Authors: Ruta Sepetys
I entered the school office. The old, brittle secretary glanced at me, then looked to her lap. No eye contact. She pointed a shriveled finger toward the director’s office.
My stomach curled, tighter.
A windowless box. Smoke-stained ceiling. The stale, suspended tang of moldy paper. Hanging above the director’s plain, blocky desk was a portrait in a golden frame. Identical portraits decorated all of Romania—classrooms, train stations, stores, hospitals, and even the front of books.
Our beloved leader. Our hero. Maverick of the grand Communist Party of Romania and vampire to the necks of millions. Illegal metaphor? Absolutely.
The new portrait depicted our hero with blushing cheeks and wavy, thick brown hair. He and his wife, Heroine Mother Elena, had guided the country of Romania for twenty-four years. I didn’t linger on the picture that showed a much younger version of our leader. Instead, my eyes pulled to the stranger seated below the portrait.
Mid-thirties. Unbroken line of an eyebrow. More scalp than hair. Hands each the size of a tennis racket and shoulders extending well beyond the width of the chair.
“Close the door,” instructed the man.
I closed the wooden door but did not sit. I was not told to.
The stranger peeled through a file in front of him. A photo clipped to the upper edge of the folder showed a young man with messy dark hair and pale eyes. And that’s when the floor of my stomach collapsed.
Sitting a meter away was not just a hulking man with one eyebrow and paddles for hands.
This man was executioner, black rider, and spy. He was an agent of the Securitate, Romania’s fearsome secret police. Within his grasp sat a file and a photo.
“They say there’s one Secu per every fifty Romanians,” my sister Cici once warned. “There are twenty-three million Romanians. Do the math. Securitate agents, they’re everywhere.”
We called them “the blue-eyed boys.” Nickname aside, they were generally easy to spot. In Romania, if your family was lucky enough to afford a car and could wait five years until one became available, you knew what you were getting. There was only one brand of car—Dacia. They came in a few colors like white, blue, or green. But the secret police, they drove black Dacias. A young man in our apartment block drove a black Dacia. I watched him from our balcony. I was intrigued from afar.
The man in front of me drove a black Dacia. I was certain of it. But I was not intrigued.
I was scared.
The agent leaned back, bullying the metal chair he sat upon. His eyes drilled silent holes through me, splitting the walls of my confidence. He waited, and waited, allowing the holes to fill with fear.
His weight suddenly shifted. The front legs of the chair clapped to the floor. He leaned across the desk, exhaling the dead nicotine that lived on his pasty, yellow tongue. His words still haunt me.
“You’re Cristian Florescu,” he said. “And I know what you’ve done.”
He knew what I had done.
What had I done?
The truth was, most Romanians broke the rules someway or another. There were so many to break. And so many to report that you had broken them.
A songwriter wrote negative lyrics about life in Romania. He was committed to an insane asylum.
A college student was discovered with an unregistered typewriter. He was sent to prison.
Complaining aloud could get you arrested as a “political agitator.” But I hadn’t complained aloud. I did most things quietly. Secretly. So what had this agent discovered?
Was it my homemade radio antenna? The jokes I composed? Was it the travel guide?
I bought English language stuff on the sly, through a neighborhood trader named Starfish. Reading English contraband bolstered my vocabulary. My last purchase was a handful of pages torn from a travel guide printed in England. Foreign travel guides and maps were often confiscated from visitors. Reading those pages, I learned why:
Abysmal conditions in Romania.
Nicolae Ceauşescu. Ruthless leader. Megalomaniac. Everyone under surveillance.
Worst human suffering of any country in the Eastern Bloc.
And this one—
Romanian people are intelligent, handsome, and welcoming, but forbidden to interact with foreigners. Imagine a madhouse where the lunatics are running the asylum and the workers are punished for their sanity. Best to avoid Romania. Visit Hungary or Bulgaria instead, where conditions are better.
The note about surveillance—it was true. Everyone was a possible target for surveillance. She, Mother Elena Ceauşescu, even decreed that balconies of apartments must remain fully visible. The Communist Party had a right to see everything at all times. Everything was owned by the Party. And the Ceauşescus owned the Party.
