I am sitting across from you at a cafe in Krakow, a cafe that I think is called Wesoła, but I can’t exactly remember, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because I don’t speak Polish. You do, and this gives you more power, but at the same time, I think you are a blossoming alcoholic, so the power dynamics at our morning table are confusing to me, and I am too hungover to consider them fully.
You start to ask me a question, but the waitress interrupts with our coffee. I hear her say “Ethiopia,” and this upsets me because I most definitely told you to order the Guatemalan. Guatemalan is creamier, nuttier, and has more of a chocolate undertone, perfect for a cold morning. I smile at the waitress cheerily, and the minute she leaves, I say this to you. You know how I am about coffee, and so I presume this mixup is intentional, and that hurts me in such an insignificant yet poignant way. You shrug and apologize. The coffee is served on a long wooden board that looks like a paddle. I wonder why it is so busy here so early in the morning and then realize it is probably almost noon. My lips still carry flaky pink residue from last night’s lipstick.
“I didn’t think the dad in that movie was really very funny at all,” I say. I am referencing the French film we went to yesterday with Polish subtitles, a film we saw only for that reason, so that you could scour the subtitles, and so my meager high school French could finally come in handy. Whenever my friend Natasha calls, she asks how we manage our relationship with a “language barrier.” I hate that phrase, “language barrier.” I want to respond that effectively, fucking and fighting are universal languages, but instead I explain how every couple has a language barrier in its own way, that it’s about mutual understanding, body language, being straightforward. I sound very actualized I think. You agree with me about the film and comment on how “great” your coffee tastes, and I am sure you say this only to enforce that the Ethiopia was the right choice. I respond, “Hits the spot,” precisely because I know that phrase will confuse you, and that you’ll be too haughty this morning to ask for clarification.
Last night, you took me dancing, something we’ve done many times. Once on an October evening, we went dancing on a boat across from Wawel Castle, and I had to wear a fancy red dress and meet your friend Mateusz. I felt good that night, because every man on the boat seemed enamored of me, but even better because I remember telling a girl from New York City that I was there with you, and I looked over at you and your beautiful olive skin and heavy eyes, and you winked at me, and she said, “Good work.” She sounded like she really meant it, too, meaning there was just a tinge of jealousy audible in her voice. Another time, you showed up at my flat on Karmelicka with a bag of freshly picked cherries, and you played Louis Armstrong on YouTube on your phone, and we danced while the sun set outside my dilapidated window and a round, tired woman hung her wash out in the courtyard behind us. We go clubbing together a lot and mostly just make out on the dance floor while strange men watch, and I don’t really care at that point, because we’re always drunk and I like kissing you. But last night, we went to see a cover band, Joy Division and the Smiths crooned with heavy Polish accents.
At some point, we decided it would be a fun and absolutely normal thing to trade shirts, like temporary couple’s tattoos, a visual “she’s with me.” I, as usual, was wearing a billowy white blouse with flowers I had embroidered all over it, and you were wearing a fitted black t-shirt, meaning the switch would be more noticeable on you. We threw our shirts off there on the dance floor and switched, and I didn’t care who saw my naked tummy or my chicken pox scars. We had already consumed two bottles of Soplica between the two of us, this after a three-day stint of whiskey each night while watching Nicholas Cage movies. On our morning runs, our sweat started taking on the sickly sweet smell of alcohol, and then this morning, we couldn’t even run we were so liquid-logged. I am remembering right now one of the first dates we went on, when you said I always smelled like coffee. You, running your fingers across my bare collarbone, sliding past the coffee sweat in the summer dark after love. Now our smells have merged.
I fly back home to Dublin later that day and pass out in the dark of my damp bedroom. In the early morning, I awake, confused because I am alone in my bed. Sometimes I have strange dreams that I am not alone in my room, but I think in comparison, being alone is more deeply frightening to me. I can’t get back to sleep, so I do some laundry, lacy panties, mismatched socks. I throw my blouse in, the one you wore, and then a strange desperation takes me, a need to smell it, to see if your musky, lineny, Soplica scent is there. My phone buzzes, and it is, of course, not you. It’s Natasha. Blouse up at my nose, I inhale, and there’s nothing but the smell of my own sweat. I notice a lipstick stain—my own—on the shoulder of the blouse. The phone buzzes again. Not you. I set the dial and start the wash. My own mouth, my own body, smells like coffee mingled with vodka. I roll the word collateral around in my mouth for some time before brushing my teeth, washing myself clean.
Shannon Kelly lives in Galway, Ireland. Her work has been published in Crannog and the Irish Times, and she was the 2016 winner of the Allingham Festival Poetry Competition.