I am not a responsible man. I am not a brave man—which is not to say I am a coward. But no one would ever consider me brave. My wife, Elizabeth, was the brave one between us. She was why we were living abroad for a year, in a small city in southern Bulgaria, a country known for its tomatoes and yogurt and for having balanced on the fingertip of the Soviet Union.
Each day, however, is a chance to discard your most pitiable habits and selves. When I stepped outside into the grand street in front of my apartment complex I found, before me, a chance to become someone better: a hero. A cat lay dead in the street, splayed on the pavement in front of a dumpster. A kitten. Soggy from a morning thunderstorm that had only recently passed. No one around seemed to notice the cat. The men in tight button-downs and acid-wash jeans, the women in form-fitting dresses clacking their heels, the grandmothers hauling plastic sacks of tomatoes and greens, the dignified men in time-wrinkled suits strutting with their hands clasped behind their backs. They passed the cat without looking down.
Strays were not rare in the city. Entire families of kittens often spilled out from under dumpsters or crowded butchers’ backdoors. The indifference my Bulgarian friends showed to the kitten, this afternoon, was unlike how they normally treated the strays. They tended to fete them with paper plates full of kibble and saucers of milk and scratch after scratch on the head. Living here for three months had made obvious my own embarrassing American impulse to act entirely out of self-interest, as opposed to my Bulgarian friends, who walked a cautious line between cynicism and care—and thus they were generous without expectations. Americans were puppets of their ambitions, obsessed with taking part in their own lives, in knowing themselves, in doing, in being, in living, in fundamentally changing the world. The locals’ cynicism was a nice counterpoint to this impulse. It seemed borne on a true understanding of life: very little we ever did mattered. Our only requirement was to keep moving. Outside, on a bench in the park across from my apartment building, two old men sat beside one each other, as still and silent as snow.
Sometimes even moving is too much.
That day, however, I wanted to be my truest American self. I felt compelled—and I never felt compelled—to do right by the cat in the street. After seeing the cat, I spun around and wrenched open the front door to my apartment building. We lived on the top floor of a charmless five-story apartment complex; it was the newest building on our block, the exterior as blank as a bone. The inside flooring was faux marble and scuffed. The walls were hospital gray, inhospitably gray. There was an elevator, big enough for three people, max, but I never used it. I preferred punishing myself—though instead of using a word like “punishing,” I deployed phrases like “pushing myself” and “staying in shape,” because I never liked to admit my self-defeating obsessions.
A thin, difficult man in a blue track jacket smoking a cigarette paced in the lobby. Desi and Kiril, two friends who owned a bakery around the corner, insisted this man was a mobster. He spent his days smoking in front of the building, grumbling into his phone, trading handshakes with nervous young men. A week into our stay, Elizabeth and I had offered him a single square of baklava—we had accidentally come into a tray’s worth, too much for two—and he accepted, reluctantly and confused. I believed this made us friends.
I nodded at him. He ignored me. I climbed the steps two at a time—staying in shape. Curved bay windows were built into every landing. On each floor, I peered out the window to ensure no one had moved the kitten. Floor two: No one had moved the kitten. Floor three: No one had moved the kitten. Floor four: No one had moved the kitten. Floor five: No one had moved the kitten. I unlocked the door to our apartment: a thick pie slice of a studio stuffed between the elevator and a much larger apartment. I grabbed a plastic bag from under the sink and checked to ensure every burner was off, then glimpsed out the sliding glass door that opened onto a shared balcony. Behind the apartment stood the charred remains of an old house, and during the sunniest parts of the day, a trim tabby would perch on the beams, licking its paws. If I sound like I am obsessing over the cats in this city, it is because I am. The routines of the cats brought order and joy to my depressing existence. I waved to the cat—which I called Fire Cat, for obvious reasons—then scampered back to the steps.
