Joanna was a poet, the most poetic poet I had ever met. She was recognised as the best Polish one of her generation. She also thought, talked and behaved like a poet. By that I do not mean that she spoke in rhymes, far from it, but her thinking and talking had the sharpness, directness and simplicity of a metaphor. When she talked, she omitted all the middle stages between setting up an argument and conclusions, and cleansed her speech of embellishments. When she felt that she couldn’t express herself this way, she didn’t engage in a conversation. In the same vein, she didn’t want to spend much time on useless studies, although she went to the university as, without a college education, one was a nobody in communist Poland. This is how we met, in the early eighties.
Most people are not poets or even artists, therefore they weren’t able to appreciate Joanna’s wit. For most people, she was whimsical, eccentric or naïve or even dim, although the opposite was the case. Indeed, her directness (like when she said that only “love, poetry and material comfort” mattered to her) merely revealed the flaws in their own thinking and talking; it was like a litmus test detecting bullshit and hypocrisy as it measured the speed of their thought. As for me, I wasn’t an intellectual match to Joanna, as I was never a fast thinker, but I was able to notice her intelligence early on, even if it took me decades to be able to explain it.
Apart from intelligence, Joanna excelled in beauty. Her face was similar to that of Venus from Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” It was narrow and her eyes seemed to always be looking down, demurely, even when in reality she looked straight into your face. Her hair was long and wavy, although a bit darker than that of Venus, auburn rather than red. There was also so much character in her face, that it seemed like it could be easily captured in a simple sketch. But of course, simplicity, as in nature, as in literature, is deceptive–it is very difficult to emulate, therefore there are few successful portraits of Joanna.
Most people are not poets or even artists, therefore they weren’t able to appreciate Joanna’s wit. For most people, she was whimsical, eccentric or naïve or even dim, although the opposite was the case.”
Maybe because her intelligence and beauty were so out of ordinary, they put many people off, especially men. She used to attract artists and cads, because they had nothing to lose by being rebuked by her, and much to gain. She was especially popular among artists who were cads. If they weren’t cads, they were psychos. Some even succeeded to be all of those at once. A prime example was Joanna’s first husband, Xawery. He was a painter. When they were getting married, they seemed like a perfect couple, even though he didn’t match her in beauty or posture, but this was to be excused, given that it was next to impossible to match Joanna in beauty or posture. What they seemed to have in common was their vulnerability, a sense that they had nothing to hide and were happy in their own skin. Maybe in other countries it was nothing special to look and feel like that, but in the Poland of the eighties, this was very unusual.
On the Botticelli painting, on the right, there is a woman with a piece of cloth who tries to put it on the naked Venus, because Venus, coming to the world from another reality, does not have a sense of modesty and danger resulting from disrespecting human rules. I saw myself as this woman, trying to protect Joanna from whatever danger awaited her. It was difficult though.”
Snagging such a beauty boosted immensely Xawery’s already high self-confidence. He felt like he could have “any woman” and wanted to confirm it. And because there were few men in Poland courageous enough to try their luck at being a Casanova, he proved to be very lucky indeed. Most of his conquests were fellow artists, as they tended to be more curious about sex and less bothered about morals than the country’s average denizens. Admittedly, several fell for him after seeing his portraits of Joanna–the oval portraits, as he described them. These portraits were really very good and Xawery’s lovers hoped that he would paint them in a similar style. But he couldn’t and wouldn’t, because he was an abstract painter. He could only paint his wife, as she was so distinct that she was almost an abstraction.
Despite being an artist and a womaniser, he still came across as a family man, willing to work hard for his wife and the child who was to be born several months after the wedding. As it was not worth working in Poland, where salaries were then low, in relation to what could be earned abroad, he decided to travel to the U.S. He spent two years there, working on construction sites, spraying asbestos on ceilings and walls. Eastern Europeans and Poles especially specialised in such work, because already then, in the 1980s, there were rumours that asbestos caused cancer and the local people avoided this material. For the same reason, asbestos work paid well, which appealed to Xawery, as he needed his money as quickly as possible. Joanna joined him for part of his stay, leaving their daughter behind, to earn more–enough as not to need ever work again.
She used to attract artists and cads, because they had nothing to lose by being rebuked by her, and much to gain. She was especially popular among artists who were cads. If they weren’t cads, they were psychos.”
When they returned to Poland, they bought a house near Warsaw, but never lived there together. This was because he returned a changed man. Some people blamed it on asbestos, which poisoned his brain, others on the fact that during his absence he lost his talent and was banished from his university job. Whatever the cause, the effect was that he became intolerant and aggressive. He attacked everybody who disagreed with him. First he shouted at people and then he threw himself on them. There weren’t many people who wanted to engage in an argument with him, knowing the risk, so he turned towards his wife and daughter. To avoid his temper, Joanna decided to rent an apartment, and Xawery took over the house, which looked more like a ruin than an unfinished abode after one year of his residency. Yet in his eyes it was a palace which everybody wanted to invade. To protect himself, he bought two big dogs and a set of knives which he carried in his pockets and inside his boots, and put under the pillow where he went to sleep. He had problems falling asleep and instead of counting rams, as is the custom of Polish insomniacs, he counted his enemies. His list was growing expediently, making his sleepless nights longer and longer.
