The bus headed for Cluj splashes in the puddle as it rolls in to the station in Gheorgheni, Romania on Friday at two pm. My heart jumps. I climb the few steps, hand the money to the driver and tell him to drop me off at the brewery, opposite the University of Veterinary Medicine and Agricultural Studies in Cluj. I squeeze my small backpack in the narrow alley between the rows of seats and look for an empty one. I find two vacant seats together, throw my backpack beside me and sink into the plush covering.
The bus cradles me. I slip into sleep, far away from my week of teaching English as a foreign language to lanky pimple-faced boys and wannabe fashionista girls in Salamon Erno High School in my home town, Gheorgheni.
Cluj, the flashy, fancy, everyone’s favorite city, boasts the largest student population from all over Romania. I graduated from one of its universities, Babes-Bolyai in English and Hungarian literature. Leo, my boyfriend of two years, still studies in Cluj to become a veterinarian. We meet every two weeks. He visits his family in Gheorgheni once a month, and I travel to Cluj once a month. I look forward to this weekend.
I open my eyes one at a time after four hours. The bus slows down in the early evening traffic in the city. I yawn and stretch. My bones give a crunching sound. I stare at the lights of the shops, the people on the sidewalks, and the elongated, neogothic Matthias Cathedral as we pass by the main square. The steam from the brewery paints white clouds on the dark purple sky. I grab my backpack and hurry to the front of the bus. Leo stands in the bus stop, with the shouting red colors of the brewery behind him. I recognize his tall sporty figure and short hair even in the dim streetlight as we draw closer. A smile shows up in the corner of his mouth when he looks at the bus. I launch myself down the stairs into his arms.
We start hand in hand towards Hasdeu, the conglomerate of dormitories in the city. The short steep street from the brewery to his building is packed with restaurants, pubs and photocopying offices. Tiny alleys materialize from the sidewalk and slink towards the student living quarters that tower on both sides of the street behind the noisy bars. The dormitories range from four to eight storeys, 20 rooms on each floor with five students in them. They resemble rental apartments, scattered in a park with giant trees. As we stroll along the path, I see food jars, books and people in the windows. Numbers are attached to the outside walls at eye level. Leo lives in number eight, an all male dorm reserved for veterinary students.
We step into the lobby on the ground floor. The porter’s cubicle stares at us. A bald man in a navy uniform slumps down behind the glass and scratches his head with a pencil, a book of word puzzles in front of him. Above his head, a big red sign: No smoking. Underneath, another sign: No overnight visitors. We say hello. He gazes at the puzzles.
We go upstairs to the second floor. The doors line up along the narrow hallway. An opening on the right leads into a spacious community kitchen with three stoves and two steel tables. The smell of oil and French fries emanates from it. A door frame with no door in it hides the shared washrooms and showers farther down. A wet haired skinny guy passes us in a bathrobe and flip-flops. He swings his shower gel and hums. The shabby door of Leo’s room creaks when we push it. A hanger holds the coats on one side of the entrance way. A sink gapes from the other. A toilet seat cover hangs from a nail on the wall next to the sink, forming a big, oval-shaped O. The guys got it for security purposes. You never know if the toilet available in the washroom has a cover seat or not. The room widens, and four beds stretch opposite each other on the sides of the wall, one of them a bunk. A path shoots down the middle and ends at a table below the window at the end of the room. A fridge purrs at the foot of Leo’s bed, close to the table. A lump covered in plastic lies on the table: bread. Leo’s flatmates greet us with a smile and a ‘hello’, then return to their activities. Mark, a chubby blonde with blue eyes and freckles sits on his bed and munches an apple. Gabor, the slim cool one, reads a magazine. Imre, the tall guy from the country, prepares his Friday night look with the help of a pocket mirror, hair gel and saliva. My eyes catch Patkany’s empty bunk bed, the grey blanket neatly arranged to cover the sheets and tucked under the mattress so that it won’t hang down to obstruct the view of his lower neighbor. Patkany is the shortest of the guys. His dark skin and big nose make him stand out wherever he goes. He’s not in the room now. Patkany is a nickname that stuck to him. It translates into English as Rat. Rat doesn’t talk much. Rat avoids people. Rat sits on the top of his bed, sighs and grunts hooh-hooh, like an owl. I asked him once what was bugging him, and he replied: “Fuck. The wind is always blowing in Cluj”. Rat keeps a pair of dumbbells under his bed and goes for runs around campus. Rat kicked an old lady’s walking stick from under her in the past. “Cause she tripped me up,” he said when friends asked.
The boys have a common rule in the room. If somebody’s girlfriend visits, they take the imaginary dog, Rex, for a good long walk. The boys whistle.
“Rex, Rexy, come on, we’ll go for a walk,” they say and wink at Leo. Their laughter hurts my ears. I blush and look away. Soon we are alone in the room. We kiss. Leo draws the blue curtain and we undress each other.
In the middle of the act I hear a scratch at the door. I freeze and listen.
“Is someone there?” I ask Leo.
“It seems so,” he says.
“But… he can’t come in, can he?” I still hope.
“No, he can’t. Just wait and he’ll go away.” Leo says. The scratching continues and we hear a key turn in the lock.
We jump apart, and Leo pulls up the duvet.
The warmth seeps out of my body. I glance at the blue curtain in the window. Rat’s voice shoots through the room, reaches me and prickles my skin. He says:
“Hi guys, sorry. I’ll be quick. I was just so hungry, I’m gonna have a slice of bread with jam”. Cold sweat trickles down my back, and goose bumps rise on my arms.
“Uhum, sure,” says Leo.
“Szia,” [hi] I hiss between my teeth.
Rat saunters across the room to the fridge. He looks straight ahead, and stomps over our clothes on the floor. He grabs the handle and opens the door. I feel my nipples harden from the cold breeze that escapes. I cover my chest with my arms under the sheets. He takes out the jam and the butter, plops down at the table with his back to us, unpacks the bread from the plastic bag, cuts a big slice, spreads the butter on it, spreads the jam on top, and puts it down on his plate. He gets up from the table, marches back along the room to the sink, and pours a glass of water. He returns to the table, seats himself, and bites into the bread. He drinks water with it.
Minutes crawl by. I hear my breath. I see Rat’s jaw move from the side as he chomps rhythmically. A few black hairs show on his neck above the neon green wife beater. I see his muscular shoulders and a pimple in his shaved armpit as he rests his elbows on the tabletop. The light shines on his bald head.
The chewing stops. Rat stands up, wipes the table, puts the bread back into the plastic bag, lays the butter and the jam on the shelf in the fridge, and puts the plate and the knife into the sink. He avoids looking at the bed, but my eyes follow every step of him in the room. Suddenly he turns around and our eyes meet. I pull the covers up to my nose. He says:
“I’m going now. Bye.”
The door slams behind him.
“What was that?” I ask Leo. We look at each other. Our smiles widen into hearty laughter and my nervousness melts into warmth. I rumple the duvet with my legs and hold my arms out to him.
Months later, Adam, a friend of Leo’s, takes his usual daily commute to university. He bumps into an old acquaintance on the bus, who tells Adam a story he heard in town.
“So there’s this couple having sex in the dorm, in Hasdeu, you know? I mean, yeah, everyone left, um, to leave them alone, right? And this guy, the guy’s flatmate, walks in on them. And he sits right down at the table and eats a slice of bread with jam. Man, I don’t know what I would’ve done in their shoes. Bread with jam, do you hear that? Ha! And the couple waits for him to leave under the sheets. Man, oh, man. I would’ve kicked his ass flat, that’s for sure. But it’s quite the story, isn’t it?”
And so we became an urban legend.
Susanna Man, MA, MEd, originally from Romania, has lived in Toronto for nine years, and teaches English at Sheridan College. She writes fiction and creative non-fiction about her life in Romania, or dissects the adventures of urban living in Toronto. Most of all, she likes to rearrange the events into a mosaic that captures the weird, the unconventional, the mysterious or the sexy of the everyday. Susanna has a podcast with Life Rattle Press in Toronto.