(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 is the last part of the excerpt entitled At the Black Sea. Olga and Kostea are main characters in the book. Nicola is their childhood friend lost since the war. Ina is Olga’s mother and Toddy’s grandmother. The year is 1957.
They hadn’t seen each other in a long time, but Nicola Cremene looked unchanged — the same pale face, long, adolescent features and soft, brown hair. Under the white straw fedora, his brown eyes displayed an air of misleading innocence. He hugged both Kostea and Olga for a long time.
“It was hard waiting in the kitchen and listening to your voices,” he said happily. “On and on, Comrade Magician, you milked this one for the ages.”
“One chooses the right moment for one’s best trick,” Iamandi said.
Nicola took his hat off and sat down. It turned out he lived in Constanța and when he heard that Iamandi would perform at the summer camp where Olga Bardu worked, they planned the surprise. He took the local train to Eforie and Iamandi picked him up at the station after getting the drinks. Obviously, the Party coordinator was in on it.
“As long as the surprise was enjoyable,” he smiled modestly.
They all ate and passed more beer around. Iamandi declined. He still had to get behind the wheel that evening. Nicola revealed that he was married and had two young sons. He worked as an agronomist at a collective state farm north of Constanța. When Kostea asked Nicola about his past, he became uncomfortable and tried to change the subject. Olga squeezed Kostea’s hand under the table.
Nicola decided to stay the night. Like good friends, he would share a room with Kostea, while Olga would sleep with Ina and Toddy. Slowly, people departed. The three of them took their cigarettes, the leftover beer and two blankets and went down to the beach. The night was warm and the moon reflected on the water.
“I didn’t want to talk about my past life in front of everybody. Now let me tell you my story,” Nicola said. He had the voice of childhood and they listened, transfixed.
They had last seen each other in 1943, shortly before Kostea left with his medical unit. At the time, Nicola lived in Bucharest with his parents. His older brother was in the army. His father held a high political appointment with the Ministry of Agriculture. His grandfather was alone in Kishinev, taking care of the large family farm. When Grandfather complained that he was getting too old to manage the farm by himself, Nicola returned to Moldova to help him. A year later the Soviet Army overran Kishinev. Nicola had hoped that they would quietly stay on the farm and be forgotten there, but the soldiers came. They started pillaging. Grandfather tried to protect his property and was shot on the spot. Nicola was handcuffed, thrown on a truck and taken to a command center where he was beaten and interrogated. When they found out that he had studied agronomy, they placed him on a train headed east. He arrived at a small cattle farm in a village in Azerbaijan a week later. A few people in that village spoke Russian and showed him what was expected of him. He minded the sheep and the cows and his life was more or less manageable. He befriended the teacher, the Imam and the two Party officials. He had a girlfriend. It took a whole year for him to receive a return letter from his family in Bucharest, and that was how he found out that his brother had been killed in the war, that his father had retired, and that his parents were planning to emigrate to Germany. The only thing holding them back was the hope of reconnecting with Nicola. When he asked them why they wanted to leave Bucharest, they didn’t dare answer him in a letter. His mother had relatives in West Germany, but that, in Nicola’s opinion, wasn’t the only reason. Then his father was imprisoned as an enemy of the people, and Nicola understood. It was already too late. From the remote farm in the Caucasian foothills, there was nothing he could do to help them. A few months later he stopped receiving letters from his mother.
After four years in Azerbaijan, out of the blue, he was informed that he was free to go. He wasn’t sure what destination to specify on his release form, Kishinev or Bucharest. The Party boss suggested he write Bucharest via Kishinev, which he did, and which nobody questioned. They didn’t understand, nor did they care. Once in Kishinev, he quickly realized there was nothing there for him. Their vast properties were gone, and all his friends and relatives had moved away. He took the train to Bucharest, but at the border crossing he was arrested. A summary trial took place in Jassy in which the communist magistrate accused him of being an unrepentant member of the wealthy class and condemned him to six years of reeducation through hard labor. He spent one year in the local penitentiary and was then transferred to the Danube–Black Sea Canal, near Megidia. The place was in effect an extermination camp. His grueling, backbreaking work — every prisoner’s work — was digging up and moving by hand four cubic meters of hard soil and rocks a day. People were dying left and right. He got lucky. After ninety days, he was freed, allowed to move to Constanța and spend the balance of his sentence under house arrest on the condition that he work on the collective state farm that was established outside the city and which needed to set an example of efficiency for the whole country. He remained employed there to that day.
“So who’s Iamandi and how do you know him?” Kostea suddenly interrupted.
“He’s the agent in charge of me. Under other conditions you’d refer to him as a parole officer.”
“Officer?” Olga said.
“Yes, officer. He works for the secret police.”
“Are you still under house arrest?”
“No. It ended this winter, but we stayed in touch because it is mutually beneficial. I provide him fresh vegetables and meat, and he helps me in dealing with the authorities. He got me in touch with you, didn’t he?”
“He did,” Olga said. “But you didn’t need him to come and see us.”
“He provided the opportunity and the magician’s touch,” Nicola said jovially. “You know I’ve always been attracted to the dramatic. And there is another thing I wanted to tell you. With his help, I learned about your lives. He got access to your personal files and told me that you two got married, that you had a child, and that both of you work as doctors. And I know about George, and his uncle, who was imprisoned and then released. I never contacted you until now for your own good. While I was under house arrest, being in touch with me would have been a stain on your background, a vulnerability.”
“We’re glad you are here now,” Kostea said.
Olga insisted, “So Iamandi is not a magician.”
“That’s his cover. He makes plenty of money this way and gains access to all kinds of people.”
“I walked with him on the beach today,” Kostea said, “and he made a reference to my place of birth. It was rather strange.”
“In which way?” Nicola asked.
“I can’t explain — the hushed tone of his voice and the way he phrased the question, like we shared a secret.”
“I’ll tell you what’s strange,” Nicola said. “He asked me the same thing about you a year ago. He wanted to know if you were born in Romania or not.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him I didn’t know for sure, but that if I were to guess, I’d say you were born in Kishinev.”
Kostea didn’t bat an eye. “You didn’t know I was born in Jassy?” he asked.
“Well, that’s all right.”
“Where are your parents right now, Nicola?” Olga wanted to know.
Nicola told them that after his sentence was commuted to house arrest, his father was released from prison and, miraculously, his parents were allowed to leave for West Germany. His father was in poor health.
“Are going to join them?” she continued.
“No. This is my country,” he said.
“Maybe you should join the Party instead,” Kostea said. There was bitterness in his voice.
Nicola leaned his elbow on the blanket, picked up his fedora and placed it on his head, as if they had reached the end of the conversation. It was dark and Kostea could not see Nicola’s face.
Olga felt the need to interrupt the silence. “Kostea is a Party member,” she said, “for the opportunities it presents, not for the ideology. In our case, one out of two is enough, Nicola.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “There are lines I don’t cross, and this is one of them. I understand it might be advantageous, and I’ve been re-educated and all, but no, I won’t join.”
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