The World Around Her
From A Family Album: https://alexduvan.medium.com/a-family-album-40829e212764
Among Lydia’s high school classmates was a young man by the name of Marcus Diaconu. He was tall and broad shouldered and spoke with authority and a disarming sense of superiority, whether to a teacher in class or to his friends in the hallways or in the street. He exuded invincibility. At sixteen he looked like a twenty-year-old and behaved accordingly. His facial features matched his appearance: a straight nose like the ones on old Roman coins, voluptuous lips, brown eyes, and a tall forehead under a mane of brown hair combed backwards. He held his head straight and looked at you with determination.
As much as Lydia was interested in him, she felt intimidated by him as well. And she was falling in love with him without knowing it.
She learned that Marcus had applied to the liberal arts track in school because he wanted to be a painter. He worked on large canvases in the Renaissance style of Raphael and Leonardo Da Vinci, and he showed them at school exhibits to his colleagues’ and teachers’ admiration. They all said he was a very good artist, but he was very good in every subject. His freshman year physics teacher, a person feared for his exigence and high standards, had objected to Marcus’s choice of programs. He wanted to keep the young man under his tutelage and develop his obvious aptitude for the sciences. Marcus dismissed his physics teacher’s pleadings, and, in his sophomore year, he won first place at the National Olympiad for Language and Literature.
Marcus resembled her deceased father, a writer, Lydia thought, in his creativity and passion. She would have wanted to tell Marcus that he reminded her of her dad, but that wasn’t a subject easy to breach, and she didn’t know how to approach him, or how to catch his attention. She wasn’t the only one admiring Marcus: boys and girls followed him everywhere.
While in school, they were all required to wear uniforms. The boys wore navy blue pants and jackets, white shirts, and grey ties; the girls wore knee-length navy-blue pinafore dresses over white blouses. The cheap fabric creased in the front and acquired shiny patches in the back. Fashionable, knee-high stockings were forbidden, as were long nails, polished nails, coiffed hair, jewelry, or makeup.
Marcus’s uniform was custom tailored out of a soft blue wool cloth he claimed had been imported from England.
With his yellowed shirt collar open and his tie hanging loose, Nick Lungu competed for attention with Marcus. They were equally tall, but Nick was lankier, less intense, less articulate, and more sensitive. Or at least he pretended to be. A mediocre student, he made a long face when receiving a bad grade, as if to suggest he had been misunderstood, as if it wasn’t his fault that he didn’t know the correct or the complete answer and the teacher was picking on him for no reason. His bright blue eyes would grow darker, his eyelashes would bat rapidly, his skin would lose color and he seemed on the verge of tears. Everyone understood his desire — indeed, determination — to become a drama actor. He auditioned for the most prominent roles in school plays and walked among his fellow classmates with the airs of a professional actor. He was handsome, with long dark hair combed sideways and a narrow face with red lips, round chin, and regular features. Girls loved him and clung to him at least as much as they loved and clung to Marcus, him being more down to earth and accessible.
When he came to school wearing American blue jeans under his uniform jacket, the principal sent him home for the day demanding that he comply with the dress code. “And get a haircut while you’re at it,” the principal requested. “They pretend not to see Marcus in his fancy British uniform, because his dad is a doctor,” Nick said to Lydia under his breath as if he had been singled out and discriminated against, yet happy at the opportunity of a free day in the city. “And what is wrong with my hair?” It was the late sixties, the Beatles had conquered the world, and long hair was fashionable. Nick’s mother, who was known to spoil him, tried to come to the rescue. She argued with the principal unsuccessfully and walked around the school speaking to anyone willing to listen. “What’s with these stupid rules and why should a sensitive soul like my son have to repress his outbursts of individuality?”
Nick Lungu was shallow, Lydia thought as she leafed through colorful fashion magazines from France and Germany. Together with Carmen and Nick, she went to see Natalie Wood starring in Splendor in the Grass. She saw The Last Adventure with Alain Delon, and later A Man and a Woman, with Anouk Aimée and Jean-Louis Trintignant. The way the people in the magazines and these movies looked, lived, loved, sang, and danced was appealing. It was different.
Lydia’s family received letters and parcels from people who had left Romania and now lived in different western countries. Her mother’s friends, Dora and Zoltan wrote from Rio de Janeiro. Lydia’s aunt sent chocolate from Basel, Switzerland. Their relatives from Israel, Miriam, Larissa, and Simon wrote regularly. The letters were a window on another world, their paper thin, crisp, and fragrant.
Opening the gift boxes was a family affair. They eagerly gathered around the dining room table and Lydia took the items out of the cardboard box one by one and handed them gracefully to the intended recipients. There were precious nylon stockings, soft underwear, beautiful blouses, shawls, cashmere sweaters, bracelets, silk ties, chewing gum, Lindt chocolates, and fashion magazines. Lydia adored Swiss chocolate. She liked the buttery smell and the fine silvery wrapping and how it melted between her fingers even before she placed the smooth chocolate in her mouth.
Lydia dressed well, albeit modestly. She had a nice figure and straight, shapely legs and outside school, she liked to wear miniskirts and nylon stockings or tight-fitting pants and happily displaying her new blouses and matching earrings from abroad.
