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Authors: Ruta Sepetys

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BOOK: I Must Betray You
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[28 Oct. 1989]

Ministry of the Interior

Department of State Security

Directorate III, Service 330

Discussion with source OSCAR at host meeting house near MF3 High School. OSCAR’s behavior was appraising, smug. Thinks he has the upper hand. Provided the following information on target VAIDA:

-hand-drawn diagram of VAIDA’s apartment

-locations of fixed and floating electronics

-son’s interests

For further documentation, OSCAR is now tasked with the following:

-trying to accompany VAIDA’s son to the American Library to collect further information

-guiding us to VAIDA’s desk in the home

Recent informer source report states that OSCAR had a physical altercation with his friend and fellow student Luca Oprea. Recommend increased surveillance.


ahrenheit și Celsius, două căi de a măsura același lucru.

Fahrenheit and Celsius, two ways of measuring the same thing.

I wrote that translation in English class. Spring and summer were pleasant in Bucharest. But winter drew near and the cold would get colder. There was no set schedule for electricity. No announcements to help us prepare.

“This never knowing, it weakens us,” Bunu would say. “It's a form of control. They know exactly what they're doing.”

When the power snapped off in the winter, the dark was instantly deep. The windows became a glaze of ice inside and out. Even when the electricity was on, the temperature in our apartment rarely rose above 12 degrees Celsius, which was 54 degrees Fahrenheit.

“People in other cities and in the countryside have it easier,” said Cici. “They have farms, more food, less restrictions. It's the worst in Bucharest.”

So why were we living in Bucharest?

I tried to describe it in my notebook:

Do you see me?

Squinting beneath the half-light,

Searching for a key to

The locked door of the world

Lost within my own shadow

Amidst an empire of fear.

During the day, neighborhood streets milled with people. Friends lingered together outside. After all, why sit in a smoky, freezing matchbox of an apartment when you could have fresh air and privacy on a freezing street?

Luca and I continued to avoid each other. That was fine by me. His bruised face—it cramped my knuckles and conscience. I looked for Liliana the next day after school but couldn't find her. Did she leave early? I had been carrying around the chocolate and wanted to give it to her. When I arrived on our street, she was standing on the sidewalk near her building.

“Cristian, you need to feed your dog.”

“Yeah? You have anything I can feed him?”

Her response and smile surprised me.

“Sure. Follow me.”

She turned and set off toward the entrance of her apartment block.

Did she really want me to follow her? I wanted to follow her.

So I did.

The electricity was off. We started up the stairs, ascending into blackness.

“My mom is terrified in a dark stairwell,” I said.

“So am I,” replied Liliana.

Should I reach for her hand? Before I could decide, we were on the second floor.

“Your apartment faces the street but ours overlooks the inner courtyard,” she said.

“How do you know ours faces the street?”

“Because I've seen you on your balcony. Fourth floor. Watching the agent in the black Dacia come and go. Are you spying on him?”

“I'm plotting a Kent heist. He has a stash on his balcony. You in?” I joked.

She laughed.

“So,” I said softly, “you've been watching me, huh?”

“That's not what I said,” she replied as she opened the door. I couldn't see her face, but I could hear the smile in her voice.

I stood in the doorway of her dark, quiet apartment.

She leaned against the open door, gazing at me. A tiny silver heart hung from the suede cord around her neck, resting perfectly in the hollow of her throat. “You can come in,” she whispered. “No one's here. My brother and parents are working.”

I nodded and stepped inside. A match hissed. Her hand moved to light a stub of a candle. Did her family buy candles at the street markets or from the church? Centered on the table beneath a handmade lace doily was a car battery. She noticed my gaze.

“My brother rigs it to create light for homework. It's brighter than a candle.” She stepped into the kitchen.

“Hey, are you hungry?” I asked.

“I thought we were feeding the dogs.” Liliana returned from the kitchen and set a bone on the table. “My dad brings bones home from work.”

“We are feeding the dogs. But I thought we could also share this.” I removed the small chocolate bar from my pocket. “It's not a Coke, but—”

I've never had that kind! Where did you get it?”

I shrugged and handed it to her. “I know someone.”

She broke it in half. We stood near the table, candle glowing, eating the chocolate.

Her fingers brushed the bottom of my jacket. “The dogs tore it. You repaired it?”

“My sister did. She has a sewing machine.”

“I've heard.” And then it was quiet. “Do you like music?” she suddenly asked.

“Sure, do you?”

“Yes. I like . . . Springsteen's lyrics.” She glanced up at me as she said it.

The candlelight danced shadowed patterns on her face and hair. My heart bumped. She was even prettier up close.

“Springsteen was born in September. He's a Libra,” said Liliana.

“Oh, yeah?” I leaned against a chair. “Can you guess what my sign is?”

