Authors: Ruta Sepetys
We sat, whispering in the darkened stairwell.
Liliana's arm rested on my back. Her fingers grazed the stray pieces of hair fringing beneath my hat. Her touch on my neck, it was driving me crazy. I wanted to exhale and relax into it. But as soon as I closed my eyes, the hatch of guilt turned and groaned. The conversation with Bunu felt lodged in the back of my throat.
I lifted the edge of Liliana's purple scarf. It smelled like her.
“Alex asked Cici on a date,” I whispered.
“He said Cici asked him.”
“That's what he wants me to believe,” said Liliana. “You know my brother's hardly shy.”
“Cici came to me about it, said she would cancel if it felt weird.”
“What did you say?”
“That it felt weird.”
“But I told her not to cancel. Are you okay with that?”
“Yeah. But it is kinda weird, isn't it? Maybe we gave Alex the idea. He saw us at video night. He said we looked comfortable hanging out and asked what we were laughing about.”
“Hanging out,” I whispered. “Is that what we're doing?”
She laid her head on my shoulder in response and slid her hand into mine.
I smiled. “Tell Alex we were laughing about
. And how I liked you back then but was too scared to admit it.”
“You didn't have to admit it,” she said quietly. “I knew.”
I nodded. She probably did. There were things I wanted to know about her. “Hey, if we lived in the West and you could choose any job you wanted, what would you do?” I asked.
“That's easy,” she said. “I love books. I'd work in a library.”
“Yeah, you could sneak in outlawed books for me,” I told her. “Speaking of librarians, did you hear? The school librarian told Luca she thinks I'm a bad influence.”
“You are,” she laughed. “Some are intrigued by the look of you, but they don't know what to make of you.”
Could I blame them? Sometimes I didn't know what to make of me either.
“So, mister bad influence, if you lived in the West and could choose any job you wanted, what would it be?” she asked.
Could I tell her? Should I tell her? I could barely confess it to myself.
“A writer,” I whispered.
She nodded. “That makes sense.”
“Of course. Writers are dangerous. And you're a brooding, philosophical Virgo. You're not a follower. Even your hair's a revolution.”
“But what if I'm an awful writer?”
“What if I'm an awful librarian?”
I smiled and tugged her hand, pulling her toward me. “I think I might like you anyway,” I whispered.
I leaned in. Her face lifted to meet mine.
Sounds echoed in the stairwell.
Liliana's hand whisked from mine. We waited, heads down in the dark.
The steps paused. Someone had heard us.
Was the Secu agent in our building listening?
Who was on the stairs?
Two more steps. They stopped. I heard breathing.
Liliana pressed into my side. I slid my arm around her.
One more step.
“Who's there?!” I yelled.
A scream filled the stairwell, followed by the sound of breaking glass. Muffled cries emerged from the steps, followed by a woman's voice.
“VÄ rog. VÄ rog.”
I jumped to my feet. “Mama?”
I ran down the steps. My mother lay huddled in a heap.
“Cristian?” she whispered.
“Yes, it's me. Mama, what happened?”
Liliana appeared at my side.
“I came home and the stairs were so dark. I started up and heard something. Someone hovered nearby, I could feel it. I was so frightened. And then there was a yell and I panicked.”
“That was me. I was talking with Liliana and I thought someone was listening. Let me help you up.” I put my arms beneath my mother's.
Be careful, there's broken glass.”
We helped her up the stairs and into our apartment.
“Mama! What happened?” said Cici.
My mother's shoulders sagged. Her thin arms slung, trembling, at her sides. “I stood in line for three hours. They finally had rations of cooking oil. But I became frightened in the dark stairwell and fell. The bottle broke. Cici, help me with the cuts on my leg. Cristian, clean the glass and oil from the stairs.”
I pretended not to notice the fear-induced urine that had soaked through the center of my mother's pants. Did Liliana see it? My sister took Mama into the small bathroom. Muffled crying leaked from behind the door.
Sometimes, when the grenade exploded, our mother would say mean things and then cry. But this time, there was no anger. She escalated straight to tears.
I felt terrible.
“The efficiency of tyranny!” announced Bunu from the kitchen. “They don't even need weapons to control us. Our own fear is more than enough. You see, Cristi, this is how it feels, being an animal in a trap.”
Liliana looked at me, shocked by the comments. I quickly pulled her toward the door and out of the apartment. The episode left me feeling weird, embarrassed.
We crouched in the dark, trying to brush away the glass and soak up the oil with a rag. We needed to preserve as much as we could.
“Your poor mama. The stairwells can be so dark and scary. And now your family lost their ration of oil. That's awful.”
It was awful. And I was so tired of awful.
We finished the cleanup and returned to our place in the stairwell. Any thought of a kiss was now replaced by an uncomfortable silence between us. Was she thinking of Bunu's comments?
“Hey,” I whispered. “A woman screamed in the stairwell. Did you notice something?”
