HAVE FUN IN ROMANIA Jeremy Allan Hawkins & Brian Oliu
What I Am Talking About When I Am Talking About Romania
They think that we are thieves and I want to reassure him that speaking as a they we do not think these things; I want to tell him that we stay up past our bedtimes to hear the morning news from Sibiu, that we think eight hours ahead at all times and wonder what you ate for breakfast this morning, if you ate pastries or cereal, and we are concerned with how work is going. I am leaning against a window when I do not say these things. It is raining outside. I do not know if the rain is typical of this time of year; I don’t know if it rains here often. As a child I sat in a kitchen learning the capitals of countries that could never exist beyond the black and various shades of grey, beyond the grey siding of this house. I learned the name of this place. I have seen an artist’s rendering; some trees, a man with an axe. Though what I remember could be somewhere else that I never thought about. These places share syllables. I could not be thinking about Romania at all. When I think about Romania, I think about forests, I tell him, and raise a cup of water to my mouth. When I think about Romania, I think about castles, mountains, things like that; anything to not say what I am thinking—that we do not think that you are thieves because we do not think about you. This town, despite the rain and despite never hearing about it until reading its name from the railcar, is nice, I tell him, and he agrees. The place where I have been staying, across his country, is beautiful, I say, and he agrees. He tells me about where I am from: the television finales, Alaska, government programs encouraging the sharing of information, that one day, we will have access to all things.
I said I would ask the girl with the shiny shoes. The metallic sheen of her sneakers glinting against the endless soot, she pointed the way. The closer we moved toward the factory husk, the more I thought of the children laughing in the station building. Something made them angry to the point of laughter. When we think of darknesses, we think of night, and pitch, and carbon black settling over everything. And so, two kids grey as chimney sweeps gaze out of magazine pages to show just how dark a pollution it once was. Black sheep, black bread, black milk, black snow, shiny shoes. None of this is as dark as what it hides. Short smoke stacks kept everything in the valley, and kept everyone looking up at the smoke wafting down. But underneath the soot that settled, the children are growing up to laugh. When they’re old enough, they’ll wait for the trains heading north and south. They’ll try to leave their legacies of poison behind them in the dirty valley. Inside, though—leaden veins, cadmium arteries, zinc hearts. Metal organs giving off dull, cold light in the cavities of their bodies. Their bones will be heavy and gilded with everything they would escape. And their anger will burst out of their mouths in cackles, like fumes from the smelting plant. They’ll let it loose on adults, and strangers, on foreigners dazed in the night as day as night. They will spout, and spout, and cover anything they can cover. But the metals will remain inside. You could scour off the dirt, make everything gleam, but there will still be an underneath, where the light will not reach, where the metals wait to seep out and kill. Only the girl with the shiny shoes will display what she knows.
There is a delicateness to this that I am unaware of; that there are leaves that desire to be a part of this, to envelop this, to be the arms of this. In a version apt for unknown romance, I picture Romanian Christmases, a pig slaughtered in celebration in front of a wooden church on a day a few days prior to the birth of the Christ-child, a day in which no one can work until they have seen blood; we fear the lack of ceremony will cause women to grunt like the poor pumpkin-fed animal—their linens torn and their legs slashed by sad hooves on entry; the revenge of one not acknowledging one of its kind dead, the antithesis of savage. In this version I know nothing about, a man with a beard will cut a cross into the neck of the beast in the name of an Ignatius I am unfamiliar with, in the name of the family, in the name of the weather. They must stop the bleeding. Add salt. The women must stop sewing as not to spin their days and to preserve what is left. Add salt. Tonight, as we eat, it is not that day. Tonight, it is March. It is March and the cabbage is not sour enough. Add salt. Tonight, there was no future to predict, no forecast of loss to whisper into the ears of wives, no knowledge of the snow falling. When photographs are the only proof that I was ever here, a girl I never kissed mistook the boiled cornmeal for eggs, the national dish of a people I’ve never known reduced to a process understood, a frame tangible through the eyes of the other. She will wrap herself in what she knows, and there is no holiday tonight to speak of.
