The blunted bullet of my homleand

Lesson of surrealism


Only today

Lawyer with swordfish

The egg  


Excerpts from the book of memoirs Between Two Worlds – Tales of a Women’s Doctor 

Chernobyl, late report

My second birth



You, lucky dog,
The blunted bullet of my homeland
Whistled past my ear
Striking the wall with a mute sound
Like a gong at the century’s end.

During the time of revolutions
Along the walls lurks the shadows
Of those who still have something to lose.
Only thin adolescents
March in the middle of boulevards
Mimicking our lost courage.
I nearly almost penetrated the old plaster
Of a medieval house
I could sense communism's dampness
Drying out
Thickened over layers of obedience
And I now free dare to cough
Hand covering my mouth.

How can you still believe in revolutions
When lame ballerinas atop tanks dance the lambada
And above our heads
Penalty kicks are shot from cannons
Until all the winners learn
How to recycle a putrid era.
We, the uninitiated, confuse the sound of lead
With divine microphone tests
After which nothing follows
But the holes between the longed-for words
And some real corpses
Who don't know where to go.

The trigger is pulled by as many fingers
As can be fitted
In a small chapter of a hidden history
The real targets exchange
Their evening dress
And soldiers their uniforms.
We, the losers, grow concentric circles
Like trees cut every year
Out of habit.



I had to recover
After an ailment more or less imaginary
In the highest resort
The waters I drank
Trickled straight down from the clouds
I would pass out three times a day
Despite the carefully painted panorama
And the clean glasses
On which our fingerprints
Took the shapes of other lives.
I was only a meticulous cougher
Waiting in line for the springs
Which dried unexpectedly
And I would've been bored to death if Fellini
Had not shot a movie there.
After an audition I got the role
Of a middle-aged man
Who in a short scene
Had to mimic
As many contradictory feelings as possible.
The camera was among the clouds
And Fellini cut furiously scene after scene.
"Signore," he shouted,
"You don't know anything about surrealism
You like it, but when you shed your snakeskin
You drop your cloth like an exhausted man.
I will give you a lesson after all."
He showed our old house
Where my grandmother cut potatoes underground
And myself at 10,
Hidden in the hey barn,
Lit my first cigarette.
"With such a scene I could blow up
An entire lifestyle
But now I record you coughing unconvincingly
If you show me where you threw the lit match
You can imagine all the women in your life
Happily gathered to serve you dinner.
Or is it too early for that?
Now raise that glass.
The glass, not the collar, signore,
Much, much higher,
Ready, lights, camera! Action!"



 It’s all your fault

You the discoverer of my brain

Archeological relic buried in a lava of lust

As that petrified dog in Pompeii

Tied to the brothel’s door

Just when Vesuvius erupted.

Those people knew everything about sex

It was there behind the door

Bringing good luck

Ready to hold your hat.

Priapus was weighing his sex for gold

While shy vestals threw coins on scale

Pushing for their chances.

What a city Pompeii

Made to absolve you of shame and inhibitions

Only 5 euro the entrance.


-I hoped you were a woman

A lady told me this days

Thinking that all women’s doctors are XX

And the Y chromosome is just a hanger

Loaded with bras and underwear.

-It’s true, I told her, we all were women sometime

Every beginning is feminine

One beginning, two beginnings

One end, two ends, we conjugate

Like Buddhists do with life.

Sometimes I wish I am a woman

To feel in their skin the goose bumps

When get aroused

And put stardust on their lips.

To give birth at least once, on a cliff

Where nobody could see me.


I pass my hand through my beard

As through a forest of birch trees

And ask myself why all this cold war between sexes

In all this confusion

When everything is divided, parceled out

The genetic code stretched on table

Like a bear fur laid out to dry,

And we, stuffed turkeys prank around

Before the grand hunting.


Why  this morbid desire of the philosophers

To find the God sex

A huge one for sure, unseen yet

As is the life after death,

Sucked by the black holes,

Hidden in some three-dimensional fold

Called the scrotum of Chronos.

Because Time himself should have an organ

A bisexual one

As he penetrates us with equal pleasure.


Everything, the philosophers say

Comes from a primary copulation.


Death is a woman for sure, I feel that

One with sharp labia.

A woman at the beginning, one at the end

A woman cannot be conjugated in any way.

Everything happens in her womb

As I a quarantine

Where somebody changes I.D. on our chest

Anonymous soldiers

Disappeared in an inexplicable fog.




 I’m crawling, I’m crawling


Today I’m the worm himself

Devouring his own sickness

I’m in an invertebrate state

In which with a bit of will

I could wet the flowers in the garden

With myself.

I would tickle their roots

With all my jelly thoughts

I would turn on all this sexless slugs

Which shamelessly multiplies themselves.



 Above the court house hovers lots of pigeons,

The fatter ones.

Justice is like a growth hormone

Put in our milk, water, air and TV screen

We burst with pride watching how our leaders

Feed the sky birds with seeds and words

Those kind which germinates just once

You spit them out and get directly bread, pizza

Or yeasted dough

As would have been the Moses’ dough

If he’d have time and water.


With one hand, the blindfolded justice

Reads in Braille

Secret messages and bills.

The other hand holds the balance

On which the same fat pigeons

Spread shit unevenly.


The God’s word is not classified anymore

Blown in the big chief’s ear

Gets to us as an echo

Sneaked through the keyhole.

Patience has the interest up.

The pigeons multiply faster

Have claws and tough feathers.

The lawyers decorate their offices

With sweet family pictures

And the same image

Of a swordfish

Caught in Caribbean in a working vacation.



It is the Easter night
And my mother is dying eggs red.
Only one egg,
An egg like any other, oval and organic,
Doesn't want to take the color.
In spite of her fasting and prayers
It stays white
Like the walls of the churches in Rhodos.

"It might be a miracle," she says simply.
I, the one who doesn't believe in miracles
Squeeze a big drop of blood over it
And the egg turns paler than death.

Such a thing has never been seen before.
The media burst into our lives.
The egg is featured in the news
While ignored icons weep in vain.

The church keeps silent. The pope waves.
Research is conducted,
Speculations are raised,
The colors of the rainbow tasted.

The Bible is bought wildly
And even read.
Thousands of people come in droves
To see the egg
Donating their blood like uncalled-for martyrs
Maybe a drop will turn it red
To save appearances.

Even a prize of millions is set
Plus a front seat for Resurrection Day.
The line gets longer,
Religions are insignificant, races count even less.

We are finally one transparent race
With the sun shining behind us.
The egg is bathed in waves of blood
Soaked into the ground uselessly,
It becomes a national crisis.
Taken to Ireland, Kosovo, and Jerusalem
Wherever blood flows plentifully.
It stays white
With divine stubbornness.

It's placed to be hatched.
The whole planet watches
The hen's behind
Waiting for a sign within the shell.
From which strange words
Seem to be heard.
Maybe they carry the secret of life and death
And we don't understand anything
Of this language of the egg.
Cardinals gather, rabbis, shamans
Even the Dalai Lama dressed in red
Embraces the idea happily.

Finally, my mother is brought, the egg-dyer
Who, swamped with chores, has forgotten the story.
She listens to the egg
She weighs it in her hand
Like a new beginning,
And throws it at the sun.



 Excerpts from the book of memoirs

 Between Two Worlds – Tales of a Women’s Doctor



I am driving on Queens highway, rushing toward the hospital where I’m on call. The radio is blasting, as usual, set to my favorite classic rock channel. Then the 8 o’clock news. The stock market plummets every day, the votes are being counted endlessly in Florida, and the Ukrainian nuclear station of Chernobyl has finally closed. Fourteen years after the infamous explosion, the estimated number of victims is 30,000. I doubt that figure includes my grandfather and to this day, I’m sure that’s what led to his end.

I work with Vladimir, a Russian resident and I mention the radio report to him. The news leaves him indifferent and speechless, as if nothing had ever happened. Many Russian immigrants are skeptical when it comes to the events that took place in their country. I’m not sure if they do it out of decency, some original guilt, or as a reflex of silence well reinforced for several generations.
            In the spring of 1986 in Chernobyl, the atoms escaped Soviet authority and rose to the sky. From then on, catastrophe plagued that part of the world. If the wind had blown eastward, it would have probably been another well-hidden nuclear disaster. But the wind blew West, where the Geiger-Muller meters got jerky and nervous. In Romania the media finally reacted, warning the population. We were really surprised, because mystification was part of the regime’s routine. This time it was their fault entirely; those Russians, the ones we’d always feared, were to blame. We had always been prepared for a potential imperialist attack, a very generic one. But we knew it was about them, our neighbors in the East, the ones who, after shoving communism down our throats, amused themselves by watching us surpass their own fanaticism and absurdity.

