by Carmen Firan (USA)
Translation from Romanian by Mirona Palas, MTTLC student
Editing by Robert Fenhagen
pentru versiunea română click aici
Arriving in New York, Radu had intended to stay a few months, but now, the months had rolled by, and he was still staying with an old friend on Roosevelt Island.
One of the other tenants in the apartment building, a grumpy, but underneath, a kind man, divorced like Radu, was raising a rabbit in a waterless aquarium, his; apartment, furnished with used, inexpensive pieces that were spread about randomly. The small apartment smelled of sleep and alcohol, mixed with stale tobacco and wet dog. The rabbit was a tidy stew.
Radu’s friend, Dorin, had showed him the living room couch and had said plainly and straightforwardly: “You can stay here as long as you like; although you might need to stay longer than expected; people are being fired now, not hired.”
Radu had won the visa lottery just when Romania had been hit by the economic crisis, and the research department he was working at within the Bucharest Institute of Atomic Physics closed down.
He called Dorin in New York and asked him just as bluntly:
‘Hey, what do you say, you shelter me for a while? How’s the work situation there?’
‘Well, what do you think? It’s bad. But come whenever you like, but just remember, every man for himself.’
He had arrived in the middle of the recession, yet he was in New York–the big apple, where you could easily lose track of the evil worm. Yet you could not find jobs.
During the first three days, Radu slept almost incessantly. He only woke up to urinate, drink a beer or eat a banana and then he would glide back under the old blanket with the mould smell, feeling like in a train station where trains have forgotten to stop. Every time he woke up he would ask himself where he was, what he was doing there, between roads, between lives, and he would shut his eyes once again more out of need of security than of sleep, yet it had nothing to do with the resting, or refuge sleep; the protective sleep of childhood.
It was a new, troubled, numb transitory, thick sleep in strange places, with strange shapes and outlines; their meaning not understand at all.
After three weeks he became sleepless, staring at the stained ceiling or the crack in the wall in front of the couch, listening to the bunny snore in the bathroom and Dorin sneaking out of the tiny apartment to go visit his girlfriend next door, the police sirens outside, and the roaring of the ships making their way on East River, their air horns echoing as they moved.
One morning, before leaving for his job, where he was working as a building engineer at La Guardia airport, Dorin gave him a fistful of sleeping pills from the bottle that was never moved from his night table.
‘They say you should not drink alcohol after you swallow it, but I’m a veteran, and it works better with a bottle or two of beer, it increases the effect. But don’t swallow more than one.’
Dorin had been married in Romania to an engineer woman for more than 15 years. She had been the first to leave for America shortly before the revolution, with the help of an uncle who was a boss at the department for passports, who also found her, through various relations, a good job at a multinational company of geological prospects projects. She immediately began the formalities of family integration that lasted for two years, and by the time Dorin arrived in New York, he found another woman. He felt like an intruder in the artificial universe that Dora had carefully crafted.
She was now blonde, had lost weight, had had her hair cut, had quit smoking, had become vegetarian and ate organic products whose label she would first analyze carefully. She became muscular and, skinny, would go to the gym daily, work out, drink plenty of water, practice yoga and Pilates; fell in love with Chopra, even though their apartment house was full of his books. He became exhausted just watching her.
Once a month she would visit a spirituality center upstate, where she trained her will, programmed her success, happiness, immortality, she would listen to relaxation and meditative music, she believed in the subliminal orders given to the subconscious in order to succeed in anything and in any way. She had lost her slim, womanly physique and was obsessed with her career and money, and went to a therapist weekly. Her life was full and there was no place left for Dorin anymore.
It had taken Dorin almost a year to find a job at La Guardia airport, and all this time, he never blushed at the fact that he was living off her, because she was so ambitious, stingy, and bad-tempered with her feigned superiority.
They became two strangers, sleeping on separate sides of the bed underneath the same, non-allergenic blanket (recommended to her by her spiritual guru).
They would seldom make love, because of body hygiene, as Dora explained hastily–becoming both frigid and more calculated; she hated Romania and everything linked with it, and did not want to go back– not even for a few days to visit her mother.
She had become over night an eager royalist, although the king had appeared on stage after she had left home, helped by her uncle who was working with the police and Securitate. She refused to speak Romanian, even when she was only with Dorin; she would claim that her refusal to be seduced by America as a triumph against nature, as retaliation for all the alienation camouflaged in the noisy mottos of feigned happiness.
The abyss between them grew deeper every day and Dorin had fallen into a deep depression, but had no medical insurance– even if he had, he would not have consulted a psychiatrist, or therapist; lying down on their comfortable couch in order to pour out his intimate problems and humiliation was simply not part of the culture he had grown up in. A friend whom he could have talked to would have been enough.
