Perhaps I behave so foolishly on account of my confused childhood and the endless July evenings when I was alone with my enormous mass.
The trucks loaded with scrap iron would roar at night, reeking of diesel, shaking the windows with the reverberating sound of their engines, and I could not sleep. I had the feeling that a line of two hundred trucks crept along my aorta and would burst into my heart—I had always imagined it was a defective organ that would put its owner in jeopardy. The trucks were my father’s; he was ruining himself to make a bright future for me, exporting pig iron from the metallurgy plant in the town, importing scrap iron—meaning heaps of rusty iron wires stolen every now and then from different places. In general, he was killing himself quite successfully. A few thugs had shot at him a couple of times. He was no lesser a thug than they were, but he had a convincing excuse: he loved his fat daughter very much.
Bombs exploded twice in front of our house. On one of the occasions my mother’s upper arm was wounded: a scratch. She then spent twenty-five days in the hospital. After that incident she left us and went to live with the doctor who had made her wound heal. My mother was a very beautiful woman with green eyes that contained falling oak leaves in autumn and sprouting oak trees in spring. Actually, there was a whole calendar in her eyes, but it wasn’t so much her eyes as her endless legs that compelled the doctor to fall head over heels for her. I have inherited her green eyes, but in my case they are almost always invisible under the hills of fat that surround them. I have inherited something from my father as well—he was enormous, with a broad back and a popping belly.
My mother left us before the trucks even started rumbling at night. After she ran off with all her belongings and boxes and bottles of make up, Daddy made up his mind to become the biggest, richest player in town so mother would drown in a lake of misery asking herself why she had cut the throat of the hen that laid golden eggs for her.
My father could read a little and was quite familiar with the multiplication table, which was just enough for his business. Perhaps it was the hardness of his skull that made him the proud proprietor of two hundred completely different trucks with which he sold iron, cucumbers, potatoes, condoms, medicines, and the rest.
For quite a while my swollen body didn’t get me into trouble. Even when we were poor my father left rolls of one hundred dollar bills in the drawer of the kitchen table. He never counted them, saying the money was mine. Mother, whose name was Kalina—I guess her name hasn’t changed yet—used to nod her head, enviously remarking that the wad of bills in her drawer was smaller than the one in mine. She had everything. The best massage expert in town, Maria by name, came to take care of her beautiful figure. The most distinguished beautician was responsible for her face, and the most famous artist in Pernik, a bearded phony with a bald head and the manners of a well-trained pug, had already drawn seven pictures of my mother in different poses.
She got a degree in law from the local university and began integrating herself into the cultural elite of the town. Perhaps she is integrating herself perfectly in the house of her new husband; Doctor Xanov was one of the richest surgeons in the region, younger than she was and very tall. He worked in Pirogov hospital 1, had a staggeringly large number of private patients on his list, and, unlike my father, he never swore.
In happier days when the guys brought Dad home drunk and squashed after his regular sprees, Doc Xanov would come to our house to patch him up. Of course, he was paid juicy fees for his services. My mother helped and did her best handing him bandages, little squares of gauze, or disinfectant. It was perhaps at that time that they fell in love; however that was not the subject of my curiosity. It is curious for me that, after my father was shot, Doctor Xanov and my mother stood by my side at his funeral, looking so sad, as if they both suffered from a splitting toothache.
The police didn’t find out who had shot my father, and that was only natural. They almost never did unless you were some big shot whose widow would be willing to speak to the press about it. Mother was not at all willing to do that.
Doctor Xanov thought I had gone off my hinges, but he didn’t use those exact words when he diagnosed me. “A permanent shock” was how he put it. The truth was I was not scared of blood. At least once a week Father was brought home dripping and stained with blood. I suddenly was aware I would never again see his brown eyes that looked at me as if I were a perfectly normal seventeen-year-old girl. I would have done anything to make him come back to life.
I had never bought porno DVDs or porno magazines. I once found some Italian ones, which my mother kept at the bottom of her chest of drawers; I looked at them for no more than ten minutes. The next night I ran a temperature, felt giddy, and threw up—not an insignificant event considering my imposing mass. It was that night that I made my decision: what I could not achieve by myself, my father’s money would secure for me. How could I invite a man to my room considering the fact that in all the four suburbs of the town, everybody worked for my father? The drivers of the 200 trucks, the petty scrap iron traders, the owners of car services—my father watched everything closely. Businesses throve under his shadow; the city cops and the best lawyers worked for him. How would I find someone who didn’t know my father—and how much would I have to pay him to keep it quiet?
