The Swiss Watch (Part 2)

Kishinev, 1944

From A Family Album: https://alexduvan.medium.com/a-family-album-40829e212764

“I apologize. Mrs. Dafin, let’s get back to work.”

“Call me Galina,” she said.

Later, they went for a walk. It was her idea. The day was getting warmer, and they passed the bombed Topaz Factory and then walked along deserted alleyways in Alunelu Park, where budding trees and shrubs were vanquishing the effects of winter and war. They spoke little and of insignificant things, yet Galina felt as if a curtain had been lifted and she had had a glimpse into the depth of his pained soul. His suffering made her feel closer to him than she had felt towards anyone in a long time, and she sensed that the feeling was mutual.

On the way back to the Annex, he took her hand.

“You know I’ve been married,” she said.

“I do.”

A light wind blew from the back.

“His name was Ivan. He was a drunk, but I loved him and it wasn’t his fault. I met him at the house of my friends. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and when he entered the room, the glass on the credenza door shook and my breathing stopped. He said he was a math teacher, like me. After his second glass of wine, he talked about his younger years during the Russian Revolution on the side of the Whites. The Reds pushed them to the Black Sea, and he escaped by boarding a merchant ship to Constantinople. On the ship, a few people contracted typhoid fever, Ivan among them. He got very sick and the crew thought him dead. The day they arrived, they threw him into a common grave. He woke up at night and dug himself out, pushing away the cold bodies that were pressing on him. A fisherman who spoke a few words of Russian took him in. As his strength returned, they went out to sea during the day and spent their evenings drinking Raki and looking at the stars. A year later in Kishinev, he found out that the Russians had killed his father and his brothers, and that his mother had been forcefully relocated to Asia, destination unknown. Kishinev was now part of Romania and the border with the Soviet Union was sealed.”

The wind swept around.

“I remember strolling with him on the banks of Bîc,” Galina continued. “A deep trench cut across our path. Ivan picked me up by my waist, and carried me to the other side. I felt like a feather, and as beautiful as a queen. The sun lit the river afire, and the world seemed ablaze. I thought he would hold me forever, but he didn’t. He said, ‘Like a million pounds of lead, the past pulls me back into that deep, common grave. The bottle is my only consolation. I drink Raki, the way I did in Turkey, vodka, the way the Cossacks do, and plum brandy with my Romanian friends. I drink beer and wine. I drink anything that flows and I can get my hands on. My life is a hellish river of alcohol, and I’d be a damned egotistical coward if I dragged you into it.’ I listened to him and I cried. I promised him we would get through the tough times together and we were married at the end of the month.”

The wind blew a few strands of hair into Galina’s face. She pushed them away and went on. She told Michael she had kept her end of the bargain. “On many an evening, I left little Dalia asleep in the company of a neighbor and rushed to this or that pub. I subjected myself to the jeers of his drinking buddies, and supported and guided his wobbling steps back home. I got him undressed. I washed his clothes, cleaned and polished his boots, and opened the windows to let out the smells. I felt to my knees, and prayed to the silver icon of Saint George Slaying the Dragon, pinned on a rusty nail high to the east. In spite of his drinking and imposing stature, fierce gaze and contagious laughter, Ivan was mild-mannered and soft. He never raised his voice, never punched or pushed anybody and always apologized to me the next morning. When he died, I was twenty-seven. He was thirty-eight. Our Dalia revered her father, and I never told her the truth. And I never went out with another man, because Dalia did not want me to.”

“She’s in Bucharest now,” Michael said.

That evening after work, Michael gave her a ride in his car. She asked if he was hungry, knowing that she could scramble up a meal from what she had in her meager pantry. Sustenance had always been important to her.

“Yes,” Michael said.

When they reached her house and he dismissed the driver for the day, she didn’t think him presumptuous, but rather versed in the ways of the world.

That evening, on the verge of their becoming intimate for the first time, Michael hesitated. “I believe we should be careful,” he uttered, a statement and a question in one.

Galina seemed amused. “If you’re fearing or wishing for an offspring, you’re too late. But I haven’t slept with a man in over fifteen years and being careful is the last thing on my mind.”

Thus started their two weeks of bliss.

