Life Story Pictures
I remember my teens as a sequence of summers. The rest of the seasons at first shrunk and then vanished from memory. It seems that every day was bright and full of things happening around me. And, although not exceptional in any way, one such day I remember most clearly.
We lived in a town on the northwestern coast of the Black Sea, just north of the part where the Danube and Dniester flow into the sea. The town sat at the southern end of the vast steppe. The steppe met the sea with a sharp two-hundred-foot drop. On the edge, tall white buildings and colonnades, built in classical style, majestically greeted approaching ships. The town was surrounded by water except for its northern part. It had a large harbor and a square grid of handsome streets. The port and the time created a unique population – a colorful mixture of peoples.
The local boys thought of the town as a beautiful young girl – as beautiful as the well-tanned girls that inhabited the place in the summer. For them, there was the town and then there was the rest of the world.
Our three story building was on a street close to the port. From my window on the second floor one could see and smell the sea. But before one could smell the sea, one must wake up. I was trying. It was not an early morning. It never was in the summer. The thin fog had just left the town, and the warm, familiar sun was reflecting off the glass on the picture of my grandfather. I don’t know why, but I always thought that it reflected better because the man in the photo was bald, but then I promptly forgot about that theory a month later, when the sun reflected off the glass on the picture of my grandmother. Although waking up in the winter with its ever present clouds and the “yet one more school day” always brought bad feelings, the summer morning was another matter.
My mother would usually let the sun do the “waking up”, but not in the winter. In the winter the room would ring with her high pitched “will you get up already” cry. Even now, when I have to get up particularly early, my alarm clock rings that chord. But this was definitely a summer morning, and I was already late to meet my friend to go to Luzanovka. It was a beach we frequented that summer.
Breakfast was tea, because my friend Alex could already be seen impatiently waiting below. I put on a pair of thin summer slacks, my sister’s old sandals and tied a timeworn, bleached shirt in a knot just above my waist.
Several seconds later I was on the street ready for our beach voyage. We ran down the street to the long set of steps that led to the port. There, just below our street, were the ferry piers of the port which served the little towns and beaches around the harbor. We got on board in the nick of time. The ferry pulled out seconds later and headed east. The captain was going fast and the plowed waves answered with a spray of water. We positioned ourselves in the middle of this action. It was great. Hot sun, wind and salt water. Luzanovka was across the harbor near the two salt lakes called lymans – definitely a version of “Léman,” the French name for Lake Geneva. Most locals however, were sure that it was the town’s special name for a salty lake. The beach was a bare, long stretch of golden sand with no trees to protect it against the burning sun. And it was burning!
We jumped onto the pier before the gangplank was completely lowered from the boat, ran towards the beach and then to the left, where a group of rocks was jutting out of the water. As at every beach, this one had its own prize location. Alex staked the spot with our shoes and clothes. Boys seldom used a beach towel – we liked hot sand against our skin.
After a brief survey of the girls on the beach, we went to play the first game of the day. We played many beach games, but the most popular was underwater tag. The guy who was “it” could only tag while fully submerged. So, in reality, the final ten or fifteen seconds of a chase were always done diving. To be good at this game, one has to play the role of fish and crab: hide behind the underwater rocks and, above all, hold one’s breath. We all could do incredible things as far as not breathing was concerned.
I got tagged. It was my turn. The players were all treading water in a circle around me. I set out to get a blondish, tall boy who had taken down Alex in a soccer game the day before. I dove to disguise my intentions. Immediately everybody submerged to see whether I was coming their way. I went all the way down and around my target. When I was almost out of air and about to tag him, he saw me, came up to the surface and started rapidly swimming toward the rocks. I followed. Just before the rocks, he dove. I did the same. Underwater I looked all around, but he was gone. The rocks proved to be the best hiding places during a chase. But I was not about to let him go. There were three rocks to the right of the place where he disappeared, one small and two large. The angle of the morning sun, piercing through several feet of water, was such that only the left most rock and I were illuminated. The other two rocks stood in the dark. If he was there, he must be behind the dark rocks where he could see me approaching in the sun. I pretended to change my target, turned left, went around the rock in the light and came up to the surface. Once there, I made a sharp right and swam several yards. I figured he had no more than five seconds before he must come up. I waited. Several seconds later he came up two yards from me. I dove. He dove too. He had to do that or be tagged on his feet. This part of the pursuit lasted only several seconds; he did not have enough time on the surface to mount a serious resistance. I felt like a cat who had earned his keep with a good catch.
When I got up to the surface and turned to see the new chase, a girl in a red swimming cap, using powerful strokes, swam swiftly past me towards the beach. I climbed up on a tall, rugged rock with a flat top to get a better look at her. The girl’s name was Lorie. We had gone to the same kindergarten and school, and had lived on the same block. I remember us playing together in the street when we were in fifth grade. She was one of the guys. I had never taken a second look. In the evenings, we all used to climb up on the tall brick fence of the outdoor movie theater. We would sit on the fence, eat roasted sunflower seeds and watch movies we were not supposed to see. Lorie’s father was in the Navy and they had been away for three years. One day I had seen her again. She was different, she had grown up. She was tall and slim and had a graceful, royal walk. She looked majestic and unapproachable. Her blond hair had grown darker, accenting very light, grey eyes. She must have had those eyes before. Why had I not seen them? I was gone.
I had been in love since the beginning of spring. And the more I saw her, the more I was in love. The more I was in love, the more I was afraid to come up and talk to her. It had never been like that before. I did not like the feeling in my stomach each time I saw her. I knew I had to do something. Yesterday I had a serious talk with Alex. We had decided that not revealing to her at least some of my feelings might have an adverse effect on my character in the future. Alex was struggling through Freud’s “Psychopathology of Everyday Life,” and such was his interpretation.
After a decision had been made, I still hoped that I wouldn’t have to do it. Maybe the feeling would go away or I wouldn’t see her for a while. It did not work out that way. That very evening we had stumbled into each other. She was with her girlfriend.
“Hi, Lorie,” I heard my voice. It was a funny sound.
“I need to talk to you.”
Alex was already ushering her girlfriend aside with an instant conversation. God, he could do it so easily. With this beginning, the simple: “You know there is a new movie in town. Let’s go and see it next week,” wouldn’t work.
“You probably know that I have a crush on you,” I said. I couldn’t believe what I was saying. It was all Alex’s Freud.
“I don’t know about a crush, but you do look at me like you never saw me before.”
“Yes, I know. I can’t help it. Maybe, if we would spend some time together, I would stop feeling that way and then we could be friends as before.”
“Fine. How about this new movie tomorrow, with Brigitte Bardot? What is the name? Oh yes, “Babette Goes to War.” Everybody says it is very good. But this time, not on a fence, please. Let’s buy tickets.” She smiled.
I was still following Alex’s advice and it worked even better than my teacher had expected.
“Agreed. At five then, at the Orion theater.” She walked up to her friend, took her arm and they continued along the boulevard. The audience was over.
Did she like me or was she just flirting? I did not know. Alex was laughing: “It is your wonderful looks.” I chased him for a while trying to kick his butt for making fun of my predicament. Through all this staring at her swimming and day dreaming about our date tonight, I forgot the game I had been involved in so passionately just a moment ago.
“Are you playing or what?,” the guys shouted from below.
“No. I think I will lie on this rock in the sun for a while.”
After further contemplation I swam back to the beach to join a soccer game in progress. The rest of the morning passed quickly. Games followed one another and then, exhausted and hungry we went home.
Oh yes, the lunch. I guess it was always so special because it came after the burning sun of the beach, when you could still smell and taste the salt of the sea. The lunch served as a complement to the salty sea water, much like the beer sold at the town’s concession stands was a complement to the heavily salted dry fish called “taranka”. The town’s inhabitants seemed to indulge a lot in salt/anti-salt food combination, especially in the summer. As I later learned, most of the cooking the town was so famous for, had direct relatives in several European coastal cuisines.
