Peter Lansky was on the verge of making the worst decision of his life. He had been perseverating all week and now, as he stood in the bathroom of the Stone Bluff Country Club in Gloucester, Massachusetts, it was almost time to decide. There was no right answer. His heart dictated one solution and logic told him another. This decision didn’t just affect Peter. Someone else’s life hung in the balance as well; a person he knew from 30 years ago, and fatefully ran into a few days earlier.
Peter had recognized him immediately. The man’s face had been forever scorched into Peter’s memory. He had grown older, but the cruel young doctor from Peter’s youth was still there. The doctor who operated on Peter without any sort of anesthetic and smiled while doing it, was still apparent through the aged mask the man seemed to be wearing. The doctor who diligently wrote down observations on a clipboard as Peter’s body nearly went into shock and his cells screamed out of his skin and pores, was still alive. The doctor that pulled out Peter’s tooth because it was partially gold and laughed when Peter began to beg for medicine after the procedure, had somehow regained entry into Peter’s closely guarded life.
Now he was staring at himself in the mirror, studying his own image. The invisible and visible scars of a complicated life stared back at him. His face was complex and layered and hinted at a hard, tragic past. But the mirror didn’t tell all Peter’s story. The tattooed number on his forearm told much more. The permanent mark was given to him on the same day he said goodbye to his mother and his sisters without even knowing he was saying goodbye, a goodbye that was merely an empty stare between fear filled bodies. Peter, his father and his uncle were prodded one way and his mother and two sisters were forced to go the other. As he recalled the memory, his heart began to pound in his chest and the bathroom walls began to close in. Peter splashed water on his face, wiped his hands on his stained white apron, took a deep breath and headed back to work.
Peter only needed to see him for a few moments to know that this was the same person. This man, who had apparently started a new life in America, was the same cruel monster who had helped rob Peter of all that was precious to him as a young man. The doctor had a loving family, while Peter did not. The doctor had two beautiful daughters, one of whom had been married to a handsome young man just moments earlier, while Peter did not have a family. The doctor managed to move forward with his life. Peter merely managed to crawl sideways like a scavenger holding onto scraps of a life he had once dreamed possible. The doctor had found success. Peter had been in and out of a bottle, clinging only to a career in the kitchen, a career that barely kept alive a memory of his father. Being a chef was the only thing left that remotely connected him to his father.
Now he was in the kitchen preparing an elaborate wedding dinner as he had done hundreds of times. This time was different. A cruel or splendid twist of fate had presented this opportunity before him. The father of the bride, the man who organized this wedding for his daughter, who clearly loved and adored his family, was not at all who he appeared to be. And Peter knew this to be true. There was not a shred of doubt in his mind that this was the same man. Peter’s head had been spinning since he met the man one week ago as they went through the final prep for the wedding dinner. As soon as he heard the man’s voice and looked at the man’s face, he had been unable to think straight and was struggling to breathe. At first he felt like a cornered animal, but gradually a feeling of power began to take over Peter. He had a responsibility to expose this man as the cruel doctor he was. But merely exposing him didn’t seem good enough and besides what proof did he have? Who would believe a 50 year-old drifter, who had been in and out of rehabs and institutions?
The transition to America had taken its toll on Peter. He was 19 and barely a hundred pounds when he left Buchenwald. Part of him never really left the camp. He was plucked from it 31 years earlier in April of 1945, and the stench of Buchenwald had somehow always remained with Peter. Before coming to America on a visa, he had searched Poland and Germany for any surviving family members. He knew his uncle and father were dead. He had seen both of them take their last breaths, but he was unsure of the fate of his mother and sisters. From what he knew, he had assumed that his younger sister had probably been murdered quickly, but the rest was never confirmed. He was alone and never really fit in. He took cooking jobs where he could, seeking out other refugees to help him find work and places to live. He traveled around for a while, before settling along the coast of Massachusetts. He had been here for almost nine years and had been sober for seven of those years. Gloucester was the closest thing Peter had to a home and it was all about to change.
He had to kill the doctor. There was no other option. Peter’s shattered heart and splintered life demanded it. Nothing else seemed to fit the man’s crimes. After deliberating for a long time on the doctor’s fate, Peter had decided to poison him. The poison, which was expensive and difficult to obtain, would make his death look like a heart attack. Then, Peter would do what he was best at, drift away in the wind and reinvent himself. Even if he was found and apprehended, no jail cell could compare to what he endured in his youth. It would be difficult to leave, as he was starting to grow roots here, but Peter had been preparing over the last few days. He had loaded a duffle bag with all his cash and most of his belongings. He would be leaving very little behind. From the bustle of the wait staff and the noises in the reception area, Peter could tell that the moment of truth had arrived. He could feel the doctor’s presence in the next room. For the first time in seven years, Peter poured himself a drink, but didn’t drink it yet. The tall bourbon sat, waiting to be consumed like a rich dessert after a rather expensive meal. This meal of fateful vengeance was about to cost Peter everything he had.
