Novel, "Ego Prose" series, Polirom, 2008, 256 pages, format 130 x 200 mm
Sabina is a nineteen-year-old woman who, after an unhappy childhood, arrives in Bucharest as a university student. She does not know anyone, she has no one to help her, and her only income is a modest student grant. The various settings and milieus through which she passes during the course of her four years as a student provide a subjective X-ray of life in post-1989 Romania. The still recent communist past looms from memories – both those of Sabina and those of the other characters – as well as from the ruins of a world which has not yet begun to be rebuilt. In the tales of the old blind woman in whose home she stays during her first months in Bucharest, Sabina relives history, fate, and resignation. Roxana, her friend during the course the narrative, helps Sabina to discover herself, to understand herself. While at first she is an innocent participant at unconventional parties, is assaulted in a trolley bus, is the victim of pickpockets and later an attempted rape, later Sabina gradually becomes stronger and surer of herself. Working as a “live mannequin” in a shop window, she meets Eman, and with him she experiences love, but also suffering. During one summer holiday, she works illicitly in an Arab fast-food joint. One autumn she works with Eman at a religious radio station. Later, Sabina and Eman develop their own “business” in a student hall of residence. The only way they can scrape some money together is by buying goods from a warehouse at the edge of town and reselling them to their fellow students. In this way, they become the repository of many of the student hostel’s hidden stories.
NOW THAT THE THIEVES HAD STOLEN her first bursary, Sabina would have to earn some other money by any means. How she didn’t know. No other options presented themselves. It crossed her mind that she might work in a bar, but that would hinder her from going to classes. And it would demolish her afternoons in the reading room. Where she felt like she was the cover of a never-before-opened book. One she had requested herself, with the librarian having to journey down interminable shelves to fetch it. On page nineteen, Sabina had become a student, and that was where she wanted to stay until page twenty-three. Four years, with five examinations in one term and seven or eight in the other, with no money from back home, with Roxana, and, though she didn’t know it yet, with everything that the students’ hall of residence would come to mean. With joy, fear, and, for almost three pages, Eman.
She had heard from a girl who once turned up with a bag full of make-up that you could get cheap goods from the warehouses that had sprouted up at the edge of town, and then flog them in the halls of residence or even in the lecture theatres. She wasn’t embarrassed. She’d tried it with any number of things, from lingerie to towels, and now she was trying out cosmetics, relying on the weaknesses of the weaker and fairer sex. She had no idea yet how it would turn out, but she was hoping that she would get by. Anyway, in case she’s interested in something like that, she’ll leave her a phone number. Once again, Sabina felt that stupid blush of hers, but she took the piece of paper handed to her. She mislaid it among her notes, because she had only taken it out of politeness. Nevertheless, a few days later, she carefully transcribed it into her organiser.
Now, if she were interested in the whole business, she would have to make a phone call. She wouldn’t have been able to manage on her own. She had no idea where that warehouse, the “Europa,” was. She’d barely heard of it. And that was a long time back, in the newspaper, when there was that story about the Chinaman stuffed into a suitcase and thrown into the lake in Herãstrãu Park. It was a settling of accounts among the “triads,” according to the paper, and no one knew anything about what was going on with those Asian immigrants. They brought cheap stuff and sold it at that warehouse at the edge of Bucharest. They rented flats in the Colentina district. They didn’t register with the Police. They just stayed there.
Sabina remembered that that girl too was renting a room. With a former actress, a real nutcase, who, at the age of sixty-something, would wander around the house stark naked. And that would have been nothing, if she hadn’t demanded that her lodger also abandon all pudeur. Man would feel much better, the lady whispered to her, without his dreary, artificial coverings. In summer, at least, she couldn’t see why she should wear so much as a stitch of clothing. And now that central heating had, since the fall of communism, come back on, she didn’t stand on formalities even in winter. When the plumber came, she would get him to strip him down to his vest. When some other workman came, she would manage to divest him of his shirt. In the past, only nudists were allowed to come to her parties. “Naturists” as she called them. Now she no longer had guests, but she was devoted to the comfort of her lodger. She could not accept that a girl, a beautiful girl, should be ashamed of her most precious possession : her femininity…
Sabina decided to call her on the phone later. Maybe that evening. But in the break Roxana came up wanting to tell her something.
“But not in the corridor. Let’s go upstairs !”
A week earlier, they had discovered the entrance to the attic. In an apparently pointless niche in the wall, there were some steps and a yellowish little door. When they had lectures in room 408, they could smoke a cigarette there undisturbed. No one could have imagined that that insignificant entrance actually led somewhere. All three of them were amazed – the trainer was with them too – when Roxana found it was unlocked. The rafters looked like ethereal streaks of whitewash. Through the cracks seeped an orange light, which softened each piece of sheet metal, each chair dumped there who knows when, each crate stacked in the closed-off part of the attic.
