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Authors: Ruta Sepetys

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BOOK: I Must Betray You
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[17 Oct. 1989]

Cristian Florescu (17), student at MF3 High School.

Observed Friday evening with Liliana Pavel (17), in 3rd sector, Salajan. After meeting in the street, the two quickly proceeded to a hidden spot where they engaged in clandestine discussion and the sharing of illegal items.

Advise monitoring.


We couldn’t stop laughing, drunk on contraband and sugar.

By the time we got to video night there was little room to move.

“You’re late,” whispered Starfish. “Movie’s starting. You’ll have to stand in the back. Is your sister coming?”

“No, she’s not coming. What’s the movie?” I asked.

“First movie is called
Die Hard

I leaned over and whispered to Liliana. “
Die Hard
. Bulă says they’re making an action film about Romania. It’s called
Live Hard

We laughed and Starfish told us to shut up. I wanted to brush Liliana’s hair from her face so I could see her eyes when she laughed. But I didn’t.

Over thirty people sat, crammed in the small, musty living room. Girls in the front, guys in the back. I spotted Luca among the boys. Arriving late had worked in my favor. I could stand against the wall, next to Liliana. In the dark, amidst the glow of the small television, I felt the press of her arm against mine. Did she feel it?

Video nights were forbidden. The Securitate could burst in at any time and haul us to headquarters. That only increased the excitement. The nervous energy in the room buzzed like a fizzy static over my entire body. I looked around. How did this video network function? It had to be big business. Who was duplicating the tapes and secretly
distributing them to neighborhood operators like Starfish? Starfish was probably making more money in one night than most Romanians made in a month. I once spied the Securitate agent in our building with a handful of videos. Had they been confiscated from a video night somewhere, or were they his own?

Everyone sat, hypnotized by the screen and the woman’s voice coming from it, speaking the dubbed Romanian translation. No one cared that the copies were poor and grainy. We’d watch four movies per night and be blissfully bleary-eyed by morning.

Liliana leaned in to whisper. “She’s replacing the swear words. Can you hear it? She’s using ‘Get lost’ for all the swears.”

Her mouth was so close to my ear. Liliana smelled like flowers—the type you smell on the air in spring but can’t find when you look for them. That smell, the press of her arm against mine, it made it difficult to concentrate and look at the TV. I wanted to look at her instead. But Liliana was right. The woman dubbing the English into Romanian was replacing the swear words.

“If you listen closely,” I told her, “sometimes you can also hear forbidden English words like ‘priest’ or ‘God.’ ”

She nodded then touched my hand. “Look! They’re drinking a Coke.”

“Be quiet or leave!” said a girl next to us.

We laughed but stopped talking. We didn’t want to be kicked out.

When I watched the movies, I generally tracked the plot. The stories were far-fetched yet fascinating. But Liliana absorbed detail. I decided to watch the film as I imagined she was watching it. And I noticed something.



The characters in foreign movies had both.

In Romania, jobs were assigned. Apartments were assigned. We had no choice.

But the characters in movies, they made their own decisions—what to eat, where to live, what kind of car to drive, what type of work to pursue, and who to speak to. They didn’t have to stand in line for food. If they turned on a faucet, hot water rolled out. If they didn’t like something, they complained out loud. It was crazy.

But crazier—the interactions. They looked at one another for extended periods without diverting their eyes.

There was an ease between them. Unspoken comfort.

They weren’t worried they might be standing next to an informer.

Like me.


Dan Van Dorn. Son of American diplomat Nick Van Dorn.

A chance acquaintance had become my assignment.

The diplomatic apartments my mother cleaned were near the U.S. Embassy on Strada Tudor Arghezi. The Van Dorn family had arrived four months prior, in June.

After reading the criticisms in the British travel guide, I often wondered what foreigners thought of Romania. The regime claimed that our beloved leader was respected in the West—considered a maverick of the Eastern Bloc—because he disagreed with the leadership of the Soviet Union. We saw reports of Ceauşescu being invited to meet with American presidents. We were told Americans admired our hero and Heroine Mother.

So when I’d caught a peek at Dan Van Dorn’s notebook shortly after we met, I was surprised. He was working in the living room while I sat nearby, waiting for my mother.

“Homework?” I asked.

“Nah, notes for my college admissions essay.”

“What’s the essay about?” I asked him.

“Romania. But the essays are a waste of time. I know I’m going to Princeton.”

“You’ve already been accepted?”

“No, but my dad went there. He’ll arrange it,” said Dan casually.

He’ll arrange it.
What did that mean?

I was curious to see what notes for a U.S. college essay looked like, so when he used the bathroom, I glanced at his notebook. I expected it to say that Romanians descended from Romans and Dacians. Or maybe something about Transylvania and our castles. But that’s not what it said.


