Short stories, "Ego. Prose" series, Polirom, 2005, 240 pages
Hair’s Hugely Important
She had woken up quite late and as a result she was a bit behind schedule with her morning exercises, something which put her slightly out of sorts. Not that she was short of time – given her lifestyle, that would be the last thing she could complain of – but rather she saw such incidents as signs of a change for the worse in her willpower. Which is to say, exactly the last thing that ought to happen to her. In the end, after quite intricate inner deliberations, she admitted a very simple fact: at least today, on her birthday, she might go easier on herself; and in any case, she didn’t really have that much money to spoil herself with treats, or even to scrape together a little party. The day before, she had given quite serious thought to not even answering the telephone, but she hadn’t made any final decision yet. She had decided to resume weighing, with pharmaceutical precision, the arguments for and against after a strong cup of coffee, and with a clear head. She had just got past the warm-up stage and was getting ready to tackle the harder exercises when she heard the doorbell ring. She broke off everything she was doing and stood stock-still in the middle of the room, in expectation. Yes, it really was her doorbell. While she had not managed to come to any decision as regards the telephone, she had not even posed the question of visits. Naturally, she wasn’t expecting anyone. With the exception of Maria, who came every day to help her. But in fact she wasn’t even expecting her, just as you don’t expect a thing that happens regularly, somehow of itself. It must be someone with a present almost too big to carry, she joked to herself, as she headed towards the front door. Or else a huge bouquet of roses, naturally of the most expensive kind, from a secret admirer, some short, bald man with a pimply head. She looked through the eyehole but all she could see was an elegant young lady, whose expensive perfume had already battered the door down and burst into her poky one-room flat. It occurred to her that she, on the other hand, must stink of sweat. “Who is it?” she asked, hoping that there must be some mistake, especially when she realised that she was still in her pyjamas. “What do you mean, ‘Who is it’? It’s me! Who else could it be?” the elegant lady answered, somewhat irritated, as though she were scolding a husband who had a just made a lame joke at an inappropriate moment. “Who is it?” she insisted, convinced that it was a mistake. “It’s me, Father Christmas.” “Could you please tell me who you’re looking for?” “For you, Laura, damn it! I’m hardly looking for Brad Pitt! Open the door already!” And she appended something that doesn’t normally pass the lips of elegant young ladies, but which immediately made Laura realise it was Nena. She was the only one of her few acquaintances – a childhood friend, in fact – who commanded such an impressive, always up-to-date slang vocabulary. “Laura, dear, I see you’d be quite capable of letting me whimper at your door like a little dog…” her friend went on, hugging her superficially, probably for fear of crumpling her dress.
It had been more than a year since she had last seen Nena. In fact, since she had last crossed her threshold, because otherwise their paths were too different for them to intersect. Why hadn’t she recognised her? Oh, yes, of course, because of her wardrobe. What could have made her adopt such attire? A summer frock with dots of varying sizes and colours, her hair in a coil, and a little hat… She used to be an indefatigable wearer of jeans and sexy, navel-revealing blouses, or skin-tight t-shirts. Looking at her more carefully, she observed that her silver nose-ring had also vanished.
Nena had already made herself at home. She plonked her hat on the globe of the world that stood on top of the television set, let down her hair, lit a cigarette, and was scratching her head.
“I think I’ve got bloody lice from those shampoos they’re always bragging about on telly,” she muttered, hungrily taking a drag on her cigarette. “I think what I’ll do is give this shitty thatch of mine a good scrubbing with some petrol, just like back at home with mother.” Laura looked her up and down in amusement and bid farewell to higher-level-of-difficulty exercises, as they were called in the books that crammed an entire shelf of the bookcase. She didn’t have time to ask her if she wanted anything, because Nena got in first, in her own special way:
“Ain’t you got nothing to drink, girly? ’Cause me hair’s falling out like you wouldn’t believe… Look at that!” And she thrust three long, yellowish, freshly collected strands of hair between her eyes. The host averted her gaze and hurried to fetch the requested liquid.
“It’s from the stress, girly!” she called into the kitchen after her.
“And the pollution,” she added, after a moment’s thought.
