Michal's Destiny, p.16Roberta Kagan
“Otto? Are you alright?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” he said. “But don’t come in.”
“Why? What’s going on?” Without thinking, she opened the door.
Then she knew why he’d not wanted her to enter. Otto was in bed with another man. A man as handsome as himself. A man Michal recognized from one of the theatrical productions they’d seen. Both Otto and the actor were naked. Michal was confused, hurt, and betrayed. She slammed the door to the room and leaned her head against the wall, trying to catch her breath … trying to take in what she’d just seen and make sense of it. If Otto was a homosexual, how could he have been such a wonderful lover to her? And, if he cared for her, how could he be unfaithful?
All she could think of was getting away … taking Alina and leaving. The thought of looking at Otto sickened her right now. Michal began packing her things and Alina’s. She was tossing them into her old suitcase. There was not much to pack. The shelter was the only place to go. If she had not just paid the landlord, she’d have a little more money to find a place to stay. But she knew it was pointless to explain anything to her landlord. He wouldn’t refund anything. The money was gone.
The door to the apartment slammed. The man Otto had been in bed with left and Otto came into the bedroom where Michal was packing.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I never meant to hurt you. It was the last thing in the world I ever wanted to do.”
“I don’t understand any of this,” she said, still not looking at him. “But I am taking Alina and leaving.”
“But, I love you.”
“YOU love me? You love me? What you did in there with that man tells me that you don’t love me.”
“It’s not all black and white, Michal. Life is not all black and white; that’s only the way that you see it. Life is shades of gray, some darker some lighter. I can’t help myself. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”
“Go to hell with your poetic philosophy. I am sick and tired of you. I am working myself to death while you are living in a fantasy world. And now this … I can’t understand this at all.”
“I love you. I’ve always loved you. But Eric and I share something that you can’t understand … something I need, like food or water. Just because I can fuck Eric doesn’t mean I love him.”
“Please, don’t say another word. And don’t use that vulgar language with me. I am a good girl, a religious woman from a fine family. I know I have sinned, and I have fallen. My relationship with you should not ever have happened. Taavi and I are still married. What I did with you is a terrible sin, and perhaps that’s why all of this is happening to me.” Her whole body was shaking. “Leaving my country and coming here to Berlin was a mistake. I can see that now. Somehow, because everyone around me has no morals, I began to think that it was all right to do whatever I wanted. I allowed Berlin to change me. The innocent girl who married Avram in Siberia no longer exists. Berlin, you, the madness surrounding all of us, has jaded my views. I’ve lost sight of right and wrong.” She was tossing the last piece of Alina’s clothing into the suitcase. “Otto, I don’t know who you are, I don’t understand you, and I don’t care to try anymore. I am done with you. Done, do you hear me? Done.”
She picked up the suitcase and walked out the front door, leaving it open. Tears spilled down her cheeks. Otto didn’t follow her.
Michal stood outside the school waiting for Alina. The black suitcase sat on the ground beside her on the white concrete sidewalk. With the sleeve of her blouse, Michal wiped the tears from her face. She didn’t want Alina to see she’d been crying.
As she did every day since Alina and Michal had moved in, Bridget walked two blocks from her own school to meet with Alina and walk her home safely. The two girls came strolling by, holding hands.
“Michal. What are you doing here?” Bridget said.
“Bridget … go home. I’m sorry. Alina and I are going to have to go away.”
“What? Why? Did I do something wrong? What happened?”
“We just have to go; that’s all. It’s nothing you did.”
“Where are you going?”
“We’re going to go to the shelter for a while.”
“The shelter? That’s terrible. Why, why don’t you just come home? Did Otto say something?”
“I’m sorry, Bridget. I really am. I can’t explain. I know it’s upsetting, but we have to go.”
Bridget was crying. Alina felt the angst and began to cry and grip Bridget’s hand.
“I’m really sorry,” Michal said, and she was sorry for Bridget. The two girls had become so close and now they were going to be separated. “You can come and see Alina at the shelter if you would like. It’s on Weisenstrasse.”
“I know the place. I’ve seen it. It’s horrible. Please, Michal, don’t take Alina there.”
“There are things I can’t explain to you, Bridget. I am sorry; I wish I could. Go home. Please.”
Then Michal took Alina’s hand and led her away. Alina turned around and stopped. Michal lifted her daughter into her arms and, as she did, she saw Bridget still standing a few feet away waving with tears streaming down her face.
The conditions at the shelter seemed to be worse than Michal remembered. It was filled with degenerate men and women who shuffled around with the look of lost souls in their empty eyes. The rooms were cramped and smelled of too many unwashed bodies.
