(Excerpt #13 from The Ultimate Patient)
The Ultimate Patient — my novel in progress — is a fictionalized account of my family’s history going back three generations. The main characters are based on my parents’ and my wife’s parents’ lives, in war and peace, and the immense social and political upheavals of the 20th century in Europe and later in this country. This episode, divided in three parts to appear on three consecutive Mondays, describes a summer at the Black Sea. Olga and Kostea are main characters in the book. Toddy is their son. Ina is Olga’s mother and Toddy’s grandmother. The year is 1957.
At age seven and a half, Toddy saw the Black Sea for the first time. Drenched by the sun, the water stretched in front of him until it met the sky. Seagulls cackled and flew low over the surface. Small waves broke against the sandy shore, foam and rivulets advancing and retreating like a continuous breath. When Toddy looked the other way he could follow the dark road surface snaking between the white dunes. To the north, the road led to a small seaside resort called Eforie where the train from Bucharest stopped, the silhouettes of houses like lace against the morning light. To the south, farther than was visible with the naked eye, was the town of Mangalia, where his mother and father had worked one full summer a long, long time ago.
This summer, his mother, Olga, was one of two doctors taking care of the children at the Beach Camp organized by the Party at the former sanatorium. The other doctor was Nanu Zaharia, from Râmnicu Vâlcea.
Fifty boys and girls between the ages of seven and fourteen came to the camp for two weeks at a time. Their parents were workers and peasants, and many of the children, like Toddy, had never been to the beach before. In addition to the doctors, the camp employed a full staff of cooks, cleaning people, one trainer, several teachers and helpers and a Party coordinator, entrusted with promoting the correct ideology and morale. The boys’ dormitories were on the second floor, the girls’ on the third. The staff shared the rooms on the main floor, next to the kitchen and the dining room. A wide concrete terrace opened to the sea. The building exterior was painted light tan to blend in with the sand dunes. Large arched windows were covered by green wooden shades. Here and there, the tan paint was peeling a bit.
Beyond the road was the sound, its waters gray from the salt. When the wind blew from the sound, the air smelled of mud.
Olga’s assignment was for the entire summer. It was a much-coveted position, for which she had applied well in advance, thinking that Toddy would benefit from sun, seawater and the fresh, salty air. Her boss, Nick Niculescu didn’t object, and the fact that Kostea was a Party member helped her get the job. She brought Toddy and Ina along with her. Olga was offered one room, with a double bed and a cot, a table, a dresser and two chairs. She slept in the double bed with Toddy, and Ina took the cot, but when she worked late in the evening, she took the folding bed. The showers and restrooms were at the end of the hallway. Kostea visited most weekends. Dr. Zaharia’s wife came only twice, because Râmnicu Vâlcea was much farther away than Bucharest. When Kostea came, Dr. Zaharia moved into the Party coordinator’s room, to give Olga and Kostea some privacy. “How else would they enjoy their conjugal visits?” he liked to ask the Party coordinator with a wink and an envious grin.
In the mornings after breakfast the children were marched onto the beach to catch the beneficial ultraviolet rays. At the beginning of their two weeks, they were instructed to lie quietly for five minutes on their stomachs and five minutes on their backs. They liked best laying on their stomachs and letting their fingers rake the fine, warm sand. Gradually their controlled sun exposure was increased. Once their daily heliotherapy ended, the children were allowed to play freely and even venture into the sea. From their chairs under a large umbrella, the trainer and the helpers watched them like hawks. At ten thirty, when the heat became sweltering, the children were taken inside to play board games, read and paint. They were allowed back on the beach after nap time. At the end of the day, the Party coordinator taught the children patriotic songs and recounted episodes from the fight of the proletariat against the old bourgeois regime. On Sundays he read to them from books about Lenin’s life and struggles.
Being the Comrade Doctor’s son, Toddy didn’t have to submit to the rigor of the official camp schedule and spent most of his time with grandma Ina. In the late afternoon, once her shift was completed, Olga joined them. The sun, which rose in the morning from the sea, was setting over the sound, spreading soft rays of gold. It was still warm and the mother, the grandmother and her grandson built castles in the sand or walked along the shore to looking for shells.
