45 seconds

by Ion Buzu
translation from Romanian by Raisa Lambru
click aici pentru versiunea română


It was almost midnight when Max woke up the moment his brother entered the room. They were showing a movie on the TV, Max thought it was directed by Tarkovski and he had decided to watch it but he fell asleep.

Having been woken up, Max took out his graffiti spray from where it was hidden, walked out of the yard and left to see what he’d be able to do that night. He was heading for the neighbouring village and decided to write the phrase “normal people scare me” on a pole, with the help of a stencil. He shook the bottle of green spray a bit too loudly and looked left and right nervously, checking to make sure no one was around.  When he saw headlights, he’d hide the bottle inside his jacket and walk around carelessly, then when they were away, he’d pull it out and shake it again. Inside the bottle there was a pea that made a lot of noise when hitting the walls of the bottle, and during that night it sounded three times worse. Moreover, there were also the dogs, always alert, barking as soon as they heard something suspicious. Such as the noise of a spray bottle being shaken and about to write the phrase “normal people scare me”.

This thing with this phrase, the graffiti and having to write it during the night had started in January, when Max decided, that’s it, no more with the system and the overall mediocrity it installs. It’s time for others to get a taste of the forbidden illumination, so that others can go beyond it, beyond everyday life’s sufferings, beyond their own limits, beyond the imposed and deposited mental barriers, beyond…

Max called this “poetical terrorism”, something he had read about from Hakim Bey. He knew about the cop inside your head, the one everyone had. But sometimes, Max managed to escape from the grip of this cop and during those times, he felt strong and free. As if he could do absolutely anything. As if the world was nothing more than a playground. As if, at the night, Max’s village became his own workshop, where he created his subversive art. This is what led to the idea of letting others know about this freedom, but he got the chance only if he acted like a law breaker, hiding in the shadows; a hand that would write something on a wall and then would hide again. Hakim Bey wrote that poetical terrorism had to be a brutal, forbidden and even illegal art; the person trying it out wasn’t supposed to realize, at least not at once, that what he was seeing was art.

A week before he was ready to use the stencil made for him by his friend, Ion, who was already doing poetical terrorism, Max had written a few phrases with the same graffiti after a rainy day, scattering them all around the village. “You’re the slave of a world that doesn’t appreciate anything”, “You’re a mask!”, “What are your true wishes?”, “The chains of law have been broken!”, “This village is ours”, “CHAOS”… and he felt that someone would be a different person after seeing those phrases.

Even before this, Max had started believing that the others had understood that he was a stranger, that they were already following him and that they were trying to expose him, to strip him in front of humanity. He felt the fear when, while gluing a paper with ‘normal people scare me’ written on it, a man had seen him. He looked at the phrase, grimacing, and asked him what everything meant, why he had glued it there and what was the meaning of the phrase on it. He also asked him what sect he belonged to. Max told him that it was a field work for his psychology class, he was observing the way people reacted when seeing something unusual. The man asked what his name was, where he was living, who his parents were. Max replied that his name was Andrei Guzun and that he was from Logăneşti. He had remembered what Hakim Bey used to say about the identity of the one practicing poetical terrorism: it had to be a fake identity. Poetical terrorism existed only during those moments when it revealed itself from the shadows in order to deliver the phrase, only during those 45 seconds, as that was how long it took, and other than that, it didn’t exist. The man shrugged and left. Max’s hands were shaking, he had gotten away with this one, he wasn’t even studying psychology, but it was a successful diversion.  That was when he realized he would soon be caught. The people at school were already suspecting something. And Max felt as if he was already being judged and sentenced to a kind of mental death, because he was a stranger, though the trial had taken place without him being present. He felt as if he was part of Kafka’s novel, and his execution was only a matter of time. It was a sentence which he was reminded of at any time. He understood that he had become the other one, he had become the threat that was hovering over their heads and he would be caught, but still he wouldn’t give up on doing his job…


