I was born in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, in the middle of the year, in the middle of the twentieth century. I checked in screaming and gurgling, bloody red and violet with revolt and anger. What I really wanted to do was to delay everything by nineteen years, so I could be held up to the window looking at the moon while Armstrong lowered his foot into the powdery surface and uttered those famous words about small steps and giant steps. But I didn’t have the call on that. I came when I came.
The man who delivered me named me, in spite of my mother’s wishes. I was meant to be christened after Saint Paul. Instead, the obstetrician, who had a limited knowledge of history but a passion for chess and Ottoman Empire coffee, declared me a world conqueror. But what he didn’t realize in his atheist, intellectual pseudo-statement was that he named me for a saint after all. There are so many of them, you’re bound to hit a target if you just merely chuck the rock.
My mother, after being handed the blue and bloody baby, immediately asked for a cigarette. And then she held me to her breast, as was customary and to save face, because I was ugly. I had a crooked nose. It was almost fused to the left side of my cheekbone from having passed through the birth canal obtusely, in a hard, twenty-six-hour labour. In the coming weeks my father would “exercise” my snout, bending it first toward the opposite side, then slowly back to the center. Eventually it would be straight. And big. I took my paternal grandfather’s Greek proboscis. My father would claim victory over the defect. Victory through persistence and practice. My father would claim many things.
“Give me a cigarette, Yuri!”
Yuri, the obstetrician who delivered me was a substitute—on call that Wednesday afternoon. The man in whose pre-natal care my mother had been entrusted by the government the last thirty-nine weeks was on holiday at the Black Sea. At the moment I presented myself smeared in fetoplacental circulatory blood and matter, he was rolling a double-six on the backgammon board at a café in the coastal town of Eforie. His opponent, a Turk from Izmir who sold fur pelts from a kiosk at night, and corn on the cob from a steaming bucket during the hot days on the beach, had just raised the odds to 32. The instant double-sixes had settled on the board, I wailed with my first breath in a sterile room, two hundred kilometers to the west.
And that’s when my mother insisted on having a Kent.
I had fluid in my lungs. But there was nothing they could do about it save holding me upside down a few minutes every hour, letting the yellowish substance trickle down. Nowadays they call the condition Transient Tachypnea of the Newborn, and if you happen to check in with it, they stick all kinds of tubes down your throat and take blood samples every four hours, pricking your little, newborn heels and squeezing the drops into a vile.
After they wiped me down, they took me away, and my mother and father did not see me for three weeks. During her recovery, my mother ate fatty chicken soup with pieces of skin floating in the bowl.
My father was a good cook. He had learned basic peasant cooking techniques living eighteen years in his birth village in the northeast, just on the border with the U.S.S.R. He’d learned how to make polenta with chunks of head cheese, and stuff ground meat into pork casings as a boy, to help out his mother who would have to deal with her abusive, alcoholic husband most nights. Later my father would eat the same greasy broth, as he lay in a hospital bed with half his colon cut away by a negligent doctor.
In the weeks that the hospital cared for me, giving me oxygen and continuous positive airway pressure, my mother learned how to fold and wash diapers in icy cold water, tightly swaddle a baby despite excruciatingly hot July weather, and from the pediatrician assigned to her by the state, she dutifully noted that, in order to keep me on schedule and under control, she should insert suppositories into my rectum every four to six hours.
My Greek maternal grandfather was called Xenofon Panaides. He was a strange, tall, Renaissance man trapped in the wrong half of the century, in the wrong country. He worked for decades in quality control at a rivets factory in Ploesti before the Allies bombed the refineries of the city in 1942. He was a daydreamer before the world had heard of Walter Mitty. He played himself in chess during his lunch breaks on a small, foldable board he had manufactured out of old shoe boxes and fabric in his outdoor kitchen, with pieces he had carved out of wood every Sunday for sixteen months. He taught himself English from old Hornby books, and had begun the daunting task of translating every work by Shakespeare into Romanian–for his own pleasure. He wrote short plays and stories, the manuscripts of which he kept in a large box under his bed and which no one read while he was alive. (Hardly anyone read them after he died) He studied the violin and could play Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” with amazing speed and accuracy. He adored Herbert von Karajan and often listened to his beloved phonograph record of the Vienna Philharmonic’s version of “Faust.” But what grandfather Panaides loved the most was photography. Later, as a retired man slowly worked down by lung cancer, he would wake up at four in the morning, get on his bicycle, and pedal furiously out of town to catch the sunrise over the still charred oil fields at Brazi. Once, he got as far as Targoviste for a shot which he later over developed in his improvised darkroom. He failed to mix a proper stop bath and when he poured the working solution into the developing tank, the solution failed to neutralize the developer and arrest the developing process.
When I was almost six, he taught me the Latvian Gambit:
1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 f5
At this point several possible moves by White have been studied, of which the most important are:
3.Nxe5 – the main line. Now after the usual 3…Qf6 (3…Nc6?!, the so-called “Corkscrew Counter Gambit”, is also known, to which 4.d4! is a good response), White chooses between 4. d4 d6 5. Nc4 fxe4 and the immediate 4. Nc4, which has the advantage of allowing White to open the center with d3, for example 4…fxe4 5.Nc3 Qg6?! 6.d3 exd3? 7. Bxd3 Qxg2? and now White is winning after 8. Qh5 + Kd8 (or 8…g6 9. Qe5 + and 10. Be4) 9. Be4.
(Twenty-eight years later, American grandmaster Joel Benjamin will claim that this sensible developing move refutes the Latvian:
In his outdoor kitchen on a shelf high above the stove, grandfather Panaides had an impossibly thick book of problems, combinations, and games edited by Polgár. The few times he hauled it down and allowed me to thumb through it very carefully and methodically, I smelled mildew and bacon rising off the yellow, delicate pages. The acrid odor made me sneeze every time. In the unabridged chess bible, I came across the names of Mikhail Botvinnik, Samuel Reshevsky, Herman Steiner, Arthur Bisquier, and a strange American named Robert Fisher.
In May 1949, the six-year-old Fischer learned how to play chess from instructions found in a chess set that was bought at a candy store below his Brooklyn apartment. He saw his first chess book a month later. For over a year he played chess on his own. At age seven, he began to play chess seriously, joining the Brooklyn Chess Club and receiving instruction from its president, Carmine Nigro.
In June, 1955 Grandfather Panaides taught me the Latvian Gambit. And across the Atlantic Ocean, in a country which Grandfather Panaides had loved ever since he was a boy, but which he would never see in his lifetime, Bobby Fisher joined the Manhattan Chess Club, one of the strongest in the world.
My other grandfather, dad’s dad, couldn’t grasp the reasonable and beautiful logic of chess. The head wounds he’d suffered in World War II as an infantry man left him with the inability to see or understand the diagonal, and so the Bishop, the Queen, and the King were rendered useless. As well, the en passant. Dad’s dad was conscripted into the Romanian army on 29 November, 1940—just four days after the country joined the Axis by signing the Tripartite Pact. In July, 1941 during a break in action on the Eastern front, his helmet off, he straightened himself out of the trench to light a cigarette. The Russian sniper bullet came in from the forest line, a kilometer away, and had it been a few millimeters lower dad’s dad would’ve taken his last breath on earth inhaling a shitty Marasesti cigarette. The second time he was clipped by a deadly piece of lead was in May, 1944 at the Battle of Targul Frumos when the Romanians were forced to switch sides and become allies of the Soviets. This time the bullet took out a piece of skull and left a trench running from the top of his forehead to the back of the head. Thus dad’s dad had the only distinction of being shot twice in the head by either warring side, and having survived both times.
Though dad’s dad couldn’t grasp the rules of chess, he excelled at backgammon—a game I finally learned at the age of thirty-five, living in Damascus, Maryland with a woman who had been in such a horrific car accident that the imprint of the Pontiac’s steering wheel insignia was visible on her sternum two years after the awful wreck. She and I played endless best-of-seven tournaments, while she was convalescing.
Grandfather Panaides loved dark chocolate. Every time he came to Bucharest to stay and visit with us in the small flat he brought a thick bar just for me. Chocolate, especially the dark kind, was extremely expensive and very hard to find in those times (any basic food was), and so he deduced that its rareness and exceptional quality would make the perfect (semi) sweet present for a child. I hated it. I barely tolerate it now. But I was told, via a leather belt to the thighs, to make concessions. We all lived within concessions then.
My country was a land of contradictions. We did not have water three days per week, yet we owned a West German Water Pik. (In spite of that I had the most horrendous cavities as a child and later, in America, would need months of painful, follow-up work for crowns and bridges and root canals, coincidentally done by Dr. Janas, a Greek immigrant living comfortably in Elyria, Ohio and a friend of a friend of my pediatrician in Bucharest).
We did not have religion (the State was officially atheist) but we went to church every Christmas and Easter eve and held lit candles in silent vigil alongside hundreds of faithful followers. Our priests were secret police informers, but were trusted with even the basic secrets like showing up for mass (men of cloth kept detailed notes on who was present at their sermons).
The government required every citizen to be a member of the Communist Party, yet both my parents didn’t carry party cards. They had fallen through a loophole, which allowed all students from age 6 to be part of a socialist pioneer youth union—and when they finished their higher studies at university, they fell through the bureaucratic cracks of the Communist system via membership in a student socialist labour movement, and never officially graduated into the Party.
There were dozens and dozens more contradictions like that and we lived among all of them, traversing and hopping around and on them like frogs playing hopscotch on water lilies. The one that makes me laugh even now is our car. We owned a sparkling new Dacia 1300, a Renault knockoff, which basically stood parked on the street under a canvas cover, weathered with yellow and grey stains, for years. My father took out the battery the day the car was bought, and placed it under the sink in our kitchen where it lived until he and I emigrated. We had no food, but we had a brand new car which we never used. Many things made no sense. But we accepted them. We lived in the absurd, which rendered us cynical but forgiving. It also instilled in us a fantastic sense of humour, although it seems something was lost in the transmission between generations and I ended up basically unable to deliver even a knock-knock joke.
Gorilla cheese sandwich!
I told you.