Vol. 4 No. 5 · 18 March 1982

Lost in America – Part One of a Memoir by Isaac Bashevis Singer

6254 words

At the onset of the 1930s, my disillusionment with myself reached a stage in which I had lost all hope. If truth be told, I had had little of it to lose. Hitler was on the verge of assuming power in Germany. The Polish fascists proclaimed that as far as the Jews were concerned they had the same plans for them as did the Nazis.

It was summer and the heat engulfed Warsaw. I had two residences – one in Warsaw and one in the country, between Swider and Otwock. I still wrote for a Parisian Yiddish newspaper that was about to close, and from time to time I published a fragment of a story in the Express.

I had moved out of Mrs Alpert’s, but I had promised her and the maid Marila to return at the first opportunity if the room was still available. At the same time I knew that I would never go back since at that time I had already obtained an affidavit to America from my brother Joshua and I was waiting for a tourist visa from the American consul. I had also applied for a foreign passport but it turned out that I lacked the required documents. I had a premonition that I would never leave Poland and that all my endeavours were for naught.

The days were long in the summer. It wasn’t until ten o’clock that the last remnants of sunset vanished from sight. By three in the morning, the birds already commenced to twitter in my caricature of a dacha. My girlfriend Lena and I both slept in the nude since our garret room was baked by the sun all day, roasting our bodies like an oven. It wasn’t until dawn that some cool breezes from the pine forests began to blow. The entire villa was one enormous ruin. The roof had holes, and when it rained we had to set up buckets to catch the water. The floor was rotted and infested with vermin. The mice had fled for lack of food. For the sum of 150 zlotys, we had rented a room for the whole season. Actually, we had the entire house to ourselves, since no one else would move into this building. The doors to all the rooms stood open. The mattresses on the beds were torn, with rusted springs protruding. Occasionally, when the wind blew, the whole house shook as swarms of demons whistled and howled.

Lena and I had grown accustomed to the evil powers. They scampered over the stairs at night, opened and slammed doors, moved furniture. Even though Lena considered herself 100 per cent atheist and mocked me and my writings about the supernatural, she confessed that she had glimpsed phantoms in the corridors. At every opportunity Lena quoted Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Bukharin, yet she was afraid to go to the outhouse at night and she used a chamber pot. The reason she gave was that the outhouse was overgrown with weeds and snakes lurked there. We were given a kerosene lamp by the owner, but we seldom lit it, since the moment a light came on, moths, gnats and other insects entered through the broken windowpanes. Huge beetles emerged from holes and cracks in the floor. I covered the vat of water I brought in each day from the pump, else dozens of drowned creatures would be found floating there in the morning.

I had inherited Lena from an old girlfriend, Sabina. They were close friends for a time. They had even spent several months together in Pawiak Prison, in the women’s section nicknamed ‘Serbia’. There, in their prison cell, they had fallen out because Sabina had become a Trotskyite while Lena continued to swear allegiance to Comrade Stalin. Lena had been released on bail and was supposed to stand trial, which had been scheduled months before, but she had jumped bail because new witnesses had been found for the prosecution and she would surely have been sentenced to many years’ imprisonment.

She had come to me in Warsaw requesting a night’s sanctuary because she was, as she said, surrounded by police spies. I had only one narrow iron bed in my furnished room and she slept with me not just that one night, but for more than two weeks. She called me a capitalistic lackey even as she clamped her lips onto mine. She complained that my mystical stories helped to perpetuate fascism, but she tried to translate some of them into Polish. She swore to me that she had undergone a gynecological operation that had rendered her sterile, but she was already in her fifth month that summer. She said that she wanted to have a child by me even if the world were destroyed the next day. She assured me that the ultimate struggle between justice and exploitation was coming and, if truth triumphed, she wouldn’t need my support. I could go to America if I wanted to escape the unavoidable day of revenge by the Polish masses. The revolution would reach there as well.