Now the evil came from above. Uncontrollable. Trapped in radioactive clouds, without a visa, it hovered above Europe. Romania found herself a couple of steps away from the disaster. I took a few days off from the hospital where I worked in Brasov and drove North to Bistrita where my parents lived.

It was hot, I was sweating a lot but I didn’t dare open the car window. I was traveling through an area of increased level of radioactivity according to the radio, and I sped up, as if I were trying to evade the danger as soon as possible. Almost nobody on the road. Something not unusual, since gas had recently been rationed. A few goats and cows peacefully grazed the radioactive grass at the side of the road; they were tied to a tree with ropes long enough to reach the road and the passing cars. Old German villages with large stone houses, their mortar crumbling off for ages, Middle Age churches with slanted towers, geese, bicyclists, carts, a toddler crossing the street on all fours, the screech of breaks which, thank God, work well and stop the car in time.

The elderly motionless on the porch, waiting to see who passed by. The radioactivity drifting high above didn’t count for them. At the edge of each village, or wherever you  expected it least, old propagandistic billboards, featuring the most idiotic and unexpected slogans. On one you could still make out the ridiculous protest “Say NO to the neutron bomb!” A goat, tied to the pillar of the ad foraged. Many posters dating back to the triumphant days of communism had been removed, outdated by reality. The milk had long disappeared from the dairy shop on my street. Eventually, all the billboards, now rendered unnecessary, were removed: “Not one day of the week without milk” or “Milk, dairy- a fountain of youth and health.” With no milk for sale these slogans sounded like a call for rebellion.

In Bistrita, I find the door locked. My neighbor tells me that my folks are in the country at my grandfather’s village. That means 20 more kilometers of narrow highway, other villages, and cows grazing on the side of the road. The area is full of vineyards and plum orchards. That translates into wine and plum brandy- another fountain of youth and health. After all, who knows what these neutrons will taste like distilled in the fall?!
          Finally, at the top of the hill I glimpse my grandfather’s village buried in greenness. One more turn to the first house. At the border of the village, the same crucified Christ made of tin zinc  painted with faded color and rattling with every breeze. I glance at it and just as each time I drive by, trying later to remember to ask my father what the initials I.N.R.I. above the Savior’s head, stand for. I never do it, because I suspect what will follow. My lack of religious knowledge will exasperate him.

“For Christ’s sake, you don’t even know that!” he would say with a sigh. “Your generation was raised completely outside of God. You have no basic notions of faith and religion.” Then his tone would change and he would add: “After all, it’s not your fault. This damn system…”
            After the war he studied theology, training to become a Greek-Catholic priest. Romanians from Transylvania were Orthodox until the end of seventeen century. Encouraged by Austrians they switched to Catholicism, just to belong to Rome. They were called Greek-Catholics because they kept the old Orthodox rite and tradition. Had my father succeeded to become a Catholic priest, I would have still been born, because they could marry, like Orthodox priests. The communists threw him in prison, where he was stuck for almost a year, until Catholicism, forbidden overnight in Romania, was abolished. He hated to be reminded of that period and didn’t talk about it.

God’s ways are hard to grasp, and a few years later he began to teach history and social sciences. Though he remained faithful, he didn’t walk into a church again for many years. He prayed at home with my mother. A professor could lose his tenure if he was caught in any church, including an Orthodox one, despite the fact that the leaders of the Orthodox Church had reached a pact with the leaders of the communist nomenclature, and granted them honorable mention during each Sunday mass.

On my 21st birthday, my father finally told me I wasn’t  Orthodox, but baptized a Greek Catholic. My conversion as a child had been his last “heresy.” One night, assisted by my mother, they hid me in diapers and took me to a priest who baptized me according to the Catholic rite. The revelation of this secret, carefully guarded for so many years, didn’t change my life in any way. It didn’t make it more Catholic or more Orthodox. At that age I didn’t even know what I.N.R.I. meant and I continued to make the sign of the cross in the Orthodox way, from right to left.