Using her foot, Laura moved aside the curtain that masked the shelves under the sink and, flexing her knees and slowly lowering her back, weighed up all the options.
Beer, gin or brandy?” she asked loudly, perhaps too loudly for such a small house.
“After all the things that have been happening to me lately, girly, I could really do with a wee brandy…” she said, idly twirling strands of her hair around her index finger. Her cigarette, exiled to one corner of her mouth, was releasing smoke directly into her left eye, making it water. With unexpected dexterity, Laura grasped the bottle of brandy between the first and second toe of her right foot and placed it on a very low trolley table, much lower than an ordinary one, alongside the glasses that were already there. Shortly thereafter, she entered the room, pushing the table now with the tips of her toes, now with her shins. She wheeled it up to the coffee table between the armchairs, almost brushing the heel of her guest, who was sitting with her legs crossed. Then she let herself fall into an armchair. From this position, it was relatively easy to remove the clip-top from the bottle.
“Girly, I’ve just realised you’re still in your pyjamas… I think I must have got you out of bed, tell me straight!”
“Not at all, don’t worry, I was doing my exercises…”
“Don’t get wise with me, better tell me where the bloke is, mind he doesn’t freeze his nuts off in the fridge or somewhere…”
“Is that the kind of girl you think I am…?” said Laura, in a tone of mock annoyance, endeavouring to pour brandy into a glass. She had lifted the bottle using the same grip as in the kitchen, but it was too heavy to balance. Her leg was trembling imperceptibly.
“Still with those damned exercises? Ever since I’ve known you, always with your mind on those exercises… You’ll die doing the splits, girly, I’m telling you!”
She managed to pour out some brandy, but only a few drops.
“Me, if I was you I’d lay off for a while… ’Cause if you let it stress you, you’ll end up like me, and your hair will start going thin, like an old wifey’s.”
She could feel beads of sweat forming on her brow. She clenched and splayed her toes a few times, to relax them. She tackled the bottle once more.
“And if you go bald, you can kiss it goodbye! No man will look at you, not even out of his arse… Really! Hair’s hugely important! I think I’ll wash it with nettles, ’cause them cheap shampoos from the shops are not even worth pissing on.”
Just a little bit more, and the liquid began to flow. In uneven spurts, the bottle shaking. She realised that she was not in control of the situation, and began to panic. Her toes strained with all their might not to drop the bottle, turning white with the effort. The tremor was becoming accentuated, visible.
“So, I’m telling you, girly, bugger them exercises, if you don’t want to go around like Telly Savalas.”
With a final effort, she twisted her foot outwards. The glass had been filled. Because of the jerky movements, there were drops of brandy splashed all over the table.
“Thanks, that’ll do!” quipped the guest.
The bottle banged against the edge of the table, and then thudded on the parquet. Laura let out a deep breath in relief, and wiped her sweating brow with her knee.
“That’s what you say, Nena, but I’m telling you from experience, if you don’t do your exercises a few days, it shows, you know.”
“Oh, as long as I’ve known you, you’ve been niggling me with this stuff… It’s really nice, this brandy! And after all the things that have been happening to me these last few days, it’s just what I need… But what are all those, darling?!” She pounced enthusiastically on the drawings lying on the floor by the sofa. She picked up two sheets of paper, held them up at a distance, looking at them in expert fashion, and gave an admiring whistle. She also snatched the unfinished drawing attached to the easel, upset a vase of dried flowers at floor level, and sank back into the armchair with her feet tucked up beneath her.
“Don’t tell me you did all this stuff!”
“Who else do you think did them?”
“I reckon the bloke in the fridge did them. Ha, ha! The one who’s freezing his nuts off right now…” And she lit another cigarette, after having smelled it with obvious relish, passing it back and forth under her swishing nostrils.
Laura put her right foot behind her neck and answered, groaning slightly:
“It really was me who did them, but it’s no big deal, they’re just drawings for children…”
“Girly, you don’t know what you’re talking about… How can you say that? I couldn’t even do something like that with my hand, let alone my foot… If I put my hand to drawing you a wolf right now, you’d think it was a spaceship from Star Trek or a vibrator or something… They’re masterpieces, girly, listen to what I’m telling you!”
