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polirom

Lucian Dan Teodorovici


Excerpt from

Critics about

Short stories, "Ego Prose" series, Polirom, 2004, 232 pages

Copyright: Polirom

Translation rights sold to: Pop Verlag (Germany)

Excerpt from

Chewing Gum

 

I’d met her in a bar less than two hours earlier and decided to rent a hotel room as a way of making good use of my wife’s savings. Just before I met her I was in a state of pathetic disgust thinking of my wife, who only knows to cook the whole day long, argue or tidy up the house, as if anything could still be untidy after all that tidying up. Additionally, I was cursing the misfortune of being father to a moron of a child who feels sick several times a day and pukes all over my feet on a regular basis, as if the toilet could only be used for other purposes. Yet such thoughts don’t mean a thing now, do they? Now she’s undressing, lasciviously swaying to the music, she walks up to me, gives me a kiss, takes hold of one of my hands with a provocative smile and lays it across her breasts…
“Want some mint-flavoured gum?” she asks, and that very instant the feeling of satisfaction I’ve been experiencing drains out of me, leaving room for a nagging flood of doubt. “I like your shirt” she adds as an afterthought “must have cost you a fortune.”
“T’was a present…”
There’s no further action afterwards, nor does anything else develop till the morning. I can’t have sex with her because I’m embarrassed. The girl probably thinks I’m one of those creeps that don’t brush their teeth for weeks on end. Had my own wife been there instead of her, I would have simply sneered at her – my wife is not worth the effort of brushing my teeth before I kiss her.


In the morning the girl greets me with a smile that manages to be both compassionate and disdainful at the same, and I feel low, desperately low, particularly as I realise I have to get back home where I’m awaited by what God has unfortunately forgotten to make a full end of: the gruellingly grumpy monotony of matrimony.
Once home I brush my teeth three times within the space of under one hour, I ignore my wife who’s tidying up in the kitchen muttering curses against an ill-starred destiny going by my name, I change into a new suit, I clean and shine my shoes after my son, you’ve guessed, has been puking all over them, I leave the house, I get on a taxi and descend outside the store where I’m going to be interviewed for an administrative position. There’s a bearded fellow waiting in the corridor who informs me he’s come for the same reason as me. He’s my competitor; still I don’t hesitate to chat him up.
“Got a good CV?” I enquire, not without a trace of insecurity.
“I used to be the administrator of a state-run store” he says. “Didn’t last long.”
“The position?”
“Nah, the store. They changed it into a disco.”
“Groceries?”
“Whadya mean?”
“Were you in the grocery business?”
“Nah, textiles.”
I relax. Pshaw, textiles… My experience is superior to the one of the bearded fellow, who didn’t even work in that line of business. I’m watching him with a breezy smile and go so far as to allow a touch of compassion, all the more so since I notice he’s wringing an old beret in his hands, an act denotative of insecurity and humbleness verging on the abject. I respond with a sigh and remind myself that, though it’s not fair, there are moments when chance does not smile on certain people.
“Want some gum?” he chimes in. “Mint flavoured.”
I feel an instant heat wave rising to the top of my head and consequently become extremely irritated.
“Why?” I scream back, and imagine my emotions are pretty easy to read in my face.
The fellow appears to be filled with consternation at my outburst; he stares at me for a few seconds, then looks away, suddenly taking an interest in the walls around.
“Why have you done this to me?” I persist, though there’s not much point to my query, the answer being already contained in my mounting suspicions.
“Done what?” the bearded fellow defends himself as he looks at me innocently, sort of. “I just offered you some gum as an act of kindness…”
“Kindness, indeed…” I mock him. “Sure thing… Kindness… What sort of creep do you take me for?”
He wags his head in feigned incomprehension.
“Kindness, is it? Hear, hear…” I press on. “As if I believed you. Why don’t you tell me plainly? Say, do I have a bad breath?”
“No, you don’t. You don’t have a bad breath.”
“Then why…?”
“I’ve just told you…”
There’s a few moments’ lapse during which I’m seriously questioning the sincerity of the fellow next to me.
“Okay, I’ll have some” I inform him as I conclude my reflection.
“Have what?”
“What you’ve just offered me. Some gum.”
“Oh that… Sorry” he says. “I’ve popped it into my own mouth. I gathered from your reaction you didn’t want any.”
I frown at him cursing his deviousness under my breath, jump to my feet, bolt for the door, rush out and hurry in search of a booth with the hope of finding something to freshen up my breath. My quest takes a while. Exhausted and drenched in sweat, I return half an hour later to where I’m supposed to be for that interview, sucking on a mint. I run into a man and a woman on the point of locking the door.
“What’s this supposed to mean? There’s going to be an interview here” I say as I experience a sequence of emotions I can’t as yet put my finger on.
“The interview’s over, sir.”
“How come?” I snap, annoyance quick to tinge my tone. “I’m here for that interview, can’t you see? Right here, in front of your eyes, it’s the interview I’ve come for.”
“You’re late” the woman smiles on me with benevolence. “The position has already been given to the only applicant we had. Sorry about that. Besides, you should know we do appreciate punctuality” she informs me.
I could explain, I could yell at her or beg her for a second chance. Yet somehow I realise she wouldn’t be too thrilled if I were to recount, to the standard accompaniment of apologies, the reason for my being late. So I move away from the two in utter dejection, rehearsing the stream of reproach I’m bound to get from my wife, who will object to the nights I spend playing poker with my friends – for that’s how she thinks I’m spending my nights away from home. I groan with self pity at the thought that I’ll have to put up once again with the monotony of my family – a long string of days compressed in hopeless waiting, a wife who only opens her mouth to argue, a child puking insistently all over my shoes…