A few nights before, Max had watched Fight Club. While he was roaming around at night holding a cup of coffee and checking new places where he could paste phrases, he wondered what it’d be like if others also did poetical terrorism. What if he told his friends about this, what it was like to do something in order to shock others. He would tell them about the powerful and strong feeling of freedom which one experienced whenever doing this. He imagined how they’d get together at night, seven boys, all holding papers, glue and graffiti, and how they’d write phrases in the middle of the streets with stones. Or they’d glue color printed papers with paintings done by Salvador Dali, Picasso, James Koehline or Duchamp. Max would gather the guys whom he’d introduce to poetical terrorism the same way Tyler Durden’s rookies gathered together to do their homework, in the movie. They’d drink coffee together, stroll through the forest, exploring new territories for their workshop. Then they’d all go back home, they’d lie down in bed before their parents woke up. In the morning, they’d act as if they had slept that night and would shrug when they saw a new phrase written somewhere in the village. Just like in a movie Max had seen on TV, about a young man who was thrown inside a shabby prison in Texas. There were only two or three cells there. And the guard would fall asleep at night. They even had some bars missing from a window. And so, while the guard was sleeping, he’d sneak out through the bars and go outside, visiting the town. He’d stroll around. He’d go to a bar to drink a beer, watch a football match. As morning approached, he’d go back to his cell. He’d do this almost every night. He wouldn’t run away for good. He was locked up for a month, serving his sentence. Actually though, he only acted as if he had been locked up during this time. Anyway, what Max wanted was for those doing poetical terrorism to understand and feel that the rules, limits and conventions of this world weren’t as real as they thought, that they could sneak outside between them, at night, in order to do anything they wanted, as long as the guard thought that you were sleeping, as any normal person would be doing at that time. What’s more, Max dreamed of forming a group, a community similar to Project Mayhem from Fight Club, where each member would learn to sneak between the bars while the guard was sleeping. To learn that the true guard was in each person’s mind.

A week before this, Max had written “Chaos has never died!” with a piece of chalk, on the door of a grocery shop. Before this, he had watched the movie Basquiat, where the character used spray to write phrases such as “Like an ignorant wearing his best clothes”, “Plush is for certain – he thought”, he’d paint stuff on trees and poles and he’d sleep in the park, in a cardboard box; Max thought it’d be cool if he could also write those phrases, not just glue them.

Before this, Max left poems written by Adi Urmnov in people’s doors or mail boxes, hoping they’d give them the warmth they needed. He imagined that, when a guy found the poem in an envelope, he’d be so shocked that someone thought of putting a poem in his mailbox, a warm and calm one, that he’d believe the text was for and about his own self.

Max thought that the sole living art was the one he was doing, his attempts to gift someone with an idea or a feeling through a direct gesture, without the need of publishing houses or galleries or concert halls. His art would have to cross with everyday life. His working space was nothing more than walls, fences, the doors and the sides of buses or toilet cubicles, school books, chairs and desks from classrooms, things that people got to see almost every day. But the gesture done by a poetical terrorist had to lead to the effects one would get from a robbery, had to lead to a feeling of insecurity found in the mind of the person experiencing this, the insecurity that particular ideas or rules which he had known forever had started to be untrue. The insecurity caused by phrases and other phenomena, by the fact that the world didn’t work the way it was supposed to, as one was thought to believe that it should. You could get this reaction only when art wore the mask of crime.

Before this, Max used to talk with a few acquaintances, and they’d tell him about how a few sectarians had invaded their village. But they seemed to be new ones, not Jehovah’s Witnesses or Baptists. They hadn’t seen this before. But anyway, it was time to look out for them at night and catch them, sooner or later, as this havoc couldn’t go on. They were sick of seeing all those crazy things written on poles and walls, especially since they didn’t know who was behind these phrases, if only he’d at least sign them with his initials.

Max would tell them to try and interpret the meaning of those phrases.

“No, no, what phrases, just think about it, what man in his right mind would write normal people scare me! They must be sectarians from the neighbouring villages, who come here at night and run wild with their religion. We should look out for them once, we’ll hunt them down with eggs right when they’re about to write their verses, shove those sticky papers down their throats and break their heads. There’s no other way. I was on my way to the bus station one morning and yikes, I see a paper stuck to a tree, with I’d really like to help you, man! written on it, then a bit ahead I see another paper with not a single chance of escaping! Let’s catch them once and for all, to show them the meaning of not having a single chance of escaping.”

