When Daniel received the phone call, he was lying in bed sweating out guilt and loneliness from the transgressions perpetrated in the humid Cleveland summer night. He lay next to a young woman who worked in the reception area at his engineering firm, and he picked up the receiver just before the second ring, praying to his on-again-off-again, conveniently summoned god that she would stay asleep. God answered: she did. He checked the dimly lit clock on the nightstand; its minute digit flipped slowly from seven to eight. The numbers were bathed in a pleasant amber light, and the slow change of digits made a quiet click. It was just past two in the morning.
The voice on the other end sounded very far away, a call maybe from his mother country where it would have been just after nine that same morning. It apologized for calling at such a late hour. Daniel didn’t recognize the man, who excused himself again for the jarring call. But it wasn’t a man. Milena Janowski briefly introduced herself as a clerk working alongside his ex-wife at the Ernest-Cormier building on Notre Dame Street in Montreal. And then she paused and began to sob softly. She excused herself, gathered her composure, mentioned her regret at the late hour again, and then she told Daniel that they had found Lily underneath all the mattresses. They were piled up high in the kitchen, three mattresses and two box springs, rising above a tremendous amount of rubbish, furniture, moldy food, cat litter soaked with urine and feces, spoiled milk, pizza boxes, magazines, newspapers, plastic utensils, months upon months—maybe a year—of hoarding and accumulating. When they got to Lily, it had been two days of constant debris removal by a professional firm. One of the men found her facedown, crushed under the tower of mattresses, wearing nothing. She must not have been dead for that long, Milena Janowski said, or maybe the horrendous stench already from the rotting things in the house simply masked the detritus of Lily’s body. She did not know the details. They were in the medical report. She was so sorry, she said. In her will, Lily had left him a painting. There would have to be a period of time for probate, Milena Janowski said, close to a year, but the painting was an original by an artist called Ilfoveanu. Daniel would have to have it appraised, but she thought it was worth quite a sum. And would he mind paying tax on it as it crossed the border into the United States? Of course not, he said. He would do whatever was required. Although they had not been married for quite some time, Daniel still thought fondly of Lily. There was a gap or a space in the telephone connection that widened quickly. Daniel heard the woman sob modestly again, this time from very far away. Once more he had the feeling she was calling from Poland. And then the line went dead.
He replaced the receiver and gathered himself up against the headboard. The young woman next to him sighed gently and turned her body and face away, toward the window. Her hair remained flat on one side. No one was in the room with him now. He thought of Lily. Those years in Montreal at the beginning were difficult and new, but enough time had passed since the complications of their marriage that Daniel felt the hole of melancholy begin to form in his stomach.
The first decent-paying job that Daniel had after he and Lily arrived was as a phlebotomy technician with AlphaMed on Avenue Dupuis, very close to Jewish General Hospital. In Krakow, Daniel had studied civil engineering at university and obtained a position within the layers of the Party designing public housing edifices, but now in their new world and their new lives there was more need for phlebotomists, according to the number of job openings in La Presse’s classified section. Lily did not like that Daniel worked so close to Jewish General Hospital. She did not like Jews.
While he trained for his certification, Daniel worked a fruit stand in Jean-Talon Market. The owner was a middle-aged Pole who lived with his mother in a two-room flat and was a member of an anti-communist group formed by the diaspora to support the newly established Solidarity at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk. The Pole paid in cash and political opinions at the end of each day, and in return for being a sympathetic audience Daniel was shown by his boss how not to pay taxes. Most of the money was spent on cartons of cigarettes he and Lily would consume instead of food. After a few weeks, they figured that it would be much cheaper to roll their own tobacco, so they bought a hand-rolling machine and used what they saved to buy scotch. A typical week’s worth of food for both of them was a loaf of bread, twelve eggs, one quart of milk, and a stick of butter. At that time it cost them a little over $25 a month to eat. Lily said that the more they smoked the more they would suppress their appetites, thus saving money. It was something she’d been used to doing in their new world.
Daniel completed his training and became a certified phlebotomist in eighteen weeks. He began work at AlphaMed not only collecting blood, but also urine, semen, saliva, and sweat. During the certification courses, he was able to draw on his advanced training in biology and chemistry, studied in his first year at university as part of his core studies, and the program seemed quite easy to complete. He did not think it would have to last so long. Some students, not so proficient in the sciences, opted to be trained in the longer version of the program: eight to ten months.
A few patients at AlphaMed were university students who needed extra pocket money, but most clients were transients, homeless, drug addicts, and prostitutes. Daniel didn’t mind that so much, but Lily was constantly afraid that he would be robbed, beaten up, or even killed by the patients. This was a new world with new rules, she said. Daniel’s shift was second—from three to eleven at night—and he walked to public transit after work. Lily waited for him every night. When he arrived safely, she would breathe with relief, pour two fingers of scotch for each of them, and smoke cigarettes. They wouldn’t talk. Just sit at the kitchen table together and smoke. One evening he brought her a pineapple. She didn’t know how to feel about that. Who brings home a pineapple after working with blood and cum and spit? And do they even have pineapples in Montreal? Later, she found the whole act of bringing her that gift very odd.
Several times during Daniel’s stint as a phlebotomist at AlphaMed, he was accidentally stuck with needles that had just been used on patients. At that time no one knew anything about AIDS (it was still three years before the epidemic would be discovered and strike en masse), so Daniel didn’t think the incidents were important enough to even mention to Lily. He’d just clean the puncture with alcohol and put a Band-Aid over it until the end of his shift. But a few years later when people started dying, he became concerned. He did not ever go for a test and he never told Lily about the instances. She was already quite anxious about most everything and often cried when she recounted her workday during their downtime in the afternoons over coffee. By that time he was out of phlebotomy and working toward obtaining an engineering degree from École Polytechnique de Montréal, as his formal education was not recognized by their new country. He surmised that if he hadn’t had any symptoms by now, then nothing was wrong. He considered himself lucky, given who his patients were. Still, for years after, he would check himself thoroughly in the bathroom for lesions inside his mouth. Especially inside his mouth. He was obsessed with lesions appearing down in his throat. Those would be extremely tough to find. He used a flashlight to inspect the pink, meaty pockets that made up his gullet. In a way, the fleshy esophagus made him sick. He could never understand how doctors or surgeons could stand the look and feel of flabby meat. Nevertheless, he checked every day for lesions for many years.
