THIS WEEK IN NYC 
 
 

MANHATTAN CHRONICLES
SHORT STORY
THE ORANGE DRESS
In Translation
by Daniela Albu
 
 

                                                           Daniela Albu is a novelist, poet and journalist living in Bucharest, Romania.
 
 

Grandmother, do you like my new orange dress that mother bought me for the ball?"
            Ana could not answer her. She hated that color, so she silently looked at her granddaughter proudly and impatiently taking the dress out of one bag while helping her mother to pick the pile of packages from the car. She let them enjoy the results of their furious shopping spree and unnoticed, took a long walk in the sunset. The wind was blowing and it was almost dark. She sat by the sea until late, still not able to forget, after so many years. Contemplating the waves, her inner eye kept watching her life's successive episodes, re-reading the words that struck her long ago, back in the 1940s. Her husband George, whom she adored was a successful lawyer, a great personality in those years, admired for his full control and his talent to master any situation. He looked up to him as the perfect man of her dreams – a winner.  But every Thursday, George used to drink in his study, almost all night long, with doors closed. She did not know that it was then when he would loose his usual balance and used to scribble his most intimate thoughts in a leather-bounded notebook. When they had to move, in the fuss of packing everything, she found that strange sort of diary and since then, her life had never been the same.

                                    A fragment from George's notes:

"I arrived in Bucharest by train. Tired with the agitation of the North Station, I reached the cheap hotel with excitement, heading to the bar, impatient to see Lara. She absently stood next to some gamblers' table, as part of the decor.  She saw me and approached with lazy movements. I bought her a drink. We did not even said "hello" to each other. Her face was motionless. She had dark circles under her eyes. It had been two years since I told her not to use makeup. She had taken my advice but now looked so vulnerable. In spite of her "trade", Lara was not vulgar. Life had no more nasty surprises for her. Her last disappointment might have been when I once turned down her offer to keep her only for myself and buying her a cheap studio in exchange. I plainly explained to her that I did not mind that she was seeing other men too. Nothing had changed since then, for the past four years, I have been seeing her twice a week, without being bored or disgusted, trying to dissimulate my confused feelings. I watched her fascinated. Her strange orange dress with black lace, more extravagant than vulgar, made her look paler than ever. I calmly went to the reception asking for key number 37. The young guy behind the counter winked at me. I felt like slapping him, but I controlled myself. I was the intruder there.  It would have been in my power to take her out from the promiscuity of that cheap hotel. To me, good and evil are but arbitrary choices. Why and for how long should I "save" her? I am tormented for years by this strange mix of tenderness and passion that I feel for her.

I went up knowing that she would follow me soon. The way her fingers silently knocked caressing the wooden door expressed something out of this world; I thought it might have been the sound with which death itself would be looking for me, when time would come. She entered the room in her absent style and started to undress mechanically, with no hurry. The street lamp outside was the only source of light which drew its strange irregular shadows on the dusty old carpet and the shabby bed cover. I perceived the contours of her skinny body in the darkness. A light spot fell on her fragile, almost transparent hands. That night I had the impression that I was making love to a liana, a shadow. I did not sleep waiting for the sunrise. She did not look disgusting in the daylight. There were no ribbons, artificial flowers, shiny belts,  or other such accessories. Her orange dress lay on a chair looking pathetic, like the canvas of a shipwrecked boat.


She was sleeping, barely breathing, her tiny pale face that of a sick child. I did not wake her up. Her sleep seemed then her only refuge. I could not help feeling so touched by this woman. Sometimes when we think we are in complete control of our lives, contrary to our initial intentions, we end up in chaos. These thoughts crossed my mind while contemplating a fold on the old, stained silk lampshade. It was full of regular creases like the sinuous bents and curves we follow in our lives, thinking that we took a unique path. I felt stifled with the platitude of life. Everything was as insipid as the dullness of this impersonal hotel room, after a trivial night of carnal passion. Time freezes the same everywhere: the orange dress, the woman's sleep, the out of date decor with the gray lampshade, the huge mirror, too large for the space of the room, reflecting the trembling branches of a poplar, the noises outside... while I keep searching for some new magical secret from this whore, maybe the essence of life."

Ana had never told her husband that during the hassle of their movement to Bucharest, in all the mess he had carelessly left on his desk, she accidentally discovered and read the confessions of a totally different person than the husband she adored, whose dark side  kept haunting her sleepless nights for a long time. But her silence that followed out of too much love grew a desert between them, wider with every passing year. There was no hatred but she felt so hurt that with time she lost the profound essence of her love for him.   

Next morning her granddaughter gave her a perplexed look when she told her:

"Young lady, I will not let you wear that horrible orange dress at the ball, for anything in the world.”