Authors: Ruta Sepetys
I quickly scanned through the article, struggling with some of the terminology. But I recognized a few words from the Radio Free Europe broadcasts:
Democracy. Perestroika. Glasnost.
How much had we missed with a broken radio? We knew that Poland had been successful with their decade-long Solidarity movement, but now Hungary? Had they really broken free of communism? Did my parents know? I tried to memorize the details to share with Bunu.
I rejoined Dan, who was hunched over a glossy magazine. Flustered, I reminded myself of the agent. I made mental notes of the magazines Dan had pulled to read:
Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, Billboard
“Meet the love of my life,” said Dan, pointing to a picture of a woman playing the guitar. “She’s in a band called the Bangles.” He gave an exaggerated, heartsick sigh, then laughed. “Do you have a girlfriend?” he asked.
Did I? I gave a half nod. And maybe smiled a little too.
“Yeah? What’s her name?” asked Dan.
I paused. Should I tell him?
“Liliana,” I finally said. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
He shook his head. “I liked a German girl who was staying in our
building, but her family was only visiting. She sends me letters with cool stamps though.”
He fiddled with the magazine. “Does Liliana like music?” he asked.
“Springsteen, huh?” Dan flipped the pages back to an article and photo of Bruce Springsteen. Without pausing, he tore the page from the magazine.
I took a step back. Dan Van Dorn tore the page right out of the magazine. He didn’t request permission. That couldn’t be legal—in any library, anywhere. That was just vandalism. He saw my eyes pop and laughed.
“I heard the U.S. Embassy really needs this information,” he whispered, rolling the sheet and sliding it through a loop on his backpack. “You know, this library is open to Romanians as well. You can come on your own.”
“Really?” I wondered if Bunu knew that.
“Yeah, Reagan and Bush aren’t really fans, but back in the day, Nixon bartered a deal with Ceauşescu. Romania was allowed to open a cultural office in New York and the U.S. opened this library in Bucharest.”
Aren’t really fans. Nixon bartered.
What did that mean? There weren’t any photos in the album of Ceauşescu with recent U.S. presidents. Is that what Dan was referring to?
And sure, the American Library existed, but any Romanian who entered alone was probably reported to the Securitate. Would anyone take the risk?
“Thanks for bringing me. It’s interesting,” I said.
“Sure. I come every two weeks. Tag along. There’s not much for me to do in Bucharest. Do you ever get bored?” he asked.
“No time to be bored.”
“Yeah, you’re always in school or standing in a line. Hey, take me to stand in line sometime. That would be interesting to write about for my college essays.”
He wanted to stand in a line? Did it seem like a novelty to him? My brow narrowed.
“Sorry, what I mean is, in the States, we don’t have to stand in line for things. We don’t have a Kent economy either. Last week my mom had to hustle up some Kents to have our trash collected. Boy, she was griping about that. I’m still wondering what my dad did to get demoted and sent here.”
Dan’s comments gave me so much to think about. What did “tag along,” “hustle,” “griping,” and “demoted” mean? But bouncing in my mind was the question of Hungary: Were the citizens of Hungary still standing in lines? Could they travel freely now?
Once we were outside, Dan thrust the rolled magazine article toward me.
“Give this to your girl. Tell her it’s a present from New Jersey.”
I hesitated. The article was stolen property, but I wanted it for Liliana. I took it and quickly stuffed it in my jacket. “Seems like you miss home.”
“A lot. Romania doesn’t have a strong international high school yet, so I’m stuck at the apartment with a tutor all day. I wanted to stay at my school in the States, but my parents insisted our family travel together. If things are quiet at the embassy next month, they’ve promised we’ll go home for Christmas. I can’t wait. I’ll bring back some new stamps.”
“Hey, Cris.” Dan paused. “Don’t tell my parents that I ripped the page out of the magazine, okay?”
The way he said it, he was concerned. “Okay,” I said. He seemed relieved. Maybe the bravado had been for show.
