“Is your dad a mobster, or are you here as a prostitute?”
my new desk mate asked me. Back then, in the fall of the year 2000, the prostitutes of Lyon had held a protest march against Romanian prostitutes, who were allegedly ruining the market for them, with their lower prices. I, however, wasn’t there to cheat them out of their livelihood. My dad worked at the cement factory in Medgidia, and Romcim had been bought by the French company Lafarge. We were sent to Lyon for three years, to get him trained in the new work method, before sending him back to the country. That’s how we could afford a snazzy private school, which my parents sent me to, because I didn’t speak French and they were afraid to throw me into the public system.
I’m 14 years old and it’s winter, the year is 1999. As I do more often than not, I’m spending the school break walking with a friend down the alley which surrounds the park outside school, dressed up all wrong and wearing braces. He’s one year older, also walking with a friend. He’s wearing a white designer ski jacket, khakis and skate shoes. He’s got piercing green eyes and his ashen blond hair is cut a la The Backstreet Boys’ Nick Carter. He casts me a brief, arrogant glance while talking to his friend. For me, it’s a coup de foudre.
One year later, fate has us seated in the same desk. Franck has been left behind one year. I find out he likes long-haired, big-breasted, vanilla-scented blonds. He loses his virginity that same year, to Sophie, a chick in a lower grade, who fits his bill to a tee, and whom he ostentatiously rolls around on the desk in front of me during the breaks; I’m stuck with her lingering sweet scent even during classes. I’m the exact opposite: dark-haired with a boy-cut, small breasts, and I’ve only just bought my first perfume, which smells like grapefruit. I cheer myself on, I keep telling myself I’m not entirely hopeless – even though I hate vanilla – because he also likes Alizée, who’s gotten France all swept up in a frenzy 1999 with her Lolita. And she’s dark-haired, with small breasts.
We’re done talking, but he hasn’t hung up. I can’t hear much coming in from the other end of the line: his breath, the occasional huffing and puffing, a door opening, steps, him fidgeting every now and then. I put the phone down on the carpet and go about my business, I read next to Franck, I get undressed next to Franck, I lean in once in a while, to check if he’s actually saying something. I fall asleep like this, slightly tense. I never ask him if he was aware of our silent conversation that night.
We’d talk on the phone for hours. After sharing a desk all day in school, he’d also call me at night, he had a minute plan. Our talks would nonchalantly go from school subjects to gossiping about our school mates, teachers, the principal, the girls he found hot, and too bad they were stupid, or how sucky the guys I liked were – but not as sucky as the guys who liked me. We laughed a lot together, and Franck had this beautiful, rich, throaty laughter.
This one time, I worked up the courage. We’d been sharing a desk for a longer time than I had left to spend in France, so I gave him my first and last declaration of love over the phone: “You do know I like you, don’t you?” I had to hold my breath and let the words come out fast, in a single breath. They did come out eventually, but he wasn’t saying a word. “C’mon, you heard what I said, why aren’t you saying anything now?” I’d turned red and the air in the room seemed to have gone hot, it was spinning with me, I was sorry I’d dared open my mouth. He stuttered and pretended to be arguing with his mother, shook the phone. Prrr, prrr. “My mom just made pancakes and I have to go to the living room, eat them while they’re hot./ C’mon, Franck, don’t do this./ I’ll call you after that!?/ No, Franck, do it now. What the hell./ I’ll call you.” The room fell silent. I took a long bath and bawled. I’m more than sure I fell asleep to one of the songs I listened to, in order to think of Franck – Eminem’s Stan, for the rain and that part with but your picture on my wall, and Lauryn Hill’s Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You, for the whole song. I had primed myself for being turned down, but maybe not for the pancake thing, too.
The next day, he was adorable to me in school, and I took it as an insult. I was hurt and humiliated. I didn’t need his compassion, so I moved out of our desk to sit with Emilie in the middle row. Emilie was suave and had nice legs, she was also the only girl in class whom I got along with. When Franck walked in and saw our empty desk by the wall, he got angry and flung a chair at me. I ducked, grabbed the chair off the floor and flung it back at him. I ran out of the classroom, with him on my tail. He caught up with me somewhere down the stairs and pressed me up against the wall. We were both panting. He stared straight at me and told me the magic words, “You idiot, I’m never going to forgive you for abandoning me.”
