A biographical accident. I don’t know what time it is. I don’t know the day, the month, nor the year of this moment. I think it was Christmas a couple of months ago. “I’m coming home.” The second I press send, I regret my choice of words. I’m on the same beach where I spent New Year’s Eve. Standing on a rock too close to the sea, I’m thinking about how there’s something excessively painful in this contemplation of freedom. Watching, waiting, with my face covered in emotions I thought I freed myself of. From time to time, waves break on my legs, sea water splashes me all over, algae grasp my thighs as if asking me not to go. I search my purse for a cigarette, for that last cigarette one keeps hidden, just in case something becomes unbearable without it. It’s not there. I have two small books — On the Heights of Despair, and The Library of Babel — a lipstick, my precious eyeliner, more pens than I could ever need, coffee, a mirror, a couple of magnetic bookmarks, and the pink lighter I found on the street earlier. But no cigarette. The waves hit me again. I can feel my skin burning as the water evaporates. Is it February? Sunshine all year long, isn’t that why I’m here? I dig deeper into my purse and finally find it. It has my lips on it. Three distinct shades of lipstick. Three distinct moment in which things became unbearable. Three distinct moments when I choose to go through it. I keep the cigarette between my lips for three seconds without lighting it, then, when the waves return, I open my mouth and let it fall. I go over fragments from Thomas the Obscure in my mind. Obsessively. The water spins in whirlpools because of a grave-like rock formation. The absence of water takes over my body. My breath becomes slower. I feel deprived of the sense of taste. There’s nothing to taste. The salt. I’m giving in to forgiveness of whatever is to come. Whole cities were built from blood and tearing arteries during the time I stayed on this rock exchanging touches with the void, feeling the embraces of sea plants, the furiousness of waves attempting to destroy the face they kissed. Each and every one of those cities are a place I would rather visit than ‘home’ — I turn my back to the Mediterranean.
A few hours later, my things are unpacked and sitting neatly in my old room. Riding the tramcar through the heart of this prodigious city, I think of Bulgakov, yet can’t hold on to that thought because people keep pushing themselves into me. I’m forced to misplace the Russian analogy of severed heads somewhere in the curves of my subconscious as something dreadfully familiar captures my attention. The smells. The smells are making me nauseous. Frankincense, candles, dried flowers, holy oils, black clothes. Everything smells like church, death, and abandoned graves. A woman asks me something, but I reply in English by accident, and she moves further away from me, mumbling something about foreigners being the ruin of this country. I reach in my purse for a painkiller, Cioran is still there. On the heights of despair, in the depths of dépaysement. I’m home. I haven’t been gone long, but the city seems changed, unfamiliar, so much bleaker than I left it. The streets are dirtier, people look sadder, the skies lost their blueness. When I revisit these days in my mind, I remember telling people about there being rats in the streets. No one believes me. There were always rats in the streets, but few of us notice them. Tourists come here searching for mysticism, for the sacred and the profane, for fairy tales. They come to trail beautiful mountain paths, lose their minds in seaside clubs, visit the home of Dracula. They come for the beautiful women, for their crimson lips, for their maddening thoughts. It’s a fairy tale, and I love each and every person coming here in search of it. An affordable, beautiful-to-send-postcards-from-within fairy tale. There are rats in the streets, but same as in fairy tales, we don’t notice them until we are forced to share the same feeling of hunger. Until we become the beasts with piercing eyes and powerful teeth we refuse to acknowledge. Until we become both the desire to devour and escape our homes.
I’m home. Breathing, speaking, writing, thinking, screaming, longing and touching in Romanian, a language whose warmth has long escaped me. Signing documents, checking ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in little boxes of bureaucratic nonsense, watching the letters of my name deform under the burden of repetition. It won’t be long until I forget how to write it. People have missed having me around, and they are asking me a lot of questions.
“How’s the weather there?”
“How are the beaches? Is there sand? Can you swim anywhere?”
“Do you miss those Tarkovsky lectures of yours?”
“Who was in that photo you sent us?”
“How come your skin is still so white?”
“Have you written anything? What about translating? I know someone looking for a translator. If you stay, that is.”
If I stay.
I’m home. There are rats in the streets. Most of my things are scattered all over Europe.