“Nice for them. They don’t have to live in a block of cement,” I once sneered.
“Shh. Don’t ever say that aloud,” gasped my mother.
I never said it again, but I wrote about it in my notebook.
My notebook. Wait. Was this about my notebook?
The agent motioned for me to sit. I sat.
“Do you know why you are here?” he asked.
“No, Comrade Lieutenant.”
I swallowed. “No, Comrade Major, I don’t know why I’m here.”
“Let me enlighten you then. You have an impressive stamp collection. You sold a vintage Romanian stamp. The transaction was with
a foreigner and you accepted foreign currency. You are now guilty of illegal trafficking and will be prosecuted.”
A chill flashed across the back of my neck. My brain began to tick:
The old stamp.
The U.S. dollar bill.
That was two months ago. How long had they known about it?
“I didn’t sell the stamp,” I said. “I gave it to him. I didn’t even find the—”
I stopped. It was illegal in Romania to say the word “dollar.”
“I didn’t find the . . . currency . . . until several days later when I opened the album. He must have slipped it in without me seeing.”
“How did you come to interact with an American teenager in the first place? Interaction with foreigners is illegal. You must report any contact with foreigners immediately. You are aware of that.”
“Yes, Comrade Major. But my mother cleans the apartments of two U.S. diplomats. That is on record.”
But there were things that were
record. At least I had thought so. I had met the son of the U.S. diplomat while waiting for my mother. We became friendly. We traded stamps. We talked. I glimpsed a peek at his notebook—and decided to start a notebook of my own.
“Your mother cleans the apartments of U.S. diplomats. How did she get that job?”
“I think . . . through a friend?” I honestly couldn’t remember. “I met the American while waiting for my mother. I often walk her home. My mother has a hard time seeing in the dark. It’s frightening for her.”
“You’re claiming you engaged in illegal currency activity with an American teenager because your mother is afraid of the dark? Your mother’s handicap has nothing to do with your crime. But punishment
extend to your entire family.”
A crime? My entire family?
But I had never accepted the dollar. It just . . . appeared.
How did he even know about it?
The pleading refrains of my mother and sister appeared in chorus.
Don’t tell anyone—anything.
Remember, Cristian, you never know who’s listening.
Please, don’t draw attention to our family.
I stared at the agent in front of me. A shivery sweat glazed my palms and an invisible moth flapped in my windpipe. In Romania, the Securitate carried more power than the military. This man could destroy us. He could put our family under increased surveillance. He could ruin my opportunity to attend university. He could have my parents fired. Or worse.
The agent leaned forward, placing his massive flesh rackets on the desk.
“I can see you’ve absorbed the severity of the situation. I’m told you’re a strong student, talented, an observer among your peers. I’m feeling generous today.”
He was letting me off with a warning. I exhaled with gratitude.
“You’re thanking me? You haven’t heard my proposal yet. It’s simple and, as I said, very generous of me. You will continue to meet your mother and walk her home. You will continue your interactions with the son of the American diplomat. And you will report details of the diplomat’s home and family to me.”
It was not a proposal. It was an order, and one that compromised all principles of decency. I’d be a rat, a
, secretly informing on the private lives of others.
I could never tell my family. Constant deception. I should refuse. But if I refused, my family would suffer. I was sure of that. And then, amidst the silence, the agent made his final move.
“Say, how is your
. Checkmate. The simple mention weakened me.
He knew about my grandfather. Bunu was a light, full of wisdom and philosophy. Bunu knew of my interest in poetry and literature. He encouraged it. Quietly.
“They steal our power by making us believe we don’t have any,” said Bunu. “But words and creative phrases—they have power, Cristian. Explore that power in your mind.”
The stamp collection was Bunu’s treasure. It had been our secret project for years.
We had other secrets. Like Bunu’s leukemia. It stormed upon him so quickly.
“Don’t tell anyone,” begged our perpetually nervous mother.
We didn’t have to. Anyone could see that an energetic, healthy man had suddenly turned gray and shriveled. He lifted the frying pan and his wrist snapped.
