In some of my recent blogs I made reference to a short story called Herr Octavian. Because of its length, I am publishing it in three parts. I know it is hard to read it this way, but please bear with me. It’s a good story.
It was afternoon when they touched down at Ben Gurion Airport, but to Michael it felt like early morning. They had boarded the eleven-hour flight out of Newark the previous night, and it was now 7 AM on the East Coast of the United States. Next to him, Larissa was busy with her little hand mirror. She seemed surprisingly focused after the sleepless night and while the aircraft was taxiing to the gate, she applied her lipstick and eyeliner and combed her hair. When they had married twenty-three years ago in Bucharest her hair had been perfectly straight and black. It was wavy now and dark brown. Michael liked it. Larissa was a beautiful woman, a little fuller than she had looked in her wedding gown, and more self-assured. The passionate tension of their early years had been replaced by a pleasant coexistence. Sometimes, after sex, she turned silently away and he marveled at the appealing line of her back, the soft roundness of her shoulders and the pronounced dip where her narrowing waist met the lazy oval of her hips. Nature had given women this perfect shape, and this woman was his. He’d pull closer to her, bring his lips to her shoulder blades, and touch her dark brown hair with his fingers.
“We’re here,” Michael said looking outside at the jet way inching toward the plane. He sighed, knowing that the days ahead would be difficult.
“I’ll stand up and stretch,” Larissa said and gave him a comforting smile. She shoved her book and Time Magazine into her shoulder bag.
Michael was happy to have Larissa with him. Several months before he had traveled to Israel alone to take his aging mother and stepfather back with him to the States and move them into the upscale nursing home he had waiting for them. On the return flight his mother had kept silent, while his stepfather’s complained like his life was ending.
That trip had been difficult, very difficult, but then life, sometimes, is. He grew up in Bucharest, then moved with his family to Israel, and later, together with Larissa, he immigrated to the United States. His father had died in a car accident when Michael was five — just old enough to remember a few things about him. Tina, his mother, had struggled alone until she remarried, a few years later. Michael needs a father, her friends had insisted. But Michael didn’t, or he didn’t like the idea, and through childhood and adolescence he treated his stepfather with indifference and embarrassed discomfort.
His stepfather’s name was Octavian, but people called him Tavi. Michael chose to call him the same, never father. Tina and Tavi — their names alliterated, but in his opinion their union was a contrived one.
On Michael’s ninth birthday, Tavi bought him a fancy bicycle. It had a shiny frame, a soft brown saddle, and white-rimmed wheels. Tina and Tavi surreptitiously slipped it into the living room, and then brought in Michael to see it.
“Do you like it?” Tavi asked.
Michael nodded, and looked at his mother. She nodded, too.
“Take it out for a spin. It’s yours,” Tavi said. “But first give me a kiss.”
The boy looked down, grabbed the bicycle by the handlebars, and silently wheeled it out of the room.
That year they spent their first summer vacation together in a fishermen’s village on the Black Sea, and Tavi took up photography. During the hot and endless afternoons, while Tina and Michael rested in their rented room, read, or shopped for dinner, Tavi wandered the deserted streets and the sandy beaches searching for exciting and original subjects which he captured with his Russian-made camera: the mud huts, the exploding light, the breaking surf, the crabs, and the dry rolling thistles. One day he photographed an unsuspecting young woman basking in the sun and another day he walked all the way to the unofficial nudist colony close to the border with Bulgaria. He was wearing a pair of baggy brown shorts, and from a distance his slightly protruding belly on thin white legs made him look like a spider. His head was wrapped in a pirate’s red scarf. He was balding.
In time, Tavi perfected his skills with the camera. He converted a closet into a darkroom and started developing his own negatives. He learned to play with light and shadow, take pictures through rising steam and layers of water, blur contours, and display women in sepia. To Tina and Michael’s embarrassment, the more Tavi’s skills improved, the prouder he shared his collections of nudes at dinner parties.
Tavi bragged to his friends about how much he loved Michael. “He’s my boy, the light of my life, and a wonderful student,” Tavi would say in an unctuous voice, and Michael would blush, and leave the room in a hurry.
On Michael’s eighteenth birthday, Tavi announced that the three of them would apply for permission to leave Romania for Israel. The decision was risky. Any attempt to leave the country was frowned upon by the communist government.
Michael protested: he was in love with Larissa, and had a life of his own in Bucharest.
“My mind’s made up,” Tavi retorted.
In the narrow aisle behind Larissa, Michael waited for the passengers to start moving. Before long they would be walking along the sun-drenched arrival concourse toward the luggage carousel. On the other side of Customs, Irene and her husband, Baruch, would be waiting.
