The Ultimate Patient
(Tina — Excerpt 5)
“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. Tina is one of four major characters in my novel. This excerpt provides the historical background to Tina’s youth, and continues the one I posted two weeks ago. The year is 1936. The place is Câmpulung, a small town near Cernăuți in Northern Romania, an area that was part of the Austro Hungarian Empire before WWI. Bronia and Rudolph (Rudy) are Tina’s parents; Larissa and Bebe are her siblings, and Stella Picker, the daughter of a wealthy lumber mill owner, is Tina’s childhood friend. The others are minor characters completing the tableau. Please let me know what you think.
The first time Tina set foot in Stella’s villa, her jaw dropped. On the main floor, off the foyer with the large staircase, there was a Damenzimmer– a ladies’ lounge — where Mrs. Picker entertained her friends, a music room, a cigar and billiards room, and a sunroom large enough to hold potted rubber trees, and miniature orange and lemon trees. Two maids served the afternoon tea. The bedrooms and the guest suite were on the upper floor. The master bathroom had a bidet.
It was rumored that at his lumber mill in Pojorâta, Mr. Picker employed sixty workers, three secretaries, several stable boys, two drivers, and twelve guards. A generous employer, they said.
When Larissa started looking for work after she finished high school, Mr. Picker hired her on the spot. He knew she had been an excellent student who had gone through an unpleasant experience a few days before her graduation exam. Her homeroom teacher, Mr. Luxor, a bachelor of dubious reputation, asked her to visit him at home to review some of the more challenging test materials. Larissa refused, and Mr. Luxor failed her, thus preventing her from ever getting her high school diploma. At the time, Tina was too young to understand, but now that she had turned twelve and started going to grown up parties, her intuition and newly honed senses helped her discern that sexual push-pull between people that was both repugnant and strangely appealing at the same time. They lived in a closely-knit provincial town, where everybody knew everybody, secrets were easily betrayed, and gossip traded as entertainment.
Predictably, Stella had her own ideas about Larissa’s misfortune. “A woman has to be ready to use all tools at her disposal to get what she needs, sex included. With a high school diploma in her pocket, Larissa would be having fun right now in college.”
And where would Larissa get the money for college, Tina thought, biting her tongue. She was surprised when a few days later, at a dinner party at the Pickers, Mr. Picker echoed his daughter’s opinion about a missed opportunity almost word for word. It was late spring and the windows and the French doors to the sunroom were open. Light was fading and the guests were finishing their second course.
“What a beautiful sight,” Mr. Horowitz said, pointing with his half empty glass of red wine at the blooming lemon trees in the sunroom, their pale, delicate flowers standing out like white tears over a deep green background. “It makes me dream of EretzIsrael.”
“Dreams are for free,” Mr. Picker said.
“Eretz Israel is the only place where the Jews can be truly free,” jumped in Bebe with youthful aplomb. He was 23. “Going to Palestine is our ultimate destiny.”
“How right you are!” Mr. Horowitz exclaimed.
Whatever Iboy was learning at the Heder had touched a sensitive cord in her father, Tina thought.
“My son,” Rudolph mumbled in manner that Tina interpreted as pride. His face took a pinkish hue. “It’s nice to be young. By the time you reach my age, you realize that dreaming is better left for the next generation.”
“Rudy, have you had too much to drink?” Bronia asked, distinct mellow irony in the tone of her voice.
Mr. Picker made a long face. “Time for a cigarette after dinner. Gentlemen, shall we move to the billiards room?”
“Not yet,” Mrs. Picker intervened. “We have dessert and coffee. And a chocolate liqueur for the daring.”
“Too much,” Mrs. Horowitz uttered.
“I can have my brandy in the billiards room,” Mr. Picker said, impatiently fishing his silver cigarette holder out of his pocket.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m getting old,” Rudolph continued his thoughts. “This summer I’ll be 58.”
“So what? I am 57,” Mr. Picker said.
“My knee bothers me almost every day,” Rudolph explained. His cane was resting against his chair, and he raised it in the air as if to impart material support to his statement.
“What happened to your knee?” Dr. Flor asked. He was visiting from Cernăuți and staying with the Pickers. Being seated farther away at the table, he had to lean forward to hear Rudolph speak.
“I’ve been shot in the war, and almost lost my life.” The contour of the crimson patches on Rudolph’s face took a definitive round shape. “We were in the deep woods of Bukovina, theUrwaldas we knew them, north of here, and the Russians closed in on us. The flowers were blooming in the forest just like about now, and a bullet pierced my knee, blood dripping onto the carpet of dead leaves on the ground.”
“How poetic,” Bronia said.
“Call it what you wish, dear, but I wasted two years fighting for the Emperor, and what did I get in return? The entire empire fell apart anyhow.”
“The war that ended all wars,” Mr. Picker said. He put the cigarette holder on the table.
“I guess you were lucky, Rudolph, because the Russians had a bigger fish to fry in their own backyard. The Soviet Revolution, you know?” Dr. Flor observed.
“I was born in Galicia, and I started my career in Vienna,” Rudolph said and looked around the table. Clearly, he wasn’t used to being the center of attention, nor was he directly answering Dr. Flor’s comment. “Yet after the war, I came to this town.Returnedis the better word, although I had never lived here before. I guess I saw opportunity here while I was recuperating from my wound at Dr. Flor’s hospital in Cernăuți. I sensed growth and development in this corner of the old empire, or maybe it was the magic of those beautiful trees in the forest where I was shot. Who knows?”
“Jews have always moved around looking for opportunities,” Mr. Horowitz said.
“The ship sunk and those who could swim, swam away,” Bebe quipped philosophically.
“Who knew we would become a part of Romania?” Rudolph said guessing the ship was the former empire. “I’m a citizen now, and I’m not sorry at all.”
“I got my lumber mill from my father who inherited it from his father,” Mr. Picker said. “This area has always been good to Jews.”
“Friends of mine settled in Timișoara, at the other end of Romania,” Dr. Flor said looking at Bebe with what seemed like a smile on his crooked lips. “I guess the swimmers believed that swimming less and remaining closer to Budapest and Central Europe was an advantage. Don’t you?”
“Central Europe is in turmoil,” Bebe said. “Hitler remilitarized Rhineland two months ago, and now, with the summer Olympics approaching, all eyes are on Germany. Nobody can deny that anti-Semitism is on the rise.”
“It will never touch us here,” Rudolph said.
“Such a sweetheart,” Bronia said.
“Zionism is the answer,” Mr. Horowitz said.
“We have a home and a situation here — a lot to lose. Zionism is for young people.” Rudolph raised his cane one more time. “We did what we needed to do.”
“Did we?” Bronia asked.
“I’m not a Zionist, that much you should know,” Bebe said looking at his parents. “I’m a Revisionist. I fight to pressure the British to revise the mandate for Palestine.”
“You and your friend Jabotinsky,” Dr. Flor said.
“Amen,” Bebe said.
“In life, you use all the tools at your disposal to grab what you need.” Mr. Picker said catching Tina’s attention to the fullest. “For you, and for the people you love.”
“I do experience frequent chest pains,” Rudolph said using the feeble tools at hisdisposal to grab the attention of his dinner companions a little longer, but without success. In fact, at that very same moment the doors to the kitchen flew open and the two maids dressed in white aprons and light blue bonnets brought in large platters with pastries, chocolates, honey drenched baklavas, and assorted cookies.
“Dessert is served,” Mrs. Picker announced.