Bucharest, 1952

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

After five years of communism, life was full of hardship, but Dr. Virgil Bardu wasn’t complaining. Proudly stepping into his prime, he was assuming full accountability for his career and the people around him. His new role as ward supervisor at a premier Bucharest hospital was satisfying and he diligently worked the necessary long hours. He and his lovely wife, Dalia, his one-year-old son, and his mother-in-law who was helping with the baby and the chores, had just moved into a larger apartment. His childhood friends, Eugene and Igor, had recently married, and his new friend, Marin, who was skillfully climbing the Party ladder had proposed to Miranda, his beautiful Gypsy girlfriend. Only one small detail bothered Virgil: no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t get a telephone line approved for his new apartment.

*

Marin and Miranda had invited one hundred and twenty-five people to their wedding and two hundred showed up. The boisterous event was a mélange of a Gypsy matrimonial rite, a traditional Romanian wedding, and a high brow Communist Party celebration. Available only to the Party faithful, the venue was a beautiful restaurant on the shore of Lake Herăstrău. The Gypsy lăutari, cradling their violins and harmonicas, played ballads of unrequited love and senseless drinking. Over roast and mititei, a small orchestra of Romanian folk musicians played horas, while after midnight, the celebrated violinist Ion Doicu from the Bucharest Conservatory treated his irreverent audience to a selection of Brahms and Mendelson, as champagne and cake were being served. By popular custom, the Master of Ceremonies embarrassed the guests by calling out the monetary gifts bestowed upon the newlyweds. His focus stayed, however, on the bride’s and groom’s relatives in their quest for the love and gratitude of the happy couple.

Miranda’s large family turned out to be at an overwhelming advantage, for which Miranda apologized to Marin while unable to hide her smirk of self-satisfaction. The sum Marin and Miranda received from Miranda’s family was sufficient to purchase an apartment in central Bucharest, had such an acquisition of private property not been forbidden under the Party’s new directives.

Miranda’s family occupied the largest table, headed by the Gypsy King, the Bulibasha. Tradition and legend claimed that the Bulibasha, well-connected in the underworld, was worth his weight in gold.

Marin’s small family was modest: his mother, his father, and a remote uncle who had arrived that morning by train from his small village in arid Dobruja. To correct this glaring imbalance, Marin’s family was seated at a table with the newlyweds and the highest-ranking Party official present, Comrade Nicolae Spițeru, Nicu to his friends, and his wife Mihaela.

Comrade Spițeru had recently made the front page of the Party daily as the Chief Prosecutor in a highly publicized serial killer case involving Ali Ogiolan, a man of Turkish origin and an enemy of the people.

Miranda and Marin stopped at Virgil’s table. Virgil and Dalia were sharing the table with George, Igor, and their wives.

In her closely fitted white satin and lace gown, Miranda looked exceptionally sensual. Her long black hair framed her narrow face with a thin, straight nose, dark eyebrows, bright green eyes and lips richly rouged to soften a smile that often came across as malicious. A long necklace of gold coins rested in the deep V-neck of her dress and hid partially in the warm refuge of her bosom.

Looking at the necklace, Virgil couldn’t help but think of his neighbor, Hogea, who was arrested because he had buried a few gold coins in his backyard, trying to salvage a token of his past. “So, here you are, buddy, the last of the Musketeers,” he said to Marin, and pointed to himself and to George and Igor. He grabbed Marin by the scruff of his neck and gave him a peck on the cheek. “Congratulations.”

“The last of the Mohicans, not Musketeers,” said Igor, who insisted on using literary references correctly.

“Musketeers, Mohicans, who cares?” George said. “It’s bye-bye freedom.”

“Congratulations to both of you,” said Dalia.

“Of course, to both of you,” echoed Virgil.

“Now that you’re married, no more fooling around,” said Igor.

His wife rolled her eyes. “That’s what you’re thinking about on their wedding night?”

“I’m not thinking about anything. Just saying.”

“Listen to me, friends,” George said, the flat tip of his nose turning white from overexcitement. “In case you don’t know, marriage is a pair of handcuffs. You tell the Justice of the Peace and the entire world that you want to be with this woman, so you better stick by her, keep your you know what to yourself, and stay faithful. You have had your time, and now it’s gone. As I said, farewell freedom.”