My father had appointed a brawny man named Dancho for my personal chauffeur and he drove me in my jeep wherever I wanted to go. He was always with me, my shadow. Once my jeep was shot at because the attackers thought my father was inside. Bullets splintered Dancho’s left shoulder, destroying some nerves and making his hand droop like a rag. He couldn’t raise it to the steering wheel. He couldn’t even make a fist. But he drove on, blood pouring from the wound, more concerned about what my father would do if he did not get me to safety than his own skin. Dancho was my body guard; he guarded it better than his own. It would not be easy escaping his shadow.
I would have to get out of our neighborhood of tall houses with courtyards and swimming pools. I could only find the man I needed where the eight-story flat buildings were; there lived the sacked workers from the steel combine that went bankrupt three years before. Most of the men were unemployed now. My father hired a few of the lucky ones and the rest stayed in the rooms of their small apartments in the daytime and got drunk in the evenings at The Last Penny, a cheap pub run by my father where lousy alcohol was sold.
In those old blocks of flats I hoped to find my man. Although rumors about my father, and about me and my fat haunches, sprang up almost every day, and songs about Mother circulated—with the occasional pornographic lyric and inaccurate descriptions of her body parts—and flooded the town, the people from that area had never seen me in person.
I told Dancho that I was going to the town library, but I snuck my way to one of the dozens of little shops selling second-hand clothes. Most of the town’s population bought their shirts and trousers from there, but who would ever think that the only daughter of Bloody Rayo would go shopping in the sleazy districts that smelled of sweat and urine? I dropped in at eight neighborhoods like this and intentionally hung around in the sleaziest one. The cellar of one building was flooded—the water in it had turned into slime and pond scum, half of the first floor was abandoned, and in one of the remaining empty rooms there was a second-hand clothes shop. I guess it would be more accurate to say fifteenth-hand or twentieth -hand shop. It was evident that the shop assistant didn’t recognize me.
She was very dark and there was dirt under her nails, her face was wrinkled and hidden below a layer of makeup some miles thick.
“What do you want?” she asked me, adding acidly, “You are very fat and I don’t know if there are any clothes that will fit you.”
“I’d like a skirt,” I explained to her.
“Um, uh you’d be lucky if I found any dress for you at all. I haven’t got a skirt that big. Try this dress on, but it is expensive, mind you. It’s the only one I have that large.”
She wanted one lev2 for the dress. For the first time in my life I was told that something that cost one lev was expensive. I paid her without any hesitation; the woman gave me a dragon’s grin, causing the makeup to melt, and it flowed, mixed with sweat, down her cheeks toward her wrinkled neck. In a flash, she offered me two more dresses, as enormous as the previous one, but this time she said they cost ten lev apiece. She showed me a pair of shoes as well, so warped and torn that you could only use their heels to hit a stray dog on the head or simply throw them in the trash.
“Wonderful merchandise,” she boasted. “You can walk with these shoes for six years. They’re already patched up so you won’t need to bring them to a cobbler.”
I did not buy the shoes. I chose a pair of slippers instead, which hardly clung to my heels, and gave her five lev for them. The woman grabbed at the money, stuck it right away in her bra and scratched her hand as if the bill had burned her skin. Then she jumped up, squeezed my arm, and dragged me to the upper floor where she had “posh merchandise for big babes like you, love.” She showed me a bathrobe mended in seven or eight places, worn and frayed as if a combat tank had driven over it. Then she unlocked a chest of drawers that was full of blouses--yellow, green, pink, and faded as if all that posh merchandise had been soaked in sulfuric acid. “Five lev apiece!” The woman announced generously without letting go my hand.
Her palm was very warm; she took hold of my shoulder with both of her hands and offered me a pair of underpants the size of a tent. I bought them for ten lev, which made the woman gape at me. For a whole minute she stood dumbfounded, then she hugged me and kissed my cheek.
“God bless you,” she whispered, her mouth dripping with saliva. “God be with you every minute of your life!” At that very moment it dawned on me that I could ask if she knew of a guy for me.
“What’s your name?” I asked. Suspicion shone immediately in her eyes, black and slippery like a skating rink.
“Why do you ask?”
“Because I want to come back to shop from you.”
“My name’s Natasha,” she answered. “But my true Gypsy name is Fatma.” I thought about the fact that I could buy all of her posh merchandise, the whole block of flats, the cellars of slime and mold with the smallest of the rolls of money my father had given me. The woman had sunk her black eyes into mine and refused to let go of my arm. “You want something else. I can tell that by looking at you.”
