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“And now the living room,” Pamfil invited. . . . Ela found it a particularly welcoming environment, not only because it was nicely tidy and clean, but also because everything in it was old, worn-out, and, as such, not strident but rather self-effacing—a notion Ela embraced in her work as a piano teacher even as she sometimes felt it had been an obstacle in her life, keeping her from becoming, if not a concert pianist, then maybe an accompanying pianist for a violinist like Pamfil, or for one of the musical talent shows on TV.
She was good, or better said, she had been good once: now that she was in Pamfil’s home to show her prowess, she felt inadequate. True, she often spent extra hours after teaching keeping her fingers nimble, but somewhere along the way she stopped teaching herself new pieces, and to her that meant she stagnated in the interpretation of the old pieces too, for so often when you’re confronted with the challenge of interpreting a new work, you realize how you may improve an old one. But such thinking was not helping her much at this moment. She had to muster whatever confidence she could and get on with it. She decided to rest a little—and calm down—on the settee before playing, so she wiped her hands on her thighs and spent a few moments studying Henriette, who sat down at the desk, herself too in the throes of anticipation, trying to decide how to approach their act.
“The Thinker and the Lover,” Henriette mused as her eyes glided over the movie poster. “Interesting. ‘Inspired by the novel Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse.’” She turned to Ela and Pamfil. “Have you read this book?”
“No,” they both said in unison.
“So does this mean the thinker doesn’t love, and the lover doesn’t think?” Henriette quipped, heartily amused at the notion.
“We’ll see,” Pamfil said. “I imagine it’s probably about personality dominants than a clear-cut dichotomy. I read somewhere that the ‘lover’ is an artist, so he clearly thinks a bit,” he added with a smile.
Some two hours later they were outside again, walking down Dacia Boulevard to Romana Square.
“So how did you like it?” Pamfil asked.
“I liked that the artist was also a wanderer. Many artists are wanderers at heart,” Henriette said.
“I felt sad for the scholar,” Pamfil said. “He helped Goldmund find his path in life but couldn’t help himself. He died unfulfilled, unloved.”
Henriette shook her head in disbelief at Pamfil’s way of showing his soft side. “But Goldmund loved him,” she countered, even-tempered, keeping her gaze ahead.
“But are they separate people or just separate ideas?” Ela put in.
“What do you mean?” Henriette asked, turning to her friend.
“Maybe Narcissus and Goldmund are facets of the same personality, complementary aspects of one’s psyche rather than opposite characters,” Ela said. “Forces that struggle to express themselves, seeking fulfillment of the mind and the senses.”
“Mediated by the mysterious soul, perhaps,” Henriette interjected with a smile.
“Perhaps.” Ela took in the amber light around her, in the sky and on the beautiful late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century villas of French and Neo-Romanian eclecticism.
Henriette looked at Ela looking at the city at sunset.
“My place?” Pamfil asked. “You could humor me and play some piano,” he added, turning to Henriette. “You and Ela.”
“I’d like to meet him again,” Ela said.
And she did, a few weeks later, in May 2001, when Henriette invited both Ela and Pamfil to one of her performance pieces, Channeled, at another art gallery in Bucharest. The work involved twenty teenagers of various ages typing in a makeshift chat room, in a physical setup that mimicked that of an Internet café, with computers on desks arranged against the walls of the gallery.
When she arrived there with her two friends, Henriette greeted the gallery assistant, grabbed some informational materials, and proceeded to walk around the room in order to catch some glimpses of the chat conversations.
“Remember when I went to Prague for New Year’s Eve in 1999?” Henriette asked.
Pamfil, who had been browsing a brochure, lifted his gaze to Henriette’s.
“With that friend from high school?” Henriette continued.
“Yes, I remember,” Ela said. “When you broke up with Har.”
“Yes, after a year with Har,” Henriette echoed. She looked at Pamfil. “I went to Prague with a guy, and we fought and went our separate ways, and then we met online in a Bucharest channel—a chat room—on mIRC.”
