Excerpts of His Work
Fragments from Gabriel Plesea's Prose
BITTER BE THY BREAD
re-written in Romanian as Arunca painea ta pe ape (Cast Thy Bread Upon the Waters)
(excerpt from Chapter 2)
They parted, Jon remembered, soon after they finished their steaks. Their conversation began to drag on. They had nothing else to say. Jane seemed to be really lost in this new world, disoriented and helpless in deciding what to do next. Like himself, she did not know how to prove herself. He did agree. It was more than proving oneself. It was starting anew, from a clean slate. Forget what they had done before, in their home countries. Now they had to readjust here, enjoy life. On the other hand, they could not ignore past experiences -- they couldn't be all that useless or all that bad. He had heard of people who, once here, tried to forget all about their own countries, their origins, their trades and who avidly plunged into a melting pot of all nations of the world. But, again, that was another myth of the past. Nowadays, the many ethnic groups resisted the melting pot -- they wanted to remain what they had always been. They had their own schools, their own churches, temples, meeting houses, their own parades, their own festivals. They wore badges stating in block letters,"THANK GOD I AM ARMENIAN" or "KISS ME, I AM POLISH." Entire streets displayed signs in Hebrew or in Chinese; notices and posters in subway stations or on the trains read in both English and Spanish. Why, then, would they throw away their own heritage? Just because their own were not so many, so evident? Or was it because their own were not so eager to help each other out? As individuals, if not as a group, he, Jane and others like them had a lot to offer to their adopted and adoptive country. They had to fight to preserve their personal ambitions, to regain at least part of their former status. Jon had always stated that it was plain stupid to renounce being an intellectual just because intellectuals were not highly regarded in this more pragmatic country. There was nothing to be ashamed of in being an intellectual, same as the natives were not at all ashamed of starting a business or working from an early age in stores, diners, gas stations, banks and in everything else. The work ethic of the people here must be adopted by all means -- one must work to earn one's bread. But that had nothing to do with one's personal goals. Some kind of "peaceful coexistence" must be achieved among so many traditions. Of course, there were the extremists who would insist that once here one must renounce his or her mother tongue, forget the past, forget friends, forget everything and become a born-again American. Jon had nothing against this theory either, but hated to hear how some despicable renegades said they loathed their own language, their own land. Then, there was the other lot, those who would continuously repeat, "Sir, I feel so free here, so liberated. This is true democracy!"
Jon remembered that some of these same individuals were former activists in trade-unions and the party or odious members of some dreadful government departments. They were the rats of the colony, the ones who were afraid of being asked what they had done back home and why. Jon avoided seeing any of them, to save his time and keep his good disposition. There were so many beautiful things in his new country, so many places, so many events that he had no time for trifles even if he wanted to.
For some time he hesitated to talk to the lady who came to sit by him on the bench in the park. In his lunch hour he used to go to the park to read his paper or just look at passers-by. He had always enjoyed the spectacle of the street, to watch those human creatures moving here and there, each with his own activity pattern implanted in his or her brain. He was curious to know what was crossing the mind of a particular passer-by. Why did he seem so preoccupied? He, Jon, had many reasons to be preoccupied, but that guy?
The lady next to him turned her head in his direction several times. Finally, she seemed to have gathered enough courage to ask him if he had worked at the institute. Then he remembered her. Yes, it was her all right. A little changed, but she it was.
At the beginning he did not venture too much, but she seemed quite willing to talk. There was none of the distance she used to put between herself and her interlocutor back home. She was on her lunch break, too. She worked for a dentist who was out of town that day so she could enjoy a longer break. That was good! Jon could always have a longer break, but he never took advantage of it. They started talking about people or places they both knew. And, as the place was getting too crowded and too noisy, they moved on to the streets. The walk made them hungry and they started looking for a diner or some sort of coffee place.
