Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

Saturday, July 15, 2006

A Late Dinner in Warsaw

It was just after dusk. On blistered feet I shuffled down a shadowy Warsaw street, planning a route to the train station where I would depart in the morning. Four-story apartment buildings rose on one side and a gated schoolyard on the other. The traffic noise diminished to a light whisper, and my footsteps echoed off the buildings.

The day had been very hot, and the sweat soaking my khakis made me wish that wearing shorts would not scream "Ugly American!" to the cafe women in crepe paper pants and pastel tops. I wished for a nice girl, alone and possessed by a desire to learn English. Over coffee, it would have been nice to look someone in the eyes rather than in the ass. My legs felt heavy, and I walked on.

From the opposite direction, a woman approached me. In her twenties, her long dark hair was pulled back from her face, emphasizing her large chin and pale complexion. She wore a long-sleeved top of brown and black patchwork velvet with lots of tassels and a matching skirt. As we passed, she stopped. My heart quickened. She spoke to me in Polish.

“Nie rozumiem. I don’t understand,” I replied.

She smiled with teeth spaced wide apart. “You speak English?”


“Are you from England?”

“No, America.”

She considered this. “I need some money for a hot…” Hands drawing circles, she searched for the word.

“Meal?” I offered.

She nodded. “I am not from Poland. I am from France.”

France, okay,” I replied. “How much money do you need?”

Her mouth formed a perfect “O.” She looked down at her black Chuck Taylor All-Stars. “I don’t know. I’m going to maybe McDonald’s.”

I reached into my pockets and gathered all the change I could find, which amounted to 450 zlote. I handed the coins to her.

She counted them. “This will be enough for maybe a hamburger,” she said, voice trailing off.

I shrugged. There was more money in the wallet, but the wallet was off limits.

“Thank you,” she said, starting to walk away. “Have a nice…” Her hands opened, palms up.

“Evening,” I finished.

She smiled and walked away. At about ten yards, she glanced over her shoulder.

“Wait,” I yelled.

She turned.

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s get dinner.”

Eyebrows raised, she took a few steps toward me.

“I’ll buy you dinner. Come with me.”

Our shoulders nearly touching, we walked to the shopping district near the Novy Swiat. The air was humid on my skin, and I brought my outside arm up to wipe the sweat off my face and to sneak a sniff of my armpit.

She seemed well-groomed, and I could not detect an odor that I would associate with street people. She told me that her name was Marie, and that she had come to Poland with her boyfriend, who was unable to find factory work and left her.

We approached an outdoor café with chrome tables and chairs. There were several open tables, each adorned with a candle and water glasses containing cloth napkins. White flowers spilled out of pots hung from the wrought iron fence that separated the eating area from the street.

“Shall we eat here?” I asked.

She shook her head no. “Maybe they don’t let me eat here. I know one over there.” She motioned down a dark side street.

“No,” I said. “We’ll eat here.”

I sat down at a small, rectangular table at the edge of the cafe. I took the seat with my back to other patrons, remembering that a lady should see and be seen. Marie motioned for me to get up.

“I need to sit there,” she whispered.

I rose and took the other seat, wedged against the fence.

“They look at me strange,” she whispered.

A middle-aged couple at the adjoining table glanced at us, lips tense and tight, but remained in their seats.

The waiter approached with a grin frozen on his face. He wore black pants, a pale pink collared shirt, and a black tie. His sleeves were rolled up to expose hairless, feminine wrists. He recited what might have been the dinner specials. I looked to Marie for help. She said something to the waiter, and he walked away.

“All they have tonight is cold ham and cheese sandwich,” she said. “The kitchen is closed.”

“It’s nine-thirty,” I said.

She shrugged.

The waiter brought to the couple next to us a steaming silver platter. They moved the contents of the platter to their dinner plates, picked up their forks, and ate.

“Let’s go somewhere else,” I said.

Marie smiled. “Ham and cheese sandwich is fine.”

“No. I don’t want to eat here.”

I stood up and walked out into the street. Marie followed close behind.

“The kitchen wasn’t closed,” I said.

“It is my clothes.” she replied.

We walked in silence down the shopping district among strolling couples and tourists, clothing boutiques with half-naked, nippled mannequins in the windows, each one with a sale on shoes, skirts, or sunglasses.

Marie's body seemed shapeless.

At the end of the strip was another café, lit only by green Christmas lights.

“Here?” I said.

Marie nodded and we sat. There were no other patrons, but I took the seat against the fence.

A waitress came up to us, with red-dyed hair and a silver stud glinting just below her lip.

“Hello,” she said to me. “Here are the menus. Would you like something to drink?”

She brought us two beers, light and frothy in tall glasses, and we ordered hot sandwiches.

Marie sipped. While not pretty, the soft green light combined with her modesty and uneasiness gave her face an appealing glow. She would not make eye-contact with me.

“So, do you work?” I asked, enunciating my words.

“I…do things for the men.” Her eyes still downcast, she continued, “I don’t like to do those things, but…”

A moment passed. My face felt hot.

“What do you do?” she asked.

“I work for a man who owns many buildings. I am in charge of the rents, the money.”

“That is important,” she murmured and leaned closer to me, eyes still on the table. She reached into a pocket and brought something out. I heard a click. She pushed the table toward me, pinning me against the fence. I felt a sharp tip on my thigh.

She stared up at me, dark eyes flat, without feeling. Her voice turned dark and throaty. “Give me your money.”

The tip dug deeper.

Her eyes burned. “Now.”

I struggled to get my wallet. I tried to remove the cash in one quick motion, but she grabbed the wallet from my hand. She stepped on the chair and, tassels flying, leaped over the café’s barrier. She disappeared into an alley. By the time I pushed the table back and stood up, she was gone.

My heart crazy, I sat down and drank from my glass. I reached into my sock and produced a 10,000 zlote note. I set it on the table. The waitress returned with the sandwiches.

“Where is your friend?” she asked.

“She’s gone. I’ll take the check please.”

Maybe somewhere in the concrete heart of Warsaw, Marie gathered with others in patchwork clothes to laugh and share stories as firelight glinted off the needle.


Blogger amadea's world said...

When were you in Warsaw?
Never been to Poland myself. But saw a great film at the film festival in Galway, Ireland last week (holidays) - Molly's Way, about an Irish girl going to Poland to look after the man who had made her pregnant.
You know, me living in Europe, having no idea what life is like in other, poor parts of Europe. What a contrast there is to our rich place and to places not far from here.
I would love to travel Russia. Still dreaming about going from Moscow to Peking by the Transsibirian railway. But this will stay a dream, I guess.
I posted in English today.
So no need to use the bablefish :-)

By the way -
I love your way of writing.
So no shit coming out of your mouth at all.

5:24 PM  

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