I hop on a tram, since the bleak prospect presented by the job front prevails against my comfort-born urge of hailing a taxi. An amiable hulk approaches me at a point and, serenely flashing a controller badge, imparts to me the news that resorting to the services provided by the tram is subject to the prior purchase of a ticket. When I finally make sense of his gibberish, a sheet of ice-cold sweat drapes my spine in anticipation of the fine coming my way.
While the fellow is writing a chit, I miserably produce out of my pocket the few notes left from my wife’s emergency wad and proffer them to the controller. He smiles on me with undaunted amiability and shrugs his shoulders as if to say “That’s the way it is, mate, life’s a bitch, and if you happen to be a jerk, you should always think there might be a smarter jerk around the corner, who’s going to make life even more miserable for you.”
God, what a life! I’m depressed. And that’s reason enough for spending the rest of my day in a drinking hole.

 

***

 

I find my child crooning in front of the TV, clapping his hands without rhyme or reason and spinning chaotically, which brings me to the renewed conclusion that he’s an idiot beyond any hope of recovery. My wife’s scrubbing the kitchen floor, same location she was scrubbing in the morning, and I walk up to her to give her a kiss in keeping with a disgusting routine. She retaliates with a half-hearted kiss of her own before resuming her work stance, confronting me (in impious breech of all aesthetic standards) with her immense posterior – a mute battle cry not entirely unrelated to the belated homecoming that has been laid to my charge since morning.
“Sorry” I address her in an indifferent tone, simultaneously allowing my thoughts to sort in slow motion through the excuses I’ve been resorting to on former occasions. You’re angry about last night, is that it?
She doesn’t reply.
“Well, I came home late because… I don’t think you’ll be interested. Well, I… I won a few hands at poker.”
“How much?” I hear her bland voice say.
“How much I won, d’you mean? Well, I won… Hell! What’s the use,” I say, waving off the whole matter. “I lost it all towards morning, anyway.”
“My savings, that right?”
I don’t feel like saying anything at all.
“That right, you bum?” she pursues the matter somewhat raising her voice, turning to face me and staring me in the eye, in the vain hope that her gesture makes an impression on me. “So you won’t answer… You wouldn’t talk to me in the morning either” she resumes after a break whose only effect was to increase my indifference. “You were feeling guilty, I suppose.”
“Guilty?” I feign surprise, at the same time indulging in a superior smile.
She gives an angry snort –a pig-like sound, sort of, vaguely reminiscent of intelligent life.
“If only you’d been playing poker last night. But that’s not what you did” she concludes resolutely, and I make no effort whatsoever to justify myself.
As the discussion fails to take an interesting course, all I have left to do is heave a deep breath, leave the room and ease myself on to a bed, hoping to be left alone.
“The child’s been puking all day” she shatters whatever hopes of peace I might have entertained, “There’s not even enough money for medicine, and all you’re good for is waste your time, spend like crazy and… O God, why the hell was I such a nitwit as to marry you? There were people asking for my hand who are millionaires today, d’you hear that? And not just millionaires – billionaires!”
She’s screaming from out there in the kitchen and soon I can hear her crying – another useless stratagem, no longer able to move me to anything else but nausea. The child goes on clapping his hands, now he’s started spitting toward the ceiling and rushes to catch some of the saliva droplets spreading throughout the room. He’s going to puke any moment now. I’m studying him with a feeling akin to curiosity, fighting down my own queasiness.