Well of course, she couldn’t turn down such an offer. She merely had to meet the boss’s requirements, because maybe some girls wouldn’t be thin enough or tall enough… But why was Roxana getting mixed up in all this ? She never seemed to be in want of money. She used to go to clubs every night, stay in the disco until late… She would dance with those longhaired types. One – an architecture student – used to wait for her outside the university. She would frequent the actors’ café, and go to the movies with Delia. She would invent joys for herself with all her might. But every morning, she would put all the hours of laughter, the heady whirl, under a hot shower, so that, scrubbed by an abrasive sponge, they would drain away with the water in the bathtub. She was always looking for something different. Her problem weighed on her relentlessly, but she would never have accepted a wrong solution. Now, for example, she had decided to go to the theatre. Not just to one play, but all the time : The Three Sisters, The Danaids, The Flea, The Government Inspector… The tickets were not expensive, but it amused her to get hold of the money by her own devices.
Yes, of course, Mr Herbert is expecting you ! And then Sabina pressed the door handle.
“Bunã ziua,” Mr Herbert had said, in perfect Romanian. “Tea, coffee ?”
No, they didn’t want tea or coffee. In fact, they had come about the advert for live mannequins. They realised they had been accepted only after the man began to fill them in. They could choose from the whole shop whatever they thought looked chic. But they would have to change their outfit every two hours. They were to stand in the shop window as convincingly as possible. At stake were their top lines of merchandise, and, by means of this kind of promotion, they were expecting a leap in profits. A month of special offers was about to commence, and everyone would be wanting to take home something special. And not just regular customers, who in any case always bought the most expensive items. They had decided to resort to live mannequins precisely so that they could convince the ditherers. And they – one blonde and one brunette, young and attractive – would attract anyone’s attention. They could try out for a week, maybe even two.
“Eight hours in the window. As elegant and attractive as possible. You can talk among yourselves, but keep it to a minimum. You can change your posture from time to time, but the clothes should always be seductively displayed. And if the customers ask you anything, you should be friendly and forthcoming. What do you say ?”
They said yes, but they didn’t venture to bring up the matter of money. It was too big a company to go around gulling people. And so they began the very next day. Changing clothes every two hours was not very appealing, but they would have to get used to it. Then again, it couldn’t be all that bad to dress up in super clothes four times a day. As to how, concretely, they were going to cope, they didn’t think of that until the prices were stuck onto the clothes and they had been ensconced in the window under the fluorescent neon light. As to how time can dilate, so that a mere minute can become a miniature mountain, they didn’t think of that until after a few hours of standing behind the glass.
“It’s an undergarment,” the girl would have wanted to say, but her words were gripped in a kind of clamp. She merely found herself smiling confused.
“Just a moment.”
Instead of defending herself, that insufferable blush broke out again, spreading directly from her jaw. She knew very well that she wasn’t wearing anything under the transparent material, but all the same she undressed calmly, like at a fashion show. She rarely used bras. It had been hard for her to get used that change which, at the age of eleven or twelve, had made her look different, unwonted, unsuited to her image of herself. She had not felt any need to buy such accessories, and this was the first time she had been embarrassed by the fact. She unbuttoned the suit jacket, standing straight, as though she were having her lungs X-rayed. The guy studied her for a few seconds, with a satisfaction masked by the unflinching muscles of his face, by the slightly knitted corners of his eyebrows. Then he felt the rarefied material, as though this would enlighten him.
“I’m sorry, but I’m not quite sure whether this is… exactly what I’m looking for,” he eventually said.
And just as calmly, he turned on his heel and headed for the exit. But Roxana glimpsed his satisfaction. After the door closed, Sabina let out an idiot through clenched teeth. She was already buttoning up the suit jacket, as though he had had it off with her through his fingertips. A new burden weighed down on her in the shop window by the pavement full of passers-by. She would have given anything to tell that individual to get lost. She kept repeating this to herself on the last day, when, in the evening, they received an envelope with some money. The sum inside was satisfactory.
“Ioana Nicolaie is an author who cannot and will not cheat."
“With honesty and grace, Ioana Nicolaie adds another dimension to the ‘canonical’ female identity. Her phrasing has a specific inner rhythm, so-called naïve inversions of topic, with cloudy, hesitant, dreamy contours. Proper to Ioana Nicolaie is the envelopment of raw biography in a tender, almost enchanted aura of images and affects.”
“Ioana Nicolaie is a poet whose writing is singular in Romania - a feminine, intelligent, profound, seductive, male-reader-friendly writing.”