Lily did her bit as well. She worked at BMO Bank of Montreal for a little over eight Canadian dollars an hour, which for those days wasn’t too bad of a salary. She even had her own small office with a door just across the marble lobby and the tall bank of spaces where the tellers would stand and transact business. The manager was Luc Delahaye, an insignificant-looking older man who once may have been handsome but petite. He wore nice suits and smelled fresh, like soap. Luc Delahaye told Lily that if she needed quiet to concentrate on her numbers, she should feel free to close the door to her office. The lobby would sometimes get a bit too loud, especially at lunchtime or just after four in the afternoon on Fridays, and you never knew when all the hubbub would turn a 4 into a 9 or a 3 into an 8 on the balance sheet. That’s what Luc Delahaye said in his quest to be kind.
Lily never closed her door. She liked looking out over the shiny marble at all the people waiting to move money. Money was an interesting animal to her. It was a tangible intangible. That’s what she’d tell Daniel at the kitchen table sometimes. A tangible intangible with value assigned to it. It was all made up and it was all so interesting and depressing. Money. Just like time.
Once, when Luc Delahaye walked into her office to invite her to a lunch with a group of others, she saw his face glitch. It was the same kind of hiccup she’d experienced before, at her very first job in Montreal at PerfecLum. Only this glitch was more severe, yet shorter than the others she’d noticed. A glitch is the only way she could describe it. As if she were watching television back in Poland and someone up on the roof violently bent or ripped out the antenna. But then quickly fixed it. The image broke then repaired itself. That’s what Luc Delahaye’s face did. It fractured, contorted, then put itself back together again. And there he was once more, smiling kindly and waiting for her answer to the lunch invitation. There was an audio glitch that went along with the picture break, as well. Snow or white noise filled her ears while the image broke. And then it all went away. It only took half a second. She told Daniel about it, but much later. By then the glitches were appearing more frequently, but she only told Daniel about this particular one with Luc Delahaye’s face. They both thought it was amusing, and Daniel said it was probably the world having some technical difficulties again. And that the world would always right itself somehow.
Some time back, while Daniel was still working as a phlebotomist and coming home late, he sat down across from her at the kitchen table over cigarettes and said that maybe this world is one simulated computer program and all of us are just simply characters. Like in a play. Made up by someone. Said that life in their new home country was sometimes so ridiculous or absurd that it could likely be a software program with a large number of faults occurring. He was only joking, but Lily took that inside with her and never let it go.
They had an inside joke, the kind of short amusing one-two that, if told to anyone else, would elicit maybe a polite, awkward snicker and the realization that they weren’t meant to have careers as funny people.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Lily came first. She came late, maybe too late given that she’d had three opportunities in the years previous. In 1970 the Party released her passport and she traveled to Tripoli. In ’73 the Central Committee again handed her the travel documents, and she flew to Mexico City. And in ’76 she traveled to Detroit. The United States was the pearl, and she’d arrived in the country during celebrations for the bicentennial of its birth. Ironically, the opportunity to defect was greater in Detroit than the other foreign cities. Her handler was a sloppy man fond of Johnnie Walker Black, and every afternoon instead of supper he would stay in his room and start pouring fingers of the stuff, so that by early evening he was either out cold or incapacitated to such a degree that Lily and anyone else in the Polish economic delegation that had traveled to this marvelous motor city in decline could have simply walked out of the hotel and into the nearest FBI office.
She chose to stay in neither of those cities out of fear. Fear of the unfamiliar, of freedom, not the Party. By then the Party had become bored with itself. The world it had created came with too much paperwork. Bureaucrats were entrenched in so many administrative levels and were so bored out of their minds that the Party had lost its will to survive. It loathed itself. If it took any action at all to combat a defection overseas, it would be some minor slap on the face of the defector’s blood relations—usually an open, public meeting at which family members were shamed as cheats or weasels or rats.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
It was somewhat amusing, both she and Daniel thought, that it took four tries for Lily to come first. In the strange game of baseball, the rules say three chances squandered and you’re out. In Lily’s game, it was three strikes that allowed for yet a fourth chance. And on that one, she was in. She reached the base. Daniel had had no occasion to travel to the West and took every opportunity to mention to his wife that, had he been allowed by the Party to go, he’d have defected without trepidation that first time. He brought this up especially during their arguments, later, when they lived in their small flat on Ruelle Ontario. Daniel was resentful of the privilege allowed to his wife by the Party. And he was resentful of the chances she squandered before finally defecting that winter of ’78. He thought they could have had a much better head start at a new life eight years before, when Lily received her first visa and her passport was released. A better head start, much younger.
She arrived in Montreal in late fall, 1978, as part of yet another economic delegation sent by the tractor and heavy machinery company at which she worked. All the delegation members joked at the idea of coming from a communist country in which the economy was planned in five-year blocks, to study a market-oriented economy that very much resembled that of the United States’.
But Canada is socialist, just like back home, Eljbieta, the eldest in the group, said. And they all laughed on the flight over and ordered another round of drinks. After they got a little tipsy, they sang patriotic songs of their beloved Rzeczpospolita Polska in order to impress or placate their antsy handlers, while quietly making jokes about Comrade Leader Gomulka’s supposed foreshortened physical endowment in the business of bed. It was the stuff that would once get you locked in prison or a work camp but, like the Party, the handlers were tired of it all. They were old gatekeepers in a system that had come to its natural conclusion.
