Somewhere in the City
This story has just received Honorable Mention at Glimmer Train’s Spring 2017 Short Story Contest for new writers.
I was twenty-six, still living with my parents. But I had a job and a girlfriend I intended to marry. The girlfriend’s name was Carmen, and she had a place of her own, a small studio apartment. I was walking by the Kretzulescu bookstore to see her, when Uncle George appeared in the door of a restaurant.
“Andy!” he waved at me. “We saw you through the windows. Come, join us! It’s just me and your father.” He breathed heavily. The bemused look on his face made me think he’d been drinking.
My workday had ended early, and I had no big reason to hurry. Carmen could wait a little. I looked up and down the street. In the autumn chill the petunias were wilting along the sidewalk. Barefoot in the Park was playing at the Union Cinema. The movie had come out in the States in 1967. It was 1981, and it had finally made its way here. Bucharest was like an old man trying to look youthful. “OK,” I said to my uncle.
The restaurant was on the second floor, open to the atrium below. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, their dusty shine mixed with daylight. Cigarette smoke floated in the air, over the background noise of people eating and talking. Dad sat at a table near the windows. When he saw me, he smiled, extinguished his cigarette, and quickly got up from his chair. We shook hands and he gave me a peck on each cheek. Men kiss on both cheeks in Romania.
“See? And you hesitated to call him,” Uncle George, pleased with himself, said to my father. He sat down and turned toward me. “Get a chair, young man. Your dad tried to convince me you’d rather die than be seen in here with us old geezers.”
“There is nobody here to see me,” I said jokingly.
“Right,” Uncle George said. “You young people like to go to fancier places.”
“This is fancy,” my dad said.
“It’s nice in here,” I said. “Carmen and I come here for a cup of coffee.”
I pulled up a chair. There were two small glasses on the table, a quart of vodka, and a plate with several flabby tomato slices floating in a puddle of oil. Uncle George beckoned the waiter, who brought me a glass and poured some vodka.
“Bring us some beer,” my uncle said. “This young fellow over here is thirsty.”
“Tell him what’s on the menu,” my dad said. “He’s hungry, also.”
The waiter described what they had to offer, which didn’t amount to much, and I ordered bread and sausages.
As soon as the waiter left, Uncle George raised his glass. “Here, we should do this more often.”
“Hear, hear,” my dad said.
They downed their drinks like water. I tried to do the same, but the alcohol burned my throat, and I placed my half-full glass on the table.
“What’s the matter?” my dad asked. “Don’t you like it?”
“I do,” I replied, “but it’s very strong. Let me have some food first.”
“Too strong?” Uncle George said. “What are you talking about? Vodka’s not strong. Vodka is pure – the best drink there is.”
“One can’t smell vodka on your breath,” my dad said.
“If you want strong, you should try Cuban rum,” Uncle George said.
“You mean Jamaican,” my dad said.
“Not Jamaican, Cuban. You don’t know very much, do you? Believe it or not, I drank Cuban rum with vodka as a chaser when I was over there. Andy, did I ever tell you that I was in Cuba?”
“You did,” I said and lit a cigarette. I knew what was coming.
In the early seventies, Uncle George, an engineer like me, had been sent for two weeks to Cuba, as part of a professional exchange among socialist countries. He had told us many times everything there was to know about his trip: how he changed planes in Casablanca and lost his luggage, how hot it was, how they drank rum to keep cool, how a yacht that used to belong to an American millionaire took them out onto the Caribbean where they swam in the shark infested waters and he saved or almost saved a Pole who had only one leg and couldn’t swim fast, and how Fidel Castro came three hours late to their farewell banquet dressed in fatigues, sat at a table all by himself, ate half a piglet, and left without saying a word to anybody. Nine years had gone by, and my uncle was still talking about it.
“But did I tell you about the women?” Uncle George insisted. He leaned back in his chair, winked, and unbuttoned his shirt at the neck. “Wow, the women. They took us to this show with music and fireworks. Women dancers performed on a stage and then came to greet us. Oh, those women, you wouldn’t believe. They were white, black, and mulattos. You know what mulattos are, don’t you? A mixture of white and black, very beautiful.”
“Those are Creoles,” my dad said.
“No, Creoles are something else.” Uncle George shook his head. “This man doesn’t know anything. And he’s never seen anything so beautiful as those Cubans. The bodies those girls had, and the skin. Exquisite.”
I nodded, grinning. Then I finished my vodka and ate about half of my food, which I washed down with beer.
“How was the food?” my dad asked.
“It was okay. I was hungry.”
“See? You walk around hungry.”
I told him I was coming from work, and was going to see Carmen and have dinner with her at her place.
“Carmen,” my dad said. “He spends all his time with this woman, hardly ever eating a cooked meal or sleeping at home. His mother is going bonkers.”
