Excerpt from Illegal Liaisons by Grażyna Plebanek translated by Danusia Stok.
Jonathan’s thoughts rarely turned to the first time he had met Andrea. The moments in which they later immersed themselves occupied more space in his memory; and they had leapt into something more intense—they insisted—than ever before.
Jonathan’s memory turned out to be a clever device that didn’t prompt comparisons, at least not when he was with Andrea. She was his goal, his oxygen and his delicacy; he mounted her, lived by her breath, eagerly licked the nipples adorning the olive-skinned spheres of her breasts. Images of the bodies of women with whom he had been in the past, including the pale recollection of his wife’s body, lay forgotten at the bottom of his memory.
[private]Jonathan set out to climax with Andrea carrying no burdens, only his ego, which never physically let him down—something that filled him with pride. When later they lay side by side—and these were limited minutes of pure happiness, which disappeared as soon as they parted—Andrea, as women are wont to do, would say something like, “I remember the first time I saw you”. In her post-coital stupefaction, she could think of nothing else. She, so intelligent, witty, wise, wanted to whisper only about them. And so Jonathan, who had a similar vacuum in his head, hid behind the smoke of his cigarette and murmured, “Yes, yes, I remember”.
The truth came out when it turned out that “when I first saw you” meant something different to him and to her. Andrea counted their days together from their first meeting, he from their first lovemaking.
“Two different calendars!” shouted Andrea, knitting her dark brows. Did they have anything in common whatsoever? She was angry but a moment later forgave him, and Jonathan suspected that the abyss which proved his masculine lack of sensitivity in some way excited her.
Jonathan did, in fact, remember the first time he saw Andrea but he didn’t tell her because he didn’t want her to have any power over him. He had already realised that she could be cruel when she caught a whiff of blind attachment. He didn’t want her to wave a sheet stained with blood, his blood, in front of his nose, so he let her refresh this “forgo_en” memory for him.
Each time she spoke about the first time, Andrea added something new, some element she had previously overlooked. In this way she constructed their mythical beginning. Jonathan, meanwhile, silently struggled to hold on to his own. Frankly, he was afraid of her myth. He sensed that in repeating her story, his lover was spreading her web around him. And he was scared of it, just as every man is scared when he suspects he’s being trapped, even though all she tied him with was the thread of a story.
When he thought about his first meeting with Andrea, Jonathan tried to recall facts: the well-kept apartment with its stained-glass window over the stairwell and enormous hall ending in a garden. As always, the size of living areas in Brussels staggered him. Unfortunately, the large room reminded him of a toilet bowl festooned with dried turds and Jonathan would readily have scoured the knick-knacks and growths of souvenirs with steel wool.
He took a glass of champagne from the tray offered by a waiter and merged in with the crowd. People stood in groups in the middle of the room, some dressed in suits, others in jeans, yet Jonathan sensed that they were not quite as at ease as they pretended to be. He was just about to share his thoughts with Megi, who had come up to him with a glass, when she grabbed him by the arm and pulled him towards the nearest gathering.
“This is my husband, Jonathan,” she introduced him.
“Delighted…” Jonathan shook hands with the slim man.
“This is Ian who looks after European parliamentary relations in the organisation of employers.”
“This is my husband, Jonathan. Jonathan, meet Peter. Peter is the spokesman for…”
“I’m Megi and this is my husband, Jonathan. We’ve been in Brussels for over a month. No, we haven’t seen the Atomium yet. Jonathan? Have you met Margit? She is deputy spokesman for…”
“At the European Commission.”
“In the European Commission…”
“From the Commission…”
“Excuse me a moment, I’ve an urgent call.” Retreating, Jonathan reached into the pocket of his jacket.
He leaned against a table laden with snacks, mown down by social apathy. A private apartment and waiters, people in jeans but on stiff legs, a host with the handshake of a wet fish and a hostess with the face of Cinderella’s sister. Were they having a good time here, or working?
He grabbed a carrot and nibbled it quickly.
“You’re not from the Commission?| The question sounded like an affirmation.
Next to him stood a woman he didn’t know.
“It’s that obvious, is it?” he sighed.
She laughed and held out her hand.
