From my novel, Velvet Totalitarianism (amazon.com, univpress.com)
Chapter 1: Is She a Spy?
Radu looked at his new Swiss watch—aluminum band, clear dial, red cross emblem, precision timing—which he had bought almost a year before with his first paycheck. It was 5:51 p.m. Time to go home and prepare for his date with Ioana. He should have been happy to have such a beautiful girlfriend. Yet, due to the latest turn of events, Radu was plagued by doubts. Just when his life was starting to improve, he became entangled in a web of contradictions from which he didn’t know how to extricate himself. His job and his girlfriend, his main sources of pleasure, had suddenly turned into causes for fear and suspicion. How much his attitude had changed since he came to France last spring, Radu mused. Back then, he was filled to the brim with hope. And who could blame him? At only twenty he got a scholarship to the Sorbonne and managed to defect to France, which, as far as Romanians were concerned, was the second most sophisticated country in the world (the first being Romania, of course). Then, based strictly upon his merit—aided only by a few well-placed connections—he landed a dream job as Assistant Correspondent on Romania at Radio Freedom Europe. RFE! The only station Romanians huddled in front of their illegal shortwave radios in the middle of the night to find out what the CIA said was going on in their country and the rest of the world. Which wasn’t all that surprising since, after all, in Romania news consisted solely of propaganda. Time for a little truth and sanity, Radu told himself when he took the part-time job at Radio Freedom Europe. And that’s what he did his best to deliver in his political commentaries, with a cracked voice and a beating heart, since his major was chemistry, not politics or journalism. He was still a neophyte, working on a trial basis and anxious to impress everyone at the radio station and move up the ladder, all the way to the sky if possible—say, production manager–although he wasn’t thinking that far ahead just yet. At the very least, his boss, Alexei Pavlovich, a Russian dissident, would have to grant him this: the young Romanian spoke with enthusiasm.
After his talk, on the way back to his dorm room, Radu tried to reassure himself that, ethically speaking, he was doing the right thing. But he still felt uneasy about his decision. Maybe he wasn’t helping anyone after all. Least of all his family. Nothing seemed clear-cut or simple anymore. At the root of the problem was Ioana, the young woman with whom he had fallen in love.
Radu imagined her as he first saw her, in the Parc Montsouris, a little park next to his dormitory, at the Cité Universitaire. She walked towards him like a beautiful vision, her curvy body wrapped loosely in a long blue dress spotted by the uneven, kaleidoscopic shadows of the trees. Her soft, lean curves undulated underneath that flowing fabric. He was so startled by Ioana’s beauty that he stopped in his tracks, and, not exactly tactfully, just stood there and stared at her. As the young woman approached, Radu noticed that she had raven hair, of medium length, frizzed slightly by what might have been an overgrown perm. Far from making her seem unkempt, it gave her a casual, sexy look which he much preferred to a carefully groomed appearance. Although, generally speaking, Radu wasn’t particularly observant, he noticed that the young woman wore bright, plum red lipstick. The lip color went well with her olive complexion and deep brown eyes, which were so dark that even when she got quite close he could barely distinguish iris from pupil. Her nose was a little too large for her delicate oval face. Otherwise, he justified in retrospect her minor imperfections, she might have been unapproachably beautiful. It was she who initiated their conversation. “Buna ziua,” she greeted him “Hello” in Romanian. “Why is this French woman speaking to me in Romanian?” Radu wondered, at first so caught off guard that he didn’t reply. She noticed his surprise and smiled, showing two rows of even white teeth.
“My name is Ioana Marinescu,” the young woman graciously extended her hand.
“Nice to meet you,” Radu answered. He clasped her slim fingers with an uncertain, nervous touch. By way of contrast, her grip was strong and confident.
“I noticed you at the Cité before,” she told him. “I live there too. I’m originally from Iasi. And you?”
“From Bucuresti,” Radu answered, with a tinge of disappointment. He would have preferred that Ioana be French. One could never be too careful with fellow Romanians when one worked at Radio Freedom Europe…
“I’m kind of lonely here, so I was glad to hear a fellow Romanian voice,” she said.
Touched by her friendliness, Radu felt somewhat embarrassed about his misgivings. They returned, however, after only a moment’s consideration. He couldn’t figure out how, even before he had spoken, Ioana knew that he was Romanian.
She read his mind, which, given his distrustful expression, must have been quite transparent. “I heard you talking in Romanian to another student in the cafeteria…”
“I don’t know his name,” Ioana replied. “Nor yours, for that matter,” she added, since Radu hadn’t introduced himself yet.
“Sorry. I’m Radu Schwarz.”
“Nice to meet you. Did you come here with your family?” Ioana asked, attempting to make polite conversation.
“No, by myself.”
“Me too. My parents are still in Iasi.”
It occurred to Radu that Ioana didn’t have a Moldavian accent, the strongest and most distinctive in Romania, as people from Iasi generally did. He proceeded with caution. “How come you don’t have an accent?”
Ioana shrugged. “Mine was never that strong to begin with, and besides, whatever country bumpkin accent I might have had, I lost it in Bucharest during my first year of university studies. I didn’t want to seem provincial.”
“Do you plan to go back to Romania?” the young man inquired, since if she didn’t, perhaps he could trust her a little more.
“We’ll see. I’m here on a two-year fellowship. I don’t want to make my parents’ situation even worse, so I’ll probably go back.”
“I plan to stay here for good. I mean, I already defected,” Radu heard himself declare, to his own surprise.
“How about your family? Do they want to join you here?”
Radu thought about his parents and little sister, eight year old Irina, whom he hoped to bring to France. The young man planned to use his radio show to persuade French officials to apply pressure on the Romanian government to allow his family to immigrate to France. But he couldn’t divulge this information to a total stranger. Especially not to a fellow Romanian.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
They strolled together around the circular path of the Lac Montsouris, discussing other subjects. They commiserated about the Cité Universitaire dorm rooms, which were too small and had dilapidated, straw wallpaper. “They’re perfect–if you’re a cat!” Ioana quipped. They both approved, however, of the cafeteria food at the Cité. Ioana claimed that since arriving in Paris she had put on five kilos; Radu looked with disbelief at her slim athletic figure, wondering where she was hiding the extra weight. Then they sat down on a bench in front of the lake. Ioana unsnapped the magnetic clasp of her purse and took out a chunk of baguette neatly wrapped in a white napkin. A group of ducks swam rapidly towards her.
“I save my bread for the ducks,” she explained, breaking off a little piece of baguette and tossing it towards the smallest of the ducks first, being careful to be fair to all, feeding them one at a time. The birds, however, didn’t quite grasp the principle of equality, much less of taking one’s turn. They seemed more familiar with the concept of “every duck for himself,” as they precipitated all at once towards each crumb. Two ducks, with grayish bodies and green throats, were more aggressive than the rest. They rushed to gobble up the bits of bread no matter how hard the young woman tried to feed their companions.
“Those are the male ones,” Radu said with slight embarrassment, as if apologizing for his sex.
“They must be from the Secret Police,” Ioana joked. This reference made the young man’s face cloud with concern.
“Just kidding! Geesh!” Ioana poked him playfully with her elbow. “I doubt these ducks have microphones hidden under their wings,” she continued teasing him. Then, abruptly, she changed her light-hearted attitude: “Actually, I’m usually just as nervous as you are,” she whispered, attentively scrutinizing Radu’s expression.
“About what?” he asked, still evasive.
“You mean the Secret Police?”
Ioana nodded, looked past Radu, then behind her, to make sure they weren’t being observed. “My father, who’s an aerospace engineer, refused to sign the papers before going to a conference in Japan,” she said in a low, confidential tone.
Radu proceeded with caution: “What papers?”
“You know. The ones for the industry.”
“I don’t understand,” Radu said, even though he did.
The young woman gave him a skeptical and half-reproachful look, as if she wasn’t fooled by his professed ignorance. Out of politeness, she offered an explanation nonetheless: “You know Petrescu’s policy: any Romanian scientist or diplomat going abroad has to double as an informant or tech spy. Otherwise, it’s a waste of the country’s resources, right? At least, that’s the official party line,” she said matter-of-factly, as if she were merely stating the obvious.
Since his father, a scientist at the Atomic Physics Institute of Romania, had also gone through this pleasant experience, Radu understood perfectly well what Ioana was talking about. However, by force of habit, the young man preferred to avoid having such conversations out in the open, even when on safer, Western ground. Now it was his turn to look around, pretending to admire the scenery, to see if anyone might be watching them. The young couple necking on the bench next to theirs and the elderly woman walking her dog seemed innocuous enough.
Unexpectedly, Ioana began to cry. Radu’s own mood shifted from suspicion to surprise and then to concern. He didn’t know how to respond to this sudden display of emotion. With a mixture of chivalry and compassion, the young man removed a plaid handkerchief from his shirt pocket and graciously offered it to Ioana. Unfortunately, the handkerchief happened to have already been used during his frequent spells of spring allergies, so she politely refused it.
“Is anything wrong?” he asked, absurdly.
“Yes,” Ioana sniffled. “I mean no,” she changed her mind and laughed a little, as if embarrassed by her own capriciousness. She put both hands in front of her face, covering the bridge of her nose. She seemed to be considering something, then suddenly decided: “I suppose that I’m taking a leap of faith. But we can trust each other, yes?”
“Of course,” Radu agreed, although he wasn’t quite sure yet.
“When my father refused to sign the papers he was beaten up by the authorities and thrown in prison. Eventually they let him go, but since then, our lives haven’t been the same…”
Radu nodded in sympathy. “I’m afraid this sort of thing could happen to my parents too,” he confessed.
Ioana seemed interested: “Why? Did your parents also refuse to sign the documents?”
“My father did,” Radu answered, looking at the girl’s pretty oval face, encouraging himself to trust her.
“Is your father an engineer too?” she asked.
He shook his head: “A physicist.”
“Do you mind if we walked around a little?” Ioana proposed.
“Not at all,” Radu responded. After all, spending time with such a nice girl was worth skipping his afternoon classes. They got up and she gently slipped her arm around his elbow, a gesture of intimacy , which took him by surprise. That’s how relatives or familiar friends tended to stroll together in Romania, elbows hooked. Feeling somewhat discombobulated by the young woman’s proximity and touch, Radu looked down in embarrassment, but that offered no solace, since he became even more flustered once he noticed Ioana’s high heeled sandals and her lean, long muscular legs flexing under the flowing dress as she walked. Once again, as during the first moment he saw her, Radu became aware of a feminine magnetism that overpowered him. “So what if she’s Romanian? Does every Romanian girl in Paris have to be a spy?” he asked himself, attempting to dispel the state of warranted paranoia cultivated by years of living under a totalitarian dictatorship.
During their tour of the park, they talked about their classes, about books, about their love of French literature, especially Flaubert. Radu adored reading novels; Ioana was a French literature major. As it turns out, their favorite novel was Madame Bovary. Granted, they weren’t exactly the first people on Earth to believe that Flaubert had some merit; nevertheless, each point in common helped overcome, little by little, Radu’s reservations.
Only hours later, when they were having dinner together in a private corner of a table at the Cité Universitaire cafeteria, did the couple return to the touchy subject of their families and their political situations.
“So why did your dad refuse to sign?” Ioana asked.
Following hours of conversational intimacy, Radu’s tongue had loosened up. This time he didn’t hesitate to tell her: “He had nothing to spy on. I mean, what’s he going to steal? Equations about how the Big Bang got started and how the universe contracts or expands? Petrescu isn’t interested in the universe. He only cares about his little fief.”
“Does your father work for Silvia Petrescu?” Ioana asked, obviously aware of the fact that the dictator’s daughter, herself a physicist, was the Director of the Atomic Physics Institute of Romania.
“Yes,” Radu replied. “Actually, they’re friends. Otherwise…let’s just say … life would have been a lot harder for my family.”
“Why so?” Ioana took a sip of water, keeping her eyes fixed on Radu.
“It’s the same story as with your father,” he answered. “Except maybe for the fact that we’re Jewish–on my father’s side–which kind of complicates things. A few years ago my dad got this fellowship to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Before he left, he was asked to sign a paper that he’ll be a tech spy. He refused, and then, as soon as he returned, the Romanian government accused him of being an Israeli agent. Can you imagine? What twisted logic! If it weren’t for Silvia, he might have ended up in prison or some labor camp.”
“Did Silvia herself ask him to spy?” Ioana asked.
“I don’t think so. I believe the orders came from above,” Radu indicated, pointing up with his index finger.
Ioana took a bite of her quiche. She chewed slowly, contemplating Radu’s comment. “So what happened when your dad refused?” she asked, after the savory forkful had melted in her mouth.
Radu was trying to find a graceful way to cut the meat off his chicken drumstick, but eventually gave up, held it with his bare hands and took a big bite. “The usual stuff. He was harassed,” he answered after having chewed his mouthful. Since coming to France, he was not used to having substantive conversations while he ate, preferring instead to concentrate each ounce of energy on the food, which he was still afraid would somehow disappear from his plate if he didn’t promptly wolf it down.
“Phone, car and radiator bugs, being shadowed by the Secret Police, interrogations, debriefings, that sort of thing, right?” Ioana prompted him.
“Yup,” Radu answered matter-of-factly, as if these experiences were so commonplace, they were hardly worth mentioning. He eyed with envy Ioana’s orange—a rarity in Romania, usually sold only at Craciun, around Christmas.
She noticed his gaze and offered him her orange. “You can have it. I prefer to stick to my diet anyway,” she said, attacking the rich créme brûlée. She then added, as an afterthought, “The exact same thing happened to us. So did the harassment eventually stop?”
“Not completely,” Radu answered. “In fact, I only made things worse for them.”
The girl patiently waited for his response, twirling a spoon in her cup of coffee.
“You see, I work for Radio Freedom Europe,” Radu leaned forward and confessed with difficulty in a whisper, feeling like he had just undergone a grueling debriefing session.
Instead of being flattered by his trust, however, Ioana was amused by his reticence. “You’re so silly,” she said, reaching over across the table and affectionately patting Radu’s hand.
“What makes you say that?”
“You treat me as if I were from the Secret Police,” she replied, lightly brushing his leg with her bare foot under the table. Not used to such overt flirtation, Radu peeked under the table to see what had tickled him and noticed that the young woman had taken off her right shoe. “Such a silly garçonnet…” Radu didn’t know how to react to this unexpected onslaught of sensual affection.
“You and I are in the same boat, Raducu,” Ioana kept stroking his foot reassuringly, using the Romanian diminutive of his name. Her knee touched his under the table. “Besides,” she smiled at him indulgently, “do you really think the fact you’re a speaker on Radio Freedom Europe is such a big secret? I listened to your show already … Isn’t that the whole point of international broadcasting? To reach as many people as possible? So why all this secrecy, hmmm, Mr. Bond?”
“So this means…” Radu, still under the young woman’s spell, struggled to reach a logical conclusion.
“… that I know perfectly well where you work and what you think about Petrescu’s regime,” Ioana completed his sentence. “And of course I agree! Who in his right mind wouldn’t?”
“Agree with what?”
“With the fact that Nicolae Petrescu is a megalomaniac tyrant who oppresses Romanians and sacrifices the good of the country to his personality cult, what else?” the young woman summarized succinctly the message of Radu’s fifteen hours of broadcast to date.
When Radu returned to his dorm room after that first meeting with Ioana, he threw himself on the bed, placing his hands behind his head, his eyes fixed dreamily upon the ceiling. He weighed the pros and cons of their encounter. Undoubtedly, he thought, there was a slight disadvantage to becoming friends with Ioana: she might be a Secret Police agent and kill me. Out of a million attractive French women in Paris, why did I have to fall in love with a fellow Romanian? On the other hand, the pros were at least as compelling: the girl was strikingly beautiful, sweet and charming. Besides, Radu attempted to reassure himself, who said anything about love?
Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon