It was winter when things started getting worse between us.
My boyfriend got drunk and forgot things. He desired to have a normal discussion, as he called it, and I couldn’t. Drinking made him feel like a genius and I didn’t appreciate his ideas enough. He drank every night, but said I exaggerated the frequency and amount to make him feel bad.
I began avoiding him. He spent his nights in the bedroom in front of his computer, and I in the kitchen in front of mine. There were no other rooms except for the bathroom because as immigrants we couldn’t afford more.
During one bad fight, he looked at me with unseeing eyes and threatened to kick me out of the apartment. It was night and it snowed. For the first time in the three years of our relationship, I felt scared of him. The next morning he said that I lied, that he had never said such things. It was like living with Jekyll and Hyde, with two people were not aware of each other’s existence. And both blamed me.
Once again, I decided that I was done. But this time I would definitely leave him. The problem was that I had nowhere to go. I didn’t want to go back to Ukraine and I had no close friends or relatives in Germany who could help me out.
I worked in a hotel. It was a good place but I didn’t appreciate it enough. To be honest, I hated the job. I hated the long ride. I was tired of people.
I had to leave at five in the morning to catch a six o’clock train to Frankfurt. It was still dark outside and our apartment smelled of sleep, our warm bodies, and fried chicken from yesterday. I shivered in my tiny red jacket as I walked to the bus stop, cutting the gusts of wind with my forehead.
Every day, just before the bus arrived, a man from a house near the bus stop took his dog out for a walk. The man was old; the dog was ancient. They were both short and their beards were a matching gray. The dog pissed as soon as his rheumatism-fused legs touched the pavement. Every time I saw them I felt tears in my eyes. What a friendship, I thought. It was like a scene from a movie, when the dog sacrifices his life to save a man.
I got off at the train station that shone like a square piece of amber lit from within. It smelled of freshly baked pretzels and coffee. I bought a mini-pizza margarita and a soft pack of Caprisone juice from the spiteful Turkish girl, who must have hated her job in that tiny glass box. I glanced at the timetable—no delays—and went down to the Platform Number 4, where I ate my breakfast sitting on a butt-numbingly cold iron bench.
In ten minutes, the train sucked in the lethargic crowd from the platform. The ride lasted forty-seven minutes. I tried to read but was dragged into a sticky cotton nap. Then I just looked out the window at the running scenery and imagined myself to be in a movie.
When we passed over the bridge, I looked down at Rhine. It was my ritual. Every time I took the train I had to look at the river. I made a big deal out of it. I wished to feel how its dark almighty waters could cover me whole. But, instead, I was to spend a day in a stuffy room of plastic and dead wood with computers and strangers coming and going.
And then there was Frankfurt. It always looked better from the distance. Crowded sleepy skyscrapers, pink from the sunrise, with the clouds caught on their heads. I loved the city. It was just a bunch of stone, concrete and glass, and indifferent people populating it like ants, but it filled me with awe every time. It made me feel a part of something bigger. Every time I saw it rising above the ground, I thought to myself, “It is my city, my life is happening in it.”
That day I worked in a pair with Gala. She also was a foreigner here, though with a fifteen-year record. I worked at the front desk with guests and she was at the back office, dealing with reservations, e-mails, and phone calls.
The week was eventless; nobody came to the city. We worked in calm easy pace, having lots of spare time. We drank free lattes from our coffee machine, ordered sushi delivery, and discussed clothes she got from online shops. We didn’t talk about personal things. When the boss and the manager passed by, we pretended to be busy with work.
Gala was a big, loud, and confident girl, but every time the hotel owner appeared at the door, she turned into a different person. Her hands shook when she handed him the papers. She dashed nervously around the room and giggled.
I couldn't understand her behavior. I liked our boss. I had never seen him screaming or giving anybody a hard time; maybe because his vocabulary was limited—a few basic phrases in English and German—and none of us spoke his native Arabic.
Gala left in the evening. There were no people at the front desk, only me and the hotel manager, Jaffar, who was flipping through Russian brides on the Internet. He was divorced and had a hot temper, which he needed to apply somewhere.
