~This story was previously published in Reed Magazine (2010)
When Andnej turned sixteen he set like concrete. His cheeks and jaw flattened and squared, and so did his nose, which pointed downward, like a beak. Basha wondered if he smiled whether his face would break. In the afternoons and evenings he sat on a playground swing behind their apartment complex, his necklace catching the sun as his Adidas and jean cuffs dragged across the pavement. When the boys came up to him, he no longer ran.
“He sold drugs to Henka’s sister,” Kamilia said as Basha studied him through the apartment window.
“How would you know?” Basha looked down at her. Last year Kamilia had played princess games with Henka, the other 9-year-old in the building. Kamilia, whose face colored and eyes found the floor of the elevator when the boy down the hall read aloud all the bad words spray-painted on its walls. “Do you even know what drugs are?”
“He gives her aspirin.” Kamilia moved her thumb and pointer finger together to show the size of the pill. “Henka says that Ania takes them to lose weight.”
Basha could not forbid Kamilia to play with Henka; if it was not one child in the complex, it was another. They were the children of mostly second-generation Polish and Chechnyian families, and they tended to stick together.
Andnej and Basha had stuck together once. When they were in the third and fourth grades together at Elementary School No. 58, every day Basha sat across from Andnej at the long, empty lunch table and smiled at him. She pretended not to hear the snickers of the other children, feel the spitballs and bread crust fly by her ears and face. She sat across from the only Polish boy in her class, almost a head shorter than she, and smiled at him until he smiled back.
And now he was looking at her, nine stories up. His short blond hair bristled out of the edges of his backward baseball cap as his eyes squinted in the sun.
“Isn’t your show on?” Basha moved from the window past Kamilia and patted the top of the television as she made her way to the kitchen. When the diner changed ownership, so did Matka’s hours. Instead of hanging out with her friends, Basha babysat Kamilia, making her dinner, helping her with homework until Matka came home after eleven, her body swimming in a starchy waitress uniform she seemed to fill before she had left.
“Can I have the spaghetti with the stars?” Kamilia called from the living room while Basha searched through the cupboards. Kamilia had eaten the canned spaghetti with the pasta-shaped stars and moons several days ago. And the regular canned spaghetti that Basha had expected to find was missing.
“Kamilia, did you take the one of the spaghetti cans?” Basha leaned around the doorway to probe Kamilia’s face, alight with cartoon pixels.
“I gave it to Henka for some stickers!” Kamilia rocked back on her folded legs, looking up at the ceiling, and maybe, Henka’s apartment on the 11th floor. “Henka never has spaghetti so she gave me unicorn stickers.”
“Maybe Henka would have spaghetti if her family didn’t buy unicorn stickers.” Basha returned to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. She suspected Henka’s family hadn’t bought the stickers. Before Ania got pretty, before she got a boyfriend, she and Basha were friends. They would take the bus to the mall after school on their student bus vouchers. Ania’s long fingers caressed everything in sight, from scarves to earrings to chewing gum. And oftentimes she’d pull those very same things out of her purse on the bus ride home and smile, even though she hadn’t bought them.
“Basha, I’m hungry.” Kamilia came into the kitchen, her bare feet slapping the linoleum. She poked her head under Basha’s armpit and peered into the refrigerator.
“Well, you’ll just have to eat stickers.” Basha pushed her backward with her hip and shut the door. “I guess you should have thought of that before you traded away your last spaghetti.”
“I’m telling Matka!” Kamilia flopped down on a kitchen chair. She was too old to hold her breath, but for a moment Basha thought she might try. Her blue eyes watered and her lip trembled.
“Go ahead.” Basha turned away from her. “She’ll tell you that money doesn’t grow on trees. That we have to eat everything we buy so it lasts until the next paycheck.”
She turned back to Kamilia. It was not Kamilia’s fault they were poor, and although Basha had been taught at Kamilia’s age the value of money, all it did was make her bitter, resentful of those who had any. It was hard for her to believe she had been the kind, bubbly girl that Kamilia was now. The kind who protected little Polish boys from getting beaten up after school.
