Galia

The next morning, Galia was in the kitchen making herself a cup of tea when Tati walked in, his uniform rumpled, looking exhausted but happy. He was a senior officer and did not work nights unless he chose to. Galia knew from the pale glow of peace across his forehead that a battle of some sort had taken place, and Tati had come out on top.

So much scrabbling to get by or get ahead (your ambition is determined by where you start). It’s rumored that one shop lady has a small piece of red tape marking the precise spot where she should rest her finger so it won’t be visible from the other side of the counter. Whatever the trick, it must be working, because Galia has never seen a pinky, thumb, or any finger in between resting on the scale.

All these years, and still she is watching. Now, she watches the minutes on the digital clock switch over one after the other. She imagines that they are slowing down. At one point, it seems they have stopped, and she holds her breath that somehow she’s been saved. But then they start up again, ticking over one by one, tracking the plodding march of time, along with the faint ebb and flow of Vladi’s snore. All her life, time has been her unbudging companion; all her life, she has willed it to go away. Now, she pleads with it to return, come back, let me try again.

When Galia got to the University in Sofia, Tati rented a nice room for her in the apartment of an older couple — the parents of a fellow officer. Galia had her meals prepared for her, and it was only a five-minute walk to school. She went to class and studied hard — she did well by her own right. But when her papers and exams were returned to her with neat red sixes and no other marks, she was certain they hadn’t been read.

By the time Galia entered her last semester at the University, Tati’s plans for his next big purchase were already underway. The negotiations began on a routine roadside stop just east of Sofia, where the road wound and curved around the Stara Planina. Several tunnels had been blasted through the mountains to offer a more direct passage to and from the capitol. Just after one of these tunnels, Tati’s partner was waving the cars over, and Tati was issuing tickets — the goal being not to enforce the law, so much as to elicit bribes. If the driver complained, Tati reminded him, “In America, they make you pay to drive on their highways,” thumbs in belt loops, like he’d been there. Eventually, the driver would offer a portion of the ticket price. When Tati accepted, everyone went away happy.

Seeing Vladi’s arm in a sling, Tati said, “A hundred leva for driving while disabled.”

“Sorry,” Vladi said, opening his wallet and showing Tati the empty insides. “Nyamam nishto.”

Tati noticed Vladi’s eyes, green as an onion shoot, and even though he could see Vladi’s coat was made of real leather, he believed he didn’t have any money. “Well, what have you got?” Tati said, peering in the window. “What’s that?” he nodded at a volleyball on the seat. His nephew had a birthday coming up in a month, and he could see the ball was of professional quality.

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