Even When You Think I'm Not There

by Dylan Brie Ducey
Amber arrives at Halina’s house, which looks as though it is going to collapse at any moment. Peeling paint, warped boards, broken windows. Amber climbs the stairs with their mildewed carpet; the walls are dirty and dusty and a dank smell hangs in the air. On the second floor there is a refrigerator in the corner of the large hallway, and innumerable boxes and stacks of newspaper. There is a communal bathroom, and there is no kitchen, not upstairs anyway. Other people rent rooms here, mostly poor students and a few illegal immigrants. Halina is legal, a student, and very poor.


Amber knocks on the door of Halina’s room. The door is slightly ajar, and Amber peers in. Halina is sitting at her desk in tiny pink satin pajamas and white mules. Her hair goes halfway down her back, and is blond and permed. She looks like an eastern bloc Barbie.


Czesc! Kurwa, you are looking good! You lost so much weight, God damn it!”

Amber smiles ruefully as Halina takes a hairbrush from the desk drawer, which is crammed with mascaras, lipsticks, eye pencils, creams, and nail polishes in many hues.

“I am cow compared to you!” Halina laughs. When she says “compared,” it sounds like “Compare Ed.”

“I am going to tell my brother you are goddess with hot body!”

Darek is Halina’s brother, and Amber’s ex-boyfriend. It was Amber who broke up with Darek, and he took it badly. Anyway she is fine now. She can have it both ways: She can be broken up with Darek and remain friends with Halina. So she tells herself.


Amber has brought two glasses of coffee. She got in the habit of drinking coffee from a glass when she lived with Darek. He mostly drinks tea, and always from a glass.  Amber sets one of the glasses of coffee on the desk. “For you, darling.”

Djienkuje, darling,” Halina trills. “You are so kind to poor refugee.”

“Oh, please.” Amber rolls her eyes. Halina likes to play up her status as an economic refugee, but Amber knows that her parents are educated, cultured. A doctor and a lawyer.


Amber sits on one of the single beds. It is Darek’s bed. He lived here for a while when Amber kicked him out of her apartment in November. Amber knew he would do this. Halina is Darek’s only relative in the United States, so the two of them lived together like sardines until Darek couldn’t stand it anymore and moved across the Bay to San Francisco.

          
Now he is gone, but a lot of his stuff is still here in Halina’s room: A bookcase, notebooks and papers, a bicycle, five Polish-English dictionaries. He left these very same things at Amber’s apartment when she kicked him out. He kept saying he’d come back for them, but Amber knew he just didn’t want to admit he wasn’t living with her anymore. He wanted to feel as though he could come back when he wanted. His friends kept calling Amber’s number because they didn’t know Darek had moved out. This didn’t bother Amber, but finally she had her number changed so Darek himself would stop calling, so she could sleep at night without the phone ringing and the answering machine going off. Darek, with his incessant shouting messages. I’m going to get you, and so forth.


Seeing his possessions here in Halina’s room gives Amber the distinct sensation that Darek is present. Waiting in the hallway perhaps. It is a troubling effect, but also thrilling. Thrilling because he always had that effect on her: He wooed her and caught her up in romance. He used to wrap his arms around her and say without irony, “I’ll always be with you. Even when you think I’m not there.” She had felt so loved when he said this, but hadn’t realized that he meant it literally. Even for the after. He wanted her to have this hangover forever, as her punishment for leaving him, or for having been so stupid as to fall in love with him in the first place. Still, right now Amber’s hands are only trembling a little. She is able to sit more or less calmly among Darek’s possessions and talk with his sister. Two months ago she could not have done this. This is proof that she can be friends with Halina in spite of Darek’s whims. He forced her to leave him, but he cannot force her to give up her friend.

          
“Amber. Kurwa, you are in coma with eyes open.” Halina is staring at her, shaking her head.

“What?”

“I said, what you think of the red lipstick?”

“Oh. It’s a bit much.”

“Is too much? But I am too much, nie?”

Tak. You are too much.”


