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BUCHAREST

by

Bruce Benderson



Romulus has no patience for the street urchins on Piata Victoriei, those grimy kids who attach their suckered tentacles to us every time we step out of the hotel. With eyes shiny and hard as pebbles, glistening with a paint-thinner high, they never stop their operatic chant for a handout, appealing to us and the Savior in whines, or wailing like some boy's choir with soft sophistic arguments about charity. They grab the hem of our jackets or a sleeve and let themselves be dragged along until Romulus shoos them away with brief curses that sound like a witch's imprecations.

One of the more articulate, who likes to play soccer with a balled-up newspaper after he's sniffed glue, constantly catches my attention. He acts courageous but strikes me as slightly oversensitive, a pouty mouth and a luxurious mop of shiny hair cresting his chocolate brown eyes.

"Why can't we kind of adopt just one while we're here?" I ask Romulus. "Set aside 20 bucks a week for him."

He chortles snidely. "Go ahead and try," he answers with his heavy Transylvanian accent. "Give to him the first installment."

I take out five dollars and the boy pounces on it, inhaling it deep into his stained athletic suit. If he does mumble a thank you, it's quickly overshadowed by the torrent of begging for more.

Suddenly, though, he's ripped backward onto the grass in front of the Benetton store, as four other kids try to tear him to pieces for a share of the take. Limbs cartwheel and small bodies roll through the grass as yelps of pain come from the jumble. Romulus shouts out to stop, like an athletic coach, but they ignore him, and he meets my eyes for a moment with a look of being right, a sense of mastery, which might be a rare feeling for him in his role as a kind of chattel to me. "You see what happens?" he says, clucking his tongue.

"But they're homeless."

"I do not believe it for any moment. I did this as a kid."

The Bulevard, our nineteenth century hotel, is in a perplexing state of disrepair. A sour desk clerk looks past our heads with veiled contempt as we fill out the registration. The lobby doesn't feel like that of any hotel I've ever been in. Among the marble columns and the strange series of vases attached to the walls, which I will later find out held surveillance microphones during the Ceausescu era, are stone-faced, bulky men in black suits. Cher-look-alike beauties in black designer miniskirts, their shiny hair fringing seraglio eyes, long legs ending in gleaming sling-back shoes, lounge panther-like on the scattered banquets, scrutinizing us with tinges of hope but mostly with undisguised disappointment and boredom. Every once in a while, a cell phone rings. One of the thuggish guys extracts it from his suit to answer it, and one of the girls leaves.

Our immense circular room has four bay windows. It's high-ceilinged and aristocratic, except for the fact that the pseudo Louis XV furniture keeps collapsing under us. But with our heavy drapes, mirrored vanity table and brocade couch, as well as the cavernous round space of our room, we soon forget about the rest of the world. Eventually I get the idea of filling a plastic jug with water to make the pull-chain toilet work, and although no one ever appears to make up the room, we learn to put our garbage outside.

A lot of the phone numbers have changed in Bucharest shortly before our arrival. They're installing an updated system. Not only do we never find out our real hotel telephone number, but the few contacts I have, such as the film critic Alex Leo Serban -- who's been recommended by my French friend, the writer Benoit Duteurtre -- turned out to be unreachable. The old phone numbers just ring and ring, and whatever the new ones are aren't listed in the directory.

Our lack of outside contacts throws us into that Cocteauean netherworld of enfants terribles that worked so well for a while when we were at the Gellert in Budapest. There is no greater accessory to romantic passion than an absence of context. Within our Traviata-style stage set we enact hackneyed plots of sensual laziness, intense sex, encroaching boredom, jealousy and suspicions of betrayal. Our first sturm und drang occurs even before we've unpacked our bags, when I ask Romulus for one hundred dollars. A couple of weeks before, on the telephone, he'd said that the last hundred dollars I'd given him in Budapest had red felt marker stains along the edges from the bank, and that no one in Sibui would change it. He'd asked me to wire an extra hundred and promised to give me the stained bills back.

"What do you mean you don't have the hundred?"

"Not no more. Finally in the bar they agree to change those bills with red."

"You were supposed to hold on to them."

"I did not know I needed them."

"How in fuck am I supposed to trust you?"

"Then now I will leave."

"Hello? Are you a pure sociopath? You spent money that you promised you'd give back to me."

"Yes, yes, I needed, you see."

"I don't fucking trust you."

"Good. I am leaving because one hundred lousy dollars is enough for you to lose my faith."

"Alright. Forget it."

"I cannot."

"What?"

"No."

"Look, put down your bag. You're not going anywhere. And as a matter of fact, I'm taking it out of the next sum I give you."

"Of course." He drops the bags to the floor.

