Chapter One: The Yellow Dress
Before the mafiosi appeared in my apartment in the company of the dusky poetess Alberta Lulaj, before they wrenched me from my drunken sleep and before they set about demanding-first with hypocritical pleas, then with ruthless threats-that I arrange for Alberta Lulaj’s poetry to be published in the weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, before there began the tempestuous events I wish to recount, there was the eve of those events, there was the morning and there was the evening of the preceding day, and I, from the morning to the evening of the preceding day, had been drinking peach vodka. That’s right, I was drinking peach vodka, brutishly longing for one last love before death and stuck up to my ears in a life of dissolution.
Before midday nothing had happened; moderation, even a certain measured asceticism had held sway. Before midday I lay on the couch, read the newspapers and listened to recordings by the Czech tenor saxophonist Feliks Slovák. Yet around midday, of the entire range of melodies performed by Slovák, one alone began to penetrate my consciousness; it was a composition by Karel Svoboda entitled Where’ve you got your nest, little bird? I listened and wondered to myself how it was in the original Czech: “Kde je tvoje hnízdo, ptáčátko?”, or “Kde je tvoje hnízdo, ptáčku?” I was, however, unable to determine which of the two diminutives-ptáčku, the weaker one, or ptáčátko, the stronger-sounded better and more appropriate, and thus in a sense of linguistic helplessness (though still enraptured) I rose over and again from the couch, went up to the record player and kept putting on the piece that had moved me to the core.
It was a beautiful July day; from the twelfth floor I had a clear view of the rim of hills surrounding the city and the level country beyond, the fields, the electricity pylons, the railroad tracks, the bright flowing waters of the river of consolation, the mountains on the horizon, the Vistula like a white pebble at the bottom of a coniferous valley, the Piast Inn and the garden outside that smelled like the first mowing, the swarms of bees and butterflies over mugs of beer. Doctor Swobodziczka’s graying Alsatian laps up its portion from a tin cup; the doctor died a year ago, but the dog, faithful to its addiction, comes to the pub every day, and those who are still alive fill its cup with draft Żywiec poured fairly from a mug.
I saw it all clearly, as if I were there, and here, where I was, I saw everything too: The windows in the apartment buildings were open, the occasional car with an outmodedly streamlined shape moved down some street, and at the ATM stood a woman in a yellow dress with shoulder straps. From my position high above she seemed wise and beautiful. I suddenly felt with certainty that she was the last love of my life. It was an all-embracing certainty; not only my drunken part but also my sober part, and all the other parts of my soul whose status with regard to sobriety was indeterminable, all seemed to share this certainty. I ought immediately to have flung on some clothes, splashed myself with cologne, and, without waiting for the elevator, rushed down the stairs and set off on her trail. For a second I thought entirely seriously about doing just this, but the ATM, the ATM ruled out this love. If I had run down and set off on her trail, I would be acting as I had always acted: I would follow her with the energetic, unswerving step of a serial killer. I would follow her artfully and tenaciously; I would follow her so long that she would notice me, she would become fearfully convinced that someone was inexorably tracking her. Then for a short while longer, already seen and noticed by her, with the desperation of an unmasked criminal I would continue the chase through the streets, until the moment when her unease, her fear, and her curiosity would begin to combine into an explosive substance . . . Then-not allowing the explosion to take place-I would quicken my step, draw level with her, give a chivalrous bow and say in the lowered voice of a true male:
“I’m terribly sorry, miss, I’m terribly sorry, I’ve been following you” (here my lowered male voice would falter, as if from bashfulness), “I’ve been following you for so long that I’ve decided to confess it . . .”
At this point she would burst out in rippling laughter, within which female satiation would be mingled with relief that the man pursuing her was not some vicious deviant pursuing her in order to satisfy his lust, but a seasoned connoisseur pursuing her for beauty.
“Why is it, oh, why is it that you’re chasing after me like this?” she would ask with an enchanting smile, though her voice would still contain nervous echoes.