Lena and I both lived for the present. In order to get through the day – and sometimes the miserable nights as well – I fantasised that I was already dead, one of those legendary corpses which, instead of resting in the cemetery, leave their graves to reside in the world of chaos. I had described such living dead in my stories and now in my imagination I had become one of my own protagonists. Since I was a corpse, I told myself, what need had I to worry? What could happen to me? A corpse could even afford to sin.

As I stood on the balcony one night I figured out my plans for the day. I had no real reason for going to Warsaw and spending the few zlotys for the fare, but I had to see the few people with whom I was still connected in this worst of all worlds. No one in Warsaw knew my Swider address. I had no telephone. I never saw a letter carrier enter this has-been villa. Perhaps the cheque from the newspaper in Paris had come? Maybe there was an answer from the American consul? Maybe there was a letter from Joshua waiting? It was too early to dress and I went back to bed. Lena was awake, too. She was sitting on the edge of the bed smoking a cigarette. For an instant I could see her naked body in the glow of its tip. She asked: ‘What time are you dashing to Warsaw?’

‘Ten o’clock.’

‘So early? Well, it’s all the same. Bring me back something to read, at least. Yesterday I finished Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.’

‘Is it good?’

‘Neither good nor bad. There is nothing American about this tragedy.’

‘I’ll drop by Bresler’s and bring you a whole stack of books.’

‘Don’t get lost in Warsaw.’

I was hungry after a meagre supper the night before. I was in a mood for fresh rolls, coffee with cream and a piece of herring, but all we had was stale bread and a package of chicory. The little bit of milk that remained had turned sour overnight. Maybe it’s already time to return to the grave? I asked myself. But somehow, I wasn’t ready yet. Experience had taught me that whenever things grow extremely bad and I think that the end is near, something inevitably happens that seems a miracle. Though I had refuted God, I still believed that somewhere in the celestial register accounts were being kept of every person, every worm, every microbe. I did not expect to fall asleep, but I did when I lay down on my torn mattress, and when I opened my eyes the sun was shining.

Lena lit the Primus stove and it began to seethe and stink of alcohol. She boiled water with chicory and handed me a thick slice of black bread smeared with jam. It seemed to me that she took a thinner slice for herself and less jam. Even though she preached equality of the sexes, a trace of respect for the male inherited from generations of grandmothers and great-grandmothers still reposed somewhere within her. I chewed the stale bread for so long that it began to taste fresh. Even the chicory and water acquired flavour when you drank it slowly. Millions of people in India, China and Manchuria didn’t even have this. Only ten years or so earlier, millions of peasants had starved to death in Soviet Russia.

It was too early to go to the station, but I could not spend all morning inside that ruin. Lena accompanied me. I warned her that she might be recognised and arrested and she contended that it would be better for her to be imprisoned. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about a maternity clinic and a place to live after the summer was over. We strolled along on the sand, each preoccupied with his own thoughts.

Lena began to speak to me and to herself: ‘In what way is this miserable place better than a prison? At the Pawiak I had a clean bed. I ate better, too. Before I had a fight with the girls, I also had more company. Here, hours go by that you don’t speak a word to me. I warned you to put aside that ridiculous novel but you clung to it like a drowning man to a straw. Simply watching you struggle over this damn manuscript is more painful to me than the toughest jail. At times I feel like stopping a policeman and saying: “Here I am.” At least I’d find a place for my son.’

‘How do you know it’ll be a son? It could be a daughter.’

‘For my part, it could be an incubus.’

I tried to comfort her by saying that I would take her along to America, but she replied: ‘Do me no favours. You can take your America and stick it!’

Finally, the train came and I climbed aboard. Lena turned around to go back. I had to keep reminding myself that I was a corpse freed of all human anxieties. I was dead, dead, dead! I didn’t dare forget this for even a moment.

Everything came hard to me – the passport, the visa. Even a naive Yankee like the American consul didn’t believe that I was being invited to America to speak about literature. I looked like a frightened boy, not a lecturer. He posed many questions to me through his interpreter, a Jewish girl with a big head of bleached curly hair. The consul had received information from someone that I was having an affair with a leftist woman and he asked: ‘How is it you come to be involved with such individuals?’

