“The White Envelope (1975)” by Catherine Cusset, translated from the French by Armine Kotin Mortimer

The House in the Boat The Boat in the House 2019
The House in the Boat, the Boat in the House, Ilan Averbuch

This chapter from Catherine Cusset’s recent novel, Un brillant avenir, recounts the trying events of an immigration process as experienced by refugees from Ceausescu’s Romania. Elena, Jacob, and their teenage son Alexandru, after living briefly in Israel where Jacob has family, seek refuge in the US via services in Rome.

They collected their suitcase and went through customs. The minute they exited the airport, Elena spoke with determination to some Italians, using a mixture of Italian and Romanian of her own devising, to ask where to find the bus stop for the city center. Getting off the bus an hour and a half later, she consulted a map she had brought from Haifa and led Jacob and Alexandru through the streets of the center. They arrived at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society—Dorin had given them the address—and gave their name to a receptionist. She showed them into a room decorated with potted plants and old engravings of Roman monuments and furnished with modern couches around a coffee table stacked with magazines with brilliant covers. It was two o’clock. They could hear people leaving, doors slamming, and loud cries of “Ciao! A presto!” resounding in the high-ceilinged rooms. Alexandru was hungry. Fortunately, Elena had made some pita and hummus sandwiches, and she had picked some oranges before leaving that morning. She couldn’t swallow a thing, but she fed her husband and her son.

After three-quarters of an hour, they were called into an office. Elena was glad to see a woman—she would be better able to understand a mother’s anguish. The woman, who looked more German than Italian with her short blond hair and round glasses, asked the expected questions. Why they had emigrated to Israel. Why they wanted to emigrate to the United States now. If they had a contact in the United States.

“Your wife is not Jewish, is she?” she asked Jacob.

That was the only tricky question. The answer was simple: they were leaving Israel because Elena was not Jewish. Best not to insist on this point, since they were seeking help from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The woman asked them to return to the waiting room while their case was considered. Elena went out to smoke a cigarette. She lit another from the stub of the first, then a third one. An hour later, they were called back into the office, where a young dark-haired man wearing a tie of sophisticated colors received them but did not ask them to sit.

“Very sorry,” he said in English with a strong Italian accent. “We can’t help you.”

Elena and Jacob stared at him without saying anything. The man glanced at his watch as if he had an important appointment.

“What are we going to do?” Jacob asked.

“You can try the International Rescue Committee. Their office is not far from here. Do you have a map? Look, it’s here.”

He marked a cross on Elena’s map and dismissed them, seeing them to the door.

Outside, they didn’t say a word. Elena’s mouth was dry, and a crease had developed between her eyes. She shivered. It was much colder than in Haifa. She had suddenly lost all her energy. Jacob looked at the map and led them to the International Rescue Committee, a ten minute walk, Alexandru following. They entered a room where several people were waiting. A man and a woman turned to look at them before resuming their quiet conversation in Russian. Three little black girls with braids, sitting near their father on an old couch, looked up. Elena sat on a wooden chair between Jacob and Alexandru. The baby brother of the three little girls, sitting in his mother’s lap, stared at Elena without returning her smile. A coughing fit shook the baby’s frail body, and he looked feverish. His place should have been in a hospital waiting room. They called the father, who left and returned shortly with a piece of paper in his hand. The whole family left, the father, the three little girls, the mother, and the sick child. Then it was the turn of the Russians, and finally their turn.

“Very sorry, but we cannot take your case,” the bald Italian wearing a suit of crumpled white linen told them as soon as they were seated in front of his desk.

“Why?” Elena cried.

“We are swamped with families from Uganda right now. You come from Israel. You have family and jobs there. Your situation is not urgent. Why don’t you speak to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society? It’s not far from here.”

“We’ve just come from there,” Jacob replied. “They’re the ones who sent us to you.”

The man frowned. “I see.”

“I’m not Jewish,” Elena explained. “Please help us!”

Her voice broke. The man glanced at Alexandru, standing silently behind his mother. He sighed. 

“I’ll see if I can do something. I don’t promise you anything. In the meantime, you can go here.” He handed them a sheet of paper on which an address was printed. “It’s a Catholic organization; they will put you up while you are in Rome.”

