On the Way to Bakhchysarai
In this excerpt from The Ultimate Patient, my novel in progress, teenage impulses overtake common sense. Inspired by a moment that I remember from my own adolescence when I argued with my mother, the scene describes Toddy travelling with his parents, rebelling for no reason and musing about being away .
He came to the surface, took a breath of air and lowered himself again. Dancing sunrays reached the sandy bottom. A cluster of dark rocks appeared a few yards ahead. Still underwater, he swum over them and looked at the barnacles and algae that grew on top. Small, silvery fish moved in circles catching the light on their scales. He was getting closer to the two cliffs he had seen from the shore. At the surface again, he breathed deeply and listened to the surf brake. He could see his mother pacing by the water’s edge. She was waving at him.
Still far away, the gray, craggy cliffs were shooting out of the sea. In the one on his left was an opening carved by wind and waves, like a bridge arching over the water. He wanted to swim under it, but there was no time. Reluctantly, he turned and broke into a fast crawl.
“Finally,” his mother said walking into the shallow breakers as he came out of the sea. She held a towel for him.
“What’s the rush?” he asked, water dripping off his black hair and tanned body. The white of his eyes had a tinge of red.
“They all went to eat,” she said. “Here, dry yourself and let’s go.”
“I don’t need the towel. I’ll dry in the sun.”
“Toddy, there is no time. After breakfast we’ll drive into the mountains to the Fountain of Bakhchysarai. From there we have another eight hours to get back to Odessa. We talked about it last night.”
“Maybe you did,” Toddy said.
“You were there,” she said. “Go. Your shirt is on the blanket. Get dressed.”
“I’m wet,” Toddy said.
Clara turned and took a few steps away from the water.
“Why do we have to go to the fountain?” he yelled after her.
She turned again and frowned. It was obvious he was getting on her nerves. “They say it’s a beautiful place,” she answered after she counted to five. “It’s from the times of the Tatars. Pushkin wrote a famous poem about it. Remember when you recited Pushkin by heart?”
“Of course I remember, I’m not stupid,” he said.
She ignored his response. “There is a famous ballet.”
“I don’t care about the ballet.”
“Of course you don’t.”
“I am not interested, all right?” He stumped his foot.
“No, Toddy, it’s not all right.”
“Why not? I like certain things and you like others. I really wanted to swim to those cliffs.”
“I understand, but sometimes you have to do what others want. We are here together with Mila and Yura, and they have to be at work tomorrow, so we have to leave now.”
Toddy picked his sneakers and shirt. “Let’s go,” he said and walked ahead.
Clara put on her sandals. She shook the sand off the blanket, folded it, and placed it under her arm. She grabbed her beach bag with the other. “When you reach the stairs, take a right,” she yelled after him. “The cafeteria is next to the campground.”
They spoke Romanian, of course, and the people on the beach followed them curiously with their eyes.
“I know where it is,” Toddy said. “And I’m not hungry, OK?”
The stairs went up a steep hill behind which came another hill, taller and covered in flowers and rich evergreens. In between the greenery there were villas and hotels — tiled roofs, white walls, and church steeples. Behind them rose the gray mountain range they would be driving through to arrive at Bakhchysarai. In the distance to the south stood the romantic Swallow’s Nest, a castle built on a rocky outpost jutting into the blue sea. That was the edge of the City of Yalta the way Toddy understood it. He had looked at the map and noticed that Yalta, at the tip of the Crimean Peninsula, was on the same parallel with Constanța and the beaches where his friends were spending their summer vacation, without their parents and their parents’ friends or so-called friends. Mila was his father’s distant cousin, whom he had met only once before in his life. As for Yura, Mila’s second husband, he only spoke of his work as an engineer and of his younger brother who had been killed during the Great Patriotic War, World War II in other words. Squeezed in the back seat of the Gordini next to the two of them, Toddy couldn’t care less about what had happened twenty-five years before to somebody he had never met. Funny thing about the Renault Gordini: everywhere they stopped, people surrounded the car and looked at it curiously, as if it had dropped there from Mars.
Toddy stopped, let his sneakers fall to the ground and stepped into them like one would do with slippers by squishing the backs down. He put on his shirt.
Clara caught up to him. “Button your shirt, please,” she said.
“I’m hot,” Toddy said, annoyed.
“That’s too bad. I don’t want you to look like a hoodlum.” A wind gust lifted the sand from the beach and blew it towards them. She squinted and turned her back to the sea. When she opened her eyes, they were as green as the hills. The sun that had warmed her face caused a few freckles to appear high on her cheekbones. As she squinted, thin dry lines formed around her eyes.
“Why do you care how I look?” Toddy asked.
“Actually, I care very much.”
“Like hell you do,” he said and started up the steps.
“The cafeteria’s the other way. Toddy, what’s the matter with you?”
“I’m tired of all of you,” he said.
“You’re going to get lost.”
“That would be fun, wouldn’t it?”
Clara sighed. She wasn’t going to climb the steps after him. Where would he go? He’ll calm down, get thirsty and return. Let him have his space. He had just turned eighteen a few months before. Had she ever been such a pain as a teenager? Maybe, but she couldn’t remember. She should ask her own mother. Oh, well!
Toddy appeared in the door of the cafeteria as his family finished breakfast. Their conversation stopped, giving Toddy the distinct impression that they had been talking about him.
“You’re here,” Kostea said. “Great. Then let’s go!”
“Wait, Kostea darling,” Aunt Mila said. “Let the boy eat something. Honey, come and sit down.”
“I’m not hungry,” Toddy responded. His shirt was buttoned up.
Clara looked away.
“One hundred and twenty thousand Russians perished during the siege of Sevastopol,” Yura said.
Kostea stood up and Yura followed suit. Toddy turned on his heels and walked out of the cafeteria and towards the car. He knew where it was parked since the night before.
Clara grabbed a roll and a few pieces of cheese from the table and wrapped them in a napkin. “He’ll eat later,” she said placing the small package in her beach bag. Mila nodded with the understanding that only a mother could have.
The road through the mountains was treacherous. In places the asphalt was cracked or had been totally washed away by the rain. The old town of Bakhchisaray looked quaint and dilapidated. They walked through streets with uneven pavement and through the 16th century Khan’s Palace.
“During the war, Stalin forcibly moved over two hundred thousand Tatars to Uzbekistan,” Yura said in a whisper.
“The place reminds me of the Esmahan minaret in Mangalia,” Kostea mused.
“All minarets look the same to me,” Toddy said.
On a wall, he found a note containing the legend of the Fountain of Bakhchysarai. It was the simple story of Giray Khan’s love and grief for the death of his young wife Maria, stabbed by Zarema, one of his jealous other wives. In memory of Maria, he built the marble fountain of eternal tears. Like Giray Khan, the stone was to weep forever. Toddy tried to imagine the beauty of the slain wife. He liked her name. Maria was his classmate who had gone to the beach with his friends that summer. It was also his grandmother Mimi’s first name. He had never studied religion and did not attach a special meaning to the name, which struck him as both immaculate and fragile. He wondered how old Khan’s Maria had been. Fourteen? Seventeen? What counted as young in those days? How young had Khan been? He had killed Vaslav, the Polish nobleman who was supposed to marry Maria, and abducted her. Toddy, still a virgin, marveled at what it would be like to have a harem.
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