Every time I think about my first questions-and-answers regarding physical love, a few symbolic objects appear before my eyes, dating back to my childhood in Ceausescu’s Romania: the tetra underpants; the “butterfly pack”; the kitchen table; and, far away, nonchalantly floating over and above the world of contingencies: Veronica’s robe de chambre.
It is difficult to imagine, in this G-string age, the humble and ubiquitous tetra underpants. They were made of striped cotton, had a high waist seam roughly fitted with an elastic band, a fifties cut, and a single (non) colour: white. They faithfully accompanied the Socialist Romanian Woman from tender infancy to her last voyage (I often wondered if the ladies I sometimes encountered in churches, lying on a catafalque—that last examination couch—were wearing, under those formal skirts and floral arrangements, the unmistakable pair of tetra undies which, in the eyes of Saint Peter, would become an accurate geopolitical indicator, rich in moral and religious implications).
Since we’re on the subject: the tetra undies were reliable guardians of morality, regardless of the enquirer’s point of view: the private, traditional and religious perspective, passed over from great-grandmother to grandmother, or the public one, pertaining to the revolutionary, puritan, post-Stalinist discourse. Which explains their universally accepted nickname: “passion killers”. And the desperate efforts of countless mistresses and wives to obtain illegally imported underwear, from the basement of the Parisian Prisunic—those sad, synthetic imitations of the silk-and-lace fantasies associated with the inaccessible heights of European fashion.
But things didn’t stop there. What I just described represents the first—and least controversial—layer of reality. I know, however, from personal experience, that life is a complex and contradictory thing: even the inescapable lessons in dialectical materialism (our daily catechism, back then) kept hammering this unsettling fact into our heads. Any object, no matter how mundane, contains the premise of its own contradiction. What I’m trying to say is that even a pair of tetra undies could, on closer analysis, reveal surprising connotations … of an erotic—or even passional—nature.
I could now insert a vivid elaboration on the essence of eroticism, which in my opinion consists of the dialectics between what one sees and what one doesn’t see. I will however limit myself to reminding you that a vast part of humanity agrees that, indeed, the more you hide, the more you exacerbate the onlooker’s curiosity. And the purer the visual message, the more eager the urge to spoil this purity, in the heart of the subconscious beast. Beware, we’re discussing eroticism, not pornography—if you don’t know the difference, I’m afraid I can’t help you.
This was later confirmed to me by various male friends, of whom I would mention AA, a perpetual fourth-year student in civil engineering, and an experienced investigator of the female soul and body, who once confessed to me, over a pint of beer, the following facts about his new amorous conquest: “You know what drove me crazy about her?” he whispered. “I went to this party, I arrived late, everybody was drunk, the music had shifted from Gary Glitter to Barry White and back to Gary Glitter. As soon as I came through the door, I noticed her: a splendid body, endless legs, almond-shaped green eyes, wild chestnut hair down to her waist, a stop traffic Levi 501 mini, Italian boots to kill for, what can I say?—splendour in the grass! But what really blew me over was—well—when she walked to the table and grabbed a sandwich, and leaned forward a bit, and I glimpsed her underwear. Guess what she was wearing! Tetra undies!”
“A bit of a passion killer,” I commented.
“Rubbish! You don’t understand any of this! A woman of this calibre could afford any kind of underwear. Or she might choose not to wear any, if she so pleases. But no! She was wearing tetra undies. White. Impeccable. Undefiled. You have no idea what effect this can have on a man’s psyche.” I kept quiet, trying to digest this empirical and undeniable truth.
I therefore invite you—for now, at least—not to look down on this item of lingerie, and to accept that, during those decades of sad uniformity, compensatory imagination was an important ingredient of daily life, a charming one, I daresay, which today seems passé if not plain dead.
The “butterfly pack” was the euphemistic name of the Protex condom, the only one on the market, if and when available. On its cover, it featured a delicately drawn butterfly—hence the understated message: “for butterflies who fly from one flower to the next”. To rely on the “butterfly pack” was a grave error of judgment that could only be excused by an excess of alcohol, stupidity or naivety. Any lucid, vaguely educated person was aware that these condoms were like Russian roulette: you never knew which one was punctured (one of the many strategies, or so it was said, employed by Elena Ceausescu, First Mother of the Fatherland, whose plan was to increase the docile Romanian population to a round figure of thirty million).
