Arad, Romania, June 1982
At the edge of the river the sand turns into mud, seeping between my toes, cooler than the lukewarm water. It’s not an unpleasant feeling, it’s just that who knows what creatures might be living under the greenish fluid. And it’s slippery. I can fall if I’m not careful.
“Don’t go too far.”
My grandmother has taken refuge under a tree.
I want to recreate that world just as I remember it. Weren’t we already living on the highest peaks of progress? In the Golden Age?
By now the opaque water is up to my knees. I comb it with my fingers, which look like white fish swimming close to the surface. I don’t like that thought. But the water is warm, and my feet are sinking deeper into the mud now. Two older kids are playing with a ball. One of them pretends to hit the other, who catches the ball at the last moment. They might lose it in the river if they’re not careful. Last year an older boy who was in seventh grade drowned. I can see people crossing the drawbridge and the rusty pontoons that were once painted red and blue.
I want to swim a little, but my grandmother won’t let me.
“Don’t go any farther!”
There’s panic in her voice. I’m now up to my hips, and instead of swimming, I just crouch in the water, letting it cool my hot shoulders and neck. I move my arms, faking swimming moves, then splash water toward nobody. I wish someone else was here, but I don’t know who. Lately I’ve been feeling like this, an unfocused yearning, an emptiness in my arms and chest, as if I’m trying to embrace wisps of smoke.
“That’s it, please come out now.”
One last dip, then I stand up and walk toward the shore. Buni is pleased, I can tell.
“Here, let me help you.”
The bra that I have to wear this year—two triangles of polyester hanging from strings tied around my neck and flat chest—has shifted, and my grandmother puts it back into place. She touches my shoulders with her rough fingers, and I wince. On the back of my neck and arms, my skin feels tight. Her fingertips are rough, blackened by small cuts and nicks from a lifetime of peeling and cutting vegetables, as well as small pin pricks from all the needlework she’s done.
“Let’s go get langoși,” she says.
The line in front of the kiosk is short. Two women work inside, stretching the dough and then dropping it into the boiling oil. It must be very hot in there.
Nothing but the thinnest piece of paper separates the piping hot fried dough from my fingertips.
“Let me hold it for you.”
Maybe it doesn’t burn her old skin as much. She blows air over the langoș before giving it to me, still hot, but now I can start eating it if I’m careful. In the middle, it has air bubbles caught in the golden crisp dough.
My grandmother wants to buy some for my parents so we get back in line. It is longer now, and I can feel the sun burning on my shoulders as the string tying my swimsuit bra rubs against the back of my neck.
But the line isn’t moving. One of the women sticks her head out of the kiosk.
“We’ve run out of fuel,” she says. “We might get more later.”
Some people seem to grumble, but most just walk away.
“I should have gotten more the first time around,” my grandmother says. “Oh well, maybe they’ll bring more fuel later.”
We walk down crowded alleys paved with yellow granite toward the swimming pools, where my parents are. The rectangular bricks, arranged in a basket weave pattern, are hot, but there’s thin grass growing between them that’s cool enough to walk on.
My father is lying on his back reading a novel, while my mother is chatting with someone two blankets down. I don’t want to talk to anybody. My mother says goodbye, then turns toward me and pulls the strings of my bra.
Her fingernails are short, with a pointy tip that she has recently filed. They scratch my shoulders right where it aches the most.
“You just got sunburn.”
She’s not impressed that it hurts.
“We had some langoși and we wanted to bring some back, but they ran out of fuel.”
My father puts the book down on his belly, then looks at us, shielding his eyes.
“The restaurant should be open by now. Maybe we should go get lunch?”
My father lifts himself heavily off the blanket, his belly hanging over his swimsuit, which has a fake belt and golden buckle.
My brother, Teo, comes back from the small kids’ swimming pool. My mom is trying to offer him a sandwich and grapes from her beach bag, but he’s not interested.
“Let’s go to the big kids’ pool,” he says. He’s really excited.
He’s not allowed in that pool unless I’m with him. I can swim in the adult pool if my father is there to watch me. But I’ll go with Teo. I’d like to run into classmates or friends, somebody my age, like Emilia or Laura, even though I know they go to the thermal baths in Vlaicu, where they live. Not Emilia though, she told us she can’t go anywhere this weekend because she has her period. I wonder what that’s like, though it can’t be fun if you can’t go to the swimming pool. It would be very nice to run into Radu, who was in my class until fourth grade, but whom I rarely see, despite living in the same neighborhood.