“And then they had champagne on the Charles Bridge at midnight,” Ela said, smiling at Pamfil.
“Yes, we drank champagne when we met on the Charles Bridge,” Henriette told Pamfil. “We opened the champagne and took a picture of us kissing, in the middle of a crowd that pushed from all sides.”
“Nice story,” Pamfil said. He looked at the people typing on keyboards. “What do they write about?” he asked, his eyes now focused on a screen.
“Ask them,” Henriette replied.
“They look like they’re having fun,” Pamfil said.
“The idea is that online chatting is a form of communication that people engage in to alleviate anxiety,” Henriette explained.
“Interesting,” Ela remarked. “They don’t look anxious.”
“Sometimes boredom is just another word for latent anxiety,” Henriette said. “They may seem like they’re opposite notions, but boredom often gives way to anxiety.”
“Is that from your artist’s statement?” Pamfil asked with a smile.
“It is.” Henriette smiled back.
“Is that what you had in mind when you titled the piece Channeled? The fact that you’re channeling young people’s energies into an activity that helps them psychologically?” Ela asked.
“That, and the fact that chat rooms are called ‘channels’ on mIRC. Also, I wanted to refer obliquely to the fact that what’s channeled is the impulse and need for real communication, and what they get is a travesty of that. And yet it has its value. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded very well in conveying my conflicted stance on technology,” Henriette said pensively. “Let’s talk some more over tea,” she added, switching gears.
They headed to a tea house, revved up by their performances for each other.
“So how was Prague?” Ela asked once they sat down and ordered tea and petits fours. “You never told me much about it, except for the fact that you didn’t get to visit any museums.”
“Yes, I went with this bunch from high school,” Henriette said, settling into her seat.
“Were they fun?” Pamfil asked, his eyes boring into Henriette’s.
“If you consider early mornings spent drunk in bars fun, they were fun, yes. I may have been too sober to appreciate it.”
“Did your boyfriend like his booze too much?” Pamfil asked, a mischievous tone in his voice.
“Hard to say ‘boyfriend,’” Henriette said, darting a look at Pamfil.
“Was this some sort of revenge on Har?” Ela ventured.
“Not really. I wanted to get away, that’s all. Try something else.”
“That’s a good reason,” Pamfil said. He wanted to appear lighthearted, but his comment came out brooding.
Ela sought out his gaze. “Is it?”
“Once you try it, you may discover it isn’t,” Pamfil said with a forced laugh as he met her eyes. “But unless you try it, you won’t know. So yes, by any means, getting away is fun.”
“But we can’t stay away,” Ela retorted. “Shouldn’t we try to work on our routine instead?”
“Routine. Interesting notion. I’ve thought of it too. Don’t give it much credit, but yes, I’ve given it a lot of thought,” Pamfil said, his eyes lively.
“And?” Ela asked dryly.
Pamfil gave her a keen look. “And it can be a killjoy.”
“Even the routine with a loved one?” Ela probed, peering through the large windows at passersby so as to avoid Pamfil’s piercing eyes.
He kept watching her graceful profile. “There is no routine with a loved one. Lovers are supposed to change each other all the time.”
“Really? You can change men?” Henriette blurted, amused.
“Some women can change some men, yes,” Pamfil responded without missing a beat.
“Hey! Glad you could make it!” exclaimed Henriette, enveloping her younger friend Ela in a hug and wafts of sea breeze fragrance before giving her the customary kiss on both cheeks.
Ela readjusted her glasses, amused at how exuberant Henriette still was at thirty-four.
“Should we go in?” Henriette prompted, opening the door with a flourish.
Ela stepped gingerly into the exhibition space. “Beautiful place,” she remarked, noting how the sunbeams streaming through the large glass wall glinted off the rough, irregular surfaces of bronze-cast works.
“Coffee, tea?” Henriette asked as Ela removed her scarf and trench coat.
“Tea. But I want to look at the sculptures first.”
