Monica Cure

Romanian Lessons & The Country of Leaving
September 23, 2020 Cure Monica

Godmother country,
you offer me the gift of
suffering. Your history
teaches me my enemy’s enemy
can still be my enemy
and world wars come
in matrushka dolls.
Your rickety tram cars
scribble, sometimes
the distance between stops
is centuries.
Friends leave, dragging
entire generations.
For these, you provide
folk remedies.
Gather linden flowers
in spring, without fail,
for winter tea.
Cabbage nourishes and
stops swelling – wrap it
around your calves.
What’s in your hand never lies.
Buy what you need
when you find it.
Accept also
the bottle of plum brandy
made by a neighbor.

Temporarily, I, too, sought refuge
in the western city where
my family fled during WWII.
I appeared there
on a false spring winter morning –
like in dreams when you find
yourself in a long-forgotten landscape.
Here among buildings shot
during the revolution,
bullet holes painted over,
the imaginary danger lingering
in the air accumulated
another layer.
When I was young, it was always
summer here. The roses in bloom –
red, like the Coca-Cola signs
hung in place of restaurant names,
red, like the polyester-blend blouses
everyone seemed to wear
with blue pants, not blue jeans,
the red of a retro postcard
put back on the sale rack.
This city, the first in Europe
to have electric street lights,
radiated at night.
I pretended I was old enough
to walk alone along
the dimly lit canal – steps ahead,
my parents just strangers.
I would stare at the water
purified by dark,
strained through sieves
of illuminated threads, until
on the opposite bank
from under the green canopy
wafted a syrupy melody.
“Oceans apart, day after day,
and I slowly go insane…”
That hasn’t changed.
I visited my aunt on a street
renamed for a martyr
otherwise forgotten.
My aunt reminded me
of myself. She showed me
photos on an old computer,
traces of my face
in the scanned image
of my great aunt –
a life preserver.
The woman who lived
through two wars and a dictatorship,
buried a husband and two sons,
had bright blue eyes
even in black and white.
She had seen God and was loved.
A phone call interrupted
the slide show –
my cousin from
Australia, from
an airport. Had he
packed everything?
This room used to be his.
The weight of a foreign nostalgia
cuts like an overstuffed duffel bag
that has only one strap.
In a place where everyone offers
to carry my luggage,
what madness
could make me so stubborn?
Longing to return to myself
by forgetting myself,
I took my aunt for a walk.
One summer, I wanted
to pick a rose, just one pink rose,
in the public park near the Philharmonic.
My aunt asked, “But what if
everyone took just one rose?”
Now she saw a barrel of pansies
outside a bank and whispered
that she wanted to pick one, just
a small white one. Perhaps winter
weakened defenses. I nodded,
stumbling upon forgiving
others for what I hadn’t done.
I accompanied my aunt until the pale twilight
glinted off the halo of a holy fountain
in Union Square. She hadn’t been there
for at least a year and wanted a taste
of its wonder-working water.
“It’s not the same,” she said.
The man behind her took a sip, agreed.
“I used to live here,” he pointed
to a second-story window letting
the last rays of light into
an impenetrable baroque façade.
The Christmas market glittered
in the cathedral square with
people and trinkets of
assorted nations, a puzzle
from a second-hand store.
Steam rose from the glazed
kurtos kalacs destined to be
my dinner. In my other hand, a clear
plastic cup of mulled wine.
A bitter unshared communion
too sweet to sustain me.
I went to the opera wearing
the only dress I brought.
Gray wool on red
velvet seats on
the edge of a fever.
The Belgrade National theater
performed Don Giovanni so well
I was nauseated. Warped mirrors
reflected a masked man
who would never change.
The ending brought no satisfaction.
After all, whom does hell satisfy?
On the steps outside, I found
my wallet missing.
Inside the coatroom, a man
in camel hair announced
my California driver’s license,
calling me to myself.
I took the train back to
my birthplace, a short ride away,
and walked from the station.
Just past the newest mall, I crossed
tracks that no longer led anywhere.
I tried picturing myself
traveling after the holidays.
Athens? Dublin? Rome? Home?
I can never really leave
this country of leaving –
it is and isn’t mine.
On Poet’s Street,
red yellow blue flags still wave
from some balconies, multi-colored
lights wind around others.
Before long, the scent
of lilac will fill the air and,
as always, promise
the presence of something missing,
whether or not we’re there.

Monica Cure is a Romanian-American writer and translator currently based in Bucharest. She is a two-time Fulbright grantee and the author of Picturing the Postcard: A New Media Crisis at the Turn of the Century (University of Minnesota Press). Her poems are forthcoming in Black Bough Poetry and Little Stone.