In front of the color television and its incessant soccer matches, we learn a series of passional attitudes designed to fit his smaller, steely body into my padded bulk. I'm stretched out on my back with him using my stomach as a cushion, or we sleep entwined like two tarantulas, a perfect balance of lighter on heavier limbs that avoids bone pressure. Or I'll be lying with my head by his waist, so that my hands can wander over his body like tortoises inspecting every blade of grass on a beach.

Because he never complains, I've decided we are in paradise. Visions of him change, but they are always highly sexual, with elements of the predatory. I feel like a falconer with his hawk, that beady-eyed, sharp-beaked and alert but dependent creature that pecks ever so carefully at its master. At other times, his sinuous muscles, devoid as they are of fat, enlace me in the fantasy of a python, our corkscrew entwinings thrilling me into believing myself some circus performer who's ready to chance being strangled for the right to be caressed. But then every so often, he suddenly diminishes to a poor wren, for what is the real difference, except in the sense of motive versus action, between vulnerability and predation?

It is his emotional hunger, often presenting itself as stoical machismo, that keeps promising a trap door into his heart. As we lie there, the unreal atmosphere of the room is as disorienting as the description of some powdery scent in a decadent novel, while snippets of his fairy-tale past float into the air.

"And then what happened?"

"Why you want to know? You will write a book about? The story of my life. Now, such a book that would make."

"How you ended up in Budapest. You were telling me."

"I got to go to the toilet. Toss me those cigarettes."

"Can you hear me?"

"Say?"

"You were telling me."

"They threw me out at eighteen."

"Who, who?"

"Say?"

"Can't you hear me?"

"My parents threw me out, when there was no more money from the state for me, even though they keep the money they got for me when I still live with my grandmother. Throw those matches in here at me, please will you?"

"Your parents threw you out?"

"Surely. They fabricated this fight in V”lcea to make me exit when I was eighteen, which is how I ended up on Corso in Budapest where you find me. But you know, my stepfather wastes what little they have on drink, and soon as I am to coming back, it is money all the time, they take it from all of us, me, Bogdan."

"But tell me again about Macedonia. Come on, come back on the bed."

"Alright, give me the remote, you know they have this erotic evening on TV, every Friday, they showing one of the Emmanuelles."

"I saw some of them in the seventies. What'd you say happened in Macedonia?"

"I am crossing Macedonia two or three times, with two other guys, mostly walking, you know? They throw us out of train at every stop because they don't like our passports, but we just keeping walking and get on at the next station. But then they throw us out again."

"And that's how you made it to Greece?'

"Hmm, hmm, three weeks there, my Greek becoming very functional, but I not write it, not write any of the languages I speak except Romanian."

"Did you ever get caught in Greece?"

"Yes, yes. First time they send me back in closed train with other illegal Romanians. But I climb through window at a station. Two days later they catching me again. 'Let's see you jump from this window,' they say. They put me on a plane. Bring me to plane handcuffed."

"A regular plane?"

"Of course. I get the meals, the drinks. But it is November, still warm in Greece but we land in Bucharest and it is freezing. I wear only tee-shirt. Have to hitchhike back to Sibiu."

"But what about the time you got shot at crossing from Macedonia into Greece?"

"Which time? I went over so many times, I start to make money that way, border guide, you know? I prefer bullets to staying home. Listen, this Mexican border. I read in a Romanian paper that plenty of people cross over to the U.S."

"Come on, Romulus, there are easier ways."

"You do it your way, I mine."

He pulls on the striped velour shirt I gave him. It brings out the pirate, makes his black eyes look velvety. It will be dark soon. Once again, we haven't left the hotel. We throw on light jackets.

The hallways are cavernous and unlit, like the set of Last Year at Marienbad after 30 years of cobwebs. In the lobby, one of the working girls follows us with X-ray eyes. Penetrating, bewildered, resentful. We hit the street, mowing through the begging children clustered at the entrance.

For me, this city has a strange Cabinet of Dr. Caligari feeling. You'd imagine the buildings of Bucharest leaning at weird angles, but, just as is suggested in those Expressionist films, it's really your own grounding that is off-center. You're faced again and again with that amputee, History. Then you yourself begin to feel dislocated.

Dissonant twosome as we are -- he young, lithe, short and sharpfaced with dull, stony eyes; me, older, taller and much bulkier, eyes burning -- Bucharest begins to feel like our landscape. It's part Blade Runner and part Boulevard Haussman. Twilight does not seem to come to the city; it smudges it, I don't know why. We're walking past the glamorous nineteenth century Cercul Militar and its hopes of Parisian glory. An elderly woman stops us, her eyes bright with memories, a weird wild compassion in her trembling voice. When she finds out we're visitors, that we haven't suffered what she has, it sets something off. She recalls Bucharest's old glory for us -- the memories seem to shoot like sparks from her eyes to the tips of her wild, gnarled hair -- she blesses us, begs us, as tourists, to reconstruct the Bucharest of the past for her by eating at Capsa, a formerly famous restaurant with velvet and ebony furniture. Then, as we walk away, the Haussmanian look of Bucharest is suddenly interrupted by an onion dome seventeenth-century church, sprouting like a mushroom between two dank housing projects. I make Romulus go into it with me. Musty, pious and tiny, this Eastern Orthodox church holds genuflecting women with covered heads, gleaming icons, all clustered together with little walking space. Back on the street, wild dogs and even wilder homeless children keep crossing our paths. A Soviet-style housing project has caved into a new, shiny adjoining bank like a Bangkok version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Everything looks pieced together by Crazy Glue, fighting for space, and contradicting everything else, like cubist structures on a baroque wedding cake.

