My Hidden Lives // Prose

78. three cities, trains and a lover

There was something cruel in the way we treated each other that night.  When we walked away from our temporary friends to buy more alcohol, he didn’t take my hand or gaze significantly into my eyes as a girl would expect. Rather, he traipsed awkwardly beside me along the old Varsovian street, my worn-out trainers slipping on the cobbled stones because of clumsiness and drunkenness alike. He caught my arm a few times to keep me from falling, and I guess I was grateful because when we stopped to sit under the electric light of the central tower, I’d already decided to sleep with him. Before we’d kissed, before he’d even agreed to come back to the seedy hostel room on the 16th floor with a view of a dozen roads and avenues. An observatory of everyday lives taking place in the midst of my own, strange one. I didn’t see it as strange at the time, though, because it didn’t feel like my life to begin with.  I was a stranger, and so was he. We met in the interim.

If I’d believed in fate, I would’ve fished the word out from the drawer of the do-not-use-to-describe-men terms for just that once because it seemed serendipitous to run into the same man three times in different cities across Europe without exchanging numbers or contacts, hardly knowing each others’ names.

„See you at the party,“ he screamed at me from across an old square in Krakow after we’d survived a night in a stuffy train compartment sleeping on each others’ shoulders, only having met that same evening while we were both trying to be artists. The railway station seedy bar was populated almost exclusively by drunken middle-aged men who played spectacularly bad music on the jukebox. I didn’t mind. Smiled at him across the table when The Scorpions came on.

„Cheesy.“

„Quite.“

I wondered about his black little notebook, about the place he came from – not so much about where he was going. When the Polish conductor rudely put a stop to our singing – a couple dozen inebriated cretins in a train hallway belting out a pub classic in the likes of Wonderwall (still better than The Final Countdown, to our defense) – we two managed to slip into one seat in between smelly Italian tourists and tried to forget about breathing as the train rolled on. Thump thump thump. His head bobbed on my shoulder. I was afraid to move lest I wake him. He pulled out his iPod and handed me an earphone.

„I’ll play you a great song.“

„Okay.“

As The Beatles hummed, I closed my eyes. Before I knew it, it was morning and the train had stopped. We scurried through the station tunnels pulling our cases behind. Maps opened and confusion set in. 6 a.m. on a foggy weekend morning, strangely thin drops of rain trickling down to form halos on the hair of my friends as I sulkily admonished myself for the straw hat perched atop of my head. I look like an effing brainless Mumford and Sons back vocalist, I thought. Then a piercing shriek demanded our attention and we looked toward the far end of the square, where the buildings loomed tall but still homey. The two strays we’d picked up along the way were there, waving their arms wildly in a final goodbye.

„See you at the party!“

That’s all he said. See you at the party. Which party, I tried to shout back, but the square swallowed my feeble, sleepy voice.  As we were climbing up the stairs, I saw a huge painted graffiti of The Beatles in the hallway and smiled. After discarding our luggage, our merry company went to a bar that had just opened and ordered a few beers. This is what one does on a round-trip across Europe, apparently. The memory of last night’s wanderers was still fresh in our brains, only a synapse away, and so we slowly sipped our breakfast trying to pretend, at least for a morning, we were part of their reckless family.

*

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The next time I saw him, it was in a more sombre atmosphere. An eerily quiet town, less than an hour outside of the quaintness of Krakow. Oswiecim – a billboard at the bus station announced – the medieval treasure of Poland. I looked at the people around me, staring at the very same slogan. As if, all of us were thinking. For the people who’d come here with the morning train – for which, ironically enough, only a one way ticket can be bought – this was not Oswiecim. History remembers it by a different name.

Auschwitz. The camp itself was far more pleasant-looking than I’d thought it would be. I’m not quite sure of what my expectations were – cadavers strewn across the roads of the small complex and emaciated men staring at me behind bars, perhaps, as I’d seen on photographs a thousand times till then. But the brick buildings reminded me instantly of England and I found them cute. It was then it dawned on me that places, in and of themselves, cannot be evil. It’s us that make them so.  By the time we got to Birkenau, it was different. The latrines and concrete beds slowly pushed the reality of the human condition down my throat. I tried to remember my lessons. The psychology of bending to authority. In- and out- groups. Sickening academia. There was no satisfactory explanation to be found. The whole world is a gas chamber, a voice echoed inside my head. What I breathe in will always be ash.

It was then that I caught a glimpse of a tall, lean man with blond hair shining across the train tracks. He looked so Arian, different than what I remembered from a few nights ago. I thought I might’ve been caught in between time. There were screams somewhere above the trees I thought I could hear. This kind of thing sometimes happens to me. I stopped for a moment, and sure enough, there he was. A dozen feet away, more unreachable than ever. His sure stance and almost-pure blood. My second-rate mixed blood, Slavic and Turkish, who could tell me which is worse? If this was in deed 1943, he’s be my prison guard and I a dead woman walking. I wondered if it would be disrespectful to call on him, to shout out in hope of being heard in that place, where so many were not? No. I turned around and continued on the path toward the gas chambers.

