12:00 a.m., parents’ house, Philadelphia suburbs
We celebrated Christmas, as always, in the traditional Polish way. Fish à la grecque and presents on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day, a late breakfast featuring eight or nine different cuts of ham, cold fish from the night before, chopped vegetable salad, sausages and borscht served in tea cups. For dinner there was prime rib and a green salad that no one could finish, even though my mother chided us not to waste. We had dessert after each meal—plain cheesecake, apple cake, poppy-seed roll, and babka covered in a lemon and powdered sugar icing that I mixed myself.
We were nine: me, my parents, K (our perennial houseguest), my sister and her kids, her husband and his grandmother, who we call Nona. My parents came to the United States when my sister was five. Her husband’s family came over from Chile when he was about the same age. At the table, K and my parents speak to each other in Polish, I speak to my nephews in English and my sister and her husband speaks to Nona in Spanish, offering her this and that from around the table.
My sister’s family have just gone home and it’s just my parents, K, and I doing the only thing possible: sitting on the couch. We’re watching Sherlock for the first time. Five minutes in, my mother is skeptical, my father is asleep, and K has gotten up to go to bed. He doesn’t understand the British English, he says. The window is open and the cat comes in and out. It’s raining and warm. When the cat goes by again I call to her but my mom protests. We don’t want a wet cat here, she says, in Polish.
I scoop Minka up against my mom’s wishes and put her on my bed. As I brush my teeth I keep peeking into the room, to make sure she hasn’t run away. I get into bed carefully, making sure not to poke her with my toes. Sleeping next to a cat is a delicate art.
The sounds are familiar. My mother is running a bath. My father is washing the china. He only does dishes after midnight. Lying in bed listening, I could be any age. I could be nine and listening for my father’s heavy slippers on the stairs, ready to close the book and turn off the light.
Before I left New York I had dinner with L, who I’ve known since high school. She’s married and lives in Hawaii, so we see each other maybe once a year. We spent many hours together in this room, talking about boyfriends, scheming about parties, doing endless hours of homework. That night we met near Union Square. Recently, her parents’ sold their old house and moved to Long Island. Now she has no reason to visit Philadelphia. Over tacos she wonders out loud if she’ll ever see my teenage bedroom again. I’ll never see her’s—those orange walls, that plush carpet, the long, flattering mirror. It’s been packed up and painted over.
I wake up from an anxious dream. I’m at Brooklyn College and I just found out I am going to fail math and Spanish. This makes no sense, because I am an MFA student. Faces from high school are there. The desks are attached to the chairs like in middle school. In the dream, I first boast that I’ve been skipping the classes all semester, and then cry when I find out my teachers’ noticed. This is very typical of me. I attribute this dream to having finished my first semester of grad school in a panic under a week ago and to being at home, where things from the past, like calculus, come back to haunt you.
I wake up again. I can feel Minka is still here, warming my feet. I sit up and rub her belly. There are voices downstairs. K’s is the loudest. My parents have known K since they were all biochemistry students at the University of Warsaw in the late 1960’s. He’s divorced and his children are grown and living in Poland, so he has always spent holidays with us.
I shower and dress. I put on a pair of black sweatpants I bought at Zara. I think they are supposed to be fashionable because they have these clever, cropped bottoms that show off your ankles, but I doubt I will ever wear them outside. I put on a sweater I got for Christmas. It has a textured knit and is the pale blue of a nursery blanket.
We’re eating leftovers. My mother has lit what is left of the candlesticks, which is dramatic for breakfast but also kind of appropriate. Outside it is as dark as evening. She is telling us about the plans for her 50-year high school reunion, to be held in a resort town in Poland this spring. I wonder if I would go to my 50-year high school reunion. I went to my five-year and this guy I barely knew greeted me by kissing me on the forehead. Bizzare. I guess I would go as a social experiment, but I know for her it’s much more. Her classmates are spread across the world: Israel, Germany, and Canada. Over coffee she tells us about the last time she saw them, at a dinner party in her hometown of Katowice. She was twenty-three and pregnant with my sister. The party was held at a restaurant in the middle of a huge park. When it ended, they had to find their way to the main road. There was a foot of snow on the ground and the girls were in heels. They walked until their toes were icy, the bottoms of their skirts stiff with frost.
I am back in bed, catching up on the email/facebook/instagram I promised myself I’d ignore during Christmas. D wrote me a holiday message where she referred to me as Monika, my love and Darling in the same sentence. I write to her in kind. We met while studying in Paris, so our relationship has always had a touch of romanticism.
M and I start messaging each other pictures of our pets. She has sweet dog called Ronja. Then we decide to Skype. M and I know each other throughRookie and met in person when I visited her in Warsaw two years ago. Now we see each other ever time I visit my family there. In between, we plan getaways where we would do nothing but cut paper and glue collages, write poems and string them on banners, pick fruits and lie around napping. Today we talk for a long time—about her thesis, about my writing, about graduate school (if it’s worth it), about this exhibit I saw at MoMa that she would love, andthis other one, by Walid Raad. What are you working on? she asks me. Will you send me something? She is the first adult friend I talk to artist-to-artist. And yet she feels like we’ve known each other since childhood.
M has to go and so do I. My mother and K and I go to the Apple Store to pick her out a new computer. She wants the tiniest MacBook Air, but I tell her to go up a size. Who can read on that screen? K agrees. The saleslady stands there patiently as we debate in Polish. A Taylor Swift concert plays, muted, on every screen in the store. We go for the 13” one.
In the car, we pass the parents of my childhood best friend, out strolling. We go buy nice bread and beer and I get a latte.
Home again. My father is watching Arsenal vs. Southampton. I sit near him reading That Obscene Bird of Night, which I started last time I was home, over Thanksgiving. The novel is difficult, mysterious, and occasionally vulgar. I don’t have a full grasp on what’s going on but it has this mythic nightmare quality and that’s enough to keep me going. I don’t re-read but instead push forward, hoping the story will open itself to me. When the game ends, he gets up to help with dinner and take his warm armchair.
We’ve eaten dinner, more leftovers, and my dad invites us to the kino, which is his joke about watching good films in our living room, our own private cinema. No Sherlock. Tonight it’s De Witte van Sichem, which is about a young boy growing up in a Flanders farming community around 1900, when the socialists were first afoot. This may seem totally random, but it’s very much the kind of movie we always watch at our kino. The films are mostly Polish, and always historical. Tonight K is upset by the subtitling and again retreats to his room.
The movie ends. I heat up some borscht with mushroom dumplings called uszka, or little ears. Tonight I microwave it just the right amount and do not burn off my taste buds, like I did yesterday. The broth is covered in a treacherous layer of fat, molten like the inside of a Hot Pocket.
I convince my parents to give Sherlock another try. It’s the last episode in season one. My mom pretends to watch but really reads her new bread cookbook. I pretend to watch but really read a catalogue that specializes in softness: a robe filled with white duck down, sateen sheets, faux fur blankets that come in panther, cheetah, and ocelot. My father is asleep.
In bed. Minka is out in the yard, so no chance to catch her tonight. I’m not tired yet so I open my laptop. As the screen floods with light I wish I had taken a few more days away, stayed in this quiet shell a little longer. But then I stumble on a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks that I’ve never read and am enjoying the hum of the internet once again.