“I’m sorry,” Vladi said. “I can’t give you that.”

“It’s just a ball,” Tati said. The line of cars was growing. Tati’s partner looked over at them, shoulders raised in question.

Prosto ne moga,” Vladi said defensively. “It’s not just a ball.”

Tati had already decided that the ball looked too used to give as a gift. The car, on the other hand, was a Ford — a burgundy two-door, not more than ten years old. The kind of car you didn’t have unless you knew somebody.

Tati made Vladi wait for him by the side of the road until he was finished with his shift. After he split the morning’s earnings with his partner, he led Vladi to a nearby mehana and ordered two rakiyas and filets with garnitura, and they drank the rakiyas without touching their food and ordered two more. Vladi told Tati about the ball and the promising volleyball career that ended with a slip on a patch of sweat and a series of cracks. There were four of them, popping like the celebratory fireworks dispatched at the end of a match — in this case, a career. The National Sports Academy said he could keep the car and the clothes and the big screen TV, but they terminated the lease on his Sofia apartment. He had to be out by the end of the month.

When they emptied their rakiya glasses for the fourth and final time, the negotiations were well underway. After Tati counted out the bills to cover lunch and lay them on the table, he considered his companion, then reached in his wallet for a few more. The filet had been lean and tender, the rakiya smooth and fruity, the company outstanding.

The deal was finalized in front of two hundred friends. Sitting at the head table, Galia had the feeling she was at someone else’s wedding. The way people came up to her and petted her — she could hardly recognize them, or herself for that matter. It was like some odd charade, with Galia and Vladi standing beside each other like two people in love. When the band broke for dinner, Tati took the microphone and presented Vladi with the keys to an apartment wrapped in a decorative foil sack and tied with curls of ribbon. Amid stamping and applause, Vladi hugged Tati. Then, chest out and chin up high, he raised the metallic package over his head, gripping it with both hands and turning in a circle for everyone to see.

BY Petiya Yordanova Kirolova, Age 12

At the moment, Galia had to believe that things could get no worse. Playing with the buckle of her shoe, she willed her way through her degradation, willed the clapping to stop, the meal to end, which in time it did, leaving her feeling depleted and spent. She allowed the party to bubble up around her, dancing, drinking, here the chink of dropped glass, there a splash of laughter.

In time, she spotted Vladi out on the balcon, smoking a cigar. He stood in a ring of his former volleyball teammates, disrupting their handsome circle like a missing tooth. Were they really so tall, Galia had wondered. Or was it that Vladi looked smaller than before? Or that Galia, with so much night ahead of her, was seeing things the way she wanted to see them, less daunting, more manageable than they really were? She’d been playing such games all day, trying to gauge the reality of what was happening to her. Watching Vladi’s lips close around the shaft of the cigar, she recalled how they had felt when he pressed them to her own. How was it possible that so hard a man could have lips so soft?

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