*

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Onwards, so. Away from Krakow, from history, from despair caught in amber. Away from regret. Torrents of rain welcomed us to Warsaw, and through the bus window I saw an impressionist painting of a city beautiful in a socialist ugliness. Gray buildings, gray skies. Instantly, I fell in love, always being at home with the underdog. Even before I’d set foot in the city I’d loved it, because everyone I knew had said – don’t go there, it’s not worth it. This is me, my innermost tendency – always sticking to the unlikeliest champion. Once again, my instincts did not disappoint.

We were three travelers walking into an offbeat club playing some kind of bossanova, shouting „Vodka!“ – and then, „More!“ People, I am sure, looked at our flushed faces and instantly recognized us for what we were – rowdy tourists, silly girls. Silly for life and debauchery, or as we named them – new experiences. There were plenty to be had. I felt dizzy from the red hue in the room and the disco ball spilling light on our almost-naked bodies. Men shuffled all around, men in their leather jackets, with their Egyptian origins and oh, their low smokey voices on the backdrop of Spanish guitars. The atmosphere was intoxicating. A beer, then two, a vodka or three, followed by bad decisions until dawn. When I awoke in the afternoon, I sat at the window of our vast kitchen and observed Warsaw get soaked in rain. The monochrome city. After a while, a comfortable drowsiness set in again and I went back to a dreamless, hungover sleep.

Sunlight forced me out of bed the next day. It was a beautiful backdrop for our expedition. Realizing we’d missed a whole segment of the city (as only adventurers can, we were certain, applauding ourselves for our lack of stiff direction and guidance) – slowly but surely, we made our way to the old quarters. The colorful buildings and small alleys charmed my companions, but I remained loyal to the gray and the asphalt. A parade passed us by, children and old people cheering for firefighters and policemen. A national holiday, a plebeian spectacle! Amidst the hundreds of faces, to see that glint of gold defies probability – to recognize a shape so unfamiliar and yet.. There he was, walking toward me on a random street in yet a different city. We smiled at each other. Exchanged a few sentences ending with –

„Let’s go for a drink!“

Of course. Let’s. In the first bar, we couldn’t smoke. The next one was even seedier than the railway station where we’d met. Third time’s the charm. We found a nice terrace and settled into the wooden benches. Talking. Laughing. Arranging to meet up. I gave him my cellphone number in a casual way, and said –

„See you at the party.“

A few hours and beers later, tipsy and happy beyond imagination, I collapsed into my unmade bed with thoughts of grandeur. This is the life, I said to myself. This is what I’ve been waiting for, how it’s supposed to feel. The freedom and the randomness of it, the excitement, the striking difference from the rut back home. The lucky break, the bold decision. I unabashedly applauded us for being young and not-yet-found. That’s what the trip is for, I told myself – so that I could find myself here, being a stranger. Being who I am not will help me be who I am supposed to become. Strange logic. The notion that anyone can, really, find themselves. As if you’re ever lost to begin with.

That night my friends and me hit the city with the determination of, well, Nazis. We scoured the center for hip places to drink and finally found a discreetly lit veranda where we eagerly waited for a call. Three or four beers later, it came, and so we found ourselves in a park behind a fancy hotel with our strays and a few other people. Soon enough, we were all best friends, humming Eleanor Rigby to someone’s  iPhone and swearing we’d keep in touch. Then the alcohol ran out, some of them left, some of us were beginning to fall asleep, and I decided I needed another drink. He said he wanted one, too. We bought a couple of beers, took a taxi without talking and weathered an awkwardly long ride in the hostel elevator. From then on, it was easy. A scenario we both knew well.

When we woke up side by side in the morning – the sky a fixed light gray, no place to be – we didn’t have sex again. We had a conversation. The first honest one of the trip. I asked him about home. He told me a story about a dead cow. I told him about my parents. We both said we didn’t know what to make of our lives, and laughed at the thought that we should make anything out of them to begin with. I was sick from the alcohol we’d drunk, and he compassionately stroked my hair. We fell asleep again. Some hours later, I felt the bed shift as a weight was lifted off it. I didn’t need to turn around to know he was gone.

*

With only one city left to tick off our list in Poland, and him going in the opposite direction – the chances of seeing each other again were slim. Still, I didn’t go into town the next evening in hopes of saying goodbye. Instead, I stayed in the room alone, perched on the windowsill, and admired the flickering headlights of Warsaw’s broad avenues. I made love to the city from afar, and was granted instant satisfaction in what, in many a way, resembled silence. It wasn’t cruel, messy, or awkward. It was a love I could stomach.

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