Drinking with Friends

Bucharest, 1972

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

My parents and friends having a good time. Undated photo, maybe 1946–47

Nicola called Virgil form Sibiu. “The passport office gave me permission to visit my mother in West Germany,” he said. “Can you believe it?”

Virgil couldn’t believe it. “Your flight leave from Bucharest. Come and spend the night prior at our place.”

Nicola, always careful not to inconvenience anybody, opted for a hotel. But when his train pulled into the North Railway Station a day before his departure, he hailed a cab and went to straight to Virgil. It was noon. Virgil’s wife was at work until three, and this was as good a time as any for a short visit and a drink with his old high school friend.

Marie called Virgil at the hospital. “He arrived.”

“Mama, I just finished my morning rounds and I’ll be there as soon as I can,” Virgil said. “And I’ll invite Eugene over. He’ll be happy our buddy’s in town.”

*

The three of them sat bunched together at one end of the dining room table, across from Marie, who chain smoked with melancholy dedication and looked with her foggy eyes at the men she remembered since they were schoolboys. “She only sees a slice of what’s in front of her, like when a door is cracked open,” her ophthalmologist had told Virgil months ago.

“Marcela, bring us some food,” Virgil asked the housekeeper.

“A small drink before lunch,” Nicola said pulling a one-liter plastic bottle from his travel bag. “It’s what the French call Calvados, made by yours truly from my Jonathan apples, triple-distilled.”

Virgil lined up four snifters and poured. “Mama, look at this color,” he said. He lifted his snifter against the window, holding it by the short stem. Daylight dispersed through the liquid. “It’s yellow. No, green like a sapphire.”

“Sapphire is blue, like my eyes,” Eugene said.

“It can be green.” Virgil looked at Marie. “Mama, you see?”

It was clear she didn’t. “I see.” She brought her snifter to her lips and took a sip. “It’s very strong.”

The men laughed. They swished the liquid around, inhaled the apple aroma and drank a little bit at a time.

“I call it my melted corundum,” Nicola said.

“And what the hell is corundum?” Eugene asked.

The terrace was in full sun and the door to the terrace was open. The trees behind the brick fence swayed lazily. They formed a live barrier like a protective wall.

“I forgot how beautiful your place is,” Nicola said. “Good for you, the famous doctor form Bucharest!”

“It is, isn’t it?” Virgil refilled his snifter and rolled up his sleeves. He had a surgeon’s fingers, long and agile. “I’m lucky,” he said.

Nicola nodded. “I’m lucky, too.” Slim and distinguished, with wavy, brown hair turning white at the temples and a pronounced Adam’s apple, he projected confidence. He had recently remarried. His second wife’s name was Lenuș, a beautiful diminutive of her real name, Elena. She was much younger than Nicola and worked as an elementary school teacher in a village outside Sibiu.

“So, how is Lenuș?” Virgil asked, thinking that Nicola felt lucky because of his wife.

“She’s wonderful.”

“You violated the golden rule,” Eugene said, his eyes twinkling. “Half your age plus seven.”

“Well, I cheated by about five. I’ve suffered enough.”

“You did,” Virgil said and poured another round of Calvados. “And now, we’re celebrating with you.” He drank his in one prolonged gulp. “What? Am I drinking alone? C’mon boys, get in the mood.”

Eugene shrugged, Nicola as well.

“Take it easy,” Marie said.

“Mama, these are my friends.”

Marcela brought in a bowl of tomato, onion and feta salad, butter and rye bread.

“Where are the steaks?” Virgil asked.

“Five more minutes and I’ll bring the steaks.”

“Good. Then do us a favor.” He winked. “You know that good wine that I have in the pantry? Fetch us a couple of bottles. Will you?”

“Doctor, I wouldn’t know which wine to bring. Your pantry is full.”

“Don’t open anything on my account,” Nicola said. “I have to get ready this afternoon.”

“I thought we are lucky and happy and celebrating today,” Virgil said. “Marcela, look at me. On the top shelf, the bottles my patient brought me, the ones without a label.”

Marcela nodded and left. Marie shook her head. “She always pretends that she doesn’t know.”

Young voices sounded in the entrance hallway and Virgil smiled, “Here is my son.”

Deborah and Andy burst into the room and stopped when they saw the people at the table.

“Hey,” Virgil said. “Come here. Sit down.”

Andy shook hands with Eugene and Nicola whom he knew from before, and introduced Deborah. “My girlfriend, from Israel.”

“A blessed country,” Nicola said.

Eugene rolled his eyes. “Only if there is no war and no terrorist attack.”

“The Israelis know what they’re doing,” Nicola said. “What impresses me as an agronomist, is the kibbutz. What brings you here, young lady?”

“I’m here to be together with Andy,” Deborah said, no shade of embarrassment on her face.

“We are in love,” Andy said.

Marcela brought the steaks and the wine. Deborah got two more plates, silverware, wine glasses and napkins. Virgil poured the wine. Eugene and Nicola left their glasses untouched.

“We are going to the Black Sea tomorrow,” Andy said. “With friends.”

Cin, cin!,” Virgil said and emptied his wine glass.

“You are going to the beach tomorrow, and I am flying to West Germany,” Nicola said to the young couple.

“How come they let you go this time?” Eugene asked.

“I have no idea. I’ve been asking for a passport for the last ten years and suddenly it got approved. Is it because I’m remarried and I’m leaving my wife behind, is it luck, or is it because times are changing?”

“What’s changing?” Eugene made a long face. “You don’t mean real changes under Ceaușescu?”

“What else could I mean?”

“He’s an idiot,” Virgil said.

“Agreed,” Andy said. “But there is a lot a pressure on him from the West to let people travel. Dad, don’t you think Ceaușescu feels it at all?”

“I’ll give you my opinion,” Eugene said. “Until the Americans come, nothing will change.”

“The Americans don’t give a hoot,” Virgil said. “You and your Americans.”

“Actually, I care more for the Brits. The Americans are second on my list.”

“The Brits?” Nicola’s Adam’s apple moved up and down. “Did you know that their lovely King George V refused to grant the Russian tsar political asylum and allowed him and his family be slaughtered by the Bolsheviks?”

“That was his prime minister,” Eugene said.

“Not true,” Nicola shook his head.

“And if it were true, how would you know?”

“Because I read.”

“Andy,” Virgil said. “I’m bored. Bring your old man some whiskey and come drink with me.”

“No whiskey, thank you very much,” Nicola said.

“I wasn’t talking to you.”

Eugene looked over his shoulder as if making sure there was no one else in the room and leaned towards Nicola. “You’re not coming back, are you? Tell me you are defecting.”

Virgil grabbed him by the arm. “Shut up, Eugene.”

“Why? He can trust us. We’re friends.”

“Of course, we are friends,” Nicola said. “And I’m not defecting. I’m not leaving Lenuș here, or my son from my previous marriage. This is my country, you see? Virgil, I told you that a long time ago.”

“You did,” Virgil said.

“Your country,” Eugene laughed. “Be smart and make Germany your country. Your mother is there, and do you know who else lives in Germany?” He leaned back in his chair and added triumphantly, “Vera. She used to be this great piece of ass.” Then he turned to Marie and Deborah. “Excuse me, ladies.”

Marie nodded. “You’re excused.”

Eugene looked at Virgil as if saying, hey, can you top that?

“I don’t know who Vera is,” Nicola said.

“You forgot. She was in high school with us, a long time ago when we were all young and beautiful.”

“Those were the good times,” Nicola said. “Then, ten years later, they sent me to the labor camp in Dobruja.”

“No need to think of that labor camp,” Virgil said. His eyes were red. “C’mon guys, stop bickering and don’t be such wimps. Be lucky! Let’s have a drink.”

“Virgil, why are you drinking so much?” Marie asked.

“Because I like it, Mama.”

“But you’re drunk already.”

“I wish I was really drunk.”

“Well, I’m going to pack for the beach. Eugene, Nicola, it’s been a pleasure meeting you both,” Deborah said and got up.

Eugene and Nicola bowed their heads.

“Andy,” Virgil said. “Where’s my whiskey?”

Andy exchanged a glance with Deborah and followed her into the hallway. “Coming back in a second,” he yelled through the door.

“I won’t wait,” Virgil said and smacked his fist on the table. The plates and the glasses clinked.

Eugene got up. “Nice to see you again, Nicola.” He extended his hand.

“I’m going also,” Nicola said.

Virgil opened his arms. “Guys, don’t you want to wait, drink a little and say hello to my wife?”

“I’m sorry,” Nicola said. “But I have things to do.”

“Then I’ll drive you,” Virgil said.

“Virgil, you’re staying right here,” Marie said.

“Oh, really? Now you’re telling me what to do?”

“You had a few drinks,” Nicola said. “I’ll be all right, and I’ll catch a cab.”

“Nonsense. I can drive very well.”

“I’m sure you can, but I need some fresh air, so I’m walking.”

“And I’ll walk with you,” Eugene said.

“You know what, guys? You are losers, both of you. I’ll follow you in my car to make sure you manage to find a cab. Then, I’ll go back to the hospital.”

Andy returned to the dining room. “Dad, you should rest.”

“These are my best friends, my son. Do you know when I’ll rest? When I’m dead.”

*

The car was parked in its usual spot in the street, the two large poplars shading the driver seat and the back. From the window, Andy watched Eugene and Nicola walk on the left sidewalk, Nicola carrying his suitcase in one hand and his travel bag over his other shoulder. Virgil started his car, pulled to the left side of the street, and drove slowly against the direction of traffic, yelling something to his friends through the lowered passenger window. After fifty yards the street turned a sharp left, following the brick fence and Andy couldn’t see them any longer.

*

Loud banging came from the stairwell and Andy opened the front door. His father was leaning against the doorframe, his hand extended to the wall, to keep his balance.

“Dad, what happened to you?”

Virgil’s crinkled shirt was hanging out of his pants. There was a tear above his knee and a large stain on his hip, as if he had brushed against a wall or had fallen. He moved past Andy, stumbling through the small hallway into his bedroom and collapsed face down on the bed. “I need to sleep. Wake me in fifteen.”

Andy looked out the window. The spot were his father usually parked his car was empty. “Dad, the car? Where is the car?”

Virgil opened his eyes, closed them again and mumbled something about the street corner.

Andy and Deborah found the car halfway up on the sidewalk, its front wrapped around the electric pole fifty yards from the house. The keys were in the ignition, and the motor had stalled. A hubcap had come off the right front wheel, had rolled away and stopped by the brick fence. A neighbor stood there and scratched his head.

Andy placed the stick shift in neutral and, with help from Deborah and the neighbor, managed to dislodge the car by jerking it backwards. Parts of the fender fell off, and white paint stained the pavement. Deborah took the steering wheel, and the men pushed the car up the street to the house, and through the gates into the yard. Before covering it with an old tarp the color of eggshell, Andy pulled the handbrake and placed the hubcap in the trunk.

Virgil slept for five hours. Then he called a cab and went back to the hospital in time for his afternoon rounds.

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