It was clear that George was joking. Men talked like that among themselves, teasing each other about the risks and rewards of their cavalier behavior. Yet George was pushing the limit in front of their wives, and Virgil thought that George was being stupid.

“You make me sad.” Marin winked.

“Sad?” said Miranda.

“Well, I’m happy and sad. You know how this is, don’t you, honey?” Marin looked around the table.

Miranda cut him off. “I don’t. Tell me.”

“Honey,” Marin said. “These guys are fools, and I love you.”

“You better,” Miranda said, her eyes sending out icicles. “Because if you lie to me, honey, I’ll cut your balls in an instant.”

Involuntarily, Virgil crossed his legs under the table.

*

Marin took Virgil’s arm. “Come, let’s meet Nicu. He wants to ask you a favor.”

“Spițeru? You guys are on a first name basis?”

“Of course, we are. He’s at my wedding.”

“And a big shot with the Secret Police, a Major.”

“Recently promoted to Colonel.”

Spițeru was finishing his cake. He was eating it with conviction, his steel framed glasses off to the side, his elbows spread out on the white tablecloth, and his forehead furrowed. Next to him, his wife Mihaela, was talking to Marin’s father.

“Nicu,” Marin said. “Meet my friend, Virgil Bardu.”

Spițeru jumped to his feet. “Dr. Bardu, what a pleasure.”

“The pleasure is all mine, Colonel,” Virgil said. “And I hear congratulations are in order.”

“Oh, my promotion. Yes, thank you, but tonight it’s not about me. It’s about Marin and Miranda. What a glorious couple!”

“Indeed.”

“Sit down, Doctor.”

Spițeru put on his glasses and his eyes disappeared behind foggy lenses. “I’m sorry that I have to bother you on such a beautiful night with a personal matter. Marin promised you won’t hold it against me.”

“Marin is right,” Virgil said nodding at Marin who bowed in return. “Besides,” Virgil added, “I wanted to meet you as well. That Ogiolan case is fascinating.”

“Fascinating? No. Just a series of primitive, gruesome murders.”

“Is it true that he killed the women with his bare hands, as I read in the papers?”

“Of course, it is true. Our press never lies, Comrade Doctor.”

“Why did he do it?”

“When I got involved, there was a part of me that wanted to believe that this man, Ogiolan, was a simple nutcase on his way to the asylum. Yet the more we uncovered, the clearer it became that he represented the ugliest part of the old regime, with their disregard for human life.”

“Do you think that his ethnic origin explains anything?”

“Our society treats everyone as equal and doesn’t condone ethnic discrimination.” Spițeru impaled the last piece of cake with his fork, placed it in his mouth and swallowed. “My wife’s brother’s father-in-law has a urinary tract problem. Can you help us, Doctor?”

“I’d be happy to examine your relative,” Virgil said. “Call me on Monday at the hospital, and if I’m not available, leave a message with the switchboard.”

Mihaela turned to Virgil. “Couldn’t we call you at home?” she asked innocently.

“I wish you could, but I don’t have a telephone,” Virgil said, embarrassed. He closed his eyes and remembered the house he grew up in with the black telephone in his father’s home office. Then the war came, houses were bombed, and the telephone lines destroyed. Under the new regime, a home telephone had become a reward for serving the Party, as well as a status symbol.

“Doctor Bardu,” Spițeru said, “this is my wife, Mihaela.”

Virgil took Mihaela’s hand and brought it up to his lips to kiss it. “Virgil Bardu,” he introduced himself. “Please, call me Virgil.”

“Sure thing, dear Virgil,” Michaela said. Then she addressed her husband. “Nicu, one of our most talented doctors doesn’t have a telephone at his home. How is this possible?”

“Comrade Doctor, on Monday you will have a telephone installed,” Spițeru told Virgil before looking lovingly at his wife. “Problem solved, dear.”

Under the pen name Tudor Alexander I have written and published five novels and one collection of short stories. Please visit www.tudoralexander.com.