Much later, he noticed that her hands were different from the rest of her body; they were wide, as if older, which she tried to disguise with a neat manicure. He hadn’t noticed at the time because Andrea was only just emerging from a haze of unfamiliarity. Tall and slim, she turned to take a canapé. Her buttocks were small and so round that he wanted to knead them.
“And don’t worry about those people.” She smiled, pointing at the undulating human circle. “Look, those on the outer circle are trainees…”
Jonathan looked at the twentysomethings whose faces were turned towards the centre of the circle.
“…those closer to the centre are higher-ranking officials. See the bald one on the right?|
“The bullet head?”
“He’s sharpening his teeth for the position of minister’s adviser. While the fat one with a muff of hair is angling for the still warm place of a colleague who was promoted to another department.”
“And the man everyone’s looking at?” asked Jonathan, indicating the centre where a tall, slim, grey-haired man was standing. The charisma emanating from him could be felt even at a distance.
“He’s the head of cabinet for the Justice Commissioner.” Andrea smiled.
“He’s boss of them all?” Jonathan was lost.
“He’s their god.”
The circle shuffled as the head of cabinet for the Commissioner retreated, shaking the outstretched hands as he went.
Andrea glanced at her watch.
“It was nice to meet you,” she said.
Jonathan felt an unexpected wrench within, a child’s voice screaming, “I want!” Perhaps it was the trace of a Swedish accent in her practically perfect English?
“What do you do?” he asked in desperation.
“I work for Swedish television. And you?”
Jonathan slipped his hands into his pockets. He loved this sort of reaction. He knew from experience that he ought to enjoy it to the full because it generally preceded another, less desirable one which began with the question: “And what do you write?”
He usually bore the phase of “losing face” manfully but this time he added equivocally, “I was recently offered a job to run a course in creative writing in Brussels.”
“But for financial reasons I suppose I ought to try for a place in the Commission…”
“Your course sounds more interesting.”
“You don’t want to know how much they pay.”
“You wouldn’t want to do what you don’t like.”
He squinted at Andrea and saw more of her: brown hair and beautifully sculpted lips.
“Look at that pâté,” she said and he reluctantly turned his eyes to the table. “Some people love it.”
“It’s foie gras.”
“I think you’d feel like those overstuffed geese in the Commission.”
He turned his eyes from the pâté and looked at her again. Final promises to phone were being exchanged among the group of officials but he was suddenly short of words. The silence between them grew thick.
“Are you…” Jonathan began but right then somebody stopped short beside them.
They both turned. It was the head of cabinet for the Commissioner.
“Simon, meet Jonathan” A professional smile appeared on Andrea’s face. “Jonathan is a writer and a lecturer in creative writing. Jonathan, this is Simon…”
The man’s handshake was energetic. Although Jonathan knew nothing about male beauty, he immediately knew that this man, although over fifty, put most men in the shade. And that his high rank had little to do with it.
“Andrea, we should be going,” the man said in excellent English.
“An Englishman, from Eton,” Jonathan quickly surmised.
“…Simon,” Andrea finished, “my partner.”
That night, Jonathan reached for Megi but he didn’t like the taste of her lips. They ended swiftly; Jonathan got up and went out on to the terrace for a cigarette.
He gazed at the clouds rolling over the dark mass of sky. He had immediately taken to the weather in Brussels, warm with an undertone of damp.
He loathed southern climates, the vertical sun and blind stubbornness of heat.
“Simon, my partner.” There was not a single woman at that strange party—and that included Megi—who had not stared at the man. Jonathan stubbed out his cigarette. Childish unease signalled its presence again, the tiresome ‘I want’, just as when Andrea had been leaving with Simon and Jonathan had taken the chance to look at her beautiful backside again. And now the sway of her hips was irking him like the hook on which a stupid pike—Jonathan—had let itself be caught.
Daily life slotted back into its course. Jonathan unpacked more cardboard boxes until he felt the days themselves had become rectangular. Reach for a box, open, pull out the contents…
Finally, the vision of a trip to IKEA acquired the exotic taste of escape and Swedish meatballs offered an opening into the wider world. Sitting at a plastic table, he savoured the thought of the jaws of their home in Brussels, hungry for equipment and objects, snapping at a safe distance.
On the way home, he stopped off to buy some bread rolls. Megi couldn’t get used to croissants and preferred ordinary bread, while the children loved the little rolls with a slit down the middle which they had immediately called ‘bums’. Jonathan asked for six bums and a take-away coffee.
