“Do you like comics?” says Razvan, rummaging in a kitchen cupboard. He’s nine years old and has a large collection.
I smile across the room. “Everyone likes comics.”
“Not in our house,” says younger brother Tudor, leaning in at the doorway and watching us with big brown eyes. He wears flip-flops and Mickey Mouse shorts. Sunset illuminates the kitchen like a sepia postcard. It smells of fried onions.
We’re tired after a long day exploring the delights of Cluj-Napoca:
the National Museum of Art with its Romanian masters; the Ethnographic Museum with its bee-pots and animal traps; the botanical gardens with its Japanese bridge, exquisite orchids and palm trees. It’s nice to relax with kids. We’re not related, just friends.
Razvan hauls a stack of dog-eared comics to the table where I’m sitting, and I flick through the pile. “Could you read for me? Your mother told me you read well.”
Razvan shrugs and ruffles his curly black hair. We peruse the bright graphics and bold titles: Spiderman; Top Secret; Time Warriors.
“OK,” he says, planting his elbows on the table, “but which comic?”
“Yeah, which comic?” says little Tudor.
I consider my options, and point at the one on top. Razvan sighs like a contented connoisseur. “Scooby Doo in Ancient Egypt. Yes, excellent choice.”
“Excellent choice,” says Tudor, settling beside me on the wooden bench.
Razvan reads aloud and quickly, flipping through the coloured pages. I can hardly keep up. His Romanian is clear and melodic, music to my ears. But he stops when his mother Maria appears in the doorway, wearing a pinafore. Tudor groans as she enters and circles the table, hands on her hips, with a disapproving air. “Comics?”
Tudor leans into me, and whispers, “Told you so.”
Maria barks orders. “Time for dinner. Wash hands, move to the terrace. Quickly, now!”
She turns, but her husband Gabriel is blocking the doorway; he is wearing a tight T-shirt, biceps like a bodybuilder. He smiles at her, then at us. “Problem?”
“No problem,” says Maria,brushing past him.
Gabriel winks at his sons. “The law is the law,” he says, “and I should know.”
We move outside and take our seats for dinner. We fill our plates with baked fish, roast peppers, barbecued chicken, tiny sausages, smoked aubergines, and new potatoes. There are seven of us – Gabriel and Maria, plus her aging parents, the two boys, and me. Below the table, a large Persian cat lurks with a squashed-up face, looking as though it ran into a wall. I can never remember the cat’s name. Beethoven?
The wine flows, and soon Gabi is telling his sons how we met, many years ago ago, watching footy in a Bucharest bar. I’m sipping and concurring – those were the days, drinking beer and talking baloney, just before he hooked up with Maria, the glamorous post-grad brunette with a sharp tongue, and a glimmer in her eye.
Maria’s hair is flecked with grey now and she seems less interested in our past than in Romania’s future, steering the conversation towards politics. Inevitably, her young sons soon look bored. Tudor dangles meat above his face, nibbling at the lower end like a fish after bait. When the political discussion subsides, I tell the boys a joke about a hungry duck. At the punchline, Razvan laughs aloud. “Magnifico!”
Tudor is munching, with his eyes closed, blissful. “Magnifico.”
“I know a joke!” says Razvan, “three men are building a house, but they can’t use the toilet until they finish. So, the first man–– ” He breaks off mid-sentence and looks worried, because his mother is observing him, wide-eyed and head cocked.
“Razvan, that’s not a nice joke.”
He looks deflated. “How do you know, if I haven’t even finished it?”
“You’ve finished it.”
Razvan glances at his dad, but Gabi just pours himself a glass of wine and concludes an earlier anecdote about trying to prosecute some wise guy over a dodgy shipping contract. Gabi sounds frustrated, telling us the judge probably took a bribe. Happens a lot, it seems. His father-in-law is sitting alongside in a cardigan and bi-focal specs, listening closely or not at all; gravy glistens on his silver moustache.
Maria is smiling at Razvan but he does not smile back, so she diverts her gaze – first to her rotund mother, whose kindly sigh seems well practised, and then to me.
“Razvan is very intelligent,” Maria says, “top of every class. Silly jokes are somewhat beneath him, I feel. We’re hoping he’ll be a lawyer, just like his father.”
“Bad idea,” says Gabriel, refilling our wine glasses.
