The Bicycle Factory

In 1966, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu issued Decree 770, criminalizing abortion. After that, women found their own ways to end unwanted pregnancies, no matter the risk. With money and contacts, one could arrange curettage—then the procedure would be performed without anesthesia in a garage or on a kitchen table. On rare occasions, a gynecologist would assist. Most women learned to terminate a pregnancy on their own. A catheter was introduced into the uterus. Through it, the women injected bizarre concoctions: iodine, chamomile tea, boiled mustard. In the case of more advanced pregnancies, they broke the membrane with knitting needles or pencils. Once, I found the dislocated tip of a thermometer and a geranium stem in a uterus.

The results were disastrous. Women resisted coming to the hospital until they were almost dead. Sometimes we managed to operate on them. Then we felt the militia breathing down our necks. Trying to protect the women, we put only blood clots in the forensic test tubes. The pregnancy remains we threw away. Without evidence, the women could not be easily hunted. Nevertheless, as soon as they recovered, the interrogations began.

                                               *

Everyone knew the huge bicycle factory was actually producing arms. The factory wasn’t a unisex place, but thousands of women worked there. My assignment was to perform gynecological check-ups on forty to sixty of these female workers each week in less than two hours. The women to be checked were all between the ages of eighteen and forty-two. Women outside this range didn’t count because, from the authorities’ point of view, they weren’t of childbearing age.

The foremen lined the women up and brought them to be checked. Hardly anyone refused. Wages depended on it. As for me, I learned to move efficiently, like a machine. I would perform a basic examination and take a Pap smear. No one ever sent me lab results. The only discussion involved questions about number of children and the date of last menstruation. That date was the essential thing. The whole charade-with-a-humane-pretext was meant to disclose hidden pregnancies that could lead to secret abortions.

The Communist authorities subjected each factory in the city to this macabre testing. Inside the factories, the women could be forced, surprised, and punished like a herd in a pen. Everyone knew what was going on, and the patients hated these check-ups and therefore me. I hated being hated, too, especially in such vast numbers. I tried to be as kind as possible. I even contacted the factory administration to suggest a general meeting with the women to explain the real importance of a gynecological check-up. Nobody seemed interested, though, and I never got the chance to exonerate myself in public.

Instead, I had to face the weekly waiting room filled with dozens of women, propped like shadows against the walls. They wore stained blue overalls, and they smelled of hot steel and gunpowder. When I came in everyone quieted down, and all I could hear were the whispers: “That’s the guy.”

Once a patient with an offbeat sense of humor broke the silence: “This guy searches us for eggs, like hens.” Machine-gunned with tense, flinty laughter, I moved among them, my head down, as if personally guilty. My refusal to perform the exams would have had serious repercussions, or so I assumed, never having tried. None of us had the courage for that kind of useless gesture in our world of total submission. Not that the women looked at me with spite, but they hadn’t come to see the doctor of their own will either.

Three women would undress at once, under everybody’s gaze, on a narrow bench in the consultation room. When one left, another one entered.

“Faster, please,” one of the two nurses would instruct.

Naked from the waist down, bumping into each other in the narrow space, the women furtively studied each other’s naked forms as if in a packed sauna they’d entered by mistake. Words like “intimacy” or “privacy” had been removed from our lexicon.

From the opposite wall, the Great Watchman looked down with an empty stare. Ceauşescu’s picture had showed up in every public space, and we had grown used to his chubby face like a hatched egg—the same picture everywhere, like a fake window opening on no place. It was Ceauşescu who had declared all fetuses state property.

Still, the check-ups flowed efficiently. I worked quickly. The two nurses were swift. Everything happened as if on an assembly line.

“Normal-size uterus,” I’d dictate to the nurse every single time, whether that were true or not. Then I’d look conspiratorially at the woman. No pregnancy tests were done in the bicycle factory.