All her life Lily had heard fantastic defection stories. There never seemed to be a dull one. The success stories always came out later, of course, after the brave ones made it to the other side, and as the tales traveled from one storyteller to another, they seemed to gather more and more extravagant details. There was the one in which an entire family sewed together bed sheets by hand for months, constructing a hot-air balloon. Instead of a basket, they attached three bucket seats from an uncle’s Lada. The men all drew straws to decide which lucky (or unlucky) three would get to go, and the night they attempted the flight, the homemade ship lost a tremendous amount of altitude—so much, in fact, that as it quietly sailed past the snoozing border guard’s shelter, one of the seats gently scraped the roof. The guard never flinched and the balloon made it over the border into West Berlin safely.
Then there was the one about the engineer in Gdansk who took to having ice-cold baths every night for a year. He never uttered a word of explanation to his wife, who eventually left him for an officer in the Polish army, thinking he had gone insane. But one night in the spring he pedaled to Nowy Port, chained his Wicher bike to a fence, and waded into the Gulf of Danzig in the Baltic. His outrageous plan was to swim in the cold waters all the way to Ystad, Sweden, but miraculously, just off the shore of Leba, as the engineer began to drown from exhaustion and hypothermia, a Danish ferry on its way to Riga spotted him and hauled him up on board.
Lily’s defection story was nothing like the others she’d heard. It was simple and boring and, after some time giving it ample thought, she concluded that the door had been likely opened by the Party itself. No, her story was bland and short. Much like the simple truth of any real story. On the third night of the week-long visit to Montreal, after supper at the hotel’s restaurant, she placed her utensils on the side of her plate, removed the cloth napkin from her thigh, and left the dining room for the elevators. At the lobby, she turned left and walked out through the hotel revolving door with no other items or possessions other than what she wore. Simply walked out into the Montreal evening. She approached a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman, stated that she was a Polish citizen who faced persecution for her political beliefs, and asked for asylum.
Back home, Daniel made a huge fuss over the news. She had placed a call directly to the number in their flat, and listening to him scream and curse and lament about what she had done to their lives with this act of treason left her confused as to whether he was putting on a show for the case officers listening in or he was truly upset. It would have to be left alone for some other time when they could talk without surveillance by the Party.
During the ten months that she waited for Daniel to fight his end of the fight back in Poland and obtain a passport to be reunited under the Family Reunification Policy extended to political asylum refugees, Lily found a job at PerfecLum. It was a small family business run by a diminutive man named Thierry. PerfecLum manufactured lighting fixtures, and Lily worked above the warehouse in the purchasing department. In her position as a buyer, she would make decisions on which parts PerfecLum would procure from subcontractors in order to manufacture their lighting fixtures. Many of the employees in the warehouse depended on the purchasing department not just to keep buying parts, but also to keep the prices on those parts very low. Their jobs were precarious—often Thierry laid off workers because the purchasing department had gone over budget for the month and wouldn’t be procuring parts until the following accounting cycle—and they all came to blame and despise Lily for their layoffs.
Lily hated being put in that kind of position, and she would come home to her efficiency flat, sit at the small table, smoke cigarettes, and cry. Her dinners were one boiled egg and a can of sardines. The man downstairs made horrific noises in the middle of the night. Sounded like he was being eviscerated by an axe. It would go on for hours. One of the glitches that Lily was now experiencing quite often reassembled into the image of her neighbor, nude and on all fours, growling at her with a bloody mouth. His genitals were exposed and wounded, as if he had been neutered like a pet dog. She despised this life and thought about going back. What could they do that was worse than this new immigrant life?
Daniel was allowed to receive phone calls from her and would make all sorts of demands regarding his own case. He would talk for hours about paperwork and bureaucracy and how much he was made to suffer because of Lily’s defection. The line was under surveillance all the time, and Lily could never truly figure out whether all of it was a show for those listening in. The international calls cost Lily a fortune. She began to skip eating in order to be able to pay the bill. But she never told Daniel. Not even later, during their fights. He went on and on, lecturing, complaining, moaning about his frustrations, his nightmares. He was under surveillance all the time now. They were not even attempting to be discreet. He had been demoted and now was threatened with outright expulsion from the engineering department. He was humiliated. He had a stain on his name. That’s what he said. He had a stain on his character and everyone knew it. He had lost all of their friends. And Lily listened and tried soothing him any way she could and skipped eating. One month, during the brutal winter, she went without a meal for six days straight. Just water and cigarettes.
Despite all, she was able to buy a small, used car. Only two hundred dollars. She took a Polaroid in front of it and sent it to Daniel. She was proud of her little Chevette. Later, an angry letter arrived from him, fuming about the egregious spending on such a luxury and accusing Lily of having a grand old time buying cars while he was being psychologically tortured, his life ruined. Once again she couldn’t tell whether this was posturing for the censors. She never truly had a firm idea of what Daniel was thinking during those ten months they were apart. Her glitches continued.
Then, one sunny late autumn day Daniel called to tell her that he’d been cleared to leave. Just like that, out of nowhere. There was no explanation or details. He was calling from the Telephony Ministry, from one of their international calling booths. The line clicked and the conversation on his end was often interrupted by blank, quick spaces. He told her the call was extremely expensive and he had only been able to afford two minutes. He would write with departure details the next day. It came from nowhere, just like that. The news stunned her. After she hung up she couldn’t feel happy about it. Something wasn’t right. The persistent wall of bureaucracy that had been in place all those months suddenly crumbled. Daniel sounded strange in between the clicks and clacks of the tapped line. He sounded less afraid and weary; in fact, he seemed cocky. She could only feel as if she had been sentenced to hang and at the very last moment, as she was being led up to the gallows, the execution had been canceled. Maybe that wasn’t such a great example after all.
In the first week of Daniel’s arrival in Montreal, he decided they would get rid of the small economy car. In its place they bought a used 1978 Ford Fairmont. It was brown, had four doors, automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive, an eight-cylinder engine, and—although it was a spacious American car—it had been assembled in Ontario. The best of both North American worlds. He was proud. Daniel felt the car had enough clout for a couple of Polish immigrants to legitimize their standing in the new country. Now they were like most others. The pain of starting over from nothing was ameliorated by the spacious automobile. In subsequent letters to friends and distant family in Warsaw and Krakow, as well as Lily’s own relations in Poznan, Daniel would always include a photograph of the car: prosperity.
