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Elegy for a Fabulous World

by Alta Ifland


In my dreams their house always appears as if separated from the rest of the universe, with no surroundings, and I, equally remote from any connection to the present or future, standing on the front steps before the closed door. It is in that moment of waiting for the opening of the door that the house takes shape, a promised gift in a Christmas package wrapped in colorful glittering ribbons—the kind of gift I never received as a child. Then a hand unwraps the ribbon and Aunt Rajssa stands in the crack of the opened door, and as I enter the house, time stands still, and at the end of the long, dark hall, Uncle Otto greets me from his rocking chair where he reads always the same paper with the same content: the Ukrainian Communist Party daily, in which yesterday’s news is also tomorrow’s, the same news of an eternal gray unreality. I should add in Uncle Otto’s defense that he actually looked through the paper, his eyes fixed on some fabulous landscape he would later attempt to capture in one of his paintings.

Although from a technical point of view Uncle Otto was a rather average painter, every one of his paintings had a sinister quality to it, an ominous tinge in the hues of the clouds or an unheard moan that seemed to escape from his obsessive pine forests. He played chess by himself for hours, so engrossed in this activity that my cousins, his son included, took great pleasure in inventing all sorts of little tortures and humiliations just to see if he would notice. He didn’t. His son, Sergey, or Serioja as everyone called him, was the total opposite of the father: he possessed the dubious charm so characteristic of many rogues, could talk for hours without saying anything, and had no scruples in extracting from his parents’ hard amassed savings whatever he needed for his escapades.

That summer he must have been in his early twenties, and although he still lived with his parents, he appeared at the dinner table only now and then, and each time as if he was just dropping by in between two important deals, always with a busy air about him, always holding a cigarette in his hand or a beer or a pen which he used to make a quick sketch whose reference to the real world remained a mystery. If this were happening today, he would surely be holding in that hand a cell phone, which would no doubt ring at the very instant when dinner was about to be served.

In fact, Serioja didn’t have a job. Nor was he a student. His main occupation was folk dancing at the House of Culture—an institution that existed in every single town throughout the Communist world. For this he wasn’t paid, of course, but had the opportunity—an opportunity the rest of us could only dream of—of taking free trips to Western Europe on various dancing tours, from where he would send us glossy postcards and bring back samples of puzzling Capitalist decadence: striped toothpaste that tasted better than most foods in our local store, soaps and shampoos that were more fragrant than any perfume we had smelled before, and pots of unbelievably smooth chocolate cream.

Once he brought a bottle of Coca-Cola, something we only knew from the movies, which we all examined for hours with the same reverence we had for the Statue of Liberty, then decided that since there was only one bottle and there were so many of us, we wouldn’t open it, and consequently put it in storage. When several months later we looked for it, it was nowhere to be found and everyone swore they hadn’t taken it. It was only years later that we discovered it in my mother’s father’s cellar among a mishmash of things: empty jars and bottles, colored shards, tires, corks, metal wires, and other objects he would pick up on the street in his senile old age, and as it turned out, not only on the street but also in garbage cans.

I remember the day my mother and I stood motionless in his cellar, surrounded by piles of various configurations, which mixed in elements of the most diverse materials, not at random but following an artistic logic very much praised in certain circles I was not yet familiar with. Had I had a camera I could have immortalized the jumble, whose only effect upon us at the time was one of sudden fear, as if my grandfather had finally taken off his mask and showed what we all suspected but never dared to say. Save my mother of course, who always said what she thought; so, as always when confronted with something that didn’t quite fit her understanding of the order of things, she declared: “He’s crazy! Totally crazy!”

By that time the bottle of Coca-Cola was of course empty, and curious, I asked my grandfather what it tasted like. He shrugged his shoulders: “I don’t know. Cough tea . . . ” He didn’t know how close he was to the origins of the mythical potion.