My Mom’s best lunch combination I remember, was her Home Fries dish. Finely cut garlic was added to very thinly sliced potatoes fried in oil. The result was sautéed in a small amount of water and then finished by mixing in some eggs, scrambled together with the fries. A glass of milk rounded out the meal. My mouth still waters just thinking of it. When I would eat, Mom would sit with me, using this time as a break in her daily chores. My Mom loved to watch her kids eat, and I loved to watch her watching us.
Sometime after lunch would come a nap, the town’s version of a siesta. I usually used so much energy, and played so hard, that my body needed a short rest before starting at it again. My nap would last an hour or so, and I would be ready for the evening.
It was the beginning of the sixties. Clothes were important to teens. My outfit for tonight consisted of a shirt and a pair of trousers, both made out of the same thin, grey “Prince of Wales” pattern cloth. My mother had bought the material just a month ago. I had personally selected the design from the “borrowed” page of a foreign fashion magazine. The borrowing had occurred at the best tailor shop in town. Alex knew the tailor’s daughter – it is a long story. I had helped Mom with the cutting and sewing. It had been a joint effort. We were both proud. It was a cross between a futuristic military uniform and a jump suit. My sisters were envious – Mom said I sewed better than either one of them. Nowadays, if I want to tease them, I remind them that Mom thought I was better at sewing.
At five to five I was at the movie theater. Behind my back I held the rose I had cut the night before from the bushes in front of the Opera House. I didn’t know how I was going to give it to her. I had never given flowers to anybody besides my mother, my sisters, and my teachers on the first day of classes. But this was different. The rose had spent the night in my desk drawer. I did not need any comments from my sisters. Alex was enough. She came on time. Her slim, brown body was framed in a simple, white dress, like those worn by the young, Spanish women in a movie I had seen a week ago. The last couple of yards she covered with a bouncing semi-run, coming to a stop in front of me.
“Hi. I’m not late, am I? I don’t have a watch.”
“No, you’re not. Hi.”
I brought the flower out. “This is for you. Do you like roses?”
“Yes, very much, thank you.”
I bought our tickets, refusing the money she offered. The guy at the door tore the tickets in half without looking at the bearer. He was busy admiring the “vision in white.” I also kept looking at her in that funny, dumbfounded way – I had to stop.
She smiled and said: “You’re doing it again. You promised.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m sorry, I’ll stop now.”
The theater was old from before the war. We entered the foyer. It was hot and smelled of dusty, old velvet chairs and curtains. Inside, to the right of the entrance, behind one of the curtains, there was a door into the theatre seating area, which seated about three hundred people. To the left, a set of open double doors led to a small cafe. There, amidst several tables stood a queue. It lined up in front of a glass counter in the far corner. An older lady, wearing a light blue dress, sold sweets, ice cream and fruit water from behind the counter. We bought a bottle of fruit water and sat down in the corner opposite the counter.
There were still fifteen minutes till the show. Lorie told me about the three years her family had spent away in the small Navy town in the Crimea and about her new friends and hobbies. And I told her about our street and what happened in this little world of mine. I felt like I was talking to an old friend who had gone away for a while, but had now come back. I realized then that she was helping me get over the shyness I felt around her. On the way inside to see the movie she was still majestic, but not unapproachable. I did not know whether I had found a girlfriend, but I was sure I had found a friend. Many times after this movie date I have met women who would make a guy feel comfortable, removing some of the “put on” game that is often played on early dates. This shows character. A person like that has always turned out to be real. But this was my first experience.
After the movie we walked through the center of the town and talked about the movie and Brigitte Bardot. We passed a tall government building. A large old clock with Roman numerals was hanging from the ornate iron bar over the building entrance. Lorie pointed out that the clock was identical to that in the movie. I looked up at the clock.
“Oh no! I’m sorry, I just realized that I have to go soon. I have a date with the guys. Can we see each other later?” I said looking guilty. I felt sorry the time together had to end so abruptly.
