Looking back, Anna Baran could pinpoint the exact moment she’d fallen in love with Ben Taft. They were lying on his mattress, covers thrown off and sharing a cigarette, when Anna closed her eyes and asked him the question she’d been wanting to ask for weeks.
“Did you ever imagine you’d end up with a Polish girl?”
Ben looked at her and arched one eyebrow. “In bed? Or in life?” Anna blushed, but thankfully Ben continued. “Never. I didn’t even know where Poland was on the map.”
“And now?” Anna whispered, placing her hands between his warm thighs.
“Now? Now I know there’s a lot more to your country than meets the kiełbasa.”
Anna rolled her eyes but silently urged him on, hoping he would get it right.
“I know Warsaw isn’t the only city there. I know not every last name ends in -ski. The language is tough as hell but I could listen to it all day. It’s the land of amber, crystal, salt mines, and revolutionaries. And I know that the oldest oak tree in Poland is located near your hometown and that they named it Bart. There. How’s that?”
“Da˛b Bartek,” Anna whispered, feeling tingly, as if he had been talking dirty. Ben went on about Solidarity and Swedish deluges, about pierogi and the Pope, about Communism and cleaning ladies. Anna interrupted him at a certain point with a kiss. “Kocham cie˛, Ben,” she said, and he didn’t have to speak the language to know what she meant. But that night was years ago, and it felt as far off as the goddamn stars in the sky.
At 3:57 a.m., Anna wakes up from a bad dream. Something about the Gestapo and a defunct Captain Video—the place she used to rent VHS tapes from as a girl. She stumbles out of bed and walks into the living room, shuffling blindly toward the ashtray. The familiar stench of yesterday’s chain-smoking leads her to the corner of the couch, where an ashtray sits on top of Ben’s old throw pillow. Her eyeglasses are nowhere to be found, but how can she look for them when she can’t see a damn thing, when her own hand in front of her eyes is nothing but a blur? Anna wonders briefly if she might actually be legally blind and if there is a way she can get tested without having to leave the apartment. With fumbling fingers, she extracts one third of what used to be a handsome Marlboro Light from the ashtray, retrieves a Bic from under the couch, lights the stale tip, and walks over to open a window. The November wind slaps at her face, but it feels good, a shock to the system, and her eyes water from the cold.
Lorimer Street must be empty; she can tell from the dead silence, her ears doing the work her eyes can’t. While most New Yorkers dream of white winters in theory, Anna pines for snow and means it. It smells like winter out there, crisp and clean, though there’s no sign of snow yet.
“We’re a dying breed.” That was Ben’s opening line, on the first night they met, when Anna had walked up to him and asked him for a light. He extended his Zippo toward her and she arched her eyebrows and smiled, smitten right away. Two drinks later, they were making out by the coat check, waiting impatiently for their scarves and hats.
“So you’re a New Yorker, huh?” Ben asked, when they stepped into his apartment a half hour later. Signs of three young men living on their own were everywhere, but Ben didn’t seem embarrassed by the mess and his roommates were nowhere in sight. Ben and Anna sat on the dirty floor and made small talk.
“By way of Kielce, Poland, my friend—the birthplace of Polish rap,” Anna said. “We’re known in Polska as the scyzoryki—the switchblades. And you don’t wanna fuck with us.” Ben laughed as he drummed the side of his beer can.
“Well, I’m always up for a challenge.”
Those words echo in her head like a scratch on a beat-up record. Three years ago tonight, Anna and two friends had wandered into the Turkey’s Nest because their fingers were numb from the cold, and there was Ben, in that blue sweater, with an eager smile. But that Ben is gone now. He’s in Omaha with Nancy and Pappy and his innumerable cousins. Ben is only gone for another day, and yet, somehow, it feels like he is gone for good.
Standing by the window, Anna can see her breath. Her flimsy T-shirt, the one she’s had on for days now—Ben’s old Lynyrd Skynyrd one, with the neck cut out—fails miserably to keep her warm. Man-hattan glimmers past McCarren Park, its peaks and pinnacles glimmering like man-made constellations, like something from the future. It’s beautiful, but under a blanket of snow, New York would become even more so, turning twinkly and old-timey. This concrete mess with towers sprouting like beanstalks, with subways zigzagging and crowded streets teeming with grime—all of it would be obliterated.
