If only Wiktor had taken the car. His parents had offered it to him, I had told him we should take it, but he refused. He wanted to drink. He wanted to drink a lot. That was the part he wasn’t telling his parents, or me for that matter, though I could have figured it out. It would have been faster and more comfortable, yes. But we also would have had a quicker way out. I would have had a quicker way out. And I blamed Wiktor for it for a long time after. It wouldn’t have mattered, really: the car or the train. I was running away without getting away that night. But still, the resentment held. Such is the way that I blame Wiktor when I don’t know who else to blame. Such is the way I blame the things that don’t matter at all.
I didn’t show him how disgruntled I was. I wasn’t showing him these things, not yet. We had just been married that September and had known each other less than a year before. It was the rational thing to do, I had argued while pressing Wiktor to do the irrational. I wanted to get married, and the fact that I needed a visa in Germany seemed a logical enough reason. I had moved to Berlin for Wiktor after all. If he loved me, he should protect me.
We didn’t have a wedding. It was straight to the courthouse: two witnesses (Wiktor’s friends from Berlin) and us. We spent the night drinking champagne on the streets and making love in the park. Somehow that seemed the most romantic way: between the two of us, our own private island.
But Wiktor was Polish, not German. So when Christmas came around, we went to Warsaw. He wanted to introduce his family to his young bride. And I was young. Wiktor was too, though he was a few years older than me. Men are a different kind of young.
Despite their broken English, his family had stunned me with their politeness and rigidity. They were nothing like the family I had come from. On Christmas Eve they sat, wall to wall in a cramped block apartment, stuffed into suits, eating fish, and avoiding wine. No wonder Wiktor wanted to drink a few days later. I wanted a drink too.
So we found ourselves on the worn seats of a rural train. Looking out into the darkness, I had a strange feeling that I had been dropped somewhere random on the globe. I mentally retraced my steps to be sure it wasn’t a dream. Or a nightmare.
We were going to a small town west of Warsaw where an old friend of Wiktor’s lived, a peculiar man named Roman but who Wiktor dubbed “the Boogeyman.” Wiktor’s descriptions of the Boogeyman were vibrant and alluring. He was a tortured artist, a lost soul, a part time alcoholic. Then there were the stories. How the Boogeyman was so strong he could lift Wiktor’s chair leg while he was sitting in it. How the Boogeyman could drink a liter of vodka and still edit his photos. Or how the Boogeyman slept next to a copy of The Divine Comedy.
I have to say I was intrigued, and still am, by Roman. As we traveled, I tried to diffuse my temper by asking questions about him instead.
“Is he a Catholic?” I asked.
“But aren’t they all?”
That was secretly a slight on Wiktor’s family.
“And you said he’s gay?” I pressed on.
“Not exactly, but he did … he made a move on me once.”
The train stopped. An illuminated sign with a village’s name appeared by the platform: Boża Wola, in great Spartan letters.
“What does it mean?” I asked Wiktor.
The train made it to the station around dinner time, and soon the Boogeyman was on the platform, one of his dogs at his heels. He was a tall man, a massive man, with sloping shoulders that teetered as he walked. His pallid skin was somehow the same color as his hair. The dog had a face like a skull.
We shook hands; we didn’t hug. Wiktor began to speak to Roman in Polish, translating a bit here and there.
The first thing I noticed was that he wouldn’t make eye contact with me.
“Why doesn’t he look at me?” I asked Wiktor later when we had a moment alone.
“Because he doesn’t want to offend me.”
“Is it that bad?”
“He has old-fashioned ideals.”
We walked through the town to Roman’s home, silence and ice surrounding us. Six p.m. and the town center was all but abandoned, but maybe it was always that way. At one point it had been an important railway center. During World War II, a battle was fought there. Now it was altogether forgotten, a ghost town.
