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Excerpt from the upcoming Romanian Rhapsody © 2011 by Oana. This is a book about my sister and me growing up in the midst of oppression and censorship.
I was older, and my presence was probably easier to tolerate than that of my sister. My father would sometimes take me to his office with him, which was also a way of separating me from Sorana, since our exuberant and noisy duo gave my mother and my grandmother severe migraines.
Dad would stop at the taverns to have a drink with his co-workers or friends on his way back home, and I would sit there with them sipping my juice, and making mental notes of the tavern. It was during these afternoons there, that the ten-year-old in me realized that men were very different from us women.
I was fascinated by men. They smelled different. They moved different. But I rarely found their presence entertaining, even as a kid. Very few men I met in my life later had actually interested me as human beings. However, when they touched my hair or picked me up, it was a whole new sensation. I liked being around them and just watching them. I liked their rough skin, and the fact that they were trying to be gentle with me, which made them appear clumsy and funny.
I told Sorana about my findings. We were a team, and from complicated late-night seminars on the elusiveness of human nature to simple questions like why men drink more than women, we had explored everything together and we had never had enough of it.
We started to observe the opposite gender early in life. I guess I was in fifth grade, and the tavern trips helped a little bit, but our opportunities were limited. Little was told in schools about the differences between sexes; there was no sexual education whatsoever. The Party wanted us to grow up in ignorance and eventually join the perpetual reproduction cycle that would ensure lots of impoverished citizens for the country.
Curiosity was eating our brains alive. One time it rained heavily, and we could not go out and play. We were sitting on our bed surrounded by animals, and trying to figure out how men pee and what they look like naked.
“I’d say,” Sorana started, “they must have balls like dogs do.”
“I could not agree more,” I added, squeezing our dog’s testicles in a live demo which prompted the shepherd to turn around and bite my fingers. I continued undisturbed: “Here,” I picked up the cat and lifted his tail, “you think they are nice and fuzzy like on cats, though?”
“That we shall find out,” my sister sighed. “I am not sure we even want to touch them really, but how can we learn this? “
“We cannot walk up to men and touch them,” I defended myself. “What if they bite us, like Billy just did?”
We decided to postpone the research about the male body, and we switched to debating the role of the male in society. A careful observer, I noticed at an early stage in life what society had to offer to women: nothing but a heavy load of responsibilities. Naturally, I found being dependent on a man very frustrating. Everything revolved around them: their pleasures, their buddies, their jobs. They drank a lot, and pondered what I thought to be some irrelevant topics (“Yep, there is life on Mars” or “the yoghurt Mom made, very sticky”). Women were left with all these “minor” survival drills, like cleaning or putting food on the table. Women had an outside-the-home job and then all the responsibilities. Men only had their jobs. Even if women would trust them occasionally with child supervision, the quality of their input was questionable (when she was a three-month-old, one of my girlfriends was “accidentally” left on a tavern table by her father; the tavern owner along with other dice-playing drunks alerted the mother who picked her up later). Many a frustrated woman waited for their drunken man hiding behind the door and hit him in the head with improvised weaponry such as a vase or frying pan. If women would trust men with getting vegetables at the farmers’ market (our one and only steady supplier of food) they would show up many hours later on all fours, with a carrot in their bags. Oh, and when men were sick, their sickness was an event of apocalyptic dimension. It was like they would die every time they caught a cold. And if it wasn’t for the Party’s strict rules as to employment (those who refused to pursue employment and had no occupation were jailed), most men wouldn’t have worked anyways.
There was also something disturbing about woman’s image and self-esteem, and we got it at a very early age. Women were expected to be a size zero, always attractive and sexy, in spite of being work animals and juggling most of the responsibilities. Even so, once they reached thirty they were considered old and disposable. This mentality persists there to this day.
So I made up my mind, and when my sister asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I answered without hesitation, “When I grow up I want to be a man. It will be all about fun: going fishing, hanging out with friends, drinking, never cleaning my bed, and leaving socks everywhere!” I took off my socks and planted them triumphantly right in the middle of the room.
My sister looked at me appalled: “But you’re a girl!”
“Yeah, I know.” I replied flashing my blonde curls, “Don’t you think I know?”
“But men are bigger and heavier, and they do not wear nice fluffy things,” Sorana insisted.
“Yes, they are heavier,” I hissed back, “so is the bear, and sometimes he is quite clumsy. Bigger does not mean better. Men are big and scary, but when they drink, they are small and fall and roll over; I’ve seen it in the taverns. Is the bear big? So what, so what?”
“You might be right. I bet you these bears are annoying when they get colds too. But, I don’t want to grow a moustache like men do,” she added right away. “You see how hard it is for Dad to get the shaving foam and those razors. And I do not want to burp like men do either, ugh.”
Then she pulled out a small bottle. It was homemade liquor, made by Grandma from the cherries growing in our cherry trees. It was so good. We were not allowed to drink alcohol, so Sorana sneaked into the kitchen and stole some for us. We passed the small bottle, and kept talking about how cool it was to be a man. There wasn’t much liquor in the bottle, but when you’re ten and seven years old, a sip can have weight. It did. About an hour later my father entered the bedroom, alarmed by what he called “the roar of a pack of elephants in distress.” We were both jumping on the bed, screaming and gesticulating, our faces red from the liquor. In the middle of the room, two pairs of socks. Dad picked them up and asked “What the fuck is this?” I tried to explain to him about our decisions, but for some reason I could not deliver coherent phrases. Instead, I managed to make sounds, “woowoohehe.” Sorana intervened, “She changed her mind and now wants to be a man,” and she dropped the bottle.
My father did not say anything, just shrugged and summoned us to go to bed immediately.
Funny as it might seem, this little incident revealed how we refused at a very early age to comply with the role that society had designed for us. Even in an oppressive system, men had more freedom. My sister and I demanded that freedom.
Right after that event we had our first attempt to leave home. My father hid green bananas he had gotten for us the previous week on top of the refrigerator so we could not find them until they were ripe. The reason was simple: if food was rare and scarce, bananas were exotic, almost surreal. They did not grow in Romania. Who knows how many people had to be bribed in order for my parents to get them and save them for us for the holiday season?
We did find them, however, and we ate them green as they were in the bathroom and we threw the peels in the toilet bowl. Then, we swore secrecy and went back to our room.
Just minutes later when the toiled got clogged and my father managed to get the peels out we had to admit to our heinous deed as well as to convulsive stomach pain and red eye syndrome. Our obvious suffering did not prevent him for lecturing us on responsibility until I could not take it anymore and I took my sister’s hand, “It is time to leave this house and escape tyranny for good,” I said defiantly.
My father got pissed beyond our expectations and pushed us out gently to the living room, “Excellent! Now, go and say good bye to your mother.”
I saw hatred in my sister’s eyes. Did I have a plan? No. Why couldn’t I wait until friggin’ springtime? When was the last time when I had checked the weather? I looked through the window. It was snowing. The wind was blowing hard and steady.
We kissed Mom and we explained to her in a few sentences that we needed to leave. We wanted freedom, and we hoped that one day she too would find the strength to leave the Tyrant.
I dragged my sister to our room and while we were trying to put on as many sweaters as we could, I explained my impromptu Plan to her. We were going to a food place not far from home where they sold cheap huge pies. It was one of those rare places where they sold food, but there was a trick to it: you had to be fast. The amount of food delivered daily was limited and on many occasions the place was still open for hours displaying empty cold shelves.
Yes, I was hungry and wanted pie and I also had ten lei hidden in a glove. Sorana spat in my direction and stomped a few times in great fury, “You’re a mindless pig.”
“Fine,” I said. “I am leaving alone. Enjoy the tyranny!”
Sorana cried, “I will go with you, but I hate you!”
A few minutes later we were walking in the harsh wind. I was fearless and never looked back. Had I done so, I would have seen Dad following us from a safe distance. Unaware of the Tyrant’s presence, I kept lecturing once again to my sister about the importance of freedom. In my expose, we were trapped in a double bubble. The greater one was Ceausescu’s, and my father’s -- smaller but not less important -- fit right within the national tyranny. To make sure my sister gets it, I stopped and drew two concentric circles in the snow.
When we entered the pie place, we felt warm. Life was a little bit better. I ordered two big pies, and I started eating mine right away when the door opened and there he was standing in the door.
He didn’t say a word, and waited until we had finished our pies. We looked at him with hatred. Can we at least enjoy a good pie? Yes? No? Dad pointed at the door without saying a word.
At home we went straight back to our room.
The next day the mystery was solved. Dad did not say anything because he didn’t want to bring us back, but just hoped that we would have enough of the cold and would come back on our own. Mom, however, threw a fit and pressured him to follow us. How cruel can one be with a child for a banana peel thrown in the toilet bowl?
As a result of us attempting to leave that night our parents had not talked to each other for a month or so. My sister and I found that extremely entertaining.
When I visited my family for the holidays after eight years of silence, Sorana waited for me at the airport, and as soon as we saw each other, we reverted naturally to our childhood roles. On our way home she pointed at the spot where once stood the cheap pie place. I nodded at her and smiled.
After we got home she picked up Mom’s male cat and lifted his tail while laughing hysterically, “Still unsure about male anatomy?”
It became clear to me that time and space were irrelevant, and that nothing could shake what we had been building together while growing up. And maybe this was our freedom, the ability to build things that no tyranny could shatter.