This excerpt from my novel in The Ultimate Patient describes the conflicting thoughts and feelings experienced by my characters on the verge of immigrating to Israel. It is 1969 in Romania. The main protagonist in this scene, Lydia, is still a teenager. She doesn’t want to leave.
Her parents and her grandmother were gathered around their dining table. Lydia headed straight to her room.
“Lydia, come and sit with us,” Tina called.
“I’m changing and going out,” Lydia said through the door. “These are the last days of summer and we want to enjoy them as much as we can.” She opened the door and announced, crossing the dining room into the kitchen. “I’m so thirsty.”
The three members of her family followed her silently with their eyes.
There was an empty coffee mug by the sink. Lydia didn’t bother to look for a glass. She rinsed out the mug and filled it with water from the water bottle in the refrigerator.
As she walked back, her mother asked, “Is Toddy picking you up?”
Lydia stopped by the table. “Tonight we are going to Herăstrău Park. Toddy’s buying me dinner,” she said proudly. “It’s his turn.”
“Well, give us several minutes. It’s important,” Ben said.
Lydia stood in front of them, undecided, holding the mug in her hand and taking small sips. She was barefoot and the sleeveless, belted denim dress framed her slender figure. Her skin was tanned, and a smile danced on her face. Her short, dark hair was slightly frizzy from the chlorinated pool water.
The door to the balcony stood open allowing fresh summer air and city noises to come through. The chirp of a bird rose like a silver bell.
“What happened?” she asked in a low voice.
Tina watched Lydia exchange a quick glance with Edith, after which, as if grasping the seriousness of the subject matter, her demeanor changed. Her eyes darkened, her radiant face was suddenly overcast by shadows of concern and her hair, which only a second before, suggested the happy carelessness of a day at the pool, seemed tousled, in disarray. Even before Ben could answer, she sat down.
“Lydia, we want you to be prepared. We’ll be receiving permission to leave soon,” Ben said.
“How do you know?” Lydia asked.
“They called me at work.”
“It might not be anything. What did they say?”
“It won’t be long now. They want our apartment.”
Lydia placed the mug on the table with a light clink. A beveled crystal glass top covered the table. Pressed underneath, a lacy tablecloth, which had taken Edith half a year to crochet, gave the room an old fashioned, cozy feeling.
Edith pushed a coaster to Lydia. She ignored her grandmother, leaned forward and hid her hands in her lap.
“We need to talk about this,” Ben continued. “We need to plan.” Since he had started his diet, he had lost twenty pounds and the skin below his jaw hung in loose folds.
“There is nothing for me to plan,” Lydia quipped.
“We need your help. We have to sell the furniture and decide what goes in the shipping crate. As a family, we have the right to only one crate, but since Edith is coming with us, maybe they’ll let us ship two. And we need to purchase all new clothes.”
“You do whatever you want,” Lydia said. “I’m not coming with you.”
Tina heard her daughter’s words while keeping her gaze fixed on a sliver of blue sky visible through the balcony door. Without looking, she reached into Lydia’s lap and tried to take her hand.
Lydia pulled away. “Let me be,” she said and repeated, “I’m not coming with you.”
“Lydia, dear…” Ben pleaded.
“Ben, stop,” Tina said. “What’s the problem, Lydia? Tell us.”
“Really, mother. You really don’t know what the problem is?” Lydia gave a scornful laugh.
“No. We can’t read your mind.”
“Toddy. I want to be together with him.”
“I know you do,” Tina said. “But give it some time. Child, the two of you are still very young.”
“Are you saying I should forget Toddy?”
“I’m not saying anything of that sort. Leaving Romania is an opportunity, for you and for us. Your future is at stake.”
“My future is right here with Toddy, thank you very much.”
“Lydia, you can’t stay here. You’re coming with us.”
“I’m nineteen. I can do what I want.”
“No, you can’t.”
“Yes. I have my father’s pension,” Lydia said looking at the floor. “I’ll get a job. Leave me here. Go. Forget about me. Forget your brother, and forget your friends. Forget who you are, if that’s what you want.”
“Are you and Toddy getting married? Has he proposed?” Tina asked.
Lydia didn’t respond. Her face turned blank as if all emotion had drained away.
