Read an Excerpt
From outside came sounds of holiday music, bustling crowds and shuffling feet – the special medley of a mass of people on their way to the start of a parade.
For perhaps the tenth time in a row, I cautiously pulled the curtain aside. There had been no change in what was to be seen in the street: a slow-moving eddy in the human flood streaming toward the center of town. Borne on its waves were placards, bouquets of flowers, and portraits of members of the Politburo, just like the ones we saw last year. The politicians’ faces looked even more stilted than usual as they jiggled along above the thronging mass of heads and arms. A slip of a placard-bearer’s hand sometimes made the painted portraits seem to cast oblique and threatening glances. But even when they came face-to-face, not one of them gave a sign of recognizing any other.
I let go of the curtain and realized that I still had the invitation gripped tightly in my hand. It was the first time I had been entitled to sit in the grandstand at the May Day parade, and I still could not quite believe that it really was my own name written on the card. When I first received it, the Party secretary seemed as stunned as I was. It wouldn’t be fair to say that the only emotion in his eyes was that of envy: there was also stupefaction. To some extent, that was perfectly justifiable. I wasn’t the kind of person who was usually seen at presidium meetings or invited to sit in the stands at public celebrations. Even if (as I later learned) the vice-secretary himself had put my name forward when requested by the local Party committee to suggest people beyond those who came up every year, he was still astonished by the result. Although he had proposed my name, he probably never expected his new list would be approved. “They always ask us for new names,” he must have thought, “but it’s always the same ones who get invited in the end.”
“Congratulations, congratulations,” he hissed as he gave me the card, but at the very moment he handed it over, his eyes seemed to me to express something beyond envy and surprise. It hovered within the smile that gave it life, yet it was something separate and different. The right word for it might have been connivance. In short, it was an intense, interrogative, and rather sly smile, but sly in that particular well-meaning manner that arises between people who share some secret involvement. His smile seemed to be saying: “This invitation didn’t fall off a tree, did it, pal? What job did you do to earn the reward? But who cares anyway! Congratulations, my boy!”
It was so crass I felt myself blush. All the way home, I could not throw off a guilty feeling, as I wondered over and over again: he must be right, but what did I do to earn this invitation?
Isolated from the hubbub on the street, the apartment seemed even more silent than usual. Silent and empty. Everyone had left for the starting point of the parade, and my own steps, far from filling the space of the apartment, only emphasized how silent and empty it was. Even the silence and the emptiness had a peculiar quality, as did everything else on a day of that kind.
I was waiting for Suzana. However, the feeling that had burrowed into my chest was not remotely like the anxiety customarily associated with waiting for a woman. It was much more crushing, and no doubt heightened by the music and the unending, exhausting commotion rising from the street. I almost thought that one of the portraits would end up detaching itself from its bearer, then float up to my window, and look inside with its painted frozen stare, and say: “And what are you doing up here? Aha! So that’s the reason! You’ve relinquished your place down there on the reviewing stand to wait for a woman, haven’t you?”
“If I’m not there by half past eight, don’t wait for me,” Suzana had said.
Each time those words came into my mind my eyes glided inexorably toward the couch where our last conversation had taken place. It had been infinitely sad. She’d been half-undressed, and her words had come out the same way – in shreds, with only half their meaning. It was getting harder and harder for her to see me, she said. Papa’s career was on the rise . . . Their family was more than ever in the limelight . . . Two weeks before, at the last plenum of the Central Committee, Papa had gone up another rung . . . So it was obvious she would have to make changes to her way of life, to her wardrobe, to the people she saw. Otherwise she might hurt his career.
“Was it he who asked you for that” – I still didn’t know what to call that – “or did you decide for yourself?”
She looked me in the eyes. “He did,” she answered after a pause. “But . . .”
“When he explained it all to me, I saw his point of view.”
I thought my eyes must have gone bloodshot, as if someone had thrown sand in my face. Guiltily, she laid her head on my shoulder. She ruffled the hair on the nape of my neck with cold fingers that felt as jagged as broken test tubes.
But why? I wanted to protest. Why just you? The children of the others make the most of it, and lead freer lives, with cars and parties at their villas by the shore . . . I surely would have remonstrated with her along those lines if she hadn’t brought up the issue herself. The others usually let their children enjoy more freedom, but her father . . . he really was a different kind of person. Who could tell what was going through his mind? Or was he, on the contrary, completely consistent, and was that not a principle to which he could not allow himself to make an exception? Anyway, if he was standing to the right of the Guide at the First of May parade, it would be all over between us.
I said nothing, and she thought I hadn’t quite understood. “Please understand,” she sobbed. Given the state of public opinion, her father could not comprehend her having an affair with a young man who was practically engaged to somebody else. Word would leak out, eventually. Especially now, don’t you see? It could not fail to.