Looking back, Anna Baran could pinpoint the exact moment she'd fallen in love with Ben Taft. They were lying on his mattress, covers thrown off and sharing a cigarette, when Anna closed her eyes and asked him the question she'd been wanting to ask for weeks.
"Did you ever imagine you'd end up with a Polish girl?"
Ben looked at her and arched one eyebrow. "In bed? Or in life?" Anna blushed, but thankfully Ben continued. "Never. I didn't even know where Poland was on the map."
"And now?" Anna whispered, placing her hands between his warm thighs.
"Now? Now I know there's a lot more to your country than meets the kielbasa."
Anna rolled her eyes but silently urged him on, hoping he would get it right.
"I know Warsaw isn't the only city there. I know not every last name ends in -ski. The language is tough as hell but I could listen to it all day. It's the land of amber, crystal, salt mines, and revolutionaries. And I know that the oldest oak tree in Poland is located near your hometown and that they named it Bart. There. How's that?"
"Da?b Bartek," Anna whispered, feeling tingly, as if he had been talking dirty. Ben went on about Solidarity and Swedish deluges, about pierogi and the Pope, about Communism and cleaning ladies. Anna interrupted him at a certain point with a kiss. "Kocham cie?, Ben," she said, and he didn't have to speak the language to know what she meant. But that night was years ago, and it felt as far off as the goddamn stars in the sky.
At 3:57 a.m., Anna wakes up from a bad dream. Something about the Gestapo and a defunct Captain Videothe place she used to rent VHS tapes from as a girl. She stumbles out of bed and walks into the living room, shuffling blindly toward the ashtray. The familiar stench of yesterday's chain-smoking leads her to the corner of the couch, where an ashtray sits on top of Ben's old throw pillow. Her eyeglasses are nowhere to be found, but how can she look for them when she can't see a damn thing, when her own hand in front of her eyes is nothing but a blur? Anna wonders briefly if she might actually be legally blind and if there is a way she can get tested without having to leave the apartment. With fumbling fingers, she extracts one third of what used to be a handsome Marlboro Light from the ashtray, retrieves a Bic from under the couch, lights the stale tip, and walks over to open a window. The November wind slaps at her face, but it feels good, a shock to the system, and her eyes water from the cold.
Lorimer Street must be empty; she can tell from the dead silence, her ears doing the work her eyes can't. While most New Yorkers dream of white winters in theory, Anna pines for snow and means it. It smells like winter out there, crisp and clean, though there's no sign of snow yet.
"We're a dying breed." That was Ben's opening line, on the first night they met, when Anna had walked up to him and asked him for a light. He extended his Zippo toward her and she arched her eyebrows and smiled, smitten right away. Two drinks later, they were making out by the coat check, waiting impatiently for their scarves and hats.
"So you're a New Yorker, huh?" Ben asked, when they stepped into his apartment a half hour later. Signs of three young men living on their own were everywhere, but Ben didn't seem embarrassed by the mess and his roommates were nowhere in sight. Ben and Anna sat on the dirty floor and made small talk.
"By way of Kielce, Poland, my friendthe birthplace of Polish rap," Anna said. "We're known in Polska as the scyzorykithe switchblades. And you don't wanna fuck with us." Ben laughed as he drummed the side of his beer can.
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
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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