Only my grandparents, who had nothing to lose, continued to instill in us some religious education. At school, some teachers had tried to get God out of our heads, but I felt early on, that wherever the cross began it ended in the same place. And instincts shaped in childhood are difficult to change.
        The year I was baptized, Stalin’s corpse had barely grown cold in the Kremlin wall, filling his subjects with a false feeling of freedom. My grandfather got drunk when he found out about the dictator’s death. The rest of the world, brainwashed and still paralyzed with fear, sent condolence letters and stupid telegrams addressed to the Kremlin. The great Russian people mourned their vanished godfather. My grandfather wrote a poem exulting with joy, even tinted with streaks of premature hope dangerous during those times. Luckily, my grandmother could read and stopped the letter from being mailed in time.

Born in 1900 under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, my grandfather had outlived two world wars and many more uprisings. He didn’t blame much the Hungarians or the Germans, but the Russians, who, in ’44-’45, had come to Romania as liberators but behaved like savage invaders. Hardened by the war, communism and vodka, their every step was marked by disaster. The soldiers confiscated all the wristwatches, a complete novelty to them. They seized all the animals, gold and silverware from the households, and executed people deemed guilty for no reason.

That same year my grandfather lost all his pigs and livestock. “If the Germans or the Hungarians camped in the village and needed meat or wine, they would buy them. When the Russians arrived, an officer with ten watches on each hand entered our courtyard with two soldiers, opened the door of the stable and gunned down all the animals. They almost shot your great grandfather who had climbed up to the barn loft for hay. The officer went   into the storeroom and fired a few shots at the wine casks. The wine spilled out through the holes and they filled some canisters with it, even their helmets, and then left the rest flowing over on the floor. They were angry because he had no vodka”

When I was a  kid in Bistrita, on Freedom Day we had to stay on duty by the soviet heroes’ monument. We wore a red tie around our neck and carried a wooden rifle. No fight had taken place in the area. By the time the Russians arrived in 1944, the Germans and the Hungarians had withdrawn a long time ago. The five soviet hero soldiers buried there had died in my high school from methyl alcohol intoxication. They had burst into the school’s small natural science museum and gulped down all the alcohol in which the lizards were conserved.

On that radioactive day of 1986 I found my grandfather in the garden. It was beautiful and warm and he was on his knees, gathering, still raw spring potatoes. Nobody could convince him to stay inside the house.

“What are you doing, granddaddy?” I asked, watching him from behind.

He seemed to be half-buried in the ground. I had forgotten that he had hearing problems, and I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and smiled at me blandly, as if we had just seen each other yesterday.

“Why are  you collecting potatoes on your knees?”

“I have a hard time bending. It’s easier this way, and I sink into the ground little by little,” he said with a chuckle. 

“Go inside, granddaddy, the air is filled with radiation from the Russians.”

“I couldn’t care less about their radiation! I know what happened. That is why I’m outside plucking these raw potatoes, before rain comes and spoils them. We have to eat something during the winter; otherwise we’ll go into the ground.”

His ancient instinct for conservation still functioned properly. After the death of my grandmother, with whom he had lived for 60 years, life didn’t mean much to him. It was just a holy necessity that had to be carried all the way.

“How have you been, my son? I heard you’re become a ladies’ doctor,” he said with a mischievous smile. “I don’t think you made a bad choice, if that’s what you like. Anyway, I’m still sorry you didn’t become a priest. You would have had a much easier life. Since these communists took over, even the priests don’t have much to do with God. You could have joined our parish, sang a little on Sundays in the church, and for most of the time done business with me.”

For all he could remember, his ancestors bred sheep, cows and horses. He added bees. Now he had given up everything, had sold the animals and beehives and filled the stable with an odd system of small water basins where nutria, those furry rodents recently introduced in Romania, swam. People from surrounding villages gathered as if drawn to a zoo, to see my grandfather’s “rats”, the first ones to break the tradition of the ruminators.
            After the Chernobyl explosion, vegetables in the garden had to be thrown away because of the radioactive contamination, but people didn’t take radio announcements too seriously. Nobody cared about air pollution. Ecology was regarded as a snooty whim.
Even so, back then in the markets, groceries and fruits were tested with a radiation detector every morning and thrown away if they exceeded the limit. It broke the peasants’ hearts because the radiation caused their products to swell nicely, and made bright colored attractive shapes. The women waiting in lines or swarming in the market had become experts in nuclear fusion overnight, offering informed comments about the half-time of plutonium. Something had finally happened! In Barla, my grandfather’s village, nothing had ever really happened. The era between the two world wars glided over the village like a monotonous, homogenous paste. Only marriages, births, and funerals interrupted the collective boredom, a word that didn’t even make it in the local vocabulary.
            Whenever something crucial happened in the world, if the shock wave eventually reached the village, the peasants figured the end of the world had come. They had a curious intuition for the apocalypse, although I’m not sure if they thought it would ever include them. Collectivization had cut the deepest wound, when the land the peasants were organically linked with, was taken away by force. That made them suffer fiercely, as if they had been completely tossed out of history.