“That’s nice of you, Nena, but they’re just drawings for children…”
“Leave it out, don’t you teach me… They’re works of genius, girly! Didn’t you know that after I finished night school I worked as a supply teacher for art lessons? I know what I’m talking about, I’m not just flattering you. You’re too modest, really you are!” said her childhood friend, pouring herself another glass.
“I read in the newspaper about a publisher running a competition to illustrate a book for children, and I decided to do these… Do you think they’re expressive?”
“Expressive? Don’t be daft! You’d think they were real, girly. When I look at that wolf, I’d been quaking in me knickers in fright if I was a kid, really.”
Laura burst out laughing.
She lowered her right foot from behind her head and raised her left.
“Look how fierce it is, it’s rubbing off on me! A-ooooooo! Oo-aa-ooooooo!” and she pounced on Laura, just like she imagined the wolf from “Little Red Riding Hood” might attack the grandmother. Laura instinctively shrank back in the armchair, squealing, and defended herself with her only available leg.
“Don’t be silly, Nena, cut it out, you know I’m ticklish…”
“That’s enough, please!” gurgled Laura, amid involuntary bursts of laughter. It was exactly what they used to do when they were kids, living in the same block of flats. Someone would tell a story, and Nena would suddenly get into the skin of the character and pester them all. It would be amusing at first, but she never knew when to stop. The other children would become irritated and go home.
“I won’t stop until I eat you all up! A-ooooooo! Oo-aa-ooooooo!”
“Nena, my leg!!! Ow!”
Laura had grown livid. She was stock-still, her face petrified. Only a few words escaped from her lips:
“My leg! Help me!”
“What’s wrong, girly? I didn’t hit you, did I?”
“Cramp…” groaned Laura. “Help me get my leg from behind my head.”
“Well, you need only have said, darling!”
She stretched her out on the sofa to massage her leg.
“We’ll get rid of it as quick as you can say flash.”
Laura closed her eyes, picking up on only half of the torrent of words – interrupted by gulps of brandy, it was true – that cascaded over her. The words brought with them images of childhood. That was probably what it was all about. She saw Sylvia’s mother, a frail, shabbily dressed woman, entrusting Sylvia to her care: “Keep your eyes on that wild child… I’m putting my faith in you… I wouldn’t leave her with anyone else… Don’t let her fall in with that gang of louts… Tell me if she…” Sylvia? Yes, Nena was called Sylvia back then. That’s what they called her at home. Nena was what she called herself. When she grew up. She thought it was an interesting name: “exciting, girly!” They would go into town together. To the cinema. To the discotheque, more rarely. That was after the accident. A long time afterwards. “I like going out with you,” Nena told her. “All the boys look at me.” And she would laugh. She had beautiful hair did Nena. Her mother used to wash it for her in nettle juice. Nena was cunning. She always used to say she was going to the bathroom, and then she would vanish. She never managed to “keep her eyes on her”. Laura would weep in vexation. Because she was foolish enough to believe her, and because she imagined her kissing the boys. She would go home miserable. She envied other people because they could hide their faces in their hands. That was what she wanted to do. Nena would come back late and scratch at her door. She would want Laura to take her home, so her mother could see them together. Otherwise she wouldn’t let her go out ever again. She would plead with her heartbreakingly. She would swear she had done nothing wrong, that she hadn’t even held hands with “that stinker”. She would promise the moon and stars. In the end, Laura would yield. Reluctantly, after negotiations through the door. After fervent promises and solemn vows. It wouldn’t be long before they went through the whole thing all over again. Sylvia’s mother would give her some money for a cake now and then, as a reward. It was in vain that she refused it. She would still wake up to find the money in her pocket. She would feel embarrassed. She knew she didn’t deserve that money. Once, she wanted to give it as alms to a beggar. Why was it that Sylvia’s mother had such faith in her? Because she had no arms?
“You’ve started snoring, girly! And here am I getting calluses on my hands, damn you!”
Laura looked at her dazed… And dazed as she was, she saw fit to give her a wink.
“Ha, ha, I see you’ve come to yourself again. A wee brandy and you’ll be as good as new, just you listen to me! Shall I pour you one?”