But back to that summer when I was still a child spending my vacation at Aunt Rajssa’s home. The thrill of those summers was, even more than the house itself, a Hungarian girl whose parents were from Transylvania, and whose features have remained inscribed in my mind as an archetype that has come back to life at times when I’ve happened to cross paths with women I imagined cut in the same mold. Sandra. She had enormous green eyes, shoulder-length hair that curled in unusually small curls, and fleshy cheekbones dominated by a strong nose, all framed by a big , round face. But this Botticellian face was in sharp and unexpected contrast with her abrupt, razor-blade personality, and with some very masculine traits, such as a disembodied sort of walk which had inspired in the neighborhood boys the nickname “the girl who carries furniture.” She walked with huge steps and her legs didn’t extend in the way common to most people, but first leaped into the air like those of a giant frog, then moved forward and returned to the ground far away from the body that was left behind and tried to catch up with the spidery legs, thus causing another grotesque leap forward.

Sandra’s parents were construction workers, and the many anecdotes I had heard from her about them bloomed into a full portrait only when I met them. Both had the tanned, dried-up, thin bodies of those who work with their hands—farmers or manual laborers—and both drank huge quantities of plum brandy. Between the ages of ten and sixteen I spent all summers with them and I never saw Sandra’s father sober. At the time he must have been in his late forties, but his skin was wrinkled like an old man’s, and his eyes—two lines, each with a pupil in the middle—were barely visible between the creases on his face. He was a man of no language, Hungarian by birth, married to a Romanian, but his Hungarian was like an old garment torn to pieces and patched in places with little bits of Romanian. When I questioned Sandra about his language deformity, she answered that the alcohol had eaten his brain.

Each night, the father came home after lying in some ditch for hours, covered with vomit, and Sandra, after yelling at him, calling him a pig, and sometimes even hitting him, took off his clothes, washed him, then put him to bed. She was the one who, from the age of ten, had managed the household money, bought groceries, and cooked. The mother worked ten hours a day and after hours did small construction jobs for various people. Yet in a miraculous way, the one-bedroom apartment where five family members lived and where I stopped by every day didn’t seem to exude the misery and gloom one would expect given the circumstances, and of all the people I have ever known, Sandra was the one who least resembled a victim. I have never seen someone laugh with so much passion, her mouth entirely open—she had beautiful teeth and knew it—her body spasmodically contorted. When she moved, she was anti-grace itself, and her sarcasm never spared anyone—except maybe me—yet all the girls who knew her wanted to be like her, pulled into the circle of radiant fascination that was traced around her. She voiced her implacable judgments of people loudly, with a sort of amused cynicism, wrapping her target in a net of adjectives that eventually devoured it, leaving behind an empty carcass that joined our collection of similar artifacts. With these carcasses we played for hours in a spectral world of our own, she in her broken Ukrainian, I in my minimal Hungarian, switching from one to the other and gluing them together like the wings of a fragile, fabulous bird.

Once a week we went to the town library. The books were all old, their pages falling apart and the most recent titles acquired ten or fifteen years before. Yet among those musty yellowed paperbacks, we always somehow managed to find little treasures, names we had never heard of from any of our teachers, which we read pell-mell, from Dickens’s orphan stories to Gone with the Wind, from which we knew passages by heart, to Jane Austen, to Thomas Hardy and late-nineteenth-, early-twentieth-century multivolume novels—Galsworthy’s Forsythe Saga, George Duhamel’s Chronicle of the Pasquiers, and Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. We developed a passion for Stefan Zweig, whose Beware of Pity we read several times without having the slightest idea that he was considered one of the greatest twentieth century modernists; but we took from him the notion of an Austro-Hungarian sensibility, and we realized for the first time that we were part of that world, now dead, yet surviving in us in an ironically twisted form.

After we read Eugène Sue’s Mystères de Paris, we discovered a study of the book by Marx in a huge tome of critical essays on literature, written in a language largely incomprehensible to us; but because Marx was someone no one would have willingly read in our Communist country, we made a point of reading him. Our favorite writers were of course the great nineteenth-century Russians: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, all of whom we read almost entirely, fat volume after fat volume carried from the library in a big brown travel bag. Each week we borrowed a pile of at least ten books, which we divided between the two of us and devoured lying on the grass behind Sandra’s apartment building, and when our limbs got numb and our eyes brimmed with images, we took a break and engaged in passionate discussions about the characters, who were more real to us than anyone else we knew.

