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There are times in our lives when our emotional turmoil has filled us up like a brimming cup. An extra drop and we’ll spill over, but for the time being that hasn’t happened, and so we assume we are fine. In Montaigne’s essay, On Sadness, he relates the story of Charles de Guise, Cardinal de Lorraine. The Cardinal received news that his elder brother, who was quite dear to him, had died. Very shortly afterwards the news of his younger brother’s death was relayed. In both instances, de Guise kept his composure. But then one of the men working underneath him happened to die, and suddenly the Cardinal was swamped with feeling and wept openly and without shame. Those around the Cardinal who thought him unmoved by the deaths of his brothers, and too affected by the death of his man misunderstood what was occurring within de Guise’s heart and mind – he had been filled up, and then become overflowed with grief and heartache. His composure could stand so much and no more.
Lucian Dan Teodorovici’s short story, Chewing Gum, opens with a man with his cup filled to the brim, though neither he nor us is aware of it as yet. The story begins with the narrator spending his wife’s savings – his fat, ugly, unappealing, hated wife – on a hotel room, within which he hopes to consummate an affair with a woman he has just met. In the room, he is anxious to know whether he can properly go through with it or not – have his feelings progressed from thought to deed, or? – and then his hand lightly grazes her breast. Yes, he can do this. And she is so much more beautiful than his wife, or at the very least, different.
But then the girl offers him some chewing gum, and it all comes crashing down. His confidence, by no means robust, disappears, and they fall asleep in a loveless and passionless embrace. The next morning, he wallows:
…I feel low, desperately low, particularly as it dawns on me, I have to get back home where I’m awaited by what God has unfortunately forgotten to make an end of: the gruellingly grumpy monotony of married life.
The question about the chewing gum (and the potential hint of bad breath) is that last insignificant drop that sends it all spilling. The narrator recognises his life as crummy, but this affair, and his nights spent drinking and gambling, were a solace of sorts. And now even that seems shattered. He has become detached from his home life, he watches his mentally ill child vomit about the house and his wife clean things that don’t need to be cleaned, irritated by their behaviour but apart from it, choosing to bracket his home as “their life” and his inner struggles as “his life”. The two can’t overlap, and won’t. He’s separated from his wife and abandoned his child, but they don’t know it yet because he hasn’t bothered to tell them.
Unbalanced now, on edge and concerned that his internal dissatisfaction seems to be spilling into the parts of his life which really matter (ie not at home), the narrator flubs first one, and then a second interview. At the second, the old woman interviewing him says:
”…Then I don’t hire you because your breath smells.”
“That can’t be. I’ve got two sticks of chewing gum in my mouth.”
“Exactly. You’ve got two sticks of gum in your mouth. Why is that?”
I realise there’s nothing more I can do.
“That’s not my breath you’re smelling, you old witch. That’s me giving off the smell of a raving wife and child.”
Without warning the old woman changes into a laughable, senile philosopher, a hundred years old, with beady, asymmetrical eyes, and who’s voluptuously guzzling a bottle of vodka.
“How could you be such an idiot to get married?” he says interrupting his drinking. “Marriage is like chewing gum. You enjoy it for a while. Then the flavor goes out of it…”
Teodorovici fractures the narrative here, providing significant evidence to both suggest that this interview (where the woman turned into a man) was a dream, but also that it wasn’t. Who to believe?
We can’t believe the narrator, that’s for sure. He was on the edge before, and now he’s fallen. The narrative takes on a hysterical turn, and becomes very funny. Our narrator is cool on the inside while acting manic towards others, saying those things he has bottled up for so long. The descriptive language of his thoughts when describing his wife, child and home become significantly more grotesque and stylised toward caricature. In response to a bitter question from his wife, the narrator answers,
”I want to hang myself,” I answer her, composedly. “How ’bout that? I want to know the exact hour when I’ll be hanging myself.”
Teodorovici’s story swings like a pendulum from the ordinary to frazzled and insane, with the surety of the narrative voice enough to keep the reader on steady footing even though the narrator is decidedly not. Chewing gum recurs, and whenever it appears, we know – we learn quickly – that the narrator is about to take a step further down the surprisingly short staircase to madness. The ending slips into farce, with murders, police, and obliteration. It works, and it’s all very funny.
Chewing Gum by Lucian Dan Teodorovici is a short story from Absinthe: New European Writing – Issue 13: Spotlight on Romania.
|Author||Lucian Dan Teodorovici|
|Publisher||Absinthe: New European Writing – Issue 13: Spotlight on Romania|
Other stories from the Absinthe: New European Writing Issue 13: Spotlight on Romania issue include:
—Agopian, Ştefan – The Art of War
—Bittel, Adriana – Names
—Cărtărescu, Mircea – Clockwork Animals
—Lungu, Dan – To the Cemetery
—Suceavă, Bogdan – Can You Hear the Shape of a Drum?
Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.