Sneaking into Dr. Zhivago.
My father, youngest of the seven, chose instead to buy land in a mountainside town in Bukovina, and, with his great legal mind, settled disputes between shepherds. What need had he for England? For America? One of his brothers is said to be a taxi driver. Another is said to be a gangster. But it hadn't been so long since it was possible for Jews to own land and this is what my father wished for. To own a bit of land.
In our town, my father was prominent, greatly respected, a big fish. So big that the chief of police tipped him off the night before the town's Jewish men were rounded up. He escaped, my stepmother absconding the same night to her parents' village, and I, at age twelve, drifted about our house without a single fact to relay to the Iron Guard when they came knocking. My brother, eight years my senior, was already in Vienna.
How have I digressed so far from my intended story so soon? Periodically, I led cruises on the Danube for prominent Party officials. After the purge of '56, I managed a nervous breakdown. My supervisor, a great admirer of my erudition (despite a lack of proper schooling since the age of twelve), granted me a new position. No longer would I shuffle paperwork at the Department of Cultural Affairs. I speak German with native fluency; it's my mother tongue. I know about literature, art, and architecture. I became a tour guide. Every two weeks, I showed East Germans stately Calea Victoria, painted monasteries, the splendor of the countryside, hearty peasants laboring in the fields. Demonstration farms. And every other two weeks, I took my countrymen to Budapest and Vienna.
Dr. Zhivago came to Europe in 1966. The Soviets banned it, and it would be a risk to see it, though so many of us read the novel. In fact, I'd picked up a pocket-sized copy in Vienna in '59, a cheap edition furtively pressed on me in a crowded hotel lobby. I was dying to see the film.
That winter in '66, I leaned on the river boat's railing, air biting my cheeks, contemplating Zhivago and Lara's hideout in the snow: murky blue light, dusk filtered through dark firs. And as suddenly as I was thinking of this romance, I thought of my cousin, a red-haired beauty. In fact, she won a beauty pageant. Miss Bucharest, 1938. A lover in the war gave her diamond earrings, which she stowed carefully--intimately. After the war, my father arranged her paperwork; in addition to making it possible for her to emigrate, he obliged her wish to become ten years younger. My cousins booked passage to Palestine. And when my red-haired cousin stepped off the boat in Tel Aviv, her diamond earrings bought a house.
If I might grant the People's Revolution one thing, it was the possibility to meet my husband, an orphan who fled a poor shtetl after the death of his rabbi father. As I said, if it hadn't been for the war, I would have been at the Sorbonne. We met in the Department of Cultural Affairs. I had given up my plans to join my cousins in Israel, as my father and stepmother felt firmly entrenched in their town. So I sought more permanent employment than the itinerant nannying I'd been doing while everything after the war shifted unsteadily.
My poor husband had less luck. He'd refused to change his surname, to erase his Jewishness as others elected to do, and during the purge, lost all chances of advancement. Even after his service to Communism, his imprisonment by the Iron Guard through the war. It didn't matter. (Perhaps, in the end, a name change wouldn't have mattered either. You couldn't erase your history, only profess a commitment to the Party cause, renounce religion. What is in your blood is in your blood.) I could only advocate so much for us. Humbly, he stayed in his miserable position. From Vienna, I brought him back good chocolates and ham.
His sweet, open heart drew him to me. His utter devotion. We married on our lunch break one spring day in 1947. His landlady fed us. A bowl of sour fish soup. Tomato salad. Good, fresh bread. She toasted us with plum brandy. White lilacs in a cut-glass vase sat on the table, their perfume melding with the scent of lemon, boiled vegetables, fatty carp. She gifted us a salt and pepper shaker. Then we went back to work.
(Once, as a small child, I attended a wedding on the Black Sea for the elder sister of my red-haired cousin. We danced the fox trot and ate cream tarts. My father was a tremendous dancer, waltzing with all the women. He had just married my stepmother the year before, a more modest affair before his friend, the town's judge. If I'd had a chance at a lavish wedding, I would have arranged for cream tarts.)
My husband prayed over candles every Friday night. I abstained, drawing the curtains and preparing dinner. Was it wrong of me to relinquish my role as woman of the house, in this regard? It only reminded me of my stepmother, who did her weekly duty with the candles, who every spring slaughtered a lamb and stuffed its lungs with bitter green herbs, who left me alone in my father's house, who, after the war, blubbered over his dalliances, as if his escape to the Ukraine without her that night before they took all the men had not already been the first major abandonment. Who sat with him every New Year's to listen to the Vienna Philharmonic on the radio, mopping her face and weeping.
