The Driving Lesson
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 3 (out of 3) of the excerpt entitled The Driving Lesson. Olga and Kostea are the main characters in the book. The year is 1964.
Kostea went to pick up his car with Marius and Andy. Marius drove and Kostea sat next to him. He paid close attention to Marius’ every move — his relaxed hands on the steering wheel and his ability to speak and drive at the same time, the gradual, gentle manner in which he shifted gears and accelerated, the timeliness of his signaling, and the assuredness with which he avoided obstacles on the road. Kostea was a good surgeon and he trusted that in time he’d become a good driver as well. The task might be different, but some aspects of driving and performing surgery were similar — the constant, undivided attention to possible complications, the need for tools and equipment that had to be totally reliable and one’s ability to foresee the next move were essential. For now, his best strategy was to listen and observe.
“When you drive, you need to be aware of what’s going on all around you,” Marius said. “Watch the oncoming traffic, look ahead at the road and remember to always glance in the rearview mirror to know what’s behind you.”
“You need to have all your wits about you,” Andy declared from the back seat. “Be rested. If I feel tired at the wheel, I pull to the side of the road and close my eyes. Ten to fifteen minutes is all I need.”
“I know how to take a power nap,” Kostea answered. “I do it each time I’m on night duty at the hospital.”
“I’m sure you do,” Marius said. He kept steering with only two fingers of his right hand on the wheel, while unbuttoning the cuff of his shirtsleeve with his left. Slowly, he rolled the sleeve up. “One mistake rookies make,” he continued, “is that they forget to check the air pressure in their spare tire and when they need it, they’re screwed. Remember, check the spare at least once a month.” Marius scratched the skin on his bony arm under the rolled-up sleeve. For a truck driver, those arms were definitely too thin.
Kostea tried to picture Marius changing heavy tires, fixing the engine, loading and unloading his truck and driving for hours through the night. He thought of rest stations in the middle of nowhere, where sometimes one would have to be able to hold one’s own.
He looked out the windshield at the clouds that had gathered in the sky. When it started to rain, a peasant trudging along the side of the road next to his horse and open cart sought refuge under an overpass and blocked their lane. The oncoming cars caused Marius to brake and come to a stop. He beeped and told Kostea to open his window. “What are you doing, you moron, you! Do you want to get killed?” he yelled at the peasant while leaning across Kostea as the left lane became free and he drove slowly by the cart. The peasant made an obscene gesture with his right arm.
Kostea rolled his window back up.
“This wouldn’t happen in Germany,” Marius said. “Not on the Autobahn.”
“They drive fast on the Autobahn,” Andy acknowledged like a person who knew a few things.
Marius obliged. “Of course,” he responded and accelerated, regaining speed. “At least twice as fast as over here, and mind you, when I’m there I’m driving a heavy truck. In fact, they don’t have speed limits. No matter how fast I go, there is always somebody driving faster than me. Sometimes I think they are nuts, but the roads are perfect, and no horse carts, farm animals, bicyclists or pedestrians are allowed.”
“How do they get around?” Kostea asked.
“Most people have cars. And there are secondary roads, very nicely maintained as well.”
“It must be nice,” Andy said and fell silent, pursuing his own thoughts about the wonders of German roads.
They drove in silence for a while and Kostea looked through the streaky windshield at the green fields in the rain. Tomorrow he would be driving for the first time in his life his very first car. While this fact had been on his mind all along, it now struck him like lightning, causing him to squirm in his seat and feel goose bumps cover his skin. Marius had told him to be gentle with the new car while breaking it in. Of course, he would do that. He would be careful and follow all rules.
The conversation resumed, with Marius and Andy — the experienced drivers — bombarding Kostea with advice about what to do and what to know when owning a car. A container of gasoline in the trunk was a great idea, just in case the gas station ran out of gas, as it happened from time to time. It was advisable to always have drinking water with you, a few chocolate bars, basic medical supplies — like headache pills, disinfectant and gauze bandages — also a raincoat, toilet paper, a flashlight, an air pump. A map of the country might come in handy, provided one could find an updated one at a bookstore. And always be careful when driving in the rain because, like today, the roads get slick and muddy.