He moved into her place, and when he began a new assignment, Galina waited for him at home, humming to herself, cooking and cleaning. Michael never helped with the chores, as if he knew that he was a temporary guest in someone else’s space and that he lived there on borrowed time. A framed photograph of Ivan watched over them. Galina considered hiding it in a drawer, but since it had stayed on her credenza during their first and most important of nights, and since Michael didn’t seem to mind, she let it be.

On the way to her house, Michael often told his driver to take him by the German officers’ mess, where he picked up whatever meats were available, along with eggs, butter, cheeses and bottled mineral water. From the special section of the Commissariat, he got chocolates and cartons of cigarettes.

Every day she asked Michael for train tickets to Bucharest. First, she wanted one for herself, then two, for herself and her mother, and finally three, to include her brother Alexey as well. Every day Michael responded with a new promise and a different excuse, until Galina concluded that the delay was a ruse: he didn’t get the tickets because he wanted her to stay there with him. His affection scared her, and yet it filled her with a happiness she could hardly contain.

Let the Russians arrive and let it be as it may. War was war.

The mornings were her most enjoyable time. She woke up before him and moved gingerly to protect his sleep. With his eyes closed, his sadness was smoothed away, and she deluded herself in believing that one day he would wake up and surprise her, emerging fresh from under the heavy, stifling blanket of his past. She prayed silently to the icon of St. George and then she placed the steaming coffee for him on the table, along with toast, an omelet, sparkling water, and his cigarettes. She made sure everything was the way he liked it — empty ashtrays, polished shoes and ironed shirts.

He got ready for work at a leisurely pace, faithfully tracking the time on his elegant Swiss Doxa watch. It had a chrome plated rectangular steel case, pale Roman numerals denoting the hours, a sweep hand ticking each passing second and a brown leather wristband. “You should match your belt to your wristwatch,” she quipped.

“Good morning to you, too,” he answered mildly, looking amused and sipping his coffee.

Before leaving, he gave her a kiss, and, like an invariable afterthought, he stopped in the doorway to wind his watch.

“I really hate your watch, because it takes you away from me every morning,” she told him.

“But it also tells me when it’s time to come back.”

On the thirteenth afternoon, he surprised her by showing up early, and taking her in his arms. “I have something for you.”

Papers rustled in his breast pocket. He took out a long envelope. It contained the official travel order for Galina Dafin and Natasha and Alexey Stoica, and the train tickets, four of them.

Her heart leaped. “You’re coming with us!”

“Sorry, Galina, I can’t.”

“Then why are there four tickets?” she asked, hope and incredulity heavy in her voice.

“These are first class tickets,” he said. “You’ll travel in a car reserved for special German personnel. The trains are crowded, and I want you to have a little extra space. Armed soldiers will protect you and each of you can take a full trunk. Don’t ask me how I managed this. I did it for you.”

“Michael,” she said.

They stood on the railway platform, face to face, holding hands. The locomotive sent a puff of white steam into the evening air. People pushed and yelled, and the air smelled of desolation and soot.

“Where is your brother?” Michael asked.

“He’s not coming.” Galina would have liked to explain to him that communism was strangely appealing to her brother and that he had decided to wait for the Soviets, but she didn’t time. “Mother is devastated,” she said.

“Is she already seated?”

“Yes, I took her inside the railcar a few minutes ago, before you arrived. Michael, come with me.”

“My loneliness is my cross to carry. You’ll be with your daughter,” he said.

“I loved my husband, and now I love you.”

He took a slip of paper from his pocket. “Here is my brother’s address in Bucharest. Florin. He’s well connected. If you need anything, he’ll help. And he’ll know where I am.”

Galina took the paper. Leaving Michael felt like the deepest of wounds. It paralyzed her. Yet Florin’s address was a ray of hope, a bond of sorts. As long as she and Michael stayed in touch through Florin, Michael might change his mind. His loneliness might lift like the fog. Perhaps he just needed some space. As sad as she felt to leave him, she was anxious and happy as well. She was going to be reunited with Dalia, and the truth was she might never return to Kishinev.

Michael stepped back. He unbuckled his Doxa watch and handed it to her. “Here,” he said. “This will remind you of me and help you keep track of your life.”

Galina accepted his gift. “Write to me,” she yelled, when the train started moving.

Michael never did.

Several months before the fall of Berlin, Florin brought Galina a telegram. She glanced at the rough paper framed with a black border and the Doxa watch at her wrist stopped ticking.