Ludka Zeilonka stepped off the elevator, clumped out into the carpeted hallway of the university art department’s suite, and headed towards her office. She stripped off her gloves and shoved them into her bag. Up ahead, the door to her office stood open. She frowned. Behind her in the open area of the suite, the assistant’s desk was unoccupied, lights off. No one else but the cleaners had a key, and their rounds were long over. It happened, she supposed, that they sometimes forgot to lock up.
As she got closer she heard a soft cough from her office. She stopped, then crept forward as quietly as she could, her spiked galoshes making tiny tearing noises each time she lifted them from the carpet. She stepped boldly into the doorway and there stood a man, looking out her window, and as he turned she experienced a terrible moment of disorientation, a floating sensation as if she had discarded the husk of her old body and was standing in another doorway in another time altogether, peering into the attic studio where she and Oskar had always met, because here before her was Oskar as she’d known him, here was Oskar at twenty-two. She closed her eyes to reset her mind but when she opened them he was still there, as solid as the desk between them.
“Oskar.” Her voice was reedy, broken.
The man took a step towards her.
“I’m Stanley Brozek. You have no idea how hard you were to track down. Oh, Christ, I’m sorry, are you passing out on me?”
He rushed around the desk and threw one arm around her back, just under her shoulder blade, the other under her elbow. He guided her into the desk chair, keeping a light hand on her shoulder. Ludka’s vision cleared and she stared at him, unabashedly looking him up and down.
He was older than twenty-two, she could see that now, probably closer to forty, a faint tinge of gray in his beard stubble and spiked through his chestnut hair. And heavier, of course, softer, because at twenty-two Oskar had been starving, like everyone else in Warsaw.She reached up and grasped his wrist, then took his warm hand in both of her own. Had he been closer, she would have laid a hand on his cheek. He was older than twenty-two, she could see that now, probably closer to forty, a faint tinge of gray in his beard stubble and spiked through his chestnut hair. And heavier, of course, softer, because at twenty-two Oskar had been starving, like everyone else in Warsaw. But this man standing before her was the proof she’d never stopped hoping she would find: Oskar had survived the war.
“They say I look like him, but I don’t know. ‘Oskar,’ as you call him, was my grandfather, Pawel Brozek.”
He slowly pulled his hand from hers. He reached behind her and retrieved a large cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee from the windowsill, then moved away to make himself at home in the other chair. A scarred, tan briefcase stood on the floor at his feet. He regarded her in much the way she was regarding him. Ludka, dizzy, realized she’d been holding her breath. She inhaled slowly through her nose, felt the air expand her lungs and belly, then slowly released it. She slumped a little in her chair, heavy with the sudden gravity of inevitability; despite impossible odds, she’d never stopped expecting to see Oskar again, and here now was a young man who had given her hope, a man who could dash that hope with a few simple words.
“Should I come back at a better time?”
“You don’t just resemble, Mr. Brozek. You are spitting image. Like a ghost. Like time evaporates.”
Stanley passed a hand over his mouth and chin, glanced out the window, then back at Ludka. He began to say something, and stopped. “Please, call me Stanley. And I’m afraid I don’t know how to address you. Professor?”
“Forgive old woman, Stanley. You are a bit of a shock. I am Ludka.”
Her heart was not calming down. Was, he’d said. Was my grandfather. She was grateful she’d not yet taken off her cape. The radiator under the window was just beginning to clank to life. Maybe she had misheard him, maybe he had said is.
She couldn’t go on. Sixty-four years she’d been wondering. If Oskar was alive, this young man was about to tell her where she might find him. If Oskar was… She closed her eyes. Her heart thudded in her ears.
“I was hoping you might tell me,” said Stanley. “He disappeared two years ago. Left all his stuff behind. We’re pretty sure he’s gone back to Poland, but we haven’t been able to track him down. Maybe you’ve heard from him?”
Ludka felt buoyed—he had lived a long life after all! Perhaps he was living it still, at eighty-six. She didn’t bother to ask how it was they hadn’t found him. Oskar knew how to disappear.
“Oskar I have not seen since 1945.”
Had Oskar searched for her, too, then, as they had promised? It had been impossible with nothing but their code names, a cautionary measure they employed within the resistance. How many times had she berated herself for not having asked his given name, or shared her own when she’d had the chance? Of course he wouldn’t have told her, and thank God for that. What they’d done to him in Pawiak Prison… she never could have held out.
“Oskar,” she whispered. “Oskar.”
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Copyright @2017 Joan Dempsey (published by She Writes Press).