NIGHTS IN MONACO
Graphics: Ștefan Baltă
© Natașa Alina Culea
Any reproduction, in whole or in part, of this work, without the written consent of the author, is strictly prohibited and is punishable under the copyright law.
Dreams are like women;
They want to be chased, conquered;
They will be yours if you fantasize about them.
Her birth name was Nicoleta Dragomirescu. It was to her mother’s surprise to see she was a girl, the only one, by then, she had sons only. She was a small, weak child, with a shiner face, salami-colored when screaming for milk with both her lungs. She was the third child and her mother, Aurelia Dragomirescu, already had the experience of raising a child, but also the carelessness that comes after the second born. The woman had worked at the Daciana factory, the only woman there who knew how to shape metal and use the lathe as she used the rolling pin in the kitchen, with skill and speed. All that was left after she was done working were molded pipes and a bunch of small colored springs which she brought home to children. These turnings were about their only toys. Of course, there were also clay pies, which the little one ate, the mulberry tree leaves as tickets, when they were playing train travel, sticks and stones in the household. Were these, not so feminine skills awakening her man’s admiration? Grigore had better things to think about, even though, thinking wasn’t his favorite activity but the use of his hardworking man sinewy arms, those arms that had known the scythe and the ax and the bony body of his wife. Five children appeared following this acquaintance, arranged one after the other like eggs in a carton.
Was this a happy family? Under such circumstances, this kind of question is never asked or thought-out, much less spoken out loud in front of others. It can be said that there was good peace under that roof, yes, that can be said. Except for the day Grigore was paid, of course. That’s when he’d come home late, fried and short on money, sometimes on his feet, sometimes almost dragged by a little bit more sober colleague. Good luck keeping it together! Aurelia was making a hell of a scene and she was talking for 3 hours continuously, she, who was barely speaking at work. All the dissatisfaction she felt in a human’s life spilled over to the half-fainted man, who interrupted her, from time to time, either peacefully either to sparkle up the fight, depending on the circumstances. If he had drunk țuică or had combined his drinks, he would have become more worked up than his wife’s turnings; if somebody had treated him with beer, then he would’ve been livelier, more joyous, more understanding. He was hearing the woman’s accusations; they were going inside one ear and were coming out the other, without leaving traces in his big-child honest soul. He even approved her at times:
“Leave me alone, Aurelia… I got a headache anyway. You’re right, if you are, you… I drank.”
“I had enough of you! Why do you spend money on liquor, huh?! If it wasn’t for me, you were sleeping in ditches, and you would’ve died by the dam like Andronache! Aren’t you embarrassed of yourself coming home like a pig?”
…and she keeps on going and going…
Otherwise, the day was day, the night was night, the soup was soup, and the children were growing by themselves, like green branches. Aurelia was cooking for them, so good you could lick your fingertips, only onion stews with polenta, sarmale with bay leaves, and for holiday, vegetables soups and puddings, because that’s what she learned from her mother and she didn’t even think about diversifying the menu. When life’s hard, you don’t have this type of thoughts which are likely to confuse you than to help you in any way.
Their house was made of mud walls, if, God forbid, an earthquake had come, it could’ve been to the ground in seconds, bury them all in it, like a pyramid – after all, how long those straws glued with water, clay and horse feces can hold? When it was raining outside, it rained also in the house. Thus, a plastic bucket was brought for the water which was dripping from a crack, which was branching on the coarse uneven painted ceiling. If the whole in the ceiling was a bit bigger, maybe she could’ve showered under it, smearing herself with a bar of lye made of pork fat by Aurelia herself.
Plink, plink, plink… Nicoleta was fascinated by the bucket.
“Why are you standing there, looking so dumb? Go get the little one, can’t you see he peed on himself again?” her mother yelled, wiping her sweat of her forehead.
She had flour up to her elbows, an askew kerchief on her head… she baked some pies. A few grey streams were peaking under the kerchief.
Nicoleta would go; she’d do it in disgust. Who would volunteer to change a diaper full of fresh and steamy thingy, wrapped around the baby? He may be a cute baby, but what he does, not really. The mini Tutankhamun was annoying to the girl, he was too often left on her shoulders. The girl would walk away from her mother, mumbling: “It’s like I had him! Why do I always have to take care of him, mister?”
“You, shut your mouth also!” She scolded the poor little shitty scrap with lungs of a tenor.
This is how verbal and physical aggressivity worked in the Dragomirescu home. If Aurelia hit Nicoleta, in turn, she would hit the next, more vulnerable member of the family. Harmony and justice. That’s right, noise was an ordinary thing in their house. You needed a strong temper or carelessness to deal with it. The fourth boy, Dorin, had just became fondly of carpentry, pulling and smashing drawers with an insatiable enthusiasm, pausing only to chew on a slice of bread with jam which was dripping directly on him and thereafter on the non-sense colored carpets.
Nicoleta liked school; she didn’t have learning at heart, but she loved her teacher, a blonde with fluffy curly hair, widowed, with no children, who nostalgically admired other’s children. Her older brothers, Ionuț and Florin were already teenagers, but they didn’t go to school with her, because they were rarely passing its threshold. They were playing football till dark, when coming home with untouched textbooks. They were lucky, Aurelia didn’t use to attend the school meetings, because she didn’t always have the money for the class fund, but also because she was tired of being scolded for the boys’ doings. They were left in the lurch and they were aware of it so, they continued skipping school and playing on the plot.
