(Excerpt #12 from my novel in progress, The Ultimate Patient)
The 4th World Festival of Youth and Students took place in August 1953 in Bucharest. Over 30,000 young people from 111 countries participated. Named for the date of the liberation from the Nazis by the Soviets, the Party had the August 23 Stadium built for the occasion, but events took place all over the city, all over the country. As a young doctor and Party member Kostea was dispatched — or as the Party liked to call it, volunteered — to a Medical Emergency Center temporarily set up in Herăstrău Park.
But first, Kostea attended a mandatory briefing at the park’s Party Operational Base where he was indoctrinated in the positions the Party representatives attending the Festival were expected to discuss in their interactions with the international guests: praising the protests against the recent death of communist Philipp Müller in West Germany, objecting to the sentencing of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the United States, objecting to the Korean War, as well as expressing support for the anti-colonial movement in the French colonies of Algeria and Vietnam. It was the position relative to the Korean War that annoyed Kostea — the armistice had been signed a month before and he was bitter about the cancellation of his tour in Korea. The stilted, canned rhetoric of the presenter sounded like beating a dead horse to death. He rose and argued that as a diligent communist he was already up to speed on the news and late for his assignment. Aggravated, the Secretary leading the discussions admonished Kostea for his disrespect, but sped up and, red in the face, ended the meeting.
The Medical Emergency Center was a white tent with a huge red cross painted on it, pitched on a flat, grassy patch between the Island of Roses and the Sculpture Garden. It was outfitted with an examination table, two folding beds and chairs, a few stretchers, medical supplies and hookups for one telephone, electricity and running water. An ambulance was parked near the tent entrance.
Kostea arrived at the Red Cross tent at about four and, in spite of the continuous flow of young people strolling along the lakeshore, nothing happened for the next couple of hours. Then a man came in with a sprained ankle, and immediately after that a woman with symptoms of severe food poisoning. He set the man’s foot in a light cast and released him into the company of his friends and sent the woman by ambulance to Elias Hospital.
He stepped outside, walked about fifty paces away from the tent and lit a cigarette. His shift was ending at eight and, assuming no medical emergency delayed him, he was planning to meet George and Igor at The Garden for drinks and a late dinner. The city was gridlocked and Olga had decided to stay home rather than fight the traffic.
Evening was falling when the nurse called him back. “Dr. Bardu, there is a Russian woman looking for you.”
“What injury?” Kostea asked.
“I don’t think she’s injured.”
“Then why is she here?”
“I don’t know. She speaks a little French, but no Romanian.”
Kostea inhaled deeply and felt the smell of the muddy shore and the stagnant water. “All right, I’m coming.” He crushed his cigarette under his shoe and walked slowly, a faint sense of foreboding overcoming him.
The single electric bulb inside the tent illuminated the woman. Her figure was heavier and her blond hair longer than he remembered from Odessa.
He gasped. “Katya?”
She nodded and answered him with a humble smile. She appeared nervous, clutching a small purse tightly with both hands.
He walked to the examination table and leaned on it. “How did you find me?” he asked in Russian. Then he became aware of the nurse and turned to her. “Give us a moment, would you?”
“Of course, Dr. Bardu.” The nurse exited the tent and let the door flaps fall to give them privacy.
“Doctor?” Katya repeated after the nurse, with a soft twinkle in her eyes. “You made it.”
“What do you mean?”
“When we were together, you were a student. And you said you would take me with you to Bucharest. Remember?”
“Katya, you left me. Remember?”
“I had no choice,” she said, and took a small step in his direction. She reached out her hand to him. “I’m glad to see you, Kostea.”
The moment their hands touched, the past hit him like an ocean wave. It lifted him, turned him around, and overwhelmed him. He had no strength. His world filled with the memory of her — the taste of her lips and skin, her legs high on his hips, her sighs, her breathing.
He had to do something to save himself. “Why did you come?” he whispered.
“Wow, Kostea, so very direct. Thank you for the coldest welcome one could offer.”
“No, Katya,” Kostea said quickly. He pulled up a chair and sat down. “Don’t misunderstand me. You know, I am very surprised to see you.”
“Surprised? Of course you are, but are you happy to see me?”
“Sure, I’m happy. Katya, why don’t you sit down? Please, here is another chair.”
“I’m perfectly all right standing.” In her blue polka dot dress she looked pretty.
“I am married now,” Kostea said. “I have a small child, a three-year-old boy, Alexander.”
“Beautiful,” Katya said. “Did you marry Olga?”
“Yes, I married her.”
“I’m glad for you. Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” responded Kostea, his voice sounding hollow. He looked away. “How is your boyfriend?”
Katya shook her head, and Kostea spoke again, as if he had anticipated her answer. “You have a lot to tell me.” His world was spinning. A part of him wanted to send her away, but he couldn’t. “My shift ends in less than an hour. I’ll meet you at the Triumphal Arch on the park side. It’s right beyond the fence.”
Her eyes met his. They held a promise. “All right,” she said. “I’ll see you there.”
The hour went by like a dream. A young man came in with a scraped knee and the nurse cleaned and bandaged the wound, while Kostea watched without helping and without displaying any interest whatsoever.
“Dr. Bardu, are you all right?” the nurse asked after the man left.
“Yes, I’m all right,” Kostea said thoughtfully. He knew she was curious about Katya’s visit, and he thought that he better offer an explanation. He had never seen this nurse before in his life and perhaps would never run into her again, so why bother? Then he changed his mind and imagined the nurse talking to other nurses at her place of work, God knows where, and telling them about a mystery Russian woman who paid a visit to a married doctor from the Panduri Hospital, and the story making circles in the medical community and reaching Olga. “That Russian woman, you know,” he said eventually. “I met her a long time ago during the war. She is here with the Youth Festival and wanted to say hello and bring me news about another colleague from Moscow. No biggie.”
“Of course,” the nurse agreed. “No biggie.”
Kostea feared he had missed the opportunity to come up with a more compelling story. Worse, he felt trapped by his own weakness. He shouldn’t have asked Katya to meet him later. That was a mistake. If you want to sleep around do it before you get married, his father had said that night during the war on their trip to Jassy.
Him and Katya — those days were gone. Or did she think she’d show up after all this time, snap her fingers and have him fall at her feet like a puppy? Yet he needed to see her again, ask her questions. He had to understand what had happened. Why had she disappeared? And he wanted to hold her. Yes, regardless of everything else, now that he had seen her again, he lusted for her. He wanted to make love to her, and this awareness was sudden and paralyzing. It would be just once, a few hours perhaps, and then a proper good bye — like a funeral stone — sealing the past forever.
The late shift doctor and nurse came from Union Hospital. Kostea made an effort and turned on his jovial side. They shook hands, reviewed the log for the earlier activities, and checked the inventory. They spoke about the Festival and joked about the young people who were animated and careless and kept getting injured.
Kostea and his nurse left together and walked to the park exit. A chicken wire fence continued along that side of the boulevard, a bed of grass and trees separating it from the wide sidewalk. His heart pounded as he approached the Triumphal Arch. People were milling around, talking loudly and laughing. Afraid he would run into someone he knew he kept scrutinizing their faces. Most were from a younger generation.
Katya stepped out from behind a tree trunk and walked in his direction. “Hello, Kostea.”
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