I drew back the curtain and looked at myself in the reflection of the window. There were days that I liked what I saw – the long arched nose, the almond-shaped eyes. But most days not. Most days I felt a dull reproach against myself, an alienation from my twenty-two-year-old body.
The bus was filling up, the atmosphere giddy, laced with the promise of summer. The seat next to me was empty until Karolina appeared and hurled herself on to it, her big-mouthed smile tinged with her particular kind of sarcasm.
‘Ready to be turned into a peasant?’ she said.
I put the book on my lap. ‘Can’t wait,’ I said, trying to look deadpan.
Karolina laughed, throwing back her head. ‘And I can’t wait to see you getting down and dirty in those fields.’
The bus was almost full now, and the driver climbed in, cigarette glued to his lips, and off we went. We vibrated with the rhythm of the clattering engine. Sun streamed on to my face and, outside, the spire of the city’s symbol – Stalin’s Palace of Culture – reached so high into the soft-blue sky it made your neck hurt to look at it. I was strangely elated. I had always liked the act of leaving, the expanse between departure and arrival when you’re seemingly nowhere, defined by another kind of time. This journey reminded me of the ride I’d taken four years earlier: the day I’d taken the train to Warszawa for the first time by myself, to come to the capital, to leave my old self behind. I’d stood on the platform with Granny, two large suitcases next to us, a handkerchief in her gloved hand dabbing her glassy eyes. She didn’t want me to go, but she didn’t say anything. I was eighteen, itching to leave. I’d kissed her hastily and got on the train, feeling selfish to be leaving her, dragging the suitcases to my compartment, passing smoking soldiers leaning out of the window in the narrow corridor. I’d settled into my compartment, between men in worn suits and women in hats, drinking tea from flasks and peeling apples, and eating boiled eggs wrapped in white lace cloths like christened babies. The train had moved off, and I’d fallen into a lull, villages sunk in forests rushing past. Selfish. Growing into yourself is nothing but that.
Our bus drove on to a bridge to cross the Wisła. The trees were a clear green, and the banks of the river filled with them like a head of dense curls. The smell of linden trees and lilac was in the air, sweet and colourful and intoxicating, submerging the city. The sandy shores were deserted, making the whole embankment appear wild. If it hadn’t been for the tops of the grey tower blocks just behind the thickness of the trees, it would have looked as if no human had ever lived here.
I turned back to Karolina. She was smoking, her wide lips painted coral-red and leaving a mark on the mouth of the cigarette. I can’t remember ever having seen her without that lipstick, or without the dark-blonde fringe that framed her unruly eyes.
‘You’re alright?’ she asked, cocking her head. I nodded, and couldn’t help but smile. I was glad to have her with me. We’d met in first year, and since then she’d become like a sister to me. It was she who’d taught me half of what I cared to know. She had a stack of under-the-counter books, which we read and discussed together. She’d introduced me to Simone de Beauvoir and Miłosz, to the poems of Szymborska and the travel accounts of Kapuściński. Sometimes, she’d compare our country with Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia and declare we needed a similar revolution. I admired her courage to speak her mind.
‘Please,’ she’d say and pull her eyebrows together whenever I’d ask if she wasn’t afraid of speaking out. Mother and Granny had fed me stories of terror, of people they knew back in the day disappearing for one critical comment.
‘Stalin’s been dead for a long time,’ Karolina would say. ‘We know the system is a farce, they know it’s a farce. And we’re not in East Germany, thank God. Here, they’re sleepwalking.’
The countryside began and we bumped along the roads past vast fields and birch forests and endless stretches of pines, and little tired towns with church spires sticking out. I don’t know whether Karolina fully knew about me – I think she suspected it. But she never pushed me, never confronted me, and I have always been grateful to her for that. It’s the sort of subtlety I’m not sure I would have had in her place. Only once did she come close to overstepping the line. It was a month or so before the camp, after a play at the National Theatre – we’d gone to see Mrożek’s Tango. We felt like a drink and she took me to a small bar tucked away in a narrow side street in the Old Town. She said this was where the actors went. The place was full of smoke and dark animated figures by the bar, spilling out on to the pavement. It was the beginning of summer. I could tell what many of those men were but, at first, didn’t want it to be real. There was an exuberance about them that disturbed me deeply. It was their curling voices, the ‘darlings’ that padded their sentences, their quick, voracious eyes, the movement of their hips as Donna Summer moaned ‘I Feel Love’ over hypnotic electric beats, a song I had loved and now berated myself for ever having liked. They threw one furtive glance at me and I felt see-through. Karolina didn’t seem to notice anything unusual – there were women too, relaxed and sly and loud. I looked at her sideways, wondering whether she was really oblivious or just pretending. I wanted to leave right then and there, wanted to stop noticing, stop searching for a face that I would desire and could never have, but Karolina ordered us drinks and I managed to stay and talk and to keep my eyes mostly on her. By the time our beers were almost empty, I’d grown restless and angry, asked her why she had brought me there. She was casual, as always. She said a friend had recommended the place.
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