The Auschwitz Skating Club
By G.J. Reynolds
We arrived in Poland a short five years after the wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, five years after everything changed. Five years since freedom had come to a part of the world that had only known freedom a few times in its history. Poland had ceased to exist in the 19th Century, been divvied up between Hitler and Stalin in 1939, ruled as a vassal state of the USSR after World War Two, and now was turning its back on the wreckage of the last century and looking forward, finally forward, to a new century, a new Europe.
In short, we came to Poland with our hearts full of good intentions and platitudes, for we were the ones looking forward, the ones full of hope. Molly had just turned ten that summer. Her mother, Adélie, and I had been together for a time in college, split up, and lost track of each other. It was only after I found out I had a daughter that we reconnected. By the time we got to Oswiencim, we had been married a little over two years, just long enough to get used to each other, to start feeling like a real family.
I had received a posting at the University of Silesia as a lecturer in English. The stay abroad was meant to make things better, help me get a leg up, professionally. I was given a one-year contract that specified teaching practical linguistics, literature, and research methodology, which meant that I'd be working with Polish students who were having trouble researching and writing in English, students who, for whatever reason, wished to pursue a career producing just the sort of dull, pointless works of scholarship that I had been churning out for the last several years as a graduate student. I didn't mind. I was looking forward. Molly was blossoming from a stubborn, reticent child into a beautiful girl, and before us lay all the possibilities of life in a foreign land. I even imagined that my work might be important, that what I did might matter to the careers and the lives of my students, and that in my own little way I would be helping them, making their futures bright and hopeful too. Foolish, I know, but we all think this way sometimes, let our hopes get ahead of our lives.
We found an apartment and a school for Molly. The apartment was in a suitable district, not far from an international school where the instruction was all in French and the children were of various nationalities, the offspring of business types and a few diplomats stationed at the attachés in the region. Although the location was desirable, the apartment itself was another matter. Arranged by the cousin of a friend in the U.S., it turned out to be two small bedrooms and one bath, with a sort of galley kitchen and a what the landlady called a "sitting room," which was scarcely bigger than a good walk-in closet back home and held two tattered armchairs, a card table, and a 13-inch Sylvania TV that looked like it might have been manufactured while Khrushchev was still alive. It was clean and free of vermin—no bed bugs, cockroaches, that sort of thing, and so we took it anyway. We liked the area and expected to spend most of our time away from home, one of our goals to be more cosmopolitan, to live in the city and take part in its life by dining out and taking advantage of whatever diversions it offered.
One of those diversions turned out to be the Auschwitz Skating Club, which we learned about the skating club from our landlady, who told us how it was built as part of reparations from the Germans as a gift to the people of Oswiencim as a kind of memorial for the for the Poles who suffered and died in the camps outside the city. We went immediately, of course, and signed up Molly for lessons, purchasing a family subscription as well, so that in the evenings and on holidays we could go together. Underneath the skating rink was a basement gymnasium with a basketball court, a padded floor for wrestling and judo, and a number dumbbells and other apparatus for strength training. And deep in the bowels of the place, an oversized pair of saunas, one for men and one for women, built into the foundation and lined with wood imported from Scandinavia. We thought of the skating club as a kind of center for our family life, a place where the three of us could spend time, where we could focus on Molly, on her skating, and enjoy ourselves together.
I was late getting home from dinner with some colleagues when everything started to go wrong. Adélie, who was always so careful around the house, had left a pot of water on the stove and now it was almost boiled dry, the pot rimed with mineral residue, the air smelling of burned earth. I placed the pan in the sink and turned off the stove, the little ring of ignited gas going out with the sort of little poof. Adélie was sitting on the floor by the bed, cutting pictures from magazines, making cutouts of hands and feet and heads, torsos and legs, and making piles for each. She sucked her finger, it was bleeding. When she smiled I saw the blood on her teeth. Paper cut, that's all. Could happen to anyone. I got Band-Aids and disinfectant spray from the bathroom and helped her straighten the loose clippings, gathering the leftover bits and putting them in the trash while Adélie went about pasting the bits of the pictures onto pages of colored paper that she had bound by stapling one edge. She pasted the hands first, then the feet, and so on. I realized what she was going for: pages of body parts collaged in the center, radiating outward. She made pages of faces, groins, breasts, even one of necks and shoulders. They are all women, I realized, all taken from European magazines, French, German, Czech, Polish. Montages of clipped bits of beauty all jumbled and stuck together, glossy and damp from the glue holding them in places.
