I was halfway through my third-grade exposé on the vulcanized civilization of Pompeii when the principal irrupted into the classroom with the new boy. In our school, new boys were as rare as frescoes.
The lecture was outlined in chalk on the blackboard like a flat skeleton with tiny, cursive bones:
Part 1) Pompeii
Part 2) The thermae
Part 3) Superheated lava/consequences
I was at part two, and was using the long wooden ruler to guide my peers through the blueprint of the baths I’d chalked onto the blackboard at recess.
The new boy was evidently sporting a new haircut. I found the density of his hair virile; the way it boxed his face in, like a square blonde helmet, with a subtle curve at the temples. It was a man’s haircut, I would realize, the day I first saw the boy’s father waiting outside the school gate, next to our own, inconspicuous parents. The boy was a Shrinky Dink version of his father, bar the moustache.
Sophie stopped mouthing the lyrics to “Straight Up,” and Kevin extracted the compass point from the eraser he was boring into. The boys in the back row stopped trading DIY lingerie model Pogs to look up.
“This is Mihai. He is joining us from Romania,” said Brother Paul. There was nothing brotherly about the man save his name, which rang cold to us, like a hollow promise of charity.
The boy stood in front of the blackboard, touching my chalky blueprint with his new-boy back.
He looked at us and we looked back, judging what we saw. His clothes were cheap and brand new. He wore nameless, un-scuffed supermarket sneakers and his jeans, still dark around the knees, looked stiff enough to stand on their own. He had on a green sweatshirt with the words “American Sports Graded Super Goods International” printed across the front. It might as well have said “Kick Me.”
Mihai looked like he had been plucked from the pages of the same catalogs used by the boys to source the wet-haired swimwear models they swapped at recess under the lime trees and in the hole in the hedge. It was 1989, and all the swimwear models in France looked like princess Stéphanie of Monaco.
If a volcano had erupted and flash-heated us all to death in that moment, the boy would have remained current and affordable forever. Our own jeans were shredded with childish confidence, and the shirts we wore, we didn’t wear as proof.
Sophie’s lips started moving again as soon as the principal left the room. Straight up now tell me do you really want to love me forever oh oh oh.
I fantasized about the new boy as a bare-chested pugilist, his man-sized knuckles wrapped in strips of white cloth. I saw his adversaries — Kevin and Joris, who chased me in the playground, and pulled the hair on my arms — piled up in a corner of the gymnasium like broken doll bits.
At lunch I sat at his table. I refrained from dipping bread in the water glass, for fear he would read it as a national custom. In the playground after lunch, Sophie and the other girls practiced their dance routine for the end-of-year fête. Do do you love love do you love me? Do do you love love do you love me? They marched in single file, and made heart shapes with their hands and cocked their heads to the side with dumb-sulky eyes.
“Are you in love with the new boy?” asked Sophie.
“Don’t be stupid,” I said.
“He can’t even speak French.”
“Don’t be stupid,” I said to all of them.
The new boy spoke French the same way he wore French supermarket apparel; as though his life depended on it. He de-conceptualized syllables for us, clicking them up against his palate like sour apple ribbons. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the new boy knew everything we knew, and then some. On his second day, he stood up at the front of the classroom and recited the names of all 100 French departments in numerological order.
“Sandra Mihai up a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”
“If you marry him, he’ll probably kidnap you, and force you to live in Romania, and no one will ever see you again.”
“He can’t ever go back to Romania,” I decided. “He’s a political refugee.”
I imagined all Romanian intellectuals had the same severe and impoverished haircut. I knew trends traveled in time; I taught myself they could migrate across land. I envisioned a fashionable haircut traveling the 2,100 kilometers that separated Annecy from Bucharest, in slow motion, in a car that would turn heads in the East but look like scrap in the Alps.
One night at dinner I told my parents the boy’s father was a writer, just to see how it sounded. It sounded convincing.
I imagined myself adopted by Mihai’s family, my material possessions taken away out of principle, eating clear purple broths and sausage wrapped in cabbage leaves. I would teach them how to be casual, how to belong, while Mihai’s father wrote a satirical play about Stalin at the kitchen table. When he had finished, he would ask me what to satirize next, and I would tell him about the store in the old town that rented out refrigerators to mink coats, and about the kids who pulled the hair on my arms in the summer.
“My dad says they’re here to take our jobs.”
“Your father isn’t a public intellectual.”
Sophie, whose father was tall and pasty and dull as ditchwater, wiped her sole across my new suede shoes.
“At least he’s not a hairy ape, like your dad.”
I prayed Mihai’s father wasn’t a torturer. It was possible that, instead of being part of the polymathic elite, the boy’s father had been part of a secret police that came into your house at night, and murdered you with icepicks. The kind of person who reads your diary, and then separates you forever from your children.
Not knowing whether my future father-in-law was Good or Bad caused considerable stress to my eight-year-old brain throughout the month of November. The lost hours of sleep added themselves to the insomnia brought on by my father’s lurid atheism. It was unbearable to think that, in the afterlife, my father would be forced to communicate his witticisms to us from across the molten river of Acheron.
“Better to be boring as hell than to spend the rest of your days in hell, where they have machines that shove spikes up you bum and others that make Swiss cheese out of your limbs,” Sophie would have said, if she’d been smarter and could read my insecurities.
My father, who liked to sing “God shave the queen” to my mother’s English relatives, had sold the communist newspaper door-to-door as a teenager, working his way through the tower blocks of Argenteuil to raise money for the party. For his efforts, he won a Leica. Or was it a trip to Moscow? In any case, he had photos he’d taken of the Kremlin Wall Necropolis in the box where he also kept purple mountain crystals.
“Hairy ape, hairy ape,” said Sophie.
“My dad is King Kong,” I replied. “He can crush you to smithereens.”
In my dreams, my father showed up at the school gate in a gorilla suit, and chased her around the playground until she ran out of breath completely. Sometimes, Mihai was in the dream too, his tight fists biffing for my honor. In real life, my dad showed up late, and usually said or did something profane.
“Did you known that in World War II, the Gestapo requisitioned your school and kept members of the resistance and Jews in the cellar. The cells were so small they couldn’t even sit down,” he told me once.
“Did the kids still go to school?”
“No,” he said. “They put prisoners in the classrooms, too.”
“Did the kids have to go to another school?”
“They found a mass grave in the playground after the Liberation.”
“Where in the playground?” I asked.
“Where in the playground?” I asked again, when he said nothing.
Straight up now tell me. I worried that the girls might be dancing on graves so close to God’s house. Houses. The church that provided our Catholic school with confession was just across the road, and our neighbor to the left was a small square white mosque. I worried about the truth of things.
I was concerned that the new boy’s family might lie to me right up until our wedding night. We’d get married in the town hall, eat a dinner of seven courses, and that night, Mihai’s father would get blotto, and boast about how many people he’d personally killed. I saw him strangling the air with his veiny hands, face crimson from booze and his party hair perhaps wild.
My mother must have been concerned about my level of concern, because she told me there were different kinds of communists, just like there were different kinds of people. My dad laughed when I asked him about the difference between Good and Bad communists, and about how little he cared that he was going to hell.
“I invited Mihai to my birthday party,” Sophie said in December.
“Why? You don’t even like him.”
“Yes I do. I didn’t at first, but now I do.”
If you were Bad, I wondered, were you Bad forever, or could you change? I knew that if you were a heathen and you found the Lord, the Lord would gladly overlook years of stubborn faithlessness, and perhaps even really crass jokes about nuns.
Once I tried talking about the news from Romania with the boy, but he kept changing the subject to Asterix. He wanted to know whether to get an Asterix comic for Sophie on her birthday. I said that in France, kids who were born within two weeks of Christmas should not be presented with gifts. A religiously observed national custom, I lied.
On Christmas Day, Ceaușescu was shot. Talk about syllables. The soldiers said they would kill him there and then, and tied his hands together so he didn’t escape by climbing over the wall. I wondered why his friends hadn’t sent a helicopter with one of those dangly ladders. I wondered why my father wasn’t more upset about the death of a comrade.
“Barbarism is not subjective,” he said.
I was still confused. It seemed to me that everyone was Bad: the dictator and the soldiers who’d said, “Me, please” when the officers asked, “Who will take this dictator out back, and shoot him?”
It said on the news that the dictator and his wife had asked to be shot together. It had never occurred to me that things happened, that words were spoken between sentencing and an execution. That life went on for just a little bit longer until it ended. I wondered whether the moment had lasted minutes or hours. I wondered if the dictator and his wife had looked at the clock, and if it had crossed their minds that elsewhere, in France, other people were eating Christmas dinner without having to worry about being executed.
We heard the news on the radio, driving back from the Anglican church in Geneva. My sister and I were each given an orange studded with cloves, and threaded with a red ribbon. Nails and blood, just like Jesus’ feet, if Jesus’ feet had been perfectly round and orange. My father hadn’t come with us because he was a heathen and had to shuck the oysters.
Bad people can still love, I thought, when I heard about the dictator and his wife. I was reassured by this until I realized it also meant that people who loved weren’t necessarily Good.
“It’s so lame to be in love with someone who doesn’t love you back,” said Sophie, who’d had her ears pierced for Christmas.
“I’m not in love with anyone,” I said.
It was the truth. I wasn’t in love with him; I loved him. It was an active occupation.
Once, my father taught us the words to the Internationale, which is what the dictator sang when they fired all those bullets into him, because so many had volunteered.
“You lie all the time,” said Sophie.
“No I don’t.”
“Yes, you do. You said Romania is a drive away.”
“It is. Mihai said they drove here.”
“God, you’re so in love with him, you’re disgusting. You probably want to show him your naked body.”
I couldn’t think of anything worse than showing Mihai my naked body. Except perhaps being a dictator, or a torturer, or a heathen.
When it snowed in the second week of January, everyone asked the new boy if he’d ever seen snow, like he came from Africa or something. Mihai replied that Romania was really close, close enough to get to by car. Sophie looked at me and pressed the tips of her two indexes together, all the while making obscene sucking noises with her mouth.
On Tuesday a bus picked us up from school and took us up the mountain for a morning of town-sponsored cross-country skiing. Our parents had signed a slip in December authorizing us to go. Mihai arrived at school that Tuesday with a brand new pair of cross-country skis, poles and shoes. Brother Paul told Mihai that skis were provided for free at the lodge. He pursed his lips tight whenever he spoke, so that the words shot out at you from a white skin halo, wet with spittle.
I wondered if my future in-laws had scrimped and saved for months to buy the skis, foregoing Christmas and leaving fruit out of their diet. Perhaps Mihai’s father had been forced to borrow money from some fellow intellectuals. Then again, maybe his father had absconded with public money, only to spend it on something as frivolous and bourgeois as skis. Maybe he’d sold intelligence to the French, and been paid in Salomon equipment. Either way, the new skis were a personal tragedy for me.
The bus passed the wooden white cross at the halfway point up the mountain. It was a memorial to a teenage boy who had fought with the resistance and been shot in the snow. Soon after we passed the cross, Brother Paul led us into a canon about a blue, white and red flame. It reminded me of the National Front posters that mushroomed under the motorway around election time, in clusters of six, eight or ten.
There was a vending machine at the lodge that sold scalding cups of aspartame lemon tea. The tea was yellow like the color of the snow after the boys had pissed out their names in it. I bought a cup, and sat down with my lunch. My mother always made elaborate packed lunches, filling my thermos with pasta in some kind of sauce, like clams or eggplant and pine nuts, and wrapping my bread in a linen dishtowel.
I envied my classmates’ de-crusted white bread and shiny pink ham and butter sandwiches, but still, I was disappointed when Mihai unpacked the same lunch as everyone else.
On the ride down, Sophie sat next to Mihai. I was relieved when she failed to make him laugh the whole way.
“Have you sinned?’ the priest asked me, in the first week of February.
“I’ve been having lustful thoughts about a political refugee.”
“How can you know what a lustful thought is at your age?”
“I’m not sure if he’s a political refugee for the right reasons.”
“That is not your responsibility. You are only responsible for your improper imagination.”
“I love my father and he is a sinner. Does that make me a sinner?”
“Tell me a real sin, child. Such as, you stole money from your mother’s purse. Or you hurt your little sister. Have you done anything like that?”
“Then you must say two Hail Maries.”
My light-up LA Gear sneakers flickered red as I walked around the nave singing Hail Mary to the tune of Straight Up. Our Lord is with thee blessed art thou among wo-o-o-o-o-o-men a-and blessed is the fruit of thywombJesuuus. The second time, I sang it in time to the Internationale. Holy Mary, Mother of Go-od pray for us sinners now and at the hour of ou-ou-ou-ou-our death a-a-a-a-a-amen.
That night I told my father that if only he could repent, he might still stand a chance. He said okay, I was right, it was time, and he would repaint my room at the weekend. Mihai stopped hanging out with Sophie at recess and started to play soccer with the boys, instead. The girls traded Paula Abdul in for “Pump Up the Jam,” and began working on a new routine for the school fête.
By the summer, my studded Christmas blood orange had shriveled and hollowed out, and Mihai’s jeans had holes at the knees. Ghosts were everywhere.
In the playground, in the church, in Romanian jails and backyards, in the life of my father who finally admitted he’d felt close to God once, when he was a mountain climber, looking down into an icy chasm that opened at his feet, just miles away from other gorges that were haunted by the spirits of young men who’d been executed, and whose bodies were dumped in ravines by the Gestapo.