This kid will not take no for an answer. I’ve been trying to shake him for blocks now, but he’s latched onto me like a burr and won’t let go — not until I cough up “uno leu.”
He’s small, clean, and well-dressed, with designer sneakers and a tricked-out baseball cap. His dark eyes contain more than a hint of malice, which he tries to cover up with upturned eyebrows and a begging pout.
“Per favore,” he begs, pressing his palms together in supplication. “Uno leu, uno leu!”
He’s mysteriously Italian, which makes me wonder if there’s a pocket of ex-pats somewhere in the city cooking up something slightly more edible than the flavorless slop I’ve encountered thus far in the old town of Bucharest.
“No money,” I say again, smiling at him. I should really stop smiling because he seems to take that as a sign of encouragement.
It’s 7 am on a Saturday morning and all the shop doors are closed. The streets become increasingly empty as we walk north toward Herăstrău Park.
Something about this kid scares me, and my awareness of the deserted streets stokes a growing flame of fear. I’m slightly terrified that a) he’s packing heat, or b) he has a group of hoodlums waiting around the corner to mug me and beat me with their tiny fists.
“Where is your mother?” I ask in English.
“Mia madre è morta,” he replies in Italian, then immediately regrets it. He’s just slipped and revealed that he understands every word I say.
“Ah ha!” I say, pointing at him, grinning.
This has gone on way too long, we’re too far from the safety of my hotel, and there’s not a soul around to hear me if I scream. I face him and step back several feet so that I can reach into my bag without the risk of him trying to do the same. I fish around with my hand, keeping my eyes on him the entire time.
“I’m not going to give you any money,” I repeat for the umpteenth time, “but if you’re hungry, you can have my breakfast.”
I pull out the banana I’d grabbed from the hotel. He looks at it, looks at me, and his eyes roll back in his head like some sort of Italian-Romanian demon only found in ancient folklore.
Wanting desperately to appease the devil, I thrust the banana toward his hand, which has gathered into a trembling fist.
“Here, take it.”
He does. And then proceeds to raise it above his head, rear back, and throw the banana at me with all the force and magnitude of a 7th inning pitcher. The banana splatters at my feet, fibrous strands and mush flying everywhere, and I’m backing away, sputtering, as if I’ve just been shot.
He backs away from me like a lightning-fast crab, scuttling toward the hotel.
And then, to add insult to injury, my little friend issues the following curse in absolutely perfect, accent-free English.
He holds out his middle finger for good measure, and continues to shout, with a bellowing force, “FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU!”
Over and over again he screams, until my pounding heart is ready to crack my ribcage wide open. I command my legs to move, move!, to create as much distance between us as fast as I possibly can.
I glance back over my shoulder, terrified he’s right behind me with a weapon, with his brother, with more bananas.
But he’s dwarfed by the distance, growing ever-smaller as I break into a full-on run. There is no one to hear the pounding of my steps on the pavement, no one to see the tears streaming down my face.