For three years, I was in love with a woman who had no luck. She wasn't born unlucky; some old photographs and the testimony of her classmates point to a happy, tomboyish girl, head of the class, leader of her classmates in the usual adventures, liked by everyone, until she was about thirteen years old. She was studying to be an artist and had become a Pioneer - a shoe in, really, for communist party membership, especially with a father who started his career as a laborer and a mother who was a Bassarabian refugee. Her father's arrest changed it all. To hear her tell it, she kept up a front, stayed at the head of the class, even stayed popular for about a year. But her father had been convicted of plundering state enterprises in the Ceaucescu era, and back in those days that was as bad as treason. They gave him 15 years in a correctional facility far from home and when the word got out - as of course it had to do - my lover's popularity dissapeared - just like that.
Her schoolwork suffered, and although she wasn't kicked out of the pioneers, there was no hope of getting into the Communist Youth Movement, which was the next step up if you wanted a career. No one took the ideology seriously, you understand, but steps were steps, and these had to be taken - and they couldn't be taken by the daughter of a jailbird. She began doing badly in school, and was moved to a vocational high school. Until she was 14, she studied art; from 14 and onward, she was studying how to operate a manufacturing lathe. It was simply understood (under communism, a lot of things were simply understood) that she would graduate high school and go work in the factory at the edge of the rough neighborhood the family had to move to once the principal breadwinner was gone. She stopped hoping for a better future, because she had no reason to hope. She was lost.
In some of the more open countries in the East, the population expected the revolution; in Romania, everyone expected to live under the dictators boot, forever. There were too many vested interests in keeping things going, too clear an idea of social class. So in 1989, when Ceaucescu was forced to flee by angry crowds which had braved the bullets of his bodyguard and secret police - well, that was a day when a lot of people felt a rebirth of hope. Physically, my lover had already started working at her factory at the edge of town; spiritually, she had already started to die. Then there was the revolution, and suddenly, she was free.
A few months later, her father was released from prison, in a general amnesty of all people who had been convicted under flimsy evidence in the Communist era - because he had maintained, throughout the long years of his imprisonment, his innocence. He came back to a different home than the one he left. While he had been in prison, Romania had gone through the great depression of the 1980's - the famous era where people stood in line three days for bread, the heat stopped coming into the apartments in the winter, and the hospitals ran out of medicine leaving the sick to die. My lover had begun working in a metal lathe shop, a blue capped prole, and her sister had also been sent to a vocational institution. Their mother had begun taking odd jobs - mainly housework for the emerging rich, which, horrendously, were all high ranking Communist Party members, to survive. Their father had changed as well. Though they had visited him in prison whenever they could, he felt betrayed and abandoned. He moved into their now much smaller apartment and began a campaign of bitter recriminations against the rest of the family. Instead of recovering a father, the family was now at open war.
Finally, he left. The story is still ongoing, and he might return someday, but it's been twelve years, and frankly, everyone has all but forgotten about him. Because before he left he did something astounding. He told my lover, Nichita, the child he raised, "You know, you're not my daughter." At first, Nichita thought it was just bitterness, a flung out comment in a moment of twisted rage...but he went on. He had met Nichita's mother three months after Nichita had been born, not before. Her father? Some local layabout with a bad reputation that hadn't minded getting a neighborhood girl pregnant, but didn't want to marry her. Half gypsy, most likely. So, he told her, I'm leaving forever and your memories of your childhood mean nothing to me. I'm not your father, we're not even related. And now I'm leaving forever. Fuck you.
For a few years after the revolution, the shock almost unmoored her. She became an adept of strange religious groups that poured into Romania looking for lost souls to collect. She wandered the streets, upset and angry. She had pointless affairs, screaming fights with her mother. Most of all, she wanted to meet her father. Her father, on the other hand - her real, biological father, Valeriu had plenty of other things to worry about. He was one of the first people out the door when the revolution began, smuggling himself out to Germany in the back of a container truck, and as far as he was concerned, he had no daughter, just some quick sex with a girl he abandoned never to be seen again. And anyway, hadn't he since been married? And hadn't the woman he screwed gotten married too? He had a children and a wife of his own to support, he had to get them to Germany somehow, after making his way there himself. He didn't have time to reconcile with some local chick claiming to be his daughter born more than 20 years ago. Nichita hung around her biological father's relatives - her grandparents, half senile, also worked to death during the 80's and now surviving on a 40 dollar a month pension, invited her over for tea at times, but mainly to mock at her misfortune - everyone, even the most bitter person, enjoys, at times, condescendingly soothing someone else. As for Valeriu, he made it very clear he never wanted to see Nichita again.