“Dad, you don’t know what I eat,” I spat at him. “Mother’s fine, and you really have no clue how she feels, since you’re hardly ever there.”
An awkward moment followed. Uncle George decided to get over it by pouring more vodka. We drank. I made sure I gulped it down just like them and returned the empty glass to the table.
“That’s the way you do it,” Uncle George declared happily collecting the glasses to refill them. “You know what they say.” I shook my head ‘No’ as he raised the bottle of vodka and, with the air of delivering a deeply held piece of wisdom, uttered a couplet in Russian: ‘Vodku nujno piti do dna,/Skazal Chou En-la.’”
I had heard those lines before, most likely from him. They meant ‘Drink your vodka in one gulp/Said Chou En-la’,’ but I couldn’t remember who Chou En-la’ was. I asked them, and for some reason both my dad and my uncle must have thought that the rhyme was tremendously funny, because instead of answering, they started laughing and shaking their heads, after which Uncle George hit the table repeatedly with the palm of his free hand, causing the glasses and my plate to rattle. When he stopped, he poured again and we drank. Then I finished my food and had more beer.
“Chou En-lai was the first premier of communist China,” my father said.
“Tell me,” Uncle George said, “is Carmen the red-haired gal I saw you with when we met at the movies?”
I didn’t remember us meeting at any movie, but nodded. It didn’t make any difference.
“She wore a very short skirt. That much I noticed.” Uncle George winked again, pulled his leg from under the table, straightened it, and touched his pants not too far from his crotch. “I swear. It wasn’t longer than that.”
“So?” my dad said.
“So nothing. She’s got a great pair of legs and I envied your son. I could only imagine. See, I said to myself, this guy knows what he’s doing.”
“I hope so,” I interjected modestly.
“Sure, if you spend the nights over there you do.” His eyes shone. “I take it you gave her the hammer.”
“Georgy,” my dad objected.
“Georgy what? He’s no longer a kid. Look at him. Can’t we talk about women?”
Dad lit a cigarette.
I, too, felt a little uneasy, but with the alcohol the world seemed rosier now. All in all, I didn’t find it too objectionable. The waiter came to take away my plate, and we ordered another bottle of vodka. That wasn’t objectionable, either.
A woman walked by our table. She must have been in her forties. She was wearing a pair of black stiletto heels, a black leather skirt and a black silk tee shirt. The clothes fit her snugly.
“Check her out,” Uncle George whispered.
I thought she looked like a body builder. Over her shoulder, she carried a black leather coat hooked on her middle finger. She had tanned arms, and the one that was bent displayed powerful biceps. Her hips were narrow, stomach flat, and her breasts had protruding nipples. She sat down at a table with three other men while Uncle George, disregarding any good manners, turned his chair around to be able to see her.
“Say,” he said to my dad, “wouldn’t you love to play with them bonbons?”
My dad feigned indifference.
“And Carmen’s family, what do they say about you spending nights over there?” asked Uncle George still looking at the woman.
“Nothing. She lives on her own in a studio apartment.”
“Really? She’s so young.”
“She’s my age,” I responded.
“She’s the daughter of that Party boss, Comrade Dulgheru,” my father said wearing a smug grin. “You know these people. They have everything.”
Uncle George thought a little. “Dulgheru – the one who works at the Ministry of Planning?”
“Exactly,” my father answered.
“He has a good reputation.” Uncle George leaned on the table and looked straight at me. “I mean, as these so-called leaders go, he’s not the bastard the others are. They say he helps people, and actually has a soul.”
They talked some more about Comrade Dulgheru while I listened and felt good about myself. Then we had another round, and the world started spinning.
“This is the last one,” I mumbled.
“Well, did you have enough?” asked my dad.
“I think so.”
“No, you have to be sure.” Then he poked Uncle George who was looking at the woman again. “Georgy, tell us the saying.”
At first, Uncle George seemed confused. “What saying?” Then he smiled. “Oh, of course,” and he recited in Russian: “Vodku nujno piti do sito/Skazal Tito.”
This time I laughed with them. If Tito, the Yugoslav strongman said one drank vodka until one had enough, then I had no choice but to comply.
We had another one and another, and then I got up. “That’s it. Absolutely.”
My dad looked at me: “Do you need any money?”
I should have said yes, but I didn’t.
“What’s the matter with you?” Uncle George protested. “You don’t need any money? You should always get money, especially from your father.” He looked at the body builder woman as if silently declaring, ‘See, I’m so sexy.’
I left the restaurant, my uncle gawking at the body builder woman, and the half-empty vodka bottle on the table. Outside, the fresh air did me good. The thought of Uncle George salivating over Carmen’s short skirt suddenly bothered me. I looked at my watch. We had spent two hours drinking, and by now it was very late and Carmen might be worried. I tried to hurry, but my legs buckled.
Alone, somewhere in the city, my mother was waiting for my father.