Claudia Moscovici

America’s Obsession with Vampires

 

As a native Romanian who is also a novelist, I’m very intrigued–and, frankly, somewhat baffled–by America’s obsession with vampires and the Dracula legend. It seems like vampire novels and movies are growing in popularity, even as they’re being spoofed by yet other vampire novels and movies! From what I can see, this trend doesn’t seem as popular in Europe. This leads me to wonder: what are some of the reasons behind America’s obsession with vampires? I came up with five main reasons:

1. Exoticism. The setting of the original Dracula legend is a country whose history and traditions are foreign to most American readers, who find Romania distant and exotic. By way of contrast, to most Europeans, Romania is relatively familiar. It’s a place plagued by its devastating totalitarian history (first the rule of the Iron Guard, then its lengthy communist period). It’s a place struggling to emerge from its dark past, faced with enormous economic and political challenges. To the French, at least, it’s also a place known for immigrants from both sides of the social spectrum: the gypsy exodus, which is often linked to pick-pocketing and a nomadic lifestyle, and some of the most intriguing European intellectuals and artists. But when you say that you’re from Romania to most Americans, the first thing they’ll think of is not Eugene Ionesco or Mircea Eliade, but of Dracula. Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler (the ruler of Wallachia between 1456 and 1462) captivates readers with his notorious inhumanity. He’s infamous for the sadistic punishments he imposed upon his Turkish ennemies as well as upon anyone who violated his laws. Legend has it that he’d enjoy his supper watching prisoners being impaled before his eyes.

2. Which leads me to my second reason: the lure of evil. Vampires–these liminal beings between dark spirit and bad human–represent the powers of evil, over which we have limited control. Evil seduces us, only to later destroy us. The vampire bite is closely associated with unbridled sexuality. Vampires, like social predators, suck the vitality or life blood of healthy human beings before moving on to the next victim. But then, I wondered, why don’t we read about them in their human form, such as the Scott Petersons of this world? Why do we prefer to view and read about them as our Others?

3. Mediated evil. Human evil is inescapable. It’s everywhere around us. We read about it in the pages of history books and we see it on the news: ranging from the haunting memories of the Holocaust, to the Stalinist purges, to the latest serial killers on T.V. Because we’re exposed on a daily basis to the inhumanity of social predators, we’re not as intrigued by them as we are by their un-human counterparts, the vampires. Familiarity breeds not contempt, but boredom. At the same time, evil in its human form makes people very uncomfortable. We don’t want to imagine that social predators could enter our neighborhoods, our houses and our lives, to harm us or our loved ones. Vampires, these liminal beings between human and demon, give a more bearable expression to the evil we know, in the back of  our minds, exists in the world and can reach into the intimacy of our lives. They enable us to contemplate evil while holding it at arm’s length.

4. The widespread appeal of genre fiction. Compared to most Europeans, Americans have very little leisure time. Europeans get weeks, if not months, of vacation a year. Your average American gets only about two to three weeks. Although the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is not cut-and-dry, I’d say that genre fiction places emphasis upon a fast-moving, interesting plot, while literary fiction privileges psychologically nuanced characterizations and a unique style. Most vampire novels, though well-written, place most emphasis on plot. They’re perfect for readers who have little time and want to delve immediately into the action rather than being distracted by stylistic experiments or bogged down by a long-winded, Proustian style. Of course, there are some vampire novels that harmonously blend several genres, to offer readers the best of all worlds. I’m thinking of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which combines a beautiful style, historical erudition about the Dracula legend and a fast-paced, intriguing story.

5. Education. My teenage daughter reminded me yesterday that she and her friends read the Twilight series in fifth grade. This was their first exposure to narrative fiction that both adults and young adults enjoy reading. In Europe, on the other hand, the curriculum places emphasis (from a very young age) upon the literary canon. I remember being exposed to Tolstoy, Baudelaire and Flaubert early on, as opposed to reading either in school or for school the latest popular novels. While American students do sample the literary canon as well, that usually starts later–in high school–and even then, they’re exposed mostly to the Anglo-American tradition. But, unlike most European students, they discover the pleasure of reading by delving into popular contemporary fiction right away. This sticks with them and most likely shapes their literary taste later in life as well.

All this to say that I suspect that our obsession with vampires in the U.S. is not a fluke. There are real reasons why vampire thrillers became so popular here and why they’re probably not going to disappear from sight anytime soon. Having experienced evil first hand, however, I prefer to depict it as it is: all-too-human even in its worst inhumanity. When I was a little girl and complained to my parents about being afraid of monsters in my room, they told me that the only thing I should fear is evil human beings. Monsters, like vampires, don’t exist and can’t harm us. But it seems that some human beings are capable of immense evil, limited only by the worst of their desires and imaginations. It’s this real, human, evil that I wrote about, both in my novel about totalitarian Romania, Velvet Totalitarianism (2009) and in my second novel, The Seducer, about a sociopathic predator. Sometimes, the monsters we imagine in fiction pale by comparison to the evil created by the monsters in our lives.

Claudia Moscovici, Notablewriters.com

You can see sample chapters of my new novel, The Seducer, previewed on Neatorama’s Bitlit, on the link below:

http://www.neatorama.com/bitlit/category/the-seducer/

You can also watch video previews of The Seducer on youtube, by cutting and pasting the following links:

http://www.youtube.com/user/ClaudiaMoscovici

http://www.youtube.com/user/ClaudiaMoscovici?feature=mhum#p/a/u/0/IaZj4bceDpE


 

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January 11, 2011 Posted by | Bram Stoker, Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, David Israel, David K. Israel, Dracula, Eclipse, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Neatorama's Bitlit, new fiction, novel, novels, Romania, seducer, seduction, social predators, sociopath, sociopathy, Stephenie Meyer, The Historian, Twilight, Twilight series, vampire fiction, Velvet Totalitarianism, Vlad Tepes | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Totalitarianism: A Modern Curse

Totalitarianism is a modern phenomenon. It is stronger and more intrusive than dictatorship or autocracy. Totalitarian regimes control not only the state, the military, the judicial system and the press, but also reach into people’s minds, to dictate what they should say, think and feel. Hannah Arendt has argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism that one of the key features of the totalitarian state is its system of indoctrination, propaganda, isolation, intimidation and brainwashing—instigated and supervised by the Secret Police—which transforms classes, or thoughtful individuals able to make relatively sound political decisions, into masses, or people who have been so beaten down that they become apathetic and give their unconditional loyalty to the totalitarian regime. Although scholars such as Hannah Arendt, Robert Conquest and Vladimir Tismaneanu have elegantly explained the rise (and fall) of communist governments in Eastern Europe, it’s the vivid descriptions we find in the fiction and memoirs of the epoch–George Orwell’s 1984, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Natalia Ginsburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind and Lena Constante’s The Silent Escape—that take readers into the daily horrors, the dramatic Kafkaesque show trials, the physical and psychological torture and the general sense of hopelessness that characterizes life under totalitarian regimes. The writers I have just mentioned tend to focus mostly on the Stalinist period, during which the state governed through arbitrary displays of power and terror, sending millions of people to their deaths in labor and concentration camps. Yet as many who lived under totalitarian rule in Eastern Europe during the post-Stalinist era would claim, the milder, “velvet” form of totalitarianism was depressing and depleting in its own way, killing people’s hope and humanity even though it did not physically claim as many lives.

My own novel, Velvet Totalitarianism,  introduces students and the general public to the post-Stalinist phase of totalitarianism, focusing on Romania under the Ceausescu dictatorship, through the dual optic of scholarship and fiction. First I provide information about the Ceausescu regime: its feared Securitate (or Secret Police); the human rights abuses and outrageous domestic policies which left the Romanian people hungry and demoralized; the dictator’s narcissistic personality cult; the infamous orphanages, which were a direct result of the regime’s inhumane and irrational birth control policies, and the events that led to the Romanian revolution, first in the Timisoara uprising and then in Bucharest, where the dictator and his wife were deposed, put on their own show trial and executed in December, 1989. To do so, I synthesize information presented by other scholarly works, memoirs and textbooks on the subject, including Vladimir Tismaneanu’s Stalinism for all Seasons (2003), Peter Cipokowski’s Revolution in Eastern Europe (1991), Andrei Codrescu’s A Hole in the Flag (1991) and Ion Pacepa’s Red Horizons (1987).

Then I translate these events into fiction, to give readers a more palpable sense of what it felt like to live in Romania under the Ceausescu regime. I also attempt to capture the mixture of cynicism and hope that characterized one of the most bloody anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe. My novel depicts the experiences of a family living under the Ceausescu regime whose son gets entangled in a web set up by the Securitate. The story then traces the family’s difficult process of immigrating to the United States as well as the sometimes comical cultural challenges of adapting to America. The main characters arrive in Eastern Europe on vacation during the period of revolutionary upheavals in both Czechoslovakia and Romania, whose events they witness first-hand.

The parts of the novel that focus specifically on Romania constitute more of a fictionalized autobiography or a memoir in that they’re partly based on my family’s personal experience of communism. I say “fictionalized” since having left Romania at the age of eleven, my memories are undoubtedly skewed by a childlike perspective as well as by the passage of time. The factual information about the Securitate, Ceausescu’s policies and the Romanian revolution I depict here, however, is also based on research rather than just on memories and anecdotal accounts. The fiction inspired by real life helps individuate a mass phenomenon. In a post-Cold War era where totalitarian communism has become just another page in history books, fact and fiction are complimentary rather than opposites. Fiction can make what may now seem like a long-gone, dead epoch, and the anonymous suffering of millions of people, seem vivid, significant and real again.

Yet whichever perspective one chooses, fact or fiction, what is being described here is essentially the same reality: conditions in Romania during the so-called “Epoch of Light” were notoriously miserable. People had to wait in long lines for meager supplies of food, clothing and household goods. There was limited heat and hot water. By the late 1970’s, the Secret Police had installed microphones in virtually every home and apartment. The whole population lived in fear. As a Romanian citizen said to a French journalist following the fall of the Ceausescu regime, “It was a system that didn’t destroy people physically—not many were actually killed; but it was a system that condemned us to a fight for the lowest possible level of physical and spiritual nourishment. Under Ceausescu, some people died violently, but an entire population was dying.”

Although this book focuses mostly on Romania, hundreds of millions of Eastern Europeans led similar lives to the ones I describe, struggling daily against poverty, hunger, state indoctrination, surveillance, censorship and oppression in post-Stalinist communist regimes. In actuality, “velvet” totalitarianism was insidious rather than soft and gentle, killing your spirit even when it spared your life.

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

December 9, 2010 Posted by | Alan Bullock, Claudia Moscovici, communism, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Hannah Arendt, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Romania, spies, spy fiction, spy thriller, Stalin, Stalinism, Stalinist purges, The Origins of Totalitarianism, totalitarianism, Velvet Totalitarianism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Totalitarianism: A Modern Curse

Book Review of Stalinism for all Seasons

For anyone interested in Romania’s political history during the twentieth-century, Professor Vladimir Tismaneanu’s “Stalinism for All Seasons” is the seminal work on the subject.  Clearly written, solidly researched, informative and engaging, “Stalinism for all Seasons” can be included among the best works of political history, alongside  Pipes’ works on Lenin, Conquest’s books on Stalin and Bullock’s studies of Hitler. If you’re interested in finding out about the evolution and demise of Romanian  communism, there is no better source than “Stalinism for all Seasons”. I highly recommend this book for all readers interested in Romanian political history and in the history of totalitarianism.

Claudia Moscovici, Notablewriters.com

December 6, 2010 Posted by | Alan Bullock, book reviews, Claudia Moscovici, communism, communist Romania, political history, Romanian Embassy, Stalinism, Stalinism for all Seasons, Stalinist purges, totalitarianism, Velvet Totalitarianism, Vladimir Tismaneanu | , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Book Review of Stalinism for all Seasons

Is She A Spy? The First Chapter of Velvet Totalitarianism

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…”

“Who? Diaconescu?”

“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 know…”

“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.”

“How so?”

“Because…”

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, Velvet Totalitarianism (2009)

December 3, 2010 Posted by | Claudia Moscovici, communism, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, love story, novel, secret agents, spies, spy fiction, spying, thriller, Velvet Totalitarianism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Is She A Spy? The First Chapter of Velvet Totalitarianism

American Adjustments: Hook ups and Parties at Princeton

Sometimes I feel like escaping from communist Romania during the 1980’s was the easy part, compared to adjusting to a new culture once I got here. In my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, I describe some of the East-meets-West challenges I faced, once I enrolled in college at Princeton University. If you think the Ivy Leagues are all about studying, then  read this chapter about “bickering” and hook ups at one of Princeton’s elite eating clubs, Ivy:

Chapter 8, Part II

Since it was already 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night, Irina suspected that Lori, her roommate, would have returned by now from the art history library and may already be asleep. They had experienced quite a bit of tension lately due to the fact that, unbeknownst to Irina, Lori had switched from a mild case of Buddhism to hardcore Evangelical Christianity during the previous summer. Armed with a reborn moral consciousness, she now objected to Irina’s extracurricular activities. Irina wished she had been informed about Lori’s conversion before becoming her roommate.  The previous year, she recalled, Lori had been a nerdy but nonetheless gregarious freshman. Aside from spending most of her days and pre-exam nights in the glass cubicle of the art history library, during mealtimes–the only moments Lori could spare for socializing–she also engaged in normal sophomoric activities such as gossip, giggling and discussing her secret crushes on guys who weren’t aware of her existence. Since her spiritual rebirth, however, the two roommates began to experience some tension. Of course, Lori didn’t know for sure what went on between Irina and Jean-Pierre, and, furthermore, she considered it none of her business. However, since Irina posed nude for strange men and dated a much older Frenchman with dubious morals every weekend, her roommate assumed that her friend’s soul was in great peril.

To avoid stirring up discussions, Irina proceeded with caution. She slipped the key into the lock noiselessly, then felt her way into the living room without turning on the lights. In her painstaking effort not to wake up her roommate, she stumbled over a backpack, leaned on a little table to catch her balance and knocked off a lamp. An inquisitive light appeared underneath the bedroom door.

“Irina, is that you?” came an apprehensive voice from the bedroom.

“Yes. Sorry about that! I was trying not to wake you up!” Irina announced as she entered the small bedroom, furnished sparsely with two desks, two chairs and two bunk beds. Lori was perched on the upper bunk since Irina was scared of heights. She was dressed in a Hello Kitty pink nightgown. “Worked like a charm. But that’s okay, since I wasn’t sleeping anyway. I get worried knowing you’re wondering around at night.”

“Lori, normal college kids go out partying on Friday nights,” Irina informed her roommate.

“My parents didn’t pay 30,000 dollars a year for my college education so that I can waste my time on parties,” Lori retorted.

“Precisely. That’s why kids don’t generally tell their parents about what they do in college,” Irina concurred.

“Excuse me, but I’m not into dishonesty.”

“To each his own,” Irina replied with a shrug.

“So how did it go?”

“What?”

“The meeting with the artist.”

“Okay…I guess.”

“Is he good?”

“I didn’t really get to find out.”

“How come?”

Lori avoided her roommate’s glance.

“Did he hit on you?” Lori asked, adopting the tone of someone whose worst suspicions are confirmed.

“No, nothing like that.”

“Did he sketch you?”

“No.”

“Sculpt you?”

“No.”

“Then what in the world did he do?”

“Nothing. As it turns out, the whole thing was based on a misunderstanding. He’s not really a painter.  Nor a sculptor for that matter. He’s an art history professor.”

“At least he’s got the word “art” in his title… What’s his name? I may know him.”

“Paul Smith.”

“He teaches Impressionism, right?”

“Yes. Did you take a class with him?”

“Not yet, but I’ve seen him around the department. He has a pretty good reputation.”

A few rapid knocks on the door interrupted their conversation. Irina went to the door and peered carefully through the peephole. She was surprised to see Christine, her freshman year roommate. The two of them got along okay, given that they were polar opposites. Christine was the perfect sorority girl: athletic (a member of both the rowing and the swimming teams), popular, and exceedingly social. She was as disciplined about going out to parties at the eating clubs on Thursday through Sunday nights (to which, to her credit, she was invited by junior and senior men) as she was about waking up bright and early at 5:00 a.m. to do three hours of rowing or swimming practice. The two roommates would have gotten along even better if it weren’t for Christine’s quick metabolism: she had such good circulation compared to Irina’s catatonic pulse that she slept with the windows wide open even in the dead of winter. Which made Irina feel like an experiment in cryogenics despite swaddling herself in the five exotic, camel wool blankets shipped express (by ship) by her grandmother directly from Romania.

Under more propitious circumstances, the girls might have become closer, since Christine wasn’t your typical vacuous party girl. Although she did look the part –long blond hair with fringed bangs brushed to the side; light blue eye shadow that matched the color of her eyes; heavy mascara, and glittery pink lip gloss—in private conversation she was able to say quite a bit more than “cool” and “what’s up?” Her parents lived in Switzerland most of the year and had a second home in their native Hartford, Connecticut. Christine had been educated in some of the best boarding schools and was fluent in English, French and German. With Irina she would discuss Brecht and Marquez, yet, unlike her less socially adept former roommate, she didn’t let culture stand in the way of her social life.

“Hi!” Irina said, her eyes wide with surprise.

Christine brushed her fringy bangs from her forehead. “Hey. I just dropped by to see if you guys wanted to go out to a club,” she said very casually.

Irina instinctively looked behind her, to check if there were any other guys in the room. “Us?”

“Yeah. This junior I hooked up with last week gave me free passes to Ivy,” Christine explained.

“And you’re inviting me and Lori to… Ivy?”

“That’s right, ” Christine confirmed the good news, however implausible it may have sounded.

Something was fishy about this whole scenario, Irina suspected. If it had been an invitation to Quadrangle, the dining club for which both Lori and Irina had signed up she might have understood. But Ivy? The most prestigious and selective of Princeton’s eleven eating clubs? Ivy was so posh that even F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about it in This Side of Paradise. Its importance to undergraduate life couldn’t be overestimated. In fact, the eating clubs in general were the center of the universe for Princeton upperclassmen. It’s there that they ate, hosted parties, listened to bands, got wasted, watched movies and—most importantly–hooked up, usually in the aftermath of a drunken stupor and right before, or sometimes even during, the bathroom barfing sessions.

Some of the clubs, like Quadrangle and Terrace (the artsy ones) and Colonial Club (which future doctors and lawyers tended to join) were non-selective. Which essentially meant that you entered your name in a lottery, listing your top three choices in order of preference, and automatically got into one of them. Independently of one another, Lori and Irina had both selected Quad, since it was comfortably literary and artistic without being pretentious. Unlike Terrace members, Quadies didn’t have a mandatory non-conformist uniform of all black attire (preferably dingy and in shreds) complemented by a wide variety of ripped fishnet stockings, black leather boots, and, if you were cool enough to pull it off, an optional bdsm dog collar. Irina’s number two choice, Colonial, was the nice, clean-cut professional club. Her third choice was, by default, Terrace, which is where the Studio Art crowd generally hung out. Terrace should have been Irina’s most logical first choice, given her interest in art. However, generally speaking, she preferred to read about decadence rather than practice it.

By way of contrast to these open admission clubs, Ivy  was selective—in fact, the most selective eating club on campus.  To get accepted, you had to bicker—meaning be chosen by its members after passing a series of interviews and challenges—and, above all, be one of the beautiful people. For women, beauty was a quality you were born with, confirmed by a rigorous hazing ritual that tested your social abilities, especially the most useful ones such as how sexy you looked in high heels and a tight and appropriately exorbitant evening gown; how well you handled eating a six course meal using three forks; and, last but not least, how well you tolerated near-lethal doses of alcohol while still maintaining your poise and conversational skills in at least three languages (though, in all fairness, all three of them could be slurred dialects of English).

“Thanks, but we’ve already signed up for Quad,” Lori responded curtly. Irina, who had a hankering for adventure, however, was interested in finding out more: “Why us?” she asked Christine.

“What do you mean?”

“Well… you must admit, we’re not exactly Ivy types….”

Christine feigned disagreement: “Of course you are!” she declared, looking at Lori, who, in her Hello Kitty pajamas and wide-rimmed pink glasses, must have looked like a scene from Revenge of the Nerds II with a female cast.

“I’m going to bed!” Lori announced and promptly withdrew into her bedroom like a turtle retreating into its shell.

“Are you bickering?” Irina peered straight into Christine’s cool blue eyes.

“Yes,” the latter was obliged to admit.

“So then, Lori and I are your challenge?”

“All I have to do is train a novice in the art of hooking up,” Christine cheerfully declared.

“What’s hooking up?” Irina asked, clearly qualifying both as a novice and as a challenge.

When discussing such matters, Christine naturally slipped into her best imitation of a Valley girl accent: “Well, you like get together with this guy you don’t really know, but you sort of know him. Like a friend of a friend. Or the cute guy in your orgo class you were hoping would ask you out. There’s no point waiting by the phone. We’re liberated women of the eighties, after all.” Since Irina’s liberated face still looked puzzled, Christine added: “Anyways, you’ll love it. It’ll be fun.”

Irina was not entirely convinced: “In order to hook up, do you have to sleep with the guy?”

“Not necessarily. If you don’t like him, you can just make out or something.”

“Now that’s a relief!”

“But for it to be technically a hook-up you’ve got to do stuff that, you know, you can’t really do in public. At least second base, preferably third,” Christine elaborated.

“I already have a boyfriend,” Irina announced, hoping this would dissuade Christine from pursuing the matter any further.

“You mean that old dude you were dating last year? Your French grandfather? Sorry, but he doesn’t count. You need to be with someone your own age. Or at least your father’s age,” Christine took a seat next to Irina on the sofa. “Alright,” she said slapping both hands on her knees to indicate that she was ready to get down to business.

“First step in a hook up: dress the part.”

Irina looked down at her knee-length pleated skirt, blue knee socks, Mary Jane shoes and fifties shirt buttoned all the way up to the collarbone. She was pretty pleased with herself:  “Done!”

Christine begged to differ: “Are you kidding me? You couldn’t even go to a funeral dressed in this outfit!”

“But I like my clothes,” Irina objected.  “They’re from Petite Sophisticate. Look: I even match, see?” she pointed with her forefinger to her light blue shirt and navy skirt ensemble.

“Irina, your clothes might be okay if you were postmenopausal. But you’ll never get a guy dressed like this. Unless of course he’s postmenopausal,” she added, alluding once again to poor Jean-Pierre.

“I don’t see anything wrong with my outfit,” Irina held her ground.

“Gosh! Where should I begin? For one thing, you don’t wear blue knee socks after graduating from grade school. Second, your skirt may have been popular in the fifties, but now it’s totally out…”

“The fifties are making a come-back,” Irina wanted to show that she too read Vogue and knew a thing or two about style.

“Not in this country,” Christine cut short that Eurofashion trend, and started picking on another: “How about your lipstick?”

Irina pressed and rubbed together her bright red lips: “What about it?”

“We’re not in the red light district of Amsterdam. Here,” Christine opened her slim Gucci bag, unzipped an inner pocket, and took out a glittery lip-gloss with sparkles: “This one’s more subtle.”

“If you’re a Christmas tree perhaps,” Irina mumbled.

“Listen, if you don’t want to look hip, that’s your problem,” Christine zipped up her purse to indicate that without cooperation, the pre-hookup mentoring was over.

Irina looked at her companion to understand better what it meant to look hip and ascertain if she herself could have such high aspirations. Christine wore a tight, stretchy white tube top through which you could see the areolas of her nipples. The shirt was so tiny that it exposed, to her advantage, other parts of her anatomy as well, such as her bellybutton. The bottom was as fashionably undressed as the top: she wore a low-rise blue miniskirt with ruffles, which barely covered her behind. If Christine dropped something on the floor and had to bend over to pick it up, she could spare several lucky voyeurs the cost of buying a Playboy. Her hair was bleached platinum blond and her fringed bangs fell in a sweep upon her eyes, obliging her to periodically toss her head with confidence. Unconsciously, Irina imitated that motion, though perhaps slightly less gracefully than her companion.

“What’s the matter? A fly landed on your head?” Christine inquired.

Irina gave her a dirty look, but Christine continued her constructive criticism: “No wonder. Just look at your hair. It’s a mess. You’re in desperate need of a haircut.”

“I prefer my hair long,” Irina said.

“Then you need to do something with it.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Comb it?”

Given the turn the conversation had taken, Irina became even less enthusiastic about being selected as Christine’s hazing subject. “I don’t know about this hook up, make-over thing. Maybe it’s just not for me,” she tried to back out of the whole operation.

But it was too late. “Nonsense!” Christine said.  “After I get through with you, you’ll look sensational. I guarantee it. The guys will stick to you like flies,” she reassured her, spraying a generous dose of Polo for Women on her former roommate.

“I’m not exactly the femme fatale type,” Irina pointed out.

“Well…  I can’t argue with that,” Christine acknowledged the great challenge she was facing. But becoming a member of Ivy and partying hard every weekend with la crème de la crème of Princeton undergraduate society made the hardship and pain well worth it. With a renewed sense of resolution, Christine got up from the sofa, walked into the bathroom and came back with moist towel in her hands.

“First things first. We’ve got to get rid of this dreadful make-up,” she said, alluding to Irina’s bright red lipstick and orange blush, which the latter thought went beautifully with her long dark hair, giving her the glossy look of a painted doll that was still in vogue in some corners of Eastern Europe (at least for the older, babushka generation).

“What brand of make-up do you use?” Christine inquired.

“I don’t know. Whatever they sell at Wal-Mart,” Irina responded. That, apparently, was not the correct answer.

“L’Oreal? Max Factor?” Christine jogged her friend’s memory.

“No way! That stuff’s expensive. I use the one dollar kind.”

“Grody,” Christine scowled. Once she wiped Irina’s face clean of the cheap discount paint, she reopened her purse and exhibited each of its wonders, one by one, patiently explaining to Irina their purpose: “Try using Estée Lauder. It’s good stuff, plus affordable. You can find it at Macy’s, Filene’s, Sack’s Fifth Avenue, you know, all the discount stores,” she said, concluding the beauty session.

“You call those stores discount?”

“Yes. What do you call them?”

“Expensive.”

“Well, you know what they say. You get what you pay for,” Christine expressed her philosophy of life and started patting foundation with the tips of her fingers upon Irina’s face. She stepped back to take a look at her canvas, after which she approached again, took out a little brush made out of fine pony hair, gently dipped it in a palate of Delectable Peach blush and began applying it with little strokes along Irina’s cheekbones. “Better,” she concluded, taking once again a step back to examine her masterpiece. Then she took out the Magic Pink gloss and rubbed it on Irina’s lips. “Go like this,” she instructed, pressing and moving her own lips together in example.  Irina complied. “What an improvement!” Christine congratulated herself. “Let’s move on to the hair. What do you call that bird’s nest on top of your head?”

“My bun?” Irina wondered.

“So that’s what it is! Buns are for grannies and cinnamon places,” Christine informed her.

Irina would not accept criticism of her hairstyle as easily as the other comments: “For your information, elegant French women wear chignons.”

“But since you’re neither elegant nor French…” Christine allowed Irina to draw her own conclusions. She then undid her companion’s hair, which fell down in gentle, long brown waves. “What a lot of hair! Now what should we do with it…” Christine pondered. A solution occurred to her. She took out a slim, brown comb from her magic purse and parted Irina’s hair straight in the middle, except for the straight bangs, which Irina preferred because they camouflaged imperfections during a certain critical time of the month. “Do you want spiral curls?” Christine asked.

“I guess.”

“Okay, then hand me your curling iron.”

“I don’t have one.”

Christine’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Are you kidding me? You’re a sophomore in college and you don’t even own a curling iron?”

“I have books,” Irina thought this bit of information might compensate for her deficiency in the styling department. Her comment was duly ignored. One had to admit, however, that with parted, smooth long hair, mascara, pink lip gloss and a more subtle shade of peach blush than the usual bright orange, Irina looked almost sophisticated. Christine now felt prepared to confront the even more daunting wardrobe challenge.

“Could you please remove your knee socks?” she asked politely yet unequivocally.

“Why? I like my socks!”

“Irina, you’re not in grade school any more. In college, you—and by you, I mean a normal woman, of course–wear pantyhose with closed-toe shoes, or bare legs with open-toed sandals. That’s the rule.”

“Alright,” Irina reluctantly removed her Mary Janes and blue knee-highs.

“Do you have any air freshener?” Christine inquired, crinkling her nose once this procedure was over. She bent down to spray some Polo for women on Irina’s feet. “Oh, my Gosh!” she screamed in utter shock, her hand flying to her chest.

“What happened?” Irina asked, startled.

“Are you planning to join the East German women’s swim team?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Have you ever heard of shaving?”

“Why? I don’t have a beard,” Irina protested.

“I mean your legs! They’re horrid!”

“But I do shave my legs! Once a week.”

“Clearly that’s not enough…” Christine ran her fingers past the stubble. “You should wax.”

“I should what?” Irina asked, confused about what cleaning floors had to do with personal grooming.

“Wax. They apply these strips of wax and pull your hair away everywhere it’s necessary: legs, bikini line, underarms,” Christine explained. “It hurts a little at first but in the end it’s well worth it. Irina, you’re in desperate need of a spa treatment. Look at your toenails! We can’t be seen in public like this. When was your last pedicure?”

Irina didn’t have to think hard:  “Never.  I didn’t think I needed one.”

“Of course you do! Every self-respecting woman needs one. What a mess! But we don’t have time to fix all this right now. You’ll just have to wear tights with a mini and pray that whoever has the misfortune to hook up with you won’t turn on the light. Or touch your legs. Oh, hell, let’s just hope he’ll be drunk out of his mind.”

“Who said I want to hook up with anyone, let alone a drunk?”

Since this was Christine’s main challenge in the hazing process, it was the one point she refused to concede: “Do you have much tolerance for alcohol?”

“I drink half a glass of champagne on New Year’s Eve,” Irina informed her.

“Good,” Christine pronounced. “A few shots of tequila and you’ll be good to go.”

She examined Irina up and down. The pleated long skirt still didn’t pass the minimum standard. “Do you have a nice short skirt? And this time… please, something that’s not borrowed from your grandmother’s closet.”

“I’ve got jeans,” Irina proposed the next best thing.

“Alright. But at least wear them with a tube top!”

“How about this shirt?” Irina showed her a pink top.

Christine shook her head: “Too prosaic. Unless, of course, they’ll have a wet t-shirt contest tonight.” Then she looked at Irina’s modest sized chest and had a change of heart: “Or maybe not …”

Irina went into her bedroom, rummaged frantically through her closet, and came out dressed in a white extra-small white t-shirt, tight Levis jeans and blue flats.

“Change those clods to high heels,” Christine commanded with the poise of a general. Irina reemerged like a brave solider—or guinea pig—wearing high-heeled shoes: “So how do I look?”

“Like you’re going out for an ice-cream in the afternoon with a former boyfriend you’re no longer in love with,” Christine pronounced the fashion verdict and the two girls finally headed out to Ivy Club.

Chapter 9, Part II

Irina and Christine made their way down Prospect Street, the main artery of Princeton’s pulsating social life, where all the eating clubs were located.

“Walk like a girl,” Christine advised her companion.

“I am!”  Irina protested, looking around. As far as she could tell in the darkness, clusters of young women and men were walking in a more or less serpentine, uneven manner, leaning upon one another, talking loudly and laughing. “What’s the point of learning how to walk sexy if once you leave the clubs, you’re so drunk that you can barely put one foot in front of the other?” she asked.

“Don’t you make your bed in the morning?” Christine inquired.

“Yeah, so?”

“Since you’re going to mess it up anyway, why bother?”

Although impressed by her friend’s Socratic reasoning, Irina resisted its conclusion: “Walking is the most convenient way of getting from point A to point B.  I learned how to do it when I was two,” she retorted.

“And that’s precisely your problem. You’re a case of arrested development. Take longer steps. Stand up straighter and swing your hips. Like this,” Christine demonstrated a sinuous walk, something between the model’s catwalk and the prostitute’s catcall. Irina tried to mimic the movement, swaying her hips and teetering on her high heels.

“Let’s just stick to the toddler walk, okay?” Christine proposed, after silently observing her.

Since the girls were about to enter Ivy Club, Christine flashed an artificial smile that remained glued to her face for most of the evening. The club was dark, crowded and noisy. Everyone strived to talk a few decibels above the blaring pop music. The popular song Shake it, shake it real good set the romantic tone of the evening. Every room was redolent with the aroma of beer mixed with expensive cologne and perfume that were punctuated by a hint of vomit.

Christine apparently knew her way around the place pretty well. “Hey. How’s it going?” she greeted a few acquaintances, then pulled Irina by the sleeve into a corner, to give her a few more pointers. “You’re in luck tonight,” she announced.

“Why?” Irina asked in all sincerity, since she was intimidated by crowds, was attracted to older men rather boys her own age, didn’t drink except for New Year’s Eve and preferred French songs of the sixties and seventies to American pop music.

“Since this is hazing week, there are a few men in your league here tonight. It shouldn’t be that difficult to hook up,” Christine delivered the good news. “See that tall guy with the little hat and glasses on the left? The one standing next to the gorgeous blond?” she discretely pointed with her pinky in their direction.

Irina looked to the left. “That’s not a hat, it’s a yarmulke,” she instantly recognized Ben, the lanky boy with a twin brother from the Hillel Club. They had engaged in a brief conversation a few weeks ago, following an inspiring lecture on the future of Zionism. Irina went to Hillel from time to time to get back in touch with her Jewish roots.

“I’m kind of into the blond guy myself,” Christine staked her claim.

“Do you know him?”

“Yeah,” Christine affirmed. “His name is Josh. We’ve never actually spoken, but I see him all the time at the Arch Sings. He’s so unbelievably cute, don’t you think? He’s a  Footnote.” She didn’t need to say more, since everyone from Princeton knew that being a member of The Footnotes, the oldest all male a capella group on campus, represented the epitome of coolness. The  Footnotes were all gorgeous and sang with beautiful, well harmonized voices, wooing the female members of the audience with their boy band charm: head cocked to the side, hand to the heart, looking straight into the longing eyes of the prettiest girls in the crowd while singing timeless love songs. Even Irina was obliged to admit that Josh was a hottie: blond hair cropped short, sparkling blue eyes, tall, the built of an Adonis, white Polo shirt and jeans with strategic holes in them which cost extra.

“What if I prefer Josh to Ben?” Irina wondered out loud.

Christine gave her a look that clearly indicated such a violation of the girl code would most certainly not be kosher.  “I thought you were Jewish,” she said.

“Only on my father’s side. Which doesn’t really count. Except when it comes to persecution and pogroms,”  Irina explained her ethnic status.

“That’s too bad…” Christine replied, thinking about how the two of them could double score with the guys. “Let’s go say hi to them, okay?” she proposed a logical first line of attack.

Josh smiled charmingly at Christine as soon as they made eye contact. “Hey. What’s up?” he struck a smooth conversation.

“Nothing much, just hanging out,”  Christine eloquently replied.

“I saw you at the Arch Sing the other day,” Irina informed Josh.

“I know, I was there,” Josh laughed, attempting to impress the girls with his wit. Christine laughed obligingly, but Irina just found the comment a bit rude, so she turned to his companion.

“Hi Ben. Do you remember me?”

Ben drew a blank.

“From the Hillel lecture? On Zionism?” Irina refreshed his memory.

“Trina, right?” Ben replied.

“Irina.”

“Oh, yeah. Now I remember. You’re Russian,” Ben informed her.

“Romanian. Same difference!”

“Do you girls want something to drink?” Josh asked.

“What do they have? I’m in the mood for a Cosmo,” Christine replied.

“We’ve got  Miller light, Bud and Guinness. On tap.”

“I guess I’ll have a beer then,” Christine said, amused by the variety of options.

“And what would you like?” Josh graciously turned to Irina.

“I’d like a Perrier with a lime twist, please,” Irina named her favorite beverage. She felt a sharp elbow poke in the ribs—on the side closest to Christine– and abruptly changed her mind,  “I’ll have a beer too. Thanks.”

“Be right back, ladies,” Josh answered gallantly and headed for the bar. Which left Ben on his own with the two girls.  “Do you go to Israel often?” he asked Irina, preferring to start on familiar ground.

“Once a year, to see my grandmother,” she replied.

“Where does she live?”

“In Carmiel. Do you know where that is?”

“Sure. Near Haifa.”

“That’s right!” Irina exclaimed, surprised to see that someone else had heard of Carmiel. “Is that where your family lives too?”

“I’ve got a few relatives in Haifa and Tel Aviv,” Ben said.

“Do you visit them often?” Irina asked.

“About once a year. I spend my summers either with relatives or at a kibbutz. But I plan to move to Israel permanently once I finish college.”

Christine was beginning to feel left out, so Ben attempted to include her in the conversation:

“Are you Jewish too?” he turned to her.

“No. German on my mother’s side; Swiss on my Dad’s, protestant on both,” she replied.

Ben considered her genealogy  for a moment. “Was your grandfather a Nazi?” he pursued tactfully.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Nothing.”

Christine’s face brightened when her knight in shinning armor  returned with two beers to save the damsels in distress.

“Thanks,” the girls said in unison when Josh offered them their drinks.

“So, you’re trying out for Ivy?” Josh asked Christine.

“Does your grandmother like Carmiel?” Ben asked Irina.

“Sure, why not?” Christine shrugged. “It seems fun.”

“Actually, it’s a very sad story,” answered Irina. “My grandfather died a few years ago. My grandmother Sara is only seventy-four, which is not that old, but she’s very ill. She has Alzheimer’s’ or something very similar to it. The doctors aren’t sure, since the symptoms of her illness resemble the advanced stages of senility. Basically,  she’s losing her memory. It fades in and out. Last summer, there were times when she didn’t even recognize me. It’s terrible to see someone you love deteriorate like that.”

“I can’t complain. Life’s a blast,” Josh cheerfully told Christine.

“I  know what you mean,” Ben answered sympathetically.

“If the rumors are true, you guys sure know how to party…” Christine replied.

“That’s not the worst of it,” Irina said. “She has these weird hallucinations that people are coming to steal her clothes. She once ran out naked into the street. Can you imagine? At her age?”

“Whew! Man, is it getting hot in here or is it just me?” Josh asked, shaking his shirt, which clung to his moist skin.

“Gee, that’s a serious problem,” Ben responded.

“I’m getting hot too,” Christine answered and took a sip of her cold beer, looking seductively into Josh’s eyes.

“Is there something you guys can do about it?” Ben asked Irina.

Josh was already thinking ahead, about where he might be able to carry on a more private conversation with Christine later on that night. “What do you like to do for fun?” he asked her.

“Unfortunately, not much,” Irina replied. “I mean, from thousands of miles away what can one do, right? After that incident, we hired someone to take care of her. She definitely can’t live on her own any more.”

“I try to live life to the fullest,” Christine answered.  “I do a little bit of everything: swimming, dancing, rowing, skiing, hanging out at parties…I even learned how to surf last summer. Though I grew up in Switzerland, I love hot weather and the beach.”

“So why don’t you move to Israel then?” Ben suggested.  “It would be so much easier to take care of your grandmother if you’re actually there.”

“No kidding!” Josh said,  intrigued by Christine’s athletic abilities. “I’m from Colorado, but I’d love to learn how to surf. Maybe you can teach me some day.”

“I can’t,” Irina answered with certitude. “It would be too complicated. My family’s settled here. My parents have jobs in Ann Arbor; we bought a house; I’m going to college here. As for Israel, to tell you the truth, my sentimental ties are to my family, not the country.  Generally speaking, I love people, not places. You know what I mean?”

“Sure,” Christine answered breathlessly. “If we ever happen to visit California together,” she added.

“No,” Ben firmly responded. Irina’s answer hadn’t scored any bonus points with him. “How can you say that Israel’s just a place? It’s our home. The only place the Jewish people have left on Earth. Aren’t you Jewish? Don’t you care?”

“Maybe one day,” Josh answered.  “I also love to swim and play tennis. In high school I was Varsity on both teams. Do you play tennis?”

“Of course I do,” Irina responded. “But one can be Jewish without living in Israel. Don’t Jews live all over the world?”

“Yes, but not that well,” Christine replied.

“And that’s precisely the problem,” Ben said. “Without a nation of their own, Jews are at the mercy of the world.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Josh calmly replied. “We can practice together this weekend if you want,” he proposed.

“Now wait a minute: I think you’re going a bit overboard,” Irina replied. “The Jewish people can survive without all moving to Israel. Besides, it’s a sliver of a country. Where would we all fit?”

“I’ll see if I can squeeze you in,” Christine smiled playfully at Josh. “Who knows? I may surprise you. Maybe I’ll beat you at your own game…” she teased.

“How stupidly optimistic! That’s called sticking your head in the sand like an ostrich,” Ben declared.

“Oh yeah? We’ll see about that…” Josh answered cheerfully. “So do you have a roommate? Or do you live all by your lonesome self?” he charmingly segued to his more immediate concern.

“Now how can you talk to me this way?  For God’s sake, you don’t even know me!” Irina protested.  “Don’t you think you’re being a bit narrow-minded to judge me?” she narrowed her eyes at Ben.

“Yes,” Christine replied. “I have a single in Joline Hall. It’s small but cozy,” she added, toying with one of Josh’s shirt buttons.

“What you need is to marry a good Jew and have a dozen kids,” Ben suggested.

By then, Josh had his hands all over Christine’s behind and his tongue was attempting to tie the knot with hers.

“A woman’s duty is making babies,” Ben pursued, showing how enlightened orthodoxy could be even when it lagged a few hundred years behind the times and adopted nineteenth-century Pale of Settlement ghettos as its cultural ideal.

Christine and Josh seemed prepared to practice what Ben preached.

“Excuse me, but I want to be an artist, not some man’s baby machine,” Irina said.

Josh felt in his pant pocket to check if he still had that extra condom.

“Women are no good at art,” Ben declared.

Josh, however, considered Christine pretty adept at the art of love.

“Oh yeah? Have you ever heard of Berthe Morrisot? Or Mary Cassatt? How about Georgia O’Keeffe?” Irina countered.

“Man, if I make out with this hot chick,” Josh vowed, feeling particularly romantic that starry night, “tomorrow I’m buying her flowers.”

“Big deal! Babies and flowers. Who cares about that stuff anyways?” Ben retorted.

Apparently Josh did. He cared about flowers that resembled female genitalia and definitely liked female genitalia  that resembled flowers. “Do you wanna go over to my place?” he whispered hotly in Christine’s ear.

“I thought you liked babies and wanted to have twelve of your own,” Irina said to Ben.

“How about we go to my place instead?” Christine proposed, preferring to be on familiar turf with an unfamiliar man.

“I think women should make babies, not paint them,” Ben replied.

Josh and Christine more or less concurred with this plan–at least with the process, if not exactly the end result. “Irina, Josh and I are going to go hang out together,” Christine announced.  “We’ll talk tomorrow, alright?”

“Okay.” Irina found an entirely unnecessary excuse to part company with Ben and return promptly to her dorm room, feeling that if “hooking up” is what dating entailed in America, she’d give serious consideration to her grandmother’s idea of an arranged marriage.

Claudia Moscovici, from my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism

November 21, 2010 Posted by | Claudia Moscovici, communism, communist Romania, eating clubs at Princeton, fiction about Princeton University, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Princeton, Princeton University, social life at Princeton, Velvet Totalitarianism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on American Adjustments: Hook ups and Parties at Princeton