Milena was my partner for the ice breaker. I was fine with Milena, but I had my eyes on Agnieska, or Kate. We had to share our most memorable experience as teachers. The one where we deeply touched a student, I guess. I guess the point was to get us in the mood for touching others, as we got to know each other. But I’d never been a teacher, so all I could share was my most memorable moment from university. Which was simply sitting in a building that felt full of wisdom, windows open, breeze breezing in, desks bolted to the hardwood floor, me in desk with chin on hand, gazing out the open window. A small classroom in the old brick English building. In an English class studying The Day of the Locust, by Nathaniel West. She’d never heard of it. And why would she. I’d never heard of it either. And I spoke English. But something told me my story would ring her bell. And it was all I had.
I wasn’t trying to get in her pants. I mean I was, but I wasn’t planning to go through with it. I knew that much already. You know these things right off. I did, anyway. She was cute, her bleached blonde hair hanging straight over the sides of her glasses. But she was not Kate cute. And neither was Kate. Kate was Kate beautiful.
But Kate scared me. So during a break, I moseyed up to Agnieska, who was Agnieska beautiful, which was like Kate beautiful, but less intimidating, and said hi. She quaked in her panties. I enjoyed the power, even though I wasn’t sure it was real. There was a cultural barrier I hadn’t figured out yet. Who knew why she was quaking. Maybe she was afraid to speak English to a native speaker. That’s the funny thing about Poles. No matter how alpha they sound in Polish, they turn into big little babies when they speak English to a native speaker.
That night we walked together, us teachers, to the corner store for beer. The corner store was a couple of miles down a shit-country road, but other than that it was the same as a corner store here. Gas. Chips. Beer. Only difference was the brand names in Polish.
We stayed up too late drinking too much for professionals on a work retreat. Most of us were too young to be professional or to consider it work. Kate was sitting on Tomak’s lap. I told myself they were together. It made me feel better, though I kind of thought they weren’t.
In the conference room the next day, Milena cozied up, and I didn’t mind, but my eyes were on Kate. And Agnieska. And Kate. Kate scared me, but I couldn’t stop looking, and Agnieska was right next door. I don’t recall ever seeing two more stunning women sitting next to each other. Like glancing from star to star.
When the retreat ended the van dumped us on the main drag in town, and we shuffled into the bar Tomak shuffled us into. Kate was on his lap again, and that’s where I gave up on Kate, and it was okay, because she was a pipe dream anyway. I don’t remember Agnieska or Milena being there. I know I was there. And I know Kate was on Tomak’s lap. I don’t remember much else.
A few weeks later, I bumped into Kate before class in the cobblestone square, her bleached-blonde mop of hair against a backdrop of brightly-painted, centuries old homes squeezed so close together. Backpacks over one shoulder, me going, her coming, hands in pockets, we said hi. The first time we’d talked one on one. I still thought she might be Tomak’s, maybe, and that made it easier. I got the sense she wanted more than a quick hi, but I moved on quickly.
Agnieska went out with me a few times. I kept thinking surely we’d start to hit if off. I keep thinking she’s gorgeous, she keeps saying yes, and she never brings her friend like she does when she meets up with Sam, the other native teacher. Even I sometimes wanted to bring a friend when I met up with Sam. That dude was weird.
I gave up on Agnieska after I took her to see Chicago, which was embarrassingly American, all sexy and murdery. After the show we waited awkwardly at a tram stop for two different trams going in what was certain to be two different directions. I never felt awkward around Agnieska. Always basked in her light, but I gave up that night. We’d been out too many times, and there was too much awkward squirming. As she stepped onto her tram I said goodbye, Agnieska and meant it, knowing what I meant and wondering if she heard me.
Kate and Sam and I became a thing. It started when the boss made us schill for the school in the square one Saturday. We did the meet and greet, passed out flyers, and when our block of hours were up, a beer in a beer tent on the main drag turned into a pizza for lunch, then a pitcher, and next thing we knew it was dinner-time and we were still drinking, not done, with another pizza coming, another pitcher. I can’t pinpoint the moment I fell in love but it happened that day, some time between lunch and dinner, between a dozen beers, spring sunlight, warming weather, our heels on carriage-wheel-rutted cobblestone, not far from where my grandparents were born. They were still alive then, but tens of thousands of miles away, back in the States. Far from any tug of war between Communists and Nazis which they never wanted to talk or even think about ever again.