After this incident, we no longer spoke to each other, up to the point that I no longer knew who was more upset with whom. I did keep writing naïve poetry about him, attempts at pastiches after Prevert. I also wrote him a long, heartbreaking letter, which I tore up to pieces. I did, however, keep them and pasted them back together, one by one, a few years later. I never gave it to him to read, but I told him about it, to torture him. This also happened a few years later.
We’re in gym class. All the girls are in plain white tees and forest green pants sporting the Ombrosa logo, school attire, and those training in gymnastics are in special, tight, white gear. Franck is the national juniors’ parallel bars runner-up. I could stare at him for hours, flipping on the fixed bar, or jumping from one parallel bar to the other. He climbs off the bars and starts his floor diagonals. He lifts his arms and looks at me from the opposite corner of the room, to me it looks like his grinning before he flings himself headfirst. The floor is kind of bad and quakes, I feel it vibrate underneath me. Franck stops right in front of me, less than half a meter away, with a thud in the mattress. He stares at me, I don’t flinch, I’m breath-taken. I give him an “is this all you’re capable of?” kind of smile, he’s pissed off, resumes his diagonals, and stops even closer this time, close enough to hit me. I’m breath-taken again, but I challenge him again. He can’t be more than 1.72m tall, but has a perfect body, with elongated muscles and this gorgeous, golden skin, which smells of childhood, sort of like powdered milk.
Sharing a desk
Our favorite was Biology class, because the subject was cool, and the teacher our accomplice, this bewhiskered 40-ish year-old scrawny guy, with a lively look in his eyes. The other teachers didn’t care much about Franck. He had something to say about anything, and if he found the class boring he said it, and didn’t care about it till the very end. I can still recall the Physics teacher grimacing, trying to be cool about it and smile a tolerant smile underneath her furrowed brow as Franck defied her—to the point where she’d go red in the temples. Mustache man, on the other hand, had fun with us. He once stood me up and had me explain reproduction, and Franck started flinging condoms at me. The teacher looked at us half leniently, smiled, said “OK, you two, cut it out”, and sent me back to my seat. Business as usual with Franck.
He only seemed jealous this one time. I had found this note inside my desk, which said “Je t’aime. R.”, and after the mandatory fun-poking, he thought of looking into it. I did help him myself, truth be told, by nonchalantly serving him up with the names of the guys who’d made timid passes at me, and playing them up a little. He returned after a while with a “Hah! Like, what, all the guys in our year dig you?”, and his voice skidded up a notch, the way it did when he was very worked up or got into an argument with someone. I smiled and never said “All of them, except for you.”
I was wasting a lot of energy in my crush wars with my desk mate; I stopped taking first prize in our year. We were kind of a couple in our year, that kind of “what’s up with these two?” item. He was the hot-blooded freak who had gotten left behind one year and got along with no one, but whose IQ was rumored to be over 140, while I was the other freak of strange origins, who got high grades and never wore a bra underneath nearly see-through tops, explaining that they were traditional to her country. Before him, I’d had brief flirtations at Ombrosa, with better-behaved nerdy boys, with whom I discussed intelligent things by the bus stop, and who wrote me lengthy love letters. They all thought Franck to be this embarrassing clown and couldn’t fathom what had gotten into me. I thought this was normal, all great romances were misunderstood. I had started to look down on those boring nerds.
Ombrosa was located in Caluire, some 20km away from downtown Lyon. I rode the school’s buses there. In many ways, it was like boarding school: the rules were strict, they called your parents if you were late for class, and we had to be there every day till the evening. For behavioral problems, you got into therapy with the principal, who summoned the alleged trouble kids and delivered pep talks for them; he’d pepper them with the occasional “you do know how much your parents are paying for this school, don’t you?” Ombrosa was a mansion with a forest behind it and a lawn all around it. The kids in my year, many of them, were the future(?) heirs of industrial empires—like the dark-haired boy with big eyes and a noble name in the parallel form, Archibald Verney Carron. His old man owned the weapons factory by the same name. others, like Franck, were middle class, with parents who has insisted on sending him to a school that taught a lot of foreign languages: English, German, Spanish, or Japanese. Upon landing there from Medgidia, I learned French quickly so that I’d be the first in class and no dare ask me if we had fridges or stoves, back home in Romania. Until I fell in love with Franck, that is.