“I don’t see any muck,” Kostea said. Ahead of him, the road surface shone dark gray.
“That’s exactly the problem,” Marius said with a smile on his face. “You don’t see it, and your wheels skid, especially at those intersections with unpaved country roads.”
“Marius, tell us more about how it is over there,” Andy said. “I mean Germany and the West.”
“Hmm,” Marius said. “It’s great, and none of that capitalist bullshit, with people being oppressed. I mean, sure, some are less fortunate than others, but from what I have seen, everyone is doing quite well. It’s — how shall I put it? — like when you open the window and…boom, you can breathe. You know, when you walk in the streets of Bucharest and you see foreigners at Lido and the Continental Hotel? You spot them immediately not only because they’re dressed nicely but also because they smell better than you. And the stores in Germany, they’re full of stuff!”
“You’re saying that people have money?”
“More than we do. For us, everything is expensive over there. Not for them. Even the unemployed — and there are some — receive more money from the state than we get in salary, believe it or not. When my partner and I drive our truck to the West, we bring along the food for our meals, so that we can spend our allowance in hard currency on household items and clothes for our families. We also bring back stuff to sell and make some extra money.”
“They don’t check you at the border?” Kostea asked.
“Do you mean at our border? No. We have our guys, and it’s all pre-arranged.”
“How about between other countries?”
“They rarely check in the West. What could we have that they don’t? Sometimes, we bring a few bottles of Romanian cognac with us to sell in Czechoslovakia or Poland and make a little more money that way. That’s how I bought this Opel. Second hand, cheap, a very good car.”
“You’re lucky,” Andy said. “You get to travel and buy nice things and make some extra money as well.”
A flock of sheep appeared a few hundred yards ahead on the road. Marius slowed down and then stopped the car. For a while, they listened to the sheep baaing and the isolated barking of dogs. Then the shepherd came close and hit the roof of the car with his fist. It wasn’t clear if that was his signal they could move again. “Son of a bitch,” Marius cursed. “This is my car!” He shifted into gear and the car moved, first slowly, and then faster again. “It’s a ridiculous hundred kilometers,” Marius said, “and it takes us forever to get there. Driving in Romania is the worst. You know, Andy, you say I’m lucky. Maybe I am, but I’d love it if they would let me take my wife and my daughter on the road with me. I see many beautiful sights, but I don’t enjoy them, not as much as I should. I always hurry home, to be with my family.” He looked at Kostea. “Taking my daughter with me might not be in the cards any longer. I think that I missed that chance, now that she is in love.”
Kostea nodded. Marius’ profile reminded him of Natalia, which was odd. He couldn’t decide if Marius had a feminine face, or if his daughter looked like a man. “That’s what I hear,” he said.
“When they marry,” Marius said, “I’ll help them buy a small place. In my opinion, young people should live on their own.”
“Have the wedding at The Garden,” Andy suggested. “I’ll give you a great price.”
“It’s premature,” Marius said. “But getting back to what we were talking about, my family is not allowed to travel with me. They’re kept back as hostages, to make sure that I don’t defect. I hate it, and if it wasn’t for the money, I wouldn’t do this job at all.”
“Marius,” Kostea said. “How do you explain that they have it so good?”
“Who? The Westerners? Well, to start with, we got stuck with the Russians, while the Americans helped Western Europe recover after the war. Besides, people over there are free, and they work hard and get paid well. They pour their hearts into it.”
“I work very hard,” Kostea said.
“You’re a doctor and you love your job. I’m only a truck driver.”
“I know what you’re saying,” Andy jumped in. “I have my own business, I mean, it used to be mine and now it belongs to the state, but at least I manage it. And I make a few bucks on the side. So, Marius, there is something I would like to ask you. If they allowed you to take your family with you, would you come back?”
“I don’t think too much about it, but my guess is I wouldn’t,” Marius said. “It’s really nice over there. So nice.”
Silence set in. The rain stopped and the setting sun broke through the clouds. Marius blinked a few times, reached under the dashboard and handed Kostea a piece of buckskin. “This is also something you absolutely must have. Please, wipe the windshield for me.”
They spent the night in a cheap hotel in Pitești and made it to Colibași the next morning. Kostea spent several hours to get his paperwork processed and take possession of his new car. He nicknamed his car Bimbo, for baby in Italian.