Razvan blushes deep crimson; his complexion matches the tomatoes on his plate. I feel a twinge of guilt. “It was just a joke, Maria, and probably my fault for––”
She lays down her fork and gives me a puzzled look: your case is closed. The other adults munch in silence, staring into their plates as if fascinated by the food.
Little Tudor raises a hand. “I know a joke too, but there won’t be any problems with mine. Not like his.” He jabs a greasy thumb towards his elder brother.
Maria rolls her eyes. “Very well, if you insist. But keep it short, and polite.”
Razvan turns towards me. “Tudor’s seven, by the way, just so you know.”
“Seven and a half,” says Tudor, flashing a perfect smile. He breathes deeply, inflating his puny chest. He scratches his ear and chuckles, probably rehearsing the lines in his head. We watch and wait. Razvan drums the table with his fingers. “So?”
“So what?” Tudor looks perplexed.
“So tell your stupid joke.”
“OK!” Three men are building a house, but they can’t use the toilet, and––”
“Tudor,” says Maria.
“That’s the same joke.”
Tudor blinks. “Oh, is it?” He hunches over his plate, fingering his food.
“Knife and fork, monkey,” says Razvan.
“Good idea,” says Tudor, reaching for his cutlery still wrapped in a linen napkin. Razvan puts his head in his hands and groans. Tudor saws off a chunk of meat, skewers it on his fork, and glances at me. “So was my joke funny?”
I wink and he winks back awkwardly, as though he has grit in his eye. He looks warily towards his mother, leans into me, and asks, “Do you like comics?”
I leave Romania to work in Africa for a bit. Gabriel stays in touch by email, and over the ensuing months I detect a change in his mood. He’s frustrated with practising law:
When I ask Gabi if he means more bribes, he writes back:
Wake up, my friend, this is Romania.
He tells me it’s impossible to know how the cash finally reaches the judges, but assures me that it does, by a circuitous route:
There’s no trial by jury here, our legal system is still corrupt, all these years after the Revolution. Why?
I have no idea. I’m more curious about the darker tone to his comments about Maria. They start as a laddish joke – he refers to his wife as Central Committee – but soon he has a new name for her: The War Office. I don’t pry and he doesn’t reveal.
In his next email, three months later, Gabriel says he hopes to emigrate and has been checking his options:
Canada? New Zealand? What do you think, my friend? Somewhere I could practise my profession with dignity and provide a decent life for my family? My sons are keen. There’s only one problem: the War Office is against the idea L She likes her job lecturing at the university. Her parents live up our street, remember? She’s built herself a cosy nest here. But I‘ve had enough. I need to get out. This country is like some beautiful woman whom you cannot trust. Perhaps I should come to Rwanda, what’s it like there, my friend?
I sit at my desk in Kigali, wondering how to reply; either Gabriel has discovered Romantic poetry or he’s on crack. I can hear avocadoes dropping from the trees outside my study; they hit the grass with a reassuring thump, heavy and ripe. Didier the old gardener is whistling as he scoops them into his basket. I peep from my window, trying to see how many he has collected. Didier is bent double, hard at work. He survived the genocide of 1994, but has a nasty scar on his arm from a machete.
I go back to my desk and reply to Gabriel, wishing him luck and urging him not to lose perspective, but it sounds glib and I hope I won’t lose his confidence.
Sure enough, I hear nothing from Gabriel for about a year. I’m squatting on a battered wooden stool in some dingy Internet café, out in the sticks, busy editing a script, when an email lands out of the blue like a wire-guided bomb:
Guess what, my friend! I’ll emigrate to the USA! I won the visa lottery! My boys will come too! PS. I’m getting a divorce. It’s not working for me.
When the room stops spinning, I try to type another diplomatic reply, but all I can think about is Maria.
One sunny afternoon, I find myself back in Romania, sitting in Maria’s quiet study in Cluj. Books and box-files bulge from the shelves, but this room – and the house – feels somehow empty, almost dead, until she boots up her computer. Soon, we’re on Skype, and it’s time to chat. American accents boom from the audio speakers.
Maria’s two sons gaze from the screen, pink and blurry. The image pixilates, melting in swathes of coloured light as they move. Razvan and Tudor are teenagers now, flicking their long hair and leaving long pauses before answering my questions, as if still trying to locate me from ancient history. After a while, Razvan nods at the screen. “You’re that guy who visited with us when we still lived with Mom, right?”
