In the end, she ate the paper, its shiny, slightly furry surface sticking to the roof of her mouth and making her gag. Her husband laughed when he found out, but it was something she had to do. She didn’t trust the power it had over her, and the only way to break that power was to break it up with her teeth. It sat in her stomach, making her queasy, but through the dizziness and chills that followed she was content. She had finally finished it.
Nina wished she had worn more clothes at the border point. Her children resembled giant balls, their puffed-up coats bulging around them. She was shivering through her jeans, and her scarf offered little comfort. Her husband David’s face was set like concrete, but she could see him shaking in his leather jacket.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said, for lack of anything to do but complain. “I remember when they’d let you in with just a passport.”
“At least they’re letting us through.” She took out the envelope containing her documents and thumbed through it for the fifth time. She ran through all the explanations she could possibly give if the guard questioned those papers: excuses for everything from incorrect orthography to the variation in color between her and her husband’s work permits.
“Next!” The guard’s order rattled through the loudspeaker, and David jumped. He took Lara and Petra in hand and walked, with only a little hesitation, up to the booth. They’d registered the children on his papers, and so he was the one who had to explain the situation to the guards. At the time, he’d insisted on it–he was the one who’d travelled through this very checkpoint several times, back in better days. Now, Nina was frantic with anxiety, and she squinted towards her family and their conversation with an unimpressed officer. After a couple of minutes, the officer gave them all back their passports and other papers, and they set off towards the exit.
It was her turn, and she stepped forward feeling the crescendo of blood in her body, rising in fear. When she reached the booth, she saw that the officer’s eyes were a jaundiced yellow, though the rest of his face was pale and papery. She placed all her papers on the wooden surface, and he took them from her. She watched his eyes flicking through her passport, work pass, and entry permit.
He collected her papers together, stamped her passport, and handed them back to her, along with the card that proclaimed her to be a temporary resident with the right to work.
“Thank you,” she whispered. The officer ignored her as she stuffed her papers into her handbag and walked towards the rest of her family.
For a little while, nothing strange happened. Then Nina tried to go to work.
She had obtained a job before they had come, at Saint Anthony of Padua Gymnasium. She would replace the school’s former French teacher, who had disappeared one day in mysterious circumstances, according to the student who shown her to the principal’s office. Nina asked what these circumstances might be, and was told that the most popular theories were elopement, involvement in a cult, and selling her soul to the devil. She felt rather less enthused about her new job, but kept on walking, her shoes clattering on the polished floor.
When she entered the office, the principal–Dr. Lisa Amstutz, the plaque on her desk said–shook her hand, and Nina introduced herself, tripping a little over a language she knew more as an intellectual exercise than a living thing.
“Of course, since you are a foreigner, I need to see your residency card,” Dr. Amstutz said. Nina pulled her card out of her purse and handed it over. It was the first time she had needed to use it.
Dr. Amstutz frowned, and stared at the card for too long to be reading it.
“What is wrong?” Nina started forward in her seat.
“This says you’re not Nina Marinovic.” She handed it back, and Nina saw that the name printed in black ink was NIKA MARINOVIC. She closed her eyes and opened them in the hope that the letters would change while she wasn’t looking, but they remained as before.
“There must have been a mistake,” she said. “I really am Nina Marinovic–this card just has an error—”
“I’m sorry.” Dr. Amstutz rose from her chair and gestured towards the door. “We can’t have someone teaching here if they’re not who their documents say they are.”
“I have a passport from my country–won’t that do?”
“Not if you don’t have the right to work.”
“If you give me time, maybe I can get new papers. It’s a mistake.”
“I don’t have time.” Over the top of her glasses, Dr. Amstutz regarded her the way one regarded a criminal’s photo in the newspaper.
Nina felt hot and embarrassed, and gave up the fight in favor of scuttling away. “I’m sorry,” she said before closing the door.
