Shannon Kuta Kelly
Nothing You Could Call a Place
The flat on Szlak had two identical but separate entrances on either side of the building, so that often, if it was dark or I was tired, I couldn’t recall which I had used. If I woke up from a particularly strange dream or deep sleep, I would try to remember if I had entered the correct door. This was silly, because my key had worked and let me in, and all my clothes and shoes and my toothbrush were inside as usual. But when I stumbled out the front step later, I would get a funny feeling that perhaps I had gone to the wrong flat. I began to view the two sides of the building as mirrors of one another and imagined that some nights I went to my own flat, and sometimes I accidentally ended up in my mirror flat. I believed, strangely but firmly, that the building decided which nights this would happen.
……….I was renting the flat from an acquaintance of my aunt’s, a young woman who traveled to warmer places during the autumn and winter. We had exchanged some brief texts and arrival information in my broken Polish, but I was technically a family friend, so she didn’t ask much. In hindsight, I wish I would’ve asked more about her, if only to explain the decor inside.
……….The flat was filled with religious statues and iconography. In the kitchen and above my bed, life-sized wooden heads of angels gazed bleakly in no particular direction. Throughout my bedroom there were crucifixes of varying sizes and a full glow-in-the-dark shrine to Our Lady of Częstochowa in one corner. As I got to know the flat better, I noticed more religious pieces hidden in odd places—the miniature icon of St. Adalbert mounted almost at the top of a high wall and hidden behind a curtain, the portrait of Jesus in a crown of thorns pasted at the back of the cupboard where the pots and pans were stored, the ceramic cherubim midsong who dangled from the top of the balcony door. It was the angel head above my bed that always got me. She (I assumed it was a she) had a perpetual look of discontent on her downturned mouth, and narrow rounded eyebrows, the kind Édith Piaf wore. I felt a kinship to the angel, knowing that, consciously or not, she watched over me and would always be there when I got home.
……….But there were other items of interest around the flat too, enough to stir my curiosity about the woman who lived here normally. One wall of my bedroom was fitted with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and filled with dictionaries for six or seven languages, artist biographies, travel guides, classics, and of course, many religious texts, all organised by subject and interspersed with small prints of Japanese scenes. Several skulls of horned animals lined the wall above the front door, and old maps of Morocco and Egypt were tacked up above the coffee machine.
……….There was one door at the back of the kitchen that was bolted shut, and I didn’t go near it. The woman probably kept her valuables there and didn’t want me rummaging through. But I did wonder what was behind the door. Not in a macabre way, but rather because I had a fantasy that I was only living in a small corner of the flat, and that behind the door was a massive home where she actually lived.
……….I would only be staying there for two months working on my writing. I also bartended some nights at a small and cozy pub in the Jewish quarter. The tram ride to the district took me past the golden and burnt orange trees scattering their leaves across Planty Park, the old men in Sherpa hats reading newspapers on the benches below. I loved the brisk walk then in the early autumn cold past the crumbling buildings and their signs in Hebrew, past the street musicians playing Fiddler on the Roof renditions on worn violins, and into the warmth of the little pub, lit up only by numerous candles on every table and at the bar. I had two coworkers, Wiktoria and Paweł, and our patrons were mostly hip young couples who sauntered in with sleek hair and flowing skirts and spoke quietly to one another over the candles.
……….In my first few weeks, everything was going well. I was writing a lot during the day, still making time to wander around the streets on occasion, and then working in the pub at night. My Polish was coming along, a fact my mother would be proud of the next time she called. I had spent my childhood in a small city outside of Krakow and then moved to America; I so often resented the fact I had grown up with one foot in English and the other in Polish, and worried that, perhaps, neither language had fully developed as it should. Every psychology study my mother sent me sang the praises of children raised in bilingual households and their sponge brains, but the articles only made me feel even more stunted. Whenever I met new people, I dreaded them asking me where home was, because it was here and then again, it wasn’t. I was glad, then, that during this stay I was trying harder to speak Polish, and that, to my surprise, despite my mangled grammar and numerous incorrect vocab choices, most people were going with it.
……….One evening after work, Paweł asked me if I would like to get a drink at a nearby pub. We closed quickly and headed down the corner to a quiet street, found another pub just like ours and ordered two beers. We sat together at a small round table with a doily that concealed the painted-on chessboard beneath. I hadn’t known Paweł long, so I was surprised when he scooted his chair in toward me early on, leaned on his elbows and said,
……….‘You’re a curious one. You know that?’
……….I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I nodded and shrugged.
……….‘I guess so.
……….The bartender swooped in and delivered our drinks.
……….‘I mention that,’ Paweł said, taking a sip between words, ‘Because I can’t figure you out. On the one hand, you’re an open book. I feel I can ask you anything, like I really know you, even after this short time. Then I go home and realize I don’t actually know a thing about you. About you, you understand? Does it make sense?’
……….Paweł was looking at me earnestly. He had a pointed chin and large nose that was placed crookedly on his face. It gave him a perpetual half grin. His eyes were deep set and the color of honey, and he had coarse dark hair that grew in tight waves, sticking up at odd angles from his scalp.
