My old friend would leave the door open to her Soviet-era Polish apartment block with a red light on. At night I’d come to drink cheap vodka and smoke bootlegged Russian cigarettes with her.
Kasia Lantkowska is now 27, with Asiatic facial features — but truly Slavic. She has reddening brown hair and the body of a super model. Kasia was always easy to talk to during my visits in the summers, speaking with a certain amount of warmth and intimacy that is absent from most conversation one strikes up with American women these days.
“If something ever happens, there will be a place for me back in the states, right?” she asks me with a sense of urgency one late summer in a village far from Warsaw.
It’s been years since we’ve seen each other. She’s an educated woman from the provinces who recently had two kids with her angry truck driver husband who is never home. Now she does nothing but live in a rumor-hungry village of about 250 people and wonders about the world around her. I’ve arrived from my family’s farm a short walk to the village through acres of barley fields.
Kasia’s home is laid out in the finest European carpets, with plants, red linens, and a fish tank lining out her living room. For some reason a lot of people in Poland have fish tanks. For seven years she lived in Warsaw while attending college and met some dude from a nearby town who knocked her up. She told me that her husband is never home, and when he is, they never even have time to fight about their problems. He’s usually away across the border and drinks beer on the couch watching TV when he is home. “He doesn’t even look at the kids,” she said.
The honesty displayed before me was shocking. I usually expected Polish women to keep their problems to themselves, as they are generally loyal and private, but this wasn’t the case here with her husband. It almost seemed like a plea for help. Like she was trying to take advantage of a small window of opportunity with the American sitting in front of her.
I meet her friend from downstairs, who is is apparently having an affair with a local priest. This is common. The priests here have more of a presence than the police do. In all my years coming here, I have seen police once, maybe twice in this village. The priests are the acting cops, and they walk around at night rounding up the drunk hooligans. There’s nothing to do, Kasia says. “I drop the kids off at school. I go for a run, or read a little. But that’s it.”
But this place has always had a special vibe to me. Coming from a kid who had a hard time playing nice back in the states and unable to deal with the pressures of hard-to-please baseball coaches, this drive-by village in the middle of nowhere actually accepted me. There wasn’t much going on, but I always got the feeling that this is where I belonged.
In cities you can disappear; here you can’t. Everyone knows each other. Though I might not know them, they know who I am. They call me “Amerikani.” They know my cousins, aunts, and uncles. Most days people are sitting on the front steps of the monolithic church that everyone kneels before on Sundays, watching people pass by. Or they’re staring off into the distance smoking cigarettes by the rundown day school that used to be here. At night people buy vodka out of a neighbor’s house and chase it with tap water behind the church. No one has anything going for them. And that’s OK. In the states, the first question you’re usually asked is, “So what do you do for a living.” In the Polish country, no one asks that question because nobody does anything…
So I spent the day with Kasia, playing house. I pretend we’re a family, superimposing my lonely lifestyle onto her’s. We go eat in the next town over. People think I’m the father of her children. I bring back a box of Lech beer on the way home. Kasia is gunning it in her standard red Skoda. There’s another plus. European women these days know how to drive stick.
I leave, but the plan is to return by nighttime. My family is having a celebration at the farm that could be heard from miles away, suspending this Saturday night. My respectable aunt had a fit, telling us all that the whole village could hear us laughing and drinking. “You people have no shame!” she told us.
Poland is a deeply traditional country, though that’s slipping away. I can see how my aunt was bothered by the change. After years of living under communism, where a bottle of vodka or pack of cigarettes had to be gifted to a doctor before he would even bother to look at you, the west is more alluring to a Pole than ever. Things that you once had to make the pilgrimage across the pond to acquire, like affordable designer clothing or smart phones or easy money, are all here now. My other aunt said it best: “Poland took all of America’s bad qualities and has adopted it as its own.” To the old guard, it’s intimidating. To the younger people, the party has finally arrived. There’s wifi on the farm, American branding in all the stores. Once looked at as a backwards communist shell country, economists and academics now refer to Poland as an “emerging economy.” Warsaw’s drab, low-hanging Stalinist skyline is now dotted with huge chromatic buildings.
The festivities at the farm wind down, so I poached a bottle of vodka from the basement and started making the trek past our pond and back to the sleepy village. I had no internet connection, no international service plan on my phone, so the only way I knew Kasia was home was if her car was parked out back, or if the light was on in her place.
I passed through a dirt path that had been carved out by tractors years and years before, connecting the farm to the village. Past deep gardens and stray barking dogs and dilapidated barns, I drifted as a stranger toward the light. The venerable church looked over everyone.
Inside her place, we’re drinking on her futon. Her three-year-old son is periodically bringing me beers from the fridge. I start to feel weird about this. We switch over to vodka and take a shot.
“I can’t believe you are here,” she said. “Keep pouring.”
Together we partake in the religious ceremony of vodka shots, and talk about everything: our fucked up families, past relationships, plans, books, friends, politics, etc. She tells me that I smell like an American journalist and was impressed by the simple fact that I made the 10-minute walk through the dark farm land to see her.
“I wouldn’t have taken that walk...I know, you’re a brave American,” she said with a serious nod. To this day this is one of the coolest things anyone has ever said to me. It didn’t make me feel like a loser, but like I was a character in an old European novel. The anti-hero making his journey through the woods to be with a far away lover.
The bottle is empty and Kasia suddenly takes off her pants to reveal her plaintiff red underwear. We mess around. I’m really hoping the kids are sleeping. Things happen in a series of blurry slideshows. I hear babies crying and I think at one point Kasia had to go throw up. She had too much of Poland’s fine social lubricant. Now it’s turned against us. We collapse on the floor.
Next thing I know it is morning, the sound of a chainsaw ripping apart wood in the distance. I’m so hungover that it sounds like sirens are going off in my head. I hear a knock on her door, and go for the balcony. I fear the worst—her mother, father, or her husband. Oh god, her husband! He’d probably throw me off the balcony. Then this whole village would explode. I remember Kasia telling me that he “pobił kogoś raz,” meaning he beat some dude up once pretty badly. Her balcony is about a 10-foot jump, so I do a quick mental check to see if I have all my things. I drop down into a bush, dust myself off, and take the shameless walk back to the farm, wondering if I left undetected.