The unlikely ones: part 6- The necklace

Mr., are you not cold?”, said a woman in Polish to Agustin while he stood barefoot in the chilliness of November, outside his hostel. He didn’t understand Polish, but he was too lost in his own thoughts to pay attention to anything else anyway. “Do you know what year is it?” she went on, trying to surmise whether he was disoriented. She was feeding pigeons from the comfort of her bench. Agustin didn’t even notice someone was talking to him. “The year of our lord, 2016,” she answered her own question. But since Agustin didn’t react, she went on feeding her pigeons and decided right there that she was in the presence of a lunatic. It took him a few more minutes of looking up to the sky and breathing out the warm air trapped in his lungs to finally come to himself. He had been woken up ten minutes before by the knock on his hostel room door. Through the evanescence of his dream he could distinguish clearly her voice. Such a voice was unmistakable to Agustin because its tones and variations where indelibly painted on the canvass of his mind. He’d seen its color transition from bright to dim and then back to bright during their long conversations. She was saying something in Polish to his roommate. He could only grasp the word “Argentinean,” because it sounded like in Spanish. It was one second, he thought, in which he went back to his dream. He could never manage to wake up all at once; it always took him a couple of seconds to open his eyes and regain control of his body: He slept so deeply. When he got up, his roommate gave him a box of white chocolate coconut truffles which she’d brought with her the previous day, and which he’d tried for the first time and loved immediately. He was also handed the necklace he had given her the previous night. A rush of adrenaline woke him up completely. He didn’t need to ask this stranger; she’d left him; she’d run away on him. It was only three degrees outside so he rushed his shoes on, leaving behind his jacket and coat. He didn’t want to waste extra seconds and besides, the adrenaline was enough fuel to keep him warm. He went out to the hall in his sleeping clothes and tried to open her room door; it was locked. He ran towards the reception and gestured long hair and thumped his chest in front of the receptionist, while he repeated twice: “My friend.” The man didn’t speak English, but he probably understood those words or his gestures, or the situation itself, seeing a distraught, semi-dressed young man with a questioning face just minutes after the girl he’d come with the previous day had checked out. He signaled towards the exit door and Agustin ran out. He went up the street towards the metro station they’d taken downtown the previous day. He ran all the way towards the place, but didn’t find her. Once he got outside the station he walked back to the hostel.

They were staying at a cheap hostel and she’d decided to take two separate rooms. He’d had not saying in the matter because she’d made the reservations. It was the first time they met in person. He lived in Buenos Aires and she was from Radom, though she studied extra-murally in Warsaw. It had taken many long conversation sessions from the moment they met on that language exchange website till the moment when she left aside her ill-founded fears and accepted his invitations to meet. She proposed a neutral place: Warsaw, because she wasn’t ready to invite him to her house. Besides, she still lived with her parents. They visited the Museum of Technology in the Palace of Culture and, were it for her, they would’ve spent the whole day like Japanese tourists. But his only goal was to get to know her better so he proposed pizza at a restaurant and drinks at a bar. She accepted the pizza, though she declined the drinks, compromising with a coffee. They had a pizza in Stary Rynek, which cost twice as much as everywhere else, but he didn’t care about this minutia, since the money he’d saved in Argentina gave him some margin for extravagance. While they were looking for a nice café, they passed by a bunch of girls doing step aerobics in the street, but closer inspection made him realize that it wasn’t aerobics but dancing, Polish style, to the rhythm of some song in the girls’ earphones. He knew the concept of a silent disco, but he wasn’t acquainted with the Polish dance moves. Back in his country he’d never seen such a dance style. Of course there were arrhythmic people in Argentina, but there was still dance music on, which was enough to understand those people were not having epileptic attacks but actually dancing. However, he’d never seen an outdoor manifestation of disregard for rhythm before, and this was only emphasized by the lack of music. Because he spent a while trying to guess what music they could possibly be dancing to, with no success. A salsa or tango dancer may create rhythm with their bodies and you may feel the music when they dance a capella, but the only thing he could imagine while looking at those girls hopping around was that it was too cold for them to stand still or that the whole floor was stuck with chewing gum. She didn’t look interested in the party either, so they passed by it without further ado.

