Jacek: An excerpt from Polska, 1994

Author: • March 20, 2014 • Novel Excerpts

At the big sliding metal door Jacek pulled me past the bouncer blocking the entrance.  The door opened in front of me and the push of people thrust me forward into the unknown.  I tried to keep the bar on my right and the door at my back so I wouldn’t get lost in the crowd.

Someone lifted my coat out of my hands.  A rough hand took mine and snaked me backward through the crowd.  When we reached the edge of the dance floor, Jacek handed me a drink—bitter and clear with olives—I finished it in one swallow so I wouldn’t have to taste it anymore.

“Slow down.  You’ll end up being a very expensive date.”

“Or the night will be short.”  The music hadn’t started but we were shouting to be heard.

“I’ll take you back to my place anytime you want.”

“How did you know I would come tonight?”

“State secret.”  The lights dimmed.  He leaned into the post and pulled me onto his lap.

I didn’t want to be in his lap, but people were rushing the stage and if he didn’t hold me I would be in the crowd.  In seconds there were so many people packed together I was afraid he’d let go of me.

The percussion began low and Jacek drummed his fingers on my upper thigh.  By the time they played Ręcy do Góry, Jacek’s friends had arrived and had brought so many drinks I barely felt the pinch of my shoes anymore.  I stepped into the crowd and was thrown forward into the twisting bodies.  The song got harder and sharper, morphing into Muj Wydafca and the crowd was shouting, “Oy, oy, oy.”  Two skinheads started throwing punches.  Somebody else caught an elbow and they pushed and jostled and kicked and no one intervened or pushed them outside.  Jacek pulled me backward onto his lap.

“Careful, mała.  These skin-y assholes don’t understand the difference between democracy and chaos.  I wouldn’t want to see you get hurt.”  His crotch burned hot and the lump in his pants grew bigger.  I struggled, but he must have thought I was playing because he pulled me in tighter and began grinding against me.  The arms holding me safe became tentacles across my abdomen—creeping up the hem of my skirt.  The more I struggled, the tighter he pressed.

“What the hell are you doing?” The voice was familiar but no one else I knew would ever be at the Stary Browar.

Suddenly he released me.  Some guy in a suit had Jacek pinned to the pole.

“What’s your problem, man?”

As the man dragged me away I realized it was Paweł.  Jacek yelled something but he didn’t even follow us.  He simply let me go.

Paweł shouted back, “You.  Stay the fuck away from my sister.”

Paweł shoved me out the door.  The sweat on my skin froze.  “Well?  See what happens when you go around dressed like a whore?  Who let you out of the house like that?”

He asked about my coat.  Jacek had it.  Paweł gave me his jacket and disappeared back inside.  I wrapped the fine wool and Old Spice close around me.  I remembered the first nights when he tucked me in—when he left open my door so he could hear me if I cried out.

Paweł hailed a cab and stared out the open window.  I wanted to explain it all.  I put my hand on his knee but he pulled it away.  When we got to the building, Paweł stopped me on the sidewalk.

“Stay away from that guy.  You don’t know what he’s like.”

“I don’t know what he’s like?  We’re dating.  What the hell do you know about him?”

“No one who respected you would do what he did to you tonight.  Besides, you are too young for a boyfriend.  I forbid you to see him.”

I pressed the button for the light.  “Respect?  Jacek is the only one who talks to me like I’m an adult.  If I want to see him you can’t stop me.”

He looked like he was trying to keep himself from hitting me.  The look was familiar.  It was the same face he made the night of Mama’s arrest when he held me down to keep me from screaming.

“Stay the fuck away from him.”

I backed down—fast.  At the top of the stairs he mouthed his warning once more and unlocked the door.  The light timed out.

Between Paweł and Jacek I was confused.  They both said they were looking out for me but Paweł was either yelling or silent. At least Jacek was nice. But sometimes he was too nice and I wasn’t ready.  I needed to talk to Jacek—to find out what Paweł said—to see if he even still liked me or I was too much trouble.  I used up two phone cards calling his house but his mother always answered.  It wasn’t hard to find out where Jacek lived from one of our gossipy neighbors.  I decided to wait in front of his building.

Jacek came out of the building.

“What are you doing here?  My mom says you’ve been here for hours.”  He pointed to a figure hovering behind curtains on the third floor.  “Are you the one who’s been calling and hanging up?”

“I wanted to see you.”  I wanted him to want to see me.

“Maybe it’s better if we don’t.”

“Paweł doesn’t make my decisions.”

“I don’t know what he told you…”

“He didn’t.  Well, he did tell me to stay away from you.”

“You are a little rebel.  Do you want to come up and meet my mom?”

I followed him up the stairs.  I was taking off my shoes when she came out of the living room.  Her dark, spiral-permed hair hung long over her shirt, barely concealing her bra.  Her eyes were tired but piercing like there was a dragon behind them.

“I’ve heard a lot about you, Magda.”  I couldn’t tell from her voice whether it was a good thing.  “Well it’s nice to finally talk with you.  Next time ring the bell. You kids be good.  Jacek, we’ll discuss bills later.”  And she was gone.

“Look, Magda.  I’d make you some tea, but I have plans.  Do you want to come over Thursday?”

“Will she be here?”

“No.  Come over around three.”  My shoes were back on and I was out the door—like I was never there except her eyes stayed with me.  And I had a date.  Paweł could stick it.  Maybe this time he’d tell me what he knew about my mother.


This is an excerpt taken from Polska, 1994. The novel will be available from Editions Checkpointed in May 2014.

About the Author

Ilsa McKettaAuthor: Isla McKetta

Country of residence: United States of America

Nationality: American

Mother tongue: English

Isla McKetta is a novelist who has lived on three continents and traveled across four. Her first novel, Polska, 1994, was researched while she lived in Poland. She reviews books at A Geography of Reading.

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