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from the January 2015 issue

The Agent

Hope returned that afternoon when the stranger showed her the photograph of an old house in Bessarabia. The real-estate agency’s closing had been a disaster. Marina had been trying to turn ruin into a passing dilemma for weeks, so when the new client popped out of nowhere, she took it as a sign. He was a distinguished gentleman of uncertain age. Unlike so many others, he was determined to buy. He had an old-timey air, and it seemed right to meet over tea in the airy garden of a teashop that spoke of old times.

She said, “The more I know about your dream house, the greater our chances of finding something you like.” Calculating rapidly, she figured it would be a matter of digging around, Western marketing tricks, a smaller commission.

“I’m the last of my family, little lady,” the client said in his old-fashioned way, “and I’m looking for a quiet place to remember things. Like when I was a child—that was before we became refugees—my mother and grandmother used to make cozonac. The Russians in our town called them babka. Anyhow, I’ve never eaten anything like them again, and it’s no surprise.” Marina nodded. For some reason she was beginning to feel hypnotized. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had called her little lady, but the client was saying, “For thirty-five pounds of cozonac you need four hundred egg yolks and ten whites. The rest you just throw to the pigs. Then you take several pounds of butter and Salatnei sunflower oil, because that’s the best (and most expensive), around a quarter gallon of milk and a little sour cream . . .And things like that, you understand . . . a tranquil place for seeing things again . . . in my mind.”

Sometimes, the man across from her would close his eyes mid-sentence. Marina thought, he looks like a man who’s come to a crossroad and can’t decide which way to go. He can’t be used to talking about himself. Interrupting would be a bad idea. When he looked at her, she smiled. It was odd to feel her professional expression warming into something else.

“I sold my fountain pen collection two weeks ago after who knows how much soul-searching and insomnia. I made out well with that, and I figured I’d set myself up here in Bucharest where my parents landed after their second round as refugees. This city is all mixed up, chaotic, undecided, dizzy, as we like to say: convoluted. It isn’t oriental or occidental—not even both at once. It’s a jelly, and I’m going to feed on this jelly till I find what I need. In Paris, London, New York, you get a sense that the city is falling on top of you sometimes—that whole load of architecture, history, settled institutions, hierarchies, dimensions, perfections. Don’t you think a great history can be a great burden? For me, anyhow, it’s the other way in Bucharest: I feel light and easy, ready to pass through the gates of the past.”

Marina paused a second before asking, “Yes, but in the house or apartment we’re looking for . . . what exactly are you hoping to recall?”

“I don’t know. I’m waiting to see what the spot tells me. My parents’ last place was on Sfinții Apostoli—Holy Apostles’ Street. They stayed there for more than twenty years. Could you find me something there?”

“Sure. We’ll try. Could you leave me a name, a phone number?”

“My name is Ilie Hagiu. You’ll remember, since the name means ‘pilgrim.’ I’ll leave you a hotel phone.” He held out a card with an address in the center of town.  

So far so good, Marina reckoned. An owner she’d worked with before had let her know he had an apartment on Stada Sapienței, a stone’s throw from Sfinții Apostoli. The way he put it, the place was recently renovated, and he would let it go semi-furnished. The market kept dropping, besides, so an investor with an apartment to sell had better move. Waiting for prices to turn around could be a matter of months or years. All in all, this was a chance not to be missed. What else could she find in such a restricted area? If the apartment more or less matched the client’s expectations, then Marina knew what she had to do.

“I think I have something in the area.” Marina turned on the professional charm. “I’ll call when we can take a look.”

She’d worked in real estate for five years. Twenty had passed since the fall of Communism, and sellers still didn’t understand: the first impression is the one that counts. This time, Marina figured she’d run the show by the book. Money was short. A cleaning lady was out of the question. There was no guarantee Hagiu would buy, so she’d just take care of everything herself.

She got the keys from the owner on the day: bathroom first. Like DNA strands forgotten at a crime scene, dried, matted hair twisted among the drainage holes. Bath, kitchen, bed- and living rooms—it would take a day to scour the place down, but she’d set aside rags, cleaning products, gloves. She’d found a bucket and mop in a closet and lugged over the vacuum from home.