In the beginning, they took many recreational trips in the Ford Fairmont. Once, as far west as Cleveland, Ohio. A grade-school friend of Daniel’s who had failed to pass the baccalaureate out of high school and moved to Wroclaw to fix combines and tractors had miraculously emigrated with his wife and small daughter to the United States, and the family was now living in Berea. The St. Stanislaus Church on Forman Avenue sponsored the family’s immigration and donated most everything they owned in the small flat. Neither Daniel nor Lily truly liked this family. The lack of formal education placed their status much lower on the sliding social scale to which everyone from the mother country adhered, even here in the New World. It was ridiculous to apply the old standards to people sometimes literally standing in the same boat as you, sailing the same waters. But Daniel and Lily held to their views, all of them tethered to the Ford Fairmont.
They visited Niagara Falls. Everyone said the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side, their side, were by far the most majestic. All the Canadians liked that. They trumped their neighbor, and there was nothing to be done about it. Lily and Daniel felt proud. They drove a bit up along the Niagara River and found a rest area with a small bench just on the shore of the sprinting white waters. Daniel talked of the river, which drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario, as if it were an old peasant with strong legs and back. Horseshoe Falls is the most powerful waterfall in North America as measured by vertical height and flow rate. The vertical drop is more than 165 feet. What is that in meters, Lily said. About fifty. The flow is incredible because of its width; it’s not too impressive in height. But the width…more than six million cubic feet of water falls over the crest line every minute. What is that in meters, Lily said. One hundred sixty-eight thousand cubic meters. Daniel suggested she learn the conversion rate and pretended to scold her, wagging his finger. They kissed just then. It was all awkward.
There are tales, they are famous, of suicidal people going over the falls in barrels, Daniel said. I don’t know if they’re true. A few of those people even survived the drop. Lily laughed. She thought it was all legend, on par with the fantastic defection stories from the motherland. Probably is, Daniel said. They unfolded the wax paper carefully, making sure to not tear it so it could be reused, and ate their bologna sandwiches right next to the rushing waters of the river, on the bench.
Lily didn’t like Toronto. They visited twice in the Ford Fairmont, and both times Lily might as well have held her nose the duration of the trips. Toronto was dirty and dangerous, especially around the CN Tower, which had just been erected a few years before. There was trash blowing on the streets around the tower. Lily found the city big, stark, cold, and uncivilized. On the other hand, Daniel thought Toronto was probably the closest to New York City he’d ever get. He loved everything about it. He loved its cold, brutal architecture; it reminded him of concrete communist apartments and government buildings back home in Krakow. He loved the litter blowing around like leaves on the drafty streets, especially down close to the water. It was a metaphor for freedom. People were free to pick it up or leave it to blow around. Better yet, people were free to discard it in the first place. It was people’s prerogative what to do about it. Everything about Toronto said “muscle.” Everything about it said, “Boy, you’ve arrived in the West.”
They went up to the observation deck of the CN Tower, leaned against the steel bars of the protective cage, and looked down upon the city. Daniel had taken Lily to the cinema to see a romantic comedy film called Highpoint. In it, there’s a scene in which a man falls off the tower from exactly the deck on which they were now peering down. Dar Robinson is the name, Daniel said. What. Dar Robinson is the guy’s name. What guy. The real guy who did the jump from here, Daniel said. In the movie. Dar Robinson. He’s the stuntman. Oh, Lily said. It’s crazy, isn’t it. What people do sometimes. It is. Lily thought again about the defection stories she’d heard. She couldn’t imagine anyone jumping off the tower for no reason. Money, that’s the reason, Daniel said. And that was the trip up the CN Tower in Toronto, that summer of 1982.
That was the summer of betrayal. That’s what Lily called it privately, to herself on nights alone at the table, sitting with her cigarettes and her scotch.
In August they had a visitor. The eldest daughter of the family living in Cleveland came to stay with Daniel and Lily for six weeks before the start of her first year of high school. Their flat was small, but it did have two bedrooms, so they installed the girl in the guest room and made sure she had as many comforts as they could provide.
Her Polish name was Despina. She was named after Despoina, a nymph who was a daughter of Poseidon and Demeter. But in America she went by Lavinia. It was such a strange choice, this switch from Greek to Roman mythology. In Roman folklore, Lavinia was the daughter of Latinus and Amata and the last wife of Aeneas. Lavinia, the only child of the king and “ripe for marriage,” had been courted by many men who hoped to become the king of Latium. There is a not-so-world-famous-yet astounding painting from 1565 by Mirabello Cavalori depicting the memorable moment in Book Seven of the Aeneid during the scene of sacrifice at the altar of the gods when Lavinia’s hair catches fire—an omen promising glorious days to come for Lavinia and war for all Latins. But also an omen of ultimate reconciliation. Cavalori’s painting is called “Lavinia at the Altar.” It resides in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
Her days ran long. Often there was not much more to do than wait for Daniel and Lily to go through their morning motions, then finally, quietly, leave for their jobs, before she would emerge into the empty flat, pour some oats and milk into a bowl, and turn on the small television set in the kitchen. There were children’s programs in French—muppets and puppets and crudely drawn cartoons—until midmorning, followed by a version of the game shows she was familiar with back home in Cleveland. She thought the French Canadian contestants behaved much more elegantly than Americans. They weren’t as animated, and they seemed to be much better at handling losing. There was news at midday, then came the soaps into the late afternoon with all the kissing and rolling in bed, and finally circling back to the cartoons by four o’clock.