“This child’s an idiot” I say. Then I roll over, close my eyes. “Your billionaires would have left you” I add in a whisper “if you’d made them such an idiot child.”
I don’t know how long I’ve been asleep, I’m not even sure I’ve fallen asleep at all. All I know is that at a certain point I resolve to go looking for another job. I feverishly give myself to reading all the job adds in the paper and I find a particularly attractive one, one which suits me ideally.
At the appointed time I stand outside the building where I’m going to be interviewed, radiating freshness, dressed to kill, with a beaming face and, just to be on the safe side, with two sticks of mint-flavoured chewing gum in my mouth.
I’m invited inside, where a woman of considerable age sitting behind a desk, her glasses perched on purpose on the tip of her nose, looks me up and down with a meditative air. Then she points to an armchair and instructs me to sit down.
She reads to the end the résumé I’ve prepared, without allowing her face to express any sign as to the conclusions she might have arrived at in the process.
“You’ve written no motto whatsoever” she remarks in a shrill, unnerving voice, a voice sounding quite familiar to me.
“I’m afraid I don’t get you.”
“You don’t know what a motto’s supposed to be?” she retorts in disgusted bewilderment. “Pshaw!”
I try my best to mutter a feeble “Oh, but I do” when she signals me to stop wit a resolute wave of her hand. Then, after continuing to peer for a while at the sheet containing my personal data, she resumes:
“You’ve got the experience it takes, can’t argue about that. Still, there’s no adage you’ve written, something to represent you, an aphorism, like, or some governing principle by which you’re guiding yourself…” And she finishes off in a knowledgeable manner: “That’s what a motto is supposed to mean. Please, do think of something along these lines, anything…”
“Now?” I ask puzzling over her strange request, at the same time realising her voice is terribly similar to my wife’s.
“When else?” she replies dryly.
My memory is instantly bursting with countless famous phrases, from Aquila non capit muscam and Hannibal ante portas to Murphy’s laws, yet I can’t find anything adequate enough, nothing at all to reveal the depth of my insight. A poem comes to my mind, still there’s not one line I can remember clearly.
“Okay, you have it now?” The lady behind the desk loses her patience.
“I sit and watch the dogs as yet unborn as they are biting men as yet unborn” I say in a low tone, after hesitating for a few moments.
She casts me a perplexed look over the rim of her glasses rendered useless for the moment.
“What dogs are those? Are you dumb or something? What dogs do you mean? What’s all that about?”
“Some poet, I believe. Can’t remember too well how the poem goes, but that’s my motto.”
“Okay, then” the penny seems to drop while she never forgets for a moment to stare me in the eye. “Do you usually have a bad breath?” she suddenly asks, out of the blue, after a short break.
Once again I’m overtaken by nervousness. Her direct approach has an intimidating effect on me, all the more so since I find it hard to give her a clear answer.
“No… At least I don’t think I have a bad breath. I’ve got two sticks of gum in my mouth. I mean… I don’t know. Does my breath really smell, Madam?”
“Why did you buy that gum?”
The question is not of the type one can answer concretely, as whatever way one might answer it, it would turn to one’s disadvantage.
“I don’t know” I reply abjectly.
“You don’t know?” she raises her voice regarding me with mean looks.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know.”
“I’m not hiring you” she lets me know, an impassible look in her eyes.
The moment is difficult enough, yet I’m still clinging to the ghost of a hope.