Her name was Marzena. Her mother was a teacher and her father a hunter. She’d told him that her father had wanted to abort her because he wasn’t sure they could support her, but her mother refused and later on she told on him to her daughter. To her, that prenatal event symbolized her life: She was the product of mere chance and the world was a hostile place. She’d finished studies in history of art in Lublin and a couple of years before she’d finished a Master in English philology in Warsaw, but she’d gone back to her parent’s after quitting her job as customer service for an American company. She didn’t want to be a teacher, like her mother so she was going to try her luck abroad, she’d told him during one of their conversations. She’d gotten a job as a flight attendant for Qatar airways and she was soon moving to that Arab country. That way she would earn three times more than her mother, thus vindicating herself. He’d been utterly disappointed by the news. Why had she given up their chance of being together for a simple job? Didn’t she believe him when he said he’d go to her and they’d be together or was it that her life in Poland had shaped her character the same as prison obliterates all traces of optimism in someone’s spirit? He didn’t utter his disappointment but he didn’t congratulate her or asked any questions about it either, so his complaint was implicit. He didn’t know what he wanted to achieve when he told her that he was coming anyway; that he wanted to see her before she left for Qatar. Now, at the cafe, they were just staring at each other most of the time, and he remember a phrase he’d read in a book back in Argentina: “I suppose that, when some things can’t be said, looks are loaded with words.”

Agustin’s life hadn’t been all smooth either. His life in Argentina had recently taken a dark hue and that was the reason why he fell in love with girls thousands of kilometres from his country: He was subconsciously looking for a way out. He’d been born in 1978, during the most fatal dictatorship in Argentina. More than thirty thousand people had been disappeared by the junta. It was called a war on incipient communism, but it was simply a cowardly hidden extermination of intellectuals and dissidents. Most of them were taken away from their homes in the middle of the night by the paramilitary and after being tortured in clandestine centres for detention, they were never seen again. This wasn’t even a novel idea fruit of the minds of the dictators but a dull copy of Hittler’s policy called Night and Fog, which came from his genius for evil: The best deterrent against subversion was the secret killing of dissenters so the people could not demonstrate against their death.

Agustin’s father was an army pilot who’d served during that period. He didn’t have much to say about it; his job was to obey and never to question any order from above. The leaders responsible for the crimes were sentenced in 1985 just to be pardoned in 1990 due to a new coup d’état that loomed in the horizon. But the terror had been dealt only to communists, so Agustin’s parents had actually managed to provide their son with an ideal childhood. They were well-off and lived accordingly. Their summers had sometimes been spent in Mar del Plata, but mostly they had spent them in Patagonia, flying around on his father’s plane. His father taught him to fly and now he’d even gotten a private pilot licence and often flew around. Agustin’s innocence ended abruptly in 2003, when the trials against the ex-dictators were resumed. His father was completely ashamed about the fact that Argentina was the only South American country that took their military leaders to court. The rest of Latin American countries had just transitioned through negotiation into democracy and they’d left behind old grudges. He wasn’t concerned at all about being summoned to court, only high rank officials were being prosecuted, but he couldn’t stand the disgrace brought upon the military, so he’d decided to leave the army and work as a pilot for rich people with private planes. They had to move to the countryside and Agustin remained in the city of Buenos Aires while he finished medicine at the University of Buenos Aires. Afterwards he went to a small town to work at a public hospital.

Now Agustin was in Poland, thousands of kilometres away from his native country, in a city which looked all the more grey and gloomy after he’d realized that he had no business there. He’d seen the gravity of his mistake right there, at that cafe, looking at her, he knew he couldn’t convince her to stay with him. Her countenance was one of awe at the situation and her eyes were full of goodbye. However, he didn’t want to give up; not yet. He swallowed his disappointment and started asking pretense questions about her foreseeable future. He knew nothing good would come from silence; only melancholy. Then he saw the flavored vodka bottles at the bar and asked for two shots. He took them to the table, ready to drink them both in case she didn’t want one. Drunkenness would help him get through the tragedy of it all. To his surprise she took the drink and drank it in one gulp. She asked him to do the same with his and when he did, she said: “Now I will show you the real vodka.” And she went to the bar, coming back with two more drinks, this time twice the size and transparent. “Try this one,” she said, putting a drink in front of him. He saw the resolution in her eyes. He knew she’d resolved to get drunk with him and spend the night as if there was there was no tomorrow, which was actually their situation. He couldn’t follow her to Qatar and she’d never mentioned staying, coming back or even asked him to visit her. He drunk the vodka, which was just a little bitterer than his life, and stared at her absolute beauty. Her white complexion and the roundness of her face and eyes. Her blondness and the delicacy of her mouth. He slipped closer to her and kissed her. She kissed him back and they didn’t talk any more.

Half way back to the hostel he realized he hadn’t brought condoms. He couldn’t believe such a detail could’ve escaped from his mind, but the excitement of the moment had made him forget about it. When they passed by a small shop, he asked Marzena to wait outside while he went for some necessaries. When she asked him what he meant by “necessaries,” he simply answered: “Something we may need,” and she needed no further explanation. He struggled with the shop attendant: An old man who didn’t even attempt at understanding English. But it wasn’t his fault, thought Agustin, that an Argentinean guy came to his shop looking for condoms without knowing what they were called in Polish. He hadn’t asked Marzena and she hadn’t told him, maybe in the effort to maintain the esoteric mood he’d created when he’d called them “necessaries”. The current deflation of common edible goods and the depleting profit margin for this small time shop keeper contributed to his anger, but Agustin thought that making signs to show what he needed would enrage him even more, so he had just stood in front of the counter, looking around for the precious good. But for all his efforts, he couldn’t find it. That’s when he enraged the shop-keeper by saying, in a questioning tone: “Condoms?” The man mumbled some indecipherable words, which sounded like a long row of insults, and Agustin was on the verge of giving up and going back to Argentina without glory or pain, when, by a strange epiphany, he decided to use the Spanish word: “Preservativo.” He wasn’t surprised when he saw the old man reach behind the counter for a box of the coveted product. After all, he’d learned a little German back home and he’d discovered that the oddest words sometimes are similar in different languages. He went out of the shop reassured as a man: He’d bought condoms in Polish.

They were lying in her bed, naked, when she told him he needed to go to sleep to his own room. He asked “Why?” and she answered that other girls may come in, and it was a female-only dorm. He said to her that she should’ve booked a double room, but she didn’t answer. He knew sleeping with him wasn’t part of her plans and that he should be thankful that the evening had brought them to the same bed. He decided it was the most romantic moment they would probably have; the following day she had time till 3 pm, when she had her train back to Radom. He went to his jacket and took out the pouch with the necklace he’d brought from Argentina for her. He gave it to her and when she saw it was gold, she said: “I can’t accept this.” He begged her to accept it and put his hands behind his back when she stretched out hers with the pouch and necklace. She took it and said: “OK, but now you should leave” and he complied. He couldn’t sleep at first, but then he fell into a deep sleep, full of dreams which he would forget as soon as he woke up.

Now he was outside the hostel and she was gone forever. He didn’t even know where she lived in Radom. He went back to his room and tried to call her on Facebook messenger, but she wasn’t online. He’d asked her whether she had Whatsapp and she’d said no, and he’d thought that it was useless to ask for her number anyway, since she was soon leaving for Qatar. He thought that she would probably not have answered his call, anyway. He stared at the necklace in his hand. It brought back so many memories. The time when an old lady came asking for him at the hospital he worked at four years before. He thought it was a patient he didn’t remember, but she told him she was from the capital and had taken the bus to that town only to see him. Her eyes where full of tears when she told him she was his grandmother and gave him the necklace. She said it belonged to his mother and she wanted him to have it. He was shocked, but he immediately understood what she was talking about. His parents had already told him he was adopted and that his mother had died during labour and they didn’t know who his father was, and he’d never doubted their word. After all, they’d raised him as their own blood and there was so much love he owed them. He would’ve never believed it but for the tearful lady in front of him. There was so much reality in her words and expression. He was a sensitive man and he could see the feelings that were overwhelming her at that moment. After giving him the necklace she recoiled subtly as man would after having stolen a kiss from the woman he’s in love with. Her face and body were a cocktail of stoicism to accept his possible rejection, love for him which translated into silence and respect for his decision, pain at the thought that she hadn’t seen her grandson grow up and she might never be anything relevant in his life any more, happiness that he was alive, handsome and healthy, melancholy at his resemblance to her lost daughter, and self pity and self-contempt at the thought that she was only an old sad lady coming all the way to the province to shatter someone’s life just because of a technicality. Yes, he’d been taken away from her mother before she was killed, and yes, his parents hadn’t adopted him but robbed him from his past. But that didn’t mean they weren’t his parents or that they hadn’t raised him and made him into the good man she was seeing in front of her. Was it worth it to ruin this young man’s past just to throw some truth into it? He saw her concern for him was gaining preponderance in her heart. Her eyes had become pure understanding and solidarity for him. But he didn’t let his own feelings overwhelm him; he was in front of his grandmother and he owed her respect and love for all she’d done to find him. He said “abu” and hugged her and their pain became one and both of them cried as Agustin’s mother must have cried when he was being taken away from her. Because although she feared from the moment she was kidnapped that something might happen to her baby, this fear was never as real as at the moment when the doctor walked out with him in his hands before she could even see his face.

The trial took a few years. He had to testify against his own parents. He was sorry for them, but he couldn’t cover the truth with his thumb. He told the judge everything they’d done for him and that they were exemplary parents, and that if it depended on him, they should’ve been forgiven. They were only accused of child abduction, though everyone suspected that his father had actually disposed of her biological mother in one of the infamous flights of death in which prisoners where undressed, drugged and thrown off a plane to the La Plata river. Agustin could never deal with the thought of his father being part of such an atrocious act, but he knew he was a military man and he would’ve had no choice but to comply with orders. What ate at him was not knowing whether his father was sorry for what he did and whether he should pity him or not. They’d flown together so many times and he couldn’t imagine that that cherished childhood memory was now stained by horror. His father was given fifteen years because of him, and his mother was given twelve years. There is not worst feeling that learning that the love your parents gave you is considered a crime by society. They were condemned for taking into the bosom of their family an orphaned child. He couldn’t bare the senselessness of it all. Thousands of military men had taken part in the torture and killing of thirty thousand people and were walking free in the streets while his parents, who’d shown nothing but love to him, were locked away as dangerous animals. He hated society and he hated his own country for being so pusillanimously stupid and vindictive. For years they didn’t care about the whereabouts of thirty thousand people and now they took away his parents and left him orphan again. From his biological family, he could only forgive his grandmother because he understood her pain, but he never attempted to reunite with his cousins, aunts and uncles, in spite of the numerous calls and her grandmother’s warm requests. She died just months after the trial was over, topping off the irony of his misery: Now that the country was done with their Roman circus he was a complete orphan again.

That’s why he’d decided to improve his English: To run away from reality at least during those moments in which he spoke a different language; a language that wasn’t soiled by a disgraceful history; a new born language. That’s why he’d selfishly fallen in love with that girl from the other corner of the world; because she sounded as pitiful as him, but she wasn’t part of his misery. She’d been so open to him, telling him everything someone would never tell a stranger, and he’d felt these outpours of intimacy could only mean she needed him as much as he needed someone to give meaning to his life. He’d spent the following months trying to learn Polish and looking for job prospects in Poland, but in the end he couldn’t wait any longer and he’d decided to stake it all on her. He knew she was leaving, but he couldn’t believe the only reason for his life could slip away from him just like that; just because of pure economic reasons. Yes, he knew about poverty; he was very aware of it. But he knew that wealth could bring the worst calamities in a country too. He wasn’t a communist; he was just a guy completely disillusioned with capitalism. He couldn’t believe someone would give up love just to have more money. He quit his job, although they probably would’ve given him a month’s leave if he’d asked. But he didn’t. It was his chance to start anew and he wanted to burn every bridge lest it undermined the power of his determination. He wasn’t concerned about his future at all. For him worrying about his future would be as ridiculous as a combatant worrying about the future look of his resume: Experience in bombarding the hell out of the enemy’s trenches; experience in the cold-blooded murder of dozens of men just because they were wearing a different uniform color.

But now, alone in his hostel room, he looked at the necklace again, and again his misery came to a full circle. She’d left him, probably forever. Once orphaned in his own country and now orphaned in the country he’d chosen to be reborn.

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