libris.ro

Sanctuary

by Mircea Pricăjan
translated by Adrian Bucur [MTTLC]
click pentru versiunea română

He couldn’t have said that he had a good memory of when he had entered a church for the first time and, after all, it didn’t matter, for he had certainly been taken there in his youth, by his mother, perhaps during Easter, perhaps during winter, in the cold, during Christmas, and they had both stood there, pushing and shoving amid dozens of other sweated bodies, dressed in furs reeking of naphthalene, for hours on end, him barely breathing down there, where the faint light barely reached, yes, he had definitely been there in his youth, but he had done a better job afterward and had managed to erase those unbearable moments of torment from his mind, he had banished them just as he had done with the many prayers learned by heart that he had to recite at night, in the dark, before going to sleep, kneeled toward sunrise, accompanied by the same protective mother nearby, also kneeling, but watchful, with an opened eye, keeping that eye on him lest he flinch or – God forbid! – open his eyes, yes, he had banished these, too, he could remember almost nothing, not the Creed, not the Lord’s Prayer, not the Psalms, almost nothing, almost, for, in a corner of his mind, should he come to think of it, he still kept the lines of the innocent Prayer to the Guardian Angel… He had been scarred by those experiences, he had not been given the opportunity to properly understand them, his mother and, at times, during holidays, his grandmother had imposed them upon him without giving him a choice, like a given, something one needs to do in order to be a proper Human Being, like chewing with one’s mouth closed, washing one’s teeth, blowing one’s nose on a handkerchief and he, yet unformed, had accepted them in the beginning, he had tried to make them happy (so beautifully did his mother’s face beam in his youth, that he remembered and, he thought, it was all thanks to her feeling that she had brought her child on the righteous path), but later on, when he cast his colt’s tooth and had timidly started to think for himself, he had discovered the absurdity of it all, the futility, for, had he need of anything, in vain would he pray and wait for that thing to be brought about by the Good Lord, as a reward for his prostration, nothing would ever happen, it would still be up to him and him alone to solve the problem, it would still be up to him to carry the load. And then, first on the inside and only afterward, gradually, increasingly brave, out loud, he had rejected Christian faith, had rejected to be a part of its tedious rituals, to kneel at night with his eyes closed, facing East, reciting meaningless words, addressed to someone who was not only indifferent to them, for the irony would have been too great, but who was also most likely not a part of the cast or – in the best-case scenario – only existed as a smoke sculpture. Since then, almost twenty years passed until he entered a church again, a time in which he did not feel as if something was missing, on the contrary, he lived in a pleasant stupefaction, minding his life without any spiritual restraint. And perhaps that is the exact reason why he was taken aback when, returning from work on a Monday, on the same path he had taken for ten years already, once in front of the church he had passed by so many times without noticing it more than he would a bench in the park, he lifted his gaze and stood staring at the stained glass above the massive, slightly ajar doors: the coloured glass shards naively depicted an episode of a clarity that resonated with something delicate inside him. There, he immediately recognized the episode from the Garden of Gethsemane, in a way Man’s second great trial, after the primordial one in the Garden of Eden and which, just like the first, he had managed to fail with flying colours. Still, it was not the episode’s meaning that drew him in – like any other biblical parable, this, too, had on him an impact no greater than any of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse episodes that he frequently watched with his son – but the overall impression, the colouring and perhaps the way in which that early afternoon’s light managed to blur the otherwise well-defined borders between those glass shards. Vintilă looked at the stained glass, squinting his eyes, allowing it to make an impression on him, and decided to enter.
It was cold and pleasant inside, there was a gentle light the colour of honey, and the soothing scent of old incense smoke that had permeated the tapestries, banners and plaster over the years. This aroma triggered a part of Vintilă’s memories: the stifling dizziness, the flat mutter of the priest’s voice, the rustle of the parishioners’ clothes, his leg ache and the feeling that he would pass out at any time. He quivered, the hair on the back of his neck bristled up and he was on the verge of returning to the street. But he shook it off, tossing his head, refusing to yield. Instead, he trod on the aisle between the massive wood pews, getting closer to the altar. There were few people there during that time of the day. A woman was sitting before an icon laid on a stand right in the front, a sort of pulpit fitted with a leaning kneeling pillow, and was mumbling a prayer from which she took numerous breaks in order to kiss the glass that was protecting the icon; in the first row there was another woman, she was probably over seventy years old, she was standing straight, reclining against her well-anchored cane with both hands, looking through wet eyes not at the altar in front but, clearly, inside herself; near the entrance, in a lodge of wood and glass, Vintilă saw a young man in a blue track-suit guarding a table full of sacred objects, from little prayer books to chrism bottles and packs of incense lumps. There were others, too, most likely, a faint coughing could be heard from somewhere behind the thick pillars that supported the tall arch, but these were the only ones he saw. Plenty, nevertheless. Better than running into a group of elderly tourists from some Western country, they, the codgers, with their short khaki pants and mushroom-like hats, slouched over the ears, they, the crones, in airily, earth-coloured dresses, wielding fans in front of their noses, all whispering, pointing different architectural details to each other, mural paintings, statuettes in alcoves, taking pictures in twos, while at all times trying, in a civilized manner, not to bother anyone, but entirely failing, failing, of course. If that were the case, he most likely would have spent not a moment more in there. He would have found it too easy to identify with them, to acknowledge himself as a tourist. But this way, little by little, he entered another realm, him, a unique explorer, curious and fascinated, nervous, as if he had just made a colossal discovery. The place had a tangible feel to it, it was a bubble of air inside an ocean through which Vintilă could expertly swim, he was foremost surprised by its exoticism. Hmm, I have never realized it until now just how refreshing it feels to enter another realm, to leave your existence hanging for a couple of moments, to renounce your logic, to put it aside in order to explore something different, he told himself. Indeed, he felt that he reached a stop, that he made a halt somewhere on the side of a heavily travelled road, that he could catch his breath. Nothing religious in it, he hastily reassured himself, it’s just that I have wound up in a sanctuary that, although being a recurrent destination for believers, is merely a dot on the map to me. He took a seat on a bench and started to study the walls, the dome, the stained glass. Curious as to how no sound from outside could be heard, he pondered upon it. No sounds could be heard, but, from time to time, slight vibrations could be felt in the floor when tram cars would rattle on the rails not far away. Somehow, those only managed to numb his senses even further. He took a deep breath, leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He stood like that for a while, completely chasing away every thought, letting go of his worries, feeling increasingly lighter. Then, at peace with himself, he opened them again and left the church quietly.
From that day on he made a habit of entering the church on his way from work. Somehow embarrassed, he would look around before setting foot inside. He would spend half an hour at most in there and when he would finally get home, he would feel renewed, cleaner, more relaxed. He was gentler with his wife, Anda, tenderer; he spent more time playing with his eight year-old son, Marc. Anda obviously noticed the change, but did not dare to ask what it was about. Deep inside, she feared the answer. What if he told her he had found someone else? After all, the problematic age was drawing near, she could expect Vintilă to go astray at any time now. She had read about it and, in spite of how much she had fortified herself within, she felt yet unprepared to face unfaithfulness. But who can ever claim to be prepared? she would comfort herself. The fact was that her husband came home late from work for a while – not very late, truth be told – and that he gave his family a dubious amount of attention, especially after such a long period of time during which he had eyes for nothing but his work: the thing that seized all his time, that stole all his energy. There are hard times, Anda, you must go hard because you’re already home, you know how it is, come on, don’t be stubborn, she would tell herself when she would dare complain. And now that suddenly there was no need for her to be understanding, Anda almost wished she were. He has surely found a bimbo somewhere at work, some twenty year-old skank who has no idea what a family is and who’ll wind him round her little finger until she gets what she wants, probably a promotion or a raise… What bothered her most was not the idea that her husband was cheating on her, she could have come to terms with that, if push came to shove, and she would have even turned a blind eye for the sake of Marc, but rather the fact that this undoubtedly meant that she herself was losing her femininity, that the charm on which she had relied all her life, that which she used in order to charm Vintilă, was starting to fade, if it hadn’t already. Since forever, she made a splash wherever she went; always well-dressed, with a fine hairdo and a flawless make-up, it wasn’t difficult to make herself noticed. Definitely helpful were her inborn traits, a well-highlighted face structure, with high cheekbones, emphasizing big round eyes that were either green or blue depending of the daylight, juicy rosy lips. Yes, and the haughtily cocked chin, demanding unconditional respect and admiration. As far as she knew, that was how she had always kept herself, including in her youth, when, through her attitude, she would rather fan humour, but it had helped her, she had perfected this art to such an extent that when she had become nubile, she was plainly irresistible. Until the thought of settling came to her, chasing after Vintilă due to the virility that made him stand out from the other pretenders, she had lived a princess’s life, any whim being satisfied. Not a few times she had amused herself asking the boys courting her absurd things and then watching them race each other to fulfil them. Yes, it had been a hell of a time and now, when she was nearing thirty-five years, nostalgia would sometimes haunt her, the regret that she had given up everything that made her happy back then. Not that family life made her sad, it had its perks, it meant stability and safety, it had meant, until the other day, faithfulness. Without realizing it while she was young, the thing that would often bring her on the verge of depression was how frivolous the boys she dated were. After charming her with big words, it wouldn’t be long until they broke them, eventually ending up cheating on her with another girl. Well, she had thought she crossed that out of the list by getting married. Thus, the bitterer was her discovery of Vintilă’s presumed unfaithfulness. And a lot harder was accepting what this really meant: that she was losing her charms, she was wilting, she was slowly but steadily turning into one of those people who are not only between ages, but also between sexes, a shadow that trickles on the street unnoticed.