“Listen, Fatma. Can you find a man for me?”
She went on plunging her eyes deeper into my head.
“You want a man?” she repeated slowly.
“Yes,” I answered. Her eyes left mine and crept along the hills of my breasts, balanced on the greasy pillow of my belly, and then descended to my thighs. After that her hands let go of my shoulder, patted my stomach and back and, without any decorum whatsoever, groped my ass as if it were a vast unexplored part of the globe.
“You are fat,” she clicked her tongue several times. “Very fat, I tell you. Tell me when you want to marry him and I’ll tell you how much it will cost.”
It was clear she had not understood. Her words made me shake and as a result of which my belly and the cushions of lard above my waist wobbled like sacks stuffed with cabbage.
“You’re really fat,” she went on. “Are you sick? Is it some illness that makes you so fat?”
“Then you eat too much. That’s good. It means you have a lot of food at home. Don’t you, eh? You bought so many things. I wish I were fat myself,” she sighed and groped me once again, this time on my belly. “Can you breed?” she asked. I didn’t answer. The whips of suspicion lashed me.
“Does your monthly blood flow regularly?” she added.
“Yes, it does.”
“What sort of a guy do you want—scrawny or a fat one like you?”
“I’d like a skinny one. But…”
“I don’t want to marry him.”
“What!” She hiccupped heavily then surveyed me carefully, her face underneath the makeup so deep in thought that the wrinkles stretched and shone like parallels and meridians on the globes of her cheeks. “Oh, yeah,” she patted my arm once again and winked at me. “Oh, yeah. I’ll bring a married man to you, and you’ll give him something for his kids. He’ll be pleased and you’ll be pleased. Kiro has five children. You’ll have to fetch two doughnuts for each kid. I know a bakery where they sell them cheap.”
“No. I don’t want a married man.” I thought about my father, about me, my mother, and suddenly I was out of sorts imagining the children and the doughnuts from the cheap bakery. “I want to get to know a guy well,” I lied to her.
“Oh, come on,” Fatma winked at me. “Do you want him now?”
I was not ready to make such a quick decision but I thought that I might not be able to free myself from Dancho the next day. Mother had invited a brilliant family of lawyers to dinner. She was adored by law experts and a number of bright constellations from the law universe were always visiting our home. Any barrister or notary was flattered to be her guest, of course.
She had just graduated but tributes were sung in her honor noting her particular legal talents. I still cannot explain why she forced me to attend these dinners; my father usually stayed with us for no more than eight minutes—that was the length of time he could endure without cursing--then somebody would call him on his mobile to sign an important business deal.
It was mother who always arranged this, carefully selecting the person who would telephone my father. She chose my attire for the dinners as well. “We’ll hide your thighs with this,” she would murmur, slipping a black skirt on me; her theory was that the black color concealed the extra fat. Alas, under the black skirt my legs were like mountains of the Himalayas. “And we’ll hide your belly with this. Can’t you suck your stomach in a little?” she would ask, very concerned; in those moments I hated her. “We must find a dancing partner for you.”
Now Fatma, who perhaps was my mother’s age but looked three times older with the plaster of makeup on her face and the parallels and meridians under it, repeated her question: “Do you want him now?”
I had to make up my mind.
“I want him now,” I answered, meditating no further. “But where will we get to know each other? I can’t bring him to my home.”
“Your parents will object, eh?” Fatma winked and patted me on the cheek. “Your folks have fed you well, that’s why they protect you so much. And they’re right. If you don’t mind using one of the dresses you bought to spread on the floor, you can get to know him within a minute.” Then she scrutinized me from head to toe. “Honey, step out of my shop,” her chin pointed at the old cardboard boxes full of rags. “You might steal my merchandise while I’m gone. Wait for me outside. I’ll bring the guy in a minute.”
“How much will it cost?” I asked her. My father always started any negotiation with the question “How much? US dollars, British pounds or Euros?”
“I want five levs. You can give him…well that’s something between him and you. Work it out for yourself.”
Fatma took me out into the corridor. People must have been living there for there was a picture of a family on one of the boxes…a father, a mother, and three kids, boys whose hair was cropped to the very bone of the skull. I figured they’d had lice. There was purple wallpaper on all the walls with some variation of a horrible flower pattern that had surely brought both parents and children to the edge of insanity. The strips of wallpaper were ripped off and stuck desperately to the floor; the cracked brick masonry covered by thick patches of mold was visible under them.
