Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Just a Wall - Chapter Nine

Saturday morning I was wide awake and staring at the ceiling before sunrise, and I couldn’t fall back to sleep. The fact that I was able to fall asleep at all last night surprised me. I spent an hour last night trying to decide what to wear for my date. I don’t know if I was more excited to be seeing Peter or that this is going to be my first date. The latter is probably more likely because I barely know Peter. He’s good looking and I really like his smile. His hair is a medium brown, parted slightly to one side with a sweep of hair covering part of his forehead, and he has hazel eyes. I’m surprised that I had time to notice the color of his eyes during our short meeting. I assume he’s intelligent because Max always seems to have smart friends. Okay, still not sleepy, and thinking about Peter certainly isn’t going to help.

I put on my robe and slippers, and went out into the kitchen to make some toast. Everyone else was still sleeping. Father walked in just after my toast popped. “Did I wake you?”

He shook his head from side to side as he let out a big yawn. “No. I had a restless night and couldn’t get back to sleep again.” He's already dressed in his weekend attire, casual pants and a button-up shirt. “I’ll be right back,” he said. “I just want to run down to see if the newsstand has reopened and if there are any newspapers.”

He quietly closed the door as he left so as to not awaken anyone else. I sat at the table nibbling on my toast, staring off into space. I was startled a little while later when Father returned with a newspaper. It’s been a few weeks since he’s had a newspaper to read, and he was so excited that he forgot to be quiet as he dragged his chair out from the table to sit. “I’ll make you some coffee, Father.”

The smell of the coffee brought Mother and Max into the kitchen. Max noticed the newspaper immediately, grabbed a chair, and sat himself down right next to Father so he could read at the same time. They were both mesmerized by that one thin newspaper and didn’t even notice when I placed their coffee cups in front of them.

Father and Max finally finished with the newspaper. “After weeks of constant fighting and bombardment, the Polish army units defending Warsaw had no choice but to surrender control of the city to the Germans,” Father said, paraphrasing the news stories. “Sections of the city are burning, but since the Germans destroyed the city’s waterworks, there was no way to extinguish the fires. Warsaw’s drinking water isn’t potable, so residents are being warned to boil all water before use. Beginning today, the remaining one hundred thousand or so Polish soldiers are to be evacuated to German POW camps. It’s estimated that in the past month, more than six hundred thousand Polish troops have been captured by the Germans and Russians, more than sixty thousand Polish soldiers have been killed, and more than one hundred thousand Polish troops escaped to Romania, Latvia, and Lithuania. Several tens of thousands of Polish civilians have also been killed. The entire country was now occupied by either Germany or Russia. Despite this situation, the Polish government-in-exile is refusing to issue a formal surrender.”

“Does that mean the fighting is over?” I asked.

“That’s hard to say,” Father responded. “Even if the actual invasion is finished and head-to-head combat has ended, the killing may not be. Both the Germans and Russians have a history of eliminating all people and organizations that oppose them or will get in the way of their plans for the conquered territories. We’re apparently in the Russian-occupied territory. Some of our older citizens may like to think that this is a known enemy, but Communist Russia is different from Czarist Russia. We’ll have to keep our eyes and ears open.”

I caught a glimpse of the clock. How is it eleven o’clock already? I jumped up from the table and ran into my bedroom, slamming the door behind me. I have to get ready for my date with Peter. As I hurried to dress and fix my hair I hummed my favorite song, trying to put myself in a better mood after the negative news reports. How can I be worried about my date when so many people have been killed? I sat down to take a deep breath and think about this for a moment. Our town, while occupied by the Russians, had been largely untouched by the fighting, especially compared to Warsaw. Do we continue on with our lives and just put them out of our minds? Yes and no, I guess. The Polish government will find a way to build up our military again, and with help from our allies, we’ll evict the Germans and Russians from Poland once and for all. Yes, I nodded to myself. Good attitude.

I finished getting ready. This is my second-favorite dress, dark green with a brown belt. My favorite dress is the light blue one, but I think the green one makes me look more mature. I am sixteen now. It’s time to leave little-girl things in the past. As usual, though, my hair is hopeless, too straight to do much of anything. I found a pretty brown hair clip, pulled back the hair from both sides of my head, and fastened the clip on the back of my head, leaving a wisp of a bang. It’ll have to do. Grandma Em gave me some pretty emerald earrings for my thirteenth birthday that finish off the outfit.

“You look very pretty,” Mother said. Father just nodded and went back to studying his newspaper.

“What’s that on your nose?” Max asked.

“What is it?” I rubbed my nose. “Did I get it off?”

Mother gave Max a little shove. “Don’t listen to him. Your nose is fine.”

I walked over and gave Max more than just a little shove. “I’ll get you for that.”