Peter breathed in deeply and took out the small paper packet containing the poison and stared at it. He held it in his hands for several slow seconds. He could hear disco playing in the other room. There was a steady bustle in the kitchen and a stream of servers coming and going. Finally, Peter added the poison and after he put the finishing touches on the doctor’s otherwise delectable lobster tail dinner, he explained to the waiter that he would personally deliver the meal. It was highly unusual for the head chef to bring out a meal, but no one questioned it. Peter opened the door to the reception hall. It was a beautiful, lively celebration that Peter was walking into. He couldn’t feel any of the joy that was alive in the room. He was wrapped in a self-absorbed, task driven blanket. Peter knew this was wrong. He was about to rob a family of all that was precious to them. It went against his whole nature, yet it somehow made perfect sense. This man was part of the machine that had taken away his family. And, how was it even remotely fair for this man to be surrounded by loving family and friends when all of those things had been denied to Peter. As his heart pounded in his chest, and as sweat began dripping out of every pore in his body, Peter forced himself to walk toward the bridal party.
As he approached the doctor’s table, the rest of the wait staff was also bringing plates over. The timing was impeccable. Peter’s throat seized up, and he was barely able to breathe as he witnessed the doctor laughing and talking with his wife. As he gingerly placed the plate in front of the doctor, a shrill buzzing took over his brain, canceling out the pulsing dance music that had previously filled his ears. As Peter looked up from the table, he made direct eye contact with the doctor. He had planned and hoped for this connection, but it was unlike anything he had expected. He did not see the cold, ruthless eyes of a killer. He saw something else in there; a bond, maybe a realization. It caught Peter by surprise and though they only looked at each other for a split second, their eyes had a conversation that seemed to fill up the last 30 years.
Peter headed back to the kitchen. Somehow he was able to nod to the wait staff as he walked back. He did not feel the sense of relief he thought delivering the doctor’s final meal would give him. Instead he was unnerved by the look in the doctor’s eyes. Had he done the right thing? Was it too late to take back the doctor’s dinner? Regret ran him over like a freight train. He walked over to his prep area and reached for the drink. He stared at the bourbon for a minute. He had thought about this as well. Sobriety had worked for him for seven years, but he had just delivered a fatal meal and surely this was a time to have a drink. As he put his hand around the glass, he heard the doctor’s unmistakable voice behind him. “We know each other.” It was not a question, but a statement. Peter dropped the glass of whiskey and pieces of glass exploded all over the floor, but he didn’t turn around.
“I saw the look in your eyes,” the doctor continued, “You recognized me.” Peter looked down and saw his kitchen knife sitting on the counter. Thinking completely by themselves, his fingers crept over and gripped the handle. At the same time, the doctor grabbed a dishrag that was nearby and bent down to clean up the spilled bourbon. The doctor finished wiping up the brown booze and began picking up shards of glass in his hand as he quietly spoke. “It has been a long time. There is nothing I can say to erase any memories you have of the past. There is also nothing I can say to excuse my behavior. What I was part of was an atrocity, an absolute atrocity. I was young like you. I was caught up like a lot of other people in the insanity of what was happening. What I did to you, and countless other people, constantly haunts my nightmares, as I’m sure it haunts yours. I am sorry. I am a thousand times sorry. I wish there was something I could do to erase the past. There isn’t. Instead I have focused on doing good today, on giving back, on being better. It is all that I can do now.” The doctor carefully stood up, his eyes fixed on the shattered glass in his hand. “If there is anything I can do to make this better, I will.”
Peter, his heart pounding in his chest, turned around to face the doctor. He was still holding the kitchen knife in his hand. Tears were streaming down the doctor’s face. Peter was dazed. “Are you going to kill me?” the doctor asked. Peter looked down and realized he was holding the knife. “I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to do it. I’ll give you my life if you think that would ease your pain.” Peter didn’t know what to say. He saw the doctor’s eyes again. They locked together. Peter felt like a boy again. The first time he met this doctor he wanted to trust him. And now, as he stood there in front of him, he wanted to trust him again. Peter dropped the knife. The doctor didn’t move. Peter had to search for his voice. He wasn’t sure what he would say, but his mouth finally functioned. Although noises were going on all around these two, it seemed to both of them that they were completely alone.
“Would you turn yourself in?” Peter asked meekly.
“Do you think that would solve anything? I can do more good helping people than I could in jail.” The doctor pleaded with Peter. “But, if you think that will help, if you think turning myself in will help you and help others, I will do it.” The doctor put the glass shards he had been holding on the counter. His hand was bleeding a little. “Let me get through my daughter’s wedding and we can talk about this. If you want me to turn myself after all this is done, I will.” The doctor looked earnestly at Peter awaiting some sort of affirmation.
“You asked if I was going to kill you.” Peter stammered, “The answer is yes. I was going to kill you. I had every intention until now. I poisoned your meal. That is why I delivered it to you personally. If you didn’t come in here, you would be dead right now.” The doctor’s face drained of all its color and his expression contorted into panic and distress.
“Jesus Christ. I gave my daughter my plate.” He turned and burst out of the kitchen.
At that moment, the sounds and sights and smells all came back to Peter. He heard panic and confusion coming from the function hall. The sounds of disco had been replaced with sobs and chaos. Peter’s survival skills kicked in. He came to life and looked around quickly. No one seemed to notice him. He reached under the counter, grabbed his duffle bag and, without looking back, left more pieces of his life behind.