She nodded. “No one came running.”
But how could they? If they peeked out and saw something, they might be questioned. No one wanted to be questioned. But neighbors had heard. Some would try to help and share what little they had. A jar with some cooking oil was probably already outside our door.
We sat, stiff and awkward in the darkened maze of the staircase.
“Cristian,” she whispered, her voice thinned with vulnerability. “Does the world know what's happening in Romania? If they didÂ .Â .Â . would they do something?”
It was a great question. The broadcasts from Radio Free Europe came into Romania. But what information was making it out of Romania? I thought of Mr. Van Dorn's comment that Bucharest was “dark.” How much did he really know and how much did he report to the embassy?
The comment in Dan's notebook floated back to me:
One U.S. ambassador resigned because Washington refused to believe reports that America has been outfoxed by CeauÅescu.
Could I communicate with Mr. Van Dorn somehow? If he happened to find my secret notebook with a request to send it to WashingtonÂ .Â .Â . would he?
Liliana shifted on the stairs. The words came out before I could stop them.
“I have an idea.”
My idea. An invitation to truth.
I shouldn't have mentioned it. But I was so comfortable with Liliana, I had actually spoken my thoughts aloud. Of course, once I mentioned it, she wanted to know more. But what was I supposed to say?
Hey, I've been keeping a secret notebook. I want to give it to the U.S. diplomat to ensure he knows the truth and shares it widely.
No. I couldn't say that.
So instead of telling Liliana my idea, I skirted the issue. I wanted to tell her everything but knew I couldn't. The notebook itself was a huge risk. I didn't want to put her in danger. So I remained silent and hated myself for it.
Hatred. Guilt. Decisions. That night I wrote about it all in my notebook:
Do you pity me?
Lips that know no taste of fruit
Lonely in a country of millions
Stumbling toward the gallows
Of bad decisions
While the walls listen and laugh.
The next day was Saturday. So after school I was on a bus to the Van Dorns' apartment to accompany Dan to the American Library.
I surveyed the passengers, sandwiched together.
Service was too infrequent. There was no reliable schedule and never enough room. People clutched the railings on the bus stairs, preventing the doors from closing. We hung, smashed half inside, half outside. Sometimes, the bus was so crowded that the back dragged, scraping and lapping the pavement.
We arrived at the stop. I hoped Dan hadn't forgotten his invitation.
Mr. Van Dorn greeted me at the door. He was dressed not in a suit, but in casual clothes. He eyed my coat, school uniform, and book bag.
“Always have to remind myself, school on Saturday here, right?”
It felt like bait for comment. If the light fixtures weren't listening, maybe I would reply with my usual sarcasm and engage in what Americans called “chitchat.”
Yes, Mr. Van Dorn, good comrades don't take weekends, holidays, or summers off. Did you know that CeauÅescu once declared December 25th a day of labor? Speaking of holidays, Santa Claus is considered too religious here. In Romania, we replaced him with a proletarian character named MoÈ GerilÄ, Freezer Man. We celebrate our winter season by entering the factories for work!
But I said none of that, just replied, “Yes, school on Saturday.”
“Dan,” called Mr. Van Dorn down the hallway. “Cristian is here.”
I heard a muffled reply.
“Have a seat,” said Mr. Van Dorn, gesturing to a couch in the
living area. He then walked to his large desk. It held a typewriter. Was the typewriter registered?
“You have an older sister, don't you?” he asked. I nodded.
He shuffled through stacks of files, papers, and newspapers. He then took a sip from a nearby coffee cup.
The man with the spongy nose had warned against coffee. Should I stop Mr. Van Dorn?
Dan appeared. “Cristian and I are heading to the American Library to read the new magazines.”
“Sounds good,” said his father.
We had just left their apartment when Mr. Van Dorn suddenly appeared on the stairs.
“Dan, your mom wants you to wear a hat. It was snowing this morning.”
When Dan returned to retrieve his hat, Mr. Van Dorn discreetly displayed what looked like an American magazine. The title appeared in block letters:
“Look for it at the library today. Make sure it's the most recent.”
I said nothing. Just nodded.
Mr. Van Dorn disappeared back into the apartment. I tried to contain my smile.
My instincts were right.
I could communicate with Mr. Van Dorn. I could share the truth about Romania.
I could outwit the Securitate.
That's what I thought. What I really believed.
I didn't yet know that sometimes in outwitting others, we accidentally outwit ourselves.
|| INFORMER REPORT ||
[11 Nov. 1989]
Cristian Florescu (17), student at MF3 High School.
Observed Saturday afternoon entering and departing the apartment of the Van Dorn family. Florescu engaged in private exchange (undecipherable) with Mr. Van Dorn in the hallway. Florescu then departed with Van Dorn’s son and proceeded to the American Library in Bucharest.
Appears Florescu is pursuing private communications with Mr. Van Dorn. Advise cross-referencing with other Sources.
I noted Dan's behavior as we walked through Rosetti Square, his general ease in all things. He swung his arms, casually looking about, speaking louder than most Romanians would.
I envied him, the courage to be himself. In public.
The American Library was housed in two elegant turn-of-the-century villasâbuildings spared by the bulldozers. As we entered the library, we had to present identification in a reception area. Dan leaned across the desk.
“Hi there, Brenda. What are you doing up front?” he asked.
“Reception clerk is sick,” said the older woman. “It's so chilly by the door. Sure do miss the weather in California.”
“I know. I'm missing the weather in New Jersey. So that says a lot!” replied Dan.
Dan and the woman shared a laugh. He gestured to me.
“This is my friend Cristian. He's my guest today. He speaks English.”
“Hello, Cristian,” said the woman, smiling brightly. “Just need a peek at your ID.”
A peek. What did that mean? Dan had given his ID, so I handed her mine.
She looked at the photo on my identification for an extended beat. She finally looked up and stared straight at me. A gentle smile appeared.
“My, what lovely eyes you have,” she said.
“Oh, they'reÂ .Â .Â . weird,” I blurted. I was uncomfortable with the exchange but comfortable with the memory of Liliana's description.
“No, not weird at all,” she insisted, handing back my card. “But maybe weird that an old lady is complimenting them?” She then did something I'd seen in movies.
An American woman winked at me, as if sharing some sort of private joke. Was this as strange as it felt? I turned to Dan for his reaction.
“Thanks, Brenda,” he said, unfazed. “We're off to rot our minds with pop culture crap.” He gave a salute.
“Rot away!” she said with a wave of her hand.
Was I misunderstanding their English? This was an official building. Yet they were being so casual, just like in the movies. Were Americans ever serious? NoâI reframed the question. Were Romanians always serious?
Dan walked casually to a long table positioned near a shelf of newspapers. He tossed his backpack on the table and it landed with a thud.
“You can leave your bag here. Have a look around.”
I wasn't going to leave my bag anywhere. It remained hanging from my shoulder as I walked through the warm building. There were shelves of fiction, nonfiction, biography, reference, and a section for children. There was also a section with books on Romanian history and language. Most of the books were in English. I wanted to read them. Every single one.
And I wanted to share them with Liliana.
I continued browsing the section. At the end of the bookshelf I noticed a wooden podium containing an official-looking album with the Romanian flag on the cover. I opened it.
The first page featured the new portrait of CeauÅescu. Two ears.
Beneath the portrait was a paragraph in Romanian:
Leader of the nation, Father of Romania, Nicolae CeauÅescu has established diplomatic relations all over the world and has visited over 100 countries.
The album contained photos of our leader during his travels or hosting other countries:
1969âU.S. President Richard Nixon visits Bucharest. He is the first American president to visit a communist country.
1975âU.S. President Gerald Ford visits Bucharest.
1978âU.S. President Jimmy Carter holds a state dinner at the White House in honor of the CeauÅescus.
The album was packed full of colorful photos featuring Beloved Leader and Heroine Mother with dignitaries and heads of state. I scanned through some of the names:
UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Silvia of Sweden, Indira Gandhi of India, Pope Paul VI of the Vatican, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Charles De Gaulle of France, King Juan Carlos of Spain, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark.
And this one:
President Nicolae CeauÅescu of Romania joined the long list of international celebrities who have visited Disneyland, the world-famous “Magic Kingdom” in California, to meet Mickey Mouse. CeauÅescu was accompanied by his wife and children.
I stared at the photograph.
I flipped back through the pages toward the front of the album.
CeauÅescu hadn't outfoxed America.
He'd outfoxedÂ .Â .Â . everyone.
They thought he was a benevolent dictator. They'd welcomed him into their countries.
It wasn't disgust. It was despair. That's what I felt, seeing the colorful photos of our leader cuddling with kangaroos in Australia and posing with Mickey Mouse in some citrus dream called California.
AndÂ .Â .Â . Disneyland. It was a real place?
CeauÅescu and his family were free to travel to every continent and experience all the world had to offer, but he kept his people caged within the country's borders, working, full of fear, terrorized if they inquired about a passport. My parents longed to return to the Romanian seaside or to spend time in the mountains. But in recent years, CeauÅescu's work mandates and petrol rations made that difficult.
I wanted my mother to have a lighted stairwell.
I wanted my father to have a real vacation or a car.
I wanted Liliana to have the birds she missed.
I closed the album and wandered to the shelves with magazines, looking for the one Mr. Van Dorn had suggested.
I found it. The moment is forever engraved in my memory.
The headline of the issue:
THE BIG BREAK
Moscow Lets Eastern Europe Go Its Own Way
I shot a quick glance over my shoulder. My pulse began to tick.
The magazine cover featured a large crowd with a teenager waving a flag.
A Hungarian flag.
Hungary bordered Romania.
Hungary was no longer ruled by communism?
Hungary was free?