Starting her day, Lavinia would wait until the lock on the front door clicked shut gently, pretending she was still asleep in her room. Both Daniel and Lily were quite considerate and mostly whispered in order not to wake her, as they went about their routines. The only things they couldn’t help to muffle were their tremendous coughs, first thing out of bed. Both of them carried on for a quarter of an hour before their lungs finally settled down to receive the first cigarette of the new day.
Lavinia’s sleeping habits were nothing like what one would expect of a teen. She often suffered from insomnia, which was further buttressed in its brutal toll on the mind and body by a tendency to awaken very early the following morning, thus only allowing her two or three hours of sleep. Lavinia learned to tolerate quiet and loneliness by waiting for dawn in bed and singing to herself various popular songs played on the radio. That summer, the summer of betrayal, she ached immensely, for no radio station in Montreal carried Casey Kasem’s America’s Top Forty program, and for nearly a month she had absolutely no idea what new songs had entered into the countdown or fallen out of it, nor what shuffling had happened in the top ten. She felt disconnected. Those days in Montreal ran long. And so she wrote letters back home.
Dear Mama and Tata,
I hope you are both well and keeping your health. I am having a good summer, thanks to you (thank you for the money), although it’s surprisingly hot up here. Out of curiosity, I looked on the map and found that our mother Poland is only slightly higher in latitude than Montreal. It doesn’t make much sense for it to be so stifling here, although the flat has two ceiling fans, one in each bedroom, and so it makes living through the afternoons bearable. Daniel and Lily have been very nice to me. Each morning they tiptoe around the flat in order not to wake me and whisper their conversations. They try very hard. (And, really, it’s not necessary as I am awake anyway, you know how I sleep. Or don’t. Haha.) Even if I were to be still asleep, their consideration is useless, for the very first thing they do when they come out of their room is cough incessantly. It is probably the countless cigarettes they smoke. They use a small machine to roll their own cigarettes. It’s quite interesting. I don’t know why they do that when they can buy packs in cartons already rolled perfectly. In any case, it’s a horrendous racket. One of them sounds like a donkey who has been shot and is slowly dying. This coughing goes on for nearly a quarter of an hour from the both of them. It’s amusing. At times it’s like they’re both competing against one another in a strange sort of cough-off. At others it almost seems they are striving to coordinate their hacking as if in a choir. And then it just suddenly stops and the whispering begins. Those are my mornings. After they’ve gone, there isn’t too much to be done. There is television with the same channels and programs that we have, so I fix myself some toast and tea and watch until close to noon. There are some other shows in French, and sometimes I’ll watch them just to hear another language. But it’s not the French that we know. It’s a strange type of French. I don’t know how to properly describe it. It’s “dirtier.” Something is not quite right with it. You would have to hear it for yourselves. In any case, I have found an old tennis ball so the last few days after I eat my soup for lunch I have made it a habit to go downstairs in the courtyard and throw the ball against the wall of the apartment building. After that, I usually walk around the area just to kill some time. There are some boys with skateboards who jump stairs and do some other tricks, and sometimes I’ll sit and watch them. They are Montreal boys. They speak that same kind of “dirty” French I just told you about. Other than that, it is pretty much how I fill my days here. Daniel and Lily have promised to take me to Niagara Falls soon. And to a used bookstore, because I have finished reading all three novels you’ve packed with me. With love from Montreal,
With love and kisses, your daughter,
During that summer of betrayal, the glitches visited Lily more frequently. And they began to show up also during her sleep at nights. They weren’t dreams; they were distinct in their horror. Lily could tell the difference. They were glitches appearing while she dreamt, independent or alongside her reverie. There was a difference, and she could tell within a dream when a glitch was occurring. It seeped into the dream and took over like the roots of a weed, finally waking Lily, jarring her forward, her heart pounding so loudly it sounded as if a marching band bass drum was being struck next to her ears. She often took Valium and scotch to ameliorate the horror and weirdness. There was nothing more she could do. And there was nothing more she would say to Daniel about his betrayal.
For his part, he went on as if nothing had happened. Was happening. He rolled their cigarettes each morning, he even made the tea and toast, he bathed, he shaved, he dressed, he went to work. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than other immigrant lives he’d heard of. Theirs was a life most ordinary, given they had started with nothing and from nothing, and that’s all they could ask for. An ordinary life in Montreal was something to write proudly home about.
Dear Mama and Tata,
I hope this letter finds you happy and healthy. Thank you for wiring the money. Lily was kind enough to drive me to a used bookstore and I found a copy of Tom Sawyer for fifteen cents! It’s yellow and smells musty but I don’t care. It was fifteen cents! Something strange is happening between the three of us now. It began with a peculiar incident involving Daniel just last week, but in the few days since, things have changed. It happened during a regular morning. Everything was the same as any other morning: the coughing, the courteous whispers given the early hours, quiet feet sliding around the flat, the smells of toast, jam, etc. Then the door closed and the familiar quiet imbibed the flat. I decided to stay in bed a little longer. There was, as usual, not much to do and I was tired of chucking a ball at a wall all day. I suppose I began to daydream. I don’t know how much time went by, but suddenly I heard keys turning in the lock and the door to the flat was opened quietly. The feet were heavier moving around, though they tried to keep hushed, and I knew it was Daniel. Maybe he’d forgotten something. There’s nothing suspicious about something like that, is there. I just lay there listening. There was the familiar sound of cupboards and drawers being opened, all with great care not to make too much noise. I assume that he assumed I was still asleep. I heard the refrigerator door open and close several times. It was all so strange. What could he have forgotten that he checked for it in the refrigerator so many times? The interval between the footsteps got shorter and shorter, so I only assumed the search for whatever it was he needed intensified. Again and again: more drawers sliding open, more cupboards. Then the utility closet door squeaked, so he was looking in there, as well. All of this went on for God knows how long. I didn’t want to move and look at my watch, which was on the desk a few feet away. The telephone made