Rika polishes the dining room table until she can see her reflection. He has told her that the war has left its mark on her face, and she leans down to see it there. But there is nothing new, nothing that wasn’t there before the bombs. The same half-moon scar above her eye, the same lips, the same freckle next to the dimple in her cheek. She swipes again, the varnish glittering in the morning light. She feels a slight rock in her stomach, but nothing more. She straightens, relieved.The Women are in the kitchen, several rooms away. Her breath changes when she eavesdrops. She breathes higher in her chest, and it makes her lightheaded. She can guess from the conversation that the Women are running out of coffee. She makes a note of it.
“There’s the American over at the Grosz’s. I hear she’s good.” It comes from a scratched voice Rika doesn’t recognize.
“Yes, cheery and all, but is she attentive?” Frau Sadler, whose nanny ran off with a relative—nephew? Cousin?
“I like the Czechs. Although they tend to be lazy.” This voice is familiar, but not a regular. Probably Frau Lindt. “The American lets them watch too much television. How’s yours, Marie?”
She hears the metal chair squeak as Frau Mettler leans forward. “We were worried about having a Croat, what with the war and all, but she’s sweet to Julian. I do worry she’s a bit too sad, but Micky likes her. She’s quiet, always creeping around. But I don’t think she steals.”
Rika freezes. The grandfather clock is ticking behind her, the sounds of the traffic outside honking and roaring waft up through the open window. She needs to close the window or the sound will wake Julian, who always naps on his mother’s eggplant leather divan. He is tiny, even for a toddler, with a mop of curls. She loves to stick a fingertip in one of his curls and spring it back. It makes him smile. She loves to make him smile.
“Well, the Czechs are very educated.” The scratched-voice woman bites into something thick and bready and says, “You know, not like those Croats. Or is she Serb? At least she’s not too pretty.” The other women laugh.
Rika thinks of the biscuits and presses her lips together. She had only intended to eat one, but by the time she felt full enough, the entire package was gone. Buttery sweet shortbread dipped in chocolate, she licked her fingertips in delight. Nothing from her childhood had tasted so rich. She stashed the package under her mattress and sent it out with the morning trash. She wonders what difference Croatia and Serbia make to these women who have never seen it, have never known its color and smell? She places a hand on her belly reflexively, then pulls it away.
She bends down and plucks a small wooden sailboat from under a dining room chair. Her hand rests on the lavish rug, its thick nap springing back. Everything in the apartment is lush, thick, solid. She misses her own plywood bed that her brother made from crates, her thick wool dress her mother gave her for her first day of university. Gone, all of it. She closes her eyes and straightens. The sail from the boat has come unhitched, the little wooden rudder is out of its groove. She fixes it and takes it to Julian’s room, a bigger room than any she had known. Her stomach rocks again, and this time she has to run to the bathroom.
“Riiika? We could use more coffee, please.”
She is sick. She scrapes out the toilet with the brush after flushing. The window is open, letting in a slight breeze. She runs a fingertip of toothpaste along her gums and spits. Trotting down the hallway, she avoids looking in the big mirrors that only mock her with her growing stomach, to the sun-filled kitchen.
“We need another carafe. Also, are we out of those biscuits?”
She feels her face redden. “Yes, ma’am. We are.”
“Ah, well. No bother. Perhaps you could take Julian to the park later and pick some up.”
She feels their eyes on her as she busies herself with the coffee. Their conversation shifts, stops and starts with all the awkwardness of interrupted gossip. They will not gossip in front of her. Trust is delicate. Frau Mettler fills the cobalt pitcher with water. Rika knows this is a problem, that the more things Frau Mettler does around the house, the more her critique piles up. But Rika lets it happen, feels it slip out from under her. So many things lately have slipped and slid out from under her. Sluggish, distracted, she has been admonished once a day for a lack of attention. To make up for not being quick enough this time, she chops a lemon for the water and dunks it in the pitcher, then returns to the coffee.
“Oh, well, I don’t mind it with lemon.” Frau Sadler pushes her water glass away.
The hot water in the press pot, the coffee grounds settled, Rika pushes the plunger. Today, the coffee doesn’t slop all over the counter. This time, the plunger is smooth and cooperative. She exhales and presents the ladies with the fresh press pot and a trivet. They smile appreciatively.
“Would have been nice with biscuits.” She shoots Frau Sadler a look, but nods.
“Yes. Herr Mittler thought they were delicious.” And she leaves the room, her heart thumping from the lie. She hears Julian stir, muttering in his sleep. He is sweet, curled up, hand under his cheek. She closes the window and places a hand on his tiny chest, feels his heart fluttering inside. She goes to his room and gets his sailboat that she has fixed. It is white and jewel blue with a lovely yellow sail and reminds her of the beaches. She misses the beaches most of all, the way her mother would place rocks at the corners of the blanket, the sandwiches her brother ate before everyone got back from swimming. Julian blinks his eyes open and smiles at her, at the sailboat. She whisks him off to his room. She thinks of him as hers. His mother so busy with her vanity and white wine and gossip, his father only half working, living off of Frau Mittler’s inheritance. Poor boy, so overlooked. She takes him in her arms and cradles him. He nestles against her sweetly. He has been slow to speak, but his first full sentence had been “I love Rika.” He holds the sailboat up to the sunlight. She kisses the back of his neck, where his scent is strongest. He climbs out of her lap and busies himself with blocks while she watches. She is amazed by how much she loves this boy who isn’t even hers, and something stabs at her from within. She touches her stomach, afraid of it, of what it means.