Two hours and a lot of grooming later, Halina and Amber are seated at the bar of a trashy nightclub Amber. The darkness is broken only by two strobe lights that spin hypnotically. Pop music blares from several massive speakers, and the place is crammed with horny men and tightly clad women. Halina does fit in here: She is wearing an impossibly small miniskirt, a tight red shirt, and red spiked heels. Amber has on her usual going-out clothes: black minidress, black cowboy boots. She spent maybe ten minutes getting ready, to Halina’s sixty minutes.

Halina raises her glass. “To us in the discotheque, babe!”

“To you, Halina. I am here only in body.”

Halina looks at her approvingly. “And is great body, Amber. So sexy. All the guys are checking you out. I have to tell you what my brother said.”


Amber could say no. She could say ‘No, Halina, I don’t want to hear it.’ But she says nothing.

“He said to me on telephone that he really love-ed you. I said, then why you do all this stupid things to her? Why you scare her and make her call police? I say this is not love, Dariusz. He says no, I love her. Other American girls are stupid, do not read the books or newspaper, are not smart like Amber.” Halina pauses, watching Amber closely. “Is strange. Sometimes I think he believes it, that was really the fate for you and him to be together.”

Though they come from Halina’s mouth, the words are Darek’s own.

It was fate, you and me.

Amber looks at Halina’s wide face and sees Darek. When Halina speaks she hears Darek’s voice. The night he surprised her on the street and inveigled his way back into the apartment. Saying that he had been waiting behind that tree for two hours and would wait all night if he had to. Saying I want to go inside, I want to talk. And when she finally relented and they went upstairs it became quickly apparent that he had nothing to say so she opened the door and asked him to leave. And he would not leave. So foolishly, she tried to leave herself. And Darek said I’m yours and you’re mine forever so why are you trying to leave? Kurwa, baby, sometimes I think you are not very smart. Close the door, baby. Come on. I said, close it. I’ve got my hand on you I’m not letting you leave. This is almost funny that you think you can leave SO DON’T. Now. The door is closed, like it should be. Why are you crying? We’re together, that’s all that matters. Let’s go over here and I’ll let down the blinds. Now take off your clothes. Nie, nie, all you say is no. I want you to say yes now. Say it. Tak, Darek. Tak. Your bra, your underwear. Lie down. Now tell me. TELL ME. Kocham cie, Darek. Now we’ll be together forever.


In the nightclub, Amber gazes on the face of Darek’s sister. “So that was why he tried to break into my apartment, because he loved me so much?”


Kurwa, I know was crazy what he did. Was craziness of passion. I don’t know. I thought before that you should marry with my brother, because I could see you really love-ed him. And he chang-ed with you. You gave him the home, and he didn’t have that for so long time, since he was in Poland with our family. With you he was not the jerk like normal. But then he just went back to old Dariusz. Old shitty behavior.”

Exactly. Old shitty behavior. Amber left Darek because she had to. She could no longer stand how badly he treated her. She knows she cannot go back to him, but she still aches for him, for the person she thought he was, and this is what she doesn’t say to Halina. But her friend must know it on some level. Why else would Amber be hanging around with her, if not for the suggestion of contact with Darek?

They sit, watching the bouncing bodies on the dance floor.

Amber is drinking steadily and silently, so Halina tries to change the subject.

“I’m sorry I talk like this. Is difficult position for me because he is my brother and you are my friend. You were first American I met here. Remember, you took me to the school for the English classes? Kurwa, I was so fucked up, I didn’t have any English in this time. I was so crazy when first I came here. But you took me to the parties. You explained to me the American manners, how Americans are different from the Polish people. This crazy American kultura.”

Amber nods. Halina was a mess when she arrived from Europe. On her second day in Berkeley she showed up at Amber’s door all tricked out in hot pants, high heels, and a skin-tight shirt. She wanted directions to the shoe store on Telegraph Avenue. Amber made her come inside the apartment and tried to explain that Halina couldn’t go out dressed like that, that people would think she was a prostitute. But she didn’t know how to say “You might be attacked” in Polish. Finally Darek came home and unleashed a string of Polish expletives, and he made Halina go home and change clothing.