There’s this project we need to work on together for a class, I think it’s physics. Since his parents are out of time, we decide to finish the project at his place over the weekend, even if this is during the time that we’re not on speaking terms. He lives somewhere on the banks of the Saône, in one of those beautiful buildings, whose doors turn orange in the afternoon. If my memory serves me, Quai St Antoine 10. I reach the door and ring the bell. It takes him a while to answer it. He opens the door. He’s only wearing these body-hugging grey boxer shorts.
Of course we didn’t do any work for that project. He cockily gave me the tour of the house in his underwear and we stopped outside his parents’ bedroom. He was glib and cheerful again, we were talking. He told me his mother would get very nervous to find out he had brought his Romanian class mate home—she’d advised him to avoid me. We started jumping on his parents’ bed and fighting with the pillows. He showed me an expensive vase his mother was very fond of—I could break it as vengeance. At one point, he flung me off the bed and I landed on the carpet, I nearly slammed my head into the balcony door case. He jumped out right away and picked me up before I’d even fully realized I had fallen off. I’ve always been in awe of boys for their reflexes, so I slammed the pillow full-on into his face as thanks and ran laughing into the living-room.
Franck’s relations with the rest of the world
Franck didn’t get along much with his folks. Or with people, in general. He had a handful of 11th grade friends at school, his former class mates from before he’d gotten left behind, with whom he’d share brief exchanges, during the breaks only. Among them, a girl, Chelsea, who ended up being my best friend that year. Getting left behind had really taken a toll on him. At lunch, he’d rather eat with the girls in our year, or with the younger ones, always new ones and generally blond-haired. Whenever I chanced by their table, he grabbed one in his arms and grinned at me. He said he hated his dad for being an authoritarian and for mistreating his mom, whom he despised for putting up with it. When he was about 11 years-old, his mom tried to kill herself in the garage in the building’s basement, by starting the car’s engine. Franck found her in good time and called the ambulance. After they released his mom, it was as if nothing had happened. I had no way to check this story, no more than I could find out if his dad had kidnapped his mom from the convent and married her. It wouldn’t have mattered to me to find out he was lying anyway.
He catches up with me in the living-room and knocks me to the ground again, this time onto the carpet. He says, “stay put, don’t move”, and runs off to light up some incense sticks which make the whole living-room smoky. He climbs back on top of me. We stare at each other up-close and blow smoke into each other’s’ faces. Time stands still and his golden skin is burning on top of me. I haven’t waxed, I feel fat, and I feel awkward. I’m afraid he might touch me and laugh at me for not being the way a girl is supposed to be, the way they are in his imagination, I fidget under his weight, and move on top. His green eyes are still beautiful through the smoke.
We’re on a class trip to Paris. It’s May and I’m about to leave for Romania in two months’ time. We’re not on speaking terms again—we’d almost made up that time, working on the project back at his place, but then he found out I’m leaving. We’re in the living-room of the hostel we’re staying at and a bunch of us are playing cards. Franck is sitting on the opposite side of the table and his right arm is bandaged with a splint, he sprained it during his gymnastics training. He accuses me of cheating, leans in across the table and lightly slaps e across the face with a grin. Likely his attempt at making up. I sit there for a while seething, while one of our class mates at the table hands out another hand of cards. I lean in, put my right arm behind me and slap him in the face with all my might. My first real slap in the face. He jumps out from his chair and shrieks that he’s going to kill me. Two guys jump up to restrain him, I walk out of the living-room. I take shelter in the bathroom in the lobby, where I splash my face with water. I’m growing my hair out, so he’d like me better. I look good like this, cheeks flushed and blurry-eyed. When I come out, I bump right into him. We look at each other and that’s all, another long moment, during which we can’t manage to utter a single word. He growls something to himself and walks out.
He spends the rest of the days in Paris pouting, doesn’t talk to anyone. I cautiously dodge him as best I can, the way you would a wounded animal that you’re afraid of. At the railway station on our way back, I dare take two photos of him with this disposable black-and-white film camera. When he notices this, he shrieks and jumps to grab it from my hands—how dare I? I have them developed in Lyon; he’s smiling in one of them.