Herr Mittler comes home, the sweep of his coat on the hanger, the thunk of his briefcase. Each of the Women finds an excuse to leave. Rika never knows why, but Herr Mittler is disliked by everyone except her. Particularly Frau Mittler, who spends her weekdays on walks with a neighbor named Darius using Julian as a foil. It is then they spend time alone, listening to his record collection—all still on vinyl—or watching good movies with English subtitles that Rika can’t understand. It is then they find themselves inexplicably kissing, sometimes stopping themselves, often not.
Herr Mittler says his goodbyes to the women and settles into the couch with a book. Rika feels instant relief. He brings with him distractions, peace, affection. He is the only man Rika had ever seen reading. It fascinates her. Later, when everyone is asleep, she creeps in to see what he reads. Mysteries, thrillers, and the occasional American novelist translated into German. She traces the words with her fingers, wishing her schooling had been better, wishing she could go to school now and learn everything these rich people know. All the confidence of knowledge pouring out of them. All the words so easily found.
Frau Mittler comes out of the kitchen, her thin lips showing her years of smoking. “Rika, when the ladies are here, try to check in on us. I shouldn’t have to call for more coffee.” Rika notices that Frau Mittler has dyed her hair again, this time an off-orange that makes her face look wan.
Herr Mittler chuckles. “Yes, god forbid any of the ladies get their own goddamn coffee.”
Rika hates it when he does this. He is taking her side, but in a way that only gets her in more trouble. The American had warned her about the girls they threatened to send home. Before Rika was a French girl who cut her arms, and before her was a flat-faced Russian girl Rika sees sometimes at the playground with another family’s kid, pushing him too high on the swing between puffs on her cigarette. Rika has no home to go to. Her brother was shot in the street, her father was hanged from a post. There is nothing left. She puts a hand on the back of the divan to steady herself, the soft leather warm from the sunlight. Julian saves her by racing into the room.
“Hey there, monkey boy. Come see me.”
Julian climbs into his father’s lap, rubbing his eyes. “Rika fixed my sailboat. Can we go to the park?”
She nods, hoping Herr Mittler would not join them. He smiles at Rika and winks. “I’ll come, too. You, Marie?”
“No thanks. I’m going to the store to get more biscuits. I noticed you ate them all.”
Rika panics. She tries to find something for her hands to do.
“Yes, well, they were good. Next time get terrible ones.”
Frau Mittler playfully sticks her tongue out and unhooks the canvas shopping bag from the hook. Rika is overcome with fear, then remembers how carefully she discarded the test. Just the thought of it, and her stomach feels full, heavy.
“I have to pee.”
Herr Mittler smiles. “We’ll wait, Rika.”
When she returns, Julian is at the door ready, tiny jacket and shoes, his football tucked under his arm.
“You look well, Rika.”
She doesn’t respond. She hurries after Julian on the stairs. He pushes open the door as far as he can, and she helps him. The sun lights up his blond curls. She aches to stroke his hair, but he doesn’t like that when Herr Mittler is around. They turn the corner, the beautiful old stucco buildings, bright and stenciled around the pediments are lit up against the sky. Trees line the sidewalk, students zip past on bikes. Rika never tires of this walk. Julian runs ahead, picking up sticks, examining gravel.
Herr Mittler takes her hand and presses a wad of cash into it. “There’s enough for the situation and for extras. Buy something pretty. And get some contacts, your glasses hide your eyes.”
Her palm sweats against the bills, rendering them limp and sticky. “I can’t take this.”
“Yes, you can, Rika.”
She slides them into her pocket. “Thank you.”
“We underpay you. It’s ridiculous.”
“Julian is easy.” Which is true. Pleasing Julian is as simple as a wooden block, a cracker with cream cheese.
“Yes, but Marie. Not so easy.”
Rika stays quiet. She remembers the story of the Polish girl at the Sadler’s who gossiped with the father and ended up back in Poland, where her university credits wouldn’t transfer, where she would have to get a job in a nail salon and ended up hooking to pay for her small apartment.
“Frau Mittler is very kind.”
He laughed unkindly and took her hand, now empty of his money. “You are a funny girl, Rika.”
His broad palm is hot against her smaller hand. He jerks his hand away when Julian turns, but not quickly enough. Julian stares, frozen. Rika remembers her apartment, burned and hollowed out like rotten fruit. She races toward him, but he turns and runs, hurling himself at a swing, doubling over it, feet dragging in the dust. She races to him, knees beside him in the dirt, her hand on his shoulder. He shrugs her off.
Herr Mittler stands over them both. “It’s all right, Julian. Hush now.”
Rika looks up at him. He is backlit by the sun, and she can’t see his face. She gathers Julian into a hug as Herr Mittler leaves. Julian pushes her away. She feels his shoulders convulse and she’s afraid, but when he turns his head, he is laughing.
“What’s wrong, Rika? Why did daddy leave?”
She breathes in long and slow. “Nothing, Julian. He just had to go.”
Julian tugs on the swing and kicks his legs. “Push me! Push me!”
Rika steadies herself and gives him a good push. She slides a hand into her pocket and counts each hundred. Somewhere a soldier is using a baby as target practice. Somewhere a neighbor fires a rifle wildly into the night. Somewhere her mother’s body, burned beyond recognition, still slumps over the charred kitchen table. She pushes again, and again. Julian pumps his legs. The sun filters through the trees, here, and gone. Here, and gone.
Photo By: Argyleist