I was overcome by a silly sense of frankness and I countered his question with another: ‘Where else can you get free love?’

The interpreter laughed, and after she had translated my response, laughter broke out among the other officials.

This answer, like all my others, was not true. Many of the so-called bourgeois girls were already far from being chaste. The only difference lay in that the bourgeois girls weren’t interested in some Yiddish scribbler who was a pauper besides. They sought doctors, lawyers or wealthy merchants. They demanded to be taken to the theatre, to cafés. Neither was I interested in their banalities. With Lena at least I could have discussions, dash her hopes for a better world. To her I was a cynic, not a schlemiel.

After a long interrogation, and shaking his head dolefully, the consul affixed the stamp designating a tourist visa in my passport. He shrugged his shoulders and wished me a happy journey.

Again and again I stopped at shop windows and leafed through the passport. It was valid for a period of six months, as was the visa. After that I would have to apply for an extension at the Polish consulate in New York and to the Immigration Service in Washington. Even if it became possible to obtain a permanent visa outside of the quota, I couldn’t obtain it in America. According to law, I’d have to go outside the country to apply for this visa – to Canada or Cuba, for instance. But to do that required another visa ...

I had packed my clothes and my manuscripts into the two valises that I took with me to America. I said goodbye to a few friends. The Jewish section of the PEN Club was issuing my first book in Yiddish, Satan in Goray, but copies weren’t yet ready for me to take along.

In a way, the last few weeks prior to my departure were to me like a long holiday. People were friendlier to me than ever, often sentimental, as if sensing that we would never see each other again. Women with whom I had conducted semi, quarter or might-have-been affairs suddenly determined that this was the time for us to go further or all the way.

In those days, a trip to America was still considered an adventure. True, Lindbergh had already flown the Atlantic, but passenger service to America was still by sea. My biggest concern was that as a single passenger I would have to share a cabin with another man. My need for privacy was so strong that I was ready to spend my last groschen for a private cabin.

At that time the famed French ship the Normandie was scheduled to make her maiden voyage to New York. All the snobs of Europe strove to be aboard. My agent himself was booked to make this voyage. He had become so friendly with me that he suggested that I wait two weeks and share his cabin on the Normandie. But I declined the privilege. First of all, I feared an imminent Hitler invasion; but mainly I still hoped to get a private cabin aboard some other vessel. After a lengthy search, the agent located what I had been seeking – a cabin for one, without portholes and also without air, on a French ship.

Everything was over – the frantic words, the kisses, the embraces, the fervent promises to bring over almost everyone I knew to America even though all I held was a six-month tourist visa. It was the month of April, 1935. The following day was the birthday of one of the most cruel murderers in world history, Hitler. I had to travel by train through Nazi Germany because it would have been too expensive to take a different route. I had heard that Jewish passengers were forced to get off the train and they were searched and subjected to other indignities. I would be proceeding directly into the hands of the evildoers. They could easily take away my passport and visa and send me to a concentration camp. I fully grasped the danger, but somehow fear within me had gone into a kind of hibernation, to be replaced by a sense of fatalism.

I stood by the window of the coach looking out at the lights of Warsaw, and what I saw appeared as strange to me as if I were seeing it for the first time. Soon the lights of the city faded and in the semi-darkness emerged factories and structures that were hard to identify. Only the glowing sky gave evidence that we weren’t far from a large city.

There had been moments when I had assumed that once I got the visa to America I would be happy. But I felt no happiness now, not even a trace. I was glad somehow that the passengers on the other bench didn’t know my language so that I wouldn’t have to converse with them.

I sat by the window looking out at the dense darkness, and from time to time, glanced up at the stars. I wasn’t leaving them. The universe rode along with me. I recognised the shapes of the constellations. Perhaps the universe accompanied us on our journey into eternity when we concluded the little incident we call life?