It grew dark outside and so did my mood with the thought that I would have to go home soon.
"Why so sad today, Ksenja?"
"No, I am fine."
"Did some guest offend you?"
"No, of course not. It's just, I think I might need to find an apartment for myself but I don’t have money for it."
"Just need to move out."
I buried my face in my palms and nodded.
The entrance door slid open and a tall, elderly man came in. His hair was gray, almost snow-white.
“Hello, I have a booking here,” he said. “It is Carson with a 'C'.”
“Welcome to Felicity Hotel,” I responded automatically.
I found his reservation, printed out a booking agreement, and gave it to him for a signature.
“Travelling the whole way from Australia?” I asked out of curiosity and to be polite.
“Yes, I can’t believe I am finally here. But I didn’t think it would be so cold.” He had a warm, pleasant smile. “Could you check another thing for me, miss? There must be one more room booked on my name for Tuesday. My girlfriend will be arriving.”
I looked at the computer. “Yes, it is there. Don’t worry, we will not give it to anyone,” I said with a smile because Jaffar insisted that we must joke with guests.
“This is a really nice place,” he said.
I told him about the breakfast hours and gave him the key.
“Room 605. Sixth floor. The elevator is down the hall to the right. Press one to call the reception if you have any questions. Enjoy your stay.” I shot-gunned the phrase like a commercial jingle.
“Let me see you to your room,” said Jaffar. He did it only if he really liked the guest.
He returned in five minutes, saying victoriously: “He met her online. And you said that it was always a scam.”
Jaffar was sensible and indifferent enough not to question me more about my relationship problems. He left to go somewhere for about an hour and then returned. Then he announced that the boss would help me with the apartment.
"But how? I don't have enough money."
"Don't worry about that. He has good friends in the renting business. He helped Gala with the apartment once and, if you are serious about it, he will help you, too."
I couldn’t believe my luck. Gala lived in a two-room apartment not far from the city center. That would be a dream come true—me, young and free in a big city.
On the train home, I couldn’t stop fantasizing, as if I already lived in my new apartment. The future looked bright and promising. I felt strong.
That night my boyfriend and I fought again.
When I came home he sat erect at his chair trying to appear fresh, but I could see that one side of his face was red and had a keyboard imprinted on it. The sound of door lock must have woken him up. There was an empty bottle on the floor near him. But I could afford not to care anymore, because I was moving out soon. But he didn’t know about it yet. I said ‘hello’, changed my clothes and was going to the bathroom when he said:
“Alright, alright. Don’t give me that look.”
“What look? I am not looking at you at all.” It was one of his paranoia moments.
“You think that you help me, but you only make my life harder.”
“Are you serious? Again? I just got home. Leave me alone,” I said and went to the bathroom. I decided I would not let him ruin my perfect mood.
“That’s it. This is what you do. You always run away from discussions.” I closed the door while he was still saying something about my lack of sympathy.
The next day, the boss shook my hand. It was a feeble handshake, as always. Maybe it was his way to let me know that I was only a weak woman who couldn’t handle a real manly handshake. He wore a dark expensive suit over his stout body. His face looked thick and hard as if made of elephant skin, only red. He moved his flushing mushroom nose close to my face, and I could see wide craters of pores on it.
"You search apartment," he said in broken English. His breath smelled of expensive perfume. I knew him well enough to understand that it was a question.
“Yes, I do,” I said.
"I find," concluded the boss.
"Only I don't have money."
"Alles gut," he assured me.
Later he sat in the breakfast room waiting for some business friend. As I placed a cup of black Assam tea in front of him, he handed me a fifty euro bill. I took it and waited for the explanation.
“For chocolates,” he smiled at me through the lump of pressed sugar that he liked to suck on.
It was too generous for a tip, but it would be impolite to refuse and I didn’t want to. I loved chocolate.
“Thank you so much. You are very kind.” I smiled so hard my eyes turned into slits.
“Alles gut,” he said again, relaxing against the soft back of the chair.
