Images of an Old Friend in Black and White

In many ways, memories are like dreams. They come when they come, and they do as they please. They stay on your mind for hours or days, or they slip away instantaneously and without a trace. Sometimes, an event or a conversation triggers them. Other times, they just come.

I thought of my childhood friend Florin this morning, while in that twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness. There was no reason for me to think of him, but I did, and his memory lingered, and forced me to the writing pad.

Florin is a common Romanian name for a man, deriving from the Latin florens, which means prosperous. It is a name that I associate with graciousness and resilience, maybe because of the way my friend was.

We were neighbors, his apartment on the top floor of a five-story building across the street from my home in Bucharest, Romania.

He was two years older than me, and his brother was older still, which, I suppose, might have caused me to admire him at a time when a year or two made a big difference in our level of maturity and in our interests, readings and games. There were many children in the neighborhood and we always played in the street — simple games we invented with rocks and sticks and balls of all sizes and empty tin cans. When the weather was bad, we played in each other’s homes. I don’t remember if Florin played with us; but I know that he behaved like a person beyond his years, because he was always calm and serene. And he referred to his father as ‘the old man,’ which I thought was so daring and grown up.

Florin was a little like Athos, the legendary musketeer.

He never invited us to his apartment, because it was too small. It had only two rooms, one with a bed that he shared with his brother until they both graduated from college, while his mother and father slept on a sofa in the second room, which doubled up as a living room during the day, and where they had a small television set, and a bookcase. Both his parents worked, his father as a chemical engineer. His aunt, who lived with them and took care of the cooking and cleaning for the family, slept in the tiny kitchen on a folding lounge chair. Every morning his aunt walked to the market and returned a few hours later carrying string shopping bags filled with whatever meager provisions she could find that day. But then, in those times, most aunts and grandmothers and retired uncles would plod to the market daily, stand in long lines for necessities, gossip, complain, and help or fight with each other, while we, the children, blissfully lived in our own world.

In that world, my friendship with Florin grew stronger during my late teens and young adulthood. That is also when I first visited his apartment. When I was in high school, he was already in college, still living at home, still sharing a bed with his brother. He was a good student, focused and hard working, finding math and sciences more in line with his preference for practical things than the liberal arts. During exams he would often study through the night and the next day, on his way home from school, he would whistle in front of my window. I would invite him upstairs to my room. “How did you do?” I would ask, and the answer was always the same — he aced the test.

Sometimes, I would detect the smell of alcohol on his breath. It was not unusual after days of burning the midnight oil, for him to relax and go wild. I joined him a few times on his drinking escapades, in smoky and inexpensive watering joints. Like myself, he had an allowance from his parents, because in those times, students rarely held jobs. Yet Florin would proudly insist on picking up the tab. His father came with us once, and after a few drinks and a soft spoken exchange of ideas during which he treated us as his friends and equals (Florin kept on calling him ‘my old man’), when it came to settling the bill, it was Florin who took care of it.

Florin was handsome. He was about six-foot tall and broad shouldered, with regular features and dark brown eyes, curly black hair, an intelligent forehead, and thick, sensuous lips. His skin possessed the olive smoothness of a Mediterranean man. He had thin bones, long fingers, and narrow wrists and ankles. He had been on the swim team in high school, his best style being breaststroke. In college, he pursued gymnastics for a semester or two. He visited me one evening, his hands wrapped in gauze. When he removed the bandages, I saw the bleeding blisters he had gotten from training on the parallel bars. He was a skier, and at the end of a winter vacation in the mountains, burnt by the sun and the wind, his brown face looked like the ghost of the slopes.

It became our routine to talk late in the evenings, in my room. He would whistle under my window and I would gladly open the door. We told each other stories, listened to music, and smoked. We dreamt about the future: driving a car, skiing in the Alps. We wanted to see Paris, London, and Istanbul. We spoke about America, North and South. Since this happened a long time ago, the memory of those evenings is nebulous, yet a few of our encounters stand out. I remember his excited face on those occasions, the tone of his voice, some of his comments and the feelings we shared.

He didn’t have a steady girlfriend, by choice, which I found odd. He was a bit of a cynic, at least where women were concerned. And yet, before he met the woman he would eventually marry, I saw him swept off his feet. It was summer and he had just returned from the Black Sea. He rode the train without a ticket, on top of the railcar, his eyes red from the wind and the smoke. At the beach, he had met Claudine, from Belgium. Fifty years later, so strong was his enchantment with her that I still remember her name. His words burned my soul. I could see the moon shine over the waves, and the thorny, dry bushes on the dune where they laid their blanket. I could imagine the softness of her curves, and inhale the fragrance of her body and the smell of the sea. The wind died down when they let themselves fall. Her blouse came off, and her skirt came off too. They never made love, because she said no.

He was with me on the night my love, and my future wife, left Romania for good. She immigrated with her family to Israel. I had no idea what the future would bring. Devastated, I needed to talk and to cry, and I did. He didn’t say very much, but he was there for me.

Florin saw The Planet of the Apes (the original version with Charlton Heston) and stopped in to tell me about it. When he arrived at the ending when the astronauts stumble across the collapsed remnants of the Statue of Liberty and realize they had been on Earth all along, his voice choked and his dark eyes came aflame. That evening I shared with my entire being his despair over a world threatened by man’s greed and stupidity, and a nuclear Holocaust.

Florin met his future wife, Leman, while they were both in college. She was a Tatar girl from Constanța, the Black Sea port. She lived in a student dorm and so they met up, of all places, in a storage room on the fifth floor of his building. Somehow he obtained a key and shoved a mattress in there. He was concerned that his parents might be put off by Leman’s ethnic origin. While I found it hard to believe that his soft-spoken ‘old man’ would find anybody objectionable, Florin, with his usual pragmatism convinced Leman to elope.

My future wife returned to Romania, and we were married in 1974. In 1975 we left the country.

We visited Florin and Leman one last time at the end of December 1985. At the time, life in Romania was miserable under dictator Ceaușescu. Central heating was rationalized, and food was even scarcer than before. Florin and Leman lived in an apartment in one of the many indistinct new apartment building complexes in Bucharest. We stopped by at about ten in the morning, and when we tried to take off our winter coats, they stopped us. “Keep them on. You’ll see.” It was around 40 degrees inside, and that, they said, wasn’t too bad. No gas, black outs, no coffee. And so they served us dark bread, Feta cheese, and vodka. ”Drink up, that’s how you get warm.” Florin was an Assistant Professor at the Polytechnic Institute. Leman was a PE teacher at a Bucharest high school. All their income went for food. Their daughter was in grade school. “She likes playing doctor,” he said. “Who knows what she will become when she grows up.”

*

The phone rang in the middle of the night. It was Florin’s mother, a desperate voice from across the ocean. Florin had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She wanted me to send medication, whatever I could obtain. Whatever I thought would help. I didn’t know what to say. “In America, you need a diagnosis, tests, prescriptions,” I said feeling helpless. “It’s Chernobyl,” she said. “They’re hiding it. They’re letting him die.” Many years later I heard from his brother that when Florin started losing his hair from the chemo, he shaved his head without saying a word to anybody, calm and serene.

He didn’t see his daughter grow up. He never drove a car, and never visited Paris. We lost touch with his family. The years went by.

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