Irene was Michael’s maternal cousin, three years older than him, strong and persistent. She did everything with gusto: working, eating, drinking, defending Israel in heated political discussions, and going to bat for her family. Her body showed the wear and tear of a life without rest, and her clothes, although of good quality, somehow did not fit well together. Her face was open and luminous, and in it Michael found a strong resemblance to Tina, a core of features that had stayed the same through bloodlines and generations. He felt close to her, and, whenever in Israel, safe under her protection. Often, he wondered how Tina and Irene could look so alike and behave so differently. His mother, even when she was younger, was always placid, uninterested. Tired was her word, for anyone asking.
“My mother lacks energy”, Michael complained to Irene.
“Don’t forget what she went through when your dad died and you were little,” Irene responded.
“Yeah,” Michael said. “She remarried.”
“And do you think that was easy?”
Michael himself had taken after his natural father. He was tall and slender, with strong masculine features, an aquiline nose, dark eyes, and straight hair, once brown, and now graying slightly. Tina told him his father had been calm and reserved, and Michael tried hard to emulate that behavior. He maintained cordial relationships with most people, lately even with Tavi. His stepfather had never managed to step into the role his real father vacated. Michael missed his dad and became self-reliant and eager to prove that he didn’t need anybody. A bicycle wouldn’t buy his love and wasn’t the answer.
Yet he did learn one thing from Tavi: photography.
In the morning, they had breakfast with Irene and Baruch at their house outside Tel Aviv, on a shaded patio overlooking a small garden. An underground sprinkler system sent water jets in a rotating pattern, droplets disintegrating in the warm air and forming thin, disappearing rainbows against the sunlight. A flowerbed edged the patio. A tall brick wall ran across the back, separating this garden from the one next door. The wall was overtaken by ivy. Young palm trees grew in front of it. Everywhere else the ground was covered by grass that was dark green and vigorous, yet somehow less perfect than Michael’s lawn in America.
Survival seemed to define the vegetation in this garden.
“I don’t know what to expect,” Larissa said, sipping her coffee.
Irene nodded. “You’ll figure it out, and we’re here to help you.”
“You’ve seen the apartment,” said Michael. “It’s cluttered.”
“Clutter is not the right word. What’s clutter to you was a lifetime of cherished objects to your parents.” Irene looked at him with the eyes of his mother.
“How long have they lived there?” Baruch asked.
“Oh, about thirty years,” Michael said. “And then, one day, Tavi called me in America to tell me he had found two dead cockroaches in the kitchen. That was the beginning. He was losing his mind, but I didn’t realize it, at least not immediately. He said he hated the place, his neighbors, and the building administrator who was lazy. It had been OK for decades and suddenly it wasn’t. I didn’t know what to do, and for too long I didn’t do anything. Then, the only choice we had left was to move them into an old people’s home close to us in America.”
“Stop blaming yourself. You did the right thing,” Baruch commented.
“Yeah, people are telling me this, but I feel guilty.” Michael looked at the flowerbed at the edge of the patio for a while and then straight at Baruch. It seemed strange to him to be enjoying breakfast in this sun-drenched garden and talk about his parents. There was no resentment, and no sadness either — just the stoical recognition of the inevitable. He had talked to his American friends about this, and, of course, with Larissa, but having the conversation in Israel, the country his parents had made their home, seemed more difficult to him, more affecting. Coming to dismantle their apartment, Michael had hoped to uncover a truth about his parents that would help him explain and resolve his conflicting feelings. Israel was his country, too — a country he had adopted as a young man after he had unwillingly left Romania. He had later gone to live in America, because Larissa had wanted it. But Israel had remained familiar, comfortable, a place he loved. He needed Israel in order to understand his parents, and, to a large degree, himself. Here he could go back to his past, when his parents were active and healthy, or even relive his childhood in Romania. Israel to him was a little like Romania: a small place where Romanian Israelis still spoke the language, discussed Romanian politics, shared memories, and cooked Romanian food. By contrast, America was like the summer ocean storm that erases all the footprints in the sand and replenishes the beaches. He did remember a few faces from his childhood in Romania, the apartment building he grew up in, and the language — poetry he had to memorize in middle school. But his value system had changed, as had his understanding of the world.
“So then,” Baruch continued. “They came here when they were in their forties, and I’m sure that getting used to the Israeli way of life had been a mixed blessing.”