I stretched out on the seat and from time to time I fingered the passport inside my breast pocket. ‘Up there, there are no borders, no passports,’ the babbler within me babbled. ‘There are no Nazis. Could a star be a Nazi? Up there, there is no lack of living space. Up there – let us hope – you don’t have to fight for your existence if you exist.’

I toyed with my thoughts like a child playing with knucklebones. By dawn, we had reached the border. There was a change of conductors. I saw a man wearing a swastika. He took my passport and turned its pages. He asked how much money I was carrying and I told him and showed him the bank notes. He said, ‘Not necessary,’ and returned the passport. Another individual wearing a swastika came in and the two exchanged a salutation: ‘Hell Hitler!’ Then they left.

I saw through a window Jews being herded inside a building to be searched. I later heard that some had been stripped naked. We had entered the land of the Inquisition.

As in all other inquisitions, the sun remained neutral. It rose and its light illuminated balconies decorated with Nazi banners. It was the Führer’s 47th birthday. I forgot to mention that all this occurred during the intermediary days of Passover.

I don’t recall if we rode the same train the whole way or if we changed trains at the border. In Berlin a young man came into the car and called my name. I became frightened. Had they come to arrest me? It turned out that the young man worked for (or was associated with) my travel agent and he brought me some matzos and a Passover delicacy. At that time the persecutions of the Jews in Germany had just commenced. The other passengers looked on in amazement as I sat chewing the matzo. The day was sunny and balmy, and outside of the flags with the swastikas, one couldn’t tell that the country was in the hands of a savage dictator. German families sat out on balconies eating their lunch. Their faces appeared genial. The streets in the cities and towns that we rode through were clean and almost empty. Someone had left a German newspaper on the seat and I read an enthusiastic article about Hitler; about what he had already accomplished and what he would do for Germany in the future.

Late at night the train stopped at the Belgian border and I had to show my passport again. This was my second sleepless night and I no longer had any curiosity about the country through which we were passing. I lay on the hard bench and stopped trying to straighten my limbs. My half-muffled ears heard conversations in French and Flemish.

Day started breaking and rain was falling. We were already in France and the train was approaching Paris. I thought about the travellers of earlier days who had to endure long journeys in stagecoaches, carriages, even on horseback. Where did they gather the strength and the patience for so many hardships? Why hadn’t they sooner chosen to stay home?

I had dozed and yawned. The conductor prodded my shoulder. We had arrived in Paris. I felt my breast pocket, where I kept my passport and the ship’s ticket, and the trouser back pocket, where I kept my money, some $50 in American and French bank notes. Then I seized the two valises, which seemed to have grown heavier. The taxi driver didn’t understand me and I handed him a slip of paper with an address written on it.

He whistled and began driving the car recklessly fast. It was still raining and the people out in the streets were of the type that cruise cities at dawn simply to prove that they can overcome all hardships. They crossed the streets oblivious to all signs and warnings. They seemed to say mutely: ‘If you want to run me over, go to it.’ The taxi driver blared his horn and abused them with what sounded like foul language in French. From time to time he turned to look back at me as if to make sure that I hadn’t jumped out during the ride.

We drove into a street and the taxi stopped. I took out the French bank notes and the driver peeled off the amount coming to him, or perhaps more. At the same time he mumbled to himself and winked, mocking my helplessness.

A female concierge led me up five flights of stairs to a garret room with a wide brass bed and a sink. The rain had stopped and the sun had come out. Across the narrow street a girl stood and beat a worn rug with a stick. On the pavement nearby a pigeon hopped on its red feet, pecking at what looked to me like a pebble. The fact that the creature didn’t flee from someone waving a stick and making noise struck me as strange. Windows were thrown open by half-naked women and radios chattered, droned, whistled, played music, sang. I had never heard such sweet tones, such light-hearted melodies. Two prostitutes conversed from window to window and called down to men in the streets. I fell back onto the brass bed and sank into a deep sleep.