Jon remembered all these, as if they happened yesterday. Two weeks passed by and he did not hear from her. Then he forgot her. He had a lot of work to do at his office. The month-end was approaching and they had to close up the issue. He was doing editorial work for one of the magazines downtown -- proofreading, paste-ups, layouts. They did not pay him well, but it was enough for a part-time job. He was also taking courses at Columbia and was quite happy to be able to make his work schedule around his classes. Midterm was almost here and he had to start reviewing some of the subjects he had found more difficult. Other than that, he enjoyed being a student again. It was fun and challenging. He had a good time, too. He had nice colleagues and good qualified professors. With the exception of one who taught American foreign policy. The poor guy seemed to read a course in political blunders! In fact he was not bad either, but Jon did not like his explanation of how and why Roosevelt had been duped by Stalin at Yalta when referring to the partition of Europe and subsequent Russian occupation of Eastern Europe. "There was not much he could do, he was a sick man," the professor explained. Oh, just forget it! Better think of microeconomics analysis and that damned mathematical approach to it! Nothing like that before! Jon remembered the lectures on political economics back home; hour after hour of talk and no math. And now, after so many years without math, algebra, geometry and the like, he had to work hard on his problems of calculus! Still, he enjoyed it. He was competing with colleagues ten years his juniors and he wasn't doing bad at all!
Jon had a moment's respite now. It was one of those gorgeous October days, a Saturday. Although a weekend day, he had been at the library all morning to read some books for his term paper. He had plenty of time to write it, but he did not like to wait until the last minute. He was watching the news on TV, sipping at a Bloody Mary. The sun was gradually losing its brightness and was about to set somewhere behind the Manhattan skyline. Except for the bellowing of some silly TV commercials, all was quiet on the western front. His landlord had left for Florida to visit his old, aging partner. They were in real estate, making a lot of money, too. Nobody else was in the house. From time to time he could hear the boiler starting downstairs. Although only two people lived in the house, they had hot water day and night. This, and the low rent, attracted Jon to that one room apartment. Otherwise it was rather inconvenient. The room, the kichinette, the shower and a very small bathroom were all in the back of a one-family house in one of those strange Queens neighborhoods -- Rego Park -- a combination of family houses, apartment houses, high rises, expressways, boulevards and small back streets, all together in one place. It reminded Jon very much of one neighborhood of the Capital back home, a neighborhood where he lived through his high school days. Even now, after so many years, he could smell the smoke of burnt chestnut leaves in autumn, a smoke mixed with crisp, seasonal fresh air. He loved the thousand hues the leaves were displaying everywhere. And he liked the trip out to Jones Beach on a highway cut through beautifully colored vegetation. There he used to listen to the hiss, like a siren's song, of the ocean whispering to his ears about the Old World, so heavy with memories and legends. Those were, he often confessed, the most difficult moments of his life here, in the New World. He had to break away, to pull himself out of that spell, away from that sweet call to go back.
He had made up his mind though, this was his new home. The price of going back would have been too high. He would have had to drink the cup of hemlock for being so eager to look for virtues outside his own world! He was here to stay and here he was to make it!
The news program ended and Jon turned the TV set off; there was nothing new and nothing else to see. He wondered what the time was. It was almost seven. Not much left of the day. He had to wait for Sue's call, until seven thirty. If she didn't call, it meant she couldn't make it. Just that simple! At least she was sincere, an American girl, the uninhibited type! She used to yell after him on campus, Heeeey, Jooooon, wait for me! He felt embarrassed, but everybody else was doing just the same. Then she impressed him with her slang. He had to ask her to explain what she meant. What a life!
"You really want me to explain what a quickie is?"
"Yes, I want you to explain to me what a quickie is!" he said as if taking a lesson in English.
"I can't believe it!" she screamed, delighted at his ignorance.
"Well? What the hell means that quickie of yours? Will you tell me?"
"Well, it's a quick something between a boy and a girl," she tried pedagogically.
"You mean quick fucking?" he snapped back.
