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.