Most interesting to me are the pharmacies. You see, I associate my desire for Romulus, that sense of dislocation he causes, with the white tablets I've been taking: codeine and hydrocodone, and the white tranquilizers that I've begun to take to sleep. And in this pharmacy, with its glass-doored wooden cabinets, the bony-fingered clerk hands to Romulus anything I tell him to ask for. I stock up on 50-pill boxes of tranquilizers and opiates and leave the store feeling incredibly lucky.

We take an eerie cab ride in an attempt to get to the restaurant the old lady mentioned but get lost. It's called the Miorita, after the primal Romanian myth. It's only later that I will ponder that myth of a suicidal shepherd and realize how deeply it seems to articulate some of our experience.

It's 8 PM. We hurry shiveringly down Callea Victorei in search of another restaurant, and pass a large late nineteenth-century palace. We stop and stare at the scallop-shaped canopy leading to the entrance, just as the iron gate is being locked by a grizzled man in a moth-eaten sweater and wool cap. He is, he claims, the conservator of this museum, where George Enescu, the famous composer and musician, used to live, and he wonders -- looking us up and down -- if we would like a private tour. We follow him up the stairs into a terrifying well of pitch blackness, after which he throws on a series of light switches that illuminate heavenly, elegant rooms of polished wood, stucco, plaster cherubs and winged trumpeters. Casually, he yanks open cabinets containing the personal belongings of Mr. Enescu and removes priceless musical scores for us to examine, finger. He tells us -- and this turns out to be true -- that Enescu lived here with a princess who kept the palace in near darkness, due to a disfigured face caused by gasoline burns she'd inflicted on herself after an unrequited love affair.

He takes us to a smaller house in the back of the main building, where he claims the composer spent most of his time. It is only after we have thanked him and bestowed a ten-dollar tip -- a two-day salary -- that we realized he must be the night watchman, hoping to make some extra cash.

We make another attempt to find Mioritsa and our cab driver gets lost again. The taxi ride ends in a mud path, where eerie light from an art nouveau window frame in the almost pitch-black street illuminates the camouflage uniform of a member of the army, who works in this city in conjunction with the police. I want to ask questions, but Romulus cautions me not to trust him. It seems no one asks the police for help.

We cross through to the other side of the street. Why do I feel that I've become lost in a marsh? It's only later that I'll find out Bucharest was built on forested wetlands tangled with roots. Once across the mud, we find ourselves in front of a large, red Victorian house that could have belonged to Psycho's Mrs. Bates. There is a large sign in front of it that says "Opium." We enter out of curiosity, and a woman in a revealing red cocktail dress asks us if we prefer the smoking room (we aren't sure what substance she is referring to), the "bath lounge" or Purgatorio, a room in the basement with chairs decorated alternately with red devils horns and white angel haloes. The establishment is owned by the Romanian actress Ioana Craciunescu, whose much younger partner, director Bogdan Voicu, is working with her to create theater entertainments for the special few.

There are, says the manager Madalin Guruianu, weekly performances in the bath-salon, a bordello-red room featuring an immense golden bathtub. And in the Purgatorio, a new trend of stand-up comedy in English has begun, because, he says, Romanian stand-up is just a series of jokes about our private parts. Next door, in the yellow opium room, there are eerie pantomimes going on among the oriental cushions. But there's no food here. Someone calls us a taxi and, defeated and hungry, we head back to the hotel.







ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bruce Benderson is the author of Pretending to Say No (Plume) and User. He has also written about about boxing for the Village Voice, squatters for the New York Times, and unusual shelters for nest. He is responsible for the coffee-table book, James Bidgood (Taschen), about the until-then anonymous creator of the film Pink Narcissus. His book-length essay, Toward the New Degeneracy (Edgewise) connected bohemian cultures and the urban avant-garde with the culture of poverty and street life. A growing audience in France led to the publication of several of his books in French as well as books published only there, including Sexe et solitude (Payot), about the death of urban space and the rise of internet sex. It was sex that recently drew Benderson to Romania for several months, in pursuit of a mysterious Romanian he met in Budapest. This is an extract from The Romanian, an "erotic-noir memoir" about that risky experience.




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