6 Out of the Woods

He wished the walls of his cubicle were higher, the better not to see anyone. As it was a visitor could spot Taj, even sitting in the cheap chair they gave him, from the front door of the second-flight storefront building where the legal services offices were – he could see the receptionist, a law student with long hair and big glasses, pointing people towards him. Sometimes he raised his arm in acknowledgement, a sort of crooked-arm I’m-drowning wave he gave with his free hand (he was always on the phone). And then he would watch as they tried to thread their way through the labyrinth of modular walls, within which other lawyers and paralegals sat babbling on the phone or meeting with their own clients. Taj never tried to help his visitors find him, to offer any sign or direction, except perhaps to wave again.

“I kept making a wrong turn,” an old man said that morning when he finally arrived before him. Then he looked at the other chair – smaller and closer to the floor than the one Taj sat in – and sank before him like a supplicant.

You made many wrong turns to get here, Taj had wanted to say, but just sent the thought out there instead. He believed that thoughts had a life of their own and rather than say some things he just put the words together in his mind and then put them up on an imaginary marquee. Read my mind, he thought, staring at them. Read my sign.

The others he worked with at the Volunteer Lawyers Project wanted to be there. They felt ennobled, sitting under the fluorescent lights, drinking that frightful coffee, helping the poor, the ignorant, the shortsighted homeowners yearning to undo their mistakes. That was why when people came in looking for legal help they expected, at least, some sympathy. Confronted by Taj, his silence, his invisible sign, they got flustered. He made them uncomfortable. He liked to make people uncomfortable.

A woman was trying to find him now. The big girl at the front desk (he never bothered to learn her name) was pointing at Taj who sat waving and talking on the phone as the woman turned as if in a labyrinth from one cubicle wall to the next. Really, was it that hard? Taj stood and said into the phone, “I have to go,” and then all but shouted at the woman: “This way. Keep going to your left. No, your other left.”

He loved saying that. It was one of the first insults he had learned in America, so much the better for being subtle. It expressed a disbelief that the person addressed did not know her left from her right, but the hostility was masked behind a good-natured facade and that suited him to a T. (That was another expression he had learned not long after he arrived here, 20 years ago now, though he still did not know what this T was.)

“I am so sorry!” The woman was in the doorway of his cubicle now. She had some kind of Eastern European accent and smelled of perfume – subtle, not too much. It reminded him of flowers floating on a pond. And unlike nearly every person who had come to visit him since he started his community service, she had taken the time to dress for the interview. She wore a dark blue dress and nylon stockings, and while Taj guessed her to be in her forties, a little older than him, what he could see of her legs were nice and shapely. Her lips were the color of cherries, real cherries, the dark ones he could not stop eating in the summer, and around her throat was a simple gold necklace.

Taj offered her his hand, something he did not do for everyone. He was always afraid of his own handshake – “Like a warm washcloth,” a woman had said of it once, a common prostitute! And this lady’s own grip was cool and firm despite how flustered she seemed.

“I will never find the receptionist again!” she continued, squatting to find the low chair and then putting her purse in her lap. It was large and matched her dress. “I should have left a trail of bread crumbs.”

Taj looked at the name on the file in front of him: Renate, and then a mess of consonants, a losing draw of Scrabble tiles. “Miss – I’m sorry, how do you pronounce your last name?”

“Just call me Renate.”

“And what is this about bread crumbs?”

She laughed and opened her purse. “Like Hansel and Gretel, you know.”

He did not know but had learned not to say anything when he was confused. “It is a fairy tale, you’ve never heard it?” Then she quickly related a ghastly story about two children whose stepmother sent their own father off to abandon them in the woods where they would be eaten by animals. Things got worse from there: a witch with a house made of candy wanted to cook them in an oven. None of it made sense and he could not believe she was wasting their time telling him this unpleasant story, which she said was supposed to help children sleep.

“So I am like the witch?” he said when she was done.

“No, it was because of the trail of bread crumbs!” Renate said, laughing again. “The birds had eaten every one and they could not find their way out of the woods.”

He smiled politely and opened her folder. “Let’s talk about your home,” he said.

With some exceptions her tale was quite familiar to him. She owned a house in Sunset Park and a few years before she had been deluged with offers to refinance. “They kept telling me it would cost nothing, I would risk nothing,” she said.

Taj fought to pay attention, working his way through the documents in the folder before him. How could anyone believe there would be no cost and no risk to anything? “And what was your income at the time?”