Michal checked in and was given a single bed to share with Alina. A woman at the desk filled out papers for her and informed her that she could stay in the shelter for two weeks, but then she must find another place to live. That night, Alina fell into the deep sleep of a child with her head on her mother’s bosom. But Michal couldn’t sleep; she was exhausted, but if she drifted off, Michal was sure that their suitcase would be stolen. The people in the shelter were poor and desperate looking for anything they could use or sell. Michal insisted that Alina keep her shoes on while she slept. She complained a little about being uncomfortable, but Michal insisted that they were on an adventure. “Look, Mommy is going to keep her shoes on too. It will be a special night,” Michal said, and her words seemed to appease Alina, at least for the moment.
What was left of the money that she’d gotten for her dresses Michal had tucked deeply into her bra. There wasn’t much, but it was all she had, and she knew she’d need every cent.
Morning came, and Michal was worn out. But she dressed Alina and, carrying the suitcase containing all of their belongings, she walked her daughter to school.
After she dropped Alina off, Michal went to work. She had a locker in the staff changing room where she could lock up her suitcase. Her things would be safe if she left them there for the next two weeks, when she would receive her paycheck. Once she got her check, she would be able to find a small apartment. The work schedule for the coming two weeks was posted on the wall as it was every Monday. She read her hours over twice. When Michal had lived with Otto and Bridget, she was available to work any hours. But now, she couldn’t leave Alina alone in the shelter, so she had to work when Alina was at school. She had been working days for over a month and had no reason to believe that her hours would change, but as she read the schedule, her heart sank. She was expected to work the midnight shift. How could she leave her daughter alone in the shelter all night? Anything could happen. Anything at all. Michal couldn’t trust anyone she’d met in that shelter. Not even the woman at the desk, who had far too much on her mind to be bothered watching Michal’s child. Alina was a five-year-old girl. Children were being sold into prostitution every day. That meant that Alina would be worth money to someone. Very dangerous, very frightening. Michal’s mind was racing; she had to think. If she asked Bridget, she knew that Bridget would be more than happy to watch Alina. But she couldn’t expect Bridget to come to the shelter and stay with Alina, and she wouldn’t take Alina to the apartment, because the idea of seeing Otto repelled her.
There was nothing to do except talk w
“I have a problem…” Michal explained her situation.
The head nurse continued doing her paperwork while Michal was talking.
“There are plenty of people looking for jobs who would be willing to work any hours just to have an income. I am too busy taking care of more important matters to spend my time worrying about whether we will have an aid on the floor or not. If you can’t be reliable, then I am going to have to let you go.”
“Please, I need this job.” Michal felt her eyes sting with tears.
“I understand, but the good of the hospital has to come first. You are the newest hire; therefore, when nobody wants to work midnights, you are the one who is scheduled to work them. If you can’t do it, I am forced to find someone who can.” When it came right down to it, right now, Michal was not able to work nights. At least not until she found someone who she could trust to watch her child.
“I’m terribly sorry,” the head nurse said.
Michal left the office and leaned against the wall. She sank down until she was practically on her knees and began praying.
Two orderlies walked by and stared at her. “Are you all right, miss?” one of them asked.
“Yes, yes, I’m fine.” Michal stood up and walked back to get her things from the locker. Then, with suitcase in hand, she left the building.
Now Michal was out of work. There would be no income at all. She walked back to the shelter to wait until it was time for Alina to be released from school. Then she would walk to the school and meet her. For the next two weeks, they would have food and a place to sleep, even if it was horrible. But then what? For her daughter’s sake, Michal would have to crawl on her knees and go back to the apartment she shared with Otto. After all, she’d paid the rent. She was entitled to stay. If she could find work, she might never have to go back. And she had two weeks to try her hardest.
Every day, Michal walked Alina to school, then went into every restaurant, hotel, and factory she could find looking for work. Everywhere she went, she carried the suitcase. And everyone she met with said that there were no jobs available.
Three days passed before Michal saw a familiar face. It was Yana, the girl she’d met at the shelter when she and Taavi had first arrived in Berlin.
“You look so familiar to me,” Yana said.
“Yes, I remember you. We met several years ago when I first came to Germany from Russia.”
“Oh yes … you’re the one with the handsome husband. So, where is he?”
“We are not together.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. But, take it from me, men aren’t worth troubling yourself over.” Yana flipped her hand.
“You’re not married?”
“No, and I have no plans of ever getting married.”
“Do you know of any work? Anyone who might be hiring? I need a job. I have a child. She’s in school right now. But…” Michal asked.
“Well, I’ve been working the docks. It’s easy money as long as you don’t think too hard about it. I go from shelter to shelter. When my time runs out at this one, I go to another one. Winters are rough, but it’s June and summer is on its way. Things are much easier in the summer.”
“You mean you work as a prostitute?”
“Don’t make it sound so terrible. Everyone is doing it. Even the snobby housewives who just want a little extra money. To be quite honest with you, it’s a hell of a lot easier than being married. At least when they’re done doing their business, they pay you and go away. There’s something to be said for that.”
“I could never. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to judge you, but it’s not something I could ever do.”
Yana laughed. “We all say that at first. Then, when there is no money and you are sent out of the shelter…”
“No, not that … not me … I can’t, I couldn’t.”
