By Tudor Alexander
Published by Xlibris Corporation
November 2000; 0-7388-3709-1; 183 pages
We were young then. Passing out and taking chances was what we did.
People were nice to us and although in Manhattan, instead of helping, they stepped cautiously away from Lydia's slender body stretched on the floor, I didn't think they were less caring than the people in Greece. In Manhattan, it was the liability that frightened them. In Greece, where common sense was stronger than the fear of liability, the nurse at the medical center placed my head in her statuesque lap and slapped me.
She must have felt guilty, I thought. After all, I had warned her I couldn't stand the sight of blood, especially my own. But she just brushed me off. Lydia had brushed me off as well, although she knew better, and so did our two friends, Hadassah and Michael, who just happened to be there with us. They were there because they had nothing better to do. Like us, they were political refugees from Romania, caught between two opposing worlds.
Romania was Communist at the time.
The nurse was about our age, perhaps three or four years older, maybe thirty or so. She was a large-sized woman with long dark hair and dark eyes, dressed in a white gown that was too short and too tight on her. When I saw her coming towards me with the syringe, I gasped and took a few steps backwards. Without realizing, I slammed my body down onto a flimsy folding chair that happened to be in the area. Next to it stood a comfortable leather sofa.
"Let me sit on the sofa," I asked the nurse.
I guess she didn't speak English well enough, or thought I was trying to be cute. The metal sides of the chair pressed into my ribs. The nurse tied a rubber band around my left arm and before I had a chance to say anything, she pricked me with the needle. For a few seconds, I watched my blood filling the plastic syringe, but soon the world started to spin and I blanked out. When I opened my eyes again, I was lying on the comfortable sofa, with my head in her lap. The folding chair was overturned. Kneeling next to me, Lydia squeezed a wet handkerchief. Droplets ran out of it like small tears.
Hadassah and Michael stood perfectly still.
"You fainted," Lydia said somewhat perplexed and touched my forehead with the handkerchief. "As tall as you are, you simply tumbled out of that chair."
She straightened my hair with her fingers. Her touch burned my skin. I wished I could stay there forever, halfway between dream and reality, her face close to mine, watching me with worried eyes.
Gradually, I forced myself into a sitting position. My mouth was dry and my eyes stung. I wasn't feeling well, but wanted to act normally, for Lydia's sake. I felt ashamed and terrified. I feared the nurse would ask me for more blood, but luckily she didn't. Somehow, she must have saved the syringe when I went down to the floor.
Later, I asked Michael to walk with me to the bathroom to wash up. He looked at me with a funny smile.
"Too bad you didn't see the nurse slapping you," he said in Romanian. "She did it like a real pro."
on him. What else could he have said to me? Nothing.
"Michael," I said in a strangled voice. "Michael, is this you? What are you doing here?"
Startled, he turned and looked at me as if through a haze. Slowly, his blue eyes cleared and a smile appeared on his face. We hugged.
"Nicki, I didn't expect to find you here, my God!"
"Neither did I. Tell me, when did you arrive?"
"Four days ago."
"That explains why I haven't seen you before."
I told him we had been there for almost five months. I suggested we meet in the afternoon and go out.
"Wait one second," he said.
He flicked his cigarette out and went inside. He returned accompanied by his wife, Hadassah, a petite woman with glasses. She seemed nervous, afraid. When she shook my hand, she looked the other way.
"So the Catholics are helping you," I led on.
"We don't know," Michael said in a low voice. "We are not sure if our religions matter."
"They don't. The money comes from the States and the Catholics help everybody. Look at us. Lydia is Jewish, I am Greek Orthodox and they are helping us."
Hadassah glanced at me. Michael placed a finger over his lips signaling me not to speak too loudly. He was right. One could never be too careful.
"We arrived here from Israel," I said. "We managed to go there thanks to Lydia, and then left because I wasn't Jewish. We left in search of so-called religious freedom, you see. In Greece, the Catholics took over and told us what to do."
Michael lit a cigarette.
"We came through Israel also."
"I'm not surprised. Most Romanians and Russians come that way. Very few get here by defecting. There are also a few Asians around, but we have little to do with them. We are all following the same program, you see."