“Oh… After everybody goes to sleep. Can you sneak out?”
She looked at me for a few seconds, and said matter-of-factly: “OK. Come around my window after midnight. If I can get away without waking up my parents, I will.”
I walked her home and then ran to meet my friends. I had four close friends. Over the years the group had enlarged to include three more. This is definitely still one of the dearest part of my life. And although we are now spread all over the world, we still see each other at every opportunity our adult life gives us. The exact time when these friendship were established seems to keep rolling back as we grow older. But that summer we were fifteen and we were together.
Usually, in the summer, before going for a ritual evening walk at the seaside boulevard, we would meet in the center of town. The meeting was on the street at “our place.” It was a busy street corner. The sidewalk was separated from the roadway by a railing made of thin metal pipes, painted in different colors. When I arrived all of them were already there, sitting on the railing, with accusatory poses. I was seventeen minutes late. The rule was: If you were late, you had to pay one buck for every five minutes – that is, if the rest of the gang had to wait. Tonight we all had plenty of time. I paid my “fine,” and it went into the “entertainment” fund. It was getting to be quite an account, and the restless group was about to select an appropriate way to celebrate. We decided on a cold, dry white wine and smoked fish combination. And since we had some money, we wanted the good stuff.
It is not that all of the good things were either in my or my friends’ neighborhoods, but this is where we had the best intelligence. And hence, the fish came from several guys who lived in my building. They would smoke it under the sun on their balconies. The process was long and the smell was even longer. They would get a lot of grief from the neighbors, but the result was worth all the smell and the waiting. It was a delicacy. It was also relatively cheap. We paid for the fish and went to get the wine. The wine this summer was supplied by an old man who lived in the building next to Alex’s. Our town was situated in what people sometimes call the wine belt of the northern hemisphere, and many town inhabitants would try their hand at making wine from the multitude of wine grapes growing in the surrounding areas.
We arrived at the old man’s small apartment at around eight o’clock. The table in his kitchen was always ready to receive customers. We sat around the table where, in addition to the house wine (in the true meaning of the word), there were chopped onions, field-fresh tomatoes and some goat cheese. The old man was very proud of this year’s wine, and I must say it was pretty good. The wine was a Chablis with beautiful green highlights and a dry, but slightly fruity taste. We bought enough for each of us to have a glass. We ate and drank and talked. It was nice. I personally thought that the host derived more satisfaction from the people around his table than the small amount of money they left behind.
After a chewing tea leaves session to kill the smoked fish odor, we finally headed for the boulevard. The boulevard had a profound name – “The Seaside Boulevard.” One side of it was lined by tall classical buildings, the other side by an esplanade with three alleys. Up against the esplanade, a park set in a gradual slope led to a fifty feet drop, the port and the sea beyond. The alleys, one large and two smaller ones, were separated by rows of trees and old-fashion iron benches with wooden seats. A long time ago, someone decided to have only two kinds of trees in the alleys: the chestnut and the plane-tree. And so the alleys were always full of chestnuts, in their needle covered suits, green or brown, depending on the season. Amidst this chestnut picture stood plane-trees shedding bark, nude with their dresses at their feet.
The boulevard was divided into two quarter-mile segments joined by a small square. In the middle of this square stood a tall, nineteenth century bronze statue of the town’s first mayor and the governor of the surrounding region. The line of buildings broke in front of the square and a wide stately street, running perpendicular to the boulevard, looked straight at the back of the governor. The face of the governor, however, looked in the opposite direction. He was dressed in a toga and crowned with a wreath. With his right hand he pointed at the sea below, and in his left he held a tube of rolled up sheets of papyrus. Before him, a majestic sweep of stairs cut through the park and connected the boulevard with the port.
There were many interpretations of the first governor’s pose with his back towards the town. The appearance of his left hand holding the tube, observed from a certain angle, also produced a mischievous reading. Not all of the interpretations were respectful, but invariably very funny.