Halina continues, speaking with emotion. “But the thing Darek said about you is true. You are not like American girl, I think you are European really. How you are this way, Amber? How you can understand us? Is incredible. I never met other American like you in three years since I come here. Is like you know us, is like you are us. I think you are Polish girl in other life.”

“Maybe I was kidnapped by Americans as an infant.”

Halina laughs merrily. But Amber is experiencing Darek-overload and she wants this conversation to be over. At least Halina has not told her whom Darek is sleeping with this week. It is always someone new.

“I wish you are with my brother Amber, but I think is better you are not. He is my brother, but he is not good person. I think he is, how is the word, niemoralny.”

“Immoral.” Amber cannot disagree.

They finish their drinks and as they are sitting there looking at their empty glasses, the inevitable happens: Two men appear, a blond one and a tall one. Amber is both relieved that the Darek conversation is over, and dismayed that she now must witness Halina in her true element - seducing a hapless man. Thank God she can be real with me, Amber thinks, because around men she is unbearable.

“Can we buy you another?” asks Blond, his eyes locked on Halina’s chest.

“I think so! You are first in the line!” giggles Halina.

“What will you have?” asks Tall, looking at Amber.

“Scotch,” Amber says. “On the rocks.” She studies Tall and Blond dubiously.

Blond asks Halina if she is from around here. It’s clear that he suspects she is not.

“I am from Poland,” Halina says slyly. “Nice Polish girl from small village.”

Amber snickers. Halina is from Warsaw.

“Wow.”

“Yes, darling,” coos Halina. “Do you want to dance with me?”

Amber is amused by this performance, but only for a moment because Halina is about to leave her alone with Tall and even he looks alarmed at this prospect. Amber is not in the mood to entertain anyone.

Blond helps Halina down off the bar stool. Amber watches them bleakly as they disappear onto the dance floor. What is she doing at a trashy nightclub with Darek’s sister? She’s lonely. Halina is her friend, the only one who understands what she went through with Darek. Darek, the love of Amber’s life-so-far. The womanizer, the stalker. Amber’s lover and her hater.

Tall hands Amber a drink.

“Thanks,” she says. He is not bad looking. She hopes he doesn’t try to talk to her.

“Are you from Poland, too?”

“Ha. No, I’m American.”    

“Really? You seem so much like her, and you have an accent too.”

Oh, great.

Amber’s voice has changed to accommodate Halina and other friends who are not fluent in English. Darek’s English is flawless, but for the others Amber speaks carefully, enunciating every word and omitting the cumbersome ones. This is the most obvious sign that she has been immersed in another culture, albeit in her own country. Poland was just a place near Russia before she met Darek. But then she was living with Poland – the language, the mannerisms, the food, the dark humor.


Tall continues his blind attempt at conversation. “Do you have any hobbies?” He looks at her nervously; he doesn’t want to be there any more than she does.

“Books,” says Amber laconically. “I read books.” She looks down into her glass, but can still see the strobe light zinging little tiles of light across the ceiling and walls and floor of the nightclub.

“Reading, yeah, that’s cool.”

Amber finishes her scotch. She scans the dance floor, hoping to see Halina and Blond, but they are not there. She tells Tall she’s going to the bathroom and heads for the door instead.

She spots Halina and Blond in the parking lot, kissing next to a grey Jaguar. Halina turns and waves gaily at Amber, then she writes something on a piece of paper and hands it to Blond. She pushes him back toward the nightclub with her little hand. Blond walks slowly past Amber, grinning as though he has just been given a million dollars. Amber goes over to the Jaguar.

“He said this is his car,” Halina says. “What means jag-you-are?”

“It’s an expensive car.”

“Aha. He think he will get the sex because he has the nice car. Kurwa, he is cockroach like all other guys.”

On the way back to Berkeley, Amber asks Halina what was on the piece of paper she gave to Blond.

