BY Asia Rymenov Petrov, Age 10

Galia’s parents were the kind who bought the bar of chocolate before she asked for it. Approaching middle age when they had her, they’d had time to anticipate her needs. They bought shoes before she could walk, a dictionary before she could talk, and a battery of pens, pencils, and paintbrushes when her fingers were still doughy and fat. They purchased her grades in batches at the start of the Bulgarian school year: They could get a whole semester of sixes with a side of pork or wool enough to knit two sweaters. They bought her ticket to the University a year in advance. They bought her valedictory remarks from Petya Docheva, the smartest girl in class. For a ten-minute speech printed on note cards, Petya charged the amount she needed to cover the University entrance exam fee. Petya got a near-perfect score on the exam, and still the University couldn’t find a place for her. When the word got out that Petya would work in a café the next year and retake the entrance exam the following summer, Galia refused to leave the apartment even to buy bread. She didn’t want to see anyone, least of all Petya. Galia’s father said if Petya was really smart, she would have taken her tutoring money and lined the pocket of a University professor. “Petya hasn’t learned the most important lesson,” Tati said. “By now she should know, you get what you pay for.”

They purchased her grades in batches at the start of the Bulgarian school year: They could get a whole semester of sixes with a side of pork or wool enough to knit two sweaters.

Tati’s most recent purchase, Vladi, is asleep on the bed. It’s 2:15 in the morning, and the room is black, save a sallow sphere of light from the bedside lamp. His smell is a combination of stale and sour, saturated as he is from a full day of drinking, the first shot of rakiya taken at 9:00 a.m. He looks peaceful — hair scalloping the top of his forehead, mouth open just enough for guttural sleep sounds to escape — except for the scar on his arm. It runs from his shoulder to his elbow, a centimeter thick, and round, like a rope that’s been stitched to his bicep, red, lumpy, and enraged. The doctors say it will never go away, which is good, she knows, for Vladi’s sake. He needs that scar — that angry piece of evidence. Much more than he needs a wife or a father-in-law who buys him. Things.

They hardly spoke after Tati dropped them off at the hotel. The ride in Tati’s police car had finished them off, with Tati talking the whole way about the disaster with Petya Docheva’s mother and Zdravko Nachev on the dance floor. How they had groped each other — “Like animals!” Tati yelled — and wouldn’t stop, even when first, Petya, then, Tati, suggested they sit down. How he’d known something bad was going to happen, the way they were humping and bumping so close to the band. How they were lucky no one had been killed when the equipment came crashing down, cords ripped out of the wall, speakers knocked off tripods. Galia could only assume that the crash reverberated in Vladi’s head the way it did in hers — a throbbing echo of the day’s events that refused to subside.

After they checked in, Vladi spent $50 on Marlboros from the hotel bar. He didn’t even look at Galia when he took the wad of wedding money out of his jacket pocket and peeled off the bills. He could have bought the cigarettes for a quarter the price anywhere else. They both knew that. As he was counting out the money, he stopped and looked at Galia, his eyes yolk-yellow and his skin peppered with blackened pores. He just stood there, fists filled with money, willing her to say something.

But Galia’s mind was white — white dress with a row of buttons hard to undo, white sheets pulled taut across the bed, white skin never exposed to sun. She flushed, fish-mouthed, desperate for words that would not come.

Up in the room, Vladi lit a cigarette and turned on the TV. This was how he was: He could not be in a room for one minute without needing the TV. “You drain me,” he said blowing smoke from his nose and staring at the soccer match on the screen. “When I’m with you, I feel like I’m with nobody.”

Galia knew she should be hurt by this, but in truth, she was relieved. This was not so bad, she thought. This was not the worst thing that could happen. Vladi’s words were not kind, but they also were not untrue. Vladi saw her for who she was — one of those fake Gucci purses that looks okay on the shelf but splits at the seams as soon as you put anything inside. In a way, she was grateful Vladi already understood this about her. There would be no surprises.

Tears seep from the corners of Galia’s eyes. She is overcome with gratitude for this unexpected reprieve. Her nightdress is damp with steam, and her curly hair has frizzed into a thick wedge. She was in the bathroom too long, fretting about whether to lock the door, what to wear, the things they would do when they shared a bed. She had worried until her head hurt and her hands trembled and her gums bled from brushing her teeth. Even after all that brushing, she can still taste Vladi’s smoky kisses — on the church alter, the municipality stairs, the dance floor — three of them in total, each one lasting a little longer than the one before. Looking at his lips now, she tries to remember how they felt, pressed against hers. Mostly, she recalls that they tasted of cigarettes and that, at the moment they kissed, Vladi had closed his eyes.