In reality—the reality that suffocated us with its gray slime dripping off the TV screens where thousands of Pioneers marched in the same hypnotic rhythm toward the peaks of Communist Neverland and millions of peasants, workers, and artists paid daily homage to the Party and its General Secretary—in reality, we didn’t know many people.

Uncle Otto’s mother—Aunt Irma—and her sister—Aunt Marta—were among the few people we saw regularly. They lived at the edge of the town in an apartment building covered with ivy, and their place smelled of nutmeg and clover, a smell whose origins I could never determine.

We would arrive past five in the afternoon, and Aunt Irma would immediately put the kettle on the stove and set out to prepare the coffee. This was in the days when, even though one could still find coffee, it was scarce, so a good afternoon cup was much more than the ingestion of an energizing liquid: it was a break in the bleakness of existence, a savory concoction extracted from life’s fullness. The coffee was always accompanied by a plate of sweets—halvah, homemade rugelach or orange marmalade—and for this, Aunt Irma used her nicest china and pre-Communist silverware made of real silver, while Aunt Marta grudgingly mumbled something about living on a small pension and dying of starvation because her sister’s relatives ate their food. Aunt Marta’s misanthropic remarks never stopped us from enjoying our snack and I don’t think they were intended to; they were more like a ritual she had to perform, in the same way that her pedaling at the sewing machine—Singer, a brand every woman in our family, and very likely all Soviet women of the era, possessed—had no palpable result, as I never saw anything sewn by Aunt Marta. It was a miracle she never hurt her hands, because she was entirely blind in her left eye and half-blind in her right. If I were to add now that Aunt Irma too was blind, but in her right eye, I would be suspected of poetic license, yet it was true. They were symmetrically blind, two antithetical old ladies, one with gray hair, small and of average weight—Aunt Irma—the other one tall and obese, with dark hair and legs like tree stumps crossed by knotty varicose veins—Aunt Marta.

There was a time before I was born when Aunt Irma and Aunt Marta didn’t speak to each other. The quarrel had started, in fact, before Uncle Otto was born, and in a way, his very existence was the reason. The reason’s reason was of course a man, an Austrian diplomat, according to family legend, although no one was able to tell me what kind of diplomat, whom they had met at a firefighters’ ball. At the time, the firefighters’ balls were the chic of the chic, and my two aunts, daughters of a high-school German teacher, and teachers themselves—in a region where intellectuals, especially women intellectuals, formed a small minority—didn’t fail to impress the exotic foreigner (or was it the other way around?). I didn’t know any details of the doomed love affair between Aunt Irma and the Austrian diplomat, and it was hard to imagine her in the throes of passion; it was even harder to imagine Aunt Marta having pangs of jealousy, yet they didn’t speak to each other for seven years.

The Austrian diplomat disappeared before Uncle Otto was born and no one heard of him again. I sometimes wondered if he died in the war—and if he still was a diplomat during the war, what kind of “diplomacy” did he excel at? The photo Aunt Irma kept in an oval frame was both revealing and entirely opaque: a blond young man of Germanic type—so different from the rest of us, all dark—with a thick mustache and straight gaze. My mother used to say that Uncle Otto was so sensitive “because of his origin,” and for a long time I believed she was alluding to the musical sensibility of Germans (Aunt Irma was half-German too), until I understood she meant that a “bastard” had to be cursed in some way.

~

When I was very little, my parents, my brother and I used to go to the Black Sea almost every summer; then we stopped. And then, that summer, the summer when Sandra and I were twelve, one night at dinner when my mother was in a particularly good mood, she asked me if I wanted to bring Sandra along with us and the rest of the family to the seaside. I thought that by “the rest of the family” she meant Aunt Rajssa and Uncle Otto, but it turned out that the entire cohort of her relatives was coming: Aunt Roszi and Uncle Piszta from Hungary, Aunt Irma and Aunt Marta, my mother’s father, Serioja, and of course us.