About that time, Nichita met me. I think I was her diametric opposite at the time - I was arrogant, mobile, and rich. I was running my own company with three global offices out of a laptop and mobile phone, using my connections from a decade on Wall Street to invest people's money in far away places where the rules were still being made. I moved to Romania temporarily to set up a factory, and met her in a bookstore. She was looking through the self-help manuals - hundreds of them had been published in Romania over the last two years, about 10 a week, mostly translated from English, as people desperately tried to make sense of life around them as the country fell apart even further - and I was looking for books of classical Romanian poetry to brush up my language skills. It was an easy pick-up - it's not hard for an American to meet a good woman in Eastern Europe as long as he remembers the golden rule of never picking up a girl in a nightclub - and soon, we were dating. I didn't love her. I wasn't taking advantage of her, either. We were just meeting for a movie and coffee, nothing more, nothing even physical really - I thought I was leaving Romania for good and I wanted the company, and I think she was lonely as well.
One morning, I became very sick. I woke up at 9 in the morning, took my own fever, and saw that it was 103.5. I tried to call my office - it was a saturday, and of course, no one was in. I was trembling like a leaf. I had been to Nichita's apartment before, once or twice, and this time, I managed somehow to get into a taxi and get there, praying to god I would find someone home. Now there are some private clinics in Romania, but back then, if you were seriously ill, you were in trouble. The state system would simply let you rot in the hallways, or demand bribe after bribe after bribe, until, often, the patient died. There was no responsibility towards anyone in that country, except on the deepest, most personal levels. Luckily for me, there was someone home. I don't remember much afterwards, except being put into a big warm bed - it was like your grandmother's bed, all the furniture in Romania has an old world, grandmotherly feel, and bottles of boiling water here put beside me to relieve my chills. At some point, a doctor came to visit me with some injections, and within a day or two, I knew that I would live. I ended up living in that apartment for three years.
Nichita and I became very close. I suppose there was a little of Pygmalion in our relationship, but a lot of authentic love as well. Six months after I moved in, I casually told her (not knowing the family history) that a factory I was administrating for our investors would be participating in a trade fair show in Frankfurt, and that I would have to go Germany for a week. That's when I heard the whole story about the absent father - absent, that is, except for those brief periods where he drove into our impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Bucharest in an almost new BMW to brag about all the money he'd made in his new life in Germany, amazing everyone with stories of his wonderful life and his largess, and refusing, of course, to meet Nichita, who he felt he had nothing to do with.
Well, as a participant to a trade fair, it was fairly easy to arrange a visa - the visa had been the principal reason she never just picked up to go and meet him - and she came with us to Frankfurt for a week, with the idea that we would travel to Saarbrucken, the small city where Nichita's father claimed he rain a trucking company, and try to meet him or confront him.
Frankfurt is a modern, but cold and forbidding city. When we were there it was February, raining, and the bitter wind kept us in the trade fair most of the time, busy selling our products. I remember one evening, in the grey, brick area near the Central Train Station where we would go to eat because it was cheap, we entered a Greek restaurant, and there, an old Greek man was drunk, in the corner, singing sadly to himself. He seemed to be a receptacle for the sun in his old, drunk body, shining with a light totally foreign to me in that country, in the entire East. I wanted to ask him, old man, what are you doing here, getting drunk on cheap beer near the whorehouses of Frankfurt? Is life so much better here than back where you came from? You look miserable - why shouldn't you just go back home to the beach and the sun, and be poor in your own home, instead of being poor among the most distant strangers. But I didn't say anything. It was the typical problem of it being hard to start conversations with strangers, and besides, I was beginning to think I knew nothing about human nature and didn't really have anything important to say.
We had the address from Nichita's grandmother. It cost us a hundred dollars. We gave it to the old woman after she refused to give us Valeriu's address and phone number, and you could see the greed in here eyes as she took it asking us over and over again how much money it converted into in the local currency. From her, we had an address and a phone number. We were going to find him, one way or another.
I'm ashamed to admit that my attitude towards this was one of unwilling skepticism. I've had a bourgoise upbringing, and I was raised by new immigrants to the United States at that. It's an ingrown idea that the poor are poor because of some indefinable fault of their own, some lack of initiative that may not be evident on first view, but is there nevertheless. Best to avoid them, my relatives would say. My Uncle, who fought his way through poverty in New York, not knowing the language, not knowing anyone was specifically critical of the poor. "The poor like being poor, he once told me. If you give them money, you'll only upset them." If you come from New York, you've probably heard a lot of hard working people say that hundreds of time - it's part of the New York ethos I suppose - work hard, get rich, be a man. If you aren't rich it means you haven't worked hard. I still believed this crap, amazing as it may seem, and the fact that I had made a lot of money very quickly on Wall Street, mainly by the seat of my pants, seemed to confirm it. So during this whole excursion, I was less than totally nurturing. My point of view was, "he doesn't want to see you, you shouldn't go at all, but hey, if you insist, we'll go over there, it's not that much money anyway." I don't suppose I was making things easier for Nichita at that point - no, my attidude was embittering her further.
Before we took the train to Saarbrucken we decided to call. Or rather, I called, Nichita being too nervous. An accented voice responded sweetly in German only to harden when I responded in Romanian.
"Ce dracu vrei, ma", he asked me, which means what it looks like - roughly, what the devil do you want. So I told him about my devilish mission.
"Oh, he said, you're calling from that fucking bitch who says that she's my daughter? Go tell that whore to ask her mother for the name of the Gypsy who fucked her. Anyway, it's not my problem. Don't keep bothering me." Now, I'm not sure how to explain this, but those words were not exactly spoken in anger. In fact, the tone was more matter of factual - which of course, made the rejection all the colder.
Listen, I said, we're staying at the Frankfurt Convention Center Ibis, in Room 130, if you wan't I can leave you the number and if you want to you can call,"
No, no, came the answer, which I expected, that won't be necessary... And the sonofabitch hung up the phone.
The remaining five minutes went the way you would expect them to - shock, tears, half-hearted comfort - when the phone rang back. This time, Nichita picked it up, panting and miserable. It was her half brother. I hadn't even known she had a half brother, or at least I didn't remember anyone mentioning it to me. Apparently he had been listening in at the other line and wanted badly to meet his sister. "At our house," he told her (I found this out from Nichita later, I wasn't listening in), "we're not even allowed to mention you. My father gets very angry, and then I have a seizure. But I know you're really my sister, and I want to meet you very badly." They arranged to meet the next day at the Cafe Mozart, a small coffee house apparently almost accross the street from the Bahnhof. For the first time, Nichita's face filled up with a kind of illuminated joy - and at last, I began to sympathize with her. The next morning we packed out bags, bought our ticket, got on the train, and were on our way.
Soon enough, we arrived in Saarbrucken. I don't want to say anything bad about the place and alienate the people who live there, and I'm sure my current perception of the city is marked by all the miserable shit I went through there. At the time, I don't remember thinking anything, one way or another - I, and Nichita, were too focused on the meeting with her brother. The entire city has apparently been destroyed during WWII - with the exception of a large conference hall built by the Nazi's which our guidebook told us was one of the best surviving examples of the work of Albert Speer. Other than that it was apartment block after apartment block after apartment block, Willy Brandt style. We didn't see much of the city at the beginning, as we had timed it to arrive only an hour before the meeting and now went, luggage and all, down the street to some local coffee shop to wait at the Cafe Mozart, a pretty typical, fake Viennese style cafe. We raised some eyebrows - the place wasn't exactly backpacker friendly, but hey we figured, it's a family reunion. Fuck 'em.
And we waited...and waited...and waited. We eagerly searched the expression of every single person who went into that cafe figuring this would have to be the one. Nichita had never seen him before, you see, and he had never seen her. Fifteen minutes after the time we had agreed to meet, it became clear that the boy wasn't coming. After all, who comes late to a meeting like this? We waited another fifteen minutes and then decided to risk the wrath of Nichita's biological father by making a phone call. But how to get through to the boy? Finally, I cornered a waiter. He was young, blond, good looking - obviously in his element. We were two ragged people, obviously out of our element, asking him to make a phone call to get through to someone who needed to hear perfect German without a Romanian accent to let us through. It didn't help that no one spoke any English and that my German was execrable. If he refused to help us, I had no clue what we were going to do. Finally, he agreed to help us. I gave him some money, and he went to the public phone and made a call. There was a flurry of discussion in German. Finally, he shrugged and hung up. Nichita was miserable. I asked him what happened. After about ten minutes, I was able to understand that he had spoken to the old man's wife, the half-brother's mother, and she had mentioned the boy had gone to the hospital.
Something was wrong. I figured, to hell with it, I wasn't going to make the situation any worse just by making a phone call. I picked up the phone and soon a woman answered.
"You know who I am", I said, "what happened?"
There was silence. Finally, she told me, "please, please, please don't call again. You're really harming the situation. "
"OK", I lied, "I'll leave you alone". But you need to tell me what's going on.
"Valentin - the brother - has had a seizure. It's because his father found out he was going to meet you, and he started yelling, and Valentin has some neurological problems and he can't control himself if anyone gets upset. So please stop calling us. We don't want to see you, and even if Nichita does think that Valentin is her brother, tell her there's no reason why she should want Valentin to be sick." And she hung up.
Now of all the people in this little drama, I had the least reason to be angry. As I said, I walked into this little story not really caring what happened, just accompanying a casual girlfriend on a trip to a place I had never been. And when I told Nichita what had happened, her sweet brown face turned grey, and she began mumbling, almost incoherently, about how she didn't want to see them anymore anyway, and fine, if that's what they wanted, let's just go home. And this was where I sprung into action. A little too much of the American can do spirit.
My first assumption was that they were lying. I dragged my girlfriend behind me, luggage and everything, checked into the first hotel I found - a luxury hotel, but we had no time - and grabbed a cab to the address we had written on the slip of paper on our hand, Mecklenburger Strasse Nr. XXX. Now, after all the measures Nichita's evil biological father had taken to ward us off, I assumed that they lived in some kind of Bavarian palace and didn't want some poor relative, even one with an American boyfriend, messing up the show. Nici Vorba, as the saying goes in Romanian, which those of you who know a little Latin will understand to mean, it's not what you thought, it's a whole lot worse. In fact, they lived in a slum tenement. The whole damn Mecklenburger Strasse was one large slum tenement building after another, which resembled nothing so much as the slum we lived in in Romania, that is, large, ugly buildings with numbers instead of names, a lot of grafitti, and no stores. The various unfortunate ethnic minorities of Germany stared at us sullenly from every park and every doorway. Even Nichita was roused from her depression by the sight. "THIS is where they live?" she asked, the first full sentence she had made since the rejection.
We showed up at the door of one of the tenements. The front door had an alarm system but the latch had been broken so we walked in, up the stairs to the third floor, and began banging on the door. I suppose they could have called the police and probably gotten us arrested too - we weren't thinking very well. But at least that would mean they would have to come out of the other side of that god damned door. Bang bang bang, pretty hopelessly, until we finally disturbed the neighbors.
The neighbors, in fact, were blacks, who spoke fluent German and no English. There was an old woman and a tough looking young man and a doberman that eyed us warily. "Sie es die frau auf das mench," I said, pretty helplessly, "die romanishe mensch, dat hier lebt. Wir muss mit ihn sprechen, aber er will nicht. Ich bitte am einschuldingug, aber ich muss sprechen mit ihn. " Their expression grew colder. Those of you German readers understand exactly how bad this German is. The rest of you will just have to trust me. In the end, I don't know what led them to trust us - I remember the next half hour in a sort of haze - but we ended up in their apartment, given a chance to explain ourselves. I was talking furiously in a language I don't understand, Nichita could only look down at the floor, becoming more and more miserable. Finally, they opened up to us. The boy had become sick , he had been taken to the hospital. From them, we got the name of the hospital,and with it in our hands, went back out into the street.
Now, for the first time, slightly calmer, we had a cup of coffee in some smelly Bierhaus and discussed things.
The decision, of course, was primarily moral. Do we disturb these people, claiming Nichita's rights as their relative, or write off the whole family as a bunch of slum dwelling braggarts and let them be? Suddenly, Nichita informed me that she knew about her half-brother's epilepsy from the same place we had the address and phone number of her biological family - that is, the grandmother. She had added some rough peasant justice to this information when she told Nichita too - something along the lines of, "you see how God punished him for not marrying your mother, you turned out nice and healthy but your brother has some kind of brain disease and he's going to die. That's what my son gets for abandoning us here and putting on airs in Germany like he's some kind of big man." As time went on, and we kept sinking and sinking deeper into the clear moral dilemma, Nichita made her choice,
"It could be fate that sent me here right now," she said, "my brother might need me. I can't abandon him. Let's go find him in the hospital. Maybe we can even take him back to Romania with us."
Ah, how foolish these words seem now! But at the time, in the mood we were in, as a result of the whole general situation, they made absolutely perfect sense.
Off we went to the hospital, by public bus and taxi. It was a typical hospital, and the guards at the gate first didn't even want to let us in, then finally, decided to let us up to the reception, accompanying us the whole way. From the reception we heard that yes, Valentin had been checked in and no, he was no longer in the hospital, he had had a pretty bad petit mal seizure, and had been moved to another hospital, for more intensive treatment. No, of course they couldn't tell us where, that was none of our business and who were we?
We put on the pathetic lost foreigners looking for their family act again (although I shouldn't say "act" since, at least in Nichita's case, that's what she was.) This time, it didn't work. We were ceremoniously sent on our way, our insistence met with veiled threats, finally leaving when it became clear that if we didn't leave they were going to call the police. We decided to go back to Mecklenburger Strasse and camp out across the street, keeping an eagle eye open for anyone who looked vaguely Romanian - eventually, they would come back home, and we would be there.
I don't remember how long we stood there, in the cold. It was a long long time, but it probably seemed longer than it was. That's when things got weird. A taxi pulled up next to us, and a an evil looking unkempt fat man with heavy sebhorrea smelling like whisky, rolled down the window and asked Nichita, in Romanian, "Are you Nichita, Valeriu's daughter?" Shocked we were - shocked enough to get into the car when he asked us to, which was obviously a bad idea.
"You're father sent me, he told me to take you to the train station and send you on your way."
"And who, " I asked, "the fuck are you?"
He looked at me like an exterminator looks at a termite. "Are you the boyfriend?" he said, "You have some nerve coming here like this and scaring the hell out of everybody. Why is any of this your problem? Why don't you just leave us all alone?"
Nichita was becoming more and more upset - she had, incomprehensibly, gotten into the passengers seat instead of the back, where I was - and let out a stream of Romanian invective, including some words I had never heard before and would never hear again.
If I got the exterminator look, he smiled condescendingly at her. "Listen, I understand you're upset, but you're brother is sick, and there's really no reason for you to be here right now. Why don't you just go back home and your father will find you the next time he comes to Romania. Won't that be nice?" At this point we were at the station - which wasn't to far from Mecklenburger Strasse - and the side door was opened for me by a tough looking young man. "And now, " said the evil taxi driver, "you're going to buy a ticket and we're going to wait with you at the station until the train comes to take you back to Frankfurt, OK?"
There were four of them - the driver and three young hoodlums giving us wicked stares. Nichita's face had gone from pain to disgust. The taxi driver tried to pet her on the thigh. "You piece of shit," she said, "if you touch me again I'll cut your hand off."
In the meantime, I was getting beaten up. To be exact, I was pulled out of the car and being shoved from one Romanian to another, all of them cursing me and telling me in a number of different ways that my life would be easier if I minded my own business. I hit one of them in the stomach, and then two of them hit me, hard, one in the stomach, the other one kicking me when I fell to the floor. Nichita was screaming and cursing them, and at this point the taxi driver left the car, and in the glory of someone utterly in control of the situation looked down at me and said, "Don't you realize that you had both better go?"
"We'll call the police," I think I said at one point, to which the answer was, "try it." Finally, I mentioned our luggage. "No problem," said the taxi driver, pointing to the thug who had kicked me in the stomach, "give Mihai the key to your room and tell him where your staying and he'll be more than glad to go get your luggage".
I think I probably would have kept fighting until I had gotten beaten to a bloody pulp, but Nichita's eyes told me it was time to give up this particular fight. At any right, no one in the parking lot of the train station was doing anything to help us and it was quite clear that we were being set upon by thugs. Submissively, we let Mihai get our baggage, and we got on the train, staring at our smiling tormentors with hatred the whole time. As we boarded the train, we got the last warning that I was expecting - "If you come back here," he said, "the next time we won't be so nice."
On the train ride back, I was an emotional wreck. I was fuming, storming, ranting. Nichita was strangely quiet. Finally I asked her what she was thinking. Quietly she said, "with a family like that, I'm better off on my own."
And that's what broke my heart.
Submitted to iceowl's adventure quest.