by Alexander Shpatov (BG); translated from the Bulgarian by Christopher Buxton; edited by Lana Santoni

Alexander Shpatov was born in 1985. He is a graduate of the American College in Sofia and the Sofia University Law School. He is the author of the short story collections Footnotes (2005) and Footnote Stories (2008).

And that's how on this late pre-Christmas Boston afternoon, only twenty minutes after she bought them, Martina returns the Italian boots in question along with the receipt for over $450 and asks for her money back.

"But, please, is there something wrong?" the girl behind the counter asks anxiously, still knowing that, whatever the answer, she is legally obliged to return the client's money.

"Well…" Martina begins but immediately realizes there is no way she can explain it. There is no way she can explain why, as she was leaving the shopping center, she was struck by a memory of just how she and her father had been buying shoes for her in Sofia a little more than ten years ago now and how, instead of wandering the aisles of such a mall with its seductive shops, beautiful saleswomen and sophisticated fashion consultants at the ready, they went to choose her new shoes from among the epic, almost mythical, stalls of the Illiantzi Market, only when her lastyear's trainers were completely worn out on both feet. Could the salesgirl understand at all what it meant to shove yourself into a tram and ride from one end of town to the other in trepidation of coming home with those ghastly low-quality Turkish trainers "NICE" or "ADIBAS" which, with a little imagination (which she did have to spare) could pass for the originals, at least for the three weeks before they would start to come unglued. It was аbsolutely impossible and pointless. The salesgirl wouldn't even know where Sofia was.

And could Martina explain to her the housing blocks in Sofia? Could she explain at all how important it was for one to actually possess a basement? And that precisely because of this, in the tall apartment buildings in Bulgaria, there was a specially constructed mid-floor of basements, so that every inhabitant had access to this precious treasure? How could the salesgirl in question possibly imagine what it meant to live in such a place with a two-metre high ceiling, surrounded on all sides by pipes and leaks? Did she know what it meant never to have held a birthday party because you were always afraid that your classmates might find out where you lived (and constantly lying about having a house on the slopes of Vitosha, even sometimes adding a villa at the seaside).

And because now she had paid $450 for some pathetic shiny boots, could the girl on the other side of the counter imagine what $450 would have meant to Martina in 1996? That back then, this was all the money her parents earned in six months? And that while she might have been playing Scrabble and Monopoly here in America, Martina and her classmates were engaged in the following pastime – checking the local exchange rate for the dollar and the deutschmark and then competing to predict how much it would rise by the time they got downtown to their school (and afterwards buying pastries to split because there was hardly a child who had enough money for a whole snack.)

Actually, despite the deprivation, Martina's school was excellent, as were her marks, which she complemented by coming first in a variety of competitions and math olympiads. "I'll buy you new trainers only if you get straight A's" her father would say to motivate her and it seemed that this worked. Every year at the beginning of July they would set out on the tram, cross the entire city, and find themselves in Illiantzi's maze of stands, warehouses and stalls, which they scoured to the furthest and most out-of-the-way corners to assure themselves that they had found the strongest, cheapest, and smartest trainers. Her father would pay readily, she would put them on immediately, and then they would go somewhere to drink a Fanta.

"Well…" Martina begins again and unconsciously continues in Bulgarian. "Ne mi e udobno da gi nosia."

"I beg your pardon?" Baffled, the girl turns toward her.

Afterwards things got better. Their new flat was finally built and they quickly moved in, her father found a much better job and even bought Martina brand-name shoes for her birthday, which at last she was able to celebrate normally with her classmates. A little later she was accepted into college here in America, her studies went really well and here she is now – a young economic analyst with the kind of prospects that could make your head spin…

"Sorry." Martina recovers herself. "I simply don’t feel comfortable in these boots, that's all."


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