Please, Don’t Encourage Him
From A Family Album: https://alexduvan.medium.com/a-family-album-40829e212764
The pilot announced they were landing in Athens in twenty minutes. Dalia looked down at the Aegean Sea, its surface sparkling and stretching to infinity, as blue-gray as the sky. Where clouds blocked the sun, darker shadows danced on the water. The sea, Dalia thought, was like her soul — wide and shimmering, shady spots dotting it with regrets. She had always been fatalistic. In life, there was only so much a person could do. Be good. Be caring and tell the truth. Everything else was part of one’s destiny, written in the stars, or hidden below in the depths of the sea.
She never thought a year ago that she would fly over the Mediterranean to visit her children in Greece.
The seat next to her was empty. A man sat in the aisle seat. He was Greek but spoke Romanian well and had traveled to Bucharest to visit old friends. A communist in his youth, he told Dalia how he, along with several thousand comrades, had escaped prosecution after the Greek Civil War by fleeing to communist Romania in 1949. He lived there for over two decades and returned to Greece as soon as the military junta collapsed.
“You must have seen the devastation in Bucharest,” Dalia said referring to the earthquake that had struck Romania that March — 7.3 on the Richter scale.
The man nodded. “Terrible. The city is a war zone. I thought they’d have cleared the debris. It’s been over four months.”
“Many people died,” Dalia said. “My husband was in Sinaia, skiing. The phones didn’t work, and I didn’t hear from him until the next day.” She stopped feeling she had volunteered too much. The man looked like a nice person, but still, why tell a stranger about your husband’s whereabouts on the night of the earthquake? On any night? The man had lived long enough in Romania to know that Sinaia was a fashionable mountain resort. Should a husband go there without his wife? And don’t tell him you are retired, she thought. Tell him you didn’t go with your husband because you didn’t have time. “My husband’s a doctor,” she said. “He was recalled the morning after the earthquake and had a hard time driving back. The roads were destroyed. I am a doctor, too.”
“That’s a noble profession,” the man said.
He had a soft and confident voice that Dalia liked. She told him how glad she was that Deborah and Andy had missed the earthquake. “My son and my daughter-in-law are in Athens right now, on a temporary basis. I’m going to spend a few days with them. Technically only one is my child, the boy, but I consider them both my children. I haven’t seen them in over a year, and I miss them so much.”
“You must be very excited,” he said.
She didn’t explain that Deborah and Andy were in Athens on their way to America, waiting for their entry visa. Instead, she said that Andy had had a beard that he had recently shaved. “In Bucharest, where they lived before, having a beard was a sign of protest, whereas in the free world nobody gives a damn.” Proud of her son, Dalia smiled, leaned her head back on the headrest and closed her eyes.
The man passed his open palm thoughtfully across his jaw.
Dalia hadn’t slept well the night before. This was the first time she was flying without Virgil, her husband, and she didn’t know what to expect once she arrived in Athens. From their letters she knew that Deborah and Andy lived in a modest hotel. She had little money and didn’t want to complicate their lives. She also worried about going through customs and passport control; maybe not worried-worried, but she was apprehensive, because in Romania the customs officers always gave people a hard time.
She felt a bump and a knot formed in her stomach as she realized that the plane had started its descent.
“You’ll be with your son and daughter-in-law very soon,” the Greek man said.
“I’m happy,” she said.
“You look happy.” There was a pause, and both waited as if something else was supposed to be said. “I’d love to see you in Athens,” the man suggested in his calm and confident way. “Show you around. We could go visit Plaka. It’s lively at night. My name is Stavros, and if I gave you my telephone number, do you think you might call?”
“I won’t have much time.”
“When you travel, you make your time.”
He took a pocket size notepad from his hand luggage, ripped out a page, and wrote a seven-digit number with a stylish fountain pen. “Here,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“I like it. Dalia is a beautiful name.”
She spotted Andy as soon as she walked into the arrivals area. Deborah stood next to him, slender, bouncing on her heels, in a brightly colored summer dress. Her hair was very short. When she saw Dalia, Deborah waved, and dashed in her direction. Dalia dropped her suitcase to the floor, opened her arms and let Deborah fall at her chest.