At the time, trains still kept a remnant of the old days’ luxury, and in first class where we traveled, the seats were dark blue velvety cushions with white lace on the seat back where the head rested. Several years later all this would disappear, as our world dropped little by little its last vestiges of pre-Communist reactionary comfort. But back then, the train was for me a cradle of blue softness, a safe primitive cave with plush walls rocking in a rhythm that imitated the sea surf in anticipation, back-and-forth, and yet always ahead. We traveled almost a whole day and night, and twice our group was enlarged when the train stopped in Transylvania: once, in a small town—was it Careï or Arad?—where Sandra’s sister, Ibi, who was spending her summer there with her paternal relatives, got on, and the second time when we were reunited with our relatives from Hungary.

We occupied two compartments and a half, one filled with the youngsters, the others with the elderly. The only exception was Uncle Otto, who shared the same compartment with us, and who, in spite of his age and constant passivity, was one of us, since he couldn’t really belong to the adult world. Whatever we did, we knew we wouldn’t trigger his disapproval, and whenever Aunt Rajssa got angry and tried to punish one of us, which was quite often, he would interfere shyly, as if afraid to upset her even more: “Now, Rajssa, let go… They didn’t mean it…”

“Now . . . let go” were the words that always came from a chair hidden in a nook, from a mouth one had almost forgotten was there.

That year, we rented a whole villa with four rooms and two bathrooms in a sea resort prophetically (for our group) called Mamaia, “Granny” in Romanian. The villa was on a quiet street lined with poplars, ten minutes from the beach, and on the outside it had a charming appearance, painted in green-turquoise with vegetation sprawling on all sides and pots of geraniums on the porch and in front of the house. But inside it was wholly another matter. All night long we had to fight two enemies endemic to the area: ticks and mosquitoes. Time at the seaside had two dimensions of an entirely different fabric, which never met—daytime with its blue-soaking sky, a kind of light blue that didn’t exist up north where we lived, its almost palpable heat melting the asphalt in places, and yet, invasive as it was, radiating peace and quiet; and night, a time of unrest with insects crawling through the dark and the heat accumulated during the day, now stale, pounding unforgivingly at our heads.

In the morning we woke up earlier than at home because breakfast was served only until nine. Since our tickets had been obtained through the Union, we could only eat at designated restaurants, which had precise mealtimes. Everything smelled like vacation, from the old ladies with large sunhats and white linen clothing to the restaurant plates of thick white porcelain with a blue line along the circumference and a stamp on the back of the plate: “Mamaia.” These stamps, along with the trial-size packages of butter (rectangular) and strawberry, blueberry, and orange preserves (round), which didn’t exist on the market, have come to symbolize for me summer and sea, and even today when I see one of these packages at a breakfast place almost two continents and an ocean away, I instantly feel the joy of long, idle summer days and hear waves in the background.

After breakfast we hurried to the beach because by ten it was impossible to find a spot on the expanse of yellow-brown sand, so much darker than the sand I would see years later in Florida and California. Most sunbathers used white sheets, which dotted the entire beach with hundreds of squares, one alongside the other, so close that one sometimes had to step on a hand or a leg to find one’s way. The small children were all naked, and the adults carried along sagging folds of fat and flesh, and the bodies appeared so indifferent to their shape and being that nothing seemed to exist but the air, the sun, and the sea.

On the beach, a special corner was improvised for the old people: Aunt Irma, Aunt Marta, my grandfather, Aunt Roszi, and Uncle Piszta—the last two not old at all, but incapacitated, Aunt Roszi because of her obesity and Uncle Piszta because of his recent accident, which had resulted in a broken arm and leg. Huge umbrellas were raised to protect them from the sun, thus isolating them from the rest of us within an enclosure baptized by Sandra “Aux Invalides.” Sandra’s sister, Ibi, who was five years older than us and whose unusual strength and dimensions reminded me of those giant women described in Icelandic folktales, had an even more sarcastic tongue. She was very tall and obese, but unlike Aunt Roszi’s or Aunt Marta’s soft obesity, hers was as muscled as her crude parlance. From her sheet, she measured everyone passing by and captured the moment like a verbal camera, in a snapshot of cruel irony. All in all, our group stood out with its obese women and skinny men.