David greeted her with pre-emptive congratulations, and subsided into silence when she told him that she hadn’t got the job. She didn’t tell him the reason for her failure; he would only have exploded in anger and marched down to the department of immigration to berate any hapless clerk he could find, and she didn’t want that kind of attention drawn to the mistake. Seeing her name written as Nika rather than Nina had made her feel cold and queasy, as if she were about to come down with flu, and it seemed prudent to ignore this as much as possible. If no one but her knew about it, maybe the letters would rearrange themselves in the night and she could go about her life as Nina Marinovic. She was sure that her residency card had borne her real name when it had been freshly printed for her at the border, and she half-wondered if the letters had changed without her noticing. Perhaps, if they had done so the first time, they would again.
She said nothing to the girls. Lara had always been a nervous child, peering out at the world from behind a door, and didn’t need anything else to worry about. Petra wasn’t a worrier, but she clung to Lara like a limpet and would have told her sister the bad news within seconds. So Nina smiled and listened to their stories and did nothing to indicate that moving all this way had not been for the best.
This would have been enough if she hadn’t underestimated her husband. David accepted her explanation of the school having filled their vacancy with the principal’s cousin’s daughter, and laughed dutifully when Nina made a weak joke about how they thought they’d escaped nepotism to arrive in a country where it was just the same. When they slumped on the sofa after the girls had fallen asleep and let a poorly-subtitled American sitcom wash over them, he coughed to announce that he was about to say something she should pay attention to.
“Was the teaching job really filled by someone else?” he asked her, eyes still on the TV. He sounded disinterested, but she knew he wanted a real answer.
“Why would you ask?” she said, playing for time.
He muted the television. “When you told us, you didn’t look like some principal’s cousin had taken away your job. I remember when Marija got the understudy job instead of you because she’d been the nanny to the director’s kids, and you came home and kicked the fridge. You would have been more angry if something like that had happened today.”
“I don’t remember kicking the fridge.”
“Trust me, I remember.”
Nina watched the blonde girl on screen widen her eyes in shock. She wondered if the overacting was also meant to be comical. Years ago, her teacher had played them scenes from the film adaptation of the book they were studying, which had been made back in the 1920s with actors who were used to the stage. They had pranced around onscreen, every movement pitched for a theatre stage. Even their faces had been made up for different lights: caked with makeup like a body on a mortician’s slab, with eyes outlined in black and scars done in liner. All the other students had shrieked with laughter, but Nina had sat there and watched those long-dead actors do their best to perform in this intimate stage where the audience was close enough to see the greasepaint sliding off their skin.
“Promise that you won’t try to do something about it?” she said.
“Why would I do that? Did something bad happen?”
She shook her head. “Not bad, but strange. She asked me for my residency card, the principal, you know, because it has the right to work stamp and my name on it so of course she had to check who I was, and, well.” She saw David’s look of confusion. “Well, it doesn’t have my name on it.”
“What? You’re telling me you have the wrong card?”
“No, no, it’s not the wrong card, it’s my name apart from one letter. Nika, not Nina. There must have been some kind of mistake.” He was on his feet now, and she motioned him to sit back down; it wasn’t worth getting so angry about.
He sat back, and then she saw his eyes narrow as he let out a soft, “Oh.”
“There was a phone call today asking for a Ms. Nika Marinovic. I told them no one called that lived here; I thought they were cold-callers who’d got your name wrong. But maybe they knew. They were calling from a theatre, but I didn’t catch which one. The line was bad.”
“A theatre?” She watched the blonde girl on the screen, now joined by a young man who seemed to be her boyfriend. The subtitles had started trailing several seconds behind the image, so it was hard to tell. “I haven’t auditioned in years.”
“Go to the immigration office tomorrow. They can sort it out for you.” He squinted at the subtitles, trying to make sense of them.