“I was actually without a job when I signed the loan.” Taj slowed his ceaseless page turning to a crawl, a slow-motion version. He did not look at her and she quickly added, “I was what they call ‘between situations.’”

He hoped she could not see him smiling. So many of the people he met here were between situations: doom and despair, nothing and no chance. He glanced at her and saw she was smiling herself and he felt his anger destroy his mirth.

“It is not actually an amusing situation you are in,” he said, and began leafing through the copy of the refinancing documents more rapidly again, snapping the paper as he did. “The bank is about to foreclose on your home.”

“Forgive me,” she said contritely. “In Czech Republic we make jokes when things are hopeless.”

“You signed what is called a stated-income loan,” Taj said, “with an adjustable interest rate. And since you stated your income as far more than it was for one who was not actually employed, you have painted yourself into a box.” He knew that he got the idiom wrong but she did not correct him and he looked her in the eye for the first time since he met her. “You imagined an income for yourself, 80 thousand dollars. How did you come up with this figure?”

“A job had been promised me,” she said.

“And your make-believe children had been promised all the candy they could eat. How is it the agent’s fault that you lied about how much money you made?”

“He told me to!” She was leaning forward now, her knees almost touching his, and from his vantage point he could see the tops of her breasts. “He said, ‘Oh, it sounds like you have that job already.’”

“And what did he say would happen if they adjusted the terms of the loan unfavorably, and you did not have that job and that salary?” He closed the folder and held up the pages, several inches thick. “You signed these forms many times, did you not even think once of that possibility?”

“He had an answer for that, this Mr. Hammond.”

“Harmon.”

“Yes, sorry.” She looked flustered now. “Harmon. I talked to so many people. He told me not to worry, that by the time that happened the property would have appreciated in value and I could refinance again and take money from the growing equity.”

Taj sighed. Was no one willing to accept responsibility for his or her own actions? Why was it always the fault of someone else? “So who was the last person you talked to?”

“First I talked to a loan-modification consultant, who took my money and did nothing, and then I talked to someone at the bank who said that a negotiator had been assigned to my file and was reviewing it.”

Taj knew that this was what the bank would say to a customer who called one of their help numbers. He also knew that no negotiator had been assigned and her number was written down and forgotten immediately.

“Let’s work backwards,” he said. He pulled back the cuff of his blue Oxford shirt to see his watch – Taj never rolled up his sleeves, no matter the weather. It was almost four, time for his next appointment. He pressed the button on a ballpoint pen, clicking it several times as he prepared to take notes. “What was the name of the loan-modification consultant you talked to?”

“Mister Harmon.”

He pressed the fingers of his free hand to his temple. “You said Harmon was the name of the agent who helped you with the refinancing. Are you sure the loan-modification consultant had the same name?”

“Quite sure,” said Renate, smiling again. “He was the same person. The man who had helped get me into trouble was now asking for money to help get me out.

“You understand now my jokes?”

 

When Renate’s monthly mortgage payment doubled, going from $1826 a month to almost four thousand dollars, she did not panic. On the walls of her parents’ home in Prague were pictures of relatives who she never knew, an uncle who had been arrested by the Nazis, and a cousin who had just disappeared. When she was a girl her father had been sent to prison by the Communists, and was gone for most of her teenage years. She and her husband had slipped out of the country in the ‘80s, each of them convinced they would never see their families again. So it was hard to imagine what the Bank of America could do to her that could be worse than what she’d known.

But she did ask for overtime. She had found a job, after refinancing her home, working as a secretary for a lighting fixtures wholesaler in Flushing. It paid about half as much as the job she had been promised, and made absolutely no use of her degree in science from Charles University, where she had specialized in cell biology. “But the checks usually clear,” as her boss liked to say, “and you know where to go if you ever want track lighting.”

Sadly, there was little need for her to work more than she did. So she took a second job, working on the weekends as a maid at a hotel in Brooklyn, near the Gowanus Canal.

“You’re not Russian, are you?” the hotel manager had asked her before he gave her the job. “I had some trouble with some Russians.”

He gave her a uniform and began going over her responsibilities, showing her what he called “a typical room,” stopping once to say, in a threatening tone, “As long as you’re sure you’re not Russian!”

It used to offend her, all the American ignorance, people who did not know the difference between Czech and Polish and Russian and Hungarian, but she had stopped caring years ago. Nor did she care what others might think about a woman her age, with a son almost grown and a house of her own (for now) and a degree in science, making beds and wiping out toilets.