After an hour of public transport, they reached the address the Italian man had indicated. Night had fallen. Even in the dark, Elena could see they had come to a poorer neighborhood. The buildings, with blackened facades, looked old and badly maintained, and when they got out of the bus, they grimaced at the stench. Broken trash bags had spilled their garbage on the sidewalks. The Italian had spoken of a “palazzo,” but the Catholic Aid building looked as decrepit as the others. They gave their names, filled out a form, showed their passports, and entered an immense room filled with dozens of rows of metal bunk beds all linked together. There were so many people speaking different languages and even playing music, and so many screaming children, that they could not hear themselves in this cacophony. Elena had never seen such a miserable place. She advised Alexandru and Jacob not to use the gray wool blankets they had been given, which were probably not washed very often. But it was cold, and they had brought only light jackets, thinking it was spring in Rome. Alexandru lay down and went right to sleep. Jacob also soon fell asleep. All night long, Elena tossed and turned on her thin mattress and listened to the metallic clicking of the beds, the creaking of the springs, the coughs, the laughs, the sobs, and the whispers of all these poor people who had the same hopes as they did.

She awoke with a terrible headache. A young Russian couple, a math professor and a dentist who had slept above them and who gave Alexandru a piece of their brown bread, told them about a house near the Stazione Termini where one could rent a cheap room. They left with their suitcase and took a bus. Near the station some people of questionable appearance approached them and asked if they were looking for a hotel. Elena walked faster, sure she was dealing with Gypsies intent on stealing their suitcase. Jacob thought to tell them they were from Romania, and the men disappeared. Alexandru and Jacob laughed about it, but Elena didn’t think it was funny that the simple name of Romania was enough to scare off the robbers. After several sleepless nights, she felt extremely tired. At last they arrived in front of the building they were looking for. A plaque on the wall indicated “Pensione Belvedere. Quarto piano.” Above their heads, bed linens and clothes were drying on lines hung between balconies, hiding the sky. They took a gray stone staircase up to the fifth floor and rang the bell. An old woman with excessive make-up opened the door.

Una camera per tre?” she said.

She took them to a room where there was just enough space for three beds, two on each side of a night stand and the third perpendicular. The room stank of stale tobacco, and the window looked out on a wall. There was neither a wardrobe nor a dresser. They were lucky, said the landlady; it was her last room. They rented it immediately, paying the rent for a week in advance. The old lady showed them the bathroom and the kitchen, which they would be sharing with seven other families, and indicated where they could find a market a few streets away. They left the suitcase in their room and went there, already feeling better now that Elena’s purse contained the key to a room of their own. The sidewalk was so narrow they walked single file along an orange-tinted gray wall. It was eleven in the morning, and the city overflowed with life and sounds. Motorbikes sped by, backfiring. Drivers traded insults through their open windows. A Vespa brushed Alexandru, who was balancing on the edge of the sidewalk. Elena cried out and pulled him toward the wall. At the market, they bought bread and calf’s liver, the cheapest meat, which Elena cooked in a frying pan as soon as they got back. Alexandru made a face when he swallowed the first bite. His mother frowned: “Calf’s liver is an important source of iron and proteins, Alexandru. Tell him, Jacob!”

Instead of listening to her husband, who begged her to rest after lunch, she spent several hours washing and polishing each pot, each plate, all the flatware, and every Formica countertop in the kitchen, where everything she touched was sticky. Then she collapsed and fell asleep right away. When she awoke, it was night. Jacob and Alexandru were sleeping. She felt nauseated and had a violent headache. Eventually she went back to sleep.

An abdominal cramp woke her in the middle of the night. She ran to the toilet. The bathroom was occupied. Bent double, she waited in front of the closed door. The pain was so strong her body and her face were covered in sweat. She shivered with fever. Had they eaten spoiled meat? One could die from that. But Jacob and Alexandru were sleeping peacefully, and they had had larger portions. She felt something hot run down her leg: blood. She was astonished. She hadn’t had her period for more than three months, and she had attributed this irregularity to an early menopause. She’d chosen a fine time to have it—she had nothing ready, and she couldn’t allow herself to soil the mattress. For tonight she would have to use a hand towel. Standing in the corridor, she squeezed her thighs together so the blood would not run onto the floor. She didn’t dare knock to alert the occupant to her presence. Suddenly she remembered her wait for the bathroom on Ion Prokopiu Street, thirteen years earlier, when her water had broken. The door finally opened and a big fellow, bare-chested, jumped when he saw her and grumbled something in Russian. She rushed in and sat on the toilet seat. A flood of blood inundated the bowl. She had never had so abundant and so painful a period. It was like a hemorrhage.

