An Unremarkable Day
This is another excerpt from The Ultimate Patient, my novel in progress. It is fall, 1957, in Bucharest. Tina is accompanying her daughter, Lydia, on her first day of school. Bebe, Tina’s brother, also shows up to be there for his niece, who had lost her father two years before.
Lydia started first grade at the German School of Bucharest, a highly coveted educational institution, grades one through twelve, where the admission requirement was that the children belong to families of documented German origin or to the diplomatic corps of certain European countries. Lydia was fluent in German because she spoke it at home. Her mother’s family was originally from Bukovina, which had been a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before WWI.
Gunter Gerhardt, addressed simply as Comrade Gigi or more formally as Herr Gerhardt, was the school principal. Tall and bald, with a sturdy nose and a solid gait, he was one of those men who, upon entering a room, caused everyone to stand at attention. A known anticommunist, his prominent position was maintained through the good graces of Comrade Petre Hauser, a man in the leadership of the country and Party and a close associate of Gheorghe Gheorgiu-Dej, the president. Hauser was from a German speaking area of Transylvania and wanted his son to be well educated. His son’s name was Pierre, a snobbish French variant of the Romanian name Petre. Pierre was also starting first grade and arrived at the German School in an impeccably shiny black limousine, accompanied by his mother, a German-speaking nanny, two bodyguards and a driver. When the boy and his entourage entered the enclosed front yard of the school, Herr Gerhardt walked out of the building to welcome them.
The children of diplomats arrived in chauffeur driven embassy cars.
Had Iulian been alive, Lydia would have most likely been driven in her father’s limousine also. Instead, she rode the bus with her mother, her grandmother, Frantzi and Frau Gruenberg. From the Roman Square, where they got off the bus, they walked past Amzei Market, then the Roman Cathedral of St. Joseph, the Nicolae Bălcescu High School, formerly Saint Sava National College, and along the busy Berthelot street to get to the school. It was a beautiful autumn day, and Bucharest was alive with pedestrians. The two children, wearing their school uniforms, skipped in front holding hands, carefree and happy, the adults following a few steps behind, exchanging irrelevant and polite comments while perhaps feeling touched by the unrepeatable significance of the day.
The school stood next to the new Radio Building. A whitewashed stone wall separated the schoolyard from the street. The gate into the schoolyard was open, and children and parents went streaming in, some of them shy and apprehensive. The row of limousines waited by the curb.
As soon as Lydia reached the gate, she saw Uncle Bebe step out of the shadow of the imposing Radio Building and walk in her direction.
“What a surprise!” Tina exclaimed. “Bebe, what are you doing here?”
“I wasn’t going to miss this for anything in the world,” he answered.
Lydia raised her arms towards him, and he lifted her up in the air. “Feeling all right on your first day of school?” he asked her.
“That’s my princess.”
Once inside, a teacher found Lydia’s and Frantzi’s names on a list and told them they were assigned to the same homeroom. Pierre Hauser was assigned to another.
“Go, go now, “Lydia said to her mother, her grandmother and her uncle as soon as the registration process had ended, a soft impatience quivering in her eyes like drops of dew on flower petals.
“All right. We’re out of here,” Tina said with a smile. She grabbed Edith and Bebe by their forearms and they turned towards the exit.
“I’ll be back at one o’clock waiting for you right here,” Edith said nervously. “With Frau Gruenberg.”
Less eager than Lydia, Frantzi lingered by his mother’s skirt.
“Go, go, it’s all right” Frau Gruenberg encouraged him. “Follow Lydia.”
In the street, Edith and Frau Gruenberg turned right to go back to the Roman Square, while Tina and Bebe walked in the opposite direction. It was still early, and Tina decided to stop by the Matache Market, near the North Railway Station, to see if there was anything worth buying. In the afternoons there wasn’t much left and most of her colleagues shopped on their way to work and stored their groceries in the large lab refrigerator, with the Petri dishes and the blood samples.
“Quite a day,” Bebe remarked. “I’ll walk to the market with you. Time flies, and our Lydia is already a first grader. I remember when she was born, and Iulian sent us a telegram to Suceava. And I remember my first child’s first day of school like it was yesterday. Your heart must be melting, I’m sure.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Tina’s voice sounded dispirited, barely audible over the street noises.
“Well, it’s normal to be conflicted when you’re a parent. You see your little daughter grow up and you’re happy to let go, and then you want to stop time and hold her tight and enjoy her as you did when she was a baby.”
“Trust me, the last thing I want to do is stop time,” Tina said bitterly. “These last two years have been very difficult.”
They came to a red light on Berzei Street and, although there was no traffic, they waited. A uniformed policeman stood on the opposite sidewalk, scrutinizing the pedestrians.
“It’s absurd that they changed ‘Police’ to ‘Militia’, as if it made any difference,” Bebe snickered.
“We wanted a clean break with the past and its corrupt institutions,” Tina gave him her ready-made answer. But she understood he had changed the topic on purpose and decided to go along with it gratefully.
“Spoken like a true communist,” Bebe mumbled.
