Translated by Desislava Toncheva
“…So I’m standing just like this… Come on, look at mе, I won’t show this a hundred times!” the woman says angrily to the two others standing next to her. Before they can blink she flings aside her hair. She steps forward and falls to her knees.
I am standing by the rusty, graffiti-covered train stop to Chicago, listening to them. I hear Bulgarian more often lately. Things aren’t the way they were before. Back then I used to strike up a conversation as soon as I heard Bulgarians talking. I used to introduce myself. I used to ask them whether they needed help. I used to give them my number so they could call me. Most of them would look at me as if I had a screw loose. We hadn’t met each other, we didn’t know each other, and here I was, offering them help. Well, I just might have a screw loose after all. It has been more than twenty years since I left Bulgaria.
Snowflakes are flitting above the flat roofs of the grey brick buildings. My shift in the factory begins in an hour. But the train is running late. A few people are patiently waiting at the stop with us and are paying no attention to the group of talking women.
I am the only one listening to them, from time to time I toss a glance at the one who is giving her heated explanation. She is probably in her forties. Brown-haired. Tiny. Delicate. She is as thin as a shadow. On her knees in the grayish falling snow, she keeps saying: “So I’m standing there just like this… I’m looking at my face. I can see the reflection in the water,” she explains to the others. “I’m staring at it and wondering: is this me? Me?”
A yellow bus opens its doors heavily. Drowsy teenagers get off and head slowly toward the schoolyard in front of us. A police car turns around the corner. There’s a wailing ambulance behind it, its bloodshot eyes are blinking fast through the snowflakes, merging with the grey ghetto buildings on the other side of the rails. The ghetto on Chicago’s South Side where the gang war has been raging for two weeks now. At least that’s what they said on TV, but the truth is different. Wars in the ghetto never end.
“Guess what happens next?” she turns toward the women beside her as she gets up. They keep silent, their heads down.
“I started crying… Out loud. I’m looking at the reflection of my face in the water of the toilet bowl, and I start blubbering… I’m blubbering, you know, out loud, as loud as I can. I’m blubbering just like this: ‘Wa-a-a-ah… Wa-a-a-ah… Waah…waah…waah.”
The women stay silent. They look at her with a mixture of compassion and fear, and then move their eyes to the ground. The petite one pretends she doesn’t see them and goes on even more heatedly: “And then, the woman from Pleven comes, you know, the one who first took me to work with her as a cleaner. She grabs me by the hair. She pulls me up.”
The woman is slowly getting up. Two balls of wet snow are stuck to the knees of her jeans. She waves in the air with her hand as if trying to chase away the nock of dancing snowflakes, and goes on:
“…And that woman suddenly slaps me across the face… Like that… And I mean a really hard slap!” Her voice trails off. She falls silent, lost in thought for a moment. Then she goes on more quietly, as if only to herself: “She tells me: ‘Lily…Come on, pull yourself together! This instant!’ But how am I supposed to pull myself together? I’m blubbering and sobbing, tears and snot streaming down my face. The Pleven girl asks me: ‘You wanna survive in America?’ And I keep on blubbering and blubbering. She pulls my hair and shouts. ‘You wanna survive, huh…? You wanna?’ she yells at me. And I just keep blubbering and blubbering away…”
The neon city lights before us are glancing at us with disdain. Patiently, they’re creeping in between the clouds along the gray sky. They hang between the city skyscrapers, the streets and the harbors. And they start weaving their net, luring the new day in it. A day that, just like the ones before, will eventually get caught in it and lie in humiliation on the sacrificial altar of vanity where neon city lights always feast.
“So what…?!” One of the women breaks the silence. She is heavier and younger than the other one. Her hair is pulled back. She finishes her cigarette and throws it in the snow drift in front of them. „Psssst,“ it hisses and goes out.
Imperceptibly, about a dozen people have gathered at the train stop. Some are talking on their phones, others are stomping their feet in the cold and looking in the direction of the train.
„So… I’ll tell you what,“ Lily shakes her head, „If you want to survive …“ she contemplates for a second and blurts out in a single breath, „Forget everything. Everything. Who you are, where you are from, what you were, what you had … It doesn’t matter anymore! Forget. Forget … forget! That’s it. You have no past … You only have now. And … and start working!“ She sighs softly and goes on. „That’s what the woman from Pleven told me … I listened to her, and, look, I’ve had a job for three years now…”
A second ambulance whooshes by on the snowy road with a loud cry. Then another one after it, and another one. Nobody even notices. Nobody gives a damn anymore about the ghettos and the gang wars we live in.
The wind has picked up. The bronze gray morning rises slowly over the ice-covered lake shore. Lily turns to the women and continues. „And that’s how my first workday in Chicago went. And even now, when I think about it my ears are still ringing.”
She attempts to smile and continues. „So you’ll figure it out, too. There’s no way around it… You just have to learn to forget faster,“ she adds more quietly.
„But … Lily, I was a teacher in Bulgaria… I taught kids up to the 11th grade … How can I be a cleaning lady in Chicago?“ The other woman suddenly speaks up.
“Excuse me?” Lilly frowns, „So you were a teacher in Bulgaria, is that right?! Well, honey, did you know I was in the Miss Kyustendil Spring beauty pageant?! I even got to the finals. Huh?! Do you know what I’m going through?”
„I know …“ the woman sobs, almost guiltily.
“No, you don’t!“ Lily says sharply and continues in a louder voice, “You know nothing! Not you and not her! And not that damn American who’s been staring at me for half an hour,“ she points at me. „You know nothing. Nothing!”
I take a breath. I open my mouth. I want to say something to these women. Something encouraging. Something cheerful. But as I’m putting my thoughts together, the train comes and devours them.
In the foggy windows of the train car in front of me I can see their blurry reflections. The train drives off and dives into the underground tunnel. The silver snowflakes remain on the empty platform, chasing each other between the city rooftops, flat as prison bars. Along with the echo of the unspoken words between us.
The sun is rising. A gentle spring breeze seems to appear in the Chicago air. A Kyustendil spring that accidentally crossed the ocean and swam to the shores of Lake Michigan.