Melanija

This piece was originally published by a great online literary magazine called The Wild Word

Nobody believed that I pushed Irena into the Sava. But I did. I didn’t even feel anything as I watched her flounder. I knew one of the boys would jump in to save her.

Her shorts and t-shirt were sticking to her as she scrambled back up the bank.  The boy who’d pulled her out tossed her a dry shirt. She draped it around her shoulders and stared at me. She was one of those people who looked prettier wet.

No one said a word at first. Then one of the boys spoke. “Melanija, what did you do that for?”

I could feel their eyes boring into me. Wondering what could have possessed a creature as delicate as me to perform such a brutal act.

She’d called me stupid. In class beforehand, under her breath. For insisting Milan was the capital of Italy. But anyone could have made that mistake. My mother was always talking about the shows there. All the magazines she brought home from work had spreads from Milan. It was a logical thing to assume. Why wouldn’t the center of fashion be the capital too? It was for Paris.

I shrugged. “I guess I’m too stupid to know.” The boys looked at me like they never had before. Some of them were impressed, I think. And others a bit afraid. Their worlds were opening up.

I was younger than my son is now when I threw Irena into the Sava. A good bit actually, now that I think about it. Definitely no more than ten. The memory came flooding back earlier when I got another invitation to our school reunion. Last time, in 2014, they’d sent it to my agent’s address. This time, the envelope was presented on a silver tray, along with some fan mail from schoolchildren in Uganda and a letter of appreciation from a group of women who support my husband. They put a lot of effort into curating my mail and even go the bother of resealing the envelopes after they’ve been checked. I appreciate those little touches. More than they know.

Dear Melanija, Please join us for an afternoon of reminiscing about our time at Sevnica national school. No special mention of my current situation, or of the logistical challenges attending would present. I folded it and slipped it back inside the envelope.  Surely, this must be the first time an invitation to a Slovenian school reunion had been screened by the US government.

Irena’s never spoken to the press. As far as I know anyway. But even if she did, what evidence would she have of what happened that day? There were no phones, then. And it would be easy to deny such a story. Most of what they write about me is a lie anyway.

I might even do it again, if I were back there, in the same circumstances. Irena was one of those annoying children who had lots of knowledge but no instincts. It was infuriating for her to think that she was cleverer than me. Especially when I knew that it was her destiny to be ordinary, and that it was mine not to be.

When I think back to that day, I realize that I’ve always been allergic to humiliation. It’s something I have in common with Donald. Even a glimmer of it makes us both ruthless. I think we recognized that in each other early on. Part of the attraction, probably.

But there are differences in our antipathy. These days, I can cope with ridicule. Let them paint me as vacuous. You don’t get to where I am with nothing between your ears. Where is Irena now? Teaching math in dingy classroom somewhere? Auditing accounts for a financial services company? I couldn’t care less how stupid she thinks I am. Let her mock my improbable fate.

Donald has no such composure. To him, laughter is as dangerous and foreign as Slovenian is. The principles of both languages are impossible for him to understand. He’d rather bathe in victimhood than be ridiculed. I’m the complete opposite. To me, nothing stings like pity.

The media is at its cruelest when it pretends to show compassion. The moment I batted Donald’s hand away, in slow motion. The way I stopped smiling when I thought we were out of shot. Miserable Melania, they say. She cried on election night.

People who think I’m sad or lonely have a mistaken view of what marriage is. A simplistic one, based on ideals they’ve read about in fairytales. The truth that the small-minded fail to acknowledge is that every relationship is a transaction. And when you have an instinct for business, like Donald and I do, you can see the beauty in the way marriage enables an exchange between equals.

And that is what we’ve always been.

Of course, there are power struggles. They exist in all equal transactions, including in ours. But in this particular, peculiar situation, I have the upper hand. We both know that. I would have no trouble walking, if the humiliation became too great.

I’m not like the other, dispensable members of his administration. Those who woo him with adulation, then anger him with gentle reason. For Donald, there is only deference and defiance. Anything in between he files under treachery.

Not with me though. Through the marital bond, I am afforded the freedom of thought. My husband’s brilliance, like that of many powerful men, resides in his simplicity. FLOTUS, he knows, can’t be easily replaced.

When the grab-‘em-by-the-pussy tape came out during the campaign, I called him disgusting and told him I was leaving. “You can’t,” he said. His face was red. His voice was soft. The words came out like a question.