They looked at me curiously. Hadassah seemed to relax a bit. They didn't have to be afraid of me. I had the information they needed, and was happy to share it with them. I felt like I was there to protect them.
"It's simple," I said. "The 'third country program.' You see, you wait in a neutral country, 'the third.' For us, it is Greece. They let us wait here until our visas for the country we want to go to are ready."
"Canada," said Hadassah and smiled.
"Canada," I repeated. "Or the United States, for Lydia and me. Or Australia, or New Zealand. And as long as we wait, the organization gives us some money and the Americans, or the Canadians, check us out. That means they get in touch with the Romanians and verify our past."
"But I don't want the Romanians to know of this," Michael said. "I still have family over there."
"You should have thought of it earlier," I said, taken aback by his naiveté. "It doesn't matter what you want at this point. We too have families over there. Usually nothing happens to them. We are not that important, you see."
"Can they turn us down?" Hadassah asked.
"Who? The Americans or the Canadians? Sure they can. Although that's why it is called a program, because in theory, as long as you are a political refugee, they let you in. It's an agreement between countries, you see? But you have to be a refugee. And you better not be a former Communist, or a spy, or a homosexual, or suffer from syphilis, or the like. When the papers are ready, they send you for a medical exam, and then they invite you to the embassy for an interview. If the interview goes well, you get your visa and the work permit, which is very important, as you know. Plus, you also get your airline tickets."
"But if they turn you down," said Hadassah. "What then?"
She was very scared, it was obvious to me. She had been in Athens for only four days and already felt like that. How should we feel, I thought, Lydia and I, after having waited there for all those months, without any results so far?
Frustrated, I drew a circle on the dusty sidewalk with the tip of my shoe.
"What do you do if they reject you?" I said. "I have no idea."
A man came out of the building and called my number in English. We agreed to meet in the evening and I went in. When I came out again, they were gone.
We lived in a hotel nearby. Many were sent to a refugee camp in Lavrion, but we had been lucky so far. At least, in Athens, we could walk in the streets and watch the crowds, we could go to museums, to the Acropolis, or to the American Cultural Center and borrow books and see movies. Otherwise, waiting for months and sometimes years without anything to do and especially without knowing what to expect, could get to you. Lydia, for instance, who otherwise was brave and resilient, took to crying. And she wouldn't just cry occasionally, but a little bit every day.
"Guess who I ran into today?" I yelled as soon as I entered the hotel room.
She had no way of guessing, but I wanted to try and cheer her up a little.
"I have no idea," she said.
I stopped in front of the table where she sat. She was in her nightgown and slippers. In her hand she held a book she was obviously not reading.
"Of course you don't," I said. "But try to guess, anyway."
Lydia turned a long face towards me. My heart ached. She was as beautiful as ever, but totally absent and lost. While I was out, she could have gotten dressed a thousand times.
"I ran into Michael," I said acting as happily as I could. "Do you remember him, my friend from the swim team? He was at the office, with his wife, you know."
"They were?" Lydia said. "I pity them."
I didn't let her spoil my enthusiasm.
"Do you know what the greatest surprise is? Tonight, we are taking them out to a restaurant."
"Where will you get the money?" she asked.
"I don't know. We'll find some, especially since I invited them already."
"You did? Nicki, how could you?"
She placed the book on the table and leaned in my direction. Her breasts became visible through the nightgown.
"I thought we'd take some from uncle Sasha's."
"That is our emergency money. Didn't we decide that?"
She was right. Uncle Sasha, my maternal grandfather's younger brother, lived in Paris. When we came to Athens, he sent us a gift of five hundred dollars. We did not tell anybody at the USCC and hid them in my leather money belt. 'For emergencies only,' we decided at the time.
"Scat," I said as if she were a cat. "Our friends are an emergency, aren't they?"
"We don't have any friends over here," she said.
Her lower lip started to tremble.
"Why not? Look, we have these two."
Her eyes turned moist and velvety. Her cheeks fell in like the sunken faces of saints painted in the nearby Byzantine churches.
"I miss my mother," she said.