………‘It makes sense,’ I replied, mulling his words over.
……….The more I thought about it, the more I agreed with him, but in an intrinsic way, one I could not give words to. My inability to fully understand and articulate myself was particularly distressing for me when words were usually my medium.
……….Paweł was kind and non-threatening. I think he meant the words without any malice, simply as an observation. We had another drink, he walked me to the tram stop, and we parted ways. All the way down Długa Street, there were lights and friends walking together laughing, people inside flats watching TV that emitted a blue glow into the evening in front of me. But once I turned onto Szlak, the familiar darkness was back, the street suddenly quiet. I hurried to my building and raced through the door, making my way up to number six, again with that odd feeling that I might be in the wrong side of the flat. I kicked my shoes off, brushed my teeth, and fell asleep, hard.
……….The next morning, I had a small headache. I doubted it was a hangover, because I’d only had two beers. I went to my desk that overlooked the balcony with its massive windows, and began to write. Across the way, there was an old cement building with rusted railings and the faded crowns of chimneys poking out. I had never seen any people inside or any movement and wondered if the building was abandoned. That morning, however, I noticed something in one of the top floor windows. It was two people, a mother and a child, maybe. The mother helped the child into a coat and smoothed her hair down. I was surprised how well I could see into their window, despite the distance. I’m sure they were glancing across the way at the skyline beyond my flat, but I wondered if they saw me too, had seen me before. In front of their flat, a large wilted tree still clung on to some sickly green apples that had never fully ripened. They would fall and smash into the ground below, in time.
The headache lingered. I took one pain killer at first, and then two. The pain didn’t stop. It wasn’t intolerable, just a dull throb at the front centre of my skull. I drank more water and went on a walk, and thought the fresh air had done me good, but when I returned that evening, the pain was back. At work that night, I told Paweł about the headache, and his eyes crinkled strangely at the corners.
………‘Tell me if it’s gone tomorrow,’ was all he said.
……….The next day, I still had a headache. I was starting to get used to it now, didn’t even notice it at times, until it would recede for a bit and return. I almost lamented those periods of painlessness, because they made me aware. Paweł gave me some special tea his mother always administered to him for headaches and placed the steaming cup in my hands, motioning for me to drink.
……….‘I’m going to start calling you Magda,’ he announced with a smirk.
……….Accustomed by now to Paweł coming up with random and grandiose statements, I wasn’t as thrown off by them anymore.
……….‘Ok. Why Magda? Isn’t there a closer Polish equivalent to Zoe?’
……….‘Yes,’ he nodded, ‘But you’re a Magda.’
……….The more he nodded and spoke, the more he seemed to be convincing himself that he was correct.
……….‘Yes. Definitely you’re a Magda. Ok then Magda, how is your tea?’
……….And actually, even though I rolled my eyes, I agreed with him. Magda fit. It felt right. When Wiktoria arrived, Paweł informed her of my name change, and, as she bent to place her purse in the locker below the counter, she pushed her long brown hair out of her face and nodded.
……….‘Yeah, you seem like a Magda.’
……….I started introducing myself to people as Magda, changing my name on things. My blank luggage tag now said MAGDA KERSCH. When the woman at the post office asked for my name and number for returning mail, I again was Magda. In the pub, I was Magda for all the patrons. I began to grow into the name. It became comfortable and warm.
……….Simultaneously, my headache began to dissipate. The motion of the tram no longer made me dizzy, and I would awake in the morning finally feeling fresh. My initial belief about the mirror apartment was fading. In short, I was adjusting to being here, to being back. It was dawning on me that place was important, that easing into my setting was a cure for loneliness and the vague homesickness that seemed to stalk me, even when I couldn’t decide where home was. It was like an ancient Greek curse, to long for a home that doesn’t exist, and somehow, this name change and the Szlak flat were its antidote.
……….There were still times when I would return to my flat, humming, throw the door open and see my boots toppled outside the bathroom. Had I left my boots there? Or the hissing of the kettle could play with my mind, its sound reminiscent of sighing or light steps one room over. One night about a month and in, I had Paweł over for dinner and he asked what was behind the bolted door. When I replied that I was unsure, he begged me to try to open it.
……….‘Come on, Magda! Imagine what might be back there!’
……….I rolled my eyes, although I was secretly interested as well.
……….‘It’s nothing, I’m sure,’ I clicked at him. ‘Just storage. It’s not my business anyway. The flat doesn’t belong to me.’
……….Paweł gave me the crinkled eye look and turned himself sideways.
……….‘In a way, actually,’ he said, ‘It does.’
I ignored the room, kept writing, even started an online Polish refresher course and going to church. I didn’t know the mass in Polish, but I liked to explore new churches and admire their painted ceilings and the barefoot statues of saints standing on globes or with lions at their ankles. I spent a lot of time with Paweł. He was full of old stories and political opinions and natural cures for every ailment I could throw at him. We never visited his flat, only mine or the bars around the Jewish quarter, but I liked to envision what it might be like, dimly lit and full of dried flowers and dusty historical books and half-eaten bigos in Tupperware containers his mother had sent him with the last time he visited home.……….