“I’m sorry.” She tried to put her hand on Kamilia’s dirty hair but she ducked her head. “Why don’t you have some toast and soup with me?”
“I don’t like pea soup. It’s yucky.”
“Then have some toast and jelly.”
“That’s not a real dinner.” Kamilia stood up and ran into the living room, landing on the sofa and shoving her head into the crack between the back and bottom cushions. When the doorbell rang, she emerged, a petrified Cheerio stuck to her cheek.
“Who is it?” Basha leaned against the door and tried to make out the form behind the burned keyhole. Last Halloween the older boys in the building had thrown acid on all the keyholes, and they were never repaired.
Basha looked back at Kamilia, put her finger to her lips. She had not spoken to Andnej since he left school last fall. As his body grew out, his thoughts had turned inward, and he stopped talking to her when they rode the bus to school. Their classes became different; Basha’s academic, his technical. When he was not on the bus one October she had assumed he was sick, or maybe caring for his grandfather. When three days became four became a week, she went down to the apartment on the third floor where Andnej and his grandfather lived. He live here no more, the old man said through the door crack. The smell of stale pipe tobacco and shit wafted out. Go away or I call the police.
Basha took a breath and opened the door, keeping the chain attached.
“What do you want?” Her face was inches from his. She could see that he had begun to shave, or at the very least, hair was growing thicker on his face.
“Just to visit.” He took a step backward, shrugged under the weight of an oversized t-shirt and jeans. The odor of men’s cologne remained between them.
“I have to fix Kamilia dinner.”
“I’ll take you out.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like out¾for dinner. You like pizza?”
“Hold on a minute.” She closed the door but did not unlatch the chain. Behind her Kamilia bounced on the sofa.
“Pizza?!” She cried, hopeful. Basha frowned at her. Basha had been alone with Andnej so many times when they were younger, on the playground, even in his apartment. He had shown her his prized baseball card collection, his Derek Jeter cards, and had even given her one that was not a double. She had it still, inside the liner of her jewelry box, although she did not know why. She supposed it was because it was the only thing anyone had given her.
And now, just because¾if¾he was a dealer, had a gun, maybe¾did not mean he would rape and kill them. She felt her teeth grinding as she signaled for Kamilia to get her coat. She went into the kitchen and got a pen and notepad.
“Which pizza place?” She asked through the door.
She wrote Leo’s and Andnej’s name on the notepad, the time they left. Out in the hall Andnej rolled an unlit cigarette between his fingers.
“Leo’s is pretty far.” She buttoned her denim jacket, so cool, she thought, last year. “Ten blocks. We’d better get a move on.”
“I have a car,” Andnej answered, moving causally to the elevator.
“I’d rather walk,” she answered, pushing the button to the lobby.
“No!” Kamilia cried, turning her back on Basha.
“Don’t worry.” Andnej smiled, raised his eyebrows. “I'll be careful.”
The elevator smelled like piss and cigarettes. Green and purple tags floated over the walls like clouds, rival gangs and who gave good head. She tried to remember if the elevator walls had said those things when she was Kamilia’s age, if she had understood. Behind the building Andnej led them to a black Lexus. It was not new, but it had been expensive, impressive, even once, Basha decided. Andnej clicked open the door with his key fob and pulled back the front seat to let Kamilia climb in. He shut the door after Basha settled in the front.
“Leather!” Kamilia said approvingly from the back as Basha buckled her seatbelt.
“Where’d you get such a nice car?” Basha asked when Andnej slid in. She glanced back at the complex, hoped, maybe, that Ania was home, looking out the window.
“I been working at a garage.” He turned the key and the car blinked to life. The seat vibrated under her as he revved the engine.
He guided the car up the street and laid a cigarette on his bottom lip. She had never ridden in a car, only the bus or subway. Everything seemed so immediate at this level¾the bicycle messengers, the other cars. She could reach out and touch the man hailing a cab. Andnej lit his cigarette and cracked the window.