  • Fear induces compliance. Nonconformists put in mental institutions.

  • Amnesty International reports human rights abuses.

  • Population is fed propaganda and kept in a state of ignorance by Ceauşescu and his wife (who have a third-grade education).

  • One U.S. ambassador resigned because Washington refused to believe reports that America has been outfoxed by Ceauşescu.


  • Romania received a shipment of twenty thousand Bibles from the U.S.—Ceauşescu turned them into toilet paper.

  • The President of France reports that the Ceauşescus stole everything from their diplomatic suite in Paris—lamps, artwork, even the bathroom faucets!

  • After the looting in France, Queen Elizabeth removed valuables from Buckingham Palace in fear that the Ceauşescus might steal them during their stay. The Queen knighted “Draculescu” anyway.

That’s all I’d had time to read.

At first, I was offended. Evil American. But the words, they circled my conscience.
Human rights abuses. Propaganda. Ignorance. Draculescu

After seeing Dan’s notebook, that’s when I decided to start a notebook of my own. I wrote in small type, in English. And I kept it hidden. Deep beneath my mattress of rugs, I had lifted the edge of the vinyl flooring to create a secret hiding pocket. At night in my closet, I filled the notebook with thoughts and feelings. I tried to use creative phrases and questions like Bunu had suggested:

Do you hear me?

Reciting jokes,

Laughing to hide tears of truth

That we are denied the present

With empty promises

Of an emptier future.

The list in Dan’s notebook—I thought about it constantly. I had even tried to ask Bunu about it a couple months prior when he was well enough to take some air outside.

, ladies!” Bunu had called up to the Reporters from the sidewalk. He lowered his voice and laughed. “An old man says hello. They’ll chew on that for at least thirty minutes, eh? Crazy country . . .”

That was my opportunity.

“Speaking of crazy, I heard some jokes that claimed some crazy things.”

Bunu’s thin wrinkled face turned toward mine. “What kind of things?”

“That the Ceauşescus stole stuff during their visit to France. Oh, and that they turned Bibles from the United States into toilet paper.”

Bunu spoke while staring straight ahead. “You heard those things in jokes, you say?”

I didn’t reply. I held Bunu by the arm as he shuffled very slowly
down the sidewalk. When he spoke, the usual twinkle was absent from his voice.

“Don’t repeat those ‘jokes.’ Ever. Do you hear me, Cristi? Not to anyone. Not to your sister, not to a friend, and especially not anywhere in public.”

Was he implying what I thought he was? I had to know.

“Bunu, has Ceauşescu outfoxed America?”

My grandfather stopped on the sidewalk. His frail hand reached for mine, and his cold, thin fingers squeezed, trembling against my palm.

He looked me straight in the eye.

“You’re smart, Cristian. Wisdom—thank god that’s something this country can’t take from you. But trust no one. Do you hear me? No one. Right now there is no such thing as a ‘confidant.’ ”

•   •   •

His words. They return to me often.

I remember walking with Bunu, thinking about trust. Who in life could we truly trust? What remains unseen, hunting through the shadows?

I had no idea then that within a few months I’d be an informer and Bunu’s words would ring so true.

I could trust no one.

Not even myself.


After two visits and two weeks, I still hadn’t seen Dan.

I waited for Mama in the hallway, outside the Van Dorns’ apartment. I hadn’t heard from Agent Paddle Hands, but if I wanted medicine for Bunu, I needed something to give him when I did. And finally, that evening Dan poked his head outside the door.

“Hey, Cristian. I thought you might be here. Come in. Your mom’s waiting for my parents.”

The Van Dorns’ apartment occupied nearly the entire floor of the building. It was a lemon bath of bright light warmed by the power grid of the U.S. Embassy down the street.

Antique furniture. Tall bookshelves spilling with forbidden books: Müller, Blandiana, Pacepa. Expensive foreign paintings. Color photos in frames laddering the shelves. In America, photos were developed in color? Did all Americans have expensive, forbidden things—and hired help to dust them?

“You want something to drink?” asked Dan.

Of course I did. I wanted something to eat too. “No thanks.”

“I have to show you these new stamps,” he said.

Stamps. That’s what started the trouble in the first place. I followed him down the hall.

Dan didn’t live in a closet. He had his own big bedroom, the size
of our living room. On the wall was a poster of a band called Bon Jovi and a sports jersey with an autograph. He noticed my glance.

“Dallas Cowboys. Texas. American football.”

“Texas? I thought you’re from New Jersey,” I said.

“I am. But my godfather is from Dallas. I’m named after him.” Dan gestured to a framed photo on the shelf. “His oil company is a corporate sponsor for the Cowboys.”