That word made something click. Not her period! Suddenly, all the symptoms passed before her eyes like the pieces of a puzzle finally settling into place: the three months’ amenorrhea, the fatigue, the nausea, the moodiness, the swollen breasts. She was pregnant. Pregnant at thirty-nine, thirteen years after Alexandru! What would they have done with a baby now? How lucky her body rejected it! She was so dizzy, even sitting down, that she felt herself falling backwards. She closed her eyes.

When she opened them, she didn’t understand where she was. She was lying on the floor on cold tiles in a bathroom in front of a toilet bowl. She saw blood on the floor and remembered. She had fainted. How long? She panicked at the thought that one of the occupants of the house could have found her lying on the floor in her bloody nightgown. If the landlady called an ambulance to take her to the hospital, they would no longer be able to escape the administrative net: in five days they would have to return to Tel Aviv. Looking around, she saw a mop behind the toilet bowl. Reaching out, she grabbed it, turned on the faucet in the bathtub and, kneeling, cleaned the floor tiles. She was bleeding less but her teeth were chattering and her head was in a vise. She flushed the toilet, rinsed and wrung out the mop in many changes of cold water. Red streaks, then pink, then more and more pale, trickled down the sides of the bathtub. She staggered back to the room where Alexandru and Jacob were still asleep, took off her soiled nightgown, which she hid under her bed, put on one of her son’s tee-shirts, and got into bed.

In the morning she was delirious. Her cheeks were scarlet, and the tee-shirt soaked in cold water that Jacob held on her forehead scarcely calmed her. The skin of her dried lips cracked. She talked and moaned in her sleep. At six in the evening, she sat up, looked at Jacob, called him Bunica, and asked for coltunasi. She no longer remembered she had a son. She did not see the female doctor who examined her at ten in the evening and gave her a shot. Jacob had called the doctor after Alexandru had found the letter from Dorin in his mother’s handbag containing the number of a young Romanian woman from Bucharest who had married an Italian and worked in a hospital in Rome. It was she who revealed his wife’s condition to Jacob by asking him how long she had been pregnant. The fever, she told him, was caused by a virus linked to Elena’s exhaustion, with no direct connection to the miscarriage, which seemed to have gone well. When Elena opened her eyes two days later, Jacob was at her bedside. The fever was gone, but she had never felt so weak. He sent his son to buy bread. The moment they were alone in the room she burst into tears. He took her hand.

“Did you want that baby, Lenoush?” he asked, tenderly.

“Oh no! We are too old! But you must forgive me, Jacob.”

“Forgive you for what?”

“We never should have left!”

“Don’t worry. We can return to Israel whenever we want. And I’ve been wanting to see Italy,” he added with a smile.

“No, we never should have left Romania!”

“Lenoush! You don’t really think that!” But she was thinking it. This world had no room for her son, her husband, and her, no more than for the aborted fetus she had expelled into the toilet bowl that night.

The next day she was able to go out. They returned to the International Rescue Committee. “No news,” said the receptionist after a rapid call to the floor above.

The day after their visas expired, there was a knock on the door to their room. Elena opened it and saw a policeman. Her heart skipped a beat.

“May I see your papers, signora?”

Quickly she took the three passports out of her handbag. The carabiniere, apparently alerted by the owner, asked them why they were still in Rome.

“We are political refugees,” said Elena, sweating, although the man spoke politely and did not seem mean.

He told them they had to bring a paper from the International Rescue Committee to the police station which would allow them to obtain an extension of their visas. Elena thought she had lied to the carabiniere, but at the Committee, an hour later, they discovered that their names were on a list and that they had a right to the paper. They took this document to the police station near Roma Termini, and their passports were stamped. Now they were officially political refugees.