“Okay, but let me know when you want to go and look out for them. I also wanna see these sectarians, maybe I know them.” Max would tell him, smiling. He thought that if he found out about the nights when he’d be stalked, he’d know that he shouldn’t go out during those nights.

He was seriously causing problems. More and more often, he kept hearing stories about sectarians and he had started to believe that he held the power of a whole sect when it came to the village, just by leaving poems and phrases in corners, under stones, carefully, without anyone seeing him, checking left and right and then hiding in the shadow.

A day before this, he kept following a girl in his class while continuously saying that something was going to happen to her. She would receive a truly unexpected gift. Max would tell her that he knew what it was, but he wasn’t allowed to say anything, she’d have to wait. In Hakim Bey’s text, he had read that you can get someone to feel enthusiasm by convincing that person that he’ll inherit a fortune which she didn’t know she’d get, and this way, that person, motivated by the enthusiasm related to the inheritance, would try to find more intense ways to live his life. That was why Max kept telling her four days in a row that soon she would receive the inheritance he had been talking about. But then that girl thought he was messing around.

Before this, Max, together with Ion, had glued tons of stickers, tiny papers with poems and phrases, inside buses, vans, or any other means of transport they were in. They spread their weird plague through all the villages. Once, when they got off a bus driving from Chişinău to Orhei, Ion quickly stuck a sticker on the leg of a passenger, and right after that the door closed and the bus drove off, without the passenger realizing what had happened.

Before this, Max had typed tons of papers and stickers with various phrases, had bought five bottles of glue, two big glue sticks, and every week he used to go out, around 11.30pm, to practice poetical terrorism. He suggested a new game to people, an alternative to the sobriety of the everyday life they were committed to. At night, Max would feel that he had that power, the power to run, to escape for a few moments, the power to also help others escape. At night, he felt no fear, he was a different person, he was able to do the wild thing that others had taught him to fear doing.

Before this, Max wished to free them, he was angry when his first phrases were ripped off, and then he had made a promise to himself, saying he’d continue to glue phrases as long as they’d all keep being blind. He hoped that maybe someone would stop and stare for a while at a paper glued to a pole, like an animal that was hit in the head, someone whose nervous impulses got activated one after another, diluting his pupils, having the muscles of his eyelids contract when widely opening the eyes, feeling shocked by what he could be, then he’d sit down for a bit, as if paralyzed, understanding that he wasn’t still completely suffocated. He’d imagine people sitting with their ears glued to the wall, searching for a crack, searching for someone other than their own selves, Max wished to show people that there was someone beyond that wall.

He thought that the methods he used were very cool. He had two places where he’d glue papers and phrases. He’d find a darker corner where he’d put glue on the papers, he’d check to make sure no one was around and he’d go out with the paper, having 45 seconds during which he had to glue them somewhere, unless he wished to be caught. He had precisely 45 seconds, that was how much his escape time lasted, how long the cop inside his head lost control while going to the toilet or scratching his ass or whatever the cops inside our heads did. Then he’d run, he’d go to a neutral place, somewhere dark. He was especially annoyed by the cars which would often drive by. He had to interrupt the process every time a car passed and instead of a poetical terrorist, he suddenly became an apathetical passer-by, out at 11.20 PM, who at that moment felt as if he belonged only to the streets.

Then it was electioneering time for the local jobs. Max’s brother was among the candidates to the city council. Instead of posters about the cop in one’s head who needed to be shot, there were posters which urged people to vote for so-and-so. Max wanted to write: “don’t vote for anyone because they’re all bricks in a wall” or “ballot papers are bricks with which you build your own prison!”. But he didn’t stick these phrases, because his brother was one of those bricks, as well, even if only in order to get a seat in the city council.

A week later, there was a phrase written with blue dye, one which didn’t look like graffiti at all: “the woman who sold the house will sell the council”. It was about a candidate for the mayor job. Even if the phrase about the city hall had mistakes, everyone blamed the “new sectarians”. It was the perfect diversion for the true perpetrators.

