By Radu Cosaşu
Translated from Rumanian by Jean Harris
For Isaac Babel
Evening: Spring, 1945
Walking with Ana from Slatinanu, where the Party organization had its headquarters, to Cuza-voda,1 we’d come home late, as late as possible. Not wanting to wake the house, we’d climb to my little room on tiptoe, in whispers, holding hands, I one step ahead, she behind, both overly sensitive to the creak of the slowly rotting stairs. She’d leave very quickly in the first weeks, at two, two-thirty the most. Then, we’d climb down together, with the same care, and I’d take her to her home on Olteni, not far from mine. Only, having decided to get married as soon as possible after all the madness in Piata Palatului2—the feverishness of the March victory—her departures started lengthening toward to the increasingly early spring dawns. We would climb downstairs differently now. From my point of view, Ana could stay any length of time in my place upstairs. She could meet my mother, my grandfather early mornings at the door—my father woke later—without any of that bothering me. I had a feeling in my bones, though, about what the unprecedented achievement of bringing a woman into the house would mean for my folks—witness my sensitivity on the stairs. But none of that mattered to me because I was full of holy ire against the conventions of their petit-bourgeois world, which had to be blown up, of course. I loathed the mores I’d submitted to for nineteen years, the habits of morning, noon and night, the religion that had become stupid after just a few meetings at the C(ommunist) Y(outh) L(eague) with Paul, the new god of my days. I was ashamed of having understood nothing for nineteen years and for having conformed without protest to all their stupid demands. I was supposed to get good grades at school from the first grade to the last, practice the piano at least two hours a day, read a French classic every week, and never ever miss my Friday evening bath. I was ashamed that for nineteen years I hadn’t known of the existence of all these people with whom I was demonstrating under fire in Piata Patatului—and I was ready to pay for the sin of origins and petit-bourgeois education by performing the most complicated and tortuous labors. When I discovered in a letter from Marx to Runge (March, 1843) that shame is a revolution, a revolution directed inside, I was beside myself with joy for an entire day, and adding to the joy and pride of belonging to the CYL, I came out with gloomy, cutting rejoinders—I’m not eating tonight!, Leave me alone! I’m not studying the piano anymore! I’m coming home when I feel like it!—addressed to my parents, or not even to them but to the house itself.
Ana didn’t understand me. There was no way she could. Her father had just gotten out of prison after some ten years of detention and he could only be loved and respected. If I escorted her back home, it was, as a matter of fact, only to satisfy tovarish Dobrescu’s wish “to have his little girl with him in the morning.” Of course, as revolutionaries, we had announced our decision to marry after taking our baccalaureates.
—The guy advised us to give the matter more thought…
—Which is to say?
—Which is to say we should live together without being legally married?
I replied that in our conditions a free love union would be a case of petit-bourgeois cowardice, a flight from responsibility. This is something I’d learned from Paul, and nothing could shift my profound, new conviction. Every word out of Paul’s mouth transformed itself into indestructible certainties. In our case, his declaration ensured the most chaste relations between Ana and myself. Moreover, sacrificing very acute longing, we would take our cue from the proletariat and its moral requirements. Ana was coming to me in an ascetic sense: we would kiss, but only late, after long discussions, exhausted by politics, without looking for the least nuanced passage from the international situation and our duties at the high school to going to bed one next to the other on my divan with its broken springs, but with a coquettish lamp in the corner. We kissed too little, though with incontestable passion, two young people full of the force of an invincible ideology, a new morality and a new—immaculate—conception.
On that spring evening—I don’t think it was a month since the lifting of the Bucharest blackout, on March 21, 1945—we set out for home much earlier than usual because the literary trial of “And The Evening and the Morning Were the Second Day” had been put off. Almost everyone had gone to the movies. Through a tacit sign, Ana and I had stayed behind, and furtively, without exchanging another word, we set out alone on the little streets that would let us out in the square and from there toward my house. There was something up with Ana, something odd, a matter of the hesitation with which she crossed the streets and of her laconic replies.
—Don’t you feel well?
—You wanna to stop at the hot pretzel joint?
—I don’t feel like it, Ben.
—You like ’em with sesame seeds.
—But I don’t feel like it, Ben. Don’t you get it?
—Are you feeling disappointed because the trial has been put off?
—Why should I? We’ll hold it the day after tomorrow. Didn’t Paul say so?
She was lying. She did feel disappointed. I don’t know how many nights I had prepared the plea for Irina, in whose name Ana would speak. The previous night Ana had told me that she’d never had such a case of nerves as she had over the next day’s plea with Safonov in the opposition. So now she was feeling indisposed because of those unknown tensions, of course. Absolutely.
