An Affair, Remembered


in Archive


I picked up the cordless in Andrzej’s room to telephone my husband that I would not be coming home this night. We’d both had affairs. Brutal honesty seemed like the only way to go forward. “I’m sleeping at Andrzej’s,” I told him.

“You’re what?”

But I wasn’t honest. Andrzej and I had planned to go to Chicago for the weekend. We boarded a bus and checked into a hotel and took pictures of each other in front of the baby orangutans at the Brookfield Zoo. When he wasn’t looking at me through the lens of a camera, he was gazing into my face. I loved the attention he gave me, the way he savored my opinions, as he followed my instructions on how to position his tongue to create open vowel sounds in English. We ate steamed lamb with cabbage and rode the elevated to a punk rock club in Lincoln Park. We chanced upon a street fair and stopped at a handcrafted jewelry stall.

Andrzej wasn’t the only male writer in the program I’d been attracted to, all of whom spoke in accents and looked even more handsome and brooding than their photographs on their book jackets, and were all seeking translators. I was one among a group of graduate students, mostly female, chosen to work with the writers. You didn’t need to know the writers’ languages. They worked up a literal translation and you helped polish it into beautiful English.

I loved the aspirating sounds Andrzej produced when he said the word hello. My name also begins with letter h. “Hhhhello Hhhharriet,” he drew it out, so that his greeting seemed to come from a far deeper place, having a deeper, even ancient meaning. He spoke about his circle of friends in Belgrade, the books they wrote, the daily dangers to which they exposed themselves as journalists and writers in a Communist country. Andrzej himself seemed to have stepped out from the pages of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It was a book I cherished. I was so obsessed with all things Eastern European, the place where my grandparents were born. I couldn’t speak to him in Serbo-Croatian, but I had studied Russian. I spoke to him in this mix of languages, felt the pull of him, felt maybe staying together was a possibility as my marriage of two years was ending.

I should have recognized the sudden unleashing of desire that being in America produced in him. In Chicago, we entered the crowded Restaurant Yugoslav, and Andrzej froze in the doorjamb. “What’s wrong?” I asked him.

“I can’t go in. They are people who will want to kill me.”

“What people?”


I laughed. John Belushi and Dan Akroyd satirized two Yugoslavian brothers on Saturday Night Live. Andrzej’s fear seemed backward and outlandish. I doubted whether the ethnic rivalry would mean anything in the U.S. We didn’t go in. He led me up and down the streets of Albany Park to seek out another restaurant. It was early autumn. No trees lined these streets, but the wind off Lake Michigan sprawled through faded storefront awnings. Someone back home had told him that Albany Park held the largest concentration of Serbs outside Belgrade. We wandered into a new restaurant, glimpsed around at the customers – most of them men, grim-looking in constrictive wool jackets – only to excuse ourselves and duck out. When we finally chose one, we were the only customers. We took a table with a dingy, yellow tablecloth on it near the door. “In case we have to leave,” Andrzej said.

We found the punk rock club in Lincoln Park not far from the subway exit, a place where Depeche Mode had played, though we’d missed the live music night. While we waited for our drinks, Andrzej went to the men’s room. On his way back I saw him stop to talk to a girl on the other side of the bar. Obviously, he found her attractive. I see him now, so easy to spot from across the room among the boys with their lemon-green and violet-red Mohawks: one month out from conscription in Yugoslavia, his hair still short, stubble on his skin, taller than most Americans, even Midwesterners, still indicating his prowess, leaning down to talk to this girl with pink spikey hair as she swiveled up against him on her barstool.

I couldn’t hold my tongue. We hadn’t even thrown back our first shots of Stolichnaya, hadn’t talked about ordering more. I lashed out at him. “What the hell were you doing?” He didn’t argue, didn’t accuse me of jealousy. He merely left the club, leaving me to cancel our drink order.

In the cab ride back to our hotel, I sat behind the passenger side and he sat behind the driver. We might have been in a different cab, on a different seat, made of a different substance, unforgiving, inflexible – not leather. The wind whipped the windows as the driver raced toward highway exits and stoplights. I’d have liked to make sounds, to shout and scream, along with it. Maybe if I’d had a drink in me, I’d have had the confidence. I was sober and didn’t.

Instead, I felt like my tongue had been ripped out of my mouth. I didn’t have a tongue, could no longer form words. It wasn’t pain I felt, just an absence of speech and the possibility of connecting with another human being through the veil of generations and languages. I wasn’t drunk or stoned. There was no alcohol or drugs in me whatsoever. Yet, I couldn’t speak at that point if I wanted to. I couldn’t make any points. There was no longer a point.

The cab rounded a corner too quickly and the driver stomped on his brake, jostling me, and I flew toward Andrzej. He hadn’t been shoved toward me. We’d bought citrus fruit earlier in the day and taken turns carrying the paper bag. He’d left it behind in the club, and I grabbed it when I followed him out. Now it spilled open in the backseat of the cab and a half-dozen oranges and grapefruits rolled out. It was impossible to get citrus in Communist countries. I knew how he thirsted, anticipating their juicy sweetness. He didn’t reach for them, didn’t help me to retrieve them, as they rolled across the seat and onto the floor and sat there immobile as I recovered myself.

Earlier in the day, when we had chanced upon a street fair, we stopped in front of a jewelry stall. I was excited. He was going to buy me something. I liked a particular handcrafted, silver bracelet. The vendor let me try it on. “One of a kind,” he said. He had designed it himself. He hooked the clasp around my wrist and the three of us stared at it admiringly. There were little silver bells attached, chimes that would accompany us as we walked, like fairies’ tongues.