Her eyes goggled in sheer disbelief. Then he heard a sort of a shriek, just like steam, and saw her bursting in chokes of laughter. He thought she would pass out. Tears in her eyes, she tried to contain her laughter.
"What's so funny? Quick something between a boy and a girl! Now, that is funny! I imagine you didn't mean a quick hello! Not with that face of yours!"
"Wait a minute, mister! What's wrong with my face?" she asked stopping from laughter. "You don't like my face, or what?" And she started laughing again.
"Oh, no, not at all. You've got a pretty face, but I didn't know you had a dirty mind!"
He realized he shouldn't have said that. The moment he said it he knew he was wrong. Dead wrong. Sue stopped laughing, became very stiff, said only GOOD BYE! and left. Jon was sorry. It had been a cheap shot. She wasn't a dirty mind, he knew that damned well. She was only a liberated young American, a good sport. Jesus Christ, I blew it, he kept saying to himself.
Fortunately enough, she wasn't one to keep a grudge for long. The following day she came straight to him and asked,
"YOU BASTARD! You really think I have a dirty mind?"
"Oh, Sue, for Chrissake, I am sorry! What else can I say? You were speaking about quickies, I was speaking about. . . So what's the big deal? I'm sorry, honest. . ."
She didn't know what to say; she didn't seem convinced but, then, she wasn't a clean mouth either. At last she smiled.
"O.K.! Let's have a coffee, damnit!"
"Ugh! That was more like it! Let's have a coffee and show me how you solved those equations!"
They went down to the cafeteria, took some lousy coffee from the slot machine, pulled out their copybooks and started figuring out how demand and supply curves operate.
"No way! I still cannot understand this marginal propensity. And surplus demand. And this delta b2-b1 and so many other things. It stinks. Why do we need all this? Who needs this? When I go to buy my pants I don't care about my marginal propensity to buy. I need them or else I'll go bare-assed!"
"That's just it! You named it! When you need something to buy, that's your propensity of demand. But, suppose you want more than you need? That's marginal demand. You really don't need the extra purchase!"
"Go to hell! I don't believe you! I don't trust you!"
"I don't blame you!"
"Listen, Jon, what did you study back home?"
"Why? Philology, it was, if you really want to know."
"Has that anything to do with priesthood?"
"It might, but Lord, no, I said philology and not theology! That has very much to do with priesthood, yes. Philology is the study of languages, philosophy, linguistics, grammar and many other things together! I majored in English literature and language, but studied Latin, Italian, German, linguistics, philosophy, Marxian philosophy that is, political economics. . . "
"That's why you seem to understand all this crap!"
"I'm glad you said 'seem to understand.' In fact, I'm just trying. I hate to give up once I've started something. And then, I think it is important for me to understand what this is all about. You see, a centrally planned economy, or command economy, works differently. They plan everything there, they set up quotas, they say how much of this must be produced and they don't care whether there's more demand for it, and so on."
"I like that," she interrupted. "No demand curve, no supply curve, no function of this, no function of that! Well, let's have it here, too!"
"Hey, wait a minute! It's not that simple! Even so, they make sure you understand why you don't find things to buy or the relationship between the welfare of the people, the shortage of consumer goods, the class struggle, the international labor movement, and so on. They can draw curves and plot functions too!"
"Are you kidding me? Then I don't like their system either! I am happy where I am!"
"I bet your are!"
"O.K., I've got to split! I have classes at eleven."
She left in a hurry, taking her cup of coffee with her, carrying her books and notebooks tied with a leather strap.
She was a nice girl. A little too boyish though. Fed on good food, many proteins, Jon thought. She once told him she came from Pennsylvania, from a well-to-do family. Her father had his own business in Philadelphia; she had a brother who was studying architecture at Penn State. She used to drive home twice a month. They were a close family. Sue said she needed the dough her father gave her -- New York was an expensive city! She was right. But still, he couldn't understand young Americans' mentality to take odd jobs to make an extra buck. He was compelled to do so. He was a stranger, he had no family here, his job was his only source of income. But those kids, many of them coming from affluent families? He missed the point. Was it a craze among them? There were many Americans in the same position as he was, with no support from their families, who needed the jobs to get through, but Jon thought they were only a few at graduate level. Or, who could tell? All right, but what about the girls? Sue had her tuition paid by her father, who gave her pocket money, too. And a lot of it! And still she needed that part-time job. "To make ends meet!" she would joke. Her ends seemed always so far apart. Her brother waited on tables in a night club.
