I had known him almost all my life, Beniek

He lived around the corner from us, in our neighborhood in Wrocław, composed of rounded streets and three-story apartment buildings that from the air formed a giant eagle, the symbol of our nation. There were hedges and wide courtyards with a little garden for each flat, and cool, damp cellars and dusty attics. It hadn’t even been twenty years since any of our families had come to live there. Our postboxes still said ‘Briefe’ in German. Everyone – the people who’d lived here before and the people who replaced them – had been forced to leave their home. From one day to the next, the continent’s borders had shifted, redrawn like the chalk lines of the hopscotch we played on the pavement. At the end of the war, the east of Germany became Poland and the east of Poland became the Soviet Union. Granny’s family were forced to leave their land. The Soviets took their house and hauled them on the same cattle trains that had brought the Jews to the camps a year or two earlier. They ended up in Wrocław, a city inhabited by the Germans for hundreds of years, in a flat only just deserted by some family we’d never know, their dishes still in the sink, their breadcrumbs on the table. This is where I grew up.

It was on the wide pavements, lined with trees and benches, where all the children of the neighborhood played together. We would play catch and skip ropes with the girls, and run around the courtyards, screaming, jumping on to the double bars that looked like rugby posts and on which the women would hang and beat their carpets. We’d get told off by adults and run away. We were dusty children. We’d race through the streets in summer in our shorts and knee-high socks and suspenders, and in flimsy wool coats when the ground was covered in leaves in autumn, and we’d continue running after frost invaded the ground and the air scratched our lungs and our breath turned to clouds before our eyes. In spring, on Śmigus-Dyngus day, we’d throw bucketloads of water over any girl who wasn’t quick enough to escape, and then we’d chase and soak each other, returning home drenched to the bone. On Sundays, we’d throw pebbles at the milk bottles standing on the windowsills higher up where no one could steal them, and we’d run away in genuine fear when a bottle broke and the milk ran slowly down the building, white streams trickling down the sooty facade like tears.

Everyone – the people who’d lived here before and the people who replaced them – had been forced to leave their home.

Beniek was part of that band of kids, part of the bolder ones. I don’t think we ever talked back then, but I was aware of him. He was taller than most of us, and somehow darker, with long eyelashes and a rebellious stare. And he was kind. Once, when we were running from an adult after some mischief now long forgotten, I stumbled and fell on to the sharp gravel. The others overtook me, dust gathering, and I tried to stand. My knee was bleeding.

“You alright?”

Beniek was standing over me with his hand outstretched. I reached for it and felt the strength of his body raise me to my feet.

“Thank you,” I murmured, and he smiled encouragingly before running off. I followed him as fast as I could, happy, forgetting the pain in my knee.

Later, Beniek went off to a different school, and I stopped seeing him. But we met again for our First Communion.

The community’s church was a short walk from our street, beyond the little park where we never played because of the drunkards, and beyond the graveyard where Mother would be buried years later. We’d go every Sunday, to church. Granny said there were families that only went for the holidays, or never, and I was jealous of the children who didn’t have to go as often as me.

When the lessons for the First Communion started, we’d all meet twice a week in the crypt. The classes were run by Father Klaszewski, a priest who was small and old but quick, and whose blue eyes had almost lost their color. He was patient, most of the time, resting his hands on his black robe while he spoke, one holding the other, and taking us in with his small, washed-out eyes. But sometimes, at some minor stupidity, like when we chatted or made faces at each other, he would explode, and grab one of us by the ear, seemingly at random, his warm thumb and index finger tightly around the lobe, tearing, until we saw black and stars. This rarely happened for the worst behavior. It was like an arbitrary weapon, scarier for its randomness and unpredictability, like the wrath of some unreasonable god.