I checked on Molly, thinking that she might be hiding in her room, but found her asleep, the covers pushed down. I pulled them up again and touched her forehead. She didn't react. I wondered how she could sleep through her mother's strange behavior, then realized it was nothing to her—at a certain age, all adults seem weird. I left her and went back to Adélie who was on the couch looking over what she had done, scanning the pages of hands and feet and whatever, flipping them back and forth.
"You should get to bed," I said. "You must be exhausted."
"Dinner's on the stove," she replied.
"Right," I said. "Not hungry. You?"
I turned on the television, and watched for a bit, a police drama that I understood only a little of, listening the cadences of the language and following the cuts, the shaky camera work, and so forth. The emotions were simple, the points of the story easy to guess at. The sound was odd, the movements of the actors lips not quite right, the dialogue synched incongruously at points. I thought it must be the poor quality of the post-production work or a quirk of the TV and its outdated electronics. Only later would I learn that it wasn't a Polish show at all, but rather something from German television that was dubbed in Polish and shown under an international license. We live in a new world, I thought. Some people aren't ready for that. Adélie isn't, maybe I'm not. And yet, here we are.
I held my wife, kissed her, and gradually coaxed her into bed. The sleep will do us both good, I thought. Everything will be different in the morning. She bit me on the neck, pulled open her blouse and pushed herself up until her breasts were in my face. I pulled down the cups of her bra and pressed my face against first one and then the other, licking and sucking, and twirling my tongue around her nipples until they were firm and holding out against me with a life of their own. We fucked hard and fast and fell asleep still only half undressed, a tangle of zippers and buttons and clasps, holding each other like we were caught in a storm and didn't believe we'd get through it alive.
Our life became fairly normal after that. Adélie seemed more herself. I went to university during the day while she worked on her language lessons, and one of us always managed to pick up Molly from the international school, and in the evenings we all went to the skating club for Molly's lessons and then after that to have a sauna or practice yoga in the gymnasium with the seniors group, a party of ten or fifteen dziadzios and babcias who tolerated us in spite of our youth and our westernness. I suppose it must be difficult to reach a certain age when your children and grandchildren focus on themselves and have little time to regard the lives of the generation that came before. We, in some way, must have reminded our older companions of what they had lost in their lives, the thing that glasnost and perestroika, solidarity, Walesa and Gorbachev—that thing no revolution can ever provide—a fresh start, a new beginning, an erasure of one's past. The shift from totalitarianism to markets and freedom must have changed everything for the new generation. Changed it to such a degree that they, like us, were utterly different from the older generation, the aging Poles to frequented the saunas and the yoga classes, who took tai chi lessons in the summers and existed in a state of decline and irrelevance, their values, their background, like the world in which they were raised, relegated to the dullest corners of the history, as unimaginable to the new generation as a time before automobiles and television, jet planes and the Internet.
The holidays came and went. There were crying jags and hugs, times when everything seemed normal, and moments when it felt like we were teetering on the edge of something horrible and final. I worried a lot about that edge, about the feeling that if we ever went over we would never be the same. Sometimes in my sleep I could feel the darkness creeping in around us, and it was cold and made me feel weak and unmanned. Most of all I was terrified for Molly, for what it might mean to her. My own mother had battled mental illness. My father was an older man, raised on a farm in a hard country, and by nature unable to cope. It was not an easy way to grow up, and I would give anything to keep that from Molly, to make her childhood happy and normal in all the ways that my own wasn't.
As the weather stayed cold, the winters in southern Poland wet and dreary, we spent more time at the skating club. Molly worked on landing an axle. I saunaed and worked out with a medicine ball to keep in shape. Adélie took on the role of coach for our daughter, huddling in her coat and hat in the stands, and jotting things down in a notebook that she held in front of her like a shield protecting her from the world.
During this time I had become particularly good friends with one of my colleagues at the university, and sometimes he visited the skating club with us. His name was Tadeusz, and he was a member of the junior faculty, a little younger than me, popular with his seniors and resented by many of his peers who perceived him as a climber, the sort of young academician who was certain to get ahead in his career before anyone else his own age. He was pleasant and eager and was good with women. Molly liked him, but Adélie remained indifferent, at times to the point of ignoring him altogether.