a little “ding” when the receiver was lifted off the hook, and then I heard the dial being rotated. Whoever it was that Daniel spoke to must have been in a hurry because the conversation was very short. I couldn’t hear any of it because things were strictly whispered, not that I would have understood anyway. I have never been good at guessing things like that and it was, after all, a one-way discussion I was hearing. Or not hearing, haha. Then, again, the weirdness. He placed the receiver on the hook (the telephone made that little “ding” again) and there was quite a long time that passed without any sound. I did not know what he could have been doing. Maybe standing there thinking. Suddenly I heard two little squeaks of the floorboards just outside my room, and I knew Daniel was standing on the other side of the door quietly. I closed my eyes and held my breath. I don’t know why I did that. A person pretending to be asleep can’t possibly not breathe. But I did it. I heard nothing for a long time. Maybe it wasn’t so long but it seemed like an eternity knowing Daniel was just outside my door listening. So I decided to make it sound even more real. I began to snore a little. The floorboards yelped again. I felt the door slowly being unlatched by the handle. I cracked open one eye just enough to discern shapes. The door had been opened a few inches and I saw Daniel standing there in the small width of vision offered by the door. He stood and watched me snore (eyelids still slightly apart) for at least five minutes. I did not know what was going to happen next. I had not known Daniel to be aggressive or improper in any way, during the time I’ve spent here. I expected he would step in for some reason. Maybe quietly open the nightstand drawer next to my head. But he didn’t. He didn’t do anything. Just stood and watched. I felt we were participating in a duel of fraud. Whose willpower was going to give out first? His, finally deciding to take some action? Or mine, pretending to wake up as if everything was normal, hopefully chasing him away from his peculiar mission? I would do it slowly, to give him a chance to close the door and vacate the flat. But I also was curious. I wasn’t afraid. What did he want from me? I say this again: please know I never felt I was in any kind of danger. I persevered, feigning unconsciousness. Finally, gently, he pulled shut the door and made sure the latch caught without clicking. I heard him move toward the living room, open the front door, and pull it behind him very quietly. He turned the deadbolt gently. And that was the end of it. I held very little hope of maybe finding out what this was all about later in the evening when they’d be home and I could watch them together, giving some kind of clue in their interaction. And I was right. The rest of the day went on as usual. Next week I am coming home, as you know, but I’ll keep you posted if anything extraordinary should happen. I have the permission to call you both any time I wish.
With love and kisses, your daughter,
P.S. Tell Andrzej to stop biting his nails. He has already passed through sixth grade, there is nothing to worry about in seventh. Nothing is new.
INTERVIEWER: Then there was the…uh, the summer. Was it? Or was it…no. (papers rustling) Summer, yes summer.
LILY JELEN: I don’t…the summer?
INTERVIEWER: Right. What was it…how did you put it?
LILY JELEN: I don’t know if I follow you. What summer?
INTERVIEWER: You called it, uh…let me look through my notes. Uh. Just…give me a… You…named it…
LILY JELEN: Oh, sure sure. Yes. The Summer of Betrayal (scoffs).
INTERVIEWER: That’s right. The summer of betrayal.
LILY JELEN: In capital letters (now laughs).
INTERVIEWER: (hums ominously, they both laugh) Tell me about the Summer of Betrayal, capital S, capital B.
LILY JELEN: Well…it’s really quite simple. Really, if you think about it, think about where we’re coming from. Well? There’s nothing unique. I might be more upset now with myself that I gave it such importance. If I think about it…
INTERVIEWER: Tell me.
LILY JELEN: Yes. Well, yes. Like I said. That was the summer I found out Daniel was an informer.
INTERVIEWER: An informer. What’s an informer, can you tell me? Just…for this (clicking noises heard).
LILY JELEN: Yes…a man, well doesn’t have to be a man, can be anyone. Children even. Daniel informed for the Esbecja. That was the Polish secret police. It was called the Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. But we called it Esbecja.
INTERVIEWER: And…(unintelligible noise) so Daniel was a spy?
LILY JELEN: (laughs gently) Well. I suppose in a very tangential, official way. But (more laughing quietly)…in reality a very minor way. What I mean, he wasn’t important enough or trained enough to be a spy. He was just an informer. He would watch and listen to what I said or how I was around him and then he would make reports that somehow would end up with Esbecja. And probably it wasn’t just me he was informing on. His own colleagues, as well.
INTERVIEWER: He would write reports on you and others?
LILY JELEN: I don’t know quite for sure about the others. Probably…the things he informed on, on me, I mean, those things were just the boring things. You know. Went to work, bought this product, came home, ate this, drank that, smoked these kinds of cigarettes. Those sorts of things. The kinds of things one doesn’t remember on a daily basis. So I think, yes. He was making out reports of some kind. There must have been paper.
INTERVIEWER: These are the details the Polish secret police is interested in? In their émigrés?
LILY JELEN: (laughs) You would not believe what the secret police is interested in.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me.
LILY JELEN: Anything. Everything. Perverted, especially. Fetishes, preferences, noises made in bed. They want to know where you go, who you meet with, what you talk about, how you brush your teeth, what kind of toothpaste you use, even…they want to know when you have your period and what kind of tampons you use.
LILY JELEN: …because once I feigned sleep and saw him look through the bathroom rubbish. He pulled out the applicator, turned it, flipped it…and it seemed he was looking for a brand name.
INTERVIEWER: That’s…is that normal?
LILY JELEN: Well, yes. I don’t know. Yes. I’m sure. There are worse things than snooping through rubbish for private matters, though. Many have done those things in order to get information on someone.
INTERVIEWER: But…and help me understand.
LILY JELEN: Why?
INTERVIEWER: (laughs) Yes! Why? Why this irrelevant minutiae?
LILY JELEN: I don’t know. They just want to know everything about everyone. Especially émigrés abroad. Probably to have something to compromise you with. Later. Or your family back home. You know, when they need you for something. To use you for something. They show you pictures…doctored pictures…or they drop a hint in the conversation, or they leave a note. To compromise your integrity or…strong-arm you into doing whatever they want. Or just to intimidate you. It’s terrifying to have a total stranger come up and tell you he knows when your time of the month comes and the type of tampons you use. It’s really…it’s menacing. It subdues you. The fear. It just grapples you. And you know that you’re not alone. Or free. That’s how they can control you even overseas. And hope to turn you. Into an informer, I mean.