The Danube cruises kept me alive inside. Escape! I must escape. This was the thought I tamped down each time the boat launched and churned with the river's current. By 1965, my poor brother, going blind, shriveling from a wasting disease and no longer able to practice medicine, lived in our second bedroom. My young son slept in the living room, my teenage daughter in the kitchen. When I travelled, the children took turns caring for him. His ex-wife, who'd gotten what she wanted from him--a child--divorced him at the first sign of illness and rocketed to the United States as soon as it became possible. But I'm getting ahead of myself. That was a bit later, in 1968. I mix up my dates. My trips to Vienna blur into a pleasant dream.
In the river wind, I felt my cheeks hollow. I had not been eating well. I let my wedding band slink off my finger into my purse.
A gentleman in my tour group sidled up to me at the railing. His dark hair slicked back. He was a robust man, broad-chested, handsome except for a nose that had at one time been broken. He breathed with some difficulty, but it didn't mar his comportment. He carried himself with the same vigor as my father: my father, who, still living on his land in Bukovina, still settling disputes between shepherds, hiked the Carpathians every weekend as if his life depended on it. Once, when I was eight, he took me up in the mountains and showed me a newborn bear whose young fur bristled with hoarfrost. It was wonder to me then, and a wonder to me now, that we weren't mauled by its mother. Hunters, perhaps, had already dealt with her. The oddity of a birth in winter, before the end of hibernation, also only struck me much later. A bad time to be born. Again, I digress!
The man on the boat offered me a cigarette and I anxiously obliged. He enjoyed my interpretations in Budapest, he said, and looked forward to what Vienna offered. He wore too much cologne. Without standing near, I could smell it on him. Burnt leather.
After an early dinner with the tour group in the hotel, I declined a glass of schnapps and retired to my modest room. I'd seen on a nearby theater marquee that Dr. Zhivago was playing that night. I knew the narrower streets to take, undetected. It was a kind of crime against the people. Remember, at that time, one needed permission even to own a typewriter. Though lately we were not so aligned with the Soviets, so this transgression was perhaps the kind of crime against the people we all were starting to get used to and maybe even enjoy. The thrill of the black market. I would savor the film, bring back treats for my family, and the urge to flee would settle until it was time to sail the Danube again.
Outside, the cinema's neon sign buzzed chemical pink. The hue transformed the neighboring shop's green and yellow striped awning. What must have been spritely in the daylight seemed sickly. A white car passed, slick and glamorous in the rosy electric light, and I felt an odd sense of relief. Inside, I sank into a velvet chair, anxious for the dark. Gilded cherubim blew wind into the vaulted ceiling, the plaster of which in, places, flaked.
"Is this seat taken?" I recognized the shoes first, discretely well-shod, in the way that Party favorites flaunted their privilege subtly, lest their decadence be known to the uninitiated, lest their rival favorites found such a display flagrant. It was the handsome man with slicked black hair and the broken nose. With too much burnt leather cologne. He spoke to me in German. His wry grin was joined by a twinkle of amusement at my surprise. Until now, he had only spoken Romanian.
"I see you had the same idea?" He remained standing until I invited him to join me. The theater darkened as I glanced about, wary of other surprises.
The overture of the film went on and on, too bright for me. I wanted to disappear into the impressionistic birch trees projected on the screen. But soon I fell into the story, aligning my memory of the novel with what unfolded before me now. How would the fleeting moments of light and wonder be depicted? Zhivago's desire to live. At the intermission, my companion excused himself. Part of me hoped he would not return; part of me feared he wouldn't. Back in the world of the film, sunshine broke through windows crackling with ice. Wolves howled in the snowy indigo forest.
Afterwards, we strolled boulevards imposed upon by tall stone buildings, some wide and gray, others narrow and tinged copper green. The sidewalk glittered. I am ashamed. I didn't think of my husband or brother or children once. I'd been enraptured by the film, and now I shimmered in an alternate universe. My red-haired cousin resurfaced in my mind. I elided dreamily into her life, one day a week allotted to beauty rest: massages, chamomile steams, fruit acid facials. Admirers loitered outside her well-appointed flat on Calea Victoria, ready with a cigarette or even ardently presenting flowers--forget-me-nots, gladiolas, violets.
Ovidiu, that was the man's name, asked if I'd join the tour group at a nightclub. They'd made plans over the glass of schnapps I'd declined. A festive bunch. I said I only knew the fox trot and he grinned again--a curious, vulpine grin. Without discussing it, we entered a Konditeroi for coffee and cognac and sachertorte. A rare treat. Ochre wallpaper and antique mahogany furniture lent the place a sense of warmth and security.