“Is that the one? Are you sure?” Andrzej said.

“Yes, it’s beautiful,” I responded.

He paid the vendor, who then carefully wrapped the bracelet in tissue paper. The vendor handed the bracelet to Andrzej, and he held onto it. He didn’t give it to me. He turned to me, signaling the bracelet with his eyes, then paused, “Thank you.”

At first I thought he was thanking the vendor. “For what?”

“For helping me pick out a bracelet for my girlfriend.”

I was stunned. It was the first I’d heard of her.

“You have a girlfriend?”

“Yes. She waited for me while I was in Army. She left her family in Belgrade to live with grandfather in his shitty little one-room house near base to sneak out at night and be with me. I owe her,” he said.

“You owe her?”

The bracelet – handcrafted and musical – promised nothing whatsoever. I should have boarded the Greyhound back to Iowa City without him, but I was already immersed in what the experience could produce. Even then, I didn’t believe in confrontations. If someone I’m involved with wants to be with someone else, well, then that’s his right. It didn’t matter anyway once the incident at the punk club happened, even though, the next day, he would come back to me.

And then Andrzej’s girlfriend did arrive. She had strawberry blond shoulder length hair and was nearly six feet tall in heels and a mini-skirt. You could tell even from a distance that her good looks had made her vain. While I had gone to the bathroom to pee, the other writers in the program had lined up to meet her. Most of them had left their wives or girlfriends back in their home countries. Many of them were from very repressive places. This was a chance to get away, even as they became victims and perpetrators among the coeds on campus. I remember watching in amazement as Hani, the Egyptian writer, bowed and kissed her hand. Wrapped in furs, the bearish Polish writer, Janusz Glowacki, lingered in front of her, bedazzled.

At a party, weeks later, I was sitting on the couch talking to Raphael – the Mexican poet in the program, whose looks I liked – slipping in and out of my high school Spanish, when Andrzej stepped near me for a brief moment. His girlfriend couldn’t renew her visa if they didn’t get married, he felt compelled to tell me. Two more weeks passed and he called me on the phone. I didn’t have to pick it up on the very first ring. I didn’t have to hide my phone calls from my husband anymore. I had asked him to move out. After he left, I put on the Stones, cranked up the volume and sang to “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)” in my bathrobe. I’d already written a letter of explanation to his parents, describing how very much I’d enjoyed having had the honor of being their daughter-in-law. No, I hadn’t mailed the letter. I would hold onto it as a reminder.

“Can I come over?” Andrzej said. “I want to show you something.”


It was a new story he had written. He no longer had an English translator. That was the hardest part of weaning ourselves off of each other. I had loved working with him on his stories. They were my stories, too. We never finished translating them. I am finishing them now, as if the original language had been rattling around in my head all these years and I have only now found the words to express it.

An hour later, he appeared at my door with his pages tucked under his arm. I unlocked the door to let him in and saw his girlfriend standing behind him. She was wearing new leather boots and the kind of oversized, old-fashioned fur coat that you could buy in a thrift store. Iowa City had several of them. So, he was taking her around and buying her things! I envied her in it until I saw that she was crying and I realized that she must have followed him to my apartment. Either she overheard his conversation with me or he told her that he was coming to see me, probably using the excuse of the translation, which would have further angered her; formerly, she had been the person with whom he shared his writing. She ran into the hallway, and as she flew past us up the staircase to my second floor apartment, he shouted at her. From his tone and the few Russian-sounding words I could pick up, I surmised that he was telling her to go home to Belgrade and that he didn’t want to marry her anymore. I’d wanted to know what life was like in Eastern Europe where my grandparents came from – the place I was really from – and now I was witnessing it first hand. As she ran up the stairs, the sleeve of her second-hand fur brushed against me, so that I could suddenly feel its soft smooth texture, the texture of something used.

I grabbed him by his coat sleeve and pulled him in through the doorjamb, stood behind him and pushed him onto the first step. I told him to go up after her. If he abandoned her he was the worst kind of person. It was the most moral thing I had done and probably have ever done, and I wasn’t happy about it. Upstairs, the two of them were shouting in Serbo-Croatian. I was in the middle of it and I couldn’t understand what it was. Something fell – a book maybe. She came running down the steps without him, looking terrible. Still crying, she hid her face, her hair flopped across it. Tiny bells chimed. A flash of silver on the bare space between her coat sleeve and her wrist, as she ran out the door. He clambered down, muttering under his breath. Like her, he wouldn’t look at me. He walked past me to the door and stood outside on the steps for a while, then left in the opposite direction than she did.

I went upstairs to grab my puffy goose down jacket and gather the photographs we’d taken in Chicago. With the draft of Andrzej’s literal translation of the new story he’d written, I carried it and the photographs outside. I pulled out the Bic lighter my husband kept hidden from me under the gray plastic cover on the chaise lounge with his pack of cigarettes and set the bundle on fire. The paper caught, the edges of the photographs curled, going to black, when I got cold and blew it out. That winter’s day, I opened the lid on the garbage can and threw in the papers and photographs and quickly covered them, taking in a breath of air that would slowly warm. • 7 April 2014


Harriet Levin Millan's debut novel, How Fast Can You Run, based on the life of "Lost Boy" of Sudan Michael Majok Kuch has been selected as a Charter for Compassion Global Read. She's the author of two books of poetry, and a third to appear in 2018. Among her prizes are the Barnard New Women Poets Prize and the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing at Drexel University. Click here for more essays on The Smart Set.