From A Family Album: https://alexduvan.medium.com/a-family-album-40829e212764
To attend one of the best schools in Bucharest, Carmen lived with her grandmother in the old house in the city. Her parents were doctors and worked at a hospital in Găești, a small town one hour away. Commuting was too much of a hustle and they had rented a place in Găești, and saw Carmen only on weekends.
The summer before seventh grade, Carmen invited her best friend Lydia to spend a week at her parents’ “country” house. On Monday morning, the girls, Carmen’s grandmother and her parents boarded the commuter train to Găești. The train stopped in all the hamlets and villages on the way, falling behind schedule. Carmen’s parents had to report to work, and the delays made them nervous.
At one stop, the girls saw a large crowd of Gypsies on the pier. New, six-story apartment buildings rose behind the train station.
“Our farm and our orchard used to be where those buildings now stand,” said Laura, Carmen’s grandmother. She was a large woman who always dressed in ill-fitting, baggy clothes. Her chin-length white hair floated around her head like a sail. “Then the government took them over and destroyed them. Good thing we still have our name, and our old friends in Găești helped Klaus and Dorina. Because they are not party members and they couldn’t find work in Bucharest.”
They were alone in the compartment. Still, Klaus raised a finger to his lips. “Hush. Not again. Not on the train, mother.”
“Why not? Let the girls know. The government took everything.”
Carmen rolled her eyes in mock annoyance. She had heard her grandmother before.
Not interested in pursuing the discussion, Klaus turned to Lydia. “A year ago, the government launched a program to integrate and civilize the Gypsies. They were moved from their tents into the apartment buildings behind the station. For free.” A smug smile appeared on his face. “What you see is the result. The Gypsies brought their animals with them and pitched their tents in between the buildings. They slept in the open, and let the pigs, the chickens and the goats live inside the apartments. There is nothing for them to steal in this hamlet, and they assault each train, trying to make it to Bucharest without tickets.”
Lydia had seen Gypsies in downtown Bucharest, in small and colorful groups, the men staying back and watching as their women and children approached pedestrians and begged. The passers-by would speed up, making sure they didn’t lock eyes with the Gypsies and tightening the grip on their own children.
Now, another train arrived from the opposite direction and the Gypsies seemed to be thrown into disarray. They yelled, pointing at the different railcars, and trying to board them. The conductors pushed them away. A woman in a black, red and green wrap-around shawl, holding a child with each hand, ran in one direction and then the other. A man with a green fedora hat carried a large accordion on his back. Ignored and forgotten, a toddler sat on the concrete ground, waving his arms, and screaming. He had no shirt, and tears ran down his face tracing narrow channels through the soot and dust that covered his cheeks.
Lydia knew from her mother that the Gypsies had always been discriminated and even sent to the death camps by the Nazis. Lydia’s mother was a member of the communist party and worked in Bucharest. “The communist regime treats all people equally,” Lydia said. “We’re all human beings.”
“You can’t help those who don’t want your help,” said Dorina.
“They subdivided our beautiful house in Bucharest and gave the upstairs to a carpenter and his family,” Laura continued as if Klaus had not stopped her earlier. “You know, where Carmen and I live now, in two small rooms and the kitchen. My husband was so upset, he died of a bad heart two years later.”
The train moved and Lydia looked again out the window. “Every person deserves to be happy,” she whispered, her mind still on the Gypsies.
“They live in the past,” Carmen told Lydia later, when they arrived in Găești and walked a few steps behind her parents and grandmother. “I hope you don’t mind them.”
Their rented house stood on Main Street. It was a single story brick building with a tall wooden fence and a large backyard. In one specially outfitted room, Dorina attended after hours to women who required services not provided by the hospital. Their good name notwithstanding, that separate income exceeded their hospital salaries, and helped the entire family enjoy a more comfortable living.
The parents rushed to the hospital, and Laura told the housekeeper to make the girls some breakfast. She didn’t touch the food, and stood by the large window overlooking the garden.
“Why don’t you eat with us, Grandmother?” asked Carmen.
“I’m not in the mood.”
“Then I won’t eat either.”
“You must eat,” said Laura. “You girls need to put some meat on you. Sticks alone don’t attract anybody.” Then she added, “Look at the poppies how they sway in the summer breeze. They remind me of your grandfather.”
“He died over ten years ago,” Carmen said. “Honestly, I don’t even remember.”
Laura retrieved her purse from the back of a chair. “Here is a picture of him,” she said and handed the girls a small black and white photograph. “My prince charming.”
“You showed this to me many times,” Carmen said. “Spend a few days in Găești with us, and you’ll get over these melancholy feelings. Why do you have to go back in the early afternoon? Why the hurry?”
“You know why,” Laura said and pulled at her white hair. “Someone has to keep an eye on the house. When I’m away, the carpenter and his family break things, and then they complain. Truth be told, they behave like animals.”
