Authors: Ruta Sepetys
You’re late,” whispered my mother. “Your jacket. Cristian, what happened?”
“A pack of dogs attacked a little girl. We walked her home,” I replied.
?” said Cici, turning from her sewing machine. “Who is
I ignored her query. I stepped to the kitchen to check on Bunu and hear the daily joke.
“How are you today, Bunu?”
I didn’t have to ask. Bunu was a strange mix of gray and green. His voice was a murmur.
“I’m doing very well,” he lied. “In fact, I’ve had some good news from Bulă.” A grin crept across his face.
Joking about the regime was illegal and could ferry you straight to Securitate headquarters. But people told jokes anyway. In a country with no freedom of speech, each joke felt like a tiny revolution. Some jokes were relayed through a fictional character named Bulă.
My grandfather waved me forward for the joke. The blue veins in Bunu’s hand now lived above the skin instead of beneath it.
I leaned in.
“Good news.” He smiled. “Bulă says Romania is repairing the country’s tanks—both of them.”
Our laughter was momentary. The ration of breath left Bunu
coughing, hacking so deeply my parents came running. The cough, it sounded painful and evil, like wild dogs were living inside Bunu, barking and tearing through his innards. How did this happen? Bunu had been so fit and healthy.
“Did you take the iodine tablets? All of them?” asked my father.
“Gabriel,” Bunu wheezed. “What’s happening to me . . . it’s not from Chernobyl.”
“Cristian, go to the wardrobe. Quickly! Count the cartons of Kents,” instructed Mother as she bent a trembling knee to my grandfather.
Kents were Western cigarettes.
Kents were used as currency. For bribes. For trade. For the black market.
We needed Kents for a lot of things: seeing a doctor, gratuities for our schoolteachers, bribing the apartment administrator. If you’re sick and Kentless, you’re out of luck. But use your Kents wisely. Do you really need stitches—or that toe? Save your Kents for what really matters. I once opted to go Kentless for a filling. Instead of using Novocain, the dentist put his knee on my chest while he drilled and wrenched. The socket became infected and my face was swollen for a month. My psyche is still swollen. Definitely bribe the dentist.
How many Kents did kids in other countries need for the dentist or for their teachers? Did others buy Kents in a hotel gift shop like we did? I had written those questions in my notebook.
Merchandise had value. We had Romanian
, but what could you do with Romanian currency when there was nothing in the local shops to buy? The shelves were always empty, but the apartments of doctors and dentists probably looked like a well-stocked store.
I headed to the wardrobe in my parents’ room, but I already had the count. A recent notation in my notebook reported our family bribe
inventory—three cartons of Kents, two yellow packages of Alvorada coffee, one bar of Fa soap, and one bottle of Queen Anne whisky. Russian vodka was worth something, but we didn’t have any. We traded our vodka for an X-ray last year when my father had pneumonia and was coughing up blood.
“You should have drunk the vodka,” Bunu told my father. “Better than medicine.”
Even my sister dabbled in the black market. Cici worked at a textile factory. After hours, she made clothes and mended things for others. She had a particular talent for copying designs from the West German Neckermann catalogs. On occasion, Cici traded her sewing for black market contraband. She had a locked box hidden under her folding bed that contained a host of unusual and banned items.
Bunu’s coughing ceased. And then the retching began.
The sound, it was excruciating. A heaving of jagged glass.
I stood in my parents’ room, thumping my forehead against the wardrobe. Bunu’s suffering, it made my own chest heave and ache. The thought of losing Bunu terrified me.
But it was temporary.
I’d give the agent the information he wanted.
The agent would give me medicine to cure Bunu.
I had made the right decision. Hadn’t I?
I was smart. A great pretender. What if I turned the tables? What if I secretly spied on the agent, somehow gathered information that put me a step ahead? I’d know the game and outplay him.
That’s right, I thought I could outwit Paddle Hands.
The very idea—was it blazing ignorance or blazing courage?
In hindsight, a bit of both.
Ignorant courage, blazing.
The shadows followed me into the closet, onto my bed of rugs, and across the night. But I made it through school on Saturday without thinking of agents, spying, or Bunu.
I thought of video night.
What films had some thick-fingered truck driver smuggled across West Germany, through Austria and Hungary, into Romania? We never knew when videos might arrive. Most illegal movies from the West were dubbed into Romanian by the same woman. No one knew her name, but more than twenty million people knew her voice. She brought us into a secret, forbidden world of inspiration.
“So, see you tonight?” Liliana asked that day at school.
“Yeah, meet you at nine,” I told her.
It was happening. Liliana Pavel was going to video night.
I arrived home from school and saw Mirel, a Roma boy in my building, standing on the sidewalk.
Roma families lived on the first floor, in ground-level apartments. Without moving his head, Mirel gestured with his eyes. I nodded to him, as if in greeting, but sending a private acknowledgment.
The second floor and upper apartments had balconies, like ours.
And on the balconies perched the “Reporters”âwomen who watched all comings and goings and chattered constantly.
