LONELINESS IN THE NET
© by Janusz Leon Wiœniewski
Translated from the Polish by Wiesiek Powaga
NINE MONTHS EARLIER…
The record for the highest number of people to throw themselves under passing trains is held by Platform 11 of the Berlin Lichtenberg railway station. That’s official. And, even if it were not for the scrupulous statistics kept by all Berlin railway stations, anyone could observe it, just by sitting on a bench. The tracks at platform 11 are shinier than others. Emergency stops, frequent emergency stops, keep the tracks in pristine condition. The concrete railway sleepers that are usually so grimy and grey are, in many places along Platform 11, much lighter, at some points almost white. In those places, the station’s maintenance teams have used very strong detergents to wash off the blood left by bodies mutilated and dragged along the tracks.
Lichtenberg is also one of the most remote stations on the periphery of Berlin, and the most neglected. Taking your life at the Berlin Lichtenberg you are doing it under the impression that the world you are leaving behind is grey, filthy, reeking of urine, a world of decrepit walls, full of hurrying, sad, or even despairing people. It is so much easier to take your leave of a world like this.
The entrance on the platform 11 is the last in a tunnel between the ticket hall and the transformers’ hut, which closes it off. The ramp at platform 11 is the furthest out at the Lichtenberg station. If you decide to take your life whilst standing in the station’s ticket hall, then by walking out to the platform 11 you live longer. That’s just one more reason why suicides invariably opt for Platform 11.
On Platform 11, there are two wooden benches, covered with graffiti and cut with penknives, bolted to the concrete floor with massive screws. That night, on the bench nearer the tunnel exit sat a scrawny, foul-smelling man. He had been on the streets for years. He was shaking from cold and fear. He sat with his feet in an unnaturally contorted position, keeping his hands stuck in the pockets of his tattered, stained plastic jacket, which was patched up in several places by various lengths of yellow sticky tape with blue letters: ‘JUST DO IT’. He was smoking a cigarette. Next to him on the bench stood a few empty beer cans and empty bottle of vodka. Next to the bench, an Aldi plastic bag, the yellow logo of which had been worn clean, contained all his earthly goods: a burnt in several places woolly blanket, a few syringes, a tin of tobacco, Rizzlas, an album with photographs from his son’s funeral, tin opener, box of matches, two packets of methadone, a book by Remarque stained by coffee and blood, an old wallet with yellowed, torn and stuck again photos of a young woman, a university diploma and a certificate of criminal record – clean. That evening, to the photograph of a young woman, the man clipped a letter and a 100 Deutchmarks banknote.
He was waiting for the Angermuende-bound train from Berlin Zoo. Twelve minutes past midnight. Fast train with reserved seats and Mitropa restaurant for first class travellers. This train never stops at Lichtenberg station. It thunders past and disappears in the darkness. Usually twenty wagons; in summer even more. The man knew all that. He had waited for this train many times before.
The man was afraid. But tonight’s fear was different. It was universal, familiar, named and widely studied. He knew exactly what he was afraid of. The worst fear is of something that cannot be named. A nameless fear can never be conquered, even by needles.
Today he had come to the station for the last time. Soon he would not be lonely any more. Never. The loneliness is the worst. Waiting for this train, he was quiet, reconciled with himself, almost happy.
On the other bench, by the newspaper kiosk, sat another man. It would be hard to tell his age. Say, thirty-seven, forty. Suntanned, smelling of an expensive after-shave, in a black woollen jacket, light, well-tailored trousers and an olive-coloured shirt with a loosened green tie. On the floor, next to the bench he put a metallic suitcase with airline logos. From a leather case, he took out a laptop, switched it on, but a moment later took if off his lap and put it down on the bench. The screen flickered in the darkness. The hand of the clock hanging over the platform just passed twelve. Sunday. The 30th of April. The man put his head in the palms of his hands and closed his eyes. He was crying.
The man on the bench near the exit got up. He reached for his carrier bag, made sure that the letter and the banknote are still in the wallet, picked up a black beer can and started walking towards the signals at end of the platform. He had chosen that spot a long time before. He passed the kiosk and then saw him. He had not expected anyone on Platform 11 after midnight. He had always been here alone. He was overcome by a strange feeling, different than fear. The presence of that other man was spoiling his plans. He did not want to meet anyone on his way to the end of the platform. The end… This time it really was going to be the end.
Suddenly he felt that he wanted to say good-bye. He came up to the bench, pushed the laptop away and sat next to the man.
“Eh, my friend… Will you have a drink of beer with me? The last drink. Will you?” he asked, touching the man’s thigh with his finger and holding out the can.