I looked him right in the eye. “I will.” And he believed me. It’s why he married me. Power has nothing to do with following through. It’s about having the courage to craft a noose and to hold it around the necks, even of those you love.

Since then I’ve been calling the shots. New York until Baron finished the school year. My own schedule. Interviews, only at my whim. No more snatching migrant children from their parents. What is he, a monster?

The liberal media’s too blinded by my beauty to see my brains. But since they insist on painting me in their own image, I’d rather be ornamental than oppressed.

Ornaments are powerful. It doesn’t matter whether they are diamonds, wives, husbands or handbags. All are accessories with the possibility to harness the most powerful currency in the world: attention. To be looked at, feared. Envied, adored. Only hypocrites say the surface doesn’t matter. Even the ugly duckling turns out beautiful in the end.

It maddens me when people say I have been lucky. Implying that I drifted listlessly to the top. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything I have done is a calculation. I had the looks. But if it had been something else, I would have capitalized on that. I don’t understand people who don’t make the best of themselves.

If you think I’m heartless, you’re wrong. Only the jealous would jump to such a conclusion. I would do anything for those who brought me here. My mother, who spent her evenings sewing me dresses from the excess fabric she picked up on the factory floor. Who wouldn’t let me leave the apartment unless I was looking smart. She knew what it was to be best. My father, who worked and worked so we could move up and out. From Sevnica to Ljubljana all the way to New York City. Never look back, he said. He, who came from nothing.

I remember once, when Baron was very young, my parents came to Manhattan. I’d been out with my mother for the afternoon and when we came back, the sitting room door was ajar. We tip-toed down the hallway and peered inside.

Baron was curled up on my father’s lap. They were reading from a book. Kaj je to?  – what’s that? my father said, pointing at a picture. And Baron babbled back at him in Slovenian. Then my father said something I didn’t catch. But whatever it was, it made Baron giggle and dig his nose into my father’s chest. And as my mother and I stood hidden in the doorway, she caught the tear falling down my cheek with her freshly painted nail.

Former classmates of mine have complained in interviews that I never answer their invitation to the school reunion. They’re held every five years in a restaurant in Sevnica, just around the corner from where our school once stood. They have always invited me, they said. Even before I was First Lady. But she never comes, they say. She doesn’t even bother writing to decline.

Well, here’s what I have to say to them. Not everyone in life gets stuck. Some of us move up. Some of us make the best out of ourselves.

And maybe there are times when I would sacrifice everything I have now to be back there. Among the timbered houses that line the hills along the Sava. Breathing in the dewy air I remember from my childhood. Re-walking the trail where I once twirled proudly in the skirt my mother sewed.

I’d go, you know. I really would. If only they could guarantee that Irena wouldn’t be there. But how on earth, could I, FLOTUS, get away with making such a demand?

* This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and situations as represented in this story are the product of the author’s imagination, and should not considered to be true or a statement of fact.

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Why you should keep your mouldy shower curtains

Last week Frau Bienkowski and I got talking about how best to dispose of Christmas trees.

I was telling her about how I’d been über-enthusiastic in undressing my tree only to find that the recycle people wouldn’t be coming to collect it until the following week. Since I live in an intimidatingly law-abiding neighbourhood, I figured I might face ostracisation  if I dumped it outside prematurely. As a result, I’d lugged it to the balcony where it was now in a sorry state of limbo, having left thousands of pine needles (perhaps out of spite, I thought) in its wake.

Nothing says "January blues" more than a pile of sorry-looking Christmas trees.

Nothing says “January blues” more than a pile of sorry-looking Christmas trees.

“I insisted on non-shed in my latter years,” said Frau B. “I just couldn’t deal with those needles.”

“So how did you get rid of your Christmas tree back in the day?” I asked.

“I just threw it out the window.”

“What?”

“Yes, would you not consider doing that?”

“No!”

“Why not? That way, you won’t have to clean up all the pine needles from the stairwell. After all, you don’t want to annoy the neighbours!”

I wonder if this individual removed all the needles of their tree one-by-one.

I wonder if this individual removed all the needles of their tree one-by-one.

“I can’t just throw my tree out the window! What if I hit someone? Like my crazy neighour? Or the 86 year-old Hausmeister?”

“I used to recruit children to keep watch,” said Frau B. “They’d stay below and give me a signal when the coast was clear. Then they’d carry it to the side of the road. I gave them chocolate in return. It was win-win.”

“I’m not doing that,” I said.