I had no idea what that meant but pretended like I did. In the picture, Dan and Mr. Van Dorn were standing in an enormous sports stadium next to a glamorous dark-haired couple. They all looked relaxed and carefree, like the people we saw in movies.

While Dan retrieved the stamp, I scanned the room, making mental notes:

  • Second floor, large apartment. Desk beneath bedroom window. Desk lamp. Leather jacket on chair.

  • Bon Jovi poster. Dallas sports jersey. Rich godfather oil sponsor.

  • Music player labeled
    . Stacks of cassette tapes.

  • Bookshelf with books and binders.

  • White sweatshirt with the word
    . Several pairs of sports shoes, all different brands.

In Bucharest, we had one shoe factory, Pionierul, so most people had similar, boring shoes. My eyes lingered on a pair of red, white, and black sports shoes. Puffy leather. I moved closer to make out the words:

Air Jordan.

“Here it is,” said Dan, interrupting my inventory.

He brought over a sheet-block of four U.S. stamps.

“The U.S. Postal Service released these this year. Dinosaurs. But
look closely. This one’s labeled ‘brontosaurus’ but it’s an apatosaurus. They made a mistake, so it’s collectible. It could be worth a lot.”

“The post office in America makes mistakes?”

Dan nodded. He then tapped his chest and pointed to the ceiling.

“Sometimes,” he said, increasing his volume. “But U.S. government agencies do their best.” He grinned and then directed his voice to the light fixture on the ceiling. “But boy, the U.S. could sure learn a lot from Romania!”

He had a leather jacket, a Walkman, Air Jordans, and something else.


Dan Van Dorn knew he was under surveillance.


My breathing tripped and stumbled.

Light fixtures on the ceiling. Were they bugged? Was ours bugged? Why hadn’t I thought of that? The light fixture made more sense than the telephone. You couldn’t put a pillow on the ceiling. How often did the Securitate access apartments to install devices?

Voices filtered from the hallway.

“I think your parents are home,” I said.

I followed Dan out of his room. Mama stood in the foyer, speaking with Dan’s mother.

“Hey, buddy.” Mr. Van Dorn gave a light punch to Dan’s shoulder. “And you must be Mioara’s son. What’s your name?”

“Cristian. Pleased to meet you.”

Mr. Van Dorn nodded slowly, evaluating me.

“Nick Van Dorn. Pleased to meet you too. Your English . . . it sounds pretty good, Cristian.”

The way he said it, there was hesitation—a question or curiosity behind it.

“His English is definitely better than your Romanian, Dad.” Dan laughed. His mother made a comment, but not in English. She spoke another language to Dan.

Mr. Van Dorn leaned in, sheepishly. “My Romanian’s pretty bad.
My wife gets us by though. She’s got a gift for Romance languages.”

I nodded. Mr. Van Dorn had done his homework. Some people assumed Romanian was a Slavic language because of our proximity to Slavic countries. But Romanian is a Romance language, like French or Italian. Bunu could speak all three.

I remained quiet, casually trying to make note of things for Agent Paddle Hands.

Van Dorn set his hand on his wife’s shoulder. Her fingers instinctively moved to join her husband’s. Their affection, it was natural, effortless, and absent the constant tension that surrounded my parents’ interactions. When was the last time my parents held hands? It sometimes felt like they tried to avoid each other at night and by morning, carried the fatigue of it.

Mr. Van Dorn carried fatigue of a different sort. His blue suit was crisp, but he didn’t seem as well rested and smooth-faced as most Americans. He probably spent long hours at the U.S. Embassy and long nights with his wife. The way he casually kissed her fingers, it had the look of it.

He caught me watching and hiked an eyebrow. I quickly looked away.

The heat crawling up my neck, was it visible?

Mr. Van Dorn turned to face me, his expression sincere. “It’s nice of you to walk your mother home. It’s rough in Bucharest at night, huh?” he asked.

“No, it’s not rough.”

He nodded. Extended eye contact. Evaluation. It felt so uncomfortable, but I willed myself not to glance up at the light fixture.

“No. You’re right, Cristian. Bucharest’s not rough. Just a little . . . dark,” said Mr. Van Dorn.

•   •   •

“You don’t have to come so often,” my mother whispered once we were out on the street. “It’s much too far. It could be dangerous. I’m authorized to interact with foreigners, but you’re not.” She threw a nervous glance behind us.

“The wife. She’s not American, is she?” I asked.

“No, she’s from Spain.”

“What do they think of Romania?”

“How would I know?” said my mother. “I’m just cleaning their toilets.”

“The husband. He seems . . . tired.”

Her head snapped to me. “He’s a very good man.”


If she was just cleaning their toilets, how would she know that?

BOOK: I Must Betray You
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