The immigration office could not help her. They had no record of a Nina Marinovic, and when Nina waved her passport around to prove who she was the woman behind the counter asked if she wanted to be deported for attempting to work without a residence permit. Nina retreated, and crossed the square to the bank to open an account. If she could only be Nika Marinovic, then she would have to be paid as Nika Marinovic. They only required her ID, for which her faulty residence permit was enough, and the tenancy agreement, which proved to be an issue due to being signed in David’s name, but the bank teller relented after Nina pointed out that there couldn’t be two Marinovic families in this small city. He signed off on her application, while telling her that he wouldn’t normally do this. The operation was so furtive that Nina left feeling like she’d opened a bank account with the local mafia.
None of the documents she had brought with her from home would work in their new country. The only proof that really mattered was the residence card with the wrong name on it, and all the other proof of her life–her birth certificate and marriage certificate and bank statements and doctoral certificate–did not matter here. To everyone except her family, she was Nika Marinovic, and no one could vouch for her existence before she had crossed the border. Since her failure at the gymnasium, she had applied for dozens of jobs teaching French or German or Latin, but she was always rejected when she could not provide references that described the same person she was on her residence permit. She could be Nika, with a valid permit that guaranteed her right to work and no other record of her existence, or she could be Nina, without a permit at all but decades of existence and the paperwork to prove it.
“No one knows, and no one cares, about Nina Marinovic,” she said as she came in one day, wiping ice slush from her boots.
“Who?” David said. She stared at him, tasting the sour chill of the outside air.
“Me,” she said, not knowing what else to say.
His face relaxed. “I was just joking. Sorry–I should have thought it might hit too close.”
The rest of his face stayed still as he smiled, and Nina didn’t trust what he said. But he was working so hard and was so overwhelmed, having to provide their full income and coming home exhausted from speaking a strange language all day. If he sometimes looked at her in confusion and hesitated half a second before saying her name, that was just stress. She prided herself on her forward momentum; she hadn’t looked back when they had left their home forever and caught the bus to a new country. She would never look back. She never saw that look of puzzlement on Petra’s face, and Lara always looked slightly confused–she always had, Nina thought.
The only offers of work she ever got weren’t for her at all. They were all from theatre companies who called asking for Nika Marinovic with offers of exciting new opportunities and breakout roles. She never called them back, and after a while she learnt not to pick up the phone, but let them leave messages that she deleted without listening to.
They had almost settled into a routine, where David dropped the children off at school on his way to work at the railway company and Nina lay on the sofa all day and felt like she was slowly decomposing, when one day during her daily trip to the library to look at her email and rifle through the shelves for books she hadn’t read yet, she saw an email that she had been hoping to receive for days.
Nina opened it and thought it was a joke. It was from her PhD supervisor, whom she’d written to asking if he would mind acting as a reference and changing her name just a little in his recommendation, but it was all wrong. She closed the email and stared at the screen, and then clicked on it again. It still bore the same message.
Dear Mrs. Marinovic,
There must have been some mistake. I have never taught a “Nina Marinovic”, and in any case I would never willingly collude in attempted identity fraud. Do not contact me again.
Prof. Josip Novak
Her throat spasmed, and she had to swallow the bitter bile that rose up in her mouth. She left the library and walked home as fast as she could, ignoring the ache that built up in her calves as she marched through the street. When she got back, among the small cluster of boxes in the living room she found the box that contained all the material from her PhD years. Crushed by her hardback thesis, there was a greetings card with CONGRATULATIONS! splashed across the front in garish colors. Inside there was a short message in a sprawling hand:
Congratulations on successfully defending your thesis! It’s been a pleasure supervising you.
Best wishes for the future,
She knew she had not made a mistake. He still taught at the same university, in the same faculty, and whatever he said now he had once taught a Nina Marinovic. Before, she would have assumed it was a joke or a miscommunication, but now she had a residency card with a wrong name on it and no way to be Nina instead of Nika, and she did not believe the mundane explanation.