This is where I saw Beniek again. I was surprised that he was there, because I had never seen him at church. He had changed. The skinny child I remembered was turning into a man – or so I thought – and even though we were only nine you could already see manhood budding within him: a strong neck with a place made out for his Adam’s apple; long, strong legs that would stick out of his shorts as we sat in a circle in the priest’s room; muscles visible beneath the skin; fine hair appearing above his knees. He still had the same unruly hair, curly and black; and the same eyes, dark and softly mischievous. I think we both recognized the other, though we didn’t acknowledge it. But after the first couple of meetings we started to talk. I don’t remember what about. How does one bond with another child, as a child? Maybe it’s simply through common interests. Or maybe it’s something that lies deeper, for which everything you say and do is an unwitting code. But the point is, we did get on. Naturally. And after Bible study, which was on Tuesday or Thursday afternoons, we’d take the tram all the way to the city centre, riding past the zoo and its neon lion perched on top of the entrance gate, past the domed Centennial Hall the Germans had built to mark the anniversary of something no one cared to remember. We rode across the iron bridges over the calm, brown Oder river. There were many empty lots along the way, the city like a mouth with missing teeth. Some blocks only had one lonely, sooty building standing there all by itself, like a dirty island in a black sea.

We didn’t tell anyone about our escapes – our parents would not have allowed it. Mother would have worried: about the red-faced veterans who sold trinkets in the market square with their cut-off limbs exposed, about ‘perverts’ – the word falling from her lips like a two-limbed snake, dangerous and exciting. So we’d sneak away without a word and imagine we were pirates riding through the city on our own. I felt both free and protected in his company. We’d go to the kiosks and run our fingers over the large smooth pages of the expensive magazines, pointing out things we could hardly comprehend – Asian monks, African tribesmen, cliff divers from Mexico – and marveling at the sheer immensity of the world and the colors that glowed just underneath the black and white of the pages.

This is where I saw Beniek again. I was surprised that he was there, because I had never seen him at church. He had changed.

We started meeting on other days too, after school. Mostly we went to my flat. We’d play cards on the floor of my tiny room, the width of a radiator, while Mother was out working, and Granny came to bring us milk and bread sprinkled with sugar. We only went to his place once. The staircase of the building was the same as ours, damp and dark, but somehow it seemed colder and dirtier. Inside, the flat was different – there were more books, and no crosses anywhere. We sat in Beniek’s room, the same size as mine, and listened to records that he’d been sent by relatives from abroad. It was there that I heard the Beatles for the first time, singing “Help!” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, instantly hurling me into a world I loved. His father sat on the couch in the living room reading a book, his white shirt the brightest thing I’d ever seen. He was quiet and soft-spoken, and I envied Beniek. I envied him because I had never had a real father, because mine had left when I was still a child and hadn’t cared to see me much since. His mother I remember only vaguely. She made us grilled fish and we sat together at the table in the kitchen, the fish salty and dry, its bones pinching the insides of my cheeks. She had black hair too, and although her eyes were the same as Beniek’s, they looked strangely absent when she smiled. Even then, I found it odd that I, a child, should feel pity for an adult.

One evening, when my mother came home from work, I asked her if Beniek could come and live with us. I wanted him to be like my brother, to be around me always. My mother took off her long coat and hung it on the hook by the door. I could tell from her face that she wasn’t in a good mood.

“You know, Beniek is different from us,” she said with a sneer. “He couldn’t really be part of the family.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled. Granny appeared by the kitchen door, holding a rag.

“Drop it, Gosia. Beniek is a good boy, and he is going to Communion. Now come, both of you, the food is getting cold.”

*

One Saturday afternoon, Beniek and I were playing catch on the strip outside our building with some other children from the neighborhood. I remember it was a warm and humid day, with the sun only peeking through the clouds. We played and ran, driven by the rising heat in the air, feeling protected under the roof of the chestnut trees. We were so caught up in our game that we hardly noticed the sky growing dark and the rain beginning to fall. The pavement turned black with moisture, and we enjoyed the wetness after a scorching day, our hair glued to our faces like seaweed. I remember Beniek vividly like this, running, aware of nothing but the game, joyous, utterly free. When we were exhausted and the rain had soaked through our clothes, we hurried back to my apartment. Granny was at the window, calling us home, exclaiming that we’d catch a cold. Inside, she led us to the bathroom and made us strip off all our clothes and dry ourselves. I was aware of wanting to see Beniek naked, surprised by the swiftness of this wish, and my heart leapt when he undressed. His body was solid and full of mysteries, white and flat and strong, like a man’s (or so I thought). His nipples were larger and darker than mine; his penis was bigger, longer. But most confusingly, it was naked at the tip, like the acorns we played with in autumn. I had never really seen anyone else’s, and wondered whether there was something wrong with mine, whether this is what Mother had meant when she’d said Beniek was different. Either way, this difference excited me. After we had rubbed ourselves dry, Granny wrapped us in large blankets and it felt like we had returned from a journey to a wondrous land. “Come to the kitchen!” she called with atypical joy. We sat at the table and had hot black tea and waffles. I cannot remember anything ever tasting so good. I was intoxicated, something tingling inside me like soft pain.