Take the wine, move it, slide it across the horizontal plane of the table. Place it in front of me. Do not lift it; do not tip the glass to measure clarity; do not taste it to tell the finish. Translate it; pass the bottle. This is the most boring transformation, but real love burns off excitements. It barters on comforts better understood across a table, before and after supper, passing these common things back and forth. Translation, even if love through a translator is not love. After all, I’ve tried to explain the meal, the ways of dressing the plates, of serving the soups. Nothing carries, only drinks, and only dry ones. Explain sweetness; rub sugar on the tongue and mix the wine with honey; it serves no purpose. Too much vertical, too bent on the stir, too much representation. And if my love revolves around a table, its spokes, the embossments we make around its edges, then at least you know the mathematics of my affection; they can’t be revised. Take the heart of it: a clay pot. Inside, cabbage rolls of pork mince, onion, rice—wrapped in the fermented leaves you’d call by a dozen different names without ever knowing the taste. Salt, sour, and fat. I can explain it; I can relate it; I can say, Serve with polenta, sour cream, and a cut of pork, but it doesn’t exist, not in the way I knew it. At best, we’d have interpretations, the Mexican pizza of our convergences. And even with these greatest of intentions rolled into their intended forms, the table will be lined with strangers, blunt smiles trying on the exotic: bueno when bueno doesn’t sound, while my own people sit with my place empty. I’ve been translated here, but this is no Egyptian tomb; I carry nothing with me.
There is a chance that the world has ended here, that this is the end. We can see the tracks continue west, but this, here, is the end. In this version of the apocalypse, we are in a place that is most open to the idea of a veil being lifted; when we ask the schoolchildren if the train is coming, they laugh & say nothing—prophets without the need to prophesize. These sibyls come much later. From the slouch in our shoulders they know our limbs are not as strong as copper; they have breathed the copper. From our shoes they know that we are not archangels here to lock mouths to prevent the deep carbon black’ning that their jeans reflect; the chemicals caught in the cotton while their mothers hang the denim by the waist to let them dry. The children have already been swallowed; they have been swallowing. This town is famous for leaching—the process of converting things into salt, to dry as they stand. At some point we expect the children in their dark sweaters to advance towards us with all the fury of a spiritual existence, but they do not leave the station. We know the meaning of the word transfer. We know the meaning of terminal. A man with one leg leans against the concrete. Take note there is no metal or wood filling the space where a quarter of a body once held everything in balance. To fill that space would be as disingenuous as the claims that the breathing is better than it once was—the spitting of a last breath means nothing here. The air is one thing that can never be avenged.
Together we build a dovecote—it doesn’t matter the place; we must build it somewhere—one arc to each, one semicircle, one half circumference, built brick on brick, rising to a single peaked roof, indifferent beneath its shingles to birdsong, bird flight, or the swift receipt of messages. It will house a congress or not, but we build all the same. Starting in tandem, at first we see each other, peering over the easy foundation of mud bricks; soon though we must describe the circle with trust, a dove flying on sense or some science inscrutable to the human eye—we unable to see beyond where each stands. Together we build, yard by yard, foot by foot, leaving the perches bare for some feather to fall upon, leaving slits beneath that same indifferent roof to let winged word slip inside and out, from and into the sun, leaving the door open to a practice older than us, though no word may ever arrive. Still, one day they will find it, those who search for evidence of ruin, and they will know it from a columbarium or a mausoleum for cats, drenching it with a lazy language we can’t imagine or speak, but which drawls a dovecote and knows a small something of its builders. They might never understand how we traversed a line from the mud in the West to the garbage in the East, but they’ll have a structure to stand within and from which to shout at us for our errors, for the idiosyncrasies of construction. Who keeps doves anymore? Who? But the figure is on the ground, not in the air: walls may pitch inward, down, still the shape will remain: with brushes someone will know us: two halves joined in the dirt and ever joining.