On Serban-Voda, I bought the evening papers, and, pushed about from left and right, with Ana glued to my side, I read the latest news by the light of Dascalu’s hot pretzel joint.
—We’ll take Berlin in a couple of days.
Ana leaned over to read, and all of a sudden I found myself inhaling her fragrance through a cloud of printers’ ink.
—The Japanese aren’t giving in, she added.
—They’ll capitulate in two months, three the most. You’ll see.
—Ben, let’s get a beer.
They had beer at Dascalu’s. I’d gotten hot pretzels with sesame seeds too—good. After two glasses, Ana kept smiling, but her eyes glittered in an unusual way. We drank to the conquest of Berlin and Ehrenbrug. I asked for another bottle.
—Ben, I want to tell you something.
—Let’s not go to your house anymore.
—We’re torturing ourselves, both you and I.
—Do you want us to wander around like bums on the river bank?
She didn’t answer me. We didn’t make a decision. I paid, and we set out on Cuza-Voda. Ana was right. We were torturing ourselves. And peace was coming. Berlin would fall and we were getting married, weren’t we? Ana moved along silently, permanently stuck to me, on that long Cuza Voda, with its rare, dim street lights, with its banal courtyards, all known to me like the back of my hand. Oh, how many girls I’d kissed in play around here, how many widows I’d broken with a ball, not to mention the number of tiddlywinks—my “men”—I’d lost in the dust of the courtyards—nonsense? Suddenly, I remembered that it was Pesach this evening. Mother had changed the tableware. I had seen the Passover dishes in the kitchen in the morning. She had deposited the boxes of matzo (bought from the Jewish Community) in the corridor. It’s Pesach.
From the entry hall of our mainly wagon-style house, after you passed the piano and the little table where we piled the scores, there was a long corridor ending with the staircase that led to my room.
So there we are. Bad luck. A door cracks open and before we make any progress down the corridore, I hear my little brother in the vestibule asking: “Father, which one was Elyiahu Hanavi, Ben or the girl?” And of course at this point Mother has to ask, “So who was that who just went by?” And the vestibule door bangs open.
Meanwhile, the two of us head down the corridor, Indian file, myself ahead. Leading Ana by the hand through the dark, feeling my way along the wall to the right (the one on the left being hung with all kind of old schmatas put up any which way, my mother’s passion), I start explaining to Ana in the most awkward and incoherent way, more and more irritated by the evidence of emotion produced in me by the unexpected encounter on the threshold:
—Elyahu Hanavi is a spirit who needs to quaff a bit of the wine…this evening is the Jewish Easter…the Passover when Elyahu Hanavi has to sip the wine. It’s a blessing on the house.
Ana holds her peace. On the stairs, going up, I continue:
—We eat only matzo and only from special dishes for eight days…
I open the door and we go into my room. I want to turn on the overhead light. Ana whispers: “No, the bedside lamp.” I lock the door and we wait on the divan, both of us keeping mum, tensely trying to make out the different household sounds. I’m irritated, not just by own agitation but by Ana’s tense concentration in the same direction—toward this stupid ritual. Suddenly we hear a child’s voice. It’s Fred, and he’s saying,
—It’s in the corridor…it’s in the corridor, in the laundry basket…
—What kind of place is that to put it? (Father—in his failed orator’s voice)
—Fred just found the afikomen—the matzo—that Gaby hid. I clue Ana in: After Elyahu Hanovi leaves, one of the children searches for the piece of matzo that the other one hid somewhere around the house a while ago.
I stretch out on my back, full-length on the divan with my left hand over my eyes to keep the light from bothering me.
—I hid it in the laundry basket one time myself. Dad got pissed off that time, too. Still, it’s a very good place…Another time I hid the matzo under the mattress in the bedroom.
Ana doesn’t budge, meanwhile. I pull her toward me, but she puts up discreet opposition.
—Somebody’s coming, she whispers.
—The door is locked, I answer. Ana looks me right in the face and I quickly take my hand off my eyes. I understand she’s preoccupied with more serious things than being sure that the door is locked. My father’s climbing the stairs. I’d know his steps among a thousand: heavy, solemn, theatrical. He stops in front of the door, and without checking to see if it’s open or not, he begins in a terribly pronounced, loud, lawyerly voice—in his best style and that tone that leaves me fed up to here:
—Mr. Ben, tovarish Benjamin, starting tomorrow you will leave our house, my home. I put up with just about anything in the name of the revolution, because I’m aware of its restrictive nature, but I will not bear your trespassing the bounds of common decency. If your revolution begins this way (and he went on punishing me with the formal mode of address), then make it without my consent. You can count on my contempt and protest. Anything that develops beyond the bounds of common sense is doomed to failure. Do you un-der-stand me?