I mused on his name, after Ovid, famously exiled to Tomis on the Black Sea, now Constanza. The clatter of forks on fine porcelain, the clinking glasses of cordials and nighttime chatter, and the ambiance must have been what made him feel comfortable with me. For after we discussed the merits of the film and began to feel the effect of our drinks he said, "You won't see me tomorrow."
My cup, on its way to my lips, halted mid-air.
"I've arranged something else."
I knew what he meant. I set the coffee down steadily and dabbed at my mouth before speaking.
"Why are you telling me?"
I could have easily turned him in. As a tour guide, it was my implied duty.
"So you know. There's a way from here."
My cake lay untouched. I picked up my fork, hopeful, then set it down again.
"Not for me," I said, as tersely as possible. Did he know I had a family? Did he care?
There was enough of a din in the room that his murmured instructions didn't seem so utterly careless. Though it is true a hotel room would be the more likely place someone would be listening. A black car would arrive at four in the morning, on a corner not far from the hotel, and the car would drive through a porous border crossing into Italy. There was room for one more. Proper precautions had been taken, he assured.
Later, I learned of low-class men being hauled from the Danube, arrested and imprisoned for attempting defection. Or else drowned. But this man, on this night--his expression belied apprehension. He'd made it to Vienna with permission, with an air of sanctioned privilege. He clearly lived a comfortable life. Perhaps he'd sensed a change in the wind. There were people like that, who knew how to leap from stone to stone, without slipping, without breaking their neck.
I recalled a time during the war when I was temporarily an orphan at my cousins' home on the Black Sea. (The police chief of our town, pitying my abandoned state, gave me train fare to escape.) A strange man arrived. A loping vulpine quality similar to that of Ovidiu, though he was hardly well-dressed. This was several years after the wedding. He sat perched on an antique sofa in the parlor, a "wedding sofa" from Danzig, a gift from ever more distant relations who dealt in antique imports. The sofa was stuffed with kelp and sea-shells, an oddity that endlessly fascinated me as a girl, objects of a cold North Sea. I imagined Neptune himself selecting the aquamarine brocaded upholstery. The stuffing crunched beneath the stranger's stout body, which, upon reflection now, was far more awkward than Ovidiu's swagger. His dark hair slicked back too, but he seemed dirty and his head bowed, deferent. He fiddled a soft brown hat in his hands. My married cousin lifted an eyebrow at him, disapproving of anyone sitting on the sofa and certainly not this stranger. She asked the housekeeper why he was there. Now I think he too had sensed a change in the wind. He was eager to take advantage of something, but at my young age I didn't know what. My cousin's eyebrow showed me he was up to no good. The housekeeper, a rustic woman whose Ruthenian tongue garbled with Romanian and the Hochdeutsche of my family, said, "A good cheese in a dog's skin. You'll see."
And my cousin, mouth turned downward, gave him yard work almost as a charity, as a favor to her red-cheeked housekeeper. He yanked at overgrown morning glories sticky with sap and laid an elaborate meandering path of flagstones in the wild English-style garden--until we too were conscripted for heavy labor, moving rocks pointlessly from one pile to another. Luckily, and I know just how lucky we were, some other wealthy relative fetched us out a few months later, and we spent the remainder of the war living quietly, discreetly, by the sea.
Now Ovidiu sensed my reluctance, my duty-bound life.
"I'm sending for my wife when I am able. You could do the same. Even now. It is possible."
"Romance has infected your mind," I said, tentatively, thinking of the film's sentimental transgressions. But the idea excited me. I tempered my eyebrows. This is nothing, I assured myself. A bizarre, ephemera] flirtation.
Oh, he did something with his eyes, a gaze that revealed gold flecks sprouting from hazel irises, a gaze that threatened to drill open my brain and expose my true thoughts. It sucked the air from my lungs. I demurred into my lukewarm coffee.
Outside, in the falling snow, he reiterated the intersection and time at a murmur, a passing tram clanging over his words. A yellow car turned a corner, unbearably bright. I considered the force of the tram, the speed of the car. In the fresh air, his cologne seemed less oppressive, even welcoming. In our tete-a-tete it had grown familiar. He kissed my hand (I almost expected him to click his heels), and we bid each other goodnight in German.