Anna steps back from the window, but leaves it open; she can’t smoke in an enclosed space. Hipokryta, her father would have said. She is a hypocrite, dissecting everything, especially the things that bring her pleasure. Her father, on the other hand, would lie in bed, chewing saltwater taffy, reading his Polish newspaper till three a.m., and chain-smoking More Reds, as her mother silently suffered beside him. Her father, who, every so often, threatened to hang himself.
“You’re a refugee? You sure don’t look like a refugee,” Ben had said, eyeing her naked body supine next to his.
“Daughter of a refugee, if you wanna get technical. The Commies ousted my dad years ago. I was seven.”
“The Commies. Sounds so . . .”
“Dated?” Anna reached her hand toward his pretty American face.
Anna places the ashtray on her lap, hugging it gently between her thighs. Cardboard boxes stare at her from every corner, massacred by cheap utility tape. Months have passed since she and Ben moved into their new apartment, but the boxes remain untouched. She remembers that the super is stopping by today to fix the refrigerator door.
Anna’s head hurts. Her nose is stuffy. The corner of her bottom lip is hot and itchy, a sure sign of a cold sore brewing. There is a weird throbbing pain near her right shoulder blade, which has come and gone intermittently during the last few weeks, and which Anna suspects might be lung cancer. Ben calls her a “raging hypochondriac,” and he’s right.
When Ben left for the airport five days ago, he begged Anna to join him. It was their tradition: Thanksgiving in Omaha.
“Come with me. Don’t you miss my mom’s stuffing? She misses you, Annie.”
“I can’t fly, Ben. You know that.”
“Then let’s rent a car and make a road trip out of it.”
“I can’t, Ben,” she said and turned away from him.
Ben’s mother, Nancy, always sported Birkenstocks and smelled like patchouli. She had long gray hair and all-knowing eyes that—Anna was sure—could see right through you. Nancy loved Anna from the beginning, and was always begging her and Ben to “have a kid already, wedlock, schmedlock!” So, what would Nancy do if Anna showed up in her current state—slightly overweight and depressed? What would Anna say to her? Missed you, Nan, but I’ve been real busy, what with the auditions and abortions. It was too soon to face Nancy; the shame Anna felt was too much.
Ben had called from the airport. Even though things were strained between them, Anna had still wanted him to call her just before takeoff, in case anything happened. Since 9/11, she’d only flown twice—once to LA for a last-minute audition, and once to St. Thomas with Ben. Both times, her heart was in her throat. Anna shuffled down the aisle with her collection of crucifixes in her palm, relics from Catholic schoolgirl days, and her dad’s old chain with the Polish Black Madonna medallion around her neck. She scanned her fellow passengers for dark bearded faces (it was fucked up but true), and didn’t say amen till the wheels touched the tarmac again.
Ben is flying back home today. Back to what, Anna doesn’t know. What can she offer him anymore? In the beginning she offered him exotic tales of growing up in the Flatbush projects, tales of a homely little Polish immigrant. She offered him daily blow jobs and Thai take-out every night. She offered him her world, a world of small but incomparable measure, a world where tanks rolled in the streets, where armed milicja jailed idealistic young men who fought for their freedom as their fathers and grandfathers had before them. She offered romance; it was all so incredibly romantic—the turmoil of a foreign country recounted by a Slavic-looking Marilyn Monroe.
In turn, Ben offered her a version of the New World, the uncomplicated pleasure of a boy who came from the average middle class. “I’ve got four brothers,” he told her that first night, as the sun was coming up. “Jonah, Jefferson, Simon, and Samuel.” Anna swooned over the Midwestern musicality of their names. She repeated the names in her melodious voice, tinged with the slightest trace of an Eastern European accent, as if reciting a stanza of an Emerson poem.
“Anna Baran ain’t bad either.”
“Well, it could have been Z•dzisława.” Anna laughed when Ben tried to repeat the word, his tongue twisting in on itself, his jaw clenched.
Last Monday, Anna had locked the door behind Ben and prepared for total isolation till his return. There would be no Thanksgiving in New York, but then again, there never had been. Her parents didn’t partake in the turkey. Her father was firm in that regard. “I steal land from the Indian, I rob his everything and put him on casino war camps and now I eat like pig to celebrate? No fuck way!” So there was no one to bother her and she was free to smoke 147 cigarettes, take one shower, and come to the realization that Ben’s absence has not brought fondness or longing, just dread.