I’m surrounded by family, friends, doctors, strangers, people I will never see again, people I was hoping not to see. Their voices, crude noises pushing me inside a cave where pain dwells on the absence of water, on my desires turned to corpses. Corpses occupying my insides, devouring my sanity. I wish I could draw on that cigarette I threw away, I wish I could relight it and disappear in the smoke whenever a new question hits. I’m home. There are rats in the streets. Most of my things are scattered all over Europe. Athens. Paris. Frankfurt. Valletta. Bucharest. Books in storage units. Summer dresses: abandoned. I have one leather skirt that goes well in all seasons, my very own impression of need-as-fabric, sometimes slippery, other times of strong sculptural quality. I always make sure to have it with me; the rest, I no longer care about. Letters, manuscripts, first editions, rare paper, dried ink. People are still asking me questions, but they’ve stopped listening to my answers. The moment I realize that, I turn to mechanical gestures, and retreat inside my head. I need to escape this place. Hospitals smells are worse than church smells. They linger on your skin years after the moment passed. Outside, two men are discussing communism. I was three years old in 1989, so I don’t have much to go on. I remember stories my grandparents and parents shared with me, but those stories are nothing like the conversation I’m shamefully listening to as I look for a spot to sit down.
“Everything was better.”
“Yes, we all had something to do. I’m so bored these days.”
“I tell you, too many choices. That’s what the problem is. Have you seen these kids, running around like crazy people, undecided towards their future?”
“Don’t you wish you still had people deciding for you?”
I too think of those who left. I think of Paul Celan, Mircea Eliade, Emil Cioran, Eugène Ionesco. I think of those who stayed, although everyone told them there is no place for them here, like Mihail Sebastian or Max Blecher.
Here I am, resting with my back to a soiled hospital wall reeking of indecency and goodbyes, wishing I was Anne, Kate, the implied editor, the absence of water, Milena, Sonya, the distance between language and home, a baroque metaphor, the word itself. Wishing I didn’t have people deciding for me. Wishing I wouldn’t need to devour benzodiazepines, excess, or any kind of newness I can find in order to get through this day which started with waves holding me tight, and is ending with rats in the streets. Growing up here, in a country struggling to recover after the fall of a political regime with its imprints still very much present, I had to make a lot of compromises. Which is a weird thing for a child. Compromising means never being able to discover whether the path I was on had anything to do with myself, or was it merely a trajectory imposed by parents, school, neighbours, church, financial insecurities, the ways of our world, the ways of the big bad world outside the borders of what everyone called home.
The outside world, a world I needed to be sheltered from.
Those who leave here are immediately mentioned in Sunday prayers. We must pray for them to find their way back home, we must pray to our god and our god alone for their freedom, their release from under the reign of other countries, with their avidness for cheap labour and insane demands of education and decency. I too think of those who left. I think of Paul Celan, Mircea Eliade, Emil Cioran, Eugène Ionesco. I think of those who stayed, although everyone told them there is no place for them here, like Mihail Sebastian or Max Blecher. I think of the pretend preciousness of these lands, and of the hypocrisy of defending them at any costs. I think of this imposed time travelling, and how we are not here, but in a distant past, governed by cruelty, corruption, and lack of individuality.
I’m outside my parents’ apartment. My keys don’t work. February, still. Turning my head to the left, I see a door that looks familiar. A two-bedroom apartment, home to Silvia and Boris. They moved here from the north as young students. He became a writer; she became a museum curator. I’m ten, coming back from school, hurrying to spend my next five hours with them, until my parents come back from work. The apartment is small, there are books and statues everywhere, and it always smells like coffee and Bulgarian rose perfume. She is as beautiful as in her youth, her hands are cold, same as mine. She rocks me to sleep with Bach echoing throughout the fifth-floor apartment. They never had any children of their own. When Boris died, Silvia went mad. She would drink coffee liqueur in the mornings, then stroll the streets with photos of him pinned to her bathrobe. My parents told me not to visit her anymore. All the children in the building were told to stay away from the mad old woman. She is no longer the beautiful and kind museum curator turned writer in her old age, turned the caretaker for all the neighbourhood kids. She is now the mad old woman filling our heads with ideas on the death of god, the beauty of pointless rock, archaeology, books; ideas of how lilac-coloured ink has the best smell of all, or the ridiculousness of life. As her health declined, and her mind vanished inside the photographs of her and Boris, young, holding hands, clutching books, or visiting the world, she gave in to her family’s wishes, and accepted to move back north.
Silvia left Bucharest in a wheelchair, drugged, lied to, despised by her neighbours and all those who then saw her as a burden. Everyone was outside the building, cheering for her departure, longing to get rid of mad Silvia, of her books smelling of death and malodorous plaster, of her liqueur breath bothering them as she was reaching to say goodbye. She left Bucharest barely being able to utter a word, her cold hands gripping onto the spine of two museum books with her name on the back cover, and a photograph of young Boris pinned to her bathrobe. She left reaching for my hands in the street. She gave me an ashtray I used to play with, carved from some old stone, which they found on one of their adventures. I promised to write her story.
It’s September. My keys work. There are rats in the streets. I’m home.
Christina Tudor-Sideri doesn’t have a bio. @