At the Black Sea (Part 2)

Eforie 1954

From A Family Album: https://alexduvan.medium.com/a-family-album-40829e212764

“The nudists,” Virgil said.

Dr. Zaharia nodded.

“It’s actually a spa,” Virgil said, not clear for whose benefit. “The mud from the sound is believed to have medicinal benefits, and people cover their bodies in it and lay naked on the beach. I’ll give it to you, it looks unusual.”

“I would say it looks sexy,” Dr. Zaharia said.

“Nanu, how long has it been since you’ve seen your wife?” Virgil asked Dr. Zaharia.

The man laughed. “It’s not that,” he said.

“Then what is it?”

“Beautiful female bodies. That’s it.”

Virgil nodded. The two of them had been on a first name basis since weeks before.

“Who doesn’t like female bodies?” Iamandi asked.

“Mr. Iamandi, I see naked bodies all the time,” Virgil said. “Being a doctor.”

“Call me Jean,” Iamandi said.

“Jean.”

“I’m a doctor, too,” Dr. Zaharia said, “and I see patients. The women at this beach are different. They keep it respectable as well: the men’s section is separated from the women’s by a tall fence, and there is a third area for couples, but there is no gate or restricted passage.”

“I don’t think we should gawk,” Virgil said.

“Who said anything about gawking?” Iamandi grinned and took off his shirt. His chest was milk white.

They passed by the first naked couple and kept walking trying not to stare in an obvious way. The woman was lying on her stomach. She was young. If she had had mud on her body, she must have washed it off. As they walked by, she half raised herself on her elbows. The skin on her buttocks and breasts was whiter than the rest, obviously from sunbathing in a bikini. The man’s elbows and knees were covered in mud and he waved at them for no reason.

Most men seemed eager to smear the mud on their wrists, elbows and knees, dry in the sun, then bathe in the sea and get out of there. They looked past each other and didn’t talk. One guy read a newspaper, and in a far corner, two naked men played with a beach ball.

In the next section, there were about a dozen women, completely covered in mud, standing with their arms apart, faces raised to the sun, waiting.

“It’s uncanny,” Virgil said. “They’re naked, and yet they seem fully dressed.”

“It’s more interesting this way,” Dr. Zaharia noted. “Coy and lascivious at the same time. Look at the black color of the wet mud. One can hardly say where the mud ends, and the pubic hair begins.”

“The mud is their magic veil,” Iamandi said. “Have you noticed how the sea changes colors when the light skips on it? That’s how our life is — an illusion. In our society today, you don’t know who the people you deal with are. They’re all hiding something.”

“Spoken like a true illusionist.” Virgil stopped and picked up a broken shell.

“For example, my dear Virgil, some people lie about where they were born.”

“As if this matters,” Virgil said.

“Oh, it matters. It can matter a lot.”

Iamandi was a lightweight. Virgil could have easily smacked him in the face, causing a commotion in that unusual place. Yet he swallowed his surprise at Iamandi’s comment, and threw the shell fragment back into the sea.

That evening, Iamandi pulled a white rabbit out of his black hat. He turned a stick into a tie, and a bunch of silk handkerchiefs into a cane. Pigeons flew out of the sleeve of his black velvet and silk jacket. He performed card tricks and lay stiff like a board on the backs of two chairs placed five feet apart. For the grand finale, he stopped in front of Dr. Zaharia. “I need a large bill. Comrade Zaharia, being a doctor, you must have a lot of money.”

Everybody laughed.

Dr. Zaharia shrugged, proudly fished a bill out of his wallet and gave it to the magician. Iamandi returned to his place in front of the audience. “I’ll defy gravity and make this bill float in the air for you. Feel free to come forward and look at it closely, pass your hands below and above it to make sure it’s not supported somehow or hanging from an invisible string, but please don’t touch it. And watch it carefully, because you know how people are when it comes to money. Somebody might steal it. Therefore, and just to be sure, I’ll sign it first.”

He flattened the bill, placed it on the seat of a chair and signed it with a gold pen. Then he pulled at the bill’s two ends with his thumbs and index fingers and raised it in front of his chest. He closed his eyes, mumbled something indistinguishable and slowly released it. The bill floated.

The children shrieked.

Iamandi stepped back, looked at the Bardus, and then moved in their direction. He came very close.

The Party coordinator clapped. Emboldened by that sound, the children rushed towards the floating bill. They shoved each other, jumped, laughed, and moved their hands through the air slow and fast. Not to be outdone, the adults in the room got to their feet and mingled among the children. Suddenly the bill vanished.

Iamandi sent everyone back. “Hmm,” he frowned. “Just as I feared. Children don’t know the value of money, so I guess that whoever took the bill must be an adult. And the person would need a place to hide it in a hurry. Something… let’s say…like a purse. Ladies, how many of you have purses? Bring them to me, please.”

Except for Dalia and one of the teachers, none of the women had their purses with them. The magician checked the teacher’s purse first. He opened it and turned it to the audience. “Nothing here,” he said. Then he opened Dalia’s and retrieved the bill with his signature on it.

The audience clapped.

“How did you do this? I didn’t even come close to the money,” Dalia protested. “I sat on my chair the entire time.”

Iamandi bowed. “Of course, you did, dear, and the money just floated to you. Sometimes, life is mischievous this way.”

The audience clapped one more time and the Party coordinator got up. “We thank you, Comrade Magician,” he said. “What a wonderful world you have revealed to us! Of course, we understand this was entertainment, not to be confused with the teachings of the Party that enable us to define the unambiguous reality of our new life. Children, get ready for dinner. Comrade Magician, our staff would be honored to have you as our guest tonight. I think a table is set for the occasion on our beautiful terrace by the sea.”

