by Adrian Sângeorzan [USA]
translated from Romanian by Caroline Carver & Iris Butnariu [MTTLC student]
pentru versiunea română click aici
I started liking her when I saw her taking blood samples from sick people. When she pricked them with the needle which seemed like a natural continuation of her long and thin fingers, not only did they not writhe but they looked pleased, as though she was injecting the elixir of life into their veins. She had the same power and delicacy in her hands that only ants have, ants that can easily carry leaves that surpass their weight. Later in our relationship, while we were sitting naked next to each other she started to tell me about how she had been an ant in a previous life and how her soul would go through many other ants until she is done. I had just bought an old house in Queens and the person who examined the house told me there were termites in the area. A special kind of ant that can bite away at your house from the inside until one day the carpentry falls around you leaving you without a roof over your head and with an empty place, in which they, the termites, will continue to bite away at anything that will be built there.
I had called a termite specialist who promised me he would get rid of them for 2000 dollars. I was not at all sure he would, but I paid him anyway. When I told her this she smiled delicately, her eyes got even more almond-shaped and then she simply told me:
– These ideas are not for you, darling. You come from a world where ants are just insects whose number has grown out of proportion. Maybe it is better this way.
Her name was Uma. Whenever I tried to ask her about her religion she would lead me up the garden path and assure me that she would one day tell me more because religion was not important and that was one of the reasons she liked me and slept with me. „ You do not believe in any God.” I felt offended but it was not her fault that I did not know what to believe in or if I should believe in anything. Ever since I had emigrated to America and had pushed my luck as much as I could I felt as though there had to be more to it than the dollars we sold our souls for and hard work.
When we first met we would not talk about the places we had come from as if we had come from nowhere or as if we were both exotic weeds that had been brought by two foreign winds. Nepal and Romania. To her Europe was a long forgotten paradise, with more buildings, churches and cemeteries than trees. A strange paradise which she only read about in books and where there lived the most civilized and numerous white ants in the world. She was one of them. The beings there were spared of reincarnation because there was a Saviour who had taken on the burden of life, death and immortality. You mean Christ? I asked her, knowing that it would not be easy for her to remember His name, just as I could not remember who Shiva, Vishnu and thousands of other hindu gods were. Yes, Jesus and if I had children I would want them to be Christians, I would make them Catholics because they have good schools, they are sober and organized, despite the scandals we see on T.V. I knew that when she said that she did not mean the children she could have with me. She quickly understood that for me contraception was a collateral belief, under the form of some condoms I always had in my pocket. She could never understand the difference between uniats, who are the Curches of Eastern Christendom in communion with Rome, but don’t share all the same rituals, like me and a catholic rascal and how can uniat priests get married if they are in fact catholics. Plus the huge difference between crossing from left to right and not in a different way. I confessed that after thorough research I had no idea why it was like that either and that all this was as important to me as brushing my teeth.
One winter day when I was working with her at the hospital I could not help myself and I asked her to take a sample of my blood. She looked at me surprised, wondering if I was serious. I lied that I had cholesterol problems and she believed me.
– You should not have problems like these at your age, she said while sticking the needle in my vein.
I only felt a pleasant dizziness like when I was a child and believed in angels. I looked at her from above. She had an unusually wide forehead, shiny as a mirror in which I could see myself, and long eyebrows which looked perfectly still despite the fact that they moved with each regular blink. She had mixed racial features like people from Nepal and Tibet have, where China and India climb panting on the slope of the Himalayas from opposite directions. Still, she had no wrinkles on the corners of her eyes or on her forehead. Two small ones on her neck and maybe her hands gave her away a bit. My blood rushed wildly from vial to vial and I thought to myself that I could have stayed like that watching her until I would have fainted in her arms.
I will take blood samples for your liver, kidneys and for the rest if you want tests. How old are you, doctor? You are only 30? You work too much. Had I asked her how old she was she would not have gone out with me the next day for sure. She was definitely older than me, but the women from her race do not show their age. I was thinking that if she reaches 80 or 90 her forehead will remain smooth and shiny.
It was Christmas the next day. I had two days off and I was very much alone. I thought that spending Christmas with a girl from Nepal was more appropiate that sitting alone with just a beer and the emptiness in my stomach that got wider than a flying balloon on Christmas. I had been in New York for four years and if I thought positive, like people do in this anthill, I had nothing to complain about. Just a few more months of slavery and I would finish my residency. I was always told to shut up, to work and bear it because some of America’s honey was set aside for me too.
