Authors: Ruta Sepetys
I took a breath, listening closely. I risked a glance over my shoulder.
A shadowy figure lingered nearby. A girl. Carrying a large stick tucked beneath her arm. And then her quiet voice emerged, saying hi.
She stepped closer and suddenly, we fell into step.
My pulse tapped.
Liliana Pavel. The girl with the hair hiding her eyes. The girl I wanted to “coincidentally” catch up with after school. I had created a grand plan with precision timing, but it evaporated after the meeting with Agent Paddle Hands.
Liliana lived in Luca’s building and also studied English. She was quiet, smart, a mystery beneath brown bangs with a clever sense of humor. When my responses carried an irony that Comrade Instructor didn’t catch, Liliana did. Her efforts to hide a smile, they gave her away.
Most students loitered in groups, but Liliana often wandered somewhere to read. Her folders were covered with hand-drawn flowers and zodiac signs. Sometimes—the way she looked at me—it felt like she could read my mind. And I liked it.
Our apartment blocks faced each other at the tail of a dead-end
street. Liliana’s father managed a grocery supply—an extremely desirable job in a city where most people were starving.
Unlike some chattering girls, Liliana didn’t speak to just anyone and everyone. When we were younger, she once paid attention to me. I was standing amidst a group on the street and out of the blue she walked up to me and gave me a piece of
“It’s for you,” she said. My buddies snickered.
I was secretly elated but didn’t want my friends to know.
“It’s just gray gum. It turns to sawdust in your mouth,” I had said with a shrug.
I was an idiot back then too.
I still remember the sad look on her face. It had taken until now, two years later, for her to approach me again. Should I apologize for being a jerk about the gum? Nah, she probably didn’t remember.
We walked in silence, the darkness punctuated by the occasional tap of the stick Liliana carried. She pointed the stick, gesturing.
“What’s the English word for these?”
“Streetlights,” I said. “But guess what, in other countries I think they actually work.”
The streetlights in Bucharest weren’t illuminated. Too costly. Romania was rich in resources, but for several years, our “hero” exported all of our resources to repay the country’s debts. As a result, electricity and food were rationed.
We passed a long, snaking line of people in front of a State-controlled shop. They stood, huddled against the cold, clutching their ration cards and waiting for some scrap of food that no other country wanted.
“Russia gets all of our meat. Isn’t that unfair?” Luca once asked. “We get nothing but the patriots.”
The feet of slaughtered pigs and chickens were sometimes available
in the shops. We called them “patriots” because they were the only part of the animal that remained in Romania. Dark humor, it entertained us.
I pointed toward the shop. “Daily ration of delicious patriots, right?”
“Patriots . . . and that
you love so much,” said Liliana.
She looked at me, serious, then broke out laughing.
I laughed too and shook my head. “Sorry, I was a jerk.”
She gave me a wordless nod. And then a smile.
I tried not to stare but stole glances as we walked. Her purple scarf, it wasn’t something you could buy. Did she knit it herself? Should I ask? I knew that beneath the scarf was the necklace she always wore—a brown suede cord with a silver charm. Her hair fell in soft, loose waves, hanging just above her shoulders.
Liliana looked at the food line, grimacing. Over the past few years, the feeling of darkness had grown beyond electricity. To me, the darkness felt poisonous, leaching into everything. Did she feel it too?
She flashed a look over her shoulder and spoke below her breath. “My father said that Bucharest used to be called ‘Little Paris.’ There were trees everywhere, lots of birds, and even Belle Époque architecture. Do you remember what the city used to look like?” she whispered.
“I remember some parts. My
used to have a house. He said that Bucharest was once a luxury stop on the Orient Express.”
It was happening. I was walking home with Liliana Pavel. We were having a conversation. If I could speak freely, I’d say, “Yeah, Bunu said that after visiting North Korea, Ceauşescu decided to bulldoze our city to build ‘the House of the People’ and cement apartment blocks. Our beloved leader destroyed churches, schools, and over thirty thousand private homes, including Bunu’s. What do you think of that?”
But I couldn’t speak freely.
No one could.
“I wish our neighborhood had more trees,” said Liliana. “I miss the birds.”
Trees appeared in parks and on large boulevards where they could be shared by all. Families, like our family of five, were herded into one-bedroom, ashtray-sized flats. I looked at the cement apartment blocks we passed. Some weren’t even finished. They had no doors, no elevators, no stair railings. Similar concrete hulks loomed around the city, gray staircases to nowhere. Concrete walls gave birth to concrete faces.
But no one discussed it.