… she can still taste Vladi’s smoky kisses — on the church alter, the municipality stairs, the dance floor — three of them in total, each one lasting a little longer than the one before.

To her mother’s chagrin, she had not followed suit. “Ne taka, Galche,” Maika had said. “The next time, you close your eyes. You’ll scare him if you keep your eyes open like that.” Each time, Galia vowed that she would close her eyes, but each time she failed her mother’s command. “Why do you do that?” her mother hissed at her in the bathroom stall. But Galia could not explain the tenderness she found in the oily lines that creased Vladi’s eyelids. Though she knew from the movies that closing one’s eyes was normal kissing behavior, she believed then, as she does now, that with Vladi it was something more — something borne not out of habit, but intention; not out of disgust, but mercy.

With Vladi asleep, Galia is more alone than she’s been all day. She was not allowed to dress herself or do her own hair. Once she was securely fettered by button, clasp, and pin, her mother had followed her everywhere, even to the bathroom, where she held the gown out of harm’s way. Galia had been squeezed and kissed and hugged and carried — none of which was as difficult for her to bear as the fact of the purchase, the sale being celebrated.

That Vladi is sleeping through the final stages of the transaction by no means nullifies the deal; nevertheless, Galia feels more peace than she’s felt in months. There is comfort — albeit small— in knowing that moments like this will exist, that they can share the same room and not be together. That, several hours into her marriage, she is unchanged and untouched, safe and separate and alone.

Leaving the TV and lights as they are, Galia sinks into a chair, moving quietly to preserve Vladi’s sleep. The room is too cold, but she does not mind. The flow of air from a vent in the wall gives her something to think about: how her goose pimpled arms look, thin and milky blue in the nightdress she has chosen, a thick, pink cotton, pleasingly opaque so as to reveal nothing. Only now does it strike her that the tiny embroidered flowers sprinkling the gown are suggestive of something — sweetness, purity. At once, the gown seems oddly out of tune with the night’s intentions. The hotel bed is, after all, as long and wide as a trampoline.

Just a few internal wanderings, and already Galia is spiraling into the clammy, naked thoughts that have become her plague. Caught in a swirl of fear and regret, she knows where she is headed, down the well-trod path of could haves, should haves, and if onlys, her destination being the damning how could she let this happen?

BY Vesselin Edrev, Age 13

When Galia was five, she watched the lady behind the counter rest her finger on the scale when she weighed cheese for the customer at the front of the line. The lady would not do this to Maika, but she would do it to a woman with a thin coat and scuffed purse. Galia knew what the shop lady was doing. She stared at the thick finger resting on the scale until the lady caught her watching.

The line leading up to the counter was long, and people looked cross. The lady looked cross, too. “Why don’t you wait for your mother outside?” she said. “Here’s a piece of lokum. You can eat this outside.”

Galia understood she had done something wrong. The finger was large, and from where she stood, head just below the counter, it was not difficult to see. But no one else noticed it. She shouldn’t have noticed it either.

Maika transferred the powdered sweet from the shop lady’s thick fingers to Galia’s palm. “You wait right outside,” she said, nudging her towards the door. “Don’t go anywhere.”

Outside, another girl was waiting for her mother, only she had moved beyond the door and was talking to a hairless dog standing in the square. “Can you see, Krastavitza? How many fingers am I holding up?”

Krastavitza could not count the fingers, but clearly he enjoyed the attention. His tail wagged and his whole body wagged with it.

Nibbling on her square of Turkish delight, Galia wondered if the dog was really named Krastavitza. Cucumber was just the right name for the tubular dog. She wondered if all dogs were so round beneath their fur.

“How many fingers, Krastavitza?” The girl was holding up three fingers.

“Come on, Krastavitza. My fingers are getting tired.” The girl was starting to sound angry. Krastavitza cowered on the ground. “I said, how many fingers?”

Though the girl had been very small, she loomed large in Galia’s memory. For when she named the hairless being who wandered the square “Krastavitza,” she gave the dog an identity. And when she called Galia her imaginary friend, at once Galia understood her place in the world.

“Three,” Galia blurted out.