Paddle Hands cleared his throat. “It’s a generous proposal. We’ll work together. You give me information and I give you medicine for Bunu. He won’t suffer.”
And that’s how it began.
I was Cristian Florescu. Code name “OSCAR.”
A seventeen-year-old spy.
|| OFFICIAL RECRUITMENT REPORT OF “OSCAR” ||
[15 Oct. 1989]
Ministry of the Interior
Department of State Security
Directorate III, Service 330
For the informative supervision of American diplomat Nicholas Van Dorn (target name: “VAIDA”), we were referred by Source “FRITZI” to Cristian Florescu (17), student at MF3 High School. Florescu’s mother works as housekeeper to Van Dorn and has access to the family. Florescu was described to us as intelligent, quietly observant, with strong facility for the English language. He also has access to Van Dorn’s apartment and family. Approached Florescu on school grounds and used guise of illegal stamp trading as basis for recruitment. Florescu appeared wary but agreed to provide information as OSCAR when medication for his grandfather was presented as an option. OSCAR will be used to:
-interact with Van Dorn’s son, Dan (16)
-determine schedule patterns of the Van Dorn family
-determine who frequents the residence
-provide detailed mapping and layout of the Van Dorn residence
-ascertain general attitudes of the Van Dorns toward Romania
Guilt walks on all fours.
It creeps, encircles, and climbs. It presses its thumbs to your throat.
And it waits.
I left school, grateful for the two-kilometer walk to our apartment block. But with each step I took, guilt and fear transformed into anger.
What sort of human being preys on teenagers and uses a sick grandfather as a bargaining chip? Why didn’t I refuse and tell him to drive his black Dacia straight to hell? Why did I give in so quickly?
The agent had a file. Who informed on me? I threw a quick glance over my shoulder into the shadows. Was I being followed?
I didn’t yet know the truth: many of us were being followed.
Night pooled with a scattering of clouds. The sky slung black and empty of light. Tall, ashen buildings towered together on each side of the street, lording over me. Living in Bucharest was like living inside a black-and-white photo. Life in cold monochrome. You knew that color existed somewhere beyond the city’s palette of cement and charcoal, but you couldn’t get there—beyond the gray. Even my guilt tasted gray, like I had swallowed a fistful of soot.
Perhaps it wasn’t as evil as it felt? I would be spying on an American family only, not fellow Romanians. Romanian spy novels depicted the Securitate as defenders against evil Western forces. But if the stories
were realistic, the agents were predictable. Maybe I could outwit them.
Yes, that’s actually what I thought. I could beat the Securitate.
But how could I manage the guilt? It wouldn’t dissolve overnight. My family would know something was wrong.
I could fool my parents. My father was always gone, working. In recent years he felt more like a shadow than a man. Mama was always distracted and worried, constantly making lists. I think she actually made lists of things to worry about. But I wouldn’t be able to fool Bunu. And I certainly couldn’t fool my older sister, Cici.
So, I invented a story about exams.
University exams were highly competitive. Thirty students would compete for four spots to study education. Seventy students for just one spot in medicine.
“Philosophy,” nodded Bunu. “Soul nourishment. Sit for a spot in philosophy. You see, communism is a state of mind,” he would lecture, tapping at his temple. “The State controls the amount of food we eat, our electricity, our transportation, the information we receive. But with philosophy, we control our own minds. What if the internal landscape was ours to build and paint?”
Bunu spoke often of vibrant what-ifs. I pondered them in my notebook. How could we paint or sketch creatively? If the West was a box of colorful crayons, my life was a case of dull pencil leads.
My family knew I wanted to go to university. I’d pretend I was upset because the available spots for philosophy had been cut in half. Cici would roll her eyes.
“You take it all too seriously, Cristi,” she would say. “Many Romanians have advanced degrees and no use for them now. It can be dangerous to be considered an intellectual. I wish you’d let it go.”
I thought my story would work. I’d pretend to be worried, say I was busy studying for exams. They wouldn’t ask questions.
But Bunu always asked questions.
What if he figured it out? He would never understand how I could become an informer. A traitor. I was worse than the cancer that was eating him.
And then I heard the footsteps.
My question was answered.