We got to the boulevard around nine o’clock. Teenagers were already taking over the territory. Their noise was pushing the young couples from the alleys to the privacy of the park below. The older, married folk, were staying to be amused by this teen spectacle, and some to watch over their children as they passed by on their rounds from one end of the boulevard to the other.
Walking the alleys was the town’s equivalent of cruising. Some in our group knew the girls they wanted to meet tonight. The guys and the girls were in situ there in groups and we had to arrange our strategic position in such a way as to give everybody an opportunity to talk.
It was wonderful to take part in this ritual. It was a friendly, exciting game, and that night I was in the position of an observer and did not have to actively participate. In fact, when we passed Lorie sitting on a bench with a group of girls, we just smiled at each other like two conspirators. I had to give it to Alex, he was a gentleman – he did not mention Lorie to anyone and did not ask me a single question.
After the cruising was over we sat on a bench to discuss a “thousand things.” These late, hot summer night conversations and discussions had a rhythm of their own. They could start with a soccer match, move to the organization of the world of the future, and then finish with the meaning of life – with everything in between.
Tonight’s conversation was winding down, and we slowly started moving towards the town. Our route home consisted of several “parting points,” where a group of two or three would leave to turn into their neighborhood. At my parting point, two of us said goodbye. It took five minutes. Since a discussion was still going on, one had to find an appropriate disengagement agreement. We turned into our street and headed to our homes concluding the finer points of the conversation. As we were talking, my mind was already occupied with another topic. We said good night and I went back to see Lorie.
Lorie lived one block from the sea. Her apartment was on the first floor. The window of her room was about seven feet from the ground and faced the large courtyard of the building. As in every bedroom in town, during the summer night, this window was open to let the cooler air in (it was difficult to call it cool, but still…). But the window of her parents’ bedroom next to hers was also open. Lorie was sitting on the edge of her window holding a grey and white cat. She needed to get down to the ground without making noise. When she saw me, she made a sign for me to clear the landing strip. I stepped back. First came the cat, and then Lorie with approximately the same grace and silence. We went out towards the sea: Lorie, I and the grey and white cat.
The U-shaped building, the last one on the right side of the street before the set of steps leading to the port, had one of its sides facing the sea. In the middle of this side, in a commanding position, stood a light structure – a small open gazebo overlooking the port below. It was round. The base of the gazebo was five feet tall and made of large stones and mortar. Tall metal rods cemented in the base supported a cone-shaped thin metal roof. The rods and connecting grill works were painted black and formed a circle at the edge of the base. It was a place I will always remember. For me the word “romantic” has an image – this gazebo.
We walked up the steps and sat on the bench. Lorie took my hand and said: “It may seem strange to you that I agreed to meet you so eagerly. I guess, it’s my turn to tell you. I liked you when we used to play on the street together and I still do, very much. And I would love to try to be friends and spend time together. And if you want to call it a crush, I suppose it is. There, I said it.”
As she was saying it I looked down at my shoes. I felt good, but very shy. I knew that I had to say something right, but did not know what. I collected the small remains of my bravery, raised my head, and softly kissed her.
We held hands in silence for a while longer. From where we sat, we could see the entire harbor. The port was full of small lights and the full moon was showing the route through the harbor and up the sweep of stairs to the governor at the gates of the town.
“I think we should go. I don’t want my parents to discover I am not in bed,” she said.
We went back, this time with the cat leading the way and us holding hands. At her window we kissed again and I helped her and the cat to climb into her room.
I ran up the stairs of our apartment and quietly moved though the hall to my room. On the table there was the customary large glass of milk and a piece of sweet bread – my Mom’s good night treat. The night was very hot and I made my bed on the floor of the balcony.
Getting ready to sleep, I thought how lucky I was. I lived in a great town by a warm, beautiful sea. I was young and full of hope for the future. I had my family, wonderful friends and now I was going out with a “vision in white”, who liked me “very much.” And tomorrow the southern sun would rise again to re-light this special world of mine.