Kate, Sam, and me, after work, on weekends, for lunch, for dinner, in the break room, all the time. She had a boyfriend, turns out, and it wasn’t Tomak after all. Tomak turned out to be the fiancé of my Polish teacher, who invited me to have Christmas dinner with her and the family when she and Tomak broke up, and I went, but that’s another story. She said bring Sam but I didn’t.
One night Kate and I stayed after Sam left, under a beer tent on the main drag, just the two of us, discussing the contents of her fridge, laughing so hard over the cross-cultural condiments-only state of fridges owned by people our age, we leaned in, stayed there. Our foreheads touched, my hand on her chair back. I should have kissed her. But she had a boyfriend, who wasn’t Tomak.
I saw her once on that same street in the daytime, in the snow, walking with two guys, not Tomak, not her boyfriend. She told me all her best friends were guys and women didn’t like her because she wasn’t afraid to get up on the bar and dance in her bra, which was pretty much what I was afraid of from the beginning, even though I couldn’t possibly know it, but it’s one of those things you just know, if you know what I mean. You know. She said her guy friends always fell in love with her, eventually. I said I know, that happens to me with girls I’m not into (like Milena). I said let’s see who falls in love with who first.
After class one night we got drunk and debated who’s place we should go back to, how many tram stops our flats were from that particular beer tent, who’s place could be gotten to easier late at night when the trams were shutting down, where we had to be in the morning, how we would get there in clean clothes, and the consensus decision was fuck it, it’s too much trouble.
I regret that decision maybe more than any other decision I’ve made except one. It seemed like an okay decision at the time. And it was likely the right one. But it would have been good to make the wrong one.
I still feel her cheek on mine as she kisses me, so soft, her cheek. She pulls back, embarrassed, forgetting I was weird about that European thing, where it’s what you do, you kiss a friend on the cheek. She was so embarrassed and I loved it, the brush, her embarrassment, all of it. I told her I could get used to that, might get over my hang up, even. Milena was there for that one, looked away. We all laughed.
She called me once, Kate did, to ask when we were supposed to meet. Or why I didn’t show up. Or something. I don’t remember, it was so long ago. She called me once, is the point, and we got disconnected. The only time she ever called me. I didn’t call her back, don’t recall why. There was something wrong between us, a disconnect. I didn’t get it, and neither did she. I didn’t call her back because it seemed okay at the time, not calling her back. A few days later she told me she thought I was going to call her back, and after that, when we hung out, it was never the same. I’m thinking here of people-watching in the beer tent, late at night, how magical that first time was, thinking people’s thoughts out loud, how it got weird, the lobster scene in Annie Hall, trying to recreate that same magic at a later date, different circumstances, no longer magic.
I stayed in her place over the summer, after the school year ended and the school stopped paying my rent. She wasn’t there. She went to Italy, as she did every summer, and after she’d left and I’d moved in, she called and told me where to go to pay the rent, which I didn’t know was part of the deal.
I found letters from her boyfriend in a shoe box she left sitting on a table. He came over once, the boyfriend, I don’t remember why. Shook my hand but didn’t take off his sunglasses. Had to pick up something. I was just killing time for a few weeks until my flight home. She had a stack of VHS tapes. One was some NBA game, I forget who. Another was a terrible copy-of-a-copy of the Big Lebowski, recorded off the television. You could almost make out the original dialogue under the voice-over if you strained hard, and I squinted through squiggly lines trying to watch it, loving Kate more for even having it. A year is a very long time to go without familiar shit, and it was nice to watch it in her place, on the couch, like I could put my arm around her if only she would come home.
Milena caught me walking in town before my flight. She was driving by in her car, hit the brakes, got out, presented me with a wrapped present. I didn’t remember that moment until just now, I don’t remember what it was and I’m not sure it was even really for me. Just remember wondering why she had it in her car that day, how many days it must have been there.
I have a picture of Agnieska and me at the front of my classroom. I’m leaning in to her, smiling. She’s leaning away.
I never said goodbye to Kate, but when I got home I wrote her a letter, said I missed her. I invited her to visit, told her what I had in my fridge. Never heard back.