On Top of the World (Part 1)

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of blogs on Medium.com about the challenge of writing short stories (I’ve even commented on some of them). I decided to post a short story myself and see how it goes. This is actually an excerpt from my novel The Visitor, modified to stand-alone. I will post it in two parts. The story takes place in the winter of 1990, and is about the estrangement an immigrant Romanian couple feels when they reunite after a long forced separation. I look forward to comments from my readers, and I am especially curious to hear the impressions Millennials have about an era before cell phones, when people were still using maps, parents smoked in cars with their children present, and the Cold War was just beginning to unravel. Here we go:

Driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike, I imagined being pulled over by two police officers, whisked into a windowless room, and interrogated. The reason for the interrogation didn’t matter. My attitude did.

“Fire away, officers,” I heard myself addressing them in a relaxed and jovial tone. “Today you can ask me anything. My wife and son are arriving today. They’re flying into Kennedy from Bucharest. That’s Bucharest, Romania, you see.”

The imaginary policemen didn’t seem impressed. One of them checked my brand-new driver’s license.

“So your name is…hmm…Andrei Fulga,” he said struggling a bit but pronouncing almost correctly, except for the ending of my first name, which he made sound like the French letter ‘é,’ instead of the way vowels ‘e’ and ‘i’ read in Romanian, “ay” as in “clay.”

“Yes,” I said. “But please call me Andy.”

“We’ll call you the way it’s stated right here,” he answered. “We follow the written letter.”

“We have no choice,” the other policeman added.

“So tell me, André,” started the first policeman. “It says here you’ve been born in 1964. Correct?”

“Correct. Last November I turned 26,” I said proud of my age.

“And how come you’ve received your license only two months ago? Are you retarded, or what?”

I took offence at his question, but controlled myself the best I could. I’d never been interrogated before. I’d seen it happen in movies, of course, and I understood they had to be rough. In Romania, they were rougher than hell.

“I’m totally normal,” I said. “Believe me. But I arrived in this country only four months ago. And I drove in Romania, if you really need to know.”

“We need to know everything,” the second policeman said.

“So you transferred your knowledge,” added the first policeman.

“In a manner of speaking,” I said.

“What exactly do you mean?” the second policeman asked.

“Driving here and there are two different things: no multi lane highways in Romania, no rest areas, with gas stations and toilets and food. You take your food and your water with you. If you have to, you go in the bushes.”

“You don’t go in the bushes over here,” the first policeman said. “It’s illegal, and it’s drizzly and cold.”

“It’s the middle of winter,” I said.

“How’s traffic in Maryland?” the second policeman asked.

“Reasonable for a Thursday, once you get off the beltway. Off the Capital Beltway, I mean.”

“We know what you mean,” he said.

“Again, I don’t want to mislead you,” I uttered, his remark seeming a little abrupt. “I was simply expressing an opinion. But perhaps I shouldn’t render opinions, given my lack of experience in situations like this.”

“No, no, no,” the first policeman chimed in. “We want to know what you think. Please continue. What you say is like a breath of fresh air. Believe me, we love the alternative side.”

His statement was confusing, but I decided I liked him better than the other one. Good cop, bad cop, I thought. “As you undoubtedly know,” I told him, “today is my first time driving on I-95. I have no frame of reference, so how can I judge if the traffic is reasonable?” My answer was humble enough to satisfy a police officer anywhere in the world. “I drive to my office,” I said. “I go there in the morning and come back in the afternoon. You see, I found a job in Rockville, which is a suburb of Washington D.C., and I rent an apartment in Rockville as well. I get on the highway for only a few minutes, and then I get off. But today I’m driving all the way to New York, I mean, to Kennedy Airport, where I’ve never been before.” I expected some reaction, and when I didn’t get any, I felt lost. “Yet I know where it is,” I went on, like it was an accomplishment on my part. “See, it’s in Queens, on the edge of the Grassy Bay. I looked it up on the map.”

“Amazing,” the first policeman said. “This is your first time on an interstate, and you’re doing so well. I wouldn’t have picked you out in a crowd.”

“When did you get here?” the second policeman wanted to know.

“I told you, four months ago.”

“You don’t need to get curt,” the second policeman barked.

“I’m not curt, I swear. It’s just that I’m nervous, you see.”

“And what are you nervous about?”

I didn’t like him one bit. “What do you mean? I’m going to see my wife and my kid.”

“You’ve seen them four months ago. That’s not even that long.”

“No,” I said. “I haven’t seen them in years. Two years, to be exact. Before I came here I lived in Paris, alone. I lived there for almost a year and a half.”

“Oh, Paris,” the first policeman exclaimed. “Paris, the city of lights!”

“I went there on a business trip and defected. My wife, Carmen and I talked about it and decided it was the only way out. This happened before the revolution of last December, while Romania was still communist. You see, we thought I would go ahead, take the risk, and once I’m settled, bring them along. We had no idea how long it might take, but we felt it was worth the sacrifice for the sake of freedom. Then the Berlin Wall was torn down, and governments collapsed everywhere in Eastern Europe. In Romania, they killed the tyrant, Ceausescu, the bastard, and his despicable wife, and suddenly Carmen could leave. Her aunt had sponsored me and I came to the States.” I felt warmth in my heart. “I can’t wait to see Carmen again. I can’t wait to see David, my son. He was barely a toddler when I left and I’m hearing his voice in my head. He’s running across the airport and flying into my arms.”