For them, the end of the world would have been liberation, almost a revenge against fate. Instead they came together, built brick houses, brought electricity to the village and formed some sort of connection with the world outside. They didn’t buy into Gagarin’s flight because it came from the Russians. Only the landing on the Moon in 1969 made them wonder. The much-expected Americans didn’t appear fully convincing, but television had even altered their hermetic world. Half the village believed it was a lie, half a blasphemy that infuriated God, who would quicken their end. The invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 had been a clear sign of the approaching apocalypse.

My grandfather didn’t care about that event, but he had already crafted an evacuation plan for the animals in the stable, at the first sign of a Russian invasion. Anyway according to him, the final end would most probably come in the year 2000 and that they could certainly not escape.

I think that only the Vikings, following their baptizing, believed any more in the end of the world, exactly 1000 years ago. That year nothing else was planted besides beer hops. Then, at the end of the first millennium they withdrew peacefully, patiently waiting for the inevitable event. They drank all their beer, sacrificed all the animals and got most women pregnant. Nothing made any more sense. They had no Chinese or Jewish people around, to tell them that time had started well before Christ. What an enormous farce; there was a strange feeling of liberation when they saw that nothing had happened. They went back to work, thanking God for postponing the end of the world for another 1000 years.
            In the year 2000 nobody talked about the end of the world.  Just the fear that a few expired computers, messed up by too many zeros, would ruin the world order.

In 1986 nobody saw the Chernobyl explosion as an apocalyptic event. Communism had  soured in its own juices, to such an extent that people stopped believing in a dramatic conclusion. They had a feeling of gradual, lamentable defeat, lacking any drama or glory.
            In 2000 I wasn’t in Birla to hear the old men predict the inescapable. My mother told me that they somehow resembled the old Vikings, except that the peasants hadn’t worked the land for the past 20 years. Instead, I was in New York, on Brighton Beach, at the edge of the new Russian neighborhood. At sunset, when the beach had emptied, a black man carefully walked a metal detector above the sand. When his device signaled something, it sifted the sand in search of lost golden necklaces and earrings. The man was performing the same actions as the people who had walked the Geiger-Muller detectors above the irradiated salads and radishes in the vegetable market in Bistrita.

A year later my grandfather got sick. His ganglions swelled and the biopsy diagnosed a malign lymphoma that would soon grow. It was a form of lymphatic cancer unusual for his age group. I saw him one last time before his death. He waited peacefully and resignedly for the end, since he had always expected it. Individual, personal, not collective and apocalyptic. I and some of my family members, had used most our energy trying to escape the communist camp. Our dream back then was a passport or a miraculous escape.

“My passport has arrived, son,” he told me with a smile.

He passed away that winter, during a violent cold. The earth had frozen, and six people took turns to make room for him into the ground. If he had lived for two more years, he would have seen the end of communism, and his beloved land returned. It was the last funeral I witnessed at the countryside. Nothing in the ritual had changed for centuries. That last evening, the old men in the village came to the mass to say their good-byes. They arrived one by one and whispered to each other, raising their shoulders with a studied resignation:

“What can you do?” “Nothing you can do!”

They drank boiled plum brandy, played cards after midnight, as usual, remembered the wars, collectivization and the communism. The next day they took the coffin out to the courtyard and drank again over it, for the soul of the dead. Professional mourners from three villages start crying loudly, dropping frozen tears, scaring away the crows watching from the trees, as well as death’s phantom encircling the village. 

Before we got to the cemetery we stopped ten times, listening to the wailing of the priests and the dogs barking in the neighbors’ yards. At every stop I had to deposit 10 lei under a cross. I could have deposited 100 at a time so we could move forward faster. My grandfather’ body was light, but the whole village had to observe the funeral procession, and especially observe us, the city folk. Once we arrived, the snow was so high that it covered the crosses, and we hardly found the grave.

Back at his house two long tables were set underneath the fir tree that my grandfather had planted when I was born. Next to it the old beehive lay abandoned. The people wore long traditional peasant coats made of sheepskin, and the men wore heavy fur hats. They ate the home-made noodle soup and cabbage rolls in silence. A warm steam rose from the pot and from people, melting the snow on the branches of the fir tree. The sweep of the old well began to shift by itself, and some old women saw a cloud of bees which rushed out of the frozen hive and flew over the garden.

“They carry the old man’s soul,” they whispered.



The number of the people suffering from cancer grew. Everyone forgot about the clouds of radiation that had bit into our chromosomes and genes. Nobody saw the effects more vividly than us, the gynecologists. The most affected ones were travelers caught on the road by the explosion during that spring of ’86. Nature dealt with its anomalies by eliminating many troubled pregnancies, therefore raising the number of spontaneous abortions. The phenomenon passed unnoticed, because back then any abortion was suspected as deliberate.

The full effects appeared only seven to eight months later, when the number of malformed newborn babies had reached worrisome quota. The ultrasound existed only in theory, rendering prevention impossible. We couldn’t treat the fetus as a patient. We could only pronounce it dead or alive by listening to its heartbeat with a tin funnel.

 More and more often we saw an encephalic fetuses or with spinal bifid, and other types of rare deformities. The birth of a child with two heads and three hands, actually an extremely rare case of joined twins, led us to believe that there must be some connection between Chernobyl and what we saw more and more often.
              We all needed something extreme and out of the ordinary to drag us out of the lethargy and loathing into which we had slowly plunged. A child with two heads was truly something shocking. The house keepers in the hospital had interpreted this as a sign from above. Many nurses had joined them. The party secretary skimmed through an old edition of Dialectic Materialism, while we, the doctors, tried to explain it scientifically, reading our dusty old medical books.

The notion of statistics, or research, was brutally prevented by the same party secretary who wouldn’t make the connection between cause and effect. I am sure that she knew about the drawer of death but this topic didn’t concern her.

We all knew about the drawer in the ward for newborn babies, and nobody doubted the judgment of the ward’s chief. A critically malformed newborn, with lesions that made survival impossible, was not only rejected from the incubator, but also placed in a drawer that closed hermetically, helping it to die faster.  Rumors spread fast in the hospital and I never heard about the drawer being used in a case where there was some chance of life for the newborn. Then I saw many fetuses with anencephaly, condemned children, lacking the brain. Some could still breathe and survive at the vegetal level for a few hours.
         One of them already occupied the drawer when another was born. They wrapped the newborn in more diapers, and then abandoned it to agony infant on a table in an isolated room. I went there one night while on call, to smoke and finish my case notes. It was a calm room, and I was trying to catch my breath for a few minutes, away from the madness of the delivery room. It was so quiet that I could hear to the ticking of my watch. Then I heard a strange hiccup. I looked around. Just me. Another spastic hiccup, like that of a man about to choke. In front of me, on a table, I saw a hand stretching from a pile diapers, revealing its malformed body. It breathed loudly one more time, and then it withdrew forever in the pile of diapers, like a mummy embalmed while still alive.
          We had all heard about euthanasia, but nobody talked about it. We felt like mere guinea pigs ourselves, victims of a huge experiment, in which several annihilation methods were tested. In 1987 our lives had reached a peak of poverty and frustration. Deprived of heat, water and food, light. Freedom had disappeared a long time ago, and hope was just a useless word in the dictionary. But dark humor flourished. It was our defense mechanism.

“Why don’t you try cyanide Mister President?” one joke went. “Your people are very resilient.”




My second birth was very difficult. At first I didn’t even know who I was anymore. I remember the look on the face of the black immigration officer, browsing through the papers I had just filled out. I thought my English was pretty good. I had understood all the questions, except the question regarding my race. The choices were Caucasian, African American, Asian, Hispanic or “Other”. Back then, nothing surprised me. I checked “Other”, stunned by the lack of the choice “white”.