On the ground floor, I nodded at my neighbor again and—minor miracle—he lifted his head. It was the opening to a nod, I believed, but he kept tilting his face to the ceiling, inspecting the landing above him, from which water had begun to drip.
“Goodbye,” I said in Bulgarian.
Outside was chilly and wet. I wrapped the plastic bag over my hand and crossed the street to the dumpster, but when I crouched to scoop up the kitten, it yawned awake and fled under the dumpster to sit with its siblings. Their eyes mooned out from the dark. I stood up, stuck with the fork of disbelief, until a passerby tossed a black bag in the trash.
My little bout of heroism made me late to meet Elizabeth at the school where she taught. She led lessons on American culture for teenagers who, even at their most invested, found her indoctrinating lessons on American culture taxing and ridiculous. The teaching position was sponsored by the state department and many of its past recipients had gone on to hold stable government jobs withholding aid from developing nations. Everyone who learned of her appointment cooed with admiration.
The illustriousness of the job and its promise of future employment wreaking havoc abroad in the name of American interests prevented the Fellows from admitting that the work they performed primarily sucked. They were underpaid and under-respected by students, and by the Bulgarian teachers assigned to serve as their mentors. The only way to maintain something like self-worth in the face of such disrespect was to adopt a condescending distaste for Bulgaria and its people. Elizabeth and I considered ourselves above such condescension. Rather, she was above it, too intelligent and empathetic to succumb to such simplistic and racist thinking, whereas I considered myself below this condescension, too much of nothing to regard myself better than anyone else. I was not here because I had earned my way here. I was here because Elizabeth loved me. When she received the fellowship offer she and I were not married. We chose to get married—to each other—to ensure I could join her abroad. This isn’t to say we didn’t love each other; we had been dating for three years. However, in our marriage, love came secondary to the bureaucratic convenience that marriage provided.
Though no one ever marries for love. They marry for weddings. They marry for money. They marry for clout. They marry to make children of married parents. We married to take advantage of a system. No matter how much Elizabeth loved me—and we told each other every day, deep, honest expressions of love, looking-you-in-the-eyes kind of statements—I could never shake the sense that I was, for her, like a supplementary arm grafted onto the center of her stomach. Occasionally, the limb would prove helpful, say, when she needed to hold a third cup or haul something heavy, but most days the limb was an obstruction, a severely noticeable appendage that people treated with kindness and respect to hide their concern.
To combat this sense of helplessness, I joined Elizabeth at her school for the final two periods of class every day to assist her in teaching. She did not have an assistant teacher during this stretch. I offered little pedagogical aid, though she seemed to appreciate my presence. At best, I diluted the attention directed at her. As an irresponsible person, I, with no expectation of future government work, cracked jokes that Elizabeth couldn’t. I made funny noises and faces that disrupted the everyday tensions of imperialism. I knew my place in the world. Though Elizabeth and I were both writers, I lacked ambition and talent. I loved to lounge, I loved to waste time, I loved to treat myself when no treats had been earned.
I loved to be late. Today I was later than normal. On the walk to the school, I adopted the tiring pace I had grown accustomed to, pumping my arms, my legs bounding in a cartoonish combination of walking and jogging. It was unlikely I moved any faster this way, but I needed to try, because that morning, Elizabeth had given me an ultimatum: Either show up on time or don’t show up at all. I didn’t want to endanger one of the few activities that gave my life some shaving of meaning.
The month was November, already too chilly for what I left the house wearing—jeans and a breezy yellow sweater, no undershirt. My hair hadn’t been cut since I arrived, and it hung wetly over my eyes, still undried from the shower I’d taken that morning. I was not the type to care for myself, to put in the effort to style my hair or to apply deodorant or Q-tip my ears, especially not when I was depressed, and after three months in Bulgaria, sharing a pie slice of an apartment, frantically married to the woman I hoped to die alongside—at an appropriately creaky age—I had become recklessly depressed. Stability like ours could cause suffering of the most mundane variety: boredom, perhaps, is the word for this feeling. Marriage had melted our days into one warped single day, like a wax statue burned to a blob. Some people find joy in stability. I have known these people—the accountants and lawyers and truckers and cats—but I was not these people. I grew up in what one former therapist called a “chaotic environment” and now everything nonchaotic felt claustrophobic. I had a tendency, too, according to a later therapist, to unsettle the settled parts of my life, like a child cutting out patches of hair. Perhaps this is why I paused to bury the cat in the dumpster: I was always looking for ways to snip stability out of my life.