I spend the next two hours diving and jumping into the crowded pool, challenging Teo and one of his friends to all sorts of competitions that involve swimming around other kids and even one parent who’s frowning at us. This pool is for kids, I want to tell him, but I don’t. In the end he leaves.
‘We had some langoși and we wanted to bring some back, but they ran out of fuel.’
In the evening, the straps of my summer dress feel scratchy but I can finally take off the swimsuit bra.
“You’re all red, you’ll get a good tan,” my mother says.
“I’ll put some yogurt on your skin when we get home, it should make you feel better,” says my grandmother.
Like always after swimming, the memory of water lingers in my body, which feels heavier and lighter at the same time, my muscles sore, my joints loose. Toes and knees and elbows feel like one fluid whole. I can fall asleep any minute, melt into a puddle by the side of the road.
The pontoon bridge sways as throngs of people cross it at the same time. I hang on to the ropes on the side, watching the bend in the river in the distance.
On the other side, people are watching sculptors working in the park on blocks of white stone. Despite being tired and hungry, we walk around the park’s newly paved paths.
“Is that marble?” I ask my father.
“Limestone. It’s a summer school organized by City Hall, and the statues will stay here in the park.”
My father always speaks as if there are many people listening.
A young man in an undershirt, a red kerchief on his forehead, is chiseling away at a square block. There’s dust all around him, on his bare arms and his face, which is too wide, with blue eyes almost sunken under a wide forehead. When he lifts his right arm, I can see his shoulder muscle—the poster in the biology lab flashes in front of my eyes, was that the deltoid?— then the bone when he lowers it again. He stops to light up a cigarette; he smokes filterless Carpați—the stuff that stinks—unlike my father, who smokes Kent. I want the man to keep working, so I can keep watching his shoulder.
My parents and Teo are walking away.
“And what does this statue represent?”
My voice comes out whiny, high pitched, pretentious. I want to sound older.
He turns around and takes a good look at me before answering, and is it just me or does his gaze linger on my chest and shoulders, where the straps of my purposeless bra have left pale lines?
“Nothing,” he answers in the end, in a voice that sounds sad and gentle.
I try to return his gaze, and I succeed for a moment, then I lower my eyes. My parents have walked away.
“Great!” I scream. “This statue represents nothing!”
I run toward my mother.
“Ileana!” my mother exclaims, louder than necessary, so that the young man can hear her disapproval.
I take my brother’s hand and walk behind my parents.
At night, I dream of laying my cheek against a man’s shoulder, protective, vulnerable. The next day, during the ten o’clock break, blowing bubbles with the pink Balonka bubble gum Emilia shared with me, I tell her and Laura that I spoke with an Older Guy.
• • •
Arad, Romania, November 1988
We took too long to get ready, or maybe it was too cold and we didn’t really want to leave home. Probably my mother insisted that we still go. She believed that once people decided to do something, they had to go through with it. My father suffered from heart disease and the doctor recommended that he lose some weight. I too felt like I needed some exercise. The previous summer I had jogged, swam, TV exercised, and dieted away twenty-five pounds, which were slowly creeping back. I was my father’s daughter. Not only did I look like him (I frowned often, hoping that people would notice the resemblance), but I shared my father’s love for desserts, midnight treats, and afternoons spent lying comfortably on the couch, reading a novel.
I imagined Florin in a foreign city, walking clean sidewalks under abundant lights, and a pang of envy and pain—this would never be my future, I could never go there—shot through my whole body, bringing tears to my eyes.
We hadn’t made it even half a mile on the promenade along the river before we contemplated turning back. It was already getting dark, and rumors had it that the park was dangerous at night, that there were thieves and gangs and that someone had been killed the previous year. The park was less than five minutes away from the better neighborhoods of our town, yet the lights didn’t work, or kids had thrown rocks at them, or there was another blackout, as so often happened in those days. I was lucky I was with my father, who was six foot three and big. By myself I would have made a dash toward the end of the park, near the apartment buildings where people could hear me in case of need. I mostly avoided being out at night, especially by myself, especially in winter. Winter evenings were cold and dark pretty much everywhere in the late eighties, but at least you were safer if you were at home.
We passed the modernist sculptures made out of white limestone—a stylized ancient hero’s head, a woman in a long dress, a cube balanced on its side. I recalled the earlier summer when we had watched the young artists carving them. I remembered looking forward to our dinner of roasted eggplants, tomatoes, and telemea cheese, the usual summer fare. Now the limestone gleamed in the fading winter light. The river, to our left, exuded its familiar muddy smell, now subdued by the cold.
