Maria’s afraid of me and that has its advantages.
From her perspective, there are plenty of reasons to be in awe of me. Not only can I speak Latin and French—which are about as relevant to her life as speaking Martian—but I can also speak—and this is something much more concrete—the language in this damn country. I explain the lay of the land to her and take her shopping, where an interpreter comes in very handy. I know how to fill out all the paperwork to apply for welfare and for children’s benefits. I’m usually around when workers from the family services department are scheduled to visit. I always offer her the highest praise. When I have to translate a question for her, I always start thinking up the answer to it immediately.
Maria is paralyzed with fear anytime she has to deal with officialdom. Faced with anyone who gives off even a whiff of government authority, she feels as insignificant as an ant. She’s even deferential to machines that dispense tickets for the public transportation system. And whenever a plainclothes ticket controller comes through the bus and announces a ticket check, she rushes to rip hers out of her purse so quickly that she sends her lipstick and tampons flying around the nearby seats, an awkward smile plastered on her face all the while.
“Take it easy,” I say, if I happen to be there when it happens.
Then I crawl around on the floor to collect her things as Maria sits there frozen, the fake smile still on her face after the ticket controller has walked past her.
“I would never have guessed he was a ticket controller,” she says, amazed. “With long hair and an earring—like a member of the Beatles. I can’t believe the way they are allowed to dress. What did he have hanging from his ears?”
“An MP3 player,” I explain.
“You’re going to be just like your mother,” she says one time during an incident like this.
“What did you say?”
She puts her hand over her mouth. She starts to shake, her bloated body quivering beneath her flower-print blouse, terror in her eyes, tears starting to drip down her cheeks—or is it sweat?
“What did you say?”
“Nothing, nothing,” she says. “Nothing.”
I lift my hand. I’m not sure what I’m about to do. My fingers curl into a fist. But there’s no more sense in hitting Maria than in taking a whip to pudding. So I slam my fist against the window.
Nobody turns around. Not even the bus driver, despite the fact that normally they shout at anyone who so much as touches a seat with their foot.
The window doesn’t break, but it hurts my fist and I let out a howl.
Suddenly my face is buried in Maria’s chest and I can barely breathe. She wraps me up with both arms and also manages to rub my head and back. Her hands feel big and warm. I close my eyes.
“It’s okay,” she says as my lungs fill with her perfume. “Everything’s going to be fine. Everything is all right. Don’t cry, my precious. You’re my strong little girl.” “Shut your mouth,” I shout, but it comes out as a groan. Maria stops talking.
We get out of the bus downtown to exchange the watch Maria bought two days ago for five euros. It had stopped after one day.
After that I buy a bus ticket for Maria for the return trip and wait as she gets into the bus.
I don’t get on with her. Instead I hop on a tram with no ticket—I’m not afraid of the ticket controllers—and go to visit Ingrid and Hans.
It pains me to see their house. I could never tell them why—and wouldn’t want to. It’s a beautiful two-story house surrounded by a garden that’s gone to seed, which would be reason enough to like it.
Excerpted from Broken Glass Park by Alina Bronsky. Copyright © 2010 by Alina Bronsky. Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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