“What are your reasons for it?” I’m trying to find out.
“’Cause you’re dumb.”
“I’m not. I promise you I’m not.”
“Okay. Then I don’t hire you because your breath smells.”
“That can’t be. I’ve got two chewing-gum sticks in my mouth.”
“Exactly. You’ve got two chewing-gum sticks in your mouth. Why is that?”
I realise there’s nothing more I can do.
“That’s not my breath smelling, old hag. That’s me giving off the smell of a raving wife and child.”
Without warning the old woman changes into a senile, laughable philosopher, one hundred years old, with beady asymmetrical eyes, voluptuously guzzling out of a bottle of vodka.
“How could you be such an idiot” he says interrupting his drinking “to get married? Marriage is like chewing gum: you enjoy it for a while, then the flavour goes out of it. See what getting married’s done to you? Marriage just stretches on like chewing gum and never comes to an end. It never comes to an end, you fool…”
The old man appears satisfied with his metaphor, bursts into a fit of loud, hoarse laughter which changes into coughing and floods the desk with a litre of votka sickeningly gushing out of his mouth.
The moment comes to an abrupt end when my wife calls and I wake up out of my sleep. I realise everything is just as before, I remember coming back home after paying that fine in the tram, easing my tired body on to the bed…
“Dinner’s ready” my wife tells me.
I sit down at the table, caress my child’s hair, he pukes all over my foot, my wife cleans him up silently, everything’s back to normal.
“Perhaps another doctor should see him” I volunteer, pointing to the child.
“Last night you were not playing poker” my wife cuts in pretending to ignore my suggestion.
I somehow realise the topic cannot be avoided.
“A friend asked me over to his place” I explain, casually, sort of.
“I’m giving the child the prescribed medicine” she reassures me. “Well, not all the prescribed medicine, ‘cause I haven’t got enough money. Anyway, the whooping cough takes a long time to heal. It’s normal for him to puke, doctor says. What friend asked you over?” she remembers to enquire.
“You don’t know him. I’ve never brought him home.”
She dumps the towel she’s been drying her hands on and starts crying.
“Do you have a lover” she asked between tears.
“I don’t.”
She stares me in the eye for a few moments, as she usually does, her tears dripping into the soup all the while.
“You were supposed to go for an interview today, to get a job, right? I don’t believe you’ve been there.”
“What do you mean I haven’t been there? Leave me bloody alone.”
Though my indignation is genuine, my words fail to come out in a sufficiently credible tone.
“You do have a lover” she says miserably.
“That’s not fuckin’ true” I swear, remembering last night.
“The child’s not well. Please watch your mouth, will you? The doctor says he needs peace and quiet considering the other problems he has.”
“The other problems? How on earth does the whooping cough affect his mental deficiency? Well, I guess you’re in a better position to know. Fancy that. Whooping fuckin’ cough at fuckin’ fourteen.”
“You’ve got yourself a lover” my wife clings to the obsession she’s vexing me with. Today you’ve been brushing your teeth three times before going to the so-called interview. When you came back home your breath smelt of mint once again. How do you expect me to take it?”
“The so-called interview? You’re a bloody cow, woman. I swear to God I’ve been for that interview. That’s why I got myself a mint, so that I could go for the interview.”
“Why? That is the question” she pursues the matter.
“Why? Why? Why?” the child picks up in mocking tones.
I strike him with the flat of my hand and try to make things clear for my wife.
