(Excerpt #14 from The Ultimate Patient)
The Ultimate Patient — my novel in progress — is a fictionalized account of my family’s history going back three generations. The main characters are based on my parents’ and my wife’s parents’ lives, in war and peace, and the immense social and political upheavals of the 20th century in Europe and later in this country. This is part 1 (out of 3) of the excerpt entitled The Driving Lesson. Olga and Kostea are the main characters in the book. Andy is a friend and a restaurant manager. Vsevolod is a distant relative.The year is 1964.
It was a gray winter afternoon. The old, dirty snow was pushed to the curb.
“These boots don’t go with my dress,” Olga said as they walked to the bus stop, “but I couldn’t have worn my black heels. They would have killed me.”
“Your boots will be under the table and the only thing people will see is your beautiful face.” Kostea squeezed her arm lightly. “You look fabulous.”
“Men have it easier. All you did was don your dark suit and you’re ready,” she sulked, while the look on her face told a different story.
He played along. “It wasn’t that easy. I had to choose a tie, polish my shoes and shave for the occasion.”
“Please, you shave every day.”
“And when was the last time you shaved your face, missy?”
“I don’t have to, because I am fabulous. Right? I only had to get a perm and a manicure.” With that, she raised the rabbit collar of her wool overcoat to protect her curls.
The bus to University Square was overcrowded. Squeezed against other people, they stood holding on to the grab handles, making faces and smiling at each other. Luckily, the second bus they took turned out to be empty. It was late Saturday afternoon and most people traveled downtown, in the opposite direction. They collapsed onto their seats and rode silently, hand in hand, looking out the window. At the Triumphal Arch they got off.
Before entering the restaurant, Olga touched Kostea’s hair. “So nice,” she said. “It shines, and it’s perfectly white.”
“Are you reminding me that I’m getting older?”
“Older and spicier,” she said. “I love you.”
He pulled her close and kissed her.
She made a face. “Easy, you’re damaging my perm. Tell me, are my beautiful curls collapsing?”
“They’re perfect, darling, perfect. And tell you what. When we go home, I’ll ask Andy to get us a taxi. You’ll be happier.”
“I’m very happy right now,” said Olga.
Andy greeted them ceremoniously, “Welcome to The Garden. Your table is ready, the best in the house. And happy anniversary.” He took their coats and admired Olga’s green evening dress. “You’re beautiful.”
“Thank you,” said Olga.
Andy brought them two flutes. “Russian Champagne, from Cristina and me. Enjoy!” He lingered by the table, “How many years?”
“Fifteen,” answered Kostea.
“Cristina is in the kitchen. She’ll be out in a minute to see you. By the way, we’ve been married for twenty-two years, so compared to us you’re newlyweds.”
After Andy left Kostea pushed his flute to Olga. “This is too sweet for me. You drink it and I’ll ask him for a vodka.”
“Do you feel as if we’re newlyweds?” Olga said playfully.
“I don’t think so,” he answered. “We’ve been together since that night in Mangalia. That’s seventeen years.”
“Seventeen and a half,” corrected Olga.
“I could still teach you a few tricks,” said Kostea.
“I hope that you do,” she said smiling. “Our love is more intense and more pure now than ever.”
“I love you,” said Kostea.
Andy brought them small plates of roasted eggplant salad. Cristina came out to greet them, drying her hands on her apron. They spent a few moments together, the women hugging and wondering about the time that passed so quickly.
“Andy, a patient of mine works at the Murfatlar vineyards,” Kostea said. “He invited me for a visit. Besides the wine, he could also get me some fresh fish from the Danube. Join me. You might end up buying great wine for the restaurant, and I’ll get to ride in your pickup.”
“Listen,” Andy said. “I’ve been thinking. Why don’t you buy a car? They have now lifted the restrictions for personal vehicles.”
“What are you talking about? I don’t have the money.”
“Oh, I’m sure you have some savings, and you could borrow the rest. Even I could lend you a small amount. What the heck, we’ve known each other for ages.”
“Olga,” Kostea said, “are you listening?”
Cristina used the moment to run back to her kitchen.
“I’ll teach you how to drive,” Andy continued, excited by his own idea. “There’ll be plenty of time. After you deposit the money, you have to wait six months. The funds have ‘to age,’ as they call it. And then it depends on how many buyers are waiting their turn ahead of you. In the meantime, I’ll take you driving.”
Kostea felt he was blushing, but he couldn’t be sure. The large mirror on the wall was gone since the last renovation. He downed the rest of his vodka and started eating.
“Think about it,” said Andy and left to attend to his other customers.
“Well?” Kostea asked after a few moments of silence. “What do you think?”
“Anniversary gift,” Olga said. “Do it.”
Kostea consulted with his friends and colleagues and decided to buy a Fiat 600. It wasn’t the cheapest, but it would be a cute, economical first car, made in Italy, with a good reputation. At the government controlled bank, the only bank that existed, people who managed to save money could earn a small dividend by investing in deposit certificates limited at 5,000 lei each. Olga and Kostea had two such certificates and they borrowed two more from Kostea’s parents and one from Ina. They borrowed the rest of the cash from Ina’s brother, Vsevolod, and some from Andy, and decided live on Kostea’s salary alone. Olga’s full salary would go to repay the debt as quickly as possible. It would take about twenty months, they reckoned. Making the money last from one paycheck to the next became difficult. Struggling to cope, Olga increased the number of labelled white envelopes with cash for their household expenses. The one designated for the cleaning woman got eliminated.
As soon as he deposited the money and the application for the car, Kostea began taking driving lessons. A six-block square of abandoned fenced-in houses and unpaved streets at the edge of the city had been designated as a practice area. Various traffic signs serving to teach the new drivers stood at street corners on leaning poles. The road surface was bumpy and full of holes, the mud ankle deep when it rained. There were no sidewalks. It was springtime and the trees were blooming behind the dilapidated fences.
“Kostea, what do you know about cars?” asked Andy.
Andy showed him the brake pedal, the accelerator and the clutch. He talked to him about the windshield wipers, the lights, the turn signals, the emergency brake and all the gages on the dashboard. “How do we change gears?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“The clutch,” he said, “it’s like anesthesia. It cuts off the engine from the wheels to let you move up and down between gears the way anesthesia precludes your patients from feeling the pain of the operation.”
If Kostea didn’t like the metaphor, he didn’t have a chance to show it. He was transfixed.
Once behind the wheel, he started sweating. The truck shook. The engine stalled. He had forgotten the stick in first, and when he turned on the ignition again, the truck jerked forward. “Brake,” Andy yelled, and Kostea slammed the brake.
The small icon of St. Andrew hanging from the rearview mirror fell on the floor. After several times of trying to start and stop the truck, Kostea lowered his head on the steering wheel.
They smoked a cigarette and then he tried again.
“Once you learn how to handle this truck, driving your car will seem like a dream,” Andy encouraged him.
Two months later, Kostea and Olga were ready to repay Vsevolod. They put the cash in one of the white envelopes and, on a Sunday, went to his apartment. Marius Selevanov, a friend who happened to be a truck driver was visiting. The two men were drinking vodka, smoked and ate sprats and calf liver pate sandwiches.
Vsevolod invited the Bardus to join them and the conversation, unavoidably, turned to cars.
“I still have a hard time coordinating my legs,” Kostea complained. “You know, to ease off the clutch and push the accelerator.”
“Eventually this becomes second nature,” Marius predicted. “I know. I’ve been driving for years.” He had a deep voice, but he was scrawny, not large and fat as Kostea would have imagined a truck driver to be. “There is an exercise you could do,” Marius continued. “Place two books on two rods, like two seesaws, and imagine you’re driving. Push one book up and one down with your feet, simultaneously.”
“Great idea. We should do this at home,” Olga offered.
“Who wants a bite to eat?” Elea, the lady of the house, interrupted “I’ll open a can of delicious Russian smoked sprats and I have some fresh bread and butter.”
“Have you studied the internal combustion engine?” Vsevolod asked and looked at Kostea intently. Then he added, “You should. It can be very useful.”
“Have you ever driven a car?” Kostea asked him.
“I have not, but my brother drove once before the war started.”
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