The girl clapped her hands, and Krastavitza jumped up and barked. “Very good, Krastavitza. Now how many?”

Galia waited for a moment, giving Krastavitza a chance to answer on his own. “Two,” she finally said.

“Good, Krastavitza,” the girl said. “You are very smart.”

“Petya,” a woman called sharply. It was the woman in the thin coat. Galia wondered if she was poor because she spent so much money on cheese. “Are you talking to that sick dog?”

“No,” Petya said, scrambling to her feet.

“Then who are you talking to?”

Petya looked at Galia, and even though they appeared to be close in age, Galia withered beneath her gaze. “I was talking to my imaginary friend,” Petya said.

“That’s not what I saw,” the woman said. “Haide, Petya. It’s time to go home.”

The girl joined her mother, and they set off down the square. Though the girl had been very small, she loomed large in Galia’s memory. For when she named the hairless being who wandered the square “Krastavitza,” she gave the dog an identity. And when she called Galia her imaginary friend, at once Galia understood her place in the world.

It was less a revelation than it was a recognizable fit, the way Krastavitza’s naked skin sheathed his tubular body like a fine suit or the way her sneakers felt, so nice and light on her feet, that after a few minutes, Galia could almost forget them — the shoes, and even more, the feet inside them.

For, by the time Galia met Petya in the square, she’d already glimpsed her own irrelevance — in the chemistry set that sat on her shelf, the telescope poised at her window, the typewriter centered on her desk. When these things appeared in her bedroom, she did not know what to make of them — only that Maika and Tati expected her to put them to use. She filled the chemistry vials with buttons from her mother’s sewing box and played the typewriter the way she’d seen a man in the square type on his accordion, no matter if she could not lift it from the desk. She played and sang along to the taut, clicking noises she produced, until her mother got concerned and put the typewriter away.

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.

After Petya went home, Galia would take the finished homework and chewed pencils and go into her bedroom and close the door. There, she would copy all the homework onto a separate piece of paper. She was pleased when she could get the pencil to make the same intelligent sounds Petya made, though her numbers and letters always looked different: While Petya’s figures slanted neatly to the right, Galia’s angled in all directions. Sometimes she got too bored to finish, but most of the time, she made it to the end, only to crumple up the page and throw it in the dumpster on the way to school the next morning. In the end, it did not matter if she turned in Petya’s work or her work or no work at all. There was no action or inaction that couldn’t be remedied by a bushel of onions or potatoes or a bottle of Jim Beam.

BY Marina Banova, Age 8

It was a seemingly flawless system, giving to each party what it needed. Tati got the marks he wanted: Galia’s record in the dnevnik displayed a satisfying row of pot-bellied sixes. The teachers looked forward to having Galia in class. That year, they would be able to buy a sheepskin slipcover for the living room sofa or a month in a cottage on the Black Sea coast.

Galia got ten leva for not talking in class. Maika said it would be better if she didn’t show off, and like a good girl, she didn’t say a word. Petya, on the other hand, answered all the teacher’s questions. No one liked her — so skinny and smart and unfashionable in her home-sewn jeans.

Petya’s mother increased the price for Petya’s services each year and could be seen wearing a new coat, a new dress, a new gadje on her arm as she walked down the square. With each new boyfriend, Petya’s mother looked younger and prettier and more in love. She dated them, one after the other, until she met Zdravko, the best handyman in town. Him, she dated for years, but only when there was something in need of repair.

Perhaps Petya got the least from the deal: After a while, she tired of pumpkin pastry and stopped eating the squares on her plate. Maika started giving her money for snacks. This ended, however, when Maika learned that Petya was using the money to buy hotdogs for the hairless dog in the square. The diseased creature, which many hoped would die, looked round and happy and was starting to grow fuzz.

This system carried on without so much as a pause or hiccup until Galia reached the tenth grade. That year, she had an American teacher who got angry with her for not speaking in class.

“I get these beautiful homework papers from you, but you won’t say a word,” Dean said to her early in the year. His name was Mr. Riley, but he told them to call him Dean. They were working through a chapter called “It’s a Crime” in their English workbooks. “Can I hear you use fraudulent in a sentence?”

Galia opened her mouth but seemed to have forgotten how to make any sounds. It was impossible to think with all the classroom snickers and the boiling sounds in her stomach. She stared at the list of words she had been assigned to memorize. Trangression, felony, misdemeanor, corruption. She knew them all, and yet what could she do with so many words, so many inhibitions?

