IN THE SOPPING WET SPRING of 1995, Sylvia rode the bus to and from Old Mountain more times than she cared to count. Her twin brother, Drago, was in Kyustendil, fulfilling his military service, and she felt obliged to visit her mother twice as often as usual. When she was a student, she’d catch any bus she could, usually from Poduene Station, which was a filthy place—thick with fumes and overrun by dogs and stalls hawking cheap underwear and overripe vegetables. Time and again, she suffered Poduene, because it offered the most buses to Old Mountain; if she missed one, she shouldn’t have to wait too long for another. But lately she’d been catching the 1:00 bus from Nevski Cathedral, where there was no backup bus if she was late, but also none of the scrabble and mayhem of Poduene. It was cleaner, more convenient—things that, in the eight months she’d been out of school, had started to matter in a way that worried her. For even as she waited for that more civilized bus, she had a sense she was already getting older, already starting to set in her ways, like a tart, bacterial yogurt fermenting in a pot.

“Not older,” Lazar had tried to reassure her the night before, when they were smoking in his room. As he lay on his side in the middle of the bed, propped on one elbow, the fluorescent light pooled in the dent in his forehead. “More mature,” he said, ashing carefully into a chipped clay dish. “More cultured.”

But Sylvia had just found out that Lazar was leaving, and how dare he belittle her cares! “Like a yogurt,” Sylvia snapped from her perch on the chair. “Exactly like a yogurt.” That Lazar did not know what to make of this—she was pleased she could be so opaque.

That year, Sylvia was working at a hotel in Bankya, a town outside of Sofia known for its mineral baths and sanitariums. She had taken her degree in tourism, which she had hoped would land her a job on the Black Sea coast or at the very least at one of the nicer hotels in Sofia. But there were not many jobs to be found. The tourists were not so eager to come to Bulgaria. After a short search, she had accepted a position at a provincial hotel where one of her University instructors had a connection. She was one of three girls who sat behind the front desk, each working a twenty-four hour shift with two days in between to do as she pleased.

In the summer, the streets were bustling with people on holiday, and it was easy for Sylvia to feel satisfied with how she’d done. She passed her free time trolling the market, planning the ways she would spend her next paycheck. Though her monthly pay was little more than the stipend she’d received as a student, there was something about it—the fact of having earned it, perhaps—that made the money feel like a great amount. She would comb the market with utmost care for high-heeled shoes, faux leather handbags, and perfumed soap cakes, never making a purchase. Her biggest splurge was the occasional Zadora at the local beer garden where the summer staff gathered in the evenings. But even that was rare, because with Sylvia’s pale skin and high forehead and spray of freckles across the bridge of her nose, there was almost always someone who wanted to buy her a beer.

Back in June, when Sylvia had gone looking for a room, she’d taken the cheapest she could find. It was a plain room on the second floor of a house with a small balcony and a bathroom across the hall, which she shared with two other boarders. The landlord and his family lived below in a separate apartment. She rarely saw them, thought little of them, except when she smelled the cooking from downstairs, and then she could think of nothing else but how nice it would be to be a guest at their table. There were times when the smell of frying meat drove her from the house, so hungry was she for a home-cooked meal.

But by late fall, the hotels and restaurants had emptied out. The market closed down, save a few stalls that carried toilet paper, sanitary napkins, toothpaste. Sylvia’s hotel was big enough to keep her on year-round, though they seldom hosted more than a handful of guests. While the hours behind the front desk passed slowly, the hours back at the house passed slower still. The other boarders had left, and she suffered alone, the warped passage of time playing tricks on her, speeding up, slowing down, speeding up again, until the clock became an object of treachery and mistrust, and her resentment for the family downstairs—another night, another meal!—collected in every rut and dimple of the cold linoleum floor.

In retrospect, and even in the moment, she was aware she was going a little bit crazy, So much time! So much quiet! What was she doing there? She thought about quitting and going home, only home was quiet, too, what with Drago gone and Maika working more these days, her small dentistry practice filling every empty moment. Sylvia considered checking herself into a sanitarium before it was too late and they found her in bed, catatonic, hairbrush melted to the hotplate. But then Lazar moved in across the hall with his cigarettes and salamis and capped tooth. Most nights, she was so happy to see him—to see somebody, for that matter, but especially him—that she could forget her worries altogether and be kind and light, cute and cajoling.

For it was impossible to compare his troubles and hers. He told her just enough. Something about his wife’s hair falling out in clumps. Something to do with her bladder. After spending all day with his wife in the sanitarium, he did not want to talk about it. 

