The woman in the fake leather suit looked exhausted. She had anemia or a timid form of albinism, accentuated by heavy makeup around her pale eyes. She stared at the supermarket cash register’s conveyor belt as it rolled.
The girl who rang up my generic tomatoes, no-logo UHT milk, bargain-brand yogurt and sawdust-vaseline breakfast biscuits held grimly to a punk look.
The guy who rang up the skinny pale woman’s purchases attempted a pick-up line. He plucked his eyebrows. Gym muscles bulged under his supermarket smock.
Maybe she didn’t understand Italian.
He didn’t have time to try again, in another language. Her shopping list would’ve fit on a defunct communist country’s postage stamp. Vodka and deodorant slid by, registered, clunked into the stainless steel merchandise holding pen. She refused the offer of a shopping bag for an additional six Euro-cents. She put the vibrator-shaped deodorant applicator in her pocket, grabbed the bottle by the neck.
She didn’t smash me with it when I asked to walk her home. Maybe she didn’t understand German. Don’t know why I thought she might.
I didn’t offer to carry her bargain-brand bottle. She’d have thought I planned to steal it.
On the way out of the supermarket’s glare, we walked past lost-looking old folks taking advantage of free unnatural warmth.
Heat was included with the rent in New York, as was hot water. Felt like warmth and personal hygiene were free.
The generic neighborhood was identifiable only by streets named for pre-European Union countries. Maybe she caught the irony of winding up on Soviet Union Street. Maybe irony was a luxury concept she didn’t understand. Spike heels hobbled her wiggle along the crumbling sidewalk.
Vodka was a problem in the former USSR. Dictators launched USA-style prohibition, restrictive rationing, scorched-earth surtaxes. Soviet drunks turned home-brewed beer into instant vodka with a dash of mosquito repellent. They slathered shoe polish on rye bread and left it on the radiator for delirious LSD-like trips. I asked her if she mixed generic deodorant and no-logo vodka for a narcotic effect.
Vodka was to drink, she said. Deodorant was for stink. I asked if she was a prostitute. She nodded and said I was one too, as if I didn’t know.
“Look, I’ve got some food in my backpack,” I said. “Let me make you dinner. Nothing fancy. No-Logo spaghetti, but it tastes pretty good.”
She wasn’t sure she had a spaghetti pot. She’d rented a room in an apartment from people she barely knew, but hadn’t inspected the kitchen cabinets. She didn’t say no.
Cheap euro-architecture guarantees maximum winter cold. Construction speculators were mobbed up with gas-heater factories, and the natural gas and oil industries. Her place was warm. Her former-Soviet Union flat-mates stole heat from somewhere.
She took off her jacket, released an alcoholic reek as faint as a capped bottle of evil perfume waved slowly under the nose.
Her armpit-hair was the color of straw. She sat on a rickety chair to watch. No chopping block. No spaghetti pot. No can-opener, but that was no problem because generic tomato-pulp cans have futuristic pop-top tabs these days. Dull little knife couldn’t peel an apple. Luckily, bargain brand tuna cans are packed with enough low-grade olive oil to lubricate a sauce. She pulled a loose no-logo cigarette from her purse, bumped me aside to light up at the stovetop. That was as close as she ever got to cooking.
Someone else was in the apartment. This phantom presences manifested different tobacco smells, muffled burps, sighs, wheezes. TV drone oozed through the thin walls. Human breezes moved scorch-marked curtains. Behind them, dirty windows faced a cement courtyard crowded with junked motor-scooter parts, corroded metal garbage bins. A cat prowled across the scene, evicted or escaped from some similar desolation. An invisible dead cat looked smug under a fogged plastic sheet.
“Where you from?”
She had to think. Wasn’t used to direct questions. More accustomed to evasive action when direct questions were asked. Where you from what’re you doing here where’s your entry visa and residence permit? But immigration cops don’t offer free spaghetti. She was from an unpronounceable war-torn town in Kosovo. She politely repeated her name, but I couldn’t imitate the sounds. She didn’t ask who I was or where I was from or what I was doing. She thought she knew what I wanted. In other words, same as everyone. But she was wrong. Unless the shower worked.
And money’s been a problem since the dirty magazine biz tanked.
Being dirty is no longer a viable commercial asset.
She frisked my knapsack, found the bargain chocolate, had dessert before the starch course. She was missing molars. Ashtrays of premature death breezed through her pale lips.
Dinner was payment enough for what she had to offer. We hit the shower first. Practically had to demonstrate the proper use of bargain brand soap and dental floss. We toweled off in the low-consumption neon-bulb mist.
“Get the deodorant you bought. Bring the vodka too.”
Hot water accentuates alcoholic buzz. Maybe I took a swig of deodorant after she slathered her armpits. The stuff foamed like shampoo, tasted about the same. I remembered the cheapo razors among my recent supermarket purchases. I still shaved, occasionally. So I left her under a stream of hot water and tromped to the kitchen.
Bumped into another woman in the dark hallway. She smelled like she was from Bukovina, or Bucharest, Burkina Faso, Montenegro, Sierra Leone, Bophuthatswana. Human flotsam status cuts through and across geo-political boundaries. She walked around without light due to inflated electric bills, or else she was so stoned that low-watt neon hurt her eyes. She flinched when she lurched into a stranger.
I returned to the bathroom.
She was staring at the medicine cabinet over the sink. Where am I? Who am I? What am I doing? Why am I alive? Clouded mirrors don’t reflect answers to such easy questions. The tile floor was slippery. The cold outside the bathroom window wanted in, and was making headway. She came back into the shower unquestioningly. I shaved with deodorant foam. She shaved her legs to fully exploit the free razor.
Mouldy towels, unmade stale bed. The window in her room had a rolling metal shutter, stuck in the down position for complete blackout. She kept up her zombie act until I spoke. Can’t remember what I said. Normal phrases from everyday human intercourse in a language not her own.
Humping drunks who mutter words she didn’t understand must’ve been an overly familiar unpleasant situation.
She didn’t go berserk in the usual manner. She unleashed an inbred reverse-pheromone bio-weapon. I went limp and rolled away.
She lit a cigarette butt stashed between the lumpy mattress and the floor. Lime-green no-logo lighter, the kind sold by roving Africans, flash-lit a room filled with empty bottles. She held fire like Lady Liberty, scrounge-searched for a phallic deodorant applicator that still had some of the whitish liquid inside, rolled it under her arms. Vodka bottles and deodorant bottles hugged the walls in disorderly rows, stood crowded in the corners, lay scattered on the dirty floor and ugly furniture. Two bottles a day keeps the undertaker away.
But not forever.
Who undertakes the removal of deceased illegal immigrants? Unaccounted corpses, stuffed in weighted logo-stamped supermarket bags, dumped in the river. Garbage-dump fires, distorted reflections of pyres by the Ganges, illuminate unattended non-ritual funerals. Only the river complains, to deaf imaginary ears. Dogs and contaminated carp get fat on the heels of dead dictators.
I zipped back into the mildewed bathroom, pulled on my damp clothes fast. Money was missing from my pants, but the thieving gypsy woman in the hall had left the documents and house keys. No use stealing keys unless they lead to quick burglary or auto theft. The address printed on my expired driver’s license is half a world away.