“I must be only cab driver in New York with a degree in engineering,” her husband had said, when he went off to start his shift at four in the morning that first day. But within a week he had met several engineers, and more than a few scientists, working behind the wheel, men from Poland and Romania, from Pakistan and Uganda. Lined up outside the dispatcher’s cage, tips in hand in hopes of getting something better than a broken-down Crown Victoria.

“We got ‘em all here,” the dispatcher had told him as he waited in the cold for his cab one morning. “Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief.”

“What is an Indian chief?” Renate had asked him when he came home that afternoon, tossing a hundred dollars in grimy bills upon their bed.

She thought of this was she sat upon a bed spread, trying to scrub out a suspiciously gluey spot from a pillow monogrammed “Soft.” From the room next door she could hear voices, a man and a woman’s, an urgent interplay like something out of Janacek. Were they fighting or making love? She listened intently but could not make out the words.

The spot was still sticky. She decided just to replace the whole pillow; she had already wasted too much time in this room and she had dozens more to go before check-in began. She had a few spare pillows on her cart, along with the fresh sheets and towels. The pillows were all monogrammed “Hard” or “Soft” and she wondered how it was possible that people couldn’t tell the difference.

Was this the kind of hotel her husband took his girlfriend to? She didn’t think this one had been opened then, how many years ago now? She remembered the fight they’d had when she found out, all because he couldn’t resist stealing the little bottles of shampoo from each room! How silly it all seemed now but then, o how she sat there and cried.

Worst of all he left her for another Czech woman. And when they finally met, long after the crying was done, Renate discovered she did not hate her. She looked like a younger version of herself, which she supposed was a sort of compliment. “How would you change things if you could go back in time?” Renate had asked her husband the last time they made love, knowing it was their last time.

“If I could go back in time I would look for a woman just like you!” he had said. And, in a sense, he had found one. Now his new wife called her from Prague, where they had gone after they married, now that the Communists were gone. She spoke to Renate as if they were sisters, as if having married the same man had forged some bond between them. Whereas Renate felt more and more like someone who had unloaded an unreliable car on a stranger, especially as the new wife began to complain about him. She was worried that he was seeing someone else, if you can imagine, and was thinking of getting her breasts “augmented” – everyone in Prague was doing it! And to hear her talk, all the girls in the country wanted to be in a beauty pageant. When Renate was young, it was the dream of the girls she knew to go to college, travel, teach at a university. Now they wanted to have their boobs done, go on TV and wear a little crown.

This shift in the culture felt so foreign to her; it was as if she was looking at pictures of her homeland after a flood – that spire is where the church was! Though the government hadn’t liked churches. And now she was here: working as a maid in a hotel, replacing those little bottles of shampoo that her husband used to bring home.

And that Indian lawyer wanted her to get another job! When would she find the time? She supposed it was possible to work every waking hour; she had met people who did just that, immigrants mostly, like the little Chinese men who ran the laundry on her corner and who seemed to be there eighteen hours a day. But what could she possibly do with her evenings, the only hours of the day she had left, that anyone would possibly pay her for? And when would she see her son?

Such a funny little man, that lawyer. Taj, like the Taj Mahal she guessed, but when she tried to engage him in conversation about India he brushed her off.

“We have very little time,” he said, clicking his pen. Then he sniffed and added, “And I am from Bangladesh.”

It was funny how formal he was, in his dress shirt and tie when everyone else in that office looked like they were about to go rafting: men dressed in shorts and khakis, women in blue jeans. Outside of their cubicles she had seen bicycles and skateboards, ridden by grown men to work! She saw going past their cubicles more toys and games on the desks. Except Taj’s space was clean; there were no family pictures on the desk, nothing personal on the walls of his cubicle. Just a big calendar with no picture and days before this one X’d out in red, like he had been counting down to his release from prison.

He reminded Renate of her brother, who had visited her once after the Velvet Revolution, and had sat in her living room stiffly in his suit, determined not to be impressed by anything in America. When she mentioned Broadway he said, “We have some excellent theater in Prague,” and when they visited Times Square he said, “Our city too has become a destination for the world!”

What, she wondered, would her family make of the predicament she was in now? She thought of her father, who was released from prison only to be diagnosed with lung cancer and given another year to live. She could imagine him, lying in his bed, a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray even as he neared the end. She closed her eyes and could almost hear him laughing at the idea the bank would take her house away, a place she had barely begun to pay for.