“Really, is it so terribly hard to understand?” I would reply glibly, and I would begin to speak to her with great vigor, and my speech would be like an epic poem of love that overpowers the listener with the strength of its rhyme and its imagery; I would sing for her a song of persuasion and after only a few verses she would be utterly persuaded, willing, compliant, mortally in love, mine already, mine forever, and I would lead her down the bright path of our life together.
But alas, I could not do so, I could not at the right moment apply the classic combination of moves. How could I step close behind a woman who had just taken money from an ATM? How could I later explain to the police officers she summoned that my actions were driven not by a thief’s appetite for lucre, but by love at first sight? There was no point in even talking about it, there was no point in even trying; I gave it a dismissive wave of the hand, capitulated and looked lugubriously down from the twelfth floor as the woman who should have become my wife and the mother of my children walked away. With an aching heart I watched the last love of my life walk away from the ATM, go a little further down Jana Pawła and turn forever, forever into Pańska. Once again in history great emotions had lost out to money. I was suddenly consumed with tremendous anger. I was angry at the ATMs, which only a few years ago had not even existed. I was overcome with fury; I recalled the fall of the Berlin Wall and I was opposed to the fall of the Berlin Wall, for all those enthusiasts who had demolished the wall with their mason’s hammers had taken from me the brunette in the yellow dress. I was against Solidarity, because Solidarity had taken from me the brunette in the yellow dress; and Lech Wałęsa had taken from me the brunette in the yellow dress, and John Paul II, as he cried: “Descend, Holy Spirit,” had taken from me the brunette in the yellow dress, and the Holy Spirit, as it descended and altered the face of the earth, had taken from me the brunette in the yellow dress. My God, O Holy Spirit, I thought, if everything were now as it used to be, if communism hadn’t fallen, if there were no free market economy, if numerous transformations had not taken place in the part of Europe where I was born, there wouldn’t be any ATMs here now, and if there were no ATMs, everything would have worked out perfectly between me and the dark-haired beauty in the yellow dress.
No one, however, not even the Holy Spirit, could turn back the course of history; nothing and no one could turn back the brunette, who in all probability had reached the corner of Pańska and Żelazna. There remained suffering, pain, and the bitterness of parting from her swarthy flesh enwrapped in the yellow dress. Yet I could not fail to notice that the pain and bitterness of parting intensified the beauty of all that was around me. Feliks Slovák’s tenor sax still sounded penetrating and plaintive, perhaps even more penetrating and more plaintive than it had before. I raised my eyes. A tramcar was passing through grass so high it could have hidden a horse along with its rider; closer by, in the imposing office buildings that overlooked the ONZ Circle two uniformed security guards were moving from room to room, switching on the lights, switching them off again, and gazing at me through the Venetian blinds; over the rooftops and over the aerials sailed a bright cloud; it was a splendid day at the height of summer. It was the kind of day a person waits for all year, or maybe even for years at a stretch, the kind of day on which at any moment a person could give up drinking.
I turned away from the window and looked at the room filled with the sounds of the saxophone. In the bottle that stood on the table there was still a large quantity of peach vodka; I went up, poured some out, drank it and experienced illumination. My Lord, what illumination I experienced, and how it suited the extraordinary character of the day! My innards lit up with an even and amicable light, my thoughts immediately formed themselves into ingenious sentences, and my gestures were unerring. I took a shower, washed my hair, dressed, splashed myself with cologne and without waiting for the elevator I ran downstairs and set off on the trail of the beautiful and wise brunette in the yellow dress with shoulder straps. I was prepared to walk the length of Pańska, Żelazna, Złota, Sienna, of every street, I was prepared to scour the entire city, to look into every doorway, to ring the bell at every apartment-I knew I would find her. I knew I would find her on earth and not in heaven; in life and not after death; awake and not in dreams.