“Lydia,” Edith said from across the table, “I love you.”
Lydia turned to her grandmother and tears streamed out of her eyes.
“Today you’re adamant about not leaving, but you didn’t object when we applied to emigrate,” Ben said. “We agonized over our decision for weeks on end and you didn’t say anything. It didn’t seem like you cared, even though you were already in love with Toddy. You can’t decide now that you don’t want to leave. It’s too late.”
“No, it isn’t,” Lydia said. “Back then, I didn’t think this moment will come so soon. It usually takes years to get a passport.”
Tina found Ben’s argument sounding too much like a reproach and she rushed to correct it. “I understand you fully,” she told Lydia. “I, too, have loved a man once,” she said as if Ben wasn’t there. “But trust me, the way you fall in love, you could fall out of love. In Israel, you’ll have a new life. You’ll make friends, go to university, meet people, young men, some even nicer than Toddy.”
“I’m not interested,” Lydia said and reached for the mug. Tears glistened on her face.
“Jewish men,” Tina said.
Lydia’s fingers tightened around the mug handle. “I don’t believe you just said that. Jewish? How could you, Mother?”
“It’s true,” Tina said. “You know it doesn’t matter to me, but having a Jewish husband in Israel might be better.”
“That’s it,” Lydia said. She raised the mug and banged it hard onto the table. It sounded like the crack of a gun. Water splashed out. The crystal shattered radially from the point of impact like the rays of the sun. The trill of the bird died outside. Water trickled onto the rug. She ran to her room and slammed the door shut behind her.
Without a word, Edith went to her room. She picked up a cigarette form her nightstand and struck a match. Inhaling, she looked at her shaking hands. They had been exquisite once. Now blue veins were visible under the dry, yellow skin. There was no ring on her finger and her knuckles hurt. Lydia was lucky: at least, she could cry.
Ben would have smoked a cigarette, too, but he had given them up. He collected the larger shards of broken glass and took them to the garbage can next to his dark room. Then he vacuumed.
Tina waited a few minutes and tried the door to Lydia’s room. It was locked. She knocked. She knocked on more time. “Lydia,” she said. “Please, open up!”
She heard hushed steps and the door flew open. “What do you want?”
Lydia looked angry and distressed. The tears had dried on her face leaving two pale streaks from her eyes to her mouth. Her nose was stuffy. She sniffled.
“I want to talk to you, child,” Tina said.
“I’m not a child, and we have nothing to talk about.”
Tina sat on the bed, next to a cotton mini skirt and a ruffle neck blouse that Lydia must have set out earlier to wear that night.
“I need to change,” Lydia added and closed the door. She removed her denim dress, grabbed a handkerchief from the table and blew her nose. Her nostrils were red. She needed a comb.
Tina realized she had not seen her daughter’s unclothed body since two years before, at the beach. Lydia still had the slim figure of a young girl, but fuller and more developed than Tina remembered. Her breasts filled the lacy cups of her bra. Her stomach was flat and tanned, a delicate line of darker hair dipping from under her bellybutton into her white briefs. Her legs were taut.
“I feel your pain,” Tina said. “Believe me, I do.”
“Well, Mother, you didn’t feel much pain when you reminded me that Toddy isn’t Jewish. Even though you say you don’t care, I know you do. You all do! And by the way, where have you been all these years when I needed your help?”
“I was right here. I don’t understand you. What do you mean?”
“No, you weren’t,” Lydia said. “You just provided for me. Every time life got hard, it was about you — your work, your childhood, your Communist Party, your marriage to Ben.”
“And your father,” Tina said.
“Yes, my father. He died fifteen years ago.” Lydia grabbed the skirt off the bed and stepped into it. There was a safety hook above the zipper in the back and she fumbled trying to close it. Tina reached forward to help, but Lydia moved away. She twisted the skirt around her waist and managed to secure the clasp. She straightened up and returned for her blouse.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Tina said.
There was a mirror on the wall next to the bookshelf and Lydia stopped in front of it. She tapped the skin under her eyes with her fingers, tilted her head sideways and pursed her lips. It seemed she had found new energy, as she was getting ready to go out. “, Are you afraid I’ll elope, like my cousin did?” she asked. “Don’t be. I don’t have her guts.”
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