This is the second excerpt from my new novel, The Ultimate Patient — a flashback about my grandmother Ina as a middle aged woman, in Kishinev, in 1944.
When they stopped, he dismissed the driver for the day. She overheard him and didn’t think him presumptuous, but simply versed in the way the world worked, no matter his sadness.
That evening, on the verge of becoming intimate for the first time, Miki stopped in his tracks. “I believe we have to be careful,” he uttered, a statement and a question wrapped in one.
Ina looked amused. “Every woman has her natural cycle, and if you’re fearing or wishing for an offspring, you’re here too late. But I haven’t slept with a man in over twenty years, and being careful is the last thing on my mind.”
And thus started their two weeks of bliss.
He lived at her place and, for the first three days, they went to the Annex to finish the work. After that Miki began a new assignment, and Ina waited for him at home, humming to herself, cooking, cleaning, and getting ready. Miki never helped with house chores, as if he knew he was in somebody else’s space, and lived there on borrowed time. The black and white photograph of Ivan watched over them. Ina considered hiding it in a drawer, but since it had stayed in its old place on her credenza during their first and most important of nights, and since Miki didn’t seem to mind, she let it be.
Given the general food shortage, on the way to her house, Miki often told his driver take to him by the German officers’ mess, where he picked up whatever meats were available, along with eggs, spring greens, and bottled water. From the special section of the Commissariat he got cartons of cigarettes, French cognac, and Champagne. Since they didn’t drink, the cognac and the Champagne made it to Leo, Shur, and Katia, who never suspected Ina of an illicit connection, or if they did, they never questioned it. Their unconsumed food went to the neighbors. The shiny black car on the street each morning and afternoon was a telltale sign, but Ina wasn’t concerned.
Every day she asked Miki about train tickets to Bucharest. First she wanted one for herself, then two, for herself and her mother, then four, to include Leo and his wife, and finally five. Every day Miki returned with a new promise and a different excuse, until Ina secretly concluded that the whole thing was a ruse; he didn’t do it, because he wanted her there with him. The thought scared her, and yet filled her with a happiness she could hardly contain.
Let the Russian front roll over, and let it be as it may. War was war.
Mornings were her best time. Usually she woke up before him and moved gingerly to preserve his sleep. With his eyes closed, his sadness seemed erased, and sometimes she deluded herself in believing that one day he would startle her with a happy gaze, and a new outlook on life. She prayed silently to the icon of St. George and by seven she had the coffee ready for him on the table, as well as toast, omelets, sparkling water, and cigarettes. She made sure things were the way he liked them — fresh cut flowers, empty ashtrays, polished shoes, and ironed shirts.
He took his time in the morning, which he faithfully measured with his delicate Swiss watch. It was a silvery, rectangular Doxa, with a brown wristband, pale Roman numbers denoting the hours, and a sweep hand ticking each passing second.
“You should use multiple bands,” she quipped once, an insinuating smile on her lips. “To match the color of your socks.”
“Good morning to you, too,” he answered mildly, looking away, 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.
“You know,” she told him. “I really hate this watch, because every morning it takes you away from me.”
“But it also tells me when it’s time to come back.”
She knew that was true, and if nothing else, she loved her mornings because she had the day to look forward to the evenings with him.
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, and gave it to her — an official travel order for Ina Boldur and the Manoil family, and the train tickets. Six of them.
Her heart leaped. “You’re coming with us!”
“Sorry, Ina, I can’t.”
“Then why are there six tickets?” she asked, hope and incredulity still 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 didn’t want anybody to bother you in any way. Your family will have the entire compartment to yourselves, protected by armed soldiers, and you are allowed to take, each of you, a full trunk. Don’t ask me how I managed this, but I did it for you.”
“Miki,” she said.
That evening and the next day were spent in preparation. Shura was supposed to meet them at the railway station, but he never showed up.
Miki stepped with Ina onto the platform.
“Come with us,” she pleaded, feeling like a spring leaf in the wind.
The locomotive sent a puff of white steam into the evening air. Everywhere people pushed and yelled, and it smelled of desolation and soot.
Miki held her hands. “Don’t ask me,” he said.
“Why not? Nobody will miss you here. You just get on this train.”
“I’m tormented by demons that I cannot control, and I don’t want to become a noose around your neck.”
“Nonsense, Miki, I love you,” she said.
“I know what I’m doing,” he said, and took a slip of paper from his pocket. “This is my brother’s address. Florin is his name, and he’s an accountant, like me. He’s well connected, so if you needed anything, he said he could help. And he’ll know where I am.”
Ina took the paper. There was too much going on. Her separation from Miki felt like the deepest of wounds. It paralyzed her. Yet Florin’s address was a ray of hope, a continuity of sorts. Miki might not realize it now, but as long as they stayed in touch through his brother he might still change his mind. Perhaps he just wanted some space. Oddly, as she felt sad on so many levels, she was happy at the same time. She didn’t want to leave Kishinev not knowing if she’d ever return. As much as she had hesitated moving there decades ago, now the town was her own. Yet she knew she was doing the right thing, the prudent thing. And she was taking her family along. Saving them. Too bad Shura had failed to show up. He had to make his own decisions in life, and she didn’t want to interfere, but she felt sorry for her mother. Katia endured anguish that only a parent could experience and understand. A parent like Miki, and like herself. As a parent, Ina was elated at the thought of seeing Olga again, and being together. Olga, her daughter — it was also for Olga that she was doing all this. Leaving Miki behind, her heart drowning in pain. How amazing life was, and how things repeated themselves! There had been two men in her life, only two, and both had tried to push her aside, both had said no to her, for fear of burdening her. She had had the benefit of her youth the first time around, and she had won that battle, at least for a while. Now she possessed the knowhow, and she was determined to win this battle as well.
Miki took a step back. He undid his wristwatch and handed it to her. “Here,” he said. “To remind you of me, and keep track of your life.”
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