"I miss mine too."
"But I also miss my father, my baby sister, my aunt Mary, my friends, my neighbors Ina, Lucien, and Johnny, my street, my room, my dolls, my books, and my cat, Igor."
I could enumerate my side of the family, but there was no purpose to it. Lydia's longing was sufficient to me. I took her into my arms. If she couldn't be stronger, I would stand strong next to her.
"It will be okay," I said. "We'll settle down, just wait until we get to America."
"Will they give us the visas?"
"They will. Just be patient a little longer."
"You know, when we get to America I want to have children. I don't want to wait any longer. I want lots of children, a large family there, for you and for me."
"Sure," I mumbled. "Wouldn't this be a little too soon?"
"No, no," she said vehemently and her tears wet my shirt.
Holding her in my arms I thought about the families we had left behind in Bucharest. I thought about children. Men were different from women, I thought. Men felt the pain too, but only the immediate one. Men felt only the now. At least I did. Unlike Lydia, I did not possess that duty of continuity, of uniting the past with the future, that children, I guessed, were all about. If you asked me, children were okay but not at any expense and certainly not right now, while crossing countries and political systems; and the lack of children could not be the essence of Lydia's unhappiness, but only a symptom of it. If she cried on my shoulder, I knew she was relying on me. I knew we were together, and as long as we stayed that way, even in difficult times, things were all right.
In the evening we met with Hadassah and Michael, and went to Placa. The streets were packed with tourists. Small restaurants were spread among streetlights and ruins. Inside a restaurant garden we saw tables arranged in a horseshoe. Surrounded by guests, a young woman dressed in a wedding gown sat in the middle.
"It's a wedding," cried Lydia. "Let's take a look!"
Getting together with Hadassah and Michael did her good. She seemed to be in a better mood and her face was flushed. It seemed like she had forgotten her worries a little.
We followed Lydia to a makeshift platform, used as a dance floor. Music was flowing towards us in powerful waves. On the platform, several men moved in a single file. A heavy-set man with a microphone appeared in front of them.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he yelled and the mike cracked.
The people in the street started clapping.
"Favorite dance follow," continued the man in broken English. "The butcher's dance, Hasipiko. A dance of hope, of triumph over difficulty."
A mellow rhythm reached us, as the men on the podium rearranged themselves and grabbed each other by the shoulder. They stepped sideways, in a slow and wavy motion. When they reached the end of the platform they changed direction. They stayed in step with the music. Somebody turned on a bunch of floodlights, and a powerful light fell on the dance floor, on the tables in the yard, and on the spectators. Gradually, the rhythm picked up. The movement of the dancers became faster, each of them lifting one foot over the other.
"It's Syrtaki," exclaimed Lydia and got all excited. She caught my hand and pulled it. "Like in 'Zorba The Greek.' Michael, Hadassah, have you ever seen anything like this?"
Lydia's hand jolted in mine, in tune with the music. The light shone on her face. She was excited, ablaze. Her face was glowing.
The beat grew stronger and Lydia's hold of my hand grew stronger too. A cloud of dust lifted from the platform. The people around us were singing. Without realizing it, the crowd waved. We were touching, hugging and encouraging each other. We were tripping over each other. We spoke all the languages under the sun, laughed and cheered. A jug of wine appeared from nowhere and was passed from hand to hand, into the street. I took a long sip and lifted it for Lydia.
The music stopped suddenly and the lights died down. Silence and darkness surrounded us like a moment of reckoning.
We chose a restaurant and went in. It was full, so we stopped at the bar and ordered four Ouzos. Lydia and Hadassah excused themselves. When they returned, Lydia was freshly made up, her short hair was combed, but her face was upset.
"I stained my dress with red wine," she said. "See, if you made me drink."
She was in a burgundy dress she had received as a good-bye gift from her sister. In the bathroom, she had tried to clean the stains with water.
"It won't be visible once it dries out," said Hadassah. "The wine has the same color as the dress."
"It's a good omen," Michael said.
To my surprise Lydia smiled.
"You're right. Syrtaki will become our dance. Triumph over all difficulties," she exclaimed.
