I was born 43 years ago, the unwanted third child of a mean, perpetually drunk coal miner and a meek, despondent housewife, living in a cold one-bedroom apartment on the third floor in a rowdy Gypsy-run old building, in a small mining town in communist Romania.
One winter my oldest sister – nine at the time – was sold to a family who couldn’t have children. “What do I get for her?” my father asked the couple, convinced he was doing them a huge favor. He was hoping for a large sum of money to drown himself in cheap rum and vodka for a while, but the man handed him a bottle of plum brandy and told him to get going before he called the police. Mama was forced to sign the adoption papers with a knife pressing in her ribs.
My second oldest sister was sent to my paternal grandparents far away in Moldavia Province.
One day a pleasant police officer came to me and asked if I wanted to go to a nice warm place, full of toys and coloring books, to play with children my age – I wasn’t five years old yet – and eat lots of good food, and get even second and third helpings. My eyes went wide with wonder and excitement and I said yes. Mama had been gone for a week after my father had beaten her to a pulp and had threatened to throw her off the window. My days of knocking on our neighbors’ doors and begging for a piece of bread were finally over, I thought. I was done sleeping on the doormat, outside the front door, when my father was too drunk to hear my fearful knocking, or didn’t care.
When I got to the orphanage for girls they shaved my head as my matted, unwashed hair was crawling with lice. A plump lady furiously scrubbed me until the brown-grey dirt spots on my elbows, knees and neck disappeared in the soapy water and dressed me in clean-smelling clothes. I didn’t have third helpings as I had hoped, but I always went to bed – my own – full and happy. I was sad, though, for having left my baby brother behind with my angry, bumbling father. I prayed that I would see him again one day.
Mama came to rescue me almost a year into my stay at the orphanage. She took me home to a one-bedroom apartment across town from where my father was living. She was proud to rent a place of her own and have a job to pay for it, a cleaning job. She wore a dark blue cotton coat over her street clothes – her work uniform – and swept and mopped staircases, landings and the front of apartment buildings in town, and shoveled snow as well in the winter. It was an exhausting job, Monday through Saturday, but she rarely complained.
She managed to rescue my little brother, just in time, one day as he was on his way to the orphanage for boys. She invited the police and the Child Protection Service over and showed them the clean – albeit scarcely furnished – apartment she was renting and proved that there was enough food in the pantry for my baby brother, if he would be allowed to stay. He was, to our utter joy and relief.
Later on, Mama sued my Father for child support, but he refused, scornfully. He went to jail for a year and when he was out, he came stumbling to our place, cursing Mama at the top of his lungs. But first he went to the pub across the street and drank some more, to gather some courage, but instead he peed his pants as he hadn’t manage to get to the outside toilet in time. He cornered Mama in the kitchen and pummeled her to the floor. Lucky for her, the booze had impaired him enough and she managed to push him aside eventually and get away, her face bloody and swollen, her ribs aching, her neck red and throbbing, and three of her blouse buttons laying on the green linoleum. She never sued him again.
He then grabbed my hand and ordered me to take him back to his place. He sang a drunkard song, slobbering over his crumpled, sweaty shirt. Our neighbors stared at us and crossed themselves delighted, happy with a circus they weren’t part of for once. I was beyond embarrassed on the way to our old place across town when he started to run and drag me along, staggering and falling on me, choking me with the sour booze on his breath, his body odor and urine, dried up on his pants. We bumped into people, but he laughed and cursed them with glee. At last I pushed him up the spiraled staircase, step by step, and took his heavy miner boots off when he collapsed on the bed. The same boots he kicked me with every time I asked for food or for a little fire in the terra-cotta stove to warm up my frozen hands and feet. He then tried to grab me, shove me on the bed and get on top of me as he had done many nights before, when Mama was sleeping over at some kind neighbor. But he was too drunk. He fell back on the bed and was gone, snoring loudly, snot bubbling rhythmically on his thin upper lip.
Many nights before I was taken to the orphanage I had timidly crawled in bed with him on cold, lonely nights, looking for some warmth. He would strip my panties and rub his limp penis against my buttocks. Later on, I would find out that he attempted to molest my older sisters as well. Thankfully for us, he was too drunk to ever succeed in actually raping us.
I covered him with the dingy comforter he always hoarded and tiptoed out, relieved to leave him behind this time. I ran all the way home to my bruised Mama and my frightened four year old brother. I was about six years old.