Escape From Moldova
by A.A. Weiss
Over half the men in Callie’s village had emigrated elsewhere. Most had gone to Moscow, but others had gone the other way into Romania. It was a dying village, with very little to keep a person happy. The bus to the capital sat in the road with frosted windows. This time there was space on the bus to sit. Callie sat close to me, hugging my arm to keep warm. Men and women greeted her as they entered the bus. These were the relatives of her students or the friends of her family or just people who knew her name. She couldn’t always tell people apart. Two of her students entered and lowered their eyes to the ground after seeing us with our arms intertwined. They found seats near the back and giggled.
A man who’d been standing outside chain-smoking threw down his final cigarette butt and came aboard to collect ten lei from each passenger. The cheap-smelling tobacco on his breath was something to distract me from the cold. I felt a sense of relief after the driver started up the bus, and a sense of accomplishment once we rolled beyond the village limits. Callie couldn’t relax until we were off the bus and away from the people that knew her.
The bus to Romania was smaller than I’d anticipated. It was a half-bus and appeared sickly next to the other diesel buses going elsewhere in Moldova. The engine turned over on the fourth try and black smoke poured out the exhaust pipe. I wouldn’t have trusted this bus to get me back to Riscani, let alone out of the country. For me, the question was when the bus would break down, not if. I wondered how badly Callie would freak out.
Our flight was scheduled to leave in fourteen hours, in the morning after an all-night ride.
We found our seats toward the back and Callie asked me to sit against the window. She wanted to use me as a pillow. The other passengers filling the bus didn’t appear to be embarking on the same type of international excursion we were. Most were women with oversized wool sweaters; women dressed for normal working days, not for the extended discomfort of a night sleeping on a bus. These women carried gym bags with them into the cabin after already having deposited large rolling suitcases into the back compartment. Callie and I assumed these women were moving to Romania and carried everything they owned.
The bus filled to capacity, all the seats occupied, and then the driver squeezed his way to the back and put wood boards between the aisle seats so that village women getting off before the border could sit.
A large woman sat next to Callie and elbowed her ribs to get more space. Callie began calling the woman bad names under her breath.
The radio played electric accordion lullabies.
A recognizable sound woke me: the crackle of masking tape stretched and torn from the roll. I tensed because the sound had no place on a bus. I imagined we’d broken down and the driver was trying to fix the problem with tape. Then we hit a bump and I knew we were still moving. I opened my eyes. The numbers on the bus had thinned out. Villagers had departed. The remaining girls and women stood up from their seats to get more room for movement in the aisle.
“Turn on the lights!” a woman yelled to the driver. “We can’t see what we’re doing!”
The driver complied. The cabin filled with light and I had to squint.
Callie pushed toward me as far over as she could to avoid the flying elbows of the woman next to her. This woman had taken off her skirt and was taping packs of cigarettes around her stocking-covered thighs. She had managed to strap over a hundred packs to her body. She wasn’t alone. Nearly everyone but us, it seemed, took turns with a passing roll of tape to strap cigarettes around their calves, waists, and under their breasts. Callie pushed into me, overreacting a bit, every time someone brushed against her.
After the skirts and oversized sweaters were placed back on, the small heads of these women smugglers no longer matched the engorged, lumpy shapes of their bodies.
“Hope they all get caught,” said Callie.
I imagined they wouldn’t. These women appeared to know what they were doing. Romania would pass into the European Union on New Year’s Day. They would make a killing on these marked-up cigarettes.
We reached the first border crossing an hour later. A woman in a modified army uniform took our passports. Another border controller poked through the back luggage compartment and found nothing suspicious. The officer returned the stamped passports and waved us through. The whole process took twenty minutes.
We could see the Romanian station ahead, just beyond the no man’s land.
Three guards stood side by side in the road with their arms up, preventing the bus from going any farther. The fattened-up smugglers swore in panicky voices. The driver preached calmness.
One of the controllers came aboard and took the passports. The heat left the bus after he’d opened and closed the front door. We sat thirty minutes before anything else happened. The frame of the bus shook as they opened the back compartment.
A controller came back onboard. “Everyone off the bus!”
The Romanian guards escorted all the passengers into a glass building where they could inspect the bags away from the cold. They offered to take the warm outer coats off the smuggling women, who of course refused. “We’ll be here awhile,” insisted the guards. “We’re really quite fine,” said a woman. I was already starting to sweat. Callie and I took off our coats and draped them over the bags. Evidently the guards didn’t suspect Callie and I of smuggling. All could see we hadn’t taped anything to our bodies. For me this was entertainment; I couldn’t wait for the guards to open up the suitcases. Would there be more cigarettes? Harder drugs? Kidneys wrapped in ice? Callie was less amused. She looked at her watch every few seconds and started pacing. We were already behind schedule and hadn’t even yet suffered my predicted bus breakdown.
A man approached me and said hello in English. “Vasili,” he said, extending his hand. I didn’t know why a border controller would want to get friendly. But then I realized this man merely wanted to distance himself from the group of smugglers. He was a passenger from the bus that I’d overlooked.
Callie was pissed that Vasili didn’t offer to shake her hand. She wouldn’t have wanted to touch this strange Vasili under normal circumstances, but had grown sensitive about this oft-repeated social slight.
The border guards finally matched each smuggler with her luggage and began the formal searches. “This is not good,” said Vasili. I nearly told him to shush; he was ruining the surprise with talk. “Not good,” he mumbled.
As if resigned to her fate, the first woman stopped the controller from opening her suitcase while it was upright, not wanting the contents to spill onto the floor. She struggled to shift and control the weight, but finally got the suitcase onto its back on the floor. “Okay,” she said.
It’s a body, I thought.
The guard bent down and grabbed a bottle from the suitcase. It was a plastic Coke bottle filled with red wine. From my vantage point I saw more bottles neatly arranged. There were perhaps twenty such liter bottles in the suitcase.
Vasili turned to me. “You can’t do that,” he said.
The delay was now beginning to irritate me also.
“You can only carry two bottles of wine and two cartons of cigarettes into Romania,” explained Vasili. “Sad,” he continued. “They were trying for one last trip before they’ll need a visa for the E.U.”
Each smuggler waited her turn. The process of opening all the bags took an hour. The guards catalogued everything, slowly, item by item. And then, when it seemed my part in the ordeal was over, the guards then said, “And what about cigarettes?” And they instructed the women to take off their coats. So then we had to wait another hour. I went outside to find a bathroom. Callie didn’t mind that I left her. By this point she enjoyed watching the smugglers get processed.
A guard wandering the complex with a machine gun pointed to a toilet some distance down the road. Vasili followed me.
“You’re English, yes?” Vasili asked.
“Excellent. What kind of accent do I have? If I went to America it would sound like American?”
He sounded like Dracula.
“More British, I think. Your accent is thick and English.”
Vasili was pleased.
We entered the bathroom at the guard complex and before I could get to the urinal a new guard with a machine gun came inside yelling. He screamed in Romanian for us to leave, I think, because the bathroom was only for guards. Instinctively I said, “Sorry,” in Russian—the language I used at work in Riscani—and then the guard really got angry. The guards on the Romanian border did not like to hear Russian. Vasili exchanged words with the guard in Romanian, got new directions, and then we were both walking back, toward the glass house and then past, into the darkness. We ended up pissing in the no man’s land between the two countries. “The nasty guard told us to go here,” said Vasili. “Is that the right word, nasty?”
I was trying to piss and wanted Vasili to stop talking. “For what?”
“For the Romanians.”
“For these ones, yes. Perfect word.”
As we returned up the road the angry guard with the machine gun stopped us. “You can’t walk across the border without permission,” said the guard. Vasili started yelling at him in a loud voice until the nice guard with the machine gun took notice, came down the road to inspect us and eventually vouched for us to pass.
Back inside the glass house Callie asked where I’d been. “Almost got deported back to Moldova.” She didn’t ask me to elaborate. She was moments away from full panic mode. The guards and the smugglers were at a standstill. The guards hadn’t found guns, only cigarettes and wine, and weren’t going to arrest anyone. But they weren’t letting the women pass through freely; the women could either leave the goods behind and pass into Romania, or hold onto them and wait for the next bus heading back to Moldova—ten hours away. The women had been debating for twenty minutes. The driver finally threw his hands in the air and said, “Decide in ten seconds.”
He waved all the non-smugglers (seven total including Vasili, Callie and me) back onto the bus. He started the engine, looked back to the glass house, didn’t see anyone come outside, put the bus into drive and took off toward Bucharest. We’d lost three hours.
The crossing from Moldova into Romania was a passage into the modern world. Functioning streetlights illuminated both sides of the road. People used sidewalks. No one appeared intoxicated. A thin blanket of snow covered the road. Far ahead, yellow lights dotted the mountainous landscape, showing where society resided.
The driver had lost most of his passengers, but had kept all their money. He couldn’t have been happier. Now it seemed he was trying to set a land-speed record from the border to Bucharest. The bus weaved through mountain slots without slowing. The streetlights lost their novelty; the lamps in the valley below showed how far down we would fall.
The breakdown came twenty minutes later. The bus pulled to a stop at the bottom of a hill, far away from civilization. Snow fell and heat left the bus cabin. The driver didn’t explain anything, and no one asked any questions. Everyone knew that buses broke down. After the engine cooled the driver got out and beat it with a hammer. He came back inside for a wrench and tightened something and then hit the engine again with the hammer. He tried the key in the ignition and then went to beat the engine with his hammer; he repeated this several times. Whatever he was doing, the revving grew louder and stronger after each beating. Finally the engine turned over. Callie woke up. “We broke down,” I explained. She asked how long we’d been sitting. The breakdown had lasted a half hour. “Hope we make it,” she said, and went back to sleep. We were now on pace to be in Bucharest at seven in the morning. Our flight was to leave at half past seven.
Vasili came back to sit with me as the bus entered Bucharest. He’d been a cool customer back at the border crossing, very much in his element when swearing at the bad guard. Now he was nervously sweating. He asked questions to me, hoping to confirm what he already knew. Drinks are free on the plane? They’ll give me food? The flight assistant will speak the safety instructions in a few languages? I’ll understand the safety instructions?
He took the passport from his breast pocket and had me inspect his visa. “Yes,” I reassured him. “Everything looks in order.”
“I’ve never flown,” he said.
Bucharest seemed to be a city quite spread apart. I never saw a center. The route to the airport led through trees and past car dealerships, gas stations that charged by the liter.
“I’ve never been outside of Moldova,” Vasili confessed.
I finally asked where he was going. He’d been waiting for me to ask since we’d met.
“To Norway,” he proclaimed. “To practice my English.” Vasili handed me a paper with expressions in English that he wished to say to the director of his work and travel program. Thank you for this opportunity…
None of it made sense to me. The words on the paper, yes, I suppose, but a Moldovan going to Norway for English improvement, certainly not.
The bus finally arrived at the airport. I wished Vasili health and happiness. It was five before seven. The driver smiled broadly when I thanked him. “We made good time,” he said, and wished me health and happiness.
Callie felt like she’d accomplished something by leaving Moldova. She’d expected an unseen hand to pull her back at the last moment: the bus to run off the road; smugglers to implicate her; border guards to arrest her; time to run out and the airport to deny her right to leave and find happiness. But we’d made it. Callie was cheerful and giddy. She kissed my neck.
Barcelona is going to be okay, I said to myself.
Once on the ground in this new country, I compared everything in Spain with Riscani: the smells, the cuts of women’s’ dresses, the lack of trash on the roads. No comparisons with America came to my mind.
Our hotel was in the red light district. The women lining the streets were from different Latin American countries and they spoke with their pimps in slang that Spaniards wouldn’t understand. Callie held on to my arm tightly so that no woman would talk to me. For prostitutes, I thought they dressed rather modestly. “My students are bigger sluts,” agreed Callie. Such was the desensitizing effect of Moldova. My own students—the Mashas and Dashas and Natashas—would have felt quite comfortable in the dress code of these back streets. My fifth graders would have complimented these women in sweet, chirpy voices. “How pretty,” they’d say, stroking the fabric of a micro-skirt.
That first night we didn’t leave the hotel room. In the morning we walked out in search of coffee. The red light district still had the same characters, now dressed for conversations over breakfast. Pimps sat next to their prostitutes at cafes and flirted and made fun of each other like family members.
The next five days are blurred together in my memory: passing by statue performers that moved when you tossed a coin; waiting in line at the Picasso museum; translating a film into Callie’s ear at a movie theater; mixing Russian words into my once-perfect Spanish; listening each night to the chatter of street walkers in the alley; drinking coffee each morning at Dunkin’ Donuts.
What I remember clearly are the last two days in Barcelona—Callie growing more and more despondent when Moldova entered our conversations. She overlooked monuments, refused to go on long walks, drank cups of coffee in single gulps, asked me to stop translating the films into her ear in the theater, preferring to stare vacantly at the screen. We didn’t kiss on New Year’s.
In retrospect, I could have been more supportive.
On the last morning she wouldn’t get out of bed, so I yanked off the covers. She stayed in place, so I took away her pillow. It had been our joke that Callie wouldn’t leave Spain; I’d laughed at the notion, even though she hadn’t. Now I took her seriously. “Come on,” I said. “The plane leaves soon.” The idea of Callie staying behind pissed me off; I’d get in trouble for abandoning her. She finally got up after I started collecting her belongings and stuffing them into her pack. I was doing it all wrong, she claimed.
At the airport she compared her emotional state to the time she was terrified at JFK airport in New York, just before we left for Moldova.
“It’s different now,” I said. “There’s no uncertainty.”
“No uncertainty that I’ll be miserable.”
I shook my head. I was angry because I was looking forward to going home and she wasn’t; because she didn’t see Moldova as the adventure I did; because she’d shut herself off; because she tried to share her pissy emotions with me, certain I’d understand. I’d long ago stopped caring how she felt, fearing I’d descend into her type of madness. Moldova was hard enough with my own emotions; I was going to last two years and she wasn’t. I didn’t want her pulling me down. I knew that made me a bad person, but as I saw it, I was a bad man in her eyes and no one else’s. I could function and live happily with that specific, personalized guilt; I’d already chosen to.
“Maybe I’m not cut out for this,” said Callie rhetorically, opening the door for me to erase my indifference and comfort her.
“Probably not,” I said.
Color and emotion returned to her face. She called me a motherfucker.
“If you’re unhappy then quit. Nothing’s keeping you in Moldova.”
“I won’t have a job. I don’t want to live with my parents.”
“Then stop complaining. Move or quit or shut the hell up. No one cares.”
“Your problems aren’t special.”
I left her to walk around the airport. Rarely do I have the self-awareness to know when I’m being an asshole. But I was pleased to have yelled at her. She might quit now and then be happy.
I returned to Callie with this simile. “It’s like when you feel better after puking,” I explained. “Don’t hold it all in…”
“Shut the fuck up,” she barked.
When the time came, we both got on the plane.
At the airport in Bucharest a girl cradling a lamb approached Callie and asked her to pet the animal for good luck. After, the girl asked for a dollar. Callie refused. I looked around for people selling contraband cigarettes. Callie hailed the first taxi she saw and we both got in, leaving the girl and her lamb. I thought of another reason to feel happy about returning to Moldova: I wouldn’t be targeted as a tourist because there weren’t tourists in Moldova. I looked forward to drinking at the vodka bars, eating starchy food, teaching classes at the Russian lyceum and returning to my local celebrity status in Riscani.
We decided on taking a train instead of a bus, and after that we didn’t speak. The conductor stopped at each empty station but never found other passengers. Apparently no one traveled to Moldova, they only returned.
A. A. Weiss grew up in Maine and now resides in New York City. He works as a foreign language teacher after having lived in Ecuador, Mexico, Moldova and New Jersey. His writing has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine and is forthcoming in The Writing Disorder. “Escape from Moldova” is excerpted from a work-in-progress memoir.