When the crowds subsided, we found a table and sat down. The waiter took our order.
"In Canada, the government helps you in the beginning," said Hadassah, returning to the old subject.
We couldn't be off it for long. We couldn't feel happy and care free like the tourists around us. In Greece, we were prisoners.
"Canada is too socialistic," I said. "The system is different in America. You need a sponsor in America, so that the government doesn't get stuck with you."
"Why don't we go to Canada?" asked Lydia. "It seems friendlier over there, more humane."
"We decided to go to America," I said.
She never missed the opportunity to remind me of it, although, perhaps, it wasn't quite so. It might have been mostly my decision, but if I did it, I did it for both of us. My choice stemmed from conviction, and from my love towards her.
"You are not being fair," I said. "We left to be free. Isn't America the land of the free and country of all possibilities?"
"It's also the country of violence and pragmatism," said Hadassah. "A jungle."
"Maybe to you, not to us. We don't have to worry about it. To be honest, we'll be taken care of in America."
Lydia gave me a quick look.
"Do you have friends over there?" asked Michael.
"A few, but we don't intend to stay with them."
"Then who do you have?"
"We have a sponsor," I said. "Usually, the USCC finds one for you, but we have already found ours."
"You found him?" Hadassah said enviously. "How so?"
"It's a long story," I said. "I'll tell it to you, but please don't tell anyone else. You know how our Romanians are, jealous."
"We won't," said Hadassah while I instinctively looked around the restaurant for suspicious-looking faces.
"My father helped us. He knew somebody, a priest in Bucharest who has traveled to New York. The priest arranged for us to be sponsored by the Romanian Church over there. It seems that they have a substantial presence in the city. They've been there for a long time and have contacts and money. They keep a guesthouse in Manhattan, and promised to pick us up at the airport. Although all I ask of them, is a little help with finding jobs, that is all."
"And to cover the medical insurance," added Lydia.
"In Canada, health coverage is universal."
"In America it is not."
I lit a cigarette.
"They'll cover our medical," I said. "I'm sure. The priest told my father that once they decide to help somebody, they do it all the way. We are educated and speak decent English. Our case will be easy for them. Besides, they don't do it out of brotherly love, but for propaganda."
"Propaganda?" Michael said.
"Yes. Just like our friends, the Americans. What do you think this 'third country program' is all about? Why do you think they take in political refugees? Out of the goodness of their hearts, or because they want to boast about every refugee from the Communist countries they can get their hands on?"
"In the beginning, Nicki was hesitant to meet with the priest," Lydia said. "Thank goodness for my father-in-law, who really pressed the issue."
Every time she spoke of my father, there was tension inside her that only I could detect.
"So your father arranged this for you?" said Michael. "You should be proud of him."
I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him. He didn't know anything about my father.
In the following days, we convinced the people at the USCC to let Hadassah and Michael live in our hotel. To give them support, we accompanied them to the Police the day they gave up their Romanian passports and applied for political asylum.
Time passed slowly in Greece, but together it was a little easier.
One morning, the courier from the USCC knocked on our door. He told us we had been invited to the American Embassy for an interview. Our clearances had arrived.
for the interview, I took some of Uncle Sasha's money and bought myself
a white shirt, and a navy jacket. Lydia had her burgundy dress dry cleaned.
I don't know about other people, but that was the America of my dreams: solid, safe, functional.
A young man in a business suit invited Lydia and me into his office. Our friends waited outside. The young man was courteous. He joked. He looked at me and said I was pale. We shook hands and he had us take the oath on the Bible. My head was spinning.
Luckily, the long awaited interview turned out to be a twenty-five minute formality with smiles on both sides and wishes of good luck in the future.
In the street, I realized that the weakness I continued to feel was not from the blood I had lost at the medical center. The interview had gone well and we would be leaving for America soon. The weakness was like a consuming fire burning inside me. Suddenly I understood the explosive happiness of the men who danced at the wedding in Placa. As in a dream, I let go of Lydia's arm and grabbed Michael's shoulder. Humming, I started pushing him sideways. We moved slowly at first, and then fast, like the Greek men did, holding arms and lifting one foot high over the other. I knew that Hadassah and Michael would stay behind a while longer, first at the hotel, and later, if their wait continued, at the refugee camp in Lavrion. But they seemed okay with it, and for now Michael danced the Syrtaki with me on the sidewalk, sharing in the joy of the moment.
