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Thursday, July 9, 2009

This is the story

“I came to Poland because nobody here wants to kill me.” I tossed the comment across the table at Kasia but it came back at me with a resonant power that took my breath away. I meant to pop off with a comment so outrageous that my old friend would laugh and I could move our conversation back to safer ground. I intended to toss off something light and edgy, shading toward the provocative, exaggerated. This wasn’t it. This wasn’t a sarcastic pop. It was the truth. Truth has been known to sneak out without warning, to escape the lips without permission. When it does there is nothing to do but shut up and pay attention. I shivered in the glare of mid-morning sun, once, twice. Truth shivers, I call them. Kasia bit back a tease, “Nobody? Nobody here wants to kill you? You sure about that?” She knew me well enough to expect an irreverent response to her first question, “What are you doing here? Why did you show up all of a sudden?” But this was not my usual deflection. Kasia looked away, unnerved by the raw words I’d spoken, seeing the glistening in my eyes, knowing the truth of it, not wanting to intrude on a confession so primal, so intimate. “My god,” I whispered, after a silence that stretched out beyond oceans and continents and across months, years, pushing against settled assumptions, closed accounts. I was dazed and exhausted. “I had no idea.” “Escape,” I say, words seeping out again, unexpected. I am alone this time, later that afternoon, the usual diet Coke with ice and lemon chilling on the table next to my notebook. The women sitting at the next table next stop speaking, take sidelong glances at my silver pony tail, the gauzy pink scarf wound tight around my neck, my tailored white shirt and blue skirt. Who wants to be anywhere near to a woman who talks to herself! They scooted their chairs ever-so-slightly, an inch or two farther away. Sometimes I too wonder if I’m crazy. “Escape,” I whisper again, unable to stop the word from coming out. That is what I’m doing. Running from the danger, the nightmares, the trauma that waits for me on every street back home. Yes, I’ve come to Warsaw because nobody here wants to kill me. I shiver again, several times. It is the truth. Kasia and I have been friends ever since 1980, my year of post-graduate study in Warsaw, the same year Poland was carried away on a rising tide of hope. We rode a train all the way to Gdansk to stand with a lively group of protesters at the famous shipyard , chanting “Solidarnosc! Solidarnosc!” into the night. We became close friends very quickly, recognizing a kindred spirit, a common quirky sense of humor, similar hopes and dreams, and the same odd ability to care equally about world peace and the latest fashion in shoes. Okay, we cared more about world peace. But still, we were odd ducks in our respective worlds, her’s Polish, mine American, being geeky and studious, serious and sober yet, at the same time, silly and ridiculous. We were the only two women we knew – in any country – who could get derailed on the way to a peace rally by the display window of a shoe store. Or vice versa. What’s more, we laughed at ourselves and at the world around us, a reverent, respectful laughter but laughter all the same. Over years of friendship and even across iron curtains, Kasia and I had seen each other through heartaches and break-ups, professional crises and personal victories. We had been through miscarriages and violent illnesses, we had consoled one another through the dying and death of parents and rejoiced at the birth of children. We whined and complained about said children and about our husbands, we crowed and bragged about those very same souls, and we shared the ups and downs of our careers as they developed, veered off course, and wandered back onto a new path. Before the days of easy phone calls and uncensored mail, we persevered with the sorts of code that good friends figure out, for saying what’s important without flagging extra attention. After Al Gore invented the internet, we used that for regular chats and kept in close touch. Which is why Kasia was puzzled, then concerned when I suddenly dropped from radar in October, 2002. Her emails went unanswered. No one answered my phone. Nobody returned her calls or responded to her voice mail messages. “Where are you?” she wrote me. “What happened?” I finally wrote back. A brief and apparently fractured note that said simply, “I’m sick. I’ve been hurt. I’ll write again soon.” But I didn’t. Over the next few years I sent rambling emails that were alternately chipper and chatty or short and somber. I didn’t want my Polish friends to worry, and anyway, my problems seemed small in comparison to all the Poles have been through. Finally, in a burst of energy, I landed in Warsaw, unannounced, on a sunny day in 2007. I didn’t call anyone for more than a week, just padded around the tiny apartment I’d rented and wandered the streets in search of something, I didn’t know what. Kasia insisted on meeting for coffee the very afternoon I called her to say, “here I am, surprise!” And so we sat down at the round marble tables at the ancient and fabled Blikle Café, me situated so my back was to the granite wall, my face forward to see everything that passed on the street. As she sipped espresso, she asked, “what is going on? Why are you here so suddenly?” I thought for only a second before launching my response. “I came to Poland because nobody here wants to kill me.”

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