It’s long past midnight in Warsaw. There is a new couple that has moved into the apartment across the street.
For the last two days, it has been sitting empty, with the curtains open and the stark white mattress in the middle of the living-room. On the first of the new year (today), they have appeared: He’s tall, with pepper and salt hair; she’s lovely. And even though I cannot see the details of her face underneath her bangs, I can imagine the high cheekbones and the doll-like roundness that I’ve been seeing in the store window reflections of the last twenty years.
I watch them from my kitchen, while drinking coffee. I am jet-lagged.
The curtains remain open and the yellow light of a single lamp is getting some assistance from the screen of their TV. They’re eating dinner that consists of corn on the cob and one bucket of KFC (so very Eastern European, as I have come to learn). Occasionally, they half turn their faces to each other:
“You want some tea?”
“For what time, you think, we should set the alarm clock, in the morning?”
I leave them be and wander from one room to another to check on our drying laundry. The guidebook never promised us domestic amenities, so the discovery of a washing machine in our kitchen came as a complete surprise. The dryer button is jammed on it though, but considering I have arrived here with my arrested expectations from post-Soviet Russia, circa 1997, I am extremely grateful for the dignified living standards with which this city has accommodated us.
Besides, the absence of a dryer — I find romantic. I run my hands along the cloths from my and my lover’s body, earlier drenched from running through this cold city, and wonder what it would’ve been like if I were to enter my womanhood in my birth place. Would I have known the grace of unconditional love and the finally non-tumultuous forcefulness of me? Would I’ve grown up kind, or would the much harder life of my homeland have taken a toll on my character and aged me, prematurely? And would I have the privilege of choices that make up my identity now, still generous and grateful for the opportunities I’ve found abroad?
Identity. In my impression of the world, this word comes from the American ventricle of me. But after this week’s reunion with my father, who never had the privilege to watch me make the choices that led me to the woman that I am, I am surprised to find myself resemble him so much. Despite the separation of nearly two decades: I am my father’s daughter. Of course, by some self-written rules, it’s presupposed that I have traveled further in my life than father ever did in his. I’ve been exposed to more world, and in return, it taught me to question twice all prejudices and violations of freedom. But what a joy it’s been to find that, in my father’s eyes, life is only about truth and grace and justice; and matters of identity, for him, have no affect on any person’s freedoms.
I wander back into the kitchen, sit down into my father’s chair. Thus far, it’s been the greatest pleasure of my life to watch him eat good food that I have made. While eating, dad is curious and — here’s that word again — grateful:
“What’s that ingredient?”
“What do you call this bread?”
And I can see him now: slouching just a little above his meal, in this chair; shaking his head at the meal that he finds to be gourmet, while to us — it is our daily bread. I have to look away when with childlike amusement he walks his lips along a string of melted cheese:
Here is to more such meals, my most dear love, and to the moments that define a life! that must define MY life!
The couple in the window across the street has finished their meal. The table is still cluttered with settings, crumbled paper napkins and a red bucket whose iconography — although recognizable — is somehow different from the red-and-white signs that pollute the American skyline. The couple is now on the couch: She’s sitting up and removing pillows from behind her back, then tossing them onto the wooden floor. He is fetching two smaller ones, in white pillow cases, from the bed. Together, they recline again and progressively tangle up into each other, like lovers who have passed the times of dire passion and landed in that even-tempered place of loving partnership.
The light of the TV is now the only one illuminating their spartan room. From where I stand, now drinking a cup of black tea (still, jet lagged), I only see the back of his head and her hand that has ended up near his right shoulder. Occasionally, he half turns his face toward her, then turns toward the flickering blue light again:
“Are you comfortable, my love?”
“Would you rather watch the news?”
I walk into my bedroom to fetch my computer. The yellow light follows me from the kitchen and slowly dissipates as I approach the next doorway. It, ever so lightly, hits the exposed leg of my sleeping lover. I think I study him, but instead the mind gives room to memories of similar moments and visions. And in that suspended history of us, I reach into the drawer.