Unbelievably, someone knew of my arrival in Paris and came to take me to breakfast and show me the city. Paris had its own Yiddish Writers’ Club. Someone at the Warsaw Writers’ Club had apparently alerted the local club members to my arrival. I couldn’t believe my sleepy eyes. No one had ever granted me such an honour. The small, dark youth addressed me in a tone one would employ towards an older writer.

He took me to a restaurant and it smelled just the same as the Jewish restaurants in Warsaw, Cracow, Vilna and Gdansk. Patrons ate chicken soup with noodles and conversed across the tables. A small man with a huge head scribbled figures on a tablecloth. A man in black-rimmed glasses went from table to table issuing cards attesting to the fact that he became crippled in a Polish prison and was in need of financial aid.

I settled back in the train taking me from Paris to Cherbourg. The day was a sunny one, but my spirit was blighted by my own broodings and by everything I had seen and heard around me. My pious forebears called this world the world of lies, and the graveyard they called the world of truth. I was preparing to be a writer in that world of lies, eager to add my portion of falsehood. But the trees bloomed, the birds sang, each with its own tune. Cool breezes wafted in from somewhere, carrying scents that intoxicated me. I had an urge (actually a fantasy) to spring down from the train and lose myself in the green vegetation where every leaf, every blade of grass and fly and worm was a divine masterpiece. Even the peasant huts nearby appeared to be the product of some unique artistic instinct. I slept over in Cherbourg in a hotel arranged for me by the shipping line. That night is totally erased from my memory. All I can remember of this hotel is that it contained a sink with hot and cold running water; I had never before seen anything like this in Poland except in a public bath.

The next day, I boarded the ship, they took my ticket and my pockets felt empty. All I had there now was my passport. I had been left practically penniless. Thank God, I didn’t have to share my cabin with anyone. My two valises stood in the dark cabin, silent witnesses that I had lived nearly 30 years in Poland, which that day seemed to me more remote than it does now, 40 years later. I was what the cabala calls a naked soul – a soul which has departed one body and awaits another. This trip made me forget so many facts and faces that I began to suspect that I was becoming senile. Or was it a temporary attack of amnesia? Was this what happened to the soul directly following death? Was Purah, the angel of forgetfulness, also the angel of death? I wanted to make a notation of this thought in my notebook but I had forgotten to take it along.

The ship remained in the harbour for many hours, but I stayed in my windowless cabin, which was illuminated by a small electric lamp. I heard running in the passageway, talk. The other passengers had friends seeing them off. They drank, snapped pictures. People quickly struck up friendships. I heard foreign languages. I had dozed off, and when I opened my eyes, I sensed a vibration under the mattress upon which I was lying. I went out on the deck. Evening had fallen and the sun had gone down. Cherbourg faded in the distance. Those on deck gazed at me with a kind of surprise, as if asking themselves: ‘What’s he doing here?’ A tall individual in a checkered suit, knickers and a white cyclist’s cap, and with a camera hanging from his shoulder, paced to and fro, taking long strides. He greeted the ladies, addressing them in English and French. Men of such height were rarely seen in Poland, and certainly not among the Jews. His square-jawed face seemed to say: ‘This is my world, my ship, my women.’ Suddenly it occurred to me that I had forgotten the number of my cabin. I was supposed to have taken the key to my cabin with me but I had apparently left it inside. I had lost the stub of my ticket, too. I tried to locate my cabin without the help of others (who could have helped me?) but I only strayed through the passageways and climbed up and down countless stairs. I tried to seek someone’s assistance and I stopped a member of the crew, but he knew only French. I travelled in circles, like a jackass around a millstone. Every few minutes I saw the same faces. The passengers apparently divined my confusion, since they smiled and winked at each other. My demons had not abandoned me. They were accompanying me to America.