Every day when Michal dropped Alina off at school, she walked from business to business, only to hear the same answer. “No.” The desperation was swallowing her up and she was drowning in an ocean of misery. She begged every one of the company owners for any kind of work; she offered to wash floors, to clean bathrooms, to do anything to earn money, anything but sell her body.
Before Michal realized it, a week had passed. Her heart beat with panic and she was beginning to find it hard to catch her breath. Only seven more days here and she and Alina would have to go to another shelter. Then there was no guarantee that there would be space available. Or, if not a shelter, then the inevitable slap in the face, she would have to go back to Otto. As Michal waited outside the school for Alina, Bridget came around the corner.
“I knew you’d be here,” Bridget said.
“I’m here to pick up Alina.”
“Yes, I know. I came here to find you. I thought you might want to know that my brother is very sick. He has a bad infection; he needs a doctor, but we can’t afford one. Otto is burning up with fever; he’s delirious. This morning before I left for school, I went in to check on him and he didn’t even know me. My teacher at school thinks it’s probably influenza. I’m terribly afraid he might die, Michal.”
Michal felt her heart crumble into small pieces and bleed out. Otto had hurt her deeply and, in many ways, she hated him. But she still loved him too. And thinking of him sick, very sick, was distressing. A tenderness came over her. Could he have stopped whatever it was inside of him that drove him to do what he did? Had she not suspected it all along? Not even just a little? She’d been confused because he’d made love to her as if he adored her and it brought her body and soul back to life. For that, she had to be grateful to him, and somehow she knew that in his own way, he really did love her. But, all along, he’d needed something more, something she just was not able to give him.
“I want to see him. As soon as Alina comes out, we will all go to the apartment.”
“I knew you would help me. I knew you would know what to do; that’s why I came to find you. Thank God you’re willing to come and see him.”
Otto lay on the bed, his body cold, but covered in a film of sweat that had completely drenched his hair. His eyes were open but unseeing and his skin was the light gray color of the sky as a storm had begun to lift.
“It’s me, Otto, Michal…”
He didn’t respond. “How long has he been like this?” she asked Bridget.
“Two days. He went to bed the night before last complaining of a terrible headache and stomach cramps. When I got home from school the following day he was in bed, but he could talk to me. Then this morning, he was like this.”
“Go and find the doctor. Tell him to come right away.”
“But we have no money to pay him. My brother hasn’t earned much this month and what we had we spent on food.”
“I have some money. Go Bridget … get the doctor.”
Otto died without ever awakening. In fact, he was already dead when the doctor arrived. Still, the physician insisted on payment and since he’d made the house call he was entitled to it. Michal was too drained and shocked by Otto’s death to argue. And even though it was the last of the money that she had, she paid the doctor. After the doctor left, Michal was alone with Otto’s body. He didn’t look the same. Without the strong energetic life force he’d always had, he seemed small and pitiful. Looking at him lying there covered to his chin with a sheet, his eyes closed forever, his smile gone forever, Michal forgave him. Then she leaned her head on his chest and wept softly. In a whisper that only she could hear, she spoke to him.
“Otto. If you can hear me, I want you to know that I understand. You never meant to hurt me. In your own way, in the only way that you could, you loved me … And, I loved you in my own way too. Goodbye, Otto, my dear friend, my Otto.”
There would be no funeral. Only a pauper’s grave. Bridget was sitting on the sofa crying softly. Alina was cuddled into Bridget’s arms.
Inside her heart, Michal was distraught. But she knew she must appear strong for the sake of the girls. She wanted to keep Bridget with her, but she could hardly afford to take care of Alina.
“Bridget, do you have any family that you can live with?”
“Yes, I have an aunt and uncle in Nuremburg. It’s my father’s sister and her husband. They hated Otto because my uncle is very involved with the National Socialist party. My uncle knew that my brother was a communist and whenever they saw each other they would argue. But they don’t hate me. Many times they have asked me to leave Otto and come and live with them. They thought my brother was a bad influence,” she said. “But I loved my brother. He had faults, lots of them … but he was a good person too. After our parents died, all we had was each other. As long as Otto was alive, I couldn’t leave him; he was my brother.”
“I know … I understand. I do. Let’s send a wire to your aunt and uncle and see what they say. The rent is paid on this apartment until the end of the month, so we have a little time to wait for their answer.”
“Do you have any money to send a wire?”
“I’ll get it. You wait here with Alina. I’ll be back later tonight.”
Michal went to the shelter and found Yana sitting on a cot near the window.
“I got a bed in a good location this time,” Yana said with a smile. “Where’s your kid?”
“My daughter is with a friend.” Michal smiled. “I need to ask you for a very big favor. I won’t blame you if you say no, but frankly, I am frantic. A friend of mine passed away. I need to send a wire to his family and I don’t have the money to send it. If you loan me the money, I swear to you on my life I will get it back to you as soon as I can find work.”
Michal's Destiny by Roberta Kagan / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes