This excerpt form my novel in progress The Ultimate Patient describes moments in Tina’s life after her blind husband commits suicide, in Bucharest in 1954. Tina is one of the main characters in the novel. Lydia is her young daughter.
The days were the way the days were, and the nights turned into endless precipices, littered with questions she couldn’t answer. Had she been in denial? Had there been signs to which she had not paid enough attention, signs she had not seen at all? How do you stop a man who is ready to take his own life? What can you do? Should you? And now, that it had happened, what was her future? Did she deserve to aspire at life from now on? Did her feelings matter, and if so, who cared about them? Had she been broken even before they had met?
The questions fluttered in the dark like bats swarming under the eaves of a house. She couldn’t see them, but she could feel the air moving and her skin crawling with goose bumps.
Was there fear involved? Of course, there was; and sadness so deep that it ripped her soul.
There was an unexpected consolation in the thought that an irredeemable handicap had come to an end.
The worst question was the simplest of all. The worst question was, “Why?”
Tina rose each morning and went to work. There, Monday through Saturday, surrounded by people, she managed to stay alone. She wasn’t rude or unpleasant, she just didn’t make any effort to talk to anybody about anything. The people in the lab knew. They let her be. If they asked how she was, she simply said, “I’m all right.” She came, she performed her daily tasks with mechanical precision, and most often she hid her eyes in the tall necks of microscopes. Under their lenses she discovered the glowing worlds, magnified one thousand times, of bacteria — E. coli, Clostridium, Listeria, Salmonella, Staphylococcus, Bordetella pertussis and others like them. It was a quiet world of myriad luminescent shapes and random movement, predictable and somehow calming, protecting her from the reality of pain and remembrance. She identified, classified and measured, and then used long words of Latin origin and formulas to document her findings — culture after culture, and day after day.
She went to Party meetings and even there she kept to herself.
Then it was Sunday — Tina and Edith and little Lydia together and no place to hide. On Sundays they saw family — Bebe and Blima, Larissa and Simon, and their children as well. Family was a blessing most of the times.
She had told Lydia that her daddy had gone on a long trip. Lydia seemed to take it all right. In a sense, that was true. He was gone. He had left and would never come back. That last part Lydia didn’t know; better said, she didn’t know it yet.
The day of the funeral, Iulian’s parents, Eva and Avram, arrived from Timișoara. Oma had wanted to come as well, but she was too old to travel. Miriam flew in from Moscow, alone. Larissa and Bebe held Tina’s hand. Simon brought meat from the slaughterhouse, and Blima made matzo ball soup. Peter showed up with a bouquet of white roses, which, in the Jewish tradition, was a no-no. Comrade Marta paid Tina a visit and Comrade Cordelia sent a postcard. There was an obituary in a major Bucharest daily and a long and laudatory article in Scânteia, about Comrade Iulian Faur’s writing career, signed by fellow writer Alexandru Var.
The family had decided to have Iulian incinerated, and his urn placed in a niche at the crematorium. On the wall next to it, they mounted a black and white photograph in a small metal frame. There would be no religious ceremony to assuage their grief. Being Party members, they didn’t think of saying the Kaddish, sitting Shiva, or holding a minyan. A neighbor watched Lydia for the day. When she wasn’t around, they cried and hugged each other. Sooner or later Tina would have to tell Lydia that her father had died, but, for her peace of mind, the fact that he had committed suicide was to remain a secret forever.
Miriam departed first, then Eva and Avram. Bebe had to go back to work. People died and the world didn’t stop. Bucharest was an anthill with people running every which way. If you didn’t need to talk to them, you just kept going. This was fine during the day, but at night it was not.
At night, Tina asked herself why.
Given Iulian’s old love for Emma, women came to mind, but Tina knew better. A wife always does. Emma happened over ten years ago, and Iulian wouldn’t have ended his life over her. Nobody loved anybody that much.
People had whispered about Iulian and Comrade Cordelia, and the fact that Cordelia had left. Those rumors Tina had the dignity to ignore. The jealousy she had repressed while Iulian lived was dead now.
Tina had also heard that Iulian had been disillusioned with the newspaper, that he had felt his hopes and ideals betrayed by the Party and he had feared that his journalistic career had come to a premature end when his mentor, Ana Maria Macarie, was arrested.
Iulian didn’t need anybody’s protection. He was more than a leader of men. He was a writer, through and through. An artist. A poet. Blind as he was, he weaved words together better than all Party Central Committee members combined. And he had Tina and Lydia at home, two fragile beings he had never seen, yet loved so much. Tina would hold his hand, take dictation from him, type for him, spend sleepless nights to garner his genius and help him get his work out. He would radicalize socialist realism in literature forever, in the service of the Party. The Party had made some mistakes. Of course, it did. Show me any gathering of people that doesn’t, and I’ll call you a fool. But Iulian still trusted the Party, and so did Tina.
Iulian wrote beautiful love poems to her.
Then there was sickness. Some people claimed he had had epilepsy. Schizophrenia was the diagnosis, according to his doctor. He had experienced seizuresat home and in the office. Twice he had had them in the street. He had been moody, impulsive, depressed, overworked. He could destroy people with his words or place them on tall pedestals. He couldn’t sleep. When he did, he often had nightmares. He had lived in an ocean of darkness. If your world were dark like a bat in the night, wouldn’t you have nightmares, too?
They said he couldn’t take it anymore.
Tina was supposed to have been his light. She had been hired to help him breathe in his ocean; to lead his steps in the dark; to read to him. But she kissed him and set free the prince within him. Her grüner Frosch.The man. Instead of assisting him, she was relying on him and making demands. “Look at me,” she would ask. He couldn’t look at her. “Touch me, feel me, smell me. Love me. We have a daughter together. You are her father. Be there for us. We need you, till death does us part.” That did it. That was too much for Iulian.
Tina would never be whole again because she understood she was the answer to “Why?”
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