Indeed, he had said so little, there was no way Sylvia could have seen this coming: that his wife’s condition would improve so quickly, that after just a month, the time would come for them to leave. He would be gone by the time she got back from the weekend in Old Mountain.            

“That’s great,” she had managed. “That’s really great.” Though clearly it was not great. The news sank in like a big red stain, impossible to hide. Impossible to be pert and perky. Impossible to be anything but difficult. “Exactly like a yogurt,” she snapped, whichmeant nothing, really, except that she hated yogurt.


THE BUCKETING MARCH rain that poured down on Sylvia might have been manageable (at least it wasn’t snow) were it not for the wind that whipped around the Nevski, buffeting her from behind. Forget the umbrella. Back, side, everything from the thigh on down—she was wet, soaking wet, not to mention cold, for they were just barely inching into spring. A person could drown in this kind of rain, she thought. That was the other thing about this bus: there was no station or shelter, and the cathedral was too far away to wait inside. There were no good options. Sylvia blamed Drago for this. She was still irritated he hadn’t made more of an effort to get leave so he could be with their mother on Women’s Day. “At least try,” she had pushed him over the phone. But when she called back, she’d gotten the sense he wasn’t trying too hard, and when, Drago, did you become such a ninny? 

Lazar said she was being too hard on him. “You don’t know what it’s like,” he said, and perhaps she didn’t. But she was tiring of the visits home, of so much sitting at the kitchen table with her mother, who said over and over how proud she was of Sylvia, oblivious of how much this sounded like she was trying to talk herself into it. Rather than take offense, Sylvia had grown increasingly concerned, for it was unlike her mother to be so diffuse and unaware. These muted movements, these tepid smiles, this maddening fixation on pride were cause for worry.

But try explaining that to Drago, who wanted something concrete—a limp, a lump, a cough—rather than an essence. “I don’t really get it,” he said to her on the phone. “I think I’d have to see her to know what you’re talking about.” Which was precisely Sylvia’s point about going home for Women’s Day, but clearly he didn’t get that either.

The bus arrived at 1:00 on the dot. By then, the glue of her right shoe had dissolved, and the sole flopped beneath her foot as she lifted it to the stair. Still, Sylvia was cheered by the roof over her head, the rush of warm air, cheered more than she thought possible. “Zdrasti,” she said to the driver, happy to see it was the regular guy. Over the course of so many rides home, she’d developed a fondness for him—for keeping his bus so clean and for always being on time. She imagined him a family man, with a wife who dressed in the latest fashions and two children waiting for him at the end of the line. Fishing her coin purse from her coat, she exchanged damp levove for a bus ticket, taking note of the smell of detergent on his shirt and the papery dryness of his palm, which was coarse as a canvas glove. 

“Be good to yourself,” Lazar had said in parting. “Buy a magazine for the ride.” As though they were parting for just a few days, instead of forever, and a quick flip through a magazine could make her good as new.

It was just like Lazar to suggest such a thing: on the few occasions Sylvia had shared her concerns with him, he had brushed them off as paltry, childish. “Bring a book,” he’d said when she told him how bored she was at work. “Turn on the radio,” he advised when she fretted about the possible numbing of the eardrums she imagined might come from so little stimulation. 

Her mother did the same thing. “You have a hot plate,” she said, when Sylvia complained about the delicious smells coming from downstairs. During the day, Sylvia would predict what the family would eat that evening—meatballs and potatoes, stuffed peppers, perzhola. Five times out of ten, she got it right. “Why don’t you make something on the hot plate?” her mother urged. And though hers was the only voice Sylvia had heard all day, and though she could be certain that her mother, for her part, was eating nothing more tempting than a bowl of beans and broth or else an egg, scrambled and salted, a slice of bread, it was all she could do to fend off tears until she got off the phone. “Yes, Mamo. No, Mamo. Yes, Mamo. Love you, too.”

No, she had not appreciated Lazar’s instruction, and yet she had followed it. As the bus eased forward, the heat blowing up from beneath her seat, sodden magazine spread across her lap, she felt transported from her cares. The driver flipped on the chalga music—the winding, minor chords, the gypsy pulse were a part of this ride—and Sylvia could fairly feel the well being coursing through her veins, at once palpable and precarious. A stolen glance at her seatmate nosing in on her magazine was all it would take to ruin it, and so she stared straight down at the pages in front of her, which offered articles on flirty hair colors and ways to make him happy in bed.

So fixated was she on preserving this rare moment of satisfaction, Sylvia might not have discerned the bus pulling over and stopping on the side of the road. But for the thrashing sounds of rain, she might not have noticed the doors open, the fragile figure appear on the stair. She might not have recognized this creature—boy, girl, man, woman, it was hard to tell. Stringy hair plastered to head. Complexion puckered and spongy. She might not have known this person at all were it not for the voice—Kolko?—the raspy nasal tone she would know anywhere.

The driver did not even look at her when he brushed her money away. This stop-off was a deed of decency, not an activity for profit. Sylvia wished he had taken the levove. Petrol prices were high; he should have taken them and treated her like anyone else. Once they were back on the magistrala, he should have left her alone, so the incident would pass, and she could be just like everyone else. Instead, he broke the standard no smoking policy and handed back a cigarette, already lit, which Kuneva could barely hold between her stiff fingers.


WHEN SYLVIA was in ninth grade, Ms. Kuneva told their class, “Never trust a man who carries a kerchief in his pocket.”

“K-e-r-c-h-i-e-f.” She said each letter as she wrote the word on the board. Then she dug into her purse and produced a small lace-trimmed square into which she blew her nose with great gusto. “Kerchief,” she said, holding out the balled-up cloth for all of them to see.

“Hanky,” she carried on. “Hanky is a synonym for kerchief.” She wrote this word up on the board, too. “H-a-n-k-y. Hanky.”

A flit of giggles made its way around the classroom. Hanky—the silly sound of it—was just the sort of word they loved. From then on, they would look for every excuse to use it. As in, “Gospozha, can I go to the bathroom? I think I left my hanky at home.” Or, in the event of blood drawn from a paper cut or picked scab, a forcefully whispered, “Let me wipe this with my hanky,” which, if Kuneva heard, she could not get angry about, because at least they were speaking in English.

“Tissue,” she continued with yet another blow of the nose, and dutifully, they wrote this in their notebooks, entry number 584. That year, they would add 1,463 words to their English vocabularies, many of them having to do with things that were on Kuneva’s mind. That fall, when Kuneva had taken up mushrooming, they learned forty-three different kinds of edible and inedible mushrooms, including boletos, morels, and the most ominous of mushrooms, the angel of death. And when she’d mistaken a jack-o-lantern for a chanterelle, they learned words having to do with nausea, including vomit and queasy and the delightfully noxious-sounding puke, which they practiced in mock dialogues in front of the class.  

“I’m not feeling well today.”
“You’re looking a bit green around the gills.”
“Well, I just puked in the trash can.
“You don’t say. Did you catch that nasty bug that’s going ‘round?”
“No. I ate a jack-o-lantern.”

The dialogues blended vocabulary words from Kuneva and polite British expressions from their English workbooks and curses the sharper-eared students had managed to pick up from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan films. Though the conversations could be about anything having to do with the words at hand, to the great merriment of the class, pair after pair chose to replay Kuneva’s misfortunes. And though Kuneva would argue against this—“No, no! Tell your own story!”—she couldn’t suppress a smile, and they could see she liked to be at the center of things.

After tissue, Kuneva had gone on to teach jilted, dumped, spurned, forsaken—grown-up words, words that were sobering for a ninth grade class. For the first filaments of love were already forming among them, Vanina and Stoyan, Olya and Misho. If you weren’t one of the lucky couples, you were watching closely the oily machinations of love: the sweaty hand-holding, the slippery kisses, the gifts of greasy snacks from the school café—pastry with marmalade or bag of crisps—displayed on the corner of the desk and eaten slowly, appreciatively, throughout the day. So public were these romances that the thought of being dumped was at once terrifying and delicious, and whose side would you be on when it was over?

Indeed, while there was always the choice to revel in the fun that could be had at Kuneva’s expense, there were moments, long moments, when the only sounds were those of Kuneva writing on the board, the wheeze of air through her oversized nostrils in sync with the motion of the chalk. The class would take notes in perfect silence, aware that Kuneva was telling them something no other adult in their lives would tell them, that they would otherwise have to learn on their own—from TV or movies or from each other. If someone were to open the door during these moments—“Gospozha, can Mrs. Georgieva borrow some chalk?”—the unwitting outsider might look at his or her fellow students strangely, sensing the pall that had come over the room, and what was going on? After class, they would report how Ms. Kuneva had been spurned, jilted, shunned, and forsaken, and wasn’t that funny? For it would have been impossible to explain how giddiness had turned into sobriety, which had turned into respect, even awe, for one who had been through so much and lived to tell the tale.

Read the complete story in Cold Snap: Bulgaria Stories. “Never Trust a Man Who—” originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of The Missouri Review.