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Authors: Bruce Benderson

The Romanian

BOOK: The Romanian
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Table of Contents
 
 
ALSO BY BRUCE BENDERSON
James Bidgood
Toward the New Degeneracy
User
Pretending to Say No
JEREMY P. TARCHER/PENGUIN
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA • Penguin
Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada
(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London
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24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
 
Copyright © 2006 by Bruce Benderson
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any
printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy
of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Published simultaneously in Canada
 
First published in French translation in 2004 as
Autobiographie érotique
(Rivages)
 
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promotions, premiums, fund-raising, and educational needs. Special books or book excerpts also
can be created to fit specific needs. For details, write Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Special Markets,
375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.
 
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
 
Benderson, Bruce.
The Romanian : story of an obsession / Bruce Benderson.
p. cm.
eISBN : 978-1-585-42478-8
 
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

http://us.penguingroup.com

FOR REMY
Have you sunk into so deep a stupor that you're happy only in your unhappiness? If that's the case, let us fly to countries that are counterfeits of Death.
—CHARLES BAUDELAIRE
 
 
The sex instinct created a world of its own which was outside the Party's control and which therefore had to be destroyed if possible.
—GEORGE ORWELL
I
THE STRANGER'S HANDS are cracked and callused, coated with something vaguely sticky. From the puffed-out shape of his pants at the knees and the worn fading around his lean buttocks, I guess he's been sleeping in a lot of different places lately. Over a wide black-wool turtleneck collar, his sharp features and high forehead offset a haughty, blasé bearing. Quickly I jerk my hand away from his.
This is my first night in Budapest. Five hours ago, when I set out from my hotel across the Szabadság Bridge, hardly anybody had braved the cold. The few introverted faces I passed seemed disembodied against the tar-colored sky. I'd come here to do a story about brothels for an online magazine. Something personal and literary, the editor had chuckled in his impishly paternal way. Planning to grope my way through the job by sheer instinct and horniness, with little knowledge of the city's history or present, I left the hotel without even checking a map. My rationale was that my own libido was enough to carry me into the unconscious of the place.
I zigzagged recklessly—playing with the dizziness of my jet lag—using the river as an obvious thread of orientation. Deep into the night, around two a.m., I ended up on the Pest waterfront, where chilly gusts sharded the light on inky water. That's where I saw him, through wind-teared eyes, in front of the Inter-Continental Hotel: a black form cut from darkness, topped by a fluorescently pale face; a nose like an enormous shield, over a pouty underlip; and eyes hollowed by hunger and fatigue. I broke the frozen silence by making up something—a club I pretended to be looking for—and he pretentiously claimed to know them all.
We crept along the streetcar tracks, enveloped by the echo of lapping waves and cars humming on the bridge above, leaving our wet, black footprints in the asphalt. That's when he grazed my hand with those rough, coated fingers of his and I jerked it away, afraid of the feel of dry cartilage on his knuckles.
But I've stayed here anyway at the foot of the bridge, as a match flares in his face, bringing out small, distrustful black eyes and their stagy melancholy. His eyes aren't searching mine for pity. They look dead.
He is, it turns out, a Romanian, one of the dozens who prowl this Danube promenade, called the Corso. Struggling to get by without papers, he's been surviving day to day through an underground network of other Romanians, on petty heists, hustling and borrowing from friends.
In a macho gesture, he hands me a cigarette and lights it in a cupped palm. Beneath his plucky gestures is a cynicism so unbending that it sends a shudder down my spine. His name is ancient: Romulus. No people, he explains, including the Italians, feel closer to the Romans, who once occupied the land now called Romania. In fact, the Romanian language is largely pure vulgar Latin and its closest modern equivalent.
With one laconic hand, he sketches a flamboyant biography meant to entice me. It's a smug story about disappointment borne with masculine fatality. This last year, he explains, was the worst punishment of all for being born in a country where the average monthly salary is the equivalent of about eighty dollars. “Not my fault,” he mumbles, “that I was born there,” like a confession an inmate unwisely whispers into an ear, his snake eyes glinting behind curls of smoke. . . .
