A Portrait: Marriage as a Way of Life

This is a new excerpt from The Ultimate Patient, my novel in progress. It is approximately 1958, in Bucharest. Tina gets married the second time, after the death of her first husband and true love, Iulian.The other names that appear in this excerpt are various characters from earlier in Tina’s life. The apricot flower symbolizes her belief in communism.

Tina was tired. Not in a physical sense, but mentally. It seemed that she had many choices when she only had one. Others had cast that choice in concrete for her and expected her to surrender.

Work was a refuge, but just for a while. The Party had lost its appeal.

Ben had asked her out again and again. She didn’t like him, and she didn’t dislike him either. He was there — a placeholder, a man. Better than Romeo, no doubt. Better than Adolf or Stanislav. She even wondered about Peter, Iulian’s old friend. She thought about him now that he was getting married, obviously too late.

When she was little, she considered herself ugly. She had been tentative and insecure. Not anymore. Now when she looked in the mirror, she saw an attractive woman.

Ben proposed. She said yes. Turning him down would have been a mere delay. They picked a date two months away. They didn’t need time to plan the wedding and didn’t have many guests to invite. Why would they? If anything, they were a little embarrassed, at least she was, by the bare practicality of her act. She was tired and she went along. She followed the one common sense path: a marriage to obey social norms; and for Lydia, because everybody said that Lydia needed a father; and because her brother and sister and mother and sister-in-law had bugged her to do so.

Since there were two more months until the wedding and they were two mature, consenting adults, Ben swallowed hard and suggested they don’t wait. He proposed they have sex. Again, she agreed. She had always thought that the first time she’d make love again, Iulian would be on her mind. She would compare the past to the present, her feelings, the grunts, the technique.

It didn’t happen that way. It was just like her sister had warned her: mechanical. You do this. I do that.

Her apartment was out of the question, as was his parents’ house and they settled on a cheap hotel. They went there on Sundays and once a week after work. There was always a calm detachment, the old missionary position, no exploring and no explosions of passion at any time. They had decided they didn’t want children. He wore protection. They knew what to do.

After sex, she always looked at herself in the mirror, this way and that. She blushed a lot. Her skin was cool like vanilla ice cream and smooth. Her hair reached to her shoulders and turned in soft curls around her ears. She arranged it symmetrically on both sides of her temples. When she did that, her face seemed perfectly round.

“My face looks like a melon,” she said.

“It’s more like a peach,” Ben responded, as if a peach was better than a melon on some botanical hierarchical scale. “If you want it looking more oval, let your hair grow.”

“No. Longer hair is for tall women. I’m short.”

“We both are.”

She liked tall people, like Iulian. And slim. She said it once and felt bad.

She thought her breasts were too small. Her hips were low and, when she walked around naked, she wobbled. She looked like a duck.

Ben was ecstatic. He showered her with terms of endearment and diminutives. She didn’t like it, but what could she do? She became darling, dear, sugar, honey, baby, Tiny and Tinochka. When they spoke about Lydia, he called her Mama and Mommy. To him that meant that they loved each other and that he had the best of all worlds.

When Tina was very young, she fell in love with poetry. Later she befriended Rita and became a communist. The fight for social justice was a meaningful cause, more poetic than poetry, more encompassing than Judaism. It was a dream that could become reality. She and Rita told each other: look at the Soviet Union and see! They wanted to change the world. With apricot flowers, and Radu and Vertzman and Iboy and Comrade Oliver and Parashka and all of those wonderful friends! Of all of them, she admired Rita most and wanted to emulate her. Rita was the friend who had a boyfriend and a big dream. Then came Transnistria and all fell apart. Trasnistria robbed Tina of her confidence in the future. What she saw in the Soviet Union was not dream worthy at all. She got disillusioned, even if she refused to acknowledge it. When she returned home after the war, she followed Iboy’s advice to go to medical school and become a doctor. She met Dora and Zoltan and their infant child. Then she started working with Iulian and her confidence came back.

She and Iulian — they got along. They complimented each other and were so happy together that his blindness seemed a small price to pay. Now her dream had ended. And when you wake up, reality hits. The Party had betrayed Iulian first, and then her. The Party members were all opportunists, bureaucrats and liars, trampling the apricot flower of her youth under their feet. This is why Rita left the country; as did Dora and Zoltan and Iboy. She still had her profession and her daughter, but beyond that, she was alone.

When she looked at herself in the mirror, she saw two large eyes. They were blue, but not innocent, and there was sadness in them, like a soft morning mist. Her cheeks were plump. No matter how she combed her hair, her face was round. She had a strong nose, not too long or sharp or disproportional in any way. If anything, it signaled a mild severity and determination. Her lips were pale red.

Surprisingly, she felt good after sex. She had missed it and her body was now more or less satisfied. Fed.

With Ben next to her, she had a crutch to lean on.

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