I walked back to my work station thinking that he was the best boss ever.
The next day, the Australian guest, Mr. Carson, came to the reception to get a Wi-Fi password.
“Is there any nice restaurant you could recommend?” he asked.
“There are lots of nice restaurants. It depends on what you like. Do you want something with German flare or just European? Or maybe something Asian? Italian?”
“I guess just something romantic. You know, my girlfriend is arriving tomorrow. Although German would be nice,” he said with a smile. He was so tall I was sure he could see the mess of my unfinished breakfast on my table: a bratwurst, boiled egg, three kinds of cheese, cucumber slices, and a lot of mayo. One benefit of working in a hotel was that I could enjoy the continental buffet breakfast for free the whole day long.
We agreed on a high-class German restaurant and I helped him book a table there.
“Where did you meet your girlfriend?” I asked, because I couldn’t believe he was another Russian-bride type.
“On the Internet. It will be our first real meeting. She is flying from Africa,” he said. I could see that he was delighted and agitated about it like a teen. And after all, he wasn’t a mail-bride type, who looked for a Barbie slave.
It was hard to believe that these days somebody still found time for such things, flying across the whole planet because of love. Every day, I saw people who arrived from all over the world for business fairs, and it didn’t surprise me. But this man coming all that way to meet a woman he only knew by emails looked hopelessly out of time for me. I wondered if I had become a cynic already.
On my way from work, I kept imagining myself in the apartment of my own, beautiful, promising, independent. And at home, I faced the same old picture: drunken boyfriend who felt eager to have “normal discussions”. He didn’t want to discuss anything when he was sober because then, he said, I killed his vibe. “You know how scary you can be?” he said. I didn’t know that. But his words didn't touch me anymore since, inside, I was already single and living in a big city. I didn't share those images with him. In addition to his “discussion” mania, the suspicion about the way I looked at him was growing stronger. I was often afraid to look at him the wrong way. I wasn’t afraid of him, per se, but of the emotionally draining arguments that would follow.
He didn’t admit he had a problem.
“I drink to deal with boredom,” he said. “If I had something cool to do, I wouldn’t drink.”
But he could not find time for doing something cool because he was too busy. Life was particularly unfair to him.
“I have a shitty luck,” he said.
The next day, I was glad to see the Australian guest again. He bought a cup of chamomile tea and asked me to call a taxi for him.
"Going to the airport to meet her."
He was dressed in a freshly ironed white shirt and his hair was still wet from the shower.
A true love story was unfolding in front of my eyes. I hoped I would be at work to see her when they arrived. I was curious about her age and looks. I still had my stereotypes about aged men and online dating.
The boss came in earlier than usual.
"Ksenja?" he called me. When he said my name it always sounded like a question.
He said there was one nice apartment just a twenty-minute walk from the hotel and that I'd be able to move in soon. He gave me another fifty euro pocket money and leaned over the front desk with a conspiratorial smile.
"But I will come for a cup of tea sometimes," he said.
"Oh, of course," I said. "And for a plate of bortsch. I will cook our traditional soup for you," I added excitedly, feeling how with every minute my freedom was becoming more tangible.
He said I worked very well. I was flattered that he singled me out from the rest of his employees with his praise and pocket money. That was how they treated workers in Europe, I told myself. They cared for them. I was still at work when Mr. Carson returned from the airport, disheveled and alone. I wouldn’t ask him, but he spoke first. He said her plane landed on time but that she hadn't been there.
"Would you be so kind to move the room and restaurant reservations for a day?" he said leaning limply against the front desk.
I tried to cheer him up by saying that either her train or bus might have been late, or that she had some issues at Customs.
"When I was coming to Germany it took me almost four months to make all the papers and still they were still fussy about it at the airport. Don't you worry. I am sure she will be here soon," I told him, but, in my mind, I was mad at the woman for offending such a sweet gentleman. She must have been just a regular scammer, I thought, who tricked him into sending her the money and disappeared. I had heard of such things before.
