It Didn’t Have to Make Sense
Romania, Yugoslavia, 1965
From A Family Album: https://alexduvan.medium.com/a-family-album-40829e212764
As a surprise gift for their son Andy who was turning fifteen, his parents, Dalia and Virgil had planned a car trip to Yugoslavia. So, on Andy’s birthday, Virgil took Andy to the precinct and got him a passport. They’d leave on a Saturday in early October and Andy would miss a whole week of school, but not to worry, because they’d give him a letter to take to his homeroom teacher. How many people could travel like that?
A rebel among the socialist countries, Yugoslavia was a tear in the Iron Curtain, a step up to the West. President Tito, ‘the Butcher,’ had carved out his own more liberal, freewheeling identity and, to get permission to visit Yugoslavia, Virgil, a surgeon of undeniable renown, had had to pull a few strings.
Andy’s friend Darius, the janitor’s son, asked Andy to bring him back a pair of American blue jeans — Lees or Levi’s, it didn’t matter — and a gun that shot blanks. “One that looks almost real,” he said.
Andy hoped to get blue jeans for himself, too. “Done,” he answered with conviction, as if this was within his control.
Since it was too far to drive from Bucharest to Belgrade in one day, Virgil decided they would stop midway in Sibiu and sleep at Nicola’s.
“I thought he lived in Dobruja, by the Black Sea,” Andy said.
They were crossing the Carpathians, and the trees lining the narrow road were golden and soft. Distant peaks reached the clouds like sharp teeth carved in stone. “Nicola is getting divorced and has moved to Sibiu,” Virgil explained.
It got dark by the time they arrived in Sibiu.
Nicola’s apartment was small — one room and a kitchen that overlooked the old fortress wall. Nicola had borrowed a cot from his neighbors for Andy. Dalia and Virgil were going to sleep in his bed. For himself, he readied a mattress to be placed on the kitchen floor.
Virgil brought some food from the car, and Nicola filled three glasses with wine. In a fourth glass, he mixed sparkling water with a few drops of wine. “Andy, here is a spritzer for you.” They sat by the kitchen table, the mattress resting sideways against the wall. A bare electric bulb cast a yellow light from above.
“So, how is it going?” Virgil asked.
Nicola coughed and took a sip of his wine. “It’s going. But I’m ashamed about my divorce.”
“Don’t be,” Dalia said.
Andy focused on Nicola’s face: long, bony, a little sunburnt. His dark brown hair had grown over his ears like that of a man who had run out of time to have it cropped. Longer hair was fashionable, but that wasn’t it. There was a measure of anguish in what Andy saw.
“We had no money,” Nicola said. “Marina took a few things: eggs, flour, meat. The farm belongs to the state, so in some ways it felt like we were borrowing, like taking from ourselves. Everybody was doing it. I guess, they wanted to stop it and set an example, and they happened to catch my wife. I could have denied it or taken the blame, but I was petrified. I’ve spent too many years in prison before we got married.”
“Of course,” Virgil said.
Nicola threw him a desolate glance. “The farm needed my expertise and the administrator made me a deal. He promised that I could keep my job and he would stop the investigation if I signed a confession incriminating my wife. Believe it or not, I went along. For a few dozen eggs, Marina was humiliated. She was fined and kicked out of her job.”
“You had no choice,” Virgil said.
His dad, Andy thought, was comforting a friend.
“I betrayed her,” Nicola said. “She cried. She went to stay with her parents and took our son with her. I moved to Sibiu and found a job at an apple orchard on the outskirts of town. Marina now works at a bookstore. I pay child support.” It seemed he was oddly happy to do it, because that way he was still a part of their lives. “She sends me books of poetry,” Nicola continued. There was hope in his voice. “I’ve always loved reading, and her books have become my best friends. I have the time and the disposition, and I believe in the saying that the Romanian is born a poet. But let me read you a poem that has meaning to me.” He drained his wine glass, went into the other room, and returned with a thin book in his hand. “Labiș,” he said. “Do you know him?”
