Eva and Rob noticed the smell, something like messy puppy spiked with a shot of sawdust, but they didn’t notice the cage or hear the occasional back-of-the-room thumps. Without knowing why, she thought of Bambi, and figured the closed room simply stank of bureaucratic funk and armpit.
Even as the pair exchanged raised eyebrows over the number of applicants standing in line waiting for a ticket and those seated and holding one, they failed to notice a second line of applicants at the back of the crowded room. Had Eva and Rob noticed how each applicant left the counter looking puzzled, how each headed glumly to that second line, they would have recalled the warning colleagues and friends had given them—not to bother with the bureau, their application, their naïve enthusiasm.
Rob checked their ticket’s triple digits against the double digits on the electronic screen. Most of the applicants were men, few young, and all shared defeated shoulders. After several minutes, Eva shed her coat. A quarter-hour gone, she shed her cardigan. After an hour, drowsy from limited oxygen and boredom, she imagined doing something that might lift the dejection from the room’s atmosphere, like shedding her t-shirt. She pictured the tired faces around her reanimating, showing anything from lust to disgust—there were some, after all, bearded and wearing kufis or kippahs. What an odd, disrespectful thought.
Miraculously, they found seats together. Rob suggested playing “Guess What They Do,” a game they played on the bench outside their favorite ex-pat café. They’d sip their coffee and invent stories about the drivers and pedestrians waiting at the traffic light. Anything went, from the banal to the outrageous. “She’s an alpine guide, as alien to Zurich as a goat.” “She’s a scholarship student at the Undertaker School for the Underprivileged.” “He worked as a school janitor. Since his retirement, the numbers of students graduating from his former school have plummeted. The principal never knew how many students the janitor had tutored in his large and warm furnace office.” That last man had clearly been homeless.
Now, crowded as Economy, everyone breathed in sync, until someone coughed. A bent-kneed gent collapsed at a counter; a commotion. The man next to Eva who smelled of cardamom fell asleep, his head lolling on her shoulder. In Rob’s hand, their application packet seemed to wilt.
Finally, their number. Their clerk greeted them with half-mast eyes. She flipped through the packet’s documents, counting the copies rather than reading them—those expensive medical checkups!
“Your photos?” she demanded.
Rob handed over their black-and-white PhotoPront prints.
The clerk stapled each to the top sheet and tapped the packet on the counter, straightening the material, before stamping the top page.
Eva smiled. Rob let out a breath. Hah! They’d proven the nay-sayers wrong. Their fingers linked.
The clerk pushed the packet back at them. “Das chönnt Sie de Haase gäh,” she sneered, gesturing toward the back of the room with a nod. The red light above her counter flicked to green.
Eva and Rob joined the line at the back of the room—no ticket necessary. One by one, the resigned applicants ahead of them fed the stamped packets and their hopes to a pair of white rabbits. The animals nibbled through each photo and page, bite by bite, their black noses wriggling.