I listened closely. One of the Reporters was gossiping. About me. Her voice carried from above.
“Quiet, but he speaks English, you know. Handsome if he'd comb his hair.”
I recognized her voice without lookingâthe woman with the drooping face. Unlike the other Reporters who wore stiff lines of age and exhaustion, this woman wasn't old. Her baby had been born prematurely and died in a hospital incubator when CeauÅescu turned off the electricity one night. Within a matter of days, her young features drooped twenty years. Cici always wanted to help her. I wanted to write a poem about her. The woman with the fallen face.
The electricity was on when I arrived home, so I opted for the elevator to our fourth floor. The fickle elevator doors rattled shut, presenting a new display of communist poetry inscribed on the metal:
VIAÈÄ DE RAHAT
Life is like shite.
I laughed. Most of the time it was. But not tonight.
My parents were still at work and Bunu was snoring in the kitchen. Cici was sitting at her sewing machine, creating a blouse from an old curtain.
“Starfish hopes you'll be at video night,” I whispered. “I told him he'd have to ask you himself.”
“I can't,” she replied over her shoulder. “I'm going to the Popescus'. Their son has a suit that needs altering.”
Their son, he probably also had eyes for Cici. My twenty-year-old sister was tall and pretty, with long legs, black hair, and gray eyes like
mine. People said we looked alike. To me, she resembled an exotic doll, the kind that's collectible, not the kind that's dragged around. Cici mended clothes for fellow workers and neighbors. She doted on the elderly people in our building and they adored her.
I did too.
Pretty girls like Cici generally had an attitude. They used their beauty as a strategy. But Cici didn't. My sister was suspicious and watchful, but she was also fun and kind. She'd wedge into the kitchen with me, and together, we'd illegally listen to music I'd hotwired from Voice of America. She'd beg me to translate the song lyrics and then she'd whisper-sing all the wrong words. She had a hard time understanding English and it made me laugh. And when I laughed, Cici laughed.
And when Cici laughedâreally laughedâit felt like the sun was singing. Blue sky, pure joy uncorked. I imagined that's what freedom felt like. You wanted it to go on forever.
But today Cici wasn't laughing. She sat motionless at her sewing machine and her shoulders began to tremble.
She turned slowly to face me. Her eyes were rings of red, her cheeks stamped with splotches from crying.
She quickly shook her head.
And put a finger to her lips.
Cici, what’s wrong?” I whispered.
She raised a hand to stop me. She grabbed her pillow from the sofa and put it over the telephone. She then placed a book on top of the pillow.
Rumors claimed that Romanian telephones were all constructed with built-in listening devices. When whispering wasn’t enough, we put a pillow over the phone, just to be sure. We’d usually put the radio on as well, but ours was malfunctioning.
Cici sat back down. I pulled a chair from the table so she could whisper in my ear.
But she didn’t whisper. She looped her arms around my neck. And cried. What had upset her? She finally raised her face to mine, tears streaming down her cheeks.
,” she whispered.
Little chick. It was her nickname for me. I looked at my sister’s tear-streaked face and took a guess. “Examination at the factory?”
She paused, awkward and averting her eyes, then nodded and returned to my shoulder, crying.
I didn’t know what to say or how to make it better, so I just let her cry—as she probably did during the examination with the “baby police.” Women were periodically checked for pregnancy at their place of work. The makeshift gynecological exams by medical
inspectors were disgusting and humiliating, not to mention unsanitary.
Ceauşescu wanted to increase the population, to breed more workers. Population growth meant economic growth. If you were childless, you were taxed.
Everyone knew Ceauşescu’s decrees:
The fetus is the property of the entire society!
Heroic women give children to the homeland!
Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter!
Mama had only managed to have two children. She felt guilty about it.
“Fertility under state control? That’s an abuse of human rights!” Bunu would wail. “How can families take care of multiple children with no electricity and so little food? Cristian, there is no happy ending here.”
Bunu was right. Some infants were put in orphanages where families were assured they’d be cared for and raised properly as good comrades. Would they? Were conditions in the orphanages better than the cement apartment blocks? I pondered those questions in my secret notebook.
.” Cici drew a breath, gathering strength. She wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“Stop. You have nothing to be sorry for.”
What could I say to my sister? What could I say to my own mother who had to suffer the same indignity? Their bodies were owned by the State. I couldn’t promise that things would get better. In the last few years, they had gotten worse. I couldn’t intervene or help. But I wanted to take the pain away. So I leaned in to her ear.
“Hey, have you heard? Bulă says Romania is repairing the country’s tanks—both of them.”
Cici looked at me with her gray-blue eyes. She paused, as if suspended. And then she laughed, the laugh I loved, and swatted my shoulder.
Slowly, her smile faded. She pulled a deep breath. “Promise me you’ll never change. Promise,
. We have to stay close.”
She stared at me with such a desperate, imploring look. My stomach cramped with guilt. If Cici knew that I had become an informer?
She’d hate me.
