It was Sunday morning, so Radu went for four more beers. He brought them back to the room for himself and Andrei.
The room was on the first floor. There were two beds, one on either side of the big window that faced onto the street. Between the beds and under the window was a table. They were ugly beds and it was an ugly table. It was an ugly room. The pipes from the floor above had leaked and the plaster on the ceiling in the bathroom was coming off in chunks and the walls were discoloured. The hot water tap was broken and hissed a stream of scalding water down the drain. There was no toilet seat and the bowl was caked with history.
It was student accommodation. Andrei was a student, though he never studied, and it was his room. Radu had moved in after his wife kicked him out. He had a good job in computers and had had a good apartment until his wife caught him cheating. He didn’t like living with Andrei and he didn’t like the room. He didn’t like the way Andrei slept late with both his sheets wound around him tightly, the vile stains on his old mattress exposed to the world.
But everything would change when Radu got his visa for Canada. He put down the four beers on the table, where a car magazine lay open. Models stood beside the cars, smiling. He was already planning how to spend his money.
Radu paced. He wanted to talk. Andrei was a good listener.
He never interrupted. But he had no purpose in life. He never maJe his bed, for example, or cut his toenails. Radu wanted to explain to him the need for purpose. He held his bottle in his left hand and gesticulated with his right.
– Take me for example. My nasty cunt of a wife is divorcing me and from now on my son will hear nothing but lies about me from her and the in-laws. I’ll have to give her money for the rest of my life. I can’t get back in my own apartment and I live in this shithole with you. You could say I’m pretty washed up, couldn’t you?
Andrei said nothing. He just looked. He was sitting on his bed. He held the half-drained bottle of beer balanced on his knee and his mouth was slightly open. He felt a little dizzy.
– Well. How you respond to life’s challenges defines you as a person. Someone else would limp along for years in Bucharest feeling bad. What’s gone is gone. I’m going to Canada. Tomorrow I have my interview at the embassy. Romania is finished for me. I’m going to start fresh in a new country. In a couple of years I’ll have a standard of living you can only dream about. That’s taking failure and turning it into success, Andrei, and you can’t do that unless you have direction, an aim.
He paused, and was glad Andrei didn’t try to confuse the issue.
– I think that explains what I was talking about earlier.
– I suppose.
Time passed and nothing happened except for cars and buses and a tram and a couple of trucks. Being Sunday, there was less of everything. Radu stood by the window and Andrei sat on his bed. Radu said:
– When I finish this beer I’m going to get sucked off by a gypsy girl.
– Do you think I’m going to treat you?
– You’re right. We’ll have a drink when I come back.
After the gypsy Radu stood in the bright sun at the kiosk at the intersection and had a beer and a cigarette and felt pleasantly relaxed. Although she hadn’t been much good he felt he had achieved something. She had cost the same as four beers. You got what you paid for. Radu tilted the bottle back and watched two fine young student girls go by in tight trousers. The summer’s fashion was trousers so tight you got more than a hint of crack. Cunts.
An expensive car pulled up and all the men stared. There wasn’t anything else in the street to look at. In Canada, thought Radu, I’ll have one of those. An expensive woman got out the passenger side and leaned over at the kiosk to ask for something. Cigarettes. All the men in the street looked at her. And one of those, thought Radu. She got back in the car. The car took off for the centre. Its tyres squealed.
Radu put four beers on the table.
– Was it good?
– Oh yes. A lively little thing. Swallowed. If you had some money you could have gone too. But you don’t have any money, do you?
Andrei swigged the beer.
– What are you going to do for beer when I’m in Canada?
Andrei looked around. There was no answer. They drank in silence for a while and listened to traffic. A tram rattled by. It was very monotonous. They finished the beers.
– You get them this time. Here’s money.
The next beers they drank hanging out the window looking at girls. It was a hot day and there was plenty to see. One girl passed below their window, graceful in a light flowing summer dress, and when she was directly beneath she looked especially good, the thin material clinging to her half exposed breasts. Radu found Andrei particularly stupid-looking while drunk and watching women. His mouth hung open and his eyes were dim and glossy.
– Andrei! Here’s the cunt for you!
It was an old lady shuffling along in the heat. She was carrying two bags. She wore a coarse brown skirt and her face was weary with her burden and the heat. Andrei smiled.
Then a slim young girl flowed by. She wore a white T-shirt and her nipples projected. Radu and Andrei both leaned out the window as she passed by underneath.