More than anything Toddy liked wallowing in the surf. Ina let him advance only until the water got to his knees.
Olga was more daring. When they went in together, the water reached to his waist and they jumped the small waves holding hands.
“Try swimming,” she urged him. “Like this.” She let go off his hands, lowered herself in the water, and lifted her legs. She floated, holding her head half way above the surface. Droplets sparkled on her happy face. “See?” she said. “It’s easy to swim in the sea. The salty water is keeping us from sinking. It’s holding us up.”
Toddy shook his head.
“That’s all right. We have the whole summer,” Olga said and straightened up. Her wet hair was glossy, raven black strands split evenly over her shoulders in the front and back. Aware that she had put on a few pounds in the years since Toddy’s birth, she was wearing a black one-piece swimsuit. Her tanned skin looked healthy and smooth. Enjoying the moments with her son, her face was relaxed and beautiful. If anything, the extra pounds added an enticing softness to her looks, appropriate for a thirty-four year old woman.
Dr. Zaharia waded into the water. He floated in their direction, arms stretched forward, strongly kicking his legs. “In order to swim,” he told Toddy, “you first need to learn how to breathe.” He got on his knees, leaned forward and dunked his face. Air bubbles streamed to the surface on both sides of his head. “Like this,” he declared when he raised his head, and he looked first at Toddy and then at Olga. “Always keep your eyes open underwater. It won’t sting.” He took Toddy’s hands. “Let’s try it together,” he said.
Toddy hesitated and then lowered himself into the water to his chin.
“More,” Dr. Zaharia encouraged.
A wave washed over them.
From the shore, Ina watched with concern.
“Like that!” Dr. Zaharia exclaimed. “One more time.”
Toddy opened his eyes under water and a world exploded in front of him. Strands of sea grass, little silvery fish, sand, shell fragments and air bubbles danced among dispersing sunrays. The sounds were muffled and tangible, like they could be grabbed with your hands. Shadowy waves washed overhead. There was no beginning or end, only magic — the magic of the kaleidoscope. Toddy didn’t know why he liked it, but he liked it nevertheless. He lowered his head underwater and exhaled, again and again.
“You got it,” Olga said victoriously.
Dr. Zaharia jumped forward and departed towards the deep, foam trailing behind his stylish and vigorous crawl. It was a fine demonstration, intended more for Olga than Toddy. Perhaps.
Dr. Zaharia likes Olga, the camp staff loved to comment. Olga heard it and dismissed it more than once.
“Thank you, Dr. Zaharia,” she said when he returned.
“My pleasure,” he responded. “I like teaching and I love children. Unfortunately, we don’t have any, I mean me and my wife.” Then he added in a whisper, “She can’t.”
Olga didn’t think it was a subject she cared to pursue.
The swimming lessons continued over the following weeks. Toddy got better at it.
“Swimming will be good for him,” Dr. Zaharia said while they stood on the shore on another afternoon. Behind the dunes, the sun dipped. “It’s a complete sport that helps one’s body develop in the most harmonious way.” He inflated his torso and flexed his pectorals. “Your Toddy has a tummy he should get rid off, in my opinion. Normal children, when they’re no longer babies, stay skinny. Look at most kids in this camp. Notice their ribs and bellybuttons. A child’s body has to be slim.” He raised his index finger into the air. “Like this finger, or, if you want, like a stick. Toddy is chubby, and I hope you don’t mind me saying this, as a doctor, since I mean it in the most positive way.”
Toddy was looking down.
Ina threw a towel over his shoulders. “I should hope so,” she said.
Olga didn’t respond. Of course she minded Dr. Zaharia’s words. She minded them a great deal, and she was furious. What was he thinking? If this was his way of being friendly and showing he cared, he was on the wrong track. No one should speak to a mother about her child like that, especially when that child stood right there in front of them. Didn’t he know how vulnerable children were? What a gross lack of sensitivity, coming from a doctor, no less. Normal children, baloney! Toddy had plenty of time. He’d go through growth spurts, become active with sports, meet girls and get in shape. She understood the burden of a few extra pounds as well as anybody and she planned to talk to Toddy later and make sure he was all right.
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