My protagonist and I crossed paths for the first time in 1989, though I only met him in 2001, when we were both half-a-planet away from our native Romania.
In 1989, I was twelve. My memories of those years are fading, so I had to reread a story I wrote in March 2006 for European Weekly to remember what I remembered eight years ago: the feel of chalk dust on my fingertips, the squeaking of the floorboards, the fading light through our classroom windows on the afternoons when we didn’t have power, the taste of bread and salted butter in my newspaper-wrapped sandwich, the pungent smell of chlorine from the girls’ bathroom where my friends and I went to chat during breaks.
I also remember the excitement at the beginning of the school year. As seventh graders, we were old enough to go to Agricultural Practice. At the beginning of October, we were going to pick potatoes from rows of upturned dirt on a state-owned farm outside my hometown of Galaţi. It was going to be fun. It was going to be like camp. When our class master told us to be ready the next Monday morning, the whole class erupted in cheers. I wasn’t happy to miss school for two weeks, but Agricultural Practice was my chance to get George’s attention.
Ah! I hadn’t much noticed George before that year—brown eyes, brown hair, short kid—but now that he had begun to strut and was dating—oooh! Agricultural Practice was going to be the perfect setting for our possible romance, idyllic and pastoral. I had a clear understanding of life on a farm because I had read all about it in books. I couldn’t sleep that night, imagining George and I touching hands as we both reached for the same potato in the dirt.
I made sure to put on a few extra layers of leggings and sweaters—probably looking like a potato myself—and also my new rubber boots. The buses left our schoolyard soon after 7:30 in the morning and, by the time they unloaded us at the edge of a huge field under a sunny patch of sky, my clothes and my hair reeked of burnt diesel.
The farm supervisors distributed wicker baskets, which we had to fill and unload at the end of the long row, in a common big potato pile. Each class had to clear a certain number of rows. There was a lunch break. If we needed to go to the bathroom, we could lose ourselves into the two cornfields bookending our potato plantation.
The first day was full of surprises. It wasn’t easy to find a good spot to pee among the corn plants when hundreds of other kids were trying to do the same thing. Gloves would’ve helped with picking potatoes out of the sticky mud. It took a long time to fill a basket, a lot of crouching, reaching, throwing, getting up, until I learned that kneeling was easier. Though messier. And there was no prospect of touching hands with George in the dirt, reaching for the same potato, because each kid was assigned a segment of the never-ending row and was alone with the basket and the spuds, focusing on the job. The only chance to cross paths with my love interest was when I hauled my full basket to the common pile, but I had no luck there either. No accidental encounters with George in the cornfield, not even a brushing against each other on the bus back home because boys huddled with boys and girls with girls.
There was a small consolation at the end of the day, when I learned that we could each take home one kilogram of potatoes. There were no scales on the fields, so it was up to each of us to estimate how many potatoes went in one kilo. Some thought three big ones, some thought ten small ones. One boy thought that everything he can carry between his tucked-in sweater and his shirt, making him look like Santa Claus. I was on the moderate side. I put my three big potatoes on top of my lunch bag, and I wrapped another couple in the paper I had used for my sandwiches. So five in all.
I don’t think anybody at the farm actually cared if we took extra potatoes home—the food rations had got worse, and they understood—but all of us seventh graders felt that stealing potatoes was a taste of real life. We were learning the ropes. And watching the farm supervisors make Santa Claus empty his big belly full of potatoes before he was allowed to board the bus that day was a real-life lesson about moderation.
My arms were sore for the first few days. My hands, my fingers, my feet, my knees. Then I got used to it all. The rain, the mud, the sunshine. One dry day, as I reached deep into the dirt for a stubborn potato, a mouse bit me. I screeched and squeezed my throbbing index finger. Four tiny red dots arranged in a square—that was interesting! So a mouse had only four teeth? Hey, guys, I yelled at the other kids on the row. A few came by, George among them. I showed them my injury. George laughed, but didn’t get closer. Instead, another boy, Vali—light brown hair, brown eyes, goalkeeper’s leather gloves—took my hand and looked at the four red dots. He held my hand for a long time. It’s nothing, I said, and we all went back to work.
That afternoon, Vali found me on the field and showed me what he was holding in his gloved hand. It was a small brown mouse, its head trapped between Vali’s thumb and index finger. The poor thing was shaking and squirming. Vali held his hand up to me, and squeezed until the mouse became still. That was for what the other mouse had done to me, Vali explained. I stood there, my heart beating fast. I assumed that George was watching, so I held back my tears, took the mouse’s warm body in my hands, knelt down and buried it in an empty potato hole, under shallow dirt.
I was sick of picking potatoes, eight hours a day, six days a week. I missed school. The feel of chalk dust on my fingertips, the squeaking of the floorboards as I walked up to the whiteboard, the smell of blue ink and the whispering of the rugged paper as I filled page after page of my homework. We all made our bathroom breaks count, especially since, as we cleared row after row, we got further and further away from the cornfields. We went to the bathroom in groups and we waited for one another, chatting as we did back in our chlorinated restrooms at school.
One sunny day, after lunch, somebody must’ve thrown a potato at somebody else, and before we knew it, we broke into two groups, boys against girls, and were hurling potatoes at each other. We laughed and shrieked and ran around. I was good at dodging until I saw an opportunity. What if I let one of George’s flying potatoes hit me? Then I could pretend I had been injured. He would rush to my rescue, help me up, and we’d finally get a reason to touch hands. Brilliant! It hurt pretty badly, a blow to the head. I let myself fall to the ground in slow motion, and there I was, on my back, eyes closed, waiting for George’s silhouette to shade me from the blinding sun.
My eyes began watering. No shade appeared. What if I died, would anybody notice? I got myself up, dusted my clothes, and went back for my wicker basket with the bitter realization that my romance with George was not going to happen.
We got lucky that year. Agricultural Practice was cut short after our buses got stuck on a muddy country road and the meteorologist announced heavy rains for the rest of the workdays. The people at the farm were going to have to do with older students or inmates if they wanted to get all their potatoes out of the ground.
When our class master told us he’d see us back in our dry classroom the next day, we cheered and jumped. When he paid us each 74 lei (around $3) for our work, we were all ecstatic. On my way to the toy store, I probably began to imagine what it would be like if George was there too, the bills and coins tight in his fist, his brown eyes scanning the shelves for board games and soccer balls and books.
Around December 18, 1989, Radu Codrescu and two other men headed to the North Railway Station in Bucharest. They were going to cross the border to Hungary through the same spot he and Iulian had tried in 1986. Radu’s daughter was two-and-a-half, but Laura, his wife, had agreed to their plan.
At the station, the three men got in line to buy tickets for The Felix Baths, a tourist town in the west of the country, close to Oradea. The train from Arad to Oradea was going to get them close to the Hungarian border, near Grădinari. But they couldn’t buy tickets. The militia wasn’t allowing anybody to board trains to Timişoara or Arad that day.
Soon, Laura found out from her father that in Timişoara people were out in the streets, protesting the government. And the militia was shooting at them with real bullets.
When Bucharest rose up, on December 21, 1989, Laura’s father, a colonel in the State Security, called his daughter.
“I was very impressed with him and how he handled reality, which was coming at him like a snowball,” Radu Codrescu said. “He had four sons-in-law and four daughters. He was also a very quiet man, maybe because he was in the army and people there keep to themselves. He was under attack in the barracks and he didn’t call anybody except me. He called me. He was telling [Laura] to not let me out in the streets because I might get killed. “Don’t let him out in the streets. They are killing people out there.” He wasn’t worried about his wife or his kids or the other sons-in-law. He knew that they would stay put. His only concern was to keep me out of danger. He knew what the situation was like, but many people who were out there in the streets didn’t really know that the army was instructed to kill. (…) But how could I not go? How could that have been possible? I was right there in the streets! I was right there in the middle of things. I was right there on the roof of the Central Committee of the Communist Party’s building. I climbed up there and I was screaming from the top of my lungs against Ceauşescu. And they were firing there. They were shooting at people at the CC site. People died there.”
Armored vehicles were sweeping the streets of Bucharest. At home, with her daughter, Laura stayed by the phone. A friend of hers who was a nurse called. The doctors and the nurses at that hospital were in tears because of what they were seeing. Young people, even children, shot dead. There wasn’t enough space in the morgue for all the bodies.
“I wasn’t hurt though,” Radu Codrescu said. “The closest a bullet got to me was when it ended into a street pole right next to me. There were the three of us, my brother, I, and the pole and the pole took the bullet. We dropped to the ground and checked ourselves. You don’t really know when you get shot, you don’t feel it. You just die.”
Radu Codrescu and thousands of people like him went out in the streets in December 1989 and changed my life forever. Because of them then, I can type these words now.
Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.