We walked in silence. I always thought I had a lot of things to talk about with my father, but when we spent time together, which wasn’t often, I rarely knew what to tell him, or worried that I might say something he wouldn’t like.
This time he was the one who broke the silence.
“Are you and Florin Popa good friends?”
I tried to remember what my father could have known. In sixth grade I had had a crush on him—but then, in sixth grade I’d had crushes on almost every guy who spoke to me. Florin was now in Munich, and according to my classmate Eli, who knew him from the polo team, he’d called his parents—our neighbors from the first floor—to tell them he was alright and had managed to cross from Hungary into Austria, then West Germany. He wanted to go to Paris, that was his dream. He hadn’t told anybody about his plans, not even his parents (“Especially not his parents! Can you imagine?” Eli had said during the ten o’clock break, rounding her eyes and mouth in amazement) so that when they would inevitably be interrogated by the police, they could honestly say that they didn’t know anything about their son’s plans. For me and Eli, Florin, whom we had watched at the swimming pool, had now become a romantic hero. In the past few days I’d imagined him in a foreign city, walking clean sidewalks under abundant lights, among smartly dressed crowds, and a pang of envy and pain—this would never be my future, I could never go there, never be or belong there—shot through my whole body, bringing tears to my eyes.
“We didn’t talk very much. You know, just saying ‘Hi.’ He’s older,” I said to my father.
“You have to be careful. Some people spend too much time gossiping. It’s never a good idea.”
Did that mean that we would be interrogated too? It didn’t make any sense. Florin had left by himself. I hadn’t even talked to him in years.
I hated it when my father spoke to me like that, moralizing, as if I were a child. He was a great storyteller, who could make the ordinary meaningful. He could walk into a room and fill it with his voice, his energy. At house parties, he enjoyed singing with his coworkers and college friends. While my mother and grandmother gathered dirty dishes and brought out coffee and desserts over which they had labored for days—including waiting in line for hours for rationed sugar and butter—my father would tell his stories ending in a punch line, a comment, or a moral that I would sometimes think about for days. Yet when he talked to me, all I got was dull advice in a slow, ponderous voice.
Once he came home from a late meeting and told us about how the secretary of the county Party organization had concluded an hour-long speech: “Comrade Ceaușescu’s thinking is solid, it’s so solid, it’s like concrete.” My father repeated that a few times, shaking his head.
“That’s what he said: it’s like concrete.”
“And you didn’t laugh?” I asked.
Of course he didn’t laugh, nobody ever did.
Once my father told us about how the secretary of the county Party organization had concluded a speech, ‘Comrade Ceaușescu’s thinking is so solid, it’s like concrete.’ Of course he didn’t laugh, nobody ever did.
It was dark now. We had a choice, to continue walking on the allée by the river and go past the sports complex where I’d played tennis a few summers before, or turn right, walk up the marble steps, and walk back home on the promenade. It was too cold to sit and rest on a bench, not that we’d overexerted ourselves.
“Are we going any farther?”
“Maybe we should just go home,” he said.
On the other side of the promenade, the buildings were dark. Maybe he anticipated that I would complain about the blackout.
“You know, your mother told me that you haven’t been helping lately. What’s going on with your room?”
“It’s just my desk. I have a lot of homework, because of the math tutors.”
While other kids like Eli could have posters in their rooms, I had my grandmother’s needlepoint in a golden frame on the wall, and my mother’s knickknacks, including a set for serving mulled plum brandy (yes, plum brandy!), on the bookshelves. And I had better grades than Eli.
“You know, when I was in high school, only the kids who failed had tutors, the ones who had to repeat a class.”
He just liked saying that. He had of course been very good at math when he was in high school, although he didn’t need that anymore. He was now technical manager of the factory where he had once gotten his first job as an engineer, right out of college.
“I guess it’s for the entrance exam?”
There would be seven to nine applicants for each spot at the engineering school my parents insisted I choose. That wasn’t bad: there were usually more than twenty applicants per opening in the medical or law school. All my classmates went to multiple tutors, and some parents could afford college professors in Timisoara.
Then he added, almost as an afterthought: “You should also join the Party while you’re in college.”