At four-twenty a.m., the phone rings. The ashtray balancing on Anna’s lap flies in the air and spills all over the couch. She scrambles to the table on the other side of the room. A phone call at four in the morning can mean only a few things. Dad, Anna thinks, it’s Tato.
“Ania! Oh, Ania . . . !” Her mother, Paulina, is wailing on the other end, and Anna’s heart explodes upon direct contact with the sound, a sound that pierces the silence of the room and has no business infiltrating the hush of night in such a sudden, earsplitting manner.
“What is it? Oh God, Mamo, what is it?”
“He’s dead! O mój Boz˙e, Anna, he’s dead.” This is the phone call that Anna’s been waiting for since she was thirteen, waiting for on subways, in school halls, while playing Chinese jump rope, or taking a bath, or biting her nails like a zombie in front of the TV while her mother paced the dining room waiting for her father, Radosław, to turn up.
“How did he do it?” she hears herself asking before it all has sunk in.
“He didn’t do it. Filip did it!” Anna’s breath slows down and the walls stop closing in.
“Who’s Filip?” Her mother is still crying, loudly, incessantly—and right now, in the midst of obvious confusion, it’s infuriating Anna.
“Filip, Elwira’s boyfriend! Anna, who do you think I’m talking about?” Anna doesn’t answer but her mother thankfully plows on. “Justyna’s husband is dead, he was murdered last night, in his own house. By his sister-in-law’s boyfriend. Can you believe it?”
“Poczekaj! Wait. Just wait a fucking second, Mother! Just hold on, okay?” Anna breathes slowly, rearranging her thoughts, smoothing down the tabletop with her hand as she does. “Justyna? From Kielce?”
“Yes! Jesus, how many Justynas do you know? Her husband was stabbed in the middle of the night. Justyna’s a widow. A twenty-six-year-old widow . . .” And now her mother is whimpering, mewling like an injured cat.
“What, Mamo? What do you want me to say? It’s four in the morning. You caught me off guard—”
“Well, I’m sorry if this isn’t a convenient time to tell you that your best friend’s husband was just murdered—”
“She was my best friend. She was.”
“Oh, Jezus, Anka, really?”
“It’s horrible. It’s horrible, but I thought you were . . .”
“Nothing. How did you find out?”
“Her dad called me from Poland. I have to go now. Their poor mother is turning over in her grave. Please call Justyna. When you stop crying, call her.” There are tears running down Anna’s face, her neck. How can that be? she asks herself again, and then the dial tone signals her to hang up the phone and ask stupid questions later.
They call it Downriver, these clustered neighborhoods of southern Detroit. It is below zero right now, frozen over, iced down. The snow is no longer fluffy or crunchy; it is rock solid, piled high along the road like glaciers. It’s only a few days after Thanksgiving, and already merry fools are dragging Christmas trees along the curb. Kamila can’t help but think that they look like corpses. America is a strange place.
“´Sniadanie!” Her mother barks from downstairs, but Kamila can’t eat breakfast so she ignores her mother. Kamila has other things on her mind today, things that can no longer be put off. She’s been here for weeks, and now she’s ready.
The house is quiet. The modest little yellow house that her parents scrounged for is a two-story, gated little piece of the American dream, just off Spruce Street. Kamila’s parents have lived here since 1997, and five years after they left Poland for good, Kamila, their only daughter, has finally come for a visit.
When Lech Wałe˛sa won and the world changed, Kamila’s parents, Włodek and Zofia Marchewski, took full advantage of their nation’s newfound freedom. They flew from Poland to Ankara for Easter, spent Christmas in Crete, and then, one summer, Włodek visited his second cousin who lived in a sleepy, leafy suburb of Detroit. And Włodek kept visiting, each time for longer periods, until finally his wife, Zofia, allowed him the courtesy and joined him, first for two weeks, then for good. Why exactly he fell in love with Michigan as opposed to Rome or London, nobody knew, least of all Kamila. But fall in love he did, and that love eclipsed all fear of laws and impunities, and so her parents became, like countless other Poles in the States, illegal aliens.
Excerpted from The Lullaby of Polish Girls by Dagmara Dominczyk. Copyright © 2013 by Dagmara Dominczyk. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.