Everyone will live together! Everything is collectivized, shared by the Party!
was the mantra. When Ceauşescu spoke the words, he sliced the air with his hand. The
, his faithful supporters, clapped and clapped. Those applauding men, did they shiver when a cold wind whisked through their hollow hearts and abandoned souls? I searched for English words to describe the
I put them in my notebook: Bootlicker. Butt-kisser. Fawner.
Liliana grabbed my arm, yanking me from my thoughts.
“Cristian! Oh no!”
Stray dogs stalked a young girl across the street.
“Don't run!” I called out. I grabbed the stick from Liliana. A scream tore through the darkness.
I was too late.
The animals lunged at the girl, growling wild and guttural. She frantically swiveled her torso, holding her small fists protectively in front of her neck. Teeth landed, found anchor, and ripped. The sound, it still lives in my ears.
I ran and pressed in front of her, trying to block the dogs.
,” I ordered, extending the stick for the gnashing dogs to bite, speaking low to subdue them. Others rushed to join our circle, stamping their feet. The dogs, eventually outnumbered by the group, ran off to search for easier prey. Frantic chatter ensued, arguments about the strays.
“If we don't kill them, they'll kill
!” wailed a woman.
“It's not their fault,” snapped Liliana.
Stray dogs. They were everywhere. And Liliana was right. It wasn't their fault.
When the regime bulldozed the city, dogs were lost and left to the streets. Starving and wild, the poor creatures drifted and hunted in packs. The month prior, our teacher's baby was mauled to death in her stroller. Some people, like Liliana, carried sticks for protection.
The young girl's coat now hung in shreds. Her wool mitten lay on the ground, splashed in blood.
“Were you bitten?” Liliana asked.
“I don't care about a bite,” sobbed the girl. “My mother stood in line for months to get me a coat. Now it's ruined. What if she's angry?”
“She'll understand. We'll walk you home,” said Liliana. She looked to me. I nodded.
Liliana's hand grazed the torn edge of my jacket. “They got you too,” she whispered. “You okay?”
Her touch on my jacket. Her concern. Suddenly, the dogs, my coat, and the meeting with the agentâit all faded into the background.
“I'm fine. You okay?” I asked. She nodded.
We said nothing after leaving the girl at her building. I wondered if Liliana's thoughts mirrored mine. Being eaten by wild dogsâdid kids in other countries have to worry about that?
We turned onto our street and I recognized the bowlegged silhouette.
He was a few years older and wore black-market Levi's, Adidas, and concert T-shirts from the West. Sometimes he wore black boots with silver studs. It wasn't illegal to wear clothing from the West, but it was difficult to get. And very expensive. And very cool.
When people asked Starfish where he got his clothes, he shrugged and said, “I know someone.” I tried to find an English word to describe Starfish and found this one: operator.
He lived in my building. We called him Starfish because he had lost an eye and the thick stitches pinching his eye socket closed left a scar shaped like a crooked star. Beside him trotted our community block dogs, FetiÈa and Turbatu. Liliana's building fed FetiÈa. We fed Turbatu. But for some reason, the dogs loved Starfish best.
We stopped in front of our apartment blocks.
Mine on the right.
Hers on the left.
“Video night,” whispered Starfish. “Saturday. My place. You in?”
“We have school,” replied Liliana.
“You have school during the day,” said Starfish. “This is tomorrow night. Are you coming?”
I couldn't see Liliana's face through the darkness. I took a chance.
“Yeah, we're coming,” I said.
“Okay, I'll add you to the list. Ask your pretty sister.”
“Ask her yourself,” I told him.
“Bring your money. Five
each,” said Starfish. He walked off, disappearing through a seam of black with the dogs.
I had never seen Liliana at a video night. Maybe her parents knew someone with their own videocassette player? A video player wasn't illegal, like a typewriter. But it was expensive and hard to get. The cheapest video player cost thirty-five thousand
half the price of a car. Most families needed a Dacia more than a video player.
“You don't have to go tomorrow,” I told her.
“Okay. ButÂ .Â .Â . what if I want to go?” she said. “Can I go with you?”
Did she really just say that? I tried to search her expression through the shadows. “Sure. Meet me outside at nine o'clock.”
We stood, feeling others nearby, but unable to see them. I was alone with Liliana, in a private wrapper of darkness.
“Cristian,” she suddenly whispered. “Do you ever wonderÂ .Â .Â . if any of it's real?”
“If what's real?”
“The things we see in videosâin American movies.”
It was an odd question. Or maybe it felt odd because I had wondered the same thing but never had the courage to say it out loud. But it also feltÂ .Â .Â . suspicious somehow. Too honest.
And then I was angry again. Not at herâat myself.