The officer, an African American, gazed at me from underneath her fake eyelashes and shook her head with compassion. Without addressing me, she marked “Caucasian” with red ink, clanking the dozens of golden bracelets that stretched all the way to her elbow. Thus I found out who I was in America. I wasn’t white, or European, but Caucasian. To this day, that word doesn’t sound right. I don’t think that they were aware of that anywhere in Romania or Europe. The Caucasus, as far as I knew, is a mountain chain in the former Soviet Union, separating Europe from Asia. There, somewhere on the top of Ararat, according to legend, Noah’s ark stopped and the world began after the deluge.

In Europe we learned early  to which ethnic group we belonged. It was clear to us from the very beginning, and we carried with us a label that marked us for the rest of our lives.  Americans, who play God with geography, throw the French, Greeks, Swedish, Russians, English and Bulgarians in the same Caucasian pot. It’s called being “politically correct”, but it actually didn’t bother me at all, since I was sick of European prejudices and labels tattooed on each forehead.
        I was the last one waiting in the endless line formed every morning at 7:30 a.m. in front of the 80-story-high immigration building in Federal Plaza, New York. Eyeing at that line, I realized that we, the Caucasians, were a small minority .10 per cent at most. And I heard some of them speaking Romanian. All we wanted was to be accepted by this country of immigrants where we promised to behave well and pay our taxes.
          Traveling to New York was my first foray into the West. And I hadn’t come here as a tourist. I was 36 years old and I had 12 years of experience as a doctor. Suddenly, I was just another face in the crowd, just a potential immigrant in the great melting pot, an awkward sleepwalker roaming on the streets with a great question mark above his head. Nothing matched what I had already learned. I stared at my reflection in the windows of the shops that I passed and I couldn’t recognize my eyes and the dark circles underneath them. Still, I experienced an odd feeling of déjà vu, as if I were cut off from a dream. I didn’t feel like a complete stranger here, thanks to the people of this veritable Babylon.

During the first weeks I measured this new territory on foot, trying to assess it in my mind, take its pulse, and evaluate my chances. It was a large open space, without fences, and if I could wake up tomorrow, if I had a place to go and could do what I did best, I would have no adjustment problems. But the most difficult part was waking up and not going anywhere. Before, I had led a very active life, and I was discovering how painful it was not to work.

Many people told me that my chances to practice my specialty again were very slim. This kind of statement had considerably shaken my motivation. It was difficult to picture myself doing anything else and throwing 12 years of experience in the garbage bin. Whenever I saw a pregnant woman on the street, I looked away. She was outside my sphere of influence, outside my territory. I wasn’t even allowed to write prescriptions. I would have worked in a hospital under any circumstances, even without a salary, just to do something.

With every day that passed, I seemed to lose something irrevocable. The woman who had brought me here, and whom I was supposed to marry, had become distant, suspicious, and had lost her faith in me. She had placed her bet on a winning horse, which was not yet admitted to participate in any race. For now, I ruminated alone on my less than promising perspectives. I had even forgotten how to laugh, since I was continually forced to find new survival resources. I lived like that, wavering between two worlds, for a long time.

When I say I was born a second time, I’m not just using  a figure of speech. I should be given some credit, because I’ve been in this business for over 20 years. After all, this was the most difficult birth I ever assisted, my rebirth in America, after 36 years.

My head swelled as soon as I landed in Kennedy airport, and it stayed like that for years to come. I had to feed it a little bit of everything, but the most difficult part was starting to study everything all over again. I read somewhere that the our brain only uses five percent of its capacity. That’s probably the only reason why my mind didn’t explode during those two or three years, like a Thanksgiving turkey. In this phase you’re like a newborn baby, full of meconium and shit. Nobody wants to hug you. I had to get up by myself, only after I mastered walking on all fours.
            I had a hard time finding my place during that period of new beginnings, I was alone and disoriented, crushed by a city deemed the center of the world, or the world’s greatest trap if you didn’t belong. I didn’t belong to it yet. I wasn’t born yet in New York City. I’d gone from being a respected doctor, in a small and forgotten town in Europe, to a jobless nobody with foggy perspectives, but at least I was in the biggest city.