I took her to a Thai restaurant in the Village for lunch. We celebrated Christmas with a spicy red curry that made me cry. I then took her to the St. Patrick cathedral, to show her that I come from a family with traditions and where she wondered why I did not cross. She entered a strange state of piety that could not be classified and she wanted to sit with me on a bench as if we wanted to introspect after something. That break cost me 5 dollars that I put in the donation basket that suddenly appeared in front of me. From there we passed Rockefeller Center where she probably thought I would put on some ice-skates and jump in a sprightly way onto the ice-rink. In the evening, I took her to a ballet show with the Alvin Ailey band. I bought tickets in the last seats in the back row. I was fascinated by the moves of the people on stage, I had seen them before and I was watching her reactions. She seemed like a statue with a pudding face. It was not cold at all but half way through the show she started shivering and could not control it. She either seemed to have a bad cold or to be haunted by a powerful spirit that wanted to get out of her but did not know how.
She gently took me by the arm and I felt that she was as cold as ice. I put my hand around her because she was shivering and stupidly told her that I had a Motrin with me if she needed it. I am not at all sick, I am just cold. I have not been cold in years…Do you want to go? I asked her. No way, the cold is good for me! Do not forget, I am from Nepal. Her body was gradually getting warmer and at the end of the show she was burning up. Do you have a fever? No way, I am perfectly fine. After the show I realized I did not know what else to do with her. She seemed like a total stranger to me. We walked on the streets for about half an hour and I told her somewhat nervously about the sensational parties I used to have in Romania where Christmas lasted three days and was followed by New Year Eve that lasted another three days. Interesting times, not to be repeated and from which I ran as far as my feet could take me.
– How are the women in your country? She gently asked me.
– Great, believe me!
– Then why did you come here?
– Because they are great. It was difficult to concentrate there.
Suddenly I was not in the mood for anything and I just wanted to disappear. I wished I could fly, or that I could be teleported back into the mountains I had grown up in and where Christmas was still being celebrated, because of the time zone. But that did not last long. Uma grabbed my arm as if I was a lost child and told me that if we took the subway we would reach Jackson Hights in twenty minutes, as she had a studio there.
– What do you drink at Christmas?
– Then it is simple.
She had a big studio, furnished in a simple manner, from Ikea to fusion type furniture that could not belong to a certain style or tendency. You felt as though it was not spiritually connected to any of the objects that were around it as they were lifeless. Maybe just a small framed picture of the garden of a monastery or a Tibetan house. She took my jacket and disappeared into the kitchen to bring a bottle of French red wine which I had trouble opening.We were both quiet. We toasted the three-day Christmas in Romania. She then put a disc on with a sort of music I could not identify. Two or three instruments were very difficult to visualize.
– Take off your sweater, she said, simply. It is hot in here, is it not?
– Yes, it is.
She delicately wiped the sweat from my forehead and then unbuttoned the shirt that I eventually took off by myself, almost scared. Women always scare me at first. She turned the light off and when she got undressed I saw her white, almost phosphorescent skin. Her body glowed in the dark but I would soon get used to this brightness of hers. We made love as though we had done it many times before. Gently, relaxed, like two lovers who knew each other. That night she did everything and only she seemed like she had known my body. I was too captivated by her phosphorescence that seemed to grow with every undulation of her body. I closed my eyes at one moment, which I had never done before when I am in bed with a woman, because I want to see everything. If you are to believe in reincarnation then Uma must have been a firefly in another life, not an ant. A few months later, on a hot summer night when I could not sleep, I read from a book using only the light of her body. I still have that picture that was taken on Christmas in the Intern Department with all the staff members on that shift. A racial melting pot. A small halo of light shun on Uma’s head, like a lost byzantine saint.