For months I'd been trying to talk to Liliana Pavel. We were finally alone, talking, agreeing to see each other on Saturday night and instead of being elated, I was suspicious?
Bunu was right. Communism is a state of mind.
But video nights were an escape. Gathering secretly to watch American movies dubbed into Romanianâit felt dangerous and exciting, like winning a forbidden prize. The worlds we saw depicted in the movies were oceans away. And the incredible lives we saw on-screen were all make believe.
They were, weren't they?
cean fish! No meal without fish!
The electricity in our building was on.
The television health advisory for ocean fish crackled behind closed doors. Since meat wasn't available, we were advised to eat ocean fish. But we didn't have fresh fish, just fish bones to make watery soup. Did that count? I paid little attention to the television. The English travel guide summed it up correctly:
Romania has one TV channel. And one brand of TV set. The State broadcasts only two hours of bland television per day, mainly propaganda and salutes to CeauÅescu.
I trudged up the concrete stairs to our top-floor apartment. Life in an apartment block felt like living in a cement chest of drawers. Each floor equally divided into boxes of families. I climbed the steps, slapped with the smell of kerosene and unwanted information.
First floorâA hungry baby crying.
Second floorâA drunken man screaming at his wife.
Third floorâA chain pulling to flush a toilet.
Fourth floorâA grandpa with leukemia coughing.
Just as you could be certain of lack of privacy, you could also be certain that the building administrator reported to the Securitate.
After all, the Party had a right to know
was owned by the Party.
And the Party kept trackâof
“Bugs, bugs all around,” lamented Bunu. “Philips inside and outside.”
Philips were listening devices and rumored to be everywhere: hidden in walls, telephones, ashtrays. So all families followed the same mantra:
At home we speak in whispers.
The constant threat of surveillance clawed at our mother. Her hands shook. Her eyes darted. Her figure resembled the cigarettes she smoked. I looked up English words and phrases to describe her and wrote them in my notebook: Jittery. Distressed. Flustered. Freaked out.
Being around Mama was like living with a grenade. On the rare occasion the pin was pulled, she'd explode, say awful things, and then cry afterward. In our family photo, our mother peered in a different direction, as if she saw something no one else did. She constantly begged us to whisper, to keep everything secret.
I should have listened to her.
But back then, I felt so clever. Didn't realize I had confused intellect with arrogance. Serious mistake. And the first of many. But I
wise enough to whisper.
Our small apartment box housed four “whisperers” and Bunu.
Bunu refused to whisper. If the librarian thought I was a bad influence, she needed to meet my true hero, Bunu. I admired his bravery. I also admired his ingenuity. Because of Bunu, we had an illegal sofa wedged in our small alcove of a kitchen.
“I don't care if it's against the rules,” announced Bunu when he moved in. “Five people in this tiny space? I need a place to sleep and the kitchen is the warmest.”
With a sofa in the kitchen, we had less than a foot of clearance to
stand at the two-burner stove and the tiny cast-iron sink, or listen to the radio.
With the exception of the kitchen sofa and Cici's Ileana sewing machine, our communist apartment was the same as everyone's. The living area consisted of an oval table with chairs, a narrow buffet cabinet, and a sofa that folded open. Before Bunu moved in, my mother and sister slept in the bedroom and I slept with my father on the folding sofa. When Bunu arrived, he argued that the arrangements were all wrong.
“Couples should sleep together. Gabriel and Mioara, take the bedroom. Cicilia has her own schedule for sewing, so she will take the folding sofa. I will sleep in the kitchen.”
“If Cici's getting the sofa, where will I sleep?” I asked.
“Ahh,” said Bunu, wagging a finger. “A young man needs his own space for things, doesn't he?”
I did but hoped Bunu wouldn't elaborate and embarrass me. He didn't. Instead, he negotiated with my parents and that's when I got my own “space.” Next to the front door, every apartment had a closet. One narrow crack of a closet for the entire apartment.
“If we're creative, we can reorganize so Cristi has his own room.”
My own room. Yes, that means I lived in a closet.
Crouched in a closet, is more like it.
I noted the arrangement in my notebook:
One sick, yet feisty grandfather on an illegal sofa in the kitchen.
Closet contents moved and unlawfully covered on Mother Elena's balcony.
One teenager camped out in a closet making radio antennae, writing illegal jokes, thinking about Liliana Pavel, and hiding a secret notebook of reports and opinions about Romania.
The transgressions made me think of the Securitate agent. These were the type of things I'd probably have to report about the American family. Things I myself was guilty of.
Yes, I was guilty.
And walking up the stairs that day, I suddenly realizedâ
I knew who had informed on me.