Dora looked at him disdainfully, explained to him that in this country friends were to have fun with, and not torment them with one’s problems and that there were people paid to listen to one’s complaints and treat one’s anxiety. She labeled him as a person with hang-ups, a provincial still held captive in the Eastern country’s macho mentality– someone who could not accept the loss, and losers become repulsive, dismissed—unneeded. She gave him a fistful of her anti depression pills, and filed for divorce.
Radu had not been a loser. His wife had divorced him because she could not stand his success any longer, or his passion for work.
During the eight years that he had been working at the plasma fusion research project, he would be at the institute ten to twelve hours a day, plus work at home until late, and eventually after having been granted an published author’s plaque, and having been promoted, he was invited to many conferences in Europe, would publish works and became a famous person.
Constantly feeling neglected back home, ignored within the scientific circles, where she would be seen only as the ‘scientist’s wife’, she decided she deserved a life of her own. A phrase many women use without exactly knowing what it means.
The bunny was a benign cohabitant and Radu had grown fond of him. He would sit on the edge of the bath tub and watch him potter through the aquarium, napping or spinning around in a circle, as if waiting all day long for something that would never happen. How come he never went mad because of the loneliness? Sometimes he felt he did not hear him anymore, so he would rush into the bathroom really scared. Seen through the thick glass walls of the aquarium, he seemed to be part of a mysterious experiment to induce who knows what human behaviour or studying some unsolved disease. As if captivity or loneliness would not be enough.
His fears increased. When Dorin came late from work in the evening, Radu would worry that something might have happened to him.
At other times, he would rush to the library drawer where he had stored his physicist diplomas, the PhD certificate, and the author’s plaque; he would stare at them, touch them as if he was checking who he was, and then carefully put them back into the drawer.
Nothing was happening for now. The windows of the apartment opened right above the river to Queensborough Bridge and Manhattan. He was staring from far away at the imposing shape of the city that was slowly swallowing him.
Sometimes he would take the Aerial Tram, from the island, swing above the river along with the people that were going to or coming from work, pretend to be busy, with a specific purpose, but as soon as he arrived on Lexington Avenue, he would return by the same tram. He did not know anyone, had no place to go to and did not feel like playing the tourist. A man suspended in a glass cage, with numb senses, moving about aimlessly without knowing what to expect and where the salvation could come from. If only he could gain more time, to hibernate like the squirrels, slow down his metabolism and his heart, and wake up after a few months with another sense of orientation and meaning, in a warm and hospitable world like this one he had read about and where he had come to try his fortune once again.
On Roosevelt Island, a part of the rent was compensated by the city hall, and many Eastern-European emigrants, artists with modest incomes, were living there, even Nina Cassian he had learned of in school. One night he was sitting on a bench on the river bank staring at the void above the sky-scrapers’ peaks on the other river bank and was drinking from a beer bottle wrapped in paper bag, just like Dorin had told him it was accustomed to around there, when a man sat down next to him and addressed him in Romanian:
‘Hi there! Are you Radu? Dorin told me about you. I am Ovidiu and I live two floors below. Listen, my wife works at Macy’s and found out that next week the shop is hiring night watchmen. Would you be interested? She could ask her boss to arrange an interview for you. It’s not what you expected, but it could be a start, what do you say?’
Anything was good. The morning he left for the interview Dorin advised him not to say he was specialized in nuclear physics. Seriousness, sleeplessness and some classes would be enough for him to get the job as night watch.
This time, the city revealed itself differently from below the aerial tramway that was taking him to Manhattan.
It had consistency, hummed invigoratingly and, the first time, Radu felt as if it possessed magic.
A magma of sound and energy; rivers of scuffling feet on the straight streets vertically intersected by avenues crammed with yellow cabs, explosions of other colors and sights, shop windows filled with wondrous items to buy, haughty buildings, not one exactly the same as the other, with heights that did not seem frightening anymore. Amazing!
He arrived in front of Macy’s a half an hour early. The shop stretched between two avenues and he needed some time to find the entrance to the administration offices. He was welcomed by a smiling secretary who asked him how he was doing, offered him a hot coffee, and led him to pleasantly decorated waiting room where he would soon hear his name called.
The interview was taking place in a near-by room that was separated from the rest of the office space by a massive door.
Two Mexicans, a tall man and a melancholy-looking giant with a Russian cast to his face were waiting, with more to come.
At nine o’clock sharp, the first Mexican was called in.
The applicant’s were called in the order they had arrived, so Radu assumed that he would go in soon, so was preparing a short speech in his mind–something simple as Dorin had recommended. He spoke English well.
By eleven o’clock, he still had not gone in. He couldn’t understand what was taking so long. Did they also get a written test? It was ridiculous, for a job as a night watchman?