Andy wanted to say that he liked Jacques Prévert, but he didn’t open his mouth.
“No,” Dalia said.
“I’m not surprised.” Nicola looked at Dalia and waved the book above his head. “Labiș was 21 when he died, run over by an electric streetcar. Some say that an agent of the Secret Police pushed him.”
“Securitate,” Virgil said.
“He was a genius,” Nicola said. “Like me, he was against the regime. Here is his best poem in my opinion, Death of a Doe.”
As Nicola read, it seemed to Andy that the light in the little kitchen changed in intensity and color, that the walls moved away and the zigzags of the Carpathian peaks magically filled the space.
In the words of the poet, the sun melts down and spills on the bare, arid ground. There is poverty and drought. Forests burn as the young boy and his father go hunting in the mountains. They are hungry. They wait by the river in the woods. When the doe appears, the boy sees in her a beautiful princess and wishes his father would miss. But the bullet kills the doe, and streams of blood fill the river. Happy, the father builds a tall fire. He rips out the heart of the doe and places it over the flames while the hungry youngster is torn by contradictory and tender feelings.
What is it, heart? I’m hungry. I want to live, although…
Forgive me, virgin princess, my gracious, supple doe,
I’m tired. How tall the fire is! The woods, how deep!
I cry. What does my father think? I eat and cry. I eat!
Nicola finished reading and the light in the silent kitchen seemed to regain its yellow glow.
“A man has to eat,” Virgil said. “It’s the survival of the fittest.”
Andy looked at his mom. “Your father would never betray me in order to eat,” she seemed to be saying to him.
They left early the next morning and reached the border at midday. The customs officer searched their trunk and checked under the car. He asked them to step out. “Alcohol, weapons, contraband?” Virgil showed him the two bottles of Romanian cognac he had brought along. The officer nodded. Another border guard stamped their passports. He was wearing a shabby blue uniform. “Have a nice trip, Doctor,” he said.
At the other end, the Serbs waved them through.
The asphalt in Yugoslavia seemed to be very smooth. Virgil reached 60 kilometers per hour, then 70, 80, 90….
“Virgil, take it easy. We have a child in the car,” Dalia said.
“We are a happy family,” Virgil said.
“I’m not a child, “Andy said.
In Belgrade, they drove straight to Kalemegdan Park. Andy wanted to see the old fortress and the Roman Well. In 1954, a crazed man had pushed his mistress into its dark waters.
The leaves were turning on the old oak and ash trees. Gray clouds covered the sky and the Sava River looked like a river of mud. When it started to rain, they drove to the Cathedral Church of St. Michael the Archangel, parked the car and went in. Andy walked with his head bent back, impressed by the large dome. The rich interior was decorated in the byzantine style and the black eyes of the saints followed them through the arches of the church. Fifteen minutes and Virgil had had enough. Dalia crossed herself and lit two candles.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“For my father and grandmother,” she said.
“You can do this at home.”
“At home, we don’t go to church.”
Virgil walked out, followed by Andy. It was still light, the rain had stopped, and the cold wind blew the leaves off the trees.
“I was hoping to do some shopping,” Dalia said when she caught up with them. “Do you think it’s too late? We still have to find a hotel.”
Without a room to spend the night, Andy felt lost. They had their car, their small capsule for traveling through space. The whole idea of travel was to experience new things. Yet, when he looked around at the foreign street, at the trees and the buildings that seemed more or less like his city, but were newer and cleaner in a glaring, obvious way, when he listened to the foreign language people spoke around him, with that soft Slavic inflexion known to him from his grandmother who had come to Romania from Russia ages ago, an unexplained sense of discomfort built inside him, a dread he could not comprehend.
As if he had been waiting for them, a man stepped out from behind the fence that surrounded the cathedral and blocked their way. He was not much taller than Dalia and wore brown slacks and a modest beige windbreaker. “You speak Romanian,” he said.
“We do,” Virgil said.
Andy felt even more apprehensive. Like everything else around him, the man seemed vaguely familiar.