The Boogeyman’s family home was not far from the center, just past the cemetery. It was a two-story, midcentury structure with a rickety gate and a block-like appearance. Over to the side stood a decrepit warehouse. It had been a bakery in better times. Now it was where the Boogeyman’s friends hung out, played music, and sometimes slept. They heated it with a wood stove, and I could see smoke coming from the chimney.
Dogs bombarded us as we entered the house: mutt dogs, half a dozen. Roman slept with them in his bed at night.
Then came a hallway covered in wood paneling, decrepit and 1970s. An anemic-looking woman in a nightgown opened the door to the living room and peered out at us. She didn’t say hello. His aunt, Roman explained. She closed the door again. The house was large and there were many relatives sleeping there, but she was the only one I actually saw. The rest must have avoided us, leaving only the sensation of their presence somewhere behind closed doors.
Roman showed us to his room. It was up a wooden staircase that creaked with each step. Inside: a low bed, stacks of books, papers strewn everywhere. On the walls: his photographs. Here, a naked torso, infected with purple splotches; there, two people with their faces obscured by a wall. Then a woman in red, her face buried in a pillow, only her black hair visible. These are the things Roman surrounded himself with. On the nightstand was the copy of The Divine Comedy.
But we were not there to sit in his room. We were there to do the only thing people there seemed to do: drink. Wiktor produced a bottle of vodka, and we made for the bakery.
The Boogeyman’s rugged friends, in haphazard getups of old army jackets and overgrown goatees, had gathered around the wood stove. The Boogeyman contrasted himself in a black pea coat and leather boots. Despite their appearance, everyone was polite and unobtrusive in the way I was becoming accustomed to in Poland. With the addition of our liquor, the atmosphere became jovial and even boisterous. I laughed at Roman and gave him another nickname: Lord Byron. Lord Byron, why so sad? Lord Byron, couldn’t you pass the vodka? Lord Byron, can’t you mix me a cocktail with that juice? I teased him, but I didn’t take it very seriously.
Soon the vodka was gone, and we were ready for more. Wiktor and Roman decided to walk to the convenience store. I came along too. I was starting to wonder how far I could push “Lord Byron” before he cracked.
Wiktor went into the shop, leaving me alone outside with Roman and his dog.
“Why don’t you look me in the eyes, Lord Byron? Are you that afraid of me?”
Roman didn’t say anything but directed his eyes to mine. They were pale and opaque as gaseous planets, and something about them wanted in. Or maybe I wanted to let them. I couldn’t tell how to feel.
Wiktor came back out with a bottle of vodka. I took his hand.
A radio blared some old Polish rock, the type workmen listen to, as we passed the vodka around. I was becoming very drunk, and Wiktor was even drunker. We started to kiss. Then someone produced a spliff.
My head began to swarm with thoughts and emotions that didn’t make much sense. Something about the eye contact I had made with Roman still bothered me. I stopped teasing him after that. He sat hunched in a corner by the fire, smoking a cigarette. He watched the others but didn’t join in their revelry other than to take another swig of vodka. He was somehow both with them and outside of them, like a lord.
Wiktor teetered as he tried to sweep me up into a dance. It was time to get him to bed.
Roman showed us again to his disorderly room and then disappeared. Wiktor took off his pants and fell asleep in the bed. I lay next to him and waited for the ceiling to steady. I couldn’t sleep. Something kept going through my head, though I couldn’t place it at the time.
It was the girl holding the cat. When I was a child, she hung on my bedroom wall, dressed in blue, in a cheap, plastic frame. A scarf swaddled her neck like a noose. She was forgettable as any Rococo portrait, save for her big, hollow eyes. I couldn’t avoid them. My mother would find me at odd hours of the night, paralyzed and transfixed by the painting. She terrified me, yet I couldn’t stop staring. Finally, the picture disappeared. My mother hid it under a bed or couch: somewhere I would never find it. But I sensed she was still there, somewhere in the house, waiting for me.
Wiktor began to snore. He’s not like me. He can look away.
We had left the light on and the door cracked. I heard someone on the stairs, the first sound in the house since Roman had left. The steps approached our room. The door began to open.