I didn’t say anything, and it was understood that I agreed. I was going to study engineering in college because my parents thought it was a good idea. I didn’t like math or physics, but that didn’t matter. I liked reading novels. My parents kept repeating the factual statement that literature teachers were usually sent to teach in the countryside, while engineers could get decent jobs in cities. I could still read novels as much as I wanted in my free time, just like my father did.
Jokes and stories aside, I sense that my father had somehow shared that night what he really thought about socialism and the future and our place in both.
Nor did it matter that I didn’t believe in the Romanian Communist Party anymore. I had of course joined all of the Party-run organizations for school children: the Fatherland Hawks (preschool and first grade), the Pioneers (second through eighth grade), the Union of Communist Youth (in high school). Schools organized the initiation ceremonies, and everyone played along. But joining the Party was different. You had to apply, get character references, and if accepted it was an honor and a smart career move. But if the Party was so great, why did we have all the blackouts? No heat in winter? Why was food rationed? Why were all the television shows, newspapers, and radio broadcasts about Ceaușescu, the genius of the Carpathians? And why did everybody lie all the time and pretend everything was normal? I could foresee an added layer of boredom and lies caked on the already existing, rather thick ones covering everything I did: that I actually wanted to be an engineer, that I cared about math, that I was my parents’ dutiful daughter. There was a meager joy in all this, knowing what my father wanted and that I could please him. I could make a career as an engineer and a Party member, I thought. The Party and the lies were never going to end. They would go on in perpetuity, dulling every moment of joy for the rest of my life.
Within a year, though, and before I even graduated high school, the Romanian Communist Party didn’t exist anymore. Six years later, when I was about to graduate college (I ended up studying languages after all), my father’s heart finally gave up. Now, after almost three decades, on a different continent where I went to make a new life, I don’t know why I remember that particular evening. It could be that, after all, I didn’t spend that much time with my father during those years. Or possibly, jokes and stories aside, I sense that he had somehow shared that night what he really thought about socialism and the future and our place in both. At that moment, as the limestone statues reflected the dying light of the day, it seemed like my father, whom I trusted to make decisions for me—and Romanian socialism itself, which I associated with blackouts, cold, and lies—would last forever, unchanged.
• • •
Arad, Romania, July 2016
It’s a windy day, and the blue paint they’re spraying in the street blows in all directions.
“They’re wasting the paint,” Sean, my husband, says.
“I guess they’re trying to make a bike path?”
But painting the entire bike path blue means they’ll cover a third of the street’s surface area in blue paint, for hundreds of yards. Couldn’t they just paint a line?
The Party and the lies were never going to end. They would go on in perpetuity, dulling every moment of joy for the rest of my life.
“Maybe they got European Union money.”
A lot of things that have been fixed, that work, are somehow related to European Union grants. The park is in better shape than in recent years. The grass is cut, the trees are trimmed. To me it feels somehow smaller, though, and I find myself missing the chaotic overgrowth, a feeling my mother doesn’t share.
We’ve left the historic downtown behind us and are now walking through the park by the side of the river. We pass the limestone statues—the one that looks like a soldier’s head with a helmet, the woman, the fortress. Sean takes in everything, from the communist-era apartment buildings to the roads, vehicles, and people. Back in the States, he will tell everyone that my mother’s condo has three balconies, as if to preempt any idea of poverty. I can object to the reason he’s fascinated with the place, especially the historic downtown (“It’s not that old, really”), but there’s tenderness in the way he photographs old gates, crumbling stucco volutes, interior courtyards with their diagonal shafts of light. On the road to Sighișoara, he asks me to take pictures of everything: valleys, villages, sheep grazing on the side of the road. He’s ready to buy a 1950s ARO—the socialist answer to the Jeep—that he sees parked on a side street. Is he trying to purchase the socialist past?
But once there was a world here where European Union grants and Sean were impossible. Had it persisted, I would’ve never made it to Buffalo where I met him. And though a few Americans did visit my hometown under socialism, had Sean done so, he would have been required to stay at a hotel where his every action would have been monitored, every word recorded, every acquaintance interrogated afterward. My cosmopolitan life, like those of many of my high school classmates—who take budget flights to vacation in places such as Barcelona—was unimaginable in the 1980s. Sure, Romanians are never exactly welcome anywhere as immigrants, and wherever we try to set down roots we join the ranks of the poor—but at least we’re not locked into our own country anymore, and we don’t have to praise it, or its leader, with every breath. Somehow that counts as progress.