Baruch was right. Michael remembered the early days, first as newcomers at the Hebrew school, or ulpan, and then in their small rented apartment. Michael went to study at the university and lived on campus. While he found his new life exciting, his parents were anguished and frustrated. Learning Hebrew was difficult, and they couldn’t find work. Money was tight. The days were too hot, the streets too noisy, and the choices they had to make, disorienting. Even photography was different — they used color film in Israel. Then Tavi started working as a technician at a refinery in the Gulf of Haifa, and Tina found a job at a chemical plant. They purchased a three-bedroom apartment in Nahariya, in a building not far from the Mediterranean. Over the red tiled roofs to the north, on clear days Michael could see from their balcony the rocks of Rosh HaNikra shimmering white against the Lebanese border.
At times of war, and sometimes even during peacetime, katyusha rockets fell from the north on Nahariya.
Tavi bought a Peugeot and took driving lessons. He never learned to relax and enjoy his new car. Every Friday he washed it, and polished the dashboard. The neighborhood was full of young immigrants from Russia, Georgia and Morocco. Two blocks away lived the Arabs. At night, Tavi covered his car with a tarp, and inspected it carefully in the morning. He drove like an old man, scrunched behind the wheel, eyes squinting.
After graduation, Michael married Larissa, and together they set out for America.
International phone calls were expensive. Michael wrote once a week, then once a month, then only on special occasions. Tavi wrote back, his letters longer than Tina’s. His handwriting was slanted and surprisingly orderly. He related much of their day-to-day life, sometimes with humor. He embellished his pages with simplistic and silly doodles and sketches.
From one letter Michael learned his stepfather had received a promotion; from another that he had become the head of engineering.
One day, Tavi wrote, a piece of shrapnel hit their balcony.
Michael’s son was born, then his first daughter, and then the second. Tina and Tavi came to visit, and Tavi photographed the grandchildren.
When the time came, the people at the refinery put on a nice retirement party for Tavi, sending him away with a cash bonus, a gold watch, and a world atlas.
Tavi started driving Tina to work, and in his spare time, he took pictures. He photographed the merchants and their colorful fruit displays at the market, flowers in bloom, sunsets over the Mediterranean. A river ran through the middle of the main thoroughfare in Nahariya, and Tavi walked along it in the shade of the plane trees, talking to locals and storeowners. The Russian immigrants nicknamed the river ‘Little Volga.’ The streets didn’t seem noisy anymore, and the choices predictable.
Most days he ate his lunch alone at his kitchen table. He had fresh salads, toast, cold cuts, and cheeses. He’d butter the toast, lay a slice of Swiss cheese on top and fill the holes with matching cutouts from another piece.
There was a small olive grove near the parking lot where Tavi waited for Tina to return from work every evening. One day, he found on the ground a large V-shaped olive branch that looked like the crotch of a woman. He placed it in the trunk of his Peugeot, cleaned it up, waxed it, and made a stand for it. In the following days he picked up more branches, more pieces of wood, oddly-shaped rocks, shells, shards polished by sand and water, and shrapnel. Over time he filled the living room, the balcony, the bedrooms, and the shelter with assemblies and silhouettes. He referred to them as his children. Creations. They looked like injured giraffes, like monkeys, lizards, old people. He considered himself gifted — Picasso, Giacometti. When he visited them, Michael thought the apartment looked like a bizarre overgrown garden. Tavi’s friends rewarded Tavi with smiles. Tina didn’t say anything — she was weary.
Then Tina retired and Tavi urged her to travel. He dragged her to visit cathedrals, churches and synagogues; he showed her the tulips in Holland, and got her a beer at the Tivoli Gardens. They paid their respects at Auschwitz and Dachau. They went to Dubrovnik. Tavi photographed synagogues and Holocaust memorials and collected antique Jewish artifacts. His letters grew longer and fuller with drawings and historical information. He poured his time and energy into meticulously organizing his slides: he classified them, numbered them, and wrote captions on them. He placed them in indestructible metal boxes with clearly marked labels, built new shelves, and decorated the spaces around them with sculpted olive twigs and ornaments.
Yet Tavi’s most treasured acquisition had nothing to do with his travels. It was a thick olive tree trunk, a meter tall, he had found on the banks of Little Volga. The hard wood looked mellow, and possessed the tired curvature of an old man’s torso. Split at the bottom, it could stand on its own, resting on two twisted stubs like the hind legs of a rat terrier. Tavi placed it in the foyer and made it his alter ego: Octavian, he called it…Herr Octavian.
As the years went by, the maid from Ethiopia, who used to come once a month, started coming more often. She dusted and vacuumed, cooked for them and did most of their everyday shopping. Tavi seldom drove anymore, and their apartment lost its luster. The caulking turned black in the bathtub, tiles became loose in the foyer. The galvanized railing of their small service balcony, where they hung their laundry to dry in the sun, became stained with white pigeon droppings. Dust accumulated on every horizontal surface.
One day, Tavi found two dead cockroaches in the kitchen.
Please comment, clap, or share, and return next Monday for the second part.