Fast forward a week and it’s Christmas tree removal day. A heap of sorry-looking Christmas trees has accumulated outside the apartment building. One individual, presumably with the admirable intention of not dropping a single needle in the stairwell, has even shorn their tree, leaving behind nothing but a creepy-looking skeleton of branches.

I enlist the urgent help of (resident savant) LSB.

LSB and his genius mouldy-shower curtain contraption. (MSCC)

LSB and his genius mouldy-shower curtain contraption. (MSCC)

He immediately makes his way to the bathroom, from where he emerges wielding the mouldy shower curtain we recently got around to replacing.

“Watch,” he says.

He lays the mouldy shower curtain on the floor of the hall and instructs me to lift the tree onto it. As if he were tucking a child into a hammock, he covers it gingerly, finally securing it with two firm knots.

Keen to get the credit for the ingenuity, I insist on carrying it down to the street myself.

I don’t shed a single needle on the way.

Later, when I relate the event to Frau B, she appears suitably impressed.

Merry Christmas, Frau Bienkowski

“They’ve outdone themselves with the decorations,” said Frau B.

Word had it that some of the carers in Wohnbereich 4 had been up since 4 o’clock in the morning. The dining hall had been transformed into a winter wonderland, with baubles, fir tree branches and paper stars adorning the tables and walls. Someone even had the genius idea of hanging cotton buds from the ceiling to resemble a snow scene.

Most of the residents had dressed for the occasion. Frau B had on a navy jacket she’d sewn for herself at the age of 85. On it, she’d pinned a sparkling turquoise brooch. She’d had her hair done too.niko

I complimented her style.

“Katechen,” she whispered. “Have a proper look around. Later, I want you to tell me who you think is the most attractive person here. You’d better be honest though.”

The hired entertainer, an earnest man in a questionable cloud-patterned shirt, led the Christmas carol-sing-along. I heard Frau B join in to Stille Nacht. The lady next to me, who had been whimpering in distress only moments before, began clapping her hands on the table in delight as she hummed along pitch-perfect to the music.

“She has lost her Verstand [has dementia]” Frau Bienkowski whispered. “But occasionally, she has remarkable moments of recall.”

After we had polished off our Stollen (Frau B thought it was sub-par) and the entertainer concluded his festive repertoire, it was time for the exchange of presents. A carer in a Santa costume appeared on a sleigh carting presents for the residents.

“Ho, ho, ho Frohe Weihnachten, liebe Einwohner,” he said, enlisting the help of his colleague, whom he referred to as “mein Engel,” to distribute the gifts.

From observing those around us, we figured out fairly fast that Frau B was likely to get either a large animal-shaped heat cushion or a desk calendar.

It was the latter.envylopy

We had arranged earlier that we would exchange our gifts privately. This was after all, only the nursing home party, not our own.

Later on, back in Frau B’s room, she handed me an envelope. On it was written, in a scrawl I have come to know well, “Katechen.”

“I can’t see what I write,” she said. “So, I was quite impressed that I got any letters down at all.”

She made me promise I wouldn’t open it until I’m back in Ireland on Christmas Eve.

I handed Frau P a bag containing an assortment of perishable gifts. The hamper included a slice of mackerel, two bottles of Berliner Kindl beer,  a box of Lindt chocolates and some organic (it is Christmas, after all) apples.

She told me to hide the beer at the back of the cupboard.

“I’m not going to drink it alone,” she said. I took that as an invitation for a beer date in the new year.

Back in the quietness of the room, I asked Frau B how she had been feeling this week.

“Terrible,” she said. “I really thought my time had come. I was convinced I was going to close my eyes one final time.”

We looked at each other for a long time.

And then it passed and she asked me who I honestly thought was the most attractive resident in Wohnbereich 4.

 

Gambling on the American Dream

Newark train station, New Jersey.

Homeless men rush to open the door for you. Then, looking you right in the eye, say: “Do you think you could help me out, Ma’m? Spare a few cent?”

Inside, unfortunate people sleep with their belongings on the grand benches in the waiting hall. Some stay  seated – their chins slumped against their chests, while others curl up in a fetal position.

But one woman, more than any other, captured my attention. She was old; seventy at least, with thin lips and narrow-set eyes.

She was very slight and unlike most people at the station, white. Her hands were gnarled; her fingers protruded at all the wrong angles.

She slept for an hour, her disjoined hand resting on the brown carrier bag beside her.

When she woke up, she hooked her hand under the bag and shuffled away, agonizingly slowly.

