Piatra Neamț

You do the walking and I’ll be your camcorder. Be patient and take a good look at this picture, because you will have to try hard to imagine it otherwise. My friend Waiching says that »[you will] see it all washed in gray, and the fish tank with just one bright orange little fish.« I dare you to see something else.

The story starts when you suddenly hear the clapping of hands from across the block of flats and you remember that it is a sign from your classmates. We all clapped three times before meeting in the parking lot to play (most often gender-specific) games, trade our parents’ stamp collections, or talk about cartoons and Dallas. You can tell it’s the early nineties. At around 7pm, the parking lot cools down as all the kids run back home to watch Sailor Moon. Ten or fifteen years later, when you revisit your hometown and open the window, the playground is quiet and almost child-free. It’s as if it’s 7pm in 1990, only with a change in the automotive landscape – you can hardly spot any 1300 Dacia cars. If it’s Monday, you may be lucky and see people cleaning on every floor of the building across the street. Pause for a minute and pay attention – as you do to a painting – to that woman in the thermopan window frame: her face is bitter and wrinkled, her head covered with a blue scarf. Imagine her name is Maria, a woman in her late fifties, born and raised during Communism. And from here you may easily suppose that she got married in her early twenties and that she has two children, named Mihai and Cristina, who have now finished their university studies. One works for a computer company in Bucharest; the other married an Italian man and moved to Milan. Maria’s husband is retired and plays chess and backgammon all day long. Ciuc beer and football are his other hobbies while his wife enjoys watching a couple of telenovelas every day. Now spot him.

With some luck, the doors of the sordid elevator open and you can step out. The wall that you’re facing was repainted many years ago, but you can still remember those written words: »Keeping pigs or hens in your apartment is absolutely prohibited.« There are about 20 more meters to the exit door, but your feet feel weak, the air stiff and damp. As you strive to keep sane and find your way out of the building, pushing all the pig holograms in the darkness of the basement where they belong (with rats and stacks of your first school notebooks), the figures on the table catch your eye. The table is long, the heating expenses high, and the neighbors indiscreet. Leave them all behind, we’re heading to the center of the parking lot, for the last shot.
Take a look around. Cats are as numerous as squirrels on an American campus. A taxi is approaching and slows down, forcing you to quickly take two steps back and silently accept some swear words from the driver, because you were in his way. With taxi drivers, whether talkative or withdrawn, it’s hit or miss. You never know if you’re talking with an eccentric university professor who enjoys driving people around, with a single mother who is trying to support her family, or with an unemployed guy who is keeping a low profile to avoid paying taxes by using his unregistered personal car. But this one has got to be very careful when building his personal network of clients. If the other taxi drivers notice his illicit behavior, they’ll kick him out of the game. Taxi drivers have their own intricate network. If you mess with one of them, they’ll catch you before the police do.
At the very end of the lot, where there are no cars parked, a bunch of kids are playing a game called Cops and Robbers. The red-capped boy, a little taller than the rest, is walking on the white line that delineates the parking spots. He’s trying to prove to his severe looking companion – the cop – that he hadn’t been drinking. The little crowd seems so harmless, so cheerful and playful. And yet, there’s a dimly terrifying feeling, a loss of confidence in the camcorder. Looking into the past makes you feel dizzy. It’s as if somebody is wrapping your head in lots of pictures and all of them get mixed up in your brain. Suddenly, the merry little crowd becomes quiet and we are all wide-eyed, gazing at that teenager on the top of the building who is threatening to throw a cat. The camcorder is playing with you and on the fourth floor it shows you how the same teenager, now standing on the balcony, is dropping a large fish tank as we’re watching . The cruelty of the scene explains the terrifying feeling you’ve been experiencing. Have you watched Dogville? There isn’t much going on in this town or in this parking lot. It’s a common place with common people, with a replica of the Little Mermaid.

No need to be alarmed. It’s a quiet little town not far from here.

First published online in Plotki, rumours from around the block (May 8, 2009), as The Parking Lot.