I was on a bench in Herastrau Park, trying to look for a brilliant short story idea through my drafts, without any luck.
Right when I was ready to light a cigarette, for inspiration, the mean tone of voice coming from the old man on the bench next to mine caught my attention. During the warmest middle of September that I lived through in Bucharest, he is wearing thick, black socks, underneath white fisherman’s trousers which are rolled up and much too large for him. They seem second hand or the remainders of a youth when they dressed a fleshier body. He is also wearing a white, Panama hat, framed by a ribbon bearing Romanian popular motifs. At the front, where the hat is bent inwards from him grabbing it, you can see dirty fingertips. His square-patterned shirt, with long sleeves, seems ironed. He is wearing a well-kept, old, grey vest over it. In front of him, a teenage girl dressed in a volunteer’s uniform – a white dress, with a red smiley face and a text that encouraged people to smile – is asking him if he would like a newspaper with the best news in the world. The old man fakes misunderstanding and sais that he does not want anything he needs to pay for.
– Oh, no, not at all. It’s completely free, she explains, blushing when she offers the old man the 4 colored pages again.
The old man stretches a surprisingly smooth hand, with bony fingers. The girl says a shy ‘thank you’, accompanied by an exercised smile and retreats in glory, happy that she got rid of another flyer without too many questions and without having to listen to someone’s life story.
I might have reminded the old man of smoking, as he reaches out in his pocket for a pack of Marlboro Black stacked with burst cigarette butts. He took out two of those cigarette remnants and a pack of matches. He lights one from the only match he has, the other from the first and smokes from both, at a time.
As he stood there with his hand in his lap and the corners of his mouth pointing down, watching me from beneath his black, thick eyebrows, the old man looked like a retired general, not yet used to life as a civilian. He used to be an important man, and he was not going to apologize to anyone for ending up collecting other people’s cigarette butts.
From time to time, he pulls his clock from his pocket, handling it with the care of someone who has worked with clocks all their life.
I had started to feel ashamed every time our eyes crossed and I was scanned by his washed-out blue eyes, that very rare type with the same color as the sky.
Whenever a family passes with doughnuts, the old man opens his mouth, swallows softly and crosses his hands.
I am hungry, too. I feel a little lazy to gather my things and I do not want to stop writing but the smell of Transylvanian cheese pies from the close-by kiosk convinces me.
When I come back, the old man is still there. At the same time, I have a sigh of relief and my heart skips a beat. He looks at his watch again, mechanically, just like my generation lights the smart phone’s screen, without looking at anything in particular or even noticing notifications. He then crosses his hands and watches the ping-pong game that had started in front of him. A man his age keeps losing to a young woman that could be his daughter. They both have small, sharp noses and droopy eyes on their ghostly-white faces.
Because of the second hand smoke, the old man smelled like dead flowers. I stutter when I ask him if he wants to have one of the pies.
– How could I refuse such a nice lady, he says. It is hard for me to believe that the same man had replied to the young miss earlier. As my bench was occupied, I ask him if I can sit next to him.
– Of course, do you have enough room? Thank you and good luck with your exams, he says, pointing at the notebook in which I had just sketched his portrait.
I was wrong. Mr. Petrica* had neither worked in the army, nor as a clockmaker. He kept looking at the watch as he would spend his Saturdays playing ping-pong with a young man that came by at that time. His friend had paddles and a ping-pong ball, Mr. Petrica proudly informs me. He speaks imperfectly and with a lisp. As if he knew what I was waiting for, he told me that ping-pong reminded him of his youth, when he was a sports lover, travelling the country to practice rowing.
– Excuse me for interrupting my stories but I am also eating.
– Eat in peace, Mr. Petrica.
I understood that he was one of the unfortunately vain people who thought they would be able to live off sport all their life and did not learn to do anything else.
When he started to tell me all about how a coach used to make them run all the stairs at Vidraru dam, his young friend showed up. He asked me if I was Mr. Petrica’s daughter. So, he has a daughter he did not get to tell me about. I wondered if she had abandoned him like the daughters of Father Goriot. To my imagination, in the modern adaptation, père Petricăhad sold his rowing medals so that his girl had the money to go out clubbing every week-end.
– Will you stay with us?
– Oh, no, I was just leaving.
– Mr. Petrica, would you mind if I delayed our match to walk the young lady? Given she would allow me, of course.
* Petrica is the familiar version of Petre, which is Peter in Romanian.