By Caroline Kessler
It scares me sometimes how automatic my body is. When I get too drunk, body takes me home, puts my hands and face under warm water, plucks my contacts from my eyes. Sometimes body remembers to brush my teeth but not always.
They’ll tell you that drinking will kill your liver and that’s probably true but not-drinking will kill a different part of you. Not drinking means I don’t get the stories like when I was studying in India or working in Poland or daydreaming on a train through Hungary—the stories of meeting someone new, picking them up, having them pick me up.
The drinking will say, go for it! Do it all, it doesn’t matter, you charming thing. The drinking will say you’ve never looked this gorgeous, your hair all crazy and your dress all short. For a while, the drinking makes me sharp but then it makes me slow. Slow tongue in my mouth, thick against my teeth, words clanking around like cans in a gutter.
One summer during college, I live in Warsaw, where I have an airy studio apartment all to myself and I can walk to my non-profit job. It is the first time I have ever lived alone and I bask in doing whatever I want.
There is a bar near my apartment frequented by ex-pats, which is where I first meet Daniel. We mumble through an attempt at an introduction: bardzo mi miło / nice to meet you. I give in and switch to English and it turns out he’s fluent and half-Jewish, nearly six feet tall but with bad posture so he doesn’t tower over me. He wears a black motorcycle jacket although he doesn’t drive a motorcycle. We don’t talk about our Jewishness but it is there, the wandering-exiled-questioning-impulse.
His speech is strange, full of language from all the other places he’s lived, Miami and Glasgow and Aalborg. He says what’s the crack? as a greeting and throws around that hurts like silver teeth a lot. When I find out his first language is Danish, I make him speak to me, enjoying the flawless music of it, even though I don’t understand a thing. While he talks, I wonder if I could be with someone who wasn’t able to speak their first language with me—would we ever truly understand each other?
After six years of medical school in Warsaw, he claims he has only learned useless Polish. What could be useless? I say. Let me listen to your lungs, his voice emerges over the din of the bar, first in Polish, then in English. Pozwól mi słuchać płuc. I study his broad shoulders and slight belly, his dark jeans and shiny European shoes. He is attractive enough, I decide. This is the moment when everything shifts.
We leave the bar for a nearby fountain, a block of quiet, because I said I was tired of being in the bar and he is going along with what I’m saying, how I’m gesturing. We decide to keep drinking. He ducks into a small store and I wait outside, feeling too indecisive to be surrounded by merchandise in a language I can’t read. He emerges with a plastic bag nearly breaking with beer bottles. I try to give him a few folded złotys but he refuses, waving them away like it’s silly I’m even offering. We settle near the burbling water. I got a sampler, he says, because you should try a bunch while you’re here this summer.
We keep talking, and he drinks quickly, picking up his third beer while I’m still on my first. The drinking urges me onward: this will make things easier. When he pauses, I put my hand to his breastbone, trying to figure out where his lungs are, huge and honeycombed.
Later, when we are in bed, I put my ear to his chest. Pozwól mi słuchać płuc. I say to his cavernous face, open your mouth. Turn over. He does—and then, he lifts me off of him, pushes my arms open until I am airborne.
Early the next morning, on the tram heading back to my apartment, tiny purse resting in my lap, the sun is blinding. I press my shoulders into the crease of the window. What am I doing? I ask the looming H&M billboards, the massive Palace of Culture and Science, the plastic orange seats in front of me.
After college, I move to San Francisco and I meet so many men. They are everywhere, in their flannel button-downs and hooded sweatshirts, on their bikes or in their cars. I feel surrounded by masculinity. One night, my friend E. and I are at Zeitgeist in the Mission, having abandoned our guy friends we were with earlier that night, at a Shabbat dinner. We sip beers at the only open table, which is near the speaker, so we have to shout over the punk music.
She tells me about the different people she’s dating, the co-worker she’s in love with, her housemate who she “loves” and is moving out soon and I’m curious—so what do you really want? I shout.
Her eyes open wide, so genuine. I just want to love someone, she shouts back. The desire is the hands on a watch, pointing directly to the hour, minute, second.
I never see Daniel again after that night. We text a few times, missing each other at the same bar where we met, where I’ve met more people, mostly men: a lot of Australians, a few Venezuelans, one or two Americans, some Germans.
Back at school, I’m working on a collection of poems for my senior honors thesis and going through all the documents from the summer. I find a file on my computer with a few notes in it: the lines pozwól mi słuchać płuc and let me listen to your lungs.
I’ve already started to forget the complicated Polish pronunciation, so I pull up Google Translate, type in pozwól mi słuchać płuc and press the icon of a speaker over and over again, repeating aloud with the crisp-syllabled woman:
Pozwól mi słuchać płuc pozwól mi słuchać płuc pozwól mi słuchać płuc
Then, I find these lines in another file with nothing else:
The trouble with bodies is that they are connected to heads and hearts and not everyone agrees all the time.
One sunny afternoon, I’m in my friend Victor’s apartment on 24th Street. I’ve been living in San Francisco for about two years, making my way through the city, its neighborhoods, its men. We sit next to each other on a hard couch, the smell of incense everywhere. Multi-armed Hindu goddess statues stare out at me from the mantle.
As I listen to Victor talk about how he and his girlfriend just changed their relationship from open to exclusive, I drift off: I realize all I want is to be pressed up against a cool white wall and kissed in a very intentional way, no end in sight, just mouths on mouths on mouths.
In another document on my computer, titled “Letter to S”, I find this:
I get it—you already know everything about desire, how it can eclipse everything else until you’re swimming in it. It’s dragging you under, the heaviest jeans and biggest sweatshirt, all that polyester and denim weight on you until you’re sinking with it.
I open and close the document several times, wondering what to do with it, whether I started this as an epistolary poem or it is meant to be a part of an actual letter to my ex-lover, S.
After two and a half years in San Francisco, I grow weary of the constant frenetic energy, the narrow hilly streets, the segregated greenery, the incessant men, the high cost of existence. So I move to south Berkeley and revel in everything: the quietness of the East Bay, the lack of density (fewer cars, fewer cyclists), the trees on every block, how people want hang out in someone’s backyard instead of going to the newest, hippest bar around.
In his studio apartment in Oakland, on a soft IKEA couch, a new lover presses me down with more force than I am expecting. We are each four beers in, over the course of several hours. We met up after work in San Francisco, took the train together back to the East Bay, and haven’t stopped talking since. It’s nearly 10 and I feel heavy with tiredness, with alcohol, with the exhaustion of starting something new with someone I don’t know well. He presses his face into mine and I silently debate the merits of staying over versus biking home.
I just want you to be sweet, I think as he keeps kissing me but somehow I can’t say this. Don’t say this. My wrists loosely clasped in one of his hands. His desire for more pressure between our bodies. Credits rolling down the huge white wall where he’s projected the movie. He asks me to pull his hair and I scrape my fingers against the back of his neck too, just to see how we’ll react, if he’ll react.
Even as it’s happening, I’m composing the lines in my head about how I’ll write this after: the texture of the couch, the chafe on his bearded chin. My hips slide towards his. Automatic body. Automatic desire. As we press on, I recognize that all I really want is to be held. My face cupped in one of his hands, palm against cheek, his thumb running along the ridge of my eyebrow.
Caroline Kessler is a writer, editor, and facilitator currently living in south Berkeley. Her poetry and prose has been published in The Susquehanna Review, Sundog Lit, Profane, Rivet, Superstition Review, Anderbo, and elsewhere. She is the co-creator of The 18 Somethings Project, a writing adventure. She can be found on Twitter as @caro_kess and followed online at www.carokess.com.