It was only a dog, this time a stocky, brown one. He looked in at us and grinned.
Now I was out of bed too. I began to look around the room: at the photographs, books, papers. An ancient curio cabinet stood in one corner. A random selection of antiques and books was displayed behind its glass. I noticed a black and white Polaroid. The photograph wasn’t actually as old as it looked: it was from the late communist era. A little boy held a younger girl, probably a little sister, in his arms. I looked at the boy’s eyes: sad, wide, pale. Like the girl with the cat.
It was Roman.
Sadness stole over me; to be so young and already have eyes like that. Something about him drew me in, something that made me feel sad, like a mother or a saint. Like I wanted to solve his pain. But what was it that haunted this man so much? Was it this house? His family? What else could it be?
A crash came from downstairs and then a thud. Someone was stumbling into the house and breaking the glass-like silence. Wiktor didn’t stir, but my eyes were back on the door. More crashing, more stumbling. Then weeping. The weeping of a man: deep, unnatural moans like an injured animal. Like a soul in peril.
Then silence again spread across the house, like a pond icing over at night.
I should have left it alone. I knew I should leave it alone. But that’s not how I am. I felt a draw, a curiosity, a naive wish to help paired with an insatiable craving for morbidity. I made my way out of the room.
The only light came from where Wiktor was sleeping. Everything else was black. I could just see the beginning of the staircase. I made my way down the first flight of stairs. Then the staircase pivoted at a right angle. Darkness: I couldn’t see a thing. I put my hand where the railing should be and grasped it. Then I slowly felt out the stairs with my feet. Down… down… when I got to the bottom, I groped around for the wall. Then I ran my hand along it until I got to where the bathroom was. As I entered, I thought of Bloody Mary. If I turned three times in front of the mirror, who would appear? Panic choked me. I felt my stomach on my teeth. I reached out and ran my hand over the wall. Where was the light switch?
It was on the other side. When I had found it, I switched it on and closed the bathroom door. There was no Bloody Mary. My own face appeared to me in the mirror. I don’t know how long I stayed there.
Then I opened the door again, ready to go back up the stairs, sure that whatever the matter was had ceased. But as I opened the door, I jumped with a start. Someone was standing, without sound, motion, or breath, on the other side. The bathroom light fell upon the Boogeyman’s face.
We met eyes for only the second time that evening. A strange smile crept over his face. I realized his brow was bleeding.
“What … what happened?”
“What do you mean?”
I stretched up to his eyebrow. The blood seeped out onto my fingers. I showed him my hand.
“Oh, it’s … it’s nothing.”
I went into the bathroom for a wad of toilet paper.
“Bend down a bit.”
I pressed the paper in to stop the bleeding. The cut was almost as long as his eye, but it wasn’t deep. For a moment, I felt something righteous inside. Like he was a torn piece of fabric. Like I could sew him shut.
I could feel his breath on my neck, then his mouth. Not his lips but his teeth.
“What … what are you doing?”
“I was only … only … I’m sorry.”
“You can’t do that … you can’t.”
We made eye contact again. Now there was something less obscure in his eyes, something more direct.
I shut myself up in the bathroom and locked the door. I looked into the mirror at my own eyes. It felt as if my head swarmed with bees. This was wrong, bad. There was something wrong with him, but there was also something wrong with me. An electric energy burst through my brain: a feeling that I could do anything.
It was all clear. Go back up the stairs. Lie back down in bed next to Wiktor. Leave in the morning as if nothing had happened.
But something had happened. I looked at my neck; a faint bruise had already formed. I realized there was another choice too. The electric current kept rushing through my brain. I wanted to drive off a bridge just to see if I could fly.
I opened the door. Roman was gone, but I could hear the bitter weeping again. It was coming from one of the doors. There were five doors and the staircase: Bluebeard’s castle. A dog scratched at the fifth one.
I opened the door without knocking.
Inside, a single table lamp was on. The light glowed from under an infertile red shade. The dog with the skull face jumped up on me. I scratched it behind the ear, just to appease it, though part of me felt repulsed by the animal. Roman lay prostrate on an aged divan. His eyes met mine, and he sat up without a word. The blood still trickled on his forehead; the lamp cast deranged shadows around the room.
I was improvising, and I didn’t know what to do next.
So I fled, knowing he would follow me. Through the dark hallway with its ancient wood paneling, past the sleeping dogs, through the front door, and out the gate.
He called after me in a voice both startled and mournful: as if he were a child I were abandoning.
“Wait, wait! Where are you going?”
I didn’t know where I was going. Someone had dropped me off randomly on the globe in this godforsaken town. Berlin was far away; America was farther. I didn’t know where I was, and I didn’t want to know either.
I ran down the street. As I passed the cemetery, a different form approached: another man, not Roman, in an oversized coat. As he got closer, I saw he had a soccer scarf tied around his face. This frightened me: there had to be a reason he didn’t want to be recognized. His eyes were fixed on me. I turned back around and made for the cemetery.
I ran through the wrought iron gates and straight into Roman. His round, pallid face hovered above me like a full moon. It flashed through my mind that I had a choice: the man with the scarf or Roman.
I dove into his arms, and he wrapped his coat around me. Then he made for my neck again. In the distance, I could hear voices singing. Horrible baritones that were becoming louder.
“What is it?” I asked him.
“There was a soccer match tonight. Come closer.”
I had heard about the hooligans before. Drunk and ferocious men looking for a fight, looking to do damage. My choice was clear.
And something inside me did want to come closer. It wasn’t true desire. It wasn’t what I felt for Wiktor as we would lie together, his body pulsating in mine, joy and happiness descending on me like gold from the sky.
It was something else: it was walking down the stairs into the abyss.
I kissed him back. I opened my mouth so his tongue could find its place there. I let his hands free my breasts.
“I love you,” he whispered in my ear.
Love. I saw Wiktor asleep upstairs in the house. Straight and narrow Wiktor. How had he ever gotten mixed with this man? How had he even gotten mixed up with me?
I had to go back. With Wiktor was happiness. I thought of the light I had left on in the room where he slept. I would go back. I wouldn’t go any further down these stairs.
I wriggled free from Roman and tried to flee again, but he grabbed my arm with all his strength.
“Stay—stay here with me.”
“I’m going back to the house. I can’t do this.”
“You are doing this.”
“Let me go.”
He let go, and I made for Wiktor. He followed close behind.
His dogs bombarded us at the gate. We had left the front door open. Roman pacified and admonished them. The one with the skull face whined.
I went up the stairs. I got to the platform between the two flights. I could see the light coming from the room where Wiktor slept. I could hear him snoring.
“Come back,” said Roman from the bottom of the stairs. “Just talk. Please. I need to talk to someone.”
I looked at his broad, sad face, with remorse all over it. His forehead had stopped bleeding, and red-black clots had formed.
So we found ourselves on the sofa in the room with the red table lamp again. I sat on one side, and Roman, that massive man, lay over my lap as if he were my child, or like a Pieta.
“I tried … I’ve tried to go to a doctor. He said lots of things to me. He said I was depressed; he gave me some pills. Can you understand?”
Yes, I could understand. I certainly wanted to.
“But these strange thoughts, they’ve always been with me. I don’t know how to let them go. It’s in everything I see.”
As I looked at him, I saw in my mind the photograph of the man as a child. I began to brush the hair off his forehead where the blood had dried on it. His eyes closed as if soothed. I bent over and kissed his temple.