“Why did you start smoking?” Basha gripped the door handle, although Andnej was not driving fast.
“I don’t know. It’s just something to do,” he laughed, and Basha glanced at his face, noticed how his skin stretched over his cheeks, the half-moon dimples by his lips. “There’s not much to do sometimes, you know?”
“No, I don’t.” She shook her head. The boys who dealt drugs in the neighborhood roamed the streets for hours. Sometimes they got drunk in the parking lot, sitting on their cars and blaring music so loud out of their stereos Basha’s heart felt like it was floating down a bumpy river.
“She’s mean to me, too,” Kamilia said from the back seat.
“Don’t worry.” Andnej winked at Basha, and he turned backward in his seat to parallel park. “When you become a big girl, you’ll get mean, too.”
At Leo’s Basha sat with Kamilia on one side of the booth, Andnej the opposite. He placed his cell phone on the table with his cigarettes and picked up a menu.
“Can we get pepperoni?” Kamilia asked, blowing the straw paper from her straw.
“You get treated and you forget all your manners?” Basha shook her head, grabbing the paper with her hands.
“It’s fun. We’re having fun.” Andnej blew his straw paper at Basha. “Now you do it to me.”
“Like old times, right?” Basha said. Only it had been the other kids who blew their straw papers at them.
She thought she could see it for a moment¾a frown, a hurt in Andnej’s eyes. The ember of a life he perhaps thought he had extinguished. Back then Andnej’s grandfather had cut the tops out of Andnej’s sneakers when he began to grow, and his grey-white socks mushroomed out of the top, along with his toes. The other boys always tried to step on them in the halls. One day an older boy, one of the Italians, stamped on Andnej’s foot while their class was lined up to come in from recess. Basha pushed the boy on his behind, and the others laughed at him. She had been called The Enforcer after that. Sometimes the boys tried to pick fights with her to make her cry, but more often she came home with black eyes, bruised knuckles, her pride intact.
“Why you so unhappy, Basha?” He lit another cigarette and craned his head over the booth, exhaling. “You don’t like me anymore?”
“I never said anything.” Basha shook her head.
“You look real nice.” Andnej nodded, his smiled crooked. He put the cigarette to his lips and inhaled again, studying her. She was thankful when the pizza came, on thin white plates weakened by grease. She picked up the slice with both hands and took a small bite as Andnej and Kamilia pulled at the cheese with their teeth, lapping up the strands.
“So you will take me to the garage where you work?” Basha asked, sipping her Coke.
“You interested in a car?” Andnej raised an eyebrow. There was a pimple, shiny and hard, above it. “I can help you get a car.”
“I just wanted to see where you worked. What you did instead of school.”
Andnej did not answer. He looked at his cellphone after it vibrated for the third or fourth time.
“My boss.” He stood up suddenly and moved to the door. “I gotta get this, okay?”
“Is Andnej your boyfriend now?” Kamilia sat on her heels, leaned over the table, and took the shaker of parmesan in both hands. She shook it until a heavy carpet of pale yellow dust covered her slice. “Ania says you are too plain for boys.”
“Ania is a bitch.” Basha crumpled her napkin. Her face colored. “And if I ever catch you saying that word, you won’t be able to sit for a week.”
Andnej came back, his fists deep in his jeans pockets.
“I’ve got some things to do.” He dropped some bills on the table. “We can get the rest to go, yeah?”
“Are you going to sell drugs now?” Kamilia stood up, balancing the pizza box against her chest.
“Don’t say that.” Basha looked at Andnej. “Andnej works at the garage. Don’t you, Andnej?”
Andnej smiled and tousled Kamilia’s hair as she skipped toward the car.
“These kids,” he laughed. “Their minds are too much, eh?”
Andnej was waiting for her a few days later after school. She saw the black Lexus outside as she pushed through the double doors. She pretended to look in her backpack as she walked up the street to the bus stop, but the car followed her.
“You want a ride home, Basha?” His eyes were hidden by aviator sunglasses. Rap music pulsed through the window, and she could see the muscles in Andnej’s neck tighten as he strained to talk above the music.
“I thought you had to work?” She stopped walking but did not look at him.
“I work all the time. Whenever.” He turned down the stereo, leaned over and opened the door. “Get in.”
Basha climbed in the passenger seat and watched the other students at the bus stop. There would be talk, she supposed. Already she had met eyes with Ania in their shared study hall. Ania regarded her curiously, with a smile, had sat closer to Basha then she had in years.
“Is it true, then?” Basha looked at Andnej’s hands on the steering wheel. They were well-formed, but mostly, much too clean for a mechanic.
“What’s true?” He chewed hard on his gum, his chin jutting in time with the music.
“I'm a businessman.” He picked up his cellphone, plugged into the lighter, and glanced at its backlit screen. “I support myself, and no one messes with me. I protect you now, too, you understand?”
“I don’t need protection.”
The boys shouted things at her sometimes, suggestive or mean, but mostly she seemed a waste of their time. Not when there was Ania, giggling, black eye liner and ringlets of dark curls.
“But maybe you need attention.” He slid his hand clumsily over hers where it rested in her lap, almost missing it entirely. She was surprised that it was clammy. She glanced at his pink face and did not say anything, did not move her hand.
“Where have you been?” Kamilia stood in the foyer, hands on her hips, as Basha swung open the door.
“At school.” Basha hung her backpack on the peg and locked the door behind her. She was afraid to look at Kamilia and betray herself, that somehow Kamilia could read in her eyes that she had been riding with Andnej for the better part of an hour. Nowhere, really¾Andnej swung in wide arcs around the neighborhood¾by the school, the markets, the park¾and even as Basha knew she’d be home late she wanted Andnej to take her further, to neighborhoods with trees and grass and maybe a lake, a beach. But she wondered at the same time whether Andnej knew the way to such places.
“I’m going to tell Matka you left me alone here.”
“For less than an hour? She’ll laugh at you.” Basha went to the kitchen to reheat the pierogies from the night before.
“Were you out with your boyfriend Andnej the drug dealer?” Kamilia sat at the kitchen table and picked her nose. “I bet Matka doesn’t know that.”
“Matka doesn’t know because it isn’t the truth.” Basha cleared the table for dinner. “And what’s your problem with Andnej, anyway? He bought you pizza, didn’t he?”
“The drug boys are bad.” Kamilia wiped the finds from her nose on the edge of her plate. “We saw a movie about drugs at school.”
“Drugs are bad, but Andnej’s just a boy.” Basha turned toward the oven. Andnej was so quiet; he had barely said a word in the car, his left hand guiding the steering wheel turn after turn, his right hand holding hers lightly. Sometimes she would run her hands over the digits, to feel their form and weight, and Andnej responded with a squeeze. What about your grandfather? she had asked. How could you leave him like that? The smell of shit and tobacco lingered in her mouth somewhere, the dank of rot.
He found my gun.
What about you? Where do you live? She thought of the room she shared with Kamilia, too small for secrets.
I’m okay. He swung widely into the avenue to avoid a shirtless kid on a bike. I got places.
Later that night in the bedroom she shared with Kamilia she heard the voices, an argument in the parking lot behind the building. She slid out of bed and squinted through the blinds. A boy with baggy pants and a baseball cap like Andnej pranced around an older man, a junkie, she guessed, who swayed and moved his hands frantically. The boy in the baseball cap grabbed the man by his shirt and pushed him to the ground. As the man tried to get to his feet, the boy took something out of his pants, a gun, maybe, and hit the man on the head once, twice, before walking away. Not Andnej, she decided. This boy was a little taller. Maybe. The man laid on the ground, his legs buckled underneath. She thought he moved slightly, breathed. When she returned to bed, he was still on the pavement. She hoped, when she and Kamilia woke up the next day, he would be gone.
