A leaf fell right on the tip of my left green shoe. It was the same yellowish brown I had been seeing for the past 31 autumns. I stopped and glanced at the beautiful color combination. Fall always made me feel brand new; it was the spring for the buds in me. Something new and exciting was always expecting me at the arrival of fall. I have been moving around, changing apartments, cities and now countries for at least 6 years, that packing seemed like an ordinary activity, mostly like watering the flowers in the garden. I picked up the leaf and a mild scent of moist filled my nostrils. I remembered Bucharest. It was the fall of 2012 and people’s spirits needed lifting; being that the head of the state could not be unseated. A lot of skeptics doubted the democratic republic, but I was sure that a lot had changed since the fall of communism. People were no longer afraid now; they had a voice.
After the first month living in a new flat, I noticed some bizarre sums added to my administration costs. Since the owner of the flat suggested that she should come and present me herself to the administrator, I thought it won’t hurt to wait and ask the administrator myself for the explanation on that given occasion, which arrived soon as I had some problems with the washing machine that needed to be replaced.
So one afternoon I met with the lady in order to see the administrator, who had his office in the building next to the one I was living in. She entered the access code and we were granted the entry. We took the elevator until the penultimate floor, and then we took the stairs for one more floor. A queue of three people was nicely arranged in front of an open door. A desk was stuffed at the entrance and behind it a grumpy frowning man was sitting. He had the look of a hungry eagle, hovering around a corpse, waiting for the perfect time to attack, while the victim – a poor old man – was begging for mercy. I took it that the grouchy man, playing hide-and-seek behind his big pair of glasses was the administrator, Escu.
“I told you over and over again”, he shouted disdainfully and his bushy eyebrows seemed to be able to cause hurricanes, “you need to hand me the water quota until the 5th of the month”.
“Yes, I know. I’m sorry”, the old man replied in a squeaky voice. “But, you see, I was away visiting my daughter for three weeks and …”
“I don’t care!” Escu’s voice thundered forth and his wide shoulders seem to rise menacingly. “Who am I, your priest?! I don’t care about the explanations, I care about the quotas. You have not handed them to me until the approved date so this month you are going to pay more. Next time, be more careful! Go now, you’re keeping the others waiting!”
And that’s when I knew it. The flat owner was not making a courtesy introduction; she was standing at the courtesy of the administrator. I was shocked to see that everyone was waiting in line, quietly accepting that others are victims of this bully, who might also become their bully, too. When it was our turn, I thought I caught a glimpse of the owner’s shaking hands. I refused to give into panic. I was an adult, not a child scared to have forgotten the homework at home and terrorized at the thought of a bad mark.
“This is Ann, my new tenant”, said the owner in a tremulous voice, “It is her first month here.”
“Ah”, exclaimed Escu with a honeyed voice.
“Yeah, well, you see”, I could feel the owner giving in to the fear. “Ann and I have some questions regarding the administration costs. I mean, they are a little bit high, comparing to what was declared.”
“I know you think highly of my services”, replied Escu in a plummy voice, “otherwise, I would have been terribly offended. Does the young lady have a copy of her ID?”
“Yes, I have”, I stated in a toneless voice. “Here it is. But before leaving, we would really appreciate it if you could explain the costs. For example, what are these household expenses that you included in the list, next to administration costs? For me it seems like they are the same. Why do we have two amounts for the same service?”
“What are the expenses?” asked Escu, and I felt his blue eyes burning me down. “You see, young lady, one of these days you, youngsters, must get it into your heads that we are not as irresponsible as you and we don’t claim money just for the fun of it. Household expenses are the result of taking good care of the building in which you are living.”
“There’s no need to yell. I can hear you very well from where I’m standing. I did not mean to offend you; it’s just that the owner and I are entitled to an explanation.”
“Entitled?!” he hissed. “This idea of democracy has turned you all into fools. Listen here, missy, I do my job properly and I am not going to have you giving me a lecture about it. I have been doing this long before you were even born. You, people, should learn your place.”
“Mr. Escu”, I tried to talk as calm as I could, but my voice came out squeaky and brittle. I discouraged easily when someone yelled at me, and I feared that my weakness was now exposed. “I treated you with nothing but respect, and the questions I addressed you don’t question neither your knowledge nor your equity. It is my civil right to know what I am paying for. No one accused you of wrong doing. We wanted just some explanations.”
“And I gave them to you, miss”. He sounded like a winner, and the fact that he now called me miss was a clear sign that he knew I was defeated.
Terrified, the flat owner went through her purse and pull out her wallet. While I was being yelled at by the administrator, she kept her head down. I don’t know if it was because she felt ashamed that she did not react, or because she was trying her best not to infuriate Escu. Suddenly, I felt alone. It seemed like I was mad to even think that this was not the proper way to address a person. And it got worse. The flat owner took out from the wallet the amount of money to be paid. I felt small and a strange feeling grew inside of me, like some kind of weed was growing fast around my neck, suffocating me. I tried to encourage myself thinking that in a funny way I was witnessing a real-life Tom and Jerry episode, the one with Jerry’s cousin dressed in a striped black and yellow jumper. The flat owner would be Tom kissing Jerry’s (Escu) tip of the shoe whenever he whistled. It wasn’t just as funny, though. Escu was satisfied, he had just been validated by the flat owner. He was looking down at the money and counting them. I couldn’t see his sly eyes, but I knew he was enjoying another victory. He was undisputable.
“Good bye”, Escu answered the flat owner.
A slight grin appeared on his face. We were leaving him there, just like an ancient god, absolutely unattainable. When we turned to leave, I saw that a new queue was formed. I suddenly recognized the look on their faces. I had seen it before. It was the “you’ve upset the teacher, and now he is going to give us bad marks” look. I guess change is always frowned upon, even by those who would mostly benefit from it. I never intended to win something out of that confrontation, but I have never expected to find that the world of adults is also graded. I pledged myself never to forget that we are as free as we let us be.
I gently put my other hand on the yellowish brown leaf, and felt its moist for a while against my closed hands. Such a sweet sensation! I felt a gentle wind in my cheeks and closed my eyes for a moment. There are no barriers! Not unless we put them around us. I have never broken that vow, and so help me, I’ll never will.