Laura vigorously shook her head.
“I’m going to pour myself another drop, ’cause I’m worn out after all that kneading.”
The sun was shining straight into the room, projecting a luminous patch onto the wall behind the armchairs. One of the drawings admired not long before was on the bookcase, another was under an armchair, and another was in between the leaves of the rubber plant in the corner.
“How is your mother, Nena?” asked the host, tightening her quivering cheeks and puckering up her mouth in an effort to swallow an involuntary yawn.
“Didn’t I tell you, girly? She’s shrivelled up like a raisin, you could tread on her by mistake round the house.”
“You’re completely mad, you are!”
“And she’s so mild you wouldn’t recognise her. She doesn’t even say “ow!” if you step on her. She just looks at you with moist eyes…” she added with a sigh.
“I think I might drop in on her one day,” said Laura, moving towards the window.
“She asked after you about six months back… How is that girl getting on without arms, has she found a job?”
“Don’t you think you should switch to beer, Nena? I mean, isn’t it a bit early for brandy?” she said mildly, looking out of the window, as though she were talking to someone on the street.
“Eek, what time is it, girly? I have to meet Relu in front of the Mall at half one…”
“Who’s Relu? I thought you were with an Angelo…” She turned to face her.
“Oh, Lord, girly! What world are you living in!? It’s been six months since I broke up with Tudor, and Angelo, the darling, was before him. Even now he phones me on my birthday.”
“Angelo, girly! You can be really slow sometimes. He sends me text messages about how he loves me, every weekend…”
“Hey, what are you doing! Put that out this instant!” cried Laura, moving closer.
“What are you shouting like that for? Put what out?” shouted Nena in her turn, spreading her hands in innocence and looking around her disconcertedly.
“The cigarette! You’ve lit the filter end!”
“Really? Hmm, you’re right, damn it! One of these days I’ll end up smoking rolls of toilet paper and I won’t even realise,” she said with a serious look, stubbing out the filter in the ashtray.
“And what does Relu have to say?” Laura tied up the loose ends of the discussion.
“About what, girly, I can’t remember where we left off.”
“About the text messages.”
“What world are you living in, sweetie? How could I tell Relu about that? I’m not completely defective in the noggin yet…”
“Nena, I just don’t get it. Why didn’t you stay with Angelo then?”
“Oh, I don’t know, girly. That Tudor blew my mind with all his dirty jokes. I got the hump with Angelo, the darling, ’cause he didn’t make me laugh… he was too serious for a girl like me, who’s one of the gang… ’cause… stupid things!”
As she spoke, Laura had begun to gather up her drawings, one by one. Nena ran her splayed fingers through her hair, collected two long strands, and began winding them around the brandy glass. The recalcitrant strands of hair kept slipping off. Nena impatiently started over again.
“It’s twelve, Nena. What time do you have to meet that bloke of yours?” Laura said after a while, almost in a whisper, as though not wishing to disturb her in her mechanical gestures.
“I was thinking that it’s nice here at your place, Laura. So peaceful! I envy, you girly! …I don’t even know if I’m going to go and meet that skinflint Relu. I’m really upset with him!”
“You can stay longer, you’re always welcome…” she said in the same hushed voice.
“I like it here at your place, you’ve made your own little nest… I envy you, girly.”
Laura drew closer to Nena, somehow on the tips of her toes.
“In fact, to be honest, I came here because I needed to talk to somebody…” the guest continued, adopting the discreet tone of their childhood friendship. Laura sat down on the arm of the sofa, next to Nena’s shoulder.
“Tell me, girl, tell me whatever you want… you know I’m listening” she whispered in her ear, leaning towards her. Nena hugged her, ready to burst into tears. Laura rubbed her forehead against her hair affectionately. Nena was overwhelmed by regret at her old friend not having any arms to embrace her. To protect her and cuddle her. At this thought, her tears instantly began to gush.