*

In the hospital, our daily report started at 7:30 a.m. It was all a sad mockery. To get through it, we lit our cigarettes, and, after a thick cloud enveloped everything, we talked about the plunging birth rate, the surgeries that had to be performed and, in the end, half-heartedly, about those patients who’d died or were contenders for death.

Then someone would talk about the items missing from the hospital, casually, with no modulation in his voice, as if he were mentioning a few toys that happened to have been stolen. The first things to go involved imported materials. Then came Romanian-made supplies, and eventually even the bags of glucose produced in the hospital disappeared. Somebody was sabotaging us, but nobody knew who. Somebody there, somewhere, was creating the miserable fate that we all accepted with resignation.

We continued to improvise spectacularly, determined to survive even if it meant going back decades in time. Cabbage compresses replaced antibiotics, local anesthesia stood in for general, thread for catgut. Food was replaced by patience, modern pregnancy tests by bullfrogs.

The test was called Galli-Mainini. It was the only legal proof of a pregnancy. It worked like this: the urine of the woman suspected of pregnancy—and all women were presumed pregnant until proven otherwise—the woman’s urine was put into the bullfrog’s urinary bladder. If the woman was pregnant, the bullfrog released sperm into her urine. That could be easily observed under a microscope, and it proved that the woman was pregnant. The same bullfrogs were used endlessly until they were completely exhausted.

When I was on call I used to hear their sad song at night, mixed with the cries of the women in labor. I even met the bullfrog supplier, a smart Roma who specialized in this business. I asked him how he got his frogs.

“Straight from the creek,” he said. “First I catch a female frog, a big, beautiful, sexy one. I tie one of her legs with a thread, and I release her. Before that I blow some air into her belly through a straw. She can’t dive after that and looks even more attractive. When a bullfrog gets on top of her, and this happens quickly believe me, I pull the thread and I get him. We eat them or sell them to the Communist party restaurant as delicacies. Some of them end up here, and my heart breaks when I think what you do to them.”

Safe from the Galli-Mainini, stepping with bare feet on the cold cement blocks, the women moved quickly. Naked from the waist down, they seemed part of a grotesque ballet. When the consultation was over, they jumped into their overalls and swarmed outside. The assembly line only slowed down when some embarrassed person returned after having put on somebody else’s overalls. At the end of each check-up, forgotten underwear and misplaced stockings that nobody ever claimed lingered on the narrow bench. The women hurried back to their mysterious buildings, where they continued to pour nitroglycerine or fabricate pipes for bicycles or machine guns.

After a while they stopped sneering at me and began to look for me in my regular clinic. There, after each consultation, almost every one gave me, just as conspiratorially, the same thing: a large hunting knife with a horn handle and a steel blade crafted secretly from bazooka steel—the factory’s other secret weapon. On one side there was always a stag chased by dogs, on the other, a lonely wolf howling at the moon. The drawing on the hard steel captured even the animals’ steamy breath.                                                           

*

In my hospital in Brasov, we scheduled up to a hundred pregnancy terminations a day. We were never able to schedule a voluntary termination in the hospital. The women were forced to start themselves. Twenty years of “pro-life” imposed by the Communist system ended in the deaths of thousands of young women extinguished in the “killing fields” of forced procreation. It was a long, barbaric, and probably singular experiment in history.

We doctors faced a un-Hippocratic dilemma: what was better for a woman undergoing an abortion turned septic, to lie in the ground with a uterus or to live above it without one? Most women who survived the trauma were physically and emotionally scarred. Back then I performed many hysterectomies on young girls, some still in high school, who left the hospital as old women. It was easier being a boy than a girl, although I didn’t know that when I was young.

“You’ll end up looking after the pigs in Sigmir!” That’s how my parents liked to foretell my future when I was sixteen and struggling to grow out of puberty.

Sigmir, the village next to our city, Bistrita, had a large Communist pig farm. All we got from that farm was the stench on the breeze. The meat was strictly for export. “To pay for our external debts,” people said. When I expressed confusion during political economics class, the professor kicked me out, which strengthened my parents’ conviction. Finally, I declared myself ready to face my future: the next day I would get a job at the pig farm.

