Gorgeous morning in the awakened city, fresh new green, the angled rays of the sun glittering in spider webs, birds twittering, the fragrance of buds, grass drenched in dew, the air cool, bees hovering around blossoming branches, Sunday, the tolling of a distant bell… Spring in Chisinau!
It had been months since I was liberated from the labor camp in Northern Russia. Behind me were dozens of blood transfusions, dental tortures, and scary talks with a cardiologist. I had gotten my so-so bill of health and was waiting patiently for the Soviet Immigration Office to approve my visa. One day, as I was sipping coffee at a small table outside of a restaurant in downtown Chisinau, someone’s light hand touched my shoulder.
“What are you up to these days, colleague, what are you up to?”
The voice sounded unfamiliar, as well as the short laugh.
I turned around to see the man.
I didn’t recognize Professor Oliescu as he suddenly stood there in front of me. It wasn’t his voice, but his face; it wasn’t just pale—it was utterly different. All I knew was that I knew this face. Some of it could never be changed.
He must have noticed my confusion.
“Don’t you remember me?” he asked with the same short laugh. “Yes, they can do this to you—they and their newly invented millstones. But your camp wasn’t a vacation either, I’ve been told.”
I kept looking at his face, in silence. In reality, it was no longer a face, but two cheek-bones with thin skin over them, sticking out like miniature mountain peaks. The muscles formed an expression, an expression that reminded me of Professor Oliescu, but they were so weak that they couldn’t hold his laugh for a long time, that’s why his laugh was short and much too large; it distorted his face; it seemed huge in relation to his eyes, which were set far back in his skull.
“Professor!” I exclaimed, stopping myself from adding, I was told that you were dead! Instead, “Well, well, how the hell are you?”
“I’m great, my friend, I’m great,” he put up another short laugh. “It’s spring in Chisinau!”
I tried to make out why he kept on laughing. I knew him as a serious man, as Professor of Electromagnetics at the Chisinau State University, but every time he opened his mouth his face formed that uncanny expression of mirth. To ask seemed impossible.
“Yes, yes,” he laughed, “I’m better now. Those millstones roughed me up quite a bit, but I got lucky.”
He paused, and I had a chance to take another close look at him. Actually, he wasn’t laughing at all, any more than two cheek-bones with thin skin over them is laughing. I apologized for not recognizing him at first.
“You’re not alone, but I’ve gotten used to that.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, “I feel embarrassed.” I felt an impulse to leave, or to tell him about the conference, the real reason for my trip to Chisinau, but before I could speak, he began coughing suddenly and couldn’t stop, and when he finally did, I saw two bloody spots percolating through his handkerchief.
“Scary, isn’t it?” he said. “But it’s not as scary as a few other things I’m hiding under my clothes.”
“We all have our scars to show, I guess,” I said. “Some deeper than others.”
“Don’t we, buddy? Scars of the century, aren’t they?”
His skin seemed as if it could crack at any moment, like old leather or clay, and he had a belly that looked like a small party balloon suspended under his thin ribs. His eyes were the only thing unchanged since I last saw him, lovely, but sunken.
I glanced at my wristwatch.
“Why are you suddenly in such a hurry?” he asked with his short, deceptive laugh. “How about a drink for the occasion? I’m buying.”
He was a colleague of mine back in the old days at the university, I looked up to him and respected him more than any other professor in the country, but I really had no time for a drink.
“My dear professor,” I said because he was holding me by the arm, “I do have to go—my conference starts in less than an hour.”
“Then some other time, right?” he said, and I knew in that moment that this man was really already dead.
“Yes, I should like that,” I said paying for my coffee. “Whenever I’m in Chisinau again.”
“I hope you still remember my old apartment,” he said. “They gave it back to me, those imbeciles, so I can die under a roof—instead of a starry sky.”
Maybe it was a laugh, I thought while checking the street for a taxi. Maybe he kept laughing all the time because he was still alive, standing in front of me in downtown Chisinau, despite the rumors that he had contracted cancer of the stomach and died in the camp.
As luck would have it, a taxi stopped next to us and a young couple paid and got out. I occupied the back seat, lowered the window and said, “It was nice to see you alive and laughing—”
“We shall meet again, my friend!” he interrupted. “I have a lot to tell you, enough for a thick book, and I hope you’re still a good listener.”
“I’m always up for a good story, professor,” I said, “always up for a good story.”
I tried to distinguish the color of his eyes and couldn’t.
“In the meantime, call me,” he said stepping back from the taxi. “It is allowed now.”
I promised and gave the driver a sign to go.
Spring in Chisinau, always surprising, always beautiful!
We’re damaged goods, I thought cranking up the window and closing my eyes, but he was right, we survived, and it’s rubbish that we are dying; we’re just getting awfully tired and more often than not need bypasses, transplants, dentures and blood transfusions. And when none of that helps, when we run out of the last ounce of strength, we move aside. In silence.
© Lazar Trubman
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Lazar’s interview]