Marina rolled up her sleeves for bathroom and kitchen and ended up in the balcony and entrance hall. It was true, a man’s home is an extension of his body, and each one gradually took on the look of the person who lived there. Scrubbing the floors, scraping bits of earth from the woodwork, washing the windows, she tried to erase the imprint of the owner’s life, his thoughts and words and his family’s too, and the traces of anyone who had ever passed through that place with all his loves, hates, tastes, quarrels and sorrows.

In a lather, Marina finished just before dusk. The client would show up any moment. Her guts growled. She squirreled away the cleaning smock, doused herself with deodorant. The doorbell echoed through the empty, gleaming rooms. Marina took a deep breath, and if the place didn’t smell like a brand new house, it had a fresh air what with all the scouring and Mr. Clean.

Ilie Hagiu said, “Kiss your hand,” in the Romanian style, as Marina opened the door.

“Please come in.” Marina very nearly took Hagiu by the hand and showed him the space she’d created for him. She restrained herself in time and ushered him into the hall that gave onto the two large rooms. Hands behind his back, brows drawing a line above his nose, Hagiu listened to her explanations, looked around and concentrated on some detail from time to time. He followed her silently, poker-faced. She couldn’t tell if the apartment pleased him or not.

“And here’s the kitchen. It comes fully equipped, as you see, and I’ve taken advantage of the occasion to surprise you.”

“Surprise me,” he echoed in a neutral tone she couldn’t interpret. He might as well have said “good morning,” and gone on to other things.

“Forgive me if my idea strikes you as unusual, but I thought you might like to give the kitchen a try.”

“I should try it out . . .”         

“You told me how they make cozonac in Bessarabia. I thought . . . Wouldn’t you like us to make the dough and give the oven a run? We have everything we need. I’ll give you a hand.”

“Little lady, do you have a craving for cozonac?”

“Don’t you?”

“But is the owner all right with this?”

“He didn’t specify when he gave me the key . . .” Finally, she’d made him laugh.

“I assume you also thought to bring an apron?”

“Two.”

“Who does what?”

“If you tell me the quantities, I can mix the flour, milk, eggs, butter, and whatever else, and you knead. How’s that?”

Marina tried to convince herself that she hadn’t failed the test in emotional marketing; that, in spite of a little awkwardness, the cozonac was a good idea. She paid attention to the recipe so as not get the quantities mixed up. She ground walnuts and grated the rind of a lemon. She broke eggs hoping she had enough and separated the yolks. She measured milk with a teacup. She left a little cube of yeast ready to hand. She prepared a glass of oil, a packet of butter, the sugar. It was the first time in her life she’d had the patience to put together the ingredients for such a complex pastry.

“Little lady,” Hagiu said, tying on his apron, “my mother and my grandmother used to call a strong peasant woman to work the dough, which needs constant warmth, and perfect silence to rise. They closed all the doors and windows. My sister, our cousins, and I weren’t allowed to help, so we hung around eavesdropping from window to door. The woman would pant for hours at a time. Somewhere between groan and sigh, her noises were like gasps of love, and you might have thought she was kneading infants in there, not cozonac. A lot of things went through our minds . . . I was in love with Gulea. I turned red imagining her powerful body, like a nature spirit’s, and fell into a vertigo when I tried to imagine more-or-less how it would be to be grown and hold her in my arms.”

 

Ilie Hagiu began to knead the dough. He would stop kneading occasionally and take a lump of flour between his fingers. Kneading carefully, he’d mix it well into the yellow paste. Marina went on imagining him as a child, sneaking up to the kitchen door to hear what the ladies of the house said as they made cozonac. His face showed no emotion. His whole being seemed concentrated on the work—from head to toe. With all his muscles, with his whole mind, and whole soul, he went on evenly kneading the dough that was stretched, rotated, gathered, beaten, twisted, and the plastic mixing bowl too, with the day, and its hour and place and the building and the street, and the old neighborhood with houses and mulberry trees and the new quarter with apartment blocks and plane trees, all of it kneaded into a single great magma of the present.

“You aren’t kidding around with this, she tried to joke.

“Ah, I think there are few trades I haven’t followed, and few countries I haven’t wandered through. Maybe you’ve realized, I’m a nomad like the Nogai Tatars of Bessarabia. As soon as I settle somewhere, a longing to leave gets hold of me.”

