I clearly remember the day my wife sent me out for feta. It was a Saturday. I’d completely forgotten that we were giving a reception for the christening of my daughter. She’d already turned a year and several months. Honestly, I didn’t feel at all like being stuck in a line. I must confess that had it been for something else, I would have refused to go tour the stores on Saturday. But since the occasion was the christening of my very own daughter, my resistance peaked with a sour smile and plummeted in a quiet sigh.
I stood up and, with slow determination, folded the newspaper I’d been reading, put on shoes, threw a coat on my back, and left. At the door, my wife reminded me to hurry up. Relatives were on the way and she was yet to start making the feta cheese banitsa, my better half ‘s famous specialty. As I was leaving, I waved to her not to worry and kept walking.
Usually when I’m sent out shopping on a Saturday, my first errand is to stop by the tripe kitchen at the corner to bolt down a hot bowl of soup spiced up with a lot of vinegar and garlic. Then I might drop by the cafe to meet Deaf, Dumb, and Blind to discuss the latest news from the paper, the radio, or the television. Those three had always been of one opinion, with which I would agree, because otherwise they couldn’t hear, see, or answer me. On that particular day, however, the three of them had not yet found common ground. They were squabbling over some matter before they could even delve into a serious discussion. In the end, they couldn’t even remember what the quarrel was all about. I took this as a bad omen and, after expressing my categorical disagreement with them, went shopping.
I combed every dairy, every corner store, every supermarket, but cheese was nowhere to be found. Hope had already abandoned me when one of the store clerks, noticing my desperation, told me in a secretive manner that at such and such a location they were expecting cheese, but it wasn’t a sure thing. However, I should go and check it out.
That little store was located in one of the far districts of the city. I had no difficulty finding it. Everybody from this neighborhood knew about it. This one was well stocked, they said, the cashier didn’t cheat too much on the scales, and, on top of that, he didn’t even swear a lot. Some of the people discreetly hinted that he was goofy in the head but told me to keep my mouth shut. The important thing was that his store was well stocked.
After I found the crappy shack of a store leaning against the neighborhood electric transformer, I had to walk another five hundred meters to reach the end of the line. That was some line, I should say, although I’d seen much longer specimens. For example, last week I joined a line that was a kilometer and a half long, at the head of which the word was refrigerators and color TVs, while at the end of it people were clanking empty oil bottles. Eventually, they brought in sugar. All I mean to say is that I’d had previous experience with lines. There was no fear in my heart. As early as that evening I telephoned my wife and told her where I was so she could bring me food.
She agreed that we should postpone the christening due to the newly developed circumstances. I calculated roughly that I would be able to buy feta cheese after the eighth restocking, which would be in about two weeks. Then I called my boss from a payphone and asked him for an unpaid leave of absence until the end of the month. At first, he muttered that he was falling behind the projected quota, then agreed on condition that I buy another kilo of cheese for him, too. What could I do? I promised. I’d bought stuff for him before.
A couple of hours later my wife arrived bringing warm clothes, a blanket, several sandwiches, and the wooden campstool we used for sitting in lines. She promised to bring some cooked food the next day. I kissed her on the cheek and walked her to a taxi where some other woman who had also brought provisions for her husband had already taken a seat.
Some time in the sixth month, on a Thursday, I think, they restocked the store for the first time. A few minutes after the truck showed up, a rumor spread that they’d brought hosiery, not cheese. Had it been my turn, I would definitely have bought some for my wife. I could only imagine how happy they would have made her. Evidently, the quantity was so meager that the hosiery was gone in half an hour. All I was left with was the dream of seeing my wife smiling in new pantyhose. A few days later, another truck pulled up to the store. No words were spoken for a long time. Some people at the front of the line laughed loudly, others squabbled, angry women screamed about something. Again, no information reached our positions. I was truly hoping it was the cheese, at last, when a young man approached us with a big grin on his face. He said just one word: “Condoms!” The old woman who was standing by me said only, “What?” Then when they clarified the subject matter she blushed like a schoolgirl and started cursing. God bless her soul! A month later she passed away, right there, sitting on her wooden campstool. The burden of too many years had worn her out; she couldn’t make it to the end. I still remember her last words: “Give me just a little piece! Just one piece of cheese, for my grandchild!” She passed away with her eyes open. A boy, who went back to his house, returned empty-handed; not a crumb of cheese remained in his mousetrap. “How clever these vermin have become! They eat our cheese and walk around in perfect health, and avoid the poison,” said a man from our line with a lot of bad experience. But as it often happens, one man’s misfortune turns to the benefit of another. All I’m trying to say is that the line decreased by one person; therefore, my hopes of reaching the cheese increased. After the passing of the old woman, nightmares began to haunt me. I was locked in a huge warehouse full of cheese, and around me walked overgrown gray rats with huge predatory eyes. At night, we were sleeping in camp tents, which we all chipped in to buy at the nearby market. Each of us had a line number so that we knew whose turn it was. We formed a committee to take care of those waiting in line, our provisions, and conflict resolutions. The board members were visiting the warehouses and researching possibilities for stocking the store with cheese and other products. These people were real activists and had a natural talent for organizing. They managed to negotiate the terms under which the waiting period was to be considered an unpaid leave of absence for everybody, not just me, so that there would be no administrative penalties later on. Naturally, feta is a product of vital importance.