“And by the way,” he said. “I’ve heard your mom call you Cristi. In the States, that’s a girl’s name, you know.” He laughed and punched my shoulder.
My brain was full of static. I could barely process it all:
Ceauşescu had visited Disneyland. He had outfoxed everyone.
Hungary was free. They had broken away from communism.
Mr. Van Dorn wanted me to see the magazine, to know that. Why?
I had an article about Bruce Springsteen for Liliana.
What would I report to Paddle Hands?
In the United States, Cristi was a girl’s name.
But shouting in refrain—
Hungary was free.
Hungary was free?
|| INFORMER REPORT ||
[11 Nov. 1989]
Cristian Florescu (17), student at MF3 High School.
Observed Saturday afternoon in the American Library with Dan Van Dorn. Florescu scanned books in the travel section and read through an American political magazine. He then sat with Van Dorn at a table. Dan Van Dorn tore a page out of a magazine and put it in his book bag. Florescu did not object nor report him. Florescu then departed with Van Dorn.
A lie is like a snowball. It rolls, becomes bigger, heavier, and eventually, it's difficult to lift. I had thought I was strong. But how much weight could I actually carry?
I couldn't mention the American Library to Bunu. He'd ask questions and my answers would just create a bigger snowball. I decided to tell Bunu I'd heard mention of Hungary on the street and that we had to get our radio fixed to find out what was going on.
I arrived at our apartment and found a woman in the stairwell struggling with a large suitcase.
” she said. “Could I trouble you to help me?”
“Sure. Would you prefer the elevator?”
She shook her head. “I don't want to risk the power going out. I can't be stuck in there.”
Her shiny gold earrings were shaped like lightning bolts. I looked at her suitcase. One of the luggage tags was labeled in English.
“You're from the States?”
“I'm from Romania, but I live in Boston.”
What? How did a Romanian woman get a passport to leave the country and live in Boston? People who applied to emigrate were often punished. Severely. But I could see it. Her bright green coat, fancy red boots, and the chic cut of her hair; she carried an air of elsewhere.
I took her suitcase. “Which floor?”
“Third. I'm visiting my mother. Irina Drucan.”
Her voice lowered. “She's dying, you know.”
I didn't know. I'm sure the Reporters did. Maybe Bunu and Cici too. All I knew was that Mrs. Drucan was elderly. I couldn't remember the last time I saw her.
The woman's eyes filled with tears. She took a deep breath and began pacing. “I'm sorry, just a moment.”
“I'm not in a hurry.”
She looked at me with gratitude. “What's your name?”
I lugged her heavy suitcase up to the third floor. She opened the apartment door and the stale scent of illness quickly swept into the corridor. She paused, fingers clutching the doorframe while gathering herself. Her voice choked with emotion. “
SÄrut mÃ¢na, MamÄ.
I stood, waiting. Did she need help?
, Cristian.” She quietly closed the door.
I proceeded up the flight of steps to the fourth floor. My mother's exasperated whisper filled our small apartment.
“You infuriate me, old man! I was saving those to get medicine for you!”
I looked to Cici.
“Bunu traded the Kents to have the radio repaired,” she said.
“Information is more valuable than medicine right now! Poland and Hungary. East Germany will be next!” argued Bunu. “We need the radio. We need Radio Free Europe. We need Munteanu's reports. Tell her, Cristian.”
“Don't you involve him in this. You had no right,” complained Mama. “Those cigarettes didn't belong to you.”
“What belongs to us, truly, Mioara? Everything belongs to the Party, my dear,” said Bunu at full volume. “Isn't that the truth?”
I had to agree with Bunu. I'd rather be Kentless but have the radio. Especially with what I saw at the library. We needed Radio Free Europe.
Radio Free Europe had been established by the American CIA decades prior to move information behind the Iron Curtainâthe border between communist and noncommunist countries. The broadcasts were accessed only with an illegal antenna, and nearly every family had fashioned one. But no one spoke of it. It was too valuable.
Bunu had heard the news. He thought East Germany would be next?
“What about Romania?” I asked him.