Nicoleta was happy when it was raining outside. The persistent showers filled up all the pits on their street, leveling it and leaving it shiny clean. Nicoleta was jumping in all the puddles, especially in the big one in front of her gate, where the water reached above her knees; she sat happy in its midst, feeling like at the seaside, though she had never seen the sea in her life; actually, she had never been anywhere outside the village. She was splashing water all around. She was happy. Her habit had brought feet pain therefore, she had a starting rheumatism, which was partly due to the cold water, partly because of the inappropriate footwear, always too small or too large, worn longer than normal.
She was going to school wearing the same ankle sports shoes even in winter, some cracked plastic sneakers with gray strings. She wasn’t cold nor feeling the frost because of the long way she had to walk to school, in the neighboring village. She would arrive there all hot, with scarlet cheeks because of the effort and the blizzard, with a delicious shade of baked cherry on her cheeks.
On her way back home, she had to bring food to Grigore’s work. Even on Saturdays, because her father worked overtime, for some extra money. He worked about 2 miles away from the house that was moaning under the burden of their children and their noise. Aurelia was filling him a jar of soup or stew, put it in a pouch and the girl was carrying it all the way to her father. Although Nicoleta was glad to leave the house, on any occasion, the dogs in the factory’s yard were pretty uncomfortable. They were giving her serious headaches, being hungry and mad, they were determined not to let the man-cub enter the perimeter they were in control of. If she was lucky to be seen by her father as she was hobbling in, dragging that pouch behind her, he would have chased the dogs away; at other times she was getting help from the big, round bookkeeper who spent her day in a room attached to the main hall, making quotations and signing them with so much zest, as if she was signing international treaties at the White House.
Every year, Nicoleta was hoping that her folks will give her money to go on a camp. Although this had never happened, she kept asking them year after year with the same determination, her eyes twinkling with hope. She was preparing her emotional speech a few days before, making sure to mention every child who was going to go. Sometimes her parents were gently refusing after a “we’ll see by then”, other times with a “you know we have no money, why do you keep busting our chops?” Nicoleta only gave up the day she saw the kids gathered in front of the bus, with their luggage ready. Only then she understood she wasn’t going to join their adventure. She was mourning for three reasons: first, she wasn’t going to join the fun, the second, they all knew she has no dime and the third, those who were going were exempt from school hours for a week. Tough luck. Like all the kids, Nicoleta believed in miracles until the very last moment, but they were late in appearing. She was left behind in the school yard, together with Mihaela and two other boys, a rag-arse gipsy and another one who was always failing classes – he was a ruler at failing classes, could only be said. Nicoleta was watching the bus until it was out of her visual range. She was well aware of her not thriving and fruitless situation and this made some days feel lonelier than others. She was telling herself that she was the most unhappy little girl on the face of the earth or even in the universe.
One day she quietly entered the classroom and saw Mihaela hurrying to a loaf of bread left under another colleague’s desk, believing there was no one else there. Nicoleta was ashamed that she was part of such an intimate and desperate moment. She silently left the classroom, just as she had entered.
Mihaela is even more unfortunate than I am… she thought, having tears in her eyes. She was feeling her heart being squeezed like a little bug in the hand of a mean kid. Nobody should have to steal because of hunger, nobody!
The next day, Nicoleta bought a pack of biscuits and, when they were all out on lunch break, she nicely placed the biscuits in Mihaela’s colorful, doodled school bag. That day Nicoleta had nothing to eat, but she saw her class mate nibbling on those biscuits and she felt like heaven came down on earth and kissed her forehead. Perhaps it did. She tried to be friends with her, but failed. The girl had no interest in making friends. Mihaela was getting poor grades at school and probably, was having a very hard life at home. She was only interested in handball. She was the best in the class, in the village, and maybe in the country for her age category. Handball was the only thing Mihaela had, and it was wise not to stand in the way of her ball, if so, there would be hell to pay. To stand in the way of the only thing that matters in one’s life, one who has nothing, has never been a wise choice. Nicoleta wasn’t thinking everything through but she could feel it in her gut. She was leaving food in her desk every day except those days when she pushed her away to get the ball first in gym class. She was bringing grapes or apples from her garden when she had no biscuits. Mihaela was eating everything, like an ant, leaving a discrete pile of grape seeds or crumbs arranged like an anthill, under the desk. Nicoleta gave up wanting someone’s friendship, comforting herself with the remaining biscuits.
On a beautiful Saturday in early April, Nicoleta stayed home with her two younger brothers. The rest of the family had gone to the funeral – a great occasion of happiness – where the food was free and the drinks as well. Here’s to more deaths in the village of Văleni! Several dozen heads had gathered at the funeral, because, the dear departed Ionel, the head of the boozer, was a popular and appreciated man by all his drinking friends, including ours Grigore Dragomirescu. God forbid if he was ever giving away any companion when the wife came to carry the unfortunate home, and asking Ionel how much money he spent on drinks.
“It’s all on the guys…” he was replaying sweet, but promptly, to all the ladies. Ionel wasn’t speaking any words now; he was laying still, a little dead, but very stiff in his beach wood box, having a mine of late dignity among the wreaths of carnations and daisies braided with ribbons. He had died at the age of 52. He would have lived long and well but drinking had shrunk his liver twisted by his hard-to-accept habits, and the rinds and greaves he swallowed throughout his life had settled along and around his arteries, clogged up like pipes before the plumber’s arrival. His wife, who hadn’t heard of cholesterol in her entire life, had always cooked him pork meatballs fried in lard, spicy sausages with ham chunks, plump sarmale swimming in oil, and other such suicides.
 A traditional Romanian drink that contains between 24–65% alcohol by volume (usually 40–55%), prepared from plums, generally.
 Traditional Romanian stuffed cabbage rolls.
Traditional Romanian stuffed cabbage rolls.
Mulțumiri pentru traducere, Simina!