One night, while he was gluing a stencil with the phrase “normal people scare me”, he needed more than 45 seconds. A few people were already suspecting Max as the one who was responsible for all the chaos in the village. While he was walking with the graffiti spray inside his jacket, a car stopped close to him and an acquaintance got out of it. He asked him what he was doing out so late and discovered his spray. Max’s heart started beating twice faster. Then, the angry man told him: “I thought I asked you if you were that guy and you said you weren’t”. Another car stopped, driven by a fat guy together with others guys who were each holding a 2 litre beer bottle. The fat man cursed at him, his face was red, both in fury and in happiness, repeatedly punching the fence a few centimetres away from Max’s head.

He called all his friends to let them know he had caught that guy who kept writing “you’ve got a cop inside your head – kill him!”. “Come over, you won’t believe who it is, a rotten kid, come on, faster, we’re gonna teach him a lesson. Yeah, sure, we’ll keep him here for you guys, too”. And more cars were driving over, no, none were driving by, they all stopped to see that guy and they all shouted at Max, cursing at him. “Look at you, a snotty kid who thinks he’s so great.” “So tell us, what does ‘normal people scare me’ mean?” Max tried to explain that the message was for others to go beyond the limits of normality and to experiment with things which were forbidden to them because of this limit. To go beyond everyday life repression. “What’s this about everyday life repression, what’s wrong with you, what sect do you belong to?” “The sect of liberty” Max answered, clenching his right fist tensely.

Cars kept stopping. There were about ten.

“Listen here, smartass, do you understand that you put your crazy stuff throughout the whole village? It’s as if you kept masturbating everywhere in the village with what you did here.”

“No, I’ve never written anything on someone’s door or gate, I never got people’s private properties dirty” Max fought back.

“Shut your mouth! Shut it!” yelled the fat guy and hit the fence again, 5 centimetres away from Max’s head.

“Does your brother know about this? If I were in his place, I’d tie you up against a pole and I wouldn’t stop hitting you until you couldn’t even lift your hands.”

The fat guy shouted “That’s it, I’m going to his house and writing 30 phrases like these on his door”. Then he splashed Max with beer while saying “We’d punch your teeth out right now but we’ve had some beer and we don’t wanna waste it”. “Look at him, at his clothes, he’s barely got anything to eat and yet he’s doing this sectarian hooliganism. What kinda man does this?” The thing is, Max liked to wear woollen slippers outside, and his jacket was dirty because of the green spray. The cars kept coming, they wouldn’t stop, the yells and curses went on, becoming more and more violent until Max felt dizzy and fell to the ground. He thought they’d leave him alone if he fainted. But they pulled him up and laughed at him, “Look, his brother got him drunk and sent him to write stuff on poles”. He felt as if he was part of the firing squad, just that the firing had already started two hours ago, this wasn’t an easy death. The shots fired at his brain wouldn’t stop. Suddenly, surprised, he found himself thinking that they had all turned into cops, that they liked to question and mentally mutilate the one they had caught, the one who questioned public order. And then the real cop arrived, one responsible with the traffic control, who was patrolling nearby. How the hell had he found out about this so fast! But considering how many people had gathered around Max, you’d wonder who hadn’t found out already. They all wanted to find out who that guy was. The cop asked a few questions, took his picture, then took a picture of the spray bottle, gathered the evidence, started writing inside a notebook and threatened he’d end up with a criminal record. He asked him what grade he was and he said that the next day, everyone in his 10th grade class would find out who Max really was, that he was someone to be ashamed of.

Then the cop got inside his car and left.

“What do we do now?” the fat one shouted, with the beer bottle in his hand.

“I called every contact in my phone. What do we do with him?”

“Let’s let him go home, it’s already 3 AM.”

“No, no, we’re taking him home ourselves. Yes, here’s what we’ll do. We’re gonna glue 40 phrases and papers with “normal people scare me” on the gate and fence of his house, I’ll tie him against his gate and cover his body with “normal people scare me”. Yeah, that should work. Tomorrow his parents are going to see there’s someone tied against their gate, they’ll discover what an obedient kid they’ve got. So will his brother, mister counsellor will see his brother’s true face.”

He grabbed Max’s arm and pushed him inside the car.

Then Max suddenly woke up in his armchair, while on the TV, the movie was ending with the credit roles, showing who had played each character. It wasn’t a Tarkovski movie.

45 seconds

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