Chapter Four: The Fifty-Zloty Bill
In the rehab ward a dispute had broken out over plagiarism. Incidentally, when I appeared there for the first time, I did not have the slightest notion that I was crossing the threshold of a creative writing program, that I was entering an environment of people of the pen, of writers who were incessantly creating their alcoholic autobiographies, recording in cheap sixty-page notebooks that were called emotional journals their most secret feelings, laboriously assembling their drunkards’ confessions. In the early and late mornings the alcoholics either wrote or for hours on end, awaiting inspiration, roamed the hallways, their manuscripts, which grew ever thicker during the course of their stay in the clinic, tucked under their arms; in the afternoon they had therapeutic conversations with the female therapists, with Doctor Granada, or with the male therapist Moses Alias I Alcohol, and they listened to lectures and attended seminars; while in the evenings they took part in public readings, after which fierce discussions erupted. During one such discussion the sizeable gathering put before the alcoholic Marianna the charge that the drunken confession she had just presented to them was eerily reminiscent of the confession of the alcoholic Joanna they had listened to the week before. Since both sides defended themselves with the aid of mutual accusations, the matter of whether the alcoholic Marianna had copied the description of her drunken night from the alcoholic Joanna or vice versa could not be easily resolved. The community of alcoholics unanimously insisted that the next day there be a showdown in which the two women would read their work, after which there would be a discussion followed by a vote in which the verdict would be determined.
The piece by the alcoholic Marianna went roughly as follows: “It was December 21st, 1985. I woke up in the middle of the night. I had an awful hangover; I was sweating and shaking all over. I didn’t have a penny. I knew my husband, who was asleep in the next room, had money. I crept in, went through his clothes and found his wallet in the back pocket of his pants. I took out fifty zloties, then I got dressed quietly and went out to the all-night store, which was close by. In the store I bought a bottle of champagne, which I took home. In the kitchen, without turning on the light-actually it was bright enough in there as it was, since we live on the first floor and there’s a neon street lamp right outside the window-in the kitchen, then, I opened the champagne, though the whole time I was afraid that the cork would pop out and the sound would wake my husband. But I managed to open the bottle without making a noise and in half an hour I’d finished it all. I felt a lot better. That characteristic courage arose in me and, no longer exercising any caution, and even daringly turning the hall light on, I boldly left the building to throw the bottle into the trash cans. On the way, however, it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to have some supplies for the rest of the night, and since I still had some money, I went back to the all-night store and bought a quarter-liter of regular vodka. This time, after I got back home I went into the kitchen again, but I no longer meant to drink there. Out of the dresser I took a half-liter bottle of raspberry juice, which by the way I myself had made in the summer with raspberries grown on our allotment. I poured half of the contents of the bottle of juice down the sink, then I took a funnel and poured the quarter-liter of vodka from the all-night store into the half-empty juice bottle. Actually, it wasn’t even a whole quarter-liter, since while I was pouring the juice down the sink I came over all sad and before I made the mixture I took a sizeable swig straight from the bottle. I gave the bottle several good shakes, both to make sure that the vodka and the juice were properly mixed together, and to make sure that the bottle looked as if it simply contained juice. Because I intended to take it to my room, to go to bed and drink it while I was in bed. I knew it would help and that I’d sleep well, and that if I woke up, I’d be able to have a drink whenever I wanted, which would help me. But I did take into consideration the fact that I might fall soundly asleep, and just in case my husband woke up before me in the morning and saw the bottle standing by my bed, I wanted him to think that it was just regular juice. I didn’t take the empty quarter-liter bottle out to the trash chute, but instead hid it behind the sofa bed. I went to bed and although I woke up from time to time, when I did so I took a drink and the whole time I felt fine. In the morning, though my husband didn’t notice either the bottles or the fact that I’d had to go out in the middle of the night to buy alcohol and drink it, he did notice that fifty zloties were missing from his wallet and he began shouting at me. Since I had another really bad hangover, this time with an element of aggression, I made a huge scene, got dressed, packed up a few things and that was the beginning of my wanderings around the whole country, which in reality were nothing more than one gigantic drunken binge.”