How could you lose something you did not own?

 

Taj was in the steam room when he decided he would try and help Renate. It did not feel like a decision really; he was a great believer in decision-trees, a series of logical directions, filled with side streets and back alleys, and that nearly always led him to saying no, at least when it came to helping people for nothing. People would come to him with their sad stories, all of them the same, and he would listen and weigh the possible outcomes and even if he said yes, if he literally went through the motions of calling the bank and threatening them, in his heart the answer was always no. It was like playing pachinko; the outcome was always the same.

For Taj did not belong at the Volunteer Lawyers Project. A judge had sent him there to do 200 hours of pro bono work – an unheard of penalty, on top of a fine of almost one hundred thousand dollars! And for nothing. He had been doing foreclosure work for the firm of Morgan, Meekins, Rafaelson & Lee, all perfectly above board, helping speculators who had taken advantage of the easy terms to buy and flip properties and then, as in a game of musical chairs, had gotten stuck when the music stopped and everyone stopped buying.

He had taken a case another firm had mishandled and still wanted to be paid for and Taj had simply tried to move the case to another court’s jurisdiction in order to keep the last lawyer from collecting unpaid fees. This was not unheard of. But the judge had acted as if he had stolen someone’s child! When in fact he made nothing for his troubles, and then had to pay himself. The fine was bad enough but the pro bono work, well, that was unheard of. Even Meekins said so, on a conference call one day, telling Taj it was “a tough break,” but not offering to do anything to help.

So Taj did his time at the Project, marking off the days he had to work, twice a week so the hours might go sooner. He eschewed conversation with the other volunteers there, could scarcely believe that they were there on their own free will. He had gotten into an argument with another lawyer there his very first day over the question of free will, in fact. He was a very tall man, older than Taj though he dressed like a boy, did not even tuck his shirt in at the office. He was in the communal kitchen as they called it, a place Taj had since learned to avoid, and this man with his patrician voice and long gray hair was talking to some girl about their clients.

“It’s just another example of how the system is rigged against the working class,” he was saying. He was pouring soymilk into his tea and turned to acknowledge Taj’s entrance, as if looking for support. “Wouldn’t you agree, Taj?”

He seemed proud of himself for having remembered Taj’s name though it never occurred to these people that no one from India was actually named Taj; he just knew it was something people could remember. He might as well have called himself Sabu. Taj, on the other hand, was proud of not knowing anyone’s name.

“Honestly, I don’t see how you can blame the system for people making ignorant choices,” Taj said. “I am a great believer in personal responsibility.”

It was as if he said that he was a great believer in child molestation. The man had nearly spilled his tea arguing with him and the girl even joined in, nearly crying at one point. Through it all Taj stood still and tried to smile, even bowing slightly when he left. No one there had spoken to him since.

But Renate’s case seemed different somehow. When he thought of her he saw himself riding a white horse, as he had at his wedding. She would thank him for his help and wonder how she could repay him. She might even invite him to the house he had helped her save, might offer to make him dinner one night – where would her son be? How old was he, even? That was an inconvenient detail in his fantasy and when he had sat in the sauna the existence of the boy bothered him. Children did not grow up the way they used to; they seemed to remain children and even stayed at home, waiting for their parents to take care of them. His own daughter had gone off to college and now was back in her bedroom upstairs, as if those four years had never happened. Except now instead of getting up to go to school in the morning she slept until noon and still asked her mother to make breakfast for her!

His erection, which had been growing under the white towel he covered himself with, sank at the thought of these children. He sighed and got up to pour the contents of his water bottle over the heater in the sauna. The heater sighed back and fetid steam rose to greet him. It was at that moment he resolved himself to help Renate: at the same instant he realized he would never sleep with her. This was the only way of being sure he was doing this for the right reasons, whatever that may mean.

On his way out of the gym the tall black homosexual who gave people towels tried to stare Taj down.

“I know what you’re doing in there,” he said.

“You do not know anything,” said Taj, and exited onto the street.

Back at the office he started calling the bank. It took many tries to reach the right person; each number led to another and as he talked his way through the darkening maze he doodled a labyrinth of his own on a yellow legal pad. He even had to smile at one point, when on his fourth call someone tried to send him back to the very first number he’d been given. The game was very well rigged.

Finally Taj had the right person on the phone, though he sounded eighteen. He took a deep breath and started talking, barely giving the man time to interrupt. He told him he was representing Renate, making a hash of her last name as he did, giving the young man the number of the loan and the date of the foreclosure sale as well – it was less than a week away. Then he decided to try and intimidate him, knowing fear was the only possible catalyst in this case.

“Your supervisors would not appreciate me filing for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy on my client’s behalf,” he said, slowing his words down now. “This would completely stop all foreclosure proceedings and then when it is revealed in an audit that is taking place as we speak that the stated-income loan approved by your bank was in direct violation of federal and state lending laws, a court might very well agree to a rescission of the entire loan.”

“Please do not file for bankruptcy,” the young man said, and promised to get back to Taj by the end of the day to say that the bank had stopped foreclosure proceedings, or at least moved the date into the future, and agreed to a settlement conference. Taj called Renate immediately and said he had good news; could she come to the office to discuss?

 

Renate came straight to his cubicle when she returned. “I never make the same mistake twice,” she said with a smile, setting a white paper bag on the desk before Taj. “I think it is important to make new mistakes each time.”

“So you won’t be buying another home soon?” he said with a smile. Taj had taken care dressing that morning, making sure the ivory cuff links matched the pin in his tie. He lifted his manicured hands as if in benediction over the bag she had placed before him. “And what have we here?”

“It’s called kolache,” she said, “from my country. Most the good Czech pastries are in Astoria but this place on 19th Street is not bad.”

Taj opened the bag carefully, as if it might contain explosives. The white paper was already stained with translucent spots. Inside were what looked like little pies, filled with fruit and dusted with powdered sugar. He had a terrible sweet tooth and if Renate had not been there he would have inhaled them all, but he was afraid of covering his tie in sugary dust and becoming a figure of fun. He folded the bag closed and smiled at her politely.

“I will enjoy these later,” he said. “But we are not out of the woods yet. The bank has simply postponed the foreclosure. They are still threatening to take your house away and the next step is what is called a settlement conference.”

Renate had taken a notebook from her purse and was writing down what Taj said. He liked that. He could imagine her his secretary, jotting down his words in his real office, working late until he invited her to dinner or perhaps even there in his office on the desk she would –

“And where does this conference take place?” Her pen was poised above the notepad and looking at the instrument his eye fell upon her cleavage again.

“At a court house in Brooklyn,” he said, “I have printed out the information here. Please dress appropriately.”

“Like this?”

He wanted to tell her to button her blouse but did not know how to say the words. “Like a woman who is looking for work.”

“Even though she has two jobs?” She was smiling and he noticed the marks on her pad now were not actual writing.

“Is that shorthand?” Taj asked, indicating her writing.

“Yes,” she said smiling, and put the notebook to her breast as if to hide her writing. “I learned when I first came to America, thinking I would get a secretary job. But almost no one uses shorthand anymore.”

Taj shook his head. “You would be surprised,” he said. “I just read in a newspaper that this is a vanishing skill. They cannot find enough people who know shorthand now.”

“This?” she said, holding the page out toward him. “Chicken scratches?”

Taj sat there, looking at the indecipherable lines, his brain whirring the way his laptop did when it was scanning for a signal. “I’m sorry,” he said finally. “What does a chicken scratch?”

She laughed, a rare musical sound, so unlike anything heard in those offices that a few people looked over their cubicle walls as if searching for a bird that had been loosed indoors. “They are like the marks they make on the ground.” She put the notebook on her lap and, still holding her pen, she made clawing motions in his direction. “The footprints of the bird.”

Taj had forgotten what he was going to say next, something he never did. He looked at her folder. “But you must be prepared to show you are working.”

“Two jobs, yes.”

“And maybe looking for another, something that pays better than working in a hotel.” The thought of her in a hotel room made him blush and he thought of eating a pastry.

“I have been looking,” she said. “But this economy is not so forgiving.”

Taj hated that word – why was everyone looking for forgiveness? “You also need to show the judge that you are trying to rein in your expenses.”

“I take the subway and the bus,” Renate said. “I work all the time, I shop at Costco. What else can I do?”

“Your son goes to a private school.”

“On a scholarship!” She leaned toward him and he could smell her perfume again, mingled with the sweet fruit smell coming from the bag. “He got a scholarship as the son of political refugees,” she said with a laugh, different than the one before, more crow than lark. “A refugee from a country that no longer exists.”