I pictured Elizabeth’s lips thinning in anger when I barged into the classroom ten minutes late. She would continue teaching as I slugged to the desk to set down my phone. Mr. Harding has decided to join us, she would say, or worse, she would say nothing, treating me the way she had threatened to treat me: as if I hadn’t shown up at all.
Half a mile from the school, I turned off the main road and onto a paved pathway flanked by playgrounds and grass. This path led to the back entrance of the school. And as I drew closer, I walked against the current of seniors who left on early release. Normally, the students I passed eyed me suspiciously—I stood out here, unmistakably American—but today the seniors kept gossiping and smoking in their pods and this made me feel like I belonged. I had begun to fit in. Reason enough to start running.
I arrived at the school winded, too nervous to check the time. Inside: echoes. The halls were as empty as rusted trucks. I raced to the classroom where Elizabeth taught her tenth graders, on the third floor of the building. I caught my breath outside the door—to preserve some hints of dignity—and practiced my excuse. I found a kitten dying in the street, an innocent little kitten, and I brought it back to life. I saved the life of a kitten!
Prepared, I peered through the porthole window on the door to gauge Elizabeth’s anger before entering. But she wasn’t at the head of the classroom. It was her mentor, Miss Valerie, a honey-haired woman with tired eyes and maraschino lipstick. She caught my face in the window and charged toward the door, flung it open.
“Where have you been?” Less a question than an indictment.
“I got caught up with something urgent,” I told her. Miss Valerie scared me in the way every person in power scared me. She didn’t love me and thus had no reason to overlook my flaws. To her, I was what I was: a talentless arm attached to a talented stomach.
“Urgent matters don’t take all day,” she said.
We stood in the door, each of us with one leg in the classroom, one out. The students normally used every free minute of distraction to their advantage. But today, they gazed at us, mesmerized, their phones untouched in their laps.
I craned my head around to check the clock above the entrance. “I’m only five minutes late,” I said. “Not even.”
“Pff,” she said.
“Have Elizabeth tell you,” I said. “I’m always a little late. I join her when I can.” I’d been too flustered to ask where Elizabeth was, and before I could, Miss Valeria raised her voice.
“There is no time for this nonsense,” she said. “You don’t show up all day to your job—your very important job—and now you are telling me to have you tell me where you were. This is some kind of joke.”
“Where is Elizabeth?” I asked, worried now for her safety. “Is she coming back soon?”
“I have been covering for you all day and your first words should be Thank you.” She sped to the desk and retrieved her purse, a pink pleather pouch the size of a globe. “We will talk after class.”
“Where is Elizabeth?” I asked again.
“Oh,” she said. Something had clicked for her.
“Did she go home early?”
“You are not well,” Miss Valerie said.
“I’m as confused as you are,” I said. I looked at my hands for grounding, for something familiar, and they were familiar, so very familiar, but the hands were not mine.
Miss Valerie addressed the students in Bulgarian. A few of them let out muffled cheers, but Miss Valerie shushed them. They stuffed their books in their backpacks. They gathered their phones. They filed past me at the door.
“Feel better, Miss Elizabeth,” the first student said as he passed.
“Feel better, Miss Elizabeth,” said the next child, and the next and the next and the next and the next and the next until I was alone in the room with Miss Valerie.
Excerpted from People Collide. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher HarperVia, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2023 by Isle McElroy.
For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.