Marianna read her work in a faltering voice, continually wiping away supposed or perhaps genuine tears; with every means available to her she gave her listeners to understand that it was she who had been robbed, that it was her work which had been copied by Joanna.
“I’m really hurt,” she said at the end, “that I’ve been robbed of my life. In a moment I’ll hear what was stolen from me and I don’t know if I can take it.” This time her voice faltered completely uncontrollably and this time, beyond a shadow of a doubt she burst out crying in absolutely genuine fashion.
But her adversary acted in exactly the same way.
“It was me who was robbed of my life,” said Joanna, “and when a moment ago I heard someone brazenly reading about my own life that they had appropriated, I thought I’d die.” And Joanna read her drunken confession exactly as Marianna had; her voice faltered in exactly the same manner, and with exactly the same gestures she wiped away exactly the same supposed or genuine tears. Furthermore, to underline the grotesque symmetry they both wiped away their tears with identical pale pink lace handkerchiefs.
Joanna’s version went roughly as follows:
“It was the middle of November, 1997. I woke up at three o’clock at night and I was in a awful state. The hangover was terrible, which was hardly surprising since I’d been drinking the whole of the previous day. I was all of a tremble and wet with perspiration. I knew that I had no money whatsoever. At the time I was living with my sister and her husband and I felt in my bones that my brother-in-law would have some money. My brother-in-law hardly drank at all and always had money.
“Cautiously, so as not to wake them, I opened the door to their room and tiptoed in. My brother-in-law always hung his clothes neatly in the wardrobe and I knew that that was where I needed to look. But I was afraid that the wardrobe door would creak as I was opening it and would wake either my sister or her husband, or both of them together. But I was lucky and the wardrobe door opened without a sound. In one of my brother-in-law’s jackets hanging there I felt his wallet in the pocket. Without removing it from the pocket I took out a bill at random. I didn’t know what kind of bill it was and I was afraid it would turn out to be of too low a value. When I got back to my room and checked, however, it turned out that I’d managed to take a whole hundred zloties. I was pleased, but also scared: I actually had more than enough money, but at the same time there was the worry that my brother-in-law would notice such a large sum missing. Yet my dilemma didn’t last very long; I didn’t even consider the possibility of returning to their bedroom and putting the hundred-zloty bill back in my brother-in-law’s wallet and trying to find some smaller denomination. I got dressed quietly, left the apartment and took the elevator downstairs, because it so happens that there’s an all-night store on the first floor of our building. I went into it and bought a bottle of champagne. Since my thirst for alcohol was so terrible and since I was afraid that as I was opening the champagne at home the cork would pop and would wake up those sleeping in the apartment, I opened the champagne by the door of the elevator. My fears were unnecessary, and the cork did not pop. I got in the elevator and pressed all twelve buttons, as we live on the twelfth floor. Thanks to this the elevator kept stopping, and the whole time during the ride interrupted by stops I kept drinking the champagne. I must have been knocking it back a bit too greedily, however, because when the elevator eventually reached the twelfth floor, it turned out that there was very little champagne left in the bottle. Since I still had a lot of money, and the bubbles I’d drunk had made me pretty lively, I decided to make some additional purchases. I rode downstairs once again and went back to the all-night store.
“This time I bought two quarter-liter bottles of regular vodka. One of them I intended to hide away for a rainy day, and the other I meant to mix with Coca-Cola, of which I also bought a half-liter bottle. After I returned home I continued to exercise caution, though I was also a lot more at ease. I drank some of the Coca-Cola and poured some of it down the sink; I tried to contrive it so that exactly half the contents of the bottle were left in the bottle, and I was entirely successful in this. To the quarter-liter of Coca-Cola I added a quarter-liter of vodka, so that it looked as though I were drinking straight Coke. I hid the empty quarter-liter bottle behind the refrigerator. The supposed Coke, which I planned to leave by the head of my sofa bed and drink through the night, looked a little watery, but this didn’t worry me. My brother-in-law was a health-food freak; he never drank any carbonated drinks and he certainly did not know the exact color and taste of real Coke. I wasn’t afraid of my sister; I knew that if push came to shove she would take my side or at least would cover for me. I went to bed and, taking a drink whenever I woke up for a moment, I slept well through practically the whole night. In the morning it turned out that though my brother-in-law had not noticed either the hundred-zloty bill missing from his wallet or the altered color of the Coke, very little of which was actually left, my sister started an argument for no reason at all. Without a word I packed up my things and left that apartment, where they were so ill-disposed towards me. I was calm; I still had about forty zloties, while at the bottom of my bag lay the other quarter-liter of vodka.