He could only paint his wife, as she was so distinct that she was almost an abstraction.”
When he was battling with his enemies and insomnia, his practical wife tried to salvage whatever she could from their joint estate. For this purpose, from time to time she visited him, trying to persuade him to get a divorce, sell the house and divide the money. He was not too adverse to a divorce, as he regarded Joanna as a traitor, not so much in a sense of being an adulterer (although he called her “whore” too), but in betraying his outlook, according to which the world was full of enemies, so they should jointly attack these bastards before they attacked them. He didn’t want to sell their house, not because he cared for it per se, but because it represented his sacrifice–his “asbestos years.” He was particularly attached to its ruined aspects, as he saw a correlation between this ruin and his internal damage. He only changed his mind when he ran out of money and the police came to evict him.
The house was sold at a loss, but Joanna managed to get a decent apartment for herself and their daughter with her share. Divorce was also accomplished. Waiting for a divorce did not prevent Joanna from spending time in male company. However, she wasn’t able to find anybody who could be considered long-term and she partly blamed her in-between status on this predicament. There were mainly “recyclables” in her life: men once discarded by her, but waiting in the shadow to be given a second chance or other, more attractive men who regarded her as a “recyclable” and didn’t want to commit. It occurred to her that Warsaw was full of such undesirables and she wasn’t in a mood to try to liberate the few decent men who were nailed to the marital cross. She thus decided to look abroad. But then, in these hard pre-internet times, the only viable option was to meet them during literary gigs. By default, they were fellow writers, only based in foreign countries.
One of them, named Maurycy, she met in Tel Aviv. He was well-travelled, erudite and a jack of all trades, with a stint as a war journalist. He was Jewish but with Polish roots. They could talk in Polish to each other. He understood her, her culture, yet she didn’t know his, which made him more interesting to Joanna than Polish Poles. Moreover, as a Jew, he had history in his DNA, while she, being Polish, had no history to talk about, no past re-rendering her a victor or victim. There was also much history in him because he was a widower; his wife was a well-known poet, indeed more famous by this point than my friend. Joanna didn’t mind being the second poet in Maurycy’s life, even regarded it as something amusing, a sign and a challenge. She also didn’t mind that he was almost twenty years older than she, as by this point she was less than thirty and he wasn’t old, in her eyes. For her, Maurycy was in the beautiful age of maturity.
There were mainly “recyclables” in her life: men once discarded by her, but waiting in the shadow to be given a second chance or other, more attractive men who regarded her as a “recyclable” and didn’t want to commit.”
But during their affair, the balance between his maturity and doddery tipped. One morning she decided that he was simply too old for her. His skin was wrinkled, his eyes were puffy, his teeth were brown and on his night table stood a collection of medicine containers. Plus, during sex he behaved like he was climbing Mount Everest–and not because it was so exhilarating, but because it was such an effort for him. On one occasion he got up from bed minutes after they finished making love to measure his blood pressure with an electronic monitor to make sure that sex wouldn’t kill him. To his horror, the pressure went up, so he suggested that they should be more careful. And being old and unfit wasn’t even the worst of his traits: the worst was that he was a sucker. He lived off women: his wife, until she died, his daughter who was starting a career as a model, his two previous girlfriends, and he wanted to do the same with Joanna. Indeed, at one point it occurred to her that he worshipped women because his life depended on them. His strategy was to persuade them into investing in some high-tech cutting edge business and when this did not work, borrow money from them so that he could invest himself. Joanna lent him two thousand dollars, which was meant to multiply in no time at all, but after six months, still didn’t bring any profit due to unexpected complications. By this point, she had enough of Maurycy. For several months she prolonged their affair because she hoped to recoup the “investment,” but in the end she realised that she would fail in this task. Still, she found herself lucky as, apart from money, she didn’t lose anything. There was no psychological damage, just the realisation that older men are no better than the young ones; only bad in a different way: less rough, less obviously self-centred and more cunning. Joanna half-joked that the money could be regarded as her contribution to the unpaid Holocaust reparations, of which many Jews accused Poles when they were visiting Israel.
Several years passed until Joanna got an appetite for a liaison with another writer. During this period, she spent much of her time in the company of Buddhists of various nationalities, met during Buddhist conventions, as she became Buddhist herself. But these were more affairs of the head than of the heart–these men did not excite her. She was also yearning for discussions about writing, particularly since she had writer’s block and for more than a year she wasn’t able to write a single verse. Lucjan, by contrast, wrote as if without any difficulty, albeit fiction, not poetry. He was talented, famous (at least as famous as a Polish writer writing in Polish could be). Except that he wasn’t a writer in the sense Joanna was a poet or at least he was becoming less of a writer as the years went by. Not only in a sense of writing less and less, but also seeing writing not as a goal but as a means to money and success. When he discovered that there is a limit to how much money and success one can extract from writing, he moved elsewhere: to politics and business.