INTERVIEWER: So…then, other people…
LILY JELEN: Oh, many other people are informers. Here. In the United States. Everywhere. In every country there are people informing for others in other countries.
INTERVIEWER: No, I meant why would Daniel inform on other people? You mentioned he probably did. His colleagues, for example?
LILY JELEN: Yes. Well. I don’t know why others would be interesting to the Esbecja.
INTERVIEWER: Same kind of information?
LILY JELEN: Whatever they want, I suppose.
INTERVIEWER: What about…(papers shuffling) how about that incident with the lunchtime guest? Tell me about that.
LILY JELEN: Yes. Well. That was…I mean a lot of these case officers are…
INTERVIEWER: Case officers?
LILY JELEN: Yes. Each informer is assigned a case officer. Someone from back home. Someone who works for the Esbecja. Informers themselves are promoted to case officers, depending on the type of job they do. Or information they get. These people, usually, these case officers are not too bright, you know. In general. Most of them are older men set in their ways. Broken down men. They work for other older men also set in their ways. And also broken. Who work for other older men, and so on. There are so many levels to the bureaucracy that a lowly case officer assigned to an informer such as Daniel…you know, an informer with not very interesting information on a regular woman…they just…these people aren’t very bright. That’s all.
INTERVIEWER: What happened?
LILY JELEN: It was really absurd. (laughs) So dumb. I had to rush home at lunchtime. Well, after, really. I think it was food poisoning. Anyway, I could never…I never was comfortable using the washroom at work for these types of things. And, at that time I could walk and be home in only a few minutes. Of course that meant…well, I was much more comfortable at home. So then…well, anyway, uh… I just walked in on him. Simply. God, he just…he just looked so thick standing there. He and that other fellow.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember….
LILY JELEN: Mikolaj…uh, Mikolaj something. You know. Nicholas in English.
INTERVIEWER: And you knew this man.
LILY JELEN: Daniel knew him in Poland. So I knew him through Daniel. It wasn’t too big a secret that he was an informer. Just…it was surprising. That he would get caught like that.
INTERVIEWER: You both knew that he worked for…that he informed in Poland?
LILY JELEN: Yes. We talked about it then. That’s why this entire thing, uh…incident. It’s so dumb. All of it. Here was this fellow who informed back home, now here suddenly. In our flat. In Montreal. A case officer for Daniel.
INTERVIEWER: And then?
LILY JELEN: Daniel had this dumb look on his face. This weird smile…it was…crooked and forced. Somehow. Crooked with…crookedness. But also deceitfulness and the stupidity of that. The stupidity of lies and being caught in them. I had just walked in on the two of them. So easy and simple. They had been talking right there in the kitchen. I could hear them as I was turning the key. Imbeciles. Both of them. Just…such imbeciles. Couldn’t be discreet. Couldn’t have met somewhere out, like they all usually do. They were caught by the person they were watching. Who came home to use the washroom. It’s a good end to a career in espionage and propaganda (scoffs).
INTERVIEWER: What did Daniel say?
LILY JELEN: (laughs) Just, uh…he struggled with something about the Catholic Church having just sponsored the immigration of Mikolaj. He was loaning him money. That was the story. Daniel was loaning him money to get started. And God, the other imbecile. You know he actually took my hand and kissed it? With his dry, thin lips and that gaunt prison face. That…I don’t know. Liars all look the same, don’t they. The entire thing was so stupid and awkward. And then it was over. The fellow left.\
INTERVIEWER: Did you see him again? Did he come back or…?
LILY JELEN: No.
INTERVIEWER: At all?
LILY JELEN: Never again. I never spoke about it and neither did Daniel. It was just…it was just understood. I expected him to even maybe shrug. You know…as if: eh. That’s the way things are. And…that is the way things were. It had traveled with us, this…well. All of it. It reached here, too. We brought it with us. That’s what we were good for. Like I said, it’s all over and in America, too.
INTERVIEWER: Is that when you left him?
LILY JELEN: Daniel would probably like to say we had left each other.
INTERVIEWER: Would he be right?
LILY JELEN: No. He’d left a long time before. He left in Poland.
INTERVIEWER: And you did not want to be betrayed obviously?
LILY JELEN: No, well…I don’t know how to put this. It was more…the betrayal, yes. All right. But, really…just the stupidity of it. And how I fell for it. Or…for how long…I don’t know how to say this fully. I felt…unintelligent. Naïve. It’s what really did it. Being so clueless and…at the hands of Daniel. And for nothing. I mean, nothing of value. I had nothing of value for him to report on. I couldn’t look at his face afterwards. This person who went through my trash every night. We stayed together for a while, but I wouldn’t look at his face from that moment on.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that’s why they let him come? I mean you mentioned it was strange and sudden when he called you that day with the news that he’d been allowed to leave.
LILY JELEN: Yes. That’s when they turned him. The betrayal, the…well, the vacuous thing about it is that he didn’t have to do anything at all after he arrived here. After we were together here in Montreal.
INTERVIEWER: You don’t think he would have been in some sort of danger if he reneged on the deal?
LILY JELEN: (laughs) Nobody would have cared. At that time, or…by that time nobody really cared anymore. I mean, back home. It was all coming to an end. Everyone knew it. Everyone in the system had had it. It was going to be over. Most people were bored. Or old. I didn’t matter. Daniel didn’t matter. If he backed out on his deal, whatever that was, no one would have done anything. That’s the absurd part. He didn’t have to do it. He didn’t have to crush me like that. God, how pea-brained I felt. And for so long after. Still now, even…
INTERVIEWER: Were you separated or divorced during the cancer treatments?
LILY JELEN: I don’t remember. Daniel may have been gone already to the States by then. I don’t…I think maybe divorced. It didn’t matter. I didn’t need anyone to help me.