Two of those who had entered before him got out with exhausted looks on their faces. And one of them looked really frightened. Anyway, he hears his name misspelled and the secretary opened him the door for him without smiling; she seemed to have changed from the helpful greeter to an all business person.
Behind a long table there were two men in suits, and a blonde middle-aged woman who seemed to be the boss’s wife. All three were drinking water straight from small plastic bottles. He was offered one too. While the woman was asking him a few general questions and not paying attention to the answers, one of the men handed him two printed forms “Please fill these out right away; take your time; we have all the time in the world. “ He smiled at Radu as honestly as the woman had been paying attention to his answers.
Radu filled them out as fast as he could.
He felt the three staring at them and all of a sudden this interview became more important than all the exams he had taken during his long education process and his career. The first form did not contain anything special, only name, citizenship, address, education… and the second one was a kind of fidelity commitment.
The woman explained him what the job as night watch was really about, what he had to do and what was expected of him. As simple as that, confirmed Radu. While one of the men shifted him another confidentiality form to sign and another one with the responsibilities of the job and labor protection, the other one was staring incessantly at his white and delicate hands. Then he asked him to stand up and follow him. That moment the woman and the other man left the room wishing him good luck.
In one of the corners of the room there was an office Radu had not noticed before, which had a computer and a complicated device on. The man introduced himself, his name was Richard, and asked him if he know what that device was. Radu smiled, confused for a moment, but replied without hesitation:
‘It’s a polygraph.’
Richard looked him straight in the eyes and asked him:
‘And what is it used for?’
‘It’s a lie detector.’
‘How do you know?’
Radu shrug his shoulders, and said, ‘I just know.’
‘Do you know what it measures?’
‘Of course. It records physiological reactions to underlying emotional stresses.’
‘Such as?’ Richard continued his interrogation.
‘Such as breath, blood pressure, pulse…’
‘When and where did you last see a polygraph?
‘I don’t remember. Probably in a movie.’
Richard looked at him, opened his computer, and had him sign a form by which he was giving his consent for the lie detector test.
Radu fantasized that maybe they wanted to hire him at NASA, but he had no idea that Richard was a top psychologist, but he quickly figured out what Richard had in mind.
‘You may be wondering why a night watchman has to undergo such a test. It is an expensive store where there are temptations; we know nothing about you, you have only recently come to this country and we haven’t received any references—banking, or otherwise.’
What could Radu say? These Americans were serious business. They were doing everything right; everything to protect their company and their client.
‘As you are already familiar with this instrument, you should not be surprised that I will connect two straps around your chest, a blood pressure device to your arm, and around your fingers two… what are they called? Asked Richard.
Radu pretended not to find his words, but then couldn’t resist saying:
‘Precisely. It will go fast. You know the procedure. You will answer only yes, or no, and I see that you speak English well; the questions will be as clear and as brief as possible, but if you don’t understand anything, interrupt me. Shall we begin?’
Indeed, everything went easily. Banal questions, like the ones on the forms, again name, address, education, then other targeted ones: previous convictions, prejudices against former jobs or stealing, alcohol and drug consumption, even sexual harassment towards former male or female colleagues… Radu answered self-possessed and only one time he felt a heat wave and his heart beating faster, more of embarrassment that he had to go through all this.
Richard was impenetrable during the test, he had no expression whatsoever, and he stared at the computer screen incessantly. At the end he thanked him and invited him to return to the waiting room where he would be informed if he received the job or not. Some of the ones who had also showed up for the interview in the morning were waiting there.
After a few minutes, the blonde woman showed up. She was brief. She was reading everyone’s name followed by the verdict hired or rejected. Now Radu’s heart was pounding. His mother’s words came back to him along with the folk wisdom that made him nervous: ‘You can’t escape what you’re afraid of!’
He heard rejected, stood up like a lead robot and, when about to exit, the woman, most likely the boss’s wife, the blonde woman, called him by his first name with typical American ease:
‘Radu, will you come here a minute?’
She took him into the office, invited him to sit down, handed him a small plastic water bottle, told him her name was Nancy and that she was the head of Human Resources, and then looked him straight in the eyes with a conspiratorial smile:
‘Tell me the truth, Radu.’
Radu confusedly looked back at her as Nancy went on:
‘The polygraph recorded incorrect answers several times. I believe you are the type of guy who can hide his emotions. But still, why did you not do it then?’
‘I have no idea what you are talking about.’
‘Listen, I don’t think you’re either a criminal, or have anything to do with drugs, but you did lie about something. How about I give you a second chance.’