A single moment of self-abandon, a brief intermezzo of ecstasy and—with or without the help of the “butterfly pack”—you could find yourself in Big Trouble. And this is where the third symbolic object comes into play: the kitchen table—on which, if you had the right connections and could afford two cartons of Kent cigarettes, a midwife-with-no-name would perform your abortion, without anaesthetics, and with instruments that seemed to come straight from the catalogues of the Spanish Inquisition, which she sterilised by boiling over the anaemic flame of the cook top. (Some women preferred the “do it yourself” methods of provoking a miscarriage. However, in this case, there was a serious danger to consider, far more sinister than the sanitary complications: the medico-legal panel. Once arrived in Emergency, the patient could not be treated unless she was first examined by the panel, who were to establish if she had broken the law and cold-bloodedly sabotaged the luminous future of the Socialist Fatherland. Of all the “self-provocation” methods, the least suspicious was to apply a pillow to your tummy, then punch yourself long and hard through it, which means there were no marks for the panel to see.)
No wonder that, in these circumstances, the vast majority of adolescent girls were afraid of physical love, and did their best to postpone their contact with the fatal realities of gynaecology. In high school, the very few girls that had lost their virginity enjoyed a special kind of respect: they had risked Death and Social Condemnation for the sake of Love. Besides, boys were vividly interested in them, and so was the young and handsome teacher in physics and chemistry, that we mere mortals could only fantasise about.
Given the situation, I would often wonder: what did the boys do? Popular wisdom had it that “they went to the whores”, yet this proposition was simplistic and vague. Who exactly were these whores? The extremely limited number of high school girls who were no longer virgins could not satisfy the ever-increasing hordes of hormone-ridden young lads. The very few prostitutes who could legally practise their trade were agents of our vigilant securitate, who sacrificed their bodies to protect our national integrity and sovereignty. They worked exclusively in and around the Lido, the Ambassador and the Athenée Palace hotels, and their clients were usually foreign citizens.
Within the limited circle of my family and acquaintances, the only people who had lived in “the olden days of the whorehouses” were Granny and Madame, my home tutor in French, who was like family to me. Granny, in her usual flamboyant and evasive style, told me that in the olden days men used to go to the whorehouse to “chill out”. The dame de consumatie (“women for consumption”) dressed scantily, in their robes de chambre at most, always wore red and black, and had a red light at the front door. No big deal, why so many questions?
Madame suggested that we read Nana by Emile Zola, hoping thus to combine my curiosity for the facts of life with my less enthusiastic interest in the French classics. But, even though the book managed to moderately spice up the monotony of my daily routine, it offered very little in the way of concrete facts that could be applied to our existence on the Peaks of Progress, inside the Workers’ Paradise.
I was about eleven at the time. We lived in an old, nine-level apartment building, in the historical and seismic centre of Bucharest. It was around that period that Flutur Veronica, washing and ironing woman, emerged in our lives. Since washing machines were not available in those days, the laundry used to be boiled in a big container over the cook top, and then hung up for drying in the drying room on the top floor of the building. The washing and ironing took days—an ordeal not just for the elderly women but also for their younger sisters, who were already exhausted by long hours of work and queueing for the staple commodities of life. Which means that the emergence of Flutur Veronica was enthusiastically applauded by all the women in the building who could afford to pay her meagre fee.
In contrast with the former washing woman, who had died of an alcohol-related illness at the age of sixty-eight, Flutur Veronica was young and slender; I often wondered where she got the strength to manage those never-ending containers filled with laundry. She always wore foundation, lipstick and mascara, and her short, dark hair was teased up, in that particular style favoured by waitresses in the socialist sixties. At the end of the working day, the dripping sweat would make some of her hair stick to her scalp, and would mess up her make-up, giving her the appearance of a sad and thoughtful clown. She smiled frequently but didn’t talk much, and when she did, her Moldavian-accented words came out somewhat mutilated, due to her precarious dentition. She wore short dresses, poorly cut but cheerfully coloured, which revealed the generous spectacle of her remarkable legs, strong yet slender, waxed to perfection, and her sparkling white tetra undies. I must mention that her legs were not equal in length: the left one was shorter and a bit thinner—hence our conclusion that, sometime in her god-forsaken Moldavian childhood, she must have suffered from polio, and that she—and we—had been very lucky that she’d escaped alive. She was, of course, limping because of that. In our building she was known as “Veronica the Cripple” or simply, “Cripple”.