There were Gypsies at the corner of the boulevard in front of the Parliament, right by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where the guard changed on the hour. The Gypsies must have taken us for Americans, because they surrounded us and asked us for money in English. We were used to Gypsies from back home, and reacted quickly by exchanging a few words of caution.
"Let them go," shouted the Gypsies in Romanian. "If they come from Romania, they must be penniless."
We didn't feel offended, of course. On the contrary, we stopped to talk to them. Even in those times, when most East European countries were run like prisons, the Gypsies wandered stealthily across borders, switching languages but never their customs. The women had colorful dresses and wore necklaces with silver coins and white shells around their necks. Their long and dusty hair was tied with red kerchiefs. The men were dressed in dark worn-out suits, with black neckties and felt hats of a dark green color.
I told them we were on our way to America.
"God have mercy," an older Gypsy man said. "I wanted to go there myself, until I met with the Bulibasha from Florida. They'll eat you alive, those Americans," he told me.
I looked for an English equivalent to the word Bulibasha, and found
two-the gypsy king, which seemed too romantic to me, and
the traditional local leader, which seemed dull.
Inspired from true events, this story of love and immigration covers six-and-a-half critical weeks in the lives of Lydia and Nicki. It is in the late seventies. The protagonists, a young and articulate Romanian couple, arrive in New York City. Over the course of the story they adapt and mature. They strengthen their relationship and define their feelings towards their yet unborn child, towards their parents, friends, culture shock, and even God.
In the first half of the novel, present time chapters alternate with flashbacks. Like the small colorful stones of a mosaic, aspects of life in Communist Romania under dictator Ceausescu provide the reader with the necessary background to understand the characters of the novel and their choices. We witness the ritual of marriage and love without contraceptives, the dreariness of the day-to-day material existence, and the difficulties and even dangers of pursuing emigration. Nickis strong-minded and career-oriented father stands in sharp contrast to his loving and soft-spoken mother, and to Lydias somber father, a Holocaust survivor. A colorful family priest is instrumental in getting the young couple a pass to the New World. We follow Lydia and Nicki on their passage from Bucharest, through Israel and Greece, to New York.
The second half of the novel tells the story of their life in the City. Lydia and Nicki reunite with old acquaintances. They get over a disappointing and frightening meeting with their sponsor and discover he will not be of any help to them. They experience their first American mall, their first hot dog stand, their first pornographic magazine. Things that we take for granted, like a ride in an air-conditioned car or in a comfortable bus that looks like an airplane, are exciting to them. A flight in a private plane makes Nicki feel nostalgia and unwarranted pride. They find jobs, rent an apartment, purchase a car. They do it with the help of others, generous people who help without ulterior motive, out of the goodness of their heart. The strong bond between Nicki and Lydia is different from those of their old-new friends, Peter and Dante. Peter is a warm-hearted pathetic liar; Dante a good man with no common sense. They are both involved in relationships that do not survive. Iris, Dantes mother, welcomes them like family, and Geppetto, an endearing middle-aged man shares his experience as an Italian-American. Nicki is haunted by the memory of a conflict with his father over his desire to leave Romania. Lydia finds out she is pregnant. Nicki experiences an array of contradictory feelings towards fatherhood: fear, responsibility, desire for unlimited freedom in the new country, and the need to give it up in order to raise his child.
Defying convention, this story is not one of destitute poverty on the brink of humanity, but of success, in a world populated by colorful and mostly generous people.
Tudor Alexander came to the United States in 1977 as a political refugee from Communist Romania. Born is Bucharest in 1950, he writes today in both Romanian and English. Most of his characters are modeled after immigrants trying to adapt to their new surroundings. His first novel, The Runners,was published in Romania in 1994. His second literary work, Smoke,a 100-page novellla, appeared in Romania in 1997. Planet New York was written in English in 1999.