01 Sep Allison Grimaldi-Donahue
I said, “I don’t smoke menthols” and I know I said it snobby like I’d never even been offered one before. It was the first time I’d smoked a cigarette in ten days; it was so minty.
“You know,” he said. “I’ve never been to a writer’s conference with no smokers.”
“Except for me,” I said.
He defended himself, “I bought these in London, on the way to visit my father last month. Before he died.” And now I had to feel bad in addition to feeling like a snob. “They’re expensive,” he went on as I tried to make up for it.
“When I was in high school we smoked cloves. In our school uniforms. As we attempted to look grown up on the university campus lawn. We didn’t sense the irony,” I said.
“I sense the irony,” he offered.
Behind the alpine lodge the cafeteria ladies loaded the vans and took trays of lasagna home to their husbands. A few of them waved or nodded, smoking cigarettes with the passenger seat door open, feet dangling, waiting for a lift.
“When I went to Russia in 1985 all I wanted was to get out of working class Yorkshire. It didn’t occur to me I was going to Russia,” he said.
“Why, what was so surprising?”
“It was so much worse than working class Yorkshire and they knew it. The Russians, I mean. They knew they were fucked. And there we were, a load of little shites out of England. Language prodigies. I met a Polish kid in a bar. I was 16. The language was so much kinder than Russian.”
On of the cafeteria ladies walked over and asked for a light.
“She looks like my grandmother,” I told him.
“Did she work in a cafeteria?” he asked.
“No. A fur coat factory.”
THE NEVER EMPTY
“I’ll bet you ten dollars there’s somebody out there. But just one person. If there’re two, I lose,” he said.
We sat on the porch in the rocking chairs rocking. Across the street the field was immense. Only two small houses stood in the way and the path, the only path to the wood and to the stream was clear within our view. The only time the field was full of people was early in the morning: the birders. Sam and I had just met a few days earlier and he came up with this little game. I was quickly learning that there was always a game, a game for everything.
“There he is,” said Sam. A singular man emerged over the small hill and came towards us. Wearing khaki and baby blue— alone.
The same thing happened again later, towards the end of the week. Sitting on the deck of the ski lodge as it grew colder and colder.
“See,” he said. “Look at those two going up the mountain.” He pointed at two small bodies walking full tilt into the sky.
“Do you think they’re with us?” I asked.
The sun was glowing red into the evening but the air was fresh, we were far into the forest.
“Are they going up or down, you think?” I asked him and drank more of my beer.
“Can’t tell at all,” he said.
“I think English people have it the worst. We aren’t anything, any ethnicity is something compared to us. The Irish look goddamn brilliant compared to us,” he said.
“But that’s it. Since you aren’t anything you can be anything. James, you just described white privilege,” I said. We were sitting in a dark corner of the barn eating Chex-Mix. It was so cold out someone had started a fire in the fire place; it was June.
“I know that. But I left there because I saw all these people around me who could have been anything but instead they ended up as nothing.” I didn’t know what to say to him then because it seemed so bratty what he was saying. And for a grown man.
But he couldn’t help himself. He wanted me to say, yes, me too, but I couldn’t. I’d never felt like nothing. Blank. He went on, “When I went to Russia and then to Poland, I was able to become something else. I changed over. I started to inhabit something I liked a lot better as soon as I spoke those new, strange sounds. Like what I was before was the thing I was pretending.”
WHAT IS YOUR COUNTRY?
“My son is still there. I haven’t been able to go back since the divorce. And my ex-mother-in-law, she’s in the same building,” he said.
I was a little drunk. Maybe he was too. The Turkish translator walked by and gave a disapproving look, but she was misunderstanding the situation.
“I’d like to bring my new partner there too. She’s Spanish, never been to Poland. But I haven’t even told my son about her yet,” he said.
“But you lived there, in Warsaw, for like ten years,” I said. I knew I sounded naïve telling someone so much older than me something like this.
I went on, “Don’t you have your own friends there. And your son, how old is he?”
“He’s twenty-five now. He might get married soon. If he does then I’ll have to go, there’ll be a reason.” At that we stared into the tall, tall pine trees. They were so still, weighted by the cold and the humidity.
“But isn’t it your place, too? Are you afraid of running into your ex-wife?”He kept looking out and took in another pull of his cigarette. Took another drink from his bottle of beer.
“My ex-wife lives in St. Louis. Ten minute drive from my house. I run into her all the time.”
When you didn’t laugh at his jokes either is when we fell in love. In our way. We were sitting at a round table of eight and everyone wanted to sit at our table. People started pulling their chairs up when they brought out the coffee and tea service. I was on your left and that angry girl with the blonde hair who you liked was on the right. That’s when Rex started telling his jokes. I think people came over to the table to hear the jokes, or because they heard so many people laughing. But they laughed too hard, with the corners of their mouths puckered too high. You were older than everyone there, James. And Rex looked at you and said, “I have one for you.”
“One what?” you asked him.
“A joke. It’s made for you,” said Rex, gunning.
“No, that’s ok,” you said.
Allison Grimaldi-Donahue is a writer and translator. Her work has appeared in Queen Mob’s Teahouse, tNY.press, The American Reader and The New Inquiry. She has been a fellow at the Vermont Studio Center and at the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference she is also a graduate of the University of Toronto Centre for Comparative Literature. She lives in Italy.