The next thing I knew, our places had switched, and I was under him. But this wasn’t like our kiss in the cemetery. My jaw locked as he smothered my face and breasts with his lips. A queasy pain shot through my stomach. I laid there, soundless as he began to pull up my dress. What could I do, anyway, against this huge, strong man? I retreated inside as I felt his erection pressed against my crotch. Still as I was, the thoughts swirled inside of me. You know you want it, just let him do it, it doesn’t matter, there’s nothing you can do, this is what you get…
Why did my thoughts always take the second person? What was this inside of me telling me what to do? Is it me? Is it something else? Where am I? Who am I?
My underwear came off, and I could feel his skin against mine. His body heaved against me. He still didn’t notice I wasn’t responding, or maybe he didn’t care.
Then: a weak fizzing inside of me, like the beginning of a chemical reaction. It built strength; it culminated. I began to recognize what it was. It was me. It was my will. The feeling burst through the top of my head. I could stop this. I would not be destroyed.
I screamed as loud as I could, and he was off of me.
Wiktor woke up the next morning with a headache. I told him I hadn’t slept. We gathered the few belongings we had brought. It was still just a few days past the solstice, and the sun hadn’t come up. The house was still dark; the town was still dark. The dogs greeted us as we went to the kitchen to make coffee. Wiktor knew where everything was; he’d been here before.
The kitchen was small compared to the rest of the house and had dirty tile floors. Wiktor heated up the kettle and doled us out some instant coffee. The dog with the white face greeted us and nuzzled my knee. I found it strange that I had thought him so sinister the night before. Plus, he wasn’t a he. Loose nipples hung from her belly. She grunted with pleasure.
The door opened and in came the Boogeyman. He, too, looked ragged and benign. Wiktor exchanged a few words in Polish with him. Then it was time to go.
In the hallway I wasn’t sure how to say goodbye. Wiktor gave him a handshake and a pat on the back. When it was my turn, instead of embracing, I just reached down and petted his favorite dog. Thank you, yes, see you again someday.
We would not see him again someday. Not together, anyway.
Wrapped in his bathrobe, he waited in the doorway as we went through the gate. At the last moment I turned around. He was still watching us. We looked at each other. The gate banged shut.
When I think of him, that last image of his face, peering out from that terrible house, is what I see.
On the train, Wiktor and I slept. Wiktor leaned against me, and I leaned back into the seat. He slept soundly, but I found myself only halfway there, in that purgatory between dreams and reality. Thoughts mangled my brain: what I had done, what it had meant. And sensations: the dry cold of the cemetery, the darkness of the hallway, the feeling of flesh pressed against me, pierced skin.
I jolted awake, disturbing Wiktor in the process.
“What’s wrong?” He yawned.
Outside, the sun had come up. My eyes darted back and forth over the fleeting landscape. Barren trees, plowed fields, ramshackle houses, random drifts of snow.
“Roman … last night I heard him crying.”
“So I went downstairs …”
“You didn’t wake me?”
“I didn’t want to.”
“You didn’t want to?”
“I didn’t want to!”
Tears pearled down my cheeks.
“He undressed me.”
“I kissed him.”
“What are you telling me?
Shock and pain contorted Wiktor’s face. The train stopped and some other passengers got on, but no one joined our cabin.
“He tried … he tried to …”
The train began to move again.
“Did you let him?”
“No … no …”
When we got back to Warsaw, we found my in-laws’ apartment empty. Everyone had gone out to the countryside to prepare for New Year’s Eve. As we came up to the block, I saw a man approaching us: a tall man in a black coat, a dog at his side.
My knees began to fold under me. I grasped Wiktor’s shoulder.
“It’s him … it’s him!” I whispered in horror.
Wiktor took me into the apartment and helped me into bed.
“No, it wasn’t him. It wasn’t him!”
“But I saw him; he was just out there.”
“It was just a man … a man but not him.”
My body tensed; my arms folded up to my breast. Wiktor put a blanket over me.
“What … what did he do to you?”
“It was him, it was him,” I repeated until I fell into a black sleep.
I stayed in bed the rest of the day and then the next day too. Wiktor called his family at their cottage and told them I was sick. Then we got on a bus to Berlin.