“Let me see you, let me see you,” she said grabbing Deborah by the shoulders and pushing her at arm’s length. “Oh, you look great.”
“You look great yourself, Mom,” Andy said approaching calmly like a man in control.
She hugged him too, his familiar body and fragrance drawn as close into her as she possibly could. “Andy, you’re my little boy again, with your baby shaved face.” Then she corrected herself. “Not quite a baby face anymore.”
“Is this all your luggage?” Andy asked pointing at the brown, beaten up suitcase and decided to forgo the cab ride to the hotel in favor of the trolleybus.
They took the seats facing each other in the back of the trolleybus. Dalia and Deborah sat together facing in the direction of traffic and Andy on the opposite side with the suitcase next to him. “It will get more crowded downtown,” he predicted taking his mother’s hands.
“That’s another half hour,” Deborah said.
“We’ll get off at Syntagma Square, in front of the Parliament.” Andy smiled. “It’s a beautiful building. Our hotel is around the corner from there. We share an apartment with another couple our age. Wonderful people, you’ll see. There are two small bedrooms, a common area, a bathroom, a kitchenette…”
“A balcony,” Deborah said.
Andy took a deep breath. “We booked you a room in our hotel on a higher floor. You’ll like it, I hope.”
“Is it expensive?” Dalia asked and felt blood rush to her face.
“Don’t worry about it,” Andy said.
“How can I not worry? You already paid for my airline tickets, and you’ll need every penny when you get to America.” Dalia turned to the window. The trolleybus was moving fast. There were vacant lots along the road and a few low buildings spread here and there, neglected and scorched by the sun.
“It gets better once we enter the city,” Deborah said.
“Looks fine to me,” Dalia answered meaning to please. She let go of Andy’s hands, took off her jacket, folded it and placed it in her lap. Conscious she no longer possessed the figure she once had, she straightened up in her seat and sucked her stomach in. “Since I retired, I put on a few pounds.”
“You didn’t have to retire,” Andy said.
“Yes, I did. Thirty years is enough. Your departure was a big event and I wanted to mark it with a big change of my own.”
“We’re all going through changes.” Andy paused. They were speaking Romanian, but he looked around as if to ensure that other people weren’t listening. He lowered his voice. “To be accepted as refugees by a Western country, we have had to ask for political asylum in Greece and sign a statement that we are against the communist regime of Romania. We couldn’t let you or dad know about this in a letter.”
“You had to do this, didn’t you?” Dalia asked and continued quickly, “You said so yourself.” She needed the justification, the knowledge that her children didn’t have a choice. And that it was to their benefit. Her eyes changed from sparkling and delighted to serious, and she held Andy’s gaze.
“Yes,” Andy said. “That is the process. We are on a well-trodden path so to speak, an unwritten agreement between countries that allows refugees from the communist world to resettle. The request for political asylum is just the first step.”
“You should know that we’re being helped,” Deborah chimed in. “By the USCC.”
“Mom, we have so much to show you,” Andy said. “And it’s important for you to know we are doing OK. I mean we have money. Not a lot, but enough.”
“Safety money,” Deborah clarified. “For when we get to New York.”
“It’s decided then?” Dalia asked. “You’ll go to New York?”
“That’s where our American sponsor is,” Deborah said and they both started talking at once, tripping over each other, completing each other’s sentences and switching topics as they went on. Dalia tried to retain as much as she could. She would have liked to tell them a little about the earthquake in Bucharest and the family, but there was time later for stories from the past. Now, her children were talking about their future and she was happy for them.
Dalia’s hotel room was modest. She fell asleep right away and woke up several hours later. It was quiet, except for some faint music that poured out of a radio far away. She lay in bed, eyes open, scrutinizing the dark and unfamiliar corners. The thought that her children were sleeping in that same building comforted her. They had planned a lot of sightseeing for the following day and Dalia wanted to be rested, able to enjoy their presence, look at them, remember them, memorize their voices and photograph them with her mind. It might be the last time she’d see them for a very long time. Or ever, God forbid.