When Tadeusz visited, we would lift weights together in the gymnasium and afterwards, while we saunaed, he would read me one of his poems. He wrote in Polish, but I enjoyed the sound of his voice, the rhythms and the way the sounds flowed so differently than in English. When he finished he would read it again in rough translation, explaining the meanings, and though I didn't really understand everything, I felt like I was getting a better handle on the language and the culture, little by little feeling a bit more Polish, a bit more in touch with the Tadeusz and his country.
Tadeusz enjoyed skating and showed real enthusiasm when we stopped to watch Molly practicing. On several occasions he brought his skates, but it was only after several of these false starts that he finally ventured out onto the ice. Perhaps he was waiting for me, but I didn't now how to skate, and because of a bad fracture during a car accident when I was teenager even stepping onto the ice in skates was quite painful.
I found it very odd seeing him on the ice, like witnessing some private moment that in its way violated the limits of our friendship. His efforts to ape the grace and showmanship of figure skating came off as flamboyant and awkward and verged uncomfortably close to camp; yet there was also something pure about it. Tadeusz's joy was evident, his skating, for all its imperfections, smooth and light-hearted. He twizzled, rocker turned, warmed up with a couple of toe-loop jumps, then gamely pulled a flutz, laughing at his own mistake, before breezing backward around the edge of rink, his face flushed with exertion. He glided, breathless, to where Molly was practicing one of her figures, and took her hand like a lady, guiding her around the ice for a couple of turns, then skated over to where I was sitting.
"How did you like it? I'm not so old after all," he laughed.
I smiled, but couldn't think of anything to say. He was younger than me but talking about being old. I was happy for him, and pleased to see Molly flushed and smiling as she went back to practicing her figure.
Adélie clapped from her place in the stands. "You were marvelous," she said, "fantastico!" Her eyes were burning, her smile stiff and held too long.
Tadeusz and I went for a sauna and a shower. He read me one of his poems, which were normally very historical, with allusions to Polish and East European history. This one was different, abstract and emotive, the central images celestial and mystical, an eclipse and an appearance of the Black Madonna. I didn't get it at all, and the only thing I could do was nod a lot and tell him that it was very interesting. I asked a few pointed questions, whether the eclipse was anything real or just a literary invention. "There have always been eclipses," he said, "from the beginning of the world."
I nodded and smiled, "You make a very valid point," I said. He told me the poem was dedicated to me. I thanked him. We hugged like men, like brothers. We had several months to go in the school year, several more months as colleagues together, and yet already it was feeling like the end.
When we came to the ice rink again, Adélie and Molly had gone and there was only an old couple skating hand-in-hand around the ice, smiling and feeling their youth like it were an old suit of clothes they brought out and put on again just for the occasion.
I left Tadeusz and walked home. Snow covered the ground and fell lightly around me. It was easy to feel you were on a movie set, rehearsing a long tracking shot while the opening credits rolled for some Cold War-era spy story, the innocent man, the average Joe, caught up in the machinations of great powers, forces he didn't understand. It was true, in a way: my ordinary life had been upended by coming to Poland. But the war was over and the world was changing, and that more than anything seemed to have left life just a bit unhinged. The old way of looking at things no longer applied, and the new way wasn't yet certain. Realities shifted before your eyes, every month brought some new development. Depending on your disposition, it was progress, a harbinger of the new century, the next millennium about to dawn; or it was something else, something sinister, a fraying of the fabric of reality, another sign of the end, civilization's inexorable devolvement into chaos and barbarism. The more mystical evoked God and the apocalypse, while the more practical fortified their homes, invested their money in gold and precious commodities, buried the family silver under the house and hoped to survive long enough to see the end.
I stopped at a little café I had noticed before but never patronized. The girl who served me had thick hair and strong shoulders. She smiled when I ordered black tea and nalewka babuni, and at least once I caught her looking back at me from behind the bar. This was a workers café, populated mostly by older Poles, men in twos or threes. They were drinking and talking loudly, smoking, some playing cards, others deep in conversation with whatever was in front of them. The girl returned, bending low as she placed my drink on the table, the top three buttons her blouse undone. I could see almost everything, the round softness, the white of her skin, the pale fabric of her bra holding them in defiance of gravity. In that moment I experienced an onrush of appreciation for the banalities middle-aged desire. Something that hits a man once in his life, when he reaches a certain age, and never leaves him. Not until he's dead or at the very least hopeless.