Carmen shook her head in disbelief. “They’re not that bad. I know. I live with you, Grandma.”
Laura walked back to the window. “Lydia, you should have seen our orchard,” she said in a softer voice, looking outside. “It was paradise, really. In the early spring, the apple blossoms bathed you in their fragrance. Peasants who picked the fruit in the summer collected bushels and bushels. A brook ran though the valley, its water like crystal. When the leaves turned in the fall, they looked like golden rainbows.”
Behind Laura’s back, Carmen made faces.
“Carmen, you can laugh all you want,” Laura said. She appeared to see everything. “When we were together, your grandpa and I, life was beautiful. Love was beautiful. Those were our times. After he died, I thought I was done with this world, but you came to stay with me, and you saved me.”
“I love you, Grandma,” Carmen said, and she smiled at Lydia. “I hope my prince charming is somewhere out there.”
“He will be, my dear. Just you wait a few years.”
“Yes, Grandma. Don’t let me bite from the forbidden apple too early, or I’ll be chased out of your Garden of Eden.”
“Here you are, making fun of me,” complained Laura.
As soon as Laura left for the train station, Carmen pulled a folded piece of paper from a book in her satchel and handed it to Lydia. The paper smelled of rose water. “These are the boys I kissed,” she announced proudly. There were five names written neatly in blue ink, one under the other. A sixth one — Marcus — stood apart, in red, at the bottom.
“Is Marcus special?” asked Lydia.
“He’s nineteen and he knows how to kiss.”
Lydia had never kissed a boy in her life.
The housekeeper came in and cleared the table. Carmen opened the window to let in the fresh air. She closed the door to the kitchen, listened for a few seconds to make sure they were alone, and surreptitiously produced a lighter and a cigarette that they shared.
The days went by quickly. Carmen and Lydia were happy together, in a world that seemed limitless and without obligations. Boys were on their minds, like shadows. They talked about them as they took long walks through the village streets, and while they sat side by side in the living room with books in their hands pretending to read.
Carmen showed Lydia her insect collection: beetles, butterflies, and crickets she had caught in the backyard, pinned onto a large piece of cardboard in a flat box under glass. They went out to catch more insects. Lydia wielded the net. Carmen grabbed the specimens and placed them in a jar. When they returned home, most insects were dead, except for a butterfly that kept flapping its wings with a languid sadness.
Lydia looked at it tenderly. “Happily flying a few minutes ago, almost dead now. No one knows what the future brings.”
“Do you want to know how you’ll die?” Carmen asked and inserted the needle through the butterfly’s thorax.
“Not how I’ll die,” Lydia said. “But I would love to have an idea of what’s in store for me in the future.”
“Then let’s go and find out,” said Carmen and pushed the insects aside.
“You’ll see. And bring some money.”
They walked fast, first on Main Street, then on a narrower street with houses tucked back behind old trees, then across an old park overgrown with weeds and finally through a muddy lot, with flimsy wooden shacks dropped there haphazardly as if blown around by the wind. A few children were playing in the mud between the shacks, while several young women with long dark hair and flowing dresses sat on their stoops, talking to one another in harsh tones and looking bored.
“Gypsies,” Lydia mumbled under her breath.
Carmen nodded and raised her hand. “We’re looking for Mama Matilda,” she said to no one in particular.
“Who should I say is calling?” one of the young women asked.
“We’ll tell her who we are. Just take us to her.”
The woman walked into the shack behind her and reappeared with a silver amulet in one hand and a small leather purse in the other. “Go right in,” she said, “but first pay.” And she specified a number.
“That’s twice the rate,” Carmen said. Lydia didn’t wait and counted the money. Greedily, the woman grabbed the money and shoved it into her purse. Then she handed the amulet to Lydia. “I stay here to watch my sons, but you go in. Give this to Mama Matilda and she’ll know who you are and that you paid me.” The woman smiled for the first time and Lydia noticed deep dark shadows floating under her eyes. She could have been Lydia’s age, or younger.
Inside, it smelled of incense and the windows were covered by drapes. A shadow rose from the sofa and came forward. Lydia extended the amulet. The shadow took it and pointed to a chair. “I’m Mama Matilda. Lydia, sit down,” she said in a cavernous voice. There were only two chairs, and Mama Matilda took the one opposite Lydia. “Carmen, I know you don’t want me to tell you the future. Not today. But if you’re curious to hear Lydia’s, pull up a chair and stay. If not, wait outside with the children.”
Carmen nodded. “I’ll stand.”
There was a small iron stove to Mama Matilda’s left. The stove door was open, and even though it was summer, a flame burned inside. The light from the fire came and went. Mama Matilda took Lydia’s hand and turned it with the palm facing up. She dragged her thick nail along her lifeline. “It’s well defined. You’ll have a long and good life,” she said. The fire illuminated her face. Her fine features resembled the young woman outside. She was older, but not by much — her older sister or her mother. She wore gold loop earrings. “The best way to tell someone’s future is to read it in my tarot cards.”
Mama Matilda placed the amulet on the table and inserted her hand in the pocket of her dark, overflowing robe. The exact color of the fabric was hard to distinguish; yet the fabric seemed silky and soft. Her bare forearms were covered in silver bangles. She pulled out a deck of cards. “Cut” she said, and Lydia obeyed.
Mama Matilda laid out six cards, then three more. She picked up the amulet and moved it over the cards in a slow, continuous motion, after which she turned the cards face up. “This is very unusual,” she rumbled. Lydia leaned forward to understand what she was saying. “In the first nine cards you pulled five from the Major Arcana: the Magician, the Lovers, the Wheel of Fortune, the Temperance and the World. This tells me you will be loved. You will return love. Your man will have dark hair and green eyes and will take you to a far away land across the ocean. You’re truly blessed, my young friend. Be happy.” As Mama Matilda said the last words, she shook her head sideways and a strand of hair, bright orange like the fire, disengaged from her otherwise charcoal black hair and fell over her forehead.
“How did she know my name?” Lydia asked after they left Mama Matilda.
“She’s a psychic,” Carmen said.
Lydia didn’t seem too convinced. They were walking fast, approaching Main Street. “And why didn’t you want her to tell your future?”
“Because I know it.”
“His father is my dad’s cousin, and the entire family visited us in Găești. That’s when I met him.” Carmen took Lydia’s arm and led her along the white gravel path in the backyard.
“Who are we talking about?” asked Lydia.
“Marcus, of course. Marcus. He’s the one who’s on my mind day and night.”
“Tell me about him,” Lydia said, emboldened by what she had learned form Mama Matilda.
“We were bored stiff,” Carmen said. “After dinner, I suggested we go for a walk. It was still early. He lives at home with his parents and studies architecture. You should see his hands. He’s an artist.”
“I like hands with long fingers.”
“Yep, his are really long. And his eyes are very expressive. We escaped from the family and went to the forest. We carefully skirted the swamp fed by the brook that passes through our backyard, but I know where the dry trail is. The trees are old and large, and it can get dark and confusing. I’ll take you there tomorrow. After a while, you get to a clearing. Marcus and I sat down in the tall grass to rest. And I kissed him.”
Lydia stopped walking. “You did?”
“Why not? He’s the son of my father’s second cousin, so we’re not related. No incest to worry about. Nothing.”
“I didn’t mean that.”
“I was sure he liked me. He put his arm around my shoulders and kissed me back, and I swear, it lasted several minutes. I was all glued to him and he pushed his tongue into my mouth.”
Tall marigolds and daisies bloomed on both sides of the path where they stood. In the hot afternoon the flowers seemed sensual.
“Tongue,” said Lydia.
“Yes, tongue. Ask anybody. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re kissing.”
Lydia started walking again and the further they walked, the wilder and thicker the flowers became. “Then?” Lydia prompted her friend. She was very curious.
“Then we laid in the grass, and he placed his hand inside my bra. He slid his other hand under my dress and touched me. It was as if an electric current shook my body. Oh, Lydia, that moment! I was so tempted but I hesitated. No, I mumbled, and he didn’t react, so I pushed him aside. He seemed surprised and looked at me breathing heavily. I said no again, and he rose to his feet, disappointed. ‘How old are you?’ he asked staring at me from above and he huffed when he heard my answer. ‘I should have known,’ he said. ‘This is going nowhere.’ ‘Marcus,’ I said, ‘I like you.’ ‘I liked you also,’ he answered and walked away. ‘Marcus,’ I yelled after him. When I got home, he was sitting on the steps, waiting for me. He had walked through the swamp and his pants were soaking wet and his shoes were all muddy.”
The girls laughed. Where the brook crossed the backyard, tall reeds swayed in between the marigolds. Weeds peeked through the gravel.
“So, this is the story of Marcus,” Lydia said.
“The beginning of the story, trust me.” Carmen’s cheeks turned rosy. “What comes next is my future. I’ll tell you, and you shall know it. I love Marcus, I’m certain. I called his house a few times and left messages. Maybe his mother didn’t deliver them to him on purpose. But I know where he lives and if I don’t hear from him, I’ll go there and face him. It will be an ambush. You can come with me if you want.”
“What will you tell him?”
“That I had time to think this over, and this is our time. I’ll tell him I’m ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“Oh, my God, Lydia, are you that innocent or are you stupid?”
“Carmen,” Lydia yelled and grabbed her friend’s shoulder.
“Turn around. Slowly.”
A snake, thick as Carmen’s forearm, slithered off a boulder onto the path behind them and raised its head hissing.