Since she had retired, she spent too much time with her older mother, forgetting how full of life young people could be. Deborah and Andy had decided to go to the United States, an ocean apart. They would arrive in New York as immigrants. They would pass all the tests to be admitted, and who would not want them? They were good looking and smart and they spoke English. And they loved each other a lot. That was obvious, at a glance.
If the Romanians found out that they had asked for political asylum, there might be repercussions. Virgil’s career could be compromised. To hell with Virgil’s career, but could the children visit Romania ever again? After they got the American citizenship, Andy had said. Regardless, this was in their best interest, and she would sacrifice herself a thousand fold for them. Virgil would be kicking and screaming, but in the end, he too would agree they did the right thing.
Dinner at Plaka tomorrow, Deborah had said. The man on the plane had mentioned Plaka as well. Stavros. What if she gave him a call? She wondered what Virgil would do if the roles were reversed.
The table in the small common room was covered by a white tablecloth and set for five. Simple white plates and cups surrounded a painted porcelain creamer and sugar bowl and a glass pitcher with orange juice.
In the kitchen, a broad-shouldered young man, with a mane of brown hair falling straight into his eyes, was working two skillets, one with eggs and the other with bacon. The smell of croissants came from the little oven below. The door to a sundrenched balcony was open and Deborah was smoking, her back resting against the doorframe.
“Mom, this is Gil,” Andy said. “We share this apartment with him and Bianca. Gil is a great cook.”
Gil wiped his hand on his jeans, pushed his hair out of his brown eyes and shook Dalia’s hand. “Your son is a sweet-talker, and I am anything but a great cook. Very nice meeting you.”
“Nice meeting you, too, Gil. Is this short for Virgil?”
Dalia looked at Andy. “Virgil, like your father’s best friend.” Then she turned to the balcony. “Good morning, Deborah. Will you give me a hug?”
Gil smiled while the two women hugged each other. “Bianca will be out in a second,” he said. “She likes to sleep in.”
“Mom, we know Bianca since high school,” Andy said. “We ran into each other in Athens. They’re following the same path.”
“So, you’re you going to America?” Dalia asked Gil.
“No, Canada.” The answer came from behind Dalia. She turned and saw a petite woman with long blond hair in a soft, white morning robe and slippers with red pompons and low kitty heels. Her blue eyes were rimmed with blue eye shadow. “We think America is a jungle, too raw. In Canada, they help you out. They’re civilized.”
“And the Americans are not?” Andy asked.
“I don’t think so.” Her voice was sharp, as if ready to argue, should the need to argue arise. “Do you get universal medical care in America? You don’t.”
“They are both great countries, Bianca,” Gil said on a conciliatory tone.
It was clear to Dalia that the four of them had debated the topic before.
“Mom, this is Bianca,” Andy said.
Bianca nodded in response. “Let’s all go and sit down. Gil, I’ll take my coffee now.”
“Sure, Bianca, your coffee’s coming right up. And the eggs, too.”
They all sat around the table and Gil brought a stainless steel coffee pot, the croissants and the skillet with the omelet still sizzling. The bacon was piled to the side. “Careful, it’s hot.”
“No bacon for me,” Bianca said. “And Gil, you know that small carafe I have from my mother. Be a sweetheart and bring it to me from our room. And a little butter from the kitchen, please.” She turned to Dalia. “I brought the carafe from home, and this cream and sugar set. My poor mother, she gave them to me when I left. It breaks my heart. That was all I could take.” She rolled her eyes. “I understand you and the children are going to visit the Acropolis today. Beautiful! Gil and I are going to the Archeological Museum. Today it is free, and I adore art. Beauty.”
“So, your mother is still in Romania?” Dalia asked.
“Unfortunately. She’s old, too old to be coming with us.” Bianca looked at Gil and added with tinge of understated sarcasm, “My husband loves my mother. He wouldn’t mind.”