HE: It was just past midnight. He dropped his head and felt he could not stop those tears. He had not felt so lonely in a long time. It’s because of the birthday. Loneliness, as a feeling, had rarely caught up with him in the rush of everyday life. One is lonely only when one has the time for it. He didn’t. He organised his life well, to ensure that he wouldn’t. His projects in Munich and the US, doctorate, lectures in Poland, conferences, publications. No, in his biography lately there had been no breaks for feeling lonely, or sorry for oneself and moments of weakness like this one here. Sitting here, on this grey, empty station, forced into idleness, he had nothing he could do to forget. Loneliness struck like an attack of asthma. The fact that he was here, having an unscheduled break was an error. Ordinary, banal, absurd error. Like a typo. Before landing at the Berlin Hegel, he checked the timetable on the Internet, but missed the info that Warsaw-bound trains stop at Berlin Lichtenberg only on weekdays. Saturday ended just a moment ago. Well, if he missed it, it was understandable. It was in the morning, after sixteen hours flight from Seattle, the flight ending a week of relentless work.
Birthday midnight at the Berlin Lichtenberg. So absurd. Or was it some secret mission of his? The place would be a perfect location for an action film, black-and-white, naturally, about the meaningless, grey, heavy burden of being. He was sure that here, now, Wojaczek could have written his darkest poem.
Birthday. How was he born? Was she in pain? What did she think then? He never asked her. Why? Why not simply – “Mum, did it hurt when you were giving birth to me?”
Today he would like to know. But when she was alive it never crossed his mind.
Now she was no more. Others too. All the most important people, those he loved – had died. His parents, Natalia… He had no one. No one important. He only had projects, conferences, deadlines, money and occasional mark of respect. Who on earth remembers his birthday? Who cares? Who knows? Is there anyone who will think about him today? Hence those tears, which he couldn’t stop.
Suddenly he felt a nudge.
“Eh, my friend… Will you have a drink of beer with me? The last drink. Will you?” he heard a raspy voice.
He raised his head. Bloodshot, frightened eyes, sunk in the oversized eye sockets on a gaunt, stubbly, scarred face, were looking at him pleadingly. There was a man sitting next to him. In his stretched shaky hand he was holding out a can of beer. Seeing his tears, he moved away and said:
“Listen my friend, I don’t mean to disturb you. I don’t, honest. When I cry I don’t like to be bothered myself. I’m going. One should be left to cry in peace. Only then it can bring any joy.”
He stopped him, catching his jacket. He took the beer out of the man’s hand.
“You are not bothering me. You can’t imagine how much I want to have a drink with you. It’s my birthday. Just started. Don’t go. My name is Jakub.”
And then he did what at that moment seemed to him as natural as it was irresistible. He pulled the man over to himself and gave him a hug. He put his head on the other man’s shoulder clad in torn, tatty plastic. They stood like that for a while, both feeling it was a momentous occasion. Suddenly, the silence was shuttered by a train, which went thundering past the bench where they sat embraced. At that moment the man in a plastic jacket cowered, like a frightened child, huddled up to him and said something that was swallowed by the noise of the speeding train. After o moment he felt embarrassed. The other man must have felt the same, for he pushed himself away, got up and without a word headed for the exit. He stopped by one of the metal rubbish bins, took out from his carrier bag a piece of paper, crumpled it and threw it away. A few seconds later he disappeared inside the tunnel.
“Happy birthday, Jakub,” he said aloud to himself, taking the last drink of beer from the can, which the other left next to the flickering laptop.
It was only a moment of weakness. Arrhythmia of the heart, and it passed. He sat straight on the bench. From his bag he took out a mobile phone, a Berlin newspaper he had bought earlier that morning, found a taxi service, ordered a cab. Then, packed his laptop picked up his suitcase and with a deafening ramble started pulling it towards the tunnel leading back to the ticket hall and the exit into town.
How did it go? What did he say? “One should be left to cry in peace. Only then it can bring any joy.”
SHE: It’s been a long time since a man tried so hard to keep her in a good mood, make her feel attractive and buy her the best drinks in the house.
“No, no one can deny that Cinderella had an exceptionally sad childhood. Nasty sisters, too much work and a horrible step-mother. Besides poisoning herself by taking the ash from the ash pit, she didn’t even have an MTV,” – laughed a young man sitting opposite her at the bar.
He was a few years younger than she. Not more than 25 years old. Handsome. Sharp dresser. She had never met a man dressed in such a harmonious way. Precisely that – harmonious. He was as elegant as his bespoke suits. Everything harmonised with everything else. His after-shave harmonised with the colour of his tie, colour of his tie harmonised with the stones in his golden cufflinks in the cuffs of his immaculately blue shirt. His golden cufflinks – who these days uses such cufflinks? – their size and the colour of the gold harmonised with his golden watch, which he was wearing on the wrist of his right hand. And the watch harmonised with the time of the day. Now, for an evening with her, he sported a rectangular watch with a delicate leather watchstrap in harmony with the colour of his suit. In the morning, at a meeting in their firm’s Berlin headquarters, he had a heavy, stately Rolex. He also had a different perfume. She knows that, for she deliberately got up from her seat and reached out for a mineral water over his head, even though she had a tray with bottles in front of her.
She watched him throughout the afternoon. His name was Jean and he was a Belgian “from the absolutely French part of Belgium”, as he liked to stress. She was not sure whether the French part was all that much different from the Flamish, but assumed that coming from the French one was more worthy.
As it turned out, it was not just her who thought Jean was the main attraction of that Berlin circus. They brought them all to the headquarters from around Europe to tell them that they had nothing to say. For a year she had been part of a team with her Belgian counterparts, working on a project that was bound to fail in Poland. The equipment which they wanted to sell was simply wrong for the Polish market. It is hard to sell sun-tanning cream to the Eskimos, even if the cream is of the highest quality.
She did not want to come here and did her best to pass the invitation on to someone else from her department. She had been planning a trip to the Polish Karkonosze mountains, with a sortie to Prague. It didn’t work. Berlin asked explicitly for her. On top of everything else she was to travel by train, for if the whole trip was to have any point, she had to spend a day at their office in Poznañ.
Coming here from Warsaw – she got to hate travelling by train recently – she had a lot of time to prepare a strategy which would help her to dissuade the central office from the project. But Jean, the Belgian with cufflinks that went even with the weather, convinced them that “the Polish market doesn’t know yet it needs this equipment”, and that he had “a fantastic idea that would make them aware of that”. Then he spent an hour against a backdrop of sleek colour slides, talking about his “beautifully simple idea”.
Not only that it would have taken her fifteen minutes to say the same, and in much better English, but nothing in his slides – except the map of Poland – had any connection with reality. No one paid any attention to him though, apart from her. It was clear that the Berlin director made her decision before the presentation. She too had made her decision before the presentation. The problem was that both decisions were diametrically opposed. But was it possible that the director could have agreed with her? Could someone so seductively handsome, speaking English with such a charming French accent be wrong? The director was looking at the Belgian talking rubbish against the colourful fantasy, as if he was about to start taking his clothes off. A classic case of the menopause. Well, the temptation was certainly worth – at least according to the director – the money of the shareholders. Besides, one can always try to convince the Eskimos that they can get suntan during the arctic night from cosmic radiation. And that therefore they need the cream.
She spoke after Jean. The director did not even wait for her to finish. Her secretary called her out to answer a phone call. Thus, everyone learned that there was no point in listening to her. They bent over their laptops and busied themselves with the Internet. She might have as well recited poems or tell jokes in Polish – they wouldn’t have noticed. When she finished her presentation, only the Belgian came up to her and said with that disarming smile of his:
“Your are the most charming engineer I know. Even though you are wrong, I have listened to you with bated breath and utmost attention.”
When she reached for her bag to show him her calculations, he added:
“Would you like to argue your point with me later in our hotel bar? Say, tonight, at 10?”
She agreed straight away. She didn’t even try to invent any excuses about how busy she was going to be in the evening. All the official evening occasions had been carried out. Her train to Warsaw was booked for the following day around midday. And she wanted to meet the Belgian at least once without the director’s presence. Now here, in the hotel bar, she was pleased that in the morning she did not protest too hard against the project. The Belgian was truly charming. It looked he was a frequent guest at the hotel. He talked with the barman in French – the hotel chain Mercure, regularly used by her firm, was French, and so the stuff always spoke French – and it looked both men on friendly terms.
Now that the project was extended for another year, she would have many opportunities to meet him. She liked him. She thought about it, watching him order another drink. When the barman handed them glasses containing liquids of unusual pastel colours and exotic French names, the Belgian brought his face close to hers.
“It’s been a long time since I started Sunday with someone so charming. It’s just gone midnight. The 30th of April,” he said, then lightly touched her hand with his glass and gently brushed his lips against her hair.
It was electrifying. She felt a near forgotten twinge of curiosity – how it was all going to end. Should she let him touch her hair with his lips? Did she have a right to feel that curiosity? What would she really want to happen next? She, a wife to a handsome husband – envy of all her female friends – how far was she prepared to go to feel that long forgotten shiver of excitement when a man kisses her hair, and closes his eyes with it? Her husband had stopped kissing her hair a long time ago and became so… terribly predictable.
She thought about it often recently. In fact she was worried. Not that it all got boring. It was not so bad yet. But the drive was no longer there. It became dissipated in the prose of everyday life. Things had cooled down. Only occasionally, they would hot up again, and not for long. The first night after her or his return from a longer trip, after tears and quarrels which they ended in bed; after alcohol or some fragrant leaves they had smoked at a party, on holidays in strange beds, on strange floors, by strange walls or in strange cars.
It still happened. Now and again. But without that… abandon. Without that mystic tantra from the early days. That insatiability. That hunger in which the very thought of “it” made her blood boil and rush to her head, and down where she felt, instantly, moist. No, she had not experienced that for a long time. Not after wine, not after leaves, not even after the parking lot by the motorway where he pulled up on the way back from a party, and where despite the great speed they were travelling with, she pushed her head under his arm – the music on the radio must have got to her – and started undoing his belt.
It was probably because it was available. Everything was to hand. Nothing had to be striven for. They knew every single hair on their bodies, every possible smell of their skin – dry or sweaty. They knew every nook and cranny of their bodies, heard all the sighs, predicted all reactions and believed in all confessions. Some of which were occasionally repeated, but they no longer made any impression. They were part of the script.