I was overwhelmed by bouts of depression and by questions without answers. Had I made the right choice? Would I make it? To which world did I belong? Who was I and who would I become? I hung between two worlds, scared but determined to face anything just to end up in this part of the world, which I imagined to be powerful and generous, a place where I could fulfill my dreams, although at the moment, they seemed unattainable. Whenever I heard the word home, I hesitated. At home in Romania or at home in the apartment of some friends who housed me temporarily? My birth was postponed every day.
           My first day in New York. A generous friend took me on a motorcycle tour of Manhattan. It was April 1990 and it was hot. My friend gave me a helmet, I put it on, and we were off. My heart dropped to my belly. I had been waiting for this moment for such a long time…We drove through Queens, crossed Queensborough Bridge, snaking dangerously among the cars stuck in traffic. The East River and Roosevelt Island stretched underneath us, drowned in the spring sun, and Manhattan rose in front of us with its forest of skyscrapers.

We headed south on 5th Avenue and my friend told me:

“Don’t bother with the traffic. I’ll take care of that. Just look up. That’s where everything happens.”

I followed his advice for over an hour. I held my head back, contemplating from bottom up the skyscrapers that seemed to crumble on top of me. I felt like a sick man on a stretcher, wandering through the city in an odd ambulance. Finally, we reached the intersection of Broadway, and drove all the way downtown. I caught a glimpse of a miniature Statue of Liberty, somewhere in the distance, and looking at it was the only moment when I relaxed my stiff neck. I thought about the tourists who complained of pains in the neck after staring at the Sistine Chapel in Rome, which I still hadn’t seen.

We drove back toward Central Park, and we stopped somewhere by the Plaza Hotel, where I had a meeting. I tried to pull my helmet off but I couldn’t. My head had swelled beyond recognition. My friend and I were both pulling at it but couldn’t shift it. I felt that everyone was looking at us, and I was happy that the plastic shield covered my eyes. I was embarrassed, but nobody really paid attention to me. 

In New York you can’t shock no matter what you do. After we both tugged at it for a while, I managed to pull the helmet off, almost dislocating my nose and ears. I gathered a few amused looks from passers-by, which was remarkable for my first day in Manhattan.

The person I was supposed to meet was late. I watched the people around me carefully. I scrutinized the street greedily, as if trying to record everything. I didn’t miss the white sports car, a Camaro parked across the street. Two men with dark shades followed me with their eyes, tense and suspicious. One of them got out of the car and came toward me. He held a cigarette and asked me:

“Do you have a light, man?”

For me light meant just that, light. I wasn’t aware of its double meaning: fire and light. Searching for words, I answered that I didn’t smoke. He laughed, suddenly relaxed, and asked me where I came from. He also told me, over his shoulder:

“Be careful, man, you look like an undercover cop.”
That was who I was. A Caucasian man who looked like a disguised cop and had a swelled head on top of it.
             Queens, where I lived back then, was a completely different New York. There, everything happened down on the pavement, close to the ground. Without skyscrapers, without the glamorous clamor of the streets during lunch break, without anything spectacular. After my first walk down on Steinway Boulevard in Astoria, I had the abrupt sensation of an immense improvisation.

Compared to Europe, even to Eastern Europe, everything here seemed temporary, accomplished in haste by people thrown together, a neighborhood of plastic and cardboard, an impersonal annex of opulent Manhattan. People had decent, content looks on their faces, like resolute people who, in case the business didn’t go well, would dismantle and repack everything, including their homes, and move elsewhere. Like an itinerant circus. It took some time before I understood that, for them, this was the end of the road, as it would be for me. Unless, of course, we wanted to go back where we came from, which was now possible, and a option. I couldn’t imagine where we could go on from here. This was the “promised land”, our final destination.

Every night I dreamed of Brasov, with its medieval houses, its mortar and layers of history peeling off, its ski resort packed with snow, through which my shadow performed a slalom that left no trace. Over a year passed before my dreams included events linked with the new life I had in America. None of my daily activities or thoughts seemed important to my oneiric memory, which searched out of inertia through my abandoned life, which had been walled in with my own hand. In the morning, old smells woke me up, titillating my nostrils, and my troubled senses. Everything around me seemed foreign, and I rested for a while on the edge of the bed, reminding myself who I was, what I was doing here, what I had to do that day, the day after, and every day. This was my morning exercise.

My daily dreams diluted every day. But some of them came true very fast. Like devouring bananas. I ate nothing else for a whole week, shocking my host family. Thus I freed my frustration, accumulated during communist years, when bananas were imported only once or twice a year. After hours of waiting in line, I would get only two kilograms, the maximum allowed per person, and I would keep them for my young daughter. I only bit furtively at the bottom of the banana.

Following that week’s diet of bananas, I couldn’t stand them anymore.


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