Short stories, Ego. Prose series, Polirom, 2014, 224 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
Embodiments of modern man preoccupied with career and social status, Lavinia Braniste’s characters dream of acquiring wealth and renown, forgetting about family and those close to them. More often than not, however, working to the point of exhaustion, obsession with their own image, and growing distant from their friends can have unforeseen consequences. In a subtle and ironic way, each text in The Escapade conveys a highly amplified image of a problem caused by the modern-day lifestyle. Employment in a big corporation, the university world, minor events and failed relationships become the starting points for moral fables that are full of charm and whose endings are often left to the reader’s imagination.
There are two things in this world that I hate: red shoes and men who ask me to do stuff in bed; who ask me.
Let me remember that until I get to his house, let me remember that until I sit down in an armchair and we talk.
We were together a while ago, I was a dishcloth and he trampled me underfoot, do this to me, do that to me, dress up in that, go and rinse with some mouthwash. I was afraid of him. “What did you eat?” he would ask me. “Go to the bathroom, there’s some mouthwash in there.”
After a while we broke up. He dumped me. It took me two years before I found any fault in him, after which I blamed him for everything.
He went to Canada. They took him.
We started talking again at one point and now he’s come back on holiday and I find myself waiting for him at the airport, because I’ve brought some traditional food and drink for him. I pull out of my rucksack a one-and-a-half litre bottle of plum brandy, in an old Borsec mineral water bottle. The top is from a different bottle.
He pours a little into the bottle top and from the bottle top onto the back of his hand, he rubs the alcohol on his skin like a cosmetic lotion, inhales deeply, and says: “About forty degrees proof.”
I had no idea.
He takes a taste from the bottle, rolls the plum brandy around his mouth.
“Mm, it’s really good. Where did you say it’s from?”
“Costesti, in Vilcea,” I say. “From Mr Onel, the schoolteacher.”
We walked down side streets. It stinks of drains in Bucharest at night, in the old centre. On Strada Blanari, a rat ran across our path, I shuddered in disgust and huddled up to him, he put his arm around me. Everything amuses and enchants him. It doesn’t smell of anything over there, he says. He puts his nose to the base of my throat. People don’t wear perfume, he says.
He tries to persuade me to come, but he has never said it is for his sake.
“For your sake,” he says. “For your future. I know a woman from Croatia, she cleans people’s houses, she makes seventeen dollars an hour, the state takes a quarter, but it’s still something, she’s a cleaner, but all the people are nice to her, over there everybody respects everybody else.”
I complain about my job, the rent, the plumber I have to call tomorrow.
“He’ll bleed my dry,” I tell him. “He’ll want at least a hundred.”
We sit at a table in town. At Argentin the shop has long since closed, at the tables outside there are empty bottles, a few people. I start to feel cold.
“Let’s talk about the application,” I say. And he answers:
“We’ll talk, but not here. Better we meet at my place some time.”
This year the rules have changed. They have issued lists of desirable professions. I would get maximum points for age and health, but I don’t come under any of the professions.
They want sturdy specimens.
“Brother, you’d think I was going there to scrounge. I’m going there to work.”
“It the same as when you are choosing a flatmate. You’d make a selection, wouldn’t you?”
“It’s not the same thing.”
“It’s not,” he says and smiles.
“They’ll examine my teeth, like a horse.”
I have to have ten thousand dollars in the bank, to prove I’ll be able to feed myself until I can stand on my own two feet.
Anyway, I’ll never be able to save that much money.
“What if I lent you it?”
It was then that I realised how little we knew each other. How little we had ever known each other. Because I don’t feel like letting him trust me with a loan. I’d borrow the money, but I’d borrow it from somebody close to me.
He has never said come for his sake because he’s alone. He just says that he is alone and tells me to come. He doesn’t want to be responsible if I fail. Even if it is on his money. Better I take the money from the Canadian state than from him, pay for my failure in instalments until I retire and then into retirement.
“It’s such a long journey. How can I fit my life in two suitcases?”
I start thinking about how I will give things away. I will abandon my books in cardboard boxes with rubbish on the bottom, I will leave my potted plants on the landing of my building until they die, I will leave my pots and pans behind in the rented flat...
“I’ll buy you others,” he says.
And it frightens me to think how cheap it is to click refresh.
“What about the people?”
“It’s a world where you can’t say you are alone.” He rephrases: “Isolated, that is...”
Some girls from the office pass our table, which is almost in the street, on their way home.
They see me and stop, amused. They shake his hand.
He stands up and introduces himself.
His warm hand despite this cold, a man who’s not like you, a man you don’t even know.
As the girls leave, Sinziana looks at him for a long moment and he at her.
I receive a text message under the table: Tomorrow, explanations! And a little face that winks at me, a standard symbol, an emotional traffic sign.
That was what it was like back then, too, I would find he had vanished, that he had gone off with some woman. And when we went out together, he would flirt shamelessly, and I didn’t know what I felt, because in my mind it was a relationship, but in his, it wasn’t.
He will be on holiday for three weeks.
He insists that we meet up for a drink, to talk about the application and “the financial side.”