Recently she began to think that for her husband sex – how could she possibly think that?! – had the character of a catholic mass. One goes, does not think, and has a peace of mind for another week.
Perhaps everyone goes through it? Can people desire each other wildly after fifteen years leaving together, seeing each other cry, throw up, piss and leaving a dirty loo? But maybe it is not that important? Maybe it is needed only at the beginning? Maybe it is not important to go to bed together but get up the following day and make a cup of tea for the other?
“Have I done something wrong?” Jean brought her back from her reverie.
“I don’t know yet,” she said with a forced smile. “Excuse me for a moment. I’ll be back in a second.”
In the toilet, she took out her lipstick and looking at the mirror she said:
“You have a difficult day ahead of you.”
She started putting on the lipstick.
“You have a husband too…” she added, wagging her finger at the mirror.
She came out of the toilet. Passing through the reception she heard a man, standing with his back to her, spelling for the receptions his name.
She was no longer curious „how it would all end”. She missed her husband. She came up to the bar, to the man who was waiting for her. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek.
“No, you didn’t do anything wrong. To the contrary.”
From her handbag she too out her business card and pressed the reverse, empty side to her freshly glossed lips. Then she put it next to her unfinished drink of pastel liquid.
“Good night,” she said softly.
HE: The taxi driver who drove him up to the empty Berlin Lichtenberg station was a Pole. 30 percent of Berlin taxi drivers are Poles.
“Take me to a hotel with a bar, which is near the Berlin ZOO station and is expensive.”
“That’s easily done in this city,” the driver laughed out.
He checked in at the hotel. Before he left the reception he asked:
“Could you please wake me up an hour and half before the first train from Berlin Zoo to Warsaw?
A young receptionist raised his head from some documents and looked at him perplexed.
“How... do you mean? An hour and half? What train? What time?”
He answered calmly.
“I don’t know that myself, you see. But you write so movingly…” he pointed at the colourful prospect next to his passport, “that Mercure means not only roof above your head when you travel. Mercure is part of your travel too. Could you please ring the station, check the departure time for tomorrow Warsaw train and wake me up exactly ninety minutes before. I would be grateful if you booked me a taxi. I would like to live an hour before the departure.”
“Yes, of course…” confirmed the embarrassed receptionist.
“I hope you won’t mind that I will not go to my room and instead leave my baggage at the reception. I’d like to spend a lot of money in your bar. You will make sure the baggage is safe here, won’t you?”
Without waiting for an answer, he placed his laptop case bag on top of his suitcase and walked away towards the door from behind which came the sound of music.
From the round speakers fixed just under the ceiling of a noisy room flowed a quiet music. Natalie Cole sang about love. He looked around. Only one stool by an oval bar was free. When he reached it and saw a half filled glass, he was disappointed. He was about to walk away thinking the seat was taken when a young man sitting on the neighbouring stool turned around and said in English:
“This seat is free, unfortunately. You can have it if you want.” Looking at him with a smile, he added: “It’s a good place. Barman visits it quite often.”
He sat down and immediately sensed a delicate fragrance of – Lancome? Biagiotti? He closed his eyes. Probably Biagiotti.
He had always been fascinated by perfumes. They are like a message, which does not need a language. You can be deaf and mute, or an alien from the outer space and he will get it. Perfumes contain an irrational, mysterious element. Channel 5, L’Air du Tempes or Poème are indeed like poems to wear. Some are incorrigibly sexy. They force you to turn your head after a woman, even to follow her. He remembered when two years ago he was visiting Prado. A woman in a black hat passed him leaving in her wake a cloud of mystic fragrance. He forgot about El Greco, Goya and others, and followed her. Now he thought that he would like to follow the woman who was sitting here before.
He put his elbows on the bar and leaned out to catch the barman’s attention, he was supposed to come this way often, wasn’t he? Then he noticed lying next to the glass a business card, with a clear imprint of lips on the empty, white side. The lower lip thicker, a determined arch of the upper one. Beautiful lips. Natalia had lips like that. He picked up the card, put it to his nose. Biagiotti. It must have belonged to the woman who had been sitting here just a few minutes before. He wanted to see who it belonged to. He turned the card when he heard:
“Excuse me, that card has been left for me.”
“But of course. I was about to ask,” he lied, handing the card over.
He was late. He was not going to find out who it belonged to. The man took it, put it in a pocket of his jacket and walked away without a word.
“A bottle of well chilled Proseco. And a cigar. The most expensive you’ve got,” he asked the barman who had just materialised before him.
His mother had lips like that. But his mother had everything beautiful.
That day which had just passed and those few hours of the new one had belonged to his mother, and not because on his birthday he thought about how he was born.
The whole point of his flying in from Seattle to Berlin yesterday morning was to see, at long last, the place where his mother was born. He had been increasingly interested in his mother’s biography, like in a novel in whose several important chapters he had taken part. He now wanted to know the opening ones.
She was born not far from Berlin Lichtenberg station, in a hospital run by the sisters Samaritans. His grandmother was on her last legs so grandfather brought her to Berlin in the hope they would be better off here. What do you call it these days? Economic immigrants? Yes, that was what they were. A week later his grandma gave birth to his mother. In the Samaritan hospital. The only place where they took in women straight from the street. Those without money. He passed that building yesterday. Now it was housing a Turkish avant-garde theatre.