I saw him three more times after I left Lyon in 2001. The first time was the very next year, in the spring, when I went over to visit Chelsea. I had waited to see him again with my heart in my throat, but it was only an extended weekend. Franck had dropped out of gymnastics and had grown some 10cm taller, he appeared to me tall, lanky, and somewhat uglier, but it didn’t matter, he was still Franck. He took me on a motorcycle ride on the river banks one evening, we stopped on the banks of the Rhone and I tossed a coin into the water. I made a silent wish to see him again, he gave me a sideways look and said “I knew you were a gypsy witch.”
I’ve saved all the notes he’d ever passed me in class, I still have them in a box. Nothing compromising, small pieces of paper, in his ugly handwriting, full of mistakes.
The year was 2004 and I’d come over to spend ten days of my summer holiday with Chelsea, who took me camping with her folks in Saint Tropez. We’d go on evening drives on the dry, cactus-filled roads, those were our Thelma and Louise moments. One morning, Chelsea told me “Let’s go to Vallauris, so you get to see Franck.” He was vacationing at a friend’s villa, close to Cannes. Franck came out into the street to meet us, we’d gotten lost on the empty, steep, narrow streets, with tall fences. I got out of the car and, at first, it was just like meeting up with a childhood friend, only to realize our genitals had emerged in the meantime. He was nervous, all worked up and I felt just like in a dream. In the villa’s yard, I also recognized three of the people we had gone to school with, and Franck introduced me to his then-girlfriend, Malorie. A petite big-eyed brunette, whom Chelsea said looked just like me.
Malorie kept dogging us as he showed me around the villa. We were both seething with erotic tension and that cool, white-walled holiday home had just the right karma for this. I tould him I didn’t feel like sitting there smoking with them pool-side, let’s go down to the sea shore, all we had to do was go down the hill. I wanted to make that afternoon last for as long as I could. Four of us got into the car, us two, a friend of his and Chelsea, and drove down toward Cannes. No matter how much she insisted, he wouldn’t take Malorie with us.
Cannes, a narrow strip of beach by a gray building, nothing lush. We spread out our towels and get undressed. The tension is still there, choking us. Our bodies are facing each other, in a silent dialog between my bare breasts and his perfect abs. The light outside is obscenely too much for all this bare skin. He picks me up and throws me into the water, I scream and kick him, but I’m too afraid to stick my nails into his warm back—what if I wake up? We play shark in the water, he swims menacingly toward me and pulls my legs to submerge me. Every time I come back up, all I see is his green eyes above water level.
My first boyfriend, four years after Franck, was always jealous of the photos of that day in Vallauris. I’d hidden them, but he found them at my place once and told me he’d never seen that look in my eyes. One of them in particular: we’re on the towel, we’ve just come out of the water. I’m very tan, I’m wearing a single colorful threaded braid and one of my breasts is showing. He’s all white and seems almost ginger, holding me in his arms as if that’s what we’ve always done, although this is the first time and he’s biting his lip. We look like an Irish guy and a Spanish chick in love, whose epidermises can’t even be unglued from one another on a public beach.
Saying goodbye in Vallauris was the hardest. We’re standing face to face by the car, and Chelsea is taking our picture. I’m shrugging, mouth agape as I’m saying those words, which are probably the ones I’ve said most throughout my lifetime: “I don’t know.” He’s looking into my eyes, frowning, and playing with his fingers. We’re keeping a meter’s distance between us and our eyes are aglow. The tension is still seeping from our wet hair. In that instant, I would promise him anything: that I’d move to Lyon for him, that we could travel the world together, anything he would want. But he’s not saying anything. We embrace once more, I get into the car, and Chelsea drives back to St Tropez.
After the departure
The evening I moved away from Lyon, he called me. We hadn’t spoken to each other at all since the Paris incident; I had only handed him an envelope with the photos I took of him at the railway station in school. We didn’t really know what to say to each other. I was sixteen, living through what’s best known as unrequited love, and I was leaving. My year with Franck had exhausted me, but I was also wondering what else could happen to me after him. He wanted to know why I slapped him that time in Paris; because he’d harmed me, I told him. I was leaving in a few hours, I could afford to tell him as much. He fell silent. Then, he told me he doesn’t want me to go. I promised I’d come back and we said goodbye. I cried and went to sleep happy. I was living a great romance.
