|September 2011 Fiction Anthology | Contents | Authors | echapbook.com|
Ursu leaned against the door jamb, terribly out of breath.
“Come in,” Sabina urged him. “Sit.” She motioned him to an overstuffed easy chair in the living-dining-study room. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, fine,” he said, reaching inside his briefcase for the jar he carried at all times, on his doctor’s advice. He opened it, took a swig, capped it carefully, and put it back in the briefcase.
“I could make you a cup of coffee, you know,” she said.
“I don’t want to bother you. Besides, I can’t wait that long. Dr. Reuter said to take a swallow whenever I feel out of breath. That damned elevator! You should be flattered. I wouldn’t walk up seven flights of stairs for anyone else.”
She looked at him. What age does to us, she thought. She remembered his rosebud of a mouth, lips tender and soft like petals. Now, in his fortieth year, his smile was no more than a line across his face.
“I’m not asking you for sacrifices,” she said.
“I know. I come to you as usual, the supplicant,” he said and bent over his briefcase again, this time to take out a sheaf of papers.
“Don’t let us start that again,” she said. “You’re paying me and taking a risk giving me the job. That puts me under an obligation.”
“Let’s not talk about it.” He waved his hand in the air as if to dismiss the matter.
They moved to the table and chairs situated directly under the ceiling lamp and serving as the dining area/study in the room. It was a large, spacious place with a high ceiling and generous windows, and Ursu liked coming here, even leaving Sabina aside, something he hadn’t been able to do for any extended period of his life.
As they read to each other, one in German and the other in Rumanian, proofreading and editing, they made small talk between pages, at the end of long paragraphs, timing their conversation to fit the interstices of the text.
“How’s Sandy?” Sabina asked.
“The eternal question, the eternal answer. The same.”
“But she’s not the same, Dodo,” Sabina reproached him.
“Not in size, certainly,” he sighed. “Not in her aspirations any more, either.” He sighed more deeply.
“Are you going to tell me, or do I have to interrogate you?”
“Are you sure you want to hear?”
“Oh, for godssake!”
Dodo could still drive her crazy after all these years. That one thing hadn’t changed with age. The same as when she’d first met him, at the Bucharest Jewish Federation Charity Ball, when she was sixteen and he twenty. She could recall everything about the ball, the candelabra, the exquisite tiny sandwiches, the syrups, the beauty contest. He had been the one delegated by the students to approach her. She had gone with a girl friend, feeling awkward about her shabby dress, the good one, her only. She would have so wanted to be among the young ladies who were either preparing for college or coming out of finishing school. Her academic career had been cut short by her father’s bankruptcy. She had managed, on her own, to prepare for the baccalaureate and pass it with high commendations from the examiners, who kindly asked her about her future plans, without knowing they were pouring salt in her wounds.
He came to her hesitantly, begged her to stand for Queen of the Liberal Arts students, so they could sell tickets and raise money for scholarships, for needy young men, naturally.
“We’re sure to make a lot of money if you stand for Queen,” Dodo said. At the time, his surname was Rapaport, but in the late thirties and early forties, when all the young men with unfortunate last names who hoped for professional careers changed them to something Rumanian, preserving out of sentimentality the first initial of their Jewish name, Dodo had broken with custom and romanized his name altogether, to Ursu—the bear. At the time, it didn’t fit, he so slim, pensive, byronic with his mane of curling black hair and his full lips and soulful eyes, but in time he’d grown into it.
“Will you stand for Queen?” Dodo had pleaded.
“I think you’re making a mistake,” Sabina told him. “There are lots of attractive girls who are much better dressed,” she added.
Dodo had looked at her, shaken his head, and laughed. Gently, he’d taken her elbow in his hand and led her to one of the many full-length mirrors on the walls around the dance floor.
“Look at yourself,” he commanded.
Sabina looked. She saw what she was always seeing—a pale, oval face with startlingly sad, large eyes. She shrugged and tried to move away from him.
“Don’t you see, all eyes are on you, you’re like an apparition, the return of Queen Esther,” he whispered, then turned beet red and disappeared. She didn’t see him the rest of the night.
That was Dodo, blowing hot and cold. About two years later, when her father’s fortunes had improved and he could at least pay her tuition for Normal School, she thought that Dodo and she had come to an understanding. But every time they came close to announcing their engagement, he’d pick a quarrel with her, usually about her family looking down on him.
“Why would anyone look down on you?” she’d ask.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t see the look in your aunt’s eyes when I told her my father’s name, and she recognized it!”
“Dodo, for one, I’m going with you, not your father, and, two, why would anyone look down on him? Just because he makes a living painting houses? Everybody says there’s nobody better in the business.”