I climbed a staircase to where a long line of passengers stood before a window where an official marked something down on cards for them. I heard a woman in the line speaking German and after some hesitation I asked her what the people were waiting for. She explained to me that this concerned seating arrangements. I told the woman that I had forgotten my cabin number and she said: ‘It’s easy enough to find out. Ask the purser.’ I wanted to ask her where the ‘purser’ could be located but at that moment a man came up and began talking to her. Was it possible that I would spend the entire eight days of the journey searching for my cabin? It’s but a single step from neurosis to insanity, I admonished myself. The woman had mentioned something about a first or second sitting but I didn’t understand what this meant. Still, I took a place in the line. If you won’t have a place to sleep, I said to myself, at least assure yourself of food. One could spend the night on the stairs.

I had reached the official issuing the cards and informed him that I understood only German. He began speaking German to me, but in such an accent that I couldn’t figure out what he was saying. How is this possible? I had translated a half dozen books from German. Was he speaking in slang? Or had I lost my mind? He considered a moment, then handed me a card: SECOND SITTING. He might have been a Nazi who had signed on this ship to spy on the passengers and, possibly, to torment Jews. This card might be a signal to the waiter to poison my food. Suddenly, I recalled the number of my cabin. I went to look for it and located it immediately. The door was not locked. I had left the key on the table. My two valises stood where I had left them. I grasped what was meant by the term sittings – the time at which breakfast, lunch and dinner were served. It was good that he gave me the second sitting. Otherwise, I would have been forced to get up at 7 a.m.

I changed my clothes – I had only one other suit – then went out on deck. Cherbourg had vanished from sight. To the best of my recollection, the moon wasn’t out that evening, but the sky was thickly sprinkled with stars. They appeared to me lower than on land and somehow bigger. They didn’t remain fixed, but bobbed and swayed with the ship. Somewhere a lighthouse cast beams of light.

Here, heaven and earth weren’t separate and distant from each other but merged into a single cosmic entity, endowed with an otherworldly light. I stood in the centre of the universe, the ferment that hadn’t abated since Genesis and perhaps even long before that, because according to the Bible the abyss and the divine breath had preceded creation. A solemnity hovered over it all, blue, prediurnal. The sound of the waves fused into a monotonous roar, a seething, a foaming, a splashing that didn’t weary the ear or the brain. God spoke a single word, awesome and eternal.

It was the fifth day of the journey. In three days I would be landing in New York. I had finally dared to rent a chair on the deck and I had a book from the ship’s library that I was anxious to read. It was a German translation of Bergson’s Creative Evolution. I also carried with me a Yiddish magazine in which I had published my latest story before I left Poland.

As I sat there reading, a steward came up escorting a young woman. There was an empty chair next to mine and he seated her in it. He carefully covered her legs with a blanket, then brought her a cup of bouillon. He offered me the same but I declined. It was hard to determine my neighbour’s age. She might have been in her late 20s or early 30s. She also held a book – Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal bound in velvet. She wore a white blouse and a gray skirt. Her dark complexion was pitted from acne. I read on for a long time. I didn’t have the slightest urge to talk to her. She probably spoke only French. I still tried to grasp how the élan vital could have created or formed the sky, the stars, the sea and Bergson himself and his beautiful phrases and illusions. For a long time we each read our books. Then she turned towards me and said in a halting Warsaw Yiddish: ‘You’re reading a book I always wanted to read but somehow I never did. Is it really as interesting as it seems?’

I was so surprised that I forgot to be embarrassed. ‘You speak Yiddish!’

‘I see that you read Yiddish.’ And she pointed at my magazine.

‘Yiddish is my mother language.’

‘Mine, too,’ she said in Polish. ‘Until I was seven I knew no other language but Yiddish.’

‘You undoubtedly come from an Orthodox home.’

‘Yes, but ... ’

I sat quietly and waited for her to go on. For the first time in five days, someone was speaking to me. I said: ‘You speak Polish without a trace of a Jewish accent.’

‘Do you really think so? My feeling is that my Polish sounds foreign.’

‘At least your parents had the wisdom to send you to a secular school,’ I said. ‘My father sent me to heder and that was the only source of my education.’