"Why didn't he take a job with an architect's office?" Jon asked once.
"Because it's so boring! He could have been asked to draw lines, work on drafting boards and all that stuff. So he goes to that bar and sees people for a change. Meet them, talk to them. They might be of use later on."
"What about you? What do you do?"
"I am a cashier at a supermarket. Take people's money and put things in those ugly brown bags! And I get paid for this!"
"Aren't you tired of it? When do you study?"
"When do you study?"
"Evenings, weekends, on the subway. . ."
"Same here! You think you are the only one? I need the money, I want to go to Mexico this winter and to Europe in summer. Come along?"
"Come along?! With what? I can hardly breathe! No, thank you. I am abroad, if you know what I mean!"
"We can work it out. You can do more work, can't you? I can lend you some money. Yeah, there is a way! Come along! My brother comes also and he is taking his girlfriend. And then there's another couple, nice people. I'll get bored alone!"
There was no end to her solutions, so Jon had to promise her he would very seriously think of it.
He went to the kitchenette. He felt like drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette. In the small back room he could hear the distinct humming of the neighbor's car. The guy liked to look after it himself and it took quite a while untill Jon got used to the more than periodic maintenance fits of fix-it-man Joe. He liked to rev the engine and would not stop until he was fully satisfied with its smooth operation after repeated tune-ups. Normally, Jon wouldn't mind it but Joe used to do it in the evenings or Saturdays when everybody else would like to rest. Otherwise, Joe was a nice guy and nobody would have dreamt to tell him to take it easy. They just closed their windows and the TV noise would do the rest.
He opened the door window a little bit and lit up the gas range. Then he took the coffee and a cup and put them on a small, convenient table. It seemed like he heard his name called and, opening the window wider, he could indeed hear it.
It was Sue all right. What the hell! The bell wasn't working again. Jon stepped out in the back yard, then into the narrow passageway between the two houses, to the little iron gate. He could see Sue on the sidewalk, standing by her nondescript car.
"What's going on? I've been calling you for the past hour."
"Come on! For the past hour, my foot! Why didn't you ring the bell?"
"It doesn't work! Every time I come here the bell isn't working! You do it on purpose!"
"Of course, I do! I have to get rid of the other one. I wouldn't like you two to see each other!" Jon joked.
"It might be true, in fact I'm sure it's true. If I think of it you may be telling the truth for a change!"
"Come in and stop thinking."
They went into the house, hand in hand and cursing Joe and his car.
"The guy wouldn't stop fixing that car! And then I was watching the TV. That makes a lot of noise, too. Have a coffee?"
"It's instant coffee. I haven't gotten accustomed to your coffee."
"I know, I know! Every time the same story! Same warning! I can drink your coffee all right!"
"Good! Something to drink? I'll have a bourbon. Would you get it for me from that cupboard, down there?"
She opened the cupboard, took two large glasses and a bottle.
"Still drinking this Old Grand Dad stuff? It's one hundred proof!"
"Someone back home used to say that alcohol doesn't go to the liver, strong alcohol I mean. Not the one in wine or beer but this kind of stuff. Anyway, I drink it because one shot is quite enough. I could use a second, but never a third. That'll put me right down! What do you say?"
"What could I say? I prefer wine or beer."
"Yeah, I know. But, then, the beer here is so light: you keep drinking it and this is how you get fat!"
"Why would anyone drink so much beer? One can or two and that's it!"
