“Bye, Helena,” Wanda said.
“See you Monday, Wanda” I shouted back across the street as I opened the front door of the apartment building. I closed the door behind me and became aware of one of my favorite aromas drifting down the stairway, my mother’s cookies. I ran up the stairs, almost crashing through the apartment door in my rush to get to them. Just as I reached for a warm cookie I hear my mother say, “No, those are for your cousin’s birthday party tomorrow.”
“Just one, please?”
“Maybe later, after you finish your homework.”
I sighed, walked into my bedroom and dropped my book bag on the floor. I know my mother will let me have a couple of cookies later but they smell so good. I want one now. Oh well. My mother’s cakes and cookies are very popular at family gatherings. As for her other cooking, not so much. She has a sense of humor about it though and we can tease her. Her mother Greta, who passed away last year, was a very good cook and baker. I guess Mother only inherited the baking skills. Before Grandma Greta died, she taught me how to make pierogies, both potato and cheese. Mother says that when I make them, she’s reminded of her mother, and it makes her smile.
As I sit on my bed looking out the window, I really want to be outside, but I know the rule: homework first. Luckily it’s Friday, and my teachers don’t hand out much homework on Fridays. I really need to finish my algebra first. It’s my least favorite subject, and if I don’t finish it first, I’ll be rushing to get it done right before class. I much prefer history, especially the ancient periods of Rome, Greece, and Egypt. Some of my friends tease me when they see me reading a history book from the library. They prefer magazines, if they read anything at all. Some, like Maria, prefer gossip and shopping to reading.
Maria and I first met when we were two years old and lived in the same apartment building. We were inseparable, running up and down the building stairs until the neighbors yelled for our parents to come get us. When we were ten years old, her father’s dry-cleaning business became successful enough for them to afford a nicer apartment. They moved several blocks closer to the park, but thankfully still close enough for Maria and I to be in the same school. We know everything about each other; there's not a single secret between us. Two weeks ago, for my sixteenth birthday, Maria gave me a beautiful blue blouse that matches my eyes. I wore it the first day back at school. I have to admit that it does complement my blue eyes and blond hair. Maria’s birthday is coming up in a few weeks, and I’m still narrowing down the list of potential gifts.
I quickly finished my homework because I know Maria and her friend Tomas are waiting for me at the café. On my way out, my mother pretended she didn’t see me snatch a cookie, but I could see the grin on her face. As I walked the few blocks to the café a cool breeze made me shiver. Summer is still hanging on, but it isn’t as warm as it was a couple of weeks ago. I’m really looking forward to autumn, my favorite time of year.
The café comes into view and I can see Maria and Tomas leaning in to whisper to one another. Maria isn’t allowed to date until she turns sixteen, so for now, as far as her parents know, she and Tomas are just friends. They have to be careful in public so their relationship won’t be discovered, but all one has to do is see them together to know that it’s more than a friendship. As they sit sipping their tea their knees touch and you can see them glance adoringly at each other.
“Sorry I’m late. My algebra homework took forever. Did I miss anything?”
“We’ve been watching that argument across the street,” Tomas said. “The driver of the car, the man in the brown suit, drove through a puddle and splashed water on the man in the hat. Mr. Jablonski, the grocer, is trying to break it up but now the man in the hat appears to be blaming Mr. Jablonski, saying that the reason the puddle is there in the first place is because he had been hosing down the sidewalk in front of the store. I don’t know what the man in the hat hopes to gain from the argument. Ah, wait, here comes a police officer.”
We're at our regular table at our favorite café, across the street from the park in the center of the town. It’s a good sized town, about eighty kilometers east of Warsaw. I’ve been to Warsaw a couple of times and found the hustle and bustle a little scary. I’m much happier here. It’s not an exciting place to live but it's not boring either. There's always something interesting to watch here in the town square. People do strange things when they think no one is watching. Others do strange things because they know people are watching. The waitress brings my tea and Maria smiles at me as I proceed to put four cubes of sugar in the cup. I like tea, but the brand they serve at this café is a little bitter for my taste.
“Look at those two ladies strolling by the big tree,” Maria says. “Don’t you just love their hats? I can’t wait until I have my own money to spend on clothes and don’t need my mother’s permission to go shopping. Two more years of school, and then I can get a job and shop with my own money.”
“What about university?” I ask. “I thought you wanted to study fashion design in Paris.”
“That was the plan until I mentioned it to my parents a few days ago. My father told me that it isn’t proper for a young woman to move that far from home without her family. He told me that he’ll allow me to take a part-time job if I want to before I marry…he’ll allow me! Doesn’t he know we’re not living in the dark ages?”
“I’m sure he’ll change his mind when he sees how talented you are. Besides, when you turn eighteen, he can’t really tell you what you can or cannot do. Then you can go to Paris.”
“Except that I need money for school.”
“True. Let’s hope he changes his mind. Tomas, I never asked what your plans are for after graduation. You’re a senior now.”
“Well,” Tomas says, “I still haven’t decided. My father wants me to follow in his footsteps and attend law school, but I’m thinking about maybe studying accounting or finance. Working with investments would be very interesting, maybe banking.”
“You can manage all of the money Maria will have when she becomes a famous fashion designer,” I joke. Maria pretends to laugh but she’s still upset about what her father said.
“Hey, who are those girls on the bench over there? The ones with the dark hair.” I ask. “I haven’t seen them at school.”
Maria and Tomas both shrug their shoulders. “I don’t remember ever seeing them before either,” Maria says.
One girl is wearing her long, dark, curls down. They're beautiful. I’ve always wished my hair had some curl to it instead of being pin-straight like my mother’s. My father’s mother, Grandma Em, has curly blond hair. The older girl appears to have more of a wave to her hair, maybe because of the length. A police officer approached them and said something to them that caused them to hurry out through the far side of the park. Strange.
We sit for a while longer watching what seems to be the entire town passing by. As the afternoon wears on, traffic gets heavier with the work-day coming to an end. Everyone seems to head home a little faster on Fridays so they can start their weekend. I looked down at my watch to see that it’s already after five and time to go home. I gave Maria a kiss on the cheek, waved goodbye to Tomas, and walked home. As I wandered down the sidewalk, I wondered again what the police officer said to the dark-haired girls to upset them. They appeared to be enjoying the pleasant Friday afternoon just as we were.
“Did you have a nice afternoon?” my mother asked. “Here, come and tell me while you wash up.”
“I just met Maria and Tomas at the café by the park. Nothing special. We were just talking and watching the goings-on.”
“So do Maria’s parents know that Tomas is more than just her friend?” my mother asks with a grin on her face.
“How did you know that?”
“I was young once. Besides, it’s very obvious. I saw them outside the school last week on that day I came to pick you up for your dentist appointment. They couldn’t take their eyes off each other.”
“You’re right,” I say, “it is obvious. Maria says that they’re in love. I don’t know about that, but they are very close. She’ll officially be allowed to date when she turns sixteen. That’s only a few weeks away, but she hasn’t decided yet if she'll tell her parents or keep it a secret.”
“Parents always find out. She should tell them. That way they can get to know Tomas.”
The door opened and my father walked in. He put down his briefcase, placed his hat and jacket on the coat rack, and walked toward us. He managed a weak smile. “Hello sweetheart,” he said to my mother and gave her a kiss on the cheek. He kissed me on the cheek too and stroked my head.
“How was school?” he asked.
“Same as usual,” I reply.
“Is everything alright, Michal?” my mother asked.
“Yes, fine, Zofia. I’m just tired. It’s been a long week with that new client.”
“Well, dinner will be ready in about twenty minutes, so why doesn’t Helena pour you a drink and you can relax.” My mother gave me a nudge to go get his drink. “Two ice cubes," she reminded me.
My mother made broiled fish for dinner and it's actually tasty. My father jokingly thanked her for not burning it as he squeezed her hand. She smiled. My parents make an attractive couple. My father has brown hair and eyes, is average height and slender. In his three-piece suit and glasses, he looks very much like an accountant. He makes, as he says, “a comfortable living,” and I can’t remember ever being denied a reasonable request for anything. He likes to remind me that the request for a pony I made when I was eight years old was not reasonable. My mother has straight blond hair, which she usually pulls into a bun, and blue eyes. She’s a fraction shorter than my father, and she likes to joke with me that she “still has her girlish figure,” even after giving birth to my older brother, Max, and myself. I know they wanted to have more children, but there were complications when I was born, and my mother wasn’t able to get pregnant again.
“Is Max joining us tonight?” my father asked.
“No, not tonight. He has a late lecture so he told me he would spend the night on campus in a friend’s dorm room.”
After dinner I cleared the dishes from the table but my parents sat for a while, sipping their wine. I tried to be quiet because my father looks like he needs it. When I finished, I went to my room to read but I left the door open a little so I can hear what they’re talking about. I do this more often as I've gotten older and could understand what they're talking about. It remained quiet for a while and I had almost dozed off when I heard my father’s voice.
“There was a lot of talk today at work about what might happen if Poland continues to refuse to join the anti-Soviet pact. My boss has a brother who works in Berlin and he’s been hearing rumors that the Germans have run out of patience. There are a lot of worries that the Germans will attack Poland soon.”
“But won’t our army repel them?”
“Our solders will put up a good fight but they’re no match for the German air forces. I’m afraid our lives are going to change dramatically very quickly. It’s probably a good idea for you to begin stocking up on nonperishable food and find a way to store extra water. Also, we need to purchase a few gas lamps and kerosene. I’ll take care of hiding some extra money and our valuables.”
“Very well, if you think that’s best. I’ll try to explain things to Helena tomorrow before the party so she can help me.”
“What party? Oh yes, my nephew’s birthday. I need to speak with my father and brother anyway about the situation so they can prepare too.”
“Just remember that it’s a little boy’s birthday party. Don’t spoil the day with talk of war. If the rumors are true, this may be the last party for a long time.”
War! Did my mother just use the word “war”? They’re just sitting at the kitchen table, holding hands. Mother looks so sad. They were both about my age during the Great War. I remember my Grandpa Andrei telling me that some of the Germans caused trouble during the war but most minded their own business and were easier to deal with than the Russians. Maybe it won’t be as bad as my father thinks.
“Helena,” my mother calls, “come out and have a szarlotka with us.”
I love my mother’s apple tarts, especially with a glass of cold milk. Mother walked over to the radio and turned on some music. The first station she found is broadcasting classical music with a melancholy sound so she turned the tuner to find a more upbeat tune. She finally found a big-band broadcast and began tapping her foot. My father walked over, took her in his arms and they began dancing. They aren’t very good dancers, but that makes it all the more fun. I love watching them. Before I knew it, my father grabbed my hand and I was dancing. Well, sort of dancing. I’m not very coordinated. After I stepped on my father’s toes a few times, we collapsed on the sofa with my mother and laughed. We enjoy the music for a little longer and then my mother reminded me that it's time to get ready for bed. I fell asleep with an image in my head of my parents dancing.