She phoned her sister, because it was still several hours before David would come home with the children, and after Leona had described her annoying new co-worker in detail Nina told her about the letter from her old supervisor.
“I don’t think he was confused. He seemed angry–said I was attempting identity fraud–and surely you would check whether you’d supervised someone with that name even if you disapproved of them.”
“Who knows?” Leona’s voice sounded small and far away, like she was calling from the bottom of the ocean. “Academics sometimes don’t function well in the real world. You said he was always losing his keys and conference notes and things like that.”
“I don’t think he would do something like this, though. He seemed to care about his students. I can’t believe he’d just forget about me and write me off.”
“It sounds weird but it’s probably just some mix-up. Don’t worry about it. I have to go now, but give my love to your mother.”
Nina held the phone away from her ear and stared at it. She put it back so she could speak. “We have the same mother, Leona.”
The dial tone whined, and Nina put the phone back in its cradle.
For the rest of the afternoon, she read the book she’d been trudging through, until she heard the clatter of a key in the lock and got up to greet her family.
“You’re back! I had such a strange phone call with Leona–I’ve felt ever so odd since then. Did you have a good day?” She smiled, but David didn’t return her smile and screwed up his eyes in puzzlement.
“Who are you?”
Her stomach dropped out of her.
“I’m Nina. I’m your wife.”
“No, you’re not,” he said, tightening his grip on the children’s hands. “What are you doing in my house?”
Nina bent down, imploring her daughter to recognize her. “Lara, give Mama a kiss.” Lara shrank away from her, burying her face in her father’s side. She turned towards Petra, who looked ready to cry at the sight of her.
“Stop this,” she said. “It isn’t funny.”
David stared at her, furious. “I’m not joking, and I’ve never met you. Now get out of my house before I call the police!” His voice rose to a yell by the end of the sentence, and the girls started crying. Nina, head spinning, had just enough sense to pick up her handbag before her feet took her out of the front door, which was slammed behind her.
The world blurred and distorted in her eyes as she walked towards the main street, finding her way out of habit rather than any real awareness of her surroundings. When she came to, she was standing opposite a café with pastel-blue awning, and to its right a sign pointed the way to the train station.
She took it as a sign, and knew what she had to do. She purchased a ticket to her destination and spent the journey trying to concentrate on the countryside flowing past the window and not on the anger on David’s face. When the train arrived at its final stop, she got off and bought a map in the station before setting off into the town. It took half an hour through a bleak town centre that gave way to sprawling industrial estates before she reached the border. She saw the high arches that crossed the road first, glowing white in the cold afternoon sun. To her right was the building where she’d collected her documents only three months ago. She headed towards it.
In the booth where members of the public could talk to them, that day’s officer sat flipping through a gardening magazine. She went up to him and rapped on the glass.
“Excuse me? I’m here looking for one of the officers who works here?”
He didn’t take his eyes off the magazine. “Name?”
“I’m not sure. He was pale and had yellow eyes.”
He snorted, and put his magazine down. “Oh, I know who that is. I’ll be back in a moment.”
Nina waited for around five minutes, feeling increasingly small under so much concrete bearing down on her. It was a relief when she heard footsteps announcing the yellow-eyed man who had issued her documents.
He said nothing, and after several seconds of silence she spoke.
“You gave me the wrong papers. I’m not Nika Marinovic.”
“But you could be.”
“No, I couldn’t–I have no proof that I existed more than three months ago and I can’t get a job and theatre companies keep calling my house and my own family didn’t know who I was today, so I don’t know what you did but you had better take it all back.” She crossed her arms in defense. “Or I’ll stay here until you do.”
“We could have you thrown out for doing that.”
“I don’t care. I’ve had enough and I’m taking a stand.”
That got his attention. He strode towards her, and she backed away until she left the shadow of the arches and stepped into the sunlight.