Gradually relaxing and kissing her on the hair, I wrap my arm around Ana’s shoulders and try, ever so gently, to get her to lie next to me. No dice. She remains rigidly on the edge of the bed, looking toward the door out of the corner of her eye, attentive.
—There’s no room in my house for profaning humanity and religion. You may not believe in God, Mr. Benjamin, although until last year you put on your tefillin every day and said your Shema. You decide. I can put up with that. At this point he beat his breast to rev up his enthusiasm. (With him, “I can deal with that,” "I can put up with that,” and “granted!” are trick locutions in the elaboration of outrage.) But Mr. New Man, Mr. Superb Atheist, don’t you forget that there also exists the beauty of religion that elevates us every bit as much as dialectic materialism.
—Ana, what’s wrong with you?
I bend over and take off her shoes. She lets me, and she gives me a hug. She lies next to me on the divan, and I readjust the lampshade so that her face will be shaded. We no longer hear Father going downstairs, but from below, obviously, he lets fly with his parting shot:
—As of tomorrow, you leave this house!
(Great director. He doesn’t come out with the last repetition upstairs, in the final analysis, so as not to deprive it of force through the brutal specification of an eminently concrete, clear, practical matter.)
—What did he say you wore until last year?
—Every morning when you say your prayers, you wrap the third finger of your left hand and the top of your head with thin leather straps.
—You said prayers until you were eighteen?
—And you believed?
I don’t answer. I stretch out near her and embrace her:
—But you wanted to. Are you afraid someone will come to the door? The door’s closed. We won’t open it. We won’t listen to them.
—There’s a whisper at the door and we both get up at the same time so that the springs creak. There’s a handle on the door. It descends slowly, returns to its original place.
—Ben, you mustn’t leave home. You’ll kill me.
—I’ll talk with father about this myself. You just be happy. If the two of you are hungry, come down and you’ll find soup and meat in the bathroom. Ben, do you hear?
—Ana, are you hungry?
—No. Really, no.
—I’ll go down and get you something to eat.
—No. Don’t leave me alone—and she presses herself to my chest.
—Just a second. I’ll get the food and come right back. The bathroom’s here, near the stairs. I won’t even go near their room.
And I really do make tracks downstairs, open the bathroom door and find a silver tray with two covered bowls of soup resting on a stool, with two glasses of wine, two forks, two knives and two spoons. Mother will have left the boiled meat in the soup. Carefully I bring the tray upstairs, put it on my desk and close the door.
—Where’s the matzo? Ana asks.
At this moment, I notice that Mother has served black bread. It’s the first time I’m eating bread at home on Pesach.
—She didn’t serve matzo. She knows I only eat bread.
Confused, Ana looks at the tray. The lamplight doesn’t reach to the desk where the tray shines dimly with its festive glasses and silverware.
—Eat—and I offer Ana a spoon.
She takes a few bites, goes back to the divan:
—Your mother made two copies of everything, did you notice?
—She doesn’t know me, and she knows I don’t eat matzo.
—That was for me.
—It was for both of us. She accepts you.
—Ben, open up, please. It’s Grandpapa, open up… I hear my grandpa’s scratchy voice.
Putting her shoes on, Ana signals I should open the door.
—I don’t want to. Leave me alone.
—Ben, I have something to tell you that will make you happy.
I turn on the overhead light, turn off the lamp, cover the food with the first copy of The Spark I can lay my hands on. Grandpa comes in dragging his leg, all bent over, but with a wineglass in his hand, which seems to oblige him to stand at a distance. His white hair, his forehead, his little while beard, his freshly shaven cheeks—although more sunken than ever—he’s all light, a bit tired, the eternal light of Grandpapa. The hand with which he holds the wineglass trembles, but he begins:
—Ben, I was sure you’d open the door for me. Your father forbade me to come upstairs, but I knew what it was with you.
Ana looks at me with interest. He lets his gaze slip nimbly between us:
—I trust you, Ben. That’s one thing. On top of that, your fiancée will have good fortune all her life because she was Elyahu Hanavi this evening. I brought her the wineglass, to sip from it. I should have done it in the vestibule. Take a good drink, young lady!
Fascinated, Ana puts her lips to the glass.