INTERVIEWER: And what kind of cancer?
LILY JELEN: Breast. (some rubbing noise on the mic) Left radical mastectomy. (more noise) And all the lymph nodes under the left arm. (coughing) I can’t lift above…(more coughing/incessant/retching sounds) I can’t….
After it was over for them, some time passed before Lily finally began to call Daniel. Though contentious in the early days, the split was fairly amicable. The calls came mostly in the late evenings or at night. She sounded drugged or drunk most of the time. Daniel never asked; he just listened. For a long time after the split, he felt it was part of his atonement for what he had done to her. There were other components Daniel felt he should endure, but that meant he had to approach the idea of there being a higher power and answering to it strictly. Or bowing before it in an attempt to expiate. He chose to listen to Lily as often as she would call, in whatever altered state she happened to be, whatever the reason. That’s how, he decided, he would pay back her debt.
Her ditties were excruciating: mundane details and stories that would never get anywhere. That Sunday in the pool when she jumped in and tried to merely cross it widthwise, and somewhere in the middle of the very short voyage she couldn’t go on any longer. She ran out of breath and nearly drowned. If it wasn’t for Larry the lifeguard, she’d have been gone. And did you know Larry the lifeguard is studying to become a surgeon? The IBM Selectric she used to summarize monthly reports was not registering the letter “I” correctly. Only the bottom half with its serif showed up on paper. And what could that mean. (She would have to complete the letter with a black ink pen.) Gourds at the Jean-Talon Market all looked like mangled grenades. Was that a message for her from the farmers who grew these fleshy, weird fruits? The lawyer handling her citizenship case demanded an extra thousand dollars over what was agreed. She could, he proposed, work for it by typing court transcripts for him.
The calls continued into the years stretching out beyond the disbanding of their union. After Daniel settled in the US, he debated whether he should continue to listen to the now strange and very long expostulations. There was little doubt something was not right with Lily. The guilt had not abated for Daniel, though he was now beginning to rationalize the certain choices he had made in his life. That would be a first step to an eventual decision. But it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say his wish would be that whatever it was eating Lily from the inside would consume her quicker.
One evening he had drunk too much white wine and was feeling numb and useless. The phone rang. Lily was agitated but not yet irate. She would become so over the next two hours of the mostly one-way conversation, Daniel knew that. On this night, though, he didn’t feel like enduring her any longer. He had been listening to a record and having an alright time drinking by himself. When he picked up the receiver and heard Lily’s voice, that shrill, piercing sound, made by a larynx that he had learned to dislike so much lately, ignited an avalanche of anger, impatience, guilt at feeling the first two, and finally a just rationalization for what he was about to do: nothing too dramatic or extreme, but enough to maybe send a final message. He set down the phone next to the stereo speaker, microphone-end closest, flipped the long-playing record to its second side, put down the needle into the first groove, and left.
Some time, much later, clock moving toward the early morning hours, Daniel returned to the location of the deed in order to return everything to their normal places. The record had long ago stopped spinning. He picked up the needle and replaced it in its cozy U-shaped holder, turned off the power at the stereo amplifier component, and picked up the telephone. He brought it up to his ear on instinct only (it was a precaution he had been taught while young; phone manners in the mother country were vital and one never wanted to close the connection without properly ensuring that the party on the other end was ready to oblige), and realized the line was still open. Was Lily listening? Or had she passed out from whatever substance was flowing through her, without hanging up? He listened to his end for several minutes. There was nothing but the open line. Finally, he returned the receiver to its cradle. He did so gently, fearful that he would stir awake the monster on the other end, who might have dozed off with the receiver at her ear. That was the last he heard from Lily. The calls just simply ceased. And then he completely lost track of her.
He was running on the burdened and exhausted legs of the very early morning. The clock on the nightstand laboriously flipped over its digit and he was now into the four o’clock hour. It was useless to try to sleep. Too late. Make it up tomorrow, maybe. The woman next to him sighed and stirred softly. Daniel was envious. She was ensnared in that blissful dream-state that had eluded him most of his adult life. The real substance of a dream, however, is the submersion into dread. It’s why the dreamer doesn’t quite remember much in the morning; the psychic defense mechanism kicks in like a generator, erasing all traces of horror. Still, Daniel was jealous of her trance. He would have to soon awaken her so that she had ample time to gather herself together enough that she wouldn’t arouse suspicions at the office. They would, of course, meet up again like this and go on pretending no one knew about their affair.
Insomnia, Daniel knew, is the existential equivalent of infinity. He also knew that for the first time in years he no longer had the remotest idea of what he knew. It was coming to the end of the decade, soon it would be the end of the great century, and the fashion was rising in society to inquire after what had transpired, and what the new millennium was to bring next. Daniel had been a poor prophet of that time—the time from when he was born to now. But it was not a century for prophets, poor a prognosticator as he had been. It didn’t matter that he never had foresight or hindsight. The last one hundred years had not been for him or Lily. The century had been for the ones who used people like him or Lily. The rest was breadcrumbs thrown on the floor to be fought over: the used took advantage of one another, sometimes knowingly, agreed upon in the form of an elementally understood contract. The used used the used. If anyone was left with anything, it was a burden of regrets and failures. For those people, most people, the century had yielded nothing.
Earlier, on the phone, Milena Janowski had said Lily bequeathed him a work of art. It seemed all very peculiar for a gift of the estate to be sent to him after so much time of no contact. Though it had only been a couple of hours, Daniel felt the conversation took place days ago, weeks even.
He shifted and stood on the side of the bed, quietly, feet on the cool floor. The early morning air of the room was heavy and thick with humid dreams and recollections. Blood flowed from his head into his thighs and all systems began to kick on. Daniel wondered what kind of taste in art Lily had developed over the last years. She was always a sophisticated woman. But that, too, disappears with time. A painting…of what or whom. Would it mean anything to him, really? And then he knew. He would never receive the artwork. And he would never set to inquire after it, either.