The noisy waterfront club to which he leads me is a bisexual mishmash. On the little gilded stage with its colored lights is a self-conscious drag show that most people are ignoring. The crowd has that smugness and prudishness that have begun to substitute themselves for hip wherever I travel these days. For the winners of global capitalism there's no more aristocratic sophistication to ape, just the bovine suburbanism of triumphant North America.
By contrast, my new companion has a waterfront scowl, not really hiding a kind of cunning. He may have injected a forced hint of hip-hop into his thuggish walk, probably picked up from music videos, but his half-shut eyelids speak of ancient transactions long before new markets. He is, I realize, as I feel anxiety coating my throat, the reason I took this assignment, and why, despite my American passport that could get me into any so-called sexual utopia, I've bypassed Amsterdam's chilly, predictable, well-run brothels. I'm tired of new Western liberalism. I want Budapest to take me to a vanished world of
Venus in Furs.
Romulus is twenty-four, a child of the last years of Communism, having grown up during Ceauşescu's most oppressive and desperate attempts at industrializing the country. He was, he claims, well on his way to becoming a soccer pro, until his ailing mother put a stop to that by begging him not to travel. After two years of hopeless inertia, he left their two-room sardine can of an apartment in the city of Sibiu, where he'd been squeezed in with her, her husband and two of his half brothers. Then he set out on foot and by bus and train without a visa to a handful of Western European countries. He sneaked over borders, hid in container ships, rode rails. For a while, he even picked up cash as an illicit border guide, dodging bullets between Macedonia and Greece, smuggling Romanian refugees.
Finally, in Italy, he enjoyed one salad year as a successful hustler and car thief, but got thrown out on his ass for a failed heist. Budapest is the last of several attempts to escape bad luck. Pity that it's already dwindling into a sinister love story, a girl's life gone haywire, more about which he'll disclose later.
He shares a room with six others, who charge about three dollars a night for a bed that has to be vacated by eight a.m. for another guy with a night job, after which he spends each aimless day in a shopping mall, playing video games, fencing stolen goods, whatever comes up. Or he hangs out in a basement Romanian bar where the clientele specializes in forged passports, and late at night wanders the Corso, where which the wealth of tricks has dwindled to a trickle by the middle of winter.
His anecdotes of constantly narrowed horizons dovetail with descriptions I'll later read on the Internet about cloak-and-dagger human rights violations in his country during Communism, and after, until the late '90s. What will especially attract my attention are stories of the hunting out of homosexuals in towns and small cities by means of police maneuvers worthy of villains in silent films.
I wrench my eyes away from his death's head—the alcohol has lathed it with a blurry, drowned beauty—to glance once again at the dull, liberal faces of young bourgeois Hungarians milling around us, with their sensibly chic haircuts and inhibited expressions that seem so determined to master the vapid, hedonistic, athletic attitudes of the new economy. They and not he, of course, will be the inheritors of the European Expansion. Wouldn't it be delightful, I decide, to walk across a bridge over black water, in the middle of the night in a strange city and country, with this soon-to-be exile from liberalism? It must be a feeling, I fleetingly think, worth risking one's life for: snubbing up-and-coming Hungarians by putting myself in the hands of a gloomy, nearly homeless desperado. As Europe marches gloriously into the North American model, why not savor his keener feeling of exclusion?
Though I know very well that we're on our way to a sexual encounter—if not a robbery—his suave politeness feels like the kind reserved for an elder, a teacher—not a trick. Yet nothing in it promises that he won't suddenly bring out a knife on the bridge devoid of traffic at four in the morning or even push me into the Danube's razorish black crests. Each step across the bridge brings that lucky feeling of having gotten one more step across it, but always with the one I fear.
The Balkan-romantic, red-velvet-and-mahogany furnishings of the lobby add to this fantasy. The hotel, chosen by chance, is the 1918 Gellért, named after a saint who was slaughtered on the hill above. It's a medieval-looking monstrosity crouched right at the foot, close to the bridge, on the Buda side of the city. As if aware of the awful risk of our pairing, the doorman, who wears red-and-gold braid, lowers his eyes demurely, turning our walk to the elevator into a grave procession.
BOOK: The Romanian
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