Suburb of Baltimore, 1992
From A Family Album: https://alexduvan.medium.com/a-family-album-40829e212764
“We’ll take you into the Blue Ridge Mountains to see the leaves turning,” Dalia said.
“We want to see everything,” Elena said. “This is our first trip ever outside Romania. Of all places, the United States of America! Who would have thought?”
Elena and Eugene were spending three weeks with Dalia and Virgil in their apartment in a suburb of Baltimore.
“I always wanted to see France,” Eugene said dreamily. “America was second on my list.”
“A cosmopolitan man with priorities,” Virgil mocked him. “I’m sorry to disappoint you.” He turned to Dalia and winked. It had been like this since forever with his best childhood friend. Often he had treated him as inferior, as if Eugene owed him somehow. He had ordered him around and made fun of him, while Eugene accepted it good-naturedly. “It’s all part of our friendship,” he liked to explain.
Eugene looked up as if begging for understanding. “I didn’t mean it the way it came out. I’ve always had this admiration for France, and for what it’s culture represents for the civilized world. Sorry I let it slip.” He covered his mouth with his hand and started coughing. When his cough ended, he said, “You are my dearest friends.”
“We missed you,” Dalia said.
“Don’t hide your feelings from us.” Virgil made a long face. “And try to smoke less. I don’t like your cough.”
“You used to smoke, too,” Eugene said.
“Used to,” Virgil said. He went to the kitchen and returned with a bottle of vodka. “Let’s drink to friendship,” he said.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, Virgil had invited Eugene and Elena to visit. Travel across the Iron Curtain was now possible. He and Dalia had not seen them in a decade, since they had moved to America to join their son and his new family. In order for Eugene and Elena to get tourist visas to come, Virgil had to sign an affidavit of support vouching that the two would not become a burden to the US.
Since their arrival, the four of them toured the Inner Harbor in Baltimore and the main sights in DC; they spent time at shopping malls and supermarkets, which, with their plentiful assortment of merchandise and produce, seemed a miracle in their eyes.
On certain weekdays in the afternoon, Dalia and Virgil had to help with the grandchildren, and dragged Eugene and Elena to the house of their son.
“I have two granddaughters as well,” Elena boasted one afternoon to the grandchildren. “Măriuca and Loredana are their names.”
“Maruca,” Dalia’s granddaughter, Norma, repeated with a strong American accent, trying hard to pronounce the foreign name.
“You speak Romanian so well,” Elena encouraged her.
“Bunica is teaching me,” Norma said.
Bunica meant grandmother in Romanian, and Elena and Dalia smiled.
“I enjoy spending time at your son’s house. You are happy there, and your grandchildren remind me of my own,” Elena told Dalia later. “They are so different from each other, my granddaughters, my two rays of sunshine. Loredana lingers and likes to play with dolls, whereas Măriuca is focused and abrupt. She fixes things and always has dirt under her fingernails. The princess and the pauper, I call them.”
“Elena, you’ll be back with them in no time.”
“I know, but I’m afraid they’ll leave the country, I mean, not right now, but you know, like so many young people do. They’re talking about it all the time. I’d like to stop them, but can’t.”
“You shouldn’t,” Dalia said. “They are a young family and they deserve their chance at a better life.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re here, with your son and his wife and grandchildren.”
“And I miss my old life in Romania every day. When our son left, we didn’t know if we’d ever see each other again. It’s different now.”
Elena nodded. “You’re right. We have more freedom today, but our day-to-day lives are difficult. We had to borrow the money to come visit you.” She grabbed her purse and took out her wallet. “Look,” she said, holding in her hand a one-hundred-dollar bill and eighteen dollars in change. “See? That’s my fortune, all of it. I pawned the gold ring I had inherited from my mother and after we paid for the airline tickets, that’s all that is left. I didn’t tell Eugene, but I hope to spend as little of it as possible and in the end buy a few presents for my girls.”
“You’re an angel,” Dalia said.
Everywhere they went, Virgil paid. It wasn’t cheap, but it was a part of their silent deal. Embarrassed, Eugene looked away. Once Virgil joked about it. The joke didn’t go well, but Eugene saved the moment by saying that Virgil was the wealthy American now.
At the end of the second week, Eugene ran out of the cigarettes he had brought from Romania.
“I won’t pay for your cigarettes. They kill you!” Virgil growled.
At the neighborhood WAWA, Elena pulled out her wallet to pay for a few packs of Marlborough’s.
“Why do you carry so much money on you? You’ll lose it, or someone will steal it from you,” Virgil said when he noticed the one-hundred-dollar bill.
That night, as they were falling asleep, Dalia and Virgil heard Eugene cough in his room. It lasted for several minutes, after which they heard Eugene walk into the living room and from there out on the deck, wheezing and trying to catch his breath.
“Having guests is more difficult than I thought,” Virgil whispered to Dalia.
“We missed them,” Dalia said.
“At home, we never had guests for three weeks.” At home meant for them back in Bucharest.
In the morning, the men were out for a walk. When they returned, they found Elena at the table, a half empty glass of water in front of her. Tears were running down her face. Dalia was holding her hand.
“What happened?” Virgil asked.
“The money,” Elena said.
Elena looked up at Eugene. “I lost it at the supermarket.”
Eugene took Elena’s free hand. He asked the usual questions: was it crowded, did she open her purse, did anyone stand next to her.
Virgil walked around the table wringing his hands. “Didn’t I tell you to leave the money at home?” he finally said.
Elena looked up. “I forgot.”
“You forgot? How could you forget?”
“Let it be,” Dalia said.
“I warned her,” he said. Nobody answered and he continued pacing. “This is ludicrous. I don’t believe how stupid this is. I told you: leave the money at home!”
Elena burst into tears again.
“Virgil,” Eugene said. “Watch your tone.”
Virgil stopped pacing and produced a sarcastic smile. “Oh, Eugene, you’re here as well. I forgot. Nice of you to contribute. So nice! Why didn’t you take the money and keep it for her? Tell me, why not? Or tell me that it’s none of my business. Of course, tell me that. Say it’s your money, not mine. Go ahead and have a cigarette. Stay in my house. Eat my food. Who am I to give you advice? The two of you are helping each other. You let her waste money and she lets you smoke. Some people mistake this for love. I’m not surprised your children can’t wait to get the hell out.”
This time Eugene wouldn’t take it. “Enough,” he yelled. He smacked his hands on the table, started coughing and got up. Elena got up as well. She went straight to the guest room. Eugene walked after her and slammed the door behind him.
“Are you satisfied?” Dalia asked in a whisper.
“Don’t you think I was right?”
“You were an idiot. I don’t know what bugs you, but whatever it is, it’s offensive and wrong.”
“I’m furious,” he said.
“I’ll give you a glass of water and you calm yourself down. In a few minutes we’ll have to go and take care of the grandkids.”
“And them?” Virgil asked pointing at the closed door.
“I’ll talk to them. Then you go and apologize.”
He suppressed a bitter laughter. “Luckily they have no money. They can’t leave.”
That evening Virgil apologized.
“Everything is forgotten,” Elena said, avoiding his eyes.
They had a quiet dinner and, unlike previous nights, immediately got ready for bed. The two men lingered for a few minutes.
“Listen,” Virgil said. Clearly, it wasn’t easy for him. “I talked to Dalia and the two of us have decided to offer you a hundred dollars. Our gift.”
“Buddy, get lost,” Eugene said.