There are only instants, got it? Instants, instants counted by telephone companies. You can’t let a single instant pass without saying yes. If you start thinking the whole thing’s damned. Nothing matters but that it should cost money. If you cost money, you exist.
Once a year my grandmother travelled to Monte Carlo to play cards. I don’t know how she did it, but my grandfather took it for granted that she should go and go alone, just as he did the fact that after fourty-nine, from dawn to sunset for thirteen years he had to cut rice somewhere in Dobrogea.
Once a year my mother travelled to Szováta, to the salt baths as she’d say. I happen to know how she did it: she procured a referral from her medical friends. My father knew all too well that my mother was going to pick up all kinds of men even there, but it fitted his world-view.
It’s high time I thought of something myself. Although, to tell you the truth, I got quite used to my work. My mother is almost proud of her daughter and as for me, sitting glued to the phone getting ready to sound easy-going, attractive and playful when he calls, as an intelligent man expects you, fills my days. No, not for the money: it is for their time they think twice fifty times before calling because, you see, I do indeed work with filthy rich clients from far far away abroad, to my mother’s delight. She, by the way, even if only an amateur, made history on the phone, conjuring up a different scenario for all her boyos in case my father or I happened to pick up the receiver. (That is, for as long as my father still lived with us.) Some would ask for the drug-store and pour a deluge of apologies for the error, some simply asked for Mónika and some for the grocery store, and they would come down upon me for answering it if I wasn’t the grocery store. She unfailingly knew what role to cast on whom. Back then my mother, in all justice I admit, thought nothing in the world of my abilities. I must have been around seventeen when the first male phone-call was for me, mother eavesdropped along in the kitchen with the neighbour woman, no, that was all they heard and that was more than enough. When I joined them in the kitchen my mother had already drawn the conclusion that in all likelihood I was unfit to survive.
Not a very promising career start, to be sure. But having realized that, with all my potential male and female siblings gone the way of all curettaged flesh, there was hardly any other material on her hands, she enforced patience upon her distraught features and sized me up, causes and consequences succeeding each other unappealably in her lovely head and at last, yielding as usual to her lascivious vengefulness, she informed me that she would make a callgirl out of me.
Whatever they ask, whatever they say or request: yes, yes, yes. You say it whenever the occasion presents itself. If twenty ask for it, you’ll say twenty times to twenty: yes. The only thing that matters is they shouldn’t know about each other. There are only instants, got it? Instants, instants counted by telephone companies. You can’t let a single instant pass without saying yes. If you start thinking the whole thing’s damned. Nothing matters but that it should cost money. If you cost money, you exist.
I would have preferred to retreat to my den and read Three Sisters Atop the Cupboard. But more and more often I had to pick up the phone and giggle. Am I calling at the wrong moment? Oh not at all, quite on the contrary, I’ve already been waiting for you. But you sound in a bad mood. Oh no, how could I be? and I’m trying to work my voice up. My mother, hearing my ineptness, taught me to work not from my throat but from the pit of my stomach. I was amazed at how intimate I became by a mere voicing modulation.
She resolved to put me on the international services, a decision well served by my grandmother’s sole educational principle: that the child should learn foreign languages. I couldn’t yet read and write but she had already contracted an English teacher for me, in a year I started German and in yet another year, French. It was already by myself that I took up Spanish and Latin, the Latin of course I kept quiet as it would hardly have benefited me any end in my career. My mother and her mother were mistresses of living for the instant. Never for a second would they consider that I might end up in some place like my grandmother, I don’t mean Monte Carlo of course but the rice fields where English, German, French and Spanish wouldn’t have been of much help. Not to mention Latin. Neither did they give much thought to the eventuality of me spending my life in some place like my mother: here.
There was a client for whom phone conversations with me meant a passion that lasted for years; there was one who called only once every two years, but all the more passionately for that. All their texts wanted to fence in my answers just for themselves.