“I got a favor to ask,” Andnej put a folded paper bag in her hand when Basha got in his car after school. He had been waiting for her all week, and he hadn’t refused him. She only stayed with him a little while, only for a ride around the block, a kiss, before she got home to Kamilia. She pressed her hands through the paper bag, felt the capsules squirming beneath them. “Can you give these to Ania?”
“This is for your trouble.” He pressed some bills into her hand. “You can buy yourself something nice.”
“I’m not for sale.” Basha put the money and the bag on the console between them. She looked at the unfurling bills, two twenties.
“I didn’t mean it that way.” Andnej picked up the bills and pushed them toward her. “Just take this. For Kamilia. Some candy or something.”
Basha looked at the bills lying atop her hands, the lightness of them, their smell. Kamilia had whined all week about wanting a pocketbook ever since Henka had gotten one. Maybe next paycheck, Matka had said, soaking her feet in cold washcloths. I get better tips next week, for sure.
“You want to go to a movie?” Andnej asked. “Kamilia, too.”
“What about your grandfather?”
“What about him?” Andnej rubbed the top of his head, frowning. “He put me out on the street. As if he did not know where I was getting his pills from.”
“You deal to him?”
“Just his pills.” Andnej pulled up in front of the apartment. An old woman sat swaddled in front, a wire shopping basket on wheels parked before her. “Ungrateful bastard.”
“I just wish...” Basha squirmed in her seat. “Money isn’t everything, you know. You should be in school.”
“What are you talking about?” He looked at her. His eyes were as blue as the sky, hard like glass. “For someone so smart, you don’t know anything.”
They sat in the car, breathing. When they were younger Andnej had wanted to play for the Yankees like Derek Jeter. They’d stand in the playground behind the apartment on summer nights, when the wave of heat rose off the pavement. Andnej let her wear his glove, and they tossed the ball back and forth, fighting for space in the air with moths. Back then, it seemed possible that Andnej could be a shortstop for the Yankees, she a veterinarian.
“Sorry,” Andnej said, fiddling with the stick shift. “You’re a smart girl, Basha. You’ll be fine. You’ll be millionaire some day.”
Basha picked up the paper bag and money, her hand on the doorlatch.
“Just this one time,” she said and hurried past the old woman into the building.
“You and Andnej, huh?” Ania blinked her eyes and smiled as she locked the door of her and Henka’s bedroom. Years before, Basha and Ania had experimented with makeup here, listened to CDs. Ania peeked in the brown bag before slipping it under the lining of her underwear drawer. “Is he a good kisser? Does he have a big one?”
“It’s not like that.” Basha shrugged. Ania cracked the window and flopped on the bed, lighting a cigarette.
“What, you too good for that?” Ania tilted her head to the right, tying her hair into a knot. “You’re not too good to ride around town with a drug dealer.”
“You’re not too good to be his customer.” Basha picked up a mirror off the dresser, looked at her close-set eyes, her pinched lips. She wondered what Andnej saw in her.
“I’m not a druggie.” Ania leaned back against her pillow, tugging her bra straps up. Her breasts fell, heavy to each side of her body. She had been heavier until recently. She dragged on the cigarette, her lips a dark O around the filter. “I take a few instead of eating. And look how nice my body gets. You should get some from Andnej, Basha.”
“I should get going.” Basha turned to the door.
“Wait.” Ania slid her legs over the bed, digging in her pants pocket. She held out some bills to Basha. “Here. Are you the one to see now?”
“About what?” Basha took the bills limply, like a handshake.
“You know what.” Ania nodded toward the underwear drawer.
“Don’t let anyone know about this.” Basha thought of Kamilia, and a cold, like icewater, filled her spine. “Or you’ll have to find somebody else.”
“Of course.” Ania put her finger to her lips as she walked Basha to the door.