I thought about the wallpaper in my room, about the marble floor and my bed, which my father had bought for me from Austria. There was a button I could push that would lift it to a certain angle whenever I wanted to sit up; there was another button that made the bed sway like an ocean liner. I had a waterbed as well that mother had bought for me during one of her excursions to North America. I took out one of the dresses that I had acquired; it was dark red, faded and frayed at the hem. Mother wouldn’t even have allowed me to throw it into our waste-bin for fear it was full of nits, tapeworm, ticks and other vermin. I could spread that dress on the floor, but where? Suddenly I was scared.
What was I doing?
It was summer. My father had made plans to go to Austria and import a new batch of used automobiles; he intended to import two tractors at a very advantageous price. He was a successful international businessman. What was I doing in this narrow walkway? The scorching heat outside had made the ground split the way men severed the bones of a slaughtered pig. Even the flagstones of the sidewalk had become unglued from the sweltering sun, but the slime in the cellar had not yet dried up. A suspicious stink reached my nose.
“Men are wicked and envious, love,” Fatma had remarked when we entered the room I was to wait in. “They want to ruin my business, so they throw dead puppies in the flooded cellar. It’s not dangerous. No one from this block of flats has died yet. Some guys coughed a little on account of the smell, but then they forgot about it.”
After a short time of waiting I heard footsteps along the flight of stairs that reverberated like slaps in my face. After several seconds Fatma appeared, her makeup smiling greasily for it was evident she had plastered on another layer of it and had erased the sweaty streams leading to her withered breasts.
“Here he comes,” she announced, leading by the arm a mere strip of a man whom she pushed towards me. “He’s very scrawny, it’s true,” she admitted. “But the guy is tough and strong, mind you. Every night he unloads marble slabs at the station in Pernik.” She looked at me closely, slapped my cheek and suddenly snapped, “Spread your dress here and don’t make the bloke wait. I won’t let you in the shop, you might pilfer anything, just anything.” Then she turned around, the slaps of her steps echoed down the stairs of the flooded cellar.
The string—the thin streak of a man that unloaded marble slabs at the station—and I were alone. He was much taller than me, lanky and narrow-shouldered like a shoe box, and his hips were as broad as my upper arm. He was wearing a dirty lilac T-shirt and a pair of jeans that were cut off above the knees, and from there a net of tousled threads hung loosely to the concrete floor. The maypole immediately took off his cut jeans.
His eyes were muddily green, almost yellow; then he took off his dirty T-shirt and flaunted his lusterless puny chest before me. I remembered the men in the pictures of my mother’s porno magazines which I had peeked at; their muscles had been taut, bulging like a fighter aircraft, while the muscles of the maypole were practically invisible. It was impossible to miss the detail that the man wore nothing under his jeans, and it felt awkward staring at the part of his body that interested me most.
He came toward me and didn’t make any efforts to undress me. My blouse had pasted itself with sweat to my paunch. It turned out I was incapable of taking off my skirt, so I let him help me. His efforts were great and futile, which made me doubt that he could actually unload marble if he couldn’t manage somebody’s backside—even if it was my backside. I took hold of his shoulders, which felt brittle beneath my fingers.
“Say ‘I love you,’” I ordered.
“I love you,” the guy repeated obediently.
“Say ‘You are the only girl I love in the world’,” I commanded.
“You are the only…It’s too long,” the maypole complained and added, “I want ten lev.”
“I want them now.”
My father’s favorite saying was “Don’t pay beforehand if you want good service.”
I touched him, the place on a man’s body I had always dreamt of touching. My hand burned. He groaned. My father’s groans were the same: like when a bone gets stuck in a cat’s throat and the cat tries to spit it out. It was strange I didn’t feel the pain I had read about. It didn’t hurt at all; it didn’t feel so great either. I simply had to live through it and explore the sensation again. The man’s eyes had become purely yellow and shone like crystals of cracked mica on his dark face. He clung to me, a drowning rat clutching at the skin of a whale. It felt as if he were driving nails into a bag of down, rocking slowly, his eyes of mica hidden under shut eyelids.
His narrow shoulders could sink effortlessly into every part of my big body; I myself sank pleasantly downwards into the concrete floor, nurturing a vague idea that I’d bore a hole in it any minute.