We arrived a few hours before midnight on New Year’s Eve. When we got back, Wiktor made me wash and comb my hair. Then I lay down in our bed. He asked if he could lie next to me, and I didn’t answer. At midnight, as the sky began to explode, he leaned over and kissed my cheek. I curled further into my body.
I am well now, or well enough. Wiktor took me to a psychiatrist in the new year. He set up an appointment with a therapist. He nursed me back to my wits like a sick child.
I saw later that he had emailed Roman. He threatened to beat the man to a pulp. Then he cut off contact. This is how Wiktor dealt with what happened. He blamed Roman so he could keep loving me.
But I am not so ready to explain it all to myself. I could settle on one narrative or another, but it’s not so easy. That night remains a gray, nebulous space inside of me; a smoky haze that I can’t quite define but will choke me if I let it.
Sometimes I want to prostrate myself before life. Sometimes I want to give up. But then I feel it again: that bit of carbonation inside of me. It’s getting bigger; it’s starting to froth over. It’s my will.
Today I saw a poster in the back of a cafe. Angels and Stones it said in large, abrupt letters. Then a photograph: black and white; a wood-paneled room, a woman sleeping on a divan, black hair surrounding her. The only color: a red lamp glowing above her head.
Opening night is tonight. I put on a dress, some makeup, heels. I look at myself in the mirror. I am healthy now; I glow.
The gallery is in Neukölln, a neighborhood full of thrift shops, kebabs, and young people. It’s a small space; there’s no hiding there. As I enter the glass doors, he’s the first thing I see.
But he doesn’t see me. The space is packed, and he towers above the other guests. He looks well. He’s wearing some slim cut jeans and a light blue, paisley shirt: a color I couldn’t have imagined him in before. His hair is cropped short, and he’s grown a bit of a beard. Some rectangular glasses now buffer the world from his eyes.
He’s talking to the guests in English that is imperfect but unafraid.
I hear him say something in this polite and controlled accent: “There’s no hiding from fear.”
He’s talking about his photographs, of course.
I huddle in a corner for a moment. I could still go back. He would never know; he hasn’t seen me.
But how will I reconcile this amorphous smoke left inside of me? I still don’t understand; I still don’t have a story to tell myself. And seeing Roman in this new, fresh incarnation and not speaking to him only complicates matters further.
Then I feel it, my will bubbling up inside. This time, it says to stay.
The first thing Roman tells me over dinner is that he doesn’t drink anymore. That’s fine, I say, as I order a tea.
He hadn’t known what to do in the gallery, he explains. It’s been seven years; we both look different. But he recognized me right away. He had stopped talking and just stared.
But the atmosphere in the restaurant is not bad. Of course, I had to wait with him until the gallery closed, but it’s not too late yet; Wiktor won’t be expecting me. I order pasta, and he gets a steak. Rare, but not too rare.
And then he apologizes. I can see the remorse is both true and thoughtful, but neither of us makes a scene. He doesn’t put me through that like he might have before. Instead, I get to talk. I explain to him what he did, what he did to me. All he can do is listen and apologize. All I can do is accept.
Forgiveness feels warm and binding, like a bandage or a compress. As he walks me home that night, I notice a little scar on his brow. I reach up and brush it with my finger. I smile and then hug him goodbye.
Inside, Wiktor has put our daughter, Laura, to bed. I hear her breathing and cooing from the crib. Wiktor snores as usual. I take off my clothes and crawl under our blanket. Their presence is warm. I fall asleep.
Roman is in my dreams: this new, sober, and crisp Roman. My eyes open. I can still feel the lust tight on my nipples.
Wiktor snores; Laura coos. I have everything I want. I know I must leave things be. The gray has disappeared, and now I see how it is. We all have our own stories: Wiktor, Roman, and now me too. Tales we use to simplify our lives, to make sense of the world. These are the bedtime stories we tell ourselves to keep the Boogeyman away, so we can sleep at night.
Cover Art: Untitled, by Stephen Naish