Months went by since I was liberated from the labor camp in Northern Russia. Behind were dozens of blood transfusions, dental tortures, and scary talks with a bunch of cardiologists. I’ve got my so-so bill of health and was waiting patiently for the Soviet Immigration Office to approve my visa. Once, 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, Lazarus, what are you up to?”
I turned around to see the man. I really hadn’t recognized Professor Oliescu when he suddenly stood there in front of me. It wasn’t his voice, but his face; it wasn’t pale – it was utterly different! All I knew was that I knew this face. Some of it could not ever be changed. His laugh sounded familiar, but it could easily belong to a different man.
He must have noticed my confusion.
“Don’t you remember me?” he asked with the same short laugh. “Yes, yes, they can do this to you – they and their newly invented mill-stones! But you know that, too, don’t you, Lazarus?”
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, and the muscles that formed an expression, an expression that reminded me of Professor Oliescu, were so weak that they couldn’t hold his laugh for a long time, that’s why it was short and much too large; it distorted his face; it seemed huge in relation to his eyes, which were set far back.
“Professor Oliescu!” I exclaimed and had to stop short not to add: I was told that you were dead! Instead: “Well, well, how the hell are you?”
“I’m great, Lazarus, I’m great!” he put up another short laugh. “It’s spring in Chisinau – what could more beautiful, right?”
I tried to make out why he kept on laughing. I knew him as a serious man, as Professor at the Chisinau State University, but every time he opened his mouth it looked as though he were laughing. To ask seemed impossible.
“Yes, yes,” he laughed, “I’m better now: those mill-stones 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; it just looked like it, and now, at least five minutes later than I should’ve, I apologized for not recognizing him at first.
“You’re not alone, Lazarus, but I’ve gotten used to that.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, “I feel embarrassed.” I wanted to leave now, to tell him about the conference, the real reason for my trip to Chisinau, but 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 couple of 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, Lazarus? Scars of the century, aren’t they?”
His skin was like leather or clay, which could crack at any moment, and he had a belly that looked like a small party balloon held up by 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, Lazarus?” he asked with his short deceiving laugh. “How about a couple of drinks 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 really have to go: my conference starts in less than an hour.”
“Then some other time, right?” he said, and I knew for sure that this man was really already dead.
“Yes, I should like that,” I said paying for my coffee. “Whenever I’m in Chisinau again.”
“You know where to find me, don’t you?” he asked laughing. “They gave me back my apartment, those imbeciles, so I can die under a roof – instead of a starry sky.”
Maybe it was a laugh, I thought suddenly 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 cancer of the stomach and died in the camp.
As luck would have it, a taxi stopped next to me 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, professor…”
“We shall meet again,” 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.
See you soon, professor!
Trubman’s short stories, personal essays and memoirs has appeared in literary publications across the United States, Canada and the UK. His collection of short stories “Deadly, Quiet, Lonely Wilderness” is forthcoming in June 2019 from Adelaide Books.