I observed the woman as I approached her. She was sitting on the sidewalk, against a wall, her face hidden between her arms which rested on her bent knees. Leaning on her legs was a sign, an irregularly torn brown cardboard, bearing letters I couldn’t see yet, and in front of this sign stood an empty-looking cup. The woman was neatly dressed, in a capri jeans and a dark full-sleeved blouse. Standing upright she could pass for a tourist or a local, but crouched in that position she appeared distressed, almost in pain, and it drew the attention of passers-by.
I stood in front of her and read the sign: HOMELESS AND HUNGRY. HAVEN’T EATEN IN TWO DAYS. NEED TO BUY TICKET TO WASHINGTON. PLEASE HELP WITH MONEY.
She sensed my presence and looked up. A young woman, in her early thirties. Her eyes were red, but I couldn’t tell if she had been crying or if it was the result of something else, like a hangover or an infection. They appeared sad and slightly irritated.
“What happened?” I asked.
“It is a long story,” she said, and buried herself into her arms again. “You don’t want to know about it.”
She had an Eastern-European accent. Her voice was steady, and her tone carried a hint of an invitation. But maybe this was what I wanted to believe.
“I do want to know about it.” I said. “Tell me your story and I’ll give you ten dollars.”
She looked up. “Are you serious?”
“Of course,” I said. “I collect stories. Of people in the city. And you are one of them.”
“Ten dollars and a sandwich,” she said. “There is a fast-food across the street.”
I looked in the direction her eyes had pointed. “Fine. Let’s go.”
She picked herself up with the ease of an athlete, folded the cardboard sign in the middle and threw the cup into the trash bin nearby. I hoped she would begin her story right-away, but she wanted to eat first. At the restaurant, she ordered a tuna sandwich and a small orange juice. I paid for both, and we took a seat in the corner, next to a window. I waited until she finished her sandwich.
“I came to the U.S. last week, from Serbia, with my boyfriend Marek.” She began slowly, and spoke in between sips of orange juice. “We had met in Belgrade three months back, when I was visiting the city. I live in a village in the north of Serbia, and I had come to Belgrade to look for a job. I didn’t find a job, but I found Marek. I stayed with him in Belgrade. Then last month he said he had to visit the U.S. for some work, and asked me to come along. In the beginning it was wonderful. We had a great time in New York, then we travelled to Philadelphia and then to Washington and came back to New York. In Washington, we began to have fights. They were silly arguments, and I couldn’t understand why they started. It got worse as the days passed. Then, last Wednesday, he disappeared. And with him he took all my money, my phone, my camera, everything.”
She paused, and looked out of the window. There was a rhythmic, mechanical precision in the unfaltering way she spoke, as though she had practiced these sentences over and over. And her entirely composed manner betrayed an inconsistency: how can someone from a Serbian village, now alone and without money in a foreign country, be so poised?
“Disappeared? What do you mean?” I asked.
“When I woke up Wednesday morning, he wasn’t there” she said.
“So he dumped you, he left you.”
“But he didn’t tell me he was leaving,” she said, looking straight at me, fixing her eyes on mine. “Something must have happened – can’t you see it?”
She was seeking confirmation – this was the first sign of weakness she had displayed. But I wanted no part in the emotional counseling: it was the story I was after.
“What about your passport?” I asked. “Did he take that too?”
“No, that I have here.” She patted her waist-pouch. “But my tourist visa expires next week.”
“So what’s your plan now?” I asked.
“Gather enough money to go to Washington. We had stayed with Marek’s friend who lives there, and he must know something about Marek. Also, he is the only person I know in this country. Other than Marek.”
“Why don’t you call this friend and ask him for help?” I asked.
“I don’t know his full name – I know him only as John, the name Marek used. If I can reach Washington, I will be able to find the street. I know which Metro lines to take.”
“Why don’t you call someone back home? They can help you through someone they know here.” I was beginning to sound like an official interrogating someone.
She shook her head. “I never told them about Marek, and I don’t want to involve them now. I must fix this myself.”
The story – if it was made-up – was well constructed, with no apparent loose ends. But there was something unreal to it, a strangeness I couldn’t put my finger on. Why invent such a complicated narrative about disappearance? It seemed almost like a Haruki Murakami plot.
“Why do you think John will know where Marek is?” I asked.
“In Washington Marek and John spent late evenings together, talking in low voices. Marek never told me what work he was doing with John. There was something going on there.” She sipped some juice. “But if John doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to tell me, I hope he can at least get me back to Serbia.”
This confirmed a notion I’d had for a while: if she found a way to get back her money, phone, camera, plus a ticket to Serbia, this woman would promptly forget Marek. If her story was true, that is.
“There’s an Amtrak connection to Washington at 2 pm from Penn Station.” I said.
Her eyes lit up. “Will you give me money for a ticket?”
“No, I won’t give you the money.” I smiled. “But I’ll buy you a ticket.”
She smiled back. “It is the same – money or ticket. I want to, I have to go to Washington. Please believe me.”
“I believe you.” I said. It wasn’t a lie. Not entirely.