He kept calling me for years after I came back to the country. He never told me he loved me, like I’d dreamt he would, for a while there, but he did baffle me a couple of times with these vague proposals that I come back to Lyon. Every other two months or so I’d get a call from an unknown number and heard his voice, this long, deep “Helloooo”, and then “K?” We’d talk until we ran out of battery on our phones. What about, I couldn’t quite say; the talks started with teasing and laughter and became sad. The plastic phone, the distance, and the fact that I could only imagine his thick, beautifully drawn lips, or look them up in the photo album—they were all to blame. He didn’t even have the guts to come visit Romania and all the meet-ups we tried to organize in neutral territory, in Amsterdam or Barcelona, failed. I sent him letters and postcards from all the places I took holidays in, for many years. He moved home twice, but gave me the new address every time. Still, somehow, none of my letters made it to him, no matter where I sent them from: Frankfurt, Amsterdam, or Prague. Not one. Not even the most romantic and hope-filled of them all, which I wrote to him from the camping trailer, after the visit to Vallauris.
I’ve just been released from the hospital after emergency surgery, I’m in my room, in my parents’ apartment in Lahovary Square. I’m lying in bed, in this princess-like nightgown, my boyfriend is coming over to see me later and I want to look pretty. The deep, bratty voice of my former Frenchy desk mate calls me again. He asks me if ițm all right. He tells me he’s been thinking about me for the past few days and put the turquoise stone I gave him, which he’d been keeping on his desk as a paperweight, in his pocket. For the umpteenth time, I wonder what it would’ve been like if I’d stayed in Lyon and if he’d like me now, if we’d get along, if we’d love each other. I’ve been in Bucharest for four years already.
December that same year, I’m Paris on an Erasmus scholarship and he comes over from Lyon for a hip-hop concert. It’s been a while, but I still wait for him on the edge of my seat and I cross Paris at night with a friend to meet up with him after the concert. We get to the place of a friend of his, Franck’s toasted and distant. Some guys pushed him around at the concert and he tells me my timing there is really bad. When I hint at wanting to somehow sleep over, on the couch or something, because it’s late, his friends stare at us as if we’re from another planet. Franck probably feels embarrassed and mutters that we have this different, more nomadic kind of culture. I never held a grudge against him for this, except maybe for the way back through the cold, which I was about to take with my friend. When we left, he stepped out to see me and we briefly sat down together on a bench. I was wearing these baggy corduroy pants I’d nicked from my boyfriend. All I remember is him telling me this: “My mother always made me wear corduroy when I was little and I can’t stand this fabric. I think it makes perfect sense for you to wear something like this.” We hugged and said goodbye. It was the last time we saw each other.
Three years ago, when I changed my phone number, I didn’t send him the new one. I knew he’d gotten his B.A. in chemistry, was working in research, and was just as miserable and angry at life as ever. He had a girlfriend, but she wasn’t really his girlfriend, he wasn’t even too clear about it himself. He always asked me how I was doing and if I was happy. In some of our last conversations, he wanted to talk about aliens and global conspiracies. He sent me long, argumentative emails, with lots of links to videos and shows that prove what’s really going on and how the end of the world is imminent. It seems it all starts with the single global language and religion, the unification of political systems, obviously followed by the alien invasion and Earth’s destruction. It became increasingly difficult for me to communicate with him, to explain that, even if he were right, I couldn’t care less either way. To tell him my questions and reflections are far more terrestrial. Like, say, what we would’ve been like together, or what his skin tasted like after sex.
Chelsea came over the winter of the year I left France, with a video tape of something she’d shot for me. Franck is on it, in this brief scene in the courtyard, where it’s still autumn and sunny. Franck first appears like a moving silhouette down the alley. A soccer ball shot out from the court reaches him, he lets it drop, then kicks it. His leg twists around the axis of his body and is then left suspended in the air for a few seconds, long and straight. Chelsea tells him she’s shooting something for me, is there anything he’d like to tell me? He smiles and gets vexed. “Anything I’d like to tell Karin?” The camera lingers on his face for a while and he doesn’t know what to do. I hear Chelsea’s muffled voice going, “Come oooon.” Franck searches through his pockets, takes out his wallet, and out of it—a condom. He smiles to his ears and almost sticks the condom to the lens: “Heh! Karin, I’ll be waiting!”
Karin Budrugeac is the Editor-in-Chief of SUB25 Magazine.
Translation by Ioana Pelehatăi