Gil got up and left to bring Bianca’s carafe.
“My father died a few years ago,” Bianca went on. “Maybe after we get settled, I’ll convince my mother to immigrate to Israel. She’s Jewish. Canada is for young people. It’s easier in Israel when you’re old.”
“I thought Canada takes care of you regardless of age, because it is civilized.” Andy winked.
“The United States is efficient,” Deborah said.
“How’s that?” Bianca asked.
“Well, to start with we got our approvals already. You didn’t.” Deborah’s eyebrows went up.
“That has nothing to do with efficiency,” Bianca said, her tone sharper than before.
“Gil, your omelet is very good,” Dalia said. “I look at this breakfast table and wonder. Do all refugees live like this?”
“Of course not.” Andy seemed proud. “We are lucky to be in Athens. Many refugees are sent to Lavrion, a true refugee camp in a small village. The only thing they have going for them is the beach. People live on top of each other, eat at the cafeteria and lose their minds just waiting around.”
“I’m amazed how many people are refugees,” Dalia said. “I think you said there were thousands, which I find hard to believe.”
“Look in our hotel,” Deborah said. “Two Russian sailors who jumped into the sea when their ship crossed the Bosphorus Straight, a few Vietnamese boat people, and countless Eastern Europeans who managed to defect.”
“People want a better life.” Andy looked convinced. “Think of all our friends in Bucharest who are also trying to leave.”
“My friend Anca is marrying Fritz and plans to leave for Switzerland,” Deborah said. “And Roxy and Ilia have decided for Israel, even though they have a small child.”
Dalia reached for a croissant. She had a weakness for pastries and sweets. “Good thing countries like Canada and the United States are prepared to take you all in.”
“Australia and New Zealand, too. But don’t kid yourself.” Bianca shook her head, her blond locks touching the tablecloth. “It’s not out of the goodness of their hearts that they do it, but rather because we are educated and white, and each one of us is a small propaganda coup for them.”
“As soon as we get settled in Canada, I’m getting my brothers out,” Gil said. “One of them is married, and his wife is more eager to get out of there than he is.”
“Your brothers are losers,” Bianca said.
“Bianca, everyone is a loser to you.”
“My best friend Otilia is not. She’s going to Spain.”
Gil got up and left the room.
Bianca turned to Dalia. “Speaking of coming and going, I’m glad you were able to come. You know, after we ask for political asylum, we undergo a security check. So, what do the Americans, or the Canadians do? They send our files directly to the Romanian Secret Police. How else would they find out things about us? The Romanians know that we have asked for asylum. They do, for sure. They could punish the family we have left behind. Yet the fact that you’re here shows me that they might not. Maybe because of the earthquake, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, or maybe they just keep the information for later use.”
Andy and Deborah exchanged a quick glance.
“I disagree. As long as we don’t badmouth them too loudly, they don’t care one bit,” Andy said.
Dalia didn’t seem disturbed by Bianca’s comment. She simply answered, “I understand.”
“Gil, could I get some coffee?” Bianca asked.
“The pot is in front of you.”
“Oh, yeah? Where have you been?”
“In the bathroom, all right?”
“In that direction, you see a plane every minute. That’s where the airport is.” Andy raised his hand and pointed.
They were on a paved terrace in front of the white Church of St. George, on top of the Likavittos, the beautiful hill overlooking the Acropolis and the city. In the distance the blue sky merged with the sea.
Dalia’s flight was that afternoon. “Since you left,” she said, “your father talks about joining you. I mean, he wants us to come and live near you. Please, don’t encourage him.”
“Mama, why not?”
She hesitated. It wasn’t easy, but she knew what she needed to say. “Leaving home at our age will be hard and I don’t want us to become a burden to you. Especially your father.”
“You’re never going to be a burden, Mama.”
“Andy,” Dalia said, “mark my words.” She reached in her purse and took out her cigarettes.
Andy handed her his lighter, but the wind was too strong. They came shoulder to shoulder, turned against the wind and leaned forward. In the shelter formed by their bodies, the flame burned.