“Sure, the business,” Dodo said. “And we know just what they mean by `business.’“
“Labor, unclean labor with one’s hands. Haven’t you lived long enough to have learned the prejudices of our people?”
“I guess not,” Sabina shrugged. “Besides,” she said, “my family’s socialist. I’ve never heard them talk that way about work.”
“Right,” Dodo would say darkly, and disappear for a couple of months.
When Sabina got her first teaching job in a small Moldavian town, Dodo made her promise to write and remain faithful to him, although he made it clear that he didn’t believe in her attachment. She wrote him letters full of the enthusiasms and disappointments of the young who are committed to their vocation. She wanted all her pupils to do well. She couldn’t believe her encouragement and example were not enough to lift everyone above mediocrity. She found it especially hard to deal with the adoration of the girls who remained below-average students. Dodo’s letters to her were dark with forebodings about her faithlessness. She became so unhappy when she received them that she decided to terminate the engagement. “We must stop torturing each other,” she wrote him, charitably, for her share in torturing him had been completely inadvertent. That was the end of that, Sabina had thought.
Larger events overtook them. Sabina was deported to a work camp in a distant province. Dodo went on with his journalistic career in Bucharest, always fearing discovery that he was a Jew, waiting along with the others to see whether they would be taken to the German lagers. Bucharest Jewry, if it could elude the indigenous Iron Guard, remained safe from Nazi deportation. Moldavian Jews died in droves during pogroms and, later, in labor camps. Most of the ones from Transylvania, who had been given over to the Hungarians and shared the fate of other Jews under the Nazis, never returned from the lagers in Poland and Austria and Germany.
Of course, after the war nothing was left of the Institute for Jewish Girls where Sabina had found her first job. She came back to Bucharest, to a family halved by the effects of terror on bodies no longer young. Her father was dead; her beloved aunt, who had taken responsibility for her when Sabina was just a baby and her mother died, also dead; three of her father’s brothers dead. But the people of her generation were alive, and their optimism about a change of government and its promise of equality gave her hope. She found work as a teacher in the new Translation Institute. She found a furnished room to rent. Out of her first month’s wages she had ordered herself a dress. She was just coming home from the last fitting at the dressmaker’s when she literally ran into Dodo as she turned a corner.
“My god,” he exclaimed, turning white. “You’re flesh and blood,” and he began weeping.
“What did you think,” Sabina laughed.
“I’ve so often thought of you, and thought you dead,” he moaned.
“Thanks a lot,” she laughed again.
“Oh, my dear, my dear,” he sobbed, holding her alternately against him and then at arm’s length, as if to convince himself that the body in his arms was one and the same with the person he had believed a ghost.
They made promises to see each other, soon, but they made no definite plans. After all, Dodo was now wearing a wedding band on his ring finger, Sabina noticed, and he knew she’d noticed.
They met again before Christmas in the narrow downhill street leading to St. Joseph’s, Bucharest’s main Catholic Church.
“Here we are, all the Jews left in the country, going to Mass,” Sabina said when she saw him. She was on the arm of a man Ursu recognized as the chief negotiator of the Film Industry’s Syndicate, which had been keeping journalists busy with its radical demands for improved working conditions for ushers and projectionists.
“Well,” he said, trying hard to enter into her playful mood, “if that’s the only place you can hear Handel, you can sup with the Catholic god.”
As they went into the church, Sabina introduced him to her companion. She asked whether he had time to walk with her after the performance since Andrei had to leave early to go to a meeting. Dodo agreed, with a constriction of the heart. They would be just friends from now on. When they came out, still dazed by the music in the acoustically perfect space of the cathedral, Sabina didn’t hesitate to open the painful subject.
“They tell me your wife bears a striking resemblance to me.”
“Yes,” he said. “When you can’t afford the original, you make do with a copy.”
“That’s a terrible thing to say.”
“She’s not what she appears to be.”
“Dodo, in fairness, which one of us is? And what, in that thick skull of yours, made you think you couldn’t have had the original?”
Dodo almost staggered. He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, in the dying light of the solstice afternoon, and turned to face Sabina.
“I could have had the original?”
“There was a time, yes,” Sabina smiled, trying to break through his solemnity. By god, he was a married man, a father yet. “As I recall, we were almost engaged.”
“You don’t know how this is going to embitter my life.”
“Dodo, you’re so melodramatic, as usual,” she tried to lighten things up.
“You think so, do you,” he said, then led her to a coffee shop where, because of the late hour and the season, they practically had the place to themselves.