Radu confessed to her ashamed that he was a graduate of the University of Physics in the old country, but had been advised by his friend to claim he had only graduated from high school, at the most, in order not to arouse suspicions regarding his application for the job as a night watchman.
‘Other than that, I am serious and trustworthy, I can stay awake during the night without difficulty, even since I was in university, I suffer from insomnia… any polygraph could confirm that.’
Nancy kept smiling.
‘I believe you do realize that the psychologist that tested you understood immediately that he has an informed, educated person before him, well, unfortunately not able enough to conceal his education’ She smiled warmly.
‘ tell me more about yourself. Where have you worked before, what did you do for a living…? ’
Radu braced up. Had he been set up? Even so, it made him feel good to eventually reveal his true identity, it made him regain his self-confidence, and anyway what difference did it make now that he had nothing more to lose. He told her about the PhD and his author’s certificate in the field of plasma fusion, about his published works and the research conducted at the department of nuclear physics in Bucharest. Nancy listened to him carefully, even with a slight trace of admiration, or so he thought, and asked him once again why he wanted the night watch job.
‘I hope not just because you are having insomnia…’ Nancy told him that which contradicted his prejudice that a HR person cannot have humor.
‘I haven’t managed to find any job these months. I am an emigrant’, Radu excused himself unconvincing.
‘We have all been emigrants once’, Nancy replied.
What should he understand from that? Was it a reproach to the fact that he had given up too early?
‘But indeed it’s a bad timing’, Nancy admitted.
Was there any hope left? Or he had lost the match and the woman was just being polite toward a deceitful inventor. Precisely when he had chosen the first version – the hope – Nancy stood up and told him in a soft voice:
‘Unfortunately I cannot hire you. You are over-qualified.’
She wished him good luck and a fine day ahead and closed the door behind him.
When he entered the apartment, the rabbit was spinning in the aquarium agitated. He had got used to Radu’s being around and he was also hungry. He brought him cabbage leafs from the fridge and sat down on the edge of the bath tub. He had red eyes; his heart was beating fast as if he was in the range of an invisible riffle. The rabbit was staring at him frightened. He stretched his hand out to caress him and under the soft fur he felt his body trembling and his heart seemed to be beating simultaneously with his. The rabbit itself was an emotions detector.
He returned to the living room, sneaked under his blanket that smelled like mould and remained numb until Dorin arrived home with bread and two wine bottles.
‘Time to celebrate?’ He asked him more cheerfully than usual.
‘They did not hire me.’
‘How so? Why?’
‘You were right. I am over-qualified. To these people education only mixes things up. Or maybe I seemed too fragile for them, I don’t know…’
He rolled over on the other side and pulled the blanket over his head. Dorin ate some sandwiched in the kitchen and drank several glasses of wine. A storm with thunder and lightning broke loose outside. The room glew as if it were on fire and after a few seconds the windows rumbled. It rained until the next day and the rabbit whimpered like a baby all night long.
That night, Dorin dreamt of his ex-wife. She was standing on a train platform and was waving a red handkerchief toward the window of a train that was about to leave the station, but it was impossible for it to depart, because it was half buried in the ground. Dora was waving the blood-colored handkerchief agitatedly towards the sealed window, behind which, he could see Radu’s face.
When he woke up in the morning, Dorin went to Radu’s couch and took the blanket off him. His friend’s fragile body seemed lifeless.
He tried to find his pulse, but his hands were shaking because of panic. He hadn’t done anything reckless, had he? Or maybe he had a heart attack? He shook him with all his might and made a cross with his tongue on his palate to cast away evil, like his grandma had taught him when he was a little boy:
‘What is the matter with you? Wake up!’
Radu opened his eyes with difficulty and moaned as if he came back to consciousness. He had taken two sleeping pills the previous night to escape reality. He blinked at Dorin and asked him to let him sleep. What else could he do? He was not expecting anything anymore.
‘Forget about it! It was not meant for you anyway. Every cloud has a silver lining, just like grandma used to say.’
Dorin left for work, the rain stopped, and the bunny calmed down.
Around eleven o’clock the phone rang. It was Nancy. She was letting Radu know she had fixed him up with an interview the following day with the director of the Nuclear Power Station in Long Island where her cousin was vice-president!
Two years later, Radu had become the director of a research department, having had had three research books published, and him allowing himself to feel good about all of his previous accomplishments.
His life had become full, and busy. He had come to embrace the Big Apple—worms and all. Radu felt alive in a sometimes diseased and deadly place—he had come to love New York.
Still, he sometimes came to Roosevelt Island to visit Dorin and the grumpy, but nice man, where he would sit on the edge of the bath tub, staying but a few minutes in the bathroom, watching the rabbit spinning in circles of joy on its large exercise wheel, as it misted over the glass of the non-aquatic aquarium.