“I don't have to guess.” She smiled. “I know.” She placed her hand near the candle. On the center of her palm was a small symbol. It looked like a lowercase “m” with a comma stuck to it. “You're a Virgo.”

She had drawn my sign on her palm? “Whoa, how did you know?” I asked.

“I just know.”

I nodded, not sure what to say. “Hey,” I whispered. “What color are your eyes?”

“Yours are a weird gray-blue color,” she said.


“Sorry.” She laughed. “Not weird. Different. I mean, unique. They're unique.”

“And what color are yours?” I repeated.

She lifted the candle from the table and held it in front of her face.

“You tell me. What color are my eyes?”

The candle flame swayed. “I can't see them through your hair,” I whispered.

“You can't?”


She stepped closer to me.

And then closer.

Silence and candlelight flickered between us. I paused, then slowly brushed the hair from her eyes. A shudder of energy pulsed through me. Did she feel it? I thought something might drop from a shelf.

“Brown,” I whispered. “They're brown. They're really pretty.”

“You think so?”


She smiled.

And then she blew out the candle.

We stood, silhouettes in the dark. Somewhere in the room, a clock ticked softly.

I gently wrapped my arms around her.

She pulled me closer and pressed against me, placing the side of her face on my chest. We held each other. Soundless yet somehow boundless. And in that quiet moment, all hardship melted away. For once, the shadows weren't gloomy. They were private. Holding Liliana, alone in the stillness of that dark apartment, feeling her breathe, it was everything.

I had everything.

I closed my eyes, held on to the moment—and for once, thanked the heavens for the darkness of communism.


:00 a.m.


Two pair of socks. Three shirts. Hat. Gloves. Jacket. Ration card.

I pulled the woolen hat down over my ears and zipped my jacket. It doesn't take long to dress when you sleep in your clothes for warmth. Bunu's wall thermometer said the temperature in our apartment had dipped to 8 degrees Celsius, 46 Fahrenheit overnight.

I left quietly. As if in unison, the other apartment doors opened and a line of tired residents clutching oilcloth shopping bags appeared. We trudged down the cement stairs to join the sea of humanity swarming into the freezing dark—that bleak wasteland of time.

To stand in lines.

Every family had a system for the
the local shop. This was ours:

I stood in line three days per week before school.

Cici stood in line three days per week before work.

Mama stood in line after work.

Our father relieved Mama in line during the evenings.

To shiver. To wait in line for absolutely everything. That's what I was used to.

That's what we were all used to.

How long were the lines in other countries?

I thought of the advice from the British travel book:

Best to avoid Romania
Visit Hungary or Bulgaria instead, where conditions are better.

How much better? Did they have blue-eyed boys and teenage informers?

The wind blew in icy breaths. A little boy shivered alone in front of me, gripping his rumpled shopping bag like a blanket. He yawned, awakening a slumber of phlegm. His cough sliced so sharp I could feel the infection in my own chest. Near him, a spindly silhouette hunched against the wind, smoking a cigarette in the cup of his hand. Ahead of the smoker was the quiet kid from my calculus class who wore a ratty brown scarf. I had finally found an English word for him: loner. An ancient, babushka-wrapped woman heaved in close by, propped up by arthritis and a cane. Age or illness was no exemption from standing in line.

If an outsider approached, they wouldn't see Romania—once beautiful, lush land of the Romans and Dacians. No. They'd see a snaking line of frosty communism, huddled against the cold on a dark street full of potholes.

I looked toward the front of the line. Luca stood behind the woman with the drooping face. Beneath the flickering lights of the
, the folds of her skin glowed an eerie blue. If Luca passed the university exam for medicine, he'd eventually be drinking coffee and counting Kents in the morning instead of standing in lines. He'd cure coughs, save babies from broken incubators—maybe even save women from drooping faces.

Me? I'd be a philosophical wordsmith. A poetic traitor.

My stomach murmured, reminding me it was empty.

Would there be anything in the shop today? We stood in line, programmed, never knowing. If a line formed at a neighborhood shop, most rushed to join it. Last night after three hours in line, my father came home exhausted, clutching a dented can of beans covered in dust.

“The expiration date is 1987. Two years ago,” said Cici.

My father said nothing, just shrugged. My father was quiet when he was mad, quiet when he was tired, quiet when he was happy, and quiet when he was contemplating. He felt inaccessible and I hated it. He was nothing like Bunu. How could a father and son be so different?

“Your father's hungry, Cristian, literally and figuratively. Ration cards in the 1980s? We had more food during World War II,” complained Bunu. “Do you see the lunacy of all this? They've got us brainwashed, standing in lines for hours, grateful for rotten beans. But what is the cost of self-worth?”

I didn't have an answer. My self-worth was temporarily detouring through the sewer.

Liliana's brother stood a few places ahead. He glanced back at me. If he was in line, that meant Liliana was still asleep. Did he know that his sister had invited me into their apartment? Did he know that I had held her in the dark? Did he know that I had thought about her all night?