“It’s such a pleasure to meet one’s countrymen,” the man said. “Not too many Romanians visit here, you know?” He winked and continued rapidly. “I know that Tito and the other communist leaders don’t see eye to eye, but we all believe the same things. I hope you agree.”
“I do,” Virgil said. It was obvious there was nothing else he could say.
“I guess you’re visitors. Travel is the best way to open one’s mind.”
“We want to go shopping,” Dalia said. “We don’t have much time, and if you don’t mind, we’ll take off.”
“Shopping? The best place is Ulitsa Kneza Mihaila, just around the corner from here, an old and beautiful street. Unfortunately, it’s too late. It’s Sunday, and by now most stores are closed.”
“Oh,” Dalia said.
“Listen,” the man said. “I’m going that way myself. I’m meeting my wife at a restaurant in that area, and I’ll walk over there with you. To show you where everything is. I mean, for tomorrow, when the stores open. You’re staying till tomorrow, don’t you?” Without waiting for an answer, he continued. “Please allow me to walk with you. For me, it’s an immeasurable pleasure. It is.”
They started walking and he spoke nonstop. He told them he was from Dobruja, had married a Serbian woman from a village near the border with Yugoslavia and moved in with her. They had no children. She couldn’t have them, he said, and looked straight at Andy, as if to see if the boy understood. Then he added that three years ago, his wife’s mother had passed away and his wife had decided to return to Yugoslavia and take care of her elderly father. The father lived in a suburb of Belgrade, and they settled next door to him. Financially they were doing all right, but he missed Romania a lot. The Serbs, he said, were too cut and dry. He missed the good people of Romania, the sweet sound of his native language and the poetry within it.
In the commercial street, the store windows were illuminated and displayed a variety of beautiful merchandise. Dalia stopped to admire the shoes and the dresses. “I haven’t seen quality like that since before World War II”, she said.
“Look, Mama, they sell Coca Cola,” Andy said, when he noticed a refreshments kiosk that was open at the street corner.
“We are going to have dinner soon,” Virgil said.
“A Coke would not spoil my appetite,” Andy said.
“Going somewhere special?” the man asked.
“No, we have food in the car.”
“You have a car. Doctor, I envy you.”
“How do you know I’m a doctor?” Virgil eyebrows formed a high question mark.
As if realizing he had said too much, the man turned to Andy. “So, you’d like a Coke, wouldn’t you? Do you have money to pay for it?”
Andy looked confused. “I don’t, but my father does.”
“Maybe you do and just don’t know it,” the man said. “Let me see.” He raised his hand and touched Andy’s year. “Look what I found!” A little coin slipped between his fingers and he gave it to Andy. “Oh, five dinara isn’t enough.” He repeated the gesture and produced a second coin. “Now, go and get your Coke, young man.”
“How do you know I’m a doctor?” Virgil asked for a second time.
“I don’t,” the man said. “But I’m good at guessing people’s professions. Tell me, who has the means to purchase a car in Romania and can get permission to travel abroad? Only a doctor, right? And look at your hands: strong and fine fingers, and so much self-assurance. I bet you’re a surgeon, and a fine one at that.”
“That I am,” a dumbfounded Virgil said.
“Virgil,” Dalia said. “It’s time to find a hotel for tonight.”
“If you need a hotel, go to Skadarlija,” the man instantly suggested, as if he had waited for the opportunity. “There are very nice hotels there, and plenty to choose from.”
Andy took a long swallow and bubbles tickled his palate.
“Doctor, do you see the restaurant across the street?” the man said. “I’m meeting my wife over there in twenty minutes, and I’d be happy if the three of you would join us. My treat. Go and get your hotel room and come back. We’ll wait. Please, Doctor, can I count on you?”
Virgil hesitated a second. “We’ll do our best.”
They turned and walked away fast without exchanging a word. When they arrived at their car, Virgil said, “This was odd.”
“I’ve seen him before,” Dalia said.
