The powers that be
by Jesse Waterman
My father dreamed of yellow hair and skin that looked like lye. His sleep was filled with women dancing, hair flowing, and eyes that never left their partner’s sight. He saw them floating above him; swirling and smiling down at his muddied brow. Their touch would jolt him up from bed, his palms sweating, and pillow wet with drool, his lips dried and cracking in the stifling arid home. He would race to the bathroom and write his love in letters to the celluloid stars, collected in bundles tied with crimson ribbons packed in greasy envelopes. He’d slide his finger under an armoire drawer and catch a secret hatch, deposit his collection of dream-bound lovers, and hide another night’s release.
Mother didn’t need a somber dream, she found her peace in visions. She saw herself as a different being, one of indulgent eloquence. She acted out the Party gala in the mercury of her bedroom mirror; the hand-kiss and curtsy practiced, her smile tested in thanks and gravitas, and eyes shadowed with humble grace. She would sit for hours across her night time charades, as dust storms of paints and powders floated over her skin. She would speak softly with the wives and charlatans, promenading in the palm of political grace. She filled our medicine cabinet with perfumes of the political class and dreamed of embroidery to drape along her untouched skin. She did not think of the rations she had withheld for the black-market goods, she did not think of the dust-filled cupboards; the Party filled her hunger and satiated her ceaseless age.
Father worked in the machinations of government decay. He was a bookmaker, a
distinction in middle bureaucracy. He was a meticulous man with a penchant for closed doors and cluttered desks. His days were filled with fear and avarice. He cowered in the presence of the officials who came and checked the books; men who smelled of oiled beards and grain alcohol.
Mother would take us to the bakery lines. She would wash her face in the steel sink before leaving, even with winter wind that bit our cheeks like a million little tortures. She would hide her face as the Securitate would walk the line and bat her eyes at the baker for an extra ration which she would give up for her nightly conversations with her oval mirror.
At dinner, my father would talk about Ceausescu and forces plotting against him. The World Bank and austerity’s rule and how the west would win drifted in quiet consternation around our dining room table. We would eat our small plates. We would wipe our little hands. Mother would watch the dust dance along the tiled floor. And Father would slip to dulcet tones and weep in quiet refrain.
Before bed, father wrote his manifestos. He scribbled a federalism of frenzied commerce, fearing the neighbors were deciphering the sound of pen and paper, listening to the thunderous knocks of exclamations and the slashing strokes. His hands shook with force, tearing the paper, but page after page would float like autumn leaves to his shaking feet. He’d whisper each line of forceful words that could obliterate the concept of Lenin and the events of the last century. When he would finish, he would take his papers to the roof of our apartment building. Above the lights of Bucharest, he took his pages in the quiet of the curfew’s night. An angry child he became, tearing his toys to shreds, and dropped them like dainty stars without the shred that held his name.
My parents taught me of worship and how it molds us desperate people. The final
December taught us about the powers of idols; when the streets shook with drunken reverie and the fires burned under joyous night; and the Securitate ran like children from a schoolyard fight, and the Politburo dirtied their faces and hid in the rags of paupers, and statues fell with pickaxe percussion and the libraries filled with orchestras of flame. It was the night mother smashed her mirror and cut her fingers and fled bleeding down the hall to the bathroom where the towels would never be embroidered and the sink would never be porcelain, and when she opened the cabinet for an ointment to soothe or scent to escape the nerves that would not cease, all she found was empty shelves and a spider’s silken divan. It was the night that father shed tears of joy and opened the windows wide, when he poured vodka and laughed louder than we had heard before; but when the night turned into day and we awoke from the rebellious reverie, father was standing by his typewriter; tears falling like hail across the untouched keys and the paper innocent of type.
I work in the libraries of people, sorting them throughout the day. I walk down the
hospital hall and catalogue them from misery to redemption. I see them pray for a doctor’s call and a medication to suffice. They take their sacraments of diagnostics and pray for a quiet life. Their God is the last great religion, and I am its corner-store papal. I bless the wounds they cannot see and calm the demons no one hears. Together we worship an understanding, a peace in cognitive absolution. I sit beside them on their stretchers and we pray for our idol to solve our irrational minds.
My parents never left Romania or the Bucharest flat. Their walls no longer hold pictures of Stalin, nor are they adorned with Henry Ford. There are no more idols for them to praise and no more mournful days or night. They claim no allegiance to economic masters; their religion is one without a party line. They set no store by a religious name but always sleep well at night. They drink instant coffee like champagne and laugh at the struggles I have.
Jesse Waterman was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. After dropping out of school at the age of 16, Mr. Waterman spent many years in menial jobs, while continuing to work on his craft. At the age of 24, Mr. Waterman entered school to study social work. His story “I don’t belong to me” was published on Typishly.com in March 2018. He is an active member of the recovery community in Baltimore where he resides. He is a mental health therapist, specializing in trauma and addictions.