After three months they returned to Poland. They could not live in Germany. But it did not matter that it was only three months. In the birth certificate figured the fateful annotation: place of birth – Berlin. Thus his mother became a German. And it was thanks to that that he had now a German passport and could fly to Seattle without visa. But he always flew with two passports. Once, when he forgot his Polish passport he felt like one of those stateless persons.
For he could be only Polish.
The barman brought the blue bottle of Proseco, the silver tube with a Cuban cigar and a mini guillotine. As the barman got on with opening the bottle, he lit his cigar. The downed the first glass bottom-up. The cigar was perfect. He hadn’t smoked such a good cigar in a long time. Sometime in Dublin. Many years ago.
He could not stop thinking about his walk through his mother’s past. Her German origins was not only the Samaritan hospital in the pre-war Berlin or the entry in her birth certificate. It was more complicated than that. Just like his biography.
He was born on the 30th of April, the third child of his mother’s third husband. St Jakub’s day. Everyone thinks that is the reason why he was named Jakub. But it is not. Jakub was his mother second husband. A Polish artist who in 1944 became a German only because he had the misfortune of being born 12 kilometres too far to the west, while the Stalingrad trenches had to be kept full. By that time, the true Germans made everyone they could into less true Germans. Immediately after they made them into soldiers too, naturally. Everyone was a soldier then. The lame, the mad, the consumptive. Everyone could and should be a soldier then. His mother’s second husband did not know that. He could not imagine a day or a night without his wife. That was why before he was due for the medical check up, he made himself sweat and then ran around the local park barefoot on the snow. He was hoping to catch TB. He did, but they took him anyway.
After the war they never found each other. Even their great love did not help them. When she recovered from her loss and accepted that her artist husband was killed in the war, that there was nothing for it, in her life appeared his – Jakub’s – father. Thin but still charmingly handsome, 100 percent natural Pole after Stutthoff. She with her German nationality, he after three years of concentration camp. His father never let him feel that he had hated Germans. Although he did. Now he wondered if his father would have forgiven him for living in Germany?
His parents are the best proof that the Polish-German divisions are merely a sort of agreement between historians, which they managed to sell to entire nations. History as a whole is just such an agreement too. Agreed mostly for the sake of a fraud on a massive scale. A mutual agreement that this, rather than other fraud should be taught at schools.
He started feeling sad again. Enough of that for today. It was his birthday. He took out the bottle from a silver ice-bucket. He poured another glass. It was his homecoming today.
SHE: All the seats in the first class were sold out. She made a mistake of not reserving her seat with the return ticket in Warsaw. The girl in the box office at the Berlin Zoo said:
“I only have a few seats in the second class. All smoking. Interested?”
The perspective of sitting more than a half a day in a smoky box terrified her. But what was she to do?
She sat by the window. Facing the direction of travel. She was alone in the compartment. The train was due to depart in half an hour. She took out a book from a suitcase and a folder with materials from the Berlin conference. Reading spectacles. A bottle of mineral water. Mobile phone. CD player, CDs, spare batteries. She slipped her shoes off and undid two skirt buttons.
The compartment was filling in slowly. The station loudspeakers announced the train’s departure but one seat was still empty. The train was already moving when suddenly the door opened. She raised her head from a book and their eyes met. She withstood his gaze. He averted his eyes first. He looked like a small, embarrassed boy. He put his suitcase on the baggage rack. From a leather case he took out a computer and sat in a free seat by the door. She felt he was looking at her. She slipped her shoes on; wondered if he noticed her unbuttoned skirt.
After a moment he got up. From his bag he took out a can of diet Coke and three magazines – Der Spigel, Playboy and Wprost. Hard to say why, but the fact that he had turned out to be Polish somehow pleased her.
He took his jacket off. Rolled the sleeves of his dark-grey shirt. He was suntanned. His hair was unkempt, as if he came into the compartment straight from bed. He had a stubble. His shirt was unbuttoned. He was not young, but youthful. From the moment he came in, she hoped no one would light up. As he came in, he filled the compartment with the fragrance of his eau de toilette. She wanted that fragrance to stay in the air for as long as possible.
She was observing him from under her specs. He started to read. She too returned to her book. At some point she felt uneasy. She raised her head. He was looking at her. He had sad, tired greenish eyes. With a finger of his right hand on his lips he was looking at her intently. A wave of strange warmth washed over her. She smiled at him.
He put his newspapers away and picked up his computer. The fellow travellers in the compartment were looking at him with interest. From the pocket in his jacket he took out his mobile, then he leaned forward and connected it to a port at the back of his laptop. Perhaps not everyone in the compartment understood what he had done but she knew that he had connected to the Internet.
For a moment she thought that what he was doing was just corny and plain showing off, here in this train, barely after leaving Berlin, but when she saw him watch the screen with such concentration she thought it was not… That he was not corny or showing off. She put her hand under the blouse and discretely fastened the two buttons at her skirt. She sat up straight and corrected her hair.