I was rather fond of Flutur Veronica, for no clear reason. I think I secretly admired her for the stubbornness with which she defended her membership in the “fair sex”, her right to some approximate notion of “femininity”, in spite of her physical disability, her beast-of-burden work, her scarce words and deficient pronunciation. I liked spending time with her in the kitchen, as she stirred the boiling clothes with a big stick, and I sometimes gave her a hand when she hung the sheets up on the line, in the drying room under the roof, while the pigeons pursued their comforting rustle-and-gargle.
Taking advantage of my friendliness, Flutur Veronica asked me to help her in a delicate matter: given that she didn’t have a telephone at her place, and that she had recently been “befriended” by a young man, could she possibly give him our telephone number so that he should call her on the days when she came to do our laundry? I agreed wholeheartedly. “But what’s the young man’s name?” I asked. She replied that his name was Paul and, with a little blush that betrayed her pride, she added that he was a Certified Engineer. From the pocket of her dress she produced a black-and-white photo which, to my disbelief, revealed a dangerously good-looking hunk, the Renato Salvatore type, a guy that you could in no way imagine as “the boyfriend of Flutur Veronica”.
On Veronica’s next visit, the telephone rang a few times, but Paul the Engineer, or whoever it was, instead of Flutur Veronica, asked for Carmen Popescu. After replying “wrong number” five or six times, I went to the drying room, to report to Veronica. “Carmen Popescu?” she said. “But that’s me!” “Why didn’t you give him your real name?” I asked. She whispered with a hint of sad wisdom: “Carmen Popescu sounds much better.” (Later I realised how right she had been: Popescu was an urban surname, which would not embarrass her when dealing with members of the engineering profession. Whereas Flutur was so blunt, so rustic, so uncouth.)
Our co-operation continued with no incidents. Paul the Engineer was not Carmen Popescu’s only suitor. There were others, quite a few in fact: in time, I managed to distinguish between them, I even gave them secret nicknames, and imagined their physical and social portraits.
All the callers had something in common: the voice of a self-confident male, upwardly mobile, with a high school degree in his pocket, maybe even a diploma in Technological Equipment or Socialist Economics. It became clear to me that, outside the walls of our apartment building, during the ambiguous moments of dusk, Flutur Veronica would metamorphose into an experienced and well-appreciated specialist in the forbidden art of casual lovemaking.
One afternoon in October, I went to my mate Florentina’s place, to look for earthworms, in view of our forthcoming vivisection in zoology. Florentina was living in a shared, decrepit old house, a former aristocratic mansion, with the remnants of a garden, across the road from the ISPGC Institute of Civil Engineering, about three blocks away from my building.
As soon as I turned into Florentina’s street, a familiar limp attracted my attention. Flutur Veronica was returning from the shops, with a bag in each hand. As soon as she saw me, her face lit up: “Come to my place! Come see my little house! Come on, I’ll make you a cup of coffee!” I accepted, trying not to reveal the full extent of my enthusiasm. In my excitement, I failed to realise that this was the first time in my life I had been offered coffee.
She lived at the other end of the street from Florentina’s place, in the basement of a two-storeyed building from the thirties. I followed her down the stairs, carrying one of her bags, into a poorly lit corridor that smelled familiarly of thermal heating. She unlocked the door, took off her shoes and placed them on the door carpet, turned on the light and invited me in. I took off my shoes, placed them next to hers, and followed her inside. The room was square, without windows and, because of the low ceiling, seemed larger than it really was.
My nostrils were tickled by a pleasant aroma of freshly ground coffee mixed with nail polish remover. About two thirds of the room was taken by a generous bed, covered in pillows and soft toys. At the end of the bed was a narrow table, its surface neatly divided in two sections: one for plates, coffee pot, cups, fruit preserves, pickles, honey and biscuits; the other for hairbrush, comb, hair rollers, hairspray, body wax, body lotion. Under the table there was a box containing two pots and a frying pan, and an electric plate. In the corner opposite the table: a minuscule sink with a dripping tap, and, on the right wall, a coat hanger displaying Veronica’s two dresses and a mauve synthetic slip.
Since there were no chairs, she invited me to sit on the bed (which turned out to be particularly hard) and propped a couple of pillows behind my lower back. She started fretting around the shopping bags, the sink and the electric plate, and I embarked on a careful study of the walls. The one above the bedhead contained three standard reproductions of The Holy Mother, Saint Dumitru and Saint Paraschiva, framed in pine and covered in greenish glass. In the bottom corner of Saint Paraschiva I recognised the black-and-white photograph of Paul the Engineer.