“See if you can spot mine,” Henriette called after her.
A few moments later the bell on the door tinkled, and Pamfil, a tall, dark-eyed man with a mop of wavy black hair entered the gallery, his eyes on Henriette.
“Hello, Ettie,” he said with a smile, taking a cursory look around the gallery. Ela was by now at the other end of the room, engrossed in a sculpture depicting a hybrid between the torso of a woman and the trunk of a tree.
“Hello, Phil,” Henriette returned nonchalantly.
“How are you doing?” Pamfil asked.
“Came to see the show with a friend of mine,” Henriette responded. She grabbed a tea mug and headed with Pamfil in tow to where Ela was photographing a work displaying a heart squeezed under a tall stack of books.
“Reminds me of Har,” Ela said, taking the mug from Henriette. “He’s spending more time with books than with people.”
“He does,” Pamfil interjected carelessly, throwing the remark in Henriette’s direction.
Henriette gave him a sly smile.
“You know Haralambie?” Ela asked, turning to the new visitor with curiosity.
“Heard this and that about him,” Pamfil responded, his words slipping out slowly, carefully as he appraised Ela’s soft chestnut eyes and thick eyebrows, her dark ringlets, and her petite body, inviting in a flattering dress and waist-length cardigan. His eyes lingered a moment too long on her breasts.
“Sorry, where are my manners?” Henriette blurted. “Ela, this my friend Pamfil. Pamfil, this is Ela, my very good friend.”
The two guests shook hands, their faces lit up by smiles.
Henriette looked around the room, pretending to ponder the exhibition. Her gaze returned to the heart sculpture. “So you recognized one of my pieces,” she said to Ela, while the latter sipped her hot, minty brew. “Here’s another,” she went on, pointing her guests to a Janus-faced flattened head kissing a woman on each side.
Pamfil spent a moment taking in the work. “Cute. You must have really enjoyed shrinking this guy’s brain,” he teased.
“Is that revenge on someone from your past?” Ela asked.
Henriette bypassed her friends’ last remarks. “How’s your tea, Ela?”
“Girls, I have to bow out,” Pamfil said. “It was nice seeing you, Ettie.”
Henriette couldn’t restrain a smirk.
Pamfil put out a hand to Ela. “Nice meeting you, Ela.”
When she and Henriette had also departed, Ela turned to her friend. “That guy, Pamfil . . .” she started. “He’s rather handsome.”
“He is,” Henriette affirmed.
“How do you know him?” Ela asked.
“We met at a party.”
“Do you like him?”
“He’s okay,” Henriette responded, a little disconcerted.
“I’d like to meet him again,” Ela said.
“Why are you always leaving your things in the middle of the floor?” Haralambie asked. His girlfriend didn’t respond, so he stepped out of the kitchen into their living room.
He had left her writing up a statement for some of her recent sculptures. Now he found her stretching in her chair, her fingers woven through her long, wavy red hair. She gave him a rueful look and then settled back to get on with her work at the computer.
“Henriette, this is not just your studio. I live here too,” he said with a sigh. He crouched to gather her latest clay pieces, her sculpting utensils and plastic sheets, and took them to the balcony. Henriette helped, but halfheartedly. Her mind was on the blurb she was drafting that morning. She said as much to Haralambie, but her focus had already shifted, so when he returned to the kitchen to finish his coffee and smoke another cigarette, she put on a sixties rock ballad. Soon she was swaying gently to and fro, swinging her arms around gracefully, and twirling her hands up in the air—until she noticed Haralambie’s tall, slim body leaning against the doorframe.
“Is that what it’s like at those parties of yours?” he asked.
“No, but that’s how I like it sometimes,” she responded provocatively, a wicked smile on her lips.
Haralambie walked over to her, cupped her face in his hands, and planted a kiss on her lips. “You’re not sixteen anymore, Henriette, and you know it.”
If you like to read about art, music, tight friendships, and lovers who’d like to think of themselves as rational, I have the right book for you 🙂
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