Mop Lady was on a mission. Her uniform was tucked, ironed, and inspection-ready. Her hair bun looked painfully tight. Her determined mopping yielded to no one, customers included. I admired her work ethic, but I just wanted to get past her to order a burger.
When I got to the counter, the teenager at the register wore the same uniform as Mop Lady, but the similarity ended there. His standard-issue belt lapped twice around his waist where Mop Lady’s was snug. He eventually turned his attention to me and took my order. I paid, and he put my receipt on an empty tray and pushed it to the side. No smile or thank you. Not even eye contact. He had another customer behind me to get rid of.
I got my burger and sat down, just in time for Mop Lady to come my way again. This time she had a cloth and spray bottle. The teenage customers next to me mocked her as she interrupted them to scrub their table. I barely got my food out of her way when she got to me. I smiled and tried to make friendly eye contact, but she turned before I could. The sound of a spilled drink had her off to the broom closet to retrieve her mop. When she got to the closet door, I noticed her slow down for the first time.
Marija hesitated over the combination lock on the door. Remembering secrets had never been a problem for her. Keeping them had been once.
Thirty-five years earlier, Marija was excited about the big, new apartment that came as part of her father’s promotion. Marija was most excited about her new next-door neighbor Anna, who also was ten years old. Anna and Marija soon became inseparable.
One day after school, Marija was playing at Anna’s. When her mom went out for groceries, Anna turned to Marija with a mischievous smile. “Let me show you a secret,” she said as she led Marija to her parent’s bedroom. Anna crawled under the bed and worked her hands under the headboard. She reemerged and produced a small gray plastic box with a pair of headphones attached. Anna gently put the flimsy foam headphones on Marija’s ears.
“Listen,” Anna said as she pushed a button. Marija noticed motion and a cassette tape in the middle of the box. Then music began flowing into her ears. It was unlike any she’d heard before. She couldn’t understand the words, but she knew they weren’t her native Latvian. They weren’t the Russian she was forced to learn, either. After a moment, she was lost in the sound. She took the plastic box and started dancing around the room while repeating the two words she could repeat…“Dancing Queen.”
Marija and Anna repeated this secret adventure whenever they could. That is, until the day Mrs. Krumins came back early from a shopping trip because she forgot her identity card. Marija thought Mrs. Krumins would drag her straight to her mom and report her mischief. Marija was surprised when Mrs. Krumins just told her to leave. Marija heard crying as she got to her apartment door. Marija would never play with Anna again.
Marija struggled to make new friends at school to fill the vacuum that Anna left. One day, to impress her classmates, Marija performed an impromptu playground version of the “Dancing Queen” song and dance. A teacher saw her.
“That is a pretty song, Marija,” Mrs. Balodis said, “Where did you learn it?”
Mrs. Balodis had never expressed interest in her, so the attention made Marija happy. Marija told her about the magic music box she and Anna once shared. Mrs. Balodis was so impressed she wanted Marija to tell Mr. Ozols, the school principal, the same story. Marija liked the attention and answered all their questions.
That night, Marija heard loud footsteps in the hallway and a knock at Anna’s apartment door. A moment later, she heard voices. Marija cracked her door and looked out. Two men in suits were walking Mr. Krumins to the elevators. Mrs. Krumins stood in the door while holding Anna. When Mrs. Krumins noticed Marija, she closed her door.
Three days later, Marija heard loud footsteps in the hallway again. This time, the knock was at her door. The same two men in suits asked her father to come with them. Marija’s father kissed her forehead and told her he would be back in time to tuck her into bed.
Marija’s father did not make it home that night. The next afternoon, Marija’s mother took her to the local KGB office, where the local police said to check. The KGB reception room was as small as it was unwelcoming. Marija sat in a wooden chair against the wall while her mom talked to the man behind the single small interior window in the room. After a few minutes, Marija’s mom turned, grabbed Marija by the hand, and left the building. Marija noticed tears on her mother’s face.
Marija never saw her father again. Years later, she would hear about a confession to smuggling and a heart attack while he was in a Soviet prison. Within a couple of weeks after her father’s departure, she and her mother had to move to another, dirtier, apartment building. Marija had to change schools, too. She immediately hated her new school, and it hated her back. She stopped going as soon as she could. Her mother had quit caring enough to intervene. Marija eventually got a job scrubbing floors alongside her mother.
Hearing her name called by the restaurant manager brought Marija out of her daydream. She unlocked the broom closet door and retrieved the mop. The final bars of an instrumental version of “Dancing Queen” played softly overhead, drowned out by a sea of teenage chatter.