Anda had thus decided that there were two things to be done. First, to try to confirm her suspicion, to make sure of the fact that Vintilă was indeed cheating on her, and then, regardless of her discovery, to quickly find out if her fears regarding her depersonalization were founded or not. She owed it to herself to find out.
She did not need much time in order to convince herself of the first thing. First, she called Marian, Vintilă’s co-worker, whom they would visit from time to time and, under the guise of a rather forced talk, she dropped the question: Did they have to work more lately? of course, wanting to find out if that was the reason why her husband came home at a later hour, but Marian told her no, we work just like before, with just as much zeal, ha-ha-ha! After that, she asked him about how Andrei was doing in school, about his wife, Sofia, she tried to call her, too, but she had her phone off or out of order… yes, she was attending a seminary in Cluj, perfecting her skills, she would return a hairstyling master, ha-ha-ha! And tell me, Marian, do you happen to have a new colleague, did they hire any secretary or anyone at PR? Hmm, no… the man answered, perhaps sniffing something and Anda didn’t like it one bit, something crossed her mind. Men have a special radar that lets them know when women get too close for comfort to their supposedly well-hidden strategic target, and that radar also covers the area where the targets of the other men from their surroundings are hidden. If women tend to rather expose each other, enjoying it even when they have the opportunity to show that not them, but others have whored, as if that were proof that they themselves are not capable of such a thing, men stand together, they have each other’s backs, they provide alibis, they are willing to sacrifice truth and morals just so that one of them could get away with it. At least that’s what Anda had read in Click! for Women. And she had no reason to believe otherwise – on the contrary, this was exactly what Marian’s hesitation pointed to. Oh, alright, I was just asking, she continued, talking as detached as she could, I think Vintilă told me yesterday that Maricica or what’s-her-name, a secretary or someone from PR, was taking a maternal leave, poor soul… It’s already five o’clock when she ended her talk with Marian, hour at which her husband would usually be home, until recently. Wrought up, feeling her tension rise, Anda wasted no moment: she immediately dialled Vintilă’s mobile number, being almost certain that she would interrupt his adultery. She heard a beep, then another and, right as she was mending her voice for the tirade revolving inside her mind like a cyclone, the third beep got cut off in the middle. He had rejected her call. The bastard had rejected her call! The jerk was probably riding one of those filthy sluts right then, fucking the life out of her, foaming at the mouth. And he dared return home afterward, to her and their child? That was the last straw, it angered her so much that she immediately started to come up with plans for revenge. I’ll teach you a lesson!
When his phone rang, Vintilă was almost completely immerged in the calmness beneath the church’s dome, vacantly meditating. His Nokia device’s ringtone, set to the highest level so that it could be heard anytime, even on the street, when the ruckus was at its peak, almost gave him a heart attack. I forgot to put it on silent! he admonished himself, partly regaining his composure. When he said that to himself, he had already pressed the red button on the touchscreen, rejecting the call as quickly as he could, without even glancing at who was calling. He was a real estate agent and he was supposed to be at the service of his clients 24/7, theoretically, this being the reason why his company would not only pay his smartphone instalments, but also his subscription, which had unlimited minutes and included data traffic. Still, it would be no great deal if he didn’t answer the phone during the following twenty minutes. He used his finger to swipe down the screen, pressed the ‘silent’ icon from the upper menu, then blocked the screen and slid the phone back into his pocket. He took a look around to make sure that he hadn’t bothered anyone, but no one seemed to care about him. He took a relieved breath. He closed his eyes and tried to re-enter that inner cleansing state. It had been a stressful day at work, one of his younger colleagues in charge with field work had not shown up and he had to take over some of this tiring activity. And, like a given, they had just then stricken oil with a play girl, a young woman of twenty-two years at most who desperately wanted to see the coolest ten penthouses in the city right then. To no avail had he tried to explain it to her that their portfolio only included five of these apartments and that only seven could be found in the entire city; no, no, no, went the girl, she wanted to see all ten of them. So Vintilă had gotten in her car (the company’s Volvo was beneath the bimbo) and had shown her what there was to be seen. Tiring, extremely tiring. He couldn’t wait to leave work, to enter the centre church, to cleanse himself of all the negative energies. To take his daily drug before going back home to his family. Pointless, he didn’t manage to regain his composure. Already running through his mind were episodes from that day, embarrassing situations, when the incitingly dressed young client had sat too close to him or had taken studied stances, with her butt jutting, with her cleavage on show, aware of his presence, of his long gazes – and enjoying the game exactly because of that. Ok, there was no point in trying anymore. Tomorrow was another day… He got up from the pew and he headed for the church exit, treading softly. Once outside, he opened the phone, found out who had tried to reach him and, with a feeling of endless shame, as if he had a reason to be ashamed (Don’t I? I don’t know how I’ll get that dazzling cleavage out of my head…), he called his wife.
During whatever was left of that day, a pressing feeling loomed over the house of the Crețu family, a smothering tension, like a cold war or, worse, like a conflagration about to burst out. Vintilă was on the defensive, he was feeling guilty for something he had, actually, not done, while Anda was looking daggers at him, convinced of the rightfulness of the verdict she had reached, a process where she had been both the prosecutor and the judge. Marc, feeling that something was wrong and fearing that his parents had found of the stout pounding he had given Marinel, the class loser, in the school yard during the big break, braced up and ask whether he could sleep at his grandparents. Somehow relieved, they answered yes and Vintilă even offered to give him a ride, even though his grandparents lived nearby, and the boy had gone there countless times by himself, to and fro, several times even after darkness fell. Vintilă thus came up with buying a loaf of bread from the shop on the corner, since the one they had was a bit stale, which led Marc to realize that he wasn’t the problem and he took advantage of the situation, asking for a bag of chips and a bottle of coke. Fine, Vintilă gave in, but just this time, you know they’re not good for you, I hope you didn’t spend your school money on more. The boy denied not very compellingly and they both left the house. Anda was left on her own, enveloped in that toxic shroud that, when Vintilă returned, was twice the size it was at parting.

They ate separately and they slept separately as well. From the living couch, sometime in the night, Vintilă heard his wife groaning in her sleep.
Next came a strange period, when the roles seemed to have switched; whereas before Anda was the one craving for Vintilă’s attention, and he postponed or offered it in the least amount, it was now Vintilă who found himself in need to make progressively bigger efforts in order to earn the favour of his wife, who started treating him coldly, almost indifferently, often contributing to talks just to prevent them from turning into monologues and choosing to transmit more important messages through Marc. Annoyed by the situation, the boy asked to stay at his grandparents increasingly more often, which annoyed Vintilă, who had finally came to his senses and had understood how important those years were for the development of his son and, more importantly, how important he was for Marc’s development, and now, what do you know, Snow Queen was hog-tying him, perhaps unintentionally, but it was still hog-tying. He tried finding out what bothered her several times, took her by the arm and sat her at the kitchen table, but all they did was sit face to face for minutes on end, while he was glancing at her face and she was studying her hands, laid on the table with fingers perfectly stretched, like it was a morning health inspection, and such awkward moments they were that Vintilă gave up trying. He didn’t quit, though. He kept glancing at her, anticipating her small needs and meeting them, hoping that this way he would establish a frail bridge, a means of communication. The emotional embargo weighing on his shoulders drove him even madder all the more so as he had finally opened up now, him, who had never been good at it. But Anda didn’t give in, she turned her back on him in any conceivable way, and, as if to spite him, she even started cooking in increasingly summary attires, wearing increasingly screaming make-up, spending increasingly more money on shiny accessories. As if she were cooking for someone else, as if she didn’t care about him one bit, while for that supposed rival she would have spared no effort to seem perfect, even if that meant chipping away at the money they had both decided to save, at her suggestion, for rainy days. Had he been a jealous guy, Vintilă would have had plenty of reasons to fuel his weakness at that time. But he just looked at her, confused and disappointed, but trusting that it was just a phase and that his beloved wife would shortly return to her usual self, the one that both he and Marc knew.