The main wall, facing the length of the bed, was covered by an impressive collection of female bodies, undressed and mainly blonde, some of them with voluptuous, glistening breasts, whose dimensions I had never seen or imagined before. They had been cut out of “certain” magazines, Veronica proudly explained, which had been given to her, in lieu of her regular washing and ironing fee, by a gentleman in our building who had a nephew in the Federal Republic of Germany and who could therefore access this much sought-after kind of publication. The bodies, black-and-white or fully coloured, photographed in various vertical and horizontal positions, were arranged to form a large circle around a central image, as if their collective reproductive energies had been channelled towards that privileged area. This consisted of a poster-photograph (a centrefold, I was to learn later), featuring a man lying on his tummy, on a leopard skin, looking straight into the camera and displaying a wide, idiotic smile. Exactly like those pictures of beribboned babies and toddlers, lying on their tummies, in the window display of the Baby Foto shop. What made the man even more ridiculous in my eyes was the fact that his wavy hair, his carefully trimmed sideburns, his freshly shaved cheeks, the unlimited optimism in his smile made him look like the archetypal communist comrade, compatible with the brown suit and the attaché case, rather than the hot male from the Wild West of Unrestrained Hormonal Action.
“Have you seen how cute he is?” chirped Veronica, as she stirred the coffee, her black, melancholy eyes fixed on the poster. “Have you noticed his skin? His hair? His arms? His thighs?” I thought she was joking, but noticing her serious expression and feeling the admiration—no, the awe!—in her voice, I understood that for Flutur Veronica the image of that male-on-a-leopard-skin meant something big and existential. I didn’t say anything, for fear I might utter some stupidity, and tried to focus on something else. Somewhere, at the other end of the basement, someone opened a window or a door, and this made Veronica’s door, which until then had stayed open to allow ventilation, slam shut. On the interior side of the door, which had been hidden from my eyes, I discovered, in all its shiny splendour, a magnificent robe de chambre, fit for a courtesan: long, lascivious, silky and black, with red, carnivorous poppies.
That’s when I figured it out. Not just that Flutur Veronica was the only living creature I had ever met who could be categorised as a prostitute. But something far more important: surprisingly and paradoxically, the reason why she fulfilled—single-handedly and with a minimum of infrastructure—this important social and hygienic role, was not her interest in money, or power, or upward mobility. No: her inner motivation was her veneration for the male-on-the-leopard-skin, the joy of discovering him, at least in part, during her timetabled embraces with Paul and her other engineers in transit. Flutur Veronica, in her after-hours identity as Carmen Popescu, had literally turned upside down my Grandmother’s cliché: instead of the dama de consumatie—woman for consumption—she had inaugurated, within the boundaries of my spiritual horizon, and those of my indifferent and insensitive city, the new age of the woman of consumption, who adorned herself with the professional robe de chambre with only one supreme purpose in mind: to offer herself physical pleasure. In the vigorous arms of her occasional men, exempt from useless and empty promises, Carmen-Veronica would be born again: blonde, voluptuous, glistening, free of disabilities, in perfect unison with her joyous sisters on the wall.
I don’t remember how I finally got to Florentina’s place. As we were both scavenging for earthworms through the thick layer of dead leaves, Florentina told me about this cripple who lived in the building at the other end of her street, and who had sex with any man. “Every night, she sees two or three clients. The whole ISPGC Institute is on her regular list. And when she’s finished with that lot, you know what she does? She puts on her robe de chambre and comes out, into the street. My word! She’s fucked them all, even Radu, that guy in year nine, and Stelica, and Simona’s dad. Even the sectorist, even the militiaman from the intersection. Listen to me: come and sleep over on Saturday night, we’ll take the binoculars and we’ll go watch her. See everything with our own eyes! We’ll tell Camelia to join us, huh? What d’you reckon?”
Despite being disgusted with Florentina, the temptation of watching Veronica doing her nocturnal work, in her poppy-adorned robe de chambre, was irresistible. Yet I kept putting off this interesting project, out of my undisclosed solidarity with the owner of that robe de chambre.
In spring, some time in April or May, Flutur Veronica disappeared from our neighbourhood in the same sudden and inexplicable manner in which she had appeared. There were lots of rumours, some of them contradictory, but none could be checked.
For some of the inhabitants, including myself, her robe de chambre continues to materialise, flap-flap—joyous, sad, unmistakably shiny—three blocks away from my old apartment building.
Flutur—Romanian surname; fluture means “butterfly”; a flutura means “to flap”
securitate—Romanian secret police under the communist regimes
sectorist—person in charge of public order in a neighbourhood during the Ceausescu regime