Galia

It was a life arranged and planned for, requiring a careful squelching of unwanted tendencies and a perseverance in sculpting an ideal. As soon as Tatko announced her engagement, Maika put Galia on a diet. The dress was tailored not to the body that was, but that would be. Sure enough, by the day of the wedding, Galia was bony and angular — kato model, her mother admired — and the dress fit like a sleeve over Galia’s perfected form.

Just the thought of so many months on skinless chicken and watermelon, tomatoes and cucumbers, has Galia famished. She hasn’t eaten all day. There was a bite of cake, but little more than that, for she had been too nervous to eat. She looks around the hotel room and spots an array of chips and peanuts in tinsel packages she doesn’t dare touch. Vladi shifts in his sleep, stretching out his short, muscular legs. Tatko speaks often of the athletic sons they will have: One will play soccer, and the other volleyball, he says, confident he will have his way.

In third grade, Petya Docheva charged two squares of pumpkin pastry for an hour of homework. Petya’s mother set the price to make sure Petya ate something after school. She was the smallest girl in class, with thick, black-rimmed glasses, black hair down to her chin, parted in the middle and tucked behind her ears. Galia used to sit at the kitchen table and watch Petya work math problems and write sentences in a cursive that was even and fluid. Galia’s pastries were gone in minutes, brown flakes scattered on the table, napkin crumpled in a ball. But Petya made her pastries last the entire hour, taking small bites between equations, careful not to get grease spots on the page. Galia liked the way Petya’s pencil sounded as it moved across the paper. Sometimes, she pushed too hard and broke the tip off, and Galia would sharpen it over the garbage pail while Petya picked up a reserve and kept on writing.

It was a life arranged and planned for, requiring a careful squelching of unwanted tendencies and a perseverance in sculpting an ideal.

In fact, Galia did not need help with her schoolwork. She followed along easily as Petya wrote the figures and letters — she could have done the work herself if given the chance. But Tati was a man with means, a father unwilling to take chances with his only child. He had resolved to make things easy for her. She would not have to work or worry in order to succeed.

At first, it took a certain restraint to watch and not do — to sit across the table and observe the tiny black-haired girl lick her fingers and gnaw on her pencil. Galia envied the gravity with which Petya etched the words and equations onto the paper. For a small girl, Petya carried a heavy weight. The kids at school said that Petya had to clean the house and cook the dinner because her mother was busy and because she had no father. It seemed unfair to Galia that one small girl had so much responsibility and importance while the other — the other had none.

It was likely this thought had crossed Petya’s mind as well, for while she was unfailingly accurate and thorough in the homeworks she wrote for Galia, at times she was impatient with her charge. “Did you see how I did that?” she might snap on completing an equation. “Next time, you do it yourself.” At other times, Petya stared at Galia, as though puzzling over a problem she could not solve. It reminded Galia of sitting in the hairdresser’s chair, while the frizyorka and Maika conferred on how best to manage Galia’s thick nest of curls. But Galia sensed that, unlike the hairdresser, Petya never found a solution and that when she departed in the late afternoons, she left feeling her job was only half done.

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