Marius returned alone in his Opel, while Kostea drove the small Fiat with Andy riding shotgun. Their shoulders were touching. They spoke about Marius and how it might be to live in the West. Kostea had doubts. Ever since he could remember, his parents had complained about having moved around so much. They had migrated from place to place, first to Odessa, then to Constantinople, to Kishinev, and finally to Bistrița after the war. As his mother said, no place had truly been home. Now he was asking them to come live with him in Bucharest, where he and Olga had gone to medical school, found jobs, married and settled down. He didn’t miss Kishinev except when he had had a few drinks and Igor played old familiar melodies on his guitar.
Andy fell asleep just when they reached the spot where the sheep had crossed the highway the previous afternoon. There was nothing special about that place that might cause Kostea to remember it and the sun was now behind him, but the sense of déjà vu was overpowering. When one drove, Kostea realized, the perception of space changed and everything around him seemed to move, to fall behind. It was great. Not many people could afford to buy a car, but he had succeeded. Material possessions didn’t matter too much to him, yet this was a big deal. In this new world order, where everyone was supposed to be equal, some were better off than others and he was definitely on the upswing. Life was good.
Along the highway, straight poplar trees with their trunks whitewashed up to the branches flanked the road on both sides, long parallel shadows painting the ground like piano keys. Andy had fallen asleep and that was a good sign. It meant trust. Kostea was getting better and his friend had no reason to worry. He could sleep like a child.
Soon he would show Olga his new — their new car. He imagined the look on her face and the light in her eyes. Olga, the woman he loved.
And his friend, Marius quite a conflicted guy! On one hand, with the truck and his cross border travel, he had it made. On the other, he hated his job. How could people be happy if they didn’t like what they did? For Kostea, work was the purpose of his life, as were his wife and son, and his parents. Work was his passion. He helped others, each and every day.
Marius was a decent man. He would never defect to the West and leave his family behind. Or did he lie because he was afraid to tell them the truth? Kostea didn’t think so. He understood Marius too well. He wouldn’t defect either and leave Olga and Toddy behind. The grass wasn’t always greener on the other side. Happiness was right here, right now.
Kostea parked in front of his house and sat in the car to study the dashboard for the third time that day, his owner’s manual at the ready. Andy ran in to announce their arrival. There was no other car in sight.
The first to emerge was Ina, followed shortly by Anna Voicu. The children came next, three including Toddy, sprinting from their backyard, then two more came from across the street, and another two dashed over from the building at the corner. They surrounded the car but kept a respectable distance. Olga hurried down the front steps and Andy opened the front passenger door for her, bowing and making an inviting grand gesture.
Olga nodded with a smile, but first walked around the car and wiped a speck of dirt from one of the fenders. “Nice color,” she said about the car’s plain gray hue. “Very practical.”
Anna Voicu agreed, and the children took a step forward.
“Come, I’ll take you all out for a spin,” said Kostea. “Olga, you sit up front, but first let Toddy and two more kids get in the back. Here, let me show you.” He folded the back rest of the passenger seat down and slid it a few inches forward. Toddy squeezed in, followed by two other eager boys.
“Mama, I’ll take you next, and three other children,” Kostea said.
“No need,” Ina said.
Kostea shrugged and once the car was full, he drove to the end of Ana Davila Street and took a left on Doctor Marinescu, past elegant old villas from the turn of the 20th century, to the entrance of the Pioneers’ Palace which used to be a royal summer residence before the war and had been converted into a children’s recreation center. From there he turned right under the shade of the ancient chestnut trees on Eroii Sanitari (Medical Heroes), drove by the School of Medicine, his alma mater, and took another right on Eroilor (Avenue of Heroes), the large boulevard where the city buses rumbled all day long and all the way to the towering Military Academy. He made a U-turn in front of the plaza, veered left and drove back home on Ana Davila, all in less than five minutes. On foot, that same tour would have taken the best of an hour.
He invited more children for a second ride and then a third. Toddy accompanied his friends each time, now proudly occupying the passenger seat. After his third tour the excitement died down and Kostea parked the car in his backyard, negotiating the narrow double gates with careful guidance from Andy.
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