“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.

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.

“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?

Sensing her gaze, Vladi looked inside. He beckoned her to join him.

Kakvo?” Galia said, though through the closed windows, he could not hear. She looked around, hoping that he was gesturing to somebody nearby, but for the first time all day, there was no one around. “Me?” she questioned. Please no.

Vladi beckoned again. He was laughing with the cigar clenched between his teeth and rolling up one sleeve of his shirt.

Galia rose slowly to her feet, feeling wilted from the heat and unsteady on her heels. Vladi had hardly looked at her all night; now he was eyeing her with a glee she did not trust. The yards of satin that had bustled around her at the start of this day hung heavy from her shoulders, cutting painful gashes in her flesh. She pushed open the door.

Galche,” he greeted her, wrapping his arm around her shoulders and kissing her on the cheek, the moist butt of his cigar poking her in the arm. “Galche,” he said again. She had never seen him so drunk. “Touch this,” he said, indicating the scar on his arm. “Ela, touch it,” he said, grabbing her hand. “Tell the boys how you like it.”

This was the lowest point, Galia can say for sure now that the day has passed. Just the thought of it, and her throat constricts. The cold hotel air feels even colder when her cheeks are wet. She tries to stifle the memory — a thing she will spend the rest of her life trying to do, but without success. She will never be able to rid herself of that moment, standing with her fingers jammed into Vladi’s arm, Vladi laughing while his friends looked on, unsmiling, ashamed, annoyed.

She never will be able to destroy that moment, in part, because she will live with that scar. She will touch it, caress it. During happier spells in their marriage — there will be several — she will even press her lips to it. The root of Vladi’s moodiness and depression, it will darken many of their days, but not all of them, thanks to Tati, who will secure for Vladi a position at a firm doing business of the sort one does not talk about and from which Vladi will never feel satisfaction — though he will find small solace in his cell phone, his thick wallet, and the clean, slick sounds of silk rubbing between his thighs when he walks to work in the morning. On more than one occasion, he will tell her that the swish of the pants makes him feel tall.

In part, she will remember the incident on the balcony not so much for the moment itself, but for its recollection there in the hotel room and the event that follows. For the tears do not stop coming, the air does not stop blowing, and the sniffling — well, she cannot sniffle, inhale, exhale with Vladi lying right there in the bed. Indeed, she has little choice but to take up her sweater — beneath which her nightdress looks modest, even appropriate—and her silly bridal purse, to slip her feet into a pair of jelly sandals, and to leave her husband on their wedding night.

When I’m with you, I feel like I’m with nobody, he had said. Perhaps he won’t even notice she’s gone.

The hotel nightclub — Club Cosmos — is hardly Galia’s desired destination. On the contrary, she only goes there after she has tried the restaurant and lobby. Finding the former closed and the latter empty, she hides in a public bathroom long enough for the tearstains to fade. She might have stayed there all night were it not for the lady who comes to clean. Thus expelled, she follows a faint trickle of music down a flight of stairs and through a pair of heavy brown doors.

Galia might have preferred the frenzy; she feels frightfully conspicuous in this strange place. Of the ten or fifteen people huddled around tables, several have turned their heads to look at her.

She has been to nightclubs, of course. In certain instances —particularly in high school, when her whole class would go on the eve of a holiday and her parents would not let her stay home — going to nightclubs has been impossible to avoid. But this place is like no nightclub she has ever seen — no pounding music, no pulsing disco lights, no acned Russian girls taking off their clothes — none of the haze and frenzy you might expect. Rather, there are fat upholstered booths and small tables, and in the center of the room, a tiny stage, on which a single couple twirls beneath a rotating mirrored globe. Beside them is a quartet with a woman singing a ballad in thickly accented English.

Galia might have preferred the frenzy; she feels frightfully conspicuous in this strange place. Of the ten or fifteen people huddled around tables, several have turned their heads to look at her. Even the singer is watching Galia, the words to the song drifting involuntarily from her mouth. Just as Galia considers slipping away, a man in a dark suit asks, “Table for one?”

She has no choice but to allow him to seat her. As though sensing her need for escape, he does not give her one of the tables by the door, but rather leads her — in her nightdress and sweater, her bridal purse shimmering in the globe’s prismatic light — clear across the room to a table bordering the stage. When he pulls the chair out for her, she feels unbalanced; she is not inside her body as she tucks herself into the plush red velvet fold of the chair.

“Something to drink?” he asks.

She wants to say nothing — she does not want a smetka, a debt, even one she can pay — but she can see how strange it would be for her to sit here without even a drink. She orders a Coke, and when he asks her if she wants ice, she says “no” before it occurs to her that she is speaking English with this man, a Bulgarian. “No, thank you,” she says, the words sounding strange, smooth, even nice.

By the time her Coke comes in a tall thin glass with a wedge of lemon perched on the edge, she is starting to feel more in control. She feels anonymous in this strange place and oddly deserving of this Coke. She has earned nothing more, nothing less from the day’s hardships. Just a Coke and a lemon and a moment alone.

The spinning globe casts a soothing, silvery light. Vladi, Galia knows, does not mean to hurt her — not with his comments, not with the episode on the balcon. She, of all people, can understand his fury at the economics of tonight’s transaction: the two-ended arrow that connects buying and selling. He has seen through the porous screen that divides thinking that you’re taking from knowing what you’re giving in return. She, better than anyone, knows how he feels. At this recognition, Galia experiences a strange spasm of hope that maybe… oh, she should not wish for so much!

“Excuse me.” The man in the suit is handing her a glass of white wine. “Someone asked me to bring you this.”

“Oh. I — ” she’s lost the words — “no order.”

“No, miss,” the man says, putting the glass down before her. “Someone has ordered it for you. Please. Enjoy.”

Molya —” Galia starts, but the man has left. She wonders if there’s something she has misunderstood. She glances at the tables around her, tight clusters of two and three people hunched over tables. Aside from the woman on the dance floor and the singer in the band, there are no other women besides Galia. To her right is a table of thick, dark-skinned Bulgarians, smoking and looking around the room. The rest of the people look like foreign businessmen. They are mostly middle-aged and wear pastel sport shirts. Several booths down, three men are smiling at her.

Heat prickles Galia’s scalp. She does not know what to do. Maybe she should get up and return the glass to them. That would be best. She will tell them that she has a husband and cannot drink their wine, but thank you, it was very kind. Galia knows that this is the thing to do, and yet, no one has ever bought her a drink. And though she knows it’s wrong, and though she does not care to drink alcohol, she thinks that on this night — in this pocket of borrowed time — she should drink this glass of wine.

The stem of the glass feels fragile in her hand. Sipping the chilled wine, Galia feels delicate and fine, even pretty. There is only one other time Galia can recall feeling this way. It was when Dean hired a bus to take their class to an American library in Sofia. On the way there, he passed out a fill-in-the-blank worksheet and played a song called “Piano Man” over and over. When they had the words, they sang along with the tape. It was a good song, and they sang at the tops of their voices, and it was so nice that Galia was sorry when they reached the library. But then, getting off the bus, Dean had been standing there, and he took her hand and said, “Watch your step.” She knew it was nothing —he did it for all the girls — but she can remember how special she felt that moment when she held his hand.

Sipping the chilled wine, Galia feels delicate and fine, even pretty. There is only one other time Galia can recall feeling this way.

So aglow is Galia with this memory that when a man in a light green sport shirt sits down and asks her name, she answers “Galia” without a twinge of nervousness. He asks her where in Bulgaria she’s from, and she learns that he’s from Chicago. “Al Capone. Bang. Bang,” he says, and she smiles at his joke. It seems he’s been here for a while.

As much as Galia would prefer to be left alone, she cannot help but be flattered by the man’s attention. Aside from the red in his eyes, he is not bad looking, and his cologne is dusky and tempting. She feels the queasy excitement she had so often felt in Dean’s class, especially when he passed close by her desk. She has not experienced this feeling since he left. Not on the day he left — absolutely not then — but likely some days before his departure.

Dean’s car was gone. So were his faded jeans, his rucksack with the clips and buckles, the cherry pulp kaval he had bought from a player in Plovdiv. The music teacher had been trying to teach him the difficult instrument for nearly a year, and still when he brought it to class to demonstrate what he had learned, he could produce little more than a hoarse whisper at three tuneless pitches.

That morning, Galia tried to quiet her wobbling hand as she wrestled her teacup into its saucer. Maika was offering banitza, eggs, yogurt, bread, cheese, jam. Galia could feel the excitement swelling, the air in the room growing thick.

Vsichko e nared,” Tati said, sitting down at the table and unzipping his coat.

But everything was not okay. As her mother set some Turkish coffee on the stove to boil, Galia excused herself and left. Her parents waited until she closed the kitchen door behind her before they started talking. Through the pane of rippled glass, she could see their heads bent close and could hear the rapid rush of their voices —voices laden not with guilt or with shame, but with wonder. The mid-night feats. Victory that exceeded all hope. He had made it so easy, that Dean, proving once and for all that it was naiveté and not virtue that made the boy so stubborn and principled.

BY Desislava Katsarova, Age 13

Galia spent the day walking the foothills of the mountain in the old part of town. There, the road ran steep and the people — villagers who still wore their crocheted vests, their homemade shoes, long after their village had grown into a town — lived in the houses their fathers and grandfathers had built decades earlier. They did not have heat, these houses, and many of them still used wood stoves. Yet the people stayed in them even when the town erected new cinderblock apartments down below with radiators and heat and gas stoves and hot water straight from the tap. No, the villagers stayed put right where they were on the steep mountain incline. Generation after generation plastered and replastered their houses in blues and pinks and yellows, some garish in hue, others sun-baked to near white. Many of the houses— even the bright, freshly plastered ones — bore bald patches where the plaster had crumbled away, exposing the underlying brick and mortar. Galia wondered if the owners hadn’t left the holes uncovered on purpose, the toothy weave of bone and flesh a testimony to the foundation upon which each family was built.

On her way back down, Galia saw a crowd gathered at the bus stop. There were not so many reasons for crowds to gather in this town; she knew it was for Dean. By now, the whole town would know what had happened. She had taken her time up in the hills, trying to prepare herself for this new wave of shame, only to understand that she would never be ready to face the people down below.

She would not have stopped at the bus stop had she not seen Petya. “Come on,” Petya said to her in a way that was not as inviting as it was commanding. After so many years of being lumped together for their studiousness and strangeness, there was something of a reluctant kinship between the two girls.

Many of the houses — even the bright, freshly plastered ones — bore bald patches where the plaster had crumbled away, exposing the underlying brick and mortar… the toothy weave of bone and flesh a testimony to the foundation upon which each family was built.

Galia and Petya added themselves to the back of the crowd. At the center, Dean was talking to two police officers. All year, people had been praising his noble attempts with the Bulgarian language, yet now as he spoke — tova ne e kraya, he said over and over again — the words sounded distorted, his American accent at once repugnant and dim. A collective embarrassment muffled the crowd as they listened to him argue, “This is not the end,” with such earnestness, he almost convinced them it was true. But they could not believe him, because they knew the car was gone, and by now, they were eager for him to be gone too.

The girlfriend — Laura was her name — had brown hair and was plumper and more ordinary than Galia had imagined. She stood next to Dean and stared at the ground, deaf to Dean’s Bulgarian conversation. By the curve in her shoulders, Galia could tell that she, like everyone else, wanted Dean to give up. She waited, and he argued, and the officers chewed large pieces of gum. As Galia looked on, she felt her shame spreading out like a big wet puddle, seeping through the crowd to include the officers, friends, even Laura — all those who were wronging Dean yet again, without him even knowing it.

Minutes earlier, Galia had felt like an enormous pimple on the face of the crowd. She had been certain that no matter how many people were there, Dean would see her, would single her out, adding to a disgrace that was already complete. Now, things had shifted, and she began to fear that he would miss her. As her disappointment grew — over Dean’s ugliness, Laura’s duplicity, the betrayal of friends — so too did her desperation grow to connect with him once more. She was standing on her toes, struggling to see him, willing him to see her, when Petya leaned over and whispered in her ear, “Do you think they have sex?”

Galia cannot think of Petya without remembering that moment. How shocked she had been to feel Petya’s breath on her ear and to hear those words — words she had asked herself many times, yet always in the privacy of her own mind. At that moment, shared with Petya, no less, the thought seemed unbearably vulgar. Yet one more violation of her beloved Dean. Galia had been furious with Petya. Though by now, that fury has dissipated and evolved into a curiosity about what to do with this strange hint.

BY Sveta Angelova, Age 8

Maika had invited Petya to the wedding, and by some act of providence, she had been able to come. This summer, she had received a scholarship to take courses in Japan; her flight was scheduled for the day after the wedding. Galia and Petya had not kept in touch, though Maika had updated Galia on Petya’s doings. After a year working in a local café, Petya had retaken the University entrance exams and been accepted to study Japanese philology. She now had one year left to go. On the side, she translated interactions between Bulgarian and Japanese businessmen and escorted Japanese visitors traveling and working in Sofia.

There was a whiff of cynicism in this last detail — a want, perhaps, of some equalizing factor. Scorn need not be stated explicitly; rather, it was inherent in the notion of Petya, her mother’s daughter, being chosen to accompany businessmen on their travels. For this reason, Galia felt no small triumph — for Petya, and not for herself — when she laid eyes on her at the wedding. Petya was small and unfashionable as ever, dressed in a skirt and blouse that were several sizes too large. Her hair and glasses were the same as they’d been in high school.

It was not until later in the evening — after the gifted keys, the poked scar — that they managed to greet each other. The seamstress had attached clear plastic teardrops to the torso of Galia’s dress. Hugging Petya, she was shamed by the chatter of her movements.

Petya was dealing with shame of her own, with her mother and Zdravko wrapped in tight embrace out on the dance floor. “I’m so sorry,” she said, turning her back on their explicit passions. “I don’t know how to make them stop.” Red freckles of misery sprinkled her cheeks, and her shoulders sagged under the weight of her load. Looking at her, Galia understood one more chance she had not taken: that of a friendship she had failed to recognize in the warm breathy secret that passed by her ear.

It was not long before Petya’s mother brought the celebration to an end. It seemed to have been a while since she’d last needed a repair, because she and Zdravko were all buttocks, breasts, and crotches, grabbing flesh by the handful. Galia had never seen such a display. She worried that that’s what Vladi would want to do — she could not imagine being handled that way. She knew she shouldn’t watch, but she couldn’t take her eyes off them. She saw the whole thing happen, when they bumped into a speaker and sent the entire system crashing to the floor.

Do you think they have sex?

The man sitting across from her is telling her about his travels in Spain, the elongated hands of a man named El Greco, the cheerful mosaics of someone named Gaudi.

Gaudy. She remembered that word. It was the word for a dress like hers. So many yards of blue-white satin ruined from being dragged across pavement and dirt, and for what? To make her look beautiful? Virginal? Chaste?

“Your glass is empty. Let’s get you some more wine.”

Galia recognizes the irony in this wedding night, the little daisies on her bridal nightgown. A clash of the clean and the dirty, the lurid and the pure. She knows Maika and Tati are lying in bed next to each other, talking about the wedding and the fine husband they found for their daughter. Maika is thinking about the sex. All night, her mother had been giving her hints. Be sure you shower. Be sure to wash yourself down there. Be sure to use the scented soap that’s in your bag. Try to relax. Have a glass of wine. Trust your Vladi. He will know what to do. In the morning, Maika will ask her, So?

Dean did not see her that day at the bus station. He climbed the stairs of the bus and sat down next to Laura and looked straight ahead as they pulled out of the station. That was the last anyone heard of him. But in Galia’s dreams, it happens differently. Dean looks back from the top stair, spots her in the crowd, and in his authoritative, twenty-four-year-old voice, asks her the question she’d both feared and wanted:

“What do you have to say for yourself, Galia?”

The answer changes from dream to dream. Sometimes it’s as simple as, “I’m sorry,” or “Thank you.” One time she said, “Please come again.” Another time, she said, “You look nice in blue.” In one particularly galling dream, she said, “It would be fraudulent to pretend I won’t miss you.”

Looking at this man’s thick fingers intertwined with her own, she hears herself say, “Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” she says, pushing her chair back. Tottering slightly as she stands, she leaves without paying for her Coke.

Over the course of her marriage, she will replay this ending time after time, until it warps and twists and bends. She will remember that yellow glow from the wine and the man who held her hand. She will never once doubt the decision she made that night — not even when Vladi’s black mood touches the horizon. On the contrary, she will find satisfaction in her memories of her wedding night, not for the transaction that would be finalized when she returned to the room, but for the deal that she saw coming, and so, got up and walked away.

REPRINTED FROM The Gettysburg Review (Volume 19, Number 3, Autumn 2006) WITH THE AUTHOR’S PERMISSION

The artwork featured with this story is part of the My Bulgaria art exhibit, a collection of paintings and drawings by Bulgarian students ages six to thirteen. It is the product of a 1996 art contest, in which school children created pictures depicting what their country meant to them. Contest coordinator and curator Anissa Paulsen was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgaria. The collection has been exhibited in the National Children’s Museum and other venues around the United States.
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