At the hospital she acted as if there was nothing between us. At first I was happy with it but after a few weeks her attitude started to irritate me because she ignored me. I would sleep at her place most of the time. We would make love before going to sleep, before waking up, sometimes even in the middle of the night when we both got up to urinate at the same time. Our bodies and their needs synchronized perfectly. She had only one bathroom. She would sit on the toilet and I would always urinate in the sink. I had once told her that doctors in Romania always urinate in the sinks on their shifts. It was like a tradition. She said the idea was brilliant and that I should stick with it. We would both go to bed sleepwalking and she would easily climb on top of me. We would take the car to the hospital in the morning and I made sure to drop her off far away from the hospital, because we did not want to be seen together. I could not escape her smell the entire day and when I passed by her I would sniff her like a faithful dog. I could barely wait for night to come so that I could become her only patient. There was something noble about her despite being just a medical nurse trained at the American school, where compasion and dedication are learnt like anything else. In the hospital she seemed like an Asian princess, one that was lost, that was trying to fill her time with something useful, humanitarian, while her mind wandered off to other spheres. She was an entirely different person in bed. Nothing charitable and humanitarian about my mind and body, that had been dehumanized by three years of difficult residency and that were now being brought back to life. She liked to listen to me and after three months she knew everything about me, while all I knew about her was that supernatural body of hers that glowed stronger and stronger every night.
She asked me about my girlfriends from Romania but she never asked me about my family. She spoke a perfect English because she was brought to America when she was 15 by an aunt that had recently passed away and that was about all I could get out of her. Her past seemed like useless luggage that she had forgotten somewhere along the way. We were both alone and it was ok for both of us. I tried not to miss a single night with her. Once, when it was my shift at the hospital I asked a colleague to cover for me for an hour and I desperately ran to her with a sense of urgency in me. That got me a fat ticket and three points on my driver’s license because I ran a red light without caring what would happen. We lived together for six intense months and I became the Queens traffic lights’ worst nightmare. I understood during that period in my life that time does not pass the same way in all the channels we swim in. Except for a colleague, an older romanian doctor who helped me get into the hospital, nobody noticed that I had a girlfriend there. One day, he took me aside and told me that he had seen me arrive with her in the car in the morning.
– Be careful with these Filipino women! Soon she will tell you that she is pregnant and I do not think you need a scandal right before finishing your residency.
– She’s from Nepal.
– Same thing.
The following day, I asked her if she wanted to have children someday and she simply told me that she did not even want a family. That night she turned her back on me and we did not make love. I stayed up watching her sleep naked in the fetus position. It was Sunday the next day, we both had the day off and I slept until 10 in the morning. I was alone when I woke up. I waited for her for two hours and a strange anxiety within me grew slowly like an avalanche. I saw a few avalanches in the wild mountains from my country, which to me became the symbol of those unexpected dangers that can stalk you from inside beauty and peace. They always start with a strange sound, surreal, that grows and you never know where it comes from. When you do realise what it is about it is best not to be around. Since I have been in America I have never had the feeling of an „impending avalanche” although I was scared the whole time. Here, the things that scare you have sounds and shapes that are easy to identify. I still dream of avalanches at night sometimes. When Uma came back I was just remembering the big piles of moving snow that were about to swallow me a few years back in the Carpathians where I was skiing until late in May. I did not recognise her. She was dressed in a flaring costume and her face had so much make-up on that she looked like a live doll. One that kids would be afraid of. I did not say a word.
– I go to our temple from time to time, she said. This is a Kumari costume. I do not think I have told you that I used to be a Kumari. Do not ask me anything because it is too complicated.
– Some sort of nun?
– No. More than that. In Nepal a Kumari is found just like underground waters are found. Nobody asks you if you want to come to the surface. They look for you and they find you. They take you out of your home as a child, they put you in a temple and they change you when you bleed for the first time. Your family is proud and happy, everyone bows down to you, even the king, as I was a Royal Kumari for 9 years. Then you become worthless. You become some sort of stigmatized saint and no one knows what to do with you.
– And what did you do?
– I bled sooner than I was supposed to.
She went to the bathroom and it took her a while to get that complicated costume off. It looked like the kimono of a Japanese woman. It took her longer to get that thick make-up off, some sort of mask that made her urecognisable. She had a red triangle drawn on her forehead. She had left the bathroom door open and I looked at her fascinated, still unsure of whether that was her or not, Uma, the one who takes blood samples from sick people in the morning. It was as if she was a new butterfly coming out of the silk worm’s shell. The tone of her voice was completely new to me and she suddenly spoke with a heavy accent that was difficult to identify. It was as if she had gone away for a while. I wanted to pet her but she did not let me. When she came out of the shower she looked like the one I knew and she sat close to me. It took me a while to make her relax because all her muscles were tensed and she shivered like someone who had been out in the cold. We eventually made love, with spasms and moans that I do not believe all came out of our bodies. Her body suddenly seemed different. Even her smell had changed. That night her skin glowed like a floor lamp whose light bulb was going out. Before falling asleep she told me that she had taken some days off and that she would have to go home soon because she had some things to take care of. When she said „home” I did not think further away for the notion of home as I knew that for her as well as for me it meant a suspended one in which the air equally flowed over the world. I snuck out in the morning so as not to wake her up. I had a strange taste in my mouth, of burnt wood and freshly extinguished fire and I quietly closed the door, like someone feeling guilty but not knowing why. It was as if I had suddenly woken up in a unknown far away place. Uma disappeared without a trace that night. I have not seen her or heard from her since.
