I put onion juice in my hair. I cut it all off yesterday, my grandmother said I look like a boy. She doesn’t believe in that old folk remedy anymore. We have switched places: I live in the Romania my grandmother escaped from thirty years ago, when you stood in long lines for rations of butter and turned your neighbors in. My grandmother calls me from her queen-size bed in America. I tell her to come visit, knowing what she’ll say. That isn’t my country anymore.
I go to the city that made my mother, Bacau. It is very ugly. I tell my mother this. It is the ugliest city I have seen in all of Romania. I know, she says. It made everywhere else beautiful. The Communist blocs rear over me in crude and crumbling concrete, like monolithic gravestones. I try to imagine a childhood here, my childhood here—its water balloon fights and swing-jumping knee scrapes, the five-gallon buckets of plums and funeral services for birds. There isn’t room for it. Or maybe there is. I see my mother running in the streets, chasing her brothers, her stomach cramping with hiccup-laugh and hunger, all of them imagining another world around them in a defiant nevertheless. This city is a Communist cemetery, I tell my mother. I know.
The first time I try to make sarmale I burn them. I spend two days preparing the cabbage, walk across town to the market to buy fresh pork, cook the rice and the meat and mix it with my hands, and work for two hours stuffing and rolling and un-rolling the cabbage leaves, trying to remember how my mother arranged them in the tigaie. Sauerkraut and bacon and bay leaves. Was there tomato juice? How much water? Do I add salt? Bake for three and a half hours. My cuticles sting. In college, cooking for myself was a “waste of time,” all those dishes to wash for one plate. I am bent over the kitchen sink, calves tired from standing, rubbing onion juice into my scalp. Something is burning. I am 23 years old and I turn my Dutch oven black the first time I use it. My mother says to fill it with hot water and lemons. My grandmother says baking soda and vinegar. I hold the charred remains of my sarmale over the open-mouthed oven and cry.
My mother would tell me: The first time she saw a pineapple was in America. The first time she had blueberries was in America. The first time she had watermelon was in America. Her father brought home a banana once, in Romania, but they didn’t know how to eat it so they ate the peel. The fruit here is so cheap, I text her. It tastes so sweet. The tomatoes in America taste like water. I go to the piață and buy a purple plastic bag full of grapes. They have seeds. I don’t know if I should swallow them or spit them out. My mother has her groceries delivered in a box.
I sign the lease for my first apartment in Timișoara. The revolution began here. No one knew how many died—some reports said 700, some 7,000, some 70,000. My dad says he’d like to visit. He has bad memories of Timişoara. He came by train in December 1989, a week after the first protest, to see for himself. They left the bodies in the streets, he says. They were black. The air was sweating with the stench. They slayed them like pigs. People were still in the square, chanting, we won’t leave, the dead won’t let us. I walk through that square every day now, to get a Starbucks. The building with the bullet holes of the shots the Communists fired is now a McDonald’s.
Some people speak of Ceauşescu with nostalgia. It was better then. Everyone could find work. He gave us houses, education. Now, who helps you? Some people think the revolution was ‘orchestrated.’ The world fed on gruesome stories of Timişoara’s massacres, martyrs, and mass graves. Foreign press published photos of naked corpses, a dead baby laid on the chest of a woman. Twenty years later, it was discovered those photos were fake. The bodies were exhumed from a local cemetery. The pictures were staged. One man tells me his wife died in his arms, shot during the uprising. Her body disappeared from the morgue. He says it was the securitate, it is what they did to erase the extent of the casualties.
The death of Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife by firing squad was televised live on national television on Christmas day, 1989.
There is an Orthodox cathedral in the center of the city, I can see its green-and-gold spackled spires from my balcony. I think about the hundreds of protestors who tried to hide inside it from the barrage of bullets and who bled to death on its steps, the doors locked in their faces by priests. I think of the bodies of the injured smuggled by the secret police from the hospital to be incinerated, their ashes thrown into the sewers. The bells will ring, sometime, while I am FaceTiming my friends. It sounds so European, they will say. I will look at it, silhouette spearing the sunset, and feel generations of Romanians looking at it through me, drawing a collective breath. When it comes to God, the wounds go very deep.