As they were walking on the Via Veneto on a day when the elegant stores had set up tables outside and were offering passers-by champagne and chocolates to celebrate Easter, a man in a dark gray double-breasted suit with narrow light gray stripes smiled at Elena and gave her a rose along with a compliment in Italian of which she understood the words “bella donna” and “primavera.” She blushed and thanked him. She was wearing a loose-fitting dress in blue nylon with a full skirt which came from Bucharest; it was clean, because she washed it every other day. But she had noticed that the fashion in Rome was for little straight dresses, short and sleeveless. Jacob and Alexandru’s shirts, which were not even ironed, looked tired. She saw herself, her husband, and her son through the eyes of this elegant, refined Italian: poor people holding a paper bag full of round bread rolls, political refugees whose shoes, clothes, and hairstyles betrayed their origins in Eastern Europe. The man had handed her the rose because he felt sorry for her. 

When they returned to their room that evening, they found it ransacked, the mattresses turned over, their suitcase lacerated with a knife, and all their meager possessions scattered on the ground, her underpants and her bras indiscreetly exposed.

“Why? Why?” cried Elena.

That’s all she could say. Alexandru’s camera had disappeared; there was hardly anything else to steal. The robber had apparently entered through the window, which they had left partly open. The owner nonchalantly told them this sort of incident happened frequently, because Rome was full of “ladri” and no doubt the robbers had taken them for Russian Jews emigrating with gold and jewels. They did not call the police. Why draw attention to themselves? And who cared about Romanian refugees?

A few days later, returning from a long excursion to the Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, they found a letter from Doru telling them Voicu had died. The old man was very sick when they left, but the news, without surprising them altogether, was a shock. He had died in his sleep, Doru wrote—what better death could one hope for? The letter contained no veiled criticism of Jacob for his absence at such a moment. Doru only said they missed Jacob, Elena, and Alexandru. Zeruya often asked for news of her little cousin, and Elena’s job at the hospital laboratory was still waiting for her should they decide to return. One after the other, they silently read the letter. Alexandru went to his father and took his hand. Elena looked up and met Jacob’s gaze. She thought about that day in August 1958 when they had found each other again in the Cișmigiu Park. He will have missed the burials of both his mother and his father. She thought about her grandmother, whose little round, compact body she had embraced the day of their departure, whom she had promised to bring to America as soon as she was settled over there, and whose death she would no doubt learn of in a similar letter, without having seen her again. She thought about the bundle of blood that had come out of her three weeks earlier, where all their aborted hopes seemed to converge. 

“Do you think we should give up, Jacob?” she asked softly.

He was startled. “We have enough to last a week, Lenoush. In any case, it’s too late for my father’s funeral.”

The next morning she awoke calm and strong, as if the night had swept away her doubts. Jacob was right. She didn’t have the right to let herself go. If they had to return to Israel, they would do so head held high. And they would try again later. In the meantime, they should explore Rome, where they might never return.

On the way to the Villa Borghese, they stopped at the International Rescue Committee, where the receptionist smiled in a friendly way and made the usual phone call. To their surprise, he asked them to wait. They sat in the waiting room, afraid they were getting their hopes up. They were soon called, and they entered the office of the bald Italian, who was not wearing his white linen suit but a light yellow one, and who welcomed them with a smile. On his desk was a large white envelope. He picked it up.

“I’d like to ask you a favor,” he said to Jacob. “Here, take this letter to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.”

Jacob held out his hand.

“A month ago, I wrote on your behalf to the New York Association for New Americans,” the Italian continued. “I received their reply yesterday. As their correspondent in Rome is the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, it’s their responsibility to open this letter and reveal its contents to you. I wish you good luck.”

Had he read it? Did he find it too cruel to inform them of a definitive refusal, and did he prefer to delegate this task? They didn’t dare ask the question. They thanked him, stood up and shook his hand, then left the building in silence. Alexandru also said nothing. Elena held the white envelope in which their fate was sealed. An unknown bureaucrat in an unknown city in America, for whom they were just one case among thousands, had typed there the words according to which they would return to Israel or fly off to America. And his answer depended on factors that had nothing to do with them: his mood and the weather that day, what he had eaten for lunch, his relationship with his boss, his family life, the case he had dealt with just before. It was so arbitrary that Elena suddenly saw herself as a marionette whose strings were being pulled by a capricious child with clumsy fingers.

Jacob led them to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, following in reverse the route they had taken the day of their arrival in Rome a month earlier. They went in. The receptionist asked for the envelope, but Elena refused to hand it over.

“We are supposed to deliver it in person.”

They waited in silence for one hour. Alexandru was reading a novel by Jules Verne in Romanian. The receptionist appeared at the door of the waiting room and asked Jacob to follow her. Jacob only, as if they wanted to show Elena that it’s men who count, not women, perhaps in retaliation for her refusal to hand over the envelope. Jacob disappeared, envelope in hand. A quarter hour later, the same employee came to get Elena and Alexandru. They followed her to a room on the second floor where Jacob was seated in an armchair. He turned to them with a smile. The man behind the desk, an employee they had never met, shook Elena’s hand.

“Congratulations, signora. The New York Association for New Americans—NYANA—agrees to sponsor you.” 

Alexandru gave his mother a joyful smile. She sat down next to Jacob and listened to the Italian explain that his organization would now help them obtain visas for the United States, which would take several months. In the meantime, they would receive a weekly stipend. Hearing the amount, much higher than what they had spent per week till then, Elena realized they would at last be able to find less sordid lodgings than the dark little room where she no longer felt secure, and to eat something other than calf’s liver, which Alexandru detested. But it was like an abstract thought, detached from her. Once they had their visas, they would leave for New York with plane tickets the HIAS would buy for them, the man continued. A member of the New York Association for New Americans would meet them at the airport and look after them.

They thanked him. Before leaving, they went to a cashier, who handed them a stack of lire. Elena put them in an interior pocket of her handbag, which she wore slung over her shoulder under her jacket. Outside, Jacob kissed his wife and his son.

“That’s it. We’ve done it. Lenoush, you were right to insist!”

An absent smile floated on his wife’s lips.

“Lenoush, aren’t you happy?”

“Of course I am, Jacob. I am terribly happy. But I don’t feel it. I don’t feel anything anymore. I feel like a piece of elastic somebody’s pulling on. Maybe it’s the idea of starting all over, a new country, a new apartment, a new school, a new language, a new job… I’m tired.”

He put an arm around her shoulders. “You are right. Things are only just starting. But we will manage.”

It was a fine spring day, and the sun made them blink as they headed to the Villa Borghese. She noticed nothing around her, neither the Fiats speeding by and honking, nor the storefronts displaying only fresh pasta, in all shapes and colors. She saw in front of her an immense continent to scale, like a mountain. She wanted to lie down and sleep, but she knew she would climb step by step, carefully examining the places to plant her crampons, and she would reach the summit.

“L’Enveloppe blanche (1975)”

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image004Catherine Cusset, born in Paris in 1963, is a graduate of the École Normale Supérieure; she holds the aggrégation in classics as well as PhDs from both Paris and Yale. For twelve years she taught eighteenth-century French literature at Yale. Devoting herself to literary writing now, she is the author of thirteen novels published primarily by the venerable French publisher Gallimard between 1990 and 2019, several of which have won prizes. She is translated into eighteen languages. Her novel Un brillant avenir was awarded the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens in 2008. Her most recent novel, Vie de David Hockney, appeared last year in English as Life of David Hockney.

image003Armine Kotin Mortimer translates literary fiction and nonfiction from French, with a particular focus on contemporary authors. A retired professor of French literature, she holds the rank of Chevalier dans l’ordre des Palmes académiques, an honor awarded in recognition of her distinguished work on behalf of French culture. She has a PhD from Yale and is the author of numerous scholarly publications, including seven books. Since retirement, she has published translations of three books, The Enchanted Clock by Julia Kristeva, and Mysterious Mozart and Casanova the Irresistible by Philippe Sollers. Excerpts from fifteen other literary translations have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, The Cossack Review, Asymptote, Black Sun Lit, The Peacock Journal, The Critical Flame, The Northwest Review, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Lunch Ticket, Transference, carte blanche, and AGNI.

0Ilan Averbuch is a sculptor born in Israel, living and working in Long Island City, New York. His sculptures have been featured in gallery and museum exhibitions, as well as installed permanently in public spaces across the United States, Israel, Canada, India and Germany. Averbuch’s works transform and engage the environments around them. Site-specific allegories are rendered in industrial materials including stone, steel, wood, glass and copper. Familiar images are recycled and reapplied, taking on meaning as symbols to tell a story through a delicate balance of scale, material, and mass. He is represented in New York by Nancy Hoffman Gallery.