But now I’m doing what I promised myself not to do, letting the present seep into the past. Yet what am I trying to create here? An amusement park? A Renaissance fair, but with waitresses in socialist uniforms? I wanted to recreate that world just as I remember it, static, self-contained, lacking alternatives. Weren’t we already living on the highest peaks of progress? In the Golden Age? I wanted to access that hopeless yearning for a forbidden outside world.
But the present is in the telling anyway. I am not writing this in Romanian. I am not writing for an audience for whom the slightest allusion, joke, or just a few words strung together can conjure up a whole world, eliciting a chuckle, roll of the eyes, complicity, rejection. Instead I’m writing this for former enemies, the exploiters our newspapers warned us about. That corrupt society was on the brink of destruction, we knew, and we were helping to drive the last nail into the coffin of capitalism.
But that socialist world was never as entirely shuttered as nostalgia might now lead me to depict. Florin got out, after all: he now has a construction business and lives near Paris. And so many others did as well. When they crossed, they were required to make a kind of strange performance, in front of an audience whose sympathy they desperately needed. So they—the defectors, the new immigrants—told the stories that they thought the audience wanted to hear. And who’s to say that ultimately those stories weren’t true? So maybe the storytellers selected certain aspects to highlight a larger point they were trying to make: Who doesn’t do that? Recurrent and foundational in those stories was the theme of escape, of distance from that alien and past world, into freedom, into now. Andrei Codrescu recalls, contrasting New York’s dynamic, censorship-free world with the one he had left behind, where typewriters had to be registered so that the police could track any typed material back to its source: “Whenever I thought of my sad Romania, I thought of registered typewriters, forbidden copiers, a place where writing was deemed more dangerous than bombs, a place of sadness, silence, hand-writing.” From socialist Romania’s sad silence into the loud, free New World, and who could proclaim that freedom more loudly than the new immigrants? Poet Alina Stefanescu, whose parents escaped to Alabama in the 1980s, captures the feeling when she recalls writing a poem, at the age of ten, for a Daughters of the American Revolution banquet: “and me / being good with words / desperate to help / fashioning myself necessary / I wrote a paean to your liberties, your bbqs.”
In 1989 we all defected. It’s hard to say now what we thought we wanted. I don’t think we wanted consumerism or an abundance of material things, nor do I think we hoped that some of us would become rich and others extremely poor.
Then in 1989 we all defected. It’s hard to say now what we thought we wanted during those tense hours and days of protests. On my list there were, in no particular order: chocolate, MTV, milk, reading books in foreign languages, heat in winter, no more blackouts, and for people to stop lying. I don’t think we wanted consumerism or an abundance of material things, nor do I think we hoped that some of us would become rich and others extremely poor. But we rejected our socialist past entirely: we shot leaders, disavowed ideals, rushed to topple statues.
But not these statues: a stylized fortress, a head covered in a helmet, simple, angular lines set in limestone. A project sponsored by the local Rotary Club a few years ago added metal plaques to the park’s statues, and I’m looking at their titles. The statue that I always thought suggested a woman in a long dress with her arms raised above her head is in fact titled Radar. Others bear names such as Stream, Meditation, Youth, and Duality. I recall that on school trips to the park, kids would always climb up and sit on Stream, the cube balanced on one side. But I try to see the statues through a visitor’s eye: they look like they belong there, in their space.
“They did a couple of things right,” I say.
It is this “they” that shocks me most about my relation to the socialist past now. It’s always they, never we. Writing about the American Communist Party, Vivian Gornick observes:
People have been writing about the Communists with an oppressive distance between themselves and their subject, a distance that often masquerades as objectivity but in fact conveys only an emotional and intellectual atmosphere of ‘otherness’ . . . as though they were infantile while we are mature; as though we would have known better while they were incapable of knowing better.
“They” means: What was in them is not in us. I’m writing in a foreign language, about an alien world that ended decades ago. And I don’t have an answer as to how to go about writing this world that is so foreign to everyone, including myself now, even though for me, like for millions of others, it was the only world I knew for the first eighteen years of my life. But one can try, many times, go in circles or slant, casting off layers and layers of language and ideologies, working through traumas and fears, and pain buried so deep we’ve forgotten where the graves are; try again, find a few words that ring true in all the false starts; begin again with birthdays and class trips, marches and songs, a father holding a little girl’s hand, a walk in the park—knowing that, most of the time, all these attempts will lead to nothing but a mirror reflecting present fears and anxieties . . . until, with a bit of rare luck, a turning leads to that one thing that can illuminate the past, give it a new form—love.