She’d never speak to me again.
But what choice did I have?
I swallowed. I think I managed a small smile.
“Of course,” I whispered. “I promise.”
Deceit. Treachery. Hypocrisy.
I lied to my sister. The person I loved most.
But at the time, I didn’t blame myself for any of it.
I blamed Him.
I waited in the stairwell. Early. Anxious. Maybe a little nervous.
My sister could tell I was energized about something but didn’t pry.
“There’s no hot water. The shower will be freezing. Do you want me to boil some water?” she had asked.
“No, save it for Bunu.”
I showered under the freezing tap. At least the water was running. It could be switched off at any time. I reshuffled and forked my hair using my fingers. No comb necessary.
“Luca called,” said my sister.
I nodded but said nothing. I had been dodging Luca. And he knew it.
Cici brushed her hands across my shoulders and sent me off with a whisper.
“Be careful. Don’t say too much around Starfish. You can’t trust him.”
While standing in the stairwell I spied the Securitate agent who lived in our building. He tramped down the stairs wearing a long black coat, leaving behind a phantom of cigarette smoke. The black leather coat, the black Dacia. Secret agents—they weren’t very secret.
I waded into the blackened street, mining the darkness for Liliana.
My hair was still wet, but I was accustomed to the cold. I hoped it wasn’t obvious, showering and all. I also hoped she hadn’t changed her mind.
She hadn’t. She stood in front of her apartment block, waiting for me. The night clouds suddenly shifted, dropping a pale glow of moonlight.
,” I said.
Fetița, her building’s block dog, sat next to her.
“Someone fed her?”
“Apparently. Otherwise she’d be eating my shoe. She’s a good amulet. Most people are scared of her.”
“I’m not scared of her.”
“Yeah, because your building’s dog is a wolf!” She laughed.
“He’s not a wolf.”
“Turbatu? Well, his name’s pretty intimidating.”
. The rabid one.
“Yeah.” I scratched at some nonexistent itch in my wet hair. “I guess he scares people off.”
“Hey, I brought something,” she said, exposing her jacket pocket.
I leaned in close to see. Being so close to Liliana . . . I had to force myself to focus. I could barely see the can, but I saw the white letters.
No. It couldn’t be.
“What?!” I whispered. “Is it real? Where did you get it?”
“My dad got it at work. Someone traded it to him. He gave it to me for Christmas.”
“Aw, we can’t drink your Christmas present.”
“Why not?” said Liliana. “Have you ever tasted it?”
I shook my head. There were lots of things I’d never tasted.
tasted it?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “But the characters in movies, they’re always drinking it, so I thought it would be fun.”
A real Coke. And she was going to share it with me.
I looked to the balconies. It was late for the Reporters, but I couldn’t be sure. “Well, we can’t open it here. Not even with a guard dog,” I said.
“Right. Where should we go?”
We walked around the side of her building, Fetița following. We found a shadow and slid down, huddled next to each other against the cold cement wall.
Liliana opened the can. It released a
that made the dog bark. We laughed. She offered the can to me.
“No way. You first. It’s your Christmas present. You’ve been waiting ten months.”
She took a sip. I squinted to watch. Her bangs fell over her brow, but I could see her eyes flutter closed. I waited.
“Well?” I finally asked.
Her eyes popped open and a smile pulled across her face. “
It’s really great. Sweet but sharp. Definitely worth the wait.” She handed the can to me.
I took a swig. It fizzed and popped. A revolution on my tongue. I didn’t have words. I just laughed. And Liliana, she laughed with me.
“If you could try anything,” she asked, taking another swig, “what would it be?” She passed the can back to me.
“A banana,” I replied without hesitation. “Have you ever had one?”
“Yes,” she squeaked, trying to muffle a burp and giddy laughter from the Coke.
“My parents tell me we had bananas when I was little,” I said. “But I don’t remember. When I was thirteen, a girl had one at school. I could smell it across the room. After that I begged for a banana constantly.
It’s kind of a funny story.” I took a sip of the Coke and passed it back to Liliana. The sugar and bubbles—it was too amazing.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Well, my mom tries to make holidays special, you know? So, she went to great lengths for my fifteenth birthday.”
“To get you a banana.” Liliana nodded.
“Well, not exactly. She couldn’t get a banana. But she somehow got black-market shampoo from West Germany . . . that smelled like a banana.”
“Ohhh . . .” She bit her lip.
“Exactly. But I made a big fuss and”—the Coke was definitely going to my head—“I’ll tell you a secret.”
Liliana waited, eyes wide.
“That shampoo smelled so good”—my voice dropped to a whisper—“I drank some when no one was looking, just to say I had tasted a banana.”
“I know, embarrassing. If you ever tell anyone, I might have to kill you.”
“Don’t worry. I might not survive this Coke!” She laughed.
I often think about that moment, reliving its perfection in my head.
Liliana. A real Coke. Banana shampoo.
Sometimes we don’t recognize life’s perfect moments.
Until it’s too late.