“You stupid girl,” he said. “You came all the way here but you don’t understand what I did for you? What I gave you?”
“What you gave me was a misspelt name and everyone forgetting who I am!”
“You’re looking at this the wrong way.” He fell into the sales pitch, seeming much calmer now that he could persuade her. “You came here for what–to teach French to giggling schoolgirls? You used to have dreams. As Nina Marinovic you could only ever stagnate and decay–I have given you a new life. Do you realize how rare that is? As Nika Marinovic you could be the toast of the stage; I certainly arranged for enough casting directors to contact you, and if you’d given any of them a chance you could be playing Grusha Vashnadze right now instead of haranguing me.”
She snorted. “Grusha Vashnadze? I’m thirty-five, I haven’t acted since university, and in the last audition I went to I cried.”
“And that is precisely what I was trying to correct, along with your torpid lack of ambition.”
“What about my family? The people I used to know? Are they dragging me down along with my torpid lack of ambition?”
“We all have to make little sacrifices.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but he interrupted her before she could speak.
“I gave you a new name, a new life. I gave you the chance to be great, and you dare to come here and complain? Do you want to crawl back to your life as Nina Marinovic–mother, wife, schoolteacher–when you could have everything you ever wanted?”
Nina’s face burned with sweat and fear. She remembered the old actors in the black-and-white films, buried under stage makeup for roles they didn’t yet know how to play.
“I don’t want a new life where my family and my friends don’t recognize me. I can’t throw away everything for some dream life you want me to have. I want to be Nina and I always will be.”
“And your dreams?”
“When I get back to the city, I’ll look for casting calls and I’ll go to auditions–as Nina, who has a history back in the country I come from and people who love her. But I’ll never answer anything as Nika.”
He sucked his lips into a disapproving straight line. “That’s a stupid decision.”
“You’re some kind of twisted wish-granter, aren’t you? This is my wish.”
He smiled, broad enough to show his teeth. “I’m a low-level public servant who takes an interest in some of the wretched people I encounter.”
Nina took her residency card out of her pocket, and tapped one finger on the printed name that had caused her so much trouble. “I knew this wasn’t a mistake. If I destroy it, does this all end?”
He shook his head. “Don’t destroy it. I will make sure it shows your real name by the time you get back to your city. But I will give you something else first.” He disappeared into the building, and Nina was about to lose patience and walk back to the train station when he appeared with a brown envelope. “Just in case you change your mind.”
She took it from him. “Thank you. I won’t.”
For the last few days she had hugged David and the children more than usual, wanting to hold onto them forever. One of David’s work colleagues had a brother who was a theatre director and was casting The House of Bernarda Alba, and he’d suggested that she come to the auditions next week. Life was good; except that sometimes when David looked at her he seemed puzzled, and unable to work out what she was doing there. One evening, over late-night wine after the children had been put to bed, she asked him the reason for his confusion.
“It’s odd,” he said, swirling the wine around the glass. “Mostly I see you and think, ah yes, there is my lovely wife–” Nina snorted and he laughed at her reaction–“but occasionally I look at you and for a second, I don’t know–I can’t remember–who you are. I think, is she supposed to be here? Is that woman allowed in my home?”
Nina felt despair settle on her like a coat. She didn’t want to go through this again, not now. Since coming back, she had set her papers in order, and had everything possible to prove she was a real person. Despite that, in a filing cabinet upstairs lay the brown envelope she had brought back from her journey to the border. It had seemed harmless enough, but beneath its smooth brown surface was something strange and corrosive that was eating through her real identity and her real life. When she pulled it out of the drawer, she held it between finger and thumb. Though she would never admit it, it frightened her.
She had never opened the envelope, but she ripped through the flap and reached inside to find a single piece of thick paper. It was a birth certificate, exactly the same as her own other than the name, which was the one that had started that mess: Nika Marinovic.
Just in case you change your mind, he had said.
“Oh, I want to kill him,” she said.