In the hotel room I rummaged through my things: my well-ordered valise, my dove gray suit pressed for the morning, hanging on the closet door. Out my window, snow fell on an internal courtyard, catching the incandescent light of rooms not yet darkened. Thoughtlessly, I began packing, starting with my toiletries and ending with my finest white blouse, on which I always affixed the Party pin, gleaming copper and red. I lay down for a few hours in the dark, thinking of my beauty queen cousin, what little I knew of her current life in Tel Aviv, except that now she was on her third husband and still childless. I remembered her sister, imperious in the house in Constanza, wary of the strange gardener in her midst. Her rose-honey perfume had a settled quality about it, as if she were crystallizing in a hive. But her red-haired sister kept a bottle of crepe-de-chin on her vanity, another gift from another lover, and I would steal into her room after she emerged from her restorative naps, and there would be cloud of scent like running off into a cool dark wood. Now I pictured her eating Jaffa oranges by the Dead Sea.
It was still dark when I woke at half past three. I washed my face in the room's tiny sink and dressed again. I locked my valise, grasped the door knob. A metallic scent rose from it with the dampness of my palms, as if I were in the gears of a machine.
I set my valise down again. Carefully, so as not to wrinkle my pressed suit, I lay back down on the made bed, until the sun announced itself anemically. I sat up, recoiled my chignon, and put on my face.
In the hotel breakfast room, eating thick brown bread spread with good butter and plum jam, Ovidiu's vulpine smile metamorphosed into something feline: the officious, faintly dubious smile of a diplomat.
I halted in the doorway, lungs tight. My expression remained firmly under my control: placid. Simply, I nodded, offered the vague smile of La Jaconde and glided to the buffet, spine erect as ever. Had his plan failed? Had he changed his mind? Had my decision thwarted him somehow?
I sat in the chair across from him, laying out my bread and cheese with care before lifting my gaze to him. How I managed not to blush at his sharp hazel eyes remains a mystery. Decades later, I still feel shock at the thought of them.
He offered the carafe. His shirt absurdly crisp and white. His tie adorned with a gleaming pin. This was my chance to refuse him something.
The steaming liquid poured into my cup. A single drop splashed onto my saucer. His well-manicured finger swabbed it out, and he wiped his finger on a white cloth napkin. My head and stomach suddenly grew heavy with nausea.
It occurred to me, as he gallantly helped me up the gangway on our return cruise, I had passed some sort of test. Subtly, I shrugged away from him. He was getting too close and the others in the group might gossip. Insinuations of affairs were a surefire way to stir the pot. The standard edition of Pandora's Box. Rumors could grow unwieldy. I needed to show them my refusal without making a scene.
At the port side of the vessel, I stood waiting for Vienna to recede. He sidled up to me. Little knots formed in my wrists as I grasped the rail.
"A very good tour," he said, head inclined, as the boat's motor shuddered into action. "I should like to go on any trip you lead."
"I'm afraid this is the only one I lead abroad." The green water frothed. "You may already be familiar with all the sites on the domestic tour. In any case it is not for our citizens, as you know."
I'd hoped for a deadening of his eyes, but his amusement persisted and so I excused myself.
Inside my cabin, I brushed the elbow of my suit jacket, where he had touched me, as if it were tainted by his manicured fingers. As if his cigarette burnt a hole in it.
But the thought of hiding inside my prison cell of a cabin pushed me back out again. Ovidiu, thankfully, concerted his efforts on other travelers. Cracked walnuts as he chatted, husks discarded in ash trays.
"Your face is frozen," my husband said. His smooth cheeks smelled of shaving cream. His warm hands clasped my ringing ears. My daughter carried my valise into the bedroom. My son threw his hands around my waist and squeezed, face pressed to my abdomen.
My brother, in an armchair by the window, said, "I'm sure you'd like to lay down before lunch?" I touched the top of my son's head and nodded, then remembered to voice my assent.
"Those people keep me up all hours in the night."
Before my nap, I heated water for a compress and inspected the cupboard. The butter was on the verge of turning (I always had a nose for just-rancid butter). I threw it out.
In the dim bedroom I shut the door and lay down. My eyes sank beneath the hot damp towel. My lungs relaxed.
Later, I unwrapped our treasures from a waxed paper bundle that had in turn been wrapped in an old undershirt of my husband's: well-cured meat; chocolate-marzipan confections in gold-foil; a miniature hedgehog figurine for my brother, something with texture and charm to worry with his fingers as his vision wanes; a volume of Dumas for my husband and Asimov for my son; and a silky red scarf for my daughter, something a bit more feminine for when she'd outgrow the kerchief of the Pioneer.
"Mama, have some ham," my dutiful daughter said at the lunch table.
In my absence, my daughter had grown motherly.
"Enjoy it, iubita. I ate plenty of rich food in Vienna."
My daughter delicately distributed slices of meat to her fragile uncle and to her beaming father and to her growing brother, who immediately gobbled his share. Hesitantly, she took the last slice for herself.