That night, I felt exhausted and empty, the way one does when apathetic sadness covers your whole being. When lifting an eyelid or saying a word turns to a strain. I wanted to go to bed as soon as I got home, but Dominick was in an unexpectedly lyrical mood. He wanted me to sit with him.
“I promise no discussions,” he said with apologetic smile.
“Okay, just not too long. I’m crushing down.”
“Hard day, huh? Drink a little bit, it will relax you.”
“I am already relaxed like a jelly,” I said, but he went to the kitchen and brought me a shot glass anyway.
We drank and I chased the bitterness with an orange juice from his plastic bottle. Under his desk, the floor was littered with such bottles only empty.
“How come we never talk anymore?” he asked.
I looked at him in disbelief.
“I don’t know,” I said. There were thousands of words I could say on that subject. But it was so obvious and I was so tired that I didn’t want to bother with an explanation. I was physically exhausted and tired of balancing his Jekyll and Hyde personality. I didn’t care anymore about what he would think of me. Alcohol was warmly spreading under my ribs and I just wanted to go to sleep.
“I know I am an asshole,” he suddenly said. “And I am sorry. I am trying to change. I really try to drink less.”
I nodded weakly. I had heard that before.
“You know I love you. I can’t imagine living without you,” he said to his hands.
For a second, I got scared that he somehow found out about my plans to move out. But it would have been impossible. He didn’t know anyone from my work.
I didn’t tell him back that I also loved him. We hugged and I said, “Everything is going to be fine.”
That was a phrase I said often and liked to hear from him when we had better times. But now I wasn’t sure to whom it really was addressed.
I left for work the next morning feeling perplexed. Despite my reason, which told me Dominick would never change, I started hesitating. Most of it was because I felt sorry for him. He would be devastated if I left him the way I planned, secretly and without leaving my new address. After all, we had lived through a lot of good and bad together and I had to think about his feelings, too. I wasn’t going to refuse the apartment but I decided to wait and see before making a final decision. My moods shifted and in another twelve hours I could hate him with all my heart and gut again.
The Australian guest, Mr. Carson didn’t lose hope to see his girlfriend. Every half an hour he used the guest computer to check if there was any news from her. Twice he went to the airport, but it was all in vain. She was not there. It was getting hard to cheer him up. He asked me to cancel the booking of her room and also to shorten his stay at the hotel. He went to the fancy restaurant alone.
After three days of futile waiting, he received an e-mail. It said that there was an accident. The train on which his girlfriend was coming to the airport had gone off the tracks. Many people were injured and some were dead. She was at the hospital with a concussion and multiple broken bones.
He came up to the front desk and told me all that. I did not know how to react or what to say. I could not assure him anymore that everything would be fine. He was painful to look at, so calm, almost unnoticeable.
I kept imagining him sitting alone in his room, how he looked at the wide window facing the busy street, so loud and with so many people. The world around him kept living its life and he was lost, lonely, on a completely foreign continent. I rather wished he would have been scammed instead.
In the evening he brought the bottle of champagne and put it at the front desk in front of me.
"I bought it for her. Don't want to take it back home with me," he said.
It was a bottle of champagne Rose. A tacky label like a St. Valentine’s post card and a little glass heart hanging from its neck suggested poor taste and cheap drink. I accepted his gift and said that I was really sorry.
The next day, I had a shift with Gala. She was jittery, could not sit still, and snapped at everybody around. She asked if I didn't mind her going home an hour earlier.
"Why? Going to prepare for a date?" I said because I knew she just met a guy.
She looked at me gravely and for a second I thought there were tears shining in her gray eyes.
"No, the boss is coming for a visit today," she said.
I always assumed he had to come over to check on the apartment because he vouched for it before his friend. But something clicked in my head right at that moment as I realized that everything was not as I had imagined. The separate episodes slid in front of my eyes like slides coming into one distinct picture. Gala's rippling giggles and panic when the boss was around, his sugar-coating way with me, his help, his generous pocket money, the smile with which he said he would come for a cup of tea.