HE: If one can rely on anyone in Germany it is only Croatian maids.
Of course no one woke him up ninety minutes before the departure of his Warsaw train. There even was no one there to tell what a scandalous neglect of duty it was in a hotel which charged 300 dollars per night. The receptionist from the previous night was no longer at the reception, while a blonde girl who had taken over looked she might have problem with finding Warsaw on a map.
He was woken up by a room maid who thought the room had been vacated. She entered the room while he was still asleep. He did not know what time was his train, but when he saw that it was five to eleven he knew he did not have much time.
Ignoring the woman who was still standing there, he leapt out of bed stark naked and cried: “Kurwa maæ!” and started getting dressed in a mad rush. Because the room maid was from Croatia she knew very well what “kurwa maæ” meant and as he proceeded to clear all his cosmetics from the bathroom shelf, she was packing all his stuff from the night table and by the TV set into his suitcase. After few minutes he ran of the room. Out of habit, he headed for the reception but luckily the receptionist from the previous night had already left. When he realised the blonde girl had no idea what he was on about, he ran out without paying. They had his credit card number. Besides, once on the train, he could get on the Internet and pay then. His business American Express had the facility.
Outside the hotel stood a line of taxis. The taxi driver obliged and ten minutes later they were at the station. He did not buy a ticket. He ran across the platform and leapt into the wagon directly outside the exit from the tunnel. He was lucky. The train was already moving. He opened the door to the first compartment.
She sat by the window. With a book on her lap. She had lips exactly like those he saw on that business card in the bar. Hair gathered at the back. High brow. She was lovely.
He sat in the only seat available. Of course he had no reservation. Never mind. He will solve this problem when the conductor comes. A piece of paper stuck to the compartment door read that the seat was reserved only from Frankfurt on the Odre.
He took out his papers. The hotel kiosk was also selling Polish titles. Apart from French, American, English and Italian. The Wyborcza available daily just like Paris Soir in a hotel kiosk in the middle of Berlin says more than all those declarations about “Poland’s readiness to join Europe”.
At some point he just could no longer resist it. He raised his head from his newspaper and started looking at her. Apart from the lipstick she had no other make up. She read, now and again touching her ear. She had fascinating hands. When she turned a page it looked as if she barely brushed it with her long fingers.
She raised her head and smiled at him. This time he did not get embarrassed. He smiled back.
He did not feel like reading any more. He connected his mobile to the computer and went into his mail. Slowly, he ploughed through the security procedures. The modem in a mobile is probably the slowest there is. He often wondered why. He promised himself to check it after his return home in Munich.
In his inbox there was only one email. The address contained a domain of an English bank.
“Another ad,” he thought.
He wanted to delete it but his attention was caught by the first part of the address: “Jennifer@” In his memory it sounded like music. He decided to read it.
Camberley, Surrey, England, 29 April
You are J.L. aren’t you?
That’s what you personal page seems to be saying. I’ve spent my entire afternoon reading it. Instead of going to the London Stock Exchange page and getting on with my work, for which I get handsomely paid by the way, I read every single word on yours. Then I took a taxi and drove to a bookshop in Camberely High Street to buy an English-Polish dictionary. I took the biggest they had. I also wanted to understand the passage you have published on the page in Polish. I didn’t understand everything but got the mood. The kind of mood only J.L. could create, so it must be you.
After work I went to my favourite bar “Club 54” by the station and got drunk. I have been fasting, which I go through twice a year, “cleansing” myself by not eating for a week. Do you know that when you survive the first three days you enter a kind of trance? Your organism doesn’t have to digest anything. Only then you realise what the digestion process robs you of. All of a sudden you have so much energy! You live as if on a permanent high. You are creative, excited, all your senses are super sharp. Your perception is like dry sponge, sucking in anything near it. You write beautiful poetry, invent revolutionary theories, you sculpt or paint provocative and very avant-garde works of art, and you buy and sell on the stock exchange with exceptional success. I can certainly confirm the last one. And finally, Bach on a hunger strike sounds like… well, sounds like he is played by Mozart.
You reach this state only after you have suffered through the first two, three days. Those first days are an unrelenting struggle with hunger. It wakes me up even in the middle of the night. But I suffered through those first days and this morning began to feel that high of “un-digestion”. And while on this high I came across your page. It could not be a better moment.
Everything else became less important.
But I did not break my fast. I did not eat in that bar. I only drank. Mostly to memories. Never drink – even if it’s the Bloody Mary as good as the one they serve at Club 54 and you have wonderful memories – never drink on the fourth day of your fast. Eat something before.
Then I returned home and wrote that email. It is like a page out the diary of a starving (three days without eating), drunk (two Bloody Marys and four pints of Guinness) woman with a past (twelve years).
That is why I beg you – treat it with utmost seriousness.
P(re) Scriptum: The “Isle” in this text – in case you have forgotten – is my Isle of Wight. A tiny dot on the map between France and England, somewhere on the Channel. Where I was born.