I stayed fifteen, twenty minutes tops, and then walked the rest of the way home without seeing a soul. At our flat block, I found the front stuck open, snow blowing into the lobby. Upstairs it was quiet, a remarkable feature of big, industrial buildings left over from the old Warsaw Pact days, how they could seem so silent, so empty, even when every flat was occupied, every floor a little village all its own. The social spaces of socialism were compartmentalized, so celled-off, that that there wasn't really any society anymore. Just atomized people, individuals toiling away in crowded isolation.
My clothes were in the kitchen when I arrived. Adélie had taken everything of mine out of the bedroom and piled it on the floor, even my toothbrush and toothpaste. She had had enough; she was getting rid of me. 7000 miles from home and I was being thrown out. The worst part was that I wasn't shocked. Not really. My wife's strange behavior, her erratic moods, they had all been building up to this. My first feelings were sadness, and then defeat. But it was cold outside and snowing again and I didn't really want to go. I made the calculated decision to confront her. I pushed open the bedroom door and found her lying in the bed, quivering, afraid.
"What's going on?" I said.
"Don't, hurt, me," she stuttered.
"Why would I hurt you?" I had the crazy feeling that maybe she wanted me to hurt her, that this was some sort of game, some way to force out of me some kind of action that wasn't normal. I could hit her or something, but that wasn't me. I had only struck one woman in my life, and she had asked for it. Literally asked for it. She was an old girlfriend and she hit me repeatedly, until it finally hurt, until I finally understood that no matter how much I could take she would never quit, and then finally I hit her back. She was an abusive nut-job, and after we had made up, I waited a suitable time and then broke it off. I never saw her again, hadn't thought about her in years.
"We can fix this," I said. "We can make it right. If we just try."
She shook her head. "I know what you've done."
"What have I done?"
"You and your friend. Your boy friend."
"Boy, friend," I said.
"I saw you. I saw you fucking him. In a dress. It's disgusting. Don't touch me, don't come near me."
I hadn't moved. I was still standing by the bed. But now I wasn't angry and I wasn't sorry. I had no idea what to be. I just stood there.
"You've got to be kidding," I said, finally.
"Don't lie to me. Don't think you can just pretend and make it all go away." There was a tone to her voice, a pleading, high strain like she didn't want to believe it herself but felt somehow that she had to. That believing it was the only way to hold on. That if she could be sure of this one thing then others would follow, the world would sort itself back out, reality fall together, piece by piece.
"This isn't true, you know it's not," I said. I was calm, so calm I felt like I was talking to myself. She didn't react and I wondered if she could hear, or was my voice was just a whisper in my own head.
"So that's it," she said. "That's all we have."
I got up early to put my things away before Molly woke up, and after that things were mostly normal again. Adélie and I slept together, but we didn't touch. We barely spoke, and then only about Molly or about the ordinary necessities of schedules and meals and so forth. I kept my friendship with Tadeusz to work and when he showed up at the skating club after that I made excuses to stay and watch Molly skate so that we would not be alone together. I hated to push him off like that, but it was the only way to preserve my marriage and hold on to my family. I told myself it was for Molly, and for Adélie, but really it was for my own sake. I was afraid that if I lost Adélie, everything my life would be gone, that I would lose my daughter and end up alone, finishing out my last few months in Poland my myself, only to return to America and an uncertain life.
Spring came and Adélie's emotions seemed to stabilize. The snows receded on the mountains, the streams thawed and the valleys greened. The birds came back to the forests and the people of the city came alive with the prospect of summer and the high season, of the tourists and the festivals and foreign income that would revitalize their region. The rains arrived, quite naturally, but no one minded too much. Winter, which had seemed so interminable, was finally ending.
Molly got the flu and Adélie took it upon herself nurse her, and the time together seemed good for both of them. There wasn't much for me to do in our little apartment, so I started going out the skating club alone to sauna and exercise, and sometimes just sit and watch the ice. Not many people came to skate now, and sometimes I would onto the surface in my shoes and slide about a bit just to amuse myself. It was during one of these adventures that Tadeusz showed arrived. Over the past weeks I had seen less and less of him. I realized that during the first months he had been seeking me out, and that as our friendship had grown, he had been going out of his way to spend time with me. And now, after the incident with Adélie, our friendship had cooled and he had been keeping his distance. I realized also how this must have hurt him, and that from his point of view it must all seem terribly unfair. He waved at me but said nothing and went straight for the stairs to the gymnasium.
I found him in the sauna, his skin still pink and not yet begun to sweat.
"How have you been?" he asked. His affection was genuine. I couldn't help myself. I apologized and told him everything. He seemed relieved. "I'm just glad it wasn't my poetry," he joked. We both laughed. It was late and I had to go. I excused myself and thanked him for his friendship. We would be leaving for the US again in a couple of months and I might only see him a few more times.
"Just one thing," he said as I was leaving. "It's a curiosity, really." I waited at the door, my clothes soaking through with my own sweat. I would be lucky if I didn't catch a chill on the way home. "Say again, if you please, which of us was wearing the dress?"
We stared at each for a moment, then finally he smiled and I burst out laughing. We were saying goodbye, we were sure of it.
I went up to the skating rink. An old couple were skating together, holding hands. It was pleasant and cool. I decided to sit for a while before I walked home, and then, I don't know, I must have dozed off for a few minutes. I woke staring at the ceiling, the exposed metal trusses supporting the center dome, round like an iris and painted white to reflect light down onto the ice. There was something new and modern about it, and also something old. The trusses painted black, spidery, like something you'd find in a train station circa 1900.
The old couple were putting on their shoes. I rubbed my eyes, watched them leave by the side door, and then got up myself. I had only slept for a few minutes, but it seemed longer. I felt like I was late for something. I went outside and there was Tadeusz again, waiting in his overcoat.
"I'm terribly sorry," he said, "but I couldn't let you go without speaking again."
"I was just inside," I said.
"It's O.K. I wanted to talk to you alone."
"I need you to understand. I mean this with all honesty. I'm not a wicked man, but I have to tell. I love you. It kills me inside to know you are leaving soon. You understand; I mean this from the bottom of my heart."
He came closer. I hugged him.
"I understand," I said. "It's all right."
"I'm not like that," he said. "But I wanted you to know. You are a very special person to me, a great friend. And I love you."
"I understand," I said again. "I feel the same way. You don't need to explain. We are great friends. We must appreciate each other, and accept what we have as something special."
"Yes, that's it," he said. "Exactly."
I hugged him again, told him I would miss him. And then it was over. I left him there beside the skating club and walked home alone.
Adélie was waiting when I arrived. She pushing piles of newspapers, magazine clippings, her own notebooks, into a suitcase. She pressed everything down, folding bits over that were sticking out, trying to get everything inside.
"What's all this?" I said.
"Take it," she said. "Take all of it."
I picked up the suitcase. "It's very heavy," I said. I had to use both hands and swung it pendulum-like toward the door just to get it out of the way.
"Where should I take it?" I asked.
"To the dump. Get rid of it."
"Can it wait?"
"Do it now. Get it out of here. I can't stand it anymore."
"Everything's happened, don't you understand."
"No," I said. "Help me."
She cried and threw herself on the couch, burying her face. I took the suitcase down to the trash bins and emptied it there, every last bit, taking time to get even the scraps and slivers, the pieces of paper that caught in the lining, the confetti her madness, which like a fever, seemed to have broken now.
I took the suitcase back to our flat and left it behind the chair, out of sight. Adélie was gone now, into our bedroom, the door closed. I thought of knocking, but decided against it. I went to our daughter's room. She was lying on her side, hands clasped in front of her. The pose of a little angel, just as she always did when pretending to be asleep.
I stood over her until she opened an eye. She rolled back and yawned. "What's up?" she asked.
"I just wanted to see you."
"I'm really tired," she said. "I need my sleep."
"O.K.," I said.
"Good night, Dad."
"Good night, Baby."
"Is it O.K. if I stay here a while?" I asked.
I lay down on the floor next to her bed. I could hear her shuffling her feet under the covers, then after bit grow quiet. I lay my ear to the floor, but there wasn't a sound anywhere, only the creaking of the heat pipes, which shuddered once or twice an hour, the valves in the boiler shifting the flow as the house grew cooler, as the earth rolled on its axis, the dark deepening, the night taking hold, waiting out the hours till the inevitable dawn, till one more day came around once more.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 2 Apr 2009