……….Before coming to Krakow, I had given away lots of my old clothing, trying to lighten up my suitcase. Now that I felt more settled, I began to shop. Normally, I wore a uniform of black jeans and a black jumper with boots, but this autumn was too beautiful for me to not join in. I bought a long black skirt with a high slit in it and took it home happily, picturing myself at a party or a busy night at work in it.
……….The only problem was all the mirrors in my flat were very small. The one in my bedroom was hung at such a height and angle that I could never fully see myself. If I bent down, I could see my face, but my body disappeared. If I could see my torso, my head was gone and I was legless. There were two mirrors in the bathroom placed across from each other, so that I could see the back of my head behind me when I looked at my face. But there was no floor-length mirror that I could see my skirt in.
……….Fidgeting, suddenly self conscious of the skirt, I began to pull at it, to twist myself around in the bathroom mirrors, trying to contort my body enough that I could see myself in entirety. But it was no use. The tram to get me to work on time would leave in fifteen minutes. I felt anxious, this summoning up all my subconscious fears about my lack of style and how I was too tall, my torso too long, my hips too wide. I stepped into the kitchen, attempting to catch a reflection in the stainless steel refrigerator, when it dawned on me that maybe there might be a bigger mirror behind the latched door. And even though I had mentally decided that was very off limits, and even though it was latched shut, my insecurity and panic led me to the door to try.
……….Surprisingly, it was open. I saw now that the bolt wasn’t actually locked with anything, the latch just closed to produce the effect of being secured, and I found this somewhat anticlimactic. Checking the time again and noting it was closer and closer to my tram leaving, I gently pushed the door open and stepped inside.
……….My first thought was that it wasn’t what I had expected, although I was uncertain what exactly I had expected. It was just one small room. Like my bedroom, the ceiling was exceptionally high, but the air felt different inside, possibly from being left alone for over a month now. The walls were pale yellow, and it was chilly inside. There was one small bed, its butter-colored quilt tightly folded into the sides of the mattress. Across from the bed was a wall of built-in closets and cupboards, tightly shut, and in front of me was what I had been looking for. Hanging amidst those cupboards was an enormous rectangular mirror.
……….I looked at myself in full, at first simply noticing the folds of the skirt, how it smoothed around my hips and tuliped out at my ankles. There was my familiar small waist, my narrow shoulders, my ashy blonde hair falling messily to my chest. In the early evening light, my eyes looked shimmery and wet in my reflection. I stepped closer to look at them, observe their shimmer. I couldn’t figure out if it was a trick of the light or the mirror itself, but my eyes really looked wet, as if I had been crying. I felt a small pang of pain in my head from looking so closely without my glasses on, and then an odd jolt, almost like a gag. I thought I might vomit, until I realized something else seemed to have jumped out of me. I was actually crying now, but I couldn’t explain why or where this emotional outburst had come from. The tears were gentle, filling up my eyes then passively weaving their way down my cheeks to the brim of my lips and falling off there, filling my mouth with the taste of salt. I kept looking. Maybe it was the odd cold air in the room, or the extreme stillness of it, but my mind felt quiet. All the buzz that normally distracted me was missing, and it was just me and my teary reflection. I didn’t feel sad, but as the tears continued, I felt lighter in my chest, like something had taken off and left me behind.
……….For a few moments longer, I looked at her—at me—in the mirror. Then, softly, I used the side of my index fingers to wipe away the tears without smearing any makeup, walked out of the room, and pulled the door shut behind me.
‘Limeflower for bad dreams, rainwater and apple slices to make a love potion. You should write that one down Zoe-Magda. I think you need some help in that area.’ ……….
……….Paweł winked at me and continued listing his many cures while I sat, pencil in hand, and jotted them down. Mostly, I thought they might make for a good poem, but I had a secret inclination to try them.
……….I had just two weeks left in Krakow, and I was considering spending my last week with my aunt in the city where I grew up. Either way that made this week my last one of work, and truly, I was sad to go. I already ached a bit with a nostalgia for my daily tram, the creaks of my flat I had grown accustomed to, and my angel friend above my bed.
……….‘And what will you do when you leave Poland?’ Paweł asked me between sips of kefir from a shot glass.
……….‘I’m really not sure.’
……….‘You should go and visit your mother,’ was Paweł’s suggestion. I would probably take it.
……….Paweł walked me to the train station to see me off. He had insisted on wheeling my suitcase for me and followed me onto the train to heave it on the overhead shelf. When the whistle blew, he hugged me goodbye.
……….‘Take care of yourself, Zoe. Take care of yourself, Magda.’
……….He jokingly said each in turn as he kissed either side of my face.
……….We parted, and spryly, he leapt out of the train and hurried away, not waiting for it to leave the station. I leaned in toward the window, watching my reflection in it as the train made its way through the dark cement underground tunnel. Soon, it would break free and open into the afternoon light, and my reflection would disappear as we drew closer and closer to home.
Shannon Kuta Kelly‘s work has appeared in the Irish Times, Poetry Ireland Review, Body Prague, and in conjunction with the Romanian Embassy in Dublin. She is a current PhD student at Queens University Belfast.
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