He was just leaving the counter when he started. He had “met” Andrea a few times since their first meeting—running across the road, glancing at her watch, getting off a tram. But it was never her. He didn’t blow the impression she had made on him out of proportion; he often allowed himself to fantasise about women he hardly knew, rewrote scripts for which in real life he had neither time nor courage. It was one thing for his cock to dive into the hole of an appetising thirty-year-old, another to wrestle with questions about whether the sex would lead anywhere.
Jonathan’s principles, too, acted like a bucket of cold water. He was too young for a bit on the side; that was fine for old men needing to invigorate themselves or bores with the mentality of old age pensioners. Women found him attractive; he’d had quite a few before Megi and knew he could have one at any time. And even though monogamy wasn’t easy, when fantasies of other women—or the women themselves—became too pressing, he repeated Stefan’s maxim: ‘If you can’t knock her up, forget her’. In his case, ‘can’t’ had meant ‘didn’t choose to’.
As for an honourable attitude to a woman who belonged to another man, he had to admit that abstract male honour stood on a par with the fear of catching HIV.
When he saw Andrea, real in the light of day, he assured himself it was the sight of a familiar face that made him happy. As a seasoned traveller, he believed that a new place only became home when you bumped into people you knew on the street. And there—a few weeks and he was already meeting someone!
She noticed him, stopped hesitantly.
“Jonathan,” he jogged her memory. “We met…”
“I remember. Fairy tales—and a creative writing course.”
She was wearing a pale blouse and a skirt with a slit that aroused his imagination.
“A croissant, please.” She leant over to the salesgirl.
“A croissant at twelve?” he asked. “Isn’t it time for something more substantial?”
“I’m just off to lunch. I’ve got to eat something before.”
“You must be going to lunch with dwarves if you’ve got to eat first.”
“There you go, you’re already writing fairy tales!” Tiny wrinkles appeared around her eyes and disappeared. Jonathan thought he would like to gaze at that smile for longer. There was something exciting about her face, both sexy and intelligent.
“I’ll write one if you promise you won’t touch the poisoned apple on the way,” he muttered.
Andrea glanced at the croissant with suspicion. Her blouse was covered with crumbs as she bit into the pastry; a few fell down her neckline.
“I’ve got some rolls for a rainy day should anything happen.” He lifted the bag of “bums”. “Would you like one to take with you in case the dwarves serve in-flight portions?”
She shook her head.
“My dwarf’s from the Commission. I want to get him on my programme. I don’t eat much when talking business.”
“I get angry when I don’t eat.”
“That’s incredible, I’m just the same! Other people seem to cope with hunger in a civilised way but I get livid. I’ve even got a complex about it.”
“You shouldn’t,” Jonathan reassured her. “After all, we’re beasts of prey. The skin of a lamb but beneath lurks a wolf.”
“Sounds like a disease,” she grimaced.
“Homo homini lupus in Latin.”
She smiled again and he remembered the coffee he was holding. He drank a little without taking his eyes off Andrea. She pushed the hair from her forehead with a gesture that told him she didn’t mind his gaze.
“Do you live nearby?” she asked.
“A few streets away.”
“How’s your creative writing course going?”
“I’m working on a survival course at the moment. I mean, we’ve just moved.” He indicated the jeans in which he had knelt to assemble the wardrobes, beds and shelves.
“And you’re no longer looking for a job in the Commission?”
“I haven’t even started. Since you said I’d feel like a goose…”
This time she didn’t smile, as if the joke had run off track and was bouncing over a road full of potholes.
“I’ve got to dash,” she said, glancing at her watch.
I’ve overdone it, he thought.
And then something happened which made the hairs on his hands stand on end. Andrea pulled herself upright, shook the croissant crumbs from her blouse and walked up to him to say goodbye, kissing him in the French manner on both cheeks. But Jonathan forgot how many times they kissed in Belgium and after two kisses leaned over for a third; she, disorientated, paused as she turned her head and, instead of offering her cheek, touched his lips with hers. Jonathan’s reflex was to move his lips a centimetre (something shouted silently in him, ‘I want!’) and their lips joined, quivered with warmth and moisture and started to search for each other.[/private]