—Children, I’m a rationalist like yourselves. I know what revolution is, Ben. It’s a beautiful thing, a very beautiful thing—like this girl’s appearing all scared in the place of Eliyahu Hanavi and whispering, “Good evening.” You don’t know what revolution is, Ben. Your father doesn’t, either. You’re a fanatic. My Anatole France wouldn’t have loved you, but I love you because you’re clean, noble. Only purity saves fanaticism. You’re both clean, Ben. I know this.
And he offers me the cup. I sip, looking him in the eyes, because he’s raising his head with an effort to smile at me.
—Isn’t it true that you’re glad of what I’m telling you, Ben?
—And you love me, isn’t that so?
—And what about you, Miss…Miss, what would your name be?
—Ana. Ana Dobrescu.
—What about you, Miss Dobrescu? Do you love me?
—Ben, will you play “Für Elise” tomorrow?
—Now, will you give me The Spark to read in bed?
Quickly, to get rid of him, I take The Spark off the tray and give it to him. Grandpapa goes out, dragging his carpet slippers, taking the cup with him. When the door closes, he comes back, knocking:
—Ben, Ben, the newspaper smells of boiled beef…
—I’m not opening up anymore.
I turn out the light and lie down beside Ana. We kiss a long time although an unbearable smell of food floats through the room. A while later, Ana pulls a bit away from me and whispers in the dark through which the soup vapors have made their rounds:
—Ben, you shouldn’t leave home. Your mother’s okay.
—I’ll see. They’re still a bunch of stupid petit-bourgeois.
—It’s not a matter of religion, or of parents, or of Eliyahu Hanavi—You and I, Ben, we’re rushing. My father said so, after I told him that we’re going to get married.
I can still see the silver tray on which Mother had placed food and tableware—two portions of each; Grandpapa would have told them he had found us chaste. What an impression that would produce! I don’t understand why I enjoyed being justified before them.
—Turn on the light? Ana asks me.
We waited in silence until the noises of the house quieted down. We climbed carefully down the stairs on tiptoe. In the hall I heard Fred, talking in his sleep. When we got outside, Ana asked what my brother was mumbling about. I translated for her: “‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ It’s a kind of prayer that children say on Passover—one of the four questions.” I walked her back to her home in Olteni Street, and I returned myself. Passing through the hall on tiptoe, I leaned on the piano without realizing it was open. A low C resonated through the house, which gave me a turn.
1 Party headquarters was the location of the meetings of the Communist Youth League
2 Palace Square, in front of the Royal Palace in the center of Bucharest
Copyright © Radu Cosaşu 2013. Translation copyright © Jean Harris 2013.
This story was first published in a magazine called Romanian Life in 1957. After that, it remained unpublished until appearing in book form in 1997 as O supravieţuire cu Oscar [Surviving with Oscar], Bucharest: Hasefer.
Radu Cosaşu (b. Oscar Rohrlich, October 29, 1930, Bacău, Romania) is a much loved Romanian writer. In 1956, he was fired from his job at a state supported publication for launching his “theory of the whole truth.” He remained without official workplace for over a decade. Thanks to the great Romanian man of letters Marin Preda, “Bibliography,” the story in this issue of Jewish Fiction . net, appeared in a magazine called Romanian Life in 1957. It was collected in book form in 1997, fifty years later by Editura Hasefer, the publishing house of the Romanian Jewish Community. Winner of several important prizes, editor at Dilema şi Dilema Veche from 1993 through 2012, Radu Cosaşu has been publishing fiction and essays regularly since 1952. Representative titles (in print and reprint) include Personal Monkeys, August on a Block of Ice, Life in the Movies, The Survivals, and The Aunts from Tel Aviv.Jean Harris, Ph.D. (the translator) is a translator, novelist and essayist. She has been the 2007-2008 winner of the University of California, Irvine’s International Center for Writing and Translation’s translation grant for her translation of Ştefan Bănulescu’s “Mistreţii erau blazi.” Director of The Observer Translation Project 2008-2009, she has been guest editor of Absinthe 13: Spotlight on Romania (2010). Her translations have recently appeared in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Guardian, Habitus: a Diaspora Journal and on line at Words Without Borders and Jewish Fiction .net. In 2012 she contributed a translation to The Fifth Impossibility, a collection of essays by Norman Manea in Yale's Margellos World Republic of Letters series (2012). She is currently translating Norman Manea’s Captives for New Directions and has just translated his Words from Exile for Sheep Meadow Press. She writes about literature and psychoanalysis and lives in Bucharest, Romania.