Over coffee and pastry he told her his life’s sorrow, something he felt he’d brought on himself by marrying a woman for her looks. Gigi was beautiful. Unlike Sabina, she came of a lower-class Jewish family who regarded her marriage to a young journalist making a name for himself a stroke of good luck. They married during the war. They had a child shortly after the end of the war. Dodo confessed having been far more excited about the pregnancy than Gigi, who mostly worried about her figure. The birth had been difficult. Gigi had already been in labor for twenty-three hours when the doctors finally decided to use forceps. Without anesthesia, Gigi suffered such pains that after the birth her eyes and cheeks were blotched with broken capillaries. She looked as if the forceps had been used on her. The baby, on the other hand, was beautiful and, but for two tiny indentations by the temples, unmarked—or so they thought. As she grew, she seemed to develop normally. She was now a lovely four-year-old, with black hair and eyes the color of jade. But the doctors already warned the parents not to expect development above a five-year-old mentality.
“That’s nonsense,” Sabina exploded. “How can they possibly know? Why do you believe them?”
“My dear, my heart, listen to me. It’s like the students you wrote me about, those gay captivating letters that drove me to despair because, idiot that I was, they weren’t about me. There is nothing you can do to raise intelligence if the brain is damaged. Even if the brain isn’t, there’s only so much.”
“But is the brain damaged?” Sabina followed his lead in talking about the organ as if it were unattached, as if it didn’t live inside a little girl.
“Yes, beyond doubt. They say it wasn’t the forceps. It was the long labor. Either way, they’re responsible, but I’m the one who has to live with it.”
“Wait and see,” she soothed. “They don’t know everything. Besides, there are new discoveries in medicine every day, operations, all sorts of things. She’s still so young, something can be done.”
“You make me all the more unhappy,” Dodo said, tears welling in his eyes and steaming his glasses.
“Why, dear heart?”
“With you, I might have been able to keep a shred of hope, of light. But she doesn’t care. She wants no part of the child, she wants no more children with me. She blames me.”
“Dodo, you chose her. Don’t speak that way about her. It’s no good.”
“Yes, I see how it might look to you. I’m telling you the truth.”
Dodo had not exaggerated either his daughter’s disability or his wife’s moral deficiencies. When the child was eight, Gigi managed to escape from Rumania with a false passport and go to Israel, where she annulled in her own mind her former marriage and its defective product and proceeded to marry a wealthy older man with whom she had three unremarkable but normal children.
Over the years, Sabina and Dodo settled into the friendship of people who had known each other since youth and had seen each other through a multitude of troubles. Sabina’s own husband, Andrei, died in jail. He had been arrested and condemned to a life sentence for attempting to contact the Israeli embassy with evidence of the Communist government’s discrimination against Jews and Hungarians. Sabina could never be sure, since the details of his death, as well as his corpse, were never released, but she suspected that he might have died under torture. She, too, had had a daughter, who shocked Dodo with her quickness. He would look at Adele with such a mixture of longing and resentment that Sabina would subject the child to spells against the evil eye the moment Dodo left them. Dodo had found a second wife, Naomi, a woman ordinary in her looks but with the quiet, rock-solid ethics that made her give unstinting attention to a teenager who acted as a five-year-old.
The apartment door slammed so hard the windows rattled.
“Adele, is that you?” Sabina shouted.
“Yeah, it’s me,” Adele came into the room, dropped her schoolbag against the side of an armchair and sank into it, her legs dangling over one armrest, her head propped against the other.
“Hello, Adele,” Dodo said.
“Oh, hello, Ursu,” Adele replied, as if she’d just seen him.
“Your mother’s been showing me some of your essays,” he said. “They’re very accomplished.”
“Hmm,” Adele said.
“Let her go, Ursu. She’s in one of her moods. Probably something happened at school.” Sabina never called Dodo by his nickname in front of others.
“Yes, something happened at school,” Adele said excitedly, swinging her legs down and sitting forward in her chair. “Not that you’d care about me being humiliated in front of the whole class!”
“What happened,” Sabina said gently.
“Oh, nothing. Just that the witch made me look like a fool in front of everyone, including the inspector. AND, she was wrong, wrong, wrong, as usual.”
“You want to give me details, sweetie?” Sabina inquired.
“Look,” said Dodo, “I’m clearly in the way. I’ll go now so the two of you can talk.”
“Let me walk you out,” Sabina said, and the two of them headed for the door.
On the landing, they stood, Dodo hesitating.
“God, to see her so full of fire, so alive,” he sighed.
“It’s not all a bed of roses, you know,” Sabina smiled.
“Oh, don’t be hard on her. I know she can’t stomach me, but that’s because she must guess how much I would have liked . . .” He stopped. “You know,” he added, “my niece Yolanda is getting married. Sandy said to me, ‘Daddy, will I ever get married?’ And it’s useless to pretend otherwise—her body is the body of a woman, and she has desires, and the world is full of bastards ready to take advantage of her.”
Sabina took his hand in hers.
“Don’t worry so much. You need to take it easy, for her sake.”
“Don’t you think that thought haunts me? What will happen to her when Naomi and I die? What end will she come to, one of these beastly ‘institutions’? It’s enough to drive me mad!”
He’d told her of these fears so many times before. What was there to say? What reassurance?
“Go now, dear heart. Take one day at a time. Take it easy on the steps. Give me a ring when you get home.”
They kissed lightly, on the cheek. Ursu punched the button for the non-functioning elevator with his whole palm, gave Sabina a rueful smile, and began the descent. She stood looking after him, seeing his stooped back, his portly body, thinking of his poor damaged heart, of the jolt of caffeine the doctor had recommended to keep it beating.
Sabina slit the thin airmail envelope open, and it fell out. She so wished Zamfira would use the old custom of an envelope with a black border when she decided to bombard her with obituary confetti, newspaper clippings that she enclosed sometimes without reference to the death, as if obligated by a code of honor to inform her friend in Cleveland of the disappearance in Rumania of another of their mutual acquaintances. That way, Sabina could perhaps steel herself against bad news instead of anticipating with pleasure Zamfira’s gossipy letter and then find herself reeling from the sting of one more broken tie to the world she’d had to leave. She put her bifocals on.
“Dodo!” she exclaimed.
She couldn’t help but imagine his last moments of consciousness, his nightmare come true of the child left unprotected; Naomi had died a couple of years before.
“Dodo,” she sighed. “Only fifty-seven.”
“Mom,” Adele, who was visiting from Philadelphia, came in, slamming doors in her wake even at twenty-seven. “What is it? Mummy? Why are you crying?”
“This,” her mother showed her the little scrap.
“Oh, my. I’m sorry. I know how good a friend he was to you.”
“He always thought you didn’t like him.”
“I didn’t care one way or another about him. But when he started about how he knew I didn’t like him, I started resenting him.”
“Well, darling, it was complicated. He looked on you as the child he might have had.”
“Yeah, if he’d married you, I know,” Adele smiled. “But I’m glad you didn’t marry him. I hope you don’t mind, but I really did like my father better,” she gave a tentative little laugh, not wanting to seem callous about her mother’s grief.
“Yes,” Sabina sighed. “So did I.”
He should have left the office hours before. But the big hubbub about the misprint in the morning papers, the Security police coming to interrogate some and arrest people had left everything in an uproar, and he needed to see to it that the city edition was put to bed without mistakes of any kind. When he looked out the window, he was surprised at how dark it had gotten. It was evening, but still, in late spring . . . . Then when he tried to look at his watch, he couldn’t make out its face. He reached to switch on the desk lamp and felt the familiar vise grip of the angina. He bent over for his coffee jar, his eyes seeing only blackness before them, caught the jar in his hand and felt it slip, and then, for one long moment, he saw it roll away. He knew instantly what that meant, and in that brief illumination before the final dark he exulted in his freedom, his hard-earned freedom, from responsibility.
A year after Adele’s wedding Sabina was invited, insistently, by her closest cousin to come to Israel for the cousin’s daughter’s wedding. The family had not only come to Cleveland for Adele’s wedding but had been so attentive and generous that Sabina felt honor-bound to accept the invitation, despite the financial burden it placed on her, now that she was living on a teacher’s pension.
It was a large reception. Her cousin was a member of the press corps, and the affair was held in the garden of the Press Corps House in Tel Aviv. Another cousin, seated next to Adele at dinner, pointed to an attractive woman their age at the other end of the table.
“Do you have any idea who that is?” the cousin asked.
“Why? Should I?”
“Don’t you think she looks a lot like you?”
Sabina definitely did not think so. There was an unpleasant vagueness about the woman, despite her preserved looks.
“It’s not Dodo’s ex-wife, is it?”
“It certainly is,” the cousin said, triumphantly. “And she’s never owned up to her having been married before, and having had that unfortunate child, and never having bothered to get a legal divorce.”
Later, as the older people helped themselves to the desserts and mingled in the jasmine-scented garden while the young made off to the dance floor inside, Sabina noticed Gigi doing everything she could to stay away from her. She kept looking at Sabina from behind wedding guests, her eyes pleading. Sabina hadn’t thought of Sandy for some time. Now she wondered what Sandy’s life had come to after her stepmother’s and Dodo’s deaths in that god-forsaken country where even healthy babies were being warehoused in so-called orphanages. She looked at Gigi, dressed to kill, and pretended not to know who she was.
|© 2011, Anca Vlasopolos|