at the icon in Miruna’s room, to kiss Miruna, who had only just fallen asleep, to kiss her on the forehead, to drink a cup of coffee in the kitchen, to print your text and then go to the train station. That would have meant experiencing once again the feeling of guilt, looking at Simona’s eyes, eyes filled with reproaches, which would have followed me all the way to the lift. She would have locked the door to the flat, turning the key all the way, I would have pulled open the door to the lift, pressed the button for the ground floor with a trembling finger. I had no mind to feel tense, because I was leaving her on her own to take care of Miruna, now of all times, when I was taking the train to be with you, to bury you. Nor could I go back to work to print your message, because the newspaper office was closed at that hour. It crossed my mind to ‘phone Manuela, to tell her that I would be coming to her place in twenty minutes, so that she could print your pages, but she would have thought that I was taking advantage of your death to enter her flat for the first time, maybe even her bedroom, maybe I would have thrown her on the bed her husband abandoned, he had been away in France for six months, taking a training course, and by the time I had to leave to go to the train station I would have twice brought you to the heights of orgasm, forgive me, my dear sister! During which time the printer would have spewed a hundred identical copies of the documented titled DECEASE. But Manuela had hidden inside the carriage of the metro train.
I left the metro station and from Piata Universitatii I took a taxi to the Gara de Nord. I bought a ticket on the 21:25 express train, which once only had you tried to take from Bucharest, after that cursed chemotherapy session with the new cytostatic prescribed by Dr Stanculeanu, but I didn’t let you board the train after you recovered from your paralysis, having been admitted to the Bucharest Oncologic Institute. And a good thing I didn’t! It’s a wretched train. I had time to withdraw two thousand lei from a cash dispenser in the station. Two days previously my wages had been paid into my account. I bought five packets of Kent Nanotek from the station supermarket and a litre bottle of still water. I ran to the train and sat down in a dark, empty compartment, by the window, a few moments before the train left. In the whole of the carriage, which reeked of urine, there were around ten or fifteen people, but I was the only one who was hurrying to reach a dead person.
I drank half the bottle of water in a single gulp. My throat still felt dry. For an instant I was tempted to pull the alarm cord, to jump off the train (it hadn’t passed the Basarab Underpass yet), to go back to the supermarket and buy a bottle of Stalinskaya vodka. I imagined how I would have looked, a man of fifty, without a bald patch, without wrinkles, without a belly, that’s something, isn’t it? wearing a six- or seven-year-old sweater over a white shirt and black velour trousers, I imagined how I would have looked sitting there, staring with unseeing eyes out of the carriage window into the darkness outside, now and then taking a slug of vodka, waiting for that wretched train to travel the 230 kilometres, which would take it three hours and twenty minutes, according to the timetable. To drink out of fear. That image seemed to me utterly stupid. I didn’t need alcohol to cloud my brain, even if my throat was burning. And besides, I would have been complicit in my own decline: drinking vodka alone on a night train. Manuela once told me that Romanian men past the age of forty are wrecks. And I laughed. And she laughed, chewing her lip. But it was not the fear I nurtured of being a “wreck” that dissuaded me from pulling the alarm cord (I had the money to pay the fine, to hell with the money!), but the memory of that day ravaged by a snowstorm in February 2010. I had also had to choose then, also in the supermarket of the Gara de Nord, between Stalinskaya and a bottle of still water.
The snowstorm had started at lunchtime, when I was waiting for the taxi in front of the Oncologic Institute. Beneath the hood of your anorak your eyes glittered with tiredness. You told me that you wanted to go back to Galati. I didn’t press you to stay at ours. Simona could have put up with you in the house for another night, I reckoned it up, looking in discouragement at the speed dial of the taxi, which showed just eight kilometres an hour. It took us an hour to get to the Gara de Nord, through a Bucharest ravaged by the snowstorm. The station was full of people and rail traffic was at a standstill. When you found a vacant seat in the waiting room, I thought in horror that because of your stubbornness I had fallen into a trap. During the first hour’s wait, I hoped that the train would be cancelled. In the second hour, I began to panic, seeing you huddled over your brown bag, in which you kept the file with your test results and your pouch of medicaments and cosmetics, and you rested your head on the shoulder of a scrawny commuter, who was wearing a rabbit-fur hat pulled down over his forehead, wrapped up in a sheepskin coat. It looked like our father’s builder’s sheepskin coat. The panic made me see how you would collapse in your seat and I would shout: help, help, my sister is dying! She’s had chemotherapy and she’s dying! Help! Help! And no ambulance in the world would have been able to reach you in that snowstorm. But you slept in the third hour, too, with your forehead on the commuter’s shoulder. I had grown stiff standing there next to you. You woke up in the fourth hour’s wait and asked me to buy you a bag of unsalted pretzels and a bottle of still water. When I entered the station supermarket, the panic gripped me again. The people driven inside by the snowstorm were emptying the shelves with a fury that reminded me of the queues for meat and eggs in the 1980s, when our mother used to force us to wade into the mêlee. And I waded into the mêlee. I grabbed a bag of unsalted pretzels and a litre bottle of still water, the last bottle on the shelf! When I reached the till, I spotted the almost emptied hard liquor shelf. I grasped a bottle of Stalinskaya. I felt like opening it and taking two or three or four hefty slugs. But I looked at the price and I realised, without even having to tot it up, that the money in my wallet wouldn’t be enough for the bottle of still water and the bottle of vodka. And there was no money on my debit card. I put the vodka down next to a box of tomato bullion and joined the queue at the till. In the waiting room, panic clawed at my throat again: your seat was empty. “The train has pulled up to platform five,” the commuter informed me amiably, and I dashed to the platform. I couldn’t climb aboard the train to give you your unsalted pretzels and bottle of still water, as if it were the last bottle in the world! because there were knots of people on the carriage steps. When I tried to ‘phone you on your mobile to ask where you were, I realised that the battery was dead. Damned train! And the train pulled out of the station and was lost in the blizzard. I went home on the metro. Miruna ate the bagels and I drank the water. The whole night I tried to call you. Your battery was dead too. It wasn’t until the next day, at lunchtime, that I read your e-mail: “Forgive me for keeping you on tenterhooks! But I had to get home. The train was full of students, they were merry and the atmosphere was pleasant. I arrived at midnight and I was very happy when I climbed into bed. This morning, when I woke up, it was cold but the sun was shining. I cleared the snow from the balcony and the windows. I don’t know how I can put it to you, but I’m happy for every day I’m still alive.”
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth