Editor Note: Angie Muresan was born in Romania and grew up in the United States. She lives in Portland with her family. This memoir piece is an excerpt from a larger collection titled Rubber Bands Around My Toes.
Comrade Pauker strides to her fancy cherry wood desk in the front left corner of the whitewashed classroom, her high black patent heels pounding across the linoleum floor. She picks up the long ruler, kept handy on top of her desk. She turns and surveys the silent classroom. Smack, smack, smack, goes the dreaded ruler across her open left palm. Comrade Pauker’s narrowed gaze slides from one shorn head to another. From my seat in the second row, I hold my breath. My stomach does somersaults. In the starched blue and white uniform, I tremble with both fear and cold.
Despite the open windows and door to the outside, despite the frigid March wind pushing itself against our small bodies and sliding across our heads, despite the fact that we’ve most likely all bathed last night after our mothers tried to delouse us, the smell of kerosene lays thick in the air. It tickles our noses, collects in the scrubbed corners of the room.
Comrade Pauker paces across the platform. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. She is a tiny woman, not much taller than us. Her tight navy pinstriped suit, her mouth a crimson line, her hair a halo of blonde perfect curls dance a waltz around her head. To anyone else, Comrade Pauker would appear as a fragile porcelain doll, all elegance: a perfect lady.
To me and the other children of this third grade classroom, Comrade Pauker is the devil.
Comrade Pauker strikes the ruler against the side of her thigh. I flinch and my shoulders jerk up to my ears.
“Lucia, to the board.” Comrade Pauker says. Her voice scrapes the air.
Lucia is my best friend. She sits two rows behind me. She lives right next door to me too.
Lucia is an only child. She has three dolls and not one of those dolls has a glass eye missing, nor a tangled mess of hair. She also has a dollhouse with furniture and everything, and a shiny red patent leather purse. Lucia shares with no one.
I am not an only child. Everything I have, I have to share with my little sister. Sometimes I feel really envious of Lucia.
"Lucia, do you have bones in your stomach? Get off that seat and get up here!” Comrade Pauker barks.
Lucia’s chair scrapes across the gray cement floor. She shuffles past my desk. Her brown boots scuff on the floor as she drags her feet.
Lucia is just my height. We are the tallest in our third grade class, taller even than the boys. We wear identical forest green wool coats, not because we are best friends and not because we want to look like twins, but because there was only one style of coat, for nine year-old girls, available in the department store last fall.
Comrade Pauker places the ruler back in its spot, settles her rear end on the edge of her desk. She crosses her arms over her small chest and her thin ankles in the fine nylon stockings over each other. In our city of Arad, Romania, in 1981, such stockings are hard to come by. Everything is rationed. But Comrade Pauker has fine stockings anyway, gifts from worried mothers who hope to buy her kindness and keep her from abusing their children in school. Lucia’s mother provides Comrade Pauker with smuggled Marlboros she buys on the black market, on a weekly basis.
Lucia fixes her small brown eyes somewhere on the pegged back wall where all our matching coats hang. She knows, like we all know, our mothers’ good intentions cannot help any of us. Nothing can save us from Comrade Pauker. No one is spared.
Lucia has a full head of shiny blonde hair. It hangs down to her waist in one thick ponytail. Today, she is the only child in the classroom to have a full head of hair. The rest of us had our hair cut last night, the boys shaved clean away, the girls cut close to our heads. Lice. Comrade Pauker sent home a note to our parents. Everyone obeyed her order to cut the hair away. Everyone, except Lucia’s parents. As she stands in front of the room, staring at the row of coats, I try hard not to scratch my prickly head. I envy Lucia’s lovely hair, like I envy how she doesn’t have to share her dolls with a sister as I do. But I do not envy Lucia in front of the room.
“Lucia,” Comrade Pauker begins, “it’s Peter’s birthday and his mother wants to bake him a cake. She gives Peter 23 Lei and a grocery list. With it, Peter buys one bag of flour for 3 Lei, one bag of sugar for 6 Lei, two-dozen eggs for 4 Lei per dozen, and carton of milk for 5 Lei. One the way home, Peter is negligent. He trips and spills the milk. Does Peter have enough money to go back to the dairy store and buy another carton of milk, or will he have to be without a birthday cake?"
Lucia turns to the blackboard like an automatic Chinese wind-up toy Papa buys each Christmas. She reaches for a piece of chalk. She writes a 23 and a 3 and a 5 in a neat, straight line. Then she stops, drops her arm, and turns to look at Comrade Pauker. We all look at her. Even Lenin does, from his picture high above the blackboard.
Comrade Pauker picks the ruler off her desk again and stands to her full height.
“Tell me something,” she says. She extends the ruler between her hands, like measuring the air. "Did you give the note, I had all of you write yesterday, to your parents?”
Lucia’s jaw goes slack, her mouth falls open, her chin trembles.
Across the room my own breath sticks in my throat. My mouth dries up.
“Are you an imbecile? Hm? Tell me.”
Lucia shakes her head.
Comrade Pauker circles Lucia and sniffs at her. Lucia does not smell like kerosene. She probably smells like roses. Like sunshine and butterflies. Like summer stored up in a pretty glass bottle. Lucia spritzes on her mother’s perfume every day before she comes to school.
“Are you shaking your head because you are not an imbecile or because you did not give the note to your parents?”
Two fat tears roll out of Lucia’s small blue eyes.
“I am sorry. I forgot.” Lucia whispers.
Comrade Pauker clickity-clacks back to her desk and opens the top drawer. Out come the shears to be used only for the art projects. The blades glint in the cold silver light of the February sun. In three strides she is next to Lucia again, and in three cuts she hacks through the thickness of the ponytail, chop, chop, chop until there’s almost nothing left.
Comrade Pauker walks to the desk and throws the shears back into the open drawer and picks up the ruler again. “Hold out your hands.”
With the thin edge of it Comrade Pauker strikes Lucia’s fingertips over and over, until they are raw and bleeding, and Comrade Pauker’s fury is spent.
Lucia does not move away, does not pull her hands away, she does not say a single thing, or make a single noise. Silent tears race each other down her face.
My fingers clench into fists. My eyes fill with tears. I focus on my breath. In and out, in and out, in and out.
“This will teach you to never forget again.” Comrade Pauker says in an even, sing-song voice. “Clean up your mess.”
Comrade Pauker sets the ruler on her desk and fishes through her black alligator purse for her black market Marlboros and matches. Lucia, on her knees, scrapes together what is left of her hair.
Comrade Pauker goes out to smoke a cigarette.