I watched her empty spot until she returned.  She had bought a packet of Doritos at the station shop. She formed a cup with her hand and dug deep inside the bag.

That’s how I left her as I eventually got up to catch a Greyhound bus to Philadelphia.

"20060627 Trump Taj Mahal from Pacific Avenue" by Original uploader was TonyTheTiger at en.wikipedia(Original text : en:User:TonyTheTiger) - Transferred from en.wikipedia(Original text : own picture). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Source: Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:20060627_Trump_Taj_Mahal_from_Pacific_Avenue.jpg#mediaviewer/File:20060627_Trump_Taj_Mahal_from_Pacific_Avenue.jpg User: TonyTheTiger

Trump’s Taj Mahal Creative Commons (c)User TheCatalyst31 originally uploaded by TonyTheTiger source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_City,_New_Jersey

A few days later, after my sister’s wedding, we decide to take a day trip to Atlantic City. Known as the “Las Vegas” of the retired, it is exactly as horrifying as it sounds.

Casinos, gaudy and gigantic, dominate the shoreline. Along the seaside promenade, you can see obese electronic wheelchair users stopping to charge up at designated points. It is a Monday afternoon in July and the casinos are full of elderly people, their eyes glazed over recurring pictures of fruit on the slot machines.

If you turn your back to the promenade though, you can take in the beautiful horizon over the Atlantic Ocean.

A handful of children are in the choppy water, jumping to catch the waves of a faraway ferry.

Every now and then a speedboat glides past. It’s got a large digital display board advertising a restaurant in a nearby casino.

On the way back to the station, I see from a distance a small hunched figure on a bench nursing an enormous soft drink. She has on a headscarf. Beside her is a brown carrier bag.

As I get closer, I recognize the gnarled hands and sunken face.

Maybe she has a pensioners’ travel pass. Or perhaps the ticket inspectors turn a blind eye because of her age. Maybe she does the commute between Newark and Atlantic City every day, just for something to do, or somewhere to go.

The American dream, I think to myself, has been one giant gamble.

Help! I am an insufferably smug gardener

Okay, I admit it. Ever since I planted some radish seeds and bought a pot of dahlias, I’ve become quite insufferable.

I’d been looking for a new hobby, you see. My small, north-facing balcony was looking sad and bare so I decided to take up gardening. But before you could say “from seed to sprout” my hobby had become an obsession and I was finding myself boasting about my zucchinis at social events.

My plant-purchasing habit has since spiralled out of control and my balcony can no longer accommodate my botanic buys. The obvious solution might be to stop acquiring vegetation but instead, I have directed my attention to house plants.

Look at my beautiful plants!!! Aren't they just wonderful?

Look at my beautiful plants!!! Aren’t they just wonderful?

I recently signed up to the Berlin section of Freecycle, an online portal where users offer to give away items they no longer want. You can imagine my excitement when I discovered that someone in Friedrichshan was giving away a Crassula ovata, known more commonly as the “money tree.” He also mentioned that he intended to shed two spider plants (or Chlorophytum comosum, to nerdier naturalists).

The kind stranger lived on the sixth-floor of an uninviting block of flats close to Alexanderplatz. Upon disembarking the lift, I encountered several entrances boarded up with concrete. It occurred to me that the promise of a free money tree may have lured me into a murderous, Communist-style Venus Fly trap. But soon enough a young man appeared and led me to his doorstep, where the three potted plants were ready for collection.

This money tree is NOT a desk plant.

This money tree is NOT a desk plant.

The money tree turned out to be several times larger than I had expected. It became clear to me that this was not going to be the desk plant I had envisioned.

My benefactor was slight and shy and appeared quite keen to keep our encounter brief. He expressed some sympathy with me for having to ferry the portly plants across the city and advised me to re-pot the money tree.

As well as receiving quite a lot of attention on the tram, I was a little concerned about the fact that I was on the way to a work social event and would not have time to stop by at home to drop off my tree.

Needless to say, arriving at a bar wielding an enormous plant proved an ideal opportunity once again to regale my colleagues with my latest botanic news.

It would seem wrong to sign off without mentioning that my oregano is doing well, that my cress is developing nicely and that both made a flavourful appearance in my omelet this morning.

My radishes are ravishing! And my cress is far from crass.

My radishes are ravishing! And my cress is far from crass.

Streetwalking in Schöneberg

I had some time to kill the other night, so I walked up and down Bülowstrasse. It’s in the Schöneberg area of Berlin, where Albert Einstein, Hans Fallada and David Bowie all lived at some point.

It was only 7 o’clock, so I was surprised to see prostitutes lining the streets so early. There were six of them. Two emerged linking arms from a shop before separating to take up position.

They weren’t anything like the prostitutes at Hackescher Markt who are both glamorous and absurd in their identical fishnet tights, baby-pink corsets and furry boots.

These women looked eastern European. They didn’t have a uniform, but they were all wearing  plastic strappy high-heels; the kind you’d find in a basement store in the Ilac Centre in Dublin, full of artificial light and pumping music.

The youngest of them had brown hair, very narrow shoulders and was wearing denim hot-pants. She had earphones plugged in while trying to hail down cars.

The oldest woman wasn’t bothering to show her legs. She was dressed casually in jeans and a leather jacket. She had reddish-brown hair and looked bored.

The woman whose face I can’t forgot was standing near a lamppost supporting a campaign poster for Germany’s neo-Nazi NPD party. It featured a fish-bowl picture of an old lady under the slogan: “Geld für Oma statt Sinti und Roma.” (“Money for Granny, not the Sinti and Roma”)

The woman had her hair scraped back into a ponytail. She was performing her job awkwardly – trying to hail down cars by forming a stop sign with her hand, like a police officer would do to check a driver’s insurance.

Tears were running down her cheeks.

No one stopeed but she kept on sticking her hand out at the passing cars.

The place that out-Catholics Ireland

As soon as the “Berlin-Warsaw Express” chugged across the border, the Virgin Marys began to appear. Some of them stood scarecrow-like and alone in their shrines at the edge of wheat fields, while others guarded the entrances to farm houses. Rosy-cheeked and smiling demurely beneath their blue shawls, they reminded me of home.

It was the first indication that I was on my way to a country with the potential to out-Catholic Ireland.

While the Virgin Mary may be rural Poland’s icon of choice, the late Pope John II reigns supreme in Warsaw. The former pontiff is carved into statues, pasted onto posters and a favourite among street artists, who sell paintings of his face alongside still-lifes of fruit bowls and flowers.priest

The adulation isn’t limited to the capital either. Last year, the Daily Mail reported that a businessman in the southern city of Czestochowa had erected a 45-foot statue of John Paul II, whom he believes intervened to save his son from drowning.

LSB and I soon got used to meeting some version of John Paul II at every street corner. We even began greeting him with a “Howeyeah JPII.” But it didn’t take long for us to realise that he’s not the only Roman Catholic actively revered in Warsaw.

In hindsight, I should have known better than to meander towards a park bench occupied by a life-size bronze statue reading a book. In my defence though, it reminded me of the Patrick Kavanagh statue by the canal in Dublin, a place where I have never been accosted.

LSB and I were basking in the sunshine beside the statue when we were approached by an elderly lady, who stood before us, staring. I smiled at her and she began speaking in Polish.

Warsaw skyline -- view from the Palace of Science and Culture

Warsaw skyline — view from the Palace of Science and Culture

“Erm… No… Polski,” I responded apologetically.

She gestured excitedly at the statue. I shrugged my shoulders as politely as I could.

She talked some more, then motioned at us to stay put while she went away.

A few moments later, she came back with an elderly man.

He had a pleasant tanned and wrinkled face and was wearing a Nike sweatshirt.

“English?” he said and we nodded enthusiastically. “I have… um. little English,” he said, laughing.

“This man,” he said, pointing at the statue. “Jan Twardowski. He… um…” he cupped his hands around his neck to indicate a collar and the word came to him. “Priest. Yes. Priest!”

“Oh!” I said. “Thank you! I didn’t know who he was.”
“Yes!” he said, delighted. “Priest… important priest… and also poet!”
“Priest,” the lady repeated, delighted. “Yes, priest!”
“Ah,” I said. “What a beautiful place for him!”
“Yes, yes, beautiful!” they agreed.

They left happily.

A few moments later, another party comprising two women and a man in a wheelchair arrived and stopped in front of us. They stayed there for quite some time and I began to shift uncomfortably in my seat.

Though there were several vacant benches elsewhere, I thought they were perhaps trying to covet our spot. “Would you like to…?” I said, motioning to get up.

“No, no,” the lady pushing the wheelchair said, waving her hand.
Suddenly I noticed a presence to my left. When I turned I discovered a third woman on her knees by my feet, praying.

This, I thought, is one step away from Pope-shaped perogies.