I felt a tug at my jacket. I turned. Behind me was an elderly gentleman that Bunu used to play chess with. The squat man with the spongy nose.

“How's your
?” he whispered.

“He's fine,” I lied.

“Good, good,” nodded the bulbous face. He leaned in close. “Give him a message for me. Tell him the coffee's not as tasty as I expected. I'll come to visit him.”

I looked at him, confused. His eyes pivoted to his feet.

“They're watching. The coffee, you'll tell him?”

“Sure,” I said.

“You too,” he whispered. “No coffee.”

I turned back around. They're watching? Of course they were watching. And coffee? No one had real coffee, except for bribes. Was he referring to a bribe? Or maybe it was a joke.

Or maybe, we were all going a little bit insane.


November arrived. I stood in the entry of the Van Dorns' apartment, trying to ignore the burning in my fingers as they defrosted. Did the homes of all Americans feel like summer? The temperature in the apartment had to be nearly sixty-five Fahrenheit.

“Hey, Cristian,” Dan called to me from down the hall. “I thought I heard the door. Come on back.”

“Come on back” sounded like something we'd hear in American movies on video night. The way he waved me forward, I assumed “come on back” meant that I should join him.

The room had a large color television—certainly different than the black-and-white Romanian TVs. There was also a video player and tall stacks of VHS tapes. Connected to the video player was a cord with headphones.

“Is that how you watch videos?”

“No, family stuff.” Dan pointed to the light fixture and reached for a pad and pen nearby.

He wrote:
These are videos that friends send us from home.

I took the pad from him:
Your friends send you American movies?

He wrote:
No, they film themselves with their video cameras.

“Not many visitors here,” he said aloud. “It's nice to see people once in a while.”

Wait. Americans not only had video players and color TVs, they had video
to make their own movies? I looked at Dan, confused. The image on the screen was frozen. He handed me the headphones. I put them on and he pressed a button on the video machine.

A scene suddenly came to life. Three American guys were in a huge kitchen amidst a blaze of light. The ceiling alone had four lightbulbs. And they were all on.

“The Super Bowl is in New Orleans this year, but I wouldn't bet on your precious Cowboys, Dan.”

Their voices rolled through the headphones. I heard them speaking, but my eyes were glued to the screen. Stuck to the lower right corner. Staring at a table and a large glass bowl—

Of bananas.

Not just one banana. Many bananas. Large bananas.

A woman entered the kitchen and a boy began to complain.

“Aw, Mom, you stepped in the frame. We're making a video for Dan to cheer him up.”

“Yeah, apparently communism sucks,” laughed another boy.

“It's not funny,” said the woman. “Dan's father says it's very difficult in Romania. Hello, Dan!” she called to the camera as she circulated around the kitchen. “Tell your parents I said hello and that we miss them! Wish them a Happy Thanksgiving for us.”

As the mother spoke, she opened the door of a gigantic, towering refrigerator. Even the inside of the refrigerator had a light. And then I saw it. I felt my mouth opening. The wide shelves, they were all packed. Stuffed from top to bottom.

With food.

All kinds of food. In bottles, cans, cartons, dividers, and drawers. So many colors and quantities.

Of food.

I leaned closer to the screen.

Fresh. Ripe. Just waiting to be eaten.

A pang of desperate sadness filled my chest and crawled up into my throat.

That refrigerator had enough food to feed a Romanian for an entire year.

The woman on-screen removed a cluster of Coke cans from the refrigerator. She carried it to the table, along with a plate of crackers, sliced meats, and cheese. No one pushed or lined up. The boys casually grazed at the food while continuing to speak to the camera. I stared.

The bananas. Weren't they going to eat the bananas? But the bananas remained in the bowl.


A hand on my shoulder. It startled me. I removed the headphones.

“Sorry, didn't mean to scare you.” Dan gestured to the TV. “Cool, right? Far away but seems like they're so close.”

“Yes, cool,” I said, trying to swallow past the lump in my throat.

“I've gotta go,” said Dan.

“You going to the American Library?”

“No, meeting my parents at the embassy.” He paused, looking at me. “How did you know I go to the library?”

Damn. I was so thrown by the food. I slipped.

“Oh, all Romanians have heard of the American Library,” I lied. “Seems like a place where I could practice my English.”

“Sure.” Dan nodded. “I was planning on going Saturday to see if they have any new magazines. You can come with me if you want. Come by after school and we'll go together.”


I followed Dan out of the room. My head felt detached, spinning with thoughts. Liliana's question floated back to me.

Cristian, do you ever wonder if any of it's real? The things we see in American movies?

The video I saw that afternoon was not a fabricated script.

The boys on-screen were not actors.

They were real people, in a real house in the West, with real food.

It was all true.

And everything we'd been fed?

It was all lies.

BOOK: I Must Betray You
5.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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