Virgil started the engine. The luggage that did not fit in the trunk was piled on the back seat and Andy rearranged it to make more room for himself. He placed the empty Coke bottle on the floor.
“Iamandi!” Dalia exclaimed. “He’s the magician who came with Nicola that summer to Andy’s camp.”
Virgil let his hands fall in his lap. They were still by the curb. He looked at Dalia and said, “That was a long time ago, but I should have recognized him.”
“Why?” Dalia asked. “Why would he follow us?”
“He didn’t. He couldn’t have,” Virgil said. “I think this was a coincidence, a bizarre one at that. He knew who we were, and he didn’t say a word. What is he doing here? He misses the sound of the Romanian language, my ass. Tell me if you believe his story because I do not.”
“The one about his wife?” Andy asked.
“Yes. It’s not easy to move to another country. You need permission from the government, and it takes years.”
Dalia exhaled heavily. “Let’s go find a hotel.”
“No,” Virgil said. “Let’s get the hell out of Belgrade. I don’t like this one bit.”
“Do you want to drive to Zagreb tonight?” Dalia asked.
“I don’t know how far we can go. If we’ll need to stop, we will stop.”
“Do you think he works for Securitate?” Andy asked.
Virgil and Dalia exchanged a quick glance. “Who knows? Iamandi was a magician and Nicola’s parole officer,” Virgil said.
“I remember him,” Andy said.
They drove silently out of the city, Dalia trying to find their way on the map. When they reached the highway, she breathed a sigh of relief. “Dinnertime,” she announced and asked Andy to give her one of the bags on the back seat.
“Look outside,” Virgil said. “We haven’t seen this before. A true highway, the way they have them everywhere in the West. Hitler was the first to build them in Germany before the war.”
It was dark, and a light rain was falling again, but they could see two well-marked lanes in each direction of traffic, separated by a median strip, which was sometimes wide and covered by vegetation, sometimes narrow, and sometimes just a fence. Virgil drove in the right lane, faster moving cars passing him constantly on the left.
Dalia unwrapped three large sandwiches she had prepared that morning.
“That was good,” Virgil said after he brushed the crumbs off his lap. “What’s for dessert?”
They split a chocolate bar.
“Do you think Nicola had anything to do with it?” Dalia asked.
“No,” Virgil said. “Nicola’s a friend.”
He drove silently for a long time, then he slowed down and pulled over onto the shoulder. “I’ll rest for a few minutes,” he said.
With his head on the pile of luggage, Andy watched his parents. His father leaned back, closed his eyes, and fell quickly asleep. He was used to sleeping in fits and starts from the nights on duty at the hospital. His mother twisted and turned, clearly uncomfortable. Her hair came loose over the headrest. Her seat squeaked. Andy caught her hand and held it for a while. Their small traveling capsule seemed fragile. It shook every time a larger car zoomed by on the highway. Noise and lights cut through the night. What if one of those trucks smashed into them, and were they even allowed to stop there? Would the police come? And what if someone forced the doors open? He’d feel better if he had a gun.
As nimble and flexible as he was, his back hurt from sitting in that crammed space. Yet he hesitated to move. The appearance of Iamandi was baffling. “I am only a teenager, but I have a right to understand what’s going on,” Andy thought. Nobody seemed to explain things to him the way they really were. There was always something behind something else, a dead body in the old Roman Well, a reason to eat the heart of a doe. Was this what the feared Securitate did? Follow innocent people on their surprise vacations and scare the hell out of them? Nicola was a good friend, Virgil said. But after Nicola betrayed his own wife, could anyone trust him? Could Nicola have been turned by the Securitate, and did he send Iamandi on their trail? Virgil had told him that Nicola, unjustly convicted after the war and considered an enemy of the people because his family had owned a parcel of land, had spent years in prison and in a forced labor camp. Iamandi must have followed them from Sibiu, otherwise he wouldn’t have known where in Belgrade they were. It didn’t make sense. People said that the long, invisible arm of the Securitate reached everywhere. Maybe that was the reason for its existence: to instill fear.
Maybe it didn’t have to make sense.