Serioja, with his copper skin and nonchalant demeanor, which magnetized the eyes of all the young women around, took off right away and spent most of the day seducing waitresses in the bars nearby. It was not simply a frivolous enterprise; several times he returned with little provisions of ice we desperately needed, as the beer sold by the beach vendors was lukewarm. One could buy many things from these vendors, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Serioja and cried out the names of their products while plodding through the crowd: ice-cream cones, popsicles, which we called Kojak candies after the famous Hollywood detective, and various souvenirs such as combs, huge pens in gaudy colors, and shell-incrusted artifacts. But none of them gave us as much pleasure as the peanuts reserved for the special stores of the nomenklatura, acquired by Serioja after hours of intense emotional balancing on the rope he manufactured with such artistic deceit each time he needed to conquer another store clerk. For most people, peanuts were so expensive they could never hope to work for peanuts.

~

Early afternoons were for naps. With the exception of Serioja, the entire clan was at the villa, which for two hours became an island of sleep with the windows wide open and the white lace curtains blowing in the wind. Sandra and I never slept. We sat on the porch and continued our briefly interrupted conversation about the most recent novel we had read or we simply played with the characters our families provided us with, as with little toys we enjoyed taking apart and putting back together in new, twisted forms. Someone’s eye could become someone else’s mouth, and one’s nose could end up at another’s foot. The world was there to be made anew.

Late afternoons were for Hungarian dominoes. Two big tables were lined up end to end, and those who didn’t play watched and made comments. This was the moment when the ladies shined. Aunt Irma and Aunt Marta were always in competition, spying on each other, more focused on the other’s moves than on the game itself. Even Aunt Rajssa, with her back straight as a pole and her features usually impenetrable, acquired a sort of vaguely mischievous twinkle in her detached gaze, and her dryness softened. My grandfather, who never seemed to care about anything except the Old Testament—he was, by the way, the only person in Ukraine I’ve ever known to read the Bible regularly—put his heavy, yellowed book aside and watched, mesmerized. Ibi, the only one with a smile on her face, sunken in her chair like a pregnant buffalo, her legs apart and the whole of her body exuding the pure pleasure of being alive and a total abandon in the moment, picked up every now and then her invisible camera and, like a director for whom everyone else’s agitation is no more than a spectacle, focused it on our faces, casually letting out caustic remarks.

Sometimes after dinner we would go out to a late-night movie, almost always a melodrama, American or (for some mysterious reason) Indian. The movies were shown on a huge screen in an open theater, where for two hours I underwent the pain of sitting on a metal chair, chasing away mosquitoes. Yet my mind has preserved other sensations more insistently—darkness unfolding from above and swallowing both us and the rose bushes perpendicular to the rows of chairs, everything flowing and melting into the screen, where two lovers were constantly shedding tears and, if the movie was Indian, singing songs in between their heartfelt confessions. On such nights, before leaving the villa for the movie, each woman except Aunt Rajssa would take two handkerchiefs in bittersweet anticipation of the tearful catharsis.

~

And then, one day, we left, and the spell was broken. The next year I would go back to Aunt Rajssa’s and Uncle Otto’s house and attempt to collect time from all the nooks and crannies of the house, but I would always fail, for time is never present; only we are. We are time wearing space as a mask, and with each breath we become smaller and smaller until finally nothing is left of us.

 

Alta Ifland grew up in Eastern Europe, studied philosophy in France, and currently lives in California. Her bilingual (French–English) book of prose poems, Voice of Ice, is forthcoming from Les Figues Press (Los Angeles, 2007). “Elegy for a Fabulous World” is from a recently completed collection of short stories, Death-in-a-Box. (10/2007)


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