“But you don’t buy houses everywhere you go. If you’ve chosen Bucharest after all, it means something holds you here, doesn’t it?”

“Memories, little lady. My folks lived through the maelstrom of history. In June 1940, I was with Mama at Sotir’s pastry store, toward evening, like now. We were eating ice cream. Thin smoke rose in the distance, beyond the courthouse. It was the hour when the peasants coming home from the field made straw fires for supper in their summer kitchens. We were startled to find Father coming in by the door with the little bell. Hands thrust behind his back, he asked, ‘Will you be staying long?’ in an unusually severe way. Mama was very embarrassed. Everyone was looking at us. We finished eating, said good-bye to Sotir, and left. Outside Mama said, ‘What was that spectacle? Everyone was staring at us. You’re the school principal!’ Father whispered, ‘Marusea, Basarabia has fallen!’ ‘Fallen?’ Mama had a weak heart, and she was rooted to the spot. My father said, ‘OK. OK. Calm down! Calm down! Here’s the situation: The king has signed us away for nothing.’ The next day we woke to Russians riding on tanks, as announced over the radio the previous evening. The news was being broadcast every fifteen minutes. Please pour some more oil. That’s it, just so it doesn’t stick . . .. I can see our street full of Ruskies, some with boots made of waterproof canvas (the kind they used to make feed sacks from), some with sneakers disguised with boot polish. They wore khaki trousers made of cotton duck, and over that duck Russian shirts, and they wore peaked caps. The Russian women who came with them on the tanks wore khaki skirts and Cossack-style military blouses, though others wore red calico skirts and blouses with little flowers: ragtag and bobtail, the poorest of the poor. Scowling, unshaved, with a fixed stare, looking as I’d never seen him, Father said only: ‘We have to leave.’ A Marxist Socialist excise man we knew, a Mr Cârciu, showed up at the gate just then to say ‘Don’t go anywhere, Mr. Principal.’ Father panicked. ‘Why shouldn’t I leave, Cârciu? I’m Romanian: how can I stay under Russians?’ Mama kept having palpitations and sat from time to time to catch her breath. Word went round, there were no more trains. Everything had stopped. Two days later Cârciu came back so frightened it was as if he couldn’t believe it himself. ‘Mr. Principal, you’d better leave! This isn’t the Communism I know. These are criminals.’ Father harnessed the horses to the wagon right away, and we were able to leave. Part of the family—aunts, uncles, cousins—were already at Chisinau, waiting for the Bucharest train. Grandma stubbornly stayed behind. No one could budge her. One night after we left the Russians overran the house, put her in a truck, and took her to Siberia. I never heard another word. If she could see me kneading cozonac . . .”

“She’d be glad, no?”

“Little lady, do I know? That’s it. I’m covering the cozonac, and mum’s the word!”

Backs to the wall, facing a window, Marina and Hagiu retreated to a couple of fat Turkish floor pillows and waited for the cozonac to rise. Facing each other wasn’t comfortable the way they were sitting. Her mind felt overheated and cluttered. She tried to breathe in counter rhythm, picking up his scent until he took her head in his hands. He drew the contour of her eyebrows with his pointer. The finger took a trip down her nose, stopped in the middle of her lips, and sealed them with the sign of silence.

He lifted her then, drew her close. She took a step and climbed barefoot onto his summer shoes. That’s how they flew over the city. They crossed the Prut over the roads were the Nogai Tatars galloped behind a cloud of dust, then over the towns of Bessarabia with their wattle houses freshly limed. They left behind the boys’ school, the church, the home in which a young man read a nameless book with empty pages, dog-eared from so much reading, and the gipsy minstrels from before the war. Descending over the shore of the Black Sea, they arrived at the blinding sun of the Bosphorus toward Marmara, and let themselves down on the backs of dolphins that accompanied ships, leaping above the water in a dust of golden drops. They were wet to the skin and didn’t care. They floated in a single body of sparkling water and dove lightly into the depth, in the memory of the seas, embraced.

"Agenta," © by Tatiana Niculescu Bran. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Jean Harris. All rights reserved.

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