“Phone number.” replies Halina.

“Halina! What about Lug Nut?” Lug Nut is Halina’s boyfriend. He lives with Halina, though he isn’t home much because he’s in the Navy.

Halina gives Amber a bored look. “Lug Nut went away on the ship. He is stupid.”

Halina drives several blocks in silence. Then she looks sideways at Amber.

“Ah, something I have to tell you. Phone number I gave to the guy was not mine.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Halina laughs nervously. “On the paper. Was your phone number.”

“Mine! How could you do that?”

Halina takes on a slightly righteous tone. “I could not give my number because I don’t want him to know I have boyfriend! When he calls, just say I am not at home.  Then call me, and I call him back.”

Amber is amazed at Halina’s cunning. “I can’t believe you,” she grumbles. “What am I, your answering service?”

Halina pulls up in front of Amber’s apartment. “Just for a little while, baby. You can answer telephone, no? You always answer anyway the telephone. Why not do it for me? Your good friend.”

Amber is exasperated, but it is one o’clock in the morning and she can’t stand any more wheedling. “Okay, okay. I’ll do it. But just this once! If it happens again I’m going to tell Lug Nut.”

On the way up the stairs to her apartment, Amber remembers the time that Darek accused her of cheating on him because she had a conversation with the clerk at the grocery store. “What do you see in him, baby?” he whined.

“We were out of bread and milk, that’s what I see in him,” Amber replied, incredulous. But Darek ignored her protests and searched the apartment for incriminating notes. Finding nothing, he kissed her begrudgingly.

“Okay, baby. I guess I believe you, then.” But thereafter, he would stand in a long line just to avoid that particular clerk.


The morning after the night club, Amber is reading the paper when the telephone rings.

“Hello, may I speak to Halina?”

“She’s out right now.”

“Do you know when she’ll be back? This is Mark, from last night.”

What a sucker. “Any minute now. I’ll have her call you.”

“Thanks. You know, my friend liked you. He waited for you to come back to the bar, but you disappeared. Maybe the four of us can go out sometime.”

“Yeah, why don’t we do that,” says Amber. Right. In the next lifetime maybe. She dials Halina’s number.

“Hello?” Halina is breathless, as though she has just run up the stairs.        

“It’s me. Idiot-Head called.”

“Rrrreally? What he said about me? That I am innocent Polish girl from small village, that he will save me from the komunizm?” She giggles, and Amber hears the telephone fall with a crash onto the floor. “Sorry darling. But what he said really?”

“Oh my God. Just call him.” Amber is longing for a second cup of coffee and she is disgusted at her role as the Polish Refugee Answering Service.

“What he said about other guy?”

“He said the other guy liked me and we should all go out.”

Kurwa, I knew it. Other guy was really handsome and he likes you. This is always story with you Amber! All the guys want you. I am little bug, you are Marilyn Monroe.”


Amber makes another cup of coffee and takes it and the newspaper out to the back porch. She is absorbed in reading when Blond calls again. He wants to know why Halina hasn’t called him back yet. Then Halina calls, to ask Amber if Blond has called.

“Yes, he called. And yes I am fed up.” Amber is getting testy.

“But-”

“Enough! I’m not one of your little boyfriends, Halina.”

Halina is suddenly repentant. “Kurwa, I’m sorry. Is true, you are not the doormat. I take care of it. Is okay? You not hate me?”

“No, I don’t hate you.”
          

The following Saturday, Amber is reading The Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schulz. Schulz was a Polish Jew, an art teacher who refused chances to escape the ghetto during the war, and was finally shot by an SS guard. Amber knows his drawings also, of cruel dominatrices with boots and whips, eager to inflict pain. His prose is dreamlike, hallucinatory, and Amber is so absorbed in it that her ringing telephone is an annoyance.

“Can you go for the coffee right now?”

“Now? This is 911 or what?”

“I have problem I want to discuss with you.”

“Hmmmm. Is this about Blond Idiot Head?”

“Yes, is really important. Amber, prosze, meet me at café at two-thirty. You will come to Café Europa?”

“Okay. I’ll be there.”

Amber has never known Halina to be on time, so she reads until 2:40, then she walks six blocks north to the Café Europa. She used to go there often with Darek when he was still in school. They would go with all the Polish friends on the weekend, or she would meet him there after his classes.
          

At the café Amber stands in line and gets a cappuccino. She sugars it and steps outside into the sun. The place is crowded with students, every table is taken. Halina is sitting at a little green table at the edge of the café. She beckons to Amber. “Czesc,” she calls warmly.


Amber starts toward her. The sun is very bright. She sees something green on the chair opposite Halina’s. The sun is hitting Amber right in the eye. She squints. Then she sees the green thing for what it is: It is a bomber jacket.

Amber looks at Halina, who is still smiling. A tall blond man approaches Halina’s table from the other direction. Amber understands now. This is not the man from the nightclub. This man is wearing his usual white t-shirt and jeans and running shoes. He has an olive complexion and a square jaw and broad shoulders, and stands six feet and a few inches tall.


Darek sees Amber and in the first moment he looks surprised and confused. It’s obvious that he was not expecting to see her here. He was expecting to have a coffee with Halina. But in the next moment Darek’s blue eyes gaze into Amber’s, and he looks her up and down as if they are alone in a room with the shades drawn. Desire flashes over his face and he looks optimistic. I’m right here, he seems to say. Just a few steps and you’ll be mine again.

Only a few moments have passed but it seems like forever.

Halina smiles nervously at Amber with her most innocent “small village” look. “Come sit, guys,” she says encouragingly. “Why you are standing there? Sit and talk.”

Amber’s hands have started shaking. The cappuccino sloshes in the cup and spills into the saucer and onto her hand. Is it fear she feels now? Or fury? Whatever it is, it has bubbled up to the surface and threatens to explode.

“You lied to me,” she says, and she’s talking to Halina. But then both Darek and Halina talk at the same time.

“I didn’t, baby,” protests Darek. “I never lied to you.”

“But,” protests Halina. “Only I invite you to café!”

Amber shakes her head. “I trusted you. And you do this?” She waves her hand in Darek’s direction.

What a pair they are, one tiny and blonde in her blue mini dress, the other a blond giant with big muscles in his white t-shirt and jeans. It’s like they’re the same person, each furthering the sick goals of the other. And what is Amber to them? Why do they want so much from her and what will they give her in return?


Amber feels exhausted by all this drama and her impulse is to get away from it. She wants to leave. It’s simple, right? Just turn and go and leave the drama behind. It’s easy. But she doesn’t turn. While Darek and Halina watch, she backs up a few steps. But her movement is sudden and she bumps hard into a busboy. She drops the cup and saucer, which crash to the ground and shatter. Now people are shifting in their chairs, turning to look. Her drama on display.

“Sorry,” Amber says under her breath. “I’m sorry.” To whom is she apologizing? She doesn’t know. It doesn’t matter. Her anger has receded for the moment. Now there’s just embarrassment and confusion and something wet and sticky. She has gotten cappuccino all over her jeans.  

The busboy looks worried. It’s obvious that something is wrong. “Are you okay?” he whispers.

“I’m fine,” Amber assures him. “Thank you.” She exchanges glances with him and smiles. “Really.”

It’s clear that the busboy doesn’t believe her, but what choice does he have, he nods deferentially and starts to clean up the mess. He picks up the pieces of the broken cup and saucer and goes to get a mop. Halina and Darek have been watching all this time and now they are ready to help. Halina offers Amber some napkins. Darek offers Amber a chair.
Dylan Brie Ducey's work appears, or is forthcoming, in The Pinch, Gargoyle, The 3288 Review, whiskeypaper, Cheap Pop, Foliate Oak, and elsewhere. She received the Carlisle Family Scholarship to the 2015 Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, and her MFA from San Francisco State University.

© 2016, Dylan Brie Ducey