“So you haven’t seen your family in over two years?” the friendly policeman marveled.

“Have you cheated on your wife?” the other one asked.

“It’s none of your business,” I said. I let that slip out rather quickly and immediately realized that it wasn’t tactful. Yet I thought: over here there is this thing they call privacy, a real big thing. No such concept in Romania, I knew.

“I see you have a dozen roses on you,” the friendly officer said. “So you think you’ll get lucky tonight?”

They both laughed.

I felt disappointed in them.

The good thing was we didn’t have to continue talking. I pushed them out of my mind and shifted my attention to the turnpike. The number of lanes had just increased from three to six. This never-ending ribbon of concrete looked very impressive to me. Most trucks stayed to the right, and traffic grew heavy. The big city was near.

“Listen to music while driving,” my colleagues at work had told me during our multiple conversations leading up to the trip. “It will keep you awake.”

The policemen tried to return to my mind, but I had no more patience for them. “There was only one question you should have asked me,” I said. “Only one question, you see.” I leaned scornfully into the steering wheel and pursed my lips. My voice reverberated against the windshield. It was like bidding farewell. “You should have said, ‘Mister, how are you feeling today?’ ‘I’m happy, officers,’ I would have responded. ‘In fact, I’m on top of the world.’”

Drizzle speckled the windshield and wrapped my happiness in a watery gray. I turned the wipers on. There were gray cars everywhere on the highway and the asphalt was gray. The spray raised by tires floated in the air. My speedometer showed seventy-seven miles an hour. The few trees along the highway sped backwards bare and gray. The traffic was pushing me, and I wasn’t going to slow down. My being in the midst of that traffic was an acknowledgement of what I had become. The friendlier of the two imaginary policemen had been wrong. I wasn’t like everybody else on that highway; I was better than them.

I saw myself in the car with Carmen and my little boy, David. By now he was four. “Look around, Davy,” I was telling him. “This is something you haven’t seen before. Never ever, you hear me?” I wanted to sound easy-going, like a father with his son. “Just look outside the window, little boy.” It didn’t occur to me that it would be dark driving back that evening to Rockville, or perhaps in my imagination I was mixing up the return from the airport with future car trips, no doubt many in the years to come. “This is what I call a highway,” I continued gesturing with my hands and throwing glances at Carmen. “Look at this incredible road, you two. Look at this river of motion, this perpetual monstrous enterprise, this engineering feat located at the intersection of the human spirit and the need for unencumbered interstate commerce.”

I was dreaming, and talking to them like this.

I left the turnpike, followed I-278 East to Verrazano Bridge and fumbled at the tollbooths. Several drivers honked at me. At the bridge, I took the upper deck, as my colleagues had suggested. “You’ll see the skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty from up there,” one of them had said. With the drizzle and the three lanes of traffic, I didn’t see much at all.

At Kennedy, I followed the spiraling road to the parking lot on the roof of the Pan Am terminal. It was dusk at five in the afternoon in early March, and the runway lights marked the ground in a crisscrossing pattern. Carmen’s plane was arriving in two hours. I had made it in plenty of time.

A full-sized mirror hung on the wall of the elevator I rode to International Arrivals. It was stained, its vertical edges yellow where the silver backing had cracked and separated from the glass. Being alone, I took a good look at myself. I wore my suit, a silk tie, and soft Italian leather shoes bought for the occasion. The open jacket revealed my cotton shirt tucked neatly under a shiny new belt with a small silver buckle. I held the keys to my Toyota in one hand and the dozen red roses in the other. People had told me I would find flowers at the airport, but I didn’t want to take any chances and I had purchased the roses ten minutes before leaving Rockville, and wrapped the stems in a wet paper towel. The roses looked fresh.

The International Arrivals area overflowed with people. Some were excited, others bored; some were moving, others standing, sitting, reading, or dozing off. Some were pushing forward, maneuvering for position. Their goal, I figured, was maximum proximity to the several swinging doors that led out of Customs. Those doors opened and closed all the time, offering glimpses of the world on the other side. Passengers emerged from there into the arrivals area. Some of those waiting spoke Romanian and I steered away from them as fast as I could.

I got myself a hot dog and a small cup of coffee. I carried the food to a table, careful not to drop or spill any of it on my clothes. As I ate, I observed the other Romanians. They were most likely waiting for the same plane. We shared a heritage and perhaps a similar life story, yet today their presence was of no interest to me. My wife was arriving today, after two years of us being apart. I was happy and sad. Below the surface, I discovered a calmness I didn’t know I possessed. My perception of time changed. After the highway, with the rhythmical marking of every mile-minute, in the airport time felt like a heavy liquid. Its flow was unavoidable, yet it was viscous and slow. Seven o’clock seemed a lifetime away.

(Look for Part 2 on Wednesday…)

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

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