Our Communion excursion arrived. We went up north, towards Sopot. It was the sort of early summer that erases any memory of other seasons, one where light and warmth clasp and feed you to the absolute. We drove by bus, forty children or so, to a cordoned-off leisure centre near a forest, beyond which lay the sea. I shared a room with Beniek and two other boys, sleeping on bunk beds, me on top of him. We went on walks and sang and prayed. We played Bible games, organized by Father Klaszewski. We visited an old wooden chapel in the forest, hidden between groves of pine trees, and prayed with rosaries like an army of obedient angels.

In the afternoons we were free. Beniek and I and some other boys would go to the beach and swim in the cold and turbulent Baltic. Afterwards, he and I would dry off and leave the others. We’d climb the dunes of the beach and wade through its lunar landscape until we found a perfect crest: high and hidden like the crater of a dormant volcano. There we’d curl up like tired storks after a sea crossing and fall asleep with the kind summer wind on our backs.

On the last night of our stay, the supervisors organized a dance for us, a celebration of our upcoming ceremony. The centre’s canteen was turned into a sort of disco. There was sugary fruit kompot and salt sticks and music played from a radio. At first we were all shy, feeling pushed into adulthood. Boys stood on one side of the room in shorts and knee-high socks, and girls on the other with their skirts and white blouses. After one boy was asked to dance with his sister, we all started to move on to the dance floor, some in couples, others in groups, swaying and jumping, excited by the drink and the music and the realization that all this was really for us.

Beniek and I were dancing in a loose group with the boys from our room when, without warning, the lights went off. Night had already fallen outside and now it rushed into the room. The girls shrieked and the music continued. I felt elated, suddenly high on the possibilities of the dark, and some unknown barrier receded in my mind. I could see Beniek’s outline near me, and the need to kiss him crept out of the night like a wolf. It was the first time I had consciously wanted to pull anyone towards me. The desire reached me like a distinct message from deep within, a place I had never sensed before but recognized immediately. I moved towards him in a trance. His body showed no resistance when I pulled it against mine and embraced him, feeling the hardness of his bones, my face against his, and the warmth of his breath. This is when the lights turned back on. We looked at each other with eyes full of fright, aware of the people standing around us, looking at us. We pulled apart. And though we continued to dance, I no longer heard the music. I was transported into a vision of my life that made me so dizzy my head began to spin. Shame, heavy and alive, had materialized, built from buried fears and desires.

That evening, I lay in the dark in my bed, above Beniek, and tried to examine this shame. It was like a newly grown organ, monstrous and pulsating and suddenly part of me. It didn’t cross my mind that Beniek might be thinking the same. I would have found it impossible to believe that anyone else could be in my position. Over and over I replayed that moment in my head, watched myself pull him in to me, my head turning on the pillow, wishing it away. It was almost dawn when sleep finally relieved me.

The next morning we stripped the sheets off our beds and packed our things. The boys were excited, talking about the disco, about the prettiest girls, about home and real food.

“I can’t wait for a four-egg omelette,” said one pudgy boy.

Someone else made a face at him. “You voracious hedgehog!”

Everyone laughed, including Beniek, his mouth wide open, all his teeth showing. I could see right in to his tonsils, dangling at the back of his throat, moving with the rhythm of his laughter. And despite the sweeping wave of communal cheer, I couldn’t join in. It was as if there were a wall separating me from the other boys, one I hadn’t seen before but which was now clear and irreversible. Beniek tried to catch my eye and I turned away in shame. When we arrived in Wrocław and our parents picked us up, I felt like I was returning as a different, putrid person, and could never go back to who I had been before.