Well I think it’s inevitable that I say something about the contents of these conversations. No easy task, since in accordance with decree no. 23 I had to erase all conversations from my memory. But the mere fact that I’m sitting here now and penning this in secret breaks all the prescriptions, so I might as well try to remember. Let’s convene that instead of their names I would be using the names of their cities. Names I could really never remember and why bother, they used pseudonyms as a rule anyway.
I was specialized in erotic conversations with the top male intelligentsia, the so-called pundits or opinion-shapers. Frankfurt for instance would invariably start with the official-sounding Guten Tag but oh, how unofficial, if you could only hear with what sweet tremor he uttered that Guten Tag you would instantly have intimated the kind of phone-call this was meant to be. Guten Tag, I’d answer, exalted and with a quiver myself. But I have to stop this account for I have failed to mention that during our conversations I knew everything about my clients, I was trained to fill in everything about the personality and life story of my partners straight away, from a few objective and some more subjective data. An example of objective data for instance is that he calls in the mornings, that is, from his workplace: this means he has an exigence for a possessive family. This was an easy one of course. But my mentor (my mother) ushered me to such heights of female intuition that from their pitch, regularity of breathing, word choice and silences I knew more about my partners than they knew about themselves. That much for it, and now back to Guten Tag. In fact I shouldn’t be calling you, continues Frankfurt irresistibly. Of course you shouldn’t be calling me, I say and start chuckling a bit already as one who fully grasps the ambivalence of the situation. I can’t even talk really, there’s too much coming and going around, well there, see, I must answer the other line. Could you hold on a minute, sweetie? and his sweetie holds on of course, what else could she do, lo, here’s me back again but only for a sec, sweet heart of mine, I just wanted to hear your voice, if only for a moment and now I can’t bring myself to hang up, well don’t hang up then, I manage to insert as I ought to, and I can hear the soft click already.
Well, would you believe they call this erotic conversation. It’s not much but once you got over it so quickly you might as well be glad to have all the more time for other things. Of course there weren’t too many other things if all you have ever been taught was how to handle these phone-calls. I got bored to high heavens. My mother tried to season me to watching TV but when she saw that in a few minutes I’d start wringing my hands, sweating and biting my lips till I drew blood, she chased me away in disgust, to my greatest relief. I was left with thinking, mostly about my mother certainly. This she couldn’t tell, a woman cannot and will not get to know another woman as well as she would know any man. Well, this is the sort of ideas I’d get out of the depth of my boredom. They will hardly qualify, but they were all right for instant gratification and besides, as I already mentioned, my life was designed in such a manner that no other unit of time existed for me.
’Hi. It’s me.’
’What were you doing?’
’Just stepped out of the bathtub.’
’Oh. Take care not to catch a cold.’
’I’ve wrapped myself up in the blue towel.’
’Have you dried your hair, hmm?’
’Just rubbing it with the towel...’
’So. Your ears?’
’Yes, yes, they’re done.’
’And your neck, your lovely neck?’
’She’s next to come, and saying thanks, it was delicious.’
’Mmm. Your right breast?’
’She? This way? And this way?’
’Yes, yes, firmly pressing... now a bit harder.’
’And now the left one, the smaller. I have to confess I’ve always wanted her more.’
’Yes, she’s daintier, too. Look what goose-pimples she’s getting!’
’Your belly? Navel? Hips? Soak the drops off.’
’This way, all right.’
’You can’t get in there with the towel.’
’Course not. What should I do?’
’Sweet thing of mine.’
’Thanks. So good now.’
’On? on, on, on, and on?... Yes, through.’
’Your thigh, softly, tenderly.’
’Your knee, calves, ankle, that delicate blue vein.’
’You’re so nice.’
’Your foot, your little girlish sole.’
’OK – tissue?’
’Yes, got it.’
’Bye then, you fool.’
’Bye, my little.’
Little did my mother know that I brooded quite a lot on the moment, too, and that it so happened with me that my moments would not simply come and go or rather, float effortlessly as those of my lovely mother, no, mine had a beginning and came to an end, although really just a momentary one, and I had moments when I, too, came with their coming, to an end.
Suffer, suffer you must not – this was decree no. 18. Don’t expect anything from anyone, it will make it easier, my mother added, as if in a conciliatory mood.
I have no inkling what it means to suffer, a word that you must not, that’s all, I don’t even know how it sprang to my mind.
Oh well, Cannes. Give he really could, couldn’t he. It’s true that he only called me once but that one time he told me everything about himself, about me, about our life together which starts with him going out just round the corner to buy the papers and fetch fresh baguette for breakfast, while I make coffee which we’ll on our gorgeous balcony etcetera, swimming, theatres, poor Cannes, I thought to myself, poor Cannes, I’d never have imagined you wouldn’t call anymore, tempérance et courage, I tried to brace myself up because I missed his words a lot. Don’t be imagining – well, don’t be imagining that I missed Cannes because I was longing for the meaning of these words, or because I would indeed have liked to have crunchy baguette for breakfast, not to mention swimming in the ocean, not at all, this wouldn’t merely have been against the decrees (besides, the first decree for callgirls is that the discussion, whatever is said, is only valid until the clicking comes from the other end of the line) but a blatant impossibility on my part.
Tel Aviv was an architect; for as long as our conversations lasted I got on handsomely with the erotic potential of architectural terms. Because he’d pretend he was calling me for professional advice. Before every more or less serious decision, after lengthy preparations (I bet he even washed his teeth) he would sit down and pick up the phone. His colleagues split their sides behind his back because all that was voiced was architectural stuff – but the how of it, boy, the how of it!
Should I tell you about Berlin? Or would you prefer New York? Prague? Vienna? Paris? Madrid? Yes this is a record but far from complete. You will understand that sometimes I’d rather keep silent.
This one more thing I simply can’t leave out: with Rome, it’s incredible isn’t it, we just kept silent. In Latin, I think. He called, I deciphered the number on the phone set, I could hear nothing and I didn’t say anything either. All our conversations lasted half an hour. He was maddeningly punctual.
My mother was born at a fortuitously lucky time: the cosmetic industry was always two steps ahead of her natural ageing process. Which means that today, though well past her prime, she’s more beautiful than ever. As for me, better not to mention the subject. Suffice it to say that my mother took a wise decision in her own way when with a lot of hard work she concentrated on my only ability worth developing, my voice, and she never let me out among people.
But what happens if she dies? For the first time in my life I’ll have to call somebody, the ambulance. My mother will be taken to the morgue and I, God knows where. No more phone conversations. It might of course happen that she will never die and I won’t ever call anybody, just keep conversing on the phone. And the third possibility (there is no other) is that I die, but this is hardly worth mentioning, it won’t be of any consequence to anybody. Have I told you this? Though I really knew the clients down to the smallest details, of myself – second decree – I wasn’t allowed to say a word, so even in the unlikely case that we got as far with anybody that they would have liked to learn a few details about me, this was not to happen. But it really rarely occurred that my mother was forced to disconnect us in the kitchen. The natural requirement of the men calling was that no confession of mine should get in the way of their picturing of me.
Such were the things I’d brood on between two phone conversations. Or else I’d be looking at city maps. I know there are some maps that show the itineraries between cities but my mother never ordered any of that kind for me. How could I set out to go? The best I can manage is to imagine Monte Carlo. Monte Carlo talking with me. And I am my grandmother, I know virtually all European languages, I believe in nothing and I love winning, I love money, and then I give birth to a daughter, all our possessions are nationalized, they even wrench my handbag bursting with jewels from my hands, they shove us on a train carriage bound for Siberia according to some, but no, it’s only Dobrogea, everything is flat around, they put us up in a flat shed, two berths per family, fifty families per room, sure I will send the little whore of my daughter away from here to learn something else other than the rice, other than the cold, other than me.
Zsuzsa Selyem (1967) is a writer, literary historian and professor at Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj/Kolozsvár.
Translated by: Erika Mihálycsa
Tags: Zsuzsa Selyem