Do you know, I have written this letter at least 1000 times?
I have written it in my mind, I have written it on sand, I have written it on the best paper in the United Kingdom, I have written it with a biro on my thigh. I have written it on the covers of records with Chopin’s music.
I have written it so many times…
I have never sent it. Over the last twelve years – for it happened almost exactly twelve years ago – I have not sent at least a thousand letters to HIM.
Because this is not a letter to YOU. This is a letter to L.J. – or Elyot. For I swapped the initials and spelled them the Polish way – el-yot. Sheer poetry.
You are J.L. but you know him. You probably know him like no one else. Promise me you will tell him what I have written. Will you?
For Elyot was to be like an interval between the first and the second act of an opera. I always drink the best champagne in the bar. If I can’t afford it, I stay at home and listen to records. He was to be like that champagne. Only for the interval. He was to go to my head. He was to taste delicious, make me tipsy in readiness for the second act. To make the music sound even more beautiful.
Elyot was like that. Like the best and the most expensive champagne in the bar. He went to my head. There was to be another interval. And then the concert was to end. Champagne too. But it was not to be. For the first time in my life out of the whole opera I remembered best the interval between the first and the second act. In truth, it was the interval that never ended. I realised that this morning in that club. Mostly thanks to the senses sharpened by the fast and the fourth pint of Guinness.
I spent with him 88 days and 16 hours of my life. No other man had so little time and gave me so much. One guy was with me for six months and could not give me what I had with Elyot after six hours. I was with that guy because I thought that his “six hours” were yet to come. I waited. But they never came. One day during one of those pointless quarrels he started shouting:
“What did you get from that bloody Pole who hasn’t left you anything? Even a single photo?!” And when he added triumphantly: “Anyway, did he know what a camera was?” – I put his half packed suitcase, with which he moved in, out through the door.
So what did that “bloody Pole” give me? Well?
For instance - my optimism. He never spoke about sorrow, though I knew he lived through the ultimate sorrow. His optimism was contagious. With him, rain was only a passing phase before the return of sunshine. Anyone who lived in Dublin knows it’s an example of total optimism. It was with him that I noticed that I could wear clothes which were not black. It was with him that I believed that my father loved my mother but simply did not know how to show it. Even my mother did not believe that. And neither did her psychotherapist.
For instance, he gave me that feeling when you think you are about go mad with desire. And you know it is going to be satisfied. He could tell me a fairy tale about every little bit of my body. And there was none that he didn’t touch or tasted. If he had the time he would have kissed every single hair on my head, one by one. With him, I always wanted to undress even more. I had the feeling that I would be truly naked only if my gynaecologist took out my coil.
He never searched for erogenic spots on my body. He assumed that a woman’s body is erogenic as a whole, and the most erogenic place of al is the brain. Elyot heard of the famous G-spot in the vagina, but he was looking for it in my brain. And almost always found it.
With him, I reached the end of every road. He led to such wonderfully sinful places. Since then, some of them have become holy for me. Sometimes, when we made love listening to operas or Beethoven, I felt no one could be more tender. As if he had two hearts instead of two lungs. Perhaps he did…
For instance, he gave me a little red heart-shaped hot water bottle. Not much bigger than the palm of my hand. Sweet. Only he could have found something like that in Dublin. Because only he paid any attention to things like that. He knew I had terrible PMTs, before even worse periods, which turned me into an unfair, cruel, egoistical, mean bitch from hell who finds fault with everything in the world. Even the fact that east is in the east and west in the west. One day he went to the other end of Dublin and bought it. That night, when it hurt so much, he got out of bed, filled it with hot water and put it on my stomach. But first he kissed me – there. Every millimetre. Slowly, softly and so incredibly tenderly. Then he put that on my stomach and when I, totally delighted, was looking at that sweet little heart, he proceeded to kiss and suck my toes. One after the other. One foot after the other. Even if you do not have PMTs you can imagine how wonderful it felt. Alas, I survived with him only three PMTs and three periods.
For instance, he gave me that childish curiosity about the world. He always asked about everything. Really, just like a child who has the natural right to ask. He wanted to know. He taught me that “not to know” is to “live in fear”. Everything interested him. He challenged everything, doubted everything and was ready to believe in anything, as soon as he was persuaded by the facts. I remember as one day he shocked me.
“Do you think Einstein masturbated?”
He taught me, for example, that one should succumb to one’s desires as they arise, and never put anything off for later. Just like then, during a party in a huge house, which belonged to a very important professor of genetics, in the middle of a very important discussion about “genetically conditioned sexuality of mammals”. He got up, walked up to me, bent forward – everyone fell silent looking at us – and whispered:
“On the first floor there is a bathroom like you haven’t seen before. I can’t concentrate on this discussion about sexuality, looking at you. Come see that bathroom with me.”
“Do you think it’s conditioned genetically?”
I got up obediently and followed him upstairs. Without a word, he put me up against the crystal mirror in the wardrobe’s door, unbuttoned his trousers, spread my legs apart and… And the “genetically conditioned sexuality of mammals” acquired altogether a new, wonderful meaning. When after a few minutes we returned downstairs and took our seats, there was a moment of silence. Women looked at me intently. Men lit up their cigars.