“But still there must be expenses,” Taj continued. “Uniforms, maybe.”

“They don’t have uniforms. Not even a dress code, really.” The sound of bells, muffled: Renate looked at the purse at her feet. “I am so sorry,” she said, and reached inside and removed her cell phone. After glancing at the display she looked at Taj, flustered. “This is my son now,” and before he could protest she answered.

“Carl?” She turned away from Taj as she spoke so she could not see the look of displeasure he had assembled to cause her guilt. “I am in a meeting,” she said.

He could not hear the boy’s replies but he could hear the voice, sulky, petulant, like his own daughter. Everything was an accusation.

“But I told you I would meet you at four,” she said. More whining. “But I am in a meeting now!” She looked back at Taj, apologetically. He elaborately pulled back the cuff of his shirt, the fine cufflink, and looked at his watch. “Okay,” she said, and gave him the address. “But you must leave quickly.”

She hung up without saying goodbye and put the phone back in her purse. “I am so sorry.”

“Please,” said Taj, “our time here is very short.”

“He is coming here to get some money,” she said. “He needs some for a dance.”

Taj could not believe his ears. He just stared at her for a moment, his invisible marquee filling up with words. Finally he spoke. “But this is exactly what we are talking about! These sorts of foolish expenditures! Why does your son not get a job? I was working when I was his age.”

Actually Taj had been working for his father, at his office in Dhaka, and technically he did not need to. But he felt it was worth pointing out to this woman. How could he help her if she would not do what he said?

“He does not have time to work,” said Renate. “He is on the track team and in the drama club.” She was literally wringing her hands now and Taj felt a spasm of hatred for her boy.

Before he could say anything more she stood up, like a dog answering some inaudible whistle, and looked over the wall of the cubicle toward the front desk. She waved and called in a stage whisper, “Carl! Over here!”

For an instant Taj felt vaguely violated, as if he had done something wrong, and he unconsciously put the bag of pastries she had brought him on the floor. He could see the young man headed his direction with none of the hesitation his mother had shown finding his spot.

He stood in the entry and did not introduce himself. “I need that money,” he said. He was a tall boy, very handsome with a mess of dark hair and big, pouty lips. He wore a sensible polo shirt but a ridiculous pair of jeans, faded and frayed in a way Taj knew, from his daughter’s own fashion parade, had been bought that way. Children were spending hundreds of dollars, not their dollars either, on jeans with holes already in them.

“This is Mr. Taj,” Renate said. “He is helping me so we can keep the house.”

The boy scarcely glanced at him and mumbled something that could have been hello. He had an athletic build under his ridiculous clothes and he reminded Taj of the pictures of the boys, ripped from magazines, his daughter still put on her wall. Using tape, which would only pull off leaving holes in the paint.

Renate had removed her wallet and handed her son a few twenties, which he looked at with disgust. “I need money for dinner, too!” He did not have his mother’s accent.

“There are many things to eat at home,” she said. “You could heat up that stew from last night – “ But the boy was gone, as quickly as he had come and with as little ceremony. She turned to look at Taj and shrugged as she put away her wallet.

“I am so sorry for his manners,” she said simply, but Taj was seeing the big picture.

“This is your problem in a pea shell,” Taj said, shaking his head. “You are spending money you don’t have when you should be saying no.”

“But this was a dance that was very important to him,” she began meekly but he cut her off.

“Everything is important at that age,” he said. “Everything is a crisis. I know; I have had a teenage daughter and we had to learn to set rules and limits.” He left out the fact that she was living at home now, doing nothing. The Taj who spoke was an ideal Taj, a better man. “We taught her the meaning of no.”

Renate stopped nodding and closed the notebook. “Carl heard plenty of no growing up,” she said. “No homeland, no money, no father.”

“Everyone here is the same!” Taj said with some passion. “We all must learn to live within our means and so with less. You are the kind of person who expects the world to bend and change because you want it to. You are without boundaries.”

He feared that he had crossed some line – were those even the words he meant to use? But this woman needed some discipline. He would be that hard character and she would thank him for it later. For now she just looked at him, took the information he had printed up about the hearing, and stood to leave.

“Do not tell me who I am,” she said. “Do not tell me what kind of person I am. If I have learned anything living in this country it is that this is something I can decide for myself.”

And she swept out of the office with such a flourish that Taj rolled backwards in his chair, squashing the sweet things she’d brought him.

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