It was the summer holiday. I woke up before dawn and strode over the hill, like a man ready to face all the pigs in the world. Just as the stench became unbearable, I heard the sound of the Russian motorcycle my father used in his daily commute to Sigmir School, where he worked as the principal. Pulling over, my father stopped next to me and said gently, “If you really want to work, it’s better to start by picking apples.”

Resigned, I accepted the compromise and climbed onto the back seat of the motorcycle.

The apple orchard was across the hill, and everything smelled differently there. Sigmir was a village mainly inhabited by Romani families, settled people who had interrupted their nomadic life years ago and who sent their children to school. The Romani kids gathered apples, and I was going to be the only stranger among them. I feared the Roma, a reflex from childhood since I’d been warned every time I misbehaved: “If you aren’t good, we’ll give you away to the Gypsies,” a threat similar to the pigs at Sigmir. People said that the Roma practiced witchcraft and stole children, but I don’t think anybody believed it. They had too many children themselves.

The Roma in Sigmir were kind to me, especially a girl who was somewhat older. Her name was Scheherazade, but she had no idea where her name came from. Back then the names of Roma children were inspired by TV shows or the world of soccer. One child was called Bekenbauer, another Kojak. I don’t remember ever seeing a movie about The One Thousand and One Nights. The other kids called this girl Zada.

At first I found her a little wild, but wild in a controlled way. When she ate an apple, she made noises that stirred my senses. I couldn’t help turning my head to see what was happening. Then she smiled mysteriously. It got so that my senses amplified every sound, as if she were nibbling on one of my ears. We climbed the same apple tree together, and she sang Romani songs, staring at me curiously among the branches that had begun to lose their leaves. She had a beautiful, rousing voice, but I didn’t understand a word.

Scheherazade sang all day, swinging on the branches of the trees loaded with apples. I came down as often as possible, and I’d look up at her, pretending to arrange the apples in containers until my neck was stiff. She wore nothing underneath her colorful dresses. To ingratiate myself I’d bring a portable radio and hang it on the tree where she spent most of the time. I convinced her to listen to pop music. Back then “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was topping the charts, and the Beatles were taking over the world, even our remote apple farm. Zada hadn’t heard of the Beatles, and she was moved by the beat of this new music. We would both hang on the same branch and swing our bodies to the rhythm. Apples fell around us as I repeated the tune childishly: “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Sche-he-ra-za-da,” sometimes in a way that made the words rhyme more than necessary. Scheherazade loved it and bounced cheerfully until the branch began to crack. Eventually it fractured and we both smashed onto the ground like two unripe fruits. I wasn’t hurt, but after a few seconds of reflection, Scheherazade pulled up her skirt until I could see a streak of blood trickling down her thigh. Back then I still fainted at the sight of blood, but this time I held my own.

“Jesus, you broke something!”

“I didn’t break anything, silly boy. I think I just got my period.”

“What period?”

"This misfortune happens to us once a month. This time it’s worse because of your Beatles.” She looked at me, and, noticing my confusion, continued her lesson. “Do you think only the Gypsy women get it? Ask your mother! Every month women produce a kind of egg, and if they don’t get pregnant, they bleed. Get it? At least now I know I’m not pregnant.”

According to Comrade Ceauşescu, we were supposed to multiply like rabbits in order to become, if not a great nation, at least a numerous one. Normal contraception had disappeared. Induced abortion was the only method left. A child out of wedlock was inconceivable in mainstream Romanian society. Resources were strained to the breaking point. The married women I met as an adult knew they could only afford one child, and not necessarily at the time they got pregnant. A colleague told me that she anticipated her period every month with terrible anxiety. In the 1980s, in spite of Party measures, the birth rate failed to swell as expected. Women seemed to have instinctively declared a reproductive strike, one of the few methods of defiance left. Then, in 1986, the screw turned again. Previously, women had not been allowed to have abortions until they reached forty-two. Now the limit was pushed to forty-five. Gray-haired women, some already grandmothers, were being forced to become mothers.

“How do you think you ended up here, huh?”

To hell with it, I knew where I came from. We had a small caterpillar tractor which I drove through the swamp—chock-full of apples. It ran slowly, and all I had to do was hold the two shifts straight so we didn’t wind up in the river. Scheherazade looked for the moment when I took off and jumped in the trailer among the apples. I mocked her name, like a fool, and told her an embellished version of the story of Scheherazade. She loved it.

Another day, the apple orchard kids went to swim in the river. I’d have gone, too, but I didn’t have a suit.

“You don’t need a bathing suit,” Zada encouraged, but I stayed behind and watched from a hill while they sported in the water naked. They’d known each other from birth. It felt natural to see each other that way. Scheherazade looked my way and waved. She calmly lowered herself into the water to cover her breasts. A few boys paddled around her like drakes. They dunked underwater, holding their breaths, and I tried to imagine what they saw. One boy tried to touch her. Scheherazade grabbed his head and held him under until his body jerked. Looking my way, she dashed out of the water, a devastating, thoroughbred mixture of dimples and angles enveloped in drops of water.

I sat on top of my hill anxiously chewing grass.

That afternoon I drove through the swamp, yet again loaded with apples. I knew perfectly well that Scheherazade was hiding in the trailer. We moved forward, and she was there when I turned my head—sitting cross-legged on the pile of fruit.

“Come in here,” she beckoned in an Eve-like way.

I tied the shifts with my shoelaces and climbed into the trailer.

“Tell me the Scheherazade story one more time, and I’ll give you a reward.”

My imagination took the same wandering as the tractor, which roamed through the swamp with the engine turned off. It smelled of apples in the trailer, and like an idiot I stayed quiet.

"Why don't you say something? At least tell me if Scheherazade got married in the end."

"Of course she did," I reassured.

"I'm getting married too-in the fall, to some man I only saw once. I was eleven. Our parents fixed everything, the usual way. My aunt the witch says next year I'll give birth to a boy."

I couldn’t speak. Me personally, next year I’d have to cram for university exams. It was that or else a stint in the army, followed by a lifetime among the pigs in Sigmir.

Zada gave me a look. Maybe she felt my inability to fill the silence.

“Starting tomorrow, I’ll stop coming to the apple orchard. My parents found out that I like you and told me to stay home. You like me back, don’t you?”

I nodded. Scheherazade paused and stared at my face, covered with pimples back then.

“If you want, I can help you get rid of them. I think it’s time.”

She began to remove her three skirts, one by one. She laid them over the apples, like blankets. I was choking, like the kid who got held underwater. Still, I tried to stay afloat like a man. I imagined that the three skirts would leave her naked. I was right.

Scheherazade moved her body against mine, gently, and for a few minutes, I saw nothing but red apples burying our bodies, bit by bit.

 

Even though I chose my medical specialty because it had to do with life, I ended up facing the result of septic abortions. There was a section of our hospital in Brasov known as “Death Valley,” and we had to walk through it on morning rounds. There were four or five halls in that valley. Most days, there were dozens of women there. Sometimes they had to share beds. They waited to be examined by the section head under the gaze of the militia officer. He dressed in white like the rest of us. I don’t think he had any trouble looking into the faces of those women. As for the women, they waited like convicts, for the final verdict: would they be allowed to be operated on for their septic abortions? Would they survive? Would they be questioned by the police after that? Would they be arrested? Would they be left fertile, or made sterile for life?

 

I saw my assignment to the big hospital in Brasov, Transylvania, as a sign of divine intervention. Back then there was nothing I wanted more. Still, the feeling of divine assistance began to fade when the hospital director remarked, “You’re the last one to arrive, and you’ll start at the bottom, like everyone else. The Gypsy women are all yours.” He eyed me suspiciously over his glasses.

There was an almost military hierarchy and a rigorous distribution of work at the hospital. Doctors survived on presents from their patients. Our salaries were so small that some doctors forgot to claim them for weeks.

My Romani patients lived in a slum at the city limits. The birth rate there continued to rise according to Party expectations, while the rest of the city conspired against the official demographic. My new patients weren’t big on leaving presents, although sometimes they brought a basket of mushrooms or wild fruits. For them, life and time unfolded according to natural cycles. If I asked a pregnant woman about the date of her last menstruation, she’d answer after long hesitation that it coincided with the season of the blackberries or raspberries.

Eventually, I paid my entry dues. I was promoted and allowed to consult at the paid clinic. In the 1980s, notions like private property and individual enterprise had been forbidden to the point where we were convinced that everything would soon become common property, including ourselves. For that reason, the clinic seemed incongruous: the patients had to pay, and the doctors received a percentage. No one knew what such oases of capitalism were doing in this general desert, but women preferred it to the hospital, where every woman between sixteen and forty-five was considered a pregnancy in disguise.

The clinic was housed in a small, ancient building. Located next to a military garrison, it was organized wagon-style, something like a railroad flat, but on several levels. The narrow corridor opened into tiny rooms that barely held a consultation table, a small desk, and two chairs. The rooms were oddly linked, and we had to keep quiet, as if hearing confessions. Before the war, the building had housed a brothel.

I would see patients in the evening. The electricity was cut after 6 p.m., even during the winter months. The secretary at the entrance would hand me a gas lamp, and I’d carry on down the dark hallway while shadows waited, propped against the walls.

“A ‘lady’ is waiting for you upstairs . . .” the secretary remarked ironically before handing me the gas lamp.

A Romani woman and her husband were indeed waiting in the hallway. I could barely make out their faces. His turned-up mustache was the only detail I could see until his grin revealed a few golden teeth. The woman had almost no teeth left. Neither of them spoke.

Shocardan?” I asked, meaning “How are you?” I knew only a few Roma expressions.

“Not so well, doctor,” the man told me as I started looking for my pen and papers. “The wife’s pregnant, and we already have four kids. It’s too much for us. We came here hoping you could help.”

It was the first time I’d encountered a Romani woman trying to get rid of her baby. Instinct told them one shouldn’t fight nature and God’s will. Of course, there were already many busy orphanages, which would become more crowded in the years to come.

“I don’t perform illegal abortions,” I said.

“Don’t say no, doctor. We’ll pay you like a king.”

The man pulled out an object wrapped in a towel, uncovered it, and laid it on the table. It was a pot of solid gold. I knew that in the 50s the Communists had confiscated the Romani’s gold, leaving them only their teeth, in which some had hurriedly stowed melted-down gold plates.

“Look at it, doctor. It’s three hundred years old. It was part of her dowry, and it belonged to a Hungarian nobleman who lived close to Bistrita. If you want, I’ll tell you the story too.” The woman remained quiet and looked away, as if it didn’t concern her.

“What’s your name?” I asked her.

“Scheherazade,” she answered drily.

“Scheherazade?” I repeated instinctively, as if this were impossible. I looked at her resigned face, marked by time, her gray hair. I tried to wipe the deep lines off her face, sneak the light back into her eyes. A strong scent of apples invaded the room, as if I were experiencing an olfactory hallucination, and I felt like humming “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” I was another me then, young and still unaware of time.

Abortions represented a tempting business in those days. People paid huge amounts for them, and I knew that some of my colleagues performed them. Every now and then one of them got caught and disappeared behind bars for years. The militia suspected us and, until proven innocent, we were all potential saboteurs. I wished I could help this woman somehow. I was convinced that she was the girl from the apple orchard in Sigmir.

Still, I said, “I don’t perform abortions,” as bluntly as I could.

Disappointed, Scheherazade and her man grabbed their pot and left.

Some time later, I heard loud knocking on the door that separated me from the other consultation room. It was almost closing time and most of the other doctors had already gone.

“I need help!” I recognized the distressed voice of a colleague. I stepped out into the bare, dim corridor. Next door, the room was illuminated by the familiar lamplight and the small pocket flashlight that my fellow doctor was now holding in his mouth. Yes, in his mouth. He had enough to do with his shaky hands. His white gown was splattered with blood but he continued to scrape feverishly. The woman on the table bled profusely.

“Please, do something,” he said. “Otherwise she’ll die.”

I didn’t understand what was happening, but I put on my gloves almost unconsciously and compressed the woman’s abdomen to the aorta to stop the bleeding. The other doctor’s face was filled with horror. By now he’d almost swallowed the flashlight. I looked at the woman’s face and saw Scheherazade, pale as a corpse, beyond life, watching me with sunken eyes.

“Stop!” I shouted. “I think you perforated her. We have to take her to the hospital right away.”

“You know they’ll arrest me.”

No matter. I wrapped the woman in a blanket and laid her on the back seat of my car. The hospital was nearby, and we didn’t stop in the hospital till we got to the operating room. A long trace of blood mapped our route. We operated on the woman with bated breath, and we managed to save her after removing her uterus and a few feet of intestine. Everything had unfolded so fast that I had no time to think of the consequences.

I let my colleague close and left the operating room. By the door, members of the militia waited for us with handcuffs. They threw me in a car and interrogated me for the next few hours at their headquarters. Maybe they would have let me go then, but I had hesitated in my answer when the officer asked me if I had met the Romani woman before. I wasn’t going to tell them about the trailer with apples in Sigmir and my adolescent crisis. So I spent another day in the militia’s cellars mulling over Scheherazade’s story. The walls, the bars, the moldy ceiling and something heavy in the air induced an involuntary guilt, probably the guilt of being alive and powerless.

That night I dreamed that I dragged a trailer filled with apples behind a track of blood that the hungry earth drank.

The next day they let me go without explanation. I found Scheherazade smoking in the recovery room. The nurse rolled her eyes in exasperation and pushed the window open. Scheherazade was being guarded by a militiaman, who was smoking, too. Scheherazade recovered in two weeks and went home looking even older. In those days, I noticed Romani usually had great stamina until they reached forty or fifty, then they collapsed. Scheherazade had reached the stage of collapse before her time.

My colleague, who was the hospital’s party secretary, resurfaced a few days later to everyone’s surprise. We had been convinced that we wouldn’t see him for years. He came straight to me.

“Do you know who saved me?” he asked me, obviously at ease. “A bullfrog. Long live bullfrogs! The woman wasn’t pregnant. The pregnancy test came back negative.” He smiled at me slyly. If she weren’t pregnant, he couldn’t be accused of illegal abortion. In his case, it was that simple. 

My impression during the operation had been different, but deals were customary back then, especially if you were a party secretary. After the Romanian revolution, when abortions became legal, I found that the party secretary had helped officials’ wives when they had problems. Pregnancy happened to them, too.

This colleague had a large, sumptuous house, and after we became free he threw a party, everyone invited. He owned an impressive art collection that he displayed with pride, but then there was another room that housed a large wooden box, like a wardrobe without doors, with a peephole.

“Look inside,” my colleague urged.

I saw drawers stuffed with objects exhibited on red velvet: glass fish received from the patients in the glass factory, carburetors from the tractor plant. Painted Easter eggs, ribbons from the ribbon factory, hunting knives, the works. Scheherazade’s gold pot towered in the center. Through the peephole, the set looked bizarre, a surreal composition.

“When they open a comic museum of Communism, I’ll donate this collection. By the way, you know, the pot isn’t gold.”

But to go back to prerevolutionary days, sometime after the perforation, the hospital’s doorman told me a lady had left me a basket of red apples.

© Adrian Sangeorzan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Jean Harris. All rights reserved.