He gave me for instance a sense that for him I was the most important woman ever, and that everything I do means something to him. He opened his eyes, took out my hand from under the duvet, kissed it and said: “good morning”. Always in Polish just as he did the day we were introduced to each other.
Sometimes, when he woke up “hit by an idea” – that’s how he called it – he slipped out of bed quietly and went to work on those genes of his. At dawn he came back and slipped back into bed to kiss my hand and say “dzieñ dobry”. He thought naively that I did not notice. I noticed every nanosecond without him.
He could run to see me at the institute, where I had my lectures, just to tell me he was going to be late for supper. So that I would not worry. You understand, the whole incredibly long ten minutes.
In those 88 days and 16 hours, he gave me, for instance, more than 50 crimson roses. Because crimson roses are my favourite. The last one he gave me in that last, sixteenth hour. Just before the departure, at the Dublin airport. You know, on the way back from the airport, it seemed to me it was the most precious thing anyone had ever given to me?
He was my lover and my best female friend. Something like that happens only in films, and only in those made in California. To me it happened in Dublin. He was giving me all that and asked for nothing in return. Nothing at all. No promises, no vows, no oaths that “only you and no one else ever”. Simply nothing. It was his only, terrible fault. There can’t be a greater misery for a woman than a man who is so good, so faithful, so loving and so unique and who does not expect any declarations. He simply is and gives her the assurance it is going to be forever. You only worry that the eternity – without all those standard promises – will be short.
My eternity was 88 days and 16 hours long.
On the 17th hour of the 89th day, I began to wait for him. I was still at the airport. He left the terminal gate on a bus. He climbed slowly the stairs leading to the aeroplane and when he got to the top, just before the door, he turned around to look towards the viewing gallery where I was – he knew I would be there – and placed his right hand on his left breast. He stood like that for a while, looking in my direction. Then he disappeared inside the plane.
I haven’t seen him since.
The first three days of fast is nothing in comparison with what I had been through during the first three months after he left. He didn’t write. He didn’t phone. I knew the plane got to Warsaw, for a week later I rang the LOT office in London to make sure.
He just put his hand on his heart and disappeared from my life.
I suffered like a child who was sent to an orphanage for a week and then forgotten about. I missed him. Incredibly. I loved him and could not wish him anything bad, and so suffered even more. After a while, I stopped listening to Chopin, out of revenge. And then, out of revenge, I threw away the recordings of all the operas we used to listen to together. Then, out of revenge, I began to hate all Poles. Except one. Him. Because, believe it or not, I am not vindictive.
Then my father left my mother. I had to stop my studies for six months, leave Dublin and go back home on the Isle to help her. It helped me more than anyone else. Life on the Isle is simple. The Isle puts the right perspective on everything. When you stand on the cliff which has been there for 8 thousands years, a lot of things that people strive for because they are important to them – lose their significance.
Six months after he left, just before Christmas, I received a packet of letters sent to my Dublin address. Among them was a card from Elyot. The only one in 12 years. On a kitsch letterhead from a San Diego hotel.
The only thing I could do to survive this was to disappear from you life for good. You would not be happy with me here. I would not be happy there.
We live in a divided world.
I’m not even asking for your forgiveness. What I have done cannot be forgiven. It can only be forgotten.
PS: Whenever I’m in Warsaw and have some spare time, I always go to Zelazowa Wola. I sit on a garden bench near the house and listen to music. Sometimes I cry.
I did not forget. But the card helped. Even if I disagree with all that he wrote, at least I learnt how he decided to deal with what happened between us. It would have been the most egotistical way but at least I learnt he had decided something. At least I had that “sometimes I cry”. Women live on memories. Men on what they have forgotten.
I returned to Dublin, finsihed my diploma. Then my father decided I should run our family business on the Isle. I lasted a year. Long enough to find out that my father’s emotional intelligence factor was zero. His high IQ had nothing to do with it. I decided to leave the Isle before I would start hating him.
I came to London. I did a PhD in economics at Queens Mary College, learned to play the piano, started going to ballet classes, found a job on the Stock Exchange, listened to operas. No more intervals that would be more important than the opera. And no more champagne to match.
Then came pointless men. The more I met, the less I wanted to get close to any of them. It came to this that when I was in bed with one, even when he kissed me down there, I still felt – up here – lonely. Because they only touched me with their skin on their lips or tongues, mechanically. While Elyot… Elyot simple ate me. Greedily, like the first strawberry in a season. Sometimes he dipped it in champagne…
I could not fall in love with any of those men, who only had skin on their lips.
After two years of living in London I realised I had no female friends and most of my friends were gay. Apart from having weird desires they can be men for life. I was lucky to meet the best of them. Sensitive, gentle, knowing how to listen. They don’t have to pretend. If they pay for your dinner it’s not to get into your knickers. And that they wear earrings?
It’s fantastic – as one of my girlfriends at work says – at least you know the guy knows about pain, and a thing or two about jewellery.