The light changed, they crossed and when they passed the policeman, Bebe brought his palm to his temple in a mock salute. The policeman responded in kind.
“Tell me, what are you going to the market for?” Bebe asked. “There’s nothing there, that’s for sure.”
“You don’t know that,” Tina answered. “The peasants bring whatever they grow in their own backyards.”
“There was a time when our markets were abundant. Before the war this country was known for its food which had always been plentiful. Not anymore. We have destroyed our agriculture with forced collectivization. Nobody’s starving, but buying groceries is a struggle.”
“We are making strides in the right direction.”
“Of course, we are,” Bebe laughed. “Let me tell you a joke. Before the war, the sign on the storefront said Butcher, and you’d find quality meats inside. Now, the sign says Quality Meats, and all you find inside is the butcher.”
“Very funny,” Tina said.
“It is funny, my little sister.”
“The war has taken its toll, Bebe.”
“The war ended twelve years ago.”
“All I really need are some quinces,” said Tina. “Mother has a pork loin at home, and she wants to prepare a dish I used to love in my childhood. Babtzia used to make it too. Remember, the pork stew with quinces and brown sugar?”
“The dish I remember had chicken thighs.”
“That could work, but pork is what Simon has managed to get for us.”
“Pork? I thought we were Jewish.”
“You know that in our new society religion doesn’t matter. Jewish or Christian, eat whatever you want. Nobody cares. That’s what communism is about. People are all equal.”
“You’re naive,” said Bebe, “and you cannot be serious.”
“I am, and you should be also. You joined the Party.”
“I joined to get this job and to relocate to Bucharest. You do know that. And I’m also trying to convince Simon to join the party, even though he talks about immigrating to Israel. While he’s waiting and pondering, it might help him in his career.”
“At the slaughterhouse?” Tina snorted.
“At the slaughterhouse. Anywhere.”
“It’s people like you who compromise the integrity of the Party. Joining its ranks should not be a matter of convenience and career advancement. You do it because you believe in the movement. I devoted myself to its goals since I was a teenager, and I remain committed. So did Iulian, with all his heart. That’s why I loved him.”
Tina spoke passionately. They had reached the market and she walked fast through the stalls of fruit and vegetables without looking.
“Here,” Bebe said stopping her in front of a wooden trestle table with a few hard and knobby quinces piled up on a piece of newspaper.
Tina reached over to pick one up when the man behind the table stopped her. “You shop with your eyes, not your hands. How many you want, missus?”
“Five,” Tina said, pulled her string bag out of her purse, and opened it large for the farmer to drop in the fruit of his choosing. Further up the alley, she bought one kilo of potatoes and had them poured in over the quinces, the yellow and the earthy-brown surfaces turning, rearranging themselves and stretching the eyes of the string bag.
“I didn’t know that Larissa and Simon were considering going to Israel,” Tina said lifting the bag and looking at it in the air.
“Everybody is. I mean, everybody who has the option. And by the way, don’t tell them I told you. They want to keep it a secret.”
“From everyone. Emigration is considered disloyalty to the regime and Simon could lose his job if their intentions became known.”
“I’m family,” Tina said. “Not the regime.” They were approaching the tram station. “I think I understand Larissa. She’s my sister.”
“Yes,” Bebe said. “And I’m your brother.”
“Wait. Are you thinking of leaving for Israel also?”
“What if I am?”
“Aha. That’s why you came here today? To tell me.”
“No. I came because it’s Lydia’s first day of school and I wanted to be here for her. She needs a father’s figure in her life. You know that, Tina.”
“You’re trying to be that father figure.”
“I am, and it’s not easy. I already have my two daughters, and you’re not helping.”
“You know what? Stop trying.”
“See?” Bebe said with concern in his eyes. “Listen to yourself. You’re fighting Mother, Larissa, me, everybody. No wonder they don’t want you to know about Israel. It’s hard for them to decide as it is, and they don’t need you to worry and argue with them against it, Tina. We are here to help you, but you have to let us. All you do every day is work, like a mad woman.”
There were people at the tram station, and they moved to the side.
“Work is easy,” Tina whispered.
Bebe whispered back, “It sure is. And so is neglecting you daughter.”
“You don’t think I’m neglecting her. Do you?”
“No, not deliberately. But you don’t give her the time of day and you’re running away from everyone, without even realizing it. Why do you have to go to all those Party meetings? Who needs them?”
“I do. I told you that I believe in communism, and even if I didn’t, I’d go to honor Iulian. I want to preserve his memory.”
“The best way to preserve Iulian’s memory is to focus on Lydia. If you don’t care about taking care of yourself, fine, but you owe it to her. She needs a father. Nobody should mourn forever. Not you, not anybody. You have to snap out of it and start living your life.”
The handles of the string bag cut the circulation in Lydia’s fingers. She changed the bag from one hand to the other and, when the tram came, climbed into the first-class wagon. Through the dusty window she looked back at her brother. There he was, standing strong, a middle-aged man with a healthy mane of brown hair, clearly worried about his family. Where did the youngster go, the boy from Câmpulung who used to lie about poker?
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