And indeed, after about a month from the beginning of the crisis, Anda returned from work on a Tuesday and was radically changed. Smiling, caring, loving… Vintilă had already noticed that his wife had again started to radiate like she did when he had met her, and that made him suffer even more when she, dressed to kill, would go out the door in the morning, taking her new-found life behind her eyes far away from him. Perhaps that’s exactly why, when the woman came home and her eyes blazed seeing him, Vintilă wasted no time (he was, after all, a fairly simple man) and enjoyed what he was given: his wife, only ten years younger. He took her in his arms and he embraced her stoutly, as if he wished them to realize the perfect fusion. He blindly sought her lips and, when he found then, he almost swallowed them in a famished kiss. And the woman gave him a fitting reply. She limbered in his arms, arching her back, she gave in to his touches and received his tongue like a long-awaited guest. As Marc had started making a habit out of going to his grandparents after school, they were alone, so they didn’t have to interrupt the moment, and they let it follow its course. They quickly ended up in the bedroom and that’s where they meticulously made love more intensely than they would make ever again. They lowered the blinds, they lit some aromatic candles hurriedly and switched the television on a musical channel, after which they made the screen as dark as they could. In a box inside the drawer lied forgotten a bunch of erotic toys bought who knows how long ago in an obviously failed attempt to revitalize their sexual life. In the end they reached them, after an adolescent thumping and used them expertly, as if next to them were a producer providing directions. Anda accepted being tied to the bed in her pink fuzzy cuffs and quivered when Vintilă used a feathered wand to caress her entire body. A solar burst was building inside her, a gathering of energies for whose discharge she felt capable of anything. And Vintilă discovered that she was indeed capable of anything. That night, his wife surpassed all expectations, performing incomparably better than any of the girls in the porn he sometimes watched, always with a vague feeling of guilt. When they were done, they were both dismayed, sweaty and started laughing, looking at each other in the bedroom’s semidarkness, like those young people that they had been in the crazy beginning of their relationship.
Nonetheless, things got back to normal, this perhaps necessary episode ending tacitly only after a week. It was becoming more and more obvious that the summer that had tormented them with its sleepiness was about to leave, and they flew into a sort of anticipated nostalgia, sadly thinking of autumn’s bleakness, with its endless rains and, worse, of winter’s howl, of those short days and of the seemingly endless dark. We whined, we complained that rain doesn’t want to fall; still, you feel alive in summer. They both thought like this, they were both heat sensitive, weather-dependent, they would both retreat to their shells when cold set in. Let’s go out for a walk, maybe this is the last chance we’ll have, Vintilă suggested one evening when the autumnal wind already began making its presence felt. Anda goggled. Good idea. So the three of them went out, holding hands, wandering the streets, all the way to the centre park, where Marc would have wanted to have a go on the slide. They didn’t talk among themselves, they only held hands and opened their face pores for a final summer infusion. The city was a sea of light, it had changed aplenty in the last three years, it started resembling civilization and Vintilă chided himself for not taking this sort of walks more often. For the first time in a long while, he felt they were a family again.
On the way home, after Marc had had his whim and was suddenly happier, that type of tired happiness that made him sufficient to himself – he stepped with them, quiet – the road took them in front of a church. Vintilă then thought that there couldn’t be a better ending for that day: entering and spending some moments in that place away from the world, this time having the most important people in his world close to him. I’m not a believer, Anda, he started awkwardly, you know me. On the contrary, I’d say. Still, I have to confess that about two months ago I found out how much good it does me to spend fifteen or twenty minutes in a church, coming from work. It’s quiet in there, you know, you get to hear your thoughts and, after a while, you start controlling them. Look, I’ve even managed to break loose from them, to cleanse myself on the inside before coming home. Remember how stressed I was before? Nothing made me happy. I was neglecting you, I was neglecting Marc… Yeah, Marc, don’t believe I didn’t realize. The boy shied away from the hand his father laid on the top of his head. Anyway, he continued, what I’m trying to say is that I’d go in for a couple of moments and I’d be glad if you joined me. You’ll see, Anda, that you’ll feel better…
It was smaller than the church he used to go in. The ceiling was closer to the ground and the stained glass was scarcer. Rows of chairs replaced the benches. The altar was rather modest, no trace of frescoes on the walls or of statuettes in alcoves lit by electric candles. But it was empty and that made Vintilă as happy as if he had discovered an unexpected treasure. He had never been alone in a church. The peace and calm in there were accomplished; as if they had a sanctuary all of their own. He smiled and headed for the first row of chairs, pulling Anda with one hand and Marc with the other to him. They sat. Vintilă closed his eyes and felt the spring inside him that would get tenser throughout the day, loosen now. He finally felt fulfilled, he thought that he had reached an equilibrium that others could not reach, perhaps, in their entire lifetime, not even if they lived to be a hundred. He was a lucky man.
When he opened his eyes and looked at his wife, he was surprised to see that Anda’s face was wet with tears and that she was whimpering something, a prayer, perhaps.

Paleu, February 15, 2015

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