When I am sitting at home in my bedroom after my 10 p.m. curfew has passed, I like to think about my grandmother when she was my age. She grew up in a village in Poland full of cows, horses, and pink, milk-fattened children, and life went on more or less as you would expect it to until she was 17 and her father came into the family’s stable to find her screwing the stable boy on top of a trough of oats. From that time on they began locking her in the house, and she was only allowed to go to church and to the market when accompanied by her mother. It was winter, the pond in the middle of town had frozen over as usual, the other kids were allowed to skate on it, and I bet it was cold as shit in that house because her parents were too cheap to invest in a wood stove or whatever the fuck they used back then. The village children used to throw chestnut shells at the window of her bedroom and yell, “witch, witch!” and she would open the window and scream obscenities at them until they ran away crying.
When she was 20 her parents decided the thing to do was to marry her off to a man with a taste for crazy women—the sort of man who gets his rocks off dominating or domesticating them. Her first husband was about 35, an ethnic Russian, with a handlebar mustache. He looked like a Cossack rapist and that was more or less the scene in their bedroom on their wedding night. Ewa threw a vase at his head and then shook a wooden chair at him like a lion tamer; he grabbed the chair by one leg, threw it aside, and dragged her to the bed by her hair. When her mother came to visit the next morning and saw she had been crying she assumed her virginity had been restored miraculously in the conjugal bed. She made the whole family go to church every day for a month, Ewa consoling herself by passing dirty notes back and forth with the usher in the lining of a psalter.
Ewa’s bastard of a new husband locked her up in the house, too, but being alone all day she was able to devise new ways of entertaining herself, like standing at the window and lifting up her blouse every time she saw a peasant on the road with his cart; or taking logs out of the wood stove and watching them glow orange-red with the heat, and then using them to scorch patterns on the floor. Her husband beat her every time he saw evidence of the latter hobby, and so one night when he came in late from drinking with the whores in the village tavern she was waiting for him in the kitchen brandishing one of those glowing logs. When her father opened the stable door in the morning he found her brushing the horse and applying a piece of ice from the frozen pond to the black eyes her now-ex-bastard-husband had given her.
Her parents thought about sending her off to starve in a remote village where she would know no one, although probably she would have liked that a lot better than being stuck in a house in the back-fucking-woods with her own family. Unfortunately, she was so beautiful and her small dowry so coveted in her shitty little village that even though the full story of her marriage to the Cossack rapist was common knowledge, there was another idiot waiting in line to marry her once the swelling had gone down. He had been one of the children who had called her a witch and thrown chestnut shells at her window, and he had a condition that made his eyes run with pus no matter the season. Her family was pleased: it would be a better way of punishing her than sending her to one of those licentious convents you read about in books.
Her new husband was full of drippy talk about loving her from afar and the backward attitudes of their time towards women and her blue eyes and her long, dark hair. Do you think my grandmother gave two shits about this, when the bastard had talked to her parents and locked her in the house all the same? She would stand in front of the dirty, scummy, cracked mirror that was one of about five pieces of furniture in their house and say, I’m going to grow old here, in this piss-poor little village where the men are ugly, the livestock freeze to death every winter, and the shitty little pond will never become a lake.
She did what she had to do which was to continue her occupation of lifting up her shirt for passers- by on the road from Krakow to Lodz. Over the years she had collected a handful of regular admirers who would come and whisper dirty things to her through the window while she pressed her breasts to the glass above their heads. One of these, who came back and forth down the road on his horse about three times a year, had a well-trimmed mustache and no holes in his coat. He was the most perverse of her admirers and would sometimes whisper words she didn’t even know when talking about what he would like to do to her. (And she had developed quite a vocabulary through her correspondence with the church usher.) This winter, when he approached her window, she told him that if he let her travel with him, he could indeed do whatever he liked to her.
As they tore through the sad, shitty village on his horse, she sat backwards in the saddle and lifted her blouse up high, in full view of everyone, on her way through the town square, past her parents’ house, past her husband working in the fields. (His buckshot missed them both, thanks to his clouded, runny eyes). She cackled and screamed vulgarities and conjured Satan, asking him to make every woman in the town barren and every man syphilitic. Her eighth night on the road with the pervert, who was indeed a pervert, she absconded with a stranger she met at an inn—and again a few weeks later, with another stranger. In this and similar ways she made her way through the countryside, over the course of a year or so, towards Western Europe and then America.
Her only regret in life, she told me on her deathbed, was that she had not been born thirty years later and in California, which to her was a golden land where all the roads are freeways, and where the favorite pastime of the young women is to go screaming down them in their convertibles at ninety miles an hour, waving their tits at the oncoming traffic.