Lovetown by Michał Witkowski
Translated from the Polish by W. Martin (Portobello Books 2010)
Growing up queer in a communist state, Patricia and Lucretia spent the 1970s and 1980s underground, finding glamour in the squalor, in parks and public toilets, seducing hard Soviet soldiers, preying on drunks and seeing their friends die of AIDS. Their life was constrained, but when they hit Lovetown, populated by a younger and flashier generation who are out and proud in their post-communist paradise, they make the discovery that where anything goes, some things have also been lost.
Michał Witkowski was born in 1975 in Wrocław. He has written a doctoral dissertation in Polish philology at the University of Wrocław and published five books, two of which were nominated for Poland’s prestigious NIKE Literary Award. Lovetown, which also won the Polish Booksellers Association Prize, has been published in 16 languages.
W. Martin has published translations of work by Natasza Goerke, Marcin Świetlicki, Erich Kästner and Günter Grass. He edited the ‘New Polish Writing’ issue of the Chicago Review and is the recipient of a 2008 NEA Fellowship in translation. He currently works for the Polish Cultural Institute in New York.
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The book of the street
Fourth floor, I buzz the entryphone and hear what sounds like squealing, oohs and aahs.
This must be it. I boldly step into the filthy lobby.
Patricia and Lucretia are already old men; whatever lives they once enjoyed are long over and done with. Since 1992, to be precise. Patricia: a heavy-set, run-down man with a huge bald patch and animated, bushy
eyebrows. Lucretia: wrong side of fifty, smooth-shaven, cynical, just as fat. Black fingernails eaten away by ringworm, little jokes, blasé airs, stock phrases: ‘If they finish school, they’re not real men!’ Their whole lives they made ends meet working as hostesses, orderlies, cloakroom attendants. It was a way to get by while giving themselves time for the really important things.
I take a rickety lift up to the fourth floor of a gloomy, socialist apartment block, circa 1960. Stinks of piss. Out in the courtyard little kids are screaming their heads off. I look at the buttons scorched here and there
by cigarettes, labels peeling. I read the graffiti: football slogans, a threat to send someone to the ovens. I give the bell a quick poke. The door opens immediately; it’s Lucretia. Patricia is in the kitchen, making the tea. They’re both excited about the ‘reporter man’ who’s come to visit; they’re acting like real celebrities. For now they’re living off their pensions, barely scraping by. They don’t even have a vegetable patch where they can grow a few cloves of garlic, or share memories of the good old days over the garden fence with the old dear next door. No, their memories aren’t things you’d want strangers to hear. Which is exactly why I’m going to hear them today.
Lucretia had once been a German teacher, but he could never keep a job for long; he was always landing himself in trouble by making the moves on his students, until finally he ended up working as a private tutor. In the seventies, he moved from Bydgoszcz to Wrocław. Here, in a park where the queers go, in a dirty public toilet, he met Patricia. Patricia was sprawled out, drunk, his head in a pool of piss, thinking he’d never get back on his feet. But Lucretia helped the little slut out, finding him a job as a cloakroom attendant in a workers’ cultural centre. From then on, it was Patricia’s job to dispense ping-pong balls to young functionaries who came to play table tennis in the club room. The work was easy, the pay like any other. By day, Patricia drank coffee out of recycled mustard jars and gossiped with the caretaker. Night was when she came alive. Sometimes she stayed out on her shift, as if she were a night porter, until dawn. Then she would fantasise that she was a Baroque lady wearing an enormous crinoline and a tall wig, taking a carriage to see her lover; she imagined she had some completely unpronounceable name and a huge fan to hide her face behind. The roof might be leaking into a bucket, the wind howling outside the window, but Patricia would get up, make coffee or tea with a little heating coil, add a shot of vodka, then return to her carriage, to Versailles, to skirts so wide you could fit a couple of lovers and a bottle of poison under their pleats. She’d light up a Wiarus and go on her rounds, and by the time she returned she had already worked out her next step. All she needed were earplugs, because the nights were never quiet, and the guard dogs outside were always chasing cats. Morning sobered her up like a splash of cold water. She had to clock off, she had to go back; once again people would be making demands of her, and once again she would be lazy and insubordinate in return.
But that was a long time ago, back when the workers at Hydral and Stolbud still had energy at the end of the working day for things like ballet, back before phrases like ‘child molesting’ had been invented, and
newspapers were only interested in their own problems. Television had yet to come to the night shift, so people had to let their imaginations run at full steam, else they would die of boredom.
Today the rooms in Patricia’s cultural centre have all been taken over by different companies. The façade is plastered with signs showing which floor houses the pawn shop, the currency exchange, the pool hall, the candle wholesaler. What was once a studio where workers awkwardly learned to dance now has the romantic moniker ‘Everything for Five Zlotys’. Nobody wants to give Patricia a job any more, everyone’s just looking out for number one, and building security is handled by a special firm. The world is a bad place because the poetry recitation contests, the girls’ calisthenics, the ballet classes, and the corrective gymnastics have given way to filthy dens where wannabe-mafiosi trade unfashionable second-hand mobile phones. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, you can’t buy earplugs at the kiosks any more. Patricia gave this all some thought and decided, with no regrets, to take her much-deserved pension.
Poland’s Third Republic never got a foot in her door.
They refer to each other as she and her, call each other sister or girl, and it wasn’t all that long ago that they were still picking up men – in the park, behind the opera house, and at the train station. Who knows how much is true, how much is legend, and how much is simply taking the piss. But one thing is sure: they’re just two of the innumerable legion of sex addicts. Connoisseurs of cock! Even today, pot-bellied pensioners, they have a few tricks up their sleeves. Neither has ever heard of plastic surgery or sexchange operations. They get by with a flourish or two of their plain black satchels, which they call ‘handbags’. They make do with what they’ve got – the quintessence of communist-era mediocrity. All they have to do is hold their cigarettes a little differently, shave every day, and put their words, their language, to use. For their power lies in their words. They have nothing; whatever they do have they’ve had to make up, lie up, sing up. Today you can buy anything you want: your sex, your eye colour, your hair – there’s no place left for the imagination. Which is why they would rather be poor and ‘have a bit of fun’.