There was a knock at the door. I smoothed out my dress and walked slowly toward the door, knowing that they were all watching me. A big smile came over my face as I opened the door. “Peter, come in. Meet my parents.” He was also smiling as he removed his hat and entered the apartment.

Max greeted him. “Good to see you, buddy. Right on time. That’s a good start.”

Father walked over to take Peter’s hand. “Peter, nice to meet you. You look familiar. Have we met before?”

“The pleasure’s mine, sir. My father owns the liquor store a few blocks from here. I help out there sometimes on Saturdays. Maybe you saw me there, hauling boxes around.”

“Oh yes, I do know your father. Very nice man. He always has a new joke for me when I stop by.”

“Yes, that’s him. He has an interesting sense of humor. I notice you said ‘new’ joke, not ‘good’ joke. I wonder sometimes if he’s the only one who understands his jokes,” Peter said with a chuckle. My father laughed too.

Peter turned to my mother. “Ma’am, very nice to meet you. Max talks a lot about the wonderful desserts you make.”

“Thank you, Peter. It’s very nice to meet you too. Where are you and Helena going to eat?”

“There’s a little café that Max recommended in a section of the city that the Russians don’t seem to have much interest in. We can’t say that about many places, so I’m hoping it isn’t too crowded.”

“That sounds nice,” Mother said.

I could tell that she was nervous about my going out into the city without Max or Father. Max sensed it, too, so he jumped in.

“Peter knows all of the side streets to get there and back, so they can avoid the areas where the Russians are stationed or patrolling.”

“Well, we should get going,” Peter said. “We might have to wait for a table, and I’d like to finish lunch before it’s time for dinner.” Peter shook hands with my parents again and gave Max a nod. He helped me on with my sweater and escorted me out of the apartment.

“Whew, I’m glad that’s over,” Peter said. “You never know how the first meeting with your date’s parents will go.”

“So you do this often?” I asked.

Peter smiled. “Don’t worry, not that often. You have a very nice family and they obviously care about you a lot. That’s good to have. It’s been just me and my father for as long as I can remember. and he’s very busy with the store.”

“What happened to your mother?”

“When I was five years old, she suffered a miscarriage, twins, and she had an emotional breakdown. I don’t really remember it, but my father told me that after a couple of months, she seemed to be recovering, until one day she swallowed an entire bottle of sleeping pills when she was home alone. I was out of town, staying with my grandparents for the summer. By the time my father got home that day, she was already gone. At the time, my grandparents told me that she had been ill and died peacefully in her sleep. My father buried her before I got home and then threw himself into his work. I don’t really have any memories of her.”

“Oh, my goodness, that’s so sad. My mother had some complications while giving birth to me and she couldn’t have any more children. So I’m stuck with Max,” I joked. “No, I’m just kidding. Max is a good brother. Sometimes he still treats me like a little girl, though.”

“You’re definitely not a little girl.” Peter smiled as he offered me his arm. I couldn’t help but return the smile as I looped my arm through his.

We took turns sharing stories about our lives, school, and interests as we strolled along to the café and all during lunch. The café was crowded but we arrived just as the noon lunch crowd was finishing their meals, and we didn’t have to wait long for a table. There was never a lull in the conversation, and I felt very comfortable sharing personal stories with Peter. He seemed genuinely interested in all of them. He talked about the summers he spent with his grandparents and how he’s wanted to be a trial lawyer from an early age. He told me that he visits his mother’s grave each year on her birthday to update her on his life over the past year.

“I know, talking to a headstone is strange,” he said, “but it’s the only connection I have to her, and it gives me peace. My father never mentions her. With him, it’s all about the store and my education.”

After lunch we began our slow walk home. Peter reached for my hand. After a few moments I heard a sound in the distance. “Was that gunfire?” I asked him.

“That’s what it sounded like, but I think it came from the other side of town, nowhere near us.”

We began to walk a little faster anyway. Those sounds brought me back to the reality of the current situation. For the last couple of hours , I'd completely forgotten about the war. As we arrived at the next cross street, Peter suddenly pulled me back. “Russian troops,” he said.

We stepped back a few feet and sat on the front steps of an apartment building. Peter put his arm around my shoulder and we pretended to be minding our own business until they passed. When I turned to glance at the soldiers marching past, I could feel Peter’s warm breath on the back of my neck. When I turned my head to look at him, he kissed me,  my first real kiss, and I felt a tingle run through my body. Peter obviously had more experience than I did. As he pulled away, he stroked my cheek with the back of his fingers.

“The soldiers are gone now,” he said. “I think I should get you home.”

We held hands and walked in silence. “Thank you for a wonderful afternoon, Peter,” I said as we approached my apartment building.

“It was my pleasure. How about we make Saturday lunch a regular date?”

“I’d like that very much.”

“Good. I’ll talk to you soon.” He gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, made sure I was safely in the building, and walked away. I watched him for a moment and found myself already thinking about seeing him next week.

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