“I’m that guy. We read comics together, remember?”
“How’s life in New York?”
Razvan frowns; he resembles his dad, even as a digital ghost. “Subway sucks.” I edge closer for a better view, wondering what to ask next. “Do you play baseball?”
Tudor appears to be stifling a yawn. “Uh-uh, I prefer soccer.” He pronounces it sakkur, like a young American, which, I suppose, is what he is. He’s moved on since our last meeting. We all have. Maria won custody rights but all that changed on the day Gabriel offered his boys a chance to live in New York. No brainer, my friend.
Razvan and Tudor dominate the Skype chat, letting their mother know what is, and what is not, cool. They speak in English, with American slang. Everything sucks.
Maria does not interrupt; she waits for the gaps and asks permission to change the subject. Her English is not as fluent, her status has been eroded; time has chewed at the family landscape and created a new one, in which Mom sounds rather lost. So she takes refuge in the familiar, and updates them on her boyfriend Jean-Luc, the visiting professor with the summerhouse in the Camargue. She tells them he’s just wonderful, so interesting. Do you wish to visit with us in France, for bird watching?
Tudor grunts, uh-uh. Razvan’s response is less easy to fathom, because he has acquired that ubiquitous, strangulated, mid-Atlantic speech pattern, wherein every utterance ends in a chilled-out, rock-star rasp. It sounds not so much American, as Americroak, presumably because life is one long drag, sometimes on a joint, perhaps. Maria slips back into Romanian and the boys are quiet now, finally letting her talk.
I hear a deep purring from Maria’s loyal ginger cat basking in the sun; it stretches along her desk, watching me slit-eyed as if to say, what’s the problem? I tickle its tummy. No problem, but I forget your name. The cat blinks. Try Berlioz.
I spot a blur of movement onscreen and soon recognise Gabriel’s distinctive arched eyebrows: life is full of surprises. He’s shaven-headed, with a tuft of jazzy beard, and wearing a shirt and tie. He seems skinnier these days, gawping out at me.
“Hey, Mike, is that really you?”
Maria departs, promising tea while I chat with her ex-husband, catching up.
Our questions fire in all directions, like a pinball machine at full tilt.“So Gabi, how do you like being a lawyer in Long Island?”
“Win some, lose some, bro’! You’re giving a seminar in Cluj, I hear?”
“About ethnic minorities, for journalists.”
“The Hungarian question,” he says, one step ahead of me, “how’s it going?”
“Certainly feisty, but it’s not Rwanda.”
Maria returns with my mug of tea, and, as she enters the room, I catch the sound of someone – probably her father – chopping at a board in the kitchen. I can smell fried onions too. Perhaps I should go and help him, give Maria some privacy? I rise from my seat, waving bye to Gabriel and the two boys. I move to the door, pausing to look at a display of framed photos partly hidden behind it.
In one photo, Maria, Razvan and Tudor are wearing T-shirts and shorts, enjoying gargantuan ice creams in Times Square. In another photo, they’re younger and dressed for skiing, laughing on some snowy slope, in Transylvania perhaps; the sun has dazzled the lens but the effect seems just right. Equally appropriate are the photos that someone has
carefully cropped with scissors: there’s no Gabi, anywhere.
Next, I spot Maria’s PhD, yellowing in a dusty frame. I glance back at her, signalling my intentions: I’ll be in the kitchen. But she seems oblivious.
Maria is talking to her sons in Romanian. She looks unhappy, almost bewildered at their inability to keep up. There is impatience in her voice, as if a truth has finally dawned on her after years of ominous signs: her sons are losing interest in their mother tongue. They forget words and stumble over phrasing, even Razvan, top of every class. Worse, they do not seem to care. Their efforts are stilted, with a New York accent, and Tudor keeps sliding into English. “It’s kinda more natural, Mom.”
Maria’s tears glitter like jewels in the afternoon sun. I leave her and walk along the gloomy corridor to the kitchen. There will be soup later, just like old times.
Mike Ormsby is a British author. He lives in Romania, in a Transylvanian mountain village. His book Never Mind the Balkans, Here’s Romania was published in 2008.