“Exactly! We need the radio to find out!”
“Lower your voice!” pleaded Mama.
I turned to my sister. “Cici, did you know that Mrs. Drucan is sick?” I whispered. “Her daughter just arrived from the States.”
“Oh, I'm so happy she made it. Yes, I knew. I washed and mended her nightgown last week. Poor woman weighs nothing.”
“Her daughter lives in Boston?”
She nodded. “She's a researcher at Harvard. Where have you been?” whispered Cici. “School ended hours ago.”
I shrugged. “Just hanging around.”
She looked at me, suspicious. “Hanging around. With anyone in particular?”
“Liliana came by. Twice. She said to give you this.”
Cici retrieved a sealed envelope from her back pocket. “Loooove notes,” she teased, dancing the envelope.
“Jealous that Alex hasn't sent you one?” I snapped the envelope from her and retreated to my closet.
I used the flashlight sparingly, but a letter from Liliana was definitely worth it. Maybe I'd put the Springsteen article in the envelope and drop it off at her apartment. I tore open the sealed flap of the envelope and removed a small sheet of paper that contained just a few sentences:
You are a liar.
You are everything I despise.
You are an informer.
I switched off the flashlight.
Invisible hands appeared in the darkness. One hand gripped my hair. The other pressed down over my nose and mouth. And then it pressed again. Harder.
You are a liar.
I couldn't breathe.
You are everything I despise.
I was suffocating.
You are an informer.
Shocks of blue flashed behind my eyes. My mouth pulled dry with panic.
I burst from the closet and bolted out of our apartment, still clutching the note.
I had no plan. No outline in my notebook. But something inside of me churned, driving me toward Liliana. Did she think I was spending time with her just to get information?
I banged on her apartment door.
Alex appeared. “Lili,” he said over his shoulder, “your boyfriend's here.”
Whispering hissed behind the door.
“Oh, sorry.” Alex shrugged. “She's not home.” He shut the door.
I knocked again. And again. And again and again until the door finally opened.
“Look, she doesn't want to see you. Keep it up and I'll take care of that hand. You won't be able to knock anymore,” said Alex.
Adrenaline, molecular courage. Every nerve ending blazed within me. “Oh yeah, Alex? Step out in the hallway and we'll see whose hands survive.”
“Are you threatening me, Cristi? I'd destroy you.”
” He grabbed me by the collar.
Liliana appeared and grabbed her brother, pulling him back. “Stop!”
“Worried I'll kill your lovebird?” he spat.
“Shut up, Alex.” Liliana rushed by me and headed down the stairs. I ran to follow.
We pushed through the door and walked around the side of her building.
“What, now you want to fight my brother?”
“If that's what it takes to speak with you.” I pulled the note from my pocket.
“What is this? Did you write it?”
“Yes, I wrote it.”
“You're asking me why?” Her mouth hung open in disgust. “The Secu pulled my father out of work,” she whispered. “They questioned him about bringing bones home, accused him of stealing from the Party.”
” she gasped, whispering at the top of her lungs.
“Liliana, I told no one. I swear to you. Someone else must know you give bones to the dogs.”
“Really? And they saw that I had a real Coke too?”
I took a step back. “Someone saw us drinking the Coke?”
“Oh, please. Stop the act, Cristian. You make me sick.”
“Liliana, you're wrong. I told no one.”
“I'm right. And I'm an idiot! You know why? Because I liked you.” Her breath hitched. “I really liked you.
Oh, he's so smart and interesting. We understand each other.
You really had me fooled. How many other girls are you seeing for information?”
“I'm only seeing you. And
for information. I'm spending time with you because I like you. I've liked you for years. You know that. Lilâ” I reached for her and she recoiled.
She stared at me and her eyes filled with tears. “How could you? Really, why, Cristian? I liked you so much. So much that now I hate you.”
She turned and fled.
My knees went slack. I stood, swaying, still clutching the note.
What had happened?
It had taken years to get close to Liliana.
And now she hated me. Yes.
But not as much as I hated myself.