by Dayana Stetco
I’m at the airport with a four-year old and two suitcases. The four-year old is mine. The suitcases are borrowed. I’m leaving the country (my country…? I never belonged) and not coming back. This is a secret. As far as everyone is concerned, I’m going away for a few years to finish a graduate degree in English. Nobody knows that, hidden at the bottom of my suitcase, are our birth certificates, school transcripts, and a couple of old family photos. There’s also a document giving me custody of the child. It’s a single sheet of paper that cost me all my savings, twenty thousand and change. I knew my husband would not be able to resist the wad of cash on the table. I said, “Here’s all the money I have. Sign this,” and he did. “Something to do with the child?” I didn’t answer and he didn’t ask for details. The money would keep him in drinks for a while, that’s all that mattered. Many years from now, this would make a great anecdote: buying my child from my husband, packing two (borrowed) suitcases, locking the door and putting the key under the mat, looking back at the two-story house full of books, knowing I would never see it again. The fear of getting caught. (What if they ask about the birth certificates? What would I say? What if they read my thoughts?) The impulse to run, to get away, to get out, far from this prison in the shape of a country.
My grandfather made the same journey a long time ago, from Timisoara to New York, crossing the ocean on a passenger ship. He got his degree, returned, became the director of the National Bank – in the eyes of the new regime, an aristocrat, a traitor. He was arrested and beaten often; later, he died of a heart attack while still in prison. I’ve always thought of him as a Knight Templar (the Templars invented modern banking). I think about him every time I read Borges’ Theme of the Traitor and the Hero. The hero is the traitor. It’s a natural progression. My grandfather trusted the new regime, and they betrayed him.
The airport is busy and impersonal. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd and that makes me feel safe. The plane is two hours late. The kid is hungry, so I buy her a sandwich and a chocolate bar. I still have a few hundred left, Romanian currency I wouldn’t be able to use in the States. I take the kid’s hand and walk into a bar near our terminal. For the first time, I don’t feel awkward or self-conscious ordering a drink. I put all the money I have on the counter and ask for the most expensive glass of cognac they have. I drink it slowly – it doesn’t burn my mouth like the cheaper kind – and I think this is the end, this is the beginning.
Today is my father's birthday. He would have been 83. The last birthday card I sent him seven years ago didn't reach him in time. I didn't reach him in time. He died alone, as we all do, while I was on the phone with the nurse on duty. She said, "His breathing is shallow, you should come now." I said, "I am 1100 miles away." She said, "You should come now." I was too late, as I am for most things that matter. My father was a dreamer. He watched TV shows about distant galaxies and played the saxophone. He loved the idea of America more than its reality and didn't know how to connect to people quickly and superficially (I inherited this). He had few friends, if any. We tried to understand each other and mostly failed. I failed. He hoped for extraordinary things, suffered when they didn't happen, was sentimental, isolated, and alone, not because he wasn’t surrounded by people who loved him, but because he never truly belonged to the reality of things. Happy Birthday, dad. The day is difficult.
When I introduce myself, I want to add “I am transplanted and translating every hour of the day.” I don’t. That would be weird.
I want to say, “I see reality through a filter. Translating strong emotions protects me from the real reality. Because I can say ‘I love you’ and ‘I love cheese’ using the same verb. This is not possible in my language…Do you see what I mean by filter?”
I say none of this. I know there’s a difference between tourists and travelers. Tourists plan their return from the beginning; travelers care little about retracing their steps. Therefore tourism is closer to a full circle, to that movement of revolution that always accompanies social change, when a disappointing political regime is replaced by another, disappointing political regime in a dizzying movement whose endless repetition we call progress.
I say none of this. I answer, “Yes, I like it here. No, I can’t go back. (Pause) I don’t want to.”
Memory. In high school I wrote an essay about a novel called The Most Beloved Man on Earth. Later the book was banned, and its author killed (that’s what everyone assumed though there was no proof. All we were told was that the writer had “met with a terrible accident.”) He was 58.
The novel tells the story of a philosophy professor sentenced to 20 years of hard labor because of a misunderstanding. When he gets out, he takes the only job available to him, that of an exterminator. The chapter that describes in detail the capture and killing of sewer rats is called The Era of the Bastards. (Of course, we all knew who the bastards were in reality). In the novel, the philosopher turned rat chaser withdraws completely, speaks to no one, until one day a woman at work, a woman he knows little about, asks: “So how are you, the most beloved man on earth?” It’s a love story, I forgot to mention that. One day, I might translate that novel whose first sentence reads, “Death is a simple phenomenon in nature, only people make it complicated.”
Memory. I’m on a train, going home for the summer. I’m reading The Plague with its descriptions of rats scurrying about, dropping dead under the stairways of unsuspecting buildings. Someone next to me says, “You’re reading The Plague in this heat?” I recognize an actor I had seen in Oedipus at Colonus, Camino Real, and The Physicists. Oedipus, Kilroy, Einstein. I’d loved everything I’d seen him in, and I had told him so the first time we met. We talked briefly. Years later, I would interview him for a literary magazine that indulged my theatre obsession. I remember feeling like Margarita, eager to save the Master. It wasn’t really an interview, but a series of conversations we’d had, over time, about books, and plays, and what it means to become a character, to live inside him for a long time. He was upset about a director’s sudden departure. The director (a friend) had managed to leave the country. At the time, I had no idea that I would do the same. For a while, after I left, I followed the actor’s career, I wrote him letters he never acknowledged, I pored over production photographs. Then I lost touch, only to find out, years later, that he had died stupidly, of skin cancer that went undiagnosed. He was 58.
It seems that all the men I love – writers, actors, artists – die at 58. Bulgakov’s Maragrita succeeded where I failed. Goodbye, Kilroy, Professor Einstein, King Oedipus. Farewell, Magister. Until we meet again.
“Where are you from? Do you like it here? When are you going back?”
“I can’t go back,” I want to shout at to the faceless crowds who ask the same questions, every time. I have been trying to answer these questions truthfully for almost thirty years. But the truth changes in the telling, not because I’m lying but because, every time I try to capture a specific moment in the past, I remember a different detail. “Memory: the place where things happen for a second time.”
The Romanian revolution was a failed coup d’état. It started as an isolated incident in Timisoara, then spread to other cities, like wildfire. On the second night of a weeklong insurrection, the shootings that had demolished half of the city reached my street. The walls of the nearby buildings started crumbling. The walls shook under the impact of giant bullets. Everything felt magnified. Time dilated. Space closed in. I pushed the kid under the bed and just before following her, I remembered wat day it was: December 22. Her birthday.
I felt ashamed and tragic and, for the first time, completely alone. That feeling has never left me. From then on I processed tragedy differently and developed an inability to empathize with other people’s small misfortunes. For a moment I saw myself from the outside, alone in my role as the protector of my child, in an apartment on the third floor of a building under siege while, blind with rage, an anonymous army continued to dispense bullets into darkness. I felt lonely and afraid. I felt sorry for myself. Under the bed, I squeezed the kid’s hand and said, “Happy Birthday, baby…”
I want to stop talking now. There’s nothing to talk about. I didn’t die, I wasn’t hurt, I didn’t go to prison. Nothing ever happened to me.