Once a week, she took the packets to Ania, as a favor. As a favor, Andnej let Basha keep the money. She rolled the tens and twenties tightly in a roll, like Andnej told her, and she put it in her box of tampons, wrapped in a napkin, someplace Kamilia would not look yet. She peeled off ones and fives and bought Kamilia and Matka little trinkets. Lipstick. Candy. Tutoring money, she lied to them. From school.
Some of the other girls at school stopped by her locker. Ania had sent them. She passed that money to Andnej, but he let her keep Ania’s money.
Let her be your bitch, he explained. He gave her a necklace, a little amethyst, her birthstone, but she was careful not to wear it around Matka.
“You take drug money,” Kamilia said as they watched television, waiting for Matka to come home.
“No I don’t.” Basha crossed her arms. She felt the vibration of the little phone Andnej had given her in her back pocket. “You take Andnej’s money, too. For the movies. The pocketbook he got you at the farmer’s market.”
She went in the bathroom, read the text message from Ania.
“You sell to Ania, too.” Kamilia said through the door. “Henke knows. Henke knows everything.”
“You want money, don’t you?” Basha came out of the bathroom. “You want to eat toast for dinner?”
They jumped on the couch as the key jingled in the lock. Matka filled the doorway, bent over, her lids heavy.
“Girls.” She nodded at the carnations on the table. “Is somebody’s birthday? Funeral?”
“They’re for you, Matka!” Kamilia picked them up and brought them to her. “Yellow, your favorite.”
“They were throwing them out at the market,” Basha lied. “Can you believe? Said they would die soon.”
“They’re beautiful.” Matka smelled them, without smiling. Her eyes found Basha’s. “For the price.”
“Really, Matka.” Basha looked away. “It’s the truth.”
“Come, Matka.” Kamilia led her by the hand into the kitchen. “Basha cooked us pot roast for dinner.”
Andnej took her to the apartment where he crashed. It was unclear to Basha to whom it belonged. Andnej took off his shirt and stuffed it into a duffel bag on the floor. The room seemed flooded with beer bottles, trash, scales and bags and other duffel bags.
“Come here.” He held out his arms. She felt his muscles strain against her and relax. They went into the bedroom, sat on the unmade, sour-smelling bed. Andnej pushed her down and kissed her. His hands fumbled with her clothes, his own. He began to sweat, drips worming down his face as he entered her and thrusted. She grimaced, holding onto his back as he grunted, rubbed against her. When he was done he rolled off and wrapped his arm across her chest. They lay still until Basha thought she might be late.
“Was I okay?” He sat on the edge of the bed, scratching his chest. Basha nodded. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know—it’s just so many things.” She pulled her shirt over her head, moving next to him. It seemed for every emotion she felt about things, there was another equal, opposite. Her tummy stretched like taffy. “It’s confusing.”
“We’re still good, right?” He grabbed her arm, a little hard, did not let go until she nodded again. Matka had told Basha years ago that Andnej’s mom had been crazy. She slit her wrists when Andnej was four. Andnej had hidden in the laundry room for two days before his grandfather went looking. He slept in a dryer with a towel stained with his mother’s blood. He told her later it was like being inside her. He could remember that, he insisted when she laughed. You always remember the safest place, he said.
“Where you been?” Ania opened the door. Basha followed her to the bedroom. There Ania searched in her jewelry box.
“Will you take this instead?” She held out a ring, a slither of milky stone in the setting. She pushed it on Basha’s finger. “I’m out of cash. Good fit, eh?”
“I’m sorry, Ania.” Basha put the ring on the dresser. “Look, do you really even need the pills?”
“What, you take orders from Andnej?” Ania snorted. “Are you Andnej's bitch now?”
Basha felt for the knob of the door. “I’ll come back when you have the money.”
“Wouldn’t your Matka love to know her beloved Basha is dealing?” Ania smirked, her fat lips bursting out of themselves.
“Wouldn’t you like the shit beaten out of you?” Basha grabbed Ania’s shirt by the neck and pushed her. “Because if she finds out, that’s what’s going to happen.”
Downstairs her hands shook. The can of green beans for dinner sat before her on the table, unopened. Tears stung the corners of her eyes. The phone Andnej gave her vibrated in her back pocket. She didn’t answer it.
“What?” Andnej frowned when he pulled up at school the next day. “Why don’t you answer the phone?”
Basha kept walking. She heard the car skid to a stop behind her, his footsteps, his fingers locked around her arms. He shook her.
“What?” He turned her around. His eyes went back and forth, searching hers. “What did I do?”
“Nothing.” She shook her head. “I don’t want to help you anymore.”
“What happened? Did one of those cunts give you trouble?” He turned her around and marched her back to the car. “Who was it?”
“It was nothing.” She leaned against the car. “I just don’t want to do it anymore.”
“Come on, baby.” He pressed his body into hers. “I can’t do it without you. You’re my girl in the schools.”
“I’m not your bitch.”
He slapped her. Not as hard as she had maybe expected. But hard enough.
“Come on.” He nodded to the car. When he turned to go to the driver’s side, she ran, the sound of the car behind her. She felt the heat of the engine, the excited air, on her legs before it turned away. She only stopped running when she got home, behind the door, bolted it. She went to the window, past where Kamilia was watching TV, and looked. Her cell phone vibrated. Andnej. It vibrated, for hours, Andnej’s name etched in the screen, until she turned it off. She went into the bedroom and closed the door. The money was undisturbed, neat little rolls of paper, in her box of tampons. She thought to flush it in the toilet.
She heard the knock on the front door and jumped up to get it before Kamilia. But when she opened the bedroom door, it was already ajar, Andnej half over the threshold.
“Kamilia, don’t.” Basha moved toward them. Andnej held out his hand.
“No, no, no,” he whispered, and smiled. His face was sharp, cut from a knife. He moved toward her. “We’re still okay, right?”
She turned to the bedroom. Andnej was fast, and before she could think she was behind the door and he was behind the door with her.
“Kamilia’s going to Henke’s for a little while,” he said, locking the knob. “You didn’t answer my calls.”
“I had things to do.” Basha heard the front door close, the apartment quiet, expect for her breathing. So heavy in her ears it made her dizzy.
“Sit down.” He put his finger to his lips, taking off his coat, his shirt, his shoes. She could see the gun tucked into his waistband, the shine of the handle in the dim light. “We’re still good, right?”
He was on her, heavy, her bones buried into each other on the bed. He looked down at her. She felt something press against her crotch, his gun or his penis, she wasn’t sure.
“Shh,” he said again. She closed her eyes. “It’s fun. We’re having fun.”
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I had just read Curtis Smith’s story “Think on Thy Sins” from his collection Bad Monkey. It’s about a boy in a family of Russian immigrants who has to run his father’s business (legit and nonlegit) after his sudden death, and the boy learns the moral slipperiness of adulthood, including the easy, intoxicating value of violence. It’s just such a well-written story about an underworld that is as mysterious to me as Jewish or Irish or African-American ones. I thought about my own Polish heritage and my ample harvest of mistakes I was allowed growing up, mistakes that did not, thankfully, come back to haunt me as an adult. But what about a smart girl, a poor Polish girl in a housing project, her life on a path so constricted path, so razor thin, that any deviation from it, could lead to devastation? Because we already know, and can almost forgive, Andrej’s fall from grace, for he belongs to the legion of those who never have a chance. But Basha is a strong baby turtle, the ocean in sight, a glimmer of hope for her, but unless she heads doggedly toward the waves, allowing herself no distractions, she will be eaten.
I got a couple of really nice, personal rejections on this from journals who normally don’t give me the light of day, and then Reed picked it up, which was so exciting! I only have the contributor copy—the issue wound up selling out pretty fast.
ABOUT JEN MICHALSKI
Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize, the short story collections From Here and Close Encounters, and the novella collection Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc 2013). She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of The 510 Readings and the biannual Lit Show, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a "Best of Baltimore" in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, MD, and tweets at https://twitter.com/MichalskiJen. Find her at jenmichalski.com