Letters and packages also came from Dante, the boy Lydia had befriended in elementary school. He wrote first from Rome and then from New York. His family had emigrated to Italy, and later they moved to the United States. His letters were typed with an electric typewriter. He included colored pictures of himself, his straight blond hair combed over his ears. The boys in Lydia’s school would be jealous if they saw that hair. Dante wrote to her about his life in Queens and about becoming a taxi driver at 17, to earn some pocket money. He wrote to her about Peter, his new American friend and classmate, and the electric car they built together and their trip to California. Lydia had to look on a map to comprehend the extent of that journey.
In one parcel from Dante were several pairs of lacey, white knee-high socks, and she wore a pair to school. The principal suspended her for the day. Her friend, Carmen, was suspended as well because her jumper was too short. They spend the day at the school library doing homework and trying to forget how demeaning the school rules were. Afterwards they stopped at a small coffee shop. Carmen’s father had worked as a cultural attaché at the Romanian Embassy in Rome and Carmen had spent two years in that miraculous city. She told Lydia about the art she had seen, the churches and the monuments. Lydia mentioned her letters from Dante. Carmen was in love with Doru, a young man in their class, who, in turn, was in love with Liana. Lydia noticed that the romantic entanglements of her schoolmates were more convoluted and involved than in a Shakespearean comedy.
In tenth grade, Lydia started going to tea soirées, parties which were held in young peoples’ apartments when the parents were not at home. Music was loud and smoke billowed. Everyone smoked. They listened to French and American music and danced. They kissed. They necked.
The decree against abortions had been issued a full year earlier, in 1966. There was no birth control. Women died from back-alley abortions. Doctors and nurses went to jail.
With young men and women of school age the rules were simple: nothing below the waist.
One night Nick kissed Lydia. She didn’t think too much about it. Another night another boy kissed her.
Marcus did not come to these parties. He lived in a different universe. Lydia decided to overcome her perennial shyness: she found out where he lived and was determined to wait for him in the street and talk to him when he came out of his apartment building. She asked Carmen to join her. The first time they waited a full hour, and he didn’t show; the second time, when Lydia saw him, her legs started to shake, and the girls ran away. It was on the third attempt that Lydia stepped into Marcus’s path. They walked together to the street corner, talked for a few minutes, and parted.
Her face flushed, Lydia rejoined Carmen. “He agreed,” she said. “First, he said he didn’t want to date me because we go to the same school, but I told him I love artists. I told him I’m ready to sleep with him, and he nodded.”
Carmen’s mouth dropped open. “You didn’t.”
Marcus took Lydia to a friend’s empty apartment. They kissed and they touched each other. His body was rock solid. He started undressing her and impatiently tore off the nylon stockings she wore in an attempt to look sophisticated.
When he reached for her underwear, she stopped him.
He looked up. “I thought that’s what you wanted.”
“I’ve never done it before. What if I get pregnant?”
“That’s not my problem,” he said and looked down at his briefs stretched by his erection. “But if you’re still a child and all you want are half measures, then date Nick Lungu. Don’t waste my time. He is an artist, too.” He uttered the word artist full of disdain and cracked his knuckles. His fingers were stained with blue and red paint.
Lydia said no again.
He got dressed and silently left the apartment.
In school, he treated her as if they had never met, as if she didn’t exist. She hated his attitude. She understood and she didn’t. She watched Marcus strut around in class and in the hallway, and yes, sometimes her body reacted despite her mind. There was arousal and tingling. She felt the vague desire to surrender. Yet her mind was always there, a barrier. She avoided imagining what could have happened. In fact, even kissing had proven mechanical, perhaps because of her inexperience. There was tenderness and excitement, the hot breath in her face, the cigarette smell, the wet lips, and saliva. One day, with the right man, she would have real sex, but her time wasn’t now. There was so much more in the world that she had to discover. She loved the summers at the beach, with the sun and the water. She loved the mountains. An acquaintance lent her a forbidden copy of Doctor Zhivago in French, for 48 hours. She rushed through the almost 600 pages, touched forever by the story of Yuri and Lara. She enjoyed her older cousin Galina and her husband Ghiță’s disarming banter about buying this and that for their new apartment. Her stepfather took her to his darkroom and taught her the basics of developing film and photos.
Most of her friends dreamed about leaving the country. They spoke about Paris and London, about the Sorbonne and Heidelberg. New York was a magnet.
Lydia didn’t know what she wanted. She didn’t know what life had in store for her or for any of the people around her.
She didn’t know that the Soviets would invade Czechoslovakia the summer before her senior year and that she, on her stepfather’s advice, would stay home surrounded by books rather than respond to the call of the voluntary Patriotic Guards taking shape all over the country.
She had no idea that one year later, Marcus Diaconu would be admitted to the Romanian School of Fine Arts, become a well-known painter, defect to Switzerland, gain international fame, and dye of cirrhosis of the liver at age 39.
She didn’t know that Nick Lungu would follow the Bucharest Drama School, act in a number of commercially successful Romanian movies for which he would acquire the reputation of a Romanian Alain Delon, sleep with countless women, marry and divorce two of them and die in a Bucharest slum with an empty gin bottle in his hand.
Carmen would never succeed in stealing Doru from Liana, never marry, and, after studying Art History, would end up working for a meager income as a specialist in Greek and Italian Arts at the Institute of Cultural Studies.
Dante would receive a Master’s in Electrical Engineering, meet an Italian American woman one inch taller than him through a dating service, and start a family with her in Danbury, Connecticut.
As for Lydia herself, the wide and beautiful world around her would become her playground, without artists, but with plenty of love, chocolates, and nylon stockings.