After four years I left for Nepal. Meanwhile I had re-entered my old white ant shell, and I began to look more and more like an american termite, ready to bite away at the foundation of its own home. * I would never have accepted the idea that I had waited four years for her or that I was going there to find her. For starters, I took a flight to India where one of my Indian colleagues who had done his residency with me was waiting for me. After New Delhi and Jaipur I got to Varanasi the sacred town on Gange’s bank. I truly felt like I could disappear without a trace there in the crowd that constantly flowed towards the river. In the evening, on Gange’s bank, candles would be lit that would afterwards float on the water, and in the morning the dead would burn, the dead whose ashes still sizzled as they were being swept into the water. The ones who died there would go directly to heaven and would not be re-incarnated so there were thousands standing in line. I got close to Buddhism while in America, with my small ant-like steps. But being right there, I took a step backwards. From Varanasi airport, which reminded of the old stations from Romania, I jumped into the first aeroplane to Kathmandu, leaving my colleague alone and baffled. I hired a good tour guide at the hotel, ready to take me all the way up to the everlasting snow of the Himalayas. It was a huge disappointment for him when I told him that I had come there only to see the Kumari. Which one? Here in Kathmandu every big temple has one. I showed her the framed photo of the temple, the only thing I had left of Uma. I had gotten it through mail a few days after her disappearance. Aha, the Royal Kumari, you need special approval for that.
I invited him to lunch where I tried to find out as much about the Kumari as possible. It became clear to me that he had never met a tourist like me before, and so he became almost cynical.
– Yes sir, they are temporary saints that are carefully chosen by the old monks. Some sort of infant Dalai Lama if you must. They represent the cleanliness of the soul and the body.
– Has one ever run away? I suddenly interrupted him.
– There was a scandal a few years back and the king was involved as well. The king is not very popular in Nepal; too many scandals and murders, so I hope we will get rid of him at the next elections. The girl disappeared without a trace.
On our way back, he showed me the royal palace. I never saw a more gloomy palace. Surounded by tall walls where from place to place you could see the barrels of the machine guns shinning. The trees from the garden had no leaves on them only a mix of ravens and egrets that made a strange noise. The next day everything looked beautiful in the daylight. The surounding mountains with tops covered in snow, the streets that were more clean than the ones in India and the **Kth temple…when I walked in I felt as though I entered another world. I recognised the mix of wood from the windows and beams that were so well combined with the stone that the difference was unnoticeable. The wood was black and although there had not been any fire it smelled like that last morning in New York with Uma. We walked through a corridor where there was no trace of tourists. Two monks with shaved heads and orange cloaks silently passed by us or directly between us, which seemed to be the same thing. They came from an interior garden that was decorated with stone elephants and you could hear the gabbling voices of men who were praying coming from there. The tour-guide beckoned me to follow him silently. What you are about to see is not for tourists. The interior garden was already familiar to me from the picture I carried with me. A few locals were on their knees praying. There were three Japanese people in the back and two Americans to whom the guide was whispering that they must hide their cameras and to watch in silence. They seemed like the most frustrated people.
She will appear at the window in the middle, my man told me. It was past noon and a light wind coming from the mountains was moving the leaves from the trees and the tongues of the thousands of bells that seem to hang directly from heaven. The smell of burnt wood was getting stronger and stronger. She appeared dressed in the same costume she had before she disappeared. She looked at me with eyes as cold as ice and I involuntarily started shivering.
– Uma, honey, what is the matter with you? Uma, Uma, my darling ant. The tour-guide firmly pulled me by the sleeve telling me to shut up.
– Please sir, you cannot speak.
– It is her, I know her, it is Uma…
– Calm down sir. It is not Uma, they all look the same here.