BENEATH THE GILDED FRAME
(SUB RAMA POLEITA)
They lived in darkness.
Hands plunged deep within their pockets, hiding frozen fingers balled into fists.
They avoided the eyes of others. To look into the face of fear brought risk of getting trapped in its undertow. But somehow—invisible eyes—they were forever upon them. Even in the darkest darkness.
Watching. Always watching.
Romania's perpetual sense of surveillance.
That's how it's been described: the burden of a secret storm. This is not recited from memory.
There was a student, a young man in the capital city of Bucharest.
He wrote it all down.
Then feared it was a mistake.
We speak of mistakes—some believe that Dracula is the most frightening character associated with Romania. When they learn the truth, will it haunt them?
Dracula is fiction, with no real connection to Romanian history. But there was once a real bloodthirsty monster living in a castle in Romania. He remained in his tower for twenty-four years. While
* * *
BUCHAREST, ROMANIA 1989
Fear arrived at five o'clock.
It was October. A gray Friday.
If I had known? I would have run. Tried to hide.
But I didn't know.
Through the dim half-light of the school corridor I spotted my best friend, Luca. He walked toward me, passing the tedious sign shouting from the concrete wall.
New Men of Romania:
Long live Communism—the bright future of mankind!
At the time, my mind churned on something far from communism.
Something more immediate.
School dismissed at 7:00 p.m. If I left at the right moment, I'd fall into step with her—the quiet girl with the hair hiding her eyes. It would feel coincidental, not forced.
Luca's tall, thin frame edged in beside me. "It's official. My stomach's eating itself."
"Here." I handed him my small pouch of sunflower seeds.
"Thanks. Did you hear? The librarian says you're a bad influence."
I laughed. Maybe it was true. Teachers referred to Luca as "sweet" but said I was sarcastic. If I was the type to throw a punch, Luca was the type to break up a fight. He had an eagerness about him, while I preferred to evaluate and watch from afar.
We paused so Luca could talk to a group of loud girls. I waited, impatient.
"'Hei', Cristian," smiled one of the girls. "Nice hair, do you cut it with a kitchen knife?"
"Yeah," I said softly. "Blindfolded." I gave Luca a nod and continued down the hall alone.
The voice belonged to the school director. He lingered in the hallway, speaking with a colleague. Comrade Director shifted his weight, trying to appear casual.
Nothing was ever casual.
In class, we sat erect. Comrade Instructor lectured, bellowing at our group of forty students. We listened, stock still and squinting beneath the sickly light. We were marked "present" in attendance but were often absent from ourselves.