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And, I supposed, we needed him to meet us there too, or at least it felt that way when we left our hotel and got into the cab to go to the station. What I felt, climbing into that car with my suitcase, packed lightly so that there would be room to bring things back if we wanted, and still light now as we were leaving — what I felt then was a mix of emptiness (unnerving emptiness, because, in the end, Kishinev was only a place, and it was a place that did not belong to me), sadness (because I was sorry to be leaving this sweet, green little city, cradle of my oldest and favorite imaginings), and relief (because the pressure was off: finally, we no longer needed to talk about Dad’s past, and could just travel and hang out together). Outside of these feelings, though, I was aware that I wanted something else, something for Dad: I wanted the city to make some kind of gesture, some small overture that showed it was sorry he was leaving. And so I looked forward to seeing Vladek at the station. I was grateful that he, at least, would be there to say goodbye.
We didn’t see him when we arrived, though. We found the conductor and our car, lifted our suitcases onto the train, and then, once we’d examined our little room — it was an overnight train, to Bucharest, and we were traveling first-class — went back outside with our luggage. Dad had been talking for months, since long before the trip began, about how dangerous this train ride would be — how certain it was that someone, some Romanian, he said, would try to rob us — and so there was no way we’d be leaving our things out of sight.
We stood there with our suitcases, out on the platform in the August sun, and as I scanned the exits of the indoor part of the station, I tried not to let Dad see that I was anxious for Vladek to arrive. When he did, finally, come shuffling toward us, apologizing for being late, he came carrying a stuffed plastic shopping bag, some kind of gift. “No no no,” Dad said, “I can’t take this from you,” but Vladek insisted: “Please. These are some of my greatest treasures.”
Still Dad resisted, told Vladek he should keep his own treasures, though I knew he’d relent; and after Vladek said that he had no one else to give them to, Dad accepted the bag.
They embraced. Vladek had dressed up, I realized, to come to the train station — he was wearing a collared shirt and slacks — and I wondered if he’d ever vacationed in his life, ever left this station on a train just for pleasure. He clung to Dad the same way he had the other night. I could hear him whimpering like a child; I could see that Dad was ready to let go but that Vladek wasn’t, was gripping Dad fiercely; and I felt bad for having wished up this kind of display.
Then a man in a suit, with coat and tie, tapped Dad on the shoulder, forcing them to release each other. At first I thought the person was a conductor or a station attendant — was there something wrong with Vladek’s being on the platform? — and then I saw that it was Yuri.
Yuri: one of a group of high school classmates we’d had dinner with earlier that week. He’d never been a close friend, Dad had told me, but since that dinner Yuri had called Dad several times just to talk, arranged to meet us for coffee, visited us at the hotel with a box of chocolates just for me. At first Dad seemed pleased — at the dinner, Yuri had asked if he might call, and when he did, Dad stretched out on the couch with his feet up, chatting for more than an hour, getting gossip, hearing old news: who was sick, who had died, how the city’s geography had changed.
After the visit with the chocolates, though, when Yuri had lingered awkwardly in the doorway for almost an hour, thinking of more things to say while Dad tried to tell him goodbye, Dad told me: “I think he thinks I can help him get out of here. He keeps talking to me about some friend in Germany, keeps telling me he might try to go to Germany like he thinks I can do something.”
“Can you do something?”
“I don’t think so. Maybe for a good friend — for a really good friend I might try something, but even
then … Do you know how hard it was to work things out for Fanya and Anna?”
Now, at the train station, Yuri broke up Dad and Vladek’s hug, and when Dad introduced the men to each other, I could tell from Vladek’s demeanor that he would defer to Yuri, would let him direct the last-minute interactions of our little gang. God. I hoped Vladek knew we hadn’t planned this — I could understand Yuri explaining to Dad that he’d looked at the train schedule, knowing we’d be leaving today; that he’d come to see off the morning train to Bucharest and then, because he hadn’t found us at that departure, had come again now. Vladek would understand this, too, of course, but he wasn’t even really looking at them, maybe wasn’t listening at all.
Of our entire month in Russia, this moment on the platform was the one time that I really, deeply wished I could speak Russian. If I spoke Russian, I thought, I would say something to Vladek, would make something up to distract him from the awful scene playing out now between Yuri and Dad, in which Yuri chattered on, trying to force another two boxes of chocolate into Dad’s hands, and Dad tried unsuccessfully, again and again, to turn away toward his older friend. Yuri’s sports coat stank of sweat and bore a dusting of dandruff on its shoulders. He walked and stood in a broken way — one of his legs was much shorter than the other — and I should’ve felt sorry for him, but that day I despised him.
I met Vladek’s eye and smiled, willing him to understand my meaning: you and your gift are not secondary, but he just looked away without returning my grin. Because of the torrent of Yuri’s words, the urgency of whatever he was saying to Dad, and the one pink and slightly dusty box of chocolates that Dad eventually accepted (he convinced Yuri to keep the other) — because of that, Vladek didn’t get a chance to say much of anything else before the second whistle, the boarding whistle, blew.
We climbed aboard — Dad and Vladek hugged once more; Yuri kissed my hand with his dark, wet lips and then insisted on helping us carry our suitcases into the train – and once Yuri was finally gone from our room, once a conductor had shooed him out of the hall, we waved at them both through the window. Vladek had taken out his handkerchief, which he used both to wave and to wipe at his eyes; he was crying again. In front of him, slightly turned as if to block Vladek’s view, stood Yuri, waving in wild desperation. The train pulled away, and I wondered if they would talk to each other after we were gone, if they would have anything to say.
We didn’t open Vladek’s bag of treasures until much later, sometime during the night, after we’d crossed into Romania, the wheels on the train noisily and laboriously changed to fit the narrower, non-Soviet tracks. By then we were both in our pajamas, side by side on two hard, narrow beds that folded out to cover our luggage. We’d met some of our neighbors in first-class: a couple of Peace Corps members from Wisconsin who offered me a pocket pack of Kleenex to carry to the bathroom so that I wouldn’t have to use the provided toilet paper, which they told us was scratchy and brown; a couple of Israelis from Kishinev who, it turned out, knew Fanya and Anna, had lived in the same neighborhood as them for years. “You’re Fanya’s brother?” they exclaimed. “Unbelievable! Well, maybe not; all of us Kishinev Jews know each other. Send her our regards — it’s a small world.” When I returned from the bathroom everyone had been mystified that I’d chosen not to use the Kleenex.
In Vladek’s plastic bag Dad and I could discern that some tightly packed papers — newspapers and pamphlets — surrounded a very used, very worn shoebox. “Should I open it now?” Dad asked. “What do you think?” When I said yes, he peeled off the tape that held the box closed. Inside, it seemed, was only more of the same: pamphlets; maps; some ancient travel guides for Soviet countries; ten or twenty small, unused photo calendars for years past. Dad began to sneeze — as we sifted through the papers, our hands grew dark with dust. “Shit. I am allergic to this crap,” he said, but he continued to flip through what was there, searching, I think, for some sort of “treasure.” At the bottom of the shoebox were a handful of Soviet pins, little medals.