"Listen, if I want to drink because I am thirsty, then I drink water, plain water. But if I want to drink something so that I get more optimistic, or have my sins redeemed, then I prefer something strong! Anyway, drinking is not my problem. . . a drink or two once in a while. . . like now! Now I just feel like having a shot or two!"
The coffee was ready so they took everything and moved into his bed/living-room. It was so small they could hardly move around at the same time.
"O.K.! You sit on that sofa. I'll just sit down here, on the floor!"
He liked the wall-to-wall carpet, he could lie there, to read or watch the TV.
"You told me you would call."
"Yes, I did, but I couldn't leave earlier."
"You mean. . ."
"No, I don't mean! I still have to drive home, but I can be a little late."
"It's a pity you can't stay."
"I just can't! They are waiting for me. I haven't been there for three weeks now, thanks to you among other things!"
"You are so possessive. You would like me to stay with you all day long."
"And nights, too," he added.
"What's so wrong with wanting you near me all the time?"
"Nothing is wrong, except that people have other things to do. I'm wondering what you were doing in the old country all day long. What are people over there doing? Chasing each other? Don't they work?"
"Oh, yeah, they work."
"One cannot draw that conclusion after you. . ."
"What do you mean, after me? I do work. I do have a job, I go to school, just like you. Well, so what if I like to be with someone and feel good? After all, if one were to listen to what you are saying, people would think that they work hard in this country. This is not exactly the case!"
"Easy, easy now! Don't get excited! They do work here, and they also work hard, this is our work ethic!"
"Oh, just forget that work ethic nonsense! It's a lot of crap and you know it!"
"It's not crap! It's true! This is how this country was built!" she almost yelled.
"All right," he agreed. "It's true. I know the story. What drives me mad is this theory of yours, that everything is wrong in the world while here everything is perfect."
"Jon, there are a lot of things that are wrong here, but this is still the greatest country in the world!"
"I have read somewhere that they are going to strike a medal, Sue Johnson, Patriot!"
"I love my country!"
"I know you do! That's why you go to all those rallies."
"What rallies?" she wanted to know.
Jon knew he was touching a raw nerve. Sue was a good citizen up to one point, her own opinions, her own convictions. She wouldn't trade those for anything in the whole world. The first Amendment.Jon couldn't quite grasp it. The nation was engaged in a war, but the youth had decided that the war was immoral.
They fled the country or simply refused to go to fight. The country pulled from the war morally defeated and the enemy took over. Not only that, the enemy became an expansionist power -- a victim turned victimizer! Was that right? No, it wasn't, but who cared? Or, who cared that this great country had become a target of international blackmail? That it could extract itself from that inglorious position by developing its own energy resources. These resources implied use of nuclear power and, again, this was a hot issue. Large demonstrations, sit-ins at nuclear power plants, attempts to block the activities of the stock exchange and convince investors to stay away from nuclear projects. Sue was convinced that the environment was more important than anything else in the world and that it had to be preserved clean. She took her convictions everywhere, a bumper-sticker on her car read militantly, "NO NUKES!"
Jon wondered who were these people; how was it that they always had time to demonstrate, to go out there in the streets; weren't they working? Some women took their infants to those rallies in the rain or in the scorching sun. Jon hated those irresponsible mothers. As adults, perhaps, they were free to express their convictions, but those infants held out there for hours on end? It was ridiculous! Why would those innocent souls be punished for their parents' intransigence?
"Oh, forget it now. Let's have more coffee. I'll bring it."
"What rallies?" Sue tried again, but Jon was out of the room by now.
"Did you watch that episode of I, CLAUDIUS the other night?" he asked when reentering the room.
"No, but I've heard it's super great."
"Yes, it is. I really like it. The history of Rome has always fascinated me."
"It must make you sort of proud."
"Well, we used to study a lot of Roman history back home, but the textbooks were so boring. Now, here, you have this series which is really good. . ."
Jon poured the coffee and sat closer to Sue, on the sofa.
from Bitter Be Thy Bread
(GP, New York, 1989)