One morning she decided that he was simply too old for her. His skin was wrinkled, his eyes were puffy, his teeth were brown and on his night table stood a collection of medicine containers. Plus, during sex he behaved like he was climbing Mount Everest–and not because it was so exhilarating, but because it was such an effort for him.”
Joanna met him when this transition was already under way. Yet, she fell under his spell, or rather the spell of the words he said to her. The words were convincing, because they were well-rehearsed; he said them to many women before Joanna. Unlike Joanna’s husband or Maurycy or even some Buddhists, Lucjan was never handsome, at best passable, due to having the archetypal Polish round face, mousy hair standing up and a wide waist waiting for a beer belly to take up its inevitable residence. When they were together, he was just barely passable to me. But he had what naïve women call “charisma,” which is, in a nutshell, a sense of entitlement–and not only to what he already had, but to what he still didn’t have. What he got, was never good enough for him. His mind was always on a higher prize. This manifested itself by a certain carelessness when they were together. He was like the guy from the movies who always reaches for a cigarette after sex, except that he quit smoking many years prior. The lack of a cigarette made him even more impatient. He had to jump from the bed to send an email or make an important call. Joanna explained Lucjan’s distraction by his numerous engagements on the one hand, and her inability to become the focus of his attention on the other. Like a bored and boring housewife, she begged him to work less and kept buying new clothes and new perfumes to look more attractive. Yet, the harder she tried, the less he was interested in her, seeing her effort as a reflection of his value not hers, and thinking that behind the corner there must be somebody more attractive waiting for him. He left her to pursue this better thing, but he never found it. When he discovered that it was a phantom, he tried to win Joanna back, but then it was too late.
When I met him by chance several years later, I noticed with malicious satisfaction that time destroyed the remnants of his already barely existent physical attractiveness. His cheeks became so full that they dragged his whole face down; his narrow eyes almost disappeared between heavy eyelids; eyelashes, eyebrows, the remains of his hair and lips had the same colourless colour. What pleased me most was that he must have noticed this transformation, as he tried to cover these changes, using expensive glasses, scarves, hats and growing a beard. But these attempts only proved that there was much to hide.
On the Botticelli painting, on the right, there is a woman with a piece of cloth who tries to put it on the naked Venus, because Venus, coming to the world from another reality, does not have a sense of modesty and danger resulting from disrespecting human rules. I saw myself as this woman, trying to protect Joanna from whatever danger awaited her. It was difficult though. I did not always know what was going on in her life or came too late to intervene or was too ashamed to keep my cape too close. Consequently, I was more an observer than a guardian angel, although maybe once or twice helped her not to fall prey to some unscrupulous men or escape from the clutches of some cads. There is also a point when even a poet gets careful. Joanna reached this stage shortly after her fortieth birthday. At this time she decided that she didn’t need men in her life, because she had had enough of them and lost interest.
Like a bored and boring housewife, she begged him to work less and kept buying new clothes and new perfumes to look more attractive. Yet, the harder she tried, the less he was interested in her, seeing her effort as a reflection of his value not hers, and thinking that behind the corner there must be somebody more attractive waiting for him.”
But several years after this discovery, fate brought her somebody, a friend, who eventually became a lover and finally a husband. With him, things developed so slowly that she didn’t even notice the changes.
When she was describing this man, whose name was Luca, it felt as if he was entirely made of negatives. He wasn’t Polish or Polish-speaking; he was Italian, but this fact only appeared to emphasise that he was the opposite of an archetypal Italian. He wasn’t an artist, he wasn’t older than her, he wasn’t married before, he didn’t have any children. Over the years, I was accustomed to him being two-dimensional, and only when I decided to describe Joanna’s life did I ask her to tell me more about him. She gave me answers, but they weren’t of much use to me, as it was obvious that they were shaped more by the nature of her love than by its object, plus it is so much more difficult to depict a decent man than a cad. Maybe the most important thing about him, even though Joanna did not say it openly, was that he was a conservationist. He let things be, unless he found them intolerable. This is a particularly important virtue for older people, who get very attached to their idiosyncrasies. So they lived in harmony, eating their meals together, reading books, while sitting in armchairs and visited friends dressed in their finest clothes. They would live happily ever after, if not for the fact that she got cancer which quickly spread over her interior, leaving only her soul untouched. She was sad to get the illness, but in her typical, optimistic way conceded that things could be worse. For example, she could get ill and die when fighting with Xawery over their house or being heart-broken after split with Lucjan. Moreover, there might be still something like life on the other side. I assured her that there would be and before she closed her eyes, I started to write this letter.