‘What was he – a Hasid?’

‘A rabbi, a moreh horoah, if you know what that means.’

‘I know. I was brought up in the same kind of household as you, but something happened that turned everything upside down for us.’

‘May I ask what happened?’

She didn’t answer immediately and seemed to hesitate. I was about to tell her that she need not reply when she said: ‘My father was a pious Jew. He wore a beard, earlocks and a long gabardine like all the others. He was a Talmud teacher. My mother wore a wig. I often demanded of my father that he send me to a Polish school, but he always postponed this with all sorts of pretexts. But something was going on in our house. I was an only child. My two brothers and one sister died before I was born. At night I often heard my father screaming and my mother crying. I began to suspect that my parents wanted to divorce. One evening when I came home and asked Mother where Father was, she told me that he had left for England. I had often heard that men on our street – we lived in the very midst of poverty, on Smocza Street – went off to America. But England seemed to me even farther away than America. On Smocza Street if you wanted to say that someone was acting strange, you said he was acting “English”. I’ll make it short – my father converted, became a member of the Church of England and a missionary. Strange, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, strange. What was his name?’

‘Nathan Fishelzohn. He didn’t change his name.’

‘I knew Nathan Fishelzohn,’ I said.

‘You knew him?’

‘I visited him once in his chapel on Krolewska Street.’

‘Oh, my God. When I saw you with that Yiddish magazine, I thought that – many young men used to visit him.’

‘I went to see him just out of curiosity, not alone but with a friend of his who is also my friend, a Yiddish writer, Dr Gliksman.’

‘I know Dr Gliksman. What a small world! Are you a Yiddish writer?’

‘I try to be.’

‘May I ask your name?’

I told her my name.

‘My name is Zofia now, or Sosia. It used to be Reitze Gitl. Did you write Yoshe Kalb?’

‘No, my older brother did.’

‘This book just came out in Polish translation. I read it. So did my father. Really, the big world is a small village!’

That evening I joined Zosia at her table.

‘I don’t believe in miracles,’ I said, ‘but our meeting today is a miracle to me.’

‘To me, too. I haven’t spoken to anyone in five days.’

Night had fallen. The stewards had cleared away the folding chairs and the deck loomed long, wide and deserted. A concert was scheduled for that evening in the salon. Several well-known musicians were aboard ship and the passengers scurried to secure seats. Zosia and I strolled to and fro for a long time in silence. She had already jotted down her future address in Boston for me. And I had given her my brother’s address in Seagate, Brooklyn. We stopped by the rail and gazed out to sea. Far away, at the horizon, a ship sailed in the opposite direction – from America to Europe. Our ship’s horn grunted a greeting. Zosia said: ‘What an eerie sound these horns produce. It’s a good thing fish are mute and probably deaf as well. Otherwise, think of the uproar there’d ensue in the ocean. I myself grow terrified by these deep roars, especially when I am reading.’

We went below. The salon where the concert was being held was jammed. Many passengers stood alongside the walls. A crowd had gathered around the open door. Those who occupied seats at tables all had drinks before them. The performance consisted of an excerpt from some opera. From time to time, a flashbulb flared.

Zosia asked: ‘Do you want to stay here? I don’t have the patience for it.’

‘No, no. Definitely not.’

‘May I ask what you would like to do?’

‘I’ve told you about my dark cabin. I’d like to go there. Do me a favour and come with me.’

We sat there until 1 a.m. We drank wine and ate fruit salad. We had grown so close that I told Zosia about my affairs with Gina, Stefa, Lena and with my cousin. After a while, I began questioning her and she confessed that she was still a virgin. She hadn’t found the opportunity to alter that condition either in Warsaw or in England. There had been many close calls, but nothing had come of any of them. She suffered from a phobia regarding sex, she said. So great was her fear of it that she transferred it to men, too.

‘So you’re a pure virgin?’

‘A virgin yes, pure no.’

‘Someone will do you the favour.’

‘No, I’ll go to my grave this way.’

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