“I have no lover. Mind you, I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to have one, all I’m saying is I just haven’t got one. But I was afraid I had bad breath. You know how it is; you have to make a good impression from the beginning if you want to get the job. What’s the time?”
The child is crying, coughing, puking.
“Why did you hit him?” my wife’s yelling at me. “You know how sensitive he is.”
“I didn’t mean to. Sometimes I just can’t control myself. What’s the time?”
“I’m leaving you, I am” my wife threatens.
“No such luck for me. Will you tell me what the time is, for Chrissake?” I yell.
“Why do you want to know? You’re afraid you’ll be late for your lover?”
“I want to hang myself” I answer her, composedly. “How ‘bout that? I want to know the exact hour when I’ll be hanging myself.”
My wife succumbs to even more intense fits of crying, her body shaking pathetically while her oversized breasts hang unappetisingly, constantly quaking under the old blouse covering her torso.
“I’m leaving you today” she says after crying her fill. “I can’t go on like this. You bring no money home and, what’s more, you’re spending all the money I save. The child’s retarded and you go and hit him…”
“I’m sorry I’ve hit him. Can’t you understand that?”
“And on top of it all” she goes on ignoring my intervention “you’ve started brushing your teeth three times a day, chewing mint-flavoured gum… You have a lover, that’s obvious. I’ve read in the magazine that if the man takes excessive care of himself, that means he has a lover. I’m leaving you.”
“What magazine should that be?”
“Magazine?”
“The magazine writing that sort of crap about men… Aw, fuck you, woman.”
I rise from my chair and with a gesture I’m not even trying to control, I throw the plate in front of me at random. The soup soaks into one of the kitchen walls, leaving a brownish stain with the odd noodle sliding across it – not a pretty sight. Without a word, I leave the house in my sleepers since my shoes are covered in puke once again. I take a few steps down the corridor, change my mind abruptly, go back into the house, have a swipe at the boy and yell at the top of my voice:
“Stop puking all over my shoes, get it? I can’t take that anymore.”
I get out again, I pace nervously the pavement outside our block of flats, I smoke a cigarette and deplore once again the squalor surrounding me… A few minutes later I’m climbing the stairs back into my flat. As it happens, on the first landing there’s a Gypsy woman carrying a bag of sunflower seed, who addresses me through her discoloured teeth plying her merchandise.
“I don’t like sunflower seed” I say as I’m trying to make my way past her.
“Then, mister,” the Gypsy woman insists “p’raps you’d like a package of chewing gum.”
I grab her hair and swing wildly at her face. She’s bleating as she rolls down the stairs. The doors of two of the flats burst open and my neighbours appear quite nervous. One of them walks to the bottom of the stairs and informs me I’ve killed the Gypsy woman, whereupon I start laughing.
“Serves her right, too. From now on she should be selling her chewing gum elsewhere.”
Soon after that, in response to my neighbours’ call, two policemen enter the scene and try to handcuff me with a mixture of irritation and boredom. My wife is crying while I’m serenely abusing the law enforcers and my fourteen-year-old child is hopping in the middle of the dining room, as idiotic as ever, clapping his hands and trying to sing some song:
“One elephant, one elephant…”
He stops abruptly, hesitates for a few seconds trying to remember how it goes on, looks for the nearest wall, bangs his head against it two times in succession, then starts howling with mirth and resumes clapping his hands.
“One elephant swinging alone on a flimsy spider…”
He breaks his song, starts coughing, comes closer and pukes all over a policeman’s foot.

Translated by Florin Bican



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