We had no more Bible class the following week, and Mother and Granny finished sewing my white gown for the ceremony. Soon, they started cooking and preparing for our relatives to visit. There was excitement in the house, and I shared none of it. Beniek was a reminder that I had unleashed something terrible into the world, something precious and dangerous. Yet I still wanted to see him. I couldn’t bring myself to go to his house, but I listened for a knock on the door, hoping he would come. He didn’t. Instead, the day of the Communion arrived. I could hardly sleep the night before, knowing that I would see him again. In the morning, I got up and washed my face with cold water. It was a sunny day in that one week of summer when fluffy white balls of seeds fly through the streets and cover the pavements, and the morning light is brilliant, almost blinding. I pulled on the white high-collared robe, which reached all the way to my ankles. It was hard to move in. I had to hold myself evenly and seriously like a monk. We got to the church early and I stood on the steps overlooking the street. Families hurried past me, girls in their white lace robes and with flower wreaths on their heads. Father Klaszewski was there, in a long robe with red sleeves and gold threads, talking to excited parents. Everyone was there, except for Beniek. I stood and looked for him in the crowd. The church bells started to ring, announcing the beginning of the ceremony, and my stomach felt hollow.

“Come in, dear,” said Granny, taking me by the shoulder. “It’s about to begin.”

“But Beniek–”

“He must be inside,” she said, her voice grave. I knew she was lying. She dragged me by the hand and I let her.

The church was cool and the organ started playing as Granny led me to Halina, a stolid girl with lacy gloves and thick braids, and we moved down the aisle hand in hand, a procession of couples, little boys and little girls in pairs, dressed all in white. Father Klaszewski stood at the front and spoke of our souls, our innocence and the beginning of a journey with God. The thick, heavy incense made my head turn. From the corner of my eye I saw the benches filled with families and spotted Granny and her sisters and Mother, looking at me with tense pride. Halina’s hand was hot and sweaty in mine, like a little animal. And still, no Beniek. Father Klaszewski opened the tabernacle and took out a silver bowl filled with wafers. The music became like thunder, the organ loud and plaintive, and one by one boy and girl stepped up to him and he placed the wafer into our mouths, on our tongues, and one by one we got on our knees in front of him, then walked off and out of the church. The queue ahead of me diminished and diminished, and soon it was my turn. I knelt on the red carpet. His old fingers set the flake on to my tongue, dry meeting wet. I stood and walked out into the blinding sunlight, confused and afraid, swallowing the bitter mixture in my mouth.

The next day I went to Beniek’s house and knocked on his door with a trembling hand, my palms sweating beyond my control. A moment later I heard steps on the other side, then the door opened, revealing a woman I had never seen before.

“What?” she said roughly. She was large and her face was like grey creased paper. A cigarette dangled from her mouth.

I was taken aback, and asked, my voice aware of its own futility, whether Beniek was there. She took the cigarette out of her mouth.

“Can’t you see the name on the door?” She tapped on the little square by the doorbell. “Kowalski”, it said in capital letters. “Those Jews don’t live here any more. Understood?” It sounded as if she were telling off a dog. “Now don’t ever bother us again, or else my husband will give you a beating you won’t forget.” She shut the door in my face.

I stood there, dumbfounded. Then I ran up and down the stairs, looking for the Eisenszteins on the neighboring doors, ringing the other bells, wondering whether I was in the wrong building.

“They left,” whispered a voice through a half-opened door. It was a lady I knew from church.

“Where to?” I asked, my despair suspended for an instant.

She looked around the landing as if to see whether someone was listening. “Israel.” The word was a whisper and meant nothing to me, though its ominous rolled sound was still unsettling.

“When are they coming back?”

Her hands were wrapped around the door, and she shook her head slowly. “You better find someone else to play with, little one.” She nodded and closed the door.

I stood in the silent stairwell and felt terror travel from my navel, tying my throat, pinching my eyes. Tears started to slide down my cheeks like melted butter. For a long time I felt nothing but their heat.

Did you ever have someone like that, someone that you loved in vain when you were younger? Did you ever feel something like my shame? I always assumed that you must have, that you can’t possibly have gone through life as carelessly as you made out. But then I begin to think that not everyone suffers in the same way; that not everyone, in fact, suffers. Not from the same things, at any rate. And in a way this is what made us possible, you and me.

__________________________________

From Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski. Copyright © 2020 by Tomasz Jedrowski.Reprinted with permission of the publisher, William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 

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