Tanti Nuți and the Figs

It’s august, my last month of freedom. I will start school in autumn. That thought is slowly starting to creep up to me, so much so that even the worriless paradise that playing outside is, is sometimes interrupted by the dreadful image of waking up in the cold morning and then being sequestered in the classroom for five hours.

The dread is however kept at a distance by one last summer’s pleasure. The fig tree in the garden from across my building is gonna bloom soon. Every day of august I hover around it and inspect it, hoping that a miracle might happen (i.e. that the fruit get ripe faster). Eventually, I don’t have the patience to wait until it’s fully bloomed so I sneak into the garden during one afternoon, when I know the old hag from the first floor is taking a nap. She usually chases me and the other kids away.

There’s no one outside in the summer swelter at 2 in the afternoon, but I am bubbling with excitement on the inside and at the same time with fear that some adult may intervene in my mission, that I have the feeling malicious eyes are watching me from all windows.

I make my way through the dry crumbly patch of ground, carefully past the rose bushes, which could get me in a lot of trouble if I ruin them, jump under the shadowy mirabelle plum and there they are: three small fig trees, looking like gentle Beagle puppies with their huge leaves. I finger the fruit to check which one is softer, then I pick them one by one in my turned-up t-shirt. I then proceed to eating them right there on the spot, before some other kid appears from god knows where and asks me for some. In this operation my hands, my face and my clothes get gluey with the half-ripe fig’s slime. The glue then gets another layer of fabric and dust, and the more I try to brush it off, the thicker it gets. It also becomes itchy and stingy. I’m starting to feel discomfort, I need to wash my hands, but going home is not an option. My mom would probably want me to stay in, eat, get some rest, all that boring stuff.

So I turn to my partner in crime, Tanti Nuți. She is 60 something, I am 7. She lives on the ground floor of my building, I live on the 8th. The elevator can’t carry me upstairs because I don’t weigh enough, and I think that’s how our friendship started: I would always turn to her for small favors, like can I pee at your place?, or wash my hands, or drink some water. That’s how it all started, but I think we met through her son, who was friends with my parents and they would throw parties with dancing and drinking in my apartment.

Tanti Nuți wears her hair in a big bun that looks like a bee hive, she always has some jewellery on, especially earrings and necklaces, and, unlike my mom, she doesn’t seem to mind if something is disorderly or if I don’t take off my shoes when I go in the house (!). She’s got delicate hands and that cascading laughter you read about in interbellum novels with ladies of the big society. She could also swear like a sailor. Especially when she told a story and imitated a character. The stories that required swearing to better convey the atmosphere were the ones about people at the Obor market and the ones about her ex-husband.

The door to her apartment is usually half open, so I get in without knocking and call her name. The shelves of her furniture are filled with books and cosmetics, that elicit such a fascination on me that I review them every time I visit her: you have the green lipstick that actually paints your lips red, the dry mascara, the box with tens of colors to put on your eyelids, and of course, different hues of red nail polish in small bottles that make a twinkling sound when you shake them.

We talk about everything. I tell her about all the animals at the countryside, their names, their habits, how they like their food, about my grandma and about how my sister is mean to me. She lets me try on all her jewellery and tells me stories about her childhood. That time when a beautiful two-meter high wolf took her and her grandma by surprise because the summer was too hot and they wanted to sleep under the open sky. That time when her father took her walking on the promenade in Balcic and he bought her a necklace of dried figs that she ate one by one while proudly holding his hand.
A while ago nostalgia dragged me back to my old neighborhood. I wandered the empty streets with a nod of sadness in my throat because everything looked so different. I don’t know exactly what I expected, maybe to find it all the same as it was when I left at 18 years old. I saw Tanti Nuți at the window of her ground floor apartment, looking outside, just as she did when I was a kid. She smiled at me and said hi, but her eye sight was fading so it took her a few seconds to recognize me. Then I went inside, the door was half open. Her house smelled of old make-up, with a whiff of some boiling food – a bad smell for most people. But bad smells can be good.

You can read the article that was my madeleine here.

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