Galia

“Quiet, everyone,” Dean said, pacing the front of the room, running his hand through his red hair until it stood on end. How everyone loved that hair! The rich blue-red nest — not a hint of blonde or brown, but a pure redness, like a tomato just shy of ripe. Dean knew his hair fascinated the students, and he used it to hold the class’s attention.

Out of the corner of her eye, Galia could see Petya frantically waving her hand. Like a propeller, the swinging arm lifted Petya from her seat and pulled her forward across her desk. The kids snickered at Petya’s bony rear end, her pocketless jeans, her shirt tucked into the tattered waistband of her white underpants. “Mr. Riley,” she grunted repeatedly, breathless with effort. Bits of paper and nubbins of eraser pelted her behind. Humiliation pooled in the roundness of Galia’s cheeks. Petya knew as well as everyone else that Mr. Riley would not call on her until Galia had had ample time to answer the question. It was clear that Petya was trying to save her.

Out of the corner of her eye, Galia could see Petya frantically waving her hand. Like a propeller, the swinging arm lifted Petya from her seat and pulled her forward across her desk.

Finally, Dean relented. “In my class, it’s a crime to turn in fraudulent homework,” he said. He wrote zeroes in the Dnevnika, though the other teachers reminded him the lowest grade was two. Tati offered to buy Dean a television for his apartment, but Dean refused. “I’m trying to help her,” Dean said in broken Bulgarian, the color of his skin deepening to match his hair. “You’re not doing her any favors.”

When Tati cursed Dean at the dinner table, Galia stared into her plate in silent dissent. For though she couldn’t bear being at the center of this controversy, she found Dean terribly handsome with his brilliant hair and his pale skin, and after a while, the embarrassment that she felt when he called on her in class evolved into something more like gratitude. In the beginning, he called on her every class, waiting two or three minutes for an answer that was buried beneath years of inertia — an answer that would never come. As the year drew on, the questions slowed. Some weeks he might call on her once or twice, others not at all. But he never gave up on her the way other teachers did. It was as if he knew she held the answer on the tip of her tongue, offering to her again and again the bittersweet lozenge of an opportunity on which she could not act. It was agonizing, how much she wanted to please him, to answer just one question. She thought that if she could get herself to answer one, the next one might not be so difficult. Soon she would be answering all the questions for herself. But that first answer — the thought of words tumbling from her mouth and clattering to the linoleum like contraband — she couldn’t do it. So, they were stuck, looking at each other, the current of their wills passing between them.

As the zeroes multiplied like tiny gasps of horror next to Galia’s name, it appeared Dean had won. For some, it was threatening to see a system disrupted this way. Who was this young American to come along and start shutting things down? But there were plenty of people who appreciated Dean and would invite him for dinner at their homes. They liked his tattered pants and untucked shirts; they were glad for his defiance. These were the people who warned Dean against having his girlfriend rent a car when she came to pack him up at the end of the year. They suggested a taxi. They offered to drive him in one of their cars, a Lada or Trabant. When the girlfriend arrived in a sporty, if battered, rental car, they warned Dean, “A Fiat is a Fiat. No matter the cracked windshield — it is not safe here.” Dean hugged his friends good-bye and told them not to worry. His flight was early the next morning — he would be gone before dawn. When Dean and his girlfriend finished packing the car in the early hours of the morning, they parked it in front of the police station for safekeeping while they caught a few hours of sleep.

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