I come back home from my walk, take off my coat and rub my hands. I sit down on the couch and stare at the TV without switching it on.
I remember how I left our country and how I thought my nightmare of loneliness would return. The nightmare of fossilised time, where I walk through the desolate landscape of overgrown gravestones, not a soul around, condemned to a life among the dead. But it didn’t. I came to a new country, a new city, and decided to leave my loneliness behind. America is good like that. Even if it isn’t true, even if you can’t ever completely shed your past, no one here will tell you that. It makes it easier. Easier to fool yourself. You, of all people, must know what that feels like.
And yet, it occurs to me now that we can never run with our lies indefinitely. Sooner or later we are forced to confront their darkness. We can choose the when, not the if. And the longer we wait, the more painful and uncertain it will be. Even our country is doing it now – facing its archive of lies, wading through the bog towards some new workable truth.
Six months after I arrived here, Karolina sent me a letter about the wedding. That Hania had been pregnant during the ceremony, how it had already been visible. And I cried, despite myself. All this time I’d meant to ask you whether you loved her. It was the one thing that I regretted not asking. I realise now that it never mattered. Because you were right when you said that people can’t always give us what we want from them; that you can’t ask them to love you the way you want. No one can be blamed for that. And the odds had been stacked against us from the start: we had no manual, no one to show us the way. Not one example of a happy couple made up of boys. How were we supposed to know what to do? Did we even believe that we deserved to get away with happiness?
I go to the bookshelf and take out Giovanni’s Room, run my fingers over its worn cover. I think of all the eyes that have passed over these pages, all the hands that have felt its weight. And I remember the day my plane was leaving, when Pani Kolecka came into my room for the last time, an envelope in her hand, with Giovanni’s Room inside. I clutched it to my chest like a treasure long lost and now found again. When I opened it with a beating heart, a piece of paper fluttered out, landing gently on the floor.
‘I adored this book more than you knew,’ it said in your stocky, right-leaning script. ‘I wanted to keep it … but it’s yours. Bring it back one day if you can. I’ll be here. J.’
All this time, I realise, I’ve lived like my departure was temporary, your words preventing me from ever really leaving or arriving. Despite Karolina’s letter, despite the marriage, I’ve held on to the idea of us, scanning faces for a scrap of something known, searching for the familiar in the alien. When really, the familiar had already turned alien, and home had ceased being home. Both have gone on living and changing without me.
I close the book and place it back on the shelf, reach for my coat again, leave the apartment and walk out into the street. The wind sweeps into my face and I brace against it, walking towards the grocery stores on Eagle Street. My belly rumbles. I am hungry, suddenly, as if I haven’t eaten in weeks. I want borscht and pierogi and warm poppy-seed cake, and I feel this as a vast cavernous emptiness inside me, a yearning for warmth. But it isn’t painful at all. It feels like a promise.
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