Thanks to the committee’s efforts, we were maintaining contacts with other lines that had similar goals. Some time around New Year’s, we celebrated our first wedding. One of our boys married a student from the delegation of the salami line at the delicatessen. Of course, he moved to her line, which had the prestigious advantage of being closer to downtown, and it was a delicatessen, not a shack like ours. There were, of course, badmouths who accused him of selling out. I think they were envious because the girl was beautiful and on top of that had almost reached the store doors. As a wedding present, we promised them three whole kilos of sheep cheese. We signed contracts with various lines for the exchange of products, effective as of the moment we were able to purchase them. According to the clauses in these documents, I, for example, had to give away two kilos from the future feta in order to receive sausages and a bottle of oil in return.
Throughout these years, my wife had aged significantly, having taken care of the house and the child, who was already quite a big girl. My wife had brought her to see me from time to time. The poor girl, the instant she laid eyes on me, she would glue herself to her mother’s skirt. She didn’t recognize me--me, her father. I asked my wife not to bring her over anymore. I couldn’t bear the pity in people’s eyes. How was it that there was no one near me in line with a child, no one who could understand me? My wife agreed silently. One single tear rolled down her cheek. In the meantime, we celebrated several other weddings. There were, of course, adulterous affairs and divorces, but I don’t feel like talking about it right now. The store was restocked many times. They would deliver all kinds of stuff. You could start with the canned fish and sewing machines and end with aspirin and analgin-quinine. As if we were the local pharmacy.
Times worsened when the committee disbanded. People began losing hope of eating cheese one day at all. Many of us went home disappointed, having wasted precious years of our lives. One person committed suicide. Due to the unavailability of poison, the poor man swallowed an overdose of analgin-quinine. He died a completely painless death and without any risk of ever suffering a cold or headache. The rest of us remained in line, haunted by the premonition that the cheese truck would come right after we left.
One day a beautiful girl showed up. She looked so familiar. I must have looked familiar to her, too, because she was standing there studying me carefully and in great detail. Then suddenly she threw her arms around me and whispered, “Daddy!” This was the most beautiful day in my life. To my surprise, I found myself shedding tears. I caressed her and stroked her hair. My daughter! My own daughter! Then she told me how her mother had suddenly passed away. Her heart had failed. In her last whisper, she had told her the truth about me. Which was that I was waiting in line for feta cheese. She explained to her why I hadn’t wanted to see her. Before that, my daughter had been told that I was abroad, working. She harbored no bad feelings at all. Had she been in my shoes, she would have done the same thing. I was at sea over whether to feel happy or keep crying. I’d lost one person but found another. It’s not the same thing. . . .
My daughter was in her last year at the culinary school but had taken part-time jobs to support herself. My darling, she’d been working so hard. There was no time for dating. She smiled bitterly when I gave her a few condoms, the ones I’d bought years ago. That was all I had.
One day the union people came by and told us they couldn’t protect our jobs any more. Hordes of young university graduates had been swarming in front of the doors of factories and companies. They were going to cancel our labor contracts. Those who wanted to keep their jobs left. I stayed. The line temptingly dwindled to a nice size. My daughter tried to convince me they no longer needed any feta. Why would she need a christening party after all these years? Her mother was not with us anymore to make the banitsa as only she could make it. She was begging me, through her tears, to come home. How could I refuse her?
A few days later, she took me home. It turned out our house had been demolished long ago. We were now living in a ten-story pre-fab apartment building that had replaced our old house. What had been a cafe and tripe kitchen was now a restaurant with a bar and a discotheque. Deaf, Blind, and Dumb were long gone, having left behind nothing but three wilted, peeling obituaries.
It all felt alien to me. Thoughts about the line, the dilapidated store building, the nutty cashier at the store that was regularly stocked, the friends I’d shared a destiny with, kept coming back. Everybody in that high-rise was a stranger to me.
One day I decided to go to the store, for no particular reason really, just to have a little chat with old acquaintances. The line was nowhere to be found. When I looked around for the store, I saw nothing but the foundation of a supermarket jutting out. From my chest came the kind of sigh that a man lets out only on those rare occasions when he loses something dear. Then I saw the bag. It was the plainest of all shopping bags. It had belonged to one of our people, but to whom I could no longer remember clearly. The bag was hanging on the bus stop pole.
Like a banner.
© Stefan Bonev