Suddenly the man relaxed with his eyes still closed. Saliva ran from his mouth resembling the glitter of the mica I had noticed in his eyes. The guillotine of my buttocks pressed a little pool of blood to the concrete floor, which did not make any impression on me. Theoretically I had been prepared for it. I could already report that in practical terms no matter how fat I was I had become a woman. The sliver forgot to get down from me, yawned, and fell asleep in the comfortable nest of my blubber. Even though he was scrawny, I could feel his weight heavily on me, so I budged and his head hit the floor. The guy was startled, but only for a moment, then yawned again, revealing a lake of saliva shining in his mouth, his dark hands clinging to me, like pencils writing the enormous sentence of my body.
Suddenly the beanpole broke into a sweat and started slithering on to me, and then unexpectedly his lips grounded inaccurately upon mine. I didn’t know if I could count this as my first kiss with a man, but since I hadn’t experienced an event like it before I decided I might as well accept it as such.
I felt overwhelmed with happiness and wanted to get out of there before the happiness melted like everything that came my way, so I shook the guy who slept quietly on top of me and whispered in his ear, “Say ‘I love you’”. The tone of my voice was the same as my mother’s when she talked to the notaries and lawyers, offering them her perfect profile or a glimpse of her pearly leg. I couldn’t explain how an intonation like that was born in my throat.
The beanpole did not obey. His yellow eyes hung over my face, his mouth pressing mine. I had some money in the pocket of my blouse. It was very hard to thrust my fingers in the silk pocket glued to my skin. It took several minutes to extract a ten-lev banknote, which I left on the floor saying, “Take it.”
“Wait a minute,” the man said. His hand, rapid and scorching like lightening, grabbed the money, then he left me on the dress I had bought from Fatma. At that moment I felt the stink. Fatma was probably right; her neighbors had thrown dead puppies or worse in her cellar.
After five minutes the guy returned carrying two bottles of beer and a package containing the cheapest possible, suspiciously rosy-colored sausage a man could buy in the cheap shops, squeezed in cellars and bungalows along the Struma River.
He opened one of the bottles, poured half of it down his throat, burped and gave it to me. I tasted a gulp of the liquid and was about to drop dead instantly; the beer smelled no better than the puppies ruining Fatma’s business. The man ripped the sausage into two equal pieces, not bothering to peel its skin, tearing it with his teeth as if he hadn’t eaten for four years. I felt nauseated watching the beanpole eat the sausage; I suspected I might have to drive him if not to the morgue, then at least to Pirogov Hospital.
“Eat,” he said. “I bought the sausage for you.”
“And spent all the money,” I snapped angrily. He made no comment on my remark, just went on chewing with his mouth open and stuffed with pieces of the cheap sausage soaked in the nasty beer. Then his head dropped to the ridge formed by my breasts. He pushed aside the last piece of sausage and turned again to me.
It felt so good that for a moment that I thought, “God bless you, Fatma!”
Before I went home I remembered only the guy’s scrawny ribs bulging like piano keys in his chest. My mother had had her heart set on making me play the piano and wasted heaps of money on tutors whom Dancho, my father’s loyal chauffeur, would drive directly from the Academy of Classical Music in Sofia to my music room.
I reached almost to the man’s dimpled, stubbly chin. He let his hand drop on my head; his fingers felt like my fathers, although some of the nails were crushed and warped. He ran them through my thick, toothbrush-bristles hair and mumbled, “Your hair’s red like a bundle of carrots.”
My hairstyle resembled a helmet, and mother criticized me severely on that account. How was it possible, she asked rightfully, that a young promising lady would get her hair cut like an infantryman? I was fat, and the hair baking my skull in its red-hot furnace made me feel hotter.
The lanky man’s hair was black, dirty, tousled, and covered his shoulders. I didn’t ask what his name was.
As I walked down the stairs to the cellar full of bilge water, slime, and pond scum, his steps behind me did not sound like slaps in the face; they reminded me of the first drops of rain after a two-year drought.
“Hey,” he shouted. “When will I see you again?”
When? I wouldn’t be able to get to this shabby suburb in the near future. All over the district the eight-story flat buildings jutted out from the sidewalks with drab balconies covered by necklaces of drying clothes and linen. Among the blocks, cars, trucks, even several buses were parked and between them stray dogs sauntered, lolling out their tongues, some sprawled like corpses under the buses parked on the asphalt, which melted in the heat.
“You are very pretty,” he said.
1 Pirogov Hospital — the National emergency hospital in Bulgaria.
2 Bulgarian currency — 1 lev is equal to 50 American cents.