After Ceausescu’s memorable speechless speech of New Year’s 1981 we made a plan. We thought our marriage of almost twelve years, with the ups and downs of any marriage will be strong enough. The promise of a free life was enough to sustain us through the hardships we knew were to follow if we defected from Romania.
In Romania of 1980’s a couple, especially educated, was not allowed to travel together to any of the Western countries. We always traveled one at a time, a guarantee that the person allowed to travel returned. Yet, people found ways to free their families and one of the most common methods was the travel to a Western country of one spouse alone, but once outside “the Iron Curtain”, as the communist countries were called, the spouse petitioned for political asylum. The next step was to ask for family re-unification under the laws of the Helsinky Agreement on Human Rights and force the Romanian government to allow their families out of Romania. In exchange for economic priviledges in trading with the West, Romania signed the Helsinky Agreement. Sooner or later we knew it had to comply and release the family. The process was not easy and it generally took a year or two for the family to be together again. We had no children, which made the officials even more suspicious when they issued one of us, never both of us at the same time, an exit visa and a passport. However, we had the condominium bought with the down payment my mother gave me, and I had a good job and the Embassy even helped me get a brand new car, which was a luxury in Romania. Through my American employers I even could get American “sticks of death” Kent cigarettes, and whiskey and even at times, better food from shops were diplomats were exclusively allowed to shop. Cristian worked in a factory which allowed him to go on business trips to the West, such as the one to Japan, when he missed the Earthquake and crushed my heart.
Our plan was simple and painful: Who got a passport first left Romania on a “pretend” pleasure trip, and once “out” asked for political asylum. We were to follow the process as thousand of other families for whom freedom was more important than comfort zones. We were not leaving for economic reasons, we had a hard life, but ours was good compared to others. The irony was, our life was better because I worked for the “capitalists” we were taught to despise and hate because they “exploited the people.” My personal dilemma was of a moral nature. As time went on, I became more and more confused politically. Who was the enemy and who was the friend? Who should I trust? Anyone? For eight years I lived in two worlds, a 9 AM to 5 PM in an American culture and then stepped into the real Romania for the rest of the time, faced with entirely different problems. I felt I carried on my shoulders everyone’s issues, Romanian and American and who I really was, or could have been was slowly disappearing under this pile of lies, confusion and mistrust. I knew every word I said, every step I took, was watched. By whom? For sure the Romanian security, but were they the only ones? Who knew what about me? What should I say and what shouldn’t I, to protect my freedom and my family’s? Could I ever turn the water off when we told jokes about Ceausescu?
My passport was issued and we decided my “trip” should be to West Germany. I didn’t have any desire to go to Germany, I could not speak the language and the stereotype I had in mind was one of rigidity. No, I really would have preferred a more lively country, like Spain, but Frankfurt had one of the largest U.S. Consulates in Europe, so my chances to get a visa were much better, or so we thought. The truth was, I was so eager to get out, I didn’t completely understand what was going to happen to me once I was “out”? Whatever it was, it couldn’t have been as bad as the turmoil I was experiencing in Romania.
My train ticket was a round trip, to show everyone this was just a pleasure trip, but I knew, the return portion would never be used. I had my passport, a ticket… I was all set, but my heart was bleeding doubts…I knew freedom meant danger and responsibility. I knew missing my homeland would be a chronicc feeling, similar to a chronic illness of the heart.
As the day of my departure approached I said good bye to friends, people I loved, knowing that I meant farewell, not good-bye. Cristian and I, hand in hand went for one last time to Herastrau Park, the place of our first date. I knew, I knew it in my heart he betrayed me, I knew, but I didn’t want to accept the truth that there were other women in my husband’s life. I always thought I was above any of his sexual diversions. Once I even asked him, how would we know if we were good in bed? We were both virgins when we first made love. He smiled knowingly: ‘Trust me, you’re good!” How would he know? Did he watch porn movies on one of his trips abroad? Yes, for sure, that’s how he knew, I assured myself. For years I chased away the evident truth because it would have ruined my perfect first love, an illusions… He was my first love, pure, foolish and complete, and no other woman could take that away, or so I thought! I chose to take that first love with me, and not the crushed heart. I breathed in the beauty of the mountains and the Black Sea, all the good times we had together and the smiles of my friends.
I wanted to chase away the ugly parts of my life but they were the reason I was leaving my country: The lies, the injustice, the lack of freedoms, the Ceausescu Personality Cult and I had no choice but to always carry the scars they made in my mind and soul. It was the price I had to pay.
On the eve of my departure I stepped inside the little church across from my parents’ apartment. A familiar place where I never prayed but as a child played hide- and- seek with my friends and ate coliva when someone died. This time was different, it was for the last time, I wasn’t playing childish games anymore.
I entered the peaceful house of God with no faith, no hope, but I entered. Moldy walls, colorless icons, candles flickering palely like my own good thoughts. Beggers with eyes of ice and greedy hands who did not beg for mercy but defyed.
Should I give them something, I thought, to pray for me, or laugh at me, or despise me because I didn’t give them enough? I pushed them away and gave them nothing. Perhaps they weren’t even beggers, I thought.
I advanced to the front of the church. I closed my eyes and smelled incense and felt the taste of coliva in my mouth. I heard foot-steps and opened my eyes. A woman passed by me, ghost-like, as a light as a shadow. She made the sign of the cross and kissed Mary’s icon. Her lips were cracked, her face pale, her eyes empty. Then she kneeled and prayed. I wished I could follow her in prayer… I approached the icon but in my mind’s eyes I saw hundreds of dry, cracked lips kissing the icon and imagined them going home still hungry but hopeful, just like my mother said, “they sell hope.” I stepped back. I couldn’t, I didn’t want to put the touch of my smooth lips next to theirs and foolishly believe in hope. I attempted to pray for my mother, for the doubts she left in me to disappear so that I may have hope and not fear touching the icon with my lips.
I was still trying to pray when the woman who kissed the icon blew out the candles. Perhaps, their flame, which smoked the moldy walls would have melted my soul, but the woman with cracked lips blew them out too soon.
I turned my head and saw darkness everywhere. Quickly I walked out and again, my mother’s voice echoed in my entire being:
“I told you, there is no God!”