"Well, I'm always up for a challenge."
Those words echo in her head like a scratch on a beat-up record. Three years ago tonight, Anna and two friends had wandered into the Turkey's Nest because their fingers were numb from the cold, and there was Ben, in that blue sweater, with an eager smile. But that Ben is gone now. He's in Omaha with Nancy and Pappy and his innumerable cousins. Ben is only gone for another day, and yet, somehow, it feels like he is gone for good.
Standing by the window, Anna can see her breath. Her flimsy T-shirt, the one she's had on for days nowBen's old Lynyrd Skynyrd one, with the neck cut outfails miserably to keep her warm. Man-hattan glimmers past McCarren Park, its peaks and pinnacles glimmering like man-made constellations, like something from the future. It's beautiful, but under a blanket of snow, New York would become even more so, turning twinkly and old-timey. This concrete mess with towers sprouting like beanstalks, with subways zigzagging and crowded streets teeming with grimeall of it would be obliterated.
Anna steps back from the window, but leaves it open; she can't smoke in an enclosed space. Hipokryta, her father would have said. She is a hypocrite, dissecting everything, especially the things that bring her pleasure. Her father, on the other hand, would lie in bed, chewing saltwater taffy, reading his Polish newspaper till three a.m., and chain-smoking More Reds, as her mother silently suffered beside him. Her father, who, every so often, threatened to hang himself.
"You're a refugee? You sure don't look like a refugee," Ben had said, eyeing her naked body supine next to his.
"Daughter of a refugee, if you wanna get technical. The Commies ousted my dad years ago. I was seven."
"The Commies. Sounds so . . ."
"Dated?" Anna reached her hand toward his pretty American face.
Anna places the ashtray on her lap, hugging it gently between her thighs. Cardboard boxes stare at her from every corner, massacred by cheap utility tape. Months have passed since she and Ben moved into their new apartment, but the boxes remain untouched. She remembers that the super is stopping by today to fix the refrigerator door.
Anna's head hurts. Her nose is stuffy. The corner of her bottom lip is hot and itchy, a sure sign of a cold sore brewing. There is a weird throbbing pain near her right shoulder blade, which has come and gone intermittently during the last few weeks, and which Anna suspects might be lung cancer. Ben calls her a "raging hypochondriac," and he's right.
When Ben left for the airport five days ago, he begged Anna to join him. It was their tradition: Thanksgiving in Omaha.
"Come with me. Don't you miss my mom's stuffing? She misses you, Annie."
"I can't fly, Ben. You know that."
"Then let's rent a car and make a road trip out of it."
"I can't, Ben," she said and turned away from him.
Ben's mother, Nancy, always sported Birkenstocks and smelled like patchouli. She had long gray hair and all-knowing eyes thatAnna was surecould see right through you. Nancy loved Anna from the beginning, and was always begging her and Ben to "have a kid already, wedlock, schmedlock!" So, what would Nancy do if Anna showed up in her current stateslightly overweight and depressed? What would Anna say to her? Missed you, Nan, but I've been real busy, what with the auditions and abortions. It was too soon to face Nancy; the shame Anna felt was too much.
Ben had called from the airport. Even though things were strained between them, Anna had still wanted him to call her just before takeoff, in case anything happened. Since 9/11, she'd only flown twiceonce to LA for a last-minute audition, and once to St. Thomas with Ben. Both times, her heart was in her throat. Anna shuffled down the aisle with her collection of crucifixes in her palm, relics from Catholic schoolgirl days, and her dad's old chain with the Polish Black Madonna medallion around her neck. She scanned her fellow passengers for dark bearded faces (it was fucked up but true), and didn't say amen till the wheels touched the tarmac again.
Excerpted from The Lullaby of Polish Girls by Dagmara Dominczyk. Copyright © 2013 by Dagmara Dominczyk. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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