I don’t want to talk about the financial side. I just want him to tell me what he’s done.
“But if the financial side were solved, would you be sure you wanted to come?”
“I can’t say for sure –”
Before he started presenting Canada as an option for my future, all I ever did was complain that I didn’t have any money. That in my job I used only five per cent of my brain capacity. That I gave two per cent of what I was capable of giving. That I could have the mother of all opinions, but nobody ever listened.
“Romanian bosses know best,” he said. “I know.”
But Canada was so far away and so final that from the very start it fell off the edge of the map I could picture in my head when I thought of where I might end up one way or another.
And then he turned up and started to talk to me.
And I started to look up the climate on Wikipedia. And then on Google. Images of the people of Canada.
The only thing I did was complain and I found myself trying to sort out the ten thousand dollars in the bank some other way than by resorting to that bloke who had trodden me underfoot. Who told me: Do this to me, do that to me. I’ve got some mouthwash in the bathroom.
He’s found the pretext for an evening of discussion. He’s going to pour the plum brandy over some bilberries and make a liqueur; I really must taste it.
“I’d prefer neutral ground,” I tell him. “Neither my place nor yours.”
Even though I promised him I would show him the electric socks. They’re like huge slippers, with artificial fur and a fine mesh of wires inside, with a cable that comes out of the heel, you plug them in and they heat up. If your feet freeze in winter, when there’s no heating in your building.
He laughs heartily.
“I can’t believe something like that exists!”
I look for photographs on my ‘phone, I find some, he moves up very close to me and I show him.
“Is that them?”
Our foreheads are almost touching.
The soul’s wounds cannot be forgotten.
I’ll dispense with the ten thousand if he doesn’t want to negotiate on neutral ground.
I don’t yet know what he wants from me, but nor do I have any idea where I’m going, and so I order my mind to order my body not to feel paranoia in its muscles. You’re not in the forest and you’re not a hunted animal. You were a long time ago, twenty thousand years ago. But you’re not any more.
It’s the only way I can keep a hold on myself, the only way I console myself to keep going, concentrating on what I’m not any more.
Our foreheads are still close together. I feel the warmth given off by his face.
“You have to think about whether you’re ready to put up with the cold. The long winters.”
I like to cover up my body, to hide it beneath clothes.
“But in Montreal isn’t it like over here?”
“Where did you come up with that? And besides, the houses have wooden frames and cardboard walls. You have to think about whether you are ready.”
Even as it is, I wear electric socks here. And April at an outdoor cafe doesn’t do me any good.
We settle that he’ll make the bilberry liqueur and call me.
“What number can I reach you at?” I ask him.
“Give me a beep on my Vodafone number and then I’ll take the back off my ‘phone, insert that Orange SIM card and call you.”
“It’s all right, I’ve got call time.”
Whenever he comes on holiday, he has two new numbers. Sometimes he calls from numbers other than those two.
“I don’t know who’s calling,” I said to him this autumn, when I heard his voice, answering the ‘phone.
And he said: “Already?”
“Oh, it’s you...”
But at first, when he just said my name, his voice rising in a questioning tone, I really didn’t know who was calling.
“Think about whether you’re ready,” he says.
“For the cold, I mean.”
He walks me to the boulevard and leaves me there.
“Can you manage from here?”
I say yes. He lives in the centre of town, I live a little way away, a ten-lei taxi ride; the fare is too small for any driver ever to take me. I set off on foot.
I have to walk down the boulevard, straight ahead. I walk along the edge of the sidewalk, on the new kerb that they laid this year, it’s broad and I don’t have to spread my arms to keep my balance. Every two minutes I look behind me so see whether the N104 is coming, my night bus.
Even if I saw one coming, I still wouldn’t run back to catch it, and if I heard it approaching, I still wouldn’t run ahead. But I would be sorry that it came and I didn’t catch it.
I look behind and the bus doesn’t appear, half an hour and it doesn’t appear. Although I’m sure it exists.
And all of a sudden, the same as in life, I start running along the edge of the pavement and nothing passes.
It would be a victory for me to get there without it having appeared at all. To get back to my place before it materialised between the light bulbs on the long boulevard. Without my thinking that I’d missed it.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Lavinia Braniste’s The Escapade is the first genuinely good book of prose this year.”
(Marius CHIVU , Dilema veche)
“Short prose with soul, written on the knife edge between desperation, helplessness and laughter à la Eugène Ionesco. And with great talent.”
(Alina PURCARU , bookaholic.ro)
“She is sincere, simple and somewhat minimalist, almost certainly inspired by the immediate reality, by what the young writer has experienced and felt.”
(Jovi ENE , filme-carti.ro)
“The Escapade is a substantial volume, which marks an evolution and succeeds in creating a standard psychological outline of its characters, as well as, I venture to say, of the author herself. There are nineteen short stories in the collection, which excerpt from the life of each protagonist a not necessarily crucial moment, but one situated close in time to such an event. Lavinia Braniste avoids the spectacular event, but foreshadows it or provides information from which the reader may deduce that something has happened.”
(Bogdan-Alexandru STANESCU , Observator cultural)