– She’s mine, said Andrei.
– In your dirty dreams. Hey! My friend has something for you!
She didn’t look up. They watched her glorious retreating rear. A man who was walking by stared up at Radu. He stared up a little too long. He had a shiny red tan like a peasant and wore baggy trousers like a gypsy and Radu didn’t like the way he was looking up at him. He didn’t like being looked at like that by a lowlife with his hair in a communist-era side-parting.
– What? said Radu.
But it sounded like, Keep Walking, Fucker. And the man stopped. There was another man just behind him. He had the same bad hair, too long on top, the same hard burnt skin.
– You’ve got a big mouth.
– Crawl back up your mother’s cunt.
More greetings, then the first man with the bad hair invited Radu down to explain.
Radu pulled Andrei from the window.
– Come on!
– I don’t know…
Radu ran down the stairs, Andrei clattered behind in flip-flops. As soon as Radu hit the bright street it all felt wrong to him. He hadn’t been in a fight since he was at school and the man was walking straight at him and clearly there wasn’t going to be any shouting. Then he was on the ground.
It was the dream. It was the dream where he was spitting fragments of teeth. The one where for no reason at all his teeth were crumbling in his mouth and he was spitting the fragments. The dream had occurred with regularity through the years and he had wondered what it meant. There were other dreams of course. The one where he was about to have sex but never could because of a chain of interruptions and distractions. The dream where he was in a public place such as a bus or a classroom and he was naked. The dream of trying to arrive somewhere and getting lost and the clock against him, a dream that lasted hours and only ended when he awoke exhausted in his bed to begin the day. But the dream of the broken teeth was the simplest and most consistent: and now it had come true.
Cheap black slip-on shoes and white socks were in front of his face. The shoes were kicking him in the ribs and shoulders. Kicked to death by slip-on shoes! It wasn’t funny. He saw specks of blood on the white socks. He closed his eyes.
He waited until he was sure the shoes were gone before he opened his eyes. He raised himself up on his elbow. The old woman of the brown skirt was at the bus stop. She and Radu looked at each other. Her bags were on the ground at each side of her and she covered her mouth with her hands. She had seen something terrible. There were some young people also at the bus stop, also watching. People in cars were slowing down to look. The whole street was watching. Radu could feel the rows of windows of the apartment blocks squinting down at him.
– Andrei! Get up!
His voice was strange. His lips were mashed.
Andrei’s flip-flops lay nearby. He got up painfully and put them on.
They went inside. They held toilet paper to their wounds. Radu’s two upper front teeth were broken and his lip poured blood. His right cheekbone was grazed. Black grains of dirt were lodged in the skin. He kept sighing automatically and each time he did a sharp pain in his ribs caught his breath. Andrei had a small deep cut under his left eye. The eye was swollen closed. Also, he had sprained his left wrist. They sat for a long time, maybe thirty minutes, not talking. Two beers sat unfinished on the table. The street had grown quieter and they were sober.
When they got back from the hospital it was dark. Radu sat with a wad of gauze to his lip. Andrei lay on his bed facing the wall. The buses and trams and trolleybuses passed with less frequency now. They were winding up for the night. The cockroaches came out and patrolled the linoleum. Radu wished it were next week or next year. He wished he was far away. He wished he were someone else, another man entirely. It was not so much the pain-they had given him a painkiller at the hospital-but to have been beaten. Thrown to the ground and beaten like a dog. And by someone he would despise for his hair, his clothes, his job, his speech. Practically a gypsy. And his broken teeth were the mark of his defeat. The strange dream had become reality. The two teeth that people saw every time he spoke or smiled. He had had very fine teeth and had never thought about it until now. And so life passed, like a judgement. Teeth were supposed to be solid, stronger than bone. Nothing in the body stronger. People who had been in the earthquake in seventy-seven said that the most unsettling thing was that the earth had always seemed solid.
That was how it had been when he went to his apartment to be forgiven by his wife and the locks on the door were changed. She let him in and explained about the law. It didn’t seem fair. If she had really loved him she wouldn’t have taken advantage of a mistake in such a way. He felt she had been waiting the whole time for him to take a wrong step while he, credulously, believed their relationship had a solid foundation. He looked back at all they had done together, all they had said to each other, all the times they had made love to each other, and he did not know what was real. How could something real disintegrate so easily?
He uncapped a beer and drank. In keeping the bottle from contact with his injured lip and the gauze he had some spillage. A thin stream of beer and blood and saliva trickled down his neck and the middle of his chest, right down to his shorts.