“I don’t know where my roamings led me; I don’t know how long my drinking binge lasted; I don’t know how I ended up here. In any case, at the present time I very much want to give up drinking.”
The discussion which followed the readings by the two authors, and which, contrary to expectations, unfolded sluggishly, I listened to with bated breath. The Most Wanted Terrorist in the World took Joanna’s side, the Queen of Kent Marianna’s. Nurse Viola emphasized the pointlessness from a therapeutic point of view, and the dangers from an ethical viewpoint, of copying one another’s work. Christopher Columbus the Explorer asserted that, though it was true copying was a bad thing, that bad thing was tempered with something good, namely good will (albeit without awareness), since it was not inconceivable that the two writers recognized in each other’s work a certain close similarity of incidents and a fellowship of destiny. Doctor Granada and the therapist Moses Alias I Alcohol were silent.
“In 1985 no one could have bought any kind of bottle for fifty zloties,” Don Juan the Rib finally pronounced from his seat by the wall, seemingly resolving the dispute in favor of Joanna.
I listened to the verdict with bated breath, and did not say a single word, though I should have, I indubitably should have, in every respect I should have spoken up; after all, I was the author of both contested pieces of writing.
When I was brought to the rehab ward I was wearing a shirt that stank of vomit and a pair of pants which were fit to be burned in the boiler-room incinerator. I did not have a penny on me, not a single cigarette; I had no underwear, no soap, no toothbrush, nothing. And yet after only a week, or at the very most two, I began to wallow in all kinds of possessions. Now, after six months (not counting the breaks, after which I returned here unconscious), I am wearing a stylish grass-green sweat suit. In the breast pocket of the jacket five-zloty coins are jingling; on my nightstand there are piles of bananas, oranges, chocolates and other victuals. When I open the drawer, I see utterly endless supplies of cigarettes. Every chocolate, every five-zloty coin, every pack of Camels, every tin of pineapple compote represents at least one drunken confession or one emotional journal that I have written.
When the news went round the ward (and it went round, if not at the speed of lightning, then at least at the speed of a speeding arrow) that in civilian life my occupation was that of writer, the alcoholics, who had little proficiency in that department, collectively began to turn to me for help, naturally not in a disinterested way. I helped them, however, with a clear conscience. I didn’t write for them so much as commit their speech to paper. (Of course there were cases where it was necessary in someone’s name to alter something–for example in the name of the Most Wanted Terrorist in the World everything had to be written from A to Z–but in general I wrote as they dictated unawares. They told me stories taken from their lives, while I, introducing only minor stylistic corrections, in practical terms recorded their speech word for word.) After all, it is no great literary or existential secret that everyone knows how to talk, whereas very few people are able to write down what they say. It’s true–sometimes I adapted their overly smooth language to give it the necessary and thus believable unevenness of style; but if those adaptations had any meaning for anyone and if they had an influence on anyone, that person was me and not them.
Thus, I was not a writer creating fictions in the rehab ward which were then signed with other people’s names. I was the secretary of their minds. Both Joanna and Marianna had dictated to me their nightmares, while I-of this I am certain-transcribed both nightmares literally. And I am also certain that Marianna spoke with great feeling, with great certainty, and still with great fear of the fifty-zloty bill she had taken from her husband’s pocket.
From Pod Mocnym Aniolem (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2001). By arrangement with the publisher.