Iamandi accepted the invitation. Most of the staff joined in after getting the children to bed. Virgil had given the gobies to the cook. Iamandi thought the occasion required a drink. “Gobies without beer are like a magician without a top hat,” he proclaimed. Since there was no alcohol on the premises, he volunteered to drive into Eforie and buy some. One of the teachers mentioned that the stores were closed on Sunday. He replied that he knew a few restaurant administrators who would not hesitate to oblige. The Party coordinator volunteered to accompany him on his errand.

As soon as they returned, the cooks brought out the food. There was plenty and by comparison, the dozen grilled gobies on a platter looked like a tease. “Had I known about the party, I would have bought more,” Virgil apologized. Galina grabbed two fish and put them on her dinner plate. “One for me, and one for Andy,” she said and as soon as he finished eating, she rushed him to their room. It was high time for the young boy to go to bed. Iamandi opened the beer case and started passing bottles around. Everybody was in a good mood.

Iamandi stood up, his slicked hair now ruffled by the breeze that blew from the beach. “My friends, I have one last surprise for the Bardus,” he said. “At my command, someone will appear out of the mist of time. Someone they know and love, and who loves them. Someone they might have thought dead.” His hair and forehead glistened unnaturally in the light of the electric bulb. He reached in his pocket, took out a black, round object that looked like a grenade and threw it towards the kitchen. Thick smoke rose following a small explosion — a smoke bomb!

The wind blew the smoke aside and a silhouette with a fedora appeared in the doorway.

“Nicola!” Virgil yelled.

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 Virgil and Dalia 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 Dalia Bardu worked, they planned the surprise. He had taken the local train to Eforie and Iamandi had 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. Nicola revealed that he was married and had two young sons. He worked as an agronomist at a collective state farm north of Constanța. But when Virgil asked Nicola about his past, he tried to change the subject. Dalia squeezed Virgil’s hand under the table.

Slowly, people departed and Nicola decided to stay the night. Him and the Bardus took their cigarettes, the leftover beer and 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 the past in front of everybody. Now let me tell you my story,” Nicola said. He had the voice of childhood and Virgil listened, transfixed.

They had last seen each other in 1943, shortly before Virgil left with the front. 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, taking care of their large family farm in Bessarabia, which later became a part of the Soviet Union, and which was the place where Virgil was born. When Grandfather complained that he was getting too old to manage, Nicola went to help him. A year later the Soviet Army overran the area. 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 and a week later he arrived at a small cattle farm in a village in Azerbaijan. He quickly learned a few words of Russian and understood from the locals what was expected of him. He minded the sheep and the cows and his life became 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 letter from his family in Bucharest. The war was over by that time. He learned that his brother had been killed, that his father had retired, and that his parents were planning to emigrate to France. The only thing holding them back was the hope of reconnecting with Nicola. When he asked them why they wanted to leave the country, they didn’t dare answer him in a letter. His mother had relatives in France, 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 three years in Azerbaijan, he was informed that he was free to go. He took the train to Bucharest, but he was arrested at the border, accused of being a landowner, and condemned in a summary trial to six years of reeducation through hard labor at the construction of the Danube–Black Sea Canal. The place was in effect an extermination camp. His grueling, backbreaking work involved 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 county.

“So, who’s Iamandi and how do you know him?” Virgil suddenly asked.

“He’s the agent in charge of me. Under other conditions you’d refer to him as my parole officer.”

“Officer?” Dalia said.

“Yes. He works for the secret police.”

“Are you still under house arrest?”

“I am, and I have a mutually beneficial relationship with him. I provide him fresh vegetables and meat, and he affords me some small liberties, like tonight. He provided me with the opportunity and the magician’s touch,” Nicola added jovially. “And through him, I learned about your lives. He has access to your personal files and told me that you got married, that you have a child, and that both of you work as doctors. And I know about other friends as well.”

“So Iamandi is not a magician,” Dalia said.

“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,” Virgil said. “He made a reference to my place of birth. It was rather strange.”

“In which way?” Nicola asked.

“I can’t explain — the tone of his voice and the way he phrased the question, like we were sharing a secret, the two of us.”

“I’ll tell you what’s strange,” Nicola said. “He asked me the same thing about you several months ago. He wanted to know if you were born in Romania or Bessarabia, and I said I don’t know.”

“You did the right thing.”

Dalia felt the need to explain. “Virgil doesn’t want it to be known that he was born in what is today the Soviet Union and have to explain why he moved to Romania. People get in trouble for that. Luckily we fond a good soul who offered to forge his birth certificate for a fee.”

Virgil shook his head and buried his hands in the sand. “It’s not a big deal,” he said.

“Right,” Nicola said.

“Where are your parents right now, Nicola?” Dalia asked.

Nicola said that his father had been released from prison, and miraculously his parents had been allowed to leave the country. His father was in poor health.

“Did you think about joining them after you finish your term?”

“They’ll be time to think of it in the future,” Nicola said.

“You should join the Party,” Virgil said. He wiped his hands clean of sand. There was bitterness in his voice.

“For the opportunities and protection it presents,” Dalia said. “In our case, one is enough.”

Nicola leaned his elbow on the blanket, picked up his fedora and placed it on his head. It was dark and Virgil couldn’t see Nicola’s face.

“I’m sorry,” Nicola said. “There are lines I don’t cross. As they call it, I’ve been re-educated and I understand it might be advantageous, but I won’t join the Party, no matter what.”