‘Oh stop, darling!’ Patricia gets ‘dramatic’ and pours tea into a chipped cup; old and grimy though it may be, it still comes on a saucer and with a serviette. Form, form is all that matters. And words.
‘Oh stop! My glory days are long over, my arse is even sagging. O where o where are the snows of yesteryear? Christ, what a fruity-pie! what a crazy dame! Do you mind? Old Villon said it best: it’s better to choose boys. And boy could we choose ’em!’
Being ‘dramatic’, ‘camping it up’, and ‘being swish’ mean acting like a woman, whatever they understand by that. Apparently it means flapping their hands and squealing, saying things like ‘Oh stop!’ and ‘Christ, Christina!’, or going up to a cute lad, holding their bent wrists in his face, and saying, ‘Sit up straight, puppy dog, when you’re talking to me!’
They don’t want to be women at all; they want to be swishy men. That’s how they like it, how they’ve been their whole lives: pretend femmes. To actually be a woman would be beside the point. What’s exciting is the
pretending; to actually satisfy their imagination would be… but satisfaction isn’t a word in their language. The only words they know are ‘hunger’, ‘frustration’, ‘cold night’, ‘wind’, and ‘come with me’. A permanent stopover in the upper regions of the depths, between the railway station, where the pickings were slimmest, their miserable jobs and the park, where the public toilet was. The arsehole of the world.
And as it happens, someone had lined this arsehole with sawdust and rags especially for them. All comfy and cosy.
No one ever went hungry with that tinned soup, with those potatoes, the subsidies of socialism. There was always enough to eat and a roof over your head; a lady doesn’t need much to get by. Now they’re building a great big shopping mall in that park of theirs; they’re burying their entire history. Patricia insists she will protest. But she’s only kidding. More bitterly and sadly every time. ‘What can a bag lady like me do? Lay into Big Capital with my walking stick? Hit it over the head with my handbag? What should I tell them, that it’s an historic site? Oh, go and get the ashtray, Lucretia, the gentleman has nowhere to put his (ha! ha!) aaaassshh!’
Patricia realises she’s called herself a ‘bag lady’, and she’s delighted at her new joke. Somewhere deep down it contains a trickle of indignity, and Patricia is already planning to drink it, to lick it up like a drop of eggnog from the bottom of a glass. Tonight.
‘So there I am on my way to the park. First I stop at the kiosk and buy some cigarettes, like I’ve done for years. They’re fine; they’re not at all seriously harmful to my health. Then I see this guy I knew way back, made a name for himself, a businessman. and he cuts me this look like I’m a prostitute or something, like I’m a streetwalker down by the station. Well, I suppose I am walking the street. But I’m nobody’s streetwalker… so I listen to what he says, but none of it has anything to do with me, something about the credit. Can you believe it? He’s got the credit, but he’s losing his job. And I’m thinking, darling, if all I needed was credit to make me happy… so I’m having all these deep philosophical thoughts, see, and Lucia La Douche, who I share them with, completely agrees. That we’re living in the highest regions of the depths, like in paradise. Nothing can threaten us, and…’ – Lucretia lazily stretches her entire body – ‘life actually has meaning!’ She licks herself indecently.
I’m sitting at the wobbly table in the kitchen of their dilapidated flat. Nothing has changed here since the days of communism. All around me are Taiwanese gold watches from the market, barometers from the market, glittery figurines from the market, all of it from Russia. Even their speech is full of Russianisms:
‘Not much by him in the trousers….’
Grinding poverty. Their laundry dries on a line hung over the stove. Men’s underwear, all of it black, and the cheapest brand; darned socks, black too. First, because black is weird, and second, because mourning is the rule in this household, and has been for over a decade.
Lucretia poses like a dowager countess deprived of her fortune by the vicissitudes of war. She crosses her legs (a pale calf, tattooed with a web of veins, appears between her sock and the cuff of her brown trousers), lights a cigarette, holds the smoke in for a moment, then releases it with a deep sigh, a lady lost in revery. They put on their favourite Anna German record. The disc spins round on the turntable:
In the café on the corner there’s a concert every night
Stay there in the doorway, you dancing Eurydices,
Before the walls are streaked with the day’s first light
May your drunken Orpheuses
Hold you in their arms…
They offer me a cup of sweet, lukewarm tea. Their flat is furnished like the waiting room of a clinic. You can tell how little people need in life when they ‘live’ by other means, when their flat is nothing more than a waiting room, somewhere to spend the time between nocturnal forays. It’s seedy, as the homes of (sex) addicts usually are. The bottom halves of the walls are painted with a yellow, oil-based paint; the top halves are grimy. The windowsills are lined with white plastic pots of grasses and a recently deceased money tree. I wait for the two ladies (gentlemen?) to finally sit down for their tea and cigarettes, to stop running around. But the moment one takes a seat, the other suddenly realises she needs to spray her armpits with deodorant, or brush her hair in front of the cracked mirror. Something is cooking in the kitchen, too, and Lucretia gets up to water the plants from a communist-era milk bottle. Who knows where that came from? They preen and primp themselves the whole time. Guests make rare appearances in this house of mourning.
‘Let’s begin. First, perhaps you could tell me something about life for homosexuals in Wrocław back then?’
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/writersintranslation/makingtheworldlegible/lovetown-michalwitkowski/