The wave of nausea hit me. How stupid and naïve I was to think he was the kindest and the most altruistic boss ever. Of course he expected me to pay him back the way he liked.
My first desire was to quit the job right away. To run away and leave all my white uniform blouses, pumps, and crusty stockings behind. I was terrified of the thought of what could have happened. It was sticky and disgusting feeling. But even worse was that my dream had been crushed.
I worked my shift until the end and went to the train station with a heavy heart. In a certain way, I felt relieved that I wouldn’t have to start a new life. It was risky. From fear of being abused, from knowing that I was ultimately alone in that country, I was inexplicably drawn back to my boyfriend. He was there, safe and comfortable.
On the train, I thought about us. I tried to convince myself that things were not that bad between us. My parents always said that you needed to compromise a lot in a family, that no one is perfect. There were moments when I loved him painfully. I clung to him, literally shaking with fear of losing him. I went up and down a lot, from love to hate, believing that it was how everybody lived for it was impossible to live so close for years without coming to hate each other sometimes. But in the few recent months, the hate moments comprised a major part of my feelings towards him. I was lost.
At home, I opened that bottle of champagne and drank it, sitting alone in the kitchen while Dominick was drinking in our only other room. It turned out to be the sweetest and the tastiest champagne I had ever drunk in my life. It must not have been so cheap after all. I drank the whole bottle and said drunkenly to myself, "Don't judge by the label." I felt so lonely that I laughed at my own jokes.
While drinking I thought about that man and his life drama unfolding in front of my eyes. His story burned into my heart and I thought I would remember it for a very long time, maybe forever. I saved the glass heart from the bottle. It was so shiny and solid that it felt wrong just to throw it away. I put it in my backpack pocket to carry around as a good luck charm.
I thought about Dominick and felt a surge of warmth towards him. He was also lonely now. I suddenly wanted for everything to be good again, to tell him how much I loved him, tell him that we would go through this together.
He was in bed, lying on his stomach. I pressed against him and breathed in his familiar smell that I loved so much. His mouth was opened like a baby's and his lashes touched his cheeks. He looked so vulnerable and dear. And he was mine.
“Hey,” I shook him slightly. I wanted to tell him that I loved and needed him. I wanted us to have a discussion. “Dominick,” I whispered right in his ear.
But he didn’t respond. There was an empty bottle of vodka on his desk, so there was no chance I could shake him awake anytime soon. I lay down next to him, hugging his unresponsive body and cried out loud.
Through Jaffar I told the boss that I had made up with my boyfriend and would not need the apartment anymore. When he came to the hotel he acted as if there never was any apartment, but its ghost kept hanging in the air between us. He kept being polite, but stopped giving me the pocket money. It was hard for me to stay there knowing his intentions. And the job depressed me more. In a few months, I quit. I simply didn't return to work after vacation, leaving my white shirts, pumps, and crusty stockings behind in the locker.
I did not break up with my boyfriend. He never found out about the apartment. But things never got better between us. We stayed together for another six miserable months.
Still, the Australian guest's story never left me. It was burned into my memory. I carried that glass heart in my bag's pocket for months to come, until one day when I was in a rush it fell out onto the floor of the train platform. I stopped and looked at it for a second, but did not bother to pick it up, for what kind of luck could that heart bring?
This magazine is not a political publication, but I would be remiss if I glossed over the actions of our president since his inauguration on January 20th. Our country is facing an unprecedented level of uncertainty right now, and, for many people, it calls to mind the threats we faced as a nation early in the 20th century.
This is the time for activism. This is the time for artists and writers and wordsmiths to do what they do best. I would love to have the privilege of sharing stories from refugees and immigrants, regardless of nationality, who are willing to write openly about the vetting process and their experiences in the United States. If you're interested, please submit your piece to email@example.com.
In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the incredible pieces we have featured in our February issue, including one from returning poet Marguerite Bouvard, as well as a stunning new short story from our fiction writer, Anastasiya Chuleyda. This month's issue is designed to get you thinking about the lives of people in your community, outside your inner circle, and the world in a way that, perhaps, you havent before.