– Andrei, drink a beer with me.
Andrei was wound up in his sheet, turned away from Radu. As usual the mysteriously stained mattress was naked to the world.
– Andrei, I’m sorry.
Andrei didn’t reply.
Radu solved the problem of spillage by dismantling a ballpoint pen and using the plastic tube as a straw. He derived satisfaction from his ingenuity. By confronting the challenges imposed by their environment human beings achieve technological progress. He remembered reading that somewhere. But getting halfway down the bottle he had to tilt it so the tube would reach the beer and he had another spill. The gauze was heavy with beer and pulled at his lip. He poured the beer into a cup and drank with the tube from the cup.
– Andrei, these painkillers are no good. My lip is throbbing. I’m going to take another one.
– They said not to drink with it.
– They say many things.
– You won’t have another for the morning.
– It’s not like you to talk like that. Anyway, what did Jesus Christ say about tomorrow? Do you remember?
Andrei didn’t reply.
– He said the birds of the air don’t think about tomorrow.
Radu took the painkiller and started on another beer. In the end it was not such a bad day after all. A warm glow spread over his body. It began with a pleasant tingling in his limbs and expanded to encompass the table, the coffee cup full of tepid beer and Andrei, curled up like a child in his sheet.
Outside, cars passed by smoothly, symphonically. The glow expanded with the minutes and spread across the sprawling exhausted city, and over its citizens, now climbing into their beds. He saw into the rooms and apartments of the blocks, thousands of cells, an electrically lit honeycomb sliced open with a knife. The glow spread across the trams and buses and along the tramlines, which ran like a lacing of nerves across the city’s concrete skin. It took in the crumbling houses of the gypsies and the howling wastelands of the stray dogs between the blocks. It took in the phonelines strung above the streets and it took in roads with six lanes of traffic, wide as rivers. Neon signs atop the buildings in Piata Unirii blinked cooly at the House of the People.
The city was held together by invisible electricity. When Radu closed his eyes he heard it humming in his body, moving up and down his spine. He remembered the doctors and nurses at the hospital and gratitude for their goodness welled up in his chest and made him want to weep. They hadn’t treated him with contempt for being drunk, for being beaten. They had been professional and kind. Nurses in white floated down silent corridors like angels. A hot tear trickled down his left cheek. It was beautiful.
He opened his eyes. He was in Canada. He was reclining in a large black chair, a dentist’s chair. He was very high in the air. The transparent walls of the room overlooked a city of gleaming glass and metal towers and spires. Past the skyscrapers a vast lake shimmered silver. White trails from jet aircraft criss-crossed the cold blue winter sky and the slow clear sounds of a violin concerto issued from somewhere in the ceiling.
A tall man in a white coat stood with his back to Radu, contemplating the city. His hands were clasped behind his back. He exuded calm. This was the dentist. The city was Toronto and the lake was Lake Ontario. The dentist turned slowly to face Radu. He was extraordinarily handsome. His hair was grey flecked with black, his beard black flecked with grey. His eyebrows were black and well-defined and these, with his piercingly intelligent dark eyes and his slightly hooked nose, gave him the look of a hawk. He spoke gravely, in English:
– You know, when I was a boy, in Armenia, on just such clear cold mornings as this, when frost was on the earth, I would leave my father’s house for school and, looking West, would see the snowy peak of Ararat, clear in the distance.
The dentist paused, and looked again over the city. He turned and spoke again:
– I can remake your teeth. In fact, stronger, with the materials and technology we now have at our disposal.
Radu tongued the jagged gap where his teeth should be.
The dentist continued.
– The way science is progressing, with enough money it will even be possible to arrest and reverse physical decline.
The dentist turned back towards the window. He nodded slowly to himself. The great city spread beneath him.
Radu woke with the hard light breaking through the window. He looked at his watch. The face was cracked. He was sick and his mouth hurt. He found Andrei’s second painkiller on the table by his side of the bed. Walking to the bathroom to piss he was unable to stand straight. Low down at the back of his head was a terrible pressure. He took the painkiller with water.
The bathroom hadn’t changed. The ceiling continued losing chunks of plaster, the walls were stained, the hot tap ran and ran and hissed down the sinkhole. He remembered he had an interview at the Canadian embassy at nine. It was ten. He stared at his face in the mirror. Bad news all over.
And his teeth were broken.