In a little while, when her tears had abated, she began to tell Laura about her “completely shitty” relationship with Relu. It had not taken her long to leave Tudor, as soon as his jokes began repeating themselves. He had no longer seemed that funny. The characters in his jokes were always the genital organs “of both sexes”. She had met Relu. He had seemed charming. “I was head over heels, girly, really!” When she thinks about it now, she feels like punching herself in the head. He wore “kosher” eau-de-cologne and was always busy. He had a briefcase full of papers. He was taking care of his business affairs. He would make time for her. He would take her out of town in the car, and start up with the “coochy-coo”. And so they “became an item”. She moved in with him. He started making her that “puky” beef tartare. Yes, he still took her out; but he didn’t want to visit her mother “in any shape or form”. He bought her whatever she wanted, but he didn’t give her pocket money. She would show him what she wanted, and he paid. That was why they met at the Mall most of the time. “A skinflint, girly! I mean, does he think I’m going to do a runner with his money!?” This shortcoming of his infuriated her.
Wriggling out of her limp embrace, Laura asked her whether she was thirsty, because she felt like a glass of water. Nena said she was – her mouth was parched – and opened herself a can of beer.
He had started telling her how to dress. He had started to presume. To dictate to her. He wouldn’t let her go round “like a dog’s dinner”. He wanted ethereal dresses, like in the films. Elegant sandals. Hats. For her navel to be covered. For her to stop chewing that bloody gum.
Laura opened the drawer under the bookcase and rummaged for a comb. She hit on it and headed to the armchair. She trod on the heel of the foot in which she was holding the comb.
All the same, he spoke to her nicely. But now and then he would go over the top. If she had allowed it, he would have plaited her hair in schoolgirl pigtails when she went out of the house. He would have liked her to blush when someone spoke to her. To let him be the only one to do the talking. To tell him he was “fucking clever”. To quiver all over when he touched her. “To wet me knickers in an instant, you know what I mean, girly?” To say “yes”. To be “ferocious” in bed. Better than a “pro”. To groan in ecstasy even if she didn’t like it. To stuff her mouth with his sex in the shower, because that’s his “lordship’s” weakness. Even if she detests the position, because the water gets in her eyes. To swallow his seed and not, God forbid, spit it out. To tell him it’s delicious. To tell him it’s the first time she’s ever done it. That she’s “bowled over” by the pleasure.
Laura sat down on the parquet floor in front of the armchair and made a sign for Nena to bow her head. She began combing her hair, with cautious movements.
She wanted to work. To have her own money. To buy herself “whatever tickled her fancy”. To help her mother. To boast about having a job. Maybe even to save a bit of money. That’s when the arguments started. She scoured the newspaper small ads, on the sly. For weeks on end. He found the newspaper with all her underlining and got angry. She wanted to go for an interview as a secretary. Making coffee was something she knew how to do. Relu said he knew the bloke. In the furniture business, with some foreigners. Looking for a “fuck-lady” to sign contracts, not a secretary. He accused her of lying. He “clouted her with his paw” so hard she can still feel it. She was furious with him. Didn’t speak to him for three days. Things have improved now. She’ll go to the Mall and ask him for a perfume so expensive “it’ll leave you gobsmacked”. Maybe she’ll manage to sell it after that, to get a bit of cash. To buy something for her old ma. Maybe set a little aside.
“I’m scared, girly, that I’m going to die all used up and so poor that I’ll not even have enough money to take a piss in a public toilet…”
“You, poor!? Don’t make me laugh…”
“What time is it, darling? ’Cause I don’t want to miss the opportunity to forgive him.
“It’s twenty to one!” said Laura, looking at the clock in the hall.
“I’m off, sweetie!” she mumbled with a hairgrip in her mouth and her hands gathering her hair into a bun. “Have you seen my hat?” she asked a moment later, disoriented.
“It’s on the globe!”
“There’s something else I’d like to ask you…” she said hesitantly.
“Ask me,” Laura encouraged her.
“If that skinflint Relu chucks me out and I’m broke, will you take me to Jassy? As your companion, I’d get to travel free as well… Angelo has moved to Jassy…”
“Any time, Nena, don’t worry about it…”
“You’ve saved me, girly!” and she ran off, as though that was all she was waiting to hear.
Laura went back inside. From the window, she saw her climb, precipitously, into a taxi.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth