A Short Tale about Shame (excerpt)

For anyone who’s curious about my novel but hasn’t quite mastered Bulgarian yet. This is Angela Rodel‘s excellent translation of the piece published in the previous post.

In the greenish light two boys were skillfully playing pool and she was staring at their table, she liked the rhythmic clicking of the balls, her cousin was smoking silently and anxiously chewing the cigarette between her lips, Sirma looked her over carefully, she was heavily made up, her hair was bleached platinum and for the moment, despite her anxiousness, she seemed relieved not to have to walk, because she was wearing shoes with monstrously high heels that were clearly wrenching her ankles.Sirma had presciently left her army-surplus backpack and worn-out jean jacket at home, but she still sensed that she looked out of place there, her cousin had wrenched her feet from her shoes, they were clearly digging into her, her toenails were painted purple. Sirma had never gotten a pedicure. She and Sparacus and Maya made fun of the decked-out poodles at school, who made fun of them in turn. She felt ridiculous. She had no reason to be there. The drinks were expensive, there was no one she could talk about music with, she was used to sitting on the grass in the park and though she still liked the rhythmic clicking of the billiard balls and the boys with their skillful, confident movements, she started feeling smothered.At the other end of the café, beyond the pool table, there was something like a raised upper level with a single solitary table, from which several older boys were contemplating them lazily. They were good-looking guys, and with their absent-minded expressions, with the apathetic superiority that radiated from their table, they seemed to lift it even higher, into some cloud-filled dimension from which they watched the mortals’ games with the distant, languid interest of Olympians, or perhaps it only seemed that they were watching, when in fact their divine minds had wandered off somewhere else entirely, into the unseen and the unfathomable. The glass door of the café opened and another girl came in, with tight jeans and a leather jacket, she was pretty, with blonde hair and soft features, everybody livened up at her entrance, her cousin straightened up and puffed on her cigarette more energetically, one of the boys lazily slapped the newcomer on the ass as she walked by the pool table, and she made as if to kick him. The girl came over to them, Chloe pointed at Sirma, this is my cousin, but she didn’t say her name or the name of her friend, the girl sized her up with a smile, but didn’t say anything, she sat down by Chloe and they started a conversation that Sirma couldn’t understand at all, they were talking about some guys with funny nicknames, about scag and A-bombs, about Nero and how an eighth kept him floating for three days, you know, and about some other guy who was probably a narc, so if Chloe saw him she should keep her distance. Then they started murmuring quietly and Sirma guessed they were talking about her, her cousin frowned when the new girl turned to her and asked her if she wanted a jay. Sirma gaped at her. A joint, man, you know. Aaah, why didn’t you just say so, girl, she tried to get into their style. She had only smoked a joint once, Spartacus had scrounged it up somewhere, dug it up from the bottom of his backpack, hidden among the little plastic figurines and dead pens; and since unlike her friends, she had experience with cigarettes, she had managed to not cough while they smoked it, but nothing happened to her at all, nor to them, either. The girl in the leather jacket took out a joint and handed it to her cousin. You guys can have it, she said, my throat is killing me, I can’t smoke right now. The others saw the joint and started milling around them. Are we gonna smoke it here, Sirma asked incredulously. Of course, her cousin replied, the bartender is down, so don’t freak.She lit the joint and took a drag, the sweetish scent of weed wafted heavily in the air, they passed it around twice and it was gone. Sirma waited for that mellowing she’d heard about, but after a long time she still didn’t feel anything and decided that she must not have smoked it right again. Her cousin, however, had mellowed out, it was as if the shared weed had lowered her guard a bit. Looks like Chopper’s gone horse-riding, the girl in the leather jacket said and nodded towards the raised table at the other end of the café. Yeah, looks that way to me, too, her cousin replied, looking impressed.They fell silent for a while. C’mon, let’s go hunting, said the girl with the leather jacket. Her cousin took a deep drag off her cigarette. But now I’m feeling all peaceful and shit, she said, from the weed. Don’t give me that, the other girl said. You need the money. True, Chloe said, but still, you know. She had her back to Sirma so she couldn’t see what kind of gestures she was making to the other girl, but she figured that again they had to do with her. But her friend just kept smiling, completely calm. Chloe turned to her and looked at her carefully. Sirma, I can count on you, right? How about making some money, huh? Whatever you say, Sirma shrugged. Whatever you say, she mimicked her, and Sirma suddenly realized that her cousin was drunk, she had obviously been drinking before she met up with her, she was slurring her words and looking through her towards something, so much so that she herself was tempted to turn around to see just what was so interesting behind her back. C’mon, said the other girl, come with us and we’ll show you how it’s done.

They went outside and started walking quickly. It was already getting dark. Sirma hurried after them, annoyed, and wondered whether the pot hadn’t gotten to her at least a littlethis time. They stopped two blocks later and turned down a side street, there was a school a bit farther up and the kids were walking home in little groups. One lone chubby girl with a big backpack passed by them, the girl with the leather jacket shot out and grabbed her by the shoulder. Hey, she said softly, gimme your money. What money, the girl with the backpack mumbled. Sirma was stunned. She, too, had gotten jumped on the street, they’d demanded her money, and she, too, had instinctively answered with the same stupid and pointless answer: what money? This kind, the girl with the leather jacket said and shoved her prey up against the wall. She brought her face close to the girl’s and for an instant Sirma felt like she herself was up against the wall, she felt the other girl’s aggressive breath scalding her lips, then suddenly things turned around and now she was the girl with the leather jacket pressing her victim’s shoulders hard, she could do whatever she wanted to her, and in the next instant she came back to her real place, standing and watching, hypnotized by the sight, by the power and the aggression streaming from the girl in the leather jacket, she suddenly raised her knee and hit the fat girl in the stomach, she let out a little moan, then mumbled, c’mon, let me go, she was on the verge of tears, and Sirma suddenly hated her for that powerless sniveling, then her cousin went up to them and said softly, come on, give us the money and nothing will happen to you, come on, don’t beat her up, she’s a good girl and she’ll give us some cash, isn’t that right, and the girl finally reached into her pocket and thrust some rumpled bills in her hand, yeah, she really is a good girl, said her cousin’s friend, the other girl looked on helplessly as Chloe went through her pockets looking for more money, but there clearly wasn’t any more, look in her backpack, her friend ordered, Chloe rifled through the backpack nervously and hurriedly, there’s no wallet, she reported, I don’t have any more, that’s it, groaned the fat girl, but the blonde girl with the leather jacket kept holding her and repeating “oh, what a good girl” and suddenly she kissed her on the lips and laughed loudly, then she roughly spun her around and launched her up the street with a slap on the ass, come on already, what are you waiting for, her cousin hissed and pulled her into the street, her hand was warm and wet, the girl with the leather jacket appeared calmly from around the corner, she was still laughing, three fivers, said Chloe and hesitated for a moment, before adding, exactly even, she turned towards Sirma and handed her one of the bills, Sirma stared at the dirty, rumpled piece of paper, come on, take it, Chloe insisted, you’re in on it, too, right? her hand was shaking, whether from adrenaline or from fear that she had shown too much without knowing whether she could trust her, and Sirma realized that she had no choice, she reached out and took the bill, it was old, greasy from the hundreds, perhaps even thousands of fingers that had passed it around. Her cousin sighed. Keep mine, the girl with the leather jacket said, you need it more than I do. Are you sure, Chloe said, yeah, of course I’m sure. They went back to the café with the pool table and her cousin ordered three vodkas at the bar. Sirma drank hers in one gulp and earned a round of applause. She felt keyed-up, her skin was prickling. Do you do that a lot, she asked her cousin. Oh yeah, she said. You ought to see us at a club. You won’t believe how that chick can fight, she nodded towards her friend. She’s a real witch, lemme tell you. She ripped out half of some chick’s hair. See, she pulled down the collar of her shirt and showed her red scratch marks. That’s from the last time we went clubbing, we got in a fight. But if anybody asks, I tell people some dude scratched me. The only problem is that weed is counterproductive for fighting, it makes you all mellow and stuff. Just look how nice we were tonight. Sirma started scraping her nails on the table her empty vodka glass was sitting on. One of the guys from the pool table, the better-looking one, sat down at their table and started making out with the third girl, whose name they still hadn’t bothered to tell her. All of a sudden she was sick of it all. I’ve got to go, she told her cousin. Really? Too bad, she replied. Call me some other time. Yeah, OK. Hey, Chloe was suddenly serious, what happened tonight stays between us, OK, we’re on the same team now, right? Absolutely, what, do you think I’m a squealer. No, no, of course now, it’s just that… OK whatever, you get me, right? No worries. She got up and went towards the door. Even if she was a squealer, that greasy bill guaranteed her silence. She turned around and saw the other girl licking the guy’s ear, their eyes met and she winked at her. Sirma didn’t react. The boys at the raised table kept watching them indifferently, as if they didn’t exist at all for them. She opened up the glass door and stepped out into the dark, she quickly set out for home, but no matter how fast she walked, it still seemed too slow, as if her legs were sinking in some sticky swamp of disgust and euphoria, and she again entered the scene with the girl backed up against the wall, sometimes she was in her skin, sometimes she turned into the other girl, the attacker, and afterwards she melted down into nothing more than the touching of lips, into that unfathomable yet enchanting kiss of violence, she tried to blame her dazedness on the weed or the vodka, but she knew that wasn’t it at all, that physically she was totally sober, and that she was spellbound by what she had seen alone, now she was imagining her cousin and the girl with the leather jacket tearing out other girls’ hair, raking their faces with their nails, and then flying at each other, swinging their fists like boys, falling on the ground and, as they were fighting, they would suddenly start kissing in the noisy half-darkness, checkered by multi-colored lights, then again and again she would go back to the scene near the school, sometimes playing one role, sometimes the other, and that kept going until she finally fell into a pitch-dark, dreamless sleep. The next morning she woke up early for school, went to the kitchen, got herself a bowl of cereal, poured milk over it, and while she was waiting for it to soak in, she went over to the window and looked outside, down below there was a run-down playground with a few surrealistic jungle gyms and a dilapidated horse spring-rider, all of a sudden she heard the blonde girl’s voice in her head saying clearly Looks like Chopper’s gone horse-riding and she suddenly realized what it meant, her stomach clenched and her diaphragm jumped, she heaved over the table, over the bowl of cereal, but she didn’t have anything to throw up, only a stream of bitter stomach acid trickled into her mouth, she spit it into the sink and turned on the water.

Her uncle and aunt had clearly realized, they had figured out what was going on far too late and had come up with the completely stupid idea of finding new friends for their daughter, all of a sudden they had remembered that, hey, she has a cousin, well, of course, why not have her hang out with her cousin, who goes to a good school? Bent over the kitchen sink, Sirma felt rage, she had no desire to save her cousin, now she needed to save herself, to dissolve herself in water like a tablet and to drink herself down, she now hated her cousin for cracking open that door, which should have stayed shut, she had shown her vileness, which she had in fact liked, as if someone were teaching you to eat your own shit. On the bunk of the ferryboat to Rhodes, Sirma was suddenly paralyzed by a deeply forgotten memory, from when she was little and had been playing with a little boy in the neighborhood park, their grandmas were sitting on the benches and not keeping much of an eye on them as they played and chased each other, Sirma suddenly caught a strong whiff of shit, she grabbed the little boy by the hand and told him he’d stepped in poo-poo, he lifted his foot and looked at the sole of his shoe, it was smeared with a reeking yellow mess, now watch this, he said, sat down on the ground and with the natural flexibility of small children lifted his leg, brought the shoe towards his face and licked it. In the bunk, Sirma again sprang up in wave of nausea, just like that morning over the cereal, and just like then, she had nothing to throw up, only a stream of stomach acid stung her tongue.Back then, that morning over the kitchen sink, she had decided to reduce her world to Spartacus and Maya. Before going out, she quietly went back to her room, pulled the dirty, rumpled bill out of her pocket and stuffed it in the bottom of the cupboard where she had kept various important things ever since she was a kid, the fiver sat there up until she moved away from home.When she was gathering up her stuff she found it, she had almost forgotten about it, and since a lot of time had passed since then, she gathered the strength to reach towards the cinnamon-scented candle she liked to light in the evenings and to burn it up.

Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel


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