My name is Dyta and my husband and I moved over here from Poland when we were newlyweds. I was excited to live in the States because I had these beliefs like so many young Polish people I knew at the time: That Americans were so kind and so friendly and that unbelievable things happened here, just like in the commercials. It took a while for my American husband to convince me my beliefs were naïve and ill-founded. Had he known me as a youth in Poland he would have seen too why it was so important for me to believe only positive things about people. I was one of those students who was teased and harassed by peers, females as much as males. I truly believed America was the chance to start over and a chance for others to see me in a new light.
I did find a sense of liberation when I audited a fiction writing class at the University of Central Florida soon after arriving and settling in. I found that the students were interested in me simply because I was Polish and now living here. Everything was interesting to them so that I could be the greatest dullard from Warsaw for all they knew but because I was an exotic dullard I had more value than I did at home. The novelty would wear off though I didn’t let myself think about that at first. I was enjoying my new writing class and using my imagination fully, as if someone, or the circumstances, had given me full permission and encouragement and I poured out all of myself for the first time.
I found a group of girlfriends from my class. We were happy people, the four of us, and hopeful and young. We all seemed to enjoy each other and be at the same level in this artistic hobby that was new to all four of us: crafting fiction. We went out frequently, talked on the phone, we compared our stories, nervous as we were to share them with the wider class. For years this went on between us and we grew in our writing as we married and had families.
As is true to life I am learning as I get older, cracks always show, don’t they. I became sick, so sick in fact I had a hard time concentrating on my work and keeping up with my friends who were getting into journals and being accepted to graduate school. I had breast cancer, stage three. My husband was so supportive of me at that time, and bless him, was being patient throughout so we may begin a family when the treatment had finished. I felt like I was falling more and more behind in my life, was losing more of his interest as my looks fell apart and I became more of a patient.
My friends, busy with their lives and I assumed trying not to be sad, avoided seeing me or talking to me. I felt I had hit upon something dark in this country. People were friendly and bright when everything was going well. But people ignored what they didn’t want to know or see and this included sick people, even their friends who are sick. I began to feel a certain way about my new friends that started my deep rift with them. It made me yearn for some of the old ways of my people. We were used to sadness, took it in stride, even to the death, mourning beforehand what we were afraid of.
I realized too I was just as guilty of shallowness. I had loved my new friendships for that wave of a bubble of good feeling they gave me, not for anything deeper or more meaningful. It had suited me. But now with no hair, no abilities, little humor, things were quite different.
It was unfortunate that after my recovery, I divorced from my husband. Too many things had happened, or not happened, between us, and we didn’t survive the illness and the aftermath. He just seemed to lose interest.
A few months later as I was growing my hair back and beginning the transition to life, one of the members of the writing group, Evie, called to inquire about the beach house I had shared with my ex’s family. She left a message on my phone: Do I still own a share in the house? If so, could we go there as a group sometime? Maybe we could all do some writing and sharing our work?
I’ll have to admit I was a little irritated. Evie had not inquired about how I was feeling. She had not made any attempt to see me while I was undergoing treatment. But I was also still in the mode where some of my feelings were discounted by my sense that I must still be learning about this culture. Furthermore, my leniency had really entered in with chemo brain. It was hard to separate out reality still, to make sound judgments, and so I tried to withhold judgements as much as possible, while at the same time experiencing frustration. And Evie was married and had her first baby. She was perfectly healthy and publishing, had been accepted into a prestigious MFA. It took a few more months before I was able to return her call.
When we got together again for the first time since I started treatment, I thought I could sense both the condescension and the competition. Was I writing again or was I up to it? Self publishing certainly was for the declasse wasn’t it? And who didn’t know about the hierarchy of journals? To sell yourself short to the bottom rungs was to doom your career to the eternal stagnation of the unknown. Do I have a platform? I definitely need a platform or I would never be taken seriously.
Tacia caught me in the bathroom where I was refreshing my lipstick. She was drunk, something that never changed. “You sure are a HANDSOME woman, aren’t you?” And she laughed, leaning into me, observing her smile in the mirror, she was usually pretty taken with herself. She was not giving me a compliment. It occurred to me I had been magically transported back to my school in Warsaw again. I had far less hair, though. It was now just a very short mannish length. And I had more wrinkles, more flesh.
At the table, I drank my wine, as much as I could and still manage to make it home.
I determined I would give Evie the key but would not go. I envisioned myself alone at home with the cat feeling more peace knowing the group was out of town plotting literary maneuvers while I wrote modest pieces and prayed for inclusion somewhere. Besides I had come to enjoy my afternoons working shelving books at the bookstore. Once I had allowed to let them use the house, I would never feel obligated to again. I don’t even know why I felt obligated in the first place but for some reason I did, maybe because early on, when we were all seemingly close friends I had foolishly said something to them about sharing a time away together at the beach.
In Slavic mythology, places beside water are not always safe. There are female spirits there who are sometimes mermaids or sirens who lure men to their deaths. They are the souls of those who have either had evil committed against them and so they bring about more evil and tragedy or they have committed suicide and live on as the undead, in misery.
I am not saying I would wish anyone evil. But I do know myself well enough now to know I think I know better what lurks inside the hearts of men and women. I am not as naïve as I once was. And I’m not as naïve about myself as I once was. I know of what I am capable. But also as well I respect my level of tolerance.
I am not saying Boginki or Rusalki exist anywhere, but who is to say they do not. Having known about them from childhood and reflecting on my disappointed feelings as an adult, I have more sympathy for those mythological beings who act out of passion, out of rage.
I stay away from people who do not know me or wish to know me, who do not wish to walk with me in my darkest moments. They do not wish to know me in my darkness. Trust me, they do not. I yearn for my old mother Poland some nights. I think of how foolish I once was. I wonder if I should have married and allowed my husband to take me away from all the things I had ever known. But Mother Poland and my family are with me always in both my brightest and my darkest heart. America is a pale imitation of a culture, of a medium for life, though she is mine now in all my loneliness. She is my ugly stepchild. But still, she is mine, and I hold her dear.